The new Montana House of Lords

Feudalism is back in Montana – or at least if SB379 passes, we’ll be well on the way.

SB379is to protect real property owners from unreasonable land use restrictions and reductions in land value due to county zoning.” Translation: make zoning impossible by allowing a superminority of owners to protest its implementation.

The real devil is in the details:

Section 2.  Definitions. For purposes of [sections 1, 2, 4 through 9, 11, and 12], the following definitions apply:

(1) (a) “Affected property” means property taxed on an ad valorem basis on the county tax rolls and directly subject to a proposed zoning action.

(2) “Affected property owner” means the owner of affected property, including natural persons, corporations, trusts, partnerships, incorporated or unincorporated associations, and any other legal entity owning land in fee simple, as joint tenants, or as tenants in common.

(3) “Protest override procedure” means the procedures described in [sections 6 through 9].

(4) “Protesting landowner” means an affected property owner who protests a zoning action.

(5) “Successful protest” means a protest by owners of 25% or more of the affected property.

Section 5.  Protest. (1) Within 60 days of the date that notice of passage of the resolution of intention to take a zoning action pursuant to [section 4] is first published, affected property owners may protest the proposed zoning action by delivering written notification to the board of county commissioners.

Notice how this assigns the right to protest to owners on the basis of area. Owners don’t even have to be people. A protest is a de facto vote. In other words, this policy is “one acre, one vote.” This bill elevates property rights, as in the 5th Amendment,

No person shall … be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

above the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment,

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

If the drafters of this bill are unclear as to which principle is the more fundamental, they could consult the Declaration of Independence,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, …

Update: one could also check the Montana constitution,

Section 1. Popular sovereignty. All political power is vested in and derived from the people. All government of right originates with the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole.

I’ll gladly admit that zoning is a blunt instrument. But a de facto ban on zoning, with the idea that it’s a taking, guarantees a tragedy-of-the-commons outcome (unless you live in the faux-libertarian lalaland where property rights are fully allocated, markets are complete and there are no externalities). Even if that’s the road we choose to take, the governing principle must be “one person, one vote.”

Let’s see: government of the landowners, by the landowners, for the landowners – check. Elevation of politics above science – check. Montana is two thirds of the way to the Middle Ages! All we need now is to get rid of separation of church and state.

Legislators' vision for Montana

This is it: a depleted mining wasteland:

NASA Berkeley Pit

Berkeley Pit, Butte MT, NASA Earth Observatory

The spearhead is an assault on the MT constitution’s language on the environment,

All persons are born free and have certain inalienable rights. They include the right to a clean, and healthful, and economically productive environment and the rights of pursuing life’s basic necessities, enjoying and defending their lives and liberties, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and seeking their safety, health and happiness in all lawful ways. In enjoying these rights, all persons recognize corresponding responsibilities.

What does “economically productive” add that wasn’t already covered by “pursuing … acquiring … posessing” anyway? Ironically, this could cut both ways – would it facilitate restrictions on future resource extraction, because depleted mines become economically unproductive?

Other bills attempt to legalize gravel pits in residential areas, sell coal at discount prices, and dismantle or cripple any other environmental protection you could think of.


Section 1.  Public policy concerning global warming. (1) The legislature finds that to ensure economic development in Montana and the appropriate management of Montana’s natural resources it is necessary to adopt a public policy regarding global warming.

At least we’re clear up front that the coal industry is in charge!

(2) The legislature finds:

I’m sure you can guess how many qualified climate scientists are in the Montana legislature.

(a) global warming is beneficial to the welfare and business climate of Montana;

I guess Joe didn’t get the memo, that skiing and fishing could be hard hit. Maybe he thinks crops and trees do just fine with too little water and warmth, or too much.

(b) reasonable amounts of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere have no verifiable impacts on the environment; and

Yeah, and pi is 3.2, just like it was in Indiana in 1897. I guess you could argue about the meaning of “reasonable,” but apparently Joe even rejects chemistry (ocean acidification) and biology (CO2 fertilization) along with atmospheric science.

(c) global warming is a natural occurrence and human activity has not accelerated it.

Ahh, now we’re doing detection & attribution. Legislating the answers to scientific questions is a fool’s errand. How did this text go through peer review?

(3) (a) For the purposes of this section, “global warming” relates to an increase in the average temperature of the earth’s surface.

Well, at least one sentence in this bill makes sense – at least if you assume that “average” is over time as well as space.

(b) It does not include a one-time, catastrophic release of carbon dioxide.

Where did that strawdog come from? Apparently there’s a catastrophic release of CO2 every time Joe Read opens his mouth.

