Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Gas prices: maybe there is a positive side

By Dick Hirsch

We have all heard of the need for future energy independence, that warning about reliance. I first heard it many years ago from Mr. Olandt, my teacher of General Science. Back then, they didn’t call it energy. They just called it oil.

“Someday,” the teacher said, “someone is going to discover an inexpensive new fuel for our cars and we won’t use so much oil.”

I heard it again in Chemistry class from Mr. Snow, who made the same prediction suggesting it was “only a matter of time,” before cars were powered by some magical substance not yet invented. I later heard it from Professor Small in Geology class and Professor Barber, who taught a course in Geopolitics. From different viewpoints they each stressed that oil was a finite resource, that alternatives needed to be developed in case the supply should dwindle or be interrupted by political events in the Middle East.

That all occurred so long ago that it can be filed under ancient history, yet they all seemed to believe they knew what they were talking about. Nobody paid much attention, though; the students were listening but we weren’t hearing. And why should we have been paying attention? It was typical to stop at the neighborhood gas station and tell the attendant to put in $2 worth before taking the family car for a joyride. That two bucks would cover about six gallons. Today two bucks might get you almost two quarts but be careful when you’re squeezing the pump handle.

I am about to examine the bright side of the spiraling price of gasoline. Is there a bright side? Not really, but, if you are determined to search for a positive approach, as I am, it doesn’t take that much spinning to discover an obvious promising possibility.

My positive is this: the rising cost will continue to be painful but the pricing will force researchers to find answers that will liberate us from the clutches of the oil producers and refiners. Shame on us. We all now remember hearing about the potential for an oil crisis while in school, but we were too satisfied to demand progress. The oil companies and the carmakers constructed an impregnable front that discouraged any change that would impact their ways of doing business.

They were able to maintain the status quo. There were power shifts in the US, with new leaders emerging and political parties either ascending or descending, but there were seldom any serious challenges to the dominance of the internal combustion engine.

That has changed. In Detroit, while they shut down assembly lines for the SUVs, they were working overtime in the research laboratories and test centers. The same activity is taking place around the world.

The hybrid car is a spectacular success. Price doesn’t seem to be the primary concern. Buyers are standing in line to place an order for a car that won’t be delivered for months. Once they take possession of the car, they become the envy of the neighborhood. They may still be paying that big money per gallon, but they’re using less than half as much.

Years ago the guys in the cafeteria would discuss reports of the prototype engines which supposedly ran on water or air. The persistent legend was that General Motors had paid an enormous sum to the inventors in order to keep that development secret and off the market. Maybe those were just fictitious tales, but today’s truth is that they are actually test driving cars that run on compressed air. Yes, believe it: maybe it’s air time. A joint venture is underway and developers and manufacturers in France and India are predicting the compressed air car will be on the road in the next few years.

The electric car is more than a possibility. General Motors is in the final stages of testing and predicts that its concept car, the Volt, could be ready for the market by the end of 2010. The company says: “For someone who drives less than 40 miles a day, Chevy Volt will use zero gasoline and produce zero emissions. For longer trips, Chevy Volt's range-extending power source kicks in to recharge the lithium-ion battery pack.”

Hydrogen fuel cells are a compelling consideration, more than bio-diesel, which uses reclaimed and recycled cooking oils and produces exhaust that smells like French fries.

That’s my glimpse of the bright side. Today’s pain will yield tomorrow’s progress and relief. Meanwhile, we must pay for past lethargy.


Sunday, July 20, 2008

Let them gamble in Salamanca, Niagara Falls, Ft. Erie or....

By Dick Hirsch

Here come a few more words about the threat posed by a casino for Buffalo. What? Is there anything that remains to be said about the Seneca Nation’s determination to bring a gambling casino to Buffalo? My answer is “yes.” Much has already been said and, trust me, more rhetoric will be manufactured in the days ahead.

Regular readers already know how I feel about the menace of a casino in Buffalo. If that happens, it will be disastrous, far outranking all the historic blunders ever made by Buffalo’s supposed leaders. It will attract few if any tourists and prey on the most vulnerable of our people.

Public officials are supposed to be nurturing the community and protecting citizens from threats of any kind. Instead, we see them genuflecting before the Seneca sponsors, embracing them and assuming the role of their advocates. It is beyond comprehension. One of my mentors once advised me that a community elects the kind of leaders it deserves. Unfortunately, that has proven to be true, and that explains the behavior of Mayor Byron Brown and County Executive Chris Collins. We must deserve them. They sounded like a couple of ineffectual flunkies announcing their continued support for the casino in the wake of a Federal Court ruling that a gambling den is illegal on that property. This is leadership for the public good? Brown’s claim to fame continues to be that he looks good in a suit. As for Collins, his performance so far is providing further proof that effective governing mandates a set of skills not necessarily possessed by a businessman.

