Saturday, October 26, 2013

Google is jumping the shark

Google became useful and popular because it created tools that people want to use.

Since Google+, however well intended that project may be, Google has shifted to creating tools that it wants people to use.

Couple that with the fact that their search engine reached an apex some years ago and that virtually every change since has damaged it and made it less useful (particularly the insistence that people prefer millions of useless answers over a small number of useful ones - or indeed, a zero count that itself is useful), and you have a company that, currently, is in decline.

I don't think it's too late. I don't think Google is evil, or has bad engineers. But it needs to step back and ask itself if it's really going in the right direction.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

All Aboard Florida shows why private passenger rail is still a victim of hostile government

(Note - I'm strictly non-ideological when it comes to how to provide a quality passenger train. For profit? Government subsidized? Don't care. I just care it happens. This rant will concentrate on attacking those who demand profits for their apparent complete silence when it comes to a railroad that's trying to do exactly that.)

Given the attacks on Amtrak by the "free market" right over the years, and their insistence that passenger rail only failed in the US because of market forces, and nothing else, you'd think they'd be jumping on the FEC's All Aboard Florida project as a chance to show "how it should be done", lobbying for pro-rail policies in Florida that do everything except issue a subsidy.

In particular, you would assume:

  • Land that's State owned, unused, only suitable for right of way use, and less likely to be necessary for future expansion if a train is taking passengers off the roads, should be made available to the railroad at low cost.
  • The system of taxes, levies, etc, waged against railroads that seemed relevant in 1902 when trains were the only viable means of medium/long distance travel should be reformed so passenger trains aren't subsidizing cars and airports.
  • Given that choice is supposedly a keystone of a free market, and given rail is actively harmed by a lack of choice, you'd expect planning reforms from communities wanting in on a private train service.
Those are three Pretty Big Deals. The first is necessary because private passenger systems are unlikely to succeed if they're limited to travelling on existing rail lines, especially given the massive cuts in routage the national system has suffered in the last 100 years. Case in point - there's only one line, owned by CSX, that goes from West Palm Beach to Orlando, which is a connection the FEC wants to make.

The second is ridiculous: it remains the case today that passenger systems are essentially punished by the tax code. I don't mean that in a "I'm a billionaire and I have to pay a 30% tax rate boo-hoo I'm being punished leave job creators aloooooooooooone!" sense, I mean actually punished - railroads provide a service, and they're penalized for doing so. How?

Well, passenger rail, whether used or not, adds value to local communities. By all accounts, a neighborhood's property values increase by approximately 80% compared to similar neighborhoods, if connected to a rapid transit system. But this happens regardless of how well the system is used. People like having a train available, and are prepared to pay higher property premiums (and, uh, property taxes - take note) to live in a place that's connected, even if they don't plan to use the train on a regular basis.

Couple this with current planning laws, where all new (since the 1950s) neighborhoods are built such that usage of a car to transport yourself is all but mandatory, and you reduce the chance that any passenger system will ever be able to pay for itself. Most passenger services have, and always have had, low margins. Requiring any passenger service that's desired by local residents, but not heavily used, to pay high taxes for its infrastructure, makes it much harder to succeed as a private for-profit enterprise. And this is in large part why most railroads went freight only in the 1970s. Shooting a freight line through a neighborhood damages that neighborhood's value rather than increases it, which reduces the taxable value of much of the infrastructure owned by the railroad located there, as well as requiring less infrastructure (typically well used passenger lines need to be double tracked) to be taxed in the first place.

The State seems dysfunctional

So, the State of Florida, which suffered an abrupt end to the FEC's passenger service in 1969, and everything else in 1971, thanks in large part to hostile rail policies, has learned its lesson, right? Right?

I'm not going to say the State doesn't get it completely. They're relenting on the aforementioned stupid car-only planning policies from Jupiter to Miami, but otherwise they appear to be looking at All Aboard Florida not as a chance to relieve themselves of some of the burden of providing transportation infrastructure, but as a chance to make a fast buck.

The FEC needs a right of way to get it to Orlando. For decades the FLDOT has had such a right of way available, making it clear that part of the land currently adjacent to I-4 and various turnpikes was intended for rail use, publishing maps describing this.

Nobody else has expressed any interest in building a railroad on these rights-of-way, and the FLDOT even, when the FEC made a request to use the line, opened up the proposal to ask for counter offers. Which is right. They should have done. But there weren't any.

So, the FEC's getting the land for free, right? Or perhaps for a nominal charge like $1, or $1 + a $500 filing fee?

