Tenting beside cool Lake Superior, 2 suppers, 2 breakfasts, beverages, cool riders… What’s not to like? They even got Wi-Fi in the campground, this may turn into a live blog…

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Back around when things were turning bad for the Nixon administration I went back to college for the 3rd time.  Having previously attended two fall quarters at community college on extended lunch and coffee break from my job shaggin’ parts for a Mercury dealer and aquiring a whole handful of credits in the process, my prospects weren’t good.  Heck, I even flunked fresman english, which explains these amateur attempts at writing. So being unemployed in the winter of ’73 I headed back to the local community college and further destroyed my academic career, letting a counelor talk me out of an Engineering major. But I stuck with it, being rewarded 9 years later with a liberal arts BA. By then I’d graduated from a vo-tech truck driver training program too, and was shaggin’ junk food by the semiload for union scale. And with the Reagan administration killing off any job prospects in the liberal arts fields I’d been awarded a bachelors degree in, I ended up spending the rest of my working life in jobs that didn’t even require a high school diploma!

So here I am, about to turn 65, bored, and with a taste for revenge. And I have the good fortune of being a resident and taxpayer in one of those notorious “high tax” states that “wastes” our tax dollars on non essential liberal wackiness like education. And our “librel” lawmakers, in yet another episode of fiscal sanity, decreed a few years back that any of us horde of 60 and older bums could attend our massive network of state collesges and universities for darn near free, though if we want credits and degrees we have to pay full price. What were they thinking?

Thus I found myself in search of free training in the black arts of welding, machining, and other fabbing skills. I was disappointed in the meager offerings…. Thanks to neighboring South Dakota’s supposedly fiscally conservative politicians willingless to train welders and machinists and such who flee South Dakota’s low wages for Minnesota before the ink on their diplomas dries, Minnesota has wisely outsourced that function to the poverty state to the west. I kid you not- a major South Dakota trailer maker used state funds to train nearly 300 new welders and such, and a year later only one of them was still there!

So I searched the course catalogs for online Engineering courses, and pretty much figured out that the old profs who run engineering departments at our institutions of higher education are not about to let old ladies in the boonies log in and take engineering courses, never mind let them earn a degree. These are the very same engineering profs who look down their noses at us “folk engineers” and our attempts to fix their mistakes. The worst of this cult are the ones with P.E. after their names, because in many cases if they hadn’t figured out one way or another to slide through the Professional Engineer’s exam, nobody would believe they were engineers. So I returned to my usual funk of keeping the Airheads sorta running and fixing whatever else breaks to the best of my questionable ability.

So here I am about to turn 65, with that crisis motivating me to try to at least plan the rest of my life better than I’ve misspent the bulk of it so far. So I google “online engineering education Minnesota”…. And what should pop up besides the suck up all your student loan diploma mills but an Applied Engineering BS program delivered by a consortium of a handful of our Minnesota technical colleges and a state university! That’s just the beginning of the geek goodness flowering in the backyard of Paul Bunyan and that upstaging ox Babe, they’ve got an “Iron Range Engineering” online BS program too!

It looks like the populists practitioneers of the black arts of fabricating and mining of far flung and thinly populated northern and western Minnesota have won out over the old profs and got themsleves an online engineering degree source. Which given that this part of the state is littered with small manufacturers to say nothing of mining, makes immense sense… Well, certainly a lot more sense than expecting a tech at Polaris or Arctic Cat up near the canadian border to make the 100 mile drive to Bemidgi State after work. Or worse yet, the 200 mile drive to University of Minnesota-Duluth!

So while I haven’t yet officially signed up and paid the piddy fees, I’m damn tempted. Just being an engineering student would be a blast, I’m drooling over courses in 3D design and computer simulation. And heck, if someone wants to hire me, I might even pay the tuition and get the credits and degree…

Am I crazy? Or crazy like a fox? Comments welcome…

Yup, hard to believe but true. If you’re enough of a transport geek to be follow the minutiae of the Transportation Bill’s slow progress(?) through Congress, you’ll have noted that Fed Ex and a bunch of the other parcel/less than truckload carriers have convinced (with the help of a small army of lobbyists and a windfall of campaign donations) Congress to allow them to tack another 5 feet onto their 28 foot and change long double trailers. The result is an oddball (to put it politely) 33 foot trailer that won’t fit worth a damn on intermodal railcars that are designed to fit some combination of 28 and 40-53 foot trailers. Traditional rail flatcars are limited by track geometry to around 90 foot long, and the railroads have figured out how to fit two 45 foot trailers or a 53 foot and a 28 foot for a close coupled load that doesn’t irritate the wind overly much. The newer spine cars can efficiently fit 40 to 53 foot trailers or a pair of 28s, while the well cars used for containers and trailers are designed to fit the standard international 20 and 40 foot long containers and can usually adapt to fit some of the longer 45, 48, and 53 foot trailers. Plop a 33 foot long trailer in those slots and you get a bunch of wasted space and reduced train capacity. Worse yet, the gaps between trailers increase from a couple feet to a bakers dozen or more feet, destroying the “drafting” effect that along with the reduced rolling resistance of steel wheels on steel rails makes trains so efficient. With all this engineering stupidity alone in the bill, Obama has reputedly already promised a veto.

Now one would think the truckers would at least knock their heads together and come up with something smarter- double 40 foot trailers/containers are the worlds most common size and will fit around the interstate cloverleaf loops, which are in fact the pinch points for allowing longer trucks on the Interstates and major highways. Then allow more weight provided it’s carried on more axles, allowing heavier loads with less wear on the roads. It’d be a win-win that would be good for the environment and benefit all kinds of truckers… But Noooo!

Instead another group of truckers, the truckload carriers, are opposing lengthening the double trailers. These bottom feeders, known for their “one week wonder” drivers, seem to be in love with their obsolete 53 foot trailers, despite having pretty much paid them off over the last couple decades that they’ve been the standard. These are the truckers that haul the denser loads that push up against the federal 80,000 pound weight limit, and you’d think they’d demand a “me too” increase to 88,000 pounds (40 metric tons), which is pretty much the world standard. Heck, even those Swedish socialists allow 60 metric tons, the Germans 52 tons, and most of the rest of Europe at least 44 tons. But in a pronouncement that will haunt trucking for decades, the truckload carriers are opposing the increase in double trailer length, telling Congress and everyone else that a measly 80,000 pound (36 metric tons and change) weight limit is just fine, and they have no desire for more. Duly noted, as the American trucking biz continues their slow slide into irrelevance…

Meanwhile, the EPA coughed up their proposed fuel economy standards for big trucks for well into the next decade for comment. And despite the EPA’s rep (I heard them disparaged by even a democratic congress member yesterday), the regulations are actually quite workable and will save the trucking industry double digit percentages on fuel, and fuel is usually a trucker’s biggest cost. And unlike the car and light truck standards that require extensive testing and set hard MPG targets, the new EPA regulations require 8% to 24% improvement in MPG over the next dozen years… That’s doable. Recognizing the limited resources of small manufacturers that don’t even make their own engines, the EPA will allow them to use low tech methods like coast down tests or high tech fluid dynamics simulations to calculate the wind resistance of their vehicles, then plug in the fuel maps from their engine suppliers and parasitic drag data from drivetrain and tire makers to estimate MPG and comply. The EPA isn’t clumping all the trucks together in one bunch either… There are separate standards by usage, weight, cab type, trailer type, weight, and even for fire trucks and heavy haul tractors. The standards aren’t perfect… I’d like to see an aerodynamic allowance for cabover trucks and tractors, questionable technology like automated manual transmissions and predictive cruise contrail is favored, and could they please have done the whole thing in metric units and gotten the EC in on the deal?

