March 18, 2016 8:21 AM
Futuristic transportation technology often captures the imaginations of the press and public. Sometimes, it’s hype-driven nonsense: think the mysterious “IT” that became the mockery-inducing Segway or Elon Musk’s more recent vomit-inducing death-tube proposal appropriately named the Hyperloop, which has managed to hoodwink the dumber segments of the tech press as well as the government of Slovakia.
Beyond the problems presented by the laws of physics and human physiology, the economics of the Hyperloop make no sense given the meager time-savings benefits over the far cheaper and much more flexible alternative of air travel—not to mention that the proposed Hyperloop would travel only about half as fast as the decommissioned 1960s-era Concorde supersonic passenger jet. Personally, I’d bet on seeing currently infeasible suborbital passenger shuttles before a wasteful, fixed-infrastructure-dependent Hyperloop.
March 17, 2016 7:47 AM
For millennia, mosquitos have wreaked havoc on mankind, passing along myriad deadly or debilitating diseases. Mankind’s clever interventions—from screened windows to pesticides—have helped greatly control mosquito-transmitted diseases in developed nations. Until recently, the hope of getting such diseases under control in poor developing nations any time soon appeared dim. But thanks to some new technologies in this field, there’s cause for some optimism.
Ultimately, economic growth offers the best solution in these nations because it would allow them to transition to sealed homes with modern heating and air conditioning and windows with screens—separating man from mosquito for much of the time. In addition, modern agricultural practices would mean, fewer people would be needed to produce food, allowing more people to work indoors. And wealth would also make it affordable for people to access insect repellants—such as DEET—for when they are outdoors, and for local governments to impellent full-time mosquito vector control personnel.
March 16, 2016 4:34 PM
It’s a fun time of year . . . at CEI HQ anyway. Once again we prepare to celebrate Human Achievement Hour—the holiday we started as a tongue-and-cheek response to Earth Hour.
On March 19th at 8:30-9:30pm, Earth Hour protestors will turn off their lights to express solidarity with the planet and “do something” about climate change. At the same time, HAH partiers will turn on the lights, drive to a pub, or engage in some other enjoyable activity to cheer the products of human ingenuity that allow us all to live better, longer, healthier lives and to applaud the institutions of liberty on which innovation, prosperity, and human flourishing depend.
If people want to save money by using less electricity and gas, more “power” to them. But the dogma that conservation always pays for itself, hence consumers should be compelled to invest in conservation for their own good, is authoritarian twaddle.
For example, a new Heritage Foundation study finds that federal automobile fuel-economy standards are a “costly mistake.” The abstract:
Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards are adding thousands of dollars to the prices of new cars. When the Obama Administration began implementing Congress’s stricter CAFE standards in 2009, scholars predicted that the standards would cost consumers at least $3,800 per vehicle. Vehicle prices, which had been falling, began rising in 2009 and have not stopped. The average vehicle now costs $6,200 more than if prices had followed their previous trend. Prices will continue to rise, by at least $3,400 per car through 2025, unless this costly policy mistake is undone.
A regulation-induced cost increase of $6,200 per vehicle, rising to $9,600 per vehicle, would price millions of low-income families out of the market for new cars. Well worth the sacrifice, Earth Hour protestors might say, if it helps save the planet.
But, according to the Obama administration’s own estimates, by 2100, new-car fuel economy standards for Model Years 2017-2025 will reduce projected global warming by 0.0076 to 0.0184°C, and sea level by approximately 0.074–0.166 cm, “based on a range of climate sensitivities” (76 FR 75097). The climatic benefits, if any, would be hypothetical and undetectable. An abysmal cost-benefit ratio.
Batman may be a dark crusader, but Earth Hour activists are crusaders for darkness. Aren’t they a tad uncomfortable about being in the same camp with Sauron, the Borg, and the Dark Elves? These guys need a new PR consultant.
March 16, 2016 9:37 AM
On March 19, I will celebrate Human Achievement Hour instead of Earth Hour. The choice is easy: take an hour out of the evening to feel thankful for the many inventions and innovations that make life better versus an hour plunged into darkness, feeling undeservedly guilty about access to affordable energy and climate change. Some technologies save lives, and for that I am most grateful. Other technologies simply make life more fulfilling, and for that I am grateful, too. And in the latter respect, I am especially thankful for technologies that enhance a particular interest of mine: fashion. Here are five.
March 15, 2016 11:00 AM
Polio used to be a parent’s worst nightmare. The virus mostly affects children, and hampers the brain’s ability to communicate with muscles. While its effects are usually temporary, polio can lead to permanent paralysis and even death. If the paralysis reaches the respiratory system, victims will be unable to breathe on their own, which led to the depressing sight of hospital wards filled with rows and rows of iron lungs (pictured below). Polio can also cause permanent muscle atrophy, making walking difficult long after the disease runs its course. It has no cure, so once a child catches it, they can only hope their case is a mild one.