Well, no, staggeringly the amount of cash the FEC is paying varies, but at least one portion will cost over $275,000 a year. There's no suggestion property taxes are being reformed.

But the bit that stunned me is that All Aboard Florida will actually pay one of the turnpikes - yes, turnpikes, owned by the State of Florida - compensation for lost revenues caused by people choosing to take a train instead of driving.

There's no suggestion property taxes are being reformed. So essentially the State wants AAF to increase the extent to which passenger trains subsidize car owners, not decrease it recognizing that passenger trains inherently reduce costs for road infrastructure.

There were plenty of articles when the service was being proposed about local politicians up and down Florida's Treasure Coast, where I live, and an area through which the FEC passes through, excitedly requesting the service serve us because, you know, c'mon! There's a lot of us, and we'd like to use it too. And I know it's not going to happen. It just isn't. It's not that the FEC couldn't get enough of us to use it to cover the direct costs of providing stations here (and presumably additional trains because you don't want the main Miami-Orlando service to be slower), it's that the amount of additional revenue would be slight, and the effect on its tax burden massive.

And those same politicians aren't actually instituting reforms that would increase the number of passengers. I'm not seeing a single Martin County politician who's taking concrete steps to end suburban sprawl - indeed, Martin County's "slow growth" policy has always been anti-urban, with bans on buildings four stories high, and with the usual parking mandates and mixed development bans that prevent walkable communities from ever happening. Martin County is a cluster of HOA-controlled "communities" and strip-malls, as a matter of public policy. Why would a politician who refuses to change that think that a private train company would be remotely interested in serving that community?


But they're going ahead anyway

Despite the ludicrous attitude of the government, All Aboard Florida is still on track, so to speak. And good for them. They expected it to make a large amount of money, and they're looking at a million here, a million there, etc, as relatively minor in the great scheme of things. But without significant reforms, AAF isn't going to be a demonstration that private rail service works. AAF will, at best, prove that certain types of express service can be profitable and unsubsidized. AAF will be able to link large transit-served population centers, separated from one another by long distances. 

Meanwhile I'm not hearing criticism of the demands that AAF find additional ways to subsidize car owners, that existing subsidies for the roads from railroads be lightened, and that planning laws continue to prevent people from using any form of transportation other than cars in most of Florida. Why the silence?

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Culture of danger

I'm a little staggered by the fallout over the accident at Lac-M├ęgantic.

In theory, most of what happened is open and shut. An accident happened - a tragic disastrous accident - when an unattended train rolled away and derailed in the middle of a city with its cargo catching fire.The CEO of the railroad has claimed the engineer that was responsible for the entire train failed to set the correct number of handbrakes before leaving the train, thus, accident.

Of course, "thus accident" is never that simple. The train was:

  • Unattended
  • On the main line
  • Using substandard equipment to carry the cargo
  • Had a locomotive that was in such a bad state of disrepair that it was noticeably on fire within 15 minutes of the engineer leaving it - and reportedly the engineer said it was a problem to his taxi driver when he left it.

Were any of the above not true, the accident wouldn't have happened. Accidents are rarely caused by one thing going wrong.

  • If the train were attended, steps would have been taken as soon as the train started to roll to stop it
  • If the train hadn't been on the main line, the train wouldn't have gone anywhere.
  • If the DOT-111 tankers had been replaced by more modern equipment, the derail would be unlikely to have been as lethal, as it would have been highly unlikely a fire would have broken out.
  • Had the locomotive not caught fire, it wouldn't have been turned off, which means the airbrakes would have held, and the train would have stayed in place.

The CEO's attempts to point the finger at his engineer are far from reasonable either. The engineer in question knew his train was going to be taken over by a different "crew" later on that night. So it's reasonable to ask the question: if the CEO is right, and the engineer was that irresponsible, why did he not expect to be caught by his relief? Put yourself in the shoes of the relief "crew" (is it really a crew if you're one person?), you get to the train, the lead locomotive is a mess, and you go to disengage the handbrakes only to find there aren't any engaged. Are you seriously not angered enough by such a disregard for basic safety that you can't be bothered to report this?

Is this what bothers me? Kinda. But what's equally troubling is the rail establishment's reaction. Because apparently everyone knows "Ed" - Ed Burkhardt, the CEO of Rail World, the company that owns MM&A, the railroad that executed this tragedy. And if there's one thing they all know, it's this: you guys should Leave Ed Allllllllllloooooooonnnnnee.

