Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Here we go again with Yemen

Are we going to commit armed forces to an invasion of Yemen now that we've "discovered" that terrorist activities are originating there? Using this logic (the "Afghanistan Logic"), how many s**tbird countries are we willing to invade? Somehow, our leaders have decided that trying to kill off the source of this terrorism where it originates is the best policy to protect us here within our own borders. Maybe a serious reevaluation of this logic is called for. It's possible that it would be more effective to actively and throroughly police our own borders (sea, land and air) than using the needle in a haystack approach trying to root terrorists out of remote caves over hundreds of thousands of square miles. Even when we squash terrorist activity in a limited area, the terrorists draw back until we leave, then return and resume their activities (proven to be the case in Afghanistan).

In addition to policing our own borders effectively, we could use intelligence to make surgical strikes on known targets of high value, much like Israel did on Iraqi nuclear reactors. That ended Iraq's quest for the A-bomb. By sending large, conventional forces to flail and flounder around in the wilderness while the terrorists look on and laugh is expensive, stupid and ineffective.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Let's Make Air Travel More Comfortable

The long-delayed, much-ballyhooed so-called "Dreamliner" took off today for the first time not far from here. The two chase jets, which looked like some kind of fighter plane, soared over my house but the 787 took off to the northwest and couldn't be seen by me. For one thing, it's all forested around my house so they have to fly pretty close to directly overhead for me to see them. I stood out on my deck and listened to the distant engine sounds of takeoff, and through the window watched the video on TV on CNBC to see the plane lift off the runway.

The name "Dreamliner" somehow holds out the promise of more comfortable air travel, doesn't it? One of my complaints about air travel is the cramped, uncomfortable space and waste of time just sitting there. My solution would be to arrange the plane in a series of narrow sleeping tubes instead of seats. These wouldn't take up any more space and you could stretch out and go to sleep; that would eliminate the crowded feeling and the waste of time. Maybe the plane could be arranged so that part of it was sleeping tubes, and part seats for those people who like to be crowded, smell the b.o. of their seat-mates, and get coughed on.

Have you ever seen pictures of those sleeping tubes in the airport in Japan? For people experiencing lengthy waits for connecting flights, they can rent a sleeping tube to lay down in; I think they even have a TV in the far end to watch in case you just want to recline but not sleep.

If it was up to me, I'd eliminate first class seating in commercial airplanes entirely. I'm class-conscious enough that I don't need to be humiliated and humbled by walking through the "big seat" area before I must wade back to my miserable coach seat. I know the airlines love first class passengers because they can soak them for a ridiculous sum of money to avoid travelling with the unwashed masses. Kind of like buying your way out of military service in the Civil War. That's one reason I kinda like Southwest Airlines, the "Bus of the Air" which has only coach seating, no butt-kissing first class area. Besides, the first class area is taking up valuable space that could be converted to sleeping tubes.

One time years ago when I was a soldier in the army, I was travelling by bus and my route of travel took me through the Greyhound bus terminal in San Francisco. I had to wait a couple of hours for a connection, so I sat on one of the slatted wooden benches (just like the ones you saw in Dirty Harry movies when they look for a suspect in that same bus terminal). Before long, I nodded off and I don't know how long I was napping before a SF cop came by, tapped me on the foot with his baton and said, "No sleeping in the terminal." Then and now I have thought this was unfair; I had a paid ticket in my pocket; was it my fault that the particular bus I needed to catch wasn't there yet?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Grape Nuts Need to be Soaked

Cereals have been one of my favorite foods since I was a child. In those days, adults called them "Breakfast Food" and didn't eat them much. Cereals were for kids.

One of my long-time favorites is Post "Grape Nuts". I'd better not let Post hear me say that or they'll discontinue them. That's the usual outcome for any food product that you fall in love with. I'm still pining away for General Mills "Jets" but that's another story.

The trouble with Grape Nuts is that they are so dog-gonned hard. They might more accurately be named, "Gravel Nuts" as far as I'm concerned. They are definitely for people with good teeth if not soaked. I usually soak mine for about a half an hour before consumption. That's just about the right amount of time; any less and they are still somewhat hard; any more and they start to dissolve into a liquid lacking any substance at all. Well, maybe I'll want to do that some time in the future when I have no teeth left, and I'm eating cereal through a straw.

I gave up on just plain milk on my cereal decades ago; I only use half and half. Anything less just tastes too watery. So, the Grape Nuts get sugared, then immersed in half and half, with about a half inch of liquid covering them. The extra half and half allows for expansion of the cereal as it soaks.

Yeah, I know consuming half and half will kill me. Everyone is going to die, it's just a mere matter of timing. I don't have many other vices; no tobacco, no alchohol, no drugs, so artery clogging and hardening half and half isn't the worst of it.

Then there are the lovely Grape Nut Flakes. These do not require soaking; in fact, you must be careful to eat them in a timely manner or they quickly turn to mush once liquid is applied. These must be eaten with some care, too, as they tend to have a laxative effect.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The State of Ford Car Quality

I've been a Ford guy all my life. I've come to appreciate that, in spite of their complexity, the newest cars are the very best ever made. It's ironic that the best cars from Detroit come at a time when the economy is in the dumper, but that's life.

We had many flatheads when I was growing up, Fords ('35, '36x3, '40, '50), Mercury, ('40), and Lincoln ('36, '37, '39, '41x several, '42x 2, '46) and Ford trucks (36, 44, 47). When I hear the phrase, "Flatheads Forever" it makes me laugh. Flatheads are the reason that overheads were invented. A guy comes up and slaps the fender on the '40 Ford, "Now that's real metal; they don't make them like they used to" which of course is true, because they don't have to. Metallurgy has improved over the years so that the don't have to make stampings out of that old, soft, thick stuff. And those heavy castings that look so robust? They are thick because that's the only way they could make them strong yet inexpensive in those days. Drop one on the floor and it's history.

Ah, then the first overheads came along in the early 1950's. First, an inline six in 1952 (burned as much fuel as a V-eight). Then the Y-block in 1954. A wonderful improvement over the flathead, they went through cam bearings pretty fast then next the rocker assemblies. The bodies on the Fords of the '50's were fairly fragile, cheap steel that rusted very quickly. Front suspensions on Fords blew out pretty fast with heavy service. The lovely 6 volt electrical system finally went away in 1955.

Next, the 1960's started out with lots of cheapie designs inspired by Robert McNamara except for a few like the Lincoln, and this successful design was scabbed off of a project initially designed for T-bird. By some chance of fate, McNamara's penny-pinching by combining two engineering processes resulted in two pretty good cars. Once McNamara left, they could get to building decent cars and the mid to late 1960's are a kind of golden era, but there were lots of gas hogs and much cheap sheet metal. Small block V-eight engine development was something you can point to as a success story.

Next, much of the '70's was a lost decade of mostly poorly-fit and made cars in general, lots of kitschy styling in line with all the other bad taste of the era (hair, clothes). Oddly enough, some of the less expensive lines and models looked better than the loaded-up ones. No fault of the manufacturer, the onerous burden of emissions controls dragged down the performance of these cars. They spent most of the decade continuing to make gas-hogs when the writing was on the wall about fuel price and availability. Really poor sheet metal.

The '80's was a decade to mostly forget, with a few exceptions. Lots of shoddy, drive until they break down and throw away models. Lots of bogus engineering used in an attempt to bridge the old with the new, all at the expense of the consumer. Redesigned T-Bird of 1983 one kind-off exception. Emission considerations begin the use of computers. You won't see many of these for sale in Hemming's Motor News in 15 or 20 years. It was during this time that they finally started making the car bodies in ways so that they didn't melt away after a few winters.

Things were looking up in the '90's, when Ford started to take quality control seriously. It only took 20 years to wake up to the inroads that Japanese cars are making into market share. Computerized engine controls become pretty much "perfected" (if there is such a thing as perfection), and turn out to be of significant benefit in increased fuel mileage.

So, by the early 21st Century, you can finally get a pretty well-made, nicely styled Ford product that will last a long time with very little maintenance. Bringing this back down to earth is the realization that some of the increases in quality come as a response to keep lawyers at bay -- make them better in the first place, and you won't be in court as often. Forget about working on it much yourself, but that's been the case for a while. The good thing is, that they are made well enough that they don't need much attention outside of routine maintenance for quite a while. But when they do, hold on to your wallet.

Now I'm not being critical of just Ford, because many of these comments apply to the other US manufacturers. One other thing, I think that some of the best GM and Chrysler products ever offered are being sold new right now. They have to build a product that people will buy. No longer will people buy any old thing they make.

We do have an excuse for buying all of those old cars when they were new -- we didn't know any better.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Pull Out of Afghanistan

The British couldn't do it, the Soviets couldn't do it; I doubt that we will accomplish much by bombing rocks in Afghanistan.

Let's face it, even if we sent dozens of divisions (which we don't possess) over there, we might run the rats down the hole temporarily at great cost. We know that the political will is against leaving any number of troops there for any appreciable length of time. We know it and the enemy there knows it, so if we ran the rats into their holes for a while, they'd just wait us out and return after we went home. So, knowing that we aren't going to send anything like many divisions over there, there is even less point in sending a relatively small number of forces into that conflict. It's all down to face-saving now; I don't see how any of the major policy-makers can realistically see it any other way.

