Finally the ‘Republican Rebels’ Allowed Something Good To Happen In Congress

US-CapitolWith next to no time to spare, Congress this week advanced legislation intended to give the rail transport industry three, and maybe as many as five, much-needed years to complete work on a program intended to make trains safer and reduce accidents. Without this extension, there was a serious risk that most U.S. railroads would have come to a grinding halt  year’s end – by or before midnight on December 31, to be precise.

A New York Times Op-Ed piece on Wednesday, jointly submitted by the chairman and chief executive of Dow Chemical Company and the executive chairman of BNSF Railway, described the problem in some detail. The crux of the problem, which could have halted delivery of “most of our food” to wholesalers’ and retailers’ warehouses, “the chlorine that makes the drinking water of 98% of all Americans safe to drink,” and – among other things – a very significant share of all manufactured goods, is that back in 2008 Congress set a too-tight deadline for most railroads to install “positive train control” (P.T.C.) equipment. The Times article noted that as well as insufficient-time complaints by railroads, even the Government Accountability Office acknowledged recently that progress on installation of the new safety equipment has lagged so far behind that, without the Congressional extension, the economy could have taken a $30 billion hit in January alone.

Indirectly, we owe passage of this extension – and of a comprehensive budget bill that avoids assorted other serious impacts on the running of the country and on the economy – to the Republican rebels who have voted against virtually every common-sense legislative proposal that’s come before them over the past couple of years.

Had they not been so successful at disrupting the nation’s governing affairs, now-former House Speaker John Boehner wouldn’t have been forced by them to resign. Had he remained  speaker, he wouldn’t have felt as compelled to ‘clean out the barn’, as he put it, of legislative leftovers before his departure, which took place Thursday. (He was replaced by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, he only agreed to stand for the position if he received the backing of the several warring factors within the Republican party.)

Questions remain, though, if even three years will be enough time – given both the cost and the effort required – to get all needed P.T.C. equipment in place.

Essentially, what done by that equipment, said by the Times piece to represent “the most significant technological innovation in railroading since the diesel engine replaced the steam engine,” is to integrate and process “extremely precise data from tracks” and the engine in a way that “allows advanced hardware to [quickly and safely] stop a 100-car freight train that is [more than] one mile long, weighs 6,000 tons and travels at 55 miles an hour – in any given location and weather.”

Already, an Association of American Railroads spokesman told The Washington Post, the rail industry has spent “nearly $6 billion” to getting the P.T.C. equipment in place. And though “much progress” has been made, according that spokesman, there’s still a lot that needs to be done.

Let ‘Em Eat . . . Horse! (Really, It’s a Good Idea!)

Many if not most Americans see horses as noble animals — immensely attractive and a stand-out symbol of pioneering days, of settlers’ struggle-filled journeys across vast expanses of land on the backs of, or in wagons pulled by these sometimes-too-burdened beasts.

Seeing horses — singly or in groups — in a field, free and unfettered, is a memorable experience. Watching them perform on a race track, seemingly enjoying what they are doing, is similarly enhancing, emotionally. Observing them pull plows, as in days of old, on an Amish farm, shows in yet another way how closely man has intertwined  this creature’s experience, even beyond its sentience, with ours.

Still, we’ve endeavored to make them stronger, longer-lived, better able to serve us — which has been our intention all along — by feeding them chemicals (herbicides and more) harmful to them through the hay and grain they eat; we give them, counter-productively, antibiotics. We’ve done these noble beasts assorted disservices.

And because we love and respect them, we, the people, via our representatives in Washington in 1971, via the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (Public Law 92-195), made this declaration:

To require the protection, management, and control of wild free- roaming horses and burros on public lands. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene. It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.

Uh oh.

So, wild horses — the modern-day version, possibly way different from the original Genus Equus, which scientists believe died out in North America, its original home, some 13,000 years ago — now are a protected species.

A frequent and unfortunate side effect of protecting a species is that, before you know it, particularly in the case of one like horses, with few natural predators,  sometimes, such animals become, as wild horses have, too numerous for the land available to them.

Compare two other ‘protected species’ — dogs and cats: The American Humane Society says that

“About 2.4 million healthy, adoptable cats and dogs—about one every 13 seconds—are put down in U.S. shelters each year. Often these animals are the offspring of cherished family pets.

