Author Archive

Update: Torture by any other name…

The Post has apparently declined to publish my letter. As the stories of U.S.-sponsored torture and the Obama Administration’s continuing support of it continue to unfold, I encourage everyone to pressure the mainstream media to present the situation accurately. I also encourage everyone to read Glenn Greenwald, who continues to give clear, honest, and comprehensive accounting of our government’s violation of laws and civil rights.

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Torture by any other name…

Waterboarding is torture. It’s a well known and accepted fact by everyone except a small number of extremists like Dick Cheney, and unfortunately, editors of major newspapers like the Washington Post. The torture memos recently released by the Justice Department describe waterboarding, among other forms of torture. However, as one example in a pattern of underplaying torture committed by the U.S. Government, today in a news article the Washington Post referred to the techniques described in those memos as “harsh tactics that critics liken to torture”. This is akin to describing carbon dioxide as “an industrial byproduct that critics liken to pollution” or referring to current economic conditions as “a slowing of the market that critics liken to a recession”.

Of course you can find many people, even people in prominent or powerful positions, who believe carbon dioxide is not a pollutant (e.g. Senator James Inhofe), or who don’t characterize current economic conditions as a recession. But that does not justify presenting a widely-held and generally-accepted fact as a fringe belief. Waterboarding is widely and generally accepted to be torture, not “likened” to torture and not only by “critics”, just as carbon dioxide is not merely “likened” to pollution and not only by “critics”.

I wrote a letter to the editor of the Post about this; I’ll let you know what happens.


Everybody say “queso”

International tourists are common near my office. This afternoon I was passing a group Spanish-speaking tourists taking a group photo. The woman holding the camera intoned “Uno, dos, tres … queso!” Now, I always thought the tradition of saying “cheeeeeese” while one’s picture is being taken stems from the approximation of a smile one’s mouth forms when making the “ee” sound. But could it be that cheese is simply a cross-cultural symbol of happiness? Or was the woman making an ironic cultural reference? Or is saying “cheese” for a picture something spanish-speakers have adopted from English in contradiction with the original motivation? Any of those explanations is kind of hilarious.

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Fun with maps

This link comes via Vinney via someone in the EPA smart growth office: a fascinating picture of subway systems of the world, presented on the same scale. Check it out.

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Investment banking

Classical strategy: “Buy low, sell high.”

Enron executive strategy: “Buy high, hide your losses with phony accounting, collect your bonus and get out.”

Lehman Brothers executive strategy: “Buy high, hide your risk with complex financial instruments, collect your bonus and declare bankruptcy.”

Other large investment bank’s executive strategy: “Get ‘too big to fail’. Buy high, sell low. Make up the difference with government bailout money. Continue collecting bonuses.”

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Keep off the grass

A sign on a small patch of lawn outside my workplace reads “Keep off the grass. Motion-activated sprinklers in use.” Is this to keep people from walking on the grass? I think we can put this in the category of things we somehow allow machines to do, even though it would never be acceptable for people to do the same. Could you imagine a guy standing on the edge of the lawn with a hose, spraying anyone who stepped onto it? Also in this category: someone reading your personal email and then trying to sell you things based on the contents.

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Nonsensical hyperbole

I was thinking today about how I often find nonsensical hyberbole really funny, like “Christ on a stick! You are going to hurt your hand if you keep using your iPhone that way.” Or “That woman is dumber than a box of hair.” I appreciate this humor, but I would never use it myself. Somehow I don’t feel qualified to say something like, “Sweet barrels of oil, take a right turn already!” It’s best, of course, with confidant, over-the-top delivery. Perhaps I don’t feel I can pull that off. But, whatever the reason, it makes me wonder how much the humor we appreciate diverges from the humor we use.

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I love pockets.

Especially, I love being able to take things out and put things in my pockets without breaking stride. Like sunglasses or a hat. Or a cellphone, sometimes. If it is a text message, then taking the cellphone out, quickly checking the message, and slipping the phone back into a pocket is quite satisfying. Receiving a call or having to reply to a text while walking is too awkward, however, sapping all the pocket-satisfaction from the experience. Clothing without pockets, or without usable pockets, saddens me (in fact, fake pockets might be even sadder than no pockets). I would go so far as to say that the feminist critique of women’s clothing hasn’t given enough attention to the fact that women are so often deprived of the joys and utilities of pockets.

