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August 07, 2014

Sarajevo 2.0 with Air Travel this time

Something missing from 1914's pissing contests that gave us World War One was air travel - navigation in those days was surface-bound, so all the contretemps played out at altitude=zero. Now we've got a European and near-Euro sky filled with a weave of airplanes and airspace boundaries, so the petty squabbles of nation-states and tribes can indeed project into the heavens.

And there's also this:

There's two problems - problems of intent and problems of chaos. Problems of intent occur when a Ukranian plane strays into Russian territory and now it's an intruder and subject to shoot-down. Problems of chaos occur when non-standard routes and congestion cause confusion and complexity, leading to errors and tragedy. Because all those planes that aren't flying over the restricted areas are flying somewhere non-standard.
July 27, 2014

The Vectors of August

As I have written about in two earlier posts, I believe a few things.
  • I believe in young people, their clear eyes and uncompromised souls, their desire for justice and their energy.
  • I believe in people with a lot of experience and their capability to keep non-standard situations from cascading into a feedback loop of deteriorating conditions.
  • On weekends, the experienced people leave the young people unsupervised and they gain experience. On Mondays, the geezers try to cauterize the damage and convey the lessons.
  • In August, the experienced people go on extended vacations and leave the young people unsupervised, and things like WW1 and WW2 are moving into play just as the oldsters are coming back to work and getting briefed.
  • This is why I think the French are the most pragmatic people: they shut everything down in August.

Globally, the world enters this August with a local conflict in the Ukraine turned into a proxy conflict between Russia and US. ISSA declares a caliphate across Syria and Iraq. Israel in ground combat in Gaza, and opponents are well-equipped with missiles. What could go wrong?

I'd like to look at just one component of the modern world: civilian commercial aviation (airlines), while also pointing out that in many parts of the world August is the worst month for thunderstorms and rerouting. Thunderstorms also introduce non-standard operations, unplanned deviations, unexpected puzzle points into the air traffic control system.

August vacations present a double operational whammy: peak travel loads with staffing skewed to the less-experienced folks.

So take the European - North African - Middle Eastern airspace corridors, add thunderstorms, and then add one or two hastily declared no-fly zones because we "just realized" that (1) lots of motivated people can shoot down planes and (2) sometimes it happens by mistake. Paradoxically there would be tremendous confusion and possibility for error, introduced by a laudable desire for safety. The Euro ANSP's (air navigation service providers) will shut things down or slow things down in the face of the challenge, but the North African and Middle Eastern ANSP's are often under considerable political pressure.

Could it be that one of the next CNN special events won't be an airliner shot down by a Manpads or a Buk battery, but rather two airplanes knocked down by the confusion of thunderstorms and no-fly corridors during August vacation schedules?


July 19, 2014

Positively Sixth Street: Pittsburgh Cyclovia Sunday July 20, 08-12 - come out and play

Sunday mornings: lie-ins, services, brunch, coffee and the New York Times. You can have those almost any Sunday. But tomorrow, Sunday July 20th, 0800 to 1200 in Pittsburgh you can enjoy Positively Sixth Street, a Pittsburgh Cyclovia where the street is closed to cars and people and kids can walk, jog, skate, bike, and generally fool around in space that's usually not available to them. Zumba, climbing walls, yoga, n/at.1

This is part of Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership's downtown week, check out http://openstreetspgh.com/. Kudos to BikePgh for their initiative, and Mayor Bill Peduto for his leadership.

Come out and play in our street, Pittsburgh!

The Rise of Open Streets from STREETFILMS on Vimeo.


1Claiming the first recorded use of the Oxford comma with "n'at".

July 14, 2014

Good People in a Lousy Organisation; An Alternative Reading on the Pittsburgh Police & FOP

Over the last years decades, the news has brought us stories of Pittsburgh Police tragedies - sometimes involving officer deaths and injuries, sometimes involving egregious officer behavior and citizen deaths and injuries. In general, we tend to treat these as outlying events, as unique circumstances that could not be anticipated or prevented - but might all the tragedies (officer deaths and officer violence) stem from one common cause?

Could it be that the problem is not the individual police? Perhaps the men and women who wear the uniform might not be the problem and are simply facile scapegoats.

