Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Musings on Health Care Reform

I have been doing a lot of reading on the Health Care Reform Bill and the different options on the table.  Some of the things I've read don't make a whole lot of sense to me logically, fiscally, or even socially.  So I thought I would solicit comments from others on a few points that I've been pondering.

1.  Taxing employer provided health care benefits.

From what I'm reading there are two options on the table:  Taxing all employer provided health care benefits or taxing those health care benefits that are over some average cost.  The number I see provided for statistical purposes is something like $13,000.  That number is what I don't understand.  Looking at what I pay for insurance (my cost and employers cost) it's about one-quarter that amount.  Are we to assume that the $13,000 figure used for the average health care plan includes other family members?  If so, taxing people with more expensive plans (presumably) with families doesn't make a lot of sense.  In fact it flies in the face of existing tax code that provides a deduction for having children and/or dependents.

On the other hand, if we tax all plans it flies in the face of our progressive tax system and places a regressive tax on lower and middle incomes.  You might ask how.  Well, the difference in the cost of the health care plans for low income and the wealthy do not differ that much (presuming they don't have one of those "Cadillac" plans).  Therefore, if the the average cost of the plan is $13,000, that might raise a lower or middle income family's tax burden by 20 or 30% while that increase in taxable income is a much smaller fraction of a wealthy person's AGI.

2.  The idea of a policy of mandatory health insurance

We are all familiar with forms of mandatory insurance.  If you buy a house and have a mortgage, you are required to have fire insurance.  If you drive a car, you are required to have liability insurance.  However, legislators are pondering including a requirement for every person to have insurance.  That is, you must pay to live (beyond food and clothing).  You can choose to own a house or not, and mortgage it or not.  You can also choose to drive a car or not.  This goes hand in hand with another concept...

3.  Not allowing insurance companies to discriminate over preexisting conditions

This policy is useless unless #2 is enforced.  If not, then why would ANYONE buy insurance before they got sick?  If an insurance company can't refuse someone coverage because they are already sick, then once someone got sick, they could buy insurance, and the insurance company would have to pay.  If that happened enough, it would bankrupt any system, public or private.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Civility or Civic Duty

Last week the country looked on as President Obama addressed a Joint Session of Congress about Health Care reform in the United States.  During that address a representative from South Carolina, Joe Wilson shouted out "You Lie!" immediately following a statement by the President which claimed the reforms that he has proposed would not cover illegal aliens.

Whether or not the claim by the President is true is another matter altogether.  A matter that to be decided would require a deeper understanding of every bill and modification to said bills. It might even require the ability to read the minds of each legistater in Washington.  There has been some discussion that while not specifically included in the bill, provisions to enforce this claim (policing or auditing of health care spending to ensure no illegal aliens get benefits) have been struck down by other committees in the House.  The devil is always in the details.

All that said, is the outburst of Rep. Joe Wilson necessarily wrong?  Was it uncivil?  Was it a violation of House rules?  There have been several editorials written, citing even more recent events such as Kanye West's interruption of Taylor Swift's award at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards and Serena Williams lashing out at a line judge at the US Open.  Brad Hirschfield wrote in the Washington Post today:

Over the past seven days, we have been treated to obnoxious outbursts by leading figures not only in politics, but in sports and pop culture as well. In addition to the heckle heard round the world issued by Rep. Wilson, there was the verbal attack launched by Serena Williams against a line judge at the U.S. Open, and the boorish behavior displayed by rapper and music producer Kanye West when he grabbed the microphone from award winner Taylor Swift at MTV's Video Music Awards.

All of these stories are rooted in the same basic fact: speakers who think it's all about them. And if it isn't about them, they seem to think it must be about some other individual who is even more important than they are. Continued Here

If people think Wilson's speaking out was about himself, or President Obama, they are delerious.  Wilson's "heckle" was about the people of South Caroline he represents.  It's about what he knows to be true and what he heard the most powerful man in the world say on national televistion in front of a Joint Session of Congress.  It was about Civic Duty, standing up for truth, and standing up for what is right.

