Several articles in the past few weeks have caught my attention.
One that I really liked is an article in the New Yorker that describes two guys who have started a company that makes packing material out of green waste injected with mycelium (the substance that provides structure to mushrooms). It breaks down after a relatively short time (unlike styrofoam, which breaks down into styrene particles – observed like snowflakes all over the Jersey shore after Sandy – and which are carcinogenic). They were spurred on by a course on inventions they took at RPI from the very persistent and knowledgeable Professor Burt Swersey. It’s a great story!
A second story was in an article in the Mercury News about Jerry Brown seeming to be concerned about the environment but not being willing to put California’s money where his mouth is. From the article, Brown said to an audience at the Sustainable Silicon Valley’s fourth annual Water, Energy and Smart Technology (WEST) Summit at NASA Ames Research Center
“[$\ldots$] that clearly communicating the argument that the world must act now is crucial because news media too often neglect climate change stories in favor of more titillating journalism, while lawmakers won’t act unless confronted with concrete, consensus-backed facts. `We’re really in a war here, a contest for ideas, and this crowd is on the losing end,’ he told the scientists. Just like in electoral politics, `your base is important, but you’ve got to convince the swing voter to win,’ the Democratic governor said.”
It seems to me that Brown deserves a lot of credit for getting California back on its feet – there is a reported surplus to this year’s state budget estimated to be between one and four billion dollars. But Brown is being very conservative about committing this surplus to program spending. Still more persuasive arguments about the imperative of dealing with environmental issues are needed.
This brings me to a third story, which asks the question whether we can “geo-engineer” our way out of the mess we’ve seem to have gotten the Earth into? For example (far-fetchedly), could we build giant vacuum cleaners that suck some of the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere? The author warns about messing with something as large and unpredictable as the entire earth’s climate system (remember the mathematician’s warning in Jurassic Park?). And also warns against being constantly of the opinion that we can engineer our way out of any situation we get into – one consequence being that we become carelessly overconfident. Kent Morrison comments: “One thing about math is that we know what we know and what we don’t know. Geo-engineering is quite the opposite.”
A fourth story (many sources) is about the Oklahoma Senators, Inhofe and Coburn, who opposed relief aid for Sandy yet are requesting Oklahoma tornado aid from FEMA. I’m sure that I’m being hopelessly naive, but it seems to me that there should be a (mathematical!) estimate of what FEMA needs on average per year and that, when there is an emergency, an independent board should decide how to allocate the funds. Having our congressional bodies vote on each allocation is ridiculous: it politicizes yet another aspect of our lives that politics should not enter.
Finally, I want to mention the New York Times editorial “The wisdom of Bob Dole” about Bob Dole’s lamentations on Fox News Sunday about the current incarnation of the Republican Party, which he’s pretty sure neither he nor Ronald Reagan would be welcome in. The New York Times writes
“Its (the Republican Party’s) members want to dismantle government, using whatever crowbar happens to be handy, and they don’t particularly care what traditions of mutual respect get smashed at the same time. [$\ldots$] This corrosive mentality has been standard procedure in the House since 2011, but now it has seeped over to the Senate. Mr. Rubio is one of several senators who have blocked a basic function of government: a conference committee to work out budget differences between the House and Senate so that Congress can start passing appropriations bills. They say they are afraid the committee will agree to raise the debt ceiling without extorting the spending cuts they seek. One of them, Ted Cruz of Texas, admitted that he didn’t even trust House Republicans to practice blackmail properly. They have been backed by Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, who wants extremist credentials for his re-election.”
Our system is being “gamed” in new ways. Are we stuck in this morass? What, if anything, does game theory predict about the future of our current quandary of having rule-making bodies that cannot actually agree on any rules?