Rules and Standards need Umpires

Houston   Sometimes we find surprising light in dark corners.  At least, that’s how I felt reading a kind of weird conversation between two, seemingly random, people as an op-ed in the New York Times.  It turned out this was a kind of bizarre experiment of sorts from one of their opinion writers, Charlie Warzel, and a member of their editorial board, Sarah Jeong.  Ostensibly, the piece was about the fact that YouTube, in announcing that they were bouncing various videos off of their wildly popular site, owned by Google, was spectacularly unqualified to act as both judge and jury on such matters.

Who could argue?  The interesting part was a remarkably clear explication by Jeong of what she called a classic lesson from law school about the difficulty in determining rules versus standards.  She embarked on this riff noting that the YouTube problem with consistency and response about its new policies was the fact that they were obviously written by lawyers.  Here’s her explication:

Most laws are a mix of rules and standards. Rules are rigid, and the most rigid are referred to as “bright line” rules because they’re so straightforward to interpret: If you steal a loaf of bread, your hand gets chopped off. A standard is more flexible. There are multistep tests and the weighing of various factors. First Amendment law, for instance, has a lot of standards in it. The problem with the bright-line rules is that they often lead to injustice because they’re not flexible enough. On the face of it, it seems like standards should be better, right? But standards are harder to enforce, so you’re more likely to get delays in the courts and inconsistency in decisions. So, the vaguer and more flexible a law is, the more it takes into account the totality of the circumstances, the more it’s actually likely to lead to injustice. Additionally, standards become harder to predict, so there’s a social uncertainty about what’s acceptable and what’s not. There’s a reason the most-watched Supreme Court cases involve standards.

This explanation of “legal theory,” as she called it, was interesting because we had been to a baseball game the Houston Astros, the closest Major League team we could see as our “home” team, and the Baltimore Orioles.  There’s hardly a better example of a rules-and-laws bound environment than baseball.  It works though because it is not only transparent, which something like YouTube is not, because everyone can see the play, but it also has a way to handle the fact that like social media, everyone has an opinion.  What makes it work is not simply the fact that players and coaches participating in the game have been schooled on the rules forever, but the fact that there are umpires.  Like them or not, they are the unquestioned guardians of the sport, and they make immediate decisions, and there is no question that their decisions will prevail, even if questioned later.

There is almost universal agreement that something like YouTube has to be regulated, but sport officiating might be a model worth examining in light of all of this.  There would need to be referees or umpires whose decisions were respected and followed, even if there a review or appeal process.  They would have to be independent and the “rules,” would have to be transparent and well-known to all participants.  The op-ed folks worry about YouTube being  compromised by its “influencers,” but they are still lesser stars in the firmament than sports figures making gazillions, who may get a break from time to time, but no, despite their whining like James Harden and Chris Paul, in a recent series, they still know they have to follow the rules and live by them, if they are going to play ball.

Think about it.  The models available from the sports world might work a lot better than the mess we live with that comes from law schools.


Power Drains and Climate Change

Houston    A head scratcher for me around climate change has always been the issue of how much energy we waste in the slips between the cup and the lip, so to speak.

Oil pipelines lose from 5 to 10% by some estimates in leakage from inadequate maintenance, breakdowns, and, for those following the issue in Mexico and Nigeria, criminal tapping of the lines for use and resell.  Transmission lines for electricity also lose an estimate of at least 5% of the total energy produced, and, believe me, if that’s what the industry is conceding, it’s likely higher.  Given the cost in expended natural resources throughout the supply and delivery system, this becomes incredibly damaging to the environment and expensive to the consumer and impacts entire economies.  Where infrastructure is older and more fraught, like India, the impacts multiply wildly, and in India coal is still a major factor in powering generation.

What I had missed somehow, while fingering my worry beads, is how much phantom or so-called vampire energy we lose in the normal course of the day in our home and work.  Reading Morality and the Environmental Crisis, a new book by Professor Roger Gottlieb, a professor at Worchester Polytechnic Institute, who I was interviewing on Wade’s World,  in making his case for “ecological democracy” and a different ethical approach to climate change, he cited a statistic on phantom energy.  He claimed the loss was more than 5% of generated capacity!  Jiminy Pete!

I looked it up.  This whole vampire thing is based on the amount of wattage being drained from various pieces of equipment while they are turned “off.” Turns out phone chargers, power strips, and computers along with televisions, cable boxes, and other pieces of equipment are sucking power steadily.  Multiplied by a number of devices over a year, it adds up significantly in terms of both your electricity bill and your environmentally footprint.  Using certified “energy smart” devices on things like power strips can make a difference.  I’ve sometimes seen the symbols, but never paid much attention, and I bet I’m not the only one.  Heck, I leave a ton of stuff constantly plugged in.  My bad!

So, sure we recycle what the city is willing to take, but the impact of all of our recycling might not make as much difference for the environment as much as just unplugging some stuff and making sure we’re being energy smart.  We learn something every day, and it’s never too late to change some tricks even for old dogs.

So that’s my excuse, late to the game, but waking up.  What’s the excuse for the industry, generators, producers, and delivers?  They have always known about the “leakage” and loss problem.  Why haven’t they fixed it, way before now?  And, if not now, when?