Scandalous

I’ll admit to some surprise over how much press the college university scandal is getting. It’s proving to be a remarkable distraction from whatever it is our darling president is up to today. And have you noticed that he’s been unusually silent about the subject? Sure, his usual crew of proxies, including DTJr, have been all over it, but as far as I can tell, he’s kept his own Twitter fingers out of the fuss.

Maybe he thinks the dignity of his former position as proprietor of a pay-for-play education institution would be compromised by taking sides on the issue.

Never mind.

Anyway, I really am surprised about the amount of attention being paid to the story. Is anyone actually surprised that the rich have a perk denied to the rest of population?

Is it because of the high public profile of some of the accused? Everyone loves a good scandal involving well-known actresses*, right? Or is it only because of the rather staggering quantities of money involved. Twenty-five million is a significant sum of money. On the other hand, annual tuition at Stanford is currently around $50,000. Add in living expenses, materials, and all of the other expenses of going to school, and you realize that $25,000,000 wouldn’t even cover the costs of a four year degree for all of the students involved.

* I have to wonder if there would be as much gloating and finger pointing if the big Hollywood names were men. But I digress.

And, speaking of the students… The Chron quotes US attorney Andrew Lelling as saying “For every student admitted through fraud, an honest, genuinely talented student was rejected.” That’s arguable, but if the goal of the investigation is to seek redress for those rejected students, why are all of those fraudulently admitted still attending their schools?

Granted, most schools probably don’t have a ranked list of candidates, and even if they did, it’s far too late to offer a slot to the top few who just missed the cut because their slots had been filled via fraud. But it would free up spaces that could be added to the available pool for next year.

Come to think of it, the goal of the parents involved was to get their kids into those colleges. Even if they’re eventually convicted of crimes, the punishment is going to be in the form of fines and jail time. The children are still going to be in school, benefiting from their parents’ misdeeds. And if someone was willing and able to pay half a million bucks to get their child into an Ivy League school, are they really going to quibble about a few thousand dollars more to satisfy the justice system?

Really, though, the most vexing thing about the scandal is that the schools themselves are unlikely to see any repercussions. A few employees have been fired and more probably will. It’s vaguely possible that the universities will be fined, but even if they are, they’ll likely be a tiny fraction of their operating budgets–but a great excuse to raise tuition. Maybe the NCAA will sanction a few sports programs–but who’s going to notice a loss of scholarships or forced forfeits in sailing and other minor sports?

What’s not going to be affected is the schools’ collective reputation. None of this year’s high school seniors are going to withdraw their applications. Nobody’s going to miss out on a post-graduation job because their diploma comes from one of those schools.

That, IMNSHO, is the real scandal.

Gender Free

Would you believe it’s been more than two years since I last ranted about the Decline of Civilization? Me neither, but it’s true.

Lest you think I’m getting soft, I’m going to remedy the lack. And no, it’s got nothing to do with politics. At least not directly. Today, we’re all about language. Specifically, the gender-prefix.

Oh, you know what I mean. The addition of a gender-linked modifier to a perfectly good gender-irrelevant word. Man bun. Man purse. Man cave.

Don’t think I’m exaggerating my disgust with this phenomenon for the sake of a blog post. I loathe the trend. Not to put too fine a point on it, this creation of invisible–in truth, non-existent–gender distinctions is exactly the process that leads to gender-linked pay disparities, “just kidding” harassment, and rampant discrimination.

Really. Think about it.

There’s no such thing as a man bun–or a woman bun for that matter. It’s a bun. Period. Exactly the same hairstyle regardless of who’s wearing it. I’ve got no dog in this race: one look at my photo will tell you my hair isn’t ever going to fit into a bun.

The only reason the style looks odd on a man is because you’re not used to seeing it. It’s a style traditionally worn by women, so there’s that moment of cognitive dissonance until you get used to it. Regrettably, neophobia is a real thing, and those who suffer from it are going to prevent themselves from accepting something new by labeling it as “different” or “other”.

Excise man bun from your vocabulary.

Ditto man purse.

Don’t want to call a moderately sized bag you carry in your hand or on your shoulder a purse? Fine. How about “shoulder bag”? It’s a perfectly good term, gender neutral, and with a long history. And it exactly describes the object in question.