Both Collins and Brown are motivated by immediate gratification and greed. Without considering the long term peril, they are lusting after the few million dollars in payments the governments will receive, a paltry sum when compared with the multimillions in profits the Senecas will collect in perpetuity. The Senecas have established themselves as gluttonous. Not sated with the millions currently being banked at their casinos in Niagara Falls and Salamanca, they insist on a Buffalo location despite the opposition which some reliable polls indicate represents a majority of residents of the county.

My specific objection is that a Buffalo casino will attract primarily Buffalo area people. It will never be a tourist attraction. It will suck the money out of our people, the people who are least able to afford losing. It will also damage businesses, restaurants, bars and hotels that cannot compete with the casino.

By the way, is there anyone out there who was surprised when the chief spokesman for the Seneca Nation immediately flaunted the Federal Court ruling? He said the gambling would continue as before at the Seneca temporary casino near downtown Buffalo. They may change their tune if the court seeks to enforce its ruling, but the Senecas have a history of defying civil authorities.

They thwarted the efforts of two governors---Cuomo and Pataki---to prevent the sale of untaxed gasoline and cigarettes by reservation based Indian merchants to non-Indians. When the state attempted to enforce the tax law, the Indians resisted and, among other demonstrations, halted traffic on the New York State Thruway with a blockade of burning tires.

Those gambling entrepreneurs are nothing if not predictable. Can you name another group or individual who would have the temerity to reject a ruling by a Federal Judge in such a high profile case and insist on maintaining the status quo?

Now that I have asserted my position, let me devote a paragraph to the opposite opinion of a good friend who enjoys gambling and can afford losing. By the way, he never calls it “gaming” as do the promoters and the unwitting media broadcasters and writers. He calls it by its proper name, GAMBLING, and strongly favors the Buffalo casino. He agrees that its primary targets will be local people, many of whom are living on limited incomes, and gamble hoping for a big payoff. His view is that those people will gamble anyway, at another site if there is no Buffalo casino. “If they want to gamble, they’ll find a way and a place to gamble,” he says. (That may be true, but I argue against making it so convenient when there are many other nearby locations.) In addition, he claims a casino will be a source of business for many local vendors as well as employment for job seekers.

Through his connections, I contacted a casino executive in another location. Surprisingly, he aligned himself with me. “Kid,” he said, “other businesses in the city can’t compete. A casino chokes them all.”

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Life in the age of continuous partial attention

By Dick Hirsch

“Do I have your undivided attention?” asked Mr. George, the visiting marketing consultant, as he surveyed the room. Seated there was a mixed group of salespeople, gathered together to be enlightened about new and supposedly magical sales techniques, designed to keep the company busy and prosperous and to add to the commission checks of the sales staff.

“I need your complete attention,” he stressed, “because this is critical. May I have your attention?”

Everyone nodded in the affirmative. Of course, I nodded, too, although I was dividing my time between staring out the window at the passing traffic and inscribing meaningless doodles in my notebook. But I swear I heard every word spoken by Mr. George and, more importantly, understood the significance of his message
I was experienced at doing more than one thing at a time. It was a skill I perfected in childhood, when I spent time listening and reading at the same time. I started listening to the radio, old programs like “Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy,” or “Gangbusters,” while reading the latest issue of Batman comics. Years later I modified that skill to apply it to television viewing. I could watch programs like “Mr. Ed” or “Car 54, Where are You?” while studying for the final exam in American Lit 302. Observers insisted that I wasn’t concentrating, but I believed that I was. I never realized it at the time, but I had become quite accomplished at routine juggling, doing more than one thing at a time.

Fast forward to the present, a time when the number of available distractions of every description has grown beyond all expectations, with the promise of still more to come. There are those who claim they cannot manage their affairs unless they are involved with multiple tasks.

Perhaps I should mention that I like to write with the radio in the background, as it is at this moment. I find total silence distracting. But to show you how little I know about this subject, I wasn’t even certain whether it was multi-tasking (two words with a hyphen) or multitasking (just one word, coined recently enough to not be included in my unabridged dictionary). The favored opinion is multitasking, one word, to explain the activity of a person, either on the job or just fiddling around, who is hyper-busy, engaged with more than one thing at a time. I first heard the term through the courtesy of my older grandson, a specialist in simultaneous instant messaging, TV watching and cell phone conversing.

This is an approach that has been growing in popularity, especially among the young, The most obvious example can be seen in the number of people who use the cell phone while doing other things: walking down the street, typing on the computer, shopping, pumping gas, using the lavatory...the list of situations is unlimited. This syndrome has been described as an affliction of the Internet age and I suppose that is accurate. Twenty years ago the Internet was somewhere between a concept and a figment, and there were fewer distractions.

