Tag Archives: technology

Judgement Day

By Cato

Step 1: Turn on speakers
Step 2: Open this video in a different window.
Step 3: Read this news story while the previous link plays in the background.

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Californians Use Less Electricity Than Everyone Else — Here’s Why

Given the fact that we enjoy the best weather known to mankind, I won’t gloat too heavily that the average Californian uses roughly 33 percent less electricity at home than the average American as a whole.

But it is gloat-worthy and actually pretty surprising that California’s electricity use has stayed mostly flat for the last four decades, when the rate of use in the rest of the U.S. has dramatically increased. Plumer has the numbers:

Since 1960, household electricity use in the rest of the United States has more than tripled, climbing past 12,000 kWh per person on average (although it has plateaued of late). By contrast, in California, electricity use per capita doubled in the 1960s but then more or less stopped growing for the next four decades.

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Plumer goes on to cite a working paper by “Georgetown economist Arik Levinson, which argues that a few “long-run trends” — things unrelated to energy policy — can explain about 88 percent of the growing gap in electricity use between California and the rest of the country.”

First, there’s climate — though not in the way you might think. Everyone knows that California has lovely weather, and its residents use less air conditioning. But the real story, Levinson suggests, is what’s going on in the rest of the country. More and more Americans have been moving to hotter regions in the South and West and cranking the A/C as they get wealthier. That explains about one-third of the disparity in electricity use.

Demographics are another underrated factor. In most of the United States, the number of people per household has been shrinking over the last 50 years. That has a big impact on electricity use: A person with his own home uses more power than a person sharing a house with others. But, oddly enough, household size has stayed roughly flat in California over this period. That fact alone accounts for 40 percent of the gap in electricity use.

So, no real lessons here for the rest of the world to emulate. Both Plumer and Levinson correctly note that California’s efficiency standards have played an important role in keeping the red-line steady. But we’re basically just really fortunate to live in a place where 60 degrees is considered cold.

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Stiglitz On “How Intellectual Property Reinforces Inequality”

Untitled

In a really brilliant Op-Ed that’s worth reading several times over, Joseph Stiglitz castigates the effect of intellectual property battles on both foreign and domestic inequality, and argues that the SCOTUS case involving Myriad Genetics fully embodies three core themes found in his book “The Price of Inequality”:

“First, I argued that societal inequality was a result not just of the laws of economics, but also of how we shape the economy — through politics, including through almost every aspect of our legal system. Here, it’s our intellectual property regime that contributes needlessly to the gravest form of inequality. The right to life should not be contingent on the ability to pay.”
(…)
“The second is that some of the most iniquitous aspects of inequality creation within our economic system are a result of “rent-seeking”: profits, and inequality, generated by manipulating social or political conditions to get a larger share of the economic pie, rather than increasing the size of that pie. And the most iniquitous aspect of this wealth appropriation arises when the wealth that goes to the top comes at the expense of the bottom. Myriad’s efforts satisfied both these conditions: the profits the company gained from charging for its test added nothing to the size and dynamism of the economy, and simultaneously decreased the welfare of those who could not afford it.”
(…)
“Had that prior knowledge not been publicly available, Myriad could not have done what it did. And that’s the third major theme. I titled my book to emphasize that inequality is not just morally repugnant but also has material costs. When the legal regime governing intellectual property rights is designed poorly, it facilitates rent-seeking — and ours is poorly designed, though this and other recent Supreme Court decisions have led to one that is better than it otherwise would have been. And the result is that there is actually less innovation and more inequality.”

And since the U.S. has sought to impose its intellectual property regime on the rest of the world through bilateral and multilateral trade agreements, Stiglitz laments that the same public policy that is causing undue harm to American inequality, is in turn helping inequality to exacerbate worldwide:

“Economic power often speaks louder, though, than moral values; and in the many instances in which American corporate interests prevail in intellectual property rights, our policies help increase inequality abroad. In most countries, it’s much the same as in the United States: the lives of the poor are sacrificed at the altar of corporate profits. But even in those where, say, the government would provide a test like Myriad’s at affordable prices for all, there is a cost: when a government pays monopoly prices for a medical test, it takes money away that could be spent for other lifesaving health expenditures.”

