Dec 042014
 

Alex Epstein’s new book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels — available in hardback or kindle — recently received a glowing review from the Wall Street Journal. The review begins:

Which would be worse: a hostile foreign regime using a sinister magnetic pulse to take down the entire electrical grid–or the chief executives of the world’s major oil companies having a collective personal crisis about carbon emissions, shutting down their operations, and sending their employees to live the rest of their days off the grid in rural Vermont? Either way, the country goes dark. Transportation stops. Schools, hospitals and businesses close down. We are left to grow our own scrawny vegetables and slaughter our own animals for meat. We cannot even text.

If you drive a car, or use modern medicine, or believe in man’s right to economic progress, then according to Alex Epstein you should be grateful–more than grateful. In “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels” the author, an energy advocate and founder of a for-profit think tank called the Center for Industrial Progress, suggests that if all you had to rely on were the good intentions of environmentalists, you would be soon plunged back into a pre-industrial hell. Life expectancy would plummet, climate-related deaths would soar, and the only way that Timberland and Whole Foods could ship their environmentally friendly clothing and food would be by mule. “Being forced to rely on solar, wind, and biofuels would be a horror beyond anything we can imagine,” writes Mr. Epstein, “as a civilization that runs on cheap, plentiful, reliable energy would see its machines dead, its productivity destroyed, its resources disappearing.”

When you consider that most of us live what we would consider decent, moral lives, it seems extraordinary that anyone feels it necessary to write a book called “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.” We use fossil fuels and their by-products in everything we do and rarely consider it a vice. A pang of conscience may strike us when we read of oil spills or melting icebergs. But not when we are sitting on a plastic chair, visiting a power-guzzling hospital or turning on our computers. To call fossil fuels “immoral” is to tarnish our entire civilization and should plunge us all into a permanent state of guilt, which seems a bit strong.

Fabulous! Go read the whole thing… and then check out The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.

I interviewed Alex Epstein about “How Coal and Oil Improve Our Lives” on the 12 September 2012 episode of Philosophy in Action Radio. If you’ve not yet heard it, you can listen to or download the podcast here:

For more details, check out the episode’s archive page.

Sexism in the Tech Community

 Posted by on 18 August 2014 at 10:00 am  Business, Ethics, Feminism, Technology
Aug 182014
 

This Is What Tech’s Ugly Gender Problem Really Looks Like”. Wow, ugly is the right word. In addition to the lech who scheduled a business meeting and turned it into an attempt to get into sexual lean-in, there’s the story of the woman who struggled to be taken seriously as a coder:

When you’re a single mother, says Sheri Atwood, founder of SupportPay, it’s even tougher to be taken seriously. The child of a divorce and coming out of a divorce herself, Atwood built SupportPay, an online platform to help divorced parents manage and share child support. But almost as soon as she began pitching investors in 2011, she faced a barrage of doubt as to whether she could handle a company and kids at the same time.

Atwood says that while their concern is legitimate, it’s also a bit backward. She believes it’s because she’s a single mother—not despite it—that she’s a safe bet for investors. “I’m not doing this as a side project. I don’t have a spouse supporting me. I’m putting everything on the line, and I’m responsible for a child,” she says. “I’m going to do everything possible to make that work.”

But being a single mother wasn’t Atwood’s only problem. She’s also a coder. With all the recent efforts from Google, Square, and other organizations to get young girls interested in coding, it’s hard to imagine Atwood’s ability to code was a drawback when she was trying to get funded. And yet, she says, when she told her investors she had built SupportPay herself, they repeatedly doubted her. “No one believed me,” Atwood says.

Once, an associate at a venture capital firm even gave Atwood a bit of advice after turning her down for funding. “Hire a young guy in a hoodie,” he said. “I laughed,” Atwood remembers. “Then I said: ‘That’s a great point, but the reason why there’s no solution on the market today is because this isn’t a 21-year-old-kid-in-a-hoodie problem.’”

Luckily for Atwood, after about nine months of getting questioned on everything from her ability to run a business as a single mom to her blonde hair—one investor claimed brunettes are taken more seriously—Atwood landed $1.1 million in funding from several top angel investors, including Draper Associates, Broadway Angels, and Marc Benioff. “They got it,” she says. “They saw that my being a woman and my age was an asset.”

There’s good news in the article too, no doubt. But here’s the way forward:

Minshew says it’s been “heartening” to see men in the tech community listen to women’s stories and begin to talk about the problem themselves. That, she says, may be the first step toward real change. “Years ago, you could say really horrible, racist things, and people who didn’t agree would stay quiet because that was the time we were in. Now, we’re in a time where someone says something horribly racist, and other people say: ‘Shit, I can’t believe you just said that,’” Minshew explains. “My hope is we’re moving toward a world in which if one partner at a VC firm knows another partner is behaving inappropriately with female entrepreneurs, it’ll be the same sort of shock and outrage. It’ll be unacceptable.

People, that’s up to you!

 

BuzzFeed tells the story of these two incredibly stupid women

Two women are very lucky to be alive after they found themselves face-to-face with a train this month on an 80-foot-high Indiana railroad bridge with nowhere to run.

In a video released Tuesday, a security camera captured the dramatic moment a 14,000-ton Indiana Rail Road freight train came around a curve at Lake Lemon, near Bloomington, only to find two women trespassing on a railroad bridge.

As the pair come into view, the train’s conductor slams on the brakes and blows the horn. The two women are seen running for their lives. As the locomotive closes in, the pair, with nowhere else to turn, each slam their bodies down on the tracks in what they must have assumed were their final moments. …

As the train passes over them, the engineer assumed he had just killed two people and notified the local sheriff’s department. But miraculously, the women were unhurt.

Here’s the video:

I’m sure that these women were petrified, but I care more about the poor innocent engineer, who thought that he’d killed them. Moreover, far worse might have happened to him:

“The consequences of trespassing on railroad-owned property are never taken seriously by those choosing to do so, and this incident at Lake Lemon is one of the most glaring examples I’ve seen in more than 40 years in this business,” Tom Hoback, CEO of Indiana Rail Road Company, said in a statement.

“In this case, not only did two trespassers narrowly escape a horrible death, but had the heavy train derailed due to the emergency brake application – which isn’t uncommon – it could have taken down the bridge, possibly killing the engineer as well, Hoback continued. “The human, environmental and financial toll would have been enormous.”

Before you endanger your own life, the life of an innocent man, and millions in property damage… THINK!! It’s not that hard.

Did Facebook Betray Our Trust?

 Posted by on 3 July 2014 at 10:00 am  Business, Internet, Rights, Science
Jul 032014
 

I’ve seen lots of people upset — on Facebook, of course — about Facebook’s social science experiment with people’s newsfeeds. However, I’ve yet to find an argument that’s compelling. Consider this one from Stephen Green:

Facebook has been described as an internet-within-the-internet, and the secret to making that work is it’s an internet curated for you by people you trust. To see something on your Facebook TL, it has to come from someone with a mutually-defined relationship, or from someone you trust enough to follow. Untrustworthy acts — like when somebody tags your name on something that has nothing to do with you, in order do win unearned trust and attention — are easily reported and corrected. The fact that Facebook uses this web of relationships, clicks, and behaviors to do some seriously creepy data-mining and ad sales behind the scenes doesn’t affect the strengths of the service it provides in public.

But for this to work, Facebook must remain neutral. What you see must be what your trusted friends have curated and presented to you. There can’t be any monkeying around with the Facebook timeline, any more than AT&T or Verizon can decide which phone calls you may receive, or when you may receive them.

Facebook is now essentially corrupt, and it did it to itself. First, they performed this “experiment” of altering timelines in order to assess possible mood changes they could affect on their users. Then, after the fact, they slipped new language into their Terms of Service allowing them to do more of the same in the future.

I agree with the point about the Facebook’s late change to its terms of service. That sucks. Yet the fact remains that Facebook has monkeyed around with the timeline for years in various mysterious ways. I don’t have access to the raw feed of just what my friends post; no one does. (That’s what Twitter displays, which is both refreshing and annoying.) For many years now, Facebook’s display has been extremely selective, only showing me a portion of what my friends post, based on some hocus-pocus algorithm, partly designed to increase my “engagement.”

Then, for this study, Facebook tweaked their hocus-pocus algorithm in a slightly different way… and then published the results. What’s supposed to be so new or so horrible about that?

Or, as Tom said: “I don’t get it. We’ve known all along that Facebook were manipulating the timeline for commercial purposes. They decide to do it once FOR SCIENCE! and suddenly everyone throws a hissy fit? Color me so not caring.”

Am I wrong? If so, tell me what’s so darn horrible about what Facebook did here!

Dec 032013
 

This article — What International Air Travel Was Like in the 1930s — fascinates me. If you just look at the pictures, like this one…

… it’s easy to think, “Oh, people had it so much better in the past! Now we’re all cramped in planes like sardines!” But once you read the text, you’ll surely change your tune.

Consider this, for example:

Imperial Airways appealed to the consumer who desired the most luxurious way to travel. But it wasn’t always very pleasant, despite the most advanced technology of the time. People would often get sick, and bowls were discreetly placed under the seats to ensure that passengers had a place to throw up. The widespread pressurization of cabins wouldn’t occur until the 1950s, so altitude sickness often meant that people needed to receive oxygen.

