All posts by ben@harding.boulder.co.us

Fourmile Canyon Drive

Residents living along Fourmile Canyon Drive are opposing Boulder County’s plans for reconstruction of the roadway following the floods of September, 2013.   Some residents do not want a wide shoulder along the uphill lane because perceptions of increased safety will encourage “…bike races and amateur and tourist cyclists.”  The horror.

The public side of this debate has been framed largely by Valerie Conway, a resident along the road.   Frankly, it seems like she will throw out any thought in hopes that it might get some traction.   She raises lots of concern about wildlife in what is really a low-density subdivision.  She thinks wider shoulders may encourage her neighbors to speed (she is probably right, there).  Most recently she has raised the Right-Sizing brand in an attempt to mobilize the opposition of the broadly malcontent and the reflexive anti-cyclists.   And, in a guest opinion piece she said that “hundreds of skilled cyclists” prefer the inherent danger of the road.  Improving safety on Fourmile Canyon Drive would be like “grooming the Mary Jane ski area”, in her words.   A few days ago she pleaded to a reporter that the County should get on with the reconstruction because “…we just want to get on with our lives.”   Do drive (better yet, ride) this road before it is reconstructed to see for yourself if you would class that statement as hyperbole.   For extra credit, compare and contrast Fourmile Canyon Drive with James Canyon Drive.

Conway makes her preference clear: she wants the “cyclable shoulders” eliminated from all options.

For what it’s worth, here is the input I offered to the County in support of the rock-cut option.  You have until December 18 to offer input here or by e-mail to Andrew Barth with Boulder County Transportation at abarth@bouldercounty.org.  You can also send copies to the County Commissioners at commissioners@bouldercounty.org.

I support the “rock-cut” option for reconstruction of Fourmile Canyon Drive.  The rock cut option will provide additional resilience against flood-caused transportation disruption, while also providing more safety for uphill motorists and bicycles.

Lessons re-learned from the 2013 flood include the realization that no amount of armoring will prevent Fourmile Creek from taking what it needs from the roadway during the next big flood. The more roadway that is farther from the high-velocity regions of the channel the more roadway that will survive during and immediately after a flood. The wide shoulders on the uphill side of the roadway will be available to contribute to emergency transportation. Further, since the bedrock will remain under a larger part of the road as a foundation that the creek cannot take, reconstruction of lost roadway infrastructure after the next flood will be less expensive and faster than if the roadway were to be built on fill in the channel. The rock cut option is a long-term investment in a more resilient road.

With respect to considerations other than flood resilience, I support the installation of an uphill shoulder that can serve as a bicycle climbing land.  This is a good thing.  The existing roadway is dangerous, particularly on right turns on the uphill side.  Autos drive fast, often exceed the speed limit, and cut the corners, exposing bicycles to danger.   This is one reason why the canyon is not more widely used for cycling.  I realize that some residents are motivated to maintain the status quo to avoid increased bicycle use, but it is good for County residents as a whole to make Fourmile Canyon Drive a safer and more attractive cycling route.  The more recreation we can offer to residents where they do not have to get in a car the more we will reduce local and global impacts.

With respect to natural and social values, it is important to recognize that Fourmile Canyon is not a pristine environment.  It is highly developed, and is really a low-density suburb.  By far the largest impacts to wildlife have been imposed by the presence of the road and the presence and development of residential uses, and these impacts are essentially permanent and cannot be reduced.  The incremental negative impact from the rock cut alternative will be small, and it will be offset by a positive impact on the creek and the wildlife that use it.

Vegan Warriors

The IDF is also issuing leather-free combat boots and wool-free berets to soldiers who register as vegan, so they can march into battle knowing that no living creature has been harmed in their provisioning. (What happens during battle is, of course, harder to control.)

That is the only hint of irony to be found in Vegan Warriors in the December, 2015 issue of the Atlantic.

You simply have to read this and draw your own conclusions.

