Tuesday, August 14, 2012

It Isn't Always Discrimination, You Know

Imane Bloudlal is a lady with a problem.

Firstly, she's a Muslim woman.  I have my own issues with Islam in general and most organized religions' backseating of women, Islam not least among these.  But that's my own prejudicial bone firing up, and that's all I'm going to let be heard from that.  No, do not try to correct me.  I won't listen.  I won't listen, because I will not agree with you.

No, her main problem is that she's committed to her faith - that's a good thing, regardless of how I feel about the faith itself - and not shy about wearing that commitment literally, in the form of the hijab.  Also a good thing.  I used to wear a cross around my neck.  My brother gave me grief about it.  He moved away, I moved away, and I still have the cross.

Ms. Bloudlal says that once she started wearing the hijab, she started receiving harassment from coworkers at Disney's Grand California Hotel & Spa Storyteller Cafe.  She reported the harassment both verbally and in writing to her bosses, who subsequently did nothing.

And then, evidently, she was let go.  According to her complaint, she was ostensibly dismissed for refusing to remove her head scarf.

Digging a little deeper, we find that Ms. Bloudlal was offered some alternatives when she insisted on wearing the headscarf, even though she had not yet received corporate permission to do so.  And here's the important statement: the question of whether she would be allowed to wear the scarf was being discussed.

Disney is a gigantic corporation whose image is a large portion of its stock in trade.  You better believe the question was being discussed.  And even with the question unresolved, the young lady's immediate supervisor gave her some alternatives: cover the hijab with a hat, wear a scarf with a Disney theme, or take a position that isn't in the public eye, at least until the issue could be further and more concretely resolved.  Ms. Bloudlal found none of these acceptable, and was dismissed.

Not fired.  "Dismissed."  California is an at-will state, where either party can discontinue the employer-employee relationship at any time for any reason, up to and including no reason.  With an issue unresolved but under discussion, and what seem to me to be reasonable alternatives while the resolution was sought offered, Ms. Bloudlal refused to continue working without going her own way.  And when you're a huge image conscious company like Disney, it isn't the employee's way that matters.  Thank you for all your hard work, your paycheck will be mailed to you.

So what does Ms. Bloudlal do?  Let me point out that though she was born in Morocco, she has since become a naturalized American citizen and has picked up on how things are done in America: she sued!

I don't think her case has a leg to stand on.  Not as far as the dismissal goes, anyway.  Disney has a "look" section in its employees' handbook, and it lays out what is and is not allowed.  When the supervisor gave her the option of wearing a Disney-themed headscarf until the matter could be further resolved, I think he made all the allowance for her that was required of him, and if she chose not to take it, then that was her choice.  A choice, I might add, that put her at odds with Disney's own employee handbook.  By refusing to follow the letter of the law - the handbook - and the spirit of it too - the supervisor's proferred options - she rejected the company's commitment to its image.  And like I said, with a company like Disney image is everything.

Goodbye, Ms. Bloudlal.  You're done here.  We're sorry you weren't willing to make a step toward compromise.  We tried, you refused, we're done.

Now as to the harassment part of the lawsuit, she might have something there.  If she has written records of the complaints she filed, along with any kind of record of what happened as a result of those complaints, that part of the suit might have some legs.  But as far as discrimination goes, I think she should leave that horse in the barn.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Helpful Household Hints: The Car

This isn't the first time you've written about cars.

No.  But then I'm usually mulling on one make and model in particular.  Usually it's something that's near and dear to my own heart, or something that I consider noteworthy against the entire backdrop of cars.  The Toyota Corolla for example, venerable nameplate that it is, isn't really noteworthy for anything but being an efficient, compact family car.

So what's on the menu today?  The Fuller Dymaxion?

Not hardly.  But that's worth a look so by all means, click the link.  No, today is about your car.  The hoopy in the driveway.  Let's talk a little about that, and maybe a bit about the phrase "high performance."

My car's just a compact sedan.  No high performance in it.

Yes, there is.  There's the usual paradigm of high performance, making more power and going faster, which is fun in its own way.  Then there's taking what you've got, and making the most of what you have.

