Tossing and Tortured 'Till Dawn

I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

The 640K barrier of fuel prices, gouging, and explosions: three observations about gasoline.

There's an innocuous-looking sign posted at the gas pump which says that, due to “rules imposed by the credit card companies,” the pump may shut off at a “pre-determined point” before your tank is full. If this happens to you, either use another card, or go inside and have the cashier help you complete your transaction. Say what?

Translation: it’s the 640K barrier of fuel prices.

When MS-DOS was first being developed, computers had something like 16K of memory, and so the programmers didn’t make the system capable of handling more than 640K, since who would ever use that much? Computers, of course, developed, and DOS was running on my computer with 16000K of memory. You had to jump through some hoops to use it.

Credit card companies have a funny way of handling gas pumps: since you swipe, THEN fill, when you swipe, it charges you $1.00 and places a “hold” for some other amount, like $50 or $100. Then, when you’re done, it refunds the $1.00, charges the final amount, and removes the hold. The problem is that if you’ve got a giant SUV, it’s probably got a tank that holds around 35 gallons. At last week’s $3.19 / gallon for regular, that’s about $111 for a fill-up. The $50-100 “hold” is supposed to be the most you could reasonably spend getting gas; beyond that, there might be a problem.

They came up with this when gas was $1.25 a gallon. Now we have the 640K barrier.

Also, occasionally you hear someone complain about “price gouging at the pump,” that is, gas stations charging too much for gas. Of course, you’ll understand that the only gas station for 100 miles in a rural area is going to cost more than those on a city street corner. But did you know that in many jurisdictions, it’s illegal to sell gas for TOO CHEAP? In Oregon, for instance, the minimum legal profit margin is 8 cents per gallon.

The idea, theoretically, was to protect “the little guy,” “ma and pa” gas stations, from being driven out of business by Safeway and Costco selling gas at a loss to get people into their stores to buy other things. Because it would be, you know, bad, if anyone who wanted couldn’t make a profit selling gas … right?

So, if you ever see two gas stations across the street from one another, and one costs 15 cents a gallon more, and you wonder, “Why on earth don’t they lower their prices to be roughly the same? Won’t they lose business?” It’s because they bought their gas from the tanker when it cost 15 cents a gallon more. They’re not allowed to charge less.

Finally, you know those warnings about discharging static before pumping, and about placing containers on the ground before filling them, otherwise they might explode? If you were wondering, yes, that really does happen. A while back, a friend was filling up his jet-ski, and didn’t follow the recommended procedures. Thankfully, the car insurance company bought him a new wave runner, and it didn’t hurt anyone or anything else…

Also thankfully, when gasoline burns it’s a bright, visible yellow. If we’d gone all eco-friendly and used ethanol, he’d have gotten a really cool INVISIBLE fire, and I don’t know what would’ve happened then.


  • At 11:05 PM , Blogger ryan said...

    I learn a lot on Wikipedia, but reading your blog I get the answers to things I wouldn't even think to ask but once I hear about, I realize I couldn't bear to live without knowing.

    Unfortunately, now I really want to know about ethane explosions.

    Word verification must be a Daktaklakpak phrase: syxzxitk!

    Inversion to torque!


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