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

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.

A Journal Entry About SPACESHIPS!!!!

Posted from Culver City, California at 11:50 am, June 30th, 2013

It’s not a secret that I think Elon Musk’s three companies (SpaceX, Tesla Motors and Solar City) are three of the most exciting businesses out there, and that each is likely to radically change the world for the better. Enough has been written about Tesla lately, but two items of great excitement with respect to SpaceX haven’t gotten a ton of attention.

First is their efforts towards a more reusable rocket. As Elon Musk has put it, space travel today is comparable to airline travel if you had to throw away the plane after each trip – most of the reason that space launches are so expensive is that you either don’t get the vehicle back after launch (most rockets), or when you do it takes so much work to get it back into flight-worthy condition that there isn’t any cost savings (the space shuttle). SpaceX originally planned on recovering their rockets in the ocean using parachutes, but when that proved infeasible they moved to a vertical takeoff and landing model. Here’s a video of a test of SpaceX’s ten story take-off and landing vehicle rising 250 meters into the air, then landing vertically. They’ll be testing this system on actual rockets returning from space starting later this year, with a goal of being able to reliably land and re-use the rocket in a few years time.

Second, they are planning on a test launch of their new Falcon Heavy vehicle in the coming year. If you need to put 117,000 pounds into low earth orbit, this will be the only vehicle that can do it, and combined with its lower launch costs could create all sorts of new options for satellites (for comparison, the Delta IV Heavy is the current largest rocket on the market, and it can carry around 50,000 pounds). Even more exciting, this will be the first rocket since the Saturn V moon rocket with that amount of power.

It’s sad that after advancing from airplanes to moon rockets in under two decades our exploration of space has seemed to stagnate for fifty years, but it’s hugely exciting to be on the precipice of another major evolution of travel beyond the planet’s atmosphere.

California Has the Things

Posted from Culver City, California at 12:34 pm, June 1st, 2013

For no particular reason (aside from the fact that it’s the end of the month and I’m one entry short of the three-a-month goal), here’s a random sampling of places that make California so extraordinary:

  • Death Valley Most places that have “death” in the name probably don’t deserve it, but this one most-assuredly does. That said, visiting outside of the summer months is awesome – Badwater Basin is an expanse of salt flats like no where else, the surrounding mountains rise to over ten thousand feet in elevation, and the rock at lower elevations is a rainbow of mineral-stained artistry. Visiting the backcountry requires traversing roads and terrain that make you wish you had an extra two feet of ground clearance and rock climbing gear. And around each corner is something surprising, ranging from giant craters to dry lakes to remote signposts decorated with teakettles.
  • Big Sur It is doubtful whether anyone has ever put together a list of “prettiest roads in America” that didn’t include Highway 1 along the Big Sur Coast. Seacliffs are always scenic, but then you also get redwoods, sea otters, millions of birds, raging oceans, and a road not meant for those prone to car sickness.
  • The Salton Sea. The first time I visited this engineering debacle I was shocked to discover how bizarre it was. Several years later when I returned with Audrey she remarked that she was shocked that it was “exactly as weird as you described”. Ghost towns consisting of 1960s vacation homes, a stinking toxic lake filled with huge numbers of birds, and scattered human populations that seem reminiscent of a Mad Max movie. PLUS, it’s 120 degrees in the summer, so you get to take in the scenery while slightly delirious from heatstroke.
  • The Sierra Nevadas Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park are the two most obvious highlights, but Highway 395 along the Eastern Sierra passes by the massively-odd Mono Lake, travels past the highest mountain in the lower-48 states, and then lets you out next to the home of Virgin Galactic and an airplane graveyard.

There is much more – the Redwoods, Mount Lassen volcano, the random roads that traverse the area around Mount Shasta, Joshua Tree, Monterey, San Francisco Bay, the wildlife refuges hidden throughout the Central Valley, etc, etc. Overall, not too shabby of place to have settled down.

Brown pelican in La Jolla

For a photographer of limited skill looking for birds to “stand still and look pretty”, La Jolla is a top-notch destination.

Badwater Salt Flats in Death Valley

Taken during a road trip in 2005 after an unusually wet winter, the salt flats were particularly crusty and other-planet-like.

