Suspense in Seattle grows as tunneling moves under Viaduct

Suspense in Seattle

Alaskan Way Viaduct (via Wikipedia)

Starting April 29, Seattle is going to hold its collective breath as its most troubled public works project ever, a vehicular tunnel along the Puget Sound waterfront, starts burrowing under the elevated Alaskan Way Viaduct it is designed to replace. The $1.4 billion venture has been so cursed–the Bertha tunneling machine, the world’s biggest, was stalled deep underground at one point for more than a year–that authorities are closing the Viaduct for two weeks as a precaution in case there’s another sinkhole, or something far worse.

Since the Viaduct carries one of isthmus Seattle’s two north-south limited-access routes–the other is Interstate 5–traffic around town is expected to be slower than a butterfly without wings. Authorities actually have told the public to work from home. That’s reasonable advice, maybe, for a computer programmer or a writer like me, but not much help for a teacher or maintenance worker.

The result is that many Seattleites are awaiting the continuation of our version of Boston’s equally cursed Big Dig with the kind of macabre anticipation I haven’t seen since the days when Dan Rather anchored the evening news on CBS. Would this be the night he stormed off the set, went bonkers while interviewing a Vice President or mysteriously ended the broadcast with the word, “Courage”?

If something really bad happens with the Viaduct, that could be the precipitating event that turns the Seattle bubble into a bust. So there are lots of reasons for the suspense in Seattle. Continue reading

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New Yorker story about Seattle sinking into the sea wins a Pulitzer Prize

Seattle sinking

Kathryn Schulz (courtesy Columbia University)

Last year, I drew attention to an article in the July 20, 2015, issue of The New Yorker about when–not if–a giant earthquake will sink much of the coastal Northwest, especially Seattle. The vivid article, by Kathryn Schulz, caused a great deal of discussion in booming Seattle. The debate ranged from the scientific basis for the deadly thesis of Seattle sinking into the sea to the notion this simply was old news. The article carried the headline, “The Really Big One.”

Old news or not, the narrative was compelling enough that, this afternoon, the article won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. The citation called the piece “an elegant scientific narrative of the rupturing of the Cascadia fault line, a masterwork of environmental reporting and writing.”

You can read the story by clicking here. Meanwhile, just like I did in California before becoming New To Seattle, I still carry earthquake insurance.

Follow William P. Barrett’s work on Twitter by clicking here.

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In Seattle, elusive King County Police Union remains on the prowl

King County Police UnionThe telemarketer on the phone at the New To Seattle world headquarters said he was calling from the King County Police Union (Seattle sits in King County). He was hoping I would contribute to a project called My ID Club, in which children in the Seattle area are issued free photo ID cards to help resolve missing-kid situations. He said 40,000 cards had been issued in 2015.

Interesting, I said. How much money did you raise last year to cover those 40,000 cards?

The caller said he didn’t know. “I’m not an accountant,” he said, a bit annoyed.

Okay, I said, how many police officers belong to the King County Police Union? He wouldn’t answer that question, either. He then cited a rather lame excuse–another call coming in–to quickly end our conversation.

But I sort of know the answers to these two questions: lots of money, and almost no cops. That’s because I’ve been called before in the name of the King County Police Union. It’s a trade name used by Public Safety Employees Union 519, based in Seattle. What looks like a public-spirited civic endeavor is, in my view, a more cynical effort by a union and its fundraiser to make a buck for themselves. By my reading of public documents and a little common sense, a lot less of the money raised was spent on ID cards than the average donor might imagine.

Last year, I nominated Public Safety Employees Union 519 as a contender for my list of America’s Stupidest Charities. The criteria is simple: nonprofits that call me asking for money despite a previous critical write-up in this space. Does it get dumber than that? I first described the practices of Local 519 way back in 2012 (read it here). I now have the honor of renominating the organization for my list. Continue reading

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Seattle makes it onto a great-places-to-retire list

great-places-to-retireForbes.com yesterday published a great-places-to-retire list that actually includes Seattle. I know this because I compiled the list.

As I have noted here before, Seattle doesn’t make a lot of general U.S. retirement lists, at Forbes or elsewhere, especially those that crunch hard data and have a value orientation in the methodology. That’s largely due to Seattle’s high cost of living–54% above the national average–which in turn is due in no small part to lofty housing costs, which are 68% above the national median. I started researching various retirement lists for Forbes long before becoming New To Seattle in 2011.

