Ryan's Journal

"My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?" — David Mitchell

I’m in a Funk

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:28 pm, June 14th, 2018

If there are any readers of this journal left, it’s become painfully obvious that I’m falling far short of my three entries per month goal. I’ve got no good excuse – every time I sit down to write something I’m coming up empty. At some point either we’ll head out on the road and this page will again become a travel journal, or else inspiration will strike and I’ll launch into a twenty-part treatise on solving the mysteries of life, the universe, and everything, but until either of those things happen it’s probably going to be quieter than normal. In the interim, feel free to use the comments section to suggest any future topics that might help break the current radio silence.

Sometimes the world gets better

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:50 am, May 20th, 2018

Too often the message of conservationists is only about doom and gloom – unstoppable global warming, coral reefs dying, deforestation – which is a shame, because there is plenty of good news about the environment to buoy people’s spirits and remind us that we are capable of making positive changes in the world.

  • I’ve written about the decade-long rat eradication program on South Georgia Island before, but to recap: starting in 2010, and continuing in 2012 and 2014, teams in helicopters dropped poison bait across the entire island in an effort to eliminate rats that had been brought to the island two centuries ago by whalers and sealers, decimating the island’s nesting birds. While using poison to kill rats is an unfortunate solution for a man-made problem, the chance of making the island safe again for as many as 100 million nesting seabirds far outweighs any negatives. Had the effort left even one breeding pair of rats alive it would have been a failure, but last week it was announced that two years after the last bait was dropped, and with thousands of chew sticks examined, tracking tunnels checked, and a team of rat-sniffing dogs having scoured the entire island, no signs of rats were found and the island has been officially declared rat-free. As the years go by bird populations will increase, and someday the island may again reclaim its title as one of the most important seabird nesting sites in the world.
  • Closer to home, dam removal throughout New England has for the first time in centuries re-opened rivers to anadromous fish (fish that spawn in rivers but spend their lives in the ocean). On Maine’s Penobscott River, where just one herring was seen a decade ago, 1.8 million herring were counted in 2016. Other waterways where dams have been removed also show huge increases, and just as importantly the otters, raptors, and other animals that depend on those herring should also greatly benefit.
  • Finally, in 2011 a Dutch teenager named Boyan Slat gave a TED talk about cleaning up plastic in the ocean using floating screens that drift in currents. In most cases you would expect that to have been the end of the story – a nice viral video that a lot of people watched, with no follow-up. However, in this case Boyan doggedly persisted, founding the Ocean Cleanup Project, raising over $30 million, and this week the now-23-year-old Boyan and his team launched a prototype cleanup system for tests in the Pacific outside of San Francisco Bay. Although I’ll admit to being skeptical about the likelihood of success with their current design, the fact that this project has persisted, and has managed to capture funding and attention year after year, makes me optimistic that they will eventually succeed and make a significant dent into removing some of the estimated five trillion plastic objects currently floating in our seas.
Grey-headed albatross on South Georgia Island
Grey-headed albatross on South Georgia Island in 2004. This photo was actually taken on a smaller, rat-free island just off of the South Georgia coast, but with rats gone from the mainland these birds will now have vastly more rat-free nesting territory available.

What If…

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:19 pm, April 2nd, 2018

I know politics are a turn-off for a lot of folks, but it seems like an interesting thought exercise to imagine what it would be like if a few states had voted slightly differently, making Hillary Clinton the 45th president. Please feel free to use the comments to add any additions or corrections to this alternative timeline…

November 2016: If Democrats had turned out in numbers that were just large enough to give Clinton the victory in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, that turnout likely would have also provided narrow Democratic victories in the Wisconsin & Pennsylvania Senate races, resulting in a Senate that was split 50-50, with Vice President Tim Kaine the deciding vote in case of ties.

January 2017: With Clinton in the White House and a Democratic Senate, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer would have invoked the “nuclear option” in order to overcome Republican obstruction against Hillary Clinton’s nominees (just as Republicans did with Trump’s nominees), enraging conservatives and leading to an uproar in conservative media. The end result would be a bitterly divided Senate, a re-energized Tea Party, and a Supreme Court with a liberal majority.

June 2017: In this alternate timeline, the US would not have dropped out of the Paris Climate accords, nor would DACA have been rescinded. Similarly, there would have been no discussion of a border wall, a Muslim ban, or withdrawing from NAFTA.

September 2017: With the House still in Republican control, and conservatives enraged by the actions of President Clinton, the odds of a budget agreement would have been zero, almost certainly resulting in a shutdown of the government. Conservatives likely would have demanded documents and testimony for their many ongoing investigations over Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation, and Clinton’s email servers as a minimum precondition for any re-opening of the government.

October 2017: While Trump rescinded Obamacare’s cost sharing subsidies, resulting in health insurance premiums that were about ten percent higher than they otherwise would have been, President Clinton would have spent her time looking for ways to strengthen the health care law. Without Republican support it is unlikely there would have been much she could do, but in this alternate timeline Obamacare would not have been weakened, premium increases would have been lower, and Congress would not have spent months debating how to repeal the law.

November 2017: With Clinton as President and Trump likely viewed as an outcast in Republican circles, the one thing that the parties would probably have agreed on was addressing Russian interference in the 2016 elections. In this timeline, FBI director James Comey’s investigation into Russian meddling would have reached its conclusion, and with the support of the Senate and European allies the US would have imposed strict sanctions that isolated Russia internationally. In addition, bipartisan action to improve voting security and combat future meddling would be one of the year’s very rare examples of the parties actually working together.

December 2017: After a temporary agreement to end the previous shutdown, the divided government would again be unlikely to find a budget agreement, resulting in yet another shutdown. With huge deficits projected, Republicans would probably be rallying around the debt and deficit and demanding steps to address those issues as preconditions for any budget agreement. Note that in this timeline, the Republican tax cuts of 2017, with their corresponding reduction in federal revenue, would never have become law.

January 2018: With the North Koreans conducting nuclear and missile tests throughout 2017, President Clinton would have most likely pushed for an international response that was led by China and based on the framework used in the Iran nuclear agreement. While any deal would have been condemned by the Right (like they have done with the Iran nuclear deal), faced with real pressure from its one main ally (China), North Korea would have been boxed into a corner, forced to choose between sanctions that could finally threaten King Jong Un’s power or pausing its nuclear ambitions.

April 2018: After almost no legislative progress, two government shutdowns, ongoing investigations, and a huge block of Bernie Sanders voters still fomenting dissent on the Left, Hillary Clinton’s approval ratings would likely be dismal. The Republican establishment would be railing non-stop against Clinton corruption and deficits, and Tea Party rallies would be even larger than they were under Obama. In this environment, political scientists would be predicting a massive Republican wave in the midterms that would not only increase the Republican House majority, but would also flip 6-10 Senate seats to Republicans. Pundits would be questioning how the Democrats could possibly regain any path to a viable governing majority, and openly wondering if Clinton should consider stepping aside after just one term.

Moneyball V

Posted from Culver City, California at 12:02 pm, March 25th, 2018

In an ongoing effort to drive away readers by combining my love of the worst team in the NFL with my love of math, here’s another post about the upcoming NFL draft.

