Monday, December 22, 2008

Digital TV conversion confusion

It's interesting to read article after article about how supposedly confusing and poorly-managed the 17 February conversion to all-digital broadcast television in the US has been. I realize I'm a geek and that any technology more complex than a Zippo seems like magic to many people, but I think reporters are just having withdrawal after the election and need something that sounds scary to write about.

In this article in the New York Times, one can see that even people who are supposedly writing to clear up the confusion either don't write well or don't fully understand the situation. In his very first paragraph, Mr. Taub writes that after 17 Feb 2009, "Old TV sets will no longer work." It's not until the 4th paragraph that he even mentions converter boxes, and then he's not altogether clear on the topic. In the 9th paragraph he writes that "Anyone who gets their TV signal over the air — whether through a rabbit ear antenna on top of the set or an antenna on the roof — will need to buy a digital-to-analog converter box in order to continue getting a signal. Some people may also need a new antenna." This is at best an overstatement, since many people who get their TV signal over the air already have a set with a digital tuner... nearly every flat-panel television has an ATSC tuner, as do many CRT sets people have purchased over the last 4 years or so. I suppose most people with an ATSC tuner realize they have one, but the article is still leaning toward fear-mongering.

It's really pretty simple... if you don't have cable or satellite and haven't bought a TV since the Brady Bunch was in primetime, or if you're still watching a Sony that looks like the one from Poltergeist, you'll need a cheap converter box. Wal-Mart has them, go get one soon (I'm sure they'll be temporarily sold out on 18 February.) If you're already watching TV over an antenna, the concept of an antenna is nothing new, and probably the idea that different antennas are tailored toward different signals isn't new to you, nor is the need to adjust a directional antenna to improve your reception. For those already practised in the black art of optimizing over-the-air TV reception, the only real adjustment will be that they have to find their new tuner's signal-strength display instead of looking at the picture and guessing where the best signal is.

The fact that most TV viewers don't know how digital tuners work shouldn't enter into it... they don't know how analog tuners work either, and they've been using them for years. Only people like me with OCD issues actually want to know HOW things work, most people are quite content if things just work. Perhaps part of my cynicism about this stems from my social-Darwinist attitude... if people can't bother to learn anything, they can just roll the dice and hope it comes out okay. Of course, just to be a bit introspective about the futility of all this... anyone who's reading this probably can figure out how to obtain and connect a digital converter box.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bailout bozos

I realize that a great many people were opposed to the banking bailout under any conditions, so they have no cognitive dissonance when they diss the automotive bailout. I wonder at others who think the $700-billion banking boondoggle was "essential," yet they'd let the US auto industry wither and die before they'd LOAN them 5% of that amount.

I think both industries are important to our economy and that of the rest of the world, but NEITHER industry is so important that we should just give them sacks of public money without restrictions and oversight. At the risk of sounding like a Republican bitching about "media elites" I've read articles such as this one by Joe Lauria advocating "ditch(ing) the automobile altogether." The man thinks everything will be okay if we just let people who have the temerity to live somewhere that's not served by a subway walk, or drive a Toyota or a Volvo, even though they are "slightly more expensive." Surely Toyota would sell at exactly the same price without competition from US manufacturers, no? And the fact that Volvo is currently owned by a US auto manufacturer escaped Mr. Lauria altogether. That lends him great credibility in commenting about US auto manufacturers!

A well-structured package of loans or equity positions that the car companies could buy back on terms favorable to the people would be a better use of our money than the disgusting waste that is the hundreds of billions thrown at the financial industry with few restrictions and less oversight. The fact that the gifts to the financial industry were done stupidly doesn't mean that the government couldn't offer useful assistance to the manufacturing sector that could benefit both the public and corporate situation.

If we allow the US manufacturers who sell MILLIONS of vehicles to disappear, Toyota et al will have fewer competitors and will probably become more than "slightly more expensive." Ford, if you've been paying attention, feels that they can actually operate for quite a while without government assistance, and GM has in the last 5 years begun to significantly turn their product line around, and they currently offer some competitive and desirable products. Chrysler may be beyond help... they have little in the way of competitive products, but they are in a different position as a privately-held company, Cerberus could sell them at firesale prices to PSA or perhaps a chinese auto maker that wants a foothold in the US.

Mr. Lauria thinks that if we offer the US manufacturers any assistance, it should be for the government to take them over and force them to make electric cars (because I suppose he approves of electric cars.) It's possible that in 10 years all-electric cars may be viable for extraurban transportation, but the best bet for a truly usable electric car comes from a company he's already written off, GM (the Chevrolet Volt.) All-electrics aren't up to snuff yet.

MANY public transportation projects could significantly improve the state of transportation in certain areas of the country, but the wholesale squandering of vast sums of public money to build a network that would be largely unused in huge parts of the country would be a bigger boondoggle than making well-structured loans to or buying equity stakes in the viable parts of the auto industry.

