NBC Washington redesigns again, manages to make site even worse

I don't know what the people at NBC are thinking, but they've released yet another design for NBCWashington.com. This must be the final version of the crap they have been "beta testing" for several months now. This is, again, part of a nationwide revamping of online presence of NBC affiliates.

It's god awful. I mean, terrible. Just look at this logo:

Now, I don't even know what the hell font that is, it sort of looks like someone spliced in logic puzzles from an IQ test. Which is next in the pattern? Exploded pie chart? And then the classy faux-handwriting that tells us something about how Washington feels. Really NBC? Are we bored with Kate heading to Rockville? At what point did the people who could even sort-of be called journalists bend over and take it from an NBC executive with a rolled up copy of US Weekly? By the way, NBC4, Kate isn't moving to Rockville. Never was. Snap, the Washington Post beat you to to scoop. If by scoop we mean passing along gossip. We're grasping for straws here.

IN ANY EVENT. I suppose I'm holding local news stations to an unfairly high standard. I just don't understand why these sites try so hard to be something they are not, while failing at they should be. NBC you are not Wonkette, even if you hire their writers. I'd bet you a good deal of money that DCist gets more hits than you. You are a news organization that likely hires a few people who have skill at writing and producing news. You have fancy equipment like trucks with microwave antennas so you can beam footage back to the studio. You can dispatch "reporters" all around the city to cover local news. You know, things that are newsworthy and that occur within the Washington, D.C. area.

Any blogger with a computer can write the drivel you post on your site and call news. I don't even have to leave my house or office and I can put together the same crap you do. You have resources. I don't. I don't have press passes and a salary that is paid with the idea that I'm covering the news. There are people who like to read the news. There are a lot of us out there who don't watch newscasts, but would love a nicely presented (objective!) summary of the news, perhaps in stories that are written with proper spelling and grammar. I bet if you put your top stories online, and not filled with commentary or jokes, a lot more people would read and link to your site.

I don't go to NBCWashington.com to read poorly written jokes. I generally go there looking for news because they have the ability to cover the news. Who decided to just give up and not care? And who the hell decided to ask the 12 people who view the site to vote on "how they feel" about a story. Here's the results from the story about NBC redesigning the site. Well, it wasn't a story, it was just a graphic.

Too many options! Hell, at least just copy the sites you are trying to mimic (e.g. Digg, reddit, etc) and give me a thumbs up/thumbs down. You are really asking me to sit and be all introspective about your crap attempts at the Internet?

Take this story for example, "DC Council Preps To Hike Taxes on Fun Things." Here's a screenshot:

Hosted by imgur.com

I don't even know where to start. I suppose I'll start with the fact that the article isn't even funny. Newell makes an attempt at humor, and tries to stand up for the common man or something, by explaining that poor people need cigarettes to get through the recession that was caused by Wall Street. Even if it was funny, however, I don't see how this belongs on a news site. It's poorly written, in a casual tone, and doesn't provide any reporting or information.

If you're going to be doing crap like this on the local affiliate sites, I'd urge NBC corporate to come up with a different logo. Get the peacock off of there. The average person likely makes an association between NBCWashington.com and NBC News (Washington Bureau).

Oh, but we can take solace in the fact that it's not just DC that's embarrassing itself. This is a shot from NBC Chicago:


DC continues to love itself stupid food trends

Yesterday, news broke that H Street NE is getting a pie shop. Oh no, you heard that correctly. It'll be located between the Rock and Roll Hotel and the mini-golf place. The pie shop will be an extension of the "Dangerously Delicious" brand that has two stores in Baltimore. The premise, as best as I can understand from their web site, is "local band decides to have a bake sale." But then the band breaks up.

Our city is currently under siege by a few different food trends. The cupcake epidemic shows no signs of yielding, and has been in full force for a while. The fro-yo and now gelato phase is also at full steam ahead. Of course, let us not forget wine bars, which outside of downtown will soon have a saturation level greater than Starbucks.

What does H Street get? A pie shop. Now, everyone loves pie, I'm not going to dispute that. Pie is great. I love me some Perkins and French Silk from Bakers Square is the shit. Yeah, chain restaurants that don't exist in the mid-Atlantic. But anyhow, after perusing the Yelp reviews for the location in Baltimore, this place sounds worse than cupcakes.

Looks like what you'll get is a slice of pie on a paper plate served with a plastic fork. The server will kindly microwave it for you. It'll cost about $6 for a small slice. A whole pie ranges $25-35. Hell, for $3.50 or whatever I can at least get a pretty looking cupcake. $6 for a crappy piece of pie? No way dude. I can get another glass of wine at the wine bar down the street for that price.

H Street is interesting in that it has all this bizarre stuff that likely couldn't survive anywhere else. It's an incubator for these things because of the (I assume) lower rents. I dig some of the places, but I mean what, now you can head over, get your tater tots and sushi at Sticky Rice, play a round of hipster mini golf, and then get a slice of pie? It's like someone on acid tried to recreate their memories of Atlantic Avenue in Virginia Beach.

It's still a pain in the ass for most people to get over there (come on, most yuppies won't ride the X2. Hell, I don't even like riding on the X2 and I ride the bus all the time), and virtually none of these establishments cater to the neighborhood. You really think there will be a lot of people from "Capitol Hill North" or Trinidad lining up for $35 rock and roll pies? You've got to be kidding me. Maybe right after they have some Belgian beer with their 'moules and frites' over at Granville Moore's.

I'll take a Perkins over more of this crap. Too bad the diner that was being installed over there is having so many problems.

Update: There's still no word on when Smash Mouth Skee-Ball will open in Mt. Pleasant


No hope for DC budget, $666 million black hole

In a boon for wonky bloggers such as myself, the City Paper's Mike DeBonis spent yesterday live-Tweeting the DC Council's budget meeting. The city faces a $666 million budget gap, and the Council seems damned and determined to close that gap without raising taxes. Sorta.

The District is in a bit of a jam as far as taxes go. We don't have the ability to levy a commuter tax, and if we raise our income or sales taxes, some people may move to Virginia or Maryland where taxes are lower. In fact, the whole "image" of DC being the land of high tax is the main reason why the Council seems to be looking to make up the $666 million mostly with service cuts.

All sorts of things are getting the ax, including the Council's earmarks. This one is mostly thanks to Marion Barry's complete lack of ethics. If you are a non-profit in DC that receives earmarks and actually does something, tough cookies. Thanks to Barry and his ghost non-profits, you'll be missing out on funds and you might have to close down. Hope you don't do anything important. Or provide a safety net for when DC has to cut social services as well.

What else can be done to fill a Nationals Stadium-sized budget gap? Well, the time machine they are working on to go back and not build the Nats stadium with public funds is first on the chopping block. Also, there's a potential decrease in MPD officers. The hiring freeze will likely continue, and officers who leave via attrition might not be replaced. Some on the Council feel we are over policed anyways. Let the Park Police pick up the slack. Except in Trinidad.

Fee increases for residential parking are on the table, especially for those who have 2 or 3 or more vehicles. $15 for the first car, $50 for the 2nd, and then $100 each for more. Jesus I hope if you own three or more cars, you aren't parking them all on the street. If you are, you're an asshole and you should move to a place where you can afford a damn garage.

Anyhow, there was also some sort of talk about taxes on strip clubs, a "pole" tax if you will. Can't tell how serious an idea that was, but it came from Kwame Brown. Also, we might be getting Sunday liquor sales.

The Council is also floating the idea of cutting millions from the schools. What are we going to do, stop buying textbooks all together? Oh wait, no, they will just cut maintenance. Not that schools are literally crumbling or anything like that.

In any event, most of the discussions from yesterday don't get very close to the magic $666 number. The discussions will continue today, but sadly there won't be any live Tweeting. The City Paper is doing some sort of "Sex in the City Paper" issue and DeBonis will be Tweeting about courthouse marriages. Whatever.

Let's help out the DC Council and figure out some ways to save money. How about some creative taxes and fees? What about service cuts, what would you want to see?

I've got one: how about you stop collecting garbage at midnight on Sundays. Those big orange city trucks driving around like assholes in the middle of the night, collecting a weekend-evening or overnight differential. God, what are you paying them, like $50 an hour to do that?

