Archive for July, 2006

Biking instead of driving: no effect on climate change?

I read about this article on How the World Works (one of my favorite blogs). It’s a working paper by Karl Ulrich at the Wharton business school. He argues, essentially, that while biking reduces transportation emissions, that is offset by emissions due to increasing longevity from exercise, and combined, the effects are a wash. The How the World Works commentary does a good job of pointing out the absurdity of this comparison and playfully pokes a couple of holes in the analysis, so I won’t spend too much time on that.

I’ll just say that even if Ulrich is right, he’s still found that biking is a social good.1 Human life is a good thing, even though it may, in a sense, be bad for the environment. And indeed, much of what we do to protect the environment is ultimately about protecting human life.

It brings up a similar paradox that comes up when talking about energy efficiency and reducing consumption. One factor that Ulrich ignores that would work in his favor is that when money is saved by efficiency, it will get spent on something else. If I save on gasoline by bike-commuting, I have money to spend on something else that will generate emissions. I’ll be hard-pressed to spend it on something dirtier than driving a car (jet-skiing? helicopter tour?) but this will somewhat offset the initial energy savings. Similarly, if someone says increasing efficiency of electricity use by 10% is just as good as building 10% more power plants (which people often say), that’s not strictly correct. Consumers would spend less on their current electricity needs and then put the remainder toward other things which use some electricity. So maybe it’s like building 8% more power plants, or something.

Whenever you tell people to save resources by not to consuming something, you have to wonder what they’re going to spend the money on instead. Perhaps we ought to take a supply-side approach to controlling consumption. Of course, you could try reducing working hours and hence salary to reduce consumption. But beyond that, you could promote consumption of low-resource goods, like art, digital entertainment, expensive restaurant meals, hand-made and custom-made things. If you get people to spend enough money on high-cost, low-impact goods, they won’t have any left to spend on bigger houses and bigger SUV’s.

  1. Though, interestingly, he’s saying that the good accrues to the bikers and not to society, whereas I had always figured it was mostly the other way around (i.e., other people aren’t dying because of my avoided emissions). []


Sarcasm over email

The Post-Gazette pointed me to this paper1 examining the communication of sarcasm over email. The authors run five experiments with pairs of communicating college students, and compare success in detecting sarcasm face-to-face, by phone, and over email. Not surprisingly, participants were more accurate face-to-face and by phone, and not so much over email (emoticons were not allowed). The interesting finding was that senders didn’t predict a decrease in accuracy for email. Likewise, receivers expected to identify email sarcasm as well as by other media. So everyone was especially overconfident about email in particular. When the experimenters forced senders to read their own messages to themselves in a non-sarcastic tone, their confidence about transmitting the sarcasm dropped. So, the authors conclude, it’s ego-centrism — difficulty in hearing a voice other than your own — that causes the overconfidence.

With canned messages, sarcasm/not-sarcasm was correctly identified 75% of the time over the phone (versus a chance accuracy of 50%) and not significantly better than chance (56%) over email. But with the participant’s own messages, sarcasm over email was detected 84% of the time. So it’s hard to say how well sarcasm is detected over email in an absolute sense. But it’s less well than you think.

  1. Kruger, Justin; Epley, Nicholas; Parker, Jason; Ng, Zhi-Wen. “Egocentrism Over E-Mail: Can We Communicate as Well as We Think? ” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 89 (6), December 2005, pp. 925-936. []