Friday, August 31, 2007


(News-Herald, August 30) One of my goals this summer was experience the full range of available bike trails in Venangoland.

Of course, I’ve trekked the civilization-heavy pedal path from Franklin to Oil City many times. More rustic is the stretch south from Franklin to the Belmar bridge. From there you can head out the Sandycreek trail, complete with several cool old railroad bridges, and a gentle uphill slope that doesn’t intimidate when you’re headed up, but provides gentle encouragement on the way back.

It’s worth crossing the Belmar bridge now because there’s another path spur from Belmar down to Fisherman’s Cove. This allows for a nice round trip bike and kayak biathlon if you’re feeling really ambitious.

But last week I finally completed the big bike aspiration I had for this summer. I pedaled all the way to Emlenton.

I’ve been tempted for a long time. When I head south, I’m always subject to Trail Suck, that powerful force that gets in your head and whispers, “Oh, just a little bit more…” and sucks you farther on down the trail. So I waited for a day when my daughter could come fetch me on the far end, and off I went.

There are plenty of great features on the Emlenton run. Of course, there’s Indian God Rock, a monument to centuries of multi-cultural graffiti. Down below Brandon, the trail stops for a bit—turn left up the hill and follow the dirt road through a village. Eventually you’ll arrive at Kent Road, which wins the award for the most generous interpretation of the word “road” ever. If your dream is to ride all the way to Emlenton without ever getting off your bike, this is where your dream dies.

But once you’re back on the trail the journey just gets better and better. There’s the Kennerdell tunnel, for which you must have some kind of light. Really. Turn off all the lights in your house at midnight, sit in the basement, put three garbage bags over your head and duct tape your eyelids shut. The Kennerdell tunnel is darker than that. It’s like riding a bicycle through the black of space; pedaling can become awkward because you lose the sense of where the ground is. My flashlight was too wimpy; don’t even ask how I carried it.

Once you emerge, there are more miles of forest and river, plenty of opportunity to enjoy being away from Stuff. In the auto age houses and stores and way stations grow up around routes, so that the road gives us continuous civilization, occasionally punctuated by bits of nature, like occasional mini-parks. But railways show a world mostly of undeveloped nature, occasionally interrupted by towns and villages. Train travel must have created a sense of small isolated outposts of humanity in a vast sea of forest, hill, and river.

The second tunnel en route is mercifully short—almost as soon as you’ve entered, a light smudge at the far end becomes comfortably visible.

Your first hint that you’ve arrived in Emlenton is a landscape of ruined foundations. As steeped in Venangoland history as I am, I am woefully undersoaked in Emlentonia; it took research to identify this as oil refinery remains. Pass a parking lot (the nicest one anywhere on the trail network) and you’re on the main drag of Emlenton.

Emlenton isn’t hard to explore, although there is directory signage that only faces one of three entryways to town, and is not really readable from a car, anyway. At one end of the town is the Emlenton CafĂ©—it smells really nice and I would have gladly eaten there, but after 27 miles on the bike trail, I was not fit to be anywhere where people were trying to eat. There are lovely riverfront views, convenience stores, and several antiquey places. Parents can shop in some cool places, but the kids can still get nachos and ice cream.

Looming up a block above the main drag is the Crawford Center, a converted school that houses municipal offices, some good historical info, a visitors’ center, a little museum that appears to be open Every So Often, plus a great old auditorium. Once again, the signage for this place is visible only on one route into town.

It’s one of the perennial indicators that Venangoland is not quite ready to be a tourist destination—we still specialize in signs that are only helpful if you already know where everything is.

My daughter and her boyfriend, an excellent navigating team as long as they have a cell phone, arrived to retrieve my rather-sweaty, semi-achy body. I should have gotten them ice cream for their trouble. It’s a fun trip; next time I’ll find a way to take along a clean shirt and a bigger flashlight.

You can find more info about the AVTA trails here

Friday, August 24, 2007


(News-Herald, August 23) Whenever I try to research some tidbit of information, I invariably end up side tracked. Here are some of the side tracks that I wandered onto this summer.

