Sunday, January 30, 2011

Louis' Lunch

Sasha and I finally did something in New Haven, Connecticut. We ate at the infamous Louis' Lunch. Louis' (pronounced Louie's) is the arguably the first place on earth to serve hamburgers. We first sat at the space left at counter and later moved to a teeny booth. It took some time to prepare our meal, so we had time to take it all in.
 Here is a very authentic video on the Louis' experience. It is a lot more crowded and a bit more gritty than the way they portray it. This video shows one of the proprietors we spoke with and is bit more like what we encountered.

The place hasn't changed much in a century and refuses to ever do so. If you are ever in New Haven right near where highway 95 and 91 meet stop by.

The Food

The burgers are slowly (painfully so) cooked to order in one of the three vertical gas grills you see in the back of the first photo. You can get them with sliced tomato, onion, or a schmear of cheddar cheese spread (which they call "cheese"). It is served on sliced white toast. There are no condiments. No ketchup, nor catsup, no mustard (my usual preference). Other than that, they only have home-made potato salad with hard boiled eggs (not my preference), potato chips, and bottled drinks. Nothing else except tradition.

The Verdict

Our $5 burgers were worth the trip. Mine was one of the best burgers I can recall. It tasted wonderful - like actual cooked beef. It is a mixture of freshly ground meats and not what we usually encounter which is usually a puree of beef and fat. The closest I think I've had was something that cost $20 at an upscale eatery somewhere in New York City, but that usually comes with fries. I enjoyed it more than the well reviewed and yummy joint Local Burger which is here in our city in Massachusetts. But I have to admit that our Louis burger would have been truly amazing had it included red-onion instead of yellow, an actual slice of cheddar, and served on a Portuguese roll with some mustard, but then we'd be messing with a 100 year tradition. Also, it sure wouldn't have hurt to have a side of fries, but then again most anything tastes good with a side of fries.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

City School Northampton: Week 9 - Public Works

This week at City School was in two-parts. We had a tour of the Northampton Water Treatment plant which I have already written about. Then we all sat down and learned some of what the Northampton Department Of Public Works does and how they operate and more than that. That was last Spring.We heard about Sustainability, an overview of the DPW, about Wastewater, Highways, and Solid waste. As usual, as I write this, I lose energy at the end, but this class was kind of long and the class also lost energy at the end. If you are patient, and I guarantee that you will learn something about the responsibilities of your Municipal Government today.

Energy and Sustainability

Chris Mason is the City of Northampton's Energy and Sustainability Officer. He spoke to us about a pending application for designation as a Green Community. This sounds like just a title, but such a designation allows the city to be eligible for grants and programs, and this means money. There is a Sustainability Plan for Northampton which has two goals - saving energy and reducing greenhouse gases. I have not read this plan, but I'm sure it has a lot of good stuff in it. Mason told us about a project to do inline hydro-electric power on the outflow of the Water Treatment Plant. (I think it is still awaiting funding.) This could generate power which is one of the large costs of distributing water to the City.  We heard about a $6M Engergy Serivces Project (since approved) which is budget neutral that will add capital-improvement efficiencies that will pay for themselves over time. This is through Con-Ed Solutions which come with a guaranteed performance return.Here's the Energy Reduction Plan from last May.

In general efficiency has the best return and the least cost. (This is true for your home. If you change to lower wattage light-bulbs and insulate, this is the best cheapest thing you can do to save energy and money. That and turning down the heat and using less power, but in that case you'll need sweaters and not be afraid of the dark.) Northampton is a special place. We have the highest number of residents participating in Green Energy programs on their electric bill which means that money will pay for City projects such as putting solar energy (photo-voltaic) on the James House. Green Energy also pays for those free energy audits from CET. LED lighting was installed near the parking garage which is expected to break even in two years. There's more of course.

Department Of Public Works

We heard from Ned Huntley, the Director of Public Works. Some information about the DPW: 81 employees and a $19M budget of which $14M-$15M are from Enterprise Funds. Enterprise Funds are self supporting. They have a revenue stream. In this case of the DPW, this would be billing for use of water, sewage, and garbage and other things. Utililty rates are set to fund 10-20 year budgets. There is a lot of planning involved. The City has 4 engineers. They must design things like stormwater systems. The have a GIS system and GPS so they can locate utilities. As you may guess, they have lots of roads, pipes, and conduits buried and they need to keep track of all this.

