January 2016 Articles

I’m not sure that Miami is going to be around a century from now. In a well researched and explained piece for The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kalbert lays out the story. Today,

The city of Miami Beach floods on such a predictable basis that if, out of curiosity or sheer perversity, a person wants to she can plan a visit to coincide with an inundation.

That flooding is due in large part to sea level rise.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, sea levels could rise by more than three feet by the end of this century. The United States Army Corps of Engineers projects that they could rise by as much as five feet; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts up to six and a half feet.

Sea level rise is important in Florida because

In Miami-Dade County, the average elevation is just six feet above sea level. The county’s highest point, aside from man-made structures, is only about twenty-five feet, and no one seems entirely sure where it is. (The humorist Dave Barry once set out to climb Miami-Dade’s tallest mountain, and ended up atop a local garbage dump nicknamed Mt. Trashmore.) Broward County, which includes Fort Lauderdale, is equally flat and low, and Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys, is even more so.

But South Florida’s problems also run deeper. The whole region–indeed, most of the state–consists of limestone that was laid down over the millions of years Florida sat at the bottom of a shallow sea. The limestone is filled with holes, and the holes are, for the most part, filled with water. (Near the surface, this is generally freshwater, which has a lower density than saltwater.)

As a result, as sea levels rise, you can’t build a dam around the city of Miami to keep the water out because it will simply rise up through the ground.

There’s a lot more to the story. I’d suggest reading Kalbert’s full 6,000 word essay.

People are starting to notice — locally, nationally and sometimes internationally — the latest “extreme weather” events. I use quotes because while the weather isn’t normal, it is the new normal; not a transitory extreme.

A recent New York times article “Climate Chaos, Across the Map” lays out a some of the big news we’ve heard about; El Niño.

Scientists say the most obvious suspect in the turmoil is the climate pattern called El Niño, in which the Pacific Ocean for the last few months has been dumping immense amounts of heat into the atmosphere. Because atmospheric waves can travel thousands of miles, the added heat and accompanying moisture have been playing havoc with the weather in many parts of the world.

But that natural pattern of variability is not the whole story. This El Niño, one of the strongest on record, comes atop a long-term heating of the planet caused by mankind’s emissions of greenhouse gases. A large body of scientific evidence says those emissions are making certain kinds of extremes, such as heavy rainstorms and intense heat waves, more frequent.

The effects of El Niño are not limited to rainfall in places like California.

Matthew Rosencrans, head of forecast operations for the federal government’s Climate Prediction Center in College Park, Md., said that the El Niño was not the only natural factor at work. This winter, a climate pattern called the Arctic Oscillation is also keeping cold air bottled up in the high north, allowing heat and moisture to accumulate in the middle latitudes. That may be a factor in the recent heavy rains in states like Georgia and South Carolina, as well as in some of the other weather extremes, he said.

It’s a system, it all works together. As such, when humans mess with nature, the results are not always predictable or what we expect. The latest flooding along the Mississippi river is a terrific example. In a piece title “Pied Piper of failed river policies saw this flood coming” for the St-Louis Post-Dispatch, Tony Messenger lays out the human causes of flooding.

He starts with arguments made by Bob Criss, a Washington University geology professor.

This is our fault.

“The Mississippi River should not be going crazy after three days of rain,” Criss told me Wednesday morning.

Here, the Great Flood of 1993 is a good comparison, not because the high-water records are about to be broken, but because that flood was so different.

“1993 was a slow-moving monster,” Criss said. Water levels built upstream in the Missouri and Mississippi for days and weeks and months, moving slowly to each new city in its path. They behaved, mostly, as big rivers are supposed to, slowly building, taking in massive amounts of water, and searching for flood plain to relieve its swollen banks.

Eventually, relief came, from the river’s perspective at least, when it broke through the Monarch Levee and flooded the Gumbo Bottoms in what is now known as the Chesterfield Valley.

After that flood, a federally commissioned report, led by Gen. Gerald Galloway of the Army Corps of Engineers, suggested massive changes to federal flood policy. Key to the suggestions were the need to allow the Missouri and Mississippi to connect more naturally to their flood plains, which meant reducing development in low-lying areas.

St. Louis, and most of the nation, it seems, didn’t listen.

There are many moving pieces that contribute to the changes in our weather and our atmosphere. We need to realize that our attempts to control nature generally have unforeseen consequences and that no matter which way you look at it, the race to reduce contributions to global warming is more important than ever.

The premise is simple, “happy people don’t leave jobs they love”. Michael Lopp lays out the more common reasons people leave jobs and what leaders and managers should be aware of; especially when it comes to key people on their teams. His thesis is that a change, positive or negative, in what you value will decide whether you are willing to leave your current employer. He’s right.