Joe Biden has got it right when he points out that there are more Taliban in Pakistan right now that in Afghanistan. Knowing this, repeat, knowing this, what's the point in shoring up Afghanistan? Unless we go into Pakistan in force as well, which would be politically impossible and militarily impractical and highly costly, our efforts in Afghanistan are wasted. As soon as we leave Afghanistan, there's going to be another "surge" -- this time the Taliban.

One thing many Americans don't understand is that the Taliban is multi-national. It consists of a network of insurgents from many different Muslim countries. Afghanistan is a major battlefield but not the only one. We might be better served if we were to expend our resources on Taliban concentrations of power throughout their area of influence rather than bombing rocks in Afghanistan.

When did any general in history ever ask for fewer troops??

I fail to see how bombing rocks in Afghanistan is going to enhance so-called Homeland Security. From what I've read, all the planning and much of the training that was used to stage the 9-11 attacks took place over in Indonesia/southern Philippines.

It's only my opinion, but I think Homeland Security would be better served by bolstering our defenses on the borders and ports of entry in North America, including enhanced electronic surveillance (but I don't want to go too far into that one for fear of starting a big stink).

The Afghans want anything that will let them go about their lives. They'll go along with whomever will do something for them who is standing right in front of them. We see a certain amount of stuff on network and cable news about how civil affairs operations will win the hearts of the Afghan people, you know, building schools, educating females, etc. This is all eye-wash; it's to make the civilians back home feel better about US involvement. When the Taliban rolls into town, it all goes the other way. We try to see Afghan society through our own eyes. That's a major mistake. I'm not sure the average Afghan wants, for example, his females educated (males lose control over educated females; not something that most middle-eastern males favor). They've been living in mud huts for thousands of years; trying to provide a wood-frame tri-level for every family would see about as much success as such misguided civil affairs programs. Just send them a container shipload of corrugated steel roofing panels, a goodbye note, and they'll be grateful for years.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Working the Graveyard Shift at the Post Office

When I first transferred to Washington in 1987, I worked retail hours pretty consistently from 7:30AM-5:30PM. I'd lost my in-office seniority when I transferred, so I was subject to being shuffled around. After my first year in that office, there was a shift in emphasis on where they wanted to use hours, so I was tossed onto the dungheap of the graveyard shift. We came in at midnight and worked until 8:30AM or whenever the mail was out the door. Man, was that ever a Zombie crew and a Zombie life. Of course, your family is keeping regular hours while you have this crazy shift. Most of us slept in two shifts of approximately four hours each; I say approximately because often home life prevented getting that ratio. Any family crisis, however small, would automatically cut into your sleep time.

Those graveyard shift people were the goofiest ones I've ever worked with; some of them preferred that shift and I think that was a major manifestation of their basic personality disorders. The nature of the work wasn't exactly inspiring. It was repetitive motion, rote memory sorting of mail for eight plus hours. Although I did postal work for a great many years, I always tried to get into job bids where there was some variation or variety to the work. Mindless, repetitive mail sorting, staring at the same sorting case for your entire work day was what I never liked and tried to get away from. So, after working graveyard shift ("Tour One" in the PO) for a year, one of our employees who did something else in the office went crazy and they asked me if I wanted to long-term sub in that job. This particular job involved a lot of varied duties, and many of these duties required a degree of technical knowledge (for the PO). The other, more senior workers in the office hated this job because they had to think to do it. Most of them actually preferred the mindless sorting jobs because not having to think or problem-solve kept them in their comfort zones. So, when I was offered this job, I didn't even have to think about taking it. I kept that bid, with variations, for the next 17 years until I retired.

One of the better things about this job was a late start time, 9:00AM for many years, then 9:30AM after that. That was another thing that the other employees didn't like. Most of them (who weren't on the graveyard shift) didn't want to start much later than 8:00AM, and 7:30AM was preferred. During the many years I was in this position, I had a rotating day off, so Saturdays off didn't come around very often. At one point, I applied for another job within the system at another office, and when that came through, my boss of the moment said, "What will it take to get you to stay here?" Just for the heck of it, I said, "Saturdays off." The boss said, "It's yours" so for some years, I was the only non-supervisory employee in the building who had Saturday-Sunday off. Now that the PO is going down the toilet these days, a whole lot more people may be getting Saturday off too.

One of the people I used to work with on the graveyard shift was an old geezer named Kirby. He was pretty weird; he claimed to be a pillar of his church, but then one time he told me in private that at the church he'd drilled a hole in the wall of the toilet stall in the men's room so he could observe what was going on in there. He was a USMC veteran of the Korean War. He'd seen some heavy stuff; he was one of the Marines that was evacuated as a casualty from the Chosin Reservior in December, 1950. I don't blame this experience for his weirdness. He was an alcholic, and kept a bottle in his locker in the men's room. He would occasionally get up for a "leak break" and while in the men's room, stop by his locker. Now in those early morning hours, it's sometimes easy to get drowsy under normal conditions, but add alcohol and I'm sure it's worse. We would sometimes watch Kirby sway back and forth on his stool, and every once in a while, he'd fall off.

Sometime after I left the graveyard shift, there was a change to area mail processing and this crew was transferred to a larger, centralized facility. I stayed behind in my original office. Kirby was driving to work one night at their new location, and hit and killed a pedestrian who was crossing the street. He wasn't found to be the cause of the accident, but I've always wondered if alcohol played a part in it.

Some of the people with whom I worked on that Zombie crew are still pretty deeply etched into my memory. Most, men and women, had been married and divorced, some many times. The bad hours alone could've contributed to marital difficulties. One, named Kat, had a favorite pass-time of getting and being pregnant. She'd had a series of husbands, and when I was working with her, she wanted to get pregnant again. Her husband of the moment wouldn't go for it, so she went out and got pregnant by a male cousin.

The fastest sorter in the office was a chain-smoking bundle of nerves who was never without a cigarette in her mouth (people could still smoke in the workplace then) She had developed that permanent squint from having smoke in her eyes all the time. She was like a mail-sorting machine.

One guy whom I was friendly with was named "D.L." He was single, lonely, and alchoholic. One night, he brought a Browning High-Power 9mm pistol to work and placed in on his sorting tray in front of him to intimidate a supervisor. That was many years ago; he was sent home from work that night, but long since then having a firearm on postal propery (even in your car) has become grounds for immediate and uncategorical dismissal. He had a very nice collection of pistols, but had them hidden in various places around his house, such as false bottoms in cabinet drawers, etc.

There was a guy named Greg who was so superficial, indecisive, and just plain wussy that most people couldn't stand him. One woman was a Korean immigrant and I never could understand enough of what she said to know much about her. There were two old guys who worked sorting flats (magazine sized mail), just loping along, sorting at just above the minimum acceptable speed. They were both sardonic but interesting characters. One had been busted from counter clerk to sorting on the graveyard shift; he was suspected of stealing but they just couldn't nail him down tight enough.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Do You Really Save Energy When You Buy a New Car?

There has been much discussion about trading in older cars for new under the "Cash for Clunkers" plan.

There is one thing that rarely gets mentioned in energy savings from car replacement. That is, when you manufacture an automobile, it takes all kinds of energy to do it. It takes a lot of heat to melt down those ores into metal, minerals into glass, and fossil fuels into plastic. It takes a lot of energy to transport those materials around in their various forms from mining to installation on a car platform. It takes lots of energy to run an assembly plant what with moving production lines, lights, heat in the paint booth, water for various processes, etc. So, compare the btu's it takes to make a new replacement car every, say, ten years, to the extra fuel per gallon my old 1966 Ford Fairlane uses. I wonder about the net savings in energy from purchasing a new car. After all, it takes more energy to build 4.3 new cars in the time I've kept my Fairlane.

Okay, I'm just curious enough to see if this is true. Let's use the new Toyota Prius, admittedly a mileage king, for comparison. I looked up energy values in btu's online. Here is some math:

1. It takes roughly 113,000,000 btu's to manufacture a new Toyota Prius which gets 45 miles per gallon.

2. There are approx. (coincidentally) 113,000 btu's in a gallon of gasoline.

3. It takes approx. 31,362 btu's of energy per pound to build 90% of automobiles; the Prius takes more due to the battery component, at 38,650 btu's per pound. So, it took approx. 103,440,000 btu's to build the 1966 Fairlane and 113,000,000 to built the Prius.

4. Let's assume a 10 year replacement cycle. If you buy a new Prius every ten years in the time you own the 1966 Fairlane, that means you will buy 4.3 Priuses. 4.3 times 113,000,000 btu's equals 485,900,000 btu's.

5. Drive 150,000 miles in the Fairlane at 18 mpg and at 113,000 btu's per gallon, you've used 941,629,000 btu's of energy. Drive the same 150 miles in a Pruis and you've used 376,629,000 btu's.

6. 941,629,000 minus 376,629,000 equals 565,000,000 which is the amount of btu's that the Fairlane used in fuel over 150K miles than the Prius.

7. 485,900,000 minus 103,440,000 equals 382,460,000 which is the amount greater of energy used to build 4.3 Priuses as opposed to the one Ford Fairlane.

