Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Holiday Potpourri

I hope that everyone has had a blessed holiday season thus far.

It's been a somewhat hectic few weeks. Over the course of that time, I've been trying to catalog those stories, observations, and ideas that made for short stops on the bullet train of my attention span.

Like a simmering pot of subtle fragrances designed to provide a pleasant ambiance, these numerous topics of interest have presented themselves to me as a fragrance, an odor, an olfactory metaphor that stimulates the thought process in some way - either memory, contemplation, or an emotional response.

While not all connected to the holiday season (and not all subtle or pleasant), they are no less topical and appropriate to the time of year, as well as our immediate future:

Pine Boughs, Warm Shortbread, Melting Candle Wax

It's been many years since I celebrated Christmas in this area, but it was still good to see luminaria lining Thorn Street in Sewickley as well as adorning other locations. There is a certain comfort to tradition and ceremony, whether as part of a religious community or as someone who exercises their formidable kitchen skills for the benefit of family and stranger alike. Lots of homemade cookies are comforting to the psyche if not the waistline.

As I picked up the spent bags from outside of the house on Christmas morning, I was reminded of the last few years in Colorado, when the luminaria I placed in front of the houses on my block seemed to be a unique addition to the usual holiday decorations. I continue to cherish both the simplicity and profundity of the message that is symbolized by a bag, some sand, and a candle.

Brine and Benzene

A couple of significant developments in the continuing controversy over fracking:
I normally try to resist making comparisons to Colorado and Pennsylvania, especially in terms of government and politics. However, chemicals and groundwater know not what state boundary they are flowing underneath, and contaminated water is just that, no matter where the humans that have to use it happen to reside.

Considering the revelation that the energy industry is employing public relations personnel with a background in military-style counterinsurgency tactics, it's more important than ever to get to the truth, and assure that the government charged with serving citizens understands that truth, and does their job accordingly.

Chalkboard Dust and Musty Textbooks

Back in 2009, I wrote about some of my memories of Mount Gallitzin Academy in Baden, upon the announcement of its closure. Now the sounds of schoolchildren will again fill those tall, old hallways and classrooms, thanks to the recent state approval of the Baden Academy Charter School. It's noteworthy that the school's approval at the state level was unanimous on the part of the charter school appeal board, overturning a unanimous disapproval (twice) by the local school board, Ambridge Area.

I don't know what to think of the whole charter school concept, especially as it relates to the local experience. What I know is what I see - many school districts experiencing much more difficult times in terms of declining enrollment, dwindling tax bases and state subsidies, and constant if not rising infrastructure and personnel costs. Many see merit in the ability to establish a school and receive public money for it, and the government oversight appears to be fairly robust.

Still, some of the methods with which many local charter schools are getting their message out and their faces in the public eye - such as high-profile advertising and corporate-style sponsorship - seem disingenuous to me as both a parent and taxpayer.

Nonetheless, I wish the school and its students the best, along with the ongoing mission of the Sisters of St. Joseph, who will rent their building to the school. As an overview on the school's website states:
The former Mt. Gallitzin facility offers superb classrooms in a safe, serene setting. Decades of successful education attest to the practicality of the facility as a desirable learning environment.
Can't argue with that.

Stale, Moldy Bread in these SOPApillas

It's been heartening to see how much coverage the mainstream media have been giving to controversial legislation of late. One particularly odious bill is the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. This bill is part of a continuing effort to place restrictions on the flow of information in an effort to combat copyright infringement and the sale of counterfeit goods online.

Proponents of the bill are those whose profits and livelihoods are tied to entertainment product - the MPAA and RIAA, and the AFL-CIO among others. The bill's opponents include the bulk of the Internet community, including Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, and on and on.

The core premise of the bill is to create an Internet blacklist - to facilitate the wholesale censorship of information deemed to "infringe". The bill infringes, all right - not only upon individual liberty, but free enterprise as well. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has an excellent overview of the subject matter, as well as links to take action.

As it happens, Politico reports that corporate support for SOPA and it's Senate counterpart, the Protect IP Act (PIPA) appears to be eroding in the face of continued vocal opposition and at least one boycott of the largest domain name provider.

