200,000 annual deaths from air pollution in the U.S.

A 2013 study estimated the number of annual premature deaths due to air pollution in the U.S. at about 200,000. That’s kind of a shocking number considering it is more than deaths from other preventable causes like car accidents and suicides. An interesting (not in a good way) finding is that road transportation causes more deaths (~53,000/yr) from air pollution than from crashes. On the other hand, it means you can kill two birds with one stone when you institute policies and technologies that reduce vehicle emissions, driving, or both. Of course, a shift to electric cars just shifts the emissions to power plants in the short term, but that means many fewer centralized sources of emissions, which might be easier to deal with. A shift to more muscle-powered transportation in our cities is a huge win in terms of health (less violent death and injuries, less death from dirty air, more exercise in all that clean fresh air, probably better mental health), and a win in terms of land use and vibrancy and getting to know one another in our cities.

Air pollution and early deaths in the United States. Part I: Quantifying the impact of major sectors in 2005

Combustion emissions adversely impact air quality and human health. A multiscale air quality model is applied to assess the health impacts of major emissions sectors in United States. Emissions are classified according to six different sources: electric power generation, industry, commercial and residential sources, road transportation, marine transportation and rail transportation. Epidemiological evidence is used to relate long-term population exposure to sector-induced changes in the concentrations of PM2.5 and ozone to incidences of premature death. Total combustion emissions in the U.S. account for about 200,000 (90% CI: 90,000–362,000) premature deaths per year in the U.S. due to changes in PM2.5 concentrations, and about 10,000 (90% CI: −1000 to 21,000) deaths due to changes in ozone concentrations. The largest contributors for both pollutant-related mortalities are road transportation, causing ∼53,000 (90% CI: 24,000–95,000) PM2.5-related deaths and ∼5000 (90% CI: −900 to 11,000) ozone-related early deaths per year, and power generation, causing ∼52,000 (90% CI: 23,000–94,000) PM2.5-related and ∼2000 (90% CI: −300 to 4000) ozone-related premature mortalities per year. Industrial emissions contribute to ∼41,000 (90% CI: 18,000–74,000) early deaths from PM2.5 and ∼2000 (90% CI: 0–4000) early deaths from ozone. The results are indicative of the extent to which policy measures could be undertaken in order to mitigate the impact of specific emissions from different sectors — in particular black carbon emissions from road transportation and sulfur dioxide emissions from power generation.

eyes on the street

A group at the University of Pennsylvania looked for statistical evidence that “eyes on the street” are a deterrent to crime. The results are a bit puzzling, as real world data often can be.

ANALYSIS OF URBAN VIBRANCY AND SAFETY IN PHILADELPHIA

Statistical analyses of urban environments have been recently improved through publicly available high resolution data and mapping technologies that have adopted across industries. These technologies allow us to create metrics to empirically investigate urban design principles of the past half-century. Philadelphia is an interesting case study for this work, with its rapid urban development and population increase in the last decade. We focus on features of what urban planners call vibrancy: measures of positive, healthy activity or energy in an area. Historically, vibrancy has been very challenging to measure empirically. We explore the association between safety (violent and non-violent crime) and features of local neighborhood vibrancy such as population, economic measures and land use zoning. Despite rhetoric about the negative effects of population density in the 1960s and 70s, we find very little association between crime and population density. Measures based on land use zoning are not an adequate description of local vibrancy and so we construct a database and set of measures of business activity in each neighborhood. We employ several matching analyses within census block groups to explore the relationship between neighborhood vibrancy and safety at a higher resolution. We fi nd that neighborhoods with more vacancy have higher crime but within neighborhoods, crimes tend not to be located near vacant properties. We also find that more crimes occur near business locations but businesses that are active (open) for longer periods are associated with fewer crimes.

This is particularly fascinating to me because I live my life in the middle of this particular data set and am part of it. So it is very interesting to compare what the data seem to be saying with my own experiences and impressions.

