Friday, January 28, 2011

Numbers Don't Lie (But They Sure Do Prevaricate)

My email inbox is the repository for a steady stream of messages forwarded to me by friends and relatives; stuff I clearly need to know about. Sometimes there are jokes, which I mostly enjoy and occasionally pass on to others. Sometimes there are inspirational or religious messages of one kind or another, which I could mostly live without; at this point in life, probably at (if not well beyond) the half-way point, I am about as inspired and/or religious as I am going to get.

There are also the "amazing facts" messages, such as the one claiming that Bob Keeshan (known better to me and millions of others who watched TV as small children in the early 1960's as Captain Kangaroo) and Lee Marvin (the actor) fought together during the battle for Iwo Jima in WWII, or the one stating that Fred Rogers ("Mr. Rogers", he of the sweater and hand puppets) was a former Navy Seal who had killed a couple dozen people in Vietnam. Actually, maybe that was all in the same email; I don't remember. But it doesn't matter, since all of those "facts" are basically anything but.

A variant of the "amazing facts" genre are the political messages. As far as I can recall, these are always from a conservative/Republican point of view. I would think there would be similar liberal/Democratic chain emails circulating on the net, but I don't think I've ever received one, if they are out there. A few of the political messages I get are of the "throw the bastards out" variety, more or less targeted at politicians in general and not at any particular party, or, once in a great while, at entities such as "Wall Street" or "big business". But the vast majority of them are attacks on Democratic policies and/or leaders that are based on some very creative interpretations of facts.

It kind of pains me to get these messages from intelligent adults. I would be embarrassed to pass on some outlandish-sounding piece of information without first checking and double-checking it. When I get one of these "amazing facts" messages (political or non-political) my standard response is to head for Google to see what I can find out, preferably from as many sources as possible. I look at the standard sites for that sort of thing, like and, but if it's a political message, I also try to find mention of it at conservative-leaning sites like as well (I'm a "fair and balanced" kind of guy). But I do so knowing what I'm probably going to find. There is the old adage, "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is." The corollary to that is that if it sounds too outrageous to be true, you are probably a fool to take it at face value.

The biggest alarm bell goes off in my head when I get a message describing how the axis of evil (Pelosi/Reid/Obama) is plotting some wickedness that will cause a world of pain to senior citizens. Anyone who follows politics even a little must surely be aware that the one segment of the electorate that consistently heads to the polls in large numbers on election day is (drum roll, cymbal crash)… senior citizens. So why would a politician of any political persuasion specifically single out older people to bear the brunt of the negative effects of some new policy? It just makes no sense.

In the past couple of days I received two forwarded political messages of the sort that is just screaming for fact-checking. What sort of sets them apart is that they use a lot of numbers to make their case. There they are, in black and white, the numbers, and they don't lie, right?

Well, maybe that's not exactly the case, on either count. First of all, I don't know what it is about these political chain emails, but they're often in anything but black and white. The text is very often in two or three different colors, in multiple typefaces and sizes. They look like they were composed by someone who only just discovered that his PC can do this and wants to exploit that capability to the fullest; if "less is more" then I guess that more must be waaaaaaaaaaay more. Even the ones that don't contain a random mix of formatting often insist on presenting their case in gigantic type, for some reason. I guess it's the written equivalent of shouting at someone who doesn't speak your language on the theory that this will somehow make him understand you better.

But second, and more importantly, numbers often do lie. Or to be more precise, they only tell part of the story or get misquoted. I give you therefore the aforementioned two email messages that arrived this week.

Message number one is reproduced below approximately as it arrived in my inbox.

It looks like someone actually read the “Change” in store for all of us??? Maybe 2012 will get us back on the right track??
Did you know that if you sell your house after 2012 you will pay a 3.8% sales tax on it?  That's $3,800 on a $100,000 home etc.
When did this happen? It's in the health care bill. Just thought you should know.
So, this is "change you can believe in"?
Under the new health care bill - did you know that all real estate transactions will be subject to a 3.8% Sales Tax?  The bulk of these new taxes don't kick in until 2013 if you sell your $400,000 home, there will be a $15,200 tax.  This bill is set toscrew the retiring generation who often downsize their homes. Does this stuff make your November 2012 vote more important?
Oh, you weren't aware this was in the ObamaCare bill? Guess what, you aren't alone. There are more than a few members of Congress that aren't aware of it either. 
Why am I sending you this?  The same reason I hope you forward this to every single person in your address bookbecause you can make a difference.