Chances are that, like most Americans, you aren't trying to race your car.  You just want to get there.  And you want to do it while spending no more money than necessary because, well, who has money to waste?  Not me, that's for sure.  So you're going to make your car do more than it usually does

Is this going to be about fuel efficiency?

Some of it, not all of it.  Some of it is just about making the car better.

First, an engine oil change is never a bad thing.  Oil is what keeps your engine from grinding itself to powder.  Under ideal conditions, there is virtually no actual metal-to-metal contact inside your entire engine wherever there are moving parts.  They should all be floating on a microscopically thin film of oil and in a well-cared for engine, that's actually pretty much the case.  But as oil ages in an engine, crud gets suspended in the oil and bridges the entire gap from one part to another, like a rock big enough to rest on the streambed and still poke out high enough for you to step on.  So change the oil and filter and get that gunk out of there on a regular basis.

I change mine every 3,000 to 5,000 miles.  You can go longer - no car manufacturer recommends an oil change interval that short, and in fact some Porsche models have 20,000-mile oil change intervals specified in the owner's manual.  But my paradigm is this:  cars are expensive.  Engines are expensive.  Oil isn't cheap either, but for the price of a new engine to replace the one you have, you can buy several hundred thousand miles' worth of oil changes.  So I'll go ahead and change the oil.

That's basic maintenance.  Anything earth-shattering in this post?

No.  Nothing earth-shattering.  Just record-breaking.

Keep your oil fresh.  Keep your tires aligned - that's important - and the excess weight aboard to a minimum.  Change the transmission fluid once in a blue moon while you're at it.  What about the lubricant in the final drive?  Many front-drive cars won't have this (it would be part of the transaxle), but if you're in a pickup truck, it's that big pumpkin back there between the rear wheels.  It has a quart or two of lubricant in there...unless you've never checked the level.  In which case you might be due for topping it up, or at least changing it with new.

You talk a good game, but can you offer any proof?

Yes.  I'm a member of ecomodder.com, a fuel-efficiency enthusiasts' site.  Among other things, the site features the Garage, where you can record your vehicle's performance results as you adopt new driving styles and modify your vehicle for better performance.  With subtle changes in behavior, you can make your car deliver fuel mileage far in excess of what it's rated.  My truck is supposed to whistle up mileage in the 25-27mpg range; I've recorded mileage in excess of 39mpg on a couple of trips, and tend to average 30-33 without working hard at it.  You probably won't do as well as 33% above the EPA rating, but it isn't impossible either.  NOTE: my average is down lately because I drive the truck so little that fuel is evaporating out of the tank.  That's important to remember: fuel sitting around unused can actually just disappear.

What else can you do?  Now that you're making the most of an unmodified vehicle, let's think about modifying it.

Do you listen to the radio, or do you just have an MP3 player plugged in?  If you never tune the radio, take the antenna off.  That's a little frontal area removed, and some turbulent drag too.

That's pretty small change.  How sure are you that this will work?

I'm positive.  Every little bit helps.  The less drag there is, the less your engine has to do, and the less gas you have to burn to get around.  You have to change your driving behavior first so you aren't driving in a wasteful manner, and doing it consistently.  Once you've got that nailed, you can really start to see how all these changes add up.

Try replacing your existing wheel covers with ones that are smooth.  The wheels are big whirling air buckets; if you can cover the bucket, the whirling isn't as much of an issue.  It means you give up some style points, but if you're like most people, the car isn't for show.  It's just a tool to get you back and forth, and saving money counts for more than style.

If you drive a sedan, add a spoiler to the trunk lid.  This effectively makes the back of the car higher, and helps raise the trunk lid's edge into the smooth airflow zone tumbling off the back edge of the roof.  Hot VWs magazine discovered the classic "Herrod Helper" spoiler bumped up their mileage on their "mileage motor" project (getting a classic aircooled VW Beetle to deliver something close to 40mpg at 65mph like other modern cars) by 2mpg - nothing to sneeze at.  Not the silly wing style spoilers, just a little airdam lip poking up.  It makes a difference.  But to be sure, you have to test it with the spoiler on, then off, and compare results.  This requires some datalogging.  But if you aren't that meticulous or just don't feel like investing that much energy in it, a couple of coast-down tests can get the job done: find a spot where you can start at a known speed and let the car coast down, out of gear, to a slower known speed.  Whichever configuration takes you a longer distance before slowing to the lower speed is the better one.

