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Making sense of stimulus data

If you really want to make sure your tax dollars are being well-spent, you'll be happy to hear that there's more data available on stimulus spending than there ever has been before, on any federal program.

It's all right there at www.recovery.gov — but that's also the problem. The data comes in a spreadsheet that includes dozens of columns listing information that's a mix of useful, confusing and irrelevant. Oh, and there are thousands of lines of data.

Thanks to the Microsoft Access database program and an insistent editor who didn't mind me going missing for days to dive deep into the data, I think I made sense of it for Buffalo-area readers in my story in Sunday's edition of The News.

But it wasn't easy. And in the end, the data will only be as good as the hundreds of people who typed in the data entries at all the entities that received stimulus money. And judging from the many errors I found in the data, I must admit I'm worried about what I might have missed.

So this is transparancy in government in the computer age. There's no doubt it's better than secrecy, but as I culled through thousands of sometimes erroneous and often irrelevant data, I couldn't help but think: too much information. And I couldn't help but wonder if providing too much information might be just another way of keeping secrets.

— Jerry Zremski

Review Lou Michel's chat about 'McVeigh Tapes'

"The McVeigh Tapes," which aired Monday night on MSNBC, featured clips from 45 hours of interviews recorded by News Staff Reporter Lou Michel while he interviewed Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in prison. Michel subsequently co-wrote a 2001 best-selling book with Buffalo News reporter Dan Herbeck, "American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and The Oklahoma City Bombing." 

On Tuesday, Michel hosted a chat about the tapes, McVeigh and the 15th anniversary of the bombing, which was marked in a somber ceremony Monday. Review the chat below.

View excerpts from the show here. Read Alan Pergament's review here.

Watch excerpt from "The McVeigh Tapes: Confessions of an American Terrorist"

MSNBC will revisit the Oklahoma City bombing with a two-hour special on Monday night, which is the 15th anniversary of the bombing that killed 168 people.

"The McVeigh Tapes: Confessions of an American Terrorist," beginning at 9 p.m., uses computer graphics to turn an actor into a Timothy McVeigh look-alike as audiotapes of the Western New York terrorist's bizarre, dangerous thinking are played.

Watch an excerpt from the special:

Read News TV critic Alan Pergament's review of the MSNBC special.

Losing a job could be hazardous to your health

 Does losing your job cause so much anxiety that it can lead to health problems, including heart attacks?

   That question is at the center of a New York Times story today that uses three deaths among laid-off workers in Lackawanna to examine research in recent years that indicates what may seem obvious — the stress of job insecurity and a layoff can harm your health.

   The story reviews the heart attacks of three of the 260 workers at the ArcelorMittal steel plant, which ended production in 2009. The company had announced in 2008 that it intended to close the rolled steel finishing plant.

   The victims of the heart attacks were George Kull Jr., 56, a millwright, who died after collapsing at home; Bob Smith, 42, a forklift operator, who was treated with stents to unclog his heart arteries; and Don Turner, 55, a crane operator, who also suffered a fatal attack at home.

   The story suggests that the stress of losing their jobs may have played a role in their illnesses, citing a handful of studies in recent years.

   A 2006 study by Yale University epidemiologists found that layoffs more than doubled the risk of heart attack and stroke among older workers. A 2009 paper by a University at Albany sociology professor found a pronounced increase in death during the period immediately following job loss and higher-than-average death rates continued in the following years.

   The exact relationship between job loss and health is not known. There may be connections with cigarette-smoking and drinking alcohol. It also may be be that stress of any type influences well-being.

—Henry Davis

Another view of the Statler

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At a hearing Monday in City Hall, a lawyer told the Buffalo assessment review panel that the Statler is a "dead building" that has a negative market value,

But these images, from Buffalo photographer Douglas Levere, provided by a reader concerned that the Statler's qualities and historic significance aren't being fully valued show some of the building's strong points.

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Live coverage of NTSB hearing on Flight 3407


The News' Tom Precious is in the NTSB meeting room in Washington, D.C., following the meeting live:

Peace Bridge design concepts: You make the call

Below are the five design concepts for the proposed companion span to the Peace Bridge. Which one do you prefer? Review the options and then cast your vote. 

Update: A bridge-design open house is scheduled for Jan. 28-30 at the Connecticut Street Armory, 184 Connecticut St. The hours are 2 to 8 p.m. on Thursday and Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Bridge and state officials will be on hand to explain the alternatives, answer questions and get feedback. Read more about the process here and take a look at the latest plaza proposal here.

Update II: Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera, whose district includes the Peace Bridge neighborhood, said Thursday that he has not yet made up his mind on whether to support building a companion span to the Peace Bridge and enlarging the plaza on the U.S. side.

2-Tower: 345' Needle-shaped towers (Concept I)

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LOCAL PEACE BRIDGE 1


2-Tower: 345' Diamond-shaped towers (Concept II)


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LOCAL PEACE BRIDGE 4

3-Span Arch 226'

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LOCAL PEACE BRIDGE 3

3-Tower: 300' Needle-shaped towers (Concept I)

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LOCAL PEACE BRIDGE 2

3-Tower: 300' Diamond-shaped towers (Concept II)

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LOCAL PEACE BRIDGE 5

Snow vs. Leaves: The Tale of the Tape

Reader David Breth sent me an e-mail today regarding my column on the horrors of shoveling the driveway. He not only agreed with the whole premise, he went me one better and included this table, debating which is worse, raking leaves or getting rid of snow?

