advice from a fake consultant

out-of-the-box thinking about economics, politics, and more... 

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

On Roads And Trouble, Or, The Third Annual Winter Survival Story

It takes only a quick glance at the national weather outlook for today to realize that lots of people will be dealing with Big Winter in places that might not normally expect it.

Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Missouri--and especially Arkansas--will be at the heart of this weather event…other states, like Oklahoma and Mississippi and Virginia will be at its periphery.

Not to put too fine a point on the thing, but many of y’all are not exactly experienced snow drivers …and it looks like today you may need to be.

Lucky for you, your friendly fake consultant drives in miserable conditions all the time, which means you can gain the benefit of years of experience in just a few minutes.

So before you go outside, fire up a cup of hot chocolate, come on back, and we’ll send you on your way a bit warmer—and a bit safer to boot.

...Winter storm spreading from the Southern Plains to the Mid-Atlantic...
Snow, sleet, and freezing rain are expected to continue today from the Southern Plains to the Mid Atlantic coast with major icing expected from the Lower and Middle Mississippi Valley into the Ohio Valley

--National Weather Service forecast, January 27th, 2009

Another lovely day to drive, eh?
Before we actually talk about actual driving, a quick piece of clothing advice:

Throw a blanket, some boots, a heavy coat, and a decent ski cap in the trunk of the car…just in case. You might not get stuck in a snow bank, but if you have to spend an hour or two by the side of the road waiting for a tow truck in lousy weather, you’ll be glad you did.

That said, let’s get to some basic rules about driving when snow, slush and ice are on the roads:

--Don’t do it. If you didn’t grow up in some place like Michigan, and you’re not the driver of the local police car or fire truck or tow truck, just call in. Your boss’ answering machine will be sympathetic—and my guess is that the company will not pay the deductable on any body damage incurred on the drive to the office.

--If you really have to drive, how about this: the four-wheel drive vehicle you’re about to get into is of some value when you are trying to get going—but it won’t help you a bit when you’re trying to stop.

As it turns out, stopping distances for that four-wheel drive family truckster on ice might be 12 times longer than they are on dry pavement. The published stopping distance for most vehicles from 60mph to zero on dry pavement is 120 to 140 feet, meaning it should take about ¼ mile to stop on ice from that same speed….and 400 feet or so on wet pavement.

Trust me on this: stopping on ice is no easy task, and doing that same NASCAR drafting maneuver y’all are so fond of on the freeway is the best way I know of to end up parked in the back seat of the car you were drafting.

Instead, leave a ton of room between your bumper and the next…which leads to my next warning:

--Not all ice is easily seen. There really is such a thing as “black ice”—and it really can mess up your day. If you’ve never seen it before, the basic concept is that a thin glaze of ice forms over asphalt…and because it’s clear, before you know it you’re sliding out of control and straight into the nearest guard rail…and you’re not sure exactly why.

It turns up sooner than you think it will, too. 36 degrees F. and ice will form on those pesky bridges and overpasses. Sometimes it never melts during the day (especially in the shade), so even if the sun is out you may still get a nasty surprise around that next bend in the road. (That is exactly what happened just two days ago on the road up from the freeway to my own house, where a Chevy pickup had lost control and driven straight off the road into some bushes after rounding a sharp corner.)

There are some hints that will let you know you might be in an iced over area—or that you’re about to be.

If it’s dark, and you see the “sparkling” of ice on the sides of the roads in your headlights, that’s a big hint.

If some of the pavement looks gray…but some of it looks unnaturally black…that is a big-time hint that you’re looking at black ice.

If it snowed overnight…then that snow melted during the day…and it’s getting down to freezing again…you will be looking at lots of ice—black and otherwise.

If you can see frost—there’s a good chance black ice is in the neighborhood.

If it's not raining and you can see the reflection of headlights or tail lights on the pavement, you are traveling on an icy road.

