Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Supply side reforms

This is Joseph.

Following up on Jan 27th's post about resilience, I want to really engage why supply side reforms are tricky. The Canadian example is physicians, the capacity of which has been reduced over time to curb demand by restricting supply. In the short term, this can create efficiency and there can be benefits.

For example, food restrictions can reduce the consequences of diabetes:
During the Franco-Prussian War of the early 1870s, the French physician Apollinaire Bouchardat noted that his diabetic patients' symptoms improved due to war-related food rationing, and he developed individualized diets as diabetes treatments.

It is probably true that, in the very short term, restricting food availability in North America could end up creating some health benefits. But it could also go desperately wrong if this overshot and there was a famine. The consequences of a famine are worse than what one is trying to treat, as we see from the lifetime ill effects from the Dutch famine in WW2.  

Another good example of supply restrictions going terribly wrong is in housing. Tight housing restrictions start off by offering benefits (e.g., adequate parking) but can quickly go very, very wrong. What started looking like a good plan for improving livability has turned into an exodus away from crushing housing prices. Once again, a supply side solution shows extremely poor resilience. 

So the point here is a general skepticism about the consequences of this style of reform. It is easy because it lets you address a problem (i.e., increasing medical costs) in a way that the consequences are diffused (wait times are just a little but longer, just a few fewer people get careers as physicians) so that the political costs are minimized. But the consequence appears, increasingly to induce fragility. It is over 40 years since Ronald Reagan made supply side solutions popular -- could it be time for a serious rethink on what we've learned? 

P.S. See this great comment by Josh Marshall

In the long run, it is rarely a good thing to have a weak bench of workers when you suddenly need them. 

Monday, January 30, 2023

Deferred Thursday Tweets -- TBH, I have trouble arguing against "unvaccinated sperm is the next Bitcoin"

I know this isn't new information, but take a minute and let the following sink in:

1. While many in the mainstream press (particularly the NYT) have been visibly pleased at the thought of Ron DeSantis taking the nomination from Trump, the one issues that genuinely divides the two men is the former president's role in developing (and continued desire to take credit for) covid vaccines. DeSantis has also tacked to the right by being even more trans and homophobic than Trump, but it is with the anti-vaxxers that he has truly set himself apart;

2.  Though it's difficult to define our terms exactly, a large part, possibly a majority, of the GOP are to some degree anti-vaxxers. Many, particularly in the MAGA base, also believe that the covid vaccines is a leading cause of death among the otherwise healthy. There is also a widespread belief that one can literally catch the vaccine and suffer serious effects (including death) by coming into contact with the vaccinated.

3. By the standards of today's Republican Party, none of this qualifies as fringe. You can find these beliefs alluded to and sometimes openly espoused by members of congress, scholars at think tanks, public health officials, powerful journalists, and influencers with massive followings.

And the funniest exchange.

Though it is easy to have a laugh at the crazies, this remains a frightening story, not only because of the damage these people can do, but because, while there are notable exceptions, I honestly don't believe that sane people have come to terms with this level of craziness and its implications. (For my thoughts on this, you might start with our feral disinformation posts.)

Now on with the tweets.

No analyst came out of 2022 looking better than Tom Bonier

More on the Social Security beat.

I should have posted this while it was still topical, but I can't resist a good "how many licks" parody.

I'd make a Foley artist joke if anyone out there knew what a Foley artist was.

Great thread.

Friday, January 27, 2023


 This is Joseph

I wanted to highlight this recent article by Chris Dillow. He doesn't use quite the examples that I would but it is very much a critique of how we have ended up creating a rather fragile system. 

The auto industry was a pioneer of just in time inventory, which was a major savings and a notable improvement in efficiency. But the global shortage of computer chips for cars was a clear example of that system not building in redundancy for a slowdown in sales nor could it pivot quickly when there was a supply interruption. 

Medical systems in Canada experienced a great deal of cuts over the years, to try and save on costs. Health economists convinced premier Bob Rae that you could save costs by reducing capacity, a goal continued by many left of center successors.  This worked well, at first, by increasing efficiency and forcing the health care system to focus on priority cases. But it was left mortally vulnerable to a demand side shock (like a pandemic). It is also notable that they kept this process up even as the large baby boom cohort aged, creating exactly the inverse age pyramid that accelerates a crisis. 

Chris Dillow's conclusion is exactly right:

This issue is, however, off the political agenda. One of the many defects of our political debate is a belief that things will be tolerable if only we could find the right people; this is Bonnie Tylerism, holding out for a hero. This, however, is the wrong question. We should be looking not for good people but for the right institutions, selection mechanisms and processes - devices which would make our economy and politics more resilient to idiots or crooks

In many ways this is also a critique of the general culture of needing "the right people" or the "lone genius" model of success. Mark has been discussing a famous businessman lately, and part of what makes that situation so clearly tragic is that good business plans should still work if the leader is distracted by acquiring a social media company. The corporate plan should also include the real world challenges that arise, when considering realistic targets.  The same way that people say that a policy would have worked had it been "done right" need to accept human fallibility as a design constraint for a good plan. 

