bar none

Ever since we moved and I started my new job, coworkers who knew we used to live in Northfield have been very resourceful in finding news articles that seem to point out the absurd situations and people related to that community. Occasionally, I find some on my own. Like this one from the Locally Grown blog.

City of Northfield earns “Friend of the Bar” award from MSBA

Seems the fine citizens of Northfield are spending a great deal of their public and private money to keep the pockets of several capable attorneys well-lined. Maybe I should seriously consider that law school idea…

blog action day

What? Blogs are taking action? That’s ridiculous.

Really. It’s ridiculous to expect that people writing blogs will “change the world” by writing about a topic. The only hope is that it puts that topic in the minds of people who are reading those blogs and maybe somebody, somewhere decides to change something. So it’s ridiculous, but still an appealing idea.

So I thought it was a good excuse to write a quick note about some of the things we’re doing at our home to try and help the environment as part of Blog Action Day.

First, we are slowly changing over to compact fluorescent bulbs throughout the house. The latest room was the main bath where we got some fancy ones to replace the decorative globe bulbs that had been in there. We also have several dedicated fluorescent fixtures, such as in the garage, the shop and our laundry/utility room.

Second, we have been getting more diligent about recycling. Especially the aluminum cans that we generate. By bringing them to a redemption center, we can get a little cash that is going to add to the college savings for the kids. Not a lot, but more than nothing.

And third, we have been slowly decreasing our overall energy use by using the air conditioner less and turning things off that we aren’t using. My wife is great about turning things off. Usually just when I’m planning on using them…

So we aren’t doing much yet. If we could afford it, I’d love to get some solar PV panels on the roof to generate part of the electricity we use, or maybe even one of those small wind turbines. Of course, with the money we are saving (did I mention that all of this stuff saves us money? Nice side benefit, huh?) we could set some aside to invest in that type of technology. Maybe in a few years…

the telephone number is 911

The Pearl Street 911 Center has come under fire ever since it started. A recent letter to the editor in the Northfield News reminded me of one of the reasons.

There was a letter to the editor in the 9-28-05 edition of the Northfield News that caught my attention. The writer was registering a public complaint about the Pearl Street 911 Center. I won’t go into the details of the letter, other than to say the writer was advocating for a return to having emergency dispatching services handled locally as opposed to the current system of a consolidated center.

The consolidation of government services is often a good deal. Smaller units of government can boost their purchasing power, reduce personnel costs and duplication of services. Sounds pretty good, right?

But there is a tradeoff. In this particular case, your dispatcher is now in the Law Enforcement Center in Owatonna. No one ever talks to one of them face to face, only over the phone or the radio. This reduces the level of personal service that many in Northfield grew accustomed to. Now if you stop into the police station and want to talk to a police officer, you have to pick up a phone in the lobby to talk to the dispatcher in Owatonna. You used to be able to talk to the dispatcher through a window, and often that person could help you.

This disadvantage also applies to emergency workers. Effective communication between coworkers (and that’s what dispatchers and emergency personnel are, right?) is dependant to some extent on a personal connection and level of trust. Hard to develop that over the phone or airwaves. So if a firefighter thinks a dispatcher made a mistake, he either calls over the phone or tells his supervisor. If a dispatcher thinks a firefighter made a mistake, they have the same obstacle. Bad for everyone.

Is the tradeoff worth it? That question needs to be asked of our elected officials. The Joint Dispatch Center has oversight and budgetary control from a joint powers board consisting of elected officials from Rice and Steele Counties and the cities of Faribault, Northfield and Owatonna. They meet the first Wednesday of the month at 4:00 p.m. at one of the County Government Centers.

The Joint Powers Board is getting ready to spend a significant amount of money (probably in the millions) to revamp the computer aided dispatch system and records management system. Seems like a good time to follow along.

In my opinion, the joint center is a good idea. Some of the complaints in the letter to the editor have more to do with the differences between the two types of incidents the writer described than the difference in dispatching services. There are always ways to improve, but as the center looks to make significant changes in technology, I am more concerned about them making choices that allow for expansion and addition of services and updated technology. We’ll find out in the next few months if they can meet that challenge.

effective help

There are good ways and not so good ways to help victims of disaster from a distance. Stick with the methods that work unless you have a very specific talent or resource to help in another way.

