Friday, February 29, 2008

Bad commenter ... bad

This post was caused by the “a-ha” moment in turn caused by this NYTimes piece. In may in fact be closer to a “well, duh” kind of thing, but at least it is in keeping with the title of this blog.

There has been a little talk about Barack Obama elevating the level of political discourse. Of course we all know about the surrogates for campaigns (like the Swift Boaters) and conservative (and a few liberals on) talk radio. But Obama’s efforts also do not seem to have filtered down to the internet and blogs. There seem to me to be a fair number of posts created just to provoke a reaction, and other posts which while containing new information, contain provocative statements. And this happens even more in comments, with people just agreeing with a slanted and nasty post, or disagreeing in a disagreeable manner, which results in several disagreeable retaliatory comments.

As far as I can tell most of us (in this region of the country) are amateurs at this. We know what we know, we are as well educated and/or as smart as we are. BTW, I have always felt that education and intelligence are less directly related than they ought to logically be, and that a poorly worded comment could still be very insightful. But often enough comments with extreme positions, conservative or in support of orthodoxy, are poorly worded and not insightful and can be left to stand on their own.

I don’t know what can be done about nasty posts and comments. I try to respond to most comments on my own blog. If there are blanket statements like that all unions or even one particular union is greedy, I will try to challenge it, although I try to be respectful. I know it makes for more enjoyable blog reading when you totally trash some one or some group. However sinking to that level essentially robs you of any claim to intellectual creditability. The best you can hope for if you are Ann Coulter, for example, is to have a louder microphone.

Not to say I have not been guilty of this myself on occasion. After the mayoral election I was following links on Early Returns of what blogs around the city were saying, looking for some outside my usual circle. I can across one young woman’s blog, where she favored Ravenstahl over DeSantis, and said why (mostly the residency thing, plus the city appears to be doing well under Ravenstahl). I commented at length on her blog, and couldn’t help myself in taking a couple of cheap shots in terms of questioning how informed she was (and really her intelligence). She fired back a comment no nastier but quite shorter than mine. I ended up apologizing because I felt an apology was appropriate (the young woman was being sincere in her assessment, and DeSantis’ website was hard to navigate, yada yada topic for another post), but the point is that few of us are immune to the temptation to be nasty (few of us in politics, none of us overall). Still, the moment where I find myself saying “I am laughing at you stupid conservatives” has got to be the moment I hang it up.

I am reminded of an acronym (or initialism?) that I saw for the first time recently: WTFWJD.

If you don’t get it, I won’t be the one to tell you.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Regional Indicators Redux

I had meant to post on the indicators site actually yesterday, but hadn’t mustered the effort and time to do so. Then this morning I heard sort of second hand that some of the people at UCSUR (University Center for Social and Urban Research, which apparently maintains the site) were concerned that I was declaring the site difficult to use (at least for me, which shouldn’t mean that much). So I took a second (and third) look at the site and discovered what I had missed before. When you click on one of the broad indicator types, like transportation or healthcare, it brings up a submenu of three or four items, with a graph showing Pittsburgh’s position with regard to the benchmark average. The submenu titles are in black fonts; I had never noticed that if you place the pointer on they turn a color (yellow for transportation, red for healthcare, etc). In other words, I hadn’t realized the submenu titles are clickable, leading to more data. That’s because I am have myself programmed to recognize quickly that items with the familiar blue color and underline are hyperlinks. has something more fancy, which defeats dinosaurs like me.

Mind you, just a little looking around made me wish there might be more levels of data, and maybe there are. I just don’t have time right now to find out. But I plan to play around with the site and see what I can find. I might say something about it here.

Meanwhile, the inspiration for my wanting to post on this yesterday was that the PG had another Pittsburgh 250 opinion piece, this one from Paul O’Neill about the Pittsburghtoday site. I am very impressed with O’Neill, even though I commented last Sunday on how I thought he might have driven George W crazy when O’Neill was Secretary of the Treasury. Anyway, I’m not sure how to take O’Neill’s piece in this past Sunday’s PG. He uses the example of medical data to show how patients might be smart consumers of medicine (or perhaps how employers might be smart consumers of health insurance), and then admits that particular level of data is not yet on (D’oh!). Still, I don’t doubt that Mr O’Neill has it on his to do list, to add that data to the site, and that it will be done.

