October 31, 2009

Top Chef 6.10: Meat Is Murder

Like other viewers, I'm getting worried about Jennifer. She started out so strong, but in the last few challenges has been getting overwhelmed by the stress of the competition. She wouldn't be the first contestant on the show to break down under pressure, but it would be a shame if she went home before the remaining also-rans (hint: rhymes with Schmeli and Schmobin) did.

Speaking of going home, Mike Isabella's leek dish looked awful on the plate, and apparently tasted awful too, so it was no surprise that he was sent packing. Of all the contestants this season, however, it seems like he got the worst rap: Yes, he made a bunch of sexist comments and his cockiness was off-putting at times, but there seemed to be an underlying decency to him (note how he got everyone to wear red neckerchiefs after Mattin was eliminated) that got obscured. Of course, that may have been of his own volition. And in any case, his dishes seemed good, but not great, at least by Top Chef standards: The show rewards hot-shot, experimental cooking, even though a lot of great food is neither.

The range of vegetarian meals offered was pretty disappointing: Like others, I was puzzled that no one thought to use things like cheese or risotto to make a more satisfying meal. Kevin, the winner, actually got closest to the mark with his mushroom/kale duo: if you're looking for meaty, umami flavor without meat, mushrooms fit the bill quite well. I'd also have liked to have tried Mike Voltaggio's banana polenta; now if he can just keep his player-hater tendencies in check.

So next week is something called Top Chef All-Stars Dinner, which appears to be the usual assortment of petty rivalries, but without the reverence for the craft of cooking that makes Top Chef proper such a good show. In other words, it'll be like all the other reality shows out there.

October 29, 2009

Varieties of Vaccine Skepticism (Updated)

Let me get one thing clear at the outset: I have no truck with those who scaremonger over the potential risks from vaccines. Whether you're Jenny McCarthy or (sigh) Billy Corgan, if you're hyping up unproven links between vaccines and autism or intimating some vaccine-related government conspiracy, you will not get a sympathetic ear from me. All you're doing is putting people at risk of disease and death.

Having said all that, I do recommend Sharon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer's piece in the latest Atlantic, which makes a serious case that the seasonal flu vaccine, and the swine flu vaccine that is modeled after it, may not be as effective as public health officials believe:
When Lisa Jackson, a physician and senior investigator with the Group Health Research Center, in Seattle, began wondering aloud to colleagues if maybe something was amiss with the estimate of 50 percent mortality reduction for people who get flu vaccine, the response she got sounded more like doctrine than science. “People told me, ‘No good can come of [asking] this,’” she says. “‘Potentially a lot of bad could happen’ for me professionally by raising any criticism that might dissuade people from getting vaccinated, because of course, ‘We know that vaccine works.’ This was the prevailing wisdom.”

Nonetheless, in 2004, Jackson and three colleagues set out to determine whether the mortality difference between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated might be caused by a phenomenon known as the “healthy user effect.” They hypothesized that on average, people who get vaccinated are simply healthier than those who don’t, and thus less liable to die over the short term. People who don’t get vaccinated may be bedridden or otherwise too sick to go get a shot. They may also be more likely to succumb to flu or any other illness, because they are generally older and sicker. To test their thesis, Jackson and her colleagues combed through eight years of medical data on more than 72,000 people 65 and older. They looked at who got flu shots and who didn’t. Then they examined which group’s members were more likely to die of any cause when it was not flu season.

Jackson’s findings showed that outside of flu season, the baseline risk of death among people who did not get vaccinated was approximately 60 percent higher than among those who did, lending support to the hypothesis that on average, healthy people chose to get the vaccine, while the “frail elderly” didn’t or couldn’t. In fact, the healthy-user effect explained the entire benefit that other researchers were attributing to flu vaccine, suggesting that the vaccine itself might not reduce mortality at all.
I was surprised to learn that the flu vaccine, as well as antiviral flu drugs like Tamiflu, haven't been subjected to placebo-controlled trials, on the grounds that it would be "unethical" to use dummy shots on populations at risk of the flu. If that were true, wouldn't it always be unethical to do placebo-controlled studies, regardless of the drug or treatment in question? I'm not a public health expert, but it seems bizarre to draw such a line around just the flu vaccine.