Then there’s man cave. What’s wrong with “basement”? Or “rec room,” “TV room,” or even “game room”? Because, let’s be honest here, calling that room where you go to watch the ballgame a man cave not only does a disservice to all the women who enjoy sports, a game of pool, or a handy supply of beer and life-shortening snack foods, but it also devalues the room itself.

Caves, by and large, are cold and dark. Frequently damp, too. None of which is going to make the man cave sound appealing. You want a word to describe that cozy space where it’s just you, your favorite chair, and the biggest damn TV you can afford? How about “den”?

Now there’s a word with all the right connotations. It hints of the wild, but retains notes of “warm and cozy”. The kind of place you want to bring a few of your best friends to hang out.

Don’t think, by the way, that I’m just ticked off at the male gender here.

I swear I will projectile vomit on the next person who uses the phrase “she shed” in my presence.

If it wasn’t invented by some alliteration-addicted marketing executive, it should have been. Like man cave, it’s needlessly exclusive and designed to sound superficially appealing while actually being dismissive. And, also like man cave, the so-called she shed can easily wear the proud badge of “den” with pride and dignity.

A pox on both houses, man caves and she sheds alike.

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.

Bad Behavior

No matter how hard I try to avoid it, politics continue to suck me in.

My first draft of this post assumed you’d heard about our Fearful Leader’s latest faux pas. Then I realized that even if you have, by the time the post goes live, he’ll have committed at least two or three more. So let’s be more explicit.

So perhaps you’ve heard how You Know Who behaved in a meeting with Congressional leaders over the current government shutdown? If you missed it, he again revealed his total inability to negotiate. When the House Democrats again refused to submit to his flat demands, he slapped the table and walked out of the meeting.

I just have one question.

That’s not acceptable behavior in any context. Not in business, not in social life, and certainly not in politics. Though, given Trump’s love of everything Russian, I’m surprised he didn’t take off his shoe and pound that on the table. But I digress.

The question is why his supporters condone this sort of behavior. If their kid demanded a raise in their allowance, slapped the kitchen table, and stormed out of the room, would they praise their negotiating tactics and give them the money? Would they go into a job interview, insist they be hired immediately, slam their fist on the table, and leave, then expect to be called back and put to work?

So why do they continue to say he’s a wonderful negotiator, a great president, and absolutely should get his giant Lego set?

Moving on. Not very far, though.

I can’t help but feel a certain amount of schadenfreude over the situation Chipotle is in. Because, let’s face it, they brought it on themselves.

In case you’ve missed it, this has nothing to do with the Salmonella Story–that just reduces whatever small amount of sympathy I might have had for them. This is about claims of wage theft, corporately sanctioned policies that forced workers to work without pay.

The case goes back to 2013. More than 10,000 current and former workers filed suit and attempted to have the case certified as a class action. In response, Chipotle adopted a mandatory arbitration provision for all new hires, and last summer roughly a quarter of the complainers were required to drop out of the suit and go to arbitration.

The result? Not only is the suit continuing on behalf of the workers who were hired before the arbitration clause was added to contracts, but now Chipotle is facing hundreds, possibly thousands, of arbitration cases–which it may have to pay for itself.

All they’ve accomplished is a temporary delay in the main suit and increased their own potential financial burden.

At this point, they’ve probably spent more money on their legal maneuverings than they would have shelled out if they’d simply settled the case when it was first filed. Or–assuming there’s merit in the claims–if they’d just treated their workers fairly.

I can’t help but wonder if Chipotle’s executives have gone to the same school of negotiation as Fearful Leader.

The Christmas Spirit

A quick bit of bookkeeping: in order to reduce the craziness of starting a new job smack in the middle of the holiday season, I’m going to take a couple of weeks off from the blog. There will be Friday posts tomorrow, the twenty-eighth, and the fourth. Regular posts will resume the week of the seventh.

Moving on.

Diana Rowland is the author of one of my favorite series. It wouldn’t be stretching the truth at all to say the books are among my influences. Certainly, they’re a reminder that urban fantasy doesn’t have to have vampires.

Now she’s also one of my heroes.

The Washington Post has most of the story. But if you can’t or won’t read it there, the thumbnail version is that one of her neighbors took offense to her Christmas display–the same display, it should be noted, that she’s had for the past several years–a group of three dragons, festively decorated with Santa hats and garlands. The neighbor sent Ms. Rowland an anonymous note informing her that the dragons were inappropriate for Christmas, and that it was leading the neighborhood to suspect her of demon worship.

