Archive for April 2012

Why you can’t have a super economy car   Leave a comment

From time to time, I hear about this car:

It’s an old Opel that got 376.59 miles per gallon.  And people will say “OMG, why didn’t they make more them?  Why didn’t they turn those out at the factory?  It’s a conspiracy, man!

I’m going to break this down in the simplest terms possible:

The physics of better economy.

(1.) The harder you push air, the harder it pushes back.  If you really, really want to improve your economy, slow down. Half the speed, and you square root the power required.  If it takes 100 hp to go 100 mph, then it takes 10 hp to 50, and 3.16 hp to go 25.   Below about 30, aerodynamics effects are pretty minimal.

(2.) Cars get better economy in higher gears, so you have to set up the gearing so that the car is at it’s top speed when it is still going slow.

(3.) All otto cycle (the normal, nondiesel kind of car engine) produce the most power per lb of gas consumed at around 900 – 1100 piston feet per minute.  The smaller the engine, the higher RPM that will occur at, but it will be  almost always be lower than your normal cruising speed.

(4.) Energy that isn’t moving the car forward is eating fuel economy.

(5.) Weight that isn’t moving the car is eating fuel economy.

Knowing that, how do make a super mileage car?

We make it as narrow as possible so it is pushing on as little air as possible.  Then make it low and torpedo-like so it wastes as little energy as possible moving the air it must.  Gear it so it is in 5th gear when it is doing 30 mph or less.  Maximize the engine design to produce power only in the narrowest efficiency band.  Eliminate any extra parts that move: replace the transmission with a single straight-through gear. Take out as much weight as possible.

Makes sense right?  And what did the designers of the Opel do?

They attached Opel body panels to a big go kart frame.  It sat low, had no suspension, no transmission, no seats, heater, no air conditioning, no anything.  It was chair in a go kart frame.  The engine was connected to solid rubber tires (no flexing rubber to eat energy) which turned locked together, without a differential (no 5% loss in the diffy).  The engine was insulated so that as much of the heat that was lost into the coolant could be recycled to heat the intake instead (the gas was heated for the same reason: to take energy out of the exhaust and put it back in to be recycled.   Above all, it had a top speed of 30 mph.

Why don’t we do those things now?

(1.) We do.

Off-the-shelf technology exists to get not 50, not 100, not 377 mpg, but a full on 3000 mpg.  You have to wear the car like body sock, go 18 mph, and sit inches of the ground.

Why don’t we do this more often?

(1.) Above all, lack of interest.

People don’t really want better economy.  They really don’t.  When people say “I wish I got better gas mileage” an silent “without changing my lifestyle, including using the level of consumption I can afford as a status symbol, at all” follows it.  In the Ford Falcon of the 60’s, the bigger six outsold the smaller one by a wide margin.  The Chevy II’s little 4 cylinder was rarely purchased, and dropped quickly.  V8 mustangs outsold I6 mustangs by a 14:1 ratio.  You can’t say that those numbers had anything to do with the perceived lack of safety in small cars, because those were simply different engines in the same cars.  That wasn’t simply pre OPEC hubris either.  Chevrolet introduced the Chevette in 1979, with 2 engine choices: a 85 and 98 ci.  The 85 ci engine was dropped within a few years because so few people bought it.  In 2011, Ford Focuses outsold Ford Fiestas by a vast margin, despite the fact the Fiesta has better handling, gets better gas mileage, and is one of the safest cars on the road.

(2.) Mother Nature and her red headed step child, economics, will not be cheated.

In each of the following lists you can have only 2 of 3.

Strong, light, cheap

Aerodynamic, durable, cheap

Fuel efficient, broad power band, cheap

Functional, stylish, cheap

Safe,  small, cheap

Safe, light, cheap

Economy, convient, cheap

Economy, comfortable, cheap

(3.) In the end, pollution and the cost of commodities (like cars and gasoline) are not technological problems.  They are social ones.








Posted April 26, 2012 by israelkwalker in Uncategorized

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Capitalism   Leave a comment

The basic mythos of capitalism is that it is a form of morally acceptable elitism because it’s meritocratic.

