Sunday, March 29, 2009

On climate change, and "The civil heretic" - Freeman Dyson

The NYT magazine has a long profile on Freeman Dyson, particularly his skepticism on the ill-effects and severity of climate change.  Dyson suggests engineering carbon-eating trees (consuming CO2 more than normal), apparently an idea he had a couple decades back.  Among other things, he suggests climate warming may be good (e.g. making Greenland more habitable), while solutions to reduce anthropogenic climate warming - moving away from carbon fuels, particularly coal - are disadvantageous to developing economies like China (and, presumably, India/Africa.)

Reading the article, a couple things struck me.  First, most climate scientists agree that anthropogenic climate change* is real and dangerous; hence the IPCC consensus report.  However, this perhaps makes certain scientists treat this consensus as orthodoxy to be rebeled against; certainly this appears to be one reason for Dyson's opposition. [There's perhaps also a romantic notion that science is really about one person with a good idea, as a colleague described Michael Crichton's opposition to anthropogenic climate change. What such folks don't realize is that this one person could also be dead wrong.]

Second, and again another reason for Dyson's opposition, is that the solution requires enormous changes in the current fossil fuel-based infrastructure (never mind Dyson's own idea for a massive energy-collecting shell orbiting a star - talk about enormous!)  Replacing the entire carbon infrastructure at one go is, indeed, a major task, which will frighten government bean counters and the public alike (though politicians do like huge solutions.)
What I would suggest, instead, is a combination of (a) carbon sequestration; (b) nuclear energy; and (c) decentralized/local energy solutions.  Carbon sequestration allows continued use of cheap coal and oil, while reducing or eliminating CO2 emissions (what I understand by "clean coal").  Second, nuclear energy is, in the long run, the only safe, large-scale energy source to provide for the aspirations of the billions living in China, India and Africa (clumping all African nations into one here, and why not?)  Third, distributed, decentralized energy sources like wind energy, geothermal, even solar, are probably more efficient than a central coal or nuclear energy plant that depends on a lossy transmission grid, while moving us toward a renewable energy structure that might perhaps be more comforting to opponents of nuclear energy.

Finally, there are good reasons to move to non-carbon energy outside of climate considerations. First, that fossil fuels are limited, and will run out - if not in the next 50 years, likely in a couple of centuries.  Second, and more immediate, national security - countries like the US and India cannot continue to depend on an unstable Middle East or Venezuela for their growing energy needs.  This last reason alone should be good enough to convince most right-wing skeptics (and folks like Dyson, who loves Obama and loathes Bush!) of the need for a non-carbon energy future.

*I am uncomfortable with the term "global warming" - because while the average temperature of the earth will increase, regional changes will be different due to the effects of aerosols and other factors.  Some places will get much hotter, others will get colder.  Hence, my insistence on climate change.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

For the good old days...

...yes, I am talking about The Wonder Years!  [Though I was probably 14-15 when it was shown in India.  Yes, even 14 or 15 would be better.]

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

President Obama's second prime-time press conference

Thoughts and observations from Obama's second prime-time press conference which just concluded: (This started as tweets!)

1. Obama giving people follow-up questions - good! But he still manages to avoid drawing lines - like not signing budget w/o cap-n-trade! [Except perhaps for #3 below?]
2. Bush used Tony Blair/Aussie ex-PM Howard to support his Iraq War. Obama used Aussie PM Kevin Rudd/ British PM Gordon Brown to support global stimulus spending!
3. Capping charitable deductions: Obama finally said it - tax deductions should not be the determining factor in giving! Also, 28% is still a good tax break!
4. Obama called on Major Garrett of Fox - and now, someone from the Wa Times! Ain't avoiding them, for sure...
5. On the Washington Times question, about stem cells: Obama struck a suitably grim tone, while explaining the use of embryos that would otherwise be discarded (not grown specifically to generate stem cells) to explore treatments for debilitating diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.  Also acknowledged progress with adult stem cells, and moral/ethical considerations in addition to scientific criteria.
6. Question about deficit rising after year 4-5 (by when - 2012! - it should be cut in half): That's because savings in entitlements (Medicare/Medicaid) won't be apparent till after 10-year window. But have to make investments in education, energy and health care to improve economy and ensure growth, which will reduce deficits. Otherwise will continue to have structural deficits such as entitlements without economic growth.
7. Ann Compton of ABC News was surprised to be called on - wonder why?  Because Obama had already asked "Jake" (Tapper!) a question?
8. Finished with a question from the AFP on the Israel-Palestine conflict with the new hardline Israeli government - "certainly hasn't made [a solution] easier!"  But said persistence is key.  Though - Obama appeared to use Geithner's toxic assets plan as an example of persistence!  Is that good or bad for Geithner?!

