12/05/2012

People See What They Want To See


In a song by Harry Nilsson from The Point, there is a line, “You see what you want to see.” Most of us have experienced this behaviour, possibly in ourselves or in others. It is commonplace. People often ignore or distort the obvious when it doesn’t suit them. It occurs most obviously in discussions of religion or politics all the time. Creationists ignore the fossil record, or invent implausible explanations for it, which amounts to the same thing. Followers of Ayn Rand think that everything one achieves is solely due to their own personal effort, ignoring the importance of dumb luck. Soft-headed liberals think that hard-core criminals are amenable to rehabilitation. It is hard to shake someone from a belief system using only evidence.
Something akin to this is happening in current popular culture with respect to males. By and large, males are portrayed as bumbling nitwits in popular culture. In most sitcoms, males are portrayed as near-infantile twits who constantly need a mother-figure to look after them, whether in the guise of an actual mother or a mother-substitute. The dumb male is more than a cliché, it is now a cultural artifact.
There is a television commercial at the moment that plays on this theme. I have forgotten what product is being marketed. In this ad, a mother is showing her children and her husband, who is sitting with the children, how to insert a roll of toilet paper into the holder. The point of the montage is obvious, the husband is just another child. The idea is, I guess, that the rest of the family does not know how to replace the toilet paper roll, and the mother of the house is so sick of performing this act for them that she has to resort to give them a lecture on the subject. The husband, of course, is as ignorant and guilty as the children, and they are shown to be surprised at how easy it is to do when the mother shows them the procedure. So pervasive is the stereotype of the “childish husband” that there is no need for a prior explanation of the scene. Everyone in our culture knows instinctively what this is all about. Apparently, men in our society are so helpless that they need a lecture from their wife on basic day-to-day life skills. We all instinctively know the backstory too; the long-suffering wife walked into the washroom and saw that there was no toilet paper, yet again.
I am so sick of this horse shit.
I will not list here all of the moronic, childish, selfish and spectacularly irrational or incompetent behavior that I have personally witnessed in many women that I have known in my life. There is no point in doing this, no one would believe me, primarily because I am a male and so my testimony cannot be trusted. Fine. Let me approach this issue in a slightly different way then. 
The toilet paper incident from the television commercial only has validity if you accept the premise that women end up changing the toilet paper roll significantly more often than men. Data about this would be easy to collect. All we would need to do is to have hundreds of test subjects in many households write their initials on the insides of the cardboard inner roll of the toilet paper. Then we could collect the empty rolls, collate the statistics on who changed the rolls, and we would then have the necessary evidence at our fingertips. This would be time-consuming and expensive and no one is going to give you or me a grant to do the study, so let’s see if simple logic can get us anywhere.
In my experience, men defecate more often and in larger quantities than women. I can’t prove this for a fact, of course, but I can’t think of anyone in my circle of friends and acquaintances who would dispute it. Let us accept this as a given then, economists do no less in their work. I have never heard of a male calling out to his wife or mother to come and change the toilet paper roll for him, while occupied in this function. So, unless you have some evidence that men in our culture are not wiping up at all, or are wiping up using their hands, or bath towels or something, then we pretty much have to conclude that they are changing the toilet paper rolls themselves while they’re in there. Statistically then, given their more frequent and more copious washroom visits, this must be happening to them at least as frequently than it happens to women.
And this ignores single men. Unless they are walking out of their apartments in large numbers stinking of feces, we have to conclude that they are changing their own toilet paper rolls. They can’t all afford maids.
So why the persistent myth? People see what they want to see. When a woman changes a roll of toilet paper, odds are that she is in the toilet alone, since, in my limited experience, defecating is rarely a communal experience. Since she is alone, what she remembers is that SHE changed the roll of toilet paper and that the husband didn’t. When her husband last changed the toilet paper roll, he was in there alone as well, I mean, why would she accompany him, I wouldn’t. So, she doesn’t SEE him change the toilet paper roll. Her first-hand experience leads her to believe then that only she changes the toilet paper. And for some peculiar reason, this mis-interpretation of subjective data has emerged as a virtual truth in our culture. I don’t know why it has caught on that way, but it has. The myth is obviously and obstinately wrong, but it has become a powerful narrative.

