Weather Report

storm chasing as an art

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I am not now, nor have I ever been, a storm chaser. Forsooth, this is entirely because I have never had the time and the money to be one, and I don’t expect those conditions to ever change. But I love weather and I love storms. When I was a kid, the neighbors could guess the forecast by simply watching for me in the back yard. But even today, the weather has to come to me; I can’t chase it.

Once again, the web comes to the rescue, for storm chasing has become something of a popular avocation (and sometimes a profession) here in the States, especially in the Great Plains. By watching chasers’ live streams on the web, you can travel through much of the country, places I’m not likely to ever have the opportunity to visit in person. With patience, you will see some amazing sights. With the better chasers, you can learn some basic meteorology in the process.

For many parts of the United States, the weather has an existential quality. It can hurt you; it’s worth your attention. Thus for storm chasing to become something of a popular hobby, it didn’t take much. My guess is that a good bit of it was fanned by a “reality TV” program, “Storm Chasers”, that focused on the VORTEX tornado research project and a few other competing / complimentary research crews. After several seasons, the program was cancelled by the Discovery Channel. Since then, the hobby has declined somewhat. I suspect that some of the decline was the sobering consequence of the 2013 El Reno (Oklahoma) tornado that killed or injured several chasers, including the well-respected researcher Tim Samaras and his crew. Samaras was not known for taking unnecessary risks. Another well known chaser, Kelly Williamson, was killed with other chasers in an auto accident a few years later, making obvious the two major dangers in chasing: the automobiles and the weather. This activity is not for the casual.

So storm chasing can be a sort of vulgar, prurient entertainment (putting it in its worst light) or it can be an exercise in science or it can be art. I ran across two recent videos that illustrate it as an art.

The first is Mike Oblinski’s latest video, Monsoon IV.

The second is not by a storm chaser. As a pilot, Juan Browne probably would be more aptly described as being chased by storms, but his video is a celebration of rain after a dry season.

Incidentally, Browne has done excellent work as a citizen journalist in covering the civil engineering aspects of the emergency reconstruction of the Oroville Dam (California) spillway. Did that sentence send you to sleep? Wake up and visit his blancolirio channel; it’s far more interesting than you can imagine.

“Party at Ground Zero”

with apologies to Fishbone

Note: the 1994 mid-term election was a disaster for liberal / left politics, especially in Congress. The article below was my attempt to come to grips with the consequences. It was originally published in the November — December, 1994, issue of New Ground.

Party at Ground Zero

by Bob Roman

It’s hard to be current in a bi-monthly publication, and the recent elections happened right before the deadline for New Ground, but we couldn’t let the recent conflagration pass without comment. Unfortunately, the days of “scientific socialism” are past. No longer can an accurate assessment of the objective material conditions in the context of dialectical materialism turn every Jimmy Higgins into an instant Kevin Philips. Whither America? Your guess is as good as mine.

The election results were worse than we generally expected. It was considered possible that the Republicans would gain control of both the House and the Senate, but it wasn’t considered likely. It happened. The Single Payer initiative in California lost and the anti-immigrant initiative passed. The Republican sweep extended even to the state level, with Democratic governors and legislators exploding in flame like so many bone dry pines.

Yet the democratic left did not do too badly. Bernie Sanders squeaked back into the House. DSA members Ron Dellums (72%) and Major Owens (89%) were reelected.

The Democratic incumbents who were defeated tended to be the more conservative and centerist members of Congress. The ironies are manifest. We have a somewhat more liberal Democratic Congressional delegation being led by a somewhat more conservative president. No one is happy with the situation; no one wants to be identified as a Democrat — not even Bill Clinton?

“And the World Will Turn to Floating Vapor Soon”

So now we’re back to fighting defensive battles. There’ll be no more discussion about what kind of national health plan to have, at best we’ll tinker with insurance reform- maybe. Bid a sad farewell to labor law reform, reproductive rights, a better Supreme Court, public education, civil rights….

So what kind of bulwark can we expect Clinton to be? He won’t be much of one, I think. Clinton was already in favor of a balanced budget amendment and a line-item veto. His welfare reform package differed only in degree from the Republican proposal. On other issues he is as likely to roll over and ask for a belly rub as he is to show his teeth with a veto.

Luckily, the President is not the only option. The Republicans did not sleep through high school civics class. They remembered that the Federal government was designed specifically to provide a minority veto to the desires of the majority. They have very professionally demonstrated the utility of such a strategy for the past two years. If at least some of the Democrats in Congress are willing, there will be plenty of opportunities for bomb throwing and sabotage.

The obstructionist strategy does have some pitfalls for the left that it did not have for the right. Destroying the ability of the majority to govern fits the conservative shibboleth of governmental incompetence just fine, and we need to be wise about just how such a strategy is implemented

Third party politics will continue to be problematic. Certainly there’s going to be a great deal of activist enthusiasm for the various third party projects on the left. Even Clinton doesn’t seem to want to be identified as a Democrat. You’ll notice that when he accepted “responsibility” for the electoral débâcle, he did not include his role as head of the Democratic Party. But the natural tendency for the organizations clustered around the Democratic Party will be to circle the wagons rather than experiment.

Don’t dismiss the possibility of a third party or independent campaigns, though. The unruly rabble of organizations and players that’s called the “Democratic Party” could split — in either direction, particularly if the electorate demonstrated an enthusiasm for the idea. Unfortunately, most of the grass roots enthusiasm for such a project is to our right. Not that a split is our balm in gilead. If it were to happen, the last of this century would remain Republican, but it could open up some longer term possibilities.

It’s more likely that we will continue to see an erosion of the relevance of party labels. Party loyalty, above the county level of government, has not been a major feature of U.S. politics for a long time. The next few years should see it drop to a new low and an increasing number of elected officials running independent, non-party campaigns.

“Do-Wacka-Do-Wacka-Do”

Stanley Aronowitz accused DSA of being only concerned about “what we’re going to do on Monday”. All right, I confess: What are we going to do on Monday? I wish I knew. Though in general terms, coalition politics will be the name of the game. It is vital that as broad a coalition as possible be mobilized to demonstrate that the “contract on America” is not acceptable. Time is critical; the Congressional conservatives will try to move very quickly. We must be there to say no!

A forest fire burns off a lot of dead wood, allowing a renewal of the forest. It’s our task to get in there and go to seed. And grow.

“This is not a charade!”

Birdman Lives!

Birdman is a fixture on Glenwood Avenue in Rogers Park. He has his down days (begging your pardon). But in general he has an invincible cheerfulness that compliments the day if it’s bright and lightens the day if it’s gloom. His colorful attire, complete with feathers, only heightens the affect. And yes, he has his flock, rock doves and various sparrows mostly, who depend on him for their daily bread. Yea verily he performs a daily miracle of turning bread into  birds.

Birdman
Birdman in less colorful Fall plumage at Glenwood and Morse in Rogers Park. Photo by Roman

I don’t know if they had Birdman in mind, but appropriately the Chicago Transit Authority overpass at Glenwood and Greenleaf is decorated with a bird mural.

Bird Mural
Photo by Roman. Wall art, Glenwood & Greenleaf.
bird mural
Photo by Roman. Wall art, Glenwood & Greenleaf.
bird mural
Photo by Roman. Wall art, Glenwood & Greenleaf.
bird mural
Photo by Roman. Wall art, Glenwood & Greenleaf.
bird mural
Photo by Roman. Wall art, Glenwood & Greenleaf.
bird mural
Photo by Roman. Wall art, Glenwood & Greenleaf. Note mushroom cloud in the raptor’s eye.
bird mural
Photo by Roman. Wall art, Glenwood & Greenleaf.
bird mural
Photo by Roman. Wall art, Glenwood & Greenleaf.
bird mural
Photo by Roman. Wall art, Glenwood & Greenleaf.
bird mural
Photo by Roman. Wall art, Glenwood & Greenleaf.
bird mural
Photo by Roman. Wall art, Glenwood & Greenleaf.
bird mural
Photo by Roman. Wall art, Glenwood & Greenleaf.
bird mural
Photo by Roman. Wall art, Glenwood & Greenleaf.
bird mural
Photo by Roman. Wall art, Glenwood & Greenleaf.

 

Trainspotting

Yes, I’m a foamer.

A… foamer? You might ask.

“Foamer” is a bit of railroad slang for railroad fan, aka train spotter, aka nerd. Just imagine it from the railroad employee’s point of view. It’s another long day at a job (though not necessarily the work) you may hate, employing equipment that is so old or ill-maintained that you have to fight it to use it when, dogging your every step with a camera (including maybe a few rules-violating short cuts) is a starry-eyed nut. You might be flattered but you might just as easily be pissed-off, especially if said foamer engages in unsafe behavior. They often do.

The web has been kind to both parties, allowing for virtual “rail fanning” at places and circumstances you’re never likely to be able to access otherwise: for example, the locomotive cab of a intercity passenger train in Vietnam.

The above example is not the only Vietnam locomotive cab ride video available on the web, but it was my first encounter with the subject. Here’s my take-away from the two hours and change journey:

  • This locomotive engineer does love the horn and is not entirely disciplined in using it. Apparently the locomotive is not equipped with a bell, as there are many circumstances when here in the States an engineer would be using the bell instead of the horn. On the other hand, other sources tell me that the railroads in Vietnam have a real problem with vehicle and pedestrian collisions, and in fact there are probably more pedestrian grade crossings than there are vehicle grade crossings on this route. Maybe I’d be leaning on the horn too.
  • Here in the States you’ll find instances of “street running,” places where the tracks run down the middle of a street. These are usually branch lines or industrial spurs, but you can find a few mainline examples also, such as the South Shore railroad in Michigan City, Indiana. In this video, in both Hanoi and in Hai Phong, you’ll find what I can only describe as alley-running. (Much of the Chicago Transit Authority’s routes were built along alleys but above the alley not in them.) This particular video was recorded in 2017, and it appears to me that the railroad has had some success in gaining control of its right-of-way. It also appears to me that this was not always the case.
  • Most of the Vietnamese rail network is meter gauge, narrower than “standard” gauge, but you will see one example of dual-gauge trackage at a station that also serves a branch that connects with the Chinese rail network. The Vietnamese network also appears to use knuckle couplers rather than the European couplers for its rolling stock, and while most of that rolling stock appears European in its design sensibilities, these are large pieces of equipment. (I’m not sure how many folks realize just how big freight cars and passenger cars have become in the States in the past half century.) Other sources tell me that the Vietnamese right-of-way is not particularly well-maintained, but the Hanoi – Hai Phong route must then be an exception. It was smooth running, signal equipped (possibly some Centralized Traffic Control in the Hanoi region?), often brisk in speed and (apparently) radio equipped.
  • Despite the above modernity, the railroad is very labor intensive. There are crossing guards at most major road crossings and sometimes not just crossing gates but crossing fences. Judging by the crowds and traffic, the fences may very well be necessary. There are switchmen stationed at most station sidings and station agents at every station; they all meet the train, regardless of whether it is to stop or not. I get the impression that this will be changing, but like many state-owned enterprises, employment is perhaps as much a priority as profit.
  • The railroad is struggling for freight business. There were very few industrial spurs. New greenfield industrial plants had no sidings. A few older plants had sidings but no active connection with the mainline. There may have been one siding that was serving as a “team track”. This passenger run met only one freight train of a dozen cars or so, parked on a siding and awaiting a crew. There was also a switch engine in the Hai Phong terminus yard shunting freight cars. Many station sidings had surplus freight equipment stored. (You can find that here in the States also, though we tend to use entire branch lines.) Other sources confirm that the railroad has a very small percentage of the freight traffic in Vietnam, though much of the freight in Vietnam is likely short haul or barge or ship: tough to compete with.
  • Finally, Vietnam is a odd juxtaposition of the familiar and the alien. There is just so much to look at. If the engineer’s enthusiasm for the horn becomes irritating (and it will), turn the sound down or off. You won’t regret the journey.

It’s a Hard Rain That’s Gonna Fall

Racine County has been in the news lately in connection with the great Foxconn give-away, or rip-off if you prefer. Back in 1991, though, the city of Racine was the location of a rather nasty strike at Rainfair. The mostly female workforce stayed out, braved “permanent replacements” and eventually successfully settled the strike.

It might be just another nasty, forgettable episode in the long history of class conflict in America, but rumor on the street was that Management’s aggressive stance was not entirely a result of the company’s circumstances but rather that Wisconsin’s business community had decided it was time to tame the union movement. If you take the long view, this strike may have been the start a long process culminating in Governor Scott Walker and his ilk.

The two articles below were published in the Winter, 1991, and the Spring, 1992, issues of New Ground.

It’s a Hard Rain That’s Gonna Fall

by Bob Roman

A small civil war is simmering just across the Wisconsin border in Racine. It is there that the 136 members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union Local 187 have been on strike against Rainfair, a manufacturer of rain gear. The mostly female employees of Rainfair have been on strike since June 20, after the company provoked a strike by presenting a final offer demanding unreasonable concessions from their workers. The average wage of Rainfair workers was $6.60 an hour. The company demanded an increase in employee co-payment of health insurance to over $100 a month, the elimination of two paid holidays, and the scheduling of weekend work without overtime pay. Since the strike has begun, Rainfair has hired 72 scabs as “permanent replacements”. The strike is widely seen as the opening move in a statewide campaign against organized labor.

Labor has good reason to be worried about this skirmish. Racine is a small industrial town with a population of some 80,000 just south of Milwaukee. It’s a union town, but it’s also a company town. The economy is dominated by Johnson and Johnson. Rainfair is owned by Craig Leipold, a relation to the Johnson family by marriage. While Racine is the Johnson family’s home turf, the family’s influence extends far beyond the town’s borders. In Wisconsin in particular, the family is part of a network of interlocking directorates among a wide variety of corporations. The word on the street is that the Johnson family has been pushing a “get tough on unions” line in the corporate boardrooms that they inhabit. The IAM and UAW have contract negotiations coming up next year with some of these companies.

It’s not just the union bureaucracies that are worried. The membership is worried and angry too. There’s been no problem in recruiting support for the Rainfair workers from the rank and file of other unions. For example, one day recently some 500 members from the Communication Workers of America showed up at the plant gate, surprising pickets, police, and scabs alike. The police, of course, regarded the event as a “riot” and the company lawyers are attempting to use it as justification for an injuction limiting picket line activities, but the unions do have difficulty in telling their members to be non-violent. It’s becoming dangerous to be a scab in Racine.

These “permanent replacements” were the occasion for a march and rally in Racine on Saturday, October 5th. The demonstration was organized to support the Rainfair strikers but also to demand the override of Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson’s veto of Wisconsin legislation which banned “permanent replacements”. A small, hastily recruited delegation from Chicago DSA attended the rally.

The rally was coordinated by the Wisconsin AFL-CIO. Some 700 people attended the rally, representing an impressive list of unions: AFGE, AFSCME, CWA, IAM, IBT, USWA, and UAW to name just a few of the more obvious. Eleven speakers exhorted the crowd to support the strikers and to lobby both state and federal legislators on anti-scab legislation. Some speakers were very good and some were not, but it didn’t seem to matter. The crowd’s spirit seemed to carry each speaker regardless of ability.

But two speakers deserve special mention. One was Jane Brosseau, who represented the Racine chapter of the National Organization for Women. She began by stating that she was talking to the women of the labor movement and the female strikers at Rainfair. This was an immediate turn-off for much of the crowd. In particular, the small but vocal delegation from the Teamsters was not at all impressed, and began talking loudly amongst themselves. But they didn’t talk for long, because they quickly perceived that Brosseau’s message was a union message: that the fight at Rainfair was important because it was a fight for equality; the women were not working for “pin money” but to support their families. By the end of her speech, Brosseau had earned the crowd’s enthusiastic approval. The other speaker of note was Illinois’ own Congressman Charles Hayes. Despite all the militant talk and demands for justice, it was Congressman Hayes who brought upt the idea of class conflict. He did it deftly, without jargon; the crowd knew exactly what he was talking about and they approved.