As I’ve posted previously, I buy in fully to the idea that most NFL teams are bad at valuing draft picks, and that the Browns have done a great job in recent drafts of taking advantage of that quirk of NFL management (note: they’ve done a great job acquiring picks, and a terrible job of using those picks). For example, while one can argue about whether Deshaun Watson should have been the Browns’ choice last year at #12, it’s tough to argue against the value they got for that trade, giving up #12 in 2017 for #25 in 2017 and #4 this year.

In my predictions for 2018 I suggested that the Browns would take a quarterback #1, and then take advantage of teams willing to overpay to move up by trading away the #4 pick. The Jets recently traded up to the #3 position, heavily overpaying for that privilege according to the traditional draft value chart:

IND trades NYJ trades Result
#3 (2200 points) #6 (1600 points)
#37 (530 points)
#49 (410 points)
2018 2nd round pick (270-580)
2200 points for 2810-3120 points
(28-42% premium)

Assuming the Browns would get a similar premium for the #4 pick (worth 1800 points), the following are all trades that I suspect will be viable in this year’s draft based on the fact that there are four quarterbacks being discussed as top picks, and all of the following teams need QBs; were I the Browns’ GM, I would accept any of these offers without hesitation:

Trading partner Picks traded Result
Denver #5 (1700 points)
#71 (235 points)
1800 points for 1935 points
(8% premium)
Miami #11 (1250 points)
#73 (225 points)
2019 1st round pick (590-3000)
1800 points for 2065-4475 points
(15-149% premium)
Buffalo #12 (1200 points)
#65 (265 points)
2019 1st round pick (590-3000)
1800 points for 2055-4465 points
(14-148% premium)
Arizona #15 (1050 points)
#47 (430 points)
2019 1st round pick (590-3000)
1800 points for 2070-4480 points
(15-149% premium)

Obviously making mathematically-smart trades won’t matter if the Browns don’t do a better job of actually drafting players that have success in the NFL, and thus the Browns clearly need to improve their talent evaluation. That said, statistically they’ve made all the right moves when it comes to maximizing their draft capital, and I hope that they don’t forgo that success this year when teams offer to trade a king’s ransom for whoever the fourth-best quarterback ends up being.

Fixing the System

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:08 pm, December 28th, 2017

Audrey and I were sitting in the back yard a few weeks ago talking about some political issue in the day’s news, and in the course of the conversation she asked what I would do to fix things. One of my suggestions wasn’t a popular one, but after explaining it a bit she said “you should write a journal entry about that”. I’ve presented thoughts for improving our government in journal entries in the past with varying amounts of seriousness, but here’s another entry that may or may not be worth the pixels that it’s printed on:

There is a lot of chatter these days about empowering the average citizen over party “elites” – getting rid of super delegates, doing away with caucuses, and otherwise increasing the power of the average Joe to choose the leaders of the country. My unpopular opinion is that this solution is exactly the opposite of what is needed, since the increase in direct democracy over the past several decades has correlated with an increase in government dysfunction. Hear me out…

People today lament that our government is incapable of getting things done or of making hard decisions, but the electoral process punishes candidates who address the country’s problems honestly. If Candidate A says that we need to address the deficit by raising taxes and/or cutting popular spending, while Candidate B repeats the well-worn fallacy that if only we trimmed “waste” from the budget then all of our problems would disappear, Candidate B will be elected. If Candidate A says she will make unpopular compromises in order to work with the other party, while Candidate B says that he will never compromise his principles, Candidate B will be elected. And for decades voters have reliably chosen Candidate B, only to discover that the debt continues to rise, and parties have no incentive to make the compromises that would lead to win-win solutions.

As a result, elections today are a contest of who can do the best job of telling the electorate what they want to hear, with candidates who say one thing in a primary and then “pivot” to a different position for the general election, and who voters expect will then “betray” them once in office. More direct democracy will only exacerbate that situation – if a candidate who honestly says that hard choices need to be made is generally going to lose to someone who says no hard choices are necessary, the only people who can win elections are going to be liars and/or incompetent. While I don’t think there is any foolproof solution to that issue, I would make the unpopular proposal that less direct democracy in nominating candidates for national elections (President, Senate, House) would at least keep out the worst charlatans, and thus the primary system should give more power to super delegates and other gatekeepers. The average voter would continue to choose among candidates in the general election, and could still have a say in primaries, but we need to find ways to reduce pandering and restore serious policy discussion to the electoral process. I’m not sure what form such a system might take – have the super delegate vote count for 50% of what is required to be nominated, or force candidates to have the backing of several super delegates before they are allowed to enter the race – but I think there would be significant value in providing more vetting than we have today.

Here are a small number of additional points in defense of why I think that this proposal is worth considering seriously:

  • We should give more weight to the most informed people when choosing leaders. Today a voter who knows the candidates personally and spends their life as a part of the government has a vote that counts equally to someone who flips a coin, someone who is influenced by a smear campaign, or someone who simply votes for any name that they recognize; I want to know that the leaders of my government have been vetted by more than just a popularity contest.
  • Money and fame would be less important as deciding factors in elections. Today politicians have to spend countless hours fundraising in order to afford TV commercials and other ways of achieving visibility in the electorate, with famous people such as Arnold Schwarzenegger or Donald Trump gaining an undeserved advantage. Giving more power to political insiders would help to level the playing field, making political ability more of a deciding factor than mere name recognition.
  • Empowering super delegates or similar actors would provide a check against populists or other unqualified individuals gaining power. It is in the interest of the party to put forward the best possible candidates, and giving the most knowledgeable party members an effective veto would provide a layer of protection against bad candidates.

Obviously this solution is imperfect – Bernie Sanders supporters who thought that the DNC “rigged” the primaries in favor of Clinton would be faced with an even steeper hill to climb. The 37% of citizens who currently give Donald Trump a favorable rating would almost certainly never have been given the opportunity to vote for him. Those who want to see more non-politicians on the ballot would be disappointed by a party system likely to support those within its own ranks. And those who fear a takeover of political parties by outside interests would have some reason to worry, since political parties are only as strong as those who choose to be active within that party. Finally, taking power away from individuals and giving it to “elites” sounds evil – it “feels” obviously correct that everyone in a democracy should have an equal voice in choosing candidates, even if those choosing are doing so with incomplete information and thus making bad choices.

Given the likely opposition to any proposal that would make the primary process less democratic it is unlikely that any such change could ever be made. However, since increased direct democracy over the recent decades has led to a system where elections often become popularity contests, and given the fact that it has left us with a government that seems more incapable of governing than ever before, I honestly believe that restoring the power of the parties as gatekeepers to the electoral process would be an effective way to ensure that we have stronger candidates on the ballot, thus leading to a more functional government.

Why this Bill?

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:49 pm, November 27th, 2017

“A strong conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures.” — Daniel Webster

After a legislative session that so far has no major accomplishments, Republicans in Congress are now preparing a tax bill that they have stated could lead to electoral disaster if it doesn’t pass. As someone trying hard to understand the logic behind this particular legislation, it’s a mystery to me why this bill is what they chose for their “must pass” moment.

