Dusty and Brown

Two weeks ago we had the coldest weather that I have experienced since I moved to Las Cruces. The official temperature dropped to 1 but the  outside thermometer at my house registered -7. The cold weather caused electrical blackouts, frozen pipes, water shortages, and natural gas stoppages across New Mexico and West Texas.

The thaw 3 days later exposed all the broken pipes, made a lot of plumbers rich, and shut down water distribution systems in the El Paso and Ruidoso.

The freeze also did havoc to many plants in the region. Non-native plants like the Mexican fan-tail palm were most affected. These plants suffer even  in normal winters and are marginal for this climate. I don’t understand why people here plant them.  It’s not just the newcomers who have them, you’ll see them all over the Mesilla valley. They only grow from the middle of the fronds. Winter kill is trimmed off. If the middle is dead, the palm is dead. These two aren’t going to make it.

Mesilla My neighbor’s yard

Native plants and climate adapted plants were not immune. Unprotected prickly pears and agaves collapsed. Oleanders crinkled. Rosemary bushes turned black.

My prickly pear, oleander, and cherry sage are showing a little green; I think they might survive.

When the sun came out, the snow on the roof melted, icicles formed and my solar panels started generating electricity. The oleander hiding the smart meter and solar meter is showing signs of stress.

Temperatures are back in the 70s now and it’s been windy. But all the dead and damaged stuff has made the valley really brown.

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Golf Courses I Have Known, Part 5

This is the fifth of a multi-part post on various golf courses that I have played over my 50 years of playing golf.

Follow the links to Google Maps to see what these courses look like now. Be sure to look at them in Satellite view.

Orchard Hills

In 1985 I bought a 90 year-old farm house in Galien, Michigan which was 71 miles from my condo in Chicago.

Farm House

I bought it to get away from town and to find a nice uncrowded golf course that I could play on the weekends. It took me 3 years to find one. Orchard Hills is 12 miles from my farm house and fronts the St. Joe River.

From OrchardHills

OHCC was originally a 9-hole course built next to the river in 1917. It was later expanded to 18 holes when the owner of the land above the course gave it to the club with a covenant attached that it was to be used by a private club. The 10th tee on the upper part is 70 feet higher than the 1st tee.

The course is quite compact, sitting on approximatly 110 acres. It measures 6000 yards from the tips but plays much longer than that. The fairways are soft with little roll and tight–trees and ravines border many of them. The greens are small, fast, and severely tilted. They are in great shape most of the time. When other courses in the region are losing their greens because of weather, OHCC greens are alive and green.

Guests routinely putt balls off the  first green when the pin is in the front. On some greens, the pin cannot be placed on 40% of the surface area because of slope. Only one green is flat enough to get a Stimp-meter reading. Our playing mantra was stay BTH (below the hole). Local knowledge is key to good scoring.

The club has 200 members and tee-time reservations aren’t required. There are regular games on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and both 9 and 18 hole leagues for men and women during the week. The leagues are small enough that the course remains open for general play. I played every weekend from April through November with friends.

In summary, this a great place to play and will hone your scrambling and short game after it humbles you for a month.

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Health Care Reform, Post 6: Medicare Stats

The Growth in Medicare & Medicaid Spending

Medicare spending is growing faster than overall health care spending. Per Capita costs doubled between 1991 and 2003 and are a faster track today.

Because of the population bulge from the baby boomers, spending will grow even faster as the first wave of boomers turns 65.

A major part of the Health Care Reform bill was to decrease spending in Medicare and Medicaid. If the bill is repealed or projected savings don’t actually happen, Medicare is projected to go bankrupt in 6 years.

Seven different proposals for deficit reduction address this issue. I recommend following the link to these proposals. Fixes include:

  • Increase the Medicare payroll tax.
  • Increase premiums.
  • Increase deductible.
  • Limit maximum payouts.
  • Increase cost sharing percentage to 20%.
  • Raise Medicare eligibility age to 67 or 69.
  • Substitute vouchers for payments to encourage shopping for best prices.
  • Eliminate Medicare Advantage subsidies. (In current act.)
  • Eliminate 1st dollar coverage in Medigap plans to decrease unwarranted use of services.
  • Replace Medicaid with Medicare. This might result in premiums and cost-sharing.
  • Set up exchanges to allow market forces to control costs.