It’s hard to convey the spirit of the rally. Mostly it was a feeling of intense togetherness with an edge of nervous worry and anger. But there was something more. Frank Klein, a staffer with the ILGWU, observed that the labor movement is something of a counter-culture in America. The sociologist in me wants to substitute “subculture” in this observation, yet there is a romance to the movement that is instantly obvious to an aging hippie. On the final chorus of “Solidairity Forever”, the low drizzly clouds finally and decisively broke. The rally was flooded with sunlight. It may not have been Woodstock, but it sure felt like it.

Return to Rainfair: Solidarity Works

by Bob Roman

The ILGWU strike against Rainfair, reported in the last issue of New Ground, was settled on December 20. All the striking workers returned to work with a 20 cent per hour raise and a limited health insurance co-payment. The settlement is being credited to labor solidarity.

While the strike took nearly six months, the settlement reached would probably have been acceptable to the employees had it been offered to them within the first few weeks of the strike. It was only the bloody-minded anti-union attitude of the Rainfair company that kept the conflict going. It was this hostility set against an underpaid, mostly female work force represented by a small union that made the strike a perfect metaphor for the state of labor today. Sensing a public relations bonanza, the AFL-CIO started to mobilize its resources in support of the strikers.

One has to wonder at the stupidity of the Rainfair company. Most of its product is used by police, firemen, letter carriers and the building trades. Faced with the prospect of a labor boycott, Rainfair’s distributors made it very plain to the company that its goods were not worth the hassle: If a boycott developed, the wholesalers were not going to continue distributing Rainfair products. Faced with this prospect, Rainfair’s effort at union-busting collapsed, even to the point of returning production shifted elsewhere to the Kenosha plant and bringing back all the strikers. The only face the company saved was the retention of at least some of the “permanent” replacements.

The scabs do not seem to have a long life expectancy. This is not because the ILGWU is particularly interesting in running them out of the plant but rather the circumstances of work at the plant. Some of the scabs were only interested in earning Christmas money and not much interested in continuing to work past the holiday. Others had become accustomed to the lenient working conditions during the strike and were not at all prepared for the strict workplace discipline that is normal to the plant. And finally, while the “market place” does not highly value the work of the employees, it is not an unskilled occupation. These “new” employees just do not have the skill necessary to keep up with the older employees.

The strike has also had beneficial consequences outside the ILGWU. At least one Wisconsin employer, U.S. Can, has begun contract negotiations early specifically to avoid a strike. What was intended as the opening move in a campaign to break organized labor has ended in something of a retreat.

At the same time, solidarity often seems to be given more lip service than concrete application. It is true that at least part of the Rainfair victory is due to Capital’s ill-considered choice of a battleground: a company whose product is used mostly by unionized employees at the workplace and whose plant is located in a solidly union town. But rightly or wrongly, many other unions have been considerably less aggressive in soliciting outside help. It’s worth asking to what extent this is a considered judgement based on the “objective” political situation and to what extent it is that solidarity is a lesson that must be continually relearned.

2017 Chicago Botanic Garden

A long walk in the garden….

It’s been a relatively drab fall in Chicago and the weather was chill and overcast, but it was still worth taking the time to walk through the Chicago Botanic Garden. Rather more photos of water than foliage this year.

Most folks don’t realize that the Garden is accessible via public transit: PACE’s Route 213, Greenbay Road, that can be picked up a its southern terminus, the Davis Street CTA station in Evanston. Only every other run directly serves the Garden, but the alternate run will drop you off at Lake-Cook Road & Greenbay Road. This is a short walk to the Garden pedestrian gate. Added benefit: no admission charge for pedestrians.

The Garden is also served by bike paths.

leaf
photo by Roman
reflection at Chicago Botanic Garden
photo by Roman
prairie at Chicago Botanic Garden
photo by Roman
willow at Chicago Botanic Garden
photo by Roman
tree at Chicago Botanic Garden
photo by Roman
Chicago Botanic Garden
photo by Roman
water at Chicago Botanic Garden
photo by Roman
reflections at Chicago Botanic Garden
photo by Roman
Chicago Botanic Garden
photo by Roman