Tyler Cowen and the downsides of too much technology

Tyler Cowen is an economics professor who, despite coauthoring one of my favourite blogs and consuming prodigious amounts of information seems to share some of the skepticism I feel about how technology has changed the world. To quote a conversation Product Hunt hosted with him:

I am glad I was forced to live in "book culture" and "meat space' for my first forty years. Or maybe thirty-five years would have been enough. People these days have lost the sense of information being scarce, and counterintuitively that makes it harder for them to develop profound thoughts. It's like practicing chess by asking the computer right away, all the time, what the right move it. If I were starting today, probably I would not be an academic. The seductions of the on-line world would be too great, I am pretty sure.

Related to this, the OECD recently released a report looking at the role computers play in education. To quote a portion of of the report cited in Nicholas Carr's well-titled summary Tech in schools: less is more:

Students who use computers moderately at school tend to have somewhat better learning outcomes than students who use computers rarely. But students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after accounting for social background and student demographics. The results also show no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had invested heavily in ICT [information and communication technology] for education.

Overall I still like technology, but I think that it's also been oversold and the drawbacks of it often ignored. On a related note, I'd also recommend Kentaro Toyama's Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology.

What does creativity look like?

I've been enjoying Scott Barry Kaufman's Psychology Podcast of late as well as his blogging on creativity (his research area). This post had perhaps one of the most interesting lists of character attributes of creative people that I've seen, revealing the complexity and contradictions involved. Here are the eight attributes listed:

  1. Mindful Daydreamers
  2. Imaginatively Gritty
  3. Passionately Introverted
  4. Openly Sensitive
  5. Playfully Serious
  6. Logically Intuitive
  7. Vulnerably Resilient
  8. Rebellious Experts

I'd encourage you to read the post for details. Overall the list made me think back to that famous quote from Aristotle:

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

To be creative seems to require often considering an idea and evaluating how well it meshes with others. This seems to me to be both part of a case for the liberal arts as well as a time to mourn the rush to judgment of ideas that seems to have become more common in recent times in the academic realm. At least with The Atlantic's September cover story The Coddling of the American Mind there seems to be pushback against this.

To reduce food waste define more as food

That's one lesson I drew from Is This Weird Vegetable Part Going To Be The Next Kale?. This proposed "next kale" is actually a byproduct of current brocolli production:

the answer might lie in selling a part of the broccoli plant that would normally be composted, not eaten. They’re calling it BroccoLeaf: The leaves around a broccoli crown that most people have never seen. “Before that crown has even formed, we go in and we harvest some of the younger, less mature leaves,” says Matt Seeley, VP of marketing at The Nunes Company, which sells the new vegetable in its Foxy Organic brand. “And that’s really what the BroccoLeaf is.”

Beyond being reported as less bitter than kale, it may actually be more nutritious:

Like kale, a single serving of broccoli leaves has a full day’s dose of Vitamin A or C. Broccoli leaves also have more calcium, more iron, and more potassium than kale. And arguably it’s also better for the environment—the plant is already growing broccoli crowns, so no more water or other resources are needed to harvest the extra leaves.

I'm a fan of promoting new things as a way of improving eating - e.g. The rise of Africa’s super vegetables and its promotion of not-widely-produced vegetables of African origin - but sometimes new food may already be hidden in plain sight. (It might also be worth noting that cabbage, kale, collards, cauliflower, romanesco broccoli, kohlrabi, and brussels sprouts all seem to originate from the same wild plant.

An Indian Solution to California's drought?

The drought in California may have more to do mismanagement and inefficient allocation of the state's water supply, but it's led to the land of Hippies adopting some unusual strategies for water preservation. What specifically are they doing? Filling their reservoirs with black plastic balls:

On Monday Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti supervised the latest onslaught of 4-inch black plastic balls, bringing the total count to 96 million in the 175-acre reservoir. Located in Sylmar, the reservoir holds up to 3.3 billion gallons, enough to supply the city with drinking water for up to three weeks. The city says the balls will shade and cool the water, reducing evaporation from the reservoir and making it less susceptible to algae, bacterial growth, and chemical reactions that can produce harmful substances. ... The balls cost 36 cents each, for a total of $34.5 million. The utility has been testing the concept since 2008, reporting that shade balls reduce evaporation by 85 to 90 percent. That should equate to saving nearly 300 million gallons a year, enough to provide drinking water for 8,100 people, said Los Angeles City Council member Mitchell Englander. The balls also inhibit microorganism growth, reducing the treatment the water must undergo through other means. That could save the city $250 million over time, said Garcetti.

I'm a bit surprised as to why they're using black balls specifically, which would seem to absorb more heat than white-coloured balls.

This approach might save them some money, but I wonder if turning to India might provide the state with alternative, even-more-Hippy-compatible approaches to reducing evaporation. What's India doing? It's installing solar panels on top of its canals

Two quantifiable benefits of building solar power plants on canals as against conventional ground-mounted systems were widely reported — the amount of land it would save and also the amount of water it would save, which would have otherwise been lost due to evaporation.

The first project back in 2012 wound up being somewhat more expensive than traditional land-based solar, but at least some of that seems to be due to the small-scale size of the initial project and should diminish as the scale of this goes up.

India has also been building floating solar installations on its lakes, which perhaps more closely approximates California filling its reservoirs with plastic balls. Personally I think, whether you would install solar panels on canals or reservoirs, either would look better than the current approach of dumping those plastic balls on reservoirs.


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