Energy and Independent Thought

This was a really long process! I explored debunking a number of widespread beliefs/myths–environmental legislation costs jobs, people in the US pay the highest taxes, access to family planning increases abortion. The answer to most of these, was not in a single fact that was true or false, but in a framework of beliefs and approaches to viewing the world that foster the acceptance of particular arguments.

Environmental legislation and regulation: It’s complicated–but not really.

Upshot: The majority of new jobs in the energy sector domestically and internationally will be renewable energy jobs and related support services, but there will be and are “losers” (i.e., coal industry miners and related support services). Pro-environment legislation and state subsidies to businesses and private citizens in states like California have created a booming renewable energy market and spurred technological innovation. States like Ohio and West Virginia, which have actively resisted moves toward renewable energy are not well-positioned to take advantage of emerging production or related support jobs in this sector. Renewable energy and related jobs will be global economic drivers regardless of whether or not the Unites States chooses to participate. Other countries have made independent decisions regarding their energy futures and chosen to pursue renewables. Independent, publicly-funded research and policy making efforts attempt to analyze complex issues in a non-partisan manner, but the media (and research) ecosystem is pervaded by partisan think tanks, private money, and even foreign dollars. These factors undermine the credibility of sources of information and correspondingly public trust in those sources.

Why so complicated? 

1. Energy is actually complicated – Energy use and production affects individuals, businesses, corporations, and governments–each with competing and sometimes overlapping interests.

2.  Poor-quality or biased [mis]information – A decrease in publicly-funded science and non-partisan governmental organizations resulting in less transparent, less reliable sources of information. Prior to neoliberal globalization, government agencies, universities, and think tanks were much less affected by corporate interests and lobbying (see Science-Mart for a particularly in-depth treatment of the topic).

The energy sector is an appropriate case study of a phenomenon that has occurred in other previously public areas (i.e., education).

Both renewable and fossil energy lobbying groups and think tanks have a strong presence. These groups are motivated to generate research and studies supporting their economic aims. When the organization is private, the public cannot access records of financial contributions and identify donors. This undermines transparency and credibility.

Domestically, [political, social, economic] a variety of actors have invested themselves in the creation of a research and development framework that favors private, corporate interests over the public good and civic society.

The Think Tank Watch project at the University of Pennsylvania classifies and tracks think tank activity. The think tank picture is further complicated as foreign governments buy influence in American think tanks.

Think Tank Project’s Classification System     

An energy-related project, Think Tank Map, tracks think tanks that conduct climate-related research. The Buckeye Institute is a conservative, pro-fossil fuel private organization with an annual budget of 2.7 million dollars. Members of its Board of Trustees have ties to the fossil fuel and plastics industries. This organization generates reports that would fail to meet basic academic standard as objective research. There’s nothing wrong with lobbying for policy, but to do so under the guise of an “independent think tank” misrepresents the mission of the organization and undermines the work of independent, publicly-funded think tanks. Pro-renewable think tanks and lobbyists further cloud the picture with reports that lobby for their interests.

Energy policy set by Washington only influences but does not dictate the paths followed by other countries and transnational corporations. Failure by Washington to invest profitable sectors, including renewable energy, will have a long term effect on the American economy.

Taxpayers have invested in their own futures and the success of businesses by funding the underlying physical (i.e., highways) and virtual (i.e., the internet) infrastructure upon which corporations rely. Independent and transparent research and organizations are critical to the continuation of cycle of success.

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Female drivers, safe roads

Stereotypes about women’s tasks and (lack of certain) skills are very dominant in Serbia. These prejudices and sexist believes are often supported by women themselves, as if they gain power by agreeing with common views and men’s perspectives. My goal is to write a short and simple way of arguing the opposite and perhaps offering an alternative narrative that hopefully could be accepted without seeming “threatening” to the existing manhood mentality. In specific I focused on debunking the myth that women are inherently bad drivers.DijanaM Truth and Truthiness

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Sex education should include safe sex practices

Find 1-min video w/ narration here:
– Play by opening the PowerPoint file, selecting ‘Slide Show’ and play ‘From Start’
– I was not able to make it a video format file, because screen recording messes up the sound.

Comments about the assignment:

Wow—what a challenging assignment! At first I considered everything from promoting 1-year federally funded maternity/paternity leave to increasing science funding for medical applications of psychedelics.  Then I started off trying to argue queer-inclusive sex ed and realized that I could only argue that to people already on board with safe sex-oriented sex ed in the first place. For those people, who are likely also to support queer rights, making sex ed queer-inclusive is likely more an awareness issue than a disputed issue.

