Time zone madness and sanity

The Thinker by Rodin

The Washington Post recently published an article on a proposal by an economist and professor of physics and astronomy to create a single time zone for the entire planet. Those of us who travel regularly know that time zones are a hassle because adjusting sleep cycles is rarely easy. Their plan is to use UTC (basically, Greenwich Mean Time) as the planet’s time zone.

Putting the planet on a single time zone wouldn’t solve this particular problem unless we decided to ignore our circadian rhythm, i.e. rising around sunrise and going to sleep in the dark. I would imagine the Japanese and Chinese would be pissed as they would arise around sunset and go to sleep around sunrise. However, China already sees an advantage in having a single time zone. The whole country is on one time zone, basically +12 UTC. Perhaps this helps bind them together as a nation but for those in the far eastern or western parts of the country it must seem weird. It’s particularly weird when you move from eastern China into far eastern Russia. You jump two time zones to the east! China is about the size of the United States, so it would be like everyone in the United States being on Central Time.

I don’t think a law can easily break our circadian rhythms, which is why so many of us groan when entering daylight savings time. It feels unnatural because it is unnatural, at least in early March. But it’s less unnatural if you are lower in latitude and you happen to live close to a longitudinal meridian evenly divisible by 15. For those of us on the edge of a time zone, life seems to either start too early or end too late.

I certainly noticed it last year when we moved to Massachusetts, so much so that I blogged about it. Spain is considering changing its time zone to something more natural; it has been on central European time since World War Two. Spaniards get nearly an hour less sleep because of their unnatural time zone and unsurprisingly tend to be late to bed, at least by their clocks. Siestas are a way of compensating for their unnatural time zone.

Airlines already use UTC for flight schedules. This makes a lot of sense since pilots are frequently changing time zones. Of course they do take into account the sleeping habits of the people they are moving, which is why more flights happen during the daytime than at night. Laws vary so widely across the world (North Korea recently decided to change their time zone by half an hour) that some sort of time uniformity sounds desirable. As a practical matter geography often gets in the way, with Indiana being a case in point, as it is split between eastern and central time. No system is perfect.

Living in Massachusetts the time really feels “off”. I’m not alone, which is why there is a proposal to put New England on Atlantic Time, or -4 UTC instead of Eastern Time (-5 UTC). States can set their own time zones. However, here in New England it doesn’t make much sense for each state to go it alone, as our states tend to be small. It only makes sense if everyone adopts it. Rhode Island state Rep. Blake Filippi has proposed a bill to do just this, but only if Massachusetts also adopts it. He’s hoping it would coax the other New England states to go along.

My suspicion is that if Massachusetts embraced it, the other states here in New England would too. The possible exception would be Connecticut and that’s because it has so many commuters going into New York City everyday. As “off” as the time feels here in Massachusetts where the sun rises as early as 5:12 AM where I live and sets as early as 4:17 PM, it’s even worse the further east and north you go. To take an extreme example, the sunrise in Lubec, Maine starts as early as 4:41 AM and sets as early as 3:47 PM.

This is not a big deal in more extreme northern latitudes, but New England is simply not as far north as most of Europe. We are roughly at the latitude of Northern Spain. Being on Eastern Time is purely a political decision. Going to Atlantic Time for us pushed way north and east on the U.S. eastern seaboard would make a lot of sense and would feel more natural. We’d get later sunsets in the summer and more daylight in the winter when it is greatly needed.

So here’s hoping. Maybe I’ll write my state legislators. Winter is dark and dreary enough around here. There’s no point in making it more so. So I say let’s skip the idea of a worldwide time zone and make tweaks to the time zone maps we already use to make them fairer to actual human beings. As for us in New England, we have already suffered enough. Put us on Atlantic Time!