It appears that none of the proposals include “death panels”.

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Mosaic Plots

This is cool charts #5.

Mosaic plots are rectangular plots composed of smaller rectangles typically used to display measures of counts or sums of a scale level variable for 2 or more categories. The area of the rectangle is proportional to the category’s proportion of the whole.  There are no data dimensions defining the axes. Here’s a simple example. Assume that you have counts by gender for a study of 100 people. The simple frequencies for gender are 40 females and 60 males with two rectangles. Then we divide each rectangle up into the proportion of whites and nonwhites within each gender to create a mosaic plot with 4 rectangles:

In this example there is a simple cross of two dimensions: gender and race. The chart could easily be configured so that the first split starts with race and the second split by gender. But we could have a semantically nested design in which it makes no sense to split by town, and then state.

Our example is simple: two categories of gender>two categories of race to create four rectangles.

Here is a example which displays the proposed 2011 Federal Budget in 2010. (Note that that budget was never passed and the administration is currently revising it to present to Congress this month).

Source: New York Times

We start with 5 major categories for the budget: national defense, social security, medicare, income security, health, and then a large set of additional categories: health, interest, education, etc. Within the hierarchy, are the top level categories and are separated by large white margins. Next come second and third level categories which are nested within the top levels.

Notice the color differentiation between rectangles. This chart is also a heat map in which colors represent a change dimension: the difference between this budget and the prior budget. So this chart actually represents two data dimensions: line item(nested) and change. The depth of the nesting makes it impossible to figure out what the really small rectangles represent. Fortunately this is an interactive chart. Hover over a small rectangle to see what it represents in the link to the chart.

The important takeaway from a interpretation perspective is that those items which most Americans support strongly (defense and social security) are the biggest rectangles in this chart. Tinkering with smaller and less popular items such as foreign aid doesn’t do much to decrease the federal debt.

The proposed budget is a very complicated chart to read for a general interpretation, but the following chart is even more mind-blowing. This chart plots the stocks in the fortune 500. The size of the rectangle is the capitalization of the company. Like the previous chart, this is also a heat map in which color represents stock price change. Red stocks are losers and green stocks are winners.

source: Finviz.com

Frankly, I find this chart to be almost unreadable. Too much detail plus duplicate labeling for the largest rectangles complicates interpretation.

For further reading on the construction and interpretation of the mosaic charts, read this lecture on mosaic plot from New Zealand.

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Storm in the Desert: The Aftermath

After a brutally cold couple of days, our temperature is going to be in the mid-50s’ today and get up to 65 by Tuesday. What the recent weather revealed is that our regional energy infrastructure is on life support.

We received 2″ of snow on Tuesday night. The temperature dove from 23 on Wednesday morning to -7 on Thursday morning. Tuesday morning the electricity went off in Las Cruces at 8 in the morning.

The utility, El Paso Electric, reported that their local generators were offline and they didn’t have sufficient local capacity to meet the increased demand because of the storm and were trying to buy electricity from other parts of Texas on the spot market.

They started a series of  planned “rolling blackouts” in which different areas in their service area of southern New Mexico and west Texas were blacked out for up to 2 hours at a stretch. They requested that all schools in Las Cruces and El Paso, including UTEP and NMSU, all government offices, all retail businesses and offices, White Sands Missile Range, and Fort Bliss shut down until they could restore service to the offline generators. The blackouts continued through last night. I wonder if they have successfully booted the offline generators.

Our local press and government officials have rolled over themselves on the problem and don’t seem to be in an investigative mood. After numerous complaint from ordinary citizens, El Paso Electric confessed yesterday afternoon that the generators had been offline prior to the storm and by the time they tried to get them up it was too cold to keep them running. These are very old generators which were not designed to run in cold temperatures. Note, however, that the utility had advance warning on this storm for at least 5 days before it occurred. Temperatures were in the high 40s on Monday before the storm.

The city then requested that we conserve water because all the wells use electric pumps.

