Love Thy Neighbor? The Politics of Hydropower in New England

Thanks to Jason Dearen for his guidance and expertise in researching this post!

In 2016, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker passed signature energy diversity legislation to increase the state’s reliance on renewables, specifically hydro and wind power. The law requires Massachusetts to solicit long-term contracts, 15 or 20 years, to procure 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind power and another 1,200 megawatts of hydropower or other renewable resources. Massachusetts regulators began a RFP process in 2017, collecting 5 bids from utility companies hoping to bring Canadian hydropower to Boston.

Graphic of the proposed line from The Portland Press Herald

The policy benefits are clear: Between the retirement nuclear plants, decline of coal, and push for renewable sources of power for the significant needs of the Boston grid (especially during the Winter), the bill aims to provide a generation of Massachusetts residents with clean power. To put it plainly, the bill provides some indisputable economic (and environmental) benefits to Massachusetts residents.

In January 2018 Massachusetts regulators announced that Eversource’s Northern Pass had won the contract and would bring power from Hydro-Quebec dams to Boston via New Hampshire. However, by March 2018, political uncertainty in New Hampshire around the status of the project led regulators to announce that they had revoked their Northern Pass offer, and instead chosen Central Maine Power’s New England Clean Energy Connect to route Hydro-Quebec power through Maine. The only catch? CMP needs to get the power from the Canada-Maine border to their existing power lines along the coast.

Despite the clear economic benefits in Mass, like New Hampshirites, many Mainers are also opposed to the project. Why? Objections to the proposal generally fall in three categories:

  1. It will disrupt the northern Maine ecotourism industry (specifically whitewater rafting on the Kennebec river)
  2. It will disrupt the delicate ecology of the Kennebec river
  3. There is no economic benefit to Maine residents
Image of an anti-CMP flyer. From The Portland Press Herald.

Interestingly, New England is not unique in grappling with the political realities of transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables. Around the country, and especially in the West, we have seen several examples policy initiatives aiming to provide clean power run afoul environmental activists. Because often the best and cleanest alternative to burning fossil fuels is hydro, we are increasingly seeing politicians and regulators damming rivers. The downsides are the ecological disruptions, and associated political conflicts, with generating hydropower.  

For example, the Klamath River on the California/Oregon border has been dammed at six places, the earliest of which were built in the 1920s. Yet recently activists, arguing that the dams make it impossible for salmon to spawn which adversely impacts the native river tribes, have successfully secured four of the dams decommission by 2020. Yet, the Klamath dams are a major source of clean power for northern California. Clearly, there are no obvious solutions.

Arial image of one of the Klamath dams.

Part of what makes the CMP project so interesting is that the issue here is not the creation of the dam itself, but rather the transport of power from an existing dam to a needy market. No one is denying the necessity of clean power in Boston; rather, the concerns of Maine residents are more focused on the lack of benefits to residents of the state.

This raises some important questions to grapple with. What responsibility does Maine have to help out its New England neighbor? What repatriations are sufficient to compensate Mainers? (Note, after initially proposing $22m in mitigation, CMP cut that to as little as $5m in 2018, while low-income ratepayers in Boston will benefit greatly from reduced-price power.) How do we reconcile efforts to reduce reliance on fossil fuels with the environmental and economic implications of doing so?

If one thing is clear, it is that there are no obvious answers, and the fight is ongoing. CMP is continuing with plans to build the line while activists organize in opposition to it. Perhaps the CMP line counts as a sacrifice that we as a society need to make for the greater good – there is no doubt that we Bostonians need clean power. But who said northern Mainers should have a massive power line built in their backyard? Or that the value of rafting the Kennebec river is less than the value of supplying clean power to Boston? I know I don’t want to be the person who makes those decisions.



Experiencing Homeschooling

Image result for homeschooling
Source: Metroparent

In the past twenty years, there has been a significant rise in the number of students following the homeschooling model all over the United States (Gould, 2011). This growth has fueled the debate about the pros and cons of the homeschooling model and how it compares to the traditional schooling model. These debates are often emotionally charged due to the strong beliefs of the proponents of each side. Many researchers attribute the growth of the current “homeschooling movement” to various reasons including the deterioration of the public schooling system, moral and religious beliefs that oppose the traditional schooling model, and the parents’ beliefs that homeschooling nurtures their children’s ability to achieve a prosperous future (Cogan, 2010). This week, I had an opportunity to interview Edward (Ned) Burnell who is a proud product of both systems. Burnell, a current Ph.D. student at MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, attributes part of his success in academia to his upbringing in a homeschooling system.

