Longfellow Bridge repairs will now take about as long as the original construction


In August 2013 I wrote a posting about how Boston’s Longfellow Bridge would cost at least 4X to renovate, in constant dollars, what it cost to build with circa 1900 construction techniques. In January 2015 I added a posting about a rumor that the project was a year behind schedule. I found this August 2015 WBUR article saying that the project has been delayed for an additional two years and that the projected budget was substantially higher than I quoted in my original posting. Thus it seems that, if there are no additional setbacks, the renovation will take roughly as long as the original construction and cost about 6X as much, after adjustments for inflation.

I’m thinking that even if Bernie Sanders gets elected and Congress gives him the $18 trillion that he wants to spend (WSJ), the country won’t look substantially different in terms of infrastructure.


Self-driving RV


About ten years ago I wrote about immigrant-driven Chinese-made motorhomes (RVs) that could alleviate the pain of sitting in American traffic jams and paying American labor rates for RV construction.

My recent trip to Burning Man (slides), at the intersection of RVs and high-tech, got me thinking about the potentially revolutionary consequences of a self-driving RV. If Google can make us a self-driving car, why not a self-driving 40′ Class A motorhome? Now the RV becomes like a cruise ship. You spend the day in a National Park, tuck everyone into bed, and then let Google drive you to the next National Park overnight. You wake up to find that Larry and Sergei have selected a campsite for you, extended the awning, and put out the lawn chairs and table for breakfast.

How awesome will this be for aging Gen Xers? (let’s assume that the Baby Boomers will die off before Google can leap through all of the regulatory hurdles)

What about the potential for increased fuel consumption? When television was invented people thought that Ivy League lectures and Shakespeare plays would be popular. In the 1970s nobody would have predicted that improvements in engine efficiency would result in suburban Americans buying pavement-melting SUVs. Right now we have prototype Google self-driving cars that are the apex of environmental responsibility. Could it be that self-driving technology, by eliminating the main problem with 40′ RVs (ungainly to drive and park), will result in a renewed arms race among Americans for who can have the biggest most gas-guzzling vehicle on the road?

What else changes if an RV can drive itself? Would it be reasonable to revive my idea of using an RV as a defense against urban gridlock?


How many Air Force staff does it take to keep an F-16 running?


I saw a headline last month that read “U.S. sends six F-16s to Turkey.”  The next line in the crawl was “Total deployment of 300 Air Force staff.” Thus it would seem that, even when locals are maintaining and securing the airport and hangar, it takes 50 U.S. military personnel to keep a single-engine jet running.

Parental Acceptance of Homosexual Children


Two conversations from Burning Man…

A father: “I don’t mind if my daughter is gay. Maybe I will get to hang out with Dick Cheney’s daughter. Also I won’t have to kill any boys.”

A mother: “It wouldn’t be so bad if my boys turn out to be gay. Then they won’t be at risk for a woman having sex with them and later accusing them of rape.”

The latter comment led to a discussion of Owen Labrie, in the news shortly before Burning Man following his partial acquittal on charges of raping a fellow high school student at St. Paul’s in New Hampshire (nytimes). “She probably started it to get cash out of his family,” said one Burner, “and then when they wouldn’t or couldn’t pay she had no choice but to keep going.” (As noted in this posting about Missoula, being a rape victim could have led to $millions from the school.) “The same thing happened at my boarding school in Argentina,” said another Burner. “The girl was a notorious liar and she’d had sex with a lot of guys so the guy wasn’t convicted, but his life was ruined just by the accusation.” What happened to him ultimately? She responded that “He and his family had to emigrate to the U.S. and start over.”

Volkswagen diesel situation explained clearly


“Your Guide To Dieselgate: Volkswagen’s Diesel Cheating Catastrophe” (Jalopnik) succeeds where our nation’s big newspapers have failed. The core issue seems to be that Volkswagen claimed to have succeeded at something that had eluded all other automakers: a clean diesel engine without a Selective Catalyst Reduction (SCR) system:

In order to meet tougher emissions regulations that went into effect in 2008, most automakers started supplying their diesel cars with tanks of a urea-based solution (often referred to as “AdBlue”) that cuts down on nitrogen oxide emissions.

But VW and Audi said the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine on the smaller cars was able to meet the requirements without a urea injection system — although many people have wondered exactly how.

On Friday, the EPA announced they found the TDI cars contained “a sophisticated software algorithm” which detected when the car was being tested for emissions. When that happens, the software drastically reduces the emissions as compared to normal driving, indicating to testers that the car had passed.

