Congressional (knee) jerks

Z. has an interesting commentary about a recent proposal in Congress to give every taxpayer a check for $100 to help cope with the upswing in gas prices. The $100 rebate sounds like a typical Washington knee-jerk. Maybe they figure it’ll buy a few votes?
Another bit of knee-jerking is the congressional complaints about the oil industry’s "record profits." It’s somehow suddenly become evil for companies to make money selling something that people want. (Is it OK to make money selling something people don’t want? How do you do that? Aside, that is, from being elected to public office and making it illegal to not buy it.) The problem is, the "Record Profits" number is completely meaningless without a context.
One of my correspondents recently pointed out the difference between a profit and a profit margin. Simply put, a profit margin is profit expressed as a percentage of revenue.
So suppose you sell widgets for $100 apiece and it costs you $90 to make them. That means you have a profit of $10, which means you have a 10% profit margin.
Now suppose your costs double. It now costs you $180 to make your widgets, so you have to raise the price. To keep the math simple, you double the price you sell the widgets for to $200. You’ve now doubled your profit to $20, but that’s still only a 10% profit margin.
In either case, you make $10 for every $100 of income. Why is the second scenario "bad"?
So Congress is debating whether to penalize companies that make more money than they think is fair. The problem is, Government has a pretty dismal track record for legislating morality. (Does anyone still think Prohibition was a wild success?)
Penalizing corporations for conspiring to keep prices artificially high is the kind of thing a government can and should do. But deciding whether a company is making too much money? That’s the sort of thing government should leave to competition and markets to handle.
One final bit of knee-jerking. Did you notice how Congress wants to fix the "problem"? They want to tax it. How original.

Return of Star Trek

The chatter among Star Trek fans is all about the announcement that J.J. Abrams will produce a new Star Trek film, due to come out sometime in 2008. According to the early buzz, the new film will be a prequel to The Original Series, involving the first meeting between James Kirk and Spock.
Just to confuse things a bit, although he doesn’t deny being involved in a Trek film, Abrams says those reports were the result of media speculation.
So, I did some research and checked with my various contacts out there in the world. Here’s what I found out:
What really happens in the next Trek movie is that Stacy has finally had enough of Han’s dalliances with Leia and flies off to Farspace Starbase Earhart in the Alpha Quadrant. After a fight with her new boyfriend, a red-haired Starfleet Officer nicknamed “Johnny”, Stacy accidentally spills her drink on a Nausican crewman. Johnny comes to her defense and during the ensuing melee receives a stab wound that results in his heart being replaced with an artificial organ.
Shaken by her role in Johnny’s near death, Stacy returns to her own galaxy to attempt a reconcilation with Han and Johnny goes on to lose his hair at a rigged dabo table (it was some very strange betting to be sure) but eventually takes command of a Starship.
On a like, totally unrelated note, Atom Films has put Return of Pink Five, Volume 1, online:
You can check out the entire saga at
The Pink Five Saga:
Pink Five
Pink Five Strikes Back
Return of Pink Five, Volume One

The Extra Letter

Well, it happened again. Someone made one of the classic mistakes about my name.
Assuming “Blair” to be a woman’s name happens pretty often, and sometimes has “interesting” consequences. When I first joined the workforce, my employer accidentally signed me up for maternity-related insurance.
That wasn’t today’s goof.
Another common error is for people to assume they misheard my name. The most common “correction” is to change it to “Brian.” (I always have to add my name to spell-checker dictionaries so they won’t automatically get it wrong.) Over the years, in addition to Brian, I’ve also been called Blake, Bill, Jim and just a few weeks ago, Cliff.
That wasn’t today’s goof either.
Today was name error number three – the dreaded Extra Letter.
For some reason, people like to add an ‘e’ at the end of my name. It kind of ties back into the first mistake in that the one and only time I’ve ever seen it spelled “Blaire,” it really was a woman’s name.
But Scotte [sic] and I have met on several occasions. He knows me well enough to avoid that mistake. And we’ve traded enough e-mail that he should know the correct spelling. I figure he just made an honest spelling error. It happens.
But the person with the best excuse for that goof is a woman I know named Claire. Aside from the ‘c’, our names are pronounced identically and calling out either of our names will likely get both of us to respond.
According to Claire, the way she spells my name when typing it on the computer is B-L-A-I-R-E-[Backspace]. 🙂

