Sunday, September 13, 2009


In 1900 three guys decided that Britt, Iowa wasn't getting enough love. They wanted to "do something different to show the world that Britt was a lively little town capable of doing anything that larger cities could do." The natural remedy: Hobofest, as in a festival to honor hobos complete with a king and queen hobo coronation.

The festival still continues today. Amy finished her work in DC on Friday and needed to go back to Iowa for school. Hobofest was on that Saturday so after she finished we took off and drove through the night to roll into Britt in time for the Hoboparade. It was mostly old cars, but there was an actual float of Hobos.

There is a hobomuseum in town

Visiting the museum I learned the following: Hobos travel and work, tramps travel but don’t work and bums neither travel nor work. During the Civil War and then to the Great Depression people would hop on trains and travel to where there is work. They have their own lingo; including catching the westbound for death; and signs they would leave for future hobos.

The town makes up Mulligan stew for everyone who comes, and they don’t mess around.

Each of the bins was full.

People in line all had bowls, pans and Tupperware for the soup and so we thought we had to supply our own container. The only thing Amy had in her car was her wok. So the lone Asian in the possibly all of northern Iowa had to walk around carrying her wok.

The recipe is a bit larger than anything I've cooked,

450 lbs. beef
900 lbs. potatoes
250 lbs. carrots
35 lbs. green-red peppers
300 lbs. cabbage
100 lbs. turnips
10 lbs. parsnips
150 lbs. tomatoes
20 lbs. chili pepper
25 lbs. rice
60 lbs. celery
1 lb. bay leaves
24 gal. mixed vegetables
10 lb. kitchen bouquet flavoring
About 400 loaves of bread are served. The finished stew fills about 5,000 8-oz cups.

but ours didn't seem to have rice or meat. I suppose not even hobos are immune from the recession. The stew was the lead up to possibly the best part: the coronation of the King and Queen hobo (here are the past winners). Before the festivities a hobo got up to sing the National Anthem, but sung the forgotten fourth verse. I wasn't so sure about this even existing, but wikipedia says it's true.

The pageant works by having the contestants get up to give a short speech (some were about 30 seconds) as to why they should be crowned. At the end people would clap for who they thought should win and the judges would determine who got the most claps. The first contestant for the Queen was “Dirty Feet” who looked to be about seven years old. Her platform was to bring the hobolove to the youngsters. Another contestant said she was a hobo at heart but road around in an RV and not on trains. This elicited boos from the crowd. There was a push to give the crown to train riders. There was a young (late 20s or so) punkish group who wanted to give the crown to the tramps, apparently not aware that it’s called Hobofest, not Trampfest.

But the tramp Stray Cat won for queen

and an old school hobo Ink Blot became King.

Afterwards they were in high demand, but I snuck behind for a picture with them as they were talking to other people.

And yes; their headgear was a big Folgers’ can of coffee cut in the shape of a crown. There’s a hobo art gallery that has pictures of all the past Kings and Queens.

There is a hobocemetery as well. Amy and I didn’t go but our friend Kendra did (who supplied many of these pictures). Some die young,

some die old,

and some had dogs.

Along the main street there was a flea market, petting zoo and food for sale, including “Walking Taco’s” and “Loose Beef Burger’s.”

All in all Hobofest was great fun and well worth the trip if you happen to be in the area.


My 1/3 life crisis

I'm way too young for a midlife crisis, plus I've been planning on buying a motorcycle since I was 25 or so.

It may look fast, but its only a 250 cc engine, so its one of the slowest, gutless bikes on the road. I figure since my work is 14 miles away on a very sparsely traveled highway, it makes sense to get 60 mpg on this as opposed to whatever I get in the honda civic. Yes, gas mileage- that is the only reason I bought it. I just don't think I considered how much fun I would have on it- seriously, I've never enjoyed driving a motor vehicle until now. Maybe its the nerdy physicist in me, but I just can't get enough of the centripetal acceleration as I go around a curve, leaning a gravity defying 45 degrees to the road.

I just can't wait to make a trip to Seattle on this thing.

ps. Don't worry, I'm not stupid, I'm wearing full protective gear- I invested in a fully armored leather racing suit that the professional people race in. When they crash at 150+ mph, they walk away in these things. I rarely top 70.


Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Wild, Wonderful, Weird, West Virginia

Amy and I went to West Virginia for a little sight seeing. We stopped first at a place called Colossi. A family decided to collect giant fiberglass figures and show them in their yard. We went there, pulled in the driveway, and made ourselves at home and walked around their yard. Pulling in we are greeted by these four folks:

and you park next to this guy laying on the ground.

They have a mini-rollercoaster with the Simpsons

and a Santa Claus.

I’m not sure what this guy is doing, but here’s a lumberjack

There are various other treasures lying around as well. And to top it off, to the side there were some llamas.

We next went to a tiny house. I’m not sure what it’s for, but it was fully furnished inside, although we couldn’t go in.

We then went to Harper’s Ferry, a more traditional tourist locale and saw the spot where Thomas Jefferson said it would be worth the trip across the Atlantic to see. I don’t think it was that good, but it is still a nice place to visit.


Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Ramblings on Health Care

A few points about the health care debate:

1) Health insurance is a funny thing to begin with. Most health insurance covers routine expenses such as immunizations, annual check-ups etc. Some plans even pay for prescription drugs. This is unusual in the realm of insurance. Imagine if you had an auto insurance policy that paid for your oil changes or tire rotations. That would be nice, except that it would have to cost a lot of money in order for any insurance company to offer it. There would really be no point, since you would just be trading checks with the insurance company every few months. In the case of most insurance, you pay regular premiums to the insurer in exchange for them taking on the risk of having to pay for large, unusual, and somewhat random events (for example, a house fire.)

2) Allowing people to purchase health insurance “across state lines” doesn’t seem like it would work. I assume that the proponents of this believe it will increase competition. There are a couple problems with it. First, insurance is regulated at the state level. So part of the reason insurance costs can vary so much from state to state is that each state requires different minimum levels of coverage, different limits and rules for medical malpractice lawsuits (which, in turn, affects doctor and hospital fees), and different procedures that are required to be covered by all insurance plans. Second, if we assume that we can have federal regulation of insurance, insurance companies would simply use territory rating that would mimic their different rates by state.
I guess I don’t understand how you could make insurance companies charge the same price for policies in different states when different laws would apply to those policies.

3) I am skeptical of the surveys I have heard about health care reform. One columnist claimed that a survey showed that most people want universal health care. There are just so many ways to ask the question that I am not willing to take any summary conclusions like that at face value.

4) There was an op-ed (from Senator Harkin) that claimed we don’t spend enough money on “prevention” in America. It is impossible to gauge this. Did he count the money I spent on running shoes, zucchini and green peppers instead of cable TV, doughnuts and potato chips? I think not. Prevention is a personal choice, a habit. Sure we can spend money educating and coaching people, but there is more to it than that. Also, soda pop and french fries taste really good. I am skeptical that any government prevention plan will be particularly successful in changing unhealthy behavior if the plan is to simultaneously mitigate the financial consequences of unhealthy behavior.

5) Have any of you heard this idea that we should be paying doctors based on results instead of number of procedures? The idea is that some doctors to extra tests, etc. so they can make money when the insurance company reimburses them. Paying based on results seems attractive, but it sounds a lot like Six Sigma mumbo jumbo to me. Who decides what results are reasonable to expect? I hope we wouldn’t stop treating people with chronic conditions. In those cases there are no results from treatment except continued survival or comfort.

6) Some have accused the opposition to health care reform (mostly the ill behaved town hall crowds) racist using the reasoning that they are opposing a black U.S. President or that they are opposing a plan that would disproportionally benefit minorities. I find this really tiring. I heard one woman (a Princeton professor, I believe) on NPR claiming that any arguments involving the idea of “personal responsibility” is inherently racist. I’m sure there are many racists in America, and surely many of them are opposed to health care reform, but to accuse all opponents of reform of racism seems especially lazy and, um, prejudicial. You will have to actually address my arguments to persuade me to your point of view. You can’t persuade me by calling me names, especially when they are unjustified as in my case.
If I wanted to be mischievous, I guess I could turn it around. Health care reform as currently proposed will cost lots of money, which will cause more government borrowing, which will lead to inflation which will be bad for people who have large bank accounts and money lenders, which are disproportionately one race (white). Therefore, the supporters of health care reform are racist. I guess I better be careful with that argument: if E.J. Dionne saw it, his head might explode.

7) Some opponents of reform like to use the argument that the government screws up everything that it does, so why should health care be any different? Sean Hannity in particular seems to like to say, “Name one thing the government is in charge of that it hasn’t screwed up.”
If anyone ever asks you this question, your answer should be “the military.” Then you can have fun while they try to figure out whether to admit you have a valid answer or whether to agree with you that the military is screwed up. If you want to go further, I guess you can ask them how their electricity utility performs compared to utilities in other countries.

8) One more thing about opposition to reform: Part of the reason there has been so much room for misinformation from the pundits and talk show hosts is that it is unclear what the actual information is. There are still multiple competing bills, and Obama has been pretty light on the details.
Also, I think there are a lot of people that think there is room for improvement, but are not sure this is the best way to go. The Democratic leadership and many in the media (including “The Economist”) seem to be missing the fact that there is actual opposition to health care reform in its current form that is based on policy arguments, and that can’t be dismissed as racism or ignorance.

9) I do think our current health care system leaves much to be desired. The current system has come about more by accident than by design. For example, I don’t like that you have situations where people get illnesses not related to work, which cause them to not be able to work and lose their jobs, which causes them to lose their insurance. Having said that, I don’t think our system is so bad that a poor effort at reform can’t make it worse. I don’t know exactly how to make it better, but I think we should be able to do it without erecting “a multitude of new offices.”

Anyway, I guess that will do for now. There is obviously a lot more to say, but I don’t really feel up to talking about the theory of vertical (across time) versus horizontal (across people) risk transfer in health insurance right now.