Saturday, December 20, 2014

Jeff Bezos on books

"The most important thing to observe is that books don't just compete against books. Books compete against people reading blogs and news articles and playing video games and watching TV and going to see movies. 
Books are the competitive set for leisure time. It takes many hours to read a book. It’s a big commitment. If you narrow your field of view and only think about books competing against books, you make really bad decisions. What we really have to do, if we want a healthy culture of long-form reading, is to make books more accessible. 
Part of that is making them less expensive. Books, in my view, are too expensive. Thirty dollars for a book is too expensive. If I'm only competing against other $30 books, then you don’t get there. If you realize that you're really competing against Candy Crush and everything else, then you start to say, “Gosh, maybe we should really work on reducing friction on long-form reading." That’s what Kindle has been about from the very beginning."

That's from a very good interview from Business Insider.

Four overused corporatespeak items

1. Taking something "off line"
2. Referring to emails as simply "notes" (why?)
3. "leverage"
4. "reach out" (as in touch?)

Monday, November 10, 2014

Information Nexus

1. Tim Lee on the tension between deregulation and government action to prevent anti-competitive behavior by monopolists

2. GiveWell begins an investigation of the merits of donating to Ebola charities

3. The rise of the lumbersexual

4. Excellent article on sports analytics in basketball. And football here. Where is the ultimate frisbee analytics movement?

5. "... rather than embracing the deregulatory tenets of Smart Growth, regulators in some cities have layered Smart Growth rules on top of their traditional zoning rules, creating a complicated web of regulations." Article

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The politics of mean reversion

The Upshot recently had a column discussing the role that occasional voters play in tempering the more partisan policy preferences of reliable voters. While I don't have strong views about the ethics of voting or nonvoting (although clearly its possible to vote well or vote poorly), I have a very hard time seeing the macro benefits of sporadic voting.

A popular idea in US politics is that we're too polarized. That's not really accurate: the electorate isn't more polarized, rather the institutional arrangements that translate votes into policy are badly skewed towards partisanship and gridlock. A key problem is that the basic system of accountability has degraded. Parties have become more ideologically coherent, which enables increasingly rational collecting strategizing. This is especially important in the senate, where any majority lacking 60 votes can be effectively blocked by the minority. The minority wins politically when the majority loses--and the minority has the institutional power to make the majority lose. Not exactly a recipe for dynamic government capacity.

Here's where sporadic voting comes in. To get anything done in this political reality, the mechanisms of government require a party to control 60 senate seats. But sporadic voters--who tend to be more independent--hold majorities accountable. In recent years the dysfunctional gridlock in federal government has led to a vast army of unsatisfied moderate voters ping-ponging back and forth between parties. Neither Democrats or Republicans ever quite assemble a coalition sizeable enough to truly implement their policy vision before being cut down by moderate voters for their ineffectiveness.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Research methods FTW

Much of the recent controversy over that NYC catcalling video was caused by uncertainty about the research methodology of their 'study'. This article articulates the issue nicely:
The Hollaback video also shows why “data” without theory can be so misleading—and how the same data can fit multiple theories. Since all data collection involves some form of data selection (even the biggest dataset has selection going into what gets included, from what source), and since data selection is always a research method, there is always a need for understanding methods.
Read the article here. It's highly recommended.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

A cultural stickiness approach to gender inequality

Project Syndicate has an interesting short essay about the economics of gender:
The finding suggests that in plough-using societies, patriarchal values circumscribed female mobility, and allowed men – as a result of their greater economic contribution – to undermine women’s autonomy. Remarkably, these values, shaped many centuries ago, when certain physical attributes might have been important, have survived in modern societies, in which such attributes have become largely irrelevant.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Cognitive style and public policy outcomes

Critics, including Green, like to satirize Obama's cool by comparing him to Spock. But Spock, though often played for laughs, was a damn fine officer. His clear thinking not only saved the Enterprise on countless occasions but was instrumental in brokering a historic peace accord between the Federation and the Klingon Empire.
That is Matt Yglesias, defending Obama's cognitive style from the critics. Establishing a connection between policy outcomes and cognitive profile among presidents is very difficult. Unlike most lawmakers, presidents don't produce a neat, large dataset of votes that lends itself to causal analysis. What's more, factors like cultural and technological change produce qualitative differences in the political context that every president operates in. Isolating the causal effect of cognitive traits on policy outcomes might very well be impossible. But regardless, the post has some excellent points about media incentives and racial bias as well.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Big companies can do big things

Slate has an interesting article about how Walmart is the by far the biggest player in the commercial rooftop solar market:
Big, mature companies often struggle to innovate and adapt to changing consumer demands, but Walmart's experience with solar and organic foods (and Home Depot's with sustainably-harvested lumber) show that big companies can also have a big impact, simply by virtue of their size. While it's entirely possible that Walmart is coming out ahead financially from these investments, the less-tangible benefits in the form of positive buzz and brand equity are surely a big driver of the push.

Additionally, Walmart is implicitly hedging against future policy action by governments, both national and regional, to combat climate change. Companies that proactively set themselves up to respond quickly to a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system (by investing in clean energy and acquiring talent) will very likely see themselves with an enviable competitive advantage.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Research questions about skateboarding

  1. Skateboarders appear to be disproportionately comprised of young, thin men. Is this perception shared by the general population?

  2. To what degree does this perception reflect the true demographic and physical characteristics of skateboarders?

  3. To what degree is the thinness of skateboarders accounted for by their relative youth (i.e. kids tend to be skinnier than adults)?

  4. To what degree is the thinness of skateboarders accounted for by other factors, such as exercise, diet, income, and race?

  5. Is there a social selection effect occurring that accounts for the thinness of skateboarders? In other words, do non-thin skateboarders have more trouble acquiring status and social benefits in the micro-culture, and stop skateboarding disproportionately?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Climate change adaptation

Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia has opened the country's first academic institution focusing on climate change adaptation. The hope is that by locating in a city that's very exposed to climate change risks, the institute will have opportunities to work with government and economic stakeholders free of political strife.

A core mantra of climate change adaptation is competition between places: if certain regions or cities are struggling with costs associated with climate change, labor and capital will naturally flow away to find safer harbor (so to speak). Norfolk is betting that investing now in resilience strategies will pay off in the future by reducing the costs of adaptation. Preemptively measuring the effectiveness of various interventions may be possible by comparing things like insurance premiums along coastal cities, although the massive Navy base (and the implicit government guarantee it represents) could pose a methodological problem.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Quote of the week

"One of Smith's insights about technology and gadgets is that we often care more about the elegance of the device than for what it can achieve. He gives the example of a watch that loses two minutes a day, likely a common occurrence in the eighteenth century. Smith says the owner of such a watch might get rid of it and pay a premium for a watch that is dramatically more accurate. But, Smith complains, the owner of the better watch may not be any more punctual than he was with the timepiece that performed more poorly. He bought the better watch simply because it is a superior gadget, not to make his life any better:
But the person so nice with regard to this machine, will not always be found either more scrupulously punctual than other men, or more anxiously concerned upon any other account, to know precisely what time of day it is. What interests him is not so much the attainment of this piece of knowledge, as the perfection of the machine which serves to attain it.
"Then Smith really opens fire on the gadget lovers:
How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility? What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility, as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniencies. They contrive new pockets, unknown in the clothes of other people, in order to carry a greater number.' " 
-------------

That's from Russ Roberts' newest book, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness. Check out a nice interview about the book here.
 

