EconTalk: Jesse Ausubel

The excellent EconTalk podcast has a new episode, “Jesse Ausubel on Agriculture, Technology, and the Return of Nature”

“Ausubel shows how technology has reduced many of the dimensions of the human footprint even as population rises and why this trend is likely to continue into the future. The conversation concludes with Ausubel’s cautious optimism about the impact of climate change.”


Saving the whale, nearly done

The humpback whale populations in Australian waters are growing, according the new Marine Policy paper “Embracing conservation success of recovering humpback whale populations”

“monitoring data suggest rapid recovery for both east and west coast populations, which are now larger than 50% of their pre-whaling abundance. The measured growth rates exceed known species trends worldwide and have no indication of diminishing…”

The new paper, though focussed on Australia, also has a premable that surveys good data from other nations. Canada reports…

“an annual rate of increase of 4.9 – 6.8% with no signs of declining”

Although good North Pacific figures appear to be lacking, in U.S. waters…

“the [U.S.] estimate exceeds pre-exploitation population values of 15,000 humpback whales throughout the North Pacific”


“Based on distribution, ecological situation, genetics, and other factors, 15 humpback whale distinct population segments worldwide were identified, among which nine were determined to not be at risk of extinction with high certainty”

Those still under threat are small and isolated populations, mostly near developing countries / micro-nations…

“discrete and smaller sub-populations of humpback whales from the Arabian Sea, western North Pacific, west coast of Africa, and South Pacific subpopulations in portions of Oceania”.

humpnycPicture: Humpback Whales are returning to the waters off New York City, 2014.

Some pointers on Luther Burbank

I recently became aware of the work of the amazing American plant breeder Luther Burbank. It strikes me that if any rational optimist were looking for a subject for a feature-length documentary film, in the Ken Burns style, then Luther Burbank might be a good choice. It would portray rational optimism expressed through artisan science, how honest American graft and commercial enterprise vastly improved the world, and yet in the end was brought down by a poisonous religious bigotry. It would also offer a more subtle lesson on the risks of hero worship.

Here are links to what appear to be the only two screen documentaries on the man, both freely available online…

Luther Burbank (A Gardener of Eden)
(1967), a 24 minute KPIX-TV documentary.

An untitled 9-minute amateur documentary (2007).

There is also a 2009 21-minute NPR radio Science Friday interview on Burbank with biographer Jane S. Smith, with the Burbank segement running from 3:30 to 24:00 minutes.

There are a number of print biographies, but no clear list of these online (even at Wikipedia). The Luther Burbank Society seems to have long since faded away. So, for the benefit of future Web searchers, below is my simple list of titles in date order. I link to the free full-text of the book, where available.

* Luther Burbank: man, methods and achievements (1902).

* New creations in plant life: an authoritative account of the life and work of Luther Burbank (1907 second edition, revised and enlarged).

* The scientific aspects of Luther Burbank’s work. (1909).

* Luther Burbank, His Life and Work. (1915).

* Harvest of the Years (1927, Luther Burbank’s autobiography. Reprinted abridged as An Architect of Nature in 1938 in the UK).

* Luther Burbank, Plant Magician. (1943).

* Luther Burbank, a victim of hero worship. (1945).

* Luther Burbank, the wizard and the man. (1967).

* A gardener touched with genius: the life of Luther Burbank. (1993, revised and expanded edition).

* The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants. (2009).

* Luther Burbank: Plant Breeder, Horticulturist, American Hero (2015, collection of scholarly essays from the American Society for Horticultural Science).

There appear to be no audio books, either Librivox recordings of the public domain books, or commercial recordings of the more recent titles.

He was best friends with the author Jack London, and also knew John Muir, so there may well be detailed information on Burbank in their biographies.

Automation angst

“Automation angst” in the latest edition of The Economist discusses three new papers published together in the open access Journal of Economic Perspectives, including “The History of Technological Anxiety and the Future of Economic Growth: Is This Time Different?”. From this particular JoEP journal article…

“We consider the role of these three anxieties among economists, primarily focusing on the historical period from the late 18th to the early 20th century, and then compare the historical and current manifestations of these three concerns.”

The three major doom-isms that were promulgated are identified as:

1. Substitution – widespread substitution of machines for labor. (Happened, but a great many completely new types of jobs were created, often as a direct result of the new machine age)

2. Dehumanisation – new technological processes will morally degrade workers. (Happened somewhat, but alongside huge workplace improvements that made humdrum jobs much more acceptable)

3. “No more progress” – the epoch of major technological progress is behind us. (Obviously wrong)

Such angst historically viewed the world as if a “fixed pie” to be sliced up, and thus failed to understand the inherent flexibility and growth of the work economy that makes a dynamic society into an “infinitely expandable pie”. The Economist concludes from the papers that…

“many jobs still require a mixture of skills, flexibility and judgment; they draw upon “tacit” knowledge that is a very long way from being codified or performed by robots. Moreover, automation is likely to be circumscribed … as politicians fret about wider social consequences. Most important of all, even if they do destroy as many jobs as pessimists imagine, many other as yet unimagined ones that cannot be done by robots are likely to be created.”

On the other hand, too-early deployment could kill it in terms of public acceptance. What will turn people off the idea of “AI” in a big way is if it is deployed as a super-annoying version of the annoying search autocomplete, word substitution (search for ‘stile’, get ‘style’), robo-nagging, second-guessing and taste-matching which we already suffer on a daily basis on the Web. Totally wrong second-guessing is bad enough, but how annoying would “30% right” second guessing be? Very.

Creativity in 142 sq.ft.

John Boiler of 72andSunny on “How to Design A Modern Office Space for Optimism”.

“When you look around an office, nine times out of 10 you can tell if it was designed for fear. … We designed 72andSunny for the opposite of fear, for optimism.”

Fine if you’re an L.A. ad agency like 72andSunny, perhaps. And staffed by supple young bodies (one problem I see immediately at 72andSunny is a lack of good ergonomic lower-back support while sitting). But what about bog-standard in Basildon? Well, as it turns out, there is a key portable metric, according to Boiler…

“One piece of data: 142 square feet per person. That’s the ratio of space per person that seems to work best for creativity. It gets a little intense when it gets much lower and the energy drops when it goes higher. How we got to that figure just took time and awareness of how people were feeling and acting.”