So I landed on arguing for sex ed oriented around safe sex practices. I wanted to build a case around randomized controlled trials measuring the effectiveness on metrics like teen pregnancy and STI rates of abstinence-only programs vs. safe sex programs, and it turned out that either the data I wanted does not exist or is hard to come by. It is hard for studies to measure anything beyond self-reported sexual behavior.

Next, without the quantitative numbers to make a good argument, I wanted to make a rational argument for why sex ed should focus on safe sex practices. However, I felt like my rational arguments relied on value judgments that a conservative audience would not share. In the end I ended up using an appeal to authority, having read that 70% of Republicans do in fact trust the CDC as an organization.

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Is Facebook really the best place to work in? It might not be, after all

I visited the new Facebook campus in Menlo Park, California last week. As everybody, I could be anything but impressed: the building is 430,000-square-foot, it is the largest open-workspace in the world, and was designed by Franck Ghery, who also designed Los Angeles’ Disney Concert Hall. The various activities offered (room dedicated for video games, nap area, for instance) and the wide range of food options encountered at every corner (hamburgers, coffee place, ice cream place, hot dogs stands, etc.) – definitely gives the wanderer the illusion to be in an attraction park more than in a working space.

Last year, employees on Glassdoor have voted Facebook the No. 1 company to work for overall. Even if Facebook has often been regarded as one of the best places to work in the tech industry, this article is meant to show that this model presents many downsides.

The reviews of the employees are actually very mixed, as it is shown:

The Facebook campus model does enable any work-life balance

The Facebook campus is opened 24/7, and offers food all day long and nap areas to its employees. Some Employees admit that they tend to stay longer to work. A few are even sleeping at the office, and do not eat at home anymore

And employees have to stay connected all the time

“For six weeks out of the year, I’m on 24/7 on-call duty”; “You can never really leave work, even when you’re on vacation”; “Ungodly amounts of email from internal communications, 1,600 or more a day”; “At most companies, you put up a wall between a work personality and a personal one, which ends up with a professional workspace. The wall does not exist at Facebook”

The firm culture can also be called into question

“A large company trying to act like a young one”; “I’ve seen decisions being made by interns”; “Looking too hard at Google”; “Working for Facebook sometimes means wasting a lot of time browsing Facebook”

Even if they benefit of many free services, their life-style is not as healthy as it used to be:

Using free bikes and the gym available on the campus replace the usual weekly exercise. However, most of the employees admit that going to the gym is not part of their regular schedule anymore, and that do not go as often as they used to before joining Facebook. Also, with free food and free snacks often in all the buildings, and at every floor, most of them start gaining weight as soon as they join the firm.

Facebook is accelerating the gentrification of Silicon Valley

Facebook offered employees 10,000$ to live close to the office, and “a lot of local families are going to get hurt” “

The relationships between colleagues are altered

Facebook Employees have to become “Facebook friends” with their colleagues. Do your colleagues always have to be your friends? Some admits that looking the pictures posted daily by colleagues alter the image they have of them and their working relationship

The company does not manage its own growth well

In 2010, Facebook has 1,700 employees. In 2016, it has 11,996, and critics are raised about Facebook’s quick scale up, and inability to keep its start-up culture






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Debunking a Myth About Encryption

During the debate over whether Apple should help the FBI unlock the iPhone involved in the San Bernardino shooting investigation, there was a lot of misleading information going around about encryption, including a call for a “golden key”, which a Washington Post editorial claimed could be created through Apple and Google’s “wizardry”. Most pieces attempting to debunk these myths were very technical, long reads. I am attempting to debunk a small part of a myth about encryption in the simplest format I could think of – an infographic.


Will People Die Because of the Obamacare Repeal?

There recently has been a flurry of declarations by Democratic politicians, scholars, and pundits that the bill replacing of Obamacare is literally deadly. This is a pretty potent argument, and an especially shocking one, as it essentially accuses Republicans to willfully kill Americans.

I want to stop on one of these statements. In January, Sen. Bernie Sanders said on Twitter that the Obamacare replacement would kill 36,000 people. He was promptly rebuked by the Washington Post, which considered his declaration nonsensical, partially because the details of the Obamacare repeal law were not known at the time. Now that the bills are on the table, and given the additional similar declarations by other Democrats, I figured it would useful to re-check that claim today, and see if it is still worthy of a rebuttal.

