MonthApril 2011

Economists Debate: Are Conflicts of Interest, You Know, Bad?

One portion of the devastating documentary about the global financial collapse, Inside Job (which won an Oscar, so you have to see it), dealt with academic economists—specifically, the ways that they became financially tied to banks and other players in finance, and how that may have compromised the entire practice of economics. It even showed the heads of the economic departments at Harvard (pictured) and Columbia blithely asserting that there was no need to disclose their financial conflicts of interest in academic papers. It was sickening.

We’re pleased to announce that a documentary has actually affected something in the real world! Well, kind of. The economics profession has formed a committee! A prestigious committee. A committee that will talk about whether there needs to be, get this, ethical standards, in economics. Can you imagine?

But here’s the thing: the committee isn’t even proposing an end to conflicts of interest. It’s only pushing for disclosure.

Gawker: Economists Debate: Are Conflicts of Interest, You Know, Bad?

(via Alex Pang, who was earlier asking for different reasons whether it was time to emigrate to Singapore)

The Carbon Footprint of Marijuana – How Does It Compare with Carbon Footprint of Television?

By now you may have seen coverage of this report on the carbon footprint of marijuana cultivation in the U.S. If not, check out the report or this Huffington Post story on it.

The figure that the HuffPo and other sources cite, that indoor marijuana cultivation accounts for 1% of electrical use in the U.S., is meaningless to me. I mean, how does that compare to other stuff? According to the report’s FAQ, that 1% figure works out to “22 billion kilowatt-hours/year estimated for indoor Cannabis.”

Working backwards from this page from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, I’ve worked out some comparisons. This data is from 2001, so there may have been significant advances in efficiency since then, but this is the best I could find on short notice:

-PCs and printers: 23 kWh
-Dishwashers: 29 kWh (I’ve read that electric dishwashers actually end up using fewer resources than washing dishes by hand, but I don’t have a source handy. I’m also not sure if those figure factor in the manufacture of dishwashers).
-Color TVs and TV peripherals: 49 kWh
-Refrigerators: 156 kWh (freezers add an additional 39 kWh)
-Air conditioning: 183 kWh

That of course doesn’t include the carbon foot print of manufacturing the equipment. Nor the cost of producing TV shows, and the carbon foot print of data centers and servers to power the Internet. You and I are probably doing more environmental damage right now by writing and reading this blog post than my pot-smoking neighbors down the hall are.

That doesn’t mean that growing indoor weed couldn’t or shouldn’t be made more efficient. But “indoor marijuana cultivations uses slightly less than half the total amount of electricity spent powering TVs” is less impressive than saying “1% of U.S. power consumption in the U.S. goes to growing pot.”

Also of interest is the environmental footprint of other drugs. Marijuana has a much lower impact than crystal meth, because meth requires chemicals imported from India and China. Marijuana doesn’t generally have to travel far once it’s grown, which reduces its footprint.

The ecological case for decriminalizing drugs is probably stronger for drugs other than marijuana. From the report’s FAQ:

Does this study support the case for criminalization?
No. In fact, many argue that criminalization is an important driver towards energy-intensive indoor production. Criminalization also contributes to many of the energy inefficiencies in the process, including long driving distances, noise and odor suppression measures that undercut ventilation efficiencies, and off-grid power production that is far less efficient produces more greenhouse-gas emissions than many electric grids. Moreover, decades of criminalization has resulted in this energy-using sector being passed over by massive efforts to incentivize and mandate efficiency improvements. The analysis does suggest a role for improved management of energy use, in much the same way that we address the energy use and fuel economy of our cars, buildings, and appliances.

Does this study support the case for decriminalization?
Not really. People grow indoors for many reasons aside from criminalization, e.g., quality control, pest control, and year-round yield. Many producers with licenses choose to grow indoors. That said, in a scenario where production is legalized it is, in principal, easier to address the energy issues.

Update: I thought I should also mention that 22 kWh per year for growing pot is still a pretty high number, even when compared to TV and other stuff, in that only about 10% of the U.S. population smokes marijuana. However, I still don’t think it justifies alarmism.

Self-Education Tip: Build Small Skills in the Right Order

Lukeprog at Less Wrong talks about what he learned about interpersonal communication in a Scientology class, and what it taught him about learning:

Building small skills in the right order is an excellent way to create and maintain success spirals.

Trying to master a large skill set like salesmanship is a daunting task that will likely involve many demotivating failures before you ever taste success. The same goes for public speaking, writing research papers, and lots of other large skill sets involving a complex interaction of many small skills.

