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Ray and the Riot Police

I traveled from Frankfurt to Brussels on the morning of 14-Nov (2014). Belgium was kind enough have a transportation strike that day. The trains were not running. This made getting from the airport to the hotel an adventure.

While the trains were not running from the airport, the buses were. I called the hotel to see if they had a shuttle. They didn’t. The person that I spoke with suggested a taxi. I asked about the bus and he recommended against it. I could tell he had no confidence that I could manage with public transportation.

He sighed, then told me that I would need to board the #21 and ride it to Schuman Station. Then walk to the Metro station (subway, not the same as the trains) and…

“Then I take the Metro to Rogier?” I interrupted. I have stayed at this hotel before. I’m not totally uninitiated.

“Yes Misère,” he confirmed. “It will take you one and one-half hours.”

He sounded a little more optimistic. I could almost hear him thinking, “Perhaps you will make it to the hotel using public transportation after all. But we will wait. We will see.”

The gauntlet thrown down, I bought a bus ticket. Actually, I bought 5 because the big green OK button on the ticket machine was also a knob. Turning said knob incremented the number of tickets purchased but the guy at the hotel will never know. Anyway, I followed the flock of annoyed travelers as they redirected from the train to the bus. I find the platform for bus number 21. It was not encouraging. The bus was multi-sectioned and jammed packed. I don’t think that I could have squeezed on, even if I left my luggage behind.

So I waited for the next bus. While waiting, another crowd gathered on the platform about 20 meters closer to the terminal which is exactly where the next bus stopped. By the time I covered the distance, it was clear that the second bus would pack as full as the first. My bus boarding skills were no match for the Europeans. Perhaps the hotel guy was right? I think about taking a cab but I’d have to drag myself back through the main airport terminal. Plus I would have to admit defeat. I wasn’t that tired…. At least not yet.

The second bus now full, I incredulously watch as several more travelers force their way onto the bus. I wonder if they are causing people to pop out of a door on the other side of the bus. How on earth did that last man fit? Why didn’t I take a cab? That’s when the third bus pulled up behind the second. Unfortunately, it is a #12 not #21. Then the driver flips the digital bus number from 12 to 21 and stops the bus right in front of me!

Hesitantly I ask the driver, “Does this bus go to Schuman?”

“Yes,” replies the driver. “We will leave in six minutes.” I board the empty bus.

I find a seat for me and a place for my luggage. Within the next five minutes, a dozen others board the bus but there are plenty of seats for everyone. Someone fishes some peanuts from their suitcase. Someone else pulls out a sandwich. I’ve got a granola bar in my pocket that I was given on the plane. Perhaps if my fellow travelers and I pool our resources, then we can have a pot-luck picnic. What a random thought, I might be more fatigued than I thought.

After about 20 minutes, the bus driver’s cell phone rings. “Ello. Oui…” jabbers the bus driver.

“How odd,” I think. “In the US, I’m pretty sure public bus drivers don’t take calls while they’re driving people around.”

And it’s not subtle. The whole bus can hear the driver talking. Where’s the discretion? The driver sounds very annoyed. But it’s all in French. For all I know, his girlfriend is telling him that she put his stuff on the curb and she never wants to see him again. He sounds that unhappy…. Or maybe it’s just because I don’t understand the words.

Then the bus stops and the driver calls out. “Ok. This is Schuman.”

About 30 of us depart. I thought the bus stops were nice in Brussels and Schuman is a major bus stop. Where’s the shelter thingy? Where’s the sign? How are you supposed to know you’re at Schuman if it does not say Schuman on a sign? For that matter, where’s the sidewalk? It’s as if the driver decided to let us out on an arbitrary strip of the road next to a building instead of stopping at the actual bus stop.

Confused, I follow a group of others who just exited the bus. Some of them have suitcases too. There’s supposed to be a big ‘M’ for Metro around a big staircase leading down under the street. I don’t see any of it. I was in Brussels eight months ago. How much could it change in eight months? At least the herd has led me to a sidewalk and I’m no longer in traffic. After about a block, I cannot identify the group from the bus. They’ve dispersed and I’m too slow. On one shoulder, I have my laptop in a backpack. I am pulling my roll-on suitcase and I have a medium shoulder bag on the other shoulder. One more piece than normal and three more than I wish I was carrying right now.