But all in all, the EPA has produced a win-win that will cut greenhouse gases and trucker’s costs… But no doubt the same Teabaggers who complained about the democrats giving them cheaper health insurance will bellyache about saving $$$ at the fuel pump too!

BMWMOA ‘fesses up on their forum:

“Greetings from the RV Team,

Well it looks like it’s going to be a big year for the RV crowd in Billings. Since Rally time is drawing near we thought we would address some of the RV related items here.

We sold all of the available Full Service sites in record time and the only sites still available on the MetraPark grounds are in the Boondocking area.”

I’ve been noticing this trend all spring at BMW rallies- While I counted around 50 four wheelers at the Iowa BMW rally on saturday, there were only a bit over 100 bikes and tents with a paid registration of 290. At the Land of Oz BMW rally a week before the RVs exceeded the supply of hook ups to power them too. The only BMW rally I attended this year that wasn’t overrun with RVs was GR3 and the Florida BMW rally, probably because the hosting club has a deal to give members cheap access to the site’s military housing. No surprise… when a bunch of outa shape Harley owners face the prospect of trying to ride unreliable uncomfortable motorcycles to a gathering point more than a couple hundred miles away, they load ’em up and trailer. When a bunch of BMW owners face a similar problem but with more comfortable bikes and more income, they load ’em up and tow ’em behind the motorhome.

The implications of this market shift are a few years out, but you can see where the BMW motorhomers are headed… Electric, water, the attendant sewer, and of course internet access so they can watch the rally on their laptop will be must haves for the BMWMOA. Rather than scenic getaways with a few conveniences, the selection criteria for future BMW Motorhome Owners of America rallies will be STAA big rig access and hectares of pavement. Access to emergency rooms will trump access to good ridin’ roads, and the farklefest AKA vendor area will be pre-empted by dueling medical specialists that can pay higher rent and keep BMWMOA solvent.

So in a couple weeks motorhomes bigger than a city bus towing damn near as big trailers full of low mileage BMWs will overrun Billings. BMW AG will quietly take a stake in Winnebago Industries while the farkle peddlers will introduce… Farkles for RVs. Me, I got a Yamaha and a $50 Costco tent… I’m good!

From the folks at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, your tax dollars at work:

Average expenditure and frequency reported for various types of maintenance and repair, by average age of vehicle(s), 2012
Selected maintenance and repair expenses All Average age of household vehicle(s)
New–5 years 6–10 years 11–15 years
Expenditure Level Frequency (in percent) Expenditure Level Frequency (in percent) Expenditure Level Frequency (in percent) Expenditure Level Frequency (in percent)
Average annual maintenance/repair expenditure $546  … $437  … $588  … $576  …
Tires—purchased, replaced, installed/repair tires and other repair work $132.46 16 $127.73 11 $164.24 17 $124.88 16
Lube, oil change, and oil filters 54.11 41 63.75 41 65.54 47 50.32 40
Motor repair, replacement 48.02 3 13.68 1 39.89 3 56.54 4
Brake work, including adjustments 40.82 6 25.48 3 48.75 7 44.81 7
Motor tuneup 37.18 5 30.33 4 37.81 6 42.25 6
Parts, equipment, and accessories 29.98 10 15.32 5 24.12 9 32.19 12
Vehicle air-conditioning repair/electrical system repair 28.92 4 3.59 1 32.08 4 35.49 5
Repair to steering or front end/front-end alignment, wheel balance, and rotation 28.84 5 19.86 5 32.95 6 28.80 5
Clutch, transmission repair 21.35 1 8.66 0 21.70 1 27.08 1
Bodywork and painting 18.53 1 29.04 1 18.17 1 16.45 1
Repair to engine cooling system 12.83 2 3.78 1 8.99 1 21.43 3
Exhaust system repair 8.34 1 1.62 0 6.71 1 12.49 1
Auto repair service policy 7.23 0 18.41 1 9.12 1 4.09 0
Vehicle products and cleaning services 6.99 7 10.85 8 8.72 8 5.64 6
Shock absorber, replacement 4.51 0 0.62 0 4.73 0 6.45 1
Coolant, brake fluid, transmission fluid, and other additives 3.11 6 1.10 2 1.93 4 3.80 7
Vehicle audio and video equipment 2.50 0 2.75 0 2.54 0 3.25 1
Miscellaneous auto repair, servicing/gas tank repair, replacement (from Diary Survey) 60.11 6
See footnotes at end of table.
Average expenditure and frequency reported for various types of maintenance and repair, by average age of vehicle(s), 2012 (continued)
Selected maintenance and repair expenses Average age of household vehicle(s)
16–20 years 21–25 years 26 or more years
Expenditure Level Frequency (in percent) Expenditure Level Frequency (in percent) Expenditure Level Frequency (in percent)
Average annual maintenance/repair expenditure $483  … $457  … $502  …
Tires—purchased, replaced, installed/repair tires and other repair work $96.03 2 $78.80 14 $61.86 15
Lube, oil change, and oil filters 36.21 31 30.16 28 25.36 24
Motor repair, replacement 69.41 4 58.16 4 81.83 5
Brake work, including adjustments 29.58 6 30.66 6 17.02 6
Motor tuneup 32.69 5 33.57 5 23.72 4
Parts, equipment, and accessories 34.07 13 29.93 14 132.27 16
Vehicle air-conditioning repair/electrical system repair 30.50 5 18.95 4 18.80 5
Repair to steering or front end/front-end alignment, wheel balance, and rotation 28.11 5 22.61 4 22.43 3
Clutch, transmission repair 16.13 1 31.10 3 10.52 1
Bodywork and painting 14.87 1 22.80 1 16.11 2
Repair to engine cooling system 10.31 2 14.01 2 11.80 3
Exhaust system repair 10.43 1 4.45 1 4.90 1
Auto repair service policy 1.94 0 4.06 0 2.94 0
Vehicle products and cleaning services 3.87 5 3.42 4 4.14 5
Shock absorber, replacement 1.96 0 7.97 1 1.37 0
Coolant, brake fluid, transmission fluid, and other additives 5.48 10 5.45 11 4.45 10
Vehicle audio and video equipment 1.10 0 0.57 0 2.14 1
Miscellaneous auto repair, servicing/gas tank repair, replacement (from Diary Survey)
Note: 23,026 consumer units with one or more vehicles = 100 percent. Dashes indicate expenditures measured only in the Consumer Expenditure Diary Survey. The age of vehicles is not observed in the Diary data, so the average expenditure is assumed to be uniformly distributed across the average vehicle age. Zero indicates less than 0.5 percent.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

I love big data!

The people who bring you the Consumer Price Index, the BLS, has been collecting economic stats for the better part of a century, in detail… If you want to know what the average price of a loaf of bread was in Chicago in a particular month decades ago, they can tell you. In this instance, they surveyed 23,000 vehicle owners and asked them what their cars were costing them. That’s a “statistically significant” sample, as the stats geeks like to say. Take a look at the top line, “average annual maintenance/repair expenditure”… As expected, it’s lowest during a cars first 5 years of life. But now the surprise stats: While maintenance/repair expenses climb slightly between 6 and 10 years, those expenses don’t keep rising during subsquescent 5 year periods, clear out to 30 years!

There has to be a catch, right… Aren’t all those older vehicles owned by collectors who don’t drive enough miles to break anything? Look at the incidence of oil changes and tire replacements… Shows only a slight drop off after 20 years, suggesting that these older cars are “daily drivers” rather than rarely driven collectables. And despite seeing nearly as many miles as the newer cars, the only area where the 26 years and older cars had significantly higher repair costs than newer ones was in the “parts, equipment. and accessories category, where the quarter century and older cars “nickeled and dimed” their owners to the tune of an extra hundred bucks or so a year. Heck, that don’t even make one monthly payment on a new car!

The takeaway: New vehicles are not a necessity… Run those old ones into the ground!

On Memorial Day I honor two William Slyters: My great great grandfather who died near Memphis in the Civil War and my father who served in Hawaii in World War Two.

From reading the history of the senior William’s 28th Wisconsin Infantry, it appears that during the units 3 years of service they saw but a few days of combat. This is reflected in the dozen or so combat fatalities among the thousand odd 28th’s soldiers, while around 200 died by stupid accidents and disease as my great great grandfather did. I doubt this was by design- President Lincoln and his generals certainly wanted to engage and defeat the confederates as promptly as possible. But even the north’s railroads were still making there way across the Mississippi River, the south’s few railroads couldn’t even agree on a common gauge, and once away from the mighty Miss’, the rivers soon got too small to navigate. With scarce horses and wagons dedicated to hauling supplies, both union and confederate armies tended to move at a walking pace, with the union troops having to walk to the south before battle could even commence. Throw in days spent foraging for essentials and sitting out southern humidity and northern snows, and it’s no wonder the Civil War was a long and slow one.

Shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack the younger William gave up a job as recreation leader where he kept depression deprived kids busy and out of trouble in Minneapolis’ parks and enlisted. After basic training the Army gave him the same job in Hawaii, working to boost the morale of service members on R&R or injured in combat. Other than overly large servings of pineapple, my dad had no complaints about the plentiful food and supplies. Heck, the military even flew him home to Minnesota for his dad’s funeral. In less than a century, America’s military had become proficient at logistics, freeing soldiers to tend to the needs of others instead of fighting for mere survival.

So how did we get so good?

For America, the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, being fought on our home turf, presented only minor logistical challenges. For the British it was another matter, with supply and communication lines stretching for weeks across the Atlantic. For the union the Civil War presented a whole new set of challenges, the least of which was transporting and supplying a tenth of the country’s population hundreds of miles from home in an age when trains were stopped by teams of Brakemen running along the tops of cars to turn giant wheels to apply the brakes, and riverboats were routinely wrecked and burned even in peacetime. Add in state and even local militias that picked sides and came and left the war as they pleased, and the American military had to grow up fast.

That led to a national commitment to mobility, which took the form of transcontinental railroads and later a national highway system as well as deep water ports and the Panama Canal. Thus despite a late entry into World War One, America was able to ship enough troops and supplies across the Atlantic to provide the margin of victory.

Two decades later the Nazis had built a frighteningly efficient and brutal war machine that rapidly overran country after country. General Eisenhower, who had long worked to improve the military’s mobility, was amazed at the German autobahns while we were largely still a nation of two lane roads. But thanks to depression era jobs projects those were paved roads, our railroads were at peak strength. Hitler blew his logistical advantage by ordering his troops to march far beyond their supply lines in Russia while pursuing low value targets and fuel in north Africa. We invented the greatest military vehicle ever, the Jeep, and mass produced it and millions of trucks, planes, and ships. Black soldiers from the south, many of whom hadn’t even driven a car, were put on ‘dozers and built a road to Alaska, while women drivers wrestled twin engined Ford trucks hauling long bomber fuselages by night across the midwest between plants. No wonder we were able to pull off what is probably still the largest logistical exercise in history, the D-Day invasion,

After that the Korean War barely challenged our logistical skills, and in Vietnam the officer’s mess were infamously kept stocked with baked Alaska while wounded soldiers were whisked away to hospitals. But we were matched by an enemy whose supply line was a rugged trail not even ridable by bicycle that had so infiltrated the country that we were buying cement to build our airport runways from them.

