Tesla and Ice

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This is a short note on a couple of issues related only in that they say something relevant about the future we should be planning for.

The first relates to Tesla and its production difficulties with the new, lower-priced model 3.  The highly-automated production of the model 3 is well-behind schedule, to the point where it is a big hit to the cash flow of the company.  We mention it here, though, because the delay is an indication that mass production of electric cars is something fundamentally new.

An electric car is a much simpler machine than an ordinary, gas-powered vehicle.  In principle the construction should be both cheaper and easier to automate.  Current production of Teslas is intrinsically a low-volume operation.  The model 3 will be the first indication of what newly-imagined electric car production is like.

I don’t know if we’re in for a shock or not (this is after all a first go at it), but this could be another big change to conventional middle-class employment.  And there will be follow-on effects for gas stations, and especially maintenance and repair.  This is another of many indications that broad, technology-based disruption of jobs is going to happen.

 

The other story is about the commissioning of a new class of Russian icebreaker—targeted at clearing northern ship lanes freed up by the retreat of polar ice with global warming.  The phenomenon is already clear, although the amount of traffic is still small.  The Russians are preparing for the opportunity with multiple classes of new machines planned for release up to 2025.  The Chinese have announced cooperation with the objective of reducing shipping times to Europe by a third.

The US is of course uninterested in consequences of climate change.  The only Coast Guard ice breaker is 40 years old, and they have a hard time getting authorization to get a new one.  The Bering strait, however, could be a shipping lane.

This is a very small example, but climate change affects many things, and as a country we’re trying to avoid finding out about them.

 

The current federal budget is put together for a world where the private sector will take care of everything.  That has always been a fantasy—the efficiency of the private sector comes in large part from its ability to ignore everything not relevant to immediate financial success.  It is particularly false for a world undergoing fundamental change.  We either recognize it and help people through it, or we fall behind and revert to the nightmares of the nineteenth century.

Keeping Score on North Korea

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Now that Fox News has awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Trump, it’s time to go over what has happened thus far with North Korea and what is likely to happen from here on out.  Here’s the timeline.

1. Trump and Kim Jong-un exchange rocket launches, military maneuvers, nuclear tests, insults, and other hysterics, so the world gets worried something disastrous might happen. This enhances the domestic position and international profile of both participants.

2. The South Korean President—elected on a platform of better relations with the North—takes the occasion of the Olympics to try to calm the situation.

3. Kim seizes the opportunity and opens a full-scale charm offensive toward the South. Kim’s sister easily bests Mike Pence in the Olympic charm event.

4. Trump reverses decades of US policy and agrees to a one-on-one meeting with Kim without pre-conditions. Score 1 for Kim.

5. South Korea’s president, seeing Trump’s threats and how little South Korea’s welfare figured into US policy, realizes he can’t count on the US as a reliable ally. This is a strong incentive to conclude a peace process agreement with the North.  Score 1 more for Kim.

6. For US consumption Kim has now been declared “very honorable” and Trump is a hero for resolving the situation. The negotiation is considered a success before it has begun.  On the basis of negotiating position, score 1 more for Kim.

7. The most probable outcome is a staged denuclearization of North Korea in exchange for a draw-down of US military personnel and equipment in the South. The “staged denuclearization” we’ve seen many times before; the US military disengagement is new.  Trump exults over the money saved.  Score 2 for Kim.

8. The final situation essentially replaces US influence in South Korea with North Korean influence. Further this is one more step in the US disengagement from Asia to the benefit of China.  Score 1 more for Kim, 4 for Xi Jinping.

9. Final score:  Kim 6, Xi 4, US 0

Figure Skating and Math Textbooks

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This odd coupling of topics links two separate frustrations which seem to come from the same core problem.

For figure skating the problem is one particular feature of the new scoring system—the extra points given to jumps in the second half of a program.  There’s no question that those are harder to do—anything is harder to do when you’re dead tired.  The question is why that extra stamina should be rewarded as an achievement!  In the last Olympics, those extra points were primarily an opportunity to game the system.  What was missing in artistic achievement could be made up in pure stamina.  The winner of the woman’s gold medal had all of her jumps in the second half of the program.

