Is Tide Starting to Turn Along the Waterfront?

June 29, 2008

Buffalo WaterfrontThat’s a news article headline that we’ve seen here, what, 10 or 20 times in the past generation?  It seems like the Waterfront is about to turn the corner every year or so.  Years ago the downtown football stadium was going to do the trick; that was followed with other schemes including, today, Bass Pro, Canal Side, the Casino and the Commercial Slip.

So I was a little surprised when I saw the headline yet again “Is Tide Starting to Trun Along the Waterfront?” Did you see the article?

Probably not.  It was an article in the City and Region section of the Boston Globe, and it was about Boston’s Waterfront.  You know, that city in the Northeast to which just about every other city is compared – growth, economy, sports, business, wealth, stability, high-tech and other categories I can’t remember.  They’ve been working on the waterfront for something like 40 years, and there are still sections that just aren’t blossoming as expected.

They came seeking harbor views, fresh, open spaces, and the thrill of watching Boston’s final new neighborhood rise up around them.

But they’re still waiting for the crowd to follow.

The article is actually pretty upbeat:  After years of neglect (“as a wind-blown wasteland”) growth in this section of the Boston waterfront is finally starting.  But unlike Buffalo, which seems to demand instant growth and instant gratification, this development is long-term:

“I have learned over the years that you have to work with the market,” said Kairos Shen, chief planner for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, who expects the waterfront’s develoment to continue through the year 2040.  “The market went away.  I think that people need to be patient.”

There’s a lesson here for us.  Maybe we should give them a call and ask them what they’ve done right and what they’ve done wrong.


Cutting Someone Loose

June 23, 2008

You\'re FiredI hate firing people.

As necessary as it sometimes is for the sake of both the employer and employee to part ways it is never easy nor fun.  I abhor that part of my job.

My former employee and I will both go home tonight lost in thought.


Paul and the Romans

June 22, 2008

The Catholic church needs to dumb it down a little. Just a little. Okay, maybe a lot.

As much as I love the Mass and some of the tradition that goes along with it, the Vatican II Council made a big mistake when it opted for the vernacular to bring the Mass to the people. It should also have offered explanations.

Explanations for the readings prior to each reading, so that people would know what the readings were really about.

Take this Sunday’s second reading, from Paul to the Romans. On a difficulty scale of one to ten this reading is a twelve, with a sentence structure so foreign (read: ungrammatical) that it is impossible to decipher by just listening to it. The congregation’s eyes collectively glazed over. I should know. I was the lector reading it to them, and I studied it hard to get the inflection and oratory as meaningful as possible.

So what was the point? It would only take an additional 60 seconds to provide an explanation of the context and meaning of the reading so that the congregation would more fully grasp what the reading was about. I wanted to do this; our priest basically (but nicely) said no.

And before chiding me by claiming that if one really wanted to get more out of the reading that they would study it beforehand, I say that obligations aside, the Church teaches us to be all-embracing, not elitist. There are many, myself included, who need and want an explanation of the more difficult passages of the Bible, and Paul’s letters happen to be almost entirely of that nature.

If the Church is going to continue feeding us snippets, it needs to provide us with context for that snippet.  Otherwise, we won’t fully appreciate the meaning.


Calvin and Hobbes

June 21, 2008

I stumbled on this while Stumbling.

Calvin and Hobbes was a most endearing, satisfying comic strip, and it still is today.  Maybe because I could relate to Calvin’s curiosity cum trouble-making ability, or maybe just because it was timelessly funny, my life lost a little something when Bill Watterson retired this strip in 1995.

This comic has been gone longer than it was in existence.  I still laugh out loud when I re-read it.


Ice on Mars

June 20, 2008

Ice on MarsThe Mars Phoenix Explorer, which landed on Mars about a month ago, has been digging little trenches here and there as a prelude to digging a bigger trench later.

One purpose of this space mission was to determine if water ice is present just under the planet’s surface.  The presence of water of any type is a vital clue to determining if life similar to what we are familiar with could have, did, or still does exist on Mars.  In the face of some revealing articles today, it appears that there is ice just under the surface where Phoenix landed.

Even though these robotic missions are extremely expensive ($520 million, not quite as much as as, say, questionable war funding but expensive nonetheless) they provide insights into very fundamental questions about how life takes hold.

This mission has only begun to reveal surprises to us.


BTEC 2008

June 20, 2008

BTECThe Buffalo Technology Enterpreneurs Conference is next Friday, June 27th at the Statler Ballroom.  If you have any interest in finding out why Buffalo will not become a deserted ghost town in another generation, show your face and talk to some of the technology companies that are springing up in the area.

Many of the startups with which I’m familiar became startups in spite of politics, state regulations and the upstate economy.  They did so because

  • Western New York is a great place to build relationships
  • Western New York is a great place to raise a family
  • Western New York is a great place to live.