None of this is to say that efficiency is bad or that we need to guard against every conceivable tail risk. But I suspect the last few years would have gone better in Canada if there had been a modicum of planning around "what if something goes wrong?".

Thursday, January 26, 2023

As Columbo might say, just one more thing about our previous post

A few days ago, the New York Times Magazine ran a piece arguing that when Elon Musk put drivers' lives at risk with dangerous products, he is actually performing a "blunt utilitarian calculus," tolerating short term sacrifices (not coincidentally from other people) in order to advance his life-saving technologies.

I pushed back.

With the complicated exception of SpaceX, none of Musk's businesses are on the cutting edge of anything. In autonomous  driving, AI, solar cell development, brain-machine interfaces, tunneling machines, and countless other technologies where Musk has promised revolutionary disruptions, his companies are, at best, in the middle of the pack and, in some cases, not making any serious effort at all. (On a related note, despite attempts to muddy the waters with creative statistics, Tesla spends far less than any of its major competitors on R&D)
A few hours after that posted, I came across this perfect coda from Consumer Reports.

Of the 12 ADA systems we just finished testing, Ford BlueCruise came out on top, followed by Cadillac Super Cruise and Mercedes-Benz Driver Assistance. Tesla, once an innovator in ADA with its Autopilot system, fell from its second-place showing in 2020 to seventh this time around—about the middle of the pack. That’s because Tesla hasn’t changed Autopilot’s basic functionality much since it first came out, instead just adding more features to it, says Fisher. “After all this time, Autopilot still doesn’t allow collaborative steering and doesn’t have an effective driver monitoring system. While other automakers have evolved their ACC and LCA systems, Tesla has simply fallen behind.”


Wednesday, January 25, 2023

"Elon Musk’s Appetite for Destruction" is nothing compared to his appetite for suckers

 While a lot of people (your humble bloggers included) were skeptical from the beginning of the tech messiah narrative in general and Musk as a real life Tony Stark in particular, there were real accomplishments coming out of both SpaceX and Tesla and it was easy to get caught up in the moment. Besides, where was the harm? Rockets, electric cars, solar cells... these were all good things. Even if Musk was a bit of a snake oil salesman, his heart certainly seemed to be in the right place. 

It wasn't until four or five years ago that it became obvious to anyone even casually following the story that Musk was neither genius nor altruist. He was simply a moderately talented grifter with no background in or talent for engineering who came along at the right time. Early on he hired some very smart engineers who did produce some impressive advances at SpaceX and solved some daunting manufacturing challenges at Tesla, but it quickly became clear that not only was Musk not the brains behind these things; he didn't even have a basic grasp of the underlying concepts.

Putting aside a few sycophants and Flavor-aid drinkers, everyone on the front lines has seen through the con. Whether it's the LA Times, the NYT, CNBC, Bloomberg, Business Insider, the reporters who work this beat have learned to be skeptical of both his claims and his intentions.

 Somehow, though, with the exception of the LAT (where pretty much the whole paper was onto the guy from the beginning), word never made it up the chain to the editors and star journalists. It's true that Musk's reputation has been tarnished by infantile displays, Covid denial, and the embrace of the alt-right, but that just makes the story better. Now he's a flawed hero, brilliant but self-destructive, trying to save the world despite his personal demons. 

Which brings us to Christopher Cox's piece for the New York Times Magazine.

Peter Thiel, Musk’s former business partner at PayPal, once said that if he wrote a book, the chapter about Musk would be called “The Man Who Knew Nothing About Risk.” But that’s a misunderstanding of Musk’s attitude: If you parse his statements, he presents himself as a man who simply embraces astonishing amounts of present-day risk in the rational assumption of future gains. 


Some of Musk’s most questionable decisions, though, begin to make sense if seen as a result of a blunt utilitarian calculus. Last month, Reuters reported that Neuralink, Musk’s medical-device company, had caused the needless deaths of dozens of laboratory animals through rushed experiments. Internal messages from Musk made it clear that the urgency came from the top. “We are simply not moving fast enough,” he wrote. “It is driving me nuts!” The cost-benefit analysis must have seemed clear to him: Neuralink had the potential to cure paralysis, he believed, which would improve the lives of millions of future humans. The suffering of a smaller number of animals was worth it.

This form of crude long-term-ism,* in which the sheer size of future generations gives them added ethical weight, even shows up in Musk’s statements about buying Twitter. He called Twitter a “digital town square” that was responsible for nothing less than preventing a new American civil war. “I didn’t do it to make more money,” he wrote. “I did it to try to help humanity, whom I love.”