Since I’m on the topic of pockets, let me mention one other issue: boarding passes. Why aren’t they pocket-sized? Or at least one fold from pocket-sized (for instance, by creasing the standard ones in the middle instead of near the end)? You have to “hold on” to the damn things while you go through airport security. How many hands do they think we have that we can take off our shoes, empty our pockets, take off our coat, remove the liquids from our luggage, take the laptop out and put it in a separate bin, and load everything onto the conveyor belt while holding on to the boarding pass? And hurry up while you’re at it. Even if you have a pocket after taking off your jacket, the boarding pass will not fit in it. The breast pocket of a button-up shirt is a possible exception, depending on the width of the pocket and of the boarding pass. When it works out, having the pocket for the boarding pass makes the whole process significantly easier.

In conclusions, clothing makers, airline companies, you must respect the pocket.

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Refrigerator note

A note on the office refrigerator states that during the last fridge cleaning, “We can’t say for sure, but we know some items date from as far back as March, 2006. And while we realize this is EPA and we do believe in sounds science, this refrigerator is probably not the place to conduct experiments.”

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The sadness of Mann

I love Aimee Mann, but I can’t say her music has much emotional range. I feel like 90% of her songs convey the same dispirited sadness — quiet tragedy viewed through a lens of “oh well” nihilism. (I formulated this before realizing, via google search to determine if anyone else has had this thought, that she played a nihilist in The Big Lebowski. Coincidence?)

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Transportation, climate change, and economic growth

I went to a panel discussion last night on “Merging Climate and Transportation Policy”. There were panelists from roughly the political left, right, and center, but all were thoughtful, had many good points, and agreed that the current system for spending federal transportation dollars is terrible. A lot of discussion about transportation and climate change tends to focus on technological fixes, like electric cars or biofuels, but this one focused on reducing driving — essentially changing behavior. The center and left panelists seemed to be boxing at the shadow-accusation that any such attempt is “social engineering”, largely by arguing that putting the right price on driving (i.e., making it significantly more expensive) isn’t about changing behavior, it’s about letting people make the right choices.

Well, prices changes behavior. That’s the point. There is some psychological value to giving people options, even ones they can’t afford, as opposed to mandating something (“You can only drive on odd-numbered days”), but it’s still about changing behavior. We know that raising the price of driving causes people to do it less (cf. recent increases in gas prices and subsequent fall off in car travel), but it’s not a terribly strong effect. If we want big reductions, like cutting miles driven in half, it’s hard to imagine that just pricing people out of their cars ($15 gas?) will be acceptable. I’m convinced the much more powerful (and palatable) tools will be land-use planning, making urban cores more attractive places to live (e.g. by improving urban schools), and cultural shifts toward valuing neighborhoods and urban features.

One of the interesting questions that came up was, “will policies to reduce miles driven also suppress economic growth?” This is something the right and center panelists were very concerned about. And actually, it’s hard to see how a pricing-based policy wouldn’t. There could be some rebound effects, like a more vibrant commercial economy if congestion-pricing makes the city more pleasant to shop and do business in. Or perhaps everyone would save fuel on balance because congestion-pricing eliminates gridlock. However, the main effect of charging more for driving is that people have less money to spend on other things. But let’s think about the other types of policies — the ones that get people replacing cars with transit and living closer to things. Offhand, I would say the economy becomes more service-oriented. People go out to eat more, spend more on cultural attractions, meet each other in bars and so on — the classic urban lifestyle model. They have smaller houses which they spend less to fill with things and, or course, less on cars. Bad for the economy? It’s not obvious, but I’d guess it’s better for communities to have more-local economies in the long run. Another direction it might go is that car travel gets expensive/unpleasant but the alternatives aren’t great either, so people just stay home. Probably yes, this would slow economic growth. Although that shouldn’t be the question. Are people less happy? Spending more time with the family and less time commuting to far-flung jobs is not bad. Staying home to watch tv and get isolated and depressed, on the other hand, probably is bad. So there is a right way and a wrong way to reduce driving. I expect that the strategies based on building vibrant communities support both economic growth and movement to a service-based economy that is better for the environment and connects people with each other.

