This is the major interstate highway that cuts through Center City Philadelphia.
3 most frightening stories
- The U.S. and Russia may have blundered into a proxy war in Syria. And on a loosely related war-and-peace note, Curtis LeMay was a crazy bastard.
- The ecological footprint situation is not looking too promising: “from 1993 to 2009…while the human population has increased by 23% and the world economy has grown 153%, the human footprint has increased by just 9%. Still, 75% the planet’s land surface is experiencing measurable human pressures. Moreover, pressures are perversely intense, widespread and rapidly intensifying in places with high biodiversity.” Meanwhile, as of 2002 “we appropriate over 40% of the net primary productivity (the green material) produced on Earth each year (Vitousek et al. 1986, Rojstaczer et al. 2001). We consume 35% of the productivity of the oceanic shelf (Pauly and Christensen 1995), and we use 60% of freshwater run-off (Postel et al. 1996). The unprecedented escalation in both human population and consumption in the 20th century has resulted in environmental crises never before encountered in the history of humankind and the world (McNeill 2000). E. O. Wilson (2002) claims it would now take four Earths to meet the consumption demands of the current human population, if every human consumed at the level of the average US inhabitant.” And finally, 30% of African elephants have been lost in the last 7 years.
- Car accidents are the leading cause of death for children ages 5 to 24. The obsession with car seats may not be saving all that many lives, while keeping children out of cars as much as possible would be 100% guaranteed to save lives. And one thing that would be guaranteed to help us create more walkable neighborhoods and therefore save children’s lives: getting rid of minimum parking requirements in cities once and for all. And yet you don’t hear this debate being framed in moral terms.
3 most hopeful stories
- The FDA is finally banning antibacterial soap.
- An MIT professor thinks he has found an effective anti-aging pill.
- There is still hope for fusion power.
3 most interesting stories
- Monsanto is trying to help honeybees (which seems good) by monkeying with RNA (which seems a little frightening). Yes, biotech is coming.
- Some people think teaching algebra to children may actually be bad. Writing still seems to be good.
- There have been a number of attempts to identify and classify the basic types of literary plots.
Here is the hard data on a person’s probability of survival when hit by a car traveling at a range of speeds. You should go to the link and look at the graphs, but here are a few highlights I picked out:
- For the average person hit by the average vehicle, you need to get speed down to the 30-35 mph range to have a 75% survival probability, and the 20-25 mph range if you want a 90% survival probability. 15 mph would get you up to about 95%.
- All people are not average. A 70-year-old struck at 30 mph has something like a 60% chance of living, while a 30-year-old has more like a 85% chance (I’m eyeballing a tiny graph, these numbers are not exact.)
- All vehicles are not equal. Getting struck by a pickup truck or SUV is more likely to be deadly than a car. Again just eyeballing, if you’re hit by a light truck vs. a car at 30 mph, the average person’s odds of survival would drop from something like 80% to 75%.
- Those numbers are for death. Obviously, the risk of severe injury short of death is higher. Again using the 30 mph example, the risk of severe injury for the average person hit by the average vehicle looks to be around 50%.
I think our first instinct is to look for someone to blame – and it’s obviously true that better driver behavior, pedestrian behavior, or both could prevent accidents. But police enforcement is obviously part of the answer. It upsets me when I hear the Philadelphia Police openly say they don’t enforce traffic laws because they have “real crimes” to attend to. Sure, their job is to keep the population safe from violence on our city’s streets – well, this is violence on our city’s streets! And it disproportionately puts children and the elderly at risk compared to other forms of crime.
Finally, better design of streets, intersections, and signals is a big part of the answer. Nearly perfect designs exist in places like Denmark and the Netherlands, but well-trained and well-intentioned U.S. engineers are either ignorant of them or cynically assume they can’t or won’t work here, or that they are not affordable.
I assume these same police and engineers would not go out on the streets and shoot old people and children in the head, because that would be unethical, so why is knowingly allowing the preventable deaths of old people and children through ignorance and negligence any different? And why does the public largely accept this and assume it can’t change?
Some people are raising questions about pedestrians. Well clearly, you can’t do this around pedestrians. It has to be elevated, underground, or on the edge of town. Notice I am not suggesting we send people through underground tunnels or over bridges. It is time for we flesh and blood humans to reclaim the surface of our cities!
I’m going to try picking the three most frightening posts, three most hopeful posts, and three most interesting posts (that are not particularly frightening or hopeful) from January.
3 most frightening posts
- Paul Ehrlich is still worried about population. 82% of scientists agree.
- Thomas Picketty (paraphrased by J. Bradford Delong) says inequality and slow growth are the norm for a capitalist society. Joseph Stiglitz has some politically difficult solutions: “Far-reaching redistribution of income would help, as would deep reform of our financial system – not just to prevent it from imposing harm on the rest of us, but also to get banks and other financial institutions to do what they are supposed to do: match long-term savings to long-term investment needs.”
