Archive for June 2008

Fireworks and the Nanny State

I grew up in suburban St. Louis, and some of my favorite memories center around bottle rockets, firecrackers and other consumer fireworks. At the time they were (and still are) illegal there, but that didn’t stop my brother-in-law from taking me along with him to the fireworks stands literally a few yards across the border in Jefferson County. There beneath canvas tents near the Meramac River Black Cat bottle rockets, Thunder bomb firecrackers, Jumping Jacks and hundreds of other types of fireworks could be bought in unusual quantities like “bricks” and “grosses”.  144 bottle rockets taught me the meaning of the measure “gross” – something that the Kid marveled at when I mentioned that fact as he was learning his multiplication tables.

Fireworks resulted in my first run ins with the St. Louis County Police Department. I remember being about ten years old talking to a cop when a packet of a dozen bottle rockets slipped from inside my shorts and fell onto the pavement. The cop didn’t hassle me for it; he didn’t even take them away. He just warned me to use common sense when shooting them.

Unfortunately that just wasn’t possible. Being an adolescent with fireworks means that everything that can be blown up, will be blown up. Model airplanes. Army men. Even a few unfortunate crayfish met their ends strapped to Thunder Bombs. There were even a few bottle rocket fights and crude attempts to build “super bombs” by combining several firecrackers together. Amazingly I made it through adolescence without losing a finger or an eye, and my lust for explosives waned as I became a teenager and found other, more shapely pursuits.

Now I’m a parent living in a state where fireworks are completely illegal. I didn’t miss them – until the Kid became an adolescent and saw the signs advertising fireworks along I-95. One, in downtown Wilmington Delaware, advertises a fireworks stand in Norritstown Pennsylvania forty miles away. In small lettering it notes “Fireworks are illegal in Delaware.” But get this, the type of fireworks being sold at the stand – Class C consumer fireworks – can be sold in Pennsylvania but not purchased by PA residents.

I discovered this over the weekend when the Kid nagged the Wife enough to compel me to drive the family across the Delaware-Pennsylvania border to a small fireworks stand. The windowless shop was in a converted gas station, and a sign hung outside saying that no fireworks could be sold to PA residents, and New Jersey residents needed a valid fireworks permit. No mention of Delaware. I went to the entrance, opened the door and was immediately confronted by a security guard demanding ID. I handed him my license and asked about the fireworks laws. “Is this driver’s license legit? You’ll be in trouble if it turns out you’re from Pennsylvania.” I’m forty-one years old. I haven’t had a fake ID of any sort since I was a teenager (and I was too scared to use it.) While I browsed the small cinder block walled shop my licence was scrutinized and eventually passed back to me.

There were several aisles of rockets, fountains, and fireworks of various types. Prepackaged displays running hundreds of dollars were obviously the big seller, and they took up about a quarter of shelf space. But on a less prominent shelf I found bricks of Thunder Bombs and my heart melted. The packaging hadn’t changed, and as I picked one up I remembered the joy of being a ten year old with a brick of firecrackers. It wasn’t the excitement of blowing them up; it was simply possessing a brick of firecrackers in my hands. The explosive potential of thousands of firecrackers was better than actually firing them off.

I didn’t buy much - just some sparklers, jumping jacks and smoke bombs for the Kid – Thunder Bombs and a gross of bottle rockets for me. As I drove home I realized that I picked a woman who is very much like me. After all the Wife encouraged me to break the law by getting fireworks to shoot in Delaware. She’s a smart woman and knows how to play me almost as well as Barack Obama plays the media.

Being a doctor she knew that ER’s in the country would be filled with injuries caused by fireworks. But like me she felt that it wasn’t the Government’s job to protect people from their own stupidity - especially in Delaware. Delaware is after all a state where motorcycle helmets are not required to be worn. They are required to be on the motorcycle but not the rider’s head. Delaware is also one of two states in the Union without usury limits – which is why nearly all credit card banks have a presence here. In Delaware you can legally get yourself indebted at interest rates that would embarrass the mob.  Delaware also has relatively liberal (for the region) open carry and conceal carry laws regarding handguns.

So you can feel the breeze in your hair while riding the motorcycle you bought with the 99% per month interest rate loan and packing a gun to protect yourself from repo squads – but your kids can’t play with sparklers in your backyard.  And don’t even think about lighting up a cigarette at a bar (smoking in public places is also illegal).

I quit smoking 12 years ago because I got tired of being a slave to cigarettes – not because of the Surgeon General’s warnings or the fact that smoking was banned in public places. I’ve worn a seat belt since Driver’s Ed at the age of 15 not because “you click-it or ticket” but because it helps me stay in control of the vehicle. I quit drinking not because it was illegal (it’s not) or because it was bad for me; I quit drinking because I loved my family more than I loved the booze and I was given a choice between the two by the Wife.

There’s a place for law and order in our society, and there is also a place for Society in our lives. But Society stops at my property line or at least Society should have a damn good reason for crossing that line. Unfortunately all too often purveyors of the Nanny state want to erase that line completely, and do so “for my own good.”