Anna Salamon uses math to explain this concept. You could tackle calculus immediately after Algebra I, and you might eventually pick it up after many frustrating failures if you read the calculus textbook enough times, but why would you do this? It’s much easier and more satisfying to learn more algebra piece by piece until the jump to calculus is not so great. That way, you can experience the pleasure and confidence-boost of mastering new concepts all along the way to calculus.

Less Wrong: Build Small Skills in the Right Order

(via Theoretick)

How Little Sleep Can You Get Away With?


Almost everyone needs at least eight, and no you can’t train yourself to get by on less:

In what was the longest sleep-restriction study of its kind, Dinges and his lead author, Hans Van Dongen, assigned dozens of subjects to three different groups for their 2003 study: some slept four hours, others six hours and others, for the lucky control group, eight hours — for two weeks in the lab. […]

Not surprisingly, those who had eight hours of sleep hardly had any attention lapses and no cognitive declines over the 14 days of the study. What was interesting was that those in the four- and six-hour groups had P.V.T. results that declined steadily with almost each passing day. Though the four-hour subjects performed far worse, the six-hour group also consistently fell off-task. By the sixth day, 25 percent of the six-hour group was falling asleep at the computer. And at the end of the study, they were lapsing fives times as much as they did the first day.

New York Times: How Little Sleep Can You Get Away With?

(Via Barking Up the Wrong Tree)

There are a few people who get by on four or less hours per night, but they’re rare. There are a lot more people who think they need six or less, but actually need a full eight. This Wall Street Journal Article covers the “sleepless elite” and how rare they. Current research indicates that there’s no way to modify your sleep requirements – they’re genetic.

Coffee: The Original Smart Drug and Aphrodisiac

Coffee: Grounds for Debate, a title in the Philosophy for Everyone series, argues that coffee is a performance-enhancing drug for thinkers. “The appropriate analogy is that coffee and philosophy go together like foreplay and sex,” insist editors Scott F Parker and Michael W Austin. “You can have one without the other, but the latter is better with the former and the former often leads to the latter.” Philosopher Basam Romaya says: “With the use of coffee, critical thinking abilities are sharpened, attention to detail enhanced.” This is a venerable claim: in the 16th century, Sheik Abd-al-Kadir, an Arab scholar, said: “No one can understand the truth until he drinks of coffee’s frothy goodness.” […]

So what about impotence? That does seem to have been overstated. The Women’s Petition Against Coffee prompted a broadside from men who argued that it “makes the erection more Vigorous, the Ejaculation more full, adds spiritualescency to the Sperme”. Initially I wasn’t sure what “spiritualescency” means, either, until I read in this book that caffeine increases sperm motility. That said, some say coffee may harm the sperm while speeding it on its way, which makes a kind of sense.

The Guardian: Can coffee wreck your marriage?

(via James Governor)

William S. Burroughs and Gus Van Sant: The Discipline Of Do Easy

The Discipline Of DE, a 9 minute adaptation of the short story by William S. Burroughs, was Gus Van Sant’s first film outside of film school. It was filmed around 1977. The story first appeared in Exterminator! in 1973.

Here’s an excerpt from the story:

DE is a way of doing. DE simply means doing whatever you do in the easiest most relaxed way you can manage which is also the quickest and most efficient way, as you will find as you advance in DE.You can start right now tidying up your flat, moving furniture or books, washing dishes, making tea, sorting papers. Don’t fumble, jerk, grab an object. Drop cool possessive fingers onto it like a gentle old cop making a soft arrest.

(via Dangerous Minds)

Otomata – Flash-based Cellular Automata Music Sequencer


Changing Perceptions of Science and Technology in the 19th Century

Jess Nevins shares an excerpt from Hawthorne’s Mad Scientists:

Earlier, “technology” had meant something more accessible to the average man. Elements of Technology, a book published in 1829 by Harvard professor Jacob Bigelow, was essentially a recipe book, more like the “do-it-yourself” manuals of modern counterculture than an MIT textbook. By most accounts, Bigelow, whose job at Harvard was to bridge the gap between Yankee inventors and collegiate research scientists, was the first to use “technology” in its modern sense….

Jess Nevins: Changing perceptions of science and technology in the 19th century

LOST Reality Bleed Through: Winged Oceanic craft placed in Marianas Trench by Unthinkably Wealthy Elderly Man with Distinguished Accent

Thanks to Trevor for the link and headline.

Video: 1991 Hard Copy Report on Suspected Nine Inch Nails Snuff Film

NIN “Down In It” report on “Hard Copy,” March 3rd 1991 from Nine Inch Nails on Vimeo.

(Thanks Justin)

I read about this incident in the NIN FAQ years ago, but I’d never seen this gem.

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