Archive for December, 2010

“Crossover” — dumbest vehicle ever?

Posted in Cars on December 16, 2010 by max

The car makers have been pushing this market segment for a couple of years now, and I am still bewildered that anyone actually buys into it. Filtering out the manufacturers’ marketing-speak, the term “crossover” or “crossover SUV” appears to refer to a vehicle with the bulk of an SUV, but with the stylish lines (allegedly) of a sports coupe or sedan. They are generally built on a sedan platform (as opposed to being based on a truck), and are equipped with all wheel drive. Someone seems to think that this combines the best features of both categories; my assessment is quite the opposite.

Taken as an SUV, we find that the raked windshield, extreme tumblehome, and sloped rear glass (or “fastback”) severely constrain the interior space. Combined with the large wheel wells  (for the oversized wheels and tires), the interior accommodations are much more cramped than one would expect for a vehicle with these outside dimensions; while the sedan-based suspension makes it totally unsuitable for off-road use.

Considered as a sedan, we have a package that is much taller and heavier than necessary for the number of occupants it can carry, with the consequences of grossly inferior fuel economy, poor handling, and reduced performance (or alternately, a massive engine — see: fuel economy). Not to mention the inconveniences of high stepover and liftover, poor rear vision, difficulty of parking (necessitating gimmicks like sonar, rear-view video, and robotic auto-parking), and complete absence of a trunk.

Either way, innocent onlookers are affronted by the sight of a desperately over-styled, malproportioned, clumsy, bulky mashup of a vehicle.

Please stop this madness.

Bette Noir

Posted in Cats on December 8, 2010 by max
black cat

Our mama cat. This is more than most people will ever see of her.

Obligatory cat content.

Strange places in my head

Posted in Psychology on December 6, 2010 by max

I had an eerily vivid and compelling dream last night, that left me feeling very discombobulated when I awoke. In this dream I was somehow involved with a group of unremarkable people, all of them strangers to me,and all of whom who shared a belief in parallel universes. These enthusiasts (who reminded me of the sort of people who might believe in dowsing or the less spectacular types of paranormal manifestations) were quietly convinced that they had information about the next “conjunction” — the time and place when the universes would align in such a way that travel to alternative realities would become possible. They had managed to rent some vacant office space at this location, at which we were meeting to plan for this event. My attitude toward this process was rather peculiar — instead of my usual skepticism, I had more of detached, wait-and-see reaction.

As the projected time grew closer, the members spent more and more time hanging around in this room. One fellow, who I thought of as “Bob” (about my age, but looked older, with thinning, receding hair) announced he was going to start sleeping in a cot in the space, so as not to miss the conjunction (apparently the timing was a little uncertain). I pointed out that this might not be safe: “What if you transition into the middle of a freeway?” “Oh yeah,” he replied, “the floor level might be different, too. Maybe you should duct tape me to the wall? On the diagonal, of course.” [The explanation for this last remark is that these folks had a theory (or maybe it was just a metaphor) that one only had to find the line that was diagonal to the four orthogonals of normal space-time, in order to “slip through the crack” into an alternate universe.]

“Um, Bob, the wall probably won’t be there, either.”

“Yeah, you’re right. I guess I’m getting rattled.”

Eventually all of the members were crowded into this office, many of them armed with props. These consisted of right triangles cut out of foamboard or plexiglass that they held in either hand, apparently to help them “find the diagonal” (I  thought this was pretty loony, myself). One younger guy was brandishing a pair of very shiny knives, with peculiarly angled blades. Suddenly, a woman that I did not recall having seen before spoke up in an authoritative voice: “The conjunction is drifting. We need to go outside, now.” So we all followed her out of the building and into the street.

One the other side of the street was a suburban neighborhood; actually, it was more like one of those “new urbanist” developments. The houses were obviously new, but in various traditional styles, and there were sidewalks and young street trees, all the same species, perfectly evenly spaced. It occurred to me that this parade of misfits was going to look very odd in this context, and I started looking around, when I realized that a lot of other people had joined us (including my wife). Some of these people seemed to know what they were doing — they hustled us along in a certain direction. All of a sudden I had this weird feeling — it was as if I had crossed my eyes and was seeing double images of the view down the street, superimposed but not correctly aligned. Then the view got blurry, and everything seemed to dissolve. I saw a women nearby drop one of her triangles. It seemed to fall a long long way, then she started falling after it. Her companion released hold of both of her props and fell away, too. It was the last I saw of them. I grasped my wife’s hand.