With that being the case, it’s important to note the most perceptive definition I have heard of multitasking. It is simply this: “continuous partial attention.”

Mr. George demanded---or at least requested---full attention, as did Mr. Snow in chemistry class and Miss Sherman, the Spanish teacher. Whether they ever attained it doesn’t matter; they knew their listeners would learn more if their minds were unfettered with extraneous matter.

Once multitasking became a popular style it didn’t take long for the psychologists to start analyzing the results. They found that people were proud of their ability to balance various assignments, all at the same time. Those people generally felt there was no reduction in the quality of the work product that was their primary assignment.

But the tests seemed to show otherwise, that multitasking slows the person down and increases the chances of mistakes. Despite having billions of neurons and trillions of synapses, the brain has a limitation, its inability to concentrate on two things at once, according to René Marois, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University.

The wisdom of all this may be lost on the most active practitioners, the young, but the advice is to limit yourself, especially when driving or working on a complex issue. In my case, I have now found it possible to occasionally respond to a comment or question from the other side of the room while doing a crossword puzzle and watching a ball game.


Thursday, July 03, 2008

A new driving challenge: roundabouts

By Dick Hirsch

As a group, I have always had the highest regard for the average Buffalo area driver. Yes, I am hedging ever-so-slightly as I make that statement. The hedging approach becomes apparent with the use of the adjective “average,” to modify the noun driver. Exactly what is an average driver? I am safe in asking that question since nobody really can enumerate the specific behaviors of the average driver.

Full disclosurewise, I should say at the beginning that I am not a member of that average driver class. For years I’ve been recognized as a member of the above average or superior driver group. Some people would not agree with that characterization but I don’t intend to dwell on that issue, since the topic of each individual’s driving skill has been the subject on ongoing debate since the days of the Ford Model T. Everyone thinks they are above average, but only a few of us truly are.

At any rate, the fact is that Buffalo drivers clearly outrank drivers in so many other areas. Places like New York, Boston, Miami, Los Angeles, Rome, Paris, Patagonia and China immediately come to mind.

Average Buffalo drivers have certain skills that are unmatched elsewhere. Those skills deal primarily with the challenges of winter. Certain winter driving techniques and strategies are passed on from generation to generation of Buffalo families. As children we learn by observing our parents as they maneuver through perennially unplowed side streets or back up through knee high drifts in the driveway. Motorists from places like Richmond, Charleston, St. Louis or Philadelphia, although exposed to snow on occasion, crumble when faced with challenges like those.

But a new challenge is emerging in our community, one for which drivers must be alert. It is the arrival of the roundabout. What exactly is a roundabout, you ask?

It is a traffic control and safety measure, designed to smooth traffic flow by eliminating stop signs and traffic lights at certain intersections.

Is it like a traffic circle? Not exactly.

We have had traffic circles in Buffalo since the years following the park designs of Frederick Law Olmsted. Although they have been in existence since the 19th century, there are still some drivers who have been unable or unwilling to comprehend the navigational tactics recommended for use in circles. The most familiar examples of traffic circles are Gates Circle and Niagara Square, both highly visible and lovely locations on Delaware Avenue. They remain daunting sites for motorists and pedestrians, the scene of accidents and arguments involving drivers. Why? Because some motorists believe they are born with the right of way no matter the situation or the setting.

Will the same be true of roundabouts? We shall see. The New York State Department of Transportation (DOT) is championing the cause of roundabouts and is installing one on South Park Ave. in Hamburg and two within a short distance on Harlem Rd., one at the corner of Cleveland Dr., Cheektowaga, and the other at the complex intersection of Harlem, Kensington Ave. and Wehrle Dr.

In a leaflet distributed in the neighborhoods, the DOT has this to say: “The number of roundabouts constructed in the United States is relatively small....Early results generally indicate that roundabouts have resulted in an overall reduction in the number and severity of accidents, despite the initial concern that lack of familiarity with this type of intersection would lead to driver confusion.”

I must admit I have more than a modest interest in roundabouts based on my experience driving in the north of England a few years ago. There I was, a rookie in a perplexing situation, sitting behind the wheel on the right side of the car and driving on the left side of the road. I don’t mind saying that my palms were sweaty, especially when I discovered one roundabout after another. I was surrounded by Brits who all appeared to know exactly where they were going and seemed confident they would get to their intended destination.

I tentatively eased into one roundabout, and then the next and the next...and I emerged unscathed. The secret is this: once you’re in the roundabout you have the right of way. You need to exercise care while entering and position yourself to exit at the right spot. At least once I went around a couple of times trying to exit. The British drivers are very polite. How will drivers behave in Hamburg and Cheektowaga? Good luck.