The temperature inside the cabin was also a major consideration, since horror stories of incredibly cold flights were common in the late 1920s.

And:

Nearly 50,000 people would fly Imperial Airways from 1930 until 1939. But these passengers paid incredibly high prices to hop around the world. The longest flights could span over 12,000 miles and cost as much as $20,000 when adjusted for inflation.

A flight from London to Brisbane, Australia, for instance, (the longest route available in 1938) took 11 days and included over two dozen scheduled stops. Today, people can make that journey in just 22 hours, with a single layover in Hong Kong, and pay less than $2,000 for a round trip ticket.

See what I mean?

Sensory Overload in Open Offices

 Posted by on 22 November 2013 at 10:00 am  Business, Personality, Psychology, Work
Nov 222013
 

This — Offices for All! Why Open-Office Layouts Are Bad for Employees, Bosses, and Productivity — is a really excellent article on the evil of open office layouts. Here’s a hit that really resonated with me.

I’m now always surrounded by chatter, which means that, like every other office worker in the country, I have to wear earphones. I’m currently listening to Django Reinhardt on Pandora. His talent is timeless. But while it’s easier to think with Django in my ears, it isn’t nearly as easy as silence was. The music just adds to the clutter in my head. Back when I had an office, I left work with my mind still happy and fresh; I emailed myself ideas while walking home, as some newsy podcast told me even more useful info. Now, at the end of a day of nonstop jazz, I leave work feeling fried. I miss my podcasts, which my brain just doesn’t have room for. I walk to the subway in silence, repairing.

Being an introvert — and highly sensitive too — I could not work well under such circumstances. When I’m deep in brain-bending work, even familiar instrumental music is a distraction. Plus, headphones to cover background noise quickly makes me feel overwhelmed by sensory input. I’m able to listen to music only against a background of silence and when doing lighter work. Then, it helps prevent boredom.

These working conditions make my skin crawl. I’m so glad to work from home, where the only noises are of naughty beasts, birds, and the wind.

 

Tonight, I’ll interview Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Timothy Sandefur about occupational licensing — how it works, what it’s supposed to do, and what it’s real-life effects are. We’ll also talk about “Certificates of Need” (CONs) regulations that allow existing businesses to squash any newcomers. I kid you not.

If you’re not familiar with CONs, check out Sandefur’s 2011 article, CON Job: State “certificate of necessity” laws protect firms, not consumers. Here are the open paragraphs:

When St. Louis businessman Michael Munie decided to expand his moving business to operate throughout the state of Missouri, he thought it would be a simple matter of paperwork. After all, he already held a federal license allowing him to move goods across state lines. But when he filed his application, he discovered that, under a 70-year-old state law, officials in Missouri’s Department of Transportation were required to notify all of the state’s existing moving companies and allow them the opportunity to object to his application. When four of them did file objections, department officials offered Munie the choice of withdrawing his application or appearing at a public hearing where he would be required to prove that there was a “public need” for his moving business. The law is not clear on how exactly he would do this — “public need” is not defined, nor are there any rules of evidence or procedure in the statute. And even if he managed to prove a “public need,” the department would take anywhere from six months to a year to make a final decision. In the face of such complications, Munie chose to withdraw his application and ask instead for limited permission to operate within a portion of St. Louis. His competitors had no objection to that, and he was given the restricted license.

Bizarre as this law might seem, it is only one of dozens of such requirements, generally called “certificate of necessity” (CON) laws, that exist across the country, governing a variety of industries, from moving companies and taxicabs to hospitals and car lots. A legacy of the early 20th century, CON laws restrict economic opportunity and raise costs for products and services that consumers need. Unlike traditional occupational licensing rules, they are not intended to protect the public by requiring business owners to demonstrate professional expertise or education. Instead, these laws are explicitly designed to restrict competition and boost the prices that established companies can charge.

Go read the whole article.

Jul 082013
 

On April 18th, a gal from BlogTalkRadio emailed me without prompting to apologize for Wednesday’s disconnection during the show and to inform me that they’re aware of the problem and working hard to increase their capacity. I decided to reply with the following message the next morning:

I just wanted to say thanks for the excellent customer service.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been enduring some of the worst customer service ever from another company (my podcast host, podbean). So your up-front, pro-active email was a breath of fresh air. Thank you!

She immediately replied:

You have no idea what your note did to brighten my morning. It’s been a truly rough couple of days, and knowing that there are people like you on our platform who support us even when we stumble makes the job I love that much better. Thank you so very much for your words of kindness.

