Why are the Roads so Bad?

July 30, 2008

This post is in response to South Buffalo Blogger, who wrote this post bemoaning the slow collapse of South Buffalo’s infrastructure.  I couldn’t leave the type of comment that I wanted to leave there, so I’m doing it here.

SBB writes:

Having lived in Buffalo all of my life, there’s love for this city…. compassion, understanding and sorrow in feeling like there’s so much to do in so little time. Of all though, there’s frustration from the (election grandstanding) lies, frustration from the waiting & wondering when our time will come for new changes, for new focus…. for that feeling of splendor I had as I sat on a bench down at the Commercial Slip.

South Buffalo’s time for new changes and new focus, I’m afraid, has to wait for the revitalization of a much larger segment of Buffalo than what the Commercial Slip might bring to Downtown.  It has to wait for a revitalization of this house:

and this area:

and this business:

Aside from a very small mansion district, the city has nowhere to turn to generate the revenue needed to do what you want done for South Buffalo – that is, without completely shutting out other neighborhoods.  Neither does the state (and, as we shall soon hear from Governor Paterson, not for a long time).

South Buffalo, like the rest of the city, will have to pull itself up on its own.  There may be those in office softly cooing “keep the faith, help is coming” but in reality, what help there may be can only dot the landscape with little fixes.  Wholesale changes are not in the picture.  SB’s street lamps will continue to rust and its streets will continue to crumble, as they are in the rest of the city.

That’s pretty gloomy.  The upside is that streets and streetlamps are merely facades.  What makes a true neighborhood are the people in it.  What we need to do is convince the politicians to concentrate what funds they do have on things that bring people together into a community.  This may sound hokey, but I think your focus on bumpy roads and duct-taped light poles misses the point about what made makes SB great.  If anything, pictures of people at Community Center functions, at church bazaars and at school athletic contests, and the use of public funds to encourage more participation in community collective activities (how about an open market every Saturday?  Or book parties at the library? An Irish Festival every season?) might be a better rallying cry.

Maybe, if cars are forced to go 15 mph down cruddy Seneca Street, they’ll have that much more time to observe how SB reinvents itself with festivities and events that put other Buffalo neighborhoods to shame!


Get Your Passport Applications in Early!

July 26, 2008

Today’s criticism of government caught unaware comes courtesy of this article in the Buffalo News, which highlights congressional investigators’ findings that the State Department “has not developed a ‘comprehensive, long-term strategy’ to modernize its passport application process.” The investigation argues that unless changes are made quickly, the new passport regulations that go into effect in 2009 will create similar headaches for millions of Americans (which, unfortunately, includes me).

The investigation cited the passport debacle in 2007, which clearly showed that the State department was not ready for the inrush of passport applications due to the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative established by Homeland Security.

Department officials have acknowledged underestimating the high demand for passports last year, but said it was a historic change in behavior by Americans that was not predicted.

Not predicted?  The WHTI Final Rule came out in November, 2006 with explicit passport requirements for air travel that affected the Caribbean, Bermuda and other highly-popular off-shore vacation spots, starting in January 2007.  Every vacationer or vacationer-wannebee was affected by that change, as were regular (read: many thousands of) air travelers to Mexico and Canada.  Officials in the State Department had no comment other than to say that they couldn’t predict the demand and therefore couldn’t prepare for it.

You mean sort of like how FEMA couldn’t prepare for Katrina and its effects on New Orleans because the effects of such a storm couldn’t have been predicted?

Being caught unaware – or unwilling to prepare, or cutting budgets that hinder preparedness – has been pervasive and significant and largely irrelevant to this Administration (for a left-leaning eye-opener, read this article); one wonders how the Executive Branch continues to rationalize its decision-making process by denying the problem.

The current Administration’s propensity to do so until it’s way too late is, hopefully, something that will be addressed by the next Adminstration, whoever ends up leading it.  If there is one thing that I’ll remember this Administration for, it’s for the lack of a Plan B.


Zimbabwe’s Hyperinflation

July 20, 2008

Zimbabwe is introducing a 100 billion-dollar note so that people can buy, well, stuff.  Not that there’s much stuff to buy.

