An allegory for life

It’s said that the universe follows natural law, but it seems to me that the real force behind the big events in life is allegory.

A few years ago, I was bemoaning my poor memory while wandering around Nice, France. This came to a head as I treated myself to a prix fixe menu, and resolved to practice committing more to memory. I looked at the awning above me to start with the name of the restaurant I was in. As it turned out, the restaurant was called “Memoire”.

Allegory has a way of creeping up on you. Reading books slowly over several weeks is a good way to realize the allegorical nature of life. You recognize yourself in the book, start seeing new developments of the book reflected in your own life, and realize that you are walking in lock-step, hoping the book ends well for you.

Periods in which much is changing are prime targets for allegorical forces. Flame and I are going through just such a period now, preparing for our trans-Atlantic move, a new city and a new job for me, and moving back in together.

Two months ago, my parents sold the last house I lived in with them. They were trying to downsize, with their emptier nest, but accidentally got a bigger house. Now they live 20 minutes away from that house, in a different state (Ah, New England), and are happy to be out of the city.

Two weeks ago, my childhood neighborhood in California was burnt to the ground. Thankfully, my grandmother and uncle, despite getting mandatory evacuation orders (which the uncle ignored), are safe along with their homes.

I am convinced that the universe is trying to tell me something. Something about leaving home, as I am preparing to do.

Travel has always been a good way for me to uncover the allegorical conspiracies around me, so I suspect that this is all just a prelude. Tuesday, we start out on a two-week honeymoon to South Africa and Tanzania. A little beach time, a little safari, a little good food, a little exploration we haven’t planned yet. A lot of leaving one temporary home and acclimating to another. I just hope it tempts the gods to spill their secrets, because I am slowly reading some works of military history, and I don’t think those will end nearly as well.

Following my ancestor

For the last couple months, I’ve been following the journey of my Y-chromosomal ancestor, also named James Rising, as he found his way to the New World in 1635. He turns out to be a fascinating character (at least to me). From a print-only article in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register:

James Rising was born in 1618 in Beccles, Suffolk; he and his twin brother were the youngest children of an illiterate cordwainer. James had just turned 17 when he sailed from London for Bermuda on a ship filled with very young laborers for the tobacco fields. For twelve years he remained in Bermuda, a country with few prospects for new arrivals. In 1647 he was among the seventy settlers who sailed from Bermuda for Eleuthera, an island a thousand miles away in the Bahamas, with the intention of establishing a Puritan colony. Near its destination, the ship floundered and their provisions were lost, but with help from Puritans in New England, the passengers survived. The colony struggled for ten years, but gave up in 1657, when the last of the settlers sailed back to Bermuda– all except James Rising, who sailed, instead, on a ship bound for New England.

I’ve been using a few different sources to follow his progress. John Ogilby’s 1675 road maps are incredible, with descriptions of the towns, road-side markers, and individual buildings some of which are still there today. I’ve been using one site to find the plates and a different one to get high-resolution images. Here’s the path I followed, from Beccles to Ipswich to Cambridge to Oxfordshire to London:

One of the most interesting source I’ve found for a sense of walking through these cities is Through England on a Side-Saddle in the Time of William and Mary, a 17th century woman’s diaries of her prolific journeys.

On September 30, 1635, James Rising boarded the Dorset in London, and I’m using current winds to try to get a sense of how it got from there to Bermuda. Here is where he is “now”, on October 23, finally having caught a decent wind:

I just hope he isn’t caught by a hurricane before he ever has children. My other records of his journey are on Twitter #rtnewworld.

Eclipse 2017: You can’t fake that

Totality is different! I’m back from eclipse-viewing in Southern Illinois, at a secluded wildlife refuge just 3 hours from the point of maximum eclipse. This isn’t my first eclipse, but it’s my first total eclipse, and I’m still in awe.

I trekked through a little wood to a languid river, with fish jumping at gnats, butterflies and dragonflies, a white crane and a raccoon that came up to check me out. I got out my picnic and book and enjoyed the perfect blue sky.

About a half-hour after the partial eclipse started, I noticed the air cool. The sky looked a shade darker, and contrasts softer. Even at the height of the partial eclipse, all I could notice without the glasses was like a minor dimming of the sun.

And then, totality. I was looking through the filter glasses as the crescent dwindled away, one moment appearing not to move at all, and gone the next. Through my glasses, the sky was completely black. I took them off to a touch of beauty: a blazing one-ring, hanging in the sky, like the sun had been plucked out and just a hole left behind:

Total eclipse

(That picture is doctored, combining two real pictures I took, but it’s closer than either to what it was really like.)

