Monday, July 27, 2009

They brake for no one

Imagine that you do something all of your life. Everyday. Say, brush your teeth. Then one day, for some inexplicable reason, you squeeze out your toothpaste onto the bristles and start cleaning your ears. It seems odd to you at first, but rather than stop, you start brushing even faster. With suds foaming out of the side of your head like a washing machine with too much detergent, you brush faster and faster and faster until you get so dizzy that you pass out, bumping your head on the sink, commode, tub and finally the floor.

Discovering you on the bathroom floor, your spouse asks you what happened and you say that you brushed your teeth and then don’t remember anything.

This is what, apparently, is happening to elderly drivers who seem to be testing the limits of a couple of Newton’s Laws and the structural properties of plate glass windows, brick walled retail establishments, and other people.

A spate of these crashes in Massachusetts has the state legislature considering mandatory testing of elderly drivers. As introduced, the bill calls for drivers 85 and older to submit to annual skills testing. There already is such a law in New Hampshire, where the state motto, “Live Free or Die,” was being taken a little too literally by their blue hairs.

Of course, 85 is simply an age that was chosen to get the bill passed. Who would argue that 85 is too onerous? Once it becomes law, a simple modification will change that to 75 or perhaps even younger.

So what’s the test going to be like?

“Okay, Mr. O’Flaherty, I’m going to ask you a few questions before we head out for the road test. Does that sound all right?”

“Yeah, yeah. I’ve been driving all my life, missy. Since before your mother was a twinkle in her father’s eye.”

“All right, Mr. O’Flaherty. Do you remember what you had for breakfast this morning?”

“Same thing I have every morning. Two cups of black coffee and dry toast.”

“Do you hold your coffee cup with your left hand or your right hand?”

“Always with my left hand.”

“Do you ever get the urge to hold your coffee cup with your right hand, Mr. O’Flaherty?”

“Okay, Ms. Smarty Pants. I see where you’re going with this. I know which pedal is the gas and which is the brake.”

“Right.”

“Right? That would be the br… No. The gas. Everyone knows that.”

“Knows what, Mr. Flaherty?”

“That the brake is on the right. I mean left. Dammit! You’re confusing me.”

The problem with driver testing is that it’s unlikely to create the panic situation that occurs when an octogenarian first mistakes the gas for the brake. The car leaps forward unexpectedly and all the driver can think about is mashing the brake pedal even harder. Unfortunately, that brake pedal races the engine to about 8,000 rpm while the other brake pedal remains untouched.

That’s it! The perfect solution to stop this problem once and for all.

When someone turns 75, a state-employed mechanic sneaks into the garage during the birthday party and replaces the gas pedal with a second brake pedal. That way, the worst possible outcome would be letting off of one of the brake pedals causing the car to creep forward, certain to be stopped by any run-of-the-mill brick wall, most curbs, and even a small calf.

Why didn’t I think of this before? Gotta call my state rep to get my idea added to the Geezer Squeezer Law.

See you next week. Drive safely.

Copyright 2009 Randy Hunt

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

To our kids: Read this

I added a category called Kids to this blog so that our kids don't have to search for posts about them. Just click on Kids in the labels section on the right sidebar.

Making life easier one step at a time.

Copyright 2009 Randy Hunt

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Apollo 11: Grabbing a rope at 3600 mph

Apollo 11 blasted off on July 16, 1969. I was eleven years old and, like every other kid in the 60’s, watched slack-jawed and imagined being aboard that giant rocket someday.

These weren’t innocent times, by any means. Vietnam was raging on, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated a year earlier, and the hippie drug culture was worrisome for all parents.

In spite of this, the world’s attention was diverted for nine days while three space cowboys journeyed to the moon, completing JFK’s vision from his 1961 speech.

video
There wasn’t much time to get to the moon and prance around before the decade’s end and it hadn’t been a completely smooth build up to this history making trip.

Neil Armstrong had been aboard Gemini 8 when a thruster got stuck causing the capsule to start spinning at a rate of 60 rpm. Armstrong stopped the spinning by firing the Re-entry Control System, but not before he and David Scott were in danger of losing consciousness. They had to abort the planned three-day mission only 10 hours after liftoff.

During a pre-flight test in January 1967, Apollo 1 experienced a fire in the command module, killing Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.

Apollo missions 2 through 6 were unmanned tests of various systems and the Saturn V rocket. Apollo 7 was the first manned Apollo mission, an 11-day earth orbital flight in October 1968 with Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele and Walt Cunningham. Apollo missions 8, 9 and 10 quickly followed, launching in December 1968, March 1969 and May 1969.

