Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Why the governor's apology doesn't clear the air

Tuesday Gov. Bob McDonnell apologized to the citizens of Virginia and announced that  he'd paid back loans that Jonnie Williams of Star Scientific had made to businesses owned by McDonnell and members his family to the tune of $120,000.

While the governor hopes that ends "Giftgate," it doesn't.

There's still the $15,000 Williams paid to cover the costs of catering at the governor's daughter's wedding, the designer clothes he bought Mrs. McDonnell and the $7,000 Rolex he bought for the governor at the first lady's request.

Looking at all of this in the best light for the governor -- there was no quid pro quo, he didn't technically have to report gifts to relatives, Williams was a personal friend -- it still doesn't pass the small test.

And it's not something voters can relate to. Which of us has "friends" who shower us with gifts of more than $100,000? What kind of man lets another man buy thousands of dollars worth of designer clothes for his wife?

The situation is weird and has an innate wrongness about it that anyone can recognize.

While the governor may not be found to have done anything criminal by the three on-going investigations, that doesn't mean his actions were ethical. And no one looking at the situation objectively can believe that they were.

Except perhaps the Republican leadership in the House of Delegates who reacted to the governor's apology like that made everything alright. And they promise a reform bill that will put caps and limits on gifts and require reporting gifts to family members.

Caps? Limits? Reports?

How about this -- no statewide government official, member of the legislature or their families is allowed to take any gift from anyone with interests before state government?

What positive purpose is served by allowing them to take even modest gifts?

Look, if they get the key to the city or plaque for being legislator of the year, they should get to keep those.

But designer clothes, hunting trips, foreign trips, expensive watches? No. There''s no reason to allow those, they give the perception of impropriety, even if there is no explicit quid pro quo. 

And this is not a partisan issue. Folks on both sides have been guilty of having their hands out in the past. And folks from both sides, those of us outside the "gift culture" of state government, should be able to agree that these gifts should not be part of the perks of public office.

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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Talkin' Baseball

Those of you who know me well know that it there's one thing I'm more obsessed with than politics and public policy, it's baseball.

I'm such a baseball geek that when I have insomnia, which is often, I try to put myself to sleep by creating All-Time All Star Teams based on the player's last initial.

I got this idea from baseball guru Bill James, who said, without going through the whole process, that he thought the "R" team (three Robinsons, Ruth, Ripken, Rose..) would be hard to beat. But he said their pitching would be a little weak and maybe the Bambino would have to take a turn on the mound. With Ol' Hoss Rasbourne, Nolan Ryan and Robin Roberts at the top of the starting rotation and Marino Rivera in the pen to close out games, I don't see their pitching as all that weak. Their weakest position would be center field.

But the "R" team wouldn't be the best.

The "S" team (Schmidt, Sandberg, Speaker, Sosa, Al Simmons, Ted Simmons..with Spahn and Seaver for a lefty/righty pitching punch) would be awesome.

But the "M" team would be the best. It should be enough to say that the outfield would be Musial/Mays/Mantle, but the infield of Willie McCovey, Joe Morgan, Eddie Mathews and Rabbit Maranville (team is so good the shortstop doesn't have to hit) is almost as good. Thurman Munson would be the catcher.

Pitching? The rotation starts off with Christy Mathewson, Greg Maddux and Juan Marichal.
Definitely the best.

Before I wandered into this longish tangent, I'd been intending to talk about this baseball season.

I'm a Red Sox fan in the American League and a Cubs fan in the National League (My Cubs loyalty has been wavering since the Richmond Times-Dispatch decided to treat the Nationals like the area's home team), because I like to be equally frustrated and crazy in both leagues.

The Red Sox have been atop the American League East for weeks now.

I'm not buying it.

That's not just the knee-jerk pessimism of a life-long Red Sox fan. Looking at their roster I just can't see  a playoff team. So I'm expecting the Sox' typical summer swoon. At least it won't be the Yankees who beat us. They've got a better team on the disabled list than they can put on the field. The Orioles look to me to be the class of the AL East.

The real story in baseball this year is on the left coast. Both Los Angeles teams spent money as if they were trying to make the Yankees and Red Sox jealous in an attempt to field all star teams. As of today, the Angels are third in the American League West, 8 games under .500, and the Dodger are dead last in National League West, five games behind the fourth place team.

