What to do With TrainHenge?

Stonehenge is a fascinating monument of mysterious origin. Are we building a similar monument?

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This structure is north of Fresno, on the south side of the San Joaquin River.

The saga of California’s high speed rail project took an unexpected turn when newly elected governor Gavin Newsom decided to cut the project in half. Originally planned to extend from San Diego in the far south to the SF bay area and Sacramento, Newsom’s change of direction would reduce it to the Bakersfield to Merced segment, a distance of about 165 miles. The project is ~as expected~ well over budget, underfunded, and behind schedule. Not one inch of track has been laid but hulking monuments loom over the landscape. If the project is never finished ~and that is a distinct possibility~ one wonders what will become of them.

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The Last Spike at Promontory, Utah. Building railroads was much easier then. We celebrate the 150th anniversary of this event in May.

The project is a victim of the fact that those once open spaces are no longer open. When the first trans-continental railroad was constructed, right-of-way acquisition was a simple matter of surveying a route and laying track. Native Americans might have objected, but most of the land was under federal control and thus readily available. The structures being built in Fresno for HSR reflect the difficulty of finding a usable route. Rather than building on the ground, the planners have chosen to create an aerial path through the city.

As is typical in such instances, this project was sold on questionable premises. First, of course, was the original cost estimate. It was so far below reality that  no one even mentions it anymore. Then it was the promise that it would pay for itself. That might have worked had the original cost held but at $66 billion and rising, it would be a long time happening. Amtrak currently quotes a Bakersfield to Sacramento ticket at about $45. Considering the faster service, one might expect an HSR ticket for the same route to be double. The segment to be built, if it extended to Sacramento, might cost $20 billion. If so, it would take more than 22,000,000 tickets to recover that cost.

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The overpass structure south of Fresno. What could it become?

Traffic reduction was another selling point. It is reasonable to think that some reduction would occur. If so, why is the San Francisco – San Jose corridor still a traffic nightmare? The California DOT, a.k.a. Caltrans, operates the Cal Train service over that route and claims 65,000 average daily riders. The impact on traffic for all that is vanishingly small. To have any significant impact on valley traffic, the HSR system would have to carry at least ten time that number of passengers. Are there a half million  people eager to ride the train each day?

The critics of the project are legion and most of the arguments against have merit, as I have noted. One argument, however, is as fallacious as anything that has been offered in support of it. That is that trains are obsolete. This is a useless argument from the outset, and ultimately meaningless. Yes, it is an old technology in its essence. (I have a poster commemorating 100 Hundred Years of the Railroad that was produced by the Baltimore & Ohio for a centenary pageant in 1927, to illustrate how old it is.) If age is the criterion, the automobile and the airplane, competing transportation technologies are more than a century old. Should we be searching for replacements?

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We are always “putting America to work”.

A line from Bakersfield to Sacramento may still be worth the trouble and expense, though I stand by the arguments that it will never recover its costs and have little impact on traffic. In fact, that route may be ideally suited to a high speed rail system just because the competing technologies do not serve us well. Anyone in the valley, especially south of Sacramento, knows the pain of trying to fly anywhere. If one were to book a flight from Bakersfield to Sacramento, the airlines typically will soak you about $500 and sned you to LAX or SFO in the process. And there is the enjoyable prospect of being scrutinized, x-rayed, maybe frisked or even strip searched in the bargain. Oh, and be sure to leave behind that bottle of whatever that is too large and anything vaguely resembling a weapon.

One more thing on which no price can be placed. People like trains. Given the choice between a bus or the train, most will gladly take the train. The same thing is true of streetcars or trolleys. There is something appealing about trains that cannot be quantified.

Stonehenge is a mystery to us. Its origins are lost in the mists of time. It has its own problems, mostly that it is a popular destination hampered by traffic problems. Perhaps Trainhenge will not be forgotten, all the troubles of its beginnings digitally preserved for the ages…maybe. But if the rail project is not continued, what will it become?

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These Stonehenge tourists can tell you about the traffic problem. They did manage to survive left-hand driving…

 

 

My Yearbook

Let me tell you a story about a yearbook. No, not that yearbook. I will get to that a little further down. This is a tale of mixed identities in a mystery that I have only recently solved. Fear not, there are no villains, skulduggery or even a horse race, just a confusion that lasted for decades.

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The Electronics Engineering (EL) class of 1968. I am third row third from right, next to Ed Devine, a veteran like me, who’s promising football career was stopped by a broken ankle. We were a diverse group before diversity became an issue.

