One Step Closer

San Francisco has its Transbay Center back.

You may note there’s a word missing from that sentence.

Actually, purists would argue there are a couple of words missing. But I just can’t see calling it the “Salesforce Transit Center”. Corporate naming is the modern equivalent of product placement.

Back in the day–mostly even before my time–companies would sponsor a radio or TV program. For underwriting a large chunk of the cost of the show, the sponsor would not only get to put their name in the show’s name (remember The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny or more recently, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom?) but would also get to have their products appear in the show.

Now sponsors pay a small fraction of the cost of production (Salesforce is paying $110 million over twenty-five years; the total cost of the terminal–not counting the recent repairs–was around 2.2 billion) but still want total recognition.

Is it any wonder people ignore the new names or nickname them into oblivion? I suspect that building in downtown San Francisco will be widely known as “The Transit Center”.

But I digress.

Anyway, the rooftop park, complete with its new non-decomposing concrete paths, reopened to the public yesterday.

Crowds were, well, not very crowded. But then, the reopening was only lightly publicized. Judging by the Chron’s reporting, most of the traffic came from people who stopped into one of the coffee shops that have doors leading to the park and decided to add a little sunshine to their caffeine fixes.

Fair enough. I’d likely have done the same if I’d been in the vicinity. (Let it be noted here that my previous employment was a short block away from the large hole in the ground now occupied by the terminal. I dare say that if I were still working there, I’d be hanging out in the park at lunchtime on a regular basis.)

But back to that missing word. There isn’t yet any transit in the Transit Center.

Debris from the repairs and the major re-inspections is still being cleaned up. And, naturally, the bus drivers who’ll be using the center need to be retrained in how to get in and out of the building. Or in many cases, trained for the first time. Those direct freeway on- and off-ramps can be tricky (and no, I’m not being sarcastic here; it seems like a potentially confusing transition.)

No date has been set to resume bus service, but official-type people are bandying “August”. Let’s recall that the center officially opened last August 10th. It might be nicely symbolic to have the official re-opening on the same day this year. (And it would be almost purely symbolic. The tenth is a Saturday, and most of the transbay buses don’t run on weekends.)

As for the ground-level businesses that everyone hopes will attract non-commuters to the Transbay Soon-To-Be-Transit Center, they’re not scheduled to open until “fall”.

But the park is open. That’s progress.

SAST 14

Today’s Short Attention Span Theater is not brought to you by disease or lack of sleep, it’s just an excuse to deal with my to-do pile.

First, a brief administrative note.

I will be attending the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival at the end of the month. I’m not planning a book signing or any other formal event, but The RagTime Traveler will be available for sale*. Come on down to Sedalia, enjoy the music, pick up a book, and I’ll be delighted to sign it for you.

* Dad’s ragtime books, both fiction and non-fiction, will also be in the festival store. In my totally unbiased opinion, you need copies of all of those as well.

While I will take my laptop along, I don’t plan to write any blog posts. I’ll make sure to have a post for Friday, May 31–I don’t want to be responsible for riots caused by cat deprivation–but other than that expect silence between May 28 and June 4, with a return to the usual schedule on June 6.

Second, I’m a little disturbed to discover that El Sobrante* is more dangerous than I’d thought.

* For those unfamiliar with the Bay Area, El Sobrante is the closest of the several cities that border the part of Richmond where I live.

Over the years, I’ve gotten accustomed to the suspicious sorts lurking in the local undergrowth, but it appears that a new threat is moving in.

According to a recent post on everyone’s favorite unbiased news source–Nextdoor–“[…]a somewhat large buck with velvet covered antlers jumped out from the side… he mean mugged us hella hard and took a few quick steps towards the car…”

That’s right. As if street gangs of turkeys and terrorist coyotes aren’t bad enough, now we’ve got to deal with deer carjackers. It’s a bad neighborhood, obviously, and getting worse.

