Five theories, five directions to point fingers

In November—at least around the Great Lakes, when the gales usually come—the radio plays a song by a certain Canadian balladeer that’s rarely heard the rest of the year. I grew up with the song, and yet, it’s only an interest in submarines—that grew to other seafaring stories like those of the merchant marine—that  I came to realize how little I knew about the facts of her sinking—how little is still known, even better than forty years later.

One of the things I have come to realize is what a perfect example her story is of how tragedy is politicized by different groups for special interests, even when it seems everyone is ostensibly trying to solve the same mystery in a perfectly objective manner.

The Edmund Fitzgerald, named for the then-president of her owner, Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, was the biggest “big ship” on the Great Lakes when she was launched in 1958. She was still #5 when she went down in 1975. For those of you who haven’t grown up hearing “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” the short version of her fatal voyage goes something like this:

On November 9, 1975, “Big Fitz,” as she was known, loaded 26,110 tons of taconite (a semi-refined version of iron ore) and headed out across Lake Superior, bound for the Soo Locks and down to Lower Michigan. The worst weather on the lakes is usually encountered in late fall, and meteorologists were forecasting a bad one the next day. There are often more than one ore carrier going the same way at the same time, and this time the Arthur M. Anderson was pulling out of Two Harbors around the same time as the Fitz got into the area. The two captains started on the usual route, traveling as far south as the Keweenaw Peninsula allowed, but when the gale warnings came, decided to abandon the usual route and take a northerly route closer to the Canadian shore. The two lakers stayed to the north as long as they could, but eventually they had to turn a southerly heading—directly into the heart of the worst storm many had ever seen on the lake—to get down to Whitefish Bay, the nearest shelter for big ships.

The storm was so bad that both of the Fitz’s radar masts were washed away. To make matters worse, the storm had also knocked out power to the Whitefish Bay lighthouse. Yes, there’s a backup generator that’s supposed to kick in when the power is lost, but on that night, the light was out for several hours. Fitz was forced to rely on the Anderson, running about ten miles behind her, to tell her where she was.

And this was a terrible place to not be sure of one’s position. Shoals abound, ready to gouge a hole in the hulls of ships that stray too close to them. Worse yet, while lakes don’t have tides, they do develop seiches, where the low pressure from a storm will suck the water from an area, which can cause the water level to drop significantly below its charted levels.

It was into this: the most challenging navigation in her journey, in one of—if not the worst—storms of the century, without benefit of her primary, secondary, or tertiary means of determining her position, that Fitz steamed. She was taking on water, but not at a rate her pumps couldn’t handle.  The captain’s last transmission reported that the ship was “holding her own.” She never raised an alarm.

Anderson raised the alarm when Fitz disappeared from her radar, sweeping the area as best she could when she came on Fitz’s last position as she battled her own way to Whitefish Bay. The Coast Guard took the call, but what could they do? For years, Congress had under-equipped the Great Lakes bases—after all, they were “just lakes.” Equipment procurement was decided on by ocean requirements—where merchant vessels seldom went more than 30 minutes away from shore—but a boat in distress in the middle of Lake Superior could be more than two hours from shore, placing it out of range of most helicopters.

The Coast Guard sent the one operational “heavy weather” boat they had (stationed at the wrong end of the lake), and begged the freighters to help.  Captain Cooper took the Anderson back into the storm, and after some soul searching, Capt. Jim Erickson took the William Clay Ford out. They found nothing. By then, flotsam from the Fitz were washing up on the Canadian shore.

The Coast Guard located her within weeks, but didn’t bother to survey her until the next spring, giving the lake-bottom mud several months to cover clues as to why she went down. Better cameras surveyed it in the 1980’s, and found several things the Coast Guard’s survey missed. She was visited again in 1996, when her ship’s bell was recovered in an operation that, by the request of the families, would be the last visit to Big Fitz. Even those surveys were unable to conclusively determine why she went down. None of the major theories have ever been proven or disproven.

So what were they, and what’s so political about them?

The first theory

Over a year after the Fitz went down, the Coast Guard released it analysis: The Fitz had been in such a hurry leaving the dock, they didn’t even have their hatch covers in place. Finding no characteristic scratching on the areas of the Fitz that weren’t covered by mud or disintegrated during her sinking that would indicate she scraped a shoal, they concluded that Fitz flooded from the top because her hatches weren’t properly secured.

Bottom line: It was the crew’s fault for not being anal about safety procedures.

Winners/losers: The Coast Guard looks good for making the rules, Fitz’s crew looks bad for not following them.

The second theory

After the Coast Guard released it official finding, the National Transportation Safety Board reviewed it and gave their own conclusion. They also concluded the Fitz had flooded from the top, but believed the hatch covers to have leaked, either to poor design or inadequate maintenance. They also considered the bulkheads separating her holds to be inadequate, which allowed her water-logged cargo to shift forward, making her bow-heavy and exacerbating the flooding.