I graduated from then California State Polytechnic College ( University) in San Luis Obispo in the awful year of 1968. It was an awful year on the national scene. At least in that school year we could reflect with pride on the fact that we almost beat San Diego State in football. If you know anything about the history of football at Poly, you will understand why that would have been so. But that is a digression.

 

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The “offending yearbook still surprises me.

I still have my senior yearbook, though you will be hard pressed to find me in it. I was active with Poly Royal, a “Country fair on a college campus” the open house that was held at about the time of spring break. I would digress even more to delve into the circumstances of its demise. An annual open house, it was a major undertaking.

 

Fast forward now a half century and my Electronics Engineering class is invited to a reunion staged by the Electrical Engineering department. (The EL degree was retired some years ago and is now offered as an option in the EE department.) My college room mate and I have stayed in contact all these years, even though we are now almost a continent apart. He contacted me to find out if I was planning to attend and we made plans.

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The reunion group, third from right again. My roommate is far left, next to Dr. Don Winger, the one faculty member to make it, and Dan Malone, now an instructor at Poly.

The reunion included a tour of the campus and the annual engineering banquet and great hospitality. I am grateful to school for making this effort. It was superbly enjoyable event, even though few of my classmates attended.

 

I am sure that I am not the only one who takes a reunion as an excuse to review old yearbooks and whatever other items we might still retain. I was even able to amuse my daughter and her cousin with the fact that I had acted in a Ray Bradbury play in my senior year.

None of this directly addresses the mystery to which I alluded at the outset. The story is this. Though I never made an effort to inform Cal Poly of my occasional changes of address, year after year alumni magazines and newsletters would still find me. Of interest was the “Where are they now?” items which I would peruse with some interest. Then, in one issue about ten years on, I was surprised to read that I was now a 1st Lieutenant in the army stationed in Germany. This was erroneous to say the least and I resolved to inform them of the fact, something I never got around to.

Over the years I puzzled over that error. I recall a classmate remarked about it to me but the mystery remained. The reunion brought me back to my yearbook and finally I realized why that error had been made. It seems that there was a Rob Sexton at Poly during my time there what was a year or two behind me and in a different department. The similarity of our names caused some harried and overworked yearbook editor to assume that we were one and the same and that error was passed on to the alumni and newsletter editors and probably persists to this day. I do not know what happened to Rob or where he might be now. Perhaps he is puzzling over an invitation to participate in an engineering reunion soon.

All this came back to me when the news about Virginia governor Ralph Northam broke. It started with his lamentable comments on the Virginia abortion law but that was shunted aside when it was revealed that he had committed the unforgiveable sin of having done something stupid in his college years. That was where the yearbook came in focus. In his medical school yearbook a picture showed someone in blackface on his page. The fact of its existence was compounded by the ham handed handling by Northam when it came to light.

Make what you will of his transgression or his possible attitude or beliefs, these facts are certain. First, the picture shows two individuals, one in blackface and the other in a KKK costume. Neither can be positively identified as Northam nor does any caption identify the two. Such evidence is circumstantial at best and thus cannot -should not- be grounds for his resignation. Nor should anyone be similarly condemned except in extreme cases.

Northam’s handling, on the other hand probably ought to at least raise a few eyebrows. However, he belongs to the Virginia Democrats and, evidently due to the current politics, he remains in office. You may think he should or should not resign. But before you rush to the attack -or defense- you should likely not rely on his yearbook for evidence. Just ask me, I know.

Addendum: This name confusion struck again. On a recent hospital visit, my turn at the X-ray machine was missed because there was another individual with the same last name. They got my turn when the name was called.  What would happen if I had a common name?

Metric, Schmetric…

p1040376I was happily slurping my bowl of instant pho the other day while idly perusing the nutritional data on the label when I spied an amazing thing. The net weight was specified in grams. This was metric soup! I looked at another item, a can of beans. Here again a metric value. Even the green guy on that can of corn was metric. What is going on here? Have some insidious agents from a clandestine EU bureaucracy infiltrated our sacred domain? Have we been hacked? Horrors!

Actually, this is nothing new. I clearly remember a display of similarly labeled products p1040377displayed in a classroom at Cal Poly more than fifty years ago. The fact is, we have been on the metric system for all practical purposes even longer than that. This is a fact that was overlooked by the erstwhile Jimmy Carter during his sweater clad years in the White House, by the legion of petulant haranguers  pining for the chance to buy a metric cup of coffee (8 oz. = 237 cc), and especially by all those for whom science is religion and should be the measure of all things -metrically determined, of course.

p1040378Alright, I kid. I also scoff. While the metric system has been widely accepted and used, its merits are generally misunderstood. The justifications for adopting it miss the real reason it came into existence; standardization. Up until the time of Columbus, world trade was relatively limited and local weights and measures prevailed no matter where you took your corn. But as communications improved and trade increased, the ability to order goods by weight or volume across national borders became critical. it was this motivation that lead to the creation of the metric system. Then it was adopted by France during the reign of Napoleon and has spread across the globe since then.

