Thursday, February 25, 2010

Should YOU get an Hybrid or Extended-Range Electric Car?

Although I'm very much for our weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, if for no other reason than to get us out of the situation of being at the mercy of some not-very-friendly countries -- think Venezuela, for instance -- I realize two important factors when we're talking about our cars: One, fossil fuels are going to be a major, perhaps the major, source of our total energy source for some decades to come; and, two, while technology is advancing by leaps and bounds, a great many people remain skeptical of hybrid and extended-range electric vehicles, and not without reason.

But first, definitions are in order. A hybrid vehicle uses both  its electric motor and gasoline engine at the same time -- that is, the gasoline engine is connected to the power train so that it works in tandem with the electric motor. In other words, gasoline is being consumed all the time you're driving, but at reduced rates per mile. On the other hand, an extended-range electric vehicle works differently; the gasoline engine isn't connected to the power train -- its only job is to keep the battery charged.

So, if you drive, say, a Prius, which is a hybrid car,, you are going to be burning gasoline even if you just drive a mile or two. But if you drive a Volt (once they go on the market, that is), for up to the first 40 miles you won't be burning any gasoline at all.

At first glance, anyone who drives, say, an average of 30 miles per day may think, "Heck! All else being equal, I'll go with a Volt!" And indeed, there is something to recommend that: no expense for gasoline, and a boost for clean air.

But no gasoline expense and cleaner air aren't all there is to the story. You have to recharge a Volt -- well, I guess you could let the battery run down and just buy gasoline, since the expected fuel tank, according to the latest I can find from GM, will have a capacity somewhere in the 6-10-gallon range, and even at, say, 25 mpg, that'll get you a ways. In contrast, a Prius drives like a "real" car -- you never have to recharge it, because the gasoline engine is keeping it recharged the whole time while helping with the driving. That's a big plus, and a big reason the Prius is so popular. People do worry about being able to recharge an ER EV (extended-range electric vehicle).

If you're still eager for a Volt on the basis of savings on gasoline expenses, you better hold up and think a moment. Even if your driving habits are such that you indeed never or only very rarely drive more than 30 miles per day, how much are you going to save? If your current car gets 30 mpg, you'll save, at most, 7 gallons per week -- and that's only if you drive that much every single day of the week.

I decided to look at that number, and do some math. I just now checked online, and in the area in Texas from which I come, the median price for gasoline in the last 24 hours is around $2.60. Okay, so in a week I save $18.20, or $946.40 per year. I just checked, and the average American car buyer who buys a new car keeps it three to four years. Let's split the difference at 3.5 years. Okay, 3.5 X 946.40 = $3,312.40 saved. Let's round that down to an even $3,000, just to build in a margin of error.

Right now, there are some nice tax breaks available. If I remember correctly, you can get a $7,500 break from just the federal government alone for either kind of car. (Don't take my word for that if you decide to do some serious shopping -- check it out; a rebate I may remember correctly may have been reduced or even eliminated.) Various states give various breaks as well. But let's say you live in a stingy state that *doesn't* give *any* break.

Okay, that leaves you your $3,000 in fuel savings, in the case of the Volt, plus the $7,500 tax break from the our friends at the IRS. (You know it must since a tax collector into spasms of grief when Congress and the President gives us breaks like these!) That's a cool $10,500, which is (sort of like) extra money in your pocket when you head to the dealership. If you're a person who can reasonably afford no more than a $30,000 car, that's a lot of extra buying power. I'm assuming that a $40,000 car is almost certain to be rather nicer than a $30,000 one. Put another way, you get a $40,000 for 3.5 years instead of that relative clunker you could really afford.

BUT -- the eternal "but" -- what about after the fed break ends? Then you'll have to fork over $36,500 for a $40,000 car. And you'll have to recharge it as long as 3-4 hours -- on a 220-240 volt outlet -- or as long as 6-8 hours on a 110 outlet every time you drive it, depending, of course, on how far you drive it.

That's a pain in the a -- I mean neck. A Prius, on the other hand, is ready to rock-and-roll all the time, every time, unless you were a dodo and ran the tank dry, in which case I have no sympathy anyway, Dunce! ;-)  Just hope your battery has enough charge to let you limp to the nearest gas station to gas up. And don't forget next time, okay?