Burkhardt is an interesting character. He's a long time railroad professional, and apparently has rescued more than one railroad from a likely grave. MM&A is just one of his latest projects. While I don't know him personally, I have to say based upon everything from Rail World's website (which might as well be called Ed Burkhardt .com) to his decision to wait a week before going to Canada because he wanted to work out all the insurance details himself, personally, that he comes across as a bit of a micromanager. Perhaps he isn't. But certainly as the head of a railroad, as a lead proponent of some of the policies - like the one man crew issue - that are now being questioned, it's hard to suggest that, well, he's not at all responsible for what happened. And it's definitely hard to see why people shouldn't actually criticize Burkhardt's response given it's difficult to separate him and the culture that caused the accident. BP's Tony Haywood could be reasonably held blameless, he wasn't in charge of BP long enough or close enough to the people involved, to be considered responsible for the Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill, and yet poor Tony was slammed for his response to that disaster. Meanwhile, this arguably bigger tragedy has people actually claiming the CEO is being treated terribly unfairly.

So why's he being defended? And so forcefully? A clue lies in the general response to one of the counts against MM&A. The media has been trumpeting the fact that the MM&A has a below average safety record, and it does, it has an accident rate more than twice the average.

Burkhardt's defenders point out that's misleading. They say that short lines do, typically, have much higher accident rates than average. MM&A isn't actually a short line, it's actually larger than many major Class 2s such as the FEC, but I suspect the point they're making isn't about size but liquidity and financial health. The MM&A is having trouble making profits, they say, and so its safety record needs to be compared to other railroads on shoestring budgets rather than, uh, the FEC.

Another clue, perhaps, is in why people like Burkhardt are popular to begin with. Trains Magazine's Fred Frailey posts a highly positive profile of another CEO, the Illinois Central's Harry Bruce, in the latest issue. Why Bruce? Because Bruce reportedly rescued the IC using some highly exciting (not really) corporate restructuring leaving most of railroad functional afterwards. Nothing wrong with that, of course, I'm just pointing out that's what's important.

I'm going to say it: what Burkhardt's defenders appear to be coming from is that in this industry it may be necessary to cut corners, but as long as you're doing so to keep a railroad alive, you have your heart in the right place.

I don't think that's right. And I grew up in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s where the worst people since Hitler were Myra Hindley (a serial killer), Ian Bradey (another serial killer and Hindley's co-conspirator), and Doctor Richard Beeching (someone who successfully proposed cutting 1/3 of Britain's railway network.)

And what concerns me more than anything else is that this might be the attitude of the rail establishment within the US. It's certainly easier to explain the anger at Burkhardt's critics if you believe that MM&A's policies and culture is typical of mainstream railroading.

(It might even be easier to explain things like the FRA's ludicrous over-the-top passenger rolling stock requirements if you assume the FRA, after decades of experience, just doesn't trust the railroads to give safety a passing thought.)

Monday, April 15, 2013

Bitcoins

I guess I'm reacting to our friends at /. obsessing over Bitcoins again, but I'm finding it hard to take the idea seriously. At the same time, readers should be aware that I'm not exactly a great predictor of stuff:

- I thought the iPhone wouldn't happen, and when it did I couldn't see how a $600 locked down EDGE-only device could possibly be successful.
- I still don't understand why people want iPads.
- I thought, early on, that Windows 8 would be a hit, although I did couch that a little by saying that I assumed the UI would be worked on and made more desktop friendly before launch.

And then there was my backing HD DVD over Blu-ray. True, I never predicted it would actually succeed, and my subsequent prediction that Blu-ray would be a flop anyway despite the failure of HD DVD turned out to be mostly true. But in all honesty, the only technology I think I successfully predicted would be an outright success in the last decade or so was the original Wii console.

So the fact I'm thinking "Bitcoins? Load of crap" shouldn't mean a whole lot to you. But I can at least write down my reasons here, and then revisit them in five years when the Fed announces that the dollar will be backed by Bitcoins to help with "consumer confidence" or something or other...

So, anyway, here's what I think.

I think Bitcoins are fundamentally a result of the massive confusion and distrust of basic economics that the techie community has, which in turn is why they'll probably fail in the long term.

Here are my major reasons.

First and foremost, Bitcoins are based upon the concept that a "legitimate" currency must be based upon something tangible and rare, and that "fiat" currencies like the dollar are problematic because they're not.

I completely disagree. Fundamentally, currencies like "gold coins" did well at one point in time because people were willing to accept them in exchange for goods, services, or other debts, and no other reason. The fact they were made of gold, a rare and usefulish metal, did little but kickstart the process of making the currency a medium of exchange.

With fiat currencies, the currency is, by definition, something an entity is willing to accept in exchange for goods, services, or other debts. That is, the government is saying "Even if nobody else does, we'll accept it."