Autopilot and F.S.D. represent the culmination of this approach. “The overarching goal of Tesla engineering,” Musk wrote, “is maximize area under user happiness curve.” Unlike with Twitter or even Neuralink, people were dying as a result of his decisions — but no matter. In 2019, in a testy exchange of email with the activist investor and steadfast Tesla critic Aaron Greenspan, Musk bristled at the suggestion that Autopilot was anything other than lifesaving technology. “The data is unequivocal that Autopilot is safer than human driving by a significant margin,” he wrote. “It is unethical and false of you to claim otherwise. In doing so, you are endangering the public.”

There are serious debates to be had about the trade-offs between short term sacrifices and long term benefits to mankind that can come from research in autonomous systems, AI, and medicine, but none of these debates will feature Tesla or Neuralink, These avoidable car crashes and animals being tortured to death serve no purpose other than to enhance Elon Musk's super-genius brand and to directly or indirectly pump the value of Tesla.  

Musk's fame and adoration, his sense of identity, and the vast majority of his wealth all come from the perception that he is one of the world's greatest engineers and inventors, which is a big problem given that Musk is not only not an engineer, he has never shown any talent in the field even by layman standards.

Even down something like two thirds from its peak last year, Tesla is still wildly overvalued based on conventional metrics for an auto company. The stock price only makes sense if people assume that some wonderful new breakthrough is just around the corner. But the product pipeline appears to be largely empty. The company hasn't introduced a new car for years. Despite having had a head start, the cybertruck was beaten to market by multiple competitors. The semi is a joke. The humanoid robot Optimus looks like something from a science fair, decades behind what we have come to expect from Boston Dynamics, not to mention other car companies like Honda.



With the complicated exception of SpaceX, none of Musk's businesses are on the cutting edge of anything. In autonomous  driving, AI, solar cell development, brain-machine interfaces, tunneling machines, and countless other technologies where Musk has promised revolutionary disruptions, his companies are, at best, in the middle of the pack and, in some cases, not making any serious effort at all. (On a related note, despite attempts to muddy the waters with creative statistics, Tesla spends far less than any of its major competitors on R&D)

Given all this, the "rational assumption of future gains" argument is simply absurd, and anyone who still buys this or the line about Elon's love of humanity needs to talk to the people who actually cover Musk for a living.

* Longtermism: a philosophical school which argues that we should give billionaires more money and which has proven surprisingly popular with billionaires.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Understanding ChatGPT

From the Kids in the Hall:

Monday, January 23, 2023

Reposted for no particular reason.

Monday, December 7, 2020

On the bright side, how much damage could one of the world's three richest men with the personality of a cult leader do?

Cult is a dangerous term to throw around and it obviously doesn't apply in the narrow sense to Musk's followers, but there are some aspects that give one pause.

Take a look at the following list from former FBI agent Joe Novarro [emphasis added]:

If you know of a cult leader who has many of these traits there is a high probability that they are hurting those around them emotionally, psychologically, physically, spiritually, or financially. And of course this does not take into account the hurt that their loved ones will also experience. 
Here are the typical traits of the pathological cult leader (from Dangerous Personalities) you should watch for and which shout caution, get away, run, or avoid if possible:

    He has a grandiose idea of who he is and what he can achieve is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, or brilliance.

    Demands blind unquestioned obedience.

    Requires excessive admiration from followers and outsiders.

    Has a sense of entitlement - expecting to be treated special at all times.

    Is exploitative of others by asking for their money or that of relatives putting others at financial risk.

    Is arrogant and haughty in his behavior or attitude.

    Has an exaggerated sense of power (entitlement) that allows him to bend rules and break laws.

    Takes sexual advantage of members of his sect or cult.

    Sex is a requirement with adults and sub adults as part of a ritual or rite.

    Is hypersensitive to how he is seen or perceived by others.

    Publicly devalues others as being inferior, incapable, or not worthy.

    Makes members confess their sins or faults publicly subjecting them to ridicule or humiliation while revealing exploitable weaknesses of the penitent.

    Has ignored the needs of others, including: biological, physical, emotional, and financial needs.

    Is frequently boastful of accomplishments.

    Needs to be the center of attention and does things to distract others to insure that he or she is being noticed by arriving late, using exotic clothing, overdramatic speech, or by making theatrical entrances.

    Has insisted in always having the best of anything (house, car, jewelry, clothes) even when others are relegated to lesser facilities, amenities, or clothing.

    Doesn’t seem to listen well to needs of others, communication is usually one-way in the form of dictates.

    Haughtiness, grandiosity, and the need to be controlling is part of his personality.

    Behaves as though people are objects to be used, manipulated or exploited for personal gain.

    When criticized he tends to lash out not just with anger but with rage.

    Anyone who criticizes or questions him is called an “enemy.”

    Refers to non-members or non-believers in him as “the enemy.”

    Acts imperious at times, not wishing to know what others think or desire.

    Believes himself to be omnipotent.

    Has “magical” answers or solutions to problems.

    Is superficially charming.

    Habitually puts down others as inferior and only he is superior.

