Monday, December 23, 2013 signup trend IV

With new data from last week's press conference. Getting much better, but still not where it needs to be.
The blue line is actual signups (based on less-than-ideal data) and the red line is how many they need to sign up to hit projections from before Oct 1.

Monday, December 9, 2013 signup trend III

New sign-up data, plus a correction to the total number of signups needed (was off by a decimal point) and this is where we stand so far.
Not yet on the right pace, but moving in that direction.

Thursday, November 21, 2013 signup trend II

Just an update to yesterdays post. I miscalculated the number of signups needed per day, and also someone pointed out that it would be better if the red line showed how many signups they needed per day from that day on  (because as the signups miss their target, they need to get more each day to make up for that). That graph is below.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013 signup trend

I threw this chart together based on a few numbers.

The blue line is the rate at which people have been signing up. I only have 4 numbers available though. There were 6 on day one, 248 by the end of day two, 27,000 for all of October and 50,000 by mid-November. Which is why you have the long lines - those are averages. The red line is how many people they need to sign up every day to hit the 5.6 million that CBO expeced to sign up by the end of March. Obviously they are way below where they need to be and will need to have several days above the red line to make it (or will need to have a lot of people sign up over the phone or through the insurance companies, etc...), but the trend is in the right direction.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Fixing College Football Overtime

If a College Football game finishes regulation tied, the two teams go to overtime. Overtime in College Football is different than in Pro Football. In college football, "if the score is tied at the end of regulation, there is a coin toss followed by a series of overtime periods. In an overtime period, each team gets one untimed possession starting at the opponent's 25-yard line (plus a try if the possession culminates in a touchdown). In the first overtime period and in all subsequent odd-numbered overtime periods, the winner of the coin toss can choose whether to have the first or second possession. The coin-toss loser gets the choice in the even-numbered overtime periods. Play continues until, at the end of some overtime period, the score is no longer tied."

Almost any team that wins the first coin toss at the beginning of OT chooses to play defense first. This is because most people perceive that there is an advantage in going last. The advantage is that if your opponent scores a TD, you know that you have to score one on your possession, so on 4th and 4, you will go for it instead of kick the Field Goal. How much is this worth, according to one analysis, the coin toss winner will win the game 52% of the time (in pro football they win 57% of the time which shows that the college version is fairer), but nonetheless, blind luck is now playing a part in who wins the game. But this can be fixed.

All we need to do is modify the choices until they are actually even. What if the team who plays offense second starts on the 27 instead of the 25? That would give them a slight disadvantage over the other team because they'll be starting on the 25 and it may counter the slight advantage they have from going second.

I'm not sure how far back the second team would have to start to balance it out. We could try to figure it out mathematically, or we could ask college coaches "How many yards would you be willing to give up to go last?" but regardless we probably won't get it totally fair. It won't be totally fair until coin-toss winners choose to play each defense and offence about 50% of the time.

Basically this is form of using bidding to decide who goes first. Straight up bidding would be better.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

NASA's Asteroid Retrieval Mission is a good next step for mankind

There is a battle brewing in Congress over the future of the US Space Program. On one side is the Obama Administration, which is following the "Flexible Path" recommendation of the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee (otherwise known as the Augustine Committee). On the other side are House Republicans who want to see us go back to the Bush Administrations Vision for Space Exploration by directing our attention to setting up a base on the Moon and then going to Mars.

The most visible sign of this dust-up came recently when, on a party-line vote, the House Science Committee voted to bar all spending on plans for the manned mission to an asteroid and pass a bill that establishes priorities for returning astronauts to the Moon, perhaps as soon as 2020, and ultimately sending them on to Mars. And to do this with less money than requested.

There are quite a few concerns brought up by lawmakers and scientists opposed to the Flexible Path. They claim that the Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM)  was "announced without any detailed technical study or clear-cut direction." Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MI) claims the agency hasn't explained the budget, purpose of technical requirements of the mission. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) asked if the mission contributes to NASA's long term goals.
Smith, the House science committee chairman, says the mission won’t advance NASA’s long-term agenda. “The proposed mission does not advance science, protect us against dangerous asteroids or develop technologies necessary to explore deep space,” he said. “Congress and the American people simply need more information about why an asteroid retrieval mission is necessary before billions of taxpayer dollars are spent.” 
And Palazzo added that his "primary goal is launching American astronauts on American rockets from America,” 
Other legislators complained that the project...would not advance America’s bragging rights in space the way a return to the Moon could.
Even a Democrat expressed skepticism about it
"I was never very excited about it,” said Representative Donna F. Edwards of Maryland, a Democrat on the committee.   
The mission is pretty simple to understand
NASA’s asteroid initiative is in preliminary stages, and the capture mission isn’t even an official program yet. 
The plan has robotic and human spaceflight components. First, an unmanned spacecraft would rendezvous with a small asteroid — roughly 20 to 30 feet in diameter — and swallow it with a tent-like contraption. Then the spacecraft would nudge the rock to an orbit around the moon. Astronauts would visit the captured asteroid in the Orion spacecraft that is being developed in tandem with a heavy-lift rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS).
What NASA should (and should not) be doing