So you can appreciate (or remember if you’re my age or older) that it was nonstop NASA action for that ten-month period. These engineers, rocket scientists and daredevil pilots were the center of attention, and deservedly so. They were thought of as heroes, much more so then than they would be today.

Back then, flying was a luxury, a television show broadcast in color was still a treat, and no average person ever saw, much less operated, a computer. The whole concept of rocketing to the moon seemed amazing to some, incredible to most.

So there we were, glued to the TV, awaiting the now familiar ten to one countdown. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins were strapped into a pretty small command module (I’ve seen the replica at the Air & Space Museum and it’s no Winnebago), sitting atop a virtual bomb, ready for the ride of their lives.

At T minus eight seconds, the five F1 engines roared, shaking the ground for miles around. Four clamps held the rocket down while the engines built to full thrust, about 180 million horsepower. At T minus zero, the clamps released the rocket and we had liftoff. In less than three minutes, Apollo 11 was 58 miles downrange, cooking along at a swift 5,300 miles per hour.

We toasted the successful launch by clinking our glasses of Tang.

The spaceship wasted no time hanging around, firing its rockets after completing only one and a half laps of the earth and starting its three-day trip to the moon. Three days is an eternity to an eleven-year-old. I imagined Buzz asking Neil every 30 minutes or so: “Are we there, yet?”

I bided my time cutting articles out of the newspaper and putting them away for the day I would come across them and appreciate how, as a kid, I recognized the historic significance of the time. Here are copies of a few of those clippings:

Spacesuit Fashions

Saturn V Rocket

Apollo 11 To Harvest Moon

Gearing Up For Moon Walk

Alternate Landing Sites

Artist's Rendition of Landing

Moon Landing Schedule

Landing Headline

One Small Step

Nixon To Call Astronauts On Moon

The big day finally came. It was July 20th when the lunar landing module touched town on the Sea of Tranquility and Neil Armstrong spoke those famous words: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

I remember jumping up and down, cheering and racing for the bathroom after holding it for way too long. Astronauts didn’t have this problem, but it would be thirty more years before I saw a guy wearing a commercial version of a personal porta-potty at a Patriots game.

Speaking of which, proponents of our space program have always pointed to new technologies and gizmos that were spawned out of NASA’s efforts and eventually improved our collective lot in life. Supposedly, at least 1,400 inventions of necessity for space exploration have made it into our everyday lives, but the one I think is worth every dollar spent by NASA is cordless power tools. Cased closed.

One of the concerns we all had was how to rescue the astronauts if they got stuck on the moon. I remember a spokesman from NASA saying that they relied on redundant systems rather than to have a second Apollo ready to launch a rescue mission. At the time, we didn’t hear about (or perhaps didn’t appreciate the seriousness of) the close calls on Apollo 11.

The most precarious was the landing of the lunar module (LM). Because the chamber between the command module and LM had not been completely evacuated after Armstrong and Aldrin boarded, the LM got an extra push from the escaping gas when decoupling. That, and some other harrowing computer and sensor problems, resulted in the lunar module landing with only 17 seconds of fuel to spare.

We watched the “one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind” scene with a couple of my parents’ friends who had come over to witness history. With Armstrong bopping around on the surface of the moon, one of the guests questioned: “What if they get stuck on the moon? How do we get them back?”

Having read every article and watched every interview for a week, I told her about the redundant systems. She was unimpressed. “There may be two computers backing up the main computer,” she surmised, “but there’s only one rocket motor on the lunar lander to shoot it back to the command module, right?”

That was a pretty good observation, but she quickly followed that up with an interesting suggestion. “Can the guy in the command module lower a rope to the guys on the moon?” It occurred to me that some people hadn’t given this moon mission a whole lot of thought.

The guy in the command module is orbiting the moon at a clip of around 3,600 miles per hour, I said with authority. If he could lower a rope, how in the world would they be able to grab on with it coming at them doing 3,600 mph?

“Okay, Mike. We’re ready. Lower the rope. I think I see it… Holy crap!! That was fast! Mike, you’re going to have to circle around again until we get the hang of it.”

Fortunately, everything worked reasonably well and no rescue was necessary. Armstrong and Aldrin spent just short of 24 hours on the moon. The ascent back to the command module was flawless (other than the engine exhaust blowing down the American flag) and during the flight back to Earth, only one of four planned adjustments was necessary to correct their trajectory.

