delicious, delicious bailout

Gelt!The one thing that the warring experts agree on is that the proposed stimulus is extraordinary. One side shouts: “It’s outrageous! It’s unprecedented! In terms of economic and political theory, it’s odious!” The other replies that yes, you’re right about all of that, but if we do nothing the alternative will probably be worse. We’ve already tried all of the less objectionable things that we normally do, but now we’re out of alternatives and so the only options we have left are nationalizing banks or giving handouts to financiers or, god forbid, cleaning up the National Mall so that our great American commons isn’t a disgusting barren mudpit.

So yes, it’s a bad situation, but a lack of ideas seems to be at least part of the problem. And then last night it struck me: a bold, novel solution, which I offer here in the humble spirit of citizenship.

We need more money flowing around, right? But we can’t just print more money because of the inflationary risk, right? It has to be short term — new money that disappears after a while. The answer is simple: chocolate gelt. Edible currency. Fiat finger food! It’ll circulate for a while, then gradually disappear as people consume it. For those of you who still believe in economics, I think the technical rationale is that the currency will be consumed once its marginal deliciousness (or whatever) exceeds its face value. Personally, I think it’ll probably just be consumed by the drunk, hungry or drunk & hungry. Either way, there’s a built-in safety check against long-term inflationary effects.

There are of course some practical concerns. The foil would have to be significantly upgraded to make regular handling of the currency viable — perhaps some sort of carefully engineered tin design would be necessary. Also, it may be that chocolate is too cheap (or melting-prone) a commodity to turn into a useful form of currency. Or perhaps forgers would refill empties with Hershey’s chocolate — presumably inferior to delicious federal chocolate. But there are solutions to these problems. Maybe we could use ampules of liquor. Or, simpler still, the government could storm Hidden Valley, seize its ranch-producing operations and make the Treasury Department the only source of our precious national condiment.

Whatever the specifics, I think this is an initiative that would be welcomed by the public. Certainly I’d be a lot happier about it than I was when I received five one-dollar coins’ worth of change from the Chinatown bus people last night.

wires are the best!

I’m now hopelessly late with this, so I’ll try (and fail) to make it brief. On Friday Ryan discussed D.C.’s ban on overhead “catenary” wires, which would be necessary for electric streetcars. Apparently you can’t use an electrified sunken rail in cities that have to salt their roads — there are corrosion issues. Unfortunately, changing the law to allow overhead wires would require congressional involvement. Ryan mentions a company that’s pushing a technology providing for the wireless transfer of power from the street to the streetcar, allowing the system to be sealed and immune to salt. It sounds like a pretty clever solution. But that doesn’t make it a good one.

Like a transformer, this technology works through induction, converting electricity to magnetism and back again. In a normal transformer you have a core of some sort — picture an iron ring — and you’ve got two wires, one for input and one for output. These get wrapped around the core like in this picture. Send alternating current into the input wire and its wrappings will generate a magnetic field, which will be conducted along the core, which will excite electrons in the other wire’s coils and generate an output current. If you change the ratio of windings on the input and output coils the voltage will change, too, which is a very useful thing to be able to do. As you might imagine, transforming energy from one form to another in this way isn’t perfectly efficient (although in large, well-designed units it can be very close to it). Some electricity is lost to heat, which is why those heavy old wall-wart adapters — heavy thanks to their iron cores — tend to be warm to the touch after they’ve been plugged in for a while.

Newer “switchmode” adapters use a different technique for changing voltage levels. This method doesn’t require an iron core, which is why they can be so much lighter and smaller. Strictly speaking, transformers don’t need the iron core, either. The problem is that they’re much less efficient without one — which brings us to inductive power transfer and the streetcars. In this case one coil is sitting in the street and one’s sitting in the streetcar. The core, such as it is, is made of air, which is terrible at guiding magnetic fields, and gets ever-more terrible the further apart the coils are — this is not a useful technique for moving power anything but very short distances.

The point of all this is that you’re going to be wasting energy if you try to move it around wirelessly. Worse, it’s going to be more expensive to build the system to do all this than it would be to just make the connection with wires. It’s not as if inductive charging hasn’t been tried in the marketplace: some early electric cars used inductive paddles to charge, and various efforts are intermittently made to provide magical laptop-charging desks. But aside from electric toothbrushes — which, as the previous link notes, can afford to waste some energy if it lets them stay watertight — there just aren’t that many applications where choosing a more expensive, more wasteful way of transmitting energy makes sense.

