Driving I-270

Another crash landing

by Virgil Soule. 0 Comments

Landing an airplane is dead simple. That’s why this summer’s spate of landing crashes is so perplexing. Assuming you know your way around the pattern, you roll out on final approach and get lined up with the runway. Your target is the numbers on the runway. When you look out front you will see a perspective view of the runway. You look to see how the perspective is changing. If the numbers are moving down in your field of view, you back off power a little. If the numbers are moving up, you ... read more


Smooth Sailing? Yeah, Right!

by Virgil Soule. 0 Comments

According to the FNP Editorial for Sunday, July 28, 2013, the Virginia Department of Transportation is suggesting that motorists use third-rate secondary highways to bypass congestion on the Beltway and I-95. I’ve got a better idea: Declare a toll moratorium on the High-Occupancy Toll lanes running south from the Beltway. Congestion on I-95 will disappear overnight and highway productivity will double.

The segment of highway VADOT is suggesting we bypass is their HOT Lane facility south of the Beltway running parallel to I-95. During critical commuting hours, the I-95 bottleneck causes traffic to back up. Rather than fixing the congestion problem by adding a free lane each way, VADOT offers the HOT lane facility as a way past the congestion – for a price. VADOT uses the traffic congestion its own highway design causes as justification for building the HOT lane facility and then charges a toll for its use. They create the congestion and then present the HOT lanes as a quick way past it. (Anywhere else, this would be called racketeering.)

Maryland’s MDOT is proposing to do exactly the same in its I-270 upgrade for Frederick County. In the plan floated a couple of years ago and presumably still in the works, the roadway would be widened to incorporate four Express Toll Lanes in the median between the free General Purpose lanes. The kicker is that the current four-lane design for the GP lanes will be retained for the new facility. The result is predictable: no change in traffic congestion.

Tolls are imposed to discourage highway usage, not to solve traffic congestion problems on adjacent highways. Tolls are increased during peak traffic hours to keep traffic flow rates low so that drivers aren’t impeded by other traffic. Even during peak hours, the tollways are lightly used. Paradoxically, MDTA’s advertising for the Inter-County Connector in Montgomery County is intended to attract customers. You can’t have more customers without more congestion.

Tollways are a current fad in highway design and they are popping up all over. Toll revenue might cover the cost of annual operations. Question is: should the cost of amortizing original construction costs be considered in the bargain? Is taxpayer money “free” or should it be repaid so it can be used elsewhere? In any other venture investors expect to get their money back with interest. The same should be true for taxpayer investments in State-owned businesses.

The 91 Express Lanes tollway in Orange County, CA, is an early example of the HOT lane concept. It’s designed to carry very little traffic. That’s their primary selling point. For 8 or 9 bucks east-bound in the afternoon or $4.50 west-bound in the morning (during peak traffic hours), commuters can run ten miles in ten minutes bypassing congestion in the outside Riverside Freeway lanes. While a ten-minute congestion respite may feel good to a few commuters, most don’t consider it worth the price. Note that afternoon tolls are twice morning tolls. This could reflect greater demand in the afternoon or it could be simple price-gouging.

Ironically, the 91 Express Lanes facility was originally built by a private corporation with funds provided by private investors. Thanks to the traffic model imposed by the State of California, however, the corporation went broke and the investors took the loss on their original investment. Today the facility is operated by Orange County, CA. (It’s almost as if California socialists planned it this way: The facility was designed to operate at a loss with the idea that investors would take the beating and the State would eventually get the highway for free. This, of course, is conspiracy theory; take it at that.)

After thirty years of official hemming and hawing, the Inter-County Connector, or ICC, is finally open for business. Like other such highways, it is a highway with essentially no traffic.

The ICC – officially named Maryland Route 200 – is a 22-mile four-lane highway across northern Montgomery County operated by the Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA). It connects I-270/I-370 with US 29 and I-95 at Laurel, MD. The catch for commuters is that the ICC is a toll road.

According to the MDTA, ICC toll receipts will be pooled with toll revenue from its other highway and bridge facilities and used to pay off municipal bonds and funding from other sources. It apparently has no requirement to repay the Federal funds (about $2 billion) provided for construction of the highway. The Federal funds are considered “free” money – coming literally out of thin air. If they are “stimulus funds”, the actual amount of stimulus provided to Montgomery County, or the State of Maryland for that matter, is debatable.

The ICC is very similar to the Dulles Greenway with the important difference that the latter is operated by a private corporation. The Greenway is the outer segment of Virginia State Route 267 between VA Route 28 near Dulles Airport and Leesburg, VA. The Greenway and the ICC serve the same clientele base, namely, commuters. This imposes a peculiar traffic pattern on the Greenway: a pulse of traffic inbound toward Dulles in the morning and another outbound toward Leesburg in the afternoon. The rest of the time the Greenway sits virtually empty.

The ICC has an advantage over the Greenway in that it has bedroom communities all along its length and employment opportunities at either end. It therefore has the potential to carry commuter traffic in both directions but still only in morning and afternoon pulses. The rest of the time it sits virtually empty and unused. Occasional users desiring a short-cut across northern Montgomery County are excluded because an automated toll-taking facility is used. (A $3.00 service fee is imposed on “outsiders”.) Truck traffic is excluded as well.