8. 565,000,000 minus 382,460,000 equals 182,540,000 btu's, which is the amount of energy saved by buying 4.3 Priuses instead of keeping the Fairlane for 43 years.

So about the net savings/loss of energy, if the sources of data I used were correct, it appears that fewer but's are used via the 4.3 newly-made cars. BUT: What about money? What's that extra 182,460,000 btu's worth in money in relation to the cost of 3.3 extra cars purchased over the course of 43 years? More calculations needed.

9. The Fairlane cost about $3,000 in 1966, but there's the time value of money, and since 1966, the inflation factor has been approximately six, so 6x$3,000 equals an $18,000 cost of the Fairlane for our purposes of comparison.

10. The new Prius costs approx. $25,000 (not fully equipped), so using our 4.3 factor of Priuses bought every ten years, thats $107,500.

11. The extra btu's of energy that the 66 Fairlane cost over 43 years compared to buying 4.3 new Priuses is mostly in extra gasoline used. So, the extra 182,540,000 btu's divided by 113,000 btu's per gallon, gives us a quantity of approximately 1616 gallons of gasoline. Now gasoline didn't always cost as much over the past 43 years, but let's be on the generous side and allow $3.00 per gallon for it. Multiply 1616 times $3.00 you get $4,848.

12. The cost of 4.3 new Prius cars comes to $107,500, minus the adjusted cost of the 1966 Ford Fairlane, which we figure is around $18,000, equals $89,500.

13. So, if you kept the Fairlane since '66, you would have been out $4,848 in extra fuel costs, but you spent an additional $89,500 on new Priuses (or their equivalent) every ten years, for a net difference of $84,652. The question is, would you rather spend an extra $84,652 to save 182.54 million btu's? This works out in large measure because the btu's to build a car are less expensive than the fuel to power it.

Of course, this is simplified math and to some extent flawed logic. We have to take this a step further. If you are driving the 43 year old car constantly over that period of time, you are going to rack up more mileage, probably 4.3 times, which will drive up the cost of fuel enormously. If you multiply 4.3 times 3,333 gallons for the Prius it equals 14,332 gallons vs. 4.3 times 8333 equals 35,832, a difference of 21,500 gallons, which at $3.00 per gallon amounts to $64,500 which number is probably skewed against the 43 year old car by using an arbitrary, contemporary price for a gallon of fuel. To attempt greater accuracy, we'd have to pro-rate the value of the fuel over time adjusted for inflation and for these purposes that's too complex.

So, $84,652 minus the extra fuel cost of the Fairlane of $64,500 is still a savings of $20,152.

Of course, there are other things to consider, such as when you upgrade and buy a new car, you get the latest technical upgrades which include safety features that the 43 year old car doesn't have. The added maintenance cost of a car with 645,000 miles on it would be considerably more than 4.3 cars with 150,000 miles each on them. In the case of the Prius, however, the estimated battery life of the car is approx. seven years and replacement of these vital parts will be thousands of dollars which you'd never see on a Fairlane.

Driving a newer car costs the motorist more money in insurance and licensing costs than an older one, which are not related strictly to energy consumption or technical considerations. This does adds more expense to the operation of the 4.3 Prius cars.

One thing that you can't quite measure in numbers is this. When you get in that '66 Fairlane, it's still a noisy, smelly, damp, drafty, rattley, loose, old heap. That's why they call 'em clunkers. The newer ride, be it a Prius or something else, is much more comfortable and pleasant to drive.

Just something to think about.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The "Gas Chamber" at Fort Ord

Or more correctly called the "NBC Chamber" (for Nuclear, Biological, Chemical). This was a building that was used for familiarizing basic combat trainees in the army with chemical weapons. The trainees were suited up in their M17 protective masks, then herded into the Gas Chamber. Once in the chamber, they were instructed to take their masks off to experience the effects of CS gas. The purpose of this was to give the trainees confidence in their NBC gear. The idea was to get them in there with their masks on, take the mask off briefly, then put it back on and clear it (get the gas out of the inside of the mask) but it didn't always work this way. Some trainees would panic and try to run out the door without having attempted to clear and reinstall the mask. The CS gas used in the Gas Chamber was a formulation of what civilians call "tear gas". It causes you to tear up, and your lungs and sinuses want to fill up from the chemical irritation. It isn't pleasant, but every basic trainee goes through this.
The building in the picture is now delapidated, not having been used for many years. It's the real deal, however, and I passed through this building in 1969 like many other trainees.

Friday, September 4, 2009

What Makes Government Inefficient?

Here are my thoughts as to why government tends to be inefficient compared to the private sector. Of course, I am speaking in generalities and trends and am not condemning every government employee or program.

1. Government doesn't have to show a profit, therefore the motivation to excell is absent. The phrase "close enough for government work" says it all. In order to make a profit, firms must excell at delivering a good or service; to do otherwise is to go out of business.

2. The civil service in days gone by was staffed by way of political patronage. That is, the currently elected officials won the right to choose friends, supporters, and cronies to fill government jobs. The government job was a reward for services rendered. After while, a few people who were not completely corrupt decided that the turn-over and obvious conflicts of interest of using this "spoils system" to fill the ranks of the civil service was not in the interests of good government. The Pendleton Act of 1883 changed the civil service to one based mostly on competitive merit hiring and eliminated the spoils system of rewards for political parties. This change was beneficial to the government and for the welfare of career civil service employees who could hold a job over time without fear of losing it to the changes of political winds.

As so often happens, a good idea or system becomes perverted and twisted into another shape. Over time, government employees have become accustomed to the protections that their employment provides and to a large extent have become imbued with a sense that they can relax, they are protected, they are in positions of relative safety in the work force. This attitude does not foster a sense of "hustle" or precision.

3. A term of great currency regarding government operations is "Red Tape." I haven't looked up the dictionary definition of the term, but I know what it means and so does everybody else. Red Tape isn't just paperwork; it's an entire system of over-caution, cover-your-Heinie and unnecessary redundancy. Good government should be pursued with some degree of caution; it should not grind to a stand-still through over-caution. Things need to get done. But then again, what I have outlined in paragraph 2, above, contributes to this problem.

3a. US government tends to be penny-wise and pound foolish. They lose sight of the big bucks by concentrating on small potatoes. In the post office, they are afraid that an employee might steal 25 cents from them, but they lose millions (these days billions) a year on institutional and structural deficiencies. In private enterprise, risk-taking is just part of the game of making money and surviving in business. Because government is cautious by nature, it tries not to take risks. This point is interesting because in spite of all its caution, the government still finds it quite easy to lose billions of dollars.

3b. The legal profession has sunk its fangs into the jugular of the government much as it has the rest of society, so this causes the addition of numerous legal considerations into every government process.

4. One of the biggest detriments to a smooth-functioning government is the lack of consensus and the intrusion of provincial and special interests into policy making. At the policy-making level, every special interest is competing to have its own goals achieved. The result is that instruction to government is fractured, diffuse, and over-expectant.

5. The habit of deficit spending that policy-makers got into in the 20th Century that continues to this day does not foster good government. When a government decides that there is no limit to the amount of money it can create or borrow, there is no incentive for efficient management of resources. This policy also feeds the fire of entitlements which contributes to the problem I have outlined in paragraph 4, above.

These are just my own thoughts. What are yours?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Beware of the Words "Scaled Back" in Health Care Reform

Now that the liberal health care "reform" (whatever it really consists of) is in trouble, they are talking about "scaling back" on their "program".

All I can tell you from my own experience here in Wash. state is that when the liberals use the words "scaled back" watch out for your wallet. What that really means is that they are conceding that they cannot get a whole loaf, so they will settle for half a loaf -- for now. Then after they have gotten their half-loaf, they will proceed to slip in the rest of their plan/program through the process of incrementalism. They will use the words, "Well, now that we've already started, we might as well go the rest of the way" or similar. They will sneak or bamboozle the rest of their originally intended program into place.

I'm no expert on the health care situation, so anyone please step in to correct me if I misspeak on the issue. Here are some random thoughts that come to my mind.

1. The way health care is paid for in the US certainly could use some looking into. However, it seems to me that any efforts at securing economies in health care are doomed unless torte reform (quickly given a hands-off in the current debate) accompanies health care reform. The high cost of insuring the medical profession is a major factor in a high cost of health care provision. Is it any wonder that torte reform was killed when most of the Congress consists of lawyers? Im going to speculate here, but I'm sure that the legal profession is well represented by lobbyists in DC. Significant torte reform resulting from health care reform would put a serious dent in the revenue stream of the legal profession.

2. People who favor some form of health care reform often point to government-sponsored systems in other (modern, western) countries. Please let's bear in mind that most of these examples consist of a social fabric that is different from that of the US. For one thing, most of them do not have the illegal immigration situation that the US has. For another, most of these countries do not have a significant underclass of financially needy citizens dependent upon social welfare. This underclass is the same part of society that tends to over-breed which contributes to the medical costs of that society. For a third, most of these countries have a society which is of a more homogeneous nature and makes for a more productive, orderly and organized citizenry. Most of these countries have much higher tax structures in place to support government-sponsored medicine, and most of their citizens of working age are employed.