With the porky Humvee replacing the svelte Jeep, we became a military that travelled too heavy and thirstily. No wonder that when the first Gulf War started, Mack workers labored through xmas vacation to build a rush order of trucks for the military, while trucking companies were running their drivers so ragged that they couldn’t move military vehicles to port quickly enough. Thankfully that little intervention into Iraq’s civil war was mercifully short.

Comes the 9/11 attack and Bush the junior had an excuse to double down on the stupid and return to Iraq. While the special forces rapidly counterattacked with air dropped ATVs, it took months for the rest of the military to get their Humvees packed up and back to Iraq. And like Vietnam, not knowing who was friend of foe, the military had to bring everything, kitchen sink and all, to Iraq. Then came the IEDs- improvised mines that would tear right through unarmored Humvees and the hordes of fuel trucks that fed them. Thus began the “uparmoring” of the Humvees, making them more thirstier and less durable. The enemy adapted with bigger IEDs, and the military answered with half million dollar MRAPs, a truck so heavily armored that it had to be built on a medium truck chassis. It says something of what the military thinks of these bloated poor excuses for a Jeep that most of them are being left in Iraq… To be captured and paraded by ISIS, at least until they figure out that they’re better off selling their stolen fuel supplies rather than waste them on these behemoths. When you’re an impromptu army that has no VA style lifelong healthcare commitment to it’s troops, a Super Duty pickup with a .50 in the bed works just as well… DOD, could you at least put a satellite activated kill switch on these things?

So America’s military mobility is at a crossroads… Clearly the age of 10 ton guzzlers with no more capacity than a crew cab pickup and relying on america’s trucking “industry” to move them are over. The military is clearly shopping for something Jeep/Land Rover size and even ATVs, and a few small contracts are even being let. But STRANET, the military’s plan for a “steel interstate system” of upgraded rail lines to speed military matter and every other form of freight and passengers is going nowhere in the current conservative congress. Too few of those congressmembers have served in the military or even have kids in the military, and too many are beholden to big military contractors… Thus they have little understanding of the military, and poor kids die in stupid trucks because of their stupidity.

DSC_4019In case you haven’t perused a recent edition of the glossy BMWMOA News lately, the club’s business plan is pretty obvious… Noting that BMW is making some some healthy profits selling overpriced motorcycles, BMWMOA figures that the well heeled owners of those new BMWs should head straight on over to their littler corporation and it’s overpriced rallies and spend a bunch more $$$. But it appears that a lot of the local clubs that founded the MOA either haven’t gotten the memo or are outright rebelling, as they persist in holding these low budget weekend rallies offering maximum fun for minimum bucks.

Thus after the previous weekend’s $20 bargain on the banks of the Missouri, I blew all of $33 for a couple nights camping, saturday night supper, a couple continental breakfasts, and all the coffee, etc. we could drink and firewood we could burn at the Great River Road Rally. The folks in the Minnesota and Iowa clubs haven’t gotten into compliance with the MOA business plan either, as they’re offering similar bargains in the coming weeks… Meanwhile, MOA expects even members to cough up $50 just for some dusty ground to sleep on at their rally!

DSC_4018Now one would think that MOA HQ in suburban St.Louis would just lay down the “law” and pressure these poverty rider enabling local clubs into line… Problem is, they can’t (and that’s a “good” problem). MOA is running scared, losing a mere few hundred members a month while the internet makes their “farkle guide” monthly rag obsolete. That means less ad revenue, which may explain why the MOA rally fee keeps risin’. That reduces MOA’s reason for living pretty much down to bulk purchasing of liability insurance for local clubs, and they can get that from AMA should MOA fold.

But MOA has a staff of ten or so and requisite payroll to make, which probably explains a lot of the desperate moves MOA is making.  Meanwhile, the local clubs are powered by volunteers who happily keep on doin’ what they do best- puttin’ on affordable events while MOA tries to keep their bloated beauracy alive and paid. MOA, get the message: You’re pricing yourself out of a shrinking market!

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