Archive » March 2014 » Columns

Many families have rich and poor members, meaning that many parents have kids who are struggling, and kids who are doing well.

So, when Ma and Pa make their will, it would make sense to leave a bigger slice of what’s left to the poor one. But that’s not how we do things.

This winter has been pure hell. It has driven those who live in the northeast, including myself, inside.

Everyone’s electric bills and heating bills are way above last year’s totals. So, in keeping with the rest of the winter weary, I turned to various electronic devices to keep myself amused.

I used to read books all winter, waiting for spring. I still do, but the lure of all that amusement that electronics promised was just too much of a temptation to ignore.

Any form of electronics has always mystified me. But this winter, I just had to unravel the mystery of these various forms of entertainment.

I sat down to watch television. I looked at the three different remotes next to my chair.

There was the remote to turn on the cable box. This remote required the pushing of two buttons. It took several reminders from my ever-patient husband that I had to push two buttons on this remote to actually achieve getting both picture and sound.

There was one for the TV itself, which often got lost in the cushions of the couch until I realized that I needed it for volume to watch something called Netflix.

Now, to get to Netflix, a laptop had to be hooked up to my TV.  I also had to find the mouse connected to the computer to watch Netflix.

Home alone, I thought it would be simpler to watch a DVD. It was simple once I figured out that the DVD player was controlled by the remote I hadn’t had the pleasure of touching yet.

I found that this activity actually took all of the three remote controls.  I finally figured them all out.

I watched all of the seasons of Friends to get through most of February and some of March.  So then I was back to watching TV.  Look-back is wonderful feature, as is recording shows. Ask me any question about Castle and I can probably answer it.

Of course, there was a computer in my house.  I moved to it to amuse myself further, since the winter from hell continued. I somehow disconnected myself from Facebook.

I got a phone call in the midst of my panic.  The man on the phone claimed that my computer had all sorts of evil viruses.  I spent too much time and way too much money getting back onto Facebook.  When I finally did, I had no friends and couldn’t play any games!

I felt like and sounded like a 5-year-old on the phone with a gentleman who was guiding me back to both. He probably would have been more understanding of a 5-year-old. I did get my computer life back after pushing every button on the machine and asking any passing saints to bestow the blessing of understanding my way.

So now I have my computer, my television, my DVR, and Netflix mostly figured out. My next miracle will be to submit these musings via e-mail.

My son and my husband have both explained this process to me more times than I care to mention here. I know I am going to ask again. My son has moved away now. My husband will stand behind me and explain it yet again.

Someday, I will learn all of the tricks to computers and television but, by then, it will be a lot warmer. I will be back on my mower, mowing things I shouldn’t, and chasing rabbits that, having heard about my mowing issues, will be running for cover.

By the time the winter rolls around, the buttons for the television will be either lost or out of battery power. My e-mail address and password will be forgotten again.

Of course, by next winter all of the technologies will be changed.  But, for now, I can still read a good paperback without any technology.

I know about the Kindle and eReader, but I have to have some amusement that doesn’t involve electronics!  My next project is understanding my cell phone.

Please don’t call me if you see me out mowing! I will mow down rabbits and unsuspecting neighbors. If you see me out, call me on my landline and leave a message. We will all be much safer that way.  See you all out there on your mowers. Peace, love, and rock and roll.

Tuesday, March 18, the Old Men of the Mountain met at the Home Front Café in Altamont. Our luck is holding out; although it was cold, there was no freezing rain, blinding snowstorm, fog, drizzle, or blizzard winds to keep the Old Men of the Mountain from making it to the Home Front from over the mountain, and then down off the mountain to a hearty breakfast.

Of course, the OFs talked about the missing Malaysian plane, and the OFs are like a microcosm of the general population who has more questions and no answers. One question (though not answered) was, with a planeload of mostly Chinese passengers, there must have been at least 200 cell phones on board. Did they all go dead at the same time? Maybe they were not supposed to use them on the plane.

