Sunday, November 27, 2011

Your 168-hour no-car challenge (August 25, 2008)

Current mood:thoughtful

The following is the prepared text for a speech I gave at Toastmasters on Friday, August 22, 2008. The actual speech was done from notes.


Tomorrow morning, you will pick up your car keys, pull your sock drawer all the way out, drop the keys in the very back, and not touch them again for 168 consecutive hours, seven entire days. Could you? Think of all the gas money you'd save! But how would you?

To act on this challenge, you first need to do some research. Try working up to this over a few weeks' time. The way I see it, it's a three-step process. First, analyze your travel needs. Second, scope out your alternatives. Third, develop a plan of action. Let's look at each of these in detail.

Analysis. Where must you go, and when? Work. Shopping. Of course, return home. Include the "should" and "like-to" destinations, like civic meetings and Toastmasters. Worship is somewhere in those three lists, as well.

Options. How would you get around? Public transit. Bicycle. Carpool. Walking. Mix & match.
  • Start with transit. How close are those locations to a transit stop? Where do the routes go? When do the buses run? How and when do you pay fare? Learn this and practice.
  • Bicycle. Less an information need, more an equipment need. Do you have a bike in good working order? Take that rusty old bike out of the basement and have a bike mechanic check it over. Also invest in a good lock, head and tail lights, and a helmet. Less important but very helpful are fenders, a basket, a mirror, and special travel clothing.
  • Carpool. Do any already exist at work? How about in the next building over? Talk it up, build a network, maybe offer rides to neighbors and co-workers to start one. In the Pittsburgh area, use the regional carpool clearinghouse, (888) 819-6110, or the website
  • Walking. Where is it safe to walk? Do you have good travel shoes? Maybe leave your good dress shoes under your desk, and go back and forth in footwear that can handle the puddles, dirt, and winter slush.
  • Mix & match. Here's where you get creative. "Bike-bus-bike" would be to bike to the bus stop, mount the bike on the bus's bike rack, ride the bus to a stop near work, unmount the bike, and ride the bike for the last mile or so. A mile is nothing on a bicycle. Or maybe try "bus-carpool", where you carpool part of the way with neighbors, then hop a bus for the rest of the journey. I myself used "walk-bus-bus-walk" for a few years -- a long hike to one bus, change buses Downtown, then an even longer walk from that bus to get to work.
Planning and implementation. Learn the options and practice them. Try several alternatives. Figure out the travel time for each. For the bus, buy a weekly pass and try riding for several days. For the bike, read the local cycling community's bulletin boards (this, in Pittsburgh) and forums for tips on the trails and side streets for avoiding traffic, hills and trouble spots. For the carpool, join one, even if on a temporary basis. If you end up driving on an occasional week, your no-car week would be during an off-week for driving.

In conclusion, it's a guarantee that you will learn a lot about transit options and bicycling, and become more sensitive to the challenges that pedestrians, cyclists and bus riders face every day. You will learn who near you goes where you go. Keep at it. The first week, you will be learning the ropes. The second week, you will be trying the alternatives. The third week, you will be fine-tuning your options. Maybe by the fourth week, you will be ready to really go car-less for one full week. Keep at it, as weather and seasonal changes require different strategies, and practice makes perfect.

Good luck, and have fun trying!

Bicycling with a full load of groceries (August 15, 2008)

Current mood:accomplished

Rarely will I post two blogs in one day, since MySpace runs them together without a separator, but since this topic is very much a continuation of the last, and I have a spare moment, here we go.

Today I bicycled only four miles, but in that time: (a) Made a trip to the bank, (b) Cooled my heels in a coffee shop to work on a project (i.e., I needed solitude), (c) Did some impulse shopping at a record store, and (d) Bought over $20 of groceries, including ice cream, and most importantly, (e) Lugged it all home on the bike!

The record -- and I do mean a big, black, round vinyl record -- was entirely an impulse buy. A Florence! Foster!! Jenkins!!! Recital!!!! (RCA Victor LRT-7000) is a 10-inch release ... well, maybe not so much a release as they let it escape. It's not a joke; she actually recorded this in sober seriousness. Some of it is on YouTube; hear for yourself ... if you dare! Or see Wikipedia for just the facts, ma'am. Anyway, I saw that sitting there and just couldn't pass it up, as it's been out of print for decades. She died in 1944.

Adding the record to the pile of stuff I took to the coffee shop to work on, I then cycled over to the grocery store for a couple of things. On the way, while still on the bike, I picked up a stray shopping cart and pulled it half the length of the plaza.

I got about $30 of groceries. I picked up a paper grocery bag on my way in and put it in the cart (along with helmet and orange vest), so I knew when I'd be overfull. Even so, at checkout, I decided to pack the bananas and green peppers in with the record and the project (mainly a big envelope). I put my paper bag in a plastic bag so I could carry it on my arm.

The biggest problem was that the straps to the plastic grocery bags shriveled up into painful, wire-thin cords that tried to cut my arms in half. I really need to get a basket for at least one bike. The weight of the two bags, one mainly groceries, the other half groceries, half paper, by weight, at least balanced. However, it was uncomfortable to carry, difficult to steer, and impossible to shift. After a little fiddling and a couple false starts, I was on my way. It's only a half mile on Perry Highway, maybe five minutes, and once underway I was fairly stable.

Practice, practice. I'll hook up a basket and try it again. It can only get easier from here on out. But as I said before, it can be done.

Bicycling with the Devil: McKnight Rd and Wexford Flats (August 15, 2008)

Current mood:accomplished

Had to run two errands yesterday. My daughter was up at the high school and needed a small package delivered, followed by picking up some paperwork for my wife at her business's office. The high school is about six miles north of me. The office is about four miles south of me. So, I crunched the numbers: 6x2 + 4x2 = 20, my car gets 20 mpg, and what with gas being essentially $4/gallon, that's $4 I did not care to spend in order to transport a total of a pound and a half of material in a plastic bag. OK, bicycle, we're going for a ride.

The problem is that the high school is up on Wexford Flats, the level part of US19. First of all, it's up a long hill. Second of all, it's an insanely busy four-lane road, lacking shoulder, sidewalks and a median. Car dealers, strip malls and fast food joints line both sides. It's posted 35, and while cars tend to stay fairly close to that, it's only because there are so many of them they're scared of one another and so slow down to that out of necessity. As far as bicycles go, it's simple insanity. Nobody in their right mind would bicycle along Wexford Flats.

Well, I'm right handed, which means my left mind predominates, so off I went with bag in hand. Rather than climbing the big hill on Perry Highway, which features one of those Someone Died Here memorials, I ducked over to Old Perry Highway, which is fairly traffic free. At the top where it merges with the main road, I simply duked it out with the traffic.

Here's how I handled Wexford Flats: I stayed about 30 inches off the curb, the better to avoid the majority of the gravel, glass and dead animals, but the traffic lane is wide enough to accommodate passing cars, too. There's a back entrance to the high school for southbound traffic, with a No Left Turn sign for northbound traffic. Well, too bad. Self-preservation trumps legality, so when I got a break in the traffic, I made the left.

Ten minutes later, item delivered, I tackled Part II: A quick shopping trip. This involved going farther north on Perry, only a hundred yards, but then it involved making a left turn. At the exit lane for the high school, I had the red light, but hopped off to press the pedestrian crossing button. This had the effect of holding Perry traffic an extra 15 seconds or so. As soon as Perry went red, I took off northbound, in the left lane. I just got to the entrance to the strip mall as the light behind me went green. Fortunately there was a hole in southbound traffic, so I grabbed it and ducked across.

That accomplished, I set out for my wife's office. Southbound Perry was busy, as ever, but with my blinky taillight and blaze orange vest, everyone managed to not kill me. I decided to try the big downhill off the Flats, and really it wasn't too bad. There's a nice wide shoulder going downhill -- entirely absent going uphill (had there been one, that guy wouldn't have gotten killed) -- and since I decided to try McKnight Road, I did not have to make a mid-hill lane change. Downhill car speeds routinely hit 60.

McKnight Road starts at this split, but the highly built up commercial district does not start until the Ross Township line about three miles south of that. What I was interested in was how difficult it was to cycle the McCandless Township part of McKnight, now that I have some serious cycling experience. When I tried it a few years ago, I was scared silly. Yesterday, though, I just rode merrily along. There's a pretty wide, paved shoulder for most of it, wide enough to ride on, at least, only a couple of very brief pinch points. It starts out as four lanes, then expands to six at Cumberland Road. I stayed on it until the northern Babcock Boulevard peel-off, just south of Perrymont, as I was going down Babcock anyway. All in all, McKnight was not that terrifying, but I would not want to do it in bad weather, at night, or both.

From office to home, it was routine. Babcock back up to Three Degree, then to Perry and Perrymont, to home, a ride I do a couple times a week.

Times: It took 22 minutes to cycle to NASH (about six miles), 25 from the strip mall to the office (close to 10), and another 15 to get home (about four). The ground slopes generally from north to south, so except for one rise on McKnight south of Cumberland, it's mainly downhill going south. The entire trip was about 90 minutes, including inside time in all three places.

