Introducing… Austin Reed Rising!

Our son, Austin Reed Rising, was born Monday, June 8, at 10:51 pm (BST) at St. Thomas Hospital in London. He weighs a healthy 6 lbs. 9 oz., with 10 fingers, 10 toes, and an APGAR score of 10.

I’ve added a few pictures below. Want more? Take a look at the` ever-growing Austin Pics Photo Album!

He is named in honor of Johanna’s grandma, Goldie Newman, and the chemical symbol for gold, Au. Reed was James’s father’s middle name, and his grandfather’s before him. Our son’s Hebrew name is Paz, meaning golden. You can read more about his name in our letter to him. For the gooey delivery details, see his exhausti[ng|ve] birth story.

We are very excited for you to meet him soon!

With love,
Flame, Austin, and me

Taking risks with COVID-19

Edit: It turns out that economists have investigated the corresponding mortality costs from a recession– and they’re negative! Mortality rates go down in recessions. Add that to the environmental benefits of slowing down the global economy, and lock-downs look a lot like a clear boon for society.

We are observing a fascinating social phenomenon. Far from our normal mode, the world has decided to respond to the COVID-19 threat long before it has reached its crisis. I am fascinated, but also concerned. As a society, we have chosen to self-administer a kind of global shock therapy, and if we are not careful, the consequences of the medicine will be greater than the disease.

I do not claim to know how to balance these conflicting forces, but I’ll bet health experts don’t have the interdisciplinary training to make that judgement either. In many ways, this pandemic looks a lot like climate change. If we do nothing now, it will be a disaster in a couple months. If we do too much now, it will be an economic disaster, which could be just as damaging.

Let’s consider the current situation. About 0.003% of the global population has been confirmed to have (or have had) the coronavirus. Across the US, it’s 0.005%; in New York, the hardest-hit state, the infection rate has gotten up to 0.03% (as of March 21). That’s confirmed cases, but it might be a decent approximation to the actual cases: Germany has prided itself with very thorough testing, and it has a 0.03% infection rate. The US has not been doing a very good job of testing, but still 8 tests are administered for every 1 that comes back positive.

So, let’s do a thought experiment with the confirmed cases: Let’s imagine getting a group of randomly chosen people from New York state together.If your group was 1 person big, there would be a 0.03% chance that that person has COVID-19. If it’s 2 people big, the chance that one or the other is sick would be 0.07%. For that risk to get up to 1%– at which point it might make sense to call off the gathering, there would need to be 28 people. For the chance that one or more of them were sick to reach 50%, the group would have to consist of about 2000 people.

It won’t stay this way. Without intervention the real crisis will hit around June. Here’s my simple model, which looks a lot like what the NYT has been showing for the past couple weeks, but I made it almost a month ago:

The disaster hasn’t come yet. We should think more about what we want to do to prepare between now and then.

The right balance depends not only the benefits of quarantine, but also on its economic costs. There are already estimates of the unemployment rate in the US doubling in the next couple months, and maybe going as high as 10%. We have set off an economic recession which is going to derail a lot of livelihoods, and for some people it will mean their lives. Add on top of that the physical and mental health problems that are emerging as a result of self-isolation, and the loss of in-class education for millions of students, and it looks like we have chosen to pay a very high price.

If we were to lock-down less, it would mean that more people could keep their jobs. More people would also get sick, but it would help in the long run as the population of people immune to the virus increases. Some of the extra infections would have to go to the hospital, but current COVID-19 infections are a tiny share of current hospital cases, and many regions can handle the extra load. Or, at least they can handle it a lot better now than they will be able to in a few months, during the peak crisis.

I’m not proposing that older people or other high-risk populations stop self-quarantining at all– COVID-19 is incredibly dangerous to people over 65. But we need more working-age people on the front lines, sustaining our economy.

The chance of dying is low for under-40s– 0.2%– but still high as these things go. That’s twice the death rate of the flu. But the economic recession will also lead to more deaths. I think we need a movement of people who are willing to personally accept the risks that come from an infection, for the benefits that they can provide. They should not interact with those people who are staying in isolation, but this group needs to extend far beyond “essential” workers.

