Saturday, December 22, 2012

Early 2013 Political Predictions

I'm a terrible predictor of political maneuvering (probably because I want it to make sense, which it seldom does).  As a public service, then, I'll make my predictions on the outcome of the current tax and debt ceiling fiasco -- just so everyone knows what's not going to happen.
  • No deal this month.  The conservative Republicans in the House think they have lots of leverage in multiple ways come the first of the year and won't vote for anything that has a prayer of getting passed by the Senate Democrats.
  •  Come January 3, the new Speaker of the House will be someone other than Rep. Boehner.  The new Speaker will be more to the liking of the conservative Republicans.  Since they think they hold a winning hand, they'll hold out for someone who is not as willing to reach a compromise with the President.  No Republican will vote for someone nominated by the Democrats, so the matter will be settled when the more moderate Republicans hold their nose and vote for the conservatives' choice.
  • Rep. Paul Ryan will be the new chair of House Ways and Means, with the power to dictate what goes into any tax bill.  White House negotiations with the House on tax matters will be with Rep. Ryan, not with the new Speaker.  No matter how things look in public.  The negotiations will fail to reach a compromise.
  • The conservative Republicans believe they have enormous leverage because the debt limit is going to have to be raised again.  At some point -- I would think a few days prior to the State of the Union address -- the President will make a national broadcast and announce that (a) Congress has left him with a set of contradictory laws, (b) he has instructed Treasury to continue selling bonds in excess of the debt limit as the least damaging way to resolve the contradiction, and (c) he hopes the House Republicans will come to their senses soon.  The State of the Union address won't even mention the debt limit.
  • Life goes on after the President's address.  Interest rates don't go up.  Treasury has no more problem selling bonds than they had before the address.  Public opinion strongly supports the President's action.  It becomes apparent to everyone -- except the conservative House Republicans -- that the leverage they thought they had was imaginary.
  •  The impeachment bill introduced in the House fails.  At least 17 Republicans refuse to sign on, believing (properly, IMO) that to do so would be a disaster for the party's election chances in 2014.
  • Over in the Senate, modest filibuster reform has been implemented.  As a result, Sen. Reid is able to bring bills to the floor, and for the most part, to a vote.  Senate Republicans are unwilling to stand in front of the camera where the public can see them and drone on for days or weeks to block a vote.  The House eventually passes some tax cut bill, the Senate passes a very different version of same, and the conference committee puts together something that the President will sign.  The same group of Republicans that stopped impeachment vote for the compromise so that, come 2014, they will be able to campaign on the tax cuts they supported.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Population Patterns, West and East

From time to time I write about differences between the western and non-western [1] parts of the US.  In an article from a couple of years ago that I came across in my search for cartogram software, esri published [2] a paper describing the value of "gridded" cartograms.  In such a cartogram, the variable of interest is measured at points on a regular grid rather than using higher-level aggregations such as states.  The use of a gridded cartogram allows other patterns to emerge.  One of the examples they give is a gridded cartogram for US population, shown here.

The distortions in the mesh overlay shows variations in population density.  In areas where the lines are widely spread the population density is high; where the lines are crowded together the population density is low.  The narrowest parts of the "waist" separating West from East in the distorted version of the US outline correspond to the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain regions (Denver, pinned between those two, sits right on the waist).  Because of the very low populations in those areas, they are compressed to almost nothing in the east-west direction.  In the case of the Great Plains, this is part of a long-term depopulation trend, and in a cartogram like this one, that area will continue to shrink.

The map illustrates one of the differences between West and East.  In the western portion of the map, it is possible to identify all of the major population centers individually: Seattle-Portland, San Francisco-San Jose-Sacremento, LA-San Diego, Las Vegas, Phoenix-Tucson, the Colorado Front Range, and Utah's Wasatch Front.  Between those areas, with relatively minor exceptions, things get very empty.  In the eastern portion of the country, the population is spread more broadly.  A quick glance at a relief map of the contiguous states explains a good deal of the difference.  In the West, there are limited areas where cities are feasible.

I believe that the difference in population distribution makes it necessary to approach certain energy problems in very different ways.  In the West, the vast majority of the population lives in relatively small areas.  Converting freight transport away from highways and onto railroads -- one of the most commonly anticipated reactions to tightening supplies of liquid fuels -- is very different because of those population patterns.  The following map, from the US Department of Transportation, shows highway freight density for the 48 contiguous states.  In the West, the highest-density links connect the small number of population centers (or in some cases, link western population centers to the western edge of the East).  Additionally, the routes for those links follow the limits imposed by the landscape.  Many of the high-density links in the West follow the same paths as the great pioneer trails, for exactly the same reasons.  East of the Great Plains, the network becomes enormously more dense.

Two regions, two very different situations, two different sets of solutions needed.

[1] As usual, my West consists of Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.  I'll say "East" for the rest of the 48 contiguous states (even though I know that ticks off the Texans).  Alaska and Hawaii are both so unique in their situations that very little of what I talk about applies to them.

