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

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.

Gay Marriage

Posted from Culver City, California at 11:07 pm, June 28th, 2015

WARNING: political post ahead, and a potentially controversial one. Skip this entry if you mainly read this journal for the pretty pictures.

On Friday the Supreme Court made gay marriage legal nationwide. From my standpoint, that decision is indisputably the right move – sexuality is not a choice for the vast majority of people, and the government thus should not be telling a homosexual couple that they cannot have the same rights as a heterosexual couple. I think it is also indisputable that a not-insignificant percentage of the opposition to gay marriage is homophobia justified as religious objection; if the concern was solely religious there would be equal objection to the government allowing divorced people to re-marry. Similarly, if the Old Testament’s prohibitions against homosexuality are inviolate, the same should be said about prohibitions against eating shellfish (Leviticus 11:10), getting a tattoo (Leviticus 19:28), or wearing blended fabrics (Leviticus 19:19), yet those concerns are somehow ignored when the prohibitions against homosexuality in Leviticus are cited.

With the above said, some people do object to gay marriage based on a legitimate religious conviction. For many, religion means faith without room for doubt, so when the church states that homosexuality is a choice, rather than an innate human characteristic, and that expressing support for homosexuality is sinning, that becomes something that members of that church must accept without question. When the proponents of gay marriage dismiss the concerns of those who have been taught that supporting homosexuality is a sin, it reinforces the viewpoint of those individuals that this is a battle against religion, rather than a fight for civil rights, and history shows that people will double-down on a belief and go to tremendous lengths to defend their religion.

Legalizing gay marriage was the right thing to do, and in another generation I suspect that nearly everyone will recognize it as a civil rights issue instead of a religious issue, just as interracial marriage was initially opposed on religious grounds but is now seen solely through the lens of civil rights. However, it takes time for opinions to change, and I wish that more politicians, media outlets and individuals were making it clear that this court decision solely affects how the government interprets the meaning of marriage, and still leaves churches the religious freedom to interpret marriage as they see fit. I’m personally glad to see UCC churches and Episcopal churches celebrating gay couples, and hope that other churches will eventually move in a more inclusive direction, but I’m concerned by the fact that opponents of gay marriage are now immediately dismissed as bigots when many of those people have for their entire lifetime only heard their church addressing this issue by telling them that homosexuality is a sin that could not be questioned. To many, that view now seems obviously wrong, but for others it will take time to come to grips with the change that is happening around them. Yes, gay marriage is and should be the law of the land, but separation of church and state is also the law of the land, and I think some allowance needs to be made so that, while gay marriage is legal in the eyes of the government, it is clear that view will not be forced upon churches that aren’t yet ready to accept it.

Why I’m Optimistic

Posted from Culver City, Calfornia at 8:06 pm, April 28th, 2015

Back in February I wrote the following:

What gives me hope is that while the population at large often despairs over such issues, anytime I sit down with a group of engineers the conversation is inevitably about understanding the problem and figuring out what solutions are viable. If society can’t be convinced to take action on an issue through the government, engineers search for other options.

I read a lot of news that continues to make me hopeful about the steady technological progress being made, and while it may be of interest mostly just to me, here’s one such example. First, a caveat: most new companies and technologies will fail for one reason or another – they will be poorly managed, there will be some unforeseen problem that throws the business model into disarray, or they will simply be unlucky. This journal entry isn’t necessarily meant to highlight something that will definitely become a solution to the world’s problems, but is simply meant to illustrate one way that solutions are being developed to address seemingly dire issues, and how those solutions have the potential to make the world a much better place.

Tesla is in the process of building a massive lithium-ion battery plant that will double the world’s supply of lithium-ion batteries when it is running at full capacity. Business analysts are focusing on the fact that this factory will eat up a huge supply of the world’s lithium, driving up prices and potentially depleting the world’s reserves of this valuable element. These analysts suggest that the world simply won’t have what it needs, resulting in manufacturing shortages and disruption to the technology sector. Engineers, however, mostly ignore the business analysts in this case. So why the difference?