Bottom line: It was either the construction firm’s fault for cutting corners in construction and/or the owner’s fault for not giving the Fitz the maintenance it needed.

Winners/losers: The industry as a whole looks bad for putting profits over people’s lives. Government (including the NTSB and the Coast Guard) get to look like saviors protecting the common man from the greedy industrialists.

The third theory

The laker mariners as a body rejected the contention that the Fitz flooded from the top. Hatch covers weigh several tons, the crew would have certainly checked the hatches as soon as the gale warnings went out, and at worst, the hatches would only leak about a cupful—well within the capacity of the bilge pumps. They pointed out that Fitz had been far closer to the shoals than what was considered safe, and the captain had told the Anderson that part of his fence (the safety fencing that runs along the sides of the boat) was down. Now to a landlubber or weekend yachtie, a fallen railing may sound like the result of a wave crashing over the side, but to experienced lakers, it was a clear sign that Fitz had “hogged”–she had either suffered a stress fracture or struck something underwater that caused her to arch upwards amidships, causing the fence to snap under the tension. They contended that the Fitz had run aground and not felt it in the fierceness of the storm.

Bottom line: She bottomed out because she didn’t have the navigational tools she needed. (The Whitefish Bay lighthouse had known power problems that could have been addressed sooner.)

Winners/losers:The crew looks good for doing their best with a bad situation, the Federal Government looks bad for not making funds available to maintain, much less improve, navigational aids for a water system many lakers are convinced that Washington views as  “knee-deep ponds.”

The fourth theory

Taconite absorbs water. Plus, water-logged taconite can clog up the “rose box” (a guard on the pump inlets to keep cargo out of the pumps), making it impossible to pump water out of the holds.  Furthermore, the pumps are in the back of the boat; if she was down by the bow, there would be no way for that water to get to the pumps. She would get lower and lower every time a wave broke over her bow that eventually she would “nosedive.” In this case, the first inkling that she wouldn’t be coming back up again would be when her wheelhouse imploded from the water pressure, an event that would give no one any time to raise an alarm, much less escape.

Bottom line: Having pumps in the back of the boat only is a dangerous flaw; there should be a means to detect and remove water no matter where it gets into the hold.
Winners/losers: The Coast Guard/government get another chance to make more burdensome regulations. The ship owners/operators are saddled with the added expense of more pumps/less space for cargo, for marginal benefit. Why “marginal”? Because if a significant amount of water does get into the holds, it’s difficult to separate from the taconite, no matter where you put the pumps.

The fifth theory

For centuries, there have been tales of 100-ft waves. The few who had survived such waves were dismissed as delusional. Even into the 20th Century, it was “known” that waves couldn’t be much more than 30 ft. Experts proved it with their Gaussian models. They refused to consider they might be wrong until Gorm platform in the central North Sea in 1984 observed a 36-ft (11m) wave in a relatively low sea state. It wasn’t until the Draupner platform in the North Sea on January 1, 1995, recorded an 84-ft (25.6m) wave that experts were forced to admit that such waves did exist; even though their models didn’t predict them. Since then, with more sensors capable of more and more accurate wave height measurements, what are most commonly referred to as “rogue waves”—waves substantially larger than average waves in an area that form without warning and disappear without a trace—have turned out to be not so rare, after all. A curious trait of rogue waves is they either show up as a single wave, or as a sequence of three waves; lakers have many tales of the “three sisters”–three abnormally large waves that will hit a ship -bang-bang-bang.

What does this have to do with the Fitz? On YouTube, there is an interview with a tugboat captain who knew some of the crew that was on the Anderson the night the Fitz went down. The waves were so bad, they had to lay canvas over the motors to keep them from flooding out. Many feared the Anderson—which wasn’t dealing with flooding—would go down. And then a triple rogue wave hit her from behind. Anderson was in better shape to begin with. She wasn’t as deep into the thick of the storm as the Fitz was. And she barely survived it. The Fitz was ten minutes ahead of her, as the waves roll.

Ten minutes later, the Fitz’s “lights went out of sight.”

Bottom line: The Fitz went down due to a situation that was not anticipated because its possibility of its existence was dismissed out of hand by the governing bodies.
Winners/losers: The captain and crew are vindicated from cries of negligence. The scientific community has to eat crow for denying what sailors have known for decades.

Postscript

You might have guessed that I originally wrote this in November, and you’d be right. I wrote this based on what I saw in a documentary I came across, but I had a few facts I wanted to check before I posted it (I hate finding blunders of fact in written works, especially my own.) One thing led to another, and in the intervening two months, I’ve been reading and watching a lot of Fitz and her friends, so much that I was tempted to completely rewrite this post. I think I mostly succeeded in resisting the urge, because I wanted this to stay true to my early impressions; I’m planning on putting my revised impressions into a  . . . “more substantial” document.

