One More Win for George Lucas

 Posted by at 8:45 PM  Tagged with: , , ,
May 142012

Dear George Lucas,

I never thought I’d say this, but I forgive you for the Phantom Menace.  Yes, even for Jar Jar.  You’re a good man.  Keep up the awesome work.


For those of you who think I’ve gone crazy, I direct you to this story here.  If you don’t want to read the whole thing, here are the cliffs notes:

  • George Lucas wanted to build a big movie studio thingy in Marin County (an especially wealthy area north of San Francisco).
  • The neighbors didn’t like the idea.  Sure, it would bring in jobs, restaurants, development and economic productivity, but they didn’t want the construction noise or extra foot traffic.  They kept agitating and voting to keep it residential.
  • Mr. Lucas finally gave up on the movie studio, saying that even if it did get built, the bad relationships with everyone around it wouldn’t be a good situation.
  • So INSTEAD, he’s using the land to build affordable housing for low-income families or senior citizens on a fixed income.  A project like this would usually be unbelievably costly just to get off the ground, but luckily, Lucasfilm is happy to donate all the technical studies and surveys that they have lying around, unable to use.

Everyone wins.  George Lucas gets a fun project (and can build a movie studio elsewhere); poor people get a place to live in an expensive area they’d normally be priced out of; and the rich neighbors get to keep the land residential.  Everyone wins.

I’m A Burger!

 Posted by at 11:07 AM
Apr 142012

Normally Policy, Science, Burgers is divided up such that the policy and science stuff appear here, on the blog, and the burger stuff appears on BurgerMap Philly, my ongoing rating and mapping of every burger I eat in Philadelphia.  But today something special happened.  Having had literally hundreds of amazing burgers in my hometown, I never thought that the highlight of my burger life would come–of all places–in a suburb of Pittsburgh.  But my favorite burger place in all of Allegheny County, which thoroughly trounces any place within the Pittsburgh city limits, teamed up with a woman who deserves some major girlfriend points to fulfill a lifelong dream of mine: having a sandwich named after me, even if temporarily.

Burgatory Bar has named their Burger of the Day (B.O.D.) after me in honor of the anniversary of my birth, and it’s an elk burger to boot (a type of burger I’ve never tried before, which at this point in my life is no easy feat).

For readers checking in after the B.O.D. rotates to another special treat, the announcement (on their website, Twitter, and Facebook) reads:  “B.O.D. We’re Grillin’ the Matt Crespi B-Day Elk Burger w/ Buffalo Cheddar, Cheddar Chive Mashed, Bourbon Glazed Kale and Jalapeno Corn Mayo.”

This gives a whole new meaning to the term “B-Day.”

Good Job, CNN

 Posted by at 10:28 AM  Tagged with: ,
Mar 262012

I make fun of the major cable news networks a lot, sometimes even devoting entire posts to their amusing errors.  I’m also fairly dismissive of the way they put sensationalism and minutiae over real news and events which affect millions of people.  I think it’d be nice if the American consumer demanded more from their news sources.

But in the interest of fair play, I should also recognize when news organizations are doing a particularly good job highlighting big issues, educating the public about the world outside their familiar communities, or otherwise providing high quality journalism that would be impossible to replicate on blogs or Twitter.  There are reasons these organizations are filled with talented professionals and given large budgets–and those reasons are not celebrity obituaries or hours of uninformed analysis about politicians’ wardrobes. has been putting out some really great reporting lately, and I thought it worthy of recognition.  A few examples:

  • This investigative report on the state of slavery in Mauritania is truly exceptional.  It’s well-written, well-researched, and the photographs are as compelling as both the personal stories and larger statistics.  A small team of professionals literally risked their lives to bring to light information about one of slavery’s last bastions on this planet, and I consider their undertaking nothing less than a significant service to humanity.
  • This story of escaped North Koreans provides a badly needed human narrative and perspective to the increasingly important discussion about dealing with dictatorships.  It’s important to remember that an entire country led by a dictator cannot be our enemy.  The United States and the citizens of North Korea have, in fact, the same enemy.
  • And of course, continues to be one of the world leaders in Pi Day coverage.
Mar 122012

A US Naval Lieutenant and Friend of the Blog, Ben at Think Like a Fox, has an interesting response to my previous post, with which I’m in complete agreement.  That he seems to think we’re in some slight disagreement suggests I need to clarify the “Mixed Strategy” approach I espoused.

A mixed strategy, in game theory, employs some randomization, but that doesn’t mean everything about it is random.  It could be flipping a coin between two specific strategies.  It could mean randomly drawing from a more complicated probability distribution as an input to the decision.  But the randomization is strategically chosen to produce the best expected outcomes.

