Central Park Studios hostel, Manhattan

While in New York, Emily and I stayed at the Central Park Studios hostel. It seems worthwhile to say a few things for the benefit of future travelers, as I have often found the general hostel rating sites less than useful. The hostel consists of a number of apartment buildings that have been converted: each with several multi-bunk bedrooms, along with shared bathroom and kitchen facilities. The rooms are pretty good: cool, fairly clean, and bug free. They provide decent sheets and towels. The kitchens are tolerable. The bathrooms are bad enough to make you wonder if there are any YMCA facilities nearby, but not quite bad enough to actually make you go looking for them. Ours featured a particularly nasty tub, icy shower, and spreading black fungus on the ceiling. The location is decent: two blocks from a subway line and close to a grocery store. One morning, Emily and I assembled avocado and cheese sandwiches on the sidewalk, rather than brave one of the less-than-sanitary and far-from-vegetarian looking restaurants in the immediate vicinity.

Bunks in the shared rooms are around $45 a night.

In my experience, the place is definitely better than the Hosteling International facility on Amsterdam, near Columbia University. That being said, first time visitors to Manhattan should be aware that they will probably pay twice as much as normal for a hostel, and have to settle for somewhere significantly louder and dirtier than would be available in most other cities.

Manifestos on the Future of Food & Seed

This collection of essays, edited by Vandana Shiva, varies considerably in tone and degree of novelty. The manifestos themselves seem ham-fisted and loaded with unsupported assertions. It is not that no convincing case can be made for many of the arguments raised; rather, the authors simply choose not to do so. It is an approach that will win them few converts. In general, the book contains a number of positions towards which I am sympathetic: that patents on living things are highly dubious, that the present food system is unsustainable, that the agricultural policies of most states are inappropriate and often immoral. It simply manages to convey most of these points in a shrill and off-putting manner: the kind of voice that makes you take an opposing stand almost by reflex.

Most of the authors seem to profoundly misunderstand the nature of the global trade system. As with so many other blanket anti-globalization activists, they seem to think the WTO is some kind of wicked and powerful entity, enforcing its will against states. It is more accurate to say that it is an imperfect vehicle for trying to create some trade rules formulated on something other than economic and geopolitical power. It is a goal rarely achieved – how could it be? – but a worthy one nonetheless. Similarly, the WTO does not impose outside restrictions on the kind of food safety laws states can adopt. It simply requires that the same standard be applied to domestic producers as importers. You cannot reject beef produced using recombinant bovine growth hormone abroad while allowing domestic industrial agribusinesses to use the same substance. Naturally, if you are big and economically powerful, you can more or less do as you like (witness WTO rulings against American maize subsidies, for instance).

The book also seems to be a bit short of real content where genetically modified organisms and antibiotic resistance are concerned. Both naturally raise important questions of health, safety, and ethics. The nuances of the discussion, however, are poorly served by a book that asserts that the Green Revolution was actually harmful to the world’s poor. Genetically modified organisms could certainly produce adverse outcomes. At the same time, they might be able to help us reduce our dependence on toxic pesticides, reduce the carbon emissions associated with shipping and refrigeration, and deal with the consequences of climate change. Similarly, while there is much to lament about current global trade practices, the kind of protectionism advocated by most of the authors is unlikely to help either the poor or the sustainability of agriculture. What is necessary is that the total social and environmental costs of economic activities be borne by the relevant parties: not that food is grown in a particular place, domestic producers receive preferential treatment, or that the world re-fragments into disparate economies.

While the book doesn’t really make it, there is an excellent case for a global transition to new forms of agriculture. Important elements include replacing vulnerable monocultures with resilient polycultures, sharply restricting the use of antibiotics, reducing the intensity of fossil fuel use, and otherwise taking into account the many social and environmental costs of agriculture that are ignored when it is undertaken in an industrial manner. There is likewise a very strong case to be made about reforming the global intellectual property regime. It is extremely dubious to be able to patent a gene that you have moved from one creature to another. It is similarly dubious to sell seeds on a ‘licensed’ basis, where they can only be legally used for one crop.

In the end, it is hard to see who this book is for. It doesn’t contain enough substantive argumentation to convert anyone – though there is one good essay written by a local foods grocer, railing against both Walmart and Whole Foods. It likewise does not contain a viable plan for changing the nature of the global food system. Here, Michael Pollan seems to adopt the most reasonable position: accepting the popularization of organic and local food as progress, while others angrily reject them as insufficient. A book that helped to enlarge that beachhead, while providing some strategic direction towards a genuinely sustainable global food system, would have a lot more value than this short, flawed text.

New York bound

The planned trip to small town Vermont has grown a big city offshoot. For the next three days, Emily and I will be visiting Manhattan. It has been five years since I was last there, and I am excited about the prospect of seeing some new things. Because of the 2003 blackout, for instance, the Guggenheim was closed during my last visit.

Big Bang

In the past, I have praised Simon Singh for the clarity and quality of his explanations, when it comes to matters scientific and mathematical. That capacity is on display once more in Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe. The book provides a good introduction to the history of cosmology, from the ancient world to the recent past. The book covers the contributions of figures like Keppler, Copernicus, Galileo , Newton, and Einstein. It also provides good information and anecdotes on those who actually provided the data that validated the theories. The book provides a good basic description of relativity (both special and general), though those seeking a better understanding would be better served by the first half of Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe, which contains the best explanations of relativity and quantum mechanics I have encountered.

