On Care For Our Common Home

19 June, 2015

There’s been a sea change on attitudes toward global warming in the last couple of years, which makes me feel much less need to determine the basic facts of the matter, or convince people of these facts. The challenge is now to do something.

Even the biggest European oil and gas companies are calling for a carbon tax! Their motives, of course, should be suspect. But they have realized it’s hopeless to argue about the basics. They wrote a letter to the United Nations beginning:

Dear Excellencies:

Climate change is a critical challenge for our world. As major companies from the oil & gas sector, we recognize both the importance of the climate challenge and the importance of energy to human life and well-being. We acknowledge that the current trend of greenhouse gas emissions is in excess of what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says is needed to limit the temperature rise to no more than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. The challenge is how to meet greater energy demand with less CO2. We stand ready to play our part.

It seems there are just a few places, mostly former British colonies, where questioning the reality and importance of man-made global warming is a popular stance among politicians. Unfortunately one of these, the United States, is a big carbon emitter. Otherwise we could just ignore these holdouts.

Given all this, it’s not so surprising that Pope Francis has joined the crowd and released a document on environmental issues:

• Pope Francis, Enyclical letter Laudato Si’: on care for our common home.

Still, it is interesting to read this document, because unlike most reports we read on climate change, it addresses the cultural and spiritual dimensions of this problem.

I believe arguments should be judged by their merits, not the fact that they’re made by someone with an impressive title like

His Holiness Francis, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, Servant of the servants of God.

(Note the hat-tip to Darwin there. )

But in fact Francis has some interesting things to say. And among all the reportage on this issue, it’s hard to find more than quick snippets of the actual 182-page document, which is actually quite interesting. So, let me quote a bit.

I will try to dodge the explicitly Christian bits, because I really don’t want people arguing about religion on this blog—in fact I won’t allow it. Of course discussing what the Pope says without getting into Christianity is very difficult and perhaps even absurd. But let’s try.

I will also skip the extensive section where he summarizes the science. It’s very readable, and for an audience who doesn’t want numbers and graphs it’s excellent. But I figure the audience of this blog already knows that material.

So, here are some of the passages I found most interesting.

St. Francis of Assisi

He discusses how St. Francis of Assisi has been an example to him, and says:

Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise.


If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.

Weak responses

On the responses to ecological problems thus far:

The problem is that we still lack the culture needed to confront this crisis. We lack leadership capable of striking out on new paths and meeting the needs of the present with concern for all and without prejudice towards coming generations. The establishment of a legal framework which can set clear boundaries and ensure the protection of ecosystems has become indispensable, otherwise the new power structures based on the techno-economic paradigm may overwhelm not only our politics but also freedom and justice.

It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected. The Aparecida Document urges that “the interests of economic groups which irrationally demolish sources of life should not prevail in dealing with natural resources”. The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests. Consequently the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented.

In some countries, there are positive examples of environmental improvement: rivers, polluted for decades, have been cleaned up; native woodlands have been restored; landscapes have been beautified thanks to environmental renewal projects; beautiful buildings have been erected; advances have been made in the production of non-polluting energy and in the improvement of public transportation. These achievements do not solve global problems, but they do show that men and women are still capable of intervening positively. For all our limitations, gestures of generosity, solidarity and care cannot but well up within us, since we were made for love.

At the same time we can note the rise of a false or superficial ecology which bolsters complacency and a cheerful recklessness. As often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear. Superficially, apart from a few obvious signs of pollution and deterioration, things do not look that serious, and the planet could continue as it is for some time. Such evasiveness serves as a licence to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.

On the risks:

It is foreseeable that, once certain resources have been depleted, the scene will be set for new wars, albeit under the guise of noble claims.

Everything is connected

He writes:

Everything is connected. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.

Moreover, when our hearts are authentically open to universal communion, this sense of fraternity excludes nothing and no one. It follows that our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings. We have only one heart, and the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships
with other people. Every act of cruelty towards any creature is “contrary to human dignity”. We can hardly consider ourselves to be fully loving if we disregard any aspect of reality: “Peace, justice and the preservation of creation are three absolutely interconnected themes, which cannot be separated and treated individually without once again falling into reductionism”.

Technology: creativity and power

Technoscience, when well directed, can produce important means of improving the quality of human life, from useful domestic appliances to great transportation systems, bridges, buildings and public spaces. It can also produce art and enable men and women immersed in the material world to “leap” into the world of beauty. Who can deny the beauty of an aircraft or a skyscraper? Valuable works of art and music now make use of new technologies. So, in the beauty intended by the one who uses new technical instruments and in the contemplation of such beauty, a quantum leap occurs, resulting in a fulfilment which is uniquely human.

Yet it must also be recognized that nuclear energy, biotechnology, information technology, knowledge of our DNA, and many other abilities which we have acquired, have given us tremendous power. More precisely, they have given those with the knowledge, and especially the economic resources to use them, an impressive dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world. Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used. We need but think of the nuclear bombs dropped in the middle of the twentieth century, or the array of technology which Nazism, Communism and other totalitarian regimes have employed to kill millions of people, to say nothing of the increasingly deadly arsenal of weapons available for modern warfare. In whose hands does all this power lie, or will it eventually end up? It is extremely risky for a small part of humanity to have it.

The globalization of the technocratic paradigm

The basic problem goes even deeper: it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm. This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation. Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit. It is the false notion that “an infinite quantity of energy and resources are available, that it is possible to renew them quickly, and that the negative effects of the exploitation of the natural order can be easily absorbed”.

