Thursday, October 20, 2011

Transport Month Week Three Survey - my responses

Recording my responses to Transport Month Week Three survey for the wall of text. Don't have the muse to be more creative.

Which public transport service(s) do you use and why?
Rail transport
How often do you use public transport and why? (daily/occasionally/events only/never)
Occasionally, sporadically daily
What would persuade you to use public transport?
I'd use it more if it were more unlikely that I'd have to wait 40 minutes for the next train, whether due to breakdowns, dogs eating Metrorail's homework, or just the rather rarefied off-peak schedules.
Do you think an after-hours public transport service should be available and, if so, what would persuade you to use such a service?
Yes! It would help if such a service a) existed, and b) was safe to use. Even something like London's notorious/famous "night bus" could help - anything that can predictably and reliably take me home, even if not super promptly.
What is your experience of the Transport Information Centre and what should be done to improve the overall public transport service in Cape Town?

Never used the TIC - sorry. Figure out how to make it more "cool" to use public transport, not such a Hobson's choice. Break the vicious cycle of mediocrity of service and low appetite for its use.

Longer answer: perhaps there needs to be a bit of stick and carrot. Cape Town's roads seem to have become noticeably more congested over the 15 years I've been driving, especially the intersections of major routes surrounding the principal economic nodes. It would be a tragedy if the solution to this consisted (only) of road widening. Instead, we need to get people out of cars and into buses, trains, and (grudgingly) minibus taxis. I think the City knows this. Carrot: more convenient, safe, clean, all-singing-and-dancing public transport. Stick: higher vehicle registration fees, since you can't attack directly via the fuel price. More stick: continue coming down on drunken drivers like a ton of bricks.

My experience of Germany's train system is that even the upper classes have no qualms about using the trains. Why is this not the case in Cape Town? I can suppose the cause is a combination of stations in dodgy or dodgy-looking areas (or rather, stations *attract* dodginess), ugly, dirty, antedeluvian-looking trainsets (the 10M3's are a little better - but not by much), a culture of mediocrity that suffuses Metrorail that results in poor service that only those who have no other choice will tolerate. I don't think many non-train-users know that at least in peak times and if one's travel needs are along the rail corridors, you get where you want to be, quicker.

Perhaps shorter trainsets can help to address the deserted-trains-give-me-the-creeps problem after hours? Not much of an energy saving but maybe if people felt safer, they'd have a greater appetite for rail transport.

I enthusiastically support the City's efforts to wrest control over commuter rail transport from Metrofail, if only for the potential for a culture reboot that it offers.

Thanks for reading this wall of text!

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UPDATE: "Server Error in '/FeedbackForm' Application. // Runtime Error". Sigh.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Have email disclaimers gone mad?

It might just be karmic justice. Until a few months ago I worked at a company that would like to redefine email as Email 3.0 or something - the product was an email gateway that added branding, business cards, and also those stupid page-long disclaimers.

On Monday I bought a little baby PV solar panel, just to have an electronics guinea pig. Setsolar asked me for my address, email and real life, phone number, all sorts of things. (I wasn't in the mood to kick up much of a fuss.) So today I received the tax invoice by email. Fair enough, and kudos to them for allowing '+' in an email address. But then... there it was, lurking at the bottom of the email (emphasis mine):
Confidentiality Note: This email message and it’s [sic] attachments are the property of SETSOLAR. This information is intended solely for the attention and use of the individual or entity to which it is addressed and may contain confidential and legally privileged information. Any unauthorized review, use, disclosure or distribution is prohibited. If you are not the intended recipient, please contact the sender by reply email and destroy all copies of the original message.
WTF? Since when is an invoice the property of the vendor? And just when did I agree to a contract that seeks to "prohibit" me from unauthorized "review" (???), use, disclosure and distribution? I guess I should now expect NPA to come knocking at my door.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

You are just as guilty

The NYC General Assembly has published a declaration of the occupation of New York City. While I'm glad that the occupation seems to be gathering momentum and mindshare, and while I have sympathy for the sentiments behind the many "facts", I do believe that the 99% are not being completely honest about their complicity in the situation they're protesting. Let me add to the confusion. In the same order:

They have failed to use their shares in corporations, held via pension funds, as their voice with which to disapprove of bailouts. They have failed to put heat on underperforming executives.
They have failed to start their own corporations free of inequality and discrimination, and have chosen to continue to patronize corporations which do make themselves guilty of these blots on humanity's character.
Their farmers have chosen freely to use monopoly seeds; likewise they have chosen freely to poison their rivers with fertilizers and pesticides.
They have refused to use moisturizing creams not tested on rats first.
They have continuously sought a path of conflict with employers, when they use their collective bargaining power to exclude non-union workers from the workplace.
They have chosen freely to pursue an advanced education, one that is in excess of what any reasonable person would think of as a "right", and have chosen freely a field that is expensive to study, vulnerable to cyclical variations, and perhaps not even all that useful.
They have chosen freely to buy only the cheapest goods, goods that are cheap because only workers outside the US are willing to scrub toilets for less than a king's ransom. They have chosen freely, also, to run up their lifestyles to the point where their expenses match their incomes, so that they can afford only the cheapest of each of the very many goods they "cannot live without" (yet use only a few times before throwing them out).
They have ridiculed those concerned about privacy before being so was hip, as "net kooks".
They have continued to vote for the same two bought parties, despite knowing all along that campaign contributions run the show. That's if they even bothered to get their lazy asses to the voting booth. And nowhere did anyone hold a gun to their head and force them to vote for a bought candidate from one of the only two parties who have won anything in the last X decades.
They continue to demand unimaginable amounts of electricity, demand which (until only very recently) only oil can meet. They have refused to take public transport, because that is only for poor people and losers. No, a car in every garage is sine qua non!
They have continued to forgive unforgivable sins, such as fouling beaches, murdering wildlife in the process, spilling chemicals, and creative accounting.
They choose to let the media hold the reins to their emotional state. They have continued to worry more about bearded men in turbans attacking them with anthrax than about the disgustingly fatty freedom fries and polymer burgers they stuff down their throats, like daggers into their coronary arteries.

(You may interpret uncontested agreement where I have not mirrored a "fact", if you wish.)

I do not suggest that corporations are blameless. They are plenty guilty! Nor do I even suggest that what is in the 99%'s eye is a beam, but it is at least a little splinter. Corporations are composed of people, they depend on people as customers and employees. So do politicians in a procedurally if not spiritually democratic country. Yet the supposedly good 99% of men did nothing, and then evil happened. And now everyone acts surprised.

But please - do continue doing something, so that more evil may not happen. Better late than never:

The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second-best time is now.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The value of an education

intellectual_coward asserts:
The common experience of many of the protesters is that of being crushed by an outrageous burden of high interest student loans. Today it is common for graduating seniors to carry $50,000, $75,000, or even $100,000 of debt.
Of course it's frightening to start your career deep in the red. But is it really "outrageous"? I'm not so sure. If there really is a free lunch to be had by getting educated, then in the long term, more people will do so, until there is no longer an advantage to doing so - when the expected lifetime income increase matches the increased cost of tuition (as more people seek a commodity, the cost of providing it rises).

An education has value, but who should pay for it? We might like others to pay for our own - that is the rational if selfish desire that seems implicit in the comment quoted above. But why? Why should my tax dollars make you rich by paying for your education? That does not seem fair either, does it? (A justification of such a subsidy might include second-order making-the-cake-bigger-rather-than-the-slice arguments.)

But why would an education cost $100,000? Back in the late 1990s when I got my university education, the tuition fees did not come close to that - the total might have been of the order of $15,000 (and included a change of direction when I realized biochemistry + physics was not a good career for me). A state subsidy would also have applied, but nothing like $100,000 worth of it. [1]

Perhaps part of the problem is that some sections of society have forgotten about applying capital cost-effectively. Maybe their universities need to learn to do more with less.

A politically incorrect counterargument is that not everyone has the same aptitude for a higher education. It certainly matches my anecdotal observations. If some people are born with a built-in advantage over others, it is natural that they would, in aggregate, earn more over their lifetime than those whose lack of talent consigns them to perform only undifferentiated labour - which anybody could provide, should they choose to. This may not be fair, that the genetic lottery determines one's prospects in life. It is, though, economically efficient - and stable.

[1] A University, particularly a private one, may want to pursue "profit" (by whatever name suits their mandate). A reasonable return on capital invested would be fair - but this return should be related to the prevailing interest rates. I don't imagine education as a particularly risky industry, so its return on capital should be fairly low. (Otherwise there would be more schools, until the return again matched the borrowing rate + (low) risk premium.) Keep this in mind when comparing what an education costs the school to provide, with its price to the student.