[2] Benjamin D. Hennig, John Pritchard, Mark Ramsden, and Danny Dorling, "Remapping the World’s Population: Visualizing data using cartograms", ArcUser Winter 2010.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Your Descendents Will Likely Never See Your Digital History

I've written before about the risks of digital storage for family archival material.  The IEEE Spectrum has published a story that leads me to believe that I was probably too optimistic when I wrote that.  The main topic in the story is that a group of people appear to have solved the Pioneer deceleration anomaly.  The part of the story that interested me was how hard it was for that group to put together the data necessary to do the necessary analysis.

First, some background.  Pioneer 10 and 11 were unmanned deep-space probes launched in 1972 and 1973 respectively.  Both traversed the asteroid belt and made fly-bys of Jupiter.  Pioneer 11 used a gravity slingshot maneuver around Jupiter to enable a fly-by of Saturn as well.  After passing those planets, the Pioneer spacecraft became essentially ballistic objects headed out of our solar system, with their courses determined only by the effects of gravity from the sun and planets.  By 1980, however, measurements showed that the probes were slowing more than could be accounted for by gravity alone.  The anomaly was announced in 1998, and hundreds of papers proposing explanations for the slow-down were subsequently published.

In order to conduct a detailed analysis of one of the possibilities, it was necessary to have access to as much of the Pioneer navigation data as possible.  That data was originally stored on various media.  From the Spectrum story:
"As luck would have it, most of the Pioneer 10 and 11 telemetry data had been saved and were available for study. Although there was no requirement that NASA properly archive these records, it turned out that systems engineer Larry Kellogg, a contractor and former Pioneer team member at NASA Ames Research Center, had been informally preserving all the Pioneer data he could get his hands on. Kellogg already had nearly all of the two probes’ master data records, binary data files that contained all the Pioneers’ science and housekeeping data.
Kellogg had taken care to copy those records, which in total took up just 40 gigabytes of space, from soon-to-be obsolete magneto-optical discs to a laptop hard drive. When we decided to work with the telemetry data in earnest, in 2005, one of us (Toth) had already been in touch with Kellogg, working on new software that could extract useful information from the master data records without the need for an old, decommissioned mainframe.
Procuring additional Doppler data that could help solve the mystery turned out to be a bit trickier. The JPL team had already collected all the radio-science data files that were easy to find and work with, but we knew that we needed more measurements. It took some time, but we were able to find additional files on the hard drives of JPL navigators’ computers and the archives of the National Space Science Data Center. We even found magnetic tapes stuffed in cardboard boxes under a staircase at JPL. Some of the files were in a rather sorry state, corrupted while they were converted from one storage format to another over the span of three decades."

 Despite their best efforts, the authors (and others) recovered only 23 years worth of data for Pioneer 10 and 10 years worth of data for Pioneer 11.  The whole process illustrates exactly the problems that I suggested put family digital archives at risk: (1) will someone preserve the digital media, (2) will it be possible to extract the bits from the media, and (3) will there be software that understands the coding used for the data?  If NASA keeps magnetic tapes with the data from two extremely valuable space probes in cardboard boxes under a staircase, how many of my descendents are going to do any better?

NASA apparently did better with paper records.  The authors were able to obtain the original blueprints for the Pioneer craft -- designed in the days before computer-aided drafting -- for use in constructing a detailed thermal model of the vehicles.  Even with access to blueprints, it was necessary to consult retired engineers from the firm that built the Pioneers to obtain some details.  In addition to distrust of my descendents storage conditions, there's also a question of whether they could afford the same kind of recovery effort as the authors (funded in part by the Planetary Society, a nonprofit space-advocacy organization).  I'm going to have to rethink my preservation "strategy."  Encode the files simply.  Get copies into as many hands as possible.  And find someplace safe to store a paper version.

Oh, and the deceleration anomaly?  No new physics, I'm afraid -- it appears to be simply asymmetric heat radiation from the on-board plutonium-fueled electric generators.

Photo credit: Slava G. Turyshev

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Cynical Thoughts on the B1G Expansion

There's been a fair amount written about the expansion of the B1G conference (I'm never going to be comfortable using that silly acronym for the Big 10, but it's what they use) from the perspective of football.  Lots of complaints about how dumb adding Rutgers and Maryland is, how it won't generate more revenue for the conference teams but will destroy a bunch of tradition as the conference schedule adjusts to accommodate two more teams.  I think that the people who are criticizing are ignoring what the end game for all of the conference realignments really is.

Put it this way: four sixteen-team super-conferences, each with two eight-team divisions, have the clout to tell the NCAA to get out of the way.  They can set up an eight-team playoff with the winner from each division.  The four first-round games go to the big bowls; the two second-round games replace the current BCS championship game; and the championship game happens a week later.  The NCAA doesn't get a vote, and the bowls don't get a vote.  "Play it our way, or we'll set up the eight-team tournament ourselves," is the only threat they need to make.  If the conferences want to be generous, they'll let the big bowls host the last three games on a rotating basis, much as the BCS championship is held at one of those locations each year.