That rule was relaxed in this country and the OFs did not know about other countries.  However, the OFs thought this was a good question.

Some OFs still think the whole plane was sucked up by a UFO.  That would explain all forms of communication being cut off at the same time.

Collectors or hoarders?

Some of the OFs talked about collecting old stuff — big stuff like cars, tractors, graders, and items like that.  The OFs were definitely not talking about salt and peppershakers.

This is a continual conversation with some of the OFs.  They know what OF has what, they know what an OF is looking for, they know what an OF needs to complete a repair and what another OF has that will do the job.

To other OFs, this is nothing but junk, and, to these OFs, the OFs that collect old hat pins are collecting nothing but junk. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or, as one OF put it, one OF’s junk is another OF’s treasure. (Boy, has that phrase been used to death.)

That is why there is such a proliferation of antique shops, flea markets, and swap meets.

One OF has a motto, “Don’t throw anything away – someday it may become valuable.” It sounds like the OFs are beginning to condone hoarding.

Engine aficionados

This same group of OFs began talking about starting old engines and how OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) would not approve of the design of the old farm equipment, or the fabricating machines in the old fab shops.

“The construction machines and methods that this country was built on,” one OF said, “would scare the heck out of OSHA and most people required to work with them today. Back then, what the heck,” the OF said, “We just did it, and, if we got hurt, nobody sued anybody.”

One OF wondered when they stopped calling electric motors and piston-driven machines engines.  An electric motor was a motor, and a steam engine, or gas engine, or diesel engine, were engines.

Now a motorboat is powered by an outboard motor. To this OF, it is not a motor; it is an engine. But calling it an engine boat just doesn’t sound right. The OF was just wondering.

Play ball

Baseball season starts in a little while, and, if spring doesn’t hurry up and get here, they will be shoveling snow off the fields at many of the ballparks to play the games.

The catcher better have warmers and extra padding in that glove. Catching a 90-mile-an-hour fastball when the temperature is 30 degrees is really going to smart

One OF said it doesn’t have to be a baseball; anytime his hands are cold and they are inadvertently whacked, they hurt.

Play ball, put on a hoodie, and let’s go.

Over the river and through the woods to the Home Front the OFs go, the horse knows the way to carry the sleigh, and all the OFs loaded in the sleigh were: Roger Chapman, Dick Ogsbury, Karl Remmers, Andy Tinning, Miner Stevens, Harold Guest, John Rossmann, Frank Pauli, Robie Osterman, George Washburn, Otis Lawyer, Glenn Patterson, Chuck Aleseio, Jim Heiser, Kenny Parks, Lou Schenck, Ken Hughes, Mace Porter, Gary Porter, Jack Norray, Bill Krause, Ted Willsey, Jim Rissacher, Henry Whipple, Mike Willsey, Gerry Chartier, Elwood Vanderbilt, Gill Zable, Harold Grippen, and me. 

Well, this winter, a couple of times they got it right.

Although in both of the storms that hit Albany in late January and the first week of February the Weather Channel and other local channels were at first a bit uncertain about the amount of snow Albany was going to get, they all were calling for  “significant” amounts of snow well in advance of the first flakes.

That term is, of course, nicely ambiguous.  If you have to brush off your car, that’s “significant.” It’s also “significant” if you have to shovel a path to get to that car.  And, when schools start closing down and commuters are urged to get an early start and the forecasters start calling for “six to twelve inches or more of snow” — well, that is “significant” in anyone’s estimation.  It’s a term that covers every forecaster’s tail.

And, here in Albany, the fluffy stuff piled up generally in excess of 11 inches in both storms with a good bit more in the higher elevations.  All those kids who gambled on snow days by not doing their homework got extensions and all their teachers got to sleep in.

When I was teaching high school Earth Science, my snow-day mornings consisted of rising late, making French toast, and having that extra cup of coffee while gazing out at the falling snow and thinking of how great the skiing was going to be on the coming weekend and marveling that the forecasters had gotten it right.

But, of course, how many times have we Albanians seen the forecast go awry?  The weather maps show a menacing-looking front advancing from the west or a sinister mass of counter-clockwise swirling clouds lurking in the Gulf of Mexico and poised for a run at the Northeast like a cougar.

The alarms are sounded, people rush to supermarkets to load up on milk, bread, and toilet paper in anticipation of a recurrence of the Great Blizzard of 1888 (and apparently believing that the city snow-removal systems are also rooted firmly in the 19th Century) — and then the storm arrives and delivers a scant inch or two, or a dusting, or nothing at all.

And the folks who do the TV weather come on looking embarrassed and utter some variation on, “Well, folks, this is what we thought would happen but”—pause for a giggle—“darned if that old storm just didn’t deliver.”

Albany area weather

is tough to predict

But, at least in the Albany area, when the forecast for a snowstorm fizzles, we need to cut the meteorologists some slack, for scientists who study the weather will tell you that the Albany area is one of the most difficult places in the contiguous 48 states for which to forecast the weather.

And much of the blame can be laid upon our geography, resulting in a phenomenon known as the “Orographic Effect.”  The term — as with many scientific terms — comes to us from the Greek:  “oros” meaning “mountain,” and “graphein” meaning “to write.”

Without going into the evolution of the term, suffice it to say that it is meant to convey the concept that “mountains write their own weather forecasts.”

Anyone with a high school student’s understanding of science is aware that the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere decreases with elevation above the surface.

This is why, on a summer day when the temperature at ground level may be in the 90s, the high, wispy cirrus clouds that frequently appear in the sky, heralding a change in the weather are made of ice crystals: They may form at elevations of five or six miles or higher where the temperature hovers at around 85 degrees below zero. This is also why visitors to the big island of Hawaii are astounded to hear of snowboarders racing down the slopes of the great volcano known as Mauna Kea with its summit approaching 14,000 feet above sea level.

Once you get more than a couple of miles up, it’s very, very cold.

This simple fact explains why a mountain may get snow when the surrounding countryside gets rain; it also explains why higher elevations get greater amounts of snow than the lower elevations during a storm: The colder temperatures form lighter, fluffier snow that tends to accumulate to greater depths.  So Albany gets 14 inches of snow and Berne gets 24. Q.E.D.

But, as it happens, the Orographic Effect is far more complicated.

To begin with, it is colder at high elevations than it is at lower ones because the air pressure on a plateau or a mountaintop is lower than it is at sea level, and it drops off dramatically with increasing elevation.  There are simply fewer air molecules to bump together and produce heat by friction.

Anyone who has ever experienced “altitude sickness” driving over the Rockies or skiing on them understands this: It is harder to breathe at that elevation because the lower density means lower amounts of oxygen with each breath, and, for some people, this can cause nausea and headaches.

Of course, for mountain climbers, the region above 24,000 feet on a mountain such as Everest is known as “the death zone” because no one can long survive on the pitiful amounts of oxygen that remain at that altitude.  Our ears pop when we ride an elevator or drive rapidly through changing elevations as the air within our heads adjusts to the change in ambient pressure around us.

Now another concept becomes important in understanding the Orographic Effect, and this is the relationship between what is called the dew point and the temperature of the air mass around it.

The dew point is the temperature at which a given mass of air would become saturated — that is, have a relative humidity of 100 percent — allowing condensation and perhaps precipitation to begin.

It is determined by a number of factors, chief among them the amount of water vapor a mass of air is carrying. The closer the air temperature is to the dew point, the greater the likelihood of condensation followed by precipitation; when they are equal, these results are all but certain.

Now envision a mass of air with a temperature of 28 degrees F and a dew point of 20 degrees F that is moving toward a mountain or mountain range.  The mountain or the range represents an obstacle to that movement: A single mountain will cause a portion of that air to rise and, as it does, both its temperature and dew point will drop with increasing elevation, but the temperature drops faster than the dew point.

The two numbers soon coincide, and voila!  The mountaintop experiences precipitation — which, given these temperatures, will likely be in the form of snow.  At temperatures above 32F, the mountaintop may be capped in fog or experience rainfall.

The accompanying photograph was taken from a high slope of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park in Maine on a humid summer morning.  It shows the islands of Frenchman Bay capped in morning fog while the area around the islands remains clear.

The wind is carrying the moisture-laden air just high enough so that the dew point and air temperature have met and the air has become saturated on both the wind-facing or “windward” slope of the islands and their tops.  Fog forms.

Adiabatic warming

But air that has been forced upward by increasing elevation continues its forward movement and eventually begins to descend.  Now another phenomenon known as “adiabatic heating” comes into play for, as the air moves into elevations of decreasing altitude, both the ambient air pressure and temperature increase, moving the air temperature and the dew point farther apart. The result is a drier, warmer air mass on what is known as the “leeward” slope of a mountain.

Now — take a look at a topographic map of eastern central New York State: the city of  Albany is surrounded by mountains and plateaus.  To the east rise the Berkshires and to the west looms the Appalachian Plateau, locally called “the Helderbergs.”

South of Albany are the heights known as “the Catskills,” which, to just about everyone, sure look like mountains, but are described by geologists as the steep eroded remnants of an ancient plateau.  No matter:  the Catskills are high, exceeding 4,000 feet in a couple of places.  (Of course, north of us are the great Adirondacks, but storms seldom if ever approach the Albany area from due north.)

However — storms at any season commonly approach us from the south, southwest, or east and to reach us they must rise to great heights as they pass over mountain range or plateau — and then dive into the Hudson Valley — a textbook demonstration of the Orographic Effect.

And so, a winter storm approaches from the southwest and Rensselaerville gets 26 inches of snow while Albany gets 10;  a snowstorm moving toward us from the south brings a foot of snow to the ski areas of the Catskills but two inches falls in Albany; a huge “Nor’easter” roars up the coast, dropping a foot and a half of snow on Worcester and Pittsfield, both on the windward side of the Berkshires — and Albany on the leeward side gets two inches of wet snow, or one inch, or rain.

And sometimes the adiabatic warming effect can be sufficient to cause Albany to get nothing at all.

All of this is, of course, a very simplistic explanation of the factors that affect the weather in Albany, and there are many other variables.

But the Orographic Effect neatly explains why the cities of Denver and Colorado Springs have desert climates while a few scant miles to their west the high, thickly forested slopes and valleys of the Rockies may lie under many feet of snow; it accounts for the fact that Seattle is notorious for rain while to its east —  beyond the down-slope of the Cascade Mountains — Spokane’s climate is arid.  And it is why Keene Valley and the western shore of Lake Champlain may have little or no snow when Lake Placid and the High Peaks of the Adirondacks may be buried in the snows of deep winter borne by winds from the west.

And it also may be the reason for the discomfort of your local meteorologist — forehead perspiration easily visible in HD — who opens a weather forecast with a nervous smile and begins, “Well, everybody, here’s what those computer models said was going to happen….”

All the Old Men of the Mountain who ventured out Tuesday morning wound up at the Country Café in Schoharie. This scribe wondered why, early on, the original cast of characters picked Tuesday as the day to get away. That was many years ago.

This past Tuesday the breakfast was Feb. 25.  (It is about 40 weeks until Christmas; better plan now.)

One OF made a normal statement that many of the OFs make and that statement was: “Believe me.”

This started a conversation on “trust” and “believe.” The OFs came to the conclusion that whenever the words “trust me” or “believe me” are said in a sentence, the warning antennas should pop up like on My Favorite Martian.

“Trust me; would I lie to you?”  Whoa, back up, because now is the time to listen carefully.  Generally, a fib is hidden there somewhere.

The other expression the OFs mentioned was: “Believe me, this is going to work.”

This should have “Danger, danger, Mr. Robinson” stamped all over it.

One OF said, if it is necessary to ask for trust, then it is a good indicator that the person or persons have not been too trustworthy in the past, or they are using the word “trust” as a word shield to hide some real hanky-panky tucked in there someplace.

“Yeah,” an OF said, “real trust comes when someone says it for you. For instance, ‘You can really trust Joe Blow — he doesn’t say much but, when he does, he knows what he is talking about.’”

Another OF opined, “My frustration is hearing the words, ‘Believe me.’ Too often. I have been told ‘Believe me, that is not going to work,’ and so many times I back off and don’t finish the project I started. Then, later on, I try it my way again and the project works just fine.” The OF continued, “Why did I listen to the OF who told me it wasn’t going to work in the first place?”

“Well,” one OG said, “I guess forewarned is forearmed but I bet we all will make these same statements at one time or another.”

Tough OGs

Most of the wounded OFs have returned to the breakfast, and rather quickly this scribe may say.

The OFs — by virtue of being OFs — are tough or they wouldn’t have made it to being OFs. Even at the ages of this group of senior citizens they still maintain that degree of toughness.

It stands to reason that the OFs discussed their recent bouts with the knife and subsequent body repairs and one OF reported that his blood work showed he was low on iron.

So the OFs bantered on about iron pills and foods high in iron and finally one OF said that low iron was not even mentioned when he was a kid.

To which one OF replied, “When you were a kid, they didn’t even know what blood was.”

Undaunted, the OF continued, “We had a woodstove in the kitchen and there was a fire in that stove even in the summer.”

The OF pointed out his mom cooked in cast-iron pots, and in cast-iron skillets, and the top of the stove was cast iron.

“Ya know,” another OF said, “we did the same thing. I bet you are right, you OG; when we were young, we got real iron right from the pots and pans, and veggies from the garden, not processed. And our own butchered meat and chickens, none of this chemical feed stuff.”

“How about what we hunted and brought home and ate,” another OG said.

“That’s full of lead, you OF, not iron.”

“Oh, yeah,” the OG said.

Beating cabin fever

Some of the OFs say that getting out to the breakfast is a good break from cabin fever. Cabin fever seems like it is a problem this winter with all the cold.

The OFs are beginning to add cold to their litany of complaints, especially this winter. One OF mentioned that he has learned to live with many of his aches and pains, plus not being able to do what he used to do. The OF said this year he has to add the cold weather to not being able to do what he used to do.            

This OF liked to cross-country ski and snowshoe, but now with the cold air, both of these activities have had to be curtailed. This OF wants to hang in there until March 20, the vernal equinox, when spring is supposed to start.

That is only a few days away and, to this OF, it looks like it is going to be, “Spring?  My foot.”

According to the weather guys, it appears that, in our little section of the world, the thermometer will still be registering in the 20s until late March.  These guys can be wrong quite often and we might only make the high teens in that period of time.

One OF said, “They can be wrong the other way, too. We can be in the high 30s.”

“Well, let’s hope so, I am running out of birdseed.”

The OFs who grumbled all the way to the Country Café because of the weather were met by a cheerful young waitress with coffee carafes in hand saying “Good morning, gentlemen, regular or decaf?” and those OFs who answered her were: Mark Traver, Otis Lawyer, Chuck Aleseio, Dave Williams, Frank Pauli, Karl Remmers, Robie Osterman, Andy Tinning, Miner Stevens, George Washburn, John Rossmann, Harold Guest, Jim Heiser, Roger Shafer, Glenn Patterson, Roger Chapman, Dick Ogsbury, Don Wood, Mace Porter, Lou Schenck, Garry Porter, Bill Krause, and me.