Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Secretary Chu Warns of Sputnik Moment

On Monday, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu warned that in the global clean energy race, "America still has the opportunity to lead" — but "time is running out." While our nation seems to be standing still, countries like China, South Korea and Germany have been speeding ahead to develop and deploy new technologies — and reap the economic benefits.

As reported by CNET, during his speech at the National Press Club, Chu "suggested that the U.S. is reaching a 'Sputnik moment' where political leaders and the general population will realize how the U.S. has fallen behind other countries in science and technology." In response, the U.S. must "fund research in clean-energy technologies in order to stay apace and take advantage of the economic opportunity that cleaner energy technologies represent globally."

Secretary Chu speaks at the National Press Club

Chu called for creating the right environment, not only for corporations, but for research and innovation in general, noting that " federal support for scientific R&D is going to be critical for our economic competitiveness." Excluding the recent ARRA stimulus package, termed a "one-time investment bulge [for] research to invent new technologies, and loan guarantees to scale up existing products," the share of GDP dedicated to energy research and development has "trended down since 1979."

And while the Obama White House's energy agenda may be challenged in the aftermath of the November elections, Chu emphasized that "even politicians who are skeptical of climate change should recognize that investing in green-technology research and development is an economic [economically beneficial] decision."

"It is a way to secure our future prosperity," he declared, echoing Chinese premiere Wen Jiabao.

Though the U.S. is falling behind, all is not lost, according to Chu: "I am hoping that the United States can recognize the economic opportunity that virtually all the western European companies have recognized, that countries in Asia have recognized, and that developing countries have recognized. I am an optimist we will wake up and seize the opportunity." After all, "the U.S. still has the greatest innovation engine in the world."

If the U.S. can get into gear, in the way it won the space race — investing in science and education to train a legion of scientists and engineers, and funding the RD&D needed to accelerate projects — then our country can recapture a leading role in the transition to a clean energy future. And unlike a moon shot, there are far more co-benefits for Planet Earth.

Video of Chu's speech available here.

Slideshow of "Is the Energy Race our new Sputnik moment" available here.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Follow the White Rabbit ... to Food Safety

Food safety reform may take a big step forward when the Senate votes on the F.D.A. Food Safety Modernization bill this week, write Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser in an NYTimes op-ed. The changes are long overdue, granting wider-ranging powers and responsibilities to an invigorated F.D.A.
"The bill would, for the first time, give the F.D.A., which oversees 80 percent of the nation’s food, the authority to test widely for dangerous pathogens and to recall contaminated food. The agency would finally have the resources and authority to prevent food safety problems, rather than respond only after people have become ill. The bill would also require more frequent inspections of large-scale, high-risk food-production plants."
Some factions in this country are going to decry the bill as another instance of expanding government, trying to take over our lives. The article notes a few of these critics, including Glenn Beck, some in the Tea Party movement, and Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma).

But when it comes to consumer safety, that's an unfair assessment. Picture the alternative: big corporations running wild, accountable to no one, and given a free pass by vociferous defenders at the highest levels of government. These companies allow poisons and pathogens into our food supply, sometimes through negligence, but other times with intentional disregard for safety -- all in the name of making a quick buck.

Wait ... that's China. Do we really want a Chinese food system? Or do we want a system, where the FDA inspects facilities regularly, stops corporate malfeasance, and protects the American consumer? Not all regulation is harmful, and right now, there is a need to modernize our food safety laws and the agency responsible for implementing them. The large-scale salmonella outbreaks that sickened hundreds of people last year, along with other major food recalls provide ample evidence.

By the way, when fear-mongering ideologues throw around the assertion that the U.S. is "turning into Red China" because we are expanding regulations and consumer protections, they're actually getting it wrong. Today in China, while the government has a heavy hand in managing political life, the story isn't the same in the economic sphere. In many cases, the average consumer lies practically naked, vulnerable to abuse by unscrupulous companies who poison the rivers and air, and sell shoddy or dangerous products.

