Keep It in the Lab
A professor of science, technology, and society at Colby College responded to Kevin Bullis’s article on the serious attention now being paid by prominent scientists to geoengineering schemes to combat global warming (“The Geoengineering Gambit,” January/February 2010).
At MIT’s “Engineering a Cooler Earth” symposium last October 30, audience responses to “Should We Try?” were more supportive and robust than those to “Can We Do It?” Of course we cannot and should not do it, since climate engineering is untested and dangerous. The American Meteorological Society’s policy statement on geoengineering (also adopted by the American Geophysical Union) recommends more research of an interdisciplinary nature on any proposals to geoengineer climate. It urges coördinated study of the historical, ethical, legal, and social implications of geoengineering, and it calls for the development and analysis of policy options, including restrictions on reckless efforts to manipulate the climate. As I recently told the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology, support is urgently needed for historical studies of existing environmental treaties, international accords, and efforts to govern new technologies. Any other geoengineering research should be conducted in labs and with computer models, not out of doors.
James Rodger Fleming
The Price of Everything
Commenters on Bryant Urstadt’s article on high-frequency trading (“Trading Shares in Milliseconds,” January/February 2010) had a vigorous debate over the legitimacy of the practice. Urstadt’s reporting highlighted the ways by which high-frequency traders seek to use technology to exploit opportunities in the market–but also the dangers to markets that some experts feel are introduced in the process.
Tell me exactly what product or service these companies provide? I understand they make money by gambling on being faster than the next guy, but what do they produce that helps America’s GDP? … [T]he value of America is in the products and services. Finance is a support function. We need our engineers building things, not moving money.
Those that have the view that high-frequency trading does nothing for the economy also probably think that equity markets do nothing for the economy and that the whole thing is simply a huge casino. Right …. ? Wrong. Equity markets price capital. In an increasingly automated world, this is the single most productive task humans are capable of engaging in. Said pricing leads to an efficient distribution of capital, which in turn results in a better quality of life in the aggregate. High-frequency traders simply engage in arbitrage: they prevent pricing abnormalities from materializing and therefore make pricing more efficient.
Why do I get the feeling that you were spinning exactly the same line about CDOs just a few years ago? And that in a few years’ time you’ll be saying just the same about the next brilliant idea to emerge from Wall Street after HFT has caused another financial crisis, impoverishing millions of people (except, of course, the traders)?
The most productive task in the world? The best paid, possibly.
My experience is that the financial markets work very well for small investors. I’m an “old-fashioned” buy-and-hold investor who makes small (~$1000) purchases. Commissions are now very small ($0 to $5), trades are executed instantaneously, and, as mentioned in the article, the spreads are only a few pennies per share. Even in the depths of the market turmoil, everything functioned normally and I was able to execute trades. It is hard to imagine that HFT doesn’t contribute to the proper functioning of markets. … The real problems lie with investor psychology. Successful investing is about as interesting as watching paint dry. Investors, however, try to make it into a night at the casino.
Lost in Space
A reader wrote in support of one of the conclusions of the Augustine Committee’s report on space exploration, reviewed by Jeff Foust (“The Future of Human Spaceflight,” January/February 2010).
Given the challenges of climate change in the medium run and a new ice age in the long run, one cannot but agree with the conclusion of the Augustine Committee that “the ultimate goal of human exploration is to chart a path for human expansion into the solar system.” But NASA seems to be lost in space at present. Even keeping the International Space Station (ISS) in orbit beyond 2015 is now in question. As Jeff Foust put it, if people are going to live and work in space, the ISS is the ideal laboratory to test technology and human performance under long-term conditions. In addition, it may in time serve as a staging station for bases in the inner solar system–the moon, Mars, and the asteroid belt. In short, it is clear that the ISS must not be “deorbited” for lack of funds soon after its completion in 2011. There is an urgent need for an international space agency that would pool resources of all space-faring nations toward the fundamental goal of human expansion into space. That goal must not be put in question. Ever.
Catch Me a Catch
Emily Gould’s article review of Match.com (“True Match,” January/February 2010) prompted one online-dating veteran to write.
As a 52-year-old widower who has used the likes of Match.com, eHarmony.com, and Chemistry.com for the better part of eight years, I found the article very unbalanced. Ironically, Match.com promotes itself as much more of a simple “clearinghouse” than the other two–an online version of the print media’s personals section, but with photos and long self-written narratives. It is no more Match.com’s fault that it didn’t find the author (or her friend) a decent date than it is an online brokerage firm’s fault that there aren’t any A+ funds yielding more than 1 percent APR. And I must ask how the author can lament that her friend’s date didn’t ask her a single question at their first lunch–didn’t she have a phone conversation with him ahead of time that would probably have highlighted this habit, or did she just assume that any guy the computer found would be “Mr. Wonderful”?
CLARIFICATION: “The Geoengineering Gambit” (January/February 2010) says that Himalayan glaciers could disappear within 25 years, a claim based on information published in the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Since the report was published, it’s become clear that the glaciers won’t melt by then. The estimate could be off by 300 years or more, according to some glaciologists.
The IPCC, which is known for its use of peer-reviewed literature and multiple layers of expert review, in this case cited not scholarly work but, instead, a magazine article. After our article was published, it issued a statement declaring that the claim was based on “poorly substantiated evidence” and that “the clear and well-established standards of evidence, required by the IPCC procedures, were not applied properly.”
A letter written to the journal Science by noted glaciologists, published after our article, says: “The claim that Himalayan glaciers may disappear by 2035 requires a 25-fold greater loss rate from 1999 to 2035 than that estimated for 1960 to 1999. It conflicts with knowledge of glacier-climate relationships and is wrong. Nevertheless, it has captured the global imagination and has been repeated in good faith.”
We regret that we published what now appears to be incorrect information about the Himalayan glaciers.
The main point of the feature, however, isn’t affected by this mistake. Scientists remain concerned enough about rapid climate change to recommend studying geoengineering methods for rapidly cooling the earth. The disappearance of the Himalayan glaciers was only one reason, and indeed not even the main reason, cited by these scientists.
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