Book Review: Building a World Class Transportation System by Charles Marohn

Charles Marohn of Strong Towns recently released a short e-book laying out his analysis of the problem with our transportation system, and his plan to fix it. The core insights of Strong Towns derive from a brilliant realization: that by merging our analysis of planning, design and transportation engineering with public finance and economics we can discover surprising truths about what produces growth and prosperity on a fine-grained scale.

 He begins by contrasting the current wave of transportation infrastructure building with previous waves, specifically the construction of the railroad and interstate networks. In contrast to today, previous systems were essentially 'low-hanging fruit': relatively small investments reaped huge gains in productivity. The returns on subsequent building was much lower: connecting two high-performing places creates more wealth and opportunity than connecting two medium- or low-performing places.

 Two subtler points emerge from this story. One is an institutional ratchet effect. During the 'high-return' days, certain institutional norms and arrangements formed and became locked-in, even as the landscape of infrastructure in the US changed dramatically. This idea of 'drift' (or political decay in words of Francis Fukuyama), where policy institutions don't keep pace with changing realities, is rampant here.

 The second point is more philosophical: by maintaining the institutional inertia of infrastructure building even as the ROI of these investments tanked, information-processing and planning-fallacy concerns became more potent. Without the feedback mechanism of prices to coordinate the effective use of scarce resources, infrastructure decisions are largely based on the priorities of the political system. As the low-hanging fruit was picked and finding high-value investments became more difficult, the political system's inherent informational limitations became more apparent (and more costly).

 A large chunk of the book is devoted to articulating the core Strong Towns concepts and laying out a specific reform proposal. I don’t have much to add on this, only to say that his forceful argument against using excess tax revenue from financially-productive places (i.e. those that generate more tax revenue than they consume in public services) to build stuff in non-financially-productive places isn't a blanket argument against all geographic redistribution. His case is limited to the narrow domain of transportation spending, and even then his claim is actually optimistic. Marohn is saying that even a poor place with low growth can be 'financially productive' in an infrastructure sense, so long as it fully appreciates the full tax revenue and maintenance implications of public investments. This is where his framework’s conclusions intersect with localist and resilience-oriented movements.

 The non-partisan, crossover appeal of Strong Towns is a big reason for its success: it uses economics-style analysis (traditionally associated with conservatives) to arrive at conclusions traditionally associated with liberal urbanists. This leads to novel and intellectually satisfying arguments on many topics. A good example is the suburbs: liberals have long disparaged this pattern of development, but often in scattershot, wishy-washy, and vaguely elitist ways. Strong Towns gives us at least one good reason why the suburbs are terrible: the ratio of private investment to public investment is such that these regions are a net drain on the public purse.

 In general the book is good, although its target audience suffers from a 'missing middle' problem. For someone who's unfamiliar with Strong Towns, this is a solid introduction that encompases most of the approach’s flavor. At the other end of the spectrum, this book will be valuable to readers with a technical or professional interest in learning about the finer details of a Strong Towns vision of policy. For amateurs already well-versed in the framework, but lacking a reason to deep-dive into the particular magnitudes of financing ratios, this book is somewhat lacking.

 Marohn concludes by gaming out the winners and losers of his public finance reform proposal. It's an interesting attempt at political analysis, but it seems half-baked: some of his claims are overly optimistic, and the actual coalitional breakdown of any major reform in transportation will likely be as familiar and intractable as always. At times the book slips into the, "nation of whiners" and "people are stupid" rhetoric (common among certain subversive urbanists), which is obnoxious, although perhaps understandable given the epidemic amount of wrongness that exists in this field.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Engineering a safer Central Park, ctd.

Stephen Miller from Streetsblog states the case for a car-free Central Park much more elegantly than I:
It’s unreasonable for a cyclist to assume that a green light means the path ahead will be unobstructed by pedestrians, just as it’s unreasonable to expect cyclists to come to a full stop when it’s safe for them to slow down and navigate around people crossing the loop, just as it’s unreasonable to expect a pedestrian to wait for the light when there is clearly a safe opening to cross. 
Getting rid of traffic signals in the parks is a necessary step toward creating loop roads where people on bikes and on foot rely on eye contact and common sense to safely interact, instead of rules that don’t fit the context. And before that can happen, it’s time to finish the job and make the parks permanently car-free, a top request among Central Park users that has support from nearby community boards. Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg says she’s heard the call loud and clear, but she hasn't committed to actually following through, citing the need for more study and consensus-building.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The human experiment must continue

I was struck the other day by the quality and cultural energy of this music video:


I'm no big fan of Taylor Swift, nor pop music in general, but this video is a great reminder of the absurd and glorious experimental project that the human race is engaged in.

The most compelling aspect to this production is the backup-dancers. I don't have much interaction with this industry, but it's clear that there exists a massive army of people in the US (and elsewhere) who labor and perfect a type of artistic expression that is, at its peak, a marginal contribution towards the overall visual experience. These videos are built around superstars, of which there are few. But they are staffed by backup dancers whose individual talent and drive seems undiminished by their servant role.

Despite what philosophers might say, nobody really knows what humans should do or how we should act. I view the entirety of human existence as an experimental discovery process, with economic, cultural and scientific progress occurring spontaneously via the scrum of civilization.

At the risk of making a bizarre claim, it's this beautifully chaotic and random dance that humanity is engaged in that argues strongly towards a massive investment in asteroid detection and defense capabilities. Asteroids are one of the most obvious forms of existential risk, and the simple fact is this: unless the earth develops defense capabilities, eventually we will be annihilated by an asteroid. Prematurely ending the human experiment, and denying future generations the opportunity to progress along the goofy and wonderful path of artistic and scientific expression would be a damn shame.

Anyone who cares deeply about art, science, ethics, and human flourishing should take a good long look at what global obliteration means for these values, and consider prioritizing efforts to develop asteroid detection and defense capabilities. Call your Congressman and Senators. Learn about the issue. Talk to your friends. And most importantly, help the B612 Foundation fund the Sentinel Mission.


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

An electricity sharing economy

Matthew Crosby of the Rocky Mountain Institute says rooftop solar and other emerging technologies will enable peer-to-peer electricity markets:
For more than a century, the electric grid has relied almost exclusively on centralized infrastructure, such as large power plants and long-distance transmission lines. But distributed energy resources (DERs) -- and the customers buying, installing, and using them -- are changing the economic landscape for the power sector. Energy efficiency, demand response, distributed generation such as rooftop solar, distributed storage such as batteries, smart thermostats, and more are poised to become the front lines of a sharing economy revolution for the grid. Shared economy solutions will help to increase asset utilization rates and improve consumer and overall system economics, just as they have for other sectors.
The Knowledge Problem has further commentary on the idea, and Brad Plumer at Vox has been following the solar beat, most recently with a good article on trends in financing mechanisms for rooftop solar. The environmental and economic resilience aspects of transitioning to a more distributed electricity market are clear. With current interest rates so low, now is the time for governments to encourage investments in enabling infrastructure like smart grids--instead of speculating big on high-speed rail megaprojects with uncertain return on investment potential.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

San Francisco's housing market is really screwed up

A few months ago Tech Crunch ran this fascinating, epically-long analysis of San Francisco's housing disaster. A taste:
Rent control is a naturally divisive topic in the tech community. Progressives view it as a sacred right that protects the remnants of a working- and middle-class in the city. “It’s a non-renewable resource,” Erin McElroy, who is part of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, explained to me. 
But the tech community is both socially liberal and market-oriented, with more than 90 percent of political donations from Apple and Google employees going to Barack Obama in the last election. So price controls in the name of community stability and equity just makes people’s brains explode.
There are numerous interesting nuggets and concepts packed into the report, but a big takeaway for me is just how strange the politics of land use are in most cities. Most cities are overwhelmingly dominated by Democrats, but there seems to be a huge opportunity for Republicans to naturally extend their governing philosophy and take a strong market urbanist position on these issues. The policy solutions are just waiting collecting dust.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Quote of the week

Human individuals and human organizations typically have preferences over resources that are not well represented by an "unbounded aggregative utility function." A human will typically not wager all her capital for a fifty-fifty chance of doubling it. A state will typically not risk losing all its territory for a ten percent chance of a tenfold expansion. For individuals and governments, there are diminishing returns to most resources. The same need not hold for AIs. ... An AI might therefore be more likely to pursue a risky course of action that has some chance of giving it control of the world. 
"Humans and human-run organizations may also operate with decision processes that do not seek to maximize expected utility. For example, they may allow for fundamental risk aversion, or "satisficing" decision rules that focus on meeting adequacy thresholds, or "deontological" side-constraints that proscribe certain kinds of action regardless of how desirable their consequences. Human decision makers often seem to be acting out an identity or a social role rather than seeking to maximize the achievement of some particular objective. Again, this need not apply to artificial agents.
That's from Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom. The book is sober, clear-eyed analysis of an issue that's been socially defined by its recurring role as a narrative device in science fiction stories. But the topic is real--and important. Overlooking the issue in public affairs is increasingly risky. For a more accessible introduction to the potential risks of artificial intelligence, I highly recommend checking out this short podcast.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The unseen costs of globalization

The Ebola situation in West Africa has brought to light an interesting fact about our modern, globalized economy: though massive trade has enabled incredible increases in human welfare, it has dramatically increased the potential for contagious diseases to spread to scales unprecedented in history. Other costs associated with globalization--environmental destruction, cultural flux--are more visible and generate more sustained political salience.

And interesting fact about pandemic risk is that the best way to defend against it is more of the very thing that creates it: trade and development. Richer individuals and economies are more resilient to disruptions caused by disease, and higher-quality political institutions can better cope with potential outbreaks through public health and law & order efforts.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The swiss cheese model of safety

A recent fence jumper at the White House seems to have made it--incredibly--inside the building a fair ways before being taken down. Reading about the multiple failures across various security levels--alarm boxes being silenced, undercover agents outside missing the climber, attack dogs not being released etc.--I am reminded of the 'swiss cheese model of safety'.

In this model, each security layer can be thought of as a slice of cheese. Because all security measures have flaws, the slices contain holes that allow failure opportunities to slip through. Typically these 'holes' don't line up, so a failure at one level is caught by another level. But since modern security systems are complex and dynamic, occasionally a failure can proceed all the way through the system and become realized.

The key insight of this model is that each security layer contributes only in a probabilistic sense to the overall security system. This presents a challenge to managers because employees operating largely within one 'slice' can easily get complacent and start taking shortcuts (like turning off the alarm boxes because they were loud and annoying), increasing the opportunities for overall failure.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Some thoughts on home-cooked meals

Sarah Kliff has an interesting interview about new research into home-cooking habits viz. income. A few thoughts:

1. This type of small-n ethnographic research is not designed to elucidate facts across large populations, but rather develop a rich, thick understanding of specific families' food lives. The incredible local variation in food habits means this approach is often better than large-scale statistical aggregation surveys. In fact, food habit research probably has more in common with ecology's concept of 'patch dynamics' than anything else.

2. Pre-made rotisserie chickens from supermarkets are an underappreciated strategy for quickly supplying a cheap, healthy meal. In fact, the reasons for why these chickens are so cheap remains a somewhat controversial topic in economics.

3. The folk theory that many poor families eat unhealthy takeout food often because of its cheapness and convenience is challenged here, interestingly. Interesting follow-up data for me would be to see how and to what degree families press young children into service preparing and purchasing food, especially across incomes.

4. Much household turbulence seems to stem from the time-consuming nature of preparing good meals. Although the science hasn't been sufficiently popularized yet, I assume that in the near future very-low-carbohydrate diets will be seen as an effective strategy for reducing the social burden of healthy food prep among all socioeconomic cohorts. This is mostly due to the increased ability to go for longer periods without eating on this diet.

5. How could the internet and the 'sharing economy' reduce the difficulty of gaining access to healthy home-cooked meals? An Uber-style distributed peer-to-peer meal preparation network could accomplish this, as well as increasing employment and utilization of underused assets like kitchens and kitchen utilities. I assume the regulatory hurdles could prove difficult to overcome, unfortunately.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

What is a good age to die?

Ezekiel Emanuel has written a provocative essay explaining why he only wants to live to age 75. This is definitely some good clickbait bioethics, to be sure. But probing a little more into his position, it's actually a great example of a widely-held misconception about death.

Emanuel lists a bunch of reasons why 75 is good age to quit, ranging from physical, cognitive, and social. The subtext to his claim, however, is this: 'given the current state of various medical technologies and social norms regarding age, 75 is a good age to quit'. This is still a perfectly fine attitude to have, but its implications for policy and the social approach towards death are quite a bit different. Namely, these structural factors that determine Emmanuel's 'quit point' can change. And we have the power to change them.

My favorite children's book
Emmanuel chose 75 and not 70 because his personal calculation about the opportunities for flourishing above that age don't outweigh his other concerns. But a few decades ago this number would probably have been lower, because the types of opportunities he sees as still available at age 65 would have already become inaccessible. Medicine and social norms have changed enough such that one's late-60s and early-70s can be pretty great, especially if you're rich and influential.

This brings me to the core point: across most cultures and institutions today, there exists a general lack of appreciation for our ability to change the two structural factors involved with ageing--medicine and norms. Let's put aside norms for the moment, as these tend to be very adaptable, and just focus on medicine. There's a huge consensus that age-related diseases like Alzheimer's and cancer are terrible and should be eliminated via technology and innovation. When you ask people if aging should be eliminated via technology and innovation, however, you get all sorts of confusing and bizarre arguments and rationalizations. Which is understandable given the horror of the topic. But here's the thing: aging and age-related diseases are the same thing.

Aging in the abstract is merely the accumulation of various age-related biological damage, and we're getting better and better at finding ways of repairing this damage. Which is great! But unfortunately the conceptual block between aging and age-related pathology prevents the issue from receiving the attention and funding it deserves (it kills lots of people every year). When a medical innovation comes along and makes being a 70-year old a little better, people cheer (if they notice at all). But they fail to place it into the wider context of history's incremental improvements in medical technology. And so we get powerful, influential people talking about how 75 is a good age to die instead of talking about how new technologies have the potential to make 75, 80--even 100--a great age to live.

Information Nexus

1. E.O. Wilson waxes philosophical and part 2
2. Scaling up urban agriculture
3. Vox's asteroid coverage continues
4. A meal at Noma
5. Brain Pickings review of Sam Harris' new book

Monday, September 22, 2014

Engineering a Safer Central Park

It's chaos out there... but why?
Photo Credit: NY Magazine
There's been a lot of commentary in urbanist circles the past few days about the death of Jill Tarlov in Central Park, who was struck by a spandexed road cyclist on the primary loop road. While its obvious that the cyclist was 100% responsible for the tragic crash, an interesting question concerns the specific conditions that lead repeatedly to these sorts of accidents (and countless near-misses). How does the texture and design of the Central Park loop encourage or discourage safe behavior by both cyclists and pedestrians?

I propose a somewhat counterintuitive theory: that the existence of signalized intersections (of which there are many) actually contribute to the dangerous pedestrian-cyclist interactions that occur on a daily basis in Central Park. First, consider that spandexed cyclists will always try to conserve their speed (rightly or wrongly). Due to congestion and road disrepair, New York City has few local opportunities for cyclists to achieve sustained high speeds. Rightly or wrongly, this means the Central Park loop will attract many aggressive spandexed cyclists.

Next, consider that the vast majority of pedestrians don't utilize structured intersections to cross the roadway--they don't need to. People can simply cross the gap anywhere (it is a nice green public park, after all). Cyclists, meanwhile, use the ample road width to subtly adjust and filter through pedestrians, joggers, slower cyclists etc. and proceed on their way. This is what happens over 99% of the road space on the loop. The mutual appreciation of shared space forces a level of awareness and emergent cooperation that minimizes the potential for crashes.

Typically when cyclists approach red lights in the loop there are no pedestrians around, so they just roll through. No harm done. Conversely, when a pedestrian faces a 'do not walk' sign, there are often no cyclists around, so they just cross. Again, no harm done. At signalized intersections, however, this all breaks down. What happens at intersections during peak times is that the unofficial norm of mutual filtering comes into direct conflict with the explicit directions of the signal lights. This creates chaos in several ways.

Some pedestrians follow the signals, and some follow the norms. Pedestrians who follow the signals and wait for a 'walk' sign clump up and create a large group of people that, when finally crossing, minimizes the gaps available for spandexed cyclists to filter through. This creates a dangerous situation.

Similarly for the cyclists, some stop at red lights, and some don't. When many (typically casual) cyclists stop at red lights, they clump up and create a barrier that minimizes the gaps available for spandexed cyclists to filter through. Signalized intersections, perversely, create the congestion which leads to unsafe pedestrian-cyclist interactions.

Signalized intersections are extremely expensive to maintain, and should be replaced with other passive traffic-calming devices that would better encourage safe interactions between pedestrians and cyclists (and cars, although given their low volume its surprising they're still allowed in the park). Signals were designed for auto-centric roads, and their continued existence on Central Park's pedestrian- and cyclist-dominated loop serves no purpose other than to confuse and muddle what should be pleasantly mutualistic and safe human interactions. So let's save some money, save some lives, and give Central Park back to its people.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Sousveillance and ecological change

Most wearable tech incorporating always-on sousveillance devices is currently being used for experimental, largely silly purposes (like life-logging). As these technologies become cheaper and more ubiquitous, they will increasingly be applied to novel situations and processes that produce real value. One potentially useful application of the Narrative Clip is to use it to catalogue environmental changes in ecologically stressed regions. Scientists, historians, and civil bureaucracies like the U.S. Forest Service would greatly benefit from having access to a constant, searchable database of photos covering the same region over time. Such a rich data set (generated by say, lending hikers a Narrative Clip to wear during their trip) would likely enable computational ecologists to understand physical changes in patches of wilderness in a completely revolutionary way. Get out your grant-proposal-writing pens now...

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Can we just ditch plurality-rule voting systems already?

It's been known for a while now that every voting system has fatal flaws. Most elections in the US use some 'first past the post' method, where the ticket winning a plurality of votes wins. This popular rule allows for some truly perverse outcomes where a block of voters' wishes is sliced up and a niche candidate--opposed by a big majority--wins the election. We see this possibility unfolding tonight in the New York lieutenant governor's race:
"The key problem for the governor is that Cuomo-Wu and Cuomo-Hochul would count as votes for different pairs, and would effectively split Cuomo's vote between two tickets. ... If the Cuomo-Wu and Cuomo-Hochul votes are split enough, though, the Republican nominee Rob Astorino — viewed as a long-shot contender — could theoretically sneak to victory with a small plurality.
This unlikely scenario would be a great example of the winner of an election being determined not by the electorate's vote but by the characteristics of the specific voting system being used. But the disturbing truth is that every election outcome is highly contingent on the voting rule in place, not just the attention-grabbing shockers. The only thing we can do is decide as a polis what voting system we want, and which sorts of groups we want to help and hurt. I for one support instant-runoff voting, or better yet the Borda Count, which both tend to mitigate plurality-rule's twisted logic somewhat and favor more moderate, consensus candidates.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

RNC gets it right on a policy issue they have no power over

The Hill reports that the national Republican party is supporting Uber in its uphill struggle against corrupt regulation:
Republicans have promoted their support for the Silicon Valley start-up, hoping to attract more young voters to the party's free-market message. 
Earlier this month the RNC launched a petition backing Uber over "taxi unions and liberal government bureaucrats.”
While this is certainly a step in the right direction, protectionism in the 'drive people around in cars' industry is largely about local rules and regulations.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Keep dynamic pricing details private and anything is possible

James Surowiecki has a great article about the psychology of Uber's dynamic pricing model:
The basic reality of Uber’s business model is that when people want a ride the most, it’s likely to be the most expensive. This will always be irritating, just as exorbitant prices for last-minute airline tickets are irritating. But over time, surge pricing will also become more familiar and less surprising.
From a customer-relations and marketing perspective, I've never really understood why Uber has insisted on making its 'surge pricing' multipliers so public and in-your-face. Most products that use dynamic pricing keep the sausage-making in the kitchen, and simply provide a price without additional context. Most consumers accept the vast majority of product prices on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, and aren't too concerned about why a price is what it is.

If for whatever reason Uber can't rid itself of the self-damaging public surge multiplier, I suggest implementing a loyalty scheme whereby frequent users could sign up for some amount of future rides at a locked-in price. Uber would cover the difference to the driver to ensure the demand-response function of dynamic pricing stays intact. Uber's ability to pool risk opens up tremendous potential. You could even imagine a service where Uber prices become cheaper the more you use it (again, with drivers collecting full prices and Uber making up the difference).

Friday, August 22, 2014

Pandemic is a terrible risk, but not in the way you think

Preventing disease factories – trench-like warfare conditions, crowded hospitals, enormous refugee camps – is our best protection. While alarmists among us wait for the plague to pounce out of the jungle, it is far more likely to come from inside us, our disease factories and our social world.
This is from an essay in Aeon, an online magazine that consistently tops my monthly list for the most thought-provoking and provocative writing on the web. Pandemic is regularly listed as a potential existential threat, and a major consequence of globalization.  Increasingly I see it as more of a natural extension of poverty, poor public health infrastructure and policy, and low levels of technology and social media saturation in local cultures.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Survivorship bias in our streets


How many pieces of detritus must have been imperfectly fit into this particular asphalt crack before this bottle settled in with such precise snugness? When observing a good fit between two things, remember that there's often a vast statistical 'graveyard' of potential fits that didn't work out.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Francis Fukuyama Speaks

The creation of the U.S. Forest Service at the turn of the twentieth century was the premier example of American state building during the Progressive Era. Prior to the passage of the Pendleton Act in 1883, public offices in the United States had been allocated by political parties on the basis of patronage. The Forest Service, in contrast, was the prototype of a new model of merit-based bureaucracy. It was staffed with university-educated agronomists and foresters chosen on the basis of competence and technical expertise, and its defining struggle was the successful effort by its initial leader, Gifford Pinchot, to secure bureaucratic autonomy and escape routine interference by Congress. At the time, the idea that forestry professionals, rather than politicians, should manage public lands and handle the department’s staffing was revolutionary, but it was vindicated by the service’s impressive performance. Several major academic studies have treated its early decades as a classic case of successful public administration. 
Today, however, many regard the Forest Service as a highly dysfunctional bureaucracy performing an outmoded mission with the wrong tools. It is still staffed by professional foresters, many highly dedicated to the agency’s mission, but it has lost a great deal of the autonomy it won under Pinchot. It operates under multiple and often contradictory mandates from Congress and the courts and costs taxpayers a substantial amount of money while achieving questionable aims. The service’s internal decision-making system is often gridlocked, and the high degree of staff morale and cohesion that Pinchot worked so hard to foster has been lost. These days, books are written arguing that the Forest Service ought to be abolished altogether. If the Forest Service’s creation exemplified the development of the modern American state, its decline exemplifies that state’s decay.
Those are the first two paragraphs from his fascinating new essay, which everyone should read. His new book is out soon, a sequel covering political development from the French Revolution to modern times. I hope he includes plenty of discussion on posthumanism and the splinter neoreaction internet movement, but it will be excellent regardless.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

LeBron James is eating a low carbohydrate diet

That's according to the Wall Street Journal: 
The basketball world has been buzzing lately about an unexpected decision LeBron James made this summer. It has already had sweeping effects across the NBA, and it has radically changed how everyone sees the sport's biggest star.
He cut carbohydrates from his diet.
Nutrition science is undergoing a paradigm shift, and I would count this as merely another high-profile example of the changing attitudes towards meat, fat, sugar, and carbohydrates. But the effectiveness of carbohydrate restriction on reducing obesity, heart disease, diabetes etc. in the general population is far from proven. Celebrities and athletes have much a higher incentive to stay fit and beautiful, more capability to institute external forcing mechanisms on their behavior (trainers, living in areas devoid of ice cream trucks), and possibly a greater inbuilt biological or psychological capacity to stay healthy and thin. Add to this the social and media benefit of trying something novel, and the supposed effectiveness of celebrity diets isn't a very good data point to support any theory. More good science is in order.

Monday, August 18, 2014

What is the Target Efficiency of Affordable Housing Policies in NYC?

A provocative argument that it's not very good:
"Why is it in the nation's interest to spend federal dollars so arts industry folks can reside in one of the world's most expensive neighborhoods? Why don't affordable housing set-asides ever go to back-kitchen restaurant workers, house cleaners, or car wash employees? The answer: Those jobs aren't a stepping stone to more lucrative employment, so they don't appeal to college-educated elites.
Giving poor people cash in the form of a negative income tax or something would let them decide how much they value living in desirable locations (by renting or buying market-rate). I suspect that if given the choice to pocket a bunch of money and live in a cheaper area, many would opt for this. The social mission of keeping certain areas economically diverse does seem important, but let's not forget it carries a social cost of its own, in the form of less well-targeted aid to poor people.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Automated Speed Cameras Could Revolutionize Road Safety

An underutilized asset?
Photo credit: autoblog.com
When it comes to road safety issues there are three basic approaches. One concerns the design and architecture of streets and public spaces: if a street is built like a highway, motorists are unlikely to take it slow, regardless of speed limit signs or pedestrians/cyclists. We can slow down traffic by narrowing the streets and make things safer for pedestrians by constructing bump-outs and other traffic-calming/protective devices. Basically this approach emphasizes how the physical texture of cities and towns affects road safety outcomes.

A second approach seeks to understand road safety outcomes by looking at the intrinsic motivations of individual actors in the system. Are there cultural or social norms that make motorists or pedestrians act in certain ways? How do certain populations vary in their risk factors for road safety behaviors? Common interventions under this framework might be educational awareness programs, signage telling motorists to slow down or share the road with cyclists, etc.

A third approach sits in between these structuralist and motivation-based approaches: enforcement. If we assume every motorist, pedestrian and cyclist has some abstract baseline road behavior that is sub-optimal from a road-safety perspective (i.e. motorists prefer to go faster, pedestrians prefer to cross streets wherever), enforcement can artificially raise the costs of unsafe behavior, changing the internal cost-benefit calculation of individuals.

Photo credit: wikimedia commons
Enforcement can work in two ways. One is the probability of getting caught for a violation. Raise the probability that you'll get caught for speeding, and you'll see less speeding, regardless of the fine. This typically requires adding cops or allocating existing ones differently. The second is the magnitude of the punishment. Even if the probability of getting caught for a violation is the same, if the fine goes from $50 to $5,000 you'll see a decrease in violations.

The two dimensions of enforcement interact with psychology in complex and interesting ways, but I tend to subscribe to the "swift and certain" application of enforcement for road safety violations. Basically the idea is to dramatically increase the probability of getting caught for a violation, and implement a small-magnitude punishment as quickly as possible.

This brings us to automated speed cameras. Currently this technology is mostly utilized at dangerous intersections to identify motorists running red lights. If a simple algorithm sees a violation, it snaps a photo of the vehicle's license plate and the driver gets a ticket in the mail. I'm no expert in algorithmic pattern recognition or machine learning, but I suspect it's possible to make these cameras do much, much more. Developing more advanced programs to expand the reach of automated cameras into areas like failing to signal or passing a cyclist too closely would be a major boon to road safety efforts. Even $5.00 tickets for something as minor as blocking a crosswalk would likely result in safer streets if motorists knew they would get caught.

A major benefit of these enhanced speed cameras is their feasibility: making the physical landscape of cities safer for pedestrians and cyclists is often expensive and always controversial. Changing the culture and norms of motorists, pedestrians and cyclists is really hard and takes time. Setting up a pilot system of enhanced speed cameras and sending out tons of tickets is an intervention that would be fairly invisible and occur largely in the back-office of municipal buildings. Even if privacy concerns bubble up, using probationers or parolees as a test group should be relatively straightforward and uncontroversial. Let's give it a shot.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Abolishing Time Zones is an Important Step in Humanity's Development

Matt Yglesias has written an article making the case against time zones:


I've been saying this for years, and aside from the practical benefits of having a global time (after transition the compliance cost savings in the aerospace industry alone would be staggering), the philosophical benefits are also noteworthy. A single global time would be an important step towards the institutionalization of cosmopolitanism, and a nice reminder that our species is hurtling through space on a single spaceship statistically vulnerable to existential catastrophe.

Along a similar line, switching our timekeeping systems to base-10 (i.e. units of time partition into 10 sub-units, instead of 12, or 60 or whatever) would also be a beneficial reform. The path-dependence of this one might be too much to overcome, however.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A Few Thoughts on Streetcars and BRT

Streetcars have been taking a major beating lately in the urban policy wonkosphere (justifiably in my opinion). The latest is an Economist takedown that covers most of the major critiques. A few additional thoughts:

1. True bus rapid transit (BRT)--in designated protected lanes--is far and away superior to streetcars. BRT is much faster, cheaper (initial and upkeep), and more easily modified (i.e. stops can be added and subtracted easily).

2. Streetcar lines, if shared with traffic, create a horrible safety hazard for cyclists in the form of embedded rails.

3. The Silver Line in Boston is a good example of a true BRT system--it's great!

4. If the primary benefit of streetcars is their permanence (thus spurring private development), this is an incredibly inefficient and costly way to send a signal. There are cheaper ways to signal the permanence of public transportation upgrades (BRT lane barriers, protected stops, protected pedestrian paths and bike lanes etc.).

5. I suspect much of the lustre of streetcars comes from their historical and cultural associations. Conversely, much of the aversion to true BRT is likely due to their physical resemblance to regular city buses and all the sociological baggage that entails.

6. A major benefit of streetcars is their visibility and fixed routes. City buses are not nearly as accessible to newcomers or tourists because of the uncertainty about whether they'll show up, whether you've gotten on the correct bus, and whether you'll get off at the wrong stop. Because bus systems have fungible metal, most don't have fixed route maps inside for passengers. True BRT systems solve all these problems.

7. Indeed, Washington DC's Circulator bus system solves all of these accessibility problems without even being a BRT system. Clever branding, simple and few routes, high(ish) frequency and dedicated equipment go a long way towards patching public transportation voids.


Saturday, August 9, 2014

Self-Checkout Technology is Destroying Our Culture

I read a great book a few years ago called Identity Economics, basically arguing that a productive avenue for economic analysis is to incorporate 'identity' costs and benefits into individuals' utility functions. Identity costs and benefits are largely determined by culture and social interaction. It focused a lot on workplace issues, but the most interesting application of the approach is in consumption habits.

For example, more and more restaurants and convenience stores are offering self-checkout services and online ordering. It seems intuitively true that these innovations, designed mostly with an eye towards reducing employers' costs (labor in the case of self-checkout kiosks) have really interesting effects on consumers' consumption habits.

These technologies insulate consumers from the effects of social and cultural norms over buying patterns. Higher levels of anonymity when buying stuff reduces the costs--or benefits--associated with personal identity. The key empirical question is about magnitudes: does CVS see an increase in sales of embarrassing or socially-undesirable goods after installing self-checkout machines? What about a reduction in 'filler' items designed to mask the conspicuousness of purchasing these items?

On a macro-level, the question is whether these changes result in better or worse outcomes relative to your big policy goals. Are taboos against bingeing on unhealthy food (presumably a beneficial function of culture) becoming less effective? That's bad. Is the awkwardness of purchasing condoms or certain medical products reduced? That's good. Social and cultural norms have benefits and costs. Anonymous consumption shields a massive aspect of modern life from them. We'll see what happens.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Quote of the Week

"Pasadena returns all of its meter revenue to pay for added public services in the metered neighborhoods, and Old Pasadena is a good example of the benefits. Old Pasadena was until the 1980s a commercial skid row and now it is one of the most popular shopping destinations in Southern California. Parking meter revenue helps to explain that success. The meters, which were installed in Old Pasadena in 1993, bring in $1 million a year to spend on in added public services in just that little shopping district. The meter money paid to replace all the sidewalks, streetlights, street trees, and street furniture. It paid to clean up the alleys and put electric wires underground. The meter money also pays to pressure wash the sidewalks twice a month and to provide added police services. If LA adopted Pasadena’s parking meter policy, all of our business districts would be much more prosperous. Residents of LA would not have to go to Pasadena or Santa Monica or Culver City to walk around in clean and safe environments."
That's UCLA economist Donald Shoup talking about parking policy in LA. He's the author of the fantastic book The High Cost of Free Parking, which applies economic theory to questions about parking.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Vox.com is Underperforming Relative to My Expectation

When I first heard that Vox.com had snagged nearly every one of my favorite bloggers (Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, Brad Plumer, Dylan Matthews, Evan Soltas, Tim Lee, Sarah Kliff) I was obviously excited and anticipated a one-stop-shop for econosphere policy blogging. Several months into the new venture, I'm not super-impressed.

While it's certainly one of the better news websites out there, a couple of things bother me. One is the excess coverage of movie and television shows. It's a nice thought to try and expand the 'wonkblog' idea to other areas, but Vox's culture coverage isn't doing anything new in terms of analysis. And novel topics like visual art or fashion are left out.

Perhaps relatedly, Vox's best writers are actually not writing very much. I assume this is because the top bloggers--Klein and Yglesias--have taken on major editorial roles, but it really dilutes the site's concept. Instead of leveraging their incredible all-star team, more often than not all the top posts are from their second-stringers. By not showcasing Vox's superstars (by say, providing unique blogs/pages (they have these notebook things with and unreadable design)), they're selling themselves short.

The last point is that their website organization is a bit restrictive--but I think this will change over time (they're said as much).

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Environmental Gentrification

CityLab has an interesting piece covering some new research into the effects of brownfield reclamation on nearby housing prices. Establishing causation in environmental areas like this is notoriously difficult, but if there is a real effect here it leads to an interesting question about the process of gentrification: will proposed environmental improvements come to be seen as threats to low-income communities, just like new condos or transit links? I sort of doubt it. But why?

Typically anti-gentrification groups fight a new development because they see it as having the potential to raise housing costs, pushing existing residents out and destroying embedded community value. Via the process of public reasoning, some projects are seen to have benefits that outweigh these risks, while others are not and are opposed. In this framing, residents might accept environmental improvements simply because the benefits of reducing exposure to environmental hazards are seen as a worthwhile tradeoff compared to gentrification risks.

An interesting feature of this is the large overlap between environmental justice coalitions and anti-gentrification coalitions. Whether environmental improvements are projects that might split these two groups is a really interesting question. More fundamentally, to what degree does the ideal of environmental justice conflict with the ideal that residents should be free to make their own personal decisions regarding the tradeoffs between environmental quality and housing price?

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Institutional Decay

Matt Yglesias reminds us that legislating through the courts is not the best way to govern in a democracy:
The conventional term for the paralysis of the legislative branch is gridlock. But while it's true that it's exceptionally difficult for a bill to become a law — the president can veto it, 41 Senators can filibuster it, a bare majority of the majority caucus in the House can prevent it from coming to the floor, and that's leaving aside all manner of committees and political delays — it's not the case that policy stops changing. The judicial branch, through its power of statutory interpretation, is constantly changing the lived-experience of American public policy even if the legislative text stays constant. 
And yet the judicial branch is not properly equipped to make broad evaluations of the policy merits of different approaches.
The idea of institutional drift and decay is not a new one, but it's super-important and deserves increased visibility as a cost associated with congressional dysfunction. Throughout the US' history, we've had periods of drift but also periods of renewal. Lately we've had mostly drift and not a lot of renewal.

Francis Fukuyama's spectacular essay The Decay of American Political institutions (somehow can't find an ungated version), is probably the best analysis on the topic, but Steven Teles' Kludgeocracy idea is also related and very important.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Top Five Most Important Public Policy Issues

1. Establishing modular, independent, resilient and sustainable permanent non-Earth colonies.
2. Asteroid defense
3. Eliminating age-related pathology
4. Poverty (insufficient human capability due to lack of resources)
5. Ecological destruction

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Aereo is Toast

Tim Lee has a great rundown on today's Supreme Court ruling on the internet-television company Aereo:
In the process of ruling against Aereo, the Supreme Court has created a mess that will take lower courts years to clean up. Online services that are similar to Aereo in some respects and different in others are more likely to face lawsuits, and the lower courts will have to sort out which services are similar enough to Aereo to face copyright liability.
His point about future political chaos and uncertainty in the cloud storage industry isn't even a comprehensive picture of the damage this ruling will cause. The sections of spectrum currently claimed by broadcast television are extremely potent (signals are long-range and can pass through concrete etc.), and are almost certainly not allocated to their highest and best use (that would be wireless internet). Siding with Aereo would have set the US on the slow path towards reallocating this valuable spectrum, and eliminating the ridiculous subsidy to broadcast television.

On another note, I can't help think that even though Aereo's specific legal strategy didn't work (a warehouse full of tiny antennas), the basic idea of streaming television over the internet is inevitable. Aereo was probably over-ambitious by placing the antennas in a remote warehouse. This encouraged a psychological framing of their service as one totally disconnected from the typical TV-viewing experience. But image if instead you placed a unique antenna in your house, on your TV, which then connected to the internet and let you watch it anywhere. Having the antenna 'based' in your home, instead of in an impersonal warehouse would certainly make the broadcasters' case harder to stomach. After all, you can already do this with an old laptop...

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Arc of History Bends Towards Bicycle Safety

NYC mayor Bill De Blasio today signed a collection of traffic-safety bills into law, most notably increasing the penalties for cars hitting bicycles with the right of way:
Intro 238-A makes failing to yield to pedestrians or cyclists with the right of way a criminal misdemeanor, not just a traffic violation, punishable with fines and jail time. If the driver injures a pedestrian or cyclist with the right of way, penalties increase to a $250 fine and 30 days in jail.
This is great news, but there still exist a number of wicked problems related to bike safety. For one, many bicycle lanes are painted in the 'door zones' of parked cars, forcing safety-conscious cyclists to disregard them and ride farther out in front of motorists, antagonizing them. In general, many bicycle lanes face upkeep issues, with metal plates, gutters, or other debris partially or completely offsetting their safety benefit. More conceptually, nobody has yet discovered a solution to the 'right hook' situation where turning motorists cut-off cyclists proceeding straight forward.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Do Ice Cream Trucks Have an Outrageous Regulatory Subsidy?

Photo Credit: http://reisman.lohudblogs.com/
Most food trucks and food carts quietly set up shop in some high-traffic public space to make money. Ice cream trucks seem to be unique in that they're constantly moving and travel deep into residential areas. Presumably the only way these strategies are lucrative is because ice cream trucks announce their presence with a loud ring or jingle.

But why don't we see more competition in these residential areas by other food trucks? I see two possibilities. One is that the rich history of ice cream trucks and their jingles makes them uniquely identifiable to residents. If a taco truck wanted to roll through neighborhoods selling food, how would they identify themselves to customers in their houses watching tv? The norms and precedence for mobile food trucks selling anything other than ice cream just isn't there.

This possibly explains everything, but I doubt it's the whole story. It's not hard to imagine some enterprising food truck blasting a variation of an ice cream truck jingle to train new customers, or even get an initial market foothold by copying an ice cream truck jingle just to get people out of their houses (bait-and-switch).

My suspicion is that there exist some regulations restricting the ability for non-ice cream food trucks to roll around residential neighborhoods selling food and blasting music. Most food trucks are highly regulated by cities in many ways. A few years ago Washington DC had a big fight over new rules governing where food trucks could park. Other cities around the country have faced similar battles pitting incumbent restaurants and other interest groups against the relatively weak food truck establishment.

In general most of these rules restricting food trucks are too stringent. Policymakers caving to the baldly bootlegger and baptist strategy from brick-and-mortar restaurants is silly, and NIMBY complaints from neighborhood groups or other local institutions is not sufficient cause to block these innovative small businesses.

But ice cream trucks actively disrupt neighborhoods with their loud music (many neighborhoods in New York City experience Mr. Softee trucks rolling past 5-10 times per day every day from 7:00 am to 10:00 pm). It's virtually guaranteed that the introduction of a new systemic nuisance like this would result in numerous law-enforcement complaints and local collective action to block the change to the status quo.

Implicitly (due to the lack of complaints or enforcement of nuisance laws) or explicitly (due to special regulatory exemptions), ice creams trucks have a protected market position. Now, the complaints of one sensitive local resident aren't enough to justify corrective policy action, but in the context of other paternalistic public health efforts (smoking bans, calorie-count requirements, restrictions on advertising to kids, etc.), taking a hard look at the social effects of ice cream trucks' special status seems reasonable.

The idea of a toxic food environment in most urban areas is pretty well-established, and the penetration of ice cream trucks (and the obesogenic food they peddle) into low-income residential neighborhoods with populations at high-risk for metabolic disorders like diabetes and obesity is clearly damaging. The proliferation of online-ordering has leveled the playing field somewhat, but the psychological nudge of an ice cream truck loudly rolling up outside the house makes consuming this food that much harder to resist among willpower-depleted populations already struggling with health issues.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Quote of the Week

"There are two things that make Diplomacy so unique and challenging. The first is that, unlike in most board games, players don’t take turns moving. Everyone writes down their moves and puts them in a box. The moves are then read aloud, every piece on the board moving simultaneously. The second is that prior to each move the players are given time to negotiate with each other, as a group or privately. The result is something like a cross between Risk, poker, and Survivor — with no dice or cards or cameras. There’s no element of luck. The only variable factor in the game is each player’s ability to convince others to do what they want. The core game mechanic, then, is negotiation. This is both what draws and repels people to Diplomacy in equal force; because when it comes to those negotiations, anything goes. And anything usually does."
That's from an excellent Grantland profile of the board game Diplomacy.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Bitcoin Assassination Market Is Terrible. But What About This?

Ever since I read about the grotesque idea of a bitcoin assassination market, I haven't stopped thinking about its underlying mechanism, which itself isn't evil. The idea of anonymously crowdfunding an account that pays out under a specific circumstance, and only with blockchain unanimity is provocative, and might have some interesting applications.

Take political campaign contributions. The existence of widespread quid pro quo agreements between interest groups and lawmakers hasn't really been documented, but merely the appearance of corruption and dependency erodes trust in government and is corrosive to our democracy.

Most of the best solutions to the money-in-politics problem revolve around regulatory fixes (spending limits, increased transparency, decreased transparency etc.), but bitcoin 2.0 technology offers a potential band-aid that could marginally improve the incentives for certain politicians or policy issues.

It would not be difficult to imagine a bitcoin donations market whereby the first politician to come out publicly for some specific position would get paid. Or perhaps everyone on a committee voting a certain way on a bill would collect. State and local executives would be even more ideally placed to have their incentive structure modified by such a 'prize-for-action' scheme (their action-outcome link is tighter, and have less access to campaign funds than national figures). In many ways this conditional contribution approach is just a variation of the Kickstarter thing, but the specific mechanism of the blockchain makes it much more exciting.

Friday, June 6, 2014

To Combat Soda Increase the Availability of Free Water

Another day, another article explaining why soda is killing us and making us fat. Everybody knows that slapping a tax on the bubbly stuff would be the most effective an minimally-distortive policy to reduce consumption (versus, say Bloomberg's cup size nudges), but in light of tremendous political opposition in many jurisdictions, let me suggest another approach.

Making soda more expensive will discourage soda consumption and push people to consume other substitutes. Now some of those might just be other sweetened treats, solid or otherwise, but I'd guess that a large chunk of soda consumers drink the stuff because they're thirsty. Making healthier sources of hydration comparatively cheaper by say, increasing the availability of drinking fountains in cities, would seem to be a good idea targeted at that second group of soda drinkers.

Funding certainly exists for goofy, small urban projects with unscientific and uncertain benefits. A crash program to build a ton of drinking fountains all around cities would be a really interesting experiment.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Is Frontier CGI the Most Labor-Intensive Form of Artwork in History?

It certainly seems likely:



Via u/Muffintoxico this amazing showcase of some of the best-in-the-business CGI requires armies of animators and digital artists. Arthur C. Clark once remarked that the 7,000-strong team of engineers that labored to produce a new automobile model was an appalling waste of technical manpower. I won't go into whether free market capitalism allocates resources ethically, but this type of labor-intensive collaborative art existing on the frontier of technological possibility presents a fascinating case of markets supplying hugely valuable (in an economic sense) artistic products.

Art has always existed in a less-than-pure context of funding competition, and clearly the vast demand and money-making ability of movies and video games has meant CGI and natively-digital art has outpaced basically every other artistic medium in this economic measure. This sort of stuff is slowly starting to gain recognition by existing artistic institutions like museums, but it presents a major disruptive challenge to the existing art culture. These videos and video games are overwhelmingly action, fantasy, and sci-fi oriented, and currently would be relegated to the 'low art' category.

Which is fine. Low art created with novel technology doesn't stay that way forever, and its only a matter of time until artsy artists really start using the full CGI capabilities available to them. The uniquely-high labor demands of good CGI might present a roadblock to this adoption, though.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Creative Corporate Social Responsibility

As I've previously noted, non-profits have a set of structural issues that stack the deck against them delivering services efficiently and effectively. Not mentioned was the fact that many big nonprofits provide services by deploying small armies of volunteers from various big companies engaging in corporate social responsibility (CSR).

The New York Times recently had an interesting article about Toyota's CSR relationship with the Food Bank Of New York City, one of the largest free-food distribution organizations in the US. Instead of writing checks or sending unskilled employee volunteers, Toyota leveraged its efficient-business-process expertise to help make Food Bank better.

I tend to think that donating cash directly to charity organizations (or better yet, people themselves) is a much more effective way of making people's lives better compared to volunteering or direct service. The cost incurred by training, overseeing, and in some cases feeding new volunteers every day is too high, and biases organizations towards devoting resources into activities that can accept and use human volunteers. Charity organizations would be better served by receiving discretionary funds and then deciding--freely--what to use them for. Maybe it means the soup kitchen hires some servers (tasks previously done by volunteers), or maybe it means buying a better machine. Or maybe it means offering a high salary to steal away some lowly-but-valuable consultant to come run things. Who knows!

But clearly scrapping a volunteer program in exchange for a marginal increase in funding (most big companies that provide volunteers also provide institutional funding) would deprive companies of the branding component of CSR. And here's where Toyota's program is such a brilliant CSR coup. They managed to ditch the volunteering gig, which is relatively ineffective, while retaining--even enhancing--the branding and reputational benefits of their relationship with the Food Bank.

Now possibly this is just due to the novelty--if every business copies Toyota I'm guessing the New York Times articles will dry up. But in a broader way Toyota's branding success here shows that trying out innovative alternatives to boring-and-ineffective volunteer programs can pay off big time.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Quote of the Week

"Looking inside yourself for salvation, contemplating your navel, is not, as the Drop Out people would have you believe, the answer. Happiness lies outside yourself, is achieved through interacting with others. Self-forgetfulness should be one's goal, not self-absorption. The male, capable of only the latter, makes a virtue of irremediable fault and sets up self-absorption, not only as a good but as a Philosophical Good, and thus gets credit for being deep."
That's from the SCUM manifesto. Most self-absorbed contemplation has little social benefit, but some small share result in big intellectual breakthroughs. Additionally, receiving fame and recognition by anonymous internet people for deep navel-gazing previously relegated to journals and internal thoughts is evidence of the increased the social benefits of contemplation.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Are Zoos Morally Okay?

Over the years zoos have successfully repositioned themselves to be educational and research institutions affiliated with the environmental conservation movement. This is a far cry from their original incarnation as a more carnivalesque freakshow designed to trigger awe, wonder, and even fear.

With the animal rights movement and an increased concern for animal welfare, zoos are put in an awkward position. Imprisoning animals and depriving them of their capability to flourish in settings with limited human interaction is clearly an increasingly challenging thing to justify. Offsetting this morally questionable dimension of zoos are the potential upsides. Now of course, to hardcore animal rights advocates, no amount of social benefit makes zoos morally justifiable. But let's take a look.

Most often you'll hear arguments about protecting endangered species. I'm not too familiar with the effectiveness of zoos in this regard, but it seems unlikely this point is all that effective in the light of massive structural forces like economic growth, habitat destruction, etc. And the types of animals that are deemed worthy of zoo protection aren't necessarily those that are most crucial from an ecological integrity perspective. My suspicion is that much of the conservationist rhetoric surrounding zoos is a marketing strategy designed to maintain the institutional and historic inertia of zoos.

The educational mission of zoos is the strongest argument for a social benefit potentially large enough to offset their moral problems. Showing young children in a directly-experiential way that there exists a larger world out there is a great way to build up cosmopolitan and environmentalist ethics.  Whether the cheapness of air travel, the growth of information on the internet, and the explosion in popularity of nature-themed entertainment like Planet Earth makes this benefit of zoos more replaceable and thus zoos less morally justifiable is an open question.