Wednesday, May 16, 2012

TSA Vandalism

A few weeks ago, my wife and I flew to Colorado to participate in an SCA event where we were teaching classes on medieval cooking, including a hands-on class at which we planned to actually cook several dishes. One required sourdough, so I put some in a small glass jar, screwed the lid on tightly, put the glass jar in a slightly larger plastic jar, screwed the lid of that on tightly, and put the whole assembly in my checked luggage.

When we picked up our luggage in the Denver airport, one of the two checked suitcases was partly open, with a broken latch. Fortunately it also had a luggage strap on it which kept it from opening very far. It was a Zero Halliburton metal suitcase, the luggage equivalent of a tank, purchased long ago for transporting a personal computer in the days before laptops. Breaking it is not easy. I do not know whether TSA or the baggage handlers were responsible.

When we unpacked the other suitcase, we discovered a second problem. It contained a note from TSA saying that they had searched it. It also contained sourdough—out of the jars and spread over the contents of one end of the suitcase.

At first glance, that could have been due to carelessness rather than malice, a TSA inspector who opened both jars to check what was in them and did not take much care in closing them. But one of the things at that end of the suitcase was the case for my electric toothbrush. It was zipped closed when I packed the suitcase, zipped closed when I unpacked it—and there was sourdough inside it.

I cannot see any plausible way that could have happened other than the sourdough having been deliberately dumped out of its jars and over the contents of the suitcase, at a point when the inspector had unzipped the toothbrush case. Hence I conclude that I was the victim not of carelessness but of deliberate vandalism.

There is a simple way in which TSA could make both vandalism and pilfering by its inspectors much less common. All they would have to do is to include on the note saying that the suitcase had been searched a number identifying the inspector who searched it. If they got multiple complaints about the same inspector, they could investigate and take appropriate action. 

The fact that, more than ten years after TSA was set up, they have not yet taken that simple precaution seems to me to be overwhelming evidence that, as an organization, they do not much care whether their employees rob or vandalize the luggage they are given access to, and at least weak evidence that they would prefer not to be able to identify those responsible.

Interestingly enough, on a different trip, I found that the note informing us that our luggage had been searched did contain information identifying the agent who had searched it. The note was not from TSA but from a private firm contracted by San Francisco Airport.

The Evidence

Doing it wrong and doing it right

A Real Life Catch-22

I recently received a phone call from Blue Cross for my son William. The call was fully automated—recordings and voice recognition. It asked if I was William. When I replied that I was not, it asked me to take a message for him. The message was that he was to call a specific phone number.

I passed the information on to William, who is a student at the University of Chicago. He called the number from his cell phone—and was informed, I assume again by a robot responder, that he had to respond from the phone number that the original call had gone to—my home number in San Jose.

He reported the result to me. I called the number. The robot asked me if I was William. I replied that I was not. It asked if I was representing him. I replied that I was. It told me to tell him to call the number and hung up on me.

I called the general Blue Cross number, eventually got through to a human being, and described the elegantly impossible situation that I had encountered. He put me on hold, checked the situation, then informed me that the call was for a survey and he could and would remove William from the list of people being surveyed. I pointed out that the same problem would occur for anyone else being surveyed who was not living at the location of his home phone number and suggested that Blue Cross might want to alter the way they did their survey. My guess, from his response, is that it won't happen.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Successful Dieting: Report from a Sample Size of One

I have been somewhat overweight for a long time. In recent months, for the first time I can remember, I have succeeded in losing quite a lot of weight—something over twenty pounds—by dieting. The methods that turned out to work for me may work for some other people, although surely not all, so I thought it was worth describing them.

The diet started when my wife was out of town for over a month taking care of her mother, who had broken her arm and needed assistance. The reason that made it easier was not the difference between her cooking and mine—I am an adequate cook. It was the fact that eating is in part a social activity. Her absence made it much easier for me to skip meals. 

I have the good fortune to possess a metabolism that is not bothered by skipping meals; I can fast until dinner time without serious discomfort or other negative consequences. So one part of my diet, then and thereafter, was to limit myself to one meal a day, with only a little nibbling at other times. Usually the meal was dinner. Occasionally there was a lunchtime talk on campus with lunch provided, in which case I would make that my one meal and only have a light snack in the evening.

Another part of the diet was finding low calorie food I liked. That largely consisted of fruit salads, using fat-free cottage cheese, yogurt, or mayonnaise, all three of which taste pretty good and are quite low in calories. For snacks, the best solution was kimchee, the highly spiced Korean pickled cabbage which, I concluded, has the highest ratio of taste to calories of any food known to man. I also indulged in an occasional pummelo, the ancestor of the grapefruit, a fruit I had recently discovered and found to be quite tasty.

