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Mary Wollstonecraft, an acclaimed 19th century writer and activist, once said, “No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness.” In everyday life, I believe this is largely true. We give in to the yearnings of either lust or money (and, really, there is very little difference) and Hell follows. A few years ago, one of the richest men in the United States was interviewed after throwing a magnificently overdone party which cost more than most Americans earn in a year. He was so wealthy, and had been for so long, that he had lost track of what he owned, forgetting cars, houses, jets, entire businesses… When asked what he could possibly still want, he answered simply, “More of everything.” Now, I don’t consider that evil – offensive and nauseating, but not evil per se – but I think it is that kind of runaway greed and self-indulgence that leads to evil things.

So why all this talk about evil? Well, I believe evil begets evil. The more bad stuff that’s going on the world, the easier it is for even more bad stuff to happen. A negative feedback loop, if you will, where the situation gets progressively worse with every trip around the loop. Or, say, sun. But it’s an intensely difficult system to change, not one you can easily knock off balance once it has some momentum. And momentum, unfortunately, has never been the problem.

Humans are easily manipulated, panicked, frenzied. A few well-placed hoorahs can put a man in power, or leave him dead in the street. We have quick tempers, long memories for grudges, and a lust for vengeance. But we are also quick to forget treacheries that did not involve us directly, and we easily swallow lies as long as our standard of living remains acceptable. We have the intelligence to fabricate fantastic weapons able to produce the heart of a star on the surface of our own planet … but not enough intelligence to accept peace. We are an interesting but dangerous species, classified as a mammal but with all the trademarks of a virus. What we need is a vaccine.

A vaccine does not kill a virus. Instead, it prepares the host for the potential of a battle with a virus. It posts guards and rallies the troops, if you will. Then, if the virus later infiltrates, the host is prepared and the virus is controlled before any damage is done. The battle is averted. The war is won, essentially, before it’s begun. And the trouble-making virus isn’t really destroyed. It is incorporated into the host, becomes a peaceful part of it, and its antibodies survive as long as the host lives. That way, if another faction of the virus invades, it can also be quelled before war breaks out. This is exactly what we need. The trouble, with humans and vaccines, is that they only succeed on one issue at a time.

As a species, I’m not sure where we’re headed. The utopian society envisioned in the early 20th century never materialized. The Jetsons are as far away as ever. As long as we keep focusing on material goods and indulgent comforts, it will probably stay that way. That’s not to say there is anything wrong with wanting a decent house, a reliable vehicle, or three squares a day. But it’s hard to work toward political stability, reduced international tensions, and peaceful resolutions when all you can think about is “more of everything.” It’s important that we not let the pursuit of perceived happiness lead us down the wrong road, toward decisions with irreversible consequences and no redeeming outcome in sight.

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With the push to stop cell phone use while driving, and all the various photos and videos providing evidence of why some people should not be allowed behind the wheel, I thought I’d post something a bit lighthearted on the subject of driving.

At the charmingly named website “What the F*ck Zup Dot Com” resides an equally charming post (one year old today) with prime examples of bad driving results. In truth, some could be the result of bad luck, but most are not. So if you want to feel better about your own driving skills, or your children’s, or you’d like something to point at and say, “See, ma? I never did that…” then visit here. Oh, and don’t pay any attention to the headline, because apparently the WTF crew are just as skilled in counting as the drivers were in operating motor vehicles.

I particularly enjoyed numbers 3, 5, 12, 13, and 16 … and number 14 just because I find it pleasant to see a cop in the mud. 🙂 Happy driving.

Number 3:

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There is a quote from H. L. Mencken that reads, “Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats.” Since first reading it, I’ve been struck by those words and have remembered them. Every normal man must sometimes want to throw caution to the wind and be a pirate, it says, to slit throats with abandon and claim the spoils regardless of consequence. It is tempting. But I also read a deeper meaning in it. A rallying cry, a warning, a call-to-arms. There comes a time, these words say, when every man will have to take action, make a stand, and risk everything to fight for what they value or else lose it to another’s plundering.

I’ve never read that line in its original context. Those sentiments may not be remotely near what the author intended when writing it. But a learned man once told me that what we see on our own is more important than what we are told to see. You can be taught to see more, to see better, he said, but never fully trust what you are told. So Mr. Mencken will have to pardon my conclusions; they are mine alone.