New England oddities

The Thinker by Rodin

We moved up to Massachusetts’s Pioneer Valley in April. Where the heck is the Pioneer Valley? The Pioneer Valley follows the Connecticut River through Western Massachusetts. It sits roughly between the Berkshire Mountains close to New York State and the Boston metropolitan area to its east. It’s a beautiful but underappreciated part of the country, which is part of its charm. Its largest city is Springfield, which is Massachusetts’s third largest city. We’re hanging out in Easthampton its the north, while we wait to move into our house in Florence hopefully in a few weeks.

We’re in a getting acquainted phase. Life is definitely slower here, but not too slow. Nature is easy to get to and is often right outside your door. There are many city amenities too. Northampton has Smith College, a women’s college, but across the river you will also find Mount Holyoke (another women’s college), Hampshire College, Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Northampton has a bustling arts scene, a totally cute downtown, an amazing number of really good restaurants and little in the way of traffic.

Still, having lived here four months there are some things here that strike me odd, at least compared to where we came from. Here for your amusement is some that I’ve noted:

  • While there is no noticeable New England accent this far west, there are some regionalisms you encounter from time to time. You can find Subways out here but it can be hard to find a “submarine” there. That’s because they call them “grinders”. A grinder though appears to be a toasted submarine. I’m not sure what they call a non-toasted grinder. I doubt it’s a submarine. Maybe you say, “Gimme a grinder, hold the heat.”
  • Governance out here is kind of peculiar. The counties are largely disempowered entities. There may be a county jail and courthouse, but that’s about it. Instead, each county is subdivided into various towns and cities and that’s where real power is exercised.
  • Towns in New England operate differently than other towns. Real business is transacted at town meetings so exactly what the town decides to do really depends on who happens to show up, and that’s typically whoever cares enough to attend. Since a lot of citizens are apathetic, primarily those that show up at town meetings exercise power, all without the need to run a campaign. Where I came from (Northern Virginia) no one would have an opinion about whether the school system should buy a new school bus. These sorts of issues that typically have to be voted on by citizenry at a town meeting. While there are town officials, their powers are pretty weak, with major decisions made by those who bother to show up at town meetings.
  • Because of the way that towns work in New England is kind of a hassle unless the population of the town is relatively small, towns have incentive to incorporate into cities. That’s true of where I am living now (Easthampton). There are only 16,000 residents in Easthampton but running it as a town was such a hassle that in 1999 voters decided to become a city instead. This meant that there were no more town meetings and voters had to elect a city council instead. At least in Easthampton’s case, while it is officially a city it still thinks of itself as a town. It can’t seem to get its act together to do things you would expect a city would do, like fix its roads. On the plus side, citizens don’t have to go through the hassle of attending town meetings regularly.
  • The roads around here make little sense and are quite obviously the paved over cattle tracks of two hundred or more years earlier. They take you to places you don’t particularly want to go, but where people needed to go hundreds of years ago, perhaps an old mill by the river. This means getting from Point A to Point B rarely involves a direct route, but winding your way through lots of streets and side streets instead.
  • Road names are often practically named. Northampton for example has Easthampton Road that takes you to Easthampton. Cross over into Easthampton and it becomes Northampton Street because it will take you to Northampton. This made sense when it took longer to get between places but the two cities are very close together, so it makes little sense anymore.
  • Each city and town replicates street names in the other cities and towns, and since they are all close together it gets really confusing to navigate anywhere. It helps if you never go outside your municipality. You can count on your town having a Pleasant Street, a Main Street, a Lyman Street, an Elm Street, a Maple Street and a Prospect Street. I have no idea who this Lyman person was but his name is everywhere. He must have been very popular in Easthampton because there is both a Lyman Street and a Lyman Avenue, less than a mile apart from each other. In Northampton there is a Prospect Street and a Prospect Avenue and oddly they intersect. An “avenue” would suggest a wider street but Prospect Street is much wider than Prospect Avenue. Go figure.
  • The same road will have multiple names. State Road 9 cuts east to west through the Pioneer Valley but its name constantly changes. In Northampton alone, it starts out by the river as Bridge Street then morphs into Main Street downtown then becomes Elm Street, then becomes North Elm Street, then Locust Street then reverts back to Main Street when you enter the village of Florence. All these name changes occur within a few miles.
  • Farm stands are everywhere. During the harvest season like now you hardly have to drive anywhere to run into a farm stand, and it’s easy to walk to one too. It’s all locally grown, generally in the field behind the farm stand. It seems to be a form of supplementary income for these families and their mini farms. If you want more variety there is also a weekly farmers’ market where you can buy fresh breads and locally organically raised beef, poultry and chicken.
  • Chains are few but independent businesses are many. Northampton has a couple of Subways and Starbucks, but just a couple. There is a Walmart on the north side of town, but no Target, no Applebees, and no fern bars to speak of. The closest thing to a popular chain is Dunkin Donuts, which are everywhere in New England. In short, if you pine to run an independent business, it’s a great place to locate. Plan to drive quite a ways if you want to go to a mall, see a movie or shop at a Costco or BJs.

There is more to explore in the years ahead, so perhaps in some future post I will post more of these oddities.

Don’t be the roadkill on the global climate change super highway

The Thinker by Rodin

Most Americans are comfortably in denial about global climate change. In some places, like in the Florida state government, saying the phrases global warming or global climate change may get you in trouble. Governor Tim Scott doesn’t believe it’s happening and doesn’t want to hear his minions utter these naughty words. His overwhelmingly Republican legislature is happy to back him up. Meanwhile, in places like Miami and Fort Lauderdale, where rising sea levels are already happening, city and county officials are funding mitigation strategies to minimize flooding that is already underway. A king tide can pull ocean water onto streets at certain times of the year when the earth is closest to the sun and the moon is closest to the earth. Meanwhile, condos keep going up along Florida’s coasts.

My sister lives in Hollywood near Fort Lauderdale. She has the typical ranch house. Despite having a house on concrete blocks, twice in the last few years her house has flooded. Like most of her neighbors, she loves living in Florida and particularly near the coast. Her boat is parked at a local marina. Retirement is on her horizon. She is not stupid and understands that rising sea levels are already affecting her and it will be more of a problem in their future. Her retirement plans, such as they are, are to move inland to Arcadia, where the cost of living is very cheap and the elevation is 57 feet above sea level, which it at least higher than Hollywood’s 9 feet.

Perhaps that will work for her. As sea levels rise, it will be harder to get goods to places like Arcadia. In general there will be a lot of people along Florida’s coasts slowly coming to grasp the magnitude of climate change events underway. It’s not hard to predict more dikes and heightened sand dunes along the coasts as a coping mechanism. It’s not hard to figure out who will eventually win: Mother Nature. Rick Scott may want to deny it, but you can’t change chemistry or pretend it’s not happening. Add more carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere, and the atmosphere will warm, ice will melt and sea levels will rise. I’ve urged my sister to move out of Florida altogether, or if she must live in Florida to pick a place like Tallahassee where the elevation gets as high as 203 feet.

Meanwhile, California is trying to grasp with the magnitude of its issues, which is driven by global climate change, which was triggered by global warming. It’s not news to read they are about a decade into a steadily worsening drought. Only 5% of the normal snowpack fell in the mountains this year. Governor Jerry Brown, who does acknowledge global climate change, is trying to ration water but there are lots of legal exemptions. California is browning up, but it’s hardly alone in the west. Much of its population is in real risk of having their taps run dry in the next few years. In some places in California, it already has as wells run dry.

As Bachman-Turner Overdrive sang: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” To grasp the future, look at what is happening today in the Mediterranean Sea. Almost daily there are heartbreaking stories of refugees fleeing Africa and the east coast of the Mediterranean for Europe, and many are drowning at sea when their boats capsize or are deliberately sunk. It’s true that a lot of these refugees are escaping war or political unrest, and overpopulation in that area is also straining resources, which is contributing to their poverty and desperation. But climate change is certainly a factor there as well and some believe provided the fuel for wars in Syria. When it becomes sufficiently painful, people will use whatever resources they have to move from poverty to wealth and from war to peace. Thousands have already perished at sea but still they come despite the risks. As climate change worsens we’ll see this problem only get worse, and it will drive a lot of war and conflict. As sea levels rise people will simply vote with their feet and move to higher elevations, causing political instability and turmoil.

Global climate change is inescapable, but that doesn’t mean a lot of it cannot be mitigated. My wife and I are now residents of Massachusetts and were formerly residents of Northern Virginia. Nestled now in mountainous western Massachusetts, we are strategically positioned to minimize the effects of global climate change on our lives. The one comment we invariably got when we disclosed we were moving north was, “But you are supposed to move south when you retire.”

That’s the old rules. In 36 years of living in Northern Virginia we have already witnessed climate change (not to mention explosive growth). What were once native plantings in our area are no longer suited for the new climate reality. They are now considered native further north. We’ve seen temperatures rising in general and more frequent severe weather. Life was a lot more bearable in Northern Virginia in 1984 when I first moved to Reston than 31 years later. New England is changing too. It’s becoming the new Mid-Atlantic, with more severe weather and higher temperatures. It will get into the eighties up here this week, and it’s only the first week of May.

We made a conscious decision not to retire out west, at least not to those areas that are already impacted by climate change, which is most of the west. Their problems are only exacerbated by population growth. California is very vulnerable, but it is hardly alone. Most of the population of the southwest survives due to the largess of the Colorado River, which on average is recording reduced streamflow every year. The Colorado River is typically dry before it hits the Pacific Ocean, all due to human usage.

That’s not a problem out here in western Massachusetts, at least not yet. We’re nowhere near the coast, so coastal storms will affect us less, although the last few years around here have seen record snowfalls. Water is in abundant supply and there are huge reservoirs to supplement the supply during droughts. We are close to local farms as well as major interstates. Not coincidentally we are not too far from major cities like New York and Boston, so we can enjoy their amenities as we age.

In short, our retirement choices were built around the reality of global climate change to maximize our happiness and to reduce our costs and vulnerabilities due to climate change. We have chosen to be proactive about this obvious problem rather than stick our heads in the sand like Rick Scott is doing.

We will all be impacted by climate change, and I suspect the majority will be severely impacted eventually. I can and do advocate for changes to reduce the rate of global warming. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, who sees the future and plans to profit from it by offering batteries to power the home encourage me. In the new neighborhood we will call home when our house constructed is finished, about half the homes already have solar panels. I expect within a few years we will as well, with the eventual goal of going off-grid if we can. Massachusetts agrees as well, and offers generous credits for those interested in solar power and reducing energy usage. Don’t expect Rick Scott to do anything this intelligent for his citizens.

Human nature being what it is, most of us will live in ignorance or choose denial about global climate change until it is too late. By then it will be far more costly to do something about it than it is today. In the case of my sister in Florida, I’ve urged her to sell her house now. It’s not practical for her at the moment since she is not retired, but now she can get full price for her house. As the reality of global climate change settles in down there, it’s going to lower everyone’s home prices. Eventually these properties will be worthless and much of her net worth could be irretrievably lost.

I don’t want her to become roadkill on the global climate change superhighway. I don’t want you too either. It is time to get past the self-destructive denial on the issue, and plan your lives to minimize its impact. It’s coming at you and it will change everything but unfortunately it’s hard to see because it seems so abstract and nebulous. But it’s coming nonetheless.

Be prepared.

Some moderate weather, please

The Thinker by Rodin

If I am sick of extremes in politics then I am also sick of extremes in temperature. Living as I do only some twenty miles from Capitol Hill, certainly the center of hot air in the United States, you would think some of that hot air would be headed my way right now. It might, you know, chase away this unwelcome winter that most of us east of the Mississippi are dealing with.