The general shortage of electricity in West Texas caused natural gas shortages across New Mexico. The principle natural gas utility servicing most of New Mexico was unable to get natural gas through the pipelines from west Texas. Las Cruces had enough natural gas but areas as close as the Tularosa Basin on the east side of the Organs were gas free. Towns started opening warming shelters.

Temperatures are now warm enough that the electricity is flowing and the gas is flowing. But, pilot lights can only be started by trained personnel and it will take up to 6 days to get all the pilot lights lit. The gas company is recruiting personnel from utilities as far away as Michigan and have agreed to allow firefighters and other first-responders to do the job. Before the pilot lits can be lit, everything has to be inspected. I wonder how many systems will fail the inspection in all the small towns across New Mexico.

It’s clear to me that we really do need the major infrastructure and clean energy improvements highlighted by President Obama in his State of the Union Speech. El Paso Electric is planning a major solar concentration plant close to where one of the failed generators is in Southern New Mexico but construction isn’t planned until 2013 because the utility is loath to spend money on major capital improvements. El Paso Electric has been at maximum capacity for several years now with little investment in capital improvements and apparently sketchy maintenance.

Northeastern New Mexico which is an epicenter of the natural gas crisis is one of the best areas for wind turbines in the US but there are no major grids nearby to transmit the electricity generated. A joint State-private group has been trying to plan the construction of the grid for several years now and not making a lot of progress in getting the job done. Maybe this event will get both of these infrastructure projects moving.

Update: 02/06/2011:

Rolling blackouts damaged the water distribution system in El Paso and El Paso now has a major water crisis. The city has asked schools and business to close to conserve water. In addition, previously frozen pipes have thawed and and are now leaking across the region.

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Modern Telephony

Thanks to the internet and modern technology my phone service has gotten a lot more convenient and cheaper. Two years ago I had a conventional land line from Qwest and a simple cell phone from Verizon. My internet service was “middleband” DSL.  The service was rated at 1.3 MB but rarely got over 800K. I switched to Comcast and got the promised 5 MB. I now had sufficient bandwidth to switch to a VOIP phone service. I bought an OOMA box from Costco for $229 and ported my land-line. Basic OOMA service is free but I opted for the premium service @$10/mo. which provides call forwarding and call-blocking. The cheapest phone service from Qwest is $37/month after all the taxes are added so I was able to cover the initial cost of OOMA in less than a year. I set the system up to dual ring the home phone and my cellphone. Missed calls go to voice-mail on the box and are also emailed to me as an mp3 file.

I then signed up for Google Voice. Voice gives me another phone number to use. I was given a choice of numbers in my area code. None were available for Las Cruces so I chose an exchange from Taos (to impress all my friends). When somebody calls my Voice number it gets forwarded to my cellphone. Voice has a number of features that I don’t use including a screening feature in which the caller is prompted for their name and I can chose to accept or reject the call upon hearing their response. It’s kinda like an old-fashioned secretary. Voice also emails voicemail as an mp3 file and attempts to convert the message to text as well. You can’t beat the price–it’s free.

Here’s David Pogue’s review when it first came out.

Since that review Voice has been improved in three important ways. First you can port an existing number to Voice so that you can make calls using it and dispense with phone companies altogether. Second, you can use it from a computer like Skype. Third, you can use a Voice app on an Android phone to make calls and send text messages. Although I have a very generous plan from Verizon, it’s highly unlikely that I will ever exceed my minutes making and receiving calls since most of them are routed through Google Voice. I have no text messaging account at all (I’m not a big texter) so I avoid the .05 charge per text received or made. When I use the app to make a call, Google picks some currently free Voice number from almost anywhere in the country to use for the call. If my phone is connected to a wifi hotspot, the call goes via wifi and not 3g. This fortunate since the 3g network is a bit spotty on the East side of I-25 below US-70 because all the cell towers down by I-25 are blocked by the Las Cruces dam. In fact, when I moved here I couldn’t get any signal from AT&T unless I walked two blocks up a hill to make the call. I guess I was one of the 3% not served by the AT%T network.

When I was making phone calls for Organizing for America during the past elections, I connected to their wifi hotspot and made all my calls via Voice over the net. I loved it when somebody on the line asked me why I was calling them from Taos.

