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Thursday Topsight, September 21, 2006

shuttle-iss-sun.jpgReturning to the multiple links in a post format in an (unsuccessful) effort to curb my verbosity.

• What Could Have Been: Al Gore's recent speech at the NYU School of Law has received ample coverage in both the activist and the environmentalist blogosphere, so I won't say much about the speech itself. Unsurprisingly, I found his ideas powerful and his presentation (at least in text) compelling.

The idea of calling for a "carbon freeze" is a delightful bit of memetic engineering. Technically speaking, a freeze on greenhouse gas emission growth is only useful if it's followed by reductions, but the phrasing has historical resonance and the concept is easily grasped. His argument for replacing all payroll taxes with carbon taxes is also enticing, although I must admit that my reaction is colored in part due to my circumstances of being a zero-commute knowledge worker (hence relatively little carbon output from work) who just had to pay a surprisingly large quarterly tax bill.

My main point of hesitation about this plan is one I have with most "sin tax" proposals: if the tax is successful at reducing the "sin," it reduces the resources our government has to work with; conversely, if the tax provides a steady source of income for government programs, it is an insufficient barrier to the undesired activity. In short, if the carbon tax is onerous enough to drive organizations to zero-carbon behaviors, it won't bring in enough income to replace payroll taxes. At that point, either the carbon taxes go up further or we have to go back to other taxation systems.

There's a related problem in that current income taxes are very mildly progressive (i.e., a higher percentage for the rich than for the poor), and it's likely that a carbon tax would be far less so (in fact, given that the poor are more likely to drive older vehicles and live in substandard buildings, they may end up using more carbon per capita than the rich).

In and of themselves, these are not sufficient for me to say "no way" to the Gore idea. But they do suggest that a foresight-based approach to planning how such a taxation strategy would work is absolutely necessary. The last thing we'd want is for a switch to carbon taxes to gut government programs while simultaneously hitting the poor harder than the rich.

• Fly Green: Richard Branson today announced that he would spend all profits from his five airlines and train company through the next ten years on greenhouse gas-avoiding energy sources. The total looks to be somewhere around US$3 billion.

Mr. Branson said his companies are already engaged in developing an aviation fuel not derived from oil, as well as enzymes that can improve the efficiency of processes that break down the cellulose in grasses and other crops to produce ethanol and other farmed fuels.

One item in the NYT story that I found both disgusting and unsurprising:

And while drug and semiconductor companies typically invest 10 percent or more of revenues into research, in the energy industry the typical research budget is about 0.3 percent of revenues, said Daniel Kammen, an energy expert at the University of California, Berkeley.

• Shuttle. Station. Sun: This is just a very cool picture: the space shuttle Atlantis and the International Space Station in transit across the face of the Sun. Photograph by amateur photographer Thierry Legault from Mamers, Normandy.

• Bruuuuuuuce!: Pope-Emperor Sterling has a terrific short story in New Scientist(!) entitled "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by Google," about what happens to youth culture in a world of ubiquitous sensors and observation.

We teenagers have to live in "controlled spaces". Radio-frequency ID tags, real-time locative systems, global positioning systems, smart doorways, security videocams. They "protect" us kids, from imaginary satanic drug dealer terrorist mafia predators. We're "secured". We're juvenile delinquents with always-on cellphone nannies in our pockets. There's no way to turn them off. The internet was designed without an off-switch.

• We Can Do It Now: One of the points I kept hammering on at WorldChanging was that the tools and technologies to allow us to beat catastrophic climate disruption were already available to us -- we don't have to wait to act. Now research in Science backs up that assertion. Technology Review summarizes. The upshot? Combined use of non-fossil fuel energy sources could replace all fossil fuel generation; plug-in hybrids could replace 80% of petroleum use in the US; all fossil fuels could be reduced by 70% in 30 years. The researchers estimate the cost as $200 billion per year in the US. A high number, to be sure, but one that ignores the net benefits to the economy of (a) improved efficiencies and (b) new technological industries.

• I Love This Term: I haven't read the article yet, just the lede, but I already love the phrase used as the article's title: "Artificial Intelligentsia."


So, by this framing, a "Payroll tax" is a sin tax on employment?


No way to turn them off, and no way to leave them at home?


In a world of RFID, biometric databases, GPS, cheap cameras, wireless everything and so on, in a world of incompetent but mistrustful parents, it would be very hard for kids to lose their digital minders.

And it could be very attractive and insideous. Teenagers these days seem particularly willing to give up information about themselves for various social reasons. Many might voluntarily walk into these restrictions because of some perceived advantage.

The same applies to us all. Jamais' link to the Atlantic article demonstrates how attractive having a mobile connection to the Internet and GPS can be. In know I've become dependent on the Web being my reference library of choice now. The Internet does amplify my intelligence or at least my memory to some degree and I like that. The flipside is websites could store my search queries and browsing habits and so on.

These applications aren't really that hard to do and aren't that hard to imagine. The question is do we want them?

I guess the consolation is that we can watch the watchmen nearly as easily provided they let us carry our recorders and telecommunications anywhere we want to record and share anything we want.


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