SUV info

Gregg Easterbrook has written an excellent article called Axle of Evil about SUVs and their owners. He covers all the usual territory about safety, mileage, image over substance, yadda yadda. However, he also makes a couple of more novel points:

  • Government safety and mileage standards don’t just let SUVs be big and ugly; they encourage it because it’s the truck-like construction (more dangerous to other vehicles) and 4WD (lower mileage) that make them exempt in the first place. There’s even an extra exemption for vehicles over 6000 pounds. The more inappropriate an SUV is for everyday use, the fewer regulations apply to it.
  • The poor overall safety record (not reflected in insurance costs BTW, so we all pay for people to drive them) occurs despite the fact that most SUVs are relatively new and driven by the demographics with the best overall driving record. As SUVs age and move down into the used-car markets where drivers are less safe in any vehicle, the death rates – especially those for people in sensible vehicles struck by SUVs – will only increase.

Practially all SUV owners would be better served – in all but image – by some other vehicle. Pickups are more practical for farmers and ranchers and such; minivans are more practical for soccer moms and dads. Anyone else can rent on those one or two occasions a year when they need something bigger than a mid-size car…for less money than they’re saving on gas the rest of the time.

More Australia Pictures

I finally went through all 304 pictures from the trip, picked the best 80, cropped and color-adjusted all over the place, and put everything into a web page with captions. Phew! Here are the results. The layout looks a tiny bit weird because it’s set up for printing as well as on-screen display and HTML isn’t as good as some people claim for doing both at once.

Doing the Numbers

Here are some stats about who receives taxable dividends, and would therefore benefit from the centerpiece of Shrubya’s so-called economic stimulus program, culled from IRS figures.

  • Those earning a million or more constitute 0.16% of the population, and receive 19.2% of taxable dividends.
  • Those earning $100K or more constitute 7.5% of the population, and receive 59.2% of taxable dividends.
  • The average millionaire-earner received $123693 in taxable dividends. At the highest marginal tax rate of 39.6% that translates into $48983 in savings per millionaire (1.5% of average total income).
  • The average person earning $50K or less received $290 in taxable dividends. At the highest applicable tax rate of 28% that translates into $81 (0.4% of average total income).

Some stimulus, huh? Bush’s last tax cut didn’t do squat for the average person or for the economy, and this cut will do even less.

Unusable sites

For a while now, I’ve had JavaScript disabled in my browser because…well, it is a Windows system, and why take chances? It’s really beginning to annoy me how many sites just won’t work at all without JavaScript enabled. You’d think they could still display something – maybe an error page, at the very least – but many pages simply come up totally blank. People pay web designers for this? Even worse, some high-capacity sites are actually multiple machines with names like or, which defeats any attempt to make the site work by adding it to a list of “trusted sites” or anything similar. JavaScript, despite all of its horrible security flaws, has become something about which users are no longer given a choice; if you browse without it, there are simply too many sites you can’t use. I guess that’s what happens when you let monkeys create sites.


Following a conversation with a coworker, I did a Google search for how to make a million dollars on ebay and turned up a bunch of amazing sites. Here’s a quote from the most blatantly misleading site:

The internet is exploding with growth! Within the next 3 years, experts predict internet sales will reach $103 TRILLION Dollars!

Really? According to the US Bureau of Economic Analysis our GDP is at about ten trillion. According to the Federal Reserve Board the total US money supply is around seven trillion. I know the US isn’t the entire world, but somehow I don’t really believe Internet sales will equal ten times the US GDP or fifteen times the money supply any time soon. Somebody just totally pulled that number out of…well, let’s say thin air, just to be polite. The amazing thing is that many people would actually accept such a blatantly absurd number.

Bad Signs

On my way to see my dentist this morning, I noticed a sign that said “No overnite parking, November 1 – April 30″. Is it just me, or does it bother other people to see such contractions used in such an official context?

