Quote of the day

In another court victory for California’s effort to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, a federal judge in Fresno threw out a lawsuit filed by the big automakers. (See story in the Sacramento Bee or LA Times.) The best quote on the matter comes from David Bookbinder of the Sierra club, after noting that the automakers keep losing in court, but will probably still file an appeal:

Sooner or later they’re going to have to stop throwing lawyers at the problem and start hiring engineers.

Damn straight.

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Quote of the day

I have to share this bit of wisdom from my Good Earth tea bag:

Anything too stupid to be said is sung.

-Voltaire

It reminds of the times I’ve tried to write lyrics of my own. I always get stuck because I don’t want to write something too cheesy. But when I read the lyrics of many songs I like without listening to the music, I tend to think, “this is so cheesy”, or “this doesn’t make any sense”.

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Visualizing global human development statistics

Thanks to Costa at Sustainable Research for pointing out this amazing data visualization tool. The folks at Gapminder have put together an interactive graph that lets you plot a variety of statistics by country, like “physicians per 1000 people”, and “percent urban population”. After looking at a lot of different relationships (hmm, what happens with % women in the labor force vs. % of government spending on the military?), I’m surprised how few variable pairs have a clear relationship. Most of them look random, or maybe have different trends for different regions. But what begins to become interesting is identifying the outliers, like, who has higher per capita CO2 emissions than the US? Who would’ve guessed Trinidad and Guam? Looking at trends over time is also fascinating. Time runs as a variable-speed animation, so you can step through the decades and watch China’s life expectancy dip during the cultural revolution, and watch Rwanda’s make a startling plummet during the genocide.

Beyond the specific statistics available, this is an amazing tool for visualizing data. Between the x-axis, y-axis, dot color, dot size, and time animation, you can individually select and see 5 dimensions of data at the same time, all with a friendly and effective user interface. Of course, it raises the question of whether people can actually process that much information. I found myself turning one or more dimensions off so as not to confuse myself. Maybe with experience you could train yourself to detect patterns or outliers in a 5-D visualization, but I wonder if you’d be able to see, for instance, a 3-way interaction that wasn’t obvious in any 2-D representation.

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The cultural consequences of fast food

Many of us know of chef Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse and an originator of California Cuisine. In her new cookbook, she promotes local, seasonal, organic, and minimally-processed foods, and a philosophy of paying attention to where your ingredients come from, taking time and care with your food, and eating with friends and family. These are all things I agree with. And I’ve spent time thinking about the health and environmental consequences of my food. But Waters elevates the importance of our food choices above the direct impacts of the ingredients. In an interview in Salon, she makes the most eloquent case that I’ve seen so far that food choices have cultural consequences:

When we’re eating fast food, we’re not just eating the food, we’re eating a set of values that comes with the food. And it’s telling us that food should be cheap. It’s telling us that food should be the same no matter where we are on the planet. It’s telling us that advertising confers value. That it’s OK to eat 24 hours a day. That there are unlimited resources. It’s telling us that the work of the people who grow or raise the food is unimportant — in fact we don’t even need to know. And all of those values are informing what’s happening in the world around us. We’re ending up with malls instead of beautiful places to live in.

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Meetings

I can say this much about government work: there are a lot of meetings. My supervisor, for instance, spends probably 80% of his time in meetings. So far I’ve spent about 30% of my time in meetings. If I consider the time preparing for and traveling to meetings, responding to meeting-scheduling requests and follow-up emails, sometimes I’m surprised anything else gets done. And here’s the rub: most of these meetings are necessary. At least at the EPA, and probably at other government agencies and large organizations, there are so many arms doing different but related things, that if they don’t meet all the time, it leads to a lot of repeated work and unshared, useful knowledge.

But the sharing of work and knowledge makes up only a fraction of meeting time, of course. There are requisite digressions of a personal nature — usually about kids. There are digressions of a technical nature, my personal favorite and the type most common in academic meetings, but disappointingly rare in my meetings at the EPA. There is philosophical debate about big-picture issues, and philosophical debate about minutiae.

And so every meeting is supposed to have and Agenda and “Action Items” — the things that we will actually do as a result of the meeting. Different meeting-personality types will push different types of digression, and if you get too many of the same type dominating the meeting, you can expect the meeting to go very long. Thank goodness for the personalities who push the Agenda and harp on Action Items. I’m convinced that if it weren’t for these rare type-A meeting-personalities, the administrative end of the government would grind to a halt, gummed up by endless meetings running later and later with no Action Items in sight.

