Blog Archives

Dear Fresh Step people:

Thank you SO much for eliminating your best-working product (Fresh Step Cedar) in favor of perfume-laden monstrosities that work maybe half as well, smell like butt even when not freshly used (“lavender valley” and “mountain forest”? More like “Soap” and “Really Annoying Soap”) and are highly likely to set off anyone with perfume allergies, like my roommate. Really.

Dear Makers of the Generic Cedar Stuff:

Thank you for continuing to make your product, even though I can’t find it because Petsmart refuses to stock it and it usually sells out from Kroger within 12 hours of their getting a shipment, forcing me to look for alternatives or risk a “protest pee” over a not-clean-enough litter box.

Dear Makers of “Feline Pine Clumping”

Thank you for trying. I tried your product on the idea that pine, being at least wood, would work somewhat similar to the cedar in combating the aromatic assault of the litterbox. Cedar does a very good job at this. Unfortunately, you advertise on your product that “Ammonia is naturally neutralized by Pine.” Ammonia is also naturally neutralized by a number of other substances used by other clay clumping litter products, products which also clump and dry far faster than your product.

I also need to inform you that “Feline Pine Clumping”, after use, does not smell like “pine.” It rather smells like “pine-scented cat pee.”

Category: Market

Stepping back into the “real world” for a moment, CNN carries a story about a tiny town that may be overstepping their authority when it comes to traffic stops.

The difference between “legal” and “right” comes up in the story as well:

“The police and local district attorney there say they’re operating within the law, and it appears as if they are,” said Howard Witt, the Tribune reporter who wrote the story. “Texas has an asset forfeiture law similar to many other states, and it basically allows police to seize assets [that] are used, or suspected in being used, in commission of a crime.”

The law as it currently exists does not mandate that a person be convicted of a crime or even charged with one before the police can seize the assets, Witt said. A bill was introduced Tuesday in the state Legislature to close that loophole, he said, because of the alleged goings-on in Tenaha.

In 1997 Louisiana lawmakers reformed that state’s asset forfeiture law after a report on NBC’s “Dateline” alleged that law enforcement officers in Calcasieu and Jefferson Davis parishes were stopping motorists without cause, particularly out-of-state drivers and minorities, along Interstate 10 and seizing their money and property from them, according to an article on the National Drug Strategy Network’s Web site.

The unfortunate thing about this kind of story is that if it turns out to be true, or even if it turns out to be false, it is going to raise even more the tendency of people to distrust the cops.

The other part of unfortunate reality is that, when stopped out-of-state or far from home, civilians are at an even greater disadvantage to the cops than normal. If you’re far from home, you don’t likely have such easy access to your bank. You don’t know how to reach any local lawyers, or which are the best for your needs. You’re not as likely to have family/friends nearby to come help you out. The local judge likely knows the cop quite well, danced at his wedding, his kids date the cop’s kids, etc… and knows nothing about you at all, save for the fact that His Buddy The Cop decided you had done something heinous enough to warrant (at least) a traffic stop and a ticket. The phrase “innocent until proven guilty” means little when the judge is the best friend – or even “a better friend than the random stranger who got stopped” – and is ruling on your case.

Thus there’s an extra onus on small-town cops, at least if they are considering the factor of making other traffic stops easier/safer across the country, to avoid doing things like this or even encouraging the appearance of same. Unfortunately, there’s also the opposite onus – to raise as much ticket revenue as possible. Thanks to the passing of bungled laws that allow ticket revenue to be metered, budgeted, and used for a given year, there’s every incentive for cops to try to raise as much as possible. An extra 5-10 motorists pulled over each month, even if they’re innocent, may be the difference between a new squad car or other new gear, or may even be funneled into other city services. One of the worst things I ever heard from Colosse’s “civil servants” was when the Colosse mayor excoriated the Colosse Police Department because “underperforming traffic ticket revenue” had caused Colosse to experience a budgetary shortfall. They swear up and down that quotas don’t exist, and maybe for individual cops there isn’t… but rest assured, for Colosse just as sure as for Pudunkistan, the police department as a whole now carries a “quota” of ticket revenue to avoid a city budgetary shortfall.

And the people, both those living in the city and those merely passing through, are 100% aware of this fact and less likely to trust the Badged Highwaymen because of it.

Category: Courthouse

Will posits the scenario wherein we judge two approaches to prison – a very lenient one and a very harsh one – by the sole metric of their recidivism rate, and posit how much “extra” recidivism people will endure in order to feel that “justice” is being done by harshly treating the criminals.

The post touched off a question I’ve had thought about, and posted in smaller terms on before, which is that I believe our current “one size fits all” system doesn’t adequately address the various types of criminals very well.