    Has a certain coldness or aloofness about him that makes others worry about who this person really is and or whether they really know him.

    Is deeply offended when there are perceived signs of boredom, being ignored or of being slighted.

    Treats others with contempt and arrogance.

    Is constantly assessing for those who are a threat or those who revere him.

    The word “I” dominates his conversations.

    He is oblivious to how often he references himself.

    Hates to be embarrassed or fail publicly - when he does he acts out with rage.

  Doesn’t seem to feel guilty for anything he has done wrong nor does he apologize for his actions.

    Believes he possesses the answers and solutions to world problems.

    Believes himself to be a deity or a chosen representative of a deity.

    Rigid, unbending, or insensitive describes how this person thinks.

    Tries to control others in what they do, read, view, or think.

    Has isolated members of his sect from contact with family or outside world.

    Monitors and or restricts contact with family or outsiders.

    Works the least but demands the most.

    Has stated that he is “destined for greatness” or that he will be “martyred.”

    Seems to be highly dependent of tribute and adoration and will often fish for compliments.

    Uses enforcers or sycophants to insure compliance from members or believers.

    Sees self as “unstoppable” perhaps has even said so.

    Conceals background or family which would disclose how plain or ordinary he is.

    Doesn’t think there is anything wrong with himself – in fact sees himself as perfection or “blessed.”

    Has taken away the freedom to leave, to travel, to pursue life, and liberty of followers.

    Has isolated the group physically (moved to a remote area) so as to not be observed.

Friday, January 20, 2023

We needed that

From SF meteorologist Drew Tuma.

Start of September...

To mid-January.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

"Has it really been ten years" ago at the blog -- When 3D printing was just about to change everything

Don't get me wrong. This is amazing technology with incredible promise, especially in the field of medicine, but it's probably not on the verge of revolutionizing our lives and it certainly wasn't on the verge ten years ago.


Monday, January 7, 2013

The Ddulite Bifurcation

From inappropriate aggregation to silly juxtapositions.

For the original definition of Ddulite check the link. For now it's sufficient to say we're talking about people (particularly journalists) who have an emotional, gee-whiz reaction to technology without really thinking seriously about the functionality.

Ddulite journalists can be spotted by a few defining characteristics: a remarkable ability to be impressed by the unimpressive; a focus on shiny, sexy toys; a tendency to report on technologies that really aren't that close as being just around the corner; a recurring amnesia about the slow development of similar technologies; general obliviousness to questions about implementation and demand; and what we might call the ddulite bifurcation.

The typical bifurcation consists of two applications of a new technology, one application mundane but realistic, the other impressive but so wildly ambitious that it may not even be theoretically possible with the technology being discussed.

I was going to make up an absurd example here but now that I think about it, I'm not sure I could do better than this actual story from Planet Money. The subject is 3-D printers and it's worth listening to.The Planet Money people are good, solid reporters and they do a reasonable job putting things in economic context, even bringing in Tyler Cowen to shoot down some of the more extravagant this-is-the-future claims.

But you can count on any story like this to have at least a few ddulite moments and you can certainly find them here, including this classic bifurcation. First we get this claim from a CEO named Pete Weijmarshausen:
Now, I think in a few years, we can print clothing, and then you can have clothing without sizes, but you have the size that fits you.
(Note the qualifiers here: "I think"; "in a few years.")

This is followed a few lines later by analyst Terry Wohlers saying:
WOHLERS: You lose a finger, you print out a new one.
CHACE: Yeah, like, actual body parts, printing out new fingers using your cells.
WOHLERS: Bones and bladders and eventually kidneys and so forth.
(glad he put the "eventually" qualifier with kidneys)

At the risk of belaboring the obvious and working under the assumption that most of you reading this know waaaay more about regenerative medicine and therapeutic cloning than I do, the day when we can easily grow new limbs is probably not just around the corner. Important fundamental research is being done and it's reasonable to talk about being able to do this someday but it could be a long way off. As for 3D printing approaches, we seem to be at the appears to be theoretically possible stage where we can work with masses of tissue rather than just a few cells by creating synthetic vascular systems.

This is exciting research but it's the sort of thing that's probably years away if it ever proves viable. Like most reporting about nanotech, the story mixes the ongoing with the theoretically possible in a way that obscures the huge gap between the two.


Wednesday, January 18, 2023

A Primer on the Western Water Crisis

ProPublica investigative reporter Abrahm Lustgarten has written around a couple of dozen articles exploring the complex problems facing the Southwest in the age of drought and deluge, but if you don't have that much time, you can spend forty-five minutes listening to this interview from Fresh Air. Excellent quick overview.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Is this conversation from 2019 something we need to revisit?

I don't know enough about this to offer an opinion about this, but if we're entering an age of drought and deluge, I want to hear about all our options.

 Paul Rogers writing for the Mercury News May 2, 2019

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday drove the final nail into the coffin of the most controversial water project in California in more than 30 years: Gov. Jerry Brown’s $19 billion plan to build two massive tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to make it easier to move water from the north to the south.

