Sunday, September 25, 2011

September Sunday Self-Reflection with Stephen

We know that Stephen Colbert is paid to make us laugh, and of course make money for himself and his employer.

He does his job very well, by making us think while we're laughing.

Here, he just makes you think. A lot. Hello, mirror..

Have a good Sunday.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Abundant Anniversaries

Those who forget history may be doomed to repeat it, but how about those who wallow in history? Are they doomed to become trapped in it, like Bruce Springsteen's classmates in his song "Glory Days"?

Like so many other things, moderation is the message of the day. Keeping a firm eye and focus forward, while not forgetting how you got where you are, is to me a very healthy approach. Living up to those words can be something entirely different, however.

With this in mind, this past Sunday marked 5 years since I started this blog. A lot has changed in my life since that day, but it feels like surprisingly little has changed in the larger scheme of things. I'll elaborate a little further down the page.

In the meantime, here are some personally significant observances that might strike a chord with you as well. Or not. In no real particular order:

Sewickley Bridge

Yesterday marked the 100th Anniversary of the opening of the first Sewickley Bridge. Larissa Dudkiewicz of Sewickley Patch made me think about this when she posted a picture of one of the original bridge's finials on the Patch website. Curiosity and Wikipedia did the rest.

Having grown up in this area, and as the child of small businesspeople, I was aware but not fully cognizant as a teenager of the tumult surrounding the deterioration of the original bridge to the point where it was barely safe for any sort of traffic. The present span, along with the previous one, is a linchpin for the local economy, public safety, and transportation infrastructure.

This coming October 21 will mark 30 years of service for the current Sewickley Bridge. As is seemingly the case with so many issues related to transportation, some of the same issues that created the need for a new bridge in the 1970's are still with us today. These include present and future challenges related to the safe and efficient movement of traffic and its relationship to the vitality of the Quaker Valley area.

Some of these challenges include the impending closure of the nearby Ambridge-Aliquippa Bridge, and the impact up and downstream; the ramping up of drilling activity, and the increased presence of rig equipment and water trucks on our roadways; and the need to improve traffic movement through traffic signal synchronization on the Sewickley side in response to both factors.


Last week Leslie and I marked 6 months of marriage with a simple dinner at what seems to be our favorite restaurant. We are continuing to put things together in the face of multiple challenges, deadlines, and the pressures of work, including a new job for me that I'll have more to say about later.

In the snapshot of today, things are going well. This includes the fact that since I got here in March, there's about 35 pounds less of me. Feels good. Gonna try to keep it up.

The Hits Just Keep On Comin'

Those who have read my blog regularly know of how things have gone with me. Judging from the traffic stats I get, there's not many in that group. Since I moved to Pittsburgh, the number of hits on this blog site is about half of what it was in Grand Junction. Still, there are some individual posts that continue to generate traffic from all over the place.

This blog also has a presence on Sewickley Patch. I've no idea how many hits my posts get on that site, but it seems like people are reading. I promised myself to write for me and not anyone else, and it seems that my life now is taking me a little bit away from writing. A new family will do that to you. I'm fine with it.

I looked over the past year or so of traffic stats, and found some subjects and images that get consistent hit traffic in response to search engine queries. This is probably the best way that I know to give a thumbnail picture of the first 5 years:

In October 2006, a young reporter for Grand Junction TV station KJCT had the local media atwitter with a "gotcha" piece about how people and school administrators would respond to an unattended backpack inside Grand Junction High School. Jonathan Vigliotti left GJ (voluntarily) not long afterward.

Five years later, Mr. Vigliotti has worked his way through Milwaukee and Miami, and now works for WNBC in New York, the number 1 media market in the country. A nice transition upward from working in market number 187 back then. I get almost daily hits from searches of his name. Nice to see that he's doing well.

In May of 2009, I compared the pattern of annexation by the City of Grand Junction to the way a spider spins a web when it's exposed to stimulants or depressants. The illustration I used for Spiders on Caffeine still gets lots of image hits.

Other things that get lots of hits are memory quilts, Frank Lloyd Wright stained glass, Johnstown Flood dam pictures, and the Uniden Home Patrol scanning radio.

It's been an interesting but satisfying 5 years. I'm hopeful for many more.

September 11

One other thing that I wrote five years ago was a reflection on the events of September 11, 2001. I thought about this a lot - one reason it took until the week after to get it down - and even after that I found that the way I feel now really doesn't really differ from the way I felt then:

Things aren't as different for some people as perhaps they should be, but for me the 9/11 experience has been a decidedly mixed bag. Professionally, many things that I have believed in and worked for most of my career in public safety have come much closer to large-scale acceptance. Things like unified Incident Command and interoperable communications are big deals, and they're happening now. This is a good thing.

