Another Feel Good Story

December 29, 2009

Mike Madonia, UB alumnus and now Director of Development at the School of Engineering, writes about the impact that everyday Buffalonians – and everyday Buffalo – has on him and the people around him.

If only the Buffalo News could replace any one (of their typically four) alarmist and/or depressive tone-setting front-page reports with one of these every day; we’d all be smiling just a little more, holding our heads just a little higher, and seeing good PR about our area spread just a little further.

Danielle in Nicaragua

July 3, 2009

Danielle is a family friend.  She’s in Nicaragua.  In a really rural, poor-as-dirt part of Nicaragua.  Danielle is in the Peace Corps.

Danielle graduated from college recently, and she could be doing just about anything a normal twenty-something would want to do.  She’s smart, extremely athletic, musically inclined, has a great personality and is vastly more beautiful than I could ever have been handsome.  She was one of New Hampshire’s top track athletes in high school, highly motivated and successful.  Yet all the things she’s been gifted with left her wanting for something else.

So she did what few of us would ever be willing to do; she left home and for the next two years is going to teach and farm in the lower-class region of a third-world country.  I couldn’t be more proud of her.

I write about Danielle because I want others to read about her.  She does not have it easy.   This is a huge transition and a greater learning experience for her than it is for those she is trying to help; and worse, she’s gone to a part of the world where the spiders are, like, the size of your hand.  She hates spiders.

She started a blog.  It’s called (surprise) Danielle in Nicaragua.  Her writing skills are not necessarily perfect but grammatically and phonetically close enough to get the point across.  What’s neat about her blog is its endearing nature.  It’s a quirky and fun read.  She only gets a chance to write maybe once a week at most – I believe she has to travel to some larger town that has a wi-fi connection – but her letters weave a story vastly different than the stuff we usually read and write about in the world we live in.  Her stories are about how most people on Earth live, not how we live.

Danielle in Nicaragua is worth a visit.  The embedded video above and the one below (which includes musical references to The Godfather and Radiohead) were taken and produced by one of her fellow Peace Corps volunteers; they are funny and educational.  Notice what they do with the few tools and materials they have to work with.

So read her blog and leave an encouragement or two in the comments section.  She’ll appreciate it.

1,000,000 Would-be Terrorists

May 8, 2009

The ACLU estimates that there are now over one million names on the nation’s terrorist watch list.  The Inspector General’s estimates are closer to 1.1 million identities.  Many names are duplicates and many are wrong with no systematic way of removing them.  35% of the domestic entries have no known link to terrorist activities.  Hundreds of thousands of foreign citizens were put on the list because they are from Iraq and Afghanistan. The watch list data is significantly peppered by inconsistencies in the way that names were added or not added (“nominated” in IG parlance) to the list.  New information regarding names on the list, either to bolster or eliminate suspicion, was mishandled two-thirds of the time.  The incredibly slow removal of names from the list is in directly violation of policy and has led to problems at border crossings and airport security lines, both in stopping ordinary people with no ties to terrorism from traveling while letting other suspicious individuals through.

I found this report startling for two very different reasons:

  • That any list of this size (and growing at upwards of 20,000 entries per month) could be considered useful to agencies trying to use it as a screening filter is absurd.  Anyone who works with large databases recognizes that data accuracy is paramount, and even small errors have great consequences.  An untrusted list is an ineffective list.
  • That this list could be grown so quickly to so many is about as Kafkaesque as it gets.

The terrorist watch list is a great example of what happens where paranoia is substituted for rational thought.  The creation of the list and the accumulation of names ranks right up there with the McCarthy communists and Nixon’s enemies. I look back with a historical perspective and am embarrassed by how our government ran itself at the height of the cold war and during the Watergate scandal; twenty years from now the Bush Administration’s creation of the terrorist watch list will end up on the list of historical embarrassments as well.

Where are the Four Corners, Really?

April 23, 2009


This article, recently heard on NPR and read on Fark, indicates that while the U.S. officially regards the Four Corners monument as the point where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah share a corner, the actual intersection is not there.  The monument is placed too far east by 1,800 feet.