The problem with that is that is two fold. First how can the State claim to know me better than I do? What information does the State have access to that I or my family do not? In order for the State to know what’s best “for my own good” it has to know what that good is – and aside from some very limited demographic information (how much taxes I pay, where I live) it doesn’t have a clue about my situation.

The second problem is that the tools of the Nanny state – laws – are not fine-grained enough to take my situation in account. Laws are blunt instruments that hammer individuals regardless of their situations; extenuating circumstances may come in to play in a court of law but not during the initial phases of the justice system. This is the primary reason why I cannot in good conscience outlaw abortion even though I believe it is murder. By outlawing the practice we apply a blunt tool to what is a unique and personal situation. Yes there will be women who have abortions the way I hit the drive-thru, but by crafting a law to stop them, we risk damaging an innocent woman whose circumstances aren’t foreseen by the law. In my opinion it is better to protect the latter by allowing the egregious conduct of the former – at least when it comes to the law (I’m all for other extra-legal methods of dealing with them).

There are good reasons for laws banning fireworks such as in areas where sparks could start fires and damage property. However if the primary reason is to protect me from myself – or my children from my own failure as a parent – then a line has been crossed. It’s a fine line, but it’s there – and the State needs to respect it.

UPDATE: Here’s another fireworks story I wrote 2 years earlier.

Firing the Browning Hi-Power

After researching everyone’s favorite 9mm, I found that the Browning Hi-Power appeared on quite a few lists. So when the Kid and I got bored this afternoon we hit the range to fire it.

Browning Hi Power

The Browning Hi-Power is single action with a magazine that can hold up to 18 rounds. The extra capacity is a nice touch since I find reloading to be a pain. The gun feels old; it’s all metal with no composite or plastic materials that I could find. It’s not especially heavy and I found the gun to be well balanced in the hand. The trigger was tight and the mechanism smooth; I especially liked the slide release above the trigger on the left side although I tend to pull the slide all the way back to load the first round.

We fired Remington Golden Saber 9mm Luger ammo today, so we had a clear comparison with the SIG P239 – although after a few rounds there really wasn’t any comparison. The Browning Hi-Power was easy to control with not much of a kick for a 9mm. In fact I would say that it’s one of the least kicking 9’s I’ve fired – if not the least (the Kid seems to think that one of the Beretta 9 mm’s we fired early on in our “gun journey” was better – so we’ll test that the next time out).

The Kid still shot a little low; he’s clearly over compensating controlling the gun, but he’s young yet. I’m beginning to think that .22’s are more his speed right now. I found the Browning’s sights to be easy, and I fired relatively tight groups quickly and smoothly at 10 yards. The kick was completely controllable and I had no trouble resuming my aim. In fact I found it too easy – and we burned through $12 worth of ammo extremely quickly due to the larger magazine.

This is an Old School classic. It’s 1922 technology that works much better than most of the the more recent designs we’ve fired so far in 9mm.  It’s the best 9mm I’ve fired so far, but I will check the Beretta that the Kid mentioned in a future post.

The Council Has Spoken: 6/27/2008

Congratulations to this week’s non-council winner, Classical Values, for the excellent post Why You Should Apologize.
My post South Africa’s Neville Chamberlain won for the council posts. I am honored given the stiff competition.

Full results are here.

Celebrating Heller with the SIG P239

First thing after work as promised the Kid and I hit the range. We started with a box of .22 and the trusty old Anschutz rifle. After warming up with that we moved to shooting a 9mm, the SIG P239.

SIG P239

Because the range was out of the cheap stuff they sold us Remington Golden Saber 9mm Luger ammo at the same price. I mention this because being a newbie I don’t know what the difference is between brands and types of ammunition.

I loaded up 8 into the tight magazine for the Kid and shadowed him (something I always do until he realizes how a gun reacts) until he pulled the trigger. For an instant I thought I had gotten the wrong caliber. He held it tightly but the gun obviously gave him a ride. He finished the magazine and the grip was sweaty from his 12 year old hands controlling the gun.

What can I say? I swear the SIG P239 felt like I was firing something much bigger than the “usual” 9mm’s we shoot. However the biggest problem, and the one that was a deal-breaker for me recommending it, was the trigger. The trigger was just too soft. I’m beginning to learn that guns are like cars, food, or anything else that has a seemingly endless variety. The kick would have been much more manageable had the trigger been tighter.

After 50 rounds the target confirmed this. At 15 yards most of my shots had been centered L-R but were about 6” lower than my aim. This confirmed the feeling I had while shooting that I was overcompensating for the kick by forcing the barrel lower as I squeezed the trigger. With a tighter trigger I’m pretty sure it would have shot similarly to the Px4 Storm, but the “feel” of the storm in the hand is better than the SIG P239.

How big a role did the ammo play in the “kick” of this gun? I don’t know. I doubt I will be firing it again any time soon.

