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Fuel Economy

Will new cars have better fuel economy than they do now?  I read about this on the web some time ago, but I can’t find the reference now.  It’s essentially an engineering question.  Unfortunately, most of the improvement has already been done.  Streamlining cars has certainly had an effect, but that was done years ago.  Computer-controlled engines are more recent.  That technology has been very effective.  What about putting smaller engines in cars?  That’s already been done, and has gone about as far as it can go.  In a test I heard about, even smaller engines actually used more fuel because they were labouring all the time.  The only thing left to change is the drag on cars from air displacement.  This effect is mainly governed by the frontal area of the car.  The only way to reduce it is to build smaller cars.  That’s unlikely to happen, for a variety of reasons.

Canada follows the US rules for fuel economy.  The US government imposes these rules on companies building cars in the US or importing them.  The rules set the average fuel economy for the entire fleet of cars coming from these companies.  Companies, of course, sell a range of vehicles, some more fuel-efficient than others.  In order to meet the averages, they typically sell a large number of economical cars, along with a few powerful cars that use considerably more fuel.  It’s these powerful ones that make the news, even though not many of them are actually sold.

There’s a conflict between what individuals want, and what the population as a whole wants.  The government wants to reduce fuel consumption over the entire country, but they also don’t want to deprive people of their freedom to buy whatever car they want.  Of course, people want many different things.  Some want low-cost transportation.  Some want an environmentally-friendly vehicle.  Some want a large carrying capacity, either for people or materials.  Some want a small car; some want a large one.  Some want performance, with high speed and lots of engine power.  How can one rule fit such a wide range of requirements?

I recall seeing a review of the Honda Accord, the car I drive, in a British newspaper.  I thought I’d like to see what they thought of my car, but the first thing I read was that the north american Accord was larger than the European model, just because north americans liked larger cars.  That’s a problem right there.  Even more worrying was the revelation that some people, perhaps unconciously, wanted a car that resembled a military vehicle for their own security and as a defensive weapon.  When their choice is driven by fear, they disregard all other factors, including cost and environmental concerns.  A couple of years ago, when I was on a tour of southern Utah, I was surprised to find cattle ranching in the desert.  Ranches there were enormous.  Ranchers had to haul water long distances for their cattle.  They campaigned for low priced fuel, and complained about how many times the cost had risen in recent years.  They’ll be forced out of business if fuel costs rise any more.

What are the solutions?  Of course, there’s no single solution that will satisfy the whole range of demands.  Alternative fuels might offer a solution, but they won’t be able to compete with gasoline until the cost of gas becomes considerably higher.  Most people seem not to be concerned about fuel prices.  They’ve adjusted to them.  They continue to buy large cars, and even larger trucks, as if the cost of fuel was insignificant.  It is significant to some people, though.  Some will have to give up long drives to work and back as uneconomical.  Some will even go out of business.  European countries have raised fuel prices by taxing it heavily.  That has resulted in smaller cars and less driving.  Higher fuel prices will happen anyway as oil supplies are used up.  The taxes are a good way to prepare people for that event.


Bowling Balls and Breakfasts

I’m sure that everybody has a few stories to tell about air travel.  Most of mine are amusing, rather than annoying or an inconvenience.  I suppose I’ve been fortunate.  More likely, my experiences are quite normal.

Some time ago, I went on a vacation trip to Mazatlan, along with three people from work.  There was a long wait when we arrived in Mexico.  Nobody was attending the security area at all.  One of our group told us that the agent was watching a soccer game on TV.  I don’t know if this was true, but he eventually did show up and started the conveyer belt for our luggage.  When it went by him, he only felt each bag.  I saw it as a “laying on of hands”, but others said he was hefting each bag.  They suggested that he was looking for smuggled bowling balls.  Finally, we left the airport and boarded our bus to the hotel.  This was my first winter vacation.  All of us brought winter coats.  Even after dark, the warm mild air felt like springtime.  It was wonderful.  We did need the winter coats when we got home again.