The price we've had to pay as a society for the loss of personal freedom, increased suspicion, lack of trust in one's fellow man and the nagging effect of fearmongering, hype, and conspicuous consumerism on our collective national psyche has at times been difficult for me to stomach. One must have a finely tuned B.S. filter nowadays, firmly placed inside the protective cocoon of faith, humility, and dedication to one another, regardless of our ideological differences.

Leslie and I went to the memorial observance in Leetsdale, which despite the rain was fairly well attended. The time was also used to honor and remember those served in the emergency services locally who had passed away since 9/11/01.
There were lots of familiar names and faces on that list.

The quiet procession from the Leetsdale Borough Hall to the Memorial site was perhaps the most poignant display for me. Public safety personnel from all disciplines, walking together. A good thing, and something we can all remember as necessary whenever we think of the past, present, and future of our society.

We are all in this together.

Have a good week ahead.

Photo credit: Sewickley Valley Historical Society (1911 Bridge Poster)

Friday, September 09, 2011

Drilling in Leetsdale - Outside The Box

First things first - Remembering the victims of the crash of USAir Flight 427, 17 years ago yesterday. Aside from a photo in today's Beaver County Times, the local media seemed focused on other things.

The 10th anniversary of 9/11 is certainly getting its share of attention, but other local tragedies, regardless of their comparative size, are nonetheless significant to those who were touched in some way by these events.

Congratulations to Leetsdale Borough Council for moving quickly to establish some type of regulatory framework for gas drilling within the borough, by passing an ordinance last night that does these things.

However, the immediate potential threat to the borough and its citizens doesn't come from drilling within the borough, but the likelihood of drilling elsewhere.

Leetsdale residents receive their water service from the Edgeworth Water Authority, who gets their water from the Ambridge Water Authority. Ambridge Water's main reservoir is located in Raccoon and Independence Townships in southwest Beaver County. This reservoir property is surrounded by properties where the landowners have signed drilling leases.

The Beaver County Marcellus Shale Action Committee is circulating a petition to Gov. Corbett and State Sen. Elder Vogel, whose district includes the reservoir. The petition requests that drilling and/or water extraction for fracking be banned anywhere in the area of the reservoir and the Service Creek watershed.

The petition is available here.

Leetsdale residents, and other Ambridge Water customers who are concerned about the safety and integrity of their municipal water supply, may want to consider learning more about this effort, and communicate with their own State Senator, John Pippy, about the issue.

Remembering those who paid the ultimate price trying to save others - not only at the 9/11 event sites, but everywhere, every day.

Have a good weekend.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Acts of God..and Man

Happy September.

Over the last week or so I've followed, and in one case been affected by, natural occurrences in or near to our area that fall under the legal definition of an Act of God:
An event that directly and exclusively results from the occurrence of natural causes that could not have been prevented by the exercise of foresight or caution; an inevitable accident.1
I thought about the reaction of the general public and the media to the events that occurred, and what the factors might be that influence those reactions. I tried illustrating this on a graph:

In short, this graph illustrates a type of event, how long the event lasted, and how much "human actionability" is perceived to be directly involved in the duration or severity of that event. This is very rough and rudimentary; no demographic research went into this other than an hour or so in my own head.

It should also be noted that the graph refers to the duration of the event itself, not the lasting effects or the human response to mitigate those effects. For example, a hurricane may take a couple of hours to blow through an area; however, if you took into account the response to Hurricane Katrina, for example, the result would be on the opposite end of the graph. "Heckuva job, Brownie".

I included the 1889 Johnstown Flood on the graph to provide a local example of a contrast to events of short duration with no human actionablilty, and events with similar duration but with questionable contributions to its severity on the part of mankind.

An act of God, in this case torrential rainfall, was the root cause of the Johnstown Flood. The rain's impact on a structurally compromised and poorly maintained earthen dam contributed greatly to the event's duration, severity, and loss of life.

Here is a quick look at those three recent events with this thought process in mind:

Washington Boulevard Flash Flooding

During the Friday rush hour of August 19, a slow-moving thunderstorm filled the Negley Run basin in Pittsburgh to the tune of 9 feet of water. The storm sewers that carry this stream beneath Washington Boulevard were overwhelmed, and 4 people in vehicles on that roadway lost their lives.

There is an eerie coincidence in the circumstances of this incident, given the tragic flash flood that I wrote about in May; the locations of this flood and the Little Pine Creek tragedy of 1986 are but a mile so so from each other as the crow flies.

There is also historical perspective surrounding the Washington Boulevard flood that has many questioning the stewardship role of the government agencies involved.

