Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Random thoughts on how people think

One of the sub-blogs at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen has a weekly "Monday Trivia" post.  Each day the question goes unanswered, the poser gives a hint, getting more specific as the week goes by.  I was the first to get the answer to this week's question/problem right, largely because the Tuesday-morning hint indirectly gave a lot of information.  If you're too lazy to go look, the question was basically "I'm thinking of three major league baseball teams linked together by a pattern in their geographical history.  What are the teams and what's the pattern?"

Patterns are something I've always been pretty good at, as have many of the people that I've worked with.  Other people don't seem to see patterns so easily.  Many years ago, I read a piece by a couple of psychologists that divided the population into two categories: people who see patterns, and people who don't.  They used this as a basis for explaining some of the problems that arose in management of technical people.  If a worker and her boss both fall into the same category, things work out pretty well; they're comfortable with each other.  If the worker and boss are of different types, though, you have one of two different problems.

In their argument, the psychologists said that technical people who don't see patterns learn to solve problems using cookbook-like procedures: try this, then try that, then try the other thing.  Given a good cookbook, many problems are tractable to such an approach.  Some problems aren't, though.  Pattern-seeing people, the psychologists went on, tend to make intuitive leaps to solutions that can't be found by using the cookbook; or at the least, finding the solution using the cookbook is time-consuming.

If the boss is a pattern-seer and the worker is not, both get frustrated.  The boss agonizes over the slowness of the worker, and the worker feels like the boss is pushing them to skip over the "standard" procedure with which they have always approached problems.  If the worker is a pattern-seer and the boss is not, the situation is somewhat different.  If the boss insists that the worker use the cookbook, the worker is frustrated (and in the psychologists' experience, usually leaves).  If the boss lets the worker use their pattern-seeing talent, the boss is often terrified.  To the boss, it looks like the worker has leaped off the edge of the cliff and, miraculously, landed safely on an answer.

My own views on US energy policy are that it's a problem that requires a pattern-seeing solution; there's not time to go through the cookbook, trying this and that and something else.  It's necessary to see all of the important trends and how they interact.  To recognize that some things are not possible, or at least not possible in the necessary time frames, and not waste time and money on them.  To recognize that some things are only possible in combination.  And most importantly, to recognize that most analysts over-constrain the problem.  We're going to have to answer the questions of what we will give up and what we will keep in reaching a workable high-tech future, because we can't keep it all.

That last paragraph is, of course, a total cop-out.  But it's too large a subject to do in a blog post -- it's a book-sized project.  I'm working on it.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Thoughts on the electoral college

As we approach election day, there has been the inevitable rash of pieces about the electoral college.  The majority of the ones that I've read suggest that the EC is an archaic compromise from the early days of the country that was necessary to get the Constitution ratified, but that there is no longer any need for it. (Some of the alignments on the different sides of that compromise were not as clear-cut as many history classes make it.  Georgia, for example, was a small-population state at the time but had large "western" land claims and anticipated rapid population growth, so backed proportional representation.)  I'll take the opposite side of that argument.  Not only are some of the initial reasons for the EC (and the Senate) still in place, but new ones have emerged as well.

The types of agriculture that are emphasized in federal policy are regionally concentrated in the Great Plains, the Midwest, and the South.  Most of current federal ag policies originated in the 1930s as part of an overall package intended to keep rural states from falling into a permanent second-class economic status.  The package was created largely with the support of the more urban coastal states.  Without the leverage provided by the Senate and EC, rural states have (at least in their own minds) reasons to fear that they would be put back on the path to being second-class.

For the first 120 years or so of US history, one of the federal government's priorities was to transfer its public land holdings to private or state hands (see state land trusts and various homestead acts).  That policy was changed around 1900, and the federal government decided to retain its holdings (a policy change that was eventually stated formally in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976).  Today, the large federal land holdings are heavily concentrated in the West.  States in which a large portion of their area is held by the federal government have a long history of distrusting the federal government's management of those areas (with some historical justification).  In large part due to the leverage that the Senate and EC give those states, they have been able to insist for the last half-century that the Secretary of the Interior, who oversees most of the federal lands, be from a western state*.

Federal policy regarding regulation of coal-fired electricity generation provides yet another example.  Ten states sued the federal Environmental Protection Agency a few years back in a (so far successful) attempt to force the EPA to regulate CO2.  Of the ten, coal makes up a small part of electricity generation in eight.  In a separate lawsuit a few years later, 14 states sued the EPA over its newest rules regarding particulate/NOx/SOx restrictions.  In most of the 14, coal provides a large share of their generating capacity.  States that are heavy coal users for historical reasons fear that other states will be able to force them into making expensive changes in their infrastructure.

