Midgrade Gasoline: Worst Deal on the NJ Turnpike February 24, 2017Posted by federalist in Energy, Government Regulation, Markets, Transportation.
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The New Jersey Turnpike is an interesting study in government price regulation. In order to avoid price gouging by the gas vendors at Turnpike rest stops, the NJTA requires prices to be set competitively with regional gas retailers.
Furthermore, the NJTA contract allows only one price change per week. A familiar consequence of this has been that during spikes in gas prices people flood the Turnpike to fill up at the old prices during the few days before the Turnpike vendors are allowed to raise their prices to the market level.
Another strange pricing quirk has persisted for years: Sunoco, which has the contract for most of the rest stops, offers four grades of gasoline. A recent offering was:
- 93 octane: $2.83 (“Ultra”)
- 91 octane: $2.81 (“Premium”)
- 89 octane: $2.70 (“Plus”)
- 87 octane: $2.37 (“Regular”)
The weird thing is that 91 octane is always priced 2 cents per gallon lower than 93 octane. It turns out that this 93-91 price spread is specified in the NJTA contract, because most competitors used in the survey to set prices only sell three grades of gas.
This makes 91 octane the worst deal on the NJ Turnpike. Why? Gasoline octane is a linear function of blending. I.e., you can get a tank of 91 octane gas by mixing two parts 93 octane with one part 87 octane. (In fact, most gas stations only store two grades, and the pumps blend them to produce the mid grades.) At these prices, one could buy a tank of 91 octane by blending 93 and 87 at a cost of just $2.68/gallon – that’s lower even than the listed price for 89 octane!
I suspect Sunoco is exploiting this in two ways. First, NJ still does not allow customers to pump their own fuel. So blending a tank requires explaining the process to the attendant, who rarely seems that attentive. Second is the fact that Sunoco labels the overpriced 91 octane blend as “Premium.” The manuals and stickers in cars designed for high-octane gas typically specify “premium” fuel. Depending on the season and location the highest grade available might be 91, 92, or 93 octane, so drivers are likewise accustomed to asking for “premium.” On the Turnpike, “premium” gets you a tank of 91 octane. You have to explicitly request “Ultra” or “93” to get the highest grade.
What’s in a Name? February 20, 2017Posted by federalist in Uncategorized.
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Academia has broken new ground in self-satire. After years of hand-wringing, U.S. schools are taking bold action against long-dead individuals who, upon close scrutiny, can be impugned by today’s enlightened standards of thought and behavior.
Governments in the U.K. have been far savvier in addressing this problem: A new guideline is to simply avoid naming things (like roads) after people at all.
It avoids the possible occurrence of future information coming to light that may then taint that specific road name based on an individual and give rise to costly street rename procedures.
Californians strain at a gnat… December 14, 2016Posted by federalist in Government Regulation.
Tags: California Proposition 67
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Two years ago the California government enacted a 4000-word law to essentially ban retail stores from providing single-use plastic bags, and requiring them to charge customers at least $.10/bag should they desire recycled paper bags to carry purchased goods.
Last month this law was sustained in a referendum (Proposition 67).
California is a peculiar state, but in reviewing the background of this law I found essentially three arguments:
- Plastic bags produce unsightly litter. (Never mind that littering is already a crime in California.)
- Plastic bags “harm or kill wildlife.” Lots of things, natural and artificial, harm and kill wildlife. I’ve never seen a wild animal killed by a plastic bag, and I don’t know how that would happen; nevertheless, I’ll concede it as a possibility. But anecdotal photos of animals with litter don’t make this argument. Where do wildlife management scientists rank plastic bags on the list of threats to animals? E.g., above or below lightning strikes?
- Plastic bags are produced from “petroleum” (actually, mostly natural gas) and hence are not “environmentally sustainable.” First of all, bag-grade plastics can be produced from all sorts of “renewable” plant-sourced polymers. Second of all, even if they are all produced from “fossil fuels,” they could still be the most efficient use of those resources. Presumably, people have to carry their groceries in something. What do they use, and what do those things cost to produce and maintain? (Or what are the sanitary costs if they aren’t maintained?)
California is straining at a gnat while swallowing camels on all these matters. If the concern is “wasting” petroleum and creating trash, why not step up enforcement of existing litter laws and build waste-to-energy plants? That would recover vastly larger quantities of litter and energy than this disproportionate focus on one consumer item.
