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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, November 14, 2003

Tool Time

Jim Henley responds to my earlier comments on SUV's, along with a bunch of other people's remarks. He answers my "good libertarian" remark by tagging me a "typical liberal scientist," and accusing me of "imagining that he can calculate the "legitimate need" of someone who is not him with the precision that he might calculate the strength of a magnetic field."

Leaving aside the fact that I'm an experimentalist, and thus measure things more than I calculate them, this is kind of a funny remark, since one of my main points was that a similar calculation lies at the heart of Jim's original article, and it's done wrong. Jim's whole premise is that the occasional need to haul or tow something justifies owning an SUV, and as supporting evidence he cites the cost of renting SUV's. He quotes an email in the new post that makes a similar assumption, drawing an analogy between an SUV and a chain saw:

As you pointed out, one doesn't necessarily need to own an SUV (or a chain saw, or whatever), assuming that such an implement can be obtained and utilized when necessary. What's not considered, however, is the human cost associated with such actions. Your rent-the-SUV example leaves out the time and effort necessary to arrange for the rental, get someone to take you to to the rental place, pick it up, check it over to make sure the last user didn't trash something that will leave you stranded, return it when done, etc. While you're doing this, what else of equal or greater value doesn't get done?

The analogy fails because, as I said in my earlier post, it doesn't account for all the costs. Owning a chain saw that I never use costs me nothing (after the original purchase price), and thus is probably cheaper than hiring one a couple of times a year. Owning an SUV instead of a regular car incurs continuing operating costs that need to be weighed against the costs of obtaining the SUV benefits elsewhere.

This is the classic "Huge Sale, Big Savings" trap. In the same way that the comparison between full price and sale price is meaningless for items you weren't planning on buying, the comparison is not between "free" and "$400 a week rental fee." Yeah, that $400 lump sum looks awfully expensive, but it's got to be compared to the monthly extra cost of owning a bigger vehicle (extra gas, higher insurance rates, etc.). Likewise the occasional $40 delivery fee. (It should also be noted that Lowe's and Home Depot will (at least around here) rent you a truck for about $20/day if you need to haul stuff home.)

I'm not claiming that I know how to calculate someone else's "need" for an SUV (though I'll go out on a limb and say that $50,000 SUV's with no towing rig and leather upholstery probably weren't really bought because the owner needed off-road capability), so much as I'm claiming that most people who own SUV's are calculating their own need wrong. They're weighing occasional costs against the imaginary free use of an owned vehicle, not the continuing cost of operating a bigger vehicle.

In more general terms, my core objection to SUV's (other than the fact that they're unsafe and annoying on the road) is that they're a bad compromise being made for bad reasons. If you really want a vehicle with large cargo capacity and towing capability, you want either a pickup truck or a station wagon (or possibly a minivan), depending on whether you're hauling construction equipment or children. An SUV is a bastard cross between the two-- not as much cargo space or towing power as a truck, more expensive and less safe than a station wagon-- and not as good as either. People buy them because they're sold as being cooler than either, and manufacturers push them as a dodge around CAFE standards.

If you want a tool analogy, owning an SUV because you might eventually need to haul something is like using a chain saw to trim your hedges every week because you might someday need to cut down a tree.

Posted at 8:48 AM | link | follow-ups | 13 comments

Thursday, November 13, 2003

The Fitness of SUV's

Jim Henley has accomplished the weblogger dream, and parlayed his blog writing into a column at the American Spectator. I'm not sure if this is a one-off or a regular gig, but I like and respect Jim, and enjoy his weblog, and hope it's the first step on the road to journalistic riches.

That said, I'm underwhelmed by the actual column, which is a defense of SUV's drawing on Jim's fitness program:

NOW CONSIDER A COMMON COMPLAINT against sport-utility vehicles: Most people who buy them don't need that much power. The argument goes, the bulk of SUV purchasers are suburbanites and city-dwellers who drive on good roads and know the back-country mainly from Animal Planet and the Outdoor Life Network. What most drivers need, say critics, is a vehicle that gets much, much better gas mileage.

A comparison with personal fitness is suggestive: SUVs are anaerobic strength vehicles; high fuel-efficiency cars are aerobic. Vehicle power is like muscle power: When you need it, you need it.

This is within shouting distance of a good point. Unfortunately, he kind of blows it with the rest of the article, starting with the statement that "you can't rent muscles." Actually, you can rent muscles-- they come attached to furniture movers and delivery people. Or college students, if you want to rent them for the price of a couple of pizzas and some beers. I've relied on muscle rental almost every time I've moved.