The whole discussion brings up the existential question of "what is NASA's mission?" The answer tends to depend on who you ask, but NASA sees itself as have four not-necessarily overlapping missions. NASA does aeronautical research; they gather science on every thing from the Earth-Sun system to the depths of space; they develop test and prove new technologies and they create a path for the human exploration of space.

The first three of those missions, NASA does very well and with little criticism from the outside. There is no sense of drift within these programs. NASA takes proposals for projects, reviews them along with subject matter experts, narrows them down and then conducts those missions. In a lot of ways it mimics other scientific grant programs and is often not subject to much politics. Because these missions stand largely on their own, they don't need 20-30 year long vision with the commitment that requires. In Solar System exploration, for example, NASA can build upon the more recent missions and discoveries to design the next ones.

In a sense, each of these is already on a flexible path. These missions cost less than human exploration and their objectives are easier to explain. NASA is gathering science, making air and space travel better and funding basic research and development of various technologies. Even though the lives of most people won't change at all based on the final determination of the Hubble Constant, people in general support the idea of scientific advancement as its own good.

But the exploration of space by humans is different. It doesn't create safer airplanes or work primarily as an R&D program or create very much science. It has to be justified on the more emotional sense that exploration is, like science, inherently good and that mankind's destiny lies in the stars. It is funded in part because people feel a need to keep moving forward and because the program is inspirational. All of that is real, but it is harder to translate into a goal. And because human spaceflight is so much harder and so much more expensive, it means that doing anything truly inspirational or truly exploratory is unjustifiably costly.

Why the "Flexible Path" is the right path

The Augustine Committee report presented the nation with three options: Moon first, Mars first or the Flexible Path. The first two are pretty self-explanatory, but the Flexible Path was meant to allow humans to go to many places we'd never been before on a lower budget. As they wrote:
On this path, humans would visit sites never visited before and extend our knowledge of how to operate in space—while traveling greater and greater distances from Earth.  Successive missions would visit: lunar orbit; the Lagrange points (special points in space that are important sites for scientific observations and the future space transportation infrastructure); near-Earth objects (asteroids that cross the Earth’s path); and orbit around Mars. Most interestingly, humans could rendezvous with a moon of Mars, then coordinate with or control robots on the Martian surface.
The kicker is that no one would walk around on any moons or planets. From a science and engineering standpoint, that might actually be a worthwhile trade. Getting a geologist onto Mars for a month would likely result in a huge yield, but the cost would go up significantly since travelers would  need to launch off of a 2nd planet. But a mission to orbit an asteroid would be much cheaper and might have a better cost/benefit ratio. But from a political standpoint, these kind of missions would not advance "bragging rights" the way that planting a flag on Mars would. Even though the Augustine report noted that the flexible path "would provide the public and other stakeholders with a series of interesting “firsts” to keep them engaged and supportive" it's pretty clear that orbiting Mars and then coming back just isn't as appealing to people as watching the first person walk on the red planet is.

While building a lunar base or walking on Mars would be undeniably cool, and building a radio-astronomy telescope on the dark side of the Moon a possible scientific boon; the question of whether or not any of these are worth the cost has largely been settled by Congress. There simply isn't enough money appropriated to NASA to do any of those things, and in the days of sequester and debt limit showdowns it's unlikely that more is going to be found. In fact, the Augustine Commission said that the NASA budget would be insufficient to leave Low-Earth-Orbit without increased funding, so even this more modest space program may be beyond NASA's reach.

Nonetheless, a scaled-down version of the Flexible Path is the best option for the money we're willing to spend. It let's astronauts get out of low Earth orbit for the first time since the '70's and go places they've never been before - and there are bragging rights to that (Does Rep. Palazzo want to see a taikonaut take the first step onto an asteroid?) . It allows a new generation of NASA engineers to gradually develop the skills and knowledge necessary to eventually do the more ambitious projects that every one wants to see NASA do some day - just as the Mercury and Gemini programs did two generations ago. And "because the path is flexible, it would allow many different options as exploration progresses, including a return to the Moon’s surface, or a continuation to the surface of Mars."

