Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sowell on Health Care

A quickie. Thomas Sowell reiterates the fact that "health care" and "medical care" do NOT mean the same thing, nor are "insurance" and "medical care" interchangeable.

Probably the best quote from the article:
When it comes to things where medical care itself makes the biggest difference — cancer survival rates, for example — Americans do much better than people in most other countries.

No one who compares medical care in this country with medical care in other countries is likely to want to switch. But those who cannot be bothered with the facts may help destroy the best medical care in the world by falling for political rhetoric.

More on high speed rail

From the New Republic yesterday. The writers there tend to be much more concerned about greenhouse gases than I am, but it seems to be widely accepted that some of the inputs required to achieve "high-speed" are:
  • separate rights-of-way(in other words, tracks shared with freight rail are out of the question)
  • broad curves
  • elimination of steep grades, whether by earth removal or tunnels.
Author Plumer thinks that the trade-offs are manageable, but as I mentioned previously, the terrain of western Pennsylvania would result in a very high cost to build a track with the above qualities(the Tribune-Review says $13 billion), and I really think the money could be better spent elsewhere, particularly on upgrading highways.

That same Trib article, interestingly enough, mentions the current speed of current trains between Harrisburg and Philadelphia as being "up to 110 mph" according to a PennDOT spokesman. Again, though, that part of the state is relatively ideal terrain for transport, as shown below.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Fredericktown Ferry and the Mon-Fayette Expressway

From the Trib. I've never heard of this ferry before, but it sounds interesting. Its existence is somewhat threatened by the Mon-Fayette expressway, so it seems. The location is shown below.

View Larger Map

The article states that the ferry carries about 130 people/cars a day at $2 each, which adds up to $95,000 a year in revenue; however Washington County and Fayette County also pay about $100,000 per year for its operation.

The ferry is more or less a curiosity in the larger scheme of western PA transportation. What primarily interested me here was the Mon-Fayette Expressway(aka Route 43, Turnpike 43). In 2012, the Brownsville-to-Uniontown section of the expressway will be complete, which means that the entire PA 43 would be finished - except for the glaring lack of progress from Jefferson to Pittsburgh/Monroeville.

I'll be writing more on this in the near future, but it will suffice to say now that I think the incomplete Pittsburgh section of the MFE is the single most urgent transportation project in western PA.

Further reading on the Mon-Fayette plans in general(here) and the Brownsville-to-Uniontown section in particular(here).

Thursday, April 16, 2009

High speed rail to Pittsburgh?

Obama's stimulus plan includes $8 billion for a "start on establishing high-speed rail corridors nationwide". One of the 10 corridors identified for possible service is the "Keystone" corridor between Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia.

I'm really skeptical of this for a number of reasons, most of which are technical.

  • Flying is cheap and readily available between Pittsburgh and Philly(as an example Expedia is showing a roundtrip for $119.20*, fees included). Unless the proposed high-speed fares are heavily subsidized I don't expect they'll be any less.

  • Even allowing for airport security hassles it's possible to fly from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia in about 2 hours. To match that a train would have to average 150 mph, counting waiting times.

  • For a train to be considered "high-speed" by Amtrak standards it has to average only 90 mph. I'm not a railroad engineer, but I'd imagine that given the terrain between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg it would take several hundred billion dollars to build a dedicated track that would allow for those kinds of speed.

  • Achieving "high speed" with shared rail lines is generally out of the question. As mentioned in the linked article, the Acela Express over the Northeast Corridor has to slow down almost constantly because of all the slower passenger and especially freight trains on the same tracks. And again, that's on relatively flat terrain. Freight trains in the Appalachians undoubtedly run slower than on the flat lands near the coast.
Basically I think it's well demonstrated that it will be impossible for high speed rail, without subsidies, to be competitive with air travel on the basis of price or travel time.

Obama's justification for the subsidies, which is fairly consistent with what other politicians say in justifying high speed rail, is that it will relieve congestion(both in the airways and on the road), help clean the air, and save energy.

I don't have hard data on these matters, but anecdotally I've never found the PA Turnpike to be particularly crowded. It's probably busier than the average rural Interstate, and does have heavy truck traffic, but I think it could be upgraded to 3 lanes each way, for its entire direction, for a small fraction of what a new rail line would cost.

PIT and PHL do not usually make the list of airports lacking capacity. A frequent concern viced about PIT is that the airlines are offering fewer flights into it, which suggests that congestion there is not a great problem.

As far as cleaning the air, the high speed trains in other countries generally run on overhead electric wires - which means they appear "clean" because they shift the dirty power generation elsewhere. This doesn't of course rule out that high-speed rail usage could result in a net reduction of pollution - but this would depend on the local means of electric generation(coal, nuclear, natural gas) being "cleaner" than the jet engines, diesel buses, and gasoline engined cars that would be used alternatively.

Pollution reduction would also depend on high speed rail being a sufficiently viable alternative to other methods of long-distance mass transit to attract their current users, which as I've demonstrated above isn't likely. (I haven't mentioned the private automobile, but in general the idea that mass transit will 'get people out of their cars' is fallacious. The convenience of always ending up exactly at your destination, making stops at the store on your way home, and making your own schedule outweigh the inefficiency for most private car owners).

*The fare was calculated today(April 16), departing April 30, returning May 5, with flexible times(9 unique departing flights were available at that price). For comparison, Amtrak's current cheapest roundtrip fare for the same dates is $94.00, with a train that leaves once daily. Greyhound ticket with a 14-day advance purchase is $60.00.

An absurdity on veterans and the "right wing"

Fox News interviews Janet Napolitano about the Mexican violence and the controversial memo issued to law enforcement recently, titled "Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment".