Another possibility, more corporate sponsorship. Let's just bite the bullet, and find someone to slap their name on the Nats Stadium. RFK as well. I'm sure we could get a few thousand to rename it to CricKet Wireless Stadium. On the subject of RFK, perhaps it could be retrofitted to permit rodent racing. We could also introduce OTB for said rodent races. And whatever happened to the talk about slot machines on the Waterfront? Let's revive that idea. Also, remember the proposed streetlight tax? Come on Fenty and the Council, lets see some of that old moxy. Maybe a "flinty" winter tax of some kind.

There's talk about a tax on theatre tickets (surprised there isn't one already), but let's do some targeted food tax. Obvious and cliche targets are Jumbo Slice, cupcakes, gelato and fro-yo. We can't levy a commuter tax, but what's the legalty of actual toll booths? How about the hotel tax, as well? Would that many people stay in Crystal City instead if we hiked the hotel tax?

What say you, readers?


Metro's history of failure: Part II

The Writing on the Wall

In June of 2005, three fully-loaded trains nearly collided under the Potomac River between the Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom-GWU stations. In that incident, the computerized control system failed to detect a stopped train along a segment of track. Operators of the two trains behind the stopped train had to engage the emergency "mushroom" brake to prevent a collision. The first train stopped a mere 35 feet from the back of the stationary train, and the second following train stopped with a mere 12 feet of space. The now-retired operator of the first following train, Larry Mitchell told the Washington Examiner, "I shudder to think of what might have happened, we were under the Potomac, three trains fully loaded. The casualty rate would have been enormous."

Metro officials blamed the 2005 near-miss on the failure of a communications cable between the Rossyn and Foggy Bottom stations. This failure caused a 1,000 foot stretch of track to go dark, or to stop reporting the location of trains. Metro has not commented on how this failure occurred without detection prior to a near-collision. Little technical information has been made public regarding this incident.

In any event, the 2005 problem revealed a critical flaw in the Automatic Train Control system. If the track sensors or communications lines failed, there was no backup. On a dark segment of track, a train operating in automatic mode would proceed at full speed into a parked train. The only line of defense would be an alert operator hitting an emergency brake with enough distance to stop.

When asked about the relevence of the 2005 incident to the 2009 Red Line crash, Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel refused to compare the two incidents, citing the on-going investigation. Taubenkibel also noted that Metro General Manager John Catoe did not work for Metro in 2005, and may have been unaware of the incident.

The NTSB has made public that the circuit at the site of the June 22, 2009 crash had been malfunctioning as long ago as 2007. From a July 24 article in the Washington Post:
Federal investigators found that the circuit began "fluttering," or intermittently malfunctioning, after Metro crews installed a device known as an impedance bond, also called a Wee-Z bond, at the circuit in December 2007, according to a safety board advisory issued Thursday. Metro has been installing new bonds across the 106-mile railroad as part of a project to boost power so the agency can run more eight-car trains, which consume more electricity than shorter trains. Each track circuit has two Wee-Z bonds.

The fluttering indicated a problem with the circuit, according to the data examined by the NTSB. After Metro crews replaced the second Wee-Z bond in the same circuit June 17, the circuit deteriorated to the most dangerous stage: It intermittently failed to detect the presence of a train. Five days later, a train idling in that circuit outside the Fort Totten Station was hit from behind by another train.
It is unclear who at Metro was aware of this problem prior to the accident. It is likely the NTSB report on the June 22 accident will focus on two specific areas, what caused the circuit to malfunction and why Metro failed to respond to that malfunction prior to the crash.

Slices of "Swiss Cheese"

If one reviews the NTSB accident reports from the 1996 crash at Shady Grove, and the 2004 crash at Woodley Park, a common thread emerges. While the immediate causes of the two crashes were different, the NTSB notes a growing concern about Metro's organizational structure.

The Metrorail system is a highly complex and tightly-coupled system. Trains operate in close proximity to one another, and there is little room for error. The safety of customers and employees relies on a computerized control system. In organizational management, there is safety model referred to as the "Swiss Cheese model." This posits that a complex system is made up of parts (slices of cheese) that can each have points of failure (holes). By having the proper arrangement of slices and a minimal number of holes, safety can be maintained in a complicated environment. Accidents occur when the holes in the slices align.

In a system such as Metrorail, the root cause of an accident can likely be traced back to both active and latent failures. If any one of these failures had been addressed prior to the incident, it is likely the crash could have been avoided. Where we go from here depends on what the active and latent failures were, and which can be prevented in the future.

Following the 1996 incident, at the recommendation of the NTSB, Metro made some organizational changes. These changes were made to improve the emphasis on safety. However, following the 2004 Woodley Park incident, the structure at Metro was changed yet again, removing the safety department's direct accecss to the General Manager. The NTSB had the following comments:
During the investigation of the January 6, 1996, accident at the Shady Grove station, the Safety Board identified employee concerns about WMATA’s organizational structure, specifically, a perceived lack of communication and a sense of information isolation. These concerns were addressed by a WMATA safety review committee, which recommended that WMATA change its organizational structure to have the safety department report directly to the general manager (GM). This recommendation was subsequently adopted and implemented, and WMATA’s safety department began reporting directly to the GM.

WMATA’s organizational structure was not an issue in the November 3, 2004, accident at the Woodley Park station. However, following the 2004 accident, WMATA restructured its organization again, reverting back to the safety department having a disconnected responsibility and accountability reporting chain. In effect, this restructuring maneuver rescinded the direct reporting link between the safety department and the GM that had been established as result of the Shady Grove accident. In a letter to WMATA, dated March 31, 2005, the Tri-State Oversight Committee expressed concern about the transit authority’s reorganization, which eliminated the safety department’s direct access to the GM. This postaccident reorganization could recreate the systemic information isolation that existed within WMATA prior to the Shady Grove accident, which in turn could inhibit serious safety problems from being identified or adequately addressed.
Furthermore, on July 14, 2009, Peter M. Rogoff, Administrator of the Federal Transit Administration testified before the House Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Postal Service, and the District of Columbia. In his testimony, he reiterated both the NTSB and the FTA's concerns about Metro's organization.
FTA has conducted several SSO program audits of TOC since Part 659 went into effect on January 1, 1997. The most recent audit was conducted in October 2007. Previous audits took place in 2000 and 2005. FTA also conducted a Safety Review in 1997. The 2007 audit was conducted as part of FTA’s three-year audit cycle for all 27 SSO agencies in the audit program. During this audit, while on-site at TOC and WMATA, FTA also reviewed the progress made by TOC and WMATA to address two findings that were still open from FTA’s 2005 SSO Program audit of TOC. In addition, FTA used this opportunity to assess WMATA’s response to Safety Recommendation R-06-4 from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which addressed the adequacy of WMATA’s organizational structure and its ability to effectively identify safety issues. Prior to the Woodley Park-Zoo accident, the WMATA Safety Department reported to the General Manager through a Deputy. Shortly after, WMATA changed its organization so that the Chief Safety Officer and head of System Safety and Risk Management (SSRM) was a direct report to the General Manager. NTSB correspondingly classified this recommendation as “Closed – Acceptable Action”.

However, in recent months, WMATA has re-organized the Chief Safety Officer position to report to the Chief Administrative Officer, who reports to the General Manager. FTA asked the TOC to follow up with WMATA. WMATA has assured the TOC that the organizational changes do not adversely affect safety and that the “visibility and importance of the safety department will not diminish”. FTA continues to view the NTSB recommendation as a sound safety model and the current structure at WMATA causes us concern.
In the case of the June 22 crash, there was a host of latent failures. A lack of dedicated funding for Metro has resulted in decades of financial problems. The District's lack of representation in Congress has likely been a contributing factor to this situation as well. The Metrorail system was designed with Automatic Train Control in mind, which drastically reduced the operator's role in maintaining safety. A rigid top-down organizational structure at Metro has consistently made it difficult to respond quickly to safety concerns in an complex and ever-changing environment. The list goes on. All of these factors contributed in part to the crash. The active failure, the malfunction of the circuit between Fort Totten and Takoma was merely the last slice of cheese.

