Month: January 2018

From the comments

To Tyler and to all commenters: beware mood affiliation.

It can simultaneously be true that (1) solar technology has substantial environmental and economic downsides, (2) very few people are aware of these downsides, and (3) solar technology is a great boon to humanity’s present and future (i.e., the world we live in is superior to a counterfactual world with no solar).

Also keep in mind that in the grand scheme of things, today’s decisions matter more in terms of the technological path they put us on rather than the actual kWh generated today. If solar is generating 50% of Earth’s electricity in the year 2100, then a 5-year acceleration or deceleration in the technology/market/regulation environment could be worth trillions of dollars.

Lastly, many ‘arguments’ seem to occur where one person makes a true claim with a certain mood. A commenter disagrees with that mood, and makes a different true claim. A second commenter disagrees with THAT mood and makes a third true claim. This pattern of discussion is not always healthy. We should hold ourselves to a standard higher than saying things that true. We should say things that build useful generalizeable mental models. If we only say the counterintuitive hipster ‘facts’ we can in fact paint a misleading picture even though we share only facts that rigorously true. (Tyler, I love you and your work, but this is one of the ways that I think your writing can improve. Contrarian statements, even when true, can sometimes be less good than other true statements. I understand this is vague, but I hope you understand.)

That is from Ted.

Policing nature

Lasers are to be deployed against Britain’s biggest bird of prey to stop them taking sheep.

Farmers will be able to apply for licences to fire the beams on to hillsides on the west coast of Scotland to discourage sea eagles from areas where they are believed to be feeding on lambs. The method is being trialled by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and its partners in response to concerns among the crofting and farming communities.

White-tailed sea eagles were reintroduced to Scotland in the 1970s and the population stands at an estimated 106 breeding pairs. It is thought that the figure could double within ten years.

According to sheep farmers and crofters, the birds are not only taking large numbers of lambs but threatening rural livelihoods. Laser licences will be granted to farmers in areas where lambs have been taken by the birds.

The beams create patterns that disorientate the birds and make them fly away. The lasers cause the birds no harm and deter other predators from preying on farm animals.

That is from the London Times.  And from Jonathan Franzen.

*The Polarizers*

The author is Sam Rosenfeld and the subtitle is Postwar Architects of Our Partisan Era.  Here is the bottom line:

Today’s pundits wring their hands about polarization and yearn for the halcyon days of bipartisan comity.  Yet pundits of the mid-twentieth century saw that very bipartisanship as the key problem in American politics.  They argued that the lack of clarity between the parties stifled progress while blurring accountability to the voters.  Polarization was their solution to this problem.  They thought making parties “real” in the sense that Roosevelt had meant — unified behind distinct policy agendas that were clear to voters — would invigorate democracy and improve policymaking.  Their ideas influenced the views of key political actors on both the left and right in the ensuing decades.

This book is the story of how that happened, and it is a useful corrective for those who thinks greater partisanship is something quite recent.

Security breach in India?

In 2010 India started scanning personal details like names, addresses, dates of birth, mobile numbers, and more, along with all 10 fingerprints and iris scans of its 1.3 billion citizens, into a centralized government database called Aadhaar to create a voluntary identity system. On Wednesday this database was reportedly breached.

The Tribune, a local Indian newspaper, published a report claiming its reporters paid Rs. 500 (approximately $8) to a person who said his name was Anil Kumar, and who they contacted through WhatsApp. Kumar was able to create a username and password that gave them access to the demographic information of nearly 1.2 billion Indians who have currently enrolled in Aadhaar, simply by entering a person’s unique 12-digit Aadhaar number. Regional officers working with the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the government agency responsible for Aadhaar, told the Tribune the access was “illegal,” and a “major national security breach.”

second report, published on Thursday by the Quint, an Indian news website, revealed that anyone can create an administrator account that lets them access the Aadhaar database as long as they’re invited by an existing administrator.

Here is the full story, via Brian Slesinsky.

College Party Culture and Sexual Assault

This is really a paper about alcohol, and indeed “the a word” dominates the very first paragraph of the text, here is the abstract:

Jason M. Lindo, Peter Siminski and Isaac D. Swensen

This paper considers the degree to which events that intensify partying increase sexual assault. Estimates are based on panel data from campus and local law enforcement agencies and an identification strategy that exploits plausibly random variation in the timing of Division 1 football games. The estimates indicate that these events increase daily reports of rape with 17–24-year-old victims by 28 percent. The effects are driven largely by 17–24-year-old offenders and by offenders unknown to the victim, but we also find significant effects on incidents involving offenders of other ages and on incidents involving offenders known to the victim.

That is from American Economic Journal: Applied Economics; from that same issue we also learn that “…increases in [Russian] alcohol prices would yield significant reductions in mortality.”

