Monday, April 23, 2007

Bury the Wires - Part 2

So I emailed my elected County Executive last week about burying the wires. I was amazed to receive a response from someone on his staff almost immediately. While the response was probably canned, i.e., it was not written specifically or originally for me, it was at least on point.

Here's the gist:

The State's Public Service Commission (PSC) regulates and oversees public utilities. The PSC requires our electric utilities to identify areas that experience frequent outages and develop a strategy to address the causes of the outages.

Following the huge amount of damage its system suffered during Tropical Storm Isabel (2003), the power company here undertook an aggressive, multi-year tree pruning program to protect its infrastructure.

The company has committed to addressing the two percent poorest performing feeders in its system, as required by the State. It also agreed to address the 50 next-poorest-performing feeders in each jurisdiction it serves. It will be able to tell you if your neighborhood's feeder has been identified for this extra attention.

Please contact the PSC and/or the power company directly.

Here's what I sent back:

Scott - Thank you for your timely response to my message. I encourage the County to press the PSC to underground the wires in the County. We may have less tolerance for unreliable electric power and more tolerance for less affordable power than other jurisdictions in the State.

John Redmond

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Bury the Wires

Earlier this week, we had a lot of rain, high wind and cold along the East coast of the US. My house was one of many thousands of homes that were left without power by the storm. I was reminded again that the reliability of the US electrical power system (and its Canadian cousin) is the Achilles Heel of the information age.

Today I am writing about only one piece of the problem: residential electrical power distribution. Other parts of the reliability problem include the shortage of generation capacity to meet peak loads, weaknesses in the power grid, a complex regulatory framework, and the lack of coordination and contingency planning across the entire electric power system.

Outside of most big cities and newer planned developments, electricity is distributed to homes via overhead wires running along roadsides. Storms frequently knock down trees and branches, hitting the overhead wires and snapping them. Vehicles sometimes strike utility poles, breaking them and bringing the wires down. Lightning can strike transformers, burning them out and sending dangerous surges down the wires.

I live in a residential area where there are a lot of old-growth, tree-lined streets. In some places near me, there are wood lots bordering the roadways where trees and vines have grown over the utility wires. As a result, it doesn't take much of a storm to knock out power in my neigborhood -- it happens several times a year. And each time it happens, the power goes out for hours or days, until repair men and equipment get on site and re-string the wires and replace the poles.

These power outages we experience are more than a nuisance. The "comforts of home" are replaced by the cold darkness of the outdoors that modern men, women and children are poorly suited to deal with. Fires caused by candles and carbon monoxide poisoning from kerosene heaters used indoors are ways that people die due to power outages. For older people, the risks of deadly falls increase in the dark. For sick people, power outages can cause deadly interruptions and damage to medical systems.

I've lost a lot of expensive electrical equipment in power outages, including a computer and a monitor this week. I've also lost a lot of food in my refrigerator and freezer. I've spent a lot on surge supressors and battery-backup power systems to minimize the damage from my power woes. One thing I have not done is get an emergency backup generator to provide backup power to the whole house in the event of a prolonged power outage. In spite of my need for it, the cost is just too high.

The solution to this problem is obvious: bury the wires.

More than 100 years ago, utility companies in New York City implanted a vast array of poles in the streets of New York City. These poles soared ninety feet into the sky, held up to twenty-four crossties, each of which carried up to twenty wires. The city government grew increasingly concerned about this excessive wiring: electrical wires often snapped, fell to the ground, and sent sparks flying towards the city's citizens, homes, and businesses. In 1884, the New York State Legislature ordered that all electrical and communication wires were to be buried underground. (Source:

New York City adopted this solution more than 100 years ago! So, with all the progress since then, how can it be that other parts of the country have failed to do the right thing? There are two issues standing in the way of the solution: money and politics.

In economic terms, the upfront costs of burying all the wires would be very high. These costs would be borne by the utility companies and ultimately the rate payers. But, the utilities and some of its constituencies (stockholders, repair people, some customers, et al.) won't benefit from having the wires buried and don't want to pay for it. Most of the benefits would be enjoyed by those suburban, residential customers who would otherwise be at the end of dead power lines.

In political terms, business and consumer lobbies are opposed to burying the wires based on short-term economic considerations. Keeping electricity more affordable for everyone is more important that making it more reliable for suburban homeowners.

In many parts of the country battles to bury the power lines are being fought. In Tennessee, a newspaper reports, "Towns that bury electric power lines pay steep cost for aesthetics". In Florida, the town of Palm Beach is aggressively pushing a proposal that would require utilities statewide to put their power lines underground.

As they well know in Florida and as I know having recently spent time in the dark, the issue is not about aesthetics, it is about the reliability of electric power. Most states have laws and utility regulations that require electric companies to provide safe, reliable service at the lowest cost to consumers. All too often, however, cost considerations outweigh reliability requirements.

Wealthy, suburban communities which are self-governing, like the one I live in, should require utilities to bury the wires. We have the means, we have the incentive and we should be able to overcome the organized resistance. If New York can do it (and Murfreesboro, TN, et al.), we can too.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Recommendation: Macintosh

I used to be an Apple computer user and a Macintosh man. But, I haven't had one for many years.

