Monday, September 14, 2020

New York should promote its dark skies

Over the past 15 years, astrotourism has become one of the fastest-growing trends in tourism.


We clearly saw that with one significant event – 2017’s solar eclipse – that saw 7 million Americans make the pilgrimage to the eclipse’s best paths.


But, astrotourism is more than just one eclipse. It has become a sustainable industry.


What once was travel only partaken by hardcore astronomers has become mainstream as more and more people from all walks of life are venturing to places with dark skies (that is, away from the city lights) to see the northern lights or observe celestial bodies and meteor showers in skies nearly as pristine as those that our ancestors slept under.


It’s something that New York should capitalize on, but really isn’t.


All told, the state and individual counties and chambers of commerce spend millions of dollars every year on advertising all of the natural wonders in our state (like Niagara Falls, the Adirondacks, and the Thousand Islands). Very little, if anything, is spent on promoting our dark skies, despite having some very special sites in the Empire State. 


In the Southern Tier, a good chunk of territory that runs along the Pennsylvania border and includes towns like Alma, Whitesville and Jasper falls under nearly dark sky jurisdiction and stargazers are greeted by nighttime skies featuring countless stars and thick imagery of the Milky Way. The skies are so dark that at the town of Alma’s strategic plan issued in 2016 had a whole section devoted to the promotion of stargazing, in hopes of one day having a dark sky festival and having the purity of their skies receive accreditation from various astronomy governing bodies.


Looking across the state, approximately two-thirds of the Adirondack Park, a massive area, falls into that same category of night sky, too. There is a small area within it, though, where the skies are even darker, the darkest in the entire northeast. About a half hour to the east of the ever-popular community of Old Forge is a dark sky area centered around Raquette Lake. There, skywatchers are treated to the heavens exactly as they were before Thomas Edison’s light bulb took hold and drowned out the stars. In that place, 10,000 stars can be seen with the naked eye. To put that in perspective, that’s 7 to 10 times what you can see on a good night in rural Niagara County. 


To see exactly what I mean about dark sky ratings, refer to the dark sky finder at There, you can zoom in and out of the map of the United States to find the best places to see the stars.


The nearness of the Southern Tier and the Adirondacks to the population centers of the northeast is appealing to this newest demographic of outdoor adventurer….both locations are just one tank of gas away from 56 million people.


They could all use that primordial exposure to the sky above. We all could. 80% of North Americans can’t see the Milky Way through light pollution, even here.


Ten years ago, in a column for this paper, I lamented the loss of dark skies in the immediate area. Thanks to the city lights of Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Lockport and the Greater Toronto Area, Niagara’s skies are anything but dark and our rural communities aren’t spared that. That’s why locals had such a hard time seeing Comet NEOWISE earlier this year – other places in this state had a great chance to see a rare naked-eye comet, but we couldn’t.  


That nighttime misery, as bad as it is, is nothing compared to that of New York City where its residents never see stars unless the electrical grid goes out as it did in August of 2013. That outage was probably a wake-up call to many metropolitan denizens. That’s because the first time that you have unfettered access to the heavens is unforgettable, you feel like a new person -- spiritually and intellectually. You’ll want more of that experience…guaranteed.


It’s time that the good people at “I love New York” and other tourism offices across the state took advantage of that desire to be mystified by the stars. With even just a little focus on astrotourism, they can bring in new customers who will, in turn, be repeat customers. We’re already losing tens of thousands of astrotourists every year to Pennsylvania’s well-promoted Cherry Spring State Park.


Let’s not get further behind in that regard as outdoors-centric travel continues its ascent in the COVID era as people look to escape lockdowns and home confinement to experience the awesome sights that Mother Nature can provide.  



From the 14 September 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News


Thursday, September 3, 2020

COVID crisis shows value in liberal arts degrees


Organizations – be they businesses, non-profits, or governments – that have best weathered the shared and unique circumstances during the COVID crisis are those with creative thinkers as their leaders or in positions of responsibility within their enterprises. In many cases, they’ve made navigation of this event look easy.


What’s not easy, though, is finding people like that.


We, as a society, have driven the workforce to specialization and, in turn, narrow scopes, narrow worldviews, narrow thinking. The over-reliance on severely focused fields of study – it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about degrees in business, public administration, psychology or any number of certifications – works well in normal times: You have a job; you do it; and you do it well. But, when stuff hits the fan, just as it has and will in this crisis, you need a different sort of person to master the nuances, extremes, and ever-changing new normal -- people who can break free of the reins of situational myopia.


Events like this highlight the incredible value of liberal arts degrees.


The liberal arts – the studies of the sciences, arts and humanities – had long been held in high esteem. Their studies created the foundation of education in the Western world and saw their dawn in ancient Greece, a society known for deep intellect and reasoning. The Greeks saw a desire for a universal understanding and the liberal arts promoted that.


That love affair with intellectual versatility continued for centuries. For a good portion of the United States’ early history, the liberal arts were the predominant method of study in our universities and colleges. But, after the Civil War, things changed dramatically. Those in academia capitulated to statehouses and businesses which wanted something different. They didn’t want well-rounded citizens; they wanted task-specific workers. They wanted cogs in their machine; they didn’t want someone else mastering that machine.


Higher education was transformed, as was the view of classical education. It has been the case, especially since the Second World War, that liberal arts diplomas have been reviled by misguided employers, institutions of higher education, and prospective students. Let’s look back over the past half-century. In the academic year ending 1971, only 0.8 percent of the bachelor’s degrees conferred in the US were for liberal arts. For the academic year ending this past May, they represented a still miniscule 2.2 percent, a previously-upward trend that has been in reversal for the past decade and a half.