The Two Towers

The first thing I have to say is that The Two Towers was an awesome movie, as good as I could have hoped for. The second thing is that there’s plenty for a purist to complain about, as this movie deviated from Tolkien’s script much more than the previous one. Here are some of the specific things I liked, disliked, or just noticed.

  • Aragorn was always one of my favorite characters, and I think I like the movie’s version even better than the book’s. For one thing, Viggo Mortensen’s doing a fine job. His gracious, kindly side is brought out more than it ever was in the book, as is his relationship with Legolas and particular and elves in general. His fall and return after the warg attack, though, were gratuitous: Gandalf already did the resurrection thing.
  • Legolas’s athletic feats need to be toned down a bit. His vault onto Aragorn’s horse was bad enough, but the skateboarding at Helm’s Deep was just ridiculous.
  • I recognize the need for some comic relief, but turning Gimli into such a total caricature offends me somehow.
  • Just about everything about Merry and Pippin’s journey was wrong. The battle between Ugluk and Grishnakh over what to do with them – important in the larger context of relations between Sauron and Saruman – was unrecognizable. Treebeard appeared too early, the ents were smaller than they should have been relative to the surrounding trees, and the change in how the ents decide on war seemed gratuitous. To be fair, the ents must be devilishly difficult to represent on screen, and I thought the destruction of Isengard was extremely well done.
  • Gandalf was just a little too bright.
  • I liked Gollum, even though many of the close-up shots seemed to be showing off the quality of the special effects rather than advancing the plot. The depiction of Gollum’s schizophrenic “episode” in which he talks to himself via different camera angles was particularly well done. The movie’s Gollum is more worthy of Frodo’s pity, IMO, than the book’s. It did bother me, though, that his eponymous sound was rendered more as a cough than as the swallowing noise it should be.
  • The scene at Edoras was also very wrong. The early Theoden was totally overdone, the fighting in the hall was out of place, and the “casting out Saruman” bit was heavy-handed. I really liked the later Theoden, though; his combination of resolve and despair was well done.
  • The Rohirrim seemed strangely reluctant to use their spears while mounted. Similarly, the orcs’ spears were ridiculously long.
  • I don’t remember a legion of elves at Helm’s Deep, and there seemed to be an odd lack of flaming pitch and other such impediments for wall-climbers. I can accept that there were legitimate dramatic/cinematic reasons for the change, though, and overall I think all of the battle scenes were extremely well done.
  • Nazgul seemed to be appearing where they shouldn’t – most notably at Osgiliath.

Of course, I’ve omitted one kind of major plot difference: the changed relationships involving Aragorn, Arwen, and Eowyn. The purist in me is screaming. On the other hand, I never really liked Arwen much in the book, and I definitely did like Eowyn. The scene (not yet shown in the movies) of Aragorn and Eowyn at the entrance to the Paths of the Dead has always been one of my favorites, and I confess that I’ve wished for a different resolution more than once. I guess I have to admit, perhaps a little shamefully, that I like the change. I do, however, wonder how they’re going to make this version work. Will the thrones of Rohan and Gondor (and Arnor) be united, with a disappointed Faramir in the wings? Alternatively, will they find some other reason for Aragorn and Eowyn to remain on separate paths? I fear that Arwen will make a clumsy and inappropriate eleventh-hour return in the third movie, in which case I’ll just have to go and wring the moviemakers’ necks.

Australia: Miscellanea

Every electrical outlet in Australia has its own switch, and all the switches seem to look identical – small, down for on, and a dab of day-glo paint on the up side of the switch so you can easily tell it’s on.

To conserve water, most toilets have separate half- and full-flush buttons. It also seems like every toilet we saw was from the same manufacturer (Caroma). Then again, most toilets in the US come from one of a very few manufacturers; I guess it’s just an industry that lends itself to oligopolies.

On the same subject (which is important to a traveler), public toilets are refreshingly easy to find in Australia. I wish US cities and towns would recognize and do something about this common need.

If you want real fast food at lunchtime, one of your best bets is often to visit a bakery. There’s usually a warmer with a selection of pies, sausage rolls, etc. and the bakers themselves often include savory items in addition to sweet. One of the best lunches I had was a ham and cheese roll from a bakery in Halls Gap.

