Common sense and the Texas power grid

For better or worse, this sat around in my draft queue for longer than I had wanted. But I still consider it timely, as I haven’t heard anything new about the underlying problem and what’s been done to solve it.

As recently reported in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (among many other news outlets), a rather disturbing development has arisen regarding the 2021 Valentine’s Day ice storms and the resultant power grid disruption. Meters which belonged to parts of critical natural gas infrastructure had signed up for ERCOT’s Emergency Response Service (ERS). (ERCOT is the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, Inc., a non-government corporation in charge of regulating the mostly independent power grid in Texas.) Normally enrollment in this service is from large industrial users of electricity which will power down in extreme situations to keep residential customers from being affected by load shedding (i.e. rolling blackouts). From the article:

UT Austin researchers discovered that 67 electric meters run by natural gas companies were enrolled in the program. In turn, those meters, which were part of the fuel supply chain providing energy to millions of Texans, lost power when the program was activated on Feb. 15.

At least five of those meters were later identified as “critical natural gas infrastructure,” including natural gas compressors, processing facilities or other parts of the supply chain, according to Joshua Rhodes, a research associate and co-author.

“It seems inconsistent that critical infrastructure should also voluntarily allow themselves to be turned off when they are needed most,” Rhodes said.

So, not only were key parts of the natural gas supply chain powered off when they were needed the most, ERCOT actually paid these companies to shut off the power, further reducing the availability of natural gas and causing the wholesale prices of electricity to go through the roof.

This is absolutely despicable and unconscionable. How was this allowed to happen? How will we keep it from happening again? You would think this was common sense, that parts of the natural gas infrastructure shouldn’t be shut down when we have power plants that use natural gas to make electricity. The old saying “common sense isn’t that common anymore” comes to mind, thus the title I used for this post.

I’m now in the process of digging through ERCOT’s website and later news stories to see if there’s something I’ve missed. I don’t think there is, but I’ll happily follow up if it turns out this has been fixed going forward.

Ten years of Trenta at Starbucks: a retrospective

So apparently it’s been a whole decade since Starbucks rolled out the Trenta size beverages, judging by the date of my previous post “To Starbucks, size matters“. A lot has changed since then, but as the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

For starters, the Trenta size hasn’t gone anywhere over the last decade. Not surprisingly, I have ordered my fair share of iced teas in this size, though I have backed off to Venti or even Grande in certain situations (when I know I won’t be drinking a whole lot, or when I’m low on funds on my Starbucks account and don’t feel like reloading). Much to even my own surprise, I’m also ordering the occasional Frappucino or iced mocha, though I still consider the iced tea my go-to drink (even if it’s sometimes the passion tea instead of good old black).

I get why Mr. Sorenson objected so strongly to Starbucks adding a fourth and comparatively large size. But the reality is, this is Starbucks doing what a business should do: listening to the customers and giving them what they want. And clearly, the Trenta size is what they wanted.

Looking back, the controversy surrounding the Trenta size reminds me a lot of another event I wrote about, the New York City large soda restrictions. Though the latter happened later, there is definitely a common thread. For soda fans with quart-sized appetites, the good news is the New York state courts struck down the restrictions stating that the New York City Board of Health exceeded its authority in establishing the rule, and it was eventually formally repealed.

While I get that there is a point at which soda consumption starts to become unhealthy (some of that, unfortunately, comes from personal experience), I believe that the public backlash from the NYC soda size restriction shows that people don’t like being ordered around and, in a way, herded like cattle. The backlash against Starbucks rolling out the larger size never materialized as some might have feared or welcomed, whatever the case may be.

Long live the Trenta. Here’s to many more great years to come.

The Dylan M. versus Google incident, ten years later

So it was ten years ago this month I wrote two posts about one Dylan M. and the sudden disabling of his Google account over some photos (under the titles “When ‘the cloud’ delivers a thunderstorm” and “Warm bodies are still smarter than silicon (When ‘the cloud’ delivers a thunderstorm, part 2)“). The first post concluded with the advice to back up data on USB flash drives and use optical discs for long term archival, while the second post discussed more of the aftermath and how it’s a bit heavy handed for Google to disable an entire account over just one image which arguably isn’t even their business unless it’s being shared with the public.