Every American Should Celebrate These Federal Election Results November 9, 2016Posted by federalist in Federalism, Government, Government Regulation, Judiciary.
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I haven’t made as much time for current events in recent years as I used to. My news on the campaign concluded with yesterday’s election was mostly limited to whatever people would mention during conversation.
I learned this morning that the used car salesman was elected President, and that vociferous supporters of his leading opponent, a politician who should have gone to jail long ago, are in mourning.
When our federal government was smaller, and when it hewed more closely to its Constitutionally proscribed role, the person who held the office of President didn’t matter as much. Good leadership and good ideas can bubble up from anywhere, and the guy behind the desk in the oval office doesn’t want to go down in history as a monster. Recent years have shown us that as government has grown the President has acquired the power to inflict extensive damage through often subtle administrative actions that are quite difficult to check. On that score, the losing candidate, with her long history and proven expertise in abusing such power, seemed to me far more dangerous than the blustery winner. Trump seems more inclined to work in broad strokes in the light of day than in dark rooms through a thousand cuts.
This election was, however, absolutely critical in one regard: The future composition of the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS). SCOTUS is presently evenly split between (liberal) activists and (conservative) constructionists. If a liberal had won control of the presidency the current SCOTUS vacancy would have been filled by a liberal, and that least-accountable branch of the federal government would have resumed its activist practice of “legislating from the bench:” establishing laws by judicial fiat that are nearly impossible to reverse.
Instead, we have a conservative majority in the executive and legislative branches that will allow SCOTUS to be repopulated with judges who respect the role proscribed by the Constitution.1 America may not appreciate how close it came to a long reign of judicial tyranny. But for that everyone should today breathe a sigh of relief.
1Trump has said his nominee will come from the list compiled with the help of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, and the legal group, the Federalist Society.
Dear Microsoft: I Hate You October 6, 2016Posted by federalist in Uncategorized.
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Dear Microsoft, Apple, Netflix, and all other tech companies that have worked so hard over the years to make decent software worse: Please stop.
Microsoft: Windows 10 told me I should restart my system. I know security updates are important, and I install them when I can afford a restart. But your latest operating system then announced it was going to restart and, even though I clicked Cancel, a few minutes later it just decided to go right ahead and restart anyway. Do you know how long it takes me to login to my VPNs, open all my remote sessions, and start whatever development environments I happen to be working with? Do you know how much unsaved work I have in applications – including many of yours – that don’t gracefully deal with unsolicited closures? Evidently you do not, or you do not care how much time and work an unscheduled restart costs me.
Windows 7 was a decent operating system. I can tell you put a lot of work into Windows 10, and I honestly wish you hadn’t. It’s worse than Windows 7 in a million little ways. And Office 365? The Office suite peaked with your 2003 edition. 2007 was a step backwards. 2010 was like tripping the poor thing on its way down the hill. Office 365 has beaten what’s left into a morass. I’ve been using these newer versions of your software because they came “free” with my latest machine. I guess the only reason I have not yet reverted to Windows 7 and Office 2003 on my primary workstation is the ongoing fascination – maybe it’s the same thing that keeps up the ratings of reality TV – the astonishment that professional software teams have chosen to discard perfectly adequate interfaces and cripple useful features in favor of half-baked new designs that have all of the intuitive grace I’d expect from a first-semester team project in CS 101.
Here’s an idea for you and your fellow misguided software companies: Instead of spending millions of developer hours building out those paradigm-breaking designs your overstaffed teams must come up with after too many open bars at too many off-sites, why not take a look at your ticket systems and just work on bugs and user feature requests?
And yes, Apple, that goes for you. Was it OS10 you just nagged me into installing on my iPhone? “Different?” Yes. Better? Does anyone at Apple ever ask that question? If not before you start work, at least before you decide that Now Everybody Must Accept It, because … I don’t know: you built it, and your testers and fanboys got used to it?
And Netflix: What happened? You could have been the Amazon of media. I used to religiously rate every movie I watched because your recommendations algorithm was worth it. Now I don’t know where you hid all my rating data, or what – if anything – you’re doing with it. These days I’m just relieved when I can find my queue or resume what I was watching most recently. At least there are easy alternatives for you.
Grammar: Magnetorheostatic, not magnetorheological November 11, 2015Posted by federalist in Language.