On a sidenote, two lawyers were at the range celebrating the Heller decision firing their own .40’s and .45’s. Everyone there tonight was pretty stoked about the ruling, but were also a bit annoyed by the close vote.

2nd Amendment Safe (For Now…)

After a 5-4 decision… One vote would have kept me from protecting myself and my family – or risk becoming a criminal myself. One lousy vote…

I’m relieved – but more than a little concerned that given the opportunity 4 Supreme Court justices were willing to gut the Second Amendment.

More at Dean’s World.


My son plays with a bunch of kids in the neighborhood from one family I call “the Gypsies.” Their house is pretty messed up with toys scattered around the front yard, and children being tended by other children. I’m not sure how many generations are in the house but I suspect that the oldest people I’ve seen there, being in their late 30’s or early 40’s, are the grandparents of some of the kids running around. Being somewhat libertarian minded I don’t think too much about their situation. They are nice people and their personal life is none of my business.

Somehow the kids got wind that we had a male guinea pig. They had a female guinea pig and told the Kid that they wanted to breed the two to make guinea pig babies.

My son asked me if I would let them “borrow” the pig for little while, and I said “No.” “It’s just for a few minutes.” Again, no. For several days he tried to get me to relent and I stood my ground. I would not let him take the guinea pig down to their house to “show” them, let alone stud him.

Friday night the Kid asked if he could take the guinea pig outside on the front lawn. I agreed but said that it couldn’t leave our property. So being 11 years old and knowing exactly where I stood on the issue, he consciously defied me and took the guinea pig down to the Gypsies. After I caught him walking back with the pig, he admitted to his defiance.

The Gypsies threw both pigs into a cardboard box, and according to the Kid the female danced around the male a little but he wasn’t interested. I’m not surprised. The pig isn’t the smartest pet I’ve owned. In fact the gerbils I care for show more personality than the pig does even though he’s 15x their size.

We inherited the pig after the Kid got it from one of his friends whose parents were getting divorced a few months ago. There was some deception there as well, since he called and told me that “Mom says it’s okay to get the guinea pig.” I later learned that the Wife had not said any such thing, and had said that we would “discuss it later.”

After I caged the pig the Wife and I grilled him on his defiance. He broke down crying and promised never to do it again. Since it was his first offense and most of our information came from his “confession” I made it clear that he would not be punished this time, but that any future defiance would be punished regardless of whether we obtain a confession or not. I made it clear that confessions would mitigate the punishment but not prevent it altogether. We also explained why we didn’t want to breed the pig, how the parenting skills of the Gypsies weren’t the best (a few days before I saw grandpa/dad riding a ten speed with a toddler on his shoulders; neither one wore a helmet although I’m sure the toddler would have acted like one had he fallen) and we didn’t want to be responsible for being babies into an unhealthy situation. That finally got through to the Kid better than the threat of punishment, and now I’m pretty confident he won’t mess with the Pig again.

He’s 11 1/2. I know this is only the beginning but I am prepared.

South Africa’s Neville Chamberlain

UPDATE: Thanks to the Watcher’s Council for awarding this post the top council post of the week 6/27/2008. I humbly appreciate the honor considering the quality of posts the council produces every week. – SK

Thabo Mbeki has sat silently while his country is flooded with refugees fleeing the economic and social collapse of South Africa’s northern neighbor Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s liberator turned oppressor lost the parliamentary elections held in March, then scrambled his thugs to action to make sure that his loss wouldn’t be repeated in the run-off to be held Friday. While international pressure against Mugabe mounted, Mbeki resisted joining the chorus of condemnation and use the leverage his nation has over Zimbabwe to get Comrade Bob to relinquish power. Instead Mbeki pursued a “soft-softly” conciliatory approach, telling the rest of the world, in particular the US and the UK, to but out of what he considered to be an “internal matter.”

But Mbeki’s soft-softly approach has failed spectacularly as the Guardian notes:

“Mbeki has fundamentally misread the situation in Zimbabwe; the political advice and intelligence reports he has been given is appalling,” said (Piers Pigou, director of the South Africa History Archive), who called the quiet diplomacy policy “a remarkable example of how to mess something up”. “He [Mbeki] overestimated his influence over Mugabe and Zanu-PF, thinking that his politics of appeasement would be reciprocated by concessions from them. It wasn’t.”

Ray Hartley, editor of the Times of South Africa, is furious with Mbeki’s approach:
Regional leaders and South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki, in particular, have failed to act against Mugabe even as evidence of the torture, murder and mutilation of opposition campaigners has mounted. They have not raised a finger to stop brazen election rigging and what now amounts to the theft of the run-off election by Mugabe’s thugs.
Mbeki’s flaccid diplomatic has failed utterly and yet, like a man who believes he can press reality into assuming his likeness, he persists with this weak initiative.
What is needed now is action against the Mugabe regime.