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We use the metric system often, especially in nutrition and medicine.

Here is where the system shines. The difference between that and the British Imperial system is that he metric system is coherent. It was developed over a period of time as an integral whole, whereas the Imperial (and American) systems grew out of a myriad of specialized systems.But even though units differ, these systems are all tied together such that local variations no longer exist.

So why object to the metric system? Why haven’t we made the switch? Let me be clear. I do not object to the metric system, but I do object to some of the arguments made in its favor. As to why it has not been adopted, a passage from the Wikipedia article on the history of the system is very revealing.

In 1790, a proposal floated by the French to Britain and the United States, to establish a uniform measure of length, a meter based on the period of a pendulum with a beat of one second, was defeated in the British Parliament and United States Congress. The underlying issue was failure to agree on the latitude for the definition, since gravitational acceleration and therefore the length of the pendulum, is proportional to latitude: each party wanted a definition according to a major latitude passing through their own country.

Alas, as is ever true, politics ultimately rules, and so we have the situation as it is today. Political consideration must always be accommodated, even though there are now universally accepted standards in place that require no earthly reference. Sadly, the whole issue has fallen into the red-blue conflagration and is not likely to resolved, or even taken up, anytime soon.

So why did Jimmy Carter fail? one must consider the character of the systems and remember that the impetus for the metric system was standardization. The reality was -and is- that adopting the metric system would give little or no benefit to the average American. In our day to day lives, we benefit from the standards that exist but, other than the numbers (as on those labels), nothing will change. How we fry our eggs, mow our lawns, drive to work, and all our other activities, will not be impacted at all. Moreover, if adopting the metric system in place of the current units included adopting European standards (which I think would be the inevitable follow-on) for such things as nuts and bolts, wire sizes, pipe, lumber and a myriad more, an enormous expenditure would be required and in the end, we would have nothing new, nothing better, just nuts and bolts, wire sizes, pipe, lumber and so forth.

Hidden in all the noise is the fact that most of the English and American units of measure were developed at a time when precise measurements were rarely needed. The peasant trying to cultivate his 40 acres with a wooden plow and maybe a horse, hardly needed to calculate anything to four decimal places. Nor would it matter to him if it were described as 16.19 hectares. He could pace off the size of his field knowing that his foot was, well, a foot. His outstretched arms were his height which would be somewhere between five and six feet. He would likely know that there were 640 acres to a square mile, or a section.  In effect, he carried his standards with him. It is this human element that the metric system eliminates. Our hardworking peasant would have no reference with which to estimate anything in metric units.

There is more. The metric system is decimal based and why not? We have ten fingers to count on so it seems natural. The irony is that the development of computers ultimately required some pretty fancy software to do decimal arithmetic. Computers, at least the ones we use most, are inherently binary. One exercise for software developers early on was to code division such that 4/2 was not reported as 1.999999… Ironically, the old systems of measure rely heavily on division by two, something which is easy for humans to do physically. In liquid measure, for example, the units were jack, pint, gill , quart, pottle, gallon, each a multiple of two. Thus two pottles make a gallon and so on.

Proponents of the metric system ought to pay more attention to their arguments. Case in point, the supposed difficulty of the English system. In one episode of The Big Bang Theory, in response to a comment made by Sheldon as to why we don’t use the metric system, Amy says, “…because Americans can’t handle the metric system?” But consider, if the metric system is so much easier, it would be no problem. In other words she is saying that Americans are too stupid to understand the system. But the fact is that we have no problem with the English system when we use it. The admonition “use it or lose it” has real meaning here. In that it is coherent in design, the metric system is easier and we have no problem using it when the need arises.

As for ease of calculation, there really is no difference. it is quite simple to conjure up example problems that demonstrate this but they are very limited. The fact is, anyone who is reasonable adept at mental arithmetic will find it easy to multiply 3/4 by 5/8. (The answer is 30/8, or 3 – 3/4.) The decimal equivalent will send most everyone looking for the calculator or pencil and paper. Try it for your self.