I'm happy to see the Dodgers floundered since they got about half of their "all star" team from the Red Sox in a late season trade last year.

The Angels are puzzling. This is the second year in a row they've signed the most sought after free agent, Albert Pujols in 2012 and Jeff Hamilton this year, only to field mediocre teams.

Since I'm sort of half rooting for the Nationals now, I have to say they need to get their act in gear soon. They are second in the NL East, but under .500. It will take a lot of wins to get in the NL playoffs this year because two teams in the league, Miami and  Houston, seem capable of losing 110 games apiece. Someone will have to win those games, so it wouldn't be surprising to see two or three teams in the NL pushing 100 wins.


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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Bobby we hardly knew ye

"Governor, I know Bob McDonnell. Bob McDonnell was a friend of mine.  You are no Bob McDonnell."

Maybe it's an exaggeration to say that Gov. McDonnell and I were friends back when I covered the legislature full time and he was one of the Republicans' leading lights in the House of Delegates. But we were certainly friendly acquaintances.

He, along with now Sen. Frank Wagner, was one of the few guys on the GOP side in the House then who  you'd want to have a beer with. And we had a couple. We didn't agree about much politically, but we could discuss it reasonably.

We had a good enough relationship that I could jokingly suggest bills or amendments he might want to introduce, usually things no Republican in his right mind would propose.

And we were friendly enough that he came to me and asked for an explanation of the press corps' behavior after Republicans took control of the House.

When Democrats had control the first group of reporters into the House Chamber usually sat on the bench behind the back row of Democrats.. We continued to do that after Republicans took control.

"We're in charge now, why are you guys still sitting over there," McDonnell asked me. "It looks like you're on their side." (I think he intended the pun).

I explained the reasons to him. First, the Democrats leadership, Dick Cranwell and Alan Diamonstein, sat on the back row. The Republican leadership sat in the midst of their caucus, so they weren't any more accessible if you were sitting on the back row on their side.

And there was another reason.

"They come back and tell us jokes," I said. "Cranwell and Diamonstein and Chip Woodrum and Jay DeBoer are funny."

"Hey, we've got some funny guys," McDonnell countered "Jack Reid sits on the back row."

At that point, I only knew former Del. Reid from his behavior on the floor of the House, where he was a jerk and a bully.

"Yeah, but his idea of a joke is an old lady falling on the sidewalk while running for her bus," I told the future governor.

(That same year, Del. Reid and I were dinner companions at the Capitol Correspondents' dinner, and he was in fact funny. And also a Red Sox fan.  It's hard to hate somebody who is a Sox fan.)

The point of this long introduction is that I knew and liked Bob McDonnell when he ran for governor.  I told Democrats he'd be hard to beat. Turned out he was impossible to beat.

Which makes me wonder how he's gone so far wrong now.

Last year he was being touted as a possible Republican vice presidential candidate. This year  he's looking more like a possible cell mate for former Del. Phil Hamilton.

A federal grand jury is investigating McDonnell's links with Star Scientific, a nutrient supplement   maker. McDonnell has received campaign contributions and gifts from the company's founder, including $15,000 to pay for catering at McDonnell's daughter's wedding, a gift that was not initially reported.

There's also a probe of irregularities in the Governor's Mansion kitchen, for which the former chef may face charges. He's reportedly told investigators of  "abuse" by Mrs. McDonnell, who allegedly re-directed food and kitchen equipment to her children.

The Bob McDonnell I knew had a lot better sense than this.

You never want to bring any body's spouse into a political story -- in fact most people who've worked in politics would prefer to keep the spouses out of campaigns too, because they are a pain to deal with.

(I can remember sitting in a meeting where a campaign manager basically tried to fire the candidate's wife from the campaign. Somebody got fired, but it wasn't the wife.)

But Mrs. McDonnell seems to be firmly entrenched in the middle of  this story.

The First Lady's staff apparently pushed to hold a promotional event for Star Scientific at the mansion. At least one of the governor's staff -- Tucker Martin -- recognized the impropriety of that.

The sad thing for Martin, and the rest of McDonnell's staff, is they'll now have to lawyer up to deal with the investigation.

