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.)

Not Yet

These are the times that try sports fans’ souls…

Well, okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But honestly, this is the second-worst week of the year. The first, of course, begins the moment the third out is made in the last game of the World Series.

But this one, the one that began when pitchers and catchers started to report to their teams’ training camps, isn’t far behind.

Why? Because, despite what so many people on the Internet and assorted traditional media would have you believe, baseball is not back.

Yes, those who follow college baseball have a different perspective. Their seasons are already in progress. Those of us who don’t root for a college team have to wait.

The first pre-season game involving a major league team–the Arizona Diamondbacks facing the Arizona State University Sun Devils*–isn’t until Wednesday afternoon.

* Does anyone else find it as amusing as I do how heavily the Diamondbacks have stacked the deck in their own favor? Not only do they have the home field advantage, but ASU can’t even use their whole squad–they’re listed as sending a split squad, i.e. their backup players, even though they don’t have a Pac-12 game that day.

The first game available to those of us outside of Arizona and Florida isn’t until Thursday, when the Minnesota Twins host the University of Minnesota Gophers. It looks like the radio broadcast will be streamed through (and, one presumes, the MLB app), but I don’t think the TV broadcast will be available anywhere but in Minnesota.

Friday, we’ll finally get the first games between major league clubs. There are fifteen on the schedule, and some of them will be televised outside of the teams’ respective markets.

It won’t be good baseball. The first exhibition games are always rough. Star players often don’t appear at all, and players never stay in for more than a couple of innings*.

* “What, never?” “Well, hardly ever.”

But no matter how sloppy it turns out to be, it’ll still be baseball. In ballparks and on our TVs, radios, and other media consumption devices.

Almost all of the stories we’ll get between now and then, designed to convince us baseball is back, will be nonsense. Nobody cares who’s “in the best shape of his life.” Nobody really cares that Pitcher X, coming off of surgery, took the mound: we expect he did, and as long as he doesn’t re-injure himself, tossing a double-handful of pitches is irrelevant to our view of the world.

In a normal year, the free agent signings would be, by and large, over with by now; this year, for the most part, they’re not happening. Either way, it’s thin gruel to tide us over until Friday.

20-1We’ll get there. As the saying goes, “Hang in there, Baby. Friday’s coming.*”

* I used to own a copy of that poster, back in the dim reaches of history. I’d love to get a new copy, but not at the prices they’re going for on eBay these days.

Not all of the current news is useless. We now know there won’t be a pitch clock in MLB this year–no promises for next year, though.

And, if you’re following the saga of the Athletics’ search for a new stadium, you’ll no doubt be interested to hear BART has definitively ruled out the possibility of building a new stadium near the team’s second choice location. That’s a bit of schadenfreude that’ll keep me entertained until at least Thursday morning.

But actual baseball? Still a few days away.

Change You Won’t See

It’s that time of year when blogger’s thoughts turn to change. Seems like everyone is talking about it. Change for the better, change for the worse. Far be it for me to neglect a tidal wave of interest. But naturally, I have to put my own cynical spin on it.

Herewith, my top five list of things that need to change in 2015, but won’t.

5. BART’s mañana attitude. Not just waiting until the last minute and beyond to negotiate with the unions–really, guys, it’s not too early to start working on the 2017 contract, honest–but in general. Cars are increasingly overcrowded; by the time the new cars with more space are delivered in 2016 and 2017, they’ll be packed just as tight as the old cars are now. And yet, we keep hearing that BART can’t start thinking about increasing capacity until after the cars are delivered.

4. Caltrans’ “It doesn’t need to be tested” attitude. Do I even need to elaborate on this? It’s not just the Bay Bridge: everything we’re hearing suggests that Caltrans needs to make a significant change in its corporate culture. Consider future needs. Don’t take it for granted that construction has been done to standard. Recognize that budgets are not infinitely flexible.

