Wednesday, October 31, 2007

What the Hell -- Heck Are We Talking About Here?

Kudos to Kucinich, Richardson, and Biden for having a sense of humor. What is it going to take to get Matthews and Russert fired, for being humorless jerks? (Less Russert than Matthews, but...)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Happiness Is...

An article from the New York Times a few weeks ago, about a growing gap in "happiness" between men and women, caught my eye. An excerpt:
Alan Krueger, a Princeton economist working with four psychologists on the time-use research team, figures that there is a simple explanation for the difference. For a woman, time with her parents often resembles work, whether it’s helping them pay bills or plan a family gathering. “For men, it tends to be sitting on the sofa and watching football with their dad,” said Mr. Krueger, who, when not crunching data, enjoys watching the New York Giants with his father.

This intriguing — if unsettling — finding is part of a larger story: there appears to be a growing happiness gap between men and women.

Two new research papers, using very different methods, have both come to this conclusion. Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, economists at the University of Pennsylvania (and a couple), have looked at the traditional happiness data, in which people are simply asked how satisfied they are with their overall lives. In the early 1970s, women reported being slightly happier than men. Today, the two have switched places.

Mr. Krueger, analyzing time-use studies over the last four decades, has found an even starker pattern. Since the 1960s, men have gradually cut back on activities they find unpleasant. They now work less and relax more.

Over the same span, women have replaced housework with paid work — and, as a result, are spending almost as much time doing things they don’t enjoy as in the past. Forty years ago, a typical woman spent about 23 hours a week in an activity considered unpleasant, or 40 more minutes than a typical man. Today, with men working less, the gap is 90 minutes.

I don't have much to say about the article itself, except that I found in generally interesting and I thought it rendered the challenges of achieving happiness a little too simplistically (not in a deeply philosophical sense, but in terms of achieving basic life goals, and as expressed through the necessary activities that men and women need to do). But the article did re-raise an interesting question that I had thought about in the past, although not much recently.

How can we measure happiness, and how can we make it useful as a way to make choices, and measure the impact of those choices? Can we make happiness a useful notion both for guiding personal decisions as well as political decisions? Or is it to subjective and ephemeral a notion?

Darren McMahon's Happiness: A History, a philosophical and historical investigation into what happiness means is an interesting launching point for this discussion, but one which I will avoid (see this brief review) except for a) recommending his book, and b) citing it as a reference for the otherwise obvious point that 'happiness' as a defining goal of human existence has been important through all of documented history, pretty much, although the relative meaning and importance of 'happiness' has not been held constant.

More recently, two attempts to measure happines, at varying degrees of quantitative precision, for use as a high-level indicator of human progress are interesting and worth checking out. I'll link only to the basic resources, and may revisit this topic in the future. But in the meantime, check out the Gross National Happiness indicator, put forth by the strange and progressive kingdom of Bhutan as an alterntive understanding of how a society is progressing, and the more economically viable Genuine Progress Indicator, created as an alternative to GNP which tries to properly value economic externalities (like environmental impacts) and 'negative' wealth (like the economic activity created by crime or ill health [think insurance company premiums increasing]). See also the World Database of Happiness, which I'm still trying to figure out, and a dense white paper from the OECD on the use of happiness as a political/policy metric of value. And perhaps another post to follow.

Photos from a Flickr search for 'happiness.' (Although you might get the impression that happiness is disproportionately the province of children...)

Supply and Demand: Energy and Food Policy

A few weeks ago, I went to a lecture arranged by the Stanford alumni association by Professors Roz Naylor and David Victor at NYU. Professor Naylor, who I studied with briefly, is an economist who has long focused on food economics and other issues inter-relating environmental and developmental policy, and Professor Victor, whom I did not cross paths with at Stanford, is a law professor focused on energy policy. The lecture was good, although brief and, as such, handled some very complex issues very simply. A few modest comments that have been kicking around in the back of my head for the past few weeks:

- Professor Victor made an interesting comment in response to a question about whether small-scale "clean energy" solutions constitute an effective energy policy. Specifically, the question seemed tied to a lot of success stories coming out of India and China where distributed energy producers (like local solar-powered batteries are loaned out at the village-level) are emerging to meet the burgeoning energy demand that is occurring in areas not well served by existing energy grids. The substance of Professor Victor's comments was that while such trends were interesting, distributed/point solutions to supplying energy would simply never scale -- and therefore, couldn't be a central part of a sustainable energy policy. He suggested, as I understood, focusing on large capacity production that could be made "cleaner," including nuclear, natural gas, and the cleaner forms of coal burning. While I agree that the magnitude of our energy problems require large scale solutions, I am always curious at how quickly distributed solutions are dismissed as being a component of an overall policy solution. Unfortunately, the session was too abbreviated to really push the issue.

