Rearranging vs. Reinventing the Global Economy

The US road to recovery runs through Beijing says Asia Times Online, and Thomas Barnett emphatically agrees.  Everyone is talking about how to reorganize the global economy, but mostly the discussion is about how to most efficiently export our recently collapsed model of growth to the developing world.  Better this time around for sure, we say, but not fundamentally different in any way.  The Chinese need (and want, it turns out) more domestic consumption and consumer debt.

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Our Electricity

After being asked rhetorically a couple of times if I knew now much I paid for my electricity, and whether I knew how much power my fridge was using ($0.13/kWh, and I don’t know) I bought a “Kill-A-Watt” power meter to see where our $18/month in electricity usage was going… just out of curiosity.  It turns out that watching a movie costs abot $0.08 in electricity.  The Cold Box (beer) uses about $3/month worth of power.  The fridge itself, usually the largest power hog in a household, is close to half our usage at $8/month. Making a batch of coffee in the french press, using the electric kettle is about a penny.  The other big electricity users are the stove and oven, and the washer and dryer (though we hardly use the dryer).  They can’t be measured with this thing because they use 220V outlets, which are generally hidden away and inaccessible anyway.

After those miniscule numbers, I was amazed to discover that a day’s worth of computation (24 hours, including some research related number crunching by my laptop, my desk light, my backup disk, and my 30″ cinema display) came in at $0.50!  So, at least for me personally, at roughly $15/month my computer is by far my largest expenditure of electricity.  Interesting!

I’d love to build (and live in) a condo that tracked the water and power usage of each unit, and within each unit each outlet/faucet/etc, in real time, posted to the web, and displayed in the communal entryway.  Visibility goes a long way to influencing behavior.

The Sequence: a play about the Human Genome Project

It turns out that Pasadena has a wonderful little theater called The Boston Court.  It’s a non-profit organization, producing some classics, but perhaps more interestingly, also some first-run original pieces by SoCal playwrites.  Michelle saw an adaptation of the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh there last year, and we went and saw 1001, a story weaving the Arabian Nights with commentary on the modern Arab-Israeli coflict and the War on Terror.  The casts are essentially dedicated amateurs – the auditions page lists a $300 rehearsal stipend, plus $25/performance.  The space is so small that there is no need for amplified sound, and the sets are fairly minimalist.  They have student discounts and matinees, and late night salons for discussion after the plays are performed.  I have a hard time imagining a better setting and scale for theater.  Even better, it’s easy biking distance, and they seem to have a bent toward plays that are relevant to the modern world.

On Friday, we went to see The Sequence, by Paul Mullin, who has also written about Louis Slotin’s death during the Manhattan Project due to a criticality accident while “tickling the dragon’s tail’, and The Ten Thousand Things, an exploration of the meaning of deep time in human society, inspired by The Clock of the Long Now.  The Sequence is a play about the Human Genome Project, and the race between Craig Venter‘s Celera, and the publicly funded project headed by Francis Collins, to complete the sequence first, and also about a young journalist, Kellie Silverstein, who is covering the race, who struggles with her own genetic destiny, knowing that her mother died from breast cancer due to the BRCA1 mutation, which she likely also carries.  The Sequence was commissioned by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.  Ironically, Mullin cannot afford to be a professional playwrite, and instead works in a clerical position at Amgen to pay the bills.  Like Copenhagen, the play has only three characters.

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The High Cost of Parking at Caltech

Like Pasadena as a whole, Caltech’s population is growing, but we cannot expand geographically. This means both Caltech and Pasadena must increase density by building vertically or packing our buildings more closely together. Pasadena, much to the dismay of some long time residents who fondly remember the days when Orange Grove Blvd. actually passed through orange groves, now has six story live-work “transit oriented developments” sprouting up around the major business districts, within walking distance of the light rail. Similarly, Caltech has a new Chemistry building appearing between BBB and Noyes, a new Astronomy building where there used to be a surface parking lot next to Keith Spalding, and a new CS building rising up between Facilities and Avery House. Those new buildings will mean more people, and probably more cars, coming to Caltech every day.  They have to go somewhere, and our neighbors have made it clear to the City that parking them on the street is unacceptable.  Those new commuters will largely be parking in the recently completed subterranean garage under the athletic field.  However, this kind of solution to our parking demand has a cost, and I think we need to understand just how large it is in order to have a reasonable discussion about whether it’s the best solution going forward.

