Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Day in the Life of Joe Republican

Look What Those Liberals Did

The following came in an e-mail and since we occupy a backwater of the Internet, everyone else probably has seen it before. But if not, it's a pretty good description of a certain segment of the political spectrum.

A Day in the Life of Joe Republican

Joe gets up at 6 a.m. and fills his coffeepot with water for his morning coffee. The water is clean and good because some tree-hugging commie liberal fought for minimum water-quality standards.

With his first swallow of coffee, Joe takes his daily medications His medications are safe to take because some evil lefty bomb-throwers fought to insure their safety and that they work as advertised.

All but $10 of Joe's medications are paid for by his employer's medical plan because some fire-breathing lazy ass union workers fought their employers for paid medical insurance -- now Joe gets it too. Never would he turn it down.

He prepares his morning breakfast, bacon and eggs. Joe's bacon is safe to eat because some girly-man liberal fought for laws to regulate the meat packing industry.

In his morning shower, Joe reaches for his shampoo. His bottle is properly labeled with each ingredient and its amount in the total contents because some crybaby liberal fought for his right to know what he was putting on his body and how much it contained. Joe dresses, walks outside and takes a deep breath. The air he breathes is healthy because some environmentalist wacko troublemaking militant fought for laws to stop industries from polluting our air.

Then Joe walks to the subway station for his government-subsidized ride to work. It saves him considerable money in parking and transportation fees because some fancy-pants limp-wristed freethinkng asshole fought for affordable public transportation, which gives everyone the opportunity to be a contributor.

Joe begins his work day. He has a good job with excellent pay, medical benefits, retirement, paid holidays and vacation because some fire-breathing Viet Cong-loving union members fought and died for these working standards. Joe's employer pays these high standards because Joe's employer doesn't want his employees to call the union in. So Joe benefits from what others have gained.

If Joe is hurt on the job or becomes unemployed, he'll get a workers compensation or unemployment check because some stupid pinko troublemakers didn't think Joe should lose his home because of a temporary misfortune.

At noontime Joe needs to make a bank deposit so he can pay some bills. Joe's deposit is federally insured by the FSLIC because some godless liberal red wanted to protect Joe's money from unscrupulous bankers who ruined the banking system before the Great Depression. He can thank that Stalinist Franklin D. Roosevelt for that.

Joe has to pay his Fannie Mae-underwritten mortgage and his below-market federal student loan because some elitist pointy-headed liberal decided that Joe and the whole society would be better off if he was educated and earned more money over his lifetime. That's okay, but the bastards tricked him because he has to pay taxes. Bush will fix that, he tells himself.

Joe gets home from work. He plans to visit his father this evening at his farm home in the country. He gets in his car for the drive. His car is among the safest in the world because some America-hating liberal fought for car safety standards. He arrives at his boyhood home. His was the third generation to live in the house financed by Farmers' Home Administration because bankers didn't want to make rural loans. The house didn't have electricity until some big-government New Deal Stalinist liberal stuck his nose where it didn't belong and demanded rural electrification.

Joe is happy to see his father, who is now retired. His father lives on Social Security and a union pension because some wine-drinking, cheese-eating Marxist made sure he could take care of himself so Joe wouldn't have to.

Joe gets back in his car for the ride home, and turns on a radio talk show. The radio host keeps saying that liberals are bad and conservatives are good. He doesn't mention that over the decades the beloved Republicans have fought to defeat every protection and benefit Joe enjoys throughout his day.

Joe agrees with the talk-radio loudmouth: "We don't need those big-government liberals ruining our lives! After all, I'm a self-made man and a good Republican and I believe all Americans should take care of themselves, just like I have!"

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Trade winds

Ichiro Must Go

UPDATE: The only player the Mariners traded was left relief specialist Arthur Rhodes. Ichiro stayed put. So did Raul Ibanez, who set a Mariner record with six RBI in one inning Monday and tied another this evening with 14 RBI in three games. After that outburst, the Mets might be regretting their failure to close a deal with Seattle.

