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act April 23, 2008

Posted by KG in design, econ, environment, food, health, news, science, tech.
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“act” – from the nytimes magazine green issue:

WALK THE WALK: In many parts of the country, walking has become as quaint a pastime as spinning yarn or playing the bagpipes. Between 1977 and 1995, the number of daily walking trips taken by adults declined by 40 percent — while more than a quarter of all car trips are now shorter than a mile. Those under-a-mile journeys fall into the zone that new urbanists call “walkshed”: the area a person can reasonably cover on foot. People whose walksheds teem with shops and restaurants have more reason to walk than those whose don’t, so it was only a matter of time before someone tried to quantify a neighborhood’s pedestrian-friendliness. Last summer, a trio of Seattle software developers started walkscore.com, which calculates the number of potential destinations within walking distance of any given address and then produces a rating. If your neighborhood scores 90 or above, you can easily live there without a car; if it scores under 25, you’ll be driving to the backyard. More than a million addresses were searched in the site’s first month. Matt Lerner, one of the site’s developers, knew the concept had arrived when a condo in Seattle hung out a gigantic banner that said “Walk Score 100.” “People react really negatively to phrases like ‘density,’ ” he says, “but they react really positively to phrases like ‘walkability.’ ”Walk Score’s popularity may be a sign that walking is making a comeback, fueled by both rising gas prices and widening waistlines.

BEYOND WASTE: Zero waste, a state of eco-utopia far beyond ordinary sustainability, raises the notion of planetary stewardship to a sweeping level: instead of using, we should reuse; instead of dumping, we should compost. A number of municipalities, including Seattle and Boulder, Colo., have made zero waste a guiding ambition. The daunting challenge is that so many consumer products are neither recyclable nor compostable. Worse, they’re made with highly toxic chemicals. Reducing the impact of these products may depend less on finding better ways to dispose of them and more on discovering how to remake them — or on no longer making them at all. A number of green certifications exist for “healthier” consumer products, but for the past three years, a small firm in Virginia known as MBDC has been awarding a “Cradle to Cradle” certification, or “C2C,” to certain items that satisfy a rigorous philosophy espoused by its founders, the green architect William McDonough and the environmental chemist Michael Braungart. The duo have long held that, as McDonough recently put it, “waste is basically stupid.” Theirs is a business-friendly credo. Corporate growth isn’t in itself problematic; nor should sustainability mean getting by with less. Rather, the firm endorses rethinking the way products are designed and manufactured. To get a C2C seal of approval, a product needs to be made from components that are either “technical nutrients” (which can be recycled or repurposed) or biological nutrients (which can degrade naturally, like compost). “Instead of saying zero waste, we say let’s just eliminate the concept of waste,” says Jay Bolus, an environmental engineer who is in charge of the MBDC certification process. C2C has mainly been a business-to-business endeavor, and only a few of the 100 products that have won MBDC certification — Herman Miller chairs, United States Postal Service envelopes — are familiar to consumers. But C2C is expanding, and next year, according to Bolus, there should be 400 or 500 products with the logo. To McDonough, his certification is a point of entry into the world that he’s imagining. “It honors intention,” he says. “And I think that’s really important, given that we have to redesign nearly everything.”

(more…)

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nudge April 22, 2008

Posted by KG in econ, interviews, neuroscience, politics, psychology, science.
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freakonomics q&a with richard thaler and cass sunstein about their new book:

Q: You talk about heuristics and decision-making biases which influence most people’s thinking. Which heuristic or bias has taken you for a ride? Are we as a society more or less vulnerable to heuristics than we were 20 years ago and why?

CASS: The one that has most gotten to me is the availability heuristic, which means that people assess probabilities by asking whether examples easily come to mind.

For about two years after 9/11, I was scared to fly, even though I knew, from my own work, that the risks were really low. And after a bad incident with Chinese food (I have a severe shrimp allergy, and the vegetarian dish contained shrimp), I have been ridiculously nervous about shrimp hiding somewhere in Chinese food.

Fortunately, I am also subject to optimistic bias — with respect to just about everything — and so I now fly contentedly and eat Chinese food happily if sometimes a bit warily.

I don’t know if our society is more vulnerable to bad heuristics and errors than it was 20 years ago. Certainly there’s a lot of vulnerability to those things, but the same as been true for a very long time.

Q: Is there a situation where it would be imperative to shove instead of nudge. How would you, as a libertarian paternalist, justify such a situation?

A: When children and third parties are at risk, mandates and shoves may be OK. We are not opposed to mandatory vaccination laws, in part because those who don’t get vaccinated endanger others.

Many antipollution laws are fine too. A full answer here would point to the costs of bargaining: when people can’t contract their way to a sensible outcome, because of collective action problems and a lack of information, the argument for a mandate gets stronger.