I have to wonder: if the dragons had been part of a full-blown nativity scene, replacing the usual sheep, cows, and/or camels, would the anonymous letter writer have been more concerned, or less?

Ms. Rowland did what any sensible person would do: tweeted the letter and added two more dragons to the display.

No, that’s not the heroic part.

Of course the story went viral. How could it not? Offers of additional dragons poured in, some in the form of cash to buy dragons, some as offers to ship pre-paid dragons to Louisiana*.

* How do you tell the difference between a gator and a dragon? If you don’t know the answer, be very cautious about making purchases that involve the phrase “an arm and a leg”.

Here’s the heroic part–and, surprisingly, the part of the story the Post missed.

Rather than escalate the fight further, she declined all the offers and asked that would-be donors instead make a contribution to charity. Not a particular charity. Not a specific amount. Not in her name. Just the charity of their choice.

Apparently, many of the people making donations are doing it in the name of the “Dragon Army,” which is, IMNSHO, a delightful way of exceeding expectations. Well done, Internet. The only way to improve on that scenario? Buy one of her books.

Flat As a Basketball

Really, Steph?

I can’t believe we’re talking about this.

Yeah, the whole moon landing contretemps. First Stephen Curry says he doesn’t believe men have been to the moon. Then he gets all coy. Then he claims it was a lesson in critical thinking and information literacy.

Sorry, Steph, I’m not buying any of it. I don’t care whether you’re a conspiracy theorist or not. But no matter how you look at it, this was a stupid move.

If you really believe the moon landings were faked, then claiming otherwise in the face of the outcry makes you look credulous and wishy-washy.

On the other hand, if it was a joke that got taken seriously, doubling down on it with the Intelligent Design/Climate Change “just asking questions” defense makes you look stupid as well as credulous.

And on the gripping hand, if you intended this as a lesson in critical thinking from the beginning–and a not so covert swipe at the current U.S. government–this was completely the wrong way to go about it.

As we’ve seen on a daily basis since 2016, nobody pays attention to the corrections. Telling the “kids out there that hang on every word that we say” not to believe what they hear is about as pointless as a cat on a linoleum floor trying to bury the evidence of excretory malfeasance.

If they even hear the lesson–and many of them won’t, because it’s not sexy enough to get the same play in the media as the original statement–they’re not going to go to the trouble. The lesson they hear over and over in school, at home, and from their peers is “believe what the boss says”. Believe your teacher, unless he contradicts your priest. Believe the president, unless he contradicts your father.

Don’t look it up. Nobody likes a smart ass.

No, I don’t have a fix. But neither does Steph.

Oversight

How about a rant about product delivery that has nothing to do with Amazon? What’s more, it’s not about UPS, FedEx, or OnTrac! Pardon me while I put on my old fart pants, because I’m talking about newspaper delivery.

Back in the dim reaches of prehistory, delivery in residential areas was mostly done by kids on bikes. Up in the early morning hours to get the papers delivered before school. The technique you see in vintage movies, where the delivery boy flings the paper at the front door without slowing down was actually more common than you might believe.

I have to wonder if it’s even still legal for kids to deliver papers. It’s certainly frowned upon, in the same way that society frowns on letting them go out to play by themselves. But I digress.

Today, delivery is done by those old enough to drive. Some things don’t change, though. Our carrier, at least, flings the paper out of the car window without slowing down.

And it mostly works. Usually the paper arrives while I’m getting dressed and checking my email–just in time for me to read it while I eat breakfast. It’s almost always in a bag, rarely in a puddle, and hardly ever missing sections.

When things do go wrong, though–well, that’s why I’m ranting.

There are two papers around here, the San Francisco Chronicle and the East Bay Times. The latter is small and, IMNSHO, overly click-baitish. So we get the Chron. Except, of course, when the carrier goofs and gives us the wrong paper. That happens about once a month.

So we call the Chron and talk to their friendly robot in charge of delivery problems. No, I’m not being snide about an underpaid human. The whole process is automated, right down to the fake typing noises after the computer says, “Let me look that up for you.”