- Meanwhile, government for and by big business means the “Deep State” is really in control of the U.S. In our big cities, the enormous and enormously dysfunctional police-court-prison system holds sway over the poor.
3 most hopeful posts
- The new Michael Moore visits other countries and collects their best ideas on policies that work well and we just don’t know about.
- Urban transportation is evolving. Self-driving vehicles might travel slower, and we might be okay with that. The economics of commuting and parking also seem to be favoring denser urban living.
- The science of wildlife corridors is progressing, potentially allowing us to preserve/restore more ecological function in less space amid human disturbance. Eric Toensmeier has articulated nicely a vision that human-altered landscapes could be positive rather than negative.
3 most interesting posts
- There are some arguments in favor of genetically modified food – they have increased yields of some grains, and there is promise they could increase fish yields. 88% of scientists responding to a Pew survey said they think genetically modified food is safe, but only 37% of the U.S. public thinks so. In other biotech news, Obama’s State of the Union announced a new initiative to try to cure cancer. In other food news, red meat is out.
- Not only is cash becoming obsolete, any physical form of payment at all may become obsolete.
- The World Economic Forum focused on technology: “The possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge, are unlimited. And these possibilities will be multiplied by emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing.”
The Guardian has a nice run-down on the state of car-free developments around the world:
- “Oslo revealed plans to ban all private vehicles from the centre by 2019″
- “Helsinki has ambitious plans to make its “mobility on demand” service so good that nobody will want to drive a car in the centre by 2025”
- “Paris’s car-free days have successfully reduced high pollution”
- “New cities – such as the Great City on the outskirts of Chengdu, China, and Masdar near Abu Dhabi – plan to focus on mass transit or electric cars as alternatives to gas-guzzling private cars.”
- “Venice is often cited as the largest car-free city, but they have it easy, with canals and rivers instead of streets.”
- “Hamburg, on the other hand, is currently making waves by enforcing an auto-ban on a number of urban roads to develop a network of route for pedestrians and bikes that link parks and open spaces together.”
- “Madrid, too, is focusing on the city at a human level, and recently hatched a plan to pedestrianise the urban core and expel cars by 2020.”
- “Dublin and Brussels are also toying with the idea of kicking the habit through city centre diesel-car bans, with similar ideas proposed by Liberal Democrats in London following the VW emissions scandal.”
- “Milan is offering public transit tokens to residents for every weekday they surrender their cars”
- “Rome is slowly progressing with parking bans.”
- ” Copenhagen. Unsurprisingly, large swathes of the Danish capital have been closed to vehicles for decades, with bicycle infrastructure reaching into every corner.”
- “Every week in the Colombian capital [Bogota], over 75 miles of urban roads are shut to vehicles.”
- “In Hyderabad’s IT corridor (dubbed “Cyberabad”), a recently launched weekly car ban marks a first for Indian cities”
- in South Korea, a Suwon neighbourhood recently trialled a full month ban in September 2013, which inspired the wealthy Sandton area of Johannesburg to hosts its own car-free experiment last month.”
- “Portland hopes to [have] 25% of trips made on two wheels by 2030.”
- “While modal share for cycling just scrapes an average of 2% in the US, in Davis [California] it’s 20%.”
- “Alongside the expansion of the subway system, segregated bike lanes are slowly creeping into North America’s fifth largest city [Toronto], and there are whispers around a potential car-free street during rush hour.”
Here in Philadelphia, we’re asking if a bike lane is still a bike lane several years after the paint wore off…
What did I learn in November? Let’s start with the bad and then go to the good.
Negative stories (-10):
- The World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Risks Report came out. Some of the top risks are interstate conflict, water crisis, failure of climate change adaptation, unemployment and underemployment. Hmm, that “interstate conflict” items might be what we used to call “war”. And I think there might be one underway right now in the Middle East, which Jimmy Carter says we are getting all wrong. And it just might be caused by the other items on the list. And speaking of war, there is a new book on the Vietnam War aimed at the middle grades, but it seems pretty harsh for that age to me. (-2)
- I noticed that Robert Costanza in 2014 issued an update to his seminal 1997 paper on ecosystem services. He now estimates their value at $125 trillion per year, compared to a world economy of $77 trillion per year. Each year we are using up about $4-20 trillion in value more than the Earth is able to replenish. The correct conclusion here is that we can’t live without ecosystem services any time soon with our current level of knowledge and wealth, and yet we are depleting the natural capital that produces them. We were all lucky enough to inherit an enormous trust fund of natural capital at birth, and we are spending it down like the spoiled trust fund babies we are. We are living it up, and we measure our wealth based on that lifestyle, but we don’t have a bank statement so we don’t actually know when that nest egg is going to run out. (-3)
- This crop of presidential candidates is easy for comedians to make fun of. I enjoy it but think it may be a contrary indicator for the health of the country. (-1)
- Bicycle helmets are not making U.S. bicycle riders any safer. This is why we need streets designed on the European model to be safe for driving, bicycling, and walking. It’s 100% known technology and there can be no excuses! (-2)
- In current events, we had the awful, shocking terrorist attacks in Paris. I suggested that the long-term answer to violence caused by angry young men anywhere is to understand why they are angry, address their legitimate grievances, and give them productive work to do. Short term, we also have to detect and disrupt any plots involving nuclear or biological weapons, of course, because we can’t afford even one. (-2)
Positive stories (+9):
- Asimov’s yeast vats are finally here. This is good because it allows us to produce food without photosynthesis, but bad because it allows us to produce food without photosynthesis. (+0).
