Tuesday, October 17, 2017

My advice to 'new' Calgary city council

Last night was the big night. One of the most exciting civic elections in my time here. Out of the 14 councillors, 10 ran, and 10 were re-elected, so there are 4 new faces on council. Nenshi was re-elected to the Mayor's chair by a convincing but not overwhelming margin. So essentially it's the same council that was widely derided as disfunctional, though how anyone that remembers the 'Bronco' council can think that is beyond me.

Where to begin?

By the standards of most people, you're all arrogant. Arrogant with a capital A, so don't be thinking some of you are better than the others. Put your ego on a leash, and get on with your job. Remember the lessons from kindergarten, play nice and share? Even though you are elected by people in one ward, you have to make decisions about what's good for the whole city. No, it isn't good for one part of the city to get all the gravy all the time, and another area the sharp end of the stick. Grow up, suck it up, recognize the value, and values you all bring to office.

Yes, it's a tough job, but you volunteered, and went through quite an ordeal to prove how badly you wanted the job. There is a long list of services the city currently provides and it has to be paid for, or make the decision to cut it. There is a huge list of additional things the city could spend money on, and you have to decide. Huge and expensive. Expand a water treatment plant and there's hundreds of millions of dollars. Each kilometre of new roads is more dollars, and then we get into bridges and complicated intersections and the money goes up and up. Equipment for cops and firefighters doesn't come cheap. I don't even know what all the city spends money on, but you'd better know.

Do not be fooled by outsourcing. Sure, they say, it's cheaper for a private company to collect garbage. Except we have a fleet of vehicles to deal with the several streams of waste, and people trained to operate them. Are you going to sell the vehicles and lay off the people? Then what do you do when the outsourcing company raises prices? As they will when they know they've got you by the short and curlies.

The overall operating budget is $3.5 Billion, and the capital budget is $5.8 Billion. Added and written out that's $9,300,000,000. That's a lot of zeros, and there's a lot of stuff that needs to fit into it. Maybe it sounds like a lot of room, but there's not. Focus on the big picture, not the stuff that is a rounding error, no matter how visible it is.

It's a constant struggle to find the best value. Sometimes it looks sensible to spend a little more now and save on the next phase of construction. Sometimes that turns out to be not the best idea in hindsight. Do we buy the bargain basement bid, and pay early maintenance costs, or the cadillac bid and write a big cheque up front?

So-called common sense is a poor tool. You need high quality data, and lots of it, and you'd better read it thoroughly. How much, exactly, do all the various options for a particular choice cost? We're talking many millions of dollars, potentially over decades for some choices. What are the benefits and drawbacks of each choice? Compare that to another choice, such as the various Green Line routing alternatives for the downtown core. Then another set of choices on another issue, again and again. Common sense is quickly overwhelmed. You need a system, not intuition, and certainly not an ideology. There's lots of times a solution is counter-intuitive, so check the numbers, but believe the data.

We've all seen a road paved, and a short time later it's torn up again for some other work. What a waste, we think. How hard can it be to coordinate that sort of work? Well, actually, it's enormously difficult. Calgary has 16,000 lane kilometres of paved roadways, and work could happen for any number of utilities on, under, or near the street. Such a coordinator would have to know all the street related work the city plans to do, plus all the city utility work such as water, and wastewater lines, plus work done by outside companies for natural gas and petroleum product pipelines, as well as electrical and data lines, and probably more that don't come to mind at the moment. Imagine knowing all that, or keeping track of all that in a database that would change every day, and then trying to make sense of it to schedule the work for all the different contractors for the various players, and trying to get it all done before the ground freezes again. They do try, but for short sighted politicians, work like that seems like it's easy to cut and not miss. There are any number of people working for the city that do work that produce value that might not be obvious. It's easy to cut staff and regret it later.

Calgary is in a crappy economic situation just now, everybody knows that. Everybody has advice for you. Some quick points:

  • Anybody tells you they can cut taxes and keep the same services without debt is lying to you or is a fool.
  • The low hanging fruit has already been picked.
  • Finding efficiencies is data driven. While an outsider might have the initial idea, it takes people with a deep knowledge of the current system to do a pilot test, and determine if it scales up. It isn't a quick process, and it will probably cost money. More balancing.
  • Finding efficiencies is often code for firing people. What happens to the work currently done by those people? The people around them already have too much to do, and no, the database system everybody thinks is the magic solution doesn't quite work that way yet.
  • Everybody has ideas to cut services, and oddly enough, it's always services they don't use. But somebody does use them, or it would have been cut long since. One doesn't cut services to become or stay a great place to live.
  • You have to do a better job of communicating why taxes are going up (because they are) and what we are getting for that money. We kept flat taxes during the Duerr era in the 90's, and got so far behind on infrastructure we're still catching up.
  • The arena deal. Stand firm! I say, not one thin dime of taxpayer money for this boondoggle. These NHL owners are shrewd and wealthy, and they didn't get that way putting their own money at needless risk. If they can con the taxpayers into putting up money, why not? All their other owner buddies have done it, so why not here? The question we have to ask ourselves is, how good of a deal can it be if they can't or won't put their own money or their banker's money into it? Let them sell bonds to those willing to buy.
  • The Olympics. Don't. Just don't. Once was nice, but we've been there and done that. The whole IOC is corrupt, and anybody dealing with them is tainted. It's a lot of money we don't have for nothing in return. Or do you mean facilities like the ski jumping towers that are now used as cell towers? Let's build facilities because we need them.
  • Secondary suites is the current toxic issue, just like fluoridation and cat licensing once were. Just deal with it and stop wasting our money and your time! Remember, you're responsible for a multi-billion dollar budget, why are you thinking about a measly reno job in a private home? Decide on a regulatory framework and delegate it to administration staff. Maybe the councillors that vote against a regulatory framework should have to deal with it, and the rest of council can do something more productive with their time.
  • Figure out what went wrong with the voting procedures this time, and fix it. A bit of a line up is expected, but that got out of hand.

It's easy for council to see only what's making noise. A few people yelling about some public art sculpture they don't like. Mercedes man screaming about public transit. People that don't like a decision calmly but doggedly wanting you to go back and revisit it, and cut taxes and services while you're about it. People that don't have all the facts, or that don't see how their choices would actually hurt people. There are all sorts of one-issue crackpots that bedevil your life and somehow you have to deal with them politely. Build a system and delegate, but keep an eye out in case one of those issues blows up.

We live in a great city, and I want that to continue. Taxes are how we pay for the services here, and there's no getting around that. While most people don't like paying taxes, they realize this, and want to know they're paying their fair share. Taxpayers want to see that we're getting good value for our tax dollar. You MUST communicate that better, and push back on the 'taxation is theft' lunatics. At the same time we shouldn't be spending a dollar to save a nickel.

Good luck with it all, and see you again in 4 years.

Monday, October 16, 2017

iPhone adventures

I've been a Mac guy for many years now. Many. When the Mac ecosystem expanded to iPhones and iPads I came along. Not as an early adopter, but mid pack or so. Generally I've been pretty happy, though there have been some frustrating times.

Like the last week or so. Imagine my frustration levels to seriously contemplate what safety equipment was required for me and my real camera to video smashing the iPhone 6 with a big hammer many times. I have the hammer, and any number of surfaces to put the iPhone on. I have safety goggles, and can probably rig a face shield. What I didn't have was an obvious solution to protect the camera.

The problem starts with an unresponsive home button. I did all the stuff, restarting, and getting more drastic. Then the screens started going crazy. I'm typing out a text and the screen goes away. Try to get into mail and after touching the button, the screen pulses and goes back to the home screen. I did a bunch of research and found several probable causes, all of which need expensive repairs. More practically it indicates it's time to buy a new phone.

Most phones are stricken with gigantism, getting bigger and bigger. The iPhone 6 is too big and the shape makes it hard to hang onto. I've never really liked it. The iPhone 4 was the perfect size. Pity it's obsolete. There are days the rapid advance of software from not ready for prime time, to pretty damn good, to minor tweaks to continue the improvement, to bloat, makes me despair. (iMessenger echo and Evernote, I'm looking at you!)

But wait! Apple was smart enough to realize some of us want a smaller phone, with all the power and most of the bells and whistles. I ended up with one of the last 128 MB iPhone SE in the city. A few signatures, waiting a while as it talked to the home computer, and a bit of checking and domestication I've got a new phone. Yay me! A buddy has a small selection of cases I can look over, and if none of those work for me I might put out the word to see if anyone has an iPhone 5 case they don't need anymore. So I'm happy again.

Last night had some interesting clouds sculpted by the wind. I was out freezing my tail off in the wind, but the photos turned out quite well. The sunrise this morning was also nice, but it didn't translate into photos as well.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Swim and run and Fish Creek squared

I somehow missed yesterday in the excitement of getting my bike set up on the trainer, and actually spinning for a while. That felt really good, which is a nice change. Then today it was 15, easily warm enough for me to ride outside, and a buddy that was riding. Sigh. Such is autumn in Calgary.

Today was more organized, starting with a swim. Not as nice in a time/distance sense as earlier this week, but still nice. Then a 7 K run after second breakfast, 50:39, 7:16 pace, feeling really good. That was a shorter loop down into Fish Creek, which is thoroughly lovely this time of year.