As I mentioned, I think that a Pittsburgh data compilation site is a really valuable idea. I don’t know that it should be limited to just data, or maybe it could be part of a group of linked sites, including sites that list restaurants and link to reviews, sites that link to housing lists, etc. Obviously a lot of that is on the PG website, and can be searched on either internally to that site or externally through Google (I should also mention the Trib website as well, having a lot of the same information as the PG site). The more of that that Pittsburgh can get together to resent to the outside world, the better. It is not enough in this day and age to be the “city with a doorway”. We need to be the city with an information highway on and off ramp (which, thank goodness, we do not have to rely on PennDOT to provide).

Friday, February 22, 2008

five hundred invoices ...

So I re-watched the KDKA report about Matt Hogue’s allegations against the Housing Authority. One concern, obviously, is that Matt kept electronic copies of invoices. The fact that he did so for whistle blowing purposes is a point in his favor, but the fact that he went to a news organization instead of the city, county or state is a concern. Still, going to a news agency ensured no Enron-like shredding of documents and wiping of hard drives and backups.

I took some notes while watching, but I realize that didn’t make much sense. There are apparently some 500 to 700 invoices in Matt’s stack. Still, during the broadcast there were a few interesting highlights, like spending 45,000 for a band at a Housing Authority reception? Detailing a car, and apparently being invoiced twice in one day for that one car? Spending just under 2 grand for Housing Authority lapel pins. Now, I noticed that the quantity for the lapel pins on the invoice was 1,000, so you can’t say the price was inflated. But you might ask why the Housing Authority needs a thousand lapel pins.

Matt and a Housing Authority resident mentions how a lot of repairs aren’t being made, and that HACP complains it doesn’t have the money or manpower to make repairs. Well, I glanced at a PG story or two on the HACP and at the HACP’s budget report on the HACP website. The budget, by the way, is described as back in the black (it was apparently in the red for some time period). The HACP maintains it has cut spending by “closely monitoring contract expenditures, reducing housing assistance expenditures within the Housing Choice Voucher Program and eliminating vacant positions whenever possible”. So any maintenance positions that had not been filled were eliminated, and that salary money, which was budgeted last year, was not spent. Except as the Authority saw it was saving money and going to come in under budget, some managers in the Authority may have approved expenses they might have nixed in the past. Remember, the entire Authority police force went to the city police, but I am assuming the Authority is only contributing a fraction of their former salaries.

Then there is the part about how the Authority is raising the rent it charges and saying it will force some residents into the regular housing market. Given the possibility some Authority employees are treating themselves to expensive toys, that now seems fairly obnoxious. I will say I fear the city has set the standard, and this sort of thing could be happening all across city government. Grown-ups need to step in.

So who polices the Authority? The city, who appoints the board? The State? The Feds? Whomever, they need to have their accounting practices reviewed and revised right quick. And not by Pat Ford, some professionals need to step in.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Issues ... or not?

There has been much punditry about how we should be paying attention to issues in this primary season. Of course, there are many accusations that people who support candidates (other than the favorite of whatever pundit we are reading or listening to) are doing so mindlessly, without any understanding of the candidate’s political stands. I myself had advocated looking at issues in last year’s Mayoral election, and so far to me it looks like I might have had a point. But in the race for President, I am thinking that the candidate’s stands on issues might not be that important, unless the stand is for immediate invasion of Canada.

As I have mentioned before, I am fairly persuaded by the arguments of the author Drew Westen (The Political Brain), that people chose candidates to support based on emotions, first impressions, and their own party history; and then the people rationalize their choices later. Particularly in choosing legislators this would seem to be a bad practice, but not one we are likely to see curbed anytime soon (especially if pundits and bloggers just yell at people for making bad choices). But when you think about it, what does the President really do? What sorts of things go into making a good and successful President?

Well, the President does not make policy, at least not by himself. Mostly Congress makes laws that guide policy, like directing Medicare to start a system that offers prescription drugs to senior citizens or reduce the tax rate on long term capital gains to 15% (from 35%?). Both those laws were proposed by the President but enacted by Congress. The President does negotiate treaties like the Kyoto Accord, but the Senate has to ratify them (which it didn’t). What the President does have by him or herself is the power of the “bully pulpit”, a guarantee that unless (s)he is really boring and stupid, (s)he can have the lead spot on the national news with whatever information (s)he wants to get out. That is something few if any other politicians can count on. The President is our “Cheerleader in Chief”, someone who can help the economy, if (s)he is persuasive, by convincing us things are going well and we should get out and spend (which spending can, by itself, improve the economic picture). Kind of ironic, considering what the current President did at Yale.