By the way, this can also be a moment to help correct the injustices of the current economy: if we are choosing to risk our lives, we should not be doing it for the benefits of the powers-that-be. But that can be for another post.

Introducing a tutorial on climate econometrics

There is a rising tide of people who want to get involved in climate econometrics, dissipating against the shallows of unfinished research ideas, and spinning like weather vanes trying in vain to understand weather. Well, no longer! I would like to introduce climateestimate.net!

ClimateEstimate.net is an introduction to the secrets of using climate data, generating weather panels, choosing specifications, and getting results. Think of it like a practical complement to Solomon Hsiang’s SHCIT list:
http://www.g-feed.com/2018/11/the-shcit-list.html

The tutorial is still new, and we would love your feedback and suggestions. And you are welcome to get involved and help us extend the tutorial (there’s an ocean still to cover!).

Water-energy-food modelling for the 21st century

The highest good is like water.
Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.

– Tao Te Ching (Lao Tzu)

Water is such a fascinating resource because it’s at the center of things: absolutely necessary, but generally given no value. This the fundamental enigma that has motivated a huge growth in the study of “water-energy-food systems” (WEF systems or nexus). But the WEF nexus are also defined to dodge the central problems of water.

The first dodge is by framing water as an equal partner with energy and food. As I’ve written before, water plays a very different role than energy or food: energy and food are completely dependent on water, not so much on each other. WEF systems should better be called “Greater Water Systems”.

The second dodge is a common avoidance of the fundamental decisions-making build into water systems. Water availability isn’t really a physical fact of nature: it depends on human decisions. Water grows scarce when we demand more than the natural system can provide. And in most areas of the world now, water supply is the result of our investments in reservoirs, canals, treatment and reuse systems. WEF systems have no static elements; it is constantly being created by us.

A full understanding of the WEF nexus requires an integrated approach, which makes decisions about water use and infrastructure, based on how we can ensure the most beneficial use of water for ourselves and the environment. I presented on these ideas at the 1st International Conference on Water Security, using the AWASH model to understand long-term investment decisions around reservoirs.

The insights from that work were published this week in the new journal Water Security. Take a look:

Decision-making and integrated assessment models of the water-energy-food nexus

Democrats must embrace Traditional Values

In the wake of the UK landslide defeat of the Labour Party, Democrats in the US are asking if the same will happen to them. I believe that we can defeat Trump, but only by radically reconnecting with our roots.

A major reason why Labour lost, and why Trump has been doing so well, is that progressives have forgotten how to relate to the working class (a term, by the way, which should be synonomous with the middle class). As Hugo Dixon said about the Brexit fight in the UK, “There is a crisis of liberalism because we have not found a way to connect to the lives of people in the small towns of the postindustrial wasteland whose traditional culture has been torn away.” [op. ed. piece] People feel betrayed by politicians, and just explaining to them that Democrats are the only party really fighting for working people is not going to help.

For the sake of the United States and for the sake of the planet, the Democratic Party needs to make one of the hardest shifts ever: we must become the party of Traditional Values, and we have to do it right now.

What does it mean to fight for Traditional Values?

First, I am not suggesting allowing any “rolling-back” of the rights of women, minorities, or LGBTQAI+, and we have a lot further to go. The mistreatment of women and black people, in particular, needs to be tackled now.

And importantly, discrimination and white-male dominance have nothing to do with Traditional Values. Those aren’t values; they’re harmful practices, and the recent raising of awareness of them doesn’t attack anyone’s values– it just provides new information to apply those values to.

What are the Traditional Values I’m talking about? I thought I posted about this last year, but I can’t find it, so I’ll say it here.

I have come to a conclusion that I think is shared by many conservatives: Our society has lost its moral core, and many of our problems of social and political problems stem from that lack of foundation. And I actually think that there is quite a large common ground in how progressives and conservatives understand that moral core.

