Jan 31, 2013

Programming Update

Apologies for the lack of updates here, I've been swamped by a few things:

1) I'm finally, finally getting into the swing of my new job. The old guy is taking off, and I'm taking over the full responsibilities. It's a lot to learn and a lot of mistakes to make before I can get comfortable.

2) Our only intern bailed on us after a single day in the office, right as all the factchecking is coming in, so I'm having to do that all myself, while keeping up with #1.

3) Lastly, I got dumped and had to frantically move out of the place I was sharing with my now-ex. She had most of the stuff so I've had to put together a functional wretched bachelor kit too. I wondered about mentioning this online, but since I've made oblique references to the being-in-a-relationship thing I figure I might as well come clean. It burns like fucking hell but hey, these things happen.

Further updates should follow. In the meantime, you can check out my print piece on Shirley Sherrod, and my post introducing it. (Pretty proud of that second one, for a blog post anyway.)

Jan 25, 2013

Winter Wonderland

This, from yesterday, is the first snow I've seen since moving to DC.

Jan 24, 2013

Jan 23, 2013

Quote for the Day

"American politics at the moment is dominated by a succession of arcane, convoluted and arbitrary ceremonies performed by fakirs and zealots, fervently intoning the catechisms of long-dead sages, apparently unconcerned that they are bringing the real tasks of government to a disastrous standstill. Perhaps "banana republic" isn't the right phrase; "decadent empire" might be better. But either way, a trillion-dollar coin doesn't seem like it would have added much to the indignity." --Matt Steinglass.

Jan 16, 2013

Toy Story 3's Visions of Death

I was quite impressed with this:
The Dump/The Incinerator = Annihilation/Oblivion/No Afterlife at All: (Again, I don't blame anyone who thinks that no, this is actually Hell. The imagery is certainly there. I just happen to disagree, here's why.) After the possibility of togetherness but pointlessness, and the possibility of ongoing torment, comes the possibility of complete destruction. The toys react with initial mortal terror, as complete destruction is indeed an on the surface very scary concept. There are several times they could be destroyed, but manage to just barely scrape by by the skin of their teeth. But at the very end, falling into the pit, no way out, and no hope of rescue, the toys, starting with Buzz, have a change in attitude. They accept it and intend to go out together, with dignity. The look on Buzz's face seems to say it all. Even if they escaped, where would they go? to lives of unending meaninglessness? They realize that they were there for Andy, and as such lived full lives, and wanting more is not necessary. The toys acceptance of this end perfectly encapsulates why some people find the idea of simple nothingness after death more comforting than an afterlife. You've lived your life well, there's nothing more to want.
There's a great deal more if you care to check it out.

PS: Here's the scene in question:

Jan 10, 2013

How the Platinum Coin Option Helps the President's Negotiating Position

I agree with Joe Weisenthal, the debate over the platinum coin has been the most interesting discussion in ages. Not only has it split the usual coalitions—with Josh Barro allied with Atrios against Kevin Drum, for example—it's exposed in a stark way just how primitive the economic views of much of the national media are. On this segment, for example, neither of the hosts have a clear idea of what the coin proposal even is, let alone what it would do.

But Felix Salmon has a point—the coin proponents haven't been clear on the operational use of the idea. I agree that it would be a bad idea to wave the coin around and taunt the Republicans with it, they'd only be emboldened. So what should the president's strategy be? Here's my outline:

1) He should absolutely refuse to even entertain the possibility of negotiations over raising the debt ceiling. Normalizing the idea of holding the economy hostage to extract unrelated policy concessions is a terrible development, and habit needs to be broken.

2) If we indeed hit the debt ceiling, he should use Steve Randy Waldman's procedure for implementing the coin option:
The Treasury Secretary would announce that he is obliged by law to make certain payments, but that the debt ceiling prevents him from borrowing to meet those obligations. Although current institutional practice makes the Federal Reserve the nation’s primary issuer of currency, Congress in its foresight gave this power to the US Treasury as well. Following a review of the matter, the Secretary would tell us, Treasury lawyers have determined that once the capacity to make expenditures by conventional means has been exhausted, issuing currency will be the only way Treasury can reconcile its legal obligation simultaneously to make payments and respect the debt ceiling. Therefore, Treasury will reluctantly issue currency in large denominations (as it has in the past) in order to pay its bills. In practice, that would mean million-, not trillion-, dollar coins, which would be produced on an “as-needed” basis to meet the government’s expenses until borrowing authority has been restored. On the same day, the Federal Reserve would announce that it is aware of the exigencies facing the Treasury, and that, in order to fulfill its legal mandate to promote stable prices, it will “sterilize” any issue of currency by the Treasury, selling assets from its own balance sheet one-for-one. The Chairman of the Federal Reserve would hold a press conference and reassure the public that he foresees no difficulty whatsoever in preventing inflation, that the Federal Reserve has the capacity to “hoover up” nearly three trillion dollars of currency and reserves at will.
The president would do a live broadcast the day we hit the ceiling, explaining calmly that he is in a legal bind. Congress has passed a budget forcing the government to spend certain sums of money, but they have not given him the authority to borrow the money they themselves are forcing him to spend. He'd explain how on consultation with his lawyers he's determined the platinum option is legal, and he'd cite chapter and verse. He'd explain that there is no danger of inflation and that things will be returned to normal the moment Congress raises the debt limit. He could propose that he give up his power to print in return for abolishing the debt ceiling. Most of all, he'd be the classic cool, reserved Obama, reassuring everyone that this is only a little hiccup, a simple technical workaround a goofy obstacle, that won't affect anything important.

To be clear, I don't think it will get this far. My best guess (and that's all it is) is that the House GOP will probably just give up on this one.

But if the president can't acknowledge the validity of the coin option, what is the point of working through the logistics and generally talking about it so much? The real danger of the coin option is the ignorance of the national media. As we've been finding out, many members of the press have primitive, pre-Enlightenment beliefs about money. They think the government is like a household, and don't consider the implications of fiat currency. Running the government on platinum seigniorage, even temporarily, would sound deeply strange, and you can bet Republicans would be howling bloody murder. The coverage would be key. If only we had panicked reports from the likes of Judson Berger blaming the president entirely for the situation, gabbling incoherently about hyperinflation and default, then we'd likely see a big backlash and possibly impeachment.

Therefore, hashing out the debate now is critical, to give the president the confidence he needs that the platinum option is a viable one and he won't be crucified for exercising it, so he can absolutely refuse to negotiate over the debt ceiling. I'd say Team Coin has done quite well in this task so far.

PS: A different debt ceiling runaround is coming up today: an option to issue scrip instead of money, which I consider about equally valid to the coin option. Everything in this post would hold true for that option as well, with only a few minor changes in the details of implementation.

[Cross-posted from Ten Miles Square.]

Jan 7, 2013

Ship Design in Mass Effect, or, How a Staircase Destroyed the Normandy

[Minor spoilers.] In my continuing quest to play through years-old games so they'll run well on my crappy computer, I took a spin through Mass Effect over the weekend (it was pretty good!), and one thing stuck out at me that speaks a bit to how set design affects the believability of a setting.

So you play as one Commander Shepard, a standard videogame badass, who zips around the galaxy in his own custom ship, the Normandy. You spend a great deal of time on the ship, and throughout the game something was nagging me that I could't quite put my finger on. Here's a map of the command deck:

Mass Effect, like its close predecessor Knights of the Old Republic, has that Bioware interior design aesthetic where almost everything is perfectly clean and shiny, and 70-90 percent of all buildings are taken up by ostensibly ancillary spaces—catwalks, hallways, waiting areas, parlors, planters, staircases, etc. It's like they hired some architect to design "a building" only telling her after the fact that, oh yeah, people are supposed to live here. It's a minor thing for most of the game, but in the ship it really reaches the pinnacle of absurdity.

You see, someone spent a great deal of time researching actual science for this game, and not only so they could make sciencey-sounding explanations for the traveling faster than light. There's a "codex" on the menu screen with a whopping great backstory of aliens, human history, and so forth. There's a galaxy map, with dozens of accessible planets, most of which bear evidence of conversations with an astrogeologist.

But you see the two curvy bits of Normandy above, labeled "A?" Those are massive, sweeping staircases, probably five feet wide and 75 feet long, the kind of thing you'd see in a antebellum colonial mansion. Consider this picture of a submarine passageway:

Submarines are the closest thing we have to military spaceships these days—they travel in extreme environments, where a major hull breach means pretty much instant death, and they often require big, expensive propulsion systems. That means that a major design feature is going to be extreme economy of space, because every extra cubic centimeter of space is going to mean a bigger, more expensive ship that will be harder to move. Look at the catwalk above—not only is it just barely big enough to fit a man walking bent over, it's got controls sticking out everywhere. A real spaceship would have ladders to move vertically, especially a military one, because then you don't have to accommodate disabled or obese civilians.

So having any staircase (let alone a giant matched set) on such a vessel is so ridiculously extravagant it's like having toilet paper made of woven platinum threads. All Bioware's name checking stuff like cryovolcanoes was badly hampered by walking into a ship that was obviously designed to look cool without the slightest thought to how such a thing would actually work.

Actual space vessels are possibly even more cramped. Here's the International Space Station:

I suppose one could argue that the Alliance (the human military organization in the game) is so rich it can afford preposterous volumetric luxury, but at one point during the game an Alliance admiral comes to hassle you about how expensive the ship was. Even if they did have money spurting out of their ears, why wouldn't they scrap the staircase in favor of more propulsion, or shielding, or weaponry? Maybe this is why the Normandy got all shot to pieces at the beginning of Mass Effect 2.

