Thursday, June 11, 2015

Your money where your mouth is (Day 5)

One of the early works in the canon of Russian opera is Glinka’s A life for the Tsar, set during the Time of Troubles in the early 1600’s. A Polish army is on its way to Moscow to help Polish troops already occupying the Russian capital.

They stop in a village to get someone to guide them further on their way, and Ivan Susanin, a village elder, takes the responsibility. But instead of leading them to Moscow, he leads them into the woods and intentionally gets them lost.

As a snow storm closes in around them, the Polish soldiers realize they’ve been tricked. They kill Susanin, but they themselves die, lost in the storm. Without the extra troops, the Polish army in Moscow has to give up. The city is liberated, the new Romanov dynasty is saved, the Time of Troubles is brought to an end, and on stage at the Bolshoi Opera, the new tsar rides out of the Archangel gate of the Kremlin on an honest to goodness, live, white horse.

For a Russian, anyone who leads you the wrong way is a “Susanin.” Keep that in mind.

This morning we checked out of our hotel (not before I snapped some pictures of it in the morning light) and walked a couple of blocks to where Victor was waiting for us with the bus.

2nd-floor balcony outside hotel rooms,
overlooking the hotel atrium

Sitting area outside 2nd-floor rooms

Ornament on the Writers' Union building

The Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba
Well, some of us walked a couple of blocks. As students gathered in the lobby, we explained where the bus was and told those who were ready to head over to it. When we finished up paying and walked to the bus ourselves, we were unnerved to find that many students who’d left the hotel before us had not yet arrived.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A critical review

Hartwick does what are known as "360-degree reviews" for its administrators (vice presidents, directors of offices, that sort of role).

As a faculty person who has interacted extensively with some administrators at different times, I tend to get asked for my input in these performance evaluations.

That input usually takes the form of answers to various questions on a 1-to-5 scale ("strongly disagree" to "strongly agree"). There's also a box for free-form comment on each area of questioning.

I completed one a while ago, and some of the questions just pushed my buttons.

Note that I don't mean this as a dig at our director of human resources. I've worked with her on a college committee and respect the work that she does. My sense is that in this instance she is doing a good job implementing what is "best practice." My beef is with this particular iteration of "best practice," trying to quantify things that may be better left unquantified.

Here are some of the characterizations with which I was asked to agree or disagree, followed by the free-form comments I provided. I hope they help. :)

“Embraces change quickly and easily.”
“Is positive and enthusiastic toward change.”

If I may be permitted to editorialize, part of why I dislike forms like this is that it's not always a good thing to be enthusiastic toward change. We're really interested in whether someone does their job well. Sometimes that entails being enthusiastic toward change, sometimes it requires resisting it, because the proposed change is destructive. The questions seem to embody a too-abstract view of what constitutes doing good work.

“Analyzes complex situations, breaking each into its constituent parts.”

See my previous comments on the nature of these questions. There's a role for analytical thinking, but there's a role for holistic thinking as well. I'm more interested in whether someone can craft a good solution to a problem, less in prescribing how they should reach that solution, and even less in participating in a process that has the prospect of dinging them for not approaching their work in a way that an outside observer deems appropriate.

“Is enthusiastic and positive.”

I appreciate the benefits of enthusiasm and a positive attitude, but as with some earlier questions, I feel the shadow of someone's preconceptions of what constitutes good work. Depending on the mood in which one reads the question, it could be taken as an entirely inappropriate injunction for the employee to correct their inner world, a realm which is none of the employer's damn business.

“Avoids inappropriate situations that put the organization at risk.”

I guess I could have answered "Strongly agree" on avoiding inappropriate situations. I didn't witness her have even have the opportunity to avoid any such situations, but maybe that's because she was so good at avoiding them.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Facades and interiors (Day 4)

The calm center of this day was an afternoon stroll, first to Parque Serafín Sánchez in the middle of town, then a few blocks north to Parque Maceo.

This is a comfortable, modest square, with a yellow baroque church occupying a long corner of the space. I sat myself down on a park bench with the church to my right.

Opposite the church there was a pair of houses, mismatched in style, but both porticoed, in a way that suggested a small town rather than a provincial capital.

Across the square from me was an informal traffic hub, where taxis, horse-drawn taxis, and buses traded passengers.

A group of five boys are playing soccer on the square in front of the church—only one of the group had shoes on. The goal is the side of the steps that lead up to the church. There is a shot that gets way past the goalie and up onto the platform where a group of six elders is standing, talking, perhaps waiting for the church to open.