There are two subsets of criminals; the rational and irrational actors. A “rational actor”, for purposes of discussion here, is someone who acts according to the normally-accepted models of risk and reward.

In the first category of rational actor, you have criminals who know what they are doing, weigh the risk of being caught and punished against the expected reward for the crime, and decide the risk is worth the reward. The assumption of our criminal justice system, courts, and prisons is based on the assumption that the majority of the prisoner population is from this category, and that criminals in this category can be “reformed” by the threat that they will reenter the harsh prison system should they “screw up” again.

In the second category, you have criminals a lot like the first, but with the added problem that their standard of living is so low (either because of situational factors, physical disability, lack of education, or something else) that our system’s remedies (incarceration and fines) cease to be a punishment. Incarceration provides things they aren’t getting regularly outside (a roof over their bed, three square meals, etc). Fines? Well, they had so little money, the chance of their ever paying is nonexistent to start with. Some opponents of “soft” and “low-security” prisons, prison recreational facilities beyond the minimum, and even of in-prison educational opportunities (not I on the last one) disagree with prison leniency on the idea that the more “fun” it is to be in prison, the more people will cease to see prison as something to be avoided because the bar of “worse than I already know” is raised.

In the third category, you have people whose lifestyle is based around criminal activity. These people skew the system’s idea the other way – it’s not the “punishment” of prison that is off, because they do try to avoid it, but rather that the rewards of their chosen crime (often violent crime, extortion rackets, drug smuggling/sales, etc) are so great that they will reenter their groups and keep doing it after release on that basis. Once in, their social networks also begin to revolve around this behavior. Once the social network revolves around criminal behavior it’s almost impossible to get them out, since the opportunities to participate in it will come up almost immediately after release unless drastic measures (such as a prohibition on returning to “old haunts” or contact with former friends) are taken as a condition of parole.

These first three categories are all what we would call rational actors. The “preventive” idea/goal of a harsh prison system is to try to skew the calculation for the rational actors, such that as many as possible decide the crime isn’t worth the potential punishment.

The other subset of criminals is the irrational actors, many of whom also have mental deficiencies of some sort or another.

Some irrational actors have a learning disorder that prevents them from properly connecting cause with effect. A 5-year-old kid who shoplifts because he doesn’t know any better is a “rational actor” acting on insufficient data – but when the same condition applies to people who are “full adults” as far as the system is concerned, and their mental development has simply left them unable to weigh any other calculation than the very-immediate “see something, want something, lack resources to legitimately acquire it”, the person becomes an issue for society. If you want a medical analysis of how it works, there’s a good start over here discussing research on toddlers’ mental states. Add in an inability to correctly recall (or weigh) the impact of past memories of being caught, and you can have a person with real problems.

Some people have a verifiable compulsion toward their particular criminal behavior. These people may not be aware of the crime until just before they commit it, or in the case of small “tic”-like behaviors (such as kleptomaniacs whose compulsion focuses on things like paper clips or pencils) perhaps not consciously aware at all.

Some people are simply sociopaths. They know the calculation very well. They know the punishment, they know the risk of being caught. They may not even gain any “reward” for their acts, in a normal profit motive sense, but the emotional reward of their behavior is such that they are perfectly willing to commit their crime of choice over and over again. These people are compulsive and “incurable”, in the sense that their mental wiring simply will not change. Again, a societal problem because the behavior either needs to be controlled by medication or by semi-isolation from society, into a watched environment where they can be caught before they harm others.

Then you have the so-called “crimes of passion” – a man who kills someone he believes raped his family member, or when tempers flare too high in an argument and a fight results, or a wife/lover involved in a newly discovered affair. As these are wholly irrational (but not “habitual”), very little can be done. In the words of the Joker, “All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.” The good news (at least as far as recidivism rates are concerned) is that normal people who have this “one bad day” aren’t as likely to repeat their crimes as those from other groups, though in-prison or during-probation mental treatment would definitely help decrease the rate even further.

The final group are those who may not intend harm to others, but simply have a poor decision-making process that causes them to do things that hurt others. A good example of persons in this category would be habitual drunk drivers – not that they intend to harm others (or themselves), not that they intend to even be drunk, but simply that they commit to the first step of the decision chain (deciding to open the bottle or go to the bar) and everything goes downhill from there. It’s not necessarily alcoholism, obviously – you could take habitually rowdy/violent parents at Little League games and make the same analysis. These are people who have a “trigger” situation whereby they lose what we would normally consider “common sense” control of their actions, but can’t seem to avoid the trigger or regularly recognize the dangers in time to pull themselves out of the dangerous situation.

