March 2009

Choice and moral reasoning

One of my purposes in starting this blog was to have a place to put bits and pieces of my own thoughts on philosophical, moral, and religious questions; things which didn't fit in with some of the more topical (science and energy) pieces I had written previously for other websites. I've read the principle texts of most of the major religions, and reread and studied more carefully those of my own. I've dabbled in reading philosophy from a variety of sources, but I am sure there is much that I have missed, and I couldn't specifically cite a source for most of what I consider to be settled within my own mind. Some of what I've concluded is based on purely subjective personal experience that I find utterly convincing, to myself at least.

Character assassination in climate science: the Michael Tobis story

Climate scientists and those who understand the threat from global warming have long been puzzled by the apparently limited concern among average members of the public for the issue. That has started to improve in the last few years, particularly in response to Al Gore's efforts. Oil and coal companies have long funded efforts to confuse the issue, but recently claimed to have reformed. The media has frequently been inadequate to the job, we know that. But the most important reason for public confusion on global warming seems to trace not so much to the influence of money, corruption, or incompetence, but ideology.

H.R. 801 - the Lessig-Conyers fight around Open Access

The last few days have seen a bit of open warfare on the "open access" frontlines, surrounding a bill currently being reviewed in the house, H.R. 801, the "Fair Copyright in Research Works Act", which rescinds the NIH's open-access mandate. That mandate requires authors of papers on research funded by the NIH to make a copy of their article publicly available 12 months after publication, and has been in place for a few years now. I haven't heard that the mandate has done any significant harm to science publishers, or made much difference to accessibility of scientific research articles, but I haven't really been following closely and the bio-medical literature is not my speciality, certainly.

Notes on the stimulus package

I've been meaning to say something about the energy/climate provisions in Obama's stimulus package, but just hadn't gotten around to it. I also have a post I've been working on that gets into the whole tropical troposphere mess - yeah, I'll get that out some day too.

Anyway, on the stimulus, this post by Jesse Jenkins at Huffington Post does an excellent job of summarizing the key points in the $80 billion that went to energy projects. I agree pretty much with his analysis of the good and the bad there. Some highlights:

A+: The act provides a much-needed, long-term extension of the critical Production Tax Credit that has spurred the booming wind industry, and makes tax credits for wind, solar and other renewable energy sources fully refundable for the next two years.

Physics publishing's electronic past - and future?

My friend and colleague Peter Adams just posted a nice essay on the early history of computing in our office. Some day I'll have to write my own version with the more recent history! Peter mentions the early use of the UNIX OS (troff was used for many years for typesetting the journals). This was originally run on Digital VAX hardware, then a series of Sequent machines, then (when I started) we began to replace those servers with Suns, and more recently everything's migrated to Linux. But still essentially UNIX at heart. A lot of what our editors do is still on the command line, and the referee and manuscript data in particular (going all the way back to 1974, plus a small number back-filled from before then to handle later errata) is pretty much completely accessible from a variety of command-line-oriented programs and scripts.

Why are we still not regulating credit default swaps?

In the news this weekend, among many other (some related) topics, has been AIG's revelation that much of the "bailout" money they received from the US government has gone to a small collection of banks, foreign and domestic. I am no expert on the various derivative contracts at issue - nor apparently are most of the financial press. However two rather interesting, perhaps disturbing, issues occur to me from reading the actual statements involved:

  • These don't appear to be actually payments to the banks in question, but rather "collateral postings" by AIG, at the request of the banks.
  • These contracts were purchased after the date of the initial government rescue in September 2008!

Paths forward on energy - ARPA-E and e-DII's

In testimony to congress this past week, new energy secretary Steven Chu made the case for the administration's energy plans which include considerable increases in spending in a number of areas, and several new programs. Among the things they appear to be really trying to push is getting ARPA-E off the ground - there's $415 million allocated, but apparently a lot of resistance within the department to actually making it happen. In a companion handout for the hearing, the case for and priority areas for ARPA-E were highlighted. The handout perhaps explains why DOE bureaucrats may be resisting:

Signs of Spring

Purple crocusesIt's definitely showing signs of spring here; Saturday was pure sun, and almost warm. The crocuses (right) were wide open and beautiful. I spent a while in a seemingly futile battle with my pitchfork against our huge non-composting pile of leaves. Then decided to switch to digging a garden bed, which yielded slightly more easily.

Spaghetti and the financial crisis

chapter1 has a fun post this morning with a guess at what's behind our continuing financial woes - people who (deliberately?) engineer complexity into systems for job security reasons... The idea is that Credit Default Swap and other derivative contracts are so complicated that only the people who created the problem can help fix it, and they set things up that way on purpose. The enlightening analogy is to the software engineer who creates "spaghetti code" essential to a company's systems that only he can understand, ensuring he can demand whatever he wants. I think I have met some people like that...

Some choice quotes:

When the whole buggy mess finally crashed, the nation's management didn't want to take the time or lose face to build a new payroll system, so once again, Spaghetti Code Guy and his pals could name their price.

Trust, credibility, and the demise of brands

This essay by Rory O'Connor provides an important perspective on the future of media, in particular with some insights on the question of trust. I think the trust and credibility issue is really central to understand for the future of our information world - and particularly the future of scientific publishing where my interests lie. Rather than looking into who actually wrote something they read, people online have come to trust based on how they reach the information - via search engines, or through their social networks, for example. This article mentions the concept of "'credibility heuristics' -- a kind of information Verisign" - up to now, media "brand" (the names of major newspapers, TV networks, etc) has been a central shortcut for many people's perspective on the world - they knew they could trust certain brands to mostly provide them with important, reliable information.