But I have to wonder: how the heck did the deer expect to drive the car to the chop shop? He could probably hold the key between his hooves, but it’s not like the driver’s seat can be adjusted to fit his shape. For that matter, what kind of payment would he have been expecting? I’ve heard that fences pay chicken feed, but salt licks?

Anyway, moving on.

The big story a few days ago was that Microsoft is working on tools to (as the Chron’s headline put it) “secure elections”. Which is great news as far as it goes.

Microsoft is doing it right: making the source code freely available, so anyone can audit it and any company in the voting machine field can use it.

The thing is, it’s not a complete voting system, and the value of Microsoft’s software is only as good as the implementation. Voting machine companies have a justifiably poor reputation for the quality of their coding. You can have the greatest software in the world for allowing voters to verify their ballot, and it’ll be absolutely useless if the rest of the software and the hardware it’s running on is riddled with security holes.

How many voting machines run on Windows XP, an operating system that has been completely unsupported for half a decade? (Probably fewer than the number of ATMs running on OS/2, which has been dead for three times as long. But I digress.) Sorry, not totally unsupported. Microsoft just released a security patch for XP. How many of those voting machines running the code are going to get the patch? I’m betting on a percentage in the single digits.

Also, as the articles point out, Microsoft’s new code doesn’t support Internet voting (something far too many people want, given the woeful state of the art) or vote by mail systems, which are increasingly popular.

I’m not running Microsoft down. As I said, it’s a step in the right direction. But we as a country need to take far more than just that one step.

And, finally, no SAST post is really complete without a mention of either the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch or the Transbay Terminal fiasco. I don’t have anything on the BBBB, but there was a brief note in the Chron a few weeks about about the terminal.

The cracked support beams are nearly repaired–though we still don’t have a date for the grand reopening. What we do have is word that the paths in the rooftop garden are going to be replaced.

Those paths, you may remember, are made of decomposed granite, and even before the terminal was closed, the granite was decomposing even further. So the decision has been made to repave the paths, this time using concrete.

As local megaconstruction repair projects go, it should be a comparatively cheap fix, no more than half a million dollars or so. The city and the contractors are, of course, arguing over who is at fault for the failure of the paths. We all know who’s going to wind up paying for the repair, though, and it isn’t either of the arguing parties.

SAST 13

Hello and welcome to the latest edition of Short Attention Span Theater. Lucky Number 13! For those of you new to the blog, sometimes I do an SAST because I literally don’t have enough mental focus to write a full post on any subject. More often, it’s my way of clearing the blog’s to-do list of ideas that aren’t worth an entire post of their own.

I’ll leave it to you to decide, based on the internal evidence, which category this is in.

Ready? Too late, here we go anyway.

Perhaps you remember my handy theatrical guide to long-running news stories. For the record, the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch stayed in Act One for an incredible length of time before zipping through Acts Two and Three, bypassed Act Four entirely, and is now in Act Five.

I’m pleased to see that the Transbay Terminal mess isn’t following a similarly distorted trajectory. We got out of Act One in a mere five months, and we’re now solidly in Act Two. In mid-March, the Transbay Joint Powers Authority threw all the blame for the debacle on the various contractors, individually and collectively.

Naturally, by the end of the month, two of the three contractor had responded, saying in essence, “Hey, we did everything right. Take a look at the third contractor and the designer. They’re the ones that really muffed it.”

Putting on my QA hat for a second, I’ll just note that one of the jobs of the QA team is to point out problems with the design. It’s always cheaper to fix an error before it gets built. That’s true whether you’re talking about software or buildings. If the contractors had concerns about stress on the beams, why didn’t they raise them before construction started?

Anyway, I find it interesting that, so far as I can tell, the third contractor has yet to respond to the accusations of the TJPA and the other two outfits. Clearly, we’re not quite finished with Act Two, but we’ve got clear signs that Act Three is imminent.

That being the case, we may find ourselves watching a bold theatrical experiment, with multiple acts being staged at the same time. If the gimmick works, we might even find ourselves watching Acts Three, Four, and Five simultaneously.