The ICC and the Greenway have some traffic. Florida State Road 528, known locally as the Bee Line Expressway, has literally no traffic. The Bee Line is a beautiful four-lane highway connecting Orlando International Airport with Port Canaveral, FL, which is a base for cruise ships. If the original intent was to provide a way for cruise ship passengers to get to their cruise ships, it hasn’t worked out. The few times I’ve driven the Bee Line, it has been literally deserted – not another vehicle in sight.

Tollways are a fraud and a delusion. Motorists avoid them wherever possible. Tolls are use taxes demanded by the State to use a facility built with taxpayer funds. They don’t generate all that much revenue and they allow an extremely valuable publicly-owned resource to be wasted. A highway built with public funding should not exclude the majority of its potential users. We should not be spending billions of dollars to provide a quick ride for a favored few motorists who have no problem with double taxation.

Low Overhead Redux

by Virgil Soule. 0 Comments

I am surprised and a little bit appalled to see that stuck-truck incidents are still occurring at the rail overpass on MD75 in Monrovia. I wrote a blog two years ago on this very problem. At the time the SHA’s “solution” was to erect signs warning of the low overhead. Despite the signs trucks are still getting stuck. The truckers are being blamed and will now be threatened with $500 fines for something that is not entirely their fault. Maryland SHA shares the responsibility for the low-overhead problem.

On the interstates, the roadway is straight and flat going under overpasses. A long truck will have the same clearance front and rear as it passes under. Truckers know their clearances and rarely have overhead problems.

The overpass in Monrovia is different. The roadway undulates up and down as you pass under the overpass. In the photo posted on July 12, 2013, on the FNP web site, the trailer was trapped in the middle. The vehicle apparently had clearance going in, but then the roadway rose up in front, which forced the front end of the truck up and trapped the trailer in the middle. If the roadway had been flat for a truck-length on either side of the overpass, the trucker would have gotten through with clearance to spare.

The clearance is posted as 12 ft., 6 in. for the overpass. Given the irregularities in the roadway surface, it is probably somewhat less than that for long trucks. Short trucks might get through at that height but not eighteen-wheelers. If SHA would get out and do some honest-to-goodness, on-the-spot engineering work, they would see the problem. Fixing it would not be overly expensive.

Truckers use MD75 as a shortcut between I-270 at Urbana and I-70 at Monrovia. This makes MD75 a legitimate commercial route and obligates Maryland SHA to make it accessible to all truckers. All they would have to do is to re-grade the roadway on either side of the overpass to give long trucks the same clearance front and rear as they go under the overpass.

It’s a minor matter, perhaps, but after two years it should have been bumped up on the priority list. Funding for little contingencies such as this would presumably come from the State’s Transportation Trust Fund. Since the Trust Fund has been mismanaged by the Democrats running the State, however, we will be stuck with these irksome little highway problems for the indefinite future.

How Did Snowden Get In?

by Virgil Soule. 0 Comments

I do not understand how someone like Edward Snowden could have gained access to an organization like the NSA. The National Security Agency is (or was, perhaps) a highly-secure organization that didn’t accept just anyone for employment. So, how did he get in?

In my latter years as an engineer I worked in an organization under the umbrella of the National Reconnaissance Office, or NRO. When I started there, NRO was in the “black”, that is, its very existence was classified. One of Mr. Clinton’s official actions as President was to declassify the NRO and liberalize the rules for obtaining access to the community. Downgrading the NRO’s security level was probably justified as a cost-saving measure especially in view of the demise of the old Soviet Union. Maintaining high-security organizations is expensive in the extreme. In our present threat environment the expense would be justified, however.

Liberalized rules didn’t mean that the NRO was easy to get into by any means. We were required to undergo periodic SSBI and polygraph examinations. The SSBI was one of a number of background investigations of varying depth. The polygraph is colloquially known as the “lie detector” test. The process for obtaining a clearance could take anywhere from six weeks to six months to complete.

The examinations were not easy to get past. For the SSBI, examiners go about asking friends and neighbors for their recommendations as to the subject’s character. They are not particularly intrusive but a good investigator often can pick up on questionable aspects of a subject’s background. And, of course, they check for police records and recent arrests that might be red flags. Polygraph examinations do work; a good operator can detect subtle changes in behavior that can indicate the subject is being devious.

Candidates who are cleared are granted access to specific compartments in the organization and are officially “briefed” for entry to their work area. The first time in, they are also briefed on the mission and purpose of the parent organization – in my case, the NRO. We were briefed on the products produced by the NRO and some of the equipment used, but not in any great depth as I recall. It’s interesting that some of the KH-series satellites used in my era are now on display in the Air Force Museum at Dayton, Ohio.

When persons leave the organization, they are debriefed and their accesses are revoked. In my case our organization was disbanded because we completed our work and the contract ended.

In that environment one did not simply walk in, find a desk, and start work. We did not talk to people we didn’t know. Anyone new to the area had to be escorted in and formally introduced to the group. Newbies could only get in if their badge worked in the badge reader and they had the correct pin code for the door. Like I said, these secure areas were not easy to get into.

