April 17, 2016
April 11, 2016
March 13, 2016
Published on 8 Feb 2016
Are electric cars greener than conventional gasoline cars? If so, how much greener? What about the CO2 emissions produced during electric cars’ production? And where does the electricity that powers electric cars come from? Environmental economist Bjorn Lomborg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, examines how environmentally friendly electric cars really are.
March 11, 2016
Long-time readers know that I am not a gender-difference denialist; I fully accept that there are many ways in which men and women tend to be totally different, and believe it’s foolish and counterproductive to pretend otherwise. But there are other differences between the sexes which have little (if anything) to do with biology and everything to do with societal expectations. Take car repairs, for example; though many women don’t care for getting dirty, there is no earthly reason for a woman not to learn basic techniques that could get her out of a jam or save her money (especially if there’s no man handy to do them). My father would not let me drive alone until I showed him I could change a tire, and though I absolutely hate doing it and generally prefer the “stand on the side of the highway and look frustrated until a man stops and changes it for me” method (which for me never takes more than five minutes to work, at least in the daytime on a busy highway), I think it’s still a good thing that I know how to do it in a pinch…even if I do (as per Daddy’s lesson) stop as soon as I can thereafter and ask the first convenient man to make sure the lugs are tight enough. But see, that’s not really helplessness; that’s just recognizing that I simply don’t have the upper-body strength necessary to tighten those babies as tight as they probably should be. And for all his bad qualities, I do have to give Jack credit for one thing: he insisted I learn how to perform every simple car repair he could teach me, from changing spark plugs to replacing a brake master cylinder. Since Grace’s dad didn’t believe in letting her be ignorant of cars, either, I haven’t had to do any of those repairs myself in over twenty years; however, it’s still nice to know what is involved in them.
But even if a woman is as lucky as I was, and has boyfriends and family members who don’t intentionally keep her as helpless as possible, she still has to endure endless societal pressure (not just from men but from women and institutions) telling her not to take risks, not to do anything that might scare her and get her in trouble, not to explore her existence without the help of a man (or worse, of Big Brother). And though early feminists seemed to be making some progress against that, their successors have embraced it and are its most vociferous proponents. “Feminists” demand that young women be protected not only from physical harm, but even from ideas or pictures that might upset their delicate sensibilities, rattle their chains or force them to question their preconceptions for five minutes. And they march arm-in-arm with religious conservatives and police-state functionaries to restrict women’s sexual choices and send armed thugs to hunt, entrap, rape, brutalize and cage them in order to “send a message” that utilizing one’s sexuality to win economic independence is too dangerous an activity for women. Their propaganda reveals their incredibly low opinion of women’s competence; sex workers are said to be unable to place their own ads online, and touring is reframed as a criminal “circuit” in which helpless, ovine women are passively trucked around by evil “pimps”. The idea that the female brain might actually be capable of booking hotels and writing ad copy is completely alien to the narrative.
Maggie McNeill, “Boy Juice”, The Honest Courtesan, 2015-01-08.
November 10, 2015
Hunter S. Thompson’s iconic book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has been re-imagined in Troy Little’s graphic novel:
November 3, 2015
Sam Smith remembers learning how to drive with a manual transmission:
At first, I thought my dad was just teaching me to drive a stick. At 16 and a few months, I had already earned a license, already had my first accident. (Missed a stoplight in the family Volvo while changing CDs. I cannot remember being dumber.) Two weeks of lessons later, I suspected something was up.
We drove in 20-minute spurts. Before dinner on weeknights, after lunch on Sundays, whenever. Always the same route: leave driveway, around the subdivision, back. Practice, learning how to shift, long past the point where I thought I was good enough.
The truth soon came out: My father, a patient man, wasn’t going to let me drive a manual—which meant borrowing his car—until I met what seemed like an arbitrary standard of smoothness. He wasn’t mean, just firm about it: You will do this right. And I won’t feel it when you drop into second.