The NCAA will roll over for this because they'll be terrified about what might happen to the men's and women's Division I basketball tournaments if they don't.  The 64 schools in these hypothetical super-conferences put a lot of teams into the first and second rounds of those tournaments.  The super-conferences alone could almost certainly run 24- or 32-team basketball tournaments of their own with only a modest drop-off in quality.  And they could threaten to make the NCAA even less relevant by offering the Dukes and Gonzagas the opportunity to align themselves with the super-conferences for scheduling and tournament play in basketball and other non-football sports.  I secretly suspect that Duke would probably be happier playing Division I basketball and FCS football.

Assuming this is the actual end-game, then adding Rutgers and Maryland makes more sense.  Geographic coverage for TV; opportunity for the Ohio State or Michigan or Nebraska alumni in those areas to get to games (and perhaps be inspired to make contributions); it may not improve the finances of the current conference schools, but it probably doesn't make them worse.  And to be honest, the super-conferences aren't necessarily looking to add the few unaffiliated football powerhouses.  All of the conferences have doormat teams, and adding an "easy" game to the schedule of the powerhouses, where the stars can sit early and not get hurt, isn't necessarily a bad thing.  If winning your division of your conference guarantees you a spot in the playoffs, running up the score (or other statistics) to impress the pollsters isn't a priority.

I admit that it's a cynical viewpoint.  But I feel comfortable betting that even if the four super-conference arrangement hasn't been discussed by a bunch of the athletic directors at the top football schools, it's floating around in the back of their heads.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Random Secession Thoughts

One of the topics that has been commented on recently in a variety of media is the number of petitions that have appeared at the "We the People" website the Obama administration operates following the November election asking that states be allowed to peacefully secede from the US and be an independent country.  There is now a petition asking permission to secede for each of the 50 states.  The number of signatures appearing on the petitions varies from state to state.  In the cartogram to the left, the size of the state reflects the number of signatures on that state's petition(s) for secession as of the middle of November.  A disproportionate share of the signatures are attached to the petitions for the red-shaded states in the southeast portion of the country [1].

Marc Herman has written a column giving people who want to have their state secede suggestions for how to mount a successful campaign.  Writing as someone who wants to have a particular piece of the US secede somewhere down the road [2] -- waiting until the time is ripe means more than 25 years out, less than 50 -- I think a few of his suggestions are good: make good economic arguments and avoid violence, for example.  One of the points Marc doesn't make is that on the side that's seceding, you need to be able to appeal to a broad spectrum of the population.  The American colonies had proponents of the revolution in both agricultural Virginia and industrial Massachusetts.  Given the timing of the petitions and all of the internet chatter, it seems safe to assume that the petitions represent "red" voters' displeasure with President Obama's reelection.  Let's see whether "unhappiness with the President's platform" meets the requirement for relatively broad support.

I'll use Georgia as an example of the problem that a secessionist would face.  Since the subject is approval/disapproval of the President's platform, start by considering the standard red-blue map of Georgia done at the county level.  Overall the state is predominantly red.  In a previous posting about cartograms, I noted (as have many, many others) that area isn't the same as people.  Moving down the maps, the red-blue cartogram in the next figure has scaled the counties by the number of votes cast for President last month.  The thing that really jumps out is the enormous expansion of the Atlanta metro area.  Outside of Atlanta the cartogram shows a lot of very small red counties and a smaller number of generally larger blue counties.  In short, President Obama appears to have done generally better in the more urban areas than he did in the rural areas.

The situation is even more interesting when we replace the simple red-blue coloring scheme with one that uses different shades of purple to represent the relative performance of the two candidates.  That is, a county in which President Obama received all of the votes would be blue, a county where Governor Romney received all the votes would be red, and one in which they split the vote evenly would be purple.  When you step back and look at this, the picture that emerges is one with urban areas in varying shades of purple, surrounded by much redder rural areas.  My interpretation (and as they say, your mileage may vary) is that there are thinly-populated rural areas where voters are strongly opposed to President Obama's platform, and urban areas where that platform has much stronger support -- a majority of voters in several sizable (by population) counties.

For someone who is serious about building a secession movement around dissatisfaction with the President, this is a problem.  The final gray-scale cartogram illustrates the aspect of the problem that I would be most concerned about.  In that map, both the size and the shade reflect the median household income in the county.  Counties with higher incomes are larger and lighter, counties with lower incomes are smaller and darker.  The spread is not nearly as pronounced as in the case of number of voters, but the overall pattern is still clear.  The Atlanta metro area is significantly richer than the rest of the state. This shows up in a number of ways within Georgia's state government.  One that is easy to find is the state's education equalization fund.  Georgia's fund, like that in many states, broadly implements an urban-to-rural subsidy.

The state's wealth (hence power) is concentrated in areas where opposition to the President's platform is not going to be well-received as a cause for secession.  A different cause, one that benefits Atlanta, would be necessary.

[1] The signature counts were as of roughly November 20, 2012.

[2] I don't draw my likely division in the same place that most of the people writing about secession draw theirs either.