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PBS Tackles Global Warming: HEAT

I watched the PBS Frontline report Heat online.  It’s 2 hours long, and explores the magnitude and difficulty of scaling back global carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by 2050 (which is what the IPCC says is required).  To be a success in my mind, I think it had to do four things:

  1. Convey the colossal magnitude of the problem, essentially requiring a complete re-imagination of the engines literally driving the global economy: fossil fuels and ever expanding resource consumption, and cooperation between nations and corporations on a scale we’ve never seen.
  2. Describe the potential costs of inaction, including sea level rise, possibly rapid decreases in agricultural productivity in some areas, water shortages in the world’s most populous regions due to melting glaciers, and ultimately, the irreversibility of the changes, due to positive feedbacks.
  3. Explain how solving the problem is difficult, politically: due to effective lobbying from old and currently profitable industries, and the inability of tomorrow’s potentially profitable “green” industries to effectively lobby, because they don’t currently have either the billions in profits to “invest” in DC, or a large base of employees represented as constituents.  Economically: because there is no cost borne by GHG emitters, making the atmosphere a tragic economic commons.
  4. Provide at least an outline of what any potential solution will look like: It will have to be measured in terawatts, meaning the only two sources of power that are up to the task in the long run are solar and nuclear (with reprocessing and breeder reactors eventually).  It will also require a method of turning electricity into some transportable high energy density form, like liquid fuels, or much much better batteries.

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What is Human

The utter primacy of H. sapiens in all the theistic religions is one of the things that bothers me most deeply about them. I believe we are unique and unusually important amongst life on earth (as were the first oxygenic photosynthesizers, and the first eukaryotic organisms, and the first macroscopic multicellular life forms), but I don’t think that the earth without humans would be without value. Diminished, certainly, but still a precious place. By the same token, I think that we diminish the value of the earth by causing the extinction of other species.

I think this may actually be somewhat related to the abortion question, and the difficulty of coming to any kind of common ground on it. I don’t consider non-viable fetuses human, but to me that doesn’t mean they are without value, or undeserving of any kind of legal protections. I just don’t think those protections should be as extensive as our protections of humans.  People are resistant to the idea that “humanity” is a continuum.  Some might even say repelled by it, but it seems inescapable to me.  I also believe that severely mentally disabled people are “less” human, and that a brain-dead human is, for all intents and purposes, a cell culture with no more moral value than a side of beef.  This might seem like something we had better not talk about, since it starts off all kinds of slippery slopes to horrible places, but I think eventually, we will have no choice, because some time in the next few decades, or at most the next few centuries, we will be confronted with positive deviations as well as negative.

What will it mean to be human, when there exist super-humans?  When some portion of the population is genetically or cybernetically enhanced, will they have super-human rights, privledges, and responsibilities, or will they simply be more powerful through extra-legal means?

A person, even a politician, can stand up for human rights while condoning abortion if they do not consider the fetus human.  The core of the abortion argument is what does it mean to be human? Is it a discrete, or continuous classification?  Unless we can come to some consensus on these questions, the abortion issue, and many others, will remain vexing indefinitely.

Look who’s irrational now… everyone!

Baylor University, a private Baptist school in Texas, has just published the results of a survey of American religious belief.  One of the findings, which was picked up by the Wall Street Journal, is that

…conservative religious Americans are far less likely to believe in the occult and paranormal than are other Americans, with self-identified theological liberals and the irreligious far more likely than other Americans to believe. The researchers say this shows that it is not religion in general that suppresses such beliefs, but conservative religion.

This comes right after the paragraph in which it is revealed that 55% of Americans believe they have a guardian angel watching over them, and preventing harm from coming to them, and that 45% of Americans have had at least 2 “religious encounters”, such as:

…hearing the voice of God, feeling called by God to do something, being protected by a guardian angel, witnessing and/or receiving a miraculous physical healing, and speaking or praying in tongues.

Unsurprisingly, the presumably Baptist researchers concluded that such experiences are central to American religion, and that adhering to a conservative brand of Christianity conveys resistance to belief in “the occult and paranormal”, ignoring the fact that the “religious encounters” are in fact instances of the paranormal.  They may be Christian paranormal, but they’re still paranormal: “denoting events or phenomena that are beyond the scope or understanding of normal scientific understanding” or if you prefer, Christian occult: “supernatural, mystical, or magical beliefs, practices, or phenomena”.

