Sunday, August 27, 2017

Greenhouse Gases Coming Home to Roost


The media is reporting on the devastation that Hurricane Harvey is causing in Texas, but they do not mention that global warming has made the disaster worse.


Hurricanes get their energy from the heat of the ocean, and the waters of the Gulf of Mexico are about 5 degrees warmer than usual because of global warming.  In addition, warmer air can hold more water, which means heavier rains. So, global warming has given us a fiercer, more destructive storm, with higher winds and more rain.

Texas does much more than its share to cause global warming.  The average Texan emits 26.29 tons of carbon dioxide per year.  The average Californian emits 9.26 tons, less than half as much.  And the average person worldwide emits 4 tons.

Texas has always resisted attempts to control global warming and has voted for climate deniers.  Fossil fuels are a mainstay of its economy, and the hurricane is headed for Houston, a center of America's oil and gas industry.

The chickens are coming home to roost. There will be much more destructive storms in a few decades unless we wake up and make an intense effort to control greenhouse gas emissions.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Pedal-Powered UPS Truck

Here is a UPS delivery bicycle that we saw in Rome, looking like a UPS truck but better able to get through Rome's narrow streets.


Notice the driver to the right, getting a package out of the back of the truck and wearing the usual brown UPS uniform with the short pants needed to bicycle during the Roman summer. 

This is the last post about Italy - at least for this year.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Naples - Napoli

We are staying in the Centro Antico (historic center) of Naples.  To get a sense of what the typical streets are like, imagine the Lower East Side of Manhattan 60 years ago, and then imagine that the streets are narrowed to less than 15 feet wide, so six-story tenements loom over streets so narrow that they never get sunshine.  Finally, imagine buildings covered with graffiti and old posters, and buildings and streets covered with centuries of accumulated grime.

There are some main streets that are wide enough for two lanes of traffic and sidewalks (no parking lanes), and there are many alleys as narrow as six feet, but those 15-foot streets give the neighborhood its feel. They are just barely wide enough for a car to pass a pedestrian or a parked motorcycle. In fact, the taxi driver who took us from the station hit a parked motorcycle on the way, everyone standing around it grabbed it before it hit the ground and stood it up again, and the driver went on as if nothing had happened.

To top it off, motorcycles go the wrong way on these streets; you can imagine how tight it gets when a motorcycle going the wrong way passes cars going the right way.  Motorcycles and scooters routinely disobey the law: they treat red lights to mean yield right of way rather than stop, and they weave in and out among cars and pedestrians at high speeds.

But occasionally the narrow streets open up into little plazas with monuments or magnificent churches. The best one is Santa Chiara monastery, which has a large courtyard surrounded by murals of biblical scenes and tiles showing rural scenes; the courtyard itself is filled with orange trees, benches with tiles showing rural scenes, and columns with tiles of decorative foliage.

There is also one excellent restaurant after another with outdoor seating wherever there is room to fit it in.

There are tiny stores, only about fifteen feet wide by twenty feet deep, with very limited selections. We shop at a couple of local grocery stores with just a deli counter with cold cuts and cheese, one small refrigerator case, and about 15 shelves of packaged groceries, and there are equally small stores selling limited selections of clothing, books, meat, dark glasses, pizza, pastries, and so on

There are local pastries that cannot be found anywhere but Naples, and the souvenir stores sell endless variations on Pulcinello, whom we haven't seen anywhere else.

Walk a short distance to the waterfront, and things change completely.  The Gulf of Naples is beautiful, with a view of Mount Vesuvius. There are well maintained old Italianate buildings that look freshly painted (they paint masonry buildings here), clean streets, and even normal size grocery stores.

In the park next to the waterfront, individuals sell amusements to the children. One person brings a pony, and sits on a bench waiting for parents to buy their children pony rides.  Two people bring coin-operated bumper cars (actually bumper motorcycles) and the children insert coins and ride around on the sidewalk bumping each other.