This is why I don’t understand how a low-level contractor like Edward Snowden could have gained access to the high-level stuff he is alleged to have revealed. We knew the operational details of the particular satellites we worked with but not those of NRO’s reconnaissance satellites. If we didn’t have a need-to-know, we weren’t privy to the information. The whole organization was compartmentalized from one end to the other and information did not readily flow across compartment boundaries.

I also can’t understand how he could have gotten anything out. We worked in a place called a SCIF – a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. The SCIF was literally cut off from the rest of the world. The Internet couldn’t be accessed from inside the SCIF. Rooms were shielded so cell phones wouldn’t work. (Some such devices weren’t allowed in the SCIF for that matter. Obviously, you wouldn’t want an iPod with a built-in camera in a SCIF.) Computer terminals and PCs didn’t have external ports so information couldn’t be copied off onto an easily-pocketed storage device of any kind. Finally, the guards at the front door checked briefcases and purses for contraband. It was extremely difficult to get stuff in or out.

It was always our understanding that NSA’s security was more stringent than ours, so it seems a bit surprising that Snowden could have gotten away with anything. The Chinese seemed rather quick to get him out of their hair. The Russians are a bit more ornery and might be inclined to keep him as a bargaining chip for some other diplomatic trade. Now even they are apparently looking for ways to send him packing. It could just be possible that Snowden didn’t have all that much to sell.

Foreign counterintelligence officers always want to know what we know and how we found it out. NSA has been collecting encrypted data from foreign satellites for decades and decrypting it to find out what the satellite is doing. The satellite’s owners would want to know how successful NSA has been with that. Castles quite often have little openings from which little rays of light escape (figuratively speaking). NSA’s job would be to find those little openings to see what’s inside. The castle’s counterintelligence officer would want to plug those little openings but finding them isn’t always easy. So, information peddled by an Edward Snowden could be extremely useful. That’s why our intelligence operations are highly secret.

Thanks to the Patriot Act, NSA has been collecting phone and email information, ostensibly from foreign sources but probably inevitably from domestic sources as well. This really has been public knowledge for several years. Whether any of that information has been useful in interdicting foreign terrorist operations is problematical considering the masses of data involved.

One of the President’s primary responsibilities is to safeguard the security and assets of the U.S. Government and the people of America. Snowden’s alleged penetration of the NSA is bothersome. Have security rules been so liberalized as to make NSA security meaningless? The buck stops on Mr. Obama’s desk.

If Edward Snowden wants to spend the rest of his life in a backwater socialist country like Ecuador, so be it. He might find life there more confining than Leavenworth, however.

Loss of Control Crashes

by Virgil Soule. 0 Comments

The FNP headline read, “Man, 18, killed in head-on crash in Walkersville.” According to the news report, Damien Carey Betts was driving south on Md. 194 north of Devilbiss Bridge Road just after 8:30 a.m. A northbound Volkswagen Rabbit moved toward the center line, causing him to veer right, according to Maryland State Police Cpl. Todd Hill. When he attempted to steer back onto the road, Betts overcorrected and drove into the opposite lane of traffic, slamming head-on into a GMC pickup driven by Robert Huyett Startzman, 47, of Hagerstown.

With surprising frequency, crashes are reported on two-lane country roads in which one car suddenly veers across the center line and crashes head-on into an on-coming vehicle or goes into the opposite ditch. The scenario is something like this: Car A is approaching car B. The driver of A moves to the right to give B more room and inadvertently drops a wheel off the edge of the pavement. Driver A over-controls on the recovery, which causes Car A to veer across the road into the path of car B.

The natural tendency is to jerk the steering wheel to the left to bring the car’s wheel back onto the pavement. This introduces what engineers call a step-change in the lateral or side-to-side motion of the vehicle. If the suspension is somewhat loose, the result will be a violent side-to-side fish-tail that is extremely difficult to control. The divergence carries the vehicle across the road into an on-coming vehicle or into the opposite ditch.

Some high-end automobiles have stability augmentation systems that help to prevent these divergences. Most cars, however, do not and drivers must be able to control their vehicles under adverse circumstances.

When I started driving, cars were as big as minivans today (but not as good) and roll-over crashes were common. We were taught to remain calm if a wheel went off the edge, slow down, and then ease back on to the pavement. If this technique isn’t taught in driver education class, it should be. Moreover, drivers should be tested about it somewhere in the driver’s test and they should know the answer before they get a driver’s license.

When I took my driver’s test, one question in the oral part of the driver’s exam was, “How do you control the vehicle and get it back on the road after dropping a wheel off the edge of the pavement?” This question should be asked of every prospective Maryland driver. Many roads in Maryland are narrow two-lane paths where unwary drivers can get in trouble in many ways. Knowledge is essential in any human endeavor. This is most true for drivers who can be killed by what seems like an innocuous mistake.

Education is an on-going process. Drivers should at least be required to pass the written driver’s exam (with a 95% score) each time they renew their driver’s license. Drivers transferring in from another state should be required to pass the whole body of drivers’ tests to ensure that they meet Maryland standards.