We are temporarily abandoning discussions of politics and public policy because there is a far more important and pressing issue at hand. That, of course, is the future of the Seattle Mariners.

There is absolutely nothing important about the Mariners this season. They are the worst team in the American League. They already have waived two players who were in their Opening Day lineup and the rest of the team has been in a season-long funk. When their pitching staff actually pitches well (which is rarely), they don’t score runs. When their batters hit, their pitchers explode. They have some usually exceptional fielders who are having career years for errors committed.

The trading deadline, however, looms at the end of the month. It’s very likely that Jared Washburn, the team’s best pitcher in the past couple of weeks, is going to the Yankees. Arthur Rhodes, a left-handed reliever, is coveted by a few teams. But the big trade rumor is that our favorite Mariner, Raul Ibanez, will go to the Mets.

Definitely, the Mariners should trade an outfielder, but not Ibanez. They should dump Ichiro Suzuki before his skills diminish further and his trade value collapses.

Ibanez is a consummate pro and a team player. He is on his way to his third straight season of over 100 RBI. He is not very fast, but he still plays a decent left field and leads the team in outfield assists. I’m sure he’d love to play for the Mets, since he was born in New York. If he does, I wish him well.

Ichiro has been considered one of the best leadoff hitters in the game ever since he migrated to Seattle from Japan in 2001. The problem is, he’s not. Leadoff guys are supposed to get on base, and while Ichiro gets a lot of hits, almost all singles, he doesn’t walk very much. Thus his on-base percentage is mediocre for a leadoff hitter. On the Mariners, Willie Blomquist has a higher OBP. Willie who? Exactly. Blomquist’s batting average is 30 points lower than Ichiro’s, but his OBP is several points higher. Blomquist is just as efficient as Ichiro in stealing bases, as well. The Mariners would score more runs if he were in the leadoff spot.

Over the years, we’ve come to believe that Ichiro is primarily stat driven, and the stat that gets his motor running is number of base hits. In 2004, when he hit .372 and set a season record for hits, we often wondered whether he could hit .400 if he paid attention to the strike zone. It was obvious even then that he swung at a lot of bad pitches, expecting to use his speed to beat out routine infield grounders.

It appears he’s slowed down a bit, as reflected by his .295 batting average. He still doesn’t seem to know the strike zone, or if he does, he doesn’t care about it.

The number of times he has swung at an obvious ball on a 3 – 1 count indicates he would rather gamble on getting a base hit rather than a take a sure-thing walk. On several of those occasions, he has grounded into a double play.

And then there are the times he has tried to bunt for a base hit with a runner on second base, whereas a single that gets out of the infield would score the runner.

There are reports that Ichiro hasn’t been motivated to excel this year because the team is losing. He doesn’t get it. The superstar is supposed to play harder and motivate the rest of the team when the going gets tough. Instead, the only Mariners putting out are Ibanez and Jose Lopez.

It’s likely that most of baseball’s general managers are hip to Ichiro, but he still is a superstar who draws big crowds. He’d be huge in Los Angeles or New York. (Also in San Francisco, but the Giants aren’t in a pennant race this year.)

There are other downsides: he’s almost 35 (a year younger than Ibanez) and has four years left on a $90 million contract. The Mariners would have to get a lot of really good prospects, and probably at least a couple of established players, in return.

That last negative, however, is why the Mariners should trade him. Under the era of the hastily-departed Bill Bavasi, the team made some egregious moves. Bavasi signed free agents to ridiculous contracts based on flimsy evidence (e.g., Adrian Beltre, signed to a mega contract after one anomalous season of 48 home runs, who since has been just fair to middling.) Worse, Bavasi traded top prospects away for questionable veterans. Now, the Mariners minor league farm system is depleted and weak. If they trade a couple of pitchers this season, we wonder who is going to be able to get the opposite team out.

This year has already been written off. Probably the same for next season. But for rebuilding a team to compete in a few more years, Ichiro needs to go.

