Black River News noted last week that comments could still submitted about the panel recommended proposals for the five million in fines demanded of Ameren by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for the Taum Sauk reservoir failure. Though I don’t live in the area, I had thought about submitting comments, to Ameren, and also to Thomas LoVullo, FERC contact, at

I eventually missed the window of opportunity to make such comments, because I kept getting struck by how much this money was seen as more of windfall than a penalty and remedy.

A panel representing the community was created to review the proposals submitted, and to make recommendations. They established their own guidelines:

We consciously made a decision early in the selection process to focus on building and repairing existing but resource-strapped entities, instead of land purchases and acquisition of new properties for environmental purposes.

We believe that our recommendations are entirely consistent with the criteria established in the FERC Stipulation and Consent Agreement and the Panel’s collective understanding of the local community and relative value to the community of each application. Therefore, we are confident that the recommended applications/projects are an appropriate and worthy use of the funds.

We have been thorough in our reviews, and believe we have collectively determined critical needs for the affected region of Reynolds and Iron Counties.

By addressing critical needs, the committee has set an awkward precedent: how long will the community be dependent on this event in order to meet its needs? What happens when the windfall funds associated with this event, run dry?

Most of the requests that were recommended by the committee were for items that one would think would be funded by traditional lines of revenue: the school roof, the sheriff’s car, the road equipment. I grant the items might be needed, and the money well spent, but I have to ask: if the dam at Taum Sauk hadn’t broken, how would these items be funded? We have to assume that a school needs a decent roof, and the law enforcement reliable transportation. Surely, though, the community can’t hope for disasters of this magnitude happening on a frequent enough basis to continue funding required items such as these?

Seems to me that using the money for such effort is not building toward the future, because in the future, where then will the community get its funds for the schools, the police, and the roads? Wouldn’t a better course of action be for the community to work with the people and the state to ensure adequate funding for such critical items? Then it wouldn’t be dependent on one individual corporation, or windfalls from said corporation’s irresponsible acts in order to meet it’s minimum needs.

To demonstrate what I’m saying, I also have bills to pay and needs to be met. My mother owns a home, my roommate has a company provided life insurance policy. If either of them were to die, I would benefit, and thus be able to pay my bills and meet my needs. Well, at least for now. However, a more appropriate approach to bill paying is to seek work that gives me money, more or less on a basis, in order to pay my bills–not wait for someone I care about to kick.

Returning to the recommended projects, other of the items, such as funding for an ad campaign for a hospital and new medical equipment for a privately owned medical center, seemed to me to be dubious uses of the money. At best. Even ‘good’ uses of the money, such as the new play ground and the equipment for the handicap work center don’t strike me as really fitting the proposal to the event that occurred to generate this money. More than that, it’s using the money as a bandage so that the community doesn’t have to face what seems to me to be a persistent problem with funding, and perhaps too much of a reliance on one source for that funding.

I was disappointed when two proposals were not accepted, not the least of which only one, the Nature Conservancy’s request for funding to provide better access to a rare fens area, is the only request that actually meets all three of the FERC guidelines–it’s related to environmental protection, it provides educational opportunities and through tourism, enhances economic development, as well as enhances the quality of life. Of course, the original FERC guidelines are a bit fuzzy:

Enhance economic development and quality of life

Provide environmental protection – including preservation of animal habitats at or near the Taum Sauk Plant

Develop or promote educational and/or recreational opportunities, including hydropower education at or near the plant and including access to these opportunities for disabled persons.

I would say that “enhance economic development and quality of life” is the same as telling Ameren to be agin’ sin.

Mapping these guidelines directly to the event, though, does provide a more structured view of the requirements. The fens area development could not only increase access to one of the rarest of such in the world, it could also help provide a tourist alternative to Johnson’s, while it’s closed for ‘repair’ (for how long is another vast mystery).

There was a second project dismissal that disappointed me–to begin the process of bringing in broadband access. This one was eliminated almost from the start, yet it also was one of the few that met two of the guidelines: economic development and educational, as well as recreational opportunities.