Every year for some time, I attended a computer networking conference in June.  Each one was held at a different university.  One year, it was in St Johns, Newfoundland.  I stayed at the university residence.  The conference was on a Thursday and Friday, but my employer wanted me to stay past the weekend to get a lower rate on the flight.  It was Monday morning when I flew home, with two stop overs.  Because of those and the time change, the airline served us three breakfasts on that trip.  I only ate two, declining the third one.  I liked airline food.  When I recently told this story to a professor who used to teach in St Johns, he told me “you won’t have that problem anymore”.

My only European trip was one to Portugal in 2001.  We were travelling as a group, with two guides.  Of course, I arrived at the airport good and early, before the guides.  I waited a bit, didn’t see anybody I knew, so I bought my ticket and proceeded into the secure area.  Somehow, I checked my bag only as far as Toronto, the first stop on our trip.  The guides and the other people of our group soon joined us in the secure area.  Still, I didn’t realize that my bag was only checked part way.  It was only when we arrived at Toronto and one of the guides looked at my tickets, that I realized the error.  By then we were on our way from one terminal to the other.  The guide told me that I had time to go back and retreive my bag, but I had a better idea.  There was a wicket for the airline just in front of me.  I told the airline agent there what had happened.  He investigated, and assured me that he had rerouted my bag so that it would be checked all the way through to Lisbon.  I was pleased with that, and greately relieved.  Unfortunately, it didn’t work.  At Lisbon, my bag never appeared on the luggage carousel.  I had to fill out a lost luggage report.  The fellow there was astonished when he saw my claim ticket.  Sure enough, my luggage was still in Toronto.  It arrived at my hotel three days later, just when I had given up expecting to see it ever again.  I learned a valuable lesson from that one.

It was only a few years ago that I went on a tour of the Yukon.  I put all of my electronics and camera equipment in my carry-on bag.  Most of it was cords and power supplies, all in separate plastic bags so they wouldn’t get tangled.  At the very bottom was a portable tripod.  The main part of it was a metal tube with a camera mount on one end and a cap on the other, with three metal legs under the cap.  It also had the two arms of a clamp attached to one side of the metal tube.  When they put my bag through the X-ray at Whitehorse, one of the security agents said to the other one “I think we’ve got something here”.  No doubt it looked like a gun on the X-ray, but I knew immediately what it was.  She asked me if she could remove all the contents of my bag.  After she had unpacked all of it, and discovered the tripod on the bottom, she told me that that was the best packed bag she had ever seen.  I agreed, but I’m not bringing that tripod along on any more trips.  I didn’t even use it that time.  They found it again on my return flight.

More recently, I went on a trip to southern Utah.  At Vancouver airport, I had a long walk between the Canadian arrivals area and the US departures area, with a stop at US customs along the way.  They sent me to a waiting room that was filled with people.  I was going to be there a long time, I assumed, so I took out a book and settled down to read it.  Just then, I heard my name being called.  “Is this your bag?”, they asked.  They pointed to a video monitor showing a picture of my bag.  I’d never seen it like that before, but it sort of looked like mine.  I said “yes”, and signed my name.  That was all.  I was off to the departure area, still with lots of time to catch my flight to Las Vegas.


Sanitizing the Past

The other day, I heard a news report on CBC radio about an application that was able to search social media.  It would analyze images and scan text, looking for anything that was potentially compromising.  I believe that each search would cost five dollars.  People could then contact the posters of any such material and ask them to remove it.  My first thought was that here was another way to sanitize your past.

This news report also reminded me of the recent European ruling on web searches, generally called the right to be forgotten.  The purpose of this legislation is to require search engine companies to remove links to erroneous or outdated material.  It’s proven to be very popular.  Certainly, many uses of this service are legitimate, but some people are also using it to rewrite history.  Of course, the original material is still there, but it no longer appears in the search results.

Google is a victim of its own success in the web search arena.  People assume that if the information they want is not found in a Google search, it doesn’t exist.  In practice, they rarely look beyond the first page of search results, even though there may be dozens of pages of results.  With the links removed, they will never know about the missing information.