Then, in the 1950s, Jonas Salk invented the polio vaccine—a human achievement that continues to improve millions of lives even today. Within just a few years, polio completely disappeared in the United States. Parents all over America no longer had to fear that the virus would rob their children of the ability to walk. Children no longer had to avoid their friends who might have infected them, and did not have to dread the possibility of spending two weeks inside an iron lung.
The developing world has been less fortunate. But more and more, some of the world’s poorest people are able to share in what the economist Julian Simon called “our victory against death.” Polio has been gone from the U.S. for decades, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that a global campaign to eradicate the disease began in earnest. Even in the current decade, regions of Africa continued to grapple with polio and its human costs—until now.
March 27, 2015 4:07 PM
Earth Hour vs. Human Achievement Hour—two irreconcilably opposed events scheduled for the same time: 8:30-9:30 pm EST, Saturday, March 28, 2015. Earth Hour protestors will turn off their lights to express solidarity with the Earth and “raise consciousness” about climate change. Human Achievement Hour partiers will turn on their lights and, in countless individual ways, celebrate the creativity of an energy-rich civilization. I may join some friends at a pub—or just stay home, plug in the Telecaster, crank up the tube amp, and let the good times roll.
The Earth Hour crowd would have you believe that our mostly fossil-fueled civilization is unsustainable. I know of no better antidote to their ideology than energy analyst Alex Epstein’s new book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. Epstein presents the big picture Earth Hour types ignore, belittle, or deny. Human beings using carbon dioxide (CO2)-emitting energy did not take a safe climate and make it dangerous. Rather, they took a dangerous climate and made it dramatically safer.
Building on the work of economist Indur Goklany, Epstein examines aggregate mortality and death rates related to extreme weather in the International Disaster Database (EM-DAT) maintained by the Brussels-based Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED).
He appropriately begins with drought, historically the leading source of climate-related deaths. Drought can decrease the two most essential commodities of human life—water and food.
In the 1920s, drought killed an estimated 472,000 people worldwide. What’s happened since then? Fossil fuel consumption skyrocketed. Carbon dioxide concentrations increased by almost one-third. The world warmed by approximately 0.8C. Deaths related to drought declined by an amazing 99.8 percent even though population in drought-prone areas tripled or quadrupled.
What caused this remarkable improvement in the human condition? Affordable energy, the lion’s share of which comes from fossil fuels, reduces drought risk in manifold ways.
March 27, 2015 3:44 PM
It’s the most wonderful time of year! Human Achievement Hour is once again upon us, giving us reason to pause and consider recent innovations that have or will significantly improve the human condition. I usually like to focus on some development in medicine or environmental tech, but this year I feel compelled to highlight what may be the most significant advancement in the modern economy. What began with eBay—the digital garage sale—has now blossomed into an entire economy and a way of life. You may have heard it called the “sharing economy,” or “collaborative consumption” is actually about efficient resource allocation.
Instead of leaving rooms or homes empty and unused families can make extra money by renting them out to vacationers or business people through Airbnb or VRBO. Instead of paying to leave your car at the airport—you can now have someone pay you to use your car while you’re away. The sharing economy allows just about anyone to instantly turn his or her otherwise underused or unused resources or skills to turn a profit. The result is an economy with highly personalized goods and services that are cheaper, higher quality, and more efficient.
Collaboration allocates resources efficiently: For most people living in a city with public transportation and limited parking, it may not make sense to own a car. However, there are certain times when a car becomes necessary to run certain errands or get to locations not accessible by public transportation. Luckily, services like RelayRides and Getaround connect people who need cars with their neighbors who have cars, but aren’t using them. Spinlister and Liquid offer a similar sharing-service for bikes.
Time is also a resource, and when you’re busy preparing for a party it’s a resource that might be in short supply. Nobody likes to make that third trip to the liquor store for those few bottles they forgot to pick up. Luckily there are platforms like Klink, an alcohol delivery app operating in DC, Ann Arbor, and Central Florida. It allows customers to use their smart phone to shop local liquor stores which then deliver it (without a markup) to their door.
Similarly TaskRabbit allows you to outsource errands to qualified people in your area for an hourly rate. You can use the app to find people to help you move, clean your home, do repairs, and staff your events, among other things. Similarly, Zaarly is a peer-to-peer marketplace for services.