Although, interestingly, sometimes the digressions are the point. As in, by chit-chatting with a few staff members from office X, we are building rapport, so when our office criticizes the report from office X, we have support from the inside to temper the anger of the director. Or, by reminiscing about the good old days when we worked together in Region 8, I’ll find out who has moved in since, and what the new agendas and projects are. And let’s not forget this motivation: often, being in a meeting is easier than working.

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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 ethical bright line

Though I have thought about the corrupting potential of politics, I haven’t been really afraid of becoming corrupt myself (family members have expressed concern about this, however). I feel I am secure enough in my sense of self, and not particularly motivated by money or power, so I am at a pretty low risk for getting caught up in ethically questionable doings. And so the quote of the day from Friday (yes, posted a little late) gives me pause.

The quote comes from Raynard Kington, Deputy Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a man with a fascinating and variegated career, who happened to become the chief ethics officer at NIH during a serious scandal a few years back. He says,

The hardest part of Washington is knowing where you ethical line, your bright line is. Because it’s not so bright when you cross it. When you get up close to it, it looks rather gray.

He suggested we decide where our line is in advance (of coming to Washington, presumably). He explained that knowing your bright line is the “most difficult thing to prepare for” and that “it’ll stay with you for the rest of your life if you cross it.” Even if no one knows, “because you probably won’t get caught. But you’ll know.”

And yet, it’s hard for me to even imagine what ethically-challenging situation I’d be faced with, let alone plan my choices. I may just have to wing it.

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The pug

One of my housemates has a pug. The biggest, fattest pug I’ve ever seen, and possibly ever. This animal is endearing in the way that, immediately upon looking at him, one can’t help but feel sympathy for his plight, and be simultaneously amused by the sheer absurdity of his existence. His proportions are all wrong, his movements are labored and awkward, and he shows excitement by snorting wildly. And yet, in that snort, you can sense a pure and simple happiness that someone is there to pet or entertain him. He seems to have no agenda of his own but follow around people and observe their doings, and with his bulging eyes makes a silent, persistent case to be petted.

And the corollary is, I’ve never seen a creature frown so distinctly as he does when he is watching you go out the front door, knowing you are leaving him alone to hours of destitute boredom, belly laid against the floor in an attempt to stay cool, too-short legs splayed in every odd direction, snoring through his inadequate breathing passageways. Because as far as I can tell, this is precisely all he does when no one is around (and often even when they are around).

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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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Goodbye housemates, I barely knew ye

My house had a goodbye get-together for a pair of departing housemates, a German couple who are heading back to Germany. It might as well have been a farewell for everyone, since all 5 of my co-habitants for the last month are leaving today, except for the Germans who left yesterday. And so this Coronas-on-the-porch get-together became, at times, a venting session, executed with I’m-never-going-to-see-you-again-so-I-don’t-care honesty. I learned that one couple went on an unannounced chore strike, apparently in response to the unannounced chore strike undertaken by another housemate, who we’ll call George. This let the trash pile up to absurd heights, leaving the sweet and responsible German girl to pick up the slack.

George openly admitted to not taking out the trash (his assigned chore) “because [he doesn't] use the kitchen that much”, leaving old food in the fridge, and never cleaning the bathroom that he shares with one other guy (“I let [the other guy] do it. If he had a problem with that, he should have told me.”). Jake took a break from the party to walk down to the corner store and buy himself a forty. He swears a lot. He tried, in front of us all, to argue with the house manager to get out of paying his last month’s utilities. Though I have to give him credit for being funny and saying what he thinks, George is an unrepentant jerk, one of a class of abrasive people who always demand special treatment and, frustratingly, by force of will, often seem to get it. I always wonder if there will be a day of reckoning for people like that.

The Germans, by contrast, seemed pleasant and responsible, and are probably now surrounded by like-minded people in their homeland. Another housemate is off to sociology grad school. He seemed cool enough. The other couple struck me as too easily caught up in house dramas. Everybody is in the 23-25 age range, and I felt like I could detect a strain of immaturity compared to my ripe old age of 27, but maybe I’m just reading that in. My new housemates, supposedly all moving in today and tomorrow (I’m skeptical that the current ones will be completely moved out, judging by the current state of things, but we’ll see) are somewhat older and hopefully less drama-prone and more responsible. I’ve not really met any of them, so all I can do is cross my fingers that it will be a good bunch.