But this list is different because its methodology doesn’t take costs into account. The name says it all: “Great Places To Follow Your Passions In Retirement.” Continue reading

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In Seattle, Joel Collins is one really stupid charity computer

really stupid charityBoy, does Joel Collins get around!

Earlier this month, I received a call from Collins on behalf of Injured American Veterans Foundation, a trade name of Healing Heroes Network. After announcing his name and affiliation, the line went dead, making it the shortest charity cold-call pitch ever received at the New To Seattle world headquarters. Quick research by me suggested only 2% of the money spent went to the stated charitable mission.

A few days ago, the phone rang. It was Collins, again speaking in his deep baritone voice. But this time the call was on behalf of American Veterans Support Foundation, which I knew was a trade name of the National Vietnam Veterans Foundation. Now here was another milestone–the first time a computer-controlled interactive voice using the same name was employed to telemarket to me for different charities, and in the same month, to boot (Yes, the Joel Collins who called me is not a real human being.)

There was a reason I knew right away that the American Veterans Support Foundation was a trade name of the National Vietnam Veterans Foundation. The organization already has been nominated–twice!–for my list of candidates for America’s Stupidest Charities (see the roster on the left if you’re viewing this on a computer). The criteria is simple: questionable charities that call asking for money even though they already have been the subject of a critical write-up in this space. Can it get dumber than that?

Another milestone: AVSF/NVVF is the first to be nominated three times (for the first two citations, click here and click here) after its computer solicited me under varying names: “Jim,” “Jeff,” “Mike McCann,” and now “Joel Collins.”

And after reviewing the latest financials (which you can download from this page), I say AVSF/NVVF remains as questionable as ever. Almost all of the money raised went to fundraising and very, very little got to the stated charitable mission of helping vets. Continue reading

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An iffy charity make a short phone call to Seattle

iffy charityThe caller said he was Joel Collins from the Injured American Veterans Foundation. Then the line went dead.

This was the shortest telephone cold call from a charity ever to come into the New To Seattle world headquarters. Despite the call’s brevity, I’m pretty sure Collins was a computer-generated interactive voice ready to make an ask. He/it likely was controlled by some human telemarketer who was monitoring but somehow couldn’t hit the correct computer keys in time to keep the conversation going and get to the pitch.

‘Tis a pity for me, because I had sooooooo many questions. Quick research showed Injured American Veterans Foundation is a trade name of Healing Heroes Network, an eight-year-old Palm Harbor, Fla. “charity.” There’s a reason I use quote marks. My review of HHN’s most recent financial filing, for the year ending December 31, 2014, suggests only about 2% of the $3 million spent went directly to its stated purpose of  “providing financial assistance for quality care to military personnel injured in the line of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan since September 11, 2001.”

In fact, the overwhelming bulk of the money was spent on promotion, marketing, advertising, printed materials, management, overhead and fundraising. Indeed, the largest single recipient was, believe it or not, Facebook, paid $905,711 for what was described as “community outreach.”

I invite you to follow along my financial analysis by downloading HHN’s own tax filing at this link on the Foundation Center website. The information is terribly illuminating. Continue reading

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Disaster-prone Seattle produces a searchable map of disaster

Disaster-prone SeattleTo me, Seattle collectively is a town of secrets, somewhat bereft of candor. The widely used phrase “Seattle Nice” connotes a passive-aggressive culture in which the locals say one thing sweet, then do something else not so sweet. Then there the “Seattle Freeze,” the notion that Seattleites are uncommunicative and unfriendly to newcomers. I am not alone in seeing evidence of both concepts.

So it is refreshing to see the forthrightness expressed by the city government in an interactive Website that just went online. It’s called the Seattle Natural Hazard Explorer. The SNHE allows a user to zoom in and evaluate the propensity of a specific neighborhood or property for a host of natural perils. It’s even possible, as I did, to plot many hazards–among them, earthquakes, landslides, flooding, tsunamis and something especially scary called liquefaction–on the map and eyeball the entire city.