11/28/2012

Charge it up with Premium?


Having been involved in grassroots motor sport, I tend to read more automotive journalism than most people. Aside from keeping track of new models, which is useful when I shop for those models in the second-hand market years later, I like to keep tabs on automotive trends for their own sake, out of simple interest. It appears to me that there is, at the moment, a small cottage industry among some automotive writers to downplay the importance or even completely dismiss electric or electric-assisted automotive designs.
This seems odd at first, since I associate automotive enthusiasts with tinkerers, or at least people with an interest in things technical, and so I would expect genuine interest in knowing more about these technologies. There is some of that, but there is also a persistent undercurrent of dismissiveness from writers who seem to go out of their way to look for reasons to disparage electric vehicles. It’s as if they want those cars to fail, as if there is some visceral dislike of them. 
The amount of energy stored in a gallon of gasoline is such that, up till now, we have been able to buy enough of it at a reasonable price to allow us to get in a car and drive from Ottawa to say, Toronto, and not think about it too much. That is, it’s not exactly free, but given that you already own, maintain, and insure the car, the incremental cost of driving it to Toronto is a completely acceptable price to pay for most people, certainly so for the North American middle-class. We tend to forget, or ignore, that the efficiency of gasoline-fired engines is lower than 25%. That is, we throw away 75% of all the energy that’s stored in that gallon of gasoline. That’s not good engineering design. 
Electric motor conversion of electrical power to physical movement is very efficient, in the 90% range. And yes, I know they ultimately depend on generating stations and the electric grid, but efficiencies at those plants can be high, so that the life-cycle efficiency of electricity use looks pretty good. It’s not as if all those oil-digging and refining sites don’t present their own problems, it’s just that we don’t think about them much, because we put them in Sarnia or in outlying ugly suburbs of our cities so we tend to forget about them.
The trouble is that portable electric power, in the form of batteries, suffers from low power density and high weight. This means that a present-day fully-electric vehicle cannot travel more than 100 km or so (most optimistic) without having to re-charge the batteries for several hours. (Up to now, batteries also suffered from long charge-up times, but the latest developments in battery research are reducing that time down to minutes, as per the latest solid-state batteries from Hydro-Québec and probably others too.)
One objection to this short-range limitation is the belief that there is little chance that the technology can ever improve enough to overcome this. The objectors also seem to assume that this short maximum travel range will never be acceptable to the car-buying public. It’s far from obvious that the first objection is true, though it does not look too promising at the moment, it’s too soon to tell. I believe that the second objection is just wrong.
Picture a group of blacksmiths having a beer in a pub in 1906, just talking shop. “Have you seen one of these new-fangled automobiles yet”, one asks. “Noisy ugly smelly slow things, break all the time,” another answers. A third pipes in, “What damn use are they? They need gasoline. What are they going to do? Dig up crude oil all over the world, ship it by boat or thousand-mile pipelines, refine it, then ship it to filling stations at every street corner so people can put it in their cars!?! It’s a frigging joke, it’ll never happen.” You know that someone had that conversation, or one very much like it.
There are already projects being planned for fleets of electric vehicles that have been designed with easily replaceable battery packs. Imagine, during your drive to Toronto from Ottawa in your electric car, that you might have to pull into a battery-swapping station 3 times for a 5-minute swap of your dead battery for a fully-charged one. This is a little more inconvenient than what we do now, but do you have a contract with god that says that you will be able to go from Ottawa to Toronto with no effort? You couldn’t take that trip very easily a hundred years ago, but times change. I used to be able to get customer service in stores, and I now live without that.
