Saturday, April 27, 2013

Architecture Break

The Oslo Opera House:
Photo Credit: The New York Review of Books
Designed by the architectural firm Snøhetta and completed in 2008, this building is clearly modeled on an iceberg bobbing just above the water. While I'm generally bearish about the aesthetic resilience of most glass-and-concrete geometric scrambles, the tight thematic focus and open public spaces lift it above its peers. 

More pictures here.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Does Constituent Contact Matter?

One of the most fascinating aspects of professional blogging and social media use by academics is the incredible responsiveness of experts to random curious internet people. I asked a question about the effects of constituents contacting their elected officials on the premier political science blog, and was rewarded with two incredibly substantive posts on the topic here and here. It also sparked other knowledgeable people to contribute their information in the comments sections. In an age where many academic papers are consumed only among a small set of experts, blogging is an indispensable tool for digesting and popularizing all the good knowledge that's out there.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Information Nexus

1. Great Health Care Article About Another Health Care Article
2. Best Images On Reddit From the Past 9 Months
3. Slavoj Zizek Tells a Joke (very applicable to Keystone XL)
4. The Architecture of George W. Bush's New Presidential Library "
5. ' "Shuttle flights between Washington and New York were running 60 to 90 minutes late," the Times reports. Do you know who takes weekday shuttle flights between Washington and New York? People who think they are too important for the train, let alone the bus. People Congress listens to. (People Congress is, also.) ' --Pareene

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Could This Invention Bring Back the Video Arcade?

Photo Credit: Arcade Bros.
As kids we probably all dreamed of some sort of fully-immersive video game technology where players could interact with a virtual world using their bodies instead of just pressing buttons. I for one envisioned gamers encased in giant spherical TV screens à la hamster balls. Nintendo's Wii, Microsoft's Kinect, and author Neal Stephenson's somewhat loopy sword-fighting initiative are all baby-steps in this direction, but a new company called Virtuix appears to be closing in on the ultimate goal. Their product, called Omni, is essentially a treadmill that allows the player to control in-game movement by simply walking. Combined with the Oculus Rift head-mounted display (made by another company), players will be able to experience video games in a totally new way.

Gamers have consistently demanded better and better graphics and game experiences on their home consoles and computers. As these old media formats approach hard limits to their immersive capability, I fully expect demand to look elsewhere rather than accept stagnation. If Omni proves to be totally awesome and fun, the bigger video game companies might jump on board and start investing in similar technologies and formats. While Omni is marketed for use in the home, I see advances along this path pretty clearly leading to bigger and better--and thus more expensive--virtual reality video games.

The simplest way to support a video game market based around expensive virtual reality systems is through scale. While it may not make sense for a single kid to purchase the Omni or its equivalent, some enterprising business owner could purchase a few and then rent out their use to paying customers. This could quickly lead to a resurgence in the video arcade business model.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Free Market Environmentalism on Public Lands

From an interesting op-ed in the Denver Post:
Last year, conservationists in Colorado proposed to buy leases from energy companies on the Thompson Divide near Carbondale. Their reasoning was simple: The area’s value for anglers, hikers, and hunters outweighed the value of the oil and gas beneath the land. The plan, however, lacked the necessary approval from Congress. Today, no deal has been reached, and plans to drill are moving forward.
If compromises are to succeed on public lands in Colorado and across the West, creative solutions are needed. Federal leasing rules that allow contracting between energy developers and conservationists on public lands would promote voluntary agreements while respecting the rights of leaseholders. Regulatory changes to the environmental review process that facilitate direct negotiation would encourage groups to resolve their differences. And market-based leasing reforms that open up the bidding process and allow for conservation leasing would provide an alternative to the controversy and litigation that characterize public lands today.
The issue of how best to allocate public land given the tension between conservation and extraction is a tricky one. On the heels of activist Tim DeChristopher's release from prison after serving 21 months for interfering with a public land auction, I'm glad to see that some reform ideas are out there. Allowing conservation groups to enter the market and bid on public land, or make deals with energy developers sounds like a no-brainer. The status quo--conservationists struggling to exert influence over land which they have no clear property rights--is the source of tremendous conflict. Establishing a simple legal way for anybody to acquire property rights over land they value highly would be a great step forward.