It's a lot of work, I guess, to replace an automobile with a bicycle, but the problem is really the spread-out-ness of our society. Nothing is close to anything else, and rarely do we take a car out of the driveway and not put 20 miles on it. But the very fact that I can do this shows that it can be done. It's just a matter of facing up to having to do it this way. Nobody is going to want to, but it can be done. And here's the bad word: It should.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

$4 gasoline. Whaddya gonna do? (August 12, 2008)

Current mood: jubilant

In the banter at the mechanic's shop yesterday, where I'd dropped off the car for an oil change and other minor work, this question was posed to me.

Of course, I'd gotten to the shop to pick up the car in the same manner as how I got home after dropping it off: By bicycle.

Um, isn't it rather obvious that that's "whatcha gonna do" about $4 gas? Myself, I put almost 100 miles underneath me in a bit over a week's time, and as with everything, practice helps. I've gotten rather bold about "taking the lane", i.e., getting right out in the left 1/3 of the driving lane when the need requires, such as making left turns, choosing lanes in a weave area, hell, even being in a weave area.

It helps that I always wear a blaze orange vest, and have super bright head and tail lights. I also avoid doing something stupid, like pulling in front of someone who's going too damn fast. Near lights, though, cars are not moving all that much faster than me, so I take the lane. For y'uns natives, turning left off of southbound Perry Highway onto Three Degree Road, near Willi's Ski Shop, is one of these places. So is turning into Pines Plaza from Perry southbound, both of these being a mere mile from my house, and on my way to the city, routine shopping trips, etc.

So, yeah, get out there and ride a bike. Get equipped properly. Be bold, not afraid.

People tell me caviar is expensive, but I don't buy the stuff, so I wouldn't know. However, the same idea applies: Gasoline is only expensive if you buy it.

Three Rivers Storytelling Festival 2008 (August 14, 2008)

Current mood: relaxed

What can you say about a fun activity that's not only free, but you get to hobnob with the main entertainers? Such was the Three Rivers Storytelling Festival. For two days (Friday and Saturday), I spent as much time at Northland Library as I could spare, lying on the grass by the tent they'd set up outside, listening with rapt attention as some of the best storytellers in the country told some of the most amazing tales. I laughed, cried, was shocked, was reminiscent, feeling every emotion in the book, as each teller weaved a stream of words that took us to different worlds, different times. The weather was beautiful, which helped, only one heavy shower mid-day Friday to chase us all under the tent. Another set of stories was going on inside the library building, which itself was open for regular business.

What amazes me now is how little of this can be seen online. I looked up Dan Keding, Dovie Thomason, Alan Irvine, Joe Wos, and Bil Lepp, the featured performers, on YouTube, and found almost nothing. Bil Lepp has a couple, poorly filmed by someone. Joe has a small video about his ToonSeum, but nothing about him in action. Dan, Dovie and Alan, though, have not a thing on YouTube. (Update, November 24, 2011: Dan, Dovie, and Alan all have a few YouTube videos, though there is another well-known Alan Irvine in the soccer world; please ignore those.)

The thing is, you just have to go to one of these. Sit there. See it. Videos do not do it justice. Here at 3RSTF, you could sit 10 feet or less from the performers, if you wanted. Most of them had more than a couple 45-minute concerts (I guess that's what you'd call them) each day. Some were geared for young kids, some for older kids, some for adults. Didn't matter. They were all wonderful.

The late-evening ghost stories on Friday were among the best, but that wasn't all of them, as local teller Sean Miller did a few more Saturday morning.

Chicago teller Dan Keding certainly knows how to weave a tale and bring everyone along. He occasionally uses a guitar or banjo or other instrument, but all that's really needed is his own voice. He told of growing up on the South side of Chicago in the 1950s, and what it was like to play baseball in an alley less than 30 feet wide but a block long. His story of "Bobo and the Baseballs" tells of how the game was over if the ball went into one yard, in which an Irish wolfhound would intercept the ball and deliver it to its owner, disappearing into the house, never to be seen again. There's considerably more to the story, though, which, while I cannot possibly try to retell it here, in essence boils down to a couple of brave boys trying to get the ball back, and not only succeeding, but making lifelong friends in the process. It's a beautful tale, which may move you to tears at the end.

It was funny to watch these performers interact with one another. Dovie Thomason and Bil Lepp needled one another like a brother-sister pair who at once can neither stand one another's presence nor bear to be apart for one second. You just cannot find that kind of repartee anywhere. It's the chemistry of the moment, and just as entertaining as the stories themselves. They weren't even onstage and had the crowd in stitches, at least those close enough to them to hear the needling.

I sure hope this tradition continues. This was the 8th year. Storytelling is not a lost art form, but it is not a mainstream one. It's too easy to flip on the tube or paw around the 'Net. It takes some getting used to sitting through a story, if you're not used to the realm. But anyone can tell a story, and anyone can listen. Most importantly, we can all learn from one another's stories. As Dan Keding concludes one of his, "You cannot hate a man if you at least know and understand his story."

Passing the midpoint of summer (August 4, 2008)

Current mood: awake

We're not yet at the end of summer, but we've crossed that halfway point. How can I tell? I open my ears. During the day, I've heard the cicadas chirring away, which goes on half the summer, but as dusk approaches, there's another sound: Katydids.

Katydids, for those who don't have these wondrous bugs in their midst, make a noise that sounds a whole lot like running your finger along a comb real fast: rrrp rrrp (pause) rrrp rrrp rrrp (pause) rrrp rrrp rrrp (longer pause) rrrp rrrp. It sounds that way because that's what they're doing, zzrrrping a comb on their legs. It's a pleasant noise, really, even if it does go all night long. You only hear them, though, after the first of August, so when you do, it means the end of summer is near.

Bicycling to a concert (August 1, 2008)

Current mood: adventurous

First Fridays at the Frick is an ongoing concert series here in The 'Burgh. The evening of the first Friday in June, July, August, and September, bring your picnic basket and a blanket and a bottle of wine if you like, sit down on the grass, and listen to a nice little concert. Location is The Frick Art & Historical Center, in the Point Breeze section of the city.

Last night's concert was the Pittsburgh Symphony Brass, so even though the rest of the family was tied up, I wanted to go. Problem: No car. No problem: Have bike. It's only 14 miles, and the weather was beautiful. So I biked.

The trip did not get off to a good start, though. Not 10 minutes out, I realized I lost my headlight. The fool thing has been trying to pop off at least once a trip for the past month, but this time, I didn't see where it came off. I'll give it a good look in the morning, but I'm assuming it's gone. Drat. The light itself was quite nice, but a bottom-of-the-line light means you get bottom-of-the-line attachment qualities. Meaning it parted company with its mounting at the first bump, branch or bus bike rack it got near.

The 14-mile trip took just over an hour, not bad considering that I had one major climb, from the Allegheny River at 40th Street up to Penn Avenue. Sure I was sweaty, but I brought my water bottle. If you ride a bike, you expect to sweat. Especially if it's 80+ degrees out.

Entering the concert, I bolted my bike to a sturdy fence, then sat down to enjoy the concert.

At intermission, I checked out the two museums on the premises -- one for antique cars, one for art. Always changing, always impressive. Also both free, as is the concert -- of course with a donation bucket at every door.

Coming out of the second museum, it was starting to get dark and I saw lightning in the distance, so decided to cut short the festivities and get on the road. Not having a light meant I would be on the road in the dark. My back light was still there, but the concern was in not being seen by oncoming traffic.

Thus I had two problems: Do I chance it in the dark heading straight home, or would it make more sense to head for Downtown and catch a bus? Observing the lightning, I thought Downtown was the better option. If I do get caught in a storm, I can duck into at least a bus shelter, better yet a restaurant, to wait it out.

Turns out I was headed straight for a storm, but thankfully I got on the road just in time. I made it all the way Downtown with nary a raindrop, but within five minutes of my arrival, it was raining, and soon enough it was pouring.

I had a good long wait Downtown. Apparently I had just missed both 10 p.m. trips that would get me close to home, so stood there for most of an hour. Storms passed by on both sides, but I stayed dry throughout.

The 1D showed up, but didn't have a rack. Ten minutes later a 12A arrived, and did have a rack, so off I went. A half hour later I was off the bus a mile from home, and 10 minutes after that I was all the way home. Riding Perrymont was not too difficult, except when a car came at me. Its headlights momentarily blinded me, which is a problem on a dark road at night without a light.

Anyway, aside from the lost light, it was a successful trip, one I hope to repeat again soon.


Follow-up #1: This was followed about 48 hours later by bicycling to Squirrel Hill, and back. I might've bused back, but forgot the bus pass, so pedaled the entire trip, both ways. That'd be about 15 miles each way, a nice little ride. When I got home, I needed a shower, dinner and a nap, but I'm not sore.

Follow-up #2: Yay, I found the light. It took about 20 minutes of retracing my steps, but there it was, intact and operational. So now it's going back on the bike, but taped down so it will stay put.

So easy to do a good deed (July 24, 2008)

Current mood: happy

Twice in two weeks, I reunited a lost item with its owner. All I had to do were: (a) Pay attention, (b) Go slightly out of my way, (c) Follow through.

Yesterday, I was driving down Perry Highway on a string of errands when I saw a whole bunch of papers flying around. All 8.5x11 office paper. As I pulled up to the next light, which was red, I saw a portfolio lying in the street. Since traffic was clear, I jumped out, grabbed it and a few papers, and jumped back in the car since the light changed. I pulled into a parking space, checked quickly for a phone number or a business card, found none, so went into the store I was in front of to complete my first errand. Coming out of the store, I looked a little harder for some identifying papers, and finding a business card that seemed to match, called the number. Yes, the man who answered had just discovered the portfolio missing, and was already on his way back to retrieve it. I described my exact location, and set about picking up more of the paper still flying around. In two minutes, he had his portfolio back. The whole affair took maybe five extra minutes.