But let’s assume that the battery-changing station idea will never come about, that it really is a more outlandish suggestion that digging for oil all over the planet and shipping it to every street corner in every city. At the moment, my wife and I occasionally make the drive out to Perth, Ontario, a nice small town one hour west of us. It’s pleasant to walk around the town, it has some nice stores and coffee shops, makes for a nice outing. It costs us about $25 in gasoline to do that these days, and we make the trip a couple of times a year or so. But in the year 2033, say, when the price of gasoline is $10 per liter, not the current $1.20 per liter, that little Sunday afternoon outing would cost us $250 or more in fuel costs alone. Theoretically. In actual fact it wouldn’t cost us a dime, because I would no longer own a car when gasoline costs $10 per liter. It would be utter madness to spend $20,000-$30,000 on a vehicle that I could not afford to operate. At $10 per liter, the lives of a lot of people will change. It may already be happening. I read in the press recently that young adults are increasingly NOT buying cars these days, they’re not willing to incur the costs of ownership, and this trend is worrying the automobile manufacturers. And it should.
My point is, if it isn’t obvious, that it’s irrelevant whether or not electric vehicles cannot provide the flexibility of current day automobiles. When the day comes that buying a gasoline-fired car ceases to be a sensible choice for you and me because of fuel costs, unless some miracle happens and we completely rebuild our cities, which is not very likely, your dentist will still be 10 km away from you live, and your grocery store will still be a lot farther than you’d be willing to carry 40 kilos of groceries. In that world, an electric car that “only” has a range of 100 km will not be a bad compromise, it will be a godsend. It’s not necessary that an electric car match the convenience of present-day gasoline-burning cars, it is only required that they are better than hauling 40 kilos of groceries for an hour on foot. And if the range of an electric car drops to 50 km on a cold mid-February Canadian afternoon, it will still be better than trying to ride your bicycle through a foot of snow to the doctor’s office when you’re shivering with flu symptoms.
Electric cars may not turn out to be a good idea. We simply don’t know yet. Right now, barring the development of battery-swapping “filling” stations, the long-distance use of electricity seems to necessitate some kind of very complex hybrid design. That complexity is itself something else that the naysayers complain about, understandably so. But there may not be any simple solutions left. Electric cars  may turn out to only be a niche solution to short-distance urban transport. But if we will need electric cars in the year 2033 because there may not be another viable alternative at that time, it means that we had better start figuring out how to properly build them, and the sooner the better. Whining about how inconvenient the current models are, which may be true, serves little purpose. 
Battery disposal and re-cycling may be a very tough issue to solve, but let’s not delude ourselves that this is not the case for oil-based technologies. Those same concerns also hold in the case of the oil economy, it’s just that the oil industry emerged at a time when no one worried about things like the ecology and product life-cycles. Imagine trying to develop an oil infrastructure from scratch in today’s policy climate. If you lived in east Montreal, would you want a refinery next door? The fact is that what we currently view as normal is only just familiar, not necessarily safe or clean. 
Another important aspect of electric car design is crash safety. A fully charged-up battery represents lots of pent-up kilowatts, and while insulating occupants from that energy under normal circumstances doesn't seem too complicated, all bets are off in the case of collisions. Developing standards for battery containment in collisions and procedures for emergency personnel will be critical. But even here, some automotive journalists seem to think that this is some kind of deal-breaker, when all it requires is new engineering. We don’t think twice about sending teenagers out on the road in 3-ton SUVs with gallons of liquid explosive in the fuel tank now, and we seem to think that flying in airplanes is normal, is coming up with a way to deal with charged-up batteries so remote a concept? 