In short, the overall direction of that statement may be true, but the number truly is baseless. There is no proper study to back up that precise number. Indeed, no study provided a precise answer as to how many deaths would result from a repeal law. Unsurprisingly, Democrats have put forward wildly different numbers than just 36,000.

The numbers put forward by Democrats are generally recycled from two health policy studies:

  • The first one looks at how the mortality rate evolved in states that expanded Medicaid in the early 2000s vis-à-vis the ones who didn’t. They found that it saved one life for every 455 newly-insured people; extrapolating that to 20 million insurance losses, you find 44,000 deaths annually.
  • The second one looks at how the rate evolved in Massachusetts after the passage of ‘Romneycare’, which was an Obamacare-like system in that state. They found that it saved one life for every 830 newly-insured adults. This translates to 24,000 or 36,000 deaths nationally if you estimate, respectively, that the law will make 20 or 30 million Americans lose health insurance.

The 36,000 number that Sanders quoted came probably from the conclusion of the second study, as well as an extrapolation based on 30 million health insurance losses. The Washington Post was right when asserting that Sanders couldn’t know how many people would lose health insurance because of the Obamacare repeal, indeed, he was off by 5 to 8 millions. So, even if we apply Sanders’ methodology to the death question, we would find something in the range of 30,000 people.

But even applying Sanders’ methodology is problematic. Translating these studies’ finding to an Obamacare repeal is not easy and amounts a little to compare apples to oranges. The obvious caveat is that the two studies are heavily local, especially in Massachusetts, which has much better care and much more wealth than other states. Therefore, it is unclear how much the results in one American region can be scaled to the entire country. More largely, it highlights a thorny problem when it comes to the evaluation of an Obamacare repeal: how many (healthy) people would happily choose to drop their insurance, how many would do it because they can’t afford it, and how many would do it because of both? This is rendered all the more complicated by the relative leakiness of the Obamacare mandate, which may mean that the healthy people who would drop health insurance after a repeal have already done it.

More notably, the repeal of Obamacare is not a full repeal. For instance, the bills keep the Obamacare structure, with its private healthcare markets, in place. They also change the distribution of the health insurance subsidies, potentially altering the composition of the Americans with health insurance. This mean that, even if we could estimate the numbers of lives spared by Obamacare, it is not possible to consider that it would be the numbers of lives taken by an Obamacare repeal.

In conclusion, the assertion that the Republican bills will kill people is essentially speculative, but it probably is right. It is overwhelmingly likely that, if Republicans are able to repeal and/or replace Obamacare, millions more people will be uninsured in the medium-run, and a lack of health insurance is correlated to mortality.

But to advance a precise number is unjustified. It is unclear how much the population that would forego health insurance would be particularly prone to getting sick. Moreover, the studies that have estimated how many lives were spared by the extension of health insurance in other contexts display varying numbers. Now, all these caveats only make the estimate less reliable. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the number is necessarily going to be smaller. However, the level of assertiveness of some Democrats with regard to these death estimates is simply not warranted.

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MIT students, in fact, take a reasonable number of classes

It turns out the average MIT student doesn’t overload on courses as much as one might expect.

Spending time on campus or browsing MIT Confessions, however, might give you the wrong impression.

“I hear a lot of bragging… ‘Why would anyone take less than 48 units?’”

#1646 I wish I could say the depression and anxiety so frequently found here were entirely the fault of MIT's high…

MIT Confessions 发布于 2015年3月9日

“I’m only taking 54 units this semester with no clubs or other obligations and I’m already finding it hard to keep up.”

#1395 I'm only taking 54 units this semester with no clubs or other obligations and I'm already finding it hard to keep…

MIT Confessions 发布于 2014年10月1日

I had a friend who took over 100 units in a semester. According to MIT standards, that’s equivalent to over 100 hours of work a week just on classes.

Yet, many of the most ambitious students at MIT have decided on a different path: take a small number of classes — 3 to 4 — and then push yourself to your limits in extracurriculars. This is similarly brag-able, but might yield better opportunities for one’s future than overloading on classes.

One successful alum, a professor of Cognitive Science at UC San Diego, even proposes capping the number of classes an undergraduate can take. Guo never took more than 48 units in a semester himself.

The data is clear: it’s a myth that most MIT undergrads are taking over 5 classes and overloading on academics. It’s just not true.

“The median MIT student takes four classes per semester, which means most people walk around taking 48 units,” writes Danny B.D. ’15 on the MIT Admissions Blog.