The lack of correlation between population density and crime is not surprising. Two neighborhoods with identical density can be drastically different. The correlation between poverty and crime is not surprising – people who are not succeeding in the formal economy and who are not mobile turn to the informal economy, in other words drug dealing, loan sharking and other illegal ways of trying to earn an income. If they are successful at earning an income, they tend to have a lot of cash around, and other people who know about the cash will take advantage of them, knowing they will not go to the police. Other than going to the police, the remaining options are to be taken advantage of repeatedly, or to retaliate. This is how violence escalates, I believe, and it goes hand in hand with development of a culture that tolerates and even celebrates violence, in a never-ending feedback loop.

The puzzling part comes when they try to drill down and look at explanatory factors at a very fine spatial scale. They found a correlation between crime and mixed use zoning, which appears to contradict the idea that eyes on the street around the clock will help to deter crime. And they found more crime around businesses like cafes, restaurants, bars and retail shops. They found that longer open hours seemed to have some deterrent effect on crime relative to shorter open hours.

I think they have made an excellent effort to do this, and I am not sure it can be done a lot better, but I will point out one idea I have. They talk about some limitations and nuances of their data, but one they do not mention is the idea that they are looking at reported crimes, most likely police reports or 911 calls. It could be that business owners, staff and patrons are much more likely to call 911 and report a crime than are residential neighbors. The business staff and patrons may see this as being in the economic interest, increasing the safety of their families, and the (alleged) criminals they are reporting are generally strangers. In quieter all-residential neighborhoods, people may not observe as many of the crimes that do occur (fewer “eyes on the street”), they may prefer not to report crimes either through a sense of loyalty to one’s neighbors, minding one’s own business, quid pro quo, or in some cases a fear of retaliation. There is also the factor of some demographic groups trusting the police more than others, although the authors’ statistical attempts to control for demographics may tend to factor this out.

 

July 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

Most hopeful stories:

  • A new cancer treatment genetically modifies a patient’s own immune system to attack cancer cells.
  • Shareholders of big fossil fuel companies are starting to force some action on climate change business risk disclosure.
  • Richard Florida offers five ideas for solving poverty and what is wrong with cities: taxing land based on its improved value, massive investment in public transportation and public education, ending the mortgage interest tax deduction, and guaranteed minimum income.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • Technology is marching on, whether or not the economy and human species are. The new thing with satellites is to have lots of small, cheap ones instead of a few big, expensive ones. Even if the coal industry were to make a comeback, today’s coal jobs are going to data analysts, remote control machine operators, mechanical and electrical engineers, not guys underground with pickaxes and headlamps. But the coal can be produced with a lot less human effort (i.e. jobs) than it used to be. Iris scans like in Minority Report are now a thing.
  • Ecologists have some new ideas for measuring resilience of ecosystems. Technologists have some wild ideas to have robots directly counteract the effects of humans on ecosystems. I like ideas – how do I get a (well-compensated) job where I can just sit around and think up ideas?
  • Isaac Asimov says truly creative people (1) are weird and (2) generally work alone.

Some combination of the Trump news, the things I see every day on the streets of Philadelphia, and events affecting friends and family led me to question this month whether the United States is really a society in decline. Actually, I don’t question that, I think the answer is yes. But the more important question is whether it is a temporary or permanent decline, and what it means for the rest of the globe. I am leaning slightly toward permanent, but maybe I will feel better next month, we’ll see. Maybe I need to get out of this country for a little while. Last time I did that I felt that the social glue holding Americans together is actually pretty strong compared to most other places, even if our government and its approach to other governments have become largely dysfunctional. We need to get through the next couple years without a nuclear detonation, hope the current vacuum of leadership leads some quality leaders to emerge, and hope things have nowhere to go but up. There, I talked myself off the ledge!

 

the Hyper-tunnel

Amid all the talk of the Hyperloop, I have figured that the technology would be limited by the fact that digging tunnels is hard and expensive. It turns out, I somehow missed that Elon Musk has thrown his energy into tunneling technology too. I’m a little skeptical, but he certainly has a track record of success. I think he knows how to hire smart engineers to figure out the practical details, which is what engineers are good at, and then inject his companies with a heavy dose of big picture creative thinking and risk tolerance, which is what engineers are bad at.