Republicans have preached fiscal responsibility for as long as I can remember, but they are now firmly behind a bill that adds at least $1.5 trillion to the national debt and whose major goal is to reduce the corporate tax rate. There is an argument to be had about whether lowering the corporate tax rate is a good idea or not, but where I’m puzzled is the fact that I don’t think anyone is arguing that lowering the corporate tax rate is the best possible use of $1.5 trillion. Thus, why make the corporate tax rate the centerpiece of what the party is now calling its do-or-die moment???

If Republicans feel that they must pass something, rather than choosing an unpopular tax bill with murky prospects, it would have made vastly more sense to choose something like an infrastructure package that would be broadly popular, easy to defend, and a clear benefit to both businesses and the working class – “look, we’re fixing highways, railroads, dams, bridges and other very useful and visible things that will make everyone’s lives better, and we’re putting hundreds of thousands of people to work and pumping tons of money into American companies in order to do it!” Instead they have a bill that no one is enthusiastic about, that appears to be fiscally reckless, and one that could easily become a budgetary lodestone if it passes, or a legislative Waterloo if it fails.

The quote at the top of this post is my best guess as to what’s actually happening – for some reason they picked the corporate tax rate as the item to focus on, and now they are stuck in a position where they “must pass” something that no one really likes. As to the larger question of how they picked the corporate tax rate as their area of focus, maybe it’s a result of having too many bankers in government, since the financial industry is probably most likely to make business decisions based on a favorable tax environment (as opposed to other industries that weigh things like labor costs, geographic location, infrastructure, worker availability, or some other criteria far more heavily). Like anything that happens in Washington, I’m sure that there is a lot that I don’t understand, and I may be missing something obvious about this particular bill, but it sure seems like a very, very strange piece of legislation on which to stake the party’s reputation.

American Exceptionalism

Posted from Culver City, California at 6:02 pm, July 4th, 2017

I’m not sure if this subject has made it into a journal entry in the past or not, but my favorite theory of why America remains such a powerful force in the world seems like a good topic for a Fourth of July entry.

During my four decades of life it has been a common refrain that the US is on the decline and in danger of losing its position as the world’s leader in commerce and innovation. In the 1980s and 1990s it was seen as inevitable that Japan would soon take the lead position, and these days everyone seems to believe that China will do so. Yet somehow, despite falling behind in metrics like education, government investment, etc, the US still creates companies like Tesla, Google and Apple that lead the world.

A theory that I read a long while back is that the root of America’s success is literally encoded in our DNA – being unique as a nation of immigrants, nearly every citizen has in their family tree the DNA of someone who was motivated to leave their circumstances and go to a country where, if they worked hard, they could create a better life. In an evolutionary sense, the entire country is made up of people whose gene pool favors motivation, hard-work, and risk taking. As a result, in America if you create a business that fails, instead of being demeaned for failing you are rewarded for having tried. If a city declines and jobs disappear people don’t sit around and wait for improvement, but instead pack up and move to another city that offers better prospects. When an individual wants to follow a dream, it isn’t considered crazy for them to sell prized possessions or amass large debts in order to fund that dream and make it become reality.

There are of course a vast number of exceptions to the above examples, but moreso than any other country, Americans can be characterized by traits that trace back to ancestors who risked everything to come to a new place that offered hope of a better life. Furthermore, that hope wasn’t represented by the prospect of an easy life, but was instead based on a belief that hard work would be rewarded. On this Fourth of July I like to believe that the greatness of America might literally be encoded in the DNA of its citizens, a fact that makes me optimistic that, despite its stumbles, the success of this nation will continue.

I Think We’re Going to Solve Global Warming

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:56 pm, June 3rd, 2017

Several weeks ago I decided that one of this month’s journal entries would be about why I’m optimistic that the problem of climate change is one that the world is going to solve, and the recent announcement from Trump that the US would join Syria and Nicaragua as the only nations not to be a part of the Paris Climate accords makes the subject even more appropriate.

To greatly oversimplify the issue of climate change, solving it means that clean energy needs to be a better option than fossil fuels in terms of cost and reliability. Looking at trendlines for both metrics, it seems that the world is underestimating how soon that tipping point is going to arrive.

Cost

In terms of cost, consider the following:

  • Batteries, key to storing renewable energy, are dropping in price by a rate of about 8% per year, meaning a 60 kw/h battery pack that today is a $13,600 component will cost $5880 in a decade, $2580 in twenty years, and $1080 in thirty years – we are fast approaching the point where the cost of the most expensive component of an electric vehicle is more than offset by the savings from not needing a complex engine or transmission, an exhaust system, or any of the other supporting components of a modern gasoline vehicle. Note that the 8% estimates could even be pessimistic – one study reports that electric vehicle battery pack costs dropped from $1000 per kw/h to $227 per kw/h between 2010 and 2016.
  • Solar power is following a similar trajectory, with costs declining 6-7% per year. A 2015 estimate put the cost of solar at $122 MW/h, vs natural gas at $82 MW/h, and coal at $75 MW/h. At a 7% annual improvement, the cost of solar matches that of coal and natural gas by 2022, and by 2030 solar costs would be just $41 MW/h, half that of natural gas.

The health benefits of reducing air pollution from fossil fuels are an indirect cost, but according to the US Department of Energy:

Achieving the SunShot-level solar deployment targets — 14% of U.S. electricity demand met by solar in 2030 and 27% in 2050 — could reduce cumulative power-sector GHG emissions by 10% between 2015 and 2050, resulting in savings of $238–$252 billion… This could produce $167 billion in savings from lower future health and environmental damages, or 1.4¢/kWh-solar — while also preventing 25,000–59,000 premature deaths.

Reliability

From the standpoint of reliability, the fatal flaw for renewable energy is that it’s only available when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, but cheap batteries allow renewable energy to be stored and used whenever needed, and they also provide huge benefits for the grid. Since its inception the electrical grid has required energy to be used as soon as it is produced, so grid operators have had to execute a complex process for matching output to demand, and also have had to ensure that enough generation is available to match the highest possible load, meaning some power plants exist solely to meet demand on those few summer days when everyone is running their air conditioners. As batteries get cheaper, suddenly that’s no longer the case – instead, you store energy to handle peak loads, generation capacity just has to match average load (so inefficient power plants can be retired), and grid reliability is no longer an issue.

Reliability of cars improve when the system goes electric, too. A gasoline engine is about 20% efficient, the electric motor is closer to 75% efficient. The gasoline engine has belts, pistons, and tons of other moving parts that can fail, the electric motor is essentially a simple shaft wrapped in wires that costs far less to produce. A gasoline car requires a complex, multi-speed transmission, an electric car has a simple, single-speed transmission. A gasoline car uses oil, requires an exhaust system, and has tons of belts and hoses, an electric car has none of those things. Twenty years from now, we’ll wonder why anyone ever put up with regular trips to the mechanic.

