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.

Thursday, December 05, 2002

And So It Begins ....


We'll have to give up a little freedom, they said. A bit more of a wait at airports. No nail clippers. We have to make sure that Bad Guys won't blow up the plane (with nail clippers?) No real problem; we're only interested in Bad Guys. If you're not a Bad Guy, you have nothing to worry about. After all, we're the Good Guys.

A lot of us were profoundly uneasy at this. It's just too easy to define Bad Guys as "people I disagree with". "Trust us", says the Administration. "We'll do what's right."

Well, it's started. And who is singled out for intensive scrutiny? Rich Saudi kids (the kind who did the 9/11 hijackings)? New American converts to Islam ("no fanatic like a convert")? High level couriers (the guys who pay cash for one-way first-class tickets at the last minute)?

Nope. Elderly anti-war nuns. Left-leaning journalists. Green Party organizers. Yep. To the Administraiton, the Green Party is on the same level as Al Qaeda. Elderly war-protesting nuns are going to hijack airplanes. Yeah. Right.

Look, we all know what's going on here. The Republican Party is right and they know it. Anybody who disagrees with them is wrong, and shouldn't be allowed to confuse things. A person who is so deluded as to disagree with the Republican National Committee is capable of anything at all. Keeping them off of airplanes is just the first step ....

This could explain a lot about the 2002 elections. The way things normally go, the Democrats should have picked up strength. The Republicans get plusses for kicking over the Taliban, but most of the other things they've done have not been successes. No Osama. Afghanistan is still a mess, waiting to collapse back into the anarchy that spawned the Taliban. The crusade (I think the word is proper, here) against Saddam Hussein is offending practically everybody in the world. The economy is still in the toilet. More big companies collapsing into bankruptcy, amid accusations of fraud. Massive payoffs to Republican campaign contributers.

Yet we never heard any of this, either from journalists or from the Democrats. Perhaps some chains were yanked? What would happen to, say, ABC News if some of their key technical people suddenly had trouble getting on airplanes?

Just to make things more ominous, the 2002 elections were the first to make heavy use of computerized voting machines. These machines, hastily designed after the Florida disaster of 2000, have the interesting characteristic that they are totally audit-proof. That is, there is no assurance that what the machine spits out at the end of Election Day has any correlation at all to what voters punched into it. The Risks Digest has been chronicling problems with computerized voting, both theoretical and actual. See, for example, here, here, and here. I should note that the Risks Digest is probably the best regarded chronicler of risks to the public from computer systems in existance, and has been for well over a decade.

Most alarming (other than the utter cluelessness of the districts buying these pieces of crap) are the alleged ties between the voting machine manufacturers and organized crime.

Most we ever heard in the mainstream press was that some academic types don't like the voting machines. No details, no indication that the news types have any comprehension of either the technical or the political details.

It's gonna be fun to watch all the right-wing phony libertarians on the Net tapdance around this one.

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