I spy an elderly lady who also has a roll-on suitcase. She’s not moving as quickly as the others. I decide to cast my lot with her. Hopefully, she’s trying to get to the Metro. I lock on and start to follow staying 10 meters back. To le Metro, Madame, to le Metro!
But she doesn’t lead me to the metro. Instead, she leads me to, or rather we are blocked by, a protest. Technically we are blocked by the semi-circle of police in full riot gear who surround the protest. The actual protest is inside the police cordon, on the other side of a small cobblestone street. There are hundreds of police standing shoulder to shoulder to contain the protesters. The protesters are yelling, beating drums, waving flags and well, protesting. And they seem pretty good at it. So behind the police, we stood – literally. Every officer that I can see is facing the protesters. Effectively, we’ve sneaked up on the riot police.

“Ok lady, I’ve got your back,” I think to myself. Unless one of those policemen turn around, then, I’m dropping my luggage and running for it. The old lady, jaw set in determination, holds her ground. So do I, because, well, because I don’t have the slightest idea where else to go or what else to do. The bus is gone and I still don’t see the sign for the metro.

We stand there for what seems like a long time. Then a policeman turns around as spies us. Or I should say, “He spies me.”
The old lady can’t be more than four feet tall when she stands straight and she is bent under the burden of pulling her own suitcase. The officer’s gaze is too high. I don’t think he even sees her.

The officer has done nothing except turn around but he looks imposing. He’s tall, young, and quite fit. He’s smartly dressed in black combat boots, navy blue fatigues and a navy blue commando sweater – the kind with smooth nylon patches on the elbows and shoulders. From ankle to mid-thigh, the fronts of his legs are covered with black plastic storm trooper armor. There’s a black nightstick tucked into the armor on his left thigh. To finish the ensemble, he’s holding a clear plexiglass version of a Roman soldier shield. You can see through the shield but it’s like looking through a fish-eye lens. The combined effect of the all those shields makes the protest seem like a bizarre human terrarium exhibit. The officer seems surprised to see me and asks me a question in French.

“Sorry?” is all I can manage in reply.

So he switches to English. “What are you doing here?”

He has the tone of voice that Squidward uses when he says, “Spongebob! Patrick! What are you doing in my bedroom?”

But he also has the same French accent, the narrator in Spongebob uses when he says, “Several bad puns later.”

I am trying to think of just how much of the story to tell him. But I’m also processing an odd assortment of random thoughts. Am I in real danger? Dang, the shoulder strap is really starting to bite into my shoulder. Did I put my laptop in sleep mode instead of turning it off? And lastly, I think that someone should really tell these guys that black and navy blue do not look good together.

Before I can speak, the old lady starts explaining in French. I thought the officer looked surprised to see me. He really didn’t see the old lady standing there and was shocked to discover that a four-foot tall old lady was between us. He jumps back in surprise. This is not going well. When he jumps, it causes several other officers to turn. The old lady is now jabbering rapidly in French. She’s pointing in the direction of the metro. Finally a sign for the Metro. Now she’s pointing at me! I’m getting worried. I don’t know the French word for creeper but I’m really starting to regret my decision to follow her. Fortunately, the word for metro is the same in English and French. I hear the word “metro” and I join in the discussion.

“Oui. Oui. Metro. Metro.” I begin to shout while wildly waving my arms in the general direction of the metro station. I can’t really explain my behavior. The officer made it quite clear he spoke English perfectly well. I really don’t think I’m helping.

