Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Task Master

I've been using Windows since 3.0, even if it wasn't my first choice. Sitting in front of Windows XP, i happened to notice something i'd not seen before. I had a long running task - consuming CPU time. The interactive response had become crappy, even though the machine is generally pretty capable and modern. I brought up the task manager, and found my program in the Processes tab. On a whim, i right clicked on my task. A pull down menu came up. One of the entries is Set Priority. There are six entries, Realtime, High, AboveNormal, Normal, BelowNormal, and Low. There was a bullet by Normal. I set it to BelowNormal. My interactive response snapped back to reasonable. And, the task seemed to be getting most of the wall clock time in CPU time, as i'd wanted.

Now, i could rant about how under Linux, or other Unix variants including MacOS, the normal priority for a CPU bound task does not, in general totally mess up interactive response. It's just under Windows. I could also rant about how right clicking on random data is not a particularly discoverable user interface. It's not like my employer gives me a Windows manual to read, or the time to read it. I can't very well right click on every little piece of data in every window. But at the moment, the fact that there's a problem i can actually fix, and easily, is a good thing.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


The US Supreme Court has ruled that vaccine lawsuits can be preempted. I'm no lawyer. I know neither the law involved, nor the case involved. But here's my take on it.

As a parent, what i want is the highest chance of a good outcome for my child. No vaccines are perfect. None protect every child. Often it's just 80%. But if all children are vaccinated, then the disease has fewer places for transmission, and the all children are protected. So, vaccines protect not only my child, but all children against some dread disease. It may also harm a few, even if everything is done as well as can be done. Chances are still way better for all of the children. Having parents opt out of a vaccination program doesn't just fail to protect their kids, it also fails to protect my child. And, we're starting to see cases of dread diseases for the first time in decades. Kids now face death at much greater numbers than they did with vaccines.

It's not a perfect world. But vaccines have certainly made it better.

I'm no lawyer, and won't comment on any particular litigation. But as a society, we're smarter if we decide to protect ourselves. Is it worthwhile to compensate the one in a million harmed while protecting the million? It's a fair question. Perhaps the vaccination laws could have put in non-confrontational compensation to the few. For all i know, they did. Having been to court, i've come to this conclusion. We'd like justice, but we have the courts instead.

On the subject of protecting ourselves, there are diseases, like polio, where we vaccinate, but haven't had a case in the US for ages. It costs alot to vaccinate. But we could forego it once we've eliminated polio from the Earth, as was done for smallpox. And we could fund such an all out attack on polio, and come out ahead in just a few years. The economics make sense, even if we're all totally selfish bastards.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine's day car

Saw an advertisement from a car company suggesting that having a cool car loaded with features might impress your first date. Yes, it's Valentine's Day. Of course, St. Valentine had nothing to do with sex.

My first date (in a car) was with a Lincoln Continental Mark iv. Quiet, smooth, electric sun roof, and with a 7.5 liter v8. The family Lincolns actually had climate control, not a silly blend door control. We'd set the thermostat to 72 year round, and it'd turn on the a/c or heat as needed. But my date was disappointed. She knew i had access to a real beater: an F-250 with three quarters of a ton of character. No tail gate, an electric bench seat taken from a Buick - not even bolted to the floor, AM radio, starter motor on it's last legs, and zero fear of dirt. Every ride was an adventure, with no cell phone to call for help. What more could one want?

And these days, my car is a stripped down 2000 Saturn. It's a 4 door sedan with a 1.9 liter straight four, front wheel drive and 5 speed manual. It's got 285k miles now, and has averaged over 43 MPG. The 12 gallon tank costs $36 to fill at $3 a gallon. Sure, it only goes 500 miles on a tank. When the wife and i go somewhere, it's not in her much younger, more comfortable vehicle. We keep the excitement going.

A USA Today article says that the Ford Escape hybrid is $7,600 more than the Ford Escape non-hybrid. It gets 9 more miles per gallon (MPG) - 32 MPG vs 23 MPG combined. The obvious question is how many miles before the hybrid breaks even on cost?

$7600 / (($3/g / 23m/g) - ($3 / 32m/g)) = 207,170 miles.