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Golf Courses I have Known, Part 4

This is the fourth of a multi-part post on various golf courses that I have played over my 50 years of playing golf.

Follow the links to Google Maps to see what these courses look like now. Be sure to look at them in Satellite view.

South Shore Country Club

South Shore Golf Course is a very old course tucked up against Lake Michigan in the predominately Black community called South Shore. The golf course is run by the Chicago Park District. It is short: 3 par-3s and one par-5. The greens are small and generally round with some tilt but not too much roll. The course is very tight. Large mature trees line most holes. South Shore Drive runs along side four holes and Lake Michigan runs along a longish hole whose green is stuck between the Drive and the lake.

I lived very close to this golf course. I could walk it in about 80 minutes and would occasionally play 9 holes before work. I’d get there around 6 AM. (Because Chicago sits at the far eastern end of it’s time zone, the sun comes up around 5 AM in the summer.) After I finished, I would drive to Hyde Park to pick up the Metra Electric and get to the Randolph Street station around 8:15. I’d be in the office by 8:30.

The course was cheap–$3.50/9. The Chicago Park District has a number of courses in the city and this was the step-sister. The course didn’t get a lot of play, in part because it was in a Black neighborhood.

I took some colleagues from work over to play it one Saturday afternoon. The place was deserted. We were starting to tee off and Ernie Banks shows up. He commented on the White Sox cap worn by Stevie (a die-hard Sox’s fan). We invited him to go ahead of us. He had a great and very flexible swing. He hit the ball down the center of the fairway with a nice draw matching it’s gentle curve. As he walked off carrying his bag (the course didn’t have any carts), he called back to us with his signature line–”Let’s play two”.

The course was barely maintained–fairway mowers were used on the greens, traps sprouted weeds, and didn’t have any rakes. Eventually, the Park District turned over the management of all its courses to Kemper Golf Management. The courses really improved but the green fees immediately increased to $10/9.

History of the Club

The history of the SSCC is a lesson in race relations within Chicago in the 20th century. The club was established as a suburban retreat for the uber-wealthy of Chicago at the turn of the century. They built a truly impressive country club. It included the course, stables, a lawn bowling green, beautiful beach, tennis courts, and yacht harbor. The south end of the lake is very shallow so they had to dredge it out to create the harbor.

South Shore Cultural Center

As the uber-wealthy moved out of the city to the posh northern suburbs of Glencoe and Kenilworth, the membership of the course changed to the not so uber-wealthy Irish of the South Side. Club membership remained highly restricted and excluded Jews and Blacks. Jews happened to be the predominant group in South Shore at the time the course became Irish.

Starting in the 60s’, South Shore, itself, started turning Black and by the mid-70s’ was 99% Black. The Club’s whites-only membership fled and largely abandoned the club. They first tried to sell it to the Park District which expressed no interest in the purchase. To be fair to the district, it already owned Jackson Park golf course which is just across the street from South Shore Golf Course. (Jackson Park had been the site of the 1893 World’s Fair.) When the Black Muslims expressed an interest in purchasing the property to be used for a new hospital, the Park District was strongly encouraged by the Daley administration and others to purchase the property, which it did in 1974. The golf course reopened and the mounted police moved into the old stables.

The Park District then announced plans to raze all the buildings. A coalition of White liberals from Hyde Park and Black community activists from South Shore organized to save the country club. Historic preservationists managed to get a large grant from the Feds to restore the gate as a proof of concept that the buildings could be saved. Although the club was crumbling on the inside, it was sufficiently impressive to be used for exterior night shots in the Blues Brother film. I walked over there to watch the filming.

South Shore Cultural Center Gate

Ultimately the coalition was successful and the Park District gave up it’s demolition plans. Funds were found and the club house converted in the South Shore Cultural Center. It was well worth the cost to do it. The interior is glorious and the Center is the place to have a wedding reception–you have to plan ahead because there’s a two-year wait to get a room there. Barack and Michelle held their reception there.

For more information on the history of the club, read the official history from the park district and the unofficial history from the Hyde Park organization.

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