Friday, June 19, 2009


Just in visiting Houston for a bit as a launching pad for a vacation. Driving around the city, it definitely feels different and to be honest just set my teeth on edge. For a long while I've detested urban sprawl and this combines with my dislike for driving to have Houston give me a bad taste in my mouth. Of all the cities I've been to, I've preferred urban, walkable ones with good public transportation: Portland, New York, San Francisco, pretty much any city in Australia or Europe in comparison to the US. I generally despised LA for this reason, not simply because my parents are ashamed I was born there while my dad was finishing up his doctoral degree at UCLA.

LA though, always just struck me as an absolute mess, where sprawl somewhat happened through accident and incompetence. Admittedly, this isn't exactly true, and I haven't spent all that much time in LA, but that is the feeling I would get.

Houston, on the other hand, seems to be designed for the purpose of sprawl. The massive ring highways are extremely well designed for what they are and the more upper class suburban areas I visited seemed somewhat like resorts, in the vein of Sunriver, only with no sidewalks and no store within miles. There is apparently no public transportation system in the city aside from a few buses. It left me uneasy. I will give them that their housing prices are much much lower than most of the cities I enjoy so much and their traffic does seem to not be that significant, so there is something to it, but I would absolutely hate to live there.

I wonder how much of Houston's development comes from benefiting off of externalizing economic costs that should be taxed away, such as carbon admissions or subsidized greenfield development. Also, it makes me wonder of what would have to be done to reduce housing prices in cities such as SF or NY, or if those cities are simply better at internalizing external costs.

Or maybe I'm just a snobbish urbanite, and the external costs simply aren't that great, and I simply am willing to pay more for an urban environment of my choosing. I hope that's not the case though. Houston just feels wrong, and I would like to think it wouldn't look that way if the true costs of everything were taken into consideration. I'll have to look into it more, given that I've gotten these feelings after only seeing the city for two days.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Empiricism in Politics

The last few weeks have not been the most reassuring in terms of politics. I suppose this is mainly due to seeing the health care debate in America. From what I have seen of the argument, and my cursory examination of other countries health care options, I believe that a single-payer plan would be the best, and if not that, then at least a public option. Thus, reading the news on the health care debate alternatively angers and saddens me.

I hope that it works out in the end. After all, I could be wrong. I don't understand anything close to all the details in the plans being suggested now, and it is possible that the conservatives do have some good points. Possibly, whatever half-assed mess of a compromise that is delivered will actually function. I don't think it will be as good as what I want, but I can't tell for sure.

Thinking of this brought to mind an article I had read on empiricism in politics, claiming that in the future mankind would move towards making political decisions more on the basis of factual evidence. After a fair amount of searching, I believe I might have found it, in an article by J. Craig Venter. Of course, at times I doubt that facts will make anything of a difference in political debate. It's an effort having to bite my tongue around my girlfriend's father when he starts going on about how humans don't cause global warming.

There will always be policy debates, and most likely I won't be happy with what the majority decides. Obama's election did give me some hope that one could convince the public of a good idea, but I cannot put all my faith in this. Given my dim view of human nature, I put much more hope towards a technical solution to our problems. Or, to rephrase, a technically aided solution. It is not that I think that old-school political maneuvering for what I believe to be the right ideas is useless, it is that I think that relying only on them is inefficient. I have much more hope that we can do something new that will change the game and get us out of this mess.

How exactly this Democracy 2.0 can work out is still being worked on. I see several ways in which things could improve. I hope the social sciences, especially economics, can make some large leaps forward as more and more information is recorded and made accessible on the Internet. I imagine that some day we could have a good map of most people's social contacts, their locations, their tastes and preferences, and also a good idea of what they're spending money on. This seems fairly likely to me as things like Facebook,'s recommendations and become more widely used, and hopefully their information will become more open in the future. We've also got things such as reality mining that will provide a great amount of information. Put all this together with greater computing power to enable larger simulations, and maybe we can get to the point where we can actually make meaningful and useful economic predictions.