Drivers flaunt traffic rules with seeming impunity – particularly cell phone use. Generally they survive it but sometimes not. Which begs a question: Was Mr. Betts perhaps using a cell phone when he was surprised by an unexpected move by another driver, who may also have been using a cell phone?

Fun places to visit

by Virgil Soule. 0 Comments

As you prepare for your summer vacation trips, make a list of places to see. When we traveled, we watched for places to visit and so, I have a long list of places I enjoyed.

Here in Frederick, of course, we have Civil War battlefields all around us and the Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick itself.

The Washington Mall, however, is the mecca for visitors to this area. The Capital Building and the monuments are all free. The Washington Monument is closed for earthquake repairs and White House tours are problematical. Everything else is open.

The Smithsonian Institution dominates the Mall itself. The Smithsonian is some six or eight buildings on the Mall. The National Air and Space Museum is my favorite of them all – filled with airplanes, airplanes, and more airplanes! To see more, travel to Dulles airport to visit the new Udvar-Hazy Center.

In Baltimore at the Inner Harbor, you’ll find the National Aquarium next to a couple of old ships and the Submarine Torsk. The Torsk is an authentic WWII submarine. Fort McHenry is a ways out but worth the trip. Take in an Orioles game while you’re there.

When you’re in Philadelphia you’ll want to visit Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, of course. But the city has more. Franklin Institute is fun for kids while the Art Museum is more for adults. The Spanish-American War Cruiser Olympia is still afloat over on the Delaware River. And don’t forget to sample the cheese steaks – only in Philadelphia! (You ask for them hot, sweet, or plain.)

New York City has too many places to list but the live show at Radio City Music Hall is a winner. If you’re traveling up the Hudson River, stop at the Vanderbilt Mansion at Hyde Park to see how the upper-crust lived a hundred years ago. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s home is there as well. For kids like me, Cole Palen’s Old Rhinebeck Airdrome is a must-see. They fly old WWI airplanes there (‘nuff said).

Billings Farm near Woodstock, VT, is a fun place for kids and adults alike. It’s an actual working dairy farm with cows that produce milk for market.

If you’re traveling through the Midwest, stop at the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB near Dayton, OH. Again, airplanes, airplanes, and more airplanes!

If you’re in Chicago, stop at the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry. The latter houses the U-505 – the only German U-boat on U.S. soil and the only enemy warship captured on the high seas during WWII. The capture is a story of incredible bravery. The Germans had opened the seacocks to scuttle the boat. A couple of guys in the prize crew dropped down into the sub and found and closed the sea cocks. The sub could have gone down at any minute!

For real fun, visit Skydeck Chicago on the 99th floor of the Willis Building. If you have the stomach for it, you can step out onto a glass platform 1350 ft above street level – if you can.

The Steamer Bertrand Museum at Desoto National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Nebraska is another favorite place of mine. The Bertrand was a paddle-wheel steamer running the Missouri River between St Louis and the gold fields in Montana Territory. On its last trip, it hit a snag near Desoto Bend and sank. Salvors removed the engines and running gear and most of the main deck cargo. Cargo in the holds below deck was abandoned to the river. In time the wreck silted over and the river meandered away from the site.

A few years ago a group of treasure hunters went looking for the wreck thinking it might still hold a shipment of mercury destined for the gold fields. They found it buried in a farmer’s cornfield. They didn’t find the mercury but government archaeologists found a treasure trove of everyday items from the Nineteenth Century: tools, clothing, and jars of fruit cocktail still looking like the day they were canned. All was perfectly preserved in the oxygen-free environment under the river silt. Kegs of butter were a bit rancid but still recognizable as butter. After preservation, the collection was placed on display in the Visitor Center at the Wildlife Refuge. It’s apparently now in storage, having been removed in anticipation of a flood, so visitors will want to call ahead to see if the collection has been restored to view.

If you’re traveling west in Nebraska, stop in at the Ashfall State Historical Site. About ten million years ago, the mega-volcano under modern Yellowstone Park (which see, of course) blew up and spewed billions of tons of ash over the surrounding countryside. Large groups of fauna – ancestors of modern horses, camels, and rhinos among others – were caught at a waterhole and buried under many feet of ash. Their remains were discovered in a road cut and paleontologists are still working to uncover the site.

If you find yourself in Portland, OR, run down to McMinnville and visit the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum. It’s the home of the Hughes H-4 flying boat – the largest flyable airplane in the world – affectionately known as the “Spruce Goose”.

If you’re in Seattle, WA, run up to Paine Field and visit the Flying Heritage Collection. Need I say it? Airplanes and more airplanes!

Down the coast in the San Francisco area, you’ll find vineyards in Napa Valley and the aquarium at Monterey Bay. Golfers shouldn’t miss a round of golf at Pebble Beach. U.S. Highway 101 is a scenic drive not to be missed. Kids will love the La Brea Tar Pits in LA – especially the Sabre-tooth Tigers.

Take a cruise to Hawaii and – while there – visit the historic Battleship Missouri moored within sight of the equally-historic Battleship Arizona.

If you go to Orlando, FL, to visit Walt Disney World (what else), take a side trip over to Kennedy Spaceflight Center to see the largest building in the world. They have a space museum there that’s kid-friendly.

