Sunday, January 30, 2011

Collecting the 50 States Commemorative Quarter Coins

OK, did any of you get started on this nonsense back in 1999 when the first state quarters were struck?

My wife, way out of character and no coin collector, decided she would save "one of each." She sent away for this big, cardboard folder that had a map on it and a little hole for every state quarter to be issued. We dilligently kept a lookout for these coins to fill up the holes. One of the many jobs I had over the years at the PO was vending machine technician, so I had a fairly large pool of coins to scan.

The program was to run through completion in 2008. By that time I'd retired, and wasn't exposed to coins much any longer. We missed what I thought were a couple of the later ones. In the meantime, I found a Puerto Rico in pocket change and wondered where that came from.

To close this project out, recently I stopped in a coin store to get UT and AK, the two presumed missing quarters. While there, I asked about PR and found out the government had gone past the 50 states and also issued a piece for DC and each of the US possessions, so I had to get one each of these for the sake of completion (or compulsion).

In the meantime, I'd picked up a blue Whitman coin folder made for these quarters. This was much more compact than the huge folder we originally had, so I undertook to transfer the coins over to it. I got all 50 coins plus DC and the territories installed and still had a bunch of empty holes. Whaaat? I've now discovered that not only am I not finished, I'm far from it. Turns out, they minted these things at both Philadelphia and Denver mints. Living out west, I have mostly D's. So now I have to find 47 P's and three D's to complete. Fooey. I may just call it good to have one design of each and poo on mint marks. After all, they won't be worth over a quarter apiece in my lifetime and maybe not for 200 years. Not to mention the ravages of time against the current value of money. In 200 years, they will likely have a purchasing power of one cent apiece.

So I guess I have to be content with admiring the different designs on the backs of these coins. Some of them, anyway. The design committees or whoever selected the individual state designs worked at varying levels of aesthetic competence. Some designs are beautiful, some are handsome, some are cluttered, some are ugly, and some are just plain stupid. Without intending to make a statement about the state involved, here are some of the designs that I like:

CT, with the Charter Oak
MS, with the magnolia blossoms
MO, with the Louis & Clark explorer paddling their canoe in 1804 with the Gateway to the West in the 2004 background
KS, with the bison and sunflower
NV, with the wild mustangs, one of my favorites
CO, with the Rocky Mountains scene
ND, with the pair of bison
MT, for sure with the steer skull and landscape in background, very nice design
ID, with the falcon, outline of state, and motto. I don't normally like designs with the state outline, but the falcon trumped that on this one. Bird depictuion could be better, though
WY, with the bucking bronco
OK, with the flycatcher (bird) in flight over flowers
AZ, with the Grand Canyon in the background and desert flora in the foreground. Very nice design with integrated but unbusy themes.
AK, nice design with the grizzly bear

The design of my own state of WA I rate as fair, depicting a leaping salmon in mid-air with Mt. Rainer in the background. Multiple themes but not busy; could be a single wildlife scene.

Now in my opinion only, the following are stinkers:

TN, which celebrates musical heritage with pictures of random musical instruments. This is a case, as with a few other states, where they chose to select a theme other than something of natural or historical importance. It could be worse.

IA, my parents's home state. This design shows a school house in a Grant Wood drawing with the motto, "Foundation in Education." An admirable concept to honor, and this is a clear example where the state chose to celebrate an idea and tradition rather than some other, tangible topic. I don't like the design.

Many states chose to put a map of their state in the design in some way. As I said before, I don't overly care for these map designs because they do not much celebrate anything but the existence of the state. NM, however, has a pretty stylish version with their Zia sun symbol state emblem super-imposed upon it.

WI has a steer's head, a round of cheese and an ear of corn on it. Need I say more?

Some states chose busy designs that would cover multiple subjects, like LA, AR, FL, IL, SC. Some of these efforts were more successfully executed than others. Some looked cluttered and busy.

A couple of the worst, only in my own opinion, are:

DC, with a picture of Duke Ellington and a piano. Now I know that Ellington was a talented and popular musician. But so many other historical events and places are connected with DC that I just have to wonder about this choice.

AL, with a picture of Helen Keller sitting in a chair. Honestly, when I first saw this coin, I thought it was a picture of "Old Sparky" the electric chair and the state was celebrating capital punishment. The artwork is horrible, and although the story of Ms. Keller is famous and touching, is that the most important thing the state is known for??

All of these designs of course represent symbolism particular to a given place. Some artists and design committees have interpreted their charge in different ways. My own preference is for something beautiful, often a single theme, that is representational of what is celebrated and not necessarily purely objective.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Domino Theory is Alive and Well

This time in the middle east. First Tunisia, now Egypt. These were both "moderate" states that had the support of the US. Mostly, these so-called moderate states have been repressive to some degree in the governance of their populations. In Egypt, Mubarak has been in office since Anwar Sadat took a bullet. Mubarak has remained in office via bogus elections and other shenanigans. He has consolidated the power of the state around himself and like any dictator, is loathe to give up his power and priviledge.

Who's next in the cavalcade of toppled despots? Saudi Arabia, maybe? The US supports these so-called moderate states for a couple of reasons. One, US foreign policy favors a benign status quo. So long as despotic leaders can keep their countries in some mode of continuing stability, the US is willing to overlook repressive governance in that pursuit. Two, these states get their nominal label of moderate in that they are not wild-eyed eager to wipe Israel off the map. They may not like Israel, but they have come to some accommodation with its existence.

The US finds some alternative form of government in these moderate middle eastern countries about as welcome as poison. In all likelihood, the new regimes will be hostile to US interests, to some extent. Envision the change in Iranian government in 1979.