Everything in both of those posts is still true today, more or less. There’s been an unfortunate move away from optical discs, and it’s a bit harder to find recordable CD and DVD media these days. As for me, I was lucky. Some time ago I was able to buy both the drive and discs I’m using at Target. (I find it easier to use an external DVD-R drive due to the arrangement of my laptop on my desk.)

I’m not sure if Target is still selling the drives or the media. I do remember the last Walgreens I checked was not selling any optical disc media at all. They also weren’t selling USB flash drives either, so it may just have been that one store. I don’t particularly like buying from Amazon when I can avoid it, but they appear to be selling both the drives and media. Best Buy was selling at least the drives online as well.

Unfortunately this move to obsolete optical disc media goes back to Apple and their sudden refusal to put optical disc drives in their computers. On a laptop I can kind of get it, as space is precious and there is the option of an external drive (like the one I’m using). On a desktop, though? Space is not the issue, though I can see forgoing an optical media drive for cost reasons (especially if the money saved is instead going toward a larger SSD, more RAM, or more CPU).

I also mention my luck with failing USB drives. I have since had a few more USB drives fail on me, and at least two or three SD cards give up the ghost. For short-term copies, they might be good enough, especially given how hard it can be to archive larger files on optical discs. (Though, as I write this, external Blu-Ray recorders have come down to around $100-$150. Of course, the media can still be expensive. My spot price check shows a 10-disc spindle of 100GB BD-XL at $52, or $5.20 per disc, from one supplier.)

The key lessons remain the same. If it’s important, make backup copies. Make and use multiple accounts for cloud-based services if your situation warrants (and the terms of service allow). If you go this route, you should have one for the mainstay of your personal then activities, one or more others for riskier activities. Keep them separate, ideally using separate computers or devices and never mixing them up.

You should not assume anything is private when companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Adobe, etc are running the service. Companies often analyze and use your data to figure out what kinds of ads to serve you elsewhere (particularly in the case of Google and Microsoft).

Finally, if you can’t touch it (or the device it is stored on), you don’t really own it. Sometimes this is close to unavoidable (email and web hosting in particular, at least for the majority of people). Still, back up your email and, if you have one, your website. (Don’t forget to also make a copy of the database if your site has one.)

It’s really unfortunate that things really haven’t changed on this front. If anything, I think the situation has gotten worse.

They used to teach an actual computer literacy course as part of the middle school curriculum. (The school I went to for sixth grade would have had me take a full semester of typing–on typewriters!–as a prerequisite to the actual semester of computer literacy. Thankfully, the school I was transferring to did not.) Now, the technology literacy (as it is called now) is woven into other courses. As an acknowledgement of the increasing role technology is playing in our lives, this makes sense.

I do remember learning about backups and things like ethics as part of computer literacy. I’m not sure if today’s students still learn about these things. (Of course, I would hope they still are.)

Elastic is not fantastic: a blatantly deceptive lender’s advertisement

So recently, alongside all the other mail I usually receive, I get this solicitation to borrow up to $2,500 via a service called Elastic. Often I just rip these into a few pieces and toss into the trash along with all the other garbage advertisements I get. Sometimes I read through the terms to see just how bad they are.

In the case of Elastic, not only are the terms terrible, Republic Bank is not even calling the charges “interest”, but instead uses the terms “cash advance fee” and “carried balance fee”. Here’s the actual advertisement (with anything which could possibly be used as an identifier blacked out, except for my name and my city which are honestly not secret to anyone who has read this blog for any length of time):

That big green “$0” should be a huge red flag. Technically, the lack of an application fee, annual fee, or late fees may be true. If you read the rest of it, you’ll figure out quickly that if you were to take this offer, this is the last lender you would want to be late in paying as what happens becomes downright odious.

