Powering Down


A strong nor’easteror northeaster, if you prefer – is causing havoc along the east coast from North Carolina to Maine and into Canada to kick off the first weekend of March 2018. Nor’easters typically occur in the colder months, almost always in the eastern third of the country, though occasionally slightly farther west, as in November 1975 when a storm whipped up Lake Superior, sinking the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, and they can be as destructive as hurricanes when taking into account the wider swath and longer duration of a nor’easter over a hurricane. Blizzards with heavy snowfall, downpours and consequent flooding, beach erosion, and power outages and damage to houses, businesses, and infrastructure from gale force winds, all can be attributed to nor’easters.


The winds of a nor’easter never reach the highest speeds of hurricanes, but even 30 and 40 mile per hour winds in winter can cause trees and tree limbs to topple onto overhead power lines. The ground does not dry out as quickly in winter as in summer, and that can make the difference between a tree staying upright in high winds or falling over. Add the weight of snow and sometimes ice, and not only tree limbs and trees fall, but even utility poles may snap off at ground level. It’s not uncommon then to hear reports during a strong nor’easter, such as the one currently blowing along the upper east coast, of millions of utility customers being without power, sometimes for days.

WinslowHomer-Eight Bells 1886
Eight Bells, an 1886 painting by Winslow Homer (1836-1910).

After every particularly bad storm that causes massive power outages, many people want to know why in this country most of the power lines are still above ground, where they are vulnerable to storm damage. They want to know why more of the lines aren’t buried, seemingly out of harm’s way. The blizzard of 1888 brought New York City to a standstill, and the effect was that city leaders made a determination afterward to start placing essential services underground, in particular building a subway system to help city inhabitants keep moving no matter what the weather. Putting in new facilities at a time when the city was still in the process of being built out to its full potential turned out to be not as disruptive and expensive as it would be today, now that every square mile of Manhattan real estate has something already built on it.


Alley behind Connecticut Avenue, N.W. - Blizzard of 2010
An alley behind Connecticut Avenue, N.W., in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C., with power lines weighed down by heavy, wet snow from the blizzard of February 2010. Photo by AgnosticPreachersKid.

Developers building new upper middle class subdivisions sometimes put the power lines underground because those developments can absorb the extra cost, typically 10 times more than overhead lines, and because the pleasing aesthetics and perceived security of underground lines enhance property values. There are drawbacks, often overlooked, such as the vulnerability of any overhead lines feeding into the new development, and the increased time and expense for power company crews to locate and fix compromised underground lines. One of the ways an underground power line can become compromised is through flooding, in which water or even water vapor will find its way into any vulnerability in the line’s sheathing and short out the line. Lines are usually buried from 24 to 48 inches deep, which in most cases is deep enough to insulate them from digging accidents and the soil water pressure of ordinary rainfall. In floods, however, the soil can become so waterlogged that pressure builds high enough to force its way in toward the power line.

There is no one absolute answer to lessening the risk of losing power during a storm, other than to disengage from the power grid entirely. For those who remain hooked in to the grid, some peace of mind can be had by purchasing a portable generator or installing a standby generator. Power companies should put more of this country’s grid underground in spots where the benefits can be greatest, leaving the rest of it above ground where the costs are prohibitive. Utility customers may wail once again about all the damaged above ground lines once this latest nor’easter has moved on out to the open ocean, but they often quiet down once they hear how much their power bill would have to be hiked and for how long in order to pay for putting the service below ground. The people who have it worst in some ways during a storm and for days or weeks afterward are the power company workers who have to be outside in dreadful conditions doing what is a dangerous job even in sunny, balmy weather, and is many times worse in soaking rain, blowing snow, pelting ice, and winds that could throw anyone off course.
— Vita


Not in My Back Yard


In some areas of the United States, particularly the countryside, gun owners can step out the back door of their house and practice shooting targets, and some do so without satisfying even the minimum safety requirements of local ordinances. This behavior falls under the heading of “Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should”. City dwellers may imagine that all rural homesteads are capacious enough to accommodate the whims of target shooters without endangering their neighbors’ lives or property, say 10 acres at least. That is not so. Many rural residential lots are 2 acres or less. Yet the law generally does not factor in lot size as long as the area is zoned agricultural or mixed use. Common sense and common courtesy should be a factor where the law leaves a gap, but unfortunately too many citizens possess neither quality. Combine that with gun possession and there will be the devil to pay somewhere along the line.


No target shooting
“No Target Shooting” sign located at mile 80.5 of the Seward Highway in Alaska, along 20 Mile Creek; photo by Lar. In some circles, this kind of thing passes for wit.
Discharging firearms on private property is a sensitive subject that gets tangled up in the Second Amendment to the Constitution when it really shouldn’t because of how the activity affects the safety, property rights, and quality of life of neighbors. The issue at hand is not a gun owner’s right to own guns and shoot them, but the right of the gun owner’s neighbors not to have to barricade themselves in sound-proof, bullet-proof houses, or to enjoy their property and the flora and fauna on it without having it all riddled by bullet holes. The Second Amendment guarantees the right “to keep and bear Arms”; it says nothing about discharging them responsibly. That is where state law and local ordinances step in, although in some places, again particularly in the countryside, they are far too lax. In many instances the decision by a government authority on whether a gun owner’s home firing range is safe and legal is left up to a judgment call made by a sheriff’s deputy who visits the property after being called by a distressed neighbor.


