We hear a lot about energy research and development. Perhaps that's because it's the one sort of policy that Republicans and Democrats generally agree on. But there's a different kind of research that I'd like to see get a lot more attention and funding. I'm talking about research into what various kinds of energy policies actually *do* to shape the technical possibilities open to humanity.
In my time researching energy, most of the people who actually care about where we get our energy from have committed to an energy source, be it oil, gas, traditional nuclear, wind, solar, geothermal, or thorium. Then, they go looking for policies that would benefit their technology. I've also run into a lot of people who believe in inexorable laws of change in energy, whether that's decarbonization or the inevitable rise of natural gas or nuclear power. And I've run into a lot of energy experts who believe in a fairly simple relationship between research money going in and technologies coming out.
Unfortunately, none of these three groups of people is likely to produce very good energy policy. To put it in more mainstream terms, we've got a lot of energy pundits and very few energy Nate Silvers, who put reality (i.e. good data) ahead of ideology and intuition. Don't get me wrong: everyone in energy loves them some data, but few people are interested in using it the way Silver does.
Let me introduce you to a scholar who I think embodies the kind of research we need more of. His name is Gregory Nemet. He did his PhD at Berkeley and now teaches at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I first discovered his work through a 2006 paper in Energy Policy, "Beyond the Learning Curve: factors influencing cost reductions in photovoltaics." Now, you're probably familiar with the neat story that learning curves tell. They say that as you do something, you get better at it, and because it's a curve, the assumption is that this happens at a fairly consistent (and therefore predictable) rate. This is part of the rationale for supporting photovoltaics after all. They've gotten so much cheaper (orders of magnitude) over the last few decades that proponents suggest they're inevitably going to get cheaper than grid electricity some time in the near future.
But this is just too simple a model for the way the world works. Nemet first demolishes the idea that we can bank on simple learning by experience models that show consistent cost reductions as the amount of solar produced increases. These analyses are super sensitive to small changes in the learning rate or the growth of the market (the number of megawatts of PV production in a given time span). And that's not even taking into account the discontinuities that we know occur in technological development. He raises several other powerful objections based on the literature. All in all, it's a pretty amazing takedown of a common method of analysis.
But he doesn't stop there. He then uses the history of photovoltaics (from 1976-2001) to demonstrate a new way of modeling cost reductions in technology. It's hard to gloss the whole thing, but suffice to say that his model allows him to identify which of the following factors were important for different periods of the technology's evolution in driving down cost: plant size, scaling factor, module efficiency, silicon cost, wafer size, silicon use, yield, polycrystal share, polycrystal cost.
With kind of policy impact might that have? Well, if increasing the size of photovoltaic plants appears to lead to large cost reductions, then it might be a good idea to have a loan program that helps get these sorts of plants built. A loan program much like the one that produced many good outcomes along with a few duds like Solyndra.
But there's a deeper reason to support this kind of research. When people think of technological development as somehow magically proceeding apace, it makes it seem *as if* people's personal and civic interventions don't matter. But of course they do! It's just that when you draw one curve to stick in your PowerPoint, all the decisions that affect the factors above get submerged into a false law of simplistic cost reductions.
Since 2006, Nemet has kept working on important research projects. He's done more work on trying to model the effectiveness of differing government support models, as in this paper on whether subsidies or R&D spending are more likely to bring organic solar cells to market. (In this case, the answer is R&D.)
His most recent work, though, might be his most significant, though I think his current research program is not yet complete. In carious ways, he's been trying to get at a very basic question: do demand-side subsidies work to stimulate technological development? Or might better policies exist? This is more than a theoretical question, given the various tax credits both here and abroad that appear to have pushed low-carbon technologies forward. Note the way I framed his project, which I think he would agree with. This is not about whether Nemet believes government should be subsidizing energy projects or not. This is not about whether solar or wind or nuclear *should* be the future of our energy system. No, this is something more basic and more difficult to answer: how much can subsidies enhance the learning (and therefore cost reductions) that an industry like wind actually does?
