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Monday, September 29, 2014

There is a Great Deal of Rot in a County

That the police shooting in Ferguson sparked riots isn't news to anyone.

I use the term "sparked" advisedly. Regardless of the facts of the shooting, which no one other than Officer Wilson knows for sure, it only brought to a boil black anger that had been long simmering.

For good reasons, it seems.

The Washington Post's Radley Balko filed an extensive story in the Washington Post about how many city governments were, and largely still are, victimizing their citizens.

Some quotes:

There are 90 municipalities in St. Louis County, and more in the surrounding counties. All but a few have their own police force, mayor, city manager and town council, and 81 have their own municipal court.

Some of the towns in St. Louis County can derive 40 percent or more of their annual revenue from the petty fines and fees collected by their municipal courts.

Local officials, scholars, and activists say that whatever happened between Brown and Wilson, St. Louis County’s unique political geography, heightened class-consciousness, and the regrettable history that created both have made the St. Louis suburbs especially prone to a Ferguson-like eruption.

Sales taxes are the primary source of revenue in most St. Louis County municipalities. Wealthier areas naturally see more retail sales, so the more affluent towns tend to be less reliant on municipal courts to generate revenue. In recent years a state pool was established to distribute sales taxes more evenly, but existing towns were permitted to opt out. Most did, of course. Perversely, this means that the collection of poorer towns stacked up along the east-west byways are far more reliant on municipal court revenues. That means they face much stronger incentives to squeeze their residents with fines, despite the fact that the residents of these towns are the people who are least likely to have the money to pay those fines, the least likely to have an attorney to fight the fines on their behalf, and for whom the consequences of failing to pay the fines can be the most damaging.

Clearly, there are certain things that need government: laws and their enforcement chief among them. Yet St. Louis county seems to be laced with town governments that have gone well beyond the necessary to the parasitic.

How did this come to be?

[Note: what follows is my summary of Balko's writing]

White flight, enforced first by race-restrictive deeds, then segregation, real estate pacts, and finally zoning laws. To keep blacks out, subdivisions incorporate themselves into towns, then these towns zoned themselves as R-1, barring construction of multi-unit public and low income housing.

St Louis county became a hop-scotch of whites building new subdivisions, zoning them into towns, and blacks eventually moving in, and whites out to build new subdivisions.

Consequently, there is a proliferation of town government overhead, each one of which is supported largely, particularly in poorer towns, by property taxes. So, in order to support the metastasis of bureaucracy, the town governments became parasitic: where property and sales taxes weren't sufficient, they turned to, essentially, extortionate legal impositions.

In the towns along the interstate and east-west highways, where blacks have been a majority for a longer period of time, they have much more representation in city government. But these are the same parts of the county where … there are just too many towns, too many municipal governments, too many municipal employees, and not enough revenue to support them. It doesn’t seem to matter whether those employees are black or white, they’re a legacy of segregation and structural racism, so they’re still reliant on extracting fines and fees from their residents in order to function. If anything, they’re more reliant on those fees, since there isn’t enough wealth to generate sufficient revenue from property and sales taxes.

The municipal parasitism, particularly in poorer communities, creates self-reinforcing cycles of fines upon fines; imposition upon imposition.

“There are incidents of police brutality here, like anywhere else,” says Harvey [a lawyer representing poor defendants]. “But the anger in Ferguson was driven by something much more common and pervasive. It’s the day to day harassment and degradation that this system creates.”

Balko's story has, for my tastes, too many emotive personal stories, and rather ignores that some of the things these people were arrested for were, by any measure, crimes: there are reasons for laws prohibiting driving unlicensed, unregistered, and uninsured.

That aside, I was getting pretty angry myself by the end of the article. No doubt, these people made poor decisions. Fine. But when municipalities pile on like they have, concerned far more with their own perpetuation than worried about leeching their citizens, then hostility shouldn't come as a surprise.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Stop the Insanity

A few weeks ago I did a first rate job of lacerating one of my fingers on a broken piece of glass. Since, absent direct pressure, the thing wouldn't stop leaking at a rather dismaying rate, there was nothing for it but the ER.

