Friday, November 30, 2007

Thank You, Courtney Ruby

In the last few days I've had a feeling that I haven't had in as long as I can remember. I have been grateful to an elected official that I voted for, because that official was vigilantly performing the duties of her office. And the weird thing is, the office is not one of the high-visibility spots: it's the Oakland City Auditor.

At the last election, the race for City Auditor was actually one of the liveliest contests on the local ballot, with the former auditor (who had been in office for years and was accused of being impossible to work for and gutting the department) up against 2 likely-looking and well qualified newcomers, of whom Courtney Ruby, a CPA and former CFO, took the election and took office. Courtney Ruby has just released a hard-hitting audit of city payroll practices, and I feel like standing up and cheering. She's identified more than $3 million in "loosely monitored payroll transactions" over a 3 year period, and she says she's not done.

The reaction from the city administrator, Deborah Edgerly, was disgracefully unprofessional - she called the report "inaccurate and misleading," and somewhat grudgingly agreed to work with the auditor and the city council to identify "payroll policies and practices that need changing." I translate this response as "You don't understand how we do things here." But I think Ms. Ruby does understand how we do things here, and she's just documented it publicly.

Chip Johnson of the San Francisco Chronicle says it's the "first independent fiscal analysis coming out of Oakland City Hall in the 10 years I've covered the place." He further points out that Ms. Ruby, formerly with the East Bay Conservation Corps, is not part of "the city's political cabal" - well, exactly. The problem with Oakland is exactly that long-standing political cabal, of which, I may add, Mayor Dellums is a member in good standing; the purpose of the political cabal is to appoint some friends to well-paying commissions and award lucrative contracts to other friends - I can't think of another reason why the same names keep turning up over and over. Managing the city of Oakland in a fiscally responsible manner isn't on the table, as far as this citizen can see: we pay the taxes and pay the taxes, and still there's no money for police, for fire coverage, for street repair - the money must be going somewhere. Well, we now know that $700,000 a year is paying for automobile allowances for 238 city employees. How many cops would that hire? And why aren't these people taking public transit, or using vehicles from a pool?

Hey, Ms. Ruby - wanna run for mayor next time?

And as for Ms. Edgerly - can we please have Robert Bobb back??

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Family Trees

This is a week or so old now, but hey - who said I had to be current?

I'm bemused by the flap over the 2007 Lowe's catalog and its "family trees". For those of you who missed this, when Lowe's Home Improvement Stores published their 2007 catalog, they had a page or three advertising symmetrical cone-shaped (more or less) objects resembling pine trees, which the catalog labeled "family trees."

Everybody who saw the catalog said, "Hey, those are Christmas trees;"
the American Family Association responded to this with a mass email campaign protesting the wording ("put the Christ back in Christmas" etc. etc.); and Lowe's publicly apologized ("It certainly was not intended to offend anyone.") and republished the catalog, now including "Christmas" trees.

I hardly know where to start here. Lowe's evidently feared, in some spasm of excess political correctness, that it would offend its non-Christian customers if it referred to "Christmas" trees. I've been doing a little research on how many members of various religions live in the United States, and nobody's really sure of any of the numbers, but in various surveys of religious preference over the last few years,
between 70% and 85% of respondents said they were Christian. If you assume this mirrors Lowe's customer base, then in attempting to please roughly 15-30% of their shoppers, they managed to offend the other 70-85%. This strikes me as poor judgment. Not to mention the fact that they looked silly as hell, since the Christmas tree is an instantly recognizable cultural icon and has been for roughly 200 years.

And to finish off their folly, they did this in the Dallas-Fort Worth area (or at least that's where the linked news story was published). This will probably offend any residents of Dallas-Fort Worth who may read this, but it's not an area I associate with, shall we say, non-mainstream religions. I'm sure there are Jews and Muslims and maybe even a few Wiccans in Dallas-Fort Worth, but the vast majority of the population is evangelical. In fact, I'm not sure Catholic isn't considered non-mainstream there.

These numbers also make the American Family Association look a little, um, over-sensitive. Believe me, Christianity is in no danger in the United States. In fact, those of us who believe in the separation of church and state sometimes get a little nervous.