Some scenes from The Andy Griffith Show demonstrating why Sheriff Andy Taylor eventually issued Deputy Barney Fife only one bullet and insisted he keep it in his shirt pocket.

Enactment of a noise ordinance can help restore sanity to a neighborhood. It’s interesting to note that gun owners who are conscientious about safety advocate hearing protection for the person discharging a firearm, but rarely take into account how the noise affects those within earshot. Unlike the noise made by a lawn mower or even a loud stereo system, gunshots are an intimidating sound. Perhaps for some gun owners that is part of the appeal. A noise ordinance can also help restrict target practice to daylight hours, because as hard as it is to believe, existing private property firearm discharge ordinances often do not explicitly state that target practice after dark is not allowed. Apparently that is where common sense and common courtesy are supposed to fill in the gap.


Education of gun owners may help in a few cases, such as making them aware they are subject to reckless endangerment laws. Reckless endangerment includes things such as leaving a child or pet locked in a hot car, or disregarding safety rules in a dangerous workplace, as well as discharging a firearm without regard to where the bullets land. Some reckless endangerment transgressions are misdemeanors. Reckless endangerment with a firearm is a felony. Knowledge of that may change a few minds about forgoing the convenience and cheapness of stepping out the back door to blast off some rounds in order to travel miles away to spend money as well as bullets at a safe and legally instituted firing range.
Barn on North Haven
A New England style barn on North Haven, Maine; photo by Jim Derby. Never mind trying to hit the broad side of a barn, watch out for the people!
But you can’t talk sense to some people, the hard cases. For them, it appears, the only solution to keep peace and quiet in the neighborhood will be to have state and local laws that prohibit target shooting at any place but a legally instituted firing range. Can’t afford firing range fees? You can afford bullets, though, and they aren’t cheap. Still want the convenience, if not the cheapness, of stepping out your own back door to blast away? Fine, then go to the trouble and expense of acquiring the minimum amount of land that will allow you to qualify it as a legally instituted firing range. But these new laws will restrict the ability to target practice to only those of substantial means! Tough. There are lots of things in life that poor people don’t get a fair shake on, and if one of them is the ability to make their neighbors’ lives miserable, then so be it. Anyone of limited means who has moved out to the countryside with the dream of enjoying nature in peace and quiet only to have that dream shattered by the booming report of a nearby thoughtless neighbor’s gun firing, often repeatedly and at nearly all hours, and to satisfy no other purpose than that neighbor’s sense of fun or imagined readiness for the Apocalypse, will shed nary a tear when that neighbor has to jump through a few more legal hoops to ensure he or she behaves with common sense and common courtesy.
― Ed.


The Kolledge of Electoral Knowledge

Ohio Electoral College 2012 5
Meeting of the 2012 Ohio Electoral College; photo by Ibagli

The 538 members of the Electoral College meet tomorrow, December 19th, in the 50 state capitols and in Washington, D.C., to cast their ballots for President and Vice President. Many people across the country are unsure about the purpose of or need for the Electoral College, and they think we could do better without it. In Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, the Founding Fathers established the Electoral College, though they never named it as such.

“Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . . “

There is further elaboration on the Electoral College in the 12th and 14th Amendments.

Nowhere in the Constitution is there anything about constraining the Electors to vote for the winner of their state’s popular vote. In 26 states and in Washington, D.C., Electors are bound by state laws or party pledges to vote for the winner of the popular vote in their state. The Founding Fathers did not foresee the rise of political parties, and they imagined the Electors would act more independently than has proved to be the case. Political parties now choose the Electors and dictate how they vote, and over half the states have codified that policy into state law. The Electoral College functions now as nothing more than a rubber stamp for the winner take all system in all the states except Nebraska and Maine, which allocate their electoral votes by congressional district.


If the Electors exist only to rubber stamp the electoral votes determined by the popular vote in each state, then why bother with human Electors at all? If the purpose of the electoral vote system is to protect the minority rights of less populous states from being overrun by more populous states, then tally the electoral votes allocated by each state’s popular vote and do away with the Electoral College members altogether. If, on the other hand, we expect Electors to act at their own discretion, then do away with the restrictions placed on them by the states and by the political parties, all of which may be unconstitutional, and allow them to vote their consciences.


The Founding Fathers had some good reasons for establishing the Electoral College, though they failed to envision how it has played out since the 18th century. As it exists now, it is neither fish nor fowl, neither a body independent of the will of the people nor beholden to it. The Electoral College is beholden to the will of the political parties, and any member who votes independently of that will is termed a “faithless Elector,” and may be subject to legal penalties as well as party ostracism. What good is an institution like that?
– Ed.

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States
Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, a painting by Howard Chandler Christy. The figures in this painting who were instrumental in the establishment of the Electoral College were James Wilson, in the green coat directly beneath the flags, who proposed it; and seated to either side of Benjamin Franklin, at the center, were James Madison on the right and Alexander Hamilton on the left, the two men who explained it’s function and lobbied for it’s inclusion in the Constitution.