From the launch to the capsule being plucked out of the Pacific Ocean, I remember being completely absorbed by the Apollo 11 mission. We were a nation united and proud of accomplishing John F. Kennedy’s goal of landing on the moon before the decade was out.

The reason for taking on this gargantuan task was best summed up by JFK at his September 1962 appearance at Rice University. He said, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”




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There is an excellent account of the mission by Hamish Lindsay, one of the engineers who served at the Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station in Australia: http://www.honeysucklecreek.net/msfn_missions/Apollo_11_mission/hl_apollo11.html

Another interesting resource is an interactive Apollo 11 website created for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum: http://www.wechoosethemoon.org/

Copyright 2009 Randy Hunt

Sunday, July 12, 2009

School Committee: Can you see through this?

I am a big proponent of transparency in government. I could rail about the gang on Beacon Hill, who voted to exempt themselves from the Open Meeting Law, but that would be as productive as talking to your garage wall.

Instead, I want to comment on an intriguing article in the July 10th edition of the Sandwich Enterprise, written by David Fonseca. Entitled “School Budget Goes From ‘In The Red’ To ‘In The Clear,’” it’s an accounting of how Sandwich Schools Superintendent Dr. Mary Ellen Johnson wrestled with the school department’s fiscal year 2009 budget, turning a $1.4 million deficit into a balanced budget.

Several things are interesting about this situation. For one, we all go to town meeting in May and vote on a balanced budget. That seems inherently out of sync with the superintendent having to deal with an imbalance of that magnitude. Yes, we vote on an finance committee-controlled emergency fund ($400,000 in the FY09 budget), but it’s meant to be a “mop up” account for things that run long here and there; not to be a bailout fund for bad budgeting.

Another interesting point is that, according to David’s article, Dr. Johnson recognized as early as September 2008 that there were several underfunded budget items and revenue sources that were iffy. The other interesting thing is the timing of public discussions regarding this $1.4 million problem. I decided to reread all of the school committee minutes to see how and when this issue was handled at their meetings.

I went to the school department website (http://www.sandwich.k12.ma.us/index.htm) and clicked on the link to “The School Committee.” On the school committee page, there is a link called “Meeting Minutes.” Perfect. No. Wait. That link takes you to the 2009/2010 meeting schedule. The link called “Meeting Schedule” also takes you to the 2009/2010 meeting schedule.

Time for Plan B. Unlike the general public, I get copied on the emails distributing the school committee minutes and, also unlike the general public, I never erase an email. Searching through my 30,000-plus archived emails, I found all of the meeting minutes that were emailed to me. Unfortunately, the minutes I was privy to via email did not cover all of the meetings held by the school committee.

This “transparency in government” thing was becoming a little cloudy, but I eventually found documentation of the FY09 budget crisis in the school committee’s minutes starting on March 4, 2009. It was at this meeting that Dr. Johnson announced that she had started a mid-year review of the budget in January.

She noted that, in September 2008, $420,000 of budget line items had to be “moved around to address unfunded personnel.” Looking back at the minutes from the school committee’s August and September 2008 meetings, I found no discussion or any vote authorizing the “moving around” of such budget items. I don’t know if the school committee is required to ratify “moving around” budget items, but I’d think that it might be cause for discussion when the “moving around” approaches a half million dollars.

And that begs these questions: Were all members of the school committee aware of this half-million-dollar (soon to balloon to a $1.4 million) switcheroo? If so, how was that communicated to the committee? And why was there no public deliberation about it? I assume there could not have been any nonpublic deliberation about it because there’s no exception in the Open Meeting Law for talking about budget problems in secret.

The following meeting held on March 18th produced this description of the fiscal year 2009 budget deliberation:

Dr. Johnson reviewed the budget printout dated February 27, 2009. She and Mr. Funk have been working on encumbering all expenses and salaries through the end of June.

Mrs. Marshall questioned why she had to read about the Forestdale School Special Education Teacher and Tutor layoffs in the newspaper, and said Forestdale needs the most help in preparing for MCAS testing. She thought the whole budget should be reviewed. She said the last budget report indicated either overspending or underfunding.

Dr. Johnson said FY09 started off with almost a $400,000 deficit because of 8.5 ESPs and 4.4 teachers that were planned for under the previous administration but never included in the budget.