From that point of view, a fiat currency is more valuable than a currency based upon tangible goods, because you're aware that there is always a customer, who always will accept the currency at the stated price. True, you can distrust that customer, believe they'll mismanage the currency or whatever, but the degree to which this matters determines how long you'll hold on to the currency rather than whether you'll take it to begin with.

Second, there's the belief Bitcoins are based upon something tangible, like gold.

They're not. Bitcoins cost precious resources to make, but they don't represent those resources once made. If I own a Bitcoin, I don't have access, in any form, to the amount of energy needed to make one. I can't heat my home from a collection of unused Bitcoins. So even if you take the position that "gold coins" beats "dollars" any day of the week, you miss the point of why those gold coins were valuable to begin with.

What are Bitcoins? At best, information, but the information can be shared freely once extracted, so they're not even that.

Thirdly, there's the belief that their uncontrolled rarity makes them useful as a universal currency

If there's one thing the last 100 years of economics has taught us, it's that currencies must grow with the economies they support. A lack of money in circulation leads to stagnation or even to economic depressions. Bitcoins contain no inbuilt mechanism to rapidly expand the amount of cash in circulation if such a need arises. At best, Bitcoins' proponents claim that existing non-BC systems like Fractional Reserve Banking could be used, but FRB is distrusted by people who support Bitcoins because it's exactly the kind of "Wealth being represented by money in a way they don't understand" they're trying to get away from, it's not clear such a system is even viable in Bitcoin world.

Economies that attempt to restrict the amount of cash in circulation end up suffering extreme "Business cycles", booms and busts caused by massive expenditures followed by the amount of cash being available being significantly lower than that needed to represent the new, expanded, economy. I don't know about you, but I don't actually want to live in that kind of world.

My thoughts

Ultimately I think the assumptions behind Bitcoins are wrong. I don't think the promoters understand actual economics, and I don't think Bitcoins even fit the economy they think they're implementing. They've gone all-in for rarity, without recognizing the need for value according to their own models.

Will Bitcoins succeed anyway? Well, maybe. But never as a replacement for actual currency, more as a convoluted and absurd way to pay for things, while simultaneously acting as a conduit for paranoid investments, and possibly even some forms of money laundering.

What will kill it as a way for any substantial legitimate group to consider using it as their primary currency is that the lack of real value in Bitcoins means that the currency will continue to oscillate in value between massive extremes and do so too rapidly to be worth considering as a transactional currency. Ironically, for a currency promoted by people who are obsessed with the dollar being subject to hyperinflation or hyperdeflation at any moment, they've managed to build a currency that's had more bouts of both in the last decade than other major Western currencies have had, all put together, in the last Century.



Wednesday, January 23, 2013

More thoughts on solutions to gun violence

Mike DeAngelo has an excellent contribution to the gun control debate, and he seems to go further than I did, which suggests I may be more liberal (not in the Dems vs Reps sense) than many gun owners on the issue. While I drew a line between "Dangerous" and "More dangerous, requiring more responsibility" weapons, Mike wants responsibility tests for any kind of gun ownership, and wants large capacity magazines banned outside of those kept on shooting ranges.

I thought it was worth raising. For the most part though looking at the "public debate", I'm finding it's unfortunate because the two major sides are too entrenched in their positions. Gun control groups such as the Brady campaign are entrenched in the concept that (a) "Assault Weapons" are especially bad and, yeah, putting a heatsink on a barrel makes it super awesome for mass killings and (b) bans are required and good and will work.

Meanwhile the NRA has reached a point of principle, it seems, that any talk that remotely suggests that any gun might possibly slightly even maybe make it easier to murderize people is blaming guns, and so seems to avoid, for the most part, any restrictions on gun ownership save for token generalizations about the mentally ill.

Here's what I don't think:

  • I don't think bans are likely to work. And as a liberal, I don't believe in banning anything except as a last resort. It's not clear to me we've gotten anywhere close to testing alternatives.
  • I don't think "Assault Weapons" is an especially helpful definition of a gun that requires a special level of responsibility to own safely.
  • I don't think the Brady campaign is a terrible group dedicated to stealing teh freedom. I do think it's made up of victims, direct and indirect, of gun violence who are focused on the wrong things and aren't necessarily expert in the things they want controlled, or banned.
  • I don't think the NRA is a good advocate for gun owners. They've turned the entire debate into a left vs right thing and are doing everything they can to alienate liberals, while simultaneously putting forth spectacularly bad arguments. A future Democratic congress is more and more likely to pass draconian anti-gun laws, and it'll be in part because the NRA never engaged liberals or attempted to get them on their side.
A liberal position should involve encouraging those who want guns to own them responsibly, not criminalizing their possession.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

How Hollywood glorifies violence

Kinda something that's been kicking around in my head since Wayne LeOutoftouch made his infamous post-Newtown speech blaming video games and Hollywood for the massacre.

