Friday, December 06, 2002

Snow Job

<BackgroundMusic cut=”Colorado” album=”National Lampoon Lemmings”/>

Just finished shoveling the cars out. I cleared the walk yesterday (as required by local laws, of the unenforced variety), so it just needed a bit of dusting off. The guy next door was doing the same thing; I remarked that we had to do the shoveling now, or the snow might melt before we get it shoveled. He got a laugh out of that. He seems like a nice guy; unfortunately, like everybody here in Suburbia, he doesn't seem to be really interested in talking to a mere neighbor.

There are advantages to being unemployed. I didn't have to drive in it. People from colder climes have trouble believing just what goes on in the Washington, DC area when it snows. Problem is, south of DC, it doesn't really snow that much, and north of DC, it snows enough for people to learn how to handle it. DC is right on the climatic boundary. Add in the problem that we have people from (quite literally!) all over the world here; each with their very own driving style. Top off with the fact that snow generally falls at 0 degrees C, and tends to turn to freezing slush immediately. Result is one all-time godawful mess.

A friend of mine had a visitor from Michigan during one of our little toy blizzards. "Step aside" says he. "Let an expert do the driving." He drove her car straight into the median. Didn't realize that the DC brand of slush is actually slipperier than ice.

The physics is simple. What makes ice slippery is the thin film of water between the ice and your foot or tire. The colder the ice, the thinner the film of water and the less slippery the whole system is. I’ve driven on snow in Maine in January; it’s a little slipperier than sand, but not much. No problem. Here, we get a mix of water and ice on the road, which is the worst of all possible worlds.

This year, we have an additional problem. Usually, before we get any significant snow, the County has come around with their big vacuum truck to pick up the leaves. Not this year! On the side streets, all that snow is sitting on top of a layer of leaves. Gonna be interesting when the snow starts to melt; problem with leaves in the street is that they block water drainage. This means that the snow melts, pools up behind the leaves, and then refreezes. Messy. Wet leaves are also seriously slippery by themselves.

There’s also the way the local news media play the snow. I think if Robert E. Lee and the Army of Virginia were suddenly reincarnated and marched on DC that it wouldn’t get as much news coverage as a few snowflakes. Some of the news shows give you useful information, like what schools and businesses are opening late or not at all; some just concentrate on showing pictures of fender-benders and the resulting traffic jams.

Snow in this area did have one good result: it helped bring down DC’s sick joke of a mayor, Marion Barry. Barry never learned the main secret of running a successful corrupt city administration, which is that people don’t care squat how much the city pays its contractors as long as the job gets done. Turns out DC was paying about three times as much per mile per year for snow removal as most places in New England, where they get real snow. And, in violation of the rule above, the snow wasn’t even getting pushed around. The contractors responsible tended to wait for the snow to melt enough so they wouldn’t have to risk actually driving in the snow they were supposed to remove. Now, this tended to be a bit of a kerfluffle every time we had a snow; what made this one different was that Soviet Premier Michael Gorbachev had been in town the previous week to talk to President Bush (no, not this President Bush. That President Bush.) There was much national media hilarity speculating on what Gorby would have thought about DC’s snow “removal”. Wasn’t long after that the FBI set up their little sting operation. (Personally, I still think it was entrapment, but a jury said “no”.)

As an aside, at one point, I worked for a Russian guy. He described how they handle snow in Moscow. Needless to say, they’re rather good at it. You can’t just push it around; if it falls in October, it’s gonna be there until April. You have to actually remove it. They have big dumpster-style trucks that pick up the snow; then it’s all trucked to a big field outside of town and dumped into a big pile. People can ski on it until May. Why don’t they pile it on the river? I dunno. Maybe it’s too heavy. Maybe the river doesn’t freeze soon enough or hard enough.

Later: A correspondant tells me that dumping that much snow in the river all at once would do Seriously Nasty Things to the local ecology. I can't see that as making that much difference to the Soviet government. A better reason might be that all that snow is seriously heavy; trying to drive a truck onto the ice and pile up snow would be seriously risky.

Colorado is, by the way, the only song I’ve seen a sign-language translator refuse to translate. American sign language is pretty salty, but Enough is Enough. Personally, I think it’s hysterically funny. Best fake John Denver I know.

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