3. Government’s belief that citizens have no right to privacy. Did you notice that the NSA chose Christmas Eve to release a pile of audit reports, hoping that nobody would pay attention? Bloomberg’s report makes it obvious that nobody is exercising any control over the NSA. If there are no processes–or software controls–in place to prevent analysts from conducting surveillance without authorization, it means the organization is relying on self-policing. And if an analyst can accidentally submit a request for surveillance on himself, it’s a pretty good sign that self-policing isn’t working. And yet, the NSA wants more access to record and monitor everything that everyone does. Oh, and let’s not forget the FBI, which continues to claim that North Korea is reponsible for the Sony hack, despite significant evidence that the crackers were Russians, possibly assisted by an employee or ex-employee.

2.5 The increasing militarization of local police. As long as police departments are free to buy new and increasingly lethal toys, no one will be able to make any progress in decreasing the fear and distrust between police and the general public. Drone flights won’t make the public feel safer, and the increased resentment will easily flash over into more threats against the police. And body cameras are not and will never be the answer. They’re too easily forgotten, damaged, misinterpreted, or outright ignored.

2. The endless waffling and squabbling by MLB and the As. Just make a decision, people. Yes, is a literal cesspool, but the As aren’t going to make any effort to improve the situation while the possibility exists that they could skip town. The costs of San Jose’s lawsuit are increasing, and MLB’s anti-trust exemption–already cracked by recent court decisions on the NFL’s blackout rules–is at risk. Regardless of your opinion of the exemption as a whole, having it revoked or struck down would open the door to levels of team movements that haven’t been seen since the 1890s. MLB needs to–ahem–shit or get off the pot before someone yanks the pot out from under them.

1. Phones getting bigger. Remember how bad the RSI epidemic was before we started to figure out how hard on the wrists sitting and typing all day was? I’m increasingly of the opinion that we’re treading the same path here. People are holding larger, heavier phones all the time. Bluetooth headsets aren’t a cure: you still need to hold your phone to play games, watch videos, and read and write all but the simplest e-mails. I fully expect 2015 to be the year of the sprained wrist, as Android phone-makers rush out models to increase their size lead over Apple. 2016 will be even worse when Apple catches up with an iPhone 7 that–projecting the trend–will require a personal crane to lift. Not that all of the blame can be assigned to device manufacturers. Several studies that I just made up indicate that all of the screen protectors, fancy cases, and assorted bling that consumers slather on their phones increase the weight by at least twenty-five percent.

0. Happy New Year!

Who’s the Victim?

I started out the day doing a BART/Bay Bridge update, but it wasn’t going anywhere interesting.

OK, so BART had a major derailment, and they’ve also been taking flack over malfunctioning heating and cooling systems in their cars, but so what? Nobody was killed, or even injured in the accident, and most people forgot about it as soon as service was restored. As for the temperature issues, people have been shivering and sweating–and complaining about it–during their commutes for decades. Nothing new there for anyone to get worked up about.

Meanwhile, the big news about the Bay Bridge is that it leaks. Yeah, I was astonished to hear that too. Wasn’t there someone doing QA on the waterproofing? Oh, never mind. Sure, there’s some other stuff going on: the lead contractors got millions of dollars for “completing” the bridge “on time”, and Governor Brown apparently thinks it’s unlikely that anyone will be prosecuted over any of the bridge’s problems. Business as usual, in other words.

So there’s your update for the month. Unless something major happens in the near future, we’ll give the Bs a pass until April.

Instead, let’s talk about something more interesting.

By now many of you have probably heard that a cat in Oregon attacked a baby, then trapped the whole family–including the dog–in their bedroom. When I first heard about it, I thought we might have another feline criminal mastermind breaking cover. Turns out that’s not what’s going on here.

Here’s the sequence of events as recounted in the news stories:

1) The baby pulled the cat’s tail.

2) The cat took a single swipe at the baby, scratching his face.

3) The baby’s father kicked the cat.

