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An Odyssey on Route 66

I just spent a week on the road, driving from Las Angeles to Philadelphia, taking my grandmothers car back to my (still new) home. I followed Route 66 (though, mostly the new interstates, not the historical road), from its beginning to end, and generally had a swell time. The landscapes were amazing– I particularly loved the Painted Desert from Flagstaff to Albuquerque. I have a few pictures of the trip here, but the desert beauty was impossible to capture:
https://photos.app.goo.gl/XwaFED5acij1KLiv6

To keep me company, I had my audiobooks. I finally wanted to go through the Aeneid, and when I learned that its audiobooks were only ~14 hours, I tacked on the Iliad and the Odyssey too. Together, they came out to just less than my 45 hour drive. Obvious allegories aside, I had a lot of fun spending a week in ancient mythology, and plenty of random thoughts to share.

First, my translations. I listened to the fairly-recent Stanley Lombardo translation of the Iliad, read also by him, which is filled with bizarrely modern idioms and playground language. For the Odyssey, I went with W. H. D. Rouse, read by Anthony Heald, a famed reader who uses his voice to play many parts, but also had an off-putting tendency to apply Irish accents to low-caste servants. I wanted a verse translation for the Aeneid and used John Dryden’s 17th century approach for the joy of it, narrated by Michael Page. Beautiful, but a real effort to follow.

I was surprised by the basic content of the Iliad (never got far into) and the Odyssey (thought I remembered from years ago). The Iliad starts 9 years into the siege of Troy, and ends before the war is over. The last chapters focus on the death and memorial (and praise and mourning) of the main Trojan villain, Hector. There’s no mention of a Trojan horse, and Achilles is still alive and strong.

The Odyssey, meanwhile, starts with several chapters on the journey of Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, to learn of his father’s fate. We know almost nothing of Odysseus’s journey until the great lie-teller relates them himself to the Phaeacians, the people who will finally take him home.

The Aeneid is like a vast digest of the Iliad and Odyssey, starting with 7 years of wandering and ending with 3 of war. And as though there are only a few monsters in the sea, Aeneas also encounters the Cyclopes and Charybdis. The highlights of the Trojan war are related, with turns of phrase close enough to make an editor blush. But where the Iliad and Odyssey were organic and original products of culture, the Aeneid takes derivativeness to the level of genius.

All three are boys tales, with manly deeds and enchanting women. But the role of women changes quite a bit between them. In the Iliad, women are foremost “prizes”, with both their bodies and love ready to be won, stolen, or traded. In the Odyssey, there is a real propensity for women to work magic (Circe, Calypso, Sirens), but they are nonetheless passive (Penelope’s great strength was in not resolving the marriage question; Odysseus spends seven years with Calypso and we hear next to nothing about it). The Aeneid presents women as, on one hand, potential equals (Queen Dido, the warrior Camilla), but in interactions they seem so submissive, with lowered eyes and obsequious language.

I don’t think I would have appreciated the Iliad when I was younger. Homer is like a court bard, recording the Spark notes of history: the litany of who killed who is really the point of the work. But around that core, there’s a lot to appreciate. Homer weaves in his poetic sense with allegories about lions and sheep. The personalities of great men shine: the two Ajax’s, like giants; Achilles, touched by gods; Diomedes, the unstoppable; Patroclus, the doomed. The sounds of war– its fright, its fog– come through crisply.

The nature of war is also very different. For one thing, all of the nobility know each other, and know who it is they are trying to kill. In a couple cases where one party did not know the other, they asked for a lineage, and this was provided before they fought. Most of the battle seemed to happen in pairs, with one individual coming up against another. First, they would each boast, to dishearten the other; then the would throw their spears; then they would close with swords. When one died, the other would have the opportunity to remove his armor and bring it back to camp as a trophy. One gets the feeling that most of warriors spent most of their time on the side lines, watching the main stage and waiting their turn.

I’m sure that there’s scholarly work to understand this much more deeply than I have, but I had such a blast hearing the tales that I wanted to record it.

The endnote from Steve Biddulph’s Raising Boys

I just finished Raising Boys in the twenty-first century, which is deeply rooted in the men’s movement, offering a now-days fairly accepted new-age form of mythopoetic masculinity. I found some parts enlightening (the examples of initiation rituals), some parts overly rigid (boy’s need for hierarchical order), and some parts exasperating (his selective reading of research to validate his views). But I am in need of perspectives on how to raise boys, and he kept me reading.

I want to share the last page of the book, which crystalized something missing from all the other parenting books I’ve seen. I would demur about the certainty he paints here, but I want to give him the last word. Here’s his text:

Most books on ‘parenting’ have a built-in assumption, never named but always there — that the world we live in is just fine, and our job is to fit our kids into it well. That the procession of human life is headed to a golden, prosperous future, and we only need to keep our kids from falling by the wayside. Perhaps (though this is not usually stated), we can help them push to the head of the queue.

