Ryan's Journal

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

The Plan

Posted from Boise, Idaho at 6:35 pm, January 31st, 2013

This journal entry has gone through a few drafts. What started out as a retrospective on my changing goals in life (quick summary: at age five it was to become a superhero, and at age 37 I’m still trying to figure it out) turned to thoughts of how much of a legacy people actually leave. In thinking about this topic, it seems that a “legacy” is often evaluated based at least partially on luck. Consider someone like Steve Jobs – he was clearly a visionary, he obviously changed the world, and like almost any successful person this was due to a combination of hard work, determination, and intelligence. However, had he stayed at Reed College, or had his first venture into personal computing failed, the name “Steve Jobs” might mean nothing to us today. He undoubtedly still would have lived a notable life, but a man who is today universally revered as a visionary would not have been known to the world at large. In no way do I want to diminish the impact of someone like Apple’s former CEO, but it’s an interesting thought to realize that people you view as having “left a legacy” are often just one or two accomplishments away from relative obscurity.

If a lasting legacy requires at least a small amount of luck, it is also true that a far larger amount of perseverance, hard work, intelligence, and ability to seize opportunities is required. Thus, while it might be a disappointment to my five year old self to discover that his older counterpart lives a happy but relatively un-notable life, the older version of that superhero-wannabe is able to take some pride in still trying to achieve great things, and still making an effort to leave a positive mark on the world. Simple math shows that most people will not make a significant impact on humanity, but it is only those who continue to strive that have any chance of successfully doing so.

Election 2012

Posted from Culver City, California at 5:38 pm, November 11th, 2012

While politics is a bit of a dangerous subject to bring up in a public forum these days, it would be a shame not to record a journal entry for posterity about the election, so here are some (hopefully) non-partisan thoughts on the recent election. The comments link is available for anyone who would like to berate me, berate the parties, or add their own thoughtful and nuanced musings.

  • Obama won the electoral college 332-206 and the popular vote 51-48. While this is a big win relative to recent Presidential elections, pundits who are predicting a permanent Republican minority due to demographic changes might want to tone it down – if merely two voters out of every hundred had a change of heart the storyline would instead be about the failings of the Democratic party, and as the once-solidly Democratic Southern states demonstrate, demographic groups can completely flip their party alignment over time.
  • In a story that isn’t getting much press, the Democrats shocking gained two Senate seats in a year in which they had 23 seats up for re-election (vs 10 for Republicans), increasing their Senate majority from 53-47 to 55-45 and winning in places like South Dakota, Missouri, Montana and Indiana. As a result, it seems much more likely that the Democrats will now be more confident about their odds of keeping the Senate in 2014 (when they have six seats up in states that will be very difficult to retain), and thus will change Senate rules to limit use of the filibuster, thereby making it much easier to confirm Presidential nominees and bring bills to the floor for discussion. While the ability to filibuster a vote (ala Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) is unlikely to be changed, filibustering every motion to move a bill forward will likely soon be a thing of the past.
  • The following issues that affect people on a day-to-day basis are now almost certain to happen as a result of this election: Obamacare is going to be fully implemented, EPA fuel efficiency rules (fleet averages of 54.5 mpg by 2025) and efforts to limit CO2 emissions will continue, tax rates on income over $250,000 are going up, and the Supreme Court will not become more conservative.
  • On a less-certain note, Republicans have split over immigration in the past – George W. Bush pushed for immigration reform in order to attract Hispanic voters, while Mitt Romney was in favor of self-deportation as a play for Republican base voters. Based on recent statements, Republicans seem to have taken the election results to mean that the pro-immigration voices in the party were right, so it would be a good bet that comprehensive immigration reform becomes law by 2014.
  • Andrew Sullivan made the argument that those who categorized this election as a choice between freedom and tyranny would be well-served by re-evaluating their assumptions (this argument applies to both sides). To be very clear: neither Obama, nor George W. Bush before him, want to destroy America. The two sides simply differ on policy and the role of government, and those who choose to demonize either side as evil or anti-American make it much more difficult for the parties to work together since there is no way to justify compromising or finding common ground with someone who actually wants to destroy the country.
  • Finally, despite wild speculations from various pundits, for the second Presidential election in a row Nate Silver and his poll aggregation model was the one who most accurately predicted the election results. To this engineering grad, no matter which side wins, vindication of a math and statistics approach over hand-waving and demagoguery is a good thing.

2032

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:00 pm, October 24th, 2012

Despite being horrid at it, journal entries that make predictions about the future are some of my favorites to write. Thus, in keeping with a long and embarrassing tradition of ignoring better judgment and making uninformed guesses about the future, here are some thoughts about trends that might develop over the next twenty years.

To provide some perspective, think back twenty years to 1992. At that time most people didn’t know what the internet was. Pagers were the best way of contacting someone and cell phones were still almost a decade away from becoming ubiquitious. CGI was still a rarity in film, and it would be another year before Jurassic Park would stun the world with dinosaurs that were not filmed using robots or stop motion. Global warming was still an obscure theory that only a handful of climate scientists (and Al Gore) had even heard about. Even though predictions about today’s world made in 1992 would have likely been as wrong as the flying car and nuclear-powered dishwasher predictions made in 1950s science magazines, it’s still fun to make an attempt to speculate on developments over the next twenty years.

