Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Economies of scale; the limits

One of the chief things that plagues us as a people, in my opinion, is our misbegotten belief that we can follow economies of scale to reduce costs to an arbitrarily low level. To a degree, it comes from Adam Smith's "pinmaker" analogy, but probably more from the steam engine.

How so? Well, consider that it's difficult to make a small steam engine--and was far more difficult to do so 100 years ago. Large factories were built to take advantage of available horsepower, and people began to assume that fine specialization and massive economies of scale were the norm.

(interestingly, the diesel engine was Rudolf Diesel's attempt to provide an engine for smaller factories, overcoming efficiencies of scale)

Now certainly this works well in some areas. As Smith tells us, it's hard to make good pins without making a few thousand (or million) of them. However, it's easy to overstate the benefits, as the example of public transit makes clear.

Two really horrendous mis-applications of "economies of scale," in my opinion, are schools and churches. The logic appears sound; why not let those who are best at teaching or preaching do that full-time? Why not allow teachers, or senior pastors, to concentrate on mathematics, history, or preaching, and relieve them of other tasks?

The results, though, are clear; the one room schoolhouse delivered the equivalent of an associate's degree in only eight years of schooling, and Willow Creek Church near Chicago has just admitted that they've done a far better job of filling pews than of making disciples.

It turns out that real education requires far fewer subjects than you'd believe when looking at a typical high school or college coursebook, and making disciples means a little bit more than sitting them in a pew and talking to them, or putting them in a program.

Again, it's probably not something that's going to be a popular message among those who yearn for positions where a single dumb mistake could, as Dave Barry noted, consign thousands of men to joblessness. And yet it is true.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Addendum on bus efficiency

To follow on on how full a bus (or light rail car) must be to achieve parity with the passenger automobile, consider that for the most part, transit goes inbound in the morning and outbound in the evening, and is hardly used at all between rush hours. In other words, only one fourth of buses or light rail cars have significant ridership, and thus each bus going the ordinary direction during rush hour needs about 40 to 60 riders to merely "break even" in terms of energy usage. A light rail car would need about 100 passengers to "break even" in terms of energy usage and carbon emissions.

An average bus carries 40 passengers, and a typical light rail car might carry 66. The very structure of centralized transit shows that it can never be an environmental benefit when compared with the ordinary automobile.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Draw your own conclusions

In Sunday school this weekend, our adults class/fellowship was discussing the spirituality of the workplace. One friend of mine mentioned that his workplace was slated for being eliminated due to poor performance, but after the branch manager moved on, the branch had outperformed all others in the company for the past two years with no manager.

Somehow I don't know that this is going to be an example used in any MBA program anytime soon.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Animal Kingdom Jihad update


Beat you to it, KingDavid. :^)

The Digital TV Mandate.... supposed to come to fruition in 2009, and for some reason, I'm thinking that I'm not going to replace my old TV just to watch the daily sitcoms a couple of years from now.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Hasty separation

One of the biggest tragedies in American Christianity, in my opinion, is the hasty separation from the movements that spawned our own churches, and the rush to adopt new names to separate ourselves from the old ones. I see people avoiding using terms like "Baptist," "Lutheran," "evangelical," "fundamentalist," and more not because these terms represent a failure to hold to the Gospel, but rather because the use of these terms is embarassing in light of the actions of some leaders, or even false stereotypes.

Unfortunately, this isn't Biblical separation, but rather just the strategic changing of names to accomodate the times. It's the Christian world's version of GM marketing, where the nameplates are changed ("it's not an Olds, it's a Saturn"), but the product remains the same. As former GM customers have made clear, it comes perilously close to false witness.

How to trash your company

Gary North takes the example of the Maytag Company, which prospered for nearly a century until management decided that cost-cutting was the wave of the future. Thousands of people whose jobs are lost now say "thank you" (or more likely something a bit less polite) to management.

I had a couple of brushes with this as it was happening; I went to the appliance store to buy a new washing machine and refrigerator, and the salesman pointed me to the Amana because it "was the same as the Maytag and 10% cheaper." Comments indicate that the same management team might be a big reason you're no longer considering buying a Hoover vacuum cleaner.

