Listening to Rick Dorschel Sell Cars at Thursday Thinkers

I finally managed to get out of the house and get to The Kate Gleason Auditorium at The Rochester Public Library (115 South Ave.) in time for Thursday Thinkers. Rick Dorschel was there to discuss, Where's My Electric Car? Imagine my disappointment when I found it to not only be a press conference (that is, "way to advertise for free"), but possibly the most ill-informed Thursday Thinkers I've ever attended.

He started out talking about the problems in the latest Toyota recall concerning accelerator pedals sticking. My dad said they showed a diagram of the mechanism on the news, and it was an affront to good design: even a cursory glance reveals to an engineer like him that the mechanism can easily bind. Dorschel, however, said the problem was related to the complexity of synchronizing 4 computers on-board — largely to meet efficiency and emissions standards (implying, in my opinion of his tone, that the days of carburated engines were far better, and further, that government interference in capitalism was to blame more than anything else). As a computer programmer and electronics designer, I can tell you flat out that synchronizing the behavior of 4 computers is not simple, but it is well within modern techniques to make it extremely reliable and to make it fail safely. Dorschel also said that the computer was designed to split user input on the accelerator and brake "50-50". What the shit is that? If you have an accelerator and brake system, if the user attempts to use both, you always pick the brakes! In these days of computer-controlled throttles, there is absolutely no reason to make the car behave like a 1960's muscle car.

He went on to reassure the audience that Toyota is still a quality car, and the problems they have encountered have been fixed. No drivers in the Rochester area have reported a stuck accelerator — it is, after all, rare. Alas, he did not say how the design process was changed to add checks to make sure such bad design decisions are not propagated to the public. I can only assume it's "business as usual" at Toyota until, and after, the next problem. Same as all car companies for that matter — there's no reason to buck the system when, as an amoral corporation, it can achieve such easy free publicity at the cost of a few dead customers. Heck, did you see the advertising they're doing about safety? Ride that publicity wave to profit, for that is all that matters.

But on to the actual topic at hand …

Dorschel starts out by referring to electric cars as "golf carts" that are street-legal. Way to kick things off with your GM-based logic — presumably referencing the literal street-legal electric golf-cart from Chrysler-owned Global Electric Motorcars, LLC. Anyway, his discussion was rife with inaccuracy. Dorschel is indeed good at selling cars. But on the topic of cars and transportation, not so much.

He referred to the future of electric cars as being hampered by the battery. In some ways, this is true: with today's technology, it is impossible to replace the quick-fueling internal combustion engine, and electric vehicles are essentially limited to (at best) a 300 mile daily range, followed by hours to recharge. However, he completely misses the boat that things are changing. Many people can get by without owning a car at all, relying instead on public transportation, bicycling, and walking for most trips, and using a car sharing or car rental service for when an automobile is most convenient. Considering the prevalence of car rental and sharing services, one could literally get by on a commuter car. Also, the notion of driving your own private vehicle to a far-away destination is a concept only possible after the middle of the 20th Century. The belief that all things that we have now will be available forever, and new things will only add to that is plain foolish.

He said that ethanol is a failure because it takes more energy to make than it produces which is true, but he went on to claim that hydrogen and the fuel cell is the answer. I had to pick my jaw off the floor on that one: hydrogen is, at present, a mediocre energy storage medium. It will always cost more to buy hydrogen than to buy energy some other way because it's one more step removed. In other words, energy is attained from one source (i.e. petroleum, coal, solar, wind, hydroelectric, or nuclear) and used to convert inaccessible hydrogen (like in water) into accessible hydrogen (like hydrogen gas). Therefore, hydrogen from petroleum will necessarily cost more than petroleum itself — it doesn't just exist in pockets below the earth like oil does. Another way to look at this is that ethanol produced from, say, corn is essentially energy from the sun; harvesting that energy takes more energy than you get out. Hydrogen is guaranteed to be the same way. His statement that we may someday use the hydrogen and fuel cell in our car to power our house may be possible, but it would be excessively costly compared to the energy systems we have now — for that matter, we can leave our car idling in the driveway and run an inverter to run our house today, but who's foolish enough to waste that kind of money?

He gave a sheepish shrug when he said that Americans want giant cars. Someone asked, "if Madison Avenue can make giant SUV's and pick-up trucks desirable, why not energy efficient cars?" He had no answer, but said that all he knew is that they have such a hard time with consumers because they demand big cars when gas is under $2/gallon and small ones when it's over $4. After a grumble of support for gas over $5/gallon, he claimed that it would be yet another way that government interfered with our freedom. I had enough and asked, "why, then, is it okay to pay property taxes to pay for roads, but not for that same amount to come from gas tax?" He said that he hates government interference as well, and we should probably start a tea party (I believe he was talking about the conservative-funded astroturf protest called the Tea Party movement.) I think it's funny that he thinks that subsidizing his industry is called "freedom" but taxing based on use is "government interference".

Alas, in the end, Rick Dorschel struck me as a stalwart buggy-whip salesman. The fundamental business model under which car dealerships operate is eroding as people migrate toward more reasonable, ecological, and debt-free solutions.