The difficulty of changing course

The idea of promoting a different cultural paradigm and employing technology as a mere instrument is nowadays inconceivable. The technological paradigm has become so dominant that it would be difficult to do without its resources and even more difficult to utilize them without being dominated by their internal logic. It has become countercultural to choose a lifestyle whose goals are even partly independent of technology, of its costs and its power to globalize and make us all the same. Technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic, and those who are surrounded with technology “know full well that it moves forward in the final analysis neither for profit nor for the well-being of the human race”, that “in the most radical sense of the term power is its motive – a lordship over all”. As a result, “man seizes hold of the naked elements of both nature and human nature”. Our capacity to make decisions, a more genuine freedom and the space for each one’s alternative creativity are diminished.

The technocratic paradigm also tends to dominate economic and political life. The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings. Finance overwhelms the real economy. The lessons of the global financial crisis have not been assimilated, and we are learning all too slowly the lessons of environmental deterioration. Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, and argue, in popular and non-technical terms, that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth. They are less concerned with certain economic theories which today scarcely anybody dares defend, than with their actual operation in the functioning of the economy. They may not affirm such theories with words, but nonetheless support them with their deeds by showing no interest in more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations. Their behaviour shows that for them maximizing profits is enough.

Toward an ecological culture

Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources. There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm. Otherwise, even the best ecological initiatives can find themselves caught up in the same globalized logic. To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system.

Yet we can once more broaden our vision. We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology; we can put it at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral. Liberation from the dominant technocratic paradigm does in fact happen sometimes, for example, when cooperatives of small producers adopt less polluting means of production, and opt for a non-consumerist model of life, recreation and community. Or when technology is directed primarily to resolving people’s concrete problems, truly helping them live with more dignity and less suffering. Or indeed when the desire to create and contemplate beauty manages to overcome reductionism through a kind of salvation which occurs in beauty and in those who behold it. An authentic humanity, calling for a new synthesis, seems to dwell in the midst of our technological culture, almost unnoticed, like a mist seeping gently beneath a closed door. Will the promise last, in spite of everything, with all that is authentic rising up in stubborn resistance?

Integral ecology

Near the end he calls the for the development of an ‘integral ecology’. I find it fascinating that this has something in common with ‘network theory’:

Since everything is closely interrelated, and today’s problems call for a vision capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis, I suggest that we now consider some elements of an integral ecology, one which clearly respects its human and social dimensions.

Ecology studies the relationship between living organisms and the environment in which they develop. This necessarily entails reflection and debate about the conditions required for the life and survival of society, and the honesty needed to question certain models of development, production and consumption. It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected. Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation. Just as the different aspects of the planet—physical, chemical and biological—are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand. A good part of our genetic code is shared by many living beings. It follows that the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality.

When we speak of the “environment”, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. Recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behaviour patterns, and the ways it grasps reality. Given the scale of change, it is no longer possible to find a specific, discrete answer for each part of the problem. It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.

Due to the number and variety of factors to be taken into account when determining the environmental impact of a concrete undertaking, it is essential to give researchers their due role, to facilitate their interaction, and to ensure broad academic freedom. Ongoing research should also give us a better understanding of how different creatures relate to one another in making up the larger units which today we term “ecosystems”. We take these systems into account not only to determine how best to use them, but also because they have an intrinsic value independent of their usefulness.

Ecological education

He concludes by discussing the need for ‘ecological education’.

Environmental education has broadened its goals. Whereas in the beginning it was mainly centred on scientific information, consciousness-raising and the prevention of environmental risks, it tends now to include a critique of the “myths” of a modernity grounded in a utilitarian mindset (individualism, unlimited progress, competition, consumerism, the unregulated market). It seeks also to restore the various levels of ecological equilibrium, establishing harmony within ourselves, with others, with nature and other living creatures, and with God. Environmental education should facilitate making the leap towards the transcendent which gives ecological ethics its deepest meaning. It needs educators capable of developing an ethics of ecology, and helping people, through effective pedagogy, to grow in solidarity, responsibility and compassionate care.

Even small good practices can encourage new attitudes:

Education in environmental responsibility can encourage ways of acting which directly and significantly affect the world around us, such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices. All of these reflect a generous and worthy creativity which brings out the best in human beings. Reusing something instead of immediately discarding it, when done for the right reasons, can be an act of love which expresses our own dignity.

We must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world. They benefit society, often unbeknown to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread. Furthermore, such actions can restore our sense of self-esteem; they can enable us to live more fully and to feel that life on earth is worthwhile.

Part of the goal is to be more closely attentive to what we have, not fooled into thinking we’d always be happier with more:

It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack. This implies avoiding the dynamic of dominion and the mere accumulation of pleasures.

Such sobriety, when lived freely and consciously, is liberating. It is not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity. On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full. In reality, those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the look-out for what they do not have. They experience what it means to appreciate each person and each thing, learning familiarity with the simplest things and how to enjoy them. So they are able to shed unsatisfied needs, reducing their obsessiveness and weariness. Even living on little, they can live a lot, above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.

