lawn = happiness?

May 31, 2009

Housing Costs in Cincinnati.
Yellow: 0-30% of Income; Green: 30%+ of Income

Yellow: 0-45% of Income; Green: 45%+ of Income

Housing + Transportation Costs in Cincinnati. Yellow: 0-45% of Income; Green: 45%+ of Income

A recent study put out by the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) looks at how population density in a number of different-sized cities and their surrounding suburbs affects things like the cost of housing + transportation (important since conventional knowledge usually just considers housing costs alone–“it’s cheaper to live in the suburbs”) and the carbon dioxide emitted per household. This study is simply more evidence of what most of us already know, which is that it’s much more efficient environmentally to live in high-density population areas. The interesting thing about this study, is that it also shows the economic efficiencies we also usually get living in high-density areas by saving on transportation costs.

Most of us have grown up in one sense or another that part of the American Dream is to own a house, your own little kingdom that you have entire control over. It usually involves having a nice lawn, a place for a grill, an opportunity for your kids to play with the neighbors, a safe neighborhood, and relatively convenient to things like grocery stores, etc. Unfortunately, fulfilling these dreams usually means moving to the ‘burbs.

Make no mistake, I love being the master of my own domain, having grass to take naps in (and mow), being able to grill whenever I want, and all the rest. But ultimately this dream is unsustainable. It’s unsustainable both because there’s just not enough land close enough to areas of high economic activity (i.e. cities) for our current and growing population and because it’s terrible for the environment.

We need to adapt our understanding of what’s desirable and now begin to incorporate factors outside of ourselves in how we think about out domestic dwelling. There’s still plenty of room for public lawns, parks and other greenspace in high-density population areas, so we need not give that up. And perhaps if/when more people move into the cities, there will be even more demand for such quality of living spaces.

Most of us who appreciate and enjoy nature have a very understandable desire to live in it. It’s becoming more and more clear, though, that we’re not terribly good at taking care of nature when we live in it (akin to the 4 year old girl who lovingly carries the household cat dangling from its neck and front leg).

We need to quarantine ourselves from nature so that it’s still around in 150 years for successive generations to enjoy. This means increasing the areas owned and protected by our national parks system (which also means increasing funding to them) and decreasing the areas owned and developed into suburbs. This battle is going to be a very difficult one, but hopefully as more evidence like that published in this CNT study emerges, the economic reasons, rather than the moral reasons, will take over as the driving force.

in Google we trust…

May 29, 2009

Let me start by setting the record straight: I love Google. I like the meritocratic culture of its hiring, the promotion of creativity and side projects among its employees, and, most of all, its trend-settings, intuitive, and just plain useful suite of products. I appreciate what it’s trying to do with cloud computing and cutting the tether to the operating system (i.e. NOT what Microsoft is doing). I rely on my Gmail, Google Reader, Google Calendar, to name only a few.

And yet…my distrust of large concentrations of power, especially over the flow of information has recently made me think twice about Google. Ultimately, they’re a company, just like any other, at the end of the day responsible to their shareholders now that they’ve gone public. As I see it, two main dangers exist in our placing so much trust in them:

1) Google decides to censor search results a la China. This means that certain sites would be inaccessible through Google. “Crazy,” you say, “Google would never do that. It would ruin their ‘don’t be evil’ equity.” I’d like to think so too, but really?….What if there were a terrorist attack whose organization could be traced to some websites. What if the U.S. government asks/forces Google to resist accessibility. Could/would Google really say no?

I suppose if Google does acquiesce to external censorship pressure, other search engines might eventually take its place as its reputation drops (or not, depending on the zeitgeist at the time). But a much more troubling scenario (and much more likely), is the elimination of people’s individual Google Accounts.

2) If Google decides you’re a persona non grata, as they have for numerous people, what do you do then? All your email, especially bad if it includes business email, is now inaccessible. Not only can you no longer communicate with anyone (sure you could open a different email account, but do you really remember all of the necessary email addresses?), but you can’t access any of your old emails, and we all know how important the Gmail’s search function is. What if Google (or again, a shadowy government official) decides you’re a terrorist because you gave some money to some Muslim charities? What would you do? I’d send some emails and call them, but ultimately, they can ignore me if they’d like.

Am I being paranoid? Yes. But in our world of increasingly efficient–which often means centralized–communication, a healthy dose of paranoia is important. It doesn’t seem that hard for you or your organization to be “disappeared.” I still like Google a good deal and certainly plan to keep using their applications, but I’ll have my eyes open.

The wheel on the left indicates temperature change probabilities given aggressive human climate policy. The wheel on the right shows the probabilities with no policy. (thanks MIT)

The wheel on the left indicates temperature change probabilities given aggressive human climate policy. The wheel on the right shows the probabilities with no policy. Remember, these temperatures are in Celsius!(thanks MIT)

A recent, exhaustive MIT report concludes that global temperature change by the end of this century will rise 5.2 ° C (9.4 ° F) by 2100 without drastic and immediate climate change policy.

It seems like I can’t go a week without hear more bad news on the climate change front, at least from the scientists. Studies come out all the time about the increasing heat waves, draughts, and species dissapearances due to the already present degree or two raise we’ve experienced over the last century.

There’s a good deal of talk about climate change policy, and many companies (cf big oil, coal, and natural) have begun their greenwashing campaigns in earnest. People are encouraged to turn off the lights, use less water, and buy a Prius to do their part. Make no mistake, all of these conservation measures make a difference and represent the easiest first step, but these types of small changes are easy to do and just as easy for you or your neighbor to not do. The big stuff–power plants, efficient grids, and trans-national cooperation–is much harder to implement.

The problem with the American voter is that he’s profoundly impatient. Asking us to make huge sacrifices and changes now for a degree or two in fifty years seems a bit futile. We can’t even agree on econmic stimuli, which have efficacy time periods of six months to two years. What’s more, just about every other big issue that confronts the average voter these days–terrorism, economic free-fall, war, gay marriage–is much more immediate. A recent poll found that our concern for environmental issues ranks dead last in a list of top voter issues. And while the Europeans are about ten years ahead of us in terms of climate policy, try convincing China, India, Brazil, and the rest of the now-industrializing world who want the cheap, dirty energy the rest of us used during most of the twentieth century.

Without the voter, we have no heavy hand of the government, and without the government regulation, industry will never reform itself in any meaningful way. Sure, sure, it looks like cap and trade will happen under Obama, but with significant loopholes, for political expediency of course. Call me pessimstic, but I don’t think these free-market compromises will have enough of an impact. Remember, the world’s energy usage is still greatly increasing.

Ok, you get the idea…here’s my prediction about how it’s all going to go down:

1) Devestating global climate change will occur, causing economic ruin, entire populations of refugees, species extinction, et al. The situation will be very bad for a good while, but eventually–in a Watchmen-esque move–the world will come together, setting aside most of our differences, to combat this huge threat to our existence. Remember, humans are probably the most adaptable species out there.

2) Effectively handling our ever-warming planet will ultimately require science (to the rescue again!) in the form of a drastically cleaner and more efficient energy source (super solar, microwaves from space, cold fusion, who knows!). It will also require big carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas vacuums to remove the stuff we’ve already put into the atmosphere. It’ll be interesting to see what form these take, chemical or biological…I’m guessing some sort of engineered super efficient microorganism.

Thankfully for me, I’ll probably be dead before the the worst of it hits. Nevertheless, it’ll be an interesting next 75 years…


May 27, 2009

For many in the real world, e gets no love. e, the base of the natural logarithm, actually has much more power than its other, better-known irrational cousin, pi or π. Most who have taken middle school math can tell you that pi is the ratio between the circumference and diameter of a circle,

No one can doubt the coolness of this relationship, and how its result is a crazy irrational number that never changes with the size of the circle.

The other main irrational number–e–however, does far more than explain a simple geometrical relation.


As x increases from zero (exclusive) to infinity, the function increases from negative infinity to positive infinity. (thanks Wikipedia)

Those who have taken calculus may remember that the graph, , has a derivative of…wait for it…. No other function has this property. In essence, this means exponential functions have the distinct ability to incorporate their results into the next iteration of initial conditions (Thomasina  uses this idea in Tom Stoppard’s excellent play Arcadia).

Since the exponential function involves continual change, it’s perfect for modelling things like population growth, continually compounded interest, and a large array of physical processes from heat transfer to fluid flow, really anything that involves a feedback loop. Differential equations is an area of math that entirely relies upon the exponential function, and differential equations is vitally important for pretty much every field of engineering.

Huge swaths of our modern world rely upon a very simple (albeit never-ending) number. No other number has that kind of power, especially not puny pi or the golden ratio.

For those of you who wasted your time memorizing digits of pi, here are the first two million of e.