There is little recourse against such abuse, as the regulatory environment is weak, often still in a nascent stage. Many laws are vague; codes, standards, and regulatory procedures are still being developed. Even where laws exist, local courts and governments are often unable or unwilling to enforce them (or in cahoots with the company in the first place!) So you want no-holds-barred capitalism? Well, it's practically the Wild East over there. (Though the situation is improving). So it's somewhat counterintuitive, but if you want to gut government regulatory agencies and give free reign to corporations ... well, you're becoming more like China, not less. Yes, this is called irony.

Melamine with your tea, sir? (UConn)

Teddy Roosevelt battled similar critiques at the beginning of the 21st century, but prevailed to bring about some of the world's earliest food regulations, which helped bring a measure of safety to our food system. We shouldn't let ideologues, or those speaking only with their pocket books, stymie progress on an important bill that will protect public health and maintain the safety of our food supply.

Luckily, 80% of the public supports strengthening the FDA, and the bill passed the House with bipartisan support. So we'll see how the Senate acts in the days ahead.

P.S. One more interesting thing from the article: "The law would also help to protect Americans from unsafe food produced overseas: for the first time, imported foods would be subject to the same standards as those made in the United States." Maybe that means less melamine-laced candy in our stores. (Guess where this was made ... )

Photo credit: The Shanghaiist

UPDATE (11/31/2010): Food Safety Bill passes in the Senate and can be signed into law. Woohoo!

UPDATE (12/1/2010): Uh oh ... a technical problem in the Senate version of the bill might render it unconstitutional (there's a section that details revenue-raising measure ... but that kind of legislation must originate in the House, not the Senate). Details here. Really bad mistake -- Senators are uncertain how it happened and are scrambling to find a fix.


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Black Friday

Thanksgiving is not yet 48 hours past, and everything already feels like Christmas.

Yesterday was "Black Friday", a day when hordes of American gather outside storefronts in the darkness of early morning, preparing to sack them shop at them, and get the best deals. Today, a friend shared a video with some rather frightening footage of recent Black Fridays.

This must be a day met with both trepidation and expectation by store owners. Such chaos and destruction is possible; but also so much money to be made! It is the day when dollars and revenue finally start rolling in, when the drought of spending ebbs and the world takes a turn for the better.

It marks the start of the season when the ledger books begin to fill, the columns of digits creeping upward until the dripping red rink foretelling the doom of bankruptcy turns into a shining, glistening black -- the oily, inky black of economic life, thick and dark, as viscous as pitch.

Once more, capitalism is buoyed, pulled back from the brink; no longer morose as it plods to a certain death, but instead seized with a renewed vigor. Thoughts turn from distress and foreclosure toward restored dreams of wealth and grandeur. The bemoaning of financial crisis, the critiques of unfettered greed and irresponsible risk, the condemnation of crass materialism -- these are buried and forgotten.

The watchwords of a new era of responsibility -- of more saving and less spending, of frugality -- are in an instant reduced to mere feathers in the wind. Under the onslaught of magnificent crowds, terrible and beautiful crowds, fighting and spending their way to the Altar of the Good Deal, the pessimism of the planners is triumphantly revealed as the heresy of unbelievers. In a roar, their empty words are washed away by torrents of cash.

Flowing into the registers everywhere in this great land, this currency is manna for consumers and owners alike. Such expressions of devotion! Such cries of ecstasy! It is the breath of life, bearing joy and creating a sense of possibility in what had once been cast off in resignation. It comes accompanied by a sense of rekindled faith, flickering embers of hope blazing into full-blown glory, giving rise to expectations of a better tomorrow. (And outfitted in a new cashmere sweater, size: medium, color: shimmering fuchsia, for $39.99 at Kohl's.)

UPDATE: The old video is no longer on YouTube, but you can check out a new one here. I suspect there will be new videos every year if this clip is in turn deleted.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving! (for us at least)

Ouch, American history can bite, LOL. A hilarious reenactment of the first Thanksgiving.