--- Bruce Andriatch


Description

Raking Leaves

Snow removal

Pain

Blisters, exhaustion, and sore muscles.

It's cold.  Penetrates the gloves through the metal handles of the snowblower.  Back-wrenching work hauling the old snowblower back and forth through ruts, fighting it at the end of the driveway, mental anxiety of stalls, etc.  Shoveling, when necessary, is a back-killer after a while

Frequency

Seems like it should be one-time chore, but it really happens two or three times.

Random.  Happens whenever snow is deep or depth exceeds my wife’s tolerance level.

Nagging

My wife does not nag me to rake leaves

My wife nags me to clear the driveway

Town Truck

Makes leaves go away

Shoves snow in my driveway

Impact from neighbors

Their leaves blow on my property, and I have to rake them.

None. 

Weather

Weather dependent – rain, severe wind prevent it.  A truly miserable experience in cold weather.  Allergies a consideration.

Weather dependent – if favorable, no chore.  If unfavorable, chore exists.  If unfavorable and persistent, chore is worsened.  Wind is always contrary, ready to blow snow in my face and behind my glasses. 

Urgency

Has to be done by a date certain, which is uncertain - prior to first snow, and prior to the last appearance of the leaf-removal truck.

Should be done prior to wifely requests in order to secure domestic harmony, and to enable use of driveway if snow is deep.  I have to shovel out an area for the dog in the back yard, or it creates a problem.  As season wears on, involves inadvertent shoveling of frozen canine pooplettes.

Family Fun

Dog and kids like to play in the leaves.  Once in a while wife will help rake.  We take pictures.

What family?  Are there other people in the house?  Any photos taken are from the warmth of the house, of a lonesome figure badly obscured by a blinding snowstorm or in a blinding rage with snow behind his glasses.

Variability

Wet leaves are more of a pain to deal with than dry leaves.  Dry dog poop is easier to accidentally rake than wet dog poop.

Wet, heavy snow = Snowblower can’t do it = I do it with shovel = Snow gets stuck in blade of shovel = Wife’s ill-timed suggestion that I borrow neighbor’s snowblower or I’m going to have a heart attack = Inappropriate response from me.  Conversely, light, puffy snow = Windy snow in my face.

Consequences of failure to do the job

Grass dies, thus preventing me from cutting lawn in the spring.  Oh dear.

Domestic reminders that it needs to be done.  Mailman won’t deliver mail.  Cars can’t get in or out of driveway.  Visitors get soaked walking up to the house and track snow in the house which would then be my fault.  Risk of me offering wife driving advice for getting in driveway at a time when she is not receptive to it.

Pilots are leading the charge for more training

Complaining the most about a lack of experience by some airline pilots, particularly those flying for regional carriers, are a group who might know best: the pilots themselves.

“It’s ridiculous,’’ said a pilot at a large regional carrier about his training that never mandated him to get a plane to recover from a spin.

Since the crash earlier this year of Continental Connection Flight 3407, which cost 50 people their lives, a growing chorus of safety experts has been complaining that the level of training the plane’s two pilots went through to fly for the airline was simply inadequate to deal with sudden emergencies.

Inside the industry, there is a “quantity versus quality’’ debate under way, as some push for a dramatic increase in the number of flying hours’ experience needed for a pilot to get the right to fly passengers through the skies. Others, though, say adding more hours will not help unless a whole new group of standards – say, being able to demonstrate an ability to recover from a spin or how to land on water – are incorporated in pilot training programs.

Jeffrey Skiles, the co-pilot on the US Airways plane that successfully landed on the Hudson River earlier this year, believes the airlines have relaxed their standards in who they hire as pilots.

Skiles aims much of his criticism at the regional carriers, those smaller, passenger feeder airlines that have become crucial partners for the major carriers. Many pilots believe the major airlines should be responsible for the pilots hired by the regionals, especially since those lucrative "code sharing'' contracts permit the regionals to fly under the name of the larger, well-known “legacy’’ carrier.

Skiles talks of the position facing many regional airline captains sitting in the left seat of the small jets and turboprop planes flying across the country today. He characterizes many such regional airline captains as “fairly inexperienced’’ who fly sitting next to someone in the right seat with what he believes is just a blip of experience. “It’s just not a good experience at all,’’ he says.

But, pilots say, there is a two-tier system operating in the skies. Skiles recently attended a National Business Aviation Association convention, a gathering of executives involved in an industry that flies corporate leaders on private aircraft.

The convention came as debate heated up over whether a law should be enacted requiring 1,500 hours’ experience before a pilot can get a license to work for an airline. “It was a non-issue,’’ Skiles said of talk at the convention over the pending federal legislation. “They said we’d not think of hiring someone without thousands of hours’ experience to fly our CEOs around.’’

