April 29, 2008

TchotchkesWhenever I go to a trade show I resist the urge to stuff my pockets or tote bag with the little giveaways that many vendors place at their booths to draw you close. Yet over the years my office has become a museum for a collection of objects that I picked up from who knows where.

The ones I can spy from my desk include the blue cheerleader guy, staple removers, myriad screwdrivers, “Talker Putty”, letter openers, a UB key chain, a Coqui frog, a ruler, one ubiquitous buffalo, two brains and a blue squeezie ball that bulges bright red when squeezed.

I don’t know why I keep the stuff. In my desk is another assortment of name tags (really nice ones!), 99-cent headsets, dozens – no, hundreds – of pens, a magnifying glass, and a rock with some saying on it that has long since been rubbed off.

Someday I’ll decide that my office would look better de-cluttered, and most of this stuff will get chucked. As for now, I simply leave it laying around, inert, reminders of trade shows that I’ve long forgotten.



April 27, 2008

Chores, circa 1940A friend of mine and I were chatting about how mundane life becomes as we get older, as we take on more responsibility and with that responsibility come tasks that eat into what used to be discretionary time. Funny how it mostly creeps up on you: Not the job, but the occasional dinner meeting or “social” gathering that you feel obligated to attend, and that chews up an evening. The house with its never-ending demands for maintenance; the children (bless them!) with their never-ending demands for attention. The dishes, the laundry, the bathrooms, the vacuuming, the lawn, and this past couple of weekends, the pool, and firewood.

I do not remember how I filled my day prior to having children. I do know that the number of evenings my wife and I go out, now that the kids are in college, has only marginally increased mainly because we’re too tired to go out. I also know that my week-long summer vacation is likely to be spent away from home, so that projects needing my attention will be delayed yet again.

I know only a very few individuals who do not live like this. They tend to pick up every couple of years and move on, either to a new job, a new city, a new home/apartment, or all of these. None are married. I wonder if they are at peace with a nomadic lifestyle, or if they are in search of and never finding satisfaction in life.

I, for one, will not give up my current lifestyle. It will evolve on its own, and eventually provide me with the time to do the things I want to do. As tired as I become by day’s end I am also satisfied that I have tried my best to reach a goal or two.

New York State Thruway Authority Raises Tolls Again

April 26, 2008

NYS Thruway (courtesy Svirsky)Today’s article about New York’s finest (and I’m not referring to the police, who are fine men and women) comes courtesy of the Buffalo News. The Thruway Authority announced yet another regrettable but necessary increase in tolls, the second since January. There are two more slated for 2009 and 2010. When I visit my sons in the Albany area it will now cost me $25 round trip just to use 280 miles of I-90.

Will I pay it? Sure. Will I like it? Hell no. I’ll probably drive with disdain.

The Thruway is not anything to be proud of. Despite some trucker’s claim that it is one of the best maintained highways in the country, it is a dull, nonscenic and monotonous ride; and to me feels safer only because of the lack of traffic on it relative to the bustling highway systems in other states. Unlike my occasional trips through Ontario to Port Huron – which tend to fly by – the trip to Albany is seemingly endless. They are the same length.  One is a joy to drive; the other is a bore.

What struck me while reading wasn’t the Thruway toll hike. It was the statement that Assemblyman Mark Schroeder made about “the explosion of authorities in new York, which he estimated at 640. These authorities are beholden to no one, and historically have been used for patronage jobs and as off-books loan vehicles so that the state government can avoid going to referendum as mandated by the state constitution. The Thruway Authority just happens to be today’s whipping boy; deservedly so. But 640 authorities? When is this nonsense going to end? What did New Yorkers do to deserve this kind of punishment?

A quick look at the Thruway Authority’s 2008 budget reveals that it takes 3,119 employees to manage and maintain the Thruway system, about 5 employees per mile, year in, year out. Salaries and salary-related costs make up almost half of the $1.1B budget. What is way out of whack are the fringe benefits: Health insurance, vacation time, sick time and other perks, are again 50 percent additional cost on top of salary. To put it another way: If the average salary were $55,000 (it is, before overtime adds an additional $3,500 to it) then fringe benefits amount to $27,000 per person. As a business person I could buy my employees the very, very best health insurance policy, load on generous vacation and sick time benefits, put a coffee pot in every office and free soda in the soda machine, and I could still not come close to the cost of the Authority’s fringe benefit package. State employees must get take-home gold every day, or something equivalent.

This has gotten way out of hand. Without the word profitability in the state equation, the words efficiency and accountability appear meaningless.

UB 2020 Update

April 22, 2008

Today marked the 2nd in a series of 4 forums designed to, well, design the University at Buffalo’s campus for the year 2020. Today’s forum, Campus Concepts, focused on getting each major group affected by the university – students, faculty, staff, community – up to speed on the various concepts envisioned by the planning professionals, to offer ideas, and to obtain feedback. About 700 attended workshops throughout the day.

A capstone session summarizing the day’s activities took place in the evening. Some quick notes follow.