The neighborhood was perfect for it. A rolling, quiet patchwork of curves. Enough uphill starts to keep you thinking. Or at least keep 16-year-old me thinking, because the first time you shift a manual gearbox, you’re a bag of elbows. This gear? That one? Then you screw it up again.
October 21, 2015
October 21, 2015 is Back to the Future day, and Toyota is playing along with the theme:
In a press release from Toyota, Back to the Future co-creator and producer Bob Gale offers some background on the manufacturer’s partnership with the franchise. “Toyota stands apart for their nod to the future and the past with the auto technology depicted in the movies. When Toyota approached us about helping tell a bigger story about the future and innovation with the Mirai, we loved the direction — and who can resist Marty’s retro Toyota truck?”
Call the number on the screen to talk to Jimmy Joe Statler himself. He offers you three choices. Be sure to press 2 for a free license plate frame. He mentions that three customized BTTF Tacomas will be revealed at Hollywood & Highland in Los Angeles and Times Square in NYC. They are also doing a tour of Dallas, so keep your eyes peeled if you live nearby. No word on whether Toyota will release the flying cars seen in the window’s reflection at 00:19 in the video.
We don’t know if the custom Tacoma will be produced for sale, but it should be easy enough for you to make one yourself. Just make sure you include those sweet KC lights.
October 17, 2015
Tesla does over-the-air updates for their electric cars (which is kinda neat). The latest update includes an almost-but-not-quite self-driving feature:
Tonight, Tesla makes its cars autonomous. Well, semi-autonomous. And it did it with an over-the-air update, effectively making tens of thousands of cars already sold to customers way better.
There are two things to talk about here. There’s the small story about the features and what the upgrade actually looks like and how it works. That’s a good place to start: This is the biggest change to the visual display of the Model S and X ever. There are new instrument panels, app windows are larger and take up more of the 17-inch touchscreen. Drivers will now get more information about what their cars are doing when in Autopilot, they can lock and unlock their car from the status bar. There’s a new clock!
These are simple cosmetic changes. The Big Story is that all of this—and really, who cares about anything beyond autopilot mode?—is being pushed through to customers’ Teslas overnight. The update will begin being pushed out tonight, and will hit every Tesla made and sold in the US in the past year over the course of this week.
Before you get too excited about an autonomous, hands-free present, you need to know that you can’t nap in the back, chauffeured around in beautiful, electric silence.
Even in Autopilot, you keep your hands on the steering wheel. Well… you don’t have to keep your hands on the steering wheel. You can rest them on your knees (resting on knees, palms up, fingertips touching the wheel is advised), or keep one pinky on the wheel. And okay, you can take your hands off altogether for a moment. But after a few seconds, your car will give you a little message, asking you to touch the wheel in some capacity.
October 14, 2015
In The Diplomat, Franz-Stefan Gady looks at the problem for Toyota because their vehicles have become the favourites of ISIS and other terrorist groups:
The United States has launched an investigation to determine how the terror group ISIS was able to acquire a large number of Toyota pickup trucks and SUVs ABC News reported this week.
Japanese car manufacturer Toyota, the world’s second-largest auto maker, has pledged full cooperation with U.S. authorities and is “supporting” the inquiry led by the Terror Financing division of the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
“We briefed Treasury on Toyota’s supply chains in the Middle East and the procedures that Toyota has in place to protect supply chain integrity,” according to a D.C.-based spokesperson of Toyota. However, “it is impossible for Toyota to completely control indirect or illegal channels through which our vehicles could be misappropriated,” he added.
According to Toyota sales data, the number of Hilux and Land Cruisers sold tripled from 6,000 in Iraq in 2011 to 18,000 sold in 2013. However, sales dropped to 13,000 in 2014.
Toyota Hilux pickup trucks – a lightweight virtually indestructible vehicle – have been prominently featured in various ISIS propaganda videos and played an important role in ISIS’ conquests of large stretches of Iraqi territory last summer by acting as a force multiplier.
Armed with a .50 caliber machine gun the Hilux truck’s maneuverability provided insurgents quickly with close-range fire support during their attacks. Back in 2010, the counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen referred to the Hilux as “a modern version of light cavalry. They move weapons into positions to fire, and can also shift people around very quickly, with a quick dismount.”