Zimbabwe’s inflation is pegged at somewhere between 2.2 million percent and perhaps 15 million percent – on the low side it means that something that cost 1 Zimbabwean dollar on July 1st will cost 22,000 Zimbabwean dollars next July first – or 150,000 Zimbabwean dollars, depending on which inflation figure you believe.  To put it another way, the cost of goods in Zimbabwe is doubling every 21 to 25 days.  (That’s not very good for any Zimbabweans hoarding their cash). The Zimbabwean government isn’t yet close to the record for hyperinflation, but by all accounts they certainly seem willing to hunker down and surpass it.

This is not the first time that rampant hyperinflation has gripped a country.  The German Weimar Republic of the 1920s is noted for hyperinflation so great that paper money was burned for warmth because it lasted longer than the wood one could purchase with it.  Hungary in 1946 and Yugoslavia during its disintegration in the 1990s are more recent examples.  I have about 100 cruzeiros of Brazilian money from my days as an exchange student in the 70s; today they are worth about 1 billionth of a penny, due to Brazil’s hyperinflation in the 80s and early 90s.

Those of us old enough to remember the late 1970’s lived through some tough times when the U.S. inflation rate hovered around 15% for three years.  Many pensioners lost half their buying power during that brief period.  That was pretty bad but nothing compared to what countries like Zimbabwe, Brazil and Yugoslavia went through.  Worthless money is money quickly spent.  There is no such thing as savings.  There is also no such thing as commerce.  Zimbabwe suffers from mass shortages of everything.

The Zimbabwean disaster is continuing with no letup in sight.  What’s going to happen after 84-year-old Robert Mugabe dies in the near future is anyone’s guess.  Hyperinflation and anarchy do not bode well for that country and its people and to date, there is little to indicate that other world powers will come to the country’s aid.  Read about current events and expectations here.


Death of a Cat

July 15, 2008

Mandy, our 20-something year-old cat, died in my wife’s arms this evening.

We knew she was going; she hadn’t eaten in a week, and was barely able to lift her head today.  Yet for some reason my wife (the chaplain and nurse) decided to pick her up and hold her, and 15 minutes later the cat was gone.

Eerie, but touching.  My wife was also present at her father’s and mother’s deaths, 11 years apart, at the hospital.  We knew that they appreciated her presence.  As for the cat, I think Mandy was holding out for my wife to hold her one last time.

I hope my wife is there when it’s my turn.


Ignoring the Opportunity

July 12, 2008

So, you get a sudden influx of potential buyers for your product.  You know that the window of opportunity won’t last forever, so you jump at the opportunity to take advantage of that market share while it exists, right?

Not if you’re in Western New York government.  They’re more attuned to simply ignoring the opportunity.

Yesterday’s Buffalo News article on Toronto’s attempts to lure airline passenger traffic back to Canada (and away from Buffalo) made no mention that ticket pricing and ease of travel are cyclic and fleeting.  Not very long ago Buffalo was one of the worst places to travel from because of inordinately high pricing and few choices.  Today it ranks in the top five nationwide for low-cost airfares.  It will not stay there forever.

Meanwhile, the obvious growth in international traffic to and from the airport would look to be an opportunity worth exploiting yet little (if anything) has been done to exploit it.  Erie County in particular should be taken to the woodshed for all the politics and the stonewalling of funding for the Convention and Visitors Bureau, a bureau already established to market Western New York.  A few simple and low cost CVB market initiatives might include:

  • Just making the entire airport experience better (like in Charlotte, where they put white rocking chairs in the terminals) would be an inexpensive and attractive public relations coup.  I suggest Amish rockers instead.  With various local restaurant advertising on the seat backs. And maps.
  • Reduced parking at intentionally faraway lots (like Grand Island or Fort Erie) that include free and regular bus service and a tour guide to describe historical places and events within Western New York, for the 20 minutes that passengers would be a captive audience.  College kids would suck this up for easy money.  Guys on the comedy circuit could hone their material.  Politicians could even make guest appearances.
  • A flood of airport literature and television advertising focused on the Canadian market and things you can do in four hours or less.  Like shop at the Galleria, or visit the Casinos.  Or visit Letchworth State Park in the fall, or Taste of Buffalo in July.

Others would have far better ideas than I.

There is a cost to every idea and a calculable return on investment.  It does not take rocket science to figure that if one million Canadian passengers a year are using our airport, convincing just one or two percent to come back – or to extend their time in the area for just a few hours – means importing dollars from 10,000 or 20,000 more tourists who would otherwise simply use our expressways to and from Canada.