Website are simple in principle. They’re just some text, written in HTML, rendered by a browser.

Let me start by saying that beautiful websites come in all sizes and page weights. I love big websites packed with images. I love high-resolution video. I love sprawling Javascript experiments or well-designed web apps.

This talk isn’t about any of those. It’s about mostly-text sites that, for unfathomable reasons, are growing bigger with every passing year.

Paul Graham wrote two terrific essays covering economic history and economic inequality alongside the role culture and small businesses — specifically startups — have on the world we live in today. Both are well worth a read.

And just published today, a quick summary of his Economic Inequality essay title Economic Inequality: The Simplified Version.

A personal hobby of mine is photography. The Chief Official White House Photographer Pete Souza did a great job curating images from 2015.

One of the best and most challenging aspects of my job is whittling down a year’s worth of photographs to the final selections for my annual Year in Photographs. Every year, I attempt to keep it less than 100 photos”Š–”Šand every year I fail in that goal. But I am excited once again to present this gallery for the seventh consecutive year.

Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO of Airbnb:

As children, we have vivid imaginations. We stay up late waiting for Santa Claus, dream of becoming President, and have ideas that defy physics. Then something happens. As we grow older, we start editing our imagination…

A great analogy by Ben Thompson around Uber’s pricing model, the efficient allocation of resources (e.g. rides), and corresponding cost associated with procuring those resources (e.g. surge pricing). His discussion of economic theory and real world application of those theories is strong. He also touches on Paul Graham’s essay, mentioned earlier.

From Ben’s essay:

In the context of the price mechanism, money serves the role of a medium of exchange. The problem, though, is that money serves other functions as well: specifically, money is a unit of account and a store of value. It is the latter that is the rub when it comes to Uber and the idea of allocating rides based on price. To return to the extreme example above, what if the woman in labor is poor, and the person who only needs to travel a few blocks is rich? It very well may be that the latter’s ability-to-pay will trump the former’s willingness-to-pay; this is, to my mind anyways, the most valid reason to oppose surge pricing.

A follow up to Michael Lopp’s “Shield’s Down” post, Roy Rapport outlines his scale:

At some point in my career, somewhere 10-15 years ago, I came up with a scale to assess how happily ‘sticky’ my current workplace is, also known as “how likely am I to leave right now?” (or, to follow in Rands’ metaphor, “how strong are my shields right now?”). Being a 0-5 scale, this has some nice alignment with ratings in my company’s systems, but this is but an accident.

I know where I am on that scale.

A fascinating story about lawyer Rob Bilott of Taft Stettinius & Hollister who brought suit against DuPont in 1999 for effects a chemical they used in processing had on people and animals.

In 1951 DuPont started purchasing perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) “from 3M for use in the manufacturing of Teflon. 3M invented PFOA just four years earlier; it was used to keep coatings like Teflon from clumping during production.”

In the 1970’s DuPont started seeing signs that there were health risks associated with exposure to PFOA.

Wilbur Tennant explained that he and his four siblings had run the cattle farm since their father abandoned them as children. They had seven cows then. Over the decades they steadily acquired land and cattle, until 200 cows roamed more than 600 hilly acres. The property would have been even larger had his brother Jim and Jim’s wife, Della, not sold 66 acres in the early ’80s to DuPont. The company wanted to use the plot for a landfill for waste from its factory near Parkersburg, called Washington Works, where Jim was employed as a laborer. Jim and Della did not want to sell, but Jim had been in poor health for years, mysterious ailments that doctors couldn’t diagnose, and they needed the money.

DuPont rechristened the plot Dry Run Landfill, named after the creek that ran through it. The same creek flowed down to a pasture where the Tennants grazed their cows. Not long after the sale, Wilbur told Bilott, the cattle began to act deranged. They had always been like pets to the Tennants. At the sight of a Tennant they would amble over, nuzzle and let themselves be milked. No longer. Now when they saw the farmers, they charged.

Helen MacDonald, a professor at the University of Cambridge, on why we — humans — like feeding wild animals.

Americans spend over $3 billion each year on food for wild birds, ranging from peanuts to specialized seed mixes, suet cakes, hummingbird nectar and freeze-­dried mealworms. We still don’t clearly understand how supplementary feeding affects bird populations, but there’s evidence that its enormous increase in popularity over the last century has changed the behavior and range of some species…

We give food to wild creatures out of a desire to help them, spreading cut apples on snowy lawns for blackbirds, hanging up feeders for chickadees. The British nature writer Mark Cocker holds that the “simple, Franciscan act of giving to birds makes us feel good about life, and redeems us in some fundamental way.” This sense of personal redemption is intimately tied up with the history of bird-­feeding. The practice grew out of the humanitarian movement in the 19th century, which saw compassion toward those in need as a mark of the enlightened individual.