Why Google Gave Up

5 January, 2015

I was disappointed when Google gave up. In 2007, the company announced a bold initiative to fight global warming:

Google’s Goal: Renewable Energy Cheaper than Coal

Creates renewable energy R&D group and supports breakthrough technologies

Mountain View, Calif. (November 27, 2007) – Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) today announced a new strategic initiative to develop electricity from renewable energy sources that will be cheaper than electricity produced from coal. The newly created initiative, known as RE<C, will focus initially on advanced solar thermal power, wind power technologies, enhanced geothermal systems and other potential breakthrough technologies. RE<C is hiring engineers and energy experts to lead its research and development work, which will begin with a significant effort on solar thermal technology, and will also investigate enhanced geothermal systems and other areas. In 2008, Google expects to spend tens of millions on research and development and related investments in renewable energy. As part of its capital planning process, the company also anticipates investing hundreds of millions of dollars in breakthrough renewable energy projects which generate positive returns.

But in 2011, Google shut down the program. I never heard why. Recently two engineers involved in the project have given a good explanation:

• Ross Koningstein and David Fork, What it would really take to reverse climate change, 18 November 2014.

Please read it!

But the short version is this. They couldn’t find a way to accomplish their goal: producing a gigawatt of renewable power more cheaply than a coal-fired plant — and in years, not decades.

And since then, they’ve been reflecting on their failure and they’ve realized something even more sobering. Even if they’d been able to realize their best-case scenario — a 55% carbon emissions cut by 2050 — it would not bring atmospheric CO2 back below 350 ppm during this century.

This is not surprising to me.

What would we need to accomplish this? They say two things. First, a cheap dispatchable, distributed power source:

Consider an average U.S. coal or natural gas plant that has been in service for decades; its cost of electricity generation is about 4 to 6 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour. Now imagine what it would take for the utility company that owns that plant to decide to shutter it and build a replacement plant using a zero-carbon energy source. The owner would have to factor in the capital investment for construction and continued costs of operation and maintenance—and still make a profit while generating electricity for less than $0.04/kWh to $0.06/kWh.

That’s a tough target to meet. But that’s not the whole story. Although the electricity from a giant coal plant is physically indistinguishable from the electricity from a rooftop solar panel, the value of generated electricity varies. In the marketplace, utility companies pay different prices for electricity, depending on how easily it can be supplied to reliably meet local demand.

“Dispatchable” power, which can be ramped up and down quickly, fetches the highest market price. Distributed power, generated close to the electricity meter, can also be worth more, as it avoids the costs and losses associated with transmission and distribution. Residential customers in the contiguous United States pay from $0.09/kWh to $0.20/kWh, a significant portion of which pays for transmission and distribution costs. And here we see an opportunity for change. A distributed, dispatchable power source could prompt a switchover if it could undercut those end-user prices, selling electricity for less than $0.09/kWh to $0.20/kWh in local marketplaces. At such prices, the zero-carbon system would simply be the thrifty choice.

But “dispatchable”, they say, means “not solar”.

Second, a lot of carbon sequestration:

While this energy revolution is taking place, another field needs to progress as well. As Hansen has shown, if all power plants and industrial facilities switch over to zero-carbon energy sources right now, we’ll still be left with a ruinous amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. It would take centuries for atmospheric levels to return to normal, which means centuries of warming and instability. To bring levels down below the safety threshold, Hansen’s models show that we must not only cease emitting CO2 as soon as possible but also actively remove the gas from the air and store the carbon in a stable form. Hansen suggests reforestation as a carbon sink. We’re all for more trees, and we also exhort scientists and engineers to seek disruptive technologies in carbon storage.

How to achieve these two goals? They say government and energy businesses should spend 10% of employee time on “strange new ideas that have the potential to be truly disruptive”.

Finding and Solving Problems

18 February, 2014

Luke Muelhauser, executive director of the Machine Intelligence Research Insitute, has been doing some interviews:

Scott Aaronson on philosophical progress.

Greg Morrisett on secure and reliable systems.

Robin Hanson on serious futurism.

Recently he interviewed me. Here’s how it went.

LM: In a previous interview, I asked Scott Aaronson which “object-level research tactics” he finds helpful when trying to make progress in theoretical research, and I provided some examples. Do you have any comments on the research tactics that Scott and I listed? Which recommended tactics of your own would you add to the list?

JB: What do you mean by “object-level” research tactics? I’ve got dozens of tactics. Some of them are ways to solve problems. But equally important, or maybe more so, are tactics for coming up with problems to solve: problems that are interesting but still easy enough to solve. By “object-level”, do you mean the former?

LM: Both! Conceiving of—and crisply posing—good research problems can often be even more important than solving previously-identified research problems.

JB: Okay. Here are some of my tactics.

(1) Learn a lot. Try to understand how the whole universe works, from the philosophical, logical, mathematical and physical aspects to chemistry, biology, and the sciences based on those, to the historical sciences such as cosmology, paleontology, archaeology and history, to the social sciences such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, politics and economics, to the aspects that are captured best in literature, art and music.

It’s a never-ending quest, and obviously it pays to specialize and become more of an expert on a few things – but the more angles you can take on any subject, the more likely you are to stumble on good questions or good answers to existing questions. Also, when you get stuck on a problem, or get tired, it can be really re-energizing to learn new things.

(2) Keep synthesizing what you learn into terser, clearer formulations. The goal of learning is not to memorize vast amounts of data. You need to do serious data compression, and filter out the noise. Very often people will explain things to you in crappy ways, presenting special cases and not mentioning the general rules, stating general rules incorrectly, and so on.

This process goes on forever. When you first learn algebraic topology, for example, they teach you. homology theory. At the beginner’s level, this is presented as a rather complicated recipe for taking a topological space and getting a list of groups out of it. By looking at examples you get insight into what these groups do: the nth one counts the n-dimensional holes, in some sense. You learn how to use them to solve problems, and how to efficiently compute them.