Huh! Obama is going toscrew <sic> the retiring generation! That doesn't seem like a good move for such a wily politician. I must know more. It sure would be helpful if that message referred to the part of the health care bill that imposes this outrageous burden on the elderly, but it doesn't, which is par for the course with this genre of messages. So I looked at various web sites to see what I could find.

What I learned is that first of all, there is a 3.8% tax imposed by the bill, but it's not a sales tax on real estate, it's an amendment to the tax code that creates a new Medicare tax on capital gains. A capital gain is the difference between what you paid for a capital asset (e.g. a share of stock, or a piece of real estate) and what you later receive when you sell it, i.e., it's the profit on the sale. The part of the bill that imposes this new tax is section 1402. I read it and I will be the first to admit that it is massively confusing to a mere mortal such as myself, but I can at least assure you that neither the term "sales tax" nor any reference to "real estate" appear anywhere in the text, meaning that whoever wrote that message didn't spend a whole lot of effort on research.

Let's dissect some of that. Note that this is a Medicare tax. Previously, capital gains were not even subject to Medicare taxes. Now they are. But they are only subject to the tax if your income exceeds $200,000 per year (individuals) or $250,000 (couples filing jointly). That's about 5% of all taxpayers, according to this article. And in the event you do fall into that category, you're going to give Uncle Sam 3.8% of the profit on the sale, not the total sale amount. Suppose you sold that house mentioned in the message for $400,000, but you paid $300,000 for it; your tax would be $3,800, not $15,200. But that's only if that house was not your primary residence, e.g. it was a vacation home. If it was your primary residence, the profit would fall under an additional exemption of $250,000 (individuals) or $500,000 (couples filing jointly), so you wouldn't owe anything at all.

Disclaimer: I am not a CPA, tax attorney or anything like that, so don't take my analysis at face value; do your own research (here's one good place to start). I'm just a guy who can read. And I can tell you that what I'm reading says that there's a gigantic gap between what's in that message and what the law really says. 

Let's look at that second message. This one's not as colorful, but I sure don't need to put on my glasses to read it.

The person who calculated this bit of information has been a professor at The University of West Virginia in Morgantown,  West Virginia for the last forty some years.
A clunker that travels  12,000 miles a year at 15 mpg uses 800 gallons of gas a year.
A vehicle  that travels 12,000 miles a year at 25 mpg uses 480 gallons of gas a  year.
So, the average Cash for Clunkers transaction will reduce gasoline  consumption by 320 gallons per year.
The government claims 700,000 clunkers  have been replaced so that’s 224 million gallons saved per year.
That  equates to a bit over 5 million barrels of oil.  5 million barrels is  about 5 hours worth of US consumption.
More importantly, 5 million barrels  of oil at $70 per barrel costs about $350 million dollars.
So, the  government paid $3 billion of our tax dollars to save $350 million.
We  spent $8.57 for every $1.00 we saved.

I’m pretty sure they will  do a better job with our health care, though......

This thing is an exercise in misinformation and fallacious reasoning. It applies a technique that I see in a lot of these messages, i.e., naming some authority figure that I guess is supposed to impress me (here it's a gen-u-wine perfesser—I wonder if he also has a name, and what he is a professor of—presumably it's not accounting). But let's do the math ourselves.

To produce one gallon of gasoline, the amount of crude oil you need varies depending on things like the grade of oil you are starting out with and the efficiency of the refining equipment and process you are using. According to the US Energy Information Administration, one barrel of oil (=42 US gallons) produces 19-21 gallons of gasoline. So let's be generous and say that we can get 21 gallons of gas from a barrel of oil, which is equivalent to saying that producing a gallon of gas requires two gallons of oil. If we saved 224 million gallons of gas per year, that means we saved 448 million gallons or about 10,666,667 barrels of oil (not "a bit over 5 million"—our anonymous professor doesn't seem to know the difference between gasoline and petroleum, so I guess he's not a professor of chemistry or geology, either). So if oil is $70/barrel, we saved $746,666,690 in the first year.

