Category Archives: Unintended Consequences

GOVERNMENT FOOLISHNESS: Incandescent Bulbs Banned? No Problem, Just Buy A Rugged Version

incandescent_light_bulbHere’s an option to bypass our busybody government’s anti-freedom and anti-science ban of incandescent light bulbs: buy a “rough service” version. “Rough service” lamps are the same as standard incandescents, but are more rugged and not affected by the ban. One source for such bulbs is Newcandescent.

Also see:

Unintended Consequences: Nanny Engineering,” 2nd Qtr 2011 DACI Newsletter

GOVERNMENT FOOLISHNESS: Incandescent Bulbs Banned? No Problem, Just Buy A Heat Ball,” 1st Qtr 2012 DACI Newsletter

-Ed Walker


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More Thoughts On Forcing The Rich To Pay “Their Fair Share”

As mentioned previously, the quality of our decisions is largely dependent upon their underlying assumptions (see “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along“). If our assumptions are wrong, then any subsequent analysis will very likely be incorrect. This post examines assumptions about wealth, and suggests how popular notions based on incorrect assumptions can yield grossly incorrect conclusions.

A lot of folks today (based on sensational news reporting of the Occupy Wall Street “movement”) seem to think that it is morally wrong and unjust for some of our fellow citizens to have more income (or more wealth) than we average folks do. So let’s apply some engineering thinking and see just how upset we should be at the rich, and whether or not we should make them our slaves. You can do your own analysis, but here are some things for the Wall Street Occupiers to consider:

1. Do you understand the difference between income and wealth? Income is the flow of money to an individual based on their work (or from investments, which flow from prior work effort, or perhaps due to inheritance or luck). Income does not stay resident in a rich person’s home (assuming they don’t burn their money or stuff it under a mattress), it largely flows through them to other folks who provide goods and services. This is why average folks like to be located near wealthier folks; so they can be closer to the flow of money.

Income, if not squandered, can also accumulate through savings and investment in wealth (real estate, money in the bank, autos, jewelry, etc.). Wealth can also be inherited, or obtained by luck (Wow! I won the lottery!), but wealth is much more likely to be obtained by many years of sacrifice and hard work.

Okay, so if you want life to be “fair,” what would be a fair way of taking the extra wealth or income from those folks who have more than you or me? How do you account for the effort and risks they have applied to their lives? What if they were just lucky? (If you won the lottery, would you like the government to redistribute it to everyone else who was not as lucky as you?) If you have a student loan, should wealthy folks who paid for their loans also pay for yours?

2. Do you understand that rich and poor people, for the majority of cases, are not stuck in those positions? Rich people frequently lose their wealth through bad business decisions or bad luck, while poor people frequently obtain great wealth due to hard work or luck. The important point is that “rich” and “poor” are typically not static; they change dramatically with time. Someone rich (or poor ) today is often poor (or rich) tomorrow. So how do you define “rich”? Is it someone who today has more than you or me, or should we take into consideration how long they’ve had their wealth? After all, we should be careful to be completely fair before we make someone our slave.

3. With regard to forcibly taking money from the rich to give to ourselves (via the federal government), how do we justify this? As described previously (“Why PIzzanomics Is Immoral“), government services are no different than any other service. But if we decide that rich people should pay more than you and me, then why shouldn’t they always pay more? When a wealthy person hires a plumber, shouldn’t they pay two or three or more times as much for having their leak fixed? But if so, who should determine the added amount, and how much should it be?

The decision to make someone our slave should be carefully considered, because — at least for now — they aren’t completely our slave, because they can leave. And (although the government doesn’t publicize it) this is happening: millions of Americans are leaving, fed up with being slaves, and they’re taking their money, talent, and job-creating abilities with them.

So who do we get to make our slaves, once they have all gone?

-Ed Walker


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Feedback, Delay, and Sullen Spouses

As discussed earlier (Feedback, Prices, and Sullen Spouses), feedback is an extremely valuable tool that is used extensively by engineers for all manner of applications to ensure accuracy. However, there’s a catch: feedback must be provided quickly, or it can provide the opposite of the desired result.