The next thing I knew, a crowd of us were standing in a wide, dimly-it but otherwise perfectly normal corridor, facing a metal door. The door opened with a push, and we descended a short flight of steps into a large space that looked like the intersection of two tunnels, with high ceilings, curved stainless steel walls, and fluorescent lighting. A fair number of people were briskly moving through the tunnels. It reminded me of an urban subway station — it could have been Barcelona. But on the walls above the tunnel entrances, where one would expect to see signs, were unintelligible hieroglyphs. The people looked normal, but their clothes seemed a trifle off — a little too tailored, with unusual materials. I began to feel a growing sense of panic. After all, this was the equivalent of being instantly transported to, say, Tokyo, with no guidebook, no maps, no knowledge of the language (and no hope of an interpreter!), no luggage, and no money — and not even an inkling whether this was a benevolent democracy or a xenophobic police state.

I felt an urgent need to find out if we could get back. Pulling my wife along, I retraced our path up the stairs, out the corridor, until we found ourselves back on the suburban street. Taking a deep breath, we then decided to take one more peek at this strange new world.

This time, on entering the “subway station”, I bumped into a man who seemed to be reading a large sheet of paper, like a newspaper, but covered in the hieroglyphs. Without saying a word, he peeled off a long strip of the paper and handed it to me. I stared at the mysterious scrawls, until suddenly a word seemed to pop out at me. I looked for it, but it just as instantly disappeared. Then, slowly, the scrawls changed into recognizable words and phrases, as if the knowledge of their meaning had been transferred directly to my brain. Then I could see that the broadsheet was not a newspaper, it was more like a printer’s font book, with the same short paragraph repeated over and over in different styles of characters. While this was occurring, I overheard what I assumed was the same man speaking quietly to some one else behind me, “…this alphabet was developed by a culture that arose in the rain forests…”

Looking around, I found I could now read the signs above the tunnels. I was filled with a sense of elation, even joy. I was certain that we were not the first travelers that had come into this place, but I was glad that we had. I felt a strong sense of belonging, and I think… I think… I had decided to stay. Then I woke up.

• • •

Apologies to my friend and fellow blogger Scott for copying his shtick. He has posted fantastic dream stories on his site Backstage Scene. Here’s a link.

It’s not about marriage

Posted in Society on December 4, 2010 by max

I’m speaking, of course, about the “gay marriage” issue currently in front of the 9th Circuit. The proponents of California’s Proposition 8 would have us think that the issue is about the “sanctity of marriage”, procreation, and child-rearing. This is nonsense, legally speaking. The state has no interest in defining what is or is not “sacred.” The real issue here is equal rights.

As currently implemented, the state-sanctioned concept of legal marriage (we are not talking about sacraments here) conveys certain special rights; including tax breaks, rights of visitation, inheritance, and child custody. The denial of these rights to couples based solely on their gender is clearly unconstitutional. It’s really as simple as that. All the moaning about “traditional concepts” and “welfare of the children” is a smokescreen, that one, in many cases, suspects of covering up plain old bigotry.

It may be easier to understand the essential point if we remove all the loaded language. Let’s try it this way: If the state is going to sponsor a “special status”, and allow persons to qualify for this status on a voluntary basis, then the state needs to be non-discriminatory in how it grants this status.

On the other side of the coin, my argument implies that if the state eliminated all the special “perks” associated with a marriage license, then there would no longer be a legal basis for challenging the discrimination against same-sex couples. I’m not sure if that is true — there may be another type of argument based on the public recognition aspect — but I am not prepared to discuss that at this time. In any case, I don’t think this circumstance is likely to arise.

I suppose my attitude may be disappointing to those who are focused on the romantic and religious aspects of marriage, same-sex or otherwise; but in my opinion, these have nothing to do with the state. People who feel a need to have the state validate the “sanctity” of their vows are already over the line on the whole church/state separation question. But that’s a rant for another day…

Watching the Watchmen

Posted in Media on December 3, 2010 by max

We hear plenty of chatter about how the mass media is biased, one way or another. But I think the main problem is that the media just plain isn’t doing its job. Whether out of laziness, time pressure, or low staffing levels due to cost-cutting, it seems that for most purposes, news outlets function purely as repeaters of stories generated and written by primary sources, which they promote and distribute without any kind of analysis or even verification.

Example: the main Republican talking point regarding the issue of extending the Bush tax cuts is that eliminating the tax break for incomes over $250,000 would “hurt small business.” This meme is repeated unquestioned. But if you look at it for a second, you realize it’s nonsense. Individuals receiving income of a quarter-million dollars per annum are not what the average American thinks of as a “small businessperson”.