The ball hits one woman in the head. It doesn’t look like that hard a blow, but she’s dizzied and moves closer to the doorway to support herself. One of the boys comes up to apologize. The woman turns to scold him, but can’t persist long in the face of him taking responsibility for his action. She turns away and he reaches up to pat her head where she’s holding her hand, but he doesn’t quite touch her.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Pissing in the wind

You may have heard of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade deal being negotiated among 11 countries around the Pacific, a deal so marvelous that we can't be allowed to know what's in it.

Beyond the high degree of general skepticism warranted by such secrecy, there are very troubling specifics that can be gleaned from passages that have been leaked.

Among them, the Sierra Club identifies this one:
The investment chapter of the TPP—one of three leaked TPP chapters—would give corporations expansive new rights, including the right to sue governments in non-transparent trade tribunals over public interest regulations that corporations allege would reduce their expected profits.

Using rules similar to those that included in the TPP, corporations such as ExxonMobil, Dow Chemical, Chevron, and Occidental Oil, have launched more than 500 cases against 95 governments. Approximately 60 percent of the time, the corporation wins or the case settles, often with a concession to the corporation. [p. 1]
In other words, measures that would force certain amounts of fossil fuels to be kept in the ground and not burned, might be overturned as an illegitimate diminution of a corporation's profits. Of course, they might not be overturned. But the thing is, we're not allowed to see the text, so it's hard to even lay eyes on it.

Today I got an email from Organizing for America (OFA), the outfit that had been Obama for America until he won the presidency. The email was telling me what a great thing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Actually, it was talking about trade-promotion authority, better known as "fast-track," which means that when the president submits a trade agreement to Congress, they can only vote yes or no, they can't insist on changes.

But in essence, OFA is pushing the TPP. Their argument is:
It's pretty important for working families and for the economy that we get this right. U.S. exports—supported by expanding trade—have contributed nearly a third of our economic growth in the recovery, supporting more than 11.7 million jobs according to the International Trade ​Administration​​, and almost 300,000 small and medium-sized businesses in every state according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative​.​
But it doesn't follow that this trade deal is a good one. But wait, there's more:
The good news is that this bill [i.e., fast-track] ensures progressive values, like enforceable labor and environment standards, will be part of the agreement—and that the entire process is transparent.
Hmm, "transparent" as in, "No, you can't see the text we're negotiating"?

And sure, it's nice that the bill ensures that things called enforceable labor and environment standards will be part of the agreement. But what about the investment chapter? Will it or won't it allow corporations to sue governments if governments set rules on how much fossil fuel has to stay in the ground?

If it will allow such actions, it's hard to see what other virtues could possibly justify the agreement.

Shortly after the pitch from OFA, I wrote back:
I was just contacted by OFA about fast-track for the TPP.

There's an argument that TPP would allow fossil-fuel companies to sue if future climate regulations force them to leave carbon in the ground.

Given that the TPP text is secret, what can you do to convince people that this argument isn't true?

And if the argument IS true, how can people take Obama seriously on climate if he's supporting TPP?

What is your agenda, anyway?
I think I know the answer to that last question.

It felt very much like pissing in the wind, but at least now the bile is all over me rather than bottled up on the inside.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Treasures in heaven

Back in 2012 I gave a guest sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Oneonta. The topic was money, which may seem an odd one for a sermon, but it is the UU. Less flippantly, the topic was the role of money as a social tool and the importance of understanding and possibly reshaping its role, so that it can do more good than harm.

Afterwards, someone said, "That was really interesting—when's part II?"

And before long, the vaguest outline of a Part II started to take shape. And I thought, I should mention to Craig (our minister) that I have a Part II in mind. But then I'd have had to actually sit down and write it.

So instead I waited until Craig needed someone to cover a Sunday and couldn't find anyone else. When he asked if I could do it, I said yes, and that I even had a topic in mind.

So I finally wrote it.

As is the custom at our church, the sermon was preceded by a couple of brief readings. Unusually, my first was from the Bible, Matthew 6:19-21:
19. Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
The other was "The task of the religious community," by Mark Morrison Reed, from the UU hymnal:
The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all. There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others. Once felt, it inspires us to act for justice.
It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.
 After a musical reflection, this was the sermon for March 29th (podcast here):

In your mind’s eye, take a walk down Oneonta’s Main St. There’s a great bookstore linked to a coffee house, a new brewery, restaurants, brick buildings that come under the heading of “charming.” There’s the former Bresee’s department store, its façade restored to something more attractive than 1950s aluminum siding. All in all, some elements of a fine place to live.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

You think WHAT?

This morning I was pointed in the direction of a cool interactive map put out by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

It allows you to view survey results about people's beliefs regarding global warming, their perceptions of the risks involved, and their support for various kinds of policy responses.