Mr. Lauria claims he doesn't want to outlaw the car, but still leaves the impression that he thinks the automobile is useless. Considering the scale of the 2 bailouts, I think we'd save more of the people's money by applying some constraints to the financial industry than by ignoring the US auto industry, leaving millions unemployed and further damaging the economies of dozens of American cities. The numbers being bandied about are about 5% of what was tossed to the financial wizards who torpedoed the world's economy in the first place. We need to cut off the free gifts of billions to the financial sector unless and until they promise to use it wisely and responsibly. The billions Mr. Lauria would dump into mass transit would be useful in the densest metro areas and an utter waste in the majority of cities.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Why do some cars still suck?

Here we are with 2009 just around the block, and there are still American cars in production that are absolute crap. Why is this? Better yet, why do some people BUY the bloody things?

Several weeks ago some cell-phone-addled operator of a motor vehicle managed to scratch up the bumper of my Legacy Wagon in the post office parking lot. If they even noticed the contact between the 2 vehicles, I'm guessing they didn't stop to look for damage or decided they could get away with it, so they buggered off. I wish them a plague of boils.

At any rate, having that repaired gave me the "opportunity" to sample one of the worst cars I've driven in years. While my insurance company was willing to pay for a car like a Fusion or a Malibu, the best that Enterprise had available (without forcing me to pay extra) was a 2008 Chrysler Sebring. This was a relatively fresh car, with about 10,000 miles on the clock.

Let me start by saying I've never been a fan of the current Sebring's styling, and I think the automotive press is unanimously behind me on that front. The car is ill-proportioned with some strange detailing, like the longitudinal lines in the hood that were a much more coherent design element on the Crossfire when it was designed EIGHT YEARS AGO. Not every design element on low-volume halo cars constitute a styling signature for the company. There are, however, some frumpy-looking vehicles that turn out to be quite decent cars. The shoe-box styling of the previous generation Malibu hid a car that was at least efficient and functional, even though it wasn't going to excite anyone. The equally frumpy Ford 500/neo-Taurus is also a much better car that its looks make you think.

The Sebring isn't hiding an automotive gem under its clunky styling, though. Clunky is in fact an excellent adjective for it. The flaccid automatic transmits power delivered in a groaning, wheezy manner to tires offering all the traction of teflon on cowshit. The suspension manages to be both floaty and coarse, and I'm still trying to figure out HOW one does that. The trunk was adequate in size, but ridiculous in access since the lid is proportioned almost like a mail-slot... the back window extends so far rearward that almost all of the trunk space is inconvenient to reach, and there wasn't a single hook or cubbyhole for securing the silly kinds of things people carry in the trunk of their cars, like GROCERIES.

When I look at the problem from an intellectual point of view, I realize that there would be a very negative impact on the economy to let Chrysler fail. When I look just at the merits of what they're offering for sale these days, I think there would be a net positive effect on the mix of CARS available for sale. Sell them to PSA Peugeot Citroen and let them bring us some interesting French strangeness... sell them to a Chinese company and let them at least build cheap bad cars instead of bad cars masquerading as decent transportation. Just don't make me DRIVE one again.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Pocket proJector

Imagine if you will a digital projector, about the size of a Palm Centro. If you imagine it with a 480x320 resolution and the ability to project a clear image between 8 inches and 8 feet, you might get something like the Optoma Pico, described here by David Pogue. Looks like a cool toy.

VIVACE: slow water movements generating electricity

I find this one to be a very interesting possibility. Vortex Induced Vibrations for Aquatic Clean Energy (VIVACE) uses the way fish swim to generate energy from slow tidal or water current motion, and does it in a way that can be submerged so that it doesn't obstruct the waterway. The estimate in the article is that recovering 0.1% of the energy available from tidal motion of the oceans would supply power for a population of 15 billion.

Read the Science Daily article about VIVACE here.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

WFTV Biden interview: Slanted questions and biased followups, and Fox News' slanted coverage of a slanted interview

On Thursday 23 October, VP candidate Joe Biden was interviewed via satellite by Barbara West of WFTV in Orlando, FL. Surprisingly, as much of this election crap as I hear about, this little kerfuffle hasn't come up while I was paying attention until today. Flipping past Fox News for the neocon view of things, I saw a story about this and had to look into it more deeply.

Here's the synopsis... West had prepared a hatchet piece, asking Biden to (among other things) tell her if it's Marxist for Obama to want to make the federal income tax rates more progressive. to "spread the wealth around" (to quote the GOP talking point and 4 unfortunate words lifted from a several-minute conversation Obama had with "plumber" Joe Wurzelbacher in Ohio.) She also harped on Biden's poorly-worded version of the same thing Joe Lieberman has said, that the new president will likely face challenges on the international stage soon after his inauguration. She started her questioning off asking if Biden was "embarrassed" about their association with ACORN, and when he didn't grovel before her question she brought out the GOP talking points about Obama being an "organizer and attorney" for ACORN.

I thought Biden handled the actual responses to her questions pretty well. He gave direct answers to her question, even though some of them were obvious hackery and even though he meandered a bit about the questions themselves. I feel that her tone and her follow-ups looked somewhat biased, but nothing that would make Hannity the Manatee proud, and if I had seen the piece before I saw Fox News blathering about it I wouldn't have thought much of it. Biden asked her if the question was a joke when she essentially asked if Obama is a Marxist, and commented "I don't know who is writing your questions" when she asked, regarding his comments on the test of a new president, if he was "forewarning Americans that nothing will be done, and that America's days as a world power are over." This was her worst, most slanted, question that had no sane basis in reality, and Biden answered it as if it really merited an answer and answered it well. (I personally think it merited a bitch-slap, but we can just add that to the whole host of reasons why I shouldn't run for public office.)