But later—much later, in my case—you learn that algebraic topology of this sort not really about topological spaces, but something more abstract, called “homotopy types”. This is a discovery that happened rather slowly. It crystallized around the 1968, when a guy named Quillen wrote a book on “homotopical algebra”. It’s always fascinating when this happens: when people in some subject learn that its proper object of study is not what they had thought!

But even this was just the beginning: a lot has happened in math since the 1960s. Shortly thereafter, Grothendieck came along and gave us a new dream of what homotopy types might actually be. Very roughly, he realized that they should show up naturally if we think of “equality” as a process—the process of proving two thing are the same—rather than a static relationship.

I’m being pretty vague here, but I want to emphasize that this was a very fundamental discovery with widespread consequences, not a narrow technical thing.

For a long time people have struggled to make Grothendieck’s dream precise. I was involved in that myself for a while. But in the last 5 years or so, a guy named Voevodsky made a lot of progress by showing us how to redo the foundations of mathematics so that instead of treating equality as a mere relationship, it’s a kind of process. This new approach gives an alternative to set theory, where we use homotopy types right from the start as the basic objects of mathematics, instead of sets. It will take about a century for the effects of this discovery to percolate through all of math.

So, you see, by taking something important but rather technical, like algebraic topology, and refusing to be content with treating it as a bunch of recipes to be memorized, you can dig down into deep truths. But it takes great persistence. Even if you don’t discover these truths yourself, but merely learn them, you have to keep simplifying and unifying.

(3) Look for problems, not within disciplines, but in the gaps between existing disciplines. The division of knowledge into disciplines is somewhat arbitrary, and people put most of their energy into questions that lie squarely within disciplines, so it shouldn’t be surprising that many interesting things are lurking in the gaps, waiting to be discovered.

At this point, tactics (1) and (2) really come in handy. If you study lots of subjects and keep trying to distill their insights into terse, powerful formulations, you’re going to start noticing points of contact between these subjects. Sometimes these will be analogies that deserve to be made precise. Sometimes people in one subject know a trick that people in some other subject could profit from. Sometimes people in one subject have invented the hammer, and people in another have invented the nail—and neither know what these things are good for!

(4) Talk to lots of people. This is a great way to broaden your vistas and find connections between seemingly different subjects.

Talk to the smartest people who will condescend to talk to you. Don’t be afraid to ask them questions. But don’t bore them. Smart people tend to be easily bored. Try to let them talk about what’s interesting to them, instead of showing off and forcing them to listen to your brilliant ideas. But make sure to bring them some “gifts” so they’ll want to talk to you again. “Gifts” include clear explanations of things they don’t understand, and surprising facts—little nuggets of knowledge.

One of my strategies for this was to write This Week’s Finds, explaining lots of advanced math and physics. You could say that column is a big pile of gifts. I started out as a nobody, but after ten years or so, lots of smart people had found out about me. So now it’s pretty easy for me to blunder into any subject, write a blog post about it, and get experts to correct me or tell me more. I also get invited to give talks, where I meet lots of smart people.

LM: You’ve explained some tactics for how to come up with problems to solve. Once you generate a good list, how do you choose among them?

JB: Here are two bits of advice on that.

(1) Actually write down lists of problems.

When I was just getting started, I had a small stock of problems to think about – so small that I could remember most of them. Many were problems I’d heard from other people, but most of those were too hard. I would also generate my own problems, but they were often either too hard, too vague, or too trivial.

In more recent years I’ve been able to build up a huge supply of problems to think about. This means I need to actually list them. Often I generate these lists using the ‘data compression’ tactic I mentioned in part (2) of my last answer. When I learn stuff, I ask:

• Is this apparently new concept or fact a special case of some concept or fact I already know?

• Given two similar-sounding concepts or facts, can I find a third having both of these as special cases?

• Can I use the analogy between X and Y to do something new in subject Y that’s analogous to something people have already done in subject X?

• Given a rough ‘rule of thumb’, can I state it more precisely so that it holds always, or at least more often?

as well as plenty of more specific questions.

So, instead of being ‘idea-poor’, with very few problems to work on, I’m now ‘idea-rich’, and the challenge is keeping track of all the problems and finding the best ones.

I always carry around a notebook. I write down questions that seem interesting, especially when I’m bored. The mere act of writing them down either makes them less vague or reveals them to be hopelessly fuzzy. Sometimes I can solve a problem just by taking the time to state it precisely. And the act of writing down questions naturally triggers more questions.

Besides questions, I like ‘analogy charts’, consisting of two or more columns with analogous items lined up side by side. You can see one near the bottom of my 2nd article on quantropy. Quantropy is an idea born of the analogy between thermodynamics and quantum mechanics. This is a big famous analogy, which I’d known for decades, but writing down an analogy chart made me realize there was a hole in the analogy. In thermodynamics we have entropy, so what’s the analogous thing in quantum mechanics? It turns out there’s an answer: quantropy.

I later wrote a paper with Blake Pollard on quantropy, but I gave a link to the blog article because that’s another aspect of how I keep track of questions. I don’t just write lists for myself—I write blog articles about things that I want to understand better.

(2) Only work on problems when you think they’re important and you see how to solve them.

This tactic isn’t for everyone, but it works for me. When I was just getting started I would try to solve problems that I had no idea how to solve. People who are good at puzzles may succeed this way, but I generally did not.

It turns out that for me, a better approach is to make long lists of questions, and keep thinking about them on and off for many years. I slowly make progress until—poof!—I think I see something new and important. Only then do a take a problem off the back burner and start intensely working on it.

