Thursday, February 17, 2011

He Meant Fifth

This is an interesting perspective. Kevin Drum posits that there have only really been 3 GDP busting inventions in the past few centuries: steam, electrification, and computers. I agree, though I think he should add Germ Theory of Disease to that list.

I suppose it could be argued that it is a discovery and not an invention, but in terms of GDP it has been a monster. Longer, healthier lives mean more productivity, and then there's the entire health industry.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Non-Scientific Garbage

I liked when Mark Bittman wrote "The Minimalist" column, but I think that his change over to more political-food commentary is mostly good. Still, one thing that really gets me is bad- or no-science judgments about things...and food politics comes loaded with it.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO's) are a real touchy subject. The whole of the objection to GMOs is emotional, anti-rational, paranoid fear-mongering, and Bittman is no exception. In this latest column on the subject he is complaining that they are not labeled so consumers do not have a choice in avoiding them. So let's look at his arguments...

His first argument is "It’s unlikely that these products’ potential benefits could possibly outweigh their potential for harm." Ok, this is a garbage argument..."unlikely"? For reals? Based on what? Your hunches? Your extraordinary knowledge of genetics? That he would write this is embarassing.

He continues, "[the U.S.D.A. doesn't] want to 'suggest or imply' that these foods are 'different'," which is a pretty sound argument for the USDA, especially when his next paragraph starts out: "They are arguably different, but more important, people are leery of them." So, they are only "arguably" different, and people are leery of them, so the USDA should reinforce that "arguable" misconception by labeling them and making people more afraid of something that the science so far (coming back to this) says they shouldn't fear even a little?

He is making the USDA's case for not labeling GMOs. This fear-mongering is what the USDA is worried about. But he does have some real arguments...
G.E. products may grow faster, require fewer pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides, and reduce stress on land, water and other resources; they may be more profitable to farmers. But many of these claims are in dispute, and advances in conventional agriculture, some as simple as drip irrigation, may achieve these same goals more simply. Certainly conventional agriculture is more affordable for poor farmers, and most of the worlds’ farmers are poor. (The surge in suicides among Indian farmers has been attributed by some, at least in part, to G.E. crops, and it’s entirely possible that what’s needed to feed the world’s hungry is not new technology but a better distribution system and a reduction of waste.)
So GMOs may reduce damage to the land and reduce our use of toxins/fertilizers. Good. Maybe not as much as some claim. Still good. Maybe other advances will get there too. Still good. Non-GMO maybe better for poor farmers (at least right now). Still good. Better distribution/waste reduction can do a lot to help with hunger. Still, GMO's don't take away anything here, the only effect throughout this paragraph is the first one, so GMO's are...good.

Note: I am not ignoring the Indian farmer suicide thing, it sounds bad until you realize that it has nothing to do with GMOs but everything to do with megacorps and pursuit of profits at the expense of poor farmers. I certainly agree that the way corporations are handling GMOs (and, really, tons of other things) is ethically dark, but that is unrelated to whether GMOs are, themselves bad. So this is a rather random, non-argument either way.

But wait, there's more:
To be fair, two of the biggest fears about G.E. crops and animals — their potential to provoke allergic reactions and the transfer to humans of antibiotic-resistant properties of G.M.O.’s — have not come to pass. (As far as I can tell, though, they remain real dangers.)
So the biggest fears bout GMOs seem to be a load of crap, but Mark doesn't like that so he will drop in completely unfounded and senseless commentary in parentheses so that people will ignore this and continue to be afraid. And this is fair how?
But there has been cross-breeding of natural crops and species with those that have been genetically engineered, and when ethanol corn cross-pollinates feed corn, the results could degrade the feed corn; when G.E. alfalfa cross-pollinates organic alfalfa, that alfalfa is no longer organic;
um...So?...*Oh noes, my alfalfa is no longer organic, the world as we know it shall end!* (Of course it still has the other "organic" benefits, if there are any.)
...if a G.E. salmon egg is fertilized by a wild salmon, or a transgenic fish escapes into the wild and breeds with a wild fish … it’s not clear what will happen.

