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Random Fragments

April - June 2010

The 3 Foot Rule

Common Sense II

Free (Market) Health Care

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Mules

Immigration Idiocy

Atonement and Fear

Fire as Failure

Saturday, April 3, 2010

   The 3 Foot Rule - Recently, a bicyclist contended that a city bus did not give him three feet of clearance, and videotape from the bus shows that this was, in fact, the case.  But, the cyclist was in a bike lane and the question that began to swirl about was whether he was due this minimum distance.  After some thought, the city attorney decided that the bicyclist  was right and asked the police to ticket the bus driver.  The local paper editorialized on the matter, and while the editor wondered if we weren't splitting hairs here, he didn't really dispute the city's conclusion.  But, they also published the relevant law, to wit:

A.R.S. 28-735. Overtaking bicycles; civil penalties

A. When overtaking and passing a bicycle proceeding in the same direction, a person driving a motor vehicle shall exercise due care by leaving a safe distance between the motor vehicle and the bicycle of not less than 3 feet until the motor vehicle is safely past the overtaken bicycle.

B. If a person violates this section and the violation results in a collision causing:

   1. Serious physical injury as defined in section 13-105 to another person, the violator is subject to a civil penalty of up to $500.

   2. Death to another person, the violator is subject to a civil penalty of up to $1,000.

C. Subsection B of this section does not apply to a bicyclist who is injured in a vehicular traffic lane when a designated bicycle lane or path is present and passable.

     Well, I am a reasonably smart person, and as I read the law, the city's conclusion seemed unwarranted.  I did some web searching on the meaning of "overtaking and passing."  I found a lot of references to this phrase, and a very good review at Wikipedia.  Interesting, much of this comes from other countries.  But, the bottom line seemed to be this - the phrase refers to making a maneuver where you go from being behind someone to being in front of them.  Driving by someone in another lane is not what "overtaking and passing" means.  And, if it does, then we need another phrase to describe the action I've just described.  So, I decided to post off a quick letter to the editor, which ran on Tuesday, April 6:

To the editor:

While I try to always give bicyclists a wide margin when I drive by them, I believe that the city’s interpretation of the “3 foot rule” is erroneous. 

As printed in the paper, the rule applies when a vehicle is “overtaking and passing a bicycle.” 

The phrase “overtaking and passing” means that the vehicle has to move onto a different path in order to continue.  On the highway, for example, when you overtake and pass someone, you move into the left-hand lane to accomplish this action.  In the absence of a dedicated bike lane, the law clearly applies to cars (and, buses) that overtake and pass a bicycle – you have to move to the left to get by them. 

But, in the presence of a bike lane, no such “overtaking and passing” action is required.  Hence, the “3 foot rule” does not apply.  Indeed, the fact that subsection C of the law suspends any penalty to a driver that has an accident with a bicyclist who is in a “traffic lane” when a bike lane is present would confirm this interpretation.

In that case, you are not required to have to make an “overtaking and passing” maneuver. 

I would encourage the bus driver to challenge his ticket.

Dennis Foster
Flagstaff, AZ

     I used to have a traffic engineering handbook around the house, but must have gotten rid of it some years ago.  One of the things I picked up from this tome is that, like lawyers, engineers are pretty careful with using words that have particular meaning, even if we often toss them around more casually.

     While I have written a number of letters and editorials on what I thought to be much more contentious issues, I was surprised that as of today, some four days later, my letter is in the "most commented" category, with more than twenty replies.  Some nice, some not.  I thought to jump in, but I thought my letter was, if anything, somewhat pedantic.

Friday, April 9, 2010

   Common Sense II - This is the second in a multi-part review of Glenn Beck's Common Sense.  I really should be doing my taxes, but, heck, I still have almost a week to get them done!

III. The Political Weapon of Choice:  The U.S. Tax Code
Complaining about the tax system is almost . . . well, American!  Doing something about it, on the other hand, seems well nigh impossible.  Beck recites the well-known abuses of the system - it is too complex and it is expensive to comply with.  And, of special hypocrisy, are the tax problems top Obama Administration advisors (Geithner, who got in as Treasury Secretary, and Daschle, who didn't get in as HHS Secretary), as well as the top tax-writer in Congress (Charlie Rangel).  Why is this?  Beck's observation is the system is so convoluted because politicians want to reward friends and punish enemies.
     Beck notes that if we had to pay our taxes in-kind, we'd have rebelled a long time ago.  He muses about Thomas Sowell's idea that we should make election day April 16, the day after tax day.  That might lead to a better system.  I also noted down this quote from George Washington, which I thought was great - "Government is not reason . . . it is force."  I wish more people would see it that way, too.