I expect rapid developments in the play come summer. Remember, the terminal is supposed to reopen in June; we can expect a large PR push to convince commuters that it’s safe. That’s almost sure to provoke a lot of finger pointing and the launch of the inevitable lawsuits and countersuits.

Moving on.

For anyone interested in our litter box experiments, we’ve settled on a new long-term litter plan.

We tried Sledpress’ recommendation of Dr. Elsey’s litter with the Formerly Feral Fellows, and it did work as promoted. There was some scattering, though not as much as with the Nature’s Miracle. It did well at controlling odor, and the dust wasn’t as bad as some of the reviews led us to expect. On the downside, it’s hard to find locally, and even allowing for the fact that we got an entire month out of one jug, it still comes out more expensive on a per use basis. Most importantly, though, it seemed as though the Fellows weren’t very enthusiastic about it. They used their other box, loaded with more conventional litter, more often than before we introduced them to Dr. Elsey.

The more conventional litter we tried out is SmartCat All-Natural Clumping Litter. It’s grass-based, clumps very well–I’d even say “frighteningly well” given the size of some of the clumps we’ve found, and does a decent job of controlling odors. We are getting more scattering than I’d like, but it’s at a manageable level. No litter is perfect, but this stuff seems good enough that we’ve converted all but one of the indoor boxes to it.

The exception is currently using up what we expect to be our final bag of World’s Best Cat, and we’re finding that the gang would rather use the SmartCat boxes than the one with WBC.

Finally, there’s this.

Regular readers are already aware of my feelings about the devil’s condiment.

I’m delighted to note that we now have scientific evidence to support my purely logical reaction to that stuff. Forget HoldThatMayo, Bon Appetit, and JSpace. While it’s nice to see fellow travelers, one can’t help but note that their appeals are based on paranoia, emotion, and prejudice.

That’s why it’s great to see the word from Popular Science that there’s well-grounded, firm scientific support for the contention that mayonnaise is eeevil.

Take cheer, my brethren. The battle will be long–I expect the pro-mayo forces to be at least as persistent as the anti-vaccination loons–but with Science! on our side, we’ll win in the end.

Oopsie!

Oof. Just, like, wow, man.

Sorry. I don’t get a chance to talk about the theory and practice of QA very often, so when an opportunity like this comes along, it’s a bit overwhelming.

According to the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, four different groups of inspectors missed the construction goof that caused the Transbay Terminal closure. Four!

Granted, my QA background is in software, but I can’t imagine that construction is greatly different, at least in terms of the methodology. The basic idea is that QA sits down with the specifications–ideally, QA is involved in the process of creating the plans, helping to root out ambiguities and spot danger points early, but I’m trying to keep this simple–and produces a plan.

The plan describes what QA will test and how they’ll test it. The level of detail varies, but the intent is that it covers all the different types of tests in language that non-QA people can understand. QA then designs the specific tests, executes them, logs bugs (defects, places where the product doesn’t match the design), and eventually produces a final summary that describes what was actually tested, summarizes all the bugs, and documents any changes between the test plan and what was actually done.

Naturally, I’ve massively simplified this process. In the real world, many of the steps will be executed in parallel. There’s buy-in at multiple points in the process. Each test is documented: when it was run, who ran it, and what the results are.*

* In the software world, QA kills a lot of trees. I imagine it’s even worse in the physical world.

None of which explains how three separate groups–the outfit that made the beams, the company that installed them, and the general contractor who oversaw the whole process–apparently failed to confirm that the beams had been properly installed. Specifically, that holes cut in the beams had been ground down to prevent exactly the sort of cracks that developed over Fremont Street.

I have to wonder whether it was a planning failure–nobody said “Hey, we’ll test the welding access holes,” and none of the parties involved noticed the omission–or a failure to execute planned tests.

It’s worth noting that the holes in the First Street beam were cut differently, so that grinding wasn’t necessary. Why didn’t anyone notice the discrepancy? Was the change by design or error?

