Numbers vs. instinct

This Oil Drum article makes some really good points about the differences between how scientists/engineers and politicians see the world based on their training, what that implies for our efforts to address climate change (and other environmental problems), and how the perceptual gap can be bridged.

I particularly liked the article because it presented a perspective from which the utter failure of leadership around climate change makes sense, and isn't purely explained by greed, stupidity, or short-sightedness. Which is not to say that there aren't some politicians who suffer from all of these flaws, but it suggests that many who might be assumed to be greedy and/or stupid based on their actions are in fact responding in a perfectly reasonable way, given their perspective. And that is hopeful, because it's easier to change perspectives and perceptions than to turn corrupt leaders into honest ones.

cost of energy

Between now and Jan 2009, PG&E will raise electricity prices by 6.5%. This is a perfectly unsurprising thing, given the increases in the cost of natural gas.

As far as I can tell, the rate that they can charge for electricity is more heavily regulated by the PUC than is the rate they can charge for gas. So it takes longer for the price of electricity to reflect increases in fuel costs, because the rate cases take a long time. But eventually the price signal does work it's way through to the consumer, which is a very good thing (I only wish it happened faster).

This is also some vindication for me personally: when I was selling solar PV, my financial payback models assumed an annual increase in electricity cost of 2-3%. Nice to know I was being conservative.

Cognitive Surplus

This is a kind of neat article that posits that post-WWII western society has been subject to an enormous "cognitive surplus" as a result of all the labor saving innovations that have come about in the last half century, that we've mostly spent it watching TV, and that this surplus has just recently started to become available for other projects. He points out that the total time investment in building Wikipedia (~100 million man hours) is 0.05% of the United State's TV watching budget, and asks what will happen as more of that currently lost time is directed to other purposes.

I think the essay makes an interesting point, and I think that there is some validity to it. On the other hand, the author implies that time spent watching TV can (and ultimately will) be turned to other purposes, and I don't necessarily think that this is so. Modern life leaves the average person with a lot of free time, but it also imposes a great deal of stress, much of it highly artificial and hard for us monkeys to deal with. It's one thing to come home at the end of a long day and flip on the TV. It's quite another to come home and do something useful. What I'm saying is that it is true, that modern humans have potentially quite a lot of unscheduled time. But that that surplus time does not necessarily equate to a surplus of cognitive capability or motivation.

Pollan on the farm bill

I'm on Michael Pollan's mailing list, and recently got this email about the Farm Bill that recently passed congress. It fills in some details that I did not know; more importantly, Pollan makes a very cogent point about why so little progress was made in this bill. As is so often the case, reform efforts fixated on stopping bad policy, rather than proposing positive alternatives. Full text below.

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Yes we have no bananas

This is a pretty interesting article on the new disease threat confronting the world's banana supply, along with some history (that I did not know) of the banana. The article also makes an interesting point that the banana is a good candidate for genetic engineering because it spreads vegetatively, rather than by seed. That fact eliminates one of my major objections to GE crops (i.e. the inability to contain a potentially bad strain, onces it's planted out).

Cool image

On the left, all the water in the world, to scale.
On the right, all the air in the world (at sea level density), again to scale.

A rant to share

I got pissed off by the Republican whining at today's R^2 post, so I was inspired to rant for a bit. I figured that as long as I went to the effort, I might as well share it.

Lots of you [in the context of the original post] like to talk about domestic energy supplies, and the damn dirty hippies that are keeping the oil companies from poking holes in every nook and cranny of the country looking for oil.

But what are you really talking about? Yes, there are (potential) resources that are currently off limits. But we are currently importing more than half of our oil, and no amount of domestic development is going to change that basic picture. Do you really think it is worth destroying our national natural treasures so that we can cut our imports to merely 40% of our usage for a few years? Do you really think that is going to change the geopolitical or economic reality that we are mortgaging our future to the oil exporting countries?