If you look at the DPW website, you will see a list of things they are responsible for. Each one is a big bucket. Now I know that my job is easy (although don't tell my boss).
  • Cemeteries
  • Engineering
  • Flood Control
  • Parks
  • Recycling
  • Solid Waste
  • Sewer
  • Stormwater
  • Streets
  • Water
  • WWTPlan - this is the waste-water treatment plant near the Connecticut river.
The DPW is overseen by the Board of Public Works. These are volunteers which are approved by the City Council. They meet twice a month. They also do other things.

Water Division

David Sparks is in charge of the Water Division of the DPW. He spoke about how they handle water in Northampton. In 1974, Congressed passed the Safe Drinking Water Act. It was later amended under 'Decent Bush' (this was the cutest thing I've heard.) Anyway, based on that, the City has to sample water for bacteria monthly, and they don't just do this once and in one place. They test for lead and copper and almost a 100 other contaminants. The Water Division has 14 employees, 30,000 customers, and a budget of $26M. There are 160 miles of pipe and 1863 hydrants. 3 reservoirs active, 2 active wells, and 4,000 acres of watershed. The water plant has a capacity of 6.5 million gallons per day, and we use 3.2 million! (And heck, I don't even have a pool.) The reservoirs are the Ryan Reservoir, West Whately, and Mountain Street. The wells are Spring Street and Clark Street.

You'll notice that the Water Treatment plant is located in Williamsburg. Northampton owns land there. They consulted the Williamsburg residents when building the plant and they have made it a priority to not disturb them. Water is treated to remove organic matter. This water is from reservoirs, so I assume there are leaves and fish poop in there which is the source of the organics. Standards require lower concentration of organic material which is why the City had to build the plant. Water is treated by going through a mixer, a clarifier (getting material to drop out of solution) , carbon filtering, disinfecting (chlorine). There are plans to add UV light disinfecting. Then this all goes into a 4-million gallon tank for storage and later distribution. They have to maintain the right PH of the water to limit pipe corrosion and also so old lead pipes in buildings don't corrode and leach led into the water. With all that going on, 7.2% of the water is still lost or unaccounted for.

The DPW has 3,000 water meters with automated reading - there is a transmitter. They install 50 new hydrants every year - it's just in the plan, so in 60 years they might replace them all. About 15 streets have water pipes from the 1800s. These are the ones that burst from time to time.

Stormwater control does not pay for itself. There is nobody to bill for this, so it simply costs money.


John Carver, the Deputy Superintendent of Wastewater was up next. The Northampton wastewater treatment plant opened in 1952. Before that sewage was dumped directly into the Connecticut River. Yuck. The secondary treatment plan opened around 1980. In 1998, there was a major upgrade. They have an annual budget of $4.3M, spend $150K on chemicals, $300K on electric, and $480K cart 'sludge' (solid stuff) to be incinerated Connecticut.

Currently there are 10 employees, they are licensed to Grade 5 level, so they can each do multiple jobs. Most are at higher grades. Here is some info about how they are licensed. If I recall, I think my nephew was licensed in North Carolina. When we visited my Niece there, he took us on a tour of the treatment plant. It was a while ago, so I'm not sure if it was Water Treatment or Wastewater Treatment.

All this reminds me of a major clarification I must make. You may have figured it out by now, but Wastewater Treatment means treating sewage, effluent, i.e. yucky stuff. Some other places this process might be more thorough, so that the treated water is actually what you drink at the end. Fortunately for us, we have our reservoirs, so for us 'Water Treatment' alone means treating clean surface or well water. And now back to our class...

Wastewater goes through a similar process as regular Water Treatment, except there is more yucky chunky stuff and nobody human drinks it in the end. There is more filtering of solids ("Northampton eats a lot of rice." Blech.) and controlled biological activity going on. Big solids that are filtered out in the beginning are trucked over the the landfill.