The surveying error occurred a long time ago, and I frankly wouldn’t care exact that my son and I recently drove 20 hours one day to stand on that spot.  The wrong spot.

It’s an interesting place, really in the middle of nowhere, a point where four states, two sovereign Indian nations and the U.S share a single point.  The area looks very poor.  There is literally nothing around it but a few small towns, and lots of rugged beauty.

Somewhere, while looking west, I probably gazed out where the four states actually do share a common corner.  I’ll bet that the Navajo (or maybe Ute?) nation will soon make a trail to that spot, maybe charge a few bucks to walk to it.

Wal-Mart and the Internet Cheapen Everything

March 15, 2009


The fill valve on my toilet broke for the third time in two years.  I blame the Internet.  And Wal-Mart.

Our refrigerators used to last 12 or 15 years; today they last 7 before the compressor burns out.  We shrug as if this is how it has always been.  It has not.  Our collective desire for cheap is an enabler that allows Wal-Mart and others to trade off quality for price and in the process lower our standards of acceptance.  Likewise, thirty years ago our highly competitive newspapers were thick with articles and quality writing because, well, because they were competing on a level playing field with other newspapers.  Today they are vacuous and on the verge of extinction, unable to beat free no matter how much they cut their overhead.  A major paper is shutting down nearly every week.

The creep toward cheap was relatively slow and insidious.  So was the decline in the resulting product quality.  It is our acceptance of this decline that chews at me.

Wal-Mart and the Internet have led this race to the bottom.  It’s a disease.  The first symptom was the societal shift toward diminished quality because it made products more economical.  Cheaper plastics.  Thinner metal.  Smaller sizes.  Fewer parts.  The Internet forced the print media to compromise as well.  Less research.  More opinion.  Fewer sources.  Poorer writing.  We sat back as the competitors to these low-cost suppliers lowered their costs – and reduced product quality – in a futile effort to remain competitive.

In the end, the only fill valve that I can get for my toilet is from the same manufacturer that made the last two.  I don’t expect the next replacement to last any longer than the others.

There will always be a few boutique stores and BMW-like merchandisers that put quality first; some of us will be willing to pay for that quality.  But for Everyman, Wal-Mart and the Internet will reign, churning out product that would have been unacceptable a generation ago.

Born-Again Savers

March 14, 2009

Wednesday night’s Daily Show blast of Jim Cramer and CNBC exposed how so many of us were duped by frenetic Wall Streeters who parlayed our money into something worth half of what it was a year ago.

We listened to people no smarter than we who were tantalized with 30 percent returns and conveniently forgot to mention that there is a difference between Savings, and Investments.

Now that financial advisors have found Jesus, they’ve once again started preaching about that difference; but only because they’re jobless if they can’t obtain more of our money.  They need us to be reformed investors, and born-again savers.


We have been repentant – kind of – and are saving again.  America’s savings rate grows with every recession, then plummets when the economy improves.   It has risen dramatically (see the little blip at the far right of the graph) after falling essentially to zero since 2005.  To ZERO.

Even in this worst of times we are not close to putting away enough of our income to avoid a cat food-based retirement.  The erosion of the Social Security net might persuade us to save more, you would think, but hi-def TVs and Starbucks are just too tempting.  We suck at saving but we’re great at believing our government will bail us out when the sky falls in 2020.

I still have many years before reaching retirement age and have a pretty good chance of getting there with enough savings to be comfortable.  I’m not so sure about my 64-year-old friend, who can no longer retire at the end of the year.

Snow in the South

March 1, 2009


I’m always impressed with the inability of our Southern friends to handle even a dusting of snow; I can understand why – when they can’t even navigate their own driveways –  that they might eschew anything north of the Mason-Dixon line.  This weekend’s major storm is guaranteed to bring much of the East coast to a standstill, even though in most places you’re talking about, maybe, one to four inches tops anywhere south of Philadelphia.

We all know up here that once Lake Erie freezes over there is (usually) little additional accumulation the rest of the winter, and March 1, 2009 is no exception: My lawn is exposed and the few area snow drifts are dirty from lack of fresh snow cover.  It’s sort of nice for once to be in sunshine here while watching 25-mile backups in Tennessee.

I hope they survive to mock Buffalo another day.