Fox had their knickers in a twist because after this interview, the Obama campaign cancelled a scheduled interview of Jill Biden with the same reporter and suggested that it would not grant further interviews with this station until after the election. I understand perfectly the reason for cancelling Jill Biden's interview, she's not a candidate and there's no reason to subject her to the likely unfair, slanted treatment she'd receive from Barbara West. I'm less sympathetic about cutting the station off altogether, but it's nothing in comparison to the McCain campaign's treatment of members of the press who aren't seen as friendly to the campaign, barring them from the campaign planes and carping incessantly about bias. From their piece on this, and watching the chyron, Fox has manufactured unfounded concerns that an Obama presidency would "regulate the media" and that we should be concerned about an administration that won't answer "tough questions" from the press.

I think that in the direct sense of Fox's statement, we SHOULD be concerned about such an administration. Biden, however, ANSWERED all of her questions, even as he questioned their validity. We should be worried about an administration that has a hidden VP who only appears before friendly crowds and only talks to friendly media. We should worry about an administration that thinks favorable historic facts (military service, POW prison) should be reported, but unfavorable historic facts (poor performance in the academy and the cockpit, cheating on his first wife then dumping her for a tall, blonde beer fortune, supporting Charles Keating, visiting Pinochet with "no preconditions", supporting progressive tax rates as income increases, supporting ACORN) happened a long time ago and should be ignored. We should be concerned about what kind of closed-doors, opaque operation a McCain-Palin administration would run.

UPDATE: For those who just read topics and not comments, my friend Howard pointed me to this blog, where Barbara West is called out as the wife of a GOP political and media consultant. I wonder who might have pointed her to those McCain-Palin talking points?

You can view the video here:

Sunday, October 19, 2008

How much energy can we save with just our brains?

My neighbor is wasteful.

Don't get me wrong, he's a nice guy and all, I'm sure he never even thinks about it. I'm not attacking my neighbor specifically, but this post was brought to mind indirectly by his action (or inaction.) Sunday 19 October 2008 was a gorgeous fall day in North Texas. The low was around 50 degrees, and it didn't get into the upper 70s until the middle of the afternoon. I'd had my AC turned off for over a week at that point.

I open the windows in the evening and let the house cool... closing the windows when the outside temperature begins to exceed the indoor temperature. It hasn't gotten much about 75 degrees inside my house for a week and I haven't spent a dime on heat or AC. By now, you may be starting to wonder what my neighbor has to do with any of this.

Late on Sunday morning it was about 73 degrees. My windows were open and I was pouring a cup of coffee in the kitchen, and I heard my neighbor's AC unit kick on. I started thinking about how much energy and money could be saved if people just stopped for a moment and thought about how they use things. There's certainly an opportunity in many cases to spend lots of money and save energy, but how much energy is wasted just by people who just don't pay attention to how much energy they use? Running hot water longer than you need it, leaving the windows closed and the AC on even when it's cooler outside than in, leaving the TV on when you're not paying attention to it, etc.

Next thing you know I'll be subscribing to Mother Earth News.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Michele Bachmann: The Second Coming of Joseph McCarthy

On "Hardball" on 17 October, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R, MN) as much as stated that she'd like to usher in a new McCarthy era. She'll probably want to call it Bachmannism, of course, because her version will be different in that it will go after every Democratic member of Congress. Don't feel left out, I'm sure she'll happily proceed to investigate every other American citizen who's not a card-carrying Republican willing to pray to Ronald Reagan and follow Karl Rove to the gates of Hell, it'll just take her a while to get around to it. She has to get her secret investigators, hit squads and anonymous-call-takers ready, so she's starting small by simply accusing Democrats in the House and Senate of being anti-American and calling for an investigation of them.

Write your Representative and tell them it's not acceptable for a member of Congress to accuse every member representing the opposing party as of being "unamerican." Tell them we want government, not theater. It's easy, you can do it via a web form or email, and here's where to find yours. I've written mine, and my Senators for good measure. We absolutely cannot afford the venal, dishonest, theatrical distraction of a modern-day "Red Scare" while there are real problems to be solved in this country. If there's any justice, Ms. Bachmann will find herself unemployed after 4 November anyway, but this kind of vile, virulent statement cannot be ignored.

While I think it's more effective to contact your representative directly, you can also join in the chorus of those calling for censure of Bachmann here.

You can view the interview here:

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Joe the Plumber is a Republican

John McCain's favorite topic in the final presidential debate on 15 October was Joe the Plumber (Joe Wurzelbacher of Holland, OH.) He mentioned Joe the Plumber several times during the debate, often when Senator Obama was speaking. Perhaps it was suggested to Senator McCain as something that might help him keep from grimacing or blinking?