The best food I had in Australia – perhaps ever – was at the Kookaburra restaurant in Halls Gap – kangaroo (like a good cut of beef) in a delicious port/cream/mustard sauce, with good mashed spuds and nice crisp vegetables, and plenty of wine. Yum!

Australians aren’t too good at pizza or burgers. They are, however, very good at fish and chips.

Australian schools don’t seem to be teaching the proper difference between “its” and “it’s”; spurious apostrophes have reached the level of an epidemic.

Cryptic signs #1: TAFE stands for “Technical And Further Education” – adult ed to an American.

Cryptic signs #2: a “black spot project” is part of a nationwise program to improve conditions at intersections where accidents have previously occurred.

While in Hobart, we spotted an impressive US Army (yes, army – not Navy or Marines) transport catamaran called TSV-X1. Here’s her sister ship. I kind of wanted to take a picture, but wasn’t sure whether that would be appreciated. ;-)

Australia: People

Overall, the people in Australia seemed startlingly like Americans – much more so than Kiwis, Brits, or New Zealanders, just to name other places I’ve visited. In letters to the editor or overheard conversations in restaurants, their political concerns and attitudes seemed remarkably similar to those back home. While we were there, John Howard’s comments about the possibility of preemptive strikes were a hot issue, and the familiar old battle between jingoists and pacifists was playing out. Another hot issue was ethanol in gasoline, and the possibility of a federal standard; apparantly some vendors are selling gas that’s as much as 25% as ethanol, and people are (justifiably) concerned that it’s damaging their cars. There were at least a couple of stories about corporate scandals, which seem to have occurred about the same time as those in the US.

In fact, I’d say that in some ways the Australians adhere more closely to “American” ideals of independence, free markets, etc. even more than the US does. Here are some examples:

  • Relative to the states, the Australian federal government seems much smaller and weaker than is the case in the US. Many more functions seem to have been devolved to the states, and the state premiers have a higher national profile than US state governors generally do.
  • One of the major highways near Sydney is totally private, supported by tolls. Such a thing is all but unimaginable back home, where the only private roads seem to be driveways and logging roads.
  • Even in reasonably well populated areas, firefighting seems to be on a volunteer basis, with full-time firemen limited to the cores of the larger cities.

There were certainly more than these three things that contributed to my impressions of Australians as “more American than us” but my memory is already fading. :-(

One difference between Australians and Americans is manners. Even chance-met Australians, on vacation as much as we were, seemed more consistent about greetings and thankyous and such than Americans typically are. Making small talk seemed easier than usual, and the locals were very gracious about tourists’ different terminology or pronunciation or ways of doing little things. Australian drivers generally obey speed limits (which might have something to do with the omnipresent speed cameras) and stay left except when passing (“overtaking” to them). I was quite impressed.

There are, however, two blots on Australian’s otherwise excellent etiquette record:

  • About one in four Australians seems to have a celphone permanently grafted to their ear, and no qualms about shouting into it even in places like bookstores or botanical-garden paths. To be fair, other Australians seem to have recognized such behavior as a problem and are trying to do something about it. Good for them.
  • Australians are the worst pedestrians I’ve encountered. Part of the problem seems to be the aforementioned celphone addiction, but even those not so encumbered seem disinclined either to stay on one side of a sidewalk or indicate which way they’re going. Walking erratically while looking everywhere but where you’re going seems to considered almost a sport, enjoyed by all ages and classes in every Australian city (and even smaller towns) we visited. And yes, it is the Australians themselves I’m talking about; the foreign tourists were the well-behaved ones.

I don’t mean to condemn an entire country by referring to a couple of minor flaws. As I said, Australians in general seemed to have excellent manners, and that makes these flaws all the more remarkable.

Australia: Animals

I put some more comments about animals, and about a dozen pictures, on a separate page. You should be able to click on any of the pictures to get a larger version.