Archive for January, 2008

Books are dead (long live books!)

kindle-blogs.jpgSteve Jobs, speaking on what he thought of Amazon’s Kindle said: “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is; the fact is that people don’t read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year.”

But Garr Reynolds points out in his excellent blog and book by the same name: Presentation Zen:

It is true that a large minority of people in the US do not read even a single book in a year. But as Randall Stross pointed out in his New York Times article, “the overall distribution is balanced somewhat [in the US] by those who read a lot.” In my own case, as every year goes by and technology gets better and better, I actually buy more and more books. I buy more books perhaps because I am far more aware of books in the long tail thanks to blogs and the increased avenues for Word of Mouth marketing that reach me.

At $399 + $10/month subscription (includes EVDO wireless connection) the Kindle isn’t cheap – but just imagine, you could get latest commentary from Broken Spines via RSS feed whilst sitting on the train and flip back over to finish reading Freedom for the Thought We Hate all on the same device.

A Caucus-Race and a Long Tale

alice-rackham-caucuswon1.jpgSuper Duper Tuesday is a week from tomorrow February 5, caucuses start at 7PM.  Are you ready?  Did you see the Kennedy clan endorsed Obama over the weekend?  As long as I have the pulpit, and for as much as you care, I’m all in for Obama and Franken. 

Alright – so, where do you go?  For those of you in Minnesota, click the links below to find your caucus location: 

 For those of you outside of the great state of Minnesota, go to your state government’s website and look for the secretary of state – if they’re doing their job they’ll have instructions on what to do.  If not check the national party sites: Democrats, Republcians, Independence Party (interestingly, the Minnesota IP site comes up ahead of the national site in Google), Green Party, Constitution Party.

What’s the point?

  • Cast your Presidential Preference Ballot (results determine how many delegates each candidate gets at the national convention).
  • Show your support for your favorite candidate for U.S. Senate in 2008.
  • Have your say in your party platform.

Uh, what is a Precinct Caucus anyway?

A precinct caucus is essentially a neighborhood meeting where you gather to choose a candidate for President, to show their support for candidates at all levels, and to have a real voice in the your party’s platform. At more than 4,000 precinct caucuses on February 5, Minnesota DFLers will:

  • Vote for their favorite candidate in the Presidential Preference Ballot
  • Elect delegates to Senate District or County Unit Conventions
  • Sign up to become election judges
  • Pass resolutions to help develop the platform. 

Do I have to be a card-carrying partisan to be eligible?

Any Minnesotan can participate if they are: eligible to vote by November 4, 2008 and not an active member of an opposing political party (or attending another political party’s caucus in 2008).

How Do I Find My Precinct Caucus?

Click the party links above or visit the Secretary of State’s website to find out your precinct caucus information.

I can’t get enough of this!  How do I become a delegate?

To be a delegate at the state or national convention, you start by running to be a delegate at your precinct caucus. As a delegate to your Senate District or County Conventions, you can run to be a delegate to both your Congressional District and State Conventions. You can also volunteer for your favorite candidates.

What if I can’t attend my precinct caucus?

You can submit a letter to your caucus asking to be elected as a delegate to your county unit convention. The letter must include your contact information, and your affirmation that you are eligible to participate (as described above).

Dude, where’s my car?

On Morning Edition this morning, NPR reported that four Canadian teens in trouble for car theft were ordered to attend a counseling program. But how to get there when the temperature in Winnipeg was 40 degrees below zero? Much too cold to walk, which may explain why the teens arrived for the anti-car-theft counseling session in a newly stolen car.

 This is funny for two reasons:

  1. -40 degrees F will make a person resourceful
  2. Canadians have a anti-car-theft counseling program

I worked for a Canadian company once, and a friend of mine there said, “you Americans have that saying ‘as American as apple pie’…in Canada we say ‘as Canadian as is possible under the circumstances'”!  Hilarious!  You gotta love our hearty neighbors to the north.

All of this got me think about anti-theft devices – here’s a creative one from Tesla Down Under:

tesla.jpg

Black Ink

Eric Black is one of the reasons I no longer subscribe to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.  His departure, along with about 50 others from the Strib newsroom, has left the Strib a hollow shell.

Eric is now writing for MinnPost.com  which happens to be edited and published by Joel Kramer, former editor and publisher of the Strib.  And, with writers like Eric Black, the news at MinnPost is just as good as the Strib and you don’t have to deal with all those pesky ads.

 obama-clinton.jpgobama-clinton.jpgThe Space Between

One of Eric’s recent posts is about how little separates Obama from Clinton.  Black links us to Congressional Quarterly where Dan Nather writes that their voting records are nearly indistinguishable.  With near parity in voting records, endorsements, even “anti-Bushiness,” what’s a Democratic primary voter to do?  Eric leave us with this:

Perhaps it tells us more about why the campaign between them is being waged on the basis or abstractions, like “change” and “experience,” or on the subliminal question of which race/gender barrier you feel more motivated to break.