With the death of heavy industry and the aging (and departure) of the blue-collar employees that grew up with it, the Buffalo area has been evolving into a more opportunistic community and the rapidity by which Buffalo’s small business community has quietly grown and diversified in the past decade is remarkable.  One obvious result is that recessionary impact is less today (and in 2001) than it was, say, in 1988-89.  A national downturn in specific market niches has less overall impact locally because our economy is no longer largely dependent on that single niche.  Manufacturing might have been the key to our greatness in the 50s and 60s, but dependence on it led to our downfall by the 80s.  The business elements that make up our local economy today are collectively much more immune to changes in business climate and more capable of turning on a dime with the inevitable economic swings.

For years our community has stubbornly clung to the 1950’s and far too many people – from political leaders to everyday Joes on the street – still resist the changes that will make this area great.  That attitude is slowly and finally giving way to understanding that entrepreneurial success is within anyone’s grasp.

So go to the show.  You’ll learn a lot about where we’re heading and how we’ll get there.


Dump the Pump

June 19, 2008

old gas pumpToday is “Dump the Pump” day, advertised throughout the nation as the day we should all try to take mass transit to work. I heard about it on the radio while I was filling my tank at the gas station, how ironic. The fillup cost me $65 and will last less than a week. I do not own a big car. It gets around 27 city, 32 highway.

But I live a good distance from my job, and that job demands non-regular hours. It will never be 9-5 so I drive alone, daily, like 85% of all other commuters in Western New York.

Aside from downsizing to an even smaller vehicle my wife and I have taken great pains to reduce our carbon footprint – something Dick Cheney might call a personal virtue but what we consider to be absolutely essentially for sustained future growth. Since 1997 we successfully cut our natural gas consumption by 60% and this past winter saved about $1,000 in the process. Our largest gas bill was $110. I have not taken the time to track our electricity consumption but I am quite sure that it too is significantly less than what it was just a few years ago.

It has not crimped our lifestyle.

Conservation is, however, all about habits, about changing the little things: Turning off the lights when you leave a room, sleeping with an extra blanket, caulking the windows, wearing sweaters, and being especially conscious of how you are using and wasting energy.

Four-dollar-a-gallon gas may have one saving grace: It may force all of us to make energy conservation a personal virtue.


Net 60 Blues

June 13, 2008

Dilbert

A couple weeks ago my company’s two largest customers informed us that they were unilaterally changing from paying us on a net 30 day basis to a net 60 day basis.  Our company’s most significant costs are labor, which means that the bulk of our expenses must be paid in a matter of days as payroll.  The difference between when our customers pay us and when we must pay our employees just went from about 23 days to 53 days.  For those 53 days our two largest customers essentially get a no-interest loan, and we get socked with whatever costs we incur for having to borrow the money to make payroll.

That might not seem like much, but those two customers represent more than a million dollars in revenue a year.  The 53-day float amounts to about $10,000 in interest payments on the money we will borrow.

Which is one less perk.  Or stifled Christmas bonuses.  Or 6 fewer laptop computer replacements.  It means a lot to a small company, but we have no leverage over the big gorillas whose CFOs will prop up their quarterly returns with a one-shot and probably get hefty bonuses for doing so, at my expense.

In my business, this is shit.


Resevoir Balls

June 13, 2008

Black BallsThe Ivanhoe Reservoir in Silver Lake, near Los Angeles, is being covered with plastic black balls in an attempt to prevent the bromate count from exceeding health quality standards.  There will eventually be a few million balls tossed onto the reservoir.

Too much bromate – a carcinogen – which gets created from a reaction to bromine and sunlight, is not good for you.  The reservoir feeds LA, hence the need to do something about this.  Someone or some group decided that the black balls will essentially shadow the lake and therefore reduce the creation of bromate.

When sunlight starts breaking down the plastic and releasing other chemicals into the water, how much will the state of California pay to remove the balls?  When algae start adhering to and scumming the black balls, turning them green, who will clean them?  When the lack of sunlight on the lake bottom starts affecting the ecological environment 20 feet under the water, will the environmentalists suddenly clamor to have them removed?

I smell the law of unintended consequences coming into play, real soon.  This article makes it sound like there is little to worry about.  I’m not so confident about that at all.


R.I.P. Tim Russert

June 13, 2008

It’s 3:36 PM.  Tim Russert just died of an apparant heart attack about 10 minutes ago.  I’m sure it’ll be all over the news shortly.  Just thought you should know.

I will miss his interviews.


Where Does the Time Go?

June 10, 2008

I’m fritterin’ too much time away on news of all sorts, in an insane and inevitable attempt to stay atop world events.

The upcoming Presidential election (because it does not leave physical scars like hitting myself with a hammer does). That Obama is a muslim (note to self: he is not). PTSD. Scott McClellan. More Scott McClellan. Mars Phoenix Lander. Tomato salmonella. Venezuela. The economy, stupid. ECMC versus the rest of the world.

My personal interests – regionalism, entrepreneurialism, science, technology, religion and politics to name a few – keep me traipsing through upwards of a hundred or more web sites a week, trying to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Of late there appears to be a lot more Internet chaff than ever before.  As an information source, the Internet is destined to become mired in its own contradictions.  Or else to become self-aware, like HAL or Skynet.

