It’s funny how there’s no constituency for geoengineering (aka climate engineering) as a way to fight climate change. I first heard the term reading the Stephen Baxter novel Transcendent, which featured near-future political conflict over the issue. At the time, my naive 15 year old self didn’t see how anybody could be against it. Now that geoengineering has gone a bit more mainstream it turns out Baxter was absolutely right about the opposition, though I still agree with my past self that it’s something we should look into.

In particular, iron fertilization seems incredibly promising. Like, really spectacularly promising, almost to the same extent that solar power promises to solve our energy woes. The idea is that phytoplankton populations in many parts of the ocean are limited by a lack of iron, so by dumping iron sulfate into these areas there are huge booms in plankton populations. These plankton absorb huge amounts of carbon, just as land plants do. These booms also echo up the food chain, as creatures that eat the plankton multiply, followed by creatures that eat them, and so on.  This happens naturally all the time, mostly via nutrients being delivered to the oceans by rivers, and fuels many of the world’s great fisheries.

Perhaps the coolest group involved with this is the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation. Founded by the Haida Tribal Nation in British Columbia, they recently dumped 120 tons of iron into the northeast Pacific. The project has succeeded beyond all expectations, and preliminary estimates show salmon catches in the area more than quadrupling, from roughly 50 million to 226 million, within a year of beginning the experiment.

So here we have something that’s very cheap, fights global warming, and revitalizes ocean ecosystems. Why would anybody be against such a thing? Both the left and the right have their reasons, and both of them are bad.

First, on the right: it’s not essentially the official position of the Republican Party that climate change is a hoax, and thus that anything done to fight it must be a sinister liberal plot. What’s worse, because of how they’ve come to identify with this opposition, there is a constituency that’s actually anti-environment, not just indifferent to it, as a way to stick it to the dirty liberals. See the bizarre “Rolling Coal” phenomenon.

On the other hand, more intense environmentalists on the left are also strangely anti-geoengineering. Their reasoning is a bit more complex than the conservatives, but equally specious. The first argument is that any discussion or experimentation with geoengineering will reduce the urgency of taking action to reduce emissions. If people think we can dump a bunch of iron in the ocean and solve our CO2 problem, who is going to care about rising emissions? Of course if it works, that wouldn’t be an issue, but if it doesn’t, we would have delayed vital action and be left worse off than before. This isn’t a totally crazy argument, but it does seem far fetched to me. We already have gigantic societal forces pushing towards not taking action on climate change, letting some geoengineering experiments go forward isn’t going to change that much, but it could provide incredibly valuable information.

The second environmentalist argument against geoengineering is one I have less sympathy for, but which I also think is a bigger contributor to anti-geoengineering sentiment: elements of the environmental movement are motivated primarily by wanting to protect the ‘purity’ of the natural world, over and above promoting thriving ecosystems and human welfare. Take this Naomi Klein article on the subject. She describes how the Haida ocean fertilization project has created an ecological boom, but then puts this boom in a negative light, saying

“once we start deliberately interfering with the earth’s climate systems — whether by dimming the sun or fertilizing the seas — all natural events can begin to take on an unnatural tinge. An absence that might have seemed a cyclical change in migration patterns or a presence that felt like a miraculous gift suddenly feels sinister, as if all of nature were being manipulated behind the scenes.”

Now I don’t really accept this argument on general principles – there’s nothing necessarily superior about the natural order of the world over and changes we make to it (though of course we should be cautious about unintended consequences of our actions). Even for those who are worried about things being ‘unnatural’ the problem is that we left the era of ‘natural events’ a long time ago. Even if we accepted in principle that the ideal would be for the environment to return to a pristine, pre-human state, that is simply not a possibility. Human action has huge impacts on every ecosystem on Earth, and unless we go extinct this is never, ever going to change. The only difference with geoengineering is we’re doing it on purpose, rather than just spewing chemicals into land and sea with no regard for the consequences. The only long term solution to our environmental problems is not a return to nature, but a beginning to planetary stewardship, shaping the Earth into a garden where we and our fellow species can thrive side by side. 

So what’s the future for geoengineering? My secret wish is that if the Republicans ever stop being so batshit, they adopt geoengineering as their environmental platform. So long as they’re backed by the fossil fuels industry they’re never going to make it to actually condoning emissions limits, and promoting geoengineering would be a great way for them to keep opposing those limits while acknowledging that climate change is real and needs to be dealt with. Of course this is just the situation many environmentalists fear – using geoengineering to distract from emissions reductions, but it’s still a major step up from complete climate denialism.

Crowdfunding and Elon Musk

The Oatmeal, the hilarious webcomic you’d know from all over the damn place, recently did something pretty cool, which I also thought was pretty depressing.

You can read the whole story here, but the gist is that Matthew Inman wrote a long, incredibly glowing comic about Elon Musk and the Tesla Model S, which ended with a personal plea for Musk to fund construction of a Nikola Tesla Museum that Inman is heavily involved with. A few days later, Musk agreed to fork over a million dollars.

First let me say I have nothing against this particular case. I like the Oatmeal, I like Nikola Tesla, and both Musk and the Model S seem pretty cool.