Notice that I said "in the first year". Our professor apparently assumes that all of those cars are going to be on the road for exactly one more year. Well, I drive a car that would have qualified for "Cash for Clunkers", and I'm still driving it, and I will probably continue driving it until it more or less falls apart. So I'll bet those cars that did get traded in under the program would have been on the road for another 3-5 years, meaning the total reduction in oil consumption is on the order of 32.0–53.3 million barrels or, at $70 barrel, $2.24–$3.73 billion.

But why use $70/barrel? As I write this, the price of a barrel of "light sweet" crude oil (the kind that's especially good for making gasoline) is around $90/barrel. That values our savings at about $2.88–$4.80 billion. Now, I'm ignoring adjustments for things like the "time value of money" and other such book-lernin' I got in that thar fancy college I went to, but suddenly this doesn't look like such a bad return on the $3 billion investment after all, especially when I consider that forecasts like this one don't foresee falling oil prices any time soon.

That "Cash for Clunkers" message also ignores the other beneficial effects of the program. The reduction in oil consumption implies a reduction in pollution, which in turn means a reduction in costs associated therewith (costs of pollution-related health problems, for example). And the program probably also kept one or two jobs in the automotive industry going longer than they otherwise would have. Those benefits play no role in our professor's analysis.

So what do we learn from this? Caveat lector, I guess. Believe what you want, but at least do the math first.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Health Care Debate: How About a Small Dose of Honesty?

I see in this evening's news that today, as promised, the Republican-led House of Representatives voted to repeal the Obama administration's health care law, the "Affordable Care Act". The Republicans' "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act" passed on a vote of 245 to 189. The bill will go on to the Democratically controlled Senate, where in all probability it will not even come to the floor for a vote but, if it does, will almost certainly be voted down, and that will be the end of that. But in the unlikely event that hell does freeze over, the President will veto it.

So what are the Republicans trying to communicate with this stunt? Well, here are a few things that they apparently want:
  • Suppose you have no health insurance; maybe that's by choice (more on this topic below), maybe not. But whatever the reason, if you were not insured before, and you have some pre-existing health condition, a prospective insurer should have the right to deny you coverage on that basis alone. (The Affordable Care Act prohibited this immediately for children and prohibits it for adults starting in 2014.)
  • If the cost of treating you for some illness or condition crosses some threshold, your insurance company should not have to continue covering that cost; from here on out you are on your own, so goodbye and good luck. (The Affordable Care Act bans lifetime caps on coverage. Annual caps are limited starting immediately and completely banned starting in 2014.)
  • If you have an individual policy, your health insurance company should be able to rescind coverage if it finds that you omitted or misrepresented information on your insurance application, regardless of how sick you are, regardless of whether that misrepresentation or omission has anything to do with your present illness and regardless of whether you misrepresented or omitted information deliberately or inadvertently. (The Affordable Care Act prohibits rescission except in the case of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of a material fact.)
Of course there are a lot of other things in the new health care law besides those three items. I've just picked out a few that I especially care about. I care about them because they say something about the kind of society we want to be. They say that either we think that access to affordable health care is a basic human right, or we don't. Now, to his credit, House Speaker Boehner says he wants congressional committees to design "common-sense reforms" that will increase coverage and reduce costs. Certainly there is room for improving the health care law. The parts regulating employer-provided health insurance, for example, strike me as pretty convoluted and confusing. But the Republicans did not begin this campaign by introducing proposals for incremental improvements; they led off with a symbolic effort to jettison the whole thing, while collectively making noises about how they will use whatever tricks they can to make sure it dies a death by a thousand cuts.