Of course, this is a massive lie. The very best science and knowledge is that we live in a time of dystopian collapse, where inequality, the misuse of resources, and above all the crisis of climate change will lead to disrupted agriculture, famine, mass migration and war. We know this because it’s already begun to happen.

It’s almost certain that our kids will live in far worse times than we have, and our grandchildren may not be able to live at all. We don’t need kids who fit in. We need heroes — young men and women who are strong-hearted, caring, calm and passionate and have a purpose beyond themselves — to care for the whole species and the life that sustains it. To turn things around. To promote radical, non-violent change. We need good men and women in numbers like never before. That’s what we have aimed to raise at our house, and we hope you will too.

Inequality and the death toll of future climate change

The Climate Impact Lab just got a great write-up for our work on the risk of mortality under climate change in Bloomberg Green. There are a bunch of excellent dynamic visualizations that dig into the data.

There are two big messages here. The first is that poor people are going to get hammered by climate change, with some areas experiencing deathrates from the additional heat that are greater than the combined global rates for heart disease, stroke, all forms of cancer, all forms of infectious disease death, and all forms of death from injury.

The other is that we can use this information to start to estimate the total cost of climate change to society at large, because it gives us a lower-bound. Just the effect of additional mortality costs society about $22 per ton of CO2. That’s already more than the total social cost used by the Trump administration and half way to the total cost used by the Obama administration.

Take a look at the summary write-up of the research behind the Bloomberg article, and look forward to the reports that we are going to produce on the effects of climate change on labor productivity, agriculture, energy demand, and coastal impacts.

You are not living in a simulated reality, data-wise

Recently, I’ve been mostly-loving the podcast Philosophize This!, and I just listened to Episode #95, Are you living in a simulation? It discusses Nick Bostrom’s paper arguing that the likely answer is “yes”.

I never worried too much about these arguments, on the principle that the answer doesn’t affect what I care about in life, but listening to it, I realized that the basis for this theory is based on old ways of thinking, and the likelihood should go the other way.

As a person who creates simulated realities all the time, we have a secret: most simulations borrow a huge amount from reality (or at least, from their parent reality).

Most of what makes a world– simulated or otherwise– is its data. This is one of the great insights of the machine learning revolution. And you would have a tough time creating that data from scratch even if you wanted to.

If you tell the computer of a holosuite from Star Trek to create a person, it wouldn’t ask you, “Would you like me to simulate the evolutionary process of personhood from first principles?” It will just assume that everything about your simulated person is the same as the way real people work. Cut the person in the simulation, and they’ll bleed like a real person. All the parameters behind their bleeding– the color of the blood, the rate of bleeding, etc.– are aspects of reality.

Plus, simulations have boundaries. For example, if you were interested in creating a simulation of Earth at this point in time, it would be sensible to grab our knowledge of the whole rest of the universe and just plug it in. There’s no reason to create a different night sky.

These boundaries can occur at any level: you can model a planet in the context of the universe, a person in the context of the world, an idea in the context of the brain. In fact, brains do this all the time.

Whereas the original thought experiment had only one data point (our apparent existence prior to world-simulating capabilities), we actually know quite a bit about the question of how much data filters from reality through the simulation boundary of our mind. There are informative arguments from Kantian pure theory and from that logic where Gödel meets information theory. None of it conclusively resolves the mind-body distinction, but neither did the original simulation data point.

But since I started this with an insight from computer science, I’ll complete the loop there too. What do we know about the share of data-vs.-simulation necessary to create a mind? While there’s a lot more we need to learn about the building-blocks of intelligence, the machine learning revolution has taught us that intelligence is hugely built upon data, not on modelling.

So, let’s return to the fundamental thought experiment: the number of simulated realities should exceed the number of real realities. But if you take a random piece of data within any of those simulations, the number of real data points is likely to far exceed the number of simulated data points.

I am not saying that there are not simulated aspects of the world we experience. But I would argue that there is no essential difference between the boogey man of a “simulated reality” and aspects of the universe that we already accept.

Are computers involved in creating our world? Yes, you’re reading a post on one of them now.

Are aspects of you or the world a “copy” from somewhere else? Sure, much of your experience of the world, as simulated by your brain, is just re-applying ready-made templates to the raw facts of the universe.

Is the core “you”, your subjective self, a simulated quantity? Either subjectivity cannot be created on a computer, then no, or it’s an emergent property, and then already modeled on brain hardware.

I imagine that these last points have probably been made plenty of times before by people who are missing the point of the simulated universe problem. And maybe I am too, but in light of the role of real data in simulations, the original question definitely was.

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

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!

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.