Words from the president of the tautology club

i = u because if i didn’t i wouldn’t exist and neither would u. Because of my =, we both are. = . Both, our = and us exists and that is not not true. Whether you are aware of it or not, this is not true and i don’t = u. It’s all a lie; i do, actually, = u.  :=)

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A Poem of the Derived Demand

From the highest floor of the highest tower, absolutely untouchable and pure and young and beautiful, she looks out to the horizon. Silent and nostalgic; in sorrow: a shadow of herself. She prays in secret for a brave warrior, a noble wise man, or an astute adventurer to find her and unveil her beauty and truth to the world.

Patiently and gracefully she awaits to be rescued from her anonymity by the one who truly cares and arduously and tirelessly looks for her in the unforgiving wilderness of space and forms and shadows.

She will remain hidden until fate unites her with her savior; her master and devotee: her true love. Until then, her existence shall be latent: an illusion, an idea.

Silent and humbled, she dreams of freedom. The derived demand.

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The Best Eraser in The World

The Best Eraser in the World, a poem for my good friend Tiezheng Song in memory of our good times in Dr. Thurman’s 701 class.

The Best Eraser in the World

She comes without warning and with no intention of staying. The idea.

Grab a piece of paper and that mechanical pencil, the best mechanical pencil in the world. Your fingertip quickly recognizes the familiar surface. Touch the tip; the lead is just right.

The feel of paper under your hand, comforting; so clean and supportive. Remember how encouraging blank pages are: untouched, pure, there is everything to do—your thing to do.

Time for an intellectual dive.

Hand, pencil and paper become one. Your trace is furious, aggressive; ballistic. The sound of grazing is accelerating: it fuels you with adrenaline and takes you deeper into that trance you love.

Muscles tighten. Your muscles tighten. Temperature rises.

You are quick, unstoppable, fierce; decisive. Incisive, assertive, confident. Severe.

Then, pause.

Breathe.

Sketch a few lines on the margin. Your handwriting is smaller and more timid. Pressing softly against the paper you slow down the writing until coming to full stop. Drop the perfect mechanical pencil. Think.

Close your eyes. You close your eyes. Question your intuition. Spit some air and swallow a few words. Mumble that mantra you’ve taught yourself to believe many times. Keep calm. You keep calm.

She’s not good. The idea.

Grab that eraser, the best eraser in the world. Leave no marks, no records of sketching or scratching or doubting; no evidence of double thinking, mixed feelings, opened endings, circular thinking; irrelevant ideas, arrows that point to nowhere, unreadable comments, vacuous truths, tautological statements. You leave no signs of anger or frustration or confusion or randomness. It’s gone.

The best eraser in the world: you don’t destroy, deny or forget what you’ve cleaned out. You let it go, a friendly good bye. A hunch, hope, some effort, a small trip. No regrets.

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How I got into recycling

This is my recycling story:

I used to not recycle. Not that the opportunity cost of my time was ever great, I just don’t go through very many bottles at home ;-).

Anyhow, at some point in my life I moved into a new apartment with a girl from Italy who claimed she recycled. CORRECTION: in reality, she stacked crap in the pantry.

Since the day I moved in, every morning, I would walk around a pile of plastic bottles, cans of soup, catalogues and magazines, wine bottles, and—I kid you not—tree branches. I saw the pile grow exponentially with time. Lara didn’t do anything about it—for whatever surreal reason. The pile was meant to grown unbounded. One day, I came home tired and frustrated because none of my Hessians were invertible. I looked at the pile of scrap-everything with repugnance and decide to take it—all of it—to the garbage shoot.

As the days passed, the pile grew again; this time it appeared to grow at a more rapid pace. Annoyance. I rolled my eyes, frowned and I took it out to the garbage bin again.

A new week passed, this time the pile grew so much that it started attacking me on my way out to the office. Helpless, I surrendered. I approached the load; I sorted out and organized in separate boxes cans, plastic, glass, paper and magazines, and wood—still wood. What a relaxing activity! I stacked the boxes on top of one another.

The next morning, on my way to the office I realize I had a few minutes to spare, so I decided to take a longer route, walk a little more and stop by the recycling bin.