A bastion of conservatism

Thanks to Silvia Pettem for reminding folks that Boulder was not always liberal.  This follows on an interview two weeks ago with Rob Bowman, who managed the Rocky Flats Plant for Dow Chemical.  Bowman characterized Boulder in the ’50s as a “bastion of conservatism”.

“‘In the ’50s, Boulder was a bastion of conservatism, so there was no bad rap in working at Rocky Flats,’ Bowman recalled. ‘There was one professor (at CU) that was known to be quite extremely liberal,’ Bowman said, searching his memory in vain for the name. ‘He was quite well known, because he was the one liberal in town.'”

I’m really curious who that one liberal was, since it was probably the father of a friend.

Pettem fleshes out Bowman’s characterization with some election history and relates the event that contributed most to the progressive liberalization of Boulder: when eighteen-year-olds got the vote.

There is some truth to the commonly held association of 60’s Boulder with hippies and anti-war protesters, but that is an exaggeration.  Outside of the CU campus, Boulder at that time was still broadly conservative–I remember a billboard that stood for quite some time at the intersection of north Broadway and highway 36 in the early 60’s, prominently sponsored by the John Birch Society and urging the impeachment of Earl Warren.

Signs of change were there, even then.  The Sink put a sign in the window advertising “Free beer for any card-carrying Communist”.  This somewhat belated swipe at the McCarthy Red Scare, coming while memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis (a truly existential threat) were still fresh, prompted some offended local to throw a brick through the sign and the window.  (Well, maybe it was not a local–I think political conservatives were still the majority of the CU student population at that time.)  A couple of nights later the John Birch billboard was blown up.  I clearly recall a photo of a Boulder County Sheriff’s deputy holding up the biggest piece of the sign he could find, about the size of a baseball bat.   This was an early demonstration of the doctrine of shock and awe.  No more bricks were thrown.

As Pettem notes, the flood of new young voters that came when the voting age was lowered to eighteen started to change Boulder.  The Twenty Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified by North Carolina on July 1, 1971, becoming the law of the land.  The amendment passed the Senate 94 to zero and the House 401 to 19, sending it to the states on March 23, 1971.  Its ratification was the fastest ever.  I guess some of the overwhelming support for this amendment was due to an old-fashioned sense of fairness–young men of eighteen were being sent to Vietnam to kill and die when they could not even vote.  I was very clearly aware of that–I voted in the 1971 City Council election and have not missed any election since.   (It’s worth noting that young people would vote at a much higher rate today if the draft were active.  They would probably be serious judges of what constitutes a threat.)

boulder_city_council_1972
Boulder City Council, 1972. Back row: Richard Geesaman, Kenneth Wright, Karen Paget, Dwayne Nuzum, Janet Roberts Front row: Timothy Fuller, Richard McLean, Ruth Correll, Penfield Tate. Credit City of Boulder.

That flood of young voters did tip Boulder toward the left–two young people, Tim Fuller, a 28-year-old bookstore owner, and Karen Paget, a 26-year-old graduate student were elected to the Council.  And, Boulder gave the most votes to Penfield Tate, who was not young but was Black.

Boulder was dubbed the People’s Republic after the election of Fuller, who was gay, and Paget.  (Worse things were probably said about Tate’s election.)  Given how conservative the real Peoples’ Republic is, that might have been a pretty good moniker.

Remarkably, in December of 1973 Tate introduced an equal-rights measure that would have prohibited employers from discriminating against gays.  Just as remarkable as his act of introducing it, Tate’s equal-rights ordinance passed the Council on a 5-4 vote (for: Tate, Ruth Correll, Janet Roberts, Karen Paget and Tim Fuller).  The “vitriol” about right-sizing is but sweet nothings  compared to the firestorm that then ensued, and the Council bowed to the pressure and put the ordinance up on the ballot.  It lost, 13,000 votes to 7,400.  In 1974 voters forced a recall election and Fuller was recalled.  Tate survived by 567 votes.   (I attribute this to the Putney Swope effect.  Because not many people saw the film, you will probably have to look it up.)  However, Tate was not re-elected in 1975.