Energy

Two specific developments might vastly change energy: batteries and decentralized power generation. Currently energy can be generated, but it is hugely difficult to store efficiently and thus must be used immediately. With batteries becoming approximately eight percent more efficient each year, and assuming my math is correct, in twenty years they’ll be about five times more efficient and likely significantly cheaper. Today’s best batteries can power a car for 300 miles, so in twenty years that same battery would theoretically allow 1500 miles of range; with that kind of storage almost all non-electric motors (which are less efficient) would become obsolete, and more generally energy would move from something that must be produced on-demand into an entirely new paradigm. In addition, renewable sources like solar are also improving rapidly. Today, in places with lots of sun, solar is cost-competitive with grid electricity. Assuming a 4-5x improvement in the next two decades, combined with efficient batteries that can store energy for usage when the sun isn’t shining, and suddenly it would be more economical for individual households and businesses to have solar panels than to not have them. If that happens then usage of decentralized power skyrockets, and reliance on huge, centralized coal, oil and gas power plants (and the corresponding pollution they generate) diminishes greatly. As a wildcard, at some point (be it in ten years or a hundred) research into fusion and superconductors will yield breakthroughs that will result in essentially limitless, super-cheap, pollution-free energy.

Bionics

Bionics is something that sounds scary until you realize it is already happening. Today people think nothing of pacemakers or hearing aids, and almost everyone has a cell phone that they carry at all times to keep connected to everyone else. The process of melding humans and machines is already well underway, and will only continue. In the next twenty years technology will probably become available to make bionics even more personal, including capabilities such as the ability to project a screen directly onto the retina, thus moving the functionality of a cell phone from a device in your hand to something that is actually inside of your head. With increased processing and networking speeds, having an infinite amount of data about the world projected directly into your field of vision will no doubt revolutionize how people interract with one another.

“Thinking” computers

When a person is trying to solve a problem they gather all available information, analyze it, weigh things appropriately, and then make a choice. If that choice turns out to be incorrect they can gather more data, change how existing data is weighed, or otherwise modify their thinking to make a better decision. Currently computers are far better than humans when it comes to analyzing input given a specific set of rules and data, but they aren’t good at modifying those rules or gathering more data; that’s going to change at some point in the future, and when computers can begin analyzing and solving complex problems it will have massive repercussions for quickly advancing knowledge in fields ranging from economics to politics, and especially in all facets of scientific research.

Medical advances

People often lament that medicine hasn’t cured any major disease since eradicating polio, but the medical field may be on the verge of huge advances using stem cells, or cells with properties similar to stem cells. Today if you have nerve damage (such as a spinal cord injury) there is little or nothing that can be done about it, but stem cells offer the potential to simply use your body’s existing genetic blueprints to “fix” the damage. Similar processes could be possible for creating new tissues, thus eliminating the need for organ or blood donations. These breakthroughs would affect all manner of other health and medical issues, so assuming the technology continues to advance, everything from joint pain to amputation could become as anachronous as polio is today.

I should be better than this

Posted from Culver City, California at 11:48 pm, July 30th, 2012

I should be a better person than to write this post, but I’m one short of my three-posts-a-month goal, I get a ton of these sorts of requests, and I’m not in line for sainthood. So here goes – I received the following email today:

From: Elise Pearson <EPearson@vacationroost.com>
Subject: Question About Your Site
Date: Mon, 30 Jul 2012 16:46:37 +0000

Good Afternoon,

My name is Elise and I manage web relationships for a mountain reservation travel agency called Vail Destinations. I am trying to get the word out about our business, and would love to have it be through a blog like yours. We are flexible with the opportunity, but have found that most people opt to:

1. Have us write a unique guest blog post for you and have you post it yourself
2. Have you write an honest review of our site, what you think

In exchange we are offering a $20 Starbuck or Target Gift Card. Please let us know if this is something you are interested in. If you have any questions you can contact me at (801) 559-3256.

Elise Pearson | Online Marketing Coordinator
P: 801.559.3256 | epearson@vacationroost.com

I do love Starbucks, and unlike many people who may take Ms. Pearson up on her offer, I have actually visited Vail (in December 2010), so I’ll go with option #2 and write an honest review of what I think, taking special care to ensure that my review has maximal online marketing value. I can already taste my lattes and scones…

Vail is a truly amazing place with a vast number of lodging options, so visitors should have plenty of choices. Companies in Vail can attract customers by offering great accommodation, excellent prices, or by employing shady and dishonest attempts to artificially inflate their results in search engines. Even though I’ve never used their travel portal, it seems unlikely that Vail Destinations and its parent company Vacation Roost would promote businesses that cheat customers, provide terrible customer service, or operate fraudulently. They have asked me to write a review for them sight unseen, but that does not imply they are engaging in manipulative online marketing, such as one sees with hotels whose rooms pose dangers of exposure to crabs, lice, fleas and STDs.

Since I have not actually used the Vail Destinations travel portal it is important to focus on what I can surmise from their unsolicited emails. At the same time as Ms. Pearson’s email arrived I also received several spam emails, including advertisements for escorts, pornography, and illegal drugs, but Vail Destinations and its parent company Vacation Roost are obviously very different from those internet scams. Also, while some might find it suspicious and unusual for a company to ask complete strangers to write about their business, what are the odds that they would rip-off travelers? Unfortunately I cannot recommend them without doing additional research, but clearly they would not want to pay for reviews like this one if they were just another crappy travel portal that should be avoided at all cost.

