Trench Warfare US Democrats Style

The BBC had a nice summary about Hillary and Obama today. As I was reading this I was struck by how dissonant the campaign is from what I perceive as the ideal qualities for the next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

North American political campaigns have gotten increasingly nasty and personal over the years (Canada is not as bad as the US but is sliding in that direction, it seems). Candidates sling mud at each other and dig for bits of nastyness. Think ‘Survivor — Washington’ or ‘Trailer Park Boys…’. And the current primary season just goes on and on and on…

My problem with all this political entertainment is that the result of the selection process would seem to pick the person least qualified to lead. Oh, sure, US politics can be pretty messy and I am sure the back room continues as the primary decision-making forum (sorry about that, public interest.). But the world is a very complicated place and there are a lot of folks out there who selfishly take care of their own interests and not those of the US. If there is a problem with the Saudis or even (gasp) Iran, do we want someone who’se approach to problem solving is a smear campaign in the press? I don’t think so. We need someone who can work with people over whom he has no real control — like a neighborhood organizer, perhaps.

The other aspect is this thing about refusing to talk to the folks that don’t agree with you. Seriously, this is not a sign of strength but of weakness — if your ego is so fragile and your principles so shaky that they cannot withstand disagreement. Read — Cuba, Iran, Hamas, etc. Not a pretty picture. And a guarantee that the problems will continue, whatever they are.

So here we are. Two candidates too busy tearing each other apart — and the apparent winner to be the one who successfully slung the most mud and made the most unsustainable promises. And a national committee for the party that has trouble holding to its own rules — and refusing to exercise leadership on their own side to limit the damages to the party and ultimately the country. If, having skewed the primary by disallowing Florida and Michigan, they then let the results in to bolster some backroom deal with one of the candidates, it is not hard to predict that they will have pulled defeat from the jaws of victory. Pity is, the country will suffer.. and so will we all.

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Energy Outlook — It’s Ostrich Time

The Future of Oil – New York Times

This article has the cheerful prospect of the number of airplanes and cars doubling in the next 30 years — no doubt the buyers in China and India eager to catch up with the West in waste and consumption. Then the article asks — where is the oil going to come from to fuel all this demand?

This reminded me of my continuing frustration to use energy-efficient transportation in North America. At one time North America was criss-crossed with a network of rails that provided comfortable transportation for passengers at relatively low energy cost. The skeletons of this service litter the landscape — the great urban train stations, the tiny rural stations, the network of rails. This has all been pretty much abandoned — or if still in place forced to play second fiddle to freight. To visit my son in Thunder Bay we had to drive — just not possible to get from here to there by train anymore. Oh, the tracks are still there but the service is not. In fact, Via did not even want to talk about the issue at all — even though there were intermediate stops still in service that could have helped us (thanks to talking to some folks at his school).

So we could take an airplane from Toronto — a three hour drive to the west or just drive from here. We did the later. The idea of accepting the indignities of flying plus fuel consumption at a level similar to every passenger driving their SUV the same distance was just too depressing.

Passenger travel services have always been heavily subsidized by the governments. They have never paid their own way either here or in Europe — where there are still marvelous inter-urban trains that are a genuine pleasure to use. But in North America where the distances are huge, the subsidies that built and maintained the system have been stripped away and given to the airlines and road services. And passenger service is expected to pay its own way — when it runs at all.

Seems to me that governments have their head in the sand when it comes to providing the leadership and direction for the future. We can see that energy costs are going to continue to soar and yet all the work on transportation goes to subsidizing the least efficient means. How long will it take before it is recognized that what North America needs most is to resurrect passenger service? Heck — a train could probably pull its own nuclear reactor to make electricity rather than burning fossil fuel. Or we could deploy larger scale overhead wires to do the same. The point is that all this will take time and we should not wait untill the airlines are collapsing from fuel costs to start working. Airplanes will still be needed to bridge large distances over water or to remote locations. But for inter-urban travel, I’ll take the train.

Natural Resources — Enjoy them While They Last

Prairie Birds Flirt, and a Town Livens Up – New York Times

This article in todays’ New York Times is about an area in Missouri that has recognized the wonder of their rapidly declining bird populations. There are bird watcher tours with waiting lists. The locals have built blinds so the visitors can get a good view. A few weeks ago a long time friend of mine gave a presentation to the local mens’ group about Sauk City Wisconsin that has done a similar thing with their bald eagle populations. I am sure that both groups are pleased at the inflow of revenue.

Here on the island we have a similar situation — we are known as an IBA (Important Bird Area) in international surveys. There is an area at the end of the island called the Owl Woods due to its large population of wintering owls. We have seen eagles hunting over our backyard and had a heron walk up through the grass to inspect our life-size african heron sculpture.

