British News Chum…. But Wait, There’s More!

userpic=lougrantToday’s collection of lunchtime news chum brings together a number of articles all connected through a great city and great country, in fact, a Great Britain….



Good News for Vanpoolers

userpic=vanpoolingBy now, everyone knows that the fiscal cliff has been averted, and a compromise bill passed. What you probably don’t know is everything that was in the bill. It is your usual mix of good and bad, but there is some good news for those of us that commute via shared rides (buspools, vanpools): the commuter tax benefit has been restored. According to LA Metro:

As part of the fiscal cliff legislation adopted by the Senate and House yesterday, a provision was included that will extend (through December 31, 2013) the increase in the monthly exclusion for employer-provided transit and vanpool benefits from $125 to $240.  By increasing the monthly exclusion for transit and vanpool participants, the benefit now matches those provided for employer-provided parking benefits.

Further, according to the American Public Transportation Association:

Under the new “fiscal cliff” legislation passed by Congress this week, the parity between public transit and parking benefits are now up to $240 a month and are retroactive from January 1, 2012. This will expire on December 31, 2013.

This is a significant jump, and drastically reduces commuting costs. I have no idea whether “the ranch” will provide the retroactive side of the benefits; I could see that as an accounting nightmare.

There were also improved benefits for those that used Compressed Natural Gas (CNG): “Also included in the fiscal cliff legislation was a provision to extend, for one year, the CNG tax credit. In addition to being extended through December 31, 2013, the CNG tax credit language included in the final bill provides for the tax credits to be retroactive for 2012.” This is of significant benefit to public transit agencies.


Friday News Chum: Autos, Subways, Buses, Hotels, Secession, GF Wheat, and Hats

Well, it’s Friday at lunch, and you know what that means–it is time to clear out the bookmarked links that didn’t quite form into themes (although, as I type in the times, there does seem to be a general transportation/travel theme). So here we go… (and as a reminder, I’m still looking for thoughts regarding use of iTunes 11 with the iPod Classic):

  • Three-Cylinder Power. This article from the LA auto show caught my eye. Evidently, Ford has a new 3-cyl. Fiesta, and the engine is designed in such a way as to give more power than a conventional 4-cyl. engine. The trick is to turbocharge the engine, combined with patented engine mounts and with weights installed outside the engine, on the pulley and flywheel to address the inherent unbalance of 3 cyl. If this approach works, I’m guessing we’ll see some revolutionary strides in small car efficiency.
  • Subway Problems. We all know how Super-Storm Sandy knocked out the NYC Subway system. What you probably don’t know is the work involved in getting it running again. Here’s an interesting article on why it is going to take a long time to restore the R train tunnel between Brooklyn and Manhattan. One of the longest tunnels, it saw all of its electrical equipment coated in salt water. Not good.
  • Busing It. Megabus is returning to California, with low-price tickets between Vegas, Sacramento, San Francisco, and Oakland to Union Station. This is of particular interest to me, as it provides an easy way for my daughter to get from Berkeley to Los Angeles (and then Red Line or Metro-Link to the valley). However, as the service is run by Coach USA, I’m unsure it will last (given Coach USA’s problems — they used to run the Flyaway). Still, I hope it succeeds.
  • The Cost of Hotels. LA Observed has an interesting discussion on why hotels cost so much, working off an article from Slate. There are a number of basic reasons: travellers tend not to bargain (especially when on expense accounts), and hotels don’t need to discount all rooms (they can discount the unsold few at the last minute). [By the way, this may be similar to the demand pricing Megabus uses to discount tickets — a few tickets purchased really early may be cheap, and tickets purchased at the very last minute may be cheap.] The Slate article itself talks about the excessive taxes, location costs, and high level of services, but concludes “Hotel customers tolerate these marked-up amenities because they generally aren’t very interested in driving a hard bargain. The business traveler is likely to feel that he “needs” appropriately located accommodations and isn’t going to be interested in exhaustive research about the costs and benefits of staying someplace cheaper and more remote. What’s more, he’s generally not paying out of pocket. A responsible employee will of course try to be reasonably frugal, but even so frugality is benchmarked to local costs. “
  • Costs of Secession. We’ve all be reading about the secession petitions, and even humorists have addressed the subject. But here’s a more interesting question: Suppose you have a DOD Security Clearance and sign a secession petition. Does that affect your security clearance? This article explores the question. When you think about it, it is a real issue: you have an individual who has just publically advocated working against the US government. Is that adverse information, and does it bring into question their loyalty to the US. As Ben Franklin once said, “Oh sure, harmless. I know how these things happen. You go to a couple of harmless parties, sign a harmless petition, and forget all about it. Ten years later, you get hauled up before a committee. No, thank you, I’m not going to spend the rest of my life writing in Europe.”
  • Gluten-Free Wheat? An intriguing article in the LA Times about some scientists who believe it is possible to engineer a wheat variety that goes not contain gluten. It might be possible, but I’m not sure I’d trust it… for a number of reasons. First, I would be far too afraid the processing would contaminate it with other wheat; secondly, I’m still unsure about engineered food.
  • Finishing With the Hat. And lastly, an interesting story about a woman who lost her hat while traveling. It was a hat her mother wore during her last days of chemo. How is she solving the problem… she’s putting the request on social networks.

P.S.: Received my first challenge coin today. Cool.

Music: Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me (Martin Short): “Glass Half Full”


Friday News Chum: Failure, Magazine Covers, Binary Units, Teachers in Porn, and some Business Notes

Well, we’ve reached another Friday again… and you know what that means. Time to clear out the links that couldn’t be formed into a coherent themed post. So on to today’s incoherent jumble:

  • Learning from Failure. One of the many books I remember from college is “To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design” by Henry Petroski. The key point of the book is that we can learn much more from failure than from success. I mention this because Wired has a very interesting article on why things fail. Manufacturers know that components in every product will eventually fail (they know this from statistics). The trick is finding the right point for them to fail: a point at which a consumer would consider they had gotten satisfactory value from their product. For example, in an automobile, you might expect to replace the transmission after 200,000 miles, and so there is no need for them to engineer that component to last longer. It isn’t worth the extra effort. This article explores that tradeoff.
  • Cover Stories. Speaking of posed pictures, the American Society of Magazine Editors has chosen the top 40 magazine covers of the last 40 years. Now, I know a number of you are going “What’s a magazine?”. But for those of us who remember magazines, we probably remember at least a large number of these covers. Winners include a naked John Lennon on Rolling Stone, a pregnant Demi Moore on Vanity Fair, the New Yorker’s view of the world, the National Lampoon’s dog, and many more. So what magazine covers do you remember, and how did they influence your life?
  • Units. One article I read this week talked about the discrepancies in our use of prefixes such as K — sometimes we mean 1000, sometimes 1024. The article linked to something at NIST I never knew about — did you know that there are standardized prefixes for binary units? In other words, while my iPod is 160GB, it isn’t 160 GiB. Do you think that if we adopted use of the binary prefixes that consumers would be less (or more) confused?
  • Teaching the Past. One of the stories that has been interesting me this week is the trial of a science teacher in Oxnard. Why is she on trial? Simple: Before she became a teacher, she did porn. Some administrators found out, and …. . In a recent article on the story, she explains why she did it. It is bad enough that she had to go through that experience in order to survive, but to have one bad decision — and one that she has since repudiated — damn her forever is (to me) wrong. She should get her job back and be able to recreate her life. Some argue that it would distract the students, but I find that argument non-credible. First, given the life-cycle of any porn scene, the odds that a particular student would find a particular scene from many years ago and positively identify a teach are low… plus where are the parents who are providing the student with the access to the porn. No, this is a problem with puritanical parents and administrators who want to judge and punish. We’re well beyond the 1600s, folks.
  • Business Notes. A few business articles that caught my eye, out of personal interest primarily. First, Gluten-free food and drinks have become a $4.2 billion market. I remember when there was essentially no market, and it was impossible to find GF foods. Although this makes it easier for my wife (who is GF), I wonder when the fad bubble will burst, making GF food as hard to find as Atkins diet products. Remember the no-carb craze? Secondly, Target is selling its credit card business to TD Bank. This refers specifically to its credit cards, which had been handled by Target National Bank. Target was very good at catching credit card fraud and misuse, and it will be interesting to see if TD Bank has the same quality of service. Lastly, Tesco may be about to give up on Fresh and Easy. That’s too bad — F&E is one of our three regular markets (the others are Sprouts and TJs); we never go to the big chains (Ralphs, Vons, Albertsons) anymore.



History in the News: Miss Subways, Historic Theaters, Blue Dolphins, and the OK Corral

As I work on clearing out the accumulated links in preparation for the Friday News Chum clearing, here are some articles all related to history:

  • Miss Subways. If you know me, you know I love musicals. One classic musical is On The Town, which revolves around three soldiers search for that year’s Miss Subways. Well, it turns out that Miss Subways is real. In fact, a New York Transit Museum talked a number of them to returning for a new exhibition on Miss Subways. Interesting to read the article, and find out what happened to these girls (who, by the way, received nothing for the title).
  • Historic Theaters. Another interest of mine is history. The LA Times has a nice article on the historic Tower theater downtown that is being remade into a concert venue. The theater has much of its original history still present. The balcony still has seats equipped with wire racks on the bottom for moviegoers to stash their hats. The projection booth has a built-in toilet for the projectionist and steel safety shutters designed to automatically drop down in case the projector’s hot carbon arc light ignited the flammable nitrate film. There are basement tunnels that connect the theater’s boiler room and its huge, built-in Carrier air conditioning machinery to hidden rooms under the front of the auditorium, which included a hydraulic lift to make the 216-style Wurlitzer pipe organ majestically rise so organist Stephen Boisclair could accompany silent movies. Behind where the movie screen once stood is the spot where the pioneering Vitaphone sound system speakers were fitted into the theater wall. Fascinating history.
  • Books Coming to Life. When I was young, I remember reading the book The Island of Blue Dolphins. Turns out, the notion for the story was true, and they have recently discovered the cave that may have housed the lone woman of St. Nicolas Island.
  • OK Corral. An interesting look at what really happened at the OK Corral in Tombstone, AZ. Hint: They weren’t making pizzas.



When It Rains…

One of the unfortunate side effects of the recent RIF at the Circle A Ranch was that I became the operator of our vanpool (as one of the folks RIFed was the longtime operator; we also lost Nicole as a regular rider). This brought our vanpool down to 6 regulars and one regular casual (3 days a month) in an 8 passenger van. [As background, the 8-passenger van is a Ford E-150 Van, configured as 2, 2, 2, 2, with a relatively stiff truck suspension, that gets around 12-15 mpg]. This was doable.

In June, we had a confluence of bad things: two of our regular riders were off most of the month due to medical conditions, and one of the other regulars announced his retirement. We had days when we were going in with only two people. This was more of an economic problem, and so we started thinking about downsizing. There are two 7-passenger vans available: a 7-passenger Dodge Grand Caravan, and a 7-passenger Toyota Sienna. These get around 20 mpg, and cost the same to lease as the 8-passenger. Being minivans, they have a more car-like ride, in exchange for being slightly smaller with a tighter back seat. I think they are configured as 2, 2, 3.

Given the low ridership, we decided to downsize the van, whilst simultaneously looking for more riders. Guess what happened? We’re scheduled to downsize on Monday, while at the same time we have a summer intern starting as a regular rider for July and August, with two more potential riders in the wings.

So now the question is: do we still downsize? We could be at 8 regular riders in a 7 passenger van, which might work for the summer given the number of absences. It all depends on the tradeoffs between the size and seat comfort of the 8 passenger van versus the better ride and fuel mileage of the 7-passenger van. We’ll have to see what happens.


Transportation News

A number of news items in today’s lunchtime news reading address transportation in some form:

Lastly, a PS to my post of the other day on new musicals: Work is being done on a Broadway-bound update to Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, featuring a new book by Douglas Carter Beane. Tony nominee Beane (Xanadu, Lysistrata Jones, The Little Dog Laughed), who also delivered a fresh book for the Broadway production of Sister Act, recharted the journey of the classic tale in a new way: Retaining all classic elements of the fairytale, it will now be Cinderella’s turn to rescue the Prince. Beane’s treatment will incorporate songs from the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalogue, as well as songs from the original television version, including “In My Own Little Corner,” “Impossible/It’s Possible,” “Ten Minutes Ago” and “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?” The casting, which is for a workshop, also looks interesting.



Escape the Traffic — Pimping the Vanpool

Vanpooling has been heavily on my mind of late, which leads to the obvious lunchtime plug: Do you commute from the North San Fernando Valley to El Segundo every day? Want to escape the grind? Join our vanpool! Ask me how!

Seriously, the RIF combined with some other factors has reduced our ridership, and we need new riders. So if you know people that commute from the valley to El Segundo every day, with a work schedule of roughly 7am to 330pm, have them contact me.

I’m highlighting this (of course) because of an article I discovered in my lunchtime reading. INRIX has released their new traffic scorecard, and guess what the #1 most congested stretch of freeway is?

“Los Angeles: A 13-mile stretch of the San Diego Fwy/I-405 NB from I-105/Imperial Hwy interchange through the Getty Center Dr. exit that takes 33 minutes on average, with 20 minutes of delay.”

I drive the van on that stretch every day on our way home. We have our tricks, but from Santa Monica northbound, it is a long.  Of course, we can’t forget the #7 item:

” Los Angeles: An eight-mile stretch of I-405 SB (San Diego Fwy) from Nordhoff St. to Mulholland Dr. that takes 22 minutes on average, with 14 minutes of delay.”

We drive that every morning, although the van can use the carpool lane. So if you want to avoid having to drive those stretches, come join our van and sleep instead (or listen to scintillating podcasts). You can contact me for information.

Curious about where else is congested? #2 is in NYC (a 16-mile stretch of the Long Island Expy/I-495 EB from the Maurice Ave. exit to Minneola Ave./Willis Ave. exit); #3 is in LA (a 15-mile stretch of the Santa Monica Fwy/I-10 EB from CA-1/Lincoln Blvd. exit to Alameda St.); #4 is in NYC (an intense three-mile stretch of I-678 NB (Van Wyck Expy) from Belt Pkwy to Main St.), and #5 is in LA (a 17.5-mile stretch of I-5 SB (Santa Ana/Golden St Fwys) from E. Caesar Chavez Ave to Valley View Ave.). Pittsburgh has one entry at #9, and San Francisco as one at #10 (CA-4 EB (California Delta Hwy) from Bailey Rd to Somersville Rd.). Overall, the worst traffic cities are Honolulu, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Bridgeport.

Of course, I do have other traffic/automated related stuff for you. For example, did you know that Ford Corporation mortgaged their iconic blue oval logo during their recent bankrupcy? They did, and they just won it back. Prefer riding your bike? Here are 25 awesome and unusual bike racks. Prefer public transportation? How about a map of bus and streetcar lines in Los Angeles… from 1934!