Then a little later I was out cameraing, and was down in Fish Creek again, immediately south of the 24 St parking lot, walking around the little slough/pond, whatever that's called. The weird thing is that it was beyond full. A couple times I've been the only car parked there, but most of the time there are somewhere between several and a bunch. Today the lot was full, the entrance road had people parked on it, as well as the exit. No idea why. Maybe just lots of people out enjoying the nice weather. Good thing, next weekend could be a foot of snow and polar bears.

I wandered around looking for reflection shots, and thinking about one of the techniques I'd read about recently. That thinking and planning and looking, and trying several times got me this shot. I'm quite pleased.

Then some other shots, which actually, came before that one. I was working with my wide lens, which I normally use for astro photos. I'm pretty pleased how these turned out.

This isn't the wide lens, it was done at the same time as that first one, with the same idea.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Sky and swim

Earlier last week I clicked my neck gently while stretching, and now my back and shoulders are feeling better. Somehow along the way my legs are feeling better too. So the swim on Thursday felt really good at first, though I got tired and slowed down pretty quick. Overall only 500 m in 9:30, but it's one of the best swims in the last few months.

A run today was a nice easy 5K at just over 7 min/K pace. Let's hope all this continues. I'll be setting my bike up on the trainer tomorrow, and will probably try to ride a little, to see if I remember how.

The sky the other evening was interesting.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Could it be a faded rose?

Some of you of a certain vintage might be flashing on an early 70's country pop song. That was the summer I spent some time with one of my uncles driving gravel truck, once watching as a he drove along a road that was essentially the border and expressed his opinion of the USA in a liquid form, (I was seriously impressed), and listening as he sang (being generous here) along to the country songs of the day.

The light got really nice for a while this afternoon for these rose shots. In lots of ways I like the faded blooms even more as subjects than the 'pretty' blossom. There is more texture and the shapes are more crumpled and interesting. Sometimes the colours are even more intense.

Plus there are buds! I'll keep an eye on them over the winter to see if they are as photogenic as the two buds from last year. Certainly they will be harder to capture.

So here's the roses.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Cut glads vs a cat

The glads got a bit of a late start this year, so some were still coming into bloom when we got that cold snap. Linda cut some of them to see if they would bloom (they didn't), and to keep some colour for us. I tried a bunch of different photos of them in different light, mainly trying to bring up the texture and delicate colour.

This pink was particularly difficult. Lightroom kept trying to make it garish.

I wanted to get the flowers under white light, and picked the reading light up front. You can imagine my astonishment at the yellow. White LED light yes, but pale yellow walls and an orange cat right there, sniffing the flowers. Plus the ISO is high so I had to do some tweaks to bring down the noise without losing the texture of the leaves or his fur. Even playing with the white balance didn't change it for the better in any significant way. Sort of an interesting quality to the photos, what do you think?

If you need to be reminded of what the dahlias and glads looked like before fall arrived, go here. Here's what the last dahlia looks like now. I'd asked Linda not to chop it down till I got a photo of it.

There are a few rose blooms withering away. The photos I took didn't come out the way I wanted, so I'll have another go. I think they'll be around a while. Some of my long time readers will remember last winters rose buds. Nothing like that this year, I think, but I'll keep my eye out. There a few pansies, and some little poppies hanging in, but that's about it.

Every now and then I get books out of the library on photography. I was so disappointed when I got home and opened Behind the Camera, Creative Techniques of 100 Photographers, by Paul Lowe. What is the point of a showing a photograph and discussing it, when you spread the photo over two pages when the spine doesn't go flat? That makes it impossible to actually look at the photo in any serious way. When I casually browsed it, I only saw photos on one page. Fail. Next. Glad I didn't buy it.

As a digression, why do we pronounce it pho-TOG-raphy? The root is actually two words, from the Greek, φωτός (phōtos), genitive of φῶς (phōs), "light" and γραφή (graphé) "representation by means of lines" or "drawing", together meaning "drawing with light". Really, I suppose we should  be saying 'photo-graphy.'

In any case I've been musing about the whole drawing with light thing, and starting to think about photos as a more abstract art instead of a beautiful representation of a scene. One of the other books was really good on that topic. Stay tuned.

Today was the first run this fall wearing tights and a jacket. My feet and legs felt really good until just near the end. I was happy to call it at 6K, 42:22, or 7:03/K really consistently, mostly breathing easy for what would be a chatchatchat pace, except for going uphill. Let's see what my shoulders think of a swim tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Some more fall shots from last week

A week ago I was out on a photo ramble south and west of the city looking for colour. Found lots! It was temporarily set aside while I worked on other things. Now that we're getting into more seriously grey pre-winter days, here's some more of fall colour for you. As you might recall the clouds and light were al over the place.


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