- Professor Naylor forced me to an interesting, if unintended, connection between food policy and energy policy. I'm still sorting the thinking out on this, but it basically works like this:

1. We are confronting a supply problem in the world energy markets. The increasing demand for energy, driven by growing economies and growing populations, can not be met by our current, known energy production capacities. We need to innovate on the ability of the world economy to deliver energy (and when you tie in climate policy, clean energy) to the marketplace.

2. In the 1940s and 1950s, the world confronted a supply problem in food markets. Population growth created greater demand for food than was immediately available. Investments were made in food technology, specifically fostering the Green Revolution. The Green Revolution was successful in increasing world food supply, which, in turn, certainly staved off a lot of human destitution. However, simply addressing the supply problem did not address the challenge of world hunger. Massive logistical problems, failure of political will and infrastructure (notably, corrupt/incompetent third-world governments failing to deliver on food aid provided by incompetent/corrupt multinational aid and relief agencies, including UN and GATT), failures in wealth distribution to the poorest segments of economies, and disproportionate population growth at the bottom of the demographic pyramids (from both an income and a poverty level) thwarted a purely supply-side solution to the food problem.

So, the question I have, with this history of food policy behind us, is why do we continue to think of the energy problem as strictly a supply issue?

Not that I have a pat answer to this question, but the inability of the political, economic, and academic leaders to address either the demand side of the equation or the equality issues bound up in how resources get consumed fails to take our analyses of these problems off charts and graphs and into the human dimensions of the real world.

Still, a very compelling talk, with a lot of interesting issues to follow up on.

An Inconvenient Truth

I finally got around to watching An Inconvenient Truth on DVD the other night. Overall, I thought the movie was quite good - although I find Al Gore to be a trying representative for the issue (particularly as the face/voice who is used to personalize the issue), even while I recognize that as a political champion of climate change, he has done an outstanding and tireless job. I should also add that I think he is dead right on the issue, and represents the science, the politics, and the moral imperatives of the debate extremely well. That said, a few further comments on the film, and a few related articles that have recently caught my eye:

- I thought An Inconvenient Truth conveyed various facets of the very complex and staggeringly large-scale issue of climate change extremely well. I was pleased at how well, in general, the film did in representing the science of climate change, including the core physics of how greenhouse gases work, the methods, data, and conclusions of long-term observation of key indicators of climate change (primarily temperature and atmospheric CO2 levels), and the relationship between human behavior and greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, I thought the film struck the right balance between scientifically-grounded projection of the impacts of climate change and sensationalism when trying to illustrate what the consequences might be in human and visual terms (ice shelves dissipating, threats to polar wildlife, shifts in local weather patterns, increased frequency and intensity of catastrophic weather events, etc.).

- In framing the question of political will (particularly, in America), I thought the movie was effective at illustrating the human consequences of climate change, drawing analogies to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, presenting time-lapse projections of Lower Manhattan, invoking the impact on sub-Saharan Africa and tying in geo-political and humanitarian tragedies that will be second-order impacts, like Darfur. I also thought that the movie did a good job explaining the non-linear nature of climate change. The shift in understanding of the impact of climate change from higher temperatures, rising sea levels, and melting ice caps to increased incidence of catastrophic natural disasters, increased intensity of resource-driven human conflict, and the potential for massive human casualty is the only way to really drive home the moral dimensions of this issue that will confront us in the coming generations.

- Acknowledging the disproportionate impact that America, specifically, has in creating and failing to address climate change (thus far) was a necessary angle, and one the film did well. Calling out the lack of political will and the need for political and moral leadership on this issue may bask Al Gore in a kind light, but it is also absolutely necessary.

- By communicating the economic opportunity and loss of competitive and technology advantage created by the obstinacy of our political and business leaders on tackling energy efficiency as core priorities of economic policy and business innovation helps to frame the economic debate that is inextricable from climate change in the proper terms.