All new systems seem complex. The old systems are complex too, it's just that we're familiar with them so don't notice anymore. Everybody, please calm down, we'll probably figure out ways to deal with batteries. Overcoming these various obstacles may not be cheap, of course, but neither will the oil economy of the future.

11/09/2012

Lower My Taxes!


Thankfully, the US election is now over. It is difficult to believe that anyone really wants them to go on as long as they do, but the American electoral system has become a huge industry these days with its own momentum. I suspect there is a lot of vested interest in dragging the damn things out as long as possible, since lots of the people involved are probably paid by the hour.

During this election, an interesting topic occasionally came up regarding the so-called 1%. They, the 1%, seem to have acquired a lot of the world's money, according to all the media reports, and the argument was put forward several times that since those few are mainly responsible for creating "jobs", itself an interesting assumption that seems to be rarely questioned, then they should not be taxed (much), or at least that it would be counter-productive to do so. (In the sense that I'm using the expression here, "jobs" is a proxy for wider societal wealth, it's a convenient shorthand.)

(By the way, refinements of the statistics point out that the "real" wealth is actually held by the 0.1%, but let's not quibble, I'll keep using the expression, 1%, to denote who we're talking about, whoever they are. Accountants can argue the details.)

The entire tax discussion seems like such nonsense to me. All we need to do is decide what services we want and who should provide them. Everything else follows from that, and that's the discussion that should be taking place. Instead, almost all tax discussions centre around the fact that people think they're paying too much and that others aren't paying enough. It is normal human behaviour to think that the things we pay for cost too much, and that the things we sell are sold too cheaply and that we really deserve more. For example, in most places in Ontario, real estate agents earn 5% commission when they buy/sell a house, regardless of how much work they actually do to make that sale. If you want to spend an extremely boring 15 minutes at a party, try challenging that idea to a roomful of real estate agents and wait for the lecture. Then later, listen to same agents complain about how much photocopying or photography services cost them. It's always the same, we highly value what we ourselves do and we tend to undervalue the work of others. We resent having to pay money to have our garbage picked up, but at the same time we don't want to take the garbage to the dump ourselves. That's just human nature, you always have to discount out the whine factor in any discussions.

To me, ideological discussions about tax are the most hilarious. "Paying tax infringes on my freedom!" goes the libertarian cry. To these people, there is almost no such thing as a legitimate public interest. Ok, I say, go build your own highways and airports and research facilities and stop using ours. In the meantime, shut up you morons.

But the argument that the tax burden on the 1% should be lessened is an interesting one to examine, it seems to me. I presume that the idea is that if they paid less tax, more of their money would be freed up to create more "jobs". But I keep reading that corporate and personal tax rates are lower now than in previous boom times, such as the1950s and 1960s, so is now really such a terrible time to be rich?

If the 1% truly are the ones who "create" jobs, then now would be the time to do so, I would have thought. I mean, what are they waiting for? The concentration of wealth that is in their hands is seemingly unprecedented, we're told, so what's the hold-up. 

But if the argument is that the current tax regimes (in most countries) is so onerous, so crippling, that they dare not invest any of that money for fear that they will have to pay too much tax on their subsequent earnings, well, isn't that a little contradictory? They've managed ok so far, the tax burden hasn't prevented them from socking it away big time lately, how much better does the tax environment need to be before they dare try to earn more money? 

When I hear arguments that the spectacularly rich should pay less tax, my bullshit detector goes off and screeches louder than any fire alarm. Is it just me?

1/15/2012

Linguistic Deficiencies


I have heard or read several times during my life that the aboriginal peoples who inhabit Arctic regions use many different names to describe snow. When your survival depends on it, it must be very important to understand and describe to others all the different kinds of snow, fresh wet to powder dry, soft to icy hard. I wonder what it means that our modern urban culture has so many synonyms and slang terms to describe sexual relations and sex organs. I understand the interest in the topic, but why so many names. We also have a lot of ways to describe people for whom we have a low opinion: jerk, nitwit, moron, dope, nimcumpoop, and so on. Why do we seem to need so many names for stupid people or for what we cover up with underwear?
I think our culture needs special names for at least two forms of snow. I never know how to describe these forms, and they come up in conversation often enough that it would be convenient to have names for them.
The first is a form that inhabitants of northern climates who drive cars are familiar with. It is that clump of hardened sticky wet dirty icy snow that clings to the wheel wells or mud guards on our cars and trucks. People who have never lived in snowy areas may not know what I am talking about, so I have included a photo below. In the main, you can live your life ignoring this stuff, it eventually falls off, but if it doesn’t fall off on the way home, you have to clean or kick it off your car if you don’t want it melting in your garage overnight. That wet clump of melting snow, ice, road dirt, oil, salt, sand, is an awful thing to step in. As it melts it can get into all kinds of thing you were trying to keep dry. We need a name for that clump. The best that I have heard so far is “crut”, a variation of “crud” I think. The word has a lot going for it, it’s short, easy to spell and the sound of the word expresses both the nature of the substance and our feelings about it quite well. But maybe others have better candidates.
There is a second form of snow that is probably universally despised even more than the “crut” in our cars’ wheel wells. I am referring to the mound of packed road snow that snowplows leave across our driveways after they clean a street. Talking about what snowplows leave across our driveways is a favourite topic of conversation here in Canada after every snow storm. But we have no name for that mound, and it’s such a linguistic nuisance to keep calling it that “mound that the snowplow left”. Why don’t we have a name for this? I have included a picture of half a mound at the end of my driveway. I ran out of arm strength about halfway through shoveling yesterday.