I Don’t Get It

Posted from Culver City, California at 11:39 pm, May 27th, 2013

This journal entry is a rant. Posts about mastodons and tar pits will return in the future, but those expecting stories of spaceships parked at donut shops might want to skip this entry.

For those still reading, Elon Musk recently tweeted the following:

It is unfortunate that climate change was brought to public attention by Al Gore, as it then became a “left wing” issue.

That tweet gets to the heart of something that is both saddening and frustrating about today’s discourse: a number of issues, many of which are very important, are now approached with the mentality of sports fans: “My team is right, your team sucks!” Just as with sports, individuals support “their side” and ignore the merits of the argument.

Consider Musk’s example of global warming: admitting (or denying) that climate change is a serious issue is a litmus test for the far left and far right; commentators on the right are constantly screaming that it is either a hoax or not caused by human activity, while on the far left you might think that anything less than the elimination of all fossil fuel usage is akin to Armageddon. However, looking at it from the standpoint of the scientific community, there is similar certainty that human produced greenhouse gases are heating up the planet at a dangerous rate as there is for theories such as the big bang or evolution. Meanwhile, saying that climate change is a problem that should be addressed will get a politician voted out of office on the right, while far left activists are chaining themselves to the White House gates over the construction of a single oil pipeline, and in the mean time not even a minimal amount of action is taken to mitigate something that will have serious negative future consequences.

Similarly, I’m convinced that ten years from now no one will buy a new car without debating whether or not that car should be electric. From an engineering standpoint (mechanical engineering grad here!) electric cars are undeniably better technology. Consider:

  • Battery technology today allows a range of 300 miles, and that technology is improving at about eight percent each year.
  • Maintenance on electric cars is minimal – no oil changes, no belts or hoses, no transmission, no emission system.
  • Electric engines are approximately three times more efficient than gas engines.
  • The driving experience in electric cars is vastly better – you have full torque immediately, offering a ridiculously fast acceleration.
  • Electric cars have no emissions – the smog and related pollution issues of cities like LA will diminish significantly with a move to electric vehicles.

However, with Romney and much of the right wing having labeled Tesla Motors as a “loser” and an example of an Obama “failure” during the campaign, any mention of Tesla is now followed by comments about how the company is a beneficiary of “crony capitalism”, is merely building a toy for the rich, and will be bankrupt any day now. This, despite the fact that Tesla repaid its government loan (issued under a Bush administration program) nine years early, was funded solely with private money for its first seven years, is one of the few new manufacturing ventures in the US, is the first successful new American car company in several generations, has always planned for a mass-market ($30,000) vehicle as part of their roadmap, and has built a car that literally has people cheering after test drives and has won awards from every automotive group that has reviewed it, including the highest score in Consumer Reports history, and Motor Trend Car of the Year. If we can’t support this example of American ingenuity, what has gone wrong in our discourse?

Other issues evoke similar reactions: nuclear power is supported on the right and opposed on the left despite studies that seem to indicate that use of nuclear power has saved lives. Environmental issues are now immediately dismissed as left-wing, although the vast majority of people support clean air, clean water, and a place for wildlife. The list of issues goes on and on: guns, GMOs, healthcare, taxes, immigration; all of these devolve into “my team versus your team”, despite the fact that there is clearly a huge amount of middle ground on which agreement (and action) is possible.

In spite of the seemingly grim atmosphere, things do tend to work out in the end, although given the state of rhetoric today it seems that we’re making it much, much harder to get to that end state than it needs to be.

Commitment

Posted from Boise, Idaho at 9:32 pm, April 15th, 2013

The very sad events at today’s Boston Marathon are cause for grieving, but to a greater extent people seem to be focusing on those who immediately rushed into the smoke to help, or on the fact that in the aftermath so many people donated to the Red Cross that their web site crashed, or on the commitment of the individuals who chose to run the grueling race. On the latter subject, Ezra Klein wrote an article that does a good job of capturing why the marathon is so inspiring entitled ‘If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon’:

My wife has been training for a marathon. She leaves the house early in the morning and runs for hours and hours. She comes home tired and sore. And then she does it again. And again. And again.

There’s no reason for her to do it. There’s no competition or payoff or award. It’s just a quiet, solitary triumph over the idea that she couldn’t do it, and it all happens before I even wake up.