The Mark Bellamy and Stephen Morrison writing in the Washington Post call Mbeki “quietly complicit for enabling Mugabe’s misrule,” while the Post itself in an editorial blamed Mbeki for preventing Zimbabwe’s neighbors or the UN from intervening to stem the catastrophe that has driven 3,000,000 Zimbabweans to flee their own country.

The big question is why Mbeki has taken this approach. Piers Pigou believes the natural friendship between liberation movements is overblown. Liesl Louw, associate editor at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria South Africa, ponders the question as well.

Surely Mbeki, who has successfully run the largest economy in sub-Sahara Africa and mediated in crises in Burundi or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, would not support a man who has driven his country to economic collapse? The collapse has caused millions of Zimbabweans to stream across the border. It has also cost the South African economy billions in loss of export revenue.

Perhaps Mbeki’s problem has nothing to do with western pressure or liberation comradeship even though he has stated that Zimbabwe’s problems are “an internal matter” – odd coming from a man who worked to make aparteid an international cause in the late 1970’s. Reading his background Mbeki has been involved in some pretty tough negotiations, but that may be the problem.

Mbeki is a diplomat. In 1985 he negotiated as a member of the ANC with South African businesses. In 1989 he led talks with the South African government that led to the banning of the ANC and the release of political prisoners including Nelson Mandela.

Diplomats are by nature incapable of making decisions. Decisions are left to leaders who set goals for talks and approve or decline compromises. Diplomats function well when two sides are willing to give up something, but are useless when one side refuses to give up anything at all.

And that’s exactly what Mugabe has done in Zimbabwe. By turning a nation into his own personal estate, he sees nothing to gain by leaving power. He pried it from the hands of the white colonialists. He alone has ruled it in the thirty years since. In his mind Zimbabwe is his. Why should he negotiate? He already has what he wants.

To call Thabo Mbeki South Africa’s Neville Chamberlain would risk using a cliche if it weren’t for the fact that both men were diplomats and both failed to recognize that one party was not willing to give up anything or compromise in the least. A leader will recognize and walk away from a negotiating table the minute he senses that the other party has nothing to offer; not so a diplomat. A diplomat will always believe that he alone can pull success out of any negotiation if given enough time and effort.

Robert Mugabe is a leader. He will not let a diplomat pry his property from his own hands, even if in the process he is strangling that property to death. Thabo Mbeki is a diplomat who is incapable of stopping him.

I always believed that Thabo Mbeki was incapable of filling the shoes of another leader whom he served, Nelson Mandela, but later reconsidered and thought that maybe South Africa needed a diplomat  to keep the peace between divergent power centers in the land. While Mbeki has been successful in that diplomatic role, he has completely failed his international role as a leader of post-colonial Africa. The people of the region need a leader to step up and recognize that the time for talk is over and the suffering must end. Unfortunately for them Thabo Mbeki is not that leader.

NOTE: I also would like to thank Zach Barbera for his excellent commentary on Zimbabwe around the time that confiscation of land began occurring in 2002. It has stood the test of time for being prescient as well as some of the best writing on Mugabe and the nation he has pillaged over the years. I don’t know where you are, Zach, but thanks!

Liberal Enablers of Mugabe here.

Book Review: “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air”

UPDATE: Now in print here

I’m a conservative of the dreaded neo-con variety, but to me part of being a conservative is actually conserving resources – whether that is money, families or wildlife. While I don’t buy the anthropogenic global warming arguments, I’m not wedded to the petroleum lifestyle especially since I believe that preventing Saddam from invading Saudi Arabia in 1990 was a mistake (we should have let him clean out the Wahabis and Osama’s financiers in the Saudi royal family). Having lived through the 1970’s once, I would have hoped that over thirty years later we would have by now stopped shoveling cash to the Arabs; but we haven’t, and US politicians continue to refer to the Saudis as “our friends” and “allies” even as they rape us at the pump and fund madrassas that graduate homicide bombers instead of productive members of society.

I have never been keen on gas guzzlers because they waste money. I don’t like McMansions because they too are a waste to me. I like a car that gets me where I’m going as simply and cheaply as possible. Hummers and the super SUVs like the Chevy Suburban and Cadillac Escalade may be needed by some, but not by me. Similarly I value smaller, well built homes on large plots of land, the very opposite of today’s pressed board cookie-cutter monstrosities thrown up on good farmland right on top of each other – ghettos of the aspiring rich.

For the past several months I have been writing about energy and the enviroment, and one thing I’ve found is the paucity of data. As an amateur scientist I want to understand how we use energy, and whether there are better alternatives out there. It’s the same thing that drove Professor David J. MacKay, Professor of Natural Philosophy, Department of Physics at the University of Cambridge, to write and distribute free his book “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air.” (if that link is broken click here.) MacKay admits to being your typical Leftist UK professor – he can’t say the word “defence” without putting it in quotes, and parrots the party line about global warming. However typical Lefties don’t say this on the first page:

What’s this book about? I’m concerned about cutting UK emissions of twaddle – twaddle about sustainable energy. Everyone claims to be concerned, and every- one is encouraged to ‘make a difference’, but many of the things that allegedly make a difference don’t add up. Twaddle emissions are high at the moment because people get emotional (for example about wind farms or nuclear power) and no-one talks about numbers. Or if they do mention numbers, they select them to sound big, to make an impression, and to score points in arguments, rather than to aid thoughtful discussion. This is a straight-talking book about the numbers. The aim is to guide the reader around the claptrap to actions that really make a difference and to policies that add up.