A analysis I did for this blog post provides a rough estimate for the average number of classes: 5. As one might expect, this is larger than the median of 4 because both public discourse and the numbers are skewed by a few at the top.

But perhaps more convincing than the numbers are the testimonials of those who ventured into taking six or more classes themselves.

Holden Lee took 8 classes (18.101, 18.152, 18.705, 18.712, 18.725, 18.784, 18.901, and Chinese 3) in his sophomore year. After describing this experience on Quora, he writes: “I wouldn’t recommend taking so many classes under any circumstances. While I survived the semester fine, it was a process of gradual burnout.”

“I’d blocked out almost everything else that semester to focus on work, but found there are little voices in my head that don’t want to be ignored. I liked to write stories, and never had time to pursue it seriously. I thought about that poem, ‘Dream deferred.’”

Matt Hodel writes similarly of his experience taking 6 classes in a semester: “I’m a sophomore who took 6 classes last semester and failed miserably at pulling it off.” He describes falling into periods of depression throughout the semester.

His parting advice? “So I won’t say to never take 6 classes at MIT, or at college in general for that matter. Lots of people do it and many of them can handle it. Just think long and hard about how much you can handle and what your priorities are before making that decision.”

Those who do display more moderation in course loads have seen great results. In Danny’s blog post, Below 48, he describes how taking 3½ classes allowed him to pursue side projects he had been wanting to for a while, “breathe a bit more”, and spend more time with friends.

Guo, the professor who considered capping the number of units at MIT, thinks his taking few classes may have even increased his job opportunities. His employers never cared about how many classes he had taken. His resume only lists his GPA. By having more free time, Guo thinks students can develop “deep expertise” and work on research that will differentiate them from other students.


Appendix: Analysis for finding the mean number of classes taken by an MIT student

MIT doesn’t publicly release this information, or even the mean class size. They do, however, release a distribution of class sizes.

Fall 2015’s distribution is as follows:

I used this discrete distribution to estimate a continuous exponential distribution, which served as a decent model for the data.

I then wanted to find the number of student-classes (summing over the number of classes that each student takes). To do this, I computed the following integral with Wolfram Alpha:

Dividing the number of student-classes by students (~4500), we obtain an estimate for the average number of classes each student takes: 5.07.

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All the Gossip That’s Fit to Tweet


In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, US media has focused much of its scrutiny on the Trump Administration’s possible ties to the Russian government. Although mainstream media coverage of possible ties between the Trump Administration and the PRC has been sparse, China experts have paid close attention to official and unofficial signs of the dynamics of emerging US-China relations.

When would Xi visit the United States, and where was the follow up to the New York Times revelations about deals between Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and China’s Anbang Insurance Corporation?

Reporters tracked foreign investment by Chinese corporations.

New York Times Reporter, Mike Forsythe:

Anbang Stories - Pinned on January 31

Anbang Stories – Pinned on January 31





On March 2, a rumor surfaced on Twitter via a Chinese businessman visiting Mar-a-Lago. 

On March 13, the news broke that Xi would be visiting Mar-a-Lago. 

Followed almost immediately by:

Conversation ensued:

 Who does own Anbang?

But, wait, what’s happening to the data on Anbang’s website?

Mike Forsythe tweeted: 



12:10pm White House Press Briefing:

But then, late on March 14, Anbang released a statement saying there was no intention to invest in the Kushner property:

Following up with Anbang

Following up with Anbang


What will develop next? Think this story’s over? Don’t believe a tweet of it…..

NYT Reporter tracking Anbang financials

NYT Reporter tracking Anbang financials



#SnowDay on Twitter, or, how everything is political now

Twitter has always been one of the more politically conscious social networks. But in the age of the Trump administration, politics seems to pervade even the most seemingly neutral subjects. The snowstorm which hit the Eastern Seaboard today – giving students and workers an unexpected day at home – yielded a wide range of conversation on the #SnowDay hashtag,

First, there was food, and lots of it:

And there were carefully dressed toddlers:

But pretty soon, folks realized that the blizzard was not as boisterous as promised. The Weather Channel caught some of the flak:

… as did the entire notion of global warming:

… and some even thought that weather reports smelt like fake news.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this was not the only time that Donald Trump made an appearance on the hashtag. His supporters were out in force:

… as were several of his detractors.

Twitter has always been one of the more politically conscious social networks. But in the age of the Trump administration, politics seems to pervade even the most seemingly neutral subjects.

It seems that politics is never far from tweeters’ minds – whatever the weather.