Sadly, few others seem to be bothered by this. The Normandy in Mass Effect 2 has a more sensible elevator, but at the cost of some loading screens in between. Apparently people prefer the staircase.

Jan 4, 2013

My Thinking Evolves on Climate Change and Geoengineering

An engineered phytoplankton bloom, designed to
lock carbon on the seafloor, seen from space.
When folks talk about climate change for a lay audience they typically omit a discussion of geoengineering (meaning trying to deliberately lower the earth's temperature using technology), I imagine because they don't want to complicate the issue and the implications are uncomfortable. For one thing many of the strategies miss many of the worst effects of climate change; seeding the atmosphere with reflective chemicals like sulfur dioxide to decrease warming, for example, does nothing to combat ocean acidification. For another geoengineering would have to be an ongoing process, especially if we continue to burn carbon—better to use this opportunity to move to a renewable-based economy and put fossil fuels behind us.

I also suspect that it seems like a bit of a cheat, a way for humanity to wriggle out of the dire consequences of its actions.

But I've had in the back of my mind the vague idea that we'd end up doing it on a massive scale anyway, because we'd hit some point where the effects of climate change would be so extreme that it would be worth trying as a last-ditch effort to avoid a cataclysm. A new paper on the economics of geoengineering has changed my thinking on this somewhat:
This paper begins with the realization that there are really two different externalities involved in the climate change problem, that they have near-opposite properties, that they interact, and that it seems difficult to say offhand which one is more threatening than the other. The first externality, described by the above quotes, comes in the usual familiar form of a public goods problem whose challenge is enormous because so much is at stake and it is so difficult to reach an international governing agreement that divides up the relatively expensive sacrifices that would be required by each nation to really make much of a dent in greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations. The classic governance problem here is to limit the underprovision of a public good from free riding.
A second less-familiar externality shows up in the scary form of geoengineering the stratosphere with reflective particles to block incoming solar radiation. This geoengineering-type externality is so relatively cheap to enact that it might in principle effectively be undertaken unilaterally by one nation feeling itself under climate siege, to the detriment of other nations. The challenge with this second global externality also appears to be enormous, because here too so much is at stake and it also seems difficult to reach an international governing agreement. If the first externality founders on the "free rider" problem of underprovision, then the second externality founders on what might be called the "free driver" problem of overprovision. If the first externality is the "mother of all externalities," then the second externality might be called the "father of all externalities." These two powerful externalities appear to be almost polar opposites, between which the world is trapped.
The problem of climate change is at root a collective action problem. A small group of people gain fabulous wealth from pollution, and a much larger group—literally the remainder of humanity—unevenly shoulder the costs. What I hadn't fully grasped up until now is that geoengineering has a similar problem. Without international coordination, it's eminently possible to face equally dire consequences from a panicked geoengineering scheme whipped up by some nation in mortal peril (like the Maldives). As Ryan Avent says:
What seems increasingly important to understand, however, is that the need for international cooperation will be if anything more serious in a world that doesn't act to control emissions (or control emissions enough to prevent substantial warming)... 
Just as serious a concern, however, is that pressure for geoengineering solutions will grow as the effects of warming intensify. Large, northerly countries like Canada and Russia have an almost unchecked ability to adapt but smaller and more equatorial places will quickly run out of options. It is unrealistic to suppose that unilateral geoengineering schemes won't be an inevitable result.
Such schemes could pose huge risks. Successful, precisely deployed efforts might nonetheless have unpredictable and substantial side effects or unpleasant distributional costs. Without a forum to address such effects, geopolitical tensions could worsen in a hurry. Even more frightening, uncoordinated efforts could be too successful, flipping earth from a warming scenario to a dangerously cold one.
So really, there is no escape from the desperate need for international coordination, geoengineering escape hatch or no.

Jan 1, 2013

My Favorite Things 2012

Happy New Year, everyone! This is just a list of things I enjoyed in 2012, in no particular order:

1. My new job. I'm still living basically hand-to-mouth but I really enjoy it and things seem to be progressing nicely.

2. Zero Punctuation. Yahtzee Croshaw is a funny, insightful bastard. His humor has been getting more moral of late as well (i.e., excising the gay jokes), which is great and hard to pull off.

3. New family! My sister got married this year to a guy I knew from elementary school and while they are scraping along money-wise like everyone else I know they seem in good spirits and I'm happy for them. UPDATE: They've got a cute vacation blog here.

4. Spec Ops: The Line. This is the finest piece of art I experienced in 2012, something that affected me profoundly and had me thinking about it for weeks afterwards.

5. Terry Pratchett. I'm almost completely through with the Discworld books, and for me they represent the very best of pop art. They're well-crafted, entertaining, gripping reads with deep and thoughtful social commentary on an impressive variety of subjects, everything from gender and class politics to war to economics. Furthermore, his work on assisted dying is excellent.

What are your favorite things from last year?