Monthly Archives: May 2014

Sunday Funday: John Oliver & Bill Nye on Climate Change Debate

Last weekend, on John Oliver’s new HBO show, Last Week Tonight, the former Daily Show correspondent hosted a “mathematically representative climate change debate” with Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Here is a description of the segment from the Huffington Post:

Twenty-five percent of Americans don’t believe in climate change, according to a recent poll, but in the words of John Oliver, “who gives a sh-t?”

A new government report issued last week warned that climate change is already here. The host stressed on Sunday night that regardless of the remaining skeptics out there, climate change is just not up for debate anymore.

“You don’t need people’s opinion on a fact,” Oliver said. “You might as well have a poll asking: ‘Which number is bigger, 15 or 5?’ or ‘Do owls exist?’ or ‘Are there hats?'”

“The debate on climate change ought not to be whether or not it exists,” he added. “It’s what we should do about. There is a mountain of research on this topic.”

Oliver then brought on Bill Nye the Science Guy to show what climate change debates on television should actually look like.

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May 18, 2014 · 11:04 am

Philosophy of Healthcare

The most recent episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast featured an interview with Harvard philosopher Norman Daniels on the philosophy of healthcare.  

Here is a description of the episode: 

Good health opens opportunities to us; poor health closes them down. This suggests that access to adequate healthcare should be part of a theory of justice. Suprisingly this is not a topic that John Rawls addressed in any detail in his A Theory of Justice. Harvard philosopher Norman Daniels discusses justice, inequality,  and healthcare in this episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast. The interviewer is David Edmonds.

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May 16, 2014 · 11:46 pm

Does Our Generation Not “Stand a Chance”?

That was the question being debated on the most recent episode on the Intelligence Squared podcast.

Moderated by ABC News’ John Donvan, the debate featured Binta Niambi Brown (lawyer, startup advisor & human rights advocate) and W. Keith Campbell (University of Georgia Professor of Psychology & co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic Psychology) who argued for the motion; and David D. Burstein (author of Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation is Shaping Our World & founder of Generation18) and Jessica Grose (journalist & author of Sad Desk Salad), who argued against the motion.

Here is description of the debate:

Millennials-growing up with revolutionary technology and entering adulthood in a time of recession-have recently been much maligned. Are their critics right? Is this generation uniquely coddled, narcissistic, and lazy? Or have we let conventional wisdom blind us to their openness to change and innovation, and optimism in the face of uncertainty, which, in any generation, are qualities to be admired?

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May 15, 2014 · 11:05 pm

Freakonomics on Bitcoin

Earlier this year, the Freakonomics Radio Podcast provided its take on the virtual currency bitcoin, in a episode titled “Why Everybody Who Doesn’t Hate Bitcoin Loves It.”

Here is a description of the show from the Freakonomics website: 

After being bombarded by email requests for months, Freakonomics Radio has finally caved and made an episode about Bitcoin. . . . The gist: thinking of Bitcoin as just a digital currency is like thinking about the Internet as just e-mail. Its potential is much more exciting than that.

Bitcoin is often described as “virtual gold” — as well as everything from a “bubble” to a “Ponzi scheme” to “a haven for individuals to buy black market items.” But what excites some people, like Silicon Valley veteran Marc Andreessen, is Bitcoin’s potential as a new technology that could underlie any number of transactions, well beyond the simple swapping of currency.

Andreessen, a Web pioneer, is now on the board of companies like Facebook and eBay. He is not a disinterested observer in the Bitcoin debate: his venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitzhas invested around $50 million in two Bitcoin-related companies, including Coinbase, and Andreessen says they plan to invest much more to enable Bitcoin to go mainstream.

Why such confidence? The reason, Andreessen tells Stephen Dubner, is that Bitcoin is “the solution to a fundamental problem in computer science”:

ANDREESSEN: One of the things … that’s been missing on the Internet for 20 years is kind of a native concept of money…The ability to very easily pay somebody online, the ability to very easily charge for a piece of content, the ability to very easily exchange a digital title, or a digital key, or a digital contract has just been missing because you have no mechanism for establishing trust. And so Bitcoin basically holds the promise of being the first solution to establishing trust over an untrusted network.

Susan Athey, an award-winning economist at Stanford with a background in computer science, is also a big believer in the technology behind Bitcoin; for what it’s worth, Athey advises the company behind Ripple, which is Bitcoin’s top competitor (by market cap):

ATHEY: The beauty of a new currency, which is part of a virtual currency protocol, is that what I’m moving from me to you is just an entry on a secure, public ledger. And that public ledger is maintained by a set of computers all talking to each other using a protocol. So I don’t have to worry about some bank giving me an IOU and then giving that IOU and handing it to another bank. Instead, if I make a transaction over the virtual currency, it’s just an entry in the ledger. So I don’t need a middleman.

New York Superintendent of Financial Services Benjamin Lawsky, who is leading the charge toregulate Bitcoin in the U.S., tells Dubner that he is concerned about the freedom Bitcoin affords to criminals:

LAWSKY: It’s very hard to transport $1 million in hard currency overseas. You can’t just put it in a backpack and get it on a plane very easily. But it is very easy to do that now digitally using Bitcoin.

That said, Lawsky is also excited about the possibilities of a technology like Bitcoin, which could bring down all sorts of transaction fees. This may be bad news for traditional banks, credit-card companies, and other fee-seeking middlemen. But, as Lawsky points out, a lot of other people stand to benefit:

LAWSKY: Right now, there are thousands and thousands of New Yorkers who work hard every day to send money back home to their families in whatever country they’re from…And right now they’re paying fees for those wire transactions each week at the end of the week, 7, 8, 9 percent. And that’s a lot of money for people who often can’t afford it.

A crowd of leading economists, including two Nobel laureates and former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, have bashed Bitcoin. They’ve expressed alarm about the astronomical rise in the digital currency’s value. Marc Andreessen argues that they are missing the larger point:

ANDREESSEN: It’s a little bit like dogs watching TV. It’s like, it’s all very interesting, but like whatever until another dog shows up on screen and then the dog freaks out. Economists, like this stuff is all like, whatever, technology, geek, nerds whateverand then “currency” is the flag. And so the minute the word “currency” shows up, all the economists perk up because if there’s one thing economists are all experts on it’s currency… And they look at it and they say, “Oh my god, people are paying $600 for this thing, it’s just a piece of fake digital currency, people have just lost their minds.” I don’t think that they are looking at the underlying substance.

The episode also addresses a question many of you asked when Freakonomics Radio ran a fund-raising campaignwhy don’t you guys accept Bitcoin?

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May 13, 2014 · 10:35 am

“Solitary Nation:” Frontline on Solitary Confinement

Recently, PBS’s Frontline ran a disturbing documentary about solitary confinement in the United States.  

Here is a description of the program:

About 80,000 Americans are held in solitary confinement on any given day. In “Solitary Nation,” premiering Tuesday, April 22 on PBS and at, FRONTLINE deeply examines the use and impact of this controversial practice—and takes an unprecedented look at life inside solitary at a maximum security prison in Maine.

Here is a preview of the documentary. 

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May 12, 2014 · 11:28 pm