2017-06-05

The Paris Agreement

Much has been said recently about the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement and the vast majority of it has been highly politicized by people who have never even read the agreement. Opinions are quite polarized, ranging from "It was a perfect agreement and, now that we have pulled out, the sky is falling," to "It was a bad deal that would have cost hundreds of trillions of dollars and killed our industries." I have read the agreement (It's only 27 pages!) and both of those hyperbolic reactions are inaccurate. I would encourage everyone to familiarize yourself at least with the summary (even fewer pages!) but below are my key takeaways:

GOALS

  • Curtail the rapidly increasing global temperatures (mitigation)
  • Do so by reducing global green house gas (GHG) emissions
  • Recognize that climate change is happening so become better at dealing with it (adaptation)

ACTIONS

  • This is a "bottom up" rather than "top down" agreement. There are no specific actions defined or required by the agreement; rather, each country voluntarily commits to its own contributions toward achieving the agreement's goals. There is no enforcement or penalty mechanism in case a country fails to meet its commitments.
  • Each country specifies targets for its own GHG reductions. For example, the US is targeting 26-28% reduction (relative to 2005 levels) by 2025 while Switzerland is targeting 50% GHG reductions (I'm not sure relative to which baseline.) by 2030.
  • Specific actions taken are meant to be compatible with economic growth, not a hindrance to it. For example, some actions might reduce the number of coal jobs but increase the number of solar jobs by many more.
  • Especially for developing and least developed nations, actions are focused on those with "co-benefits," actions that not only mitigate and/or adapt, but that also alleviate poverty, improve health, improve energy access and security, etc. A fantastic example is GIVEWATTS, which reduces GHGs but also breaks the poverty cycle, reduces respiratory illness, and improves education by distributing solar-powered lighting (replacing kerosene lamps) in off-grid schools and clinics in East Africa.
  • Countries primarily focus on reducing their own GHGs but the most developed countries have also committed to sharing resources (know-how, technology, and financial capital) with developing (especially small island developing) and least developed countries as they are hardest hit by climate change and have the least capacity to address it through mitigation and/or adaptation.
  • The developed countries have committed to making available $100B/year from 2020 to 2025 to help developing and least developed countries meet their goals. The $100B is spread across all developed countries but it is likely that the greatest GHG emitters, the US and China, will together account for at least half of it. The $100B is not an outright public grant (transfer of funds from one government to another) but rather a mix of public grants, loans, loan guarantees, and equity investments. The $100B comes from both public and private sources.
  • To date the US has committed $3B - of which only $1B has been paid - for a fund that focuses on adaptation for developing and least developed nations. The total size of the fund is currently ~$9B.
  • Beginning in 2018, every five years there will be a "global stocktake," basically an assessment of how GHG emissions are going and how much temperatures are changing around the globe. This is essentially a "management dashboard" to assess how effective the actions are in meeting the goals. It is also a chance to adjust course based on new data.

Looking past the polarizing politics and evaluating the Paris Agreement simply on its merits, I conclude that it is a good deal. It managed to bring nearly every country in the world together (No small feat that!) in common pursuit of addressing a goal that benefits everyone. No country is compelled to do anything by any other country and each country can contribute what it believes is fair and practical. It focuses on actions that align with economic growth and it recognizes the importance of adaptation, not just mitigation.

Regardless of what each individual country commits, having [almost] all countries working together to contribute something is truly laudable. The US, which [unknowingly and with no ill intent] played a significant role in generating the GHGs that have contributed to the rapid rise in temperatures, sends a really bad signal by pulling out of the agreement. It says either that we don't value the goal of addressing climate change or that we do but we want to do it by ourselves. Climate change is a global issue and it will necessarily require global solutions.

With the US pulling out, I worry about two reactions:

  1. Other countries pulling out due to, "If the US won't commit, why should we?" This could lead to a tragedy of the commons of epic scale.
  2. Other countries staying in with renewed commitment. This would be a huge blow to the US's increasingly tenuous role as a world leader. It used to be that, when the world faced devastating challenges (Nazis, natural disasters, etc.) the US led the way to the solution. Will we really just give up and relinquish that role to, say, China?
I have also heard arguments that our current president is just using this as an opportunity to "renegotiate" the deal. As you can see above, though, there is nothing to renegotiate; everything is voluntary and this is simply a framework for cooperation. I also find it highly unlikely that the president who is all but dismantling the US Environmental Protection Agency has any sincere intent to enter any agreement about climate change.

What do you think? Does this description of the Paris Agreement surprise you? Do you agree with my interpretation/conclusions? Have I made an error on any facts/figures? Let me know in the comments.