My takeaway: I live in one giant disaster-prone area waiting to happen. Continue reading

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In Seattle, my looooooooong chat with Amazon

chat with AmazonSeattle’s own Amazon.com prides itself on effective customer service. Can’t quite prove it by me recently.

I was having problems downloading the Kindle app onto a new Microsoft Surface Pro 3. Looking around the Internet, I discovered I was not the only one with this difficulty.

So I went to the Kindle part of Amazon.com and tried to get help via the chat function, in which Amazon representatives communicate with customers by exchanging written messages.

What ensued was an epic 94-minute-long chat in which I was in some kind of contact with 18 customer service associates, as they are called at Amazon (including a couple of duplicates and even no-shows). In the end I was told–stunningly–to go outside Amazon for help with its own Kindle product. My problem remains unresolved.

What follows is the transcript of the entire chat, as generated by Amazon and the copy that I copied and stored. (Don’t worry; the back-and-forth can be read in just a few minutes.) I fixed grammar, punctuation, typos and a few other errors. For clarity I put in boldface the appearance of each Amazon rep, in red a running count of the reps and in italics Amazon notifications. To me, New to Seattle, it’s pretty amazing. Continue reading

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Seattle predictions for 2016 (sort of)

Seattle predictions for 2016

George Washington, by Gilbert Stuart, 1797 (via Wikipedia)

This being late December, lists of predictions for the new year are all the rage. For the first time, I’m joining in. But being New To Seattle, I am confining my prognostications to the area.  And the calls I make generally shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

Herewith, my Seattle predictions for 2016:

  • Seattle opens more off-leash dog parks than new schools.
  • Amazon.com start a service by which a new home can be ordered online.
  • Although constitutionally barred from running for reelection, President Obama comes to Seattle for another fundraiser without scheduling any free appearances open to the public.
  • Visit Seattle, which used to be Seattle’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, starts a new marketing campaign emphasizing Seattle gets less rain than Bangladesh.

Continue reading

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In Seattle, ’twas the night before something

'twas the night before

Prototype (via CNN)

‘Twas The Night Before Christmas*

‘Twas the night before Christmas,
when all through Seattle,
not a tunnel machine was stirring,
ready for battle.

The Viaduct was hung
on its pillars with care
in hopes that the Big One
soon wouldn’t dare.

The pols were nestled
all snug in their beds,
while visions of campaign gifts
danc’d in their heads. Continue reading

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Seattle’s United Way of King County still exaggerates

United Way of King CountyIt’s right up there on the website of United Way of King County. “On average, more than 98 cents of every dollar donated goes to meet community needs.” It’s a claim The Seattle Times swallowed in a recent editorial. “The United Way of King County puts 98 cents of every dollar raised into programs and services,” the paper opined two weeks ago.

Folks, I’m here to tell you that what still may be the nation’s largest United Way unit by donations is financially efficient, but not that efficient. UWKC’s true charitable commitment is, depending on which standard methodology is used, somewhere between 91% and 96%. Put another way, that means the inefficiency in UWKC’s operations is two to four times higher than what UWKC says it is.

As I have written before, UWKC gets its 98% figure by employing a unique accounting methodology that I call Leave Out Almost All Of The Bad Stuff For Public Relations Consumption. I never saw it before becoming New To Seattle, nor have accountants I have consulted elsewhere. And I’ve been writing about charities for a long time. Continue reading

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Scammers invoking the IRS inundate Seattle

IRS scam call

In the last month, I’ve gotten a half-dozen calls at the New To Seattle world headquarters purporting to be from the Internal Revenue Service saying that criminal charges have been filed against me for not paying back taxes. The encounters are so cheesy–caller ID numbers that make no sense, supposed agency employees who speak bad English and assertion of bizarre legal claims and procedures–that it’s hard to imagine people called are fooled by these scammers. But some recipients of these calls are.

I’ve written before about this problem in Seattle. Still, in the spirit of all the calls I get from sketchy charities, allow me to recount my latest encounter this morning with this growing area of chicanery. Continue reading

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A century ago, the Great Seattle Boom was much bigger–and sketchier

Great Seattle Boom

Hiram Gill (via HistoryLink.org)

In five years the population of Seattle has risen 9% from 608,600 to 662,400 (including me, still New To Seattle). That’s a hefty increase of 53,800, a compounded annual rate of 1.6%. The city certainly has been feeling the growing pains, thanks in large part to limited land forming an isthmus between two bodies of water and an infrastructure not really up to the task.