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Magnetorheological is often used to describe fluids that change viscosity in response to magnetic fields. And this is why engineers should be required to have some basic training in language: Magnetorheological is as nonsensical as it is unwieldy.
Let’s apply some etymology: Magneto is fine; the phenomenon is a magnetically controlled. Likewise, rheo makes sense: the phenomenon applies to flow. But logia? That’s the study of a phenomenon. Magnetorheology is a field of study, not a description of the things being studied.
So what is a reasonable word to describe something whose flow characteristics can be controlled through magnetism? English has a precedential term: –stat is a suffix for regulating devices. In fact, a rheostat is a device for regulating flow. So a magnetorheostat would be a device for regulating flow using magnetism, and the adjective for the substance and/or device so controlled would be magnetorheostatic.
Why did I renew my NRA membership? October 14, 2015Posted by federalist in Open Questions.
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This isn’t a rhetorical question. I’m actually second-guessing my recent membership renewal.
I’ve never bought more than a year at a time of membership in the NRA. I want to keep them feeling accountable.
The NRA has been justifiably criticized for things it has done in the past, but presently it is certainly the most powerful and effective organization guarding our civil rights to keep and bear arms. However, it still does stupid stuff like this: Why is the NRA buying guns for government agencies, which are above the gun laws that apply to citizens?
Well, I figured $25 a year wasn’t a terrible price to pay just to add to a conspicuous count of citizens who support this particular individual right, and I do read the magazine. But even the magazine is a disgrace.
Yes, American Rifleman is a disgrace of a magazine.
First of all, their layout editor has some disability that prevents him from keeping articles together. Anything longer than a few pages and you have to flip towards the back to read the rest of the article. And then there’s the reviews. “We don’t publish negative reviews.” That’s right: Their reviews of guns and gear are more boring than advertising copy and even less informative.
If you happen to be very knowledgeable and you read carefully you can sometimes spot the candy-coated points of criticism. An example: The October 2015 issue reviewed a $3,500 Swarovski scope. That’s top-of-the-line scope money. The review is unsigned, which is a red flag to begin with. As is the fact that the author failed the basic arithmetic needed to recognize that the oddly labelled “0.36inch/100yds” turrets are actually the quite-standard .1 mil clicks. At one point the author explains that the scope automatically shuts off its illumination when it is canted past a certain angle. After noting that mountain hunters frequently have to shoot at extreme angles the author says “this feature is an interesting choice.” So there’s one codeword for “design flaw:” interesting choice. Later the author subjected his sample to a standard water immersion test, and even though he gets the test backwards (you’re supposed to submerge, and then freeze) he begins describing the results with, “Beyond the normal minute internal … fogging ….” Um, no. Even a hint of Internal fogging on a $3,500 scope is a defect. But if you know that you probably won’t waste much of your time reading American Rifleman reviews….
This is what government agent accountability looks like April 16, 2015Posted by federalist in Government, Government Regulation, Natural Rights.
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Three months after an employee alerts the TSA to sexual abuse of citizens by two “security” screeners they get around to checking into it and, sure enough, it’s going on as described. And the penalty for the perverts hiding behind government agency and paychecks? They (we are told to believe) lose their jobs. Nothing more. Not even their names have been released.
Gambling: Legality and Morality December 18, 2014Posted by federalist in Economic Policy, Government Regulation.
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My general attitude towards legal gambling has been libertarian melancholy: I don’t consider it a positive means of recreation, but as long as everything is above-board who am I to tell people how to spend their money? The expected losses from gambling are well known. The fact that it is addictive and can financially ruin people is also fairly evident.
But after reading this story I don’t think the way it’s done in America is fair: Yes, the industry and its regulators go to great lengths to ensure that games yield their expected negative outcomes to players — no more, no less. But when a player finds a bug or advantage and exploits it he is treated as a criminal. This takes the industry’s built-in “heads-I-win tails-you-lose” bias one level too far.
Casinos can already eject and ban players they think are playing at an advantage. They have virtually limitless resources to detect what they would term fraud, and are not even legally required to pay out “fraudulent” winnings. The law has no place buttressing the house’s enormous advantages just because the house actually determines the mechanism by which a player manages to “cheat.” After all, when an addict loses his fortune there are no legal repercussions or claims on the casino for having exploited the addict’s mental defect. Why should the law bear on a player who, despite the unlimited scrutiny and safeguards of the house, manages to find and exploit a defect to his advantage?