I’m less bothered by the failure of the fourth group involved. According to the Chron, a separate company did spot inspections. On the one hand, they specialize in QA. On the other hand, spot inspections will miss things. That’s part of the definition. They’re designed to give you a big picture; in the software world, you might do a spot check–a small fraction of your tests–to confirm whether a new module is ready for the full test. If, say, five percent of your tests (chosen to hit the areas of highest risk) show a lot of bugs, you’ll probably send the module back to development and say “try again.”

In this case, the Transbay Joint Powers Authority wanted checks to be sure the proper process was being followed. So, whether the tests were planned but not run, or never planned in the first place, it’s easy to see how the omission could have slipped through the cracks (sorry) of the spot check.

Anyone got an inside view of the TJPA? I’d love to know where the fault actually lies.

Two for the Price of One

It’s not a Short Attention Span Theater*, but I’ve got a couple of items for you today.

* For reasons too complicated to explain**.

** Which is entirely untrue, but sounds better than “For reasons.”

First up, raise your hands if you remember multimedia artist Xathaneal Todd. Don’t feel embarrassed if you don’t. That was way back in ’15–practically prehistory in blogging terms. You can and should refresh your memory.

It turns out his skills aren’t limited to the material arts. Turns out he’s also a composer and actor.

Okay, I’ll admit I have no proof the musician and performer are the same person as the artist. But how likely is it there might be two, much less three, Xathanael Todds? Of the same age? All living in the Fairfield area?

One of the wonderful things about blogging is the way the unexpected turns up. I’ll admit to having forgotten about Xathanael myself. Until Sunday afternoon when a modest little press release popped up in my mailbox.

I say “modest” because it refrains from waxing eloquent about its subject, choosing instead to simply announce the appearance of Mr. Todd as the star of a forthcoming production of Alladin Jr..

Regrettably, Fairfield is a bit outside my usual range. But if any of you are going to be in the area January 31 through February 2, I’d encourage you to check out the show. You will, of course, be obliged to report back. In detail.

Moving on.

Gratifying as it was to hear from Xathaneal (or his press agent), what really warmed my heart-cockles this past weekend was a story in the Chron.

Remember how, despite all of the Bay Bridge’s well-publicized problems, nobody has ever taken any of the blame? No accountability, no public apologies. And there’s certainly been no indication that Caltrans will do anything differently in the future.

Well, it turns out the Transbay Transit Center officials are made of sterner stuff. The article quotes Mark Zabaneh, the Transbay Joint Powers Authority executive director as saying “Obviously, something went wrong with the process for this to happen.” It goes on to describe–at a very high level, naturally (it is a newspaper, after all)–the review processes during design and construction and then cites Zabaneh again as specifically stating that officials need to find out where they went wrong.

Look, I know that’s a long way from resolving the mess–and we still don’t have even an estimate of when the terminal will reopen*. It’s not even an actual apology. But it is a recognition of responsibility. That’s such a major improvement over Caltrans’ handling of the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch that I’m quite giddy with delight.

* Unofficially, the Chron suggests that the repair work could last well into March, which, with the need for testing the fix, could push the reopening into April. One hopes they won’t cut the new ribbon on the first of the month.

Kudos to Mr. Zabaneh for his honesty. May it continue through the repair and the post-mortem project examination.

Transit Talk

Shall we start with some good news? I think we should.

Word from the engineers studying the Transbay Transit Center beam cracks is that they’ve ruled out a design flaw as the cause of the problem. That means once the cracked beams are repaired (or, presumably, replaced) we should get decades of use out of the terminal.

Granted, we still don’t know what the underlying problem is or how long repairs will take. In theory, we’ll know the answer to the first question by the end of November–but don’t forget the difference between theory and practice. And, although the engineers are already planning repair procedures based on a variety of likely scenarios, implementing those plans could still take months.

But let’s focus on the positives here. Based on what we know now, unlike the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch, the TTC’s problem seems to be limited in scope and unlikely to recur. That’s a big win.