Part of the problem for the so-called “criminal justice” system is that it treats all criminals (nominally at least) the same. We make rudimentary efforts to deal with the “so poor that prison isn’t punishment” group with in-prison education opportunities, and these do help reduce recidivism for the people from that category, and perhaps also for people from the first category who lose their jobs and risk slipping into the second category. For the “rational actors” in the first two groups – who understand the risks and believe that the reward is worth it – a harsher system may make sense in that it may be able to prevent recidivism or initial criminal activity out of fear.

For the third group, we are probably too lenient. This is especially true when it comes to young people in gangs, because research has shown that savvy gangs tend to use their youngest members for violent acts, knowing that the criminal system punishes them far less harshly. Moreover, the justice system fails by allowing these people to easily reconnect with their fellow gang members or “friends” after release.

The other problem with our system is that it tends to fail to identify – or deal with – the irrational actors well. Irrational actors with a compulsion may, in the structured environment of prison, never get triggered. Sociopaths are well known for being able to “game” the system, convincing the people responsible for turning them loose on society that they are “rehabilitated”, regurgitating what it is the system’s maintainers want to hear, when nothing could be further from the truth. Except for the cases where someone is guilty of serial violent crimes (rape, murder) where the punishments are already set to be incredibly harsh, the system resembles a revolving door. One example I know of who frequents the Southern Tech University campus (among others) fits either into the “too poor” or the “learning disability” category. I’m not sure which, but I do know that every time he is released from prison, we get warnings posted over campus.

The problem with this guy is, he commits minor theft rather than grand theft (laptop bags, backpacks, the occasional projection/computer equipment). He compounds this by pleading guilty and knowing what to say to the judge and how to behave in prison, such that even before his sentencing, he’s usually already a “trustee” with all sorts of extra privileges in the jail. Since his crimes are “minor” and he is never violent, he then spends a few months in a low-security jail with a warm bed, 3 square meals a day, rec center, free cable tv, no rent, extra trustee privileges… and then he returns to the SoTech neighborhood and repeats the process all over again, visiting local schools and stealing things to sell to pawnshops.

Again, I don’t know him well enough to definitively place which category he’s in – I do not know him personally, just from the police reports we get and from discussions of his case with some of the officers who went around to warn us of his last release. It’s quite possible he is a “rational actor” from the slums next to SoTech who has decided that the jail system just doesn’t qualify as a punishment. It’s also possible he has some other mental problems. It’s still quite probable that some form of a supervised release – as opposed to simply turning him out to the streets or dumping him back in his old neighborhood, as they currently do – would probably do better than the simple “serial recidivist” behavior we get out of him currently. I also have to wonder; in a county where you had a Joe Arpaio-style jail rather than what he gets in Colosse, would the risk/reward analysis of his crime make him less likely to behave as he does? That alone might help to determine whether he is a rational actor or not.

Category: Courthouse

Slate offers up one of their random weirdo articles; a guy who married a vegetarian, who gets to eat meat once to twice a month “on the sly”, whose wife is one of the militant-veggie “our kids will be raised vegetarian” sorts.

In my life, I’ve known a few vegetarian-ish people, of varying degrees. In the Southern Tech University dorms, there was one girl (a cute redhead who’d had anorexia, who became an absolutely STUNNING redhead when she got treatment and regained about 50 pounds) who’d done enough to her body that she sort-of, kind-of became “vegetarian” because she’d destroyed her body’s ability to digest meat properly (go without for too long, you stop producing the enzymes necessary for digestion, you lose the helpful intestinal flora that assist in the digestive process for meat, and you might even get food poisoning because it can then rot in the intestines).

Two others I know currently I’m interested in dating. One has food allergies galore; peanuts (thankfully not the “it can’t even be around me” kind, but bad enough), pork, and a couple less annoying ones. The other is a partial-vegetarian who doesn’t eat “meat” (in the pork/chicken/beef/etc sense) but still eats fish and dairy products.

The odder question from my angle is: at what point does one start altering habits (should it manage to turn into a full-blown, exclusive dating relationship) to coincide with this? Admittedly, in the one case it’s a matter of real danger (plus the whole idea of “congratulations, you ate something I’m allergic to, now go brush your teeth or else no kiss”), while in the other it’s a semi-moralistic/semi-health-conscious thing. Also, in the one case it’s obviously going to need to be one-way (hard to “compromise” on allergies) while in the other?

And, can I really manage to give up my traditional bacon-and-eggs sunday breakfast?

Category: Kitchen

Will posits the issue of public transportation, and (more to the point) the discrepancy between his few stellar experiences with it, and the more-overwhelming negative set of experiences with it.