The devastation of Hurricane Katrina is overwhelming. Many are calling this the worst disaster in the history of the United States, and they may very well be right.

So what can I do?

The fastest and most efficient way of helping (if you are not actually in the disaster area) is to donate money to relief organizations. My personal choice is the American Red Cross. These folks know what they are doing and are on the ground running to help those in need. What they don’t need from us is a load of uncoordinated supplies of whatever you have lying around that you may think is useful. Some folks have asked for clothing, diapers and other things to be sent to the area but I won’t even know where to send it. If someone can educate me as to why that’s a better idea than what I’m suggesting, please let me know.

Donating money may seem an impersonal choice in light of the emotions that surround such a disaster and our innate need to personally help others. There are several reasons this is probably the best choice. I’ll explain a couple of my own reasons.

First of all, I have no idea what is needed. I’m pretty sure that water and food are in short supply, but how can I get it there? Second, I have faith in the ability of these relief organizations to get the job done. They are very good at it. They have the infrastructure and expertise to deal with the myriad problems that are being confronted in the region. The biggest obstacle I think they face in getting the job done is making sure that they have the financial resources to buy the supplies, transport them into the area, facilitate evacuation and get their workers to where they are needed. I can best help them do that by sending some of my hard-earned dollars.

The Minnesota Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management has a handy guide to how you can help linked on their front page (it’s a .pdf file). Check it out and then do what you can to help.

video killed the radio star – part two

Poscasting is taking the world by storm. The release of iTunes version 4.9 has exploded the format, for good or bad. This is the next evolution of mass communication among ordinary folks.

What is Podcasting? It’s kind of like time-shifted internet radio. A whole bunch of people are basically taking advantage of the capabilities of RSS and using it to distribute audio content.

Why should I care? Well, what you are reading right now is a blog. (Duh, Ted. I’m not stupid) A podcast is an extension of the blog format. People create the content (an interview, some music, some ranting, whatever), post it on the internet, and other people either go to the site directly or get the feed from an RSS reader. I think this is really important and I’ll explain a little bit about why.

We are seeing an increase in the number and influence of blogs on the political process. During the 2004 major party conventions, bloggers were given press credentials. They were recognized at that point as being part of the media. Part of the information exchange that influences the way the world works and how we are governed. In Northfield, several people who are either elected officials or in influential positions in government or commerce are also blogging. You can see this by starting with and continue with Jim Pokorney, Jessica Peterson, Gary Smith, Diane Cirksena and Ray Cox. And these aren’t the only examples.

So we now have a fairly easy way (or the beginnings of an easy way) to expand that community journalism concept into a digital version of community radio. What’s community radio? Well, let’s just say it’s a chance for anyone to broadcast pretty much whatever they want. You’re interested in city politics? Start your own podcast and interview local figures and local folks about the issues. And even more significantly – say what you think about them. Have a need for speed at the local stock car racetrack? Tell everybody about what’s going on each weekend and make your favorite drivers and crews feel like the “big guys” by interviewing and promoting them on your own show.

I would encourage anyone to check out the available podcasts that are out there. Many of them provide a nice alternative to the standard mass-media radio and often do a better job of informing on issues like technology and local politics.

Here’s a couple sites to get you started. The easiest way to get started listening to podcasts right now is to get iTunes from Apple. There are versions for both PC and Mac, and a lot of people already have it. You will need version 4.9 or later to get the podcast page in the iTunes Store. Another “podcatcher” that is popular is ipodder lemon. Heard of Adam Curry? The old MTV v-jay has been on the bandwagon for podcasting since the beginning and is involved in the ipodder project.

There is a huge amount of dicussion about this topic and how it relates to blogging, commercial radio, music promotion and licensing, community radio, politics, marketing and a bunch of other stuff. But, in the interest of keeping it simple I’ll just say that I think this new medium is pretty interesting and I am really enjoying it.

