Software Carpentry does a little math describing the value of teaching scientists how to build good software. Even with very pessimistic assumptions, it’s clearly worthwhile. With realistic assumptions, it’s a frigging research bonanza. WTF? Why don’t advisers and administrators make sure everyone is on board?
Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight thinks about what we ought to measure when comparing public transportation options. Does Modesto, CA really have better public transit than New York City? There are a lot of measurable quantities, but only some of them are interesting. In particular, it’s not the absolute convenience of public transit that matters — rather, it’s transit’s relative convenience compared to driving alone that determines how people get around.
Transit agencies have a problem called the Last Mile. It’s especially problematic in lower density communities, where convenient, high frequency local feeder bus, light rail, and trolley lines are unlikely to be economically viable. Many US communities have this problem. The most common solution is the Park-n-Ride — a gigantic surface lot or parking structure adjacent to a regional mass transit line. People drive their cars a few of miles and park them all day — usually at very low cost to the driver, and often for free (though of course, parking isn’t actually free). There are lots of problems with this model. Parking lots take up a lot of space. Structures are very expensive ($10k-$25k per parking spot). What do you do when you get where you’re going? If the transit line doesn’t come within easy walking distance (500 meters?) of your ultimate destination, this model probably isn’t attractive. It also assumes that you’re going to own or have access to a car, even though you’re taking transit, which precludes you from reaping most of the economic benefits of not driving, as they only accrue when you get rid of the car completely.
I bring the Last Mile problem up because I just came across a study entitled Bicycling Access and Egress to Transit: Informing the Possibilities. Combining bicycles and transit instead of cars and transit can help with a lot of the above issues. The cost per bike parking space is at most a couple of hundred dollars, not $10,000 or more, and for a given area, you can park ten times as may bikes as cars, making a bicycle park-n-ride much more economical in both dollars and space. It’s also possible to take at least a few bicycles along on transit vehicles, which can solve the problem of getting to one’s final destination on the other end, though not generally for everyone since bicycle capacity tends to be limited, especially on buses.
Many academic journals require their library subscribers to sign non-disclosure agreements to keep their pricing structures secret. This is obviously anti-competitive, and precludes any kind of free market from forming. Cornell has decided it’s had enough of this, and will refuse to sign any such agreement in the future, while making the (often exorbitant) prices it pays for journal subscriptions public.
Automatic Design of Digital Synthetic Gene Circuits from PLoS Computational Biology. They seem to be saying look, real biology isn’t generally digital, and all that continuum behavior means we need a bunch of new and complex tools to do anything with it. However, there are plenty of instances of pseudo-digital biological control systems, and we’ve already got a gigantic toolbox from EE/VLSI world for building very complex digital circuits, so why not limit ourselves to using an artificially digitized subset of biology so we can leverage the existing design tools, and see how far we get? Weird to think of this particular kind of very intimate digitization of life. Talk about historical effects. What would our post-dark-age descendants think, rediscovering a strange class of metabolic networks, in which everything is binary?
It seems like there have been calls to “fix” our education system in the US for decades. The Apollo program’s Saturn V engines were largely built by young engineers and scientists. Their educations were influenced by the Sputnik-inspired National Defense Education Act of 1958, which despite its codified McCarthyism was probably a good thing. Those kids of my parents’ generation were probably also directly inspired by Sputnik, and the Amazing Stories of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. Even my Seventh Day Adventist dad wanted to study physics in college, until he encountered the associated math.
If it takes a Sputnik moment to “fix” education, we may be out of luck this time around.
This burst of attention to (and funding for) science and mathematics education was, like the entire Apollo program, the product of a nationalist fear that we were “falling behind” the Soviets. Despite Thomas Friedman’s ongoing attempts to frame China’s production and adoption of clean energy technologies and as a modern Sputnik Moment, I doubt it’s in the cards. Not without some pretty dramatic focusing moment, and not without exiling the fossil fuel industries from US politics. It’s also just not the same kind of story as your newly atomic ideological arch nemesis lobbing rocks over your territorial boundaries, well out of reach. We will not be terrified by China’s solar panels, nor even, it seems, by their monopoly on the production of rare earths.
