Monday, February 27, 2006

The Law of Unintended Consequences Cannot Be Vetoed

In another of Dan Neil's always-clever auto review columns in the LA Times, he takes a moment to deliver yet another screed against SUVs, even against the Audi Q7, one he grudgingly likes:

Permit me an aside: This curious urge toward seven seats is an example of what might be called contingency anxiety, which I believe is a huge psychic motivator in the high-end SUV segment generally. It's the fear that one day, someday, you might be called upon do something extraordinary in your vehicle — drive your wife to the hospital in a snowstorm, ford a swollen stream, rescue a Cub Scout den from angry bees — and you have to buy the utmost vehicle as a hedge against such a day. Contingency anxiety is the reason so many people drive around in five times more vehicle than they really need. Aside ended.

Let me help you out, here, Dan. It is not one because of the suburban emergencies that you mock in your usual witheringly snide manner that seven passenger vehicles have become popular. It is not a "contingency" that has led people to buy these large cars. It is law. Specifically, seatbelt laws. Long gone are the days when a parent (we'll keep ourselves in the present and not assume "mom") could pick up Junior and four of his buddies from school and pile them into the front and back bench seats. Better yet, and more relevant to today's SUV dilemma, who among us didn't spend some portion of our youth rattling around unfettered in the back of a station wagon (or, in my case, in the back of the original SUV, the International Scout)? In those days, the size and configuration of the car was unimportant when it came to flexible seat arrangments. Need to take Grandma and Grandpa to dinner? Fine; just cram everyone in tight enough to get the doors closed. Need to bring the soccer team to the pizza party? Everybody in the back.

Now? If you can't match a seatbelt up with a person, you need another car. As California Vehicle Code section 27315(d)(1) states, "a person may not operate a motor vehicle on a highway unless that person and all passengers 16 years of age or over are properly restrained by a safety belt." Vehicle Code section 27360 covers infants and small children: "(b)(1) A driver may not transport on a highway a child in a motor vehicle, as defined in Section 27315, without properly securing the child in a rear seat in a child passenger restraint system meeting applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards, unless the child is one of the following: (A) Six years of age or older [or] (B) Sixty pounds or more." Vehicle Code section 27360.5 covers older children: "No driver may transport on a highway any child who is six years of age or older, but less than 16 years of age, or who is less than six years of age and weighs 60 pounds or more in a motor vehicle, as defined in Section 27315, without properly securing the child in a child passenger restraint system or safety belt meeting applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards." There is no question about it -- cars are far more limited in their carrying capacity now because of seatbelt regulations. Don't misunderstand: I believe the seatbelt is the single greatest safety innovation in automotive history, by a wide margin. I even think mandatory seatbelt laws are, on the whole, a positive development. But lets not blame flighty suburbia for the all of the ills of the world. There are reasons why cars are bigger and heavier, and it has nothing to do with a desire to wantonly squander oil. Cars are bigger and heavier because they are required to carry almost literally a ton of equipment in the name of legally imposed safety devices.

Since very few cars have front bench seats anymore, it is nearly impossible for a family of four to take the grandparents out to dinner or anything else in a standard sedan. With further restrictions governing the seating of children in front seats with exposure to air bags, car drivers are reduced to only one extra seat (in the middle back) to transport children. Hence the inexorable rise of minivans and high-occupancy SUVs. It's not frivolity, Dan. It's not "contingency anxiety." It's the law.

Texas Hunting Regulations

Yes, there are tons of these kinds of items scurrying around the internet. I'm so proud.

Texas 2005- 2006 Season and Bag Limit On Attorneys

1. Any person with a valid Texas hunting license may
harvest attorneys.

2. Attorneys may be taken with traps and deadfalls.
Currency may not be used as bait.

3. Attorneys may not be killed with a motorized vehicle.
If accidentally struck, the hunter should move the carcass to the
roadside, and proceed to a car wash.

4. It is unlawful to chase, herd or harvest attorneys
from a motor vehicle, watercraft or aircraft. Marked police vehicles may be used as shooting platforms.

5. It is unlawful to shout, " Whiplash, Ambulance,or Free
Booze" for the purpose of trapping attorneys.

6. It is unlawful to hunt attorneys within 100 yards of
Mercedes, BMW, Lexus, or Infiniti dealerships.

7. It is unlawful for a hunter to disguise himself as a
reporter, drug dealer, female law clerk, sheep, accident victim,
physician, bookie, or tax accountant for the purpose of hunting

Friday, February 24, 2006

Proud Papa

Kelly was honored as the Student of the Month for her class today. She also brought her report card home for the second trimester of the year: nearly all of her grades were 4s, the highest in the scale (meant to indicate aptitude and performance beyond grade level). She is also one of only three students in her class, and the only girl, to have progressed successfully all the way through her class's multiplication and division skills tests. She is also in the highest directed reading group.

She is starting to understand that she is, indeed, a good student, and to draw a sense of identity from that. Her Mom and Dad could not be more proud!

