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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Less Joy out of Driving

Every year driving for me gets just a bit less fun. Now it appears that some states that accept EZ Pass are using the transponders to see if you are speeding. It's already used as a tracking device. Transponder information has also been used in court to prove where a person was located.

I don't have one, but living out here in the woods I'm a long ways from the nearest toll booth. If I had to drive through one every day I might feel differently about it. As it is, when I go through a toll both, I almost always go to the lane with a real live human in it. People like me keep them employed.

Some roads have cameras that scan your license plate and then send your bill in the mail. My only experience with that was outside of Miami. At the time I was driving a high ground clearance pickup truck pulling an empty boat trailer. That must have messed up the system somehow as I never got a bill.

How long will it be before transponders become mandatory? Maybe they won't even bother with transponders and just track everyone using their cell phones?

Remember when people would talk about the freedom of the open road? It's like US freedom in general: for a certain value of free, within certain parameters, and as long as you can pay for it.


Friday, December 19, 2014

International Developments

Two things really caught my attention over the last few days. The economic situation in Russia and the Obama administration shift towards Cuba.

The Russian situation is moving very quickly. The Ruble has been in a long slow slide, but now has gone over a cliff. Attempts to shore it up by raising interest rates have only panicked Russians. People are in a hurry to turn their rapidly depreciating currency into real hard goods. Some retailers have suspended sales because they don't want to take Rubles while they are in free fall. The situation is so bad that Russians are trying to convert their currency into American Dollars.

Instability in Russia is very dangerous, especially with Putin at the helm. He has a record of turning to military action when faced with domestic trouble. In the past, demonstrations of Russian military power greatly increased his popularity.

Then again, Russia might be even more dangerous without Putin. Imagine if Putin died by accidentally stabbing himself in the back with a ski pole or shooting himself eight times in the head. That would cause a huge power struggle on top of the economic chaos. Putin has crushed all effective political resistance. There are no other politicians of sufficient stature to smoothly take over the government. Who knows how it would all shake out?

The Cuban situation is of particular interest to me. Take a marine band VHF radio down to the Florida Keys and listen to the Coast Guard broadcasts. Few days go by when mariners are not advised to keep an eye out for things like people on an over crowded raft. There is still a steady stream of people leaving Cuba by anything that floats. Last winter while we were down there three Cubans attempted the crossing on kite boards. One made it. The others had to be rescued at sea so were sent back to Cuba.

While down to the Keys I talk to a lot of people at marinas. Canadians can legally visit Cuba and bring back tales of how beautiful the beaches are. They say it's like the way Florida was 50 years ago. A number of Americans also make the short crossing to Cuba. Cuba doesn't stamp their passports so they don't leave a record of the visit.

One guy told me he'd be damned if he was going to let the government tell him where he can or cannot go. The US Coast Guard caught him coming back from Cuba once. In the end he paid a $3500 fine. It didn't bother him at all. I met the guy at the little marina on Bahia Honda Key. I suspect he was waiting for a good weather window to go back to Cuba. When the weather cleared he was last seen heading south.

Keep an eye on Russia. Russians have a long history of tolerating immense hardships. However, Russia now has a generation of people who are immersed in consumer culture. Their patience might be much shorter than it used to be. Things are changing daily and remember that Russia has nukes, and not just one or two of them like North Korea.

As for Cuba, well, I won't mind taking a boat there myself someday. It's kinda crazy to ignore the fact that there's this honking big island just off US shores. Now I understand the politics and have talked with Cuban exiles. However, I'm one of those who think more normal relations between countries are a good thing.


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Next car

One of the best cars I've owned is a 1982 Mercedes 240D. It had about a 100,000 miles on it when I bought it. My lovely wife was working 50 miles away on the other side of the White Mountains. We also used this car on our extended months long winter trips. During the years we owned it we put on an additional 400,000 miles. That's a lot of hard driving.

It was the test vehicle for my vegetable oil conversion experiments. With a 19 gallon veggie tank in the trunk and 28mpg, the car had good range. One year I had a small utility trailer with jugs of veggie in it. The car went 3000 miles without a single gas station stop. My lovely wife fell in love with that car. They built them solid. It wasn't fast, accelerated like a fat man jogging, but ran and ran and ran.

In the end road salt took its toll on the body. The doors and floors were rusting out, all the brakes and rotors were due for replacement, and the exhaust system was also going. That's a lot of money to invest in a car with a half million miles on it. I just could not justify the expense.

Currently my lovely wife is driving an old Cavalier that we inherited from one of my daughters. My mechanic has already informed me that it won't pass the June safety inspection. Rust takes its toll. So next summer we'll be looking for a replacement.

After careful consideration I think we'll try to find another old diesel Benz from the 80s. There are still quite a few of them around and some are still in good shape. Even if I've got to put some money in one it will be worth it.

