Sunday, June 19, 2011

Government and "High-Speed" Rail

In my last post, I mentioned that politicians keep spending vast quantities of money on things they don't understand. Commuter trains are yet another costly thing that politicians don't understand. It seems that one of their most recent obsessions is with "high-speed" rail projects. Even President Obama has been pushing these pork-barrel projects in the past couple years.

A few years ago the voters in a number of states were duped into approving the installation of high-speed rail systems between certain major cities. However, as costs spiral out of control in a bad economy, it is slowly coming to light that many of the assumptions made to justify the projects were unrealistic. The trains are likely to carry fewer passengers than was predicted for a lot more than was expected. For example, California's proposed new rail system has approximately doubled in price while the early ridership estimates used to determine whether or not the train could operate without additional subsidies are new believed to be too high.

According to this article, Iowa has a similar problem:
The Federal government is again offering money it does not have to entice a state (Iowa) to spend money that it does not have on something it does not need. The state of Iowa is being asked to provide funds to match federal funding for a so-called "high speed rail" line from Chicago to Iowa City. The new rail line would simply duplicate service that is already available. Luxury intercity bus service is provided between Iowa City and Chicago twice daily. The luxury buses are equipped with plugs for laptop computers and with free wireless high-speed internet service. Perhaps most surprisingly, the luxury buses make the trip faster than the so-called high speed rail line, at 3:50 hours. The trains would take more than an hour longer (5:00 hours). No one would be able to get to Chicago quicker than now. Only in America does anyone call a train that averages 45 miles per hour "high speed rail."
It gets even better:
The state would be required to provide $20 million in subsidies to buy trains and then more to operate the trains, making up the substantial difference between costs and passenger fares. This is despite a fare much higher than the bus fare, likely to be at least $50 (based upon current fares for similar distances). By contrast, the luxury bus service charges a fare of $18.00, and does not require a penny of taxpayer subsidy.
I have a coworker who insists that Keynesian economics works because he believes that government planners can more efficiently manage the economy than the free market. To my coworker I would ask: does this all too typical situation affect your faith in government planning at all? If it doesn't, please refrain from voting during the next election.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Electric Cars Not So Green After All

Electric cars: more total
emissions than standard cars?
I love it when self-righteous environmentalists are made to look like fools. I got my day's worth of schadenfraude from this article on the environmental impact of "green" electric cars:
An electric car owner would have to drive at least 129,000 km [80,157 miles] before producing a net saving in CO2. Many electric cars will not travel that far in their lifetime because they typically have a range of less than 145 km [90 miles] on a single charge and are unsuitable for long trips. Even those driven 160,000 km [99,419 miles] would save only about a tonne [1.1 tons] of CO2 over their lifetimes.
As pretty much any engineer who has even a rudimentary understanding of the kind of batteries used in electric cars could tell you, a lot of energy goes into making those batteries. Thus:
... a mid-size electric car would produce 23.1 tonnes [25.5 tons] of CO2 over its lifetime, compared with 24 tonnes [26.4 tons] for a similar petrol car. Emissions from manufacturing electric cars are at least 50 per cent higher because batteries are made from materials such as lithium, copper and refined silicon, which require much energy to be processed.
Just as it does with nearly every other pie-in-the-sky environmental fad, the US Government is heavily subsiding electric cars such as the Chevy Volt. Politicians claim that they're doing this for environmental reasons, although I'm sure auto industry lobbyists and the United Auto Worker's Union also have a lot to do with it. Either way, this study shows us that our supposed representatives are again spending our money/our children's money on something they don't understand and that doesn't live up to its promises once you actually look into the messy details and unintended consequences.

I'm reminded of then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2004 State of the State address that encouraged Californians to switch to hydrogen-fueled cars. Why not, asks the politician, since hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and it burns cleanly (the end result is water vapor)? Of course, a basic understanding of chemistry would tell you that the reactivity of hydrogen ensures that it's not found in an elemental state on Earth and that it therefore must be separated from whatever other element(s) it's attached to. This process usually requires a significant amount of energy. In addition, hydrogen is difficult to transport or store.

Whether the car is electrical or hydrogen powered, energy must be consumed to either charge the car or to create its fuel. Since about 68% of US electricity is produced by burning fossil fuels (with coal accounting for much of it), these alternative fuel vehicles are likely to actually increase total emissions since more "dirty" electricity would need to be produced to run "clean" cars. And, thanks to the second law of thermodynamics, the more energy conversions you introduce, the more inefficient your total process becomes. There are a number of conversion processes needed to run an electric car, each of them introducing significant inefficiencies; e.g., burning coal to heat steam, using steam to spin a generator, spinning a generator to produce electricity, using electricity to charge a battery, and using a battery to run a car's electric motor. In short, a huge amount of energy has to be produced at the beginning of the process just to provide the relatively small amount of useful energy needed to operate the car.

I think one of the best arguments for limited government is the fact that politicians regularly waste huge sums of money and force burdensome regulations or mandates on us based on insufficient or incorrect information. Should we really give so much power to a small group of elite ignoramuses?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Allergy Testing

Last week I went to the allergist, having been given a referral by my personal physician. I was there for a wonderful three hours, during which I was poked with needles and given injections to determine what I might be allergic to.