If you want to compete against big companies, you'll do well to do one thing; don't cut corners. Just ask the good people at Jones Sodas.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Have we forgotten how to apologize?

Congressman Pete Stark has evidently indulged what has become a fine art among politicians; the "non-apology" to "those who might have been offended." Sadly, it's prevalent among people on both sides of the political aisle, and I have to wonder; have most people lost the art of the true apology; to admit that their behavior was not only perceived as rude, but that it was wrong on an objective scale.

I have to wonder whether relativism and postmodernism have become so pervasive, that the very concept of saying "what I did/said was wrong, it was cruel, and I'm asking your forgiveness" becomes foreign to us.

Scariest of all, I've seen it in the church. The very institution God created to spread the good news of forgiveness for sin falls into the trap of ignoring sin's reality. Yikes.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Go! Go! GO!

Or, maybe not. Take a look at 1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:5, where Paul notes of his (and his friends') desire to visit the church at Thessalonica, and how Satan hindered them from going--and then finally (3:1), they thought it good "to be left in Athens alone", and send Timothy instead.

Now certainly Paul wasn't sitting on the couch there drinking Bug Light and eating Doritos, trying to qualify for Rome's WIC program. He'd be praying, visiting the synagogue or forum to witness to Christ, writing to other churches, and so on.

Still, it catches my eye that he "thought it good" to be left in Athens; he didn't think so highly of himself as to think that he was the only one who could do the job. Maybe more of us need that outlook on life.

On another note, it seems that as soon as I post on remarkable moral hazard, another great example comes up. By subsidizing stadiums, we create the incentive to become a 300lb + defensive tackle who cannot run the length of a football field without requiring oxygen and an IV drip for the remainder of the first half of play.

And people wonder why the mean age of death for NFL players is something like 56.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The very definition of moral hazard?

I learned today that here in Minnesota, you can have a six figure income and receive WIC benefits. Evidently, the definition of "the poor" in Minnesota can include a fair number of doctors and lawyers, and we must conclude that our legis-critters think you can get that kind of income without, apparently, learning how to feed, clothe, and dress yourself and your children.

Just earn below a very generous maximum, and demonstrate that you survive on Bug Light and Doritos, and you're in. Moral hazard, paid for with your tax dollars.

H/T SayAnything Blog.

Efficiency of light rail and buses

If you talk to a booster of government ("public") transit, you'll find that it's almost an article of faith that using it will cause less fuel to be burned, less pollution to be produced, and so on. I've got my doubts, and here's why.

A typical city bus that can carry 40 passengers gets about 3-4mpg, takes a somewhat circuitous route to get where you're going, and also requires its own garage, bus stops, and such. Overall, I'd estimate that the actual fuel efficiency of a bus comes out at 2mpg or less for miles actually traveled to one's destination.

In contrast, an ordinary car gets 24mpg on average. So unless the bus has an average (not just rush hour) of 12-15 passengers, the bus probably creates more pollution than driving to work. They also put hundreds of times more wear on the roads than passenger automobiles.

Now let's consider light rail. I've never seen fuel usage estimates, but one can guess from what we know about cars; 60% of the energy goes to fight wind drag, 20% to overcome rolling resistance, and about 20% for acceleration. The advantage of light rail is steel wheels; rolling resistance is greatly reduced. The disadvantage of light rail is that you need a lot more weight to keep those wheels on the track; typical carriage weights are around 50 tons.

So here's the estimate; about 5 times more wind drag, about the same rolling resistance (despite far heavier weight), but about 60x higher energy needed to accelerate the train than a car. This results in about 1.5mpg. After you account for energy used in transit stations and such, you're around 1mpg.

In other words, unless light rail is consistently over half full, there is no reduction in energy use whatsoever vs. that of a passenger automobile. Carbon emissions (given that you're burning coal to produce the electricity) are higher even if the trolley is completely full.

