Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Malice or incompetence?

So, there's this new study on the carbon emissions of biofuels from corn stover out from the University of Nebraska - Lincoln.  There's something of an internet shitstorm occurring over the study, which purports to show that the lifecycle emissions of corn stover-based ethanol are worse than that of gasoline.  The vast majority of people out there are refusing to read much more than the summaries and the abstract, and of course comments on every article are filled with biofuels bashers claiming that all policies supporting them are farm-state welfare and that anything associated with biofuels is inherently un-green.

A study like this always gets me wondering.  If it goes against the grain of current literature - and this one definitely does - I am instinctively skeptical, and usually very suspicious of the methods and assumptions used.  Although I don't have the time to go through the methodology in detail, after reviewing the study's assumptions I have found some major problems.

The press release on the study can be found here:

 There are two major problems with this study.  The first is that the study assumes that corn stover is removed from fields at a rate of up to 70% - meaning that 70% of stalks are harvested rather than being allowed to remain in-field to regenerate the soil.  Stover harvesting studies, however, have been conducted for decades and have unequivocally recommended against harvest levels that high because it results in some very serious negative effects on the soil.  In industry, agricultural practice is to harvest 10 to 25% stover to retain nutrients.  I am not sure how this assumption feeds into the model used, but if the harvest rate has a nonlinear effect on the carbon balance then this possibly only tells us what we already know: excessive stover harvest is bad from the environment. Given that a key part of the emissions calculation made from the Liska study was the emissions caused by soil degradation, it seems very strange to use a stover harvest rate that does not reflect actual practice. 

The second major problem I can see is that the study fails to take into account that in a cellulosic ethanol production facility, non-cellulose biomass is burned to provide heat and power for the process, producing enough of a surplus that power is exported and indirectly displaces other forms of power generation (presumably fossil fuel in nature).  This has been a common practice in forest industries for decades and almost every cellulosic biorefinery out there uses this type of configuration (there is only one commercial facility that I believe does not do this, and that is mainly because they would prefer to market their residual lignin as a co-product rather than burn it).  That this study appears not to use this type of configuration is very strange indeed, and its omission removes a major carbon emissions offset from the equation.  Media reports casting doubt on the universality of this design decision are, to put it bluntly, grasping at straws.

There are two explanations for these clear oversights.  The first is that the academics working on this project are truly unaware of industry practice.  This would not be the first time such a thing has happened, though it strikes me as an exceedingly sloppy way to build a model if you do not validate your inputs.

The second option is that this study is an elaborate academic hit piece that selected assumptions designed to make biofuels look bad.  This would also not be the first time.  I remember several years ago a study on the lifecycle emissions of corn ethanol published by several researchers who contrived a scenario in which all fuels were made from corn ethanol so that the market for distiller's grains would be overwhelmed.  In this case, distiller's grains would no longer be able to displace feedlot corn and the carbon balance became overwhelmingly negative.  The conclusions of the study were very valid, but the fact of the matter is the study's parameters did not represent reality.

This leads me to a broader point: If the value of a study is in its social utility, then that study was useless except as a mental exercise for those involved - arguably, it has negative social utility given that it was used as a propaganda club by political partisans on people with little information or context.  Given the two highly flawed assumptions used by the Liska et al. study from UNL, this is probably going to go the same way.

But bringing the issue back to why these errors were committed, we're left with one of two conclusions: was this done with malign intentions, or is it simply incompetence?

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Against stupidity

Today I spent all day doing good, meaningful work on green chemistry.  It's one of the few days where you feel you've unmistakably made a difference.  Then I made the mistake of reading three internet articles on the subjects in my work and leaving them feeling as if I'd accomplished nothing against the tide of ignorance upon display.

This is one of those moments where I'm not sure if our society is strong enough to survive beyond my lifetime, or indeed before the end of it.

Against stupidity, the Gods themselves struggle in vain?

Monday, February 24, 2014

Arguments that annoy me, Part II

Part II in a long-delayed series.

Occam's Razor Proves I'm Right

If I had got a nickel for every time this argument has been leveled at me, I'd only be a few dollars richer, but I'd still have a year or so taken off my lifespan.  Drat. 

The argument is deceptively simple.  People have heard of Occam's Razor, or the principle of parsimony, wherein of competing explanations or arguments, the simplest is the one that is superior.  And to be fair, within reason this is a very valid point.  The problem occurs when people forget - or perhaps never learned - that Occam's Razor is a marginal principle. 

Simply put, it's a tiebreaker used for mental exercises.  Whatever argument is put forward still has to fit the facts at hand or adequately explain the situation, and it still has to stand up to testing.  It has to take into account evidence for the alternatives as well.  Occam's razor would be perfectly adequate to judge between, say, two formal proofs in pure mathematics (hence, the concept of elegance of a proof).  But beyond that, it's a heuristic method for guiding how people make theories and nothing more, a bulwark against putting in thousands of exceptions to a rule.