I personally do happen to think that affordable health care is a basic human right. I would venture to say that by and large, that is the consensus in every other modern industrial country I can think of. People in Japan or Denmark or Canada or Germany find it very hard to wrap their heads around the notion that in one of the wealthiest nations on earth (ours), a serious illness or severe injury leads a considerable number of its citizens to financial ruin every year. To wit: A 2009 study in the American Journal of Medicine found that 62.1 percent of bankruptcies in 2007 were the result of medical problems. A Fox News summary of the study's findings stated additionally, "More than 75 percent of these bankrupt families had health insurance but still were overwhelmed by their medical debts". That may leave you cold, but I find it pretty shocking.

I understand that providing affordable health care for all may very well mean that many may pay more for their coverage, at least in the short run. Maybe in the long run too, but I am not convinced that that must necessarily be the case. Improved access to preventive care and treatment for conditions in their early stages may reduce the cost overall by eliminating the need to treat conditions only when they have reached an advanced and much more expensive stage. But obviously it remains to be seen whether that will be the case. So maybe we shouldn't even look at the problem from an economic perspective; we should look at it from a perspective of whether this is the moral thing to do.

We can combine practical and moral perspectives and ask whether the way we provide health insurance in this country makes sense. You don't have to advocate a UK-style single-payer system to ask why this should be a business like any other. Regulate health insurers such that they can make a decent but not excessive return on investment and audit them as to how they are spending the premiums they collect in order to provide a nationally standardized minimum level of coverage (and simultaneously regulate how health care providers are compensated). Germany does this as part of their national health care program and in that country of around 80 million there are dozens of health insurance carriers and all of the Germans I know (anecdotal evidence, I know, but I am not talking about just two or three) are pretty satisfied with the level of service they get. But wait, that's socialism, so never mind.

We can also approach this from a specifically American perspective and expect that people take some responsibility of their own by requiring them to purchase health coverage if they have the means to do so. Wait, what did he say? That's American? Republicans have loudly opposed the mandate stipulated in the Affordable Care Act that individuals who earn more than a certain amount purchase insurance and indeed, it looks like the Supreme Court will soon be ruling on that. Republicans argue that it is not right to interfere with the choice of the individual to buy or not buy insurance. All well and good, but then let's be consistent. Tell that 24-year old construction worker who shows up in the emergency room carrying the three fingers he just accidentally sawed off with his circular saw that his choices are to show his proof of insurance, put down cash or a credit card or sew them back on himself. Never mind that he's young and thought he was invincible and, until this happened, never really understood the benefits of allocating a certain portion of income to prudent investments in risk mitigation. After all, we don't want to live in a nanny state, do we?

It is unsurprising that the House Republicans would call their bill the "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act." Jobs are the thing on everyone's mind these days, after all, so let's just claim that anything we don't want will destroy jobs. Too bad the connection made between job losses and the Affordable Care Act is pretty tenuous and relies on a discredited interpretation of an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office. But of course, few people are going to invest the three minutes it takes nowadays to research the actual evidence behind the sound bite. Boehner & Co. know that, which is why they are investing their political capital in slogans and scare tactics rather than in policy arguments that merit any serious debate. They also recognize that time is of the essence here; the more time the broad public has to get acquainted with the benefits of the bill, the more support it is going to garner, a trend that may already be in progress.

Here's an idea: Why don't the Republicans just come clean and admit the obvious—they simply do not accept the premise that affordable health care is a fundamental human right. Let them affirm their apparent belief that health care is just one more good to be bought by those who want it and can also afford it, and to be sold in whatever manner ensures the highest possible return on investment to those who sell it. I don't see them putting any serious policy proposal for achieving the goal of affordable health care on the table, so why don't they just come out and say that this is not a priority. (And to be clear, repeating the mantra of "just let the free market work" is not a serious policy proposal here, since an unregulated market leads to exactly the kind of situation we have now, in which no rational market actor would voluntarily take into the insurance pool those individuals who are guaranteed to prevent maximization of returns.) So if there is no credible/feasible alternative solution on offer, for my money the only logical conclusion is that no such solution is considered desirable.

So just come out and say it: the Republican party does not feel that Americans have any inherent right to affordable health care, and pursuing it should not be a national priority; maybe it would be nice to have, but the party's consensus is that there are more important things on which to spend our time and money. Let's have an honest debate about that instead of wasting our time on ridiculous theatrics and pointless debates about red herrings.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Winter's Tale

It's winter in Massachusetts. OK, so it isn't North Dakota. It could be worse. But still. I was not built for this.

