After two years of blog inactivity I’ve had an impulse to start blogging again.  For the first part of these last two years I was actively writing in my journal. Which slowly went by the wayside. Partly because I grew tired of carrying the weight of my journal, and partly because I started logging my runs in a journal (often 4 times per week). Which had some therapeutic benefits.

Regardless, I have lots on my mind and this blog could be the outlet (at least for awhile).

15 Books

One of my Facebook friends posted a note listing fifteen books they found influential. Here is my list of fifteen books (off the top of my head).

  1. 1984 by George Orwell
  2. Born to Run by Christopher Mcdougall
  3. The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
  4. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  5. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
  6. The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
  7. Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
  8. The Last Lion by William Manchester
  9. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
  10. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
  11. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
  12. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  13. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
  14. The World Without Us by Alan Weisman
  15. Why We Do What We Do by Edward Deci

Feel free to comment with your own list. I’m always looking for recommendations.

Cash for Clunkers

The US government recently passed legislation to promote owners of older and fuel inefficient vehicles to trade in their cars for new fuel efficient models (USA Today Story). There are two immediate benefits of this bill. First, it stimulates the economy and props up the auto industry by incentivizing the sale of new cars. Second, older vehicles are swapped out for new fuel efficient models which will improve our national average fuel economy, creating a clear win for the environment.

There is something about this bill that I can’t get my head around. When I first read about the legislation I checked to see if my vehicle was eligible and was happy to learn that I can turn in my 1997 Ford F-150 pickup and get a $4,500 credit towards a new fuel efficient vehicle. Then I started thinking about all the secondary market effects of the bill and my head just couldn’t stop spinning. Below are some potential negative impacts:

  • Manufacturing cars is bad for the environment. Some environmental accountants argued that the environmental impact of manufacturing a vehicle outweighs the environmental impact of all the oil consumed and carbon dioxide emitted during a vehicle’s driving lifetime. Following this logic, the best scenario for the environment would be to continue driving our vehicles as long as possible.
  • Corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) will not improve. Large trucks and SUVs tend to be the most profitable vehicles for automotive manufactures,  and these companies would sell far more large vehicles if they were not bound by CAFE regulations. To meet these regulations auto companies subsidise the sale of fuel efficient vehicles (often through incentives) to balance out the sale of fuel inefficient vehicles (gas guzzlers). This process has been in place for decades and auto companies have mastered the art of just meeting the CAFE regulations. Thus, with the introduction of cash for clunkers, auto manufactures will either drop their own incentives on fuel efficient vehicles (canceling out the government sponsored incentive), offer incentives on large vehicles (since they can now sell more and still meet CAFE regulations), or both in an effort to maximize profitability. The end result is that the average fuel economy of vehicles sold will not be affected by this program.
  • Prices for fuel efficient vehicles could rise. Simple supply and demand curves suggest that an increase in demand for fuel efficient vehicles brought about by government incentives will put upward pressure on prices for fuel efficient cars. The price increase could be implemented by auto manufactures dropping their incentives or dealers raising their margins. Either way, it is reasonable to expect that prices for fuel efficient cars will rise for consumers who are not trading in old gas guzzlers.
  • Intended life of legislation is unclear. The current bill is expected to last for at least one year and cost tax payers roughly $4B over that period. So far, $1B of funds have been set aside which should fund the program through September. As someone who personally qualifies for this incentive, the eligibility window is a big deal. My truck is fully paid for, has low insurance premiums, and runs great. Thus, it’s in my best financial interest to drive this truck as long as possible, and only trade it in under the cash for clunkers program at the last possible moment. With an undefined eligibility window it’s not clear how long I can wait to take advantage of this incentive. Furthermore, I expect a large portion of old car owners are in the same boat and would like to hold off on getting a new car as long as possible without missing on on this opportunity.
  • Establishes a price floor on used vehicles with low fuel economy. When a vehicle can be traded in for $4,500, there won’t be many people willing to sell their fuel inefficient vehicles for less than $4,500. The good news is that people looking for inexpensive used vehicles will have to settle for a fuel efficient model. The bad news is that by establishing a price floor on gas guzzlers the government has lowered the total cost of ownership for these vehicles (e.g., purchase price minus sale price). In fact, one might expect the legislation to result in lower lease prices for fuel inefficient models.

With many benefits and disadvantages this bill is difficult to judge on the balance. Some have tried to resolve the debate with virtue-based arguments such as ‘this bill will help our auto companies which are in dire need’ and ‘the government is getting too involved in the private sector’. In the end, only time will tell if cash for clunkers brings us closer to meeting our national economic and environmental goals.

Signal in the Noise

Around New Years of 2009 we canceled our cable TV and in the last six months I have probably watched less than three hours of television. It’s not like I went to Walden Pond, as I’m still watching movies and spend plenty of time surfing the Internet. What I did accomplish was a fairly clean severing of broadcast television.

Why? Several reasons:

  • I wasn’t learning much from television. The news seemed to be mostly sensationalist accounts and fear based marketing efforts. I couldn’t find the helpfulness in news spots like ‘Killer on the Loose’ when the likelihood of me crossing paths with this particular killer was less that dying in a car accident. As for situational comedies and dramas, it seemed like the vast majority of programming was repeating the same basic worn out plots. I didn’t see a need to watch a reality show when I could just step out my door.
  • Research shows that the average state of mind when watching television is depression. Watching TV is a way to zone out and depress out minds. Some find the act of depressing to be relaxing (e.g., drinking alcohol). This is my only life and I don’t want to spend significant portions of my day zoning out – I want to zone in.
  • There are better forms of recreation and many other delivery channels for news. I now read at night to relax. In fact, I’ve read about 40 books over the last six months, which is more than I have read over the six prior years. News is readily available online, and I can pick and choose what I read rather than having to sit through that ‘Killer on the Loose’ spot to learn about what is happening with immigration reform.

As for the topic of this blog post, today I found a signal in the television noise. The new gym I joined has nine big flat screen TV mounted at the front of the cardio area, which I find to be entirely distracting from my workout routine. My plan is to wear a baseball cap with the brim tilted down to block my view in the future. However, today I was sucked into a story and found something useful. It certainly wasn’t ground breaking, as I have already forgotten what it was that I learned. My point is that there are often signals in the noise of our daily lives, and our challenge is to turn down the noise enough so that we pick up these signals. Cutting out TV was one of my ways to turn down the noise in my life.

Writing with a Pen

Recently I started writing more frequently with a pen, and have been pleasantly surprised by the speed of my composition. Compared to typing at the computer, writing by hand seems to be faster and my sentences have a better flow. Spelling remains an issue, and it is somewhat inefficient to re-type what I have already written. I think with regards to the whole process, it still might be faster for me to compose drafts by hand.

In her book My Stroke of Insight, Jill Taylor discusses the brain anatomy involved in writing. For right handed people, using a pen is predominantly a left brain activity. Whereas, typing on a keyboard requires a more balanced effort from both hemispheres. After Jill’s left brain stroke, she found herself initially unable to write with her right hand. She was, however, able to compose letters on her computer by heavily relying on her right brain.

Our current keyboard layout (called QWERTY) is based on typewriter mechanics. There are other English keyboard layouts available such as the DEVORAK, which is designed for typing speed. I wonder if we should go back to the drawing board and develop a keyboard to match our brains. Since most our language processing capabilities are in our left brain, maybe we should use a one handed keyboard (it would be a right handed keyboard since our left brain controls our right hand). Then again, maybe we produce better quality writing when using both hands to write.