- I thought Al Gore did a particularly good job of aligning the political choice of taking meaningful action to address climate change, by individual Americans, as well as by America as a whole, with the legacy and self-image America has of making heroic political choices, from the founding of the nation, to the abolition of slavery, through the confrontations with fascism and totalitarianism in World War II and the Cold War. As a political narrative, I think this is the strongest positioning of the climate change issue that can be broadly understood and supported by the country, at large.

My few quibbles with the movie:

- While the movie represented the science of climate change well, it also managed simultaneously to undermine the seriousness of the analytics by presenting baffling and simplistic cartoons immediately after two of the more compelling scientific segments. I don't know if this was a direction necessitated by making the movie accessible to a young audience, but it struck me as doing a dis-service to the science in the rest of the movie.

- The closing credits of the movie highlighted choices and actions available to individuals to change their behavior to positively impact climate change, although they were strangely muted, both in the credits and on the movie's website (which has a disappointing focus on self-promotion equal to education and advocacy...) What continually shocks me is how the movie, and Gore, while very clearly calling climate change a moral issue, refuse to focus the responsibility of every individual in contributing to this crisis, and the need for, yes, sacrifice. If people really believe that climate change will be a global crisis of the magnitude being described, than it is disappointing that so many advocates seem comfortable leaving their audiences with the impression that this is a crisis that can be addressed by changing your lightbulbs, weather-proofing your windows, and sending an email to your Senators and Representatives.

Tackling the question of material sacrifice, understanding that we may have to engage in less freedom to travel, to buy big houses and big cars, consume lots of things, is the hardest question in helping us to address our environmental problems. With the exception of a handful of people with a deep faith in technology innovation to address climate and sustainability issues, I don't know anybody who has thought deeply about these issues who believes that individual consumer behavior in America (now being replicated throughout the world, whenever economically possible) can continue on pace without increasing the stress on the Earth's environmental systems.

An Inconvenient Truth was a useful movie, but I remain skeptical that the necessary changes in behavior (and, consequently, political and market dynamics) can be invoked in America until a line connecting the human consequences of climate change to the fundamental lifestyle choices made by individuals. It's a difficult question, surely, but one that cannot be left by the wayside in an attempt to assure everybody that, although everything is not all right, everything will be all right.

A couple of recent articles related to climate change that bear comment:

- Salon summarizes a spate of articles in the wake of the San Diego wildfires that try to use the fires as an illustration of the consequences of climate change, even though the ability to link such specific local tragedies to an issue like climate change is quite difficult:
Fire, flood, drought, hurricanes: In a world where climate change is predicted to usher in an era of extreme weather events, the temptation for impatient activists to treat each new unsettling outburst of Mother Nature as proof that the end is no longer nigh, but busting in the door, is irresistible.

For some crusaders, giving in to that sensationalist urge isn't just a guilty pleasure, but a strategic necessity, a way of evening up the rhetorical playing field. For example, writing in Grist, Glenn Hurowitz urges urges environmentalists not to be shy in exploiting the Southern California wildfires. The right wing, he notes, rarely demonstrates any compunctions about taking advantage of disaster to score political points. Case in point:'s Steven Milloy is already asserting that timber-management practices, i.e., restrictions on logging, are to blame for the loss of thousands of homes in Southern California.
A good idea, to seize upon this very emotional and current news item as a means for talking about a pressing, but long-term and abstract issue like climate change? I'm not sure, particularly given how important it is to establish beyond impeachment the scientific credentials of climate change within the political consciousness of the country, but we'll surely see if it works or backfires.

- An almost impossibly simplistic and mis-guided back-and-forth between Steven Landsburg and Joe Romm on the economic decision-making that might influence climate change policy on So many poor arguments, I'm not sure where to begin.

With Landsburg's original article, I actually agree with his premise and believe that it is important: a central question in how we view our options with respect to climate change is how much a person values their own right to certain material privileges versus the right of any other person (whether an abstract future person or an abstract person living in a 3rd world country right now) to life, health, a basic standard of living, and opportunity in life. It's often incredible to me how few people who study economics in the context of either environmental or social externalities understand this question. And Landsburg, having articulated the question, also clearly does not, either. His rhetorical framing of the trade-off occurring between you, now, and some stranger born 1000 years in the future fails to understand either the science or the moral dimensions of the climate change issue. His "modeling" of economic growth and the potential for "good" to come out of climate change demonstrates an understanding of economics that fails to leave the spreadsheet, dealing without insight into the uncertainty of economic growth (forget about growth necessarily bound to stability of ecological and economic conditions) or to the human consequence of massive upheavals and changes in the economy.