On the other hand, even after having read Brownlee and Lenzer's article and coming away fairly convinced of its main argument, I still plan to get the seasonal flu vaccine, and the swine flu vaccine if it becomes available to me. And why not? At the least, it does me no harm, and may well do much good. But the more effective things I could do to avoid getting or spreading the flu -- e.g., hand-washing and so-called social distancing from places where flu outbreaks are occurring -- aren't being promoted by the government. Fortunately, the current swine flu pandemic appears to be milder than had been feared; but if a more virulent strain comes along, this over-reliance on vaccination could make things worse for us than would be necessary.

UPDATE: A commenter on Facebook informs me that the flu vaccine and Tamiflu have been subjected to placebo-controlled trials, as all drugs are; rather the controversy revolves around whether it would be proper to do a large-scale study to answer the question of whether they're effective for the populations that are at highest risk for the flu. Since they have been shown to work, at least in some cases, there could be ethical problems in giving a placebo to someone instead of a drug with at least some proven effectiveness. If there were no difference whatsoever in performance between the flu vaccine and a placebo, that would be one thing; but if there's at least some chance that the flu vaccine is more effective, then doing a placebo-controlled trial now could be morally problematic. I apologize for the error.

Even so, I think the question going forward is less about the science behind the flu vaccine and more about the policy response of dealing with flu pandemics. While the efficacy of the flu vaccine may be in question, it does have the advantage of being relatively non-intrusive -- just tell people to get vaccinated, and all is well. Other methods, like social distancing, may be more effective, but they entail the government getting much more involved in how people conduct their daily routines, and could even set off a public panic. So it's a tricky problem in either case.

Getting Biophysical

I studied ecological economics with Herman Daly in grad school; indeed, in addition to my master's degree, I have a little certificate from the University of Maryland in ecological economics, based on some courses I took. Generally, I find ecological economics to be pretty influential on my thinking. Despite that, I typically hold at arm's length arguments from ecological economics explaining current events. Why is that? A commenter at Matt Yglesias' blog summarizes it pretty well:
The [il]logic of the argument is that all criticisms of economic orthodoxy are equally valid.
That is, attempts to, say, explain the financial crisis as a consequence of humanity running up against natural limits to growth don't ring true to me. Yes, in general terms we should be concerned about the expansion of money and debt beyond the ability of the real economy (including the natural resources on which the real economy depends) to service it, but that line of argument doesn't offer much explanatory power, compared to more conventional accounts (e.g., Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff's placement of the current mess in the long history of financial crises, dating back even to pre-industrial times).

So the NYT's profile of the "biophysical economics" school, which is essentially ecological economics by another name, was interesting to read, no doubt; but I find myself agreeing with Ryan Avent (or whomever is the Washington blogger for Free Exchange) that the biophysicals' focus on energy return on investment (EROI), or the amount of energy gained minus the energy used to extract it, can be misleading. At the risk of overgeneralizing, we're a long way from wringing out all the inefficiencies in our energy regime. Moreover, even in a world in which oil and coal are harder and harder to produce, a prosperous economy is still possible, even if certain avenues for achieving that are closed off (e.g., auto-centric transportation).

This isn't to say, however, that there isn't some truth to the argument from EROI. Entropy is an unavoidable fact of this world, and while Avent is right that there is an abundance of energy available to humanity, harnessing that energy in ways that are useful to us isn't so easy. (David McKay's excellent book on clean energy is a great place to start on this subject.) One advantage of oil, coal, and (to an extent) natural gas is that they're fairly convenient: They can be easily transported and stored for when we need it. At present, renewable sources like wind and solar don't offer quite the same convenience -- though if we get a more intelligent grid up and running and some advances in battery technology, that may no longer be an issue.

The ecological economic outlook, I think, has more value when looking at the whole range of ecological problems, in particular degradation of ecosystems, for which finding substitutes is harder than with energy. If we lose all of the earth's fish populations in the next 50 years, as has been predicted, it's not as if we can pay to get them back or develop some technological workaround. And in general, I find understanding the value of the natural capital that the earth provides us gives us a much better sense of why we need to preserve it.

October 25, 2009

Unemployment Blogging: The End (Again!)

A quick programming note: I've accepted a position at Garten Rothkopf, "an international advisory firm serving corporations, governments and financial institutions".1 I'll be doing research and analysis -- blogging, in a sense -- on the politics and policy of climate change and energy. Needless to say, I'm very happy: after some five months in the doldrums, it feels great to be on the move again. I'm also happy to have beaten the average for time spent unemployed. On the other hand, the fact that five months spent unemployed is now below average should be seen as rather horrifying.