Chris Cunningham’s comment to the WSJ: “Cars are no longer a mechanical device we directly control, they’ve evolved into glorified computer games we risk our lives on. Hopefully this scandal will help open the code up to more external reviews for all cars.”

My comment to a friend who was expressing shock and horror at VW’s actions: “Who could have imagined that a company co-founded by Adolf Hitler would eventually do something to irritate people?”

It is kind of interesting to me that VW competitors didn’t figure this out a long time ago. Suppose that the SCR adds $250 to the cost of making a diesel car. Wouldn’t Ford, for example, have tried to figure out how to copy’s VW’s innovation and also save itself the same $250 per car? Why wouldn’t Ford have put a VW TDI car through a bunch of real-world tests and then announced that its big competitor was cheating?

I’m still looking for the newspaper article that clearly explains all of the emissions controls on a modern diesel car engine. And, separately, I wonder how this will affect the nascent market for aircraft diesels (sadly much heavier than traditional gas engines but they run on Jet-A fuel, which is much cheaper and more widely available worldwide).

What do folks think will happen to VW? I am going to bet that the Tesla- and Prius-driving shareholders, who had no idea that this was happening, get a thorough beating while employees who perpetrated the crimes against Mother Earth keep cashing paychecks. (as with banks)


Stupid question of the day: What did Volkswagen actually do with its emissions control software?


The news media is full of sound and fury regarding something that Volkswagen did with diesel engine emissions control software, e.g., “VW Is Said to Cheat on Diesel Emissions; U.S. to Order Big Recall” (nytimes). The journalists either can’t or don’t bother to explain what Volkswagen actually did.

Readers: Can you help explain this? What does the software in question control? The Times says “The Environmental Protection Agency accused the German automaker of using software to detect when the car is undergoing its periodic state emissions testing.” What does this mean? Only when something is plugged into a connector under the hood? Then “During normal driving situations, the controls are turned off, allowing the cars to spew as much as 40 times as much pollution as allowed under the Clean Air Act, the E.P.A. said.” Can this be true? What is there in a VW that can cut or increase pollution by 40X?



Burning Man: Attitudes toward marriage and children


If you’re not part of a camp you don’t learn too much about the personal lives of fellow Burners. Convention dictates that casual conversations stay in the moment and, if the Default World does come up, stay positive. After sharing tents, shade structures, kitchens, dining rooms, and showers with 200 “villagers” and 70 “campers,” however, discussions go deeper.

Our village was primarily populated by Californians, partly due to the extensive infrastructure that needed to be transported to the Playa. “Every guy that I know who was ever married got totally screwed in a divorce,” said a Bay Area woman. Her observation was supported by data from the camp. California-based men in their 50s and 60s who had been married had in fact lost a house, the children, and much of their income going forward: “Getting married was the worst mistake that made in my entire life. I was about 30 percent happier for five years and then lost 90 percent of my happiness for 15 years,” was a typical comment. None had remarried. The never-married men in their 40s and 50s had an almost equally negative view of the institution: “Just about every friend who has been married is now divorced,” one said, “and they’re all paying to support a woman whom they hate and kids whom they never see.”

We had a lot of high-income women in our camp. All recognized that they could be targeted and potentially become the loser under California’s winner-take-all system. A medical professional said “There is no way that I’m going to pay to support a guy. It was bad enough the last time that I lived with a boyfriend and I had to pick up his socks all the time and do his laundry. Thank God I didn’t have to support him financially.” A finance executive said “I worked my ass off for 17 years for what I have. I am not going to risk losing it.” I explained that, based on the income she had described, her exposure under the California child support system would likely be about $2 million ($4 million pre-tax) for one child. She responded “That’s an unacceptable risk.” She wanted to have children, but recognized that the only way to do it without substantial financial risk was to find a mate with a higher income, thus making the pool of potential men very small. [She was nearing the end of her fertility and had been pursuing an economically irrational life strategy. As a young woman she had dated some men who went on to become successful professionals. If she had gotten pregnant with these boyfriends she would today have all of the children that she wanted, just now entering college, plus an extra $5-10 million in post-tax assets via child support profits.]

