Saturday, January 31, 2009

From the Desk of Captain Obvious - Volume One

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Going Postal

Saw this article today about the US Postal Service's financial woes. On the surface, it sounds like a lot of the stuff we've all been hearing about over the past several months.

Here's the Cliff Notes:
  • US Mail volumes and revenues are down
  • Expenses are up
  • Things like email, electronic bill payments, etc., indicate further reduction in demand
While the US Postal Service is not technically a government entity, it is "

an independent establishment of the executive branch of the Government of the United States." As such, it is highly regulated by Congress. However, it receives no support from tax dollars and sustains itself through its own operations. Some of those regulations include:

  • The amount it can raise the cost of a stamp
  • How it is able to allocate its income toward its obligations
Normally, at this point, I would expect to hear some weak plea for a piece of the "economic stimulus" (see also: bailout package, indentured servitude for all American workers). However, this is the point at which I was pleasantly surprised by the response of the Postmaster General to the situation in which he finds himself.

He is not asking for money from the government/taxpayers. He is not wallowing in despair about the slumping global economy or rising health care costs. He is not even asking for approval to raise the price of the stamp beyond its typical bounds.

The US Postmaster General, one John Potter, only requested of the Senate subcommittee that the regulation be lifted which requires the US Postal Service to deliver mail six days per week. Mr. Potter has researched and implemented several solutions designed to ensure the continued operations of the US Postal Service in perpetuity, but this one Federal requirement is blocking his path to saving anywhere from $1.9 to 3.5 billion per year in costs.

In other words, the US Postal Service is not sitting there with its hand out and a defeatist's attitude. Already, they have:
  • Cut costs by $1 billion each year since 2002
  • Reduced their headcount by 120,000
  • Stopped building new facilities except in extreme circumstances
  • Frozen executive salaries
  • In process of trimming headquarters' staff by 15%
They are doing quite a bit already in order to stay solvent. I hope the Senate subcommittee removes the six-days-a-week requirement to let the US Postal Service deal with their operating environment on their own, without the arbitrary, anti-competitive requirement of six days of mail delivery per week. The Postmaster General says that Saturday service is likely to remain, instead opting to cut out a very slow day such as Tuesday.

I think I could quite easily live with something like this. I imagine there would be an adjustment period initially, and some people would make some late payments or receive a belated birthday card. But after a short time, I think we would adapt and soon the new service schedule would simply become ingrained in our lives like everything else.

I'm not even opposed to more drastic reductions in residential service. Suppose, for example, that each post office were to cut its carrier count in half, and each remaining carrier would then effectively be responsible for two routes, alternating between the two every other day. The post office would still operate six days a week, but each residence would only be serviced three days a week. That would not only reduce carrier salary and benefit expenses by approximately 50%, but also vehicle-related expenses. Post office facilities, PO boxes, blue drop-off receptacles, and commercial districts would all remain as is.

This would likely inhibit my potential to burn through Netflix movies at a healthy clip, but other than that, it wouldn't bother me. In fact, I'd rather have three days per week with a good size stack in my mailbox, as opposed to a couple of decent days of mail and some mediocre days when I only receive an appointment reminder postcard from my dentist.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Zero No Longer

We didn't get to claim Karsten on our 2007 tax filing. He wasn't born until after the year ended. We recently held a small celebration in his honor to mark the completion of his first year on this planet. And while I'm extremely grateful for the standard Child Credit for 2008, I'm also proud to be Karsten's dad.
  • Dude can eat - six squares a day
  • Dude sleeps like a hibernating bear
  • Dude's tough - able to withstand his sisters' constant adoration/punishment
  • Dude only says one word - "dada"
Here's Karsten mowing down three of his birthday cupcakes with all the gusto of a kid getting his first real taste of sugar. Twas nary a crumb left behind.

And another of Madison chauffeuring Karsten around in his sweet new ride, a vintage, all metal, pedal-powered Oliver mini farm tractor (and trailer). Thanks Grandma and Grandpa H, and Great-Grandma and Grandpa N!!!

Karsten is likely a year or so away from being able to pedal it himself, but that's just as well. The dude's growing up so fast already - no need to rush driving.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Thank You, And May I Have Another

As further evidence that our newly minted President is indeed the one who will restore balance to the Force, the markets responded to today's events (all of them, not just the inauguration) by redistributing a sizable chunk of my retirement fund. Remember, financial markets are generally a fairly accurate measure of our collective expectations, hopes and fears. My largest single holding, comprising half of my 401k, shed a full 24%. For every $100 I had last night, I now have $76. I like to think I'm now lighter, more nimble.