Maureen Dowd of the New York Times wrote the following:

When House Democrats, and a handful of Republicans, reprimanded the congressman on Tuesday evening for refusing to apologize to his colleagues for breaking the rules, it was quite a wonderful way to improve America.

It was a rare triumph for civility in a country that seems to have lost all sense of it — from music arenas to tennis courts to political gatherings to hallowed halls — and a ratification of an institution that has relied on strict codes of conduct for two centuries to prevent a breakdown of order.
Continued here.

One must wonder what Ms. Dowd would write about the members of the Boston Tea Party?  The authors of The Declaration of Independence?  Were those acts of civility?  Or Civic Duty?  Would it have been better for Mr. Wilson to write his comment "You Lie!" down on a peice of scroll, put it in an evelope, affix a wax seal and deliver it to the White House personally?  What was wrong about what he said exactly?  Was it the fact that it was an outburst?  Or was it that he essentially called the President a lair?

Questioning authority should never be compared to threatening a Line Judge at the US Open or interrupting some starlets award acceptance speech. To do so is laughable, and inexcuseable.  Mr. Wilson knows the stakes.  He may or may not get re-elected for what he did.  The people of South Carolina can decide that.  Joe Wilson did what he thought was right out of a compulsion of Civic Duty...  A compulsion that the rest of this country lacks in great numbers.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Box Truck

I like this truck because it gets our gear to the show every weekend. I dislike it because it's a money pit.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Hybrid Automobile Efficiency and the Truth about MPG

Recently there have been a few product announcements for plug-in hybrid drive automobiles. These announcements have contained mythical claims for very high "fuel economy." Please do not be fooled.

General Motors announced that their new Chevy Volt would acheive a fuel efficiency of something to the tune of 230 miles per gallon. Bull-caca. Chevy based this on data that says 8 out of 10 people typically commute 40 miles a day or less and that the Volt can go 40 miles on a full charge until it needs to use gasoline. Additionally they claimed that the Volt could be charged daily for about 41 cents a day. A few days later, Nissan annouced that their new all electric vehicle would get 367 MPG... It doesn't even use gasoline. Let's break down the numbers.

While exact specifications are not available yet, the Volt which is a series hybrid and will probably incorporate regenerative braking like the Prius and other electric or hybrid vehicles. Regenerative braking is the primary reason as to why hybrid drive vehicles are more efficient (the other reason being that electric motors are more efficient than internal combustion engines (ICE) like a typical gasoline motor).

Numbers Game
The MPG rating for the Volt is going to be largely variable depending on how you look at the use of the vehicle. Compared to the Toyota Prius which has a curb weight of 3042 and EPA rating of 51/48 MPG (city/hwy), the Volt at an estimated 3500 lbs will probably be sligtly worse if you never plugged it in at home. Let's assume an efficiency 45/43 MPG.

So how did GM come up with 230 MPG?!!? Well, assuming a driving schedule of less than 40 miles a day, the Volt would never use any fuel and would have infinite MPG. That said, if one drives 40 miles on a full charge, and then drove an additional 10 highway miles on gasoline, you would have used 0.22 gallons of fuel, over a total of 50 miles and this results in 227 MPG. If you bump that up to driving an additional 20 miles (60 miles total) your fuel efficiency will drop to 135 MPG. If you drove an additional 100 miles (140miles total) it drops further to 63 MPG. If you ran the tank dry (assuming a 12 gallon tank) you are left with about 48 MPG.

So as you can see, you can work those numbers any way you want really to come up with some more realistic numbers, but more likely some fanciful ones that will be used in advertisements and by car dealers to get you hook line an sinker.

Now, how about the claim that you can charge the vehicle for about 41 cents a day? I think it's bunk as well. A gallon of gasoline contains about 33 Kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy. To give you an idea of how much energy that is, your typical clothes dryer uses about 6000 Watts or 6 kW when it's in use. The dryer runs for about 45 minutes or so to dry a typical load of laundry. Therefore it uses about 4.5 kWh of energy.