The bigger problem, though, is that most of the examples are bad ones, or at least not particularly good arguments for owning an SUV. He quotes rental rates and policies from Enterprise rent-a-car to demonstrate the unsuitability of the rental market for providing SUV's to those who need them. While Enterprise does rent SUV's (I spent the past few days driving a big-ass Ford Explorer courtesy of Enterprise), I doubt they're really the best place to obtain SUV's for recreational off-roading or towing. That's just not their market. A Google Search suggests the existence of a place called "America Off-Road" in Arlington (though admittedly, the web link is worthless), which sounds like a better candidate. And a good libertarian should agree that if there's demand from people renting SUV's to go off-roading, surely The Market will provide a source for such rentals, even if it's not a big national rental company.

Another problem is raised by the following:

If you ever want to haul a trailer, or drag a boat, or take a wilderness vacation even once a year, a rental won't do.

I was raised in the country, and I agree that there are few things more pathetic than city folks buying sporting equipment they can't move. If you own a boat or trailer, you should definitely own a vehicle capable of towing it. But how is this an argument in favor of SUV ownership by people who don't own boats or trailers? Where are these people getting the trailers they need to tow, and why can't they get towing vehicles from the same place?

The biggest flaw with the anti-rental argument, though, is the financial one. Jim cites the high cost of rentals, and notes that "If you find a vacation site you can legally drive to per Enterprise's terms and conditions, the cost will be equivalent to an extra $40 plus per month, spread over a year." This, of course, assumes that owning an SUV is free. Which it's not-- comparing the EPA mileage statistics for a 4WD Ford Explorer and a Ford Taurus (I choose those cars because they're what I drive), you find an estimated difference in annual fuel costs of $400, which is $33 monthly, awfully close to Jim's estimated cost of renting an SUV for vacation. And that doesn't include any differences in insurance rates or maintenance costs between the two. Not to mention the fact that these aren't particularly extreme vehicles-- if I wanted to be nasty, I'd compare an even bigger SUV to Kate's cute little car.

Yes, there are times when it would be really nice to own a big, powerful vehicle. Jim hasn't really offered a convincing argument that they stack up against the costs of owning a large, expensive, unsafe gas-guzzler.

(The folks at Crooked Timber have more on this piece, in a similar vein. Welcome to the big time, Jim...)

Posted at 10:42 AM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

Things You Don't Expect to Hear

I was picking up my car at the body shop yesterday, and had already handed over the check when the guy who runs the shop said, "Oh, yeah. I forgot to tell you."


"Yeah?" I said.

"One of my guys, um..." I get that sinking this-is-going-to-cost-me-money feeling you get at such places. "... he got a little crazy with the buffer."


"What?" I said.

"Yeah, he finished doing the back end, and he was bored, so he did the whole car. You'll be a little surprised when you see it in the light tomorrow. It really brought the finish back..."

And, verily, my car does gleam as if it were new. Go figure.

Posted at 10:37 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Cat Vacuuming

Faced with the prospect of making up final exams for two different classes, I, like all academics, have resorted to pushing papers around on my desk instead. Only, in this case, the papers and the desk are both electronic.

In other words, I've made a few changes to the blogroll at left. For one, I've dropped the links to the individual blogs of the Crooked Timber guys, who mostly just post to the (excellent) collective site these days. I've also ditched a few other inactive blogs, and corrected broken links to one or two others.

Taking the places of those who've been deleted are the sites I've linked recently (Pharyngula and Pedablogue), plus a few others that I've found myself reading frequently via links from other places: Chun the Unavoidable, Timothy Burke, and Signal + Noise.

That's about it for now. If you feel cruelly left out in the new-link-adding, feel free to bitch about it in the comments. I still have those exams to make up, and papers to grade, so I'd be happy to have more distractions...

Posted at 11:15 AM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

The Matrix: Revolting

Despite the bad reviews in most major media outlets (Kate has a nice collection of snarky quotes), we went to see The Matrix: Revolutions on Saturday. We knew it would be bad, but figured it was probably worth seeing, just to know how bad it was.

For the first half-hour (or so-- up until the club scene with the Merovingian), it was actually fairly entertaining. And then it went right to Hell. The scenes with Bane were sort of entertaining (the actor did a wonderful Hugo Weaving impersonation), but the battle scenes were just amazingly bad, like the filmmakers were working off a checklist of the worst war-movie cliches of all time.