IV. The Perk and Privileges of the Political Class
Beck is especially critical of Congress, and with good reason.  While they say they represent the people, their salaries place them in the top 5%.  And, while the public approval rating for them is abysmally low, their re-election rates are astronomically high.  How is that?  Well, they rig the system to insure their continuation in power.  As noted in the previous chapters, they use the tax system to reward friends.  They also establish sometimes convoluted Congressional districts, through the gerrymandering process, that insures political party stability.  And, while we don't have royalty in the U.S., there has risen up a distinct political royalty - e.g., the Kennedy and the Bush families.
     While politicians promise ethics, transparency and accountability, they only deliver on increasing their control over our lives.  I agree with Beck that "all governments are fascist in nature."  That is, they all look for ways to expand their power and control.  Our founders set up a system of limited government, but politicians have successfully chipped away at that ideal for two hundred years.  How can we return to those principles?  Beck argues that the bottom line is that we must have term limits for all political offices.  It is a simple idea, and it tends to appeal to the typical voter.  Maybe it will actually work.  But, I'm not holding my breath on this one.

Friday, April 23, 2010

   Free (Market) Health Care - The local paper ran a story about a freshman student at NAU that required expensive tests and surgery while being uncovered by any insurance.  Presumably, this was meant to show how bad the system is, and how much better it will be with under the reforms recently passed.  It quickly prompted me to pen a letter, which ran in the paper today:

To the editor:

The recent front page story about the ordeal of a young NAU student in needing some some serious, and expensive, health care when she doesn’t have insurance coverage illustrates what’s wrong with our current system: government rules that stymie competition and tie health insurance to a job.  A better system, and one that certainly would have benefited Ms. Bacigalupo, would be a free market.

Why?  Well, in a free market, where insurance wasn’t mandated through employment, she not only would have found it easier to shop around for insurance, but being in about the lowest risk pool imaginable (young), it would have been relatively inexpensive.

If we can end the nonsensical insurance coverage of regular medical care, like for routine doctor visits and shots, she would only have to buy the health insurance she really needed - catastrophic coverage.  This would also tend to keep her costs low.  Maybe even lower than someone her age buying auto insurance.  Over time, with a health savings account, she could save money to provide for health care between these two extremes, further keeping her actual insurance costs down.  Indeed, if her parents could have done this, and if such an account were transferable to their children, they might have had the wherewithal for the health care needed now.

The better system has more competition and more freedom, not more government regulation, more government intervention and more government mandates.  Yet, the so-called “reform” enacted by Congress moves us further away from a better system.

Dennis Foster
Flagstaff, AZ

The editor had written that he wasn't running many letters criticizing the health care reforms because he just wasn't getting any.  Maybe I'll start writing on this topic more regularly.

Friday, April 30, 2010

   We Don't Need No Stinkin' Mules - The National Park Service is considering dramatic changes in allowing mule riders into the Grand Canyon.  I attended a scoping session last year and wrote a blog on the topic.  At the time, I was quite sure that officials were looking for ways to reduce the number of mules in the canyon.  And, so it is.  The park issued an Environmental Assessment this past March.  In it, their "proposed alternative" calls for reducing mule riders traveling along the Bright Angel trail by some 75%.  They proposed to totally eliminate the day trips to Plateau Point, and reduce, by half, the number of riders allowed to go to Phantom Ranch (from 20 to 10).  As the editor of the local paper wondered, why allow any?  Why, indeed?  Well, I have been planning on penning a letter, or even trying for an editorial on this topic, but wanted to do so before the close of public comments.  Alas, that is today.  So, I did go to the Park Service site and submit a comment electronically.  Perhaps, I'll get a chance later to send something to the paper.  Here's my beef:

I wish to offer some comments on the proposed changes to Mule Operations at Grand Canyon National Park.

The stated project objective is to provide “opportunities for mule … use in Grand Canyon National Park to as large a cross section of visitors as practicable,” and that this proposal should be consistent with providing “access appropriate and consistent with the character and nature of [Grand Canyon] and the desired visitor experience.” (p. 8)

The proposed alternative fails to live up to these objectives.  Equating visitors who ride mules on the rim to visitors who ride mules into the canyon is untenable.  The proposal must justify such a conclusion.  Visitors are clearly interested in riding mules into the canyon, and much more so than riding mules along the rim of the canyon.  While the latter may also be desirable, and the park service should have been open to offering visitors such an experience, it should not come at the expense of the historic use of trails to allow visitors the opportunity of seeing the Grand Canyon from below the rim.

The proposal basically equates apples with oranges, by comparing the number of mule riders that currently go into the canyon with the number that would be allowed to ride along the rim.  I have hiked in the canyon for more than thirty years, and in talking with mule riders, there is one unmistakable reason that they are there – to ride a mule into the canyon.  This is the visitor experience that you are destroying with this proposal.  This abjectly fails to comply with the objectives stated in the document.

I believe that it would be in the best interest of the park, and it would best serve the interest of the visiting public, to continue allowing mule rides to Plateau Point and to maintain the level of visitors riding to Phantom Ranch.