The fundamental problem is that from within a system, people are tempted to put a value on anything hard, regardless of whether or not it means something to the outside world.  People who have spent their careers doing and teaching figure skating have a tendency to think that any hard jumps are achievements.

Having just had reason to work my way through a high school algebra textbook, I have to say (based on an admittedly small sample) that the textbook publishers have that problem in spades.  The book was filled with minutia that need to be memorized for exam questions.  Getting through all of that is certainly hard, but it’s not the stuff that will make kids confident and successful in mathematics.  And that certainly won’t make them like it or remember it.  (One more reason it’s tough to be a teacher!)

It seems to me that high school math has a pretty good story to tell.  Core algebra is based on a really brilliant idea, that an answer you are looking for can be handled just like a number.   That lets you create a simple kind of manual computer.  If you can write down the problem, then the manual computer can solve it.  Sort of like doing your taxes with turbo-tax.  The core ideas are simple and don’t need to become a challenge.  From there it’s straightforward to do linear systems, which are part of the vocabulary in science, engineering, finance, or just about anything else.  “Vocabulary” is actually the right word.  For most students, mathematics is a language in which they need to gain confidence and fluency.

Then with quadratic equations you hit a wall.  All the techniques you just learned fail.  But you’re saved by another really good idea you would (probably) never have come up with yourself.  You do a few exercises with that idea, working toward an answer that is basically all you need to know—the quadratic formula.  Any further messing around with higher-order polynomials and rational functions is only supplementary, examples of what you can do with other kinds of problems you might run into.  No more rules to learn.

Going beyond that you have topics with really exciting applications.  Conic sections are geometrically interesting and tied to the whole story of the Copernican revolution, Kepler’s laws (“equal areas swept out in equal time”), and Newton’s gravitation.  (You don’t need calculus to tell the story.)  Sequences and series cover ideas behind every financial analysis students will see.  Permutations and combinations are important for probability and statistics and introduce the first non-trivial example of a group.  Modular arithmetic is a useful feature of every programming language.   Trigonometry is important but can become unnecessarily confusing.   Sine and cosine functions are important parts of the vocabulary, but you can get lost forever in trigonometric identities and formulas.

Mathematics shouldn’t be a drag.  There are few core principles and very little actually to memorize.  You get to see some remarkable solutions to tough problems.  One famous mathematician said that mathematics should be “like floating down a river on your back.”  My father-in-law put it differently: “Mathematics is for people too lazy to do real work.”

Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now

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There haven’t been any book reviews on this site before, but Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now is something of a special case.  This is a political book with a message that doesn’t quite fit into the current political environment, and it includes a large body of relevant history.  Not surprisingly, Pinker finds Trump antithetical to the Enlightenment precepts he is defending.  But he also finds plenty of guilt to go around.

To start with, the book seems to have two competing objectives:

  1. Validating the fact of human progress and documenting how it has been achieved. This is really a call to action based on humanistic goals.
  2. Providing reasons for optimism about the future. This is different—good things that are going to happen for reasons such as demographics, outside the scope of specific human actors.

On the face of it, a reader expects the first subject to be primary, if only because (at this point in time) you expect any political book to end up with recommendations for what to do.  But that’s not quite where Pinker is going.  He’s trying to view history not just as a demonstration of what works, but also as a way to understand where things are going longer term.  Since the two objectives are different, it helps to treat them one-by-one.

On the first subject, Pinker does a remarkable job of demonstrating the successes that humanity has achieved—In the longer term, in the last century, and in the past few decades. This involves health, security, standard of living, and many other quantitative measures of human welfare.   Much of this is unfamiliar because, as he says, this kind of thing just doesn’t make news.  The book is worth reading for this part alone.  Pinker does a good job of demonstrating progress and what is responsible for that progress:  science, rationality, and a broad-based desire to create a better world for everyone.  It is hard to argue with the historical fact that prosperity is not a zero-sum game.