ADDENDUM

I have received many questions about China's and India's contributions to the Paris agreements so here is some more information about them:

China's targets:

  • Peaking of carbon dioxide emissions around 2030 and making best efforts to peak early
  • Lowering carbon dioxide intensity (carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP) by 60 to 65 percent from the 2005 level (~14% overall)
  • Increasing the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20 percent;
  • Increasing the forest stock volume by around 4.5 billion cubic meters from the 2005 level.

  • To reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33 to 35 percent by 2030 from 2005 level.
  • To achieve about 40 percent cumulative electric power installed capacity from nonfossilfuel based energy resources by 2030 with the help of transfer of technology and low cost international finance including from Green Climate Fund (GCF).
  • To create an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030.
They estimate the total cost to achieve those targets to be $2.5T over 15 years ($167B/year on average). They will of course fund some of that domestically but they will seek financial help from the developed world as well.

2017-06-04

Wonder Woman: Better Than Most DC Movies But...

Katie and I saw Wonder Woman today and, while it was fine to see once, I was disappointed relative to all the hype that it has been receiving as a "best ever" / "game changer" comic book movie. Following are some more detailed thoughts but WARNING: THERE BE SPOILERS BELOW!

THE GOOD

  • The action scenes are really good. Production values are high and there is something just so refreshing about seeing a badass female hero in action.
  • This movie is much more colorful than DC comic movies have been of late - again, very refreshing.
  • The acting is really on point with great actors doing what the do best in both major and minor roles.

THE BAD

  • The premise is very goofy and it's hard to get anyone who knows anything about Greek mythology to buy into the mess of a backstory. I wanted to get "into" this movie but from the outset I kept getting pulled out with negative reactions to the mythology.
  • The plot seemed very played out and I couldn't help but thinking how much of it I had seen before in Captain America: The First Avenger.
  • The plot was so cliche that it telegraphed everything. We were only minutes into the second act when Katie and I whispered to each other that Thewlis was probably the actual bad guy.
  • Much of the humor felt really forced and fell flat for me.
  • Like so many blockbusters - and especially comic book movies - these days, this had a very "made by committee" feel. Many elements were set up that never paid off so were presumably left somewhere on the cutting room floor. The sidekicks, for example, were introduced as having special skills that we never see used so they end up adding nothing to the narrative.
  • The characters are very humdrum. Diana Prince is the only character who undergoes any kind of transformation and, even after 2h45m, hers isn't earned/believable. We really aren't vested in any of the other characters.
  • There is no chemistry between the two leads. I assume that this is largely due to poor writing, as they both seem fine as individual actors.
  • For this reason, the "love" subplot is entirely unbelievable. You know that it's time for them to fall in love because the music is swelling but it doesn't make any sense. And then, because love is the reason for Wonder Woman's resolve in the climax, that too feels totally unearned.
  • Regardless, there is no tension in the climax anyway. Wonder Woman is basically a Mary Sue who is never in any real danger. Aries has the upper hand at the start of their confrontation . . . because reasons and then suddenly she has the upper hand . . . because reasons.


THE UGLY

  • To its credit, there isn't much really terrible about this film. If I have to point to one thing, it would be that this was supposed to be this great example of a feminist superhero film. Instead it comes off as what men think female empowerment should be about. Sure, there are a couple of overt empowering lines like, "You don't get to tell me what to do," but they are massively overshadowed by all the covert stuff throughout the rest of the film. The "strong female lead" is highly sexualized, from her skimpy outfit (including metal boobs) to all of the humor about/around her. And, at the end of the day, she still has to be "shown the way" by a man through a love subplot. This was really disappointing and, for my money, I strongly prefer Moana, Rey, and Ripley as empowered female leads.

As a fun summer "popcorn film," this was fine and it certainly is a cut above recent DC comics movies. Still, I was disappointed in the end result given its potential to have been something truly special. Perhaps there will be a director's cut when it is released for home media, in which case I will readily give it a second chance.

Fortunately we ended our movie watching on a high note by watching The Princess Bride immediately afterward. Every time I see it I become more convinced that it is basically a perfect movie. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaas youuuuuuuuuuuuuu wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiish!

2017-06-02

Review: Capitalism: As If the World Matters

Capitalism: As If the World Matters Capitalism: As If the World Matters by Jonathon Porritt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book has a good premise - that capitalism can be the SOLUTION to - not just the source of - our sustainability challenges. It has some good ideas as well: environmentalism needs more effective messages than doom and gloom proclamations, for example. Unfortunately it doesn't come to a very compelling resolution. Porritt advocates for a "new" model of capitalism that incorporates five different types of capital - but it doesn't seem any more practical than current triple bottom line efforts which have failed to take root. It's a worthwhile book but I suspect that anyone who reads it is already pretty bought into its message.