- New technology could allow us to travel anywhere on Earth in four hours. (+1)
- The package delivery robots are here. (+1)
- NASA is recruiting astronauts to go to Mars. (+1)
- I learned that Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen was a protege of Joseph Schumpeter and a founding father of modern ecological economics. (+1)
- Search technology is opening up new possibilities for synthesis of knowledge across disciplines. (+1)
- There is a near consensus among economists that an international carbon price would be a good idea, and there are some sensible proposals. (+1)
- I had a fresh look at a couple systems thinkers: Sherlock Holmes, cocaine fiend, and Peter Checkland, originator of the “soft systems methodology”. (+1)
- There are plenty of ways to store intermittent solar and wind power so they can provide a constant, reliable electricity source. (+2)
According to Reuters:
Cars will be banned from central Oslo by 2019 to help reduce pollution, local politicians said on Monday, in what they said would be the first comprehensive and permanent ban for a European capital…Under the plans, the council will build at least 60 kilometers of bicycle lanes by 2019, the date of the next municipal elections, and provide a “massive boost” of investment in public transport.
Several European capitals have previously introduced temporary car bans in their city centers, including Paris last month. Some such as London or Madrid have congestion charges to limit car traffic.
This article has an interesting slide show on what a city really designed around biking (aka cycling) might look like. Bike lanes go right into and out of buildings. I like the concept, but I wonder what it would be like to walk in this city. I like the idea of a city built for walking as the first and preferred form of transport, then bicycling second, then maybe personal rapid transit third. In my utopia, homes, work places, shopping/resting/gathering places, and natural areas are located so that most people take most daily trips on foot, hop on their bikes a few times a week to go to a meeting or visit friends across town, and hop on some form of motorized transportation maybe once or twice a month to go out of town. Actually that pretty much describes my typical month right here in decidedly non-utopian Philadelphia, USA.
What did I learn in September? Let’s start with the bad and then go to the good.
Negative stories (-11):
- The Environmental Kuznets Curve is the idea that a developing country will go through a period of environmental degradation caused by economic growth, but then the environment will improve in the long run. Sounds okay but the evidence for it is weak. (-1)
- The Inca are an example of a very advanced civilization that was wiped out. (-1)
- Consumerism and the pursuit of wealth are not sufficient cultural glue to hold a nation together. (-1)
- Climate may be playing a role in the current refugee crisis, and the future may hold much more of this. (-1)
- North and South America would have enormous herds of large mammals if humans had never come along. (-1)
- The U.S. clearly has lower average life expectancy than other advanced countries. Developing countries in Asia and Latin America are catching up, but life expectancy in Africa is still tragically low. (-1)
- People get away with criminally violent behavior behind the wheel because police do not see it as on par with other types of crime. (-2)
- People are still suggesting a false choice between critical and creative thinking. This is not how the problems are tomorrow will be solved. (-2)
- This just in – an extreme form of central planning does not work. (-1)
Positive stories (+9):
- Pneumatic chutes for garbage collection have been used successfully on an island in New York City for decades. This technology has some potential to move us closer to a closed loop world where resources are recovered rather than wasted. (+1)
- Scientists and engineers could learn some lessons from marketing on how to communicate better with the rest of humanity. (+1)
- There is new evidence from New Zealand on economic benefits of cycling and cycling infrastructure. (+1)
- There has been some progress on New York City’s “lowline“, which is what a park in space might look like. The only problem is, it looks to me like a mall. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the exciting science fiction future may look a lot like malls in space. (+0)
- The U.S. Surgeon General thinks walkable communities may be a good idea. The End of Traffic may actually be a possibility. (+3)
- Peter Singer advocates “effective altruism”. A version of his Princeton ethics course is available for free online. (+1)
- Edward Tufte does not like Infographics. (+0)
- The unpronounceable Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi believes he has found the key to happiness. (+1)
- The right mix of variety and repetition might be the key to learning. (+1)