February 2013 Archives

Collisions

I stumbled across an article this evening on Twitter entitled, “Google Adopts the Language of Steve Jobs for New HQ” by Bryan Chaffin. Chaffin quotes a Vanity Fair piece about Google’s new Googleplex. One specific goal of the new building is to spur casual encounters, “to create opportunities for people to have ideas and be able to turn to others right there and say, ‘What do you think of this?’”

That sentiment sounded familiar to Chaffin. It’s precisely what Steve Jobs set out to do at the Pixar campus in Emeryville. From Walter Isaacson’s biography:

Jobs “had the Pixar building designed to promote encounters and unplanned collaborations.”

He did so by designing the building around a huge atrium that included all of the bathrooms (two large facilities for each sex), all of the mailboxes, the company’s cafĂ©, and the stairwell to get to any other part of the building. Even the screening theaters empty into this atrium, guaranteeing unplanned meetings.

“There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat,” Mr. Jobs said. “That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.”

He added, “If a building doesn’t encourage [encounters and unplanned collaborations], you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity. So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.”

I went to a workshop bright and early Saturday morning called “Supporting Data Science” that embodied this general thought, except at the level of the university, with its many scales of sacred silos. The meeting drew a varied group of academics, staff, and (a few) students from across the University who came together to discuss challenges and opportunities in working with “big” data (which, in the end, was decided to be any data bigger than you’re accustomed to working with. A little cheeky… and wholly true).

The group of folks who gave ‘lightning talks’ were impressive and included Josh Bloom, Charles Marshall, Henry Brady, Fernando Perez, Ion Stoica, Bin Yu, Cathryn Carson, Dave Dineen and Cyrus Afrasiab, Lee Fleming, and Marti Hearst. The whole thing was moderated and kept moving and interesting by Saul Perlmutter (yup!) and David Culler.

Brady’s comments, in retrospect, honed in on the same essential idea that Jobs shared with Isaacson. Brady discussed how, prior to the advent of personal computers, students and researchers would meet at mainframes, waiting in line to get access to the machine. During those long waits, they’d converse — true and fruitful cross-disciplinary conversation that spurred creativity and built strong bonds between researchers. He lamented the silo’d nature of the academy these days and, perhaps rightly, saw the cross-cutting nature of big data and the challenges associated with managing and interpreting it as a prime area to spur this kind of collaborative exploration moving forward.

C. Everett Koop (1916 - 2013)

C. Everett Koop — public health hero, activist, and the man who brought power and sway to the office of the Surgeon General — died at 96 today. Among his largest achievements were (1) speaking candidly about AIDS from a bully pulpit, from which he advocated condom use, prevention, and early sex education, despite his conservative Presbyterian beliefs; and (2) bringing the harms of smoking to the forefront nationally by comparing the habit to heroin and condemning it as “the greatest killer and producer of premature deaths” in the United States.

From the NYT:

As much as anyone, it was Dr. Koop who took the lead in trying to wean Americans off smoking, and he did so in imposing fashion. At a sturdy 6-foot-1, with his bushy gray biblical beard, Dr. Koop would appear before television cameras in the gold-braided dark-blue uniform of a vice admiral — the surgeon general’s official uniform, which he revived — and sternly warn of the terrible consequences of smoking.

“Smoking kills 300,000 Americans a year,” he said in one talk. “Smokers are 10 times more likely to develop lung cancer than nonsmokers, two times more likely to develop heart disease. Smoking a pack a day takes six years off a person’s life.”

When Dr. Koop took office, 33 percent of Americans smoked; when he left, the percentage had dropped to 26. By 1987, 40 states had restricted smoking in public places, 33 had prohibited it on public conveyances and 17 had banned it in offices and other work sites. More than 800 local antismoking ordinances had been passed, and the federal government had restricted smoking in 6,800 federal buildings. Antismoking campaigns by private groups like the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association had accelerated.

The New Yorker looked backed into their archives and pulled a nice profile written upon his retirement that highlights his work on AIDS.

In his frequent interviews with the press and in his reports to the public Dr. Koop insisted on using words that are considered taboo in much of the country—“condom,” “penis,” “rectal intercourse”—not to shock but, rather, to dispel the dark mystery that cloaked the AIDS epidemic. To Dr. Koop, there was nothing immoral about medical wisdom. By using those banned words, the Surgeon General accelerated the ongoing sexual education of America. He also alienated many of his supporters on the right: they accused him in the bitterest terms of abandoning his fundamentalist Christian convictions and promoting illicit sexual behavior. “I’m not the nation’s chaplain general—I’m the surgeon general,” Dr. Koop would counter. Meanwhile, liberals, including those on Capitol Hill who in 1981 had vehemently opposed his nomination, because of his impassioned stand against abortion and his reputation for moral fervor (Dr. Kook, they tagged him), took to hailing him as a new folk hero. But throughout this political firestorm Dr. Koop insisted that he was the same man: the same reverence for human life that had impelled him, as a distinguished surgeon at Philadelphia’s Children’s Hospital, to operate on horribly deformed infants no other doctors would go near now drove him to take bold measures against the spread of AIDS. Explicit safe-sex education for the general public, and care and protection for those stricken with the disease—these were the twin pillars of Dr. Koop’s public-health strategy.