The physicist John Wheeler put it this way: you should never do a calculation until you already know the answer. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, because it’s also good to fool around and see where things go. But there’s a lot more truth to it than you might think.

Feynman had a different but related rule of thumb: he only worked on a problem when he felt he had an “inside track” on it—some insight or trick up his sleeve that nobody else had.

LM: And once you’ve chosen a problem to solve, what are some of your preferred tactics for actually solving it?

JB: By what I’ve said before, it’s clear that I get serious about a problem only after I have a darn good idea of how to solve it. At the very least, I believe I know what to do. So, I just do it.

But usually it doesn’t work quite that easily.

If you only officially tackle problems after absolutely every wrinkle has been ironed out by your previous musings, you’re being too cautious: you’ll miss working on a lot of interesting things. Many young researchers seem to fall prey to the opposite error, and waste time being completely stuck. The right balance lies in the middle. You break a problem down into sub-problems, and break those down into sub-subproblems… and you decide you’re ready to go when all these sub-subproblems seem likely to be doable, even before you’ve worked through the details.

How can you tell if they’re doable? This depends a lot on having previous experience with similar problems. If you’re a newbie, things that seem hard to you can be really easy to experts, while things that seem easy can turn out to be famously difficult.

Even with experience, some of sub-subproblems that seem likely to be routine will turn out to be harder than expected. That’s where the actual work comes in. And here it’s good to have lots of tricks. For example:

(1) If you can’t solve a problem, there should be a similar problem that’s a bit easier. Try solving that. And if you can’t solve that one… use the same principle again! Keep repeating until you get down to something you can solve. Then climb your way back up, one step at a time.

Don’t be embarrassed to simplify a problem to the point where you can actually do it.

(2) There are lots of ways to make a problem easier. Sometimes you should consider a special case. In math there are special cases of special cases of special cases… so there’s a lot of room for exploration here. If you see how enough special cases work, you’ll get ideas that may help you for your original problem.

(3) On the other hand, sometimes a problem becomes simpler when you generalize, leaving out potentially irrelevant details. Often people get stuck in clutter. But if it turns out the generalization doesn’t work, it may help you see which details were actually relevant.

(4) Sometimes instead of down or up the ladder of generality it pays to move across, by considering an analogous problem in a related field.

(5) Finally, a general hint: keep a written record of your efforts to solve a problem, including explanations of what didn’t work, and why. Look back at what you wrote from time to time. It’s amazing how often I come close to doing something right, forget about it, and come back later—sometimes years later—and see things from a slightly different angle, which makes everything fall into place. Failure can be just millimeters from success.

Global Climate Change Negotiations

28 October, 2013


There were many interesting talks at the Interdisciplinary Climate Change Workshop last week—too many for me to describe them all in detail. But I really must describe the talks by Radoslav Dimitrov. They were full of important things I didn’t know. Some are quite promising.

Radoslav S. Dimitrov is a professor at the Department of Political Science at Western University. What’s interesting is that he’s also been a delegate for the European Union at the UN climate change negotiations since 1990! His work documents the history of climate negotiations from behind closed doors.

Here are some things he said:

• In international diplomacy, there is no questioning the reality and importance of human-caused climate change. The question is just what to do about it.

• Governments go through every line of the IPCC reports twice. They cannot add anything the scientists have written, but they can delete things. All governments have veto power. This makes the the IPCC reports more conservative than they otherwise would be: “considerably diluted”.

• The climate change negotiations have surprised political scientists in many ways:

1) There is substantial cooperation even without the USA taking the lead.

2) Developing countries are accepting obligations, with many overcomplying.

3) There has been action by many countries and subnational entities without any treaty obligations.

4) There have been repeated failures of negotiation despite policy readiness.

• In 2011, China and Saudi Arabia rejected the final agreement at Durban as inadequate. Only Canada, the United States and Australia had been resisting stronger action on climate change. Canada abandoned the Kyoto Protocol the day after the collapse of negotiations at Durban. They publicly blamed China, India and Brazil, even though Brazil had accepted dramatic emissions cuts and China had, for the first time, accepted limits on emissions. Only India had taken a “hardline” attitude. Publicly blaming some other country for the collapse of negotiations is a no-no in diplomacy, so the Chinese took this move by Canada as a slap in the face. In return, they blamed Canada and “the West” for the collapse of Durban.

• Dimitrov is studying the role of persuasion in diplomacy, recording and analyzing hundreds of hours of discussions. Countries try to change each other’s minds, not just behavior.

• The global elite do not see climate change negotiations as an environmental issue. Instead, they feel they are “negotiating the future economy”. They focus on the negative economic consequences of inaction, and the economic benefits of climate action.

• In particular, the EU has managed to persuade many countries that climate change is worth tackling now. They do this with economic, not environmental arguments. For example, they argue that countries who take the initiative will have an advantage in future employment, getting most of the “green jobs”. Results include China’s latest 5-year plan, which some have called “the most progressive legislation in history”, and also Japan’s plan for a 60-80% reduction of carbon emissions. The EU itself also expects big returns on investment in climate change.

I apologize for any oversimplifications or downright errors in my notes here.


You can see some slides for Dimitrov’s talks here:

• Radoslav S. Dimitrov, A climate of change.

