Tag Archives: consumption

Emerging Diseases and Forest Fires

I have been interested in emerging diseases ever since reading The Hot Zone by Richard Preston, which was so intense that it kept me awake during an entire overnight train ride from Boston to Washington DC. So I was very psyched at Christmas to receive a copy of Spillover by David Quammen. I just finished it, and know a lot more now about how diseases jump from animals to humans.

Scary cover, great book!

Scary cover, great book!

Quammen uses the book to explore theories about why there seem to be more frequent incidents of humans being infected by animal diseases (think SARS, Ebola, Hendra, Avian Flu, etc.). One of the theories he discusses concerns how increased human development is breaking up large contiguous ecosytems into smaller ecosystems separated by cities, farms, etc.

For example, a large forest might be full of bats that could be carriers of some nasty virus. This forest contains metapopulation of bats, or a series of smaller populations that meet and mingle at their edges. In a metapopulation an infection is likely to be constantly present, but at a low level of incidence. If each smaller population becomes isolated, however, that population will likely go through a boom and bust cycle of infection, with periodic epidemics infecting most members of the population.

If that highly infected population runs into humans, there is increased likelihood of the infection passing to the humans. In other words, if 90% of bats are infected, then there is a higher probability of bats passing their disease to humans than if only 10% of bats are infected.

As development has broken up formerly vast forests into smaller forest segments surrounded by cities and suburbs, we have seen metapopulations of natural disease reservoirs (bats, rats, mice, etc.) broken up into the isolated populations that are more likely to transfer diseases. Hence the increasing number of obscure infections jumping into humans.

What struck me about this theory is the parallel to forest fires. Current wildfire thinking holds that if you put out wildfires, fuel loads will build up and eventually you will get a catastrophic fire that can’t be controlled (like the 2002 Biscuit Fire in Oregon, which burned nearly 500,000 acres; I drove through the edge of that fire, and the smoke turned day into night). But if you let natural fires burn, they will clear out the fuel load and not turn into conflagrations.

So you can have small, more frequent fires, or rare, catastrophic fires. Much like you can have frequent, low levels of infection in your animals, or rare, but massive levels of infection. And in both cases, human intervention in the environment is what moves things from low-level balance to a high-level cyclic system.

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Bad Driving, Google Edition

My series of posts about double parking gets to intersect today with a trend getting some recent publicity: tech companies using private buses to drive their employees from San Francisco down to Silicon Valley.

You can read more about these buses here, here and here. There is a little controversy around these buses: on the one hand, they are clearly more environmentally friendly than having everyone drive their own cars. On the other hand, they are pretty freaking big, and often drive on city streets that aren’t designed for vehicles that large. Moreover, they use stops that are designated for city buses, and then the city buses don’t have room to stop.

Moreover, and this is my pet peeve, they don’t even pull all the way over into those stops. The photo below is of a private bus on Lombard Street, clearly not pulling into its stop and clearly blocking a lane of traffic. I don’t actually know which company’s bus this is; they tend to hide their affiliations, except for the Genentech buses, which are festooned with Genenetech logos, and which often do exactly what is pictured here, in the same exact spot.

Google bus blocking traffic

Google bus blocking traffic

In addition to their clogging up of city streets, I am a little torn on the private buses. I appreciate their greenness, but I wonder if the buses didn’t exist, then maybe a lot of these people would move out of the city and to Silicon Valley, closer to their work. Should we really enable people to live far away, rather than supporting a denser work-home nexus?

Spending Too Much on Brand Names; BMW, Coach, etc.

Interesting that it’s a car webzine (thetruthaboutcars.com) that has written the best commentary I’ve seen on the trend of the past few years in which young people have been spending well beyond their means on brand-name cars, purses, clothes and other consumer products. There was a time when buying a BMW, or an Armani suit, or $1,000 purses and shoes, was something done by people in their 40’s and 50’s, who had been well paid for decades. Now 25 year olds PR account executives making $40,000 are buying Jimmy Choos and putting them on their credit cards. Or as the article says, a few years ago “the idea of spending four figures on a handbag when one worked at an entry-level white collar job would have been seen as irresponsible and reckless at worst, crass at best.” The pre-financial crisis debt binge wasn’t just about mortgages. People were overspending on all kinds of goods, and they still are.