It Came From Outer Space

A Solar Power Solution?

This Op Ed piece in The New York Times certainly fits the definition of unconventional folly. Why is the James Bond movie theme music running through my mind?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

No Longer a Serf to Turf

Farming the Front Yard

The latest issue of The New Yorker, which raised so many eyebrows with the allegedly satirical cartoon of Barak and Michelle Obama on the cover, carried a different sort of heresy in its back pages. In an essay purporting to be a review of a book published in 1841, Elizabeth Kolbert asks, “Americans can’t live without their lawns—but how long can they live with them?”

The book is titled “Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening,” by one Andrew Jackson Downing, whose family tree may or may not have a branch ending with Michael “Mouse” Tolliver. The book is somewhat irrelevant to Kolbert’s discourse, except that Downing was the first proponent of well-groomed lawns. Kolbert then spends the next four pages debunking that idea.

She points out that every year, Americans spend forty billion dollars on lawn maintenance. She notes that many jurisdictions in the U.S. have laws or covenants required a regularly mowed lawn. All of this lawn care creates environmental havoc. Lawns don’t naturally get smooth and velvety—they require loads of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which then run off into rivers and lakes. That in turn ends up in drinking water and also causes algae blooms that kill off most other life in lakes. Her assessment is that lawns are bad for us.

Portlanders don’t seem to need much convincing about that. My highly unscientific survey of the front yards of inner southeast Portland shows that nearly a third of them have no turf grass growing on them (Out of respect for privacy and my own safety, I did not survey the back yards). About a fifth of the front yards with a lawn had a very small one surrounded by other kinds of landscaping.

Personally, I’ve hated lawns since I was 10 years old. That was when my parents moved into a big brick ranch style house in the Gateway district. The house was on a huge double corner lot—116th Ave., 117th Ave. and Multnomah St. I spent my first summer there picking rocks out of the ground and pulling up weeds. Every summer thereafter, until heading off to college, I mowed the broad expanse on a weekly basis. It took well over an hour to do it my father’s way, which was to mow the lawn in one direction and then again in a cross direction.

Thus it seems odd that until this year, I put up with lawns in all of the homes I have owned. Being generally lazy, the prospect of digging up all that sod and then disposing of it seemed too much of a chore. That had to change in my current house, where I have lived the past two years. Last year, my back yard garden was almost barren, mainly due to some big trees that blocked all the sun. So this year, with some hired help, I dug up the front yard and planted it all in garden: raised beds of tomatoes, basil, peppers, beans and cucumbers, plus corn, squash and raspberries on their own. Had one of the back yard trees removed; it provided chips in front to keep the weeds down. Then I put up a low fence to make it a bit harder on veggie poachers and planted grapes along the fence.

Right now, the front yard is a lot more appealing than it was when there were just grass and a couple of hydrangas. I've met more neighbors in the past few weeks while working on my garden than in the previous two years. Some of them ask me for gardening advice and some of them give me gardening tips. We all talk about organic gardening, though I couldn't sell any of my produce as organic because the soil hasn't been farmed organically for the requisite number of years and I don't know where a lot of the starts or seeds came from. I haven't had any need for pesticides and the soil was amended (that's farmer speak) with aged compost from my Metro composter. When the chicken coop gets put up in the back yard, I'll have all the fertilizer I need.

The best part, other than not mowing a lawn, is eating from my front yard. I've already eaten four tomatoes, plus a few baskets of raspberries. The summer squash are just now big enough to pick and many of the peppers are also getting there. Which is amazing, since I didn't plant anything until after Memorial Day. Looks like a bumper crop this year.

My only concern is what the yard will look like in November, when the plants start dying out and the rains make a mess of the yard. I'm not worrying too much yet. Maybe someone out there in the blogosphere has a suggestion.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

All the Latest Rage

Forget "Bike Friendly" ... Just Make it Work

Recent incidents of road rage pitting automobile drivers against bicyclists may tarnish Portland’s image as a “bike friendly” city. In truth, these are isolated events and though disturbing, not as common as the news media implies. In fact, when a cyclist attacked a motorist with his bike, it was big news precisely because it had never happened before.

