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Posts Tagged ‘cost’

In a post a few weeks back I noted that I had gardening on the brain and was determined to make it happen. I also said I would share my information in case it would be useful to some other poor reader out there. Let me preface what follows by pointing out that this is my first garden in years (years) and what I do may or may not be what is generally recommended.

First, I bought my seeds from a small distributor of heirloom varieties, Skyfire Garden Seeds. Turnaround was beyond excellent; I mailed my order and payment on a Monday and received my shipment that Friday. I also received two “thank you” packets free in my shipment and a hand-written note wishing me “a great garden this year.” I value that personalized touch. Even better, Skyfire beat both Burpee and Gurney’s prices on every variety I ordered, often by a landslide. So far, that puts Skyfire up by four-to-one (better products, customer service, turnaround, and price).

But the proof is in the pudding as they say, so with a handful of starter trays and a bag of potting soil, I got to work. (I’ll also note here that every seed packet contained more than the amount listed on the website, especially nice for those of us with a bit of black in their thumb.) On March 19th, three heirloom varieties of tomatoes were planted: Rutger, Pearson, and Long Keeper. They got a south-facing window in a garden shed and water but no special treatment (heat lamps, flourescent lights, etc.). On sunny days, I moved them outside for direct sun; nighttime temperatures stayed mostly in the 50s but dipped into the low 40s a couple times. On March 24th, Orange Sun Sweet Bell Peppers went in under the same conditions. The Pearson tomatoes sprouted earliest, on April 1st, followed quickly by the Rutgers and Long Keepers simultaneously on the 2nd. My Orange Sun Bells sprouted yesterday.

Together, the varieties have averaged a 95%+ germination rate, even with my unskilled plantings and less-than-ideal conditions. (And, in case they didn’t sprout, Skyfire offers a replace-or-refund guarantee.) March 19th also saw the open sowing of a cabbage variety called Glory of Enkuizen. They came up beautifully and thick as fleas; a few more nice days and they’ll be ready for transplanting. It’s a couple weeks until I’ll plant the rest of the seeds ordered but so far I am immensely pleased with the results and have nothing but praise for Skyfire Garden Seeds.

My garden growings also include yellow onions, purchased locally in sets and planted March 19th, and potatoes eyed from grocery store spuds. The onions are 6 to 8 inches tall; the few potato sprouts (about 4 in all so far) up are 1 to 2 inches.

I’ll keep posting from time to time and make notes, if only for myself. 🙂 For further consideration, I offer up the abundant resources of Dave’s Garden, which is very friendly and helpful in all things sproutable. In signing off, I’d like to say that gardening is not much of a chore, and the proceeds greatly exceed the effort. Plus, it’s a nice way to stay a bit active, promote independence, and stick it to the man. How could anyone resist?

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If you’ve watched the world news or read a bit online, you’ve probably seen something about the riots in Kyrgyzstan, a former USSR republic that borders China and just tried to oust its president. Protesting masses took to the streets demanding a change in government, the president fled, hundreds of police were summoned to quell the riots, and many people were hurt and killed. President Kurmanbek Bakiev maintains he is still in power. An interim government spawned by the riots and headed by Roza Otunbayeva also claims leadership and openly seeks Bakiev’s resignation. So, you’re up to speed on the basics. Now for the nitty gritty.

This is all about corruption and political malfeasance. A head of government makes some questionable appointments, arrests some influential people, utilty prices skyrocket, a populace feels cheated, and suddenly dozens of people are dead and hundreds are wounded. It’s an old story, but one we seemingly never learn from. I’ve done little research on the heart of the matter (this article seems a good place to start if you want to) but I did catch a Nightline spot which mentioned police firing into a crowd of protestors. Which is really why I’m posting about it. Because I find that disgusting.

I don’t really care what the government and or President Bakiev did. Yes, it was probably dirty, and almost certainly unfair to the Kyrgyz people … because that’s what governments are good at. But to allow, and even encourage, armed enforcers to use live ammunition on an unarmed population is inexcusable.