1 Some of you might recognize the name David Rothkopf, who was a member of the Clinton administration and, more recently, wrote the book Superclass. Some of you may also recognize the name Jeffrey Garten, who was also in the Clinton adminstration and whose wife is the incomparable Ina Garten.

October 22, 2009

Top Chef 6.9: Purple Monkey Dishwasher

The Quickfire challenge was rather clever: Essentially a game of Telephone with food (hence the title of this post). It wasn't really something that tells you much about what makes for a good chef, but it was a fun exercise.

Restaurant Wars was surprising for a few reasons: The Blue team got away with naming their restaurant Revolt, Robin actually made a good dish, and both Jennifer and Kevin were at serious risk of elimination. It was strange how all the members of the Red team seemed to have been dragged down together. In part, no doubt, that's due to how the workload was distributed, with Kevin and Jennifer taking on much more than they could handle. I also imagine that Laurine's handling of front of the house duties impacted the performance of the group as a whole as well: If the front had been handled by, say, Jennifer -- who has demonstrated excellent executive abilities -- things might have turned out very differently. On the other hand, the pressure of the competition seems to be getting to her, moreso than any of the other contestants.

The bickering between the Voltaggio brothers was typical reality show fare, but what does it tell us about their cooking styles? Michael clearly feels confident and comfortable in his skin, and rightly so, but I could easily see his brassy tendencies getting the better of him down the road. Bryan, on the other hand, is pretty consistent in his execution, but I wonder if he'll more fully demonstrate his creativity when the stakes get really high. Like most people, I'll be surprised if both brothers aren't in the finale.

One other thing: Was I the only one incredulous about the use of the word "sustainable" to describe the meals being prepared -- given that the competition is in Las Vegas, a city that is, almost by definition, unsustainable?

October 16, 2009

Green Power and Deregulation

Speaking of responsible conservatives, E.D. Kain of David Frum's New Majority website makes several good points about electricity deregulation and clean energy:
Obviously the government will have its role to pay in the green revolution, but we should limit that role to laying pipes and power lines, and ensuring that when laws are broken, the perpetrators are punished. The government needs to establish fair-play rules and create a grid, but beyond that they need to let markets work, and allow competition to flourish. A lasting green revolution needs to benefit not only the earth, but the people who live on it as well. Too often the economic costs of environmentalism are overlooked, and too often it is the poorest among us who bear the brunt of those costs. Real cost-saving competition can help change that.
Stated that way, the case for deregulated energy markets seems quite strong. The problem with deregulation, however, has less to do with the desirability of moving away from closed markets (Brad Plumer's article on the roadblocks to distributed generation provides a wealth of examples in that vein), but with how we get to open ones -- and the record in the US has been pretty poor on that mark. California's troubles with deregulation have become legendary, with massive price spikes and Enron-driven market manipulation. In my own state of Maryland, deregulation wasn't quite so dramatic a process, but the problems were similar in many respects: Price caps largely prevented competition from emerging, and ultimately didn't prevent massive price spikes for Baltimore Gas & Electric customers from happening once the caps were removed -- though Gov. Martin O'Malley and the General Assembly did manage to delay, then dampen, the effect of the rate hike. There were also some shady dealings between Constellation Energy, which owns BGE, and the then-Republican-controlled Public Service Commission; but even so, deregulation in Maryland, like in many other states, was not well designed.1

What's baffling about all this is that even the more successful examples of a deregulated electricity market have been running into problems. For example, the UK, which deregulated in the early 1990s, is now finding that generators may not be able to keep up with demand -- possibly even leading to blackouts. Moreover, pace Kain's hope of open markets and green power going hand in hand, these generators have been skimping on renewable energy development. Back in 2000, Severin Borenstein co-authored a paper (ungated version here) on deregulation which essentially argued that, until we get up and running a smarter grid, including real-time pricing for consumers, the electricity market will remain vulnerable to volatility and manipulation. In other words, to get free markets in electricity, there'll need to be a great deal more government-directed investment. Carbon pricing will likely also be essential to giving renewable energy a leg up among generators.

1 Ironically, competition for generators is finally starting to emerge -- particularly in renewable energy -- yet Gov. O'Malley is now said to be considering re-regulating the industry.