Full disclosure: I’m currently driving a ten-year-old Toyota pickup truck (a Tacoma, which I think is the North American version of the Hilux). My next vehicle is likely to be another Toyota pickup truck. They may not be technically indestructible, but I’ve been very impressed with the performance and durability of my particular vehicle.
September 22, 2015
At Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow points the finger of blame at VW’s DRM in their automobile software suite:
The EPA has accused Volkswagen of rigging its software to cheat the agency’s diesel emissions standards so that its cars could be on the road while spewing 40 times the legal limit for diesel emissions.
Volkswagen, like most auto manufacturers, uses digital rights management in its informatic systems. Under section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, it is a felony to tamper with that DRM, punishable by five years in prison and a $500,000 fine for a first offense. The company uses this legal regime to limit which mechanics can service its cars, ensuring that only “official” mechanics, who are bound by nondisclosure agreements — and covenants to only buy their parts from VW and not an aftermarket competitor — can effectively service their cars.
This year, the US Copyright Office held its triennial hearings into possible exceptions to this rule, and one petition asked it to grant an exemption for jailbreaking cars. The car manufacturers intervened to oppose this, but so did the EPA, fearing that drivers would modify their firmware in ways that increased emissions.
But by banning independent scrutiny of cars, the EPA and the Copyright Office have made possible for terrible, criminal frauds like this one to go undetected for long periods, turning cars into long-lived reservoirs of dirty secrets that can’t be reported without risking criminal sanction.
Jazz Shaw has more:
This isn’t a case of any sort of trick carburetor or jury rigged catalytic converter. The vehicle’s onboard computer could sense when it was hooked up to a diagnostics machine for an emissions test and would conveniently turn on all of its emission control features. (It’s being referred to as a “defeat device.”) Then, when the test was completed and it was unhooked from the computer it would simply shut them off again, boosting performance but also increasing emissions. You almost have to admire the sheer audacity assuming this is true. And given the initial responses from the company they don’t seem to be claiming that they didn’t do it.
So far Volkswagen seems to be taking the line of assuring everyone that they will work to recall the cars and “fix” them to eliminate this problem. It likely won’t bankrupt a company that size, but it’s one heck of an expensive piece of humble pie to eat. If they contest the fines and go to court, however, I’m wondering if they will actually lose. This was some mischief designed to short sheet the system no doubt, but would they have an out if the case goes before a judge? I was looking over some of the state level requirements for the testing of vehicles and the boundaries to be followed are rather bare bones at best. Each vehicle in the qualifying categories which was manufactured after 1996 has to be equipped with an On-Board Diagnostics Generation II (OBDII) system. The emissions portion of this is heavily tied into your annoying “check engine” light.
The way most of the regulations are written seems to indicate that the vehicle must have a functional system of this type which is accurately monitoring system performance and meets the maximum emissions requirements at the time of testing. Obviously the VW vehicles in question were doing just that. But cars today have all sorts of bells and whistles which drivers can use to customize their driving experience. They can switch from “performance” mode to “economy” mode with the push of a button. Things like that obviously affect the vehicle’s emissions. Other such options are available. And when you think about it, the “disable device” was really just putting the car into a different mode of operation which includes heavy emissions control. When it was disconnected and ready to head back out on the road it was switching back to a different mode with a bit more performance. None of that changes the fact that the emissions were within the required limits at the time of testing.
September 16, 2015
At Gods of the Copybook Headings, Richard Anderson comments on a story about Chinese drivers ensuring that pedestrians they hurt in traffic accidents don’t survive to sue them … because incentives matter:
Smelling a story that was too interesting to be true, I texted a friend who lives in China. He read the article and texted back that every word was correct. This behaviour was so common that it was a kind of dark joke. The phrase “drive to kill” was considered practical life advice for young and old alike. These are not members of some obscure and barbarous cult. China is one of the oldest and most accomplished of human civilizations.