4) The cat started yowling and may have charged the man (the reports I’ve seen are ambiguous).

5) The man panicked, herded the entire family into the bedroom, and called 911.

6) Police, apparently treating the call as a domestic violence situation, showed up and herded the cat into a carrier.

In short, poor Lux was attacked, first by the baby, and then by the man. As a result, Lux is now being referred to animal psychologists for anger management therapy.

How’s that again? I’m willing to give the baby a pass. Seven month old children do pull tails, but what was the man doing at the time? If he saw his kid assaulting the cat, why didn’t he separate them? And then he joined in the abuse, kicked Lux “to protect his child”. Why is the cat the one who needs anger management therapy?

The answer, apparently, is that the situation must be Lux’ failure because the dog never attacks when the baby pulls its tail. So the dog is a masochist and the humans do nothing to prevent what are apparently repeated assaults. Lux is trapped in a hostile environment and told that the injuries he suffers are hiss own fault–a tale told by abusers for centuries.

The family has received hundreds of offers to help place the cat in a safer environment, and all of the offers have been declined.

Lux, it’s not your fault. I strongly urge you to get out of the house and contact a domestic violence support organization before the violence escalates further.

The B-sides

You know, when I started writing about the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch, I didn’t really expect to get more than a couple of posts out of it before moving on to some fresh new piece of ineptness. Same thing with BART. I expected to do one or two columns about management and the unions shooting themselves in the feet, and then be done with it.

Clearly, Caltrans and BART are exceeding all expectations. I’m quite happy to have such splendid targets for my curmudgeonly wrath. So happy that I need to be careful about overdoing it. I don’t want to bore my loyal (and not-so-loyal) readers, so I’m going to limit myself to one post per month about the Bs. Unless there’s some breaking news, of course…

So with that said, here’s the B-side for February.

Let’s start with the Bay Bridge. The new bridge has been open since September and it hasn’t fallen down yet. What’s to talk about?

Well, way back in pre-history (i.e. before I started writing this blog), there was a mini-scandal involving bad welds on major structural members of the roadbed. I say “mini-scandal” because the welds were inspected, some of them were redone, and Caltrans moved on to bigger and better cost overruns.

Now we have whistle-blowers claiming that they had been ordered not to report the bad welds in writing so that the reports wouldn’t become part of the public record. That could explain a lot. If the accusations are true–and let’s note that they haven’t been proven–they could be part of a general Caltrans policy. Find a problem, report it verbally. We’ve been asking since we started talking about the bridge where the records of the QA work are. Maybe now we know: they don’t exist, not because no testing was done, but because supervisors didn’t want problems documented. Interesting thought, no?

Speaking of cost overruns, it appears that taking down the old eastern span of the bridge is already six months behind schedule. That’s not going to be cheap to fix… It seems that the core of the problem is that Caltrans was so busy trying to open the bridge by Labor Day that nobody filed the necessary paperwork to get the demolition permits. Really? Caltrans has–according to Wikipedia–over 22,000 employees. None of them said “Hey, wait a minute. The plan says we need to file for demolition permits about now”? Or maybe there wasn’t a plan? I know: the plan was communicated verbally to ensure there was not public record of delays! Oh, wait.

Then there’s BART. Everyone, labor and management, have signed off on the new contracts, so it should be smooth sailing now–at least for a couple of years until they start negotiating the new contracts, right? Apparently not. BART board President Joel Keller is pushing for a new contract negotiation process modeled on the one used by Major League Baseball: both sides supply two representatives. They then select a neutral fifth person, such as a retired judge, and the panel chooses either BART’s proposed contract or the unions’. No compromises, one contract or the other. The proposal has met with limited approval, but the unions are not going to sign onto it if a provision preventing them from striking while the board is considering the proposed contracts remains. My own thought: the idea has a lot of merit, but I’d like to see the commuters get a voice in the process. Add a requirement that the fifth panel member has to have commuted via BART at least twice a week for the previous year, and I’m in.

