Thursday, November 19, 2009


already had an article in the format for one journal. last minute change to submit to a different journal! pain! anguish! so many ridiculous differences! argh. standards??

Thursday, October 15, 2009

on the dangers of referring to greenhouse gas emissions as “pollution”

The fundamental result is that we think of GHG emissions as something that we can control using technology, instead of realizing that they are the result of the use of that driver of our economic activity—energy. This is why it is a dangerous shift; by keeping GHG in the realm of something other than pollution, we are able to confront the root cause of emissions—consumption. If it's pollution, it's pushed into a mystical techno realm.

Friday, September 18, 2009

traffic safety

Traffic safety doesn't much interest me as an academic pursuit, but I'm pulling some figures together on transportation sustainability and noticed that while the number of fatal crashes in the US has hovered around 40,000 for the last 20 years or so, that same statistic has declined substantially in other countries including Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

The reason?

In an editorial in the American Journal of Public Health, Leonard Evans argues that it's the litigious culture of the US that's to blame. Says Evans, "Instead of encouraging drivers to obey traffic laws, actions over which they have control, the US media coverage defines the problem in terms of manufacturing and design decisions over which drivers have no control." Yet another problem that comes down to separating individual actions from their consequences. Is there any problem that can't be formulated in these terms? Apparently this goes back to Marx's decision to highlight production (as opposed to consumption) as a problem in Capital. But that still doesn't explain why all of the other countries get it while the US doesn't.

Evans, L. (2003). "A New Traffic Safety Vision for the United States." American Journal of Public Health 93(9): 1384-1386.

more WWII posters

love them!

these are the "save and sacrafice" ones.

i want a whole set for my house.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

academic controversies

Jumping into the middle of an academic controversy makes it very difficult to put together a coherent picture of that controversy.

I'm currently trying to decipher the actor-network theorists' approaches to the study of scientific and technical systems. In general they seem to have things right on, but they're constantly criticizing others (the Edinburgh school, e.g.) for privileging "social" explanations. Having only read ANT accounts, I have no idea what it is they're actually criticizing or if their criticisms have merit.

In any case, as I read, the picture is getting a little clearer, and I'm gaining insights about the form I'll want my (eventual) analysis to take.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

on the consistency of thought.

I just dug up an old doc with a single sentence idea for a research topic.

It very closely resembles what I'm actually spending time on right now, even though it was written before I was even finished with my MS.

So I guess the lesson is that my thoughts are continuous and coherent on some level, even if I don't always have access to that level.


I stumbled upon "the new citroen" by Barthes after getting linked from Jim Conley's sociology of the automobile course syllabus. I'm confused though: if neomania is the obsession with the novel via consumption, then certainly when Barthes writes, "The D.S. has all the features ... of one of those objects from another universe which have supplied fuel for the neomania of the eighteenth century and that of our own science-fiction ..." he is writing criticism, even though the passages describing the instrumentation, bodywork, and the public response to the car seem to elevate it. In the worst case it's possible that Barthes didn't realize the poisonous effect that the image of the automobile would have on transportation in general. Indeed he refers to the DS as "the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object." Even those that don't use the car (not just the DS) are affected by it, but it's no longer magical, it's in terms of air quality, climate change, congestion, and public health impacts.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

interesting insights from 1983

I just came across this gem of an article by Yago published in the Annual Review of Sociology in 1983. In it, he gives a scathing critique of much of the current transportation studies work.

Examining the background characteristics of people and their choices of transportation for the journey to work, the researchers not surprisingly confirm that those with higher incomes who own automobiles are less likely to use public transit than those with lower incomes who do not own cars.

This is maybe a little exaggerated, but only a little. While this type of analysis is probably important in a regional planning context (the magnitudes of those coefficients are important, after all) it's less clear why these studies are still being undertaken in an academic one. One explanation is that they're easy (relatively) to complete and they're still sexy to publish. Especially if one of the coefficients has a counterintuitve sign or magnitude but is readily interpretable because of the particulars of the dataset.

Research on these spatial, economic, and population correlates of transportation fails to explain how they evolved.