Concentrated lithium reserves are rare, but as a trace element lithium is the 25th most common element on earth – there are 230 billion tons of it in seawater alone. Current methods of extracting lithium involve processing it from salts and brine pools, which requires evaporation followed by disposal of potentially toxic byproducts. Queue the engineers. While the following may not end up being the solution to the world’s lithium needs, it provides an example of how engineering seems to always find solutions that defy the doom-and-gloom scenarios of business analysts.

Today, the three main problems with lithium production are:

  1. It is difficult to find sources of lithium that are concentrated enough to make production worthwhile.
  2. The energy costs associated with extracting lithium, whether via evaporation or some other processing method, can be high.
  3. Safe disposal of the byproducts left over after the lithium is extracted add additional cost.

Enter lithium extracted from geothermal wastewater. Geothermal plants drill into the earth’s crust to tap into superheated water which is brought to the surface, used to generate power, and then pumped back into the formation from which it was extracted. This geothermal water just so happens to be very high in mineral content, including valuable elements like lithium. Suddenly, the problems associated with lithium production are not so severe:

  1. Geothermal waters are high in mineral content, and the geothermal plant has already done the work of bringing that water up from the depths of the earth’s crust.
  2. The water is already superheated, greatly reducing the energy costs required for processing.
  3. The byproduct after extracting the valuable elements from this geothermal wastewater is no more toxic than what was extracted in the first place, and the geothermal plant already has the infrastructure in place for safely pumping it back to the formation from which it was originally extracted.

Making this method of lithium production an even bigger win, using geothermal wastewater for production of rare elements helps reduce the costs of geothermal power in two ways. First, a major issue faced by geothermal plants is the buildup of mineral deposits in the pipes used to return wastewater to the geothermal reservoirs, so extraction of some of those minerals reduces the wear and tear on the infrastructure, meaning pipes have to be replaced less often. Second, companies using the wastewater compensate the geothermal plant for providing the water, introducing an additional revenue stream for the plant. Thus, in the end the world gets both a cheaper, cleaner source of rare elements, and reduced costs for a renewable energy source.

In this particular example, the first attempt to extract lithium from geothermal wastewater has had a rocky rollout, with the first company to build a demonstration plant now facing funding difficulties, but a solution will be found. Where the majority of people see problems, the engineers of the world see potential solutions, and that gives me confidence that the worst of the world’s issues will eventually be solved; I’m excited to see what innovations will be created in the process.

More Reasons for Optimism

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

In a continuing campaign to highlight good news in the world, here are a few more reasons to be optimistic:

  • The largest rat eradication program in history – eight times larger than the previous record – finished this month after a five year effort. The hope is that with the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia rat-free for the first time since the 1800s that it will again become the most important seabird breeding site in the world, a home for an estimated 100 million seabirds.
  • In a hopelessly divided Congress, a complex issue that legislators have been unable to permanently solve and that has annually threatened to cause major disruptions to the healthcare system since 1997 somehow finally found a solution and passed the House by an overwhelming vote of 392-37. Democrats got some things they wanted, Republicans got some things they wanted, a long-term problem finally found a solution, and for once Congress worked like it was supposed to.
  • Just a few months after the US created the world’s largest marine reserve at 490,000 square miles, Britain has created the largest contiguous marine reserve around the Pitcairn Islands. At 322,000 square miles it is three-and-half times the size of the entire UK and protects some of the most pristine ocean in the world.
  • Closer to home, the largest dam removal in California history is underway. The antiquated San Clemente dam is too full of silt to serve its original purpose as a reservoir, at 94 years old is a hazard in an earthquake prone area, and most importantly has blocked steelhead migrations on the Carmel River for generations. After years of planning it is coming down in 2015, restoring 25 miles of rivers for the fish. Reservoirs are important, and hydroelectric power is a great source of clean energy, but in places where dams have outlived their usefulness, removing them is a tremendous way to revitalize rivers (see also: Elwha River resotation in Washington, Penobscot River restoration in Maine).
  • On a more obscure note, no new antibiotic has been discovered in nearly three decades, and bacteria have been developing immunity to many of the known antibiotics. That changed recently with the discovery of a new type of antibiotic, and the hope that the process used to discover it may yield many more.