The printed materials don’t even tell you how much the carried balance fee is; for that you have to go onto the website and do some digging. You get this chart, which mentions the dollar amounts but doesn’t tell you what they would be as an APR:

To figure out the APR, you need a calculator or a spreadsheet, and a lot of patience. The carried balance fees by themselves represent an APR of anywhere from 48% to realistically topping out at around 100%. The cash advance fee would represent 60% or 120% APR by itself for a loan carried for an entire year, higher for shorter terms (as it is the same amount regardless of how long you borrow the money for). Even in the absolute best case, they are high enough to make 36% APR credit cards look like a bargain (even after factoring in the usually-obscene annual fee to the APR).

I get that payday loans are not cheap, partly due to the high-risk clientèle. But, it is an insult to the intelligence of even an average person to not refer to fees to borrow money as interest, and even to come right out and say “Your Elastic Account does not have an interest rate like other traditional credit products.” That’s an outright lie: it does, and it’s much higher.

Perhaps more insidious than that, though, is the side-step around the Truth In Lending Act requirement to disclose an APR, done by simply not mentioning rates at all for the interest (“carried balance fee” in Republic Bank newspeak). I call this a loophole. Granted, it’s probably not one foreseen at the time TILA was enacted into law (nor were predatory payday lenders in the quantity and type that we see today), but nevertheless a large loophole and one that needs to be closed.

What’s the point of TILA if it allows the most unscrupulous lenders to side-step disclosure of the interest rate as an APR? Laws like this were enacted to protect the borrower by making loan terms easier to understand.

Finally, getting back to that bit about late fees. There is, most definitely, a cost to missing payments or paying late on this loan. The minimum payment will include any past due balance tacked on. If your usual minimum payment is, say, $125, the next payment after you miss will be easily $250 if not more. Technically, like most other lenders, Republic Bank can ask for the entire balance immediately after you miss one payment. They hardly ever do this, of course, but it’s an option nonetheless. Even if you are $1 short of the minimum, it will count as a late payment for credit reporting purposes. And yes, it’s to Republic Bank’s advantage to report as much negative data as possible; this helps keep decent, non-predatory credit products out of reach of their borrowers.

Dirty pool: On the vacating of Bill Cosby’s conviction

I did write a post about Bill Cosby’s first trial that ended in a hung jury; I did not get a chance to write about the second trial which did result in a conviction. Well, today, the guilty verdict was vacated and Bill Cosby is once again a free man.

“Dirty pool” in the post title refers to what the district attorney’s office did in this case. In 2005 Bill Cosby was compelled to give a deposition in a civil trial which, by its nature, required him to incriminate himself. The DA issued a press release stating that Mr. Cosby would not be criminally prosecuted. Mr. Cosby relied on this when giving the deposition and waiving his Fifth Amendment rights. Obviously, in 2017, the DA’s office went back on its word and proceeded to criminally charge Mr. Cosby anyway.

Back in 2017 I said:

I despise rape, sexual assault, and similar crimes, and those that partake of them. However, I also believe that everyone is entitled to a fair trial and to their day in court when accused.

I still believe that today. Knowing what I know today, however, it is painfully obvious to me that the entire premise upon which Mr. Cosby was tried and convicted was flawed and that there is no way the trial could possibly have been fair. If, as a DA, you give your word you won’t prosecute someone based on their civil trial testimony, you’re legally committed to keeping your word. This doesn’t establish that Mr. Cosby is innocent; if anything, it establishes quite the opposite.

I want to address the argument that this is a “technicality”. I really dislike the use of this term as it is often used to belittle flagrantly (and even egregiously) unfair acts undertaken by district/people’s attorneys (at least, usually). People may call this a technicality, but if you were to reframe it in terms of something happening to them, personally, they would say there’s no way that would be fair to them.

When you’re the accused, there are no “technicalities”. Bill Cosby never should have stood trial in 2017, much less been convicted. This doesn’t excuse what Mr. Cosby did, but it is positively putrid and vile that the district attorneys in question thought it would be okay to go back on their word.

It is most emphatically not okay.