Friday, February 17, 2006

Messing With Your Head

Picking up on an idea now being taught to impressionable psychology graduate students at George Mason University by my erstwhile roommate, try this little experiment. It will make your brain hurt, but it's good clean fun.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Why Do I Feel Unaccountably Better Today?

Oh yeah: pitchers and catchers report. Ah!

I'm a fan of just about any sport, but I find that I largely ignore SportsCenter from October to late March. I hope my kids develop a hobby or interest that can transport them back to their youth, and keep them bonded with longtime friends, the way baseball does for me.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Some Katrina Fallout

The official Congressional report on its inquiry into the response of government agencies to hurricane Katrina was released today. Popular Mechanics, of all publications, believes it has turned up some distortions in the report:

[H]ere’s a quick overview of what seems to be the report’s most troubling shortfall: consistently blaming individuals for failing to foresee circumstances that only became clear with the laser-sharp vision of hindsight.

For example, the report states:

"Fifty-six hours prior to landfall, Hurricane Katrina presented an extremely high probability threat that 75 percent of New Orleans would be flooded, tens of thousands of residents may be killed, hundreds of thousands trapped in flood waters up to 20 feet, hundreds of thousands of homes and other structures destroyed, a million people evacuated from their homes, and the greater New Orleans area would be rendered uninhabitable for several months or years."
This statistic is referred to often, and refers to computer modeling of a direct Category 5 hurricane landfall in New Orleans. However, it's also a distortion. According to the data the Committee itself examined, 56 hours prior to landfall, Katrina was a relatively weak Category 3 storm, heading west in the Gulf of Mexico. Over the next few hours, it began its turn north, but where the storm was going to make landfall along the Gulf Coast was any weatherman's bet (the average 48-hour margin of error is 160 miles). In fact, it was not until the next day, Saturday, that it became more of a certainty that the hurricane was heading toward New Orleans. Furthermore, hurricane forecasters and emergency managers tell PM that until about 24 hours before landfall, hurricanes are too unpredictable to warrant the sort of blanket evacuation orders the report describes.

And according to transcripts obtained by POPULAR MECHANICS of the Sunday, August 28, videoconference between FEMA, DHS, Gulf State authorities, the National Weather Service and the White House, as late as Sunday—only 24 hours before landfall—National Hurricane Center storm tracks predicted: "There will be minimal flooding in the city of New Orleans itself." The death tolls listed in the congressional report presuppose: A) certainty that the storm would hit New Orleans directly, and B) certainty the storm would strengthen to a Category 4 or 5. Neither of these propositions was certain 56 hours prior to landfall. And, in fact, the hurricane was a Category 3 storm when it did hit.

The Committee report also criticizes the DHS and FEMA for not including the Department of Defense in their pre-storm and immediate post-storm planning. However, the same August 28 transcript shows that DoD was included from the beginning. In reality, despite organizational shortcomings, the rescue spearheaded by the National Guard and the Coast Guard turned out to be the largest and fastest in U.S. history, mobilizing nearly 100,000 responders within three days of the hurricane’s landfall.

The point is that hindsight is useful only to a point, and should not be the basis for critique of actions taken or not taken on the basis of forecasts at the time. There is no question that Katrina and its aftermath has been a tragedy on multiple levels, including poor coordination between government agencies and personnel. However, there is a real danger brewing if the powers that be do not clearly understand what communications and forecasting actually took place prior to the event. If the aftermath is viewed as a massive failure to act on information that we knew to be true after the fact, and a lack of communication between groups that in fact took place, our ability to plan for the next disaster will be inherently flawed because the new schemes will be built on faulty assumptions. For instance, it appears, based on recording of an interagency meeting prior to landfall, that the DoD did in fact offer its resources. If the plan for the future is based upon an assumption that such an offer did not take place, we will have failed to deal with the true problem: help was offered but still not used properly. We will find ourselves in exactly the same situation again in the future.

Mistakes were made, but the true story is far from over. Blame is easy to cast without much foundation. Crafting true solutions is the hard work. Let's hope good people with pure intentions are being heard.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

You Must Have Heard About This By Now

Chuck Norris is enjoying quite the renaissance these days. This article provides a succinct explanation as to why his name has been before the eyeballs of millions of computer users lately. Simply put, a wiseacre Brown freshman came up with what he calls The Random Chuck Norris Fact Generator. The sole purpose of this internet backwater is to ironically celebrate the stoic (some might say wooden) toughness of the only-slightly-legendary actor and martial artist.

The jokes seem lame at first, but they're pretty amusing once the cumulative effect of their absurdity breaks down your defenses. Here are some samples from the article linked above (because they are some of the clean ones, and because Norris himself purportedly likes them):

When the boogeyman goes to sleep every night, he checks his closet for Chuck Norris.

Chuck Norris can lead a horse to water and make it drink.

Chuck Norris doesn't read books. He stares them down until he gets the information he wants.

When Chuck Norris does a pushup, he isn't lifting himself up - he's pushing the Earth down.

Chuck Norris does not sleep. He waits.

There is no theory of evolution. Just a list of creatures Chuck Norris has allowed to live.