Tunisia and Egypt aren't important players in the world energy situation. However, change of government in Saudi Arabia could be a very unsettling experience.

The current Saudi regime won't go down easily. All those many expensive arms that the Saudis have bought from the US over the years were acquired for purposes beyond the repulsion of external threats. The Saudi royal family and the extended oligarchy that runs the country had in mind internal threats to their regime as well as attacks from outside.

As I see it, the US is in a no-win situation in the middle east. There's no way the divergent interests can ever be reconciled. The US would like to have easy access to oil, peace for Israel, and recognition for individual human rights. It ain't gonna happen.

As to recent events in Yemen, that's not much of a story. Yemen has been in turmoil for decades. I can recall doing a current event report in junior high school on the civil war in Yemen in the 1960's.

Neighborhoods in Distress

When my sister-in-law moved here last summer, we drove her around to many places looking at homes. This tour included newer developments, those built just before or during the big bubble. These were neighborhoods in much distress; it was obvious all around. These newer homes had all been purchased at very high prices, and many had been bought by unqualified buyers. When the bubble burst, they all were underwater on the money owned on these places, and the marginal buyers were marginal employees, many of whom found themselves out of work due to recession.

In some of these places, "For Sale" signs were rife; many were pathetic attempts. Some were bona-fide listings and some were short sales and bank-owned foreclosure properties. The bona-fide listings of course were priced many tens of thousands of dollars over the distressed sales and had utterly no hope of selling. There were lots of people standing around the neighborhood, none with a pleasant look on their faces. Lots of men needing haircuts and dressed in dirty tee shirts or "wifebeater" undershirts. It was terrible and personally, I would never move into a neighborhood in such distress like that. Petty crime is probably higher than normal. Residents are low on money and have plenty of time on their hands, a recipe for trouble. Stress within the households due to financial difficulties probably generates a higher than normal level of discord with resultant fighting, screaming, etc. Some of these households double or triple up within the same house, increasing density within the neighborhood. It might be hard to find a good neighbor thereabouts; with so many wanting to leave, who knows what kind of residents come next. Lots of renters for a while anyway. Speculators have bought some of these homes on the cheap and they don't care whom they rent to as long as the money comes in. Neighbors don't matter one whit to these absentee owners.

My guess is that it will take years for things to settle down in many of these newer developments that were thrown into turmoil from the housing price collapse and recession. Eventually, prices will stabilize and more permanent owners will settle in and take root. Hopefully.

In some places, these neighborhoods will never be the same. Like in CA, where all the "good people" move out and are replaced by an underclass of deadbeats. These are people who are permanently dependent upon the largesse that politicians there have doled out to perpetuate themselves in office. CA has made itself attractive to freeloaders, so it's no surprise that they make a bee-line for the state.

Diesel and Other Exhaust Fumes

At a time when my sniffer isn't working as well as it did when I was younger, I seem to be more sensitive to Diesel and other exhaust fumes. I really notice this more this time of year when I'm driving in my car with the heater on. If I get behind a Diesel pickup, the heater intake is apt to suck up some of those exhaust fumes and route them right into the passenger compartment. During warmer weather, I can roll up the windows and escape from most of these fumes. I try to avoid driving behind Diesel-powered pickups and the few cars that are around; the big rigs don't seem to bother me as much but maybe that's because their exhaust stacks are often routed up higher.

I've never owned a Diesel-powered personal vehicle and likely never will. I understand that they deliver better fuel economy than gasoline and produce more torque but these attributes do not interest me. I'm turned away from them primarily because they are noisey and smokey. They tend to last a long time, but from the people I've known who've had them, when something does go wrong the repair bill can be many times that for repairs made to a gasoline engine.

Then there is the subject of driver technique. With big rigs, there isn't much issue with excessive accelleration, but with smaller Diesel-powered rigs there can be. Hot dog drivers with a Diesel are just as apt to tromp on the throttle as they would in a gasoline-powered car, which of course creates an even greater burst of smoke. As I understand it, the fuel economy of a Diesel is optimal (even moreso that with a gas engine) with even, gradual accelleration.

Be prepared for an increasing number of Diesel-powered personal vehicles in the future. The US government likes the idea because of the increase in fuel economy (even if Diesel often costs a little more).

I wonder how all the "Green attitude" in Europe squares with their much wider use of light vehicles powered by Diesel. A great many smaller cars there have Diesel engines. When you're in the city, those streets can be like canyons, with breezes blocked off and no relief from the clouds of Diesel smoke.

My other complaint about fumes comes from old Ford trucks that have outlived their time. These would be gas-powered, older F-100's, F-150's, and F-250's. Whenever I see one of these ahead of me on the road, I groan inwardly and know that I am about to be treated to a big, long sniff of semi-burned raw gasoline fumes. Rarely am I disappointed. These old Ford pickups with carburetors just seem to have lasted longer than anyone ever anticipated. They mostly have FE series engines; big, heavy, gas-guzzler V-8's that by now have worn-out carburetors, all kinds of crankcase blow-by, and in general, are quite tired. But they keep running so the owners "cling to them" (sound familiar?). In this region anyway, by far and away, Ford sold the most pickups in decades past, so the original numbers of Chevrolet (and GMC) and especially Dodge were smaller. Given the greater propensity for rust, the GM products didn't last as long regardless of how good the engines might be. So it's the old Ford pickups that drive me nuts with fumes.

It's funny that the Ford pickups would be so long-lived, as the heavier trucks in their product line have tended to have presented the opposite experience. Professional operators that I've known have not particularly liked heavier Ford trucks, to include C-600's, C-750's and the conventional cab types in comparable weights. Forget about over-the-road trucks; Ford gave up trying to make and sell those some time ago.