A few parts per million


There’s a persistent rumor that CO2 concentrations are too small to have a noticeable radiative effect on the atmosphere. (It appears here, for example, though mixed with so much other claptrap that it’s hard to wrap your mind around the whole argument – which would probably cause your head to explode due to an excess of self-contradiction anyway.)

To fool the innumerate, one must simply state that CO2 constitutes only about 390 parts per million, or .039%, of the atmosphere. Wow, that’s a really small number! How could it possibly matter? To be really sneaky, you can exploit stock-flow misperceptions by talking only about the annual increment (~2 ppm) rather than the total, which makes things look another 100x smaller (apparently a part of the calculation in Joe Bastardi’s width of a human hair vs. a 1km bridge span).

Anyway, my kids and I got curious about this, so we decided to put 390ppm of food coloring in a glass of water. Our precision in shaving dye pellets wasn’t very good, so we actually ended up with about 450ppm. You can see the result above. It’s very obviously blue, in spite of the tiny dye concentration. We think this is a conservative visual example, because a lot of the tablet mass was apparently a fizzy filler, and the atmosphere is 1000 times less dense than water, but effectively 100,000 times thicker than this glass. However, we don’t know much about the molecular weight or radiative properties of the dye.

This doesn’t prove much about the atmosphere, but it does neatly disprove the notion that an effect is automatically small, just because the numbers involved sound small. If you still doubt this, try ingesting a few nanograms of the toxin infused into the period at the end of this sentence.

Monday tidbits- tools, courses

I neglected to cross-post an interesting new Vensim model documentation tool that’s in my model library.

Shameless commerce dept.: I’m teaching Vensim courses in Palo Alto in April and Bozeman in June. Following the June offering, Ventana’s Bill Arthur will be teaching “SMLOD” – Small Models with Lots of Data – a deep technical dive into the extraction of insight from large datasets.

Bad data, bad models

Baseline Scenario has a nice post on bad data:

To make a vast generalization, we live in a society where quantitative data are becoming more and more important. Some of this is because of the vast increase in the availability of data, which is itself largely due to computers. Some is because of the vast increase in the capacity to process data, which is also largely due to computers. …

But this comes with a problem. The problem is that we do not currently collect and scrub good enough data to support this recent fascination with numbers, and on top of that our brains are not wired to understand data. And if you have a lot riding on bad data that is poorly understood, then people will distort the data or find other ways to game the system to their advantage.

In spite of ubiquitous enterprise computing, bad data is the norm in my experience with corporate consulting. At one company, I had access to very extensive data on product pricing, promotion, advertising, placement, etc., but the information system archived everything inaccessibly on a rolling 3-year horizon. That made it impossible to see long term dynamics of brand equity, which was really the most fundamental driver of the firm’s success. Our experience with large projects includes instances where managers don’t want to know the true state of the system, and therefore refuse to collect or provide needed data – even when billions are at stake. And some firms jealously guard data within stovepipes – it’s hard to optimize the system when the finance group keeps the true product revenue stream secret in order to retain leverage over the marketing group.

People worry about garbage-in-garbage out, but modeling can actually be the antidote to bad data. If you pay attention to quality, the process of building a model will reveal all kinds of gaps in data. We recently discovered that various sources of vehicle fleet data are in serious disagreement, because of double-counting of transactions and interstate sales, and undercounting of inspections. Once data issues are known, a model can be used to remove biases and filter noise (your GPS probably runs a Kalman Filter to combine a simple physical model of your trajectory with noisy satellite measurements).

Not just any model will do; causal models are important. It’s hard to discover that your data fails to observe physical laws or other reality checks with a model that permits negative cows and buries the acceleration of gravity in a regression coefficient.

The problem is, a lot of people have developed an immune response against models, because there are so many that don’t pay attention to quality and serve primarily propagandistic purposes. The only antidote for that, I think, is to teach modeling skills, or at least model consumption skills, so that they know the right questions to ask in order to separate the babies from the bathwater.

Another tangible user interface: the sandtable

This looks fun to play with: it’s a sandbox combined with digital sensing and projection tools. You shape your sand, and it maps the surface:

Digital Sandtable by Redfish Group @ Santa Fe Complex from stephen guerin on Vimeo.

Once your sandscape is constructed, you can simulate a forest fire on it, using a cigarette lighter as the ignition source, just like a real arsonist:

Lighting a fire on the Digital Sandtable from stephen guerin on Vimeo.

This isn’t quite as exciting to me as Jim Hines’ tangible user interface, because you can essentially change the initial conditions of your sandsystem, but not the structure of the model. However, it sure would be fun to play with, and could be pretty good at giving people insights about physical systems. It’s gone commercial as simtable.

I predict that this will soon go meta, with an ipad app that simulates the sandtable, allowing the user to push simsand around on the surface, flicking a lighter with a finger tap, creating the first virtual virtual forest fire environment.