*There was once a vocal group named the Venangos. They recorded on Monogram Records, though the only song I can find attributed to them is “My Girl.” I’m dying to know who they were, because as we’ve noted before “Venango” is not a particularly common word. Who were they, and what do they have to do with us?

*You can’t rent a car if you’re under 21. You can barely rent one if you’re under 25. Uncle Sam will let you drive a tank, but Hertz won’t let you drive a Volvo.

*There is a large and vocal community of people out there advocating the geocentric model of the universe (that’s the one where the Earth is stationary and the universe revolves around us). Really. There is, for instance, a website named Galileo Was Wrong, operated by a Catholic Apologist located in State Line, Pennsylvania. He’s written an entire book arguing in favor of what he calls the Biblical view that the Earth does not move.

And he’s not the only one. Geocentric Perspective is a website that also argues that the Bible clearly shows that we live on the immovable center of the universe. Of course, the site also contains pages about how NASA faked the moon landings, Germany didn’t start World War II, and suggests that the Holocaust is probably bogus. There’s also a useful link to a site that explains how dinosaurs and humans lived together.

Not that I mean to suggest that the geocentricity crowd are crackpots. Some of them have big fat college degrees, and there appears to be a fair amount of erudite argument about whether the universe is large or small. And before anyone even starts in on them, they explain that the Bible does not claim the world is flat and therefore they fully accept the theory that the Earth is round.

These folks are just one more example of how aggressive and ambitious people can be when it comes to protecting what they choose to believe from the assault of unpleasant facts and data. The geocentric folks appear to spend lots of time plugging holes in their view and protecting it from a variety of challenges.

A Doctor Thomas Neville Jones has published a paper about geosynchronous satellites. Satellites that orbit around the world at a speed that allows them to match the rotation of the Earth would seem to be a major challenge to the view that the Earth doesn’t move. Doctor Jones unfurls a large number of fancy and/or incomprehensible formulae to explain this apparent loophole, including such skeptical phrases as “If we assume such satellites really do exist…”

*My son and his girlfriend got in an argument about whether it’s worse to call someone a turkey or to throw the word “kiester” at them. So I ended up tracking down the origins of each.

“Kiester” was apparently an English synonym for “satchel” in the nineteenth century; it was not until the 1930’s that it was used to refer to the portion of the anatomy upon which one sits. My sources are mum on what prompted that piece of linguistic creativity, but as a side note to this side note, I discovered there is a Kiester, Minnesota (about 100 miles south of Minneapolis-St.Paul, right by the middle-of-nowhere near the Iowa border). This is useful only for twelve-year-old boys with computer access, who can entertain themselves by locating websites such as “The Best Kiester Schools.”

“Turkey,” as in loser or failure, goes back to burlesque theater where a turkey was a show that stunk, bombed, debaclized or otherwise did poorly. That may go back to “turkey troupes” who were groups of traveling performers wandering hither and yon. That in turn may go back to “turkey” as a name for the bundle in which traveling lumberjacks carried their stuff. In terms of naughtiness, I declare the two words a draw. However, “kiester” is funnier. Even Turkey City, Pennsylvania is not as funny a place name as Kiester, Minnesota.

*There’s such a thing as the American Society of Highway Engineers, and they have a Franklin section. I never cease to be amazed by all the little organizations that exist around us that we know nothing about.

*The law requires that employers release reservists and National Guard members for service, and that their jobs be kept waiting for them. However, Sears actually guarantees its employees called up for military service that it will maintain their full level of civilian pay AND benefits for up to five years. And nobody told them they had to.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


Through an odd sequence of circumstances, I received an advance reader's edition of Joseph Finder's new novel Power Play to review. Really, having people give me free copies of books to read just so I can talk about them strikes me as a sweet gig.