I’m sure there’s a wealth of information in the survey results regarding the supernaturalist beliefs of Americans, but from this non-theist, naturalist’s point of view, the main result is that the overwhelming majority of Americans do not engage in skeptical inquiry.  Their domains of credulity may be distinct (guardian angels vs. bigfoot) but on the whole, they are happy to accept extraordinary claims without any evidence backing them up.

I’m potentially open to an argument that rationality and skepticism are not neccesarily always favorable.  The second life lesson Robert McNamara put forward in The Fog of War was: “Rationality will not save us.”  He was speaking in the context of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which several nominally rational people almost brought about a thermonuclear holocaust, and the firebombings of Dresden, Tokyo, and countless other cities in WWII.  The Tradgedy of the Commons is a failure based entirely on rational individual behavior, as was the tulipomania from which our financial system is currently suffering a serious hangover.  But on average, I’d say rationality and skeptical inquiry are things we (humanity) could do with a bit more of.

Congress seeks to ban open access requirements

A bill duplicitously entitled the “Fair Copyright in Research Works Act” (HR 6845) has been introduced in congress with the goal of prohibiting federal science funding agencies such as the NIH, NSF, NASA, etc. from making their grants contingent upon open access to the published results.  Currently, a large proportion of federally funded biomedical research comes with a requirement that the results be listed in the Open Access PubMed database.  Proponents of Open Access journals have seen this policy as an example of the way things should work – publicly funded research should have publicly accessible results – but now this system, and progress in that direction, is in jeopardy.  HR 6845 would prohibit any federal funding agency from making their funds contingent on public access to the results.

The bill has been referred to the House judicial committee.  Our representative, Adam Schiff, is on the committee.  If you support open access to scientific publications – especially publicly funded scientific research, please contact him and tell him to oppose the bill.  Senator Feinstein is on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and should also be contacted.

More information including background on the NIH open access policy can be found at the Alliance for Taxpayer Access.  You can track the bill’s progress at  If you do call, write, fax, or e-mail your representative or senator, please e-mail Jennifer McLennan (jennifer [at] arl [dot] org) and let her know.


Khadak was one of those movies that I got solely because Netflix told me to.  The blurb provided was almost entirely cryptic:

Set in contemporary Mongolia, this imaginative fable follows 17-year-old Bagi, a nomadic shepherd who possesses untapped transcendental powers. After the military forces Bagi and his family to abandon their way of life and resettle in a mining town, he crosses paths with a beautiful coal thief who helps him find his destiny.

No trailer, virtually no reviews online.  I went for it anyway.  Mongolia is a wild place, I like wild places, and I like insights into foreign lands via film.  It’s certainly weird, but it was absolutely worth 2 hours.

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Letter to CA Gov on Complete Streets (AB1358)

The Honorable Arnold Schwarzenegger
Governor, State of California
California State Capitol Building
Sacramento, CA 95814
Fax 916-558-3160

Re: Support: AB 1358 (Leno)

I am writing to encourage you to lend your support to the Complete Streets legislation (AB 1358) which has just cleared the state assembly.  Changing the built environment within our cities to accommodate non-automotive modes of transportation is a crucial step that California must take in reducing our per-capita greenhouse gas emissions, as well as helping our citizens to reduce their dependence on increasingly expensive foreign petroleum products.

As gas prices have risen, more people than ever in California are choosing to leave their cars behind, and explore cycling, walking, and public transportation options.  Unfortunately, all too often they discover that their cities have been designed and built with little consideration for those who are not driving.  I know, because I have been commuting by bicycle in southern California since 1993.

Complete streets aren’t just about cyclists though, they’re better for the elderly, and for children too, as well as those for whom car ownership, maintenance, and insurance are a significant economic burden.

I was recently disappointed when the LA Metro board refused to commit to spending a portion of the money to be raised by the proposed sales tax increase (measure R on the ballot this fall) on pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.  Per dollar invested, pedestrian and cycling infrastructure moves more people to and from their destination than any other mode of transport.  The climate and topography of southern California are gentle, and ideal for cycling and walking, but apparently, our city planners will not invest in that infrastructure unless they have been mandated to do so by the state.  I hope you will help create that mandate by signing AB 1358 into law when it crosses your desk.

Zane A. Selvans