Monday, September 30, 2013

Demise of driver's education

I received an email last week from a woman who wished to inform me about a number of bad driving habits she observes on a regular basis. I really did not need to have these pointed out to me, but for one reason or another, there seem to be many people who think the reason bad drivers continue to procreate is because I am clueless about their existence in our community.

Among the bad drivers on her list were those who do not follow proper procedure when turning at a signalized intersection with a permissive left turn, when oncoming traffic is present. The process is this: the driver should move into the intersection with his or her front bumper just shy of the center. Keeping the wheels pointed forward, wait until there is a break in the oncoming traffic that allows adequate time, then execute the turn into the nearest available lane on the cross street. If there is no break in the oncoming traffic until the signal changes to red, continue to wait until you can confirm the oncoming traffic is stopping, then execute the turn. Since you entered the intersection lawfully on a green light, you still have the right of way, and the cross street traffic must wait until you have cleared the intersection to proceed.

The mistake my correspondent noted in her dispatch last week is a growing number of motorists who stop behind the intersection, rather than moving into the intersection, to wait for their opportunity to make a left turn. She didn't need to convince me on this one, as it is one of my pet peeves. But my list of pet peeves seems to be getting a little unwieldy as I grow older, so I try not to get as worked up about them, and rarely fire off missives to the authorities.

A few days before her email, I was mentioning this to my wife, after the car in front of us missed a left turn opportunity, forcing us all to wait through a couple more cycles. I wondered if the lack of left turn etiquette has something to do with the demise of driver's education in high school. In our generation, all high school sophomores took driver's ed, as reliably as gym class or algebra. You watched all the films, spent some hours in the simulator, drove around town under the tutelage of the assistant basketball coach, and took the quizzes and tests.

Driver's education started to disappear from the high school curriculum sometime in the 1980s, and today is offered by very few school districts. While there are alternative driver's training courses available in many cities for a fee, the classroom-lab-road training that was nearly universal in the 1970's is a thing of the past, and motorists no longer have that consistent base of knowledge. I'm really not saying that drivers overall are worse today, only that there are a few techniques that everyone used to learn in the same way, that they either no longer learn, or learn in different ways: left turns, parallel parking, merging, positioning wheels when parking on inclines, and so forth.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Phrase never uttered

My wife Tonja has worked in the womens' fashion industry for most of her life, beginning at age 16, when she got a job at Tober's in the Gateway Mall. She moved on to Magee's, then Steinmart. For the past ten years or so she has been at Chico's, a boutique down the road from home. As you can tell from this circa 1956 photo, she has some serious fashion sense, which developed at an early age!

She is about the hardest working person I've ever known. Years ago, when we really needed a heftier second paycheck, she left Magee's for a 2:00 AM job at a bakery, then cared for the kids and home all day and night while I attended grad school and worked the swing shift. The financial need for two incomes passed long ago, but she continues to work part time at Chico's because she really enjoys the interaction with coworkers and customers.  Don't tell corporate, but I'm pretty sure she'd do it for free, were it not for the Fair Labor Standards Act.

When she talks about work, she often tells me about a particular customer she helped today--perhaps someone who needed something special for a reunion, a party, a trip, even a funeral. The passion with which she relates these encounters, and the joy she takes in helping someone find that "just right" accessory or outfit is just like what I experience at work. "Do what you love," as the saying goes, "and you'll never work a day in your life."

So I couldn't resist snapping this photo for her on a downtown Lincoln sidewalk yesterday when I spotted it in front of Footloose & Fancy at 12th and P Street:

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

So far, so good

The opening of the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln's Haymarket district had me a little on edge, primarily concerning our ability to move traffic after large events. Maybe it was because people have moaned and complained to me about traffic control at basketball games, volleyball games, and football games since the Ford administration.

I was concerned that with many more events in the 10,000-15,000 range, and with an arena area pretty closed in on the north and west, the stars were aligned for massive jams. This had been Omaha's experience when the Qwest Center (now CenturyLink Center) opened. I recall Omaha's police chief at the time,Thomas Warren, calling me one day to compare notes with Nebraska football traffic control. I especially worried that the first few months would be particularly bad, since lots of construction is underway, and many of the roads and parking structures are not yet open.