With the Taum Sauk dam breaking, the resulting effects could be a lemons-to-lemonade opportunity for the community by providing educational outreach for those wanting to study the after effects. I would imagine that there are geology and environmental, not to mention other departments, at colleges for hundreds of miles around that would love the opportunity to send classes to the area to get field research. A huge chunk of the mountain was taken down to bedrock, providing a unique opportunity to get a first hand look at the geology of the Ozarks. How an event like this can impact on the environment, possible field studies for engineering students and so on could be a way of bringing in significant numbers of people to help offset some of the losses due to reduced tourism.

Heck, refocused in this manner, the event could even be a boon to tourism.

More than that, the effects from the dam break could have served as a bridge between the local communities–nestled in their river-based valleys, surrounded by the gentle beauty of cell and satellite signal-destructing hills–and the wider world. Instead, the money is being spent on ad campaigns for a local hospital, and a new road grader, I believe it was.

The area still has this opportunity, but one thing efforts like this need are reliable access to the internet. In particular, having access to the internet would allow those with physical challenges to participate, vicariously, in the researches.

In addition, having access to the internet would enable the small companies, shops, campgrounds, restaurants, and artists in the area to expand their internet-enabled outreach. Right now, phone modem access is not effective when monitoring store transactions, or loading higher resolution photographs–or for communicating, providing videos, or any of the other new media that’s become so important to today’s businesses.

Then there’s the ability to offer broadband internet access to tourists in the area–perhaps even a wireless network at Johnson’s itself. This would certainly be compatible with the plans for the re-building of Johnson’s, with its dual research and education centers.

What could it have done for the students to take the place of their new roof? Open up a vista of internet taught classes that are just now starting to be offered to students across the state. That’s what was confusing about rejecting this choice, because Missouri prides itself on the advances made in remote teaching. Instead of a roof, which will go leaky in five years, give them the world. And don’t worry: it’s not all porn.

Better yet: give them both. What would the school had done if the dam hadn’t broke? Then that’s what the school should do now, and let the ‘windfall’ money go to efforts that build to the future, rather than be used to smooth gaps in the a funding system that’s obviously broken.

Oh there is money set aside for tourism outreach. A hundred grand. If the organization that manages this is the same one that led previous efforts, all I can say is: what a waste. This strikes me as more an effort to enrich a few, while the many are still dangling, caught out by Community and Government Leaders who Know Best.

One item that was recommended was the creation of cellphone towers. Why, then, broadband wasn’t added as a complementary effort is hard to say–other than I wonder how much corporate and community leaders want the local citizens to have better access to better communication facilities.

Now, what’s happened by having most of the money go to meet ‘critical’ needs is that the community has been given money to meet these needs today, with little effort made to meet the needs of tomorrow. I guess it can hope that the dam Ameren builds now will break in a decade or so, and the community given another windfall. Seems like a rather harsh funding model, to me.

The fact that our rural communities are not getting the support from the state, or communities such as St. Louis, should be faced directly. The citizens should be in their representative’s faces, asking why a dam had to break in order to get a new school roof. Windfalls are not a good way to fund schools.

Speaking of windfall, that led to another concern I had: why is it that no one contested the ten million that FERC pocketed from the Ameren fine? After all, FERC was a co-participant in the events leading up to the dam breaking. The FERC engineers who inspected the dam gave it a passing grade, year after year. The latest was published just the day before the dam broke.

Yet rather than be criticized, chastised, or even questioned, FERC receives what amounts to a windfall from its negligence. You see now? That’s why I can’t be a politician. I can’t for the life of me understand why a government agency that screws up so badly can be rewarded so richly.

FERC instructs Ameren to give five million to the community, with part of it already set aside for an emergency system in the area. Then while everyone hovers over that money, it quietly gathers it’s pile of loot and heads off into the sunset, with nary a comment from local and state governments, and the press.

Ah well, vaster minds than mine must comprehend all of this. Too bad this is too late for the Ameren/FERC meetings today: perhaps they could have explained how all this works.