Pathological Altruism November 5, 2014Posted by federalist in Government, Uncategorized.
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William Voegeli, summarizing his recent book:
The problem with liberalism may be that no one knows how to get the government to do the benevolent things liberals want it to do. Or it may be, at least in some cases, that it just isn’t possible for the government to bring about what liberals want it to accomplish. [T]he intended, beneficial consequences of social policies are routinely overwhelmed by the unintended, harmful consequences they trigger. It may also be, as conservatives have long argued, that achieving liberal goals, no matter how humane they sound, requires kinds and degrees of government coercion fundamentally incompatible with a government created to secure citizens’ inalienable rights, and deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed.
Experts Agree: 165 MPH is a safe speed limit September 4, 2014Posted by federalist in Transportation.
Safety is relative. There’s no guarantee you won’t be in a collision if you drive on public roads, no matter what precautions you take. So society, via engineers and legislators, weighs costs, benefits, and risks and reaches designs and compromises that are generally accepted.
But they are grossly inconsistent. Consider: America is full of roads with no physical divider and speed limits of 55 MPH. I.e., it is not considered excessively risky to drive 110 MPH relative to cars in adjacent lanes, separated by nothing more than a double yellow line. If you have ever designed, approved, or driven on one of these roads you evidently agree.
On a divided highway with a speed limit of 65 MPH this is equivalent to 165 MPH.
Many Americans to whom I have pointed this out seem appalled by the equation. What about distracted drivers? Can regular cars even handle such speeds? A small mistake at 65 MPH becomes catastrophic at 165 MPH.
Amusingly, on the unrestricted sections of the German Autobahn the answers to those questions are on display every day. For one thing, every modern road vehicle has a speed limiter (a.k.a. governor) set by its manufacturer to ensure that it isn’t pushed faster than its design limits. Drivers who push their cars well into triple digit speeds don’t do so without care. And distracted drivers, knowing that they share the road with aggressive drivers in high-performance cars, learn quickly to stay out of the left lanes. Of course they have accidents there too, and speed certainly contributes to their severity. But allowing drivers to speed on suitable divided highways does not seem to create more accidents.
So why do Americans accept the risks of passing oncoming vehicles at 110 MPH, but shudder at the idea of overtaking at the same rate on a divided highway?
How Tax Policy Drives Quirky Compensation July 24, 2014Posted by federalist in Taxation.
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In some European countries tax rates are so high that there are vibrant parallel “black-market” economies.
But you don’t have to go to the Old World to see this. Distortions of healthcare markets by the tax code are something with which most Americans are familiar.
Even moderate income families in California can face marginal tax rates that approach 50%. When an employer tries to pay a worker one more dollar, the employee takes home slightly more than 50 cents. Most employee benefits, however, are tax free. That means that the benefit could be worth half its cost and still be a good deal for the employees.
Laser-corrected optics June 28, 2014Posted by federalist in Uncategorized.
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This article describes how the Keck Observatory uses 40W laser pulses to measure atmospheric disturbance, which can then be reduced by changing the shapes of segmented 10-meter telescope mirrors and post-processing the resulting images.
Of course you can’t just go firing 40W lasers willy-nilly into the sky — the FDA considers any visible laser with output greater than 5mW to be hazardous — so the observatory has some interesting safety measures in place:
Our Federal Aviation Administration–approved approach to aircraft safety is to have two spotters outside during all laser operations, with switches to shutter the laser. We also have an IR camera boresighted to the laser that will automatically shutter the laser in the event of aircraft detection.
Prior to each laser observing run, a list of targets and their observation times is faxed to the Laser Clearinghouse at the US Space Control Center. The Space Control Center faxes back a list of any required blackout periods, to avoid illuminating satellites.
Government Competition Update May 18, 2014Posted by federalist in Government, Government Regulation, Markets.
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What remains of state sovereignty in this country is both entertaining and heartening.
Of course state competition for business has a long history. Before government became a distinguishing factor businesses would often establish themselves based on access to needed natural resources, labor, and markets. Gradually each state’s tax and regulatory burden became a significant part of that equation. Now the political environment itself is becoming an explicit factor.