Now, what about a Prius, in terms of fuel capacity and consumption? I think the 2010 model holds just under 12 gallons. Let's just call it 12 gallons. It boasts a range of "more than 600 miles," which isn't very specific, so I'll assume a range of just 600 miles, since manufacturers lie through their teeth all the time. (Ditto GM, no doubt, not just Toyota -- and PLEASE don't bring up Toyota's current recall nightmare; I imagine they'll get that sorted, eventually, and make darned sure they don't get stuck like that again!) That's 50 mpg.

Okay, that means for a 30-mile commute you'll use just 6/10th's of a gallon compared to the 1 gallon you would use in an ordinary car that gets 30 mpg. So, you're saving 4/10th's of a gallon per day, or 146 gallons per year, which I am promptly rounding up to 150 gallons a year. At that same median price of $2.60 per gallon, that means you save $379.60 annually (if you drive every day of the week, every week of the year), which I'm also rounding to $380. Compared to the Volt owner, who saves $946.40-but-I'm-rounding-it-to-$950, You Pay, in a sense, a "convenience fee" of $570 not to have to recharge your car. A little under $1.60 per day.

So, which -- if either -- sort of car should you buy?

Well, that depends. If you're a typical family person in a family in which both the husband and wife work and drive 30 miles daily, including on weekends, but you're home every night and have a garage or carport in which you can recharge your vehicle, you may want to opt for the Volt. Night is when electricity rates are their cheapest, you're not going anywhere anyway, bar an emergency. However, if your driving habits vary, or if your a night worker and have to recharge during peak-rate daytime hours, maybe the Prius is better for you.

What about the potential car buyer who would be perfectly happy with a regular car that costs about the same as either a Volt or a Prius? I guess the next consideration would be how the buyer feels about cleaner air and the like -- and I don't mean climate change, global warming, whatever you want to call it. One can wish for cleaner air without believing any of the climate change stuff. If that's important to you (as it certainly is if you are a believer that people are pushing the climate over the edge), then you may want to give these cars some consideration, or cars like them.

What about people with greatly different needs -- like me, were I to move back to Texas (or anywhere in North America, for that matter)? I'm single, and there won't be any babies in this old boy's future. I suppose I might acquire a significant other somewhere along the way, in theory anyway; depends on how stiff I get -- "Do I really need a Sweetie around to go get me a beer?" Crucial considerations like that, you know.
But back to the point.

I'd probably take a look at some cars in the SmartForTwo class, not all of which are two-seaters, as it is. I checked a SmartForTwo, and it's near-unbeatable on price: I put together a basic coupe plus a few extras, most importantly an air-conditioner. On the company's website, the price came back as $13,530. There are quite a few choices in this class, though their prices can range above $20,000.

A final note: ER EV's aren't for everyone for everyone. Someone who otherwise is the ideal candidate suddenly remembers, "Hey, I live on the 78th floor of an apartment tower overlooking Central Park West! Where can I plug the damned thing in???" Oops. As the tuna ad says (or used to say in my day, anyway), "Sorry, Charlie." Or Charlotte. Or whatever.

I personally expect we'll see technology catch up sooner than we think, though building up infrastructure is going to take time since there are tens of millions of people across the country who plain don't have ready access to recharge EV's. And not everyone trusts even a Prius, though that's changing in its favor.

And if fuel prices soar again and stay high, unlike when they went to over $4.00 per gallon in 2008 but now are down to well under $3.00 per gallon, anywhere in the country, my bet is that Americans' driving habits really will change, even after the economy recovers and is purring along nicely.

Feel free to leave a comment!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

U.S. Federal Authorities Give Arrogant Advice AND Try to Redefine an English Word

I've just read an extraordinary article in Newsweek about a federal case over how far the authorities can go in getting a cell phone owner's phone regards -- not eavesdropping, but the data through which they can determine where you were at a given time. The first part of the title above is a reference to prosecutors saying if a cell phone owner doesn't like it, that's easy -- you don't need to carry a cell phone. The second part of the title above refers to an, um, "novel" claim by the authorities of the meaning of the word "solely."

You can read the article at this URL, and I hope you do so you get the full feel of what it is I reacted to so strongly:

While there are times federal agents might need such records -- the example of the agent tracking fugitives is a good example -- even under "2703(d)" orders, the agent or other authority seeking records needs to be required to explain to a judge just exactly what connection the information might have to the suspected crime. "It might be relevant" doesn't cut it, either, though apparently that seems to have become the basic departure point for some, especially since the passage of the Patriot Act.