The Nature

Posted from Boise, Idaho at 7:35 pm, May 29th, 2012

This post started out as a brainstorm of “things that matter”, but morphed into one about positive developments in conservation. Apologies in advance if it feels a bit too tree-hugger-ish, but these sorts of things excite me and seem worth writing about from time-to-time.

I’m a longtime member and a big fan of the Nature Conservancy. The group started in 1951 as an organization that purchased land for conservation purposes, and as of 2009 the conservancy’s assets totalled over $5.64 billion with more than 119 million acres of land and 5,000 miles of rivers protected worldwide. Over the years, while continuing to buy and conserve land, the conservancy expanded its mission to include scientific research and partnerships with a huge variety of organizations, and today is known for its ability to find ways to bring together individuals who might otherwise be battling one another.

One early example of how the conservancy worked to bring together two very different groups is with ranchers. Historically environmentalists and ranchers haven’t been allies, despite the fact that most ranchers want to see their land kept natural and most environmentalists would far prefer a ranch to a subdivision. The Nature Conservancy wanted to maximize its conservation dollars, and so began experimenting with an arrangement known as “grass banking“, wherein they buy a ranch and allow neighboring ranchers to graze cattle on it in return for agreeing to manage their own lands more sustainably. Quoting a New York Times article on the practice: “A result is that the ranchers get more range than they could otherwise afford, and the conservancy protects more range than it could afford to buy.”

In contrast with the gloom and doom that seems to be the status quo for most of the environmental movement today, here are a small selection of conservancy projects and partnerships that provide reason for optimism:

  • Oyster reef restoration. Scientists have recently been paying more attention to the role that oyster reefs play in creating wildlife habitat. Compared to historic numbers oyster populations have crashed, and as a result the reefs that once protected shorelines and helped to filter sediments out of the water have disappeared in many places, resulting in water that is too murky for plant growth, waves that are stronger and cause more erosion, a smaller food supply for fish and birds, and a major degradation of the local ecosystem. The conservancy has thus been working to restore reefs in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic coast and has already seen noticeable improvement to shoreline wildlife habitat in project areas. In addition to wildlife, beneficiaries of this work include fisherman, who will enjoy improved fish spawning habitat, and land owners, who should see reduced damage from storms.
  • Floodplain restoration. After years of levee building and river straightening, floods today are often increasingly destructive since the entire output of a storm is now forced into a single, narrow channel, instead of being able to spread out in a wider area as would happen naturally. One of the conservancy’s areas of focus is in proving that by selectively removing levees, thus allowing a river to reconnect to portions of its historic floodplain, that flood damage can be reduced while simultaneously improving river health and wildlife habitat. In one example, during a flood in Mississippi when a river prematurely breached a levee that had been scheduled for demolition, the volume of water that entered the adjacent floodplain almost immediately reduced the water level in flooded towns downstream. The hope is that the conservancy’s work will spur government to reconsider floodplains as tools for combating flooding, while simultaneously helping restore natural ecosystems.
  • Migratory bird protection. While areas of high wildlife concentration are obvious targets for protection, the conservancy also began looking into other threats to wildlife. For migratory birds, having “stopover” points during migration is a key to ensuring survival, so the conservancy identified and purchased several sites along the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere that were shown to be important rest stops for birds making long journeys. Even though the species in question might be there only briefly, having places to rest and refuel during migration proved to be vital to the species’ long-term viability.

Oyster reef restoration in Alabama.

Dinner with Teddy, Carl and Jesus

Posted from Culver City, California at 6:37 pm, April 10th, 2012

The question that was posed: you can have dinner with three people who had a major influence on you. Who do you invite? While the answer is likely to change depending on mood, age, or time of day, here are my current choices:

  • Carl Sagan. If there is anyone who better encapsulates science, spirituality, and an ability to communicate, I couldn’t think of them. The opportunity to eat with someone who could explain details of the cosmos in understandable ways, who could expound on how the scientific wonders of the universe made him believe all the more in God, and who was infinitely curious about human nature and evolution, are all things that would make him a great dinner partner.
  • Jesus. I suspect Jesus would be on a lot of people’s lists, but for different reasons. It is questionable whether anyone has had a greater influence on philosophy and morality, and the opportunity to hear his thoughts about the world today would be a revelation in all senses of the word. Whether or not the real Jesus would have a direct line to the Almighty or simply be a teacher with profound views, spending a meal with him would be the most enlightening experience imaginable.
  • Teddy Roosevelt. America’s greatest conservationist President, the man who made the Panama Canal a reality, and an adventurer whose hunting and outdoor exploits are still revered. While he did a number of things that were worth questioning, a dinner with Teddy would be filled with stories and wisdom, and one that was sure to inspire.

The comments link is below – coming up with a list of three is a fun thought exercise, and I’d be very interested to hear what type of folks others would choose.

Reason for Optimism

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:05 pm, March 19th, 2012

The sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia is one of the world’s most incredible places, and one that I’ve been fortunate enough to visit three times:

As amazing as it is today, South Georgia was once the most important seabird nesting site in the world, home to over 100 million nesting birds. The arrival of whalers and the introduction of rats to the island changed everything; birds that nest on the ground stand little or no chance against rats, and today it is mostly only the small offshore islands surrounding South Georgia that support large bird colonies.