Alas, traffic Armageddon failed to materialize at the first two concerts, both of which were sold out. In fact, it's been surprisingly smooth. Perhaps people heeded the advice to park a distance away and enjoy the stroll. Maybe more people are opting to patronize the restaurants and bars after the events, rather than make a mad rush for the car. In any case, so far, so good.

Tonja and I attended the inaugural concert on September 13th, Michael Buble (yes, I know, but I'm not wasting 10 minutes searching for the keystroke combination to produce l'accent aigu). Then last Thursday, we decided to dine out, and wanted to try the new bar and grill in the Cornhusker Hotel, Miller Time Pub. When we arrived, the place was packed, and there was a wait, which is quite unusual on a weekday in Lincoln. "What's going on?" I asked the hostess. "The Jason Aldean concert," she replied. "Oh, of course," I said, not wanting to appear entirely clueless. To my self I was thinking, "Who the heck is Jason Aldean?" Never heard of him.

I'd probably get the answer if it were Alexis de Tocqueville, Sojourner Truth, Jonas Salk, Vidkun Quisling, and maybe even Maynard G. Krebs. But in a game of Trivial Pursuit, I'd be completely worthless in the country western music category.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Wrong Lincoln

Hmmm. Come to think of it, I've already used that title. Oh well, it still works for this story.

Sunday morning, I received an email from a guy named Jim. He was pretty upset about a case in which a Lincoln police officer had kicked a women who was on the ground and handcuffed. Jim let me know exactly what he thought about this, and wanted to know how I would feel if that had been my wife or my daughter.

I had to spend a few minutes searching the web, but apparently this is the case to which he refers--involving a Lincoln, Rhode Island police officer in 2009. The officer was convicted of felony assault, and dismissed from the police force. He apparently appealed his termination (??), and apparently Jim had just run across the story.

I asked Jim if he had confused Lincoln, Nebraska with Lincoln, Rhode Island, and included my full address in my email signature. He assured me that he had not, including the link to the news story that had so incensed him. I thanked him for the link, and told him that I had just wondered why he had sent this to the head of a department 1,800 miles away.

At that point, the light bulb came on:
Well sir i do owe you an apology... this head cold has me hallucinating apparently!!!! I did just go back and look at your City Profile and sadly you are correct about where you live ... laughs.. and I agree NEBRASKA is a piece away from RHODE ISLAND... sighs.. I will have to come out there one day and take you to lunch.. At least, I made a new friend, and you did not get angry at me for my stupidity.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Past posts

The blog has been taking a bit of a backseat this week. The early morning hours I normally devote to blogging have been consumed by three early morning commitments I had this week, complicated by the release of Apple's new operating system for iPhones and iPads, iOS 7. Between me, my wife, and my mother-in-law, I had five devices to update, and a short learning curve to navigate.

As a result, I'm just going to recycle two posts from the past which are somewhat related to the big local and national news stories this week:

When the doors swing open

Where did the gun come from?

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Truth

On the way home last Wednesday, September 11, I stopped at the cluster box and picked up the mail. Among the offers for free investment seminars, lower interest rates, and replacement windows was a United States Postal Service Ready Post mailer--no return address, way too much postage, and addressed simply to "Casady." The four stamps affixed were Liberty, Equality, Freedom, and Justice.

We call these things a clue in my business, and in retrospect I should have called in a Level 3 Hazmat incident, then gone across the street and bummed a beer off my neighbor, Curtis. We could have sat in his driveway and watched the festivities unfold. But I threw caution to the wind, and opened it up. It contained a single, unmarked DVD. I told Tonja that it was probably some video manifesto by an anti-government conspiracy theorist. I get this kind of stuff at the office with some regularity.

I popped the DVD into my home office PC.

I know, I know, but believe me: I would be quite pleased if the Dell contracted a deadly virus and I had an excuse to replace it with a 27" iMac.

The DVD wouldn't autorun, and I didn't recognize the file extensions. I wasn't in the mood to spend the evening hunting (Shark Tank was about to start!), so I just tossed it in my briefcase. I knew I'd find a PC in the duty commander's office at LPD that would in all work, because they deal with DVDs from all sorts of systems with all kinds of codecs.

So early yesterday morning, I fired it up in Capt. Beggs' office, and sure enough, it was a downloaded video about the 9/11 deception some anonymous donor had burned for my enjoyment. Between the $1.49 mailer, the postage, and the DVD, that had set him or her back five bucks. I had to watch a few minutes to confirm my initial suspicion, and by then I was hooked. Since the gov'mint had lied to us, and the news media and public had been duped, I really wanted to find out who actually destroyed the World Trade Center.

Despite liberal use of fast-forward, it still took me a-half-hour-I'll-never-get-back to search for The Truth. Alas, the video ended without revealing secret of 9/11. I still don't know whether it was the bankers, Bush, Obama, the generals, the insurance companies, or the same secret international cabal that puts fluoride in water and beans in chili.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Resources will be needed

Seven times a year, the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce hosts a luncheon with the somewhat daunting title of "Face the Chamber." I am not easily daunted, though, and have often been the speaker at the event. I had the podium again yesterday, and decided to speak about the challenges of prison overcrowding and the high cost of incarceration.

I told the audience about four high profile incidents in Nebraska that have grabbed headlines during the past year, involving conditionally-released inmates, and one who was very recently-released. These incidents have occurred against the backdrop of a significant move in Nebraska and nationwide to reduce prison populations.

I tried to make three key points. First, prison is expensive, and if we are unwilling as taxpayers to foot the bill, we better find smart alternatives. Second, a critical factor on whether alternatives to prison or shorter sentences work is whether there are good services available. People being released from prison need help with such things as housing, employment, transportation, treatment, and supervision. Our record on child welfare reform, and behavioral health reform in Nebraska has been pretty spotty, in part because while we closed institutions and privatized services, we just never provided enough community-based alternatives to meet the demand. Let's not do the same thing in corrections.

Lastly, I encouraged the audience to listen closely whenever they hear someone talking about alternatives to prison for non-violent offenses. I can show you plenty of people incarcerated for a non-violent offense right now, but whose criminal history is very long, and includes a mix of violent and non-violent felonies. The current sentence is usually only a small part of the total picture. I'd also argue that someone serving a sentence for their 8th drunk driving conviction, or their 4th conviction for felony drug dealing is really not a "non-violent offender." I think we already do a mighty good job keeping people who don't need to be there out of prison. Might be some room for improvement, and never hurts to look, but from my perspective I don't see a lot of inmates in the big house unnecessarily.

I also explained the reality of sentencing, because many citizens are not aware of such things as "good time" laws. Basically, Nebraska law provides that for every day served, you get a day knocked off your sentence. Ten years actually means five. At sentencing, many defendants get credit for the time served in jail awaiting trial, and you're generally eligible for parole after you've served about half your minimum. Thus, the ten year sentence ends up being more like three years in many cases. The recently-released offender now charged with four Omaha murders was sentenced to a term of 18 to 21 years for five violent felonies, but served less than 10 years before he reached his mandatory release date in July.  It is alleged that he shot and killed four people over the course of the next month. That's the law. Welcome to my world.

I think our Nebraska Department of Correctional Services does a good job with the resources we give them, and I have great confidence in their leadership. But if our public policy as determined by our elected legislators is to release more people who have served a fraction of their sentence, increase the number of people on parole, furlough, probation, and in other community corrections settings; then our corrections department will need the resources to deal with the caseload and provide the services. That's where I'm concerned.

We are also going to have to accept the fact that although risk can be mitigated, it cannot be eliminated. Nothing is perfect: stuff happens. With more inmates in community corrections programs, and with shortened sentences, cases like those I cited will continue to occur from time to time.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

No place like Nebraska

Last week, Tonja and I gathered her mom, Joyce, and took a quick trip to attend the funeral of a family friend in Bertrand, Nebraska. When we left the country church after lunch, I realized we were only a couple miles from the Gosper County farmstead of Tonja's grandparents, Doris and Leroy Biesecker--Joyce's childhood home.