Maybe both.


The Quiet Crisis

June 7, 2008

The National Science Foundation recently awarded $3 million over five years to a group of Upstate colleges, aimed at increasing the number of minority students in STEM degree programs.

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.  The NSF grants are in response to the so-called Quiet Crisis – the threat to the ability of the United States to innovate, due to looming shortage in the nation’s STEM workforce.  Shirley Ann Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, puts it in pretty plain English:

The crisis stems from the gap between the nation’s growing need for scientists, engineers, and other technically skilled workers, and its production of them. As the generation educated in the 1950s and 1960s prepares to retire, our colleges and universities are not graduating enough scientific and technical talent to step into research laboratories, software and other design centers, refineries, defense installations, science policy offices, manufacturing shop floors and high-tech startups.

We ignore this gap at our peril.

I know of no engineer that needs to retire at age 65 if he or she doesn’t want to.  Even in the Buffalo area, which does not have a significantly large high-tech workforce, the demand for good engineers and scientists outstrips the supply.  Companies like Moog struggle to fill job openings.  My own company has been challenged of late to find qualified candidates for the engineering job openings that we’ve posted.

Minorities in particular are underrepresented in STEM disciplines.  The NSF-funded program hopes to increase minority enrollment in the Upstate college consortium and provide additional support through scholarships, mentoring and research opportunities.

The U.S. cannot afford to become a technological backwater.


Faulty Intelligence

June 5, 2008

Returning SoldiersMy pacifist sensibilities have been challenged ever since the Bush Administration and 9/11 crossed paths.  Today brought an article by the Senate Intelligence committee regarding the misuse of intelligence by the Bush Administration to justify the Iraq War, something that the media has reported for some time now.  That the majority of the committee members are from one party, you can be sure that the minority party would claim bias.

The report shows an administration that “led the nation to war on false premises,” said the committee’s Democratic Chairman, Sen. John Rockefeller of West Virginia. Several Republicans on the committee protested its findings as a “partisan exercise.”

The Republican members of the committee insisted that the report demonstrated that Bush administration statements were backed by intelligence and “it was the intelligence that was faulty,” a statement which to me tries to deflect the Administration’s accountability for its resulting actions.

Faulty intelligence?  Wouldn’t we also call that stupidity?  I wrote some time ago that pre-war planning for an Iraq invasion began shortly after President Bush took office, prior to 9/11, perhaps because “Saddam tried to kill my daddy“.  I still find this to be one of the more legitimate reasons for rushing headlong to war without regard to getting it right or wrong.  It’s the one truth that President Bush has spoken that stands up to the subsequent evidence.

This Administration had intelligence that was wrong about weapons of mass destruction, wrong about ties between Saddam Hussein and terrorists, wrong about the Iraqis greeting the American troops with open arms, wrong about the invasion being cheap and easy, wrong about the $50 to 60 billion cost for the war, and wrong about bringing the shining beacon of Democracy to the Middle East.

So am I wrong to think less of this Administration than all the other Administrations I’ve lived through?

I think not.


Grow or Die

June 5, 2008

Chris CollinsChris Collins gave a speech at the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership graduation ceremony on Wednesday, at which 50 small business leaders (aka “the students”) were honored for successful completion of the year-long course. The speech was focused on the rise of entrepreneurialism in Western New York, CEL’s advancement of it and its growing importance in the Western New York economy.

Collins’ speech got a little off-target at times, becoming somewhat political when he blasted the latest state legislation to move the merger of ECMC and Kaleida Health along. I didn’t understand how any of that related to either entrepreneurs or to CEL, and it sounded very much like venting on the County Executive’s part.

But one memorable comment that Chris made was a slam against Harvard Professor Ed Glaeser, who came to Buffalo in April to discuss how Buffalo needs to stop aiming for the glory days of high population and heavy industry, and rather shrink to success. Collins couldn’t have been more critical of this approach. “What is every company’s motto?” he asked, and then answered: “Grow or die.” Collins felt that Western New York on the whole needs to grow, not shrink, or it will die.  He said that his predecessors used to define success as less decline than last year; Chris pointed out that this inevitably leads to more decline.

I respectfully disagree with Collins criticism of Glaeser; he latched onto Glaeser’s sound bite without appreciation of the detail. Glaeser’s point was that infrastructure of all types has to represent the size of the urban environment today, not what it was 50 years ago or 50 years from now.  Buffalo has too much stuff for its population size and the support of that stuff is a real problem:  Too many houses, too much municipality, too much government.

In particular, with respect to government, the application of growth in all layers of government is what has helped make New York state – and especially upstate – the economic disaster that it has become. High taxes to pay for that government, plus unprecedented layers of bureaucracy and legislation have fueled much of our state’s paralysis and made it exceptionally unattractive to business. The growth of government has led to the shrinkage of our economy, and as a result, our population.

If anything, Collins should take Glaeser’s comments to heart and help shrink county government to help Western New York along the road to health. Collins needs to help get government off our backs, and he’s in a position to do just that.  I think that’s his goal.  I just don’t think he said it well last night.