The issue of the cost of trail maintenance is poorly addressed in the document.  It is clear that the Park Service had not had a consistent policy in how to maintain trails.  That is, the trails are not maintained for continuous mule use, nor strictly for hikers.  As a consequence, monies have been wasted over the years building the trail to a specification that doesn’t meet the needs of either group.  We can see by the long-lived Grandview and Hermit trails what must be done to insure that trails don’t deteriorate over time with heavy mule use.  But, the Park Service has refused to maintain trails in this manner.

In 1924, the Park Service built the South Kaibab trail from scratch for $70,000.  Using available inflation data, that would translate into about $1 million today.  Yet, the park maintains that it has a $24 million backlog of trail maintenance.  That would be like building, from scratch, 24 South Kaibab trails.  That is unbelievable.

At Bryce Canyon, there are trails that are dedicated just to mules and horses.  Why not allow this at the Grand Canyon?  Why not allow a concessionaire to build a new trail into the canyon that they would own and operate just for mule use?  That would resolve this issue, although private property is not a phrase that exists within the National Park’s vocabulary.

Dennis Foster
Flagstaff, AZ

     I should note that there aren't any mules currently going to Plateau Point.  Those rides were "temporarily" discontinued while trail work continues on the South Kaibab trail.  That work shut down that trail to mule traffic and is expected to last a couple of years.  [Yes, longer than it took to build the trail in 1924!]  Consequently, all Phantom Ranch mule riders are coming back up the Bright Angel trail, and all the pack trains, hauling supplies to Phantom Ranch, are going down, and coming back up, on the Bright Angel.  So, with all that traffic, the day trips to Plateau Point have been dropped.  This proposal would make that change permanent.

Friday, May 14, 2010

   Immigration Idiocy - The illegal immigration law that was recently passed by the state legislature has raised complaints from the usual suspects - those that can't read, or won't read, and want to put all issues into the framework of race.  Unfortunately, that included the esteemed members of the Flagstaff City Council who are clueless when it comes to understanding the proper role of government.  Also clueless is the Faculty Senate at Northern Arizona University.  But, that's nothing new.  So, can it be of any surprise that they voted overwhelmingly to condemn this new law, and characterized it (the law) as racist?  No.  So, I penned this retort to this action, which ran in the paper this past Tuesday:

To the editor:

What lessons do we draw from noting that polls show 70% of Arizonans support the new immigration law and that 70% of Americans support the intent of this law, while about 90% of the NAU Faculty Senate oppose this law?  I suppose that it is obvious.  The NAU Faculty Senate clearly lacks diversity.  It also lacks common sense.  It also lacks any pretense to intellectual inquiry.

When we add in the fact that this fringe group not only opposed this law, but also declared that it was “racist,” then we can be sure that they also have no intellectual honesty.  No wonder there are so many that look at the university with disdain.  Certainly, if the level of education that its students are receiving is correlated with this vote, the taxpayers of Arizona are being cheated.

On the other hand, we should all applaud President Haeger’s thoughtful remarks on this issue and encourage a more reasoned debate.  It would be better if opponents worked at resolving the fundamental problems here rather than resort to hate speech.  I, for one, oppose both substantive immigration controls and the welfare state that distorts people’s actions in this regard.  And, if I can use the Faculty Senate’s own twisted logic, if you don’t agree with me, you must be a racist.

Dennis Foster
Flagstaff, AZ

     Most of the web comments, both to the original article and to my letter, agreed with my basic contention.  Indeed, I don't think you can find a better example to illustrate the shallowness of the Faculty Senate than to go out to their website.  On the right-hand side, you'll see a virtual suggestion box.  Upon a moment's reflection, you will note that it is, in fact, a shredder!  So, that's where all the good ideas go.  Another letter ran today, also critical of the Faculty Senate, where the writer chastised them for this "[g]reat exercise in critical thinking."

Friday, June 18, 2010

   Atonement and Fear - The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has generated lots of heat, but little light.  The Congress had Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP (formerly British Petroleum, but, apparently, now just "BP") testifying yesterday on Capitol Hill.  In the grand scheme of things, it is useful to put BP's feet to the fire and do some investigating.  But, having Congress do this is . . . well, totally bizarre.  But, the whole event reminded me of something that Fox News Channel's Judge Andrew Napolitano always likes to say:

When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.

He attributes this to Thomas Jefferson, although there is more than a little dispute on that accord.  Jefferson probably would sympathize with the sentiment, even if he never actually uttered/wrote those words.