The Newsom administration announced it is withdrawing permit applications that the Brown administration had submitted to the State Water Resources Control Board, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and several federal agencies.

Instead, the administration said it will begin environmental studies on a one-tunnel project.

“A smaller project, coordinated with a wide variety of actions to strengthen existing levee protections, protect Delta water quality, recharge depleted groundwater reserves and strengthen local water supplies across the state will build California’s water supply resilience,” said Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot in a statement.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Have a safe and contemplative Martin Luther King Jr. Day

 “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”


Thursday, January 12, 2023

Thursday Tweets -- King Elon's Mines

When members of the Musk family disagree, you don't know who to disbelieve, at least until someone starts digging up old interviews. 

Humble beginnings were always a key part of the careful crafted persona of the Tesla CEO. There were always holes in the story, but most slipped by without much attention except for the family emerald mine. Musk's father talks about it often; Elon (and his mother) dismiss the accounts. I always considered it a he-said/he-said. Now I learn it's a he-said/he-said-but-he-didn't-used-to-say.

I haven't seen the Ask Men piece, but you can find the Forbes interview here.

Another big part of the persona is his supposed mastery of first principles thinking. As with engineering, he has learned the terminology, but he doesn't seem to have a strong grasp of the underlying concepts.

Missy Cummings is an engineering professor and part of the NHTSA. She's also one of the leading authorities on human-autonomous system collaboration.

When trying to understand Musk, remember, he has cultivated millions of followers like this.

On a related note.

Checking in on Twitter:

 Musk made a lot of big claims about the reliability of the Tesla Semi ("a million miles" got thrown around). There already appear to be at least two or three breakdowns, which seems like a lot given the small number of trucks on the road and the small number of miles driven.

Some important points about perceptions of regulation from the guy who wrote the book on Tesla.


Niedermeyer also has a great take on the Boring Company's biggest achievement.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Transit times

This is Joseph.

This tweet by Matthew Yglesias is getting at something that I think is really underrated in transit policy:

I have lived large chunks of my life without a car and it is amazing how much buffer room you need for a bus system. Not only are buses slow, because of many stops, but if a bus does not come it is an actual disaster if you have things scheduled first thing in the morning. I am especially cranky about daycare timing, as the hours of daycare are tight compared to the workday and no daycare is just going to shrug about a 30 minute late pickup. If we put daycares at worksites and made it a requirement that there be spaces for employees that would be different, but that's not even a policy dream.

This is why I find light rail train/metro/subway systems so superior. Not only are the trains generally more reliable but they come at high frequency to well spaced out stops, without being involved in traffic jams. One can plan much more effectively for a transit plan with this setup.

Plus, life really does have things that are hard to be late to. When I teach first thing in the morning then it means busing in would need to be extremely early to account for the bus not coming. A retail clerk needs to be there to open the store. A physician needs to be there at the time of the scheduled procedure. You can build this time in but the inefficiency is dramatic with 1/2 hour routes. It means you need to account for longer travel time and plan for at least one bus not to come in order to be on time. 

For example, right now, it takes 18 minutes to drive to the University of Manitoba (about 7 km but going through some badly planned chokepoints). Here are a few transit routes:

The 78 is a rare ten minute bus, making it kind of ok. But with a buffer for missing and the time to crawl over the snow (sidewalk clearing is a lost art), it is going to take an hour to get the University. 

Going to the medical campus is even worse, it is a 12 minute drive (7 km) and the same by bus but it requires a transfer, which is another point of failure:

Add in another 20 minutes for "missing an infrequent bus" (the 12 is an every half hour bus) and it immediately becomes clear why transit is a poor solution (remember the optimistic one hour is EACH WAY). In a mid-size city. 

Now a fit person could probably walk it in a hour and a half (I am always slower than the projections on google and uncleared sidewalks slow you enormously) but at -20C/-4F (a typical winter day) there is no way I am doing that. But it is remarkable how badly the transit environment can be, in a Canadian city with both sides being near major transit points. 

If we want to handle car culture then we really need to grapple with the current level of efficiency in public transit, which is low. Now if you have a seat then maybe you can read, but it is remarkable how hard it is to do that in a crowded bus, where you might also be standing. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Tuesday Tweets -- MAGA International

This was going to be a really long tweet post, too long, so we'll be doing this week's tweets in more manageable bites, starting with these threads that provide some context to the turmoil in Brazil.

One of the points we've been arguing for years here at the blog is that you can't use the standard political analyst/social scientist approach to the current incarnation of the conservative movement. Old models of socioeconomic forces, traditional alliances, and rational actors are next to useless. Instead we need to talk about propaganda and disinformation (much of it gone feral), indoctrination, cults of personality, the politics of catharsis, and in the following example, a coordinated international effort to spread fascism, something we'd have to call a massive conspiracy if it wasn't almost completely in the open.