McCain said again and again that poor old Joe wasn't going to be able to buy the business he's been working for (for 10-12 hours/day, mind you!) because evil Obama was going to take away all Joe's money by taxing him if he buys this business. Joe himself was interviewed on the phone by Katie Couric and didn't say that Obama threatened to prevent him from buying a business... in fact he said that Obama's tax proposals wouldn't raise his taxes "right now" but he's concerned that it's a "slippery slope" and feels that Obama is sure to decide later on that "$100,000 is too much" and raise taxes at that level.

My first reaction to McCain's harping about Joe the Plumber last night, and "small businesses" in general that are sure to be ruined by increasing the marginal tax rate on income over $250,000 is that TAXES ARE NOT ON GROSS INCOME. That's a dirty little secret that McCain is never going to admit to you, and he's CERTAINLY never going to say a word about the fact that the increased taxes will only be on the marginal amount of income that exceeds $250,000. Perhaps he thinks that people who aren't smart enough to see through Palin's perky folksy facade and recognize that she's just another politician also aren't smart enough to understand big words like "marginal" and understand how taxes work?

So, if Joe the Plumber is able to buy a business that has an adjusted gross (after expenses for materials, mileage, employee wages, etc.) of over $250,000, he can probably afford to pay a higher percentage of the amount over $250k. McCain thinks that this will force Joe to fire all his employees... never mind the fact that those employees' wages reduce the income of the business, and CERTAINLY don't talk about the fact that Obama's plan offers tax credits for job creation and for small businesses that provide healthcare to their employees.

Couric's interview of Joe the Plumber really left me thinking that Joe's a Republican and always was. It's okay that he's skeptical about a tax increase that doesn't affect him and may never affect him, but it's disingenuous for McCain to portray this as something that made up Joe's mind... never mind that it's probably McCain's version of Bush 41's "Read my lips" because if he somehow managed to get elected, McCain would either end up raising taxes or doing even more harm to our economy along the same lines as W with his "cut taxes, borrow more" policies.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Slippery Sarah Perky Palin only talks to friendly media

So, it's been quite a while now since the McCain campaign gave up on the idea of "Straight Talk" winning them the election and have devolved into innuendo and outright lies to try to divert attention from the disastrous financial conditions in our country and our world today. They know that the Republican administration with a Republican rubber-stamp congress at an absolute minimum failed to avert this crisis, even if there's a grain of truth to the right-wing bleating that Clinton "started it all." (I, for one, think Phil Gramm started it all while he was busy securing his lucrative post-senatorial position with UBS by ruining any hope of banking regulation in the US.)

In between her refrain of "Deny, Deny, Deny" about any possible ethical questions (and her persistently ignoring any other questions except those asked by Fox Noise and other far-right media outlets,) while speaking to arch-conservative radio host Laura Ingraham Sarah Palin has the gall to suggest that Barack Obama would diminish the prestige of the Presidency. Does this woman think that W has left any prestige in the presidency at all, with Cheney pulling the strings in the dark behind him and his befuddled response to events in the big ol' world outside our borders (that world he never bothered to see before he took office?) Does she think that an educated, intelligent president who seeks to rebuild our relationships with our allies and fix through diplomacy what W has broken through belligerence could possibly do more damage to the "prestige" of the Presidency than electing another narrow-minded neocon hick to the Executive Branch who's never given a thought to the wider world would?

Let her take her "Mean Girls" act back on the road... preferably the Alaska Highway. We don't need more shallow, ignorant neocon nitwits in DC.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Sean Hannity emasculated by a funny old Brit

Keith Olbermann read a poem written by one of the funniest men to live in our time... perhaps in any time. One of the reasons John Cleese is hilariously funny is that he's very intelligent, which supports his unique sense of humor brilliantly. Apparently Mr. Cleese's opinion of Sean Hannity is quite similar to mine.

An Ode to Sean Hannity
By John Cleese
Aping urbanity, oozing with vanity
Plump as a manatee, faking humanity
Journalistic calamity, intellectual inanity
Fox Noise insanity, you’re a profanity

Friday, October 03, 2008

Lies, damned lies, and Fox news

So, if anyone had any lingering doubts that Fox news is a neocon-loving organization, here's something for you to think about. They are stretching to help the Republicans out by abandoning suggestion and proceeding to outright lies, attempting to paint Obama as somehow "deeply connected" to ACORN. ACORN has been charged with voter-registration irregularities in several instances, so of course the Fox team wants to slyly suggest that has something to do with Obama, perhaps writing their stories in advance to broadcast after an Obama win, hoping to stir up Florida II.

What's the connection they pretend is so "deep" they they feel justifies accusing Obama of being allied with "voter fraud?" Obama represented a coalition of groups that sued Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar in order to get him to implement the federal "Motor-Voter" voting access law. As it happens, ACORN also supported the lawsuit and joined this coalition, along with the US Department of Justice. Of course at the time, it was the Clinton administration's DoJ, so Fox would probably be happy enough to accuse the DoJ of supporting ACORN as welll. Why not, it would have as much basis in fact.

NOTE: I realize my gearhead/geeky blog has turned sharply political of late. It's not that my opinions are newly formed, it's just that there's no shortage of political blogs and normally I haven't found it worth fuming about, but 'tis the season.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Palin says "Nuclear weapons would be the be-all, end-all for too many people..."