But that rate of growth is nothing compared with the epic boom that exploded hereabouts a century ago. From 1900 to 1920 Seattle’s population rose an astounding 290% from 80,671 to 315,312. That’s a compounded annual rate of 6.5%–four times higher than now.

Whereas the current population boom is fueled mainly by new jobs in technology, the one a century ago was a lot more primeval. Its roots were primarily gold and vice–the latter of which which led to the voter recall of Seattle Mayor Hiram Gill in 1911.

But of course, at the heart of both booms was economics. Continue reading

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Seattle homeless problem dates back to arrival of first gringos

Seattle homeless

Arthur A. Denny

Tomorrow is the 164th anniversary of the day the first group of gringos arrived at what would become the great city of Seattle. On November 13, 1851, the so-called Denny Party–10 adults and 12 children led by Arthur A. Denny, a 29-year-old surveyor from Cherry Grove, Ill.–pulled up around noon in a schooner named Exact on Alki Point, across Elliott Bay from the future downtown area.

Now, the 164th anniversary of anything generally occasions little notice. But I find it noteworthy given the current concern in Seattle about what to do about all the homeless folks. That’s because Arthur A. Denny et al. were sort of the original homeless folks of Seattle. Their initial lodgings starting that day consisted of a single unfinished log cabin without a roof–not exactly a home for the climate of Seattle, which gets pretty wet every year by, oh, November 13.

One of the newcomers, William Bell, later wrote that on that first rainy day the five women in the party “sat down on the logs and took a big cry.” It’s not hard to imagine why. Continue reading

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It was a dark and rainy day in Seattle (and now the news)

Weather forecast starting today on KING5.com

Weather forecast starting today on KING5.com

Kicking in a little later than normal, it looks like the dark and rainy season of Seattle–which is most of the year, actually–is finally beginning. After an alternating week of rain and sun, forecasters think there will be significant precipitation–with not much sun–for at least the next seven days.

Seattle remains the only one of the many places that I have lived in over the decades where “sunbreaks” regularly are part of a forecast (look at Sunday on the display above). The forecasters simply may be doing their best to bolster local spirits. The TV weather dogs probably could have stretched out that rain prediction for about eight months, and not be wrong any more than usual.

Seattle weather, especially the rain, has been fodder for late-night comedians. Many news outlets around the country had great fun a few years ago when Jean-Sun Hannah Ahn, the newly crowned Miss Seattle, got caught tweeting “can’t stand cold rainy Seattle.” The weather here is even the stuff of legend, almost a tourist attraction like the Gum Wall under Pike Place Market and the Space Needle. Indeed, a friend visiting recently from that desert known as Los Angeles actually stood in the rain on a downtown sidewalk for a moment, saying he wanted a true Seattle experience. Continue reading

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One Seattle ballot question will test intelligence of new voters

Seattle ballot questionIn the U.S., one big difference between state-level elections in the East and the West is the widespread presence in much of the latter of ballot measures. I don’t mean bond issues–they are found almost everywhere–but initiatives, referendums and proposals to raise property taxes. Products of the Progressive Era, ballot measures reflect a suspicion of and limit on elected representative democracy. Still, sorting out motives can be an illuminating and even entertaining endeavor that says something about the local condition.

For instance, one Seattle ballot question next week appears to me to reflect the belief by city officials that the hoards of young people moving to Seattle for all those high tech jobs actually aren’t all that smart. Continue reading

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A marketing plea to support OFFSIDE: A Mystery

This is a rare post on my part of unabashed OFFSIDE: A Mysteryself-interest.

As part of an effort to market my debut novel, OFFSIDE: A Mystery, please click RIGHT HERE. This will take you to a promotion page called Thunderclap. On that page, click one of the “support” boxes (Facebook, Twitter or Tumbler). You’re not under any obligation to buy anything (although I would be thrilled if you did).

The promotion folks with the book publisher tell me this will generate insane attention and, hopefully, a few sales. Thanks to all who visit or follow.