As a design case, public transportation is interesting. The problems of it are nothing new; decades ago, Monty Python famously made a pretty hilarious mockery of the convoluted nature of British commuter rail schedules. And it’s certainly the case that the tighter-packed a city is, the easier it will be for a city to make affordable/profitable trains and public transportation that get people where they need to go relatively quickly – certain Japanese cities coming to mind, or certain venues in New York. If you have a smaller city wherein there’s one main business (say, an agricultural or manufacturing plant), a “main street” where 90% of the businesses are located, and a residential district off to the side, then there’s a certain amount of sense in a bus or tram line running one end of the city to the other.

Then you have cities like Colosse. Colosse itself resembles nothing organized at all – it’s more like a giant amoeba sprawling over the landscape. “Population density” is pretty low, and growth in the city/metroplex has come in the form of newer and newer subdivisions being built outward, each further out of the city limits. Nearby to most of these subdivisions is an industrial park/business park/stripmall or three, because historically the “new subdivisions” pop up on unincorporated land, make a township of themselves for 5-10 years, and then only get annexed when their tax base is large enough that Colosse’s city council decides to gobble them up.

End result? Colosse has 3-4 major “downtown” areas as such, a number of sub-downtown areas, a smattering of businesses all over the place elsewhere, and then each little township (whether currently annexed, self-incorporated, or otherwise set up) its own little mini-downtown. It’s not all that unusual for people to work in Thessalonica or Mayne and commute all the way to Corinth or Cruston – it may not be the original plan, but personal employment changes (job loss/switch) or businesses relocations (usually there’s better rent in one of the mini-downtowns) can be fairly regular occurrences.

Being an original resident of Melleorki, I’ve seen two instances that have bearing. Both come out of the same deal: ~10 years ago, a group of “Mayors of large cities” were invited to another large city in the South to view that city’s “major works”, and one in particular, the city’s light rail system. The mayors of Melleorki and Colosse at the time both promptly got penis envy about this, because neither of their cities had Light Rail and “logically” if it worked so well for that city, well then it would have to work well for their city too!

In Melleorki, the city council went through the motions of figuring out where Light Rail would have to run, what sort of infrastructure would be needed, how much it would cost… and nixed it every time the mayor came back.

In Colosse, alas, “Light Rail” was going to happen whether we liked it or not – the Mayor had a number of his political cronies on the city council, enough to ramrod it through, and so Colosse took it right up Main Street. The net effect? Main Street, and the street it adjoins with later on, are now virtually impassible. Their traffic capacity was cut in half (to make room for ground-level rail), turning/crossing them is difficult at best, businesses along the streets struggle (hey, wouldn’t you if you ran a restaurant/store and nobody could get to you?) and nobody likes the rail line. Worse yet, the rail line runs for less than 8 miles, just barely enough to connect two of the “Downtown” areas to each other… and doing nothing to make parking any easier for anybody. In short, our Mayoral Penis Envy got us a Light Rail “system” that was too small, barely functional, and no fun.

It doesn’t stop there, though. Colosse Public Transportation (CPT) has recently been cutting rail times and bus lines all over the place, with the argument that the ones being cut are “not financially viable.” In my view, this is the biggest downside of CPT: the fact that it is run not as a public service, but as a business.

When public transportation is a public service – even if it operates “at a loss” and requires subsidizing – it can work. Run it as a “business” and cut “unprofitable” lines, and you quickly doom it. The logic isn’t hard to follow: public transportation will work best (and be used most) when it achieves something sorta-kinda near to the flexibility of normal commuting. The more limited it is, the less people are going to use it.

Take my normal day: I get up. I go to work. I may (or may not) have plans to be somewhere after work. These plans may (or may not) take me to various areas across Colosse. During my day, these plans may change. I may get a phone call, or email, indicating that I need to be in another place instead, or that plans are canceled. If I were married or had children (more to the point, especially with children involved), the dynamic would almost certainly be similar. With a car, I’ve got the option of adapting to changes.

If public transportation were to be (a) ubiquitous and (b) easily tracked, I could probably make do without a car. Change of plans? Get on a different set of buses, 2-3 connections tops, and get where I need to be. Where this breaks down is that CPT’s routes are not predictable, reliable, or usable. Getting where I would need to be is not a matter of 2-3 connections, more probably 5-6. Getting home (or even to the Park-n-Ride) via CPT and then going elsewhere via car is much more inefficient than simply having my car with me at work… and given the day, probably leaves me an hour behind schedule. The “alternate” option offered by the New York model, that of flagging down one of the city’s 13,000+ taxicabs, isn’t available in Colosse; hiring a taxi is more a matter of calling up a company, waiting 30 minutes or more, and then being charged $40+ to get where I need to be (and the same when I go home later).