There is a lot here that is very appealing, but it is still hard for me to see past the grime, graffiti, and aggressive motorcyclists.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Modernized Poverty in Sicily

We are staying in Palermo's historic center, and I have never seen such widespread poverty in a developed nation. Most buildings are badly in need of patching and painting. There is lots of cheap fried food for sale, including fried pizza and a panino (sandwich) with fried chicken and French fries on the bread.

The staple food is sfinchione, which is a sort of poor man's pizza.  It's  crust is like a pizza crust but one inch thick, topped with tomato-onion sauce and oil - no cheese or other toppings and lots of white bread under a small amount of sauce.

At noon, a little three-wheeled tuk-tuk truck passes through our neighborhood selling sfinchione. To get him to stop, people yell down from their windows: "Luigi." The people two balconies over from us lower a plastic bucket on a rope down from the third floor balcony, Luigi cuts four slices for the couple and their two children, wraps them, and puts them in the bucket to be hauled up. Another couple with two children drive up in a car and buy four slices for themselves and a few more slices to put in a bucket lowered from a third-floor balcony a bit further down the street; then they yell from the street to the balcony for a while, talking to the people up there. Apparently, they buy their parents lunch and talk with them without walking up two flights.

Children playing on the street also yell up to their parents, and occasionally there is a loud argument between a husband on the street and a wife on the balcony. People hang out laundry on the balconies to dry.

So far, it sounds very much like the behavior you would expect in a typical slum of a century ago, which has its own sort of charm, even though life is hard and the food is not healthy. But new technologies developed in the last century make it very different:
  • The wide part of the street near us, which obviously was a piazza a century ago, is now parking lot, where the city rents out spaces and people double-park, blocking other cars parked there.
  • The side street are narrow, and most do not have sidewalks. Cars and motorcycycles drive down them at high speed, so it feels unsafe to walk on them.
  • There are almost as many motorcycles as cars, so there is continuous roaring noise in the streets. People ride motorcycles everywhere, even in the narrow, crowded pedestrian streets.
  • There is a motorcycle repair business just down the street from us, and they use a power saw to cut metal into the late evening hours - making enough noise to drown out conversation in our apartment.
  • People blast music at high volume. Most of them are far enough away that the noise is not bad, but there is also someone just one balcony over and one floor down from us who plays rock music so loud that, even with all our widows closed, it is louder in our apartment than the volume I would normally play music at. Fortunately, he only plays it for an hour or two each day; if he played it all the time, it would be intolerable to live here. 
This is modernized poverty: traditional poverty plus modern technology. If it is used sensibly, technology makes life better, but when it is abused, it can make life worse.

For example, recorded music can make life much more enjoyable if people play it at a reasonable volume or used headphones, but here, they play it so loudly that, for each person enjoying the music, a dozen people are bothered by the noise.

There are some hopeful signs. The two main streets in the historical center of Pallermo, Via Maqueda and Via Vittorio Emanuele, have both been narrowed from two car lanes to one by placing benches and planters in the roadway, to create more space for pedestrians and bicycles, and parts of them are closed to cars completely on most days.

There are some bicyclists around, but there is no way that that there will be more bicycles than motorcycycles any time soon.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Bret Stephens' Global Warming Disinformation

The New York Times has inexplicably hired Bret Stephens, known for calling climate change an "imaginary enemy," as a new columnist. His first column packed two pieces of disinformation in this one sentence:
"Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warming of the Northern Hemisphere since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities."
First, it is not true that .85 degrees Centigrade is a modest amount of warming. This change  has been enough to cause more frequent extreme weather events, with what used to be hundred year storms occurring as frequently as every ten years, enough to cause melting of ice that makes the arctic ocean navigable during summer, enough to cause species to move north and to higher elevations in order to escape the heat, and enough to cause many other well known effects.

Second, it is not true that the uncertainty of predictions is an excuse for inaction on climate.  Stephens' main point in this column is that people who claim certainty (including climate advocates) are fanatics, but in reality, one of the most powerful arguments for climate action is based on the uncertainty of predictions.