In passing Pinker tries to dispose of past arguments against enlightenment humanism.  As examples:  Humans are inherently irrational (except when they want to make a point).  Humanism is a white racist production (its advocates were on the anti-imperialist side).   Science ignores human values (just plain not true).

Predicting the future is harder, and overall I’d say that Pinker is not well-served by his desire to make things look positive.  He tries to say that nuclear war is improbable, but we know that just one outlier is bad enough.  He treats the climate change movement as a kind of hysteria, because science will just take care of it in time (based on mostly anecdotal evidence).  He views the populist phenomenon as a brief episode of backsliding until more liberal generations take over from the ones now on the verge of dying out.

So in the end it seems a shame that the future predictions tend to dominate discussions of the book, when it’s the first part—the defense of progress—that is its greatest contribution.

And then there is the question of the call to action.  What Pinker espouses is humanism—the broad-based, rational process that has delivered progress.  The problem is that humanism doesn’t have a political party.

Pinker points out that much of the political process just doesn’t work:  Issue-based movements systematically deny progress for fear of losing momentum (even though that means they frequently get caught in the bind of asking for more money to continue going nowhere).  Discussion of issues is based on faulty statistics and dishonest patterns of argument.  Democracy as a whole is not as rational or responsive as we would like to think (the chapter on that subject is well worth reading).  He gives plenty of examples of bad behavior on both the left and the right.  Both sides contributed to the grim view of reality that was instrumental in producing Trump.

So where do we go from here?  Individuals can learn to be more rational in their behavior and in their evaluation of what they see and read.  They can work with the flawed organizations that are fighting bad actors such as Trump.  They can involve themselves with specific issues and help to push them along.  All told—incremental change but no miracle solution.

That’s actually the optimism of the book.   There’s no silver bullet, but the process has worked thus far.  And hopefully we will keep it going.

Update on Climate Change

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This note is an update to the climate change article from last year.  The story hasn’t gotten any better, but there is enough that’s new to warrant a revisit.

The most fundamental piece of bad news is the opening figure, which comes from the Global Carbon Project.  After three years of seeming stability, the world production of carbon dioxide increased significantly in 2017.  (The figure says “projection” just to indicate that the final computations are in process.)  Without too much evidence we might as well call that the Trump bump.  As we noted last time, worldwide unanimity on climate change is important precisely because the advantages of cheating are so obvious.  We—with probably the most to gain from the Paris Agreement process—are the cheaters in chief.  So it’s not surprising others will have fewer second thoughts as well.

We have to put this change into perspective.  Even a stable value of CO2 emission means things are getting worse, because it is the total amount of CO2 in the atmosphere that drives temperature change, and it all adds up.  The stable value was attractive, because it seemed to indicate that CO2 had finally peaked and might start to decline.  And the decline might mean the total CO2 could be bounded.  We’re now back to worrying about the peak, with no idea how bad things will get.

Two more new slides from the Global Carbon Project show what we stand to gain from Paris Agreement unanimity.  The first shows the current per capita production of carbon dioxide.

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As has been true for many years US per capita usage sits way above everyone else, more than twice both Europe and China.  That is a direct expression of our carbon-powered standard of living.

The second slide shows who is going to have to make changes to protect that US standard of living from the effects of climate change.

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This shows that the major growth in carbon dioxide production is not from the biggest economies (note that even China has stabilized), it’s from the have-nots trying to achieve some fraction of our standard of living.   We are asking them to ignore not only our past exploitation of fossil fuel resources but even our current high per capita use and to delay their own immediate hopes for a better life in order to make the world a safer place for everyone.  So much for the question of who benefits from the Paris Agreement process!

That introduces the next topic—public attitudes to climate change.  There were enough strange weather events in the past year to give people pause, so we’re getting close to—but still not over—the hump.  The latest poll numbers have both good news and bad.  First the good news:

Overall, 45 percent of those surveyed said global warming would pose a serious threat in their lifetimes, the highest overall percentage recorded since Gallup first asked the question in 1997. Despite partisan divisions, majorities of Americans as a whole continue to believe by wide margins that most scientists think global warming is taking place, that it is caused by human activities and that its effects have begun.

Then the bad—the improvement is only partisan:

Gallup asked whether people agreed that most scientists believe global warming is occurring, and 42 percent of Republicans said yes, down from 53 percent a year earlier and back to a level last seen in 2014. Just 35 percent of Republicans said that they believe global warming is caused by human activities, down from 40 percent.

This seems like another proof of a much-discussed feature of human nature—when people are confronted with proof that their beliefs are wrong, they double down on defending those beliefs.   Unfortunately those are the people running the show.

How can that turn around?  A recent Steven Pinker book made an interesting point.  Much of the rhetoric around climate change focuses on conservation and a new world view of collective responsibility.  But conservation actually isn’t the main point—since we’re not repealing the industrial revolution, the main point has to be new energy sources.  We’re not creating a new world where no one drives Chevy Suburbans anymore, we’re just changing the power source.  Conservation, however important, is about buying time until we can get there.  Perhaps that’s one way to get climate change out of the culture wars (as it should be).

In any case the focus has to be on the reality of climate change, and everything else is tactics. With tactics it’s easier to be bipartisan.   One indication is that Congress, over Trump’s objection, passed a bill continuing tax breaks for solar, nuclear, geothermal, and carbon-capture projects.  This effort united left-wing and right-wing approaches to climate change largely under the radar.  However, it must be recognized that even with such efforts the US is now lagging far behind in support for the technology of climate change.

Carbon capture (separating out CO2 and storing it underground or elsewhere) deserves some special mention, because it has become a bigger topic in the past year.  On one hand this is an idea that has been around for decades without going very far, and what’s more the coal industry supports it as a lifeline.  On the other hand the technology seems to be improving, the Obama administration supported it as a transitional technology, and even the IPCC climate studies assume some form of it will be used.  It currently exists as an expensive add-on for power plants, and some still-speculative variants have been proposed to pull carbon dioxide straight out of the air.  Both the power plant and out-of-the-air applications have a common need for CO2 storage technology, of which there are many variants.

The biggest issue with carbon capture is that it can be (and is being) used to delay doing anything about climate change—why worry about carbon getting into the atmosphere if we’ll pull it all out later.  The problem is that the technology still has such big questions about cost and scaling, that “later” could be very late or never (and some effects, such as melting glaciers, are irreversible).  Even the cheapest estimates say it will cost continuing trillions.  What you have to say is that the technology investment is necessary and at worst it at least gets the climate dialog past the hoax stage.  And if we could just get the Kochs interested in that business (which is largely oil industry technology), it would settle the Republican perception of climate change once and for all!

Returning to reality, we have to conclude the past year seems like a pause for progress.  After Trump took the US out of the Paris Agreement, many wanted to talk about all that could be done to maintain momentum nonetheless.  The chart at the beginning shows the limits of that point of view.  There are other indicators as well:

– The auto industry’s step back from future fuel efficiency standards

Exxon’s declaration that climate change is no risk to their profits

– Business as usual in the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook:

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– Even the new preoccupation with carbon capture has to be viewed as a vote of no-confidence in the progress of conservation.   If prevention isn’t going to happen, then repair is all we’ve got.

What’s more than there has even been a preoccupation with a more drastic step, so-called geo-engineering.  This means injecting chemicals or particles into the atmosphere so as to dim the sun and cool the earth despite the increasing CO2 concentration.  There are many risks:  continuing ocean acidification, reduced photosynthesis and food supply, and weaponization of the technology.  Since CO2 would continue to accumulate, any loss of protection would have disastrous effects.  These are desperate measures.

As to what we should be doing, the picture is not too different from last year, but we can be perhaps more explicit.

  1. Because burning carbon is now recognized to have definite costs (i.e. whatever is necessary to counteract the CO2 increase), we need some kind of carbon tax so that the free market economy can react correctly. Since that cost is not currently captured, our economy is incurring a significant distortion that needs to be fixed.
  2. We need to get back into the Paris Agreement process to return focus to the goal. To repeat the obvious, the Paris process was always intended to be iterative—with countries readjusting their goals to eventually reach the target. We’re only at step one, so we had better help the world get back on-track.
  3. We have to recognize that at this stage we’re in no position to judge winners and losers among contributing technologies. So the solution has to be all of the above: nuclear, solar, wind, geothermal, batteries, carbon capture, even substituting gas for coal as a temporary measure.  The IPCC gave us what they called a carbon dioxide budget—the amount of CO2 we can add and still stay below a global temperature rise of 2 ⁰ C.  In 2014 (the year of the report) it was 800 giga-tons.  It is now below 700.
  4. People have to recognize that despite confusing news reports, we are all in this together. Some people will be hit by sea-level rise, some by drought, some by sheer temperature, some by storms, some by an effect we haven’t seen yet. Some may even be a little later.  But ultimately there’s nowhere to hide, and even “later” comes fast.
  5. There is no excuse for not funding research in all the contributing technologies and also research to understand the climate effects we are going to live with for however many years it takes to get past fossil fuels.
  6. Ideally all elements of society should be involved in planning such major changes. The carbon tax will help make that happen, but it’s not the whole story. We can’t keep fighting about this.

This administration likes to talk about itself as bringing business practices to government.   The evidence for climate change is such that any reasonable business would be doing its best to quantify the risk, so as to take appropriate action.   Businesses that choose to ignore disruptive new technologies or entrants are the ones that disappear—along with their disparaging comments on how the new stuff will never amount to anything.

Unless we choose to wake up—that’s us.  We’ll act now or pay far more dearly later.

 

Fake News

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Someone has to come out and say it.  Why does Trump keep screaming FAKE NEWS?

Trump is a salesman.  What does a salesman do if there is a flaw in his product:  claim the competition has it.  Puts them on the defensive and hides the real issue.  Fake news is a cover.

That’s all there is to say about fake news.  Contrary to some speculation, Trump is not stupid and not all that delusional.   He knows he’s lying, and he handles it the way he always has.  It’s the other side that’s lying—fake news.

That’s what he’s doing with Mueller, and taxes, and Russia ….  He knows what he is doing, he’s good at it, and he’s got Fox News and lots of other people willing to toe the line and lie for him.

It won’t help to take the bait and play defense.  That’s basically assuming there is misunderstanding and goodwill—which there isn’t.  The only way to fight it is to show that all the real examples are on the other side.  Take a few good ones from the thousands of deliberate factual errors and force his defenders to match them.

And don’t back down.  No matter how preposterous the charges, in this case there is no substitute for offense.

Yet Another Gift to China

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The first point to make is that the current hysteria about a trade war with China is parallel to what happened a few months ago with North Korea.  Then we had weeks of unhinged bluster that kept the press busy around the clock.  Finally it dissipated without a trace when Trump gave in to Kim’s request for a meeting—ignoring all of his and other Presidents’ demands for preconditions.

Trump had his weeks of media-certified toughness and was on to the next photo op.

(It’s not clear what will come out of the meeting, but if the South Korean trade deal is any model—it takes very little to put on a media show of triumph.  Also, it’s hard not to wonder what would happen if the two Koreas got together and decided to keep the nukes.  After all, Trump campaigned on a platform of forcing allies to take full responsibility for their own defense!)

A trade war with China is a God-given opportunity.   The Chinese have already announced as yet unspecified trade openings for the West.  So the punch line is already there—all that’s necessary is the prelude.  We’re currently getting our full-scale dose of Trump toughness on trade.  Every time the stock market goes up or down it’s just that much more publicity.  And the conclusion will be a triumphant proof of Trump’s populism for the mid-term elections.  But since Trump needs a deal, that means—as with Kim—that the Chinese are running the show.

As we’ve noted here before, this is a critical time for negotiation with China.   The West needs to be united in setting the stage for what could be a major period of international growth.  By definition this needs to be done within the framework of the WTO.  Instead of that, however, we have Trump claiming a “national security” exemption for every act of his trade war—thereby undermining the whole notion of WTO-based standards for trade.

There’s just nothing that won’t be sacrificed to a photo op.