And I have a feeling that the same will prove to be true of streetcars. Wikipedia cites an 80% efficiency number from an experimental bus system developed in 1990. That was a while ago, but it’s hard for me to imagine that the situation has gotten that much better — or that real-world applications could match the performance of a system in a closed test track. It’s going to cost more money than catenary wires, and you won’t be able to get your coils very close together on hilly streets, so your electricity bill is going to be 10% or 20% more than it would if you used direct conduction. It would be a shame to let an accident of bureaucratic history make this engineering choice.

about that work

As I mentioned, I’ve been working overtime to hit a deadline — that sort of thing comes up when you suddenly get word that Steve Inskeep is going to start mentioning your URL. Having my laptop suffer a catastrophic logic board failure on Tuesday afternoon didn’t help matters.

But we got the site up, and if you’re interested in checking it out you can do so at subsidyscope.com. You might’ve already seen the earlier version of the site. This update was to get things beyond the brochureware stage, and to put some actual data online. We were under the gun, and consequently didn’t get to do as much as we’d like, or in the way we’d like — witness my ugly inline CSS. But we’ll be adding to the site and fixing those problems in the near future.

Thanks to the unexpected end of the American economy, we’ve shifted gears somewhat and are focusing our early attention on the federal bailout of the financial and automotive sectors rather than examining the even more formidable problem of energy subsidies. Don’t worry — we’ll still be getting to energy, and transportation, and a bunch of other sectors. But we felt that a project focusing on subsidies couldn’t just ignore one of the largest economic interventions of all time.

Unfortunately, data on the bailout is still pretty hard to come by. Despite the congressional complaints you may have heard regarding its transparency, the TARP program is actually the best-characterized part of the bailout of any substantial size — and hey, I made a fancy Javascript visualization thingy for it! But TARP is a relatively small part of the bailout. Part of the problem is that the agencies handing out money haven’t released information about what they’re doing, either because doing so would violate the privacy of the institutions receiving funds (something that many would call a pretty lame excuse — FOIAs and lawsuits are in process); or simply because they have no idea how much money they’ve handed out: in a lot of cases the government’s promised to cover someone’s horrible screw-up, but the bill for the screw-up hasn’t yet arrived.

A big part of our job will be to chart and revise the estimates of those costs — and, in particular, to establish how much of the government’s payments are subsidies, rather than just market-rate loans being made because everyone else is too scared to lend.

Technically, I’ve gotten to do a lot of fun stuff. I’m still hopelessly amateurish at Django, but I’m starting to really appreciate Python. Django’s pretty handy, too, although I can already see why I’ve heard others complain about the relatively limited nature of its template system (when unmodified, anyway). I was in a hurry to get the visualizations done — there were a number that got scrapped prior to launch, unfortunately — and settled on Raphael JS a bit earlier than I should have. As it turns out, its IE performance is not great. But I was mostly pleased with it, and of course jQuery remains very pleasant to work with. I’m working to port the TARP visualization into Flash anyway, though (via the Flex framework) — IE’s performance is just too lousy to stick with Javascript.

snow day

I was pretty happy to wake up and see snowflakes falling. I’d already decided to take the day off — a tight deadline had forced me to work an extra week’s worth of evenings, plus Saturday and Sunday — so I was committed to sloth irrespective of the weather. Having snow on the ground somehow made the experience of playing hooky seem more legitimate, though, and consequently more restful.

Washingtonians famously tend to freak out about snow. In truth, I think we only do so to the extent necessary to support a more important (and collectively beloved) winter weather meta-activity: complaining about how much everyone else freaks out about snow. I remember Don & Mike doing bits about residents stockpiling bread, milk and toiletpaper as early as their WAVA days, back when the station focused on engendering affection for C&C Music Factory rather than for Jesus. Sure, I believe that area residents don’t really know how to drive in winter conditions. But for me and for most other folks around here that belief is much less dearly-held than the broader sentiment that, once flakes start falling, everyone else becomes an idiot.

