Nest Uses Its Data To Turn Electric Utilities Into Cash Cows

Romain Dillet in TechCrunch on the Nest thermostat:

The company has negotiated deals with multiple energy partners in the U.S. Some utility partners are willing to spend $30 to $50 per year and per thermostat to be able to turn the air conditioner up when it’s a hot day. This way, the utility can levels load on the grid. Partners don’t have direct access to the thermostats, they just sign a deal with Nest, and then Nest has access to the thermostats.

I…what?

I’ve never read a more confusing piece of journalism, and it reminds me of why I never read TechCrunch anymore.

The article makes it sound like utility companies are paying a thermostat manufacturer for the ability to arbitrarily increase electricity usage on hot days when usage is already high to “level load”? (And that typo makes the sentence ungrammatical.)

But thanks to a post on hacker news, I’m led to believe they’re talking about this: Rush Hour Rewards.

Fascinating stuff.

‘How Americans Die’

Interest charts and visual approach!

The End of Environmentalism

Daniel Smith, writing for the New York Times:

On the surface, it can indeed seem as if Kingsnorth is giving up. Last week, he and his wife made a long-planned move to rural Ireland, where they will be growing much of their own food and home schooling their children — a decision, he explained to me, that stemmed in part from a desire to distance himself from technological civilization and in part from wanting to teach his children skills they might need in a hotter future. Yet Kingsnorth has never intended to retreat altogether. For the past three years, he has spent a good portion of his time trying to stop a large supermarket from being built in Ulverston, in northern England. “Why do I do this,” he wrote to me in an email, anticipating my questions, “when I know that in a national context another supermarket will make no difference at all, and when I know that I can’t stop the trend caused by the destruction of the local economy, and when I know we probably won’t win anyway?” He does it, he said, because his sense of what is valuable and good recoils at all that supermarket chains represent. “I’m increasingly attracted by the idea that there can be at least small pockets where life and character and beauty and meaning continue. If I could help protect one of those from destruction, maybe that would be enough. Maybe it would be more than most people do.”

I’d never heard of Kingsnorth, and this was a pretty depressing piece.

I (obviously) don’t agree that all technology is bad — and frankly, unless we’re willing to kill half the earth’s population, some technology is probably necessary — but I’m also saddened by the increasing conglomerization and uniformization of culture amd life.

Ultimately though it’s not up to me. I’m struck by the idea that culture is always changing, and maybe what we’re afraid of “losing” is really just a nostalgia for a specific time, for a specific culture, that just isn’t that old to begin with.

Are some aspects of modern culture bad? Could we better nurture the environment? Sure. But to overlook all the good is a mistake.

Benjamin Barber, author of Jihad vs. McWorld, and Tyler Cowen, author of Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World’s Cultures, had an interesting discussion about this topic in a (possibly heavily edited for ideology) Cato policy report in 2003.

I’m no libertarian, and I don’t think ideas, culture, and art should only be valued insofar as they attract money, but this dilemma and the demands to fix it are as old as time.

‘What If We Never Run Out of Oil?’

Charles C. Mann, writing for the Atlantic:

Environmentalists worry even more about black carbon’s role in climate change. Black carbon in the air absorbs heat and darkens clouds. In some places, it alters rain patterns. Falling on snow, it accelerates melting. A 31-scientist team from nine nations released a comprehensive, four-year assessment in January arguing that planetary black-carbon output is the second-biggest driver of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change; the little black specks I found on my glasses and clothes have roughly two-thirds the impact of carbon dioxide.

Natural gas produces next to no soot and half the carbon dioxide coal does. In coal-heavy places like China, India, the former Soviet Union, and eastern Europe, heating homes and offices with natural gas instead of coal would be a huge step. An MIT study chaired by Ernest Moniz, whom President Obama nominated for energy secretary in March, called natural gas “a cost-effective bridge” to a “low-carbon future.”

Fascinating piece.