He’s also not very keen on the belief propagated in the media, by companies, and by environmentalists themselves that “every little bit counts.” He counters “If everyone does a little, we’ll achieve a little.” This isn’t exactly the politically correct leftist propaganda I had expected, and it soon becomes clear why not: MacKay is a scientist first – leftist second. He states in the preface that he intends to explore the facts – not the ethical considerations that environmentalists like to use in their arguments instead of facts. And for the most part MacKay succeeds with the two exceptions noted earlier. In fact in fairness to MacKay, the AGW argument is the current scientific paradigm, and his support of the argument in the first chapter is nothing that an AGW sceptic hasn’t seen before. For those of you who are AGW sceptical, I’d recommend skipping this chapter and going right onto the next. MacKay does too good job of explaining the science behind energy production and use for an AGW sceptic to toss aside the rest of the book.

The book is divided into non-technical chapters with much of the technical stuff in the Appendix. He separates the technical discussions from the narrative in order to prevent the reader from getting lost; however anyone with a technical background will spend quite a bit of time flipping to the “back” of the book.

He focuses his book on the UK, and discusses the possibility of making that nation energy independent:

No single sustainable source matches our current consumption, even if much of the country were industrialized; and even all of onshore wind, shallow offhore wind, solar heating, solar PV at 12m2 per person, biomass, food, hydro, tide, wave, and geothermal together don’t reach 90 kWh/d. We can achieve a total substantially bigger than 125 kWh/d only by calling on deep offshore wind (covering an area bigger than Wales) and vast photovoltaic arrays (covering an area bigger than Wales).
Realistically, I don’t think Britain can live on its own renewables – at least not the way we currently live. I am partly driven to this conclusion by the chorus of opposition that greets any major renewable energy proposal. People love renewable energy, unless it is bigger than a figleaf. If the British are very good at one thing, it’s saying “no.” Wind farms across the country? “No, they’re ugly noisy things.” Solar panels on roofs? “No, that would spoil the visual amenity of the street.” An expansion of forestry? “Ruins the countryside.” Waste incineration? “No, I’m worried about health risks, traffc congestion, dust and noise.” Hydroelectricity? “Yes, but not big hydro – that harms the environment”. Offshore wind? “No, I’m more worried about the powerlines
coming ashore than I was about a Nazi invasion.” Wave or geothermal power? “No, far too expensive.”

He exhorts the media and environmentalists to get serious about the effort and move away from the myth that it will be easy to substitute renewables for fossil fuels.
Stop saying “we’ve got huge renewables,” and do the sums. To make a difference, renewable facilities have to be country-sized. For any renewable facility to make a contribution comparable to our current consumption, it has to be country-sized. To get a big contribution from wind, we used windfarms with the area of Wales. To get a big contribution from solar photovoltaics, we required the area of Wales. To get a big contribution from waves, we imagined wavefarms covering 500 km of coastline. To make energy crops with a big contribution, we took 75% of the whole country.
To sustain Britain’s lifestyle on its own renewables alone would be very diffcult. A renewable-based energy solution will necessarily be large and intrusive.
“Nuclear or wind?” is the wrong question. We need everything we can get our hands on – all the wind, and all the nuclear – and even then, we’re still in trouble.

For nuclear, he pays close attention to the risks and the deaths caused by its usage, calculating that on a deaths vs. energy output, it’s less dangerous than generally believed.
Nuclear power is not infinitely dangerous. It’s just dangerous, much as coal mines, petrol repositories, fossil-fuel burning and wind turbines are dangerous. Even if we have no guarantee against nuclear accidents in the future, I think the right way to assess nuclear is to compare it objectively with other sources of power.

This is a must-have book for anyone who is seriously interested in energy policy. The chapter discussing units of measurement and how they are intentionally misused to confuse listeners during debates is worth downloading alone. Without the flair of Mythbusters, MacKay still manages to write lucidly and convey his ideas.

One serious criticism I have with him is that his writing often runs into a wall of equations at the end of some chapters. It’s at these points that I am reminded that this is a first draft of his book; any decent editor could point out that he needs complete his chapters by translating what the technical information means to an interested reader. He could either combine the technical with the text by putting that info in the footnotes at the bottom of the page, or remove the technical verbage completely from the text and having a robust notes section in the appendix. It’s almost as if MacKay didn’t trust his own ability to translate the concepts and got scared when he approached a chapter’s end, so he supported his argument with technical details.