Labor negotiations may be the least of BART’s problems in the immediate future, though. Right now, there are a lot of eyes on the BART police. Yes, BART has its own police force, and yes, they are actually police, not security guards. They’re in the public eye because one officer died in a “friendly fire” incident two weeks ago during a probation search of a robbery suspect’s apartment. Why were BART officers conducting the search? Because the robberies in question had occurred on BART.

There are a lot of people questioning whether BART really needs its own police, or whether the public would be better served if BART drew its police from the cities where the system operates. They point to procedural errors during the search as well as the well-publicized 2009 shooting death of Oscar Grant as evidence that BART’s training and oversight are inadequate. On the other hand, there are obvious potential problems with using civic police forces for BART work. Questions of jurisdiction spring to mind, as do financial and staffing concerns (case in point: Oakland is seriously short of police already; seconding officers to BART would be a huge burden on the city.)

Then there are the protesters who are demanding that the BART police be disarmed. Obviously, they say, if the police don’t have guns, they can’t shoot anyone. Problem solved!

Do I even need to point out the flaw in this plan? I suppose I do, since they’re proposing it with straight faces. It’s the same reason that civic police carry guns: criminals won’t give up their weapons if the police don’t have guns. I’m not going to start a gun control debate here, but until there’s some actual evidence that unilateral disarmament reduces crime, I’m going to regard all such proposals with scorn.

I don’t have a simple solution to BART’s police problem, but it seems obvious to me that the answer lies somewhere in the realm of improving the organization’s processes and training, whether on their own or as part of another group.

New Year, Same Old Stories

As we kick 2013 under a steamroller and leap into 2014, it seems like a good idea to check on the biggest stories of the year gone by.

  • The Bay Bridge is still standing. That’s a good start. The famous “saddle” retrofit is complete, and the seismic stabilizers are actually attached to the bridge structure now. Of course, the retrofit went over budget, but did anyone actually expect anything different? The original estimate was $10 million, so the final cost of $25 million is only over by 150%. That’s a damn sight better than the cost overrun for the bridge itself.Our buddy Jaxon notes that Caltrans is still testing rods and bolts. They’ve identified an additional 700 fasteners that might need replacement. Such fun. The bridge is a project that just keeps on giving.

    No updates yet on any of the basic questions we started our study of the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch with. Is it too late to make the whole East Span a single “Who QAed This Shit?” item?

  • Meanwhile, over in the wonderful world of BART, we’ve had a few things happen since we last checked in. As you may recall, the unions ratified the contract, but BART management did not, thanks to a family leave clause that BART said they never meant to include.Words were exchanged, lawsuits were filed, and behind the scenes, negotiations went on. In exchange for deleting the familiy leave clause, BART offered a package of tweaks to the contract, including expanded bereavement leave, new break rooms in some stations, and a modification to the way bonuses for meeting ridership targets are calculated.

    BART directors are supposed to vote on the final, final contract today. Based on the rhetoric flying around, it’s unlikely to be approved unanimously, but I’m guessing there’s a 75% chance it will be approved.

    Meanwhile, BART has been pushing for legislation to make strikes illegal and require mandatory arbitration. Unions have greeted that idea with great enthusiasm. Rumors that union members’ cars are now sporting “You’ll have to pry my right to strike from my cold, dead hands” are entirely false (and were, in fact, invented by this author just now). In reality, the unions are greeting the notion of mandatory arbitration with all the excitement they would give to mandatory dentist visits or a return of the Macarena. A Bay Area “advisory” ballot measure seems likely to pass by a landslide, but getting a bill through the state government seems highly unlikely.

    My take is that if both sides really want to avoid another strike four years from now, they need to start negotiating now. Don’t wait for 2017, just get the teams talking first thing Monday morning. Don’t reference the just-signed contract, forget traditional perks, rules, and barriers, and start with a blank sheet of paper to build a contract acceptable to both sides. They’ve got three and a half years; that’s almost long enough. Go to it!