I can't honestly say that either of the movies Wayne picked depicted violence positively. In both cases, violence was depicted as insane, horrible, and unpleasant.

But I can say numerous John Wayne movies have depicted it positively. That is, they've described violence as a tool, to be used legitimately under certain circumstances, largely something about killing "bad people". And here's the thing: the speech affirmed those values. The only person who can deal with a bad guy with a gun, said the NRA's chief, is a good guy with a gun. Add some swagger and a pseudo-Texan drawl, and you've got something that'd sound exactly like it was said by John Wayne himself.

Could it be Wayne's right, and that Hollywood does product influential pro-violence movies, but that he, not numerous mass murderers, is the victim of them?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sensible gun control

Let's accept the following premises:

1. The AWB is a load of crap. It involves weapons not involved in most of the infamous shootings of this decade. While it was internally effective (it did reduce the number of the weapons it targetted circulating), it was ineffective at its intended ultimate goal (reducing gun violence or making it less lethal - there was no reduction in the amount of gun violence during its enforcement.)

2. It's certainly arguable that it's too easy for people who wish to misuse guns to obtain them. And there's quite a bit of concern about any guns that can fire a lot of bullets in a short space of time.

3. Under the current constitution, you can't ban the vast majority of guns.

4. In the current climate, legitimate gun owners would not cooperate with any program, voluntary or otherwise, that requires they give up existing weapons, and they'd lobby hard against restrictions on what they can own.

So what we're looking for is a gesture that would satisfy the concerns of those who strongly believe (2) above, while recognizing (3) and (4), and also doing something that's not already been tried, and not already been completely discredited.

So this is where my mind is at at the moment.

In most states, there's already a set of laws about under what circumstances you can bear arms. The system in most states is:

1. Anyone can bear arms inside their own homes.
2. Anyone with a Concealed Carry Weapons Permit can bear arms outside of their own homes, as long as they keep them out of sight until needed.

The CCW system is relatively popular amongst gun owners. It's not controversial for the vast majority. Most gun owners I've met encourage other gun owners to get the permit, but they see the requirements as actually a good thing.

Permits are issued under a number of circumstances, but even in "Shall Issue" states (Shall Issue means that it's up to government to prove you're irresponsible, rather than for you to prove you're responsible) there are specific actions from those applying for a permit that encourage responsible ownership. Here in Florida, for example, there's a mandatory gun safety class that needs to be passed before you can get your CCW.

States have massive lee-way in terms of how they implement the CCW program (well, it's their program.)

My thought is this. Rather than an all-out ban on "dangerous weapons" (or worse, "scary weapons"), perhaps a better solution would be to recognize the CCW programs in each State and divide weapons between those that can be owned by anyone (which would have restricted capacities, non-detachable magazines, etc) and those that can only be owned by someone with a valid CCW permit. As a starting point for what constitutes a permit-free weapon, a revolver would pass. A basic bolt-action hunting rifle with a built-in magazine should pass too. Given the popularity of .22LR semi-automatic rifles (.22LR is a relatively weak type of ammunition, so such rifles are extremely popular as user-friendly plinking and target practice guns), it might also make sense to relax the restrictions for guns carrying certain types of ammunition.

It would be up to each state to determine the rules for CCW permits and over time States can experiment with tests of responsible gun ownership, handling things like "Weapons being stolen" on a state by state basis. (I'm not in favor of laws that punish people for merely having their weapons stolen, or otherwise misused by a third party, although I can see a case for doing so where the theft was in part due to carelessness on the part of the owner.)

Recognizing permits in this way would also solve the argument over the "Gun Show Loophole". Whether the loophole really exists or not, it can be taken off the table if you simply require that any gun buyer, in any transaction private or commercial, either passes a background check or shows a valid permit. This eliminates any issues about the rights of private individuals to sell their own property, and prevents gun shows from becoming exclusively gun dealer based.

This shouldn't be controversial. You're using State laws that are aimed at identifying responsible gun owners, and restricting guns that may need more care to those people. Most existing gun owners would probably, in all honesty, be entirely unaffected by this law. You're also providing the States with a means to discourage irresponsible gun ownership without punishing responsible gun owners.

Of course, I expect it to be controversial anyway...