South Georgia’s future will change dramatically this year. After a successful test run last year, 2013 and 2014 will see the largest rat eradication effort ever undertaken, with the hope of restoring South Georgia to its pre-whaling glory. The effort will be seven times larger than the largest eradication program previously undertaken, which was on Campbell Island in New Zealand.

While there is a lot to be discouraged about in the world today, particularly in the field of conservation, there are also a lot of good things going on. In the case of South Georgia, to know that the natural environment will be even more pristine in the future is a truly rare thing that is extraordinarily exciting to consider.

Grey-headed albatross, South Georgia Island

Grey-headed albatross on South Georgia Island in 2004. This bird was completely calm the entire time I sat with it, an experience that remains one of my favorite moments in life.

Real Estate for Dummies

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:08 am, February 12th, 2012

Things I think I’ve learned while buying my first house:

  • Spend time looking. It took several months for us to get an understanding of what neighborhoods we liked and what prices were fair. Being able to know where to look, and knowing what kind of house you can get for a specific price in each neighborhood is a huge advantage.
  • Use the internet. We got on Redfin early on, but during the first few months would also occasionally just follow signs to open houses. The latter approach isn’t productive – filter the houses before you go out.
  • Know the budget. We set a range, and only considered houses that were at the top of the range when we were really excited about them. This approach helped us categorize our interest – we automatically eliminated anything too expensive, and had to justify pricier homes by asking what feature of the house made it worth the extra price.
  • Be ready to move fast. We put an offer on our new house the day after the open house, and even moving that quickly we were competing with two other offers. Get pre-qualified, and if you find something you like jump on it.
  • Follow up. Audrey did a lot of follow-up with the agents, the escrow company, and others once we’d put down an offer, and it made a big difference – with different companies involved and a million things to do there are going to be issues that get missed, and it’s far easier to fix a problem earlier than doing so after it becomes a crisis.
  • Expect problems. With many documents we’ve had to send them, and then re-send them, and then send them again. Apparently with so many files to keep track of things get lost, don’t go to the right person, or need clarification, so expect to do a lot of things twice.
  • Title insurance is a scam. Just sayin’. Any insurance that pays out just 4.3% in claims of what it takes in as premiums is bogus, but the mortgage company won’t let you buy a house without it.

Neosho

Posted from Culver City, California at 2:55 pm, January 28th, 2012
Lex Luthor: Miss Teschmacher, when I was six years old my father said to me…
Miss Teschmacher: “Get out.”
Lex Luthor: Ha ha. Before that. He said, “Son, stocks may rise and fall, utilities and transportation systems may collapse. People are no damn good, but they will always need land and they’ll pay through the nose to get it! Remember,” my father said…
Otis: “… land.”
Lex Luthor: Right.

After sitting out the real-estate boom of the 2000s Audrey and I started house hunting around March 2010. Twenty-two months and a ridiculous number of open houses later, we’re now seventeen days away from moving into our new place. Here are the gory details for those who are into such things:

  • We’re still in Culver City, although we’ll be four miles from our current location in the weird sliver of Culver City that juts west towards Marina del Rey.
  • 2 bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms, 2,100 square feet. The square footage includes a giant detached office that will be Audrey’s new shop and music space, but does not include a really cool screened-in back area.
  • There is room for at least 3-5 bird feeders, and I’m also planning on reading up on how to make the backyard attractive to owls, hawks, and other badass flying things.
  • The former owner took good care of the place, so aside from installation of a new furnace and air-conditioning unit we’re hoping not to be going too much deeper into debt after moving in.
  • We’ll be moved in by the end of February.
  • Our mortgage rate is awe-some. I don’t know from real estate, but buying when mortgage rates are at their lowest level since the 1950s seems like a winning bet.
  • Date and time of the inevitable housewarming party is still TBD; first the bird feeders, then the parties.


View Larger Map

The approximate location of the new casa (actual location hidden to prevent stalking by groupies). The new place is significantly closer to the water, which is great for going to the beach and bad for escaping tsunamis.

Mental Health Break

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:36 pm, December 18th, 2011

Tomorrow morning I’ll be doing my thirty second commute down the stairs to my desk, spend the day working from home, and then fly to Boise for three days onsite at Bodybuilding.com. Another thirty second commute workday on Friday finishes the week and begins two weeks of vacation time.

The vacation plans are unknown – I’m heading to the Bay Area for Christmas, then doing a road trip of some sort, destination unknown. With almost no snow in the mountains so far this winter the Sierras look like a tempting option, but who knows – the goal is mostly just to try and get out of the daily routine that work imposes and remember that life is about more than earning a paycheck; aimlessly roaming around California seems like a good way to accomplish that.

The other plan for the vacation is to invest some time in my various side projects. Self-employment has provided some great opportunities to work from home with flexible hours, but I still dream about someday being my own boss, making a living off of an idea of my own.

So that’s the plan for the end of 2011 and the start of 2012; hopefully it will be a good way to see the old year out and usher the new year in.