It was suddenly twilight. The empty circle in the sky was sharp, perfect, and delicate. I was transfixed, until I noticed beautiful colors on the horizon, like the pink of sunset. I edged to the water to get a better view, not realizing what the colors portended: as I found my footing, it was suddenly bright again, and the eclipse was over:

Eclipseset

But after a day of listening to podcasts in the car of a changing world and the ever-growing potential of fake news, the eclipse gave me hope. Our grasp of reality can seem so tenuous, but we understand that the sun doesn’t just dim. You can fake a lot, but you can’t fake this.

Economic Damages from Climate Change

When I tell people I study climate change, sooner or later they usually ask me a simple question: “Is it too late?” That is, are we doomed, by our climate inaction? Or, less commonly, they ask, “But what do we really know?”

With our new paper, Estimating Economic Damage from Climate Change in the United States, I finally have an answer to both of these questions; one that is robust and nuanced and shines light on what we know and still need to understand.

The climate change that we have already committed is going to cost us trillions of dollars: at least 1% of GDP every year until we take it back out of the atmosphere. That is equivalent to three times Trump’s proposed cuts across all of the federal programs he cuts.

If we do not act quickly, that number will rise to 3 – 10% by the end of the century. That includes the cost of deaths from climate change, lost labor productivity, increased energy demands, costal property damage. The list of sectors it does not include– because the science still needs to be done– is much greater: migration, water availability, ecosystems, and the continued potential for catastrophic climate tipping points.

But many of you will be insulated from these effects, by having the financial resources to adapt or move, or just by living in cooler areas of the United States which will be impacted less. The worst impacts will fall on the poor, who in the Untied States are more likely to live in hotter regions in the South and are less able to respond.

Economic damages by income deciles

One of the most striking results from our paper is the extreme impact that climate change will have on inequality in the United States. The poorest 10% of the US live in areas that lose 7 – 17% of their income, on average by the end of the century, while the richest 10% live where in areas that will lose only 0 – 4%. Climate change is like a subsidy being paid by the poor to the rich.

That is not to say that more northern states will not feel the impacts of climate change. By the end of the century, all by 9 states will have summers that are more hot and humid than Louisiana. It just so happens that milder winters will save more lives in many states in the far north than heat waves will kill. If you want to dig in deeper, our data is all available, in a variety of forms, on the open-data portal Zenodo. I would particularly point people to the summary tables by state.

Economic damages by county

What excites me is what we can do with these results. First, with this paper we have produced the first empirically grounded damage functions that are driven by causation rather than correlation. Damage functions are the heart of an “Integrated Assessment Model”, the models that are used by the EPA to make cost-and-benefit decisions around climate change. No longer do these models need to use out-dated numbers to inform our decisions, and our numbers are 2-100 times as large as they are currently using.

Second, this is just the beginning of a new collaboration between scientists and policy-makers, as the scientific community continues to improve these estimates. We have built a system, the Distributed Meta-Analysis System, that can assimilate new results as they come out, and with each new result provide a clearer and more complete picture of our future costs.

Finally, there is a lot that we as a society can do to respond to these projected damages. Our analysis suggests that an ounce of protection is better than a pound of treatment: it is far more effective (and cheaper) to pay now to reduce emissions than to try to help people adapt. But we now know who will need that help in the United States: the poor communities, particularly in the South and Southeast.

We also know what needs to be done, because the biggest brunt of these impacts by far comes from pre-mature deaths. By the end of the century, there are likely to be about as many deaths from climate change as there are currently car crashes (about 9 deaths per 100,000 people per year). That can be stemmed by more air-conditioning, more real-time information and awareness, and ways to cool down the temperature like green spaces and white roofs.

Our results cover the United States, but some of the harshest impacts will fall on poorer countries. At the same time, we hope the economies of those countries will continue to grow and evolve, and the challenges of estimating their impacts need to take this into account. That is exactly what we are now doing, as a community of researchers at UC Berkeley, the University of Chicago, and Rutgers University called the Climate Impacts Lab. Look for more exciting news as our science evolves.

Wedding Weekend Memories

A year of planning, and many thousands of dollars later, the wedding is over. I am thoroughly (and happily) married. With 4 days, 18 activities, 133 guests, about 20 speeches (most short), 11 vendors, there is an awful lot to remember. I am putting together a collection of photographs (and see Toh’s more extensive set), but I wanted to also record some memories for perhaps the biggest event of my life to date.

Friday Night:
Friday was set aside for “Bachelor activities” (read: “activities Johanna does not endorse”), which turned into a BBQ-sushi for the wedding party, karaoke, and midnight prophesies. Some of the karaoke highlights for me were Mary F.’s enthusiasm during “We are family”, Amir and my “A whole new world” (I got to be Aladdin this time), and all the Flight of the Conchords lovers getting into “Most beautiful girl in the room”.