As Kate notes, this is a movie that desperately needs to be given the Red Mike treatment. It's hard to know where to start with the battle scenes: Why is it that a machine civilization able to build the many remarkable devices we see has completely abandoned the concept of ranged weapons? Why is it that the humans are unable to come up with a better strategy than yelling "AAAAAAUUUUUGGGGGGHHHHHHHH!!!!" while firing huge numbers of tracer bullets seemingly at random? Why can't they come up with a better resupply system than a bunch of kids with shopping carts full of ammunition? And, for that matter, why is it that a human culture capable of building and maintaining Zion is populated entirely by people in filthy cable-knit sweaters? Did they renounce laundry technology along with the Matrix?

The biggest problem with the movie, though-- bigger even than the gaping logic holes in the plot, and the incredibly awful dialogue (which makes J. Michael Straczynski look like David Mamet)-- is that the filmmakers forgot what made the first movie such a big success. The glory of the first movie was its sense of style, and the almost balletic grace of the wire-work combat scenes.

That style and grace is almost entirely lacking in this movie, aside from a few scenes at the beginning. The great bits of the first film all involve people doing things that are just outside the range of the possible, in the context of combat that is almost one-on-one. The few bits of the third movie that actually work are the same. Problem is, the middle hour of the current film involves anonymous masses of people blasting away indiscriminately at equally anonymous masses of machines. There's no individuality, no subtlety, and no style, and thus, there's no interest.

Even at the end, when the whole war comes down to a mano-a-machino confrontation between Neo and Agent Smith, it doesn't have the magic of the first movie, because the combatants are too powerful. They're not just dodging bullets, and hanging a bit too long in the air, they're flying around like kung-fu Supermen in black suits, and it's just silly. There are limits to what you can do with special effects and wire-work and still have a movie resonate with the audience-- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon pushes them-- but The Matrix: Revolutions completely ignores them, and falls flat as a result.

There are lots of complaints to be made about the utter incoherence of The Matrix's cosmology, and no end of logical holes in the way the plot plays out. There are even valid moral and ethical complaints to raise about the way the movies treat civilians in the Matrix. But all those flaws are present from the beginning-- the first movie works well in spite of them. The third movie is terrible not because it doesn't make any sense (it doesn't, but the original didn't, either), but because it discards everything that did work in the first movie in favor of budget-busting CGI.

Posted at 11:01 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Sunday, November 09, 2003

Mozart Was Dead

On a lighter note (because, of course, the last two posts have been oh so weighty), another result of the vanity surf was the Museum of Conceptual Art's page of Things Other People Accomplished When They Were Your Age. It really made my day to know that Alexander the Great had conquered almost the entire known world when he was 32.

Me? I paid ten bucks to see The Matrix: Revolutions last night, and I plan to write a blog post bitching about it. Which will be broadcast to almost the entire known world. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr. No-More-Worlds-to-Conquer...

Posted at 9:47 AM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

What Are We, Chopped Liver?

On a vaguely similar note to the previous post, I was doing the occasional vanity surf through Technorati, and stumbled across Pharyngula. The author appears to be one of those proselytizing atheist types (hey to Aaron Bergman), which could get tiresome, but he's all over the issue of teaching evolution. If you want to know something about the many and manifest idiocies of "Intelligent Design" theory, and the movement to leave no child behind in our rush back to the fourteenth century, this would be a good place to look.

I've always been slightly very envious of the biologists over this issue. After all, the endless debates over the content of biology textbooks provide all manner of free publicity for biology. Every year or two, it seems there's some new band of creationists standing athwart biology yelling "stop!", and local biologists get to appear on the evening news standing up for Science.

Meanwhile, physics is tragically neglected in all this. For no good reason-- Big Bang cosmology, with its vacuum fluctuations and billions of years of slow history, should be as much of an affront to the Biblical-literalist whack jobs as evolution by natural selection. And then there's Quantum Mechanics, which has God throwing dice like a character in a song-- the lack of determinism in Quantum Mechanics was profoundly disturbing to Einstein, who spent the latter year of his life trying to find an alternative, and he was no fire-breathing radical. QM ought to make smoke pour out of the ears of your average fundamentalist wing nut-- where's our free press, dammit?

We need a campaign to teach more modern physics in high school. Not just because it would be a better education, but because we need to tap into that anti-fundamentalist publicity machine...

Posted at 9:41 AM | link | follow-ups | 12 comments

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