25 June 2011

Random tidbits from the week

"energy independence, the idea that Americans should not buy from abroad what they can produce more expensively at home." - A lovely problem with comparative advantages. We used to produce oil pretty cheaply and even though we consumed quite a lot relative to the rest of the world, we were net exporters of energy. The reason was that we had considerable infrastructure available to find and drill wells, and a lot of space, where other countries lacked these. Now. Most of the oil exporters get to benefit from our infrastructure or expertise and have wells which are easier to find or run than American oil reserves are. This isn't that complicated a problem. Even opening up offshore drilling and/or various spots in Alaska and letting Shell or Texaco make up their own regulatory rules isn't really a "solution" to energy independence. It's the idea that somehow the oil that is within our borders is imbued with some magical qualities that make it cheaper.

It is not. This is to say nothing of other energy sources like nuclear (fraught with regulatory problems, not to mention populist opposition), the expense of developing high quality solar or wind power (or especially better battery technology), or especially the silliness of burning corn in order to make fuel. At least natural gas makes some sense economically, and is more environmentally sound than coal, and we have quite a lot of it. Though I cannot imagine how giving it the same sorts of subsidies that we already give to ethanol, not to mention coal or oil makes much sense.

Speaking of crappy economic policies. ... "So not only have we been subsidizing cotton farmers but we have been paying Brazil to allow us to keep subsidizing cotton farmers". Part of the Senate's attempt to cut subsidies got rid of the payments to Brazil as part of a WTO settlement for the US's improper trade subsidies for American cotton farmers. But they kept the improper trade subsidies themselves in the budget.

So we saved a couple hundred million dollars. That we will have to pay anyway because it was a fine. In order to keep spending billions of dollars that make no economic sense. Great job Congress. Keep up the good work.

And then there was another The gay marriage train marches on. I'm still of the opinion that the state really shouldn't have to promote contractual arrangements like marriages. Maybe we should have a default contractual set of spousal rights that come with a marriage and if you want something specific you go to a lawyer, but otherwise what's the state's interest in your private affairs? Some notes though: federal policy still creates problems with things like immigrating a spouse when that spouse is married through a homosexual arrangement. There isn't a citizenship path conferred for such things relative to heterosexual partnerships which does strike me as a serious problem. This was also noted in the now famous Vargas article in the NYT, as an illegal immigrant (brought here as a child from the Philippines) his problems would have been a lot easier to resolve if he were a straight male. No immigration benefits and protections, much less citizenship priorities, are provided for homosexual "partners". That much at least ought to be reasonably easy to fix assuming DoMA goes down in the courts as it should.

News at 11, the death penalty is really expensive. And I mean really expensive. Like a hundred million a pop. This is still to me the most salient objection to the problem of death penalty punishments. Most cops acknowledge it has little or no deterrent value as far as reducing crime. It has some value as leverage against an accused criminal, and especially convicted criminals, but this has little use in preventing new crime. There's some level of conferred justice demanded where some heinous crime is committed where the victims may wish for the most severe penalties imaginable. But prison for life (without parole) is no picnic either. And it's just not that expensive relative to the amount of due process required to just take life without parole and keep a prisoner in chains and behind bars for 40 or 50 years than to go through the trouble of proving that not only did they commit some terrible crime, a brutal murder or some such, a situation which is actually relatively difficult to the point of removing any doubt whatsoever (reasonable doubt standards apply but in a death penalty case, more reasons can be manufactured), but that they also deserve our social scorn to the point that we should execute them. All of that work is not cheap.

And our robot overlords prepare to strike.... Or at least Nevada has started to pave the way. I for one welcome this process. There's a ton of wasted productivity involved in actually driving a car. One can sleep, listen to music, converse (including on phones or computers), drink/eat, do paperwork, catch up on news and so on without having to pay attention to the road if a computer can do the driving. There's also less need to detail police to patrol for things like speeding, drunk driving, traffic accidents, etc. And there's the added bonus of reducing the impact of congestion (something which can be further decreased by using congestion pricing around cities and high traffic areas instead of making highways free as much as we do). It will be a while yet before the idea is made clear that such vehicles are safe enough to operate, but from what I understand the biggest problem is likely to be GPS navigation issues. Computers don't tend to understand construction and roadblocks, or weather issues like expected quality of road conditions from snow or ice storms, essentially anything that requires re-routing very well. They can run into waypoint locks and can refuse to improvise the way a human operator might, where they are familiar with the area for example. But this technology is also improving. So there's hope. It also occurs to me that if we're ever going to have flying cars, we'll need to have robot cars first. I don't think most humans are naturally skilled 3-dimensional thinkers the way a flying car might require. You would have to keep track not only of cars next to, in front of, and behind, but also above and below and at angles. We use complicated FAA schemes right now to keep skies around airports relative sane already. Imagine rush hour traffic resembling Coruscant in Star Wars. Perhaps, as with the improvement in hand-eye coordination from years of children growing up playing video games (more of them than were possible from sports anyway), we would see some comparable improvement in 3D thought emerge as a social conditioning effect from dealing with objects moving in space like traffic.

But I'm not holding my breath for that to be a very sudden development in our evolution either. It takes a lot of practice for reaction times and coordination to improve and it is being undertaken by children and teenagers playing sports or video games. I don't see us giving children keys to cars in order to play in... err practice 3D navigation in traffic.
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