Perhaps the answer to why McDonnell would do things that he had to know weren't politically smart, to say the least, is eternal: Love is blind. And deaf. And ethically challenged.

It would be a shame if Bob McDonnell, the first Virginia governor in nearly 30 years to have a positive impact on the state's perennial transportation crisis, is remembered only for petty scandal.


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Thursday, June 6, 2013

Scandals -- No, not the television show.

Both the state and national political news these days are filled with allegations of "scandal." That's no surprise. Those of us in the media love to cover political scandals because it's easier than talking about issues and the public is more interested.

Some of the "scandals" are more scandalous than others.

Let's start in Washington.

The scandal over the the deaths of four at our embassy in Benghazi, Libya is, and has been from the start, a partisan witch hunt. It's less serious than Clinton's Monicagate scandal that Republican irritated the country by fixating on for a years and half. Questions about if "act of terror" and "terrorism" mean the same thing are reminiscent of Clinton's ruminations on the definition of "is."

Who's responsible for Benghazi? The terrorist who conducted the attack. The furor over this issue is unworthy of Republicans. When 200 Marines that Ronald Reagan had placed in harm's way in Lebanon were killed by a suicide bomber, no one questioned Reagan's motives. Apparently, we don't even  hang together in a crisis anymore.

The "IRS Scandal," in which the IRS office responsible for making sure that organizations registered as tax exempt are really engaged in tax exempt activities used "Tea Party" and terms related to the tea party movement to identify who to audit, appears so far as a blunder rather than a scandal. The IRS workers were trying to streamline their process and they had been getting a lot of new applications from Tea Party sympathetic groups. If anyone there  had any political savvy, they would have added a couple of liberal buzz words, maybe :"choice "and "progressive" to the list. No one was kept from forming a group or expressing their opinions. At this point, it's not even clear that anyone was denied a tax exemption.. Despite the uproar on the right, this isn't the equivalent of the Nixon administration planning to use the IRS to "screw our political enemies."

The other Obama administration scandals are more serious.

The most serious is the administration's wire tapping of Associated Press employees in the quest to hunt down the source of a leak. I don't say this is the most serious because it affects the press, I say it because this is clearly a violation of Constitutional rights and existing law.

Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday that he "wasn't comfortable" approving the search warrant for the investigation. He should have been less comfortable, since it was clearly wrong, and ignoring his instincts ought to cost him a job.

The Obama administration had the chance to learn from the folly of previous administrations, but failed. The damage you do searching for a leaker is almost always greater than the harm of the leak itself.

The Obama administration is also clearly in the wrong on the latest scandal, that Verizon has given the National Security Agency full access to the phone records of all its customers. While this is a scandal, it isn't news. It started during the Busch administration.

Which doesn't let Obama off the hook. A lot of people voted for him because they thought he would be better on civil liberties issues, like collecting data on Americans, like torture, like Gitmo, like the Patriot Act, than Bush was. The fact that he's been the same on all these issues ranks with the failure to lock up the stock jobbers who caused the 2008 economic crash and to make sure it couldn't happen again,  as the biggest failure of the administration and will probably be seen as such by history.

Obama had the chance to be a great president. The Affordable Care Act, if the agents of plutocracy don't manage to steal it back from the people, will be the most important domestic achievement since Social Security. His handling of foreign policy, with one war ended, another winding down and a third amorphous "war on terror" being waged with drone attacks, is about as adept as any recent presidents.

But his failure to roll back the Bush civil liberties excesses or to tame an out-of-control financial system will compel history to find him mediocre at best.

At the time when the country needed a full-blooded populist  and champion of civil liberties, we got a hedger.

In Virginia, the scandals are easier to understand .. they're all about politicians taking money from folks who they help out with influence or legislation or favors.

The real shock is that we're having these kinds of scandals here. Virginia's ethics laws allow politicians to take any size bribe they want, as long as they report it. Apparently that requirement is too much for some.

Gov. Bob McDonnell didn't think he had to report a gift of $15,000 from Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams which went to pay the catering bill at his daughter's wedding. McDonnell  said it was a gift to  his daughter and didn't have to be reported.

Look, Bob McDonnell is not a neophyte, he spent more than a decade in the House of Delegates and four years as attorney general. He knew that not reporting the gift was violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the disclosure rules.