Romm, in his rebuttal, lands one great point, and then immediately undermines it. Romm is able to draw out the real concern of climate change - that it will have significant impact on human life and livelihoods within the span of one or two generations, and the uncertainty and magnitude of impact on human life is likely to escalate unless we can change the dynamics of our current carbon emissions patterns.. We probably aren't in a great position to change the immediate consequences, the damage is probably done. But without a very significant change in our carbon emissions and energy policy, we are likely to lose control of our ability to improve the chances of future generations to address and adapt to the consequences of climate change, as well as our own ability to manage the crises that will arise within the next fifty years. After making this point Romm inexplicably decides that the right way to frame climate change is by suggesting that we won't have to make changes to our lifestyles. Unfortunately, the equation here just doesn't map, unless you somehow believe that world population is going to magically stabilize, that new carbon-neutral technologies are going to materialize on large scales without a changed consumption pattern driving demand, and that the rest of the world is going to freeze their quality of lives at relatively lower level so we can preserve ours at a much higher level. Bullshit. I'm consistently confused whether this demonstrates a lack of understanding by the political leaders of this movement, or a calculation that the message of sacrifice won't sell, but unfortunately, without broaching that conversation, we don't change the political and economic dynamics necessary to face up to climate change.

If you recognize the magnitude and uncertainty of the human damage that a changing climate may create then you recognize the need to change fundamental behaviors in response.

Monday, October 22, 2007


As advertising embraces the absurd with greater fervor each day (or so it seems), will it also reach out to pathos? Can you predicate a successful advertising campaign on failure? Is the advertisement above about failure?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Recycling Is Stupid

A headline from a Businessweek article that caught my eye:

Green Guru Calls PC Recycling 'Stupid'

Should we hang the editor for mis-representing the article entirely, or give him a raise for getting me to read it? Salient excerpt:
Recycling IT equipment is "stupid" and should not be the top concern within a company's eco-agenda, according to an environmental expert.

Instead, companies should focus on finding kit that can be reused, with accessible parts that can be replaced easily, rather than recycled, according to a representative of the UK government's Envirowise project - which hands out free advice to businesses on green issues.
Rest of the article here.

The Left in The Middle East?

Quick question: can anybody point me to a good history of what happened to the left in the Middle East? I know it was a casualty of the geo-political struggles of the Cold War, at some level. But isn't a fundamental political issue we should be concerned with the fact that the poor and disenfranchised in the Middle East (or in the Islamic world, more broadly) have no one to speak for them but the Imams?

I Ran So Far Away

First, enjoy a light-hearted moment courtesy of SNL, before the copyright police make them take it down. Let it go, Richard D. James!

Next, a couple of random thoughts. KS is giving me a hard time about a previous post, so let me try to re-cast my thinking on this one:

In 2003, there were two trains of thought that I could follow on why it would make sense to invade Iraq. Again, let me iterate that I did not buy into either of these. But I could trace the arguments from end to end and understand how, for someone with a fundamentally different set of values and beliefs about how the world works (call it a more "optimistic" outlook), these arguments might lead you to believe that an invasion of Iraq was a viable enterprise which might achieve real strategic goals.

The first rationale was the Saddam is a Bad Man rationale - which bundled the threat of WMD, the state-sponsor of terrorism classification, and the Saddam is a murderer and a danger to his own people indictment into an argument that essentially boiled down to, Saddam is a Bad Man who may potentially be dangerous and we need to remove him at any cost. This argument half-embraced a moral/humanitarian-imperative for the war, and half a defensive/strategic rationale. Neither really stood up at the time (why not apply more diplomatic pressure? wasn't containment working?), but were arguments that could be embraced broadly, across party lines in the U.S., palatable by heads of states of foreign governments. It's the floppy rationale that Christopher Hitchens still so lamely props up.