Not once have we actually gotten the paper redelivered when we’ve been given a Times instead of a Chron. I’m guess that’s because the Chron doesn’t have a “I got the wrong paper” option, just “Did you get your paper? Please answer yes or no.” So I suspect what happens when we say we didn’t is that Chron’s robot passes the word to the delivery person, who says to himself, “I remember tossing it into their driveway. They’re trying to scam an extra paper.” Why we’d want a second Chron, I can’t imagine, but I doubt logic really enters into this process.

Then we got a laser printed flier from the delivery service–or more likely, from the actual delivery person–that advised us to call them instead of the paper.

So that’s what we did the next time we got a Times. Wound up talking to an answering machine and were actually able to say, “Hey, we got the wrong paper today!” Wonder of wonders, a couple of hours later, we found a Chron outside.

Problem solved, right? Well…

That business about not calling the Chron rubs me the wrong way. It smacks of an attempt to cover up their goof. I’m sure the delivery contract specifies a service level agreement: papers to be delivered by a particular time, with no more than such-and-so many errors per month.

If we don’t call the Chron, those missed and incorrect deliveries might not be counted. There’s no incentive for the delivery service to improve their process*. There’s no accountability, no oversight.

* Nor, for that matter, is there any way for us to get a credit from the Chron if the paper never does show up.

We’ve decided to call both numbers. What’s the worst that happens? We might get two newspapers. Oh, the horror. But at least we’re doing our part to ensure that the situation doesn’t get any worse.

The analogy with the current state of the American political system is left as an exercise for the reader.

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.)

Good News / Bad News

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I’ve got bad news and good news.

The bad news is that it’s too late to get a cool sticker like the one at the top of the post–the rare, three-word special edition.

The good news is that there’s still time to get the regular edition, which is almost as rare. It doesn’t have that third word, but that third word is the least important of the three.

Go exercise your franchise. It’s the Right Thing To Do.


Okay, so you’ve voted. Now what?

I’m going to dump some depressing news on you here, because I want to get it all out of the way at once and save Thursday for something cheerier.

The message is this: even if there’s a massive blue wave that give Democrats control of both the House and the Senate, we don’t win anything.

Don’t get me wrong. Taking control of Congress is a necessary step to repairing the damage done to the country over the last two years (and the fifty years before that). But in itself, it’s not enough to fix anything. At most it’ll prevent more damage.

Because, while Congress can block a judicial or cabinet nomination, it can’t make nominations. Suppose Kavanaugh gets hit by a bus. A Democrat-controlled Senate can block whatever conservative candidate the White House picks–and hand the Republicans another talking point about obstructionist Democrats–but they can’t offer a liberal candidate.

A Democratic Congress can pass laws, but can’t force the president to sign them. There’s no way to get enough Democratic congresscritters to establish a veto-proof supermajority in both houses. Not in 2018, anyway.

Nor, and let’s be brutally honest here, would a two-thirds majority in both houses do any good. The modern use of a signing statement to, in essence, say “This law doesn’t apply to me,” gives the White House an out, as does the option of simply ignoring any inconvenient legislation. Remember the Russian sanctions of 2017?

Don’t forget, as well, that newly-elected representatives don’t take their seats until January. That still leaves the current administration a couple of months to rush through as much legislation as they can.

As I said, flipping Congress is a necessary step. But it’s a holding action. This is the beginning of a long, hard fight, not the end. See you at the polls in 2020, 2022, 2024,…

There’s Always One

As Thanksgiving approaches, the neighborhood gang is out in force.

They do it every year; a kind of ongoing, silent (usually) demonstration of solidarity with their domesticated brethren.
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Not everyone is with the program, though. Did you notice Tom? Here’s a better look as they continued down the street.
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Yeah, up there at the top of the picture. There’s always one guy who goes his own way.

Maybe Tom is in a world of his own. Maybe he figures he’s got enough problems of his own, staying out of the jaws of the local coyotes; who cares what happens to a bunch of domestic turkeys he’s never met? Or maybe he’s a Wild Supremacist, actively promoting the elimination of lesser sub-species.

Regardless of his motivations, he does eventually join back up with the rest of the gang.
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At which point, of course, they all give him the ol’ hairy eyeball and break the silence of the march. As best I can tell–I’ve forgotten most of the Turkeyish I learned in school–the commentary boils down to something like, “Geez, Tom, you are such an effin’ turkey!”

To which Tom, of course, replies maturely, “Takes one to know one, guys.”