When you say “small business”, people think of the local dry cleaner, or Fro Yo franchise, or muffler shop. And these are the types of small business that are suffering in this economy. But you and I both know that the proprietor of Speedy’s Muffler Service is not in a position to pay himself 250 grand. And if he was, he could still avoid a “tax increase” by just diverting more of his profits back into the business.

The people who are really making mid-six-figure incomes are corporate executives, consultants, lawyers, and other specialist professionals. Frankly, if they are taking home that much, they don’t need tax relief in my book. They can talk to me after selling off the second home or the spare Escalade.

So, this Republican talking point is sheer bull-puckey (one of many, of course). But the only “media entity” to call them on it is The Daily Show.

Traitor to the planet!

Posted in Environment on December 2, 2010 by max

That sounds pretty melodramatic, but I think it’s actually a pretty good description of Bjorn Lomborg. If you haven’t been paying attention, that’s the fellow responsible for the current feature film “Cool It”, which purports to be a scientific rebuttal to Al Gore’s allegedly overstated “An Inconvenient Truth”. This new film has been getting reviewed along the lines of “OK, that’s seems reasonable, or at least it’s a plausible alternative viewpoint.” I’m here to say, emphatically, “No!”

Without quibbling about details (including whether I have I seen the film or read his book), I am going to summarize his position on the issue as follows: Yes, there is scientific evidence for human-caused climate change. But it’s not as bad as this Gore fellow makes out. In fact, there’s no reason to panic, or even to change anything at all. Let’s just see how this thing plays out. Maybe it will be a blessing in disguise. At any rate, human technology can deal with it when the time comes.

Sound reasonable? That’s what he’s counting on. In fact, what he is doing is providing a fig leaf of “scientific” skepticism (as opposed to  clearly anti-scientific denial), that in effect entirely justifies the policies of the most fervent climate change deniers (you know who they are — oil company execs, coal state senators, Republican congressmen). Basically, he is leveraging whatever scientific credibility he might have in order to become the darling of the status quo. There are always those who are willing to sell out their professional integrity for fame, wealth, or power, and this might be merely a particularly egregious example, except for the fact that the stakes are so high, and the consequences so serious.

Look at it this way: suppose Lomborg is right, but we ignore him, and do everything we can to reduce carbon emissions. We wind up (eventually, hopefully) with a carbon-neutral economy, and we’re set for the next few centuries, at the cost of some corporate profits in the short term (and those mostly associated with old-line energy companies; while at the same time, entrepeneurial alternative energy companies are booming). No big harm done, and the petroleum economy was already on its way out (see: peak oil).

Now suppose we listen to him, but it turns out Al Gore was right (or even half right). We’re totally f**ked. Crops fail. Millions are displaced by rising sea levels. Taxes go through the roof to pay for massive infrastructure projects (seawalls, dams, macroengineering mitigation schemes). The economy collapses as oil runs out. Will Lomborg (or James Inhofe) step up and take responsibility for this mess? Ha.

One more point I would like to make, that I think is generally overlooked in this discussion: it isn’t all about us humans. As a species, we have the capability to mitigate the effects of climate — we have been doing it since the last ice age, and it is what has enabled us to spread out across the planet like so many ADD cockroaches. The effects of climate change are already being felt by other denizens of this planet; among the more significantly affected are corals, conifers, and amphibians. The Lomborgs of this world are apparently unconcerned about the fate of the odd cuttlefish or wolverine — after all, that can’t possibly affect their comfortable urban lifestyles. But of course, they are entirely missing the big picture.

Human civilization is made possible by “free” ecosystem services, providing both the water we drink and the air we breathe (among other things). The ecosystems that provide these services (upland forests, rain forests, oceanic plankton populations, to name a few) are not immutable or permanent; they have changed many times over the long history of the planet. But here’s the catch: the global human population is adapted to the specific conditions that have existed over the last twenty thousand years or so, and civilized humanity to an even more recent set of conditions. In the long term, if prairies become deserts, and tundra becomes prairie, species will migrate and adapt. But in the span of a human lifetime, this kind of change would be enormously disruptive, both for humans and wildlife. It’s not like you could just uproot the entire agricultural infrastructure of the American great plains and teleport it to the Yukon. And vegetation cannot migrate tens of miles per year to track a changing climate.

The mere change from winter snowstorms to winter rains in the Sierra Nevada would severely impact the carrying capacity of the state of California. Massive winter flooding would displace millions; summer droughts would devastate agriculture and cause water rationing in the cities. A similar change in the Himalayas would be even more catastrophic, affecting billions of people. How would Lomborg propose to “mitigate” disruption on this scale? The fact is, he is prepared to accept billions of starving Asians in the near future, in order to protect his lifestyle over the next ten or twenty years (and good luck with that).

In other words, he’s a total douchebag.