I know it's not what she meant (at least I HOPE it's not what she meant!) but Sarah Palin said that "Nuclear weapons would be the be-all, end-all for too many people..." when asked if there was a time when it might be appropriate to use nuclear weapons.

I hope she meant that the use of nuclear weapons would be disastrous and would end the lives of too many people, but it's definitely not what she said.

One must wonder how many other things she says that she really doesn't mean.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Ann Coulter is a filthy NeoCon whore

There. I said it. Nearly everyone WANTS to say it, but people for whom journalism and/or blogging is a career may be afraid to do so, because it's the sort of thing people get mad about. Of course, no honest THINKING person would get too upset about it, because they heard the wench lie, or read her lies, or felt nauseous while watching her lie on television.

Occasionally what she says is only slightly untrue, but couched in the most suggestive of phrasing to blame anyone who's not an Aryan neocon whore for all the ills in the world. At other times, such as her ridiculous assertions that the current financial crisis... the one happening at the end of 2008, after 7.5 years of the Bush administration and more than a decade of Republican control of Congress prior to 2006, the current financial crisis is of course 100% the fault of the Democrats.

The reason that I call her a filthy whore in the title and repeatedly in the text (besides the fact that it's a general truism) is that she suggests in the title of her "article" that good Aryan neocons were denied mortgages because banks were required to give them to minority borrowers. Where has this dumb bitch BEEN for the past decade? Anyone with a pulse could get a loan, it was bad business. Lots of dumb Republican crackers and crack-whores got zero-down loans on houses that probably weren't worth 75% of the loan amount. It was a cash-drunk feeding frenzy and it was lauded and supported by Republicans in the administration as well as Democrats in the house, and most of all by corrupt mortgage brokers everywhere. (I'm sure her next "article" will offer "proof" that every mortgage broker who sold a LiarLoan was a Democrat... she keeps all their party affiliations in their dossiers, you know.)

I am tired of her free pass. Are people afraid to mention her and give her more notice? Reading her trash makes me feel ill sometimes... there's only so much ignorant childish fiction passed off as news one can take, and Fox has exceeded my quota for the next decade... Coulter gets no free pass from me.

Sarah Palin has never seen Russia

Gary Tuchman of CNN has done something old-fashioned. He went to Little Diomede, the island in Alaska from which you can see Russia.

When he went there, he found a community of about 150 people who see Russian territory every day (the island of Big Diomede 2 miles away, itself 25 miles from the Siberian mainland.) While they see Russia on a daily basis, they've never seen a governor of Alaska on their island. Never.

I'm sure Palin's statements about "seeing Russia" across the "narrow maritime border" will be characterized as a figure of speech by the McCain spin doctors, but it smells like another lie to me.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Brokaw lies about poll results?

Interesting... MediaMatters links to reports that Tom Brokaw represented weeks-old poll numbers (taken just after the Republican convention) as "the most current" and said that the American people still feel that McCain is better suited to be Commander in Chief. It's one thing to be wrong... it's worse to be wrong about a poll supposedly conducted by your own organization. It's worse still to present this wrong information as factual and state that you're reporting this incorrect information that supports one candidate when in fact the polling data after the first presidential debate almost universally went to Obama "in fairness to everybody here."

Perhaps Brokaw had been too busy sucking up to the McCain campaign on behalf of NBC to bother reading the current poll data before hosting Meet the Press? and others (on the left, of course) are questioning his impartiality in the upcoming debate he's scheduled to moderate on 7 October.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Small-town mayor thinks Obama might be the Antichrist

You thought this was going to be about Sarah Palin, didn't you? Actually, if Palin thinks Obama is the Antichrist she'd want him to win, since she attends an "end times" church. This does, however, offer some perspective about how little judgment is required of small-town mayors. (Actually, Kwame Kilpatrick showed us that big-city mayors can be pretty dumb as well, but that's beside the point.)

Danny Funderburk, mayor of Fort Mill, NC, forwarded an email chain letter that contains false claims that the Book of Revelation in the New Testament of the Christian bible describes the Antichrist as a man of Muslim descent in his 40s. The email then builds on THAT lie with the suggestion that Obama is the Antichrist. Funderburk claims he was "trying to get documentation" on whether or not this was true, but he didn't put that in the subject header. The story doesn't say if the actual email he sent contained any indication that he was looking for such documentation, and no copy of the email is included in the article.

If there's any truth to his claim, this man needs to learn to Google before he makes an ass of himself. Cynic that I am, I believe he's just an idiot who believed the chain letter and forwarded it on to friends so he could share this important knowledge. People like Funderburk give sane, intelligent Southerners a very bad name.

Why can't McCain use a computer?

I'm very, VERY tired of hearing what is either cynical mock indignance or abject ignorance from people claiming that the reason McCain knows nothing about computers is that war injuries keep him from using one.

Now there's a new idiotic ad in which a vet claims that Obama is attacking John McCain because of McCain's physical disability resulting from his injuries sustained as a POW. I really think there should be SOME enforceable standard of truth in political advertising, since normal libel laws don't apply to most political statements.

