Lawyers, or, why doesn't anybody like me?

The Volokh Conspiracy has a post about how lawyers are held year after year among the lowest esteem of any profession. The writer of the post theorizes about the reasons, including that people don't like people who defend murderers, or they have been at the wrong end of a legal decision. I have no problem with a fair fight, and I would want and expect a lawyer to put aside any qualms to defend me.

My problem with lawyers, in other words, has nothing to do with what they do in the court room, and everything to do with what they do out of it. Lawyers become politicians, or lobbyists, and they ensure that the field is not a fair one. My wife and I are writing up our post-nup together. My mother think's that it's irresponsible to consider that our marriage might end. I think it is irresponsible that the only contract most husbands and wives enter into was one that was written by divorce lawyers.

Having recently served on a jury, I am amazed by how easily and quickly ordinary people can divorce the consequences of their decisions from those decision. If we had a representative mix of representatives - some teachers, engineers, doctors, police officers, soldiers - then our legislature would be far less likely to do the same.


Climate Change and Kardashev

John Tierney at the New York Times has a piece about the geoengineering. I've posted before my thoughts on climate change: it is not an isolated circumstance that can simply be reversed. It is part of a natural progression of civilization to eventually reach a point where it has control over the climate of a planet. Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev codified this in his Kardashev scale, which classified civilization by the amount of power they could harvest and use. A "K1" scale civilization uses power on the order of a planet (presumably insolation plus internal sources). K2 uses the power output of a star, K3 of a galaxy, and so on. Best estimates put us a little above K0.7 right now. One of the hallmarks of a K1.0 civilization is ability to control global weather patterns. It is virtually a requirement sooner or later, and since we're almost to K1.0, we better do it sooner.

We can do very rough order of magnitude calculations to see the problem. Let's say, worst case scenario, we dump enough CO2, CH4, CFCs, PFCs, sulfohexanes, and water vapor into the atmosphere to warm it 10 C in the next 50 years. This would, by most accounts, qualify as catastrophic climate change. Let's assume we changed the atmospheric chemistry all at once, for simplicity of calculations.

According to Wikipedia, the Earth's atmosphere weighs 5e18 kg. Let's assume the specific heat is 1039 J/kg.K, equivalent to N2 gas. This is equivalent to capturing 5E22 joules in the 50 years, or put another way, it is equivalent to having an electric blanket over the entire earth heating at a rate of about 3E13 watts. It's probably several times bigger, actually, because the oceans and crust will also warm (not as much, but they are far more massive), and the earth will radiate at a slightly higher level. Let's say 1E15 watts is a reasonable estimate. It doesn't change the argument.

Why is this important? Current human primary energy generation functions at the rate of about 16 TW, or 1.6E13 W. This rate has been doubling very roughly every 25-40 yrs for the past century - actually, it doubled very quickly when a country goes through its industrial revolution, then more slowly afterwards. Much of the world is about to go through or is going through mass industrialization now, so let's say the average is 30 years for the next couple centuries. Again, because we're dealing with exponential functions, it doesn't change the conclusion, only the date. For reference, K1.0 is 1E16-1E17 W of primary energy available, or about 1000x what we use today, but we will have to be able to control the Earth's climate well before then.

The reason why is that all primary energy eventually turns into heat. Some of it goes to lifting building materials, some goes into light to which the atmosphere is transparent, but most of what we create goes in short order directly to heat. Power plants dump heat in water bodies and cooling towers, power lines radiate resistive heat, pumped water falls downhill to water crops, light bulbs and computers get hot, cars, trains, boats, and airplanes rub against the ground, water, and air. Even if there is no greenhouse effect, in less than a two centuries (179 years by the figures above), humankind will be producing 1e15 W of primary energy. It seems like a long time, but 200 years is about two long human lifetimes. It is conceivable that children alive today will know people in their old age who will be alive then. It is likely that most of the nations of the world will have similar names, cultures, norms, and borders in 200 years. It is highly unlikely that any drastic change in human nature will occur.

This is, of course, Malthusian, and Malthusian arguments usually run up against scarcity. But what scarcity is there in energy? We can reach 1E15 W with proliferation of breeder reactors, which are currently operational in Japan and France. We can probably get there on coal, oil shale, and oil sands. We can definitely get there with methane hydrates. Minerals are unlikely to run out in that time; we have barely scratched the surface of Earth quite literally, and there is a molten core of iron below our feet. And keep in mind that this energy level threshold is vastly overstated; it is merely the energy required to heat the Earth's atmosphere 10 C in 50 years (along with the crust and oceans to a lesser extent). We start having warming noticeable in a human life span, say 1 C/century, after less than two doublings, or about 50 years off. 50 years! That's about how long it has been since the concept of global warming came about. 50 years ago man had put satellites in orbit and detonated the H bomb. Mix in some greenhouse gases, a big volcano or two, and a couple solar maxima, and you are likely to get some short-term equivalent that looks awfully scary well before that. It is entirely conceivable that we had just that in the 1990's, with a record-setting solar maximum.