Hoist the black flag, he said. Slit throats. To war, then, and to the victor goes the spoils. It strikes me that much of American society is already busy at pirating, or was until the Big Bust of 2008. Wanting a large payoff from a smaller, somewhat riskier investment seemed to be the prevailing modus operandi. Flip houses. Flip cars. Flip companies. Trust Bernie with your money. Cheat (but slyly) on your taxes. In fact, cheat at anything if you think you won’t get caught. Score as much credit as possible. Buy things you can’t afford with someone else’s money. Lie and steal from your government, your employer, your family, your fellow man. Anything for the almighty dollar.

If you were in construction, you threw together as many buildings as possible and waited for fat profits to roll in, and who cares about the structural integrity of those houses and business spaces. So what if the floor joists won’t last five years, and the basement leaks if so much as a dog takes a whizz two doors down, and the wallboard emits poisonous gas? Sorry, buddy, you were dumb enough to sail into my harbor and your throat just got slit. Thanks for the booty. Besides, that’s what homeowner’s insurance is for.

If you were in insurance you issued thousands of policies that were useless and refused to pay claims, slitting more throats and raking in treasure chests of booty. Your house burnt? Oh, so sorry, we won’t pay for anything damaged by smoke or water or heat or any wall left standing. Tell you what, we’ll give you this month’s mortgage payment plus an extra $50. We’re feeling very generous today. A hurricane you say? Your house flooded? Oh how awful. But no, sorry, we don’t pay off on damages from storm surge. Nope, it’s not a flood, it’s a wave, and we don’t cover that. Sorry. Don’t forget, your next payment is due in two weeks. Bye bye now.

And of course there were still the usual rackets of car sales, internet companies, Wall Street, and, well, anything run by the government. Anything to make another dollar, and the less honest the better. Hey, that’s the new American Dream: getting something for nothing. From the world’s largest corporation to grade schoolers, everyone’s playing pirate.

But someone somewhere is losing. Someone is watching their house or car or savings or future circle the drain when that newest chest is drug on board the winning ship and its golden contents are revealed. With a pirate on every side wondering how they can get their hands on it next.

So what does this have to do with Mencken’s quote? I think the deeper meaning behind it says you have to be your own pirate, be prepared to fight for anything you want, and if you really want it you can’t let others stand in your way. If keeping your job means someone else goes unemployed, so be it. If keeping your house means another family goes homeless, that’s something you’ll just have to face. It is, in a way, Darwin’s evolution in action. No one ever wrote a treatise on the survival of the nicest.

The sad fact of life on this planet is that not everyone will have what they want, and many will not have what they need. And to have anything at all, you will have to fight for it. We do not live in a global utopian society, and if you do not take it you will likely die waiting for it to be given to you.

That goes for liberty as much as for anything else. If you do not fight for your freedoms, you can hardly expect anyone to grace you with them out of the goodness of their heart. Governments, for instance, were not constructed out of goodness but out of fear and desire … even our own illustrious “city on a hill.” It’s nice to stand safely on the sidelines and speak of pacifism and conscientious objections, but in reality they don’t work. At some point, the theory breaks down. Even one man sitting alone in the middle of a garden will have to fight if he wants to eat, fight weeds and animals and drought and frost. Idealism has yet to feed a hungry belly.

I think Mencken’s words reveal that life is simply one fight after another, and if you want to do more than simply survive, you’ll have to do so at someone else’s expense. Is your life more important than someone else’s? Is someone else’s life more important than yours? How can anyone possibly know? So hoist your flag, brandish your sword and pistol, and let the blood run.

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I titled this post Nikola’s Newest Incarnation to tip my hat toward old Nikola Tesla, who changed all our lives, and to pull out a terrible pun. See, this is about the upstart automobile manufacturer Tesla Motors (hence the Nikola). And since they build cars… Incarnation = in”car”nation. Get it? (I told you it was terrible.)