‘How politics makes us stupid’

Ezra Klein, writing for Vox:

It’s what we might call the More Information Hypothesis: the belief that many of our most bitter political battles are mere misunderstandings. The cause of these misunderstandings? Too little information — be it about climate change, or taxes, or Iraq, or the budget deficit. If only the citizenry were more informed, the thinking goes, then there wouldn’t be all this fighting.

It’s a seductive model. It suggests our fellow countrymen aren’t wrong so much as they’re misguided, or ignorant, or — most appealingly — misled by scoundrels from the other party. It holds that our debates are tractable and that the answers to our toughest problems aren’t very controversial at all. The theory is particularly prevalent in Washington, where partisans devote enormous amounts of energy to persuading each other that there’s really a right answer to the difficult questions in American politics — and that they have it.

But the More Information Hypothesis isn’t just wrong. It’s backwards. Cutting-edge research shows that the more information partisans get, the deeper their disagreements become.

Somewhat depressing piece here. Klein believes that the solution to this problem will come from objective truth — from the fact that the economy is in shambles, or a war never ends. But in the current political system both sides have the same weapons — and most of those weapons serve to obfuscate the truth.

Complex effects have many possible sources, and it’s nearly impossible to isolate cause and effect, especially when the true cause may threaten your identity.

I think we’ll only see the end of this polarization when a new issue arises that divides the country along cross-ideological lines, as did the civil rights act of 1965.

Suspicious Minds: Adam Curtis on the origin of institutional distrust

Adam Curtis, writing for the BBC:

The present day system of power - that has replaced the old patronising authority - is a new kind of limitation. It treats human beings themselves as very simple machines. Instead of telling them what to do, as the old power used to, the new system increasingly uses computers to read data about what human beings want or feel. And then fulfils those needs.

Curtis spends this entire piece looking at the origins of institutional mistrust, but I have to say the end result is a little disappointing. Do people conspire to personal gain? Sure they do. They always have, and they always will.

The real question is whether the rest of civil society deals with it effectively: rooting out egregious cases, dealing fairly with perpetrators and innocents. Curtis claims not, but he conclusion of his piece undoes his argument for me.

‘How Japan Copied American Culture and Made it Better’

Tom Downey, writing for Smithsonian Magazine:

“I tasted my first bourbon in the basement bar of the Rihga Royal Hotel, a famous old place in Osaka,” Tatsumi says. “Then I spent years reading everything I could about bourbon at the American cultural center. I sent letters to Kentucky and Tennessee trying to set up visits to the distilleries. I even asked for help at the American consulate. And then I finally got to visit in 1984. I fell in love with America then. I’ve been back a hundred times since. I now own a house in Lexington, and I’ve even been named a colonel in Kentucky.”

I ask him how he found all these old bottles of bourbon. “I drive across America, only on the back roads and especially at night, when you can see the lit-up liquor-store signs in the distance,” he says. “I stop at every place I pass, and I don’t just look on the shelves: I ask the clerk to comb the cellar and check the storeroom for anything old. I can’t tell you how many cases of ancient bottles I’ve found that way. I’ll try any bourbon once, and if I like it I buy more.”

The next day I visit another bourbon bar in Osaka, Tonen (meaning “decade”), in a downtown neighborhood where salarymen go drinking. This is the bar of the bourbon master from whom Tatsumi originally learned. A pack of businesspeople parade into the place and one asks for one of the most expensive and rare contemporary bourbons around, Pappy Van Winkle, a bottle of which can cost more than $1,000. The bartender makes a big show of pouring this cultish favorite, laying the snifter down horizontally and swirling the bourbon inside it before presenting it to the man who ordered it, obviously the boss of the group. Then he comes over and we talk about his old bottles, and I see a glint in his eye. For someone in Kentucky or Tennessee it might be called nostalgia, but can you be nostalgic for a time and place you never knew? These two Japanese bourbon temples represent a bold act of imagination.

I love Japan.