Last week, I was bicycling into Downtown, when I spotted a small address book by the side of the road. It had not been there long. Upon arriving home later, I called the owner, who had conveniently put her name in the front. Meeting up physically was not going to be as easy, so I just popped it in the mail. What's 80 cents postage, really? I can recover that cost just by walking through a couple of parking lots and picking up loose change.

It really does not require much to help your fellow man, even if you do get a nasty horn from behind when the light turns green and you're retrieving something in the street.

CHAOS: Can’t-Have-Anyone-Over Syndrome (July 21, 2008)

Current mood: stressed

Out of town company coming, and the house is a wreck. And I have an interview tomorrow. I have no time for blogging, so this will be short.

I do have a method for trying to get the house clean, based on the book Sidetracked Home Executives, by Pam Young and Peggy Jones (website). Here's a synopsis (though the book is a riot to read!): Get a card file box and a pack of 4x6 cards, some white, some various colored. On a sheet of paper, make a list of all the routine tasks that get done around the house, and categorize them into Daily (yellow cards), Once A Week (blue or green cards), and Once A Month (white). Some of my daily cards are Wash Dishes, One Load Of Laundry, Take Care Of Cat, and so forth. Some of my weekly cards are Take Out Garbage, Grocery Shopping, Clean Up One Small Appliance (like wiping down the coffee maker), etc. Once A Month cards include cleaning windows, cleaning out the refrigerator, stuff like that. Index tabs (1-31, Sun-Sat, and Daily) are necessary, too. I've made some minor modifications, like pink cards for high-importance daily tasks (e.g., check calendar, attend to a maximum one "Must Do" task, etc.).

Writing each task out, one to a card, I sort by type and distribute them evenly through the week and month. Then, on any given day, I never have more than the usual dozen or so daily things, one or two weekly tasks, and at most one monthly task, hanging over my head. If I miss stuff one day, I can usually just resume with the next day's cards and do them, and the place looks presentable enough. If I have the time and energy, I might tackle one or two leftovers from a day or so ago, but most of them, I can let them ride.

The initial card writing is the only time-consuming task. Then, on the first of each month, I set aside that day for cardfile maintenance -- new cards, corrections, rewrites, etc. Most of the cards don't take more than a few minutes apiece to do, so it really does help keep order and avoid chaos, I mean, C.H.A.O.S.: Can't-Have-Anyone-Over Syndrome.

It's a way to keep from being overwhelmed when there's just too much to do. Like right now. Aauughh!!!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

No time for a proper blog, so... (July 16, 2008)

Current mood: grumpy I will write a couple of blogettes. (Mini-blogs? Blog Lites? whatever...)

Bus tickets vs. the bus pass. My son has the bus pass to make his daily trek into the city to go to school, so I'm back to using tickets. I find this very limiting. With the pass, I don't ride buses, I ride the system. Transfers, double transfers, bike-to-bus-to-bike, bus halfway home ... Geez, those just don't seem so desirable when each time I get on, I'm essentially paying $2.60, the price of a single Zone 2 ride here in Pittsburgh. Just to ride two blocks is a Zone 1 ride, and even that's $2.00. Yeah, we need a "day pass" in this town. I'd pay $5 or whatever to ride all day.

Buying a motorcycle. I have an opportunity to get a 150cc Chinese scooter. It'd help on days when I would need to get back and forth at road speeds, as opposed to bicycle speeds. (Nearly every trip out is by bicycle these days.) I grew up on small-engine Hondas -- 70cc, 125cc, 175cc, 185cc, 250cc, at one time or another, mainly road-legal dirt bikes -- so I'd be quite at home on one of these little Chinese NST bikes. I look at all these hogs going by, even moderately large bikes like 750cc four-strokes, and wonder, why would I need all that power? I'm going to spend nearly all my time on two-lane, 35 mph streets, mainly moving my own carcass down the road. Back in summers between college semesters, I might pile 5,000 miles on one of those little Hondas, so I'd be happy as punch to zing along six miles of Perry Highway, getting 80 mpg. Again, though, standing snow might be a problem. Then again, maybe not. I do a little research and figure it out in the next four, five months.

Gas prices. Does anyone really believe gas prices are going to come down any significant amount? Yeah, they might dip below $4 for a time, but really, get used to it. I don't see prices EVER coming down, very much, for very long.

One more time, people: JFSD: Just Fucking Stop Driving! (The F-bomb intensive is put there on purpose to, um, drive home the concept that we truly are screwed unless we change our ways, and I do not care if you do not like it, "it" being either the concept or the F-bomb.)

Wind to hydrogen. This country has a lot of wind power not yet tapped. Wind is sporadic, though. Sometimes there, sometimes not. What it would be really good for is splitting water into elemental hydrogen, which can then be compressed and distributed like CNG (compressed natural gas), i.e., ethane, what comes out of your furnace or stove. (OK, properly, home gas is not compressed. CNG is used in natural gas trucks and fleet vehicles.)

None less than T. Boone Pickens, the oil man, thinks we should be harnessing the wind, big time. The entire state of North Dakota, it is said, has enough wind to power every home in North America, and one day last week the entire state was under a high wind advisory. Just think how much hydrogen can be made available with all that wind! It would take a few years to replace all the petroleum engines with hydrogen power, but it would also take a few years to construct all the wind plants needed to power them. So why don't we get started? Like now?

ZipCar. I'm wearing a ZipCar T-shirt. ZipCar is a modified car-rental operation in central Pittsburgh such that you rent a car for a couple hours at a time to run an errand, and bring the car back. You pay a couple dozen bucks a year for the privilege of being able to use a ZipCar, then $10ish an hour to actually use one. So, around town, you use the bus to get around most of the time, use the bicycle to go where the bus cannot take you, and if you really need to haul a bunch of stuff or people, you borrow a ZipCar. Free up THOUSANDS of dollars a year in not having to house and feed a private fleet of cars.

Bulldoze Cranberry, or they'll be the slums of 2040. Cranberry Township, in southwestern Butler County, about 15 miles north of me, is suburban sprawl on steroids. Since I-279 opened in 1989, making it easy to drive the 25 miles into Downtown Pittsburgh, they've paved over so damn many acres with strip malls, full size shopping malls, and subdivisions, it isn't even funny. Well, it's all about to die, as we head to $10/gallon-and-beyond gasoline. I said as far back as 1993 that I wouldn't take a house up there if you handed it to me with the mortgage paid off. I think the whole place should be bulldozed and the forest replanted. Sure those houses are beautiful, but they're the slums of 2040. In 2040, I will be 82 years old, and just might live to see how right I am. All the uppercrust and intelligentsia will have moved back into the cities, leaving the undesirable areas for the undesirable people, still owned by the people who own them now (because they couldn't sell them) but who moved back into the city (because they could no longer afford the commute). See how right I will be if we get to $25/gallon gasoline by 2015 and the slum-ness of those outer suburbs happens THAT fast!

Why else that is likely to happen is that the majority of those commercial buildings are not designed for long-term existence. Just along William Penn Highway in Monroeville, nearly every building that existed in 1982 when I moved there has been replaced, and none of those was more than 30 years old then. If all these strip malls built in 1999, give or take 10 years, ends up being in a less than desirable area in 20 or 30 years, but was not expected to last more than 20 or 30 years, they will all start falling apart, start looking like a slum, since nobody will be able to afford to replace them. Kinda like inner city slum areas now.

Here's the test: For any given property, if it was destroyed right now, would you rebuild? Maybe today you might, but as fewer people who live out there can afford to drive, the sense in doing so dwindles. The businesses leave, the buildings decay, and the place becomes a slum.

So, bulldoze Cranberry and all the other outer-ring suburbs, and replant the forest. It'd be doing us all a favor in the long run.

I drove through a slum today. Again in the Nucking Futs Department, I drove up Hazelton and Sherlock Streets in Pittsburgh's upper North Side today. Mgawd what a dump. People actually live there? The parts I was on, there are maybe 10 houses on these streets, and to look at the county website, are worth about $20,000 apiece, often much less. (Example: 2706 Hazelton, labeled "unsound", last changed hands for $210. That is not a typo.) Some of these houses look like they're about to sink into the earth. This is what happens when people take their lives and their money and move someplace else.


I may add to this, but right now it's getting late and I have stuff to do before I go to bed. So, good night.

Dealing with the heat of summer (July 9, 2008)

Current mood: chill

It's finally starting to get really hot during the daytime here in the 'Burgh. I've visited a couple of friends and neighbors in recent days, and their A/C runs constantly. I'm close enough to a couple of them to know it runs 24/7, since either I can hear the heat pump kick in, and/or the lights in my own house dim.

My A/C is off. Except on a couple of special, rare occasions, it hasn't been on yet. Chances are good it won't be turned on, even on the hottest days. And why is that? Because I know how to avoid using it.

First thing, my house is very well insulated. This was a winter driven decision. The old furnace used to come on every 10 minutes when we first moved here. After adding a pile of insulation to the attic floor, and blowing the chewed-up newspaper stuff into the exterior walls, I brought my monthly heating bill down from $220/month to $150/month, all at once. My break-even point was about two months.