Serial entrepreneur Elon Musk says his ambitious tunnel-boring endeavor, aptly named The Boring Company, has officially started digging underneath Los Angeles. Musk announced the news on Twitter, where he said “Godot,” the Samuel Beckett-inspired name of the company’s tunnel boring machine, had completed the the first segment of a tunnel in the Southern California metropolis. Prior to today, it was unclear how long it would take Musk to convince the city to allow him to move the experimental effort beyond the SpaceX parking lot in Hawthorne.

Aichi biodiversity targets, Sustainable Development Goals and the Protected Planet report

The Aichi Biodiversity Targets were adopted by the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2010, and at least some aspects of them (slightly confusing to me) were incorporated in the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the UN in 2015. In short, my understanding from a quick skim is that the target is to protect 17% of land area. The current status is reported in a Protected Planet report that the UN produces every two years. (Disclaimer: I could easily have some details wrong here.)

In terms of the representation element of Aichi Biodiversity Target 11, less than half of the world’s 823 terrestrial ecoregions have at least 17% of their area in PAs and only one third of the 232 marine ecoregions have at least 10% of their area protected. Less than 20% of Key Biodiversity Areas are completely protected, and therefore further efforts are needed to expand PA systems to ensure that the global PA estate adequately covers areas important for biodiversity and the provision of ecosystem services to people.

the value of nuclear weapons

Moral considerations aside, Richard N. Haas gives a clear explanation of why nuclear weapons are attractive to countries.

Decades ago, Israel made such a calculation in the face of Arab threats to eliminate the Jewish state. More recently, Ukraine, Libya, and Iraq all gave up their nuclear weapons programs either voluntarily or under pressure. Subsequently, Ukraine was invaded by Russia, Iraq by the US, and Libya by the US and several of its European partners. Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya were ousted.

North Korea has avoided such a fate, and the third generation of the Kim family rules with an iron fist. It is doubtful that the lesson is lost on Kim Jong-un.

You could try to estimate what it would cost for a particular country to have a conventional military equal in deterrent power to a few nuclear weapons. And the answer is almost certainly that they couldn’t afford it, even if they had the people and technology and productive capacity necessary. So a nuclear deterrent seems very logical. Of course the problem is that when everybody has them, or even a substantial fraction of countries has them, the risk to everybody becomes much higher than if nobody had them.

Another thing I learned from this article is that the UN General Assembly in July created (I don’t know if that is the right legal word) a treaty designed to facilitate long-term disarmament and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. It may not be legally binding or backed by serious political power at the moment, but it shows leadership and could give serious, ethical leaders something to point to in future negotiations. Imagine for example if China, Russia, and the United States decided to throw their weight behind this.

a prosperous way down

This paragraph caught my eye in the blog A Prosperous Way Down:

The environment is not an element (subsystem) of the economy/finance role-playing game. The economy is actually a subsystem of society, which is embedded in the geobiosphere, its super-system. From a systems perspective, any rearrangement of the geobiosphere as a result of new driving forces, including anthropogenic emissions, affects the behavior, the stability and the sustainability of the global economy as a subsystem. Economically based choices do impact the environment, but the geobiosphere then readjusts its operation (somewhat unpredictably) and impacts the behavior of the global economy itself. Any hope to make significant changes to the global environment (the super-system) while at the same time keeping the operation of our economy fixed or expanding is inconsistent with systems thinking. But this seems to be exactly what people are trying to do, by trying to freeze the current status of the environment as a provider of raw material and ecosystem services that can guarantee economic growth.

If you think about it enough, it becomes fairly obvious that humans are not that different than other animals trying to gain an advantage by exploiting finite energy and other resources in our environment. We are such ingenious exploiters that we have been able to pretend the environment isn’t there, but it seems clear that the environment may finally be catching up with us. Reorienting the principles of economics in an ecological framework seems like an obvious and clear thing to do.

Isaac Asimov on Creativity

In 1959, Isaac Asimov was briefly part of a panel tasked with “out-of-the-box” brainstorming about weapons technology. He very quickly recused himself from this, but before he left he wrote an essay advising the panel about the nature of creativity and creative people.