The More You Know…

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:40 pm, February 28th, 2015

Confirmation bias is a well-studied aspect of human behavior that shows that people will interpret or cherry pick information in a way that confirms their own beliefs. In practice this means that in some cases, people who are more educated about a subject tend to be more adamant that an incorrect position is correct than those who are less educated on the same subject. This fact helps explain why no amount of additional info will convince someone who believes that vaccinations are harmful that their opinion is deeply flawed, or convince a global warming skeptic that 97% of climate scientists really do know what they are talking about, or convince someone who thinks that GMOs are inherently dangerous that 88% of scientists really do know what they are talking about.

A recent Facebook posting from National Geographic that referenced global warming as a likely cause of craters in Siberia provides an example of this bias. Assuming that National Geographic attracts a fairly educated audience, most of the comments still deny that current climate change is a problem created by man:

  • “The global warming or climate change theory is getting out of hand. The scare tactics don’t work on anyone with the ability to think and see for themselves. The planet goes through changes on its own and regardless of what anyone says it’ll continue long after man.” — Sean Stuart
    Cherry picking the fact that climate changes naturally reinforces his belief, despite the fact that no scientist denies natural climate fluctuations. The current concern is mostly with the rate of climate change – in past cycles ecosystems have been stressed even with centuries to adjust, while the current cycle is on a scale that will be measured in decades.
  • “Oh good grief. Really. The push the agenda through guilt routine is getting a little old.” – Judith Pannozo
    The mistaken belief that climate change is a hoax used to “push an agenda” can be reinforced by the fact that a search will reveal plenty of examples of groups mis-using science as a way to get what they wanted. However, the idea that the entire worldwide climate science community has somehow coordinated to coalesce around a fake explanation for current warming trends in order to achieve some undetermined goal (more environmentalism? more grant money?) both ignores how scientific peer review works, and requires a conspiracy that could only be successful if practically every scientist in the world was involved and none of those hundreds of thousands of scientists purposefully or accidentally revealed the conspiracy.
  • “The last two years michigan has had big time global warming. -42 below one of the many below zero temperatures that has lasted for months. I run around in flip flops cause its so warm and its getting hotter.” – Elaine Berry
    An individual’s view that the local winter weather is representative of global climate stands as evidence that the global theory is wrong. The misconception that “global warming” means that no place will ever see record cold misses the fact that climate change refers to average worldwide temperatures, and that while some places may actually get cooler, the average temperatures across Earth as a whole will increase. An analogy might be a prediction that if the NFL made touchdowns worth ten points instead of seven that average points per game would increase, and then claiming that because the Browns lost a single game by a score of 13-0 that the prediction had been proven wrong.
  • …and many more like those.

Given the reality that people cannot be convinced by providing them with more information, a lot of the world’s problems might seem hopeless – how do you solve a problem that a significant percentage of the population is dangerously misinformed about when more information will only reinforce their existing belief? What gives me hope is that while the population at large often despairs over such issues, anytime I sit down with a group of engineers the conversation is inevitably about understanding the problem and figuring out what solutions are viable. If society can’t be convinced to take action on an issue through the government, engineers search for other options. We already have the examples of Tesla Motors changing the paradigm on electric cars from “greenest vehicle” to “most desirable automobile”, and Solar City changing the paradigm on solar panels from “greenest solution” to “most economical solution”, and I’m optimistic that this trend will continue. It is probably too late to undo much of the inevitable environmental disruption that will ensue from climate change – sea levels will rise, animal populations will be displaced or disappear, and weather will become more severe – but in the end I honestly believe that the problem will be solved in spite of the fact that denial of the issue, reinforced by confirmation bias, makes the eventual solution far more difficult to reach.