The basic problem is adaptability. If you only service the “profitable” routes, adaptability isn’t there. Mornings are easy; you can predict that a certain critical mass of commuters need to get to work. In the afternoon or evening, you can predict a critical mass of commuters going home. If you have a vaguely centralized area where a great number of businesses are, you know where they’re going.

If you don’t service the “unprofitable” routes, however, you lose commuters in the morning. Anyone with a concern about being stranded is going to want to bring their transportation with them. The more commuters you lose in the morning, the less your available pool in the main evening hours. Thus, the “profitable” routes – the theoretically high traffic ones – need to be subsidized with the routes that may only carry 10 people, and perhaps even less from time to time, simply to be available should they be needed.

It’s my supposition that the balance for best commuter service, which maximizes the number of commuters and minimizes commuter automobile traffic, necessarily is going to operate at a loss (or at least closer to “break-even” than to a huge profit). The less options there are in the evening, the more people are going to have to ignore public transportation for the flexibility of their own vehicle. It’s one of those things that either the city/county needs to decide to just suck up and subsidize, or widespread usage will remain out of reach.

Category: Road

Will makes an interesting point on the economics of buying a new cell phone, but there’s also the ever-popular question of joining up in the first place.

A few months back, I finally got a cell phone. It wasn’t the first cell phone I’d had (my first involved an incredibly bad foray into certain “all-in-one” devicedness by my former boss and Nextel’s perfect example of how service should NOT be conducted), but it was the first one I’d arranged for my own.

I’m okay with the idea of a contract term. I got my phone free, and it does what I want it to do. However, I did find my own brand of silliness.

Southern Tech University offers an employee discount on cell phones, to encourage worker connectedness. To do this initially, you need to sign up through a special “SoTech Employees” website rather than the standard one. First problem: the phone I wanted isn’t available through that web site.

So I call up… get all the info… get it processed, get the phone, pay a tidbit more for the “signup” which they promise will be refunded once the employee discount goes through. And it does go through, and I get my discount. Props to them there.

Second up… I test out how many minutes I need. The difference between “No Texting” and “500 texts/month” is $10. The difference between “500 texts/month” and “unlimited texts” is… $10. I opt for the “unlimited texts” setup. Too many friends like to text. I start out with the initial 600 minutes/month plan, to see how much I use. Through judicious measurement (and honest self-limiting) I come in 20 minutes under 600. Given that I’m using this thing at work, I opt to bump up to the 900 minute plan, to have plenty of overhead.

This is where all falls apart. I was specifically told by the monkey working their sales department that, as I requested, I was being upgraded to the 900-minute version of my calling plan. To wit: Free long distance, Free call ID, Free calls to all users in the same phone network, etc.

What they put on my account, meanwhile, was the “business” version of the plan. Costs precisely the same amount, but mysteriously omits the “Free calls to all users in the same network” portion.

So, the next month, I discovered that I had gone about 90 minutes over my new 900-minute plan. And the month after, I came in a mere 15 minutes under. The first month had involved a lot of emergency calls, so I figured the overage was legit. It was only after the second month that I went back into my bills, call by call, and realized that all the calls I had been making to a certain very beautiful woman were not being properly billed as “in-network.”.

Two very clear and informative discussions later, their customer service made a serious concession: twice as much recompense for what I was overbilled, 2000 “rollover” minutes for me to have to compensate for the lost minutes, and immediate fixing of their sales agent’s mistake to get me into the proper plan.

I haven’t had a problem since, either.

The company in question? AT&T.

Category: Market

Bobvis offers up the point from a book and other sources that we should focus on overall percentage increases in energy efficiency rather than pooh-poohing increases that look small on paper but have larger impact. The test case is a Dodge Durango (12-mpg to 14-mpg versions) versus Honda Civic (33-mpg to 45-mpg versions).

Will counters back the point echoed by a lot of environmentalists, which grates on me, that the “real” disparity is between the 12-mpg Durango and the 45-mpg Civic, and that the goal is to get the Durangos off the road in favor of Civics. In the long haul, I think both sides of the equation are really missing out on very important points that throw off the calculations.

Point #1 – If you’re a single person who never travels far and never carries much, a Civic might work for you. While I think it’s silly for a person who never hauls cargo to have a giant truck, most people need at least some cargo space; I’ve regularly cursed the lack of it in my current vehicle, sometimes for things as relatively minor as IKEA furniture (which is already highly compressed since it’s not already put together).