Anyway, I got in a discussion about cars and MPGs with a few family members and, amid talk of dismal hybrids and costly conversions, I suddenly remembered a bright spot in the world of automotive technology: Tesla Motors. Or rather, I remembered rumors of their exciting (but expensive) Roadster that had raised eyebrows a few months ago. To refresh our memories, the Roadster is a two-seater sports car with acceleration to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds with a top speed of 125 mph (electronically limited) and maximum 248 horsepower at 6,000 to 8,000 rpm (it redlines at 14,000 rpm). It has a range of over 200 miles on a single charge and can re-charge in three and a half hours with the high power connector (also from Tesla). It’s just over nine and a half feet long and six feet wide, has independent front and rear suspension, a clean and uncluttered interior, all the amenities one expects in a car (air-conditioning, power windows and doors, spiffy stereo system, cruise control, etc.), and – most importantly for a sports car – is a convertible. For an electric car, it’s pretty impressive.

But when I visited Tesla’s homepage to check the specs I discovered a more interesting feature: three new models. Okay, one’s not exactly “new” since deliveries are already being made but it was new to me. So, first up, the Roadster Sport, a beefier (288 horsepower), faster (0 to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds) and more performance-minded car with, unfortunately, a price tag to match ($121,000). The other two are sedans, the Model S and Model S Signature (which is presumably a slightly beefier version of the former, as with the Roadster and Roadster Sport), scheduled for delivery next year.

So let’s run the new specs. The Model S can go 160 miles on a charge or, if you want to upgrade, 230 miles … or if you want to upgrade more, 300 miles. It can charge to 80% capacity in 45 minutes, accomodate 5 adults and two children, and goes from 0 to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds with a maximum speed of 120 mph (also electronically limited). It has a small rear hatchback for storage, as well as a full trunk under the hood (Volkswagen, eat your heart out). The rear seats fold flat to increase storage area if needed and it can purportedly haul a 50″ flatscreen TV or a full set of drums. The base model comes with all the usual amenities (like the Roadster) as well as a 17″ touchscreen with in-car 3G connectivity. I’m no techie but that sounds pretty cool. It costs about $4 to fully charge the battery pack, which has an estimated life span of five to seven years (although it noted ten years was not uncommon with proper maintanence). Best of all, it starts under $50,000.

Although all of Tesla’s products are out of reach for many Americans at this point, I think the progress they’ve made is huge. And if these are any indication, the electric car may not be just an idealistic dream for much longer.

To find out more, visit the Tesla Motors homepage.

All photos courtesy of Tesla Motors.

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Amber Waves of Gain

Let me preface this statistic-rich post by noting the following: 1) most of these numbers were derived from two online sources, so if they were incorrect then I am also; and 2) if you are caught genuinely breaking a law, you deserve to be fined, ticketed, booted, or otherwise reprimanded as defined by local law (with a few exceptions, which may or may not be discussed below). Now, on to the good stuff (it’s long, but it’s worth it).

If the preface didn’t spill the beans, let me do it here by stating that this is a post about our city governments and parking violations.

For instance, in the 2007-2008 fiscal year, New York City brought in revenues of $624 million from parking infractions alone. Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2001, the city has hired nearly 800 new “traffic enforcement agents” to help maximize this revenue opportunity, and 200 of those new agents were hired this year. These agents write, on average, 40 tickets per shift (according to an MSNBC news article), which equates to roughly 40,000 new tickets written every week. If the amount fined averaged $20 per ticket, that’s an additional $800,000 every week, per shift, for the city’s piggy bank. Not bad, eh? And that doesn’t account for extremes, like the super-agent who wrote 227 tickets in a 5-hour period on Black Friday 2007, when 41,000 citations were issued across the city in one day.

Boston visitors and residents face a rise in fines, a 75% increase on parking more than a foot from the curb and an increase of more than 112% for parking on a crosswalk. In similar fashion, Sacremento tacked an $8 surcharge onto its parking fines with the express intention of collecting an extra $1.5 million … or more … to ease a budgetary shortfall. Meanwhile, Seattle implemented a camera ticketing system which issued 58,000 tickets in its first three months, totaling some $5 million in fines to be collected. And last year in Colorado, Denver’s ticket revenues jumped $4 million, to a total $20 million from parking violations. Is it me or does this seem a bit extreme?