But the difference is that the island resident and transient bird populations are condemned to death because the area has been targetted for redevelopment as a wind farm. So the natural wonders we have been blessed with will be destroyed over time and the place we love turned into a empty space eventually populated by rusting, abandoned towers that no one will be able to afford to remove.

I am reminded of the story of the goose that laid the golden eggs. Not content to get a stream of wealth over a long time, a plan was laid to cut open the goose and get all the eggs at once. Neither the goose nor the egg supply survived. The story here and around is much the same — they can get a quick influx of cash by sacrificing the area now. The work and patience over time to develop the natural resources is just not as appealing. I would speculate that had development been the path rather than the quick grab the benefits would be long lasting and perhaps even greater — certainly everyones’ lives would be richer. But then, who cares about the future? I am glad that some people do — the rest are condemned to suffer the loss from their lust for instant gratification. Too bad.

Bill C-10 and Taxpayer Say

globeandmail.com: Senator caught saying Verner hates Bill C-10

Its nice to hear that folks in the government have mixed feelings about funding the arts in Canada — or more precisely the kind of arts that are funded from the public purse. It is being labeled as censorship — a terrible word to be sure. But is it really so terrible to have some sort of control of what messages through the arts are being funded?

I for one am tired of all the ugliness on the six pm news — so I choose to not be entertained by even more of it in the theater or TV. And being an old fuddy duddy find nothing of interest in films about hostels run by serial killers and the like. There is enough of this in the news, we don’t need ideas for more.

There used to be things called standards of good taste — which seem to have gotten lost. I for one would applaud any measures that would lead us back to a better place. And how my tax dollars get spent is certainly one way. I expect my government to apply some standards to the entertainment messages they fund. I am sorry that they are unhappy about being asked to do this. But they did ask for the job.

Burning Food – My Experiences

globeandmail.com: Why costs are climbing

The story of soaring food prices being helped along by competition from ethanol production for fuel supplements hit a nerve today. The Globe article mentioned that to fill an SUV tank with ethanol consumes more corn than a typical African eats in a year. This is a pretty frightening picture alone. But then there is the additional question of how efficient is a typical car tuned to gasoline when fed with higher precentages of ethanol? Here in Ontario the government is talking about mandating adding ethanol to vehical fuels. I have been tracking fuel consumption for my cars since day one — and find that with my current car, a 1999 Cirrus, there is an effect depending upon the type of driving. For highway cruising, rare now, the mileage impact of gasahol blends is minimal. But in urban-type driving the hit can be substantial — more like 15-20% poorer. If my experience is typical, the forced addition of ethanol to road fuels in urban areas will have a double whammy — overall fuel consumption will go up in addition to the loss of foodstocks for everyone. So instead of reducing the dependency on petroleum we are likely to increase it. Another dubious achievement.

New Version of Windows? Oh No, Not Again

I read with horror the cheerful announcement that there was going to be another version of Windows out sooner than expected — Windows 7. I am sure it will be new and improved with only limited carryforward compatibility with previous versions. So in order to move forward (as the vendor insists) we will not only need to buy a new PC but new versions of all the applications we need to do our jobs. That is because by design the changes from one version to another force application vendors to make code changes to keep things running — what worked in the last version doesn’t. And the workarounds from last time stop because the breakages are in different places. And since nothing new ever works there will be extended periods of chaos while our previously working environments have ‘teething problems’.

This is a particularly sensitive issue for me as I have just finished a week of trying to get some key applications installed on a new PC, and failed. They are all Vista compatible (it says here…), but true to form there is a certain amount of unknown tweaking, fiddling and so forth to get things to work. And the mandatory mysterious hangs that seem to be increasingly a feature of the environment. (Just like the old days under MSDos.)

Prior to IE7, which I really like by the way, browser hangs were unusual. They are now an almost daily occurance and sometimes force a system reboot to get anything to work again. Seems the browser has become an integral part of the current generation of applications and when it takes a hike pretty much everything hangs. And the error log shows ‘application fault bucket xxxxxxxx’ which is completely undocumented, of course.

The pity is that I really like the changes in Vista and I really wanted things to go well. Dual core processor, 4gb of memory, etc — plenty of room to play. But here we are. The applications that were the reason for the new machine just won’t go — and depressingly for no apparent reason. So faced with the prospect of endless weeks of try this, that and so forth, try pressing ‘return’ with your left thumb instead of the right index finger, pray to the gods and so forth.

Bottom line is that this should not be necessary. Upwards compatibility should be a key design requirement. Disruptive changes are distressing for everybody and expensive to fix and relearn. I suppose in a profit-oriented business the more expensive the change the better it is for the vendor — but the more it would be avoided by the folks who have to pay for it. Thats what I did — when it became obvious what a haul it would be to get things working I took the cowards way out and installed XP. Maybe someday I will try again — meanwhile I have work to do.