These attempts to rewrite history and to sanitize the past bring up images of George Orwell‘s book 1984.  It was twice made into movies.  I prefer the first one, in black and white.  Winston Smith worked at the Ministry of Truth, which was responsible for lies.  His job was to change the past.  Whenever one of the government officials was branded a traitor, he would receive a copy of a newspaper article that featured that official, along with a note that he was to rewrite the article with that official omitted.  Now this seems to be happening in reality, except that requests are coming from individuals rather than government ministries.  There must be better ways of handling situations of outdated or erroneous material in our new Internet-centred world.


Who Represents Us?

The other day, I heard part of an interview on CBC radio.  It was with a government official, regarding their relations with native bands.  He said that they had excellent cooperation at the local level, but the native leaders seemed to be bogged down in politics.  My immediate reaction was that the government had bypassed the leaders to deal with the local people directly.  Didn’t these local people elect the leaders to represent them?

When I read Leo Tolstoy’s book A Confession, published in 1882, I noticed that he encountered a similar situation.  Because of his status as a famous writer, Tolstoy was able to speak to leaders of several religious groups in Russia at the time.  He discovered that they had no time to care for the souls of their parishioners because they were busy defending their ecclesiastical territory from other religions.  Is that what’s happening here?

There’s some danger in dealing directly with the people instead of working with their leaders.  The obvious one is duplication of services.  More importantly, they may be dealing with only a portion of the local people, neglecting the others.  There’s also an implicit criticism of the way their leaders were elected.  This type of contact is likely to alienate the leaders.

From time to time, an elected representative seems to believe that they are better than their constituents, and that they know what is best for them better than they do.  In short, they are seen as arrogant.  They are also in great danger in being defeated at the next election.  To be sure, representatives should be better in some respects:  they should be able to represent the consituents better than they can do themselves.  They should also have the humility to rely on the views of their consituents.

It seems to be a general principle that when you examine any situation in detail, it becomes more complex.  In that environment, there are no simple solutions.  There are many different groups of people, many different objectives, and many different motivations.  One group of people cannot speak for everyone.  This principle comes into focus when a government is addressing themselves to people in another country, bypassing the leadership in that country.  They are usually dealing with a dissident group who are opposed to the government.  That might be an accident, but it’s usually the intention.

When should you bypass the leaders to deal directly with the people?  Perhaps it’s when the leaders are truely autocratic, not representing the people at all.  This situation may be revealed when they suppress the opposition or hold one-party elections.  It really requires a rigorous test, one that can withstand independant scrutiny.  After all, it’s easy to fabricate evidence.  In that case, look for an obvious ulterior motive such as access to oil reserves.  It’s complicated because some people or groups always believe that they are neglected by their leaders.  Beliefs like that certainly happen in Canada.  They do need to be considered.  Even just assessing the mood of the people can often be wrong.  Elections are the most reliable means of doing that.

When should you ban an opposition party?  Generally never I’d say, but sometimes this action is legitimate.  I’d restrict it to a fringe group that is employing violence to attain their goals.  A peaceful fringe group, no matter how vocal, will be defeated in the next election.

The best way to avoid all of these problem is to have a functioning democracy where the elected officials do represent the people.  Then just let it work.  As long as ordinary people participate, it will work.



No Lessons, No Morality

I recently read an article by a woman who had given up eating sugar two years previously.  She admitted that she still ate sugar occasionally.  She would share a sugary dessert between her and her two daughters.  Then she stated that sugar should be an occasional treat, as nature intended.  That statement got me thinking.  Perhaps it betrayed a misunderstanding of nature, one that’s all too common.  The only sugary food in nature is fruit.  That must have been what she referred to.  Trees that bear fruit, apple trees for example, don’t do it as an occasional treat for humans.  They do it as a means to disperse their seeds.  The sweet fruit attracts animals, us included, who pick the fruit, eat the pulp, and spit out the seeds all over the place.  That’s the apple tree’s strategy for living and producing more apple trees.  It obviously works for the tree.  In fact, the tree doesn’t care if we eat too much sugar and grow fat; it only cares that its seeds get dispersed.