That’s unfortunate given the incredible value they could bring to the table now, in this crisis. Just think about what the manager of a small business or the lawmaker in a state capital must face for the foreseeable future: How do you navigate a changing economy? How do you adjust to meet mandates or create protocols in public and personal health? What are the expectations of your customers, coworkers and community in this strange new world? What impact has this had on the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of those same people? What can we learn from other places? What can we learn from science? What can we learn from history? What will the future hold? What can we make the future be?


Those best prepared to answer those questions and weather this storm are the versatile souls who were once known as Renaissance Men or Women. Think of how well-rounded, inquisitive, reasoned and creative someone must be to navigate the nuances of COVID – they must be or become in part, an sort of expert on health, sciences and people while still holding true to their job as a businessperson or elected official.


We’ve failed as a country in the development of free thinkers…we don’t have enough of them. I don’t know if we can achieve that, either. Despite there being 1,500 colleges and universities in this country, only 200 still consider themselves liberal arts schools. Also, most other colleges, when setting degree requirements, don’t emphasize the use of classical education in the later years of one’s program, they are more or less thrown at underclassmen as core courses then devalued thereafter.      


It’s truly unfortunate, given what the liberal arts are: The central academic disciplines are philosophy, logic, linguistics, literature, history, political science, sociology, and psychology.


Those are considerably important tools in this crisis and their proper use – all at once -- could pay considerable dividends to the person, the organization and the world. 


And realize, too, that history is but an endless series of crises and this is just the latest. Before that, we had the Great Recession. Before that terrorism. Before that the Cold War. I could go on and on. More are going to happen. Even organizations and governments – large and small – have to deal with their own individual crises quite often. 


In this one and those to come, we need special people who know a little about everything, think deeply and react appropriately and justly.  


We need those people whom you once asked: “What the heck are you going to do with that degree?”



From the 07 September 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, August 28, 2020

Teachers union is right about masks


Last week, with less than two weeks to spare before the school year begins, New York State United Teachers upset the apple cart by calling on the state to update school reopening guidelines to make mandatory the wearing of masks at all times indoors during the school day, except for appropriate break periods and in cases of medical accommodation.


That eleventh-hour request was a shocker to health officials, school leaders and parents.


It wasn’t to me. I was more shocked that the Department of Health and individual districts hadn’t already gone down that path weeks ago. Continuous mask use is an appropriate control in a variety of settings.


When I re-opened my company during a period of essential manufacturing in May, there really weren’t any detailed guidelines available to businesses. Those multi-page plans produced by the state were still weeks away. So, heading into re-opening I spent hours, days and weeks pondering the wide variety of potential exposures in the workplace and I made my own plans to keep COVID at bay.  


Paramount in my strategy was the constant use of masks. At the time, as now, the state and federal suggestions were to wear masks whenever social distancing is not possible. But, that’s just a guideline. As with every health and safety standard you have to be better than the minimum. You have to know your people and processes and adjust accordingly.


I took it one step further because social distancing can change at a moment’s notice in a manufacturing environment. An inspector or technician could pass through or enter a coworker’s workstation. I thought it would be too risky to assume that everyone would remember to raise their masks in such situations, especially when they were in the middle of doing their jobs.


I also understood that human beings are social creatures -- after weeks of being away from friends it was certain everyone would excitedly want to chat or forget that they weren’t at home where masks were never worn. Could I count on them to remember to put the mask up when socializing? Probably not.


Those reasons – and more – made all-day mask use an easy sell for me.


So, if I expected adults to not be mask compliant under part-time use of the personal protective equipment, how are we as a society thinking children would do any better?


These students aren’t factory workers who come from a world in which they live and breathe safety protocols (lockout/tag-out, authorized and trained use of equipment, material safety sheets)…they are kids who have to be told -- and scolded -- about safety often at home and in school (don’t climb that, don’t touch this, don’t run, look both ways). Given their narrow and growing understanding of personal and collective safety it’s asking way too much for them to understand the nuances of social distancing and when masks go up and when they come down.


And, for reasons very similar to my workplace, kids should be wearing masks at all time.


Like the factory floor, classrooms aren’t truly static, though they may appear to be. They are flowing. Students are working on projects. They work together. Children walk through others’ space en route to the bathroom, board, pencil sharpener, and more. You can’t expect them all to react and outfit themselves whenever social distancing collapses.  


Just like adults, children and teens are social creatures, too. Any parent can attest that they are more social than we are. They want and need to talk. They want to engage in playful behavior, maybe even a little roughhousing. They want undivided attention, so they get in others’ personal space. They are excitable and excited. In the urge to interact, remembering to activate a face covering is the furthest thing from their mind.


And, we have to remember they’re not us when it comes to hygiene – they’re a bunch of “snot-nosed kids”. There’s a reason why schools are breeding grounds for cold and flu. Many youngsters don’t have a firm understanding of covering their mouths when sneezing or couching. In an enclosed classroom you don’t want unprotected mouths and noses projecting germs into the air. Cover their faces at all times and you minimize COVID…and those other ailments which, in “normal” times are bothersome enough but in today’s world would initiate a litany of COVID tests and protocols due to their similar symptoms.  


Take it from someone who works in a masked world and wears one 10 to 11 hours a day: It’s not torture. Even my coworkers in the factory have no qualms about it in a hot, fast-paced environment. You quickly get used to wearing one. It doesn’t hurt you. It helps you and, just as importantly, it helps others.


So, let’s listen to the teachers union. Kids, teachers and staff all need – and deserve -- to be kept safe and healthy...wearing a masks is, undoubtedly, the simplest, cheapest and most-effective protective means to ensure that and keep COVID at bay.


From the 31 August 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News