Blame the Legos

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:41 pm, November 17th, 2011

I like the idea of building things – when I was a kid I spent hundreds of hours with Legos, in college I studied engineering, and today I waste inordinate amounts of time reading about ongoing engineering projects. Thus, because I think it’s interesting, and because I know that my mom will still love me even if everyone else is chased away by these geeky journal entries, here’s a rundown of some of the cooler projects going on today:

  • Electric Cars. Partly because of my old roommate I’ve been a follower of Tesla Motors since the beginning, but even without a personal connection it’s hard not to be excited about electric vehicles. The internal combustion engine hasn’t really changed much in 100 years, but in the next ten years a system that is smaller, more efficient, and requires far less maintenance will be a viable option. As batteries continue to improve it’s not inconceivable that we could eventually see cars that get a thousand miles to a charge, making today’s concerns about charging times and running out of electricity a non-factor and causing future generations to wonder why we were willing to deal with tailpipe emissions, gas stations, oil changes, and noisy motors.
  • The Bay Bridge East Span. Caveat: building a huge bridge with so many stakeholders is a recipe for massive cost overruns, as this project showed. Still, once a design was approved and lawsuits had run their course (the project was proposed twenty-two years ago in 1989) the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge ended up being an impressive feat of engineering. Opening in 2013 at a cost of $6.3 billion, this bridge will be two miles long, carry 270,000 cars a day, be capable of withstanding a magnitude 8.5 earthquake, last 150 years, and will be beautiful as well. Despite the crappy process that was required to actually get this bridge built, the end result is pretty spectacular.
  • New airplanes. The Boeing 787 just entered service after four years of delays, and while it may not look much different from today’s planes it’s hugely interesting under-the-hood: instead of aluminum much of the structure is carbon composites, it’s twenty percent more fuel efficient than its predecessor, and a variety of technical tweaks have gone into making it quieter and better at dealing with turbulence. The just-announced 737-MAX is a less-ambitious replacement for Boeing’s most popular model, with a planned fifteen percent improvement in fuel efficiency (amongst other changes) and a scheduled entry into service in 2017.
  • California High Speed Rail. While I’ll admit a fair amount of disappointment at how this project has been managed, the idea behind 220 mph trains linking California’s major cities is one that is about thirty years overdue. With new highways running between $2 and $16 million per lane-mile and road and airport congestion on the rise, high-speed passenger rail seems like an obvious solution, and one that the rest of the world is already implementing successfully. Hopefully California can get its act together and follow suit.
  • The Transbay Center. The Bay Area does a fairly good job with mass transit, but unlike New York City’s Grand Central Station there isn’t really a central transit hub. That changes in 2017 when a new terminal will open linking BART, MUNI, Caltrain, buses and (hopefully) high-speed rail.
  • Renewable Energy. While sadly the subject of renewable energy has become politicized of late, behind the scenes the technology has gotten really, really interesting. Solar is at the point where even without subsidies it is economically competitive in areas with a lot of sun, and with efficiency continuing to improve one can imagine a future where rooftop solar installations de-centralize the power grid, causing less need for huge central power plants. There are wind turbine models that generate as much as five megawatts, orders of magnitude more than those built in the 1980s, and that power is produced at about one-fourth of the cost of those older turbines. Similarly, energy efficiency is something to be impressed by: looking at just one example, flat screen TVs today use sixty percent less power than those manufactured in 2006.
  • Space. NASA estimates that its next-generation rocket system will cost $97 billion. For about $800 million SpaceX has already built and launched two rocket models, with a third (the Falcon Heavy) planned for testing in 2013. SpaceX’s Falcon-9 rocket is already capable of delivering cargo to the space station, and if successful the Falcon Heavy would be the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V moon rocket. There’s no guarantee that SpaceX will be successful or that their costs won’t increase, but it’s nevertheless exciting to see the future of space returning to something more like what everyone imagined it would be back when America was putting men on the moon forty years ago.

The Holliday Plan

Posted from Culver City, California at 5:11 pm, October 25th, 2011

Everyone agrees that the country is currently a mess, but there doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus about how to fix things. So here’s the first-draft of the Holliday Plan, which is an if-somehow-tomorrow-I-was-given-the-ability-to-do-whatever-I-wanted thought exercise. Most of the ideas below originated elsewhere, but this brain dump encapsulates those that seem to make sense and that I would want to see implemented. This write-up came about mainly because it’s a subject that interests me, and I’d be interested people’s criticisms, alternatives, and mockery – the comments link is there for exactly that purpose.

The Economy

Getting the economy going would do many things – tax receipts are down $400 billion since 2007 [1] while spending on assistance programs such as unemployment insurance have sky-rocketed. As a result, in addition to the obvious benefit of simply having a better economy, improvement in the outlook would also make a huge dent in the budget deficit.

  1. Over 577,000 public sector jobs have been cut during the downturn [2]. While some trimming is a good thing, many of these jobs are teachers, police, and other important services. To combat this I’d send $500 billion to the states to use over the next three years however they saw fit, with a hope of reducing layoffs of essential personnel. While deficit spending isn’t a good thing, in a recession it seems like short-term debt is preferable to a longer term recession.
  2. Borrowing rates are at 1.5%, and with massive unemployment labor is the cheapest it’s been in years. I’d make $1 trillion available for infrastructure over the next three years, with 80% of that sent to the states to use on whatever infrastructure projects they wanted – roads, bridges, public transit, airports, etc. Infrastructure needs to be addressed eventually, so it makes sense to do it now when labor and borrowing are cheap and the economy is in need of jobs.
  3. Additional tax cuts, business incentives, mortgage restructuring, or other efforts would likely not be worth the costs. Individuals and businesses are saving money right now, so tax breaks will just go into savings rather than back into the economy. Similarly, mortgage restructuring and hiring incentives have thus far proven to have little actual effect.