Pettem sees the reaction of Boulder to the resignation of Richard Nixon as a sign that Boulder had passed the tipping point to liberalism.  But, my recollection of that time is that simply reflected the Nixon Fatigue that cut across the political spectrum.  Boulder finally passed an equal-rights ordinance in 1987.   At that point we can probably think of it as a liberal town.  Those were the days.

Self deportation

One prominent bit of news today is the report by the Pew Research Center that more Mexicans are leaving the U.S. than are entering the country.

Press coverage makes the obligatory reference to Donald Trump and the Wall that the Mexican government (in his fabulation) will pay for.   It will be an interesting construction management challenge, with Mexicans working on the Mexican side and Amirkins working on the U.S. side.

It occurs to me that Trump’s Wall might have some effect.   The Pew study shows that family reunification is the primary force that is driving the “self-deportation” of Mexicans, but economic forces are also important, so by creating good jobs on the Mexican side of the border, Trump’s wall might increase out-migration.

Seriously, I think Mexico will create a lot of good jobs in the coming decades.  Anyone who has traveled in Mexico and Central America (or paid attention to the lives of immigrants here) knows that the stereotype of the lazy latin is the self-serving propaganda of lucky Americans.  Mexicans (and Guatemalans), in my personal experience traveling there, work much, much harder than Americans.  Most Americans would collapse in tears and self-pity after an hour trying to work as hard as a Mexican, here or there.  I expect that work ethic to pay off and bring Mexico closer to parity with the Yanquis.   When that day comes, I’m pretty confident that the set-upon estate class in America will figure out some way to be able to avoid paying a decent wage for their landscaping.

He sat up and wrapped his feet and pulled the boots on and stood and started up the last stretch of canyon to the rim. Where he crested out the country lay dead flat, stretching away to the south and to the east. Red dirt and creosote. Mountains in the far and middle distance. Nothing out there.  Heatshimmer. He stuck the pistol in his belt and looked down at the river one more time and then set out east. Langtry Texas was thirty miles as the crow flies. Maybe less. Ten hours. Twelve. His feet were already hurting. His leg hurt. His chest. His arm. The river dropped away behind him. He hadnt even taken a drink.No Country for Old Men, Cormack McCarthy.

Back to Trump’s wall.  He has obviously not traveled much of the border–the topography from Lajitas to Langtry will demand that some significant parts of Texas be walled off.   Here’s what the Rio Grande Canyon looks like below La Linda.

RioGrande74.001.WP
Ray Bridge on the Rio Grande in Reagan Canyon below La Linda. 1974.

OK, I forget that the Donald will get Mexico to pay for his Wall, so, he also probably plans to force them to build it on their side of the river.

It’s true that the border has not been closed.  Here’s an undocumented alien crossing the Rio Grande in Boquillas Canyon above La Linda.

Roll_295_025.WP

Here’s the Rio Grande crossing at La Linda in 1999 (Mexico is on the right).   The bridge served the potash mine on the Mexican side, which shows up framed by the bridge.   It was operating when I took the photo of Ray, above, in 1974, but had been abandoned by the time this photo was taken.

Roll_33_009.WP
Approaching the La Linda bridge on the Rio Grande, November, 1999.

The structure on top of the bridge is a big fence with a super-fortified gate.  It is all stainless steel, including the razor wire–probably built to some DOD spec.   No one would try to cross there.  The river takes a left turn just past the bridge, with a gravel beach on the left and a sharp, steep bluff on the right.  There is a cut with a track through the bluff.   Here’s what it looks like below the bridge, looking upstream.

Roll_33_009x.WP

The guy who picked us up told me that he’s seen eighteen-wheelers come through there.

Prime Time

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice.

Farhad Manjoo has an interesting article about Amazon in today’s New York Times.

(Disclaimer:  I don’t know anything about retail.  Or, wholesale or fulfillment or a wide variety of other aspects of business.  I’m just kibitzing here.)

It is Jeff Bezos’s patience that has been the key to Amazon’s rise to dominance in online retail, at least according to Manjoo.  And, I won’t argue with him because lack of patience, the obsessive focus on the current quarterly performance, was one of my big complaints during my seven-year tenure at a multinational, publicly traded firm.