Indeed, it seems as though transportation studies is always starting from scratch or stating the obvious. Worse, it takes a thoroughly positivist and technological deterministic stance: if the right technology is provided in the right conditions then it will diffuse and transport will be sustainable. Many of my colleagues devote substantial amounts of time to studying (e.g.) the optimum location of alt-fuel refueling infrastructure. No one to my knowledge is putting this type of analyses together (well) with how transportation systems have evolved in the past (in a society, in a culture, in a political system) and how this is likely to connect to the future. weaving together technology, culture, politics, to determine sustainable futures is likely to yield better results than analyses which cut out any single portion. yago knew this in 1983. howcome we don't know it now?

Yago, G. (1983). "The Sociology of Transportation." Annual Review of Sociology 9: 171-190.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

consumption based carbon accounting

a news brief in ES&T (consumer culture keeps carbon emissions high) is another one to note for the cause of anti-techno-optimism and demand reduction for climate mitigation.

the study doesn't appear to state anything new, but highlights that limiting our GHG accounting to our own borders is disingenuous since we import so many things for which we do not account.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

same as it ever was

surprising things learned from the car culture by j.j. flink (1975):

1. the gas tax was initially very popular (p. 150).
2. congestion and parking were major problems beginning in the early 1910s (pp. 162-3).
3. induced demand! "every attempt to make roads adequate for existing motor vehicle performance and current volume of traffic has inevitably encouraged the automobile industry to build still larger and faster cars and the public to drive more of them farther on more occasions" (p. 175).
4. criticism of detroit's cars began in earnest in the early 1950s (p. 191).
5. alternatives to the ICE are not new (p. 225).
6. oil companies are always up to the same old tricks (p. 229).

in sum, very little has changed, except for the public's acceptance of the gas tax.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

moving cooler

haven't looked at the report yet, but as usual todd litman's anlysis and response to criticism is spot on.

"A new transportation paradigm assumes that mobility is just one factor in achieving accessibility, that too much mobility can be as harmful as too little, and that demographic and economic trends are increasing the value of alternative modes and multi-modal communities."

Monday, July 20, 2009

switching from scientific studies to the study of texts. what to learn from science studies, that reads science as a text?

they're one in the same.

Saturday, July 18, 2009


a fun exchange in technology and culture between historian nick clayton and social construction of technologists wiebe bijker and trevor pinch.

clayton tries to sink the scot ship by pointing to flaws in b&p's historical accuracy. i don't fully agree with b&p's assertion that since they were not trying to contribute to the history of the bicycle that clayton's entire argument is misdirected (it seems like you should try to get your historical house in order before embarking on theoretical expeditions), but their endorsement of the privilege of the analyst in staking out relevant boundaries is well-taken. however, i felt like they didn't really go far enough with this idea. to my mind, the reason that we privilige the analyst is to make studies more objective by explicitly introducing the perspective of the analyst as an object of critique. b&p do mention this, but it should really form the cornerstone of their arguemnt. otherwise they could be misconstrued as advocating relativsm, which is sort of how the whole thing comes off.

in any case, the scot idea of a "relevant social group" seems way too easy. as latour teaches us, "there is no relevant group that can be said to make up social aggregates, no established component that can be used as an incontrovertible starting point" (Reassembling the Social, p. 29). it's so tempting to close off an entire class of individuals made the same by one or more characteristics. if we can't do this, then what's the alternative? (this is one of the things i'm struggling with, going through latour's texts, trying to connect his methods to useful insights i can glean for my own work.)

i do like some of the notions of scot though, that different people embody different hopes and ideas onto the same piece of technology. it'll surely be interesting to dig into some of this work.

Friday, June 26, 2009

kuhn was a physicist

right. so, it seems like there are a number of examples of scientists making important contributions to fields in the humanities and social sciences.

but: is the converse true?

Thursday, April 16, 2009


"The probability that decision maker n chooses alternative i from choice set Jn (labeled Pin) depends on the observed characteristics of alternative i compared with all other alternatives (i.e., on zin relative to all zjn for j in Jn, j != i) and on the observed characteristics of the decisionmaker (sn)."

Friday, April 3, 2009

great text by dreyfus and law...

