Monday, November 21, 2011

High-Speed Rail; the turkey for our Thanksgiving

They need to explain why the on-line publication GOVERNMENT TECHNOLOGY lists the California High-Speed Rail project as #2 on their list of 11 top tech turkeys for 2011.  It should be #1!

It's the most expensive non-defense project ever devised by the government and by now it's a nationally recognized, well-defined disaster, and that's a year before any construction has begun.

This project received the Boondoggle of the Year Award from the House Finance Committee earlier this year.  And that was when actual cost projections were less than half of what they are now. 

Those who blame critics and HSR objectors like us for the political debacle this project has become, are only blaming the potential victims.  The CHSRA itself, that inept progenitor of this project, has left a trail of incompetence and mismanagement. And it has with far greater skill, managed to shoot itself in both feet.   

There's more to say about this project: 

The reason this turkey is a turkey, and I have been saying this for a long time, is that it is not actually a rail program, it's a money program.  That is, the purpose of this project is not to create the embellishment of a transit system, since everyone knows that's not what we need.  The purpose is to spend large amounts of federal dollars to stimulate the state economy and create jobs.  That, in fact, is what LaHood says repeatedly. And that's why Governor Brown and the Legislative Democrats will not, under any circumstances, cancel it. 

For us, in California, inter-city high-speed rail is a gimmick, a fanciful railroad "dessert," while we starve, metaphorically speaking, for a nutritious, healthful transit capacity in our population regions.

HSR is the important-sounding equivalent of a jobs program consisting of digging holes and refilling them.  Meanwhile, we all, in the Central Valley and on the Peninsula, keep debating about which alignment or which route is the least harmful.  As if that mattered to the Legislature or the Governor.

What is so profoundly disturbing to me is not the expenditure of these dollars or that intention; I am a Democrat and believe in the role of government to stimulate a moribund economy!  What is wrong is this lunatic project. Whereas there are so many other, far more worthy activities that could and should have been the intent for a jobs and economic stimulus expenditure. 

We all know what those are; infrastructure, yes.  A vastly improved urban and regional multi-modal transit system. Repair of the bridges, roads, levees, water delivery systems, schools, etc.  All could have been jobs investments for those dollars. 

It's a classic misconception that, instead of making small, incremental changes to a large multi-modal transit system, the intention is to made huge, dramatic changes with a (relatively) small but vastly expensive single system, one new 800 mile rail line.  The principle is, make small changes to large systems; don't make large changes to small systems.  Those are doomed to fail. 

However, layered beneath all of this is a remarkably self-serving if not corrupt industrial and financial world, supported by politicians who are bought and paid for with generous campaign contributions from that world and its armies of lobbyists.  And for that reason, I am filled to the brim with disgust for both Parties and all those who support this vast network of greed and exploitation for their own, selfish purposes.

"A plague o' both your houses!"

The Top 11 Tech Turkeys of 2011
November 21, 2011

Not everything goes according to plan. When it comes to technology, one might argue that most things don’t. 2011 was no exception. From corruption and skyrocketing costs to outages and missing airplanes, here are the Top 11 Tech Turkeys of 2011.  

1. D.C.’s Twitter Transparency Troubles

Prior to September, Washington, D.C., Fire Department public information officer Pete Piringer was the local media’s go-to guy for breaking news. Piringer was a longtime PIO who had taken to Twitter to share up-to-the-minute details on anything crime or emergency related. Evidently, however, Piringer’s superiors weren’t quite as pleased with the torrent of transparent tweets, and sometime in mid-September, the “dcfireems” Twitter feed was silenced. Officials initially claimed that Piringer was merely on vacation. A month later a dcfireems tweet promised that Piringer would resume his Twitter duties. But it was not to be, as Piringer was eventually reassigned to other duties. What was really happening, according to Emergency Management magazine blogger Gerald Baron, was that D.C. police were going to encrypted radio and didn't want the fire department to be talking openly about things that they were trying to keep under wraps. 

2. California High-Speed Rail Cost Explodes to $98 Billion
The proposed — and voter-approved — plan to connect Northern and Southern California via high-speed rail has many critics decrying the project as a massive boondoggle, thanks to a revised business plan the California High-Speed Rail Authority released in early November. The project is now estimated to cost $98 billion, more than triple the amount voters OK’d in 2008. The revised plan also indicated that the project would be completed in 2033, 13 years longer than previously estimated. 