Another fault I have with the book is that he needs to scrub his personal politics from the text. As a leftist he focuses most on governmental and international solutions to the energy problem without spending enough time on the downsides of these solutions. While he mentions NIMBY he expects governments to act in ways that they are incapable of doing.  Any of his renewables strategies would be mired in bureaucratic red tape. Storing wind power by using it to pump water into lakes to be used to generate electricity during lulls in the wind is one example that would have to face red tape across governmental bureaucracies not to mention opposition from environmentalist groups opposed to dams and the fluctuating water supply his “solution” would entail. And we aren’t talking about ponds; the amount of energy we need the renewables solutions are all huge requiring lakes with surface areas as big as the Great Lakes.

Yet MacKay is at his finest when translating complex ideas to a lay audience,  and this book is good enough to maintain your interest for hours on end.  At the very least it will provide you with tons of statistics and calculations that you can use in debate.

Keep it handy when you hear someone say “Every little bit counts.” I just heard it said on the Forecast Earth segment on the Weather Channel. Worse, the show mentioned the largest wind farm in the world, the Horse Hollow Energy Center in Texas, produced 17 gigawatts, enough to power 1.1 million homes. I thought this was a little high after reading MacKay, so I checked and sure enough the Weather Channel had screwed up; it’s 737 megawatts which powers 169,000 homes on an average day. The Weather Channel was off by a factor of 8. Considering that the Weather Channel was founded by one of the leading AGW sceptics, it would be nice if it spent more time talking about the weather and less time propagandizing about the climate.

The Council Has Spoken: June 20, 2008

Congratulations to this week’s winners.

Wolf Howling: Judicial Activism Run Amok
Miserable Donuts: After the Charge

Link to full vote here.

Complex Projects

There comes a time in every project I do – whether it’s renovating a bathroom by myself or reverse engineering a complex business process – where I reach a point that gives me a physical sensation. It’s a similar feeling to the one you get when you are driving down one hill and up another and you feel a flutter in your stomach as you reach the crest. It’s a touch of scary mixed with excitement, disaster with fun, that always strikes at some point in a complex project. It’s usually when you realize that reality has exceeded planning and you begin to doubt your own ability to rein in the project’s scope and bring it under control.

I’ve found that these points, although scary and nerve-wracking at times, often turn out to be very useful. I’ve learned a lot from them. In the bathroom remodel I learned how to sweat pipes, lay tile, hang drywall by myself and sheetrock – the last which I am particularly proud of because it’s a skill that’s hard to do well.

Surviving these panic points is not easy; far from it. Panic and self-doubt mix into a fog that makes it difficult to see connections. They often conspire together to short-circuit my memory, making it harder to remember key requirements that would clarify the situation. Add in the pressure of a looming deadline and you have all the ingredients necessary for failure.

At my job as a systems analyst I’ve that the first rule when this happens is to resist panic. I do this by applying the second rule, “focus on the basics” – especially by applying a consistent and thorough methodology, rereading notes and emails, painstakingly reviewing code. Usually at this point I leave Microsoft Word and open Visio to diagram all the parts with all their connections. If I resist panic and keep a level head, making the information as visual as possible, turning concepts and scribbled comments into shapes, connections between data entities and processes become apparent and the scope that had broadened into a river gradually closes inward into a thin, manageable stream.

For non-IT complex projects I follow the same methodology. I’ll stop, read the directions, research on the Internet and in the case of the bathroom, draw diagrams on the wall, all the while resisting the urge to throw up my arms and shout to the Wife “I’ve had it. Call a professional!” Sometimes it’s enough to walk away from the project for a few hours and do something else then return later with a fresh perspective.

Handling complex problems at heart requires an acceptance and willingness to face them when they inevitably arise. I suppose that one could avoid them by calling for help or paying someone to take care of them when they do appear. But estimates on the bathroom the Wife ranged from $10,000-$25,000, so we simply couldn’t afford it. The renovation ended up costing us about $3,000 in materials but took about 8 months to complete. Complexity is at the very foundation of my job so the only way to avoid it there would be to do a job that isn’t complex. Those jobs tend to be menial and much lower paying than those requiring the skill of understanding and resolving complex problems.

Complexity is organic. I’ve learned in my job that confusing business processes or “spaghetti code” applications result from the conflicting requirements and business restraints that the processes or code must flow around in order to do something useful.

The tendency for an outsider is to get a cursory view of the business objective then leap to the conclusion that the only solution is to start from scratch. However they don’t realize that “starting from scratch” usually entails re-engineering not just the particular process or application they’ve been hired to analyze, but also all the processes, data feeds, and applications that feed into the targeted process/application as well as all those that flow out of it. Within a short period the scope of the project gets blown beyond anyone’s expectations or budgets, and the only way to not fail is what one project manager I’ve worked with calls “descoping for success” whereby features are yanked willy-nilly out of the project in order to come in on time and or budget. Using the bathroom renovation as an analogy, it would be like me telling the Wife that due to the complexity of the job we would have to forgo the full bath and settle on a half-bath. While some clients might settle for that, my Wife sure as heck wouldn’t.