And then it turned out  even that story wasn't true. McDonnell signed the contract for catering, not his daughter, the check to pay for it was made payable to his wife, not his daughter.

There are also questions about an event that McDonnell and his wife hosted at the Governor's Mansion for Star Scientific, a tobacco supplement company.

The recent released emails about this event have caused me to believe it springs from a common problem that Republican administrations in Virginia run into -- they end up putting campaign kids into fairly important state offices. They don't have much choice, most adult Republicans aren't looking for a government job -- they don't like government. So you end up with people who known nothing about government in important positions. You  can see this in the emails,when old pro Tucker Martin gets wind of what's going on and questions the propriety, apparently too late. It also seems from the emails that the push for the event was coming from the first lady's staff.

This is serious. So serious that Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republicans 2013 candidate for governor, appointed a special prosecutor to look into it and a related scandal about the governor's mansion chef. You know that's the last thing Cuccinelli wanted to do. Because he's got his own Star Scientific problems. For one thing, he failed to report company stock that he owned  at a time when the company was involved with the state in litigation. He also didn't report $18,000 in gifts from the company until the were discovered by the press.

Cuccinelli would be best served if McDonnell's Star Scientific problems went away because, just as they are here, every time McDonnell's issues come up, so will Cunccinelli's.

Under Virginia's ridiculously lax ethics laws, the worst that will happen to either McDonnell or Cuccinelli is a slap-on-the-wrist fine.

Nobody is going to jail, unless federal prosecutors want to get involved.

But Cuccinelli might not be going to the Governor's Mansion either.


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Monday, May 6, 2013

Maybe we've grown up?

It's been weeks since the Boston Marathon bombing and no one in Congress is seriously proposing doing any further damage to the Bill of Rights.

Frankly, I'm shocked.

Apparently we've made a little progress in the dozen years since 9/11.

Oh, sure there are already "Boston Truthers," who are even more demented than the "9/11 Truthers" or the "Birthers," but really they are just a reflexive response by the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party to try to blame everything on Barrack Obama. And even some of the president's usual critics aren't buying the "government plot" version of Boston. Since we've got the two guys who did it on video and we killed one and captured the other, there's not really fertile ground for a conspiracy theory go grow in.

Unless you really are ready for a tin-foil hat.

Not that some haven't tried.

Former Rep. Ron Paul, and unsuccessful candidate for presidential candidate as both a Libertarian and a Republican tried to sound the "tyranny of government" trumpet, deriding what he said was the "military occupation" of an American city in the search for the bombers.

He apparently missed the television footage of Boston and Watertown residents standing in the streets to give the police a rousing ovation for doing what public safety workers are supposed to do -- keep the public safe during an emergency. They looked more like citizens proud of their country, their state and their hometown than victims of tyranny, but maybe that's just me.

But the remarkable things to me is that Congress did not rush back into session, to enact national "stop and frisk" laws or to pass a law repealing the Miranda decision or to ban pressure cookers.

Unlike the era after 9/11 when the Bush Administration and Congress competed to see who could do the most damage to the Bill of Rights.

I think that didn't happen this time because we learned something from 9/11.

None of the emergency security measures we passed made us any more secure, while they made us less free.

While the privacy, dignity and rights of Americans have been violated for so long now at our airports by TSA that we've almost gotten used to it, it's important to remember that the mall cops who want to cavity search grandma  and use their super cameras to look under our clothes have never stopped a terrorist. Both the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber were stopped by alert passengers.

We've learned that, as Ben Franklin warned us, trading freedom for security would leave us with neither.

I think that's why there hasn't been another wave of public bed-wetting in the wake of the first successful large-scale terrorists attack here since 9/11. There's a realization that trading freedom for safety only leaves us less free and no more safe.

Only took us a decade to learn what Dr. Franklin knew almost 250 years ago.

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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Gun lobby jumps the shark

I thought I was on the pro-gun side of the ongoing argument over gun control.

I grew up in a house where we hunted and fished and their were always long guns and pistols in the house. I don't have the knee-jerk anti-gun reaction that spurs some of  my friends on the left anytime a gun makes the news.

At the same time, I've thought some of the people on "my side" of the argument presented ridiculous arguments that made anyone willing to say publicly that they believed the 2nd Amendment gave individual Americans the right  to keep and bear arms vaguely ridiculous by association.