Finder is a Yale grad whose roommate was Franklinite Joe Teig. He started out specializing in Russki thrillers, then wrote Zero Hour after the first World Trade Towers attack. While history has somewhat overtaken that book, it was pretty much on the mark. He also wrote High Crimes, a military/legal thriller that was made into a movie with Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman. After a sidetrack into some other writing gigs, Finder resurfaced as a specialist in corporate thrillers, a niche that he pretty much owns and which yields some interesting ideas.

Here's my quick review of his new book, Power Play.

Jake doesn’t want to be there. It’s a corporate retreat, an isolated camp where the corporate heavy hitters go to make their play for power. Jake’s been happy to be a quiet minnow, but now he’s forced to swim with the sharks, and there’s no familiar face in sight except for that of the woman he loved and lost. And things are only going to get worse when a group of armed killers arrive with an agenda of their own.

This is Finder’s best work to date. He has once again perfectly blended the battling and infighting of the boardroom with the action and suspense of a classic thriller.

Jake is by far his most compelling central character. Jake carries the burden of dark secrets and a troubled past—he maintains a low profile at work to conceal that burden, and he let it tear him apart from the love of his life, but now it is the only thing that can save them all. Finder has created a character who is not simply an action hero, but a man caught in a situation where he must deal with his dark past to preserve his life and his love. In Power Play, Finder gives us a man who must deal with the greatest external and internal struggle of his life, all in one weekend.

A work that fans of Robert Ludlum and Lee Child will enjoy, this is highly recommended, the best book from Joseph Finder to date.

Friday, August 17, 2007


(News-Herald, August 16)There are two factors to consider in risk assessment—how likely the risk is, and how great the cost would be.

When something is not likely to happen, and the cost would not be great, risk barely registers. Why do people drive up and down Route 8 at Mach 6? Because they figure that A) odds are against the police being around to catch them and B) a ticket wouldn’t be all that costly.

What makes them slow down? If they see a parked police car poised to pounce, the Likelihood of Being Caught estimate rockets up to nearly %100. If drivers have already collected so many tickets that their collection of points is Much Too High, then the cost of being caught becomes prohibitive. In both cases, they are more likely to slow down.

Many of us are naturally inclined to weigh one risk assessment factor more than the other. In fact, when we see a battle between people over a risky behavior, it’s often between people who are counting different factors.

Mom warns Junior to drive slowly and carefully for the zillionth time because she has a vivid and gut-wrenchingly clear mental picture of what it would be like to have police come to tell her that her child has been killed. Junior laughs at her fretting because he feels certain that, no matter how fast he drives, he’s simply too good to ever have an accident.

These different approaches are probably at the center of many parent-child arguments. Dad is focused on the cost factor, so he tells his daughter to never, ever, ever get in a car driven by a friend who’s been drinking.

Juniorette hears that, and since she assesses risk based on likelihood, she thinks that the heavy-duty warning means that Dad believes it’s likely she’ll ride with a drunk driver, and that he doesn’t trust her to make the right choice. In fact, he trusts her 99 times out of 100, but all he can think is that one time is enough to create unendurable tragedy.

Many household arguments that end with an offspring screaming “You just don’t trust me” start with two different styles of risk assessment.

The same argument takes place in the public sector as well. In the days after 9/11, everybody wanted to build a cage around every important place in the USA. The likelihood of a terrorist attack on the birthplace of Lawrence Welk wasn’t because everyone was gripped by a vivid understanding of how awful a terrorist attack could be.

Or take a whacko grabbing his gun and going on a school grounds rampage. The chances of such an event were the same the day before the Virginia Tech shootings as they were the day after. This fall, the chance of such an attack won’t have decreased a bit, but the memory of the horror will have faded, and with it, our need to be on high alert 24/7.

And, of course, we’ll spend the next month of our national ADD anxiety attack on bridge safety, not because there’s any reason the believe that bridges across the Allegheny are any less stable today than they were yesterday, but because we suddenly can imagine how awful a collapse would be. In a month or two, the comforting fog of denial will roll in again.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In this world there’s a long list of really horrible things that could happen. The list includes tragedies that aren’t impossible—just improbable. If we were constantly, vividly aware of the potential disasters, we’d lock ourselves in the basement and never do a thing.