If you're curious what his final analysis is, here's the conclusion from an excellent forthcoming paper in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. You probably won't be surprised to learn that he makes a nuanced judgment:
The magnitude of public funds at stake add some urgency to improving understanding of the extent and characteristics of knowledge spillovers from learning by doing. The main results here imply that policies that enhance demand are necessary to generate sufficient knowledge from experience. Other insights from this case--especially depreciation and diminishing returns--heighten the value of policy instruments with performance-oriented mechanisms and longevity. That experience-derived knowledge appears to be so ephemeral suggests that we should also consider explicit support for codification and transfer of what is learned.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
ISIS did not merely blast apart old stones—it attacked the very foundations of pluralistic society.
If the ruined ruins of Palmyra could speak, they would marvel at our shock. After all, they have been sacked before. In their mute and shattered eloquence, they spoke for centuries not only about the cultures that built them but also about the cultures that destroyed them—about the fragility of civilization itself, even when it is incarnated in stone. No designation of sanctity, by God or by UNESCO, suffices to protect the past. The past is helpless. Instead these ruins, all ruins, have had the effect of lifting the past out of history and into time. They carry the spectator away from facts and toward reveries.
In the 18th century, after the publication in London of The Ruins of Palmyra, a pioneering volume of etchings by Robert Wood, who had traveled to the Syrian desert with the rather colorful James Dawkins, a fellow antiquarian and politician, the desolation of Palmyra became a recurring symbol for ephemerality and the vanity of all human endeavors. “It is the natural and common fate of cities,” Wood dryly remarked in one of the essays in his book, “to have their memory longer preserved than their ruins.” Wood’s beautiful and meticulous prints served as inspirations for paintings, and it was in response to one of those paintings that Diderot wrote some famous pages in his great Salons of 1767: “The ideas ruins evoke in me are grand. Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes, only the world remains, only time endures. ... Wherever I cast my glance, the objects surrounding me announce death and compel my resignation to what awaits me. What is my ephemeral existence in comparison with that of a rock being worn down, of a valley being formed, of a forest that’s dying, of these deteriorating masses suspended above my head? I see the marble of tombs crumble into powder and I don’t want to die!”
Demonizing processed food may be dooming many to obesity and disease. Could embracing the drive-thru make us all healthier?
Late last year, in a small health-food eatery called Cafe Sprouts in Oberlin, Ohio, I had what may well have been the most wholesome beverage of my life. The friendly server patiently guided me to an apple-blueberry-kale-carrot smoothie-juice combination, which she spent the next several minutes preparing, mostly by shepherding farm-fresh produce into machinery. The result was tasty, but at 300 calories (by my rough calculation) in a 16-ounce cup, it was more than my diet could regularly absorb without consequences, nor was I about to make a habit of $9 shakes, healthy or not.
Inspired by the experience nonetheless, I tried again two months later at L.A.’s Real Food Daily, a popular vegan restaurant near Hollywood. I was initially wary of a low-calorie juice made almost entirely from green vegetables, but the server assured me it was a popular treat. I like to brag that I can eat anything, and I scarf down all sorts of raw vegetables like candy, but I could stomach only about a third of this oddly foamy, bitter concoction. It smelled like lawn clippings and tasted like liquid celery. It goes for $7.95, and I waited 10 minutes for it.
Heather Armstrong’s Dooce once drew millions of readers. Her blog’s semi-retirement speaks to the challenges of earning money as an individual blogger today.
The success story of Dooce.com was once blogger lore, told and re-told in playgroups and Meetups—anywhere hyper-verbal people with Wordpress accounts gathered. “It happened for that Dooce lady,” they would say. “It could happen for your blog, too.”
Dooce has its origin in the late 1990s, when a young lapsed Mormon named Heather Armstrong taught herself HTML code and moved to Los Angeles. She got a job in web design and began blogging about her life on her personal site, Dooce.com.