Fun places are everywhere. Sometimes you have to look for them; sometimes you just stumble upon them, but they’re always interesting and educational. Funny thing is, sometimes adults appreciate the kid stuff more than the kids.

So, plan carefully, relax, and enjoy the trip!


National Museum of the United States Air Force http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum http://airandspace.si.edu/

Steamboat Bertrand Collection http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steamboat_Bertrand


Ashfall State Historical Site http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashfall_Fossil_Beds

Oregon – Spruce Goose http://www.sprucegoose.org/

Washington – Flying Heritage Collection http://www.flyingheritage.com/

New York – Vanderbilt Museum Hyde Park http://www.nps.gov/vama/index.htm

New York – Roosevelt Home http://www.nps.gov/hofr/index.htm

New York – Old Rhinebeck Airdrome http://www.oldrhinebeck.org/

Chicago – Field Museum http://fieldmuseum.org/

Chicago – Museum of Science and Industry http://www.msichicago.org/

Skydeck Chicago – http://theskydeck.com/

Monterey Bay Aquarium http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/

Pebble Beach http://www.pebblebeach.com/sem/fy14/?pbcagolf=pebble-beach-resorts-bmsny&utm_source=bing&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=pebble-beach-resorts-broad

Los Angeles – La Brea Tar Pits http://www.tarpits.org/

Baltimore – National Aquarium http://www.aqua.org/

Baltimore – Submarine Torsk http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Torsk_(SS-423)

Florida – Kennedy Space Center http://www.kennedyspacecenter.com/?utm_source=bing&utm_medium=cpc&utm_term=kennedy%20space%20center&utm_content=1707820897&utm_campaign=Geo+Brand+FL

Honolulu – Battleship Missouri http://www.ussmissouri.com/

Vermont – Billings Farm http://www.billingsfarm.org/


by Virgil Soule. 0 Comments

Robert Saylor’s death continues to resonate with people in national and local organizations dedicated to helping people with Down’s syndrome. I sympathize with the aims of these groups because a nephew of mine, Charlie by name, was born with Down’s syndrome.

Readers will recall the incident in which a Down's-type fellow named Robert Saylor had a scuffle with security people in a movie theater and died as a result of it. Apparently, he had been left at the theater to see a favorite GI-Joe-type movie. When the movie was over, he wanted to see it again and refused to leave his seat (or, had been told to wait for someone to come get him). Theater management called for mall security and three off-duty sheriff's officers showed up. They wrestled the guy out of the seat and onto the floor, cuffed him, and physically carried him out of the theater. Somewhere in all that – nobody is quite sure – Mr. Saylor went into cardiac arrest and died.

The officers were absolved of any responsibility for Mr. Saylor’s death. They were just doing their job and were following accepted protocol for dealing with trouble-makers. The problem many have with the incident is the heavy-handed manner in which it was handled especially in view of Mr. Saylor’s apparent handicap.

In light of the Saylor incident, I asked my brother, Roger, how Charlie is doing. This is his response:

“Charlie is doing great. He lives at home with us. He could never live unsupervised. He is nonverbal, says a few things but not well enough that people who don't know him would understand. He knows some simplified sign language. He learned that in school as part of a plan to motivate him to learn to speak. He's never learned to speak as a result of that. Downies tend to have oversize tongues and lack the mouth coordination to speak plainly. If you speak to many of them, you'll notice they don't speak well.

“Their intelligence ranges from almost normal on down. Because of Charlie being unable to speak, it's hard to judge where he falls there. We tend to judge him higher, but we're not exactly unbiased. Hardly a day goes by in which we don't note how smart he is about some things. He understands us very well when we talk to him about what we're going to do. If we think he might get upset about anything, we talk to him ahead of time. If he has time to think something over, rather than be surprised by a break in our routine, he usually accepts things well.

“Routine is our bylaw here. To normal people routine can be stifling, but Charlie loves his routine. We do other things, visits to malls and restaurants, etc. and he enjoys them. But, we maintain a fairly rigid schedule. He goes to a sheltered day program. They pick him up at home and bring him home too. Some of the people there have work to do, but Charlie doesn't. He does things like going to museums, art galleries and such. They take him bowling maybe once a month. The bowling alley people must cringe when he goes out on the lane. He just does a sort of basketball pass to throw the ball. It goes BANG on the alley, and rolls down there to knock some pins over. There's a thing in the gutters to keep the ball in the alley. He has a good time at it though and as long as they don't refuse service at the bowling alley, we don't worry about it.

“Downies don't tend to have long lives. I think about 55 is normal life span. They do tend to have weak hearts, but that may be because they're not very active. Charlie's heart is normal and strong. I knew one, a girl who was maybe in her mid-forties when I met her, and a pretty sharp little lady – a bit of a yenta, but smarter than the average downie. When she got to about fifty, she went into a rather sharp decline. It was a classic case of Alzheimer’s. They moved her to a nursing care facility. I think she died not long afterwards. A year or two ago, I read about a Down's syndrome guy who was celebrating his 83rd birthday. Cases like that are rare, however.

