Archive for the ‘Information’ Category

Scientists and the media

Our orientation session on the interaction between science and the media included a panel of esteemed science journalists from the Washington Post, PBS Frontline, Science Magazine, and the National Journal. Amid friendly discussions of how to improve science writing and how scientists can relate successfully to the media, they gave us unsurprising advice like “use plain English to describe your research.” They explained how the standard journalistic strategy of getting a “balanced” story by quoting a nut on either side of an issue works badly for science stories, and two admitted guilt of doing this for climate change stories in the past. Among the non-obvious advice, 3 of the 4 panel members stressed that contacting reporters and editors directly is a good way to influence coverage and to get stories into the press. According to former Washington Post Science Editor Curt Suplee, “one of the last professional classes in America that actually answer their phones is reporters, and, 60% of the time, editors. In contrast, the press release, which I had been told in a university seminar on dealing with the media is the way to get in the press, is useless. 3 of the 4 said they never read press releases, and the 4th, Neil Munro of the National Journal, said

“I read a lot of press releases. Not for the lead, but to see what people are selling. Sometimes you get a story out of that.”

Public Relations people were held in similar low regard as sources for a story.

Most of the tone of the discussion implied reporters are basically trying to present accurate information that gets read, and scientists are trying to inform the public, especially about the importance of their research. In contrast, Munro’s comments were rooted in a cynicism of bracing purity, painting reporters as vain and self-interested and scientists as flawed and, well, self-interested. That is to say, his comments were fascinating and enlightening.

“Journalists”, he explains, “write for other journalists”. They are trying to impress their peers. They consider themselves a professional class, like lawyers, and as a consequence, do afford scientists some respect as professional peers. And they are subject to flattery. We can flatter them, for instance, by giving them a story that confirms their prejudices, which is an “easy way to get a story into the media.” Another way to influence the media is to give them what they want. For example, be “responsive and interesting — no geeks.” Or give them a story about a scientist who “subordinates the scientific ideal to professional interests.”

Scientists, for our part, know that the journalist’s service is really valuable to us:

“A front page mention in the New York Times is worth how much? 20,000? 50,000? Do I hear 200? Do I hear a MacArthur Grant? An NIH grant?”

In his view, when scientists come to journalists, we’re not doing science, we’re advancing an agenda, we’re doing PR.

A couple of other gems:

  • Asked about engineering coverage as opposed to science coverage, Munro quipped, “The problem is, if engineers do their jobs right, the bridge doesn’t fall down.”
  • Asked how she felt about Hollywood celebrities getting involved in environmental issues, Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post said that she interviews them sometimes, and that some celebrities know what they are talking about and some don’t. Then, “Actually, Robert Redford knows what he’s talking about and most of the others don’t.”

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The Greatest Threat

Today was all about foreign policy. We heard from 3-star General William Odom (Ret.), who was the head of the National Security Agency under Reagan and is now a professor at Yale. His unexpected but reasonable assertion was that the Greatest Threat to the United States is not terrorism, or China, or a nuclear North Korea or Iran, but incompetent American leadership. America, he says, has enjoyed a unique sort of empire since World War II, largely by virtue of the troops left in Europe and Northeast Asia since that time, creating security which allowed Japan, Germany, and South Korea to develop into prosperous, friendly states. That troop presence has been reduced under Bush, and if it is further reduced or eliminated, Odom fears disaster would ensue. And of course, Bush is doing many other things to destabilize “America’s Inadvertent Empire.”

Among Odom’s other refreshing views: the energy crisis should be solved by putting a $2/gallon tax on gasoline and using the proceeds to fund a Manhattan-project-style shift in the energy system, including a network of bullet trains to displace passenger air travel and cargo trucking, and development of improved nuclear power plants.

In other news, Moisés Náim, Editor-in-Chief of Foreign Policy and former director of the World Bank made the provocative claim that the Greatest Threat is not terrorism but illicit trade (smuggling, trafficking, counterfeiting). He explained that these activities are ubiquitous, sophisticated, highly organized, rapidly growing, and have never been successfully contained by any government. It’s all in his new book. By the end of his talk, I don’t know if I was convinced illicit trade is the the most important thing, but I went from not caring about the subject to being intrigued. I put the book on my potential reading list.

Náim also gives us today’s quote, which relates to yesterday’s post. He was explaining that the extensive illegal trade networks can exist because governments, or at least parts of governments, are complicit:

“All regulated businesses spend a portion of their revenue influencing their regulators. In some countries, it’s legal, it’s called lobbying. In other countries, it’s illegal, it’s called corruption.”

Said with black-and-white assurance, as only an economist can pull off.

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Quote of the day

Today we heard from several lobbyists, including a lobbyist for a large, public university, a lobbyist for the American Medical Association, and one for the American Physical Society. I think they wanted to make the point that not all lobbyists are evil and that they perform an important function in our government. They emphasized direct trading of money for votes is illegal, and mentioning campaign donations while in a representative’s or senator’s office is illegal. Also, many lobbyists and lobbying firms have rules about the kinds of clients they will take on and won’t lobby for the tobacco industry, for instance. On the other hand, there is no doubt that money makes politics go; the average House representative has to raise $10,000 per week to mount a competitive reelection campaign. Political donors get priority when congress members and congressional staff are choosing who to meet with. The speakers admitted that other lobbyists (not like them) are simply available to the highest bidder, and one mentioned that the going rate to buy 15 minutes with your representative is $5000.

Nonprofit organizations, however, like public universities and scientific societies, are prohibited from making campaign contributions. They must rely on appeals to reason, to abstract benefits, and goodwill toward their institutions to gain influence. And so the quote of the day comes from the university lobbyist, who lamented, “being a higher education lobbyist is like being a eunuch at the orgy.”

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Congressional fun facts of the day

Today at a talk I attended, a Senior Specialist in American National Government at the Congressional Research Service related the single most important factor to change the U.S. Congress since the 1960′s. It’s not the rise of cable news networks, the increase in bitter partisanship, or accelerating technological change. It’s the jet plane. The jet plane allows members of congress to take more trips home and spend less time in session. The number of trips per year was limited by internal rules for a while. The limit was increased and eventually gave way, culminating in the last Congress, when members typically only spent Tuesday to Thursday in Washington, heading home every Thursday afternoon. The extra time in the home district allowed them to be more available to constituents and more responsive during local crises. Of course, floor votes and committee meetings still had to be attended, so what aspect of congressional business was sacrificed for this compressed schedule? “Being informed,” says the Specialist. They used to hold hearings with experts to get informed on issues and legislation, but that became less and less common.

Later in the day, I heard a talk from U.S. Representative Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) who informed us that Nancy Pelosi, upon becoming Speaker of the House, decided they needed to make up for a lot of lost time and one of her first actions was to institute a 5-day work week. The current Congress, apparently, is set to hit some record of most number of days in session. And they have been holding a lot of hearings. They heard testimony from the Administrator of the EPA, who, Markey says, hasn’t appeared before the committee in charge of EPA funding in any of the previous 6 years (which is rather amazing).

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Americans growing more socially isolated

Put this in the column of confirmed suspicions. This study in the American Sociological Review comes via the Washington Post, via Walter Kirn’s excellent new novel “The Unbinding”. (Apologies that this is old news for some, the study came out in June, 2006.) Repeating a procedure carried out in 1985, a large-scale face-to-face survey found that people have fewer close social ties now than 20 years ago. We’re talking about friends or kin who you can confide in, share personal issues.

The mean number of close friends went down roughly from 3 to 2. And, strikingly, the percentage of respondents who reported no confidant at all went up from 10% to 24%, making it the most common response. The number of close connections with non-kin fell most strongly, while close connections with a spouse increased somewhat. With additional questions about a respondent’s close friends and the connections among them, the researchers determined that friend networks have grown more interconnected and the members more similar to eachother — similar in education level and in all the ways that make kin similar to each other. There is vastly less close friendship among neighbors, coworkers, and comembers of voluntary groups — the kind of people who may have differing viewpoints to share. To quote the authors:

The American population has lost discussion partners from both kin and outside the family. The largest losses, however, have come from the ties that bind us to community and neighborhood. The general image is one of an already densely connected, close, homogeneous set of ties slowly closing in on itself, becoming smaller, more tightly interconnected, more focused on
the very strong bonds of the nuclear family (spouses, partners, and parents).

This seems like a dangerous direction for society to be headed in terms of civic health, as Robert Putnam argues in “Bowling Alone”. Does this have anything to do with the country being more politically polarized?

Another interesting finding is that, on average, people gain more close social ties with more years of schooling, especially more ties outside the family. There is a crossover point where people are more connected outside than within the family. In 1985, that was about 10th grade. Quoting the authors:

The education level at which one is more connected through core discussion ties to the larger community than to family members has shifted up into the graduate degrees, a level of education attained by only a tiny minority of the population. High school graduates and those with some college are now in a very family-dominated social environment of core confidants.

To the extent that Republican values appeal to the isolated family and Democratic values appeal to the interdependent community, might this explain some of the recent Republican drift of the middle-educated?

Overall, these results are open to many interpretations. Is this a story about the isolating effect of cell phones and the Internet? It may be argued that the social networks have simply become wider and more shallow (to accommodate all the new Internet buddies with limited time), but are just as diverse and fulfilling. However, the authors reference plenty of literature about the importance of close relationships.

One thing I’m always keeping an eye out for is the social effects of suburbanization and exurbanization. Is this a story about lower housing density, longer commutes, and ever taller fences around our McMansions? The Washington Post article references Putnam’s estimate that “every 10-minute increase in commutes makes it 10 percent less likely that people will establish and maintain close social ties.”

There’s one interpretation I wouldn’t have thought of, until reading this in the Discussion section:

In his groundbreaking study of social networks, To Dwell among Friends,
Claude Fischer (1982:125–27) labeled those who had only one or no discussion ties with whom to discuss personal matters as having marginal or inadequate counseling support. By those criteria, we have gone from a quarter of the American population being isolated from counseling support to almost half of the population falling into that category.

So is this an explanation for the current national mental illness epidemic? I have puzzled over causes of this epidemic for a while. I expect that environmental toxins play a part, as does the accelerating pace of life and fragmenting social fabric in general. Might it also be simple lack of informal talk therapy?

At least with a PhD my chance of not having any friends is much smaller than average. Which some would consider counterintuitive.


Font Mania

For convoluted bureaucratic reasons, I had to make a resume to apply for a job for which I’ve already been hired. But since I really will be applying for jobs soonish, I figure I may as well make it a good one now. Reviewing my current 3-years-outdated CV, I thought, “I want to make a really nice resume, one with impeccable layout, whitespace, nice fonts, that sort of thing.” I want a design that says “modern and unique”, and “innovative but serious”.

I started looking at fonts. I wasn’t satisfied with any of the fonts with came with my distribution. While Blue Highway has served me well in many slide presentations, I wanted something fresh. I was thinking: sans serif, a little avant garde, not goofy. Delving headlong into the online world of fonts, I discovered a few things:

  • It’s hard to find serious free fonts. The majority of them seem to be wacky or themed.
  • Most free fonts reside on hard-to-navigate sites where they are organized alphabetically by name, which is, of course, totally unhelpful.
  • Real fonts are expensive. But their average quality is way higher than of free fonts and the organization of commercial font websites is way better.

However, seems to be a sort of compromise with fonts for $2 each of intermediate quality. I considered shelling out for one. For a few seconds, I even considered paying ~$40 for a nice Bitstream font. “It’ll become my signature font”, I thought. And then I found It was a revelation. There were rays of light and choir ahhs. Loads of high quality free fonts, organized by category, group-able by designer, and sortable by popularity in a decent interface. As I browsed the site, my roommates had to suffer through my squeals of delight when coming across a particularly good one. I made them look at a few I thought demanded sharing. I started wondering if my system would be noticeably slower with 40 more fonts.

Which ones to use? I made a sample sheet to compare some of my favorites. For a heading font, I considered Zillah Modern.
Zillah Modern sample
And I took a certain liking to SF New Republic, thinking it has an emphatic modernism and flair. But let’s be honest,
SF New Republic sample
On the body text side, I had an inexplicable attraction to the svelte Geo Sans Light:
Geosans Light sample
Then grammarnerd gave me the smack down when she looked at my sample sheet and said she didn’t like any of them, except, maybe, Pigiarniq. “They draw too much attention to the font.” Still, I held fast to N.O. Movement, which was my initial favorite when I was downloading, for a heading font. I felt it was
N.O. Movement sample
I came to agree about Pigiarniq. It is
Pigiarniq sample

Very good. Then there was creating the actual text, and tons of layout tweaking. I finally got a page I was reasonably satisfied with. This first disappointment is that Pigiarniq is badly hinted in Acrobat. The lowercase e’s and dashes look blurry. It might be back to the drawing board for future submissions, but right not it doesn’t really matter because, you know, I already have the job.

I go to the CMU online job application system. I fill in the fields. I try to attach the resume. They don’t accept PDF resumes. They only accept resumes in Microsoft Word or html format. They accept resumes in H-T-M-fucking-L, but not in Portable Document Format. Neither of those formats, I might add, allows me to retain my fonts. Not that it really matters now. But re-implementing the whole thing in either format is a pain, since everything is a separate text box in my layout program.1 I opt for html, of course, because then I’ll have a web version, at least. I won’t go into the pain of getting it decent and then trying it in IE to find it all messed up.

Really, I should have just used the resume template in my word processor. But there is no going back now. I think I’ve caught the font bug or something. I find myself noticing the fonts on signs and ad copy 2 I find myself looking at the document properties in pdf’s to see which fonts are embedded.

  1. Scribus, an open-source desktop publishing program, functioning something like Adobe Indesign. []
  2. Not that I’m able to identify them; I’m not familiar with many commercial fonts. []

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Urbanism revival in Lawrenceville

The kind of thing I like to see: a happy Post-Gazette article on the success of urbanism in a city neighborhood. It profiles the work of Artists and Cities, Inc., a two-woman development firm that has created three multi-unit buildings in Lawrenceville “where artists can afford to live and/or work.” As a super-bonus, their newest building is a LEED-certified green building (I love the intersection of urbanism and green design).

When I was looking to buy a house two years ago, my real estate agent described Lawrenceville as an “up-and-coming neighborhood”. Foundations and neighborhood organizations have worked very hard to seed a revival by supporting an artistic community there and it has worked pretty well.
It also looks like the neighborhood is moving to the gentrification stage. The first two of Artists and Cities’ buildings filled mostly with artist, but the latest, still under construction, is filling with “mostly young professionals, and a few empty-nesters.” It sounds like a blow for folks in the arts community who might see their rents go up, but the “Cheap Slum -> Bohemification -> Gentrification” seems like the best model of urban redevelopment we have so far.

Now when the rate of renovation and construction in the cities outpaces that of the suburbs, we’ll really have something to get excited about.

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Study finds celebrities really are more narcissistic

Scientific studies of celebrity personalities are really hard to come by, but a new “first of its kind” survey study confirms what most people would expect, that celebrities are indeed more narcissistic than average. Erstwhile fans of the radio call-in show, Loveline (such as myself) will be familiar with the well-credentialed co-host Dr. Drew. He decided that his steady stream of celebrity guests would make a good research sample. He gave them, as well as a control group of MBA students, the 40-question Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) to fill out. The LA Times reports on the research and covers the main points, but the original article1 has some fun details the Times missed. Some interesting results overall:

  • Celebrity average NPI score was 17.8, compared with the US average of 15.3 (p<0.001).
  • Among celebrities, reality TV personalities are the most narcissistic, followed by comedians, actors, then musicians. The Times notes that musicians, the most-skilled group, are least narcissistic, while reality TV stars, the least-skilled group, are most narcissistic. Young and Pinsky hint that the rampant narcissism of reality TV personalities may put upward pressure on the narcissism of the general public, if people take the behavior of those personalities to be normal.
  • Female celebrities are more narcissistic than male celebrities, contrary to MBA students and the general population, where males are more narcissistic.
  • MBA students (especially male MBA students) are more narcissistic than the general population (p<0.05).
  • Narcissism did not vary with years of experience in the entertainment industry or with years of experience in the business world. This suggests that innately more narcissistic people choose the fields as opposed to people becoming more narcissistic as they work in them.

The Times also has an online version of the NPI. Somewhat to my surprise, I turned out to be less narcissistic than the general population. That may be related to the distinction between egotism and narcissism. The Times paraphrases the researchers: “Narcissistic people have low self-esteem and are compensating for it; egotists genuinely love themselves.”

  1. S. Mark Young and Drew Pinsky. Narcissism and celebrity. Journal of Research in Personality. Volume 40, Issue 5 , October 2006, Pages 463-471. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2006.05.005 []

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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. []


Marriage and feminism

I suppose you could call it one of my guilty pleasures, but I actually enjoy reading Salon’s advice column. In a recent letter, a woman writes about getting flak from her feminist peers for wanting to marry at her young age of 21. It’s the sort of ironic inverse of the problem I usually hear about from friends, of getting pressure to marry as they get older. With age of first marriage trending steadily upward, the parents’ and grandparents’ generations are bound to have different sensibilities, and we in the educated class are particularly prone to delay or omit marriage.

Whether or not he meant it to be, I think Cary Tennis’ response to the letter is an interesting volley in the post-feminist debate discussed previously. It’s not a new argument, per se, but it’s well articulated: essentially, that the highest aim of the feminism movement is for women to have freedom of personal choice, and so it is contradictory for this woman’s feminist friends to try to criticize her free choice to get married and have children young.

I think I tend to agree in this case, because her background and environment make it clear that she is making a personal choice for happiness from a position of freedom. But it’s not as clear for women in similar positions who also feel pressured by old-fashioned norms or economic circumstance. Would getting married young and having kids be taking the easy way out in that case?


The high price of California

I don’t think about money very much. I try to live sufficiently below my means that I never have to do math to figure out if I can afford something. Since I’ve had income, I’ve had enough money, and that’s all I need. I don’t often think about the salary associated with my career choices, figuring that I’m bound to end up in something that pays well enough. Even a foundation or a think tank would remit, I imagine, something low on the scale of technical professional salaries, but high enough on the scale of regular people that I wouldn’t worry about it.

And then I read something like this, and wonder if I’d have to be a millionaire to ever buy a house in my home state. Basically, the 11 least affordable housing markets in the U.S. are in California (my home town of Santa Cruz, incidentally, is number two). This is due to several factors, like a high birth rate and immigration, natural boundaries to growth, and pathologically low property taxes. But the interesting one to me is the political limits to growth, which for environmental reasons and concerns about congestion, are pervasive in California.

Santa Cruz, for instance, has both an urban growth boundary1 and a maximum house size regulation2 While it is disputed whether urban growth boundaries increase home price very much, they certainly have an effect. In Santa Cruz, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a large effect. And while it is unfortunate how gentrified the place is becoming, it is nice that there isn’t a new sprawling mess of development every time I go back home to visit, they way there would be in most metropolitan areas. The town changes continually, to be sure, but it is mostly turnover and infill development, which I have come to embrace as a sign of good planning.

But will I ever be able to afford to live in a place like Santa Cruz? Especially as a person who doesn’t want to spend 60% of income on mortgage payments, it’s an open question. Meanwhile I’ll keep my fingers crossed for a housing market crash or another major earthquake3.

  1. We always here about Portland as the poster child for the urban growth boundary and “smart growth”, but surprisingly a lot of communities in CA also have boundaries. []
  2. Wilson, A. and J. Woehland. 2005. Small is beautiful: U.S. house size, resource use, and the environment. Journal of Industrial Ecology 9(1–2): 277–287. []
  3. Kidding on the square, of course. My vague recollection is that the housing market was depressed after the 1989 earthquake as fewer people wanted to move to the area. Although I hear that the Katrina disaster has actually pushed housing prices up in New Orleans since, presumably, so much of the stock was destroyed. []

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No more soda in schools

I’m generally pretty skeptical about corporate willingness to solve the problems they create. As a policy analyst I am a strong proponent of policy intervention when the profit motive fails to produce the best outcome for society. After reading Fast Food Nation and seeing Supersize Me, I became convinced that the practices of large corporations are important causes of the obesity epidemic. When schools started banning soda and junk food, it seemed like the appropriate response. Of course, it’s a tough battle to fight in every school district, since schools get a kickback from soda and junk food sales, and most schools are hard-up for cash.

But in a new twist, the three corporations responsible for more than 90% of soda sales in schools have agreed to stop selling it there, replacing sweetened drinks with bottled water and juice. Apparently all it took was smooth words from our old pal Bill Clinton and the threat of massive litigation. Read all about it in the Times.

The threat of a lawsuit is so often used against The People by corporations; it’s nice to see the tables turned now and then.

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Diet and Global Warming

A paper recently published in Earth Interactions looks at the climate impacts of various North American diets, and in particular the greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts of meat consumption. I saw a poster for this research at AGU in the fall and was somewhat surprised by the findings. After much data-gathering and plenty of assumtions, the authors make the case that the difference in GHG emissions between the average American diet and a vegetarian diet is large — on the order of the difference in emissions between driving an SUV and a sedan.

More generally, animal-product consumption at typical American rates results in GHG emissions of 1-3 tons-CO2-equivalent per year per person. This is in the same range as driving larger vehicles (the consumer activity most commonly associated with climate impact), e.g. 3.6 tons/year difference between a hybrid and an SUV, 1 ton/year between a Camry and a Prius.

So if the whole country went vegan, how much GHG emissions would we avoid? About 6%, it seems. A huge quantity, to be sure, but clearly not the sole solution to climate change. But the point is taken that, on the scale of typical choices that consumers have personal control over, diet is right up there with vehicle choice and home energy efficiency as one of the most important.

Some other interesting tidbits fall out of the analysis. For instance, if one is going to eat a quantity of animal protein, the best type from a climate perspective is poultry. Slightly better than dairy and eggs, and significantly better than fish. Red meat is unsurprisingly worst — by a factor of 2.5 or so (see Figure 3). Still, the usual ethical hierarchy of meat consumption is upset. The emissions for fish are especially surprising since there are none associated with its production. Apparently the high emissions are due to the increasingly large distances that fish are transported.

In any case, I’m sure most of us were generally aware that meat consumption has environmental impacts. We’ve heard figures about how many pounds of grain, how many gallons of water, how many acres of land, are required to produce a pound of beef. Many have made the argument for vegetarianism in terms of resource conservation and availability of food for a growing population. But this is the first analysis I have seen specifically on climate impacts, and it challenges a few of my long-held notions about diet ethics.

As I have written earlier, Vaclav Smil’s book, “Feeding the World” had convinced me that the energy-optimal diet contains some meat, since not all livestock are competing with humans for primary energy. Seafood is the best example of this: there is more food available to a world that eats seafood than one that doesn’t. Hence, perhaps, the prevalence of pesco-vegetarianism. Again from an energy-efficiency perspective, consumption of dairy and eggs makes sense as a source of high-quality protein. But from a climate-impact perspective, things are more complicated. There is a strong case for veganism, if anything, and generally, less meat of any kind is better. And of course, red meat is still the worst.

Smil discussed some evidence that consumption of a small amount of animal protein has had significant health benefits historically (he suggests an optimum of eating meat twice a week or so). The authors of the climate and energy paper devote a section to surveying the health risks of high-protein diets, and assert that vegetarian diets are at least as safe as typical mixed diets. They do not contradict, necessarily, that moderate consumption of animal protein has benefits. Overall, however, I’m less sure of the best diet for good health and a clean conscience since reading this article.


Winter cold

With the news that 2005 was the warmest year on record, I’m almost happy that it’s actually a little cold these days. Fortunately my preferences don’t influence the weather, because I’m not sure whether I would want 2006 to stay warm (for obvious reasons, and so that we continue getting stronger statistical evidence of climate change) or to get abnormally cold, to give all the poor ecosystems some relief (last year much of the arctic was 3 C° warmer than average(!) ).

Anyway, mostly that was a lead-up to show this picture:

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Feminism redux

It could reflect only my previous ignorance, but I feel like Feminism and women’s issues have been getting a lot of play lately. We had Mareen Dowd’s urban-white-successful-girls’ lament1 about how hard it is to find a husband. Then there was Linda Hirshman’s article in the American Prospect describing the “Opt-Out Revolution” (educated women dropping out of careers to be stay-at-home moms) and decrying the brand of feminism that says this is okay if it’s their choice (“choice feminism”). It was an excellent article, if extreme in it’s view that educated women ought always to put careers first, and try to marry dumber, younger, less successful men to make sure they continue to be the bread-winner.

The death of Betty Friedan stirred up the feminist discussion once again and propted Salon editor-in-chief Joan Walsh to enter the fray with “Feminism After Friedan“, which criticizes Hirshman’s absolutism and tries to find some balance in the debate over whether educated stay-at-home moms can be consistent with feminism.

Meanwhile, there was the Samual Elito confirmation. And, spouting bullshit about the “war on boys”, some conservatives are advocating affirmative action for boys entering college (the poor blokes aren’t the majority anymore), and aparently some colleges are already subtly practicing it. What’s more, they tell us all this education is only going get women a harder time finding husbands and raising families, and thus being happy.

There’s significant evidence that men don’t like women who are smarter. They don’t like women who are more successful. They don’t even like women who are funnier.2 What an astoundingly insecure lot we are. Yet somehow, marriage makes people happy (though kids, apparently, do not).

There’s a thorny conceptual challenge at the heart of this mess, which, like many feminists and humanists, I’m still struggling with to develop an opinion. It is fair for women, even successful and educated ones, to want a family and the fulfillment it offers. Unlike Linda Hirshman, I don’t think the workplace is necessarily a greater place for human expression than the home. Betty Friedan asserted that housework could not require enough thought or energy to challenge women. She seemed to think of life as essentially progressive, and that moving forward, leaving one’s mark on the world, is the full expressions of one’s humanity. Work is implicitly a progressive activity in her view, whereas home life is about living vicariously through the progression of your family. But there are a lot of jobs that are no less inane than tending house. And a lot of people feel raising and providing opportunities for their children is the ultimate progressive act.

On the other hand, if more women choose to accept traditional roles, fewer women are able to choose at all. There is still clearly a battle raging for gender equality, less so in the workplace and more so in the home, if one agrees with Walsh. Women seem to be in the position now of having career responsibilities and family responsibilities (or at least of desiring both), creating a tension that doesn’t exist for men, who have not been expected to shoulder much of the family burden. Conservatives advocate a “separate but equal” approach to gender roles. They say “family is what you really want; give back the career.” And those who “opt out” appear to agree. But this approach leads in a dangerous direction. We’ve seen how well separate remains equal before.

I expect there is some new organization of society which will eventually solve this problem — when there is a critical mass of stay-at-home dads, or when technology and labor reorganization (e.g. day care) have so reduced the burden of homemaking that neither parent is expected to stay home. And I would love to see what gender differences look like in absense of social conditioning (how much does biology really matter?). But I tend to believe Hirshman’s claim that feminism is stalled. How do we move toward this new paradigm? And how can women balance their lives in the mean time?