3. Government provision of medical services in the US has not had a good track record to date. I cite the inefficient, inequitable, and poor service that the Veterans Administration medical services are known for. If people are afraid of "rationed care" through government medicine, they have to look no further than the VA for an example. The Medicare program/system is in a precarious way financially and will not survive many more years without serious revisions.

4. One of the main troubles with big government in the US is that there are so many different interest groups and contituencies involved in crafting legislation that a clean, clear-cut solution to a problem is never realized. An old addage explains much of it: "Too many people have their fingers in the pie" or "Too many cooks spoil the broth". By making sure that every hog has his snout in the trough, so many measures just wind up being a mess. That's probably what will happen with the current push for "health care reform".

5. You wait and see. Whatever program the current administration and Congress comes up with in the way of health care "reform," it will wind up costing way, way more than ever was stated or envisioned. Reason? A combination of things I have outlined above. Too many interests being satisfied; incremental add-ons to original concepts (just like what happened with Social Security); government inefficiency.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The FEMA Concentration Camp Story is a Hoax, a Fake

The story about FEMA "concentration camps" has been going around for many years, since long before the Obama administration came along. The central theme of this hoax story is that The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) has built over 800 internment facilities ("concentration camps") that are empty but fully staffed and operational, and ready to accept large numbers of political opponents of the present administration.

On a right-wing website, I just reviewed the list of supposed locations of these places and it takes a vivid imagination for these right-wing groups to assert that that these camps are "active and fully staffed". The sites mentioned in the list that I personally know of are a joke. Tulelake California, site of a former internment camp of the Japanese in WW2? C'mon. The camp site was sold many, many years ago after the buildings were sold and moved or demolished. Yes, there is a wildlife refuge in the area and it, like any of the many other tens of millions of acres of federal land could be used as the site of an internment camp, but already built and fully staffed it certainly isn't. Same thing for Fort Ord, which is under re-development for mostly commercial purposes and the barracks have nearly all been demolished. The Army still uses an easterly chunk of what used to be Fort Ord, but there are very few buildings there. Terminal Island has had a federal prison located on it for decades, but it's on a small area of land fill surrounded on three sides by water and no way can accommodate a huge expansion of "FEMA detainees." Other sites listed as being in California are closed military bases where commercial redevelopment (or nothing) is going on and military buildings are being torn down.

One of the more preposterous examples is the "camp" in Alaska that is capable of receiving 500,000/2 million prisoners (the number depends on which website you visit). How somebody could come across a couple of facts and get the story so twisted contrary to what is real is beyond me. The reality behind this goes back to Congressional action on the Alaska Mental Health Act in the 1950's when Alaska was still a territory and had no territorial facilities to provide for care of mental patients. The act provided for the federal government to give a million acres of land to the Alaska Mental Health Trust to fund operations over a sustained period of time. Much of this land was later sold to private interests or converted to forest and park lands. To this day, there is an Alaska mental health system that still retains about 35% of the original federal property granted but it's run by the state of Alaska and not FEMA.

Let's look at a couple of other examples, those facilities listed for Minnesota. The connection between FEMA and Camp Ripley may not have anything to do with internment. There is a Minnesota Dept. of Corrections facility at Camp Ripley, but it's a low-level offender unit designed to take people sentenced to public service and has approximately 120 beds if the information I've read is current and correct. It's not run by FEMA but by the state of Minnesota. FEMA may have looked at Camp Ripley in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as a place where quarters (empty barracks) were available to house displaced persons. They considered all sorts of places to put those people.

The Duluth Federal Prison Camp is for real and operated by the Bureau of Prisons, US Dept of Justice, not by FEMA. The term "camp" takes on negative overtones to some people, but in the language of the federal prison system, the designation "camp" just signifies that it's a facility for minimum security prisoners. So, they could take them out to a logging "camp" (or whatever) and the prisoners could work under minimum guard. Federal prison camps typically have limited or no perimeter fencing. The inmate population at FPC Duluth is around 900. There's no secret about FPC Duluth; you can read about it online.

Oh, and that FEMA concentration camp in Lansing, Michigan? It's a small fire station.

The list shows numerous "former WW2 POW camp" locations, but these were nearly all closed down and dismantled shortly after WW2. The exceptions are those locations where POW's were housed in buildings on larger military bases that were turned back over to the services for on-going use, such as training facilities, ROTC barracks, buildings used by the reserve components during AT, etc. But, I will add, that by now even most of these buildings have been torn down due to obsolescence.

Similarly, listing former WW2 Japanese internment camps is just ridiculous because I don't know of a single one of these that was retained for further use after WW2. These sites were all closed, buildings razed or sold, and the land disposed of or reverted to the BLM or Bureau of Reclamation.

There is federal land all over the country, much of it in the western US. Yes, any of it could conceivably be used to build a camp some day for some purpose, but 800 camps, fully-operational, sitting there waiting to be filled? Puh-leeze. The people that are banging the drum on this one just picked numerous present and former federal sites, and because they are (or were) federal, figure they could be FEMA internment camp sites. "We saw some lights pointed inward there"; so that means it's a concentration camp?

I'm thinking that it's giving FEMA (and the government in general) way, way too much credit for being organized enough to have this all in place and just sitting there waiting. FEMA can't even sell off their defective mobile homes that they stupidly bought after Katrina.

I'm certain that FEMA has all kinds of contingency plans for every kind of situation, including insurrection. Back in the late 1960's which is the time I entered the Army, there were plans to deal with the riots that had been sweeping the country. One of them was "Operation Garden Plot" (referred to in at least one of the websites that I visited while reading up on this subject). Garden Plot was and is simply an operations plan for federal authorities to provide assistance to the states, counties and municipalities for riot control. When I was at Fort Lost in the Woods, we had several cadre members who were on the roster for emergency response if needed via Garden Plot. By late 1969, the riots were mostly over and the peace demonstrations after that never got to be more than concerned authorities could handle without massive federal augmentation. No doubt Garden Plot plans had some component that included methods to house a potentially massive influx of detainees; at that time, they still had many more bases and surplus barracks than they do now. The base closures and realignments of the 90's and later divested the government of a great deal of their military property that could've been used for this purpose.

Some of the websites that deal with the subject of FEMA internment camps mention numerous "executive orders" that have been formulated to deprive citizens of their rights in an emergency. What they fail to mention is that most of these were written up during WW2 and were designed to be a contigency against any number of unforeseen events. They also fail to mention that most of these executive orders have since been rescinded or folded into similar orders that were consolidated under the Reagan administration. There are now addenda that add a requirement that such orders be carried out in compliance with guarantees provided under the US Constititution. Although not exactly comparable, this is one of the problems that the federal government is having with the prisoners at Guantanamo.

Now, having said that about presidential executive orders, it was one such order that sent all those Japanese US citizens and resident aliens to internment camps during WW2. I'm not going to argue against military security or the sentiment of the government of the day as to feeling the threat of imminent invasion of the west coast. That action does demonstrate that if the government wants to intern people en masse, they can and will do it. Of course, that was in the 1940's in a political and social climate when it was much easier for the government to trample on citizens' rights.

This whole "FEMA Internment Camp Conspiracy" hoax reminds me a lot of the big "Area 51 Conspiracy" of a decade or so ago. Yes, there was such a thing as Area 51, and it was ultra-high security. Some people got ahold of those two ideas and decided that something fishy must be going on there. Area 51 is a fairly remote location, and partly for that reason it was chosen for highly classified aeronautical research. Testing of the U-2, the SR-71, the "Stealth" generation of warplanes, and who knows what-all (that's why it's supposed to be secret) has taken place there. People believe what they want to believe, and the more fantastic it seems, the more it entertains and interests them. The private contractor security guards in camoflage fatigues without insignia only whetted the appetite of the conspiracy theorists looking for UFO secrets.

If we can discuss a loss of liberties in general, the most concrete recent examples of that occured under the Bush II administration as a result of 9-11. So what has the Obama administration really done in the past 200 days to limit our liberties? They've mostly been running around like chickens with their heads cut off, over-extending themselves. Much of the persecution that some people feel under the Obama administration is self-inflicted; it hasn't happened yet. My own personal feelings are that my rights were under more potential threat from Dick Cheney than they are under Obama.

Sean Hannity, certainly no liberal, has gone on the record as declaring the FEMA concentration camp story a hoax.

So I've just got to wonder, why do some of the extreme right-wing websites keep promoting this kind of hysteria when the story is so obviously false? I'll admit that our government is flawed, but why make things worse with information that isn't true? Is it for some kind of demented recognition? Maybe somebody has been watching re-runs of "Red Dawn" too many times.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Rush Limbaugh didn't invent talk radio

When I was a teenager living in Los Angeles in the 1960's, I used to listen to AM radio quite a bit at night. During that time, I often listened to a couple of stations, KABC and KLAC. Some of the personalities on those stations were Joe Pyne, Michael Jackson (no relation to the pop musician), Mort Sahl (the comedian), Joel Spivak, and others. These men all conducted talk radio shows which at the time were referred to as "two-way radio". Talk radio actually started before the 1960's on the east coast; some of the personalities involved with it came west after beginning their careers in the east.