Let’s assume that you’re driving a car in the normal fashion, using its speedometer as feedback so that you can properly control your speed. Let’s also assume the speedometer is working properly, except that it’s very sluggish; i.e. there’s a time delay of two or three seconds until your car’s speed is displayed on the speedometer.

Let’s now assume that you’re zipping along and you notice that your speed is dropping, and you want to speed up. You press on the pedal and you feel the car surge a bit, but no, the speedometer (because of its delay) says that you haven’t picked up any speed (even though you have), so you push on the accelerator even harder. Therefore, because of the speedometer’s delay, you pushed the accelerator twice, whereas once would have been enough.

At the second push of the accelerometer, the speedometer finally registers the speed following your first push, indicating you are at the correct speed and everything is fine, but then the speedometer registers the speed from the second push, and you realize with horror that you are well over the speed limit. You immediately press on the brakes and you think you feel the car slow down, but no, the speedometer (because it hasn’t yet registered the slower speed) says you are still moving much too fast, so you press on the brakes some more. Therefore, because of the speedometer’s delay, you pressed the brakes twice, whereas once would have been enough.

After the second press of the brakes, the speedometer belatedly registers the speed following the first press, indicating that you are at the proper speed, but then the speedometer registers the second press, and you realize you have slowed down much too much, so you stomp on the accelerator…

…and your car continues to jerkily speed up and slow down, like a teenager first learning to drive an auto with a stick shift, until the police officer pulls you over and charges you with reckless driving.

Therefore, although the use of feedback achieves superior performance, feedback must be provided quickly. If there is too large of a delay then feedback will be interpreted incorrectly, which can cause a system to become wildly unstable and possibly even be damaged.

Feedback must be quick

In the earlier post we talked about how a lack of feedback from a sullen spouse could contribute to a poor relationship. In a similar manner, feedback that is supplied after a long delay can make things worse, rather than better:

He: Please pass the salt.

She: No. I don’t like the way you spoke to me.

He: What? When?

She: The last time we were at this restaurant.

He (becoming angry): That was two months ago! What does that have to do with tonight?

The above is an example of how feedback, if it had been delivered quickly, could have served a constructive purpose. However, delayed feedback loses its proper context, and instead of being corrective, easily becomes destructive.

-Ed Walker


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Baloney Alert: PolitiFact Is Light On Logic

The St. Petersburg Times Memorial Day edition had a PolitiFact article with the following headline :

“Bulb warnings are light on facts

There’s no plan to ban incandescents, just make them more efficient”

PolitiFact’s second statement above is so logically absurd it made me laugh out loud when I read it. At ET we believe in straightforward honesty: no lies, no spin, no deception, and no misdirection. This includes having the integrity to accept statements in their clearly-presented context. Unfortunately, PolitiFact often likes to twist and distort the context of statements, in effect gerrymandering them into one of their preferred liberal themes.

In this case, here are the facts: the government has not literally banned incandescent light bulbs, true. But it has passed regulations requiring light bulbs to have efficiencies that are impossible for them to achieve. There is no technology on the horizon that will allow incandescent bulbs to achieve that efficiency. Manufacturers of incandescent light bulbs have reacted accordingly by shutting down production. Therefore — bottom line — the government has indeed, in essence, banned the use of incandescent light bulbs.

PolitiFact’s childish contrary argument earns our maximum 5-baloney rating.

Regarding PolitiFacts’ other comments on the compact fluorescent lighting (CFL) replacement for incandescent bulbs, please see “Unintended Consequences: Nanny Engineering” in the DACI 2nd Qtr 2011 Newsletter, and “Why Government-Directed Energy-Savings ‘Investments’ Are Illogical.”


The St. Petersburg Times is as good as it is bad. We were planning a piece called “It was the best of Times, it was the worst of Times,” where best refers to their investigative reporting, and worst refers to their editorials and their PolitiFact operation. At this point other priorities have intervened, but we hereby want to provide an honorable mention of their stellar investigative work.

Also, we strive hard to be objective, with our critical commentary targeted at non-ET people or organizations, regardless of political affiliation. Although we believe there are sound reasons that support a small-government-is-better theme, this does not mean that honorable people cannot disagree, or that there are no ET deficiencies in the corporate/business world. If you have a suggestion of a person or firm that would be worthy of an ET review, please let me know.