The value of Amazon’s shares doubled in 2015.  This was not supposed to happen according to skeptics of theJeff Bezos’ huge investments in infrastructure.  Some critics will still say that it was the lucky move into web services that has fueled Amazon’s recent success, and it is true that Amazon Web Services has become huge–Manjoo reports that AWS will soon be worth more than Intel.

But, the retail business is profitable, and Manjoo says it has passed the “inflection point” where the company’s investment in more than 100 warehouses, along with other “fulfillment” infrastructure, has begun to pay off.  Sales growth now requires little additional investment.  And, some are projecting a lot of growth.   Manjoo writes that one analyst forecasts that by 2020 over 50% of U.S. households will subscribe to Prime, Amazon’s subscription and free-shipping program.

It is Prime that looks to drive Amazon to retail dominance in the U.S. and elsewhere (Alibaba in China dwarfs Amazon.)   In retail, Prime harnesses the “power of free”, described by Dan Ariely in Predictably Irrational ($19.39 at this writing on Amazon.  Eligible for Prime.)  Both Dan Ariely and I benefited from the power of free as I described in this e-mail.

Whatever the reasons for its success, Amazon’s dominance causes concern, primarily among its competitors, but also on the part of local “bricks and mortar” retailers.

Our household is a Prime subscriber, and I purchase stuff from Amazon.  I do like shopping at local businesses, and I am concerned about how Amazon’s ascendancy might harm them.  But, is there a way that Amazon could help local businesses?

From time to time I will run into Dave Hite at McGuckin Hardware.   Dave and Dee (McGuckin) Hite own the store.  I’ve been shopping at McGuckin’s since it opened: Dee’s brother Ron was a schoolmate at Boulder High School.   I even did a little bit of manual labor for the store way back when.

Dave and his family have been in hardware for a long time, and what says is his biggest concern is the decline of wholesale suppliers to independent hardware stores.  The big operations have their own supply chains; as their lower prices lead independents to close, their suppliers also weaken or disappear, which in turn pushes more marginal retailers into failure.  This is a positive-feedback condition, aka “progressive failure” or “death spiral”.

Now comes Amazon, with wholesale buying power and fulfillment that is unrivaled in the U.S.  Amazon already provides a complete warehouse and fulfillment service to small internet sellers–carefully package and label your stuff, ship it to Amazon, and where it is stored until they ship it according to your instructions.   Why can’t this model support local businesses.  Say that Amazon expanded its business to include a comprehensive collection of hardware.  A shopper at McGuckin Hardware who could not find what they want in the store would browse the Amazon stock with a store clerk and order what they want, using McGuckin’s “mega-Prime” account.   Amazon and McGuckin each get a cut and the customer gets what they want delivered to their door.   I dunno, maybe this is dumb, but it seems like an interesting  possibility.  I’ll raise Shunryu Suzuki on this.

The other thing that I wonder about Amazon is how the delivered transportation energy cost of an item compares to one picked up from a local store?   I don’t know the answer to this, but I think there’s a good chance it would go in Amazon’s favor, particularly when you consider that the product is hauled home from the local store along with multiple tons of vehicle.   This seems like an interesting question;  perhaps it has already been answered.

 

Hakkapeliitta, Cyo Senso and the Dynamo

2015-11-16 16.29.58.WPI’ve been a transportation cyclist for 40 years.   Of course, until a couple of years ago I was a commuter, then I discovered the new terminology.   I ride year-round in Boulder, Colorado.   For those of you who know Colorado only from the ads for ski areas, riding in the winter is not as bad as you think.  We don’t get that much snow in Boulder.

Riding in winter is good for you and satisfying, and it can be a lot of fun.  I’m really opposed to devotion to dogma and to Emerson’s “foolish consistency”, so I ride the bus or (gasp) drive when that suits the conditions, the mission or my mood.  You don’t have to ride all the time, or even often.  Just take a small dose and see if you like it.