This last scenario is impossible, say the creators of the G.E. salmon — a biotech company called AquaBounty — whose interest in approval makes their judgment all but useless. (One Fish and Wildlife Service scientist wrote in material obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, “Maybe they should watch ‘Jurassic Park.’ “)

Ok, there may be a point here. We don't know. We never really do until after we experiment. That's one of the things about science: there is always uncertainty, particularly when going forward with something new. The ignored (by Mark) counter point here is: we are depleting fish stocks, and faster. We've already done a number on Atlantic Salmon and there is a chance that GMOs could help. It doesn't mean that these getting out would be good, but again, there used to be lots of Atlantic salmon, now there are not, so if some get out, they could either help the population or further diminish it...or do nothing. In this case however, even the bad outcome would have next to zero ecological impact because this species already has been/is being decimated in the environment. Still, this could be either good or bad or neutral. Net 0, but unpredictability will cause a skew a little to the bad. Of course this is still fish specific.
The subject is unquestionably complex. Few people outside of scientists working in the field — self included — understand much of anything about gene altering. Still, an older ABC poll found that a majority of Americans believe that G.M.O.’s are unsafe, even more say they’re less likely to buy them, and a more recent CBS/NYT poll found a whopping 87 percent — you don’t see a poll number like that too often — wants them labeled.
...and then more on this strain "we have a right to know" like Europeans or some such.

Non-scientists are, by and large, really, really, really bad at understanding science. This article is proof of that. If all the uncertainty was real and meaningful and there were sound reasons to not do GMO then the appropriate response is that the USDA should not allow GMOs to be sold to us, not to label them. Lables are appropriate to let people know what is in something, but if GM corn has the same thing in it as non-GM corn, there is NO DIFFERENCE to label.

Now there may be a real fear associated with whether the USDA is a capable arbiter of GMOs, but the fact remains that they are stocked with competent scientists, who could easily leak docs to the right people about corporations buying out the execs of the USDA and making non-science based decisions. I would jump all over that evidence.

As of now, however, the only REAL evidence out there is that GMOs are not different from the food perspective and that they confer some benefits to the environment over the standard crops. Inducing panic, and stoking Mark Bittman's and others' irrational fears by labeling them, in a total absense of bad evidence is wrong. Maybe GMOs are going to market with insufficient testing, and maybe Mark Bittman and 87% of the public don't understand science and GMOs and are being irrational paranoid nuts, but this article fosters bad science understanding and Mark should apologize to the scientists and researchers who are working hard to safeguard America's and the world's food supply.

Final note: no USDA requirement doesn't mean savvy producers won't start slapping "GMO-free!" labels on their food sometime in the near future. Then there will be the necessary USDA intervention to make sure that "GMO-free!" labeled foods actually are and a whole new fight will break out...

Budget Baloney

...or if you prefer: Bologna.

Lots of bait and switch. Military is practically untouched despite being double the rest of the discretionary pie. Increases some places are over-offset elsewhere meaning the only "investing in the future" this is really doing is net negative. Finally entitlements, particularly medicare, is untouched. I'm not sure that could be otherwise as making changes in mandatory spending would require additional laws be passed first (I think?), but others are huffy about it so maybe the presidential budget is the equivalent of a 12 year old's letter to Santa.

Lots of harping from Republicans about social security which is NOT a real problem, and from Democrats about cutting good things (heating assistance for the poor) while leaving other things (military) pretty much untouched.

Maybe it's a starting point and maybe Obama is being very clever and trying to tempt Republicans into actual governing, or maybe it's just more of the same politics crap where no one says what they want or mean and hope that people assume what they want rather than go with what's there. No matter what I don't like it. If Obama thinks the deficit is an issue he should have released a budget that actually did something about it. If he thinks that "investing in the future" is important he should have released a budget that DID THAT. This budget just tells me that he (still) thinks that political gamesmanship is more important than anything else. Particularly that it is more important than actually leading what with him being President of the United States and all.

Bicycle Commuting

When I lived in Chicago I bicycled to work just about every day. It was a commute of just over 3 miles and Chicago is about as flat as a city can get on a round planet. Depending on weather it would take me between 15 and 30 min to get to work (it wasn't really possible to go fast in some places and I had a mountain, not road bike).

I loved doing it. I would still love doing it except for a couple things: I now live near 10 miles from work and PA has hills. This isn't to say that it is a bad or a long bike ride, but that it would likely take me near an hour to get to or from work on a good day and could take over an hour and a half on a bad day. The route would also be more dangerous, and I would likely arrive in need of a shower and a change of clothes.

The biggest hangup is the time, though. One hour round trip commute on a train where I can read is good. 40-50 min round trip in the car where I can stop off at a store on my way home is good. 2+ hours round trip every day on a bike along with the prep/cleanup required would only work if I had zero other responsibilities. I don't.

Bicycle commuting works under certain circumstances: one way distance of <5 mi (depending on route/hills/traffic), a relatively safe available route, the ability to change/shower at work (or the ability to be smelly), and the time to do this. I'll grant that there are likely people bike commuting 20+ miles one way to work, but they must have more flexibility in those other things.

No real point I guess...