To be fair, however, all is not sweetness and light in TTC-Land. The San Francisco County Transportation Authority–an alias for the city’s district supervisors–voted to withhold tax money that had been slated to go toward the next phase of the Transit Center*. The SFCTA is also calling for an investigation of the whole project and the Joint Powers Authority, which currently oversees the TTC.

* Laying new railroad tracks to bring Caltrain into the Transit Center.

An extended delay could permanently derail the train project (sorry). That would make the TTC a mindbogglingly expensive bus-only project.

Stay tuned to see how this one plays out.

Meanwhile, BART is taking steps to ensure that we don’t lack for expensive transit projects to worry about. They’re about to present plans for a second connection between San Francisco and the East Bay.

I hesitate to call it a second Transbay Tube, as early reports suggest it could be an above-ground project associated with one of the existing auto bridges.

According to the Chron, construction wouldn’t even start for another decade, which does make me wonder if we’re going to get a reprise of the Bay Bridge’s extended design and implementation. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to see them rush in and give us something half-assed.

Still, ten years of planning should produce plenty of blog fodder. That’s a good thing, I think.

And one final Bay Area transportation note. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission is considering a plan to do away with toll booths.

No, that doesn’t mean doing away with tolls. Don’t be silly.

The goal would be to go to all-electronic toll collection, something that’s already been done on about 20% of the country’s bridges and tunnels.

There are some good arguments around cost savings and safety to be made in favor of the change, but there are also some unanswered questions to be dealt with.

Most notably, in a region as heavily dependent on tourism as the Bay Area, how does electronic collection work for someone driving a rental car? I hope the MTC isn’t figuring that Uber and Lyft are going to put Hertz, Avis, and Enterprise out of business any time soon.

I also wonder just how much support the MTC will have for some of the ideas they’re considering under an all-electronic toll regime. Congestion pricing is never popular, but I could see it happening.

But implementing tolls on traffic in both directions seems like a plan designed for failure. If you thought the gas tax caused a major upset, just wait until voters hear that a round trip across the Bay Bridge is going to cost $15.

BART had better hurry up with that second Bay crossing. When the price tag for driving hits two or three times what transit costs, we might actually get a few drivers off the road. (Yeah, I know. That’s my optimistic side speaking.)

A Tiny Step Forward

The good news is that the Transbay Terminal is still standing.

The bad news is that we don’t know when it’ll reopen–heck, we don’t even know when we’ll know when it’ll reopen.

Seriously, though, at least everyone involved is making the right noises. “Get the temporary patch in place, then figure out what went wrong, and then decide what to do about it.”

Is it just me, or does that feel like the exact opposite of the way the Bay Bridge problems have been handled? I don’t think it’s just me. The attitude on the bridge seems more like “Fix the problem, then figure out what went wrong and whether the fix actually accomplished anything.”

But I digress.

The latest news on the terminal is that the temporary fix is in place and Fremont Street has reopened. Only ten days later than planned, but that was widely expected. Considering the patch involved cutting through three levels of the terminal, dodging pipes, cables, and ducts, only the most starry-eyed optimist would have expected them to have finished by the fifth.

In any case, the engineers involved believe the terminal is secure enough to allow invasive sampling–meaning “snipping off bits”–of the cracked beams. The current plan is to complete the testing by the end of October.

Then comes the fun of designing and implementing the permanent fix.

It’s not all gloom and delay, though. Depending on what turns up in the analysis of the cracked beams, there’s a good chance the rooftop park will reopen even before repair work begins. Though, to be fair to the downside, there’s no word on a fix for the crumbling paths in the park.

Reopening the terminal to pedestrians and park goers would be a win. Not only is the park a major attraction for an area that needs one, but there are many small businesses in the terminal. Getting more foot traffic, even if it’s not the daily commute crowd, would likely save jobs.

Kudos to the Transbay Joint Powers Authority for taking the proper approach to the problem, and best of luck for a swift and secure resolution.