A current generation gasoline powered car is about 25% efficient with respect to the energy contained in the fuel, gasoline. Electric motors have efficiencies in the 80 to 90% range, but let's assume a safe 85% efficiency for the battery and electric motor in the Volt. That means that the Volt can go about 3.4 times further on the same energy in a gallon of gasoline than a car actually fueled by gasoline. Another way of looking at it is that to go the same distance, the Volt would only need about 30% of the energy of the gasoline powered car. So, with Chevy's stated 40MPG range on a full charge, and the claim that 8 out of 10 people only drive 40 miles, lets's see how that works out. For a standard 30 MPG car to go 40 miles it would use 1.33 gallons of gas or 44 kWh. The Volt would use 30% of that for the first 40 miles (in purely electric mode), or 13.2 kWh. At current electric utility prices of 9-10 cents per kWh, the Volt would cost between $1.20 and a $1.30 to recharge. Three times the cost of what Chevy claims.

The moral of the story folks is of course, don't believe everything you hear. The Volt, while efficient and maybe a step in the right direction is far from 230MPG. In some following articles I'll cover why some reasons why electric cars are going to suck in the winters of the North Eastern U.S. and why anything over about 120 MPG is pretty much impossible to achieve.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

BlackBerry, Crack, Addiction

So I recently gave up my Windows Mobile based phone for a BlackBerry Tour from Verizon. I get new phones cause I'm a gadget addict. There is no disdain on my part for WinMo except for two key areas. Speed and stability.

Microsoft has demonstrated that it can build slimmed down, speedy, yet robust OSes. Windows 7 is proof positive these guys are the best at what they do. That said, the memory leaks and quirkiness that plagued my WinMo powered Samsung i760 got the best of me... and when finally faced with the option of a 3G BlackBerry with a real keyboard on Verizon, I had to take a look. I've fiddled with the Storm before, a nice effort on RIM's part but just not "there" yet. Maybe BB OS 5.0 or the Storm2 will better their touchscreen offerings, but for now, the non-touch enabled, real keyboard BlackBerries are the king of the hill when it comes to down and dirty messaging, email, and most of all phone duties.

I really have to say, I loved, loved, loved the form factor of the Samsung i760. It had a slide out WIDE qwetry keypad, touch screen, FULL 0-9,#,* keypad, hard buttons for WinMo functions. This is the form factor that all phones should be judged by. Sure it was on the thick side, but it had it all. If I could get some sort of Android release for that phone I would probably switch back in a minute. Or maybe, just maybe, Microsoft will eventually get WinMo up and running with the best of them.

There is a lot of rumour about the future of WinMo and what MS might do in the coming months with the release of Windows 7, the Zune HD, and the mystery product code named "pink." Maybe they have a few cards up their sleeve. That said, the mystery is just too much for me so I turned to the current king of the smart phone world. The BlackBerry.

The BlackBerry Tour impressed me from the start. When you hold a RIM device you really get the feeling that someone there that designs their phones just knows how much of a pain it is to use just about every other phone out there. The BB interface is just, well done. They have thought through the usability and flexibility that people want in a device like this. I have always been a command line, keyboard shortcut, leave the mouse in the box type of computer user. Well, there are keyboard shortcuts for just about everything on the BlackBerry. RTFM. It's great.

iPhone fan boys can keep their comments to themselves. I've used an iPhone. Several times. Get a set of hands as big as mine and try to type on that infernal touch screen. You will go nuts trying to type out the simplest of messages. And yeah, who cares if their are a few typos in a text message. But if you are carrying out any kind of business on the phone, you don't want to present yourself as illiterate. Maybe there is a slow acceptance in society for piss poor spelling and words spelled with numbers... but that doesn't fly in an email sent by me.