The final factor was feedback. I got a digital scale, put it in the bathroom, and weighed myself several times a day. Partly that was curiosity, seeing how my weight varied over the course of a day. The range was surprisingly large, typically including a drop of three pounds or so between immediately after dinner and the next morning. But the continual feedback also encouraged me to push my weight lower and warned me when a temporary deviation was letting it come back up.

The most discouraging part of the process occurred after I had reached my initial target, tried to return to something closer to my usual eating pattern of a light lunch plus a substantial dinner, and found that my weight was going back up. So I went back on the diet. I have yet to determine what pattern I need to follow in order to maintain a roughly constant weight, or whether the answer will change once my body has adjusted to its new level.

Recently I was invited to a black tie event, the first such I can  remember attending. In my closet was a very good suit that my parents bought me decades ago for such purposes, and that I had not worn—could not wear—for a very long time. The pants still did not fit, but they were a lot closer to fitting than they had been a few months earlier; I wore a less fancy suit to the event instead. 

I figure that when I can get into those pants, my diet will be done.

Friday, May 11, 2012

More on Nordhaus and Global Warming

In a blog post a while back, I pointed out that William Nordhaus's work on the economics of global warming demonstrated a serious problem with policy arguments based on externalities—the risk, in dealing with something as uncertain as costs and benefits over the next century, that the calculation of externalities will be biased in the direction that produces the result the person doing the calculation wants. Nordhaus included, as an essential part of his argument, an estimate of the expected cost from low probability/high cost outcomes of permitting global warming but made no attempt to include the cost of equivalent outcomes from preventing it—although there is no strong reason to assume that the current global climate is optimal, and so that any change will produce costs but not benefits.

Robert Murphy has webbed a detailed response to a recent Op-Ed by  Nordhaus on global warming, dealing with a variety of other issues. Among his points:

1. Climate models have, on average, overpredicted warming, suggesting that a better estimate would be about 2/3 the current predictions of such models.

2. The paper which Nordhaus cites as supporting the claim that CO2 is a pollutant actually provides evidence that net externalities are positive over a temperature range representing about the next fifty or sixty years of predicted rise, and go negative only after that.

3. Nordhaus's own work finds that the optimal policy to reduce global warming, coordinated among all nations of the world, produces net benefits, but that some proposed policies, including one proposed by Gore, produce much larger net costs. 

One point Murphy did not make but that is worth noting is that the benefits of climate control, on Nordhaus's own figures, are not very large. The optimal policy—for obvious reasons not likely to occur—is calculated to produce a net benefit of about three trillion dollars. That sounds like a lot of money—until one recognizes that it is spread over the entire world and about ninety years. That makes the annual benefit of the ideal policy about 33 billion dollar a year—roughly one percent of the current U.S. federal budget or one tenth of a percent of current world income. 

Which suggests that, with a less ideal and more realistic policy, net costs are likely to be larger than net benefits.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

A Mass-Market Electric Car?

I recently came across a news story on the Coda, a new electric car, and noticed that one of the few dealers was within a few miles of my house. Yesterday I stopped by, explained that I wasn't really in the market but was curious, and was given a chance to drive it.

The Coda claims to be a five passenger car, but looked a little cramped for four adults. Its general feel was respectable but not luxurious. What is interesting about it is the price—MSRP of $37,250. State and federal subsidies are supposed to total about ten thousand dollars, bringing the cost to the buyer down to not much more than a comparable conventional sedan.

Claimed range on a single charge is up to 125 miles, time to fully recharge on a 240 outlet about six hours. Allowing for a reasonable safety margin, that makes it good for a trip of forty to fifty miles each way or a commute of up to twice that distance with  a charging station at the other end. My guess is that that would make it an adequate replacement for something like half of U.S. autos—a car for someone who didn't take long trips, or the second car of a family that did.

If the figures I was given were correct, that 120 miles costs about four dollars worth of electricity, a third to a quarter the cost of gas for a similar car with a conventional engine. For a car driven ten thousand miles a year, that is a savings of about a thousand dollars a year, not enough to justify the list price of the car but sufficient to make it a reasonably attractive buy with current subsidies. 

The current subsidies may not—hopefully will not—continue indefinitely, especially if the number of cars being sold becomes large. But I was told that nearly half the cost is for the batteries, so if battery technology continues to improve the price without subsidy might fall to somewhere in the twenty to thirty thousand dollar range in a few years. And if improvements include an increase in energy density, the range could become adequate for all save long trips.

Which is interesting. The Tesla is a snazzy looking car, but definitely a luxury vehicle. The Coda, if it performs as advertised and no unexpected problems show up, could be a serious competitor in the mass market in not very long.