The second rationale, which was rarely engaged at the level of public policy, was a new application of the Domino Theory. Basically, we had an opportunity to rationalize an invasion of Iraq, we believed it would be easy to win the invasion and maintain a peace. There was a willing population in Iraq who would work to build a stable, pluralistic state that would be enriched by oil revenues which would (conveniently) flow to the West. In essence, we were rolling the dice in hopes of achieving the dual strategic goals of securing access to one of our major energy sources and fundamentally changing the political dynamics of the Middle East. I think this approach was strategically flawed to begin with, but its a moot point, since we've undermined any strategic opportunity through botched tactics.

What concerns me about the recent posturing with respect to Iraq (by the current Bush administration, by the Republican front-runners, by the lack of ferocious disavowals by certain leading Democrats, by resonant comments by certain Western European leaders) is that neither of the rationales provided above, nor any other discernible rationale, warrants a military engagement with Iran (or anybody else). War has not been effective in disrupting terrorist activities, not from the perspective of diminishing the consequence of terrorism on Western lives (in the sense of dying), not from the perspective of making our lives less full of terror (in the sense of being paranoid), not in winning hearts and minds of future terrorists or non-terrorists, not even in disrupting the flow and organization of terrorist networks. War has not been effective in changing the short-term or long-term political dynamics in the Middle East. So what rationale could such a large collection of people have in posing such a fundamentally unsound strategy?

What I reject, and to short-circuit KS's reply, is that this is driven by the power and greed of a handful of cronies. I don't think this explains the behavior of such a wide swath of people engaging in this debate, and if it does, then either all people in power or corrupt, or the corrupt people have so much power that it makes any concern or action about the issue irrelevant. So we'll just walk past that particular argument.

What concerns me more is a deeper line of thinking that basically says the population growth of Islam, both in terms of international demographics, as well as within many western countries, is an alarming force that we (leaders of Western countries) are in no position to stop. There is nothing within the fundamentally pluralist/capitalist view of the world that would allow us to squelch this growth. Moreover, Islam is fundamentally incompatible with our pluralist/capitalist view of the world. This is why, even though we are worried about the demographic shifts posed by India, China, and Latin America, we are not worried as concerned about those trends -- India, China, and Latin America have proven that they can embrace a pluralist/capitalist view of the world. We can work with those people. We can compete with those people on common terms.

So the issue here isn't racism, per se, or even a religious conflict, in terms of Christianity vs. Islam. But what it also isn't is a narrow war on terrorism, or on radicalized Islam. It is an effort to fundamentally destabilize any strong or coherent Islamic identity -- because if we cannot slow the rate of growth of Islamic populations, perhaps we can weaken the influence of Islam over those populations.

That's my crack-pot theory.

But it maybe explains nutty commercials like this one from the Romney campaign, which purposefully and cravenly conflates varying aspects of Islam -- setting the table for a us vs. them conversation not far off in our political future.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Fear of A Muslim World?

From Flickr user Luke Robinson

I read Seymour Hersh's October 8th story in the New Yorker warning of an ascending view within the Bush Administration that a confrontation with Iran is a possible, even necessary, strategic initiative. An excerpt:
In a series of public statements in recent months, President Bush and members of his Administration have redefined the war in Iraq, to an increasing degree, as a strategic battle between the United States and Iran. “Shia extremists, backed by Iran, are training Iraqis to carry out attacks on our forces and the Iraqi people,” Bush told the national convention of the American Legion in August. “The attacks on our bases and our troops by Iranian-supplied munitions have increased. . . . The Iranian regime must halt these actions. And, until it does, I will take actions necessary to protect our troops.” He then concluded, to applause, “I have authorized our military commanders in Iraq to confront Tehran’s murderous activities.”

The President’s position, and its corollary—that, if many of America’s problems in Iraq are the responsibility of Tehran, then the solution to them is to confront the Iranians—have taken firm hold in the Administration. This summer, the White House, pushed by the office of Vice-President Dick Cheney, requested that the Joint Chiefs of Staff redraw long-standing plans for a possible attack on Iran, according to former officials and government consultants. The focus of the plans had been a broad bombing attack, with targets including Iran’s known and suspected nuclear facilities and other military and infrastructure sites. Now the emphasis is on “surgical” strikes on Revolutionary Guard Corps facilities in Tehran and elsewhere, which, the Administration claims, have been the source of attacks on Americans in Iraq. What had been presented primarily as a counter-proliferation mission has been reconceived as counterterrorism.