Pastel fruit flavored marshmallows

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Perhaps I’m overly tired tonight, but Noded’s post today really resonated. JR wrote:

I think back to the people at SXSW who are supposedly the movers and shakers in our high tech online world. They seem to be working in mediocrity, working with browsers that break, operating systems that leave you vulnerable to constant attack, unwieldy programs that fail to do what they are supposed to, web sites that are impossible to navigate. I’m hoping at some point someone down in Austin starts to realize things ain’t going to fix themselves.

As serendipity would have it, the WaSP weblog updated, based on today’s SxSW meeting, in order to promote a new initiative: WaSP Street Team:

The WaSP Street Team is about you. No, not all the other YOUs reading this but YOU you, in your actual skin. The idea is that together we create a number of tasks – challenges if you will – to help the promotion of web standards in your local community. Things that will help get the word out to the businesses, educational institutions, web shops and individuals who live and operate directly near you. As a central group it’s hard for us to reach those people, but as a distributed team, it’s easy.

In between edits this last week, I moved all my images to Amazon’s S3 using a variety of RESTful applications, wrote about it (and will write again about it), ported my weblog over to being served as XHTML, wrote about it, ran my first test of embedded SVG within a web post, wrote about it, and decided that the WordPress category scheme won’t work for my needs and am creating a replacement. All of the functionality I’m creating for my web site I’ll write about, as clearly as possible, so that everyone, techs and not, can understand. I hope. All the code I create will eventually be released, as plugins or applications or what have you.

All will be using industry standard specifications: XHTML, CSS, RDF, Atom, REST, as well as JavaScript, PHP, Python, Java, and Ruby (for my S3 work).

I don’t know how many people read my site. Hi People! Regardless of the number, you all are my outreach. I may not go to conferences, you may never meet me face to face, chat with me over IM or twitter, vidcast each other, or swap spit, but I never fail to share what I discover. Yet we value those who go to conference after conference, who jump on to the next tech gewgaw, join in the next group hug, cellphone planted in one ear, iTunes in the other, eyes aglow talking about this brave new world where people don’t have to live and work face to face, all the while telling people they have to meet face to face to be real–busily twittering away about every…mundane…act, because if they stop, they actually stop, the silence will catch up with them like a humongous tidal wave and do something horrid!

For the last year, reading much of this, I feel like I’ve lived on a solid diet of marshmallows–you know, the small pastel, fruit flavored kind? It’s good at first, and even tasty, but eventually you’d kill for an apple or a cheese sandwich.

Frankly, anyone who goes to more than one conference every month is just not someone who stands still long enough to have anything interesting to say. And if we ever do meet face to face someday, I can tell you it won’t be in the midst of 4000 other conference goers, all twittering away while ignoring everything around them(!?)–or while we share toasted marshmallows over a campfire snuggled up in sleeping bags among 150 strangers.

Twitter is the big thing coming out of SxSW. My god people. Might as well run a magnet across your synapses.


GoogleWatch on Twitter:

Sure, I get it. It’s a message board for BlackBerry-toting tech zombies. And the majority of posts I’ve seen include the blabberspeak mumblegum language of incessant now-ness:

LaughingSquid: “up, barely, coffee soon”
jidnet: “just woke up.”
daveboob: “Watching a bulldozer outside with Sam.”


To which Seth Ladd replies:

In an age where style easily trumps content, Twitter has neither.

OK, wienie roast is over, back to the book edits.

Technology Web

Wither away Ajax?

Dare Obasanjo has wrung the death knell on Ajax, but I disagree with him on several counts.

He writes:

Most people who’ve done significant AJAX development will admit that the development story is a mess. I personally don’t mind the the Javascript language but I’m appalled that the most state of the art development process I’ve found is to use Emacs to edit my code, Firebug to debug in Firefox and attaching Visual Studio to the Internet Explorer processes to debug in IE. This seems like a joke when compared to developing Java apps in Eclipse or .NET applications in Visual Studio. Given how hypercompetitive the “Web 2.0” world is, I doubt that this state of affairs will last much longer.

There is an Eclipse plugin for JavaScript development (actually, more than one), and that’s only one of many JS development tools. I tend to use text editors and Firebug because I’ve found both to be sufficient for my needs. All you have to do is search on “edit JavaScript” to pull up a host of free, open, and/or commercial tools to simplify JavaScript editing. This is in addition to the graphical tools for working with SVG and Canvas.