Unfortunate Ryan

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:42 pm, February 22nd, 2015

One of the tricks to life is coming up with mental constructs to deal with difficult situations. Religion fills this role for a lot of people – when bad things happen the way to cope is by saying that it is God’s will, or a test of faith, or some other divine intervention. For me, using religion as an explanation for tragedy is tough since I’m unconvinced by the idea of the Creator spending His valuable time devising unfair and often petty difficulties for each and every creature in the universe, so other coping mechanisms are in order.

One of those coping mechanisms came out of a discussion with my brother ages ago. In one of our many, many unusual discussions that have occurred over the years Aaron started talking to me about Unfortunate Aaron – his twin out there somewhere in the universe, or maybe in a parallel dimension, who had the exact opposite fortunes. Aaron’s life was good, which meant Unfortunate Aaron’s life was bad. If Aaron got sick, Unfortunate Aaron finally got to enjoy a healthy day. If Aaron ducked a punch in a bar fight, Unfortunate Aaron got decked. It’s obviously a ludicrous proposition, but the idea of Unfortunate Aaron, and later Unfortunate Ryan, helped highlight how good things were for us, and gave us something stupid to smile about when things were bad. The most pointed example came on a fishing trip where Aaron got horrifically seasick. He must have thrown up a few dozen times, and at one point when I went inside the boat to find him curled up in the fetal position, his surprisingly upbeat attitude was that “Unfortunate Aaron is so happy not to be barfing for once!”

I’ll be the first to admit that the idea of a bizarro twin with the exact opposite fortunes of myself is a ridiculous concept with absolutely no basis in reality, but it’s an idea that still makes me feel better during bad times. I have a great life, and when things do get rough the thought of Unfortunate Ryan’s fortunes improving slightly highlights how good I have it most of the time. This idea of a shadow Ryan in a parallel universe is no more valid than that of an old guy in a toga who wants to micro-manage every hardship I might face, but it’s one that seems to allow me to put the inevitable bad times into perspective in a way that a bearded man on a cloud dishing out misery does not.

Headlines

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:54 pm, May 29th, 2014

Four headlines of note this week:

  • SpaceX announced version two of their Dragon space capsule, this one capable of carrying astronauts. They are on track to be carrying people into space by 2017, and this new capsule is both reusable and capable of landing almost anywhere using maneuvering thrusters. The goal is to be able to fly it back to the launch pad, refuel it, strap it to a rocket, and send it into space again, thus greatly reducing costs and putting all of us space nerds one step closer to a trip into orbit. For anyone still reading who isn’t an engineering geek, this announcement may be considered one of the big moments in the advancement of technology in a few decades.
  • A $1 billion restoration of the Los Angeles River (yes, there is one) was announced today. LA’s preferred restoration option was approved by the Army Corps of Engineers, and eleven miles of concrete will soon be removed and returned to a more natural state. I’m torn on this one – any time we can keep something natural, or fix damage that has been done, I’m a fan, but $1 billion could have been used to restore vastly larger and more important wetlands elsewhere (example). That said, bringing some nature back to the concrete jungle of LA will be a welcome change.
  • In more controversial news, the EPA is about to unveil serious efforts to combat climate change by setting CO2 limits on power plants. It’s highly doubtful that the EPA’s proposals are the best solution to the issue of climate change, but since the Senate killed the Cap & Trade bill in 2010, direct executive action has become the only viable option for addressing a very serious problem. With any luck, once these rules go into effect it will spur Congress to debate a better solution that does more to address the problem while producing less chaos in the marketplace, much like what was originally intended with the 2009 Cap & Trade bill.
  • Apple holds their Worldwide Developer Conference next week, where they are expected to announce a framework for integrating iPads and iPhones with home devices like lights, security systems, etc. They may also announce their rumored health-related watch, and while I’m skeptical about it, if anyone can make a device that promotes healthy living it’s Apple, and the thought of people having something on their wrist that encourages exercise, good eating, and other good behavior while also notifying them of serious health issues, that seems like a big win.