The reality is that it is not particularly meritocratic, and as such the elitism it generates it’s not, in fact, particularly moral by any popular ethical standard.  Here’s why: capital means money that is not doing anything in particular at the moment.   The standard explanation is that the capitalist gives up his money into the creation of a factory or a new business, and he is paid more than he put into pay him for the service risking his capital.  The more the capitalist is willing to risk, the more he can get back.

The problem with that kind of thinking is that risk has both likelihood and magnitude, and both aspects matter.  Let’s say you have a disease and your doctor offers you two treatments. Treatment 1 has a 10% risk of failure.  Treatment 2 has 1% risk of failure.  If you only look at likelihood then obviously you take treatment 2.  But what about magnitude?  Let’s say that the magnitude of failure in treatment 1 is losing a finger, and the magnitude of failure in treatment 2 is death.  Now, which one do you want?  Comparisons of this type are not nearly as unusual as you might think, and are, in fact, why nuclear power vs other forms is a contentious issue.   The risk of catastrophic failure might only be 0.001%, but the magnitude (increased mortality over decades and/or centuries, mass relocation, hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of land unfit for human habitation, etc.) makes one pause.

The first reason that capital is not particularly meritocratic is that the capitalists magnitude of risk is virtually nonexistent.  Magnitude is an objective, not subjective measure.  Human want may be an endless well, but human physical and social needs are actually fairly small in number, well defined, and well understood.   More is only better up to a point, and we can clearly graph out a curve of more everything, more space, more money, more electricity, more food, more medicine, etc. for a whole society and we can see where the curve starts to flatten out. For sake of convenience, I will us the US number:  about 40,000 USD for the median family.  You can certainly have more, but that is the point where the curve of more increasing quality of life by objective measures starts to flatten out noticeably.

Until a capitalist is risking his ability to pull in $40K a year, he has virtually no risk whatsoever.  The difference between going from point A to point B in Bentley versus a Chevy exists only in the mind of the driver, as transport rather than status symbols, both cars do exactly the same thing.   If a capitalist has a nest egg capable of providing a family income of $40k a year, every need he and his family has can been afforded without ever working a day.  On average a large fund can payout 5% and still leave a lot behind to grow for next year.  A million dollars may not be what it used to be, but it still affords everything a person actually needs on interest alone.  So what if you have 10 million dollars?  You can “risk” 9 million dollars.  I say risk in irony/scare quotes because you aren’t actually risking anything thing.   In in the real, functional terms human need, the elite risk nothing.  Of course, the more elite you are, the more ridiculous it becomes.  Bill Gates was once valued at 50 Billion dollars.  Remember it takes about assets of a million year to have a risk free/work free lifestyle.  He could invest 99.99998% of income before he was under any functional risk whatsoever.   (Where as a Wal-Mart employee making $30,000 risks virtually everything to switch jobs.  Their home, their nutriton, their health care.  Everything.)

The second reason is that Bill Gates not withstanding, most people don’t become millionaires from their work.  They inherit it. Since ability to tolerate risk is the ability to generate new wealth, they acquire the ability to make more money not by work, but by being born into a rich family.  Acquiring the ability to advance in society by birth rather than hard work is only meritocratic if you believe in the divine right of kings.

The third reason is that outside economic textbooks, very little investing is actually done by individual investors.  The bulk of investing is done by institutions. Savings bonds might pay only few percent, but 10 million dollar blocks of treasury bills (the lowest risk investment on the planet earth) often pay around 10%…or 2%-4% than the 100 year average of the stock market, so the risk is actually very minimal to those who can afford the highest risk.

The forth reason is that hard work alone gets you nothing.  If hard work generated wealth, than pre-civil war slaves should have been the wealthiest Americans there ever were.  Another logical point would be if that hard work generated wealth, then the least hardworking should be the poorest…yet because of the first three reasons, the rich get richer even if they do nothing.  In fact, since spending is “doing something” the will get richer much faster if they do nothing.

The fifth reason expands on the fourth.  You have to work at what society rewards, not just work hard.  Like the slaves in the fourth example, brain surgeons don’t make 1/1000th the income of bank CEOs because there is a law that says they must, but because there is no law that says they mustn’t.  A further point on this is that fact that some of the things society needs most, teachers for instance, are some of the lowest paid employees on earth.