Everyone in the US owes Koop their gratitude, especially those of us in public health. His writings and speeches are collected at NIH’s National Library of Medicine. Highly recommended.

And now this: Goats Yelling Like Humans

From kottke.org and our pal Pat:

Ella Chou: What Would China's Carbon Tax Regime Look Like

A thoughtful and insightful overview of the proposed carbon/environmental tax by Harvard graduate student Ella Chou. Some excerpts follow.

The first thing I want to clarify is that calling it a “carbon tax” would be a gross misnomer, because for a long time to come, the majority of the tax collected from this would still be from what used to be called “pollution discharge fees”, not from taxing carbon emissions.

The tax on carbon would in fact be puny. The Xinhua report noted that previous MOF expert suggestion for the carbon tax was 10 yuan (US $1.5) per ton of carbon dioxide in 2012, with gradual increase to 50 yuan ($7.9) per ton by 2020.

…[T]he tax on coal in China is merely 2-3 yuan (US $0.4) per ton, and 8 yuan (US $1.27) per ton for charred coal, even though the price of coal has increased to several hundreds of yuan per ton.

The point of a carbon tax, be in China or elsewhere, is to set the price signal straight. We tax income; we tax property; we tax goods and services — all the things we want more of, so wouldn’t it be logic to actually tax the thing we want less of: pollution?

I should note that the proportion of environmental tax in the overall revenue of any level of government would be tiny, as is the pollution discharge fee portion of the revenue mix now. Local governments would continue to come up ways to give industries tax rebates and subsidies to attract them to their own jurisdictions, so the effect of the environmental tax or the carbon tax on the industries would be negligible. Standardizing fees into a tax is a step in the right direction. China can use a price on carbon, and environmental issues in general, as a starting point to address the price distortions that are stifling its long-term growth.

Mississippi ratifies 13th amendment, finally

The Clarion Ledger, the daily newspaper out of Jackson, Mississippi, posted a story Saturday, February 17 that reads like something out of the Onion:

Historic oversight corrected: Film ‘Lincoln’ inspires look into slavery vote

This is, all jokes aside, a kind of amazing story. Two non-politicians — one a physician, one an “anatomical material specialist” — from University of Mississippi Medical Center acted to get the ratification officially passed.

After seeing Lincoln, the curious physician scoured the web to investigate the progression of states ratifying the amendment. From the article:

… there was an asterisk beside Mississippi. A note read: “Mississippi ratified the amendment in 1995, but because the state never officially notified the US Archivist, the ratification is not official.”

The initial resolution went to the state’s senate and house in 1995, which still seems absurdly late. Regardless, the resolution passed back then, but was never formally filed with the Office of the Federal Register. That ‘oversight’ was formally resolved on February 7th.

Visualizing US Gun Killings in 2010

An impressive visualization created by Periscopic using public data. They calculated counterfactual stories for each of the individuals killed by gun violence, offering an alternate likely cause of death had they not been killed. Their description of their methods:

Our data comes from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, which include voluntarily-reported data from police precincts across the country. In 2007, according to the FBI, law enforcement agencies active in the UCR Program represented more than 285 million US inhabitants—94.6% of the total population. This special dataset is at the raw, or incident, level—containing details of each person who was killed, including their age, gender, race, relationship to killer, and more.

For the gray lines, we calculated alternate stories for the people killed with guns using data from the World Health Organization. To calculate an alternate story, we first performed an age prediction weighted according to the age distribution of US deaths. Using this age, we then predicted a likely cause of death at that age. We do not adjust for life-expectancy differences between demographic groups, as we have not yet found data to that extent. We used data from 2005, the most recent year available.

Traditional cooking and household energy use in the Library of Congress online archives

In the past few weeks, a lot of people have been mining the LoC photo databases for images of public works posters, images of cities early in their development, etc. The archive is outstanding and a lot of the pictures, negatives, schematics, and drawings are available online in multiple resolutions.