The situation is tragic, but the kids are great.

"Hello, Savages!"                ...sigh...

URL: http://www.babelgum.com/4012129/kids-reenact-the-first-thanksgiving.html

Monday, November 22, 2010

To be good, be green. Good.

Article in Reuters on the priority of environmental thinking in Taiwan, where it's really recognized as a key advantage in order to compete in the global marketplace. The dynamic is heartening:
Environmental awareness among the public + Social organizing + Enlightened
corporate self-interest -->

 Government responds to the pressure and updates/evolves environmental regulations.
Or as the article summarizes:
* New energy assessments, laws, emission targets proposed
* Top firms expected to save money, raise profiles long term
* Strong environmental rules could draw new investment
Taiwan is setting an good example across the Strait, where these environmentally conscious decisions will pay future dividends: better health, greater social cohesion (or harmony, as it were), enhanced competitiveness, and greater attraction for foreign investment, especially in a carbon-constrained world.

It is by no means perfect, but it's definitely making progress by recognizing the economic basis for making environmentalism a priority (in addition to many other reasons), and pushing the envelope for Asia.


Taiwan speeds up green laws to compete in Asia
Thu Nov 18, 2010 9:08am GMT

* New energy assessments, laws, emission targets proposed
* Top firms expected to save money, raise profiles long term
* Strong environmental rules could draw new investment

By Ralph Jennings

TAIPEI, Nov 18 (Reuters) - A wave of environmental protests in Taiwan, sometimes pitting demonstrators against police, has pushed the government to speed up new green rules to protect the environment without harming economic growth.

Economists say the stricter rules will ultimately raise the competitiveness of the $416-billion economy against greener Asian rivals and boost its corporate image among eco-conscious Western consumers.

"People realise the short-term interests from economic development, but worry long term about environmental protection, so we need to attain a balance," Taiwan Environmental Protection Administration chief Stephen Shen told Reuters.

The island industrialised in the 1980s with little public protest to become one of Asia's four economic dragons. Now, it is working on more transparent environmental reviews for new projects and tougher energy laws, including a tax regime and carbon reduction targets for 2020, 2025 and possibly 2050.

Officials also want to phase out traditional polluting industries and join international carbon trading schemes.

Government action follows a spate of protests, including an 8,000-strong rally over the weekend denouncing a planned 300,000 barrels-per-day oil refinery complex on Taiwan's west coast that could foul the air and hurt local dolphins.

Earlier outcries had already extended an environmental impact review of the $36-billion, CPC Corp-led Kuokuang Petrochemical Technology Co refinery project [ID:nTOE66D03J].

"The government hasn't told citizens why we absolutely need this plant," said Kan Chen-yi, secretary of a conservation group behind the protest. "It could spread pollution all over Taiwan, hurt dolphins and pollute the water."

Three fires in six months earlier in the year at a giant refinery run by Formosa Petrochemicals [ID:nTOE66P054] led to calls for its closure. Some protests sparked clashes with police.

In another case, farmers and environmentalists filed a lawsuit to block expansion of a science park in central Taiwan. The park was asked to reevaluate the environmental impacts and resubmit plans, the Government Information Office said.

The new measures will oblige the densely populated island's high-tech, petrochemical and textile companies to invest in upgrading factories.


But officials also hope for a latent dividend -- boosted corporate images and reduced energy bills.

"In the short term, in terms of costs, companies may look at the laws unfavourably, but these measures will be looked at very favourably by consumers in the United States," said Liu Li-gang, head of China economic research with ANZ in Hong Kong.

Stronger environmental laws are also expected to induce new investment as local startups or foreign firms want to see specifics on rules before making a commitment. Taiwan has long been criticised for murky or cumbersome business procedures.

The president of the American Chamber of Commerce says the 900-member body has questioned the transparency of Taiwan's environmental impact assessment methods.

"Firms don't want to put money into a plant and then find themselves responding to unclear or inconsistently applied rules," said Mark Williams, senior China economist with Capital Economics in London.