(photo by Abhisit Vejjajjia

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Deaf Three Year Old Hears His Father’s Voice For The First Time

Thank you science, this is awesome:

Three year old Grayson Clamp, born deaf, was able to hear his father say “Daddy loves you”, thanks to a microchip implanted inside the child’s brain by University of North Carolina doctors. He becomes the first child in the U.S. to receive the microchip, previously approved only for adults.

Over time doctors say the device he wears to interact with a microchip placed on his brain will be fine-tuned and improved. The boy will also undergo several years of speech and hearing therapy at UNC.

And his adoptive parents are pretty awesome too:

The Clamps who adopted him while already knowing his condition say they’ll be there every step of the way.

“We got Grayson, took him home from the hospital and he belonged,” Len Clamp told WBTV of those first moments of his adoption while still glowing this week from his son’s healthy progress. “He was ours from I think day one.”

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Is This The End For Bitcoin?

Nerd Merit Badge 10: Bitcoin

I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of Bitcoin, but ever since it’s operationalization, most signs have caused me to become hugely pessimistic of the lauded virtual currency. In fact, I’m surprised it’s even survived this long.
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Your Daily Quote

Bob Young & Aaron Swartz

The programmer, entrepreneur, and activist Aaron Swartz concluded it was immoral for the world’s knowledge to be locked up in databases that were accessible only to wealthy universities. His efforts to download thousands of articles from an academic database led to his indictment on felony hacking charges. Facing the possibility of decades in jail, Swartz took his own life in January.

Manning and Snowden both concluded that they were morally obligated to release documents that reveal government misconduct. And Assange concluded he ought to help Manning distribute those documents to the world.

Obviously, hackers’ curiosity and penchant for unconventional thinking can create tensions with authority figures, who hackers derisively refer to as “suits.” They are sometimes viewed as prickly loners, and may not observe the social niceties that make offices function smoothly. But while hackers’ disobedient tendencies give bosses heartburn, organizations can’t get along without them. Their intellectual curiosity and knack for finding creative solutions to hard technical problems make them indispensable.

Timothy B. Lee, “Hackers vs. suits: Why nerds become leakers”

(Photo by Creativecommons)

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Charting Greenhouse Gases

Ecofys provides an all-encompassing flow chart that shows exactly where all of the greenhouse gases heating up the planet and ensuring our demise, come from:

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Some thoughts:

Coal sucks. And it’s still hugely relevant despite the decrease in production thanks to shale extraction. Hopefully – and sorry to whatever coal miners reading this – the EPA’s new emissions regulations will render most of the coal industry uneconomical, thus removing a huge contributor to climate change.

Fossil fuels suck too, but they’re only part of the larger issue. While the chart shows what we all know, that 65 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from coal burning, oil and natural gas, 35 percent of emissions are a product of “direct emissions”, which include things like methane leaks from mining, methane emissions from livestock, and deforestation.

Cars aren’t the problem, buildings are. While we spend a heck of a lot of time, energy and money creating emissions standards for our cars and trucks, buildings produce way more greenhouse emissions than my Prius or your totally unnecessary raised F250.

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1.2 billion are stuck in the dark

Brad Plumer has the report:

The U.N. has set a big, ambitious goal of making sure everyone in the world has access to electricity by 2030. And how’s that going? Not so well.

That’s one upshot of a new progress report coordinated by the International Energy Agency and the World Bank, which notes that 1.2 billion people around the world are still stuck in the dark. And it’s unlikely that this number will shrink down to zero in the next two decades, the report notes, without a lot more money and effort.

The Economist has a handy chart showing regional access to energy, to put this in perspective:

Basically, population growth has far outpaced the rate of growth in electrification, leaving the IEA and World Bank to admit that the UN won’t be able to meet its 2030 goal if the current trend continues. Worse still is that the report also finds that, “business as usual would leave 12 percent and 31 percent of the world’s population in 2030 without electricity and modern cooking solutions, respectively.”

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Your Daily Quote

Leaving a LightLeaving a light (cc photo by Hartwig HKD)

“For decades now in America we have been witnessing a steady and sickening denigration of humanistic understanding and humanistic method. We live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily, even giddily governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience. The technological mentality that has become the American worldview instructs us to prefer practical questions to questions of meaning – to ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work. Our reason has become an instrumental reason, and is no longer the reason of the philosophers, with its ancient magnitude of intellectual ambition, its belief that the proper subjects of human thought are the largest subjects, and that the mind, in one way or another, can penetrate to the very principles of natural life and human life. Philosophy itself has shrunk under the influence of our weakness for instrumentality – modern American philosophy was in fact one of the causes of that weakness — and generally it, too, prefers to tinker and to tweak.”