In January she performed a midyear audit and announced no additional funds would be spent. Dr. Perrin recommended the abovementioned reductions after working closely with the Principals. No other reductions in personnel are expected before June. Dr. Johnson is hoping and planning to receive Circuit Breaker funds in the amount of $552,000. Special Education transportation was budgeted at $583,000 for FY08 with expenditures coming in at $715,000. The FY09 budget reflected the same amount of $583,000 for Special Education transportation – it was underfunded. She and Dr. Perrin are looking at a lease/purchase agreement or purchasing a small van to reduce transportation costs.

Dr. Johnson said she should have a clear estimate of the year-end budget by the next meeting. Retirement costs are also coming up, and budget outcomes are dependent on whether employees retire by June 30th or after July 1st.

Mr. Guerin summed up the FY09 budget situation as “precarious”. He said there should be a closer tie within the Business Office to look at the delivery of services and costs and wondered if a full or part-time resource was necessary for this purpose. Dr. Johnson said things are moving in the right direction but that emergencies do come up.”


A couple of key points in these meeting minutes: 1) The administration planned for teachers and ESPs to be on the payroll but did not budget for them, and 2) Dr. Johnson said that she would bring a clear estimate of the year-end budget to the next meeting. The first point is unexplainable and inexcusable. The second makes you want to see what she presented at the April 1st meeting.

The April 1st meeting minutes included not a word about this “clear estimate of the year-end budget.” Was the discussion dropped? Or was the public discussion dropped?

Next thing we hear is that Dr. Johnson slew the budget deficit dragon and saved us all from the disastrous situation that befell the Barnstable School District and others around the state that got caught up in over-optimistic budgeting only to be foiled by that darned economy thingy.

I take absolutely nothing away from Dr Johnson’s herculean efforts in tackling this budget crisis. She freely admits in David Fonseca’s article that past administrations/school committees have presented a palatable budget for public consumption, only to play the year-end shell game to “fix” the misstated budget line items. Her transparency on this is something I could get used to.

But what’s happening in between the school committee meetings that seems to result in crises evaporating from one meeting to the next? As an example of undocumented meetings, read this excerpt from the September 10, 2008 meeting minutes:

Mr. Guerin summarized some of the work the School Committee did over the summer months. They partnered with the Administration and explored a lot of interesting questions which they will continue to discuss in public.

They spent time meeting with the Health Services and 3 Nursing staff re. legal costs, budgets and work load, and raised the question of possibly initiating 3rd party billing. They are also working with others in town to make sure they fully understand all their legal obligations in terms of services.

They also spent time with the Community School talking about the budget, understanding cash and cash flow, fields and facilities uses, space and building utilization and a vision for delivering full day Kindergarten and Pre-Kindergarten to the community. Further discussion will take place in the future.

They met with the Food Services people and asked the management to bring back a Capital plan.

Rerouting bus routes for safety and better efficiencies were discussed as well as advertising on the buses.


Where are the meeting minutes covering all of this summer activity? Subcommittees, to my knowledge, are required to submit meeting minutes per the Open Meeting Law, whether or not they constitute a quorum of the supercommittee. That’s a lot of stuff to go on without any formal documentation. (By the way, my favorite line from these minutes is: “Further discussion will take place in the future.” You can’t argue with that!)

I think we have a long way to go to get our local government in step with the Open Meeting Law and assure the citizens of Sandwich that we’re shining a bright light on everything being managed by its elected and appointed government officials.

Copyright 2009 Randy Hunt.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Obama to Chrysler: You will be ruled by fiat

Accepting bailout money from the U.S. Government has its downside. Normally an action reserved for a corporation’s board of directors, pressure from the administration and a number of senators, including wildly popular Senator Chris Dodd from Connecticut, resulted in Rick Waggoner, CEO of General Motors, being forced out in favor of Fritz Henderson.

Chrysler, which was declared “basically gone” by Senator Dodd, was ushered to a shotgun wedding with Fiat, the Italian automaker. Based on recent history, one might think that this union stands about the same chance as a spur-of-the-moment nuptial arrangement in the Las Vegas Elvis Wedding Chapel. After all, the producer of some of the best automobiles in the world with unmatched engineering credentials, Daimler-Benz AG, ultimately gave up trying to turn around hapless Chrysler after a tumultuous nine-year marriage.

Chrysler made its way onto my grudge list in 1996 by the actions of one of its “customer service” employees. (More on that in a minute.) I was somewhat encouraged by Daimler’s takeover of Chrysler in 1998, thinking that the German automaker’s focus on quality and engineering would rub off a little. That didn’t happen.