For more, try reading this article, which is free online:

• Radoslav S. Dimitrov, Inside Copenhagen: the state of climate governance, Global Environmental Politics 10 (2010), 18–24.

and these more recent book chapters, which are apparently not as easy to get:

• Radoslav S. Dimitrov, Environmental diplomacy, in Handbook of Global Environmental Politics, edited by Paul Harris, Routledge, forthcoming as of 2013.

• Radoslav S. Dimitrov, International negotiations, in Handbook of Global Climate and Environmental Policy, edited by Robert Falkner, Wiley-Blackwell forthcoming as of 2013.

• Radoslav S. Dimitrov, Persuasion in world politics: The UN climate change negotiations, in Handbook of Global Environmental Politics, edited by Peter Dauvergne, Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham, UK, 2012.

• Radoslav S. Dimitrov, American prosperity and the high politics of climate change, in Prospects for a Post-American World, edited by Sabrina Hoque and Sean Clark, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2012.

What To Do About Climate Change?

23 October, 2013

Here are the slides for my second talk in the Interdisciplinary Climate Change Workshop at the Balsillie School of International Affairs:

What To Do About Climate Change?

Like the first it’s just 15 minutes long, so it’s very terse.

I start by noting that slowing the rate of carbon burning won’t stop global warming: most carbon dioxide stays in the air over a century, though individual molecules come and go. Global warming is like a ratchet.

So, we will:

1) leave fossil fuels unburnt,

2) sequester carbon,

3) actively cool the Earth, and/or

4) live with a hotter climate.

Of course we may do a mix of these…. though we’ll certainly do some of option 4), and we might do only this one. My goal in this short talk is not mainly to argue for a particular mix! I mainly want to present some information about the various options.

I do not say anything about the best ways to do option 4); I merely provide some arguments that we’ll wind up doing a lot of this one… because I’m afraid some of the participants in the workshop may be in denial about that.

I also argue that we should start doing research on option 3), because like it or not, I think people are going to become very interested in geoengineering, and without enough solid information about it, people are likely to make bad mistakes: for example, diving into ambitious projects out of desperation.

As usual, if you click on a phrase in blue in this talk, you can get more information.

I want to really thank everyone associated with Azimuth for helping find and compile the information used in this talk! It’s really been a team effort!

What Is Climate Change and What To Do About It?

13 October, 2013

Soon I’m going to a workshop on Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Climate Change at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, or BSIA, in Waterloo, Canada. It’s organized by Simon Dalby, who has a chair in the political economy of climate change at this school.

The plan is to gather people from many different disciplines to provide views on two questions: what is climate change, and what to do about it?

We’re giving really short talks, leaving time for discussion. But before I get there I need to write a 2000-word paper on my view of climate change—‘as a mathematician’, supposedly. That’s where I want your help. I think I know roughly what I want to say, and I’ll post some drafts here as soon as I write them. But I’d like get your ideas, too.

For starters, the program looks like this:

Friday 25 October: What is Climate Change?

9:00 – 9:30 Introductory remarks
John Ravenhill, Director, BSIA
Dan Scott, University of Waterloo, Interdiscipinary Centre for Climate Change.
Simon Dalby, BSIA

9:30 – 10:45 Presentation Session 1
Chair: Sara Koopman, BSIA
John Baez, University of California (Mathematics)
Jean Andrey, University of Waterloo (Geography)
Byron Williston, Wilfrid Laurier University (Philosophy)

11:15 – 12:30 Presentation Session 2
Chair: Marisa Beck, BSIA
Chris Russill, Carleton University (Communications)
Mike Hulme, Kings’ College London (Climate Science)
Radoslav Dimitrov, Western University (Political Science)

1:30 – 2:30 Presentation Session 3
Chair: Matt Gaudreau, BSIA
Jatin Nathwani, University of Waterloo (Engineering)
Sarah Burch, University of Waterloo (New Social Media and Education)

3:00 – 5:00 Roundtable 1 (all presenters)
Chair: Lucie Edwards, BSIA
Discussant: Vanessa Schweizer, University of Waterloo

5:00 – 5:15 Wrap-up
Dan Scott and Simon Dalby

Saturday 26 October: What Should We Do About It?

9:00 – 10:15 Presentation Session 4
Chair: Matt Gaudreau, BSIA
Radoslav Dimitrov, Western University (Political Science)
Mike Hulme, Kings’ College London (Climate Science)
Jean Andrey, University of Waterloo (Geography)

10:45 – 12:00 Presentation Session 5
Chair: Lucie Edwards, BSIA
Jatin Nathwani, University of Waterloo (Engineering)
Sarah Burch, University of Waterloo (Environmental Education)
Chris Russill, Carleton University (Communications)

1:00 – 2:00 Presentation Session 6
Chair: Marisa Beck, BSIA
Byron Williston, Wilfrid Laurier University (Philosophy)
John Baez, University of California (Mathematics)

2:30 – 4:30 Roundtable 2 (all presenters)
Chair: Sara Koopman, BSIA
Discussant: James Orbinski, CIGI Chair in Global Health

4:30 – 5:00 Wrap-up
Dan Scott and Simon Dalby

Some thoughts

Though I’m playing a designated role in this workshop—the “mathematician”—I don’t think it makes sense to focus on mathematical models of climate change, or the math projects I’m working on now.

I will probably seem strange and “mathematical” enough just saying what I think about climate change! Most of the other people come from fields quite different than mine: they seem much more in tune with the nitty-gritty details of politics and economics. So, perhaps my proper role is to mention some facts and numbers that they probably know already, to remind them of the magnitude, scope and urgency of the problem.

