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

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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

bitterness-poor-quality

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.

american-savings-2

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

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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.


Missing the Boat

February 16, 2009
Commercial Plug for EG Tax
Commercial Plug for EGTax

“I’m Esther Gulyas the Tax Lady.  I understand people are doing some pretty unusual things to save money this year.”

EG Tax’s television commercial “Frugal Me” follows that quote with Benny Hillish sketches of

  • A family decked out in winter regalia warming themselves by the fireplace (a fake one at that)
  • A goofy guy riding to work on a bicycle
  • A voice demanding that all the lights be turned off

No offense to Esther Gulyas’ wacky commercials; I hope the business they attract pays for them 10 times over.  But the pretty unusual things are essentially

  • Lowering the heat
  • Using alternative transportation
  • Conserving electricity

The commercial could have emphasized that doing these things and going to the Tax Lady would save oodles of money rather than playing one against the other, particularly in light of how silly energy conservation is made to look.

We need to collectively learn to conserve.  This could have been a great business ad and public service announcement rolled into one.  EG Tax should consider that next time.


Irrational Fears

February 13, 2009

Pizza

I was going to write a snarky post about that hotel that burned to the ground in Beijing because of errant fireworks, but then the plane crash in Clarence Center happened, which put things into a different perspective.

The perspective is this:  From the crash to the time that it took for delivery of the flight data recorders to Washington, more people died on U.S. highways than died on the plane.

We have this obsession with calamity and great fear of mass death, and we will force changes to the system to reduce that chance of death to almost zero; yet we will still use our cell phones while we drive, and we will drive under the influence, we will drive in bad weather, recklessly, and over the speed limit.

Want another example?  We have spent billions and billions fighting the war on terror to make sure that those terrorists don’t get us, but we won’t change our diets to prevent a much more likely fate:  heart disease, the number one killer in the U.S.

We have irrational fears.  We force the government to spend money in places that do nothing to prolong our lives and ignore the villians most dangerous to us.

And the media plays right along, because calamity sells.

The next time you think about that plane crash, think about your driving habits and that double-cheese pizza you just ate.


Sexual Predators and MySpace

February 4, 2009

Today MySpace announced that it had removed 90,000 sex offenders from its site over the past two years.  About 75 million Americans (half of whom are over the age of 35) have MySpace accounts.

While that works out to 1 in 800 members, these are names only from the U.S. database of registered sex offenders and does not include others around the world who may have nefarious inclinations.

This is probably just the tip of the iceberg.  It also begs the question of just how much sexual abuse is hidden – unreported, buried behind closed doors.   I would hazard a guess that the actual number is closer to ten times the number of convicted predators.

Sexual predation has been around forever, but before the Internet it was hard to fathom just how big the problem really was.  With those numbers and the speed with which they are disseminated we now know it’s in every town, everywhere.

Teach your kids to be on guard.


High-Def: Ready for Prime Time?

January 18, 2009

So the switch to all digital television will take place across the U.S. in a few weeks.  I mentioned previously that I thought this was long overdue.

Yet over the past week HD reception at my home has been, in a word, terrible.  Sound out of sync with picture (which is really spooky-looking!).  Picture breakup as the signal is lost, then regained, then lost again.  Picture with no sound.  Frozen frames.

High-def on Time Warner, sometimes

High-def on Time Warner, sometimes

And I have cable.

Saturday’s Buffalo Sabres’ game was a hoot while the same four measures of some song were substituted for a period’s worth of out-of-sync announcing.  While that was probably a programming error at MSG, it nonetheless leaves me questioning if the technologists running the system have their act together and are ready with all their new toys.

We have been led to believe that reduction in quality is the price we pay for technology gains.  That’s so much crap yet the first question we ask when a friend has computer problems is “Did you reboot it?”  Cell phone reception generally sucks, as do most earbuds and MP3 audio compression. Refrigerators may be more feature-rich and efficient but they last what, five or six years tops?  One only needs to walk through the aisles at Walmart (and be over 30) to see how complacent we’ve become with low quality products.

Anyway, it doesn’t have to be that way yet the switch to high-def will demand acceptance of a television system that works well far less than close to perfect; and that it will take a long time – with lots of head-banging – before HD becomes everything we expect of it.

It’s still long overdue.


R.I.P. Analog Television

January 11, 2009

digital-televisions

The Obama Administration has proposed delaying the abandonment of analog television beyond the current February 17th date.  President-elect Obama expressed concerns that America just wasn’t ready.