The first of those is that more guns equates to fewer gun homicides. That's contrary to the evidence and to common sense and no one really believes it, even the people who make the argument.

Look, here are the facts, our liberty to keep and bear arms comes with a cost, just like all our other liberties. Some of our civil rights mean that guilty criminals will go free, that hateful speech will at times dominate the national chat room and that zealous believers in ancient superstitions will try to contaminate our science and history text books with fairy tales and arrant nonsense.

In the case of our right to bear arms, the cost is that a number of people who would otherwise remain alive will be killed. We've measured that cost and found it worthwhile. Just as we measure the costs of additional traffic fatalities and find that we can justify the number of people who have to die for us to have speed limits in excess of 25 miles-per-hour (Everywhere, except Williamsburg of course).

The other argument that makes me ashamed to be on the pro-gun side is that our Founding Fathers approved the 2nd Amendment so that we would have the option of rebelling and overthrowing our government.

It's a silly argument. First, the Founding Fathers feared nothing more than "the mob." They'd just spend a lot of time setting up a government that avoided empowering the mob. To think they then inserted a provision to allow that government to more easily be overthrown is to cast the Founding Fathers as Founding Fools.

In fact, they inserted the right to bear arms into the Bill of Rights in the context of the need for a strong militia. To uphold the state, not to overthrow it. Our current militia is the National Guard. Does anyone think there's any chance of the Virginia National Guard overthrowing the Commonwealth's government? No, of course not, it's lunacy.  So, by the way, is the idea that a few gun nuts and their AR-15 is going to pose much of a threat to the U,S. Armed Forces. As far as I know not even the most rabid gun proponent is arguing for a tank in every garage and ICBM in every back yard. Get out of your "Red Dawn" fantasy life and come back to reality.

So what of the proposals made by the anti-gun side?

First, let's identify what concerns they are seeking to address. Nobody is trying to ban handguns held for personal protection or rifles and shotguns used for hunting.

The concern is to try to minimize the damage a nut can do when he starts firing at random people in a public setting. Those are what the cases that have brought gun control to the center of the public consciousnesses now are about.

One proposal was to ban the military-style assault rifle that seems to be the weapon of choice for these suicidal sociopaths.

I'm against that. Because it doesn't really do anything. The assault rifle ban would outlaw weapons that are functionally the same as weapons that still remain legal, based entirely on what they look like. It doesn't do anything. I gives the illusion that we've done something and make everyone feel better.

The same is true of a proposal to limit magazine sizes. If you limit the magazine from 30 rounds to 10, it just means the shooter has to change magazines a couple of time, costing him mere seconds. It doesn't really have an affect, except to lull those who've become worried by the recent rash of public shootings back into complacency.

So, although I initially thought it worthwhile, I decided that magazine restriction didn't bear supporting either.

That left the one proposal that -- before the pro-gun movement jumped the shark -- everyone seemed to agree on, universal background checks to keep guns out of the hands of felons and the mentally ill. Everybody, from the greediest gun-grabber to the looniest firearm fetishist, seemed to agree on that.

And we know it works. We've had instant background checks in Virginia for more than 20 years. In that time they have kept thousands of guns out of the hands of felons and whackjobs. That's easy to overlook because the guys who are denied a gun don't make any public impact. And, all to often, guys who slip though the cracks, like the Virginia Tech shooter, become the central figures in yet another nightly news nightmare.

The fact that the system isn't perfect doesn't mean we shouldn't try. Our criminal justice system isn't perfect either. We don't throw up our hands and throw open the prison doors.

Background checks do nothing to limit the rights of "law-abiding American citizens" to own and bear firearms.

But now the pro-gun movement has decided that even background checks are an "infringement" of the right to bear arms. Because that's apparently the only absolute right in the Bill of Rights.

The are fighting against the very idea of taking a vote on background checks.

Well, this is my stop. This is where I get off. I can't agree with that and I don't think much of reasonable America can either. This is the moment when the pro-gun movement has tied its fate to its most radical proponents and decided it doesn't care what mainstream America thinks.

And so, this is probably the high tide of the pro-gun movement.

And I only ask that my former allies do us one favor. If you can't agree to reasonable background checks that would keep guns out of the wrong hand, just dispense with the talking point that you care whose hands they end up in and admit that the net affect of  your lobbying makes us less safe.

And please, in the name of everything decent, just stop the sham and pretense that you give a damn about the victims of random shootings and their families. You should be ashamed to speak their names, which should lay like ashes on your tongues. Because by your actions you are guaranteeing that there will be many, many more just like them.

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Monday, April 1, 2013

If you ain't got HBO, you ain't got no TV!

Okay, so their slogan is "It's not TV, it's HBO."

The title of this post, cribbed from what someone once said  should be the slogan for Duke's mayonnaise, with an expletive deleted, would be just as fitting.

How much HBO has changed the rest of television came to me again last night, as I was watching the "Game of Thrones" season premier.

Younger readers, those who don't remember what it was like before cable, might not understand HBO's importance.

Before cable, children, we had the three network affiliates and PBS. And usually the reception on the PBS channel was horrible.

After cable, we had a couple of dozen stations at first.

But, with the exception of sports on ESPN, music videos on MTV, baseball on TBS and WGN and wrestling on TBS and USA, almost everything on cable was stuff you'd already seen on the three networks.

Most of  basic cable channels' programming was syndicated  reruns of old situation comedies and cop shows.

It was once possible to watch television 24-hours a day and see nothing by "MASH" reruns. While it might still be possible to do the same thing with the various "Law & Order" franchises, basic cable has much more programming now. Old reruns are pretty much contained on TVLand and couple of similar channels.
HBO was the catalyst for the change, showing other cable channels how rewarding original programming could be. And, in the process, upgrading the quality of television.

That wasn't the original idea. Home Box Office was supposed to be the channel that brought you major moves and sporting events, like championship fights, for a premium.

However, as cable evolved, studios and promoters realized that they could make more money by putting their product on pay-per-view than by selling it to HBO.

That left HBO with time to fill.

And boy did they fill it.

Starting with "Sex And The City" and  "The Sopranos," HBO rolled out a series of critically-acclaimed shows  and turned Sunday into "must see TV" night. (NBC had the original "must see' night on Thursday with four sitcom, most prominently "The Cosby Show" and "Cheers" leading into a blockbuster drama -- first "Hill Street Blues," then "L.A. Law" and finally "E.R." ).

Following  "The Sopranos" success came, in no particular order, "Six Feet Under," "Big Love," "Atlantic City," "True Blood" and ""Game of Thrones.'

Even the failures, "Deadwood"  -- which I liked, and which certainly holds the record for the television show with the filthiest language --  and Carnivale, which was cancelled just as I was beginning to figure out what was going on, interesting.

HBO hasn't done as well with comedies, with only "Entourage" standing out. I suppose "Curb Your Enthusiasm" could be considered a success, it's  been on a long time. But to me Larry David is like Jim Carey and Adam Sandler, I can't stand him so I change the channel as soon as I see him, So I've seen maybe  three minutes of  "Curb Your Enthusiasm" in all the years it's been on.

Once HBO had some success with original programing, other cable channels followed.

Showtime, once HBO's rival for movies and sports, became perhaps its biggest rival in original programming, with its best shows also premiering on Sunday nights from "The L Word" to "Dexter" to "Weeds."

Then, even basic cable channels began to get into the act, USA network has had a number of original shows  the best of which are probably "Burn Notice" and "Suits." FX came out with "Sons of Anarchy"  The most praised cable show of the last five years, "Mad Men," is on AMC, a channel originally intended to air old movies.

At this point, we've reached the best -- and the worst -- of all possible television worlds. While there are so many excellent shows on television right now there really isn't time to watch them all -- even with "On Demand" and DVRs -- there's also worse garbage than ever as well. Network television has fallen into a terrible rut of cop shoes, standard sitcoms and reality dreck. (To be fair, cable has its share of bad reality shows too. Bravo, for example is responsible for the whole "Real Housewives of..(fill in the blank)" genre and MTV brought us "Jersey Shore.").

One thing I'm not sure I do like is that cable has redefined a television season as 13 or 14 episodes. Network seasons used to be about 25 episodes long. So you got half a year of new shows, then a round of reruns and maybe a summer replacement show. Now, there's a pretty long wait for your favorites to come back on. You really need that "Previously on...." segment to catch back up to where you were.