But the real thing that boggled my mind was: in this day and age, who in tarnation would buy a Christmas tree from a catalog?? Delancey Street already has tree lots up all over San Francisco. By next weekend you'll be tripping over pine branches in every parking lot in America. And Lowe's thinks people will order them by mail??

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Vacation Photos

Last summer I blogged at some length about the vacation we took to England and Wales, but posted no pictures. Well, I'm slow, but I do deliver (after all, there were sixteen rolls of film to go through!), and I've now got photo galleries posted on for the first 3 legs of our trip: London and Greenwich, Kent and East Sussex, and Devonshire (mainly Dartmoor). Feel free to go and browse. I hope you enjoy looking at them as much as I enjoyed taking them. Keep checking back - I still have Wales and the Chester-York trip to do!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

No Turkeys

Despite the time of year, this post is not about Thanksgiving.

A small flock of wild turkeys has moved into our neighborhood. I've seen them twice now - both times, en route to somewhere else and with no camera to hand. The first time, they were ambling down the middle of my city street at 5 o'clock in the evening, about 5 of them, and I saw them as I came out of the house to go to water aerobics. I tried to get a shot (from across the street) with the soi-disant camera in my cell phone, but it was not up to the challenge.

The second time (yesterday), my husband and I were driving toward the freeway around 8:30 in the morning, and there they all were, by the community playing field
fence, up the canyon. Still no camera except the cell phone, and besides we had an appointment to get to. But I clearly saw the comb on the tom turkey, and the color shading on his feathers.

Now, I really want a photo of these critters. This is why I bought that 300mm lens. They are elegant birds, long and lean, standing somewhere between knee and hip high to an adult human; and it amazes me that they're willing to come this far into civilization. The community playing field is right next to the elementary school, and the whole area was full of kids, and parents, and commuters on their way to work via the back route to the freeway. They obviously don't mind people; so I'm stalking them, camera in hand, in the morning and evening. No luck today, only pigeons and sparrows; although I did discover that someone has plastered the base of about two sections of the fence with corn kernels and some other kind of large brown seed.

Shades of my late mother-in-law, who used to be a regular customer of the feed store in her Wisconsin village; she bought 50 lb. sacks of corn to feed the deer and squirrels. I'm sure that some of the critters who grew up on her handouts must have starved to death after we moved her to California.

The turkeys may also have been deterred by this afternoon's soccer game, played by six-year-olds, in raucous progress on the playing field. The start of school is lively enough, but this was even more energetic. It's very odd watching six-year-olds play soccer - they're all about the same height (short; they looked like they were knee high to the adults) and moving very fast. With them all in similar uniforms, it was like watching a flock of wading birds flow back and forth across the beach, except that wading birds aren't screaming and chasing a soccer ball.

Still, it's a nice walk up the canyon to where I saw them last, and you never know, maybe I'll get lucky one day and there they'll be. I'm keeping the camera just inside the front door.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Sunny Days

It's nice to see the sun again. You can't rely on it, if you live in a coastal city; fog comes with the territory, or that medium-level cover of dry gray clouds they call "the marine layer." Yesterday it even rained; but for the whole last week we've had clouds, pretty much all day every day. I think there was one sunny day.

Now that I'm retired, I spend a lot of time in the house. Our house is an active pleasure to be in on a sunny fall or winter morning. The whole south side is covered with windows, and the southerly sun streams in and warms the place up, physically and spiritually. On a cloudy day, though, everything is gray, the sky, the neighborhood - even the yard seems subdued, despite my husband's efforts to have something in bloom at all times.

The most annoying days are when the clouds just sit on the East Bay hills, like the cloud that followed Joe Btfsplk around in L'il Abner, and the rest of the Bay Area is sunny. Talk about unfair! When I worked, I had a sporting chance of seeing some sun in Concord. But then, of course, I had to work... and the policy at the office was to keep the blinds closed at all times to keep the building temperature even and save energy. (Gee, thanks, guys.)

Today we had some early clouds, and then they blew over and the sun came out, so the house was happy again all morning. It really makes me think of "The sun pours down like honey" (but not on Our Lady of the Harbor) from Suzanne. I'll have to think of something to do this winter to ward off Seasonal Affective Disorder.