Analog TV in its current form dates back to 1939 (and 1953 for color broadcasts) and has essentially been obsolete for almost 20 years.  I recall articles in EE Times from the late 1980′s declaring that digital encoding standards and microelectronics had advanced to the point where high-definition signals would be ready for public broadcasting by 1992.  That never happened, and it took another 10 years before other countries – Japan and Germany in particular – leapfrogged the U.S. in establishing digital television as the standard.  The last official cutover date before this one was December 23, 2006.  Before that there were others.  [The FCC had hopeful expectations, unmatched by either the electronics industry or Congress.]

Half a decade later the U.S. is ready to forsake a 70-year-old technology and embrace a much more versatile broadcast media.  The transition will never be perfect no matter how hard Obama and Congress might want it to be, but it’s still long overdue.

If only we would move to eliminate the incandescent light bulb.  The tungsten filament will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year.  It too had a good run but really, it’s time to move on.


Moaning Not Allowed, but Mourning is Okay

December 24, 2008

global-orgasm-day

The International Orgasm Day Orgy, scheduled to coincide with International Orgasm Day on December 21st (mark your calendars for next year!),  was cancelled.  The Israeli organizer caved in to public pressure from those who did not appreciate the chance for hundreds, maybe thousands or even more, to have simultaneous orgasms and unabashed pleasure.

Kobi Druri, the organizer, stated in very plain terms,

…”war,” “violence” and “murder” have become more legitimate than “sex,” “orgasm” and “pleasure.”

How sad a statement is that?  Funny how public pressure can easily halt something like this but has done little to quell organized violence.


Crush of the Crowd

December 2, 2008

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The reports about the poor guy who got trampled to death at a NYC Wal-Mart on Black Friday gave me the creeps.

That an out of control mob could be so enamored by cheap toys as to step on and over another human being is disturbing and reprehensible.  That it happens rarely is about the only good thing one can say about it.  Do you think anyone in that crowd feels guilty, or do they tell themselves that it’s someone else’s fault?

In some countries mob scenes like this might occur around a UNICEF food drop.  Over here they occur around a 2-for-1 sale.

Ewww.  Sometimes we humans are just ugly.


The Dismantling of St. Gerard Church

October 22, 2008

I have not heard much flak about last Saturday’s Buffalo News article regarding the possibility of moving St. Gerard church to Norcross, Georgia, brick by brick (then again, I was out of town all weekend).  Tim Tielman, of course, is against the removal of this historic building.  To Tim, every building built during Buffalo’s glory days is historic.  His solution to the vacant Catholic churches, many in desperate need of repair:  “Work a bit harder [about how to reuse them]“.

I’ve done a 180 in my opinion of Tielman and his Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, whom I originally respected as someone looking out for Buffalo’s heritage.  Now I just think he’s an obstructionist.  And reactionary, someone living entirely in the past.  And full of screeds but no real solutions.  An attention addict.

The Catholic Church, I would hope, is about the people and not the places.  Telling the Church to think harder about how to save empty buildings in a locale that has lost half its population is tantamount to telling them to spend money and resources where they least benefit the community they have dedicated their lives to serve.  Dereliction results to half the buildings in an area that needs half its building space.  We only have so many Ani DiFrancos and an incredible number of vacant churches – and other historic but decrepit buildings – and hardly any money anywhere to save even a fraction.  Tielman needs to get real.

The Catholic diocese may have a unique (and rare!) opportunity to see one of its buildings take on a new life, and I for one would love to see a piece of historic Buffalo in the Atlanta area.  The London Bridge is still the London Bridge, even if it spans an artificial water channel in Arizona.

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to travel throughout the country and find Buffalo heritage everywhere?


NYS-sanctioned Social Programs for Inmates

October 5, 2008

There was an article on this past Saturday’s Buffalo News opinion page describing the ways in which New York State is trying to reduce prison recidivism.  These programs, social and educational in nature, try to help inmates nearing parole to transition back into society without relapse.

Many of these parolees spend a long time without freedom as we know it; but they do get free room and board, and they make friends (we are, after all, social animals).  Many regain their freedom with no clue how to find a job, how to hold a job, how to reintegrate into a society that generally wants little to do with them anyway.  Many find that they have more friends (or their only friends) behind bars.  The stigma attached to them and the very limited opportunities work against many of them from day one on the outside.

Re-entry programs don’t always work but even a modest goal of reducing the rate at which parolees end up back in jail is something to shoot for.  It is more than a humanitarian gesture:  The cost to incarcerate someone in a state prison is currently $32,000 per year.  And each court case resulting in conviction costs an estimated $50,000.  Reduction of recidivism by just a few percent pays for these social programs many times over.