Overall, I am liking this more and more - I hope Obama does a monthly televised presser.  Just hope he moves on beyond now-cliched campaign talking points - "go line by line to eliminate waste" should be replaced with specific examples.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Meet and greet with Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO)

A couple days back I got an e-mail about Senator Bennet's visit to Boulder (Bennet wiki).  Bennet is the replacement for now-Secretary Ken Salazar, and will be up for election in 2010.
The gathering was at a South Boulder/Shanahan Ridge home, about 6 miles away.  Figured I'd ride my bike - unfortunately, it was uphill for a good bit, and the ride took me about 40 minutes.  At least it was a good day for a bike ride!

Senator Bennet gave a speech, and I got in toward the end.  Told a couple cute stories about his kids - he was head of the Denver public school system before his appointment to the Senate.  Then there was a Q&A session.

A wide range of questions - climate change/cap-and-trade (he will vote for it), card check (undecided), school system reform (said existing system was not working except for some pockets - presumably, like Denver).  Someone asked about bank nationalization, and he said "at 80% owned by the federal government, it's pretty much nationalized!" [Talking about AIG; the US government owns 36% of Citi.]  But the fear of "socialism" keeps them from calling nationalization just that.  Talked about how he was considered for the Education Secretary's post that eventually went to Arne Duncan, and how Obama personally called him (Bennet) to tell him he was not selected.  Bennet was apparently one of the early supporters of Obama's presidential bid, so "nobody can try to separate me from Obama!"
A peace-nik asked him about President Obama's plans for Afghanistan - "war is not the answer!"  His response - there are dangerous elements in Afghanistan and along the border with Pakistan, so "you and I are probably not on the same page at this time."  Yay!

As expected, with a crowd of about 100, time ran out.  He remained for a few minutes, talking with people, and I got a chance to say hello.  Thanked him for his reply to the Afghanistan question - he said yes, we can't just up-and-leave. [Words to that effect.]
He asked me where I was from - "India." "Which part?" "Bombay." "I was born in Delhi!"  His father worked in the US Consulate in the 60s, so his parents lived there for 4 years, he was there for one.  He apparently visited India in the '90s; "I would love to go back!"  You should, Senator!

Definitely not a typical politician, but as he himself said, he won't be for a couple years (as people keep reminding him he was only appointed!)  Oh well (to his eventual conversion).  I like him, though, and who knows - maybe I might even campaign for him!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Academia: A Ponzi scheme?

An article in the NYT today talks about PhD scholars, typically in the humanities, not expecting a good faculty and even postdoc job market.  Important factors include:
1. The rough economy reducing funding for academic hires (this is true, from personal experience.)
2. With 401k values tanking with the stock market, older faculty members putting off retirement.
3. Reduced funding in general, and difficulty of raising external funding for certain fields such as the humanities.
An associate professor of English at Hope College, William Pannapacker, actually counsels students not to pursure graduate education in the humanities, unless they are independently wealthy or well-connected.  [Hey, I'd agree with that!]

A thought occurred to me - could academia be a ponzi scheme?  Each professor has 3-4 graduate students at any given time, getting a PhD.  Not all of them want faculty positions - seeing the workload of, particularly, tenure-track faculty has scared quite a few people off that idea.  I don't know what the fraction of the group does want a faculty position, either (if I did a little research, maybe I could find out... But this is a blog, not an education journal article!)  But if each existing faculty member in a research university graduates a faculty job-seeking PhD every 3-4 years, then there will be far more applicants than jobs.  After all, there are only so many universities with so many students - that need only a set number of faculty members.

This is something we see every day - 80-100 applicants or more for each opening; chemistry PhDs putting out 30 applications or more in hopes of getting 2-3 interviews and *maybe* one offer.

Even PhDs who don't want a faculty position will likely face a stagnant job market - there are only so many research labs.  Further, with a surplus supply and a reduced demand, wages will not be what PhDs might consider appropriate. [Even lower than "just" engineers?  Yes.]

And of course, the advisors don't reduce their graduate student intake - how could they, since they want to get research done?

When supply keeps outstripping demand, and the disparity only grows with time - does that resemble a ponzi scheme?  Admittedly, that is just the latest Madoff-inspired buzzword, but at the very least, it looks like a pyramid scheme.  Am I wrong?  Or did I just have another epiphany?

[This could just be sour grapes, of course.]
Update, 7/14/2016: Of course, someone has done the research (link), and come up with the metric "Ro", which is the number of PhDs each faculty member graduates. Ro=1 means that adviser will be replaced by her/his student. For environmental engineering, Ro = 19, though "Civil/Environmental Engineering" clocks in much lower at 2.5. Mechanical Engineering is 5.5.
Note that Ro = 1 means that either the graduate waits till his/her adviser retires before becoming faculty. So it would be best if the student graduated close to when the adviser retires. Obviously, this does not make sense for the adviser's research career.
Besides, other universities often expand their own research, so Ro = 1 is not sustainable, either. But maybe 19 is too damn high.