Friday, March 18, 2011

That Pesky Check Engine Light

Over the past 16 years, on board diagnostics have become universal in our vehicles. The most common system, by far, is the OBD2, or "on board diagnostics version 2." Because we generally have learned to ignore all the new gadgets under the hood ("just some air pollution device"), most of us never know what that "computer" the mechanic talks about really is.

Just in the past couple of years, "readers" for this system have become common and inexpensive. (Before last year, I never saw one less than $100) The absolutely lowest price readers may just read out a code, but for not much more, you can get one that tells what the code means and is able to reset it, thus turning of that pesky check
engine light.

These things are great but, as any shade tree mechanic will tell you, they don't replace doing the basics. I am often astonished at the simple things people don't do to take care of their vehicles today. For the average person, owning the average car or truck, they should still pop the hood about once a week and check all the fluids. This means oil, transmission fluid, power steering, coolant, and brakes. One note on these, especially on the brakes, most vehicles are designed so you can shine a flashlight through the resevoir to check the level. Don't open it if you can help it. And don't add brake fluid, if it is low, it is time for maintenance.

And check the tires too. I do this visually each week (on my work truck I do this daily, as it is driven in a hostile environment), and with a gauge once or more a month. Low tires steal your money.

Now, on the subject of the check engine light, and the OBD2 system that turns it on, manufactures will always be looking for ways to bilk money out of their customers. So in times past, they included "secret" codes that only the dealers knew what they were. Today, the sensors and codes continue to become more complex, with new codes likely to be unknown to the available readers. A possible follow on to the OBD2 system integrates it, wirelessly, into computer networks owned by either the government or the car manufacture. This is already underway in some makes and models and is likely to allow a great deal of mischief on the parts of both. I don't have enough information on these developments at this time, but plan to do more research in the near future.

On the other hand, there are some codes that have a simple fix. One code indicates a leak in the fuel system, and that one may be no more than "you didn't tighten the fuel cap enough," or left the engine running while putting fuel in the vehicle. These are big no-no's, as today's fuel systems are sealed, and only vented through a charcoal canister (known as an evap system). Others may require fixing, but not right away. I had a problem with the torque converter clutch being "stuck off." OK, it is a problem, but only costs me a mile per gallon in the near term. I have been erasing this code about once a week for a couple of months now. I plan to get it fixed, but don't really have a specific idea of when.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Economic impact of disasters

First, the Middle East, then Japan

Unrest in the Middle East caused oil to rise a few dollars in price, but not as much as is believed. It accounts for just 20 cents per gallon currently, but as Libyan Rebels have successes, saboteurs may strike directly at oil facilities there and in Saudi Arabia, and that would have more impact.

There is talk of the US intervening. I don't think we should. We are stretched to thin as it is, and I for one am not certain we want the rebels to win. I don't know who is behind them yet, and it could be the Muslim Brotherhood. If so, all these countries that are warring about "liberty" will convert to Fundamentalist Islam.

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, the impact of an earthquake and tsunami on Japan will be felt around the world. The markets have already gone negative, and there will be a loss of jobs as some good formerly shipped from Japan will be reduced or stopped. Ironically, oil and gas will go down in price, but this is only temporary, as replacing the electric generation capacity from the two destroyed nuclear power plants will require large quantities of coal, oil, and gas.

The commodities will go up, because the Japanese are people who harvest from the oceans and make things. The will be busy rebuilding for a couple of years, meaning smaller harvests (and to be sure, the ocean will have less now to harvest, as the earthquake and tsunami killed a portion of it) and more demand for raw materials to rebuild their country. We saw this same phenomenon with Katrina, and this is several times larger than Katrina.

More money being spent on rebuilding, less invested in industry, more demand on resources, and less resources all impact inflation. This will definitely mean more inflation, as you and I see it. The government numbers may not show anything at all, since our wages will not go up.

And, last, of course the anti nuclear lunatics are coming out of the woodwork to spout off their insanity. Meltdown or no meltdown from these plants, building more plant of our own is a must. We are many years behind on building nuclear plants, and several years behind on building coal powered plants. Certainly, there are things to be learned from the way this disaster unfolded, but there is no sanity in those who say we should not build.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Lessons We Do Not Learn

As I watched news coverage of the Earthquake in Japan, there was a well covered side story about the approach of a tsunami into Hawaii. One news agency was in contact with an employee who was there on maternity leave. They said they first noticed something when everyone at a restaurant was on their cell phones. OK, now we know how fast news travels by cell phone, but later, they said they were calling by "land line" because the cell phone system was "a mess," meaning it wasn't working any more.