On the matter of the memo itself, it's suspect whether "rightwing extremism" was chosen as a label to actually help law enforcement or just to subtly bash the administration's political opponents(As an example on page 4, xenophobia and antidemocratic ideals are described as rightwing, which is utter nonsense. Are the unions who vehemently oppose illegal immigration now 'rightwing'? And does the right advocate legislation by the judiciary or the administrative agencies, probably the biggest internal threat to democracy?).

A footnote(p.2) elaborating on rightwing extremism, which has been rightly criticized:
Rightwing extremism in the United States can be broadly divided into those groups, movements, and
adherents that are primarily hate-oriented (based on hatred of particular religious, racial or ethnic groups),
and those that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or
rejecting government authority entirely. It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a
single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.
This definition is basically useless. The groups mentioned have nothing whatsoever in common, other than that so-called "liberals" oppose them. Sometimes. Depending on the specific race and religion of the extremist.

In the video, the most absurd statement of all from Ms. Napolitano came at the 4:46 mark, where she said that "Timothy McVeigh was a veteran, that's where he got his training." There is absolutely not one shred of evidence that any military training he had was the least bit relevant to the Oklahoma City bombing.

The only reason this idiotic statement can be made(and to be fair, Ms. Napolitano's not the only one who I've heard say it), is because there's a stereotype of veterans as being brainwashed, programmed to kill, desensitized, &c.; but it only takes one look at the hard facts to realize how untrue it is.

McVeigh, as a Bradley gunner, was probably taught good gunnery and marksmanship, use of various handheld weapons such as grenades or anti-tank rockets, basic military/outdoor skills, and Army tradition. Perhaps he even operated the Bradley. I challenge anyone to explain what aspect of this training, in the late 80s or now, or ever, has anything to do with creating a 5000 lb. ANFO with a Ryder truck, and placing it next to a building in order to demolish it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Crash Data for Pittsburgh Highway Corridors

The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, I've just discovered, has a great deal of transportation data for our region. Among other things they have a Congestion Management Process which is supposed to collect data on highway congestion so that transportation planners know where it needs to be alleviated.

Of interest to an emergency responder, the SPC posts data on crash location and severity for the regional highway corridors. This I found to be particularly enlightening. For example, here(as a PDF) is the data for I-376 between the Turnpike and Downtown. Some points I thought were interesting:

  1. There are noticeably more crashes on Fridays and Saturdays, and I'm wondering why. Instinctively I'd say late night DUI drivers, but that's belied by the next point.

  2. The peak hours for crashes appear to be(in descending order) 14:00, 8:00, 13:00, 15:00, 16:00, and 2:00. Mid-afternoon doesn't seem to me a very accident-prone time, but if these data are correct that obviously needs to be rethought.

  3. 76% of crashes are in non-adverse conditions, which suggests, since Pittsburgh has 152 days annually with rain, snow, sleet, &c., that drivers are less competent or careful when the sun comes out.

  4. 43% of the collisions on 376 were rear-end collisions, and 40% were vehicle into a fixed object(barrier, sign post, and much more).
A couple of notes on the data:

The crash data are from PennDOT's CDART crash tracking system. These are "reportable" crashes only, defined by PennDOT and the SPC as "a traffic accident where someone was injured or where one of the vehicles had to be towed from the scene".

The "severity index" they have listed is a weighted average, with the following weights given to each crash type:
Fatal crashes = 12
Major injury crashes = 12
Moderate injury crashes = 3
Minor injury crashes = 2
Unknown injury crashes = 2
Property damage only crashes = 1

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

On basic chemistry

Al Gore's Repower America project, which I registered for some time ago and receive e-mail updates from, asked me to write letters to the editor supporting the idea of a cap on carbon emissions. I happily obliged them with the following:
Subject: Carbon dioxide is NOT a pollutant, and cap-and-trade restrictions on it will kill the economy.

The Alliance for Climate Protection is currently trying to stir up more hysteria about the "pollutant" carbon dioxide, calling for a cap on "emissions" immediately. This is nonsensical.

First, anyone who knows basic chemistry understands that incomplete, inefficient combustion of hydrocarbon fuels(coal, oil or gas) creates real pollutants like carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and oxides of nitrogen.
Complete combustion produces that bogeyman, carbon dioxide, and the horribly toxic compound, water vapor(incidentally many times better at trapping heat than carbon dioxide).

Second, carbon dioxide is as necessary for plant life as oxygen is for animals. Without it, photosynthesis cannot occur and the plant will die. A GE commercial within the past year showed an anthropomorphic tree embracing an "energy efficient house" with it's limbs, but a more accurate depiction would have had the tree gasping for the precious carbon dioxide that the house was no longer emitting.

In the end, it's rather unfortunate that most of the folks in Washington and in the anti-AGW movement don't seem to be in the category "anyone who knows basic chemistry", for then the ridiculous plan to restrict a compound so essential to life, and handicap future economic growth in the process, would be found strictly on the lunatic fringe where it belongs.

Christopher Renner

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Some thoughts on this blog's purpose

I expect that I'll be posting various random things here - have a Twitter feed, but it's obviously not long enough to explore anything in depth. At this point in my life I don't have a particular focus or area of expertise apart from perhaps car electronic systems, and I can't see limiting this page to one subject.

Transportation has always fascinated me(as an example I think I had almost memorized the general routes of every Port Authority bus by age 11, along with the interstate highway system), and I expect it to be a subject of a number of my posts here.

Also economic and financial issues - economics is relevant to just about anything in life, and arises in a good number of conversations I have as of late.

Other than that, I'm open to write about just about anything.

Comments should be open to anyone. Feel free to offer your input.