There are no lessons for us in nature.  Creatures in nature look after themselves alone.  Aesop’s fables may suggest that we model ourselves on one animal and avoid being like another animal, but this is a message for us.  It’s not intended to be an accurate description of the behavior of these animals.  In truth, all possible lessons exist in nature, both positive and negative.  We can always find one that illustrates any story that we wish to tell.

There’s also no morality in nature.  A thousand years ago, people believed that everything in the world had morality, from all animals and plants to even ores ripening in the womb of the earth.  We don’t think that way anymore.  Inanimate objects don’t have morality.  Plants and animals compete with each other.  The ones that are successful in this process will continue in future generations.  There are many different strategies for living, but all of them must work if the plant or animal continues to exist.

We generally like certain animals and see them as morally good.  These are often grazing or browsing animals, ones that eat only plants.  Elephants and rabbits are good examples.  We also like animals that provide for themselves, as in the fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper.  These animals all have chosen their strategy for living.  All have been successful, although the elephant is the one that may have made the worst choice.

We dislike other animals and see them as morally evil.  These are often predators like lions and tigers.  Of course, most people understand that these animals have to kill in order to eat.  We also see parasites as morally evil.  Parasites inspire feelings of revulsion.  Charles Darwin noted that cats will play with mice before they kill them.  We see this as cruel behavior.  Again, all of these animals have chosen a strategy for living, one that works for them.

Morality is a human concept.  We should not apply it to other creatures, by showing our approval or disapproval of them.  We can, of course, use them as examples, but the morality applies to us, not to the animals.  We have the ability to act in a moral manner.  We have the ability to learn morality from stories told by other people.


Morality and Fundamentalism

On my morning walk, I found myself thinking about morality and fundamentalism.  I was wondering why we do certain things and refrain from other things, as well as how this related to fundamentalist movements.  Usually, I’m watching birds, rabbits, and squirrels, but this was different.  A few months ago, I had read Karen Armstrong‘s book The Battle for God.  Its subtitle was Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Perhaps that was the reason.

Morality is important to all of us.  All religious texts contain rules of morality.  An obvious example is the Hebrew bible, known as the Christian old testament.  It includes the ten commandments of Moses, beginning with “Thou shalt not kill”.  The Christian bible, the new testament, likewise provides moral instructions in the sermon on the mount and many other places.

Morality is simply a set of rules for getting along with other people.  This includes your family, your tribe, and your society.  It may not extend to other societies, enemies, or groups that are deemed evil, terrorist, or immoral.  Morality is something that all of us learned while we grew up.  To reinforce it, we might be praised or denounced by our family or honoured or punished by our society.  If I beat up my little brother, my mother would be angry with me.  I’d get the message pretty quickly.  I’d be unlikely to kill someone in my family, but I likely heard about somebody in my society who killed another person.  Society would exact punishment.  I’d get that message pretty quickly too.

While we were growing up and learning morality, we also developed concepts of right and wrong, or good and evil, based on following the rules of morality or violating them.  These concepts, as well as morality itself, were generally the same as in the scriptures.  Of course, they do change with time; moral behavior of 2000 years ago is not the same as moral behavior today.  There is also a trend to expand morality to include more groups of people, even those traditionally considered as enemies.

There’s also a complicating factor:  all religious texts contain contradictions.  The Hebrew bible, for example, contains both the ten commandments and a set of instruction on how to attack an enemy city.  It tells you to kill all the men, rape all the women, steal all the gold, and enslave all the children.  The two sections are clearly in conflict.  Likewise, there are two different and contradictory creation myths in Genesis.  The conflicting accounts may have been written in completely different circumstances, have a different scope, or may have been written by different authors.  These conflicts are one reason why religious texts always require interpretation.

Therefore, it’s important to heed religious scholars.  They are the ones who know how to interpret scriptures.  Their accumulated knowledge and experience may be called scholarship, received wisdom, or the teachings of the church.  In any case, it’s valuable and worth considering.