It’s thoughts like these that provide hope in spite of tragedies. The runners in a marathon are a case study in human inspiration: yes, running 26 miles is impressive, but the reason to cheer each finisher is as much about the days or years of effort that lead up to that accomplishment, and the idea that any human being who is willing to dedicate themselves to the task can complete such a mind-boggling feat.

A friend of mine in LA, Arkady, not only finished the 50 mile Comrades Marathon through the mountains around Capetown, but was in the top 15% of competitors. Several years before, this same ironman was 80 pounds heavier with 40% body fat, and made the decision to change his life. That single commitment, revisited day after day after day over many years, is what people celebrate when Arkady finishes a race, and is what they were celebrating as he finished (safely) in Boston today.

Another friend, Angela, decided one day that she wanted to run a marathon, and started out by running around the block once. The next day she ran around the block twice, and before long she was carrying a wooden box of matches with her and transferring them from one hand to another to keep track of her laps. Rather than stopping at the marathon, she trained for the world’s toughest race, the 135 mile Badwater Ultramathon through Death Valley in the summer, and today is one of the very few people on the planet to have actually finished that race. That seemingly-impossible accomplishment started out with an average person simply making the decision to do something extraordinary, and then getting out each day to put in the required work over a period of years to make the impossible possible.

Sport is about incredible human accomplishments, but a key reason that we stand along the road and cheer during a marathon is because the athletes in the race show us that a completely normal person who simply makes the decision to commit each day to a task can do something amazing and thus prove that things that seemingly can’t be done are within anyone’s reach. The bombings today are a tragedy, but the fact that so many people are taking notice of good things in the world, and perhaps themselves making a decision to commit to do something inspiring, provides hope that even such a horrible evil can be a catalyst for a great deal of good to come.

Everything is Amazing

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:39 pm, March 28th, 2013

"’I had to sit on the runway for 40 minutes.’ Oh my god, really? What happened then, did you fly through the air like a bird, incredibly? Did you soar into the clouds, impossibly? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight and then land softly?…You’re sitting in a chair in the sky. You’re like a Greek myth right now."

–Louis CK

Given the opportunity to live in any time period in human history (live in, not just visit), right now seems like a pretty clear winner. Aside from the odd mental patient, no one wakes up each day wondering “is a barbarian horde going to invade my town and burn me alive?”. If you get a cut, or catch a cold, your friends don’t have to place bets as to whether or not you’ll be dead at the end of the week. Very seldom do we head out to the store worrying whether a wild animal will devour us during the journey.

If you have a question, the magical cell phone in your pocket will connect to millions of computers to find an answer. If you want to travel you can visit literally any corner of the earth in a matter of hours or days, and don’t have to worry that scurvy will cause your teeth to fall out along the way. Instead of each day wondering where our food and water will come from, the big concern is whether we’ve eaten too many delicious meals and will have to spend more time at a gym where we can mimic the physical exertion that our bodies have evolved over thousands of years to expect would be needed simply to stay alive.

When I get hungry, I can use my my phone (which has no wires) to call a local restaurant. Without doing anything other than reading numbers from a plastic card I can get them to bring me sushi, which has been caught from who-knows-where and brought fresh to the restaurant. The delivery person travels a couple of miles to my house over communally-maintained roads using a vehicle that runs on drops of a clear liquid at speeds of up to 100 miles an hour. I then return to my job, located in my kitchen, where my background music is any one of thousands of songs which are stored in digital format on my laptop. That job involves collaborating with dozens of people who are hundreds of miles away, each of us using computers to build something that exists only as bits of ones and zeros on a series of magnetic storage devices, something that thousands upon thousands of people will use each day to make transactions that total millions of dollars each year.

With some credit to Louis CK, we live in a time where everything is amazing. Of course, it would still be pretty awesome to pay a visit to the Renaissance, Ancient Rome, or pre-colonization America, but right now is very likely the best time in all of human history in which to live. Not convinced? Here’s a gallery of amazing photos, many of which were taken IN SPACE, that you can browse via the magical internet. Need more? Go to amazon.com and buy anything you can possibly think of just by typing in numbers from a plastic card. Still need more? Go to Google and have any question you can think of answered. Everything is amazing.

The Planet Mercury

The planet Mercury, located 96.6 million miles from Earth. Photographed by the Messenger spacecraft, a robot that traveled through space and then sent pretty pictures back to Earth at the speed of light.