Mourn for the seabirds, and the fish, and the crabs. Mourn for the beaches, and the creatures that live on them. Mourn for the people who eat the fish they catch at the piers. Mourn for the migrating birds on the Pacific Flyway. We have destroyed San Francisco Bay. Our addiction to oil has murdered the creatures, and covered San Francisco Bay with oily sludge.

The blame game has begun. Was it the bar pilot? Was it the ship's Chinese crew? Were the instruments bad? Was the fog part of the problem? Can we sue the owners of the ship? Who owns the ship, anyway? In a real sense, none of this matters; the damage is done, and the cleanup will take months if we're lucky, years if we're not. They're still finding stuff from the Exxon Valdez spill. But in a real sense, we are all, ourselves, responsible - because we can't stop using the oil.


Thursday, November 08, 2007

More Roosting Chickens

I'll admit I didn't see this one coming. On Tuesday Consumer Reports announced that they won't automatically recommend Toyota vehicles without reliability data on the specific design, after 2 Toyota models (the Camry V6 and the Tundra 4 wheel drive V8 pickup) were rated "below average" in predicted reliability. (The Camry??)

In the same report, 3 Ford models (the Ford Fusion, the Mercury Milan and the F-150 V6 pickup) made the "most reliable" list.

Ford is more reliable than Toyota? The world is coming to an end.

Well, Toyota's world may be, and in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday, we may have an explanation. A former quality control inspector at the NUMMI plant in Fremont, CA, a joint venture between Toyota and General Motors, is suing both firms on the grounds that they retaliated against her when she reported multiple defects on "thousands of vehicles" coming off the line. According to the suit, eight years ago managers began altering her defect reports to lower the Daily Defect Per Vehicle numbers.

The interesting point here is that the NUMMI plant doesn't make the vehicles Consumer Reports just downgraded. It makes Toyota Tacomas and Corollas, and Pontiac Vibes. Might be interesting to check the Consumer Reports reliability ratings on the last 5 years or so of those models.

Toyota's market position has been based for years on draconian quality control. Looks like Draco has been laterally arabesqued....

The Chickens are Coming Home To Roost

The news over the last couple of days has been interesting, and is summarized by a comment in this week's Economist (not an exact quote): According to bankers, the four most expensive words in the English language are, "This time it's different."

Let's start with the bankers. Over the last couple of weeks everybody's 3rd quarter report has come out, and the red ink looks like the floor of a slaughterhouse. The chairmen of Merrill Lynch and Citigroup have been bounced. (Don't weep for them; they won't starve.) Citigroup in fact is in such bad shape that people are beginning to wonder whether the guvmint will have to bail it out (which probably means it's too late to sell my stock, fortunately not a large stake). As I commented in September, the investment banking industry thought it had invented a way to manage mortgage lending without actually personally taking any risk that the borrower would default; and they were wrong.

The fallout isn't restricted to bankers, and the bankers haven't heard the worst yet, because most of them are also in the credit card business. The fallout from subprime delinquencies is about to hit the credit card business, according to an analysis Tuesday from AP. The same people who took out mortgages they couldn't pay were carrying credit card debt they couldn't pay. In fact, some of those adjustable mortgages were refinances to pull out cash to pay off other debt... The whole industry is now watching nervously to see what The Consumer does during the upcoming Christmas season.

How does this come under "This time it's different"? Back to the subprime crisis: this time it was different because the housing market would continue to rise indefinitely and everybody would be rich because of their house. Except it didn't. This time it's different because for 40 years consumers in this country have been running their lives on credit and the bills have never come due - there was always another credit card, or you could refinance the house and "cash out" because the housing market was always going to keep rising. (Except in 1989 but nobody remembers that.)

If I sound a little sanctimonious here, I'll admit that, at one time in my life, almost 30 years ago, I ran on credit. My paycheck was never quite enough, and I had I think 7 or 8 credit cards with balances on all of them. But - I got a small windfall, and I used the windfall to pay off all my credit cards, and I've never put anything on a credit card since that I couldn't pay off at the end of the month. The only debt we have is a mortgage and we'll pay that off shortly. I'm back to where my parents were except that they didn't have a mortgage; they paid their house off in 1952. So I'm watching this from the outside; but I live here, and if we have a major recession it'll hit me too.