Finally, consider home solar. Today we accept that a transformer failure or a fallen tree can mean no power for a few hours, and that a natural disaster can mean power outages for days. However, as solar and batteries drop in price, the grid starts to look kind of crazy – why would anyone pay more to have an unreliable grid connection that requires flimsy high voltage wires to be strung through the neighborhood when a system that can generate power from sunlight and store a few days worth of backup energy is available for the same (or less) money?

Why the future is awesome

The timelines above suggest that within the next twenty years a renewable energy world will beat out fossil fuels on both a cost and reliability basis. Stretch that 30-50 years, and all sorts of interesting possibilities occur – to cite one, desalination is cost-prohibitive because it is energy intensive, but if energy is cheap then a city like Los Angeles, located next to the ocean but forced to import freshwater from hundreds of miles away, could conceivably generate more freshwater than it needs and actually start exporting water to the rest of the state. Citing another interesting possibility, cheap energy might make it feasible to begin scrubbing CO2 from the atmosphere, so not only would emissions drop as fossil fuels are phased out, but mankind could actually begin to forcibly remove some of the greenhouse gases that we’ve unleashed.

Leaving the Paris Accords seems like an unnecessary, self-inflicted wound for the country, but the rate of technological advance still gives me great hope that the problems the world faces are going to be overcome, with or without support from America’s political leadership.

Moneyball IV

Posted from Culver City, California at 11:19 pm, May 8th, 2017

I promise that this will be the last post about the Browns and Moneyball for a while, but with the 2017 NFL Draft now complete (quick summary: from a math perspective, awesome draft by the Browns) I wanted to revisit the 2016 trade of the #2 pick. I get that some people believe that Carson Wentz is going to be the second coming of Peyton Manning, but statistically he seems pretty average so far, and even if he turns out to be above-average, it’s really, really tough to argue with the numbers when you look at what the Browns have gotten for trading that draft pick. Moneyball now and forever.

Browns trade: Browns receive:
  • 2016 First Round pick (#2): Carson Wentz
  • 2016 Fifth Round Pick (#141): Zack Sanchez2
  • 2016 Sixth Round pick (#176) Andy Janovich1
  • 2017 Fourth Round pick (#139): Jehu Chesson
  • 2016 First Round pick (#15): Corey Coleman1
  • 2016 Third Round pick (#76): Shon Coleman1
  • 2016 Third Round pick (#93): Cody Kessler2
  • 2016 Fourth Round pick (#114): Ricardo Louis3
  • 2016 Fourth-round pick (#129): Derrick Kindred2
  • 2016 Fifth Round pick (#154): Jordan Payton3
  • 2016 Fifth-round pick (#168): Spencer Drango2
  • 2017 First Round pick (#25): Jabrill Peppers4
  • 2017 Second Round pick (#52): Deshone Kizer1
  • 2018 First Round pick: TBD4
  • 2018 Second Round pick: TBD

1 via trade with Tennessee for 2016 First Round Pick (#8) & 2016 Sixth Round Pick (#176)
2 via trade with Carolina for 2016 Third Round Pick (#77) & 2016 Fifth Round Pick (#141)
3 via trade with Oakland for 2016 Fourth Round pick (#100)
4 via trade with Houston for 2017 First Round pick (#12)

The World is Still Mostly Awesome

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:59 pm, March 30th, 2017

There seems to be a constant undercurrent of doom and gloom in the world these days, so here are a few developments worth following for those who need reasons for optimism:

  • Today SpaceX re-used a rocket for the first time in history. The launch is a HUGE milestone towards dramatically reducing the cost of spaceflight, and a reason to believe that launch costs will drop by an order of magnitude in the next 5-10 years.
  • The Nature Conservancy recently demonstrated how floodplain restoration along the Truckee River could provide flood control, aquifer recharge, cleaner drinking water, and habitat for wildlife. If they can effectively argue that there are often greater benefits provided by “green” infrastructure instead of “grey” infrastructure then it will be very interesting to see if wetland restoration starts to become a preferred option as the nation deals with aging levees and rising seas.
  • Tesla’s Gigafactory continues to expand on its path towards becoming the world’s largest building. When complete it will produce enough batteries for 500,000 electric cars each year, and they are already producing battery cells and have plans to start churning out drive units for the upcoming Model-3 later this year.
  • I’ve been a frequent critic of Apple’s recent products and corporate decision making, but their new headquarters will be opening in April, and Apple has done an amazing job – it is probably the world’s most impressive corporate campus. The project was the last thing that Steve Jobs worked on, and seeing the finished product is a sad reminder of what the world lost when he died at an early age.
  • California high-speed rail is actually under construction, with viaducts, grade separations, and other major work throughout the Central Valley. Even if it is another decade before trains actually run, some of the improvements being made to roads and bridges as a result of this project will have immediate benefits.
  • The tomb of Jesus Christ recently underwent a lengthy archaeological renovation, with humans viewing the slab on which Jesus was believed to have been laid for the first time since at least 1555 AD. Even for those who aren’t religious, the archaeological value of studying this ancient & revered site has to be exciting.
  • Bloomberg reports that there are now more clean-energy jobs in the United States than oil or coal jobs. The federal government may not be acting to clean up the energy grid, but market forces seem to be betting heavily on clean energy options as prices for solar, wind, and other renewables continue to drop.

There are plenty more reasons not to succumb to despair about the state of the world – the comments link is available for anyone who wants to share any others and thereby help keep the world a slightly more optimistic place.

Seeing this campus nearly complete is a poignant reminder of how much the world misses Steve Jobs; even the parking garages look cool. I worked at this site back in 2001 when it was a Hewlett Packard campus.

Ryan Holliday, General Manager

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 7:04 pm, February 20th, 2017

I’m pretty sure that writing a post that combines statistical analysis and the Cleveland Browns is a surefire way to drive away any remaining readers of this journal, but math and the NFL’s worst team are two of my favorite subjects, so against better judgement I’m going to indulge myself.

Browns fans apparently hate the idea of trading away the #1 pick in the upcoming draft, but here’s why I’d do it anyhow (see also Moneyball and Moneyball 2 for my past ramblings on this subject). The draft value chart says the #1 pick is worth 3000 points, a number that is almost certainly more than it should be, which means that the Browns should be able to make a trade similar to any of the deals in the table below. Note that in recent years teams have given up more than 3000 points, so the first pick may even be overvalued beyond what is shown below. The table shows the #1 pick from each of the last four drafts, and the players who were picked at positions equal to the value of that #1 pick. Pro-Bowlers are marked with an asterisk(*), and I’ve highlighted trades that I judged as “good” in green, “great” in bold green, “poor” in red, and “terrible” in bold red.

