Anti-Fessing Up on the Oilspill

A recurrent problem with the response to the oil spill is that no one wants to fess up. Apart from the legal aspects, the incredibly low science literacy both in the media, as well as the general public pretty much makes much of this deal as a “You can’t handle the truth” scenario.

The truth

The ultimate truth is the following. There are no easy answers, and there are 50 kazillion unknowns. There are tons of theories, and thousands of people working on answers and there are still kazillions of unknowns, and answers are going to take time, and some may never be known. In addition, solutions are going to require widespread failures and massive numbers of iterations. No matter how the legal, the managerial, the political, the agendized folks want to spin it… the laws of nature are immovable, and they reign supreme.

Human Fear

Then add in the fact that fear is running rampant, whether it be those who see the writing on the wall that everything will change as the spill is right in front of them, and others, who see that things might change, and their current lifestyle may no longer be sustainable, even if the oil spill is thousands of miles away.

I also think there is a synergistic multiplier effect between fear and uncertainty, combined with failure after failure leading to despair and resignation which will likely have profound and long lasting effects on society at large.

As a tech guy… Its easy to discount this fear aspect, but I think such will play out in technical and political judgment calls for many years to come… and that then plays back into the technical realm. Case in point, nuclear paranoia is incredibly strong post three mile island. Industrial contamination is a much greater danger, but short of highly localized arenas, most consider it a non-issue, and economics/finance/jobs are more important. It leads to a question of where will petro end up in 10 years.

Vested Interests Abound on all Sides

Then to add insult to injury, there are those with vested financial and political interests of one type, who wish to down play any and all downsides. Likewise, there are those with different ideological, and political interests, who wish to play up any and all downsides. Lastly, there are those who see such the spill as being so distant, it will have no effect on them whatsoever, and is nothing to be excited about.

If one chooses to play down potential issues, or ignore them completely, the obvious danger is if they are wrong the costs could be extreme, ie death and destruction. By the same token, over playing such could create un-necessary fear (already on top of the current fears), it shoots holes in future credibility of the messenger, and it runs the risk of potential economic hardship.

Such vested interests often end up muddying the waters from a technical solution point of view. Even from a political point of view, its really muddy… just look at the FCC, more lawyers than engineers… and they are to address technical issues? Go figure

The solution?

The next generation will have a much clearer view and armchair quarterbacking likely will present a multitude of solutions. In the short term… some of the next gen is already here, in grade school. Dead animals, dead beaches and the like will start to color their thought processes in short order. No matter how much they are sheltered or are attempted to be led one way or another… images engrained early on will play a huge role in the development of their thought processes, their morality, and their hope. In other words, these youngsters will see through the BS, the spin, the garbage of today. They likely will see the truth long before the rest of us.

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Legislation to encourage bicycle commuting

GovTrack: H.R. 5351: Text of Legislation passed the house

The Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation Tax Act of 2008 has a provision to encourage bicycle commuting. In fact, employers would be able to offer a tax exempt fringe benefit of up to $20 a month for those who commute by bicycle.

Granted, being I coordinate virtual teams in my business, who don’t commute, and are not employees, the ability to offer this fringe benefit has limited value to me, other than it will reduce emissions. If I ever decide to go the route of onsite employees again, this is something I will have to highly consider.

Years ago, one of my techs, as well as a co-engineer used to commute by bicycle. Even I had to prove it to myself I could do so… on one of the coldest days of the year. I figured if I could ride 3.5 miles in -23 deg F weather, I would have no excuse for not doing so on any other day. Well, I didn’t bicycle commute very often, but it did convince me it was possible.

Thus, I think this is a great addition to the bill. The cost to the govt is pretty low, the cost to employers who choose to offer it is pretty low, and apart from reducing carbon emissions, it is likely to also result in lower medical costs, and even efficiency gains due to healthier employees. Its also one of those fringe benefits that can give an employer an edge when it comes to recruiting. Not so much from a benefit standpoint in and of itself, but that an employer is on the ball, and wants to encourage energy conservation, as well as improved employee health… and such a stance can make a difference when it comes to recruiting, at least in some sectors.

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Whoa, a gas tax increase…. just what we need, or maybe not

H.F. No. 2800, 4th Engrossment – 85th Legislative Session 2007-2008
E85

Initially, when I first heard of this, it was like whoa… a gas tax increase with the economy taking a header, not cool. But alas, in politics as in other aspects of life, whats on the surface is often times not the whole story. Thus, it was time to do some digging.

Well, first I come to find out, this is the first time the gas tax has increased since 1988.. and that makes me go hmmm. A quick run over to the Federal Reserve’s CPI calculator makes for an interesting analysis. 20 cents in 1988 equates to 36 cents in 2008. Granted, the CPI is a bit broad, but if we look at the cost of fuel, vs the cost of construction, its probably a reasonable calculation. Thus, in looking at the last 20 years, the MN legislature should have acted way before now. Secondly, with October’s 28 cent gas tax, it ends up being 8 cents less than it would have been in 1988 dollars. Now, I wouldn’t go so far and play the game that the legislature came up with a tax decrease, but it is interesting to note the difference in the value of a dollar over time.

The next thing I did, was run some numbers, to see how the tax increase would impact me in a worst case scenario. One of my highest mileage years ended up being upwards of 43000 miles traveled. And being my vehicle is not super great on gas mileage,  that works out to about $140 as a fuel cost increase. However… thats not the full story by any means. Poorly maintained roads raise havoc from a preventative maintenance standpoint. Suspension parts and tires take a major hit in life span, but also vibration can lead to failure of other parts.

Being I have over 12 years of historical data on my car, as well as road conditions, I’m able to hazard a more quantitative guess than most. (still a lot of hand waving though, as road condition is quite subjective, without onboard datalogging and vibration sensors…. and component life span can be affected by a multitude of non-road related factors) Ultimately, I found that poorly maintained roads ended up on average increasing my maintenance costs roughly $37 a year. Yet, it should be noted that I do all maintenance work myself, thus that figure is probably two or three times greater if one were to use a commercial garage or perhaps even more at a dealership.

Then there is the aspect of safety and comfort while driving. No one likes to be riding on a buckboard as it can be pretty fatiguing, but there is also a safety factor to be considered. One trip into a corn field is a ton more expensive than even a few years of this tax increase.

And of course, the last thing is a detailed read of the bill itself, and a few things came to mind as good calls. First as concerns transfers, I know this was an issue some years back, where in there was a push to take from the airport fund and transfer it to the general budget. I think, as the bill reads, that effort was thwarted, and it is one I agree with. Aircraft fuel tax should be used to fund airport ops, not everything else under the sun, especially since airport funding is pretty tight, and aviation is already a huge source of general tax revenue.

Lastly there is a provision for a low income tax credit to offset the financial aspects of this tax. While the amount of the credit is pretty low,  to add more tax to the less fortunate for the benefit of the masses is not cool, and this credit mitigates that a bit.

This, I think the legislature made the right call on this one, although ideally they would have passed such a tax increase when the economy was good and fuel was much cheaper, and this coming from a guy who dislikes tax increases as a general principle.

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