Whatever the underlying motivation, I’m glad that we overreact to snow, sleet, slush, hail, wintry mix and of course the dread black ice. This city works too hard. It would be nice if we’d drop the rationalizations and simply acknowledge our snow-induced delays as acquiescences to the pagan meteorological gods. Divine injunctions to take it easy are too few and far between. I say that for anything over two inches we officially take the day off. Not because it’s hard to get around, but just because. If any tourists look at you askance just mumble something about averting wrath.

Barack Obama does not want to be your Facebook friend

Given that I’m a Professional Internet Guy, it’s probably not wise for me to spend as much time as I do telling people that the web is less important than they think. But guys, seriously: the web is less important than you think — especially the new administration’s use of the web.

Kottke’s analysis of the new robots.txt file at whitehouse.gov is the latest and most ludicrous example of our collective fascination with everything the Obama team does online. When placed on a webserver, a robots.txt file determines what sections of a website are ignored by search engines and other services that employ web crawling scripts. The Bush administration had a lengthy robots.txt file; the Obama administration does not. When someone bothers to point this out, they’re trying to imply that Obama will be less secretive than Bush. It’s a cute point to make, but c’mon — are we really supposed to believe that this means something? Does that mean, then, that the Obama administration’s ETag-enabled HTTP headers signal its commitment to energy conservation? Does the administration’s use of Microsoft IIS prove that the Obama campaign’s embrace of open source technologies was meaningless? No and no. It’s just a goddamn website. The president is obviously not involved in these sorts of mundane engineering decisions; but more broadly, it’s almost always a mistake to look for symbolism in such decisions.

Of course, I doubt that Kottke would claim to be making a serious point. In this regard, the online reaction to change.gov was much sillier. As that site launched and evolved, I saw a lot of folks expressing sentiments like this: “Look how high issue X has been voted on change.gov! In the age of the web, how long can politicians afford to ignore the will of the people?!”

When it comes to change.gov, the answer to this question is pretty clearly “indefinitely”. Seriously: does anyone really think something was accomplished by voting marijuana legalization into the third-most-popular spot? That lots of people would like to smoke weed legally and are willing to say so — so long as saying it costs them no time, money or liberty — that’s not exactly a direct-democratic revelation. Nor does it represent some sort of wisdom-of-crowds, well-informed policy prescription that deserves respect. I’m in favor of marijuana legalization, but the idea that the expression of this preference on change.gov is worthy of political attention is laughable.

Here’s the thing: the executive branch is pretty important, and it has been for a while. For this reason, various institutions supporting the interchange of information between the presidency and the public have evolved, from the White House Press Corps to the Gallup poll to, um, the legislative branch. This process actually works pretty well — it’s not as if the president finds himself scratching his head, saying, “Gosh, I wonder what would be popular with the public?” The additional information-lubrication that technology can bring to bear on this problem will offer very slight benefits.

Now of course, you can say that the will of the people isn’t sufficiently respected by our political institutions. But representing public opinion online isn’t going to make it magically attract any more official notice than it does in other formats. In fact, decreasing the cost of expressions of policy preference arguably serves to reduce the attention they receive. Consider how much value congressional offices place on phone calls versus paper mail or email. A hint: the harder and less form-letter-ready the medium, the more likely the staffer/glorified-CSR you deal with will be to make a tic mark on your behalf in the office tally for HR-whatever. How much attention do you think your opinion is going to garner when you give voice to it by clicking on an AJAX thumbs-up button? How much do you think it deserves?

I’ll go further: to whatever extent the Obama administration is paying attention to change.gov, they’re making a mistake. I mean, look, it’s a nice idea. But if it’s anything other than a cynical PR exercise, it’s also a basically undemocratic empowerment of a particular constituency on the basis of the arbitrary criterion of Web 2.0-iness — which is admittedly better than gender or skin color, but still. I thought this rankled when Comcast did it on Twitter, and I think it does here, too — although not as much, since the web is less of a niche forum than Twitter (and despite “what to do about Iraq?” probably being a more important question than “why aren’t my HD channels working?”).