Saturday:
The day started slow, but when a dozen people showed up for Flame’s aunt’s yoga class, I knew it was going to be good. Friends and relatives helped us put on a day of “ad hoc” activities, including a bike ride, a hike, a walk around Provincetown, and a dance class. I stayed at the wedding party house, instigating games: I taught people Rythmomachy and orchestrated a new game I call “The Ephemera Game”, for people go guess where I got maps and pamphlets.

The wedding rehearsal was were it finally became real. Some 40 people showed up to play their parts or offer moral support, and proceeded to mill around. I don’t know how these things are supposed to go, but someone needed to take charge, so I started directing people. The questions started rolling in: where should we put the chairs, the blessing givers, the grandmas. We had put together a 4-page step-by-step document for the ceremony, and yet there was still so much to decide.

The highlights of the day was definitely “Welcome Event”, organized by my parents. The puttanesca flowed like wine, and the wine gushed like our reconnections with so many people. My step-father began his speech apologizing for not writing one, and then spoke for 20 surprisingly riveting minutes on how Flame and I got together, our travel and take on life, and something about crashing through waves. Then 9 more people came up, with tributes, roasts, and one number for us (the golden ratio, since J^2 = J + 1).

Sunday:
As Sunday began, Flame and I split up for our separate preparations. I drove the groomsmen to the top men’s barbershop in the area for a straight-razor shave: what better way to start my wedding day then a knife at my throat. Flame and I reunited around the bend of a Doane Rock trail, for a clichéd “first look”. Nonetheless, Flame was absolutely beautiful in her wedding gown, and we alternated lovey and silly until I think the photographers had all they could handle.

Our first scare came while doing relatives photos back at the ceremony location. We realized that the ceremony programs, which we had spent hours printing and folding, were nowhere to be found. I was about to derail the photos and send people racing back to the parents’ house, when one of my groomsmen, Amir, said he would take care of it, and then did so.

The other scare for me came as I was waiting at the front of the ceremony and Flame was walking down the aisle. I suddenly remembered Heidi’s admonition that, whatever else happens, I remember to bring my vows; and I remembered that my vows were in my backpack, far out of reach. Then I remembered that Flame had told me to give a copy of my vows to my best man, Toh, the day before, and I wondered if he happened to remember them. I turned and asked him, and he said not to worry, he would hand them to us at the proper time.

The only other ceremony event I only heard about two weeks later. As my sister’s children did their blessing, a commotion of squawks arose in the tree behind us. A hawk had alighted, and dozens of crows and other birds had began mobbing around it. After a couple minutes of this, the hawk picked itself up and flew directly over the assembled people. This must have been some kind of omen (the word auspices actual means to look at birds), with the hawk being a Native American symbol of a guardian, my late father being a zoologist, and my diverse community being all about mobbing. But the interpretation is still unclear to me.

After that came the reception, the hora, the dinner, the speeches, the tosses, the first dance, the dessert, the dancing, and the afterparty. During dinner, we had our special wedding puzzle at everyone’s place (individual pieces and solution), and though no one solved it, two groups made some great progress. Flame threw a bouquet to the tune of Put a Ring on It, and I did a thesis toss to Weird Science. For our first dance, I had taken the choreography from the Ed Sheeran video Thinking Out Loud and adapted it to Flame’s song of choice, Crazy Love by Van Morrison. I had swapped the man and woman parts, and we got plenty of appreciation and laughing. Dessert consisted of the best pies in town and an organic chocolatier, Chequesette Chocolates, which crafted a sea-scape of sugar sand with chocolate turtles and oysters. Even the afterparty was a blast, with 30ish people coming out to hear some live music (we had bribed the band to stay an extra hour) and snacks (including grilled cheeses).

Monday:
After a perfect weather weekend, Monday finally succumbed to the rain, and Linda and Ron’s house became filled with people, love, and brunch. We were saying goodbye until it was time for the hackathon. The Hackathon turned into a brainstorming session, worth its own post.

Finally, here are the acknowledgements for a weekend that was really a labor of love:
Acknowledgements

As Amir said, the whole event went really smoothly: it went off with just one hitch!

Laser-cutting Rythmomachy Board

This wedding is going to be the culmination of a dream I have had for almost 2 decades: Finally, I will have a professional-grade set for playing Rythmomachy, the Philosopher’s Game!

I have been having so much fun laser-cutting for the wedding, and putting together activities like a massively distributed crossword puzzle. Last week’s inspiration was to laser cut a board and pieces for Rythmomachy, and I want to share them with all of you.

What is Rythmomachy, you ask? I call it “Chess on steroids”, and one medieval scholar said,

Pythagoras did first invent,
this play as it is thought:
And thereby after studies great,
his recreation sought.

Here I just want to share my design for a board and pieces. You too can have this for your very own:

It took about 1 hour on the Berkeley laser cutter I was using. The design is in two files:

Download the board Download the pieces

I thought to put etchings on the board to tell you how to set it up, since this has always been one of the greatest barriers to starting a new game.