I would argue that the candidate’s current positions, such as Obama’s health plan without mandates and McCain’s desire to make the Bush tax cuts permanent to avoid a de facto tax increase, are not that important right now. If the President could make tax cuts permanent, Bush would have already done so. Presumably McCain knows the limits of the presidency and is just pandering to conservatives. And if conservatives are the rational realists they claim to be, it won’t help McCain with them. Obama's health plan could emerge from Congress with mandates, and I susupect he would not veto it on that basis alone.

What we should really be asking ourselves is what we think about the character of
the two men who are now the presumptive nominees. They will appoint department heads, do we think they will do a good job? They will represent the United States during crisis, and try to persuade us that they are controlling the situation, which do we think will be more convincing and persuasive?

I think I will try to take a look at the specifics of each man in my next post, maybe on Sunday.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Regional indicators

My issues with being able to post during tax season continue, though I am no less worked up about things. My car is a mess, and I am sure most people would side with my wife in saying that it is my own fault. I knew there was a good chance the electrical system would be unreliable when I bought the car, it had been in a flood according to the vehicle history. But right now the radio is fighting me, which is annoying. It needs a code when the battery dies (which happens frequently, because it is an aftermarket battery that is the wrong size for the car). I usually try to put the code in while I’m driving, and have often flubbed a number (of the four digit code). I found that if you hold in the band button, the blank code display will come back. Except not this time. Errrrrrr. I will have to go out, probably now, un-hook the battery, and wait for the capacitors to discharge.

The KD/PG Sunday edition was interesting and frustrating today. It was on the Pittsburgh Regional Indicators thingie, the website. They had John Craig and Paul O’Neill on, and Stacy Smith and Samantha Bennett were the hosts. Stacy Smith sometimes has a problem with coherence, and today was one of those days. I don’t think he prepares as much as he should (he does work a couple of different jobs), and he had trouble asking questions and finding follow-ups that made sense. He also made the statement that I believe makes Chris Briem cringe, that Pittsburgh has more young people leaving than any other area besides New Orleans (I believe Chris Briem attributes local population decline to our disproportionately older population, and their natural tendency to shuffle off this mortal coil). Samantha Bennett only asked a couple of questions (she was there because among her hats is the PG web editor cap), and was not able to save the half hour, to her frustration. John Craig and Paul O’Neill were also not able to rise past the general sense of confusion. By the way, Paul O’Neill does not seem the CEO of a manufacturing concern, his mannerisms seemed a bit fey and he struck me more like a playwright or a professor, a very, very smart playwright. I say this only because I could see it driving George Bush crazy, this fey guy disagreeing in a really smart way with the conservatives in Bush’s cabinet.

It’s a shame the discussion went nowhere, because I think a regional indicators website could be very valuable to our area. Mind you, I am not sure our regional indicators website is the one to be valuable, because I have trouble with it every time I look at it. It is suppose to compare us with other comparable areas, like Detroit or Kansas City or Minneapolis, but I can never bring the comparisons up. If it’s not easy to use on a casual basis, it will be hard to attract many users.

But it could be (in the abstract) useful by providing information, both negative and positive. For example, we don’t want to encourage a Latino oriented business to locate here, at least not now, because it would surely fail. But it does encourage us to think about what sorts of businesses should think about locating here. Paul O’Neill noted that Pittsburgh is ahead of most reference cities in both the healthcare and education industries. He suggested both are recession proof, and that may be true. However, I have a feeling that we all are thinking healthcare may contract here soon, as a large number of patients simply die off, because they are so old. Education should be around for a while, though. Carnegie Mellon is a nationally ranked school (whose students have nothing but contempt for Pittsburgh). But Carlow, Chatham, RMU, Point Park and to some extent Pitt are more regional schools, and their fortunes may be tied to the regional economy. Still, I could see both consulting and internet businesses considering Pittsburgh, because of the large number of professors here, and the reasonable cost of living. In fact, it’s too bad University of Phoenix didn’t start out as Pittsburgh University instead. We have the infrastructure (I believe) to handle an online university here, and with online it doesn't matter where you are.

There's more to say (I guess I had too much build up) but in the interests of actually getting this posted ...

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Policy, anyone? Anyone? (Bueller? Bueller?)

David Brooks brings up a point about the Democrats in his NYTimes column today. Because the Democrat party presidential aspirants are so alike (at this point), there’s not much discussion of policy going on. Which is a problem, because there is likely to be some when the nominee is chosen. For example, what would happen if a Democratic President made good on that pledge to withdraw troops within sixty days? Brooks brings up the hue and cry the military and conservative politicians would raise. Kind of defeats the whole “unite the country” thing, Ms Clinton or Mr. Obama.