Shoves that aren’t that big an intrusion, such as mandatory seatbelt laws, are OK too, if they can be shown to save a lot of lives. But generally, we like freedom of choice.

using science to explain religion March 23, 2008

Posted by AP in neuroscience, religion, science.
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economist.com:

Religion cries out for a biological explanation. It is a ubiquitous phenomenon—arguably one of the species markers of Homo sapiens—but a puzzling one. It has none of the obvious benefits of that other marker of humanity, language. Nevertheless, it consumes huge amounts of resources. Moreover, unlike language, it is the subject of violent disagreements. Science has, however, made significant progress in understanding the biology of language, from where it is processed in the brain to exactly how it communicates meaning. Time, therefore, to put religion under the microscope as well.

Explaining Religion is an ambitious attempt to do this. The experiments it will sponsor are designed to look at the mental mechanisms needed to represent an omniscient deity, whether (and how) belief in such a “surveillance-camera” God might improve reproductive success to an individual’s Darwinian advantage, and whether religion enhances a person’s reputation—for instance, do people think that those who believe in God are more trustworthy than those who do not? The researchers will also seek to establish whether different religions foster different levels of co-operation, for what reasons, and whether such co-operation brings collective benefits, both to the religious community and to those outside it.

link roundup March 19, 2008

Posted by KG in 2008 Elections, books, econ, environment, news, politics, race, religion, science, sex, tech.
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1) the human side of ralph nader (make sure you change the bookmark to chapter 1)

2) hillary’s “experience”

3) fred krupp, president of the environmental defense fund, talks about “his new book and his thoughts on harnessing the great forces of capitalism to save the world from catastrophe.” – direct real audio link & airtalk archive link (scroll to 3/14)

4) andrew sullivan ponders prostitution – 1 & 2

5) ezra klein on wright vs. falwell

6) TED talks (richard dawkins, larry brilliant, bill clinton, the google guys, and more)

religion and modernity February 25, 2008

Posted by AP in comedy, religion, science.
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alan wolfe writes a piece on wealth and religiosity at theatlantic.com:

Until relatively recently, most social theorists, from Marx to Freud to Weber, believed that as societies became more modern, religion would lose its capacity to inspire. Industrialization would substitute the rational pursuit of self-interest for blind submission to authority. Science would undermine belief in miracles. Democracy would encourage the separation of church and state. Gender equality would undermine patriarchy, and with it, clerical authority. However one defined modernity, it always seemed likely to involve societies focused on this world rather than on some other.

But intellectual fashions are fickle, and the idea of inevitable secularization has fallen out of favor with many scholars and journalists. Still, its most basic tenet—that material progress will slowly erode religious fervor—appears unassailable. Last October, the Pew Global Attitudes Project plotted 44 countries according to per capita gross domestic product and intensity of religious belief, gauged by the responses to several questions about faith (a rendition of the Pew data appears on the opposite page). The pattern, as seen in the Pew study and a number of other sources, is hard to miss: when God and Mammon collide, Mammon usually wins.

but wait! you may be thinking, i just netflixed jesus camp and boy are people here crazy!

You’ll have noticed that I’ve said nothing yet about the United States. Talk about an outlier—there on the Pew chart it stands, nearly alone, as the only country in the world, apart from Kuwait, that is both wealthy and religious. Americans are not only more religious than Europeans; they are more religious than the citizens of some Latin American countries. If proof is needed that religion will remain a dominant force in history for a long time to come, the fact that the world’s most affluent society is also well up among the faithful would seem to provide it. When the president says that his decision to invade another country was influenced by a call from God, or when school boards decide to include creationism in their curriculum, it appears safe to conclude that Americans are not living in the world envisioned by Marx or Freud.

and finally, wolfe details what i have informally called my “hey let’s hang out at jesus’s house, he’s got a ps3 and a trampoline” theory:

So what happens to religions that find themselves with many competitors? Consider what is occurring within the growing American evangelical movement. It has built megachurches that meet the needs of time-pressed professionals by offering such things as day-care centers, self-help groups, and networking opportunities. Its music owes more to Janis Joplin than to Johann Sebastian Bach. Its church officials learn more from business-school case studies than from theological texts. And its young people—well, as the children of parents who have gone through a born-again experience, they are not likely to be as obedient as the evangelical leader James Dobson wants them to be. Having opted to grow on secular terms, American evangelicalism is becoming less hostile to liberal ideas such as tolerance and pluralism. New efforts to take it in directions sympathetic to environmentalism and social justice are a direct result of the maturing of the faith, which followed from earlier decisions to make the movement more appealing to large numbers of Americans, especially the young.