Second, I have chosen to leave standing two immense shade trees upwind of the house. I realize that with one huge storm, my house will be wearing one of two 70-foot-tall trees, but I'll take my chances. The house is in shade from 11 a.m. to sunset.

Third, and this is both the most important idea as well as the one most easily put to use by anyone, is knowing when to open and shut doors and windows. Simply put, I open doors and windows to get the house cool at night, then keep it cool in the daytime by keeping them shut. This keeps the inside temp in the sub-80° range all day without A/C.

Here are some of the mechanics: After sunset, when the outside temp here starts to drop below the inside temp, I open several windows and doors, and with the help of several box fans (three to five), blow the air out the windows. From experience, I've learned not to blow the fan inward, because the strength of the fan pulls too many little bugs through the screen. Ack. In contrast, the draw of the air through the door screens, while strong, does not pull bugs with it.

Sometimes I leave them going all night, sometimes not. The most effective hours are those just before sunrise, when the outside temperature has typically dropped well below 70°.

By the end of breakfast, the outside temp has risen enough that it no longer makes sense to try to replace warmer air with cooler, so I shut the windows and keep them shut, all day. I may keep one or two of those box fans on low, pointed sideways in the room, to move air around so it doesn't feel stuffy, but the house is and remains cool until well into the afternoon.

How much energy does this save? Plenty. I know from the electric bills that the household does not use 1,000 kilowatt-hours of juice in any summer month, going back to when we first had the A/C in 2003. Using the A/C liberally, as do some neighbors and friends, would essentially double that, at least.

Those fans might draw 100 watts (a one-cent-an-hour pace), but the A/C draws more like 3,000 watts (30 cents an hour). So, do the math. YMMV, of course, but it's sure a lot cheaper to open and shut windows, and a lot easier on the environment, too.

Was Emma Goldman the Second Coming of Christ? (July 6, 2008)

Current mood: inspired

I think one of my biggest quarrels with the Christians who are waiting for Jesus Christ to make a second appearance is that I do not think any one of them would recognize the Savior's appearance if it happened right in front of them, as happened before (Luke 24:16). Are they really expecting a swath of angelic rays, a chorus of angels, a hail of trumpets, and a guy wearing a white robe?

My own hunch is that Jesus Christ has indeed come back many times, each time making some marvelous things happen, but never recognized properly as Himself. In trying and failing to be recognized as such, after 20 centuries, He now takes other forms. Indeed, 2000 years ago the form He took was as a carpenter's son, a quite common form for that age. Who's to say that today the form would be all that different? Who's to say His divine spirit would even be constrained to a male form?

What would Jesus do, really? How would He make Himself known? Would anyone take seriously someone in robes, accompanied by a chorus, a brass band and a light show, declaring himself to be their Savior? What would He have to do to be believed? Point his finger at a rock to disintegrate it with a bolt of lightning? Sorry, people, this is Our Savior we are talking about here, not the Norse god Thor. No, He wouldn't waste His time on establishing credibility. He would just get to work. Once you accept that, the following gets a lot easier to understand.

I choose to believe something a little different, and that difference is not in disharmony with Scripture. First, though, a little framing. Listen to the song "Elvis Is Everywhere", by Skid Roper and Mojo Nixon. No, I am not saying that Elvis is Jesus, nor vice versa, but the song does have one little nugget of thought that matters:

Elvis is everywhere
Elvis is everything
Elvis is everybody
Elvis is still the King
Man oh man
What I want you to see
Is that the big E's inside
Of you and me

Replace "Elvis" with "Jesus" and you essentially have Scripture.

The way I see it, Jesus has appeared on Earth and is always appearing on Earth, because we all have a little Jesus in us, except for the occasional evil anti-Jesus and those from whom Jesus is trying to get out. That said, there have been a few over the years in which Jesus's spirit issued forth more than from some others.

Remember first and most, that the religion of Jesus followers have added one hell of a lot of religious baggage to the story and message and (dare I say it) legend of Jesus of Nazareth, over 200 decades. To understand what Jesus might do now, you have to see what Jesus did then, in the context of what life was like then, but without 2000 years of religious blath -- um, interpretation.

"Jesus was an anarchist. All good men are anarchists." So said Elbert Hubbard about 100 years ago. Let's look at an anarchist or two from modern times and see what they themselves said about anarchy. Start with Emma Goldman:

Anarchism, then, really stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government. Anarchism stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals for the purpose of producing real social wealth; an order that will guarantee to every human being free access to the earth and full enjoyment of the necessities of life, according to individual desires, tastes, and inclinations.

She put it a little more succinctly toward the end of that same essay: "Revolution is but thought carried into action. Anarchism [is] the great leaven of thought."

Isn't this what Jesus was about? He had a purpose, a plan for revolution -- the proper following of the Law of God -- but free of Pharisaic interpretation (Matt. 15:3), free of Roman rule (Matt. 22:21, Mark 12:17, Luke 20:25), and free of monetary pursuits and constraints (Mark 4:19). Through His plan we can have great freedom, were we only to throw off all these other things.

Periodically, He comes back to remind us of this. Emma Goldman, then, was the form He took to deliver that message -- again -- about 100 years ago. Then, 37 years ago, John Lennon did the same. Different words, different methods, different audience. (It might be a stretch to think that Jesus would say "Imagine there's no heaven...", but I look at it as Him hitting us over the head with a board in the first line to get our attention. Then the rest of the song makes a lot of sense.) Goldman died at age 71 of natural causes, but like Jesus, knew what a prison cell was like. Lennon saw little of prisons but met a crucifixion of a more modern style.

Jesus is everywhere. But first, lose the damned religion. Listen to the anarchists instead. Then listen to yourself. The big JC's inside of you and me.

Helms is gone. Good riddance (July 4, 2008)

Current mood: nauseated

Jesse Helms, former senator from North Carolina, passed away today. Good riddance.

Before Helms came along, Democrats and Republicans merely disagreed. Once he and his ilk came to power, America became polarized as never before. He preached intolerance, not dialogue; bigotry, not brotherhood. This occurred only a few years after the wave of freedoms and feelings of brotherhood that marked the 1960s and early 1970s. What a step backward we took when he came to power!

Helms hated civil rights. He had no tolerance whatsoever for anyone or anything that wasn't WASP. Not only did he tolerate nothing left-leaning, he tolerated nothing left of himself. He used terms like "tax-and-spend Democrats" like rubbing salt in a wound. And rub he did.

My stomach boiled every time he opened his mouth, as I went through my college years and my 20s and 30s. Just hearing his hate-filled voice on the radio in this afternoon's newscasts brought back those feelings of revulsion. It sickened me then and sickens me now to think he was a major leader in the Senate.

Problem was, he did lead. Lots of people followed him. Rick Santorum was his protégé, and if you like Santorum, you would have loved Helms. Both in beliefs and methods, Santorum was -- is -- Helms reincarnated. There are others, too. (*shivers*)

It's a great thing to stand up for your beliefs, but it's a better thing to get consensus than to browbeat and denigrate those who disagree, as he did. It's wonderful to win people to your side, but it's better to achieve that by lessening opposition, not by wielding a club against those opponents, as he did. He won people to his cause by pandering to hate and fear, and set a standard many follow to this day, damn him.

Much as I don't care for them, it's OK to share Helms's beliefs. However, it's not OK to act like Helms did in fostering those beliefs.

Good bye and good riddance, Mr. Helms. I just wish it was possible to undo the harm you did this nation.

Lots of cycling. Why not to an interview? (July 2, 2008)

Current mood:determined
Five trips Downtown or beyond in seven days, by bicycle, in June/July, in hilly, sweaty Pittsburgh. Yes I have a car. Yes I can drive. Yes I have a bus pass and use it. So why bike?

  1. I'm trying to keep my sorry 49-year-old ass in good shape. A lot of other people who are 49 are in far worse shape than I am. Some of them are dead, not from accidents but from burning out their bodies long before they should have. Not me, dammit. Yeah I got a bit of a belly, but it's not from beer. I'm just 49.
  2. I have no health insurance. Assuming I don't wreck -- and who's to say that I wouldn't wreck in a car, whosever fault it might be -- then anything I do to keep myself in good health will help me more than hurt me. Lord knows, I can't afford a friggin' flu shot, let alone something serious.
  3. Gasoline is only expensive if you buy it. Transportation CAN be FREE. The bus pass is already paid for through December, but the bike doesn't cost a red cent to use.
  4. Parking Downtown is free, too, and I never have to worry about a traffic jam. Just get off and walk it on the sidewalk.
  5. It's cool to commune with nature. Birds, flowers, wild animals. I can hear them, see them, even stop to talk to them.
  6. I am reducing, not adding to, traffic. Sometimes I'm on a path through the woods or along the river, or at least off the main drags, so there's far less traffic for me to deal with, and I'm not holding anyone else back, like my car would be. Yesterday I got stuck in two traffic jams in the car. You just don't know how liberating it is to say, screw traffic, and head off into the woods.

But yeah, five trips in seven days.
  • Thursday was the 30-mile trip.
  • Friday was the BikeFest party, coming home in pitch darkness. Yes I have a light.
  • Sunday was helping clean up after the party. Managed to catch a bus home with the bike.
  • Tuesday evening was a trip to Dormont, 14 miles distant. Got a ride back in someone's SUV.
  • Today another trip into the city, returning by a bus's bike rack.

