Embracing the Inevitability


Well, it had to happen. You can’t be my age and expect the reflexes, synapses, and sarcomeres to respond to every situation exactly as you’d like. I fell off my bike while it was moving and made violent contact with terra firma, or more accurately, terra asphalta.

It happened suddenly, as I left the Greenway and turned onto Folly Road. Where I expected, and usually found, empty sidewalk there was suddenly a pedestrian. While thinking about where to go, I forgot to not go towards the telephone pole and the cars immediately beyond. The final frontier, so to speak.

As a budding biker nerd, I had, immediately prior to this ride, tightened my brakes to their most biting efficiency.

Without conscious thought, but with a flash of impending doom, I grabbed hard on both brake levers. Before I could even form the words "Whoa, Nelly", I was on the ground. Once in contact with the carbon based road-rash generator, I did have time to let slip the most base profanity.

They say time slows down in moments of extreme peril. Guess this must not have been one of my times, because it all happened in the flash of a nano-second.

The lesson, as usual, has several parts. Just because the bike stops doesn’t mean the rider does. That concept has been noted and filed. And, the goofy little riding gloves with pads in the palms are the investments that allow me to type this little paean. The helmet didn’t contact anything, but might have proved useful if my forward velocity had been more than 3 MPH.

I can’t wait for this afternoon’s ride.




Who To Believe?

The Post and Courier and the Wall Street Journal have dueling headlines in today’s papers.

The Post and Courier front page lead says this:

New home sales soar in June

The Wall Street Journal story, found on page C12, starts with this headline:

Pyrrhic Victory in June Housing Data

If I took the P&C headline at face value, I might believe that, finally, the long slide in home sales is over.

If I took the WSJ headline at face value, Imight believe that, still, the long slide in home sales continues.

Who to believe?

The P&C:

The storm clouds could be starting to part over the troubled real estate market.

Realtors, builders and housing experts buzzed over an announcement Monday from U.S. Commerce Department officials that new home sales jumped a surprisingly strong 11 percent last month. That increase beat analysts’ expectations and marked the highest jump for newly built homes in nine years. (emphasis mine)

Sales for June clocked in at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 384,000, blowing past the expectations of economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters, who were looking for 360,000.

Monday’s data came on the heels of an uplifting report last week from the National Association of Realtors that existing-home sales rose during June, the third month of growth. Sales haven’t risen for three straight months since early 2004, during the last housing boom.

Charleston’s existing-home sales have yet to reflect a year-over-year increase in 2009, but the pace of the declines has eased in recent months.

The tri-county area still has a large amount of existing properties for sale. As of Monday, nearly 9,900 homes were listed in the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors’ sales database.

The WSJ:

Many investors celebrated Monday after June’s "surge" in U.S. new-home sales. Alas, it was largely wishful thinking.

True, the Census Bureau reported sales up 11% from May. That is a big number, at first glance justifying Monday’s 4.5% leap in the Dow Jones U.S. Home Construction Total Stock Market Index. But it fails a close inspection.

First, home sales quite often jump in June, the height of the spring selling season. When trying to gauge the strength of home sales, then, it makes more sense to compare them with the same month a year ago. That comparison is less kind — sales were down 21.3% from June of 2008. (emphasis mine)

Seasonally unadjusted data show a total of 36,000 new homes were sold last month, the lowest June total since 1982, notes Richard Moody, chief economist at Forward Capital.

And the Census Bureau warns against assuming too much precision in these numbers, which are based on a sample survey. Accounting for a 13.2% margin of error — at a 90% confidence level, suggesting the actual error could be higher — new-home sales enjoyed somewhere between a 24.2% gain or a 2.2% decline from May.

New-home inventories are falling, an encouraging development. But inventories are still higher than their historical norm, and there remains an avalanche of distressed sales.

Little wonder, then, that June’s "surging" sales were driven by heavy discounting. The median new-home price — not seasonally adjusted — fell 12% in June from a year ago, to $206,200, the lowest June sales price since 2003. And it was down 5.8% month on month.

