31 May 2007

Woolgathering: Are You Normal?

Via TierneyWeb I see a pointer to this survey from Columbia University psychologist Malia Mason, who is trying to find out if daydreaming tendencies can tell us anything useful about background cortical functions. The upshot is, if you answer 12 questions about your daydreams, you can see how you compare to the "average" daydreamer. (According to the stats at the end of the survey, I spend more time than the average individual in mental wandering, but less time thinking about practical matters or other people.)

Questions I have about daydreaming:

-Does the ability to daydream decrease with age? I remember spending much more time lost in thought as a kid, and find that it's harder to achieve this state now.

-Does daydreaming serve as important a cognitive function as actual, REM dreaming? (I imagine this is part of Dr. Mason's project.)

-Is daydreaming as useful as traditional meditation for reducing stress and bringing mental clarity? Both activities induce alpha brain waves, which are associated with relaxation and rest, as well as theta waves, which are linked with inspiration and creativity (and can also be induced by monotonous driving).

30 May 2007

Google: Not Big Brother (Yet)

Ars Technica reports that Google has surreptitiously added facial recognition technology to its image search; the function is apparently only available to those who know the secret search parameters. Currently the technology is useful just for finding pictures that have faces in them, not for identifying the faces, though the AT article predicts that it's only a matter of time. Facial recognition technology, of course, is one of those things that sounds really alarming from a privacy standpoint: If citizens are viewed by surveillance cameras 300+ times a day (as the average Brit is), and if these cameras were enabled with true facial recognition technology, well, any libertarian worth her salt can see how this works out. However, facial recognition technology is alot like karaoke - ridiculously easy to do, but very hard to do well. The concept is easy: give the computer a template for facial patterns, and show it lots of pictures until it understands how to find the face. Then, teach it to distinguish different faces using the same procedure. Heck, babies can do this almost from birth, even with other species (interestingly, adults get worse at it as they get older, and are much worse at recognizing faces in other species). But although there are many facial recognition programs around, they don't work very well to begin with, and are notoriously easy to fool with a different haircut, a hat, or a pair of Groucho glasses.

On the other hand, Google has a knack for solving difficult problems using surprisingly simple solutions. G. revolutionized websearch by eschewing complicated natural language processing options designed to understand exactly what the searcher wants, and instead found a fast, easy way to make a reasonable guess. And facial recognition is ultimately a pretty similar sort of problem -- like semantic language processing, it's accomplished by humans using a complex neural network, which is hard to replicate in a computer (so far). Teaching a program to simply make a decent guess might be a much easier, more elegant solution, which is Google's specialty.

29 May 2007

Unions and Pay-for-performance

Marginal Revolution links to a recent paper confirming that performance pay is linked to better performance, and wonders why it took the world so long to figure this out. Commenters note that unions tend to be opposed to this in every form. My experience: I recently had a Unionism 101 discussion about this very issue with my favorite Union Guy, who works for a large, powerful Colorado utility company. He reports that the company periodically attempts to introduce pay-for-performance, not as a replacement for standard hourly pay, but as an alternative option for workers who might like to work harder for more money; the union firmly opposes this. I (naturally) suggested that creating more options for workers would seem to be a good thing for everyone involved, something the union ought to stand behind; Union Guy's response was that the Company uses pay-for-performance options strategically, to justify increases in the workload of regular, by-the-hour employees. In other words, harder-working pay-for-performance employees blow the curve for those who'd like to keep on doing the standard amount of work for the standard amount of pay.

New Recommendations for Denver Greenhouse Emissions Open for Comment

Earlier this month the Greenprint Denver Advisory Council, a group created by Mayor Hickenlooper to figure out what Denver should do about its greenhouse gas emissions, released an inventory report asserting that by 2020, Denver should be able to cut its emissions of CO2 by 25 percent. The accompanying draft Action Plan makes a bunch of recommendations for Denver and Colorado. Some of of the Denver recommendations:

4Ask voters to approve a tiered rate structure for electricity/natural gas, similar to how water usage is currently handled; also, waste disposal rates tied to volume of non-recyclable trash to encourage recycling.

4Implement a voluntary travel offset program: a 'small, voluntary fee' paid when you register a car or buy an airline ticket, which would go into a fund used to support carbon neutral travel.

4Require 'green concrete' in all private and public construction projects.

A couple of the recommendations for statewide initiatives:

4Require 'pay-as-you-drive' auto insurance, where premiums are partially based on miles traveled, to discourage car travel.

4Implement a 'fee-bate' system, where fees charged on high-emission vehicles are used to provide rebates on low-emission vehicles.

4Implement a 'cap-and-trade' type program tying Xcel's increasing renewables portfolio to reduced greenhouse emissions.

Happily, the Greenprint Council is requesting public input via email or on its blog discussing the reports.

28 May 2007

Paging Robert Heinlein...

Tyler Cowen at MR wants to know, would immortals be libertarian? More precisely, would human 'post-mortals' who had eliminated aging and could only die from unnatural causes, become libertarian? Tyler thinks they would, especially around social issues: "Immortals are going to want to try everything, and why not?"

I think this is true for social issues, less true for safety and security issues -- if you don't have to die, you're motivated to try pretty hard to eliminate dangers that could cause your unnatural demise. (MR commenters make this point clear.)