What a nice morning! How pleasant it was to walk at this time! I enjoyed the sounds around, the smell of roasting coffee and burned toast in the neighborhood. I arrived at the recycling center. I placed the items in their corresponding bin.

A friendly gentleman, with a cute dog was also there recycling his own reusable waste. To be honest, I can’t remember if the gentleman was cute and the dog friendly or the other way around, but I do know it was the dog that wag the tail. The man smiled. The sun was shining. I left to the office ready to be very productive. I felt a little lighter, a little refreshed. Energized.

I’d decided that from that day on, I’d be taking my roommate’s trash to the recycling bin more frequently—at least until the winter.

I even thought, maybe one day I’d be able to bring her along and RECYCLE HER as well.

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Thoughts on Dementors and Boggarts

I once was a normal teenager–if briefly. I guess you could say I went through a mild “Harry Potter State”. I was Harry’s age when I read the first 4 books and in some sense I found company and guidance in these imaginary teens in imaginary worlds during a tricky period of development and growth. Somehow, reading about the struggles, the fears, the hopes, the adventures of Harry and his friends made my life easier–biologically, emotionally, intellectually, and alcoholically speaking.

It is fair to say I developed shortcuts for handling difficult or confusing relationships based on magical tricks played by magical characters in the magical world. I was into it. It was a colorful way to introduce a child into the adolescent world–a serious, logical, structured world that puts so much emphasis on turning this child into a successful adult. At some point, I knew the spells, the creatures, the places, the histories. Of course, after years of touching the books, all those words are gone from my memory–replaced by more practical cerebral records such as birthdays, derivative formulas, the periodic table, and code commands.

However, not all  are gone. In fact, there are still stories from the books that I continue to revise and invoke in my adult life. These stories help me visualize and understand some funky feelings and strange emotions I cannot sometimes verbalize. I can relate to these stories and as they facilitate the rationalization of very heavy feelings like fear, hatred, anger, frustration, irritation and feeling of injustice, they continue to make my life easier!

With this post I want to draw a parallel between 2 particular creatures in the Harry Potter world and the difficult people I have encountered in my life–people that make me unstable and vulnerable, that threaten my confidence, my happiness, and my love for life.

The world is complex and full of unknowns (known unknowns and unknown unknowns). It is a scary place if you care for stability and predictability. To deal with this infinite level of uncertainty an untruth, humans naturally look for tricks to simplify the world. We make generalizations, we develop rules of thumb (“when in doubt, add more wine”, “I am not drunk until I talk to myself in the mirror”, “age is nothing bu a number”, “to hit a passing shot, I always go down-the-line” etc.). These ‘heuristics’ save us so much time and effort; they make us faster and more comfortable when facing novelty.  A psychologist will tell you that stereotyping is advantageous because it enables you to respond rapidly and avoid harm in situations that appear similar to those you had already experienced.

Throughout my adolescence and early adulthood, I have met many people. Good, Bad, Ugly, you name it. But in general, whether good, bad or ugly, most people are “normal” and don’t inspire any particularly extreme response or feeling. I am not worried about normal people. They are cool. I am also not worried about people who are not normal but inspire positive reactions. I welcome these people into my life and try to build deep, nourishing relationships with them. What I am worried about is people that destabilize me. People that threaten my peace in a negative way: people that make me doubt of myself. This people are terribly consuming. They exhaust me. I spend much of my time and energy thinking about them, remembering their gestures, re-living the feelings they triggered. This people, quite literally, have sucked the life out of me to scary points. If I have learned anything from my exposure to these toxic characters is that I must avoid them when possible and rapidly repel them if it’s too late to escape. The avoidance mechanism is transferable for any kind of toxic person: you just flee the scene or ignore the person. However, the way to combat these individuals is very different; there is where accurately identifying them by their respective evil is key.

So, how’s that related to Harry Potter?

Well, based on Harry Potter’s repeated experiences with 2 particular creatures, I have defined 2 categories in my personal gamut of stereotypes. The toxic people in my past (and my present) fall into one of two definitions: There are boggarts and there are Dementors.

In the world of Harry Potter, boggarts are plastic creatures. They can shift their shape to take the form of their convenience. No one knows what a boggart looks like when it is alone as they instantly change into the viewer’s worst fear.