The shift in targeting reflects three developments. First, the President and his senior advisers have concluded that their campaign to convince the American public that Iran poses an imminent nuclear threat has failed (unlike a similar campaign before the Iraq war), and that as a result there is not enough popular support for a major bombing campaign. The second development is that the White House has come to terms, in private, with the general consensus of the American intelligence community that Iran is at least five years away from obtaining a bomb. And, finally, there has been a growing recognition in Washington and throughout the Middle East that Iran is emerging as the geopolitical winner of the war in Iraq.
There is no level at which I understand such a set of actions as being a good idea, and at a personal level, if America were to act out against Iran without material provocation, I believe that I would have to leave the country, as the government's behavior, and our complicity in its acts, do not reflect any value or ideal that I cherish about America.

I say this as someone who, in 2003, could at least intellectually rationalize the invasion of Iraq as a massive geo-political gambit - one that has clearly failed. Not that I ever supported or believed in the war -- I thought it was wrong to begin with. But the "domino theory" at play in the build-up to the war, however divorced from reality, could, at least, be sophistically pursued to a logical end.

Not so any action against Iraq. We are militarily incapable of sustaining an engagement with Iran, and more so, I would expect opening a second front for our current armed forces might materially impact our capacity for preserving our national security (of course, I'm not expert in this). Strategically, attacking Iran will do nothing to dismantle the terrorist networks who may actually act out through violence in the short term. In the long term, entering a conflict with Iran will only reaffirm the impression, through the Muslim world and well-beyond, into much of the developing world, generally, that America is a capricious and violent power which carries neither logic nor empathy into its engagements with the non-white rest of the world. As has happened in Iraq, it will beget more antipathy for America, and "create" more terrorists. While saber-rattling may be happening in France and the UK, as well, such actions will no doubt strain the credibility of the US with the other international actors who are growing in importance, like China, India, or Brazil. Truthfully, these exercises in short-sighted bravado will leave a legacy of distrust, which we had only recently come close to mending in the aftermath of Vietnam and our fiascos in Latin America.

So what drives this? Honestly, I am confused, and, although this is rampant speculation, I am reminded of a conversation I was party to with some Indian relations and their friends in an out-of-the-way rental hall (for a baby shower) one afternoon last month in New Jersey. In this conversation, a lone young man, eating a plate of Indian food, rattled on about how "the Democrats were all corrupt," and "Bill Clinton was an idiot, would you rather live under Clinton's presidency or Bush's!" and "George Bush is the only guy who has the fucking balls to stand up to the Muslims!" All of this fairly insane ranting was informed, as far as I could tell, by an over-healthy dose of right-wing talk radio, a misguided machismo, a belief that Republicans were more likely to not tax this guy's money, and rooted in the very complex relationship that some Indian Hindus have with Muslims, derived from the particular political and cultural experiences of India. From this incoherence, one theme struck me, in the form of the somewhat apocryphal argument that became a reprise: "Do you know what the number one name for a baby in Engalnd is? Mohammmed!"

Is this the rub? Are we really enacting a war of civilizations? Is there a fear at work, at some conscious or sub-conscious level, of a Muslim world? Are we not at war with "the terrorists," or "radical Islam," but simply the whole of Islam itself? Not because we are in opposition to it, or it to us, but simply because it is not us?

Rampant speculation, I know, but as the perversity of our political discourse heightens, and as a truly fateful political act looms, I don't really know what else to think...

You've Got To Want It

I took an interest in a couple of armchair analyses of Barack Obama's psyche and its impact on his political campaign strategy, posted by Josh Marshall at TalkingPointsMemo:
Obama isn't so much running for the nomination in the sense of reaching out and taking it. He's trying to show us how marvelous he is (and this isn't snark, he's really pretty marvelous) so that Democratic voters will recognize it and give him the nomination.

But that's not how it works in this country. I don't know if it really works otherwise anywhere else. But you have to really want it, come out and say it, take it. I thought about qualities that describe what is at issue. 'Toughness' seems to bound up in meta-national security mumbojumbo. 'Ruthlessness' sounds too, well, ruthless. You have to want it enough that you reach out and take it. Which isn't always pretty and admirable. But that's what it takes.
At the level of remove from which I am observing this, I can't say that I entirely disagree. And, in fact, what makes Obama appealing to me is exactly this integrity (shall we call it that?), which isn't really an effective way to succeed at political campaigns (and, too often, not a recipe for succeeding in many of the competitive aspects of life itself). Maybe Chris Matthews is right, after all...