And I’m not talking handguns, or sharpshooters taking out the small number of protestors armed with weapons taken from other guards/police/etc. Witnesses describe them as automatic sub-machine guns, and video clips show them firing full-tilt in the direction of protestors. A government that will permit such an excessive use of force on its people cannot be endorsed with any moral conscience whatsoever. With various non-lethal choices available, there is no reasonable explanation for such an action.

An ABC News article reports that initial protests in the capitol city of Bishkek were met with just that sort of non-lethal force: rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons, concussion grenades. But the attempts to break up the crowds were not focused and angry protestors fought back with rocks, sticks, and sheer numbers. They overpowered some policemen and took their weapons, even their vehicles at times. When they congregated at the government headquarters known as the White House (no, that’s not a typo), things turned ugly.

The ABC article does not discuss why the police didn’t concentrate their efforts on the White House to begin with. It seems logical to me, especially with a demonstration in the western city of Talas the day before where protestors entered a government building and took control, purportedly holding a governor hostage. With a clear voice, the opposition was calling for the president’s resignation, so it’s a pretty good bet that sooner or later the protests would center on the White House. It would not be difficult to encircle the building with police and keep non-lethal weaponry at the ready.

Whatever the reasoning, police forces were scattered ineffectually around the city as protests became riotous and protestors grew violent. An armored vehicle, seized by protestors, threatened to ram the gates of the White House. Six men in the crowd reportedly fired shots into the air as the people decried the government. Then a group of police opened fire on the crowd.

It wasn’t clear if these police were stationed at the government building or pushing into the protestors from another direction, and to the dozens killed I doubt it matters. It also wasn’t clear why no effort was made to disperse the crowd using non-lethal means. That group of police purportedly numbered 200, were classified as “elite,” and yet never sent so much as a single canister of tear gas into the protestors before they “began firing, pushing the crowd back.” In retaliation and further protest, a government office was set on fire and several others damaged.

Protests and demonstrations in other cities deposed local heads of government. Media outlets were overtaken to spread the word of protest and opposition. And so the president fled. An interim governing body was assembled. Protestors calmed and divided. And the country – the world – waits for resolution.

I applaud the Kyrgyzstani people in standing up to what they believe is an unjust and corrupt government. I admire their determination and resolute push to see change. I hope the resolution is fair and sets the nation on a road with less upheaval and more freedom and justice. And I hope the United States stays out of it.

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The phrase used by optimistic economists for the last year is starting to come to life. But I’m not going to talk about the economy, or politics, or even Team Blue (which, by the way, needs a mascot, I think … but Blue Devils is taken and I don’t think Blue Balls would go over well for either side, so I could use some input on that). With the Ides of March just around the corner and spring soon to follow, I’m talking about real green shoots, the kind full of chlorophyll that push up from the soil into the sun when the frost leaves and the ground starts to warm.

The resurgence of the “Victory Garden” over the last couple years has been nothing short of amazing. Some seed suppliers are finding themselves overrun with orders and the busy season is just getting started. Widely popularized during World War II, the Victory Garden is essentially a small vegetable patch for a family or similarly sized group of people, providing a source of wholesome food for very little monetary investment. With a less-than-stellar economic situation for millions in the U.S. over the last few years, these gardens have again become popular. For a few dollars worth of seed, a family can enjoy a supply of fresh vegetables for months to come. I’m joining the bandwagon this spring with big plans and elbow grease on stand-by … because one way or another there will be a garden outside my door.

I realized last summer how disgusted I was with the produce offered at local supermarkets. What hasn’t been dropped, crushed, bruised, poked, or otherwise beaten half-unidentifiable costs an arm and a leg. And if it happens to say “organic” on the label, just go ahead and triple the price, no matter how puny, shriveled, or misshapen the items might be. But price aside, that produce has also been doused with god knows what all kind of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and – I’m quite certain – people-icides. A few years ago I researched just what went into the classification systems of food products and was astounded at the lack of regulation in what we eat.

To begin with, the vast majority of fresh food in this country is imported, and not just exotics like bananas and mangoes but boring old staples like lettuce and tomatoes. Remember the spinach scare a few years back? Tons of produce tainted with E. Coli were shipped all over America and had to be recalled after people fell ill and some died. It had been imported. The government assured its people that it was an isolated incident. But food marketing in the U.S. is essentially an honor system. If Company A claims its goods are organic, they can market it as such with almost no oversight. Although there are reams of laws and stipulations that should be followed, the chances of enforcement are miniscule. No one is out there testing produce to see what chemicals it has come into contact with. No one is randomly sampling imports (or even U.S. produce) to see if it carries pathogens on its merry way to your plate. Caveat emptor indeed.

And what does all the spraying and genetic engineering and hybridization supply us? Judging from the local supermarkets, rubbish. Most of the produce is picked so green it could sit on display for a month (for those of you who may not know better, “fresh” produce should go off much quicker than that) and has all the subtle flavor of a cardboard box. In an age when I can fly halfway around the world in less than a day, including plane changes and layovers, why is my produce almost old enough to legally drink?

So this year I’m growing my own. Not a lot, but a good variety. And though I’ve a poor history with plants, I sincerely bet the result will be exponentially better than what I find at the store. Surely it can be no worse.

And in an effort to both encourage local business and “stick it to the man,” I’ll be using all heirloom seeds from a small supplier. (Gurney’s and Burpees be damned; I could never get a decent tomato out of them anyway.) When I’ve finalized my plans I’ll post them here just in case anyone should care to join the Victors with a garden of their own.

Oh, and you know what, if you’re tight on funds and worried about getting enough fertilizer for your garden … just use some of that bullshit Washington keeps shoveling at us. Lord knows there’s plenty of it. 😉

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Amber Waves of Gain

Let me preface this statistic-rich post by noting the following: 1) most of these numbers were derived from two online sources, so if they were incorrect then I am also; and 2) if you are caught genuinely breaking a law, you deserve to be fined, ticketed, booted, or otherwise reprimanded as defined by local law (with a few exceptions, which may or may not be discussed below). Now, on to the good stuff (it’s long, but it’s worth it).

If the preface didn’t spill the beans, let me do it here by stating that this is a post about our city governments and parking violations.

For instance, in the 2007-2008 fiscal year, New York City brought in revenues of $624 million from parking infractions alone. Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2001, the city has hired nearly 800 new “traffic enforcement agents” to help maximize this revenue opportunity, and 200 of those new agents were hired this year. These agents write, on average, 40 tickets per shift (according to an MSNBC news article), which equates to roughly 40,000 new tickets written every week. If the amount fined averaged $20 per ticket, that’s an additional $800,000 every week, per shift, for the city’s piggy bank. Not bad, eh? And that doesn’t account for extremes, like the super-agent who wrote 227 tickets in a 5-hour period on Black Friday 2007, when 41,000 citations were issued across the city in one day.

Boston visitors and residents face a rise in fines, a 75% increase on parking more than a foot from the curb and an increase of more than 112% for parking on a crosswalk. In similar fashion, Sacremento tacked an $8 surcharge onto its parking fines with the express intention of collecting an extra $1.5 million … or more … to ease a budgetary shortfall. Meanwhile, Seattle implemented a camera ticketing system which issued 58,000 tickets in its first three months, totaling some $5 million in fines to be collected. And last year in Colorado, Denver’s ticket revenues jumped $4 million, to a total $20 million from parking violations. Is it me or does this seem a bit extreme?

In cities like Louisville, Kentucky, a minimum of two outstanding parking violations will get your car booted. Boots are usually removed by police at their discretion … after you pay your fines, of course. But if you’re in a hurry and happen to be in Montgomery County, Maryland (just outside Washington, D.C.) or in Baltimore, you can use your cell phone to unlock the boot … after paying your fines … and a $115 fee, apparently for the convenience of a quick de-booting. (The system isn’t confined to Maryland; it is used in a dozen cities, including New Orleans.)