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Notes on losing your bag

My messenger bag was stolen recently, including my wallet and phone. The details are not really interesting, but more on that later. For now, a few observations:

  1. When you call a bank and say your card was stolen, the first thing they will ask for is your card number. At the end of the call, knowing it happened that night, they well tell you to “have a great night!”
  2. Cell phones are way more expensive than you think if you’ve only ever gotten one with a service plan (for example, $220 to replace the basic phone I got for $20). Phone companies are also heartless about stolen/broken/lost phones, probably in order to compel you to buy supplementary insurance. Therefore, it is a good idea to keep your old phone around. Thankfully I’ve been too lazy to recycle my old cell phone for the last year. I’m getting by with that now (not sure if I’ll make it 10 months though).
  3. Passports are good for more than just leaving the country. Having a second ID helps with a lot of things, like getting money from the bank when you have no cards, and buying liquor to drown your sorrow over losing your cards.

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Government-adjusted comment seriousness scale

I have this habit, unusual in the federal government, of saying what I mean. Some of my coworkers find this refreshing. But sometimes it leads to trouble. For example, when reviewing a workgroup document and finding a statement reflecting a decision that I felt hadn’t been adequately discussed, I wrote (roughly) that “No one has responded to my previous comments on [that decision] and I can not support [that decision] until we have a discussion.” I really meant literally that I could not voice my personal support for that decision until we have had some discussion of the policy merits in the workgroup. But this statement (like, apparently, many of my statements) caused somewhat of stir, resulting in their manager calling my manager, saying something like “I just don’t don’t know what it means when Josh says he can’t support [the decision].”

In the wake of the this, um, misunderstanding, my mentor, a wizened and diplomatic long-time employee, explained to me that people in the federal government are not used to people saying what they mean. They work on an adjusted scale of diplomatic language. For example:

Gov’t Speak Literal Equivalent
“We have some questions on the document.” “We think the document has some issues that need to be fixed.”
“We have some comments on the document.” “We can’t approve of this document until the changes we identify have been made.”
“We have some concerns with the document.” “We are strongly opposed to the spirit of this document, and will fight to make sure it doesn’t go out without major changes.”

Since “concerns” is as bad as it gets, indicating serious political conflict, I can see that on a scale like this my statement must have either just been confusing or sounded like the nuclear option. The question now is whether to change my communication style or idealistically soldier on, because I believe people in the government ought to say what they mean. So far my solution has been to write what I want and trust my coworkers to temper the language. But this is probably not a long-term solution.

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Air conditioning and the rise of conservatism

I always felt there was something morally suspect about air conditioning. And yet here in the former swamp of the District, I submit. Check this half-serious Salon article: Does air conditioning make people vote Republican?.

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Japan to launch carbon footprint labeling scheme

Thanks to Vinney for passing on this story. Apparently Japan is starting a program to label certain types of consumer goods with their carbon footprint, that is, with the quantity of greenhouse gases emitted over the life cycle of the product, from extracting raw material to disposal or recycling. The UK has a similar system in the works, and there have been some voluntary programs in Europe, but, as far as I know, this will be the first mandatory carbon labeling program. It’s easy to argue with the details of such a scheme — measuring carbon footprints is a highly uncertain venture, but personally I welcome the attempt. I have been pushing for the development of life cycle emissions reporting from my small corner of the EPA and to my friends on the Hill for about a year now, and I’ve had little to point to by way of precedent.

On the one hand I find it a little disingenuous that the Japanese plan focuses on food product labeling when the climate impact of individual food items are pretty small for consumers to be constantly worried about, and the differences between comparable food items (say, one brand of soda versus another) are likely to be within the margin of error of the footprint values. It might make more sense to start with the big-ticket items, like consumer electronics or furniture, and not overwhelm already-complicated food purchasing decisions with more cryptic labeling. On the other hand, it might be good to get carbon labeling on to something that people see and worry about every day. Maybe the impact of people shifting their food purchases won’t be that big, but there could be a spillover effect from the raised awareness of carbon footprints. It could be one of those things where you add up carbon labels, recycling, reusable bags, and suddenly you get a conservation society — the much-sought-after cultural shift where people start to think about their impact on resources and not just the cost of things. After a while, it becomes natural, like wearing a seatbelt. Of course you choose the house with the lower carbon footprint. You wouldn’t throw a can in the trash, would you?!

Well, a fellow can dream.

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Return to the digital suburbs

After a long period of blissful ignorance of my Facebook profile and other social networking sites (and, well, let’s face it, my blog as well), I checked in again today, giving in to Moira‘s months of gentle nagging. I accepted a long list of friend requests, made a few trifling profile edits, and Facebook-chatted with my sister who told me Facebook is evil and I should turn back while I still can (it’s too late for her).