Here are a few foundations that I think I share with hard-line conservatives:

The primacy of the working class

The working class, both poor and middle-class, are the core of American society. That means (1) that they should have the biggest say in government decisions, and (2) our society should be organized to work for them.

Importance of and duty to community

A sense of community is a foundation of wellbeing. Communities form through mutual commitment, and that means that we have responsibilities to our communities that we should act on.

The excellence of American individualism

America is a unique place of self-determination and freedom. You can pursue any life, and the America I want to see is where anyone can achieve their personal goals. In America, our communities only every work by people freely choosing to uphold them.

Earth was given to us to steward

America is a land of amazing beauty. We have a responsibility to maintain the earth for future generations– to conserve.

Importance of a moral core

In a land of individual, personal choices, it is even more important that people treat every situation with moral care, and ask “What can I do to make this right?”

Lack of a common moral core

We have lost our common moral core. No political party has a monopoly on morality, and we all have some deep introspection to do.

Consequences of that lack

Many of the current divides in society stem from our lack of common morality. Democrats moral failures when they have been in power are as much to blame for the rise of Trump as Republican failures.

The American Dream is not to be fabulously wealthy. It is an implicit deal that if you work hard, you can have a comfortable lifestyle. That means a stable job and knowing that you can send your children to school.

But being the party of Traditional Values requires more than just reconnecting with our existing values. It requires new kinds of actions. We have to be the party of ordinary people, of Small-Town, USA, or decaying rust belt communities. We have to bring our message into sports bars and into churches.

What happened to Traditional Values?

People feel betrayed– by politicians, by society, and particularly by urban elites. But they have also misdiagnosed the problem, with the help of Republican pundits. The forces that betrayed the American people are bigger than the parties. But they should be slowed or stopped, and managed, and we have a responsibility to do that.

First, work has changed. People are less secure in their careers and in their companies. The Work-Home divide has been broken, and people are under chronic stress like never before. This is partly because of unmanaged technology, partly the decay of unions, partly the endless stream of mergers. We value stable work, but we haven’t been providing it.

Culture has been changing too. Technology has infiltrated every aspect of our culture. Social media has left people feeling insecure. People no longer feel free to choose how they relate to their technology and the brands of immense corporations, and that smacks against the core of the American ideal.

So what happened to Traditional Values was unmanaged technological change and corporate consolidation. It is time to subjugate both of these to our values, and recognize that they are both tools to help us make the world we want.

Why should Democrats embrace Traditional Values?

We should become the party of Traditional Values first because we can. The Republicans have completely dropped this ball, in the era of Trump. I believe that people will respond if we speak about the importance of American traditions and values, because we will actually be authentic when we do so. With repeated, strong effort, the Republican hold on churches and communities will melt away.

I do not know if Democrats are the natural party of Traditional Values, but America needs it, and we have every right to the role. We have been fighting for the working class forever, ensuring that small-businesses can prosper, and protecting the environment.

Finally, we need to do this because we have to act right now. Another four years of Trump would be the end of the Paris Agreement, and these are incredibly important years to act on climate change. We are going through a sixth great extinction, and if we want to conserve biodiversity for the future, we can’t wait. And the rise of inequality and the technological giants is relentless, and we need to stop it before our culture is completely subsumed by it.

The missing economic risks in assessments of climate change impacts

Through an expert elicitation involving LSE, Columbia University, and PIK, we have developed a statement for policy-makers on missing risks of climate change. Often the discussion of the risks of climate change focuses on what we know: higher temperatures and sea-levels, biodiversity loss, deaths from heat waves. But scientists are reticent to discuss what we do not yet understand: die-off of the Amazon, loss of the ocean currents that warm Europe, mass migrations and their conflict consequences.

Our paper says that even though we cannot yet quantify these risks, we should be planning for them. Even if the worst scenarios are unlikely to happen, leaving them out of our discussions with policy-makers is the same as claiming that their risk is zero, which is not right either. Governments regularly plan for international security scenarios that only have a 1-in-10,000 chance of happening, and we should treat the worst risks of climate change the same way.