You could improve transit by going to hybrid vehicles, but then again, so can commuters. Overall, there does not appear to be a significant environmental benefit to using transit.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Living the Gospels

At this time of year, I'm generally reading the Gospels--my "read the Bible in a year" program may be the world's most boring; 3-4 chapters per day, straight through from Genesis to Revelation. One things that comes to mind as I read is that the Gospels are hard, really HARD.

The churches I've been around seem to do pretty well with the Pauline and other epistles, the books of history, the Torah, the poetry, and the prophets. Watch out, though, for the Sermon on the Mount. You mean just a word can be murder, and just a look can be adultery?

Certainly the other parts of the Bible show this side of our Lord--it's simply most obvious in the Gospels. As we try to be more like Him, we can certainly do worse than to dwell on this portion of Scripture.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Winner!

We have a winner for the "Michael Bellesiles Fraudulent use of Statistics Award." For those who don't remember, Bellesiles won the prestigious Bancroft Prize for history based on his "Arming America," which sought to prove that, contrary to popular opinion, our Founders were not actually likely to be armed.

Trouble came for Bellesiles when enterprising gun owners looked at his sources, and found that they generally said the opposite of what this author claimed. Bellesiles was even caught trying to "channel" probate records that had been burned as a result of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and claimed that his data had been destroyed in a nonexistent flood in his office building. He was stripped of the prize, and resigned his tenured post at Emory.

Sadly, the competition for the Bellesiles award is fierce, and portions of this are discussed on and elsewhere. Keynesian economists made a strong argument for the award by claiming, contrary to evidence, that the Depression was caused by tight money policies; the opposite is closer to the truth. Advocates of global warming certainly also made a case that they, too, deserved this award.

However, only one can win, and this year's Bellesiles award belongs to Planned Parenthood's Guttmacher Institute, the World Health Organization, and Lancet for their study on the correlation between anti-abortion laws and abortion rates. The study starts by using the wrong units; abortions per live birth, instead of abortions per sexually active woman of childbearing age. Any correlations found disappear once the correct units are used. Going further, it overestimates the U.S. abortion rate by about 30% (33/100 births instead of accurate ~25/100 births), ignores the fact that there are other huge factors involved, and claims to be able to accurately measure the rate at which illegal abortions are performed (I'm sure there's no reporting bias there!) in developing countries.

My guess is, and it's partly supported by Guttmacher's own data presented in the article, that they came to the exact opposite conclusions of where the data led. Just like Bellesiles, they are a worthy winner of this award. They used the wrong units, appear to have falsified data, and have assumed credibility in data where none ought to be assumed.

Again, if you think peer review guarantees quality, you are highly mistaken. Peer review most strongly guarantees conformity, whether that conformity conforms to reality or not.

Monday, October 15, 2007

An interesting study

This story is about researchers who are attempting, it seems, to test the hypothesis that affirmative action programs that give blacks and other minorities a "hand up" in getting into elite/competitive law schools are actually preventing many of them from becoming lawyers.

Sadly, the study is prevented by law schools from looking at the most relevant data; the gaps between the admission scores of minority students and the average, the gaps between their law school grades, and the gaps between their law school graduation rates. Also sadly, and ironically, those same law schools are claiming that there is no correlation between LSAT scores and future income or job satisfaction.

Without, of course, providing the data that would either establish or refute their hypothesis. This doesn't exactly say positive things about the logical and rhetorical skills of professors at our top law colleges.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Fat and heart disease

Mona Charen's latest column directed my attention to this article from the New York Times. Not only does it deliver yet another pair of refutations of the silly idea that consensus determines truth (take that, postmodernists!), but it also points out that a very significant thing we've all been taught is wrong; high fat diets are not strongly correlated with heart disease.

There is certainly logic to the idea; dieticians have worked for years on the assumption that if you eat a lot of a substance, you're going to find a lot of it in your body. Hence, if you load up on the bacon and steak and eggs, you're going to find that saturated fat and cholesterol in your arteries.

