Thursday, June 23, 2011

Those entrepreneurial genes must have come from their mother.

It's the last day of school for Secundus and Tertius. Goodbye fourth and second grades, respectively.

Secundus spends the afternoon sorting through his unused school supplies from the beginning of the year and trying to sell them to Tertius.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Location, location, location.

Picking Tertius up from a playdate, I'm instantly flagged down and hustled out of fifty cents for a cup of lemonade at a stand he and his friend have erected outside his host's house.

They're not doing too well, despite unabashed enthusiasm. I suggested that the farthest point on the looping road around a gated community that's on an island isn't exactly a high traffic spot.* Indeed, I think their only previous customer was the FedEx delivery guy.

Tertius announces that not only are they selling lemonade, but homemade comics and trading cards, which they drew and xeroxed themselves.

"So what's the comic about?" I ask.

"The adventures of General Boxer-shorts."

"Isn't that a bit like Captain Underpants?" (Captain U. is the hero of a well-established series of kids books.)

"No," he says instantly, with defiance.

"Then how is it different?"

"Well, he's a general and it's boxer shorts." Of course.

*Ironically, this now-exclusive part of Rye was actually the first chunk of land sold to European settlers by the Mohegan indians.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Keeps on happening.

Yesterday, I was heading up Rye's Old Post Road -- a one-way street -- when I spotted a car coming toward me.

I flagged the driver down, not to remonstrate, but to warn her (it was a her, with a polite Southern accent) of the danger from other cars that might not be expecting any oncoming traffic as they trustingly hurtled into the Old Post Road from the intersection just ahead of her.

She thanked me. And then asked me for directions.*

*To get where she wanted to go, I told her it was quicker and easier for her to keep going the wrong way for the remaining fifty yards or so. Was that wrong?

Why, Gravity? I always obeyed your law.

Earlier this year, I was working in my office/bedroom, when I heard a thump on the roof. A branch had fallen off a tree, struck the gutter over my window, and bounced into the backyard, where Secundus was playing. Fortunately, it missed him.

A month or so later, I was walking the dog on Rye's leafy Milton Road when a large branch crashed down into the roadway from a tree on the opposite verge, at exactly the moment I passed. Being a good citizen, I hauled it out of the way of the traffic, despite being leashed to a bewildered mutt at the time. For once, nobody took the opportunity to ask me for directions.

Two days ago, Secundus and I had just stepped through the gate between the driveway and the front yard when a massive branch from one of our oaks plummeted to earth about twenty feet from where we were standing, peeling itself on the kids' zipline and making a sizeable hole where it stabbed the lawn. The indications are that it was struck by lightning, although the thunderstorm had passed hours earlier.

Then Secundus informed me that a ceiling tile had fallen down in his classroom, without hitting anyone.

So here's my question. Are the trees out to get me, or does gravity have it in for all the Beecheys? If the former, does being named after a tree cut no ice with a vengeful Mother Nature?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

I am not alone.

I thought I'd made a breakthrough in Beatles scholarship, but it was not to be.

I was watching an old episode of Gerry Anderson's classic puppet TV show "Thunderbirds," as you do, reliving memories of 1966.* It was about an out-of-control giant logging machine called "Crablogger," which naturally goes crazy and starts heading for a dam. Can International Rescue stop it before the village is destroyed?

(Of course they can, duh, whoop-de-doo, but there was always a certain disappointment among my friends when any structure survived the show without exploding in a fireball.)

But it rings a bell. "Crablogger" sounds a lot like "Crab-a-locker." As in "I Am the Walrus":

Crab-a-locker fishwife, pornographic priestess, boy you been a naughty girl, you let your knickers down.

This episode of "Thunderbirds" was first broadcast on October 9, 1966. (John Lennon's birthday, incidentally.) About this time, John heard that his old English teacher at the Quarry Bank High School was making his class analyze Beatles lyrics, so he deliberately threw some unfathomable gibberish into the song he was currently working on, which turned out to be "I Am the Walrus." The crab-a-locker line follows a couplet -- "Yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog's eye" -- that is more directly inspired by the schoolyard chants of John's childhood.

But have I stumbled on the origin of the mysterious "crab-a-locker"?

Since most online references to the Beatles' lyrics cite "crab-a-locker" as a nonsense word, I'm rejoicing in my discovery. Alas, too early. One Google entry directs me to, where an anonymous contributor has recently made the same observation.

So there's someone else out there who remembers enough about 1960s cult kids television and John Lennon's psychedelic output to put two and two together, nearly half a century later?

The world just became a scarier place.

*The year that England won the World Cup, of course, and therefore the greatest year in the history of civilization. I reached the age of ten, horrified to find out on my birthday that just because you get an entry in the tens column, it doesn't make you a teenager.

And not exactly reliving, because in 1966, these kids shows were broadcast in black and white in England, although they were filmed in color for the US market. Thunderbird 2 was green, huh? I'd always imagined it as red.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I do the math.

I read an article recently about the astonishing inefficiency of the internal combustion engine. Apparently, only 16% of the energy it consumes ends up moving it forward (or backward), which is the whole point of the car after all.

Not entirely believing this, I checked around and kept coming up with similar numbers -- the motor car engine is only about 20% mechanically efficient, the rest of its energy being lost to heat, water heating, motor friction, and noise. The original article included idling, so its lower number is quite reasonable.