The site’s name evolved out of her friends’ AOL Instant-Messenger slang for dude, or its more incredulous cousin, "doooood!” About a year later, Armstrong was fired for writing about her co-workers on the site—an experience that, for a good portion of the ‘aughts, came known as “getting dooced.” She eloped with her now ex-husband, Jon, moved to Salt Lake City, and eventually started blogging full time again.
When Kenneth Jarecke photographed an Iraqi man burned alive, he thought it would change the way Americans saw the Gulf War. But the media wouldn’t run the picture.
The Iraqi soldier died attempting to pull himself up over the dashboard of his truck. The flames engulfed his vehicle and incinerated his body, turning him to dusty ash and blackened bone. In a photograph taken soon afterward, the soldier’s hand reaches out of the shattered windshield, which frames his face and chest. The colors and textures of his hand and shoulders look like those of the scorched and rusted metal around him. Fire has destroyed most of his features, leaving behind a skeletal face, fixed in a final rictus. He stares without eyes.
On February 28, 1991, Kenneth Jarecke stood in front of the charred man, parked amid the carbonized bodies of his fellow soldiers, and photographed him. At one point, before he died this dramatic mid-retreat death, the soldier had had a name. He’d fought in Saddam Hussein’s army and had a rank and an assignment and a unit. He might have been devoted to the dictator who sent him to occupy Kuwait and fight the Americans. Or he might have been an unlucky young man with no prospects, recruited off the streets of Baghdad.
In continuing to tinker with the universe she built eight years after it ended, J.K. Rowling might be falling into the same trap as Star Wars’s George Lucas.
September 1st, 2015 marked a curious footnote in Harry Potter marginalia: According to the series’s elaborate timeline, rarely referenced in the books themselves, it was the day James S. Potter, Harry’s eldest son, started school at Hogwarts. It’s not an event directly written about in the books, nor one of particular importance, but their creator, J.K. Rowling, dutifully took to Twitter to announce what amounts to footnote details: that James was sorted into House Gryffindor, just like his father, to the disappointment of Teddy Lupin, Harry’s godson, apparently a Hufflepuff.
It’s not earth-shattering information that Harry’s kid would end up in the same house his father was in, and the Harry Potter series’s insistence on sorting all of its characters into four broad personality quadrants largely based on their family names has always struggled to stand up to scrutiny. Still, Rowling’s tweet prompted much garment-rending among the books’ devoted fans. Can a tweet really amount to a piece of canonical information for a book? There isn’t much harm in Rowling providing these little embellishments years after her books were published, but even idle tinkering can be a dangerous path to take, with the obvious example being the insistent tweaks wrought by George Lucas on his Star Wars series.
Encouraging a focus on white identity is a dangerous approach for a country in which white supremacy has been a toxic force.
Donald Trump and the disaffected white people who make up his base of support have got me thinking about race in America. “Trump presents a choice for the Republican Party about which path to follow––” Ben Domenech writes in an insightful piece at The Federalist, “a path toward a coalition that is broad, classically liberal, and consistent with the party’s history, or a path toward a coalition that is reduced to the narrow interests of identity politics for white people.”
When I was growing up in Republican Orange County during the Reagan and Bush Administrations, lots of white parents sat their kids in front of The Cosby Show, explained that black people are just like white people, and inveighed against judging anyone by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character. The approach didn’t convey the full reality of race as minorities experience it. But it represented a significant generational improvement in race relations.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
After a lackluster summer, the famous neurosurgeon is finally surging—but his reliance on the conservative grassroots might be a burden as much as a boon.
The Ben Carson surge that everyone was waiting for is finally here.
The conservative neurosurgeon has been a source of fascination for both the Republican grassroots and the media ever since he critiqued President Obama, who was seated only a few feet away, at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013. He’s been a steady, if middling, presence in GOP primary polls for most of the year—always earning at least 5 percent, but rarely more than 10. Yet over the last two weeks, Carson has secured a second-place spot after Donald Trump, both nationally and in the crucial opening battleground of Iowa, where he is a favorite of the state’s sizable evangelical community. A Monmouth University poll released this week even showed him tied with Trump for the lead in Iowa, at 23 percent.