In the next part of this series, I will address in more detail Metro's financial situation, and how this has impacted an emphasis on safety. I know this is intense material, and I'm not adding any snark to lighten it up. I will have some more humorous/creative posts later this week. For now, though, I want to present this in a serious manner. Thanks.


Metro's history of failure: Part I


This series of posts begins with a simple premise. Years of management failure at Metro have resulted in an unsafe system. The June 22, 2009 crash on the Red Line was but one consequence of a failed organization. Furthermore, unless fundamental changes are made within Metro, it is likely that more accidents will occur.

Pinning down all of the various causes is no easy task. Currently the NTSB is investigating the specific causes of the June 22 accident. A report will be issued in the future blaming the crash on a failed signaling system. Metro will likely spend a good amount of money developing a secondary train tracking system, and in some ways safety will improve. However, the bigger picture problems will remain. There will be future accidents. The cause will be different, but the reaction will be the same. It will have been a "freak occurrence" or something that no one could have prepared for. We will hear that regardless of the accident, the system is safe.

The system is not safe. It has not been safe for a long time, and without radical changes it will never be safe.

On July 6, 2009, the Washington Post published an editorial by Jim Hall, former director of the NTSB. He also went on the record in an interview with WTOP News. Hall believes that there is an indifference to passenger safety at Metro. "If you start with safety being job one," remarked Hall to WTOP, "then you figure the rest of it out. That's the message that's never gotten through to the local metropolitan transit system."

Hall identified a key problem at WMATA, the failure to maintain or encourage a culture of safety. The former head of the NTSB believes that WMATA prioritized cost savings and connivence over passenger safety. At the end of the day, Hall writes in the Post, "the agency probably viewed the chance of a severe accident as small enough to obviate the need for serious action."

Concerns Nothing New

Sound familiar? In 2005, former NTSB member Susan Coughlin discussed safety concerns with the Washington Post. Referring to the recent accident at Woodley Park, as well as a spat of derailments, she said "it's indicative of systematic oversight problems which, if left unaddressed, could produce a catastrophic accident"

The article in the Post, entitled "Safety Warnings Often Ignored at Metro" warned of an agency careening head-on towards disaster. The piece focused on several areas of safety concerns, including the lack of any meaningful oversight. Back in 2005, there were strong indications that safety concerns were being ignored. This was not just a matter of NTSB directives being ignored, this was a matter of safety questions by employees being ignored by managers and administrators. In one instance, this led to a derailment of a train at National Airport. There were no injuries, but over $100,000 worth of damage was done.

At the time, Metro General Manager Richard A. White said "what we have here is a head cold. We'll take our medicine and get better. But it's not like there's a body on the operating table hemorrhaging to death."

Rewinding even further, we go back to the 1996 accident at the Shady Grove station. During the Blizzard of 1996, a four car Red Line train overran the platform at Shady Grove and slammed into an unoccupied train. The operator of the train was killed. The immediate cause for the accident was identified as a failure of the computer braking system. The tracks were icy, and the computer system did not account for that when automatically applying the brakes. The failure, however, was much larger than simply a glitch with a computer.

In the NTSB's report, we read that WMATA had ignored the concerns of the train operator after his train overran the platform at Twinbrook. He was not permitted to operate his train in manual mode. Tracing it back even further, we see that Metro had ignored a growing trend of station overruns. Despite operator concerns, especially during inclement weather, WMATA still ordered operators to run in automatic mode.

In fact, back in 1996, the NTSB concluded that Metro "failed to fully understand the design features and limitations of the ATC system, which led to an unjustified management confidence that the system could ensure safe train operation under all operating conditions."

While Metro did learn that the ATC system was problematic in adverse weather conditions, it was never imagined that the system had multiple failure points. Just as Metro ignored station overruns and operator concerns before the 1996 crash, Metro had indications prior to the 2009 accident that there were problems with the signaling system.

To be continued. In the next part of the series, we will look at the signs Metro ignored prior to the June 22 crash, as well as the institutional factors behind this lack of focus on safety. In the third part, we will look harder at the ever-present budget problems that are the ever-present excuse for Metro's failings.


U Street residents realize they moved to U Street

It's a never ending saga in DC. People move to an "up and coming" neighborhood, looking to secure cheap rent or a cheap property before the boom arrives. At first they like to talk about how it's a neighborhood in transition and that they support local business and it's great how people are opening up new shops, restaurants and bars. A few years pass, and then people start griping about how it's too noisy. There are too many people coming to their neighborhood. It's too loud. It's too messy. Why won't someone do something because the tranquility of their quiet haven has been shattered.

Today we read of residents of U Street who are upset that things have gotten so noisy. That it's becoming a nightlife hotspot, and will soon be just like Adams Morgan. I'm sorry but anyone with a shred of common sense could have told you this was coming. If you moved to U Street in 2003, you didn't do so because it was a relaxing, quiet neighborhood. You did it because prices were reasonable, it was near a Metro, and the neighborhood was growing. Back in 2003, the 14th Street corridor as well as U Street were not yet yuppie destinations. In the early part of this decade, most people probably considered the area a bit 'rough.'

If you moved to new construction at 14th and V in 2003, you knew the building had street level retail space. You knew development was coming. The writing was on the wall. U Street has grown, and yes there are more people out at night. However, if you move a block from the corner of 14th and U and expect peace and quiet, you are an idiot.

I'm sure a majority of people in the neighborhood understand that there will be noise. Especially if you live on 14th Street or on U Street. But there's always that very, very vocal minority who love to hear their own whining. They want to live within walking distance of everything they could ever want, but they'd like all of that to disappear when they are sleeping.

I know for a fact, though, that if U street were hit hard by the recession and the shops and clubs shuttered, these people would be up in arms. They do not want a return to the U Street of the 1980s.

U Street is historically an entertainment corridor and that defines the area. It is not a quiet place to live. Building an 8 story condo or apartment complex in an entertainment area does not change that it's a commercial strip! It's not as if someone dropped a bunch of nightclubs and stores into the middle of a Chevy Chase neighborhood.

I hate to say it, but claiming you moved there in 2003 and that you have some claim to making the neighborhood quiet is laughable. Sure, there are existing noise regulations on the books. Should these be enforced? In a magical wonderworld where there wasn't a hiring freeze for MPD and ABRA had more investigators, then yes. In the real world where we live, things get noisy. Restaurants and bars get loud. The police and ABRA are too busy to constantly walk around with dB meters. If you move within a few blocks of a popular entertainment area you understand you have to deal with it. To demand otherwise is annoyingly stupid.

People living along H St NE, beware, one day that strip will be loud. It'll be safer and more popular and will have better transit, but it'll be loud. Your property values will likely go up as it becomes a destination, but there might be some noise and some trash. Just an FYI.


Putting together the pieces at Metro

I'm working on a very comprehensive series of pieces on the entire WMATA debacle. After digging around, I'm surprised any of us were shocked by last month's crash. I would imagine there were a lot of people at Metro who shook their heads and said "I told you so."

There is a serious problem at Metro. It's not simply due to budget constraints, and it's not simply due to John Catoe, either. It wasn't a broken sensor, and it wasn't old equipment. It's far more complicated, and the solution is far costlier and difficult.

Just as the Challenger wasn't simply brought down by an O-Ring, the June 22 crash wasn't simply due to a malfunction. Sure, there was a malfunction, but that alone should not have resulted in a fatal collision. Instead, one failure led to another, compounded by limitations of the system. Sprinkle in the aging cars and a lack of a backup system, and you have a recipe for catastrophe.

This is roughly the thesis of the piece I am working on. I've even got charts. This is important. Metro is a highly complex system, that demands very high reliability. As it stands now, it cannot provide this degree of reliability. For at least the past 10-15 years, there has been a lack of a 'culture of safety' within Metro. This is organizational, this is a failure from the top down. There are dozens of causes, but at the end of the day it's a failure of administration.

The WMATA board needs to take a long, hard, look at what's going on inside Metro. John Catoe as well as his top-level administrators need to go. A new crop of administrators, those who understand concepts such as "fail safe" and "culture of safety" need to be brought in. The attitudes of everyone who works at Metro need to be changed, and it has to happen now.

I'll likely not be writing about Metro for the next few days while I research this, so all of you who are sick of hearing about it will get a break for a bit. I'll put together something funny for you soon.