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City Mouser, Country Mouser

Folks might be surprised to learn that lots of farms did without electricity until nearly halfway through the 20th Century. It wasn’t because they were sticks-in-the-mud or Amish. It was because in the cities a handful of poles could bring power lines to a hundred houses, but in the country, it might take a hundred poles to run power lines to a handful of farms. Even with government programs offering to pay for half the poles, it still wasn’t economically justified to electrify rural areas. Many farms finally electrified not to have lights and electric ovens in the house, but to provide power for barn equipment.

Now the issue is internet access. Back when AOL was sending out free 3.5″ floppies in the mail and dial-up was almost the only way anyone got online, very few people in my hometown bothered to get online. Why? AOL was a long-distance call. Internet was prohibitively expensive for what one was able to get.

Think it’s better today? In some ways, yes. Internet is no longer a long-distance phone call, but it’s still a lot slower than it could be. Of the three ISP’s offering Wi-Fi in my area, one is a cable-TV provider that claims speeds “up to” 100 Mb/s. What the “typical” connection speed is, I have my doubts (since I don’t have cable to test it). The other two are the major landline phone company in the area and a regional cell-phone company, both of which offer plans that max out at 24 Mb/s (In my area, anyway. One of them has great reviews for its 100Mb/s plan–somewhere else.)

One of them claims that 12 Mb/s is adequate for one or two devices. Maybe back in the day that was true, but now web pages are so bloated with widgets and cascading style sheets–and everyone and their brother wants you to watch “this quick video” (that might end up being 30 minutes long, assuming no buffering), that I wouldn’t trust a connection slower than 18Mb/s per device.

Unfortunately, even 12 Mb/s is too much to expect when everyone goes home from their work connections and logs in through their residential connections find they’ve only got 2 Mb/s to work with. Enough to read text-only emails, but slow as molasses in January for anything more. A few weeks ago, there was a “town hall” meeting about the problem. Not much came of it. If the ISP’s get a few extra bucks here and there, they channel it into making the urban connections faster, because there’s more potential customers to be gained by improving urban service. All the rural subscribers are doing is subsidizing access for urban customers.

This is especially frustrating because software–and even hardware–developers assume consumers have reliable, fast internet. Corporations such as Adobe, which offer their latest software as cloud-based subscription only, or Amazon, which design their Kindle software to expire after a particular date, assuming you can easily download their latest reader whenever they decide you should. Those funky new speakers Amazon and Google are pushing? I think they’d be paperweights around here.

I don’t know what the solution to this digital divide will be. Probably a new class–“digitally destitute.” As a country, we don’t have the money to keep our roads and bridges in condition, much less update millions of miles of old copper phone lines. But just remember if you’re getting ready to pop a video into your next bulk emailing: just because we country mousers technically have internet doesn’t mean we have all the bandwidth you might take for granted.

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Will I vote?

Will I vote tomorrow? It’s still a coin toss. Not that I haven’t decided who I’m voting for, but Tuesdays are a rather busy day for me, probably the worst day of the week for me to find some extra time, even thought I spend most of the day at the library, which is across the street from to polling center.

The other reason I debate about whether or not to vote is because I feel things are already decided. I live in Wisconsin, and both this year and four years ago, I had three Republican candidates I though might do a half-decent job as President, only to have all six of them throw in the towel before the Republican primaries got to Wisconsin.

And it’s not that I really like Republicans. Far as I’m concerned, the worst law ever passed in Wisconsin was signed by a Republican. If Republicans actually practiced the platform they preached, that wouldn’t have happened. I thought that was enough to make a Democrat of me, but his Democratic successor went on to sign his name to a bunch more bills in the same vein. They say Democrats want to expand Government power and Republicans want to keep it where it is. Where’s the option to lessen it?

If you want to get Republicans and Democrats working together, just start giving some traction to a third party. Killary says any third-party vote is a vote for Trump. Thump says any third-party vote is a vote for Hillary. The debates are between two parties. I’ve received dozens of email and phone surveys, over half of which only ask if I’m voting for Hillary or Trump. And those that do consider a third party will go on to ask which of the two duopolistic candidates I would prefer. I bet half the voters can’t even name a third candidate (I know my sister couldn’t.)

We’ve somehow managed to create a system where anyone coming in to either Big Party either gets molded into the Party objective (never mind what the official platform says), or somehow finds themselves out of the running. Neither side has to be “good,” they just have to suck a little less than the other one. Meanwhile America keeps up its march toward a totalitarian nation where an elite class enjoys the freedoms our founders promised all and the subjects of the country grind away as ignorable unpeople, cogs in the great machinery that become noticeable only when a great number of them fail.