Another aspect to think about: once people quit dying of old age, we're talking about a major lebensraum problem, solvable only by space colonization (more efficient use of urban space can only get us so far). In other words, a post-mortal society has to become a pioneer society. And pioneer societies tend to be libertarian, bordering on anarchist, partly because they attract independent types, partly because law enforcement gets trickier when the population is dispersed, and partly because there's plenty of space between you and your neighbors. Plus, a diasporized human race has the opportunity to experiment with lots of different legal and cultural arrangements -- so even if post-mortal humans aren't more libertarian on average, this would still be a more libertarian-friendly world.


I'm not 100% percent sure how to take this (European) series of ads for Diesel clothing. They're either so oblivious it's terrifying, or so ironic it's exquisite. More examples here-- the tagline in the bottom left corner is 'Global-Warming Ready.'

Let's Talk About Biofuels, Baby

Biofuels (a happening thing right now in Colorado) are undeniably sexy in a number of ways. The concept of using something clean and friendly like corn or sugarcane for energy is a warm fuzzy one, and makes city dwellers feel connected to their country cousins, farmers who’ve been using ethanol for tractor fuels for decades. Politically, biofuels are a win-win, making urban and rural populations happy, satisfying eco-types concerned about global warming and policy types concerned about dependence on foreign oil. Biofuels are also cheap, from a funding perspective – it’s easy for federal sources to give biofuels research centers a few hundred million dollars and say they’re supporting clean energy. Even the big bad energy giants like BP are in on this, funding research centers, polishing their image at a bargain price, relatively speaking. And researchers like working on biofuels, because they’re manageable – the technology is sufficiently advanced that it represents mainly an engineering problem in scalability and efficiency. So SUV owners feel good about using E85, legislators and federal agencies feel good about doing their part, researchers feel good about solving real-world problems.

But here’s the discouraging math part: Right now the world burns energy at the rate of 13.5 terawatts. By 2050, assuming current birth rates, the world will need a minimum of 28-35 TW, assuming extreme energy conservation way beyond what we practice now. (If the whole world, in 2050, used energy at the rate of North America today, we would need 84 TW; US burn rates bring this number to 102 TW.) Some more math: if all the landmass in the world except for living space were transitioned to production of biomass (all crops harvested for energy, rather than food), and if biofuel technology improved from today’s ≤1% efficiency to, say, 10% efficiency, this would give another 7-10 TW. In other words, not nearly enough. (It also appears that maximizing biomass, clean nuclear, wind and hydro power, and continuing our current rates of fossil fuel consumption, bring us just about to the lower bound of 28 TW. For more on these numbers, see On the Future of Global Energy by Daniel Nocera, head of the MIT Energy Research Council.)

So biofuels and related technologies are a sexy, feel-good idea, but every dollar spent on them is a dollar not being spent on finding a new, viable alternative to make up that energy deficit (32 missing TW to get the world of 2050 up to the living standard of Western Europe). Add to this the fact that there’s about a 30-year germination period between a brand-new basic science idea and an efficient, scalable real-world power source.

Basic science research, of course, is frustrating from a real-world perspective, because there’s no way to know where to look; the answer could come from any direction. “Basic research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing,” per German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun – not the best pickup line if you’re looking to get some action, funding-wise. Meanwhile, attractive, near-term options like biofuels are out there, giving the come-hither look to those who want to be seen as responsible global citizens. It’s hard to fault these types, who are trying to do the right thing, and who invariably argue that it’s “better than doing nothing.” But you sometimes want to shake them a little, tell them to play the field, keep their options open, and never go home with the first cute young thing they lay eyes on.

25 May 2007

Rant: Starbucks

Things I believe about Starbucks:

1. They are a big, powerful corporation. They sometimes screw their franchisees by building stand-alone stores in the parking lots of grocery stores with SB kiosks. Is this my problem? No. Sophisticated business people ought to know that a company with Starbucks' market share is powerful -- build better protection into your contracts if you want to deal with them.

2. A cup of SB coffee is like a well-made Long Island iced tea -- it packs more punch than you'd guess. Just like a LI iced tea is dangerous because it tastes much less alcoholic than it actually is, SB coffee is tricky because it's about twice as caffeinated as your standard cuppa. Which is fine, but good to be aware of.

3. Starbucks charges more for their coffee than other places. Does this mean it's "overpriced?" Probably. Are you entitled to choose to pay more for coffee that's standardized across the universe, so that you always know what to expect? Yes, if that's your thing. If it's not your thing, please feel free to explore every last independent coffee shop in the world, but leave the Starbucks convenience-buyers alone.

4. Some people think Starbucks defines the nature of the American coffee experience. Mostly these are people who never drank coffee outside their kitchen before SB. Some people think SB coffee is mediocre or worse. I can understand trying to persuade people to broaden their experience of coffee by buying it at a variety of places; I can also understand the argument for supporting independent coffee shops rather than SB, when their coffee is just as good or better. But I don't understand why, when I went for my Friday lunchtime frappuccino today, I was on the receiving end of at least 6 scornful looks between the Starbucks and the office. I have consumed a goodly number of iced/blended/frozen mochas in my life, and I've learned that no one comes close to SB for cold, sugary, highly caffeinated Friday afternoon beverages. Why shouldn't I buy this (in my opinion) completely superior product, even if it happens to come from SB? Boulderites, stop looking at me like that.