Which brings us back to the ‘uh oh’:

The federal government’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is responsible for ensuring those protected horses and burros aren’t so over protected that there are more of them than their food/water resources can sustain. Meaning, in short, some are culled, every year. Why? Because of the fact that, according to the BLM, “The current estimated on-range wild horse and burro population (as of March 1, 2015) [was] 58,150, an 18 percent increase over the 2014 estimate of 49,209. That means the current West-wide on-range population exceeds AML by 31,435.”

The Washington Post reported a couple of years ago, under the headline “The West is on the brink of a wild horse apocalypse. (No, Really)”, said that the BLM’s culling doesn’t, as a rule, involve exterminating the horses pulled from the wild population — because “Congress has largely restricted the slaughter of healthy horses,” The Post said — but, instead, they are shipped off “to long-term “retirement” facilities — mainly private ranches in Kansas and Oklahoma; The problem is that this is hugely expensive: There are now 45,000 horses in these facilities, and BLM’s horse budget has soared from $19.8 million in 2000 to $74.9 million in 2012,” The story in The Post went on.

Meanwhile, the number of Americans unable to obtain and consume the amounts of food/vitamins/minerals/etc. they should is, beyond being frightening, totally disgraceful. As of last year, according to feedingamerica.org, some “48.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households, including 32.8 million adults and 15.3 million children.”\

NBC News has reported that a record number of wild horses – almost 50,000 – are now living in captivity, far more than some 32,000 left on the range.

In captivity. What kind of life is that for a beautiful that is unable to be self-sufficient only because its range is limited?

And what, ultimately, is the point of maintaining those captive facilities at so high a cost — particularly when a practical alternative is staring us in the face: Rather than ‘pensioning out’ excess wild horses, let’s ‘permanently retire’ them, and put their valuable, unadulterated protein to good use in one or another (already existing) program for Americans in need of animal protein?

I love to see and watch horses. I enjoy riding them, or rare occasions. But . . .

I think horse meat is a serious protein source that, for emotional and probably impractical reasons, is being ignored.

Let’s rethink horsemeat.

Please do me a favor and checkout Commotion In The Pews, an eclectic blog by a brilliant (ex-Naval Intelligence) guy with a fascinating range of interests and a hobby being Santa, wherever he’s invited, in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area.

Some of what Joe Courtemanche writes about probably won’t excite you, but at the very least, you more than likely will be impressed by his common sense, and the way he tells his tales.

Republicans Greatest Need: A Party-Destroying Suicide Bomber

gop_symbolThe Republican Party is, for all intents and purposes, a thing of the past — certainly not one for the future. Unfortunately, it is self-destroying slowly — so slowly that there’s little (read \virtually no) time for a viable alternative to arise, Phoenix-like, in time to have any serious impact in the 2016 elections.

What they need, at this point, is a party-destroying ‘suicide bomber’ — a person or event that will skewer the seditionists, scatter the unsure, destroy the demi gods who would, incrementally, tear the party apart over the next decade or so.

Failing that, the Republicans are setting themselves up to loose both houses of Congress, as they’ve already lost the confidence of a significant share of long-time loyal supporters and, along the way, made a laughing stock of themselves as a political ‘force’.

Let’s be realistic: This country is not destined to have a severely more conservative government — one that ignores the needs of the worst-off, continues to favor the already-well-favored, distains and has every interest in eliminating ‘Obamacare’ without proposing any viable alternative (other than letting the most-needy and those with moderate incomes flounder, with little or no ability to get necessary medical care, in a timely manner, or to pay for it if/when they do.

‘In a timely manner’ is the critical phrase there, because eventually, one way or another, most of the most-needy will get some kind of medical help, usually at a cost to the public that will be far higher than would have been the case if a reasonably-priced insurance plan had been made available to them.

Sadly, Obamacare doesn’t necessarily provide such insurance.

It’s been fairly widely noted that if one without other insurance fails to sign up for a health plan compatible with The Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) they run the risk of paying a penalty for the ‘privilege’ of doing so. But there’s a significant exception to that aspect of the law, to the effect that a great many individuals and families have such low income that they are exempt — meaning, they don’t face a penalty that could, and most certainly would, be levied against any income tax return they might otherwise be entitled to.

And in the end — and even from the beginning of a medical ‘issue’ — those individuals and families are left with one choice: Go to the Emergency Room . . . then ignore the bills when they come in.