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2017-05-28

Review: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this book. It is "pop history" not "history" to be sure, but it offers some keen insights, asks some provocative questions, and is engagingly well written.

Harari captured my attention from the get-go as he defined four chronological frames of reference, each of which builds on its predecessor:
Physics - fundamental particles and the forces that interact between them
Chemistry - combinations of those particles to make molecular compounds
Biology - complex combinations of those compounds to comprise living organisms
History - actions and interactions of conscious living beings

One of Harari's most pervasive arguments is about what separates homo sapiens (modern humans) from other species of the human genus (homo erectus, homo neanderthalensis, etc.). He suggests that the key distinction is our ability to grasp "fiction" (or I might paraphrase to call it "abstract thought"). This unique ability is the foundation of our communication, economic trade, social organization, etc.

This is a really interesting point as it allows Harari to distill many things down to being a "fiction." Businesses, for example are "fictions" in the same way that religions are. Neither of them are tangible, empirically verifiable "things;" they both exist because we believe they do.

Using this viewpoint as a basis, Harari presents an abridged version of the history of homo sapiens. Following are a few interesting highlights that do not summarize the book but rather are indicative of his writing:

* Homo sapiens has been responsible for the extinction of so many other species that perhaps *we* were Noah's flood.
* When you look at how much we have changed since the agricultural revolution, it seems that wheat domesticated us rather than the other way around.
* Laws can change with the stroke of a pen but the "fictions" we use to define society cannot -
hence, for example, racial discrimination not ending with the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
* Despite technological advances and objectively much greater quality of life, humans are no happier than we used to be.
* The Atlantic slave trade was the result of unchecked free market capitalism, not of racism per se.

Harari also argues that there is no reason to fear running out of resources like energy because science/invention will surely find a way. He doesn't seem to recognize the irony of this fatalist argument in light of demonstration that free market capitalism can have disastrous outcomes when left unchecked just a few pages prior.

There is a great deal wrong with this book, I'm sure, and rigorous historians may take issue with many of Harari's glossed-over versions modern humans. Still, it is interesting, well written, and thought provoking so I would recommend it.

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2017-05-19

Alien: Covenant - Interesting But Deeply Flawed

Katie and I watched Alien: Covenant this evening and, despite trying to temper our expectations, still left with very mixed feelings. All comments below are spoiler-free except where indicated.

THE GOOD

  • Michael Fassbender puts on an acting master class. The movie is worth seeing just for him.
  • The movie explores a genuinely interesting idea for the genesis of the xenomorphs. I'm pleased that the mythology of this universe has not been degraded - which is always a risk with prequels.
THE BAD
  • The attempts at character "development" come across as forced and largely fail.
    • SPOILERS: For example, David's opening scene, Oram's exposition of being mistrusted due to his faith, and Daniels's out-of-nowhere badassery (Ripley's felt much more earned.).
  • This is the second big film (along with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) starring Katherine Waterston and I just find her to be completely devoid of any charisma. Apparently she was in Inherent Vice, which I liked, so I will have to re-watch it and see if I like her better in it.
  • For a Ridley Scott movie, this film really underwhelmed me visually.
  • This also had very uninteresting creatures. Prometheus had its flaws but it at least had some really interesting, rapidly evolving creatures; these seemed more like run-of-the-mill, vanilla monsters to me.
  • The tone bounces around all over the place and, at times, the words and actions of the actors seem completely incoherent with the context of their situation.
  • At some points the film seemed to be going for a sort of Predator vibe. There were guys with guns smoking cigars (on a first contact alien planet??) and a sense of the protagonists being hunted by something with Predator-like score cues - but it really fell flat for me.
  • Expanding on that point, this movie didn't quite know what it wanted to be: a horror film? A sci fi action film? A metaphysical thought exercise? It tried several things but didn't do any of them really well.

THE UGLY

  • This film unfortunately lacked any tension whatsoever. It telegraphed every "twist" way ahead of time and fell back time and time again on tired tropes - both from the horror genre in general (Hey, let's all split up!) and from its own previous movies (No spoilers, but they will be obvious.). All it's left with are cheap jump scares and you know they're coming.
  • The worst part for me is that the plot relies on one unbelievably stupid human decision after another even just to get our protagonists into this mess - emphasis on "unbelievably." In sci fi movies you can suspend disbelief of technology, but it's hard to believe that that humans became so much dumber in the future and the resulting incredulity really pulls me out of the movie.
The film is worth seeing, especially if you're a fan of the franchise (read: the first two films and aspects of Prometheus). However, set your expectations appropriately and, because there isn't anything too special cinematically here, it's not crucial that you see it in the theaters.