In cities like Louisville, Kentucky, a minimum of two outstanding parking violations will get your car booted. Boots are usually removed by police at their discretion … after you pay your fines, of course. But if you’re in a hurry and happen to be in Montgomery County, Maryland (just outside Washington, D.C.) or in Baltimore, you can use your cell phone to unlock the boot … after paying your fines … and a $115 fee, apparently for the convenience of a quick de-booting. (The system isn’t confined to Maryland; it is used in a dozen cities, including New Orleans.)

Some cities have begun using a camera-equipped system that allows meter agents to drive at normal speeds and simultaneously scan license plates for outstanding parking violations. Nifty, huh? Nab two birds with one stone and boot previous violators for extra money even if they are currently legally parked. But that’s just the beginning. Have you heard about the new parking meters in production? They text message local police as soon as your flag goes up. (Better hope there’s not a meter agent in the area.) And several large cities have issued electronic ticketing machines to their agents, allowing them to ticket 30% faster. Oh good, their antiquated tools and multi-million dollar annual revenues had me concerned about reduced productivity. Whew. That’s a real load off my mind.

One New Yorker said he’s seen drivers get ticketed for double-parking while waiting for someone to pull out of a space on the street, an almost universally accepted act especially common in areas of concentrated population and limited parking. In a similar stretch of the law, an attorney was ticketed for parking “somewhere between one second and 59 seconds too soon” in an alternate-side violation. He fought the ticket and won; the citation was dismissed by a judge. Which brings us to a whole new sub-topic: how many of these charges are legitimate?

In the Bronx, a dozen residents accused a traffic agent of falsely citing them for double-parking, some arguing they were not even in the United States when the tickets were issued (at the time of the article, no charges had been filed against the agent, who the city defended and who remained on duty). A retired Navy veteran said he was ticketed while dropping off his wife in a bus zone. One reader commented that he was sent a parking ticket, complete with late penalties, without having been in the city for twenty years. (Despite the two decade absence, ownership of a vehicle that did not remotely resemble the ticketed car, and a letter he sent to authorities with a copy of his registration, the ticket is unresolved.)

Another reader said, “the New York City parking signs have purposely been made so confusing that even police officers cannot tell you if it is okay to park.” He went on to note that many signs were damaged, illegible, or missing altogether but agents still ticketed in the effected areas. In some areas, he also shared, “we have Muni-meters, where you have to park your car then walk to the meter several yards away to buy a receipt…to place in the windshield. Meter people will watch you walk to the meter and give you a ticket before you can get back to the car with the receipt. This is NYC government-sanctioned mugging.” Posters from other cities shared stories of similar abuses and I have no doubt that thousands more could easily be included, everything from unlawful ticketing and conspiracy to purposefully mass-ticket all the way to outright harrassment.

And not just in New York City. People from Columbus, Ohio, and Santa Monica, California, share the same stories, as do citizens from Fort Worth, Texas, and Portland, Oregon. Obviously, these are not isolated incidents but a general trend among cities with the primary goal of raising funds. By any means necessary. Chicago, Atlanta, Denver, it makes no difference, and the more tickets written, bogus or otherwise, the more revenues will increase. (For a disgustingly blatant example, visit my previous post, “Holy Jericho”.)

I will take this opportunity to reiterate that those legitimately breaking the law deserve to be fined … but only those breaking the law, and they should not be fined unreasonable amounts.

I’ve had three parking tickets over the years and I paid every one of them without complaint. Even though the last two were tenuously legal at best, I paid, took my receipt, and walked away without a word. Because it wasn’t worth fighting. For $40 I retained the ability to work a full schedule instead of missing days to fight the tickets in court. I retained anonymity and did not bring down the wrath of meter maids and law enforcement everywhere I went. (If you think that’s not important, you’ve never lived in a smaller town.) I avoided the costly unpleasantness of hiring a lawyer. I learned when and where I could push the law, and when and where I couldn’t. I learned that legality has absolutely nothing to do with decency, common sense, or common courtesy. And all for the low low price of only $40.

I’m not denouncing parking tickets. I am denouncing the growing practice of manufacturing falsities and extorting money out of a populace to fund government greed and idiocy. And so should you. It makes me wonder … what else are they falsely accusing us of? How many innocent people are being ruined by similar practices in other disciplines? Like taxes, for example. If the IRS came calling, could you prove your financial statements to their specifications? There is no statute of limitations; what if they ask for files from a decade ago, or two? Or how about the Department of Homeland Security accusing you of terrorist activity, seizing your property, and denying you trial? It’s perfectly legal and they can sell any seized property for profit without ever formally charging you. Local police have the same authority for drug-related activities and can gleen millions annually from the sales of seized items. Why? The short answer is money. But, really, is that all? Is that why are our freedoms are being pared down to nothing while government payrolls balloon and hoover up any dollar they can find?

These are questions we should be asking.
These are questions we should be asking every day, because this country is feeling less and less like ours.

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Cash For Clunkers seems like a pretty good program. Bring in a not-so-great vehicle and get up to $4500 in credit toward a new vehicle, a value virtually no one would get from a traditional trade-in program. There are a few stipulations but nothing outlandish. And it’s helping both the consumer and the economy, right? What could my beef possibly be?

The long-term result. But even the short-term isn’t exactly pretty. Right now, this program is “helping” people buy cars that get “better” mileage than what they had. But $4500 isn’t a great discount on a new car and I don’t know whether most dealerships will allow it to be paired with other incentives or not. If not, buyers are getting screwed. Secondly, the mile-per-gallon average is grossly overestimated and has decreased the last five years or so. Which means buyers get less bang for their buck even when they try to make the best choice. On top of that, until an amendment to the program passed today, August 1, 2009, the cars being turned in were to have their engine blocks “killed” at the time they were traded (officials recommended water glass, a sealant and bonding agent, be run through the engine in place of oil; the damage would be total and irreparable) … except that, at the time of purchase, many buyers do not know if their old vehicle will be accepted into the program. Some dealers required buyers to sign waivers and release forms to indemnify the dealership against damages. Because if the old car wasn’t accepted, or if the new car didn’t meet your standards, or you decided you couldn’t really afford it, or if you needed to back out of the deal in any other way, your old car was already toast. Sorry, Charlie, you said you didn’t want it anymore.

And the long-term outlook is worse.

If you hadn’t noticed, used vehicles are going pretty cheap at the moment. They have been for about, oh, the last eight months or so … since the stock market fell and the country began to worry about ridiculously bloated banking corporations. My biggest beef with this program is how it will take thousands and thousands of perfectly decent used vehicles out of the market. Just how many? Well, using a bit of fuzzy math, I’m going to take the total Cash For Clunkers budget (including the new increase) of $2.95 billion and divide it by 4000, since some people will get a $3500 credit and some get $4500 … and for the sake of brevity I’m going to assume it’s a pretty even split. Okay, now if even 1 in 3 of all those vehicles being turned in were potentially re-salable (I think the average would be much higher than that, but I’ll play devil’s advocate and remain conservative in that respect) that means roughly 245,000 re-salable vehicles will be crushed or shredded by time the program ends.

Want to see a few examples of the “clunkers” being traded in? Here’s a random group provided by the owners themselves.

(Click here to view full-size.)

Yup, those look like total and complete piles of shit. I don’t know how the owners managed to get them to the dealerships for trade-in.

Sarcasm aside, that’s almost a quarter of a million perfectly good cars and trucks, including those above, permanently and irrevocably destroyed. How is that bad? Well, for some sellers it won’t be, because the price of un-crushed used cars will go up. But, ultimately, all those cars and trucks permanently removed from the market will have an effect on prices. What happens when demand remains constant (or increases) but supply diminishes? The price goes up. And that means higher costs for people who can’t afford new cars. It puts one more burden on an already overburdened class and will result in real clunkers getting driven for longer periods because owners can’t afford to replace them. It means greater hardships and fewer choices for low-income owners. And not only will the price of used cars increase, the price of many parts will increase because those hundreds of thousands of vehicles were crushed or shredded with their drive trains intact. (By law, the scrapyards are not allowed to part them out.) So millions of perfectly usable parts will be wasted, salvage operations face a shrinking pool of resources, and low-income car owners foot the bill.

Granted, Cash For Clunkers will probably get some junkers off the road and likely help a section of lower-middle class consumers sign on for a car they couldn’t otherwise afford. But it seems to me that the “cons” here outweigh the “pros.” By far.

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