Starship Maps

I spent a few hours Saturday evening playing with Google Maps. On the one hand, it’s probably not the most productive thing I could do with my time, on the other hand, all work no play…
One of the cool things about Google Maps is that they publish a programming interface so you can create interactive maps of your own. (Yahoo lets you do this too, but I haven’t had a chance to try it out yet.) Back in January, I spent some time playing with the interface and put together a map showing most of the chapters in STARFLEET in just a few hours. All in all, I probably ended up spending three or four times as much effort on the data as I did on the coding. (A lot of people couldn’t find their starships and wanted me to locate them. Hopefully they’ve since learned to not leave the keys in the ignition.)
One of the things missing from my original version was detection for browsers that couldn’t handle Google’s mapping code. I started out to fix that tonight, then discovered that Google had recently updated the interface, followed by the discovery that the interface had some hiccups with the latest version of Firefox.
A few hours tinkering and voila! The new map pages are ready to go!

Losing my Superpowers

If you’ve ever read a Superman comic book, then you know his great weakness. Expose him to kryptonite and his powers are gone. It’s all he can do to just stand up.

I know how he feels. By the end of the day Thursday, it was all I could do to stand up.

There weren’t any glowing rocks from outer space. What did me in was a lack of caffeine.

When I got to the office on Thursday, I had 50 cents with me. That took care of the morning caffeine, but I didn’t get a chance to stop by the supermarket during lunch. I spent the afternoon with thirty pennies, several $20 bills, and a soda machine that would take neither.

Fortunately for Superman, once the kryptonite is taken away, his powers return. I stopped at the store on my way home and bought soda for Friday. 🙂

Free Coffee

I can’t confirm it on their corporate site, but Starbucks is supposedly giving away coffee tomorrow for Earth Day. To get the free coffee, you just have to show up with your own to-go mug.

They gave it away a few weeks ago too during their “Great American Coffee Break” promotion.

My theory is that Starbucks is about to start following Google’s example. Sometime in the next few weeks they’ll announce that they’re going to start giving the coffee away for free and they’ll pay for it by putting ads on the side of the cup tailored to your personal coffee drinking habits.

(That sort of idea makes me glad I don’t drink coffee!!!)

It's a gas!

It’s not even May yet and a new version of the "Great American Gasout" chain letter is already making the rounds. This latest incarnation pretends you can magically bypass supply and demand by simply boycotting a single brand of gasoline.
I won’t waste the space putting up a copy of the email I got yesterday evening. It’s one of those things that appeals to emotion and skimps on the analysis. In other words, a typical chain letter. (Snopes has a copy along with a reasonably good analysis of why it’s a waste of time.)
I do understand the frustrations though. A couple weeks ago, various news sources were claiming that average gas prices were 25% higher than at this time last year. I don’t know where they got those numbers. Last year at this time, gas in the Germantown area was around $1.89 per gallon. If prices were 25% higher, they’d have been around $2.36. What I was seeing at the time was closer to $2.79 and just this past weekend I had my first sighting of a station charging more than $3.00 for a gallon of regular!
So yeah, I do understand the frustration, but wishful thinking won’t change anything. The best way to pay less for gasoline is to use less of it! Sadly, as the Snopes article points out though, using less gasoline doesn’t seem to be something people are willing to do.
In no time at all, I expect my email inbox will be filled with copies of that chain letter that have been forwarded dozens of times without anyone bothering to remove the list of forwards. So here’s my plan: Let’s forward copies of the Snopes link instead!
Need a copy? 🙂


This is a fire hose hookup in one of the stairways at the office.