I hope for comments.

  1. “What’s a Modern Girl to Do? New York Times. October 30, 2005. [Lexis-Nexis]
  2. Strike previous three statements and replace with statistically precise and rhetorically clumsy analogues. []


Catching colds on airplanes

Viciousswackles passed this article on from BoingBoing. “Common cold transmission in commercial aircraft: Industry and passenger implications,” (Hocking and Foster, 2004) in the Journal of Environmental Health Research, reviews research on the number of passengers getting colds after flying. They reported that 20 percent of passengers who flew on a 2.5 hour flight (San Francisco to Denver) developed colds within a week, compared with a base rate of 3.5%. Depending on what you consider to be the period of infection related to flying, one is 5, 23, or 113 times more likely to get a cold when flying. The authors discount the conventional wisdom that infections result from recirculated air, but they contend that insufficient per-person flow of fresh air and extremely low relative humidity may be responsible.

Normally a layer of mucous in the nose and throat traps inhaled pathogens and cilia migrate them to the stomach to be destroyed by acid. But in very dry conditions the mucous lining dries out and this mechanism ceases, making one more suseptible to infection. The authors suggest that wearing a mask may help by increasing one’s local relative humidity. They also call for airlines to try increasing air flow and humidifying cabin air.


Consumer Reports on organic food

Consumer Reports has a good article on the benefits of buying organic. The section on chemical health risk describes new studies that show pesticide exposure through conventional foods is harmful and that an organic diet dramatically reduces exposure. A helpful summary of what and what not to buy organic notes the most pesticide-laden foods.

Some highlights from the article:

  • “Apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach, and strawberries” are the worst to buy conventional (best to buy organic).
  • Organic foods are particularly important for expecting mothers and kids (stick to organic baby food).
  • The “organic” label is meaningless on seafood.
  • “Free Range”, “Free Roaming”, “Natural”, and “All Natural” as applied to, e.g., eggs and poultry, are meaningless labels, but “organic” does imply free-range for poultry, dairy, and eggs.

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Meat and resources

I’m reading pieces of the book “Feeding the World” by Vaclav Smil. Among other things, he compares the energy efficiencies of diary, eggs, and various meats and discusses potential improvements in production.

One of the most powerful points he makes is that, from the perspective of energy-efficiency, or land-efficiency, or maximizing the earth’s carrying capacity, there’s an optimal level of meat consumption that is probably less than the American per-capita average, but definitely nonzero.

The usual argument is that it takes 10 pounds of grain to produce a pound of beef, so we can feed more people by not raising beef. But not all livestock is grain fed. In particular, a lot of livestock grazes on pasture land, agricultural residues, and legumes planted in rotation with food species; these are not in competition with human food crops. Sea animals generally do not compete with human food crops either. The implication is that the best-managed food supply would involve some meat production, even if you use all the land possible for human crops.

One might extend this to decide that it’s (environmentally) ethical to have a diet that includes a small amount of meat. Smil also gives some evolutionary arguments for why eating some meat (say, a tenth of that in the American diet) is biologically adaptive for humans.

If one decides that some meat should be consumed, then there are more and less efficient animals to eat, and Smil presents a lot of quantitative data on this. On every measure, beef comes out the worst (e.g. 5-8% protein conversion efficiency). Eggs (30-40%), and particularly milk (30-40%), and salmon (40-45%) come out pretty good on conversion efficiency. Eggs and milk also do well on land use, chickens and eggs on water use. Pigs look good a number of measures, partly because they eat a lot of agricultural waste and they digest it efficiently, but I actually think Smil gets it wrong on the benefits of pigs because he’s ignoring the life cycle issues with hog waste (nasty water pollution).

Overall, I’d say there’s strong support for lactoovo vegetarianism. There’s also good support for eating, say, fish but not other meat, or poultry but not beef, from an energy-balance perspective. This is also a conclusion I drew from the life-cycle analyses of meats in The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices..