Saturday, April 29, 2006

Did Anyone Get the License Plate?

I was out running some errands today and as I pulled up at the light at US 1 and Tryon in Cary there was this guy in a convertable. He was driving with the top down and was drinking something out of a paper cup as he drove. When he stopped at the light he put down the paper cup and grabbed a half-empty clear one-liter bottle from the passenger seat beside him, took off the cap and started not so much to drink from the bottle as to pour its colorless contents down the front of his shirt. It was hard to tell what sort of bottle it was but it looked quite a bit like the plastic bottles that cheap vodka comes in -- the brand with the shiny blue label.

When the light changed it seemed to take the guy a while to get his car in the right gear to drive away. The man behind him, who apparently knew a drunk driver when he saw one -- started blowing his horn and gesturing. The gesturing and honking continued for a block or two until the guy in the convertible turned off into McGreggor Downs shopping center. The guy behind him drove on by shaking his finger out the window as the covertible turned off the road.

There were quite a few people there in trafic with us. I don't know if anyone else got the license number of the convertible, but I did. Here it is:


I took the above photo in my driveway because, you see, the guy in the convertible was me and the guy behind me -- the one with the honking and gesturing -- had jumped to an understandable, but mistaken conclusion. If you were planning to report the incident to MADD or the police, I'd just as soon you didn't. Which brings us to what really happened.

Dear Diary,

I mowed the grass this morning. It was a fine day -- sunny but cool -- and it was good to have something to do outside. I noticed that the bare spots where the dogs run up and down by the fence were not filling in and resolved to get some more grass seed after lunch. The furiture shop had called saying that the pillow for one of our chairs was ready so I decided to buy the grass seed at the Lowes across from Ethan Allan at the Crossroads Shopping Center in Cary. To add a third errand to my trip I also took along my gym clothes so I could hit the gym on the way home.

I was doing my mowing in an undershirt and blue jeans which seemed a bit underdressed for Ethan Allen so, not wanting to dirty another shirt for a few minutes wearing I put back on the shirt I wore to the office yesterday. This is technically against the rules; my wife gets mad when I wear my relatively-more-expensive and delicate 'work' clothes for weekend chores. But I was just going to two stores and the gym so what could go wrong? Since the weather was fine I put the top down on my car and headed out.

I picked up the pillow first. The wife has been calling the store freguently to see if it was in -- not so much because she was eager to have it as because she wanted to pick it up so I wouldn't have to know what it cost. It was actually less than I had thought but it was still a lot for a firkin' pillow. I have bought computers for less and she complained about the expense and I figured this expensive pillow would be handy the next time something needs an upgrade.

Next I picked up the grass seed across the street -- I also picked up a few annual flower plants to consign to the window-box-of-death. On my way to the gym I stopped at Whole Foods to get a cup of coffee. I find that my workout goes oh-so-much better if I am appropriately caffeinated. When I got the the light at Tryon and 64 I went over a bump and the coffee sloshed and geysered out of sipper on my paper cup and a splotch landed right on the front of my non-weekend-approved, $40 dollar-plus, dress shirt. This was a potential disaster! If the spot set it would more-than-offset any advantage I might have gotten from my wifes ridiculously-expensive pillow.

Thinking fast I grabbed a napkin from the side pocket of my car and blotted. I could see that there would be a visible spot if I let it dry so I grabbed a half-empty bottle of water I had left on the passenger seat after my last trip to the gym, took off the cap and sloshed some on the spot to keep it wet. The light turned green and when I went to pull away I found that I had left the car in third gear while I dealt with the spill. I shifted the bottle of water to my left hand to shift gears and headed for the gym a few blocks away to continue rinsing and blotting in the parking lot.

About this time I noticed the car behind me blowing his horn -- honk honk honk honk -- and giving me indeciptherable hand gestures -- not rude gestures, just odd ones I couldn't figure out. As I got in the left turn lane the guy passed me, staring at me and shaking his finger at me -- tisk tisk -- out the window.

I did manage to get the spot out, I think, and it was only later, as I was running a few laps at the gym that I realized what all the honking and gesturing was about. I had been mistaken for a drunk driver. Pretty funny, I think.

[Note to self: be sure to use the expensive-pillow thing quickly since the wife sometimes reads my blog and once she knows about the coffee spot she will suddenly be able to see it and will give me the "this shirt is ruined" thing.]

