On the Pareto frontier in salary-vacation space

Dear (Prospective Employer),

Thank you for your monetarily very generous offer of employment!  Honestly, it’s not obvious to me how I could spend $X a year, as I am currently living quite comfortably on about one Nth of that amount.  Actually, that’s not entirely true; I’m sure I could spend it all if I got a mortgage on a big house out in the suburbs, bought a fancy car with which to commute to work, ate out frequently, and had a few kids I planned to put through college.  However, I prefer to live simply in a small home, cook my own meals, bus or bike to work, and I may very well choose not to reproduce.  I also prefer, in my all too limited time on Earth, to experience the wilderness that still remains in the world, and the myriad human cultures, cuisines, and languages that have emerged in the last 50,000 years.  Those experiences will not come easily sitting in front of a computer in an office park, and they often cannot be had on weekends or whirlwind tours.  Thus, I am concerned about the following potential scenario with your offer of employment as it currently stands.

Continue reading On the Pareto frontier in salary-vacation space

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 OpenCongress.org.  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.

Georgia and Russia, sittin’ in a tree

Pravda has put out a helpful timeline of the current Georgia-Russia conflict

Maybe I have a one track mind but, I don’t think this kind of conflict often erupts for purely egotistic political reasons. There’s a lot of energy backstory that isn’t being told in that Russian chronicle, such as the sabotage by someone of natural gas and electricity supplies headed into Georgia from Russia (gee, I wonder who it could have been… in the depths of a Caucasian winter in January 2006), the subsequent commissioning of the South Caucasus gas pipeline in December 2006, and all of the wrangling that’s been going on over the trans-Caspian gas pipeline since the mid 90s (Russian and Iran don’t want it, everyone else does, because Russian and Iran have gas already, and everyone else gets their gas from them).

Perhaps the largest diplomatic stick Russia can wield today is its oil and gas reserves (assuming they don’t want to actually like, invade a NATO country, or shoot off some plutonium fireworks), and they are jealously guarding the ability to wield that stick. Georgia has successfully circumvented them with the pipeline from Baku to Turkey (and eventually on to Europe), and I think in part now, they’re paying the price, so that others in central Asia with gas they’d like to independently pipe out of the region, including, perhaps most importantly, Iran, think twice about setting up their own circumvention. For instance, Iran built a pipeline into Armenia. It was supposed to be extendable, eventually onward to Turkey and Europe. Before it was built, Gazprom bought a controlling interest in the pipeline company, and summarily reduced the diameter of the pipeline from 1.4m to 0.7m, making it unable to carry enough gas for extending it to Turkey and Europe to be worthwhile.

I think that the blurring, or erasure, of the lines separating nations and corporations is interesting, and at least somewhat unexplored.  (Maybe one major difference is that a nation-corp can more dependably rely on its nation’s armed forces to step in occasionally.  Though, historically, US companies have had a pretty good chance of getting help on demand, at least in Latin America).  We wouldn’t be surprised if Exxon did something like buy up a potential competitor, but when a nation does it, how do we react?  In oil and gas, all of the major players are nation-corps. I think this is actually one of many very good reasons for the industrialized world (that, by and large, has used up its oil and gas) to invest heavily in renewable alternatives to oil and gas. If we develop renewables for national security (and environmental) reasons, the costs may well be reduced enough that other economies can use them simply because they’re cheap, distributed (more difficult to sabotage than a pipeline or LNG terminal), and don’t require you to be on good terms with Russia, or Iran, or Saudi Arabia, or Venezuela, or get permission from the IAEA to spin up your centrifuges.

Pipelines are beasts curiously subject to consensus, because they are so easy to destroy.  If anybody in the area doesn’t want one to function, it doesn’t.  So Russia may well be able to maintain its pre-eminent position as gas supplier to Europe for a long while to come, and keep the squeeze on in central asia indefinitely.  At least, until we stop relying on natural gas.  Or until someone in central asia really decides it doesn’t want Russia’s natural gas infrastructure to function.  Now wouldn’t that be fun for everyone!