" solve a problem by means of dynamic programming we choose the arguments of the optimal value function and define that function in such a way as to allow the use of the principle of optimality to write a recurrence relation. Starting with the boundary conditions, we then use the recurrent relation to determine concurrently the optimal value and policy functions. When the optimal value and decision are known for the value of the argument that represents the original whole problem, the solution is completed and the best path can be traced out using the optimal policy function alone."

they definitely don't make them like this anymore.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Oreskes (2003:20),
A complex model may be more realistic yet at the same time more uncertain. This leads to the ironic situation that as we add more factors to a model, the certainty of its predictions may decrease even as our intuitive faith in the model increases. Because of the complexities inherent in natural systems, it may never be possible to say that a given model configuration is factually correct and, therefore, that its predictions will come true. In short, the “truer” the model, the more difficult it is to show that it is “true.”
Oreskes is speaking about scientific models, specifically those about ecological systems. Her insights have significance for technical models used by policy-makers (e.g., NEPA or CEQA compliance, air quality conformity, or travel demand models). As opposed to purely scientific models (models built by scientists to synthesize data, make predictions, or guide future work), these ones have explicit policy ends. Expensive decisions are made on the basis of them. Surely the limits of these models are better understood?

What happens when we trade in an old modeling paradigm (four step model) for a new one (activity-based models). Is the substantial cost involved in new model development worth the investment? How do we know? Do we think that just because the new model has more behavioral realism that it's somehow better? As Oreskes suggests, adding complexity has diminishing returns (just like in larger social systems [Tainter, 1990])...

Are there simpler models/heuristics that we could employ at far lower costs? The implications of considering these questions for modeling practice are substantial.

Oreskes, N. (2003). The Role of Quantitative Models in Science. Models in Ecosystem Science. C. D. Canham, J. L. Cole and W. K. Lauenroth (Eds.). Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press.

Tainter, J. A. (1990). The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press.


It's tough to teach yourself a new discipline, almost from scratch. Intro texts are obviously a good place to start. I'm looking for broad overviews of science studies that I can read to see where I want to latch on.

The book by Hess (1997) was reasonably well done. I got the sense that he wasn't sufficiently probing some of the more controversial issues but was just sort of dismissing positions out of hand if they didn't agree with his centrist positions on knowledge and truth.

The author is in the STS department at RPI. The interesting thing is that they seem to have an interest in applying the insights from science studies to actual issues. So, there was a very clear thread of activism woven throughout the book. Hess is very obviously profeminist and antiracist, and this came out in the work in a very good way. There was even a mention of environmental justice issues. This is kind of a refreshing change from Latour's "follow the actors" approach (which I still enjoy, and think could be usefully applied to activism-research), since rather than being inside the network (in a laboratory study, e.g.) you look over the shoulders of the actors to see the bigger picture.

I liked that the politicization of the analysis was viewed as an end to be achieved, rather than disparaged as somehow unworthy of study. Even though my department is receptive, it's nice to have your high level goals reaffirmed every now and then.

Hess, D.J. (1997). Science Studies: An Advanced Introduction. New York University Press: New York, NY.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"I suspect that it is intrinsic to the subject under discussion that it should despoil academic boundaries. For these boundaries contrive to keep some things well hidden."

From: Knowledge and Social Imagery by David Bloor (1976).

it's me?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

allstar AB32 comments

flipping through some of the individual comments on the draft scoping plan (view them all here). came across some zingers, thought i'd share (sorry about the wacky fonts).

1. KENNY STOUT advocates for the freedom to drive 70. People died for this, c'mon!
First Name: Kenny
Last Name: Stout

Subject: Come on Americans let's use our common sense and brain

Just quickly wanted to address the wacko people that think that the United States of America is evil, sorry to inform you guys, we have saved more people around the world and are the most giving people in the world. Oh, by the way as far as driving 55, the men and women that have died protecting "all" of our freedoms and "all" of our rights have done so so that anyone that wants to drive 55 or for that matter 45 can. But, they have also fought and died for the Americans that want to drive 70 to do so also. For anyone that wants socialism or doesn't think you deserve to have freedom, please, you have the freedom to move to Russia or Iran or where ever you choose. Use your freedom to be happy because after all the men and women that have died for all of us would expect nothing less.

2. GREGORY BENZ does _not_ have a good idea.
First Name: Gregory
Last Name: Benz
Subject: Is this a good idea?

More and more top-tier world experts on climate, such as the founder of The Weather Channel and the head of the meteorolgy department at MIT, have said that climate change as presently occurring is not primrily anthropogenic in nature, nor is warming necessarily a bad thing. Before legislating major economy-wrecking initiatives, don't you think considerably more study is needed?