When facing a boggarts, it is best to bring someone along to confuse it. The charm that combats a boggart is “Riddikulus”. It requires a strong mind and good concentration. But moreover, it requires imagination. The charm does not repel the boggart, what it does is force it to assume a comical shape, inspiring laughter on the spell caster–it is the laughter what will defeat the boggart.

Boggarts are harmless, but they make us believe they are powerful. They get on our minds and we give them too much importance. They can paralyze us simply by manipulating our believes. You don’t want to suffer because of a boggart, that’s just sad; a sad waste of time to be tormented by an insignificant creature that deserves pity.  Laughing at them is a way to combat their egos and make them realize they are not what they want you to believe. Eventually, they will get frustrated and leave you alone.

On the other hand, in this world there are real dangerous people that you don’t want to have around. Dementors are among the foulest creatures in the world. Dementors feed on human happiness and cause depression and despair to anyone near them. According to Harry Potter Wikia,  “They glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them… Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself… soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experience of your life.”

Dementors cannot be killed through physical means; they can only be driven away temporarily. One of the few ways to shield oneself from Dementors is by using the “Patronus” charm. The charm is very difficult to master. It produces a shileding “Patronus”, a physical manifestation of good will and happiness. As the Patronus is not alive, the Dementor cannot feed on it. A powersul wizard can hold off dozens, if not hundreds of Dementors with a single Patronus.

I know a bunch of Dementors. And  I also know a bunch of powerful wizards that struggle with their type of Dementors.

I have grown pretty skillful in the art of identifying and repelling boggarts–even boggarts that take the form of Dementors. However, there are a few Dementors in my life that continue to haunt me and despite my “Patronus” they continue to inflict much pain everytime they are nearby. Forgiving doesn’t work. Dementors have no loyalty and they only take advantage of my kindness. Forgetting is not recommendable: without a points in your sample, how do you predict? Provoking them is probably the worst idea ever. Besides feeding on your happiness, the Dementors I know are cruel and lustful for my anger. Seeing my irritation only encourages them to make me more and more sad, until I am reduced to a bundle of negativity and hatred and resentment–just like them. Usually, I just breathe and pray they be gone soon.

I fear I will encounter some of the known Dementors soon. And I am afraid that I have been so busy swimming in worlds that offer less practical lessons than the Harry Potter world, that I haven’t practiced my Patronus spell. What will be of me?

I must quickly define my strategy and get back to dominating my weapons before the next unsavory encounter.

 

[Coal] ash to [coal] ash… the memory remains

The title of this entry is inspired on the 1997 song “But the memory remains” by the American heavy metal band, Metallica. The lyrics talk about a celebrity who is going mad as her fame fades into obscurity. Yet, the song is really more than that, it is about the pain that suddenly hits us when we fail to see the changes happening around us. Some people in North Carolina are experiencing this kind of pain over a natural disaster that no-body saw coming and which ultimately exposed the opacity of the entire political process designed to protect the very interests of those it represents.

In February, 2014 there was an environmental disaster unprecedented in the history of North Carolina–and comparable to other great catastrophes in the history of the United States. The way things unfolded may sound familiar: someone falls asleep (as in, neglects his responsibility), a pipe breaks, some toxic material spills in the river, the spill reveals the corruption of individuals and the involvement of political institutions in protecting the interests of the powerful. In the end, it is nature, the poor, the uneducated, the homeless, and the vulnerable who suffer and pay for the mistakes born in the arrogance of the rich and the influential. Think along the lines of the (very excellent) 2006 film by Bong Joon-ho, “The Host”.

Bong Joon-ho is a genius in portraying deep social struggles and fundamental psychological dilemmas of humanity in a familiar reality defined by impossibility. Inspired in an environmental catastrophe—a local article about a deformed fish with an S-shaped spine caught in the Han River, Bong Joon-ho harshly criticizes social and political institutions and their favoritism for the rich and the powerful over the poor and the vulnerable.

“The Host” is about a monster that grows in the Han River after an American military pathologist orders his Korean assistant to dump 200 bottles of formaldehyde down the drain leading into the River. The monster in the Han River is really an analogy for the costs to society from the abuse of political power and the consequences of individual’s lustful admiration for their own ego.