  • Finally, there was a small story buried on page 4 of the Chronicle’s sports section on 22 December. Its headline is “Pill to Korea”, and my first thought was that somebody was proposing chemical therapy for Kim Jong Un. Apparently not, and the Giants don’t need to worry about the AMA investigating them for practicing medicine without a license. Turns out they’ve sold first baseman Brett Pill to a Korean baseball team. Interesting choice of words there. If we can believe the story, they haven’t sold his contract to the Kia Tigers, they’ve sold him. The AMA may be the least of the Giants’ problems.For Mr. Pill’s sake, we’ll hope that the Kia Tigers are a baseball team with a need for a first baseman, and not actually a section of the Gwangju Zoo with a need for raw meat. Maybe we can interest the zoo in a package deal for Kim Jong Un and Dennis Rodman.

The Worst Job In the World

OK, so we’ve got BART making national headlines again. Not content with a four day strike last month, BART directors and union representatives are flirting with another.

Wait, wasn’t the contract ratified? Well, yes and no. The unions ratified it, but BART has not. Seems there’s a clause in there–the now-infamous section 4.8–that grants workers six weeks of paid family leave. BART officials are claiming that it could cost as much as $44 million over the length of the four-year contract, they never meant to agree to the clause, and it was included in the ratified contract by mistake.

The unions say that the estimate is outrageously overblown–$22 million is a realistic high-end estimate, and under $10 million is more likely–and that regardless of what they meant to do, they not only signed off on it in July, but didn’t raise any objections to it during the final review to resolve any questions before it went to the unions for ratification.

BART wants to reopen contract negotiations, a notion that the unions are flatly rejecting. The sides met to argue over the actual projected cost of the provision, but the unions explicitly stated that the meeting “should in no way be construed as interest on our part to resume negotiations.”

The contract includes the same “no strike” clause that the unions declared inapplicable and the same clause that prevents BART from hiring replacements until after a strike is called. Consequently, many Bay Area residents feel that BART caved into union demands, and that the current flap is a desperate attempt to save some face by “getting tough” at the expense of commuters’ jobs.

Both sides are acting like children here. BART is on one side of the room whining “It’s not my fault!” and blaming an unnamed “temporary employee”, and the unions are on the other side of the room, jumping up and down and screaming “No takebacks!” Commuters just want to spank both sides and send them to bed with no dessert.

Meanwhile, in hopefully unrelated news, Google is promoting an initiative to actively remove links to child porn. They say they’ve cleaned up over 100,000 queries, and 13,000 more queries will result in warning messages that child pornography is illegal.

Kudos to Google for taking steps to make such material harder to access. (None of the articles I’ve seen say whether suspected kiddy porn will also be reported to authorities, but since they have reported such material in the past, presumably they’ll continue to do so.) What’s especially interesting to me in these reports is that Google is taking active steps to avoid false positives. They’re not trusting computer algorithms to automatically remove links, which would have the potential to block legitimate content. Apparently, every image flagged by the software is reviewed by “a team of 200 Google staffers”. Those are the people that I really take my hat off to.

Not only do those staffers have to spend hours looking at some of the most depressing scenes possible, but they have to make very sensitive decisions about each one. It’s not just a question of whether the participants are actually children, but whether the images are pornographic–one article mentions “something innocent like a child taking a bath”. Keep in mind that Google is attempting to honor local (i.e. national) laws in making their decisions. That means that a given picture could be an “innocent” bathing image in one country and an actionable obscenity in another.

Not only do the reviewers need to look at the materials and make repeated sensitive but subjective judgments, but they’ll be under very close scrutiny while they do it. In many jurisdictions, possession of child pornography is an offense–possession, not viewing. Google is going to have to closely monitor reviewers to ensure that questionable materials don’t wind up on their computers; one hopes that reviewers are not able to use BYOD machines for the task. Given the number of prosecutions that have taken place when computer repairers have found images in browser caches or temporary folders, one failure to wipe a machine at the end of the day could result in nasty accusations or even jail time for someone who really was just doing his job.

