Your Nasal Wingman

by Doug Allen

According to Colin Lecher, a sense of smell might be your best ally in the dating scene:

Research suggests that men who can’t smell have fewer sex partners than men with fully functioning nostrils. About five times fewer. A team of researchers had already found a correlation between not having a sense of smell and having feelings of insecurity. … A more recent study from the same researchers compared 32 people who couldn’t smell–22 women and 10 men–with a control group, asking both groups about the number of sexual partners they’d had. The question was, if people are insecure because they can’t smell, will that insecurity affect their sex lives, too?

Well, something‘s affecting their sex lives. The men, on average, had way fewer partners than the men in the control group. Curiously, the women without a sense of smell had about the same number of partners as the control group women. But compared with the control group (and the men), the women ranked themselves as more insecure in their current romantic relationship.

Anti-Social Media?

by Doug Allen

James Shakespeare encourages you to stop sharing your experiences on social media:

It’s natural to want to share experiences with the people you care about. After all, the classic postcard greeting is ‘Wish you were here’. But I think our reasons for sharing experiences on IMG_2003social media are more cynical than that. It’s not sharing, it’s bragging. When we log in to Facebook or Twitter we see an infinitely updating stream of people enjoying themselves. It’s not real life, of course, because people overwhelmingly post about the good things whereas all the crappy, dull or deep stuff doesn’t get mentioned. But despite this obvious superficiality, it subconsciously makes us feel like everyone is having a better time than us. We try to compete by curating our own life experiences to make it look like we’re also having non-stop fun and doing important things. It breeds in us a Pavlovian response that means every time something good is happening to us we must broadcast it to as many people as possible. …

The key thing to remember is that you are not enriching your experiences by sharing them online; you’re detracting from them because all your efforts are focused on making them look attractive to other people. Your experience of something, even if similar to the experience of many others, is unique and cannot be reproduced within the constraints of social media. So internalise that experience instead. Think about it. Go home and think about it some more. Write about it in more than 140 characters; on paper even. Paint a picture of it. Talk about it face to face with your friends. Talk about how it made you feel.

I’m always a little put off by sweeping generalizations about people’s motivations for sharing on social media, be it Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or anything else. Sure, there may be a lot of people who use these services as Shakespeare describes, carefully curating their every post to make their life seem as fulfilling as possible. But there are also myriad other ways to use social media that are not nearly so cynical.

Personally, I choose not to have a big presence on social media, with one notable exception: Instagram.

I don’t like broadcasting the day-to-day details of my life to a wide audience with status posts, or tweeting my possibly deep but probably less-deep-than-I-think thoughts. But I thoroughly enjoy the cleanliness and focus of Instagram, and the way that it gives me a brief window into the lives of my friends. When I post Instagram photos (I’ll confess, the large majority of which are cat-related), I hope that those who follow me see it the same way: not as an attempt to package and reproduce my experience for others, or as a form of bragging, but as a way to share, if only briefly, my experiences with those I think might enjoy the opportunity to share in them. It’s not necessarily a “wish you were here,” nor is it a “look at how cool my life is”; rather, I think of it as “I enjoyed this, maybe you will too.”

(Photo: From my Instagram feed, watching the 2012 Presidential debates with my cat. Personally, I don’t think this makes me look like I’m “having non-stop fun and doing important things.”)

It Ain’t Easy Being Ivy?

by Doug Allen

Yale senior Bijan Stephens is pessimistic about his job prospects after graduation:

[Millennials are] cynical because we have to be. America’s economy is self-destructing, wealth inequality is at historic highs, and there’s a chronic shortage of employment, especially for recent grads. According to a Rasmussen report, released on Feb. 5, only 15% of American adults think that their children will be better off than them. That’s a bleak number. What’s worse are the unemployment rates for recent college graduates, astronomically high rates of underemployment, and the phenomenon of long-term negative economic effects—termed “scarring”—that happen as a consequence of recessions. …

[M]y friends and I all know people who graduated from Yale and haven’t been able to find jobs that pay better than minimum wage afterwards: they work as bartenders and in sandwich shops, doing unpaid internships, living on tips. There are only four weeks of classes left in my college career, and I’m still unemployed. It doesn’t surprise me that we’re a generation of cynics. Do we—the kids—stand a chance?

I just can’t find that much pity for someone with a Yale degree who’s having trouble finding a job. Stephens cites statistics that highlight some very real problems faced by graduating college seniors in this tough economy, but these problems are undoubtedly much worse for the 99.9% of undergraduates who don’t have an Ivy League degree.

As a Stanford graduate myself, I think I can empathize with what Stephens is going through to a certain extent. It can be stressful trying to find the right career path to take, and I’ve noticed a tendency to restlessness among some of my peers who are dissatisfied with what they are doing but worried about leaving their jobs due to the economy. Two years ago, I did that myself, leaving my fairly cushy energy consulting job to go back into academia in a new field. Since then, I’ve had an underlying anxiety about whether I made the right choice and what my job prospects will be when I finish my graduate program. But I have found it important to keep in mind that this anxiety is a result of my own choices, not the result of society stacking the deck against my success.

If you are lucky enough to attend an Ivy League school, you definitely stand a chance. What you do with that chance, however, is up to you.

“Watching The Lights Go Out”

by Doug Allen

David Hilfiker, diagnosed with a “progressive cognitive impairment” which is “almost certainly Alzheimer’s” in September 2012, is blogging the deterioration of his capacities:

Friday I decided to walk the family dog and join my grandchildren at the nearby park.  The dog sometimes slips out of her collar and needs a simple harness to keep her on-leash.  But after at least ten minutes of confusion, trying unsuccessfully to figure out how to put the harness on, I had to settle for the collar, stuff the harness in my pocket and, after I’d reached the park, ask my 8-year-old granddaughter Madeline to put the harness on.

But Hilfiker says he doesn’t feel any shame about his confusion:

I’ve been through this [kind of helplessness] before: I suffered from a severe depression for decades before I realized the cause was an organic brain disease. During that period, I was ashamed of my inability to enjoy life; I considered a character defect that I should have been able to overcome.  After I understood that the cause of my depression was an unavoidable chemical imbalance in my brain, however, the shame disappeared.  I was still helpless, but I didn’t have to “try harder” to get over it.

It’s the same thing now.  I’m not embarrassed when I can’t remember ever meeting a person with whom I had a long conversation recently.  I’m not frustrated when I can’t fix a simple problem with my file drawers.  My helplessness is unavoidable.  I am not going to get better no matter what I do; my capacities will decline further.  This is not my fault.

So I don’t fight my inabilities.  I can accept this part of myself as real.  The sadness continues but not so much the pain of helplessness.

Battling Big Soda

by Doug Allen

Amy Fairchild weighs the arguments for and against Bloomberg’s suspended soda ban:

From the glass-half-empty perspective, the policy is a drop in the bucket of what would be required to solve the obesity problem. Setting limits on just a single behavior, in the face of all the other unhealthy choices we must avoid (fried foods, excessive portions, carbohydrates galore), can hardly be expected to turn the obesity tide. Moreover, because the ban contains all kinds of loopholes — it doesn’t set limits on refills, for instance, and it excludes (“on suspect grounds”) “other beverages that have significantly higher concentrations of sugar sweeteners and/or calories” — the charge that it is “arbitrary and capricious” may strike opponents as more descriptive than acerbic. (1)

But from the glass-half-full point of view, the ban is not about attacking individual choice but rather about limiting corporate damage. If we see supersized drinks not in terms of the individual’s freedom to be foolish but instead as a kind of industrial pollution that is super-concentrated in impoverished neighborhoods, (2) limits on drink size become a far different kind of regulatory measure. The target is not the individual: it is the beverage industry, corporate America.

I’ll admit, I have a much more favorable view of this particular act of Bloomberg “nannyism” than Andrew does.Part of that comes from growing up with a pediatric endocrinologist in the house: I spent a lot of my own childhood hearing about children struggling with obesity. I also view this policy as more of a Sunstein/Thaler-style “nudge” than a real ban. If you really need 64 ounces of soda, you’d be able to get it, either through refills or another purchase. In fact, contra Fairchild, I think the refill loophole is a plus as it helps to make this a much softer form of paternalism.

I think that the climbing obesity rates, especially among children, are problematic enough that they merit some sort of action. If the ban is ever reinstated by the courts, it may well prove to be ineffective at reducing caloric intake, at which point I would argue for its repeal. But I think we have to start somewhere, and this seems like a reasonable first step.

Climate Misdirection

by Doug Allen

John Friedman tires of it:

Everyone — even the most ardent climate change deniers — actually knows that air pollution is bad. I accept that for many the question of rising global temperatures and changing weather patterns remains a question. But rather than continue to debate and discuss whether or not we should be reducing environmental pollution because of the threat of rising global temperatures, can we please all agree to stop arguing in favor of pollution? …

Much as a magician distracts his audience from what they are doing with one hand by getting them to focus on the other, those who loudly and publicly remain skeptical about the impact of these pollutants on the environment at a macro-level never, cannot, and do not attempt to argue the well-established fact that what we are pumping into our atmosphere is altering the chemical composition of the air we breathe (changing the climate) and is now the seventh-leading cause of death in the world.

The Fracking Divide, Ctd

by Doug Allen

A reader corrects me on the EPA’s ability to regulate fracking:

Your desire to “see the EPA start looking into ways to eliminate leakages where it is “technologically and economically feasible,” whether below the surface or above” is a nice thought, but not actually legal.  Under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Congress passed the “Halliburton Loophole,” which prohibits the federal agencies in charge of environmental protection from regulating hydraulic fracturing under any of the major environmental statutes – the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Water Drinking Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, etc.  So while EPA has the authority to commission studies on health impacts, such as it is currently undertaking, that is about as far as its legal authority extends.  In order to do anything further, let alone “eliminate leakages,” it would need Congress to close the loophole and extend authority to regulate in this area.