Here’s a partial list of podcasts that I’ve been listening to:

TWiT – This Week in Tech (this is the crew from the old ScreenSavers show on TechTV)
Daily Source Code – Adam Curry
Podcast 411 – Information on podcasting and interviews with podcasters
Geek News Central – Tech news and commentary from Todd in sunny Hawaii
Inside Minnesota Politics – Peter Idusogie (an unabashed Democrat, but he does some interesting interviews)

in the dark

Justified or not, I am often dismayed at the frequency of power outages in my neighborhood. We are currently experiencing the second outage within the last two weeks I believe. Not that the frequency is the issue, it’s more the timing.

These last two outages have occurred when I was just finishing something and getting ready to go to sleep. Since I work nights, that means on my days off I usually hit the sack around 3 or 4 in the morning. With no power, there’s no white noise in the bedroom. This makes it difficult or impossible for my wife to sleep which then makes it difficult or impossible for me to sleep. I can sleep through just about anything once I’m out, but if my wife isn’t already asleep that will never happen.

So, then I get to sit down and write something while I wait for Xcel Energy to fix the problem. A UPS for my cable modem and router help with that. The crews who do the repairs are always friendly and efficient (yes, I have had several chances to talk with them over the years. I’m awake at night…) but I am concerned that the power grid for the area might not be keeping up with our growth.

There are two electrical substations in Northfield. One of them is so old and outdated that I understand Xcel‘s crews are uncomfortable working on it. Perhaps these should be looked at more carefully as part of the infrastructure that is discussed with development. We hear all kinds of things about streets and sewers but little about utilities. If they are not already part of the discussion, then perhaps we should make sure Xcel and the other utilities are able to plan for and keep up with growth in the area.

simple things can save lives

I wear a few different hats at work, and one of those hats involves workplace safety. I recently took over my department’s seat on an organization-wide safety committee. I haven’t been really good about attending the meetings yet, but I am concerned about the things we can do to make our workplace (and the rest of our lives) safer.

I had a chance recently to attend a workshop in Rochester called Southeast Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths. This is part of a statewide effort in Minnesota to address traffic safety across all the people and agencies who can have an impact. The focus areas are Engineering, Education, Enforcement and Emergency Medical Services.

I was really surprised by some statistics that came up during the workshop and were pointed out by some of the speakers. I won’t put them all here, but a great place to start are the Minnesota Safety Belt Coalition and Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety sites.

If you take the statistics from the counties in southeast Minnesota from 1998 to 2003, there is some definite patterns to it:
# There are an average of 8,900 crashes per year
# About 6,230 are property damage crashes with no injuries
# About 2,670 crashes involve injuries, and
# On average, 60-70 people die in crashes each year

(just in SE MN!)

The people who die in those crashes are statistically likely to be males, aged 15 to 29 who are not wearing a seat belt.

So, Ted, what the heck does that information have to do with workplace safety?

First of all, motor vehicle crashes are nationally the largest single cause of workplace death, amounting to about 22% of those killed at work. The homicides we hear about on the news account for about 13%. So driving at work can be a pretty high risk activity.

Secondly, we do our coworkers a disservice when we stop caring about their well being the moment the whistle blows at the end of the day. A lot of bad things happen to employees and their families off the job that directly affect the workplace. Most injuries that cause people to miss work occur away from the jobsite, including the commute to and from work each day. Those injuries cause absenteeism, lower productivity and increased health insurance costs.

What can we do? There are simple solutions that you can do as an individual and some that take a few more folks.

You can choose to wear your seat belt. Whether you drive at work or not, most of us drive to get there and back home at night. And if we don’t drive to and from work, we probably drive somewhere else (I like the Dairy Queen).

You can encourage others to wear their seat belts or restraints. My parents were always “encouraging” me and my sisters to wear our seat belts in the car. My daughter will get the same treatment.

You can take a look at the information yourself and decide what else you can do. People who want to be part of the movement to make a primary seat belt law in Minnesota should consider the MN Safety Belt Coalition. If you are absolutely opposed to primary seat belt law, there is information there you should take a look at before you try to intelligently argue your point.