AM: Can you tell me more about your typical day when you were homeschooled?

EB: My parents prepared a daily schedule for me and my sister that was divided based on the subject. They would choose a workbook that matches a particular subject and then ask us to go through it and complete some exercises. We were also allowed to play a fair number of educational computer games that were mainly focused on math and grammar. The important approach that my parents followed was giving us the relative flexibility to decide what we wanted to learn and when to learn it. For example, if we were provided with a workbook that was not interesting to us, we would skip it and choose a different one. My sister (who is three years younger) was mostly using the same workbooks and games I was using so there was no grade level in the traditional sense.

AM: Why do you think some parents choose to homeschool compared to the traditional schooling model?

EB: I believe that there are three camps of homeschooling the Christian fundamentalist, the camp that is morally opposed to the structure of the traditional schooling model and believe that their children deserve better, and the camp that wants to spend more time honing their children’s skills and knowledge so that they can thrive in the real world.

AM: How did you spend your summers during your homeschooling years?

EB: I generally spent my summers hanging out with friends in my neighborhood. My mother would also motivate me to draft a research paper every summer. This was not a structured research paper in the academic sense, but it offered me the opportunity to research a topic I’m interested in and visit the library in search of answers to my research questions. A highpoint in middle school was emailing a researcher on the Bubonic plague and getting a response about an argument in his research paper that I did not understand.

AM: In what ways do you think your homeschooling experience helped you during your transition to the traditional public high school system?

EB: I remember in high school, it was relatively easy for me to explain content to other students as I was very comfortable explaining things to myself; this has been a valuable survival skill. Also, the time I spent during my homeschooling learning about diverse topics and nurturing different skills helped me during my high school years.

AM: Did you face any challenges transitioning from the homeschooling to the traditional model?

EB: I think discipline was something I had to learn. For example, I never learned to write about something I didn’t care about. I had to learn that in high school and college. I was very confident. If I had something to say, I said it. This was really challenging when I was forced to write about a topic that I wasn’t interested in.

I was also never pushed to challenge myself in ways that I didn’t want to, and I was never punished by an external source or by myself for failure to overcome a certain challenge. Another challenge was sometimes suffering from social anxiety, especially during my first year.

AM: Do you feel that your upbringing in a homeschooling model helped you garner your current passion for using design to improve human experiences?

EB: I think the freedom offered to me within the homeschooling environment helped me learn how to experiment with objects and think about answers to questions that are interesting to me. When I grew up, I realized that those experiences had supported how I handled design challenges and made me more comfortable in experimenting with unconventional methods.

Image result for traditional school
Source: Medium

AM: Having had the chance to learn through both models, what do you think are the benefits of the traditional schooling model compared to the homeschooling model?

EB: I think the traditional schooling model offers children more opportunities for developing their social skills. It also makes them more comfortable adhering to the traditional rules of schooling academia which may support their success within the system. Traditional schooling is also essential for parents who have jobs and cannot afford to homeschool.

AM: What do you think are the main challenges of the traditional schooling and the homeschooling models?

EB: I think that the traditional schooling model has several challenges. First, schools force students to fit into certain archetypes and molds, and this limits children’s creativity and freedom to express themselves. I also think the “factory model school” may force children to learn certain topics without spending time understanding them and applying them. People often think of school, as unpaid labor. We have these kids perform for us certain tasks; these tasks are called “Homework,” even the name is problematic. The school helps students prepare reports that will never be used which is a preparation for a white-collar lifestyle.

As for the homeschooling system, I think that the difficulty with homeschooling is that takes it a lot of time and attention from the parent, it might be hard to homeschool if you have to pay rent and have jobs. So, I believe it is circumstantial. The parents’ presence for a significant portion of a child’s day may also impact the children’s interest in their parents’ experiences since by time parents have fewer stories and experiences to share due to their constant presence in their children’s lives.

