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

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.

Moneyball

Posted from Culver City, California at 2:04 pm, April 16th, 2016

The Browns recently hired Paul DePodesta, whose story of bringing an analytical approach to baseball was chronicled in the book/movie Moneyball. Seeing as this hiring provides an opportunity to combine two of my favorite things – the Browns and math – I decided to make my own attempt to play football Moneyball. Since the NFL draft is the most obvious place where statistics can be applied, and since I’m a huge dork, I put together a spreadsheet of all Browns draft picks from 1999-2014, and used a formula based on career starts, Pro Bowl appearances, and Pro Football Reference’s “career value” rating to put each player on a seven point scale from “Hall of Famer” to “Never played”:

Pick HOFer Quality Starter Starter Occasional Starter Substitute Bench Never played
#1-5 (1st) 1 (17%) 0 4 (67%) 1 (17%) 0 0 0
#6-10 (1st) 0 1 (25%) 1 (25%) 1 (25%) 1 (25%) 0 0
#11-20 (1st) 0 0 1 (50%) 1 (50%) 0 0 0
#21-31 (1st) 0 1 (17%) 1 (17%) 2 (34%) 2 (34%) 0 0
#32-46 (2nd) 0 3 (25%) 3 (25%) 5 (42%) 1 (8%) 0 0
#47-61 (2nd) 0 0 1 (12%) 3 (38%) 3 (38%) 1 (12%) 0
Round 3 0 0 1 (7%) 4 (27%) 8 (53%) 1 (7%) 1 (7%)
Round 4 0 0 1 (5%) 4 (20%) 9 (45%) 1 (5%) 5 (25%)
Round 5 0 0 0 4 (25%) 5 (31%) 4 (25%) 3 (19%)
Round 6 0 0 1 (4%) 1 (4%) 5 (22%) 9 (39%) 7 (30%)
Round 7 0 0 0 0 7 (39%) 5 (28%) 6 (33%)

Teams who hold a draft pick in the top five value that draft pick as if it is certain to produce a Hall of Famer, but of the six top-five draft choices the Browns have made, Joe Thomas was the lone great pick, four of the others never made a single Pro Bowl, and the sixth (Braylon Edwards) made one Pro Bowl in his only good season and was traded after three years. Drafting in a position where they expected to find great players, the Browns instead came away disappointed five out of six times.

Since the Browns have done so poorly drafting in the top five, trading back needs to be a consideration. When considering whether to make a trade during the draft, the accepted way to “value” a draft pick in the NFL is the draft value chart. An alternate approach is to use analytics to determine the expected value of a trade, and that approach is more likely than the draft value chart to support trading back to get more picks, stating that the draft value chart over-values high picks. With the huge caveat that my table above is admittedly too small of a sample size to be fully accurate – it should include the draft history for all NFL teams, not just the Browns – here’s my attempt to use math to show why the Browns should listen to analytics and trade back.

The Browns have the #2 overall pick in the 2016 draft, which the draft value chart says is worth 2600 points. Theoretically the Browns could trade with San Francisco and get San Francisco’s first round pick (#7 – 1400 points), second round pick (#37 – 530 points), third round pick (#68 – 250 points), and second round pick in the 2017 draft. Based on what Tennessee just got from the LA Rams the haul would probably be even higher, but for the sake of argument let’s assume that’s the deal. Using the Browns draft history table above, and assuming San Francisco’s 2017 second round pick is in the top half of the second round, here’s what the odds of each of those picks panning out look like, based on past drafting history:

Pick HOFer Quality Starter Starter Occasional Starter Substitute Bench Never played
Browns trade:
#2 0.17 0 0.67 0.17 0 0 0
San Francisco trades:
#7 0 0.25 0.25 0.25 0.25 0 0
#37 0 0.25 0.25 0.42 0.08 0 0
#68 0 0 0.07 0.27 0.53 0.07 0.07
2017 2nd 0 0.25 0.25 0.42 0.08 0 0
Total 0 0.75 0.82 1.36 0.94 0.07 0.07

By giving up one player who the odds say is most likely to end up as a regular starter the Browns get four players and have excellent odds that one of them is a future Pro Bowler while another turns into a regular starter. The math seems clear: you make that trade.