“The incident of the guy in the theater was very unfortunate and could have been avoided if the theater manager could have used a little horse sense. Let him sit through the movie again. Would it have hurt anything? Remember the guy in Bismarck who everyone called Johnny Bang-bang? He loved the westerns and always hollered 'bang-bang!' when the movie shooting started. No one ever complained that I ever knew of.

“A few years ago, there was an incident at the Mall of America in which a mentally-handicapped guy was killed on a ride. It was on the flume. At the top of the ride, before they went down the flume, he got in a panic and got out of the ride thing. Then he fell down from the top of the rocks. That was another really unfortunate accident. If someone had used a little common sense it might not have happened.

“If you want to advise anyone, just tell them to treat Down's syndrome folks just as they would anyone else. Don't be alarmed if they behave oddly. They don't mean to be troublesome or to make trouble. They're just trying their hardest to be normal people and do normal things. If you meet one who is alone and seems to be having a problem, just talk to him just as you would anyone else. Introduce yourself and ask his name. Ask if he's having trouble and if he needs any help.

“Small children should be advised to not stare at them and not be scared of them. I say that as a parent. Charlie doesn't seem to notice if people are staring at him, but I do and it annoys me. I know, I should be a little less sensitive about that sort of thing. But, doggone it, you don't stare at someone. It's rude!

“When Charlie was first born, they recognized right away that he was a downie. When I heard it I went right to a college psychology textbook and read what it had to say. In that book it was advised to put the child in an institution and forget about him or her. I remember thinking "good lord! Marion will never agree to that." I was right, and I wouldn't have agreed to it either. But, that used to be the practice. I guess they thought the burden of a handicapped child was too hard on the family. Fortunately, no one believes that any more. And no one advised us to do that. Not long ago, there was a story about a man who discovered he had a sister in an institution. His mother and father never told him about her. What loss it was for him to not have the experience of knowing his sister through their childhood.”

Charlie has an older brother and a younger sister, both normal and thriving as adults. Charlie is now in his mid-forties. Given a history of longevity on both sides of our family, he could outlive both parents, but that, of course, is impossible to predict.

It’s interesting that family genes do show through in Charlie. My Dad had a curious grunting habit – a very mild Tourette’s tic perhaps. My Mother noticed Charlie doing the same thing.

Mom was impressed by Charlie’s abilities. On one occasion, she went with him and his parents to a family-night event at his school. Charlie led them first to his locker and then to the auditorium where the evening’s events were to be held. He functions well in familiar environments.

Medically-speaking, Down’s syndrome is a condition called trisomy-21 in which all or part of a third copy of chromosome 21 is inserted in the genome. It is a genetic accident that occurs fairly regularly – about 1 in every 767 pregnancies.

This regularity has given rise to a practice that is disturbing, indeed. According to the Wikipedia article, fully 90% of Down’s pregnancies are terminated. The decision is, of course, left to the parents of the unborn child. As a trend, however, it is disturbing because it could be construed as genocide against an undesirable segment of the human population. Precedents like this have the potential – or even a tendency – for misuse.

This is a little far out, but suppose we imagine an Orwellian scenario in which someone finds a “Republican” gene and sets out to eliminate it from the human population. Republicans and Democrats think differently. Republicans are inclined to be objective and practical in their approach to things. Democrats are more subjective, idealistic, and maybe even child-like. What if someone were to find a gene defining that difference and a future government mandated that all pregnancies displaying the “Republican” characteristic be terminated. In just a few generations you would have a populace that followed orders and never questioned authority.

Farfetched? Perhaps, but when you consider that China has a one-child law under which pregnancies after the first must be terminated, maybe not. People here are already looking to China for examples of the way a “progressive” society should be run.

That’s one reason to moderate our zeal to legalize abortion.

Trisomy-21: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Down_Syndrome

Five Billion People Keeping Warm

by Virgil Soule. 0 Comments

One thing about our world seems certain: It’s getting warmer. Photographer James Balog has been conducting his own Extreme Ice Survey for the past twenty years or so. His results very graphically document the melt-back of the world’s glaciers and ice packs. He and his crews have photographed kilometer-long slabs of ice sloughing off faces of glaciers. They have photographed rivers of melt water flowing off the Greenland ice pack. Ice firms up in winter but melts back in summer. The summer melt-back – worldwide – is always greater than the winter firm-up. Global warming is a reality.

I once thought that our influence on Global Warming was not that great. I tended to agree with critics who maintained that what we are seeing today is the result of a long-term warm-up following the last ice age. The highly-touted step change in world average temperature over the nineteenth century, I thought, was simply the result of better temperature measurements and wider reporting of world temperatures. Now, I’m not so sure.

I have been swayed by the famous map that shows the entire Earth in darkness with lights worldwide. Lights from cities and towns appear in an almost-continuous band stretching across Eurasia from the shores of Portugal to the Japanese Isles. The North American continent is awash in light from coast to coast, from Galveston north to Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean.

Every light reveals a human presence and betrays our profligate use of electricity. But what it really represents is five billion people pushing back the darkness and trying to keep warm. Humans began using fire for that purpose maybe two million years ago. Today we contain the fire in little bulbs that we can turn on and off at will. The rub, however, is that somebody somewhere must keep a fire burning so as to generate the electricity needed to make our little bulbs work.