Eisenhower warned us. JFK–if he didn’t die of it, they certainly took advantage of his death. The only way to arrest the slide of America is to break the duopoly that has corrupted our Capitol Hill for most of the last century. Take a third option!

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Since 9-11? Way longer than that

The output for this blog has yet to be as regular as I’d like, but it seems as summer approaches, it get even less regular. If you guessed it was because of the many distractions of summer, you’d be half right. Every year as Memorial Day approaches, I think of commenting on the annual slave-belt campaign, a campaign that’s been going on as long as I remember, and that goes back even before the laws. It’s why I mark Memorial Day not as a memorial to veterans, but as a memorial to freedoms, fought and died and paid with blood for, only to be traded away by politicians with ears bent by special-interest groups.

But it’s so painful to write about that I procrastinate. I procrastinate until it’s late July, and I begin to think about fair entries, due the first Monday of August (for open class, anyway). Late July and August are consumed with preparations for Labor Day weekend, which, for me, is nothing more nor less than my county fair.

The county fair is all-consuming for me. I spend Wednesday and Thursday alternately finishing and tagging entries with trotting them over to the fairgrounds. Then there’s the Thursday and Friday judging of general exhibits (which once upon a time was all on Saturday). Thursday night I’m off to the wine judging, and the rest of the fair I’m all over the place, but the midway in particular, snapping away and having over 1,000 pictures by the fair’s close Monday night. It’s a lot more time on my feet than I usually spend. After lugging all my exhibits home again (93 this year), I don’t want to do much of anything, least of all create.

While I’m still catching my breath (this year, anyway, since Labor Day wasn’t until the seventh), 9-11 rolls around.

A common theme among many of the columns is how many freedoms we’ve lost to the Patriot Act and similar legislations since the Towers fell. How the Government is increasing its surveillance, how we’re becoming a police state. We’ve been losing freedoms left and right for decades, and it’s only since 9-11 that you’ve noticed?

Just look at cars: in 1960, Wisconsin became the first state to require belts in cars. Not long after that, they designed a system that performs an unauthorized search (I supposed the alphabet-soup feds justified that you “consented” by buying the car and/or getting in it) to see which belts are buckled when you start the engine. Originally that was either the driver’s seat or the driver/passenger, where either one buckled would satisfy the dinger (I’ve seen both, but I’m not sure which is older). Now, it’s expanded to all seats and checks at intervals well after engine start.

And this information is now recorded on a “black box” which was introduced into cars without comment and mandated after only a handful of privacy advocates woke up enough to make token protest.

Of course, the “black box” would have a hard time recording everything Big Brother wants to know if the systems were good, reliable, mechanical systems. But it’s cheaper, easier, and more Big Brother-friendly to use electronic systems, so the car can be programmed to second-guess every input the driver makes. Anti-lock braking systems have been the poster child of “better in theory than practice,” getting blamed for as many collisions as they avoid. Does that give us the right to decide we don’t want them in our private property? Of course not! Even if ABS  isn’t mandated, per se, new regulations that ASSuME  we’re all to stupid to monitor our tires ourselves–and so our cars must look after us about it–require automatic tire pressure monitoring, and the easiest way to do that it with a minor modification of the ABS.

And like I said, systems–brakes, acceleration, steering–that used to be mechanical have, over the last fifteen years or so, been quietly replaced with electronic systems. I have an article or two from 2003 or so written when the “early birds” started using drive-by-wire; they commented about “consumer acceptance.” I had to laugh at that, even back then. “Consumer acceptance”? I’ll wager most people on the road don’t even know how a car actually turns, much less whether there’s a rack-and-pinion arrangement between their wheels. It’d have to take a major, multi-car failure in the technology for anyone to even notice.

Or not. The runaway Toyotas are a perfect argument for why you don’t build things with centralized control with a single point of failure. “Point of failure” is a count of how many things have to fail in order for the system to not work anymore. In the case of electronic pedals, from the computer’s point of view the whole pedal assembly is one keyboard. “Unplug” it, and the driver now has no control over the speed of the car. Both Toyota and the Government claimed the accelerations were caused by people that

  1.  Got a floor mat over the pedal, causing it to not come up when the foot came off it
  2.  Pressed the accelerator at the same time they were trying to step on the brake
  3.  Had a mechanical failure in the accelerator pedal (not the pedals as a whole)

Despite an engineer demonstrating (i.e. inducing) uncontrolled acceleration without anything that could possibly be attributed to driver error, and ignoring accounts where the brake pedal was also affected, they concluded that mandating even more electronics in the form of a “brake override” (pressing the brake pedal would automatically cut throttle to the the gas) would solve the problem.