One of my favorite radio talk show hosts of the 1960's was Joe Pyne. Pyne was a Marine Corps veteran of WW2. His on-air style was informative and argumentative. He didn't suffer fools gladly, and would often insult callers with phrases such as, "Ah, go gargle with razor blades" and "What's your point beside your head?" Basically a conservative, he would end his shows with the phrase, "Straight ahead and get Castro." He died in his forties of lung cancer at the height of his career in 1970.

Joe Pyne also had a TV show on KTTV in Los Angeles that was later nationally syndicated. You can look on Youtube and find video clips of a few of Joe Pyne's shows that were broadcast.

Anybody remember the American Nazi Party of the 1960's? The leader of the American Nazis was George Lincoln Rockwell. I don't know how serious Rockwell was about being a Nazi in America, but his timing for promoting the cause was somewhat off, as the 1960's were not particularly a time of economic turmoil. There was racial turmoil, and Rockwell later made some political hay out of that. Nevertheless, the American Nazis never had more than a few dozen actual members and perhaps a few hundred sympathyzers.

Joe Pyne used to have ripe comments re. the American Nazis, whom he called "American Nutsies". Their leader, George Lincoln Rockwell, he called "George Stinkin' Ratwell".

Here's what California gave her Vietnam veterans for services rendered...

A stinkin' sign by the side of a highway next to a bridge they were already going to build.

Quite a few states showed their appreciation for services rendered by Vietnam veterans by granting them a cash bonus. It wasn't a big deal, typically $100 to $300. California never saw fit to give her Vietnam veterans such a bonus. There were more KIA's in Vietnam from California than any other state. By virtue of population, it's probably the same situation with the number of Vietnam veterans as a whole. I'm sure the California state legislature didn't miss this fact if they were even inclined to mull over the possibility of a bonus. I can get a mental picture of those esteemed statesmen (behind closed doors, of course). "Well, we have this bridge we have to replace anyway. Let's call it the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge, then buy a $400 road sign, put it by the bridge, and that will cover it." Mind you, this was long before the current fiscal crisis in the state.

There is a California Vietnam Veterans Memorial that was built in 1984. It isn't very large and is located on a corner of the state capitol grounds in Sacramento. I hasten to point out that its cost of around 2.5 million dollars was put up by private donations, and not from any funds from the State of California.

I mention this not only out of bitterness, but as a prediction that the same will transpire for our current veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq. Some other states already have bonuses in place for these veterans; California does not and will probably repeat their pattern of parsimony and neglect toward veterans by ignoring it. They can always come up with money for free medical care for illegal aliens, but not for a veterans bonus.

Why the Button Fly?

My travels today took me down to the Fort Lewis area. My, what a lot of activity is going on around there. When I think back on the Clinton years, it was less busy. Anyway, when I'm in the area, I sometimes stop in the shops off-post to see what's for sale. There are a number of shops in Ponders (pawn shops) and Tillicum (so-called "surplus" stores) that are possible sources of funds for skint soldiers. When soldiers run out of money, they sell stuff. Re. the misnamed "surplus" stores, I say this because they really don't sell items that they bought as surplus from the government. They sell stuff that soldiers bring in to them. Soldiers bring things in to sell to the stores to get cash money. The stores turn around and resell the stuff for more money, mostly to other soldiers. Some of the stuff that the soldiers bring in to sell isn't theirs. That's putting it kindly, isn't it?

So, I look around in these stores just to see what kinds of things soldiers use these days. My oh my, they have all kinds of fancy little gadgets and gear that was undreamed of during my time in the Army. They use a number of little pouches, straps, and other things I couldn't identify. Most of it isn't cheap, either. As a lowly example, the Army makes a much nicer pair of socks to wear with boots now, but new ones cost $14 a pair. These socks actually have elastic in the tops that works and holds them up. The old Army issue socks had uppers that would stretch out on their first washing, forever after falling down to your ankles inside your boots.

I also looked at the "new" Army fatigue uniform with the digital camoflage pattern. These are called "ACU's" for Army Combat Uniform. The shirts don't have a real collar, but they do have a nice heavy zipper on the front instead of buttons, closed up with a couple of Velcro pads.

When it comes to zippers, I have this great, big question for the Army uniform design people. I'm sure they researched all this, but still I have to wonder. Why do they still make fatigue trousers with the button fly arrangement? Would very many people disagree that a zipper is far easier and faster to use, both important attributes at times for soldiers?? Maybe the uniform engineers think that a zipper isn't as sturdy under strenuous use as buttons on the fly. Well, the jungle fatigue trousers I wore in Vietnam in 1970-72 all had zippers, and never did one blow out. The heavy-duty zipper on the new ACU shirt would find a nice home on the trousers; it's a much nicer zipper than the crappy one we had on jungle fatigues which was like those found on a cheap pair of civilian slacks. Our OD stateside fatigues had zipper flies in them, too, but when the army came out with the woodland camo BDU's in the early 1980's, a step backward in time was taken when these were made with the button fly. Well, if it was good enough in WW1, I guess it's good enough now.

Friday, July 31, 2009

My First Day in the Army

Basic trainees getting their gear together before formation.

Me standing in the company street of my Basic Training unit, B-1-1, at Fort Ord in 1969.

Actually, my first day and night. I enlisted in the Army and was given a reporting date of April 28, 1969. On that day, I presented myself to the Los Angeles Entrance and Examination Station (AFEES) for formal enlistment into the Regular Army. At this facility, they processed enlistees and draftees at the same time. Here we filled out forms, took a few tests, took the oath, and were given a (cursory) physical examination. It doesn't sound like much, but it took all day. This building was a big, old-fashioned office building with ceilings in all the rooms as high was the rooms were wide. There were different colored lines painted on the floor directing you to go to this or that place. Sometime during the middle of the day, we were given a meal ticket and told to get our lunch at a restaurant across the street. I wonder how many guys took that opportunity to disappear??

During this process, the enlistment aspect never let up. The Army had offices in the AFEES where they would snag enlistees and inductees out of the line based on initial test scores that demonstrated specific aptitudes. For example, if your test score for the ALAT (Army Language Aptitude Test) was above a certain number, they hauled you in to talk to an ASA (Army Security Agency) recruiter. My ALAT score was above the specified number, so I went this route. I was taken into an office where an old, owlish-looking E-7 sat behind a desk. This crew-cut fellow in GI-issue gray plastic glasses gave me the pitch about what an honor it would be for me to serve in the ASA, which was an elite outfit that was charged with protecting certain aspects of national security, blah, blah, blah. The bottom line was, I would have to add another year to my enlistment for this privilege. Well, I hadn't been in the Army for a full day yet, but even at that early juncture, I just knew that I did not want to add another year to my enlistment. I declined. Late, I found out that the ASA duty wasn’t exactly James Bond level excitement. It was mostly about communications security that consisted of electronics monitoring, including internal spying on Army elements.

After all the paperwork and other bush-wah was finished, they collected us in one large hall and for the first time, they separated the enlistees from the inductees (draftees). There was only a low partition about four feet tall in the center of the hall that divided the two lots from each other. After while, these two men in funny uniforms consisting of a khaki shirt and royal blue trousers walked stiffly into the room on the other side of the partition. In a loud voice, one of these men said, "Listenup...willthefollowingnamedindividualsstandup" (said as if it was all one word). Two men stood up after their names were called. Then the leather-lungs who called off the names said, "Congratulations, gennulmen. YouhavejustbeeninductedintotheUnitedStatesMarineCorps." Out of what must have been a hundred, maybe a hundred and fifty men, two of them had been selected to do their two year involuntary military service in the USMC; the rest went into the Army.

At what what I thought would be the end of a very long work day, they loaded us onto Greyhound buses and shipped us to Fort Ord, California for Basic Combat Training (BCT), sometimes called “Boot Camp”. The buses drove up Highway 101 to Salinas, and turned left for Fort Ord. I don't know what time we got there, but it was in the early morning hours of the next day. Before we were dispatched to our BCT companies, we first had to in-process with the Army. That started when we got off the bus. We were herded into a small wood-frame WW2-era building to fill out a new battery of paperwork. To accomplish this, we were given a #2 pencil without eraser. One kid in the group held up his hand with a question, and when given permission, asked, "Sergeant, can I have an eraser? I made a mistake and need to fix it." The cadre soldier up in front who was taking us through this process didn't bat an eye and said, "Son, you're in the Army now. We don't make mistakes in the Army, so we don't need erasers." It didn't take me long to find out just how ironic and cruel this statement was. I have to think the Army in contemporary times is a better organization, but during the time I was in, it seemed like mistakes were the order of the day, not the exception. I used to laugh when I would see those "Zero Defects" signs decorating office walls. It could have been described as organized chaos.

Finally around 0400 (that's four o'clock in the morning for civilians), we were led away to the USARECSTA, or US Army Reception Station. The Reception Station was charged with getting the new trainess organized before they went to their BCT company where they received their actual training. While in the Reception Station, they issued uniforms, gave haircuts, administered more tests, gave innoculations, and kept trainees in a holding pattern until they formed up enough men for a company cycle. This is also the place where the first misfits were winnowed out. It's true, some men couldn't even make it through the first few days of Army life before the training even started. It's no wonder; after bedding down at 0400, we found out that our work day started up again at 0500 hours - after getting maybe one hour of sleep. That's certainly no way to win the hearts of brand-new solders, but it was the Army way.