With all of the above said, it’s the Browns, so expect to see them throw analytics out the window on draft night and pick another quarterback that they can then cut after 3-4 mediocre years.

Living in the Future

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 3:35 pm, March 31st, 2016

At 8:30 tonight Tesla will unveil their third-generation electric car. A company that just five years ago was mocked for having the audacity to think they could survive, much less compete with the existing automotive behemoths, is on the verge of launching a $35,000 automobile that is projected to sell 500,000 vehicles every year by 2020, and is one of the most anticipated new car launches in history.

Meanwhile solar panels are now 100 times cheaper than they were in 1977, and as cheap or cheaper than traditional electricity sources in most markets, with prices continuing to drop. At the same time, the major drawback of solar not being viable at night is being addressed by the fact that battery storage solutions drop in price by about 8% every year.

We live on a planet where global warming due to greenhouse gases is already causing massive disruptions to ecosystems not capable of handling rapid climate change, where even an area as remote as the North Pole faces hazardous air quality, and a seemingly infinite number of other environmental problems can easily lead to hopelessness and despair.

In a world faced with challenges that can seem overwhelming, it’s worth marking this date. Tonight the next generation of the automobile is being unveiled, and it changes the paradigm of how transportation affects the environment. This new car is driven by advances in battery technology that will have applications for all sectors of the energy industry, and will almost certainly change the way the world is powered. And it was created in spite of a hostile political environment by engineers who saw a problem and set out to solve it by building the best car that they could design. We live in the future, and the future seems like it’s going to be a good place to be.

Tesla Model 3

What if this time is different?

Posted from Culver City, California at 5:09 pm, February 26th, 2016

For at least the past forty years, while everyone else was fretting about Michelle Bachmann or Al Sharpton potentially becoming President, political science has calmly and rationally analyzed the electoral landscape and done an excellent job of predicting how the nomination contest would play out using a theory that is described as “the party decides”. This theory basically states that political parties guide voters to one of their preferred candidates through winnowing and signals from influential party actors. Thus, while a primary season might start out as a giant and chaotic clown show, candidates who lack support drop out after early contests, and the most influential elements within the party then unite behind one or two of the remaining candidates, showering them with media attention, money and endorsements. Voters, whose views are largely shaped by the media and the opinions of people/groups that they trust, end up backing the favored candidates. In the end, candidates who are unacceptable are dispatched, and the party always gets someone that its establishment supports.

This year on the Democratic side Hillary Clinton has the backing of the establishment, and while Bernie Sanders has passionate supporters and incredible homages from Larry David it doesn’t seem at all likely that he’ll be more than a speedbump in Clinton’s path to the nomination. The Republican side, however, is far more uncertain.

In my yearly predictions I said that Donald Trump wouldn’t win more than four primaries, and that Marco Rubio, who holds a huge lead in endorsements, would go on to win the party’s nomination. With Trump already boasting three wins, and the polls pointing towards a big day for him on Super Tuesday, it looks like my long tradition of incorrect predictions is likely to continue, and I (along with many political scientists) have gone from being absolutely certain that Trump would simply be a sideshow to wondering if he might in fact have a chance.

If Trump did actually win the nomination it would mark the first time in four decades that someone the party actively opposed was the nominee. While I would still bet on Marco Rubio based on past history and the likelihood that the party will do everything possible to get a candidate it wants, it’s interesting to assess what fundamental changes might have led to a possible failure in the “party decides” theory of the nomination process:

  • Skewed voter expectations: While there is a large faction in the Republican party that is very interested in passing laws and achieving results, there now exists a significant faction that seems focused on ideology over results. An effective lawmaker needs to be able to get people to work together to pass bills that can become law, but an ideological candidate needs only to promise to fight and never compromise. As an example of the latter, repeatedly voting to repeal Obamacare while the law’s namesake holds a veto pen is an act of protest, and not an act of governance. After seeing party leaders promoting candidates for office who lacked traditional qualifications (see: Palin, Sarah), it’s a confusing message to now try to convince the electorate that a candidate who is all sound and fury like Trump is unsuited for the job of President.
  • Lack of authenticity: In recent times the term “conservative” has become ever more rigidly defined, forcing candidates to disclaim positions they recently held. Thus Marco Rubio sponsors an immigration bill and four years later swears he didn’t actually want it to pass, and any candidate who might have ever suggested anything even resembling a limit on guns now airs commercials in which he fires assault weapons and suggests that even Jesus would push for more open carry laws. Despite the fact that these candidates are clearly full of crap everyone pretends that voters are convinced by the smoke and mirrors. After years of voters feeling like they’ve been played for fools by candidates who are just saying whatever they think the electorate wants to hear, Trump is espousing views so shocking, and so obviously different from anything any other politician would say, that voters believe he’s the only one not lying to them (note that the fact Trump professed very different views just a few years ago seems for some reason not to matter).
  • Truthiness: It’s a maxim to say that all politicians lie, but in the past politicians confronted with the truth have backtracked on their falsehoods. Today politicians confronted with the truth will simply double down on the lie, thus making it impossible to argue using facts. When you say that a climate scientist cannot be trusted on matters of climate change, or that economists who present analysis at odds with your preferred narrative are merely partisan shills, you create an electorate that won’t respect expert opinions. Clearly Mexico won’t pay for a border wall, it is impractical (not to mention inhumane) to simply round-up and deport eleven million people, and everyone isn’t going to get a free pony simply because a guy who built a few casinos sits in the White House, but after years of preaching that experts need not be trusted there is no easy way to plausibly discredit these claims.

While these same problems exist on the Democratic side – Hillary Clinton is shameless in her pandering to whatever audience she is addressing, and liberals will only believe scientists who remember not to point out that there is no evidence that GMOs are unsafe – political scientists seem to be in agreement that the problem is vastly more pronounced on the Republican side. Trump’s success serves as evidence of just how abnormal things have become, where a candidate who should have been dispatched easily by the Republican establishment is instead headed towards a delegate lead that might be hard for the party’s preferred candidate to overcome. Should he actually gain the nomination I feel certain that Trump would get absolutely shellacked in the general election, but I was equally certain that he wouldn’t come close to being nominated in the first place, so it’s a frightening possibility to wonder whether past history can still be considered a reliable guide in this election environment.

Former Glory

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:59 pm, November 29th, 2015

In elementary school I was picked last at recess for everything: I was the smart kid without coordination who would watch others kick the kickball to the edge of the schoolyard, then when it was my turn I’d rush at the bouncing ball hoping for the best, only to kick it just far enough that I might make it to first base before being thrown out. By the time I graduated from high school, however, a member of the yearbook staff remarked that she was sick of seeing my name while tallying votes for “most likely to win a gold medal”.

The transition started in the fifth grade with the Ludlow Elementary School mini-marathon. This “marathon” consisted of a bunch of elementary school children running around the block, but at each of the practice runs the kid who was always picked last somehow managed to beat everyone except for one older boy. When the actual race day came around, that older boy sprinted out ahead, but two-thirds of the way through the race he was bent over throwing up and I crossed the finish line first. In middle school I was the school’s top runner both years, winning the conference mile championship as an eighth grader, and in high school I set the school’s cross-country record and made All-State as a junior.

I’m writing about these things in the journal not (solely) in some sad attempt to relive high school glory days, but because after 23 years my name was finally bumped from the record book when Justyn Moore became the first runner in Shaker Heights High School history to break sixteen minutes in the 5K, running 15:58 at the state championships three weeks ago. I won’t pretend I wasn’t a little sad at seeing one of the only chronicles of my high school days wiped away, but it’s also pretty cool to see someone from the alma mater running fast. From what I can tell Justyn is better at track than he is at cross-country – his track times are much faster than mine ever were – so I’m actually excited to see what else he might do in the Spring. Also, I still hold the record for fastest cross-country time by a junior, so my name hasn’t been entirely erased from history just yet :-)

Ludlow Mini-Marathon

13 Years of Journals

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:21 am, October 31st, 2015

This journal started slightly more than 13 years ago as a way to relay my adventures back to friends while I spent three months traveling through Alaska and Northern Canada. When that trip ended I wasn’t quite sure whether or not to continue writing, but decided to keep going and see how things went. Over the years the journal has been a useful way for me to record travel adventures, share photos, and capture random thoughts that seemed like they might be worth revisiting in a few years’ time.