I think I’d rather be a BART contract negotiator.

PS: I had already decided on the title for today’s post when Lior reminded me of this. Good timing!

The Alphabet Post

A Is For Apple

As promised, a few thoughts on Apple’s “a lot to cover” show.

Taking things more or less in the same order Apple announced them, let’s start with OS X Mavericks, the latest iteration of the other operating system: the one that doesn’t run on mobile devices. I can’t comment on the content changes to the OS, as I just don’t use OS X enough, but the early reviews do seem positive. What I found interesting about the announcement was the price. The price of an OS X upgrade has been dropping for the past few years, and now it’s hit bottom. Well, technically, I suppose Apple could start paying users to upgrade, but I’m having trouble coming up with a business model where that would make sense for them. I’m sure the price would have hit zero eventually, but I suspect their hand was pushed a bit by Microsoft releasing Windows 8.1 as a free upgrade. Apple has gone one better than Microsoft by making it a free upgrade for anyone using OS X; Microsoft is still charging those using XP, Vista, and Windows 7 for the upgrade. Granted that the situations aren’t exactly parallel (for one thing, you have to do a clean install, not an upgrade from XP and Vista to Windows 8), but it’s definitely a selling point for Apple that will help them push users to upgrade; historically OS X migration has moved much more slowly than iOS upgrades.

Moving on, we’ve got the new MacBooks. New CPU, longer battery life, slightly lower prices, Retina screens across almost the entire product line. Nothing even close to earthshaking here. This is all about keeping up with the Windows laptop world.

The fancy, redesigned Mac Pro announced back in June will finally go on sale in December. Good news for those wedded to the workstation line, but largely irrelevant to the rest of the world — other than anyone who can’t resist the case design, which Ars has correctly noted is more than a bit reminiscent of a Dalek.

The iLife and iWork software suites have been updated and are now free with the purchase of new Apple hardware. Not a big surprise, considering that they’ve been giving iWork to all purchasers of new iOS devices since last month’s iPhone launches. Apple is moving more and more toward giving away the software and making their money on the add-ons. And why not? It worked well with iTunes: give away the software, make your money selling music, videos, books, and apps. So now they’re pushing the strategy down one level. Expect other developers to follow suit, dropping the purchase price for apps and pushing in-app sales. This is going to bite some of them in the ass, though. Apple has a solid policy against in-app sales for physical items or anything that can be used outside of the app. They’re currently in “discussions” with British media retailer HMV over their iOS app which enabled MP3 downloads that could be used by any app on the device. Look for more such “discussions” in the future.

And then there are the iPads. Much to everyone’s surprise, the new iPads got a new name: iPad Air. Way to simplify things, Apple. More importantly, the new models are much lighter. If you’re interested in a tablet somewhere around the ten-inch mark where weight is a serious concern, it’s well worth a look at the iPad Air. It’s clearly the lightest device in that class. Add in that very high resolution screen, and it makes a good case for being worth the usual price premium over the Samsungs and Nexuses (Nexii?).

The other big surprise was the iPad Mini finally getting a Retina screen. Oh, wait. That wasn’t much of a surprise. But it’s now official, so moving on. The Mini isn’t as much of a contender in its class (7-8 inch tablets) as the Air is in the larger tablet space. It does take the resolution lead, albeit only by a small margin over the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HDX 7. But it’s also the heaviest small tablet out there and this is a niche where one-handed operation is the rule. 1.4 ounces may not sound like much, but when you’re trying to read on the subway, you notice the difference surprisingly quickly. The A7 processor should make it competitively fast, but the price tag, almost twice that of the Nexus 7 and HDX 7, is going to drag it back.