Why an asteroid visit?

The Flexible Path as defined in the Augustine report gave several options for missions including lunar fly-bys, visits to Lagrange points and near-Earth objects, Mars fly-bys and rendezvous with Mars’s moons. Of these the most valuable is a visit to an asteroid. This is because such a mission will help us to develop and test the skills necessary to change the orbit of an asteroid that might someday hit the Earth.

Earth is hit by small space meteors every day. And occasionally the planet is hit by larger ones capable of causing damage, as happened in Chelyabinsk, Russia earlier this year. On a few occasions, meteors caused mass extinction events on Earth. These are low probability/high cost events, but the cost is so high that it's not a bad idea to start thinking about how to deal with them. A speaker I saw once pointed out that we were in a unique window of human history, where we might be smart enough to see an asteroid coming for us but not smart enough to do anything about it. It would be nice to close that window.

Part of that is trying to map all the asteroids that might be a threat to us, a project that NASA and astronomers have been working on for over 15 years now. But the next part is to see if we can effectively nudge a satellite. If we identify a hazard far enough in the future, a little nudge is all it will take. So the ARM will help us to better understand the composition of an asteroid while practicing anchoring techniques for moving one around and also expand our capabilities to send people to them. It will help us to understand the composition of asteroids, the dust environment around them and the proximity operations near one.

Furthermore, asteroids could serve us later as mining sites or as shielding for deep space vehicles. Space is filled with deadly Gamma radiation that astronauts must be shielded against. It may be cheaper to use asteroids already in space than to launch materials from Earth to perform this shielding.

The project thus has a practical element - rehearsing asteroid nudging, a scientific element - studying asteroids, a technological element - demonstrating capabilities of the Orion and a programmatic element - helping train engineers in deeper space mission. 

The first test launch of the new Orion spacecraft  is less than a year away and the first manned mission, a lunar orbit mission, is planned for the 2019-2020 time frame. The ARM would follow that as early as 2021. It's hard to imagine another mission that could be completed in that time frame that would give as much of a benefit for the money spent.

It would be great to go to Mars or build a radio astronomy antenna on the dark side of the Moon, but there just isn't the necessary committment from Congress to do those things.

Then, of course, we need to start working on a robot satellite that will track down and de-orbit space junk.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Constitution 2.0: A Better Senate

With the recent filibuster showdown, and the lack of legislation moving forward, there has been some discussion about how the Senate is not working or why it's not. As part of a series on reworking the constitution, here's an idea for a better Senate.

A little history

At the Constitutional Convention, Madison's original proposal, the Virginia Plan, included two houses just as we have now. But, in Madison's plan both were based on population (or on a state's share of taxes paid). One house was to be directly elected by the people and the other was to be elected by the state legislatures. The idea was that the houses would represent different constituencies. Smaller states opposed the plan and wanted to continue with each state being equal. In the end the second house was modified as part of the Connecticut Compromise to the current design with a Senate that gives each state 2 Senators.

This gave us two houses, one that represents the people by population and one that represents the state governments as equals. But then, one hundred years ago in 1913 we changed that with the 17th Amendment, calling for the direct election of Senators. This created two houses, both representing the citizenry, but with the upper house defined by unequal and static "districts" that matched state boundaries.

The Problems

There are several problems with the way we have the Senate set up.

First of all, it's unfair, which is why Madison and many others wanted both houses to be proportional. There is no really good reason for the people of California to have as many Senators as the people of Wyoming when there are 66 times as many of them. Having some people's votes be more powerful than others would strike most Americans as undemocratic, because it is - which is why it was opposed at the time.

In addition, one of the unintended consequences of giving each state two Senators is that it has created an unnecessary disincentive for adding states. Many times in our history, states have been denied entry because one faction fears what two Senators from that state would do to the balance of power. Often states have been admitted as pairs in order to mitigate this impact. But even now, one of the largest barriers to DC statehood is the concern that the new state of Columbia would get two Senators that are either undeserved and/or will hurt Republicans.

Another unintended consequence is that each state added weakens the President because the Vice-President's tie-breaking vote becomes less relevant. It's far better to have the tie-breaking vote in a body of 26 people than in a body of 100. And we can see the impact if we look at the number of tie-breaking votes per Vice-President. The top 7 tie-breaking Vice-Presidents were all elected in the first 100 years.

Finally, and this is less of a problem than a missed opportunity, the change of constituencies that resulted from the 17th Amendment makes the House and Senate somewhat redundant. They now both represent people who have shared geography, though in most cases that geography is somewhat different.