For example, the last round of gun control hysteria had quite disparate results. States that enacted draconian new gun laws have found themselves losing firearm businesses to more friendly states.
More recently the CEO of a California company complained publicly that its government is becoming reminiscent of the communist Vietnam he fled 35 years ago. Texas is one of the states that has been reaching out to companies with this compelling invitation from its governor:
Texas’ low taxes, predictable regulations, fair courts and world-class workforce make our state the ideal place for any business looking to relocate or expand….
Government Shakedowns May 4, 2014Posted by federalist in Government Regulation, Markets.
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He knows that it’s cheaper to settle than it is to fight this investigation.
Most government shakedowns don’t get coverage like this in the Wall Street Journal. But then, as the FERC lawyers paraphrased above noted, most people realize it’s cheaper and easier to just settle.
In its legitimate role the government enforces clear laws and applies well-defined penalties to lawbreakers. In practice the government has promulgated so many laws that they are uncountable. Executive agencies ostensibly ordained to enforce these laws then compound them with rules and regulations so extensive and opaque that even expert enforcers often cannot say with certainty what is or is not permitted.
I have previously noted that the greatest peril of this situation is selective enforcement. I have since observed a more nefarious phenomenon: the government shakedown.
What motivates regulators in a system in which one can argue that virtually anyone is doing something wrong? Criminal convictions for clear violations of the law are great, certainly. But evidently when it’s too hard to find or convict criminals the next best thing for a regulator is a settlement. And, like all gangsters, the government goes after people with money.
I’ve seen this from traffic courts to tax assessors to market regulators: Pick an amount that is low enough that the target will decide it’s cheaper to settle than to fight. When you run out of criminals start with the wealthy, or just pull people over at random. Threaten them with laws and rules that may not even exist. Find the highest number they’ll pay to avoid further hassle, and if they turn out to be fighters just close the case and move on to the next target. There are no penalties for government enforcement agents who engage in such harassment. On the contrary, it seems, they are rewarded for “settlements” even if no wrongdoing was admitted or even committed. And since shakedowns are easier than full-scale prosecutions that could be lost under the judicial scrutiny of the courts and juries it often appears that enforcers would rather accumulate these token settlements than pursue the hard criminals they were created to take down.
We need more public scrutiny of the everyday government shakedown. And we need more people like the Gates brothers to stand up and say, “Even though it’s cheaper for me to pay you to leave me alone, I’m going to fight you because what you are doing is wrong.”
Is Silicon Valley Ironic? March 23, 2014Posted by federalist in Human Markets, Markets, Open Questions.
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I’ve had a number of friends over the years go to Silicon Valley (SV) to pursue opportunities in technology and finance. SV has a unique entrepreneurial culture, and I have seen second-hand how, once you’re plugged in, you have first call on talent, funding, and ideas.
I find this ironic because so much of the output of SV has been products and services that eliminate physical location as a barrier to production and collaboration. Yet there’s still no substitute for being there in person: absent a physical presence you’re an outsider. Unless you can show up in person you’re mostly excluded from the discussions, ventures, and partnerships that form in face-to-face meetings.
Is this an expression of a human social instinct that technology won’t be able supplant? Or is it just an expression of the path of least resistance: I.e., since so much of the money and talent is willing to make the physical move there it’s just not worth the trouble, however small, to engage someone remotely?
Why don’t I just move out there? Yes, the cost of living is exorbitant. But if you’re any good you’ll make enough money to compensate. Besides, as one outdoorsy friend said referring to the perfect year-round climate: that’s the price for living in heaven.
But there’s a second irony: the government. My understanding is that the dominant ideology of the SV tech/finance world is libertarian, yet they elect to live under the most heavy-handed state government in America. All evidence I’ve seen suggests this is in spite of, not because of, that government: just look at the number of entrepreneurs and companies that setup operations outside of the state at every opportunity. Yet the core of this capitalist engine still operates from within a political regime that seems to despise wealth and free markets.
Yes, I could leave all my CA-illegal guns in a free state. But I chafe at the idea of “voting with my feet” for such a bad government. Granted, California is still something of a constitutional democracy, so because in principle you have a marginal influence on its government joining its public body isn’t quite like handing your life and property to a totalitarian state.
Yes, there’s some level of compensation that would make it worth my while to move to an expensive and politically oppressive place like that. Evidently my price is higher than most.