That solution rests on the incorrect assumption that whatever caused the accelerator to not work right left the brake pedal unaffected. Didn’t hear about the brake pedal being affected? I wouldn’t have, either, except I make a habit of reading the comments on most articles. One poster related a Toyota acceleration experience where the front seat passenger (driver’s son) visually confirmed that the floor mat was not fouling the accelerator, the driver’s foot was not on the gas when it was on the brake pedal, and the brake pedal would not depress.  Now how is a brake override supposed to work if the brake pedal itself doesn’t? The electronic pedals, as a unit failed. That’s a single point of failure. For a mechanical car to have an equivalent failure, the mounting that the pedals were on would have to have collapsed, and what are the odds of that failing so quickly that you wouldn’t notice the pedals starting to feel funny? Otherwise, the brake system and the acceleration system would have to fail seperately. That’s two points of failure. Three points if it’s a manual transmission, where the clutch can take the engine out of the equation, allowing the e-brake to help or take over from the service (foot) brakes. (And taking out of gear? That’s arguable. While the poster did mention that they got control of the car by taking it out of gear, Mythbusters demonstrated that a “safety” feature prevents automatic transmissions from shifting out of drive at speed, even if the gear select is moved to “park” or “reverse.”)

But, despite this perfect example of the weakness of electronic controls, I have heard just tonight (Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015) that for at least eight automakers, any hope of the freedom to choose a proper mechanical system in your car has been slaughtered, gutted, field-dressed, and offered up as a sacrifice to Big Brother, in the form of an agreement to have active braking systems (in which cars will apply the brakes automatically if they decide their inattentive drivers haven’t noticed their lane has been blocked by something) standard on all their cars. Too bad if you decide that ramming the car in front of you out of the way is a lesser evil than getting buried by a tipping semi trailer load of gravel, or you gallantly wish to bump a stalled car out of the path of an oncoming train.  Given how little the Toyota acceleration debacle affected the industry-wide roll-out of drive-by-wire in general, we can expect that several hundred thousand inappropriate braking events will have about as much effect on the enforcement of such systems as Hillary’s time in the State Department had on her run for President. At least Hillary has a chance of getting jailed for her complete disregard of the “little people.”

Hackers have already demonstrated they can open doors, cut the engine, apply the brakes, even tension the seatbelts (yes, since the mid-1990’s, they’ve become electronic, too) by remote. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be hackers: the proverbial “ghost in the machine” can cause electronics to randomly malfunction, and then return to normal functioning with no evidence of the transgression. Or “random reprogramming” when a given area of memory fails; electronics work until they don’t, often with little or no sign of impending failure. The only sure way to avoid this is to avoid electronics altogether. Which the Government doesn’t see you having a right to do. You should have the right to modify your car to protect you from the dangers most significant to you, not have the threat of your greatest dangers maximized by some unelected, alphabet-soup agent in pursuit of protecting you from Big Government’s Scare of the Month.

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Big Banks’ Role in the Recession

I remember back in school, when we talked about the Great Depression, one of the causes that was mentioned was that the Federal Reserve Bank was tightening the reins (increasing rates and restricting who can borrow) when it should have been loosening them to spur the economy.

Unfortunately, in today’s world of interstate and international banks, corporate banks have an even greater influence on the economy now than the Fed did back then. And just like then, they’re tightening the reins, sucking the vitality out of communities for the sole purpose of looking good for their investors on Wall Street.

A perfect case study exists in  my hometown. What once was the independent Shawano National Bank joined a few other  area banks to become Valley Bank. Valley Bank, was, in turn, absorbed by the multi-state Marshall and Illsley (Which also acquired Security Bank a few years later). Then the international BMO Harris swallowed them.

Bottom line, BMO ended up with a lot of accounts and loans of individuals and businesses who actually set up their accounts and loans with other banks. Months after the BMO’s takeover of M&I, the checking account I had set up with Security Bank when I went off to college (started from the savings account I closed with Valley Bank), which had never cost me before, started costing me $7 per month–after I dropped from the mid-level tier my account had been at to the cheapest account they had. Avoiding the charge required either a $1,000 balance (if you don’t have that much, you don’t have that much), other accounts with more than that, or $400/month in electronic deposits (most businesses, including the one I worked for, don’t have enough employees to justify setting up electronic payments, and I wasn’t making $400/ month, anyway). A little over a year later, they upped the charge to $10. That’s $120 per year for the privilege of having a checking account–and I might write two checks a year, if that. Given my average daily balance, and depending on how you calculate it, I am being charged from 100%- 1,000% interest–to use my own money. How is anyone supposed to put money away if the bank is taking more than you have? Yet, even in this world of electronic funds transfers, how can you not have an account to receive the occasional paper check that comes along?