Add wheel skirts.  At this point you have to get creative, because you can't just go and find wheel skirts to fit your car, not anymore.  You're going to have to make them.  Right now during election season there's lot of campaign signs around, and those things are made of Coroplast, which is the perfect material for making do-it-yourself wheel skirts.  Cut them to fit inside your wheel arches, and make them go as far down over the rear wheels as they will without rubbing.  If you don't want to screw them in, try sticking them on with 3M Command Strips or super-high-power rare earth magnets.

If I already have the smoothie wheel covers, do I need the wheel skirts?

Yes.  In fact you want both if you can have them.  The wheel covers reduce how much drag the wheel itself experiences - drag that your engine has to overcome.  The wheel skirts reduce how much drag the car's body generates, and that's another reduction.

The single biggest recommendation I have: slow down.  Nothing increases your fuel burn like driving fast.  The slower you go, the better, down to the limit where the automatic (if your car has one) will continue to hold highest gear and the torque converter locked.  If yours is a manual, your best mileage is probably right down there around idle speed, but that is generally not practical.  Most engines don't like that in any case.

Where are you going in such a rush?  Maybe if you left ten minutes earlier, you could cruise at a slower pace, arrive less stressed and having burned way less fuel per mile in the process.  Life doesn't have to be a constant hurry.  I've found that every car I've ever driven seemed to be especially happy right around 45mph, some of them seemed to barely even be running.  Don't try to comment saying that your car does better at thus-and-such a speed and does even better when it goes faster, because then you're asking me to disregard physics.  I'm too scientifically minded to disregard physics, especially for a hearsay report.

That's it.  Drive slower, do a little super-easy wrenching, save money.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Hell Freezes Over!

Fox News and I agree on something.

A young lady working the drive-through window at a Chick-Fil-A on the so-called "Support Chick-Fil-A Day" was harrassed and belittled by a customer who drove up for the free water and a captive audience.

She kept her cool.  Rachel - no word on her last name and maybe she'd like to keep it that way - never raised her voice, kept her cool and let the guy have his little rant.  No harsh language, even when he became insulting.

Fox News got hold of the video before the original was deleted and ran with it.  Big mistake, posting video of yourself being a jerk to people.  Sometimes you get caught before you realize how big a jerk you were and try to hide it.  So Fox News' commentators hang the guy out to dry, and he richly deserves it.  It isn't about who's gay or straight, who's married or not, who's working where or for what reason...

NEWS FLASH: the guy who shot the video?  Yeah, he's fired.  His boss won't tolerate that kind of thing.  Nasty turnaround, when your intolerance gets you intolerated.  That's a hot, juicy slice of irony right there.

...it's about personal behavior and rights.  The lady has the right to work there if they'll employ her.  The company itself never issued a statement regarding anything, it is the company's principals who did that.  And being a jerk to a random stranger who has no power over any of that is just plain hateful.

And THAT's what it's all about.  Accusing someone of hating and intolerance is a risky business when you think about it.  Too often, the finger you point should be pointed at yourself.

Irony in the News

Just remember: these are the representatives YOU voted for.  And now, with little finished and lots left to do, Congress is taking a vacation.

When's the last time you took five weeks off from anything?  Unless you've just had a baby, probably not since middle school have you had a full five weeks off.  Granted, those elected representatives are probably kissing hands and shaking babies to build some currency with their constituents, but still...

My tax dollars are paying for the big gorgeous office, the expensive house in the DC Metro area, not to mention YOUR PAYCHECK (yeah, I'm talking to you, Fleischmann).  So get your ass back in there and get back to work.  I don't get five weeks off, and neither do you.  If you want my vote at election time, earn it by doing some ACTUAL WORK, not by wandering the bizarre gigantic congressional district and gladhanding the voters.

And another thing: before you guys ever vote yourselves another pay raise, first ask us, the people paying the taxes that are the revenue behind the raise, whether WE approve it.