If Stephen Hawking can use a computer, I'd think a relatively spry old bastard who's been a senior member of the Senate Commerce Committee overseeing the telecommunications industry and the FCC can probably manage to do so without too much difficulty. I understand that McCain has difficulty raising his arms above his head, but I don't generally put my keyboard or mouse above my head to use them, so that point doesn't suggest that he'd have a physical problem with it.

Assuming that McCain has a dexterity problem with his fingers (I haven't seen this stated anywhere, I'm just covering the worst-case scenario) there are excellent voice-recognition programs available as shrink-wrapped consumer software such as NaturallySpeaking that offer extensive voice control of Windows computers. (Yes, Howard, there's a Macintosh product for the same purpose.) It's quite clear that McCain is capable of speaking, so if he has any desire to learn to use a computer he should be able to do so.

So much for manufactured controversy. Why does it seem too much to ask to have the campaigns and the media concentrate on issues of governance? There are certainly enough out there to keep the media involved, but I guess real issues less entertaining than what Palin is wearing today and whether or not Obama will invite Ahmadinejad for tea in the Rose Garden.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Semantics and posturing

So how different is it to say "My opponent is right when he says X" rather than "X is true..."?

Much ado has been made by The bobbleheads... er.. talking heads in the media about the fact that Obama said several times that McCain was right about one thing or another being an issue. No one points out that when Obama did this, he proceeded to suggest that McCain's plan for dealing with that issue was wrong, even though his identification of the issue itself was right.

Why is it that even the suggestion of agreement is seen as a weakness? Is there any way to truly have a government of the people without recognizing that there are disagreements among those people? McCain's campaign of course immediately released an ad showing Obama saying McCain is right, so that would seem to be a poor choice of words on Obama's part.

Perhaps next time it can be "It is true that X is a problem in our country. However, the Republicans have shown that their handling of X has been lacking yadda yadda yadda." I fail to see how one could honestly pretend that everything ones opponent says is wrong (McCain's doing it, but he abandoned honesty weeks ago... it's no longer surprising.)

I feel that this weird debate theater highlights some problems with our "Two Party" system... because the 2 parties aren't really sufficiently different for them to simply present the truth and let the people decide. If the parties must manufacture difference and highlight dissent, perhaps they're not really different enough in their policies and their governance.

Friday, September 26, 2008

I was right about small cars in the US!

I like to be right... ask anyone who knows me. I'm just sad that it only took $4/gallon to make me right.

I haven't written all that much in this blog, but I've written 3 entries on smaller cars. In December 2005 I wrote that I noticed more people buying small cars. Things were still so bad back then that I pointed out the Yaris and the PT Cruiser as "not too bad." I should have mentioned the excellent Mazda3, but I guess I thought of that more as a sporty car than an economical one (and truth be told, the 3 is not particularly economical for its size, though it's decent for the overall performance it offers.

In July 2006 I'm ashamed to say I said essentially the same thing... prattling mostly about the Yaris and the Prius. I wrote about it last in January 2007, lamenting how slowly the uptake of small cars was going even though there were a few interesting new cars like the Aura from Saturn.

It really did take an extended period of $4/gallon gasoline to either make people realize it wasn't necessary to have a 5500-lb SUV to get most people to work, or for them to finally max out enough credit credit cards for it to be hard to fill up the 30-gallon tank. Being a cynical bastard, I tend to think it's the latter. Ford and GM have still been slow to tap their excellent offering in other markets to fill in the dearth of smaller models in the US market, though they're at least talking about it, and GM brought the Opel/Vauxhall Astra over as the Saturn Astra.

The Saturn has met with slow acceptance in the market... it starts just under $16k and the more compelling XR starting around $17,500 and still offering a rather underwhelming 138 hp and 125 lb-ft of torque. The Civic DX offers 2 more hp, 3 extra lb-ft of torque and 2 mpg better fuel economy city AND highway, for $400 less. Who thought this was a good idea? You have to offer a car with SOME advantage... make it more powerful, or cheaper... GM can't pretend to offer Honda's reputation, even though they've improved vastly in recent years. GM will of course pretend that it's just because Americans don't like hatchbacks, and will ignore the fact that they haven't marketed the car, Saturn dealers largely refuse to deal on price and theh Civic is a better deal.

Maybe Ford will do better when they bring the Fiesta. Make it quicker than the competition, or make it cheaper, or make it more economical, or even a combination of those... the US brands have catching up to do.

Now a foreign policy expert, Sarah Palin suggests Kissinger is naive about Iran

So, Sarah Palin can't help but share her brilliance with us all... when she was being interviewed by Katie Couric, Palin attacked Barack Obama for saying that he would engage in diplomacy with Iran, stating that his world view is "beyond naive," that engaging in diplomacy with Iran would be "beyond bad judgment."

Palin had recently met with Henry Kissinger, and Couric pointed out that Kissinger supports direct diplomacy with Iran. When Couric asked "Are you saying that Henry Kissinger is naive?" Palin's response was that she "... never heard Henry Kissinger say 'Yeah I'll meet with these leaders without preconditions being met.' "

Just for good measure, Couric contacted Kissinger and confirmed that his position is indeed that he supports talks "without preconditions." The NY Times (among other sources) has a brief article on this.

