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?

MoveOn.org 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 ...er... 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....