Also, it's pretty clear that in the absence of a high price signal, consumption increases exponentially. As long as oil (or energy generally) is cheap enough to waste, we'll find ever-more creative ways to do so. And simple math tells you that you cannot meet exponentially increasing demand with supply side solutions, except in the very short term. If you had your way (or had had it historically, long enough ago that ANWR and the California coast were presently developed and online), what would you have accomplished? You would destroy the high price signal that is the only thing that appears to be able to restrain consumption even a little bit. What good would that do? We could party hearty for a few more years, maybe stretch out the short-sighted hedonism of the '90s for another decade or two. And for what? When it's over, we're back where we started, except with more carbon in the atmosphere and even less potential domestic energy security.

Fossil fuel resources are non-renewable (doh!). That means the only way -- the only way -- to achieve domestic energy security is to reduce and ultimately eliminate our dependence on them. There are certainly better ways to do this than to line the pockets of the middle east with our cash, but it's obvious that our culture and the political "leadership" that it supports lacks the foresight and will to anticipate limits and enforce them on ourselves in advance.

So instead we will learn to conserve because economic realities force us to do so. If it doesn't break us economically, the end result will be a positive shift in American culture and attitudes, towards accepting the reality of living on a finite planet. In the meantime, the process of weaning ourselves from fossil fuels will be a long and slow one, and we may in fact need to develop all of our remaining domestic supplies in order to carry us through that time. But to do so now, when SUVs are still status symbols and 30 MPG is considered good mileage, would be ludicrous and stupid. Developing these remaining resources just to bring down the price of gas is absolutely equivalent (and equivalently stupid) to releasing the SPR for the same purpose. Same dumb idea, different timescale.

There may come a time when it is both rational and necessary to destroy ANWR to get the oil we need to survive. But we're not there yet, by a long shot, as evidenced by our continued attempts to perpetuate an unsustainable way of life. In the meantime, all you arch "conservatives" (gods, what a misnomer) should thank your neighborhood dirty hippie for obstructing the wanton development of these resources, so that we have them in the future when things really start to pinch.

2nd generation OLPC

The current OLPC has some pretty cool features, but is fundamentally just a low-power laptop. Great for its intended audience, but nothing like a Macbook Pro.

But the next generation OLPC looks to be another kettle of fish altogether. It's a dual-screen ebook. I want, want, want. If they can follow through on this, it should address the major weakness of all the eBook readers on the market: it'll have to be cheap, durable, able to read a wide variety of file formats, and unencumbered by DRM or other data-control limitations. Yum!

Cap & Dividend

Cap and dividend is one of the more interesting approaches that I have seen to climate change policy. The basic idea is really simple: impose a tax per ton of carbon on primary energy producers, put the money in a trust fund, and periodically (monthly or quarterly) distribute these funds to every American on an equal-share basis.

The idea is brilliant for its simplicity. The goal is simple: put a price on carbon in a non-regressive fashion. And it strongly incentivizes conservation: if you use less carbon than average, you wind up with a net positive cash flow. If you use lots of carbon-based fuels, then you wind up subsidizing the payments to the folks who are using less.

It is not ideally progressive in that it will hit the lower-middle class entrepreneur who needs a vehicle -- taxi drivers, landscapers, trasdepeople of all sorts -- very hard. On the other hand, it would pretty quickly generate a demand for fuel-efficient trucks. Also, as the website points out, those folks can at least take their fuel cost as a business tax deduction. And in the final analysis, we're going to have to figure out how to do what we want to do with alot less fuel input. Period, end of story. Some folks are going to get hurt by that transition, and there's no way were going to protect them all -- though we could destroy the simplicity of a system like this by trying.

That really points to what is probably the most significant weakness of this idea: it's beauty is in its simplicity, and it's far too simple and fair to survive from concept into law. Were it enacted, it would be subjected to the full range of political sausagemaking, as everyone tries to maneuver to benefit themselves or their constituency. It's hard to see how it could survive with its primary virtues intact. At which point, maybe we're just better off taxing carbon and spending the money on renewable energy research.