In today’s world where social media is the primary tool for keeping friends informed of life’s events, an online journal is less useful for recording daily adventures and instead seems like a bit of a platform for egotism – it’s somewhat presumptuous to ramble on several times a month as if what I was writing had any special merit. That said, these entries have merit to me. While I’ve posted things that made me cringe a bit at the thought that they were out there for the world to see, I’m still glad to have posted them. There is no doubt that some of my ramblings cause people to roll their eyes, but writing them helps me think through issues more completely, and trying to convey things clearly for public consumption forces me to examine those issues in ways that I might not otherwise have done.

I’ve got no idea how long I’ll keep this journal going, or if at some point I’ll perhaps drop the three-entries-a-month goal and just use it to document travels. For now, however, I’m glad to have a way to share adventures and to record thoughts that can then be revisited in the future. And for those times when life isn’t exciting and there aren’t adventures to share, it still seems like a worthwhile mental exercise to pick a random topic of interest and then think it through, trying to put thoughts into words in my own fumbling way.

Denali from Reflection Pond

My favorite picture taken during the trip that was the reason for this journal’s creation. Photo from a really good day taken at Reflection Pond in Denali National Park.

Compromise is Not a Four-Letter Word

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:20 pm, October 29th, 2015
Compromise
an agreement or a settlement of a dispute that is reached by each side making concessions.

As I write this, GOP Presidential hopefuls are railing against the latest budget agreement, stating that “Republicans have made with this president… a rotten to the core deal“. By a margin of 62-37, Republicans say that they want someone who will stick to their principles rather than compromise with Obama (the numbers are reversed for Democrats, with 60 percent favoring compromise). The recent search for a new Speaker of the House briefly descended into chaos due to the fact that there was no suitable candidate for a job that requires finding solutions that the President won’t veto when a significant portion of the Republican caucus views working with that President as betrayal.

The United States is a large and diverse country with a population that seldom agrees, so the job of legislator requires someone who is good at finding mutually agreeable solutions with those who hold different ideological views in order to get things done. Note that this does not mean surrendering one’s principles, but instead means making acceptable concessions in order to make progress. From the very beginning, the process of governing has been notable as a process of compromise – the Constitution is perhaps the finest example of compromise in the nation’s history. Any politician thinking that he can simply plant his feet in the ground and eventually get anything done in the US system of government is either unfit for the job or willfully refusing to govern.

While the previously-mentioned poll makes clear that the demonization of compromise is much, much more pronounced among conservatives, Democrats also fall into this trap. The response to the increase in mass shootings is a useful case study – liberals almost universally called for gun restrictions, but almost nowhere in the media, my social network feeds, or elsewhere did anyone propose anything to reassure existing gun owners that their rights would not be infringed. While gun control is an issue where getting anything done is nearly impossible, demanding action without simultaneously working to gain the support of those who might not fully share your position is a sure way to guarantee that nothing will get accomplished.

One of the things I love about America is that this country’s potential seems limitless – if we could actually agree on things, I have no doubts that we could eliminate the national debt, cure cancer, or do just about anything we set our minds to. Sadly, while we have the potential for greatness, we seem to fall short the majority of the time. In the coming election season, keep an eye out for candidates who speak to the country as a whole rather than just factions within it, and who avoid casting aspersions on those with whom they hold differences. When we can agree without being disagreeable, and work together to find mutually beneficial solutions, the future is far brighter. Today’s climate of “my way or the highway” will only end when voters reward those who seek out win-win solutions, and legislators again begin treating the other party as colleagues with differing opinions instead of combatants to be vanquished.