In the movie, after the monster has caused much damage, the government announces the plan to release a chemical called the Agent Yellow into the river, hoping it will kill the creature. “Agent Yellow” is an untested chemical substance with potentially hazardous health and environmental effects for the entire population. The citizens gather and protest against the government’s actions. Nevertheless, the government releases Agent Yellow—spraying it over the protesters and the monster. Even then, the monster does not die. Ultimately, the monster is killed by the main characters of the movie in an immensely involved team effort. The movie unveils the corruption of the government and its involvement in the covering of the American military’s mistakes. It is the poor, the uneducated, the homeless, and the vulnerable who suffer and pay for the mistakes born in the arrogance of the powerful.

Back to North Carolina, 2014. That February, estimated 39,000 tons of coal ash spilled into the Dan River. Coal ash is a highly toxic byproduct of the industrial process behind energy generation at coal-fired power plants. Currently, coal ash is stored in waste ponds. There are 32 such sites in 14 locations across NC.

The February spill was the third largest spill of coal ash in the history of the U.S., fouling 70 miles of the Dan River and flowing all the way into Virginia. The ponds from which the ash spilled were managed by Duke Energy–a powerful energy company. In view of the evident managerial neglect, NC legislators approved the formation of a regulatory group, the NC Coal Ash Management Commission (CAMC), to oversee the cleanup of coal ash pits across the state. The whole coal ash regulation story involved a series of suits and counter-suits and trials and court decisions that are unclear to me, and will therefore refrain from even summarizing the legal procedures that made the formation of the CAMC a theatrical issue. However, I will share with you the pieces I know and understand.

The CAMC was assigned the responsibility of categorizing the waste impoundments by risk level in order to prioritize their cleanup; it was also in charge of revising Duke Energy’s plans for disposing of the coal ash in every site. The main objective of the commission was to protect the communities and environments in NC that were threatened by potential contact with the hazardous waste product at stake.

In 2015, the EPA ruled (conveniently for any party responsible to pay for the handling of the stuff) that coal ash was NOT a hazardous material and could therefore be treated as standard residential waste. In other words, this ruling gave the legal green-light for storing coal ash in landfills and impoundments. Coal ash needed not to be handled in any special manner; allowing Duke Energy to pursue cheaper alternative disposal plans.

Duke Energy had to either remove or reuse coal ash; and to fulfill its legal obligation, it could pursue one of three alternative plans. In rough terms, Duke Energy could acquire land to open landfills where to store the coal ash; it could rehabilitate or improve the existing coal ash ponds by installing expensive and technologically superior liners that would keep the soil surface isolated from the coal ash for hundreds of years; or it could transform the coal ash pools into recycling facilities that would turn the industrial waste into a valuable material.

The CAMC was assigned the task of evaluating Duke Energy’s final proposal and weighting it against other alternatives plans with the intention of only approving a plan that would yield the most benefits to North Carolina’s communities and environments. In economics jargon, the CAMC needed to know which of the possible actions available to Duke Energy would maximize the expected net present social value.

If the CAMC was to responsibly and objectively evaluate the plans presented by Duke Energy, it had to first carefully study and understand the Costs and Benefits of coal ash and the Costs and Benefits associated with all the possible methods of managing it. CAMC needed an environmental economist in their team–badly.

Under the direction of my professor, Roger von Haefen, I worked for the CAMC last summer (between May and August 2015) in the design of a cost-benefit analysis to assess whether, to the eyes of a “Benevolent Social Dictator”, institutionalizing the recycling of coal ash in North Carolina was in fact the most cost-effective option to handle the crisis.

Coal ash, like other byproducts of electricity generation–like gypsum–can be recycled and turned into something valuable. In fact, there exists a market for it in other states–though these markets are generally thin and politically targeted by environmentalist groups. Coal ash is sometimes used to substitute Portland cement in the production of concrete (using coal ash can reduce the cost of concrete by up to 25%). In South Carolina for example, coal ash is being recycled and turned into concrete to build roads. Other states, like California (!), go as far as requiring the use of coal ash in the construction of highways because of its perceived performance benefits. Outside of the U.S., coal ash is also used as an alternative to clay in the production of bricks.