[…] “there is no task more urgent in American intellectual life at this hour than to offer some resistance to the twin imperialisms of science and technology, and to recover the old distinction — once bitterly contested, then generally accepted, now almost completely forgotten – between the study of nature and the study of man. As Bernard Williams once remarked, “’humanity’ is a name not merely for a species but also for a quality.” You who have elected to devote yourselves to the study of literature and languages and art and music and philosophy and religion and history — you are the stewards of that quality. You are the resistance. You have had the effrontery to choose interpretation over calculation, and to recognize that calculation cannot provide an accurate picture, or a profound picture, or a whole picture, of self-interpreting beings such as ourselves; and I commend you for it.”

Leon Wieseltier, speaking at the commencement ceremony of Brandeis University on May 19, addressing the graduates as “fellow humanists”.

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Meet Google Glass: the next step in technological advancement and societal regression

Loic Le Meur on Google GlassOn Google Glass (cc photo by Loic Le Meur)

I’m not quite sure whether to be terrified or excited by Farhad Manjoo’s recent interaction with what I immediately associate with the beginning of the human race resembling the lard population from Wall-E:

To turn on Glass, you tap the frame of your specs, or you nod your head up. When you do so, you see a big, digital clock just off to the side of your central field of vision, and a prompt to say “OK Glass” when you’re ready to ask it something. Even this main screen is useful: I don’t wear a wristwatch—I’ve never found them comfortable—and, when I’m not at my PC, I usually check the time on my phone. Glass offers me a quicker, less socially awkward way to access a clock.
I know what you’re thinking: A normal person would just wear a wristwatch. Yes, but even if you do wear a watch, there’s a good chance you look at your phone for dozens of other tiny bits of information during the day—texts, email, directions, photos, and especially Google searches.

Starner calls these “microinteractions”—moments when you consult your phone or computer for ephemeral, important information that you need immediately. Glass is built for these moments. Once you say “OK glass,” you’re presented with a menu of possible commands, including performing a Google search, asking for directions, and taking a picture. You can also access Google Now—the company’s predictive personal assistant—by swiping your finger along the frame. This shows you contextual information that you’d usually find on your phone—the weather, sports scores, directions to your hotel.

It’s bad enough that I have a total disdain for anyone who looks at their phone during dinner or a film, I don’t want to imagine a future where the entire human race – or those that can afford it – are walking around with computers on their faces. I’m in my twenties and I shudder at the idea.

I don’t want one. But I’m pretty sure I said the same thing about the iPad, which I’m using to write this.

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Coal on the rise in 2013

For a time there, a lot of people thought that the shale gas boom and the exponential production of natural gas meant the end for energy’s dirty little brother, coal. Well, because the insanely low gas prices that were destroying the coal industry were totally unsustainable, the Energy Information Administration reports that coal has been reclaiming some of its lost market share in 2013:

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After an equal share of electric power was generated from coal and natural gas in April 2012, EIA’s most recent preliminary data through March 2013 show coal has generated 40% or more of the nation’s electricity each month since November 2012, with natural gas fueling about 25% of generation during the same period.

So what does this mean for the planet you might ask? Well, I hope you like some good old fashioned carbon-dioxide emissions:

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The EIA report finds that CO2 emissions from all energy in general will rise 1.3 percent this year and roughly .4 percent in 2014.

But it’s not all rosy for the coal industry either. Natural gas isn’t going anywhere and despite the pricing drop off, it makes more long term economic sense to stop building coal facilities and to instead tap into shale reservoirs. Yes, that means fracking. Also, in 2016, the coal industry is going to be hit with Obama’s costly regulations and will have to install and implement expensive new emissions controls to comply with EPA standards for sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and mercury. This recent study out of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment found that the regulations will render 65 percent of the coal industry uneconomical.

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Mapping hate in the USA

Humboldt State University’s Dr. Monica Stephens and Floating Sheep researchers – the same group that mapped post-election Twitter hate speechanalyzed some 150,000 geotagged tweets from around the country and discovered what I think we already know: Americans are really racist, homophobic and at the very least, ableist.