I grew up in Northern California, first in the San Francisco Bay Area and then in the Sacramento Valley. My notion of "really cold" back then was when the temperature got down into the upper thirties (F) for a few days in February. Once or twice a year we might even get a thin layer of ice on the rain puddles over night, which was sort of exciting. Snow didn't come to me, except for a few extremely rare occasions when a quarter inch or so would fall. For the most part, I had to go to visit snow if I wanted to see it, for example by taking the occasional trip to go skiing in the Tahoe area.

My first real brush with "proper" winter was when I moved to Mainz, Germany in 1984. My Future Wife (that is, My Favorite Wife before she became a government-certified Wife) and I had rented a small, two-room apartment in an old house. There was no central heating. Instead, in each room there was a little stand-alone oil heater. These oil heaters were crude devices consisting of a burner that was a cast-iron cylinder about eight inches in diameter and two feet high, which was connected to a little supply line that fed oil to the burner from a tank that held something like 8 liters (that's about two gallons in real money). There was a metal stovepipe that connected the contraption to a chimney that went up through the center of the house behind a wall.

To generate heat, you opened a valve that let a little heating oil dribble into the burner chamber and opened the metal lid of the burner. Then you attempted to ignite it using these things that were sort of like a strip of thin cardboard soaked in wax, which you lit with a match and then dropped onto the little puddle of oil. Opening the lid of the burner would cause a draft through the burner and up the chimney, which would frequently cause the igniters to go out before the oil caught fire. Once you finally got a flame you closed the lid and tried to keep the oil flowing enough to generate some heat. When the tank was empty, you had to make a trip to a big tank in the cellar to get more. It was pretty primitive technology, and not particularly effective either.

That first winter that I was there we had a stretch of two weeks or so of temperatures of about -4˚ F. Those crappy oil heaters were strong enough to raise the temperature in the apartment to maybe the mid-sixties (F) during the regular winter weather, but with those freezing cold temperatures outside, the temperature inside our apartment remained just barely above freezing. We spent a lot of time in pubs and restaurants that winter. That part I liked; the coming home afterward part, not so much. But at least I survived to tell you this story.

I spent more than a dozen subsequent winters in Mainz, though mostly in living quarters that had modern heating of one kind or another. It definitely got colder on average than in my California homeland, and a couple of times each winter it would snow somewhere between two and six inches. But much of the winter the weather would kind of hover just above the freezing point, with rain or, more often than not, a kind of unending gray drizzle weather. Coupled with our relatively northern latitude, which in the depths of winter meant that it didn't really get light until about 9 AM and was dark again by 4 PM, I found that climate increasingly maddening as the winters wore on. I was always relieved when spring finally came.

MFW would always say she wanted to live in a place that had "real" winter, by which she meant icy cold and lots of snow, the kind of weather that prevailed in southwestern Germany when she was little (and which seems to have returned in recent years). I'm not so crazy about cold, but even real cold and snow seemed preferable to that interminable drizzle. Then came our move to Massachusetts. Boy, were we surprised! A classic example of the "be careful what you wish for" phenomenon.

Those sub-zero temperatures I suffered through that first winter in Mainz aren't so common here, but they're not that uncommon either. We might get a stretch of those kinds of temperatures in February pretty much any year. But mostly it stays in the twenties and teens during the day, colder at night, for much of the winter. After suffering a lot for the first few years I finally got somewhat acclimated, to the point that if the temperature gets up above freezing during January or February, reaching the same temperatures that I thought were bone-chillingly cold back in my years in the Golden State, I will find myself describing the weather as "not so cold today". As they say, it's all relative.

I learned a lot about snow my first couple of years in Massachusetts. In Mainz snow was occasional enough to be fun. In two of the three places I lived there was a building superintendant who cleared the snow for the residents, and in the third I only had to clear it once or twice from the 20 feet or so of sidewalk in front of the building, so snow wasn't much of a bother to me, logistically speaking. Not so in my new homeland. Snow and I became well acquainted.