I had gotten sick a couple of days before my reporting date, and was still ill on the actual day. Talk about a misguided work ethic. I went ahead, and was still ill the first few days after I arrived at Fort Ord. With the short rest hours and the burst of exertion, it was a trial. I should have taken that as an omen at the time, that fate was trying to tell me something.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Harassment and Gender Bias in the Workplace

My daughter Annie recently has had a horrible employment experience. She has been employed as a veterinary tech. at a clinic for the past nearly three years, working her way up. Recently, her boss asked her to take on a higher-level, more demanding position which she agreed to do. He asked her what she had to have for pay, she stated an amount, and he readily agreed. Lately, he came to her and said, "I must have been out of my mind to agree to pay you that amount. You're just a 24-year-old girl and you're not worth that amount of money." Whereupon she said, "Okay, I'll go back to my old job and rate of pay, but I will not do the additional management work that you agreed to pay me more to do." We think that he figured he could get her to do the extra work at the old rate of pay. After that, her employer turned her situation into what is called a "hostile work environment" by harassing her verbally. She still refused to quit, so he fired her without a basis for cause. He would not give her a letter stating the reasons for her termination. There's a lot more to this story, but this employer has a history of gender bias, verbal harassment, falsification of documents and other nasty habits. Annie is pretty feisty, and I think this time her now-former employer has picked on the wrong blue-eyed, 115 pound feline gorilla. She has found an attorney to take on her case on the basis of wrongful termination, harassment, gender bias, and some other things. She is out to punish her former employer the only way it counts, by taking money away from him and hoping that it will discourage such behavior in the future for other employees.

When people work for a large outfit, like an airplane company, or a public employer like the government, they have human resources offices (we used to call them a "personnel office") that monitors misbehavior on the part of employees and managers, and it's a place where you can take legimate problems for rectification. On the other hand, when a person works for a small, private business, if they have problems of the sort I describe above, they're on your own. If you're dealing with an unreasonable boss in the first place, it's doubtful you're going to make any headway with them on your own after things go sour.

I have three children, one son and two daughters. I want all of my children to be happy and successful. It's just beyond my comprehension how some of the other societies place low values on daughters. I'm thinking of places like Japan, China, the Arab countries, and so on where women count for less than men in general, and daughters take a distant back seat. What's wrong with those men who they don't want the same amount of success and happiness in life for their daughters as they do for their sons!??

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Why I don't shop at Costco

Many people think that Costco is the greatest thing since sliced bread. I've had enough experience with them to know that shopping there isn't for me. My reasons are several.

1. I have a philosophical problem with paying admission to get into a retail store. You may not agree, but I feel that an annual membership fee is a payment of admission ("We charge this fee to keep prices low").

2. I hate waiting in line behind 20 other people for the privilege of checking out, and when I get there, they won't provide me with any bags for my purchases ("That's how we keep prices low") and they won't take a check.

3. Often their goods are sold in large units, but it isn't often that I need a 55 gallon barrel of Thousand Island dressing. Sometimes when you are buying for a single household and you buy in quantity, some of the product may go bad before it's used up. That isn't thrifty. Another point to make here is that I'm not used to pricing large quantity grocery items, so I have no way of knowing if I'm getting a deal or not.

4. You have to be a careful shopper at Costco; often their pricing is higher on certain items.

5. Another way you have to be a careful shopper at Costco is to avoid the "I'm getting a special deal here" and over-buy just because you think you are getting a special deal. You may be getting deals, but you also may be buying things that aren't necessary. It's easy to leave Costco with a very long receipt, which makes you wonder, "Did I really spend that much?"

Now, I've got a real problem with buying gasoline from Costco. I've driven by one of the Costco stores near me several times. In the area where they sell gasoline, the cars are lined up (no exaggeration) 10 and 12 deep to get up to the pumps. At present, their unleaded gasoline is about 15 to 20 cents below other retailers, depending upon whether you buy at Arco or Union 76. Let me tell, you, all those loyal Costco customers waiting in line behind 10 cars to save 15 cent a gallon have got to be nuts. No way am I going to wait in line behind all those jabbering, disorganized, pushy (never mind) to save 15 cents a gallon. Think about it; you have to wait for every driver of every car to get out, pay, pump their gas, fiddle-fart around with their seat belts, kids in car, put receipts away, etc, times however many cars are ahead of you. I've got better things to do with my time than that. That isn't saving money, it's wasting time.

I'll leave you with this final thought. If you could drive right up to the pump in some kind of express lane for special people and avoid waiting behind 10 cars ahead of you, wouldn't you be willing to pay 2 or 3 dollars just for that privilege? That's basically what you are doing by going straight on by Costco and going to Chevron (or similar) to buy your gasoline. I'm happy to pay a couple of dollars extra to avoid that jabbering bedlam in the gas pump line at Costco.

If you are looking for bargains in grocery items, you can often save more money at places like Grocery Outlet or Save-a-Lot, or similar discount stores in your area.

Monday, June 22, 2009

How Sexual Predators Operate

Here's a story that I've never told anyone before and I haven't thought about it for at least 25 years. I used to work in a retail liquor store when I was in high school, and once again after I was in the Army and was going to school. The first time I worked there was for three years, covering the full three years I was in high school. I started working there before I could drive and used to walk up Del Amo St. in Lakewood, California to work. On Friday and Saturday nights, I worked there as a stock clerk mostly, but would help the counter clerk on the register when it was busy. During the week, I worked most afternoons stocking shelves and helping on the register when the owner had other stuff to do.

So, there was this customer named Al. I've tried to remember his last name, but I can't. No matter. I would say it was about the first year I worked there that this guy Al started to get friendly with me. Somehow, in a conversation it came out that I was interested in guns. One time he said, "I've got a gun at home; you ought to come over some time and take a look at it." I was about 15 or 16, and having grown up in Lakewood, wasn't too street-smart, and was reasonably trusting. I don't remember the details, but one evening I agreed to go over to Al's home which was on one of the side streets south of Del Amo St. near Palo Verde Ave. He did have a gun, a cheaply-made, older .38 revolver. After showing me this, he suggested that we go for a drive and he'd show me a place that he liked to go or something like that. I can't imagine now why I played along with him, but sometimes young people do things when they are with older people just to be agreeable. Sometimes they get into situations and don’t quite know how to disentangle from them gracefully. I don't know. Anyway, Al drove us up to Signal Hill and parked his car. After we parked, he started asking me a series of uncomfortable questions of a sexual nature, like, "What do you do about it when you all hot and bothered down there?" or something along that line. To this specific question, I remember giving him the lame answer, "Oh, I just take a walk around the block to get over it." He said something like, "Ah, come on, you can do better than that." Well, by now I knew or at least had an idea where he was going with this, and I wasn't going to say something like, "When that happens I masturbate to get some relief" because it would have just escalated the level of sexuality of the conversation and my discomfort with it. We may have had more conversation along the lines I described above, but it didn't get more specific. Somewhere hereabouts Al must have realized that he didn't have a fish on the line, and although I don't recall exactly how we wound this up, he drove back to his place and I left.

For some time after this, I gave a lot of thought to this episode with Al. At that time in life, I didn't have the life experience I got through the natural process later. Even still, I knew that Al had some hands-on sexual activity in mind. As I think back on it, Al was a clever, slippery little perve. First, he knew how to bait the hook by finding a topic that his intended victim was interested in. Second, he knew just how to ask probing questions that, depending upon the response he received, he could either escalate to more specific questions or back out of. It was a lot like smooth male heterosexual predators who prey on young women to receive casual sex. They know the kind of intimate questions to ask to get to succeeding levels of familiarity. Sexually perverse predators have to be even more slippery; they are in some legal danger if caught. From the way Al was approaching me, in later reflection it seemed to me that perhaps he'd had a lot of practice.

Al was a homosexual pedophile, pure and simple. I've no way of knowing for sure which, but he probably wanted me to fellate him, or for him to fellate me. Some of these old male homosexual pedophiles get more kicks out of fellating a young male than receiving their own gratification. It's just another weird aspect of their perversion that most "normal" people don't understand.

After that time when Al would come in, we would still greet each other in the store but I would avoid conversation with him. He'd act friendly and sugary but by then I knew what that was all about. Since he was a customer, I couldn't very well be hostile to him. Beyond that, at that age, I was embarrassed at myself about the experience I'd had with him. I guess I was embarrassed that I'd been so stupid and accepted his invitation in the first place. Even if I'd decided to mention this to someone else, what had Al done to break the law? He asked questions but made no overt suggestions. Like I said, he was slippery.

It has occurred to me that sexual predators use the embarrassment of young victims to mask their activities.