That’s why it is critical at the start of any complex project to have realistic expectations of what can and cannot be done. This is more of an art than science since it involves, to use former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s Three Knowns as an example, figuring out what we know, what we know we don’t know, and guessing at what we don’t know what we don’t know. The “known knowns” and the “known unknowns” are the scope of the project, and the “unknown unknowns” are the risks inherent to the project.

However Rumsfeld failed to mention the fourth “Known”: the “Unknown Knowns” – what we don’t know we know. It could be called “tacit knowledge” or “unconscious knowledge” but I think of it as “experience.” These “Unknown Knowns” are the assumptions of the project.

Recognizing and capturing the assumptions is critical to the success of any complex project. For business and systems analysts, invalid or changed assumptions are the leading causes of software defects according to Manny Lehman, Professor Emeritus at Middlesex University. In my bathroom renovation I had to recognize the assumption that the studs in the bathroom provided support for the walls and in some cases, structural support for the floor above. I had to make sure to brace any load bearing stud before I replaced it. This was a classic example of an “unknown known” that constrained my usage of the reciprocating saw, thereby slowing down the renovation and pushing the timeline out.

Since the renovation was a solo effort, my assumptions were based on personal experience; however in any team IT project these assumptions have to be written out and discussed by the group in a process called “base-setting”, “getting everyone on the same page” or my personal favorite, “having a come to Jesus meeting.” This takes time, and often has to occur several times in the span of a project, but the time spent is crucial to managing complexity and achieving success.

Experience has taught me that people do what works. They don’t waste their time following processes or using applications that don’t. It may seem absurd or time consuming at first glance, but if a process or application exists and has been in production, then it is successful and needs to be treated so – not as something that is broken.

Shooting the Beretta Px4 Storm

The Kid & I fired the Px4 Storm at the range tonight. The gun comes in several different calibers, but we fired the smallest, the 9mm.

Px4 Storm by Beretta

I’ve been interested in the gun since shooting the Cx4 Storm the same week that Chris Muir featured the Px4 in his comic strip, Day By Day.

The gun feels quite hefty considering it’s made using composites. At first I was concerned about the feel of the gun; at first touch it felt too smooth – almost “sweaty”. However once I gripped it tightly I had no problem with it slipping. “Feel” is important to me, yet unfortunately hard to quantify; all I can say is that it “felt” well-controlled – and even the Kid had no problem with it.

Like it’s Cx4 cousin, this thing kicks some, so a tight double-handed grip is necessary. I found that even with it bucking upward I had no problems re-aiming and firing another round. But again, two hands were necessary – which struck me as a bit much for a 9mm. Trigger was tight and smooth as with all Beretta’s I’ve fired so far, and my accuracy at 10 yards was very good for me (I still pull to the left – and have with nearly everything I’ve fired that doesn’t have a scope).

The Kid wrestled a bit with the kick, but still shot consistently. Unfortunately for him he was aiming low, but firing tight groups at 10 yards. I tried to coach him about the sights; the gun had been sitting in the shadows in the case, and the light on the range is waaaay too dim, so the fluorescent dots on the sights weren’t glowing making it harder to line them up.

Overall it’s one of the better 9mm’s I’ve fired and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone.

The 3 Trillion Dollar War

Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has come out with a book claiming that the Iraq War will eventually cost $3 trillion. Here’s a criticism of the work centering on Stiglitz’s methods.

Stiglitz is a noted critic of globalization. Here’s a link to an op-ed piece in the Singapore Straits Times, and an interesting quote:

Putting one’s head in the sand and pretending everyone will benefit from globalisation is foolish. The problem with globalisation today is precisely that a few may benefit and a majority may be worse off, unless government takes an active role in managing and shaping it. This is the most important lesson of the debate over outsourcing.

I don’t think he was right about globalization – if you accept his “may benefit” as “will benefit” – and I don’t think he was right about the cost of the war due to questionable assumptions and abuse of statistics.

My Mother-in-Law The Democrat

The Mother-in-law is a piece of work. While the woman is due respect for making it 83 years on this planet, to put it politely she has issues. One of her biggest problems is that she incessantly complains about anything and everything. When she gets in such a mood, the only thing to do is escape; anything else is an exercise in futility and usually leads to a meltdown with the Kid crying and the Wife using language that she hasn’t used since she left the Navy.

The truth of the matter is that the Mother-in-law enjoys taking her unhappiness out on those around her. She uses her unhappiness as a weapon and derives pleasure in doing that. In such a state the only way to “handle” her is to avoid her.

Here’s a classic example that has been repeated about once every month for the past decade.