My first question is, what would happen to the people who stayed behind, waiting their turn to leave? Even if we were able to get all our people out without huge casualties or a last stand, and the private contractors got out too, what then would to Iraq? How would Americans feel watching a civil war in this country we were supposed to “liberate”, watching thousands die and a strong man come in. That would be an interesting polling question: “would you favor staying in Iraq if the alternative was genocide?”

The Democrats have long and loudly proclaimed their support for the troops. But I can see a debate moderator asking the Democrat nominee to explain to the families of a slain soldier or to a soldier with amputated legs or what have you how the Iraq invasion and occupation was “worth it”. I don’t think it would be any good to just blame Bush (even if that might well be accurate).

I was never fond of the “you break it, you bought it” metaphor, but I don’t think you can really get away with “you break it, you bought it, you can take it back five years later”. Anyway, the Democrats have seethed and ground their teeth at what they described as Republican incompetence in running the war. Maybe they should take a crack at running it before they toss it out.

I didn’t even get to Brooks’ discussion of the deficit.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Something a bit different

Mike Woycheck is something of a legend in what has come to be called the Burghosphere. The administrator of the very useful Pittsburgh Bloggers website, he also works at the Pittsburgh Technology Council. He sent me (and I am sure many other bloggers) an email telling me about a competition the PTC is running, and asking me to post about it. Since it is late and a school night (so to speak), I am going to take the lazy way out and simply post what he sent me. Check out pghbloggers and the PTC websites as well for more (or at least differently laid out) information.

EnterPrize is Pittsburgh’s premier business plan competition for technology startups. This year, the Pittsburgh Technology Council hosts eight workshops and three networking events, beginning February 20 with a workshop, “Developing the Idea” taught by Chris Allison. Through three phases of competition more than $80,000 will be awarded. Participants will get plenty of feedback through a coach and comments on their plans from judges and will have many, many networking opportunities to meet potential funders, advisers and peers.

The goal of the competition is to help stimulate economic growth in southwestern Pennsylvania and support local technology entrepreneurs.

You can find more information about the competition, including a registration form for entry, via the website link below:

Background Information:

EnterPrize is divided into two categories - new business and existing business. What defines a "new business?"

· The team has an idea for an innovative product or service with which they intend to start a company.

· The company does not exist.

· The company is nothing more than an idea.

· They have no employees (founders are acceptable).

· No money has been raised.

· The company is not incorporated. (NOTE: If it is incorporated, its only purpose was to create a shell - the company is not conducting any business).

The company has not experienced Substantial Business Activity:

· Payment of wages or salaries

· Receipt of research grants, development contracts or other sources of revenue

· Receipt of equity or debt financing from outside the Founder's immediate family

* Founder's activities, such as research, prototype development, establishing beta sites (other than for paying customers), licensing necessary technologies, will not be considered Substantial Business Activities.

Definition of an Existing Business Category:

· The company is less than three (3) years old.

· The company has less than twenty (20) employees.

· The company has less than $1 million in annual sales.

· The company has raised less than $500,000 in capital since its inception.

The company is experiencing Substantial Business Activity:

· Payment of wages or salaries

· Receipt of research grants, development contracts or other sources of revenue

· Receipt of equity or debt financing from outside the Founder's immediate family

* Founder's activities, such as research, prototype development, establishing beta sites (other than for paying customers), licensing necessary technologies, will not be considered Substantial Business Activities.

Some of our members who have participated in EnterPrize over the years include: Vivisimo, Plextronics, Agentase, ALung Technologies, LogicLibrary, RemComm, Staffing Direct Business Solutions.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Opinion 250 ... and 1 (1 more opinon, that is, not 251 years)

I gotta hope that the Post Gazette is saving the better for later in its Opinion 250 series. Chad Hermann’s (bless him) piece in last Sunday’s Forum section was a fairly vague indictment of the current Mayor and Chief Executive (and UPMC). That’s something we bloggers have gotten used to doing, but I actually think we should really try to be as exact as possible (given our circumstances) if we want to complain, otherwise we risk sounding like cranks. Meanwhile, David Caliguiri today takes Chad to task in the next installment of the series, saying that Chad was guilty of just talking about the problem instead of doing anything about it (I guess Chad was supposed to lead charge against the barricades). But Caliguiri’s own prescriptions for action are extremely troubling. His suggestion for problems with our pension funds and Port Authority is to spend more money; for the pension funds to specifically go to Harrisburg and demand more money (for PAT he says we should “plan” how to fund additional projects). And Caliguiri thinks “Our outdated tax structure needs to be reformed”, a euphemism for reducing the taxes of the city and the region. So, let’s see, we are going to tell the legislature to give us money for our pension funds, probably tell them they have to pay for an Oakland connector for the trolley, er, subway and then tell them to reduce our taxes.