Taiwan is wary of its competition.

South Korea, heavily reliant on exports, has proposed legislation to launch a carbon emissions trading scheme [ID:nTOE6AG05W] this year, while Japan aims to pass a climate bill setting rigorous emissions targets.

Many Taiwan companies are not waiting to be told. They have cut emissions or recycled wastewater on their own, industry associations say, and expect to do more over the next five years.

The world's biggest contract chipmaker TSMC says it voluntarily cut perfluorocarbon emissions, a major greenhouse gas often used in medical applications, in 2001 and slashed its carbon emissions output in 2005.

"We have seen that consumers increasingly want to buy green products," TSMC's top publicist, Michael Kramer, said in a statement. "And naturally, conserving electricity and water as well as recycling materials reduces our costs."

(Additional reporting by Lin Miao-jung; Editing by Sugita Katyal and Ron Popeski)

FACTBOX: Taiwan's new rules to clean its environment
Thu Nov 18, 2010 8:23am GMT

TAIPEI Nov 18 (Reuters) - Taiwan is speeding up its environmental laws after a sudden surge in disputes this year to make the export-led $416-billion economy more competitive against its greener Asian rivals [ID:nTOE67A02M].

Here are details of major laws, goals and procedures Taiwan is are putting in place:

* An environmental impact assessment process that went into force in 2009 will get final touches to beef up transparency, officials say. After project details go online for public review, applicants, environmental groups and officials will form expert review committees to determine likely impacts and how they can be mitigated. The government has final authority over whether a project proceeds.

* Taiwan's legislature is considering rules that would authorise the Environmental Protection Administration to check the greenhouse gas output of major island polluters, about 270 of which have voluntarily offered data. Pressure from industry groups has kept parliament from scrapping the plan, which if approved would allow the government to set up a local carbon offset trading scheme.

* Air and water pollution standards are constantly becoming more strict.

* Taiwan has set goals to cut carbon dioxide emissions island-wide by 2020 to 2005 levels of about 257 million metric tonnes and knock them back to 2000 levels by 2025 [ID:nTOE62F04M].

Separately, President Ma Ying-jeou has said he wants annual emissions to fall to 107 million tonnes by 2050. Officials will create 50 low-carbon villages by next year and six low-carbon cities by 2014 would help reach those emissions goals, island officials have said [ID:nTOE63M05I].

* Taiwan is looking for a back-door route to international carbon trading schemes, possibly via African nations, to get past its political rival China, which would use its diplomatic clout to bar the island from formal entry [ID:nTOE62G05D].

* Officials hope gradually to replace Taiwan's traditional heavy manufacturing, such as textiles and petrochemials with lower-pollution sectors, including green energy, tourism and high-end agriculture [ID:nTOE67A06S].

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Stop Bullies.

Guys, don't be douchebags. Girls, don't be b-tches. It's really unbecoming.

How can kids be exposed to literature (including even the simplest stories) or watch popular media and still end up behaving with such cruelty toward others? Don't they know they're acting as the villains?

It no longer seems to be a case of ignorance. (You get over that in say ... kindergarten, when young children maybe don't know how hurtful they are being). But once you're in grade school, it seems to be a kind of malice -- a combination of immaturity and a refusal to see/hear/care about anyone else, which contributes to bullying behavior.

Full comic here.

Also, see this NY Times piece on intervening early -- with great success. (That's the real point of this blog).

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Psych: Global Warming & Just World Beliefs

My friend GC just posted a link to a paper by two UC Berkeley scholars, which he says "details how the Just World Fallacy prevent[s] people from believing that their innocent children will bear the consequences of their parents' dirty industries." He further commented: don't those people "of the Just World inclination, who believe in a magical world of order, stability and good-guys-win-bad-guys-lose tend to be ... fundamental religious types?"