You can look at response rates for the nation as a whole, state by state, county by county, or by Congressional district.

You can learn that, nationally, 63% of respondents said "Yes" in answer to "Global warming is happening." And while that might seem dispiritingly low, you can look at your own Congressional district (NY 19) and see that you're beating the national average (well, by a touch, at 64%), or your county (Otsego) and see that you're beating the national average by even more (only a little more, at 65%), or your state, and take pride in New York's whopping 72%.

Hawaii has the most for a state, at 75%, bested by Washington D.C. at 81%—for some people, that might be just more evidence of how out of touch the capital is.

But what caught my eye was something else.

On the question, "Most scientists think global warming is happening," the national average is 41%. Remember, 63% of the country think that global warming is happening. Mathematically, that means there are at least 22% of the country who themselves think that global warming is happening, but also don't think that most scientists think it's happening.

And if you look at, "Global warming is mostly caused by human activity," the national average is 48%. So there are at least 7% of the country who think that human activity is the biggest cause of global warming, even though they don't believe that most scientists think it's happening at all.

This can be read as a testament to the success of the smoke-screen strategy. John Oliver nailed this in one of his early episodes of Last Week Tonight. The routine practice in journalism is to have someone explaining something about climate change based on the scientific consensus, and then to "balance" it with someone claiming that it's not happening, or something along those lines.

We respond strongly to visuals, and so the journalist can say that there's an overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is happening, and a very strong one that human activity plays a large role. But if your TV screen is showing you one person laying out the consensus position, and one person contesting it, what sticks in your emotional memory is something more like an unsettled question, a roughly even split of opinion.

In addition to the questionable journalism, there's the quite conscious strategy laid out in sources like Merchants of doubt. In the face of anti-smoking efforts, the tobacco industry was able to get measures watered down and delayed by creating an image that there was lots of uncertainty among scientists about the negative effects of smoking.

Similarly, the fossil fuel industry has been managed to spread the idea that scientists have lots of uncertainty not only about whether humans play a significant role in climate change, but even about whether it's happening.

Only 41% of Americans understand that scientists think global warming is happening.

The merchants of doubt have been brilliantly successful.

At least 22% of the country thinks that global warming is happening, even though they don't think scientists think that.

Imagine if 100% of the population knew the empirical fact that the vast majority of scientists think global warming is happening. In that case, how many people would agree that it's real?

How many would support doing something about it?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

An exercise in measuring exercise

This morning on an errand I took advantage of a feature of the car we bought after my wife started her new job.

You can track your average miles per gallon from whatever point you re-set the meter. And like on many cars, there's a trip meter that you can use to track your miles travelled from whatever point you re-set that one.

So this morning before turning on the car, I reset both of those meters and learned that my trip covered 2.5 miles, at an average gas usage of 17.8 miles per gallon.

In other words, I used 0.14 gallons (2.5 miles / 17.8 miles per gallon).

That's a generous 2 cups of gasoline (0.14 gallons times 16 cups per gallon = 2.25 cups).

How much energy is in that much gasoline?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


In the primate room at the museum you are drawn to the hand of the ogangutan skeleton.

Made for an easy firm grasp on a branch large enough to hold the animal's weight, it is so perfectly shaped that it's not just the hand as a whole that wraps around the branch. Even some of the individual bones look like they're gently curved for a good fit.

How not to envy the orangutan's hands, when one of your own fingers has already given up bending where it's supposed to?

Still, it's good to recall that those curved bones aren't enough to let the orangutan type. And also that this particular one is already a skeleton.

And that his whole species may be on the way out the door.

And that its exit is our doing.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

We love you just the way (we think) you are (Day 3)

Previous post

This morning we left Playa Rancho Luna outside Cienfuegos, to go to Trinidad, and from there to Sancti Spíritus.
We started near Cienfuegos, went east to Trinidad,
then northeast to Sancti Spíritus.
Much of the first leg of the drive is on the Caribbean, weaving along the coast, taking bridges over small valleys where streams reach the sea, or where streams would reach the sea if there were more water in them at the moment. Along the way, Jesús narrates some of the history of the region, include Trinidad's role in the sugar trade.

Our first stop was at the Santander pottery workshop. We got to see various craftsmen at work at their wheels, and their output in various stages of completion.
Photo: Chris Shaw
Photo: Chris Shaw
The entryway to the potters' shop had a wall full of pictures—the proprietor with Fidel, with other Cuban notables, "los Cinco" (the Five, the Cubans who had been convicted of espionage in the U.S. and later released as part of the warming of relations that Obama and Raúl Castro announced in December).
Photo: Chris Shaw
The lobby also had some dangerously comfortable metal rocking chairs,
Photo: Pat Dopazo
in front of what appeared to be one of the shop's trademarks, a ceramic bell from which hangs a spiral net of smaller bells.