All this enforces a single point: capitalism, as practiced, isn’t about meritocracy; its about elitism.  There is actually a pretty simply mathematical explanation for this. Remember that because of his imaginary risk the capitalist must make a return on his money, called profit.  The cost breakdown of every product must look like this: material cost + labor cost + profit.   Let us say the material cost is basically the same worldwide.  While shipment costs and refinement costs can create minor variances in material cost, they don’t matter as much as you think.  The transport costs in any given market will be virtually identical, and refinement cost reductions are do to two major issues: intelectual property and scalability.  Intelectual property will be shared within 7 years for patents and 70 years for software, so those costs tend to stabilize.  If scalability is a large issue then rapidly 1-3 producers will own the entire market, the cost between them will be identical.  That means the only two costs we have to worry about are labor cost and profit, but the important point it leads us to is that product cost must always be greater than labor costs that went into it, the “+profit” aspect.    That means that, all other things being equal, people who make a product cannot afford it.  

It only appears capitalism works because economies of scale work, and the factories produce vastly more than the market that produced it can bear.  This why capitalist must open up new markets constantly, and is the explanation of both imperialism and consumerism but also issues like urban sprawl and planned obsolescence.

Posted April 18, 2012 by israelkwalker in Philosophy, Politics, Skepticism, Uncategorized

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I hate the home school movement sometimes   Leave a comment

Anti-authoritarian leftist snob confession #2.
I secretly hate the homeschool movement. It is not, in fact, all sunshine and gumdrops, and some people in it desperately need more accountability. (1.) So many of the good ones are so freakin’ self righteous about it. (2.) Some home schooled kids are dumb and ill behaved (3.) A surprising number of parents home school because they are paranoid, delusional, psychotic, lazy, abusive or some combination of the five.

Let me be clear.  I was home schooled.  My daughter was home schooled for the first few years of her school career and will be again (at least partially) in the future. I am not anti-home school. HOWEVER, I sometimes hate the movement.  I puts forward this idea that parents are always the best guardians of their kid’s interests.  Some parents are all the time. Many parents are most of the time, but there are people out there who are simply too immature, unhealthy, or stupid to make all the decisions homeschooling requires.  Those people need the accountability that public school allows, and because of the feel good, pro-parent clap trap the movement publishes, they think that homeschooling is a good idea for them.

I grew up with a lot of home schoolers.  Many of them have gone on to start their own businesses or get college degrees.  They are life-long learners, with great life outlooks and ethical mindsets.  However, what the movement doesn’t seem to want to talk about is some of my other home schooled acquaintances over the years.  Many of the home schooling parents I knew were home schooling their kids because they thought that only by home schooling them could they keep them from getting laid before they got married, and protect them from the Russians/New World Order/Federal government/Satan/Whoever-the-big-bad-was-that-week.  Their sexual obsession combined with their political and religious paranoia was passed on to their children as a lot of weirdness that continues to haunt those kids as adults.

I’ve known “unschooled” kids who were as sharp as tacks and witty conversationalists to boot, but I’ve also known parents that “unschooled” their kids because they were literally too lazy to get their ass out of bed and get their kids to school.  I’ve known functionally illiterate kids, kids that didn’t know any math you couldn’t learn off a flash card, kids whose understanding of world history stopped in 1957 and included only subjects starting with B, C, N, R, and XYZ (because that was the publishing date of the incomplete set of World Book Encyclopedias their parents got at a garage sale), 16 year olds who didn’t know where babies came from, and 18 year olds with 6th grade educations because their parents decided that was enough.

That is to say nothing of the kids I knew who parents beat the living hell out of them, and they had no mandatory reporter (like a school teacher) that they had regular daily contact with.  Kids that got punched through walls, kids that were ordered to beat their siblings or their dad would beat them worse, and one 16 year old that actually recognized that she was painfully stupid and had no social skills so she got a boob job the day she turned 18 so she could snag a rich guy.

Yes, there are kids like that in the public school too, but I’ve never met a parent who moralizes for hours about how awesome the public schools are, or how parents who really care send their kids to public school.  I’ve also never met a parent whose kids are are public school who tries to tell me that their teachers know best and no government oversight is needed. But I have been moralized at length, told homeschooling is the best option, told that any accountability is a government take over, etc. etc., etc. by otherwise mainstream, healthy home schooling parents.

Home schoolers: I support you.  I support your rights.  But the utopianization of home school families has to stop…for everybody’s benefit.