That’s a lot going on all at once, and even without a pressing deadline to get in three journal entries before the end of the month, they seemed significant enough to record for posterity. Ten years from now I’ll either read this while looking at my Apple health-monitoring device and watching the latest space tourist launch into orbit, or I’ll do neither of those things and wonder how I could have ever thought these announcements were significant :-)

Legos for Grown-ups

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:41 pm, March 30th, 2014

While the East Span of the Bay Bridge is finally operational, there are a bunch of other projects going on in California that the engineer in me continually follows up on. While I may be the only one interested, it’s fun to re-read these entries a few years later, so here’s a status report on a few of them:

  • Transbay Center – This San Francisco project is essentially building the Grand Central Station of the West Coast, a $4.5 billion development that will bring together eleven different transit agencies and eventually include Caltrain service in downtown, and (theoretically) high-speed rail. Shockingly the project is mostly on schedule, with most of the below-ground work done and the above ground work set to start this summer. Completion is scheduled for Summer 2017.
  • Subway to the Sea & Exposition Line – Despite Beverly Hills doing its best to derail the $4 billion subway project, one of LA’s busiest traffic corridors might soon have a subway, and people on the West Side will actually be able to get to the rest of the city without spending an hour in traffic. As a bonus, subway excavations are unearthing huge caches of Ice Age fossils. Meanwhile, the first phase of the Exposition light rail line has already exceeded its 2020 ridership projections, with the second phase to Santa Monica on schedule for a 2015 opening. It’s ridiculous that America’s second-largest city has such terrible mass transit, but things are improving rapidly.
  • California High Speed Rail – 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. Killing the project now probably means it will be another decade before anything new could be proposed, but that might be better than building it poorly, and in the interim it might be possible for a less ambitious (and probably more profitable) route from LA to San Diego, or LA to Las Vegas, to be built and prove the viability of such a system.
  • Farmer’s Field – If anyone could bring an NFL team to Los Angeles and redevelop a huge section of downtown with a stadium and other venues it would be AEG, and most of the approval for this $1.2 billion project is in place. However, with no NFL team ready to move, the continued redevelopment of downtown Los Angeles is on indefinite hold, and in the interim parking lots and unused office buildings fill an area that should be a centerpiece of the LA area.

I’ve always been a big nerd when it comes to huge construction projects, and these four projects are particularly exciting ones since they all have the potential to dramatically change the regions in which they are built.

The Future is Now

Posted from Livermore, California at 10:51 pm, February 27th, 2014

Two notes about two of my favorite companies:

  • Tesla Motors announced a bit more about their proposed “gigafactory” this week, which (if built) will produce as many lithium ion batteries in a single, massive US plant as were produced in the entire world in 2013. They will be partnering with established battery manufacturing firms, giving them the necessary know-how and experience to make this happen, and making it possible that a component that we take for granted as coming from Asia could suddenly be produced primarily in the US. What’s more, by bringing production in-house Tesla foresees significant economic advantages, and I suspect that they will work hard to innovate in battery technology and thus quickly drive down the cost and improve the efficiency of their most important component. Longer term, Tesla Motors might follow Apple Computer in dropping the second half of its name as the company gains the ability to produce massive battery packs that could be tied to the electric grid to provide large-scale energy storage, thus revolutionizing the electrical grid in as significant a way as what Edison and Nikola Tesla did at the turn of the century.
  • Meanwhile, Spacex will be launching another rocket to the International Space Station in mid-March. While they have seemingly made the once-unthinkable task of private rocket launches seem almost mundane, this launch will be noteworthy for having landing legs attached to the first stage. The plan is to try to “soft land” the rocket into the ocean as a test, with the goal of controlling things sufficiently that the rocket can eventually be flown back to the pad and re-used. Spacex has already reduced launch costs to almost one-third of what their competitors charge, but if they can create a truly reusable rocket then costs will plummet (think of the difference in costs of air travel if we only used each plane for a single flight) and an age of space exploration that rivals the journeys of European explorers after the Middle Ages could conceivably begin.

