Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Lakewood houses

At present, I am visiting my 87 year old mother. She still lives in the same general neighborhood that we lived in when I was growing up in the 1950's. That area is Lakewood, California, "Tomorrow's City Today" as they originally claimed. It was a large post-WW2 tract development along the same lines as the Levittowns of the east coast.

The homes in this tract were built during the period 1951-54. They were two and three bedroom homes of 1,000 to about 1,300 square feet. Over the years, many have been added on to and in some cases quite creatively. When I was a youngster, there were practically no buildings in town over one storey. The only one I can recall is the May Company, a large department store in the show-case shopping center for the community. Over the years, many of the single-storey homes have had second stories added.

When I was a youngster in the 1950's, I knew that Lakewood was different from other, mature communities. For one thing, I often stayed with my grandmother in nearby Long Beach, an older city. There, buildings had been built mostly one-at-a-time and the mix of architectural diversity was impossible even for a child not to notice. I can recall discussing this with my childhood friends. We wondered what Lakewood might look like when the replacement of originally built homes would eventually take place. Then, diversity would ensue, we thought. Well, nearly 60 years later the original Lakewood homes are still holding up well, and the diversity has largely taken the form of remodelling.

Later, as an early teen I also recall discussing Lakewood homes with a pal of mine. Our unqualified opinion of the day was, Lakewood homes were cheaply made, thrown together quickly after WW2 to satisfy an immediate demand for housing and didn't hold up well in comparison to holder homes. This was largely untrue, as events and education have borne out. To begin with, not all homes older than those made after 1945 were necessarily all that much better. Some homes have always been cheaply made relative to what more money would buy. It is true that labor and materials used to be much less expensive, but that also meant that wages in general were lower too. There is also the natural progress of construction codification and materials improvements that had taken place between, say, 1910 and 1945, which we chose to ignore. The big fallacy in our immature view of construction quality was that we couldn't have known just how far mass-c0nsumption construction quality would fall after the Lakewood homes were built.

When I think about the construction quality of the Lakewood homes now, I think of them as being built like little fortresses compared to 1970's and 1980's construction standards. Yes, many of the homes built in the 1990's and later have been very nicely put together, but at a high unit cost that we are only recently starting to wonder about.

This morning, I took a shower in my mother's 1954 house. The tiled shower stall is like a concrete bomb shelter. The bathtub adjacent to it is made of porcelain over cast iron, not white spray paint over sheet metal (that vibrates like crazy when the shower spray hits the bottom). The final luxury was having all that water gush out by the who knows how many gallons per minute, unhindered by a low-flow shower head.

As an adult, I can now appreciate some of the features of the planned city. When Lakewood was originally laid out, there were many vacant lots left open at corners of arterial intersections. As children, we sometimes played in these "vacant lots." Later, these were developed as small shopping centers where residents could shop locally instead of making long trips to somewhere else.

Another feature I now admire (and miss having lived since then mostly in places where such luxurious streets are lacking) are the wide boulevards with paved shoulders that the developers provided. In my childhood days, these expansive streets were very lightly travelled in a day when each family typically had only one car. I'm not sure the developers could've quite imagined how much traffic their wide streets eventually would be carrying. Now, the streets are loaded with traffic and driving up and down the residential side streets, they are found to be choked with parked cars in testiment to the disappearance of the one-car family.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Put the Laundromat next to the Library

This occurred to me today while I was in bed, thinking about getting up. Why not put the laudromat next to the library? That way, people could maximize the use of their precious time. They could set up their laundry chores, then while the wash is going, go next door and use the facilities at the library. Go back, repeat process for clothes drying. I just don't want to see people folding their laundry in the library.

Around my neighborhood, the library as an institution is one that is going to survive change. Unlike the post office, the library is morphing into a modern instititution with its embrace of contemporary media. They could've just stuck to traditional books and before long, they would've locked the doors and closed down. I prefer to read hard copy, but when I go to the library, the young people are mostly glued to the computers or checking out digital media. Good on the library for keeping up.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Two of my favorite handguns

Here is a picture of two of my favorite handguns.