Outer space exists because it's afraid to be on the same planet with Chuck Norris.

Chuck Norris does not get frostbite. Chuck Norris bites frost.

There is no chin behind Chuck Norris' beard. There is only another fist.

Chuck Norris doesn't wear a watch. He decides what time it is.

Chuck Norris can slam a revolving door.

Chuck Norris is the reason why Waldo is hiding.

A few my own favorites:

Chuck Norris sleeps with a night light. Not because Chuck Norris is afraid of the dark, but the dark is afraid of Chuck Norris.

If you can see Chuck Norris, he can see you. If you can't see Chuck Norris you may be only seconds away from death.

Chuck Norris can divide by zero.

Chuck Norris counted to infinity - twice.

Chuck Norris can speak braille.

Superman owns a pair of Chuck Norris pajamas.

Friday, February 10, 2006

SuitSat Lives!

The reports of SuitSat's swift demise were premature. According to Dad, the SuitSat is down on power for unknown reasons but continues to broadcast its modest signal. As a result, more sophisticated antennas, receivers and preamps are required to pick up the signal than would have been necessary if the SuitSat were at full output (~5W). Amateur radio operators around the globe have managed to tune in to SuitSat. One such ham has compiled a substantial collection of audio files of contact with the temporary satellite. He also has a slightly unnerving video of the deployment of the SuitSat ("what are you doing, Dave?").

Thursday, February 09, 2006

... And a Plushie to be Named Later

Even by the Bizarro World standards of professional sports, this is a little weird. ABC's longtime lead sports announcer, Al Michaels, has been traded to NBC. Yes, traded. Like the sports figures whose feats of athletic glory he describes, Michaels has been traded from one broadcasting team to another, as he still under contract to ABC/ESPN.

In and of itself, this would be relatively minor news. What is truly remarkable, especially here in Burbank, is the fact that Michaels was traded for, among other considerations, a cartoon character. Not just any cartoon character, mind you, but the predecessor to perhaps the most iconic cartoon character of all, Mickey Mouse. As it turns out, Walt Disney produced several films in 1927 featuring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, but the films were distributed by Universal, which owned the rights to the character. Having lost the rights to Oswald, Walt came up with that mouse that led to a certain amount of success for the company. You may have heard something about it.

As it turns out, because NBC recently acquired Universal, NBC now holds the rights to this long-forgotten figure. Similarly, Disney owns ABC/ESPN. Somehow, someone in the Disney family prevailed upon the ABC negotiators to demand that NBC return the rights to Oswald to its historic roots as part of the Al Michaels deal. The Michaels trade also included a number of other interesting pieces, primarily highlight and broadcast rights to sporting events over which NBC holds all rights: Ryder Cup, Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Notre Dame football and, most notably, the Olympics (no more goofy still-frame shots or results with highlights on SportsCenter). Clearly, though, the most intriguing part of the deal was this guy:

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Chairman of the Board

That's not some clever pun leading into a discussion of the raw utility of certain IKEA seating products. As of recently, it is my title at church. I have been on the board for almost five years, and have been the vice-chairman for the last three. Our chairman had to step down for the sake of his health, and I was elected by the other board members to assume the post. I respect those men tremendously, and I know that they have confidence in me, but I still can't shake a little of the Groucho Marx feeling of being concerned about being a member of any club that would have me as a member.

This comes at a somewhat tumultuous time: the search for a senior pastor is ongoing, and budgetary issues may have to be dealt with. I'm surrounded by good people with good judgment, but big decisions must still be made. Plus, I'm already getting many more phone calls than I used to, about all sorts of things. If you are so inclined, please pray for me and my family. If you are not so inclined, please at least pull for me! (And we'll talk about your inclinations some other time!)

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

You Can Run...

Leave it to the movie capital of the world to come up with a made-for-a-schlocky-Bruckheimer-film solution to the scourge of police pursuits. LAPD will now turn to the advanced technology of paintball to shoot GPS sensors embedded in what seems to be a wad of gum at the fleeing suspect's car. Then, in a real life enactment of every bad caper movie, a trooper will follow the target on a computer screen. Presumably helicopters will be employed to prevent the suspects from simply exiting the vehicle once out of range of the non-pursuing cops.

Friday, February 03, 2006

As If Ham Radio Operators Don't Take Enough Abuse Already

Are you ready for the ultimate in nerdiness? The International Space Station has just jettisoned an old space suit into temporary orbit. Here's the nerdy part: in addition to stuffing it with trash, they put a radio beacon in it. Now amateur radio operators (ham radio geeks to the rest of us) can tune in to the death throes of the human-formed satellite, until it meets its bleating, firey death in its descent through the atmosphere.

If you feel a need to satisfy your inner nerd, keep this in mind:

Students and others can track the spacesuit's location via the Web site as well as a NASA tracking site. The suit, which was stuffed with cast-off clothing as well as the electronic gear, is expected to pass once or twice a day over the United States, according to NASA.

Yes, it really is called "SuitSat."

You want to look. You know you do.


After just a few hours, SuitSat has gone silent.