This assumes that maintenance for the hybrid will be zero. That's probably not true. But it also assumes that gas will be $3 a gallon for the life of the car. My guess is that gas will go up. It was $4 a gallon in 2008. Math is a powerful tool, if used to inform. But it's important to know what the math is telling you, and what it doesn't say.

I did this math for the Escape in 2008. The answer was 270k miles. Gas was $4 then. My car at the time had 295k miles, so it seemed at least a possible win. But, given that the break even cost is lower now, at least Ford is making headway towards making hybrids worthwhile economically. That's encouraging. Hybrids make more sense for people with lots of city miles, like taxi drivers. I drive lots of highway. I don't expect a hybrid in my near future. Turbo diesel might be nice.

There's more math. If $7,600 makes such a big difference that it takes 200k miles to make it up, clearly, the purchase costs dominate. Since i didn't get a car that's bigger than i needed, i saved huge amounts up front. And i bought it used, saving most of that. I spent less than 10% of the $23k non-hybrid Escape. And, since it's smaller, it gets better economy too. What have i spent my money on? Well, mostly on family essentials.

The total dollars aren't the only concern. There's also capability. My current favorite new car on the market is the Fiesta. I don't happen to know if my telescope will fit in it. I'd like a vehicle that can tow a boat. I've got a boat. The Fiesta won't do it. One cheap way is to get an old body-on-frame car. I've got the car. It needs an engine. I expect to come out ahead compared with buying a truck. It'll get 30 MPG when not towing.

I remain convinced that cars are not a good investment. It often makes sense to put money in an old car even if the resale value is lower. Invest in your own comfort. Realize that comfort is ephemeral. What's the cheapest way to get what you want for the longest time? Buying another junk can set you up for expensive diagnostic costs. Taxes devalue other vehicles compared to yours. I'm glad that people buy new cars, though. Please buy a new Fiesta so that in a few years when my Saturn dies at 350k miles, i can buy it from you. I'd like the smallest engine, turbo if you can get it, with the manual transmission, please.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Trader Joe's Wine

So, i've got a head cold. Concrete in the sinuses. I'm not on my death bed, so i'm going to work. Last night, i got a free music track download from Sharon Bautista, called Trader Joe's Wine. It's a preview of her new album. I put it on my mp3 player in the morning, but waited until i was at my desk to listen to it. After all, it's noisy in the car. By the time i got to work, i was in a kind of sour mood. Damned cold. As i started the tune, i felt like a music critic. Was this another song about song writing? Almost no one can pull that off. But half way through the piece, i'd calmed down and just let it move through me. When it seemed to be getting slow (i really doubt the tempo changed), it switched to some sort of bridge, which really does pick up. Sharon has a beautiful voice with some vocal range and variety.

My music biases are few. I listen to Contemporary American Folk, Classical, Indian, Industrial, Rock, Disco, Movie Soundtracks and so on, and even in shuffle mode. Mozart next to Sister Machine Gun. Rap isn't music. I don't listen to much Country. My rules are these: If there are no lyrics, then the music has to do something. I would say that there must be melody and chord progression, but i've heard good atonal music that really goes somewhere. If there are lyrics, they have to be presented so the listener can hear them, and they have to have something to say. And it can't be some dead horse you're flogging. Country often violates this. It's "he left her", or some such tear jerker, but the same plot as the last ten songs.

This bit about saying something is tricky, since it's really easy to sound like you're on a soap box, preaching your personal Gospel. Worse, my all time favorite pieces really are someone preaching their personal Gospel. The main trick that saves these pieces for me is to show some insight. For example, P!nk's So What? is a "He left her" song, but she's already picked herself up and figured out that he's not her whole life. Sure, it hurts, but life goes on, and there's hope for the future after all, and it could be even better. Without giving away the plot, Trader Joe's Wine has a situation, and presents, well, if not a full solution, then at least something that makes it suck less. If Sharon writes her own stuff (and i think she does), then in addition to a voice, she's got serious writing talent.

If this track is representative of the album, then it's pure gold. In the old days, when albums had mostly top 40 radio (which was really top 5 with a few stray tracks), i was happy if an album had only one track i liked. In this case, i've heard one track. And if that's the only track on the album i'll end up liking, it will still be worth it. Even though i've already got the one track. Perhaps i don't really have a one track mind.