Does New Hampshire really smoke like a locomotive?

The interesting graphic above details cigarette sales state by state between 1970 and 2012. While there’s no question smoking has declined in the US over the past 40-plus years, the trend has nuances not indicated in the chart.

If one looks at the map for 2012, the last year shown, cigarette sales are greatest in West Virginia, Kentucky and New Hampshire, with the three states registering 105, 100 and 94 packs sold per resident, respectively.

New Hampshire would seem out of place with Kentucky and West Virginia, two states located firmly in the Appalachians, where smoking is more accepted culturally in a region noted for its blue-collar lifestyle.

On the other hand, a significant portion of New Hampshire now serves as a bedroom community for Massachusetts’ white collar labor force, with the commensurate rise in housing bringing an increasing number of young middle- and upper-middle class individuals into the state, hardly the sort known for consuming large amounts of smokes.

However, it almost certainly wasn’t nicotine-frenzied Granite State residents alone that drove New Hampshire cigarette sales in 2012, but individuals from all of New England.

In 2012, a pack of cigarettes cost $4.86 in New Hampshire, compared to $6.97 in neighboring Maine, $7.60 in Vermont and $8.49 in Massachusetts. Prices were almost as high or even higher in the other two New England states: $8.16 a pack in Rhode Island and $8.85 in Connecticut.

Cigarette sales per capita, 2012.

Cigarette sales per capita, 2012. Click on to understand.

Factor in that New Hampshire has no sales tax and you had a happy hunting ground for those wanting to stock up on cheap cigarettes. And the difference in price made a short drive worthwhile: someone from Massachusetts, for example, who drove over the border to New Hampshire could save nearly $75 on just two cartons (20 packs) of cigarettes.

West Virginia’s average price for cigarettes in 2012 was $4.84 a pack, the lowest in the country. Prices in all neighboring states were higher: Virginia, $5.43; Ohio, $5.67; Maryland, $6.53; Kentucky, $6.56; and Pennsylvania, $6.93. It’s easy to see that residents in border states would likely at least partly drive up sales in a bid to save money.

Kentucky, however, is an outlier. Its price per pack wasn’t cheap – it ranked in the top half of the nation in terms of cost per pack in 2012 – so why did it come in second in per capita cigarette sales?

Looking at the cost of cigarettes in surrounding states, Tennessee, $4.91 a pack; Virginia, $5.43; Indiana, $5.56; Missouri, $5.87; and Illinois, $10.25, all but the latter are cheaper than Kentucky.

However, Kentucky had just seen prices spike due to increases in state and federal cigarette taxes, raising the cost per pack from $4.97 to $6.56.

While some Kentuckians may have been able to cross the border to buy less-expensive smokes in bordering states, it was likely inconvenient for others to do so, due to distance and terrain. And, of course, some people are going to smoke, no matter what the expense. Over time, Kentucky’s per capita rate will drop, but not into the range of, say California or Utah.

And it doesn’t matter how high the government raises cigarette taxes; at some point, smokers will simply begin buying tax-free bootleg smokes.

So while smoking is certainly on the decline in the US, trying to gauge the impact of tax increases on smoking on a state-by-state basis is an iffy proposition. Pushing up the price of cigarettes in one state may simply be driving at least a portion of consumers to surrounding states, particularly if prices are significantly lower.

(HT: Carpe Diem)

I’ll see your plutonium and raise you one microgram of californium

californium-knows-how-to-party

When comparing apples and oranges, the former sell for nearly double the latter, at least according to what’s available at a nearby grocery store. Yet the price per ounce – 10 cents and 5 cents, respectively – are miniscule compared to some of the world’s rarer materials.

Consider white truffles: An ounce of the prized fungus, which grows for just a couple of months of the year almost exclusively in one part of Italy and is best located by special pigs, sells for more than $140 an ounce. Seem excessive? That doesn’t even begin to compare with some even more expensive items, according to the online publication Visual Capitalist.

Saffron, a spice native to Greece and Southwest Asia and used mainly as a seasoning and coloring agent in food, goes for more than $310 an ounce.

Palladium, a rare metal used in catalytic converters, among a number of items, sells for more $500 an ounce, while gold, the monetary standby of yore, is currently fetching nearly $1,200 an ounce.

Iranian beluga caviar, taken from sturgeon found mainly in the Caspian Sea, brings nearly $1,000 an ounce.

Yet those don’t come close to some upper-end items, according to the Visual Capitalist.

Plutonium, the radioactive element used in the first atomic bomb and employed at nuclear power plants, goes for more than $110,000 an ounce.

The Visual Capitalist estimated that an ounce of high-quality diamonds, nearly 142 carats, would sell for more than $1.8 million.

Finally, californium, a man-made element used to help start up nuclear reactors, would sell for more than $750 million an ounce – if that much californium could ever be produced.

Today, californium can be made only in milligram amounts and is available from the US government for $10 per millionth of a gram, a microgram.

How big would one-millionth of gram of californium be? I don’t know, but it’s probably not something you want to trust the summer intern with.

(Top: Slightly humorous meme in place of image of Californium, which is so small and rare that no decent image of it can be found on the internet.)