I will probably talk more about this in the future because it seems like a lot of people are dying every year and nobody hears about it. Or worse, they hear about it and dismiss it as acceptable.

Buckle up. Turn off the cellphone. Look around you. And SLOW DOWN! (Speed is also a significant factor in vehicle crashes, both in terms of cause and in terms of influencing severity…another topic for later)

a hypothetical destination, say, who is this walking man?

Northfield’s downtown is growing, and this is something that needs to be encouraged. A large constituency of Northfield residents have strong feelings about centering community life around the downtown and preserving/expanding its historical character. They want this to continue to feel like the small river town it has been throughout its history, regardless of growth.

There has been a discussion on the “Issues” list about pedestrian safety related to this growth. Basically the issue centers around growth across Highway #3 to the west. If this area develops as a commercial area, there will certainly be a lot of pressure to make it a continuation of the existing downtown. If this is the way the area develops, it will be important that pedestrians are able to safely and conveniently cross Highway #3 between what exists now and what will come to be on the other side of the highway.

Jim Pokorney, a Northfield City Councillor, recently discussed this in his weblog. He included a reprint of an editorial he wrote for the Northfield News.

He makes several important points that bear some reflection. For my part, I’ll make some observations of my own.

Councillor Pokorney is exactly right to point out that downtown commercial development should be treated as fundamentally different from the highway commercial development on the south end of Northfield, extending into Dundas. These two different areas can complement each other well despite what some naysayers will tell you. It is important to recognize this distinction and separate them when discussing development and planning. Downtown is and should be pedestrian focused, as opposed to the south highway district which is vehicle focused. They each have advantages and disadvantages and I’m sure that a lot of folks use both for different reasons.

The City should be planning for this development and expansion of the downtown and has an interest in making pedestrian crossing safe in order to further that vision. MNDOT has an interest in this section of Highway #3 as well. Their interest is focused on safely moving vehicles north and south on the highway, as well as improving access to Highway #19 for truck traffic.

Both of these interests are valid and appropriate undertakings for government. Both the City and MNDOT want improvements in the infrastructure that will increase safety and ensure that commerce can effectively be carried out. That’s what they’re supposed to do: health, safety, welfare, commerce.

As to the specific issue of a light at 3rd Street, I think it’s a “chicken or the egg” scenario.

On the one hand, it may be difficult to support the expense of a signal based on current statistical information about the intersection. There may be more supportive statistics available when more pedestrian-engaged business is carried out on the west side of the highway.

Then again, how attractive will it be for developers to want to improve/renovate that area when they don’t see a ready-made conduit for their foot-powered customers to get to them?

So, I see the question as: when will the light(s) be added to Highway #3, as a result of the redevelopment or as a necessary precursor to it? I am convinced they will be there (MNDOT is installing wiring in anticipation of it as part of the existing project) we just need to decide what the actual mechanism for requiring them will be.

The Irish in Northfield

The 5th annual Northfield St. Patrick’s Day Parade, known as the Patty Dazzle, was held downtown this evening. After living here for several years, I was glad to finally attend this fun event. All the right things were present, a bagpiper, a dancing St. Patrick, the flag of Ireland, and several family banners and crests.

I had a chance to talk with several people who were either marching in the parade or who came to watch. There seems to be a universal theme of fun surrounding St. Patrick’s Day events, and knowledge of the actual history and tradition of the holiday isn’t critical to taking part in the celebration. Even if you don’t know what “Erin go Bragh” means, you can still participate.

Mike McGovern was the Grand Marshall this year and the parade event itself was organized by a group of folks who included Kevin O’Donnell, Jim Bohnhoff, who took the role of St. Patrick, and Northfield City Council Member Jim Pokorney.

I did have the chance to take some pictures and will post them later. For now, you should check out‘s photo album posted by blogger extraordinaire Griff Wigley.

Update: The photos turned out pretty cruddy, so I won’t post them here. Sorry for the tease. Guess I need to move into the late 20th century and get a digital camera…