Who is creative?

A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us.

Should creative people think alone or in groups?

My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it.

Okay, so creative people tend to think up ideas alone. But should they then get together to share those ideas, and if so, how?

the information may not only be of individual items A and B, but even of combinations such as A-B, which in themselves are not significant. However, if one person mentions the unusual combination of A-B and another the unusual combination A-C, it may well be that the combination A-B-C, which neither has thought of separately, may yield an answer.

I am no Isaac Asimov, but I’ll give my two cents on my own creative process. Step one is to take in a lot of information and ideas, in somewhat random combinations. For me, reading is the best way to do this, although other forms of media and more formal education can be helpful. This takes a lot of time, time that I certainly don’t have when working a 9 to 5 job and supporting a (wonderful) family. The job and family also tend to physically and mentally wear me out, and some of the bullies and unimaginative types I encounter on the job not only shut down my creativity but the creativity of everyone around me. Then there is the fact that, as Isaac mentions in his essay, whoever is paying you is unlikely to be sympathetic to the idea they are paying you to screw around.

Anyway, there have been a couple times in my life when I have had the time to just sit and think and screw around a little bit. So along with the steady inflow of information and ideas, there has to be some unstructured downtime, and that is when the creative ideas pop into my mind. Exercise, drugs and music may be helpful in moderation, although you could obviously overdo the drugs. Insights are unpredictable and fleeting, so it is critical to have a notebook or the electronic equivalent to capture them.

Step three is to take those brilliant snippets of ideas from the notebook and do the hard work of turning them into something, whether it is a book, a computer program, an artwork, or whatever. I find that this process is not all that creative. It is just work. But it is the critical step of taking your insights that last mile to a fully formed, coherent story that other human beings might gain something from.

Niall Ferguson compares Trump to JFK

Niall Ferguson appears to have finally stopped explaining and apologizing and rationalizing Donald Trump, and admitted that he is a bad President. Just not the only bad President ever, so that makes it okay. Who is Niall’s example of another bad President? John F. Kennedy. He withheld information on his health from the public, had suspected ties to organized crime, and was unfaithful to his wife. These are historical facts I can’t argue with, but surely not very important points of comparison between the two men. Niall picks a couple more points of comparison that I think are important, but for completely different reasons than Niall.

And on his watch, the world came closer than at any other time to nuclear Armageddon, during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. How was catastrophe averted? By using a back channel to the Kremlin to cut a secret deal…

Perhaps Trump’s Cuban missile crisis is on its way, in North Korea.

On the secret back channel, Trump has been criticized for not maintaining this back channel. The idea of the back channel is that if the radar says there are incoming missiles, the President has a direct line to the other side that will help him make a crucial decision whether to launch a response. That happened several times during the Cold War. Do we trust Trump to make the right decision under similar circumstances? Or at least a reasoned, rational decision even if there is no right one. I don’t.

On the Cuban Missile Crisis, one reason it happened is that foreign enemies perceived the U.S. leadership as weak and decided to test it. When we were tested, the U.S. military leadership pressed for an attack on Cuba, which very likely could have led to a world war with or without thermonuclear weapons. Kennedy resisted this advice and managed to defuse the crisis without launching an invasion. I admit, he bluffed his way through it, and maybe got lucky, but it was strong leadership and it took as much courage to stand up to the U.S. military as to the USSR. Possibly more. And maybe they killed him for it.

Trump is not only weak, he is an international laughing stock. Foreign powers who wouldn’t have crossed a Clinton or Bush or Obama are constantly testing him. Not only is he likely to do whatever military advisers tell him to do, he does not really even have independent civilian advisers to counter them. He is insecure, ignorant, and irrational. The risk to civilization is huge.

Wow, I just depressed myself. Well, nuclear weapons are the worst thing currently out there in the world, and the threat is real and growing. Start a global thermonuclear war, and we will not be around to worry about health care or climate change or anything else. The cockroaches can figure that stuff out when they evolve intelligence in another trillion years or so.