Trains that go fast

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:24 pm, September 29th, 2015

I wrote the following about the California High Speed Rail project 18 months ago:

Caveat: high speed rail is something that should absolutely be built to connect America’s cities, as is done throughout the rest of the world. However, the $68 billion California high speed rail project has missed every deadline so far and has no viable solution for moving forward. I don’t envy the people trying to make it work – they are saddled with a set of difficult and often conflicting constraints that are set by law, a political environment in which financing is uncertain, and everyone from Congress members to farmers trying to use whatever legal options are available to delay or kill the project – but more than five years after approval there is absolutely no excuse for not having a workable plan.

Since I wrote the above there have been a few positive developments:

  • California has budgeted 25% of all cap and trade funds to high speed rail, amounting to $750 million in 2015 and likely increasing in future years, so the project now has a not-insignificant portion of its funding. Whether devoting such a large percentage of cap and trade revenue to high speed rail is the best use of the funds is highly debatable, but viewed solely from the standpoint of the rail project it is a positive development.
  • Construction has started in the Central Valley, and even if the project somehow fails to be completed the initial work will still offer safety and traffic benefits via grade separation of existing rail lines.
  • Nearly a decade after the project was conceived, Caltrain and high-speed rail finally seem to be doing some coordination on development in the Peninsula with Caltrain announcing plans to standardize the height of their boarding platforms with high speed rail.
  • There has been discussion about expediting the Palmdale to Burbank section of high speed rail, which could be operated on its own to reduce commute times in LA from ninety minutes down to twenty. While the Bay Area and the Central Valley are fighting high-speed rail, Southern California has so far been enthusiastic about the potential for improved transit options.
  • Of the two segments of the network that have been bid out for construction, both have come in under the projected budget. The first segment, 30 miles from Madera to Fresno, was estimated to cost $1.2-1.5 billion but was bid for $985 million. The second segment, 65 miles from Fresno south, was estimated to cost $1.5-2 billion, but was bid for $1.36 billion.

Despite the positive developments there remain an enormous number of reasons for concern:

  • In its first real chance to prove that it can get things done now that construction is starting, the rail authority is already one year behind its own schedule for acquiring land in the initial segment that is currently being built.
  • The rail agency is still sticking with cost estimates that are almost certainly unrealistic. While the two segments in the Central Valley came in under budget, building a route through the mountains and across active seismic faults, as well as through the densely populated Bay Area and Los Angeles area, will most definitely be difficult and expensive, and that cost and difficulty will only be increased by the ongoing delays.
  • In the Bay, Caltrain and high-speed rail will share the same corridor, but the two have barely coordinated. Caltrain is spending $231 million on a train control system that is incompatible with high-speed rail, is spending over $1 billion to electrify just 51 miles of rail and doing so without fully coordinating with the high speed rail project, and until recently was considering buying new trains with doors at a different height than the high speed rail trains, meaning platforms could not be shared. Both projects would save MASSIVE amounts of time and money if they would just work together, but for whatever reason they repeatedly fail to do so.
  • High speed rail has unfortunately become a political issue, with all Republicans now expected to state their opposition to anything that resembles a high-speed train, no matter what its merits may be. There would be tremendous benefit in having critical yet rational oversight of California’s rail project, but politicizing things unfortunately has the effect of causing one side to promote the project and gloss over its faults, while the other promises to kill it at the first opportunity despite its obvious benefits.
  • There is still NIMBY opposition to high speed rail from wealthy Bay Area communities like Palo Alto that at worst could kill the project, and at best will result in compromises that will harm the system as a whole. The Peninsula is perhaps the most important segment in the entire route, and sadly is also by far the most troubled and least advanced.