I learned that there are lots of different kinds of snow and snowfall. Now I understand that the story that Eskimos have numerous different words to describe specific kinds of snow is probably accurate. Mostly snow can be characterized by its moisture content. At one end of the spectrum is the dry, fluffly stuff that tends to fall when the air is cold and dry. That's the stuff that's light and easy to shovel, even when you get a lot of it. At the other end is the wet, heavy snow you get when the temperature is higher and there's a lot of moisture in the air already. Even four or five inches of that stuff is a real pain to shovel, but it sticks together well for making snowmen, snowballs, snowforts, snowcastles, snowcathedrals, snowstadiums, snow… sorry, got carried away.

Another thing I learned about snow is that if it's someplace where you don't want it, get rid of it quickly. If you let it sit on your sidewalk or your driveway, walking or driving over it compacts it pretty quickly and you end up with ice that requires a lot of hard work to remove. I discovered this the hard way after the first big snowfall I experienced here. The house we lived in had a garage that was at the bottom of a short but steep driveway and after the first big snow I failed to shovel immediately. It didn't take more than a couple of days before I found my garage connected to the street by something resembling an ice rink that had been installed on about a 35˚ incline. It turned the process of getting the car into or out of the garage into a pretty hair-raising adventure.

Navigating a snowy cityscape is kind of an adventure, too. The "winter wonderland" feeling is nice right after the snow, but it quickly gives way to a landscape of grey goop, the result of people walking and driving through the snow. It doesn't look all that charming and it sticks to everything, so you try to avoid walking in it. You learn to be careful about stepping off the curb to cross the street, because that innocent-looking layer of snow just off the curb is probably not what it seems; in all likelihood it is just a thin layer of snow floating on top of a soup of road salt and melted snow. You learn this by stepping onto what you thought was solid ground and instead finding yourself ankle-deep in freezing-cold muck. If you have to cross a downtown street a day or two after a big snow, your choice is usually between either trying to leap from the curb onto the asphalt beyond these innocently disguised puddles, which invariably collect at the streetcorners, or taking your chances by clambering up and over the piles of grey goop that have been deposited along the side of the road by the snowplows and trying to venture through traffic to cross in the middle of the street.

As I write this, we are recovering (both figuratively and literally) from the second major snowstorm of the season. The first that came at the end of December left us with around 15 inches of snow. This one gave us another 15-18 inches. It's hard to say how much it was exactly because it was blowing around a lot all night. In the front of the house it was around 15-16" but behind the house it was a good two feet or so in a lot of spots.

This snowstorm was a classic "nor'easter". I love that name because saying it makes me feel like such a New Englander. I can stalk around the house yelling things like, "Pull up the lahbstuh traps, sonny, and let's head fuh hahbuh! When that noaw'eastuh hits it'll be snowin' wicked hahd!" The actual storm: not so great, because it usually means there's going to be a lot of shoveling to do.

The Calm Before the Storm

Still Calm Before the Storm

This one arrived sometime after midnight, accompanied, as is occasionally the case, by a lot of lightning and thunder between about 4 and 6 AM. A nighttime lightning storm is pretty spectacular against a backdrop of pure white. I wasn't so crazy about being unable to sleep from around 4 AM, though, because of the constant loud thunder.

Around noon the snow was still falling, but lightly, so I ventured out to start cleaning up. I didn't want to wait until the snow was over completely, because it was hard to know when that might be, plus it was still a workday and I had some conference calls scheduled for later in the afternoon. Better to get the bulk of it cleared away then, even if I might have to go out to clear the remainder away later, when it would be dark already.

Calm Once Again, But Get Out Your Shovel

For many years I did my digging out the old-fashioned way, using a shovel. If the snow was light and fluffy, it was tedious to clear but not too strenuous, and I could be done in about two hours or so even after one of those twelve-inch storms that usually come 2-3 times each winter. If the snow was wet and heavy, it might take me that long to do five or six inches, or less time only if I could get MFW to come out and help me. If the snow was both deep and heavy with moisture, I might employ a combination of threats and promises to get the offspring to pitch in.