An appalling number of people don't seem to get this.  To them, Occam's Razor is used not just as a principle for thought, but as evidence for or against a theory as if it had as much weight as observations of phenomena.  It is not.  In science, and in all social studies that claim to use the scientific method, Occam's Razor is a preference for a simpler explanation but it is no substitute for good logic or scientific result.

And yet, when I argue for an explanation for, say, an epidemeological phenomenon that has many factors in it, I get people telling me that there is only one cause "because of Occam's Razor."  In a particularly stupid debate, someone claimed that the drop in crime in the United States over the last 30 years had to be from the phase-out of lead in gasoline, despite the sketchy evidence for that cause alone, "since Occam's Razor proves I'm right."  Um, what?

This makes my head hurt.

A roof over your head and a lead weight in the wallet

I'm approaching the age where according to certain traditional notions of American culture, I am supposed to be thinking about buying property sometime in the next decade or so, no doubt financed by a mortgage, to be sold if I and mine need to uproot ourselves.  It's a strange thought - not least since I'm still somehow getting over being allowed to drink alcohol.  Yet it is also strange to think about the idea and find that despite my culture's love affair with homeownership, the more I think of it the more I find it iffy.  This is shaping up as a rant, but whatever.

I can't help but feel, for example, that our cultural fetish for owning one's home is obsolete in an age when most people of my generation will switch employers every three to five years - if current trends continue, well into middle age.  All the arguments about putting down roots in the community by buying property seem moot when your ultimate outcome will be to flip that property right after getting properly settled down.  And as for roots, I don't see how my behavior might personally change in my community due to owning property - except, perhaps, for the inevitable politics over things like property taxes or HOAs.  Somehow, I don't view that as a change for the better.

The other thing I've heard over the years is that your home is a valuable investment that "encourages you to build up equity."  However, I've wrestled with more than a little bit of cognitive dissonance over this idea because I've been a relatively well-informed, if hands off, individual investor since the day I started drawing my own salary.  I balance risk between bonds and equities, make sure my portfolio is diversified to hedge against risk, avoid high costs, and save as much as I can as often as I can.  I simply am unable to square that approach with buying a house as an investment: not only do you make a huge outlay as a speculative bet on a very risky, illiquid, undiversified piece of real estate - why are you not buying a REIT, again? - but it's a leveraged investment as well, giving you the equivalent of costs equal to your interest rate.  As an index fund investor I'm leery of over 1%; mortgage interest rates seem to make this a fantastically bad idea.  And as for building up equity, well, my view is that savings are savings, and essentially paying a bank for the service of forcing you to save sounds iffy.*

The one wrinkle in this are the preferential tax treatments you can get.  The first is the mortgage interest rate tax deduction, which seems tailor made to simply make a portion of a person's opportunity cost of living in a property tax free if they take out an enormous amount of debt on it, but doesn't extend that same privilege to someone who rents.  I've expressed my frustration about this before, many times, but often the only response is to drink the kool aid, join in and buy a house, so you can take advantage of it, too!  In the long run, you'll be losing money if you don't!
Where have I heard that logic before?
For me this is only a bigger argument that the mortgage interest tax deduction needs to go.  Pushing an unsound investing strategy speculative property bet with a clearly discriminatory tax expenditure is just plain irresponsible, and doesn't change the fact that buying property as a young person with inevitably shaky job security is plainly stupid. 

The other one that strikes me as similarly plainly unfair is the capital gains adjusted basis, where the proceeds from the sale of a home have up to $75,000 in gains exempt from taxes.  What?  What other type of large investment receives this type of protection?  It seems to be wildly irresponsible on the part of the government to grant that protection to homes and not to any other type of investment.  Not only is it clearly discriminatory against people who lives in areas where most housing is held by others as investment property, it's a policy that inherently encourages speculation on the part of people with low levels of savings.  Historically housing has yielded about 0.4% above inflation, and is subject to vicious boom and bust cycles, and that is encouraged?

I've had the argument leveled at me that all of this tax support for ownership is to make housing affordable and to encourage the building of more homes.  Frankly, I find that idea to be nonsensical.  People who take advantage of this favorable tax treatment will invariably have no trouble finding housing in any case, even if it is not quite as big or as well-located as they like - else, if they were closer to the subsistence level, they would not be paying taxes at all.  Nor do I accept the argument that these things "clear" housing at the lower ends, since the property market builds both new multi-family and single-family dwellings according to demand (there was, for example, an imbalance during the financial crisis as retrenching families raised the demand for smaller units, catching developers off guard). 