I think she means Veritas and Erik Prince.

Monday, January 9, 2023

“Water is the most precious resource we have ... and yet we do everything we can, when it comes to rain, to get rid of it as soon as possible”

 Notes on a time of drought and deluge.

Hayley Smith writing for the LA Times.

It was by all accounts a washout, but despite heaps of water pouring into the area, drought-weary Los Angeles won’t be able to save even half of it. The region’s system of engineered waterways is designed to whisk L.A.'s stormwater out to sea — a strategy intended to reduce flooding that nonetheless sacrifices countless precious gallons.

Voters in 2018 approved Measure W, which is aimed at improving L.A.'s aging stormwater capture system. Officials are making progress, but experts say there’s a long way to go. Of an estimated 5 billion to 10 billion gallons pouring into the Los Angeles Basin from current storms, only about 20% will be captured by the county.

“In a region that imports 60% of our water, it’s just a huge untapped potential for a local water supply,” said Bruce Reznik, executive director of L.A. Waterkeeper. “We passed the Safe Clean Water Program to get us there, but we’re just not there yet. It’s going to take us some years.”

Many years, in fact. County officials have said it will take three to five decades to build its stormwater capture system to full capacity, with the ultimate goal of capturing 300,000 acre-feet, or roughly 98 billion gallons, of water annually. 


Though a few regional watersheds, such as the Upper San Gabriel River, have good soils and systems for capturing stormwater, they are few and far between, with the vast majority of water that comes to the region “on a superhighway to get out,” said Reznik.

“Water is the most precious resource we have, something that we cannot live without, and yet we do everything we can, when it comes to rain, to get rid of it as soon as possible,” he said.

Los Angeles County Department of Public Works spokesman Kerjon Lee said Measure W is working, however. Since its approval in 2018, the agency has awarded $400 million to more than 100 regional infrastructure projects, such as the Rory M. Shaw Wetlands Park Project to convert a 46-acre landfill into a wetlands park that can collect stormwater runoff.

Friday, January 6, 2023

Simple solutions to complex problems

This is Joseph. 

This tweet of plans by the premier of Alberta is alarming. In the video linked in the tweet, she points out that running a province-specific pension plan would save $6 billion and free up money for things like a provincial police report. This is matched by reporting from within Alberta. Nor is this argument absent from the media, so I think we need to take it seriously as at least a proposal. It is also not the first time that it has been raised as a part of Alberta politics, previously with a focus on repatriating the Alberta share of the assets

Now this is complicated for a few reasons. One is that Alberta is a younger province (mean age 39 years as opposed to BC at 43 years). But one the other side you have Saskatchewan at 39.4 years of age. Now let me look at the average temperature for some of the cities in these provinces for January:

    Vancouver, BC     4ºC/39ºF
    Calgary, AB       -4°C/25°F
    Saskatoon, SK     -9°C/15°F
    Edmonton, AB      -11°C/12°F

Can anyone imagine why the province of BC might be older than the provinces of AB, SK, and MB (the 3 prairie provinces, of which MB is the coldest)? Note that BC is just next to AB, so it is a short trip for retirees who want to maintain some connection and it is expensive, but not necessarily outside of the big cities. 

So the very first problem is that many retirees in other provinces may have contributed while working in Alberta and later moved to a less cold climate. It seems unlikely that it will be easy to just remove this money from the CPP without other provinces, who will need to increase payments to make up the new deficit, asking hard questions --like what do you do with somebody who worked their entire career in Alberta but now lives in British Columbia? 

Now it is true that Quebec has done this from inception. But from inception makes it a lot easier as there are rules as to what to do with persons who have paid into both the CPP and the QPP. Since they are applied on an ongoing basis, there is no need to go back and adjudicate complicated cases. 

So what is the point of all of this discussion? When somebody suggests a simple solution that solves a ton of issues it is worth looking very carefully at the moving parts. It is a possible solution but it is not a simple one. It requires building a government pension agency (with huge assets under management) from scratch (not a slow ramp-up) and a complex set of negotiations with other provinces as to how ti interact. There is a great explainer here. But note this section:
Proponents of Alberta’s withdrawal from CPP have suggested that Alberta could persuade the federal and other provincial governments to strike a better deal than what would result from the legal requirements outlined above for transferring assets and liabilities.  This would require an amendment to the CPP legislation and that would require the agreement of 2/3 of the provinces representing 2/3 of the population and the federal governmental.  It is unlikely that the provinces or the federal government would agree to make a better deal for a province leaving the CPP.
Just to be even more blunt, if leaving the CPP was a way to raise revenue with a much better deal, there will very quickly be a bunch of provincial pension plans and a couple of provinces in a new plan that is in crisis. You need a very large super-majority of provinces and the federal government to be very, very naïve for this plan to have a chance of working. So the Federal government can do it by themselves, so can Ontario, and so can the four maritime provinces (which, given their age structure, would be the biggest losers of this plan).