Our document on the missing risks of climate change will be presented at the U.N. General Assembly Climate Action Summit, and we hope it will heat things up!

An animated life

I recently discovered all four seasons of Monty Python’s Flying Circus on Netflix, and now I’m fired up about making some surreal animations. I have a particular vision for a series on the life and times of James Rising, born 1618. It would be an inseparable mix of historical research and mythologizing, childhood and adult themes combined in Walt Disneyesque fashion, anarchy and anachronism, set in a surrealist pre-Steampunk world.

I’m envisioning this as an ever growing series of cel-animation episodes. The whole series would be divided into 5 chapters, of which I initially only aim to make a single episode for each chapter. [Really, I just want to make a single episode, but dividing it into 5 segments makes it seem more feasible.]

Here’s the story so far:

Chapter 1: In the shadow of Castle Rising

The Rising ancestors, not yet named Risings, live a peasant life in the Norfolk countryside. But everything is changing in Jacobean era for a young, rebellious youth who runs away to the big city, Norwich. There he falls in some counter-culture Catholic recusants, before realizing that no religion can ensure love. Turning his back on both his old home and his new one, he drives into the horizon.

Chapter 2: The childhood of a Cordwainer

James is born to Risings that have finally made it in the middle class of small-town Beccles. But the world is so much bigger now, and at 18, the other side of the world seems nearer to James than the small-minded village politics around him. A chance encounter with nobility ruins his internship and his reputation, and he finally packs his bags.

Chapter 3: By land and by sea

James hitchhikes to London, through many new lands and strange customs. Along the way, he befriends a world-weary ex-raver, an existentialist dog, and a recurring used-cart salesman. Each offers him the possibility of their way of life, and he barters each one away for passage on the Dorset, bound for Bermuda. After nearly starving on the boat, he’s saved by a rat named Sergeant Buzfuz, who becomes his life-long companion.

Chapter 4: Zeal for the zealots

Ten years of hard labor offer lots of pitfalls, and James’s favorites are drink, women, and religious experiments. He is struggling with depression when a friend’s cult decides to go off-the-grid and they convince James to come and help them. But the boat is wrecked on metaphor-heavy rocks, their cool-aid lost, and life without technology turns out to be pretty tough. The colony gives up, but James and Sergeant Buzfuz, now both bearded and world-weary, stow away on a boat to Boston.

Chapter 5: Englands Old and New

James uses his intrepid instinct for trouble to make a living in Boston. He falls madly in love with a lifestyle where anything is possible, and then he meets Elizabeth Hinsdale. Together they start a family, move to Connecticut, and try to avoid an irate used-cart salesmen. At the deathbed-side of Sergeant Buzfuz, James recounts the dreams of youth and his memories of the future.

Hospital of Transplanted Hearts

I came upon this bit of literary engineering by D. M. Thomas in Best SF: 1969 (ed. Harry Harrison and Brian W. Aldiss). I love the project idea, but I don’t endorse all the content.

  A B   C D E F G H I J K L M N
1
      Body of:
2
      Priest Soldier Whore Gardener Sadist Virgin Psychologist Stakhanovite Scientist Composer Masochist Surgeon</td>
                               