It is of course entirely possible that either of these companies could fail in their efforts, but it’s not hyperbole to say that if they each meet their goals that they will change the world as we know it in very dramatic ways. It’s a fun time to be alive.

More Reason for Optimism

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:20 pm, October 30th, 2013

I wrote about rat eradication efforts on South Georgia Island back in March. While it is too soon to know for sure what the result of that effort will be (note: things look really good so far), an older effort is worth examining.

Rat Island, a ten square mile island in the Aleutian Islands, has had to be renamed.

Rats arrived on the island during a shipwreck in 1780, and since that time they have wiped out nearly all of the native bird life. In 2008 efforts were made to remove rats from the island, and today a once silent island is described as “…hardly recognizable among the cacophony of birds calling everywhere; it’s alive with bird fledglings – teals, eiders, wrens, sparrows, eagles, peregrine falcons, gulls, sandpipers.

As of today there have been over 1100 successful removals of invasive species from islands, including 500 rat removals, worldwide. I’ve seen firsthand how removal of invasive species impacts the native plants and animals in the Galapagos and on the Channel Islands, and hopefully some day I’ll get to see the results on South Georgia.

We live in a world where news about nature always seems to be negative, but there is reason for optimism. Invasive species removal continues on other islands, governments are beginning to look to things like dune, wetland, and floodplain restoration as a cost-effective way to combat flooding, obsolete dams are being torn down to increase fish stocks, and numerous other positive developments are going on around the world. Not all of the news is good, but there is definitely reason to think that the outlook for our future isn’t as bleak as the news might lead us to believe.

Giving Immunity Necklaces to Legislators

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:30 pm, August 31st, 2013

I enjoy following politics, and enjoy looking back at old journal entries about political issues, but I also try to avoid writing too much about politics in this journal since it’s a subject that tends to evoke a visceral reaction in a lot of people. People have strong opinions on a lot of subjects, but politics and religion seem to be the two subjects where differences of opinion too often lead to arguments rather than discussions.

That caveat aside, this journal entry is a hopefully non-controversial, and very random, brainstorm of one possible way to address the fact that Congress seems to be making a mess of things. It’s not really a viable solution, but is a fun thought experiment that might generate further (civil) discussion on how to improve the current system.

Some background

The upcoming deadlines for passing a budget (important!) and raising the debt limit (much, much, MUCH more important!) are two highly visible instances where Congress seems to be unable to do even its most basic job. After reading this Josh Barro article I’m not as worried that Congress will fail to raise the debt limit and thus plunge us back into economic chaos similar to 2008, but the fact that one has to worry whether the US government will endanger the US economy is a sign of significant problems with the current system. Our Congress should be an example of the best and brightest minds coming together to do great things, rather than a collection of angry people fighting with one another while barely managing to keep the system functional.

As an engineer, any time there is a problem I wonder how it could be fixed. Following standard engineering practices, the first thing to do is to identify the primary source of the problem. After not-nearly-enough thought, I would posit that the US Constitution did a great job of building in checks and balances to our system of government, but it failed to account for political parties, much less a two-party system that incentivizes “supporting the team” over focusing on the merits of specific issues. There are other issues (money in politics, difficulties in scaling representative democracy for a nation that has grown hundreds of times larger, etc), but a very strong argument can be made that it is the tribalism of the two-party system that is most often the impediment to a smooth-running legislative process.

The Ryan Plan

To solve this issue, some reward would need to be introduced to ensure that the most effective, respected lawmakers are focused first and foremost on making the government run well, and that they are rewarded more for being good legislators than they are for being good party members. Note that while elections are supposed to fulfill that purpose, unfortunately our system is heavily impacted by voter apathy, the influence of money, name recognition, and other factors that have little to do with a legislator’s competency. Since the premise of this journal entry is that any option is open for discussion, and reminding anyone still reading that I haven’t had a ton of time to think this through, I offer a plan that allows the best legislators to face re-election less often. This plan is very loosely inspired by another dysfunctional tribal system: that of the TV show Survivor.