I recently watched Code 46 again. When I first saw it a few years ago I didn’t like it very much, but this time it seemed more interesting. The storyline doesn’t hold together very well, and from a scientific point of view there are some painful gaffes, but it’s at least attempting to explore some important present and near-future issues, which is more than I can say for most science fiction films. That makes me sad, since I feel at its best, science fiction helps us understand how we interact with and relate to technology, and how technology changes the way we interact and relate to each other. The fact that there’s so little mainstream science fiction trying to do this today is frightening. We’re just blindly stumbling forward into the darkness. Maybe the best thoughtful sci-fi I can recall from the recent past is Gattaca, which depicts in a very stylized way a future society which is starkly divided between those who are genetically enhanced and those who are not. Gattaca is pretty clearly unconcerned with the details as opposed to the implications of its premise, and that makes it easier to gloss over whatever issues it has. It’s less clear that Code 46 is this self aware, but at least on a second viewing, I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Be warned, there are spoilers below.
I’m not sure what to make of our willingness to participate in the terraforming of the Earth. To explore it, I’ll consider an alternative history in which Antarctica was marginally habitable, and colonized a million years ago by woolly hominids who developed a Yeti civilization. Our whaling vessels meet up with them in the 1820s, but it’s so cold down there that nobody feels the need to molest them except for few hardy anthropologists, the occasional overzealous missionary expedition, and the usual cohort of scientists who will study the ends of the Earth, no matter how inhospitable. Inevitably, the Yeti spend some late nights with the scientists in their hot tubs watching the aurorae.
They get to talking about the magnetosphere, some atmospheric physics, and the geology of their ice-clad homeland. One day they decide their lives would be better if they could inhabit the entire continent, instead of just clinging to the coastal fringe, and so with the help of some misguided sympathizers, they develop a vast clandestine industrial complex pumping long-lived fluorinated super greenhouse gasses like CF4, C2F6, and SF6 into the atmosphere to warm things up. These compounds are vastly more powerful warming agents than CO2 and methane. They are also long lived atmospheric species, sticking around for up to 50,000 years. If a serious industrial complex were set up to produce and release them en masse, they would close a good chunk of the atmosphere’s thermal infrared window and radically alter the climate for tens of thousands of years. This atmospheric engineering could be done over the course of an election cycle, especially if the Yeti bastards had help from the cold-hearted Canucks and Russkies.
Would the G-20, the OECD or the UN Security Council stand by while a rogue Yeti nation threatened the billions of people who live in coastal cities, or depend on glacial water supplies, all in the name of Manifest Destiny? Of course not. We’d be more likely to bomb their furry white asses back into the Ice Age.
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Continue reading Links for the week of December 3rd, 2010
Xcel Energy’s Valmont East Terraforming Station in Boulder, CO. As a side effect, it powers all the lights you see in the background.
James Watt’s industrial revolution was fired by coal, is fired by coal, and shall be fired by coal under the current plan, until death do us part. Anthracite, lignite and bituminous — it is all nearly pure carbon, sequestered in the shallow inland seas of the Carboniferous, scavenged from a powerful greenhouse atmosphere by the first macroscopic life to colonize the land, 350 million years ago. It was into these scaly fern tree forests, club mosses, cycads, and giant horsetails that we tetrapods laboriously crawled so long ago, to gasp our first desperate breaths.
Industrial power, carbon and coal are deeply synonymous. The SI unit of power is named for Watt, and the word “carbon” is derived from the Latin carbo, which means coal. Many of the super-human abilities we are accustomed to wielding today are intimately bound up with this strange rock that burns. Our purpose in burning it is to release usable heat, and we consider the release of carbon dioxide and other pollutants to be a side-effect of that process. In the fullness of time I suspect we will come to see that relationship reversed. When we look back at today’s coal fired power plants a few centuries from now, we won’t see them as electricity generators. We will instead see them as components of a massive, coordinated and yet unintended climatic engineering project. We are effectively terraforming the Earth, participating in the transformation of our planet as a new force of nature. It’s not the first time life has done something like this. The cyanobacteria began pumping oxygen into the atmosphere 2.5 billion years ago, incidentally making both fire and macroscopic organisms possible for the first time. And also incidentally oxidizing away a lot of previously stable atmospheric methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, plunging the Earth into the deep freeze for three hundred million years. I hope that we can be more mindful of the consequences of our actions than the blue-green algae were, but honestly I’ve got my doubts.