Now, I understand there is a state component to pension funds, and you would think it would have special obligations to an officially designated “distressed” city. But we need to live in a real world. We have the largest per capita state legislature in the country, which means that each legislator is has to be careful because even a small group of disgruntled voters could have an impact. Yet we have few legislators in the city proper; people like Jim Ferlo and Lisa Bennington have districts that stretch far into rural areas (Ferlo’s district makes it to Armstrong County). Harrisburg is unlikely to listen to Pittsburgh if we bluster about how they have to give us more money and take less from us. That’s why it was so important to elect Mark DeSantis Mayor. If Pittsburgh were seen as trying to reform itself first, it would have carried more weight when we started making demands. Instead, we still have a Mayor who has ordered his department managers not to talk to Council or the media unless they have permission from Yarone Zober.

Both Hermann and Caliguiri think actions speak louder than words, and I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, I have little more than words to offer. The people who have the ability to take action, our elected officials, are fairly content to just talk about problems and spend money we don’t have. Meanwhile, the best I can do is look at our problems and try to find the inconsistencies in what our leaders have said.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Green lawns versus carbon footprints

Once again I have been absent from blogging. This will probably be a trend through tax season (I worked six hours today, for example), but I will do my best. Below is a bit of inspiration.

There is an individual who has been a gadfly of sorts on the blogs' Antirust and the Burgh Report, a suburbanite who trumpets the clear superiority of the suburbs over the city. I don’t think I am going to name him, but you might recognize these ideas. The houses in the city are chimneys; the heat rises within them, it is both wasteful and uncontrollable and the attics are saunas. Of course there is the crime, even with all our police (who are, of course, corrupt) murders happen spontaneously and constantly, and people only pretend to care. Our streets are totally un-navigable and confusing. Our public officials and the city’s unions are totally corrupt and just praying for a city county merger so they can use that to jack up their wages. Oh yeah, and we waste huge amounts of energy with street lights.

By contrast, in the suburbs there is very little crime (what little there is is probably caused by city people who got lost and wandered into the suburbs). There’s no traffic, so driving is fuel efficient and more pleasurable. There are stores close by that are clean and well stocked, and movie houses with movies people enjoy watching, as opposed to pretentious symphonies and ballets in the city. The government employees in the suburbs are polite and helpful. And the houses in the suburbs were made recently with modern, quality materials by builders who take pride in their work, so everything in the suburbs is fuel efficient.

Or maybe not. The NYTimes had a story Saturday about how suburbanites are coming to realize that their lifestyle may not fit in with environmental beliefs. The giant size of many suburban houses and the total reliance on cars work against the most basic tenets of sustainable living. Now, to be fair, my family lives in a sixty year old city house, and we have not done as much as I would like to add insulation. And I am still working on adding a bike into my commute in a way that actually reduces how much gas I use (right now I use the bike to make my commute quicker time-wise). And the story describes how some features of suburbs allow you to do things that would be much more difficult in the city, such as adding a wind turbine that is tall enough to actually do some good.

But the graphic attached to the story really spells out the situation. Using Atlanta as an example, houses in that area that are attached (which you see in cities) use much less energy than larger stand alone suburban houses. And per unit, apartment buildings use the least amount of energy. Still using Atlanta, the graphic also shows that the further out counties produce much more carbon dioxide emissions than the city and near suburb counties.

Pittsburgh has an interesting mix of types of suburban communities, which I suspect is true in many places (such as Cleveland). The city is not just ringed by wealthy suburbs filed with people who cynically fled the city’s high taxes (although there are at least a few of those suburbs … I’m looking at you, Sewickley). Places like Rankin and Duquesne could just as easily be in the city, and boroughs like Verona and Blawnox could be mistaken for spread out versions of Bloomfield or Greenfield. Pittsburgh’s rust belt heritage means that when the steel and other industrail workers started moving out of the city in the fifties, sixties and seventies, they tied the fate of the suburbs where they settled to their jobs. Which could be part of the reason why Pittsburgh (and Allegheny County) has such an elderly population. Pensions have probably been so battered by the downsizing of the manufacturing sector; area retirees really need the low cost of living here (and can’t afford to move where its warmer).

But regardless of all that, there is growing evidence that our post war migration to suburbia is a big part of our energy appetite. The article describes how many communities are taking steps to reduce energy consumption. But the most effective step might be a reverse migration. As Jed Clampett would put it “Y’all come back, you hear”.