I guess I was secretly hoping that the 50% of voters that installed this regime might actually demonstrate some of that hopeful vigor we heard so much about and do something to spark the economy and the markets. Some type of "Yes we can!" we-told-you-so statement directed at the prior administration. Today would have been the day to do it, right? What day would have been better?


WOW! I just now got off the phone with robo-Steve Duin of KATU Channel 2. The first thing he wanted to know was my opinion of how well Barack Obama is serving as POTUS.

Can't say that I have much ground for evaluation at this point, ten and a half hours in. All I know is he's down $170 million to the house, is holding a poor hand, and likely does not have any aces up his sleeve.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Global Warming - It's a Killer

I met a gentleman that works as a dispatcher for Pacific Power. I made the same dumb observation I'm sure he hears from nearly everyone he meets: "Oh, I'll bet you've been really busy over the last month or so." Sherlock Holmes could not have made a more acute deduction, right?

He said, "This is just the beginning. We haven't even entered storm season yet."

If you've ever seen the movie "The Day After Tomorrow", you'll recall that global warming caused the entire Northern Hemisphere to freeze over almost instantaneously. In yet another example of life imitating art (if you can call Hollywood blockbusters 'art'), this very same phenomena appears to be occurring right now - in the Northwest, in the Northeast, Alaska, the Midwest, even Europe.

The good news is I think we can declare an official end to global warming and finally get back to capitalism. This article from the University of Illinois notes that, among other things, Arctic ice is back to levels not seen since 1979 - when global warming was just a twinkle in its mother's (that would be "Mother Nature") eye.

Really though, we must give credit to the environmental activists. Even though we were told it would take a half-century or more just to stabilize the earth's climate, their dedicated efforts have managed to completely reverse the damage in just a few short years. Bravo!

Now, who can I talk to about possibly warming things up just a bit? It feels like it might snow again tonight.

On a related note - here is a GREAT letter from two days ago to the editor of the Baltimore Sun from a professor at the US Naval Academy, in response to some journalist's story about global warming. We hardly ever hear the other side of the argument. 

Monday, January 12, 2009

Madison on TV - Part Three - Full Video

YouTube evidently doesn't allow clips longer than 10 minutes in length, so I had to break this up into two parts, both in-line below. 

This is a compilation of ten separate clips that aired over the course about an hour and a half beginning at 5:15 AM on Friday, December 9th on Portland's KGW channel 8. I'd not heard of Drew Carney before, but he was very professional and a lot of fun. Every part was aired live (no retakes). 

There is a great close-up of Madison at about the 00:07:30 mark where she is singled out as the youngest member of the company, so that would be from about 00:01:30 to 00:01:40 in the second video.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Madison on TV - Part Two

As we had suspected he might, given her status as the littlest ballerina, Drew Carney of NewsChannel 8 wanted to feature Madison during his broadcast. Even though this is not in the ballet at all, Madison was to be lifted high overhead by one of the other members of the cast, or perhaps by Drew Carney himself. Madison said "nothin' doin'".

I don't know if it was the freezing cold temperature in the theater, the uncommon amount of attention, or that Madison had to wake up at 4:00 AM, but something about it spooked her and she suddenly became very timid and even broke down in tears - from embarrassment, I suppose.

The focus of the broadcast was mainly on Drew Carney learning and performing a few ballet maneuvers, all while dressed and decorated as a member of the cast. The cast improvised some quick routines for the commercial teasers, lead-ins and background pieces. Madison is shown quite a bit, as is the entire cast, as she stands in the background while Drew Carney does his thing. About halfway through Madison donned a coat to help keep warm, further evidence of how ALL of the ballet company adores and looks after her. I don't think the radiators in that theater have been opened since I last left it in '93. 

Madison did get a close-up when Drew pointed out the variety of ages among the cast. "... some even older than that little girl there," he said. We were done an hour early (by 7:00 AM) and Madison is now napping in preparation for her very long day ahead.

Video to follow as soon as I can get it into my PC and edit it.

Afterwards, I opened all of the radiators up to full, so hopefully it will warm up by tonight.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Real or Fake? The Eternal Debate

I say this every year, "I think we're going to get a fake Christmas tree next year". It's not that I really want a fake tree. "Embarrassing" is not the right word, but to me there is something about fake trees that admits defeat; like taking the easy route or the road most travelled. But there are certain things about real trees that are detracting from my overall satisfaction with the Christmas tree experience.