The reason I think there should be a random element in Iron Dome unit deployment is that playing what game theorists call a “pure strategy” makes one predictable.  A pure strategy doesn’t have to be a specific deployment, but it would mean a specific strategy for deployment, a “best response function” to use the technical term.  That is, for a given set of situational inputs, a pure strategy will kick out a response without any randomness.  Like any function, identical inputs mean identical outputs (or adjusting for a real-world situation, similar inputs yield similar outputs).  And that makes someone predictable, at least eventually.  An intelligent opponent could easily take advantage of that.

So a mixed strategy would involve randomly choosing between several good strategies.  If all the “good strategies” have some things in common–such as the protection of the most important locations in the entire country, as my counterpart suggests–then so be it.  It could be that some things are so important you don’t care that Hamas knows they’re protected.  That’s fine.

But randomly moving from one good strategy to another good strategy would create a great deal of uncertainty on the part of the attackers.  Hamas might not want to take a chance that most of their attacks will be thwarted.  And as a result, they’ll deliberately launch less effective attacks with a higher probability of actually doing anything at all.

An Illustrative Example

To build intuition about mixed strategies, consider this extremely simplified example.  Israel has one Iron Dome unit, 3 important locations to defend (a military target, a civilian target, and a mixed target), and 1 less important location to defend.  Hamas can launch 2 rocket attacks this week.  If Israel is playing a pure strategy, Hamas knows that in all likelihood, two of the important locations will be defended.  If the pure strategy prioritizes strategic targets, the civilian location will be undefended.  If the pure strategy prioritizes civilian protection, the military target will be undefended.  [In this case, we’ll assume that “strategy” only involves protecting military or civilian targets; it’s obviously more complicated in reality.]

Hamas will quickly see that it can use its two rocket attacks to guarantee exactly one of those important locations will be hit (NOTE: Hamas can guarantee that without having a clue which pure strategy Israel chose).  But now say Israel plays a mixed strategy where it introduces a random element: at any given time, 2 of the 3 important locations will be defended–completely at random, no strategy.  Now, if Hamas attacks any two of those locations, there’s a 1-in-3 chance they’ll be completely unsuccessful.  If Hamas is risk averse, or doesn’t want to lose momentum, or feels like it’s more important to hit somewhere than risk hitting nothing (and Hamas certainly has shown that mentality to be prevalent), then the logical choice will be to divert to less important targets, meaning fewer casualties, less damage, and/or a higher probability of getting caught.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I support a mixed strategy on Israel’s part when it comes to deploying its Iron Dome units.

Mar 112012

Israel’s new-ish Iron Dome technology is getting some press this week.  For the sake of this blog post, here’s what you need to know:

Iron Dome units are essentially expensive and portable anti-rocket defense platforms which stop a good percentage of rockets fired at the coverage area (around 90% if some reports are to be believed).  This is a great new defensive technology, and Israel will probably make quite a few of them.  But, because of the cost, they won’t make enough to blanket the entire country with coverage.

This leaves strategists and policy makers one important question: where do you put the units?  Which areas do you defend, and which do you leave vulnerable?

Quoted in the CNN article (linked above) is a former Israeli ambassador who says:

“The most important question is how would the Iron Dome affect the decisions of Hamas leaders and their Iranian supporters? While Hamas rockets are aimed primarily to target civilians and terrorize the Israeli home front, a secondary and just important aim is to hit strategic sites in the future. Eliminating the ability to hit strategic targets may lead Hamas to rethink the efficiency of acquiring the rockets it has used in the past.”

His contention is that once Israel protects its most strategically valuable targets, Hamas won’t buy as many rockets, and attacks will go down or disappear.  I find this to be an incredibly dangerous assumption.  It’s a pretty fundamental rule in public policy (and economics, and behavioral economics) that people respond to incentives, and not always in predictable ways.  So I spent some time trying to figure out how Hamas would respond to Israel’s deployment of Iron Domes to protect strategic targets.

First, if Israel is smart, they won’t make it publicly known where these devices are.  That way Hamas can’t just look at a map and decide to attack the most valuable non-protected area.  So the terrorists have a little uncertainty to work with (for you game theory fans out there, I’m modeling this as a Bayesian game where Hamas puts probabilities of protection on targets that impacts their expected results of an attack).

Also, keep in mind, Hamas has two economic forces at play in their rocket supply chain.  The first is simple supply and demand.  If Hamas wants one rocket, that’s easier and cheaper to get than their hundredth rocket.  So they keep buying rockets until the cost of the rocket outweighs how much they value the destruction they’ll cause with it (or until they run out of the ability to buy rockets–if this is the case, Iron Domes may have no impact whatsoever on rocket acquisition).  So lowering the value of rocket attacks may have an impact, but then again, it might not.