Harvard economist Martin Weitzman points out that predictions of future warming have a fat-tailed distribution curve, as shown in this graph:


The graph shows that it is most likely that doubling CO2 levels from 350 parts per million to 700 parts per million would increase temperatures by less than 3 degrees centigrade, but that there is 10% chance that it will increase temperatures by 6 degrees centigrade or more, and a tiny chance that it will increase temperatures by 10 degrees centigrade.

The potential damage done in the higher ranges is so disastrous, including ocean rise, desertification and famine that would kill or displace billions of people, that Weitzman says it makes sense economically to reduce CO2 emissions as insurance against this worst case.

People spend money on fire insurance even though there is less than a 10% chance of their homes being destroyed by fire, because a fire would wipe them out economically if they did not have insurance. Likewise, Weitzman says, we should spend money reducing emissions as insurance against the worst case, even if there is less than a 10% chance of global warming wiping out billions of people.

Even more than these two false claims, the oddest thing about Stephens' column is that he spends almost half the column arguing that Hillary Clinton's campaign was based on data, and she could have won if she allowed for the possibility that the data underestimated Trump's strength - and he thinks this means that we should doubt and even dismiss the data about global warming.

The lesson is actually just the opposite. Clinton would not have lost if she had admitted that she might have been doing worse than data-predictions. Likewise, humanity will not lose if we admit that global warming might be worse than the most likely data-based prediction.

The point of Stephens' first column is about as rational as saying that uncertainty is a reason for not buying an insurance policy. Nothing can be further from the truth.

See Stephens' column here.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The "Republic Not Democracy" Meme

If you complain on-line about the undemocratic result of the last election - with Trump getting a majority of electoral votes even though he lost the popular vote by 2.9 million - someone is likely to answer you with this right-wing meme: "The United States is not a democracy.  It is a constitutional republic."

People can use this meme only if they do not know the definitions of the words and think that a republic and a democracy are two different things.  Actually, a republic is a government where the citizens are sovereign, unlike a monarchy, where the king or queen is sovereign.  A republic can be more or less democratic.

The United States has always been a constitutional republic, but it has become more democratic over the centuries. Initially, only property owners could vote. In the early nineteenth century, the property qualification was removed and all free males could vote. Later in the nineteenth century, slavery was abolished and all males got the right to vote (in theory, though often not in practice).  In the early twentieth century, women got the right to vote. Later in the twentieth century, the Supreme Court adopted the doctrine of "one person, one vote," which required electoral districts to be roughly the same size, so state legislatures could no longer create unequal districts that give them the result they wanted.

The electoral college is the one remaining institution that does not follow the rule of "one person, one vote." Because a state's electoral votes is equal to its number of senators and representatives, voters in smaller, rural states (which are usually more conservative) have more say than voters in larger, urban states. In presidential elections, one voter in Wyoming has 3.6 times as much say as one voter in California. This is why we had elections in 2000 and 2016 where the Republican candidate won the electoral vote even though he lost the popular vote.

If the United States got rid of the electoral college, we would still be a constitutional republic, but we would be a more democratic one.

What the people who use this meme really mean is that they do not want presidential elections to become more democratic, because they would be more likely to lose.  They should say this outright, and they should carry it to its logical conclusion: they should say they want to take the vote away from women and from non-whites, so the United States would be more undemocratic and Republicans would be even more likely to win.

According to their reasoning, there is nothing wrong with this sort of anti-democratic change, because the United States is a constitutional republic, not a democracy.

Note: Actually abolishing the electoral college would require a constitutional amendment, but there is a much easier way of eliminating its influence in practice. State laws set the requirement for how electors vote.  Ten states and the District of Columbia, with a total of 30.7% of all electoral votes, have already joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.  When states with more than 50% of the electoral vote join this compact, all these states will change their laws so their electors vote for the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote, and then the winner of the popular vote will always win the electoral vote.