Someone observed recently how the term Emergency Room is rapidly being replaced with Emergency Department. There’s a simple reason for that: As more and more uninsurable people use ’emergency’ services as their primary care physicians (to the point where many come to be quite well-known to emergency services personnel), the services of what was once essentially a trauma center have expanded, and been extended, to include dramatic degrees of cost-intensive testing, space-intensive and nurse-exhausting still-in-the-’emergency’-area occupancy, and other demands of staff, territory and resources.

It has long and widely been reported that ’emergency’ care is, given its intensity, and its demands, way-out-of-proportion costly, compared to other levels of medical service. What’s worse, a sizable share of charges levied by emergency rooms or departments remain unpaid — for the same reason so many users of those services do so in the first place: They don[t have the financial wherewithal to do otherwise.

Republicans can wish — as they do — that health care cost issues of several types can be ‘dealt with’ by interrupting or ending a system that, though Republicans deny it, actually is working for a lot of people. No, it is not a perfect system, but the Afford Care Act has made it possible for a significant number of previously-uninsured individuals and families to have ‘affordable’ coverage. More, not less, needs to be done to help the ACA to do what it was created, with the help of Republicans, to do.

Soldier Life Ends in Iraq in a ‘Complicated’ Environment – Not, The Pentagon Says, in A War

master-sgt-joshua-l-wheelerThe U.S. government has an increasing problem regarding telling those who fund it – American taxpayers – the truth.
Among the most recent examples of this surrounds the extremely unfortunate death of Army Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, 39. He was wounded and subsequently died earlier this week in a “planned rescue mission” to free a number of people being held in Iraq by ISAS, the self-described Islamic caliphate.
The Pentagon has refused to say he died as a soldier involved in a war. He was, instead, involved in “a train, advise and assist mission, not a combat one,” as The DailyBeast.com put it, that didn’t go off quite as planned. That’s hardly surprisingly, given the U.S.-acknowledged incompetence of Iraqi troops supposedly trained, at great expense, by the U.S. But, while the U.S. is supposedly not engaged in a war in Iraq, the Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, has said Sgt. Wheeler’s death occurred “in combat, and things are complicated.”
It is highly unlikely that his survivors, including his wife and four children, views his death that way. To them, he is (as he should be to all U.S. citizens) a hero – a man who, during more than 20 years of military service, was deployed into war zones 14 times and earned 11 Bronze Star medals – four of them for valor in combat – as well as “many” other awards, according to The Wall Street Journal.
It remains to see how the U.S. government will attempt to compensate those victims – survivors – for their loss.

Consider this:
The U.S. military formally withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011 and throughout the 2012 presidential election, the Obama repeatedly hailed the withdraw as a U.S. success story. Since 2011, there have been nine U.S. non-combat deaths in support of Iraq, many in the form of accidents at the U.S. naval base in Bahrain.

Sometimes the best of intentions . . . burn, as it were, the Canadian bacon

egg-mcmuffinMcDonald’s, yielding to extensive, years-long pressure from EggMcMuffin lovers, gave in recently, and declared that, in selected locations, breakfast foods would be available all day.
This clear give-in to protests by hoards of shift workers who were (substitute a euphemism for ‘weak coffee’) off about the fact that, when it is their morning, and breakfast time, they were not offered, in their favorite sometimes-moderately-fast-food establishment, either pancakes or a concoction based on an egg encased with cheese in a so-called English muffin – an item totally unavailable in England.
And, they added, even the coffee offered to just-off-second-shift workers has been, um, shall we say, lacking an appropriate bouquet.
So workers and hoards of students, doing whatever it is they do overnight, as they populate tens of thousands of McDonald’s outlets after 10:30 a.m. – the company’s traditional cut-off for breakfast foods — had so successfully united that a monster corporation had . . . well, either asked or required . . . franchises to shift to the new all-day-shift for breakfast.
Many breakfast-food-loving customers are delighted. Some others are not.
Franchisers seriously are not ‘lovin it’.
Foodservice.com, an industry blog, reports that franchisees say “the company’s all-day break the company’s all-day breakfast launch has been a nightmare. The new menu is slowing down service, reducing average ticket costs, and causing chaos in the kitchens.” several franchisees told Nomura analyst Mark Kalinowski in a new survey.