Dark Data

A while back there was a lively debate on Broken Spines about whether or not it is possible to succeed without failing.  In the end, the pugilists involved resorted to name calling and feelings were hurt.  So, we didn’t get to explore a more interesting idea: do we put too much emphasis on success – when learning from our failures is what’s truly valuable?

Google, in their Palimpsest project, will soon provide a home for terabytes of open-source scientific datasets.  This will hopefully correct “publication bias”, where science gets skewed because only positive correlations see the light of day.  Thomas Goetz sums this up best in a Wired article called  Freeing the Dark Data of Failed Scientific Experiments”.  Here are some exerpts:

So what happens to all the research that doesn’t yield a dramatic outcome — or, worse, the opposite of what researchers had hoped? It ends up stuffed in some lab drawer. The result is a vast body of squandered knowledge that represents a waste of resources and a drag on scientific progress. This information — call it dark data — must be set free.

in this data-intensive age, those apparent dead ends could be more important than the breakthroughs. After all, some of today’s most compelling research efforts aren’t one-off studies that eke out statistically significant results, they’re meta-studies — studies of studies — that crunch data from dozens of sources, producing results that are much more likely to be true. What’s more, your dead end may be another scientist’s missing link, the elusive chunk of data they needed. Freeing up dark data could represent one of the biggest boons to research in decades, fueling advances in genetics, neuroscience, and biotech.

Conspicuous Consumerism

conspicuous-consumersm.jpgconspicuous-consumersm.jpgconspicuous-consumersm.jpgconspicuous-consumersm.jpgconspicuous-consumersm.jpgNorwegian American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class.  Conspicuous consumption has been discussed in the context of addictive or narcissistic behaviors induced by consumerism, the desire for immediate gratification, and hedonic expectations. 

Our friend Jared Diamond recently wrote a piece in the NYT about American’s “Consumption Factor” (which is 32 times that of Kenya and 11 times China).  He writes: 

If India as well as China were to catch up, world consumption rates would triple. If the whole developing world were suddenly to catch up, world rates would increase elevenfold. It would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion people (retaining present consumption rates).

So what is it that we are so conspicuously consuming?

Globally, the 20% of the world’s people in the highest-income countries account for 86% of total private consumption expenditures — the poorest 20% a minuscule 1.3%. More specifically, the richest fifth:

  • Consume 45% of all meat and fish, the poorest fifth 5%
  • Consume 58% of total energy, the poorest fifth less than 4%
  • Have 74% of all telephone lines, the poorest fifth 1.5%
  • Consume 84% of all paper, the poorest fifth 1.1%
  • Own 87% of the world’s vehicle fleet, the poorest fifth less than 1%

Global Priority $U.S. Billions
Cosmetics in the United States 8
Ice cream in Europe 11
Perfumes in Europe and the United States 12
Pet foods in Europe and the United States 17
Business entertainment in Japan 35
Cigarettes in Europe 50
Alcoholic drinks in Europe 105
Narcotics drugs in the world 400
Military spending in the world 780

And compare that to what was estimated as additional costs to achieve universal access to basic social services in all developing countries:

Global Priority $U.S. Billions
Basic education for all 6
Water and sanitation for all 9
Reproductive health for all women 12
Basic health and nutrition 13

(Source: The state of human development, United National Development Report 1998, Chapter 1, p.37)
Other sources:
Data from the World Bank for 2003
http://www.globalissues.org/TradeRelated/Consumption.asp

Let the Cascading Commence…

In “The End of Oil,” I believe the term used was “information cascade.” As much as I am trying to maintain my personal environmental beliefs while working for the energy industry, I have to agree that global warm-mongering may be skewing our ability to look at the theory empirically.

From the New York Times:


In 2008, a 100 Percent Chance of Alarm
By JOHN TIERNEY
Published January 1, 2008

I’d like to wish you a happy New Year, but I’m afraid I have a different sort of prediction.

You’re in for very bad weather. In 2008, your television will bring you image after frightening image of natural havoc linked to global warming. You will be told that such bizarre weather must be a sign of dangerous climate change – and that these images are a mere preview of what’s in store unless we act quickly to cool the planet.

Unfortunately, I can’t be more specific. I don’t know if disaster will come by flood or drought, hurricane or blizzard, fire or ice. Nor do I have any idea how much the planet will warm this year or what that means for your local forecast. Long-term climate models cannot explain short-term weather.