The Wastewater plant is located near the dyke at the Southern end of town near the River. As such, the WW workers are trained yearly in flood control. The workers also train in putting wooden barriers in place to close the Dyke. There are pumping facilities - these of course are out of date and require $ to replace.

On the horizon are compliance with regulations about Nitrogen limits. Anything dumped in the Connecticut eventually makes it's way to the Long Island Sound. There will need to be a new, big project to deal with this. Look for this on your sewage bills.

Those who could make it were treated another day to a tour of the wastewater (sewage) treatment plant. Unfortunately I could not attend. But I have it on good authority that you could make an appointment for a tour of DPW facilities. The tour might be as complete as what we at City School experienced, but an experience I promise.

Highway Department

Lastly, we heard from the brand new Highway Superintendent. At the time of our class, Richard Parasiliti had been in this capacity for a month. (Right about now, he is probably dealing with the 15 inches of snow that current is on the ground here.) He had been working for the city for 20 years. Snow and ice is a major concern. It costs the city about $335K to deal with this. Employees across all departments participate (probably because they all have trucks and streets and parking lots, etc.) They work overtime, they have 49 routes, they sometimes plow multiple times. They may sand the streets, etc. Usually snow-removal money is spent before the end of winter. The State allows deficit spending for snow removal, so they can go over budget. Well, they have to go over budget if it snows too much. Usually they are $400K over. After plowing, they must do snow removal, which means they cart the snow away. I think a lot of it winds up in unused parking lots on King Street. Think about it, if it costs a lot one winter to deal with snow, then we end up losing money. If it doesn't cost much, we save money - Yeah.

Solid Waste

Our last presenter was Dave Veleta, the Landfill Manager. Here's a story about him and the landfill accompanied by photos. As many of you know, the Northampton Landfill is near capacity and is scheduled to close, but I won't get into that here. Solid Waste is another Enterprise fund. It currently pays it's own way. Up until 2004, the Landfill was overseen by the Board of Health, now it's under DPW. It is overseen by Mass DEP and the EPA. The city operates the transfer station on Locust Street. And the Landfill on Glendale Road. Please see their website about what they recycle. The Landfill is not a Dump - which is an archaic term that connotes people dropping old mattresses off in a field at the end of town. This is in fact what goes on at the Landfill, but today things are sorted and sometimes recycled and the whole shebang is tightly regulated.

In my household, we take our trash and recyclables (paper, metal, glass) to the Locust Street facility about once a month. We usually have at most two black garbage bags which cost us $2 per bag to dispose of. We pay $25 per year for a permit to dump trash. In my opinion, these fees are cheap. We have a compost heap in the backyard and were participating in a test municipal composting program until 'The Incident'. (To learn more about 'The Incident', leave a comment.) By accounting, for our disposables ourselves, I'm sure we produce less trash than an average home, and I'm also sure we could do better. I wish we Americans did not create so much trash.

The landfill accepts 50,000 tons of trash a year. 39 communities can and 16 do bring trash to our town which accounts for 11%. 8% comes from city sources and drop off. 77% is commercial waste and from private haulers (this might be your garbage if it's picked up by someone.)

Dave told us some of the history of the Landfill, how it is capped and lined. He discussed how gas (from organic decomposition) is piped around (it's now collected and used to generate electricity - enough for 500 homes), and how they collect rainwater (leachate) and pipe it over to the Wastewater plant. They cover the solid waste (our trash) with soil or a tarp (there are standards for this.) They seem to hate snow, since this interferes with covering the trash. I'm sure that we'll be hearing more about the Landfill in the near future, since there currently is a committee looking at it's future.

And there you have it. A long night for me at City School, and a long web page for you. Thank you for getting this far. I hope you enjoyed today's class. Please leave comments and tell me what you think.

City School Northampton: Week 10 - NCTV

Welcome to another - actually this was last - class in City School. This week we had a tour of NCTV. (Dear Reader, please note that this tour actually took place last Spring, but only now am I documenting it.)

What is NCTV?