For those hurt by the economic downturn in 2008, services like VRBO and Airbnb provides an opportunity to rent out a room in their home—or the entire house—and to make a little extra money from a resource that would otherwise have remained unused. Customers benefit by getting lower rates, a place with “character,” or a rental in a location where hotels might not be available.
March 26, 2015 7:51 AM
On the eve of the financial crisis of 2007-8, financial systems had grown extremely sophisticated, but were still essentially based on a model of trust. When two people engaged in a transaction, they generally relied on a trusted third party to process the payment. This meant that there was room for fraud at worst and at best a transaction cost to the parties.
The transaction cost arises because there is the possibility of the transaction failing to go through, or, in payments-speak, being “reversed.” A reversed payment can occur because the paying party doesn’t have the money he says he does, or because he is over his credit limit, or because she isn’t who she says she is, among many other examples.
Over the years, third parties have developed extremely sophisticated ways to handle these problems, but they have never been able to eliminate the transaction cost entirely. Bridling at the transaction cost from merchants has led to punitive regulations on the payments industry, such as the Durbin Amendment to Dodd-Frank and the harassment of payment processors called Operation Choke Point. These are extremely unfair given the nature of the problem.
On October 31, 2008, a pseudonymous poster styling himself Satoshi Nakomoto on the Cryptography Mailing List hosted at metzdowd.com released a white paper that summarized the problem and proposed a solution. He or she argued:
The cost of mediation increases transaction costs, limiting the minimum practical transaction size and cutting off the possibility for small casual transactions, and there is a broader cost in the loss of ability to make non-reversible payments for nonreversible services. With the possibility of reversal, the need for trust spreads. Merchants must be wary of their customers, hassling them for more information than they would otherwise need. A certain percentage of fraud is accepted as unavoidable. These costs and payment uncertainties can be avoided in person by using physical currency, but no mechanism exists to make payments over a communications channel without a trusted party.
In one of the most brilliant applications of lateral thinking ever seen, Nakamoto proposed the use of cryptography to solve the problem:
What is needed is an electronic payment system based on cryptographic proof instead of trust, allowing any two willing parties to transact directly with each other without the need for a trusted third party. Transactions that are computationally impractical to reverse would protect sellers from fraud, and routine escrow mechanisms could easily be implemented to protect buyers.
The electronic payment system was dubbed “Bitcoin.” This is unfortunate as this had led people to believe that the point of the system was to create a new currency. It was not. The currency is a means to the end of a payments system that eliminates the transaction cost of third parties. What is more important than the value of an individual bitcoin is the public ledger system known as the blockchain that records every transaction. Being based around distributed computing and cryptography, there is no central authority to control or corrupt it.
March 24, 2015 2:58 PM
The following is a guest post by Chelsea German, Researcher and Managing Editor of HumanProgress.org.
When Homo erectus first learned to control fire a million years ago, humanity gained the ability to light up the night. From fire to electricity to LEDs, lighting technology has advanced unceasingly ever since. Yet every year, the Earth Hour campaign calls on millions of people to forgo this remarkable achievement by turning off their electricity. Earth Hour even discourages the use of smoke-emitting candles, plunging many participants into the same impenetrable darkness that surrounded our ancestors before fire was first harnessed. (Only soy and beeswax candles are deemed acceptable, because they do not emit smoke. It is unclear how many Earth Day participants use such candles and how many go without light altogether.)
Earth Hour justifies itself as a symbolic act to raise humanity’s commitment to reducing its ecological footprint. Instead of engaging in symbolic action, participants might better spend their time by joining the many innovators who are continuously making technology more efficient. To quote bestselling author Matt Ridley, “A car today emits less pollution traveling at full speed than a parked car did from leaks in 1970.” Unsurprisingly, given such rapid advances, worldwide CO2 emissions are decreasing per person.
March 24, 2015 9:14 AM
When Human Achievement Hour rolls around each year, I make sure to do two things. One is to play an electric guitar. The other is to play an acoustic guitar.
Guitars are simple things. Stretch some thin metal wires over a plank of wood, and you’re most of the way there. Electric guitars add a few magnets wrapped in copper wire mounted underneath the strings, called pickups. This deceptively simple invention is one of the pinnacles of human achievement. Music made on guitars has brought unfettered joy to billions of people, most of whom have idea how to play one. Whether you like jazz, punk rock, flamenco, blues, death metal, or classic rock, guitars have enhanced your life. In a way, the guitar is one of the defining objects of modern Western culture.
Regular readers will likely be familiar with CEI’s “I, Pencil” video from a few years ago, inspired by Leonard Read’s famous pamphlet. Nobody can make a pencil on their own. It takes a network of literally millions of people cooperating to make something you can buy in a store for less than a dollar. The network of human cooperation surrounding guitars is arguably even greater.