No, the one conclusion I can draw is that most of what these tax supports tend to do is subsidize larger and more expensive homes.  Still worse, since the capital gains basis adjustment is post-sale, and the mortgage interest tax deduction is only open to the 30% of taxpayers who can gain by itemizing their deductions, the encouragement on marginal renters to buy is either limited to those living in very high cost areas (in which case these people hardly needed income support anyway) or premised on just how much a person thinks they can gain from their poorly diversified, speculative, illiquid, high cost asset.

* Clearly my circumstances are different from most in that I do know how to invest (thanks, Dad) and have the dedication to save on my own initiative, but even for those that don't have these advantages I fail to see how buying a house is at all better than taking a hundred-thousand dollar loan and plumping it all into a total stock market index fund, except as a cultural affectation.  In fact, the stock market is likely to do significantly better than speculative property in the long run...

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Post-expat culture shock

I'm in Kuala Lumpur today on business.  This is the first time I've been back in Asia in some time, and the first time in Malaysia in about ten years.  I arrived late at night, but right from the beginning I felt discombobulated.  It is strange to be back in a place that is at once so familiar - at least, close enough to Singapore that it certainly feels familiar - and at the same time so foreign.  In some small ways I am beginning to remember some of what it was like to be an expatriate.

The first and strangest experience is the one of suddenly feeling out of place.  I do not speak Malay, and despite the outward similarity to my familiar years in Singapore, upon arriving in Kuala Lumpur I was suddenly disoriented by the lack of English speakers.   Exhausted and confused, it was an hour or so before I could orient myself enough to figure out how to get a cab ticket. 

When I got to the hotel, other things began to make me feel out of place.  I have never been comfortable with the obsequious way in which foreigners are treated, and it was no different arriving there.  I was given prompt and attentive porter service, and the person holding my bag accompanied me directly to my room.  In the elevator with us, on the other hand, was a Malay family - with kids - obviously also just checking in.  They were carrying their own bags, and while the porter greeted them amicably he didn't offer any service.  It felt very wrong.

Since my arrival, I realized that where I am staying happens to be located directly adjacent to an upmarket mall.   This also felt strange, mostly because it was also so familiar.  The ethnic makeup of the people visiting the mall changed radically to be mostly ethnic Chinese and a smattering of obvious foreigners.  The language of the mall is not Malay but English or Chinese.   While Kuala Lumpur is about 45% Malay, this mall could not have been more than 10%.  It was a stark reminder of how ethnicity is tied to wealth in this country.

Finally, it was some time before I figured out why everybody insisted on speaking to me in English and treating me like an obvious foreigner.  I would order my food in mandarin and have people serve me meals with a fork and spoon (the ethnic Chinese would get chopsticks).  It was confused for a while, but suddenly remembered: in Singapore, and in Asia in general, I am always singled out as a Westerner, despite the exact opposite being true in the United States.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Arguments that annoy me, mandarin edition

I've started studying mandarin again.  As part of this, I've been encouraged to write my normal type of writing and translate it into mandarin.  The original English post is reproduced first, followed by the translation.  To aid my studying, I've bolded words that are new to me.  I originally wrote this post in February of this year, link here.

I love debate.  Once upon a time, I liked competitive debate, too, and thought that I liked pounding other people's arguments into the dust.  However, as time went on I realized that what I enjoyed was not winning per se, but having conversations with intelligent people.  People with poor argumentation and poor logic not only made for poor debate, but simply annoyed me.

To this day, there are few things that annoy me more.  So I'm going to blog about them. Hah.

1.  "It is better to be consistent than correct"

Hypocrisy is an irrelevant ad hominem, but I see this all the time.  Essentially, someone argues that because person/country/organization A has done something before, but subsequently advocates against it, the argument is invalid.  A is hypocritical!  Common examples:

  • The US has violated someone's sovereignty before, therefore its advocacy against a violation of other people's sovereignty is invalid.
  • <insert political party here> did something in the past, therefore its current stand against the practice is invalid.
  • You once believed this, but now you've flip-flopped and your argument is weaker because of it.
I could go on and on.  This is a poor argument.  Accusations of hypocrisy are often valid, but the only thing that they should do is cast aspersions on the character of the advocating party - they never have any relevance to an argument itself, unless that argument is about a person or organization's character.