Failure plagues Metro: Safety problems detected on Red, Orange, Blue and Green Lines

Breaking: Safety Circuits Fail on 4 out of 5 Metro Lines
Failures across railroad, trains have 'disappeared' since the fatal June 22 crash

The Washington Post has a doozy of a story, noting that safety circuits have failed on nearly all of the Metro lines in the period since last month's fatal crash.

System-wide secret 'one at a time' operation. In addition to spacing out and slowing down trains between Fort Totten and Takoma on the Red Line, trains have been forced to run one at at time and at 15 mph through areas near Greenbelt, Medical Center, Foggy Bottom and Courthouse.
In addition to the continuing failure of a track circuit at the accident site between the Takoma and Fort Totten stations, the agency found "anomalies" in six other track circuits, Metro rail chief Dave Kubicek said. In some instances, workers troubleshooting the problematic circuits have taken the unusual step of turning off those where problems could not be immediately fixed. Officials are closely monitoring circuits between Grosvenor and Medical Center on the Red Line and at Foggy Bottom on the Orange/Blue Line, Greenbelt on the Green Line and Court House on the Orange Line. The Greenbelt circuit was put back into service early Tuesday and the circuit at Court House was disabled Monday, officials said.
It gets even better:
When crews disable track circuits, they create "dark" stretches. That means trains have to proceed one at a time through the affected section of track at a maximum speed of 15 mph, which is creating delays. It also means that controllers in Metro's downtown operations center can't "see" the train as it moves through the affected area and that the safe operation of the train is entirely in the hands of the operator. Track circuits range in length from 400 to 500 feet up to about 1,000 feet, with shorter circuits closer to the stations.

A disabled track circuit would also not be able to detect a broken or cracked rail, which can cause a train to derail.

Some of the circuits were shut down last week after the agency intensified reviews of recorded track circuit data, conducting them after each rush period. It is unclear how long they will be disabled, Kubicek said.

In addition, The Post obtained internal agency documents that show at least six other non-functioning track circuits, including ones near stations at Clarendon, Farragut North, Metro Center and the Green Line platform at Fort Totten, which was not involved in the crash. Kubicek said that it was possible the additional problems were found as part of regularly scheduled maintenance and that he would look into them.
Despite this, Metro rail chief Dave Kubicek insists that the system is safe.

So what do we know? Well, we know a few things. One is that the system is failing across the board. I think we've had this feeling for a while, that it was likely a systemic failure. Now we have proof.

Second, John Catoe as recently as last week that all of the system's track circuits had been inspected and no problems were found outside of the stretch between Fort Totten and Takoma. According to the documents obtained by the Post, these additional circuit failures have had been found at least since July 11.

The system is completely broken, and Catoe openly lied. Additionally, if these problems have been detected on virtually every line, it is likely these failures were occurring long before the June 22 crash.

On that note, we also learn there has been no investigation into whether or not these circuits were failing prior to the crash. Whether or not that will happen remains to be seen.

Metro is in a difficult position, I realize, but they continue to butt heads with the NTSB and this whole thing is a complete circus. I continue to stand behind my call for Catoe's resignation, and at this point the WMATA Board should consider firing him. As recently as last week, WMATA launched a PR campaign explaining how they were feeling slighted by the NTSB for not being given a 'heads-up' before safety directives were announced.

Surprised? Maybe the NTSB caught wind of this nasty habit for WMATA to suppress information.

I maintain that the system was failing long before the June 22 crash. It began as a hunch, related to the earlier incident on the Blue/Orange Line, where coincidentally now a failure has been found in the track circuit. The system continues to fail. Metro has no idea what is causing it to fail. As recently as last week they admitted they had no idea what was causing it to fail.

They have a massive safety failure across the board and they don't know why. They also don't have a backup system. They have taken what's possibly just a 'theatre' solution of putting the Series 1000 cars in the middle of the train. They have no solution other than to complain about the NTSB and lie to the public.

And in case the Metro union is listening, we will be watching operators. Since, you know, our lives are double-for-sure in your hands as we barrel through dark twisting tunnels and there could be a train stopped 'directly ahead of us' that you don't know about.

So John Catoe and Metro, again, the same questions NO one can answer:
  • What were the conclusions of the investigation into the 2005 incident near Foggy Bottom?
  • What recommendations were made to avoid such an incident from repeating in the future?
  • Was there any evidence prior to June 22 that there were problems with the safety circuits?
  • Whose responsibility was it to monitor safety circuits? What was the inspection procedure?
  • How many failures have occurred since June 22?
  • Who was consulted in the decision to "belly" the Series 1000 cars? Does it actually improve safety?
It should be noted, that as a response, in a very poorly written "Real Deal," WMATA accuses the Washington Post of making "false claims" and using "gross exaggeration." And we all believe that, because of course, the WMATA PR office is going to be more truthful than the Washington Post. Clearly there are no ulterior motives there.

UPDATE: The Examiner has some information on the 2005 incident.
Metro's crash-alert system failed four years ago just as it did last month when nine people were killed and more than 70 were injured.
But in that case, the two train operators were able to stop their trains -- just barely -- to avoid crashing into a third stopped train. Recently retired train operator Larry P. Mitchell told The Examiner his train stopped on that June 2005 evening just 35 feet short of the standing train. A train behind him came to a stop just 12 feet before impact.
"I shudder to think of what might have happened," Mitchell said. "We were under the Potomac, three trains fully loaded. The casualty rate would have been enormous."
The Examiner also mentions that Metro blamed the 2005 near-miss on a failed communications cable that caused a 1,000 foot stretch of track to 'go dark.' Whether it was a failed cable or a failed sensor or a failed system, the 2005 incident should have at least demonstrated that there was a problem. It at least made it clear that there was no backup if the sensor system failed.

UPDATE X2: I'll be writing a more comprehensive analysis of all of this later in the week. It appears there has been a staggering failure at Metro to maintain any sort of culture of safety. It's difficult to identify the origins of this failure, but it likely leads back to many things, including funding problems. Whatever the cause, however, the end result is a system that is likely unsafe and an organizational structure that is resistant to change. Simply slapping a band-aid onto this problem does not get at the root of it, and will not prevent another accident from happening. This was failure at the most basic definition of the word. This was not simply the failure of a track circuit. This was across the board a failure of leadership, planning and imagination.

Sick of adult kickball? Move on to adult Wiffle ball

A few months back, The Onion took on Adult Kickball with their "Bar Owner Cannot Fucking Believe He Actually Sponsored an Adult Kickball Team" piece. It was great. The piece took swipes at both the young preps and hipsters who play kickball and the stubborn old bar owners who would rather go out of business than serve the aforementioned groups of people. Smart writing.

I'm not going to get too bogged down on adult kickball. Honestly I don't really understand it. Kickball was a game I played as a kid, because my elementary school didn't provide anything other than a rubber ball. If we had access to a bat and a softball or baseball we would have not been playing kickball. I'm not sure why grown adults, who can purchase things such as bats, mitts, and balls, wouldn't rather play softball.

I guess I'll just go ahead and blame Dick Cheney and Monsanto, thanks to this hilarious chart that's been floating around the Internet for a while:

Photo courtesy dieyuppiekickball.com

Deep down, though, I get it. Young people move to DC and they have no friends and they don't want to drink at the bar alone. So, they join a 'league' that involves playing a sport most people gave up around age 8, simply so they can then go to the bar (wearing matching t-shirts, no less) and drink. It's a continuation of college, except you wear your NAKID or WAKA shirts rather than "UNC-Chapel Hill" or "NYU."

So what's an even lamer children's game that has been co-opted by adults? Wiffle Ball. Yes. Maybe I'm late to the game and everyone already knows, but there are adult Wiffle Ball leagues. Including one right here in the DC area.

How did I learn about this? Thanks to the awesome reporting by the Washington Post, of course. They are doing a series on the "games played by Washington residents that define our area." And what do they pick for this series? First off they did boxing. Hey, that's a legit sport and I enjoyed reading about boxing in DC. Next they did speed skating. Kind of unique, it was interesting that such a thing exists in DC.