Benjamin Zycher on solar power

From my email, if you would like to read a more negative than usual take:

“A couple of observations on your Bloomberg column on solar power:

  • There is nothing “clean” about solar (or wind) electricity, primarily because of its intermittent nature.  Because it is unreliable, it cannot be scheduled (it is not dispatchable), and so must be backed up with conventional (usually gas, sometimes coal) plants.  The latter units must be cycled up and down depending on whether the sun is shining or not, which means that they must be operated inefficiently (they experience rising heat rates), increasing their emissions of conventional effluents and greenhouse gases.  Engineering studies for Colorado and Texas, for example, estimate that this adverse effect becomes important when the market share in terms of capacity reaches around 10 percent (combined with the guaranteed market shares and must-take regulations enforced by many states).  I have been beating on this drum for years, but the press and many others continue to describe solar and wind power as “clean.”  No, it is not.
  • That emissions pattern is separate from the problem of solar panel disposal, vastly underpublicized in my view, in a world in which solid-waste disposal is priced inefficiently.
  • The Independent System Operators generally are forced to take renewable power when it is available, and the PUCs are forced to roll their high costs into the rate bases, spreading the costs across all consumers.  (The same is true for the high transmission costs attendant upon renewables.)  There has been some reform around the margins in a few states, as the PUCs have trimmed the net metering subsidies for rooftop solar systems, but this is a minor adjustment in a system characterized by vast inefficiency, cronyism and interest-group rent-seeking, upward transfers of income, feathering of bureaucratic nests, and increased pollution.  Such are the fruits of government wisdom.”

How they eat at the National University of Singapore

Visitors to the 700-seater Flavors food court can choose their reasonably priced meals from more than a dozen separate outlets, each offering a different type of cuisine from Southeast and East Asia, including Thai, Indonesian, Malaysian, Korean and Japanese. It is not even the biggest dining area, either: a further three 850-plus-seat canteens and numerous smaller restaurants and cafes are dotted around the university’s Modernist campus. In total, they feed about 50,000 people each day, serving a meal every 1.4 seconds on average.

…While the incredible variety of dining options on campus might seem incidental to this success, [recently retired president] Tan believes that it has played an important role in the university’s improvement on his watch.

“These are not just places where you eat — it’s where students and staff linger, mix and also learn from each other,” he said, adding that this element of campus life is “a cultural dimension that makes Singapore special.”

Here is the full story from Jack Grove.

Collective Action Kills Innovation

Oregon has just passed a law that gives gas stations in rural counties the option of allowing self-pumping (in some rural counties this is allowed only between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.!) As you have probably heard, this incomplete lifting of an absurd restriction has some Oregonians upset and afraid.

“I don’t even know HOW to pump gas and I am 62, native Oregonian . . . I say NO THANKS! I don’t like to smell like gasoline!” one woman wrote.

“No! Disabled, seniors, people with young children in the car need help. Not to mention getting out of your car with transients around and not feeling safe. This is a very bad idea. Grrr,” another woman wrote.

“I’ve lived in this state all my life and I REFUSE to pump my own gas . . . This [is] a service only qualified people should perform. I will literally park at the pump and wait until someone pumps my gas.”

Most of the rest of the America–where people pump their own gas everyday without a second thought–is having a good laugh at Oregon’s expense. But I am not here to laugh because in every state but one where you can pump your own gas you can’t open a barbershop without a license. A license to cut hair! Ridiculous. I hope people in Alabama are laughing at the rest of America. Or how about a license to be a manicurist? Go ahead Connecticut, laugh at the other states while you get your nails done. Buy contact lens without a prescription? You have the right to smirk British Columbia!

All of the Oregonian complaints about non-professionals pumping gas–“only qualified people should perform this service”, “it’s dangerous” and “what about the jobs”–are familiar from every other state, only applied to different services.

Once we got familiar with self-pumping it didn’t seem like a problem, but it’s surprising we ever got self-pumping as it would have been easy to scare people into voting no. After all, the case for trained gas pumpers is far stronger than for licensed barbers. Perhaps we were less risk averse and complacent in the past. I don’t think we could build the Hoover Dam today either.

It’s easier to scare than to inform and we fear losses more than we desire gains so collective decision-making defaults toward stasis.

We have innovations like Uber and Airbnb and many others only because entrepreneurs didn’t have to ask for permission. Had we put these ideas to the vote they would have been defeated. Allow almost anyone with a car to drive customers around town? Stranger danger! Let any house be turned into a hotel? Not in my neighborhood! Once the innovations were brought into existence, the masses saw the benefits but they would not have seen those benefits if the idea had been put to a vote. Demonstration is more powerful than imagination.

More and more, however, the sphere of individual action shrinks and that of collective action grows. Thus, I do not laugh at the Oregonians and their fear of gas pumping freedom. We are all Oregonians in one form or another.