This is also the kind of program that will be on next year’s chopping block as New York looks to trim billions of dollars from the budget.  Penny-wise, pound foolish.


Airport Security

October 1, 2008

Airport Security may be necessary today, but it doesn’t have to be so annoying.  I can tolerate the long waits, being forced to remove my shoes (whew) and display what kind of deodorant and toothpaste I use, but there is something that I think could easily change, and it would brighten everyone’s experience.

The color.

If there’s anyone from the TSA out there listening, then please consider the fact that there are colors other than battleship gray that you can use to liven up the X-ray machines, the scanners and especially those trays that we stick our shoes and laptops into.

This is so cheap and easy to do, and would go a long way to making a dreary experience less dreary.  Thanks!


Conferences

September 30, 2008

I go to conferences as part of my job.  One trick I found to staying awake is to sit in the front row, running the risk of embarrassing myself should my mind wander off the speaker.  (For the same reason I sit in the front row at church.)  The conference I just attended was especially boring for all the reasons you read about in those books that tell you how to do presentations at conferences:

  • Non-interaction:  Each speaker spoke for 30 minutes without offering any interaction with the audience.  Not one speaker tried to bring the audience into the conversation.  See photo above.
  • The abuse of Powerpoint:  Slides were overwhelmingly complex.  One slide held the acronyms POM, TCIDS, AN, ISR, c4, TTNT, MADL, ACC, AEHF, IFOG, JSS, AD, and JTRS.  The very next slide had just as many.  No one offered an explanation.  And to boot, the speaker read the slide to the audience, verbatim.

I learn a lot from these conferences – in particular, how not to do presentations.  There are a number of good websites that speak to the abuse of Powerpoint in particular, and many lessons can be gleaned from these sites about how to make presentations both enjoyable and memorable for their audiences.  These speakers would’ve done better with just a little homework.

I picked a bad year to give up caffeine.


Obesity at the Airport

September 29, 2008

From my perch here at Reagan National Airport I can see Five Guys Burgers and Fries, Gorden Biersch Brewery, Ranch 1 Grilled Chicken, California Tortilla, Auntie Anne’s Preztels and a Dunkin Donuts (hmmmm, donuts).  It’s dinner time, and I’m stuck here for a couple hours waiting for my flight because the airport recommends I get here two hours early (or else).  Yet there is nothing here that I could consider healthy food.  I should’ve called my brother and asked him to bring me something.

We are flooded with blatant imagery – from TV commercials to magazine ads to at-store signage – and even though we talk a good talk about the growing obestity crisis (pun intended) we do little to change the social and economic principles that are driving it.

Like the sub-prime crisis, a “cure” will not be found until the problem reaches epidemic proportions.  By then it will be a multi-trillion dollar issue, requiring lifetime care for those unfortunate fat X and Y-genners.

This is the crisis that will bankrupt America.  The sub-prime problem is just a warm up.


Homeless

September 27, 2008

I saw this homeless guy the other day, head down, asleep:  Wearing 4 jackets but no shoes; a nice-looking backpack to his left, a half-eaten bag of spilt caramel corn in his lap.  A few seconds later a panhandler asked me for change, and a few seconds after that, another panhandler.

The scene unfolded in San Francisco, one of the most beautiful cities in the U.S. were it not for its seamy and exposed underbelly.  The homeless problem has plagued the city for years, and city government has not been able to solve – or even slow down – the growth in the homeless population.  It is estimated to be over 7,000, the highest per capita in any major American city.  Lots of ideas have been tried, even special parking meters to provide change to charitable organizations in lieu of giving money to the homeless; but so far the results have not been good.  Most of the San Franciscan homeless are city natives; this is not a problem caused by immigration from cold-climate cities.  The lack of affordable housing is one reason but there are many other reasons.  This article is a great read about what the city has tried, and what it is trying today.

Funny story:  My wife and I were staying at the Parc 55 hotel, just off Union Square in the heart of the tourist area, when around 3 am sirens, honking and generally loud noises emanated from blocks away.  We could hear bullhorns in the distance but couldn’t make out what (we assumed were) the cops were saying.  A few minutes later they got a lot closer, and it was obvious the police were yelling “Wake up!  Get off the street!  You’re going to get wet!  Wake up!  Get out of the way!”

The street sweepers were out, right behind the cops, spraying everything.

No doubt to wash down the smell of urine.


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