Monthly Archives: February 2010

Coffee makes us happy


As if we didn’t already know, coffee makes us happy. Actually, any warm drink would do, it seems. And it’s not so much happy as it is cooperative and trustful. It’s Science!

Neuroscience Marketing reminded me of this phenomenon. I saw it first in a documentary about making decisions. It seems that the NYT noticed it a few years ago when it was published in Science.

What’s the gist? Well, it seems that if you handle a cup of hot coffee you are more apt to trust and accept people. They tested this by giving people either a hot or cold beverage for a minute. Then they asked people if they would hire a new acquaintance or not. Subjects were statistically more likely to hire the candidate if they had a hot beverage relative to a cold beverage.

Surprising? Maybe. Bear it in mind for interviews, I suppose.


Screw Greenpeace – more nuclear!

I do not support Greenpeace. That organization has been really pushing itself near the U. of Texas campus lately, and I do not like it. If the environmental situation is as bad as some would have us believe (have a look at what the UK’s top science advisor has to say) then we are on the deck of the Titanic, and saving the whales amounts to polishing the deck chairs. What bothers me about Greenpeace is not that they are polishing the deck chairs. What bothers me is that they are loudly screaming “Hey, quit fixing those life rafts! Get over here and polish these chairs! Can’t you see the ship is sinking?”

Stewart Brand is a deeply committed environmentalist. He has advocated careful ecological stewardship for over 50 years. He wrote the original Whole Earth Catalog that inspired the hippies in the 1960’s and worked for California Governor Jerry Brown and helped establish that state as an leader in environmental conservation. He is not a secret agent for “The Man,” “The Establishment,” or the PTB. He advocates nuclear power.

Why? Because nuclear power emits no greenhouse gas. Nuclear power can be scaled up immediately. Consider: if transportation fuel moves to electricity, that roughly doubles electrical demand. If the developing world moves to European standards of living, that (conservatively) quintuples electricity demand. If humanity is to move out of poverty without cheap oil (and don’t kid yourself, the era of cheap oil is over), we are looking at a total increase in electrical demand of roughly ten times over the next century. Right now, roughly 20% of electricity is nuclear, less than 2% is solar and wind. If we were to completely rid ourselves of fossil fuel, we would need to scale Nuclear up by a factor of 50 or wind/solar by a factor of 500 over the next century. Certainly, we should scale solar and wind as much as possible, but a factor of 500 is simply unrealistic. We need to double our nuclear generating capacity every 10 years or condemn ourselves to catastrophic climate change and extreme, widespread poverty.

What about nuclear waste? What about coal waste! From the NYT: “A coal ash spill in eastern Tennessee that experts were already calling the largest environmental disaster of its kind in the United States is more than three times as large as initially estimated… Officials at the [Tennessee Valley Authority]… released the results of an aerial survey that showed the actual amount was 5.4 million cubic yards [of wet coal ash], or enough to flood more than 3,000 acres one foot deep.” Moving away from coal is a great idea – and the only realistic alternative is nuclear. Natural gas is not perfectly safe. Nothing is. A typical 1 GW power plant generates as much energy in a day as Fat Man released over Hiroshima. This carries inherent risk no matter what the fuel.

Furthermore, nuclear waste is more a political problem than a technical problem. In the United States, we are committed to a once-through fuel cycle for political reasons. Most of the “waste” is un-burned fuel. It can be processed and fed back into a reactor to make more electricity. We have tons and tons of “waste” that can just as easily be re-labeled as “fuel.” Once burned down completely, this waste is only a problem for a few hundred years (not thousands or millions) and takes up vastly less space. Why don’t we do this?

Greenpeace and short-sighted fools like them have made it politically and economically impossible. The paranoia about nuclear technology is way outside of reality. A coal plant renders 3,000 acres uninhabitable and contaminated with heavy metals, and it’s barely a by-line. A nuclear plant has a glitch and it becomes headline news. Thanks Greenpeace.

From their own mouths: “The general argument that the fact that [a nuclear plant] has operated safely for a finite period of time proves that the safety level is adequate is just not statistically right…” By this premise, it is impossible to measure the safety of anything, ever. And because safety can not be measured, it can not be assured. Because perfect safety can not be assured, “The United States can avoid the next nuclear accident by phasing out the remaining 103 commercial nuclear reactors… Coupled with an increase in energy efficiency, this increase in renewable resources would produce enough electricity to supplant every nuclear reactor currently operating in the United States.”

