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!

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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?