Fast forward to when I worked in the store the second time, after I got out of the Army. Al was still coming into the store. We wouldn't talk more than what was necessary to conduct business and maybe he'd ask how I was doing. I could tell he now recognized me as an adult and not the stupid kid that he'd tried to lure, but he still had a sick twinkle in his eye. When I worked there that time, I was the night clerk and had a stock boy helping me into the evening. One of the stock "boys" that worked with me was a guy named Bill, the owner's nephew. One time when Al came in and Bill saw him, Bill made negative comments about him to me. Every time Bill and I worked together and Al came in, the same thing would happen. I should have, but never did, ask Bill the nature of his animosity toward Al but guessed perhaps he'd been approached by him in a similar fashion.

Well, so that's the story of my own personal experience. It isn't a big one but to me it was a good illustration about just how sexual predators work and how they get kids in a corner, feel them out with questions and see how far they can get with them. It wouldn't surprise me if Al had a police record; sexual predators who keep battering away at the odds like that are bound to get caught once in a while.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Are You a Native of Your State?

The history of America is about movement. The westward movement was the biggie. In some branches of my ancestral family, I can follow it along generation by generation, from Plymouth Rock Colony (Massachusetts), to Connecticut Colony, the Western Reserve (Ohio), Indiana, Iowa, and California. Another branch went from the New England colonies to Iowa with a stop in Ontario, Canada instead of Ohio or Indiana. My dad's grandfather did a boomerang movement, emigrating from Germany to Iowa, moved to Minnesota, then to Nebraska, and finally back east to upstate New York where he farmed to the ripe old age of 88.

People moved for different reasons, but often it was for economic ones. Often their livelihoods in those days were centered on the acquisition of land, and moving west afforded that opportunity. Once the country was more or less settled and the frontiers were closed (considered to be around 1890 by historians), they still moved around some, but many would put down roots and several generations might live in the same area. When it came, wartime was often an occasion that saw much movement within the country, naturally enough for economic reasons. Lots of farmers moved from agricultural regions to the cities where they engaged in war work making munitions, ships, or aircraft. Lots of poor people in the South moved north to the cities for work. On it goes; people still move around when they can find a better deal for themselves in a place different from the one they live in.

California has long been a place of economic opportunity and that's why many people from other states flocked there for a good long time, like starting in the Gold Rush of 1849, and continuing unabated even now, as people from Mexico and China still find it a better place to live than their home land. California has, for the most part, a forgiving climate that attracts people and enterprises. It has major seaports. A remarkable set of circumstances emerged to create what modern people would call a synergy that resulted in this great economic engine that is California.

The population movement continues now with the out-migration of people from California. Those leaving tend to be middle class, white and retired or close to retirement. As they retire, they want to live in a place with a lower cost of living and no state income taxes, like Nevada. This is simply the ages-old American tradition of looking for a better deal.

It isn't limited only to individuals who wish to move out of California. I was watching an interview on CNBC and it involved a businessman who had relocated to Nevada. His view was that lots of businesses are fleeing California, which has business costs that are typically 20% higher than other states. With the state budget currently 24 billion dolars in the hole, the future doesn't look any better.

I myself was a refugee from California. We moved to Washington state over 22 years ago. It was partially about money, because at that time we could buy more house for the money here than where we lived. There were other reasons, though. Neither of us particularly like heat, so we wanted to live in a cooler climate. We also never really felt that imbedded in the "California culture" and thought a move to another location might be for the better in that way.

In the intervening 22 plus years, where we moved to in Washington state has become increasing built-up and overdeveloped to the point where I'd move again if given the chance. I'm not allowed to move again, however, as my wife wants to stay around our adult children.

I'd lived for a summer in Washington in 1968, and had wanted to move there since that time. It took me 19 years to get around to it, and when I did it wasn't because other Californians were doing so. When we did move, other California emigrants were turning up here and there, but the big wave didn't hit until a few years later. There was a certain amount of resentment among some native Washingtonians against California migrants. After while, if the subject came up in a conversation and the person didn't already know me, when asked where I had grown up, I lied and said, "Iowa". They'd say something like, "Oh, that's a nice state." So, it was okay to be from any state other than California. California was unique as an object of rancor and demonization. We've all seen those bumper stickers that say "Colorado Native" or "Washington Native" or whatever. Native son pride. In many places, it means something to some people to be a local. I was born in California, a "Native Son of the Golden West" as they used to say, and not that common when I was in elementary school and many kids were "from somewhere else". California is the one place where being a "Native" isn't worth a s**t because so many people are from somewhere else; it's a pluralistic society that doesn't place any value on the provincial notion of being a local.

I've spent some time in Missouri when I was stationed there in the Army, and I later had a co-worker who lived there for nine years. In those small towns there, even if you have lived there for 20 or 25 years, you will always be an outsider because you weren't born there. It's the same way in western Iowa where my parents are from.

Some time ago, I had a discussion along these lines with a good friend of mine. We came to the conclusion that there's more to making a major move than economics. In order to make the move for that or any other reason, the people involved need to have a certain sense of adventure, or to put it a better way perhaps, they have be of the sort of personality that can overcome a reluctance to leave a comfortable situation. Not financial comfort, but the comfort of their familiar surroundings. Some people just can't do it. Naturally enough, people who are landed or well-to-do have less reason to leave their happy homeland. Of those who are not wealthy and have an opportunity to leave for some other place where the pickings might be better, some just can't bring themselves to do it.

I have to say from my own experience, even if you have the will and disposition to make a major move, it isn't particularly easy. You have to move your stuff which can be quite an undertaking if you have much. You have to find new banks, doctors, places to shop, and so on. You will be moving into at least one strange house, and maybe more if you rent before you buy. Your surroundings will all be new and that takes come getting used to and learning to navigate a new area is required. If you are working, you have a new workplace, new bosses and fellow employees to get used to, etc. If you have children, they will be going to new schools, finding new friends (or not), and doing new things or having trouble doing old ones. It's a pretty big deal.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Sad State Affairs for the US Auto Industry

2003 Pontiac Bonneville

When I was in the Mount Vernon, WA area recently, I decided to drive by the dealer where I bought my Ford Crown Victoria in 2005. This dealer was about 40 miles away from my home, but I purchased the car there because it was a left-over new 2004 that they still had in their inventory the next model year. This dealer, Skagit Motors, gave me a very steep discount on the car to move it out. When I bought it, they gave me a nice calendar with a picture on it they made when I took delivery of the car. The calendar was designed to be used over again, year after year with a new refill pad. That's what I went by the dealer for today, to get a new refill for my calendar.

This car dealer was built north of town on some river low-lands, and was located in a complex that was promoted and developed as a kind of retail auto mall. There were many dealers located there, and the idea was a person could come to one location and shop around among all the brands offered to find the one car they wanted. The whole area was new, big, spread-out, and filled with new cars. When I have been in this complex a few times before, it was always bustling with activity. They even built a shopping area across the road from the car mall where you could go to get a meal and buy other things while you were in the midst of your car-buying spree.

Today, I visited this same car shopping mall for the first time in a couple of years (since the last time I needed a calendar refill). What a change has come over this place. The Ford dealer was still there, but there wasn't a single customer on the lot anywhere that I could see. There were five unhappy looking salesmen in the showroom with no customers to show cars to. They did give me a calendar refill, but it's a very cheap version of what I'd been given before.

Worse, the General Motors dealership that had been located across the street was closed and the lot was completely vacant. The Dodge/Chrysler dealer that had been next door was no longer a franchise dealer, but had been set up as a used car lot. Next door beyond that, the former Lincoln-Mercury dealer was closed up and a used car lot had replaced it. The Dodge and the L-M signs were still up on the lots, but only because it costs money to take them down and nobody in this business is spending one dime more than necessary. There were some other vacant lots around, but two import dealers were still open a little way to the north. The shopping area across the road from the auto mall was nearly all vacant, with businesses closed and just empty rooms behind the plate glass windows to look into. This former hive of commercial activity has had the flame turned down very low.

I noticed the Ford dealer had seven shiny, new Lincoln MKS sedans lined up out front. In the past, this dealer was not franchised to sell Lincoln-Mercury products. Since the L-M dealer nearby folded, I wonder if the manufacturer needed a place to shuffle these $50K cars off to and the Ford dealer was a convenient solution. I'll bet the manufacturer gave them a hefty incentive to take them; and I imagine that you can get a steep discount on one -- if you need a flashy car like that. Well, the factory has to do something with them. When the L-M dealer closed, these expensive cars had to go somewhere, and you can't expect another dealer to take this distressed merchandise onto their books easily without something to make them attractive in the way of making a profit.

It's ironic that at the time the American auto companies are in deep trouble, some of their stuff is the best they've ever made. Ford products, which I am fairly familiar with and have looked at new models of over the past year, are the highest quality they've ever made. Plus, they have a number of innovative new models both available and more coming shortly. One of my personal favorites is the new Ford Flex.

The legacy of Daimler-Benz's short involvement at Chrysler is still showing with their rear wheel drive cars, like the 300 series, the Dodge Magnum, and the Dodge Charger which are all good products and help me to forget the many years of shoddy front wheel drive cars they built that you had to put a couple of new trannies in before you hit 100K miles. Those nice, sturdy, economical Sprinter vans are a Euro legacy too. But, D-B has been out of the picture for a while now and it makes you wonder what Chrysler is going to do for new engineering and styling.