Because of the lack of snow over the winter, there are some concerns about the availability of water over the summer. So if there’s a fire, the fire fighters can try using a smaller amount of water instead of hooking up the hoses!

C for Cookie

My first introduction to television was through such shows as Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, The Electric Company (with Morgan Freeman as "Easy Reader") and, of course, Sesame Street. I remember watching the Apollo 11 moon landing, but I also recall learning letters and numbers from Sesame Street with Kermit, Grover and (of course) Cookie Monster.
I was quite disappointed last year when in a fit of political correctness (I was going to call it a "misguided fit of political correctness" but that would be redundant), the Children’s Television Workshop announced that Cookie Monster was going to become Veggie Monster. Surely this was just another Internet prank, right? Alas, no. Someone had decided that Cookie Monster had to set a good example.
Happily there are some very creative people out there who have a sense of humor. Check out this trailer for the upcoming feature (I wish), C for Cookie.

End of an Era

(This was written in late July, 2003. I know one or two people have seen it, or at least read excerpts, but somehow this never escaped to the "musings" page. )
Well, it’s almost official. I have to make an appointment with a notary, but by the end of the day on Friday, I’ll be back to having just the one car. And this time, it’ll be just a car.
I’ve been driving my pickup since September 1989; just 16 months after moving to Nevada. It was one of the last 89s on the lot and because price was an issue, it didn’t have a whole lot of features — no radio, no extended cab, no four-wheel drive and no air conditioning. The no A/C wasn’t really a problem until I moved to Virginia in 1994, and even then, it wasn’t a big problem. Going to work, I’d just use the 2-60 air-conditioner instead, meaning that I opened both windows and drove 60mph.
This truck and I have been through a lot together. I’ve slept in the back the night before the Great Reno Balloon Race so I could see the Dawn Patrol at 5am, and again on a camping trip when rain started flooding my tent. During the big snow storm six or seven years ago, I filled the back of the truck with snow and was able to go places where the four-wheel drive SUVs couldn’t, and if all the parking spaces were full of snow, I’d park on a snowdrift with the front end two feet higher than the back.
Over time, I discovered that at times having a friend with a pickup truck seems like all the excuse people need in order to decide it’s time to move to a new house or apartment. And it’s not just furniture that got hauled either. Along with the ordinary items such as firewood and wood chips, I’ve also been called upon to transport a huge pile of toys that were being donated to Toys for Tots, and parts of a spaceship bridge mockup.
There are lots of other memories in that truck — 203,700 miles worth. All with just one owner. Still, nothing lasts forever.
My truck is nearly fourteen years old and the mileage on it is more than eight times the circumference of the Earth. It’s still running like a champ, needing little more than an oil change and the occasional tune up. But the signs of its age are starting to appear. Not quite two years ago, the water pump died, stranding me in the middle of nowhere, 90 miles from home. Last winter, the head gasket had to be replaced. Four months ago, it became apparent that the clutch was approaching its replacement point for a third time. The body’s beginning to show more and more rust and even with the new muffler, the exhaust is getting louder and louder.
At the end of May, after much research and deliberation, I took advantage of the prevailing low interest rates and bought a new car. Not another pickup, but an actual car. It’s a Honda Civic with a hybrid gasoline-electric engine. It’s exactly what I need for commuting to work every day, gets excellent mileage, seats four adults (five if they’re friends), and even has air-conditioning and cup holders. It’s not a pickup, but it’ll do quite nicely.
There is a happy ending to this though. My original plan was to donate the truck to charity. I probably wouldn’t see it again, but at least it could live out the rest of its days helping someone else get to work, haul gravel, and help their friends move. It turns out that life has other plans. My next door neighbors have a son who needs a car, so they’ve decided to buy my truck. The truck will continue helping someone get to work and everything else in life, but I’ll still get to see it; maybe I’ll even borrow it sometime when I need to haul gravel and let my neighbor drive the shiny new car.
I can live with that.