Photo: Anjali Limbu

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Nice to meet you, and you, and you, and you (etc.)

Previous post

Today's big events were two meetings, one with a group of jurists (lawyers, judges, etc.), the other with faculty, administrators, and students at the local medical college.

But first, our first morning on the Caribbean, I happened to wake up early enough to catch the sunrise from the beach.

In the shallows you could see sea urchins, some of them further along than others in gathering pebbles and scraps of wood around themselves to make some sort of camouflage.

And I got a shot of the swimming pool in the early-morning light.

On the way into Cienfuegos, Jesus gave us some of the history of the city. It was founded in 1819 by a group of French settlers, and so its architecture bears the imprint of French colonial style more than Spanish.

On the way into town we can see slogans on walls. The one below says, “Por siempre, Revolución”. The “o” in “revolución is the emblem of the CDR, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. We’ll see lots more of those.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Savings gluts, bubbles, and the state

A common term in macroeconomics for the last many years has been captured in the phrase "savings glut." An example is Martin Wolf in his book The Shifts and the Shocks, cited in this post by Brad deLong.

The idea is that there are people saving significant portions of their income: thrifty people in Asia, people looking toward their retirement in countries with aging populations (some of them also in Asia), and wealthy people everywhere.

And what do you do with your savings? For you as an individual saver, it may feel like you're just putting your money "in the stock market" or in the bank. But collectively, the reason we savers get a return from the stock market (or, in the old days, from the bank), is that the money one way or another found its way into the hands of companies who could make use of it in their businesses, and make more money, some of which found its way back to you.

In any kind of glut, you've got too much of one thing, relative to how much there is of something else. In a savings glut, the thing there's too much of is savings. And what's in short supply? Things to do with those savings that will earn a decent return - or rather, that will earn the sort of return the savers think they're entitled to.

Two obvious candidate explanations for this involve aging populations and wealth inequality.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

And so it begins ... (Day 1 - Jan. 5th)

The take-away impression from my first day in Cuba has been sensory overload.

The airport in Santa Clara is too small for there to be a jetway into the terminal. They wheel up a set of stairs and you walk from the plane out into the sun, the heat, and the aroma of tropical vegetation burning, which sets off childhood memories from the half year we lived in Peru.
On the tarmac at Aeropuerto Abel Santamaria in Santa Clara
(Photo: Pat Dopazo)
The two-hour drive from the airport to our hotel outside Cienfuegos is an overwhelming array of things to see. Fields of sugar cane and banana trees, with palms sticking up here and there, and mountains in the background. The two-lane highway we're on serves equally well for our bus rolling along at 50 mph, for bikes, for bikes carrying two people, for old, smoke-belching Soviet cars, for horse-drawn carriages, for tractors, with or without a farm implement or a wagon full of people in tow, and for pedestrians.
No, these aren't fields of sugar cane, but they do capture the
sense of small fields, with livestock scattered around.
(Photo: Chris Shaw)
Along the drive we keep passing settlements that don't seem to connect to anything. It seems like too many people for the farmland around it, but not near enough to a city for the residents' work to be tied to the city.
A settlement glimpsed from the bus on the way from
Santa Clara airport to Cienfuegos (Photo: Chris Shaw)

Friday, January 2, 2015

Happy 2015!

This is a sort of grab-bag check-in on my perennial concerns with energy and the economy.

First, some tempered optimism, then bringing some energy perspective to an otherwise reasonable conventional view, and lastly a sampling of just what a range of views there is out there.

The optimism comes from a piece in Grist about changes in bidding rules at ISO New England, the independent system operator that decides which power sources to buy from for the New England market.

In the New England ISO, some renewable sources have been bidding in at $0/MWh. That is, they’re confident the actual price at which the market clears will be positive, so they’ll get paid for the power they sell, but since their “fuel” cost is zero, they want to make sure that they get chosen.

The ISO has implemented a rule change that allows sources to bid in at negative rates: take the electricity I’m producing, and I’ll pay you.

Why on earth would anyone bid negative? Because these producers are eligible for “renewable energy credits,” but they only receive those credits if their power is actually bought. So they’re willing to pay the system operator to take their power, and they’ll still make money on net because of the credits they receive.

And not only have there been negative bids, there have even been periods when the market-clearing price has been negative.

The article concludes, “Within the next year or two, New Englanders are going to enjoy cheap, dispatchable renewable energy, something VSPs said was impossible. It must be a Christmas miracle.”

But it’s not that simple, because of the role that those credits are playing in the whole scheme.