Here are three things that will make your winter cycling a lot more pleasurable and safe.

Hakkapeliitta

Even though we don’t get a great deal of snow,  what we do have on Boulder streets are spots of black ice that persist long after the snow is gone from the streets.   Before I discovered the Nokian Hakkapeliitta W106, I used to ride the bus for several days after a storm, and sometimes for weeks at a time, during a stormy period.  I’d go down a couple of times each winter, and these were mostly front-wheel falls that really hurt.

The W106 is a 700c x 35 tire with a moderately knobby tread and 106 carbide studs, located near the center line of the tire.  In the five winters I’ve been using these tires I’ve rarely ridden the bus, and I’ve fallen off only once, and that was due to a brain lock.   It’s worth noting that that fall, in a deep, refrozen, glass-smooth tire rut, happened much more slowly than it would have without the studs.  No harm done except to my pride.

I love riding at night in freshly falling powder–almost any tire works in those conditions.  Riding on hard packed roads and plowed roads with studded tires is great.  But, where these studded tires really shine is on ice–if you ride sensibly they really eliminate any concern of falling on black ice.   These tires aren’t the answer for every condition–riding on that in-between “breakable-crust” stage is miserable on a 700c road tire.  Even a mountain bike tire will break through.   You’ll need one of those monster bikes to have fun on that stuff.  Luckily, this is usually only a problem here for a day, unless the weather is very cold so the snow crystals do not fuse together.

Studded tires are slower and heavier than regular commuting tires.  Riding on dry surfaces is fine, but it sounds like you are riding over scattered sand grains.  In fact, that’s a good way to characterize your traction on black ice–as if there were a thin layer of sand on top of the ice.   You should be able to fit the W106 tires on most commuter bikes.  If you are looking for something for gonzo winter riding, there are mountain bike and road bike tires with up to 240 studs each, but these need room in the fork and rear triangle.  Because these 240-stud tires have studs up on the side of the tire, people claim you can ride out of big ruts and ride side hills with them.

Get studded tires at Harris Cyclery (in memory of Sheldon Brown) or at Peter White Cycles or ask for them at your local bike shop.  The W106 may no longer be available, but there are other equivalent tires.

Cyo Senso and the Dynamo

When I decided to move on from my trusty Trek mountain bike (which I had fitted with a Nexus 7-speed internal hub), I looked locally on Craigslist.  I was looking for a frame to build up, but I found nearly the perfect bike: a Surly Cross-Check with a Nexus 8-speed Alfine power train (I’ve been commuting on internal gear hubs for over thirty years–even that first 7-speed Nexus was a big step up from the old 3-speed Sturmey Archer.)   What the Cross-Check had that I didn’t even know I wanted was a front wheel with a Sturmey Archer hub brake and a built-in 6-volt dynamo.

The hub brake was no great shakes at any time, but it was  superior to iced-up rims in the winter.   The dynamo, however was a game-changer.  That is, once I hooked it up to a Busch & Müller Lumotec Cyo Senso LED headlamp and a Busch & Müller Toplight taillight.   One ride and I knew that the lighting problem for bicycles had been solved.

The Cyo throws a long, broad, bright beam–when adjusted too high it will blind oncoming traffic.  Its reflection startles me when I ride directly toward a plate glass window.

And, its power cost is, well, virtually zero.  The Cyclists’ Touring Club in the UK has done a nice analysis (below) of the drag of hub dynamos:  with the light off a dynamo adds drag roughly equivalent to climbing one foot in a mile; with the light on the drag is roughly equivalent to climbing six feet in a mile.  The bottom line: I can’t tell the difference when I turn the light on.   Rob Dean, a UK endurance racer, puts the drag of a dynamo in terms of McVite’s Digestive biscuits.

Dynamo performance (CTC.org)
Dynamo performance (from CTC.org). The straight black lines on the drag (left) chart are the equivalent climb in feet per mile as shown on the right scale. For example, 2 watts at 15 mph is equivalent to a 3 foot climb in a mile. The SON is consistently the best performer, but you pay for it.