Happy Earth Day

Most 'focusing events'--singular and easily-understood occurrences that help to shift public sentiment and spark policy action--happen by accident (think mass shootings and gun control). Earth Day, started in 1970, was entirely engineered by activists and has been amazingly successful at bringing attention to environmentalism and its policy platform. Here are five interesting things about energy and the environment that I learned recently:

1. The Earth's nitrogen cycle is in bad shape. Climate change, pollution, peak oil, and even biodiversity loss are all issues that get much more coverage than the dangerous inundation of Earth's life support system with technologically-procured nitrogen. While the agricultural efficiency gains have been immense, solutions are needed and the nitrogen issue should start being included in environmentalists' public rhetoric.

2. The Cradle-To-Cradle guys have a new book. It's called The Upcycle, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. Their first book helped popularized the 'zero-waste', ecological approach to economic networks (any outputs by a firm are used as inputs by another firm), and took a novel tack by blending everything with the culture and language of architecture and design. The idea of 'upcycling' versus recycling (adding value with used goods rather than simply minimizing the value lost) is a powerful insight and reveals half of an important symmetry that's been mostly neglected. Can't wait.

3. Climate change refugees are beginning to appear. Author Paolo Bacigalupi calls them "yellow card men" in his stories: people forced by worsening environmental circumstances to leave their homes. Although shocking, in a deeper sense this vision of the future where individuals adapt to better themselves reveals how mundane and boring climate change actually is. Poor people living in environmentally marginal locations will face pain, suffering, and dislocation. Rich people will have the resources and capability to adapt without much ill-effect. This is hardly a new social dynamic. Whether climate change requires a qualitatively distinct ethical obligation, versus merely being subsumed within some general moral framework, is an important question. No doubt fewer immigration restrictions between countries would dramatically reduce the suffering caused by climate change.

4. The proposed nuclear waste repository under Yucca Mountain is dead dead dead. Congress basically screwed Nevada thirty years ago by picking Yucca Mountain as the only candidate for a long-term geologic repository. Nevada's population and political power have grown tremendously since then (Harry Reid plus Nevada's early spot in the Presidential nominating process) and it appears Yucca is finally finished. The more data researchers compiled on the mountain's physical attributes, the less safe the location seemed to be. Proponents of Yucca responded by showing that technological add-ons like drip shields could prevent containment failure in the long-run, but ironically this undercut the original justification for Yucca--namely that its geologic qualities made it a good choice. Nuclear energy producers have been paying taxes for decades to fund a long-term fix for their spent fuel problem, but the federal government has nothing on the horizon (waste is currently stored in "temporary" pools on-site). This terrible status quo is quietly accumulating accident risk.

5. This is by far the smartest environmentalist strategy yet. The green movement, bless its heart, has't always employed the best methods designed to achieve environmentalist goals. Eschewing the analytical tools of economics, for example, has lead to the perverse battle over Keystone XL: successfully blocking the pipeline would merely redirect supply along a different (and likely more costly) route while demand remains high. But this news about environmentalists teaming up with insurers to leverage their political and economic clout to enhance resilience and adaptive capacity in the face of climate change horror is brilliant. Unlike some other terrible projects that try and wish business and environmental incentives together, insurers are already on-board.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Explaining The Twin Movie Observation

Photo Credit: CircadianHour reddit user

Reddit this weekend discovered the strange phenomenon of Hollywood releasing similar movies at the same time. Brushing aside the methodological ambiguities of what constitutes a movie pair, the best explanation seems to be some combination of 1) informal knowledge sharing due to agglomeration effects (social relationships between studio employees, industrial espionage, etc.) and 2) many studios responding to the same exogenous factors (public demand, current events, etc.).

While that's probably correct, I can't help but offer a skeptical take. It's entirely possible that this effect is actually an illusion. If you assume a heavy dose of randomness regarding which movies end up getting made and which ones don't (a safe assumption) and when, then by pure coincidence you'd expect, occasionally, to see similar movies get released close to each other. It might seem like this happens a lot, but we probably tend to notice two similar movies released together more than two different movies released together (because it's funny). And of course there are many, many more unrelated movie pairs than there are related movie pairs.

To accurately verify the twin movie hypothesis, you'd need to set up some stricter measurement guidelines (time categories, theme similarity, etc.). Using Google keyword associations would probably be a good start (Search: "asteroid movie" etc.). A richer approach would also look at different industries with similar observed outcomes. Both music and fashion, which also churn out many artistic innovations, rarely end up with product pairs: if an idea takes off, everyone copies it. But industries where we do see product pairs also tend to have only two major competitors--Hollywood has dozens of major studios. The twin movie hypothesis resembles a duopoly nested within the product differentiation strategy of firms competing in a crowded field. It would be interesting to see if any other economic models (game theory, Cournot competition, etc.) could shed some light on this interesting phenomenon.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Amartya Sen and the Capability Approach

From Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok's fantastic online education site Marginal Revolution University. They blog at Marginal Revolution.