The initial response from officials of ALCOSAN, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) and PennDOT was something akin to "well, we should talk about that". This angered a lot of people, including Post-Gazette cartoonist Rob Rogers. He painted a rather unflattering portrait of these stakeholders in the August 22 edition.

P-G columnist Brian O'Neill spoke with city officials and some private citizens with considerable expertise, and also did some nice detective work in his paper's archives, including a reference to the 1986 Pine Creek Flood that painted some North Hills municipalities in a not-so-nice light. Mr. O'Neill's August 25 and August 28 columns reflect both unconventional wisdom and common sense. A couple of his paragraphs sum it up:

I've often thought that Pittsburgh is luckier than the Sun Belt. Some of those cities are going dry. Our problem is too much water getting into the wrong places, which seems an easier problem to manage -- most of the time.

Then we get a flash flood and it becomes clear we're not managing our water. A crumbling, ill-designed system is kept out of sight and out of mind. When the all-too predictable catastrophe occurs, we look back to the precedents that were more than fair warning. Then we scramble to do something about it right up until the moment we don't.

I agree with Mr. O'Neill's assumption that the Washington Boulevard flood, while brought about by an act of God, was exacerbated by the inaction of man to adequately heed the warning signs. A new line was forming on my graph:

In terms of the severity of the events, there is a point at which the amount of human involvement in either the event itself, or its exacerbation, will bring about demands for redress and responsibility. This could take the form of lawsuits, or by other means available to citizens, such as the ballot box.

In the case of Washington Boulevard, aside from the planning and commitment that will be required on the part of all stakeholders to respond to this latest calamity, I'm wondering why ALCOSAN and PWSA exist as separate entities, when their missions appear to dovetail with each other. Maybe I'm uninformed, but if economic and political factors continue the push for more streamlined, regional governance, why not start with authorities like these?

Earthquake (!)

After 16 years in the mountain west, I had to come back east to feel one of these. I was having lunch at a favorite place in Oakland when the building began to pulsate at about three times a second. I looked up from my lunch, and felt the second floor dining room begin to sway slightly. It was over in about 10 seconds, and I was initially unsure as to what had happened. I did have the distinct impression that if the vibration had lasted longer or intensified, the building would have folded down like a house of cards.

It made big news in the media, especially given the broad area that the quake was felt and its relative proximity to Washington DC. Most people that I spoke with seemed to take it in stride, in keeping with the theory on the graph. Nothing could be done, it wasn't anyone's fault, so let's get on with things.

I get the feeling that even if the quake had been much worse, with significant structural damage or casualties, the attitude would have been about the same, so long as those charged with a duty to act in response to these types of events fulfilled their duties with a level of due diligence.

Some went as far as to try to pin the quake on fracking. In some areas, this is a possibility. Many of the earthquakes that occur in Mesa County are sourced to a federal desalination project for the Dolores River southwest of Grand Junction. Brine that is extracted from the river is pumped down a 3-mile deep well. This water can cause fractures in the rock strata, resulting in small earthquakes.

This was NOT the case with the Virginia quake - there is no fracking going on anywhere near the area of the epicenter. However, as with all other risk factors associated with drilling, this is one to be mindful of in areas of drilling activity. If such a quake did occur, its place on the graph would be further to the right, perhaps considerably.

Hurricane Irene

The hurricane had a nicer effect on the Pittsburgh area, at least for me. This past Sunday morning I took the dog out, and was greeted with a pleasant breeze from an unlikely direction. Low clouds were moving rapidly from the northeast to the southwest. A raptor, perhaps a hawk, hovered about 100 feet above my street, wings extended, just relaxing and riding the wind.

Irene was not so nice to some familiar and unexpected places. The preparatory hype and protestations of impending doom along the east coast, especially New York, didn't pan out as expected. This can be attributed to what one group of political writers called The Katrina Effect (the "Brownie" effect?).

In some places, protection against large-scale flooding and erosion may be better than others, but I believe it is all dependent on the "angle of attack", for lack of a better term. This comes from aviation, describing how the angle of a wing affects the flow of air above and below it, and thus its ability to create lift. With large-scale storms, I'm guessing it all depends on the direction, amount of moisture, and wind as to what will happen to a particular area in the storm's path.

To those affected in eastern Pennsylvania, the Outer Banks, and especially Vermont, my prayers go out to you and all others impacted by what may not have been an impressive storm by media standards, but wreaked havoc nonetheless.

This made me think of another line for my graph - one that illustrates what happens when uncontrollable events of increasing duration impact humanity:

Let's hope this isn't the beginning of a trend.

Have a great month ahead.

1 - West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc.