Lincoln & Hamlin in ’60

Seen from a distance, some political periods and personalities appear heroically altruistic. Seen up close, they probably all seem petty and egoistic.

This slightly dorky campaign button is one I wouldn’t mind affixing to my lapel. I just need to a find a contemporary one as likely to endure.

Massive Risk Management

Governor Schwarzenegger made an announcement on Monday. He’s withdrawing support for a planned offshore oil project in California state waters. He was very clear: this decision was made specifically because of the Gulf oil leaks.

“I think that we all go through the endless amount of studies and research and everything, and before you make a decision like that, you are convinced that this will be safe,” the governor added. “But then again, you know, you see that, you turn on television and see this enormous disaster and you say to yourself, why would we want to take that risk?”

We have a hard time planning around risks that have low probability but potentially massive impact. Most risk assessment is done intuitively, and our intuition gets fickle around long-tail events. Our gut instincts differ person-to-person, and also perhaps within ourselves. Somehow I can never be bothered to wear a helmet when I get on a bicycle, but when riding a motorcycle in states without a helmet requirement, the idea of taking mine off strikes me as absolutely insane.

Formal cost-benefit analyses can be used to mathematize planning around uncertain outcomes, and they often are. But CBA can lead to especially extreme cases of garbage-in/garbage-out, and usually does. What number do you assign to the “cost” of a species loss, for example. And how would an equation help if you didn’t know what the probability of a species loss was anyway? Laplaces’s insufficient reason criterion can be used to hold together these shaky formalizations, but that criterion states that if you can’t guess the outcome, insert a 50/50 chance of it happening. Which makes intuitive sense I guess, but here we are at intuition again.

Intuition is sensitive to recent circumstances. And so, because of the timing of the “pictures on TV”, California won’t have offshore drilling. I’m sympathetic to the governor; I’m sure he was shown credible evidence that safety standards in oil rigging have been much improved. But how much safety is enough? It depends what’s on TV at the moment.

We seem to collectively deal with a lot of these low-probability/high-impact decisions. I think they’re some of the most important choices societies make (whatever that means). For example, the question “how to deal with the threat of terrorism?”, is premised, often invisibly, on the question “how much of a threat is terrorism?”. Is the attempted Times Square bombing proof that Americans are living under threat? Or is it a reminder that American citizens are remarkably safe from home front terrorism? When the potential consequences are so important, declaring something irrelevant because it’s out-of-the-ordinary doesn’t seem right somehow. And yet, and yet.

Or how about that crazy climate change? Critics suggest that because we have uncertainty in the outcomes — which we absolutely do — we shouldn’t be pouring resources into combatting an unknown. Which isn’t so crazy, if you consider the opportunity costs: the money and time and political capital we spend keeping carbon out of the atmosphere could be going to plenty of other deserving projects. But my intuition tells me that the uncertainty associated with climate change is precisely the reason we should fear it. I worry that we’re going to learn too late the value of a predictable climate. Each specific climate-linked tragedy may be unlikely to the point of absolute unknowability, but somehow that collection of unknowable tragedies sounds like the worst thing in the world to me.

I have a hard time articulating that threat to myself or to others, but the precautionary principle speaks to it. According to wikipedia, the principle states that

“if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those who advocate taking the action.”

Environmental systems are weird. They often seem to be complex in the academic sense, behaving in aggregate in ways which can be either resistant to perturbation or suddenly highly sensistive to it. Formal complex systems theory usually isn’t very good at predicting outcomes in environmental systems (although I think it’s fabulous at helping us to understand why we can’t make those predictions). Ecologies are weird and unknowable, but they are also crucial to our lives, both in big ways and small ways. We will all die if the ecosystem services we rely on are thrown out of wack, but we will all be miserable and grumpy long before those services completely collapse. That combination of complexity and cruciality makes predictions around unlikely but potentially significant environmental dangers especially perplexing.

I’m not usually a small-c conservative, I tend to value experimentation and liberal politics. But because of the particularly fraught nature of environmental choices, I’m a big believer in that precautionary principle.

Carry Your Papers When You’re In Arizona

Two summers ago I did field research in Arizona and New Mexico. At the time I knew I liked New Mexico, what I didn’t know was that I was going to love Arizona. Arizona is a out-sized biogeographical fantasia. It upholds those aspects of American culture that I enjoy: friendly, indwelling small towns; discount liquor in the corner store; cheap motels; intelligent progressive cities; a darkly glistening spider’s web of two-lane blacktop to take you anywhere you want to go. At the same time, it violates magnificently one of my least favourite aspects of American culture, that being an obsession with private property. In Arizona (and the Southwest generally), the unofficial rule is that if you can camp anywhere that doesn’t say “no trespassing”, and there aren’t many “no trespassing” signs in Arizona. The coda to that rule is, if you have to open a gate, close it behind you.

Sunset At Dead Car Campsite
another random camp site in Arizona

It took me a little while to get used to the idea that I could pull my rental car onto any dirt track road I could find, drive until I found a nice view, and spend the night. But I got used to it.

how about here?

Nor were there a lot of police to enforce any private property rules that might exist. I don’t actually recall seeing a single cruisier in my time there. Although when I was down around the border I did see a whole lot of green and white border patrol vehicles.

respect for the rules

So it’s sad to me that Arizona passed legislation giving police the power to stop anyone for whom they have “reasonable suspicion” of being an illegal immigrant, and arrest them on the spot if they aren’t carrying proof of their immigration status with them. I like an Arizona that represents freedom. Arizona as symbol of creeping fasicm I like less.

I know that my little gripe is just a little one. This law isn’t really about me. This law will be about brown immigrants and anybody who looks like a brown immigrant. It will be a new tool for Joe Arpaio and his gang to wield in their vendetta against the town of Phoenix. It will give the the Tuscon Police Department something to selectively enforce against residents of the Old Town, and a new way to dodge search-and-seizure regulations when they’re on fishing trips in the war on the drugs. And it will also be used against the “bad guy” illegal Mexican immigrants.

I doubt if any straight white Canadian males camping out on the high plateau will actually get shaken down for proof that they aren’t illegal Mexicans, whether they cave in and keep it in their pocket or not. But that feeling of freedom was mostly a dream anyway, and I’m sorry to feel that particular corner of the American dream slip away from me a little.

Why I Love the Tea Party

“It has no single issue around which people rally. It has no clear leader who drives the organization’s message, motivates followers and raises money. Indeed, the hundreds of tea party chapters and tens of thousands of its activists cannot agree on the most basic strategic goal: whether to influence the current political system or dismantle it.”

Analysis: Is the tea party brewing a revolution? Ron Fournier, Associated Press

And yet that anarchic aggregation is driving the political climate in the USA almost as effectively as their celebrity president, and more effectively than either political party. They’re a bunch of moonbats of course, but I love the medium of their crazy message.

Why I Love Nate Silver

The following two sentences, regarding the passage of the U.S. healthcare bill:

‘Was the “will of the electorate” breached? I think any such framing has to contend with the following 14 arguments’

The 14 arguments that follow (apparently posted at 6:30 in the morning) are pretty good too.

The Market Wisdom Was Wrong on U.S. Healthcare?

Intrade is a “prediction marketplace“, which is a sort of alternate stock exchange attempting to leverage the ability of markets to rationalize information held by distributed individuals. The idea is to concentrate common sense and/or insider information into an emergent prediction, by letting people put money behind their guesses. There’s an assumption that people will bet money relative to their degree of certainty in a given prediction, thus correcting for haphazard speculation and (maybe) ideology. People argue back and forth about the effectiveness of prediction marketplaces, but it’s certainly a plausible sounding idea, for some kinds of predictions.

Intrade had a running trade on the U.S. health care bill passing by June.

The wisdom of the crowd was against the bill passing for the majority of the run, and as recently as three weeks ago. There wasn’t a clear consensus for passage until practically last week.

So what was it about the U.S. healthcare politics that confounded the prediction marketplace? Was it in fact wishful thinking from the sorts of people who are likely to participate in prediction markets? Were they wrong for the right reasons, and today’s bill-signing was actually a freak event? Was there something fundamentally abnormal about the political dynamics of this bill such that established heuristics failed people who thought they had a money-good grasp of what was going on?

I guess all of those hypotheses presume that the Intrade market has some track record of getting things more or less right. Has anyone checked? Paging Dr. Tetlock?

It’s Medical

Math-Checking the Carbon Pledges

President Obama today announced that he’ll be going to the Copenhagen climate talks, and that he’ll be taking an emissions cut pledge with him. That would be a 17% cut from 2005 levels by 2020. It’s great to hear a US leader setting quantitative targets.

There are a few caveats:

  • the President doesn’t get to pass laws and congress hasn’t committed, so it’s not clear how he can make a unilateral pledge
  • he’s going to the start of the talks, rather than the end, which is when all the rest of the leaders are supposed to hang out

I’m happy to look past those. Setting targets and filling in the details later beats nothing, and what the hell ever happens at leader’s photo-ops anyway? But there’s one more

  • that’s a 17% cut from 2005 levels

When countries announce emissions reductions, they almost always either baseline them against 1990, or some time in the last few years. If they pick 1990, it’s because they’re serious and they want to use the same standard that’s been in play since the days when the Kyoto Treaty was being formulated. Using 1990 means you can compare it against everybody else’s reduction commitments, since they’re all using 1990 levels as well.

Except for that second group, who will use a recent year, like 2005 or 2006. Some time just long enough ago that emissions data is firmly on record, but recent enough that the proportional calculation includes all the increases in emissions that have gone on since we were supposed to get serious about reductions back in the ’90s. Obama has chosen to be in that second group.

How about Canada? We’ve pledged (also without saying how we’re going to do it) 20% cuts from 2006 levels. Second group. Short bus.