Using DOLLY to search for all geotagged tweets in North America between June 2012 and April 2013, we discovered 41,306 tweets containing the word ‘nigger’, 95,123 referenced ‘homo’, among other terms. In order to address one of the earlier criticisms of our map of racism directed at Obama, students at Humboldt State manually read and coded the sentiment of each tweet to determine if the given word was used in a positive, negative or neutral manner. This allowed us to avoid using any algorithmic sentiment analysis or natural language processing, as many algorithms would have simply classified a tweet as ‘negative’ when the word was used in a neutral or positive way. For example the phrase ‘dyke’, while often negative when referring to an individual person, was also used in positive ways (e.g. “dykes on bikes #SFPride”). The students were able to discern which were negative, neutral, or positive. Only those tweets used in an explicitly negative way are included in the map.

Here’s an interactive version of the map for you to check out.

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President Obama launches $100 million initiative to map the human brain

President Obama announced a new initiative on Tuesday, to start in 2014 to the tune of $100 million, in order to research and develop new technologies that will help understand the intricacies of the human brain. The scientists involved in the promotion of the idea to the Obama administration call it the Brain Activity Map project, but the actual initiative will officially be known as Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies. I have to pause and chuckle at the thought of some White House administrator asking scientists to change the name so that the acronym reads “BRAIN”. Anyway, the initiative has been marked as one of the greatest challenges in the 21st century by the current administration.

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Some have compared the initiative to the Human Genome Project in so much that the plan is to account for something that seemed, up until now, insolvable: specifically mapping and showing with certainty brain circuitry in action and accounting for how millions of brain cells interact.

The difference here is that the scientists tasked with the colossal effort to map the human brain won’t really have a finish line in mind when taking up the research. There are no clearly defined marks to which they are expected to reach. It will be within their research where these scientists might come up with their goals, or endgame. Also, while the price tag might seem high to you and I, it’s nowhere near the money given for the Human Genome Project.

Yglesias argues, to which I fully agree, that this is a clear cut example of what government should be doing – funding initiatives that benefit the public good:

A public good, in the economics jargon, is something that’s nonrivalrous and nonexcludable. In other words, if I use some of it, that doesn’t leave less around for you, and once it’s out there, it’s just out there. Scientific knowledge is a great example. When I learn something, it doesn’t mean that you unlearn it. But a big problem with public goods is that they’re valuable because they’re nonrivalrous but underproduced because they’re nonexcludable. So we have a lot of public policy dedicated to making nonexcludable things excludable in practice. That’s what patents and copyrights are for. We also do some to subsidize the production of knowledge. That’s everything from the day-to-day work of the Bureau of Labor Statistics to this big-picture science. Direct financing of knowledge production is a great thing for the government to do, especially because alternatives such as patents and copyrights tend in practice to be counterproductive to the advance of science.

The plan is not without its critics however, and skepticism from the neuroscience community has been especially prevalent. Below are some excerpts from Dylan Matthew’s conversation with Partha Mitra, the Crick-Clay professor of biomathematics at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. He is a theoretical physicist by training, he is working on mapping mouse brain circuits.

Dylan Matthews: You were critical of the [Obama Administration’s] initial brain-mapping proposal. What did you make of the details that came out Tuesday?

Partha Mitra: It was a significant improvement compared to the early media reports, where some questions arose about what exactly was being proposed, where the money would come from and so forth. I think what we heard today was a fairly moderate proposal. And it wasn’t so much a proposal; rather it was a proposal to make a proposal.

Matthews: Is that how you’d spend the $100 million, if you were taking charge here?

Mitra: $100 million seems like a lot of money, but the sequestration has taken billions out of the
fiscal year 2013 science budget, so there’s been a huge hit across the board on research funding. So there’s a question as to whether that sequestered science funding is going to be restored or not. One really hopes this will be the case. Otherwise there is going to be a big negative impact on all science research including neuroscience.

DM: What should we want out of a federal neuroscience agenda like this?

PM: If I were to put out one word that’s really critical, it’s integration. Brain research is fragmented, people tend to do their own things. An important reason is the complexity of the subject – one can spend an entire career investigating a particular detail. It may also be due to the competitive funding mechanisms, with people focusing on their own laboratories. With these real life constraints, how do you collaborate and integrate in practice? One way to do it is to understand, “What are the results that appeared in different fields for a particular overall scientific or medical goal?” I think integration is very important, therefore shared scientific goals are important. The tools should ideally follow rather than drive those goals.