The one genuinely noteworthy aspect of all this online business is the direct line of communication it provides from the president to the public. Again, the import of this has been overstated: for all of its shortcomings, in most cases the media’s coverage of the administration will be more useful to the public than the administration’s presentation of itself. In the same way that you might visit the Toyota website when shopping for a car but give greater consideration to more disinterested sources of information like Consumer Reports, there’s only so much attention that the public will — or should — pay to what the administration has to say for itself. The one big exception to this is the not-infrequent case where the media’s market-determined forms preclude the efficient communication of information to the public, as when a nuanced sentiment from a speech is reduced to a sound bite. The president’s online presence can offer a solution to this problem, achieving the (relatively few) advantages of a state media organ without any of the market- and opinion-distorting downsides.

But again: let’s not overstate things. It’s great that this capability exists; it’s great that whitehouse.gov has gotten a new coat of paint. But these capabilities have existed for a while now, and nobody’s given a shit. The president’s weekly radio address has been on iTunes since 2005 — how often have you found yourself listening to it at the gym? It’s naive to think that the internet is going to supplant all the existing ways we have for the government to listen to the public; and it’s silly to think that the public is going to remain keenly interested in what the government has to say just because Obama’s hired someone who knows CSS. This is all useful stuff, but it’s not going to revolutionize our society.

The web is great and I’m glad our institutions are getting online. And the internet is changing — and already has changed — politics. But the real revolution here lies in the ways that technology makes it easier for people to organize into groups — groups that can then make their members’ opinions heard through the traditional levers we have for affecting our government. Don’t let me dissuade anyone from signing the urgent online petitions in their inboxes. But — so far, at least — all of the online attempts to completely disintermediate our democracy have been hopeless — even when they haven’t also been hopelessly lame.

there’s an inauguration going on or something

I didn’t go downtown this morning. Getting anywhere even potentially worth being seemed to require a very early start, and although Becks‘ promise of a delicious pre-inaugural spread was tempting, I opted out. I’d gotten up before dawn the day before in order to catch a flight, making me even less inclined than normal to wake up early. Instead I woke up around 10, made some coffee and french toast, then plopped down in front of the TV. Honestly, I think this was the way to go.

I did head out on my bike around 1, though, to see what things were like around town. I made a rough circle down to Chinatown, over to Freedom Plaza, up Fourteenth, across U, then back down Eleventh. The verdict: there are a lot of people here! They all seem excited to bustle about and enjoy the historic occasion, but there’s no comparison to the emotion that flooded the streets on election night. I guess for that sort of joyousness to spread to the daylight hours we’d need to be transitioning from an even worse president than Bush to an even more trailblazing and exciting one than Obama. Like, say, a resurrected Freddie Mercury succeeding a two-term Palpatine administration. Well, fingers crossed!

You’ll be glad to know that I took some crappy pictures with my iphone:

water damage rOBAMAration service

Gallery Place was ground zero for nonsensical Obama paraphernalia, including this plumber’s truck with photos of the new president plastered on it. Despite the street being closed, a cop yelled at me for stopping my bike to take this photo, and then again when I took five seconds to begin moving. Ah, officiousness.

Fourteenth Street

Fourteenth had stalls set up, but aside from folks queued to get into the perimeter around the mall, it wasn’t too flooded with people. It was pretty fun to bike through the closed streets.

There’s an Obama ice sculpture outside of Ben’s. And yeah, the line still goes down the alley:

Obama ice sculpture outside of Ben's

MOST EXCITINGLY: I’m pretty sure I saw Matthew Lesko walking down my street as I returned home. I mean, okay, it could have been someone else. But whoever it was, he was wearing a leather jacket emblazoned with question marks, pants with question marks on the back pocket, a question mark hat, and ludicrous shoes (which seem likely to have also involved punctuation symbols of one sort or another).

Lesko at ease

Drupalcon

I’ve added a badge for Drupalcon over there on the right sidebar, in an utterly shameless effort to get a free ticket. It’s pretty pathetic; I should really just buy one. Thing is, when they first went on sale I thought I’d be going on the strength of EchoDitto’s allotment of sponsor tickets. These days I don’t use Drupal on a day to day basis, and it would be hard for me to justify attending the convention for more than a panel or two — not when I could be working. Given that, even though the organizers (hi guys!) have done a great job of keeping the price down, $250 is a bit steep for a couple of hours’ instruction in technologies that aren’t immediately useful to me.

Hence the swathing in swag. One way or another I’ll be participating in the festivities — so far as I know, convention badges won’t be required for hanging out at bars at the end of each day. But I’m not sure I’ll actually be at the panels.