But there’s bound to be some weird weather somewhere, and we will react like the sailors in the Book of Jonah. When a storm hit their ship, they didn’t ascribe it to a seasonal weather pattern. They quickly identified the cause (Jonah’s sinfulness) and agreed to an appropriate policy response (throw Jonah overboard).

Today’s interpreters of the weather are what social scientists call availability entrepreneurs: the activists, journalists and publicity-savvy scientists who selectively monitor the globe looking for newsworthy evidence of a new form of sinfulness, burning fossil fuels.

A year ago, British meteorologists made headlines predicting that the buildup of greenhouse gases would help make 2007 the hottest year on record. At year’s end, even though the British scientists reported the global temperature average was not a new record – it was actually lower than any year since 2001 – the BBC confidently proclaimed, “2007 Data Confirms Warming Trend.”

When the Arctic sea ice last year hit the lowest level ever recorded by satellites, it was big news and heralded as a sign that the whole planet was warming. When the Antarctic sea ice last year reached the highest level ever recorded by satellites, it was pretty much ignored. A large part of Antarctica has been cooling recently, but most coverage of that continent has focused on one small part that has warmed.

When Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans in 2005, it was supposed to be a harbinger of the stormier world predicted by some climate modelers. When the next two hurricane seasons were fairly calm – by some measures, last season in the Northern Hemisphere was the calmest in three decades – the availability entrepreneurs changed the subject. Droughts in California and Australia became the new harbingers of climate change (never mind that a warmer planet is projected to have more, not less, precipitation over all).

The most charitable excuse for this bias in weather divination is that the entrepreneurs are trying to offset another bias. The planet has indeed gotten warmer, and it is projected to keep warming because of greenhouse emissions, but this process is too slow to make much impact on the public.

When judging risks, we often go wrong by using what’s called the availability heuristic: we gauge a danger according to how many examples of it are readily available in our minds. Thus we overestimate the odds of dying in a terrorist attack or a plane crash because we’ve seen such dramatic deaths so often on television; we underestimate the risks of dying from a stroke because we don’t have so many vivid images readily available.

Slow warming doesn’t make for memorable images on television or in people’s minds, so activists, journalists and scientists have looked to hurricanes, wild fires and starving polar bears instead. They have used these images to start an “availability cascade,” a term coined by Timur Kuran, a professor of economics and law at the University of Southern California, and Cass R. Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago.

The availability cascade is a self-perpetuating process: the more attention a danger gets, the more worried people become, leading to more news coverage and more fear. Once the images of Sept. 11 made terrorism seem a major threat, the press and the police lavished attention on potential new attacks and supposed plots. After Three Mile Island and “The China Syndrome,” minor malfunctions at nuclear power plants suddenly became newsworthy.

“Many people concerned about climate change,” Dr. Sunstein says, “want to create an availability cascade by fixing an incident in people’s minds. Hurricane Katrina is just an early example; there will be others. I don’t doubt that climate change is real and that it presents a serious threat, but there’s a danger that any ‘consensus’ on particular events or specific findings is, in part, a cascade.”

Once a cascade is under way, it becomes tough to sort out risks because experts become reluctant to dispute the popular wisdom, and are ignored if they do. Now that the melting Arctic has become the symbol of global warming, there’s not much interest in hearing other explanations of why the ice is melting – or why the globe’s other pole isn’t melting, too.

Global warming has an impact on both polar regions, but they’re also strongly influenced by regional weather patterns and ocean currents. Two studies by NASA and university scientists last year concluded that much of the recent melting of Arctic sea ice was related to a cyclical change in ocean currents and winds, but those studies got relatively little attention – and were certainly no match for the images of struggling polar bears so popular with availability entrepreneurs.

Roger A. Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, recently noted the very different reception received last year by two conflicting papers on the link between hurricanes and global warming. He counted 79 news articles about a paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, and only 3 news articles about one in a far more prestigious journal, Nature.

Guess which paper jibed with the theory – and image of Katrina – presented by Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth”?

It was, of course, the paper in the more obscure journal, which suggested that global warming is creating more hurricanes. The paper in Nature concluded that global warming has a minimal effect on hurricanes. It was published in December – by coincidence, the same week that Mr. Gore received his Nobel Peace Prize.

In his acceptance speech, Mr. Gore didn’t dwell on the complexities of the hurricane debate. Nor, in his roundup of the 2007 weather, did he mention how calm the hurricane season had been. Instead, he alluded somewhat mysteriously to “stronger storms in the Atlantic and Pacific,” and focused on other kinds of disasters, like “massive droughts” and “massive flooding.”

“In the last few months,” Mr. Gore said, “it has been harder and harder to misinterpret the signs that our world is spinning out of kilter.” But he was being too modest. Thanks to availability entrepreneurs like him, misinterpreting the weather is getting easier and easier.


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