At the Buffalo Airport this morning I saw nothing to make me believe that after three or four years we have done anything to take advantage of this market.  Toronto clearly wants to recapture that market and has started down that part of doing so.  We are running out of time to turn a departure point into a destination.


Spot the Space Station

July 11, 2008

On Saturday, July 19th, the International Space Station will pass almost directly overhead starting in the southwestern sky at 10:12 PM.

The station will be observable as an extremely bright, fast-moving object, moving southwest to east-northeast.  It will take about 5 minutes to cross the sky.

If you’ve never seen the ISS fly by, it’s worth standing outside on a summer’s night (hopefully cloudless – a lot more fun) and away from city lights to observe the satellite’s motion.  It is quite unlike anything else in the sky, day or night.  It will be brighter than Jupiter, currently the brightest object in the night sky (excepting the moon, of course).

Even if you aren’t the least curious about the technology of the multi-billion dollar space station, it puts on such a unique performance that it’s well worth hanging outside for a few minutes to watch it.  Not to be missed.  But if you do, here’s a place where you can find out just when it will pass overhead again.


The Spread of WalMart

July 11, 2008
Wal-Mart Growth (courtesy FlowingData)

WalMart Growth (courtesy FlowingData)

This graph at the FlowingData website caught my attention; it chronicles the growth of WalMart in the 45 years from 1962 to 2007, in a time-lapse movie format.

Walmarts are effectively wherever there is population; hence, the entire Eastern U.S. and the West Coast are lit up, but not the Rocky Mountain states.  Of particular note is that the Adironacks in New York are apparant in their lack of Walmarts, yet the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Ozarks are not.  In fact, practically none of the Appalachains are obvious.

Why is that?


Did Bucky Gleason Really Write That?

July 11, 2008

I don’t read sports commentary very often but occasionally I glance at Bucky Gleason’s musings on the Sports page of the Buffalo News.  One of today’s paragraphs read

It was good to hear Sabres owner Tom Golisano’s plans to shell out $5 million to candidates he supports for the state Legislature.  Like he said, he can afford the donation and wants to help out.  But wouldn’t the dough be better spent on something that actually affects Western New Yorkers, such as the Sabres’ blue line?

No Bucky, the dough wouldn’t be better spent on the Sabres’ blue line.

I can’t believe he was serious when he wrote that.  It’s about as Cro-Magnon a comment as one could possibly come up with.


Sallie Mae and Freddie Mac: The Pending Bailout

July 10, 2008

For sale signs

For sale signs (courtesy http://realagile.wordpress.com/)

A frugal investor that I know very well, someone who doesn’t buy what he can’t afford, will once again pay for the sins of those less frugal than him.  That him is me.

I saw this coming five years ago and I didn’t try to do anything about it. My bad.

Congress is currently mulling a bailout for Sallie Mae and Freddie Mac which will, no doubt, get one unless the housing market does a huge turnaround in hurry (it won’t).  Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Economy.com told NPR:

“Unless you’re a shareholder I wouldn’t be worried because there is no chance that the federal government would allow these institutions to fail — to stop doing business. It would just be catastrophic for the system, for our economy. It’s just not going to happen.”

Bloomberg’s web site was a bit more cautious, indicating that a taxpayer-fueled bailout was a last resort:

“The government would not step up to support the enterprises until they’ve exhausted all options, including acceptance of significant shareholder dilution,” [Joshua] Rosner, whose research firm is based in New York, said in a telephone interview. “And if the government did have to get involved, I would expect equity holders would lose everything.”

What irks me is that this is a repeat of the S&L crisis of the late 80’s, prompted by the deregulation of the banking industry, which eventually led to 1) a recession and 2) today’s banking system where savings accounts earn a whopping 0.3% a year while credit cards cost you somewhere around 1 ½ to 2% a month for outstanding debt. The subsequent S&L $157 billion bailout plus interest, to save the industy, came courtesy of Congress.

This decade the mortgage credit industry learned to wrap their riskiest tranches in sweet-smelling language, leaving the rotting carcasses for whatever investor was at the end of that food chain.  Typically, that is the small investor, you and me.  (Stan O’Neal, Merrill Lynch’s former CEO, only got $161 million when he resigned after leading his company to an $8 billion dollar loss in a single quarter; his shareholders got coal in their stockings.)