I've been wondering for years when this was all going to fall over, and I have a bad feeling that it's about to. And you know something? If it falls over, we'll have done it to ourselves. We made the choices. We decided we could pay for it later. Well, folks - it's later.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

One Touch of Venus

This weekend's entertainment was live, not Netflix - we went to San Francisco to see a friend of my husband perform in "One Touch of Venus", done by 42nd Street Moon. This show isn't very often performed - what 42nd Street Moon does is musicals that aren't often performed - but we thought it was fabulous: music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Ogden Nash and S. J. Perelman. It was lively, very funny, the cast of 10 played, sang and danced at least 15 parts with great verve. The experience was improved by the very small Eureka Theater - the audience was practically in the performers' laps and vice versa.

This isn't your "standard" musical production. First, they didn't have a full cast. Second, the sets consisted of one chaise longue, one standard chair, about 5 black and white cubes, and the piano, on which various people leaned or sat. Third, the piano, played by the music director (Dave Dobrusky) throughout the performance, constituted the entire musical accompaniment. Fourth, some of the performers carried "scripts" in some scenes - but I didn't even realize they did until the discussion after the show. Everybody was carrying binders or folders around, but most of them had reasons to carry binders and/or folders around.

I won't review the plot here - the Marin IJ did that last week if you're interested. I just wanted to recommend everybody, go see a live musical sometime, preferably a comedy. It is fantastic fun and has no relation to renting the DVD from NetFlix. In fact, it's playing through Nov. 11 - see the 42nd Street Moon web site. If you're in the S.F. Bay Area you may still be able to get tickets.

I have to quote, though, what the IJ said was the best line of the evening. One of the characters, having spent the night drinking
"Shostakoviches", malted mare's milk and vodka (??!), is asked how he feels the morning after, and says: "All my teeth feel like they have little sweaters on them." Thank you, Ogden Nash, we've all been there and felt like that...

I also want to let my readers know that I don't spend all my time worrying about coups in Pakistan.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Dictator

Well, he's done it. The BBC reported today that General Musharraf has declared a national state of emergency in Pakistan, suspended the constitution (including free speech), and replaced the chief justice. That would be the chief justice he tried to suspend earlier this year, which caused the entire legal profession to take to the streets. This move, of course, is because he was reasonably sure the Supreme Court was going to rule that his recent election to the presidency was unconstitutional because he failed to resign as army chief first, despite having promised to do so at least 4 times that I recall offhand. From the AP article:
A copy of the emergency order obtained by The Associated Press justified the declaration on the grounds that "some members of the judiciary are working at cross purposes with the executive" and "weakening the government's resolve" to fight terrorism.
Why are we supporting this man? Are we back to the bad old days of "he's an SOB, but he's our SOB?" This is pure and simple dictatorship. The Bush administration considers Musharraf a vital ally in the war against terror, despite the fact that he has been entirely unable to control the Taliban in the border area next to Afghanistan. Condi Rice, next door in Turkey (trying to keep the Turks from invading Iraqi Kurdistan, I assume), is blethering that the U.S. "does not support extraconstitutional measures" and "urging a quick return to civilian rule." This is balderdash. Musharraf is still in power exactly because he declares a state of emergency every time he is faced with a genuine election (which he would lose; he's massively unpopular in Pakistan). Supporting him merely convinces the rest of the world that Americans really are arrogant, militaristic bastards who are using the "war on terror" to advance a set of principles that have everything to do with power and oil, and nothing whatever to do with freedom and democracy.

It's unfortunate that the known civilian alternatives to Musharraf, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, have been tried before and found grossly corrupt. In fact, both of them left the country some years ago to avoid arrest on corruption charges; and Bhutto has negotiated her return on the condition that the charges be lifted. The third alternative, of course, is the native Islamic militant political wing. So there aren't any good alternatives for Pakistan: an only moderately competent dictator, versus two known corrupt civilian politicians, versus the Pakistani equivalent of the Taliban.