Some cities have begun using a camera-equipped system that allows meter agents to drive at normal speeds and simultaneously scan license plates for outstanding parking violations. Nifty, huh? Nab two birds with one stone and boot previous violators for extra money even if they are currently legally parked. But that’s just the beginning. Have you heard about the new parking meters in production? They text message local police as soon as your flag goes up. (Better hope there’s not a meter agent in the area.) And several large cities have issued electronic ticketing machines to their agents, allowing them to ticket 30% faster. Oh good, their antiquated tools and multi-million dollar annual revenues had me concerned about reduced productivity. Whew. That’s a real load off my mind.

One New Yorker said he’s seen drivers get ticketed for double-parking while waiting for someone to pull out of a space on the street, an almost universally accepted act especially common in areas of concentrated population and limited parking. In a similar stretch of the law, an attorney was ticketed for parking “somewhere between one second and 59 seconds too soon” in an alternate-side violation. He fought the ticket and won; the citation was dismissed by a judge. Which brings us to a whole new sub-topic: how many of these charges are legitimate?

In the Bronx, a dozen residents accused a traffic agent of falsely citing them for double-parking, some arguing they were not even in the United States when the tickets were issued (at the time of the article, no charges had been filed against the agent, who the city defended and who remained on duty). A retired Navy veteran said he was ticketed while dropping off his wife in a bus zone. One reader commented that he was sent a parking ticket, complete with late penalties, without having been in the city for twenty years. (Despite the two decade absence, ownership of a vehicle that did not remotely resemble the ticketed car, and a letter he sent to authorities with a copy of his registration, the ticket is unresolved.)

Another reader said, “the New York City parking signs have purposely been made so confusing that even police officers cannot tell you if it is okay to park.” He went on to note that many signs were damaged, illegible, or missing altogether but agents still ticketed in the effected areas. In some areas, he also shared, “we have Muni-meters, where you have to park your car then walk to the meter several yards away to buy a receipt…to place in the windshield. Meter people will watch you walk to the meter and give you a ticket before you can get back to the car with the receipt. This is NYC government-sanctioned mugging.” Posters from other cities shared stories of similar abuses and I have no doubt that thousands more could easily be included, everything from unlawful ticketing and conspiracy to purposefully mass-ticket all the way to outright harrassment.

And not just in New York City. People from Columbus, Ohio, and Santa Monica, California, share the same stories, as do citizens from Fort Worth, Texas, and Portland, Oregon. Obviously, these are not isolated incidents but a general trend among cities with the primary goal of raising funds. By any means necessary. Chicago, Atlanta, Denver, it makes no difference, and the more tickets written, bogus or otherwise, the more revenues will increase. (For a disgustingly blatant example, visit my previous post, “Holy Jericho”.)

I will take this opportunity to reiterate that those legitimately breaking the law deserve to be fined … but only those breaking the law, and they should not be fined unreasonable amounts.

I’ve had three parking tickets over the years and I paid every one of them without complaint. Even though the last two were tenuously legal at best, I paid, took my receipt, and walked away without a word. Because it wasn’t worth fighting. For $40 I retained the ability to work a full schedule instead of missing days to fight the tickets in court. I retained anonymity and did not bring down the wrath of meter maids and law enforcement everywhere I went. (If you think that’s not important, you’ve never lived in a smaller town.) I avoided the costly unpleasantness of hiring a lawyer. I learned when and where I could push the law, and when and where I couldn’t. I learned that legality has absolutely nothing to do with decency, common sense, or common courtesy. And all for the low low price of only $40.

I’m not denouncing parking tickets. I am denouncing the growing practice of manufacturing falsities and extorting money out of a populace to fund government greed and idiocy. And so should you. It makes me wonder … what else are they falsely accusing us of? How many innocent people are being ruined by similar practices in other disciplines? Like taxes, for example. If the IRS came calling, could you prove your financial statements to their specifications? There is no statute of limitations; what if they ask for files from a decade ago, or two? Or how about the Department of Homeland Security accusing you of terrorist activity, seizing your property, and denying you trial? It’s perfectly legal and they can sell any seized property for profit without ever formally charging you. Local police have the same authority for drug-related activities and can gleen millions annually from the sales of seized items. Why? The short answer is money. But, really, is that all? Is that why are our freedoms are being pared down to nothing while government payrolls balloon and hoover up any dollar they can find?