To paraphrase Pyrrhus, if sales keep soaring like this, then home builders will be utterly undone.

Two stories, two perspectives. One story is a look at data, with an understanding of statistical analysis. Call it objective, with the caveat that statistics can be manipulated to arrive at any conclusion. The other story is a compendium of anecdotal information, without an explanation of the underlying data (which discussion might reveal the facts of the data).

I’m not sure the readers of the Post and Courier are well served by their story.



Roundabout the Intersection


Here’s a common sight on our roads. Looks like a few cars got together at an intersection. I wonder if somebody ran a red light? After all, these days, no self respecting dude or dudette dares to apply their brakes at the first sign of a yellow light…no sir, yellow is the new green on our highways and bi-ways. And even if you are feeling a bit responsible for the other drivers, odds are the daredevil hanging on your back fender is liable to take offense with any attempt at road courtesy.

Being a bit of a daredevil myself, I like to try to turn across the light when I’m waiting for traffic and the light changes from green to yellow. My wife refuses to ride with me; she thinks I have a death wish. I think I have the right of way. Silly boy is the edited version of the name she calls me when I do this.

Traffic cameras seem to be the only thing that progressives and conservatives agree on; to wit, they are a gross violation of our individual rights and a blatant attempt by "The State" to line its empty coffers at the citizens’ expense. Forget, for the moment, that they might act to deter the most egregious offenders, the unlicensed, the drunks, and the texters.

Recently, I read that our local organs have begun to program red lights so that they remain red for a few extra seconds. Apparently they believe that a light that has been red for more than 3 seconds will act as a deterrent to the runners. I guess they don’t get out much; the extra time just lets a few more cars in the runvoy get through the intersection.

No sir, red lights are the broken windows of our automotive experience, and until we get the runners under control we aren’t going to solve the problem. Here’s a daunting statistic:

Intersections are perhaps the single most dangerous environment in traffic. According to the Federal Highway Administration, more than one-fifth of all traffic fatalities happen at intersections. If you think the problem is a lack of signals, think again. Reports FHWA: "Only 10% of all intersections are signalized, but nearly 30% (2,744) of intersection fatalities occurred at signalized intersections."

 There is a solution, if we could just get past our ignorance. It’s called the roundabout. Here’s a nice article about this marvel of highway engineering, and here’s a picture of a new, modern version.

Isn’t it lovely? Clean. modern, nicely landscaped, but mostly it’s safe and very efficient. We even have a few of them in our county, and they seem to work just fine. But every time planners try to impose this solution on the local citizenry, the hullabaloo drowns out the voice of reason. You’d think the planners were talking about those damn red light cameras the way folks get so aggravated. Here’s a typical response to the roundabout solution:

It’s hard for me to believe that the elected officials of Sarasota are so out of touch that they would contemplate installing roundabouts on U.S. 41.

I have a condo on Longboat Key, but more importantly, I reside in New Jersey. Anyone who has read the national news or has ever been up north knows of the horrors of “traffic circles.” These outdated and dangerous traffic devices have been the cause of untold accidents, injuries and many deaths.

During the last 15 years, New Jersey taxpayers had to spend hundreds of millions of dollar to remove roundabouts that were installed during the 1940s and 1950s. They don’t work in today’s urban settings.

Please stop this folly before it’s too late. For the safety of the driving public and especially our senior citizens, who are most often involved in accidents at these circles. Please don’t waste our taxes on this outdated and dangerous scheme.

John Maier

Longboat Key and New Jersey

There it is….they are too complicated for drivers and they don’t work. Of course, what does work in New Jersey? What does work, and will keep on working are the policemen and EMTs that pick up the pieces at red-lights and intersections. I guess statistical analysis would be too much to ask for in the consideration of a reasonable road building policy.God forbid that Mr. Maier should have to contend with a roundabout instead of the probability that he’s gonna get smashed at the next intersection.