Power plants themselves are point heat sources that don’t influence world temperatures that much. Humans are another matter. The human body generates a surprising amount of heat on its own. Office buildings must be air conditioned – refrigerated – in wintertime because the humans inside generate more heat than is needed to keep the places warm. Keeping humans comfortable consumes energy either way. Five billion people spread across the face of the Earth are a huge heat source.

I had thought that the vast tracts of boreal forest like those in Siberia, for example, would absorb the carbon dioxide we produce. But if you look at the world map, you see lights from cities and towns in an almost-continuous band stretching across Siberia. The Trans-Siberian Railway opened the way for settlement along its length. The Siberian forests are literally on the front lines in the battle against Carbon Dioxide emissions.

The same is true of the United States. Our own I-270 opened the way for business to settle in Gaithersburg and bedroom communities to be built in Germantown and Urbana. Highway systems all across the country have produced the same result. Most of the forests that once blanketed the eastern United States have disappeared and are now farm land.

Two thousand years ago North Africa was Rome’s breadbasket. Today, nothing grows there. The region from modern Turkey around through Israel to Egypt was once heavily forested. Today, the trees are gone. Tall cedars from Lebanon were used to build Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Today the cedars are gone.

Humans are invading wilderness areas all over the planet. Slash-and-burn farmers are destroying primeval forests in the Amazon basin. Loggers in Borneo are working night and day to satisfy a huge demand for wood created by rapidly growing Asian economies. Preservationists are fighting an on-going battle against loggers looking to cut down extremely valuable old-growth forest tracts in the American Pacific Northwest. The people cutting the trees are hungry and simply want to keep warm.

Climatologists are estimating that cities from New York and Miami to Los Angeles will be inundated by rising sea levels by the end of this century – perhaps sooner. During Cretaceous times a great inland sea extended from what is now Texas north to southern Canada. That could happen again. One of a few up-sides of this will be that things long buried under ice will begin reappearing on the surface – like a flight of airplanes forced down in Greenland during WWII. Unfortunately, by then we may not care.

What can we do about global warming? I’m beginning to think, probably nothing. Government initiatives intended to reduce emissions are well-meant but are probably little more than expensive palliatives. I suspect the world will take care of human overpopulation by itself and we will have no control over the results. Despite best efforts by aid agencies, over a quarter-million people died last year in the African Sudan. As the environment warms up and desertification advances, the monsoons will dry up and with it, our ability to feed ourselves.

Pessimists are predicting another great extinction event similar to the one that destroyed the dinosaurs. According to some theories, the dinosaurs were already in decline when the asteroid impact at the end of the Cretaceous delivered the coup de grace. They may have been victims of a runaway greenhouse effect caused in part by their own success. Dinosaurs were distributed worldwide and their numbers were immense. The big sauropods were eating machines. Their guts probably generated enormous amounts of methane gas – like modern cows but orders of magnitude greater. Methane is an extreme greenhouse gas. Global temperatures in Cretaceous times were much higher than today and snow and ice apparently didn’t exist on Earth even on mountaintops or Polar Regions. It is possible that the dinosaurs did their part to cause the greenhouse effect by emitting huge quantities of methane into the atmosphere.

This time humans may be the ones in danger of extinction. Our numbers are approaching unsustainability. We have claimed the right to keep warm and to push back the darkness. We’ve also claimed the right to be fed and to come and go as we please. Optimists say that human ingenuity and inventiveness will keep pace with human needs. Our claims on the Earth and its resources, however, may ultimately prove to be our undoing. I hope the pessimists are wrong but it might be inevitable.

Famous map: http://geology.com/articles/satellite-photo-earth-at-night.shtml

Extreme Ice Survey: http://www.jamesbalog.com/portfolios/extreme-ice-survey/

Flight of airplanes: http://www.p38assn.org/glacier-girl.htm

Christianity and marriage

by Virgil Soule. 0 Comments

In a recent column, Dr. Syed Haque described the Islamic concept of marriage. His comments are interesting because they exactly echo the Christian concept of marriage. At first I was only going to comment on his piece but then decided to write this.

The institution of marriage is very old, indeed. Akhenaten and Nefertiti and Abraham and Sarah are famous examples. David and Bathsheba got off to a bit of a rocky start but the union produced Solomon, well-known as an epitome of wisdom. Contrary to modern pseudo-history, Jesus of Nazareth and Mary Magdalene were not married.

Marriage is promoted in Christian churches as a means of propagating the faith to believers’ children. In Roman Catholic doctrine the sacraments are the means by which grace flows from God to Mankind. The first sacrament a child experiences is baptism. Baptism introduces the child into the faith and the life of the Church. Thereafter, it is the responsibility of the parents to raise that child on the faith and work of the Church. It follows that this can only be accomplished through an institution in which both parents cooperate to nurture their children, namely, marriage. Most other Christian groups accept this model, albeit within the context of their own doctrinal beliefs.

The earliest examples of marriage in Biblical history are between a man and a woman. The book of Genesis (2:24) says,” Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” Note that this was before the awakening at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Marriage is normal and natural in our experience. It has nothing to do with mankind’s disobedient nature, although that nature corrupts the institution of marriage, leaving us with the problem of divorce.