Then it happens, the officers part and the first officer motions us through. The protesters across the street notice us. They quiet for a moment and stare. The protesters find me a spectacle? How ironic is that? We have to cross the police line and then cross back out of their ranks in order to get to the Metro station. However, the police on the other side have watched the old lady and me from the beginning. They just make a small gap and let us pass. The old lady and I get to the top of the metro stairs but it’s not over. A crush of protesters arrives via the metro. They hurry up the stairs to join their peers. They are whooping and trying to unfurl flags. I start to think that it may be safer if I go back inside the ring of riot police but the protester swarm splits and passes to either side. There is an oddly civil quality to this whole thing. The police calmly stand and make their cordon. Protesters join and leave the group almost at random. It’s noisy but they are much better behaved than the crowds at many sports events in the US. Maybe protesting is a non-contact sport in Belgium? [clearly, I was wrong on this point]

At last, we get to the metro station. I buy my ticket and the old lady heads in the opposite direction. I don’t think there’s any way that she could know how much I was counting on her. Half a dozen stops and one transfer later, I arrive at Rogier station. The escalator was under repair so I carry my luggage up three flights of steps. I exit and walk the block to the hotel. When I get to the hotel, I’m soaked in sweat but I’ve made it!

The hotel clerk looks alarmed as he checks me in.

“Is everything OK sir?” he asks.

“It is now I reply. I decided to take the bus from the airport,” I say flatly.

“Misère that was you who called?” he asks. “That was three hours ago. Did it really take that long?”

“It does when you encounter a protest.”

“Ah. You saw the striking transportation workers?”

“Yes. Wait! What? Transportation workers were the protesters?”

“Yes,” the clerk replies. “That is what striking civil workers do in Belgium. They protest.”

“That explains why they were so…civil?” I replied. Nothing else came to mind.

Egad. The next time I see workers striking in Pittsburgh, I’m going to honk, wave, and thank the stars that they aren’t protesting in the middle of the Fort Pitt Bridge during rush hour. You have no idea.

What’s the opposite of half-ass?

To describe someone’s work as half-ass is bad. This got me thinking, is full-ass work better or worse? Perhaps full-ass is redundant and the correct usage would just be ass. As in, “you’ve done an ass job!” Still, is an ass job good or bad? And if an ass job is bad, then that would make a no-ass job good. Right?

A child’s perspective on the exchange of value

One night while we’re getting ready for bed, my child approached me with her sister in tow. “Dad, have we ever sold anything?” she asked.

It seemed to me like a good time for family discussion about economics or for that matter anything that wasn’t about website updates. I answered with a question. “What do you mean by ‘sell’?”

“You know. To give someone something and get money,” they answered.

I thought it was a good start so I asked, “Does what you sell have to be a thing like a glass of lemonade or could you sell something that you do like wash the car?”

They agreed that if you washed someone’s car and got money in return, then you did sell something but they weren’t quite sure what. I explained that things like cars and lemonade are considered goods and acts like washing the car or mowing the lawn are called services. And we all agreed that the only things that can be sold are in fact goods & services. [Ok, so there are things like wheat futures and options but …]

Next question. “Do you have to get money for the goods & services in order for it to be considered selling?”

“Yes,” she answered, “If you give away the goods and services, then that’s giving not selling.”

“Great point,” I replied. “Giving things away free doesn’t count as selling. But what if you received something other than money? If you got free ice cream for a week, then would that count as selling?”

They looked suspicious at first but ultimately agreed that it would still count as selling. I then continued by saying that selling is only half the picture. In order to actually sell, someone has to buy. But we already agreed the seller doesn’t have to get money for it to be a sale. Then I hit them with all the economic theory I acquired with one macroeconomics class. “So selling (and buying) are really just an exchange of value.”

“And yes,” I continued quickly before I bored them to sleep. “You have sold things before. Remember last fall when you collected the apples and sold them?”

“That’s right”, said my six-year-old. The idea of providing someone an apple for ten cents fits her idea of selling far better than my statements about exchanging value.

“OK. But what was the value that you provided?”

“The apples!” they exclaimed.

“Well, not exactly,” I replied. “Who did you sell them to?”

“Uncle Jerry.”

Uncle Jerry is our next door neighbor. Everyone in our neighborhood calls him Uncle Jerry.

“Where did you get the apples?”

“From the back yard.”

“Whose backyard?”

“Uncle Jerry’s, I guess,” offers my nine-year-old.

“So you just took Uncle Jerry’s apples?” I ask incredulously, although I knew this not to be the case.