The trouble with this logic, apart from the empirical evidence that does not link high fat diets with heart disease, is that the body creates and breaks down both fats and cholesterol. So we find Frenchmen and Eskimos who eat a ton of foie gras and whale blubber who nevertheless never make it down to Mayo for pentuple bypass and carotid cleaning surgery.

Looks like Lefty's Pizza in Niwot might have to rename "Craig's Cardiac Arrest." I hear it's great training food, though, for one of the world's greatest sports. Men, "husband up", and then chow down.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sports and the mercenary mindset

Many people spend a lot of time thinking about what's wrong with modern athletics, suggesting that it's the money, the fame, an inordinate emphasis we place on them, or other factors. Certainly part of the issue is that most things we call "sports" or "athletics" are neither. Sport is historically blood sport like hunting. Athletics, historically, is track and field. We have a problem predominantly not with sports or athletics, but with games.

Even that, however, misses a central point. The central problem with our games is that we're letting someone else play them for us. Despite the fact that they're neither athletic nor sport, our games do serve as a proxy for training for war--"Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton", after all. When we primarily watch, instead of play, we create mercenaries.

This is a problem, of course, because mercenaries are historically known for quite a bit of looting, boozing, and wenching; societies have made moral exceptions for them out of fear of what they'll do if we don't, more or less.

So if certain players for the ViQueens (or your other favorite/least favorite team) remind you of the Huns, there is a reason why. A very important reason, and one that should drive you to participate in real sports and manly games for yourself instead of watching steroid mercenaries on TV.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Brute force, or grace?

Check out pictures of the bridge to replace the one that collapsed in Minneapolis. Notice that it's more or less a flat slab of a bridge trying to span 500' across the Big Muddy. I'm not one who thinks that it's not a bridge if it doesn't have some arches, but my rudimentary understanding of structures reminds me that one of the most difficult things to do, architecturally speaking, is to span a large distance without using some form of girder or arch in the design. Evidently, it's cheaper to install massive amounts of concrete and steel than it is to maximize the strength of a smaller amount of concrete and steel.

A Real Sport

OK, enough with the steroid-laden freaks chasing hoghide around a grass or plastic field in front of tens of thousands of overweight, generally drunken, fans. I want to talk about a real sport played by real men, training them in crucial life skills needed to protect those they love in the case of crisis. Watch them as they lovingly overcome obstacles on the way to a laudable goal.

I am referring, of course, to wife carrying, and the regrettable fact that the husbands of the world allowed apparently not one, but two unmarried couples to arrive at the finish line in Newry, Maine before ALL of the married couples.

Gentlemen, we can't take this sitting down as we watch Michigan State or Florida lose yet another eminently winnable game. Pick up your beloved and run around the house for the honor of holy wedlock!

Friday, October 05, 2007

Key games for Notre Dame

...are November 3 against Navy, November 10 against Air Force, and November 17 against Duke. Go Middies!

"Key," of course, in that they just may be the Frightened Irish's only chances for a win this year. It is so wonderful to see an 0-5 team in South Bend; hopefully they can keep up their streak.

(my favorite teams; Michigan State, Nebraska, whoever's playing Notre Dame, whoever's playing Michigan, and whoever's playing Colorado)

UPDATE: looks like I jinxed Notre Dame, as they beat UCLA 20-6 this weekend. Sorry, Golden Domers for spoiling your chance for a perfect season. :^)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Great ways to lose money

Now first, I must admit that most Americans really don't have any trouble doing this. We are, after all, the country that turned Lost Wages into a city.

That said, we do a great job of throwing away money in a lot of other areas; by buying far more than we can reasonably use, by buying cheap junk that we need to replace often, and by being stingy.

Yes, by being stingy. Look at Proverbs 11:25 "The generous soul will be made rich, and he who waters will also be watered himself." Look at Proverbs 22:9; "He who has a generous eye will be blessed, for he gives of his bread to the poor."