It may also be useful to emphasize that with very high probability, we won’t do enough soon enough, so we need to study a series of fallback positions, not just an ‘optimal’ response to climate change. And these fallback positions should go as far as thinking about what happens if we burn all the available carbon. What to do then?

When I talked about this workshop with the mathematician Sasha Beilinson, he wickedly suggested that the best solution to global warming might be a global economic collapse… and he asked if anyone was looking into this.

Of course this solution comes along with huge problems, and anyone who actually advocates it is branded as a nut and excluded from the ‘serious’ discourse on global warming. But the funny thing is, a global economic collapse could be just as probable as some more optimistic scenarios, for example those that require a massive outbreak of altruism worldwide.

So it’s worth thinking about economic collapse scenarios, and ‘burn carbon until there’s none left’ scenarios, even if we don’t want them. And these are the sort of things that only the mathematician in the room may be brave—or foolish—enough to mention.

What else?

What To Do? (Part 2)

28 August, 2013

Dear John,

If you could do anything to change the world what would you do? Many people haven’t had the opportunity to ponder that question because they have been busy studying what could be possible within a particular set of resource constraints. However, what if we push the limits? If all the barriers were removed, then what would you do?

The XXXXXXXXX Foundation has an open, aggressive, and entrepreneurial approach to philanthropy. Our goal is to produce substantial, widespread and lasting changes to society that will maximize opportunity and minimize injustice. We tap into the minds of fearless thinkers who have big, bold, transformational ideas, and work with them to invest in strategies designed to solve persistent problems.

Our team is reaching out to you because we believe you are the type of innovative thinker with ideas that just might change the world. While this is not a promise of grant funding, it is an invitation to share your ideas. You can learn more about the XXXXXXXXX Foundation by visiting our website. Thank you for your interest and I look forward to hearing your ideas.


I got this email yesterday. While I have some ideas, I really want to make the most of this chance. So: what would you do if you got this sort of opportunity? To keep things simple, let’s assume this is a legitimate email from a truly well-meaning organization—I’m checking that, and it seems to be so. Assume they could spend 1-10 million dollars on a really good idea, and assume you really want to help the world. What idea would you suggest?

Some ideas

Here are some comments from G+ to get your thoughts going. Heather Vandagriff wrote:

Hard core grassroots organization toward political involvement and education on climate issues. 

Jason Holt wrote:

Ideas are cheap.

Borislav Iordanov wrote:

I don’t agree that ideas are cheap. It could take a lifetime to have a really good one. However, one could argue that really good ideas are probably already funded. But if to maximize opportunity and to minimize injustice is the motivation, I say government transparency should be top priority. I can google the answer to almost any technical or scientific question, any historical fact, or pop culture, you name it. But I can’t know what my government is doing. And I’m not talking only, or even mostly, about things that governments hide. I’m talking about mundane day-to-day operations that are potentially not conducted in the best interest of the people, knowingly or unknowingly. I can easily find what are the upcoming concerts or movies, but it’s much harder to find out what, for instance, my local government is currently discussing so I can perhaps stop by the commissioner chamber and have my voice being heard (why aren’t there TV commercials about the public hearing of the next city ordinance?).

I realize this is not a concrete idea, but there are plenty of projects in that direction around the internet. And I don’t think such projects should come only from within government agencies because there is a conflict of interest.

Bottom line is that any sustainable, permanent change towards a better society has to involve the political process in some way, and the best (peaceful!) way to enact change there starts with real and consequential openness. Didn’t expect to write so much, sorry…

John Baez wrote:

Borislav Iordanov wrote:

But if to maximize opportunity and to minimize injustice is the motivation, I say government transparency should be top priority.

That’s a great idea… and in fact, this foundation already has a project to promote government transparency. So, I’ll either need to come up with a specific way to promote it that they haven’t thought about, or come up with something else.

Noon Silk wrote:

I guess the easy answer is some sort of education program; educating people in some way so-as to generate the skills necessary to do the thing that you really want to do. So I don’t know. Perhaps part of it could be some sort campaign to get a few coursera et al courses on climate maths, etc, and building some sort of innovative and exciting program around that.

Richard Lucas wrote:

Use existing corporate law (thanks, Capitalists!) to create collectives (maybe non-profits?) into which people could elect to participate. Participation would be contingent upon adoption of a certain set of standards for behavior impossible in the broader, geographical society in which we are immersed. Participants would enjoy a guaranteed minimum income, health care, etc – the goals of Communism, but in a limited scope, applied to participants who also exist in the general society. It’s just that participants would agree to share time, resources, and expertise with the collective. If collective living can’t be made to work in such an environment, where participation could be relatively selective up front, to include the honest and the committed…. well, then it can’t work. When the right formula is established, and the standard of living for participants is greater than for peers who are not “participants”, then you can expect more people to join. A tipping point would eventually be reached, where the majority of citizens in the broader, geographical society were also participants in an optional, voluntary, supersociety which does not respect geographic or national boundaries.

This is the only way it will work, and the beauty is that Communists and Objectivists equally hate this idea, because it breaks their frames, and because it is legal, and because if the larger society tried to block it, they would then have to justify the ability of crazy UFO cults and religions to do it. So, it can’t be stopped. There’s no theory to defend. You just do it.

Xah Lee wrote:

put the $10M to increase internet penetration, or in other ways enhance communication such as cell phone.

absolutely do not do anything that’s normally considered as good or helpful to humanity. such as help africa, women, the weak, the cripple, poor, vaccine, donation, institutionalized education etc.

even though, i’m still doubtful there’d be any improvement of humanity. $10M is like a peanut for this. One missile is $10M… 

John Baez wrote:

Xah Lee wrote:

even though, i’m still doubtful there’d be any improvement of humanity. $10M is like a peanut for this.