Now, it's on to adult Wiffle Ball. Competitive adult Wiffle Ball, complete with comprehensive statistics available online. From the piece:
People are surprised to discover there is such a thing as a Wiffle ball league in Northwest Washington, especially one that keeps score of games and tracks official statistics. This is, after all, a child's game played with plastic bats and balls. And yet the Potomac Wiffleball League is conducted with great formality over two seasons a year, with eight teams, of three to five players each, with names like Scared Hitless, Wackazoids and Ragano's aptly titled Clubber Lang. They do this on two pockmarked fields at Fort Reno Park, on grass that is freshly trimmed and base paths lined with white paint. Games are videotaped by a pair of camcorders set up on tripods behind home plate. And when the games are finished, there are player of the week awards, as well as MVP, Cy Young and rookie of the year trophies to be given away -- at, of all things, a season-ending awards banquet.

It is, in the words of its commissioner, Chris Gallaway, "as professional as I can make it."
We've got a bunch of defense contractors in their mid-30's playing with Wiffle Balls in the park. "Slow pitch" Wiffle ball, to be exact. (Is it even possible to throw a Wiffle ball at any speed other than slow?) But oh no, they don't just do this for fun or exercise, they go all out. They videotape it, they run statistics on it, they even have a "World Series." All over Wiffle ball.

The star of this nearly 2,400 word 'human interest' story is 33 year-old Tony Ragano who is pictured smoking while "pitching." He likes to refer to Wiffle ball as "war," and he takes it very seriously. He is the self-proclaimed best Wiffle Ball player in the world. He loves to track his stats, and obsesses over his ERA (which would be impressive, especially if he was a professional baseball player, which (as of press time) he was not).

That's DC in a nutshell in a lot of ways. We're obsessed with keeping track of ourselves, and seeing how we measure up to each other. Even when it's a children's game played by grown men, we've gotta see how we stack up. If there's a dispute, it's all on videotape. We take our Wiffle balls way more seriously than most anything else in our lives.

At the end of the day, I don't mind the kickball people because most of them openly admit they are doing it to either get drunk or hook-up. What I don't understand is why people would fixate on Wiffle ball. It doesn't even use a real ball. It's got holes in it.

I don't know, this just bothers me. The Post dedicated 2,400 words to covering a sport that's one step up from T-Ball. And that this was selected as a sport that defines our region. Jesus, at this rate I'd have preferred a feature piece about kickball. Or maybe a follow-up on how that whole Olympic Curling team thing is working out.


Violent crime drop puzzles everyone, except MPD

Department of Precrime, sponsored by Bang & Olufsen

Experts across the country are perplexed at a significant drop in violent crime this year. Most major cities in the U.S. are experiencing decreases in crime that cannot be easily explained. In the D.C. and Prince George's County, homicides are down 17% according to the Washington Post.

Reading the Post's analysis of the drop in crime gives some interesting insight into MPD's PR office and D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier. While this decrease in crime has puzzled experts, she is quick to take the credit. Now, of course less crime is always good news for the police. Just like putting drugs and guns on the table, showing off a decrease in crime is great publicity for the chief and management.

The city is "on track" to have the fewest killings since 1964 (holy shit!). However, we should all keep in mind that there are another 5 months left in the year, and a dip in violent crime in 2009 does not make a trend. If you ask MPD and Cathy Lanier, however, you'd get a different story.

You'll hear about how the game has completely changed, that DC police have turned things around. Lanier cites all sorts of things ranging from better information sharing to less internal conflicts between divisions, and more community outreach. Also, she mentions, that policing has become very high tech, and that officers are able to attack crime before it happens. This is accomplished by a weekly report of where Go Go shows will be, as well as intelligence gathering into gangs. And, a super-double secret implementation of the Department of Precrime. Sadly due to budget cuts, though, the predictions are only about as good as random chance.

Perhaps some of these measures have helped, and I'm sure we'll soon see touting of the All Hands on Deck as another reason why crime has dropped, despite protests by officers and detectives. There's a whole lot of internal strife going on at MPD right now, and just last week the department revoked the union chief's police powers. This is a great opportunity to get back "on message" and talk about how great things are. In fact, I'd say there's so much discord in MPD right now that anything Lanier says should be taken with a truck load of salt. If crime remains down this year, I will credit it to two things: random chance and the work by officers and detectives. Management has been dropping the ball left and right.

We'll see what 2009 holds as far as raw numbers for violent crime. I'll bet that at the end of the year violent crime will likely be down, and property crime will be up. But even if 2009 is an outlier and there are less murders this year, if I've learned anything from armchair statistical analysis--you can't make a claim that the game has changed.

When 2010 turns out to be not as great as 2009, what do you do then? Do you ask for even more All Hands weekends? Do you claim that you were actually wrong and most of your 'improvements' were for naught? Call me crazy but somehow I don't believe that we've had a fundamental shift in the nature of policing and crime in the District. I'd absolutely love it and be happy if violent crime remains down in 2009, but will anyone follow up with Lanier at the end of the year if it's not?


A Capital improvement project

I'm going to take a step back and take a break from Marion Barry and Metro. I want to take a few moments to zoom out and look at the bigger picture here.

Someone once asked me if I thought apathy plagued DC residents, and if that was why no one expected anything better than what we have. I answered yes, saying that's true for a lot of people. It's true because many who move here make no long-term commitment to the city. On the flip-side most people who have been in this city for a long time have seen this city go through very hard times. They have lived through generations of either neglect or disinterest from the Federal government followed by the incompetence and corruption of their own elected officials.

There's a small sliver of people who genuinely hope for better, and an even smaller percentage of people who see the problems facing this city and region and dedicate themselves to fixing it. However, there are so many obstacles that it's not entirely surprising that not much is accomplished, and that many things stay the same. Improvements have been made, make no mistake, but not at a rate befitting of the capital of the United States.

No city is perfect, and many have bigger problems than DC. However, that's still not an excuse for the many ways this city is failing to live up to its potential. We are the capital city of the United States of America, and while some may argue to the contrary, we are a pretty advanced and dare I say inspiring nation. Is there any good reason why our capital city should not be an example of everything the United States hopes to be?

I mean, imagine if President Obama decided to make improving the capital city (not just the federal area) a high priority. Imagine if he organized a group within the White House to work with Congress and the District of Columbia government to create a plan to improve all aspects of the District, in order to fulfill the potential that lies within. Imagine if with Michelle Obama, Adrian Fenty, the Eleanor Norton Holmes, and other local and federal officials, the President gave a speech like this outside the Reeves Center:
It is with honor and humility that I stand here at a landmark both to the struggles this city has endured and the potential that has yet to be realized. Forty-one years ago, fires burned up and down these streets in the aftermath of deadly riots. It is said that time heals all wounds, yet almost forty years later our nation's capital still suffers.
As President of the United States, it is both an obligation and a privilege to live in the city of Washington. However, any President would be lying to you if he told you he understands the city of Washington. The President does not have to worry whether or not his children will be tempted to join a gang, or deal drugs. The President does not have to worry about himself or his family getting robbed on his way home from work. The President does not have to worry if his children will have textbooks at their school, or even have a school that is not crumbling to the ground.
It is unacceptable that the President of the United States can live in the nation's capital and not make these concerns his own. It is time that the city of Washington fulfill its potential to truly be a city on a hill. To serve as a shining example of what a great city can be. To inspire the nation, and the world. The United States of America deserves a world class capital city.
This is no easy task. This is not a simple matter of patching potholes and putting up flags. This starts from the ground up. This is a time for innovation. This is a time for imagination. The problems facing this city have been institutionalized for decades and change will not come overnight. But I know that it is possible.
I stand here, where forty-one years ago little more than ash and rubble remained. The citizens of this city, despite the challenges, rebuilt. This is now a vibrant and diverse neighborhood filled with locally owned businesses. This change did not come overnight. In fact, some would say it took too long. For years, people who want to make a difference have not had a government that worked for them. For too long they have had a government that has worked against them.
To this extent, I am calling upon the Congress, the Government of the District of Columbia, and the appropriate federal agencies to dedicate themselves to making real change. For as long as I am President this will be a priority. There is much work to be done. Across the nation there is a shift towards sustainable communities and livable cities. Local leaders across this land are looking for an example. We will give them one.
Our nation's capital should be a beacon of hope. There is no reason this city should not have the best schools in the country. There is no reason this city should not have the best public transportation in the country. For too long people have accepted things they way are. It's time for people to dream of how they could be. One cannot look forward if they live consumed by the problems of yesterday.
Under the Constitution of the United States of America, this city remains a federal district. In the future that may change, but for as long as that remains true the citizens of the District of Columbia should be given the full support of the government of the United States of America. It's time that the government dedicate itself to giving the people of Washington, and the people of the United States the capital city they deserve.
But I'm a dreamer. The federal government and Congress likes exploiting our city for political gain (e.g. abortion, school vouchers, guns, voting, etc.), but doesn't meet the implicit obligation it has to our well-being in the Constitution.