I hope that this project is eventually built, but I’m far less enthusiastic than I once was due to the poor management that has characterized things so far. In my own community I’ve watched millions of dollars disappear into legal fees as Beverly Hills fought a much-needed subway for no reason that anyone can understand, and I’ve watched my own neighbors fight changes to make flights into LAX more efficient solely because some areas might occasionally get slightly louder plane noise; neither of those situations inspire confidence that a questionable management team will be able to quell the opposition to the much larger and more complex rail project sufficiently to allow the project to be a success. That said, it’s worth remembering that nearly every major infrastructure project, whether the Golden Gate bridge or the interstate highway system, was loudly opposed by some of the populace, but once built the opposition disappeared as the benefits became obvious. With luck, in another 20 years we’ll be riding the train to San Francisco and wondering how anyone could have ever opposed such a useful transit option.

This video will be much more awesome when it isn’t CGI.

Ryan’s Rules of Etiquette

Posted from 30,000 feet over Texas at 6:15 pm, September 23rd, 2015

With the 2016 Presidential election season already in full swing it seems like everyone has opinions they want to shout at everyone else, be it on cable news, on Facebook, or elsewhere. That got me thinking about guidelines for keeping things civil during the thirteen-plus months until the elections, and I came up with the following, most of which aren’t specific to political discourse. Please call me out if I fail to follow any of these on this journal or elsewhere, and please suggest others that might be useful:

  1. Recognize the difference between a debate and an argument, and avoid the latter.
  2. Never ignore or dismiss facts that conflict with your preferred position.
  3. Don’t complain about what’s wrong without also suggesting a way to fix it.
  4. Make an effort to understand those you disagree with. Make an effort to be critical of those you agree with.
  5. A solution where both sides win is infinitely better than a solution where one side loses.
  6. Always consider the possibility that you might be wrong and that those you disagree with might be right.
  7. Remember that politics is not the same thing as government.

Flags

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:51 pm, July 22nd, 2015

Against better judgement, here’s one more political post about a current event that’s been on my mind. Journal entry topics should return to postings about the heat in San Antonio and pictures of birds very soon.

The Confederate flag has been in the news, and companies have been scrambling to disassociate themselves from it, even to the point where TV Land pulled re-runs of Dukes of Hazzard from its schedule. I’ve got three thoughts.

First, I think many of those opposed to the Confederate flag have failed to recognize its legitimate use as a symbol of Southern identity. Just as Black culture or Irish culture or Japanese culture is a thing, so is White southern culture – hunting, fishing, country music, saying “ma’am”, driving a pickup truck, drinking sweet tea, etc. Insofar as people identify with that culture, having a shared symbol of that identification is a way of celebrating a lifestyle, and many of those flying the Confederate flag view efforts to remove it as an attack on their identity as a group. Despite that obvious fact, I’ve not heard anyone who opposes the flag tempering their opposition with a recognition that people should have every right to celebrate their identity. The General Lee didn’t have the Confederate flag on it because Bo & Luke were racists, it was there because they were Southern and proud of being country boys.

Second, it’s inarguable that to many people the Confederate flag represents racism. The KKK doesn’t carry the flag at marches to show that they like fishing, and if you’re a Black person you most definitely don’t see the flag and think of country music. Insofar as the Confederate flag was the symbol of a society that embraced slavery and oppression of minorities, it has no place in public squares or on government buildings. Furthermore, those that display it as a way of celebrating Southern identity should recognize that what to them is a celebration of culture is something that represents the worst of humanity to many others. Southerners have every right to celebrate their identity, but it’s long overdue for there to be a serious discussion about finding another symbol of Southern identity that isn’t simultaneously a symbol of racial hatred.

Finally, the focus on the flag came about after a horrific series of murders by a white supremacist. While this horrible act had the positive effect of focusing attention on issues of race, it seems to me that those who captured the moment focused almost all of the attention on a symbol of racial injustice at the expense of addressing the actual issues. One thing about the political correctness movement that irks many people (myself included) is that it seems to generate unending outrage, but little in the way of meaningful results. Raising awareness about why the Confederate flag is seen as a horrific symbol is good, but it’s a minor issue when compared with the actual problems related to race in America. Wouldn’t we be better off if the same amount of effort and attention that was put into repudiating the Confederate flag was instead put into encouraging people to attend events that promote positive interactions between different ethnic and social groups, or to attend a service at an inner city church, or to begin a serious national effort to address the continuing under-representation of minorities at colleges and businesses? Gay marriage was legalized because the majority realized that gay people were their friends and neighbors, not because we censored the word “faggot” from everyday language; similarly, racism will only disappear when we stop seeing people as different, and not because a flag is lowered. In this case, I can’t help but feel that media attention, protests, and speeches by politicians was a lot of effort devoted to winning a “victory” that will have little or no permanent effect on the real problems that truly matter.