Homeschooling may also make it hard for students to follow the traditional academic system and to follow its rules as they were not exposed to it from a younger age. For example, it was hard for me to get used to the taking exams, but I was lucky enough that I had a photographic memory that helped me achieve high scores with less effort.

When I asked Ned about the system he would choose for his children, he mentioned that he might be more inclined towards a traditional system that has some of the merits of the homeschooling system such as freedom of expression and the ability of children to learn by performing activities and tasks that they are interested in. It was fascinating to get to learn more about Ned’s experience when Ned asked me about the schooling system I would prefer; I found myself struggling to make a choice. I guess it is hard to choose an educational system that might significantly influence the future of another individual!


Cogan, M. F. (2010). Exploring Academic Outcomes of Homeschooled Students. Journal of College Admission208, 18-25.

Martin-Chang, S., Gould, O. N., & Meuse, R. E. (2011). The impact of schooling on academic achievement: Evidence from homeschooled and traditionally schooled students. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science/Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement43(3), 195.

Seiji Engelkemier

(Since I didn’t submit a bio earlier, here’s one now.)

Hi, I’m Seiji Engelkemier. I’m interested in working on renewable energy generation and storage as well as other issues relevant to climate change. To that end, I’m a senior studying mechanical engineering with a concentration in energy (and minor in energy studies). Since I’ve been at MIT, I’ve worked on projects involving evaporative cooling, mycelium, silkworms, algae, and thermal power plants.

While I don’t have a background in journalism or news, I’m interested in learning more about the field as well as hearing from people with firsthand experience. I found about this class because I talked to Prof. Zuckerman about an interactive financial transparency tool (targeted for institutions) that I’m currently building. It uses data visualizations to illuminate relationships found in financial data.

Posted in Bio

Oscars, The Millennial Way

Millions of Americans basked in the beauty of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper singing “Shallow,” appreciated the banter of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph and celebrated a night of historic wins during Sunday’s Academy Awards. Viewership of the hostless show rose 12 percent from last year, the first gain in five years. But it was also the second-lowest watched show in history. The decline in live viewing is in part due to cord cutting, driven by the heavily courted millennial demographic.

While the percentage of homes with cable fell 10 percentage points between 2013 and 2018, according to a recent Magid survey, the dive is sharper among millennials. She same survey found 14 percent of those between the ages of 21 and 40 prefered consuming media away from a cable provider. That choice has decreased the amount of money spent on traditional TV, led to continued rise of streaming and subscription services and fundamentally changed the way news, events and information is processed.

Cost savings was cited as the top reason for not having cable among the millennials we questioned the morning after Hollywood’s big night. Ruth Zheng, 28, who didn’t watch the broadcast because she doesn’t pay for cable, said she opted for Netflix, HBO and Hulu subscriptions instead because it’s “more cost effective” and means “you are paying for programs you actually watch.”

“Millennials prefer to have things on demand and are now accustomed to not having to wait to see an entire series vs wait every week for a new episode,” said Olivia Buck, 30.

Not being able to watch live sporting events, award shows and news was cited as the only downside of cord cutting, which has created an expected opportunity for other platforms that thrive in images (i.e. Instagram) and opinion (i.e. Twitter). Many of the millennials we spoke to turned to those platforms, all of which are free, to follow news from the Oscars and tease out highlights, whether during the show or during the commercial breaks.

The connection experienced through social platforms, and texting, creates a double screen experience that is a draw, especially for a younger demographic. Emma Golborne, 27, texted with her friends during the red carpet and shared her feelings when “Free Solo” won, despite her usual quietness on social channels.

The millennials we spoke to were all weighing the finances of their viewing choices—and with reason. Cord cutters save an average of $85 a month, according to a survey from research firm cg42. While they are saving money in the near term, some expect to pay more in the future.

“I imagine these companies will continue to raise prices and by that point, I’ll be so hooked that I’ll simply agree,” said Patricia Lee, 29.

Emma Golborne, 27, said she expects to pay less “just because everyone shares passwords.”