It seems unlikely the federal government will ever take an interest in making this city a truly world class city. Perhaps they believe it's too tall a task, or they don't care. Perhaps they aren't interested in having a completely vibrant and thriving city surround the L'Enfant City. Maybe they don't have the time or energy to invest in such a daunting project. Maybe it's too hard to sell to their constituents. Whatever the reasoning, it's a sad situation.

So long as both the local and federal governments fail the people so miserably, I find it hard to hold out hope for change from the bottom up. People get too discouraged, and many fail to make any sort of meaningful commitment to their city or their fellow citizens. It doesn't have to be that way.


Friday Quick Hits: Metro (again), toys for guns, reader feedback

So it's Friday, a traditionally slow day in Blogland. There's a few interesting stories out there, mostly stating the obvious. In obligatory WMATA news, we get some details on the 'backup' system that was developed by BART and could be used here.

From the WaPo:
[Electrical engineer Rob] Tolmei's patent, which is not in use commercially, would check the rear-car receiver of one train to see what the speed code is right behind the train. Any speed code that is not zero would be an alert to a problem, he said. Tolmei said he wrote Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. a letter before the NTSB issued its recommendation but has not been contacted. Tolmei is the former manager of research and development at the San Francisco BART system and worked there when it installed a backup in the mid-1970s to address intermittent failure of track circuits.

"This is a simple solution that is not likely to cost very much and meets every one of the [NTSB] requirements," he said.
Sounds good to me. But I don't know, I think that might be too simple. And too cheap. GM John Catoe also mentions he's been getting a lot of email from people saying they have solutions to Metro's problem. He's been inundated, in fact. I also hear he has a foolproof plan to get more money from WMATA... he just needs to assist some friendly Nigerians (who heard about our tragic Red Line crash) with completing a wire transfer.

Also from the news today, not many people are taking up arms in DC. Legally at least. In fact, only 515 guns have been registered in the District since the Heller decision. Contrast that with the more than 2,000 illegal guns seized by police in the same period of time. The Washington Times also reports that none of the legally registered guns have been used (fired) or stolen.

Since the 'gun boom' really hasn't happened (and have those gun stores opened yet?), I think we should speed things up. How about mandatory conceal and carry? If everyone on the street was packing, wouldn't you think twice about mugging someone? Or randomly assaulting them? Or doing anything even moderately illegal? I kid, I kid, sort of. But a 'gun giveaway' from the seized weapons pool has a nice ring to it.

Anyhow, the commentariat around here has been quiet, likely due to the continuing 'registration' requirement for comments. I'll go on record as saying that probably should have been done a long time ago.

In any event, for those reading blogs on this lovely Friday, I've got a question for you. What is one thing you would change about DC that would make your life easier or better?


Metro operators union demands respect from public

Last week, Jackie Jeter, the head of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 told Metro riders we should calm down and remember that "at least you're alive."

Now, she swings for the fences as she demands respect for train and bus operators. Jeter is upset that train and bus operators are now under the microscope from riders.
"Being watched 24/7 is a problem. I don't think any of us would like that. And I ask (riders) to respect the operators and the jobs that they do."
First off, joke's on you Jeter, train operators certainly aren't being watched 24/7. You know, how the system is closed at night and all of that? Yeah. But I'll give you a point, people are now paying more attention to the person who is driving a vehicle filled with lots of people.

Trains are being run on manual mode, on a system that has problems. Operators have to be vigilant. There are no signals in the tunnels, drivers have to keep their eyes peeled for a stopped train. It's absolutely imperative that they pay attention. Reporting operators who are sleeping or not paying attention has nothing to do with respect. A train operator has absolutely no expectation of privacy in that booth. And after all, listen to the damn announcements, "remember, safety is everyone's responsibility."

And really, I mean, let's look back at an incident in 2006 where an operator who wasn't paying attention struck and killed two track workers on the Yellow Line. Maybe those workers killed were from a different union. Of course it's likely a minority of operators who 'zone out' at the controls, but it happens. The lives of many are in the hands of these people. There's no 'co-pilot' on a train or bus to provide a 'backup system.' Perhaps Metro should add a dead man's switch to their trains.

I understand that when most operators began driving trains, they were expecting a system that was nearly 100% automated. I'm absolutely sure the job has gotten 200%+ more stressful in the last three weeks. It's going to remain that way. It's also more stressful to drive the train than it is for us to ride on it. I get that. But understand this: your life as well as ours depends on your ability to operate that train. You are a professional who is expected to do a job and do it correctly. When you accepted the job of Metrorail Operator you accept those responsibilities. If you don't like it, you can quit.

In somewhat-related Metro news, there's controversy over recent changes to the bus management system. Employees and managers are complaining that a recent restructuring has resulted in managers having less time to respond to problems in the field.

Managers say paperwork has made it harder to respond to customers. On Tuesday, a bus operator was assaulted in Northeast Washington, and a supervisor responsible for Southeast was sent to handle the incident, said the supervisor who did not want to be identified. When an accident happened in Southeast, a supervisor was pulled from downtown, he said. As a result, no one was available to follow up on a rider complaint about smelling alcohol on a bus driver's breath on the 96 line, the source said.
The wheels are coming off the bus, and the train. Unless something changes soon, Metro is in for a hell of a time this fall. And the transit union is alienating customers with this horrible public relations campaign. Ms. Jeter, you'd likely be more successful in advocating for your cause by simplying bashing management. Stop bringing the customers into this. All you need to do is say this: "The system is broken. Metro needs more money, more managerial accountability, and more oversight. Our operators and staff are doing all they can, but they can't do it alone."

How hard was that?

What recession? 14th Street to become 'wine and furniture' district

14th Street, which as recently as the early zero's a "seedy area," is in full renaissance blossom. From P Street up now to around V Street, you've got a bustling commercial strip. This is, no doubt, a good thing. With the addition of the new Circulator route, the Logan Circle area is even more accessible to the masses.

However, I'm very close to naming 14th Street DC's new "trend district."

In the span of a little over a year, the area from 14th & P up to V Street has seen massive growth. Cork opened. Policy opened. Bang and Olfsen opened. Has anyone in the universe actually bought anything from Bang and Olfsen? It's like adding three extra zeroes to everything in a SkyMall Catalog. $900 telephone? Sure, why not? I feel for them though, their only customer just started serving a 150-year sentence in federal prison. Also in recent memory, we saw Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams move in. Eatonville opened across from Busboys and Poets. Marvin and the Gibson threw their hat in the rings as well.

But what's next? Well, Cork is opening a wine and cheese market next door to the Black Cat. Also opening on that strip near Bar Pilar and St. Ex will be some other sort of fusion tapas small plates designer cocktails possible DJ nights spot. But don't forget, it's mere steps away from the site of multiple homicides in the last year.

And what's that? In addition to Vastu, Muleh, and that other furniture store that's been there for decades (by the outdated post office), we might be getting a Crate and Barrel "CB2." This is, of course, also in addition to Room and Board.

Oh and if you were upset that you only have the wine bar at Cork, and the wine bar at Posto, there will be another wine bar at 14th and Church (stone's throw from Posto) called "Cork and Fork." Yeah, that's right, Cork will have their wine bar and a market, and then a completely different company will have a place called Cork and Fork just blocks from Cork.

Are we confused yet?

Don't worry, if you are still worried there aren't enough bars on 14th, just wait for Local 14, the latest iteration of Local 16. Also keep your eyes peeled for Local 11, you guessed it, on 11th Street. Maybe they can compete with "Stab You Next Tuesday," now featured at Wonderland Ballroom at 11th and Kenyon.