NCTV Studio

NCTV is Nothampton Community Television. Our so-called public-access cable TV service. In fact, it is at times one of the big reasons my family is willing to pay for cable TV. NCTV provides two channels, Channel 12 and Channel 15, which air local programming. Often it will be something like a School Committee meeting or a City Council meeting. Sometimes it might be a video from the Media Education Foundation, which is also located here in Northampton, Mass. and produces interesting documentaries. And, admittedly, sometimes you see what an Archie Bunker type might call "some whacko". It's all relative. In Manhattan, they are likely to have totally weird stuff on their Community Television. Things are not so weird here. Things on NCTV are usually community-oriented. According to their 2010 Annual Report, NCTV has 120 active members and produces a great deal of programming.

As we learned during our tour of the NCTV studio, they provide training and equipment. They provide educational programs for Northampton High School. And it is pretty easy to get involved and get started creating your own TV programming. This is what community TV is all about.

Where is NCTV?

NCTV Studio

NCTV has a studio housed in the rear lower-level of Northampton High School (NHS). When NHS was rennovated a few years ago, they made room for the studio. When the City of Northampton, negotiates with Comcast they make sure to include some funding for NCTV. This is a federal mandate which is often in danger, since cable companies would rather not have any responsibilities besides counting their money. To maintain things like NCTV, we have to pay attention to what the FCC and congress are up to. Otherwise the funding or the requirement to actually carry the signals to your home could disappear overnight. And I'll leave it to you to figure out which side has the high paid lobbyists and what the powers-that-be would prefer.

What is on NCTV?

NCTV Video Feeds

When they broadcast events live, usually it is from NHS, the City Council, or JFK Middle school. In the latter two cases, they use old wire that was laid long ago by Comcast. And if you missed some of these programs, NCTV offers recorded video online available here. See their Program Guide to tell what is on their two channels.

Now I know after looking at their annual report and their program guide or watched one of their channels late at night, you are gonna ask the obvious question. "What's the deal with 'Fish Time'?"  Fish Time is one of those shows where a camera is pointed at a fish tank and not much happens and probably nobody is around. It does exists for a purpose; it provides live local programming. NCTV has to make use of their channels for such a purpose for a certain number of hours in order to qualify for access to a third channel, so Fish Time it is. From the 2010 Annual Report:
NCTV and the City of Northampton have applied for a 3rd PEG channel on the
Comcast system. We believe we have met all terms of the agreement between the City of
Northampton and Comcast required to acquire this channel. The acquisition of this
channel will require upgrading some of the equipment in NCTV Master Control.
What's next?

Regarding other future plans, as part of the Comcast contract Northampton was recently able to get their city buildings connected using Fiber Optic. NCTV will use this to replace the junky cabling they currently use. From the 2010 Annual Report:
NCTV will utilize dark fiber in the city’s new I-Net to move its current live
transmission system from the old copper Comcast system to this new, more reliable,
higher quality transport mechanism. We will encode video at locations like City Council
Chambers and JFK Middle School and transport it to the NCTV facility where it will be
decoded and distributed via our present system.

NCTV Editing Station

If you have been reading my previous entries about City School, then you will know that I am of the well-informed opinion that all the parts of this City really make do with what resources they have. The few people who manage NCTV really impress me with what they do and what they have accomplished. You can join them or, like me, just sit at home on the couch and watch it on the tube.

I hope you enjoyed this tour. If so, please forward the link to your buddies or leave some feedback.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

City School Northampton: Week 9 - Water Treatment

I have been really remiss in not updating the last few weeks of City School. [Note, I wrote most of this months ago.] So here goes with a quick dump. Less thorough, but since I'm not paid to do this, you get a less complete product.

Perhaps I'll revisit this entry and edit it when I get a chance.

Last week, we visited Dispatch (also known as 9-1-1) as well as the Fire Department. This week we had a tour of the Northampton Water Treatment plant. This plant filters and treats clean water - mainly surface water - from reservoirs in Williamsburg where the City of Northampton owns land. The plant is quite new and only opened a few years ago. Here is some information on Northampton water. It is shiny clean a wonderful. I could picture a concert within the facilities. Perhaps some Water Music by Handel?

Since we had a tour, you will of course get a tour from me.

Northampton has a lot of fresh water flowing around. Below is a map of the Northampton water system. Many of the pipes are ancient - some are a century old.