Monday, October 8, 2007

We Feel Fine + Universe

While he was still posting earlier in the summer, JA posted Jonathan Harris' talk from the TED website about his very cool data mining and visualization projects, notably We Feel Fine and Universe. As with most of the TED lectures, I recommend you watch Harris' talk, as it speaks for itself. If you need a little context before spending twenty minutes listening to the lecture, well, OK. We Feel Fine and Universe are both projects that collect data from the Inetrnet in near real-time (blogs containing the words "I feel fine" in one case, news articles in another), analyze the data for both statistical and semantic information, and then present them in cool, artful, if a bit high-concept, interfaces that allow you to immerse yourself in the information, and explore in a number of ways. In each case, I find the projects compelling for similar reasons:

- For the artful visualizations, which function at the level of candy -- to explore and play with;
- For the networks of meaning that are made transparent and accessible through the data mining and various applications that enable you to interact with the data;
- For the basic, underlying notion that we can learn something about the world and make connections by understanding the patterns and connections implicit in the mass of individual, distinct pieces of information that the Internet allows people to contribute and make findable;

My only criticism of the projects (which I'm sure the designers aren't terribly concerned with), is if they are useful? Clearly, the information surfaced from the data analysis has value, in creating relationships between people, in highlighting connections between ideas and events. Can these projects, or some similar application, make this information relevant?

Eat or Drive?

A spate of articles in the past few weeks have called into question whether the 'Ethanol boom' is going bust. Judged largely from the downward trends of the stock performance of many ethanol biofuel companies, but drawing also from long-standing criticisms of ethanol subsidies as a deeply flawed government policy, there has been a clamor that ethanol, in America, at least, has been a failed energy policy. The reason for this failure is laid partly at the feet of the policies themselves, in creating subsidies for a fuel that has not yet found sufficient use, and partly at the implementation of the policies, specifically, in the lack of investment made in fostering the demand side of the market for ethanol, and in creating the delivery infrastructure for bringing ethanol to the consumer. Every critique of ethanol has, at some level of subtext, a questioning of the motivations of the public policy. Was it driven by smart energy policy, or simply to satisfy the powerful agribusiness constituencies which control so much of the farmland in the US? As observers like Daniel Gross in Slate have concluded:
Critics of ethanol have long argued that ethanol production subsidies are a half-baked industrial policy scheme intended to reward politically powerful farmers in the Midwest. The gulf between the rich incentives for creating ethanol supply and the poor incentives for creating wholesale and retail distribution suggest the critics were absolutely right.
An early death-knell, perhaps, but one made the more interesting by a complementary article in the New York Times that emerged at the same time, describing how the diversion of corn crops into biofuels have driven up the price of the commodity, essentially pricing buyers, trying to secure corn for food aid programs, out of the market. One ill-advised, if well-intentioned public policy inadvertantly gutting another (as foreshadowed in a lengthy Foreign Policy article from earlier in the summer).

Not that this most recent set of concerns signals that giant of a catastrophe. Unfortunately, neither food air nor ethanol have proven to be fundamental solutions to the problems of hunger and energy supply that they are trying to address. The silver lining, in this case, is that the situation is more bleak.

Green Monsters

Flipping through a magazine the other evening, I stopped on a two page advertising spread by Chevron entitled "Chevron Presents: Energyville." Billed as an "energy game," Chevron asks "This is your city. How will you power it? How do we meet growing global demand? What new kinds of fuels and power sources should we develop? And how do we safeguard the environment at the same time?" The reader is then directed to play the game, hosted at the website

Now, it is easy to be dismissive of the efforts of massive energy companies to engage in fundamentally changing the dynamics of our energy economy. Their generally upbeat and eco-friendly advertising campaigns, which cheerily suggest that we've got a problem, but, hey, together we can fix it are a little to, well, cheery and upbeat. And I have no illusions that the extremely rich and extremely powerful people who run these companies are concerned as much about tackling global sustainability problems as they are about finding new markets in which to create better margins (after all, when they send the lucky one percent into space after we've despoiled this lovely planet, no doubt the heads of oil companies and their antecedents will be first in line at the launching pad).