Here We Go Again

A quick reminder: the MLB season ends Sunday* and the playoffs start Tuesday evening with the NL Wild Card game. In keeping with this blog’s usual public service orientation, Tuesday morning’s post will be our annual guide for “Who To Root For If You Don’t Have a Team In the Playoffs.”

* Monday’s scheduled make-up game between the Marlins and Pirates has been canceled, presumably because it has absolutely no impact on the playoffs.


That said, stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Not the one about a woman being put on trial in the Senate over a man’s alleged inability to behave like a moral individual. Though that is getting to be a rather tired story, and I really wish Congress’ slush pile reader would try something different.

No, I’m talking about the one where a Bay Area multi-billion dollar transit project goes wildly over budget, and only to have serious construction problems uncovered.

Long-time readers will remember my fascination with the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch. In large part, my interest was due to the obvious QA failures and the (still!) unanswered questions about what testing was done and how the reports were handled.

And now we’ve got a new serial to watch. The brand new Transbay Transit Center opened just last month after $2.2 billion in over (if memory serves) a decade of construction. Mere weeks after it opened, decomposed granite paths in the park on the center’s roof underwent further decomposition, crumbling and developing potholes. But that was just a warm-up for this week’s troubles: on Tuesday, the center was closed indefinitely after workers found a large crack in a major support beam. The beam supports the bus deck and the park where they cross Fremont Street, so the street was also closed as a further precaution.

On Wednesday, inspectors found a second cracked beam adjacent to the first.

The cause of the cracking hasn’t been determined yet. Despite a lawsuit between the company that handled the steel work and the primary contractors over construction documentation, it doesn’t seem like there was a QA failure this time around. The Chron says they passed inspection after installation and again when the beams were fireproofed two years ago.

Speculation about the cause of the cracking is all over the map: manufacturing defects, installation errors, and design flaws are all getting consideration. Despite the uncertainty, temporary repairs are in progress, aimed at reopening Fremont Street by the end of next week. Presumably–hopefully!–permanent repairs won’t start until the root cause has been determined.

The situation is rife with irony.

Not only was the problem found during Transit Week, San Francisco’s official celebration of public transportation, but the official name of the facility is “Salesforce Transit Center”–and Salesforce is current holding their huge, annual “Dreamforce” convention a couple of blocks away.

But wait, there’s more.

Traffic coming into downtown San Francisco on I-80 across the Bay Bridge exits the freeway on–you guessed it–Fremont Street.

QA implications or no, I’ll be following the story as more information comes out.

Duck and Cover

Hopefully by now you’ve heard that Hawaii was not attacked with ballistic missiles Saturday. It was, however, attacked by poor software design or, quite possibly, poor QA.

Let’s recap here.

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency erroneously sent a cell phone warning message to damn near every phone in the state. The message warned of an incoming missile attack. Naturally, this caused a certain amount of chaos, confusion, fear, and panic.

Fortunately, it did not, as far as I can tell, cause any injuries or deaths, nor was there widespread looting.

The backlash has been immense. Any misuse of the cell phone emergency warning message system is going to trigger outrage–does anyone else remember the commotion back in 2013 when the California Highway Patrol used the same functionality to send an AMBER alert to phones across the entire state of California?

Many people turned off the alert function on their phones in the wake of that and similar events elsewhere–although, let’s not forget that one level of warnings can not legally be turned off. I don’t know if HEMA used the “Presidential” alert level–certainly a nuclear attack would seem to qualify for that level of urgency–but it may be that only the White House can send those messages.

For the record, my current phone doesn’t allow me to disable Presidential or Test messages; the latter seems like an odd exclusion to me. In any case, I’ve turned off AMBER alerts, but have left the “Severe” and “Extreme” messages on. I suspect many who have gotten spurious or questionable alerts have turned those off.

Which puts those charged with public safety in an awkward position. The more often they use the capability, the more people are going to turn off alerts. I hope the people looking into a California wildfire alert system are keeping these lessons in mind.

But I digress. I had intended to talk about the Hawaii contretemps from a software perspective.

