Had a blast

Last night was the fireworks celebration in downtown Detroit.

For many reasons, Detroit and Windsor have had a common celebration a week (or week and a half) before the 4th of July. The celebration is centered around a huge fireworks display launched from three barges in the Detroit River. It it intended to cover both Independence Day and Canada Day. But being so early, it seems more like a pre-celebration than a celebration.

I and a couple of friends found a location to park about a mile from Hart Plaza in the downtown area. It seemed easier to park there, for free, than to drive closer to the event and pay to park. This meant that we had to traverse a good deal of the downtown area on foot...but it also meant that we were not going to be idling in traffic on the freeway out of the downtown area at the end of the night.

(I think the part of the parking plan was that the chosen parking location is next to a building that is heavily-used by City Police. A pleasant surprise ensued when we arrived. The Police were using the site as a staging area. The staging area was cleverly supported by an afternoon cook-out. Several dozen officers were milling around the site when we arrived, and a handful looked to be tasked with keeping an eye on the cook-out and the staging area all night long. Teams of alert-but-slightly-bored Policemen were at many intersections and road blocks near the Downtown area. That sight was also encouraging...as was the short chat about Police motorcycles with the team stationed in front of the Cobo Center.)

During our walk into Downtown, we saw many buildings that were faded relics of the former days of Detroit. The Grand Army of the Republic Building was a surprise to me.  (It was built in the 1890s, and was used by the Grand Army of the Republic until the 1930s.) The building looks like a castle, and it nestled on a triangular lot edged by Grand River Ave, Cass Ave, and West Adams Rd. Currently, the building is surrounded by scaffolding (at the sidewalk level) indicating some sort of renovation project.

We also saw the Michigan Building (once a theater, now a parking garage), the empty Book Tower, and the in-use Book-Cadillac Hotel. Once we arrived at Hart Plaza, we had a very good view of the Rennaisance Center, One Detroit Center, and the Madden Building.

About 5 minutes into the fireworks display, there was a rush of people trying to leave Hart Plaza. And there were rumors of shots fired and people wounded. So far, those rumors have not been confirmed. This disturbance did, however, make the event more stressful than it should have been.

The thunderous booming of the fireworks rose and fell many times during a 20-minute period. It turned into an accelerating, staccato drumbeat during the closing.

This would have also provided great cover for the sound of gunshots. The heavy Police presence was successful at putting a damper on low-level crime (theft, mugging, fighting, and juveniles disobeying a City curfew). And this likely discouraged shootings.

All told, the night was enjoyable. Though I wish that the potential for an ill-timed panic had been less.


Making, or Fixing

Admittedly, when I read a story that starts with this statement, my first response is to cringe.
 [She] cracks open a toaster oven, jams her hand inside, then turns on the power. It looks like she’s about to electrocute herself, but she seems unfazed. “Thermostat or heating element?” [She] mutters, yanking on wires and poking around with a multimeter.
It's an article about fixing things, rather than replacing them.

My first thoughts about fixing toaster ovens involve not putting my hand inside it while plugging things in and turning them on. But the person was probably careful not to place her hand onto a live heating element, or uninsulated wire.

The skills necessary to diagnose a toaster are useful skills. And they are skills that I have always thought were just part of life. Sometimes, the cost of repair exceeds the cost of replacement. Other times--many other times, in my experience--the cost of repair is much less than the cost of replacement.

However, I realize that many people don't have those skills. They will throw away vacuum cleaners, toaster, and microwave ovens that can be repaired easily.

It's a good idea, and a return to something that has long been part of the American tradition, to attempt to repair an item rather than purchase a replacement.


Motorcycle Safety

I ride a motorcycle (when the weather is good). Among other things, this means that motorcycle riding is seasonal for me. It also means that I have to make decisions about safety equipment I wear when traveling.*

About a year ago, the government of my home State changed the requirements for wearing helmets on motorcycles. Some details are available here. I notice that most news stories on the subject seem to think that helmet laws are, in general, a good idea. They generally carry along the implication that relaxing laws about helmet use is a bad idea.

As I scanned that local news source, I found a few stories of motorcycle accidents. On a whim, I decided to search for as many as I could find, and see if there was any correlation between helmet use and fatalities. While the stories were common, they weren't common enough to generate more than 40 stories over a period of 4 years. Only half of the news stories in that time period mention whether the riders and/or passengers wore helmets.

At least once, a pair of riders on the same motorcycle suffered an accident. The helmet-wearing rider survived her session of highway-speed slip-and-slide on the pavement; her non-helmeted companion did not. Another time, the passenger who was wearing a helmet died when thrown off the cycle; the rider not wearing a helmet was also thrown off, and survived.  This second instance was in a round-about, and likely at surface-street speeds.

Was the deciding factor the helmet, the speed, or the kind of accident? Were any of these riders wearing leather jackets along with their helmets?

I couldn't find enough data to decide that, but I did arrive at these conclusions while trawling the news archive.
  • Late-night and early-morning riding is dangerous
  • Running red lights or stop signs is also dangerous
  • Weaving through heavy traffic at high speeds is dangerous
  • Cars that left-turn across the motorcycle's path are dangerous.
  • Riding across the center line into oncoming traffic usually produces at least one fatality
  • High-speed runs away from Police are dangerous, and often fatal
  • Combining more than one "dangerous" category above is often fatal
In the realm of safety, I arrived at these conclusions:
  • Helmets may help when something goes wrong. 
  • However, helmets do not guarantee safety for the rider. 
  • Many of the accidents appeared to be the fault of the rider.
  • Some accidents were the fault of other drivers.
All told, I'm not sure that these statistics contain enough data to produce a usable conclusion. One news story linked above says that the State's base rate of fatalities in motorcycle accidents is barely over 100 per year.

How hard is it to distinguish meaningful changes in that rate from statistical noise? None of the studies seem to answer that question.

That leads me to disbelieve that any of the studies has arrived at a usable conclusion. But I'll still wear a helmet when I ride. And a jacket designed to aid survival while sliding along the road surface.