The legal explanation for this — a moral explanation I suspect is impossible — is a combination of a weak insurance system and easily bribable courts. An injured pedestrian can become a lifetime financial liability for the driver. Murder convictions, even in cases with clear video evidence, are still unusual. Faced with a choice of becoming a bankrupt or a murderer the popular choice seems to be the latter.
Homo homini lupus est. Man is wolf to man.
Mainland China is, of course, a dictatorship. It seems likely that in a functioning liberal democracy, such as those of the West, very basic legal reforms would long ago have been implemented to remove these quite literally perverse incentives. The rulers of China have deigned it beneath their notice to make such minor improvements.
August 25, 2015
Oh, sorry, he actually said Musk is “crazy like a visionary“:
I am an unlikely fan of Elon Musk, the flamboyant, Steve Jobs-like (some would say Tony Stark-like) entrepreneur behind SpaceX, SolarCity, Tesla Motors, and other enterprises that seemed like starry-eyed impossibilities a scant decade ago. Musk’s two governing passions, he has said repeatedly, are “sustainable transport” to battle “global warming” and finding a way to make mankind an interplanetary species, beginning with a space colony on Mars.
For my part, the word “sustainable” has me reaching, if not for my revolver, then at least for an air-sickness bag. I regard the whole Green Lobby as a cocktail composed of three parts moralistic hysteria mixed with a jigger of high-proof cynical opportunism (take a look at Al Gore’s winnings from the industry) fortified with a dash of beady-eyed left-wing redistributionist passion. You can never be Green enough, Comrade, and if the data show a 20-year “hiatus” in global warming (so much for Michael Mann’s infamous hockey stick), that’s no reason not to insist that capitalist powerhouses like the United States drastically curtail their CO2 emissions right now, today, while giving egregious polluters like China a decade or more to meet its quotas.
No, when it comes to energy, I often quote, sometimes with attribution, the Manhattan Institute’s Robert Bryce: what the world needs now is cheap, abundant energy, period, full stop, end of discussion. My motto is: frack early, frack often. Do you want to help the poor/clean up the environment/save the spotted wildebeest? Then you need economic growth, and to achieve that you need energy, which at the moment means you need fracking. Q.E.D.
When it comes to interplanetary travel, I suspect that Musk’s passion for transforming us into “space-faring” creatures was heavily influenced by his youthful reading of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and (one of his favorites) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Not that those adolescent chestnuts necessarily argue against the plausibility of his ambitions. Behind Musk’s enthusiasm for space colonization is a worry that a future “extinction event” might delete human consciousness from the emporium of the universe.
For what it’s worth, I’m very much split on Musk and his works: I generally agree with his desire to help get humanity expanding beyond our single, frail planet … I just wish he wasn’t guzzling down government subsidies to get there. I’ve read the book Kimball is reviewing (Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future), and I certainly feel I got my money’s worth from the purchase … Musk is potentially a very great man. Right now, he’s a pretty good man who still takes everything he can get from the government.
August 7, 2015
At The Register, John Leyden talks about the recent revelation that the Tesla Model S has known hacking vulnerabilities:
Security researchers have uncovered six fresh vulnerabilities with the Tesla S.
Kevin Mahaffey, CTO of mobile security firm Lookout, and Cloudflare’s principal security researcher Marc Rogers, discovered the flaws after physically examining a vehicle before working with Elon Musk’s firm to resolve security bugs in the electric automobile.
The vulnerabilities allowed the researchers to gain root (administrator) access to the Model S infotainment systems.
With access to these systems, they were able to remotely lock and unlock the car, control the radio and screens, display any content on the screens (changing map displays and the speedometer), open and close the trunk/boot, and turn off the car systems.
When turning off the car systems, Mahaffey and Rogers discovered that, if the car was below five miles per hour (8km/hr) or idling they were able to apply the emergency hand brake, a minor issue in practice.
If the car was going at any speed the technique could be used to cut power to the car while still allowing the driver to safely brake and steer. Consumer’s safety was still preserved even in cases, like the hand-brake issue, where the system ran foul of bugs.