Frankly, I am amazed that we here in Canadian cities put up with this. It’s bad enough having to clear the entire length of the driveway, but at least that’s freshly fallen clean snow, often just fluffy powder, but the “stuff that the snowplow leaves behind” is always dense, heavy, and usually deeper than what actually fell out of the sky. I find it incredible that we don’t insist that the road service crews clean away our driveway openings after plowing a street. Before amalgamation with Toronto, the City of North York provided exactly that service. A smaller plow, equipped with a swinging blade, followed the larger road plows around all day, and the operator dropped the blade long enough to clean off driveway entrances. Why would we do it any other way?

10/30/2011

Fantasy Cars

Having participated in grassroots motor sports for most of the last 20 years, I count a fair number of car nuts among my friends. It’s not surprising then that conversations and e-mail exchanges occasionally turn to cars and what exotic cars we’d permit ourselves if we won a lottery. Desires run the gamut, of course, but other people can write their own blog. I’ll just tell you what I would spend my money on if my ticket came in a winner.
First, I’d sell my ’08 Vibe. There’s nothing wrong with this car, nothing at all, but I have no feelings for it. The first thing I would do is replace it with a cheap “grocery-getter”, as a friend puts it. I’d put a limit of about $4000-$5000 on this purchase, any 4 to 5 year old small car would do, a Toyota Yaris, say, or Hyundai Accent maybe, something narrow and short that would not force me to clean out the garage to make room for it in winter. This is the kind of vehicle you need to get groceries, go to the dentist, stop by Dairy Queen, the usual daily routine. The only maintenance I would do on this car is to do oil changes and maybe service the brakes. The moment it needed anything else, I would trade it in immediately on the next grocery-getter.
This is extravagant, of course, maybe even obscenely so, but since I would have lottery winnings collecting some meagre interest in the bank, it’s an extravagance that I would permit myself. Besides, by making relatively good used vehicles frequently available to the second-hand market, it would be my small way of helping out those who need relatively reliable cars but who don’t have much money, e.g., students, people who have lost their jobs, penny-pinching cheapskates. I think of this as my small contribution to the redistribution of wealth, my own little Bill Gates moment.
But what I would also do with my winnings, automotive-wise anyway, is to become Hertz’ dream customer. You see, although I enjoy driving and enjoy testing different cars, I detest owning cars. I don’t enjoy having to worry about upkeep. I hate doing my own maintenance. Somehow, lying down on a cold garage floor trying to undo some damn bolt that’s seized into place and for which I don’t have the correct tool lost its appeal as I got older. If I didn’t have to, I would never do that again, and if I won a lottery, I could pretty much guarantee that I wouldn’t. I am also reluctant to have my cars maintained by others. It's not easy finding reliable technicians, and anyway they need appointments and that means planning for bus rides, pick-ups, etc., all things about car ownership I would not put up with it if I didn't have to.
For a guy like me, renting is ideal. I could drive a wide variety of cars and never worry about changing the timing-belt or spark plugs, or even washing the damn things for that matter. I'd never buy another windshield wiper or air filter. My local Canadian Tire store has been remodelled and now I can't find air filters on the shelf anymore, you have to wait at the parts counter and order one, so buying an air filter has been transformed from a 2-minute walk-by shopping experience, like picking up butter say, into a 15-minute wait in a place I don't want to be experience, one more aggravation to do with car ownership. As a result, I don't buy air filters there anymore.
Nowadays, rental companies have all sorts of interesting vehicles to rent. On a recent trip to Nova Scotia, we rented a Volvo S40 T5. There is no way I would ever buy a car that fancy, worrying about its upkeep would keep me up at night, but renting one for a week is a treat.
I would walk into Hertz outlets for miles around, and all the counter staff would know me by name. “Hi Rob”, they’d say, “Wanna try out a Lexus this week?” “Sure Jim”, I’d reply, “sounds like fun!” And now and then, Dave (I made this name up), the Regional Manager, would call me and offer a free upgrade to a "Premium" model for no extra charge, just because I was such a good customer. "Thanks, Dave", I'd say, "Can I pick it up Tuesday?". "No worries, Rob", he'd answer, "I'll have it delivered."
The reason I would choose Hertz, by the way, is because after 30 years of occasionally renting car during vacations or weekends away, they are the only rental company that have always had a car waiting for me when they said they would. I have tried nearly all the other car renters, and despite reserving cars well ahead of the appointed time, they have all, at least once, greeted with, "Sorry, we don't have any cars for you." I find it extraordinary that any of them are still in business, frankly, so screw them.
If I won a lottery, my fantasy would be to never own a car again, other than the cheap replaceable grocery-getter. Other lottery winners can buy themselves the BMWs or Lotuses of their dreams, bully for them, but my fantasy is to rent.