She also said there were lines at the gas stations, and people panic buying at the grocery stores. (She needed formula, if I heard correctly.) When she got to wherever she evacuated to, people were filling tubs and any other containers with water. Everyone was trying to call everyone, which is why the cell phone system was not working. And she said: 'the people are reacting calmly - this is something they have practiced. '

What have we learned from this? Or realized that we have not learned? Here in Texas, we recently had a minor emergency, and the local govenment used one of those mass robo-caller systems to try to alert everybody. The cell phone system overloaded. Way back in the aftermath of the 9-11 crisis, this was identified as a problem, and a solution was proposed. Limit voice calls to emergency personell only, and upgrade the texting system to allow it to handle everyone at once trying to access it. That proposal was never followed through. So, one of the first lessons is that the primary commercial communications systems will be the first to fail.

In almost every emergency, people swamp the gas stations and grocery stores. If you always have a half a tank, you can go 100 miles at highway speeds or go for 4 hours in stop and go traffic. (Three if you run your air conditioner.) The crisis on Hawaii is likely to only last a few days, and you can keep enough food on hand for a few days if you aren't picky about taste and variety. Plan to eat beans and rice. Water is another big concern. You will need some way to capture, filter and sterilize water. Planning ahead allows you to watch every one else panic, while you remain calm. Lesson two. Do not leave your gas tank less than half full, have some rations on hand, and a means to obtain water.

One of the biggest lessons here is that all preparations and planning MUST be done BEFORE the disaster. When nothing seems to be happening. Take a few minutes and think through every possible disaster that could come your way. Think through some of the improbible ones too. Nearly everyone in the US is vulnerable to earthquake. Half are vulerable to flood (or losing power or water due to flood.) Epidemic could shut down the trucking system that delivers our food. A pipeline break could close all the gas stations tommorrow.

When evacuations are necessary, the government usually has a plan in mind to move you a minimal distance and then ship goods to you. That is fine if you are indigent. If you are a person of means (remember my test, if you can afford cable TV, you can afford to plan for disasters and help others), you need to do more. Evacuate to twice the distance. Leave the government and Red Cross help to others who need it more. You will be better off, and so will others.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Finally - economic turnaround?

Well, maybe. We are finally in a cycle of job creation, and manufacturing is up at the same time. But not enough to call this a recovery. Not Yet. We have seen manufacturing gains (49,000 last month, 33,000 this month) but there are still formidable hurdles facing us. The price of energy. The greed of the limousine liberal elite. The public employee unions. Our lethargy in facing a menacing threat from Islamists. Our failure to address the threat of those who hate God and are undermining America because it once stood for Christianity. The specter of high inflation still looms, and just around the corner, unless (as I do) you count that it has already begun.

The fact is, I still don't think this will be a real recovery. The last "recovery," from 2002 to 2006 was hollow and fake. Real income and wealth in Blue Collar America declined. The only increase was in what we bought by borrowing and amassing debt. In this "recovery" there is a sizable increase in spending, and yet the Baltic Dry Index and Rail Index are showing a slow slide. This tells me that what extra spending is being done is not durable goods, but really is an increase in waste of consumer dollars on things like video games, phone "ap's," and cable or satellite TV.

This increase in borrowing and spending in US households is a reversal of the sudden frugality that gripped the nation just a couple years ago. And while it may temporarily lead to the appearance of better economic times, it is just a repeat of what led to this crisis in the first place.

Just a couple of After Thoughts

Gas Prices. I forecast before that they would hit $3.50 by May, and said a couple weeks ago, the turmoil in the mideast is not the cause of rising prices. Well, I need to modify that slightly. I estimate 20 cents a gallon of our gas prices is due to the turmoil in the mideast. But while that 20 cents is a temporary rise, the steady rise in prices due to increased demand around the world will continue. Currently I expect the price of gas to top $4 (here in Texas) and go on up to around $4.20 to $4.50 in the next 12 months. I don't think we will see a massive downturn like the last one, but I do think the upwards climb in both usage and price of fuels will stall and either level out or turn back slightly downwards. At what point that stall will occur is beyond my expertise.

Prices of energy and commodities will continue upwards as a portion of our wages for the foreseeable future. There may be times of respite, but the days will be increasingly more difficult, until the Biblical expression of "a quart of wheat for a days wage" is true. Unless there is a die off of over 1/3 of the earth's human population, with no similar die off of other species, we are indeed going to be seeing a worldwide famine in the next 10 to 40 years.

We could delay the more difficult days ahead for quite some time if we would pursue nuclear, oil sands, coal and natural gas with fervor, and forget the silliness of the global warming fools. But ultimately, our population has already reached a point where the earth cannot sustain our food supply, and our fate is sealed. Now, it is only a matter of when.