I ran some searches for household energy, hearths, cooking fire, cooking stoves, etc and found a number of fascinating results. Many of the pictures from the US were not available online yet - in particular, two libraries of “cooking technologies” from the 1920s and 1930s weren’t around. I’m working on getting access to those through some data request channels. A few that were accessible are below. The majority are from Sikkim and were taken by Alice Kandell between 1965 and 1971. The large one above is supposedly from Jerusalem and was taken between 1900-1920. The seventh one below is from 1908 in Paterna, Spain.

Clearly a wealth of interesting historical information in the archives. Looking forward to further explorations.

Climate Change in Obama's 2013 State of the Union

Strong words from President Obama on climate change during his 2013 State of the Union Address

But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change. Yes, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods - all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science - and act before it’s too late.

The good news is, we can make meaningful progress on this issue while driving strong economic growth. I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.

Four years ago, other countries dominated the clean energy market and the jobs that came with it. We’ve begun to change that. Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America. So let’s generate even more. Solar energy gets cheaper by the year - so let’s drive costs down even further. As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we.

In the meantime, the natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence. That’s why my Administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits. But I also want to work with this Congress to encourage the research and technology that helps natural gas burn even cleaner and protects our air and water.

Indeed, much of our new-found energy is drawn from lands and waters that we, the public, own together. So tonight, I propose we use some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good. If a non-partisan coalition of CEOs and retired generals and admirals can get behind this idea, then so can we. Let’s take their advice and free our families and businesses from the painful spikes in gas prices we’ve put up with for far too long. I’m also issuing a new goal for America: let’s cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next twenty years. The states with the best ideas to create jobs and lower energy bills by constructing more efficient buildings will receive federal support to help make it happen.

Wind industry installs almost 5,300 MW of capacity in December

Today in Energy:

Approximately 40% of the total 2012 wind capacity additions (12,620 MW) came online in December, just before the scheduled expiration of the wind production tax credit (PTC). During December 2012, 59 new wind projects totaling 5,253 MW began commercial operation, the largest-ever single-month capacity increase for U.S. wind energy. About 50% of the total December wind capacity additions were installed in three states: Texas (1,120MW), Oklahoma (794 MW), and California (730 MW)…

Wind generators provided the largest share of additions to total U.S. electric generation capacity in 2012, just as it did in 2008 and 2009. The 2012 addition of 12,620 MW is the highest annual wind capacity installment ever reported to EIA. Wind capacity additions accounted for more than 45% of total 2012 capacity additions and exceeded capacity additions from any other fuel source, including natural gas (which led capacity additions in 2000-07, 2010, and 2011).

EPA Releases its "Climate Change Adaptation Plan"

We live in a world in which the climate is changing. Changes in climate have occurred since the formation of the planet. But humans are now influencing Earth’s climate and causing it to change in unprecedented ways.

It is in this rapidly changing world that EPA is working to fulfill its mission to protect human health and the environment. Many of the outcomes EPA is working to attain (e.g., clean air, safe drinking water) are sensitive to changes in weather and climate. Until now, EPA has been able to assume that climate is relatively stable and future climate will mirror past climate. However, with climate changing more rapidly than society has experienced in the past, the past is no longer a good predictor of the future. Climate change is posing new challenges to EPA’s ability to fulfill its mission.

David Miller: Global Justice and Climate Change: How Should Responsibilities Be Distributed?

Earlier today, I was looking for a Tanner lecture about climate change. I didn’t find the one I was looking for — but came across an equally intriguing one. I’ve just started working through it, but recommend it. The written version offers Miller’s take on a philosopher’s role in the climate change conversation. Early on, he offers a compelling take:

My aim here is not to answer all of the philosophical questions about climate change. I am simply going to assume, in particular, that if we continue to pump greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and methane especially) into the atmosphere at the rate we are now doing, we will inflict serious harm on many human beings, harm that we have a basic ethical obligation to avoid. It is known that the damaging effects of global warming will be quite unevenly distributed across societies. The broad picture is that it will hit hardest those societies that are currently poor and already most vulnerable to natural disasters such as drought and flood. This is partly a matter of simple geography, and partly a result of the fact that these societies have fewer resources with which to combat the effects of global warming—for example, by erecting defenses against rising sea levels. The effects on human beings in those societies will be severe—they will starve as food production dwindles, fall prey to waterborne diseases, and so forth. If we do nothing to prevent this from happening, we can properly be charged with violating their human rights—not directly, as happens when we intend death and injury by waging war, but indirectly by virtue of failing to act when we had the opportunity to do so.