In each of the police deaths and injuries (including the police dog) the officers were left to themselves in a complex situation - no external support, no command interaction, no leadership involvement; they did what they could with what they had, all by themselves. In both cases, with a man trapped in a basement they did not secure the perimeter and call in their sergeant, commander, SWAT or a negotiator; they went in themselves and the results were tragic. They were not working in a culture that expected them to call for more help; they were not trained to call in more assets.

In the recent Pride Parade situation, a relatively low-experience officer was left standing alone between two angry shouting crowds, without any support, until the inevitable finally occured. (and to really understand the Pride Parade situation, one might do well to read Shooting an Elephant, by a policeman named George Orwell).

In each of the cases where a citizen was beaten in situations the community finds unacceptable, the officers were operating without supervision, without videos or accountability, in a persistent context where they're on their own, results are rewarded, and their official reports are taken as gospel. (Until somebody finds a video). Is anybody surprised that a few bad actors surface in this environment?

Could it be that instead of having bad Police, we have 98% good police in a bad Department? By which I mean - bad management, bad supervision and operational oversight, bad training and procedures? Bad leadership? Is the media and public and blogosphere blaming the troops when we should be blaming the brass? Could it be that Pittsburgh has mostly virtuous Police officers in a bad, dumb, disfunctional organisation? I think it's quite likely.

Could it be that over years of tight budgets and leaving these police officers with nobody to look out for them but each other, the FOP has become their only refuge? In that situation, would the FOP seem resistant to change and wary of the several administrations that have allowed the situation to fester?

Could it be that we're not paying the police officers enough - so they have to earn money on secondary details which they run themselves - and has our failure to pay a fair wage produced the corruption of uniformed cops working in strip clubs?

How do you fix this? You have to change the culture, the reward system, the leadership, and flush out the bullies and tyrants that developed in the vacuum. But the first step is: you have to acknowledge that it's our fault, and not any one officer's fault; and you have to know that you don't fix anything by declawing the only bulwark they have.

June 28, 2014

Gay Shotgun Weddings in Allegheny County

To frame the context, this story must start off with a retelling of historic good news: Effective April 1, 2012, Allegheny County Executive Fitzgerald signed an executive order extending health benefits to domestic partners of homosexual employees who completed a Domestic Partner registration program, following the lead of the cities of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Harrisburg.

So in 2012, ACE Fitzgerald did a very good thing for gay employees by Executive Order. Bravo. Let's not forget that.

The June 24, 2014 Post-Gazette article carries this headline: Allegheny County adjusts benefits policy to include same-sex couples. There's a few things wrong with the article, which I'd like to mention briefly:

  • The headline is misleading; it's not a story of inclusion. The headline would more accurately be, Fitzgerald Cancels Domestic Partner Health Insurance Unless They Marry in Five Weeks.
  • The picture is misleading; seems like nobody wanted their face associated with this story. The picture is of U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III, who ruled that Pennsylvania's Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional. He has no direct role in this story, but his photo is presented.

The legalization of gay marriage, and Governor Corbett's decision to not appeal the court decision, leaves the numerous government entities who provided domestic partner benefits with a problem to solve: they extended domestic partner benefits when gay marriage was not available, and then the world changed; gay marriage is now available.

Essential understanding: while gay marriage is available throughout the state, there is no statewide gay anti-discrimination legislation. So a gay couple currently on a D-P registry, could marry and then the non-AC spouse could then get fired and their lease could be cancelled. Serious implications in this time of transition; a quandry that nobody should be forced into.

The cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, on their parts, have embraced the legalization of marriage while also deciding that there is no need for an unexamined rush to cancel their D-P registry; the programs are meeting a need, the environment is still discriminatory and dynamic, and there is no harm in continuing the current policy for those presently participating. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are studying the matter and plan on a comprehensive approach.

Eventually there will be no need for different programs, and a gay marriage and a hetero marriage will both be treated just like marriages. But the situation is not that simple or enlightened yet, and nobody believes that it is - unless their agenda compels them to say so.

ACE Fitzgerald's Premature Withdrawal seems like a Penalty
Sending the eleven couples on the Allegheny County D-P benefits program an email on June 24, telling them to submit proof of marriage by July 31 or loose their health benefits, is a cruel, indifferent, unjustifiable rush. If they wanted to get married in a church, if they wanted a particular preacher who might not be available, if they wanted dresses and tuxedos, if they want to rent a hall - can't be done in five weeks. Why make this moment of happiness a forced, begrudged rush? Why do that to people?

A much kinder program would be:

  • Close the D-P registry to future entrants
  • Integrate the transition of the County and City D-P programs
  • Done!