For the prosecutors to have written "One who does not wish to disclose his movements to the government need not use a cellular telephone" is troubling, as is another assertion they made: "The term 'solely' is not wholly prohibitive, but rather, partially restrictive."

I'll address the "unusual" claim regarding the meaning of the word "solely" first.

Not wishing to rely upon my status as a native speaker of English, nor upon my two degrees in English, nor upon my many years teaching English in universities, mostly in the context of writing to native speakers and as language to non-native speakers, nor upon the fact I'm a writer, I looked it up. My dictionary defines "solely" as "1 only, completely. 2 alone." [Just for the record, my dictionary defines "sole" as meaning "1 one and only. 2 not shared, exclusive."]

Therefore, regarding the claim "the term 'solely' is not wholly prohibitive, but rather, partially restrictive": case dismissed.

Turning to the rather arrogant statement "one who does not wish to disclose his movements to the government need not use a cellular telephone," I have a counter-proposal to those prosecutors: "one who mistakes himself as being above the law should never be a prosecutor, nor even allowed to be." And when a prosecutor arrogantly dismisses citizen concerns regarding their 4th Amendment rights by saying a citizen just shouldn't carry a cellular phone -- and makes that assertion in writing -- he/she has just proven himself/herself, by his/her own words, as unworthy of being in the noble legal profession.

Most of us don't begrudge the authorities doing what is often a difficult and thankless job, and we are supportive and appreciative, even if we're not very good about expressing those sentiments. However, it has to be a two-way street: we don't want a police state.

I'll do my part now: thank you for doing your jobs. Just please give what I've written above some passing reflection.

Some Oddxs and Ends of News

Just a few bits of news to pass along this time around.

If you're planning on being in Thailand soon, you may be concerned about the sometimes dramatic news reports about plans supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin will hold demonstrations. While the leaders of those supporters are being quiet about where they might arrange rallies, the places I've read and heard speculation about are the places one would expect, such as the Government House and Parliament.

As always, a little common sense will go a long way. The most obvious thing is to avoid going to places where large crowds are milling around. And for heaven's sake, don't take part in any such rally unless you're a Thai national (since that's your right, of course). I personally would not even getting into a conversation; passions are reportedly high in some instances, though I've run into any of that.

There are other steps that are advisable anytime you travel, and anywhere. For instance, it's always good to leave money, credit cards, and other valuables in your hotel, preferably one with a safe in your room. You'll have to have some money, naturally, but leave a chunk in your room, and your air ticket. What you do need to take with you, including a camera, be careful with it. I carry my cash and wallet in my front pants pockets, as it's harder for a pickpocket to fish them out of front pockets instead of back ones. Ladies, if you don't to weak slacks, at least get a bag you can strap around your waist or dangle from your neck inside your blouse or dress. Actually, that's a good idea for men as well.

Try not to walk alone, especially at night. Be wary of strangers -- Thai or foreign who try to start chatting with you for no clear reason. And for sure don't go somewhere with a stranger who approaches you -- well, okay, taxi drivers are generally okay, though do insist on using the meter if there is one.

Almost forgot: before you even leave home, list and photograph everything you'll be taking with you If you take photos with a digital camera, you can e-mail them along with the list to yourself -- that way, if you get something stolen, you'll have those to help the police. And don't forget to photograph and list your credit/debit cards, driver's license(s), etc., too.

Try to have a good idea of what goods and services should cost. I once had a taxi driver ask me for 5,000 baht to take me to Jomtien , which is about 135-140 kilometers away. At the time, the going rate was in the 1,000-1,200-baht range! I just chuckled and declined.

If you happen to be headed to the far north of Thailand, places such as Chiang Mai, Pai, and over by the border with Burma, there was a lot of smoke a few days ago., or so I read in a newspaper and saw on a local TV news report. I haven't been able to find out if it's gone yet, but I would be surprised if it is

Okay. Enough with the cautions.

If you are going to be in Bangkok and are an aficionado of the "Green Demon" buses, you're out of luck. They were finally ordered off the streets effective today; the Bangkok government is phasing in brand-new bright orange buses. Hundreds of them. The green buses were notorious: surly, unsafe drivers, and poorly maintained equipment. The owners kept putting off changing the buses' engines over to NVG, and after several deadlines were extended, whoever in government who makes such decisions decided "no more!" (The new buses do run on NVG.)