Anyone who uses social networking sites should read the Stuff White People Like entry on Facebook which chronicles my personal migration accurately and with clever metaphors. It unfortunately doesn’t describe where LinkIn lies in the digital landscape. I will venture something like a downtown financial district where everything closes up at 5:00.

I have to say, if people fled the cluttered MySpace for the clean design of Facebook, then Facebook is setting itself up to be the next last thing. It is way more cluttered and confusing than it was when last I used it. Especially with all the third-party apps, I get the feeling that if I leave the wrong box checked I’m going to give away my privacy, money, freedom, and probably a piece of my soul. Also pop-up dancing smiley faces will follow me everywhere I go on the web.

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Crocs: Why?


Ugly hunks of garishly-colored plastic. To put on your feet. Really?

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The death of biofuels

A pair of articles that just became available in Science (1-2) and a slightly earlier article (3) have found that biofuels like ethanol produced from corn are net greenhouse gas (GHG) losers over decade to century timescales (also reported by the Times here).

The debate about whether plant-derived ethanol saves GHG’s over its life cycle compared to gasoline has been going on for years. The basic story is that bio-ethanol and gasoline emit similar amounts of CO2 at the tailpipe, but on the bio-ethanol side, when plants regrow they capture some of that carbon back from the atmosphere. However there are other energy inputs to make fertilizer, run farm equipment, process the plants, and transport the fuel. On balance, looking across many studies, it appears that ethanol from corn provides a modest GHG benefit over gasoline, and technology in development to make ethanol from a whole plant (“cellulosic ethanol”) would provide a big benefit (4).

The new contribution of the first three references is to look at the carbon lost from plants and soil when you convert land from some other use to grow biofuel crops like corn, soy, palm, or sugarcane. The stunning result is that you lose so much carbon converting a piece of land to cropland, that it takes decades or centuries of making biofuels from it to even break even on GHG emissions. What is really disturbing is that as prices for corn and ethanol have gone up, people are already chopping down tropical rainforest to grow more biofuel crops. Even if you make sure to buy ethanol produced from land that was already cropland, that is just pushing land for food crops to be converted somewhere else (since the total demand for food is relatively inelastic).

Even in the U.S., taking out-of-use cropland, of which we have millions of acres, and converting it to grow corn for ethanol, results in a carbon debt that takes about 50 years to pay back (1). That is essentially because when ag land is out of use for while, it turns back into grassland or forest. With future, more efficient means of producing biofuels, the payback times will be shorter, but still substantial.

Does this mean biofuels are a Bad Idea? My opinion is, on a grand scale, yes. There are some exceptions. Fuels from agricultural wastes are still a good idea. And cellulosic fuels from a careful mix of native grasses grown on marginal land is still a good idea with significant potential. But can we rely on biofuels to make deep cuts in transportation sector emissions? Probably not. And this is an important salvo in the climate policy debate.

And there is a larger story underpinning the findings of these papers, and that is that land-use change is a key element of climate policy, one which hasn’t got enough attention so far. There is a huge amount of carbon currently stored up in natural lands and we are rapidly setting it free, whether by converting it to cropland to feed a growing and increasingly meat-hungry population, converting it (perversely, it seems) to grow biofuels, or clearing it for urban development. Continuing to do so will undercut our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

There is also an interesting connection here to my research on capturing CO2 from air. In principle, one could extract CO2 from the atmosphere using industrial methods (as opposed to using plants), add a lot of energy, and get liquid fuels. The industrial method uses at least 10,000 times less land than the corn-ethanol method, and so basically avoids the land-use change issues we are talking about. On the other hand, the biomass method runs largely on solar energy but the industrial method would require a huge amount of energy from somewhere to synthesize the fuel. Back in the ’70′s, Steinberg proposed doing it with nuclear (5). Now maybe we can find something better.


  1. Fargione, J.; Hill, J.; Tilman, D.; Polasky, S. and Hawthorne, P. “Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt.” Science, 2008. DOI: 10.1126/science.1152747
  2. Searchinger, T.; Heimlich, R.; Houghton, R. A.; Dong, F.; Elobeid, A.; Fabiosa, J.; Tokgoz, S.; Hayes, D. & Yu, T. “Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land Use Change.” Science, 2008. DOI: 10.1126/science.1151861
  3. Righelato, R. & Spracklen, D. V. “Carbon Mitigation by Biofuels or by Saving and Restoring Forests?” Science, 2007, 317, 902-.
  4. Hammerschlag, Roel. “Ethanol’s Energy Return on Investment: A Survey of the Literature 1990-Present.” Environmental Science and Technology. 2006, 40, 1744-1750.
  5. Steinberg, M.; Dang, V. D. “Production of synthetic methanol from air and water using controlled thermonuclear reactor power: Technology and energy requirement”. Energy Conversion. 1977, 17, 97-112.