To put that in perspective, around here, $10 will buy you a sit-down dinner, grandstand seating at one of the best dirt-track half-mile speedways in the region, half of a season pass to the county fair (or two days’ admission),  a pair of hand-knit mittens from the senior store (probably a scarf, too), three DVD’s from the electronic resale shop, or groceries for a meal for four (pork steak, yes; beef–depends on the cut).

Why am I still with them? Simple. They own all the ATM’s in town, and banks in general have reduced lobby hours so much (My parents remember when people used to go home on Fridays, have dinner, then come back to town, cash their checks, and go shopping. Then banks started closing at 6:00 and earlier on Fridays, so people started cashing their checks, going home for dinner, and staying home.) that I can’t be sure of the lobby being open when I need money–the downtown lobby isn’t even open on Saturdays. So I rely on ATM’s, and the cost of using another bank’s ATM would probably build up even more fees than the $10/month the checking account costs.

So, still with them, even though they have the primary blame for my being unemployed from my job of eleven years.  Like I said, they absorbed a lot of other banks’ accounts, including the mortgage on my employer’s cinema. For those of you who don’t follow what’s going on in the movie industry, the “Big Six” of Hollywood had a “gentleman’s agreement” to be 100% digital by January of 2013. The date gradually got pushed back, but the writing was on the wall: upgrade your projectors or go dark. When my boss first started looking in to it, around 2010, systems were $100,000 and up. But he didn’t like the interest on the loans banks offered, and decided to wait. Waiting was good–and bad. As next-generation projectors were installed in bigger cinemas, used first-generation equipment was becoming available around $40,000, give or take how much labor you could get done yourself in readying your booth (digital projectors require an absolutely dust-free environment, and lamps are about three times the wattage of those used by film projectors). But to the banks, digital projection equipment is still unproven technology; they’re less willing to give a loan for something they fear might depreciate into nothing before the loan can be paid. BMO, which owned the business’s loan, refused to extend funds at any interest rate for this live-or-die equipment purchase. On December 1, 2013, we shut the projector down for the last time. In March, it went to sheriff’s auction, where–as happens with so many foreclosures–the loaning bank bought it for the remaining value of the loan, about $109,000.The building has been empty ever since. Given how hard it is to run a one-screen cinema in the first place, there’s little chance someone will make the investment to get it running as a theater again (my boss said the only way to keep it afloat would be as a non-profit; without taxes it might be able to make ends meet), and it’s doubtful anyone will want to mess with the old-style (the building is eligible for historic registration) sloped floor in converting it to another use. Likely, it will deteriorate and see the wrecking ball sometime in the next decade.

A business neighbor, just three buildings away, is a camera store. I can still use “is” as I write this, but I doubt I will be able to much longer. The business has been around for several decades, and it’s second owner–unable to keep up with the rapidly-changing digital models (many are discontinued after a six-month production run) and the “big box” discount prices–had gradually converted it to a framing shop/pottery gallery (he had been a commercial potter, and now taught art). He’s still one of the few places that stocks 120 film and can make a contact print of a glass negative. His bread-and-butter lately has been VHS-DVD transfers (he not only charges less than Walmart and Walgreens, but monitors the process to make sure there aren’t any tracking issues) and custom framing. I walked past his store yesterday, and discovered a automobile-style “for sale” sign in the window. In the “make” field he’d written “BMO.” In the “model” field, he’d written “screwed me.”

(I might also mention that he was in the same checking-account boat as me; in his case, he was a substitute teacher, and some of the schools would only pay by direct deposit, so he needed a checking account to receive the deposit. A day’s subbing might be an $80 –$10/hour x 8 hours–check. Then take away income tax, gas money for a school that might be 50 miles away, and now $10/month for the privilege of receiving it. And he might go months without getting called to work.)

Of course, I doubt BMO Harris is unique in their practices.  You’ve probably heard of the lawsuits surrounding the foreclosure practices of banks like Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citibank, Ally/GMAC and JPMorgan Chase. But BMO is the big fish in my town, and, as I’ve said, scooped up a lot of other bank’s accounts when they moved in. They’re sucking this town dry, inserting big-city cost-of-living fees into a community that doesn’t have big-city paychecks to support them.

I’ll wager there are hundreds, if not thousands of Shawanos throughout America, facing the same drain on their economies. And this drain goes mostly unseen by the politicians and various “fixers” that hop from metropolis to metropolis, enjoying “economical” $30-$50 dinners.

Banks enjoy the luxury of being a basic need of our civilization without the economic protections against becoming an excessive financial burden that government maintains for physiological basic needs (like SNAP programs for food and rent-controlled housing for shelter). There’s simply no such thing as a low-income checking account, even though the Government itself encourages, in some cases, requires electronic funds transfers, which in turn require a bank account to receive. And banks can afford to hire the priciest lawyers (politicians, too) to create conditions favorable to their bottom line.