SOPA puts over-reaching "protection" of a lucrative industry ahead of the fundamental rights of citizens.

New Car Smell

The National Transportation Safety Board has gone on record advocating for a complete ban on cell phone use while driving.

From a personal standpoint, I believe that texting while driving is dangerous. I'm also uncomfortable with trying to manipulate a phone while behind the wheel. This includes trying to hold the phone up to my ear.

I have a Bluetooth headset, and my phone has voice dialing. I believe that I can safely engage in a conversation with both hands on the wheel and eyes facing forward. The vehicle manufacturers that have incorporated Bluetooth hands-free into the sound systems of their cars would appear to feel the same way.

A complete ban on cell phone use while driving seems to me to have the same kind of government over-reach that SOPA does. Enforcement of such a law would also be difficult in my mind, especially if expanded to the entire spectrum of distracted driving.

A CBS News consultant and former NTSB member took this one step further, implying that the current board "missed the boat" by ignoring additional technology advances, such as frontal collision avoidance systems, that could help to mitigate accidents regardless of any inattentive behavior on the part of the driver.

I Love the Smell of Asphalt in the Morning

Sometimes there's nothing that can be done to prevent or protect yourself from life's pitfalls, whether on the roadway or not. One faulty valve on a truck loaded with liquid asphalt can really ruin your day (and your car) if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Now it seems that the Nov. 22 spill along 40 miles of the Turnpike has damaged so many vehicles (including a couple of luxury models totaled) that the insurers are throwing up their hands or attempting to deny coverage, for which they're being sued.The driver of the truck apparently decided to leave the area after the State Police told him to stay so his truck could be inspected - a big boo-boo on top of everything else.

This is another example of how tenuous the nature of travel is - how dependent it is upon due diligence, attentiveness, and an attitude that is rife with a lot of patience - especially around here. This was brought home to me on the way back from work this past Friday, when a flatbed semi loaded with drilling rig assemblies, followed by a large tanker truck full of something (fracking fluid?), passed me inbound on the Parkway East.

Fresh Sausage

Thinking about this topic, I was reminded of the quote that is attributed to German chancellor Otto Von Bismark (1815-1898):
 "There are two things you don’t want to see being made—sausage and legislation."
That being said, it seems that there are similar goings-on in my former home and my current one that warrant some attention. Both have to do with the bumpy road of transition.

It seems that the City Council in Grand Junction, Colorado elected to force the resignation of City Manager Laurie Kadrich...just in time for Christmas. Ms. Kadrich, who held the post for five years, cited  “fundamental philosophical differences between me and City Council" as the reason for her departure.

Ms. Kadrich was a fine City Manager. She was the last one I had the pleasure of working for, and even after my departure from the City's employment she was accessible and straightforward, even in the face of disagreement.

Mayor Tom Kenyon was quoted in the Daily Sentinel story as stating, “The city manager has a lot of authority, but they have to remember they have seven bosses".

When some of those seven bosses change, the dynamics and priorities often change as well. This is something that is about to happen in Leetsdale. With not just the current Borough Manager, but the position itself, under threat of termination by the council members-elect, the future of the borough's day-to-day operational structure remains unclear, even if the stated intent of the incoming council members is not. 

The transition has already begun to impact those operations. Sewickley Patch reported that a sitting Council member questioned one incoming member's request for reimbursement from the borough for classes she and the other three newcomers are taking in preparation for their new duties.

These classes comprise the Newly Elected Officials Course, offered by the Local Government Academy, located on Pittsburgh's North Side. The academy has been in existence for over 25 years, and serves as a clearinghouse for training and information to help those elected and/or employed in the field of local government succeed on behalf of the citizens they serve.

It's a good idea that these incoming council members have this kind of baseline training. I personally don't have a problem with the new Council members requesting reimbursement from the borough - just so that request is accompanied by a copy of a certificate of completion. The course is scheduled to conclude on March 10.

Here's looking forward to that, and for more good tidings into the new year. Until then..

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