Tomorrow I have a job interview. I've been tempted for some time to don the two-piece suit, throw on the orange vest over it, then add helmet and chain protector, and go to the interview. I'm not worried about getting this job (though of course it would be nice), so I figure I'm ready to tackle this one head on.

I'm 49. I worked for 22 years in the corporate world. I'm hardly wet behind the ears anymore. I don't need a job that has me with my tail between my legs all the time, and to that end, I don't need to try to make it through an interview with my tail between my legs. So I show up on a bicycle. Rain is forecast, though I'm more likely to encounter it on the way home than on the way there. Doesn't matter. Maybe I'll travel there in ratty clothes and change into the suit in the john, which is what I'd do if I had to bike to work in rough weather, anyway. It's what I did for 10+ years commuting by bus, though I didn't have to be as weather ready, just grubby commuting shoes with a dress pair under the desk.

An update will follow.

Naaah, I drove. Main thing was I didn't have enough time to prepare for the trip. Too much housework to do around & after breakfast. That, and it just wouldn't have worked. Maybe another office in that same complex, but not the hiring firm. It was only 7 miles away, and not even that hilly. OK, one big hill, but mainly the rolling terrain of the North Hills here. This ain't Kansas.

A hot day for a ride, but nonetheless... (June 27, 2008)

Current mood: chipper

I started out the day yesterday hoping I would not have to ride in the rain. Because of a prior commitment, my son had the bus pass for the whole day, yet I needed to make an early morning trip. OK, bike, out ya' come, we're going for a little ride...

Yah, right, a little ride. Here's what came down.

It wasn't raining but the streets were still wet from the storm an hour before. My destination was Port Authority of Allegheny County's old HQ in the Manchester part of the city, about 9 miles distant. The trip is simple: Perry Hwy into West View, then follow the 500 routing to California at Marshall, carry the bike down the steps, cross the street, and walk into the building. However, I don't like the weave/merge area where California, Marshall, Rt 65 and Beaver all come together, so I dropped off California at Antrim, down to McClure to Eckert to Beaver. Lots less traffic, and what's there is slower.

I was done there around noon, so decided to try out the river trail. I especially wanted to test the detour around the casino construction. Finding the trail was not difficult -- there are signs everywhere -- and following it is child's play. The biggest problem is not clobbering people out for lunchtime walks, as there are several pinch points to discourage motorized traffic.

The detour headed me back over to Beaver Avenue, where a helpful sign suggested I walk the bike on the sidewalk. Well, if I can handle Perry Highway, I can handle 200 feet of Beaver Avenue, though being on the sidewalk was easier to make the crossing of Beaver at a traffic light easier. A couple of quick turns later put me on Columbus, heading east. Then the signs disappeared. They've only been up there a few weeks, but apparently someone has nabbed at least one for his/her bedroom. I eventually re-found the trail detour on West North Ave after wiggling around some residential side streets in Manchester, a few houses on which actually looked like they might have legal, permanent residents, but only a few. (That neighborhood still needs a lot of work.) A quick turn or two later, and I was past the Science Center and down to river's edge. I was quite careful not to take a turn into the river itself, or knock anyone else in that direction. Keeping one's speed down helped.

Mid-day, overhead sun, late June. I was already hot, but decided to take a quick swing through Downtown, if only to find out the BikeFest site. From Manchester to Penn Avenue measures about five miles, so I'm at about 14 miles for the day, so far.

Then back again over the river to the river trail, and headed upstream. I checked out the trail onto Herr's Island, which uses an abandoned railroad bridge. Boy it'd be nice if there was a switchback structure like that to get from the Birmingham Bridge down to the jail trail. Seems all you'd need is a pre-fab design, a foundation, a bridge connection, and a million bucks, nothing reeeeally special.

Back over the 30th St Bridge (adjacent to the 31st St Bridge, but only to Herr's I.), back down to the trail, I zinged along to Millvale. I don't really care for that circle at Rt 28, but there's no way to avoid it. I got across it as best I could, but chose not to take Evergreen, at least not at first. I tried a brick back street, which although was traffic free, came close to rattling some delicate body parts loose. (Note to self: Next time, stick to paved streets.) I picked up Evergreen as soon as feasible, and got on my way.

It was really hot, and I was sure I'd lost a lot of fluid, so stopped at Rita's Italian Ices for water and something cold. I'd hoped the girl would give me a 12-ounce cup of water, but only got a 4-ounce. I tried not to make a pest of myself asking for refills while she made the really cold thing I had paid for, but I was close to being in bad shape. (Note to self: Get a water bottle and bracket for the bike.) The really cold thing cost $4.02, but had a lot of extremely cold fluid, which is exactly what I needed.

From past experience, I know that from the Millvale bus loop to my house is seven miles, and though I had no timepiece, I figure I made it in about a half hour, maybe 45 minutes. From Downtown to home was another 15 miles, with all the side excursions.

Upon arriving home, I consumed 30 additional ounces of water, and must have been badly dehydrated, as I did not need to make a potty stop for fully three hours afterward. A quick shower and a change of clothes, and I was good as new.

The whole trip from Manchester to Downtown to Millvale to home was well over two and a half hours, though I was not trying to set any speed records. I was just happy that I could bicycle 19 miles in the blazing sun of mid-day June, and complete an almost 30-mile hike entirely by bicycle.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

End of the cello (June 20, 2008)

Current mood: sad

On Monday, I turn back in the cello our family has rented for several years. My son began playing it in school back in third grade, and now that he's graduated and moved on to other things, this marks the end of an era. I'm sad.

I clearly remember how the cello came to be. All the third graders who showed some sort of musical promise were given a chance to try out several different instruments, both stringed and wind. He said he liked the cello because when he played it, the vibrations made his ear buzz.

There was, however, more to the story. It all started with Harry Chapin.

For those too young to remember, Harry Chapin was a singer-songwriter. His heyday was the 1970s, but his songs are timeless. While he only had a couple of Top 40 hits, most notably "Cat's in the Cradle", anyone who got to know some of the stories he sang on his records – that's what they were, stories – knows that there was something special going on there that no mere words such as mine can hope to describe with any trueness of feeling. You don't listen to a Harry Chapin story, you live it, and what helps drive that message home is that omnipresent cello.

"Taxi" was the song I was playing the week my son tried on a cello for size. When I say playing I mean it three ways: (a) Yes, I was playing the record on the turntable; (b) I was trying to figure out the lead guitar part, a slightly intricate finger pick; but most importantly (c) I was playing "air cello", like some people like to play air guitar. I played violin in orchestra back in school days, but never cello. This, however, has never prevented me from playing air cello.

In "Taxi", the emotion carried forth by that cello part is what makes the song. The words tell the story, but it's the cello that brings the longing to your soul, the anger to your heart, and the tears to your eyes. Take seven minutes, find a quiet room, and play the recording, wherever you can find it, and you'll hear what I mean. (Having the lyrics also helps.)

In any event, my little eight year old evidently thought highly of the instrument that was almost as big as he was, and so, for the last ten years, we've had a cello in the house. In recent years, though, the cello rarely came out. He played it in school, but getting him to practice at home was like pulling teeth. He sounded wonderful if we could get him to play, but it gathered dust. Months would go by while it sat, untouched, waiting for the next school concert. He had a different one to play in school, since cellos and full school buses are mutually incompatible.

The last glory of the cello was his playing in a string quartet a month or so ago. A local Girl Scout in his high school orchestra took it upon herself to form the quartet as part of her Gold Award project, the Girl Scouts of America's equivalent to Eagle Scout for the boys. She had the quartet practice for many weekends, going back to when the snow was thick and fierce. Then, over Memorial Day weekend, the quartet played a little concert at a half dozen or more area nursing homes. To call it very nice would be a gross understatement.

I considered buying the thing anyway, since I've never stopped playing air cello. I think a cello would be a beautiful addition to any church's praise band, especially with the addition of an electric pickup. But, as with anything, money is an issue. We're looking at four digits a couple times over, and, well, sorry, but if I had that kind of scratch available, it would be spent on several other things before I got something that, more likely than not, is going to sit unused 360 days out of any given year. My wife disagrees, saying that we've built up over a grand in rental-towards-purchase credits, but even with that, we're still out nearly two grand. It just ain't there. Even if it was, we're still going to be short almost ten grand in school and other expenses in the next year, just for him, and there are three other people in the house. Even if I got a job (right now there are a couple of serious possibilities in the wings), I'd almost certainly need a second car, and that's going to eat the first few months' paychecks before that ten grand (and then some) gets spent, so, still, just never mind. Can't do it. Just can't.

So, goodbye, big beautiful brown box with strings. I will remember you fondly. I hope my son does, too.

20 stinking years later, finally a state smoking ban (June 14, 2008)

Current mood: pleased

During a rehearsal for my high school play in 1973, while playing violin in the orchestra pit, I had to be taken home early, nauseated by a single cigarette. Back then, teachers could smoke in school buildings (though not in class), and the play's director was a smoker. One man's one cigarette, in an 800-seat auditorium, fully 80 feet away, made me so ill I had to put my instrument down in mid practice, and ask to be taken home. Ever since that afternoon back in 9th grade, I have wanted to see smoking restricted. For over a generation, I had to patiently explain, person by person, why these restrictions had to be: Because someone else's smoking made people ill and they were powerless to do anything about it.

While I was merely nauseated, though, careful research was showing that other people's cigarettes were causing real harm in non-smokers. In the mid-1980s, then-U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop published a series of reports summarizing research to date. I own seven of these reports, and have read every one of them cover to cover. Each is not a single study, but a summary of many existing studies. Key among them is the 1986 report, The Health Consequences of Involuntary Smoking, "representing the work of more than 60 distinguished physicians and scientists, both in this country and abroad," to quote its foreword. Continuing that quote:
After careful examination of the available evidence, the following overall conclusions can be reached:
1.  Involuntary smoking is a cause of disease, including lung cancer, in healthy nonsmokers.
2.  The children of parents who smoke, compared with the children of nonsmoking parents, have an increased frequency of respiratory infections, increased respiratory symptoms, and slightly smaller rates of increase in lung function as the lung matures.
3.  Simple separation of smokers and nonsmokers within the same air space may reduce, but does not eliminate, exposure of nonsmokers to environmental tobacco smoke.

With that impetus, Pennsylvania got its first indoor air legislation in 1988, following unsuccessful tries in several previous years. However, it was seriously flawed, with many exceptions and no teeth. Its most egregious shortcoming was its blanket pre-emption of all existing and future legislation at the local level. As if this was not enough, it was signed into law the day and hour of the Lockerbie Scotland terrorist air disaster, so it got little news coverage.

For 20 years, this is all we had. With more holes than Swiss cheese, very little actually changed. There were also a few years in there in which there was some question as to whether the pre-emption clause was still on the books, something about the section being repealed, then the repeal being repealed, and whether that was legal, blah blah blah. What we needed was a stiff new law, much like many other states had enacted in the two passing decades.

Pennsylvania is a difficult state in which to get anything done. Compared to most other states, its legislature is huge, with 203 representatives in the House and 50 senators, all full time, all highly paid. Think entrenched. A good many of these were in office for the 1988 legislation, and many others from that era are now lobbyists. Big Tobacco has a strong grip on what gets done here. The 1988 law came to be only because of a gut-and-rewrite procedure: Pass different versions of a bill in the House and Senate, then get a joint conference committee to work out the differences. Once in conference, they can rewrite it any way they want, with little input from the public, but plenty from lobbyists. Most of the legislation that got put in place was actually written by a legislative aide who was a two-pack-a-day smoker, with great assistance from a tobacco lobbyist. I was involved in the process on a daily basis during the Summer of 1988, watching as what started out as strong restrictions was gutted and watered down in a series of drafts, then finally voted into place as Act 26 of 1988.

It happened again in 2008, following much the same script. Good, restrictive bills passed the House and Senate, but differed in some details. Governor Rendell appointed a joint conference committee, but only two of its six members came from the restrictive camp. What emerged was watered down from the original, but 95% of it was intact, so this is truly a step forward.

What pleased me was that my rep and senator listened to me when, back in November 2005, I sent them the following letter. Both supported strong bans from then forward.

While indoor smoking is not a hot-button issue right now, here's some info to take to heart for when it is.

From the British medical journal Tobacco Control, an independent, peer-reviewed, scientific public health journal, an article ran in the March 2003 issue entitled "Review of the quality of studies on the economic effects of smoke-free policies on the hospitality industry" (vol. 12, pages 13-20).  This is a summary of about 100 such financial-impact studies conducted after implementation of restaurant or tavern smoking bans.  In short, it concluded:
    * Studies conducted or funded by tobacco industry interests usually (81%) found a negative impact.
    * Studies conducted by independent, educational, governmental or health organizations almost always (96%) found a negligible or positive impact.

Furthermore, the quality of industry studies was always in question.  There exist four accepted measures of objectivity in research of this type.
    * Only one industry study (of 31 conducted) met even one of the four objective measures.
    * Not one industry study met all four objective measures.
    * Not one industry study was reviewed by peers for research accuracy.
    * In contrast, all 35 studies which met all four objectivity measures found a negligible or positive impact.

I could go on, but the bottom line is, when the issue of indoor smoking does arise (e.g., restaurants, bars, casinos, etc.), and the industry decries such restrictions claiming that it will hurt business, don't believe them.  The real research shows that it will improve business, if it affects business at all.

I want to stand up and scream every time I hear someone say their restaurant or bowling alley or bingo hall or casino will face financial ruin if smoking is banned. Not true! It has been well documented just how Big Tobacco goes about shaping public opinion on this (Tobacco Control [British Medical Journal], March 2003; Consumer Reports, May 1994), but the media publishes it, and people just accept it. 

The point to take home in all of this is it's not about smokers, but workers. Nobody should have to put their life on the line to hold a job. Any employer who purposely piped poisonous gases into the workplace would be shut down. But without this legislation, any employer could insist the employees inhale a known Class 1 carcinogen. Smokers really have nothing to do with it.
For any smokers whose feathers get ruffled in all this, I have but three words to say: Too bad. Quit. For me, at least, after 35 years, I can go out in public and not have to worry about getting sick.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Summer began June 1. Where are the fireflies? (June 9, 2008)

Current mood: grumpy

On September 1, I said Autumn began. (OK, it was on the 2nd.)
On December 1, I said Winter began. (ditto)
On March 1, I said Spring began.
June 1 came and went, but no blog about Summer beginning? Oh well, I was busy. But yes, in my book, June 1 is the official start of summer here in Pittsburgh. And boy, are we getting it! We've had 90+ days a couple times already in the past week.

But where are the fireflies? It isn't really summer until the fireflies appear. I've seen them as early as May 25, often by the 29th or 30th. But here it is, the evening of June 9th, and not a single firefly yet to be seen. Wahhhh!

(patience patience ...)

But anyway. Summer is probably my least favorite season. Hot. Sticky. Bugs. Severe weather. Snowstorms are not severe. Just snowy. You can shovel snow. You cannot shovel a tornado.

About boycotting gasoline (written in 2004 when gas hit $2/gal) (June 2, 2008)

Current mood: cynical

This was written December 2, 2004. A barrel of oil was $45; today, June 2, 2008, it's almost $130. Gasoline was topping $2/gallon; today it's approaching $4. I hate to have to tell y'all, but the current state of affairs isn't anything we couldn't see coming. Now they're saying, better figure on $12 to $15 per gallon, more likely sooner than later.

The solution, like a baby, is easy to conceive but hard to deliver: Stop driving.

OK, enough. Back to 12/2/2004, copied/pasted from my original Word document.


About Boycotting Gasoline

Copyright © 2004 Stuart M. Strickland
Whenever the price of gasoline spikes, someone starts a movement urging people to support a one-day boycott of gasoline.  What does that prove?  Not buying gas on one day merely moves the buying of the gas to a different day.  To those who sell us the gas, it doesn't matter one whit on their weekly balance sheets whether you bought five gallons on both Monday and Friday, or ten gallons on Friday.

Instead, figure out how to go a single day without using the car at all, and do it on a day when you have to go out, not one when it's convenient to stay home.  How?  That is precisely the point. Carpool. Walk. Bicycle. Take a bus. Shop or run errands using the telephone, the Internet, a postage stamp, or, heaven forbid, your own two feet. Whatever. Just don't drive, for just one day.  

That, dear friends, is a boycott.

Better still, hang up the keys for a full week and go about life.  Ha!  I bet you couldn't even if you wanted to.   I bet you'd also have a lot of company.  I further bet that if you drivers did manage to go car-less for a few days, you would develop a very different perspective on the issue.

Even the concern about $2 gasoline means very little.  True, while the non-inflation-adjusted *price* has never been higher, this is still not the highest *cost* it has ever been.  The $1.10 we paid for each gallon in 1980-1981 works out to over $2.20 in today's dollars.  And anyway, quitcherbellyakin.  In Germany and elsewhere, $4/gallon or more is commonplace.  In fact, aside from tap water and store-brand soda pop, there are few consumer fluids in America that cost less than $2 per gallon.  Not milk, not beer, not vinegar, not even not-on-sale brand-name soda pop.

My guess is that this is only the beginning.  Petroleum demand is very inelastic, meaning that as its price rises, consumption does not decline.  Think about it: With our demand inelastic, demand from India and China rising, and world production flat or declining, there's nothing to keep OPEC, essentially our single alternative source, from saying, "We will sell you all the oil you want to buy, but at our price."  That might be tough to face, but isn't that how it would go in any other business?  Today it's about $45/barrel.  When might it be $75?  $100?  $200?  Would you pay $8/gallon, permanently, if you didn't find another way to get around?  

On that point, it's not a bet but a certainty: Unless Americans start doing what I just suggested, Americans will have to.

5/29/08, *1908* that is: Aunt Sarah’s birthday (May 29, 2008)

Current mood: melancholy

Aunt Sarah, as she was known to nearly everyone, would have been 100 today. She lived with us, or more accurately, we lived with her. She was present in the delivery room at my son's birth, and helped raise both our kids.

She died in 1999, a couple months short of her 91st birthday. She had a reasonably good last few months, even with declining health. In her last year, on a vacation, she rode an elephant.

What can I say about a woman who was, in effect, a third parent for our kids? In those early years, one or the other of my wife and I was gone parts of nearly every day to go to either work or school; for me, both. She was the constant presence. It was on her lap as much as if not more than either of ours that the kids learned to love reading. Patience, patience ... to read (as one example) The Berenstain Bears 'B' Book, over, and over, and over, and over again, and over again, and again. And again. Every day. Both my kids were fully literate by mid-4, and remain avid readers to this day. The fact that both of them made it into our school district's advanced learners class by Grade 1 had much to do with their early upbringing, I am convinced.

Aunt Sarah knitted. Boy did she knit. As I write, I'm wearing the dark blue sweater she made for me when she was 81. It took her six months. It's so heavy, I used it as a winter coat a couple years ago. My head and legs froze that year, but the rest of me was toasty warm. My wife still has hers, a present from Aunt Sarah in 1974 or '75. It's on its third set of buttons, but the sweater is as wearable now as it was 30+ years ago. In addition to that there are afghans, mittens, scarves, baby blankets, and much more, for anyone she cared about. I know of about a dozen major pieces still extant, and hope they'll be around a generation or two to come. She made them to last.

She grew up out in the country, on a farm, so knew about self-sufficiency. She knew about avoiding waste. "When we butchered a hog, we used everything but the squeal," she would say. Transportation was by foot and horse, two miles each way to school, four to the train in Youngwood, the nearest village.

But though she grew up in the boonies, she had some progressive ideas. She took on a chicken-raising project in high school, designing and helping construct coops to hold 12,000 chickens, gathering eggs daily, feeding and cleaning the flock, and also selling those eggs in nearby Greensburg. Her exhibit, the work of a lone girl in a field of almost 20 boys, won the blue ribbon prize at the 1926 Pennsylvania State Fair.

She learned to drive on a Model T Ford, and took her license exam the first year Pennsylvania required such tests.

For a long time, she was very heavy, well past 200 on a sub-five-two frame. By retirement, she finally learned to deal with the weight. Classic quote: "I finally realized I didn't have a weight problem so much as a joint problem. Every time my arm bent, my mouth would open."

She never married. Despite all her talents, she had a poor self image, so never had much desire to socialize, let alone date. Being married to a farm didn't help matters, either. But by 51, she knew she could not support herself in old age, so left the farm and worked for several years in retirement homes, finally retiring at age 66.

In her later years, we took care of one another, she, my wife and I. We moved in with her; my wife and I paid the transportation costs, the utilities and half the taxes, Aunt Sarah paid for food and the other half of the taxes. She had medical coverage, but we made sure she got to and from the care visits and took all her meds.

She could change a diaper, but that was mainly ours to do. She knew she was better at cooking and baking. Cookie batter didn't roll off the table under its own power. People knew about her cookies, too. You couldn't make counterfeit Aunt Sarah cookies. I might have her recipes, but not her touch.

She's been over nine years gone but her presence is always there, her image indelible, her effects impossible to ignore.

Good bye, Aunt Sarah, we loved you so. May your spirit continue to rest in peace.

First rail trip, ever (May 28, 2008)

On May 22, I left Pittsburgh on an Amtrak train, beginning a several-day vacation in the Washington, D.C., area. This is my account of the trip, recorded as I traveled along. Now that I'm back, I'm posting it for all to read and enjoy.

As I peck away, I am seated on an Amtrak train, headed for Philadelphia, the first leg of a trip to the D.C. area to help a friend move. I've never ridden a train before, excepting little excursions behind a steam engine a few years ago.

I know the rail corridor very well out to Greensburg, since I used to commute from New Stanton to Monroeville. Beyond that, I recognize a few grade crossings and towns, but the farther we go, the more it's just unknown trees, farms, hillsides and itty bitty towns.

The first minutes we are right along the East Busway, and for a while are right alongside 45-foot bus 1921, going just about the same speed. That must feel weird to both pilots. Those buses are massive, but puny in comparison to locomotives, let alone the train.

One westbound train we saw while still waiting in Pittsburgh, carried dozens of cars of crushed stone. Herzog, said each car. Must've been 40 cars, exclusively and fully loaded with stone. I can hardly imagine the amount of mass in that train. The other trains whose cargo I could discern were mixed freight. No other passenger trains, in motion, at least.

It was weird, even disheartening, passing through East Pittsburgh and Turtle Creek, PA, seeing how little is left of the old Westinghouse Electric campus. Once was a time when this was the manufacturing capital of the U.S. A direct hit by an atom bomb on the nearby Westinghouse Bridge, it was once said, would have wiped out a large chunk of the American economy. Looks like if you did that today, it might go unnoticed, except for the Wabtech facility a mile or two away. What old Westinghouse buildings still exist – which aren't many – stand in disuse, windows out, roofs porous, wires and other infrastructure having little apparent value beyond salvage. Where'd it all go, all that wealth and power? Sad to say, it was gone long before China started eating us alive. We spent the corporate coffers dry by the late 1970s, the country itself by the late 1980s. Just like this train, with great speed you can coast a long time, but the fuel is gone, and it ain't coming back.

Right now, we're somewhere between Latrobe and Johnstown. I'm trying to figure out where the westbound track went. I'm on the left side of the train, and ever since Pittsburgh there has been a second track. Since there's been a westbound train every 10 minutes or so, I find it hard to believe it's single tracked through here, especially since this is one of the busiest rail corridors in the northeast. Maybe it's just on the other side of the train, but I haven't seen anything go by on that side, either.

I'm surprised how short the stops are. In Greensburg and Latrobe, I doubt we stood still more than 90, even 60, seconds. At least I timed my coffee break well. I first stood up when we got past Irwin, got my coffee just as we pulled into the Greensburg station, and was able to get back to my seat before the train started moving again. Walking between cars is easy: Just push a button on the door and it slides open. Not too difficult to walk along, but then again, I have a lot of bus riding experience. The coffee comes in a standard cup which they put in a small, thin cardboard tray, which makes it very stable to carry and also to remain steady on the pull-down seat-back tray.

Now we're crawling along; I doubt we're going more than about 20. Not sure why. Maybe the track bed is bad along here. I timed a couple of miles earlier, one at about 67 mph (55-second mile), one at a full 75 (48-second mile). We're back up to a nice cruising speed now (54-second mile).

Little things go by; I hardly have a chance to look at them. A little stone oven with a ten-foot chimney. Oh, there's another rail track. Is that our westbound line? A dead-looking factory, no signs of life.

Not yet in Johnstown. A bunch of grade crossings. People on the train are asleep. It's raining outside, and really there's little to see, just the Conemaugh Power Plant, with a huge bowl that seeps steam from its side. Coal is everywhere underground here. Coal made this country great, and still might, if it weren't so dirty. Miles later, still coal tipples, all manner of mining operations, or operations which use that which is mined. Pipes on racks. Piles of stuff. And finally, again, plain old forest, or at least green weeds, on both sides of the track. A blue plastic tarpaulin stretched over some branches. Are there still hobos? A bridge over PA 56 by PA 711; yep, not far from Johnstown.

It's easy to get used to this rumblety-bumblety yet smooth ride. I could learn to like this. It feels like I could get rocked to sleep quite easily. I'm not the only one. Someone is snoring loudly.

Johnstown, finally, and the first westbound train I've seen in a while, and yes, it's on the other side of the train. More dying industry, more overgrown sidings. Might've been a rail yard there. Back at Pitcairn, it was hard to tell there ever was a rail yard there, which is amazing because it was once among the largest rail yards anywhere. Nothing but 25-year-old trees and sumac bushes. There might actually have been a few sidings there when I came to Pittsburgh in 1982, but it was dying fast. There might still be something there, but only a vestige of its prior greatness.

More wonders. I see what clearly was a prior trackbed next to us. Sometimes I see encased wires, or maybe they are pipes of some sort, alongside the rails. Once there was a long, low, flat area, width of the tracks, in line with the old unused rail line, but I have no idea what it was. Wow, four tracks now, just east of Johnstown; I can see them on a curve. I wonder if I can see the South Fork Dam site along here.  We've gotta be near it. Yeah, that might have been it right there, those huge mounds of earth, but I have no way of knowing, and 119 years can certainly change the landscape, even without human assistance. This is the anniversary weekend coming up, too. Or maybe that was it off to the left, but it was hard to tell with a train going by. I guess I'll just have to look it up on Google Earth. Better yet, it'd be cool to make a day trip out here sometime. The only time I was at the Flood Memorial was the 1989 weekend just before the 100th anniversary.

Back to two tracks. I don't know the towns, but it's where Cambria Vault Company is; can't be two of those. We were down to a low speed for a long while, but now we're back to a good clip, a 51-second mile. 

Summerhill, the sign said. Now a 49. A 46. Flat and straight. The suburban backyards come right up to the tracks, sometimes without so much as a small fence. Other places the train is the across-the-street neighbor. House, yard, sidewalk, street, tracks. Imagine the trains sailing past your backyard swingset at 75 mph.
Milepost 254, a picnic area wedged between a cemetery and the tracks.

Silence on the train. No talking, no snoring, the loudest thing being the occasional sniffle, the movement of air, and the tapping of my keystrokes. Can't even hear the rails, it's so smooth. Yet we're moving at upwards of 50 mph. Wow.

Atheist Station, dot com? OK, gonnahafta check that one out. Huge letters on the side of a building.