When Chick-Fil-A's founder and head honcho, S. Truett Cathy and his son Dan Cathy, stepped up to a mic and announced their support for traditional marriage, it raised one almighty ruckus.

As I said in a previous post, CFA is a privately owned company.  The Cathys can do what they want with it.  That includes using it as a bully pulpit, if they want.

But the thing about pulpits is that they usually have congregations.  Here in the Southeast in particular, that means lots of conservative Christians.  Our favorite CFA had to go to the nearby grocery store twice on Thursday, "Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day," a grassroots support for the Cathys and for CFA.  They had to go to the store because they were out of bread for their sandwiches.  Sales were off the charts.

So even though CFA is in the news for something that isn't necessarily good - alienating an entire segment of the population - it's getting lots of coverage, and coverage means recognition.  And today is supposed to be "CFA Kiss Day," when gay couples go to CFA and make out.

What do you want to bet some are hungry and want a sandwich?  No matter how you slice it, CFA is riding this crazy train all the way to the bank.

Obama thinks he's discovered the linchpin to the 2012 election.  He says it's Virginia.  There's a good chance he's right, and I'm not certain that this is an ironic bit of news.  I'm just putting it here for future reference.  We'll know whether this was ironic in November.

Russia is calling for UN monitors to remain in Syria to help maintain their struggle toward a democratic government.  That whole sentence is ironic.  Russia fighting for anybody's democracy in any capacity is just weird to someone who grew up during the peak of the Cold War.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

When Smart Becomes Dumb

I enjoy the Syfy show, "Eureka."

Not-quite-random aside: remember when the channel's name was "Sci-Fi?"  They're leaning away from the name so they can run stuff that isn't SF.  Too bad.  SF shows work hard to get their story across, and generally they're pretty smart fare.  But moving on!

"Eureka" is set in a fictional town, called Eureka (no state specified, but you get the feeling they're implying that it's in Oregon), that is entirely a government think tank and skunk works.  Filled chockablock with geniuses and gee-whiz scientific gimcrackery, it's a special effects and visual effects director's dream/nightmare.  Things fly or hover that shouldn't, cars drive themselves (or at least comment on your driving), the sheriff's gun shoots plasma bolts, et cetera.

Actually, the sheriff's gun doesn't shoot plasma bolts.  The deputy's gun does.

The sheriff is Jack Carter (please note the tip o' the cap to Burroughs' famous character John Carter), an otherwise ordinary guy who, through a few happy accidents, becomes the head lawman in this unusual town.  One of the defining characteristics of Jack Carter is that in Eureka, he's not just average.  In the regular world where his 111 IQ would be merely average, he is in fact at the very bottom of Eureka's barrel.  His own daughter's 157 IQ places her squarely in the middle of the pack among Eureka's brainy populace.

You would think that, lacking as much mental horsepower as the rest of the folks, Jack would be sorely outgunned at just about everything that goes on in Eureka.  This being a fictional TV show of course, that isn't the case, but it brings to light many truths in the real world, too.

Very often in the show Jack is faced with a stupefying array of jargon and concepts that go way beyond his experience, and which stress his ability to even understand the problem at hand.  But you don't get to be a US Marshal, and then recommended to be a sheriff for such a place as highly advanced as Eureka, by being stupid.  He has an innate ability to cut directly to the underlying foundations of the problems at hand.  The technologies and concepts are actually secondary - address the problem itself, using whatever technology and concept necessary while disregarding the complexities of those elements themselves, and the problem is fixed.  It's a highly pragmatic, very effective approach to problem solving.  I think any cop in the world could see the basic truth of this, and it stands to reason that, as a cop, Jack does exactly that.

I was watching video earlier today of the crewmen aboard the ISS entering the Spacex Dragon capsule once it had been mated to the Station.  Flight Engineer Pettit can be seen, in the video, clicking a pen and writing (he's a lefty) on a pad, and it reminded me of the old "Space Pens."