2017-04-30

Review: The Neverending Story

The Neverending Story The Neverending Story by Michael Ende
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

WOW! Just wow! This book completely took me by surprise! I was impressed by the movie version of The Neverending Story as a child but it didn't move me enough to warrant repeated viewings or motivate me to seek out the source material.

For nostalgia I recently re-watched the movie and was disappointed by how poorly it had aged. This time, however, it DID inspire me to give the book a read and I'm so glad that I did! It turns out that the movie really comprises only the first act of the much longer book.

This book is, literally, fantastic. It is a sweeping epic journey with enchanted worlds, magical characters, and mythical creatures. Most characters are fleeting yet the book is written such that you still care about them even without pages and pages of development. Somehow The Neverdending Story manages to use these brief encounters to build a much richer universe, leaving the reader's imagination to fill in the details with, "But that is another story and shall be told another time."

The epic story is underpinned by themes of self efficacy, self image, and destiny. In many ways it reminds me of a much longer, more detailed version of Coelho's The Alchemist. It goes a step further, though, and adds "meta" themes of human fantasy and escapism. This meta commentary doesn't QUITE hit its mark for me - I think its reach exceeds its grasp a little - but it doesn't in any way detract from the rest of the story.

The most impressive aspect of The Neverending Story for me is that it is translated to English from its original German. It features so many charming character descriptions, clever turns of phrase, and even rhyming verses of poetry/song that its translation must have been an incredible labor of love. The end result is, well, fantastic, but I admit that it has me yearning to learn (I feel the yearn - the yearn to learn!) German just to be able to read the original source material.

Bryan's great adventures learning German . . . but that is another story and shall be told another time!

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2017-04-10

Review: The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves

The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

THE GOOD:

Ridley's first and most consistent argument is that specialization (the ability of one person or organization to do one thing while another does another thing) and exchange (the ability to trade the products of those two things) set humans apart from other animals and enable growth / prosperity because the whole us greater than the sum of the parts. He provides a great deal of evidence for this position and his argument is quite compelling.

His second argument is that time and again humans have found ways to overcome dire threats to their well-being, hence the cause for the optimism in the title. He also argues that government regulation by and large interferes with economic growth (through specialization and exchange) and inhibits human innovation (which we need to overcome all of those dire threats).
These arguments are cogent and, if the book had stopped here, I would have given it a higher rating.

THE BAD:

Ridley goes a step further, though, and effectively argues that, because humans have a long tradition of overcoming threats, we shouldn't concern ourselves with said threats. I take umbrage with this kind of fatalism and counter-argue that concerning ourselves with said threats is exactly HOW we keep overcoming them - but them I'm an entrepreneur while he is a [minor] British noble heir so he and I may have very different ideas about self efficacy and agency.

The author also contradicts himself frequently when convenient for his arguments. For example, in one section, he demonstrates how foolhardy it would have been to extrapolate trends from pre-industrial-revolution economies into the 20th century. The industrial revolution changed the rules of the game dramatically such that some things that had previously been linear became exponential.

Yet, when arguing against the seriousness of some current threats - like climate change - he extrapolates trends from long ago to support his point. Not only is this fallacious and hypocritical, it seems willfully ignorant in his particular case: Ridley was Chairman of the first English bank to go insolvent in 150 years at the outset of the 2007 financial crisis. If anyone should understand the folly of making decisions on anachronistic data, it should be he!

As another example, he cites multiple reasons (high cost, inconsistency of production, etc.) why green energy technologies are inferior to fossil fuels (Ridley has been accused of a conflict of interest in Parliament due to his investments in the coal industry.). However, he spends chapters describing how humans invariably overcome exactly those types of challenges. Indeed it is instructive to read this 2010 book through the hindsight of 2017 as we have seen innovations drive down the costs of green energy technologies substantially. He should listen to his own advice and be optimistic!

THE UGLY:
Ridley's worst offense in this book is a liberal use of the straw man fallacy. He portrays all environmentalists, for example, as being anti-growth and anti-technology. He also frequently uses impractical biofuels as a green energy punching bag as if they are the only alternative to fossil fuels. His data are quite selective and he introduces false dichotomies, e.g. between combating climate change and combating malaria.

CONCLUSION:
This book started out well and then really fell apart for me. It's almost as if Ridley had a good concept for the first few chapters but then was compelled by his publisher to stretch it into a longer book. In doing so, he introduced many logical fallacies and made proclamations that haven't held up even just a few years after publication. That said, it was an interesting read - especially the beginning - but the content might be better suited for a TED talk than a 450-page book.

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