AI Can’t Fix This: Discourse on Campus

by Edward Burnell & Maggie Hughes

Photo by Husayn Karimi

“Our discussion tonight is really about power and the way it operates through technology in the modern world. A question of who decides what tech looks like in modern society. The answer is not ‘we the people’” said Kade Crockford in her introductory remarks at the AI Can’t Fix It teach-in organized by MIT students to protest MIT’s new Stephen Schwarzman College of Computation.

Striving to be “an educational event aimed towards a broader political purpose” (in the words of undergraduate and opening speaker Fiona Chen), the teach-in looked to both critique the college’s stated goals of being a center for ethical AI research and to “provide a vision for what the College of Computation should look like”. The catalyst for the teach-in was Henry Kissinger’s invitation to speak at the February 28th conference being held to celebrate the College. His invitation to talk about AI ethics was held up by teach-in organizers as clear indication that MIT administrator’s claims of addressing ethical and social concerns with the college of computation were “vacuous”.

Panelists also raised other concerns: Elena Sobrino, a graduate student, brought up the MIT endowment investment in the prison industry; Sally Haslanger, a philosophy professor, the concern that “the choice of how to pursue science is being controlled by money … [it] distorts our knowledge search”; Alex Acuñas talked about his indirect encounter with Stephen Schwarzman’s company Blackstone, who provided the majority of funding opposing a California ballot proposition for rent control Alex was organizing in support of; Rodrigo Ochigame discussed MIT’s involvement with a Brazilian coup as part of the same American foreign policy culture as Kissinger.

Students, activists, fellows, and professors alike had dissent they craved to voice. In a field so new, students don’t trust any of the institutions telling them what path to walk. They navigate for themselves, for there is no trail paved, and the traditional trail guides, the leaders in the field, are suspect, engulfed by “a neoliberal tyranny that pits us against one another for profit.”

Of course, universities can be a space for finding one’s own way. But much more is at stake than an undergraduate’s summer internship or a job offer. Crockford put it well: “It is rarefied air that people here breath. People working on these technologies, they are very complex, and most people have no idea what youre talking about which creates a very dangerous situation for democracy and freedom.”

This information asymmetry creates a funnel, wherein lawmakers defer all decision making and power to universities and corporations who then dictate how technology should be developed and how information should be shared.

The panel discussion ended promptly at 7:30, having only had time for a few questions from the audience. Many students lingered, and a feeling of excitement or maybe confusion lingered with them. Some were looking to dive more deeply into the issues raised, and many wanted a more in-depth discussion of AI research and development.

Many attendees of AI Can’t Fix IT had come feeling that these conversations needed to be had. “As soon as MIT made the announcement [of the College] I was distraught, confused”, said an undergraduate studying cognitive science. “This was going to be just another conversation [university administrators] had amongst themselves.” But while a number of perspectives were brought up during the event, she noted that “no people who currently study AI” spoke, and felt that the people who didn’t already know any of the panelists’ perspectives weren’t in the room. Similar sentiments were expressed by an undergraduate in the Comparative Media Studies program, who wasn’t opposed to the discussion of American imperialism (“I know who Kissinger is, but I didn’t know he was part of this [College of Computation conference].”) but had anticipated “getting to dig more deeply” into AI technologies.

When asked, some students felt unfulfilled. A graduate student from the Media Lab said “They kept speaking as if they were going to tell us what steps to take next. But I still don’t know what to do”, and others expressed a panic, or a need to take action without an avenue in which to do so, though there had been some discussion about how to consider working or organizing within tech companies.

Another Media Lab student explained it was unclear whether he should go to the tech company he planned to after graduation, if he should dismantle it from the inside, or if he should reject the offer as an act of protest. Yet, students shared that even if they knew the strategy, it would be easy to act only “if we didn’t feel so powerless” and incapable of solidarity against companies like Facebook and Google.

And what happens if the protest works, another student wondered. “So what if Kissinger doesn’t speak? They just get another puppet?”

Although critiques were plentiful, the energy in the air was riveting. With every radical claim, each hot take, the crowd cheered. Every seat was full, the floor overflowing with students packed shoulder to shoulder, many taking notes, eyes locked on the panelists, leaning into every word.