Also worth noting is the issue of mobility. I know that part of the Alberta sovereignty movement is about restricting movement, so maybe this is a feature, but there are a lot of complex rules that need to be considered. The benefit of getting back money for non-pension priorities suggests that this is about shifting money out of pension plans to improve the fiscal outlook. But, long term, that is either another tax increase or another benefit cut, barring some sort of increased efficiency.

Not so simple once you look at it, is it? 

Thursday, January 5, 2023

Global warming may bring catastrophic flooding to California, just not in the places the New York Times warned about

As previously mentioned, the terrain of California means that while most of the population may live in coastal cities, those cities tend to have much higher elevations than their Eastern counterparts, high enough to greatly limit the impact of rising sea levels.

There are, however, parts of the state  far from the coast.(largely forgotten by the national press but still home to millions of people) that have proven extremely vulnerable to the kind of storms that climate change makes more likely.

There's a lot of scary history here. [Emphasis added.]


The weather pattern that caused this flood was not from an El Niño-type event, and from the existing Army and private weather records, it has been determined that the polar jet stream was to the north, as the Pacific Northwest experienced a mild rainy pattern for the first half of December 1861. In 2012, hydrologists and meteorologists concluded that the precipitation was likely caused by a series of atmospheric rivers that hit the Western United States along the entire West Coast, from Oregon to Southern California.

An atmospheric river is a wind-borne, deep layer of water vapor with origins in the tropics, extending from the surface to high altitudes, often above 10,000 feet, and concentrated into a relatively narrow band, typically about 400 to 600 kilometres (250 to 370 mi) wide, usually running ahead of a frontal boundary, or merging into it.With the right dynamics in place to provide lift, an atmospheric river can produce astonishing amounts of precipitation, especially if it stalls over an area for any length of time.

The floods followed a 20-year-long drought. During November, prior to the flooding, Oregon had steady but heavier-than-normal rainfall, with heavier snow in the mountains. Researchers believe the jet stream had slipped south, accompanied by freezing conditions reported at Oregon stations by December 25. Heavy rainfall began falling in California as the longwave trough moved south over the state, remaining there until the end of January 1862, causing precipitation to fall everywhere in the state for nearly 40 days. Eventually, the trough moved even further south, causing snow to fall in the Central Valley and surrounding mountain ranges (15 feet of snow in the Sierra Nevada).


California was hit by a combination of incessant rain, snow, and then unseasonally high temperatures. In Northern California, it snowed heavily during the later part of November and the first few days of December, when the temperature rose unusually high, until it began to rain. There were four distinct rainy periods: The first occurred on December 9, 1861, the second on December 23–28, the third on January 9–12, and the fourth on January 15–17. Native Americans knew that the Sacramento Valley could become an inland sea when the rains came. Their storytellers described water filling the valley from the Coast Range to the Sierra


The entire Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys were inundated. An area about 300 miles (480 km) long, averaging 20 miles (32 km) in width, and covering 5,000 to 6,000 square miles (13,000 to 16,000 km2) was under water. The water flooding the Central Valley reached depths up to 30 feet (9.1 m), completely submerging telegraph poles that had just been installed between San Francisco and New York. Transportation, mail, and communications across the state were disrupted for a month. Water covered portions of the valley from December 1861, through the spring, and into the summer of 1862.


On Inauguration Day, January 10, 1862 the state's eighth governor, Leland Stanford, traveled by rowboat to his inauguration building held at the State Legislature office. Much of Sacramento remained under water for 3 months after the storms passed. As a result of the flooding, from January 23, 1862 the state capital was moved temporarily from Sacramento to San Francisco.

Atmospheric rivers have been coming up in conversation quite a bit this week.

The heavy wind and downpours left tens of thousands of homes in Northern California without power for much of Sunday, while record high waters on the Cosumnes River near Sacramento breached three levees and inundated the area.

Flash flooding along Highway 99 and other roads south of Sacramento submerged dozens of cars near Wilton, where the water poured over the levees. Search and rescue crews in boats and helicopters scrambled to pick up trapped motorists. At least one person was found dead in a submerged car near Dillard Road and Highway 99, according to local media reports.

“I don’t want to use the term apocalyptic, but it’s ugly,” Sacramento County spokesman Matt Robinson said by phone from a stretch of Highway 99 that he described as a vast lake. “We have a lot of stuck cars.”

Downed power lines and trees crashing into homes created further trouble, said Capt. Parker Wilbourn of the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District.

“It was an extremely busy night,” he said.

Electricity remained cut off midday Sunday for more than 32,000 customers, down from more than 100,000 who lost power overnight around Sacramento. The county warned Sunday afternoon that the floodwaters were rising around Highway 5 near the southern edge of Sacramento’s suburbs.

By late afternoon, as waters rose in the Cosumnes and Mokelumne rivers, authorities issued a mandatory evacuation order for the community of Point Pleasant, south of Elk Grove.