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Long lights, large city

One difficulty of urban living that I’ve noticed is the stoplights around here are often on really long timing cycles. And with major artery roads crossing every which way, it’s very difficult not to cross several of them, say, on a run. Because the walk signs have count-down timers, I know that typical cycle times are 45-65 seconds, which, when you are panting and sweating next to a bunch of commuters in business attire, is a really awkward length of time to wait, as well as long enough to kill a good running groove. Sometimes the lights along the same street are coordinated, so by traversing one way or another I can fast-forward stoplight time. But If I choose the wrong direction, I put it in slow motion: at each new block I hit, the sign still reads “47″, and I’ll never get to cross.

I used to be proud of my ability to stay upright and almost stopped on my bike for the course of most light cycles. Now, more often than not, I have to give up and put a foot down before it turns green. Especially when there are 3 or more cycles, each 30-60 seconds, that’s a lot of wait time.

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Back on the ‘net

After a month hiatus, R/C is back online. Since it used to be hosted on my office computer, it didn’t stay up for the move. But now I’m moved and unpacked enough to be able to upload the files to my new, carbon neutral server at Dreamhost.com. Yes, it’s very exciting, because starting life in a new city means plenty to blog about. Stay tuned for all the, um, juicy details.

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Gov’t Speak

I’m in Washington, DC right now, talking to a lot of EPA staff and other “beltway insiders”. Most everyone I’ve talked to has been thoughtful and interesting and very nice. But I can’t help but notice some linguistic peculiarities, like a proclivity for the word “linkages”, which, like “utilize” is a sort-of-smarter-sounding stand-in for an equivalent, shorter word. I’ve also heard “systemic” as a replacement for systematic, which I guess is shorter, but it’s still irritating.

There are the acronyms, of course. Their use is understandable. You have a lot of multi-word office and program names you use all the time, you start abbreviating. But then you start communicating with a string of capital letters and I have to wonder, is anything really being said? I mean, even if I knew what all the acronyms meant, it seems like you would need some verbs and adjectives. In any case, I thought academics had a hard time accounting for the audience and defining acronyms where appropriate. It turns out we do pretty well compared to some government types who seem to forget they are using lingo at all.

There is also, it seems to me, rampant use of vague language to describe day-to-day activities, like “facilitate”, “connect”, “interface”, “vision”, and “leverage resources”, as in “Our vision is to liaise with many other offices and interface particularly closely with XYZ in order to facilitate collaboration and better leverage our resources.” I’m not sure which of my two theories about this is more disturbing: (1) that most of the time it’s expedient for agency officials to talk about their work in vague, buzzwordy language because, for instance, the lawyers and politicos they usually talk to eat it up, or (2) the majority of time is really spent on phone calls and meetings and other things that are most accurately described as “facilitating” and “liaising”.

I can credit everyone I’ve talked with so far for not resorting to the most cliche business lingo, like extraneously appending “moving forward” (meaning “in the future”) when the verb tense already implies that. No one has even mentioned synergy. But there is a lot of hogwash about strategic plans and long-term visions. If a year from now I start going on about how I’m leveraging resources to facilitate the goals in Administrator So and So’s YYZY plan for XZZ, I hope someone will kick me.

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Hawaii photos

I totally forgot to post photos from my Hawaii trip in January until I unloaded a more recent set from my camera. It was a fabulous visit to the Big Island, including stays at a luxurious mega-resort and a smelly, sketchy bed and breakfast. The hiking, snorkeling, and lounging were excellent. The other-worldly landscapes of Volcano National Park were spectacular (but heavy rain kept away the camera). It’s a trip I can heartily recommend.

[photopress:Hawaii_sunset.jpg,thumb,pp_empty] [photopress:Looking_down_into_Wai__po_Valley.jpg,thumb,pp_empty] [photopress:Coral_beach_at_Waikoloa.jpg,thumb,pp_empty]
[photopress:Shore_from_the_floor_of_Wai__po_Valley.jpg,thumb,pp_empty] [photopress:Ocean_spray_in_Waikloa.jpg,thumb,pp_empty]  

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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.