Trade #1 pick (3000 points) for:
  #2 (2600)
#50 (400)
#3 (2200)
#21 (800)
#4 (1800)
#12 (1200)
#5 (1700)
#10 (1300)
#6 (1600)
#8 (1400)
2016 Draft: #1 pick – Jared Goff
  Carson Wentz (QB)
Nick Martin (C)
Joey Bosa (DE)
Will Fuller (WR)
*Ezekial Elliott (RB)
Sheldon Rankins (DT)
Jalen Ramsey (CB)
Eli Apple (CB)
Ronnie Stanley (OT)
Jack Conklin (OT)
2015 Draft: #1 pick – *Jameis Winston
  Marcus Mariota (QB)
Ronald Darby (CB)
Dante Fowler (DE)
Cedric Ogbuehi (OT)
*Amari Cooper (WR)
Danny Shelton (DT)
*Brandon Scherff (OT)
*Todd Gurley (RB)
*Leonard Williams (DE)
*Vic Beasley (OLB)
2014 Draft: #1 pick – *Jadeveon Clowney
  Greg Robinson (OT)
Jeremiah Attaochu (LB)
Blake Bortles (QB)
*Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (S)
Sammy Watkins (WR)
*Odell Beckham, Jr (WR)
*Khalil Mack (LB)
Eric Ebron (TE)
Jake Matthews (OT)
Justin Gilbert (CB)
2013 Draft: #1 pick – Eric Fisher
  Luke Joeckel (OT)
Jonathan Bostic (LB)
Dion Jordan (DE)
*Tyler Eifert (TE)
Lane Johnson (OT)
D. J. Hayden (CB)
*Ezekiel Ansah (DT)
Chance Warmack (G)
Barkevious Mingo (DE)
Tavon Austin (WR)

I realize that teams rarely possess two high first-round draft picks, and thus that the table above is purely theoretical, but it gives an idea of how out-of-whack the valuation on the top pick actually is. In the past four drafts, the results of making the hypothetical trade would have been:

  • great: 3 times
  • good: 5 times
  • about even: 9 times
  • poor: 0 times
  • terrible: 3 times

There are exceptions – in 2012 everyone in the world agreed that it would be insane to pass on Andrew Luck – but this draft doesn’t have a can’t-miss quarterback, so if someone offered a deal I’d look at the numbers above and almost certainly make the trade, rather than risking everything on the hope that Myles Garrett won’t be the next Courtney Brown.

I Was Wrong

Posted from Culver City, California at 12:41 pm, November 29th, 2016

I was wrong – Donald Trump will be the 45th President of the United States. In my 2016 predictions I said that he would win no more than four states in the primary, and in February I still thought that he would get “shellacked” if he made it to the general election. Three weeks ago he lost the popular vote by about two percent, but won throughout the Midwest, North Carolina, and Florida, thereby taking the electoral college by a decisive margin.

My thoughts on the election may not be worth reading, but it’s been a learning experience for me so here are some random bits to record for posterity:

  • Just before the election the mathematical analysis that I most trusted indicated that Trump had approximately a one-in-three chance of winning, but it still felt like a blindside when results started coming in and states that had previously been considered sure wins for Clinton turned out to not be so sure. Polls indicated Clinton had a clear, often huge, lead for months, and up until the final days before the election even the Republican National Committee was forecasting a Trump loss, so after an entire campaign in which the Democrat was leading, the final result was a significant shock.
  • The election showed me that, despite making an effort to seek out opinions different to my own, in this case I really had no idea that so much of the country would vote for someone like Trump. A big takeaway from this result is that I need to make more of an effort to listen to and understand others.
  • Prior to the election the pundits were all writing about how the Republican party was doomed, and post-election the same pundits seem to be writing that the Democratic party is doomed. While the results obviously have massive ramifications, before overreacting both sides might do well to recognize that even though Trump won, he received two million fewer votes, and if just one out of every hundred Trump voters had flipped to Hillary, America’s first woman President would have been elected by a large margin.

  • Following the election, protests erupted with people chanting “Not my President”, and petitions are circulating asking the electoral college to change the outcome. I understand the desire people have to do something to deal with what they foresee as a dangerous person moving into the Oval Office, but I worry about these specific tactics – while I believe that Trump will do damage to the country as its President, questioning his legitimacy and attempting to circumvent both the sixty million Americans who voted him into office and the process that put him there, is also damaging.
  • Much of what I saw from Trump on the campaign trail scares me – I think his environmental policies are dangerous, I believe that his tax and trade policies are likely to balloon the debt and cause a recession, and I think his foreign policy is likely to do lasting damage in the world. It’s frustrating that a narrow victory can have such extreme ramifications – looking back at the 2000 election, a difference of just a few hundred votes might have prevented the Iraq War, to cite just one dramatic example. That said, Trump’s sixty million voters clearly feel differently, and I need to work harder to listen to and understand the issues that motivated them.
  • While I truly hope that I’m wrong and that Trump is an excellent President, at the moment he threatens many things that matter to me, and thus it seems more important than ever to take action instead of passively relying on a President, governor, or other person to make things right in the world. As a small effort, the day after the election I increased my monthly donation to the Nature Conservancy, but much more is possible; hopefully this desire to take personal responsibility for the state of the world won’t fade and will actually lead to useful action.
  • Last of all, America is an amazing country, but it is only at its best when unified. When there is a disaster Americans of all creeds and colors rush to help. People came together here to put a man on the moon, to give birth to the National Parks, to create amazing companies like Apple, Tesla and Boeing, and to invent everything from the airplane to the internet, along with countless other businesses and ideas. “United we stand, divided we fall” is a phrase commonly associated with figures from American history ranging from Patrick Henry to Abraham Lincoln, and now more than ever it seems vital to put those words into action by trying to ignore divisive voices, to remember that the stories in the news and on social media represent extremes rather than the norm, and to try to stay level-headed and keep an open mind when it comes to discussions on today’s hot-button topics.

Olympics

Posted from Culver City, California at 4:31 pm, September 1st, 2016

The latest Olympic Games are now over, and as always they were a grand spectacle. While Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, and the entirety of the US women’s gymnastics team got the bulk of the headlines (deservedly) in Rio, I was most excited about the runners. In the 1990s I was a mediocre runner in high school and college, and during those years my role models were elite American distance runners who were getting totally obliterated by the Africans at all major competitions, to the point where it was exciting just to see an American distance runner qualify for a final.

In recent years American distance running has experienced a resurgence, and in the Rio Olympics the Americans absolutely killed it, bringing home seven medals, which is more than they’d won at the past four Olmpics combined.

After a generation in which American kids might have believed that the East Africans were literally invincible in distance running, today there’s a small army of Team USA runners to be inspired by. Clayton Murphy, a junior from the University of Akron who two years ago was only the sixth-fastest runner in the Mid-American conference, is now the 800m bronze medalist and owner of the fifth fastest 800m time ever run by an American. Galen Rupp, already the defending silver medalist in the 10,000m from London, earned a bronze medal in only the second marathon he’d ever run in his life. Matt Centrowitz won a surprise gold medal in the 1500m, becoming the first American in 108 years to win that event, and admitted that when he crossed the line he “literally was still looking at the board like, did somebody go by me? Did I really just win?”. Other medalists included Evan Jager in the steeplechase (silver), Paul Chelimo in the 5,000m (silver), Emma Coburn in the steeplechase (bronze), and Jenny Simpson in the 1500m (bronze).

Sport is one of the few opportunities in life to discover your limits, and in almost all cases it turns out that those limits are far greater than anyone believes possible. Every four years the Olympics offer a chance to see that principle on full display, and the Games in Rio, particularly for a former distance runner like myself, were an emphatic affirmation that humans are capable of amazing feats.