“Please be out of the area and off the roads while there is still light to reasonably see any danger,” Sacramento officials wrote in a message on Twitter. “Take the ‘5 P’s’ with you: People, Pets, Prescriptions, Paperwork and Photos.”

An evacuation center was set up at Wackford Center on Bruceville Road in Elk Grove. “Flooding in the area is imminent,” officials warned. “Floodwaters become incredibly dangerous after sunset.”

Some sunny skies offered much of the state a respite Sunday from the downpours, but another atmospheric river was barreling across the western Pacific and was set to drench California in the days ahead.


Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Large movements are rarely monolithic

This is Joseph.

Nadia Asparouhova has a post trying to lay out the different tribes of the climate movement. In some cases, I think that she has broken them up too narrowly. And she misses the group that seems to be involved mostly to get political clout and be able to scold. If you are flying around the world  to complain about climate change then you are not looking at a world in which change begins with you. 

The most interesting tribes are the Doomerism and Neopastoralism tribes, because, unlike the others, they aren't arguing about the best policy to fight climate change. They are either giving up or suggesting a solution that is either fantastical or brutal.

Doomerism is easy. The idea that we are all set for disaster could be correct. But there is literally no benefit to thinking about things this way. If the outcome is inevitable then a focus on constructive solutions is a psychologically healthy coping mechanism. But if there is even a chance to evade disaster then a focus on problem solving is a good thing. After all, if the incentives are lined up (e.g., a big fossil fuel shock) then remarkable things can happen

But the one that I find the hardest to really understand is probably Neopastoralism. First of all, the record of attempts to move people back from cities to the countryside (notably still including farming) has been poor, to say the least. Without technology, the carrying capacity of the planet is very much lower. For example, in 1000 BC the population of the planet was 50 million. Contrast this with the nearly 8 billion people we have now. If we need to "return to nature" then we are all in deep, deep trouble. 

Instead, I think we should loot the best policy ideas of the other tribes and she what works out best. Geo-engineering seems unlikely to me, but the more I read about carbon capture, the more I wonder if I am underestimating the potential benefits. But at least this group has a plan and may well prove me wrong as to the merits of the plan and there is at least some possibility of avoiding a major impact on human life. 

I think it is a good thing to start the New Year with optimism. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

How to lie with statistics -- fun with denominators

If you want to tell a story about an outlier, particularly if it's very small, you can have a great deal of fun playing with relative and absolute metrics, usually by reporting one when the other would be more appropriate. Research and development is one of those areas where we want to see a big overall number and don't care much about the spend per unit. Apple spent a great deal of money and effort developing the iPhone then turned around and sold a ton of them. This is generally the story of any technological breakthrough marketed to the general public. Big initial investment that gets sliced very thin when you go into mass production.

With that in mind...

Tesla Leads the Way on R&D Spending

March 25, 2022
LONDON—Automakers spend millions of dollars on advertising, marketing and public relations. [We really should revisit the PR part of that claim, but that's a topic for another post. -- MP] But, not Tesla. Instead, the company pours money into research and development efforts.
In fact, Tesla spends more on R&D than any other automaker. According to data compiled by StockApps.com, the company spends $2,984 on R&D per car produced. That’s three times the industry average of roughly $1,000 per car and higher than the collective R&D budgets of Ford, GM and Stellantis per car.

By comparison, Ford Motor Co. spent an average of  $468 on advertising in 2020 vs. $1,186 on R&D. Toyota Motor Corp. spent $454 vs. $1,063 and General Motors spent $394 vs. $878.

 While we're on the subject...

Commenting on the report, StockApp’s Edith Reads had this to say.” Tesla spends more than any other carmaker on R&D in order to maintain its lead in EV technology. And if you ask them about it, they’ll tell you this is the key to keeping their customers happy—which is what keeps them in business.”
We could find other examples, but let's wrap it up with this graph from 2021.

You could easily conclude from this that, compared to its competitors, Tesla is spending big bucks to develop all the cool futuristic technology that Elon Musk keeps promising. The trouble with that interpretation is that Tesla sells far fewer cars than any of these other companies.

In absolute terms, which is what we're interested in, how does Tesla rank? Here were the top five Automotive R&D budgets in 2021:

Volkswagen (VLKAF), $16.5 billion

Daimler (DDAIF), $10.21 billion

Toyota (TM), $9.87 billion

Ford (F), $7.1 billion

General Motors (GM), $6.2 billion

In 2021, Tesla (which is claiming to be leading the industry in research on autonomy, batteries, lithium mining, solar cells, HVAC, AI, robotics and, yes, flying cars) spent $2.6 billion dollars. Less than half of what GM spent. Less that than one sixth what VW spent.

Less is the operative word here.

Monday, January 2, 2023

 A British take on trains

I've always grouped Britain in with the rest of Europe when it comes to mass transit, but it sounds like Brits draw a sharp distinction, and not one that makes them happy.

From David Mitchell.