Ironically, it was the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards, those listings of what the “average fuel efficiency” (in miles per gallon) of a manufacturer’s fleet had to be, that started some of this inanity. CAFE standards are not universal; you have one category for cars, one for “SUV” class vehicles (aka “light trucks”), and one for honest-to-gosh “Trucks” (usually, but not always, diesel). When CAFE standards were upped, manufacturers had a hard time getting the venerable station wagon (heavier/less aerodynamic than a “normal car” but still classified as one and retaining the car’s lower center of gravity for better handling and less worry of tipovers on curves or in high winds) to fit into the “cars” category, but they could get the minivan (with all the handling, high center of gravity, and aerodynamic efficiency of a rolling brick) to easily fit in while classified technically as a “light truck”.

The result? Station Wagons, which usually averaged 21-23 mpg, were replaced by attrition with minivans and their “15 mpg if you’re lucky” efficiency ratings. Why? Because there are precisely two kinds of car that really fit a growing family: station wagons and minivans. Those are the only ones that have the people capacity to haul two parents, two kids, luggage/miscellaneous items, and possibly the kids’ friends somewhere when necessary. If you don’t have a station wagon or minivan, either someone’s getting left behind or you’re splitting into two vehicles.

Point #2 – “Miles per gallon” is a lousy measure of efficiency anyways, because there are all sorts of fudge-factors that go into the measurement and assumptions being made. Setting aside jokes about Paul McCartney’s hybrid getting only 4 mpg or Al Gore wasting fuel flying a limo to Tokyo so he could be seen arriving in a “hybrid limo” to an award ceremony, we still have to deal with the fact that what we are really trying to figure out is how much work is being done by the engine.

Basic science, first of all: the maximum (theoretical) efficiency of a heat engine is definitively not 100%. It never can be, because it is measured by the equation Eff=(Th-Tc)/Th * 100; in other words, the hot side (Th) minus the cold side (Tc), divided by the hot side, with all temperatures in Kelvin. For purpose of reference for cars, Tc can be nothing other than the ambient air temperature, or approximately somewhere between 250 Kelvin (“Really Frickin’ Cold Canadian Winter”) and 330 (Furnace Creek, Death Valley, USA). For purposes of guesswork, a temperature of 300 Kelvin (~80 Fahrenheit, ~27 Celsius) is a reasonable approximation to work with.

Thus, the goal of an “efficient” heat engine is to generate a really freaking high Th, just shy of actually melting the engine’s parts, to do work with. For the internal combustion engine, this gets to be around 1500 Kelvin or so, with a “theoretical” efficiency of 80%… but of course that’s not really the case. First, the exhaust gases aren’t exiting the engine cylinder at precisely ambient air temperature (they’re usually more like 350 Kelvin or higher, then go through the tailpipe while cooling further before being released to the air), so our efficiency is lost by that difference. Second, there is inefficiency from “heat” lost everywhere that isn’t doing any useful work – the heat that heats up the engine parts (requiring a coolant system to avoid melting them after running the engine for lengths of time), friction between road and car, friction between car parts (mitigated, but not completely, by lubricant… again something that can’t be theoretically 100% efficient nor would you want it to be), and so on.

So we get “efficiency” in that sense… but that isn’t miles per gallon. What we are really looking for is an engine that will extract the most energy from a given quantity of fuel, given that gasoline itself has an energy density of 130 MJ/gallon (gasohol, the 90/10 whiskey mix most people are actually getting, is only 125 MJ/gallon and has other thermal properties that further reduce its efficiency for use in an internal combustion engine). In other words, we want the maximum amount of energy (in Joules or MegaJoules) to be transferred to “go power.”

Once we have the efficient engine, THEN basic newtonian physics comes into play; “miles per gallon” is based on the amount of work (in Joules, again) to (a) bring the vehicle up to speed, (b) maintain the vehicle’s speed when facing loss due to other factors (wind resistance, road friction, internal part friction, etc), and (c) safely maintain the vehicle’s internal features and control (modern engines “lose” mpg by transferring power to other things like the electrical system, Air Conditioning and Power Steering, rather than making passengers sweat and drivers use Power Steering By Armstrong).

Needless to say, the heavier the vehicle, the less “miles per gallon” it will get even if it has a “more efficient” (Joules/gallon) engine. Likewise, the less aerodynamic the vehicle, the more “efficient” it will be, which is why this 1.5-seat vehicle (that secondary “back seat” does not look comfy) can get 285 mpg without even needing a hybrid engine. And you trade “efficiency” for pickup power and other benefits, too. The aforementioned vehicle only gets this efficiency by skimming a mere couple inches from the ground (would damage its frame passing a speed bump or even a mere pothole), with a single passenger, no luggage (no luggage capacity even if you wanted to!), and with “pretty darn slow” acceleration, a “pretty darn low” top speed (less than 75 miles per hour), and only seeing that efficiency in a narrow power band best maintained by driving the vehicle around half its top speed. In other words, perhaps good for a single-shot “to work and back” vehicle, virtually unusable for almost anything else.