I am unclear on the concept of not letting foolish investors suffer the risks of foolish investment.  I am unclear on why one should receive any kind of reward for buying a house that wasn’t affordable in the first place.  Is there something wrong with a free market economy? Congressional attempts to prevent the greedy from taking advantage of the less-greedy seem filled with loopholes that allow the greedy to 1) become greedier and 2) shoot themselves in the foot knowing that they’ll probably get some kind of bailout anyway.

Today’s mortgage crisis was perpetrated by greed all the way around.  Any bailout will guarantee that I will pay for that greed twice, by living through the recessional fallout and paying for the bailout.  Ugh.


Wii

July 9, 2008

I got my first chance to use a Nintendo Wii a couple of weeks ago when my wife and I had 4 other couples over for dinner.  We bowled and we boxed, and our guests left sweaty and sore.  For a few hundred dollars, the electronics technology that goes into the playstation is pretty amazing, not to mention the physical workout one can get.

The Wii Remote, in particular, has captured the imagination of many games developers, and some have garnered a bit of fame making the Wii do things that it was never intended to do.  Take Carnegie Mellon PhD Johnny Lee, for example.  As one of the more (if not most) notable Wii special effects developers, he’s not only created some really neat software but then he puts it on YouTube for all to see.

The links from Johnny Lee’s website at CMU to other sites get pretty techy, pretty quickly, and are even for me a bit overwhelming and dry.  However, what fascinates me is the capability built into the Wii Remote:  A 1024×768 infrared camera with hardware blob detection and a 3-axis accelerometer, both running at 100 Hz sampling.  All in a device weighing a few ounces.  For about $39.99 retail.

Even if you don’t understand infrared, blobs and accelerometers, suffice it to say that this technology combination appeals to many:  space exploration, especially the use of robotic spacewalkers, just got easier and cheaper.  Intelligent automobiles that not only know how to maintain proper stopping distance from the car in front but also understand lane changes.  Total immersion into a 3D virtual realm running off a standard video display.  Completely foldable, interactive displays.  Motion capture.

All of this innovation has led both Microsoft and Sony on a fast track to catch up and maybe surpass Nintendo’s capabilities.  As a result of this competition the games industry will shortly turn Bioshock and Unreal Tournament into your grandmother’s Oldsmobile overnight.

After years of ho-hum single-person shoot ’em ups, gaming is interesting again.


On Bicycles

July 7, 2008
Bicycles

The social popularity of any one particular athletic activity is fleeting at best.  It used to be that baseball and softball were so popular in Western New York that there weren’t enough diamonds to go around; today the number of leagues continues to decline.  I remember when racquetball was greatly in vogue; today the former Waterfront Racquet and Fitness Center is a post office. Recreational soccer reached its apex about 10 years ago and its numbers are slowly declining.

In this decade bicycling has picked up considerable steam, and in particular, this year there is no end to the number of articles and blog postings giving credence to its popularity.  It too will have its heyday, and then taper back down to the diehards as the next sport du jour gets press time.

I’ve been a serious cyclist for most of this decade.  My desire to cycle has to do with my inability to run long distances anymore – too many knee surgeries.  Cycling is therefore merely therapeutic for me, never meant to be a means to save fuel costs.  In fact, I would argue that consistent cycling is more expensive in the long run because

  • good bicycles, which you’ll need if you bike a lot of miles, are not cheap; and
  • the extra food that you consume because of your increased metabolism will bite your pocketbook as much as a tank of gas will.

Nonetheless, we may soon be reaching a tipping point where the popularity of cycling will induce changes to transportation infrastructure that will further encourage cycling, such as biking lanes or just wider, smoother shoulders on roadways.  As its popularity continues to increase I can only hope that drivers start paying a bit more attention to whom they share the road.  I mentioned this before:  I have no desire to become road kill, so vigilance is a very important part of my exercise.

I do not get a thrill from sucking exhaust and dodging traffic, so my trips take me into the back roads of Wales, Holland, Aurora, Colden, Cowlesville, Sheldon and other small country towns where I breathe fresh air, enjoy the scenery and take on the hill climbs.  I have no desire to commute to work on bike, even less desire to ride a long, flat street from one suburb to the next.

Biking will never save me money nor help me reduce my carbon footprint.  It will keep me fit, that’s all.