The cause of the problem, according to a HEMA spokesperson, was that “Someone clicked the wrong thing on the computer.” Later reports “clarify” that “someone doing a routine test hit the live alert button.” I put “clarify” in quotes, because the explanation actually raises more questions than it answers.

See, for a test to be meaningful, it has to replicate the real scenario as closely as possible. It’s would be unusual to have one button labeled “Click Here When Testing” and a second one that says “This Is the Real Button.” The more typical situation is for the system to be set to a test mode that disables the connection to the outside world or (better yet) routes it to a test connection that only sends its signal to a special device on the tester’s desk.

Or heck, maybe they do have a test mode switch, and the poor schlub who sent the alert didn’t notice the system wasn’t in test mode. If so, that points to poor system design. The difference between modes should be dramatic, so you can tell at a glance, before clicking that button, how the system is set.

If it’s not poor design, the reports suggest some seriously poor test planning. Though I should emphasize that it probably wasn’t a failure on QA’s fault. They probably wanted a test mode, but were overruled on cost or time-to-launch concerns.

Wait, it gets better: now we’re hearing the problem has been solved. According to the news stories, “the agency has changed protocols to require that two people send an alert.” In other words, the problem hasn’t been fixed at all. The possibility of a mistaken alert may have been reduced, but as long as people can click on a live “Send an alert” button while testing, they will.

Better still, by requiring two people to coordinate to send an alert, they’ve made it harder to send a real message. Let’s not forget that emergency messages are time critical. If the message is warning of, say, a nuclear attack or a volcanic eruption, seconds could be critical.

But have no fear: the Homeland Security Service assures us that we can “trust government systems. We test them every day.”

How nice. In the immortal words of Douglas Adams, “Please do not push this button again.”

Nor Any a Drop

Those of you outside of California are probably wondering what’s behind our ongoing and ever-changing problems with water.

Believe me, we’re wondering too.

First we don’t have enough. Then we’ve got too much and can’t figure out what to do with it.

The bridges we build over it would be better suited to deserts. We’ve got some of the world’s biggest dams–but apparently we can’t maintain them.

A quick summary of the background: As a result of the unusually heavy rain in January and February, the reservoir behind the Oroville Dam is quite literally full to the brim. With two more months left in the rainy season and higher-than-usual snow melt expected, it’s necessary to release some of the water in a controlled fashion to avoid flooding. Unfortunately, a large chunk of the main spillway collapsed, reducing the amount of water that it can safely carry. A secondary spillway was activated for the first time in the dam’s history, and it quickly eroded to the point where the integrity of the dam itself was threatened.

The collapse of the dam, releasing the entire contents of the second-largest reservoir in the state would be, well, let’s say, not an ideal outcome. An evacuation order has been issued covering some 200,000 people. Engineers are trying to reinforce the secondary spillway, and the main spillway is running at its maximum safe capacity. With luck, the next round of storms, expected to being tomorrow, will hold off long enough for the reservoir to drain enough to hold the inflow.

The question everyone is asking now is “Why is the main spillway disintegrating?” And the answer is “We don’t know yet.”

What we do know is that the Department of Water Resources (DWR) has known about problems in that part of the spillway for nearly a decade. Defects were found in 2009, and repairs were made in 2013, 2014, and 2015–in exactly the area that collapsed last week. The obvious inference is that the repairs didn’t address the underlying cause of the problem; treating the symptoms rather than the disease.

It’s worth emphasizing that this is not the same situation as we’ve been hearing about with the Bay Bridge. No violations of the guidelines for proper construction. Testing is being done and issues are being addressed. The Chron–as usual, my primary source–quotes several engineering experts as saying that the DWR has been doing “everything that normally should be done.”

So the question we should be asking is “What changes in the ‘normal’ processes need to be made to avoid this situation in the future?”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has ordered a forensic analysis to determine the root cause of the spillway failure. Let us hope that the outcome of that analysis is used to update the definition of what normally should be done. At least Caltrans isn’t involved. There’s hope.