General Motors quality is still a bit behind, especially on their lower-priced cars. They have a number of innovative cars coming down the pipeline that show promise, but the question now is, will the company last long enough to see them have an impact on the market. I can't wait to see that stinkin' Cadillac Escalade hit the skids; it's a symbol of all that has gone wrong with America. Unfortunately, there are probably enough over-paid basketball players and other posers around to keep them in production. So, G.M. has to down-size, and they keep Chevrolet as the mass production brand (rental companies still need them) and they keep Cadillac because the profit margin on each unit is high. I can't figure out for the life of me why they picked Buick to retain and let Pontiac go. I don't know what the production figures were, but Pontiac had a full range of product, from small economy cars up to luxury sedans, plus they had the sports cars and even an SUV (the butt-ugly Aztec might just be the reason they decided to kill the brand!!) Buick doesn't have that breadth of product, and in this area at least, that share of the market. I see tons of Pontiacs around here but not that many Buicks. Well, maybe G.M. wanted to get rid of the very diversity of product that Pontiac had and concentrate on a narrower share of market. If that's the case, they must realize that they have surrendered a certain amount of market share to concentrate on another.

As bad as the situation is with the manufacturers, the plight of the dealers around the country and their workers tends to get forgotten as a part of the problem. Not only do the sales personnel suffer due to lack of new car sales, but the service department employees have less work to do as fewer and fewer cars are sold, and add to that the lousy economy keeps some people from bringing in their cars for repairs. A lot of the mechanics in the business, and in particular in rural areas, are walking around with their hands in their pockets.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Mini Greenhouse Project

I'm not a serious collector of plants, but I do have 15 or 20 cactus and succulent plants. Many years ago when I lived in California, I had a large collection of them and even a small cactus garden. A few of the plants that I still have are remnants of that long-ago interest. Three or four of these are over 40 years old, my having gotten them in the mid-1960's.

When I moved from California in 1987, I left most of my plants at my parent's home where they have struggled along in a state of neglect for over 20 years. In the past couple of years when visiting my mother, I've taken some steps to close out the surviving remainder of those plants. Where I live now in Washington state is not a climate that is particularly conducive to growing cacti. However, enthusiasts cultivate cacti in England so why not Washington? I brought about six or eight plants home with me on two separate trips. I figured I had nothing to lose, as left mostly without care as they were, they would eventually perish anyway. With careful care, including moving them indoors for their winter rest period and out of the wet, they stood a decent chance of survival. So far, this has worked.

Part of my plan to cultivate these plants in Washington is to place them outdoors during good weather. In the Pacific Northwest, that means when there is no longer any danger of freezing and the moisture has eased up a bit. This period is approximately from mid-April to early October.

To enhance this time outdoors, two years ago I decided to get a small greenhouse. I didn't want to spend a fortune for so few plants, so I bought a folding, tent-like mini-greenhouse online. It was made out of plastic tarp material with a spring steel band that held it up. It lasted two years and by the time the second year was up, it was badly deteriorated and no longer serviceable. I decided that I would buy something more substantial to replace it. Checking online, I couldn't find anything that I could afford or that I wanted. I decided to make exactly what I needed. The pictures above show the result. The design rather follows the pattern of the punishment sheds in "Bridge on the River Kwai" but the sheathing materiel is clear, not steel. I'm no carpenter, but I took my time making this mini-greenhouse and used many existing materials that I had stashed away. The lumber was all freebies or scrap, and much of the hardware was as well. I had to buy three sheets of the clear PVC sheathing material for about $12.50 apiece, so by the time I got finished I had $50 or a little more in the project.

The stand or base that the mini-greenhouse is sitting on was not part of this project. I already had that on hand. I was driving down a street not far from my home, and this stand was sitting in a front yard with a "free" sign on it. I think it was originally made to support a water heater off the floor (code requirement). It looked potentially useful to me, so I stopped and wedged it into the trunk of my wife's Pontiac Bonneville. Before placing my mini-greenhouse on it, I covered the top with a remnant of some vinyl flooring that was left over from one of our bathrooms.

Now, I have my plants moved into it. There's plenty of room left; I may even get a tomato plant to put in there to use up the extra space.

If you're eating in the South and you wonder what that while pile on your plate is, them's grits

This question might just occur to you if you are travelling in the southern US for the first time.

Southerners can be sensitive about what you do with that white pile on your plate when they serve it to you. I have committed some of the violations of the "10 Commandments of Grits."

Grits are just another form of corn meal, ground a little more coarsely.

My mother, who was from Iowa, used to make Corn Meal Mush. Right after it was cooked, we would eat some of it as hot cereal, sugared, with half and half on top, and usually with some buttered toast for dipping. Then the rest would be refrigerated and it would solidify overnight. The next morning, my mother would fry up a big batch of Fried Mush in an iron skillet. The results were crisp, thinly sliced hot little morsels that we would put butter on and finally sorghum or molasses. If there wasn't any of those two sweeteners, we'd use clear Karo corn syrup which I still use on all pancakes, waffles, and French toast. When I travel on the road, I carry a bottle of Karo clear in the trunk of my car 'cause most eateries only have maple.

The frying of the Mush generated tons of smoke throughout the house and I can still recall seeing things through a fog on those mornings.

The four food groups of Iowa are:

1. Grease
2. Fat
3. Sugar
4. Starch

Many of those old Iowa farm gals in my family had some pretty hefty hams on their upper arms to testify to this fact.

The first time I had grits served to me was in Georgia. I knew right away what they were, sitting there piled in a puddle of molten butter. I asked the waitress for a bowl, which she brought to me. I scooped up the grits and dumped them into the bowl. Then, I sugared them and poured the coffee cream onto them and had a first class bowl of hot cereal. To this day, I keep a box of grits in the kitchen to be made into hot cereal on occasion. I can only hope that I don't go to Hell for treating grits so harshly.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

My 2004 Ford Crown Victoria

This is a picture of my Ford Crown Victoria at the Madeline Plain south of Alturas, CA.

Crooked River high bridge on US Highway 97 in central Oregon. This bridge was built in 1926 and spans an 850 foot deep gorge.

Tree along US Highway 395 at Sage Hen Pass in northern California.

US Highway 97 sign in central Oregon.

US Highway 395 sign in Alturas, CA.

Recently, I returned from a trip to Reno, NV. I drove my 2004 Ford Crown Victoria on this trip. I know what kind of fuel economy this car gets, but I like to clock the mileage from time to time just to keep my eye on it. On the return trip, I drove 479 miles between fuel stops. The amount of fuel used to drive these miles was 16.49 gallons. 479 divided by 16.49 equals 29.05 miles per gallon. The car is equipped with the 4.6 liter OHC V-8 engine and automatic overdrive. The route travelled was from Reno, NV via US 395, CA 299, CA 139, OR 39, US 97, OR 58 to Goshen, OR. No interstate highway miles were driven on this segment of the trip. Although most of it was open road driving, slow-downs were required in many towns where lower speed limits along the highways prevailed. The speed on the open highway varied between 55 and 70 mph. I used the speed/cruise control wherever possible, usually set around 60-65. Even throttle pressure maximizes fuel economy and using the speed control facilitates this. The specifications for this car call for the use of 5W-20 oil, and this reduces engine friction. I've commonly gotten 27-28 mpg with this car in highway driving, but this is the first time I've broken the 29 mpg barrier. Fuel consumption in around-town driving is lower, in the range of 17-20 mpg. Most people look at this car and think, "Gas Hog". It's deceptive.

I've talked to the service writer at the dealer where I have my car serviced, and he says that the mileage I get is typical of the 2003 and up Crown Vic and Merc Grand Marquis. He also agreed that the car is kind of a "sleeper" in that people do not expect that kind of mileage out of such a car.

The rear axle ratio on this car is 2.73 and when the automatic overdrive is in 4th gear, the final drive ratio is .70. When you lock out the AOD, or it kicks down, the third gear is running one-to-one. The police and performance versions of this car have quicker rear axles, mostly 3.27 and some 3.55, so of course cars so equipped don't get as good of mileage but they accellerate faster. My car has all the accelleration that it needs for my purposes.

Many old timers and back-yard mechanics hate "computer cars". However, having fairly complex computerized controls on automobile engines causes them to operate much more precisely and efficiently that older systems.

My first car was big, old 1957 Lincoln. That was in 1966 and gasoline cost around 26 to 30 cents a gallon. I didn't pay much attention to the fuel economy of that car, but I do remember buying the cheapest fuel I could find. I used to drive this car to the desert with my high school friends, and the trip to where we used to go was about 140 miles each way. The fuel tank held 20 gallons, and if I was real careful, I could make the round trip of close to 300 miles. Sometimes it was very close, and I used to worry enough that I would fill it before I got home. I dreamed of having a car that had an easy range of 300 miles on one tank of fuel. My 2004 Crown Victoria has a 19 gallon tank. Recently, after driving 479 miles, the car still had about 2-1/2 gallons remaining. I've driven 500 miles on a tank of gas before with it, but the low fuel light comes on at about 475 miles and even though it still has more than two gallons left, the light being on makes me nervous. It's nice to have that 500 mile range when you are out on the road, crossing desolate stretches of road. There are a lot of those in the west, and they're my favorite roads.