  • Students and faculty were polled for ideas throughout the year. About 80 campus conversations have taken place so far.
  • The University is considering the shuffling of schools from one campus to another. In the most extreme shuffling, the downtown campus would grow from its current 400,000 square feet to over ten times that size and incorporate every school that had anything to do with medicine (and if the law students have their way, the Law School as well). At the other, lesser extreme, the School of Pharmacy would move from the North to the Main Street campus.
  • Traffic and parking are major considerations. The current parking footprint on the North campus is 87 acres, and would need to grow to over 108 should nothing change to reduce dependency on single-occupant vehicles. 93% of the students, staff and faculty operate single-occupancy vehicles on campus. Alternative transportation and ways to reduce the number of trips per person are hot topics for further discussion.
  • The campuses should grow by “densifying”, not by sprawl. In particular, the North Campus vision is to create a dense spine, with wind-breaking foliage and bright spaces conducive to student congregation (which is so, so different from the design of the North Campus, greatly inspired by and meant to prevent a recurrence of the campus riots of the late ‘60s).
  • Dramatically improve the North Campus lake, making it something more than just a drainage pond.
  • Create an urban, not a suburban, feel to the Downtown campus.

The next forum is November 19th, when a draft design plan will be presented to the public for the first time. Some people and groups are bound to be pleased, while others will anguish that their ideas weren’t considered the correct ones.

Is that also when the litigation will begin?

Resurrecting Buffalo

April 20, 2008

Can Buffalo Ever Come Back? Probably not – and government should stop bribing people to stay here.

That title, in an article by Harvard professor Ed Glaeser in the New York publication City Journal (and repeated in the New York Sun), riled a lot of Western New Yorkers. In Dr. Glaeser’s defense, the subtitle (in italics above) was added by the Journal – nothing like a downstate magazine twisting the knife, eh? Rather than piss and moan about it, Kate Foster and her staff from UB’s Regional Institute invited Glaeser to come to Buffalo to discuss and possibly defend his position. He agreed, and spent most of this past Friday here under sunny skies.

The forum drew 350 people to WNED studios on a day when most of us would have probably preferred to soak up the warmth and brilliant sunshine. Yet there we were. I had the privilege of being on the discussion panel and also had a semi-private audience with Dr. Glaeser for several hours prior to the presentation. That’s where it got interesting, as that discussion covered many more issues than did the public forum.

But all in all, Glaeser really had two points to make:

  • Good schools correlate to good urban health.
  • Buffalo and other depressed cities should shrink to success.

Urban success should be measured not by population growth but by quality of life. Glaeser pointed out several times that some of the most successful cities in the U.S.: Chicago, Minneapolis and Boston – to name a few of the cold weather cities – have all suffered substantial population loss since 1970 yet they thrive as urban centers. Glaeser claims that they reinvented themselves to become centers of information flow and today manufacture ideas, not just goods. It stands to reason that a more educated society is advantageous to the creation of an urban environment that nurtures information flow; hence the stress on better schools and better education in general.

My only argument with Dr. Glaeser is the role that job opportunities play. Surprisingly, Glaeser didn’t mention this and, in fact, implied that cities in the South have become consumer cities where people move simply because it’s cheap to do so. All things being equal, I claim that most people would not move from wherever they’ve established roots if they sensed that they had job opportunities where they already live. But for many years now, Buffalo has been slow to create those opportunities, so off we go to find new opportunities elsewhere.

Other things of interest:

  • Glaeser basically implied “Don’t look to government largesse to bail you out of this. Buffalo’s success depends on the business sector and the community. Government generally does a bad job, believing that big projects (read: “shiny new buildings”) are needed to solve big problems. They generally don’t work well. Glaeser was against Boston’s Big Dig for this reason. He said to me “The people in Kansas City should not have had to pay for transportation in Boston”.
  • Dr. James Williams appeared to sleep through much of Dr. Glaeser’s presentation. Maybe he was just thinking really hard. With his eyes closed.

The Village of Williamsville

April 20, 2008

WilliamsvilleThe village of Williamsville. 5 lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic. Noise, and exhaust fumes. Waiting to cross the street at an intersection sets one’s ears ringing and does nothing to create any sense of an idyllic, peaceful setting. Last Thursday’s walk down Main Street, at 2 PM, made me thankful it wasn’t 5 PM.

This is a village? It’s come a long way in 30 years, not necessarily for the better.

Dead in its Tracks

April 17, 2008

The current undisputed sensationalistic story du mois is chocked full of juicy things: mothers, children, underage sex, religion, polygamy and now, courtroom drama and lots of lawyers falling over themselves for attention.

The 80-year-old Tom Green County courtroom and a satellite courtroom set up in a City Hall auditorium two blocks away were jammed with dozens of mothers from the retreat, dressed in their iconic pastel prairie dresses and braided upswept hair.

The mothers were sworn in as witnesses, standing and mumbling their ‘I do’s’ in timid voices. As they sat silently, the flock of lawyers was constantly buzzing with murmurs and popping up to make motions or object as Walther tried to maintain order.

But when prosecutors tried to enter into evidence the medical records of three girls — two 17-year-olds and an 18-year-old — the lawyers jumped to their feet and crammed the aisles trying to see the papers. That’s when Walther called the recess.

Oh, the imagery. This will not end well.