The “Senso” in Lumotec Cyo Senso means that the light has a sensor that will turn it on automatically when it gets dark (the light has a three-position switch: off, on and senso).   It’s cool to see it come on in a tunnel, but, after a while I just turned the light to “on” and left it–the added visibility is worth the slight bit of additional drag.

The best source for dynamo lights (or lights of any type) is Peter White Cycles.  This guy is a real Geek, who provides you with loads of data, including images of the light patterns for different lights.  My exact light is no longer available, but has been replaced by much better versions.

The most expensive part of a dynamo lighting system is the dynamo wheel.  I use a Shimano Alfine disk-brake hub on my current Swobo Fillmore, but the old Sturmey Archer worked fine.   Fancier hubs have less drag, but you’re out there for the exercise, right (and you have an excuse to eat more McVite’s).   You can find built-up wheels with the Shimano Alfine dynamo for about $220.  I see one wheel with a Sanyo dynamo hub for $95.  Peter White warns you away from the low-cost 1.5 watt Shimano hubs.

Provis Reflect360

OMG, this jacket is shocking when illuminated.   I walk into stores or offices and people startle.  I’ve  had two people stop me and ask where I got it.   This is by far the most reflective jacket I’ve seen.  The marketing photo is really not an exaggeration:

reflect360_jacket_-_ligestyle_2_-_small_1.WP

The Reflect360 performs well as a jacket.  It has lots of pockets, is fully windproof and seems impervious to water.   It seems to be made of a vinyl compound, probably to embed the reflective stuff, and that initially has an odor and is stiffer and heavier than the superlight nylon or polyester.  It’s not racing kit.  The zippers are also stiff, at least so far.   As I said, it is impervious and it does not seem to breathe, so you must use the armpit zips and the front zipper for ventilation.  Speaking of the front zipper, mine is a left-side zip, what I was brought up to think was used (for some reason) on womens’ clothing.   This is the second piece of European cycling clothing I’ve gotten that is like this.  It’s not a big problem, but just takes some getting used to.

But, whatever the small disadvantages of this jacket, it has one big advantage–It will help you stay alive.

Update on the Reflect360, December 3, 2015:  Tonight an oncoming, well-lighted cyclist yelled out to me “Nice Jacket!”  Last night a woman approached me to ask where she could get one.  I think she might at first have thought that it had batteries.  I almost feel self-conscious riding in the thing.  I had a another thought while  riding on busy streets the last couple of nights:  Beyond making me more visible, the jacket gives me a clearly human form.  This might just be the edge I need some time.

With respect to performance, I rode the loaded Swobo (with studs) out to Sparkfun today, and from there to Lynker and finally home.  22.5 miles.  When you are working for a while the jacket gets moist–you might want to adjust ventilation more frequently than I did.

Enough is enough

We know that our life of freedom is stronger than terror.  Let us answer the terrorists by living our values with courage.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, after the Paris attack of November 13, 2015.

The best revenge is to outlive the bastards.
Edward Abbey, paraphrased.

I haven’t been a fan of Merkel’s handling of the European economic difficulties, but  she seems to be reacting thoughtfully to the agonizing situation arising from the Syrian refugees.   And when I read her words above, following the Paris attacks, I wished she had been President of the United States on September 11, 2001.

Enough is enough.
Roger Cohen writing in the New York Times about the ISIS attacks on Paris.

Cohen cites the North Atlantic Treaty as requiring a response from all signatories–an attack on one is an attack on all.  OK, some response is needed.  Merkel says Europe must fight, and Hollande has begun air attacks.  It’s hard to believe that the U.S. and even the newly liberalized Canadians won’t respond.  The question is what that response should be.

What Cohen contemplates is the complete destruction of ISIS:

“…the only objective commensurate with the ongoing threat is the crushing of ISIS and the elimination of its stronghold in Syria and Iraq.” 

