html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: I got more, baby. For you.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

I got more, baby. For you.

You guys are insatiable, ravening beasts, lusting madly for more, more, more of my opinions about water. Billo asked me about flood control in New Orleans. I have no idea. My deep fascination with the physical world pretty much stops at the Sierras. My understanding of how water works definitely ends at the Rockies. Truth is reversed on the far side of the Rockies, nothing I know can be counted on. Water falls from the sky in the summer! Enough to water your crops without irrigation! Foliage is green in the summer, brown in winter! Vegetables are expensive! Water runs uphill! Day is night! Parties aren’t fun!

Instead, I’ll tell you that we had some flood control engineers from Holland come out and tour our levees. Then they gave a very neat talk on their public participation process for choosing flood control projects. They had this supercool model interface; you could click on each of seven hundred potential modifications to the river and see how it changed the river’s flood heights. Your job was to spend about $2B on about twenty projects and see if you could lower the height of the entire river during floods. They passed out thousands of copies of this model, so that citizens could see for themselves what combinations were effective and how fast you could burn through $2B. Then they held public meetings to jointly select the projects they would build. People got very involved, they said, and resolutions were remarkably not acrimonious.

I thought the process sounded really neat, although I had a number of critiques*. It is a big step up from how we do things, where we give the public a short time to express themselves in meeting, and no real ability to change policy outcomes. But my favorite part of the meeting came when the Dutch engineers said they thought our economic models should take the indirect benefits of flood control and levee repair into account. Why, they said, if you could count the indirect economic benefits of guaranteeing a water supply to Los Angeles in your models, you could justify any levee repairs you wanted! You could patch them with gold! That was very funny, and a room full of engineers and economists laughed out loud. And this, Justin, is why I don’t tell funny stories on my blog.

*Well, yeah. If you can get everyone in the room to believe one model, you are two-thirds of the way to agreement. I also didn’t like that their model engine wasn’t transparent; only other sophisticated water modelers could understand it and appreciate the influences of the assumptions the original modelers made. And, it is easy for them to choose projects. Their rivers are stable; the projects could well be useful for decades. Here, there’s a good chance of doing an expensive project and having your river wander away from it in the next few years to threaten somewhere else. Still, I liked what they did, and wish we could adapt it for here.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was kind of funny. The problem is, that's humor only people in a certain field are going to get, really. You just need to work on it a little. Get some material together that's more everyday stuff that appeals to a wider audience, then refine your act.


4:08 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Thanks, hon, for telling me that I could be funny if I worked on it more.

4:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's hard to be funny to a wide audience. That's why comedians are so great.

like this. There are clips about a third of the way down.

Anyway, I'm sure you've said some funny things here before. And, everyone enjoys a funny story, that doesn't involve too much math.


5:28 PM  
Anonymous Mitch said...

It's all about software. It would be cool if people passed out global warming models for everyone to play with like that. Or economic models.

I'd be so happy if public policy debates went from "won't somebody please think of the children?" to "model parameter such-and-such is too large".

Building consensus on a complex issue means you need some kind of shared framework for thinking about the problem. That framework is too complex to communicate through a sound bite, but if people could download it that would be amazing.

Also, for the record, Megan has a pretty good sense of humor. "Utility lost to the world" still makes me smile. Although I suppose the audience for that one is a bit limited as well.

6:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dutch flood-control methods? Don't they involve a boy sticking his finger in a hole in the dike?

Iron Rails & Iron Weights

6:57 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Well, there's a whole debate about whether to use Dutch schoolchildren, or whether to buy Gypsy children and side debates about cost/benefit ratios for different age children. Society needs to evaluate their options and openly choose their trade-offs.

9:06 PM  
Anonymous ananda said...

Do I have the boardgame for you!

9:31 PM  
Blogger ScottM said...

Speaking of board games, Santiago is all about getting water to the fields. (Though it also encourages bribing the canal overseers... something that you might not want to directly encourage. Though if the bribes come in back rubs...)

The software to try it yourself is often very useful. I know that when they put out pages where you can try to balance the Federal Budget, or balance the School Board's budget, it's useful for getting everyone on the same page.

10:52 AM  

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