Nevertheless, I think it’s time to shed the “bike friendly” slogan. Portland should aspire to become something more than a happy place of free-spirited pedalers. Our “bike friendly” image conjures up a society in which bicyclists have special privileges and don't have to obey basic traffic rules.

There are plenty of bike anarchists cruising the streets, running red lights, cutting off motorists, flipping birds and giving all other bicyclists a bad name. It seems that city officials are afraid to clamp down on the bike punks lest they appear anti-bike. They have a reputation to uphold best bicycling city in the nation, according to the annual Bicycling magazine ranking, plus plaudits from all over the world.

The problem with this lenient attitude is that it consigns bicycling to a novelty status. It's something young, “creative class” hipsters do, primarily on the easy streets of the inner east side of town. Thus, our bicycling culture becomes a sub-culture. For the most part, this culture is benign. Thousands of people in Portland get around nicely without owning a car. They also tend to shop more locally and connect with their neighborhoods. Of course, they also are doing the right thing environmentally.

The culture, however, tolerates bike outlaws, and these outlaws tend to incite road rage among drivers, which leads to dangerous confrontations. Conflict on the roads scares away potential bicyclists. In a survey last year, an amazing 60 percent of Portland citizens said they would like to bike at least some of the time, but are too afraid of accidents and injuries.

Save Your Head

Current bicycle laws need to be enforced and at least one new law needs to be enacted (and also enforced). As I have pedaled around the town the past several years, I've notice the bikers who flaunt traffic laws are also not likely to wear helmets or have proper lights on the front and back of their bikes. Riding without lights is illegal in Portland, but it's rare that anyone gets busted for it. Bicycles need to have lights so that other vehicles can see what's on the road. It's not only a hazard for cars, but other bicyclists. A couple of evenings in the past year, I narrowly avoided T-boning totally dark bikes that ran stop signs at the same time I entered an intersection. I suspect there have been some pretty serious injuries resulting from bike collisions on the side streets of southeast Portland. Do we have to wait until someone dies?

There is no law that requires adult bicyclists to wear helmets, but there should be. Seattle has such a law. In Oregon, we require motorcyclists to wear helmets and of course, all drivers have to put on their seat belts. Yes, should a bike helmet statute be enacted, a lot of bikers would wail about the jackboots of government trampling on their freedom and others would contend that helmets mess up their hair. The same arguments were made about motorcycle helmet and seatbelt laws. Eventually, people came to realize these laws were in their best interests.

A few months ago, I had a conversation with an emergency room nurse at Emanual Hospital, which is where most inner city accident victims are treated. He told me that of all the fatal bicycle crashes over the past decade, 80 percent of the victims had not worn a bike helmet. That means four out of every five people who died in bike accidents might have lived, had they worn a helmet.

If bicycling is going to become more than a “keep-Portland-weird” experience, the city needs to crack down on the bike-riding scofflaws. It's not that the police aren't ticketing cyclists. For a time, they had a bike speed trap set up at Southeast 23rd Ave. and Salmon St. Salmon is a “bike boulevard,” which allows bikers to travel several blocks without a stop sign. But at 23rd and Salmon, which is at the bottom of a steep hill, there is a four-way stop. Now, anyone who rides a bike knows that you want to keep the bike in motion whenever possible. Coming off that hill, you want to let your momentum carry you another block or two. So the serious biker slows down a the intersection,but doesn't come to a complete stop. And—bingo--gets a ticket.

I've been railing here against bike anarchy, but in this case, I think a chainsaw in the wee hours of the morning could solve the problem at this intersection.

As Emerson wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” That intersection, and several others, needs to be changed to clear the way for bikes. General traffic rules governing bicyclists, however, usually have sound reasoning behind them and should be enforced.