3. Kansas IT Chief Quits After One Day

One day after Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback announced that Jim Mann was appointed as the state’s chief IT officer, Mann abruptly resigned after controversy arose about his academic credentials.

Mann was officially appointed during a news conference on Monday, Nov. 7. Brownback said Mann would oversee and improve IT efficiency in Kansas — a position paying $150,000 a year. A press release from the governor announcing Mann’s appointment — which has since been pulled from the state website — stated that Mann had received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Devonshire in the United Kingdom, reportedly an unaccredited “diploma mill.” 

4. Outrage Over BART Wireless Shutdown 

Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officials’ decision in August to turn off cell service at four underground stations led to a host of problems. BART officials said the temporary shutdown was due to information they had that mobile devices would be used to organize a rush-hour protest over the shooting deaths of two men by BART police.

Turning cell service off created a firestorm of freedom-of-speech claims, including from the activist group “Anonymous.” The group fired back at BART on Aug. 14, hacking the website and leaking the personal and login information of that website’s users. The hacking incident was followed by an additional protest, organized by Anonymous on Aug. 15 of about 100 people that caused the shutdown of various BART stations. 

5. Colorado’s Decrepit Finance System 

An audit released July 11, titled Evaluation of the Sustainability of the Colorado Financial Reporting System, found that Colorado’s more than 20-year-old accounting and financial management system is at an increasing risk of a partial or complete failure, chiefly because it hasn’t had a maintenance contract for 12 years and is instead being serviced by employees set to retire soon, with no viable replacement personnel available to fill the void.

The audit has since spurred Colorado officials to improve the situation. In a follow up discussion about the finance system, Colorado CIO Kristin Russell told Government Technology, “We need constant evolution to be in a better place than where we are today, and reliance on and help from the private sector and third-party vendors to help get there.”

6. Amazon’s Cloud Outage

Amazon’s EC2 cloud storage service suffered a significant outage in April that lasted more than a day, reminding even the most ardent supporters of cloud computing that no technology is bulletproof. The service disruption didn’t appear to scare off some government adopters though. In fact, the federal government’s “cloud first” posture could be a harbinger of the future. But some observers said public-sector customers should at least proceed cautiously. 

7. New York City’s CityTime Debacle

Details of one of the biggest alleged fraud cases in the history of technology procurement emerged in 2011. Unsealed documents showed that 11 people and one company — most of them contractors — who were working on New York City’s CityTime project, a new Web-based payroll tracking systems, are alleged to have overbilled and been involved in kickbacks. The project’s cost ballooned from $63 million to more than $600 million. A city official said last month that they would support reforming how technology projects are monitored and managed.

8. Missouri’s Ill-Fated Social Media Rules

A state law passed last summer required all student-teacher messaging and communication through online forums — such as Facebook — to be publicly available. The legislation was drafted to prevent the possibility of inappropriate behavior. But the Missouri State Teachers Association sued to block the law, claiming it would have a chilling effect on teachers’ ability to use social media and online resources for instructional purposes.  In October, Gov. Jay Nixon repealed a portion of the law, but school districts are still required to have a written policy in place next year.  

9. North Carolina’s Hindering of Municipal Broadband

A law passed in North Carolina in May effectively killed any chance of starting new municipally owned broadband networks in the state. Unsurprisingly Internet service providers supported the legislation, which imposed restrictions and tax burdens on new muni broadband efforts. The assistant city manager of Salisbury, N.C., called the law “a cable monopoly protection bill.” Some operators of existing municipal broadband networks said they were now hesitant to expand because of the legislation. 

10. DARPA’s Disappearing Test Plane

An experimental plane capable of going 13,000 mph was lost after it disappeared Aug. 11 after being launched from a rocket at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 was the fastest aircraft ever built. DARPA officials said the agency will try again.

11. California’s Shuttered Transparency Website

Gov. Jerry Brown shut down the state’s transparency website in November because there was a lack of up-to-date information being posted. The website lasted less than two years. State officials defended the move, saying the information — such as salary data — was still available elsewhere online. Could this be the start of a trend? Government is learning that transparency costs money.

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