The End of the Polaroid

July 5, 2008
Polaroid Photographs

Polaroid Photographs

Polaroid Corporation is closing the last of its film manufacturing plants by the end of 2008, bringing to an end the original instant photograph.  Done in by marketplace conditions – a great euphemism for digital photography – the innovative camera and film system brought joy to both amateur and serious photographers, nature lovers and voyeurs alike.

The demise of Polaroid is a rather sad tale of lost vision and bad management.  Even though the company dabbled in digital photography – selling some of the earliest digital cameras – Polaroid never really saw the digital revolution coming.  Like Kodak, they stubbornly stuck to their mission – innovative but obsolete chemical technology – and paid a heavy price.  By 2020 the company’s technology will be just a footnote alongside the buggy whip.

I am sorry to see analog photography disappear.  There was always something about getting my hands wet in the darkroom, the feel of the photographic paper, the smell of stop bath.  But I’m also a realist, and the business model that allows me to shoot thousands of digital photographs at essentially no cost but the camera is going to beat out film photography hands down.  And it did.

Although it’s still kicking, Kodak has for years been in retrenchment as it tries to leverage its knowledge of optics and photography to create product lines that will enable its future survival.  But it’s a shadow of its former self.  Kodak Park has been all but torn down (less taxes to the city of Rochester) and its consumer digital products have much smaller margins than its former film products.  Will it survive in the long run?  It’ll probably outlive me, but not because it relied on silver halide chemisty as a foundational business element.

In the meantime, Polaroid will be gone, and very shortly at that.  Au revoir, Polaroid.  You barely outlived Dr. Land.


Speaking of Preservation, Part 2

July 4, 2008
Pompeii

Pompeii

Want to see a real preservation nightmare?  Read this article about the state of emergency declared at the Pompeii site in Italy.

“Archaeologists and art historians have long complained about the poor upkeep of Pompeii, dogged by lack of investment, mismanagement, litter and looting. Bogus tour guides, illegal parking attendants and stray dogs also plague visitors.”

Jeez.  This sounds like the Buffalo Waterfront.  Except for the looting, since there’s been nothing to loot (until very recently) for years.

“Every year at least 150 square meters of fresco and plaster work are lost for lack of maintenance,” Antonio Irlando, a regional councilor responsible for artistic heritage, told the newspaper.
“The same goes for stones: at least 3,000 pieces every year end up disintegrating,” he said.

This is really more than just a problem of neglect; it is also an economic issue, and is obviously not unique to Western New York.  When one of the most popular tourist attractions in Italy hasn’t been adequately maintained for 30 years, one begins to realize how other priorities take precedence.

So it is with Buffalo and its below average economy in a state that has other priorities.  The preservationists, city and county need to square their preservation needs with their ability to preserve, then tackle the ones that bubble up to the top of the list.  Preservation triage may be the way to more quickly consolidate the forces needed to salvage and repair at least some of our historic structures.


Speaking of Preservation…

July 2, 2008

Hull HouseWhile the saving of the Jersey Street livery stable (or, what is left of it) has been getting all the news lately, the Hull House on Genesee Street in Lancaster has been getting its own little bit of coverage. The house, the oldest stone house in Western New York, is literally in the middle of nowhere – if you consider Lancaster to be nowhere – but really only a few minutes east of the airport.  It is nestled in the middle of suburbia, with not much else historic around it but a few homes, Tops’ main food warehouse and the Thruway to the north.  It’s an example of pretty random preservation in a community that seems more hell-bent on suburban expansion than anything else.  I think the next closest historical site may be the 1812 cemetery on Aero Drive just north of the airport.

While the preservationists can’t and shouldn’t win all their battles, with Sam Savarino’s help they have staved off the demise of the livery stable for the time being.  Something that always seems lacking, however, is a regular status report on which buildings/sites are under active preservation, which are being proactively advanced for preservation, which are on the need to be preserved list (and why) and which are being left to their own demise.

Where is the inventory? Why is it so hard to obtain a list of all preservation sites in Western New York?  One would think that this site would have it front and center; it does not.  I did find this site that lists landmarks, but that’s not the same as an assessment of what we have versus the preservation candidates out there.

In this area, in this economy, we can’t save everything.  It would be nice to know from the experts themselves what the preservation candidate list should look like, so that we all know which sites should be given most-favored preservation status.