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February 12th, 2002:

How Enron actually works

Andrew Hofer has explained the concept of derivatives to us non-financial whizzes, but though Hofer’s prose is as lucid as one can be for such a topic, I guarantee that you’ll enjoy Joe Bob Briggs’ explanation of Enron’s business more. Chuck Bob says check it out.

How government actually works

On a more serious note, Fritz Schranck gives a good explanation of How Things Get Done In Government. It’s well worth reading, and provides (as Schranck himself mentions at the end) another good argument against term limits.

A short rant about usability

Dane Carlson, whose weblog is more technical than political, points to this interesting article on website usability. I’m definitely a technical user, so none of the concepts described within were new to me, but it reinforces the notion that many web sites suck from a user’s perspective. They suck because they are designed by people who don’t know and don’t think to find out how people will actually use them.

Lest you think that I’m going to spend my time bashing web designers, I wanted to make the point that usability is an issue in many places, inside and outside the world of computers. Today a coworker and I spent an hour installing a component of some fax server software. We’ve been installing bits and pieces of this software for awhile now, and at every step there’s been something about the install process that makes us swear. Today during the install we had to manually specify a bunch of directories that the program will use. There was no reason why the program didn’t have a default set for these directories, with an offer to create them for us. Later, we had to specify a print queue for the software to use. The interface forced us to go through the godawful Network Neighborhood hierarchy in Windows NT, and never gave us the opportunity to type in the path we wanted to use. Unbelievable.

And then there’s houses. I’ve already ranted some about clueless homebuilders. Last weekend we saw more examples of What Not To Do. One house we looked at had a den abutting the kitchen. The wall opposite had a fireplace with mantel and built-in bookshelves on either side. The adjoining wall had two windows, and opposite it was the stairs to the second floor.

In the corner of this room was the one cable outlet on the ground floor. The problem is, where would the TV go? Between the fireplace, bookshelves, windows, and stairway, there was no logical place for a TV. Plus, wherever you wound up putting the TV anyway, you’d either block the breakfast bar or the stairs by putting in a couch to watch the TV. Basically, once you attempt to furnish that room, it becomes useless. We really ragged on the builder for that.

That house and its neighbor, both built by the same construction company, both had finished attics on the third floor. They were intended as rec rooms, for kids or grownups, since there was no obvious place downstairs in either house. Unfortunately, there was no plumbing installed in either room, so you’d always be forced to go downstairs if you need to use the bathroom or want to have a drink. (You could install a fridge, but not one with an icemaker.) What’s the point of that?

All of these things have a common feature, which is that the problems could have easily been avoided if someone had taken the time to think about how they were going to be used. Simple, isn’t it?

I can’t drive 55

The Harris County attorney is asking the TNRCC to reconsider implementing the 55 MPH speed limit, saying that a new study claims it will not achieve its touted air quality improvements. While I’m not surprised to see that an array of interests has sued the State Implementation Plan (SIP), I was surprised to see this statement:

Ramon Alvarez, a scientist for Environmental Defense in Austin, said the group has not promoted the 55-mph speed limit.

“We do not believe the strategy is as effective as the plan claims it to be. We think it will be difficult to enforce and involves the risk of creating public resentment of environmental programs,” he said.

A better strategy, Alvarez said, would be to use financial incentives to reduce driving, such as basing auto insurance premiums on miles traveled instead of time, and allowing employees to pay transit fares out of pre-tax dollars.

First, the enforcement issue is one I’d wondered about. Houstonians (myself included) are notorious leadfoots. One reason why is that we can get away with it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been doing 70 in a 60- or 65-MPH zone and been passed by an HPD car. I’ve been in Houston over 13 years and the only speeding ticket I’ve ever gotten was not in town. I believe most people will ignore a 55 MPH limit unless enforcement is heavily stepped up, and even then people will take their chances more often than not.

On the flip side is the fact that you can’t go 55, let alone 70, on most of the freeways here much of the time. There’s too many cars out there. As I’ve said before, all the stop-and-go driving on the roads here has got to be worse for the air than going 70 MPH, but beyond the current MetroRail plans (which is more aimed at reducing non-highway inner city traffic) there are no hard plans on the horizon to bring rail out to where the heavy stuff is. Until there’s a real alternative to driving to work, we’re not going to make much progress on reducing auto emissions.