But shouldn't we allow the Pakistani people to decide on their own what government they want? Isn't that the whole principle of democracy? We've developed much too much of a tendency in recent years to accept the results of democratic elections only if they bring people we like to power. Classic examples here are Hugo Chavez in Venezula and Hamas in Palestine. Whatever you think of them - and I don't like either of them - they were fairly elected (in Chavez' case, at least the first time; and he does have tremendous support among the poor); whereupon we took it on ourselves to declare that those people aren't suited to form a government. Unfortunately for Hamas, there's no oil in the West Bank or Gaza, so they couldn't ignore us the way Chavez does.

But back to Pakistan - every rational observer saw this development coming. It's too bad that the U.S. government (which seems to have thought that having Condi Rice call Musharraf at 3 AM Pakistan time, to urge him not to declare a state of emergency, would do the trick) can no longer be considered a rational observer.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Eighty Days

It's dark on weekend nights again, so we've restarted the Netflix subscription. Last weekend we watched an all time classic - David Niven and Cantinflas in Around the World in 80 Days.

This thing is fabulous. Watching Cantinflas alone is worth the whole price of admission; and then there are all the cameos. Go look up the cast on IMDB - everyone who was anyone had a cameo in that film, although I thought the real high point was the San Francisco saloon, where Niven was accosted by Marlene Dietrich as a saloon madam, thrown out by George Raft as her boyfriend - and the whole event was accompanied by a saloon pianist who suddenly turned around to reveal Old Blue Eyes - Sinatra himself, aged I guess about 40 and at the top of his form. This was a real cameo as he didn't even have a line!

This movie has everything. It has bullfights. It has mysterious Tangerian yachtsmen. It has elephants. It has a daring rescue - several daring rescues. It has collapsing railway bridges, and attacking Sioux. It has drugged drinks, and missed connections, and a desperate dash for the finish line. If you've never seen it, rent it. If you have seen it, rent it again. But start early - 80 days takes 3 hours!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

U.C. Is At It Again

I absolutely can't believe the article I read in today's San Francisco Chronicle. A committee of U.C. faculty have decided that the university's method of determining student eligibility for admission is "too rigid", and is therefore "unfair to some students." Their solution to this problem? Restrict guaranteed university access even further. The 1960 Master Plan for Education guarantees University admission to the top 12.5% of graduating high school seniors; the Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools wants to reduce that guarantee to the top 4%.

The theory is, you see, that students in rural and inner-city schools are disadvantaged because their schools don't offer all the necessary college prep courses, and they don't have enough counselors to make sure they take the courses and do the required tests. This is all true, of course, and is further complicated by the fact that the inner-city kids also have a list of other well-known problems (low income, family breakup, constant danger from random shooters, etc.). But some of them do make it - and they are materially aided by the policy that the top 12.5% of graduates from their high school have guaranteed admission.

The faculty members are concerned that there are students (God defend us!) who now "slide in" to Cal by "doing the minimum work to be eligible." So they want to "improve standards" by raising the bar so these kids - who are now DOING the necessary work! - don't have guaranteed admission to Cal. Only the top 4% will get guaranteed admission, everybody else has to "compete" - including any of the rural and inner-city kids who might have been guaranteed a slot under the 1960 rules! Furthermore, nobody will be guaranteed a slot at a UC campus with available seats, as they are now; if your primary choice rejects you, you have to be re-evaluated again by your second choice campus, and so on.

I couldn't make this up if I tried. They are trying to expand the pool that gets into Cal by raising the bar for everybody below the top 4%? The whirring sound you hear is George Orwell, spinning in his grave at a level of doublespeak worthy of his masterpiece. And this does it for me - if this is how the faculty thinks, my donation to U.C. this year will go to Alumni Association scholarship funds, not to the general fund.

Also, someday I'd like someone to explain to me what's wrong with doing the minimum work necessary to make the grade. Does everyone have to be an overachiever? If you make the grade, you make it. The effort necessary to be in the top 12.5% of your school is not trivial; and the tests you have to pass - twice - are also not trivial.

To do them justice, the article quoted a number of faculty, and at least one regent (who has been actively involved in admissions and had never heard of this) who are as disturbed by this proposal as I am. So it may never come to pass, and a good thing if it doesn't. But it should never have seen the light of day as a serious suggestion.