October 15, 2009

Blog Action Day 2009: Lindsay Graham and the Climate Football

I want to believe that Lindsay Graham, per his recent op-ed, is going to come through on supporting the Kerry-Boxer climate bill in the Senate. Indeed, Joe Romm and David Roberts, both of whom no one could accuse of being naïve about politics, are hailing Graham's stance as an important step in moving climate legislation forward, and could potentially net as many as six other Republican votes. That could be enough to bring in moderate Democrats from farm and coal states leery about voting for Kerry-Boxer as well.

Even so, I can't shake the fear that Graham is going to pull the football away at the last minute. Like John McCain, Graham is a conservative with a reputation for heterodoxy that is vastly out of step with his actual voting record. Perhaps the definitive profile of Graham is this 2005 Washington Monthly article by Geoff Earle, which argued that, during the height of the George W. Bush era, Graham often strayed from the Republican Party line on certain high-profile issues, but in a way that ultimately served the purposes of the Bush administration and the GOP:
Consider his role in the Abu Ghraib hearings. With his tough questioning of Rumsfeld, Graham earned a rare Washington commodity: credibility. In the end, however, he put that credibility to use in bolstering the position of the secretary of defense. On "Meet the Press," Graham pointedly refused to say Rumsfeld should step down, a position he has maintained ever since. During those crucial early days, Rumsfeld's ability to maintain unified GOP support in the Senate was essential to his political survival. Had Graham flipped, the White House's continued loyalty to Rumsfeld would have been made far more difficult, if not impossible. Graham's even-handed posture "did a lot to end a period that was corrosive and dangerous for the administration," says Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.).
This was certainly the case in 2006, during the fight over the Military Commissions Act. Graham, along with McCain and John Warner, were the lead negotiators with the Bush administration over the bill -- ostensibly to prevent it from giving the President carte blanche to do whatever he wanted with detainees in Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere. In the end, however, Graham and company gave the administration the bulk of what it desired, then helped defeat Democratic amendments that would have prohibited torture, upheld habeas corpus, and provided other protections. Since then, Graham's record in the minority has been indistinguishable from that of his fellow Republicans, up to and including his conduct during the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings.

Now, It's certainly possible that Graham has seen the light on climate change and will become a support of climate legislation, not only in words, but deeds. Romm quotes an E&E News article which indicates that he has, and he will -- the only sticking point he, and other potential Republican votes, seem to have with Kerry-Boxer is increased support for nuclear power and offshore oil drilling. If that's the case, it'd be a small price to pay for ensuring that the framework for a clean energy economy gets up and running. (Let's also note here that Lisa Murkowski of Alaska now also appears to be on board with Kerry-Boxer, so Graham's support might actually be paying off.)

I'm still skeptical, however, for the reasons stated above. But there shouldn't be any reason why conservative political philosophy, as I understand it, would prevent Graham, et al from taking action on climate change. Certainly right-wing politicians in other countries, Europe in particular, see no contradiction between belief in small government and preventing the devastation of the Earth's climate. Only the ignorance and moral cowardice that characterizes much of the American right today prevents the Republican Party from being responsible partners in addressing perhaps the most important issue of our time. Indeed, already the conservative movement is trying to browbeat Graham into submission; hopefully, they won't succeed.

This post was written as part of Blog Action Day, and this year's topic is climate change; though honestly, if hadn't told you that, would you have noticed?

October 12, 2009

Are There Free Market Solutions to Climate Change?

Kevin Drum and Matt Yglesias both recently asked whether conservatives' professed belief in free markets hobbles their ability to take climate change seriously. Yglesias points out that there are plenty of free market climate change policies (e.g., eliminating fossil fuels subsidies, green tax shifts, etc.), but conservatives often denounce even these as socialist:
Now of course in the real world it’s going to be impossible to legislate a pure free market “tax shift” policy... But if people started from the premise that emissions need to be reduced, and then debated the extent to which this needs to be done in a free market way versus some other kind of way, then compromise would be easy to reach.... But that’s not what we have. Not because market-oriented approaches are inadequate to the challenge but because too many of the key institutions that espouse market-oriented approaches are run by people who are too corrupt, incompetent, immoral, stupid, or cowardly to get their side to take the problem seriously.
Drum agrees, but argues that even free market policies aren't equal to the scale of the problem:
Conservatives know that if they actually fess up to the full scope of the global warming problem, they're eventually going to have to accept some pretty serious government intervention to halt it. Things like fuel economy standards, green research and development programs, moratoriums on coal-fired plants, tax incentives for conservation, new building efficiency standards, and much, much more. There's nothing wrong with any of this stuff, but there's no question that it's a considerable amount of interference in the market.
I think the question that needs to be asked here is, "Compared to what?" To take one item from Drum's list, for example, building efficiency standards are a subset of land use regulations, which are going to exist whether there's a public interest in environmental protection or not. That is, I don't see much of a difference between a regulation that says that a building's insulation have must an R-value of X and a regulation that says only single-family detached homes can be built in such-and-such parts of town. One can argue about the wisdom of land use being regulated in certain ways (witness the recent liberal-libertarian exchange on urban planning -- see here and here for highlights), but once it's granted that governments can regulate how buildings are constructed in a given community (and I think most people would agree with that), it's not a big leap -- still less a leap into socialism -- to include energy consumption in those regulations as well.

