- Thefts puncture Paris bike scheme – More of Paris' Velib bicycles are being stolen or vandalized than expected. Not sure what their expectations were, but it is pretty annoying for basically every bike in the network to have been either stolen or damaged in only 18 months. The vandalism is probably impossible to stop (since it can be carried out while the bikes are locked in their stands) but the theft should be preventable with secure stands, and aggressive enforcement of responsibility for a bike while you've got it checked out (i.e. if the bike doesn't come back, your credit card is immediately charged for the total value of the bike, or possibly even more). I also can't help but wonder if the same functionality could be implemented with much, much cheaper bikes, especially in a city as flat as Paris. Singlespeeds with fenders and a basket, maybe 100 Euros each? With an RFID tag embedded – and put all the smarts in the racks. (tagged: bicycle bike cycling transportation paris velib )
- Google Power to the People – Google developing tools to allow you to disentangle your own energy use, when the datastreams from smart meters come on line. Making this information easy to comprehend, pricing electricity to displace demand from the peak times, and allowing the largest energy users to schedule their use in an automated way could (without even changing anything physically) have a large impact on the amount of power generating capacity we (don't) need. (tagged: energy google sustainability green open data transparency )
- WattzOn and Wesabe Join Forces – This is the post that made me wish the Elevations Credit Union was more internet savvy. I want to be able to apply all these big-brotherly tools to myself! (tagged: open data transparency energy wesabe wattzon money finance )
- Numbrary – A library for numbers – mass quantities of publicly available data, mostly (entirely?) from the US Government. In a hopefully usable and searchable form. Many automatically generated charts and tables. (tagged: data transparency government statistics open )
- Mayapedal – People building useful human-powered bicimaquinas, in Guatemala, where human labor is still a common prime mover: washing machines, coffee de-pulpers, corn de-grainers, grain mills, blenders, concrete microvibrators, etc. One kind of appropriate technology. There's also some YouTube videos on them, e.g.:
- Humanity In Motion – An incredible montage of what bicycles can be: safe, enjoyable, cheap, convenient, everyday transportation for young people and for old, for families, in a city largely unpolluted by the exhaust and noise of cars. (tagged: bicycle transportation amsterdam netherlands photos )
A relatively thoughtful piece from The New York Times Magazine on the risk metrics used by Wall Street, especially the now notorious Value at Risk (VaR). However, it still seems like neither the author nor the risk managers they interviewed really get what Taleb is saying. Or possibly they’re just not willing to admit the implications of what he’s saying: that market outcomes, especially when investing is focused on the short term, are dominated by so-called “rare” events. And that the consequence (as one of the managers even says outright), is that a lot of the investment banks don’t really have a business model.
Except, of course, for the fact that they can count on the public coffers if they all arrange to go bankrupt simultaneously. Better, in this case, to fail in a conventional way along with everyone else, and be bailed out, than to play your own game for the long term, like Warren Buffet, and either succeed unconventionally, or have to take responsibility for your own failures, which are then likely not to take place at the same time industry wide.
We’re playing the same game of fat-tails chicken with Earth’s climate, and that story will eventually have the same ending if we are unable to generalize the lessons of this relatively innocuous financial disaster.
The SEC will soon require machine readable reporting of all financial data, using an XML based markup language known as XRBL (the eXtensible Business Reporting Language). Holy crap. Yes, this could have been done a decade ago in theory, but apparently it takes some serious mess to get anyone thinking at the SEC. Probably bad for Morningstar‘s financial-data-silo business model, but good for just about everyone else. Will spur a lot of financial transparency, as machines can be easily utilized to find patterns and irregularities in corporate and mutual fund reports, in near real time. I don’t think most people give this kind of development the credit it deserves. Long term, machine readability of all law and legal requirements will change the face of regulation, democracy, and ultimately, law itself.
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.
With the collapse of Bear Stearns and the US automakers and airlines tanking, and the prospect of a trillion dollar bailout of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and who knows how many other large lenders, all because they are, putatively, “too big to fail” (by which is meant, obviously, not that they are so large as to be incapable of failing, but that they are so large as to make the consequences of their failing worse than the immediate, visible consequences of bailing them out), I’ve started wondering if perhaps what we really need is an update to our anti-trust laws, to the effect of: if you’re too big to fail, you’re just plain too big.
Instead of allowing corporate juggernauts to form, and then eventually being “forced” to save them from their own follies, why not just keep these captains of industry small enough that we never need to save them. The Feds already have to approve the bigger mergers and acquisitions – they already have this power by-and-large. Keeping our companies a little smaller would increase competition, and diversity within the corporate ecology of our markets. GM doesn’t want to make fuel efficient cars? Fine – their small-cars division can spin off and do its own thing. Sink or swim in its competition with Toyota, while GM itself just sinks, into an ever shrinking ocean of $150 oil.
Instead, we give taxpayer cash to large companies that have made bad business decisions, and absolve them of their obligations to pay the pensions they promised to their lifelong employees. We inflate the dollar and erode both our spending power, and our savings, while simultaneously crippling the long term competitiveness of our biggest industries. I don’t think the marginal increase in productivity from economies of scale that happens between being a $20 billion company and a $40 billion company is really worth it, if it means we’re all eventually on the hook for bailing out the $40 billion company, when we wouldn’t have to shovel mountains of cash at the two $20 billion companies… one of which might actually have made some good business decisions.
I just finished reading Richard Alley’s little book The Two Mile Time Machine. It’s by far the best climate change book I’ve read so far. More information, less polemic. Personally I would have loved more plots and fewer long complex sentences explaining the relationships between different climatic variables, but maybe that’s just because I’m a scientist. Continue reading The Two Mile Time Machine by Richard B. Alley