3. JANET JAMERSON LOVES TO SHOUT! (and perceives population as simply a problem of immigaration, oh my!)
First Name: Janet
Last Name: Jamerson
Subject: Less overpopulation for stopping global warming


Friday, February 27, 2009

another shortcoming of typical transport modeling i just realized while reading a paper by anable (2005). the four step model uses basic demographics (income, household size, vehicle ownership etc) during trip generation and mode choice. the assumption is that individuals equivalent on these metrics will have identical trip rates and mode choices. this is completely absurd. why do the models not account for differences in personalities (as assessed by attitudes). what would be the difficulty with sticking an additional 25-50 question battery on a travel survey to complexify the model. further, what are the cost tradeoffs with this approach vs. moving to more advanced models. to what extent can the 4sm be "saved" by marginal increases in complexity?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


"If the gap is to be bridged, that will have to be done by people with sufficient specialized training to read the technical papers of the scientists they study. There are other significant sorts of work to do in the social study of science--work that does not demand significant background in science--but they should not occupy the entire field simply by virtue of its currently standard patterns of recruitment."

Thomas Kuhn, writing in 1983 after being awarded the JD Bernal Prize for contributions to the social studies of science.

He's saying that tech-minded folks (scientists, but surely he meant engineers as well) need to get involved in science 1983...where are they? Definitely not in any of the major sts departments.

Friday, February 20, 2009

laboratory life

having had a hard time reading latour, but knowing that there's something there that i want to wrap my head around (or maybe it's just the fact that i like to be challenged with ideas, and don't like to give up without some kind of sustained struggle), i'm now trying a fourth (or is it fifth) attempt at another book. the plan is that something will stick, then i'll be able to go back to all the books that i put down and come away with brilliant insights.

laboratory life is latour's first book, so i'm assuming it'll be somewhat less obtuse than the others i've tried. seems like i'm right so far. he's actually got a very clear motivation that he lays out right at the beginning of the book.
Whereas we now have fairly detailed knowledge of exotic tribes, we remain relatively ignorant of the details of equivalent activity among tribes of scientists, whose work is commonly heralded as having startling or, at least, extremely significant effects on our civilisation.
woot! hopeful clarity will lead to insight.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

book reviews

we read books that pertain to our academic interests. oftentimes, books are superior to journal articles since they give accessible overviews of a literature or general area of study whereas articles focus on the minutiae of one particular experiment or inquiry.

writing book reviews is a good way to bulk up your CV since they're relatively low cost, especially if you're going to read the book anyway. all you need is 600-1200 words and one or two insightful comments. ideally, others can read your quick review and judge whether the book is going to be useful to them.

why, then, are there so few journals that accept reviews? i've been searching for over an hour for an appropriate venue for a review, with absolutely no luck. i think the propensity to focus on impact factors makes it a necessity to use valuable page space on items that will be cited. since book reviews are not (cited) then there's no benefit (from an editor's standpoint) of including book reviews.

i would argue that since books are valuable tools for the advancement of knowledge, and since it takes a long time to read one, having concise, well-written reviews can only help the practice (of any discipline). we should therefore have more journal space devoted to book reviews.

Friday, January 16, 2009

back from TRB

just arrived back (a few days ago now) from the transportation research board's annual meeting in DC. it was an overall positive experience, i think, although more since i now have a sort of sense of what a conference entails as opposed to any research ideas i picked up or any results i really was made aware of.

i think i'm writing here to just lay some of these things down?

the whole purpose of the conference as laid out in the new attendee's guide is to "network, network, network." this obviously presents challenges for someone who doesn't really jive well with typical engineering types. oh, also as a young engineer/pseudo-academic i've just met far fewer people in the field so it's not like i'm constantly running into others. anyway, the whole stress of knowing that i should be schmoozing like crazy made me have a shitty time for much of the time that i was there.

there's also the added layer of stress that results from knowing that if you could just say something really insightful at one of the sessions then you'd start to build up your conference credibility and thus your peer network. this, of course, results in a complete and utter paralysis when it comes to asking questions. this is compounded by the fact that the highest returns on your questions would appear to come from asking those questions of folks that are well-established in your field, but which then leads to further paralysis (since asking a fellow grad student would somehow be less good.