When presented in simple terms as above, it's easy to spot how fallacious an accusation of hypocrisy is.  I more frequently see it presented in forms more difficult to recognize.  For example, if I were to hypothetically accuse the Republican party of being obstinate in their use of the filibuster in the Senate of the US, I might receive the following reply:
"But when the Democrats were in the minority during the Bush years, they also heavily used the filibuster and justified it by claiming that they were doing the job of the minority in protecting their interests, and you didn't complain then!"
Sound familiar?  Doesn't address the issue at hand, doesn't address anything but the parties to the argument (the Democrats and the proposer), allegation of hypocrisy.  While pointing out how hypocritical a group or person is might cast aspersions on their character, it has zero to do with the argument.  Instead, it's a statement that amounts to "it is better to be consistent than correct," or, alternatively, "consistency is a prerequisite for having a valid argument."

Top places I see that argument:
  • Anti-colonial related rants
  • Chinese uberpatriots
  • American political debate 



1. "一致正确好“

  • 美国侵犯过外国的主权,所以美国的论据反对别的国家的侵犯主权行为就无效了。
  • 什么政党以前的行为象他门现在的反对,所以他们的反对就无效了。
  • 你以前相信这个论据,但是你推翻了你的决定,所以你现在的论据更无效。

  • 殖民注意咆哮
  • 中国五毛咆哮
  • 美国政治了解

Friday, October 11, 2013

A small incident (Translation)

I've started studying mandarin again.  As part of that, I am systematically reading through a book of short stories by one of China's grandmasters of literature, Lu Xun (鲁迅), who lived during early revolutionary China. To aid my study, each story I go through I'm going to post here and then try to translate it as best I canThe original text is below, the translation is presented first.

"A small incident" - Lu Xun, July 1920

The six years from when I moved from my home town to the capital have passed in the blink of an eye.  Over this time, I've heard that our so-called country has had not a few milestones; but in my heart, none of them have left any impression, and if I try to search for what I have of these events, it only increases my discontent - truthfully, it makes me to look down on people more and more each day.

But there was one small incident that for me has significance, dragging me out of my discontent, that until now I have been unable to forget.

This was in the country's sixth year's [1917] winter, with the North wind blowing hard, when for work I had no choice but to commute in the mornings.  When I started my commute there were almost no people to be seen, so it was easy to find a rickshaw, telling the driver to go to the S Gate [one of Beijing's gates].  It didn't take long for the North wind to die down and the dust on the road to clear, leaving a spotless white path, letting the rickshaw puller go faster.  Just before the S Gate, suddenly on the rickshaw's axle there was a person, who slowly fell down.

The fallen person was a woman, with grizzled hair, and very ragged clothes.  She had abruptly turned from the street and cut in front of us; despite the rickshaw puller giving her right of way, the woman's jacket hadn't been buttoned, and a gust of wind had caused it to open and finally wrap around the rickshaw axle.  Luckily, the rickshaw puller had slowed down, or else the woman would have been caught and overturned, her head struck and bleeding.

She lay on the ground; the rickshaw puller put down the handles.  I judged that this old woman wasn't hurt, and no one saw it, so I thought the stop was strange, and that he was asking for trouble and delaying my trip.

He said to her:
"Are you alright?"
"Something's broken."

I thought, I saw you fall slowly to the ground, how is it that she could have broken something, she's malingering, how reprehensible.  The he's meddlesome and asking for trouble, getting his own ideas about walking around.

The rickshaw puller, upon hearing the old woman's words, did not hesitate for a moment, suddenly supporting the woman by her arm and walking forward step by step.  I was a little astonished, forgetting to look forward to see a police station in front of us, upwind, with no one outside.  The rickshaw puller was supporting the old woman as they made their way towards the big door.

In that moment I suddenly felt an unusual feeling, like the impression in the dust from the rickshaw puller became taller, or perhaps grew ever larger, so that I had to crane my neck to see it.  Or maybe he gradually became more powerful, even as I felt my petty concerns being squeezed from underneath my leather jacket.

My life's urgent pace slowed down, sitting there without moving, without thinking, until I got off when a police patrolman approached the rickshaw.

The policeman said, "You should book another rickshaw, he won't be pulling you."

Without thinking, I pulled a roll of coins from my jacket, giving it to the policeman, saying "Please give this to him..."

The wind died down, the street was still very clean.  I walked, lost in thought, almost scared of my introspection.  With everything else in my life temporarily set aside, I asked myself, what was the meaning of that roll of coins?  To reward him? Could I still judge the rickshaw driver?  I couldn't bear to reply to myself.

To this day that incident is one I frequently remember.  I therefore always remember to put aside my pain, to strive to think about myself.  These past few years' cultural forces, like the classical aphorisms I memorized at a young age, have so faded from my memory that I can't even half recite them.  Only this small incident, which hovers just in front of my eyes, sometimes even more clearly, has taught me to be ashamed, urged me to reform, and renewed my courage and hope.

Professional Translation linked here


一件小事 - 鲁迅 July 1920