Risk assessment is hard. Some folks are too certain they’ll always avoid potential disaster. Others lack the imagination to appreciate how really awful disaster could be. And some people overestimate both and live in a state of eternal fear.

Media often make matters worse, either by making the possible disaster seem extra awful, or by artificially inflating the likelihood that disaster may strike. “Epidemics” like the fabled summer rash of shark attacks a few years ago—these are often complete fabrications with no basis in fact, and yet millions of Americans become convinced that the scary wave is real.

And sometimes the very thing that magnifies the impact of an imagine disaster is our own human hearts. A possible hurt or disappointment suffered by a child becomes massive suffering to the parent who loves that child so much.

Risk is part of the price we pay for being alive. We can’t make it go away by ignoring it, and we can’t escape it by running from every shadow. After all running away also has risks. Our best bet is to try not to do anything stupid, then find and share the strength to deal with what comes.

Friday, August 10, 2007


(News-Herald, August 9) We like to believe that we live in a culture that rewards excellence, that the best way to succeed is to be really good at what you do. Close, but no cigar. Doing an excellent job is not what gets you a reward in our culture. Convincing people that you are doing an excellent job is what gets you a reward.

Now, one way to convince people that you’re doing excellent work is to actually do excellent work. In some fields that’s often good enough. Engineering tends to be that way, though engineers often get in trouble when forced to interface with other fields. Joy’s large success in peak years arguably came because they were an engineer’s company, letting good work speak for itself.

That ethic is even celebrated in our popular culture. House is a current extreme example of a man who cannot play the game, but is so excellent that he’s successful anyway.

This may be a distinctive difference between professional and amateur sports. When high school athletes square off, the team that does the best job usually wins the game. That’s still true in professional sports—except that the team that does the best sales job has more money and that translates into better players and staff.

In most arenas it is necessary to play the game, to sell the product, to convince others that you’re actually done a good job.

There are plenty of people who hate that part of the equation, turn up their noses in disgust at the smell of politics and popularity contests. They will announce that they don’t play the game in a tone that lets you know they consider that a badge of honor. But if they refuse to play the game and wait for their work to speak for itself, they often end up obscure and unknown. Plenty of artists have died hungry through the centuries.

In fact, the role of patrons in the art world is not just to pay bills, but to campaign and play the game for the artist. The artist paints, sculpts, composes or whatever; the patron goes out and shmoozes to convince everyone that the work really is good.

As much as some folks loathe playing the game, in most realms it’s hard to ignore. Remember Eugene Reichenfeld, conductor of the Wilkinsburg Symphony and one of the fathers of the Kennerdell Art and Music Festival? Gene was a fine conductor and musician, and he was a promoter of the first order, nearly shameless in his pursuit of support for the festival. Plenty of people may have ended up feeling as if they’d been hit by a tornado, but in the end, a woodsy gathering to look at pictures and listen to an orchestra became a source of culture and entertainment for folks throughout Western PA.

The Festival could have just set up in the shop in the woods and said, “Well, this is good stuff, so we’ll just wait for people to come be impressed.” And it would have died out decades ago.

There are certainly people who overdo promotion, who always sell hard even if they have nothing to sell but junk. Mass media shoves a variety of wretched garbage at us. Plenty of folks aren’t just willing to be sold to—they depend on others to tell them what’s good, as if they themselves were incapable of telling excellence from junk.

Playing the game doesn’t always work—New Coke was one of the most spectacular and expensive marketing failures ever. But people who refuse to play the game will often be at the mercy of those who do, and will owe their successes to people who were willing to play the game on their behalf.

It is easy to become bitter about playing the game, perhaps because we grow up hearing that excellence is all you need. Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.

In the workplace, a good manager makes a sales job unnecessary, because your best widget polisher may be lousy at playing the game. If you hired him to polish widgets, don’t make him spend time playing the game. A good manager frees employees to concentrate on doing their job without wasting time selling it.