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How is sex like religion

The following quote comes from Laura Miller’s review of “The Secret History of the World”, a new book compiling the mythologies Eastern and Western secret societies like the Freemasons and Rosicrucians. She skewers the book as well as esoteric belief systems and other books about secret spiritual societies in general, noting that the power and allure of secrecy is the main thing that many such societies have going for them. When the details of, for instance, Scientology, are exposed, it all just seems kind of absurd. Miller concedes that the author has a point that while Richard Dawkins derives sufficient awe from the material universe, a lot of people need something else:

Most people will still choose to believe in something “more,” whether it’s the ninefold path of the Buddha or the pillars of Islam or pyramid power. Chances are that whatever they choose will sound ridiculous to anyone who doesn’t also believe. That’s something religion has always had in common with sex: If you’re not into it, it looks silly. Which explains why all the really clever people do it behind closed doors.

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Cybersecurity and implicit contracts

I generally feel that people are not worked up enough about corporate invasions of privacy. So it’s good to see an article like this in the Times talking about these issues. People think I’m a little crazy when I tell them I trade supermarket club cards with other people to confuse the consumer profiling system. Maybe that’s because, according to the sidebar, 64% of people don’t realize supermarkets can sell their customers’ purchase information to other companies.

The author makes an interesting framing of personal privacy as an implicit contract. It’s not illegal for someone to follow you around from store to store and record your purchases, but we would consider it an invasion of privacy. We implicitly regard such information as belonging to you. The information has value to every company that can sell you more things if they know your purchasing habits, but this information has (largely) not been monetized. Apparently, the main way that buyout artists made money on hostile takeovers in the ’80′s was by breaking implicit contracts, like the implicit contract to pay senior workers more.

From my own experience from my father’s work in wholesaling, this seems to be a major way that large companies push out small businesses. Some of it is due to higher efficiency from economies of scale, but a lot of the lower prices come from breaking implicit contracts. A small sales business relies on personal relationships. “Good service” is based largely on the understanding that if something goes wrong, it will be fixed at no charge. The small businessman builds loyalty with the customers, often investing a lot up front in samples, demos, and time. The implicit contract is that the customer will stay on board for a while if she finds value in the product. A big company, on the other hand, can offer lower prices, but demos and personal time are short. Likewise, service is more an “our way or the highway” approach. Big companies can freeload on the value that smaller companies invested to get a new product adopted by coming in afterward, perhaps with a cheaper knockoff, and undercutting. At the same time, they keep costs low by redefining the implicit rules of good service and doing less for the customer.

If a small company who you’ve been doing business with for years says, “okay, I’m going to renege on all our agreements, but my prices will drop a little next year”, you’d probably be mad and find another supplier. But a new entrant has an easier time changing the rules, like the way the buyout artists could hire new managers who hadn’t made any promises about future salary. Similarly, online entrepreneurs have this incredible opportunity to break implicit contracts because the social rules of the Internet are still fuzzy. Corporate behavior is checked to some extent by consumer opinion, and behavior that really breaks the social code is sometimes met with a profit-shrinking backlash. But when the social code is fuzzy, this mechanism is less of a protection. Facebook bungled its attempt to spy on users’ purchases by going too far too fast. But I suspect if they made a more staged, strategic invasion of privacy, they would have gotten away with it. How did Google get away with reading private email? If a corporation started scanning our paper mail for keywords and tacking ad fliers on the envelopes, people would not stand for it. But now no one seems to mind the Google approach.

The capitalist compulsion is to monetize everything that can be legally (or sometimes illegally) monetized. It looks to me like the social lawlessness of the Internet and ill-formed social views about digital information are openings allowing personal identities to be rapidly monetized. Perhaps a partial solution is for online communities to coalesce around certain principles and defend them, as seemed to work in the Facebook case. If a major online community really drafted the “Internet Rules of Privacy” and got some prominent other communities to sign on, perhaps pledging to boycott companies that don’t follow the rules, that might really change the game.

As much as I’d like to see a landmark piece of legislation that defines ownership of personal information and restricts the collection of personal data, I wonder if the bottom-up approach, a sort of citizen-union, could work faster in the case of the Internet.

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