Friday, January 27, 2017

Berkeley Passes Right-To-Request Law

Berkeley's City Council finally passed a right-to-request law, more than two years after the passage of Measure Q, which called on the city to pass this sort of law. I wrote an op-ed for Berkeleyside explaining why I think this sort of law is so important. I also wrote the following summary of the campaign and passage of the law for workflexibility.org:

On January 24, the City Council of Berkeley, CA, passed a "right-to-request law."  This law gives employees the right to request part-time work, flexible working hours, predictable working hours, and flexible working arrangements (such as telecommuting). Employers can refuse the request by providing a business reason that they cannot accommodate the request. Employees cannot appeal the reason for the refusal.

Though it has no teeth, this sort of law has been very effective. The United Kingdom has had this sort of law since 2002, and the overwhelming majority of requests have been granted. Germany and the Netherlands have much stricter laws, which allow employees to appeal the reason for refusal and have the government make the final decision, but the percentage of requests that have been granted is about the same in the UK as in Germany and the Netherlands.  In 2013, right-to-request laws were passed in Vermont and San Francisco, and in 2014, President Obama issued an executive order giving federal employees the right to request.

In late 2013, I took the preliminary steps needed to put an advisory measure on the Berkeley ballot calling on the city to pass a right-to-request law. In the early months of 2014, we gathered signatures. Later in 2014, I got endorsements from organizations including the Sierra Club, the Berkeley Democratic Club, the National Women's Political Caucus - Alameda North, the Green Party of Alameda County, the Alameda County Democratic Party, and others.  I also got endorsements from Berkeley's mayor and from seven of the eight councilmembers; the other councilmember did not oppose the initiative but said that she did not have enough time to study it thoroughly.

No one submitted an argument against the initiative for the ballot pamphlet. With all of these endorsements and no opposition, the initiative (Measure Q on the November 2014 Berkeley ballot) won with more than 78% of the votes - an overwhelming margin.

Since this was an advisory initiative, I had to follow up the initiative victory by getting a law passed. After the election, I asked the mayor to refer the issue to the Labor Commission.

I produced a first draft of a law based on San Francisco's law. The main change I made was to remove provisions in the San Francisco law that limited the right-to-request to caregivers (such as parents of preschool children), since the initiative called on Berkeley to pass a law that applied to all employees.

The Labor Commission spent about a year working on this draft ordinance.  There was no opposition, but there were delays because this commission meets only every other month and because it was tied up with a very controversial minimum wage law at the same time.

After the Labor Commission produced a draft, city staff spent about a year reviewing and modifying it.  Staff members made some useful changes, such as replacing the penalties for noncompliance defined in the San Francisco law with the penalties that already existed in Berkeley's municipal code for noncompliance with similar ordinances.

The ordinance finally got to the city council on January 24, 2017, more than two years after the initiative passed.  It was on the Consent Calendar, which means that it is a non-controversial item to be passed without discussion.  But any councilmember can pull items from the Consent Calendar and put them on the Action Calendar for discussion, and items automatically move to the Action Calendar if four or more members of the public talk about them during the public comments on the Consent Calendar.

Before the meeting started, the vice-chair of the Labor Commission told me that he had heard the downtown merchants and Chamber of Commerce were telling people to come and speak against the ordinance - the sort of flurry of last-minute opposition that is common in Berkeley.  At worst, if large numbers spoke against it, the Council might refer the ordinance back to the Commission to deal with their concerns.

With some anxiety, we kept track of everyone who spoke about the Consent Calendar, and it turned out that only two business people spoke against our item. That meant that one of us could speak and still keep the number of speakers down to three, so it wouldn't automatically be pulled. I let the Labor Commissioner speak.

After public comments, the councilmembers can pull items from the Consent Calendar, and none of them mentioned our item.  It passed on the Consent Calendar item by unanimous consensus of the City Council.

The irony is that, after talking about this issue for two years, I did not get a chance to speak at the meeting where the ordinance was passed.

The two Labor Commission staff members who were there, the commissioner who spoke, and I all felt great that our work had finally borne fruit - and we felt great that it was passed on the Consent Calendar, both because that showed the strength of Council support and because it let us go home early rather than staying for an Action Item that they probably wouldn't have gotten to until midnight.

This appeared with minor edits on workflexibility.org