BlackBerry is giving users the best of both worlds in many cases, and a choice in places it can't. The best of both worlds comes in that you can download apps for the BB on your own, or use the BlackBerry App World. You aren't locked into a store controlled by a gatekeeper. They aren't making their technology exclusive to any one carrier. They have phones on every major wireless provider in the US (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and I guess T-Mobile if you think they are major). They offer an enterprise solution for companies, using the BlackBerry Enterprise Services or the ability for anyone to use their phones with BlackBerry Internet Services. Additionally, they have a touchscreen phone and phones with qwerty keyboards.

I think RIM is doing it right. Apple just wants everyone to drink their red kool-aid and live with one solution for all.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

SCREW YOU, Apple. SCREW YOU!!! (Thoughts on Apple WWDC 2009 and Other Rantings)

Ok, It has been a while since I have had a posted anything. If you missed me, I'm terribly sorry.

So, all you Apple fanboys, are you finished drooling over their wares? The keynote revealed several things, some of which were rumored to be true before, and some that were a surprise. In the end, I call it nothing special. We already knew about the iPhone 3.0 OS and it's features. The new iPhone 3G(S) adds voice activation (hello, Apple, where have you been the last 3 years??), a better camera, video (whoop de do) and improved performance. Of all the things they added to the 3G(S) the better autofocusing camera is the ONLY one that peaked my interest.

Now, let's talk about how you fanboys got SCREWED. First, AT&T won't have MMS ready for the iPhone until like this Fall or something. Additionally, existing iPhone owners get to pay STEEP fees to upgrade to the 3G(S). Up to $699 for the 32GB model. Tethering? Pfft its still a pipe dream IMO. Granted, most of the problems are with AT&T. But hey, Apple chose who to let sleep in it's bed. There are some positives to havin exclusivity... well folks, these are the negatives. Everyone who knows who I am, knows of my hatred of AT&T. Probably the worst customer experience I've ever had over the 1.5 years I was with them.

On to the new MacBooks. Yay, built in batteries. Wow, Apple way to go. Now you've given even more hardware the ability to become a useless brick once the battery becomes inoperable. They claim 5 years of life and 100 charge cycles. Seeing as I recharge my current laptop at least once a day, That is about 2.5 years of charge cycles. Even if it did last as long as claimed, Apple is basically telling customers, "after 5 years, your laptop is junk."

To compare, and this is not to stir up a Mac vs. PC debate, I bought a mid-level desktop PC 6 years ago with an Athlon64. With only a upgrade to 2GB of RAM, that PC can run Windows Vista and Windows 7 RC, no problem. I plan on turning that machine into a file/media server once I buy a new laptop. How's that for being green? The point here is that PCs, Macs, computing equipment should not be thrown away every 3-5 years.

Oh and a $29 OS X upgrade... If MacOS 10.5 was so good, why does it need an upgrade? If it really does need an upgrade, then it shouldn't cost much.

Now, for some other rantings. I recently ordered a new Studio XPS 16 laptop from Dell. This thing is sweet: 1920x1080 16" LED backlit screen, Slot load Bluray drive, 2.53GHz Core2 Duo, 4GB RAM, 320GB HDD, and a backlit keyboard. The only problem is, the order has been delayed not once, but TWICE. Dell now "guarantees" they will have the laptop to me by the new date. Contrast: Apple annouced a new line of unibody MacBook Pro laptops yesterday and they can supposedly have it to me in 48 hours. Bravo Apple, except for the fact that their 15.4 inch displays are STILL only 1440x900. Additionally, NO option is available for Bluray. Oh and it requires a stupid adapter to go from DisplayPort to HDMI. Not that I'd need it... I can't play Bluray discs in it! For all that, I get to pay an extra $200 ($300 if I want the hard drive to be the same size). But hey, drink the koolaid, and worship their wares. A sucker is born every minute I suppose.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Bump this.

Today as I was driving home from the grocery store I passed a gas station. As I was sitting at the traffic light waiting for my turn to proceed, I noticed two older gentlemen having a conversation. One in his car, one standing outside the car, leaning on the door. It looked like a friendly conversation between two old friends.