So why haven’t we adopted the metric system? The answer is that we have in many ways but as I have stated, there is no pressing need. Do you wake up every morning dreading another day without it? Of course not. It would have no useful impact on our daily lives. I suspect, however, that it will take over gradually. From things I have heard, it may be that many teachers are simply neglecting to teach the English system of measurement. stressing the metric instead, even though they have an obligation to teach what is the accepted standard. The demand does not exist because it does not matter whether our speedometers indicate miles or kilometers per hour, or for that matter, furlongs per fortnight*. (A standard of measure peculiar to Cal Poly engineers. A furlong is 1/8 mile, another binary example. How long is a fortnight? Give me a couple of weeks…)

And there it is. Those trying to push us into the metric system are generally misguided and want it for all the wrong reasons. By adopting it, we have nothing to lose but our humanity.

  • A furlong per fortnight was the insiders gag at in the EL department at Poly in my day, far too long ago. One furlong/fortnight, or f/f, comes out to about 6mm per second. Calculating the speed of light in f/f was der riguer  for any self respecting engineering student.

Kamala, O’ Kamala!

I belong to an organization called AHEPA. That is the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association. It is closely associated with the Greek Orthodox Church but not officially tied to it. The proximity is due to the fact that most of our members are Greek-American and thus the relationship is strong. This is unlike the Knights of Columbus, a philanthropic charitable organization which is wholly a part of the American Catholic Church.

The knights are currently in the cross hairs of the presidential ambitions of one Senator Kamala Harris, recently California Attorney General and also recently highly visible in the Kavanaugh debacle. There, in spite of her beaming campaign photos, she displayed an icy, almost reptilian demeanor when interrogating Judge Kavanaugh.

And she is at it again. Since she is still a member of the Senate Judiciary committee, she is now raising objections to the nominee, Omaha attorney Brian Beuscher, based on his membership in the Knights of Columbus. The Knights, being an element of the Catholic church, follow the teachings of the church in regard to abortion, among other things. Ms. Harris’s interrogation of the judicial candidate focused on those issues as if the Knights were some far right extremist organization bent on a return to the medieval world.

Predictably, a howl went up from pundits on the right, as this was a clear violation of article 6 of the US constitution, which expressly forbids any religious test for public office. What has gone unmentioned is that it is certain that Harris knows this and was not attempting to expand her knowledge of Catholic doctrine. Given her presidential ambitions, this was an exhibition aimed at pandering to her -possible- base and shore up her credentials as the standard bearer of the far left.

It does have more ominous implications, however. She was joined in this attack by Senator Mazie Hirono, and this is not an isolated exception. Numerous similar attacks have been recorded in which Democrat Senators question the propriety of nominees involvement in religiously based organizations. Matthew Continetti, writing for the National Review, detailed many of these incidents. As he summarized it,

“No longer is the debate over Christianity in the public square. It is over Christians in the public square. And this is an argument in which people of every faith have a stake in the outcome.”

Looking on this as an AHEPAN and an Orthodox Christian, I can only shudder at what might come to pass under a Harris administration.

The Steyer Mire

Silicon Valley Big Tech gazillionare Tom Steyer is on a tear to impeach Donald Trump. He has committed some $40,000,000.00 to the effort and can be seen regularly (at least on day-time TV) flogging his lame idea. On my deepest dark side, it would be a delicious outcome to be tiptoeing across the feces flecked Union Square in San Francisco, the heart of darkest leftism, and encounter an impoverished Tom Steyer begging for handouts having blown his fortune tilting at the windmill that is Donald Trump. I don’t hold out much chance of this. I suspect that $40M is but chump change to him and besides, he didn’t get that much cash by being fiscally stupid. More’s the pity…

Certainly there is much about The Donald that is off-putting. He has not stayed in the proper lane through life or even in office. His bluster and braggadocio does little or nothing to increase his base and, according to many pundits, his reelection is likely in jeopardy. But impeachable? That requires some reflection.

The Founding Fathers were certain that an impeachment process was necessary to good government. Elected officials must be accountable to the people and be removable if circumstances warrant. But they shied away from being definitive and instead used the term of art high crimes and misdemeanors instead. They did so to make impeachment essentially a political act, not a statutory one. (Here I would suggest you look up the commentary of Andy McCarthy at National Review. He has examined this issue at length from his knowledge as an attorney and as a federal prosecutor. It will be worth your trouble.)

In his TV pitch, Steyer claims that he has a list of ten impeachable acts, though he doesn’t cite anything specific. This is where his whole campaign falls apart. The deliberately unspecific specification has never been followed by any legislation detailing what might constitute high crimes and misdemeanors, and the fact that presidential impeachments have been so rarely used means that Steyer’s list is of no merit. In short, Steyer could claim that any act of Trump is impeachable and it would be nothing but the ranting of a loon with too much money and time.