People who play the game well are denigrated as suck-ups, political types who are somehow cheating. But, like it or not, if a tree falls really, really well in the forest and no one hears it, it never makes a sound.

If you’re like me, and not a big fan of playing the game, what can you do? Well, some times you suck it up and sell. And when you see something that is excellent and worth celebrating, make a fuss so that the person who did it doesn’t have to throw his own party. If everyone did that every day, our culture would be almost as much of a meritocracy as we like to imagine it is.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


All right, so I've been harping on No Child Left Behind for years now. Here are some of the problems I saw back in 2003-- nothing that's happened since has changed my mind on the subject.

(News-Herald, August 2003)
Folks in Oil City were dismayed this summer to find some of their schools on the state’s Big List of Naughty Schools, and in fact there are several county schools in the same boat.

What are we paying these administrators for anyway, came the cries of protest. Well, if you’re surprised when your school makes it to the failure list, you haven’t been paying attention. Your school, and everybody else’s, is supposed to fail. That’s what the law is for.

Let’s review. No Child Left Behind is a crock. It is a cruel and cynical joke on the American people, designed to dismantle public education and make it easier for the rich to send Chip and Tiffy to private school (where they don’t have to take the PSSA) and still afford that summer in Bimini.

It bears repeating until everybody finally gets it: every single public school in America will eventually be on the failing schools list, because under NCLB, 99% success will be considered failure. It’s not a matter of if your school will be “in trouble”—only when. Districts can postpone it, but not avoid it.

In Pennsylvania, a school can end up on the list for any one of three reasons. 1) Whole or part of the school’s population didn’t meet the year’s testing standard. 2) Fewer than 95% of students took the test. 3) Not enough students attend and/or graduate from the school.

Let’s look at these in reverse order.

Attendance and graduation rates are fairly straightforward measures. Nothing too tough there.

95% of students taking the test. More of a challenge. The government is adamant (to the point of actually putting some money where its mouth is) that it wants class sizes in the 15-18 range. But if a class has 18 students in it, 17 students equal 94%. If Johnny is absent on test day, his school fails.

And the state says that if Johnny’s family has religious objections to taking the test, Johnny doesn’t have to take the test. But he still counts as absent, and the school fails.

The achievement level is the kicker in all this. The state has set a benchmark for each year that each school must meet. In the commonwealth, that’s based on achieving an 80% on the PSSA test of reading and math.

But we aren’t just looking at the whole school population. Any sub-group larger than 40 is counted on its own. So if your school has forty Inuit students, or forty students whose first language is Swahili, or forty students who are blind and deaf, those students are counted separately from the whole school.

For many schools, the significant group will be special needs students. Law requires that these students receive instruction that is adapted, modified to compensate for their particular learning disabilities. The law also requires them to take exactly the same PSSA as everyone else.

So if you have a learning disability that makes it hard for you to do math, the state requires your teacher to slow down your math class so that you can get it. But the state also requires you to achieve an 80% on the math portion of the PSSA (including the sections dealing with algebra and calculus).

But that ‘s not the best part. The results for the sub-groups override all other results. So if too many of the 40 Inuit students in my school fall below the 80% mark, my school goes on the list. Doesn’t matter if the rest of the school tests out 100% at genius level; the forty Inuits decide whether we’re on the list or not.

Franklin and Oil City Middle Schools are perfect examples of this feature in action. They’re on The List because although each school’s overall performance was excellent, each has a subgroup of over forty economically disadvantaged students who took the test and didn’t quite make it up to the cut. (One might think that the logical next step would be to target this group for more intense instruction, except that, by law, no one can know who those economically disadvantaged students are.)

What comes next? Well, Hasson Heights Elementary was on the Very Naughty List for the second year (though the state neglected to tell them that they were on the list the first time) so the law says those parents would have been offered choice. Everybody else has to show the state how they’ll improve.