Too much. Too much hot air in Washington. Too much global warming (2010 was our hottest year in recorded memory, including here in the Washington D.C. area), too much extreme snowfall (Snowmageddon and Snowpocalypse, all within the last twelve months), too much extreme weather in general. Now this: days of unrelenting arctic weather and our first brush of snow for the season. Lots of hot air and lots of cold air, but I don’t recall too many days when things were just uniformly comfortable. Perhaps we had plenty of days like this in 2010, but my fading memory does not remember many of them.

No, I am stuck in the misery of the present. Winter does not officially start for a week, but it arrived early nonetheless. The Midwest was largely shut down by a wayward mass of arctic air. A stadium’s roof collapses in Minneapolis from nearly two feet of white stuff. Here we have been dealing with nearly two weeks of continuously below freezing temperatures and brisk northwesterly winds. Maybe it’s not Chicago but that’s the point, it’s not Chicago. We deserve better than this.

We deserve better than cars that hesitate to start. We deserve better than, not just mere gusts of wind, but steady freezing winds of twenty to 30 miles an hour day and night, yet with occasional gusts wherein Mother Nature showed us her power. On our screened in porch, Mother Nature decided the door had to blow open twice. The darn thing is screened. The wind is supposed to blow through it.

I feel like Nanook of the North, just (until today) without the snow. Going outside is an act of courage. It involves donning my warmest, stuffed and fleece-filled coat, often with a sweater on underneath it, my thickest gloves that recede past my wrists toward my elbows, my warmest stocking gap and a scarf. It’s still not enough. Facing into the wind feels not just cold, it feels sadistic.

I enjoy a window facing office, but not so much in the winter. I arrive at work and my office is cold. There is a heater by the window that I immediately crank up. I also put on my extra sweater, which goes on top of my long sleeve shirt and undershirt. It is still not enough to feel warm. All morning the heat pours from the window heater but it is never enough until sometime in the afternoon when the sun finally shines through my window and the high outside makes it to 24 degrees. That seems to do the trick.

I am rethinking my notion of retiring in New England. Of course, I enjoy a brisk autumn day, but who needs their long and miserable winters? Who needs the constant snow shoveling? Maybe New Englanders, like Chicagoans, get used to it. I think I am too old. I don’t like heat. I don’t like extreme cold. Give me lots and lots of moderate and comfortable weather. Give me weather that is boring, but predictable. The lows might creep into the fifties and highs would rarely get much into the eighties. That is what I want now, even if I have to deal with long, dreary and wet days to get it.

Some place like Oregon, perhaps. We had close to a week in Oregon this summer, but we also spent a couple of days in the dreary Oregon coastal murk. However, it was a lovely dreary coastal murk. Back home, the ozone was at unhealthy levels, the heat was frequently reaching triple digits, massive thunderstorms were leaving tens of thousands without power and the humidity, when you ventured outside your air conditioned sanctum, caught itself in your lungs and oppressed you with its heaviness.

Someday I will escape it for good. I will retire somewhere where living is comfortable and I rarely need to either wear shorts or a coat. I’ll be like Mister Rogers and be content in a light cardigan sweater. I’ll feel mellow. If I never have to deal with a thunderstorm again, that will be fine. I’ve had my fill of them. In Oregon, thunderstorms are almost unheard of. They may have to deal with the occasional plume of volcanic ash or earthquake, but they happen very rarely when they happen at all. Weather fronts, when they decide to arrive, arrive slowly. You may not even know that they came. This would be fine with me.

No Sun Belt retirement for me. There will likely be no New England retirement for me either, although hopefully I can pay extended visits during the temperate times of the year. Instead, give me a home where the weather, like its people, is ordinary and moderate.

New England is still calling me

The Thinker by Rodin

During the summer of 2008, my family took a roadtrip to Beantown, stopping along the way at artsy places like Mount Gretna, Pennsylvania and lowlife way stations like the Ghosthunters show storefront in beautiful (well, actually kind of ugly) downtown Warwick, Rhode Island.

This week I finally had a reason to fly into Beantown, a.k.a. Boston, Massachusetts. Beantown turned out to be a way station to my real destination, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, which sits on the southern side of Cape Cod. There I spent three days in a lovely conference room and spent my evenings wandering around Woods Hole and nearby Falmouth. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute sits in what is probably the most bucolic campus in the country, with dozens of lovely building surrounded by maple and oak trees, joined by lovely walkways and with the Atlantic Ocean just a fifteen minute walk away.

As I told my daughter, I enjoy my short distance business trips the best. The shortest ones generally occur in my own time zone, and I can get there with a direct flight, generally lasting an hour or so. Getting there does not swallow most of my day. As it turned out, it took longer to drive between Boston’s Logan airport and Falmouth (where we stayed) than it did to fly between Washington Dulles and Boston. There were no weather or aircraft delays, just routine traffic delays trying to drive out of Boston during rush hour.

Cape Cod is further away from Boston than I thought. I imagined you could glimpse it from Boston Harbor but I doubt that is true, at least not at surface level. It is further east and further south than I imagined. Falmouth, where we stayed, turned out to be a lovely and typical New England town with plenty of stores, galleries and restaurants designed mostly for tourist season. In October, while the tourist traffic was somewhat off, the locals were friendly, looked well moneyed and were overwhelmingly white.

The citizens of this part of Massachusetts are an unfailingly polite group, or so it appeared to this visitor. A walk down the Shining Sea Bike Path into Woods Hole led to many pleasant greetings from fellow residents. Woods Hole is small and exclusive enough to make it nigh impossible to park without a permit. It is also a harbor town. Aside from serving oceanographic interests, it acts as a conduit for tourists to and residents of Martha’s Vineyard. For $7.50 you can board a ferry that will deposit you on the island. Make sure you also purchase a return trip and not miss the 9:30 PM ferry, or you may be in for a long and cold night. Particularly during the summer season, without a reservation you cannot count on a room at Martha’s Vineyard.

I looked hard to find things to dislike about this part of Cape Cod. Most towns in New England come complete with a picturesque town square or commons, which offer a lovely dose of tamed nature in what would otherwise be a busy part of town. In Falmouth, my group found plenty of old churches, meeting halls and restaurants. Dinner at The Quarterdeck in Falmouth revealed a tavern populated not by tourists but by locals, all of whom seemed to be on intimate terms with each other. There was not a hint of crime or litter in Falmouth. Nor could I complain that the town felt fake. Steeped in hundreds of years of history, it cannot help but be authentic. Nor, after walking its long main street, I could I find a chain restaurant, a real plus. If you do not enjoy seafood, you would probably be happier elsewhere, but if you do enjoy seafood you are blessed with abundant and fresh seafood at local restaurants, which you can watch being hauled in at harbors like Woods Hole.

If forced to find items to complain about, one could make the case that the local roundabouts found on the Cape as well as much of New England, while quaint, are annoying and create backups at certain parts of the day. I also checked the local real estate prices. The riff raff are apparently easy to keep away because they cannot afford to live in this area. It helps to inherit a relative’s property or to have a six figure income. Otherwise you probably cannot afford to live in this area, despite its conspicuous absence of supersized houses.

This second trip to New England in less than two years made me realize again that New England is loudly calling for me to settle there. Fortunately, it is also calling my wife, which means we will be looking at retiring, if not in some charming Cape Cod town like Falmouth, then somewhere in New England, providing we can afford it. While there are definitely some not so nice areas of New England (such as Revere, where Logan Airport sits) much of it is charming and inviting to those who like a northern climate.

I imagine New England gets much less charming in the winter, particularly during its abundant snow season. I suspect much of its charm would wear off after shoveling snow several times a week. Most people retire from places like Boston, not to these places. I may find that the milder climate of Northern Virginia where we now live is much better overall.

Still, now that I have an exposure to New England, I want to live here. It will be hard to convince myself to spend my retired years somewhere else.