“No Dad. Uncle Jerry said it was OK for us to take the apples.”

“Did you gather up all the apples?”

“No. There were lots more on the ground. We only gathered a few of them.”

“Ok. So, with Uncle Jerry’s permission, you gathered a few apples from his backyard and put them in a wagon. Next, you wheeled the apples around to Uncle Jerry’s front yard and asked him if he wanted to buy any apples for ten cents each. They were Uncle Jerry’s apples from the tree in his back yard. He knew where you got the apples and he knew that there were lots more apples under the tree. With all of that information what did Uncle Jerry do?”

“He bought the apples.”

“Not really,” I said. “The apples were already his. So what did he buy?”

“He wanted to make you guys happy,” my spouse chimes.

“Oh. I get it!” exclaims my nine-year-old.

But to be sure, I posed the following. “Each year I buy life insurance but the insurance company only has to pay if I die. What’s the value? It’s not the insurance payment since I have to be dead for the insurance company to pay.”

My older child’s brow knits momentarily and then she says, “I know. You want to take care of us if you die!”

My younger one thinks for a moment and confidently gives her own answer, “Life!”

And there you have it. Next year, I’m doubling my policy. You can’t have too much life!

Making Maple Syrup

Late February through mid-March is sugaring season in Western Pennsylvania. I may live on the only one acre in the entire township that does not have a single maple tree. Instead, I tapped several trees near my parent’s house. I used plastic tubing and brass compression fittings. I think as much sap dripped onto the ground as into my gallon water cooler bottles.

During the entire season, I made about a gallon of syrup but turned approximately half of that into maple sugar candy. To make syrup from sap, you boil, and boil, and boil. The reduction is 40:1. Last year I made syrup on the kitchen stove in an aluminum foil turkey roasting pan. It was a bad idea — 39 gallons of water boiled into my house.

Nevertheless, I really enjoyed the process plus the whole family loved the results. So this year I tried to do a better job of planning. First order of business was to find an evaporator (fancy name for a pan) that would hold up and be the right size. Evaporation is a function of surface area so you want a shallow pan that is as big as possible. Practically speaking you can let the sap boil off until it’s about 1″ deep (1/2″ if you are very careful). After that, it can scorch quickly. If your pan requires 10 gallons of sap to cover the pan 1″ deep but you only process batches of 10 gallons, then you have a problem. I figured that I would collect during the week and boil on the weekend. Based on last year’s experience, I knew that I would have between 10 gallons and 30 gallons of sap on any given weekend.

I decided that a pan 6″ deep and 12″ X 24″ would be ideal. A gallon of liquid is 231 cubic inches and my pan would be 288 square inches which works out to 1.25 gallons per inch or 7.5 gallons completely full. My approach is to boil 80% to 90% of the way outside, then finish the syrup on the stove where I have much better control over the temperature. While searching for stainless steel sheet stock on eBay, I found a company that specializes in stainless steel fabrication of kitchens. They sell scrap pieces of stainless steel sheet and even noted that they would fabricate. I called them and they built my pan from 18 gauge 304 stainless steel for $110.

Now that I knew the dimensions of my pan, I could plan the firebox to place it upon. I didn’t want to just have an open flame as I figured too much ash would get into the sap. I also wanted better efficiency. I’m not sure I have a recommendation on how to go about this. In my case, I am very fortunate. My dad is an excellent welder. He welded a steel box 12″ x 12″ X 24″ that sits on a grate. The grate, in turn, sits on a pair of rails with a pan underneath to catch coals. There’s a 4″ diameter opening on the rear to accommodate a stove pipe.

I wanted to tap more trees this year, so I ordered actual 7/16″ taps from I also I ordered a thermometer, a hydrometer, and a stainless steel tube for use with the hydrometer. In mid-February, we had a warm spell and I got the sugaring bug. I tapped the three trees that I tapped last year, plus 4 additional large black / sugar maples.

I spent several weekends standing out in the cold, boiling down sap into syrup. One Saturday, in particular, it was bitterly cold. It takes a lot of wood to boil down the sap. It takes more when it is bitterly cold.

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