Oh, but one last wrinkle. All of the state’s information about the school is based on information from the 00-01 and 01-02 school years. That’s means Harrisburg wants to see each district’s plan for improving schools in 02-03 --- the year we just completed.

Harrisburg says that only by aggressively pursuing an audacious plan can we hope to make schools perfect. Right. This from the folks who can’t even pass a budget. Happy new school year, indeed.

Friday, August 03, 2007


(News-Herald, August 2) I wish I had paid more attention when the idea of an I-80 toll road first popped up, but I thought, frankly, that it was an idea that was so stupid its time would never come. I should have known better than to underestimate the Harrisburg brain trust.

We’ve seen this style of financial planning before. Smilin’ Ed’s school funding “reform” rests on a foundation of trainloads of money that we will collect, someday, from gambling. Probably. In the meantime, this unknown amount of possible future money is already earmarked for piddly property tax relief and some extra subsidizing for the schools in Philadelphia.

And most notably, he’s never tried to sell this plan on its merits, but has tried to put it across with increasingly rough displays of political gamesmanship.

The governor has been peddling variations of this same exercise in full contact crystal ball economics for a while now, but at Smilin’ Ed’s Used Legislation Lot, sales have been slow. Now here comes the I-80 toll proposal.

You would think that something this large, something that will impact one of the major cross-state corridors, would come buttressed with impact studies and thoughtful testimony from many of the people who will be affected. You would think that, but you would be wrong.

Instead, the toll proposal arrived at the last minute, a quickie addition to the spending plan that is the illegitimate child of this year’s Harrisburg-based budget fiasco. (And I don’t need to hear any more political bloviating about which party was to blame for a budget adopted seventeen days after the legally required deadline—in the spirit of bipartisanship, I blame them all.)

I don’t think these pieces of legislative are an unfortunate side-effect of the annual budget battle. I think they’re the purpose of it. The cynic in me suspects that it is now strategy to push the budget until it HAS to be passed, so that eleventh-hour addendums are carried through with no discussion or examination.

So here’s the plan. The state borrows a trainload of money and plans to pay it back later by taxing motorists on I-80. Some cars on the train stop all around the state; many go to Philly and the Burgh. Did you know that Allegheny County and the Greater Philly Area add up to 22% of the commonwealth population? The suits in Harrisburg never forget it.

Winners in this plan? Well, the lawyers and financiers who will get a nice commission putting together the train-sized loan. Mass transit mis-managers in Philly and the Burgh who win another holiday from cleaning up their acts.

Losers? Anybody want to spend $80 to travel across the state? Traffic will be deflected onto “free” roads, which means a route like 322 becomes more crowded, dangerous, and worn (good thing we’ll have all that money available for road repair). Shipping products into the area by truck will get more expensive. I don’t think tolling I-80 will endanger Pennsylvania’s reputation as a business-unfriendly state.

It’s an entertaining twist that Republican Representatives English and Peterson have used federal political muscle to interfere with state government. I’m pretty sure it’s not a standard conservative value to cheer federal power interfering with state functions. That said, I’m perfectly happy they did it.

It’s possible that using I-80 toll to finance debt has many positive aspects. It’s possible that upon hearing some really good reasons, I’ll decide that it’s not a stupid idea.

But it’s not simply that I think the idea is stupid. It’s that I haven’t heard any explanation about it. I haven’t heard what anybody knowledgeable has to say about the impact of such a far-reaching change. And my elected officials owe me that at the very least.

Even now, when the governor could be responding to Reps English and Peterson with a documented, fact-based, well-reasoned presentation about why this is such a good idea, instead of data and charts, we’re getting more political posturing and statements on the order of, “It is TOO a good idea, and these guys are just big doodyheads.” That and a petulant, “Well, then fine, I’ll just pull out that other plan that nobody liked.”

You would think that after the last election the folks in Harrisburg would have learned that Pennsylvanians would prefer to have important decisions made in the daylight, in full view. The Governor wants a toll road? Well, I want an explanation of why it’s good policy to drain more blood from our region to help feed Philly again. I’m waiting.

From my Flickr