I’m so glad that I wrote her! Her original email, and then her grateful reply, is a much-needed reminder that many businesses work hard at customer service. They deserve a pat on the back!

 

The Tea Party Patriots left me yet another robo-call message on my iPhone on Monday… and I see that they called again this evening. I’ve never signed up for anything from them, and I have no idea how they got my mobile number. Yet for many months now, I’ve gotten periodic robo-calls from them.

Every time this happens, I make repeated requests — through all available means of communication — to be removed from their call list. They’ve never responded, and they have obviously not removed my mobile number from their call list.

I don’t have any way to block them on my iPhone (as I would on my landline), and them calling my cellphone is particularly bothersome. Any suggestions for what to do to make it stop?

Even if that’s not possible, I’m happy to spread the word that the Tea Party Patriots seems to be run by a bunch of jerkwads without the slightest clue about basic manners.

Here’s my latest email to them… not that I expect it to do any good:

You left me yet another robo-call message on my iPhone on Monday… and I see that you called again this evening. Every time this happens, I’ve contacted you through multiple channels with clear requests to be removed from your call list. You have never responded, and you have obviously not removed my mobile number from your call list.

THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE.

So, for the upteeth time, I ask that you remove my cell number — [redacted] — from your call list! I am sick and tired of these intrusive and unwelcome calls from you: it’s harassment.

Until you respond, and confirm that you’ve removed my phone number, I will continue to publicly shame you for being such rude jerkwads. I’ve already posted something to Facebook, and I’m writing a blog post now.

Oh, and you owe me — and probably a whole lot of other people — a BIG FAT APOLOGY.

I’d be nicer about it… except that I’ve already written about ten such emails, all of which have been ignored. *sigh*

 

Back in January, the internet was agog over the report that a pastor objected to the 18% gratuity added to her bill for being part of a large party by writing on the receipt, “I give God 10% why do you get 18?”

The proper answer, of course, is provided by Grumpy Cat:

Your waitress offers you a genuine service, in exchange for your tip… God, not so much.

However, what I find particularly interesting about the story from an ethical perspective lie in the details of what happened at the restaurant and afterwards.

[Chelsea Welch's co-worker [at an Applebee's in the St. Louis area] had waited on a large party hosted by Pastor Alois Bell of the World Deliverance Ministries Church in Granite City, Ill. As is common at many restaurants, an 18 percent tip was automatically added to the bill.

Pastor Bell crossed out the automatic tip and wrote “0″ on the receipt, along with this message: “I give God 10% why do you get 18?”

Welch, who did not wait on Pastor Bell’s table took a photo of the bill and uploaded it to Reddit where it soon went viral. “I thought the note was insulting, but it was also comical,” Welch told TheConsumerist. “I posted it to Reddit because I thought other users would find it entertaining.”

Bell, who did not see the humor in this, complained to the restaurant’s manager. Bell told The Smoking Gun she did not expect her signature to be all over the Internet.

Applebee’s confirms that Welch was fired. In a statement, the company says:

“Our Guests’ personal information – including their meal check – is private, and neither Applebee’s nor its franchisees have a right to share this information publicly. We value our Guests’ trust above all else. Our franchisee has apologized to the Guest and has taken disciplinary action with the Team Member for violating their Guest’s right to privacy. This individual is no longer employed by the franchisee.”

Pastor Bell told The Smoking Gun she is sorry for what happened and points out that she left a $6.29 cash tip on the table.

“My heart is really broken,” she told them. “I’ve brought embarrassment to my church and my ministry.”

As this story makes clear, the waitress didn’t intend for anyone to be able to identify the pastor in question, and she took measures to prevent that identification. Alas, the power of the internet was too great. Also, the waitress reports that the pastor “contacted her Applebee’s location, demanding that everyone be fired, from the servers involved to the managers.” (That’s a quote from the article, not from the waitress.)

On the one hand, I understand why Applebee’s fired the server who posted the receipt. The restaurant wants its customers to feel secure in their privacy while on premises, particularly in their dealings with their employees, particularly in their financial transactions.

Nonetheless, in this age of social media, people’s expectations of privacy must change… or they will get burned. If you’re in public, your antics might be broadcast far and wide across the internet for other people’s amusement. Then, if you act petulant and bossy about that, as this pastor seemed to do, you’ll be lambasted even more.

Ultimately, a person needs to be responsible for his own privacy. That requires thinking in advance about what he wishes to keep private or not. That requires attention to what he says and does in view or earshot of other people. That requires being selective about what he emails or posts online. That requires providing appropriate context for public actions if he wants to avoid being misjudged.

A rational person does not broadcast his private activities to the world, then blame others for taking notice.

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