In the absence of an understandable cause for the unseemly rush, it almost seems like this forced "get married in five weeks", this gay shotgun wedding, is a political penalty of some sorts.

But to go full circle, it seems incongruous that a story that starts off with ACE Fitzgerald doing the right thing and extending these benefits would end with such a capricious, rushed transition.

We recommend the two-point solution above: (1) close the County D-P registry to additional entrants, and (2) integrate the transitions of the County and City's D-P programs.

Whatever happened to, it gets better?

June 02, 2014

Ned Ludd, Ralph Kramden, and the Magic Bus

It is always good to begin with a story, both to remind us that there is Very Little New Under the Sun (VLNUS) and to preempt the first anticipated challenge to the main point.

Once upon a Time, America had electric street cars. Then, in a grand swindle known as the Great American Streetcar Conspiracy, General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum, and Mack Trucks formed a shell company that bought out urban streetcar companies and replaced them with companies that would only use buses - and who would only buy buses, trucks, tires, gas and oil from consortium members.

San Francisco mayor and antitrust attorney Joseph Alioto testified that "General Motors and the automobile industry generally exhibit a kind of monopoly evil", adding that GM "has carried on a deliberate concerted action with the oil companies and tire companies...for the purpose of destroying a vital form of competition; namely, electric rapid transit." Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley also testified, saying that GM—through its subsidiaries (namely PCL) "scrapped the Pacific Electric and Los Angeles streetcar systems leaving the electric train system totally destroyed"

In the end, in cities all across America existing electric streetcar lines were torn up and scrapped, replaced by gasoline powered transport and the industry's campaign to establish gas-powered hegemony and dependence was completely successful. To belabor the point: people do plan and dream to replace public transit systems with their own designs; it's happened not too long ago.

Brilliant people at Google are producing a no-driver car. It will not have a place for a driver, because the affordances given to a driver - a steering wheel, brakes, an accelerator - would only interfere. At one time it was said, The factory of the future will have machinery, a dog, and a man. The man's function is to feed the dog. The dog's function is to keep the man away from the machinery. With this new vehicle, Google has done away with the need for both the dog and the man, which represents a significant cost savings.

Lyft and Uber are spending millions if not billions of venture capitalist money establishing urban on-demand taxi services, mediated by apps rather than dispatchers, driven by independent sub-contractors. In general, these new entrants into the marketplace have been seen as competitors to legacy cab companies and limo services, sort of an upscale jitney cabs outfit that goes into the finest neighborhoods.

Suppose that these aren't disparate stories but are instead threads of convergence - suppose an integrated self-serve, web-intermediated driverless car service isn't intended to cherry pick the most profitable customers away from a transit system, but instead it's designed to replace most of the transit system?

What's the most expensive aspects of a transit system? Two things: (1) universal frequent coverage and (2) employees. A truly effective transit system has to be able to get a person wherever they want to go in the city, whenever they want to get there or else people will invest in workarounds (like cars); it takes a lot of employees to staff a comprehensive hi-frequency transit system, and public transit employees often have good benefit packages. Mature transit systems are challenged by retirement expenses and budget constraints.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick talked about driverless Uber-cars last week, “The reason Uber could be expensive is because you’re not just paying for the car — you’re paying for the other dude in the car”.

So now, let's imagine a proposal where the transit system of 2020 consists of large vehicles (buses, maybe) along major thoroughfares from 0600 through the end of evening rush hour, and Google-Lyft-Web cars on a point-to-point system for non-artery, off-peak travel.

Is it expensive? Sure, but you're replacing people with machines - no benefits, no retirements, no worker's comp, no unions. And you're increasing after-hours service coverage.

SO if you're brilliant, you're not building no-driver cars just so you can compete with Chevy; you want to sell fleets of them, wholesale not retail. You want to sell them in a game-changing, disruptive way. You want to have the ground prepared, with a twist.

That's why Lyft and Uber don't have their knickers in knots about drivers and insurance; those Millenials are just transitional problems. The drivers are a temporary issue, a meatspace kludge until the fun stuff starts to happen. In the meantime they're figuring out exactly how to run a self-serve, web-dispatched point-to-point transportation system, and other people are paying for it. Sweet!

So cities will still have Bus Rapid Transit, and bus lines along main thoroughfares during rush hours (for a while, at least). But it's probably a bad time to be starting a career as a bus driver.