The Benefits and Costs of Cost Benefit Analysis

Grist has a fascinating interview with legal scholar Lisa Heinzerling about the regulatory bureaucracy of EPA decisionmaking, especially regarding the use of cost-benefit analysis (CBA). Basically there's a lot of opacity and possible unconstitutional implementation of environmental policy statutes because OIRA (The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs) likes using CBA to vet new regulations, but EPA and Congress don't always want that. The President, who controls OIRA more directly than he does the EPA, favors CBA. The tangle of formal and informal decisionmaking power creates confusion about who's really in charge.

Using CBA to determine which regulations should be implemented or scrapped seems like total common-sense: if the benefits of a regulation outweigh its costs, it gets a green light. Simple. And alternatives to CBA sometimes result in regulations with unintended consequences: mandating that industries use specific technologies can disincentivize research into solving pollution problems; standards set by political deliberation sometimes work to protect the interests of influential industry groups rather than people; politicians seeking popularity may compete by passing laws that are needlessly costly or based on intuitive toxicology and not science.

CBA has various practical difficulties (measuring the value of a life, comparing the present to the future, etc.), but the main downside is that it's biased in favor of maintaining the current policy status quo. For one it's costly to perform the analysis itself, increasing institutional friction. More fundamentally, however, the costs imposed by a new regulation on existing activity are easily-measured and well-understood. The benefits, conversely, tend to be harder to measure because they're almost by definition predictions about the future. Drawing a direct line of causation from sources of pollution or environmental harms to specific populations is extremely difficult. This asymmetric uncertainty probably results in a systematic understating of the benefits of environmental regulation.

The Political Economy of Asteroid Mining

Photo Credit: NASADenise Watt
Some asteroids floating around in space are estimated to contain massive quantities of valuable metals and water ice (the latter useful as an input to other space ventures). Two private companies, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, have raised money and publicly announced plans to begin exploring the process of extracting resources from asteroids and returning them to Earth. Skeptics have raised concerns that such a business might be self-defeating given the dynamics of the global commodity market. If the quantities of resources brought back are as large as some experts suggest, it might create gluts in the markets where supply massively outstrips demand. If the prices crash too much, mining companies won't be able to recoup their expenses and will go bankrupt.

This scenario sounds very feasible, and it's hard to understand why these companies were formed in the first place, or how they secured so much capital from seemingly profit-oriented investors. One possibility is that the relevant parties are simply altruists with a penchant for futurism: they want to push forward the technological boundaries of humanity by employing the institutions of financial capitalism. Even if an asteroid mining enterprise destroys itself by lowering prices below cost, this might be viewed as a "successful" Pyrrhic victory: previously scarce resources would now be abundant, a global welfare benefit that greatly outweighs the investment losses of a few venture capitalists.

Another possibility is that successful asteroid miners plan on using their huge stock of resources to engage in a monopoly pricing strategy. By temporarily flooding the commodity markets and lowering prices just enough to put their Earth-bound competitors out of business, they could corner the market. Investors would likely accept a period of losses in the expectation that prices would later rise to capture windfall profits. Government regulators surely won't be blind to such a strategy, and would be legally justified in intervening. But it's possible that some future shift in the intellectual climate would see regulators unwilling to erect such a disincentive towards private space innovation and simply let it slide. Theoretically anti-trust rules exist to help out consumers, but in reality regulators respond to a host of weird incentives and anything can happen.

Lastly, and perhaps most plausibly, current asteroid mining enterprises see a coming irreversible commodity price rise based on hard geologic limits and seek a first-mover advantage in skilled-labor and know-how. Behind-the-scenes lobbying has surely influenced NASA's recent interest in asteroid exploration, and private mining groups are well-positioned to free-ride off this publicly-subsidized research and talent creation. Although the wisdom of being the first to acquire patents and experience for a likely inevitable growth industry seems undeniable, I see three commonly overlooked hurdles: recycling, efficiency and substitution. While it's probably true that in the next 100 years some virgin mineral extraction will become uneconomical, asteroids aren't necessarily the obvious next step. Price increases caused by scarcity will make recycling previously-mined resources economically feasible, as well as increasing the value of finding ways to use existing resources more efficiently. In the extreme case, eliminating entirely the need for super-scarce resources by substituting new technologies and materials will become a high-return innovation sector. The possibility of a profitable asteroid mining operation should be balanced against these more mundane considerations.