Mr. Maier reminds me of a true story, related to me by my late, sainted mother. She had a friend, a lady that I know, who drives to this day. Her confidence is waning, however, and the busy streets and highways confuse her. Her adaptation to her condition is to never turn left at an intersection. For her, life on the highway is a series of right turns. Can you imagine her driving? Imagine the logistical gordian knot as she plots her way from her house to the grocery store to the pharmacy to the doctor’s office to home…For her, the roundabout would seem like an answer from God.

How about this:

Roundabouts are safer than traditional intersections for a simple reason: By dint of geometry and traffic rules, they reduce the number of places where one vehicle can strike another by a factor of four. They also eliminate the left turn against oncoming traffic—itself one of the main reasons for intersection danger—as well as the prospect of vehicles running a red light or speeding up as they approach an intersection to "beat the light." The fact that roundabouts may "feel" more dangerous to the average driver is a good thing: It increases vigilance. It’s unlikely the average driver killed or severely injured in a high-speed "T-bone" crash as they drove through a green light felt much risk. In addition, drivers must slow to enter a roundabout: Placing an obstacle in the center makes this not only a physical necessity but visually disrupts the speed-encouraging continuity of the street. Motorists also travel through a roundabout more slowly than they would a traditional intersection: Roundabouts are typically built using what’s called "negative superelevation," meaning that water flows away from the center and also that the road slopes against the direction of a driver’s turn. As a result, any crashes in a roundabout take place at lower speeds and are thus less likely to be fatal. While roundabouts can be more costly to install than other kinds of traffic controls, such calculations don’t take into account the fact that reducing fatal crashes also reduces social and monetary costs.

People may see vehicles winding slowly through a roundabout and think the intersection must be 1) adding to congestion and 2) slowing down people’s travel times. But travel speed at any given moment should not be confused with overall travel time. Drivers may breeze through one intersection’s green lights only to sit through a 90-second cycle at the next. What’s more, the "protected turning movements"—i.e., the green arrows—required at many intersections steal time from the larger numbers of people wanting to proceed in every other direction. Roundabouts slow but rarely stop traffic. A noteworthy example here is Golden, Colo., which in 1999 converted a series of four formerly signalized intersections to roundabouts on a wide section of arterial highway that was becoming a major corridor for "big box" retail. While speeds between the intersections fell to an average of 37 mph from 47 mph, the time to travel the entire stretch of road dropped.

Accelerating from a dead stop is the least efficient thing a car’s engine can do. By reducing stop-start queuing—and eliminating it at "off-peak times," like the moments at 2 a.m. when you’re idling at a red-light at an near-empty intersection—roundabouts not only waste less time than traditional intersections but also less energy, as various studies have confirmed.

The left-turn lanes mentioned above not only waste time, they waste space. They’re merely a temporary parking lot for vehicles that could otherwise be moving. By removing the need for these lanes in every direction, roundabouts can consume less asphalt. (Having to cross fewer lanes is also safer for pedestrians.) Rather than serving as shrines to the paving industry, the centers of intersections can contribute to the overall aesthetic improvement of a neighborhood, while the slower approach and travel speeds (which also mean less noise) are a boon to any sort of street or neighborhood life outside the car.

There are few silver bullets when it comes to traffic, and roundabouts will not work everywhere. (Some intersections are already too busy to consider switching to the roundabout model.) Like anything, they can be poorly designed: You don’t want them to look as if someone simply traced "a circle around a coffee can" on a piece of paper, as one engineer has put it. Bad driving behavior can cause them to "lock up" (just as one driver "blocking the box" can freeze a four-way intersection). Yes, there will perhaps have to be some minor educational outreach—one Indiana town is weighing spending $24,000 to do just that—but a larger question here is whether people who cannot manage to merge at low speed into a counter-clockwise circle and, yes, perhaps even change lanes in that circle, before finding the correct exit should actually be holding licenses that enable them to operate heavy machinery in the first place.

It ought to be clear, dear reader, that we have the technology. We can solve the problem. Like all of life’s problems, all we need is the will to overcome our own fears and move on. Let Goethe provide our inspiration…

"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back– Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now."

What have we got to lose?


Life and Golf

We are all moving through life. For some, the rate of change is obvious and disconcerting, while for others the years pass as slowly as glaciers grinding the earth. But as the progression approaches its inevitable conclusion, as the slope of the curve deepens in its negative value, the yearning for past youth strengthens. We grasp at any sign that what we once had is still available, even if in reduced form. Watching Tom Watson over the last four days is just the most recent example. For a moment, many of us thought that the shackles of time could be broken and the vigor and sharpness of the early years recaptured.

But as time instructs, it cannot be. The most unlikely is really the impossible. Father Time has perfected his grip on life, and the best we can hope for is the valiant struggle. So, thank you, Tom, for fighting for all of us. It is somehow comforting to know that while all cannot be recovered, there is still available a reservoir of youthful vigor, even if in the final measure it is not quite enough.

The Tyranny of Petty Bureaucrats

As I walk down the lane of life it seems that more and more people and things are crowding me. I don’t like crowds.

Recently I did a favor for a friend and picked up a few grocery items for another friend. It cost me $13,  for which the recipient immediately wrote a check. Into my wallet it went, where it lay uncashed and unthought of for several days. But eventually the time came for a look inside the wallet and I remembered. Instead of going to my bank’s ATM or drive-through, I would cash the check, which was drawn on First Citizens Bank.

Knowing the drill, I pulled up to the teller’s window. In her presence I endorsed the check and sent it, along with my driver’s license, through the pneumatic tube. "I’d like to cash that check, please." After a pause, the box sqwauked back with a question: "Sir, do you have an account with us?". No I didn’t, so the box instructed me that they would only cash the check from inside the bank.

Inside I went. Imagine my surprise when the teller "manning" the drive-through turned around to help me. The very same person! Struggling to understand why she required my presence inside the building instead of in my car, I asked the obvious question. The cursory reply was that the drive-through is a service for customers, and that the cashing of checks by non-customers is always done inside.  The insinuation seems to be that either the person is trying to defraud the bank or that the bank wants to make the process so odious that the casher will not come back.

Well, they got it wrong on count one, but got it exactly right on count two.

If I may quote from the bank’s website:

The foundation of these values is integrity. To First Citizens Bank, integrity means focusing on the needs of each individual customer, not on mergers and acquisitions. And it means providing sound financial advice based on the customers’ needs, not ours. Our common sense approach to doing business comes from our century of experience. We know that listening to our customers is the first step in helping them achieve their financial goals and that no two customers’ needs are the same. We also value consistency, because consistency builds trust. Doing business the same way for more than a century means that customers trust that the bank we are today is the bank we’ll be tomorrow – and that’s important in building long-term relationships. (emphasis mine – Ed.)

What a load of supercilious BS!

An empty drive-through at 10:30 on a Wednesday morning, a legitimate driver’s license with an address less than 1 mile away, a $13 check, and they want to hassle me!

I hope that teller got a good look at my backside walking out of the branch, because that is the last sight she will ever have of this potential customer….


The Art of Lawnmower Maintenance


My lawnmower died two weeks ago in the middle of the fortnightly trim. No amount of cranking on the starter cord, swearing, or futile gesturing would get her started again. With the grass looking very snake friendly, and the fleas moving into the area, Mrs. Agricoli put her foot down and demanded action today.

The counter man at the hardware store that does my mower maintenance laughed out loud when I rolled up. Six to seven weeks to get to your machine he said, with barely concealed glee. Sympathetic customers gave me the usual tips, i.e., change the filter and change the spark plug. Things I don’t do, given my complete lack of knowledge regarding things mechanical.

Driving away from the store, I told my wife about a post I had read just this morning.

From Seth’s Blog:

What to do with special requests

The bike shop is busy in June. If you bring your bike in for a tune up, it will cost $39 and take a week.

A week!

What if someone says, "I have a bike trip coming up in three days, can you do it by then?"

At most bike shops, the answer is a shrug, followed by, "I’m sorry, we’re swamped."

The problem with telling people to go away is that they go away. And the problem with treating all customers the same is that customers aren’t the same. They’re different and they demand to be treated (and are often willing to pay) differently.

So, why not smile and say, "Oh, wow, that’s a rush. We can do it, but it’s expensive. It’ll cost you $90. I know that’s a lot, but there you go."

Outcome: Maybe they’ll still leave. But maybe they’ll happily pay you for the privilege of doing business with you. Why should this be your choice, not theirs?

I would have, despite my scarce stash of discretionary dollars, gladly paid twice the going rate to make the queen of my castle happy.

Instead, we looked at each other and headed to Lowes, where I bought a spark plug wrench, a spark plug, an air filter, and 4 stroke motor oil. Twenty minutes later I was carving my way through the yard that had nearly become a savanna.

The lesson is that there are several lessons. Necessity is the mother of invention; it’s amazing what you can do when you put your mind to the task; and the repair business just lost a few years of revenue from a customer that was willing to pay a premium to get out of a tough spot.

Think they’ll miss me?

They’ll never know……

Valor Versus Venality


The "architect", writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, tells the story of his encounters with the Krissoff family. Very briefly, and you should read the story whatever your opinion of Karl Rove, the Krissoffs lost their oldest son, a marine officer, in Iraq in December, 2006. The younger brother is now also a marine officer serving his second tour in Iraq. When President Bush met with the Krissoffs in December, 2008, the only request they made was for a waiver so that the elder Krissoff, a 61 year old orthopaedic surgeon, could receive a commission and join the navy as a surgeon. Rove concludes with these words:

Christine Krissoff’s husband and sons, wrapped in prayers and armed with swords and scalpels, have served our nation with valor. So has she. So long as our nation produces families like the Krissoffs, America will remain not only the greatest nation on earth, but also the most noble in history.

As so many others have asked, so will I.  How does this country produce, as it has so many times in our history, so many willing so risk so much for so few? How can we possibly repay those citizens for their sacrifice?

Looking through this prism of honor and commitment to larger principles, it is evermore apparent that our political leadership seems small and insufficient in comparison. Whether discussed generally or specifically, the acts of our elected leaders reveal their lack of honor and character.

Generally, there is this analysis:

Mancur Olson, in his book The Logic Of Collective Action, highlighted the central problem of politics in a democracy. The benefits of political market-rigging can be concentrated to benefit particular special interest groups, while the costs (in higher taxes, slower economic growth, and many other second-order effects) are diffused through the entire population.

The result is a scramble in which individual interest groups perpetually seek to corner more and more rent from the system, while the incremental costs of this behavior rise slowly enough that it is difficult to sustain broad political opposition to the overall system of political privilege and rent-seeking.


When you add to Olson’s model the fact that the professional political class is itself a special interest group which collects concentrated benefits from encouraging rent-seeking behavior in others, it becomes clear why, as Olson pointed out, “good government” is a public good subject to exactly the same underproduction problems as other public goods. Furthermore, as democracies evolve, government activity that might produce “good government” tends to be crowded out by coalitions of rent-seekers and their tribunes.

This general model has consequences. Here are some of them:

There is no form of market failure, however egregious, which is not eventually made worse by the political interventions intended to fix it.

Political demand for income transfers, entitlements and subsidies always rises faster than the economy can generate increased wealth to supply them from.

Although some taxes genuinely begin by being levied for the benefit of the taxed, all taxes end up being levied for the benefit of the political class.

The equilibrium state of a regulatory agency is to have been captured by the entities it is supposed to regulate.

The probability that the actual effects of a political agency or program will bear any relationship to the intentions under which it was designed falls exponentially with the amount of time since it was founded.

The only important class distinction in any advanced democracy is between those who are net producers of tax revenues and those who are net consumers of them.

Corruption is not the exceptional condition of politics, it is the normal one.

Specifically and recently, the above quotes point to the flaws in the kinds of legislation currently wending through the Halls of Congress via K Street and the ubiquitous fund-raisers. Or in the conduct of our foreign policy.

Where is the honor of our politicians?