The Debt

While in the short term the most important thing is improving the economy, over the long term, the US debt and budget deficits are the largest concern. Getting the annual budget into the black and reducing the national debt is an issue that needs to be urgently addressed.

  1. Expire the Bush tax cuts for those making over $100,000 starting in 2012. For much of the 1980s the top tax rate was around 50% [3], but today it’s 35% – I’d change that back to 39.6%, matching the rate in 2000. Taxes obviously suck, but this would raise approximately $2.7 trillion over ten years [4], and given that income for high earners has vastly outpaced that of the middle class for the past decade, tax rates appear to be unbalanced in favor of the rich.
  2. The defense department budget for 2010 is $663.8 billion – I would reduce that by 5% a year over the next ten years (adjusting for inflation), which would lead to a budget of $418 billion in 2022 (again, adjust for inflation). That’s still four times as much as the next biggest spender (China) budgets for its military [5], and at just five percent per year the reduction should be gradual enough to allow the military time to adapt. Assuming spending would otherwise have simply matched inflation, this saves $1.3 trillion over ten years ($6.6 trillion vs $5.3 trillion) and $250 billion every year thereafter. Defense is important, but the US doesn’t need to spend six times as much as its nearest competitor.
  3. The US spends 16% of GDP on health care, while most advanced countries are closer to 10% – Canada and the UK, which have government provided healthcare, spend 10.1% and 8.4%, respectively [6]. There seem to be a few specific things that cause the problem:
    • Lack of competition. Insurance is managed at the state level, creating fifty different bureaucracies. At the national level, the federal government does not negotiate drug prices for Medicare and does not allow individuals to buy drugs from other countries such as Canada.
    • Lack of price transparency. Since people with insurance simply get their health care covered or get a bill after payment, there is no incentive for them to choose more cost-effective treatments.
    • Ineffective use of resources. Prevention is cheaper than treatment, end-of-life care often exceeds what the patient would want due to lack of pre-planning, and there is no incentive for healthy living.
    • Lack of experimentation. People like Dr. Atul Gawande have demonstrated interesting ways of reducing costs while improving care, but the system is not set up to encourage these types of programs.

    The problem is too complex for anyone to know how best to address these issues, so given the chance to actually make a change as much informed advice as possible would be needed, but some possibilities should include:

    • Allow anyone to buy into Medicare (aka the public option). Anyone wanting private insurance could get it, but leverage the federal government’s buying power to lower costs for everyone else. Studies, as well as current costs, show that the private health insurance market isn’t operating with the efficiency and downward pricing pressures of most other private markets, so admit that and let the non-retired crowd take advantage of the government’s buying power.
    • Allow purchase of drugs from other countries, subject to existing laws on prescription medication and illegal substances. Similarly, allow the federal government to negotiate drug prices for Medicare.
    • Establish national insurance standards and let any state choose to either use their own standard OR to adopt the national standard, with the goal of allowing insurance companies to compete across state borders and to reduce administrative costs.
    • Encourage prevention. Allow health insurers to provide discounts similar to what auto insurance companies provide, such as discounts for staying within a certain weight range, discounts for getting regular checkups, discounts for immunizations, etc.
    • Create a special court to handle malpractice. While high-end estimates of the cost of malpractice are that it accounts for only three percent of total healthcare costs [7] (and note that much of that may be justified), making it simpler to get rid of frivolous cases in order to reduce abuse of the system should be a goal. The system should protect patients against negligence, but must also recognize that doctors generally do their best under difficult circumstances.
    • Encourage experimentation. This goal would be the most difficult to implement, but if a health care system can find ways to reduce costs while improving service there should be fewer barriers that would prevent them from doing so.

    While it’s impossible to put an exact savings amount on the above proposals, since 2010 federal health care spending was $1.1 trillion, and GDP is $14.1 trillion, just a ten percent improvement would save $110 billion annually in the budget and free up over a trillion dollars each year in the broader economy for other uses.

  4. All of the budget cutting deals over the past two years have focused on non-defense discretionary spending, which is nineteen percent of the total budget [8]. This portion of the budget includes everything from air traffic controllers to national parks to foreign aid to roads, and while there may be some room for more cuts, overall any additional savings would be insignificant when compared with the three items already mentioned.

Other Changes

Infrastructure needs repair, the government needs to work more efficiently, and other changes need to happen to make the US a better country.