In this case, they just don't make them like they used to.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Economic rumblings

There's a lot of economic insatiability in the world right now. We all know about the drastic change in the price of oil. While that certainly feels like a good thing for most of us, for other's it's a disaster. Countries that have come to rely on a high price of oil are in trouble. That's one of the reasons Russia's currency is going down the crapper.

The housing market might be in another downturn. China's overheated economy shows signs of coming down to earth. Japan keeps sliding further and further into recession. Other markets are experiencing downturns of their own. In fact, most of the Eurozone is pretty weak and shaky right now.

So what's going to happen next? Darned if I know. If 2008 and the housing market collapse taught us anything is that the Powers That Be can change the rules to suite them. Bad bank loans were turned into government debt. That's quite the magic trick. By the “rules” of the game those banks should have gone down. A lot of bankers should have gone to jail for blatantly breaking the law. Instead of jail is was cigars and bonuses all around.

So the question comes down to this: what can I do about my unease towards the financial system? Someone at my pay grade will never get the real hard numbers needed to make an informed decision. All I can do is look at past trends and potential threats. With that in mind, I have made a few changes.

I've cleaned up a lot of debt. My house mortgage has been moved to a new bank. The old one seems to be having a slow motion run on the bank. For the past year people have been steadily closing their accounts. Today I just opened a new saving and checking account at a more solid institution.

If I had a lot of money I'd worry about the government possibly doing a Cyprus maneuver and raiding personal savings. As it is, there's not much in the bank to worry about. Right now it's not a bad idea to add more to preps like food storage. Some actual cash money on hand is always handy in the early days of a financial collapse. Most people won't know what to do with gold or silver, but a stack of $20s will grab their attention.

We may continue to bumble along or things might suddenly completely fall apart. Nothing I've done so far will hurt me much either way. Let's just hope that governments don't do what they often do in times of financial turmoil: start a war.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

One in the hand

I love these little guys. Chickadees always cheer me up on a winter's day. This is one of the things I do rather than watch television.

This is a Red Breasted Nuthatch making a quick exit. He's a bossy little bird that demands respect from the Chickadees.

Only wish I had my camera handy the day two Blue Jays and a Squirrel were fighting over the seeds. While they were going at it the little birds were darting in and out and making off with the loot.

Chickadees were landing on my finger even before my wife decided to start feeding them. They are friendly birds. Now I can't do anything outside without putting out a handful of seeds first. If I don't they buzz all around me. Can't even check the mail without them sitting on the mailbox.


Sunday, December 14, 2014

Winter: everything takes longer

We have plenty of snow and ice on the ground this time of year in Northern New Hampshire. I can't believe how much of my time has been lost due to winter conditions. There's all that time lost shoveling snow. Come spring it all melts anyway, leaving no trace of all that work.

The new neighbors are doing extensive renovations to their place. They are in the middle of replacing the roof. Everything is wrapped in giant tarps. Massive space heaters are going full blast. In the winter, not only does everything take long, it cost more too.

So why in the heck do people attempt such big jobs in the winter? Well, if you didn't do anything in winter, there won't be enough months in the year to get things done. Still, you won't find me doing a roofing job in the snow.

A friend of mine is in the middle of changing a truck transmission and he's working outside. Imagine lying on your back in the snow while working with parts so cold they become brittle could break. Large heated garages are at a premium around there.

Once I changed a car's water pump when it was 35 below zero. I had to keep running into the house to warm up. When the job was done I discovered the part's store had sold me a defective part. The job had to be done all over again.

It's a darn good thing everything looks like a Currier and Ives winter postcard. I must admit it's darn pretty. Even better is looking a the snow from my daughter's massive hot tub. That's one way to deal with winter. If winter's going to slow everything down, might as well find a good way to relax.


Insurance Disclosure

From time to time I rant about medical insurance. Recently I wrote a blog ranting how none of the insurance packages being offered in my area did me any good. My lovely wife convinced me to take another look. She worries about me.

There was a plan that was affordable, but it didn't cover any of the doctors in my area. Just out of curiosity I gave it another look. Much to my surprise all the local doctors are now covered by that system. Either the web site had a glitch the first time I checked it or the plan just expanded.

A few years ago when I'd dropped insurance coverage my cost had risen to almost $1000/month. That was totally out of reach. The plan I signed up for will cost me less than $350/month. While I hate to spend money on something I might not use, it's not going to break my budget.

I am one of those people who benefits from the new rules about preexisting conditions. Had the old rules been still in place they would not accept me.

It's still a messed up way to run a health care system. A wise man takes care of his own health and only relies on the system for things he can't fix himself. As a disabled firefighter I've learned how to manage my issues with alternative treatments. At least now I'll be covered in case I do something stupid like fall off my roof and break a leg.