There are other recorded and sizable benefits associated with reusing coal ash (although, to me these benefits look more like foregone costs). However, there are also important difficulties with recycling the coal ash; mainly, that it has a high concentration of carbon. Burning out the excess carbon requires specialized and expensive infrastructure; therefore, making it a less attractive alternative to Duke Energy–who had to incur all the disposal costs (although arguably, it would be even less attractive to NC energy users, as the costs would be passed on to them through higher energy bills).

Nevertheless, time was a major factor in determining which plan would yield the most benefits to society: that is, the joint benefits to Duke Energy and to communities and environments that are harmed–in one way or another–by the inefficient management of coal ash. If it was going to take Duke Energy 10 to 15 years to restore current sites or to clean them up and relocate the material into landfills, maybe it was worth the shot to contemplate recycling as a lucrative and socially and environmentally beneficial manner of dealing with the byproduct.

As you can imagine, the project was ambitious. It required a lot of research and thorough understanding of chemistry, ecology, engineering, and industrial business models. The commissioners that hired me for the preparation of a report on the beneficial uses of coal ash in North Carolina had devoted impressive amounts of time and energy into the research of all these fields. They had already prepared a 50-page preliminary report and had fairly clear understanding of the foundations of the Cost-Benefit analysis we were going to help them conduct.

Here, I must pause and share with you an important disclaimer. I can only be sincere.

When I was working for the CAMC, I was forbidden to disclose any information or share content of conversations or e-mails exchanged with the commissioners to anyone. This was rather frustrating, because, as you may be able to tell already, I love drama, I love to share conspiracy theories, and I find the political aspects of economic decisions, the more flavorful bite in my field of work.

However, secrecy is no longer a problem. In January of this year, the NC Supreme Court ruled the creation of the commission unconstitutional. The rationale of the Supreme Court is that a commission carrying executive branch functions should not be appointed by the legislature but by the executive branch. Officially, the CAMC was shut down in March by NC governor Patrick McCrory–who worked for Duke Energy 28 years. (Coincidence?)

Now that the CAMC doesn’t exist, I take it that I can exercise my non-American, non-right of free speech.  Now I am legally free to publicly disclose what I thought of the CAMC when I donated it my labor and what I think of the dissolution of the CAMC.

Sometimes we find thoughts we wished had occurred to us, but just didn’t. So, I’ll just repeat what Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a noted environmentalist and president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, said in a press conference about the coal ash disaster:

“Whenever you see large scale environmental injury like this, you’ll see the corruption of individuals, the capture of the agencies that are supposed to protect us from pollution, the disappearance of transparency in government and often times, ultimately, the corruption of the entire political process from top to bottom”. Kennedy also reminded the press that “An environmental crime is real crime”. (The 2006 film, “The Host” discussed above is an excellent illustration of this observation.)

Was the government downplaying the scale of the consequences from the negligence of Duke Energy? Were state agencies tacitly protecting Duke Energy? Was this really the unveiling of a corrupt relationship between the state and a politically and economically powerful private company? To say the least, there were some discrepancies between what private parties and what the NC DENR found regarding the pollution caused by the coal ash spill.

There is a Colombian saying that goes more or less like this: “the fish dies through its mouth” (“el pez muere por la boca”). It means you die for using your mouth. In other words, talk too much and you will find yourself in a place you don’t want to be. At this point, the dilemma I face is the following: If I were a fish in the Dan River, would I rather die because of coal ash poisoning or because of my politically inappropriate comments?

I don’t know really. It’s a tough call. But I hope to have raised your interest and curiosity and skepticism about the economics of environmental policy and the politics of environmental law. For now, this fish will stop exercising its non-American non-right of free speech… just in case.

Sources:

Group looks for ways to re-use coal ash

http://www.newsobserver.com/news/politics-government/politics-columns-blogs/under-the-dome/article66940522.html

http://www.newsobserver.com/news/politics-government/state-politics/article57255353.html

http://www.coalashchronicles.com/category/report-study

FINAL – CAMC Preliminary Beneficial Use Report (June 2015)

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