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.