The pistol on the left is a Glock 9mm Model 19, which I recently purchased. So far, it has lived up to the hype surrounding this gun. The weapon on the right is a caliber .357 magnum Smith & Wesson Model 28 "Highway Patrolman" revolver. I bought it new in the 1980's, sold it to a friend in the 1990's and inherited it back from him after he died a few years ago. In my hands, both of these weapons are very accurate.

The Glock is a completely modern weapon, made of advanced design and composite materials. The Smith & Wesson is of an older, very traditional design and construction. Both of these weapons have been favorites of law enforcement. The Glock is currently popular; the Smith & Wesson has had its day.

Does your sleep come easily or with difficulty?

I've always been able to get to sleep easily and quickly, as a rule but there are always the odd exceptions for one reason or another. When I was in the Army, I could drift off in the back of a deuce-and-a-half bouncing down the road. Like Lolo said, once asleep usually my sleep is deep and undisturbed, and less often, it is choppy and interrupted where I wake up and go right back to sleep 15 or 20 times. Fortunately, those are in the small minority.

When I was working, I was usually in a job position that required that I take one full hour for lunch. It doesn't take me an hour to eat. So, I developed this pattern where I would take my morning "coffee break" as late as possible, eat my lunch, then when my actual off-the-clock lunch time came around, I would go out to my car and take a nap for 45 minutes or so. I'd read a book for maybe 10 minutes beforehand, and get very drowsy. I had a little travel alarm clock in the car that I would set, but often I would just wake up naturally and go back in to work refreshed. I would say, 9 times out of 10, I would feel refreshed. On that 10th time, I might feel a bit groggy for a few minutes or so after I woke up. I did that for 25 years or more and it got to be kind of an office joke. One version was, Question: "Have you seen Gary? Answer: "Have you looked in the back seat of his car?" (because my actual lunch time didn't always start at the same time every day).

So, with the daily nap routine that set in for so long, now that I am retired, I often get drowsy in the afternoon and go upstairs "to read."

My wife often has an awful time getting to sleep. She has told me she just can't seem to turn her brain off; she lies there in bed and continues to think about this or that. It's been said that intelligent people sometimes have this problem; I guess we know where that puts me.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

An Old Cactus

Actually, two. Since I have had a compulsive collector mentality most of my life, one of the types of objects that I used to collect was cactus plants. I seriously collected these in my early to mid- teens. To this day, I still have a few survivors from this collection.

One of my pet species of cacti is the Astrophytum myriostygma. The colloquial name for this plant is "The Bishop's Cap" a name taken from the five-ribbed shape of the plant. I have two of these plants, one I acquired in 1966, and the other around 1974. They were both about the size of a half-dollar when I got them. The older one seems to have grown much more over time than the "younger" one. The older one is about eleven inches tall and the other one is still only about four inches tall.

When I moved from California to Washington state in 1987, I left my cacti at my mother's home, including the Astrophytums. There, they languished in a state of minimal care, dying slowly but steadily one by one. In January, 2007 while I was visiting my mother, I took a look at these remnant plants as I always did on such visits. I decided to cull out several (including the Astroplytums) and take them back to Washington with me. I figured that if they remained where they were, they would eventually succumb anyway, and if I took them with me and pampered them they would stand some chance of survival. These plants are native to central and northern Mexico, a dry climate. Washington state is not a natural climate for cacti, and this is why I left them in California in the first instance. I was just going to do the best I could and see what would happen.
To relocate these plants, I broke them out of their clay pots and removed the soil from around the roots. To transport them, I wrapped them in newspaper. I'd seen cacti shipped through the mail before like this, and figured it probably wouldn't hurt them for a week or two. When I got home, I replanted them in new pots with sandy soil that would assure good drainage. I place them outdoors (in a mini-greenhouse) during the "good" weather season from approximately April until September or October, then move them back into the house in a window for winter hybernation. In nature, desert cacti normally spend their hybernation in a cool, dry atmosphere. During the hybernation period, they are only given trace amounts of water to keep the roots from drying out completely.
Since relocation to Washington, these plants have thrived and grown, however slowly with plants of this nature. The younger of the two (35 years) bloomed last summer with a yellow flower. I'm still waiting for the older one (43 years) to demonstrate it's happiness.

When we look at these relatively small plants, it's hard to fathom that they could be so old. Normally, small plants do not have that kind of long life.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Death of the Post Office

We're witnessing it today. I am speaking from the standpoint of having worked in the system from 1979 until retirement in November, 2007.