So I am not denying anthropogenic climate change. On the contrary, I am saying it is inevitable. Even with the cleanest possible energy, it will start happening within most of our lifetimes simply from the waste heat of civilization. Atmospheric carbon is the canary in the coal mine. We could completely fix that problem by, say, switching over to breeder nuclear reactors or bringing fusion power and electric cars to maturity. However, that would only delay the problem. Energy efficiency can slow the process, but it only (slightly) postpones the date. A global dark age might put it off indefinitely, but then we'll have bigger problems; and depending how far civilization regresses it could make things worse - imagine an 1880s-level civilization of 15 billion people, burning coal and having babies at an alarming rate. It has taken some 25 years to get some form of somewhat functional carbon legislation passed in Europe. Optimistically, it will take another 25 to do similar things around the world. By then the problem will have moved on.

We do have to learn how to control the level and mix of gases in our atmosphere. I suspect this will come mainly when urbanization and industrialization re-greens most of the Earth as it has done in the US and Europe, and when genetic engineering creates versions of today's plants and algae that are extra good at sequestering carbon. However, this is not enough. We need to be able to engineer the heat budget of the Earth writ large. We are near the lower limits of atmospheric greenhouse gases, water notwithstanding since it is important to keep at a certain level for rain. Our other options are not very numerous.
  • Move energy generation off-planet - this helps get rid of the 20-50% of the heat that comes from power plants themselves, but doesn't change the fact that all the rest is dumped into the biosphere. In other words, it changes the date but not the conclusion.
  • Capture and dispose of waste heat - this might be done by using heat-loving microbes to create chemical compounds in endothermic reactions, which would then be shot off-planet and burned elsewhere, with the ash returned. This is horribly inefficient, and requires relatively high-quality heat.
  • Move the Earth away from the sun - this is well beyond the capabilities of a K1.0 civilization, simply put.
  • Limit solar insolation - this is the only real alternative. The possibilities range from the near-term (painting roofs white, cloud seeding), to the far-off (massive sunshades, breaking up asteroids to make rings, reflective mirrors).
Controlling the atmospheric composition is one ingredient for a K1.0 civilization to master, but it is a fine-tune knob. We are making barely-perceptible changes to Earth's climate, but I don't think people realize just how soon those changes will become inevitable and very apparent, and through what means. I don't believe politics can do much more than create awareness and change local output; technology and demographics are, as always, the major factions here. The current focus on limiting carbon emissions through regulation is hype at best, and head-in-the-sand hand waving at worst.


Unintended consequences strike again!

My parents recently turned in their 1990 GMC minivan for a Sebring, getting the full $4500 dole for the clunker, and matching funds from the government again through its Chrysler storefront, for a total of $9000 off a $26,000 sticker price. My dad felt a little bad about the welfare aspect of the thing, but getting 35% off a major purchase helped salve the wound. Especially considering that he was already put on the hook for some several hundred dollars by the Obama administration when they (illegally) took over the car companies; and he's also on the hook for his $3000 or so contribution the bailout that is probably funding the financing of his car. He probably doesn't break even on the exchange if you add in enough pork.

My aunt and uncle heard about this, and decided to turn in their Sedona to trade up. Turns out, by the binary and arbitrary cutoffs, it gets 1 mpg too much. Now, some math. Let's say they got the car in 1999 for simplicity. Say they drive 15,000 miles per year. And say the Sedona gets 21 mpg, and the cutoff is 20 mpg. They would have saved about $1000 over the ten years on gas at $3/gallon. So, thanks to government changing the rules, my aunt and uncle lost $8000 by buying a fuel-efficient car. In fact, they could have bought an Escalade at 13 mpg 10 years ago and come out even! No doubt that will make them think twice next time they are in the market for a new car.


I regret that I have but one LA Times to not read

I am happy that there is little outcry about the rumored death of newspapers. At the purest level, the rumors are quite exaggerated. There will still be newspapers after this depression is finished, only fewer and less consequential. The root cause is the internet, which has made distribution of information virtually free. Can't compete with that, and why would you want to?

However, the death throes give a nice chance to dance on the graves of the worst parts of the industry. Never waste a crisis, eh? The worst thing about newspapers is the bias. From psychology today:
"Most journalists take a number of psychology, sociology, political science, and humanities courses during their early years in college. Unfortunately, these courses have long served as ideological trainingprograms—ignoring biological sources of self-serving, corrupt, and criminal behavior for a number of reasons, including lack of scientific training; postmodern, antiscience bias; and well-intentioned, facts-be-damned desire to have their students view the world from an egalitarian perspective. Instead, these disciplines ram home the idea that troubled behavior can be fixed through expensive socialist programs that, coincidentally, provide employment opportunities for graduates of the social sciences. Modern neuroscience is showing how flawed many of these policies have been—structural differences in the brains of psychopaths, for example, help explain why remedial programs simply helped them become better at conning people."
Right. I went to a school with very rich schools of science, liberal arts, and engineering. As far as I can tell, what school you graduated from is a fine predictor of your political ideology. The students who took mostly engineering courses (and those who took our "quantitative economics" course) are not necessarily conservative or libertarian, but they are critical - when pressed, they question the means of a policy and independently assess the likely consequences. They are the types of people who you argue with, and you leave the argument having gained perspective.