Note: as a lefty, Space Pens are my kryptonite.  The ink rubs right off the paper, directly onto my hand as it drags along the page behind the pen.  This was a much greater problem with the so-called "erasable pens," and it's a truism of pens and indeed pencils in any case with lefties, but as a direct result of my handedness I never consider Space Pens to be much of a muchness.

The legend that NASA spent a huge sum of money to develop a pen for use in space is false.  It was independently developed and the inventor invited NASA to try it out.  They tried it, and used several.

Where does Eureka and Jack Carter's practicality come into this?  Another show - I forget which - portrayed a disgusted Russian engineer pooh-poohing the Space Pen.  "You spend meeelions of American dollars inventing fancy pen.  We fly with pencil.  Ten cents!"

NASA stuck with the pen - and Russia adopted it too - because of the assorted and demonstrable dangers associated with wood shavings aloft in a pure oxygen atmosphere aboard the spacecraft, dust and graphite bits from broken leads getting into electronics and machinery (not to mention lungs).  The pen is actually a much better solution in a free fall environment.  But on the face of it, if there weren't a free fall environment, the pencil would be even better.

What other places is there such a thing as being too smart?  I recently watched a video of a 12-year-old Canadian girl holding the banking industry to task for running her country's debt into the billions of dollars for no demonstrable purpose other than to generate profits.  She appears to be right, and her solution is not only simple but doable.  Regardless of how old the kid is, when she lays it all out it's so simple it appears to be a crime, how the country's debt is handled.  If she can figure it out, why couldn't somebody else, somebody ostensibly smarter, more experienced, better informed?

It would appear that they're too smart.  This also starts to get into the neighborhood of "sacred cows," elements that have been in place for so long that nobody knows exactly why they're there, but they're treated as if they cannot be altered for any reason.

This is like when we were stuck with a disabled car on vacation.  We rented a car to get around while we waited for our van to be repaired, but dismayed at how much time we were losing.  Finally Son #2 said, "I wish we could just keep the rental, and keep going."  Wish, indeed.  We proceeded on our vacation with the rental car, having lost only a day.  We got it back by paring off a long sightseeing leg of the trip.

How much of our economy's inflation is generated by activity that doesn't really have to be there?  What are, exactly, commodities futures?  When an investor buys commodities futures, he does so knowing that he has no use for the commodities themselves.  He's purchasing their value, gambling on the possibility of being able to sell them at a profit.  He does this by buying them now at a low price and hoping to sell them at a high price in the future, or he does it by guaranteeing to buy in the future while paying now, hoping that their value in the future will have increased against his original purchase price.  Some of it is valid, like farmers buying insurance against their own harvests...but some is just capitalists gambling on the market, trying to make money out of thin air.

How productive is that?  Not a bit.  All it is, is shuffling numbers back and forth.  I fail to see how commodities futures does anything useful for the economy, except drive up prices.  Driving up prices doesn't necessarily drive up value, it only means that somebody has somehow managed to make the pie bigger so he can cut an extra slice out for himself...and we, the actual consumers, have to pay for this new, bigger pie that doesn't have any extra food in it.  Eliminate artificial pie inflation and you eliminate a portion of inflation in general.

Is inflation necessary for a healthy economy?  I don't think so.  But I'm not that good at economics so I don't have many bullets in my gun where that's concerned.  But I think the world's producer economy is rapidly approaching a cliff.  There are only so many material goods you can have before you have enough and don't want any more.  I have enough cars, enough houses, enough refrigerators and MP3 players.  I buy food and that's about all.  Other things I buy tend to be used or old - which is to say, they're already made and the only way they add to the economic machine is that I pay the person who found it for selling it to me.  No wages, no taxes, no production.

We're looking for new ways to house the world's burgeoning population, new ways to power their many many cars and homes and feed their teeming masses.  The new ways are brilliant, just staggering concepts vividly imagined and carefully considered.  It's the work of geniuses.

Wouldn't it be better to stop having so many babies?  Then we don't need gigantic cities that can house 20 million people in a space no larger than Manhattan.  We don't have to come up with ways to feed a world population of 12 billion people.

I know it sounds kind of a simplistic answer.  That doesn't mean it isn't a smart answer.  It cuts to the foundation of the problem at hand.  It doesn't gamble.

More on this later.