One thing it should lay to rest is the false and pernicious belief that it was only the European crossing of the Atlantic that led to the general belief that the Earth is spherical. Not only did the ancient Greeks know this by 300 BCE, they knew the size of the planet, the size of the moon and the distance to it, and the size of the sun and distance to it. All this from trigonometry and logical reasoning, starting with Eratosthenes. It also does a good job of explaining the ways in which now discredited theories stood up to scientific scrutiny at the time. It was only with refinement that the heliocentric view of the solar system had more predictive power than Ptolemy’s geocentric model, for instance. Similarly, the debate between Big Bang and Steady State theorists could only be resolved through the improvement of both theoretical positions and empirical measurements. The book touches upon some of the key ideas of Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which could be an excellent thing to read as a more technical follow-up.

For me, this book lacked some of the excitement of The Code Book and Fermat’s Last Theorem, but I think this was almost entirely because I already knew most of what is in it: from Grecian planet measurement to the detection of cosmic microwave background radiation. For those less familiar with our evolving knowledge about the origin of our universe, this is an extremely clear and accessible introduction. To those unfamiliar with the origin of the stars, galaxies, and elements that make up our universe, this book is a great place to start.

My non-fiction list

One thing I have noticed about grad students (a category that partially includes those merely destined to eventually attend grad school) is that any bookshelf or stack of books has the power to draw their eye. Upon entering a new dwelling, their eyes dart across book spines in search of improved understanding of the denizen of the place.

In something of the same spirit, here is a brief analysis of the books in my non-fiction to-read list. The subject areas and number of books are as follows:

Science (7)
The environment (6)
International relations (6)
Law and politics (5)
Security (3)
Economics (3)
Cryptography (2)
Math (2)
Travel (1)
Cooking (1)
Music (1)

It would also be interesting to analyze the rates at which books in different categories are added and removed, but that is a project for another time.

Among those I have reviewed:

The environment (6)
Science (6)
Economics (4)
Security (3)
International relations (3)
Religion (2)
Cryptography (1)
Math (1)

Hopefully, the span of time I will be spending in Vermont (July 26th to August 6th) will allow me to add a few items to the second list and remove some from the first.

Improvement to GMail security

Array of cheeses

Much to my delight, GMail has added an ‘Activity on this account’ feature. It is located down at the bottom of the inbox page, where it lists the time of last account activities. Clicking ‘Details’ leads to a pop-up showing the last five instances of account access, the form of access (browser, POP, IMAP, etc), and the IP address.

This is a big security advance. Previously, anyone who knew your GMail password could access your account at will, with no way for you to know. They could even be logged in at the same time as you, with no sign on your machine that this was happening. This is also addressed by the new feature, which includes an option to log out all other accounts.

GMail users should definitely take a peek at this information from time to time, especially if they are in the habit of using their account from shared or public computers. Given (a) how much information the accounts store and (b) how easily searchable they are, any attack that gains access to your GMail account could have serious consequences.

WiFi wars

The present situation in my flat is a classic failure of coordination. There are so many (encrypted) wireless networks operating that interference seems to have become a major issue. Internet access has become slow and unreliable. Of the eleven channels in the 802.11b/g standard, only three (1, 6, and 11) are fully non-overlapping. The individual wireless access points are all interfering with one another, as well as with everything else that operates in the same part of the radio spectrum: microwaves, 2.4 GHz cordless phones, security cameras, Bluetooth devices, baby monitors, wireless video game controllers, fluorescent lights, etc, etc. Indeed, a new phone somewhere in my vicinity may well have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, as far as the 2.401 MHz to 2.473 MHz range goes.

Everyone would have faster and more reliable internet access if we could shut down all but a couple of the access points. Unfortunately, there is no way to coordinate such an action. Furthermore, anyone who actually ran one of the reduced number of access points, if such an agreement could be reached, would be faced with the same kind of illicit usage that forced me to shut down my open network.

One option is to seek a technological fix, in the form of 802.11a or 802.11n equipment that is less likely to be interfered with by existing devices. Of course, given enough time, those devices are likely to face similar hurdles.

Debt and responsibility

Canada House of Commons ceiling

An article in the New York Times draws further attention to the indebtedness of American consumers: focusing on the degree to which debt is harming the lives of individuals, as well as how the lending practices of firms encourage people to take on more than they can handle. While there is certainly a key regulatory role in preventing fraud and misleading advertising, it is less clear to me that the major fault here lies with companies. As a shareholder in a mortgage company, I might be annoyed that it had chosen to lend to people unable to make the necessary payments. As a member of the general public, it is less clear why I should be excessively concerned – nor why I should have excessive sympathy for those who choose to live beyond their means.

Financial conservatism – the deliberate choice to live below your means and set something aside for the future – is a mindset that is certainly at odds with consumer culture. That being said, it seems sensible for the onus to be on the individual to learn restraint, not for the system to change so that it is no longer required. The lesson that needs to be absorbed is that borrowing is generally only justified in order to invest or to smooth our financial fluctuations. Using it as an unsustainable mechanism for consumption spending will always be a bad choice, no matter what rules various lending organizations adhere to.

Yes, there are unexpected situations that arise and unfairly tax the finances of some individuals. This is one reason for which insurance needs to be equitable and widely available. At the same time, people who have chosen to drive themselves into debt with cars, houses, and consumer products they cannot afford cannot be held entirely innocent when a further financial shock overwhelms their short-term ability to cope financially. That may been like an unsympathetic judgment, but it seems like the only view that incorporates the right incentives.

Another NYT article discusses the compassion versus personal responsibility debate directly.