Thursday, August 28, 2014

Monday, August 25, 2014

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

The NY Times book critic Dwight Garner suggested that David Shafer's Whiskey Tango Foxtrot might be the "novel of the summer." A well-written paranoid near-future thriller with a sense of humor? That sounds like my dream summer escape novel, and I'll confess, Shafer had me by the balls for the first 200 pages or so, which is about 50 pages longer than Donna Tartt did with her overpraised The Goldfinch. But somewhere right around page 212 Shafer jumps the shark, and the book kind of fizzles.

What went wrong? First, the book's appealingly flawed heroes are battling an evil conspiracy that amounts to thinly fictionalized versions of Google and the NSA working together to corner the information market. Sure, it's scary, but if you follow the headlines I'm afraid it's also a bit ho-hum. Second, Shafer does satire better than he does suspense or sci-fi. So when it comes time for the plot to really kick into gear, he has to tone down the funny, and his writing loses its edge. Third, there's what happens on page 212, when a certain woo-woo element is introduced to the plot. I won't give it away, but suffice to say that here's where attention to the hard sci-fi could have helped a lot. The Google conspiracy is highly believable because it is highly realistic. So to introduce something really weird is jarring unless you can convince the reader it has some minimal plausibility. No attempt is made. Maybe we will learn more in the sequel. And a sequel there must be, given the unsatisfying and inconclusive ending of this novel. Harrumph.

Regulation and pollution havens

One concern about environmental regulation is that "dirty" industries will simply move to less-regulated countries (so-called pollution havens). For example, metal smelting could move from the United States to China. If so, the United States would be cleaning up at the expense of China getting dirtier. Now if China were willing to put up with the pollution for faster economic growth, we might view the situation as win-win... assuming the Chinese decision-makers represent the interests of their people, more or less. But even under that rosy scenario, it's not necessarily win-win if some of the pollution has global impacts, such as greenhouse gas emissions. Then the United States still suffers from China's emissions.

If the pollution haven effect is empirically important, it should be the case that much of the reduction in pollution in, say, the United States, is the consequence of a shift in the composition of U.S. output away from dirty industries toward clean ones, with the dirty products now being produced abroad and imported. Contrary to this hypothesis, however, the evidence suggests that the lion's share of pollution reduction in the United States has occurred within industries, through changes in technique, as is shown quite elegantly in a new paper by Arik Levinson. (Access to the paper is by subscription, but you can view the abstract here.) As Levinson writes in his conclusion:
This simple exercise demonstrates a remarkable change over the past two decades. Air pollution emitted by US manufacturers has fallen by two-thirds, and that cleanup has almost entirely come from reductions in emissions intensity of each of the more than 400 industries that comprise the manufacturing sector rather than from shifts in the shares of those industries in overall manufacturing output – from technique rather than composition...
... the finding runs counter to perceptions about the effects of environmental cleanup in US manufacturing. While I don’t assess the cause of that cleanup here, one natural speculation would be that it has resulted from environmental regulations. If so, those regulations have not worked by reducing the share of polluting industries in the US manufacturing sector – driving those industries overseas or reducing consumption of those industries’ products. Instead, they have worked by reducing the emissions intensities on an industry-by-industry basis. That finding should be welcomed by anybody concerned that US regulations might appear to be succeeding, but only by reducing the menu of products available to American consumers or by shifting pollution from the US to other countries. The results here directly refute that concern.
In other words, while there are good reasons to be deeply concerned about pollution in China (and elsewhere), for the sake of both the Chinese and ourselves, concern that domestic environmental regulation is being nullified by global trade is probably misplaced. Which is good news.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Can Music Be Perfect? Vol. 44

There are so many things I love about this song. The obvious things: Gladys is a great singer; the Pips and their moves; it's a fantastically simple but hooky love song. The less obvious things: not only is it a great pop song, but it also captures a particular personal decision at a particular moment in historical time... the Great Migration and the subsequent reverse migration by some; the conventional pattern of call and response, in which we expect the Pips to echo, accentuate, or comment on Gladys's lyric, is often reversed, with the Pips moving the story along by anticipating Gladys's next line: "He kept dreaming (Dreaming); Ooh, that some day he'd be a star (A superstar, but he didn't get far); But he sure found out the hard way that dreams don't always come true, oh no, uh uh." Yessir, this one is perfect.

In my imagination...

... I am hitting my backhand exactly the way Stan the Man does. A thing of beauty. But even in my fantasy world, mine does not quite average his 76 mph...

Friday, August 22, 2014

Satsuki and Mei


Health coverage news

The California Department of Managed Health Care has ruled that my university must offer insurance coverage for any abortion legal under California law. This is welcome news to many at Santa Clara U.... perhaps even to our President, in his guarded moments... he faced another tough year with the faculty if he had been allowed to follow through with his decision to limit coverage starting in 2015-16. On the other hand, there is always the possibility that abortion opponents in the Church, emboldened by Hobby Lobby, will push for a court challenge on the grounds that the State of California has violated "our" First Amendment rights, whatever the California Constitution provides. Now there's an interesting federalist showdown, albeit one I hope not to witness...