Darkness! A tunnel! The Gallitzin Tunnel! Horseshoe Curve is a few minutes ahead, the first time they've come on the public abuse system to tell us about anything except stations. Yep, there's new US 22 off to the right. Minutes pass. My ears are popping. We descend silently. Now we're in the curve. Tight. The wheels made noise, or maybe it's the brakes. Haven't seen a train climbing, but if one does, I'm sure I'll hear it. This is steep, too.

Yay, the sun's out for the first time all day. On a curve I can finally see the shadow of the single locomotive, ahead of the one car ahead of the one I'm traveling in. If I recall correctly there are three behind this one.
I'm surprised how little trash I see along the tracks. Maybe it's because the population density is so scant, there isn't much draw to the tracks? Lots of other places to go? Right in Altoona there's more, here and there a tire, but really not like alongside any suburban highway I've walked along.

A delay. We're not yet at the Altoona station, but they've announced some freight congestion ahead, so we'll creep along here for a while. Two locomotives pass on the right, going our way. We're waiting on a westbound freight to clear before we can enter, we are told. I take a potty break. Plumbing problems, both toilets in this car. Usable if you're careful, but they gotta take care of that, pronto.

Quite a crowd waiting in Altoona, easily a dozen waiting to board. It's 10:15, so this is probably a popular connection to make. Nice station, too. I'm told the Greensburg station was nicely rebuilt a few years ago. Latrobe's hasn't changed in decades, by the looks.

An Amtran (Altoona city) bus went by, a 40-footer. No bike rack. Darn.

Hunger. Breakfast was 5 a.m., and at $5 for a small sandwich I'm wishing I'd packed a lunch, or at least a snack. Harrisburg has a 15-minute break, but I doubt I'll find anything off-car, so I don't want to risk trying to find anything off-car. Philly is fully four hours away,

Cool, a locomotive scrapyard, or at least a major maintenance yard. Nothing but trains everywhere. Many locos still say Conrail. Many Norfolk Southern rolling stock predate the jumping horse logo. At least I didn't see anything saying Penn Central, one of Conrail's 1970s predecessors. Conrail was split up in 1998.

Short short, long. I should know what that is. We've reached the end of the rail yard and are finally getting up a figurative head of steam. From here on east, it's more or less level and a lot of it is straight, so we should be zipping along. In and west of the Alleghenies, hills and curves predominate. Fostoria, we are now passing by. A 56-second mile (64 mph). A stop in Tyrone. Seeing a lot of track work. Five tracks to my left at one point a bit ago, but now back to just the double track.

The trip ceased to be fascinating a while ago, and is now only occasionally interesting. I'm going to go back to reading my book for a while.

OK, I'm back. We're in Harrisburg after a half-hour delay, stopped because of one-way operation. I stretched a five-dollar bill into a three-piece lunch, and because we were stopped, got to eat it without worry of it being jiggled onto my lap. My seatmate has begun to chat with me for the first time in the trip, too. She is a young accounting graduate of Goshen College in Indiana. There's another Goshen student on board, too, judging by her sweatshirt.

Underway now, and I think we're trying to make up some time, as we're flying along, a 49-second mile, and still accelerating. A 41. A 40. Another. That's 90 mph. WhooEEE! Smooth, though. The road alongside has a 45 mph limit, and I doubt anyone riding in a car even at that speed would be given as smooth a ride as we're getting here. Just a bit of side-to-side jostle. 78 mph, last check, though slowing now, for Elizabethtown. We're only 23 minutes behind now. Stopped, I admire a tiny but closed building which might have been the old Elizabethtown train station. Its only use nowadays appears to be to hold up a cell tower. Toot toot, and we're back on the road.

Now in Philly. I wave goodbye to my seatmate, who is meeting people here. I have an hour-plus layover, even with the train 20 minutes late. To kill time, I walk around the very large station, mosey around the SEPTA Rail gates, pick up some rail and bus timetables, and wander over to an elevated sidewalk connecting to Cira Center. From there I can see quite a bit of Philadelphia skyline, including a comparatively tiny building with a dome in the middle of immense skyscrapers. It's not Independence Hall, but I'll confess I don't know my historic buildings all that well.

I head outside, if only to get a breath of fresh air, and to say I actually walked on a Philadelphia city street once. I do not stray far. Almost immediately a panhandler approaches, but I dissuade him with a faraway look. He doesn't pursue. Boy, that didn't take long. I circumnavigate about half the building, but have had enough and come inside to continue my novel, and then this blog. Even after three chapters of book and two paragraphs of this, I still have several minutes before boarding. That said, though, I'll pack this in until safely ensconced on the 85 train.

The escalator was out of service, so we all carried our luggage down the steps. I was glad I packed lightly. One woman was, I think, going to be angry but turned instead to incredulity and then acceptance, as she picked up her one large bag, and her one huge bag. She was young, and there wasn't much to her, but she was up to the task. Downstairs, we found no train to board! We had the right track, but it wasn't there yet, and wouldn't be for almost 10 minutes. We weren't even sure what direction it would be coming from. Looking around, I surmised correctly that it would arrive from the left.

Boarding, we found a busy train, easily already half full. At least this one has two 120-volt outlets per seat pair, not singles like on the Pittsburgh train. This laptop barely holds a charge a single hour, so I need that plug. Fact is, I'll plug it in now, since I'm down to 38%.

Since I don't know the lay of the land, and don't have the window seat, it's hard to say anything interesting about what's going by outside. Just a blur of trees, breaking every once in a while to show a small town, an electric substation, maybe a used car lot along a commercial street. Since I cannot see mileposts, I can only guess at our speed: 60+ mph. Few stops, no delays. On my left, I can see water, big water, which we're barely above, and only a scrap of land separating it from us as we rush headlong. To my right is a road, and we're clearly going half again faster than the light traffic on it. Maybe even double.

My seatmate on this trip exited in Baltimore MD, allowing me to shift to the window seat so I can see the mileposts. We're flying. I expected to see that milepost in about 45, maybe 40 seconds, but must have missed it. Nope, there's one, right at the one-minute mark, but there's no possible way we're going 60 mph. That must mean we covered two miles in one minute – 120 mph!

Of course, it didn't last. Because of track work, we've again slowed to a little over a running pace, probably 20 to 25 mph. Too bad I wasn't taking note of the actual milepost values. Between the 20 and the 120, we might have averaged 45 or so over that 10-mile stretch. Impossible to say now.

Anyway, we're on our final approach to D.C., so I will pack up my gear and prepare to exit. I will be returning by car and have no idea when I will next use Amtrak, but am glad I kept track of this trip. The novelty of riding has already worn off, ten hours into the trip, but all in all, it made for a memorable occasion.

Bike-to-Work Day (May 19, 2008)

Friday was Bike-to-Work Day here in Pittsburgh. It was cold and rainy, but that wasn't enough to deter a few hardy souls, me included, from heading in.

Of course I cheated: I took the bus, which had a bike rack, so didn't have to ride 12 miles in a 45-degree downpour. By the time I got Downtown, it was only drizzling, so it wasn't too bad.

Bike Pittsburgh was giving out free coffee and breakfast in Market Square, so I headed over there after my early morning meeting. I hardly noticed the camera while I talked with the Bike-Pgh people and others who stopped by. A reporter talked to me, too, but mainly I was happy just to share stories about bikes, bike racks on buses, avoiding hills and bad intersections, and so forth.

But there I am, on a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette video [appears to be non-functional, Nov 9, 2011]. While they didn't talk to me on camera, I'm hard to miss in my blue helmet and orange safety vest. They even got a nice close-up of my bike at 1:22 in the video.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

*Raise* the gas tax (May 14, 2008)

Current mood: determined

From an opinion piece that appeared in the May 12, 2008, (Philadelphia Daily News).

I agree. Gasoline has been insanely underpriced, as I've been saying for 20 years. We need to invest in transit usability and transit capital projects, something I've been saying since at least 1992.

In Pittsburgh, the public-opinion puppeteers cannot dismember transit fast enough, nor disparage it strongly enough. And I cannot state my objection to their blather loudly or often enough to make myself heard, let alone understood or heeded.

The problem in Pennsylvania is that we painted ourselves into a corner with a 1945 amendment to the state constitution, forbidding motor fuels taxes from being used for anything but road and bridge work. This killed the private, tax-paying trolley companies of the day. By 1960 it was necessary to roll them all into monolithic, tax-supported, government agencies. Now, the subsidy demand exceeds what Harrisburg is willing to pay, and so transit is being cut at precisely the time when it needs to be expanded.

Still, the writers are right. Tax gasoline; make it cost even more. My preference would be to change the state's 50.7-cent-a-gallon tax to a 14-percent-of-retail-price tax (at $3.80/gallon, that's revenue neutral), and likewise the federal 18-cent-a-gallon tax to an 18-percent-of-retail-price tax (a one-time 50-cent increase). This is only fair, as it insulates revenues from inflationary pressures.

What I really want to see is to change the federal taxing structure so that gasoline has a flat price, taxed at both the point of crude-oil supply, and at the wholesale-retail interface, so that it is a fixed $6.75/gallon, with the new revenues going to pay down the $9.3 Trillion national debt, just the interest on which is costing every man, woman and child in this country in excess of $1,200 each year.

Bottom line: What needs to change is our consumption. Understand this: Stop driving. Use transit. Walk. Bicycle. Move to where you can. Use the telephone. Say no to the "need" to drive somewhere. But just stop driving, as much as possible.

Gasoline, at whatever price or tax, only costs you money if you use it.