Same-sex marriage is seen by Christians as a direct threat to the institution of marriage.

Homosexuality is condemned in the Law given to Moses (Leviticus 18:22, if you want to look it up). Misuse of our sexuality in both homosexual and heterosexual terms is prohibited under God’s Law.

Christianity arose out of Judaism. For Christians, the Law is fulfilled in Christ Jesus, nevertheless its prohibitions are still valid. If homosexuality was proscribed under the Covenant between God and Moses, how can it become right and good under the Covenant of Grace that came through Jesus, the Messiah? God’s Law has not changed. Most Christians take this as a given. A few, however, struggle with it.

Homosexuality creates problems for those church leaders that are openly gay. Unless the institution of marriage is expanded by the church to include same-sex unions, gay church leaders must forever remain celibate or lay themselves open to charges of fornication. Biblical Christianity has laid down a narrow pathway for sexual morality.

We Americans are placed under a secular dichotomy by the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. This has created a civil side of our society that is frequently at odds with the religious side. Same-sex marriage is currently a major issue. The civil side generally has no problem with it but many, if not most, on the religious side are extremely uncomfortable with it.

I don’t understand how gay marriages work. Apparently, one of the pair takes on a male role and the other the female role. Some women are what I call masculinate, that is, they have masculine qualities atypical of a woman. Conversely, some men are what we used to call effeminate. Apparently, masculinate meshes with feminine and gay female relationships work. The same seems to be true in gay male relationships as well.

How children fare in a gay marriage is a major question. Small children seem to be fine with it. Older children are a complete unknown. How they will obtain their own gender identity is problematical as is the reaction of gay parents when they discover their child doesn’t have the gay gene (if there be such).

Civil gay marriage is probably one of those things that will eventually happen – like it or not. The world can go its own way; Christians should go theirs.

Downtown Frederick

by Virgil Soule. 0 Comments

All cities have failed enterprises and Frederick is no exception. Forty West seems to be slowly dying or at least hanging on. On the other hand, parts of the city are booming with new businesses and new housing opportunities.

A lot of great ideas are floating about for saving Golden Mile businesses. But all of the proposals say nothing about one key ingredient: Customers! Where are the customers? Fredericktowne Mall is empty because it lacked that one important ingredient. Boscov’s isn’t exactly thriving nor is Home Depot. J. C. Penney at FSK Mall is on its last legs. (Penney’s just canned their CEO but I don’t think that’s the real problem.) Sears and Macy's at FSK Mall aren't much better off.

It’s possible that the mall idea is dead thanks to the internet and Amazon.com. Amazon.com’s business is largely automated. They don’t need to hire hordes of people to stock shelves and maintain large stores scattered around the country. Amazon.com has another important advantage: Its customers don't pay state sales taxes. It may be necessary to give Golden Mile businesses preferential tax treatment to ensure their survival.

Declaring malls to be dead may be a bit premature, however. New developments on MD 26 off US15 north and east of town seem to be doing well. It may be that Forty West is contracting simply because the city’s population center is moving northeast. Forty West is in a mature neighborhood with no new housing development. Businesses there are not attractive enough to induce customers to drive in from outside the area to shop.

It could be a basic supply-and-demand issue. Frederick may simply have more stores than the market can support. Unpleasant as it may seem, it may be appropriate that some stores fail in order to better match supply with demand in the marketplace.

(We’ve had the same problem with farmers for over a century. The result has been an array of Federal farm support programs that are of questionable value in today’s economy.)

Considerable traffic flows up and down Forty West every day. Parking spaces are abundant. Access to parking is more than adequate. And yet, businesses there are not thriving. Why is that? Is anyone in the City or County Government looking into this? (The State government, I’m sure, is not. They’re too busy building socialism.)

Forty West’s problems will ultimately be sorted out and solved by normal market forces. The City of Frederick, however, must be sure that it’s not exacerbating the situation with bad taxation or zoning policies, for example.

Problems with Carroll Creek Linear Park won’t be fixed by marketplace economics, however.

The Carroll Creek Linear Park has been a thorn in Downtown Frederick’s side for a long time. The Linear Park is a nice place but it’s been neglected and mismanaged. It’s not a nice place to visit because it smells bad. It smells bad because it has an algae problem. Carroll Creek has an algae problem because the water is stagnant and oxygen-poor. Putting plants in the water will only contribute to the mess. Leaves will fall off and sink to the bottom. Eventually Carroll Creek will fill in with muck through a natural process called eutrophication.

The water in Carroll Creek must be aerated and refreshed. Literally tons of water flow down through Baker Park every day but it drops into a storm drain and is lost. Some of that water should be pumped into the linear park so that water flows and flushes out the crud. The water should be clear enough and fresh enough that fish can live in it.

The City of Frederick should either commit to maintaining water flow through the Linear Park or they should drain it, lay sod on the bottom, and plant flowers. If support for the park through taxation is not an option, then perhaps funding can be found through local donations or outside foundations.

Green spaces are beneficial to any town but they must be properly maintained.