For those unfamiliar with the conceit of OFFSIDE, an adult referee of youth soccer in a ritzy Los Angeles suburb at the peak of the real estate bubble in 2006 is murdered. Suspicion quickly centers on a Latino coach with a gang background upset over an offside call by the ref, especially after footage of the rant pops up on YouTube.

The book contains a fair amount of social commentary and history about soccer parents, soccer, Southern California, finance and race relations. The reviewer at a Latina book blog in Los Angeles called OFFSIDE “enlightening and thought-provoking.”

Without giving away the ending, here are the novel’s last two words: “Alan Greenspan.” You can learn more about the book, and me, by clicking here.

It is, of course, a total coincidence that I have been a soccer referee for 18 years, long before becoming New To Seattle, and that part of that time, including the year 2006, was spent officiating in the Los Angeles area. Hopefully, the novel won’t be too personally prescient.

Meanwhile, the regularly scheduled programming here will resume soon.

Follow William P. Barrett’s work on Twitter by clicking here.

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Sixth candidate in Seattle for ‘America’s Stupidest Charities’

America's Stupidest CharitiesThe telephone caller was working for the National Police and Troopers Association. He said the organization provided help to families of cops killed in the line of duty. Would I make a small financial pledge and return it in an envelope I would be sent? It certainly seemed like a pitch for a charity.

The caller said his name was something that sounded like Ken Doherty. But it might have been Ken Dougherty, Ken Daugherty or some other spelling. I didn’t know. So I politely asked him to spell his name for me.

Click.

Ken promptly hung up without uttering another word. Some questions, I suppose, are just too difficult.

But I already knew the general answer. That’s because I once wrote up in this space the NPTA, a trade name used by the International Union of Police Associations AFL-CIO. I called the organization “among the scuzziest” outfits trolling for money in Seattle. Why? It outrageously misrepresented what it did and spent next to nothing on anything remotely connected with good works.

Besides “scuzziest,” I now can make the IUPA/NPTA the sixth candidate for my long-running list of America’s Stupidest Charities. The criteria is pretty simple: charities that call the New To Seattle world headquarters asking for money despite being the subject of a previous critical post. Can it get any dumber than that?

(Maybe. This organization also is severely challenged by spelling. It can’t even agree on its own name. The official NPTA website home page calls it the “National Police and Troopers Association”–Troopers in the plural. But an official badge, reproduced above, that was on the site until a few days ago uses “Trooper”–singular. In his call to me, Ken He-Who-Can’t-Spell-His-Last-Name also used Trooper in the singular.) Continue reading

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From Seattle area, one on, one off, new Forbes 400 list

Forbes 400The new Forbes 400 list of the, well, 400 richest Americans was released today. Led again by Bill Gates, the Seattle-area contingent still numbers eight, including four of the top 26. But there’s been a slight change in the lineup.

Gabe Newell, the co-founder of Valve Corp., the video game store, is on the list for the first time at No. 307, with a net worth of $2.2 billion. He’s been on previous Forbes lists of the world’s billionaires (put at $1.3 billion in March, so he’s had a good half-year ride). But that list includes any billionaire. The U.S., on the other hand, is so lousy with billies that not all of them can make the Forbes 400. Continue reading

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Is the Seattle boom about to implode?

Downtown Seattle

Downtown Seattle

The latest national traffic congestion list just came out, and the Seattle area ranked No. 7. That’s really no surprise to folks who live in the isthmus that is Seattle. But it’s likely going to get a lot worse. People are pouring in here for jobs, and the infrastructure just isn’t ready for ’em. The city is becoming a poster child for inept urban planning.

In their infinite wisdom, city and state leaders are working on a project that will will reduce from six to four the number of lanes on one of the only two north-south limited-access roads in Seattle. (That is, if the project is every completed; this is the famous Tunnel Sinking Seattle.) While somewhat extensive, the mass transit system is slow and inefficient, even when mudslides don’t shut down the only commuter railroad from north of the city, as they have hundreds of times over the past decade.

Meanwhile, The Seattle Times just came out against a proposal on the November ballot to raise taxes for transit purposes. The paper pointed out the large number of mismanaged, delayed and over-budget infrastructure projects that adorn the Seattle area, like Starbucks coffee shops. Continue reading

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