Feed a Bee program results in 65 million+ new flowers in US

feed a bee

More than 65 million flowers were planted in 2015 as part of initiative to feed honey bees and other pollinating insects across the United States.

More than 250,000 consumers and 70 organizations took part in Bayer’s Feed a Bee initiative last year, according to Southeast Farm Press.

When bees have access to adequate, diverse food sources they are better able to withstand the stresses caused by the Varroa mite, as well as other mites and diseases, according to recent studies.

The Varroa mite attaches itself to the body of the honey bee and weakens the bee by sucking hemolymph, the fluid which circulates in the bodies of insects. This can cause problems such as the deformed wing virus to spread throughout hives and can ultimately result in a hive’s death.

Through Feed a Bee, Bayer is working to increase forage options for bees and other pollinators at a time when agriculture is relying on them more to help produce enough food to feed a growing world population, the publication noted.

“When we talk to the public, the most common question we hear is, ‘What can I do to help bees?’ Providing pollinators with abundant, diverse food sources is one of the most important things we can all do to promote bee health,” according to Becky Langer, manager of the North American Bee Care Program.

“We created Feed a Bee to make it easy for people to be involved, and we are delighted with the overwhelming response,” she added. “We look forward to getting even more people involved this year.”

Honey bees play a critical role in pollinating many of the fruits, nuts and vegetables which contribute to a healthy, nutritious diet. Given the important role bees play in US agriculture, Bayer undertook the Feed a Bee initiative to help the insects thrive.

“Lack of diverse food sources is a major obstacle to improving honey bee health,” according to the Feed a Bee website. “Quite simply, bees do not have access to all the pollen and nectar sources that they need.”

Feed a Bee seeks to create forage areas with a wide range of bee-attractant plants. It also strives to educate consumers about pollinator food shortages and works with them to plant tens of millions of flowers to increase bee-forage areas.

“We’ve seen some great news in pollinator health in the past year from increasing population numbers to heightened involvement from consumers and other stakeholders,” said Jim Blome, president and CEO of Crop Science, a division of Bayer. “We still have much work to do to ensure the future health of our honey bee colonies, but we hope the foundation we have from Feed a Bee will continue to bring more partners to the table.”

Mercury used in western mining: Where did it all go?

Gould_&_Curry mine comstock lode

Advances in US mining in recent decades have helped reduce the industry’s impact on the environment. While there is still room for additional progress, the difference between today and 125 years ago is staggering.

Consider the amount of mercury that was used – and ultimately dumped – into western rivers in the second half of the 19th century in the quest for silver.

Mercury, or as it was better known then, quicksilver, was critical in the removal of silver and gold from ore in the western United States. As the Alta California newspaper noted in 1890, it was pretty easy to determine how much mercury ended up rivers, streams and land: however much was used.

“In the silver mines of a certain region, in order to ascertain the amount of quicksilver dissipated and lost, it is only necessary to know the amount bought, for not an ounce is ever sent out from the mines to be sold,” the publication wrote in January 1890.

The paper estimated that between 1860 and 1889, more than 20.5 million pounds of mercury was used just in the huge silver strikes in the Comstock Lode in western Nevada. While some was likely vaporized, making the surrounding atmosphere toxic, most of the element seeped into the environment, according to the Alta California.

In Nevada, mercury was used to extract silver and gold from ore through the Washoe Process, a concentrating process in which silver was mixed with mercury, either in a drum or on an amalgamation table, where the precious metal bond with mercury. The resulting product was called amalgam.

The silver was then recovered from the mercury by retorting, which involves distilling off the mercury from the amalgam.

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Perception or not, corruption isn’t limited to Third World

corruption index

Transparency International, a German-based organization, recently released its world Corruption Perceptions Index for 2015.

Not surprisingly, North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan and Sudan ranked near the bottom of the index, which measures widespread corruption in the public sphere, and also factors in instances of abuses of power, secret dealings, bribery, child labor, human trafficking, environmental destruction and terrorism, among other things.

Transparency International found that corruption was rife in 68 percent of the world’s countries: It would be interesting to see a similar index for US states.

If the actual machinations that go on with misuse of tax dollars, corporate incentives and lawmaker ethics, among many other things, weren’t both so well cloaked by those in power and so often overlooked by US citizens, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a number of states ranked somewhere around the nations of Eastern Europe in terms of corruption.

The difference between the US and other parts of the world isn’t a lack of corruption, it’s that our elected officials are better at hiding it, aren’t quite so ostentatious in showing off their ill-gotten booty and generally don’t kill those who threaten to expose them.

I’d imagine the same is the case in other so-called “first-world” nations such as Canada, the UK and France. Even highly ranked countries such as Denmark (No. 1), Finland (No. 2) and Sweden (No. 3), have problems.

They just have fewer issues than lower-ranked countries and their corruption occurs in a more “white collar” manner – say spanking new roads and public buildings in friends’ areas in exchange for laundered kickbacks along with incredibly generous government pensions, as opposed to naked looting of the government coffers and outright execution of opponents.