Publius

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IMF: eliminate $1.9 Trillion in energy subsidies and fight climate change.

The easiest way to address our bourgeoning problem of global climate change, that is, according to this massive report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), is to make sure fossil fuels are priced the way they should be and no longer subsidized. The IMF estimates that the world collectively misprices fossil fuels to the tune of $1.9 trillion PER YEAR.

From the report:

While aimed at protecting consumers, (energy) subsidies aggravate fiscal imbalances, crowd-out priority public spending, and depress private investment, including in the energy sector. Subsidies also distort resource allocation by encouraging excessive energy consumption, artificially promoting capital-intensive industries, reducing incentives for investment in renewable energy, and accelerating the depletion of natural resources. Most subsidy benefits are captured by higher-income households, reinforcing inequality

The IMF claims that greenhouse gas emissions can be cut down by 13% (a huge number) by the elimination of these subsidies and the putting in their place appropriate measures. The plan would drastically improve air pollution and also provide poorer countries the means of dedicating these funds towards their growing debt concerns or infrastructure deficiencies.

Let’s take a look at some of the data found in the study to support the claim of mispricing, first in regards to Consumption:

The world (governments) spent roughly $480 billion to lower the price of petroleum, natural gas, coal, and electricity for their citizens last year.

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The argument from the IMF is this: these subsidies are doing nothing but keeping money from worthwhile public spending in these countries, while also hurting private investment in the energy sector. If just these direct subsidies were cut, emissions would fall about 2 percent.

The more important part of the study had to do with the other moneys, to the tune of $1.4 trillion a year, that the IMF categorizes as mispriced.

The IMF report argues that:

governments should be taxing fossil fuels appropriately in order to take account of the air pollution and climate damage they cause. Standard economic models peg these “externalities” at about $25 per ton of carbon dioxide. So, the failure to price these fossil fuels correctly amounts to a subsidy of some $1.4 trillion worldwide.

Once this is taken into account, the countries that subsidize fossil fuels most heavily are the United States ($502 billion per year), China ($279 billion per year), and Russia ($116 billion). Here’s how it breaks down by region:

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It’s one thing to prescribe a solution to the problem, but carrying it out isn’t going to be easy. The United States and Russia are very far from considering a carbon tax, while the Chinese government is mulling over an extremely modest and fragmented carbon-pricing scheme. What’s more, in poorer countries, scrapping these direct subsidies tends to be extremely contentious. But the IMF points out throughout the paper that the upmost concern should be how to operationalize these new truths without harming poorer countries and their citizens.

Publius

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The moral and ethical hazard of drones

John Kaag writes an interesting op-ed piece in the times about trying to reconcile philosophy with drone warfare. Here are some excerpts:

Warfare, unlike philosophy, could never be conducted from an armchair. Until now. For the first time in history, some soldiers have this in common with philosophers: they can do their jobs sitting down. They now have what I’ve always enjoyed, namely “leisure,” in the Hobbesian sense of the word, meaning they are not constantly afraid of being killed. Hobbes thought that there are certain not-so-obvious perks to leisure (not being killed is the obvious one). For one, you get to think. This is what he means when he says that “leisure is the mother of philosophy.” I tend to agree with Hobbes: only those who enjoy a certain amount of leisure can be philosophers.

on ethics:

Working one’s way through the complexities of “just war” and moral theory makes it perfectly clear that ethics is not about arriving easily at a single right answer, but rather coming to understand the profound difficulty of doing so. Experiencing this difficulty is what philosophers call existential responsibility. One of the jobs of philosophy, at least as I understand it, is neither to help people to avoid these difficulties nor to exaggerate them, but rather to face them in resolute and creative ways. In short, the job of philosophy is not to create existential crises, but to handle or work through existential responsibility.

And here is both Kaag and Kreps on the morality of drones – the entire piece is a rather interesting read:

What we find unsettling here is the idea that these facts could be confused for moral justification. Philosophers find this confusion particularly abhorrent and guard against it with the only weapon they have: a distinction. The “fact-value distinction” holds that statements of fact should never be confused with statements of value. More strongly put, this distinction means that statements of fact do not even imply statements of value. “Can” does not imply “ought.” To say that we can target individuals without incurring troop casualties does not imply that, we ought to.

– Publius

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