But it can't be denied that each and every energy company, whether on the exploration/ production-side or the delivery-side, has a distinct strategic interest in understanding the dynamics of energy in coming years, influencing the market to align with the investments in technology that they are making, and innovating more efficient (and, consequently more eco-friendly, one would hope) solutions to our collective energy needs. Nor can it be denied that the actors most readily positioned to dramatically influence our energy economies are the energy companies themselves. And outside a small coterie of academics and advocacy groups, no one has been forced to think quite so deeply as the energy companies.

Which all sounds like a resounding defense of the Goliaths! Not meant to be. But what has caught my interest is the effort made, in advertising and public relations, at least, by energy companies to engage the public in a dialogue about our energy future. And with the resources available to them, energy companies have been able to provide slicker tools to help the conversation move forward, and often are doing quite a good job at putting out worthwhile information and analyses. Take the aforementioned game at, BP's Carbon Footprint Calculator or Statistical Review of World Energy site, or ConEd's more humble, but useful campaign to educate consumers on household energy conservation tips.

Are my fundamental concerns about energy consumption allayed? No. Do I think that these resources are actually useful in furthering questions about looming energy problems into our consumer consciousness? Yes.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Errol Morris on Abu Ghraib

On Friday night, I went to the Director's Guild of America theater to listen to Errol Morris and Phillip Gourevitch discuss Abu Ghraib as part of the New Yorker Festival. Errol Morris is apparently making a documentary centered on the photographs that exposed the Abu Ghraib scandal, which, after watching a few clips of footage and listening to the talk, I think is much needed. The discussion itself wasn't terribly enlightening, but I found three points engaging:

1. Errol Morris raised a particular interest in the inability of photographs to convey the truth of the scenario they depict, because the focus on the subject matter within the frame of the photograph, and the lack of context for what is taking place outside of the frame (both literally, who is outside the frame, and more figuratively, in the sense of, how did this scene come to take place). While this is philosophically an interesting line of inquiry, it is drawn into sharp focus in the case of Abu Ghraib, where the seven soldiers, the seven "bad apples," who were brought to task for the photos at Abu Ghraib as a result of the photos they took and were captured in, while very little else about the system of torture and administrative neglect that apparently exists and is endorsed in our current war has really resonated in the culture, broadly. In fact, for much of the horror depicted in the photos, many of the seven soldiers wre directly involved. They only happened to get caught, by virtue of the photos they took and leaked. And as Morris highlighted the irony: these same photos, taken not by a low-level enlisted soldier, but by a photojournalist, would have been cause for international recognition.

An essay on Morris' site details the case in more depth.

2. The more compelling takeaway, for me, which was effectively, if implicitly, forwarded by Gourevitch during a couple of impassioned rhetorical flourishes in their conversation, drew attention to how truly deep the moral stain of the "interrogation" techniques employed by our government when considered against our self-image as a nation. And a greater sin than the actual acts of physical and psychological brutality and wanton and reckless policing that is enforced in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere in the name of our defense, or perhaps a sin that simply inculpates us more broadly, is our refusal to really acknowledge these acts of torture for what they are. The case made by Gourevitch and Morris is not only that the seven soldiers responsible for the photos were essentially scapegoated, deflecting scrutiny from the military policies and governance that allowed the scenes of torture to become real, but that the media, and the public, in focusing on those photos which showed these seven soldiers acting out stupid acts of ugly Americanism, further tainted with revolting/fascinating sexual overtones, failed to look hard at all of the other photos released at the same time, which were simple documents of brutality. Our fixation with the sensational allowed us to glide right past the real issue -- that we're (once again) enacting random and inhumane violence against helpless people (not good people, just helpless).

Watching this program on a Friday night, I found myself not necessarily learning anything new, but simply being reminded about how low we've fallen as a nation, and in terms of our national conscience, how little we seem to care.

If you are reading this and find yourself wondering what you missed through the week-long sensationalist coverage of Abu Ghraib that's faded into the background, check out the photos on Salon (some of which I've posted as an unwelcome but necessary reminder as part of this post), as well as the Wikipedia posting, which provides a number of useful references on the scandal.

As a coda, I post a video from TalkingPointsMemo, where the White House press secretary engages in the current political standard of prevarication, non-statements, and circular definitions as a smokescreen to avoid engaging in meaningful discourse. While the political actors and institutions drift further into meaninglessness and immorality, I am only left wondering how each of the individual's acting out these absurd roles manage to continue. What happened to shame?