It was truly empowering to witness organizing on MIT’s campus. One international student, coming from a liberal arts college, expressed surprise and glee at knowing that groups like this were actually forming and organizing. “I never looked for them, I didn’t think it was possible at MIT for people to organize. I didn’t know people cared.”

Yet, like many movements today that are treading in these deeply consequential waters and navigating through unmarked paths, there is mass outrage, but it is unclear how to next act.

As Crockford noted, the information disparities in this digital age are stark, and this information asymmetry is a direct threat to democracy. Yet, it is clear that students of MIT are in a unique position of power. Now is the time to redistribute the wealth of knowledge we hoard, understand the impact of the technology we produce, question the justice of our productions, recognize the harm the institution directly causes, and build off of the momentum of activists growing on campus.

A feed which was broadcast live from the teach-in can be found on the Facebook event.

Environmental Activists as Free Marketers

Robert F.Kennedy Jr. during his opening remarks

Start: 6:00pm 2/25/2019; End: 9:20pm 2/24/2019

CAMBRIDGE, MA— The Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School hosted Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. for a lecture titled “The Environmental Activism, American Economy, and Democracy.” Kennedy, the President of the Waterkeeper Alliance and one of the most prominent environmental attorneys in the US gave an impassioned lecture on the importance of protecting the environment as a means to achieve economic prosperity and protect ideals of democracy.

Kennedy started with the story of how he began his career as an environmental attorney by working with the fishermen communities living along the Hudson River. After many members of the community grew tired of the government indifference regarding the pollution caused by corporates along the river during the 1980s, Kennedy worked with other lawyers to galvanize these communities to protect their fishing resources by pursuing a legal solution. Kennedy and his team brought several lawsuits against New York City and several corporates including Consolidated Edison, and General Electric. According to Kennedy, the success of his team in winning several major lawsuits, and their ability to close all the major factories contaminating the Hudson River had a significant impact on saving the Hudson River and in helping them establish the Riverkeeper non- profit environmental group.

As stories about their success started to gain traction, several communities facing similar water contamination challenges started reaching out to Kennedy and his team to find solutions to their contaminated water sources. As a result, Kennedy founded the Waterkeeper Alliance, a non-profit environmental group that aims to protect rivers all over the US and around the world. According to Kennedy, the Waterkeeper Alliance is now the fastest growing water protection agency in the world, with three hundred- and five-member organizations.

Economic prosperity vs. Environmental policy

Kennedy argued that it is wrong to think that environmental policy prohibits economic prosperity. “An investment in our environment is an investment in our infrastructure, in our assets. These assets such as water can help us achieve sustainable economic prosperity” Kennedy added.  Kennedy believes that “The free market can be used as a tool to solve all of our environmental problems if used in the right way.” Kennedy believes that a free market system functioning in the right way should punish pollution and promote efficiency. “If the cost of pollution is added to the bills of the companies, they would find ways to pursue more environment-friendly strategies. The problem is that those companies do not pay the cost of their pollution, and at the end, poor communities disproportionately shoulder the cost.”

Free marketers, not environmental lawyers

The perception of the community towards environmental lawyers is another aspect that Kennedy believes needs to change. Kennedy sees his role as a “free marketer who helps improve the efficiency of the free market capitalism and protects democracy.” According to Kennedy, because democracy, the environment, and the economy are so intertwined, he believes his role encompasses working on solutions that address all these fields together in a way that supports the prospects of future generations.

Robert F.Kennedy Jr. during his lecture

The media’s role in supporting our environment

In his opinion about the role of the media in promoting environment-friendly policies and highlighting the atrocities of polluting companies, Kennedy added “Unfortunately, most of our legal cases and environmental campaigns do not get covered by the media except if they have a direct impact on Wallstreet” Kennedy added. Kennedy believes that this is because of the huge amount of money being poured by many polluting corporations to control media coverage. Kennedy asserted his belief that of these corporations, pharmaceutical companies currently “own the press.” “Currently news shows air around 24 ads per show, 17 of these ads are for pharmaceutical companies. These companies control the content, and they are doing so unapologetically. Just look at Anderson Cooper’s show, it proudly mentions that it is brought to you by Pfizer.”