The liberal arts students (and qualitative economics grads, whatever that is) on the other hand, usually end their arguments with vague pleas. "We have to do something," "Someone has to help those who aren't as fortunate as us [always with the implication that they know who should help and they can identify who is less fortunate]," and "While their policies might be similar, I don't see how you can say that Obama is like Bush." I don't know if they are just arguing with axioms with which I am not familiar, or if they really don't know how to think critically, but this is generally the depth of the conversation. It is frustrating, so I usually avoid it. We talk a lot about sports and girls.

Those are basic enough. The odd category is scientists. One would think that scientists and engineers share perspectives more often than not. In fact, I find engineers to be much more broad-minded. Engineers know more stuff. This is not to say they are smarter. It makes sense when one considers that engineers generally have to make stuff work. It doesn't matter how. A good engineer thinks outside the box, taking experience from other fields. The Wright Brothers beat the Smithsonian because they were good at building light mechanical things quickly - they owned a bike shop, after all. If you drive cross country, you may notice that pavement color changes. That is because civil engineers have to use whatever dirt and rock is available in the region. And so on. Scientists, on the other hand, are studies in compartmentalization. Their job is not to work with confounding factors, it is to eliminate them. One of the great challenges of a successful science career is resisting the temptation to specialize yourself into obscurity. Some do it by actually broadening their horizons - they attend lectures and read journals of tangential subjects, or else they start entrepreneurial incubators to feed back more R&D funds. But the usual strategy is to find a racket. Latch onto a funding source and push the research into more and more obscure territory. So it is often the case, when talking politics with these people, that they have very strong opinions about science and education funding - and little else. They are smart, and they can argue you into a corner to dectuple the NSF's small-grant spending, but they are reduced to almost liberal-arts like platitudes everywhere else.


Movie Night

Gemma and I had stolen movie night last night, where we save money by stealing a movie and watching it. Actually, every night is stolen movie night for Gemma, but since I find about 95% of movies to be a waste of the part of my life I spent watching them, we strike a once-a-week or so compromise.

The movie was Sunshine Cleaners, starring Amy Adams and some other people. I thought it was a very good movie. The plot is a single mom who starts a crime-scene cleanup business so she can get her son out of public school, where they want to put the (intelligent but weird) boy on drugs and in special ed classes. Anyway, this is basically the vehicle that allows the woman to finally cut ties with her high school baggage, and it helps her family get over some nasty stuff in the past too. What I liked about it was that it wasn't a lottery ticket - I mean, getting an in on cleaning up dead people ain't exactly winning American Idol. Instead, the various characters taking on responsibility and risk and was their vehicle towards freedom and happiness.


I exist on the border of a group of people called transhumanists. Now, this tag is about as good as "The String Cheese Incident" for a group of people who want to be taken seriously. These people don't really see chemical, mechanical, genetic, electronic, etc. modifications of the human body and mind as bad per se. They see them more as part of a trend of "helping out nature," which has been going on since the first cave man drank fermented fruit juice, it's just that now it has science applied to it rather than the much slower tool of natural selection. Of course, we can sit and argue that athletes on PEDs are "helping nature" give them heart attacks in their late 40's. The point is, this makes more sense if you consider it as something of a strange (but not necessarily inherently bad) cousin to vaccines, shark-skin swimsuits, implanted electrodes for Parkinson's sufferers, and Oscar Pistorius.

Many people I know have had reconstructive knee surgery, a procedure virtually erected on the ruined careers of athletes. Today it seems like a no brainer distinction of health vs. unfair advantage, but at some point not too long ago the question about whether to have someone try and repair your knee, or try to continue playing on 75% of a knee, was not clear. HGH is one very interesting area - it promotes healing and and a lot of things we associate with youth, so it's a possibility that everyone will take HGH derivatives after major injuries and surgeries at some point in the near future - or even as a preventive therapy for old age. It is accepted therapy for some illnesses already. At some point soon, Rodney Harrison may stop being a cheater and start being an early adopter. Corticosteroids are similar - use them to promote joint repair while training, and you are a cheater. But you're an idiot if you are riding the Tour de France on preventable saddle sores.

At some point in hindsight a given form of doping may look like raw cheating. Then again, the same therapy the same number of years down the road may be hailed as preventive medicine that adds years onto quality of life for millions of people. Somehow that has to be sorted out, and if professional athletes want to be lab rats for the rest of us, I guess I'm okay with that. And in the end, while the efficacy of any individual treatment is unclear, the line is going to move so that today's performance enhancers are tomorrow's medicine or recreation or body enhancement or personal adornment. So I'm okay with athletes doing PEDs, but I think full disclosure should be the rule. That way they could at least be studied in a scientific way, and the asterisks can be turned into footnotes.