Living With Robots — The Indoor Edition

For some time now I have been living with robots — and it has been interesting to say the least. Outdoors the grass is being cut (after the snow all melts) by a wonderful Lawnbott Evolution (more about this in a future post) and indoors the crud is kept somewhat under control with Roomba. Over the years I have had several of the I-Robot vacuum robots. I started with the Discovery model, which appealed to me not only because it would clean my floors but that it could be scheduled so the task of shoveling out could be automated. A wonderful idea that was one less thing  for a single parent to worry about. Discovery did a nice job — I eventually bought a second one to keep the upstairs clean, the two robots creeping out during the day to work and then going back to their charger.  I would have liked to have one do my sons room, but the bold black and white carpet he had drove the infrared cliff sensors crazy. It was just pitiful watching the thing creep around on the rug, crawling back every time it encountered the black ‘cliff’.  And just as with a regular vacuum one has to cleanout the dust bin every so often — once a week was more than enough. (Did I mention that at this time I had a dog and a cat?) But basically the Discovery models just did their job.

Much encouraged by this experience I bought a “Dirt Dog” when they came out — cleaning up the garage after a woodworking project was not my strong suit, so this seemed like a gift from the gods. And mostly it was, until the cliff sensors started to crud up and the brushes would jam on any screws or large chunks it found under the bench. Why is it, I would ask no one in particular, that if a device has to die it do so in the most inaccessible space? Eventually one learns to sweep up before turning “Dirt Dog” loose — it seems pathetic but that is the limit of the machinery. And the cliff sensors? They need to be blown out every use (with compressed air) to keep the thing running ok. It still does a great job but I recognize that it is more of a finish treatment than a substitute for my own mess cleaning.

Eventually, some of the glued on parts of Discovery started to come undone. I-Robot had released the 500 series (new and improved!) that promised to handle cords and rug tassels more gracefully (which the Discovery did not). So I gave in to weakness and exchanged one of my Discovery units for a new 560. Initially, it was wonderful (mostly). The infrared ‘wall’ units that keep the robot out of some areas were redesigned — now could be either walls or something new called lighthouses. This is supposed to keep Roomba in one area for a while, then allow it into the next space and so on — sounded like a good idea but I never could get it to work right, so just use as ‘walls’. The neat thing is that these units turn on when Roomba is active — the ‘walls’ for Discovery had to be programmed separately, the new approach is much better. And the new unit would clean rug edges gracefully, although cords are still a source of problems. And it was quiet compared to Discovery and pulled an amazing amount of dirt up — that was the first use…

But reality sets in. With a dog and a cat there is always hair to be collected. To be sure, the 500 series picks it up just fine and scrapes it off the brush into the waste box. But the new design of the brushes also causes the hair to collect almost everywhere else — wrapped around the shaft and between the brush and the supports. When this happens, Roomba stops and gives a plaintive two beeps. Problem is, this is guaranteed to happen almost every time it goes out — never a problem with Discovery. It is nice to be told that there is a problem with the brushes and to clean them — what is not so nice is that this is an every run issue, regardless of whether the unit had been disassembled and cleaned before the start. Complaining to I-Robot support produced the response that there was a problem with the brush unit and they would send me a replacement — which they did almost 12 weeks later (guess the factory in China was backed up…). The new brush unit looked just like the old one (hummm… internal changes?) and worked just like the old one, not good. Responding to their previous emails with ‘didnt work’ produces no response, no surprise there. Guess the case was ‘closed’ when they ordered replacement parts for me, why should they care to follow up to see if the cure worked?

Anyhow, today I dismantled the unit and cleaned it out completely, as I do every two or three days. If I am lucky, maybe it will do the 900 square feet of out main floor without choking. It did yesterday, much to my surprise. The Discovery gets turned loose downstairs to cleanup — it can work without supervision. But not the Roomba 560 — when it is out I need to check regularly to make sure it is not in trouble, fix it when it is, and be sure to restart it in exactly the same place. Why am I doing this, I ask? The new and improved cleans better than the old one it replaced but needs constant attention. So as an automated way of keeping the house clean the 500 series is a total failure — my wife just ignores it and pushes her vacuum cleaner around. The 500 does not like dark rugs so we have to do one room by hand anyhow.  I still hold out hope that SOMEBODY will offer a robot vacuum that will just do its job with reasonable maintenance, but that definitely is not the Roomba 560. Too bad, they had some good ideas that just need some work.  Pity the sizzle is easier to sell than the steak. I wish them luck, but maybe not with my nickel anymore.