Yes, there’s room to make vehicles more “efficient” in the “miles per gallon” sense – but it would be nice if the environmentalist crowd would realize that there is work to be done, that reasonable cargo space (the ability for me to carry, say, 3 friends and some luggage without anyone feeling cramped) and a reasonable-height frame are not “luxuries” for all people (the roads in Colosse are lousy enough thanks), and that the “Work” (in Joules of energy) required for specific tasks can never be simply pulled from thin air.

Category: Road

In America, we have a large variety of “rights.” A lot of things people consider “rights” today – health care, college education, etc – aren’t really “rights.” There is no right, for instance, to not be offended… indeed, the actual right we have (the right to free speech) seems specifically designed to ensure that one can say things that may be offensive, a right that is nonexistent in many other countries.

Thus it comes to one of the weirdest cases the Supreme Court has declined in recent memory: a rape trial in which the judge ruled that the plaintiff was not allowed to use certain words.

The conflicting rights brought up in the case:
– The right to face one’s accuser (she took the stand against him).
– The right to free speech.
– The right to a fair trial.

The other weird things in the trial:
– The first trial ended in a “mistrial” when the jury couldn’t reach a verdict, at least partially due to the fact that they found the plaintiff “unreliable.” She was, quite believably, constantly stopping to check her words, terrified of the judge attacking her for violating his word-ban order and holding her in contempt of court (which could carry jail terms and other issues). In other words, the witness was being tampered with and intimidated by the judge himself.
– The retrial ended in mistrial because the judge called it so, citing media attention and victims’ rights protesters who were upset at the bizarre ruling.

Unfortunately, this is a lousy case to go on – and as the saying goes, “Easy cases make bad law”, with the necessary corollary, “Hard cases make bad law.” In this case, we have one of the classic he-said she-said conundrums that always gets advocate groups (on both sides) upset; a case in which we know sex occurred and that verbal consent appears to have been possibly given, BUT the woman is (now) claiming it was rape because she was too drunk to actually consent to sex.

Not to make light of these sorts of situations, but it’s entirely possible that this ought to have been one of those “mistrial and no jury will ever come to a unanimous verdict” situations to start with, because it could be any one of any number of situations. It could be that she was drunk, and “consented” without consenting (and equally possible that he was ALSO in a drunk enough state not to be able to consent… which would mean two people, neither of who was in a condition to consent to sex, had sex anyways and she is merely the first one to go to the police). It could be that it was consensual, but she felt guilty (for religious reasons or anger reasons later) and went to the police, changing her story. It could be that this is one of those situations where sex contract advocates always say to get something in writing… though, again, “too drunk to consent” would also apply to a written contract I’m sure.

Again, are there situations where men get women drunk (or slip them drugs) merely to have sex with them? Yes. There are also men who do it to other men, women who do it to men, and women who do it to women. I don’t mean to minimize this as real rape; I do have to consider that in this particular case, the chance of getting a real and just verdict is a matter of severe difficulty and that the judge was dealing with a very difficult situation trying to balance the right to a “fair” trial against the usage of some very severe words, the societal impact of which has very much become a “guilty until proven innocent” problem, and as we mentioned above… bad cases make bad law.

On the one side, the right of the victim to make her accusation, in full exercise of her 1st-amendment right to free speech, and see her rights represented in the courtroom. On the other, the accused’s right to a fair trial. In the middle, a case of “he said, she said” in which the physical evidence means little-to-nothing and the line between “consent” on the part of either party comes down to the particular BAC levels of each individual… and since we lack a notarized breathalyzer test and signed sexual consent form, we probably will simply never know the 100% objective “truth” of what happened that night.

He said, she said… and a bad case winds up making bad law. I’m actually not surprised the Supremes took a look at this and said “oh heck no, we’re not getting anywhere near this mess.”

Category: Courthouse

Will posits the trouble of being middle management, beholden to company superiors and policy and yet also expected to interface with lower level employees and try to work out their concerns to keep the office running smoothly.

The contents of this post also tangentially relate to the Department I Don’t Work For.

I’m in a semi-middle management (in that I can reassign work to “level 1” and that more and more of my job responsibility is not taking care of every little thing myself, but seeing that whoever I assigned it to gets it done while I work on the Big Things) role now, and moving up shortly to what I will consider a fully middle-management position. My responsibilities have changed from “grunt work” to the occasional small thing (when we’re short staffed) with the rest of my time occupied by keeping abreast of policy issues, changes being done from above, and the ongoing changes in technology so that when people under my pay grade get confused, I can give them the info/training necessary to get their jobs done.