It's just a matter of time. The PO is rapidly becoming functionally obsolete. Yes, we hear old timer employees saying, "I've been here for 30 years and they've talked about eliminating six day delivery before." This may be true, but all those years ago e-commerce and the internet didn't exist. The current financial crisis is just hurrying things along; the PO had big problems before that. The numbers are much bigger now; they used to talk about losses in the millions, now in the billions.

The politicians may try to resist the trend for a while, but that will only prolong the agony and continue big losses that eventually the government will have to pick up. The Congress will only have the stomach for that for so long. Rural service and small post offices are expensive and drag down the profitable service; eventually not even constituent pressure will preserve those money-losing services.

Five day service will give the PO temporary financial relief. It only makes sense to compress smaller volumes into a shorter delivery time span. Forget receiving higher pay for more work on each remaining day; by that logic, pay should have gone down in recent times when volumes decreased. Don't expect weekends off; five day delivery is about increasing efficiency, not increasing worker satisfaction. The vast majority of the public under the age of 65 really doesn't care if a day of delivery service is eliminated.

The other bad news for postal labor is that the trend is away from highly-paid, low skilled labor. The time for paying someone $60K a year to stick letters in holes will be coming to an end one way or another.

The PO won't die tomorrow, but it's difficult to imagine a postal service in ten years that looks like the one that exists now.

Part of the problem with making meaningful change in the PO is that it’s highly institutionalized, sclerotic, and paralyzed. There are rice bowls to be protected at every level. It’s an organization that has a long history of working by a well-established, voluminous set of rules and regulations (including collective bargaining conditions) and a strong culture of routine. This makes change come very slowly in a modern society that becomes more accustomed to rapid change daily.

Being an instrumentality of the government works against meaningful change in the PO as well. This condition of over-regulation is one that suspects everyone of trying to steal a nickel, but overlooks being hi-jacked of billions. Then there’s the political input from many different constituencies that resist change for political reasons that have nothing to do with business.

Let us not forget the direct mail industry who hires gangs of lawyers to lobby in DC. OH, they cause change for sure. They are the driving force that changes business mail rates and rules to their advantage and that rob the PO of revenue.

Five day a week mail service makes sense for the PO in the current fiscal atmosphere. However, by the time all the special interests get to put their chop on it, implementation will be tardy and more financial losses will have piled up.

The biggest thing working against a successful future for the PO is the social change that is going on. This change is hard to work against. Here’s a little story to illustrate. I was in a pawn shop a few months ago, killing time. I used to like to go in such stores to look at the various watches in the display cases. I asked the sales clerk in this shop, “Where are all the watches?” as I couldn’t seem to find any. She replied, “We don’t take them in anymore.” When I asked her why, she said, “Young people don’t need a watch because they all have cell phones and there is a clock on the cell phone.” After that, I started looking at young people’s wrists and sure enough, not many watches were worn. It’s the same deal with the PO. Young people don’t need it, for the most part. They pay bills online, they communicate with friends and family online, and they don’t subscribe to many publications online because the information they need, they get from the internet. The occasional small Ebay package that they may receive isn’t enough to keep the PO going. At one time in the United States, there were hundreds of buggy whip makers. When the horses went away, so did the need for buggy whips. As time goes by, the need for services changes.

Oh, it’s possible that by some unforeseen event, this trend could reverse. There could be a thermonuclear device go off in the stratosphere over North America, and the resulting EMP (electro-magnetic pulse) would disable 60% of all electronic devices. If this were to happen, the need for hard-copy delivery would re-emerge. Could this happen? Yes. Is it likely? Not very.

Now as to the subject of skilled and unskilled labor. When I retired from the PO, I had put in 35 years as a craft employee, so what I am going to say here is not meant to insult or offend. When a person hires into the PO, that person doesn’t need to bring a skill to get hired. The PO trains that person in their duties. When a person leaves the PO, the skills they acquired there are not salable in the commercial labor market. That basically defines unskilled labor. Those employees who work within the body of craft employees who have a college degree are the exception, not the norm. Their education was not a condition of postal employment. Their being postal employees probably suggests that they made bad choices earlier in their lives. A craft employee with a GED can stick letters in holes as well as someone with a bachelor’s degree. My own experience is that often the less intelligent employee is more productive, because the more intelligent one is sometimes apt to figure out ways to game the system.

The PO has been a Golden Goose of blue collar labor since 1971, and a refuge for many to make a decent living. That doesn’t mean it’s going to go on forever.

There was a postal service prior to 1971 and that was the United States Post Office Department. It was a department within the executive branch and was completely government controlled. Craft employees under the POD were paid under some of the lowest General Schedule (GS) rates. Postal employees were notoriously underpaid and in general it was a place lots of people didn't want to work. Employees took the pay they were given; there were no negotiated COLAs or contractual raises. Once in a while, they would get a small raise with the rest of the GS employees.

There were work stoppages and localized paralysis of the USPOD in 1969 and 70 and it was considered a "crisis" at the time. The solution President Nixon and his advisors came up with was to create the USPS, and I'm sure that the power that eventuated to postal organized labor was not originally foreseen. Just like Nixon could not foresee China later dominating world trade after he "opened the door" to China during his administration.

If the US government had killed the POD in 1971, it wouldn't have been as big a deal as phasing out the USPS would be now. Back then, there weren't a bunch of interest groups to keep it going as there are now, including craft labor unions. Weak union representation existed, but there was no collective bargaining and no National Agreement.

Well, the Congress giveth and the Congress can taketh away. I've wondered why USPS management keeps signing contracts that run longer than a year. I've decided that those on high probably feel that contracts can be broken, especially by Congress.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Two books I've read recently about WW1

1. "Germany in the Great War," by Laurence V. Moyer. This book is written by an American scholar, but views the war from the standpoint of the German side. It covers the origins of the war, the military aspect, and the situation on the home front in Germany about which not much is known in the US. The end of the war and its political ramifications are also covered. The author has an incisive way of informing his reader about details, while weaving them into the whole of the history. He does not dwell on individual battles in WW1 except to demonstrate examples, but he does outline the changing thrust of German strategy in the war with explanations behind that strategy.

From the German perspective, here were the war aims:

1914: Opening of the war and the initial offensives

1915: Offensive against Russia in an attempt to eliminate the second front

1916: Offensive at Verdun in an attempt to defeat the French in a drive on Paris, causing the British to withdraw from the war

1917: Submarine offensive in an attempt to starve the British to the bargaining table

1918: After defeating the Russians in February, the spring offensive was the big push to defeat Britain and France before the weight of the US could be brought to bear in the war

1919: After the overthrow of the monarchy, the German republic sought to obtain the best possible peace terms with the Allies

This book is close to 400 pages long but the interesting material made me want to keep going at it to the finish.

2. "Storm of Steel," by Ernst Juenger. This book is based on a diary kept by the author as a German soldier in WW1. This is considered the vanguard work written by a participant on the German side, having been first published in 1920. In contrast, Erich Maria Remarque's famous work "All Quiet on the Western Front" wasn't published until 1929.

German soldiers who had fought in WW1 experienced something along the same lines as American Vietnam war veterans did. This parallel is that in the immediate years after the conflicts in which they participated, discussion and discourse about their experiences wasn't popular. It wasn't until the mid to late 1920's that German war veterans became "rehabilitated" and mainline literary efforts about the war were published.

Once the reader ploughs through an overly-lengthy introduction of this book that explains its publication history, then gets into the real meat of the book, it goes very quickly. The author started his military service not long after the start of the war. He enlisted as soon as the war started, and upon completion of his training was posted to the 73rd Infantry Regiment ("Hanovarian Rifles") with which he served throughout the war. His unit was moved up and down the western front, from Flanders, to the Artois, to Lorraine, back to Flanders, and to Cambrai. After his first furlough, he reported back to the home depot of his regiment and was sent to officer cadet training. Upon return to the line, he was in the rank of ensign which is a kind of officer apprentice in OJT beforming becoming a lieutenant. He was a well decorated officer at the close of the war, having survived four years of combat on the western front, a remarkable achievement with which the reader will surely agree after reading of the type of warfare in which he fought.

Juenger doesn't hold back on the horrors of combat in the trenches, but informs his reader in a matter-of-fact way that isn't disturbing if that reader is already aware of the nature of combat in WW1.