Bill Murray in GQ and at the Pebble Beach Celebrity Golf Tournament

Bill Murray’s been in the news a bit the last few weeks. First, he was featured in GQ’s January 2013 issue (excerpted below). More recently, he participated in the Pebble Beach Nation Pro-Am celebrity golf tournament, in which he was rocking some outstanding facial hair, making angels in bunker sand, and getting patted on the arse by Kenny G.

From GQ:

… He talks about the original reason for the trip, where he went first: to see the recently completed FDR Four Freedoms memorial, located on the tip of the island (where, he mentions, an unfilmed scene in Ghostbusters was meant to be set). He had seen a documentary about the project on PBS and, having recently channeled the president, decided to take his sons and their friends for a look.

“It was designed by Louis Kahn, and it’s got some moves,” he says, flipping through photos on his phone and shaking his head, impressed. “This is what they call The Room,” he says, passing the phone. “There’s six-by-six-by-twelve-foot granite blocks with a tiny bit of space between them that’s polished on the inside, so the light actually kicks through the whole thing. The Room is pretty boss.”

The only problem was that the memorial was in the final stages of construction and not yet open, so they crept around the edges, looking for a way in. A perfect setup for a little of that Murray magic.

“I waved to the people driving in and out in their itty-bitty cars, and eventually I saw one of the guys walking back, saying, ‘They said you were out here.’ ” Murray seems suddenly sheepish, as if hearing how it sounds: just another celebrity getting through doors on the strength of his face—not with wit and charm and guile, not with sand.

“It wasn’t like they were like, ‘Hey, you’re the guy from What About Bob?’ or anything. One guy didn’t speak very much English, and they obviously weren’t really movie buffs…,” he says, rubbing those legs gingerly. A mere guard, he’ll have you know, is still no match for the power of the Murricane. He’d have made it through the gate.

“I had that,” he says with perfect confidence. “If I had a little more time, I could have gotten it done.”

EPA: Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Large Facilities

A cool tool for visualizing large GHG emitters in the US.

Through EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, facilities that emit 25,000 metric tons or more per year of GHGs are required to annually report their GHG emissions to EPA. The facilities are known as direct emitters. The data reported by direct emitters provides a “bottom-up” accounting of the major sources of GHG emissions associated with stationary fuel combustion and industrial processes. Well over half of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are accounted for in this facility level data set, including nearly complete coverage of major emitting sectors such as power plants and refineries.

The Drive Back from Bear Valley

Last weekend, the Lovehardsteins, ChAriel, Beth and I went to Bear Valley for a weekend of skiing, hot tubs, and some fantastic team cooking led by Ben. I x-country skied, but that’s a story for… never. On the drive back, we encountered a lot of outstanding randomness, including the following:

1) a large number of cows, walking in a straight line, down a path, despite huge swaths of trodable land surrounding them;

2) a boy on a dirt bike, racing parallel to us, in a field;

3) some very, very large birds;

4) a murmuration.

Today, kottke.org coincidentally featured a cool video about murmuration (posted below).

Divestment in San Francisco

From a 350.org press release:

This Tuesday, February 5, San Francisco District 11 Supervisor John Avalos will introduce a resolution urging the Retirement Board of the San Francisco Employee’s Retirement System (SFERS) to divest from the 200 corporations that hold the majority of the world’s fossil fuel reserves.

“San Francisco has aggressive goals to address climate change,” said Supervisor John Avalos. “It’s important that we apply these same values when we decide how to invest our funds, so we can limit our financial contributions to fossil fuels and instead promote renewable alternatives.”

If the resolution is approved by the Board of Supervisors, San Francisco would become the second city in the nation to pursue fossil fuel divestment. This December, the Mayor of Seattle pledged to keep city funds out of the fossil fuel industry and urged the city’s pension funds to consider divestment. Avalos is also introducing a resolution today to push SFERS to divest from arms manufacturers.

Flying over tulip fields

Normann Szkop, a French photographer, took some amazing photographs of Tulips in the Netherlands. See them all at this Flickr page.

Flying over the Tulips Fields in Anna Paulowna a municipality and a town in the Netherlands, in the province of North Holland. The tulip has come to be a loved symbol of the Netherlands. Many tourists visit the country just to see the bright coloured flower and the astonishing view over the bulb fields. The season begins in March with crocuses, followed by the daffodil and the yellow narcissi. In April the hyacinths and tulips blosssom to some time in mid May, depending on the weather. Later, in August it is time for the gladioli. Even when spring is over, the Netherlands is still a garden, visitors can enjoy flowers in the Netherlands all year round. In the 20th century, the bulb flower business continued to boom, resulting in the establishment of auction and trading houses, large-scale cultivators and cooperatives. Today, The Netherlands exports bulbflowers in large quantities to over a hundred countries worldwide.

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