Random Rants, by Thomas Andrew Olson

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Running for a Smoke

Well, we probably knew it would come to this sooner or later.

New York's chief resident anti-smoking busybody, hizzoner Mike Bloomberg, jacked the taxes on cigs in town a couple of years back, raising the price-per-pack of my wife's favorite Winstons to $7.50. So what's a cig-sucking, self respecting, tax and busybody hating New Yorker to do? Buy elsewhere, of course - either in another state, on the reservations, or over the internet. For those without cars, the internet seemed like a great option - until a couple of weeks ago, when it was announced that the City was cracking down on internet smokes peddlers and demanding they collect the tax. Now everyone who did biz with eSmokes in particular are going to get a back tax bill in the mail. In addition, Bloomie wants to raise the local tax yet another 50 cents.

It won't be long before some deal is reached on the reservations, as well, as the pressure is increasing from Albany - they're not getting their $1.50 a pack either.

The busybodies always claim that raising the cig-tax this way is somehow doing smokers a favor by distorting the marketplace enough to give smokers an economic incentive to quit. Of course, if everyone DID quit, they'd have to tax something else to make up for the sudden budget shortfalls - look to junk food to be next.

So, if the internet is out, and the reservations begin to cave in, what's left?

Time for a road trip...

I did some quick math today. The mean distance from New York City to North Carolina is about 500 miles, or 1000 miles round trip. If your car gets 25 mpg and the average per-gallon price down and back is $2.30, that's $92 total. Stay in a Motel 6 down there - $60 for one night. Let's say you have a pack-and-a-half a day habit - that's one carton a week. My wife's favorite Winstons are only $22 a carton, with tax, as opposed to about $80 a carton in NYC, with hizzoner's new tax hike. 26 cartons would then cost $572.

A weekend trip, for a half-year's supply costs $724 total. Twice a year, that's $1448. By contrast, 52 cartons times $80 in NYC is $4160. So twice-annual trips to North Carolina to support your habit saves you $2712, or nearly two month's rent on that uptown studio.

Budgets at any level of government should not be balanced on the backs of people with habits other people look down on as being "bad" or "unhealthy". We can't tax our way to a toxin-and-fat-free utopia any more than we can tax our way to general prosperity.

Wouldn't it be funny if the Second American Revolution was begun by put-upon smokers who finally banded together and said: "Enough is enough!" ?

Friday, March 17, 2006

Cartoon Wars come to America

Another protest has been made by the Faithful over cartoon depictions of their religion. But it's not Islam, this time.

I've never been a fan of government-induced censorship (thank God we still have a 1st Amendment!), but I think corporate censorship is also equally egregious. Apparently mega-Scientologist Tom Cruise is miffed over an episode of South Park lampooning his "religion". And since Comedy Central's parent company is also the parent company of the film studio producing his upcoming summer epic, "Mission Impossible III", he essentially told the execs that if they didn't pull the episode, he would refuse to promote the film. The execs, being totally unfamiliar with the vital principles of a free and open society as embodied in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, caved in to Cruise's demands.

In addition, Issac Hayes, the voice of the popular character "Chef" on the series for the last 10 years, who also happens to be a Scientologist, has quit his job in protest. Of course, as South Park creator Trey Parker mentioned, Hayes had no problems cashing his checks when they were taking extreme pot-shots at Fundies, Catholics, Jews, or Muslims - even Jesus Himself wasn't immune.

But no, the practitioners of a "religion" started in 1950 by a 2rd rate science fiction writer as a means of cranking up his income stream, tax free, somehow feel they have the right to be free from ridicule or insult. (To Scientologists: You all need to lighten up, and if you get stressed over it, you can always have a session "on the cans" as it were. You may think you have the Greatest Thing Since God Talked to Moses, but the rest of think you're either deluded fools with more money than brains, or simply a bit creepy. Get over yourselves.)

Well, Comedy Central may not let you see the episode, but thanks this space, you can download it here, for free. Watch and enjoy. While you're at the site, you can also educate yourself about cults, if you wish.

Meantime, I would recommend that South Park and "freedom of expression" fans express their feelings for Mr. Cruise's actions by avoiding the theatre when MI-3 is released this summer, and avoid the DVD as well. It'll be on HBO, sooner or later. Make a tape - the VCR isn't dead, after all. It's only a movie - they'll make more.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

If Mr. Softy Sold iPods

Apple has nothing to worry about...


Seriously, even if you're a Micro$oft fan, you've got to admit these guys are making a point.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Elon: I want to believe - but please launch something first.

With Elon Musk, it's become an issue with me of suspension of disbelief.

Anyone who's been following the drama of private space entrepreneurs knows that Musk, founder of PayPal, has spent the last several years and tens of millions of his own money (earned from the sale of same), to build a new expendable-launch system that promises, via improved technologies and greater efficiency in overall business practice, to significantly lower launch costs. The Falcon 1 has been poised to lift off for many months now. There has been one delay and technical glitch after another, since last June, at least. It also didn't help that they were unceremoniously kicked off of Vandenberg last year, and had to move the operation to Kwajalein Atoll.

That being said, the success of Falcon 1 could herald a new direction in space launch capacity for US companies, and ultimately lead to greater market demand, as cheaper launch costs will encourage new players with smaller budgets to enter the comsat, resource imaging, and even planetary probe markets, previously the private domain of academics with access to government largesse.

However, SpaceX wants to keep the press release machine cranking, despite Falcon 1's setbacks. For over a year, now, a much larger model, the Falcon 5, has been under development, and has even attracted customers, despite the fact that "1" hasn't flown yet, which would seem to me to be the prerequisite proof of concept. But last September, SpaceX also announced its answer to the not-yet-a-problem of heavy lift, with a Falcon 9 vehicle, designed around Falcon 5 technology.

Again, I will repeat, Falcon 1 has not yet flown, nor proven itself to be cost-effective and reliable. Nevertheless, I've wanted so much for Elon to succeed that I just nodded "yeah, yeah, blah, blah" to these hyperbolic announcements and moved on. But now comes the final straw that cracked my suspension of disbelief wide open - the announcement today that SpaceX is also developing a manned spacecraft to go atop Falcon 9!

The issue I have with this is not so much the "hype vs. substance" issue which seems to plague the self-described "New Space" community, but the fact that Musk has publicly declared that after Falcon 1, he will be seeking expansion capital from institutional markets to develop the F-9 and the F-5. Overpromising great new products while not yet delivering a service to a single customer, to me, is placing the cart before the horse.

Earth To Elon: Enough already! If you had 10 successful Falcon 1 launches and one or two Falcon 5's under your belt, I might be willing to lend some credence to your latest press release. But the unvarnished pesky fact is that Falcon 1 has not flown even once, Falcon 5 is in development (but without the benefit of lessons learned from Falcon 1), Falcon 9 is in the same state as 5, and you're now hyping your own manned spacecraft to enter the COTS-funded/ISS Resupply derby. Since SpaceX is entirely funded out of your own pocket at this point, when does it become prudent to stop promoting new product lines and instead concentrate on proving to the world you can actually launch something?

You're beginning to sound like Microsoft, who has a long checkered history of hyping vaporware to keep competition at bay and customers aboard, then rushing products to market before they're really ready. Software bugs from insufficient development time can ruin a customer's day, but bugs in launcher design and deployment can cause frustrating customer delays at best, disaster at worst. You are already learning the painful lessons of vertical launch to orbit with chemical rockets, beginning from scratch the way you did. I support you 110% in your efforts, I really do, but before you start promising the stars (like so many other failed operations before you), will you kindly just fly something first?