I enjoyed many summer vacations at the farm, where Leroy (everyone called him Tooter) taught me to start siphon tubes during irrigation season, one of the more frustrating skills I never quite mastered. The chores were completed after we enjoyed the Largest Breakfast Ever Served. We could then set out for morning of fishing at Johnson Lake. This is Tooter at the farm, in a snapshot I took when we stopped by on the way home from our honeymoon in 1973.

As we left the church last week, I couldn't resist the temptation to head down the gravel to see the old place. It is unoccupied at the moment, and like many Nebraska farmsteads, looking a little rough compared to it's better years. But the house is standing, and the barn is sturdy.

I snapped this photo of a basketball hoop on the west side, and sent it off to Joyce's youngest sibling, Tonja's uncle Gary, a recently-retired physician in High Point, NC.

Gary messaged me back in an instant: "That's been there for 60 years, must be made in America!" He also pointed out that his dad, not being particularly savvy about basketball, had installed the hoop upside down. "No problem," I replied, "just rotate the photo." The bird, however, will then be hanging from the rim at a rather odd angle.

There really is no place like Nebraska, particularly when you get off the Interstate and go back in time a few decades to revel in the simple joy of a late summer day in God's country, surrounded by sun, wind, waves of grass, and currents of memories.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Part of the problem

Yesterday's Lincoln Journal Star contained a couple front page stories about the challenges the Lincoln Police Department faces in dealing with game day Saturdays, when over 91,000 fans fill Memorial Stadium, and an uncountable throng converges on the downtown and campus area--whether they are actually attending the game or not. It's been a few years since the last news feature on this topic, and it reminded me that I have missed my own annual blog post about football Saturdays. No matter, it's pretty much the same as in previous years.

I'll be getting a slightly different perspective next week. I'll be attending the Nebraska v. UCLA game as a fan, courtesy of my son-in-law. Look for me attempting to make a left turn across three lanes of traffic, or wandering down the sidewalk with my head buried in my smartphone. It will be the first opportunity I've had in a few years to be part of the problem.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Fuel usage down

I received this email Tuesday morning from the police garage manager, Pat Wenzl, with a spreadsheet attached.
"We ended the fiscal year using 13,440 fewer gallons of fuel and driving 169,417 fewer miles.  We were 6.8% under projection in our mileage budget which is about $194,000.  Let's hope the trend continues into 13/14."
Using the data from Pat's spreadsheet, I updated this graph, which shows the longer term trend beginning in the last quarter of 2004.

That's a pretty dramatic drop in fuel usage, in a City that has grown quite a bit geographically in the past decade. I've blogged on this topic previously, but to recap, the cause of the drop is a more fuel-efficient fleet, and less idling of vehicles. Gas is huge expense when you drive 2.3 million miles a year, and a 20% decrease in the average monthly fuel use over the past ten years represents a huge amount of taxpayers' dollars.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Close call

I was just about to bite into a sandwich Friday, when I heard a text message arrived from Julie Righter, the manager of our Emergency Communications Center: "Did you hear that call?" As I was reading the message my cellphone rang, and Sgt. Don Scheinost told me that Lincoln Fire & Rescue had just been dispatched on a working fire to the house next door to my home.

I switched on the radio and listened to the traffic on the fire tactical channel. Engine 6 was putting other responding units back in service, a pretty good indication that the fire was small and had been quickly extinguished. That's the corner of my house, on the right.

Apparently someone had stubbed out a cigarette in a plastic flowerpot which was up against the exterior wall of the garage. This eventually ingited the vinyl siding. Fortunately, a few houses away a crew was working on a siding project spotted the flames and made the 911 call. Any other day most everyone would have been at work, and the fire likely would have gotten a much better start. I suspect the results of that might well have been similar to this one, a week ago Saturday.

There have been several fires in the past year that were caused by the disposal of smoking materials in plastic containers. In fact, smoking materials are the leading cause of residential fires. To the extend residential fires are fewer these days, the decline in smoking rates is a major contributor.