Remember my calculation above? Yes, we could scale renewables by 10 times and replace nuclear… leaving the other 80% to be generated from fossil fuels. But that also assumes no growth. With growth of electricity demand (due to plug-in hybrids, perhaps?) that will just be moving from gasoline to coal. No, what we need is more nuclear, more nuclear research.


On Standing Desks

Arguably not a strong selling point, Donald Rumsfeld is known to use a standing desk. You may not like the man, but anyone has to admit that he got stuff done. I read somewhere that some of the Founding Fathers also favored them. According to wikipedia, they were popular in the 1700’s, so maybe that’s true. Several times in my life, I have felt overwhelmed and behind. One way that I found a new sense of urgency and momentum was to adopt a standing desk. A box on your normal desk moves a laptop to a comfortable height for typing while standing, and it makes a reasonable kludge. There are other designs out there by some other bloggers.

If you move your chair out of your office, I suspect you will discover that random surfing-of-the-internet disappears from your life. Sitting down is appropriate for eating and masturbating. It’s much less fun to seek idle entertainment while standing. If you are standing up and your writing or programming hits a lull, the immediate impulse is to go do something rather than alt-tab to a browser and see what has happened on slashdot.

In the long term, it’s not too enjoyable. But I want to kick my life up a notch, and one quick way to do it is to ditch the office chair.



Review of Steve Pavlina’s “Personal Development for Smart People”

S. Pavlina wrote this book, “Personal Development for Smart People,” in the same field as 7 Habits, which I reviewed earlier. The 7 Habits has a somewhat paternal tone, which I think puts off some readers. I like Steve Pavlina’s “Personal Development for Smart People” because it is written much more from the perspective of a young professional in the Internet age. It is not filled with managerial and parental anecdotes, though it does more than flirt with mysticism. I imagine that will put off a different set of readers.

Like Covey, Pavlina tries to capture some of the essential principles that produce a well lived life. The three he settles on are Love, Truth and Power. He explains each, and explains how they relate and combine to produce other important virtues.

His conception of Truth is a little strange – it borders on truthiness at times. Essentially, truth is the alignment of statements and actions with Reality (!?) and the methods of probing reality are vaguely scientific. But for things that can not be probed through empirical means, then Pavlina is perfectly happy to just be pragmatic about which ideas are “true” and which are not. “You shall know them by their fruits,” I take it. True ideas produce good results. For some more metaphysical propositions, that leads to a pretty relativistic conception of Truth. I suppose that doesn’t bother me much, but it might bother some people.

Pavlina takes Love as very broadly defined, and I’m fine with that. He relates love and connectedness in an interesting way.

Power is closely related to responsibility. I think that’s right on the money. Taking responsibility is not the same as being at fault. I think that there is a funny trick of language going on. We say “I am responsible for this situation,” and that means “I am at fault for this situation.”

I wish that there were a better way to say “I am responsible to this situation.” What I mean by that phrase is not that I am at fault, but that my responses to the situation are entirely my choice. I am not at fault for the earthquake (though if I am unprepared, I am at fault for that). I am responsible for all my actions in response to the earthquake. Only when a person is responsible to every aspect of their life (a proactive response-ability) can they hope to have any power in their own life.

My favorite part so far is his perspective on goals. This gave me a minor paradigm shift that was worth ten bucks. Covey and Pavlina both talk about the importance of goal setting. Pavlina makes an excellent point that I had never considered: the metric by which a goal is evaluated is not just whether achieving it would be good. There are lots of things that would be nice to do or have some day, but that are not necessarily good goals. For instance, I would not mind being a millionaire someday, but it is not a good goal for me because it does not excite a deep passion for me.

The litmus test for a good goal is: how does having that goal make you feel and behave right now? Goals are really most important in the immediate present. Being a millionaire would be nice, but I have no hunger for it. The possibility does not excite or motivate me. I am not pumped about it. I just don’t care that much. So it’s not an effective goal.

Finding a good goal that does excite a upwelling of passion is actually harder than it sounds.