Despite uncovering half a dozen security bugs the two researcher nonetheless came away impressed by Tesla’s infosec policies and procedures as well as its fail-safe engineering approach.
“Tesla takes a software-first approach to its cars, so it’s no surprise that it has key security features in place that minimised and contained the risk of the discovered vulnerabilities,” the researchers explain.
August 4, 2015
Last month, Randall Holcombe reported on a sensible decision by the Tallahassee, Florida city government when it was discovered that its red light camera program had achieved the stated goal:
Five years ago my hometown of Tallahassee, Florida contracted with Xerox to set up 19 red light cameras at seven busy intersections in town. The contract had the city pay Xerox about $87,000 a month to operate the cameras, and charged drivers a fine of $142 for being caught on camera running a red light.
When the program was established, city officials claimed that the cameras were installed for safety reasons, to deter drivers from running red lights, not to raise revenue. If we take them at their word, the program worked. Red light violations have fallen more than 90% since the program began. The program has been so successful that the city is not taking in sufficient revenues from fining violators to pay Xerox the fees for operating them.
You can guess the ending of this story. The city has announced that when the contract with Xerox expires in August, it will not be renewed and the red light camera program will end. Here is a program that has been a huge success by the city’s stated criterion, so the city is terminating it.
I see two possible explanations for this. One is that governments tend to terminate successful programs and continue the unsuccessful ones. The other is that the city officials who originally stated that the motivation for installing the cameras was to deter red light violations, and not the revenue generated from fines, were lying. I’m not ruling out the possibility that both explanations are correct.
Other municipalities presented with the same set of facts went in another direction: reducing the amber light time to increase the number of cars that could be caught on camera violating the law. That this had nothing to do with increasing public safety on the roads — in fact, probably increased the danger around traffic lights in the case of drivers braking suddenly to avoid entering the intersection as soon as the light turned yellow — but it did do a fine job of increasing the fines that could be collected (who cares about the safety of drivers and pedestrians when municipal revenue is at stake?).
July 3, 2015
Frances Woolley on the hidden advantages even a modest amount of money can provide:
Less often observed is that wealth itself generates consumption benefits, even if one never spends a dime of it.
I own a 12 year old Toyota Matrix. The front fender has collided with one too many snow banks, and is now held together with string. The exhaust system has seen better days. It breaks down occasionally. But overall it’s very cheap to run.
If I was poor, it would be tough having an old, unreliable car. The unexpected, yet inevitable, major repairs would be a financial nightmare. $750 to repair the clutch. $200 to fix the axle seal. If the car broke broke down, and I couldn’t get to work, I might lose my job.
But because I’m financially secure, I can afford a cheap car. I can self-insure against financial risks: unexpected repair costs, taxi fares, rental cars, and so on. I can afford to get my car towed. If it was beyond repair, I could get another car tomorrow.
The real value of having $10,000 in the bank isn’t $200 in interest income, or the stuff $200 in interest income might buy. $10,000 in the bank creates a little bit of room to take risks. One could call it the “implicit value of self-insurance generated by own capital.” It’s the comfort of being rich (or having rich relatives). It’s real. It’s valuable. But it wouldn’t be taxed if Canada had a consumption tax.
Admittedly, the insurance value of having wealth isn’t taxed under an income tax either. But at least under an income tax some of the return on wealth is taxed, so there is, at least potentially, some shifting of the tax burden onto those with wealth.
The greatest freedom money offers is the freedom to walk away. Your bank doesn’t offer you unlimited everything with no monthly fees? Walk away. There’s always someone else who wants your money. Your phone plan is too expensive? Walk away (o.k., that may not be the best example).
People with money have alternatives, which makes their demand for goods and services elastic. Food may or may not cost more in poor areas. But a rich person can shop at Value Village if he chooses. A poor person may not be able to afford expensive purchases which save money in the long run, like bread machines or high efficiency appliances or pressure cookers. Consumption taxes aim to tax the amount of stuff people actually consume. But if poor people pay a higher price for their stuff than rich people, is a system that taxes only consumption spending, without taking into account the ability to command consumption wealth conveys, fair?