Get Serious

Of course, to get really serious about bicycling as a transportation option, City Hall needs to come up with a plan for cycling that involves the entire city, not just downtown, the Pearl, Northwest Portland and the close-in east side. If you live in Irvington or Laurelhurst, you have a plethora of choices: MAX, bike boulevards, bike paths, good bus lines and probably a streetcar in the next decade. If you live in Lents or Parkrose, the options aren't as plentiful.

Although City Hall frequently seems to think the eastern city limits are at the crest of Mt. Tabor, a huge number of people live between 82nd and Gresham. These people have to drive their car to get to work, since there are no other viable options. Oh sure, there are bike lanes on some of the streets, but the streets are wide and the cars move faster than, say, on Belmont, which makes riding a bike considerably more daunting.

Instead of shelling out $150 million over the next decade to extend streetcars throughout the east side (mostly in areas already well-served by Tri-Met and bike paths), the money could be better spent acquiring rights-of-way for segregated biking lanes and improvement of bike boulevards, particularly in outlying neighborhoods.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Columbia River Crossing

We're Getting Railroaded -- What We Need Is A Railroad

For starters, you have to be suspicious when the powers that be—and that be all the regional powers—call it something other than a bridge, though that’s what it is.

It’s the humongous juggernaut of a 12-lane (plus bike lanes and light rail!) bridge over the Columbia River that seems unstoppable, despite a lot of valid questions about it. The conventional wisdom says the current I-5 bridges (there are two of them) are causing major traffic congestion that is only bound to get worse. They also are old and built on old growth Douglas fir pylons (which sounds pretty stable to me, but that’s supposed to be an argument in favor of tearing them down).

The project is called the Columbia River Crossing, I guess because just calling it a new bridge is too, ahem, pedestrian for something costing $4.2 billion.

The scariest part of the CRC is that either it’s going to be a colossal waste of money—or be just the down payment on a continuous line of similar projects costing many more billions.

As the late Sen. Everett Dirkson said, “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it adds up to real money.”

Yet there is a need for major improvements on a bridge over the Columbia. Unfortunately, it sits a mile downriver from the I-5 bridge. This is the aged railroad bridge that is one of many obstacles to high-speed rail between Portland and Seattle.

Last Friday, I attended a very lively debate on the CRC at the City Club of Portland. Arguing in favor of the project was Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder, whose green credentials include founding the Bicycle Transportation Alliance. In opposition was economist Joe Cortwright, a guy to whom public officials usually listen because he has the correct numbers on his side.

These are two intelligent, conscientious guys and this might be the only political issue they disagree on. Rex is being viewed as a sellout among environmentalists in town, but I think he is just making some hard choices, based upon the facts as he sees them.

One of Cortwright's main contentions was that the project's supporters think they are hard-nosed realists, but they are ignoring the current reality. “Their projections on increased automobile traffic are based on gas prices being less than $2 a gallon,” he said. With the cost of regular over $4 a gallon, driving habits are going to change.

Burkholder countered that the cost of gas was not factored in. He observed that when gas prices go up, people will continue driving, but “swap out that F-250 for an economy car.”

That's probably true over the long haul, as long as gas prices continue to rise. But what about the people who already are driving the economy car? Most likely, they don't have any room in their budget for a doubling of their fuel costs, so they will have to cut back on driving.

And if they keep cutting back, there is no need to add more road capacity.

Pig in the Python

But what if Burkholder is right and driving habits remain the same, and thousands of new commuters are added to the I-5 corridor every year as population grows? What happens is that those 12 lanes that would make the bridge a breeze to cross will funnel down to two right in the middle of Portland. The biggest bottleneck on the freeway today is the one-lane exit off I-5 to I-84, which generally backs up traffic north to the Lloyd Center exit or beyond. With more cars coming down I-5, that jam could easily stretch up to Lombard, or at least past the Fremont Bridge ramp.

So that traffic snarl will mean another big project to add more lanes to I-5 and the 405 in the middle of town, where acquiring the real estate is going to be expensive. To keep traffic flowing, it might be necessary to rebuild the Marquan and Fremont bridges, too. And then more lanes down I-5 through the Terwilliger curves. Like a pig in a python, the congestion will keep moving south.