A small-town bank has to deal with their customers at a small-town level. An international bank can suck communities dry, one after another, with policies that work for their high-value, metropolitan customers and shareholders, with near-total impunity, confident that even if the customer is 100% right, they will never be able to afford to fight them. If we want to stop the income disparity from growing, we need to break the big banks.

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The Land of Omelas

I don’t know how many of you pay attention to my banner quote, or wonder where it came from. Hopefully, many of you do. For those of you that don’t, here’s the story:

The quote is a reference to “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” an award-winning story written by Ursula K. Le Guin in 1973. The story describes a utopian city called (what else?) Omelas, where all the citizens enjoy unbelievably wonderful lives. All but one, that is. The exception is a child, stunted of growth and indeterminate of sex, held in a dark cellar of a room, naked and squatting in its own filth, fed gruel and water, and with a completely justified fear of the mops that are stored there. Everyone knows of the child. Many, when they are between eight and twelve years old, are taken to see the child. Most accept the misery the child is forced to endure, for if it even receives so much as a kind word, the prosperity and good fortune of the city will be lost immediately.

Many of us, on reading the story, would like to claim we wouldn’t be a part of it, but if this Omelas were real, I think it more likely that most of America would sooner wield the mops themselves than free the child. We find it all to easy to separate ourselves from “them” (however exactly we may define “ourselves” and whatever makes “them” different). Just look at the antebellum South and the apartheid of South Africa. Not that the difference need be as obvious as skin color, or require justification–however illogical–of superiority.

I discovered the story via TV Tropes, where it showed up as an example of the trope “Powered By a Forsaken Child,” defined as having to “pay a really ghastly price… or have someone else pay that price for you.”

Personally, I use a somewhat narrower definition. I say it’s getting a benefit by causing “someone else” (not related to or more than abstractly known to the instigator) to endure ongoing suffering through a means that the sufferee is in no position to fight against. One castaway killing another doesn’t count, because they both know there’s only enough food for one of them, and the survivor knows full well what he’s doing to the other. A family being stricken with cancer because a factory farm upwind of them is using a carcinogenic herbicide to increase crop yields does.

I also count laws that are passed with the intent of saving and/or improving the lives of many at the expense of causing some to suffer. Remember the old saying, “One man’s food is another man’s poison”? What is life to the man for whom the “food” is poison in a land that mandates the “food”? If you’ve read the rest of my blog, you should know what my poison is. And out of sympathy for other folk for whom other things are poison, I’ve developed a very libertarian stance. And an absolute conviction that the higher in the bureaucracy the decision is made, the more children we cage in Omelas. And we don’t even get Omelas.

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Begin the Blog (Part II)

This was supposed to have been written almost three years ago. (Shows you how hard it is to write about it.) I was about to tell you why it mattered if the job was in walking distance.

See, I don’t live in New York or Chicago or one of those big places that has commuter trains. And not a lot of bicycle paths or pedestrian-friendly areas, either. After you get about a mile away from the center of town, even the main drag gives up on sidewalks,  and the shoulders are only a couple feet of eroded gravel between the asphalt and the drop-off of four- to six-foot ditches. Some driver zips by a little too close . . .

And of course, that’s where most of the jobs are. There or the industrial park, which has wider shoulders, and plenty of semis going in and out at all times of the day needing to use the wider shoulders. That’s where the paying jobs are in my town.

And that’s why it’s common in my town for every household to have a car, or two, or three. And while people don’t seem to have that much of a problem with someone who doesn’t drive–either didn’t get a license or can’t afford a car–they aren’t willing to accept that someone might find motor vehicles an unacceptable means of travel. “Don’t have a car? I’ll pick you up. Problem solved.”

I’ve always feared getting stuck. I know I watched a lot of Captain Kangaroo when I was little, but the only thing I remember today is a skit where the Captain ha a jar of glue on the counter, and for some reason, managed to stick first one hand and then the other into it. Then he had to answer the phone (so he couldn’t put down the receiver), and then a visitor stopped by and wanted to shake his hand. The Captain kept shaking his hand. I don’t know how it ended becuase I think I must have changed the channel, having had all I could take of someone being stuck to something.

When I was little, I feared riding with anyone other than my parents. What if they made me wear a seatbelt? I couldn’t wait to grow up and have an adult’s right to say “no.” In the early 1980’s, they started with the child seat laws. I made a morbid game with myself: If they started increasing the maximum age of choice by two years every year, would I make it to adulthood before the mandate? (It never occurred to me that I would be able to mount any kind of legal fight before I reached the age of majority.)

When I was twelve, the game came to an end. Though unpopular in the Wisconsin legislature, enough thought the statistics were more important than individual’s rights to pass That Bill.