Also note that every piece has a version colored dark and light. These need to be glued back-to-back. Each piece starts out as one color, according to the etchings on the board. If it is captured, it’s flipped over and becomes the other player’s piece.

I put some foot pads on the back and set it up to be flipped closed:

Enjoy!

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Probabilistic Coupling

Environmental Modelling & Software has just published my work on a new technique for coupling models: Probabilistic Coupling. My thoughts on coupled models had been percolating for a couple years, before a session at the International Conference on Conservation Biology in 2013 offered me a chance to try it out.

Probabilistic coupling has three main goals:

  • Allowing models to be coupled without distortionary feedback
  • Allowing multiple models to inform the same variable
  • Allowing models to be coupled with different scales

With these three features, the very nature and approach of coupling models can change. Current model coupling requires carefully connecting models together, plugging inputs into outputs, and then recalibrating to recover realistic behavior again. Instead, this allows for what I call “Agglomerated Modeling”, where models are thrown together into a bucket and almost magically sort themselves out.

The code for the model is available within the OpenWorld framework, as the coupling example.

Torch passing

A friend: “The big story in the world this week is… the inevitable passing of the torch. We will witness the beginning of a new era this week, I feel.”

Naturally, he was only using the French election (NYT: “The result was a full-throated rebuke of France’s traditional mainstream parties, setting the country on an uncertain path”) in jest to refer to something completely unrelated, but it gave me a thought. Much as I love some parts of globalization and the Post-WWII international institution, this is a passing of the torch. And that uncertain recipient of the torch– maybe populist, maybe bigoted, maybe urban, technophilic, and progressive– that recipient is us.

Every generation seems surprised when the torch is passed in their lifetime, but it cannot be otherwise.

LJ blasted about its 18th birthday, of which I had apparently been part 13.55 years, and posted 473 times. I guess it was time to move on.

Next stop: London

My time at UC Berkeley is drawing shut, and for the past 4 months I have been pursuing my own eclectic version of the academic job market. I find myself squarely between economics, geophysics, and data science, with disconnected bits to show from a tough-to-articulate whole. But I have also been fortunate to have strong supporters, who appreciate whatever it is that I do. With their help, the job search has treated me well, and forced me to decide between excellent and incomparable alternatives. So, this is a post of victory!

Each of my five fly-out interviews required distinct presentations, across them covering papers on fisheries, coffee, and climate, a teaching talk on thermoeconomics, and a pitch for a new sustainability program. I interviewed at science, economics, and interdiscplinary departments, and got the support of the faculty at every one. Flame and I just finished a revisitation of the top US options, to decide on our new home.

But across professional fit, cultural metabolism, Flame’s opportunities, and the politrumpal climate, we realized that the best choice was none of them: I am taking a 100% research assistant professorship at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics! LSE is in the heart of London, which is also home to Flame’s nonprofit.

There I can look forward to a huge pool of potential collaborators, including two from my PhD program. LSE straddles the divide between the US academic world, where I will be able to keep my collaborations alive, and the European world of modeling and proaction that I have always been drawn to. The advertised position was for “Growth and the Environment”, which I’m all about. And connecting science with policy is part of the job, with a team at hand specifically for this purpose.

I move there at the beginning of 2018. Between now and then, I have 4 more months at Berkeley, and in July I start a mini-postdoc-#2 at the University of Chicago.

I can’t wait to set up in a new continent, and hope you all come to visit!

A New World Order

The rise of Trump can only be understood in a global context. It isn’t just Citizen’s United or the Voting Rights Act– or rather, these are symptoms of wider trends. Trump’s election parallels the shock of Brexit, the rise of extremism and anti-semitism in Europe, and the rise of religious extremism in the United States and Middle East.

This is a movement against much we hold dear: humanism, pluralism, progressivism. This is a rejection of the institutions upon which society has functioned since World War II.

The progressive movement believed that what people wanted was a good job, health care, stability and peace. And surely people do want that, and Clinton won the popular vote because of it. But there is another group in society that is anything but fringe. Apparently they form a third of California, Massachusetts, and New York voters. What they want is entirely different, but I do not know what.

Is this the end of a pluralistic world? Is this a new rise of global fascism? Is it a lead up to world war?

Extreme inequality and technological disruption are certainly partly to blame. But what role does our most treasured innovations have to play: the Internet, the capacity of data science, and the guilty benefits of vertically integrated corporations, in particular?

And finally, what do we do? This was never a problem just with the presidential election. If we are going to understand Trump, and ultimately eliminate him and reverse his damage, it is going to be by taking a hard look at the foundations of our own society, because ultimately, that is where his support has come from.

Sustainability, Engineering, and Philosophy