The legacy for future generations

Kennedy believes that the fight for protecting our environment is “a fight for leaving a legacy for our children and future generations. They should not have to live in a miserable environment because we were selfish and were only thinking about making short term gain.” According to Kennedy, “We are facing a critical moment in time. The current president is anti-environment policy and is currently working on a bill that would kill the Clean Water Act. Not only that, but we also have the most anti-environment Supreme court in history. Kavanaugh’s mother clearly showed her position during her time as a prosecutor, and Neil Gorsuch’s mother reign as the Environmental Protection Agency administrator was filled with scandals.”

Kennedy concluded his speech with a call to action. “All these challenges should drive us to organize and act to protect our environment. We need more grass-roots organizations to work together to support our environment and the future of our planet.”


My video dispatch of Joe Lunardi, a statistician famous in sports circles for his ability to pick who will make the NCAA March Madness tournament. He gave a talk in Cambridge about how billions in revenues from TV contracts has changed who gets in and who gets out, and what selection officials are doing to fend off concerns of favoring larger conferences who are more coveted by broadcasters.

The Making of the Bracket: Joe Lunardi Dives Deep

Start: 1:55pm 2/24/2019; End: 5:14pm 2/24/2019

CAMBRIDGE, MA – On a rainy Sunday afternoon in the basement of the Cambridge Public Library, Joe “Joey Brackets” Lunardi provided an overview of bracketology to the Cambridge community.

Lunardi, who works for ESPN as an analyst and commentator, is largely known as the creator of bracketology, the “art and science” of predicting the 68 teams who will be chosen to compete in the March Madness, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

Lunardi started the lecture by providing background on himself and the origin of bracketology. A lifelong sports fan, Lunardi began his sports analytics career as a stat-keeper for his high school basketball and football teams. Later, as a student at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Lunardi continued keeping stats for the basketball team. After graduating, he worked as a sports reporter covering college basketball. Later, he became the publisher of “The Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook,” and was eventually invited to publish his rankings and predictions for the March Madness field on for the first time in 2002. The rest is history.

Lunardi educated the audience on the technical and operational requirements of filling the 68 team field for the tournament. Outlining a “multiple overlapping votes” system, Lunardi explained how representatives from the major NCAA conferences convene in New York City over 6 days in early March to iteratively vote on the teams to be invited and subsequently on the seeding of those teams.

Perhaps most interestingly, Lunardi took time to explain some of the underlying revenue mechanics of the tournament. Helping to illuminate the many economic incentives that explain individual school and conference behavior, Lunardi argued that the economic environment is increasingly hostile to “mid-major” universities. As the tournament is increasingly commercialized, Lunardi argued that we will see fewer lesser-known programs compete, replaced by major universities with historically successful basketball programs.

Lunardi fills out a hypothetical bracket with the help of the audience.

The event closed with an interactive session in which members of the audience helped Lunardi to fill out an abbreviated bracket, given the current state of college basketball (the real bracket will not be officially created for another few weeks).

If one thing is clear, the affable and charismatic Lunardi is a true lover of college basketball, happy to share his passion and knowledge with anyone who will listen.

BetterMIT Innovation Challenge (4 Hour Challenge)

By: Seiji Engelkemier

Start: 12:10 pm
End: 4:07 pm

On Sunday February 24th, MIT community members consisting of undergraduates, graduates, and employees presented their ideas to improve MIT to a panel of three judges. The participants’ ideas included websites to help students develop intuition for p-set problems, creating a hands-on volunteering room, and expanding capabilities of online learning platforms. These ideas were pitched for the semi-final stage of the weeklong BetterMIT Innovation Design Challenge.

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Seiji’s Media Diary

Timetable summary of my media intake organized by method: laptop, phone, or in person

I kept track of my media consumption on Google Keep for the past week and summarized it with a timetable. This past week, I’ve mostly been working on a research project, so I didn’t spend much time reading articles – my primary method of staying up to date. My time outside of class, homework, and human interaction was primarily reading MATLAB and Python documentation. I was mostly surprised that most of my world news comes from NYTimes’ daily briefing. It had me thinking about the trade off between being able to get my attention with phone notifications versus the information bandwidth, which enables deep dives, limited by screen size.