I think this is not possible–ISIS is not the Empire of Japan or Germany, countries that could be reduced to rubble and starved–and to try to do so would be foolish.   And, even if you succeeded, then what would you do with what remains (A Marshall Plan for Syria, anyone?), and what else might pop up to take its place?  Who should know this better than a Bush, but Jeb Bush is ready to declare war.  Other Republicans are calling for “boots on the ground” and the destruction of ISIS.  Tough talk, but those boots would be worn by someone else.

Our last two big wars, the longest and third-longest in our history, have been fought by what are essentially mercenaries paid on credit.  Besides those soldiers, no one in the U.S., except the families of the dead and wounded, has been forced to bear any cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, except for the cost of little magnetic-ribbon tokens of support put on the very cars for which we gladly pay ransom to one of the primary ideological and financial sponsors of terrorism .

So, to prove we are really, really serious this time, let’s get a declaration of war from Congress that includes these two provisions:

  1. Re-instate the draft.   Everyone must have some skin in the game.  This time it must be for both sexes, and there must be no deferments, with alternative service only for conscientious objectors (whether or not religious).  Look, I’m sixty-seven years old, and would be a hazard in combat, but I can serve somehow, and so can you.  And,
  2. A War Surtax, calculated and applied each quarter to cover the cost of the war.   I would make this tax strongly progressive based on wealth.  Those with the most to protect should pay more.  Heck, let’s gross that up thirty percent or so to pay off the cost of the last two.

 

Your money, your choice

(Apologies to the Republican National Committee for the title.)

Writing in the New York Times today, Linda Greenhouse reports that religious non-profits have filed seven cases with the U.S. Supreme Court challenging language in Obamacare (aka the Affordable Care Act) that allowed religious non-profit employers to opt out of a requirement that they provide contraception as part of a health care plan.

When an organization opts out of this requirement, coverage is provided by the organization’s insurance company, without the organization’s involvement, so the employee may still obtain contraception.  In the Hobby Lobby decision in 2014, the Supreme Court required accommodation for for-profit companies whose owners held religious objections to birth control.

The cases filed before the Supreme Court argue that even requesting to opt out of the requirement made the organizations complicit in the employee’s use of birth control.   An eighth case goes further, arguing that whether or not the organizations are right about the law, just holding a strong belief that the accommodation is wrong is sufficient cause to be entirely relieved of any action that might facilitate their employees obtaining birth control.

Greenhouse goes on to look at these cases in light of statutory and case law, paying particular attention to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.  Her article is worth reading.

But, what has been lost in all of the discussions about this issue is  that the religious organizations are essentially telling their  employees how to spend their own money.   Employer-paid health insurance is part of an employee’s compensation.  It’s been that way since the practice began as a way to get around wage controls during World War II, and it is that way now.   Twenty five years of helping start and run a small engineering consulting firm demonstrated to me that health insurance (like vacation and other benefits) is compensation.

As a small firm we were at a disadvantage when courting potential employees for just this reason.  We could offer comparable or better pay, vacation and retirement benefits, but we could not compete directly with the much broader and less expensive health insurance coverage that large firms could offer.  Our business manager would   sit down with candidates, tote up the dollar value of salary and each benefit, including health insurance, and show them that our package was equal to or better than the other firm’s offer.

Obamacare is a baby step toward getting employers entirely out of the health insurance business.   When we reach that point, religious organizations of all types will no longer be able even to argue complicity in their employees’ own decisions.    Another benefit will be that small businesses will be able to compete for talent on a more equal footing with large businesses (and will be able to do something productive with the time they used to spend negotiating with insurance companies.)

Ship’s Log, October 27, 1915

Sailing_ship_Endurance_trapped_and_crushed_by_ice_in_the_Antarctic,_1915_(exbt-ice-LongNight)

On this day, one hundred years ago, the 28-man crew of Endurance, members of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, led by Sir Earnest Shackleton, abandoned the ship, onto the ice of the Weddell Sea, off the coast of west Antarctica.

On January 9, 1909, along with Frank Wild, Eric Marshall and Jameson Adams, Shackleton had completed the longest advance south over the Antarctic continent in history, setting a new farthest-south mark at 88°23’S, only 112 statute miles from the South Pole and more than 400 statute miles farther than the previous record.   For this and other accomplishments, Shackleton was knighted by King Edward III.

The Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition intended to conduct a march across the continent from Vahsel Bay, on the Weddell Sea, to  McMurdo sound (near the location of the current McMurdo Station.)   Endurance had departed the the Grytviken whaling station on South Georgia on December 5, 1914 and sailed south.  The ship was beset in ice on January 18, 1915.   Shackleton wrote in South of his thoughts on February 14, 1915:

“I had not abandoned hope of getting clear, but was counting now on the possibility of having to spend a winter in the inhospitable arms of the pack. The sun, which had been above the horizon for two months, set at midnight on the 17th, and, although it would not disappear until April, its slanting rays warned us of the approach of winter. Pools and leads appeared occasionally, but they froze over very quickly.”

On October 24, 1915, the ice floes of the Weddell Sea finally overcame the Endurance, and its hull began to give way.

“Then on Sunday, October 24, there came what for the ‘Endurance’ was the beginning of the end. The position was lat. 69° 11´ S., long. 51° 5´ W. We had now twenty-two and a half hours of daylight, and throughout the day we watched the threatening advance of the floes. At 6.45 p.m. the ship sustained heavy pressure in a dangerous position…The onslaught was all but irresistible. The ‘Endurance’ groaned and quivered as her starboard quarter was forced against the floe, twisting the sternpost and starting the heads and ends of planking. The ice had lateral as well as forward movement, and the ship was twisted and actually bent by the stresses. She began to leak dangerously at once.”

Endurance in the ice of the Weddell Sea.
Endurance in the ice of the Weddell Sea.

Cruelly, on the 20th, just four days earlier, hopes had been high that the ship might escape the ice.

“A strong south-westerly wind was blowing on October 20 and the pack was working. The ‘Endurance’ was imprisoned securely in the pool, but our chance might come at any time. Watches were set so as to be ready for working ship… At 11 a.m. we gave the engines a gentle trial turn astern.  Everything worked well after eight months of frozen inactivity, except that the bilge-pump and the discharge proved to be frozen up; they were cleared with some little difficulty.”

On October 27, there was nothing to do but survive.

“Then came a fateful day–Wednesday, October 27. The position was lat. 69° 5´ S., long. 51° 30´ W. The temperature was -8.5° Fahr., a gentle southerly breeze was blowing and the sun shone in a clear sky.

‘After long months of ceaseless anxiety and strain, after times when hope beat high and times when the outlook was black indeed, the end of the ‘Endurance’ has come. But though we have been compelled to abandon the ship, which is crushed beyond all hope of ever being righted, we are alive and well, and we have stores and equipment for the task that lies before us. The task is to reach land with all the members of the Expedition. It is hard to write what I feel. To a sailor his ship is more than a floating home, and in the ‘Endurance’ I had centred ambitions, hopes, and desires. Now, straining and groaning, her timbers cracking and her wounds gaping, she is slowly giving up her sentient life at the very outset of her career.'”

Judges

When Senator John McCain said he would hold committee hearings if Bowe Bergdahl was not punished as a deserter, Bergdahl’s lawyer objected.   McCain chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee that, it turns out, will review any future command assignments or promotions for General Robert B. Abrams, who will decide the sergeant’s fate.   The lawyer, Eugene R. Fidell, said that Senator McCain’s statement could influence General Abrams.

I don’t think McCain’s statement changes anything; Abrams surely understood both McCain’s views on Bergdahl and the Senator’s power over the general’s future in the military.  What McCain’s statement, and the resulting publicity, has done is make apparent to the broad public another of the shortcomings of the military justice system.  It may also have raised the stakes for Abrams because a decision to punish Bergdahl will always have an asterisk.

But, you who live in states that elect judges should not feel self-righteous.   At the very best, judges in those states have one eye on public opinion, and that’s just at the very best.  Elected judges may also be influenced by the views of supporters or contributors, whose fate or whose friends’ fates they may be deciding.  Colorado voters saw the light in 1966, I’m happy to say.