     Anyway, I was thinking of this quote as I was watching Hayward testifying.  It seemed to me that he had the look of fear on his face.  As if the explosion of Deepwater Horizon oil rig isn't going to cause BP enough pain and suffering, he knows that our government can completely ruin him.  So, he comes to the Congress, with hat in hand, head bowed before the almighty "representatives of the people," to atone for his sin - he runs a big oil company - and beg forgiveness.  Clearly, he is sorry about the accident.  How can he not be?  And, clearly, he wants to find out why it happened so that they can take steps to reduce the likelihood of it happening again.  That's just prudent behavior.  And, clearly, he accepts that BP will have to pay out lots of money to those that were harmed by this accident.

     But, in an era where the government can take over banks and car companies, it surely looks like BP is poised on the brink of a different abyss.  One where the government imposes so many penalties upon them that they must fail.  At least, fail insofar as being a privately-held company.  I can far too easily envision a future where the federal government is the major stockholder in BP.  And, that is chilling.  Or, worse - tyranny.

Tony Hayward, CEO of BP,
testifies before Congress. 
Judge Andrew Napolitano, not to
be confused with our ex-governor.
Thomas Jefferson, to whom the quote is often attributed. 

     I suppose it was too much to hope for that Hayward would go to Congress and "give 'em hell."  But, that's just not in the cards these days.  If he spits in their eye, they'll just rake him over the coals and then take his company.  I am reminded of some of the capitalists in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged that don't hold back in criticizing the government for its regulation and control of business.  Where are these capitalists today?

     Still, I must admit that I am getting a little satisfaction from BP's squirming.  They have been a leader in cozying up to the green movement and embracing the whole global warming nonsense.  And, they have contributed more to President Obama's campaign than they have to any other politician in the last thirty years.  So, if they do some twisting in the wind over this oil spill fiasco, I'm not going to be too sympathetic to their circumstances.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

   Fire as Failure - Over Father's Day weekend we had two big fires in Flagstaff which attracted quite a bit of national attention.  On Saturday (the 19th), the Hardy Fire was started about a mile from my home, although I don't think that it would have spread this far through residential areas.  Still, a local hotel (Little America) was evacuated, and we received a robo-call from the county that we should be ready to evacuate as well.  That fire was started by a transient, which is pretty much an annual thing here in the early summer.  As such, there isn't much we can do about this problem except bear the burden of fighting such fires.

     On Father's Day (the 20th), we had the much bigger Schultz fire.  It had erupted in a major way while we were having lunch at a local restaurant.  As we left, we drove up to Route 66, where I snapped the photo to the right when we were about a half block from city hall.  [No, I wasn't driving!]  We drove on up to McMillan Mesa, and parked in the lot of the USGS office, where we could more clearly see the origin of the fire - in the pass between Mt. Elden and the San Francisco Peaks.  That is where I took the picture to the left, showing the extent of the smoke pluming behind Mt. Elden. [Click on either photo to see a larger image.]

     This latter fire was started from campfire that was not properly put out.  It's still smoldering even now, nine days later.  And, it isn't surprising that the same old arguments are being made with regard to what should be done to prevent this from happening again - (i) increase education among campers, and (ii) close the forest during peak fire season.  The former is laudable, but doomed to failure, while the latter is an abject indicator of the failure of the Forest Service (and, by extension, the government) to adequately maintain the environment.

     We all know what must be done to prevent these fires - more monitoring and/or development.  But, without the budgetary resources to accomplish the former, we end up with awful choices like "close the forest down."  Here are some better solutions . . .

Provide developed campsites.  The camping in this area is mostly "at large," although there are some regular spots that campers use over and over.  Maybe some more developed camping areas (yes, for fees) would provide a better opportunity for the clueless to experience the outdoors without endangering everyone else.

Form volunteer forest caretakers.  We mostly have this problem for only two months - May and June.  Following a decent winter, May isn't usually a problem.  And, if the rainy season starts on time, July and August are usually better.  So, why not form volunteer groups that drive along the popular forest roads and take an inventory of campers in the evening, and then return in the morning to insure that all campfires are put out?  I am sure that plenty of people would sign up for such a group.  They aren't out to harass, or confront, anyone - just to make sure that nothing dangerous is left untended.

Revert to logging the forest, even if on a lower scale than the past.  One thing we can be sure of - people (or, firms) with private property at risk tend to take steps to reduce that risk.  Suppose that a firm had a contract to the timber in this area.  Wouldn't they find it in their best interest to provide the kind of monitoring necessary to protect their interests?  I should think so!  But, the politically correct way to think about this is that it is better to let 15,000 acres burn up than it would be to harvest timber on, oh, say 5,000 acres.

     I don't really expect any of the above ideas to take hold, because they go against the grain of sappy environmental thinking and the unwillingness for any government entity to reducing its power and authority.  Indeed, the local paper had a story about how a thinning project was to take place along Schultz Pass in 2007.  But, an environmental group appealed the project, and it never got off the ground.  Well, it's thinned now!  Too bad we can't sue these environmental groups for putting us all at increased risk.

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