Update 2011/05/31

Here’s another good summary of the unintended consequences of using CFLs: “The CFL Fraud” by Edmund Contoski.

Update 2011/06/02

For a follow-up discussion on this issue, including some facts on the halogen alternative to the standard light bulb, please check PolitiFact Bias under “Bryan adds.”

-Ed Walker



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ET EXTRA: More Unintended Consequences: Energy Non-Savings

fire Engineering Thinking Extra Is A Short Review Of A Current Hot Topic

Another Example Of Why Government-Directed Energy-Savings “Investments” Are Illogical

There’s been a lot of talk the past few years about how the federal government is going to “invest” in clean energy-savings technology.

By applying a little Engineering Thinking — a review of history, coupled with an understanding of how inefficient the government is as a system (see “It’s Just A Systems Thing“) — one can conclude: Bad Idea. Here’s a recent example from The Economist (“Why new lightbulbs save little”), as reported in the 19 Sept. St. Petersburg Times:

“Solid-state lighting … promises illumination for a fraction of the energy used by incandescent or fluorescent bulbs. … But precedent suggests that this will serve merely to increase the demand for light … That, at least, is the conclusion of a study published in the Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics by Jes Tsao of Sandia National Laboratories … They predict that the introduction of solid-state lighting could increase the consumption of light by a factor of 10 within two decades.”

Similar government-promoted or mandated programs over the past years have included:

  • low-flush toilets (which waste, rather than save, water because folks flush twice, which exceeds the water consumption of the older single-flush toilets)
  • recycled trash (the gas consumption and pollution created by trucks used to pick up “recycled” materials exceeds the benefits of the recycling, plus the recycled materials often are not even recycled, they’re just trucked to the same waste dump as normal trash) (please see UPDATE 6-5-2012 below)
  • elimination of incandescent lamps (which as noted above may actually increase lighting energy consumption over the long run). Also, the use of fluorescent replacements will create environmental hazards because of their mercury content. For some additional commentary on this, check here.
  • usage of electric vehicles (which may result in a net increase in pollution and energy consumption when everything is considered, such as utility emissions and efficiency, battery recharging efficiency, and many other factors.)

Engineers are trained to look at the big picture to avoid unintended consequences. Nonetheless, even though our devotion to engineering thinking increases the odds of making correct decisions, we still make our fair share of mistakes. Therefore it is laughable and simultaneously disheartening to watch Congress, whose members with very few exceptions have never had any significant scientific training or business experience, pass grandiose legislation that purports to fix highly complex problems.

-Ed Walker

UPDATE 6-5-2012

I recently (May 2012) received some thoughtful and constructive comments on this post from Mr. Ron Henricks, Environmental Administrator, Waste Reduction Section, Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Mr. Henricks pointed out that my statement “…the recycled materials often are not even recycled, they’re just trucked to the same waste dump as normal trash” was, in his experience, not typical. I agree that my initial comment was based on isolated instances (such as reported here: “Caught On Tape: Recyclables Dumped In With Garbage” by Mike McKnight, WOWT Channel 6, and here: “Where does your recycled glass really go?” by Dan Tilkin, KATU On Your Side Investigator, 16 Feb 2012,, and that I improperly extrapolated too broad of a generalization. Mr. Henricks says, “I’ve received several calls over the years from citizens across the state thinking they discovered recyclables being dumped. Most of those calls turned out to be misunderstandings about what exactly it was they saw.”

Mr. Henricks also points out that my comment, “…the gas consumption and pollution created by trucks used to pick up ‘recycled’ materials exceeds the benefits of the recycling…” is not accurate. I agree that my statement was not clear, for which I apologize. I should have framed my comments within the context of comparative benefits to the taxpayer; i.e., “…recycling may not be an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars, when compared to alternative uses for those dollars.”

I thank Mr. Henricks for taking the time to read this blog and to provide his thoughtful and constructive criticism.

For more on this topic, please see “Is Recycling Worthwhile: An Investigative Report.”

-Ed Walker



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