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Art is good for elementary schoolers

I went to elementary school in California amid serial budget cuts. First went the school buses. Then went the art program. The music program got scaled-back. I think the activities for gifted students went away for a few years and came back. In any case, why do we need art education? Why not focus on math and science — the kind of skills that prepare kids for real jobs? Here’s one answer: the Boston Globe reports on a study of 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders that found visiting a museum and associated classroom activities improved kids’ critical thinking skills. Interestingly, Garrison Keillor remarks that that’s such an obvious result, it wasn’t worth the Department of Education’s $750,000 of funding.

Well, sometimes it’s important to restate the obvious, in study form. Our economy does not value the fine arts very well. I’ll bet we wouldn’t have many museums if it weren’t for a small number of extremely wealthy individuals who had, or who’s heirs had, liberal arts educations. I have often wondered about the utility of art and whether such lavish museums are worth supporting. Here is at least one way to think about the benefits: observing, evaluating, and trying to talk about art is a complex cognitive process that kids(/people) should practice.

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Game theory and whether to wear a tie

A bunch of us have to give short research presentations tomorrow to help convince our funders to keep giving us money. My officemate Costa and I had the following exchange:

“I don’t know if I should wear a tie. Are you going to wear a tie?”

“I was going to wear one because you said yesterday you were going to wear one.”

“Well I’m going to wear one if you wear one. Game theory, man.”

“Shit, what’s the Nash Equilibrium? I think it’s if we both wear ties.”

There was some general agreement around the room, and that’s where we left it. But because I’m an unreconstructed geek, I started thinking about this later. Is that the right answer? What kind of game is this? I reasoned that the best outcome is for everyone not to wear ties, but by far the worst outcome is to be the only one not wearing a tie (“better to be overdressed than underdressed”). I made a payoff table, simplifying it to two players. It looks something like this, where each box has the outcome for [Player 1, Player 2].

  Player 2 No Tie Player 2 Wears Tie
Player 1 No Tie good, good bad, okay
Player 1 Wears Tie okay, bad less good, less good

It turns out this is a “coordination game”: we’re both better off if we play the same strategy. Like any (2-player) coordination game, there are actually two Nash Equilibria, either of the boxes on the diagonal (top-left, bottom-right). Except I do feel I prefer to play “wear a tie” if I don’t know what Costa is going to do. That way, I avoid the risk of being under-dressed (generally with coordination games, you can rationally play either strategy if you don’t know anything about what the other player is doing. Interestingly, this game fits a special class of coordination games called “Stag Hunts”, where there is a conflict between safety and cooperation. We can cooperate for the best outcome (everybody agree not to wear ties) or we can play it safe and wear the ties, not trusting that everyone else will dress down. So there are generally two types of equilibrium strategies — the payoff-dominated one (lose the tie and take a shot at the best outcome), and the risk-dominant one (wear the tie just in case: forgo the best outcome but avoid the worst one). I guess in the setting of giving a talk, I’m feeling risk-averse.

Apparently the stag hunt can be used as a model for social cooperation and biological cooperation in a lot of settings, like it’s more-famous cousin, the “prisoner’s dilemma”.

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Air capture in National Geographic

Since I’ve now heard about it from 20 or so people, I feel like everyone must know about the Virgin Earth Challenge. But since probably a few people have not heard about it: Virgin Airlines owner Richard Branson is offering a $25 million prize to the team that comes up with the best design for a device that captures CO2 from the atmosphere. It just so happens that I’ve been researching such devices for more than 4 years now, and even built a prototype of a component of such a device as part of my PhD thesis research. So am I going to enter the contest? I’m not sure. It would be a lot of work and I was about ready to move on from carbon capture technology. I will see what the full contest requirements look like when they release them in a few months. Certainly a lot of friends have encouraged me to enter. I like the way Miriam put it: “Yours is the story that all grad students dream about. You toil away thanklessly in the basement for years and then all of a sudden this magical fairy comes down and offers you fame and fortune for all your hard work. You have to enter the contest.” (Or something along those lines.) I have to do it to give hope to the huddled masses of graduate students out there.

But in the mean time, the announcement of the challenge has drawn a lot of media attention to my work. Apparently a web search on atmospheric carbon capture brings up my thesis rather quickly, and I continue to be contacted by reporters almost weekly. This article in National Geographic has a lot of quotes from me. The article fudges a couple of things; it set’s up a false dichotomy between me and the manager of the International Energy Agency’s greenhouse gas research program (he says that capture would be cheaper from power plants and I don’t disagree). But basically the article gives me a soapbox to say a few of the most important things I can about air capture. Which is pretty awesome.

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