It's an interesting paper, so I'm glad that he posted it. However, I don't exactly agree with his assessment. Aside from his irreverence toward "fundamentalists" (so yeah ... he could have been a little bit more respectful, because they have a right to their beliefs, even though many people might not agree with them), I also have a couple of issues with the paper's assertions -- or at least would like to add to GC's interpretation of it.

First of all, there are plenty of religious people who believe in global warming and who are strongly in favor of taking action to mitigate it. Second, I don't know if a Just World theory requires you to put your trust in a deus ex machina swooping in to save the day -- or proclaim that the world could never even be in danger in the first place (as some GOP candidates for chair of the Energy and Commerce have.)

There may be some irony here, but I actually thought the Just World types were the environmentalists -- who believe that humankind will somehow get its act together, despite the odds, and unite to save the planet because it's the right thing to do for our generation and for future generations. The polluting industries that refuse to take responsibility for their harmful impacts, as well as the corrupt politicians who enable them, will get what's coming to them. We'll recognize our connection to the Earth, its ecosystems, and the many living creatures that share the planet with us; and we'll be more thoughtful about development, more sensitive in our actions and how we choose to structure our societies.

I'm not even kidding: at the end of the day, we have to believe in a brighter future like that to keep on doing what we're doing, to persevere in this line of work. But while we remain optimistic that as human beings gain greater understanding, growing wiser and more empathetic, we'll get there one day, neither do we have illusions about the numerous obstacles and difficulties that remain. We see the problems every day -- the ignorance, short-sightedness, or outright greed, that causes people to sacrifice the planet and the future for short-term gain.

My point: even if you recognize the threat of global warming, perhaps you can still believe in a Just World. But you may also believe that you have to work to establish and/or maintain such a world.

So I agree with the paper's authors, in terms of the necessity of reframing some aspects of the issue, and reaching out to the demographic segments who currently shrink from acknowledging the potential severities of climate change. But perhaps in all of this, another world view could be raised: a belief that justice can prevail in the long run, but that you must act to secure it in the present.

Finally, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said:The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. This phrase of Dr. King's was also referenced in a speech by Barack Obama (who remains a champion in the fight against climate change), who notes, "It bends towards justice, but here is the thing: it does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice."


"Apocalypse soon? Dire Message Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting 'Just World' Beliefs"
By Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer


Though scientific evidence for the existence of global warming continues to mount, in the U.S. and other countries belief in global warming has stagnated or even decreased in recent years. One possible explanation for this pattern is that information about the potentially dire consequences of global warming threatens deeply held beliefs that the world is just, orderly, and stable. Individuals overcome this threat by denying or discounting the existence of global warming, ultimately resulting in decreased willingness to counteract climate change. Two experiments provide support for this explanation of the dynamics of belief in global warming, suggesting that less dire messaging could be more effective for promoting public understanding of climate change research.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

When will it be so?

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was released today.

After years of imprisonment and house arrest, she has finally been freed by the military junta. (At least for now.) A daunting situation faces her and her countrymen, who are still ruled by a repressive dictatorship that canceled the results of the last truly free election in 1990.

It's moments like this when I wish China would be a force for good in the world and do the right thing.

Support Suu Kyi, the elected leader of Burma, with a popular mandate and immense following. Support Suu Kyi, who is moderate and humble, patient and kind, who is willing to do what is good for the people of her nation. Support Suu Kyi, and not the junta, who continue to enrich themselves, while leaving most of society in abject poverty and at risk of malnutrition; who crush dissent with an iron hand; who throw ordinary people in jail over the slightest opposition.

The article talks about the jubilation of crowds all over Burma at Suu Kyi's release, and the warnings Western nations have issued to the dictatorial leaders that foreign governments are paying attention. But one senses the junta will pay little heed to such statements. What leverage do these countries have? The West has been happily ignored for the past several years -- when the crackdown on monks occurred in 2007, when aid was delayed or outright refused in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.

It comes down to this: who cares about the West and its admonitions? Whatever the posture of Western governments or the UN, the regime, flush with money from natural gas, can choose to deal with regional neighbors instead.