Hard to sort out what all those numbers mean: 20% vs. 17% of two different emissions levels, 1990 vs 2005 vs 2006. Luckily, Stephen Wolfram’s massive ego begot Wolfram Alpha for exactly this sort of operation.

So, Wolfram Alpha, if the U.S. cut its greenhouse gas levels to 17% of what it emitted in 2005, what proportion of the amount emitted in 1990 would that be?

If Wolfram’s data is correct and the U.S. followed through on this current pledge, by 2020 the nation would be emitting 97% of the greenhouse gases released in 1990. That’s a 3% cut against 1990 levels, to compare with the 20 to 30% the European Union has pledged, for example. Keep in mind, by 1990 we had already realized that greenhouse gas levels were too high to maintain a stable climate. And by 2020 we will have had yet another decade of destabilization. I’m still glad he’s setting targets, we may well need to take a few baby steps before we start walking somewhere useful. But that’s not fully reassuring, yet.

What about Canada? Environment Minister Jim Prentice is tickled that Canada and the U.S. are “harmonizing” their responses, regardless of their quality. He’s pointing out that the targets are oh-so-close to each other. Great! But if we want to use the 1900 baseline, just how close our targets are would depend on how we compare with regards to relative increase in emissions since then. Let’s check.

Unfortunately, Wolfram Alpha’s greenhouse emissions data only goes up to 2005, so we’ll have to fudge the Canadian calculation a little and run it against 2005 data instead of the 2006 that the government is using in their calculations. That said, here goes:

That’s 100.3% of our 1990 emissions (assuming again that the data is correct). Very close to the U.S. commitment, yes. We’ve just very classily managed to commit to nudging our emissions commitment a teeny bit higher than the 1990 amounts that were scary back then.

Tar Sands Day

There’s protesters occupying two dump trucks at the Albian plant, hanging a banner off Niagara Falls, and picketing the Canadian embassy in Washington. All this to celebrate Prime Minister Harper’s visit to President Obama. Let’s hope this activity marks some kind of tipping point in continental awareness of the tar sands and their special place in the canon of global-scale environmental mistakes.

Here’s a couple of reasons why:

  1. Tar sands don’t threaten habitat, they replace it. They’re huge. Never mind for the moment the release of toxic byproduct into the Athabasca or the apparent increase in disease incidences in downstream first nations towns, the tar sands are actually a hole in the surface of the earth. I would suggest looking at them in Google Earth, but the tar sands are also one of the few places on earth where the very topography of the planet is reshaped on a fast enough schedule that Google Earth’s elevation data is necessarily out of date.
  2. (and this is the big one) Tar sands is perhaps the most climate-destabilizing method of taking petroleum out of the ground that humans have invented. It takes a lot of effort to get those hydrocarbon chains out of that greasy black gunk. Effort means energy. We put energy in to get the energy out. The exact figure of how many barrels of oil you get out for each barrel worth of energy you put in is hard to come by, presumably because it’s so politically fraught. Pembina institute says the production of tar sands crude dumps about 3 times as much carbon into the atmosphere as other Canadian sources of oil, which is hardly a high standard. Oil prices will continue to climb as availability shrinks, so burning up some non-renewable resources to get some more of them faster will continue to be an economically feasible trade-off (as long as we don’t require the petro companies to cover the wider costs generated from climate destabilization). We have to decide for ourselves that environmentally, socially, this is not an acceptable trade-off. Today seems like a good day to make that call.

Write your government! If you’re in Canada, Dogwood Initiative has some tools for you. In the States swing by Rainforest Action Network. Canada sells the tar sands as a politically stable, domestic source of precious petroleum. Let’s demonstrate that having domestic oil means that it isn’t politically stable, because people here still have some say in how and when their dirt gets dug up.

A little Q&A:

Tar sands or oil sands? Kinda like notebooks or laptops. If you’re in the industry or directly engaging with them you say oil sands, otherwise you say tar sands. Both sound ugly and are.

What about the ducks? Yes, a whole bunch of ducks died when they landed on the giant tailings pond in the Aurora site, were coated in petroleum by-product and sank. 500, oh no wait, 1606 of them. In fact, Syncrude picked today to plead not guilty in the court case, even as they apologize and re-iterate the un-acceptableness of the duck’s deaths and their firm commitment to preventing further loss of duck life. 1600 ducks is sad, but not the issue. The simple presence of the pit mines will have driven down the local population levels of of animal and plant communities by plenty more than 1600. Who knows what the tar sand’s contribution to planetary climate de-stabilization will do to populations of species world-wide. I think the thing about the ducks is that they’re a clear symbol of identifiable harm, so we’re all hung up on them.

Can you occupy a dump truck? Occupation is normally reserved for buildings, it’s true. But these dump trucks are bigger than my house.

A Badly Recorded Presidential Dinner with John Hodgman

Here is a video of John Hodgman’s remarks following the presidents own speech to the Radio & TV Correspondents’ Dinner last night:

You will note that there is a significant cross-circuit hum, and that the audio is de-synced from the video. And yet, I have to admit that they didn’t screw up the recording of Hodgman as much as I did.

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