Proceeding from the premise that the incentives for lawmakers are too far skewed towards promoting their party interests, any solution must provide an even greater incentive for putting aside party interests in cases where they conflict with the national interests. Since politicians are most interested in their own re-election, why not take a page out of Survivor and its “immunity” challenges and reward the most effective lawmakers with another term without having to face re-election? In both Congress and Survivor, what individuals fear most is being voted off the island, and thus immunity from ejection is the biggest incentive one can possibly offer.

How it would work:

First, some broad principles. This proposal should be created in a way that ensures legislators still have to go before voters, but it would allow the most effective legislators to do so less often. Second, it needs to be structured in such a way that “most effective” really does mean legislators who do the best job of legislating, rather than simply rewarding those with the longest tenure or highest party rank; in the same way that rankings are developed for schools, doctors, and myriad other things, we should be able to identify and reward the best lawmakers. With those disclaimers out of the way, here are some rough thoughts on how this proposal could work:

  • Each election cycle a non-partisan office (similar to the CBO) would be responsible for creating a nomination list of the most effective legislators, with the list to include 30% of the legislators up for re-election, divided in proportion to party. As an example, for the 2014 election that would mean:
      Democrats up for re-election Democrats to be nominated Republicans up for re-election Republicans to be nominated
    House 201 201 * 0.3 = 60 234 234 * 0.3 = 70
    Senate 21 21 * 0.3 = 6 14 14 * 0.3 = 4

    Factors to consider when developing this list might include things like the legislator’s effectiveness in passing legislation, the legislator’s approval ratings in their district, their ability to find innovative solutions to legislative problems, etc.

  • From those candidates identified by the non-partisan office, each house of Congress would then be responsible for narrowing down the list by a further one-third (representing 20% of the legislators up for re-election), again in proportion to party.
      Democrats up for re-election Democrats exempt from re-election Republicans up for re-election Republicans exempt from re-election
    House 201 201 * 0.2 = 40 234 234 * 0.2 = 46
    Senate 21 21 * 0.2 = 4 14 14 * 0.2 = 3

    The final list would need to be a compromise arrived at by both parties, and would need to pass with a two-thirds majority to ensure there was broad support from both parties. This process would ensure that the parties still had some say in approving or rejecting individuals that were of particular interest.

  • A Senator could not be exempt from re-election for two election cycles in a row, so even the best Senator would still have to face re-election each twelve years. A House member could not be exempt from re-election for three election cycles in a row, so a stellar House member would still face re-election every six years.
  • A recall process could be set up for cases where voters in a district were unhappy with this process, although the need for a recall should be very, very rare if the non-partisan office did its job correctly.

There are clear holes in this proposal, and the logistical challenges of trying to implement it make it almost impossible – a Constitutional amendment would be needed, and undoubtedly groups would complain about reducing the “voice of the people” – but if it was implemented it would lessen the reward for legislators who merely complain the loudest, and give legislators a chance to actually earn re-election by building coalitions to get solutions implemented. As a side benefit, the best legislators would need to spend less time fundraising and campaigning, and could instead focus on doing their jobs as lawmakers. With less need to focus on fundraising, this approach might also help to address some of the issues related to money in politics, although any such impact would likely be limited and would probably be better addressed via legislation.

This proposal is just a random idea that occurred to me while trying to come up with a third journal entry topic, and was a fun way to engage in political discussion while (hopefully) not offending anyone’s sensibilities. I’d be interested in other crazy ideas that people might have, and will offer two bonus points for anyone who can link their idea with a popular TV show or movie, or three bonus points if the movie is Forrest Gump. Meanwhile, unless October comes and the debt ceiling isn’t raised, this should be my last political post for a while and I’ll return to writing journal entries about bobcats and Steve Martin.