What makes me a little sad is that this is the follow up to an earlier Oatmeal crowdfunding pitch that raised $1.6 million to buy the site of the museum,  an old Tesla lab. So Inman was able to raise comparable amounts of money in two ways: first a huge crowdfunding effort that brought in tons of small donations, and then second a very specific plea to one billionaire.

This time the billionaire in question turns out to largely deserve the praise heaped on him in the comic, but that’s not really a necessary part of the process. Most billionaires are not like Musk, investing their money in electric cars and spaceships and whatnot, but that doesn’t mean they won’t look kindly towards artists who glorify them in hopes of getting some patronage.

What’s worse is that this accompanies a trend towards regular people being able to get their entertainment for free or near free online. I’m mostly all for this trend, but on the other hand I don’t want to end up in a world where entertainment is really just marketed to potential billionaire patrons, with everyone else getting it for free, but just being along for the ride so far as content goes.

Homelessness and Crappy Benches


As an extraordinarily privileged non- homeless person, the way I am most directly harmed by our nation’s embarrassingly awful policies on the issue is as collateral damage in my city’s attempt to make life as miserable as possible for the homeless.

This might seem like hyperbole, but really it’s literally true. Local governments don’t like having homeless people in their district. And can you blame them? I don’t want there to be homeless people anywhere! The problem is that there are two ways to get rid of a homeless person. The first and best is of course to give that person a home. The second and far cheaper is to get that person to leave town and go be homeless somewhere else. Even with the cost difference, this doesn’t seem insurmountable. What really pushes cities towards option two is that being nice to the homeless draws in more homeless people. Who wouldn’t want to move to the city giving away free houses? They’re still doing good in aggregate, but from a single city perspective doing the right thing can seem like it’s making the problem even worse.

So we’re in the world of option two: cities are competing to see who can make things worse for the homeless,  with the prize being that the homeless people in your city might go be someone else’s problem.

And finally we get back to me, typing this post on the bus bench pictured above,  which is literally a pain in my ass. It’s just generally a poorly made bench, except for the one design metric where it passes with flying colors: it would be really hard to sleep on.

In conclusion,  if you want nicer benches in your city (or more water fountains, or public electric outlets, and so on) the solution is to demand action to end homelessness on a national level.

Funny how all our problems are connected.

Star Wars: the Why of the Jedi

So I was thinking way too much about Star Wars (like you do) and I got to thinking about the rather weird philosophy of the Jedi. You don’t see a lot of other good guys in fiction or in reality that take young children from their parents and raise them to embrace a life of monastic self-denial, including the denial of all negative emotions, no matter the situation. However, I think I found a way to make sense of it all.

Clearly having force abilities is genetic. All living things contain Midi-chlorians, and once the number reaches a certain threshold in a sentient being, that being becomes able to access special abilities. Midi-chlorian counts are heritable, in roughly the same way that height is heritable: sometimes a tall child can be born of two shorter parents (a force mutant (FM) being born to two non-force capable parents), but generally the taller the parent, the taller the child. Having force powers is obviously a big advantage for anyone, so high midi-chlorian counts will be selected for, and the number of FMs, as well as the power of the strongest FMs, will grow and grow.

This would all be fine and dandy except for one other thing that is made very clear: the force is dangerous. Any negative emotion that an FM feels warps their mind and brings them closer to full-on psychosis, AKA “the dark side.” We see this in the prequel series, where Anakin’s perfectly justified fear and anger transform into a willingness to slaughter children and conquer the galaxy alarmingly quickly. In order to maintain their sanity, FMs must be constantly on the alert, tamping down negative emotions lest they tip over the edge and go berserk.

Now imagine a world (or galaxy) where these FMs exist. A mostly psychotic race of super-humans are wandering around doing whatever they damn well please, and no doubt having a lot of kids with each other and random bystanders (they are psychos with mind control powers after all), which means that there are more and more of them every generation. Some FMs might be friendly and try to protect the normals, but they are generally weaker than their dark side counterparts because of all the effort needed to control themselves, and they are of course vulnerable to going over to the dark side themselves whenever they fear for their loved one’s lives or are angry about some new dark side atrocity. The only protection people have is that the dark siders are not exactly well organized, and are as likely to fight each other as anyone else.

So given this situation, how do you solve the force problem? Ultimately, it would be ideal to eliminate FMs entirely, but it seems that the only way to effectively fight FMs is with other FMs, so you can’t just have a crusade of normals fighting FMs. Instead, you get any light siders you have on your side, and set up a new organization. The first tenet of this organization is obviously that FMs should not have children. Producing more potential monsters is counter-productive. This works out well, because the second key goal is to keep everybody sane and away from the dark side. Since any negative emotion is dangerous, it’s important to reduce the emotional ties of your FMs. FM children are taken away from their families as early as possible to prevent emotional ties there, and then forbidden to marry or have children. With these restrictions, plus a strict code of conduct and constant warnings about the danger of the dark side, you have a reliable organized group of non-crazy FMs. This group is named the Jedi.