Religious fundamentalism implies a return to the original principles of a religion.  The leaders are looking to scriptures for moral guidance.  Karen Armstrong’s book shows that when a group is suppressed, it can become a fundamentalist group.  Recent leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, have read their religious text in jail, making their own interpretation of it.  Of course, this interpretation is one that’s appropriate for people who are under threat by the government.  Fundamentalists also ignore the religious scholars or rebel against them.  When they are opposed by moderates, they feel even more threatened, and can become militants.  They can even find moral permission to force religious conversions and to kill non-believers.  Are you thinking of Islamic militants now?  Remember that Christians did this too.  That was the whole purpose of the Spanish Inquisition.

Still, I enjoyed my morning walk.  Like a dream, my thoughts seemed more clear and complete than they do now.  I hope I at least recalled the gist of it.


Budget For Free Software

A chat with a former colleague led me to consider this topic.  He told me that morale was at an all-time low where I used to work, and that management was laying off technical people and contracting out the work.  Now, it’s obvious that the budget for free software should be zero dollars, but apparently that’s not how it works.  I recall being told about an incident a few years ago.  I wasn’t involved in this one, but people seem to remember it because it was so ridiculous:  apparently a group was prepared to obtain a free software product, but because they couldn’t figure out how to budget for it, they bought a commercial product instead.

One incident I was involved in was a meeting to select a DNS and DHCP control system.  I assume I was invited because I had installed the original DNS and DHCP servers, both free products.  The purpose of the meeting was to review the RFP (request for proposal) that had been prepared by a manager.  I attempted to pursuade the people there to consider free products in addition to the commercial ones.  The manager and some of the participants wanted to see product documents and wanted to review responses to their RFP.  In the case of free products, there was nobody to respond to the RFP.  Ultimately, the manager considered only commercial products, and chose one of them.

This futile activity was only a symptom of a deeper problem:  managers were ranked by the size of their budgets.  They were recognized for spending money, but not for saving money.  This scheme leads to an even deeper problem: management by budget.  I have no expertise in management, but I can easily see that the number of dollars in a budget is a poor measure of the value of a group of people.  In the worst possible case, a department could be doing absolutely nothing but still consuming millions of dollars.  It’s because budget is a measure of input, but it’s the output that’s important.

Why do we even have management by budget?  At the highest levels of an organization, budget may be all there is.  When the leader has to reduce costs, they may ask all of the managers to reduce their budget by a certain amount.  That sort of action betrays a lack of knowledge of what the organization actually does.  I have no doubt that directors and managers are aware of these limitations, but they still seem to do it.

The alternative would be to consider output rather than input, to consider production rather than budget.  This alternative may well be a radical change.  How do you even measure production?  It would be easy for a sales department.  The number of items sold or their dollar value might be enough.  It might be very difficult for a support department.  What is the product?  How do you measure it?  How do you aggregate it?

I used to work in an IT department.  Everybody I knew there was busy.  Some were so busy that they put in unpaid overtime just to complete work that they considered important.  What we did was expressed in vague statements and doubtful metrics.  They were quicksand while budgets were firm ground.  We should be able to do better than that.

The only way to assess output in that sort of situation is to take the viewpoint of the consumer.  A support department must respond to demand from the consumer of the service.  One group I worked with required an owner for every service they supported, but I suppose they should have required consumers instead.

In order to determine output, the technical people (I was one) must provide details of their work.  They might resist.  (I would have.)  They might produce too much information.  (I might have.)  They would certainly consider such a request as a restriction on their freedom or an attempt to micro-manage them.  The important question is what are they doing that is of value to the department.  The only way is to make them aware of the input-output problem, and let them participate in finding a solution.  Management will have to trust that they have the ability to do this, and that they have the interests of the department at heart.

Of course, managers must also account for their work.  The benefit is generally indirect, as their role is to manage the people who do the actual production.  They too would have to somehow measure their contribution to the product of the department and the satisfaction of the consumer.

This radical change sounds difficult and complex.  Wouldn’t it be easier to lay off everybody and contract out the work?  No doubt it would be easier, but what is the value for money from the viewpoint of the consumer?



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