The second economic reality Hamas faces with rockets is diminishing marginal “returns” on their attacks as they launch more rockets at the same type of target.  Presumably they have some very high rated military and civilian targets and some others which are less important for them to attack.  So if all of the sudden their military targets go off the table, and they have extra rockets lying around, they’ll just pick more civilian targets to attack.

That’s an oversimplification, of course, and may or may not be true.  But there’s no way around it: now that they have to put expected probability of protection on each of these targets, the rankings are going to change.  Specifically, targets which they expect to be less protected increase in desirability to attack.  And if Israel is putting the Iron Domes on strategic targets, it makes your average residential neighborhood much more tempting.  (Yes, Israel could be lying, but such a deception would be discovered very quickly.)

So one big question I’d have for Israeli officials: how do you expect Hamas terrorist in possession of rockets to react to your new policies? Because the game is changing.  They can’t set up Iron Domes in areas where the most rockets were fired 2 years ago and expect Hamas to keep firing rockets into protected spaces.

And this begs another question, which was probably obvious right from the start: What’s the optimal deployment of Iron Dome units? I’m not sure yet, and I’m certainly not a military strategy expert, but I’d want to at least evaluate a few different options:

  1. Out-in-the-Open: Instead of protecting targets based on value, protect targets based on how easy they are to hit.  If you leave vulnerable high-rated targets which can only be hit from a few locations, it’s easier to catch terrorists and fight back.
  2. Protect the LEAST strategic targets.  Rocket attacks aren’t very accurate, and their biggest accomplishment is causing fear.  They’re not very effective at diminishing military capabilities.  (Embedded in this strategy is an ethical question that’s worth raising but which I don’t feel qualified to answer: should you protect soldiers at the expense of increased risk to civilians?  Should you protect civilians and leave your fighting men and women–those most at risk in their daily lives–unprotected?)
  3. Random deployment.  No, this isn’t as crazy as it sounds.  You randomly select from good strategies with some weighted algorithm, and re-select every day/week/month.  In Game Theory, this is called a mixed strategy, and it’s often optimal for a lot of reasons.  In this case, if you have a pure strategy (that is, do the same thing all the time or respond based on the same criteria), you can become predictable, which is a horrible thing to be in a combat situation.  The mobility of Iron Dome units makes this possible, but there are transaction costs (a few hours of them protecting nobody while in transit) to consider.  I think this may be my favorite, as I believe it has the highest chance of doing what the Israeli ambassador wants the Iron Dome to do: significantly reduce attempted Hamas rocket attacks.

This type of situation is a lot more complicated than we’re often led to believe, and questions like “What’s the best policy?” can only be answered after an entire society has a frank and open discussion about its values and priorities.  So…go have that discussion.  Seriously, stop reading blogs.

Jan 312012

Time for a little policy news to break up the monotony of a Presidential Primary.

Virginia State Senator Janet Howell has a response to a proposed rule that women seeking abortions be required to have ultrasounds: an amendment that would also require men seeking erectile dysfunction pills to undergo a rectal exam.

She explains: “We need some gender equity here. The Virginia senate is about to pass a bill that will require a woman to have totally unnecessary medical procedure at their cost and inconvenience. If we’re going to do that to women, why not do that to men?” Normally I’d have some comments of my own, but I thought I’d just throw this one out here and ask: what do you think?

(Oh, and Mitt Romney won Florida tonight, in case you come to Policy, Science, Burgers as your primary source of news.)

This Week Overseas: Pirates and Policy

 Posted by at 9:45 AM  Tagged with: , ,
Jan 112012

A former classmate of mine, and former pirate hunter for the US Navy, has an interesting take on what turns pirate fighting into big news on his blog.  His years spent rescuing hostages and deterring piracy with his own two fists (which I assume he’s named Wawa Orange Juice and Wendy, after his two great loves) gives him a unique perspective.

In other news, Greek policy makers have made a rather stunning move which makes Mitt Romney look like a policy genius and, by comparison, rockets Herman Cain all the way up to “about average.”  The list of disabilities one can have recognized (and for which one can receive financial help from the Greek government) has been expanded to include a number of sexual behaviors.  In Greece, you can now be considered “disabled” in some way, and receive regular checks from the government, if you’re an exhibitionist, a sadomasochist, a fetishist or–and this is what really has people up in arms–a pedophile.  That’s right, pedophilia is now a disability in Greece.