Once you have this organization, it would be a shame to waste your super-humans on sitting around in a monastery. Instead, they can be put to use making the galaxy a better place, specifically by fighting the dark siders. Since the dark siders are disunited, they start to fall fairly easily to the less individually powerful, but better organized and not crazy Jedi. However, as this goes on the dark siders figure out that there is a very real threat here, and band together for mutual protection, calling themselves the Sith.

The Jedi and Sith fight for a long time, with the Jedi eventually winning largely because of the constant betrayals and infighting among the Sith. A single surviving Sith vows revenge and goes into hiding, deciding on a rule of ‘one master, one apprentice’ in order to prevent the betrayals that doomed his side before.

Now the Jedi are the dominant force users in the galaxy, but there is still work to do. Assuming they can effectively detect and train a large percentage of the galaxy’s force users, and effectively kill or detain those who don’t cooperate, they can gradually reduce the number of FMs who are born at all, until there are only the relatively weak first generation FMs that are always going to be thrown up by non-FM parents. The Jedi continue this slow breeding program, while throwing their energies into being general good guy guardians of the galaxy, protecting the innocent and all that jazz.

Fast forward thousands of years to around the time of the Star Wars movies, and these efforts have born fruit. There are far fewer Jedi than there were in the old days, and they are relatively weak. FMs are very rare, with most people having never even seen someone use force powers. Most Jedi aren’t even aware of the true reason for their order’s existence, they just continue to follow the ancient code out of habit and organizational inertia. Of course it’s likely that some of the most senior Jedi, most notably one Master Yoda, are aware of their history. However, even they now care more about the survival of the order itself and the current state of galactic politics than they do about reducing the FM population. Anakin manages to get married, and even worse, have children, and while his superiors seem vaguely disapproving, they don’t take any action to prevent it.

Now of course we have the events of the movie series, with Palpatine as the last in a long line of Sith who have been in hiding ever since the great war attacking and destroying the Jedi order, and taking over the galaxy now that there are no Jedi, and thanks to the Jedi, no rival dark siders, to challenge him. Of course the last dregs of the Jedi manage to defeat the Sith, and all seems well. In fact, the galactic civil war has left the galaxy with fewer FMs than ever, with both the Sith and the Jedi almost annihilated, and many people as of A New Hope not even believing they exist.

However, there is a problem. Luke has decided to reform the Jedi order as a force for good in the galaxy. However, he is barely trained, and knows nothing about the secret history of the order. He certainly will not make any effort to stop his sister from having children with Han, and is unlikely to follow that particular rule himself when the right girl comes along (Mara Jade…) The force ghosts of Yoda and Obi Wan could tell him, but they have already shown their willingness to sacrifice the original Jedi principals in order to promote the superficial existence of the order. With no one to remember why the Jedi order needed to exist in the first place, and only a simplistic ‘light side’ vs. ‘dark side’ understanding of how the force effects the mind, it’s likely that future generations of Skywalkers will be ready to break more of the seemingly archaic and restrictive rules of the old order. The long, slow, reduction in FM numbers will start to reverse itself, and the galaxy will be back where it started all those thousands of years ago, dominated by an ever growing number of incredibly powerful and generally psychotic force mutants.

Bad Arguments on the minimum wage

As someone who is in favor of large minimum wage increases but likes to keep an open mind, I try to keep up on what the anti-minimum wage people have to say. My latest stab at that project was this article, describing a $15 an hour minimum wage as absurd:

So I decided to look into the only data this article actually presents to support it’s position, this quote:

“The actual state of knowledge of the impact that the minimum wage has on employment in North America, and especially in Québec, leads to the conclusion that a minimum wage that is greater than 50% of the average wage is harmful to small wage earners and that a minimum wage that is less than 45% has very little risk for this group of workers. Between these limits, the area of 45% to 50% would represent an increasing danger to employment.”

It doesn’t really present any evidence, just makes a factual claim and moves on. Still, people do that all that time, and as long as you link to where you can find more info it’s not a problem.

So I follow the link, which turns out to be Worstall linking to himself (not the best sign):

In that article, the same quote is presented, and sourced to a 2006 post in a Canadian economics blog called “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative”:

There, we learn the quote comes from an economist named Pierre Fortin, and we get this gem of an attribution:

“An internal working group at the Quebec government kindly offers us a translation for how Fortin summarises the argument (the actual paper is written in French, and as far as I know, no electronic version exists – I got my copy by fax)”

Within that quote there’s a link that is presumably supposed to go to said paper, but actually goes to a ‘page not found’ message:

And that’s the end of the rainbow. So to be brief about it, I’m not convinced. Worstall’s claim is that we only have evidence that smaller minimum wage increases can be passed without greatly increasing unemployment, but of course the reason for that is we’ve only ever had small, gradualist minimum wage increases to observe. So we have weak evidence in favor of minimum wage increases in general not harming employment, and no evidence pointing the other way. And this is in an article by an anti-minimum wage partisan!

Of course intelligence is not simply the opposite of stupidity, but it still gives me some warm fuzzies that this is the level of discourse on the other side of the debate.