“In small stores, the problems are vast with people falling over each other and equipment jammed in everywhere,” one franchisee wrote in response to the survey. Another wrote, “All-day breakfast is a non-starter. We are trading customers down from regular menu to lower-priced breakfast items. Not generating new traffic.”

A third called the new program “erratic, distorted, disorganized direction from McDonald’s.”

Even more concerning, to the parent company, must have been a remark by one franchisee that “Customers are abandoning us in droves because we are either too slow, or sub-par quality,” a Business Insider article (as reported by Yahoo) said.
Then there’s the view from the Twittersphere.
Example 1:
HEY @McDonalds WTF IS THE POINT OF ALL DAY BREAKFAST WITH NO MCGRIDDLES OR HASHBROWNS? NO ONE LIKES A TEASE.
Examples 2, 3 & 4:
• Update there’s no mc griddle so I don’t care anymore
• mcdonald’s all day breakfast menu doesn’t have hash browns or mcgriddles. aint no point tbh @mcdonalds.
• McDonalds caused all this hype bout all day breakfast only to not have the McGriddle on all day? SMH
Between franchisers’ complaints and customers’, with many in each camp decidedly not ‘lovin’ it’, it would be a good bet that IHOP might just grow its menu and open some drive-thru lanes in the wake of not-the-smartest-of-moves by the biggest of fast-food franchisors.

Step On It: Call Your Insurance Agent!

Several auto insurance companies have broadcast and internet ads saying they can save you . . . well, more than you’d expect, if you were just talking a competitive rate. The new wrinkle, which can really straighten out your driving habits, can seriously snip your rate if, and it’s not as big an ‘if’ as you might think, you pay attention to how you drive, especially how you brake, and anticipate situations where you are likely to have to do so.

The bad news: The promised discounts will only be provided to drivers who do what they are advised to, and only if they drive less than 20-30 miles per day — depending on your insurance company. The latter requirement does, of course, cut off a large share of the driving population, But the former discount-dependent requirement — that you drive safer and hard-brake less — should nevertheless be employed by drivers of all ages, regardless of how much, and where, you drive.

Thirty-six percent: That’s how much my wife and I cut out auto insurance rate through the ‘Snapshot’ program offered by Progressive. When we renewed with them six months ago, we were offered an opportunity to participate in this program, which involved having you install, in a few seconds, a small measuring/ and reporting device under your dashboard. It keeps track of how far and fast you drive — the latter is averaged over time and distance — and how often, and for how long, you ‘hard-break’. That reflects situations where, for example, if you are following fairly close behind someone and they suddenly decide to stop or slow to make a turn, you need to hit the brake pretty hard, and hold it for more than a few seconds to get to a speed where you are able to avoid tail-ending the vehicle in front of you. Or, where you have to brake to make a curve in the road.

You saved with Snapshot!
Congratulations–based on your safe driving habits, you’ve earned a Snapshot® Discount.
Here are your final results, which will be used to help calculate your renewal rate:

Vehicle: 2010 TOYOTA COROLLA
Device ID: P205970N
Final result: You saved 6% with Snapshot!
Vehicle: 2001 SATURN SL1
Device ID: P115002D
Final result: You saved 30% with Snapshot!

Do you pay attention to the yellow signs indicating a curve is ahead, with a suggestion of a safe speed for approaching it? Ironically, if you do, there is a good chance you brake more, more often, than you should need to. In a vast majority of instances, your average car can approach and coast through a curve at five, maybe even ten miles per hour above the recommended speed. If you’re an over-cautious driver — a type I hate to be behind on any road with curves and limited passing zones — there’s a good chance you will brake more than you really should, or do, need to when approaching most curves.

Warning: Do NOT even imagine you might coast through curves in mountainous areas such as in the mini-mountains comprising Appalachian foothills just east of Roanoke, Virginia.  There are two main roads between there and Lynchburg, to the east, and both have numerous stretches with curves that cannot, period, be navigated at a speed greater than 16 mph!  My Snapshot devise got a total rest along most of both of those roads. (I tried one ‘out’ and the other ‘back’ on a recent trip to the Roanoke area. Both drives were, while largely traffic-free, because sensible people would drive 20 or more extra miles to avoid these snake-shaped courses — physically and emotionally exhausting.