Here we have yet another piece of evidence that not only is Sarah Palin blissfully ignorant of the state of the world, she either is incapable of understanding what experts like Kissinger (and Colin Powell, and James Baker) are saying on the topic or intentionally ignores it so that her necon world view isn't distorted by inconvenient reality. If she is the best choice McCain could make, he's not very good at making appropriate, important decisions.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Why is your house so BIG?

It's probably a dumb question... if you're thinking critically about it, you're probably not part of a family of 3 living in a 2800 square foot crackerbox and wishing you'd borrowed that extra $50k for the 3200 square footer so you'd feel superior to your neighbor. It's not really a new question, a few people have been asking it for years, but the mainstream is just now realizing that it might be good to ask more than "How much will you loan me?" when they're choosing a house, and it's driven more by the crumbling market than any realization that they haven't opened the door of that 'guest room' at the other end of the house in a month.

I've found lots of references to a report called "Housing Facts, Figures & Trends 2004" from the National Association of Homebuilders on many sites, but I could only find the actual report second-hand here. It's not on the list of publications the NAHB make available on their site that date all the way back to 1997. I can understand why the NAHB might prefer that people not think too much about this... if people realize they don't need a 3,000 square foot house, they might also realize that there are lots of 2,000 square foot houses already out there that they could buy.

Among the interesting tidbits in the report... in 1970, the average home size in the US was 1,500 square feet. By 2004, the average had ballooned 2,349 square feet. At the same time, average household size dropped from 3.14 in 1970 to 2.59 in 2000. (according to US census data.) What are we doing with all that extra space, besides paying to heat and cool it? Master bathrooms bigger than my bedroom, media rooms, formal living and dining rooms that get used once a year... it's crazy!

I think this all ties in with the sprawl of suburbia... if the houses that are already built closer in are those dinky 2000-square-footers they were building in 1990, well, we've gotta go out further... it's just a little more commute time, right? I wonder at the actual driving forces behind it... is it more the fashion and getting ahead of the Joneses? (But not Mother Jones, of course... they don't approve.) Perhaps instead it's the drive by homebuilders to continue to sell new houses, offering bigger, fancier, flashier McMansions in ever more gated and restricted communities so that people will think their existing home is too small in comparison to those of their acquaintances and coworkers.

I live currently in the 3rd house I've owned, and it's a Goldilocks situation... bigger than the first, smaller than the second; younger than the first, much older than the second. For the moment, it's "just right." The 2 of us plus 2 dogs live comfortably in a 1500 square foot house originally built in 1952 (it was built at about 1200 sq. ft, a previous owner added on a room and a 1/2 bath at the back.) I'm sure I wouldn't mind having a little bigger pantry or another cabinet or two, but we can both work in the kitchen and cook good food, and it helps us follow Alton Brown's "no single taskers" mantra. Even with 56-year-old windows, it doesn't cost me an insane amount to cool (and of course in Texas the cost to heat is generally negligible, I could spend the winter in a tent.)

My middle house was new... most of the houses close to my office were in new developments, so I gave it a try. At 1750 square feet, I built the smallest plan offered by the builder, and spent a little extra for some energy efficient upgrades. My house was nice enough, and different from the other houses because most of my neighbors built as much house as they could get financed; there was only one other house on my plan in the whole development. It was still a very "suburban wasteland" experience, with restrictive covenants controlling everything from the color you could paint your trim to how tall your grass could be, all dialed in by the developer and written into the deeds when the tract was subdivided. The results are very beige... if anything is too different, the "architectural" committee of the HOA (none of whom have any architectural experience, of course) will come to hassle you.

I have vowed never to be subject to an HOA again, and it's entirely possible that I'll never own a house over 2,000 square feet. I don't think a well-designed house NEEDS to be that big unless you have a big family. I hope to design our next house, though depending on where David does his residency it may be the house after next. Hopefully I'll remember my small-house prejudices when it comes time to do the design work.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

What's a Chevrolet Volt?

Chevrolet introduced a concept car called the Volt at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show. If you're not a car geek, you may not be familiar with the fact that concept cars are often wildly impractical futurist visions of what a company might do if the laws of physics were repealed... you may have noticed that we still don't have the flying cars promised to us in the '50s, never mind the nuclear reactors in the trunk to power our cars for decades on a single refueling. The Volt Concept was racy-looking, impractically-packaged (for a mainstream consumer car) and described as a series hybrid, specifically GM's E-Flex Extended-Range Electric Vehicle (EREV) system.

If you take a moment to look at that picture, it becomes apparent that the design compromises outward visibility, and if you're seen video or stills of people near the concept, it's not packaged well to be comfortable for 4 people. Never mind the fact that the concept car has a golf-cart powertrain to let it move under its own power, it wouldn't be a practical everyday car even if it had the final production E-Flex powertrain.