I keep hearing that Pattaya and Jomtien are basically empty. One friend went a few days ago with the idea of staying several days, but he took the time to walk all the way from the end of North Pattaya Beach Road to its southern end then on into Walking Street, detouring a block or two up each side soi along the way, and he said many places were literally empty of any customers. So he went right back to the bus station and came back to Bangkok.

There's a new bar in Washington Square called "Easy Bar." It's on the south (back) side to the right of the Hare and Hound if your looking at the Hare and Hound. I think they open at about midday. It's run by several Thai ladies, all well-known on the Square, so they're getting some immediate support.

Happily, I've heard of no deaths, illnesses, or injuries -- I don't count my hip, which I manged to whack pretty good on the mirror of a parked car last night, but it's not bad, if I am a little stiff!

More irritating is I managed to lose my hand phone night-before-last. I made the rounds of my usual haunts yesterday afternoon, but it wasn't to be found. A friend came to visit today and tried to call my number several times, but calls were diverted and a message came on directing callers to use the call-back service. I haven't gone out today, but I guess in a day or two I'll go buy some low-end, cheap phone -- they can be had, new,s for not much over 1,000 baht (about US$30.00). So for now, I'm telephone-less -- my Internet line is working, but my voice one is out. TOT is responsible for the line from the soi to the office of my apartment building, and True is responsible for the line connecting from the wall box beside my desk to the phone and ADSL modem. True sent a repairman out, and he checked True's part here in my living room, then took me to the office, found the incoming TOT line, and hooked up a technician's phone to it and made a call then handed me the phone. a nice lady on the line explained to me that my apartment house is responsible for the line from the office to my desk. However, my particular apartment is owned by a couple, not by the apartment -- so *I'm* responsible. So far, the manager hasn't been able to arrange a private repairman to come replace the stretch of the line. Sigh.
There's really  no news about any of the Squaronians to report that I know of. But that's GOOD news in itself!

Finally, it's getting pretty warm; the other day it was 36C/97F, which quite warm enough for me.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The two Faces of Janus: The United States of America's CONGRESS

Well, the pukes we call our representatives in the U.S. Congress are up to their lying shenanigans again.

President Obama has proposed a breathtaking $3.83 trillion budget for the 2011 federal fiscal year. Based on a population of 307 million, that works out -- are you ready for this??? -- to a stunning $1,247,557 for every man, woman, and child in the country.

For just a single year.

Not that this kind of spending is anything new. President Bush's final budget came out to some $3.5 trillion dollars -- and that didn't include funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (I'll be coming back to that point shortly.) In fact, President Bush's last budget drove our budget deficit to the highest level, as a percentage of GDP, since 1945 -- when we were polishing off the Second World War. (Bet you didn't know that, did you?) And the Manhatten Project didn't come cheap. For you young'uns, that was the project that developed the atomic bomb, which we promptly dropped on Hiroshima then Nagasaki, bringing an end to the war in the Pacific. (The war in Europe ended three months earlier, in May, 1945.)

Now, it's very much to the point to mention that this is an election year. Every single member of the House of Representatives, except those calling it quits, face re-election campaigns come this autumn, as do one third of our Senators. In these tough economic times, they understandably are screaming bloody murder about the President's proposed budget.

But there are a couple of facts they don't like to mention, especially the Republican candidates. President Bush's final budget didn't include funding for the twin wars we have going on -- but President Obama's DOES include that funding, which is the major reason the budget deficit shot right straight up into the stratosphere; had President Bush's last budget included that funding, his final budget deficit would have been even more than President Obama's.

They hate the phrase, those D.C. oinkers, but that is, indeed, "an inconvenient truth."

Think of it this way: what they're basically saying is "Lookee, lookee! I have $1.000 left in my checking account" -- WITHOUT mentioning the TWO thousand dollars' worth of checks they wrote but "forgot" to write down in their checkbook register.

Two-faced is what they are. ALL of them, including the conservative Democrats fighting for their political lives. They're just like the Roman god Janus.

But it doesn't stop there.

I imagine most of you have heard that the President has cancelled any plans for NASA to return to the Moon, although NASA does get a slight budget increase in his proposed budget.

This has grave implications for the manned space program.