As far as actually making politicians try to work for the common good, well there's the hope that things like reputation markets and the Sunlight Foundation can force some more accountability out of elected officials.

Of course, as I said earlier, facts often don't do much at all in affecting a political debate. I can hope that a lot of the more idiotic political positions out there can be alleviated by neuropharmacology that raises every one's IQ 30 or so points. Beyond that, some bastards just disagree with me, and there's not much I can do about that.

All of the above are mainly ideas to make our current form of government more efficient and don't affect the major problems of democracy itself. How to replace democracy with something better though is quite a question. It's something I've put a good bit of thought into, and have only some vague ideas. As this post is getting fairly long, I'm going to save some of those thoughts for later.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Time for a New SimCity

I'm rereading The Death and Life of Great American Cities, for the first time in six years or so, and it's really making me want to reinvent SimCity.

Right now I'm on a chapter talking about how parks cannot be applied as magical talismans to raise property values and as that is how they were used in SimCity, I started to think about others ways in which it could be improved. One of the major things you would need is to simulate individual humans, down to their daily comings and goings, their interests, a rough sketch of what they see, and so on. Now computers have improved tremendously in the last years, but I'm still not sure that they can get to that level of detail. It would depend of course upon how many simplifications could be made, but in order to simulate the city in the level of detail that would make things talked about in The Death and Life of Great American Cities relevant, the program would need to have many more details, the different types of businesses instead of simply 'commercial' 'residential', model what times of day people are going places, cultural differences between people, etc.

Now, at a more basic level there are things that I've been thinking should be improved in SimCity for a long time in order to make it possible to do more realistic simulations of cities. There needs to be an ability to layout streets in any direction and not be restricted to a grid. There needs to be mixed use buildings that are seen in cities, where in one building there are commercial stores on the ground floor and residential apartments above. Furthermore, the basic plan of it costing money to zone out land always seemed a bit unrealistic to me. What of the pressures brought to bear in trying to keep people form expanding to new areas? Either trying to prevent sprawl in America or dealing with growing slums in India. There's never even been bums in SimCity!

Bear in mind that I haven't played SimCity since SimCity 4, not the Rush Hour expansion set, nor SimCities Societies. It is quite possible that some of the thoughts I've had have begun to be implemented, but certainly nowhere near the level that I would like to see.

There is also the point that SimCity is designed as a game, and that bogging things down in extreme levels of details might lessen the fun. I admit that that is a risk, but it can be overcome. It is not the case that someone playing such a game would be exposed to all these details, but for me, it would be more fun if I had the option to get down to the level where I could see them.

As for what those details will all need to be, well, I'll think more on the subject and get back to you.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Health Care in the United States

One important political issue that I have had very little to say about over the years has been health care. I was talking with a friend of mine about why this was, and as best I could determine it was simply because the issue was too complex to provide an easy answer for me to support. Not that many of the political issues I've spent time yelling about have been simple, but at least I've read books about subjects such as copyright, environmental policy, agricultural policy, etc. With regards to health care, I have very little background.

So, I set out to try and get a handle on the issue. That has proved somewhat difficult. I know the basic statistics of how the US spends more on health care than any other nation and yet has a life expectancy only in the middle range for developed nations. That the US is the only developed nation without a universal health care system and that 46 million Americans are uninsured. I certainly believe that universal health care should be a right in this country, and I have some idea of the inefficiencies that create our current problem, but I cannot say that I have seen an clear argument for a solution, or any clear estimates of the cost. There is a definite lack of a message out there.

Given my distrust of the right in this country, I lean towards claiming that we should push for a single-payer health care solution, but I still do not know enough. I know that some of the writers at the FiveThirtyEight endorse singles-payer health care, as do various parts of and the Daily Kos, but I have still yet to see a clear example of what a new health care system should look like and what it would do for us.