That being said, it's not necessarily the case that more regulation is better when it comes to climate change, or any other issue, for that matter. Yglesias, for one, has argued repeatedly that the greatest infringement of economic liberty today is not marginal income tax rates or product safety regulations, but local restrictions on land use that prohibit dense, mixed-use development. And all things being equal, I want regulations that maximize individual choice and minimize transaction costs or perverse incentives -- in other words, a green tax shift is preferable to, say, an alternative fuel tax credit. Not that I necessarily oppose such programs, but policymakers should be cognizant not to let the regulations they do enact become more trouble than they're worth.

So perhaps we can say that there are no laissez-faire solutions to climate change -- no one expects private industry to, on its own, care about the effects of their fossil fuel consumption on future generations; moreover, a large portion of our carbon footprint is bound up in our infrastructure (e.g., transportation and electricity), which was never in the private sector's hands to begin with. But we can definitely say that policies that take what is best about free markets (in not dictating every little action, for example) have a major role to play in our response to climate change.

October 8, 2009

Top Chef 6.7: Stressed Umami Asian

I liked the idea of the Quickfire challenge: It reminded me of the Second City challenge in Season Four in which Richard Blais and Dale Talde had to make "green perplexed tofu," and famously came up with tofu marinated in beef fat and seared with grill marks. That kind of invention is, at least for the TV viewer who can't taste the food the contestants are serving, really appealing.

The rest of the episode? Not so much. I agree with Scott Tobias that we're now waiting for the lesser competitors to be knocked off -- though it was surprising to see Mike Voltaggio in the bottom bracket this week. I suspect, however, that it'll be a fluke.

I think a Restaurant Wars episode is in order, don't you?

October 7, 2009

A Global Environmental Organization?

As proposed by Edward Gresser in the latest issue of Democracy:
Rather than require each country to be the arbiter of all the others’ compliance by default, the solution must be to create an institution to do the job. The goal should be to ensure that the Copenhagen negotiations generate not only an effective and fair emissions-reduction agreement, but also an institutional structure that can make sure it is implemented—and in doing so bring environmental policy into line with security, trade, labor, and finance, as a field in which institutions and rules ease policymaking and improve its enforcement. In other words, we need a global institution modeled on the sort of organizations that have served the world for the last 65 years: The UN, the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO.
It's an excellent idea, especially given the myriad enforcement problems associated with any future climate change treaty, including the ones I mentioned yesterday. Gresser is wise, however, not to assume that a GEO will solve every international environmental problem, but it could ease the process by which countries deal with them.

One other virtue of a GEO, separate from the other major international institutions, is that it could help win some legitimacy in the eyes of developing countries for vigorously reducing carbon emissions on their part. Consider a second-best alternative to a GEO, namely adding environmental policy to the portfolio of existing successful institutions -- the WTO would handle climate-related trade policy, the World Bank would help with financing clean energy technology and adaptation programs (moreso than it already does, at least), etc. Developing countries, however, tend to have a strong distrust of those bodies, which they consider to be disposed against their interests; would they accept WTO rulings upholding carbon tariffs, say? This is already playing out in the negotiations in Bangkok over a new climate fund for developing countries: The US had wanted, among other things, for the fund to be administered by the World Bank, which was flatly opposed by the developing country bloc. The US seems to be softening its position on this, however, but the debate shows how important it is for developing countries to feel that international institutions are on their side.

Of course, Gresser's GEO applies not only to climate change, but to all the existing environmental treaties, where enforcement has been, for the most part, abysmal. Even apart from climate change, I think it would be worthwhile to get some proper enforcement mechanisms in place for those treaties.