For a long while I avoided Macs because I thought that Apple was going to disappear, like hundreds of other computer manufacturers have. I was afraid I'd be stuck with orphan technology, and I'd lose my work and my data.

With the success of the iPod, Apple's future is secure for the time being. Now, I'm thinking that Apple will abandon Macs and focus instead on iPods, iPhones, Apple TV, et al. But Mac PCs have become more like their competitors over the years, and there would probably not be any difficulty migrating work and data files to another platform. So that's no reason not to buy a Mac now.

Historically, Macs were significantly more expensive than Windows PCs. However, Mac users reportedly have fewer problems than Windows owners. So, from a total- cost- of- ownership perspective, Macs are probably cheaper than Windows PCs, even if they are more expensive out of the box.

The main reason that people have fewer problems with Macs is that there are fewer hardware and software choices available for Macs than there are for Windows PCs. Less crap installed and connected to the Mac equals fewer problems. Unfortunately for Apple, many people like me want all that crap. If you are satisfied with the crap that you can get for a Mac, then a Mac may be right for you.

Macs have long been fashionable and hip in certain circles. I do not travel in those circles. I thought the iMacs were pretty when they came out, but the idea of a monitor married to a CPU never appealed to me. If the look and feel of a Mac appeals to you, go for it.

Because of increasing returns to scale, Microsoft was able to corner its market and act in a predatory and monopolistic fashion, without proper regard for the interests of its customers. Now Apple has had similar success in the online music market. It is likely that Apple will be demonized as a monopolist one day, tarnishing the holier- than- thou image it has today in some quarters. But again, that is no reason not to buy a Mac today.

If you are looking to buy a PC for the office, and your company is a Windows shop, as most companies are, then you are probably better off getting a Windows PC at work. You probably don't have any choice in the matter.

If you want to buy a computer for yourself or someone in your family, then you should consider a Mac. Does it have the software, games and peripherals you want/need? When something goes wrong, will you be able to get support somewhere? Given the "right" answers to these questions, I recommend that you get a Mac.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Tax Mystery Explained

With the upcoming April 15th tax deadline in view, Mr. I. O. Taxes, from Des Moines, asks, "Why do I have to pay a fee to file my tax return online/electronically when the alternative of mailing it in is free?"

According to the IRS, most people (70%) qualify for "Free File." Check it out here:,,id=118986,00.html. According to the web site, "Free File allows taxpayers with an Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) of $52,000 or less in 2006 to e-file their federal tax returns for free."

Let's assume that Mr. I. O. Taxes doesn't qualify for Free File. Where's the logic in having him pay a fee to file electronically? The costs that could be avoided by the IRS from taxpayers like him filing electronically instead of on paper argue for the IRS to pay taxpayers to file electronically, not vise versa.

Answer #1: People are stupid.
There are many people who expect to get a refund, and they are willing to pay the fee for the promise of getting their refund more quickly. If these people were smarter, they would adjusted their withholding so they got little or no refund. By overwithholding, they are providing the government an interest-free loan on their refund money. I guess there's nothing like that "Whoopee!" moment of getting your own money back from the government. (Can this be called a form of savings if it defers spending by 6 months?)

Answer #2: Tax prep firms are stupid.
The fee that is paid by the taxpayer goes not to the IRS but to an intermediary tax prep firm (an Authorized IRS e-file Provider) that "adds value" by shepherding the taxpayer's return from one computer to another. If these firms were smarter, they'd have figured out how to charge the IRS for helping them avoid costs. Go after the deep pockets, guys.

Answer #3: It's politics, stupid.
Some day, the IRS web site will let you enter your data and file your return, just like you can do at the TurboTax or H&R Block web sites today. When that happens, all those people who currently work at the IRS processing paper returns will be out of work. Ditto with many of the folks working at the tax prep firms today. These groups all have lobbyists currently working to avoid the future. Meanwhile, politicians know that the job-holders that would be put out of work are among their constituents. This is a case once again of special interests overcoming the public good. Politics as usual.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Episode 6: Printers

The continuing adventures of one man's attempt to migrate his desktop PC from MS Windows to Ubuntu/Linux.

Setting up my Ubuntu machine to print was a step I was dreading. Over many years I have spent long hours dealing with the myriad of problems that printing spawns. And as my regular readers know, I don't normally approve of printing anyway (see Friends Don't Let Friends Print).

Notwithstanding my dread and hostility, no computer is complete without one or more printers installed and working. There are situations when even I need to print out something.

To date, I've installed 4 different printers on different Ubuntu Edgy machines. These were all network printers. One was an HP LaserJet wired directly to the network. Two were HP OfficeJets shared by Windows PCs, and one was a Samsung laser shared by a Windows PC. One network was a peer-to-peer network and the others were Microsoft Active Directory networks.

So, how hard is it to set printers up on Ubuntu? I am happy to report that it is not hard. In fact, it is so easy that I made it more difficult for myself than I had to because I said to myself, "It can't be that easy."

The information you need to install your specific printer is available on the Internet. Google it. Start with the simplest pathway you can find; resist the impulse to make it difficult.

If you have any trouble, stop. The problem is either a lack of drivers for your model printer (complain to the manufacturer and get another/different printer -- they are cheap) or with you (get another self(?)). The problem is not Ubuntu. So, don't waste time agonizing about the solution. There is an easy one available.

Episodes: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.