At the City Club debate, the real answer was brought up by Ray Polani, the tireless champion of rail transportation. Polani is legendary for figuring out an angle to put his agenda across at City Club forums no matter what the topic, be it public education, drug addiction or major league baseball. His question on Friday was spot on: “Why is there no consideration or funding to improve the railroad bridge?” he asked.

Burkholder's answer essentially was that the financing scheme for the I-5 bridge, using tolls and federal highway funds, can't be transferred to the railroad bridge, although he supports upgrading that bridge, too.

When it comes to interstate travel and transport, rail is where the priorities should be. Instead, our local and regional governments and quasi-governments are expanding freeways and airports.

Poor Track Record

Amtrak currently runs Spanish-made Talgo trains between Portland and Seattle capable of making the trip in about 90 minutes. But they can't get up to top speed (124 mph) because of a bunch of places where the track isn't safe. So the trip actually takes around four hours. Or an hour more than driving at the speed limit, and who does that?

If the tracks, grades and crossings--including a new bridge over the Columbia—were improved, both passenger and freight trains could travel faster and more efficiently. The freight component is huge. Convoys of semi's clog up I-5 virtually all day long. Truck drivers try to avoid rush hours, but these days, there are too many hours where traffic comes to a standstill.

If the rail system isn't adequately supported, we may face a future where personal automobile travel on the interstate highway system is exorbitantly tolled or taxed, or severely restricted to allow the movement of freight and essential vehicles such as ambulances, fire trucks, delivery vans and police cars. I wouldn't be opposed to that. Nor would I be opposed to segregated lanes for freight hauling only.

The real economies of scale, however, would come if more freight were shifted to rail, which can only happen if the trains move faster. Freight trains are three times more fuel efficient than diesel-burning transport trucks. Trains also can use many different sources of power, including electricity. If the railway web were expanded and made more sophisticated, it could almost eliminate the need for long haul trucking.

Meanwhile, most of the vehicles going across the I-5 bridge are used for transporting one or two people from some place in Vancouver to some place in Portland, or vice verse. The only non-car options are mediocre bus service or taking a long and nerve-wracking bike ride across the 205 bridge, which has a bike lane. I don't know anyone who uses it. The noise created by all the vehicular traffic makes this ride extremely unpleasant.

Thus, an integral part of the Columbia River Crossing project is light rail to Vancouver. A recent news article in The Oregonian speculated that Vancouver, 13 years after voting down light rail, is now ready to support it. Or at least its elected officials are. Of course, the Couv's city councilors know that the City of Portland and Metro have already stipulated that light rail be a part of the new bridge. So they have to go along with it to get what they want, which are more auto lanes over the river.

If they simply wanted a rail system between the two cities, they could upgrade the railroad bridge at far less than $4 billion. Then, as is being done between Wilsonville and Beaverton, the regular rail track could carry a series of small commuter trains. These trains might be less fuel efficient than our standard MAX cars, but the track already exists; eliminating the need to buy land and lay another track will save vast amounts of money and energy.

The Washington Department of Transportation has been gradually upgrading the tracks from Portland to Seattle and has a general plan that stretches out another ten years and eventually will cut Amtrak travel time between the cities to 2 ½ hours.

More money would speed up that process, such as a piece of that $4 billion scheduled for the CRC white elephant. The Port of Portland, too, could help out. Currently, the Port is coveting Colwood National Golf Course for an expansion to PDX. Even though higher fuel prices is going to curtail air travel. Consider, too, that one out of every six commercial planes at PDX is either headed for Seattle or just came from there.

And if there are schemes to expand PDX, I'll bet there also are plans for a bigger Sea-Tac as well. Now we are dealing with different agencies and jurisdictions, but there should be a way to take the money out of those expansion projects and put them into high speed rail. Maybe it will happen when we get regime change in Washington, D.C.

There's more info at the Council for a Livable Future.