Luck Drives Pop Music AND Wealth?

Yesterday’s Baseline Scenario (one of my favorite blogs) had an entry describing an academic paper which modeled how income gets distributed in a society and why income inequality is so strong in some economies. Based on the abstract of the paper, and on Baseline’s summary of the rest of the paper (yes, I am admitting that I did not read the whole paper), the model shows that a set of homogenous homes will diverge in wealth, with wealth accumulating over time in fewer and fewer households, based purely on exposure to “idiosyncratic investments” which have higher returns. And in this model, exposure to these investments is random: based on luck.

Clearly this paper is not the be all and end all of explanations. Equally clearly, the assumption of homogeneity does not match reality. What I want to point out here is the connection to Duncan Watt‘s work on the development of hit pop songs, which he shows is also based on luck. Please see my posts here and here regarding Watts.

It’s interesting that two different approaches to modeling two different things come to such similar conclusions: the distribution of success is essentially driven by luck, not skill. Again, these are models, not complete explanations. I, for one, would certainly like to think that my skill will lead to success. However, judging by my reader counts, that may not be the case. Regardless, I think it’s important for us all to remember the role that luck plays in much of what we do.

The Myth of the “Job Creator”

A key Republican talking point is that the wealthy are “job creators” and that any tax on these job creators will cause them to fold their cards and go home, hurting the economy in the process. This is clearly ridiculous, and I have challenged before the concept that tax rates diminish incentives to build companies, but here is a great essay from an entrepreneur and investor (a successful one — he is clearly in the 1%) describing how people don’t create jobs, the economy does. And the economy is made up of regular folks — the 99% — who need to buy the products produced by the entrepreneurs. Without a successful consumer class, nobody will be a job creator.

Cupcakes Anyone? Yes, Please!

As long as we are talking about bubbles (which I did here and here and here), I should note that some people also think we are in a cupcake bubble (like this person and this person and even this person). I can’t disagree; here in SF there are three cupcakeries in just a 10 block area, each selling pretty much identical over-priced cupcakes with too much frosting.

And yet, there is something special about a cupcake. Look at this photo (taken by me, in case you thought I was just a pretty writer):

The cupcake trailer, in Austin TX

Seriously, how fun does that cupcake look? Really fun. And that, I think, is the key to the cupcake’s success. They are so little and whimsical and colorful that you can’t help but smile when you see them. Most important, they have that dollop of frosting on top. Of course it’s too much, and too sweet, but it looks like a swirly party hat, a pastel pillow of creamy goodness that you could jump right into. No wonder you can’t resist a cupcake on your plate.

When you see a full cake, it looks delicious, but also kind of serious, maybe even intimidating. You have to slice it, and share it, and then probably store what you didn’t finish, and then you have the pressure to keep eating the leftovers so that you can finish them before they start to get hard and crusty in the refrigerator. A cupcake, on the other hand, has none of those difficulties. No slicing, no leftovers, no pressure. Just pop it in your mouth (one, two or three bites…it’s up to you) and be transported back to your childhood.

So yes, there is definitely a bubble in cupcake bakeries, but the cupcakes themselves will continue to crowd out cakes, as long as we prefer fun to dour in our desserts made out of flour.

 

Humans Might Actually Like Taxes

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article by Jonah Lehrer asking whether humans might not be as averse to paying taxes as our political discussion currently assumes. He describes a study by scientists at Caltech which showed that people dislike inequality. Study participants were put into scanners, and the pleasure areas of their brains lit up more when money was given to others than when money was given to them. This was especially true of those who had started the study “rich,” which was determined by random assignment. Following this study to its logical conclusion, perhaps people who are well off might not be as unhappy as politicians seem to think about paying higher taxes to help the less fortunate.

However, Lehrer points out that the random assignment of riches skews the study. Other studies have shown that this altruism effect is less powerful when the rich feel that their wealth is earned. When we bring this back to politics and tax rates it opens a whole can of worms. What is “earned” in a society where massive advantages (not just wealth) are passed down through the generations? I won’t open that can of worms here, but point you to this post from last year on some of the challenges of “earning” wealth for the lower classes.