To my horror, as the conversation seemed to end, the two men gave each other a fist bump.

Let me inform everyone of something... The fist bump is not cool. It seems like it's cool, but it is in fact the opposite of cool. If you are under the age of 18 it is cool when you first learn of it. However, if you continue to use it for more than six months, you are a loser. If you are over the age of 50 and use it at all, please stop.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Changing of the Guard.

I sit here and write this as I gaze upon my LCD TV in all it's high definition goodness, watching colorful, hopeful, and impressive views that our digital television infrastructure brings us. The scenes of hope and bright colors; red, white, and blue, are of the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States of America, Barack Obama.

These scenes take place in our capital city of Washington D.C., the design of which intends to strike awe and respect into the hearts and minds of the visitors that tread upon it's marble, concrete, and stone. And awe, it does strike. I have visited our capital more than once, but 10 times that number would not suffice to instill the importance in history this nation holds, the mark upon time the United States has etched, nor the course of events that led to the creation of this free republic. Among these scenes, men who have wielded the power of this nation, three former presidents stood and greeted one another in the halls of our Capitol building while outside, stood as many as two million fellow Americans. A citizens of a country whose ideals have been the real shot heard round the world.

Today, a man was inaugurated. A man. A free man, and a member of this republic. Beyond the controversy, the campaigning, and the election, the highest office of this country was transitioned peacefully to a new administration and a different citizen of this nation. If that fact does not instill hope in the bleakest of American hearts, I don't know what will.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

February 17th, 2009 - D-day

So the big day is not far off. We're about a month out from the digital television broadcast switchover. No sooner could the doomsday-ism have started. President-Elect Obama recently stated that he may postpone the switch over because a federal program that issues coupons for DTV boxes is out of money. My guess is that even if there was enough money for every household that requested the coupon, there probably are not enough of those digital converter boxes in stores to fulfill the need. The real question is, does the need even exist? Sure there are probably plenty of people that will no longer be able to receive an Over-the-air (OTA) TV signal any longer due to the different wavelengths used for digital TV transmissions or other factors. But today, there is a plethora of ways to recieve television content, through satellite, cable, the internet, and most recently fiber optic cable. Sure, those methods aren't free. But this is a completely different issue from the one addressed by Mr. Obama. He's only worried cause a federal program is out of money. What's wrong with someone shelling out $50 for their digital converter box if they don't get a coupon by February 17th? Who's to say the program won't get refunded in a few months or a year, and the people that didn't get their coupons now, will get them later.

Who says anyone has a right to watch TV? The constitution certainly doesn't.

Sunday, January 4, 2009


I'm a pretty big fan of sunsets. No matter the location, a sunset is almost always a sight worth seeing. However, we take these spectacles that nature creates (nearly every day) for granted. I have the fortunate circumstance to live in an area of Johnstown that just never seems to disappoint come early evening to about dusk. If you live here, you probably know what I speak of... Any trip down Scalp Avenue past the Bel-Air plaza down to the cloverleaf where Scalp joins Bedford Street between the hours of 5 and 9PM, depending on the season of course, rarely leaves one wanting of more impressive solar events.

Recently I was treated to two wonderful sunsets, in the middle of a Johnstown winter, locally known as cold, long, and awful, on what would otherwise have been considered two dreary, late December days. These appeared without much warning, save the orange-red glow that I often get through my front picture window in the mid evening when the maximum daily altitude of the Sun is less than about 40 degrees above the horizon.

The chances to take these pictures are far and few between, because as the earth revolves back around the Sun in spring, summer, and fall, it sets much further to the right of where these pictures were taken. So at the point where the Sun would arrive at the same azimuth, it would be about 20-40 degrees higher in the sky. In fact, it would be well above the trees. No silhouetting, no blue sky gradient, no frosted clouds. Not here at least. Maybe my neighbors over the hill there would have some Kodak moments during the other seasons. But winter... The dark, dreary, cold, and long winter is where I got my chance.