The Solution

One change, albeit a large one, could solve all these problems. That change is to make the Senate a party-list proportional representation body with a fixed number of Senators. This would make the body more democratic, remove a barrier to adding states and avoid eroding the tie-breaking power of the Vice-President, while allowing the Senate to represent people by party affiliation rather than geography.

In a party-list proportional representation system, "parties make lists of candidates to be elected, and seats get allocated to each party in proportion to the number of votes the party receives. Voters may vote directly for the party, as in Israel and Albania, or for candidates, and that vote will pool to the party, as in Turkey and Brazil, or for a list of candidates, as in Hong Kong."

There are several advantages to such a system. For one, every vote counts the same as every other vote. In addition, it should help with voter turnout, as voters know that their vote will be pooled with like-minded voters from across the country (even if their party is the heavy favorite or underdog within their state) and that therefore there is a higher chance that they can change the allotment. It gives smaller parties, like the Libertarian Party or the Green Party, a real chance to win a seat, which means the Senate will more accurately represent the broad spectrum of American political beliefs. And it means that there is a more significant difference between who is represented in the House and Senate, with the House representing people by shared geographic interests and the Senate representing people with shared political interests.

And of course, capping the number of Senators at a fixed number means that future additions of states would neither weaken the President nor necessarily threaten the balance of power within the Senate. DC Statehood, for example, would now increase voters by less than 0.2% (not all of them Democrats) instead of increasing the Senate by 2% (both surely Democrat), and might thus be more palatable.

As an added benefit, it would take the role filling empty Senate seats out of the hands of Governors. As we've seen in New Jersey in 2013 and Illinois in 2009, this can create a conflict of interest that harms voters. Instead, those candidates on a party's slate who did not win seats would form an in-order list of alternates. Not only would this place the filling of empty seats in the hands of voters, but the seats could be filled faster and without expensive special elections.

How it would work

There are many ways for the system to work, but I've laid out one specific example below.

The Senate could be capped at any number. A number too large weakens the president and fails to require a party to build a real constituency. A number too small reduces the diversity of opinions in the Senate. I've chosen 60. 60 is divisible by 3 (the number of Senate classes) and 2 (for ties). It would require a party to get 5% of the vote to guarantee themselves one seat, though it would be possible and likely that it could be done with as little as 2-3%. And 60 sits in the middle of the historical range for the Senate.

We could use an open-list format, meaning that voters would have a say in ranking each party's candidates. This could be done in the current primary/election model, where each party holds a primary during which candidates campaign for themselves seeking the highest possible ranking on their party's slate, followed by an election in which candidates campaign for their parties seeking to secure more seats for the candidates on their slate. Alternatively, both could be done simultaneously, with voters voting for individuals and the vote used to rank candidates within their party and to allot seats per party. I'll choose the latter.

So, coming into the election of 2020 many people decide to seek one of the 20 Senate seats up for grabs that year and they begin declaring. Barbara Boxer declares as a Democrat and John Boozman runs as a Republican. But Marco Rubio decides to run for the newly formed Tea Party and Corrine Brown chooses to run with the Congressional Black Caucus. The Green Party convinces Elizabeth Warren to run on their ticket and the Libertarians score Rand Paul.

As the campaign moves ahead, Boxer positions herself as the California Democrat. Someone else tries to be the California Republican. Others campaign on regional or state-specific issues. Alternatively, some campaign nationally on single items like abortion, guns or the deficit. Still others, like Ashley Judd, run on their own fame or personality.

When the voting is over, Democratic candidates have won 35.5% of the vote, Republicans have 30.5%, the Congressional Black Caucus has 12%, the Tea Party has 9%, the Libertarian Party has 3.25%, the Green Party has 2.6% and the rest is scattered among an assortment of parties.

Democrats then get 7 seats and Republicans 6.  The CBC gets 3. The Tea Party gets 2. And the Libertarians and Green get 1 seat each.

In addition within the parties, the top seven Democrats (from Boxer down to Judd) will take the party's seats, while the others, starting with Rahm Emanuel, will fill a list of alternates. Cornyn leads the Republicans, while Boozman fails to get a seat. Warren takes the Green Party's seat and Paul the Libertarian's. Etc... Once in the Senate, Democrats, CBCs and Greenies join the majority left coalition and Republicans, the Tea Partiers and Libertarians join the right coalition.

But that's only one way to make it work. Many variations could be used to solve these systemic problems with the Senate - some known about since the formation of the government - while removing perverse incentives against statehood, allowing for more voices, creating a distinctive upper house and a less controversial method for filling vacancies.

Of course, it will never happen. Most of the people needed to make this change (small states, current senators, the two major parties) are also on the list of most likely losers if the change should occur. Still, it would be nice.