Thursday, December 30, 2010

'Tis The Season

2010 was a census year, which means it's redistricting time for congressional districts.  The NY Times had an interesting article yesterday, which miraculously didn't take a position on the existential horrors of partisan gerrymandering.  Don't worry, as time progresses I'm sure we'll be hearing plenty about the partisan infection of our redistricting process.

But let's take a minute to really think about redistricting.  Firstly, can we ever have a "fair" district?  By the time the lines are drawn, regional immigration will have made the careful population calculations inaccurate.  And what do we even mean by "fair"?  If every state constructed every district to be a 50-50 Democrat-Republican toss-up, we'd have a massively biased partitioning.

Any invisible line we draw creates an artificial, biased district.  No congressional district will speak with one voice anyways, so why does it matter if our political parties manipulate the process for partisan advantage?  What is the most just thing to do?  Energy, climate change, and ecological destruction are the three most important issues today.  The Democratic party is vastly better on these issues.  The most just thing is for Democrats to fight tooth and nail for every last scrap of partisan advantage.  Go get 'em.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Friday, December 17, 2010

Vertical Farming: The Coolest Idea Ever

The Economist recently ran a fascinating article (plus a great interview) about the feasibility of vertical farming.  Although plain-old rooftop farming is probably a more cost-effective approach for now, architects and designers have been going nuts creating amazing concepts for high-tech vertical farms.  This idea is exciting because it seems very possible: sustainable farming pioneers like Growing Power in Wisconsin and Polyface Farms in Virginia have already demonstrated the stunning efficiency improvements of vertically stacking different food production systems.

Vertical farming would be an important step towards decoupling food production from the requirements of land, soil, weather, etc.  Being able to grow food in a closed room is critical to achieving the long-term goal of exploring and colonizing space, and widespread vertical farming would teach us a lot about growing food in confined spaces.  The recent boom in green roof construction can be seen as early steps toward full-fledged vertical farms.  Here's hoping!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Some Thoughts On Wikileaks

Say what you will about Ron Paul, on certain issues he argues more clearly than any other politician currently in office.  His recent defense of Wikileaks from the House floor is fantastic.  This recent Wikileaks media freak-out is fascinating for many reasons, but I suspect much of it has to do with Julian Assange's slightly James-Bond-villain qualities.  If you don't believe me, check this out (yes, it's real).

The New York Times recently had some interesting commentary outlining other facets of the Wikileaks controversy, notably a discussion of the technological context that made Wikileaks possible.  Since the digital and information revolutions began, information of every type has grown in magnitude and become increasingly accessible.  This has been an overwhelmingly positive thing for the planet, even if certain groups or industries have been damaged by it (think music industry).  But let's not fool ourselves into thinking that more information is always better and that technological change is always positive.

The question of whether Wikileaks is good or bad is a tricky one.  There are different answers depending on the population in question: it could be bad for the U.S. and yet good for humanity (it is most certainly good for journalists... or is it?).  A good way to analyze this question is by looking at property rights.  Patents exist to create incentives for individuals and businesses to innovate; if an inventor can't exclusively own or control his invention, others can free-ride and the whole system falls apart.  This fear of corroding property rights is at the heart of most critiques of internet mega-trends.  Bloggers free-ride off big news corporations' investments of on-the-ground reporting, thus reducing the incentive to invest in reporting.  Intelligence loses much of its value if not kept secret, so Wikileaks free-rides off government investments, reducing the value of it's operations.

The internet causing a devolution into anarchy is a major theme in many of science fiction writer Neal Stephenson's books.  In Snow Crash, the CIA spins off and morphs into a private company involved in the buying and selling of information.  In The Diamond Age, government's inability to tax anonymous business transactions results in anarcho-capitalism.

Now, I don't think Wikileaks is there yet in terms of impact, but these admittedly fantastical futures do reveal one crystal-clear fact: that cryptography and information security will become increasingly important as the volume and velocity of information increases.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Future

An amazingly creative vision of a possible future of technology.  He goes a little far at the end, but I respect the decision to really push these trends to their absolute limit, given certain assumptions.  Check it:

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A New Climate Change Discourse

Since its emergence as a major issue, the public discourse on climate change has focused primarily on preventing its harmful effects.  By predicting the consequences of climate change, we are better able to understand the dire necessity of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  By focusing on strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (technology, government policy & regulation), we are better able to understand the trade-offs associated with different solutions.  Recently the idea of geoengineering, or global engineering solutions designed to prevent negative effects of climate change after greenhouse gasses have been emitted, has become popular in some circles.

Perhaps as a reaction to the extreme pessimism inherent in geoengineering proposals, a new category of climate change discussion is popping up: adaptation.  Whereas geoengineering is simply another attempt to prevent climate change's negative effects (albeit later in the geophysical process than reducing emissions), adaptation takes harmful climate change scenarios as givens, investigating how human societies and economies might adapt.

The Economist ran a great briefing about adaptation a few weeks ago, but the most comprehensive investigation of adaptation so far is the book Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future by Matthew Kahn.  A UCLA urban economist, Kahn looks at how climate change scenarios will affect the global economy, specifically cities.  He concludes that individual action will result in populations "voting with their feet" by moving away from areas hit the hardest.  Additionally, innovators who find ways of solving new problems caused by climate change will find much support.  The third major conclusion Kahn draws is that adaptation will be much easier for richer, developed populations, increasing socioeconomic inequality.  This seems like an obvious conclusion, but discussing it explicitly was incredibly uncomfortable yet refreshing: the banality of poverty and socioeconomic issues in developed countries today will probably just continue for the most part, albeit with a slightly rejiggered cast.

Though Kahn accepts discredited economic assumptions and models as truth a bit too readily (contrary to the University of Chicago's dogma, the map is not the territory), his core ideas are wonderfully conceptual.  The immigration he envisions might be orderly or fraught with conflict.  The individual "innovators" who develop effective adaptation strategies might be businesses selling floating houses or cheap air-conditioners, but they could just as easily be eco-warlords controlling walled cities housing the rich and the skilled.  Don't worry, though,  there are plenty of specific predictions and investigations for the detail-oriented: will Manhattan flood?  Should I buy property in Fargo, ND? Etc.

Focusing exclusively on the solutions and consequences of inaction, though useful in generating political support for action, suffers from a bad sensationalist bias.  Predictioneers always think that dire changes or critical thresholds are just around the corner, but the future usually turns out to be much more mundane and slow-moving.  Climate change is obviously an unprecedented global challenge, but the collapse of modern civilization is highly unlikely.  The internet isn't going away, and technological and cultural innovation will continue.  What's far more likely is a dull, painful slog with increasing social inequality and fluctuating geographic capital of long-inhabited locations.

Studying climate change adaptation is a breath of fresh air.  Climate change worriers like myself have been in deep despair for a while now.  Talk of adaptation might harm attempts to generate political support for prevention efforts, but it seems more intellectually honest.  The political dysfunction associated with this issue makes it increasingly unlikely that major prevention efforts will occur anytime soon.  Instead of despair, adaptation presents a new avenue for creative thinkers wanting to get involved.