But ordinary-road driving now is a lot more enjoyable, knowing that, since I am paying more attention to how I drive, my car insurance costs are dramatically lower.

This cost-cutting service truly is a valuable to people — particularly those as old or older than I am — whose need to drive more than 20-30 on any but an exceptional day are . . . exceptional.  ( don’t know for sure, but I am inclined to believe that the 20-30 miles per day ‘standard’ is averaged over, say, a week. So, if you have one 50-75 mile driving day, you’ll still be within the acceptable range.)

What baffles me is why the insurance companies don’t advertise the availability of this type program. What ‘infrequent driver’ would not switch to a company offering a discount to someone who drives as you already may – or could easily be persuaded to?

I simple mail piece from Progressive got me interested. Now I’m interested in interesting others — at no cost to my insurer!

Climate Change and Oil Exploration – Never The Twain Should Meet

Just think: Mere days after President Obama announced he was authorizing further exploratory drilling for oil in Alaska – something ‘big oil’ has been encouraging, pleading and lobbying for almost forever – well, a decade or two, actually – Royal Dutch Shell, which has been doing exploratory drilling off the northwest coast of Alaska for some time, announced that because of costs and regulatory issues, it was halting drilling operations there.

The company said one 6,800 foot drill-down had disclosed “evidence” that oil and gas are present, but there was no indication that enough of either to justify continued exploration (and expenditure) at this time.

We can only hope that Shell’s decision, after expenditures running into billions of dollars in an area that is, under the best of conditions, more than likely to make oil- or gas-capturing exceptionally uneasy, will encourage other companies  to cash in their chips and skedaddle straight out of an area that is – and we all should care about this – environmentally sensitive.

Alaska encompasses more environmentally sensitive – and threatened – area than any several other U.S. states combined. Isolated it may  be (and certainly is, except from Sarah Palin’s  view of Russia from her front porch), Alaska is, with its vast forests, a tremendous source of oxygen, at the rate of some 260 pounds of it per tree per year, according to About Education.

That aside – and it shouldn’t be – Alaska is home to animal species that don’t exist and couldn’t survive elsewhere. Human activities that reduce their roaming/habitat areas threaten their very existence. People paying attention – and, admittedly, too few of us are – see polar bear-supporting habitat shrinking as the ice caps do. And they are doing so at rates that are very hard to measure, and may not be as significant as some would have us believe – but rates that some others see as particularly dangerous to low-lying areas that could, in a not-even-the-worst-scenario, simply disappear, along with the homes, businesses and all else of importance to the populations of thousands, or millions.

Ice caps shrink in three ways: Through melting from above, from the sun’s rays, from below, as water below the caps warms as the caps’ outer edges shrink, and through ‘calving’ – the splitting off of often huge chunks (some the size of Rhode Island) because, in part, of the warmer below-the-caps water. The calved pieces drift away from the main cap, entering even warmer water, where they melt and can, over the long term, contribute to rising ocean levels further to the south.

One of the reasons oil and gas exploration is so expensive in Arctic areas is because the weather can be so severe. Consider this: Global warming and its effects on the ice caps will more than likely reduce the severity of that weather, making oil/gas exploration easier, and cheaper.

That would, of course, open the door to more mistakes and accidents of the types that befoul shorelines and waterfowl – among other animals. Not to mention the long-term damage such ‘incidents’ do to affected areas.

Rather than easing up regulations on exploratory and production drilling in sensitive areas, our government and others should be ever

A polar bear walking along the edge of 'the ice bridge' in the Robeson channel, at 82.4 north, near the border between Greenland and Canada. This is the southernmost extent of the summer sea ice which usually extends much further south into the Nares Strait, it has receded dramatically in recent years. Greenpeace and leading climate scientists are in Greenland for a 3 month expedition using their icebreaking ship the Arctic Sunrise to gather climate change data for the Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009.
A polar bear walking along the edge of ‘the ice bridge’ in the Robeson channel, at 82.4 north, near the border between Greenland and Canada. This is the southernmost extent of the summer sea ice which usually extends much further south into the Nares Strait, it has receded dramatically in recent years. Greenpeace and leading climate scientists are in Greenland for a 3 month expedition using their icebreaking ship the Arctic Sunrise to gather climate change data for the Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009.

vigilant, with accompanying legal restrictions, to ‘let sleeping oil lie’.