Saturday, April 15, 2006


whatsit1My lovely wife found this object at the side of the road while walking the dog. Neither of us have a clue what it is. Whatever it is it is quite sturdy and rather heavy.

It appears to be made out of some sort of composite material -- sort of a cross between fiberglass and masonite. It has the same feel in the hand, and the same heft as an extremely dense wood such as Ironwood or Ebony. Clicking on the images will bring up larger versions of the photos which show more details. The lower photo, in particular, gives a good look at the "grain" of the material which is more fiberglass than wood. That photo also shows the small hole that appears to have been drilled after it was formed.

whatsit2The object gives every appearance of having a definite function. The carefully smoothed edges of the big hole and the three cutouts suggest ropes or cables. The small, drilled hole is not smoothed, suggesting that the small hole is not part of the object's function but may be used to hang it up until it is needed. As I said, the object speaks clearly of carefully designed functionality -- it merely gives very little information about what that function might be.

I am posting my photos of the object in hopes that some reader may have used, or at least seen, such a thing and can tell me what it is. My current best theory is that it is a Klingon sex toy. The fact that this is my best theory should tell you how far from a clue I am. Klingons are fictitious, for one thing, and besides, at only eleven inches it would be rather small.

If you know what this thing is please leave a comment. If you have no clue, guess. If you have lost one of these recently on the Cary Parkway just tell me what it is and you can have it back.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Juan Enrique was a Tomato Pickin Man

John Henry he said to his captain:
  "Your money is getting mighty slim,
When I hammer through this old mountain,
  Oh Captain will you walk in?"

John Henry's captain came to him
  With fifty dollars in his hand,
He laid his hand on his shoulder and said:
  "This belongs to a steel driving man."

John Henry was hammering on the right side,
  The big steam drill on the left,
Before that steam drill could beat him down,
  He hammered his fool self to death.
No one knows for sure who John Henry was, or even whether he really lived. He is such a popular figure in American folklore that generations of local storytellers and balladeers have claimed him across a wide swath of the southeastern United States -- continuing his memory, and at the same time obscuring his identity. According to John Garst at the University of Georgia, he might have been John Henry Dabney, born a slave in 1844 on Burleigh Plantation (near Crystal Springs Mississippi) and the much sung and storied contest between John Henry with his hammer and the steam drill may have taken place during the construction of the Oak and Coosa Mountain tunnels east of Birmingham for the C & W Railroad in 1887. That would make John Henry's 'captain' Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney, a railroad engineer, Confederate veteran and nephew of John Henry's former owner.

Steam Drill

John Henry was a manual laborer who's job was being replaced by a machine. He was the last and best of his breed -- fighting a delaying action against inevitable changes that would make him obsolete. There are countless versions of the songs and stories about John Henry and they all have a common theme that if John Henry had been more sensible he wouldn't have "hammered his fool self to death," clinging to a way of life that was ending. If John Henry had been smarter he would have learned to work with that steam drill, but he loved the swing and the sing of his hammer too much. His one-time victory over the machine didn't change anything. If he had been smarter he would have done something else. But he didn't and we still sing about him almost a century later.

When the Bracero program ended in 1964 many argued that the tomato industry in California would be damaged, or at least that the prices of tomato products such as ketchup would soar. What happened instead was that the industry developed a new variety of tomatoes with an oblong fruit that was sturdier and capable of machine harvesting. Picking tomatoes was the "job Americans won't do" of its day in the early 1960s. Then as now the idea of "jobs Americans won't do" stinks if you consider it as an attitude of the American work force. But as a statement of economic reality, or as a prediction, it was spot on. The guest worker program ended and Americans never did that job. The Braceros were replaced by machines.

Tomato Harvester -- The Steam Drill of 1964

Like John Henry who drilled blasting holes with a steel drill and a big hammer, the Braceros who picked tomatoes in California were working in a labor-intensive job where nascent advances in technology put a ceiling on how much it made sense to pay for the work they did. By the time the Bracero program ended their labor was still cost-effective for their employers -- due in large part to the fact that the Braceros worked insanely hard for very little pay -- but the handwriting was on the wall. It wouldn't have been long before the improvements in mechanized agriculture would have made the hand-picking of tomatoes uneconomic, at least for making ketchup, even with Bracero labor. The industry adapted to the loss of the migrant laborers with scarcely a pause.