I need to insert a full disclosure: I am a life-long fan of our space program, both our manned and robotic missions. It's impossible for me to be neutral. Just want to be honest about that point. I still remember, with crystal clarity, the night Dad took me out to the back yard and pointed out Sputnik 1 orbiting high above. I already had developed a deep enchantment with the night sky, and that image set that enchantment in stone for me.

I mean -- who doesn't love our twin Mars rovers??? Planned for 90 days -- but six years later they're still trucking! (Well, okay, so one of them is stuck, but it still can serve as a stationary platform -- IF it survives the upcoming northern hemisphere winter, that is. Still, a damned impressive performance.) And who doesn't love the spectacular photos the Hubble Space Telescope keeps on downloading to us -- and do you realize that this coming April 24th will be its 20th anniversary of coasting right along???

And those of you of a certain age or older -- I'm 58, soon 59 -- can remember the glory days of NASA, when President Kennedy challenged us as a nation to get boots on the ground, as in MOON ground, within a decade. And we beat that deadline by a couple of years or so, when Neil Armstrong climbed down the lunar lander ladder, planted his boots in the Moon dust, and spoke those immortal words: "That's one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind."

That was July 20, 1969 -- only eight years, two months, and 15 days after Alan Shepard became the first American in space in a sub-orbital flight on May 5, 1961. A humorous historical footnote about Shepard's flight: launch was repeatedly delayed, the spacecraft finally lifting off several hours later than planned. During that delay, Shepard finally needed to pee-pee -- but of course there wasn't any way for him to do so, suited up in his space suit and strapped down flat on his back inside the tiny Mercury capsule. He bitched about it, demanding to be let out -- he couldn't exit unaided -- but the space suit folks decided to tell him he couldn't come out -- but to go ahead and just whiz away in his space suit, as it wouldn't be damaged! Shepard thus became not only the first American in space, but the only American, to date, to fly floating in his own PEE-PEE!!! :-)

I'll never forget the first Moon landing, either. Talk about electrifying.

ANYway -- back to those turds in Washington. When President Obama gave his speech outlining his budget proposal, within hours, members of the Congressional delegations of Texas, Alabama, and Florida -- home, respectively to the NASA Manned Spaceflight Center (in Houston, Texas), the George C. Marshall Manned Space Flight Center (at the Redstone Arsenal, near Huntsville, Alabama), and Cape Canaveral (on Merritt Island, Florida -- betcha didn't know it's on an island, did you? Huh? Huh??? Didja? DIDJA???) -- were raising holy hell, whining about lost jobs, mostly.

To be fair -- they're right. Cancelling the return-to-the-Moon program announced by President Bush in 2004 will cost jobs. And I, for one, am deeply distressed at the thought of cancelling those plans, and the thought of those lost jobs. Those folks are my fellow Americans.

However -- those b*st*rds pissing and moaning now don't like to mention that just as was the case with funding for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, President Bush announced the plan for returning to the Moon-- but never requested a single dime to pay for it.

Nor do they like to mention they never saw a piece of pork -- if it was in their home district, in the case of Representatives or in their state, in the case of Senators, they didn't like. Both my Senators (for example) were right on board the band wagon that shoved 12 extra F-22 fighters down the Pentagon's throat, even though the Air Force Chief of Staff, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense, and President Obama didn't want them -- 12 aircraft costing a cool $350 million -- each -- for a grand total of $4.2 billion. I don't know about you, but to me that's a fair chunk of change.  Compare that to about $50 million per copy for the next-generation fighter slated to go into service, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. It'll be assembled in Texas, as is the F-22 -- but $50 million per copy is a lot less PORK than the $350 million per shot for the F-22. Oink-oink-oink! Squealing in pain, those miserable oinkers. Even the more expensive STOL [short take-off and landing] and carrier-based versions planned for the Marine Corps and Navy, at about $60 million each, don't cut it, not in Oink-oink-oinkity-friggin'-OINK terms.

There's a single word that summarizes all this, a word from Greek that you know -- betcha didn't know you know some Greek, did you??? That word is "hypocrisy." (It stems from the Greek word "hypokrisis," which means "acting on the stage, pretense.")

Yeah. "REDUCE THE BUDGET!!!" they scream. "But not from MY budget, by god!!! -- Cut it from THAT guy's!!!"

Excuse me while I go puke now. . . .

By the way, feel free to post a comment by clicking on the link just below this post.