They started with the so-called "scratch test". This is a misnomer since I wasn't scratched; they pricked my back with 85 short needles that aren't long enough to cause bleeding, but are certainly long enough to hurt. Each needle was coated in a different common allergen. About 15 minutes after exposing me to the allergens, the physician's assistant came back to check on the results. Reactions were marked by itchy, swollen blotches and were given a rating from 1+ (mild reaction) to 4+ (very severe reaction) based on the size and appearance of the blotch.

Since people don't always respond to this type of test, I was retested on several allergens that didn't cause a reaction during the first test. This time they injected larger doses of the allergen under the skin of my upper arm with short hypodermic needles. This series of tests involved 26 allergens. It's hard to say whether the first or the second series of tests was more enjoyable.

Of the allergens that I was tested with, I responded to six of them. I had a 1+ reaction to alfalfa (something I'm never around), a 1+ with Utah Juniper (one of the most common trees in the area), and a 1+ with dog dander. I got a 3+ (severe reaction) with tobacco (good thing I don't smoke) as well as with household dust (uh oh). Finally, I had a 4+ reaction to cat dander.

I knew I had problems with cats since being in a room where a cat has been (it doesn't even need to be in the room at the same time) causes such a severe reaction that I need to take an inhaler. I also knew that I had problems with dust, although I didn't know that it would be considered severe. Unfortunately, our home is filled with dust collecting surfaces (e.g., dozens of Star Wars Lego sets, seven overflowing floor-to-ceiling bookcases, various flat surfaces) and the mere act of trying to clean them raises a cloud that leaves me wheezing.

Oddly enough, I don't think I know a single nerd that doesn't have at least a few significant allergies.

Monday, June 6, 2011

More Warhammer 40,000

The Dreadknight
On Friday night my friend (for brevity I'll simply call him "B.") and I played two games of 40K. For the first game B. fielded his brand new and still unpainted Grey Knights army. The Grey Knights are a specialized (and heavily armed) Space Marine chapter. His enormous "Dreadknight" killed four of my Raven Guard Space Marines in his first turn. A horrendous series of dice rolls utterly doomed my army, although at one point I came very close to killing the Dreadknight with a partially crippled tank. Next weekend I hope to do better against that particular army.

Space Marines vs. Space Marines

Captain Shrike didn't do
much for me this time
In the second game my marines faced off against a Tyranid swarm (a huge army of figures with relatively low point values) with significantly better results. B. did give me some general advice and allowed a do-over when I made a serious tactical error with Captain Shrike (a high value character who didn't end up doing a whole lot anyway), but I think my victory was mostly fair. Although I believe B. is coaching me mostly because he's a nice guy, I also think that he's motivated to train me into being a more challenging opponent. As I mentioned before, he hasn't really had anyone to play against in several years.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Quality Gloves and Psychological Liberation

Yesterday I gave our garage a long-overdue Spring cleaning. Although I couldn't stand the mess that it had become, I had been reluctant to clean it because my hands would get dirty. I've long had a problem with getting my hands dirty, which apparently goes back to before I was in kindergarten. I don't have a Howard Hughes-esque fear of germs; it's more of a severe discomfort with having grit, grease, oil, or dust on my hands. And the discomfort isn't just caused by the fact that there's grime on my hands; it's also caused by a fear of making clean surfaces or objects dirty with whatever is on me.

Unlike those with OCD, I don't have the need for ritualistic hand washing. Instead, I have the need for general cleanliness that is characteristic of OCPD (OCPD is very often confused with OCD). For that reason, in addition to when normal people would wash their hands, I wash mine after eating, after handling any sort of food, when I come in the house after having been outdoors (even if I didn't really touch anything), after coming into contact with dirty or gritty surfaces, or whenever I simply feel like my hands need washing (usually once an hour). Unfortunately, the same compulsion that makes me avoid getting dirty also drives me to want to clean and organize things.

Now that's more like it
Well, last year my company put a group of us into a one day NASCAR-themed training program in which we were trained to perform a pit crew's job on a race car (although I don't care for NASCAR, the training was actually entertaining and surprisingly applicable to our company). Of course the idea of even doing that type of work made me very uncomfortable until I found out that they were going to put us in pit crew jumpsuits and give us gloves. The Mechanix Wear brand gloves we used were designed for pit crews, so they protect your hands while still allowing you a good sense of touch. Since they were ours to keep after the training, I took them home and put them in my toolbox. When I finally decided to clean out the garage this weekend, I pulled on the gloves and went to work.

The effect of the gloves was liberating. Despite insect carcasses, dust, dirt, moldy leaves, grass clippings, cobwebs, etc., I was able to do all the cleaning I needed without the usual psychological issues. And, unlike gardening or standard work gloves, the mechanic's gloves gave me plenty of dexterity for sweeping, picking up small rocks, and even for gathering scraps of paper off the floor. At the same time, they protected my hands while I was breaking up boxes with a utility knife. For anyone who is interested in these types of gloves, you can buy them on Amazon.

I often wish it were socially acceptable to wear gloves all the time.


Related Posts with Thumbnails