The Water Filtration Plant is modern. Things are controlled remotely. There are rarely people turning big valves, even though there are many big valves in the plant. Most of it is run by relays and sensors. They opened the cabinet where they live. Each circuit board is one or more relays, sensors, or controls for valves. This cabinet is about 8 feet tall.

Once you have modern automation, then you can view, monitor, and manage things using a computer and software. The plant runs off of software that shows flow rates. Remember, this is a filtration plant, so there are various steps to the process. Also there are two main reservoirs, so they can decide how much water to draw from each.

They have spiffy labs. I'm sure that those jars of colored water are decorative.

Believe it or not, each of these faucets has water from a different source or stage of filtration. All are running all the time. I think you want to drink the stuff on the right.

Vats of chemicals. Remember this plant not only cleans water. It also adds chlorine. I have heard that there are folks around town who don't believe in adding floride to water. I don't know if this is true, but because of that we purchase floride pills for our kid to chew on nightly. I think I'm about to get on my soap box. Here I go. OK, it's quite a shame that we have to have a water filtration plant to clean water which came out of a reservoir. It's a shame there is not much clean potable water left. It's also a shame that they are required to add chlorine to the water. But there are stringent standards and that's what we are stuck with. If you think there is too much chlorine, you are probably right, but the standards require that there are certain levels in all the pipes all over town. This stuff eventually comes out of the water as a gas, so you need fairly fresh water in your area or you have low amounts of clorine. So just like a building with too much heat for everyone else because Apt 4J complained that it was too cold, the town has to over-chlorinate to make sure that a neighborhood which doesn't have many people in it and doesn't use much water has the right levels.

This sign seems silly, but there really is a 4 Million gallon tank outside the water filtration plant. That way if they shut things down, we'll have water for a while.

Everything labeled.

They kindly cleaned the carbon filters for us. Lots of brown stuff bubbled up. They sort-of reverse the flow of the water and then the stuff that was filtered out ends up being dumped outside the plant.

Everything in the plant is labeled like it was the Bat Cave. It adds to the atmosphere of orderly and cleanliness. The carbon filter for the plant is supposed to need replacing every year or two. It costs many thousands of dollars. It's like having thousands and thousands of Brita water filters like you have at home.

Things are sometimes broken down by biological activity, so they need to move things like air around within the water. Here the air goes to the left. Duh.

This would be the backup generator for the plant. The plant runs on electricity and if the power was out, it would still be important to run the equipment and get water flowing. In fact, at the time of this photo, this generator was broken.

As I said, electricity is important, so they rented a emergency generator and parked it outside the plant. A backup, backup.

When they flush the system, some it bubbles up outside.

The bad stuff ends up here. It's the stuff they filter out. Once one lagoon is full of sediment, they use the other. They take the solid stuff and haul it to the landfill. In principle, this stuff is not so bad, since it came out of a reservoir, but there you go.

After the tour we were told about Public Works. I took some notes, which I hope I transcribe sometime soon.

Well you've had your tour. Satisfied? If so, leave a comment.

If you'd like your own tour, you could try calling the Northampton Department of Public Works and asking. I think they could arrange one.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Visiting The Bunker

Recently I visited The Bunker.

Built into the side of Bare Mountain in Amherst, Massachusetts before I was born.
It was built for the Cold War, and housed a communications center for Strategic Air Command. Reportedly it had something to do with the Cuban Missile Crisis, an event near and dear to my heart. Really.
And now it is owned by Amherst College. It houses archives and old books from the Five Colleges.
Inside it is tidy, and there are no windows.

There are a few artifacts here and there. Like this clipping from a German newspaper. This article is about how the former Cold-War bunker now houses the DEFA collection of former East-German films. DEFA kindly arranged the tour.
There were many shelves like these. They are taller than they look and see those tracks on the floor. These shelves can move.
East-German films.
Many, many of them.

One part of The Bunker contained their old 'computer' room which was probably cleaned out in 1971. I think that the room housed communications equipment. Here's the door.

Here's what is left of the elevated floor.
The room overlooks a large room which had 'the big board' - the command center.
Now it has storage from Amherst college.
Does this remind you of Citizen Kane?
And now your visit has ended too.