as a result i literally asked no questions during sessions. thankfully poster sessions were somewhat nicer. these seemed to me to be a lot more rewarding than the talk sessions that just degenerated into self-important men asking longwinded questions, or else nervous graduate students stumbling through poorly composed questions (but at least, i guess, they were asking questions). in the poster session you can actually interact with the presenter over a sustained period of time in a comparatively low-stress environment. (i'm reminded of david foster wallace's interview with charlie rose where he comments that the Q&A that inevitably follows his readings is completely absurd, since the time allotted to answer each question does not nearly approach the actual amount of time required to satisfactorily answer the question.)

additionally, my own research is in a strange place. i just completed an MS on a topic that i am not at all interested in. (except for certain aspects of it--environmental justice, for example.) so i'm not really interested in plugging in with a group of researchers in this area. (except for those looking at EJ issues. i had a talk in an EJ session and the sort of interaction that i expected to emerge from that session did not in fact, emerge.) the direction i want to head for my dissertation (travel demand modeling/climate change/history of models?) i'm not nearly well-versed enough in to be able to plug in with anyone doing work in that area. i went to some modeling talks, and was kind of reassured that the things i want to do are still relevant. bottom line is that i need to get into some of the modeling literature/methods and figure out what i want to do, exactly.

funnily enough, it was kind of hard to find sessions i thought were interesting. i searched the schedule on some terms like social science, humanities, history, philosophy, feminism, technology, etc. but really nothing came up. i also ended up blowing off a whole day to practice my talk (it paid off, i think) and the evening sessions from 7:30-9:00 were not really appealing to me.

my talk went well, fwiw. i had practiced a lot, so it was very smooth. the only questions i got were from a rail nut who thought that the problems could be solved if freight moved to rail and a woman who asked about health effects. a panelist sitting next to me kept dropping me comments during the Q&A but they mostly went over my head.

anyway, TRB #1 done. maybe i'll be ready for #2 next year.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

apparently the $700B stimulus package contains some good news for cyclists.

$20/month from employers to folks that commute to work by bicycle.
that's legit.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

nature tackles economics

I stopped reading any ToCs while my thesis was being written. Now that that's done, I still haven't returned. Too bad, because i opened up nature yesterday to find a really great correspondence from a prof. at the University of Montreal. Dig this: "However, [the prosperity of Western nations] is mainly based on the use of non-renewable resources and therefore is probably spurious."

So I did some digging. The essay that sparked the debate was entitled "Economics needs a scientific revolution." Sounds like an opportunity to get some really radical ideas across. The guy kind of effed up though--his key idea was that economists and economics rely too heavily on theories that have no empirical grounding: rational agents, profit maximization as motivator, and efficient markets, etc. and that economics is therefore unscientific. He then mentions that the economic models used are bad--they can't account for large price jumps. Fine. Conclusion states that other economic ideas (he mentions behavioral economists and people called "econophysicists") are not taken seriously by the mainstream. he doesn't mention some of the more radical economic subgenres, namely ecological economics and feminist economics. The text is generally weird and feels very old school. Still, it was nice to see dissenting views in this magazine.

Anyway, first letter responded and basically said that, look, modern economics has given us the prosperity of Western nations. Also, there are people challenging the assumptions of economics all the time that do pretty well (Paul Krugmann is given as an example).

So at this point, the original essay looks completely ridiculous. Enter the Montreal prof. He comes in and calls out the one remaining unchallenged assumption: growth. The essay didn't mention this, and the response did not mention this. Ecological economics challenges this assumption readily. Making economics prettier with better models and methods will not change the unsustainable course we're on. Shaking up economics at its core, challenging its assumption that economies must grow, is pretty much what needs to happen to put us on the right path.

youtubing around for good talks

emulate good speakers.

video of dan sperling on cap and trade for cities
accountable and empowered cities. kind of similar to the county-caps previously proposed. he claims he put it forward for the scoping plan...but it's not in there.

paul ehrlich is a frigging incredible speaker. witness:
the toxification of planet earth
(really good insights: reversal of standard dose-response relationships)
i'm pretty sure it's not possible to emulate him. he has really sick flow, but this is clearly a byproduct of his immense knowledge. he uses no notes.

angela davis's enunciation and gesticulations are very effective.
sounds kind of like a preacher, interestingly enough. repetition to emphasize points. no powerpoint.

marty sereno on the origin of the human mind.
he's not really using notes. his slides are very good, very little text. this is a slick talk. he's basically just showing images, talking over them, and using arrows to highlight specific parts of the images.