Part of this role, given that it’s at Southern Tech University, involves interfacing with the various faculty/staff and trying to meet their “needs” (or desires) while staying within policy. Only, since it is a government institution, we have the following policies we have to keep abreast of:
– Federal regulations (safety, security, privacy)
– State regulations (safety, security, privacy, information retention)
– Systemwide regulations
– College-level regulations
– Our own department mandate (we have a very specific charter on what we are allowed to spend money on, tied directly to the fact that it has to be either for student use or for educational in-classroom use, and other departments are always trying to find “loopholes” to get into our money).

Where this gets even hairier is that we are in the unenviable position of trying to enforce these regulations on tenured faculty. The thing to remember about tenured faculty is that they are (a) at least 80% completely technologically inept and (b) used to constantly getting their way from students and grad assistants, and even from the College itself if they happen to bring in a particularly large grant and can threaten to take it to another institution.

For many of our discussions, we are (for better or worse) stuck in between a fast-moving object (the faculty) and an immovable object (the various regulations). Faculty that are used to getting the rules ‘bent’ for them on things like the spending of grant money or the deadlines for various applications come to us wanting things changed “just for them.” Things like password reset deadlines or complexity requirements, alterations to the email server so that their Blackberry can function (Blackberry’s server-side software, alas, tries to auto-install a rather insecure MS-SQL setup and eats up a ton of resources), or more unusual requests that often involve a fundamental inability of the faculty member to understand the limitations of technology. Quite often, we are stuck in a situation where we are the bearer of bad news (“I’m sorry, but what you are asking for cannot be done under Regulation X.Y.Z”) or else we are caught between someone asking for something and forced to tell them no on the grounds that (a) it is technologically impossible, (b) it is cost-prohibitive, or (c) it would require the purchase of X and it does not fit within our purview to make that purchase for the intended use.

Some days, they even come back and try to make threats and trouble with us for bringing the response back about regulations.

I doubt most middle-management deals with that; I imagine that most of the time “or I quit” is about the extent of the major threat, unless employees have access to sensitive information or their loss would seriously impact a project in some way. I don’t know that it the IT-side question 100% matches the “middle management” question, but it is always interesting (and sometimes quite frustrating) being the go-between.

Category: Office, Server Room

Colosse County has a setup called “early voting”, designed to try to relieve pressure at the polls so that there aren’t 7-8 hour lines on election day. Basically, for ~2 weeks before the election, people are allowed to show up at any “early voting” location in the county (regardless of their normal voting precinct), present their voter ID, and the ballot for their registered precinct will come up for them. This allows people to vote on their lunch break, coming home from work, or anywhere else that fits their schedule.

Unfortunately, when the Colosse County Voters’ Registration Office screws up, it screws up royally. Supposedly there is a little-known “loophole” in Colosse law that states that if someone moves, but their voter registration isn’t moved with them, they can show up at the polls, sign a change-of-address form… and then vote (legally) on the old ballot despite not meeting the residency requirements. Unfortunately, whoever wrote the signage at the polling places did not know of this loophole, and put in very large letters dire warnings about trying to vote for a race in a location you do not currently live in.

The inept, incompetent CCVRO has not honored of any the change of addresses I have mailed them in the past five years and thus mailed my official voter registration card for this year to an address I used to live at five years ago, approximately 40 miles from my current home.

And so, when I went to vote today, I found that my right to vote in local elections had essentially been stolen by the incompetence of the CCRVO… and I have no legal recourse on the matter. I considered voting in the races specific to my old precinct, but I couldn’t (despite REALLY hating the guts of one of the congressional candidates) do that in good conscience; instead, I voted only in the races I was sure that (by my current residency) I was actually, legally and morally, allowed to vote in. Three libertarian votes, one Democrat vote and a vote for an unaligned county judge later… I was out, my vote essentially meaningless in everything except the judges’ race and the one Democrat vote.

And that is how the Colosse County Voter Registration Office stole from me my right to vote. My one bit of solace comes from the fact that my Democrat vote was a vote to fire (with reasonable hope of victory) the utterly incompetent CC Tax Assessor / Voter Registrar Peter Wageringdocket.


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Greetings from Stonebridge a fictitious city in a fictitious state located in a tri-state area in the interior Mid-Atlantic region. We're in western Queenland, which is really a state unto itself, and not to be confused with Queensland in Australia.

Nothing written on this site should be taken as strictly true, though if the author were making it all up rest assured the main character and his life would be a lot less unremarkable.

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