China, Thailand and India -- three countries who now have the leverage to make a difference. China has been one of the largest sellers of weapons to Burma/Myanmar, and a major investor in oil and gas pipelines, as well as numerous other infrastructure projects. Beijing provides both financial support to the regime and diplomatic cover in the international arena: "Sovereignty, sovereignty, sovereignty ... Non-interference ... Internal affairs, internal affairs, internal affairs."

That China has been gaining influence in Myanmar is a major reason the other two countries have felt the need to compete for the junta's favor and drop their moral qualms. If China were to choose virtue over indifferent, amoral interest; if it were to care about people and principles; then others would have to follow suit -- no more excuses.*

The world would be a very different place.


*Some might argue that it is up to democratic India and Thailand to take the lead on this issue, and I don't dispute their responsibility. But my point is that structurally, if India and Thailand consign themselves to the role of "concerned outsiders," as they did for a while (and the West continues to do), the situation won't change. China could simply step into that vacuum, while further enabling the military junta.

This is why China makes a difference: it is the primary -- sometimes even exclusive -- counterweight to the West for many of these pariah regimes. If the country took a stand, then given the balance of power in the world today, this could decisively shift outcomes, and change minds for the better.

Influencing governments can still be done in a sensitive way, not in a shrill or combative voice. And surely this sentiment is idealistic -- I know that China is not this way now. But it isn't wrong to dream if it can inform of us of how and why things are in their current state and show ways they could be improved. And so the wish is for China to be, out-and-out, a positive force in the world.

Perhaps it is because I believe too much in China's ethical tradition, and its potential to be relevant in our world. And yes, I am laying on China an additional moral responsibility, asking for a higher standard. (The only other country I have that expectation for is the United States.) But I don't think that's unfair; we can ask of ourselves that which we do not yet expect of others. In fact, we ought to. Leading by moral example is the only way forward.


Thursday, November 04, 2010

I want a holodeck ...

The ability to project holograms is slowly being developed. As reported in the San Jose Mercury today:

Scientists say they have taken a big step toward displaying live video in three dimensions -- a technology far beyond 3-D movies and more like the "Star Wars" scene where a ghostly Princess Leia image pleads, "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi."

"It is actually very, very close to reality. We have demonstrated the concept that it works. It's no longer something that is science fiction," said Nasser Peyghambarian of the University of Arizona.

From Nature:
Projecting holograms would require "a material that can store shifting holographic data moves the fantasy into the realms of reality. The substance could have future applications in medicine and manufacturing, as well as in the entertainment industry.... The challenge was to find a rewritable material that could store data encoding successive holographic images. Now Peyghambarian and his colleagues have developed a material that can record and display 3D images that refresh every two seconds."

Yes, I know "holodeck" is from a different series. =P

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

This is California!

By voting NO! on Prop 23, loud and clear, we have protected our state's pioneering climate change bill, the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB32). And now that we've deflected this attack by polluting companies (largely funded by out-of-state oil interests), California will continue to develop its green economy, i.e. the economy of the future.

Tom Steyer, a hedge fund manager and co-chairman of the No on 23 campaign "attributes Prop 23's defeat to the difference in mentality in California, where voters saw the global warming law as paving the way to a new economy based on clean energy. 'Californians look forward and face the future with optimism,' he said. 'That is our M.O. This is a grass-roots movement, and the impetus is coming from the West, not from Washington.'" (Los Angeles Times)

Courtesy of Emily Humphreys, a "No on 23" campaigner and a friend. =D

"It's significant in that it shows that this was not a solid party line vote like it is in Washington, D.C.," said Steve Maviglio, a spokesman for the No campaign. "The new coalition for clean energy is broad and bipartisan." (A different article in the LA Times on the significant support "No on 23" received among moderates and Republicans, illustrating major social consensus in our state on the importance of clean energy and the fight against climate change).

In California, we see an opportunity to innovate and lead, and we're not going to stop.