Our living room has a 20' ceiling, so we aim for a minimum tree height of nine feet. We also like noble firs because of their sturdy and more spaced branches. Apparently, some type of metamorphosis takes place during the period in which a noble grows from eight to nine feet in which the trunk doubles in size and the diameter improves by three feet or so. The nine footers are too much to handle. Last Christmas I had to trim the trunk vertically to remove some girth so that it could fit in my tree stand. The nine footers are too wide to fit through my door, whose frame moulding bears many scars from Christmas trees past. Besides that the nine footers are incredibly awkward to balance in the stand and carry into the house by myself (no help for Ducheznee. I'm growing some help, but he's not quite even one year old yet). A few years ago we started having the trees baled at the tree farm which helped quite a bit in the door scratching department. I could also hoist the trees onto my shoulder which made them easier to manage. 

The problems with baling, however, are many. When the string is released, a heavy shower of needles rains down onto the living room floor. Additionally, the weight shift can be so significant that the tree is no longer balanced in the stand. I long ago replaced the break-your-fingers hand-turn tightening screws in my stand with standard hex head carriage bolts so that I could quickly loosen and tighten them with my cordless drill. This was invention born out of necessity; necessity of sparing bruises on my fingers and scraping on my knuckles from the stock tightening screws.

The other MAJOR problem with baling is when it comes time to remove the tree. Like the slim fox that sneaks through a hole in the fence into the chicken pen to feast and finds he is too fat to escape via the same route, the unbaled Christmas tree can no longer pass through the doorway. I have to get my loppers and limb the tree inside the living room. Of course this makes another huge mess and means multiple trips between the living room and the burn pile where the Christmas tree will eventually embark on its journey to that great tree farm in the sky.

All of that I could live with. My wisdom and experience has led to satisfactory solutions. But the one aspect in which a real tree will never beat a modern artificial tree is lighting. I loathe putting the lights on the tree. Strings that worked fine a year prior suddenly do not light up. It takes hours to wrap the lights around each branch while trying to conceal the cord and get even coverage. I wind up with pitch stains on my hands and scratches on my arms. Worse still is taking the lights off of the tree. The don't ever come off in reverse of how I put them on just four weeks earlier. In wrapping the branches, I somehow am able to tie complex Boy Scout knots throughout the tree. 

A big, nine foot tree with 1,400 preinstalled lights, no needle shedding, no trunk the size of a redwood, no spiders living in it that will one-by-one relocate to our 20' ceiling, and no watering, all sound very appealing to me.

I think I have Sara sold on the idea. I just need to convince myself.

I love taking the girls out to pick out our tree at a muddy tree farm. I love their little rubber boots. I love putting them on my shoulders so they can see how tall the trees are. I love the smell of a real tree and the velvety-soft needles. 

I talked myself out of it for another year. We bought a pre-cut noble from a lot. It was maybe eight feet tall. It had a trunk the size of my ankle. It lost very few needles. It was not baled, but fit nicely through my door just the same. I could carry it with one hand and open the door myself with the other. Theoretically it should also exit the same way. It fit better in our room - we didn't have to rearrange furniture at all. Also, we have not seen a single spider on our ceiling. I still didn't like putting the lights on, but since the tree was smaller I didn't need quite as many strings, nor did it take as long.

If we do end up with a fake tree, I'm thinking we'll still go cut a smaller, real tree for the kids. That might allow for the best of both worlds. Then Madison could put on her colored lights on her own tree since she doesn't like our white ones.

I'm glad I don't have to decide this for another year.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Madison on TV - Part One

This is cool.

Recall that Madison's ballet was rescheduled due to the 20 inches of snow that fell in the days before Christmas, the same days during which she was to have final dress rehearsals and three performances of The Enchanted Toy Shop.

Well, KGW NewsChannel 8 has picked up the story and will be broadcasting live from the ballet studio on Friday, January 9th for their morning show. Their man Drew Carney will be talking with the cast and dancing with them on the day of their first performance. This will be the type of story that they keep coming back to during the course of their morning show.

And when I say "morning", I mean EARLY morning. 4:30 is the first airtime. We're supposed to be there at 4:00 AM. 

Of course, I can't be sure that Madison will actually get to be on TV, but considering she's the littlest ballerina in the production, I wouldn't bet against her.

More to follow along with (hopefully) some actual footage. Stay tuned...