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

"Green" Vehicles

I wish I could like the Smart cars. They are lightweight and have small engines. They are small in size making them easier to get around in, particularly in crowded cities. But despite the things I want to like about them they are way too pricey and their fuel economy (in the US) is awful. You will do better buying pretty much any other manufacturer's small vehicle (Fit, Cruz, Focus, Fiesta, Yaris, Versa, Elantra, ...) plus most of those others will be more fun to drive!

Part of the problem is the insanity of US "Safety Standards" that rewards massive SUV's and tank-like Volvo's but keeps some of the most fuel efficient cars in the world out of our markets (city cars in Europe, K cars in Japan) and when we do get one (like the Smart, and soon the Fiat 500) it has had so much extra weight added to get it to pass the safety bar, that its big fuel economy advantage is gone.

That said, I do agree that weight is a huge factor when it comes to how "green" a car is. More weight means more energy equivalent to manufacture and, at the end of its life, to recover/trash. Smaller, lighter weight vehicles are much better in terms of overall "green" level, and so, despite Chevy's top man scoffing, the Volt is exactly where it should be on this list: 12th. 3800 lbs is ridiculous. Good mileage is nice, but the total energy equivalent that a car consumes also includes manufacture and disposal.

Side note on the list: Civic GX in first place? Seriously? This is not a viable commercial vehicle and should not be considered. We will never have the natural gas infrastructure to support these. Fully electric vehicles are the future, and fuel-electric hybrids are the transition (so long as it is much easier to get gas than swap a battery pack out/charge up on a road trip).

Tax Breaks: Welfare for Higher Earners

I think one of the biggest reasons I get so pissed about tax issues is the various deductions and breaks offered and how people who are so strongly anti-welfare have no real problem taking their tax breaks.

I recognize that most of these people are anti-tax and anti-redistribution, but even still, the honest (or at a minimum those who can think at least a little) will acknowledge the need for some taxation. There are necessary government services, even if they think that is limited to the military. So some taxation is necessary (again, they may prefer it be a sales tax or tariff or business but meh...). But still, if you want taxes to be fair, then you have got to eliminate deductions.

Tax deductions are welfare for the wealthy. Someone earning $75k/yr doesn't need to get an extra $3k back in tax refund. That money could be much better spent either by the government using it to provide for the well being of the nation (building infrastructure) or by giving it to someone who is unemployed, can't find work, and doesn't have enough income to feed her family.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Actually, It's Self Interest

A lot has been made of the schizophrenic nature of people wanting deficit reduction but not actually wanting to cut any meaningful spending and not wanting to raise taxes. Krugman piles on. I've got two gripes with this.

While it is certainly true that people in general do not understand where tax dollars come from or go, the results of the polling don't really indicate that. They indicate that people are, by and large, very self interested. I don't want my taxes going up. I don't want the government spending lots of money on things I don't like, but I do want the government to spend lots of money on things I do like. That's about all the polls really say about the general public.

Second: deficit reduction requires one think about both taxes and spending, and it requires long term thinking, not just next year. As such it is possible that one needs to add up all the pro deficit reduction position percentages, not look at where majorities for each lie. i.e. if 25% believe in tax increases and 25% believe in serious spending cuts and 15% believe in serious long-term curve bending legislation that really is not exactly the same as spending cuts, then you could have 65% of the population serious about the budget deficit, but no simple majorities anywhere.

I don't think we really sit quite like that, but I wouldn't be remotely surprised to find that a large majority who favor more/higher taxes also want more spending, and vice versa. In the end I think it is mostly point one. Deficit/taxes/spending/growth is a complicated mix and even well learned people disagree about what to do. As such, the sensible position for random person A to take would be positions that most benefit person A, namely: lower taxes for person A, more spending on things beneficial to person A, and less spending on things not beneficial to person A. Altruism/Patriotism may factor in to some extent as well (see military spending) but mostly it's self interest.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

More Inequality Stuff

I was looking through this page and playing with the graphs. It's worth a look and read through.

That's it.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Full of Crap

Think what you will about pornography, but the porn church founder interviewed for this piece clearly doesn't have the first clue. My evidence:

He states, “You used to have to work hard to find it. Now you have to work hard to avoid it,” when talking about the internet back in its early days. Bullshit. The early internet was almost entirely: porn and joke pages.

That's about it. In fact, aside from the naked chicks every thing on the early internet was text: jokes, gaming info, hacking q&a's, et cetera. Even the other non-porn/non-text pages were dominated by sites dedicated to some celebrity...most of them of the attractive female variety. So either you were looking for naked women, or staring at Cindy Crawford in a bikini or reading the joke about the engineer, the physicist, and the mathematician.