Why Spielberg’s *The Post* bugged me (full of spoilers, but if you already know the history…)

The movie centers around Daniel Ellsberg’s revelation of the Pentagon Papers and their publication in The New York Times and most of all The Washington Post, the center of the dramatic tension.  The courts rule for the newspapers (and ultimately Ellsberg) and Spielbergian triumphalism reigns.  Yet so many of those liberties have reverted to the state — had he stuck around, would Edward Snowden have received a public trial before a court of law?  You may believe Snowden is a different case (read Gladwell), but shouldn’t a public court be deciding that?  The feel-good tone of The Post also would not match a movie about a minor American military victory in the Vietnam of 1966, given what followed.  Does historical context matter so little?  Post-Obama, can newspapers protect their anonymous sources in matters of national security?

I usually don’t mind when movies play fast and loose with the truth, as is done in almost every biopic or history.  (They didn’t actually blow up that Death Star, they merely damaged it.)  But this case is different.  The whole theme of this film is about standing up for the truth even when commercial considerations dictate otherwise.  It then feels dishonest to give Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) a wildly overblown role, as this portrait does.  But it does make for a better story and presumably a higher-grossing movie.

For an artwork that pretends to defend freedom of the press, the underlying message is remarkably Trumpian in an almost Straussian manner.  The press collude, dine and party with leaders, and refuse to reveal their crimes and scandals, all to receive “access” and to be flattered.  Every now and then their need for reputation, and the desire for a broader national market, spurs them to “turn on” a president gone astray.  “The people” don’t have much of a say and fake news is everywhere.

The sadder commercial reality is that the first quarter to third of the movie is sophisticated and then it falls into good guys vs. bad guys.  It’s not smart enough to be Strauss.

It feels as if every actor or actress in the movie is a “grizzled veteran” of some kind or another.

The scenes of newspaper and print technology will go down as some of the finest cinema of our time.

*The Wizard and the Prophet*

The author is Charles C. Mann, and the subtitle is Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.  What a splendid book, this is, all rolled into one the reader receives two distinct biographies, a history of mid-20th century environmental science, a book on technological progress in agriculture, and one of the best overall frameworks for thinking about environmentalism.

Oh how many good sentences there are:

Until I visited post-Katrina New Orleans I did not realize that rebuilding a flooded modern city would involve disposing of several hundred thousand refrigerators.

Here is one fun bit:

So ineradicable was the elitist mark on conservation that for decades afterward many on the left scoffed at ecological issues as right-wing distractions.  As late as 1970, the radical Students for a Democratic Society protested the first Earth Day as Wall Street flimflam meant to divert public attention from class warfare and the Vietnam War; left-wing journalist I.F. Stone called the nationwide marches a “snow job.”

By the way, as for the subjects of the dual biographies:

The two people are William Vogt and Norman Borlaug.

Here is the framing of the book:

…the dispute between Wizards and Prophets has, if anything, become more vehement.  Wizards view the Prophets’ emphasis on cutting back as intellectually dishonest, indifferent to the poor, even racist (because most of the world’s hungry are non-Caucasian).  Following Vogt, they say, is a path toward regression, narrowness, and global poverty.  Prophets sneer that the Wizards’ faith in human resourcefulness is unthinking, scientifically ignorant, even driven by greed…Following Borlaug, they say, at best postpones an inevitable day of reckoning — it is a recipe for what activists have come to describe as “ecocide.”

Where along the Wizards-Prophets spectrum should one be?

This will end up as one of the very best books of this year.

Wednesday assorted links

1. Carmen must not die.  And the great Barbara Adams Mowat (Folger editions editor) has passed away.

2. The culture that is Ann Arbor: “Sterilized Ann Arbor deer may get yoga mats to help with recovery.

3. Is the world running short of sand?

4. “Startups dedicated to untreated water are gaining steam. Zero Mass Water, which allows people to collect water from the atmosphere near their homes, has already raised $24 million in venture capital.

5. MIE: Slavoj Zizek mini-skirts.

6. “The agreement stipulated that after becoming dentists, her sons would pay her 60 percent of their net profits until the total amount paid reached 50 million new Taiwan dollars, or just under $1.7 million.”  Link here (NYT).

7. What are the five dimensions of curiosity?

The robot regulatory culture that is San Francisco

The city recently cracked down on delivery robots — autonomous devices such as those tested by Yelp’s Eat24 service last year, that travel on the sidewalk to distribute food and other essentials to customers. New rules limit them to a speed of three miles an hour, and require a human operator nearby. Moreover, only nine delivery robots can be tested in the city at any time, dashing the hopes of start-ups that had envisioned fleets of self-driving bots taking hot pizza to hungry millennials.


The pet shelter initially reported good results from the security robot, with fewer car break-ins. However, controversy arose over its powers of surveillance, and at one point it was kidnapped. Unknown assailants covered the robot with a tarp and smeared barbecue sauce on its sensors to block them. The president of the pet shelter at first alleged the perpetrators came from a nearby homeless encampment but later said she wasn’t sure.

That is from Leslie Hook at the FT.