Monthly Archives: January 2017

Batteries may increase a home’s grid demand. Weird.

There’s an interesting article out of U of Texas in Nature Energy this month (see also Eurekalert). It shows how adding energy storage could (counter intuitively) increase dependence on the grid. They model a number of reasons for this.

First, when you add batteries and keep the solar panels constant, you decrease the total energy production due to battery inefficiency (less energy out than you put in).  That has to be made up by the grid. But it gets worse if you keep the cost equal. If you sacrifice buying panels to buy batteries, you increase grid dependence.

So unless you have so much surplus energy you can’t sell it all to the grid, you are almost certainly better off adding more panels rather than batteries. That said, the utility may have excess energy during peak renewable generating hours and it makes sense at that point to buy storage.

Here’s a more verbal demonstration:

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Returning to Headspace on Anxiety

I’m getting a bit overwhelmed. When I felt this way last year, I turned to Headspace on anxiety. Headspace is a website/app designed to help people meditate. The first series that you work through in Headspace are a gentle introduction to meditation in general. After that, there are specific sets of guided meditations for different issues.

I tried Headspace on Focus a while ago and I found that it really increased my anxiety. That helped me pay attention to anxiety as a contributing issue to procrastination. Now I am really feeling it again and I paid my $15 to get back into the anxiety program for a month. The yearly subscriptions are a better deal, but I feel like once I get into the habit again, I won’t need the guided meditation.

Here is Andy Puddicombe, Co-founder of Headspace, talking about anxiety. He explains that anxiety is just another kind of thought pattern. Anxiety is unpleasant; the impulse to stop it is natural, too. But coming to a bit of peace with it makes a big difference.

Paradigm shifts and beavers

I read a hilarious example of childhood-to-adulthood paradigm shifts today. Thunderpuff wrote about having to ask her parents what a phrase in a biography meant. She was shocked to find out that “beaver” didn’t refer to the dam-building mammal in this context. It sounds like she had really good parents who explained without being judgmental. The whole piece could be looked at as a study in how we pass funny paradigms to kids.

I’m going through a bit of a paradigm shift, myself. Matt Might talks about the shift he went through at this stage in his career in his article on the subject. Tenure, publication, funding… these are all a means to accomplish an end. Really coming to terms with that end is hard.

“Life is too precious and too fleeting to waste my time on bullshit like tenure. I didn’t become a professor to get tenure. I became a professor to make the world better through science. From this day forward, I will spend my time on problems and solutions that will matter. I will make a difference.” -Matt Might

That’s inspiration for me. It’s hard to shift over to that view of things when there are urgent pressures like grant writing.

Allowing bad outcomes is a teaching tool

My video log this morning made me think about the moral difference between doing harm and allowing harm. When I was young, I knew this parent of another kid. She was always very prudish and restrictive. She felt good about herself when she prevented things she saw as bad.

I think her intuition came more from the act of intervention then the consequences that she prevented. It’s sort of like the doing versus allowing harm puzzle in moral philosophy.

The question came up in that show Breaking Bad. The main character thinks about killing someone, but can’t bring himself to do it (it’s only the second season or so). But when he sees her overdosing, he refrains from saving her. She’s a problem for him, and by overdosing she has solved that problem. He could have saved her. He chose not to. Is he as morally culpable as if he murdered her?

Let’s change the scenario. If you see someone about to do something unhealthy, and you choose not to intervene, are you then responsible for their ill health? Does this intuition change if you are the parent of a child and thus the outcome is more your responsibility?

I think that this moral intuition drives some parents to make bad choices. I am sure that it feels very good to intervene and prevent an unhealthy outcome. I’m sure it feels very bad to choose not to act and thereby allow a negative outcome. But that feeling is not a good principle upon which to make decisions.

Clearly, when death is on the line, intervention is required. But some short-term negative consequences that naturally result from a kid’s actions are really important for a kid to experience.

I don’t have kids but I do have students. Learning from failure is important in teaching. Especially in the lab. I can’t let someone injure themselves if I can prevent it, but I can let someone screw up an experiment. That’s a learning experience.

Could popular science do a better job on uncertainty?

I think that popular science does not convey the ambiguities and uncertainties of real science. Science has plenty of ambiguities. The deeper I go, the more ambiguous it feels. Scientific ideas span the gamut from extremely certain to hunches. Some things are in between; we might call them “reasonable hypotheses.” There is a distinction to be made between a reasonable extrapolation from existing data and conclusions directly derived from data.

Here’s an example: “dietary fat causes people to get fat.” That’s a hypothesis with lots of reasonable justification. But it was presented as an empirically derived fact. It was presented as if this premise was borne out by lots of data. Recent years have suggested otherwise.

When people eat more calories than they expend they make fat. That is an empirically derived fact. Fat has more calories per gram than other foods. That is an empirically derived fact. The association between high-fat diets and weight gain is a reasonable supposition based on these two facts. It is not an empirically derived fact. The data does not support that conclusion. A meta-analysis of more than 3000 studies concluded: “In weight loss trials, low-carbohydrate interventions led to significantly greater weight loss than did low-fat interventions… Low-fat interventions did not lead to differences in weight change compared with other higher-fat weight loss interventions.”

People might feel like they had been lied to. It wasn’t a lie: it seemed reasonable at the time. “Eat fewer calories by cutting fat” seemed like good advice. It just wasn’t. And now the data is in. We can change behavior. Hopefully. Unless people don’t want to trust the advice on account of the fact that they now distrust the whole enterprise.

Conflating fact and extrapolation is dangerous. Treating a reasonable hypothesis like a fact can, ultimately, degrade the credibility of science.

Treating facts as if they were hypotheses is just as bad. The Merchants of Doubt documentary talked about this at length. It’s easy to claim anything is “just a hypothesis.”

At one point, someone hypothesized (reasonably) that since tobacco smoke has nicotine and carbon monoxide and tar, it might be harmful.  It started as a just a hypothesis, not a fact.

The tobacconists don’t want to think that they are selling addictive poison. So they start off by saying “the data is not yet in, we can’t be sure.” At first, this is true. After more and more data gets collected, the poison hypothesis moves into fact territory. But it’s easy to move the goalpost and keep insisting that it’s still a hypothesis. Those arguments still sound valid.

I’m not sure how to fight that, but I suspect it would help if we more often pointed out which is which.  But that’s just a hypothesis.