Oh, and if that's still not enough wine bars, lookout for Dickson Wine Bar over near Nellie's and DC9 at 9th and U.

I'm not questioning that economic development is a Good Thing(TM) for Logan Circle. However, I am left wondering how many of the SAME EXACT THING the area can sustain. We've got about 15 furniture stores, most of which are going to sell things in the obscenely expensive price range. $500 for a kitchen chair? Sold. It's like that bizarre furniture store in Ballston Mall that wants $5k for a crappy diner booth style kitchen table. No one ever shops in that store, it doesn't even have a real sign, but it's been there for years. Something isn't right. Like those stores that just sell knives. Creepy.

And what else? Well, we're packing all sorts of things into an area full of people who whine about said things, and an ANC area that's filled with people who love drama. Sprinkle in a little bit of the "14th Street Arts Overlay District" and you've got a situation ripe for dissent. We might have outright protests. And if not protests, at least more roving gangs of youths robbing and beating store owners.

In fact, it's amusing to even have something called the 14th Street Arts District. You've got Studio Theatre. That's about it. Source installed itself up by Manny and Olga's, but that's it. Nothing in between, unless you count the ANC drama and the crime in the public housing as "theatre." Studio prides itself on owning the redevelopment of 14th, but I don't recall them being experts in expensive furniture. (Save me the speech on the history of 14th Street. Tell me what you've done recently.)

It's now the 14th Street Wine and Furniture District. In fact, moving forward, there should be non-binding regulation that no more than 25% of storefronts be anything other than wine bars or furniture stores. We'll allow home good stores as well, so Home Rule, Go Mama Go, Garden District, and Logan Hardware are OK for now. Pitango Gelato and the ACKC Chocolate Bar can stay, those are very trendy. Bookstores and coffeeshops are non-starters (e.g. vaporware coffeeshop above Miss Pixie's). Moderately priced eating establishments are also relics of a time when businesses catered to 'the other half.'

How will 14th Street fair in 5 years, if wine bars and obscenely expensive furniture are no longer trendy? What if the naysayers are right and the big O can't stimulate the economy enough, and even Jon Faverau won't be able to write himself out of a bagging job at the Soviet Safeway?


Why doesn't Metro install standard railroad signals?

The NTSB is recommending that Metro install a "real time backup" system to ensure safety. My question is, why doesn't Metro install typical visual railroad signals to provide this backup? Why were signals not installed in the first place to serve this purpose? For potential nitpickers, Metro does not have signals. The "signals" you see at stations exist for switches. They are not to indicate if the section of track ahead is clear.

Metro is consulting with software companies and engineering firms to design some sort of (likely) complicated computerized backup for the computer system that failed in the first place. I understand there could be some complications due to the reduced train headways during rush hour, but surely this is not an impossible task. Signal technology has been around just about as long as railroads have been around. There's plenty of "off the shelf" solutions that would at least let operators know if the track ahead of them is clear. Make them foolproof and ensure they are tested regularly. Instruct operators to stop the train if they pass through a red signal.

Recently I saw the original Taking of Pelham 1,2,3. This, a movie made more than three decades ago, featured a New York City Subway system that didn't allow trains to pass a red signal.

Why re-invent the wheel? I'm sorry your 1970's era experiment at automated train operation failed, but why not spend a little bit of money to outfit the railroad with proven technology. Railway signals don't need to be invented, they already exist.

So, Internet-land, tell me why this wouldn't work. Tell me why it's a good idea to not have a secondary signaling system with VISUAL signals to tell operators if the track is clear.


DC Council passes new street vending regulations

So I came across this story over at WJLA's web site, with the headline "D.C. Street Vendors Protest Planned Regulations." I see the word "protest" and "regulations" and think there might be something interesting here. There probably is, but you'd have absolutely no idea what the actual story is based on the text of the article. We've got another example of a news article that tells us absolutely nothing useful. The piece starts off with:

WASHINGTON - The D.C. Council passed legislation Tuesday to more closely regulate D.C. street vendors, dozens of whom gathered outside the Wilson building to protest the bill.
"If you come up there -- everybody knows me," said Gibril Mansaray, a vendor who has sold hot dogs and ice cream outside Howard University for decades.

He worries the new rules will deny him his long-held and coveted spot.
So what exactly does it mean to "more closely regulate" street vendors? Well, you won't know by reading the article. And if you turn to Google, you won't find much more information either. I know, maybe try the DC Council's web site? Good luck with that one.

From what I can piece together, looking through the sordid history of street vending regulations, is a story something like this:

Until 1998, street vending was operated with very little oversight and vendors worked on a first-come, first-serve, "I've got dibs" system. This had problems, as there were no regulations (and also no revenue from tax or license fees). In 1998 the Council passed legislation that directed the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) and the District Department of Transportation to coordinate in the creation of licensing for vendors. There was also a moratorium implemented on new vendors.

In 2006, the moratorium was lifted, and DCRA and DDOT were put in charge of regulating via temporary/emergency legislation. After the 1998 "crackdown," DC has been vastly underserved by street vending. All sorts of very strict regulations existed that required carts to be a certain size (limited options to mostly just hot dogs) and that they must be parked parallel to the sidewalk, be at least 300 feet from any churches, so on and so forth.

This Washington Post piece from 2008 lays out the problems facing anyone who tries to "innovate" in street vending:
The problem was that in January 2007, when the city started issuing new licenses to the 600 operators hoping to snag one, the old regulations for street carts were still in place. It wasn't supposed to be that way, Williams says. The agency had hoped to finish its study, present its findings to the council, and get all the necessary approvals and regulations in place before issuing new licenses. But the council was impatient to jump-start the city's moribund street scene, which had dwindled to an estimated 600 licensed vendors from the thousands who lined the streets in the 1990s.

The council's decision to lift the moratorium did give Washingtonians some new flavors on the sidewalks, including Korean barbecue at the Little Yellow Cart at 14th and L streets NW and Delle & Campbell's Middle Eastern bites at their original spot at 14th and G streets NW. But it also left vendors -- at least those outside the demonstration zone -- to contend with the city's antiquated regulations.

Vendors still must store their carts in a depot overnight and conform to all the fussy sidewalk regulations. And they still have to design their carts to be no more than seven feet long and 4 1/2 feet wide. "You can only do hot dogs with that [size] unless you're very innovative," says Gabe Klein, co-founder of On the Fly.
So why did I include this huge block of text? So you'd be sure to see that last quote. Gabe Klein, the co-founder of On the Fly, is now the Director of DDOT.

The temporary legislation which has been floating around for years now gives DDOT and DCRA the power to create the regulations regarding the size, design and location of street vending carts. The "Vending Regulation Act of 2009" which was passed by the DC Council would make this power permanent. (Note, because the DC Council's web site is terrible, I am unable to link to the text of the Act. However, that link provides a summary.)

Who would like to bet that Klein is going to relax the regulations, hopefully opening up street vending to all sorts of new designs and options? I'd imagine that's a pretty safe bet.

And who would be threatened by the prospect of a wave of new and innovative street vending? The existing street vendors. Who staged a protest. Finally, it all makes sense.

But you wouldn't have known that from reading the WJLA article. Or even from a quick Google search. Of course, it's not even as simple as this (long) blog post makes it out to be, but TV/Internet news can't really be bothered to do any analysis. It took me maybe a half hour to dig up and piece together what I have so far on this story.

Here's how I imagine the "writing" process at ABC7: a news crew gets video footage of protest. They collect quotes from protestors and get a reaction quote from some Councilmembers. They write up a story about the protest. Perhaps they do an Internet search for vending regulations, but come up with little. So they run the story without really explaining what it is about.

So again, way to go "Internet" division of ABC 7. Kudos, however, for at least covering the story.


NTSB issues safety advisory, WMATA admits sensors still broken

The National Transportation Safety Board issued an "urgent safety recommendation" Monday, calling for redundancy in Metro's safety and control system. The NTSB believes that WMATA's current safety system is inadequate, as it's possible for trains to 'disappear' from the monitoring system. It should be noted that the NTSB continues to investigate the June crash that killed nine people.