Duly noted. I’ll amend my desire to have Congress first close the loophole (which as far as I can tell is a horrible piece of special interest legislation) and then have the EPA do everything possible to eliminate leakages. Another reader highlights fracking’s water usage:

Fracking uses A LOT of water. Colorado’s snow pack currently stands at less than 73% of average and it is where the majority of the Front Range’s (Denver, Boulder, Loveland, Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, etc) water comes from. Local farmers can usual rent water for around $35 an acre foot. Some people are already getting quotes of over $200 an acre foot for the upcoming summer. Fracking companies have money to burn and the local farmers don’t. Last summer set records for sustained high temperatures. They are forecasting more of the same this summer. It’s going to get ugly.

Just for some context on my energy background, my views on natural gas are heavily informed by my past work as an energy consultant in California, working primarily on long-term resource planning for the electricity sector.

One of the first things I learned from my experience working with regulators, utilities, energy companies, and stakeholders was that there are no easy solutions. Every proposed solution has its advocates and opponents, and the “best” energy future is highly dependent on what you find important. People who focus on cost will reach a different conclusion than those who focus on reducing emissions, who will reach a different conclusion than those who are opposed to big transmission lines traversing the state. My opinion of natural gas is based on my belief that it provides the best balance between the various concerns I’ve heard. But there are plenty of arguments that can be made for alternatives.

Making Telework Work

by Doug Allen

Jeff Robbins, founder and CEO of Lullabot, defends Marissa Meyer’s ban on telecommuting. His rule of thumb is that a “conventional company with several remote employees is a company with several alienated employees”:

My feeling is that most conventional co-located companies simply don’t know how to manage, and more importantly, how to include their remote workforce. … This discussion isn’t all about productivity. It’s also about culture, relationships (both romantic and platonic), understanding office politics, in-jokes, birthday parties, and general inclusion. Without these things, a company’s work-at-home staff won’t feel like they’re part of the team. … Feeling alienated sucks. These employees can become myopic, focusing only on the work that comes to them via email and nothing else.

He explains how they maintain the office camaraderie despite their “distributed” workforce:

[I]t’s built into our DNA to avoid remote worker alienation. We bend over backwards to make our team feel connected and involved in the company. Being a good proactive communicator is a requirement for any job at Lullabot. And our company’s infrastructure is built around facilitating many different types of communication. We can easily and quickly see who’s working at any given moment. We can easily get quick answers from anyone on the team whether they’re online or off. We can post questions company-wide for discussion. We spend a lot of time on conference calls, but people are often multitasking and we rarely feel like a meeting was unproductive.

Previous Dish on working from home here, here and here.

Hydrogen Resurgent?

by Doug Allen

Stephen Webster points to new hydrogen fuel research:

Researchers at Virginia Tech announced Thursday that their latest breakthrough in hydrogen extraction technology could lead to widespread adoption of the substance as a fuel due to its ease of availability in virtually all plant matter, a reservoir previously impossible to tap. The new process, described by a study in the April issue of the scientific journal Angewandte Chemie, uses a cocktail of 13 enzymes to strip plant matter of xylose, a sugar that exists in plant cells. The resulting hydrogen is of an such a “high purity” that researchers said they were able to approach 100 percent extraction, opening up a potential market for a much cheaper source of hydrogen than anything available today. …

The rise of such an alternative fuel could seriously disrupt the pollution-producing industries that run on oil and natural gas, and potentially spark a new industrial emphasis on growing plants with high levels of xylose in their cells. The environmental benefits of that potential future are twofold: the plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping in small part to address the climate crisis, and the resulting portable fuel only outputs water when burned.

Less than ten years ago, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCVs) were touted as the solution to the transportation sectors fossil fuel woes. The electric car was dead, while Governor Schwarzenegger announced the development of a statewide hydrogen refueling infrastructure to help spur the hydrogen car’s transition to a commercially available vehicle. At the time, I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis on the costs and benefits of Schwarzenegger’s plan, arguing that the high cost of both the cars themselves and the pathways for producing hydrogen fuel made it unclear that the future for HFCVs was any brighter than that for electric vehicles.

Hydrogen technology failed to improve, while advancements in batteries resurrected hopes for the electric car. Now there’s an electric car commercially available (though it’s not cheap) and hydrogen has largely faded from the alternative fuel discussion.

This newest finding is a step in the right direction, but I’m not ready to call it a “gamechanger” for the transportation sector yet. The experience in the early ’00s showed that there’s a significant difference between technologies that seem nearly ready for market (like the HFCV) and technologies that can actually be brought to market (like the Tesla Roadster). I look forward to tests of this new technology on a larger scale, and declines in the cost of HFCVs themselves, but I’m not holding my breath.