Like most things in life, it’s all in how you play the game.

(Top: Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index. The darker the country the more corrupt the public sector; the lighter the less corrupt. Greenland, Antarctica and Western Sahara seem pretty safe.)

Vermont railroad roundhouse more than just a curiosity

Vermont Albany 9 9 2015 019

Railroad roundhouses are as much a thing of the past as steam locomotives and operational cabooses.

They used to dot transportation hubs across the US and Canada, but over the past few decades a high percentage have been torn down to make way for infrastructure upgrades or eliminated through that nefarious enemy of architectural history, urban renewal.

Today, just a small percentage of roundhouses remain, and of these, even fewer possess operating turntables, used to rotate locomotives and rail cars into different bays to enable workers to make repairs.

One such operational roundhouse and turntable can be found in northwestern Vermont, in the small, picturesque town of St. Albans.

St. Albans has been a railroad town since before the Civil War. The Vermont Central Railroad dates back to 1848, with a route running through St. Albans by the early 1850s. The line underwent different owners as the decades progressed, had its named changed to Central Vermont Railway at the end of the 19th century, but continued to dominate life in St. Albans until recent years.

Old-time view of St. Albans, Vt., train yard. Roundhouse can be seen in the upper left.

Old-time view of St. Albans, Vt., train yard. Circular roundhouse can be seen in the upper left.

At one point, more than 200 trains a day passed through the town. By 1923, when the current roundhouse was constructed, Central Vermont facilities, including a spectacular headquarters office, a machine shop and freight stations, spread across 51 acres of St. Albans’ downtown.

By the 1920s, the Canadian National Railway owned the Central Vermont and remained in control until 1995, when it sold to short line railroad company Genesee & Wyoming. The new entity was renamed the New England Central Railroad.

Today, the 366-mile line runs from Alburgh, Vt., to New London, Conn.

The St. Albans roundhouse has nearly two dozen stalls, though not all are in operating order. A peek inside last fall showed a pair of Connecticut Southern Railroad locomotives undergoing maintenance. In the yard, several New England Central locomotives were stationed about. The turntable was vacant, but at least one locomotive was positioned to move onto it, likely in preparation for regular upkeep.

Being able to poke around an active railroad roundhouse is akin to taking a trip back in time. The St. Albans facility has been in operation for more than 90 years. There have been train structures on the site for at least 150 years.

To give you an idea how unusual operational railroad roundhouses are, according to a survey done by the Railroad Station Historical Society, there isn’t a single roundhouse in the entirety of my state of South Carolina, either operational or non-operational.

It would appear the closest roundhouses are in Spencer, NC, and Savannah, Ga. Both are now part of museums.

It’s one thing to get a glimpse of the past; it’s another to see it still in action.

(Top: New England Central roundhouse in St. Albans, Vt., today, with Connecticut Southern Railroad just inside bay. Below: Photo from 1920s shows Central Vermont Railway locomotive at same facility.)

old steam engine at St. Albans roundhouse

1894 dime brings $2 million at Florida auction

1894-S-Proof-Barber-Dime

The San Francisco mint coined but two dozen 10-cent pieces in 1894. Today, just nine are known to exist. One was sold earlier this month for an astounding $2 million at a Florida auction.

The 1894-S Barber dime is one of the legends of American coin collecting, along with the 1804 US dollar and a 1913 Liberty nickel, and is among the most sought-after numismatic rarities.

The coin sold on Jan. 7 to an unidentified buyer during the Florida United Numismatists show at the Tampa Convention Center is the finest of the nine known surviving examples, described as a “premium gem” by Heritage Auctions.

The story behind the 1894-S dime is an interesting one.

The San Francisco Mint struck nearly 2.5 million Barber dimes in 1893, and planned another substantial mintage in 1894.

However, the financial downturn of 1893 caused a widespread and long-lasting economic recession, and there was little demand for small change in the shrinking economy. As a result, just 24 10-cent pieces were struck at the San Francisco facility in 1894.

Of that number, two coins were sent to Mint Director Robert Preston in Philadelphia in early June 1894, for assay, per mint policy. These were melted and assayed.

On June 25, 1894, two more examples were assayed as part of the monthly assay at the San Francisco Mint. A fifth specimen was sent to Philadelphia on June 28 to be reserved for the annual Assay Commission, which met early in 1895 to test and review the coinage from the previous year.

That left 19 surviving 1894-S dimes. Some of these, it would appear, were placed in a bag of dimes and released into circulation, while others were obtained by mint personnel at face value.

At that time – June 1894 – no one apparently realized that there would be no further orders for dimes in 1894 at the San Francisco Mint, according to Heritage Auctions, which explains why several examples were released into circulation.

While at least two of the known examples are coins that were found after being in circulation for lengthy periods of time – including one taken over the counter at a Gimbels department store in New York in 1957 – several others could still be out there, unknowingly squirreled away.

Conversely, the remainder may have been, at various times, unwittingly melted down.

If I had the time or inclination, I would calculate the rate of appreciation that the above-mentioned dime has undergone during the past 122 years. But we’ll just call it mucho grande and leave it at that.