These are questions we should be asking.
These are questions we should be asking every day, because this country is feeling less and less like ours.

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Cash For Clunkers seems like a pretty good program. Bring in a not-so-great vehicle and get up to $4500 in credit toward a new vehicle, a value virtually no one would get from a traditional trade-in program. There are a few stipulations but nothing outlandish. And it’s helping both the consumer and the economy, right? What could my beef possibly be?

The long-term result. But even the short-term isn’t exactly pretty. Right now, this program is “helping” people buy cars that get “better” mileage than what they had. But $4500 isn’t a great discount on a new car and I don’t know whether most dealerships will allow it to be paired with other incentives or not. If not, buyers are getting screwed. Secondly, the mile-per-gallon average is grossly overestimated and has decreased the last five years or so. Which means buyers get less bang for their buck even when they try to make the best choice. On top of that, until an amendment to the program passed today, August 1, 2009, the cars being turned in were to have their engine blocks “killed” at the time they were traded (officials recommended water glass, a sealant and bonding agent, be run through the engine in place of oil; the damage would be total and irreparable) … except that, at the time of purchase, many buyers do not know if their old vehicle will be accepted into the program. Some dealers required buyers to sign waivers and release forms to indemnify the dealership against damages. Because if the old car wasn’t accepted, or if the new car didn’t meet your standards, or you decided you couldn’t really afford it, or if you needed to back out of the deal in any other way, your old car was already toast. Sorry, Charlie, you said you didn’t want it anymore.

And the long-term outlook is worse.

If you hadn’t noticed, used vehicles are going pretty cheap at the moment. They have been for about, oh, the last eight months or so … since the stock market fell and the country began to worry about ridiculously bloated banking corporations. My biggest beef with this program is how it will take thousands and thousands of perfectly decent used vehicles out of the market. Just how many? Well, using a bit of fuzzy math, I’m going to take the total Cash For Clunkers budget (including the new increase) of $2.95 billion and divide it by 4000, since some people will get a $3500 credit and some get $4500 … and for the sake of brevity I’m going to assume it’s a pretty even split. Okay, now if even 1 in 3 of all those vehicles being turned in were potentially re-salable (I think the average would be much higher than that, but I’ll play devil’s advocate and remain conservative in that respect) that means roughly 245,000 re-salable vehicles will be crushed or shredded by time the program ends.

Want to see a few examples of the “clunkers” being traded in? Here’s a random group provided by the owners themselves.

(Click here to view full-size.)

Yup, those look like total and complete piles of shit. I don’t know how the owners managed to get them to the dealerships for trade-in.

Sarcasm aside, that’s almost a quarter of a million perfectly good cars and trucks, including those above, permanently and irrevocably destroyed. How is that bad? Well, for some sellers it won’t be, because the price of un-crushed used cars will go up. But, ultimately, all those cars and trucks permanently removed from the market will have an effect on prices. What happens when demand remains constant (or increases) but supply diminishes? The price goes up. And that means higher costs for people who can’t afford new cars. It puts one more burden on an already overburdened class and will result in real clunkers getting driven for longer periods because owners can’t afford to replace them. It means greater hardships and fewer choices for low-income owners. And not only will the price of used cars increase, the price of many parts will increase because those hundreds of thousands of vehicles were crushed or shredded with their drive trains intact. (By law, the scrapyards are not allowed to part them out.) So millions of perfectly usable parts will be wasted, salvage operations face a shrinking pool of resources, and low-income car owners foot the bill.

Granted, Cash For Clunkers will probably get some junkers off the road and likely help a section of lower-middle class consumers sign on for a car they couldn’t otherwise afford. But it seems to me that the “cons” here outweigh the “pros.” By far.

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