The story of the Braceros in California does not lend itself to songs like John Henry, the Steel Drivin' Man, but it is a story often told by anti-immigration pundits who see it as a refutation of the idea that the economy needs immigrant labor to perform labor-intensive tasks that are uneconomic if done at the local prevailing labor rate. And since the end of the guest worker program was, for the most part a wash for the California tomato industry and labor market, it does tend to contradict those who predict huge dire consequences if the supply of cheap labor is cut off.

On the other hand there was very little good that came from ending the program either. The companies growing tomatoes in California were forced to invest in mechanization a bit earlier than they would have otherwise. Non-immigrant agricultural workers in California saw a small increase in the level of pay they could demand but not enough to really change their situation. The jobs vacated by the Mexican workers did not go to higher-paid American workers -- the jobs just went away when the guest workers did. So the end of the Bracero program in 1964 was slightly favorable for farm workers in California unless they owned their own farm. It was slightly unfavorable for farm owners -- being least painful to the large farm owners who could afford to mechanize and most painful for the smaller farmers who could could not. On the whole, as I said, it was a wash... as long as you forget about the Braceros themselves. For them it was a disaster.

It cannot be denied that the Braceros were not treated very well. They worked hard, often in very bad conditions, and were paid very little. It says a lot about their conditions back home that they would queue up by the thousands to be treated so badly. The fact of the matter is that however lousy their pay was by American standards it allowed them to support their families far better than they could by working in Mexico.

Today's Informal Guest Worker Program:

The Mexican economy tanked in December 1994 when the Mexican government could no longer support the increasingly unrealistic valuation of the Peso. The banking system collapsed and the country was thrown into a depression. In the more developed parts of the country eventual recovery was made possible by an emergency loan from the United States and by the NAFTA free trade agreement that stimulated Mexican industry and boosted exports. In the poorer parts of the country the poverty rate exceeded 50 percent for years and finally dropped mostly due to money that men who were working illegally in the US sent home to their families. The number of illegal immigrants currently working in the US is estimated at approximately twelve million and the money they send home is the second-largest source of revenue for the Mexican economy.

Like the Braceros, today's illegal immigrants are largely agricultural workers. Unlike their predecessors who were seasonal workers, today's illegal immigrants tend to remain in the country all year. Those who see immigration as a threat often point out that when the season is over the seasonal workers no longer go home. While this could indicate that they have lost their desire to return home during the off season, it could also reflect the fact that increased patrolling of the border forces them to choose between spending the off season with their families and being sure they will be able to work during the next year's growing season.

They continue to work in areas where the American workforce has moved on. It's not so much the jobs that Americans won't do as jobs Americans used to do but don't any more. Much of the citrus that is grown in this country is picked by immigrant labor. American's don't mind picking fruit. We used to pick fruit but, with international competition being what it is, and with emerging technology for picking the fruit mechanically holding down the value of the labor, it doesn't pay very well. And if the immigrants were to disappear it wouldn't pay at all. The job of picking oranges would quickly be done by machines.

Citrus Harvesting Machines -- the Steam Drill of the new millennium.

You shouldn't think that I am suggesting that the citrus-picking machines will put low-cost immigrant workers out of work. There is always something useful that hard-working, low-cost labor can do. I remember talking to a forester about growing pine trees in the Florida panhandle. After you harvest a plantation of trees there are three things you can do to get ready for the next cycle. Two of the three operations cost money but they improve your yield per acre. For option one you do nothing but leave a few seed trees per acre. With option one you can expect a yield of about thirty-five dollars per acre per year on average. Option two adds a controlled burn and sending in a team after the first year to kill any sprouting hardwoods so they don't crowd out the young pine trees. With option two you get another fifteen to twenty dollars an acre. Option three is doing the whole thing with machines to grind stumps and prepare the soil and a v-groove planter. Option three is quite expensive but you can get over one hundred dollars a year per acre. If you are a paper company and can spread the cost of the machines over thousands of acres there is no question that the last option is the most profitable. If you have an acre or two it is probably most sensible just to rely on the seed trees since the benefit of site preparation is so small with so few acres. But if you fall at just the right spot in the middle of the range the forester I was talking with can hook you up with a team of Guatemalans who can make their living on that fifteen dollar per acre spread between options one and two.

In the admittedly unlikely event that you are terribly interested in site preparation options for southern pine plantations, you might want to read this