Sunday, April 27, 2014

Missing the Tree for the Forest

I'll share another photo I took today, of one of the more amazing trees I can ever recall seeing. It's an old Japanese cedar tree (sugi, or Cryptomeria).

On the right is the main trunk, about seven feet in diameter. On the left is what appears to be a second tree, growing out of the branch of the main tree. Broken roots can clearly be seen hanging down from the daughter tree. I've never seen something like this, and am at a loss to explain it, as sugi do not sucker and even if they did, some really bizarre landslide would be required to suspend a tree over a twenty-foot cliff.

What was disappointing to me, however, was that as I sat there and ate my lunch exactly from the vantage point of that picture, around two hundred Japanese passed me by in their way up or down the mountain. Not one noticed this. Instead, they were all looking at some tiny little natural spring off to the left of the picture. Why? Because there was a sign there that gave a name to the spring, and if there is a sign, it must be important. No one bothered to look up and see what really matters.

The Price of Cheap

The image below was taken on a fine spring day without a cloud in the sky, from Mt Tsukuba, which lies north of Tokyo. What do you see? Or more specifically, what do you not see?

What you do not see is Tokyo. Or Mt Fuji. Or really anything more than about five miles away.  What is that nasty haze in the picture?

It's the price of your cheap Walmart junk from China. It's the price of cheap coal-powered electricity. It's what causes 200,000 Americans to die prematurely every year. No, that is not a typo. It's what made me hack up my lungs every day the winter before last and made me so weak I could barely climb stairs. It ruins beautiful days, forces people to hide indoors or behind masks, and coats everything in a layer of grime.

Fossil fuels are not cheap. Rather, their costs just land on everyone, rather than appearing on your electric bill or at the pump. Never let anyone get away with claiming otherwise.

PS: The saddest thing I observed today? How many Japanese refer to this as "kumotte-iru", which literally means "cloudy". It's gotten to the point that they don't even seem to realize that this is unnatural.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Game of Thrones Mind Games

Spoiler free (essentially) for TV-only fans

Joffrey is dead. But does it really matter who killed him? Of course we book fans know who killed him, right? The books eventually did reveal the culprit, but is there any reason that Martin and directors Benioff and Weiss are bound to the having the same murderer? A whole host of people had reason and opportunity to kill Joffrey. TV-fans' leading candidates are (in order of appearance)

Peter Baelish - in order to foster chaos from within he can seize more power
Tywin Lannister - in order to install the more pliable Tommen as king
Olenna Tyrell - in order to protect her grand-daughter from the monster Joffrey
Oberyn Martell - because he hates Lannisters and he ain't called the "Red Viper" for nothing

with other people speculating Sansa, Margaery, Tyrion (yeah, him!), and even Cersei. Among them, would it actually matter who did it? The future plot of the books is not driven by who did it, but who believes what about who did what.  As far as I can tell, Martin, Benioff and Weiss are completely free to play a huge switcheroo on book fans and make us eat some crow when our book-smugness backfires on us by having a different killer on TV vs the books.

So here is to hoping that Martin plays us book fans like this. It would be a great way of emphasizing the Littlefinger/Varys debates about the nature of power and truth - that they lie where people think they lie - and would just be a plain old fun way for Martin to surprise us yet again.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Republicans *** Heart *** Taxes...

Republicans do love taxes...when they are slapped on the wind and solar industry. Legislators in Oklahoma, citing "fairness" and a "free-rider" problem, have decided to slap grid-connected solar or wind powered homes with a monthly fee to cover theoretical costs these users place on the grid. While the precise fee hasn't be determined yet, Arizona has a $5/month fee based on a similar logic, or about half a penny per kilowatt hour for a typical household.

Now, one might be able to argue that these fees are justified, but it is not completely clear that the free-rider problem actually exists, especially in the case of solar, which reduces peak demand and therefore the amount of infrastructure needed to handle it. However, even if it is the case where renewably-powered homes place usual burdens on the grid and thus would be free-riding if they didn't pay for it, their competition has free-rider issues that are an order of magnitude larger or more, 14 to 35 cents per kilowatt hour according to a recent study.