Last year I decided to finally join the jet age and buy a snow blower. I had balked for a long time, partly because I didn't want to part with the $500-600 it costs to buy even a simple two-stage snow blower (single-stage snow blowers are cheaper, but don't do the job all that well, as one of my neighbors learned). The other reason I had hesitated was because those things are pretty big and I didn't want to be tripping over it on the 360 or so days of each year that I wasn't actually using it. But the year before last we had a lot of storms bringing a lot of heavy snow, and I was finding my lower back hurt more and more after each one, so I resolved that I was going to hang up my shovel in favor of more advanced technology.

The Inevitable March of Progress 

Even with the machine, clearing the snow from this storm still took me a good two hours. It was around 15" of the wet, heavy stuff and I shudder to think of how long I would have been out there with just a shovel, and how much my back would have ached afterward. I'm not getting any younger, you know.

Hmm, Turns Out They Did Deliver The Paper Today!

[Editor's note: Observant readers may be asking themselves, "What's that contraption on Charlie's head?" He wants you to know that it's the special headset he uses to receive orders from his home planet.]

So... Following my usual pattern, I cleared the front porch, the walkways all around the house, the driveway, the path to the compost pile and bird feeders. And then it was time for… THE WALL.

Now I need to tell you something about the friendly snowplow. The snowplow is nice because it clears the road so I can get my car to work or to the grocery store so that I can keep the economy nice and stimulated. This isn't D.C. or Atlanta, where a few inches of snow result in absolute pandemonium and paralysis. A few hours after the snow's over the main roads are clear, and in less than half a day even my little sidestreet is driveable again. The snowplowing system is pretty effective.

But all that snow has to go somewhere. Mr. Snowplow Driver is getting paid to move the snow off the road, and he really doesn't care where he puts it, and there aren't a whole lot of places he can put it. So he spends the day driving up and down the streets of the neighborhood, progressively shoving the snow further and further off the roadbed and up onto the side of the road, in a pile that grows progressively higher with each pass. He also can't be bothered to shift the plow blade a little as he approaches your driveway, so that same pile is going to be at the end of your driveway, too. The stuff he scrapes up from the road is going to be full of road salt that will keep it at the consistency of a kind of thick, salt-flavored Slurpee (or Icee, if you prefer those), and it will be well compacted by the blade. Removing it will be a little like shoveling wet cement that has almost set. Even with a machine to help you, you may be out there for an hour or more just dealing with that. You also need to remember to move it to the right of your driveway (as you face the street), because if you throw it to the left, the snowplow is going to push at least some of it back into your driveway if it comes through again.

Here's That Load of Frozen Gunk You Ordered, Sir

The snowplow has another negative side effect, which is that the blade tends to contribute to the early demise of the road. As the pavement ages and tiny cracks develop in it, water seeps in and, during our cold winter, freezes overnight, then thaws a little during the daytime, then freezes the next night, day after day after day, progressively expanding the cracks, until they reach the point where the jagged edges stick up above the surface enough that the snowplow blade catches them and rips out big chunks of asphalt, forming potholes which continue to deepen as the winter wears on.  Those asphalt chunks, incidentally, will also become one more component of the wall of crud at the end of your driveway.

In the spring, the city will send a team of six jokers with shovels and a wheelbarrow full of asphalt; five of them will lean on their shovels and smoke while the sixth uses his shovel to tamp some of that asphalt into the potholes, effecting a repair that will last for about fifteen minutes. After around ten years of this you will wonder if you have blundered into one of the poorer neighborhoods of Mogadishu as you drive down your otherwise quiet suburban street. Then one fine day a proper construction crew will show up with a lot of really big and complicated-looking machines and repave your street, and the cycle will begin anew. This is called "the circle of life". Elton John wrote a song about it.

Entering the Home Stretch

The wall I had to remove after this particular storm was around three feet tall (although it's a little hard to see from the angle of the picture above). My neighbor across the street (he of the wimpy single-stage snow blower) has it a little harder because his driveway is on the outside edge of a curve in the street. I'm not so sure how the geometry of the street works so much to his disadvantage, but somehow he always ends up with a pile that's another 30-40% higher than mine, and a bit wider at the base as well. He's an older guy who has some physical disabilities, so when I get through with my own house I usually go over and help him clear his place out. This time he had a wall about four and a half feet high (and almost that wide at the base) to be removed, so that was jolly good fun (not).

Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall

By the time I finished clearing everything, a final inch or two had fallen, so I had to go over everything one last time. I was glad to finally put all the equipment away, step into a warm house, take off my coat and gloves that were now soaked with freezing cold, semi-melted snow, pour myself a beer (yes, a cold one, ironically enough) and contemplate retiring to California.

Free At Last! (Mostly)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Mr. Weepy Takes Over

It's official: John Boehner is Speaker of the House. His first official act: Dissolve in tears, as on many other past occasions of import.

Make the mean lady stop talking!

I don't agree with Mr. Boehner politically, but his rise to where he is now from humble beginnings is pretty admirable. And I guess it's nice to see a leader who's in touch with his emotions. But do we really need the water works all the time?

The Speaker of the House is right after the Vice President in line for the presidency, according to the Presidential Succession Act of 1947. I hope we're not getting a guy who's just going to go to pieces under pressure. I imagine this dialogue:


Mr. Boehner, terrorists have attacked the campaign rally where the President and Vice President were speaking this morning. The President is in a coma and the Vice President is dead. Bombs have exploded at the Capitol and the Pentagon. We believe we know who is behind this and we have indications that additional attacks on key leaders and installations are planned. We have to take you immediately to the Chief Justice to be sworn in as President. You must meet with the cabinet and take charge of our response.
Boehner:Waaaaaaaah!!     *sniffle*

Get ahold of yourself before I take this thing
and give you something to cry about!!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Give Me Men To Match My Mountains

I saw a news item today that caused me tremendous concern. It seems that Kyrgyzstan has decided to name a mountain after Vladimir Putin. Assuming that the Kyrgyz Prime Minister gets approval from parliament, Mount Vladimir Putin, 4,500 meters in height (around 14,800 feet) will take its place near Mount Boris Yeltsin in a mountain range near the Chinese border.

Another Sputnik moment! We must achieve parity, if not superiority. I suppose that I can take some solace in the fact that Mount Vladimir Putin would be located in a country that has a name that nobody can actually pronounce. But still!

I did a little research, mostly with the help of, and now I feel better. There are lots of enormous heaps of dirt named after our recent leaders. Well, okay, maybe not directly named after them, but then we have precedents for bending the truth a little in the name of freedom.

There are lots of Bush Mountains in the US. The tallest I found is in Culberson County in Texas, 8,615 feet (2,626 meters) high. There's a Bush Butte in Montana, and lots of Bush Hills (two in Massachusetts alone!).

Why does he get so many mountains?

There are quite a few summits named Ford Mountain, the tallest one I found being in Rabun County, Georgia, at a height of 3,927 feet (1,197 meters). In Coos County, New Hampshire there is a North Carter mountain (4,459 feet/1,359 meters), a Middle Carter Mountain (4,541 feet/1,384 meters), a South Carter Mountain (4,409 feet/1,344 meters) and a Carter Dome (4,826 feet/1,471 meters). Carter Mountains abound elsewhere in the US too.

Clinton Mountains aren't in short supply either. The one in Van Buren County in Arkansas is 1,568 feet (478 meters) high. Clinton Peak in Lake County, Colorado clocks in at 13,812 feet (4,210 meters). Ooh, that's a big one!

Nixon Peak in Gallatin County in Montana rises to 6,834 feet (2,083 meters) above sea level. Reagan Mountain in Cherokee County, Texas is 653 feet (199 meters) high.

I couldn't find an Obama Mountain in the US. But fear not, loyal Democrats; there is one on the island of Antigua. It's the former Boggy Peak, renamed to Mount Obama on August 4, 2009 to honor Our President on his birthday. It's, um, 1,319 feet (395 meters) high, so just a little smaller than Mount Vladimir Putin. But I think we can do better. Mount Kenya, in the country of that name, has a peak (Batian) that's 17,057 feet (5,199 meters) high. I'll bet that if we play our cards right, there's a deal to be made there. Take that, Vlad!

You think you're soooo tall! But my
mountain is waaaay bigger than yours!