--I know this will sound a bit like a cliché, but slowing down makes a huge difference in getting there or not getting there.

If you travel just a few miles up the freeway from my house, you will find yourself at a ski area. As a result, every Saturday and Sunday morning the road is full of drivers who go too fast until they see someone spun out…which causes them to slow down so they can get a good look…after which they all speed right back up to 70mph…even if it’s snowing at the time…until they get to the next spinout…where they slow down again.

All they while, I’m the driver over in the right lane doing 55 or less getting dirty looks from the spinning throng. (I drove home one morning doing 35 on the freeway—but I passed at least a dozen spinouts in 20 miles…and more than once I’ve seen cars blaze past me, only to be spun out farther down the road.)

I always get there…and some of them don’t.

--At this point, it’s time to talk about that mysterious piece of advice: “steer into the skid”.

If you should find yourself in a skid, the front of the car will likely be headed in a direction you did not expect—and if you were going in a straight line before the skid, your tires are pointed straight ahead.

What you want to do is turn the tires in the direction you want the car to go, in the hopes the front of the car will eventually turn in that direction as well.

Here’s an example: you’re headed in a straight line, when suddenly the front of the car starts sliding over to the left. You want to turn the steering wheel to the right—but not too far or too fast—so that the vehicle gradually recovers to traveling in a straight line again.

Turning too sharply (“overcorrection”) can cause the car to spin in the other direction—or even worse, flip, especially if one of the wheels finds dry pavement while the others are sliding. This is a big problem for large vehicles, so be careful when you feel the sliding.

If you have no experience at all with this stuff, it’s possible to practice in a medium safe environment. Find yourself a nice, flat, empty parking lot that has a nice light coating of snow. (Did you check to be sure there are none of those concrete blocks marking the rows?) You can induce spins by accelerating a bit (try to keep it below 30 mph or so), then cutting the wheel sharply in one direction or another (again, not too sharply), then take your foot off the gas and try to turn the wheel to recover.

After a bit of practice, you’ll be surprised how much more comfortable you’ll be with your car—and your driving skills.

--Now I know that this will sound counterintuitive, but using the brakes can often make a bad situation worse. It is often better to just take your foot off the gas and wait until you have control of the car.

The reason for this is because locking up the brakes prevents the wheels from “guiding” the car, giving you less steering control—and potentially converting you from a driver into a pinball.

Antilock brakes are not a complete solution to the problem…but they’re a pretty good solution, most of the time. On ice, not much of anything will help, short of special ice tires or certain tire chains--maybe.

And while we’re talking about antilock brakes—never pump them. You will “confuse” them, and make the problem you’re in much worse than it would have been otherwise.

Some of you have “hydroplaned” before, which is a perfect example of one time when just lifting your foot and waiting for the tires to make contact with the ground is the smartest thing to do. (Helpful hint: try not to drive in the “rutted” portion of a lane during rainstorms. Try instead to get up on the higher pavement in the lane.)

Of course, the fact that you might have to lift your foot off the brakes and just wait until you can control the car again is just one more argument for going slower in the first place.

Now having given this advice, I will tell you that, just like in “Ghostbusters”, on certain rare occasions you might have to “cross the streams”. A perfect example: if you’re sliding backwards down sheet ice, it might be possible to control your speed or even flip the car in the other direction through skillful—or extremely lucky—use of the brakes. (Of course, it’s also entirely possible that you might end up testing your airbags…)

That’s about a hot chocolate’s worth of advice, so let’s wrap it up right here:

If you can’t stay home, slow down.

Get some distance between your bumper and the next bumper.

Black ice creates an excellent aerobic exercise opportunity that you won’t soon forget, as do uncontrolled spins. Be smart. Respect the ice.

Not using the brakes can often be the smartest thing you can do.

“Turning into the skid” means making the wheels point in the direction you want the car to go. Go find a nice, safe parking lot and practice this skill.