Tommy Thompson signed it into a sunset law. And vetoed a measure that would have ended it early. And signed a bill to extend the sunset. And signed the bill that made it a permanent law. And that’s all I know about Tommy Thompson’s time as Governor of Wisconsin.

Not long after the law went innto effect, our band director wanted to take a lot of the jazz band to some event (don’t remember if it was a concert or some kind of workshop) he thought would be good for us. I didn’t ask for a permission slip. He thought so highly of me he put one in my hand and asked me to go. I “lost” the permission slip without ever taking it home.

I wondered how I would deal with the rest of my life. I thought I could tolerate them a few times a year, rent a car when I really needed it and walk the rest of the time, but then the 1990’s came along. Power windows and locks, which I though would always be an option like “leather seats” or “alloy wheels” suddenly became standard on a lot of vehicles, but now they were suddenly becoming standard. Not only that, but the cars were starting to lock the doors without even asking!

Suffice it to say, my interest in ever having a “new car” died in the 1990’s. The 1990’s were also when the PTD generation of seatbelts made their appearance. The first time I heard about pre-tensioning devices, the were described as a system to “pull down” on the seatbelt to prevent ejection from too-loose seatbelts during a rollover. I assumed that mean there was some kind of system, probably between the lab belts and their anchors, that would shorten the length of the lap belt from “confortably snug” to “crash tight.” The system I thought PTD belts were wouldn’t stop you from, say, ducking to avoid a massive object hurtling through your windshield, or leaning forward to get a better vantage if you had to corner hard, even if the system engaged.

Wht PTD belts actually do is reel the spool, pulling UP on the shoulder belt, and by extension, tightening the lap belt. That’s a big difference for two reasons. One, since the belt is fairly free to slide between “lap belt” and “shoulder belt” roles, the lap belt is never at a higher tension than the shoulder belt (unless you’ve got some after-market gadget to keep it cinched). The reverse is not true. Since people thrown forward tend to do so head first, the PTD has to pull the torso back before it can cinch the hips down. So for a brief moment, the shoulders are held back more than the hips. This increases the likelihood of submarining, where the lap belt, instead of acting against the hips bones as it should, ends up acting against the soft abdomen.

Problem number two occurs because the car is making the decision to pull you tight to the seat. If it decides to cinch you while you’re leaning forward for some reason or another, it will disturb your control of the car. I remember a local news station giving advice about what to do if you were caught on the road without visible shelter during a tornado warning. Their advice was to stay in your car, put your seatbelt on, and lean forward so your head was below the level of the windshield/windows. I remember wondering what genius came up with that advice, since if anything happened to cause the car to think it was crashing, the first thing it would immediately cinch you upright.

And it will stay cinched after the car stops moving, if it stops in some position other than “rubber side down.” With manufacturer’s preference for burying the buckles in the seat, you likely won’t be able to reach it with your non-buckle-side hand and there’s a not-insignificant chance that your access to the release will be obstructed. That leaves hoping you 1) haven’t been anywhere that doesn’t allow you to have a pocket knife or remembered to retrieve it from where ever you put it while you were there 2) Haven’t put it in your front pants pocket, where it can slide below the lap belt and be rendered inaccessible 3) Haven’t put i tin your back pocket, which is probably as inaccessible as your front pants pocket 4) haven’t laid it on the dash or had it thrown somewhere you can’t reach with your shoulders as good as glued to the seat.

And now in this brave new millennium, we have cars that not only ding at you on startup, but periodically during the drive if they think there’s a seat with enough weight to be an unbuckled human being.

For me, this was the last straw. I haven’t been in a car since before I started this blog. I couldn’t trust them as shelter from a storm. I certainly couldn’t work any job that put me in a position of daily dependence. So my career is in a death spiral. Instead of leaving college with a starting salary of $30,000-$60,000, probably rising to $60,000+, I started at $10,000 and fell from there.

I used to have dreams of travel. When cars became not-so-nice, I fantasized about bus trips. Now the belts have invaded buses, so those dreams are dead. I’m too young to be regretting all the things I didn’t do, but what’s worse, I can’t imagine any scenario that would have made them possible. And even now, the suffering of getting there would outweigh any enjoyment I might find.

I worry about what’s going to happen to me when cars get worse and less avoidable. Sometimes I pray a heart attack will spare me–I cartainly have enough stress for one, but then I think, “The sooner I die, the sooner I could be reborn as some helpless babe who can’t do anything about being stuffed into a carseat,” and then I get really miserable.

What’s been taken out of my life cannot be returned, and my suffering is unlikely to be compensated. If I knew how to destroy my soul so it could never return to this world, I would. Because thanks to the seatbelt Nazis, hell is a place on Earth.

(If you’ll excuse me, I need to go drink something. My mouth got very dry typing this. And my nose is running.)

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