3
Heart of: Priest     Bending sadly over his enemy he gave him his cup of grace. Absolved by her, he lit a small candle. He told folwers they would rise again if they were holy Religiously he choked evil spirits out of her. She stopped at the laying on of hands. He strove to marry the schizophrenic, whose tongue could not find his name. From his crane-pulpit he made a new heaven, new earth. In a smear of communion-wine: DNA of God. He believed in the triad, three-in-one, one-in-three. Lunchtime eucharist. Her sad, broiler flesh stigmatised. In the waiting flesh he made a vertical and transverse cut.
4
Soldier   He baptised the little ones with fire.   After the fray she withdrew completely exploding bridges. Unimaginatively he heard the insecticides silent rain. Her nails left stripes on arms, epaulettes on shoulders. She made them retreat from the capital’s gates through snow. Bravely he climbed down into sewers where the Resistance lurked. Sagging dugs fed her tenth son to a patriot’s death. On Mt. Palomar: Such multitudes! And more in reverse. Choric Ode Warsaw Ghetto for unaccompanied keening of mothers. She guided the gun barrel between her lips. The enemy on x-ray. We will attack at first light.
5
Whore   He loved all men equally. He did not question their instructions.   Where he planted used condoms, a gard of limbo. Shagging her, he pulled away from the intimacy of a kiss. She hung hesitant at the entrance of unlit alleys. If he were not paid for his skill their souls would feel enslaved. He holidayed in santinarium. Regained health. Inadequate theories passed each other on the stairs. All day at the piano, the spume of notes breaking and idling back. He dreamt he was a jewes in the Auschwitz brothel. Cunningly his hands moved as though we were operating.
6
Gardener   The butterfly evading his touch he mistook for Jesus. Where the shell struck, poppies bloomed from the astounded body. Two roses in the hot-house; one overblown one cankered.   While police raged he cultivated his garden quietly at night. She regretted pollinization by the wind. How could he restore the lost paradise beneath Suicide City? He drilled desert after desert, Planting a future forever receding. By morning, the culture had flowered unrecognizably. Instrumentation of a hot summer’s day, concerto for busy ephemera. The cooked and ate the insecticide-ridden plants. The steering column was grafted into the beautiful girl’s breast.
7
Sadist   He pictured a femal Messiah’s bloodied, heaving breasts. Afterwards, no one found it was only the moon rising over Finland. She left their mutilated bodies in backstreet hotels. The face of the rose purpled, crumpled.   Take me! she said, as the bus left, in church, on the big dipper.</i> He restored naturals to sanity. His skill faltered by an inch in the third story of the skyscraper. Test tube in hand, he stood over the city’s reservoir. He ended all movements with imperfect cadences. She had herself whipped by a reluctant weeping masochist. Religious he refused to cut away.
8
Virgin   He swooned at the snakeflesh of the communicant’s tongue. He did not know if he had died in that attack. She wept at her inviolate purity. Spring congress: nature’s pandering shocked him. She told her daughter You are ugly the world must not see you.   His fingers holding the pencil trembled. His cheeks blushed. He shuddered as the road drill clove soft earth. He shivered at the neutrino cleaving light years of lead. Convent bells over the fields stirred his heart to new modes. He kept himself untouched. Seventy years he fought to save the small tissues.
9
Psychologist   He considered Christ’s over-compensatory Oedipus complex. Bayoneted, he watched his killer’s face. She asked them why they did this. Autumn divorce: psychosis of Kore lengthened. He studied the child’s face. Lying on her lonely couch, she made notes on her case.   He felt for the huge machine’s pent-up sexual energy. He observed the expression on the dog’s transplanted head. At the first performance he watched the faces of the audience. On her couch of nails, she took notes on herself. Skimming the memory cells his lancet found the trauma.
10
Stakhanovite   In his confessional, a camp bed. He wanted to be the firing squad for the world. She frigged the hunover gray morning into cupfinal night. He dreamt himself sole survivor and named Adam. He emigrated to South Africa. She took the veil. He emigrated to the States.   If only nature had covered up its tracks more cunningly. His 999th Symphony was his last. Sketches of the 1000ths remain. He longed to believe in the consolation of Hell. He said We must take out the lot.
11
Scientist   So many worlds! So many galaxies! So many saviors! The silent village forgave him, for not using germ warfare. As her sighs quickened, she graphed their heartbeats. Birds hooded, flowers shut: everwhere entropy accepted. He experimented with the velocity of falling bodies. She feared the Pill, she feared it. Uncertainty: observing quanta changed by his observing. Give me an ideology and I will move the whole earth.   Tone-poem Jodrell Bank. The cracklings of infinite space. Singlehanded she sailed for the atom-test island. He toiled to turn inert mass into energy again.
12
Composer   Through all troubling modulations always the home-key. He wrote a victory march for the refugees to sing. Afire with impatience, she felt its percussive rhythm. Violets muted trumpets, then spring’s full sweet jazz. He looked at the inert score he played with too much brio. Night-music. The wind’s singers clicking sadly her bones. Slowly he collected all the strange lost tunes of the mad. He could listen to the song of a tractor forever. He played moon-light sonata of the cool star’s spectrum.   Dies Irae, Her favorite lovesong. He gasped at the cancer’s unexpected counterpoint.
13
Masochist   As the rope tightened, he offered to die instead. He turned the napalm inwards. She made love for love. He fecundated the Venus flytrap. He lashed a masochist who cried with joy. All night her moist, lustrous eyes begged him not ot rape her. He drove the devils out and into his own Gaderene mind. He toiled to complete the robot which would destroy him. Love bites of laboratory rats. He destroyed his magnum opus. Only God was worthy of it.   He turned the scalpel inward.
14
Surgeon   The one he had lost, not the ninety-nine he had saved. Heart transplant. He sent them to slave factories in the fatherland. She felt the hump on his back with skilled healing fingers. Plantation of transplantation. All members of one body. He said To whip you externally is not enough. Loving her, he allowed her to tenderly emasculate him. For freedom the patient must find her heart grasped by hands. Onto church-rubble he transplanted the factory. Man came: slowly, heart grafted into the universe. Thirty years he cut, sighed, stitched up the white silence. Lovebites in his old diseased heart.  