Over the course of three hours, a nurse stared at it appreciatively for a few seconds. A med tech spent a few minutes setting up a tray of what was mostly clearly identifiable as medical paraphernalia; the rest like it belonged at a quilting contest. An actual doc took fifteen minutes to douse the wound with mercurochrome, which is exactly as painful as it sounds; jabbing the area with a novocaine loaded hypodermic, which made me forget about the mercurochrome; then putting in four stitches, one of which was outside the novocaine's sphere of influence, but did have the benefit of making me forget about the mercurochrome and the hypodermic.

Got the bill last week: $1,115.

YGBSM. There is no way the cost of goods and services my accidental experiment in self-mutilation got anywhere close to that. If the doc's cost of employment was $500 per hour, with the nurse and the tech coming in at $100 each, then the services cost at a half hour total time was $350. I'll round it up to $500. In any sane world, the thread, novocaine, mercurochrome, and that wrist band thing would come to approximately chump change.

Where the hel* is the rest of it going?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Long Winded Manual

I've often criticized the massively long bits of legislation like Obamacare that exceeded 2,000 pages and made it so "[w]e have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it."

But it turns out the Obamacare documents are puny relative to a reference manual I've recently had the opportunity (misfortune?) to encounter.  For one of our robot projects, we're using a small inexpensive Single Board Computer (SBC) called the BeagleBone Black, which retails for about $50.  On the BeagleBone Black, the processor is the Texas Instruments AM3358 Sitara System on a Chip (SOC) which retails for a little over $10.

The AM335x Sitara™ Processors Technical Reference Manual for this $10 chip is a whopping 4,966 pages!  I cringe to consider how long the manual for a $500 Intel chip is these days.  I do wonder, if like Obamacare, they had to build the chip to see what was in it!

The reason I was engaged in this light reading was that I was trying to figure out how to set the duty-cycle on the PWM subsystems and right there on page 2,329 was the information I needed:
The value in the active CMPA register is continuously compared to the time-base counter (TBCNT).
When the values are equal, the counter-compare module generates a "time-base counter equal to counter compare A" event.
This event is sent to the action-qualifier where it is qualified and converted it into one or more actions.
Unfortunately, I didn't realize that was what I was looking for as the term "duty-cycle" doesn't appear anywhere.  So I gave up trying to decipher the multi-thousand page manual and instead, I downloaded the source for the linux operating system and in /arm-kernel/linux-dev/KERNEL/drivers/pwm/pwm-tiehrpwm.c there appeared something much easier to understand:

 if (pwm->hwpwm == 1)
  /* Channel 1 configured with compare B register */
  cmp_reg = CMPB;
  /* Channel 0 configured with compare A register */
  cmp_reg = CMPA;

 ehrpwm_write(pc->mmio_base, cmp_reg, duty_cycles);

It's so simple! Just write duty_cycles to cmp_reg, which is either CMPA or CMPB depending on which channel you want to control.  A quick search showed that CMPA has an offset of 12 (hex) and voila, I had all the information I needed!  How exciting! (The sad part is that I really do find that exciting; perhaps you now understand why I so rarely write about technical topics).

I guess that's why I consider English to be my second language, with C being my native tongue, as it's easier for me to search through many tens of thousands of lines of code than to read a handful of pages in a manual to figure something out.  C (and math) are so wonderfully precise while English is mostly gobbledygook as far as I can tell.

Back to the processor. The reason the manual is so long is that the Sitara chip has a lot of random stuff. For example, I imagine that the PWM subsystem I'm using would qualify as random stuff to most people.  The chip has 3 such subsystems to control 3 motors and in this project I'm working on, it coincidentally turns out that I need to control 3 motors.  What are the odds of that?

The chip has all this stuff, but you can only access a fraction of the stuff at any given time.  For example, you can either access the PWM stuff or you can hook up a monitor, but not both.  So most normal people can use this board as an everyday Linux computer (Linux comes pre-installed) with their monitor, keyboard and mouse connected and I can control motors but we can't do both.  No matter what, a large part of any given chip remains unused.