Now, a couple of weeks ago GM started leaking pictures of what is to be a production version of the car. Last week that had an official reveal of the production look of the car. The fact that there is to be a production version at all speaks of the upheaval at SUV Central GM Headquarters over the state of the car market today. Americans have realized that it's not really necessary for one person driving to their white-collar job to drive a vehicle that weighs 6000 lb and has seating for 8, and they've abruptly stopped borrowing against their houses to buy one, so there are Tahoes and Suburbans languishing on dealer lots everywhere.

In a shocking break with recent tradition, GM is planning to offer to the public a vehicle that's more efficient than the current Toyota Prius. A vehicle that will let you drive about 40 miles per day without needing any gasoline at all, and if you need to drive farther than that before you have a chance to plug in and charge it for a few hours, the "extended range" part of the powertrain kicks in and the car will take you as far as you want as long as there are gas stations every 300 miles or so. This is a game-changing powertrain, even if it's not an atomic car. The car that will be produced, as usual, is very much toned down from the show car that has to look good on a turntable but doesn't have to be a good car to drive.

It won't be out for a while (GM is saying late 2010) and there's conflicting info about what it will cost, what tax incentives will be in place at the time, etc. Bob Lutz, Vice Chairman of GM, wanders around with random quotes rattling out of his head and generally contradicts official statements, engineers in interviews and whatever he said last month. He was on Colbert last week and didn't really help the car any, but his interview will be largely forgotten by the time the car's in dealer showrooms.

I am amazed at the number of people who are up in arms over the fact that the production model doesn't look just like the concept car. They stupidly throw out epithets not supported by facts like "Electric Malibu!" and "Hybrid Cavalier" and "bait and switch" and claim they don't want one because it doesn't look exactly like the concept that most of them have ONLY SEEN IN PICTURES. It's a different size and platform than the Malibu (it's slightly smaller than a new Malibu) and obviously has nothing to do with the Cavalier that has been out of production for years. It's larger than the concept and has much more passenger and cargo space, and has significantly less aerodynamic drag, but the mouth-breathing hordes are screaming that GM is cheating them by producing a practical car instead of giving them the show car they got all excited about.

I've posted many times in several threads on this topic that GM needs this car to be a success, and the Camry is a much bigger success than the Solstice, or even the Miata. Bland sells. In the case of the Camry, bland sells like free nickel beer. Once GM proves the technology and turns its finances around, it can be used in many other vehicles and they can produce shorter-range, less-efficient cars for the form-over-function types, but any fool can see that people buying family cars buy lots of 4-cylinder Camrys and Accords and Fusions and Malibus because they make sense, not because they make them horny.

I also included a "tinfoil hat" tag because there's a cadre of people following the Volt's development who claim that we should all be driving around in an EV1 and GM and the oil companies want us to be dependent on oil forever and the Volt isn't nearly as good as the EV1 and GM killed the electric car and on and ON. They can't see that this 4-seater car with decent cargo room, a production-ready chassis and essentially UNLIMITED range is better for most consumers (even with its more limited all-electric range) than a hand-built extremely lightweight 2-seater experiment that was never made available to drivers in harsh climates and required a long charging cycle with a non-standard inductive charging paddle when it reached the end of its range in 80 miles or so.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Should you buy a new mower now?

So, how long will that "perfectly good" lawn mower you've been thinking of replacing for the past 3 summers last you? I've been thinking about that more in the last month or so, because my 12-year-old lawn mower "has issues" but I'm a notorious cheapskate. My first power mower (the same one with "issues") was the cheapest rear-bagger I could find, back when the cheap mowers were under $100 on sale. In recent years, the weird little spring-loaded carburetor can't keep a consistent RPM, but it runs well enough to mow the lawn without stalling (it just sounds like a prop from a 3 Stooges film.) If I buy something new, I'd like it to have a Honda engine and keep it until I'm a grumpy old man paying the neighbor kids to mow the lawn, and you can't get a mower with a Honda engine for $100.

So now I'm torn between spending more than I want for a proven product now, or probably spending WAY more than I want for new tech in a few years. EPA regulations will require cleaner engines on walk-behind mowers in 2011 (the regs tighten for 25+ horsepower equipment in 2010.) So, what do I really need?

For Texas, I have a fairly small lot. I'm not into the big house thing, quality space and location means more to me than square footage. So, electric is an option. I'm not sure what I think of that... the overall technology isn't new (one of my crazy aunts had an electric mower in the early '70s) but some of the new ones are battery-powered. Green tendencies tell me this is a good idea... lower emissions (both total and of course in my neighborhood), quieter, theoretically fewer problems. I've read lots of poor reviews, and don't really know where to find "reliable" lawn equipment reviews. Cords that get in the way, batteries that wear out... but no gas required. The cheap electric string trimmer I bought 15 years ago still works fine, as does the electric blower I bought a year or two after that.

I could buy a new gasoline mower in the next couple of seasons. Now my inner cheapskate is arguing with my inner environmentalist... it would probably run cleaner than my old one but not as clean as one with a catalytic converter after 2011, but it would cost less and if the first few years of lawn equipment with catalytic converters suck as much as the first decade of cars that had them, waiting for a "clean" gas mower might not be a good option.

I have to wonder if I'm subconsciously not deciding because doing nothing is the cheapest option....