Connected oceans

Dividing an elephant in half does not make two small elephants. It makes one mess.

The same is true of our oceans. Modern management of the natural environment is all about dividing up elephants, assigning the halves to different owners, and blinding ourselves to the activities beyond our halves. But just as with elephants, pieces of an ocean depend on each other: fish and currents do not respect national boundaries.

That is the starting point of a new paper Nandini Ramesh, Kimberly Oremus, and I recently published in Science, entitled “The small world of global marine fisheries: The cross-boundary consequences of larval dispersal“. We wanted to understand how national fisheries depended upon each other.

To study this, we used the same model used to study how debris from the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 crash ended up halfway around the world:

Instead of looking at airplane debris, we looked at fish spawn. Most marine species spend a stage of their lives as plankton, either in the form of floating eggs or microscopic larvae. They can travel huge distances as they float with the currents, sometimes over the course of several months. We can use those journeys to identify the original spawning grounds of the adult fish that are eventually caught.

These connections are important, because they mean that your national fisheries depend upon neighboring countries. Spawning regions are highly sensitive, and if your national neighbors fail to protect them, the fish in your country can disappear. A country like the UK depends upon plenty of other countries for its many species.

Finally, this is not just an issue for the fishing sector. We also looked at food security and jobs. People around the world depend on the careful environmental management of their neighbors, and it is time we recognized this elephant as a whole.

An unstoppable force

Shortly after I joined LSE, Stéphane Hallegatte from the World Bank gave a presentation on their new report, “Unbreakable”. The report is about how to measure risk in the face of the potential to fall into poverty, and includes one of my favorite graphs of the last year:

Unbreakable figure
From “Unbreakable”: Estimated people driven into poverty annually by natural disasters.

I think it’s an amazing bit of modeling to be able to relate natural events to the excruciatingly chaotic process we call “falling into poverty”. But it’s the scale of the two sides of the graph that blows me away. On the left, earthquakes, storm surge, tsunamis, and windstorms all together account for about 1 million people falling into poverty every year. On the right, floods account for 10x as many, and droughts account for an additional 8x as many.

The reason is that floods and droughts are naturally huge events– covering large areas and affecting millions of people– every time they occur. The second is that they occur all the time.

This gets at the importance of water. Most of the researchers I know don’t spend much time thinking about water. They know it’s important, but in a way that’s so commonplace as to be invisible. We just said that 18 million people fall into poverty each year from floods and droughts; in 2015 there were 736 million people in poverty total. That means that if we magically got everyone out of poverty today, in 41 years, there would have already been 736 million new instances of poverty from floods and drought alone. Water is about enough to explain the stubbornness of extreme poverty all on its own.

Sustainability, Engineering, and Philosophy