  1. Implement a commission to reduce the size and scope of the federal government. Model it on the Base Realignment and Closure process which recommended military bases for closing. The goal would be to trim waste, eliminate duplication, and identify functions that are candidates for moving to the private sector, with the process repeated every three years.
  2. Implement a similar commission to recommend consolidation and simplification of existing federal laws. No one will deny that the system is too complex, but there doesn’t seem to be incentive for lawmakers to clean it up. If there are duplicative, outdated, or conflicting laws there should be a process to make things better. Hopefully as a side effect this process would also reduce the load on the judicial system while making things fairer for those without vast legal resources.
  3. Begin the process of simplifying the tax code. Gradually (over many years) eliminate all deductions, including charitable and mortgage, with corresponding decreases to tax rates to keep revenue levels the same. Similarly, gradually increase the capital gains rate until they are taxed like regular income. Complexity encourages cheating and fraud while making the system unfair to those without teams of accountants, but changing things too quickly would also cause economic harm to those who bought a home or invested based on existing tax law.
  4. Implement financial reforms with a goal of simplifying the current system. The financial industry should encourage investment rather than risk taking, so the Glass-Steagall Act should be reinstated so that banks are not also operating as investment brokerages (obviously, provide sufficient time to allow companies to divest). Commodity trading should be modified so that those actually taking ownership of goods are the focus of the market, rather than speculators who will never take physical possession of the commodity in question. Per-transaction fees should be implemented to increase the cost of high-volume, short-term trading while simultaneously funding regulators – day trading does no good for the country whereas long-term investment boosts economic growth.
  5. Increase the federal gas tax from 18.4 cents per gallon by five cents per year over the next four years (to 38.4 cents per gallon), and then increase it by the inflation rate each year after that. The tax would still be far lower than most European countries, and would increase revenue from the current $25 billion per year to about $55 billion per year. That money would then be used for infrastructure and energy investments – everyone is aware that infrastructure is crumbling, so there needs to be money available to improve it.
  6. Tie the minimum wage to inflation – if the minimum wage is supposed to provide a minimal standard of living then it should keep up with cost of living.
  7. Make narcotics policy a state issue rather than a federal issue. If California wants to legalize pot while Alabama wants smoking a joint to be a jailable offense, so be it. If Las Vegas decides that legalizing cocaine is the best way to manage a drug that is already widely used in that city, let them. Just as prohibition enabled organized crime without reducing alcoholism, the war on drugs has done almost nothing to reduce drug usage but done much to enrich gangs and other criminal elements; end it, reduce the associated crime and law enforcement costs, and allow the drug trade to be moved from the shadows to a place where it can be regulated.

The Political System

Currently just nine percent of people think Congress is doing a good job [9]. No one trusts politicians, good people don’t want to be involved in politics, and citizens think their elected officials have been bought by lobbyists. Obviously, something needs to change.

  1. Eliminate gerrymandering and have non-partisan commissions draw district borders. This isn’t something that can be done at the federal level, but if it was done it would be the single greatest step possible towards making the political system less polarized.
  2. Pass laws requiring that any individual or corporation that engages in political activity disclose their financial involvement, similar to the warnings about side effects that are required for prescription drug advertisements. If the Supreme Court says that a union or Karl Rove’s friends can spend millions for political advertising, let them, but make it very clear who the messenger is.
  3. Establish a precedent in Congress that changes to the House or Senate’s rules cannot go into effect for two years. This would reduce changes made for partisan gain, such as the “nuclear option“, but still encourage fixing particularly egregious abuses of rules, such as the current situation in the Senate where everything is filibustered.
  4. Allow internet voting. While there would obviously need to be safeguards put in place to make sure hackers couldn’t significantly affect voting and that votes were auditable, there should be no reason in the 21st century that someone should have to travel to a polling place, stand in line, and then physically mark a ballot in order to cast a vote. This change would give those with busy lives, particularly the non-retired crowd, no excuse for failing to vote, and would hopefully make the electorate more representative of the actual population.

Manly Destinations

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:12 pm, September 29th, 2011

Audrey has been doggedly helpfully posting potential journal entries on the fridge for the past month. While I’m reasonably certain that “The Dancing Lemurs of Madagascar” was suggested for her entertainment rather than as something to be taken seriously, she has also come up with some good ones, including this entry’s subject.

Growing up, there were four places that I most wanted to go to in the world, but the thought of actually seeing all of them in person seemed too surreal to ever be possible. However, at age thirty-five I’ve been lucky enough to not only have visited each of them, but to have done so multiple times:

  • Yellowstone National Park. America’s first national park seemed like the epitomy of the rugged West from the bygone days of explorers – big animals, jagged mountains, and an unimaginable array of thermal features. Midway through my teenage years Ma & Pa planned the annual family vacation around their eldest son’s dream, and the Holliday family visited Wyoming. The park met every expectation, and return visits were made in 1998, 2000, 2002, and most recently in 2009 with Audrey.
  • Alaska. While no one would know for sure, it wouldn’t be surprising if my dad had talked about taking his son to Alaska on the day I was born. From that point onwards he repeatedly announced that we were going to Alaska after I turned eighteen, and the intervening years saw him preparing for the trip. Then, in 1994, we stepped off of a plane in Anchorage and spent a month seeing the grizzlies and caribou of Denali, the tundra of Central Alaska, the eagles of southern Alaska, and other sights in one of the world’s wildest places. In 1999 the roles were reversed when I took him to Glacier Bay and we spent a week kayaking with whales, seals, wolves and glaciers. Finally, in 2002 the state was the scene of perhaps my most significant coming-of-age experience when I spent three months on the road, with two of those months spent in Alaska. There’s no doubt that this state will see future visits.
  • The Galapagos. It’s tough to imagine now, but until 1994 our household never had more than five TV channels (and barely that many when the rabbit ears were on the fritz) so nature documentaries on PBS had at least a twenty percent chance of being the best thing on TV. I don’t know how many of those programs featured the Galapagos, but the weird landscapes and fearless animals made an impression, and a decision was made to someday, somehow pay a visit to the islands. This future trip seemed so exotic – the islands are a speck in the middle of the Pacific – that the reality of being able to go there wasn’t something that truly seemed plausible. It was an unexpected revelation in 1999 to know that, while expensive, these remote islands could be the first major vacation destination of my post-college life. That first trip led directly to chartering a boat and visiting again in 2003 and 2006, and those two trips will likely be the most memorable vacations that I will ever be able to share with friends.
  • Antarctica. Most of my childhood possessions are now gone, but the February 1984 Ranger Rick magazine is still on the bookshelf. The winter “Antarctica” special edition grabbed my imagination as perhaps nothing else has since, and Antarctica became the place that I wanted to visit more than anywhere else on Earth. Anyone who has ever contemplated a journey to the bottom of the world is aware of the costs involved, so this trip was a dream that I couldn’t quite imagine as a reality. Then, in 2003, while sharing a house with JB Straubel, I mentioned the trip to him and he nonchalantly replied "You should just go, you’ve probably got enough saved". For whatever reason, that comment cut through any hesitation I had about the costs, and six months later I was on the deck of the M/V Polar Star looking at the most amazing landscape on the planet. Two more trips in 2004 and 2006 did nothing to lessen my enthusiasm for the southern polar region, although it did lighten my bank account – I learned several years later from Ted Cheeseman that there was spirited debate amongst the staff about how much credit card debt the youngest person on the ship must be carrying.

There have of course been other incredible trips – Iceland, Southeast Asia, Egypt, Europe, all over America, the humpback whales of the Dominican, the whale sharks of the Yucatan – and one can only wonder at the reason for such good fortune in being able to experience so much. The future will hopefully hold more travels – as noted above, Audrey is hellbent on seeing lemurs do the sexy dance, Australia & New Zealand undoubtedly hold an amazing variety of adventures, and there are dozens of other places that would be great to experience. It’s a small world, but it holds an infinite number of destinations.

The Skipper and Ryan in Glacier Bay

The Skipper and Ryan in Glacier Bay, 1999.

Group photo in the Galapagos

This is probably the single greatest group of people who have ever traveled together on the same boat in the Galapagos.

Thirty-five

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:30 pm, August 31st, 2011

Thomas Jefferson (born 1743) was 33 years old in 1776 during the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. James Madison (born 1751) was 36 when his ideas formed the core of the US Constitution. There are a fair number of other people who did some of their most impressive work in their thirties – it seems to be an age at which you’ve done enough to actually have a significant depth, although perhaps not a breadth, of experience in at least one or two areas.

While I harbor no illusions about being a Jefferson or Madison, it’s interesting to be at the same age as when they made arguably their biggest marks on history. Personally, the mid-thirties is the first time in life at which I’ve worked regularly on specific subjects for multiple decades – my first computer program was written more than 20 years ago; my first photograph was taken almost 25 years ago.

Everyone dreams that they will do important things in life, but for most people something gets in the way – a job, lack of motivation, or just a sense that things can always be done later; days go by slowly, but years somehow fly by. There was a line at the beginning of Dead Poet’s Society from a Walt Whitman poem: “that the powerful play goes on, and that you will contribute a verse”. To which Robin Williams’ character asks: “what will your verse be?” At this point in life there’s a mild fear of missing the chance to contribute that verse, although with several endeavors in various states of completion there is also optimism that some day an entry like this one won’t be about hopes, but will instead be about accomplishments. Granted, those accomplishments won’t end up as centerpieces of the National Archives, but not everyone is cut out to be a Founding Father.

Things Worth Noting

Posted from Culver City, California at 5:16 pm, August 28th, 2011

Here are a handful of random current events that seem worth writing down. These types of posts are fun reading in retrospect, and are also good when it’s nearly the end of the month and I haven’t met the three entry goal:

  • Steve Jobs has resigned as CEO of Apple. While his supposed tendency to yell and micromanage would normally be negatives for a CEO, the guy had an unbelievable ability to discern trends and focus on what was both important and within his company’s area of strength, and it is sad to see him go.
  • Mono Lake has risen two and a half feet this year, putting it seven feet from the restoration goal level, twelve feet above its all-time low, but still about thirty-five feet below its historic average.
  • Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman made news by stating that Republicans should embrace evolution and global warming. It’s more than a little scary that 150 years after Darwin a theory that underpins biology is still so controversial…
  • Four years late, the Boeing 787 finally gained its FAA certification. While the technology behind the plane is clearly a huge step forward, the delays unfortunately appear to have caused significant harm to Boeing’s ability to compete with Airbus and will take some time to recover from.
  • Following a political crisis in which the US nearly defaulted on its debts, the stock market has dropped about ten percent, but more notably has been regularly going up or down by three to five percent daily and giving those of us with a lot invested reason to sweat.
  • SpaceX has been granted permission to combine its remaining two test flights, and thus could be cleared to service the space station by the end of the year.
  • The next Olympic Games are almost exactly eleven months away.