Matt Centrowitz

Matt Centrowitz wins the Olympic 1500m. Image from NBC Olympics.

Trump

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 8:37 pm, August 30th, 2016

Donald Trump won the Republican primary with about 14 million votes, and during the general election he will almost certainly get between 50-70 million votes. Among my liberal friends, and also among some of the Republican ones, the question always arises: how could anyone vote for Trump given his divisive rhetoric and the fact that he seems to be obviously selling snake oil (make Mexico pay for a wall, eliminate the debt in ten years, etc, etc). Many who oppose him seem too willing to write off his supporters as racists, or as people who aren’t smart enough to see that they are being misled, but I think that in November the majority of Trump votes will come from people who actually object to him as a candidate, and what’s more I believe that if the situation were reversed, Democrats would do the exact same thing. Here’s my reasoning based on the three groups I believe constitute Trump’s major supporters:

The Believers

First, there are some Trump supporters who believe him when he says he will fix all of the country’s problems. They point to the fact that he’s rich, has appeared on a TV show that ostensibly celebrates his business acumen, and the fact that many prominent figures on the Right tout his abilities. I may view his claims of being able to eliminate the debt in a decade as (literally) mathematically impossible, or think that it’s just dangerous bluster when he repeatedly asserts that “toughness” is the solution to all security problems, but it’s not right to fault people who honestly think he’s capable of delivering on his boasts. I suspect that this group is fairly small, but that it is well-represented at his rallies and thus makes up his most visible and enthusiastic supporters.

The Bad People

Second, there are clearly some people supporting Trump because of some of the nastier elements of his campaign. I refuse to accept that there are a particularly large number of Americans who truly believe that most Mexican immigrants are rapists and thieves, or who think that a judge with Latino heritage can’t perform his duties without bias, but there is undoubtedly a constituency for that sort of rhetoric. I honestly think it’s a very tiny slice of the population, but it’s a group that is also clearly represented at Trump rallies.

The Unhappy Majority

Finally, that leaves millions and millions of people who aren’t racists and who believe Trump is full of crap, but will vote for him anyhow. And this is where I think Democrats would make the same choice, and thus need to consider the very difficult decision most Republicans are facing. For a Republican in this election, opposing Trump means handing the White House to a Democrat, and in the process ensuring that the Supreme Court flips from conservative to liberal and will thus issue hundreds upon hundreds of rulings in the coming decade that conservatives vehemently disagree with. Meanwhile, voting against Trump means Republicans would be giving up the chance to pass their legislative agenda – with control of the Presidency and Congress there would be no obstacle to passing into law all manner of legislation that never had a chance against Obama’s veto pen. If the situation was reversed, and it was (for example) Marco Rubio vs. Kanye West, plenty of Democrats would be willing to accept a divisive, temperamentally unsound, unqualified President rather than empower a court that would rule against their views on climate change, gay rights, gun control, abortion, etc, along with a Congress that would weaken Obamacare, cease action on climate change, eliminate social programs, etc.

About a year ago I published my rules of etiquette for this election, which included a reminder to try to understand those with whom I disagree. Many Democrats are asking how anyone could vote for Trump; I suspect a better way to think about Trump support is to recognize that if the situation were reversed, the decision would not be a simple one. It’s easy to oppose Trump from the opposite side of the ideological spectrum when there is nothing to lose, but much, much harder when taking a stand against a dangerously flawed nominee also means sacrificing tangible and meaningful legislative and judicial achievements. As a result, I think it’s important to bestow a great deal of respect upon people like Senator Jeff Flake, Senator Susan Collins, and all others who have decided to take a stand knowing full well what it will cost them; hopefully in inevitable future disagreements their opponents across the aisle will remember their demonstration of integrity and treat them with the respect that they have earned by making an extra effort to deal in good faith and to meet them part way.

In addition to trying to understand the support for Trump, there is another question about why our politics is so broken that conservatives would vote for a President whom they believe to be potentially disastrous rather than enable a liberal Supreme Court, or why liberals viscerally dread the possibility of conservatives gaining the ability to pass their legislative agenda, but that’s a subject to ponder in a future journal entry. In the mean time, the comments link is there as always for those who have their own thoughts on the current Presidential race, or those who might feel the need to lambast me for daring to assert that The Donald won’t really be able to get Mexico to pony up the estimated $10-25 billion it would take to build a 2000 mile long wall.

Engineering is Awesome

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 11:09 pm, August 29th, 2016

Here’s a round-up of exciting news in the engineering world, which means this is a journal entry that probably only my dad and I will read in full:

  • On August 14th SpaceX landed its sixth rocket (two on land, four on a barge at sea), making this amazing feat of engineering seem almost ordinary. Even better, the first rocket that they ever landed is now on display at their headquarters down the road in Hawthorne, so Audrey and I got to visit it this past weekend, and can do so again anytime I need a spaceship in my life (i.e. a lot). Supposedly they will be launching the initial flight of their Falcon Heavy rocket, the most powerful rocket to take to the skies since the Apollo era, before the end of the year. SpaceX also claims to be on schedule with their manned program, so people may be regularly going to space in a non-Russian rocket again starting next year. Finally, they are going to announce details about their BFR (yes, it stands for what you think it stands for) for traveling to Mars in the coming months. We live in the best time in history.
  • Tesla just announced an upgrade to the Model-S that they have dubbed the P100D. The new model goes 0-60 in 2.5 seconds, travels 315 miles on a charge, and costs more than the combined price of six Subarus. Luckily, the trickle-down effect ensures that their less expensive cars will eventually inherit much of this new technology, so those of us who don’t want to take out a second mortgage to buy an electric car won’t have to do so. Additionally, they continue to claim that the Model-3 is on schedule for deliveries in late 2017, the ginormous Gigafactory, while still only a fraction of its eventual size, is already being used to produce battery packs, and all-in-all Tesla remains the coolest car/energy/battery company that has ever existed. Did I mention that we live in the best time in history?
  • In non-Elon Musk news, Boeing’s new 737-MAX airplane is well into its test flight schedule and might actually be ready to deliver earlier than planned; the new plane was originally scheduled to begin service with Southwest in the third quarter of 2017, but it looks like it will be delivered several months sooner. Given the fact that the 737 is the most common passenger plane in the air today, the majority of air travelers will soon enjoy quieter, more comfortable, and more efficient air travel. Planes aren’t as awesome as spaceships (what is?) but they occupy an exclusive level of coolness that is shared with few other human endeavors.
  • Locally, the much-maligned California High Speed Rail project is actually under construction, with bridges, viaducts and other structures being built near Fresno. The project thus far is a great idea that has spawned a series of ever-more-dismaying disappointments, but even with its problems it now seems highly likely that in 10-25 years it will actually be completed, after which Californians will probably wonder why anyone would have opposed such a valuable piece of infrastructure. And for the record, high speed trains occupy a similar realm of coolness as airplanes.

There’s obviously lots of other excitement going on in the engineering world, but I like spaceships and planes and trains and batteries, so that’s what goes in the journal. If you’ve read this far and are lamenting the lack of stories about animals attacking me in the Antarctic or mornings spent thawing boots after a frigid night sleeping in the back of a Subaru, the coming months will have a bit of travel in them, so give it another few weeks before you decide to delete your bookmark.

Full webcast of the launch and landing of the SpaceX JCSAT-16 mission on August 14, because no one should ever get tired of seeing a spaceship land on a boat.

The World is Actually Awesome

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:27 pm, July 24th, 2016

Without delving too much into politics, a candidate recently gave an important speech that painted a pretty grim picture of today’s world (*cough* Trump did it *cough*). Particularly during political campaigns, the focus seems always to turn to what is wrong with the world, causing everyone to get depressed and thus forget about the miracles all around us. So for anyone feeling pessimistic, here are just three reminders of why the present is actually the best time in the history of mankind:

  • Safety Despite the headlines you see in the news, you should feel safer than in the past. During World War I 17 million people were killed. During World War II that number was 50-80 million deaths. After those wars, the Cold War saw America and the USSR pointing massive nuclear arsenals at one another, with the potential to obliterate cities and send the rest of the planet into a deadly nuclear winter. Today terrorists kill or maim far too many people, and while the impact of that violence is horrible, the reality is that these tragedies are on a scale of thousands in a world populated by billions, with nearly all of that carnage taking place far away from the day-to-day realities most of us inhabit.
  • Quality of Life We’re healthier than we’ve been. In the USA in 1900, average life expectancy was 47. By 1960 that number was 70. Today it’s 79. What’s more, medical technology means we’re living more productive lives. To cite just three examples, 1) I tore my meniscus and rather than limping for the rest of my life I went to the hospital where a doctor put tiny cameras into my knee and proceeded to fix the tear. 2) My dad’s hip deteriorated due to years of wear and tear, and now he has a magical new titanium hip. 3) No one gets polio, the measles, or smallpox anymore. Furthermore, medical technology is continuing to improve at phenomenal rates – in the next few decades we may live in a world where Alzheimer’s has been cured, stem cells can repair nervous system damage, and cancer is nearly always survivable.
  • Standard of Living Our lives are less difficult than they’ve ever been. In addition to advances in medical technology mentioned above, today anyone can have a cell phone that gives them access to all of the world’s knowledge – in Africa I saw a Masai warrior wearing shoes made from tires, holding a homemade spear, and talking on his cell phone as he herded cattle across the plains of Africa. Everyone in America has access to safe drinking water, electricity, public schools and hospitals. Airplanes can take you to any corner of the world in a matter of hours while cars are getting safer and in some cases can now even drive themselves. Power generation is becoming much cleaner, replacing dirty smokestacks with renewable sources. Farms now produce vastly more food on less land while using fewer resources. Wherever you look, technology is making life more efficient and safer, and the trend seems to only be accelerating.

There are obviously plenty of issues that need to be addressed better in today’s world – the economy, race, guns, immigration, etc, etc – but there are surprisingly few problems that are worse today than in the past, and anyone describing the present in terms of bleak despair is most definitely selling a fallacy. For those feeling pessimistic, remember that we live in a healthier, safer, more amazing world than any that has ever existed, and there is every reason to believe that things will be even better in the years to come than they are today.

Louis CK makes the case that everything is amazing far better than I can.

When I Grow Up

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:40 pm, June 30th, 2016

monster.com ran a Super Bowl ad in 1999 that I still remember vividly. It featured a bunch of kids making statements starting with “When I grow up”. The image of the second kid in particular is one that has replayed a few thousand times in my head. The camera zooms in close on a boy who is maybe eight years old. He has a bowl cut, just like I rocked for the first decade of my life, and he looks like a tiny badass. He stares directly into the camera, and with a mix of disdain and bravado spits out the words “When I grow up, I wanna claw my way up to middle management”.

I came out of college, spent a summer roaming Europe and driving across America, and then went to work for Andersen Consulting (which became Accenture after a split with its sister company Arthur Andersen). I worked insane hours at jobs all around the world, met impossible deadlines, solved problems that someone fresh out of college had no business solving, and learned a TON; I’m still grateful for that experience, which was an incredible opportunity. Unfortunately, after four years of going non-stop I was burned out, bitter, and life had turned into more of a slog than a journey. So I quit, got in my car, and drove to Alaska in an effort to try and figure things out. It was an amazing experience, but three months later when I came back I was faced with the inevitable “what now?” decision.

The last fourteen years of this journal tells the story of the decision I made. While I’ve had the opportunities for many amazing adventures, and gone long stretches where I was free to pursue passions, the majority of those years have been spent doing very similar work to what I was doing prior to the Alaska trip, albeit with more reasonable hours and far more knowledge. Lest anyone misunderstand, I don’t regret that decision. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I love what I do, my work is generally really interesting, I get a ton of flexibility, it provides me the means to do some amazing things, and I still get to take long, epic journeys around the world. That said, like most people who do the same job month after month, that image of the kid staring at the camera, and the words “I wanna claw my way up to middle management”, still hits a nerve, and I sometimes wonder how life might have been different if I hadn’t mailed my resume to Warner Brothers back in 2002, but instead sent it to someone like the National Park Service, or maybe just decided not to send it out at all.

The Holliday Economic Platform

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:05 pm, June 28th, 2016

The 2016 election season has been going on for what feels like decades, and somehow still has four long months remaining. I’m not running, and would face a merciless beating that would make me cry if I did run, but if I were in the race then here are four straightforward proposals to improve the economic outlook of this country that I would campaign on:

  1. America’s infrastructure grade is a D+ with an estimated $3.6 trillion backlog of investments needed. Since the middle class would disproportionately benefit from infrastructure jobs, and solid infrastructure provides huge benefits to the economy as a whole, fixing and improving existing infrastructure seems the most obvious way to benefit the largest number of people. Spending on infrastructure supports jobs, improves efficiency for everyone who uses the infrastructure, and saves money in the long run – as the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Also, to this engineer, infrastructure is super cool – I like bridges and water mains and the electrical grid. The current federal budget allots around $100 billion annually for infrastructure, so I’d propose doubling that for the foreseeable future, which still wouldn’t even come close to dealing with the current maintenance backlog. Since the US currently gets far less bang for its buck than other countries due to red tape and other issues, I’d also require that spending be allocated to reward the best-managed projects, encouraging fixed-cost contracts, fast-tracking projects where appropriate, and giving preference to projects that have local dollars behind them already.
  2. To pay for this infrastructure spending, and in the process ensure that no one would vote for me, I would propose increasing the gas tax (which hasn’t been raised since 1993). Raising the tax by five cents per year over the next two years would move it from the current level of 18.4 cents per gallon to 28.4 cents per gallon, after which it should be automatically increased each year based on the inflation rate. Currently the gas tax brings in about $34 billion per year, so this move would increase that amount to $52 billion. I’d augment that with a one percent levy on new vehicles, since as vehicles become more fuel efficient the gas tax is a less accurate way of ensuring that those using the road pay their fair share. Given that there were $570 billion in new car sales in 2015, plus a similar amount for commercial vehicles, this levy would raise about $11 billion annually. That gets about $30 billion of the $100 billion needed, and when you factor in the stimulus effect of increased infrastructure spending (project workers pay taxes on their earnings, etc), and the fact that fixing things now saves money down the road, you could probably add another $5-10 billion, but additional revenue would still be needed, so…
  3. Raise the capital gains tax rate from 20% to 25%, which should produce about $40 billion in additional annual revenue. Currently it seems fundamentally unfair that someone working forty hours a week is paying a significantly higher tax rate compared to someone who primarily makes their money from investments. That still leaves a gap in the revenue needed to pay for the increased infrastructure spending, so to close it and also ensure that opposition to my election would be as energized as possible I would propose phasing out the mortgage interest deduction, but doing so over the next 20 years to avoid causing financial distress to current homeowners. The current cost of that deduction is $70 billion per year, with most of the money going to people who don’t really need it. Furthermore, it’s a deduction that doesn’t make a lot of sense – why should the government provide a deduction to homeowners but not renters? And before anyone screams that these proposals are just soaking the rich, I currently benefit from both the capital gains rate and the mortgage interest deduction and nevertheless think they are bad policy.
  4. The above proposals actually generate about $35-45 billion more than is needed to cover the increased spending on infrastructure, so if I’m extrapolating the tax revenues correctly, some of the pain from the loss of the mortgage interest deduction and the increased gas tax could be offset by using the leftover revenue to phase-in middle class tax cuts of 1-3% for single filers making less than $91,150 or joint filers making less than $151,900, thus reducing the current 10-25% tax brackets down to 7-22%; no reductions would be made to higher tax brackets.

I realize that, while everyone gets to enjoy better infrastructure, the above proposals would mostly benefit the middle class at the expense of the rich. I don’t in any way think that’s a bad thing – I would personally pay more taxes under these proposals and would be OK with doing so since a strong middle class improves the economy for everyone. More importantly, from the standpoint of fairness, economic benefits have disproportionately benefited the wealthy over the past thirty years, so a correction is overdue in a country where many households are currently forced to choose between fixing the family car or sending their kid to summer camp.

I won’t be running for office anytime in the foreseeable future, and if I made proposals like those above they would be guaranteed losers, but for a journal entry it’s a fun subject to think about and put forward for discussion.

Three Entries a Month

Posted from Culver City, California at 4:28 pm, May 30th, 2016

It’s been a busy month due to work and guests, but that fact alone doesn’t account for falling woefully short on the three-journal-entries-each-month goal.

To a great extent the reason for the three entry goal is that it forces me to think through an issue sufficiently to write about it in a way that feels meaningful. This month I’ve started on a few entries, only to abandon the draft after discovering that there was either more to it than I first realized, or that I wasn’t sure what I had to contribute on the topic.

One subject that seemed like it might be interesting to write about is de-extinction. For the first time in history the technology exists to literally bring back an extinct species, and we may soon live in a world that again has passenger pigeons and dodo birds in it. While at first glance that might seem like an unmitigated good – mankind could have a second chance to atone for the horrendous sin of wiping an entire species from existence – upon further investigation the process isn’t exactly the miracle that it might seem. Among other issues, rather than taking DNA from a preserved passenger pigeon and producing a clone, the process is more like Jurassic Park in that “gaps” in the DNA would need to be filled in with DNA from similar species. In the end it isn’t entirely clear that the animal science produced would truly be a passenger pigeon and not a partial hybrid that never actually existed in the wild. Hopefully someday soon we will be able to bring back an animal that is 100% passenger pigeon, but for now there needs to be a lot more discussion about the moral issues given the limitations of current technology.

A second subject that seemed like a worthwhile journal topic was that of collective action problems, which describe so many of the issues we face today. The gist of the idea is that there are many actions which could be undertaken by humanity to collectively improve life for everyone, but those same actions would put individuals at a disadvantage if any member of the group failed to participate. Global warming is a prime example – the world benefits if all countries reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but any country that chooses not to participate would continue to exacerbate the problem while simultaneously gaining an economic advantage over those who implemented reductions; the end result is that no one wants to do something about the problem until everyone agrees to do something. To cite another example that is a bit closer to home, San Francisco and LA face housing shortages that have caused costs to skyrocket, created massive sprawl, and generated traffic nightmares as people have been forced to drive great distances to get from the places they can afford to live to the places where they work. The solution is to increase housing density, but no one wants their neighborhood to change and you end up with San Francisco fighting development under the guise of preventing gentrification while cities like Santa Monica try to pass ballot measures to make it nearly impossible to develop projects over two stories tall. In both cases, the result of neighborhoods fighting to maintain the status quo is that costs increase, traffic gets worse, and quality of life decreases.

Both of the above topics are subjects that would have been interesting (to me at least) to explore in a full journal entry, but in the case of de-extinction it turned out to not be as simple a subject as I expected, while in the latter case my limited writing skills proved insufficient to write anything meaningful about a problem that doesn’t really have a good solution. With luck whatever strange forces control the neurons in my brain will be poring over simpler topics next month, and the journal schedule will return to normal.

Moneyball 2

Posted from Culver City, California at 4:08 pm, April 30th, 2016

Even though this topic may only be of interest to me, here’s the follow-up now that the 2016 NFL Draft is complete and the Browns have actually traded away their #2 pick. In a series of trades, they first gave the #2 pick to Philadelphia for a king’s ransom of picks that included the #8 pick, then traded that #8 pick to Tennessee for another bounty. Short summary: math won.

Pick HOFer Quality Starter Starter Occasional Starter Substitute Bench Never played
Browns trade:
#2 (1st) 0.17 0 0.67 0.17 0 0 0
2017 4th 0 0 0.05 0.20 0.45 0.05 0.25
#176 (6th) 0 0 0.04 0.04 0.22 0.39 0.30
Total 0.17 0 0.76 0.41 0.67 0.44 0.55
Browns receive:
#15 (1st) 0 0 0.50 0.50 0 0 0
2017 1st 0 0 0.50 0.50 0 0 0
2017 2nd 0 0.25 0.25 0.42 0.08 0 0
2018 2nd 0 0.25 0.25 0.42 0.08 0 0
#76 (3rd) 0 0 0.07 0.27 0.53 0.07 0.07
#77 (3rd) 0 0 0.07 0.27 0.53 0.07 0.07
#100 (4th) 0 0 0.05 0.20 0.45 0.05 0.25
Total 0 0.50 1.69 2.58 1.67 0.19 0.39

The result above is far better than in the example trade with San Francisco that I previously analyzed, and according to their historical drafting results should give the team two good players, another 2-3 decent players, and 1-2 guys who can occasionally contribute. Given the fact that the football gods hate the Browns, the two players drafted by Philadelphia (Carson Wentz) and Tennessee (Jack Conklin) will probably go on to become the greatest ever at their positions, but until that happens the statistical analysis says this was a really impressive result for the new Moneyball regime.

In addition to the two big trades, the Browns made three smaller trades, and overall turned ten draft picks into sixteen. Obviously quantity does not equal quality, but in this case the math says they got good value and, while they aren’t going to be very competitive for at least a couple more years, there might actually be some reason for optimism in Cleveland again.