michael shermer @ google February 18, 2008

Posted by KG in books, cognitive science, econ, history, marketing, media, neuroscience, politics, psychology, science, speeches, talks, tech.
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michael shermer @ google discussing his new book – the mind of the market: compassionate apes, competitive humans, and other tales from evolutionary economics

discusses the ultimatum game @ 27min, the evolution of moral sense/trolley car experiment @ 33min & how hormones affect trust/cooperation @ 43min:

related: shermer speaking about debunking superstitions @ TED & “why people believe weird things about money

language and evolution February 5, 2008

Posted by AP in language, science.
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economist.com reports on new research that suggests biological evolution and linguistic evolution behave similarly:

Languages are formed not, it seems, by a gradual drifting apart of two groups who no longer talk to each other, but by violent rupture. Around a third of the vocabulary differences between modern Bantu speakers arose this way, around a fifth of the differences between speakers of Indo-European languages, and around a tenth of the Austronesians. That compares with around a fifth for biological species.

All this suggests that the formation of both languages and species is an active process. For species, adaptations to novel environments and the need to avoid crossbreeding with those on the other side of the split are both plausible hypotheses. For languages, the explanation may be a cultural rather than biological need to distinguish populations.

link roundup January 27, 2008

Posted by KG in 2008 Elections, arts/culture, books, comedy, econ, food, health, international, interviews, media, news, politics, science, speeches, talks, television.
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link-roundup.gif

1. what don’t we know about the pharmaceutical industry? a freakonomics quorom

2. video: stewart slams media for provoking campaign drama

3. malcolm gladwell @ TED in 2004, exhibiting his superior storytelling abilities and making the horizontal segmentation of pasta fascinating – 18 min 15 sec youtube video

4. booksthatmakeyoudumb

5. nabokov wanted his final, unfinished work destroyed. should his son get out the matches?

6. nicholas kristof in india (“china and india: the race is on” & “power of a mother’s love” – nytimes video)

new insights on poverty January 19, 2008

Posted by KG in animation, econ, environment, health, history, international, media, politics, science, talks, tech.
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professor hans rosling @ TED in 2006 (20:35):

2007 presentation available here

“Even the most worldly and well-traveled among us will have their perspectives shifted by Hans Rosling. A professor of global health at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, his current work focuses on dispelling common myths about the so-called developing world, which (he points out) is no longer worlds away from the west. In fact, most of the third world is on the same trajectory toward health and prosperity, and many countries are moving twice as fast as the west did.

What sets Rosling apart isn’t just his apt observations of broad social and economic trends, but the stunning way he presents them. Guaranteed: You’ve never seen data presented like this. By any logic, a presentation that tracks global health and poverty trends should be, in a word: boring. But in Rosling’s hands, data sings. Trends come to life. And the big picture — usually hazy at best — snaps into sharp focus.

Rosling’s presentations are grounded in solid statistics (often drawn from United Nations data), illustrated by the visualization software he developed. The animations transform development statistics into moving bubbles and flowing curves that make global trends clear, intuitive and even playful. During his legendary presentations, Rosling takes this one step farther, narrating the animations with a sportscaster’s flair.

Rosling developed the breakthrough software behind his visualizations through his nonprofit Gapminder, founded with his son and daughter-in-law. The free software — which can be loaded with any data — was purchased by Google in March 2007. (Rosling met the Google founders at TED.)”

“why people believe weird things about money” January 16, 2008

Posted by KG in books, cognitive science, econ, psychology, science.
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michael shermer discusses the evolutionary roots of loss aversion:

This research goes a long way toward debunking one of the biggest myths in all of psychology and economics, known as “Homo economicus.” This is the theory that “economic man” is rational, self-maximizing and efficient in making choices. But why should this be so? Given what we now know about how irrational and emotional people are in all other aspects of life, why would we suddenly become rational and logical when shopping or investing?

Consider one more experimental example to prove the point: the ultimatum game. You are given $100 to split between yourself and your game partner. Whatever division of the money you propose, if your partner accepts it, you each get to keep your share. If, however, your partner rejects it, neither of you gets any money.

How much should you offer? Why not suggest a $90-$10 split? If your game partner is a rational, self-interested money-maximizer — the very embodiment of Homo economicus — he isn’t going to turn down a free 10 bucks, is he? He is. Research shows that proposals that offer much less than a $70-$30 split are usually rejected.

Why? Because they aren’t fair. Says who? Says the moral emotion of “reciprocal altruism,” which evolved over the Paleolithic eons to demand fairness on the part of our potential exchange partners. “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine” only works if I know you will respond with something approaching parity. The moral sense of fairness is hard-wired into our brains and is an emotion shared by most people and primates tested for it, including people from non-Western cultures and those living close to how our Paleolithic ancestors lived.

When it comes to money, as in most other aspects of life, reason and rationality are trumped by emotions and feelings.