And last but not least, if all this good advice fails to get you home safely, make sure you have some warm clothes in the car—the wait for the tow truck is likely to be a long one.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

On Pulling A Little Prank, Or Hey-Hey-Hey, Good Bye!

OK, America, so I pulled a tiny prank tonight—and it was so classic that I have to tell you all about it.

It involves freedom of speech, a friendly message to one of those crazy Republicans we all know—and it forced that crazy Republican to get up at three in the morning because he could not handle the threat to his world view.

Wanna hear all about it?

Then come along and follow the story…because it’s worth it.

So here’s the deal: we have a neighbor who just has not been able to let go of the fact that McCain lost. If you drive past his one-home gated community, there on the giant steel gate is his giant McCain/Palin banner, flying proud…even to this day.

Well, driving past it every day started to give me an idea…

What if I made a banner of my own, and put it up across from his gate, so that the first thing he would see on Inauguration Day would be my special message?

Nothing mean…just something funny.

So I went out the other day, bought me a giant piece of posterboard and a big marker, and put the classic message “Na-Na-Na-Na…Na-Na-Na-Na…Hey-Hey-Hey…Good Bye!” in red letters big enough for all to see.

And tonight, at about 3AM…I put it up.

I had to drive a little way down from his property to pull over—and clad in my camouflage jacket, I surreptitiously crept up to the property across the street, which is a piece of uncleared forest.

My goal: the telephone pole just immediately across from the heavy metal security gate…and its giant banner.

There was almost no wind…and it was quiet.
Too quiet.

After about 50 feet of walking, I could hear the dogs beginning to stir.
Two, maybe three, starting to bark.

Only 25 feet to go now, and I could see my target, the telephone pole, approaching fast.

The dogs were starting to go nuts, but it’s likely the owners have to endure that several times a night as other people walk by, so I wasn’t too concerned.

So now I’ve made it to the pole—and just to show how polite I am about this kind of thing, I actually tied the sign to the pole with a string, so as not to damage the pole.

Then I set it down, facing his gate, and walked the 75 feet or so back to my car, hopped in, and drove away.

Mission Accomplished.

Two minutes later I’m back home, and The Girlfriend says: “let’s go back and see the sign”.

Chuckling, we hopped in the car for the two minute ride back.

Much to our surprise…it was gone!

Apparently the owners have been sitting up, awaiting The Apocalypse all night, and now they’re sitting around the living room looking at my sign and spitting and fuming at the desecration of…well, as it turns out, the only thing desecrated was their minds, I guess.

After all, the poster was not on their property—in fact, no one even crossed over onto their side of the street during the entire event. And nothing was damaged in any way…and the sign didn’t even desecrate Our Dear Sarah Palin.

(By the way, if you’re married and obsessed with Sarah Palin…how awkward do you think that must be?)

And apparently after spending the entire night waiting for the attack on his sign that never came…he’s now imported the infected sign…the Liberal Trojan Horse, if you will…onto his compound—right into the gated community of one home…where it is even now probably fueling his delusions of disaster.

So I guess I did what I set out to do. I sent a friendly message, it obviously affected the poor souls hiding behind the giant security gate…and even now, I suspect the thing they just can’t get out of their minds is that Barack Obama is going to be inaugurated, whether they like it or not, and all the denial and fear and paranoia in the world isn’t going to make the reality of it go away.

All in all…a pretty good start to a most excellent day.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

On Saying Goodbye, Or, A Few Words About Molly Ivins

We can now actually see the signs that the end has come.

There are bleachers being built, there are rehearsals under way, and Senators are gathering to consider whether they’ll offer advice and give consent.

There will be millions of words written about the past eight years and what has been wrought upon the world, but for today I have a simple thought to put upon the table:

I wish Molly Ivins was writing about 600 of them.