Even temporarily granting that pedophilia is a “disability” (and I think that’s being pretty generous), what’s the argument for financial compensation?  I can see helping people with physical disabilities–if you’re blind or in a wheelchair, you need special accommodations that aren’t cheap.  Certain medical conditions and diseases require monitoring equipment and special diets in addition to traditional medical care.  But pedophilia?  What’s the policy argument for giving pedophiles money?  The only reason I can think of is that they might need expensive psychiatric help (and I’ll grant that), but surely a voucher program for extra therapy sessions would cost less and be more effective than sending cash to pedophiles.  If any readers can think of a reason why this makes policy sense, please drop a note in the comments.

Maybe I’m overreacting.  It’s not like Greece doesn’t have plenty of extra cash lying around.

Anyway, I’m going to let Futurama’s Hedonism Bot have the last word on this (just watch for five seconds).

Jan 042012

Last night I basically said that all the major cable news networks were screwing up their online coverage of the Iowa Caucuses, and then I endorsed the New York Times as the best place to get information online.  This morning’s coverage makes me want to clarify: the New York Times is the best place to get information, but not commentary it turns out.  Major cable networks aren’t the only ones putting really weird things that make no sense on the internet.  This quote comes from the main front page article (as of the time of this writing), but even worse, they used this exact sentence as a Facebook headline (posted at 8:29AM this morning).  Ready for it?

The last time the Iowa caucuses produced such a close outcome was in 1980, when George Bush beat Ronald Reagan by two percentage points.

To me, this implies that it was as close or closer in 1980 than it was in 2012.  Or if not that, at least VERY similar in closeness.  But I’m going to make an argument (which I think should be a no-brainer) that the results were MUCH closer than the Times would have you believe.  In fact, as far as I know, this may be the closest primary in history.

Romney won by EIGHT VOTES.  Winning by two percentage points of all votes cast (122,255 according to the New York Times) would be winning by 2,445 votes.  That would make this election roughly 300 times closer than the 1980 election.

If we throw out all votes not cast for Romney or Santorum, we can just look at the fact that Romney won 30,015 to 30,007.  That means Romney received 0.027% more votes than Santorum.  That’s still 75 times closer than 2%, even making conservative assumptions (no pun intended).

So NO, New York Times.  The last time the Iowa caucuses produced such a close outcome was, oh, I don’t know, NEVER.  They’ve never produced such a close outcome.  Not even close, certainly not in the modern era.  Here’s a case where you can learn from your sensationalist brethren in the cable business and throw a little showmanship into your reporting.  After all, what makes a better headline?

Closest Election in 32 Years

In this case, the more exciting one is also the only accurate one.

Jan 032012

By the time you read this, you’ll have already been inundated with coverage of the Iowa caucuses.  So I’m not going to tell you about them.  I will make a few observations on how they’ve been covered.  (Forgive the weird present and past tense change-ups, I’m obviously writing as things are happening.)

1.)  I’m surprised this headline got past the editors.  (For those of you who don’t want to click the link, the headline is “Santorum surges from behind in Iowa”)

2.)  CNN had a pretty major graph fail on their front page:

When I plug in those numbers, here’s my chart:

This was not their only graph fail of the night.  Once that problem got fixed, their bars rescaled in weird ways; all but the top 3 candidates got dropped from the graphic; and at a quarter to 10PM they’ve got well over 20,000 votes in with an estimated 0% reporting.

3.)  This moving 3D graphic explaining how a caucus works seemed REALLY unnecessary.  Also, I know less about how a caucus works now than I did before watching that video.

4.)  At 9:51PM, MSNBC is reporting that Romney, Paul and Santorum are fighting to win Iowa.  Interesting imagery, given that the votes have already been cast and the candidates are sitting around waiting for other people to finish counting.  Does watching people count stuff qualify as fighting?  If so, I did a lot of fighting during my days as a Sesame Street fan.

5.)  Fox News has chosen to display the least information in their front page progress tracker.  No vote tallies, no maps, not even a graph.  Just names are percentage figures–rounded to the nearest whole number (e.g. “23%”).  This is incredibly unhelpful.  The New York Times, meanwhile, has a big interactive color-coded map with lots of information, as well as vote counts and decimal points on their percentages.  Fox isn’t even helping readers put the numbers in context by telling them what percent of precincts or counties are reporting.  For all a Fox News reader knows, there could be just 1% in or only 1% left to count.  At least CNN is TRYING to produce good coverage (I think).

Since I forgot to endorse a candidate for today, I’ll instead endorse an infographic provider: The New York Times.  And while you’re there, why not support good infographics by clicking on an ad?