"While the NTSB is still in the very early stages of its investigation into this tragic accident here in our nation's capital," said Acting Chairman Mark V. Rosenker, "we have concerns about the failure of WMATA's train control system to prevent this collision." Rosenker continued, "By calling upon WMATA to take swift action to upgrade the safety redundancy of its system and by urging FTA to alert other transit agencies of the hazards of single point failures such as the one experienced by WMATA, we hope to prevent something similar from happening again."
The NTSB memo is nothing new, it's been known for weeks now that a track sensor was working improperly and caused the lead train to disappear from the system. The second train, running in automatic mode, did not detect there was a train ahead of it. As such, it did not slow down until the operator spotted the train and hit the emergency brake. Sadly, there was not enough time to stop the train before the collision.

It's also rumored that a similar failure had occurred previously in the tunnel between Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom, but operators were able to stop in time.

We also know that the BART system in California uses a system similar to that of Metro, and they added a secondary layer of protection.

At issue isn't whether or not the system was designed to be safe, or if in theory the system is safe. The problem is that the system was never designed with failure in mind. When designing a system that must be extremely reliable, it's important to factor in that things will fail. Accidents will happen, and they generally are never a simple matter of the wing falling off an airplane or a wheel coming off a train. It's a series of small failures that cascade into something far worse than any individual failure. Why did no one ever consider "what would happen if a sensor failed, and the train disappeared?" Was the answer to that simply, "well, then the operator will see a train ahead of them?"

WMATA has come out with a response to the NTSB, essentially saying that they can't immediately comply with this recommendation:
It is important to know that there are currently no systems available commercially that could provide the Metro system with the kind of alerts that the NTSB has recommended, and that such a system must be invented.
As a result, we will be developing a new system that will be specifically tailored to Metro. Metro is in the process of contacting vendors who have the expertise needed to help us develop this service, and we are preparing cost estimates on this application.
So it's going to be expensive, and it's going to take a long time to develop.

But the real hidden gem in all of this was the following from the WMATA press release:
In spite of the issuance of this recommendation, the NTSB still has not determined the root cause of the accident. Every component of that circuit has been replaced, but the problem still persists. (Emphasis mine)
So if I understand, the track sensors that malfunctioned have been replaced, yet they are still failing. So, it was not really a failure of a sensor, but rather a failure of the entire system. A failure that is still unexplained. That means that at any given time, the train you are on could be on a collision course with a stopped train, and you're hoping against hope the operator sees it in time.

So let me ask the questions, again.
1. When was the first time Metro suspected trains could disappear from the system?
2. Are you sure about that answer, given that a train "disappeared" in 2005?
3. What was done to address this failure?
4. If the sensor was replaced and the failure is still occurring, can the system truly be considered safe?
In other news, there was a fatal accident at a Metro construction site in India. Following the accident, the head of their Metro, Elattuvalapil Sreedharan, submitted his resignation. He said he was accepting "full moral responsibility." He was later urged to reconsider, and his resignation was not accepted. However, he was quoted as saying:
“People should be prepared to take decisions and not pass on the buck,” he said. “We should be able to trust people in power, which means people in power should have a proven integrity.”
His gesture says a lot, and should serve as an example.

For those of you still wondering about the Catoe Watch--this is about accepting responsibility for a failure within an organization, even if that failure was not directly your fault. It shows that you are accountable for the actions of those who work below you, and that their failures are your failures, just as much as their successes are your successes.

Since we don't deserve the vote...

As the Marion Barry scandals continue, we will undoubtedly hear more about how this is why DC doesn't deserve voting rights. Clearly, the people of the District of Columbia are not ready for democracy, because they keep electing Marion Barry.

Let's follow this line of thinking and identify others who do not deserve voting rights simply because we don't approve of who they elect, or they elect people who have tainted reputations.

Elected Rod Blagojevich governor in 2002 and 2006 (later indicted for corruption)
Elected George Ryan governor in 1998
Elected Dan Rostenkowski to Congress, 1959-1995
Elected Richard J. Daley mayor from 1955-1976 and Richard M. Daley from 1989-Present
Elected Dan Walker governor from 1973-1977
Elected Otto Kerner governor from 1961-1968

Elected Ted Stevens to the U.S. Senate from 1968-2009
Elected Sarah Palin governor from 2006-Present
Elected Frank Murkowski to U.S. Senate and governor 1981-2006

The State of Ohio
Elected Jim Traficant to Congress, 1985-2002
Elected Buz Lukens to two terms in Congress

The State of Florida
Elected Katherine Harris as Secretary of State and to Congress, 1999-2007
Elected Mark Foley to Congress, 1995-2006

The City of Detroit, Michigan
Elected Kwame Kilpatrick, 2002-2008

The State of Idaho
Elected Larry Craig to the House and then Senate, 1981-2009

The State of Pennsylvania
Elected Joseph P. Kolter to Congress, 1969-1993

The State of Minnesota
Elected David Druenberger to the Senate, 1978-1995

The State of California
Elected Randy "Duke" Cunningham to Congress, 1991-2005

From the Jack Abramoff Scandal, the State of Texas (Ohio and Pennsylvania also included)

From the Keating Five, the States of Arizona and Michigan (and Ohio, again)

From Abscam, the States of New Jersey and South Carolina (Pennsylvania and Florida included)

The State of South Carolina, again, for electing Mark Sanford

The State of Nevada
Elected John Ensign to the House and Senate, 1995-Present

The United States of America
Elected George W. Bush president, 2001-2009.

Democracy isn't something 'earned' by passing a test of electing 'good' people. The right to self-governance isn't something that is bestowed upon us by a benevolent Congress. The right to govern ourselves, and either fail miserably or do a decent job, is inherent. If it wasn't we should all lose our right to vote because collectively, we've all made some pretty bad choices.


New bombshell: Barry involved in possible non-profit fraud

If anyone had questioned the City Paper's journalistic quality with their cover selection--this latest piece will certainly redeem the local newspaper. Mike DeBonis finds over $450,000 in city funds that were directed to non-profits under the control of Councilmember Marion Barry (D-Ward 8).

Sadly this is an instance where the real scandal, fraud, gets overshadowed by the sex scandal. Perhaps the entire July 4 sex scandal was a smokescreen for a hearing on non-profit funding to be held by Councilmember David Catania on Monday.

In the City Paper article, it is alleged (with significant documentation) that Barry's office funneled city funds into non-profits that were set up by Barry staffers and micromanaged by Barry and his staff. This violates all sorts of laws and ethics regulations. These non-profits, for the most part, seem to have been set up simply as a way to employ people Barry wanted to employ. It is very unclear what, if anything, these organizations do.

I suggest everyone go and read the entire article. It's not an easy read, and it's not exactly easy to follow. But it's important. This is not a joke, this is not a case of someone out to get Barry. This is a culture of corruption. It's not surprising and we all knew it was happening, but now there is a good deal of proof. Everyone jokes that the District government is a joke, but at some point the laughing has to stop and the clean-up needs to begin.

Implicated, at the least, in this story are the following people:
  • Councilmember Marion Barry
  • Brenda Richardson, from Barry's office
  • Eric Goulet, Council Chair Vincent Gray's budget director
  • Justin Constantino, Eric Goulet's deputy
This scheme, of Barry-controlled non-profits, appears to have been run by Richardson. Documents were allegedly forged, including incorporation documents. Eric Goulet and Justin Constantino were directed to sort this whole mess out. When they were told that Barry was directing the operations of some non-profits, they reportedly said they were "not hearing that."

Will we see any outrage? Is this too complicated for the average citizen to be outraged about? Not only does this stink because it is fraud, but it's terrible because this is a time when actual, real non-profits are struggling. The $450,000 paid out, and the almost $1 million earmarked for these bogus groups could be used by real organizations doing real things for the residents of not only Ward 8 but the rest of the District.

This all comes after Barry reportedly makes a private apology to the DC Council for the arrest-saga, while refusing to apologize to the public. He and his office also continue to refuse to comment on any of these funding irregularities.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars funneled to your own interest groups. City money. Taxpayer money. This, when the city can't bridge a budget gap and can't fund safety improvements for Metro. We need more people like Mike DeBonis to take a look at the rest of the District budget. Where else is money being lost to fraud, theft, and cronyism.

I hate to use this line of thinking, but it is true. If we're ever going to make the case that we deserve more voting rights, we have to get our house in order.