As with most things, both sides in this debate paint it as black-and-white, when the truth is that the issue is hugely complex. Those opposed to the Confederate flag have a responsibility to recognize that Southern culture is real and worth celebrating, while those flying the flag have a responsibility to recognize that the symbol they have chosen to represent their culture comes with a massive amount of racist baggage. That said, the fact that the country chose to focus the debate on a flag, going so far as to celebrate a “victory” when a single copy of that flag was lowered at a state Capitol, while doing almost nothing that might actually address the very real racial divide that still exists in America, is a dismaying commentary on both the desire and ability of the USA to address this issue meaningfully.

It IS Rocket Science

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 9:37 am, June 30th, 2015

Despite being wiped out from four straight weeks of travelling for work, I got up at 7AM Sunday morning, partly because my brain is running on Central time and partly because I’m an engineering geek and wanted to watch the latest SpaceX launch to see if they would finally be successful in their ludicrous attempts to land a rocket on a barge in the middle of the ocean. Instead, about two minutes into the launch, I saw a live webcast of the rocket disintegrating as it was traveling at a speed of approximately 4000 km/h. From the video it was clear that something exploded on the second stage portion of the rocket, but unfortunately more than 48 hours later there still doesn’t seem to be any clue as to what specifically went wrong.

I’m bummed about it.

Prior to this flight the Falcon-9 rocket had a perfect record – yes, there were some minor glitches on previous flights (an engine exploded once…), but it successfully completed its primary mission on each launch, and did so at a fraction of the cost of any other rocket. At the same time, the way SpaceX was operating was a throwback to the early days of flight and space, when people dreamed big and not only tried to do impossible things, but succeeded with surprising regularity. Since those early days aerospace has become slow, bloated and hugely risk averse, so the upstart SpaceX provided the hope that they might be the ones to bring the future that seemed all-but-certain in 2001: A Space Odyssey closer to reality. With luck their engineers will be able to pinpoint the cause of the failure and return to service with an even more robust vehicle, but at this moment the cause of the explosion is a complete mystery, and thus the Falcon-9 is a machine with an unknown fatal flaw. For anyone who was amazed at the incredible successes of SpaceX thus far, and excited about what this rocket meant for the future of spaceflight, this setback is a disheartening reality check.

However, rocket science is very, very, very hard – that’s one reason I switched to computer programming, where if I make a bad assumption in my work it usually won’t result in pieces of a $60 million machine being scattered over a vast swath of the Atlantic. Given their surprisingly successful track record to this point, I would not bet against SpaceX recovering from this failure in a big way – they still have plans to ferry astronauts to the space station in a Falcon-9, are still on the verge of being able to land and re-use a rocket, and they still have a long list of customers anxious to use their lower-cost rockets for satellite launches.

On Saturday night prior to the launch I was watching a documentary about the dawn of powered flight that highlighted the competition between Glenn Curtiss and the Wright Brothers. On an early demonstration flight for the army the Wright’s flying machine crashed, killing an army lieutenant and putting Orville Wright into the hospital for months. Similarly, on a test flight the day before his first public demonstration, Curtiss had mechanical difficulty and his machine crashed. The Wrights regrouped and were soon aloft again, and Curtiss rebuilt his machine overnight and then made the longest powered flight in history the following day.

Elon Musk got the worst possible gift for his 44th birthday on Sunday, but there seems to be little doubt that history will remember him as one of the great engineer entrepreneurs of of the 21st century, and like Curtiss and the Wrights he will most certainly emerge from this setback stronger than ever.

Video of the “anomaly” that caused the loss of the Falcon-9 rocket on Sunday. Skip to 2:25 if you want to see the sad part.