The original Senate/EC compromise dealt with the fears of states with small- or medium-sized populations that federal policy would be determined by a small number of heavily-populated states.  There continue to be issues where that same fear exists today.  It is highly improbable that the US Constitution will be amended to get rid of by-state representation.  The EC may be circumvented by state statutes such as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, but so long as amendments are voted on by states, the EC isn't going to be abolished.

* This may change.  Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, the question was asked, "What does a westerner know about deep water oil and gas production on the federal lands in the Gulf of Mexico?"  If there is a perception that the important federal holdings are the offshore Atlantic and Gulf regions, the western states may lose their leverage.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Rail-Oriented Transit in the West

Mass transit in general, and rail-oriented transit in particular, is regarded as one of the logical responses to steadily increasing costs for liquid fuels.  At least in the US, building new rail-oriented transit is usually a long drawn-out process.  A question that might be worth asking, then, is which parts of the country "have a leg up" on that process; that is, have made a significant start at building out a rail-oriented transit system.

This chart shows the rail-oriented transit systems in the US with the largest daily riderships.  The numbers are taken from Wikipedia pages on light- and heavy-rail transit systems.  The cities listed are the largest in the area served by each system; eg, San Francisco's heavy-rail system extends well down the peninsula to other smaller cities.  I arbitrarily cut the list off at 40,000 riders.  Several of the systems are located in the BosWash corridor, which is not surprising.  Chicago's famous "L" is also high on the list.  The other twelve cities on the list surprised me in one way: eight of them are in the West (defined from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific coast) and only four of them are in the rest of the country.

The West has a small number of  metropolitan areas with significant populations: Seattle, Portland, the San Francisco Bay area, LA/San Diego, Las Vegas, Phoenix, the Front Range of Colorado, and Salt Lake City.  All of those, with the exception of Las Vegas and Seattle, are on the list.  Seattle fails to make the list because its system has ridership just over 30,000.  Las Vegas's monorail is even smaller, and while there have been proposals to expand the system in either monorail or light rail format, none of those have gone very far.  Some of the Western systems are being expanded.  Denver, for example, has multiple additional lines already under construction that will go into service between 2013 and 2016, that will substantially increase ridership.

The non-West has many more metropolitan areas on the scale of those like Portland or Denver than the West has.  Why aren't there large numbers of light-rail systems growing at the same rate as those in the West?  There are many possible explanations, but I'll put forward my own: growth in the West has taught those cities a lesson that much of the non-West hasn't learned.  From 1990 to 2010, Alabama was a rapidly growing non-Western state; over that same interval, though, it grew at only half the rate of Oregon.  Cities in Ohio, which grew at less than half the rate of Alabama over the same 20 years, would be even farther from proper lesson: at some point, more lane-miles aren't the answer.

Friday, October 5, 2012

It Ain't Just the Price of Crude

One of the lead stories in Friday's LA Times documents the recent rapid increases in gasoline prices, going above five dollars per gallon in a handful of locations.  While the most recent prices are not yet reflected, the map of gasoline prices in the US shows two regions with significantly higher prices: the West Coast and the Northeast.  While some may claim that these numbers reflect variations in factors such as state gasoline taxes, the reality is quite a bit simpler.

In the last few weeks, a number of refineries in California have been shut down due to accidents or the need for routine maintenance.  Stories have correctly pointed out that the West Coast is, for the most part, not connected to the the large network of pipelines that connect various parts of the country farther east.  Earlier this year, multiple refineries serving New England and the New York/New Jersey Atlantic Coast area closed.  Stories at the time pointed out that pipelines that could deliver product from Gulf Coast or Midwest refineries were already running at capacity.  Shipping gasoline by tanker is relatively inexpensive.  Enough so, that once a Gulf Coast refinery has loaded the tanker, shipping the product to Europe may be more profitable than shipping to the East Cost.

California seems to be the place where we get big demonstrations about what can happen when we don't pay enough attention to the intermediate steps between the raw material and the end consumers of finished energy products.  California's deregulation (well, reregulation would be more accurate) of electricity supplies gave them the electricity crisis of 2000 and 2001.  Some of the key factors in that fiasco involved shut down of generating capacity to create shortages in the finished product.  Enron and others also manipulated limits in the transmission system -- the electrical equivalent of the oil pipeline network -- in order to create shortages and increase prices.

Energy policy can't stop with the production of the raw materials that go into the system.  It has to address the entire system, from well to pump for gasoline, from mine or wind farm to the meter on the outside of your house for electricity.