A terrific episode of This American Life, hosted by Ira Glass.

It’s safe to say whatever you want on the Internet; nobody will know it’s you. But that same anonymity makes it possible for people to say all the awful things that make the Internet such an annoying and sometimes frightening place. This week: what happens when the Internet turns on you?

Crazy. $1.3 Billion dollars. Can you imagine that? The projected cost in 2013 of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is $8.835 billion. You could pay for 15% of JWST. Incredible. Truly.

Let’s say I live to be 100 years old. And let’s say I increase my salary by a factor of 10. That’s a bit under $1 million a year. So with an annual income 10 times my current salary over the next 70+ years means there’s still $1,230 million left over. That of course assumes you’re not earning interest. And even if you got the full amount (don’t forget about taxes and whether you opt for lump sum or annuity), invested the $1.3 billion at todays savings account rates of 0.9% APR, in 70 years your account would have $2.4 billion. You could live purely off the interest (~$12 million the first year).

Andy Ihnatko has a good take on it too:

Yup! Powerball will be at 1.3 billion dollars by Wednesday’s drawing. At least 1.3 billion dollars.

That’s definitely a dollar amount where winning would become terrifying. If you were to win a dollar amount that’s life-changing but still well below what a dope could squander away, you could choose to remain anonymous and make it stick. The only people who’d know would be your closest friends. And only the observant ones. “Andy never orders guac on his burrito; that’s, like, a $2.50 upcharge” would be the first loose thread that would unravel my cloak of lies.

But if you were the lone (it’s possible) winner of a $1.3 billion jackpot? Oh, ****. You’d need to go right into hiding before anyone identified you. Close all of the curtains, lock every door and window, leave your car in the driveway, and check into a hotel in a different city. And take public transportation, in case an Uber driver might fink you out.

Summon your Tesla

Tesla Motors ·

Incredible. From the Tesla Motors website:

Using Summon, once you arrive home and exit Model S or Model X, you can prompt it to do the rest: open your garage door, enter your garage, park itself, and shut down. In the morning, you wake up, walk out the front door, and summon your car. It will open the garage door and come to greet you. More broadly, Summon also eliminates the burden of having to squeeze in and out of tight parking spots. During this Beta stage of Summon, we would like customers to become familiar with it on private property. Eventually, your Tesla will be able to drive anywhere across the country to meet you, charging itself along the way. It will synch with your calendar to know exactly when to arrive.

Heather Poole, a Los Angeles based flight attendant living in Redondo Beach (a city I used to call home) writing about identifying and reporting human trafficking.

A few years ago, my airline started training us on spotting telltale signs of human trafficking on the plane. Can the passenger speak for themselves, or is someone with them controlling what they say? Does the passenger avoid eye contact? Do they appear fearful, anxious, tense, depressed, nervous, submissive? Are they dressed inappropriately, or do they have few possessions – even on a long flight? Can the passenger move independently, or are they accompanied by someone seemingly controlling their every movement?

I live in Redondo Beach…when I met a woman at my son’s swimming lesson…

…She belonged to a local nonprofit group involved in helping victims of human trafficking, and it was during this chance encounter while our sons swam laps that she told me about a massage parlor a block away that her group was watching. A block from the pool – and about five blocks from my house. A year later the police busted the place for prostitution and they closed shop, only to be replaced by a few new places down the street.

Today, as we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., I wanted to take a moment to look at two quotes attributed to him:

Love and Hate

“…I have decided to stick with love…hate is too great a burden to bear.”

Source: King, Martin Luther, Jr. 1967. “Where Do We Go From Here?” Annual Report Delivered at the 11th Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, August 16, Atlanta, GA. Full Speech.

Helping Others

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”

The origin of this quote has been hard to track down and it’s not clear that it’s directly from Dr. King. The best lead I have is from Quote Investigator. They attribute the quote to a sermon entitled “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life”, a copy of which is included in the book Strength to Love, published in 1963. I have been unable to verify the source. The book is unavailable for search in Google Books and I have not obtained a physical copy.

Full citation from Quote Investigator: 1963, Strength to Love by Martin Luther King Jr., Sermon: Three Dimensions of a Complete Life, Start Page 67, Quote Page 72, Published by Harper & Row, New York.

Despite this source, a copy of “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life” that Dr. King gave on December 11, 1960 does not contain that quote, nor does a version of the same sermon that he gave on April 9, 1967. It’s entirely possible that the copy of the sermon documented in the book “Strength to Love” contains the quote. Dr. King did adapt his sermon and gave slightly different versions of it over time.