There are certain activities where the benefit is roughly proportional to the amount of money spent – like, giving people bed-netting that repels malaria-carrying mosquitos, or buying textbooks for students. For such activities, $10 million is often not enough to get the job done.

But there are other activities where $10 million is the difference between some good self-perpetuating phenomenon starting to happen, and it not starting to happen. This is the kind of thing I should suggest.

It’s the difference between pushing a large rock up a long hill, and starting a rock rolling down a hill.

By the way, this foundation plans to spend a lot more than $10M in total. I just want to suggest a project that will seem cheap to them, to increase the chance that they actually pursue it.

Piotr Migdal wrote:

I think that the thing that needs a drastic change in the education system. I suggest founding a “hacker university” (or “un-university”).

The educational system was designed for preparation of soldiers and factory workers. Now the job market is very different, and one cannot hope to work in one factory for his/her lifetime. Additionally, the optimal skill set is not necessarily the same for everyone (and it changes, as the World changes). But the worst thing is that schools teaches that “take no initiative, just obey” which stops working once one needs to find a job. Plus, for more creative tasks usually the top-down approach is the worst one (contrasting with the coordination tasks).

While changing the whole system may be hard, let’s think about universities; or a… un-university. Instead of attending predefined classes, let’s do the following:
• based on self-learning,
• lectures are because someone is willing to give them,
• everything voluntary (e.g. lectures and classes),
• own projects highly encouraged, starting from day one.

So basically, a collection of people who actually want to learn (!= earn a degree / prestige / position / fame), perform research which they consider the most fascinating (not merely doing science which is currently most fashionable and well-funded or “my advisor/grant/dean told so”) and undertake projects for greater good (startup-like freedom (unexperienceable in the current academia, at least – for the young) for things not necessarily giving monetary profit).

Sure, you may argue that there are more important goals (unemployment, bureaucracy, poverty, wars, ongoing destruction of natural environment – to name only a few in no particular order). But this one can be a nucleus for solving many other problems – wider in education and in general. And such a spark may yield in an unimaginable firestorm (a bad metaphor, it has to be about creation) seed can grow, flourish and make deserts blossom.


By founding I don’t mean paying for administration. Quite opposite – just rent a building, nothing more (so no tuition and no renting cost for students, to make it accessible regardless of the background). Almost all stuff (e.g. admission) in the first years based entirely on voluntary work.

John Baez wrote:

Noon Silk wrote: “I guess the easy answer is some sort of education program…”

That sounds good. The foundation already has a program to improve K-12 education in the United States. So, when it comes to education, I’d either need to give them ideas they haven’t tried in that realm, get them interested in education outside the US, or get them interested in post-secondary education. Piotr Migdal’s idea of a ‘hacker university’ might be one approach. It also seems the potential of free worldwide online courses has not yet been fully exploited. 

Piotr Migdal wrote:

The point is in going well beyond online courses (which, IMHO, are nice but not that revolutionary – textbooks are there for quite a few years; I consider things like Usenet, Wikipedia and StackExchange way more impactful for education) – by gathering a critical mass of intelligent and passionate people. But anyway, it may be the right time for innovations in education (and not only small patches).

Robert Byrne wrote:

Firstly, thanks for sharing this John! Secondly, congratulations on being chosen!

I would look into three aspects of this. 1) Who funds it, and whether you are comfortable with that, 2) do they choose candidates and generally have processes that make use of the experience of similar organizations such as MacArthur?, 3) what limits are there on using the grant — could you design your own prize to solve a problem using these funds?

But you’ve asked for ideas. The biggest problems that can be fixed/improved for $5 million! I’ll stick to education and technology. Here are some areas:
• Education reform in the U.S., think-tanks or writers who can create a model to switch away from municipal public education funding, with the aim of reducing disadvantage,
• Office, factory and home power efficiency technology, anything that needs $1 million to get to prototype,
• Solve the commute/car problem — e.g. how can more people work within the suburb in which they live? How can public transit be useful in sprawling suburbs?

John Baez wrote:

Robert Byrne wrote:

Firstly, thanks for sharing this John! Secondly, congratulations on being chosen!

Thanks! I’ve been chosen to give them ideas.

“I would look into three aspects of this. 1) Who funds it, and whether you are comfortable with that, 2) do they choose candidates and generally have processes that make use of the experience of similar organizations such as MacArthur?, 3) what limits are there on using the grant — could you design your own prize to solve a problem using these funds?”

Thanks – I definitely plant to look the gift horse in the mouth. They didn’t say anything about giving me a grant, except to say “this is not a promise of a grant”.

So, right now I’m treating this as an exercise in coming up with a really good idea that I’m happy to give away and let someone try. Naturally there’s a self-serving part of me that wants to pick an idea where my participation would be required. But knowing me, I’ll actually be happiest if I can catalyze something good in a limited amount of time and then think about other things.

“Solve the commute/car problem — e.g. how can more people work within the suburb in which they live? How can public transit be useful in sprawling suburbs?”

My wife Lisa raised this one. I would love to do something about this. But what can be done for just 1-10 million dollars? To do something good in this field with that amount of money, it seems we’d need to have a really smart idea: something where a small change can initiate some sort of chain reaction. Any specific ideas?

And so on…

In some ways this post is a followup to What To Do (Part 1), so if you haven’t read that, you might want to now.


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