“Airlines used to be the top of the heap. Now, it’s corporate aviation,’’ he said.

The problems with pilot training standards are many, and deep, according to dozens of pilots, crash investigators, safety experts, air traffic controllers, mechanics and flight instructors interviewed the past several months by the Buffalo News.

They run from the types of problems pilots do not get trained to handle -- such as icing, which many regional carriers taught their pilots to deal with by showing them a half-hour video – to an over-reliance on automation devices in today’s cockpits that are making some pilot skills rusty.

Will things improve?

Industry insiders say the time is finally here where pilot training is now a front-burner issue. They point to the crash of Flight 3407 as the impetus to get the Federal Aviation Administration and Congress to – maybe – raise the floor for pilot training standards to increase the odds that a pilot, as in the Clarence crash, does not have the exact opposite reaction to get out of an aerodynamic stall.

But one former crash investigator at the National Transportation Safety Board was not holding his breath. There have been other crashes, he said, that were supposed to serve as an impetus for change, but then were forgotten over time. The former investigator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, noted how the NTSB years ago called on the FAA to make recovery from unusual upsets – such as turbulence tossing a plane upside down in the sky like a toy – mandatory.

“It’s been a major disappointment to the NTSB,’’ he said of the lack of action on that issue. Instead, like many safety issues, the extent to which a procedure is given hands-on training can vary by the airline.

Safety experts criticize a culture that, unlike the military, encourages marginal pilots with so-so skills to get the various licenses along the way, including the Airline Transport Pilot certificate that allows them to be a pilot-in-charge – a captain – for a commercial airliner. They talk of tests that are so structured and so well-known in advance that they end up being like open-book exams.

“They should be looking at the whole training system, so pilots are not getting through by a wink and a nod,’’ the former crash investigator said.

Paul Onorato calls many regional airline pilots “neophytes building experience with peoples’ lives at stake.’’

“I don’t want somebody to say 'I haven’t seen icing' flying into Buffalo in the wintertime,’’ said Onorato, a pilot for a major airline and president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Association.

Gone are the days when the military served as initial proving grounds for future airline pilots, as was the case with Onorato, who was a Navy combat pilot during the first Gulf War. Gone are many other such on-the-job training avenues that give fledgling pilots a chance to build up skills -- without passengers in the back of their planes. Onorato noted, for instance, how many pilots got their skills working for banks ferrying canceled checks around the country. The drive to electronic banking may be a help for banks and consumers, but it has helped close yet another avenue for pilot training.

That leaves more and more young pilots going straight from flight school or a college program to the right seat of a regional airline. “It’s a big jump going from a Cessna to a regional jet,’’ Onorato said.

“It’s an apprenticeship program,’’ Onorato said of how the airline industry looks at the role of regional airlines and their pilots.

Walt Rouse recalls getting his instrument rating license having never flown in a cloud. Rouse, a retired aviation professor at a North Carolina college attended by Marvin Renslow, the Flight 3407 captain, was in the Air Force when he learned to fly in cloud-less Arizona. “I used to ask the instructors to let me fly through a cloud,’’ he recalled.

After a career in aviation, Rouse believes it’s about time pilots are given better training to deal with things like weather conditions and get far more time sitting in the right seat as first officers before being allowed to captain an airliner.

After all his hours flying, Rouse has only been on a regional airline plane once. Do they make him nervous? "I don’t know that I would be real hesitant to fly on a commuter plane, but I’d be watching the pilots,'' Rouse said.

--- Tom Precious

Like him or loathe him, Mohan was always accessible to the media


   Amherst  Supervisor Satish Mohan is one of those political figures for whom it is nearly impossible to have a neutral opinion, if you've ever met the man.

   As a reporter who covered Mohan for his last 2 1/2 years in office, I was neither for him nor against him (something that I had to go great lengths to explain to him on more than one occasion). However, I can say that as a source for my stories I will miss him.

   Mohan possessed some admirable qualities as a source. Short of any legal impediment, he gave me any information I asked for. His administrators spoke with me freely and never said, "I have to ask the boss if it's OK."

   His natural personality also ensured lively and open debate of public issues in council chambers. While some boards negotiate away dissent and disagreement behind closed doors, Mohan's seat on the Amherst Town Board kept meetings interesting.

   I wrote many stories about Mohan of which I know he disapproved, but he was never vindictive and didn't call my desk to complain. Only once, when The News did a midterm survey and evaluation of his tenure, did he make a big issue of my work.

   He answered my questions and never directed his secretaries to first find out why I was calling. This is an underrated quality that most of us in journalism wished more politicians possessed. Even when I asked questions that he thought were ridiculous, or would inevitably make him look quite bad, he was rarely evasive, and he never refused to answer. Neither would he avoid my calls the next day.

   I once told him I appreciated this responsiveness. He answered simply, "I have to. You represent the public."

   If only all politicians thought that way.

   With a new supervisor and new Town Board ready to be seated in January, I can only hope they will give government openness, accessibility and transparency the same level of commitment and respect.

--- Sandra Tan

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