All those logic gates sitting idle.  I find that painful.  A logic gate is a terrible thing to waste!

Yet I can see how it makes sense.  By throwing everything but the kitchen sink onto this chip, they make it so versatile that a lot of people can use it for a lot of different things and that pushes the manufacturing volumes up which pushes the cost down. $50 for a Gigahertz Linux system is pretty good. Right?

The answer is: No

A few months ago I rubbished the NYT's Claire Cain Miller for some rather uncritical #WarOnWymyn reporting. There have been several opportunities since, because the NYT is bound and determined to apply the same sort of objective rigor to the #WarOnWymyn they have made their hallmark in Globa … Climate Cha … Disruption.

But fair is fair, and I must note she has hit on an interesting question: Is owning overrated?

Things that you can now rent instead of buying: a power drill, a song, a tent, an office for an hour, a Prada handbag, a wedding dress, a painting, a dog, your neighbor’s car, a drone.

This new way of consuming — call it the Netflix economy — is being built by web start-ups that either rent items themselves or serve as middlemen, connecting people who want something with people who own it. They are a growing corner of the broader sharing economy, in which people rent out rooms in their homes on Airbnb or drive people in their cars with Uber or Lyft. Soon, tech entrepreneurs and investors say, we’ll be able to rent much of what we always thought we must own.

I'm betting some New York City provincialism is sneaking in there, but perhaps she is on to something. For things that are relatively costly, but have a low utilization rate, and the need for which is predictable, that sounds like making sense. Particularly when aggregators remove the research overhead required to find what's out there. After all, that is one of the primary benefits stores bring with them: they, too, aggregate. The downside, of course, is the paying full freight for something rarely used.

Tools are a good example. Ten years ago I built a deck. I bought a power planer I have used once since. As part of the Hand-Me-Down project, I bought a vacuum pump and manifold gauge set to diagnose the air conditioner.

I failed, by the way. Far smarter to have rented these tools than to have bought them. Along with a bucket-o'-clues.

Other things, not so much. Outside dense cities, where car ownership really can be occasional, Uber and Lyft are just taxi companies by a different name. The rental market for aspirational fashions beyond the self-obsessed blue enclaves isn't as robust as it might appear from New York.

Still, at first glance, renting in lieu of ownership might be an economic game changer. We wouldn't need so much consumption, which means the earth could start to heal, and the rise of the seas slow.

This is, after all, an NYT article.

Perhaps not, though. Ms. Miller has forgotten that there already is a rental market for many things — including the AC tools I bought. Which I can, in yet another now familiar arrangement, put into the serial rental market.

EBay. You may have heard of it.

My guess: companies like Uber and AirBnB are alternative ways of doing the what we have long done, whose effect will be to greatly expand supply while not changing amount. RenttheRunway can put women into designer dresses and accessories for one-off occasions, but only in specific locales.

Beyond that: nothing.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Funniest Amazon Review I've Ever Read

This one has gone viral (my wife saw it on facebook and forwarded it to me) so you may have seen it already.  But if you haven't, it's pretty funny.

The product is Veet for Men, the reviewer is A. Chappel, and his review is titled "A warning from across the pond..." It will very likely still be the "most helpful" review.


Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Say What?

I remain skeptical regarding an article linked by Instapundit a few weeks back titled "When Women Wanted Sex Much More Than Men." The article states:
Yet today, the idea that men are more interested in sex than women is so pervasive that it seems almost unremarkable.
The article argues that this view is relatively recent and completely unfounded in the past.  I don't think I believe it.

But then I was thinking about it a little bit.  Perhaps it's modern day dress and hygiene that makes all the difference.  My female readers can't answer this, but for the rest of you, here's the question: which environment would make you more interested in sex?  One where all the women haven't bathed in, well, ever, and are dressed in clothing from biblical through puritan times as in the images below...

... or women in more revealing modern western dress as in the examples below?

Note that I could've picked much more provocative images, but the ones above are pretty typical for what I see wandering around San Diego.