8/20/2010

Two wheels good, four wheels better

For some reason, North America does not seem to hold two-wheeled transportation in high regard, at least that’s how it seems to me. I think this applies to both human-powered and mechanized versions. This is quite at odds with the rest of the world, where bicycles, scooters, and motorcycles are used daily by millions of people for transportation. But in the main, in North America, they are considered playthings.
 
The other day I was stopped at a traffic light next to a guy on a motorcycle. He was dressed in office attire, his motorcycle had two hard-shelled saddlebags, a windscreen that extended up far enough to disrupt the worst of the wind, he sat nearly straight up on the frame, and the engine was very quiet. It idled quietly and pulled away quietly too. I couldn’t see any decals so I don’t know the engine size, but visually it appeared to be smaller than the usual motorbike I see around.
 
He looked like a reasonable guy with a quiet and comfortable commuter motorbike, and it occurred to me it was probably the first one I had seen in years. What I usually see on the roads around here are either great big loud Easy Rider wannabies with leather fringes and metal studs or young bucks hunched over testicle-crushing sport bikes with rear tires twice the size of the front ones. In other words, what I mostly see on the streets are toys.
 
Why does our culture marginalize and infantilize motorcycles and bicycles? It makes no sense. They are perfectly reasonable methods of transportation, especially so when compared with automobiles that usually have only one occupant. This applies to small scooters too. They are quite rare here in Ottawa, and what little advertisement I see for them seems aimed at their fashion cuteness or trendy colours that match your sunglass frames. So why can’t a 100 cc Vespa be a reasonable and adult mode of commuter vehicle.
 
I live in an Ottawa suburb and one of the crazy things I see out here are roadside bicycle lanes that are also used by city buses when they stop for passengers. The land that is allotted to curbs is immense, huge tracts of land that set off the nearest traffic lane from neighbourhood homes, streets so wide that it is dangerous for most humans to cross them at intersections, because it is difficult for many people to get across during the duration of one green-light cycle. So, predictably, there are hardly any pedestrians. All that land, but bicycles have to share the road with buses, while at the same time we have pedestrian sidewalks with almost no humans on them.
 
Lately, three-wheeled motorcycles are becoming popular. When I first saw one I thought they were a clever idea. With three wheels and a small motor, you would have a reasonable second vehicle for a household that could be used to fetch groceries, or go to the dentist or something. You could easily build a small useful cargo area on one. Instead, they are designed and marketed as sport “trikes” and cost well over $20,000. In other words, they are also toys.
 
I have nothing against toys. Everyone should own and enjoy toys, they make life fun. But somebody, somewhere, probably big name consultants, decided that people in North America don't want inexpensive lightweight personal transportation. They are probably the same consultants who nearly eliminated the hatchback from automotive showrooms, because, well, they decided we didn't want any. So for about a decade, the VW Golf was almost the only hatchback you could buy in Canada and the US, while the rest of the world was drowning in them. Then, about 10 years ago, they started selling hatchbacks again, and no surprise to me, people are buying a lot of them. I have never read any articles blaming those consultants for their previous folly.

So listen, you with the MBA, working in marketing for motorcycle, scooter, and bicycle manufacturers, stop listening to those idiot consultants your boss hired. They know nothing, their only interest is in stroking your CEO's ego to get more consulting contracts. They don't know a damn thing about what the average joe wants. They don't even know any average joes. Sell us some cheap useful bikes please.

6/13/2010

Flowchart of Life