And it makes tea, too.
Now, no engine is ever going to get anywhere near 100%. (Want to know the most efficient engine currently measured? Human power. The bicycle.) Perhaps if we'd stuck to refining the steam-powered tricycle that was built in 1769, we'd be in a better place by now. But that pesky Karl Benz shoved a gasoline engine into his 1885 auto, and the rest is oil, and the odd bedfellows it's brought us over the years.

(Proving that the key to success is to get into the balloon first and then devote all your resources to not budging. Incumbency always has the edge, even when common sense is howling for change. Ask the oil industry, the car industry, the tobacco industry, the music business, etc., and all those re-election-seeking fifth-term politicians they buy.)

Anyway, I thought I'd see where the numbers led. Not surprisingly, I got some wildly different estimates of energy consumption, depending on the interests of those doing the estimating, but I'm happy with this as a rough first draft.

I'll try to keep this simple. First, US oil consumption in 2010 was 18,686,000 barrels a day. The good news is, that's a continued decline from a peak in 2007. (Just for perspective, 4.9 million barrels leaked from the Deepwater Horizon spill over three months, which is the amount we consume as a nation in about six hours.)

Transportation in the US uses roughly 70% of the oil we consume. This seems to be a widely agreed figure -- it's basically the percentage of petroleum that's refined into gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.

The hard part is separating out how much of that goes to roads, since diesel also fuels our long-distance trains. But I found a reasonable breakdown of transportation energy consumption that allotted 30% to light trucks (presumably less efficient users of gasoline), 28% to private cars and motorcycles, and 19% (mainly diesel*) to big trucks and buses. So 77% of the oil used for transportation is consumed on our highways. (This was on an educational website for kids, so it must be right.)

Okay, we multiply 18,686,000 barrels by 70%, then by 77%, and then by 80%, which represents the energy lost by the internal combustion engine. The answer comes to about eight million barrels. Give or take a gallon.

That's the amount of oil that ends up wasted on America's roads every day. Not just consumed -- wasted. Because we committed ourselves and our infrastructure to gasoline cars over a century ago. (That's 43% of our domestic consumption, if you're keeping track.) If we'd kept on studying and improving, say, battery technology or steam power during that time, instead of playing catch-up now, who knows what options we'd have today?

Want some perspective?

That wastage on America's roads is about 11% of the world's total oil production. One barrel in every nine. To heat your engine so much -- and so unnecessarily -- that you need a cooling system under the hood to keep it from exploding.

It's 90% of Saudi Arabia's oil production. It's just about equal to the combined oil production of Iraq, Iran, and Libya.

And it's more than our own domestic oil production.

Now, the US exports about a quarter of its oil, mostly to Mexico.** So just to keep our cars and trucks unnecessarily hot and noisy, we not only have to use up every gallon of our oil that we keep for ourselves, we also have to throw in pretty well everything we import from our largest supplier, which is our neighbor Canada.

From the nation whose car industry thought the Hummer was a neat response to a succession of oil shortages.

*Diesel represents about 28% of petroleum usage, so this seems to suggest twice as much diesel is consumed by long-distance trucking as by rail freight. Diesel engines are about 25% more efficient than engines powered by gasoline, although they still use internal combustion. I didn't allow for this in the calculation, but on the other hand I didn't include the idling factor either. Nor did I allow for the energy required to refine the petroleum into gas and diesel and its other products. Nor the oil used in our efforts to deal with pollution, or to maintain our car-oriented infrastructure -- where do you think that bitumen comes from? Nor all the completely unnecessary trips we make with our 20% forward motion, when the bicycle will do just as well.

**We also import about the same amount from Mexico. Go figure. (I know, I know -- there's oil and then there's oil. And it could vary with the seasons. I mean, it's not as if this 150-million-year-old substance keeps.)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Don't let the gray hairs fool you.

So I'm sitting on a park bench (da-ah, duh-da duh-da), eyeing . . . .

No hang on, I'm channeling Jethro Tull, and not in a good way. Start again.

Sitting on a park bench, waiting for the van to come . . .

Those aren't even the right words. Sorry, John.

Okay, one more time. I'm sitting on a park bench in front of the library on a pleasant afternoon, trying to narrow down my selection of Ogden Nash poems for the forthcoming big event at the Arts Center, when a young man approaches me. He introduces himself as a reporter for one of the very new local online news services and asks if I have college-age children.

"No, not yet," I tell him smugly. (With Primus just completing sixth grade, I have years to go before I have to tell him that I spent his college funds on lottery tickets.)

The reporter narrows his eyes and looks at me suspiciously. "But you will soon, I imagine."

How to win friends and interview people, huh?

Saturday, June 11, 2011

. . . and one way you can't.

Following on from my last post, today Leila and I were on a patch of greenery a good twenty feet from the road when a car stops at the traffic lights and a man tries to ask me for directions. This time I have to demur, pointing out by pantomime that the dog is actually squatting mid-defecation and won't take kindly to being dragged sideways at this critical juncture.

What is it with these people? Anyway, he had a pony-tail.

More to the point, why does anyone think I look as if I know where the hell I am?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Any which way you can.

Truly, what is it about a guy wearing conspicuous earbuds who's currently bending over on somebody's front lawn with a blue plastic New York Times bag on his hand to clean up after his frisky dog, who is already straining at the leash to move on after toilet time, that makes a driver think I can quickly give directions while he's idling in the middle of the road, holding up the traffic?

And why is it, whenever I give directions -- and do my very best to make them crystal clear, as befits a 30-year professional in the field of explanatory communications -- that I immediately think of a better route as soon as he or she drives off?