Saturday, December 31, 2011

Race Street

I walked downtown today. It was a leisurely walk of about three and a half hours, the maximum duration of pavement pounding that my poor feet can stand. I had stowed my digital camera in my shirt pocket in hopes of taking a photograph worthy of comment in my blog, but for mile after mile I saw nothing eye-catching, just leafless trees and patches of dirty snow in front of shops and houses. As I approached downtown, I passed the ritzy (i.e, fashionable, high-dollar, imposing, historic) mansions, built for Denver "old money", situated across the boulevard from the Denver Country Club and its private golf course. The ritzy mansions were on side streets fronted by two huge cement planters, one on each side of the street. I have seen similar planters positioned outside government office buildings in Washington, D.C. as a bulwark against suicide truck bombers. I decided to stop and photograph a planter. [See above. Note my well-proportioned, fedora-topped shadow. If your eyes are keen, you'll also note that the planter bears the street name "Race", which will shortly be revealed as a touch of irony.]

Ah, but I am getting ahead of myself. Let me back up minute or so in the account.

Before walking past the ritzy mansions, I had to cross a busy intersection. As I waited for the signal to walk, an African-American lady of late middle age came up beside me. The walk signal appeared and I hurried across the intersection, hopping blithely over stripes of slush. The lady trailed behind. Then, when I stopped to photograph the planter, she caught up and passed me. After taking the photograph, I was on the move again and quickly overtook her. The lady stepped to the side, gave me a dirty look, and said, "You go on ahead of me. I don't trust you. Why are you taking pictures of people's homes?" [The dialogue here is verbatim to the best of my recollection.]

Me: "I'm not. I took a picture of one of the planters."

She turned and scrutinized the planters. She shook her head. "That's just stupid. Haven't you ever seen a planter before? Where are you from, anyway?"

Me: "Iowa, originally."

This reply appeared to satisfy her, even though there must surely be planters in Iowa. She continued, "I used to work for the airlines and went to Iowa now and then. Lots of farms there. They're having trouble with the Sudanese in Iowa now."

I said that I didn't know about the Sudanese, but I noted that Iowa had sponsored the settlement of Vietnamese refugees back in 1975.

She waved away the Vietnamese and launched into a lecture about black men not wanting to work with their hands. "After all those years of working with their hands for nothing – slavery, you know – they don't want any more of that. They don't want to be farmers in Iowa."

Me (quietly skeptical about her assertion that black men didn't want to work with their hands, as I had worked with black mechanics, electronics technicians, etc.): "Anyway, it's nearly impossible to start farming in Iowa unless you inherit the land. Land goes for $2000 an acre. [Note: I was badly mistaken about this. See below.]

Her: "You're expletive-ing me!"

Me: "No, it's true. Only the biggest farming operations or big corporations can afford these land prices."

Her: "I'm from Mississippi. Prudential was buying up lots of cotton land down there."

Me: "Yeah, it's all about speculation now. They're crowding out the small operator. To buy a little farm of 200 acres in Iowa would require $400,000 cash for the land itself, to say nothing of a tractor and the other equipment."

She pointed to the nearest mansion. "You could buy one of these houses for that much."

The cheapest mansion in the neighborhood would run you a cool million, I thought. But there was no point in quibbling.

She brought up how people are suffering in Detroit.

Me: "Yeah, they are. Unfortunately, industry isn't coming back to Detroit any time soon. Detroit will need to shrink. They might even have to bulldoze the vacant areas."

Her (offended): "Why do you say that?"

Me (scrambling to explain): "Detroit can't afford to run water, sewer, fire department coverage, and other services out to the farthest suburbs if hardly anybody is living there."

From her expression, it was clear that she had sized me up. I was just one more old, cold-hearted white man. She said, "I'm going down this street now." She turned onto the side street without saying goodbye. She passed the cement planter and headed down the row of ritzy mansions.

I kept walking toward downtown.


Farm land prices were slowly trending up during most of the twentieth century. Then the average cost of Iowa farm land shot up to $2000 an acre in 1981 as a result of serious inflation. Paul Volcker slammed the brakes on inflation; and land prices subsided to the historical trend, taking until 2002 to regain the previous high of $2000 an acre. Since then, foolish political subsidies for ethanol and wicked changes to the commodity futures markets have caused drastic distortion in Iowa land prices. Now Iowa is in the throes of a speculative bubble in farm land, as shown in the following figure from the Iowa State University (Go Cyclones!) extension office.


Thursday, December 29, 2011

Mediterranean Currents

Over my Christmas break I have been reading a history of the Mediterranean Sea. The book, recommended by the Economist magazine in their best-of-2011 list, is The Great Sea by David Abulafia. It's a pleasant enough holiday diversion although I suspect that I'll have only the vaguest recollection of what I've read after a week or so. All the stories of the Phoenician, Greek, Carthaginian, Etruscan, and Roman sailors will soon wash out of my mind like sea foam driven by the hot winds of the African scirocco. This is an admission of a weak memory rather than an indictment of Mr. Abulafia's prose.

One bit of knowledge about sea currents, however, will stick with me. In his introduction, Mr. Abulafia explained that the Atlantic Ocean supplies the lion's share of the Mediterranean's water loss from evaporation. The steady inflow of cold Atlantic Ocean water through the Straits of Gibraltar greatly exceeds the outflow of warmer, saltier Mediterranean water. What, a question? That perplexed look on your face shows that you are wondering how there could be both an inflow and an outflow of water simultaneously. The answer is that saltier water is heavier water. The saltier Mediterranean outflow hugs the sea bottom while the opposing Atlantic inflow rides above it on the surface.

The average velocity of the surface current through the Straits of Gibraltar is about 3.5 miles per hour or slightly greater than the average current velocity of the Mississippi River at New Orleans. In olden times it was quite a chore to buck such a strong current from the west in rowing or sailing out from the Mediterranean into the Atlantic. Contrariwise, the Atlantic inflow was a boon for the Vikings rowing down from Norway. They could drift through the Straits of Gibraltar, leaning on their oars and enjoying the scenery, and then arrive at Italy rested, refreshed, and ready for a traditional Norse-style rampage.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Christmas Tonic

The Christmas festivities have come to a satisfying conclusion at my household. Both sons and my daughter-in-law joined me this year for an unconventional holiday time. We forsook the traditional Christmas turkey dinner in favor of a meal at a Jewish deli, where we ate dill pickle wedges as appetizers and then feasted on great heaps of corned beef, pastrami, egg salad, and turkey on rye. In the interest of having my family fully experience New York Jewish cuisine, I ordered a can of Doctor Brown's Cel-Ray celery tonic and persuaded each of them to try a sip. Their unanimous opinion was that a sip was more than ample.