"Mad Men" is scheduled to return next week, and for the life of me I can't remember what was going on when the last season ended and it usually skips a  year between seasons.

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Monday, March 25, 2013

OMG! It's the Snowpocalypse

Look, I get it.

I grew up in Richmond. I know we're all required to run to the grocery store and buy up all the bread, milk and toilet paper at the first mention of the word "snow."

Since I have a lot of teacher friends, I even know that some of us begin gleefully planning for snow days in advance. Or so I read on Facebook.

Just as an aside -- any significant snowfall in Virginia means that a couple of people who would otherwise be alive will be killed in traffic accidents and it's likely that thousands will lose power for a period ranging from 30 minutes to a week.

(My wife would tell you that the power issue is most critical. Because I become a particularly bad- tempered troll when the power is out.)

Some people's jobs get tougher when it snows. Mine does, but I'm really think of VDOT workers, police and fire department personnel and folks who work  for the electric company. I guess my job has taken a new level of getting worse when it snows now that we are supposed to post video to our website. I guess I'll have to go out and stand in the snow so people will believe me that it's snowing, the way television reporters do.

Seems like an awful high price for people who already get two months a year off to get an extra vacation day.

But I digress, my topic wasn't the childish fascination that teachers have for snow. No, what I can here to talk about today was driving. And how people in Virginia can't do it if it snows.

I understand that it's unfamiliar. It doesn't snow here a lot. But it's really simple to improve safety on our roads during bad weather.

First don't drive if you don't have to.

But if you have to, try to refrain from two really bad habits that Virginia drivers have in all seasons, but which are particularly dangerous in the snow.

First, stop following people so closely. The difference between allowing correct spacing between your car and the vehicle in front of you and running 10 feet off that guy's bumper -- no matter what the speed limit --  has little impact on your time of arrival at your destination. It can be measured in seconds. However the time you'll lose if that guy should have to slam on his brakes - of if he does so without reason, see below -- could be much longer. It might be measured in eternity.

In the snow this is even more important. The two times you are most likely to have traction problems in the snow are when you are accelerating and when  you are braking. So you should do both gradually.

And that means increasing following distance. Ideally, in situations where the road surface may be slippery, you should leave enough space that if that driver were to totally lose it and wreck, you could take you foot off the accelerator and coast to a stop short of that vehicle. Other drivers sometime won't let you get that much space, they'll cut in front of you which means they are following the vehicle that was in front of them too closely and  you're now following them to closely.

Do your best and if you do have to brake, do it gradually.

Which brings us to the next bad  habit -- don't ride the brake.

There's a pedal on the floor of your car that is used to control your speed. It's called the accelerator. If you want to go faster you press down, it you want to slow down you put less pressure.

There's another pedal on the floor board. That's the brake. The purpose of the brake pedal is to stop 
your car or to reduce speed very quickly in an emergency.

On the interstate, unless something very wrong is going on in front of you, you should not have your foot on the brake pedal.

People in Virginia love the brake for some reason. I've seen people applying their brakes on I-64 when there wasn't another car between them and the horizon. This is one of those things that I don't understand -- like the reverence for the loser generals on Monument Avenue or the popularity of NASCAR -- despite having lived here most of my life.

I often wonder why those drivers are braking. Some, I think,  are doing it bring their car out of cruise control. You can accomplish the same thing by flipping the cruise control switch on and off without hitting the brakes.

Because when  you hit the brakes that affects everybody behind you.

My Dad, who had a world of good advice that I usually didn't listen to, once gave me a driving tip that should be a required part of every Driver's Ed class in America.

"If you are the cause of another driver having to use his brakes," Dad said. "That's poor diving on your part."

When roads are bad that's all the more reason to keep your foot off the brake, braking is one of things most likely to cause a skid. If you're maintaining proper distance,  you shouldn't need to brake.

 The one factor during bad weather that you don't have much control over is other drivers. I've been in two accidents in winter weather, in both of which I stopped short of a wreck in front of me and the driver behind me slid into my car.

There's not much that  you can do about that. But the less you apply your brakes, the less the guy behind  you will think that he needs to apply his.

The less either of you touch the brake pedal the safer you and everybody else will be.


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