MiL: I don’t think I can spend another summer/winter/spring/fall in this house.
Wife: You could move into an apartment.
MiL: I don’t want to do that. It’s too depressing.
W: How about downsizing to a condo?
MiL: I’ve read those aren’t good investments.
W: You could move in with us. (my screams are usually heard at this point).
MiL: No, I don’t want to be a burden. I’ll just get in the way.
W: Well how about an assisted living facility.
MiL: Those are for dying people. Your father died in one. Do you want me to go someplace to die? (I tend to nod or pump the air with my fist here). I could try an Over-55 community.
W: That’s a good idea.
MiL: But Maris Grove doesn’t have an assisted living facility.
W: No, but they are building one.
MiL: But what if I move in and I need it right away? Besides, it’s too expensive.”
W: You could fix up your house to make it easier to care for?
MiL: With what money? No, I don’t think I can spend another summer/winter/spring/fall in this house.

The time passes; she’s lived in her house for over thirty years, three of it alone since her husband passed away. And the situation doesn’t change because she effectively rules out all possible choices and boxes herself in to the status quo.

Unfortunately I’m seeing the Democrats and many alternative energy people do the same thing when it comes to oil. Last week the Democratic House rejected a bill that would have expanded oil exploration offshore. A week before the Democrats killed a bill that would have ended a moratorium for enacting rules governing oil shale development on federal lands.

Democrats have prevented the usage of coal-liquid fuel by the military and, as a side effect of their legislation, the usage of oil derived from oil sands in Alberta Canada.

In a letter dated March 17 to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Waxman wrote the clause was in response to proposals by the Air Force to develop coal-to-liquid fuels which produce almost double the greenhouse gas emissions of comparable conventional fuel.

“The provision is also applicable to fuels derived from tar sands, which produce significantly higher greenhouse gas emissions than are produced by comparable fuel from conventional petroleum sources.”

...American refineries that import Canadian crude will be caught in the middle: They will have to sacrifice the importation of Alberta crude to adhere to the US legislation.

Environmentalists have also opposed importing oil from the Alberta oil sands due to the higher greenhouse gas emissions. They have opposed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the Democrats in Congress have consistently supported them and kept that oil off the market and in the ground. Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah voiced his frustration in an interview with Fortune:
It’s pathetic. Environmentalists are very happy having us dependent on foreign oil. They’re unhappy with us developing our own. What they forget to say is that shipping fuel all the way from the middle east has a big greenhouse gas footprint too.

So at a time when demand for oil is skyrocketing in India and China – the latter of which has price controls to protect consumers from the high price of oil that would curb their demand for it – the Democrats and their environmentalist supporters limit our choices to expand the supply of oil and drive down its price.

Democrats: We need to do something about the high price of oil.
Americans: Absolutely. We could increase the supply of oil by drilling in the Arctic or importing oil from Canada that derives from its plentiful oil sands.
Dems: That will disturb the polar bears and produce too much greenhouse gas.
Ams: We could produce oil from shale in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.
Dems: That could ruin the view from our ski chalets in Vail. Besides oilmen are dirty and drive the wrong kind of cars.
Ams: Gas guzzlers?
Dems: No, domestic.
Ams: We could increase offshore drilling.
Dems: What, and spoil the views from our beach-front properties?
Ams: Well what should we do?
Dems: Dunno, but we really need to do something about the high price of oil.

And yes my Mother-in-law is a lifelong Democrat

The Council Has Spoken: June 13, 2008

Congratulations to the following winners of this week Watcher of Weasels nominations:

Council: Joshuapundit – The Chicken or the Egg
Non-Council: American Thinker – What Kind of War Crimes Trials Does Obama Plan? (Updated)

Link to voting.

Ugly Office Art

As a consultant I tend to move around a lot, and one of the things I’ve realized is that there is some terrible office art in the business world. Here is a prime example.

Painting in Neo-Crayola

This painting hangs in the office of a marketing firm in Philadelphia. The firm sits in a high rise along a very picturesque section of the Schuykill River, and half of the offices overlook it, with the other half having a less picturesque view of the Schuykill Expressway. However most workers are trapped in low walled cubicles in the center of the building, blocked from any view by the ring of offices. I suppose someone felt bad and bought this painting as a consolation.

I’m not an art critic. I believe that you don’t have to go to school to appreciate art, whether it’s a Bach concerto or a Nine Inch Nails concert. I tend to not like much that’s oversized and abstract; what I call the “School of Big” and the “School of Masking Lack of Talent with Cleverness.” This piece tends to blend these schools. It seems to me the artist took the crayons his kids never used, melted them onto a canvas then ran a rake over the mess. Bing! Neo-Crayola! That’ll be $10k please. I suppose it’s good work if you can find it.

Other installations I’ve seen were just as bad. One office had 3D paintings literally shedding paper and feathers onto the floor, causing many of the obsessive-compulsive employees to pick up the debris. Another office had a huge two-story indoor mobile with pipes personally hung by the artist and his assistant on fishing line creating a clanging cacophony with the slightest breeze. The latter might have seemed like a good idea in studio or art museum, but in a functioning office with hundreds of people moving around and entering and leaving the building, the lack of foresight was noisily apparent. Soon the artist was flown across country to weight and tie his work down to make it quieter. Final cost: $50k.