As for Firebug, I think that Dare sells this application way too short. With Firebug I can not only inspect a web page contents, stop a process and inspect programming constructs, drill into the CSS and markup, investigate what’s taking so long for the page to load, and review responses back from Ajax calls, I can see the document object model at a glance, and how all these little pieces pull together. I’ve worked with a host of desktop tools: none has ever had the ability to drill into every aspect of the application as much as Firebug allows me to do so with a simple web page.

Dare also writes:

There is too much pressure on Web companies to improve their productivity and stand out in a world full of derivative YouTube/MySpace/Flickr knock offs.

Yes, but why did all of these become so popular? Because they’re all accessible using something that everyone has: a web browser. There’s nothing to install, other than the ubiquitous Flash plug-in. There’s nothing proprietary about most of the technology used. These applications work with most browsers, except perhaps the older Internet Explorers or Netscape 4.x. Even then, most work with operating systems and browsers that the companies that provided both dropped support for years ago.

In fact, Ajax, rather than being a technology that’s heading out the door, could actually be one of the few open doors left for the people who have not been able to buy that new Macbook Pro, or dual-processor Dell machine. Microsoft, Sun, Apple, Adobe–any one of these companies would leave the less affluent in the dust in a heart beat. The web page is the great equalizer on the internet.

I do somewhat agree with Dare, in that desktop development systems that incorporate Ajax-like technologies, such as JavaScript, will grow. I imagine that Flash/Flex, OpenLaszlo, and WPF/E will get a following and do well. But their health is not negatively correlated with the health of Ajax, with one gaining only at the expense of the other.

Ajax isn’t just a name or a set of technologies: it’s a way of pulling out as much functionality as can be pulled out of a web page as possible. The desktop applications such as Google’s office killers get a lot of the publicity, but the real power behind ‘Ajax’ is little things like comment live preview, Flickr’s in-place edits, or WordPress’ expandable form elements. It’s deleting a row and not having to re-find your place as the page loads. It’s zooming in on a picture, mapping out a route on a map, live updating unread feeds, and a host of other ways of Doing Things Better.

If there’s anything to worry about with Ajax is that sometimes accessibility and validity of web page contents are sacrificed for ‘cool effects’. That, and the hype. By hyping Ajax as a ‘thing’ than it becomes easier to dismiss that ‘thing’ in favor of other ‘things’. But the concepts, effect, libraries, tool, techniques, go beyond being just ‘a thing’–it’s just the way web development will be done in the future. You can no more say that its day is done, as you can say that the hyperlink is old and therefore passè.

Dare also mentions about Java being the most used language today. Frankly, I doubt that it is the most used language. I would say that JavaScript is the most used language, followed closely by PHP. Java is most likely the most used for corporate development, but I don’t think it can compete with all the folks running simple little PHP applications just to upload their photos. Or post thoughts online, like this one.

For every person using a WebLogic or WebSphere application, there’s ten thousand webloggers using WordPress. For ever consumer of EJBs, there’s a thousand people using Gallery. For every web site that runs off Tomcat, there’s a million, or more, running PHP, Perl, Python, and Ruby. Google and Yahoo big users of Java? MSN the same with .NET? None of them would be anything without the millions, billions of simple web pages the rest of us produce.

Now is when things are really starting to get good. More web services, more semantics, more agreement among the browser developers, advances in the technology–better graphics, better JavaScript, better CSS and markup, and interesting twisty new ways of bringing it together…give it up? Not likely.

Of course, I’m finishing up a book on Ajax, and it’s natural I’ll say these things. But I didn’t write this book for the Mega-tool developers, the Kool Kids, or those who seemingly want to replace Photoshop or Office with online tools. I certainly didn’t write it to support the la-la land that is Silicon Valley, or the megapolis that is Microsoft. I wrote the book for the webloggers and the Gallery users; the folks running an online store, a corporate site, or an online publication; those digging after knowledge, and the knowledge providers; those who come to the web to teach and those who come to learn. Saying Ajax is ‘going away’ makes as much sense as saying all of these are going away.