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Vanishing Point at the Dryden

Although it was a double feature, I decided to go late to see just Vanishing Point at Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.). On the surface, it was a simple tale of a guy running from the law in a fast car. But my take on it was that the guy — Kowalski — represented freedom itself. Super Soul — the black, blind DJ — seems to recognize this, and even spells it right out.

I found Kowalski's encounters on the road to be one-dimensional allegories where you can just substitute "freedom" for "Kowalski":

  • At every turn, the law is out to stop freedom.
  • The hippie couple gets along with freedom.
  • Racists try to stop Super Soul from talking about freedom.
  • The gay couple tries to rob freedom — perhaps out of desperation.
  • Freedom goes all over the desert.
  • The religious group sees freedom only as a malicious stranger.
  • When the law finally wins, freedom dies.

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Steve Kurtz was acquitted

I got an e-mail from Christine Kristen (a.k.a. LadyBee) that contained a press release announcing the conclusion to the case against Steven Kurtz that I blogged about in January and actually got news that Kurtz was cleared a while back through a post at Glob-a-log titled "The Steve Kurtz case finally dismissed (Another political trial, another pathetic witch hunt: Just business as usual in Bushland)". (If you're curious, it's at the end of this post after the fold).

I gather that the press release was to promote the art show Seized at The Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center (341 Delaware Ave., Buffalo) which documents the materials involved in the case (it's on display from June 7, 2008 through July 18, 2008). But way way down at the bottom of the press release was the key part: the [clearly ironically named] Department of Justice had no business even bothering to bring up charges of mail and wire fraud because (as I said before) it's a civil dispute so it requires one person to accuse another of fraud — not a criminal one where the state can bring charges against someone. They clearly overstepped their bounds as part of the Judicial Branch of the U.S. government, as they were acting on behalf of the Executive Branch to execute the laws, then they even did that wrong by misapplying the law.

The thing that bothers me so much is that when I consider why the Department of Justice did this, I can't come up with a reason, other than those with evil purposes.

What crime — of the United States or against anyone or against humanity — did Kurtz commit by his artistic protests? I say there was no crime committed, and I'm left to believe that the Department of Justice was trying to put an innocent man in jail. Why would they do that? Perhaps to justify the "War on Terror" by staging arrests of fake terrorists? I don't know, but it all smells evil. [And let me also reiterate what's not been said enough: "terror" is a concept, not a group of people so it's at best a Quixotic move to try and wage war against it.]

Perhaps they're working to block dissent to the war and to questionable corporate efforts — both topics that Kurtz and his group rallied against. But in a free country … nay, the free country? When dissenters are rounded up and put in prison in a dictatorship, I can at least understand it, but when it happens in a country that prides itself on inalienable freedoms? So maybe the Department of Justice's goals were to steer the United States toward a more totalitarian government. Again, evil.

When I try to apply Occam's Razor, most relevant evidence points to a big conspiracy: that government is trying to bias the delivery of news for purposes of manipulating the will of the people through false information.

It's a thought that I can't bear to stare straight into. I welcome comments that disprove my theory.

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Laws are entirely voluntary

I was just thinking this morning that laws are entirely voluntary. I mean, it's actually impossible to force someone to do something — you can coerce them, but if they are unwilling, then they won't do like you want.

Think of it this way: it's not the law that guides behavior, law just measures common morality and codifies it. So it wasn't that people looked around at the chaos of everyone killing one another for fun and said, "hey, maybe we should make a law that says that people shouldn't kill one another", but rather that people were mostly not killing one another and someone thought it would be a good idea to write that down. The contrapositive is also true. So if someone made a law that nobody ordinarily does, then nobody would follow it. If New York made a law that said you had to cut off the little finger on your left hand, I guarantee that nobody would follow it.

Law tries to be precise to ensure that it's clear what's being asked for, but what about something like driving faster than the posted speed limit. It's very clear but almost nobody obeys it. So why not make it "everyone must drive responsibly"? Well, that's not specific enough and the law would be bestowed with very little authority by being subjective.

I guess therein lies the thing that people like so much about them: authority. It makes people feel their ideas are validated if the ideas are formally agreed to be "correct". It's like a trump-card of cheap debate, "well, it's the law". Unfortunately, it's also a very weak argument. I mean, can you imagine a presidential debate where one candidate says, "well, it must be true because it's the law". On second thought, please avoid imagining that because we're not far from that being a valid debate tactic. [Rather, imagine that both candidates get to have TAZERS.] My point is that one should be able to argue the validity of their argument without the crutch of the law — in other words, law itself has no place in debate about a law. It's simply a populist argument — argumentum ad populum as they say.

And when the authority of the law gets too big for its britches, there's always civil disobedience — which, in the context of this discussion, is simply the recognition that what I'm saying is true: laws are entirely voluntary.  And civil disobedience is most effective against laws that are irrelevant to one group (often a majority [and through typo, came out as "mojority", which seems like an awesome word itself]) but directly effect restricted behavior of another group, especially  when that restricted behavior itself has no effect on the first group.

But what is it I'm supposed to say on the Internets about this kind of thing? IANAL or something?

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