It is all but impossible to justify this discrepancy. If free-rider problems are something that deserves government intervention, then the government should be focusing on the big ones tied to entrenched incumbents, not tiny ones by their competitors. The fact that Oklahoma Republicans decided to attack the wind and solar industries while letting fossil fuel industry get away with relative murder can only be explained by petty partisanship, regulatory capture, or both. None of these explanations reflects well on their abilities as our representatives. It is as if they are prosecuting shoplifters at the behest of the mafia.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Giving Game

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I am taking Professor Peter Singer's "Practical Ethics" course via Coursera, and am enjoying it immensely. This week, I got a special acknowledgement by Professor Singer on the course page which I am pretty excited about. What happened?

Last week's theme was the "Giving Game". An anonymous donor had giving the Coursera group $10,000 to divide up among four charities - Population Services International, Cool Earth, Give Directly, and the Wikimedia Foundation - in the manner we mutually decided was best. The point of the week's classes and assignments was to understand the best way to divide the money. Since all four are top-notch charities in their areas, this is a tough decision to make. The "Giving Game" doesn't end for another week, so I can't tell you who wins.

So what was my role in this? Well, as soon as I saw the week's theme, it came to mind that donating someone else's money wasn't perfectly in line with the theme of the course. So I started a message thread where I pledged to donate an (admittedly modest) sum to whichever charity(s) won the "Giving Game". The feedback from other students has been substantial and my little pot multiplied many-fold. The class may well surpass the very generous sum provided by the anonymous donor!

In any case, it feels pretty good to have started something that turned out so well, and to be recognized by a pretty famous intellectual. I hope my little string of fortune inspires my friends and readers to check out the four charities above. They really are best-in-class. If you have $10 or $100 or more to spare, please consider giving what you can.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Conservative bias in the media

I've always found the claim that the "mainstream" media is biased to be absurdly off the mark. In fact, it is just the opposite, with the mainstream media continually producing "balanced" pieces that select equal numbers of examples from both sides regardless of the actual number of each (for example, climate science experts), and often entirely ignoring the progressive political wing. If you need an overwhelming example of the latter, just compare the attention that Paul Ryan's annual budget proposals receive relative to those put forth by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which consists mainly of the more liberal third of the Democratic House delegation. According to a simple Google search, Ryan's budget has about 650 times as many hits as the CPC's "The Peoples' Budget", and even several times the 25 million hits one gets for "President's budget". Clearly, in this matter, the Republican budget proposal gets far, far more attention than those produced by the progressive wing, and even several times more than the formal and very centrist compromise budget put forth by the president himself! Admittedly, some of that attention is deservedly negative, but politically the ensuing conversation is a substantial net positive for Republicans.

What could possibly be the explanation for the vast discrepancy in media attention? It is certainly not because the Ryan budget is more realistic. If adopted, it would be by far the most right-wing budget of any advanced nation, and is unprecedented on many levels. It is also a complete fantasy in terms of how it works, with budget balance only achieved through heroic growth assumptions, budgetary gimmicks, and enormous cuts to anti-poverty programs and domestic spending that are both cruel, stupid, and unfair. Indeed, the poor would bear some 69% or more of the budget balancing directly. In contrast, the CPC's budget is very European-like in terms of spending and taxation, spreads the pain around evenly, and balances the budget in a reasonable time frame under realistic assumptions. The President's budget would actually be considered quite conservative by world standards and while failing to achieve budgetary balance, is realistic with respect to what is actually politically possible.

So the media in this case is clearly ignoring the actual left entirely, lionizing the right wing, and putting up a milquetoast centrist compromise as the left pole. This obviously distorts the debate and continually drags it to the right - something completely inconsistent with the theory that the mainstream media is liberally biased.