I hold out even less hope that the forced acquisition of Chrysler by Fiat will result in an improvement that will remove Chrysler from my grudge list. Fiat is not a leader in anything, best I can tell. J.D. Power and Associates, publisher of a well-known customer satisfaction index, rates Fiat in the bottom quartile in their 2008 survey of automobile owners in France, Germany and the U.K.

Time will tell if plucking Chrysler from the jaws of bankruptcy was a good decision. For me, I’ll give them a few years and be looking for some full red circles on the Consumer Reports ratings chart before considering purchasing a car from Fi-Chry. Here’s why.

Bar none, the worst car I’ve ever owned was a not-so-intrepid 1995 Dodge Intrepid. The same car was also known as the Chrysler Concorde and Eagle Vision.

I thought it was a great looking car. Even now, I look back and think the same thing. Dodge produced a whole line of esthetically pleasing cars. It was somewhere between the artist’s rendition and final assembly that something went very, very wrong.

But how important is it to own a great looking car when you spend a great deal of time driving around in the dealer’s loaner car? My first 6-day experience with the Chrysler dealer’s repair center was for three problems:

1) The air conditioner compressor would come on once after starting the car. When the interior temperature came down to the setting I chose, the compressor would kick off. Unfortunately, no matter how hot it got after that, the compressor would never come back on. The only way to get the A/C back on was to turn the engine off and restart the car. I got pretty adept at shifting into neutral while cruising down the road, shutting off the engine, and restarting it without losing more than a few miles per hour.

2) The left rear door had a “hitch” in it when being closed. You had to provide some lift while closing it so that it wouldn’t scratch the paint at the bottom of the door.

3) There was a rattle in the dash that would stop by putting pressure on the ash tray. I was already shutting off and starting the engine while driving down the freeway. Doing this while pushing on the ashtray was getting to be bit of a problem, especially while wielding a brick-sized cell phone where half the conversation was taken up with the phrase “can you hear me now?”

Nearly a week later, I got the car back and none of the above problems had been corrected. I was as surprised as I was disgusted. How could they keep my car for a week and fix absolutely nothing?

To make a long story short, and because I’ve included at the end of this blog post my list of trips to the dealer for warranty repairs, I’ll summarize my experience with the Dodge Intrepid in this way: In the first 22 months that I owned the car, it was towed three times, logged 19 separate repair orders, and spent 52 days at the dealership.

I called the “customer care” hotline to complain about the incredible list of problems and failed repairs, only to encounter a Chrysler employee who told me “if you don’t like the car, then don’t buy another one.” That is, in retrospect, excellent advice, but not exactly what I was expecting.

I wrote a letter to this “customer care” person, with a copy sent to the chairman of the board, attaching the list of problems, repair order numbers, outcomes, etc. About two weeks later, I got a call back from the same “customer care” guy, livid that I had gone over his head by copying the chairman. “I told you already,” he said, “if you don’t like the car, don’t buy another one.” Then he hung up on me.

Chrysler went straight to my lifetime grudge list.

In June 1998, I drove up to Cape Cod from El Paso, Texas, in the Intrepid with my dog and son, Dan. We were moving to Sandwich, Massachusetts, from Texas and it was too hot for the airlines to transport our black lab, Maggie, so I decided to take her and Dan on a three-day drive.

The problems started around Abilene when the air conditioner quit working. Actually, that’s an understatement. It went from blowing cold air to blowing unbelievably hot air, perhaps 200 degrees or higher. I shut it off and opened the windows. It was about 102 outside.

When we got into Arkansas and Tennessee, the car wouldn’t idle anymore. At slow speeds, I had to shift into neutral and keep the engine revved. It wouldn’t have been so bad except for the miles and miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic in those two states resulting from the reconstruction of I-40. As a side note, I found it interesting that the only construction we ran into on the trip was in the home states of President Clinton and Vice President Gore. So that’s how that works...

We hobbled into Massachusetts and onto Cape Cod with the Intrepid on its last legs and Maggie panting like she was on hers. With only 53,000 miles on the odometer, I suppose the life expectancy of my Intrepid must have been planned in dog years.

I eventually sold the car by putting it on consignment at a Dartmouth Chrysler dealership. Some poor sap inherited my problems and I live with a guilty feeling about that even to this day.

Since then, I’ve never considered purchasing another Chrysler and have told this story many, many times. The “customer care” guy should have been fired instantly way back then, but for all I know, he may be a senior vice president of a doomed former-American car company.

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Copyright 2009 Randy Hunt