October 6, 2009

Feed the Tree

Recently, I've blogged about climate change (I know!), the rise of organized crime around the world, and the need for better governance, both in this country and abroad. So why not have a post that combines them all together?

From the Guardian:
Interpol, the world's leading policing agency, said this week that the chances were very high that criminal gangs would seek to take advantage of Redd [Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation] schemes, which will be largely be based in corruption-prone African and Asian countries.

"Alarm bells are ringing. It is simply too big to monitor. The potential for criminality is vast and has not been taken into account by the people who set it up," said Peter Younger, Interpol environment crimes specialist and author of a new report for the World Bank on illegal forestry.

"Organised crime syndicates are eyeing the nascent forest carbon market. I will report to the bank that Redd schemes are open to wide abuse," he said.
I'm not as knowledgeable about the details of REDD as I am about other aspects of carbon markets, but as with other carbon offset programs, there are serious questions about how to monitor and verify that reforestation and anti-deforestation projects are resulting in actual, permanent emissions reductions. That said, it's important to separate the question of the value of REDD in itself from the question of corruption and organized crime in countries where REDD projects are likely to be concentrated. It should go without saying that stable governance that is free from corruption is a good thing in itself; but it also has the side benefit of making it easier for developed and developing countries to cooperate on matters of global import, like climate change. This is one instance where it's helpful to break out of the policy silo mindset, which is all too easy to slip into.

At the same time, we in the West can't wave a magic wand and wipe out all the criminality and corruption in places like, say, Indonesia (which cleared 28.1 million hectares of forest between 1990 and 2005 and in 2008 was rated 126 on Transparency International's Corruption Index). We can, however, insist on high standards of quality for international offsets of all types, including REDD, thereby creating incentives for countries generating offset credits to root out fraud. Let us hope, then, that the offset provisions in the Kerry-Boxer climate bill in the Senate are preserved.

October 3, 2009

The Genealogy of Netiquette

Trolling through the public waves on Google Wave is a fascinating experience; there's a freewheeling atmosphere to it reminiscent of the early days of the Web. It won't last, I fear, once it's opened up to the public: Right now the community of Wave users is small enough and homogeneous enough (i.e., conscientious tech-savvy folk) that one could drop in on any of the public waves, like a BBS or chat room, and participate meaningfully in the conversation. When the spammers, the trolls, the flamewar-mongers, and all the other riffraff of the Net are allowed in, public waves won't be nearly as fun.

That's why I'm transfixed by the discussions attempting to outline what the rules of etiquette for Google Wave should be. (As it turns out, the main topic of discussion on Google Wave is... how to use Google Wave.) Some have suggested importing rules of behavior from other venues, including BBS, chat rooms, wikis, etc.; but I suspect that, though Google Wave incorporates a lot of other web media, its users will have to evolve new forms of etiquette to make it a worthwhile experience. For example, what does it mean to have personal or colloquial forms of communication (e.g., IM or blog comments) subject to editing by other users, as in wikis? Who can be said to be the owner or person in control of a wave, if those terms have any meaning in this case at all? What is the rule for deciding if a person should be included in a wave, given that one can anyone can add any of their contacts to a wave without their permission? The process by which these questions are answered will no doubt be messy, but I look forward to seeing how it turns out.

October 2, 2009

Friday Video

This got a lot of play last week, but it's worth viewing often: Time-lapse photography of glaciers melting at rates much faster than models from even a few years ago were predicting:

First Impressions of Google Wave

I got an invite from my brother, who was one of the elect 100,000 who got the first round of invites from Google. At first, it was exciting -- I get to be one of the first to experience the next revolution in technology! -- but the first question I had, once I got a look at all the features, was: So what am I supposed to do with it?

To be sure, I can certainly see how Wave could become huge: It really does integrate email, IM, online collaboration à la Google Docs, and no doubt many other things into a seamless whole. (I especially like how it devises a viable alternative to Evite.) The proof, however, will come when many other people -- and especially those whom you work with and socialize with -- start using it as well. Right now it's merely a curiosity, not an email or IM killer.

It's also buggy as hell: I tried using the Bloggy Wave robot to write this post and wound up losing the whole thing. It's just as well: Turns out Bloggy only sends waves to a special wave blog, not existing ones. Nevertheless, Wave shows a lot of promise, as the folks at Lifehacker demonstrate.