Gary North commented on this principle with a pithy comment; to the effect that the generous man interacts with people who will say "let's do this again." Not so the miser. At the risk of offending fans of Dickens, I think that that great writer got it wrong; wealth isn't accumulated by always trying to squeeze the last penny out of a deal. It's accumulated by making deals that benefit both parties.

Lots of applications here, but one that particularly comes to mind is the modern idea that a good businessman is one who squeezes the most out of every deal, paying the bare minimum; someone like Scrooge or Donald Trump. What's lost is that the squeezed have other ways of exacting a price from the squeezer.

Which might have something to do, for what it's worth, with Trump's two filings for bankruptcy.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

An interesting customer service call

I recently had the "opportunity" to make a call to my healthcare insurance, code-named "1.4 billion to the former CEO," and after wading through about three or four false reasons for a refusal to pay a claim, we finally determined that the reason a claim had not been processed was because the computer would not accept an online claim, but only hard copy. This wasn't the only mistake the computer had made, for what it's worth, in this case.

So I asked the rep. whether anyone in the company could override the computer to accept an otherwise valid claim. It didn't seem fair to make my doctor and I do the work for the company, after all.

She couldn't, but forwarded me on to another representative, and the other representative seemed to be very helpful, but admitted that she, too, couldn't override "Hal." However, apparently people at the next level could, and she was forwarding the case to that level.

So if you're dealing with a healthcare company (especially one known for backdating executive stock options) about a claim that ought to be paid, make sure that you don't just leave the matter with the first person you talk to. Rather, make sure you get to the level where they actually have authority to override the computer.

I bet, on a side note, that there are some managers out there wondering why their call center employees have low morale. If any of them are reading this, one factor might be that you've given them no authority to do their job.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Not all the UAW's fault

Jroosh notes, with some justification, his frustration with "American" automakers; certain parts of each car he's owned just simply don't hold up or operate like really they ought to. One common, and easy, target of blame is management. Another is the UAW.

Here, I'd like to enter a third, but probably the biggest, target for blame; the way the "Big Three" (or "U.S. Three") hire their engineers; on a contract basis.

This is a problem because both a company's profits and its quality problems overwhelmingly originate with those who design the product: engineers and engineering management. However, using contract labor makes it very difficult to reward engineers for their hard work with part of the profits, and engineers also know that the first cut of their wages goes not to them, but to the contractor.

As a result, top engineers know that it might be more profitable to work in Ohio, Mississippi, or Kentucky than in Michigan, and the Big 3 pay a heavy price for this.


Here's a bit of what's going on at the Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco. Toddlers are being presented in full "junior bondage" regalia on city streets where "adults" are parading themselves in the same manner and performing unspeakable acts in public.

Offended? You might do well to send a note to a sponsor, the Miller Brewing Company. If you're a drinker, you might remind them that this might cut your purchases of Miller brands, which include Leinenkugel's, Foster's, Pilsner Urquell, and Milwaukee's Beast as well as the "Miller" labels.

You might also do well to send a note to the San Francisco Police Department, asking why their officers stand aside while minors are exposed to what is more or less a living porn movie. Or give a call to the San Francisco Department of Child Protective Services at (800) 856 5553. Ask whether they'll be visiting the parents.

Monday, October 01, 2007

From the mouths of babes, and a question

My 7 year old daughter had an interesting thought; if your nose was pierced, but you didn't have the nose ring in, and you sneezed, it could go all over.

Hope you were eating while you read that. :^)

On another note, I've read a few reviews of hybrid cars, and one thing that pops out is that most of them can tow less than non-hybrid vehicles, even those equipped with the exact same gasoline engine. This is really counter-intuitive, as the first major use of hybrid drive trains is the diesel-electric railroad locomotive. Such drivetrains are renowned for the low end torque required to tow large loads, and electric motors generate their maximum torque at 0 rpm--from a stop.

So it's confusing to me why the "ideal" setup for pulling heavy loads would actually be capable of pulling less than would be the case if you simply (more or less) removed the motor--the part most capable of handling the torque.

Maybe it has something to do with the control electronics, or the transmission & differential. Whatever it is, I'm perplexed.