Finally, it must be noted that Steyer started his campaign even before Trump was sworn in. It is a “hang ’em first and find a reason later” effort. That is evidently from his generic distaste for Trump, coupled with delusion that the election was somehow illegitimate. But Trump was legitimately elected. One may question the effectiveness of the electoral college system, but it is sheer fantasy to argue that the 2016 election was erroneous.

So keep on, Tom Steyer. Squander your fortune on your effort. And if it comes to it, I will keep an eye out for you in Union Square.

Loyal to… ?

A recent poster on Facebook lamented the possibility his son might have to join the service under that “moron-in-chief” obviously referring to the current president. What he seems not recognize is that every president in recent times has been disdained by some portion of the populace. Thus the epithet would have been used in regard to presidents every party.

This is a minor matter but there is a an underlying principle that is being forgotten. Those who join our military services swear an oath to “preserve and protect” the constitution. This oath remains in force regardless who is in the White House. In fact, many military members serve through the terms of more than one president and no repeat oath is needed.

Why is this? As I stated, the oath is to preserve the constitution not the president, or any other person for that matter. The founding fathers wanted no royalty and that oath is an expression of that desire. Thus presidents, governors and all the rest can come and go but “the Union stands as she stood, rock-bottomed and copper-sheathed, one and indivisible” as Stephen Vincent Benet phrased it in The Devil and Daniel Webster.

There will always be those who find it onerous to serve a particular president and that will be true of presidents of either party. This will not be a problem unless it develops as a widespread sentiment. But that will only happen if the military lets up on its dedication to serving the country.

Das Boot, Max!

This is not about submarines or the movie Das Boot. It is about the strange journey of one Max Boot, late of the conservative world and his conversion to a fire breathing true believer of climate change.

Max Boot was a familiar figure in the conservative world and was generally recognized as well versed in Middle East matters. He was, that is, until 2016, late 2016. Evidently nonplussed by the victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, Max went deep into the “Never Trump” camp and pretty much vanished from the pages of the various conservative sites to which he was previously contributing.

He had company. Among others, writers such as George Will, columnist for the Washington Post, and Bill Kristol, editor and founder of The Weekly Standard, abandoned the Republican Party on the grounds that the GOP had become unmoored from its professed principles. They had a point, as The Donald certainly displayed no perceivable moral principles. But in the minds of many Trump supporters, the Democratic Party’s continuing support for Bill Clinton seemed to negate that as a matter of concern. Sort of an “if they can do it, so can we” stance.

That obviously did not sit well with Max who began issuing a stream of vitriolic laden commentary making it clear that he was against Trump and any who might side with The Donald even slightly. Conservative pundits have taken note of this and have, here and there, commented on him. Now it seems, he has completely rejected the conservatism he once espoused and has embraced the progressive side. The climate issue is only the latest manifestation of his “conversion”.

There are others in the Never Trump camp who have been on the receiving end of Boot’s ~and others’~ disdain. Jonah Goldberg, for example, has been subjected to endless anti-semitic assaults. he gets it from both sides, the right for being against Trump and the left for being on the right and thus supposedly pro-Trump. it is a messy scene.

So climate alarmists* ought to think twice before deifying max Boot. It is hardly likely that he is concerned about climate above all else. Characteristic of his stance since 2016 is a clearly reflexive opposition to Trump. If the Donald goes to McDonalds, max will prefer Burger King. There is not one matter nor one event about which Max will allow himself to agree with Trump, no matter the outcome or the ultimate facts. Goldberg, while clearly and emphatically not in favor of Trump, will at least give due credit when Trump gets something right. Max Boot  has simply gone off the deep end and completely changed his supposedly closely held philosophy simply because of Trump. The contrast between him and Goldberg is stark. Jonah opposes Trump because The Donald does not appear to hold true conservative values. Max opposes Trump only because he is Trump.

*So you think the term climate alarmists is a slur? Please then explain why the term climate deniers is not. Those who use it are either utterly tone deaf to the obvious comparison to Holocaust deniers, or are deliberately taking a cheap shot. The argument that “you are a Nazi because…” appears over and over again. It is unwise and undeserved. The use of alarmists, on the other hand, is not pejorative. In fact, if you truly believe there is an approaching climate catastrophe, being called an alarmist would be appropriate. On the other hand, being called a denier is to be excluded from any possible dialogue. This is a matter of science, not dogma. No scientific proposition should ever be accepted without question. It is shameful how much the “scientific community” has abandoned the principles of true scientific inquiry.