“It's time to give thanks, and I want to start off with a great, big thank you for the top American movement conservatives and all the fun we've had since Election Day. I know I promised not to gloat after this election was over, but I'm not talking unseemly gloating -- I'm talking about moments so brilliantly hilarious the only option is to put your head down on the desk and howl.”

--Thanks—No, Seriously, by Molly Ivins, November 23, 2006

It was because of Molly that I knew about Dubya, even before he was a serious candidate. She warned us back in 1999 (when writing about a stay of execution granted by the Supreme Court for a Canadian citizen based on treaty violations by Texas courts) that the then-Governor didn’t really care about our friends and allies…even as she reminded us about Texas and its odd fascination with the death penalty:

“Our governor replied to concerned Canadians with something of a swagger, "If you're a Canadian and you come to our state, don't murder anybody." Sound advice. But our own U.S. government, you may recall, raised Cain with the government of Singapore for caning a delinquent American teenager, and we also raised some when Turkey decided to amputate the feet of two Americans held in prison there…”

--From the Molly Ivins column of January 14th, 1999

She warned us that he was not going to be much on protecting the environment, either…and she did it long before Kyoto was a part of the Presidential capitulation lexicon:

“Good times! Protests, arrests, people raising Cain in the halls of power. Well, actually, it was the sidewalk in front of the Governor's Mansion.

As one who admires a succinctly made political case, I can do no better than to quote the full-page ad run by the protesters in this instance: "Texas Needs to Quit Coddling Polluters. Call Governor Bush and ask him why polluter profits are more important than children's health."”

--From the Molly Ivins column of April 20th, 1999

And speaking of children’s health: were you surprised that Mr. Bush and elements of the Republic Party are so adamantly against SCHIP?

Molly wasn’t.
Consider these comments from a June 1st, 2000, story about the struggles of a woman with spinal bifida to graduate from high school (coincidentally, Kristy Renya, the woman in question, graduated the same night as the Bush daughters from the same high school…Austin High):

“Governor, I think you should know there is not one single thing you have ever done in public office that has helped the Reyna family. If you've ever wondered why I seem a little sour about your record, chalk it up to the Reynas.

I know you've helped the oil industry, and the insurance industry, and the funeral industry, and the herbal-diet industry, and the utility industry, and all those air polluters with your new voluntary clean-up program — all those people who have given so generously to your campaigns. But everything you have ever done that touched the life of the Reynas has made it harder for them.

When Big Rudy [Kristy’s father] wasn't working, the other kids had no health insurance. Kristy got Medicaid and SSI from the federal government. (The Republicans in Congress wanted the SSI taken away on the grounds that poor parents like Hope might have coached their children into "faking disability." You should come and see Kristy's "fake disability" some time.)

You wanted to keep 200,000 Texas children like the Reynas off the new federal children's health insurance program, even though it would hardly cost the state. But then, maybe you agree with your Health Commissioner Reyn Archer that health insurance isn't important.”

And here we are, eight years later, and Molly’s concerns have come home to roost--but it’s not surprising that she would have been so prescient…after all, she actually knew Mr. Bush personally from all the way back when they attended prep schools in Houston.

“…I think one of the most attractive things about Texans is that they really don't give a shit what you think of them.”

--From a Salon interview, February 18, 2003

So I guess I can say that Molly warned me, long in advance, that this President would be about as useful as spit on a biscuit…and even more than that, she made a large part of my education about the never-too-clear nature of practical politics—and the meanness it can sometimes bring out in otherwise nice people—a lot more fun than it might have been otherwise.

“…Always reminds me of any guy I ever had dinner with at the Midland Petroleum Club. You come away saying, gosh what a swell bunch of fellows. Thank God they aren’t running the world.”

--From a Democracy Now interview, July 13, 2004

“…not to mention, of course, that reality is usually a 17-sided affair to begin with.”

--From a May 2001 interview with the Special Libraries Association

And I wanted her to see the end of this Presidency—badly—but as we all know, it was not to be.

I think about Molly when I write nowadays—and when I do I try to remember that we’re writing, in the end, about people and their lives. I try to do it with a sense of fairness, and I try to avoid demonizing even those I think are fools or worse…and I even slip a hello to Molly, Carol Burnett style, into my stories (watch for the word “numbnuttery”) from time to time.

So as this Presidency comes to an end, I’ll be enjoying the moment for two, as it were; and I hope you have a chance to do the same.

Don’t gloat too much—and go easy on the bourbon—and by this time next week we’ll be seeing the dawn of a new day.

I think Molly would have liked that.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

On Wild Weather, Or, A Note To California

In our last conversation there was some mention of snow in my part of the world (the western slope of Washington’s Cascade Mountains); but all that water has instead been falling as rain the past few days...washing away all the snow that had accumulated in the lowlands...and much of the several feet of snow that has fallen in the mountains over the past two weeks.

The result of all that water, all at once (many areas saw more than 10 inches of rain in 48 hours), has been a flood event unlike any I’ve seen in decades of living in this area.

The Girlfriend’s Mother lives in San Diego (where she has had her own series of exciting emergency events); and to keep her reassured I sent along a note describing how it went—and for quite a few of us, how it’s still going.

By the time I was done I realized I’d written a story—and that’s what I have for you today, Gentle Reader...a few words about Big Weather and how we deal with it.

Well, anyway, they come over to help us celebrate the Golden
Wedding and it was pretty crimpy weather and the furnace don't seem
to heat up no more like it used to and Mother made the remark that
she hoped this winter wouldn't be as cold as the last, referring to
the winter previous. So Edie said if she was us, and nothing to keep
us home, she certainly wouldn't spend no more winters up here and why
didn't we just shut off the water and close up the house and go down
to Tampa, Florida?

--From “The Golden Honeymoon”, Ring Lardner, Jr.

A few comments before we get to the letter, if I may:

--First, some of the names have been changed to protect the innocent...and some haven’t.

--Additionally, you should know that this is the follow on to other notes on the same topic. I will add context as needed.

--The original note did not contain links...which means you, Gentle Reader, are getting extra “value added” content for your reading dollar.

With all that said, let’s get to the note I sent to San Diego:

When I talked to you the other day Seattle was cut off from every other major city on the West Coast, but things are almost back to normal now.

It was impossible to even get from Seattle to Tacoma, but I-5 is now open all the way south to Portland and north to Vancouver, BC.

Some of the area near where [The Girlfriend] might have to transfer if [her place of employment] were to ever close (the town of Pacific) is still flooded because they are releasing water on the town to relieve strain on a dam upriver. They will be under water for at least a few more days because it will rain again tomorrow, and that means they will have to keep releasing water from the dam onto the town.

Snoqualmie Pass (I-90) has finally opened...which means trucks can now go from Seattle to the Midwest and East Coast...but the State Department of Transportation traffic advisory radio says that driving, stopping, and parking are prohibited on the shoulders of I-90 from North Bend to Easton (about 70 miles) because the flooding might have undermined the roadway--which means if you stop your car on the side of the road it might collapse under you. The unspoken message? Don't get a flat tire.

We have never heard that kind of message from the DOT radio before.

(It is reported that the DOT had to clear 1 million cubic feet of snow in one day to keep Snoqualmie Pass open. Of course, avalanche control makes the opening an intermittent thing, and new snow piling up over old snow makes the problem worse.)

It is not possible to do the loop that we took with Diana from Seattle to Roslyn (where "Northern Exposure" was filmed...we went there with [The Girlfriend’s Sister]) and then on to Leavenworth (the Bavarian town up north in the mountains) because the road going north is both flooded and subject to landslides...or it's already covered by landslides.

That's about 100 miles of road closed, and there is no known date for reopening the road. (As of this writing only 40 miles of the road remains closed...still with no known date for reopening.)

Most towns are now no longer cut off around here...and my friend Sadie put a note up on her MySpace page to tell people that she had 6 feet of water around her house. She lives in Snoqualmie, which was one of the towns completely cut off from everywhere else during the flood. Most houses in Snoqualmie are elevated because it floods so often, and she basically lives on the second floor, which many other people there also do. She has horses, and she said they were also safe. (Sadly, we just learned that her dog, Mia, has now gone if you happen to see a pit bull/English bulldog mix wandering around looking lost...)

She did not leave even though Snoqualmie residents were told to evacuate.
Because she had no way to evacuate the horses, she stayed.

I called her to check up on her during the flooding. She said she was sick of being housebound by herself and wanted to go out. The Girlfriend was sitting next to me in the car while we were talking, and suggested Sadie could use a rowboat. What The Girlfriend did not know is that Sadie does have a rowboat, and the problem was that her property is surrounded by blackberries that are more than 6 feel tall...and a locked gate.

She was telling me that in order to get out, in the boat, she would either have to somehow get it over the blackberries (they have sharp thorns, so you do not want to mess with them) or row up to the gate, try to find the lock that's on a chain in the water somewhere, get it unlocked, get the gate open (while floating in a rowboat), and row somewhere.

My suggestion? Float some sheets of plywood over to the berries and make a sort of bridge out of them, then drag the boat across.

She was thinking about it when we ended the call, and I still don't know what she did. The advantage of the plywood was that it wouldn't weigh anything to get it over to the berries, so she could float several sheets over in one trip.

I forget to mention...when we were talking to her there was only 5 feet of water out front instead of 6, so it was going down.
She had also just got her power back after about 24 hours of being dark.

In Carnation, today, (about 15 miles down the valley from us) and also in Duvall (about 20 miles downstream), they were still using helicopters to make 911 calls because the fire department couldn't get in; but the National Guard was expected to be able to get in with their vehicles tonight. Most people there won't have power until the flooding dies down...probably another day or two.

There are towns like Arlington up north that are still getting lots of water from upriver (every river in western Washington flooded, many to all-time records), so it will be a few more days for them.

We are seeing big potholes, of course, because the ground under the roads is either saturated and muddy...or washed away.

The intersection right next door is still flooding, but it is no longer 2 feet deep on the road, just a few inches.

Our front door is at least 10 feet above the spot that's flooding, so it would have to get at least 12 feet deep there before we would even begin to be concerned...and it only got about 3 feet deep at the height of the "all-time record" flooding, which means we are quite safe--unless Noah moves in and starts a boat building project.

Have a look at the local paper's stories...

...and the CBS News version, from a week ago, reporting on the snowfall that caused much of the flooding when it melted the past couple of days.

So there you go: we did fine, some of my friends are no longer cut off (but they were)...and to make things exciting, we have at least one, maybe two more good soakings on the way before we get a few days of actual dry weather. (I’m guessing, but we probably got somewhere between 10 and 15 inches of rain in two days...along with the snowmelt, which probably added another 3 to 6 inches of water to the rainfall for everyone to deal with.)

I'll let you know if we get any more good stories...but let me tell you, this was some big-time flood.

Hopefully you saw the pictures I pointed you to in my first note. There are about 25 there now, if you did not see them all.

So that’s the note I sent...but I have an update or two for today’s readers:

--Lots of pavement was torn away from important roads all over this half of the state by the flooding, and a substantial number of them will be closed for either days or weeks until they can be rebuilt.

--You know the “lost dog” and “lost cat” signs that occasionally appear in your neighborhood? The Girlfriend reports that she saw a “lost koi” sign today on the way home...which was presumably the result of a pond being overrun by flooding.

Quite a month we’ve had up here—and winter is really just getting started.

Of course, there is a bright side: it’s kept me from having to write about the minutiae of the transition...and it’s allowed me to follow the Gaza story more closely—a subject to which we’ll return next time we get together.