Despite a high level of education and a long residence in California, there were a lot of misconceptions about California family law (similar to what we found surveying Massachusetts residents). Many villagers wrongly believed that they could limit their exposure to child support lawsuits via a prenuptial agreement. They also did not understand that an out-of-wedlock child from a one-night encounter would yield the same child support profits as the child of a marriage. Nor did they understand that child support revenue was potentially unlimited. They were not aware that family law varied widely from state to state and that the California system was very different from nearby Arizona’s, for example.

Lending support to the plot of Idiocracy (“The smartest, the most fit among us no longer procreate while the stupid screw their brains out ensuring that the human race as a whole gets stupider and stupider and stupider. Without any natural predators to thin the herd; with science, welfare, and television keeping the dumbest alive, healthy, and happy enough to remain potent we’re done for.”), the successful Californians (biotech, software, medicine, etc.) in our village recognized that having a child opened the door to a lawsuit from a financially-motivated plaintiff. Here was one of the more colorful comments:

“Considering the extensive, repeated, and generally copious amount of unprotected sex I’ve had over the years, my $5,000 vasectomy has provided an infinite (or better) IRR. I better re-test that it’s still working. I guess with the 20-somethings the risk is orders of magnitude higher than with the older Cougars. I would pay big bucks for a DIY home fertility test… it’s a massive headache to schedule and get it done wherever the fuck they test for negative fertility.”

[Note that Burners in their 20s had a more positive view of marriage and, in fact, there were a handful of weddings actually performed during Burning Man.]

A high-income woman asked “Why does [a high-income middle-aged fellow villager] chase after women in their 20s?” The response was “Well, he tried being a good husband and father and all that he got for his trouble was a set of divorce papers and a $10 million hole in his pocket.” The woman nodded thoughtfully and said “fair point.” For his part, a middle-aged man observed “Women in their 40s don’t want to get sex out of men for their own pleasure anymore. When they reach 40 they look for other stuff that they can take from a guy. Most of the ones I have met are divorced and heavy drinkers. They’re really mean when they’re drunk.” A female psychologist said “Research shows that humans need only one close social connection. So as long as she can get alimony or child support, it doesn’t make sense for a woman to stay married once she has had a child; the child becomes her main social connection.” Why divorce at that point? What’s the problem with having the father of the child around as an additional social connection? “My patients don’t like to say this directly, but they enjoy going out, meeting new men, and having sex with them. It’s a lot more exciting than cooking dinner and sharing a bed with the same man every night.”

Relations between children of divorce and their fathers were consistent with the research we reported on in the “Children, Mothers, and Fathers” chapter (“When fathers and children live in separate households during part or all of the year, these routine exchanges [helping with everyday events] are not as frequent or as easy. Thus, the loss of a household brings a decline in father-child contacts and a loss of paternal time investments. … As time goes on, a child’s contact with his or her father becomes increasingly infrequent. Ten years after a marriage breaks up, nearly two-thirds of the children report not having seen their fathers for a year.”). A divorced-for-20-years father from the Bay Area said “I regret all of the time and energy that I spent on my children after the divorce. With the every-other-weekend schedule we just grew further apart every year. They were strangers within five years and the visits stopped because it wasn’t satisfying for anyone. It would have been smarter to start a new life on the day that I was served and not dwell on what turned out to be the past.” How did the kids turn out? “Pretty bad, but it might have been genetic,” he responded. “Remember that their mom married a guy for his money and then divorced him because she found someone a little richer and figured out that she could collect money from two guys at the same time.” Another father said “Divorce spoiled my experience of fatherhood. When I saw my son it would remind me of how much money I was paying to his mom and the lawyers, the guys that his mom was cheating on me with during the marriage, and how stupid I was to have gotten married. There was no joy left in the relationship for me and I’m sure that he sensed it. We’d been inseparable when we all lived together, but he stopped visiting when he was a teenager and I seldom see or talk to him today.” The psychologist in our village said “It is rare for me to see a child of divorce who wasn’t profoundly damaged. When they’re young and the judge cuts their time with their father what they perceive is that their father has abandoned them. Nobody recovers from that. For the rest of their life they will be insecure. When they’re teenagers they come to realize that their mom did it for the money and/or so that she could have sex with a bunch of new guys. It is tough to come to terms with the fact that your mom was a whore.” What about as adults? “Men whose parents were divorced are wary of marriage but eventually they seem to succumb and, of course, eventually get taken to the cleaners just like their dad did. Women also tend to do whatever their mom did. If mom worked, the daughter will work. If mom worked her body and the child support system, the daughter will work her body and the child support system.”

Californians are great customers for the therapy industry and the human potential movement. One father said “I spent a lot of time driving to Berkeley for ‘forgiveness therapy.’ But I discovered that it only works when you’ve suffered a one-time injury. It doesn’t work if every month you have to write a new check to a person who betrayed you and then sued you. Whenever the therapist would ask me to think about my ex-wife I would just fantasize about having her killed so that I could get the kids back and stop paying her. It doesn’t help that my girlfriend refers to the ex-wife as ‘the greedy cunt.'” The psychologist weighed in: “Therapy works best for trivial problems. If you’re depressed when your circumstances aren’t depressing or if you get anxious or angry about things that don’t bother most people. It doesn’t work if something truly bad happens to you, such as losing the house and the kids in a divorce.”

Not everyone was down on the Californian family law system. “I got married when I was 22,” said one woman, “looking primarily for financial security. About five years later my next-door neighbor got divorced and I learned from her that I could keep the financial security and enjoy my freedom at the same time. For the last 20 years I have been able to do whatever I want, whenever I want, including come to 10 burns. To me child support meant not having to work at a job unless I loved it and it was no more than 20 hours per week. To me it seems crazy that anyone works 40 hours per week.”

[Note that Burners are a biased sample. The Californian who is living behind a white picket fence with a spouse and 2.5 children is less likely to be able to escape for a week than the childless or divorced Californian.]


Music of the Migrants?


We had some friends over for dinner recently and the discussion had included how some Norwegians felt about immigrants from Syria and Afghanistan (e.g., “My son’s school in Oslo is already 80 percent Muslim; when he was younger he would be sad because he wanted to play with some of these kids and they responded that their parents had forbidden them to play with Norwegians and/or Christians.”). I tried to find some background music to fit the topic but there doesn’t seem to an Internet radio station dedicated to whatever music these folks might be listening to as they settle into their new European homes.

Readers: Who are the great musicians of Syria, Afghanistan, and this migration? Where can their music be heard?

Health Care in Black Rock City


One of the tidbits that I learned at Burning Man was that medical care is provided during the event by roughly 300 volunteer doctors and nurses (link). The on-Playa facilities include an X-ray machine and are backstopped by helicopter airlifts to Reno (there seemed to be a handful each day). About 2,800 Burners, out of a population of roughly 70,000, seek treatment each year. The primary maladies are dehydration and soft tissue injuries, the latter hardly a surprise given the amount of rebar that is sticking out of the Playa and not always clearly marked. As far as I know, only one of our 70 campers was treated in 2015. He applied his 25-year-old windsurfing skills to the challenge of windsurfing on wheels. It turns out that rolling resistance on the Playa is lower than water, thus resulting in higher speeds, and it also turns out that falling on the Playa results in a significant road rash.

One challenge is figuring out where Burning Man would fit into the Worldbank’s table of health care spending as a percentage of GDP. Since the medical professionals are volunteers, is it below Singapore’s 4.6 percent of GDP? Or since the rest of Burning Man is a gift economy and sometimes the clinic folks call in a $5,000/hour helicopter would it be above the U.S.’s 17.1 percent?

What if someone who cared about student outcomes got a job as a professor?


“I have one of the best jobs in academia. Here’s why I’m walking away.” answers the question What if someone who cared about student outcomes got a job as a professor?

Here are some choice excerpts:

Liberal arts programs, and the humanities in particular, have become a place to warehouse students seeking generic bachelor’s degrees not out of any particular interest in the field, but in order to receive raises at work or improve their position in a crowded job market.

Once upon a time, in a postwar America starved for middle managers who could file TPS reports, relying on the BA as an assurance of quality, proof of the ability to follow orders and complete tasks, made perfect sense. But in today’s world of service workers and coders and freelancers struggling to brand themselves, wasting four years sitting in classes like mine makes no economic sense for the country or for the students — particularly when they’re borrowing money to do so.

online education isn’t a solution — it’s a Band-Aid on an infected wound. In place of thought-provoking video chats and genuinely creative software applications the theory promises, most online students get Blackboard — a cumbersome and inefficient program that only a bureaucracy could love.

The most questionable statement within this epic rant is “there’s no time to worry about the fallen when your own pay lags well behind the national average.” What does this means for a humanities professor? The national average for a poet? http://philip.greenspun.com/book-reviews/higher-education is a review of a 2010 book whose authors concluded that a liberal arts professor earns about $242 for each hour of required work ($265/hour adjusted for the inflation that politicians assure us does not exist).

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