Looks like I was a bit off in my predictions about the length of a BART strike: I was expecting something closer to a week than the four days we actually got. Not that I’m complaining. Having BART out of operation is a royal pain, especially for anyone who normally uses it to go someplace other than downtown San Francisco. None of the alternatives are of use if you’re commuting between two points in the East Bay. Fortunately, Maggie was able to telecommute, but I’m sure she was in a minority. The newspaper was full of reports of people who slept at their desks in San Francisco or had their normal hour commute stretch to three or four hours.

So now there’s a settlement. Of course, the proposed contract still needs to be ratified by the unions and BART management. My gut reaction is that all parties will accept the deal, but it’s not exactly a sure thing. One BART director has already gone on record as opposing the deal, and nobody is offering odds one way or the other on the union membership’s opinion. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, calls for a legal ban on transit strikes (which would presumably also cover AC Transit, who are just beginning their 60 day cooling-off period). Even if legislation passes, it’s not going to remove the possibility of a BART shutdown. Workers could still strike illegally. It’s happened in New York; it could happen here. Even without a strike, a “work slow-down” could be just as devastating. BART’s rather elderly computer systems struggle to cope on busy commute days. Imagine how badly they could be snarled if even a few drivers called in requests for maintenance checks at every stop, or took their trains out of automatic control, citing “safety concerns”.

Still, the current system clearly isn’t working. As several commentators have pointed out, the previous contract included as “no strike” clause. The unions ignored it on the grounds that the contract was expired, although they insisted that all other provisions, especially those related to pay, should remain in effect. It’s a wonder management didn’t retaliate in kind and ignore the clause that forbids them from hiring replacement workers until the unions go on strike. Heck, for all we know, they might have. Reports on Saturday’s fatal accident are that the train was being used to train replacement drivers. Rumor has it that the trainees were managers who had previously been drivers, but BART hasn’t confirmed that. Could they have been new hires?

I don’t know how to fix it, but let me suggest one place to start: The contract is 470 pages long. Four hundred seventy. Most of that is apparently what they refer to as “work rules”, the codification of thirty years of “how we do it here”. Those rules were a major point of contention in the negotiations, and the incorporation into the contract has limited both sides’ ability to propose changes. According to ExecuRead, the average reading speed for technical material is approximately five minutes per page. That means that the typical BART worker is going to need around 40 hours — a full work week — to absorb the contents of the contract he’s signing. Estimates of average salaries for BART employees vary wildly. I’ve seen as low as $60,000 and as high as $80,000. Even by going by the lowest value, that’s $1100 per employee, or — very conservatively — $2,750,000. Does that sound like overkill to anyone else? OK, I’ll grant you that we can amortize the amount across the four years of the proposed contract, but that’s still almost $700,000 a year being spent just on reading the damned document.

Cynically, I doubt anyone is actually reading what they’re committing themselves to — that’s what lawyers are for, right? — but maybe I’m pessimistic.

My advice, and take it for what it’s worth, is to amend the contract to remove the work rules and replace them with a notation that employees are subject to the rules as documented separately. This is the same process by which other businesses include employee dress codes and similar organizational practices and procedures. The potential gains are clear: contract negotiations can focus on pay and benefits, which are quite contentious enough; meanwhile the work rules can be updated independently of the contract, making it easier to keep them in sync with a rapidly-changing technical and regulatory environment.

C Is For Critters

The last item for today is a heads-up for those of you who enjoy the Friday Cute Critter posts. For the next month or so, I’ll be taking a break from posting pictures of our crew and bringing you a special feature: “Meet the Neighbors”. Join me tomorrow, won’t you?

Hungarian Goulash and Minestrone Soup

Time for another round of minor updates and short items.

Last week I posted a piece on the proper use of the apostrophe, which included a deliberate error as a joke. When there was no reaction, I asked for feedback from you all. My thanks to those of you who responded (you know who you are…) Consensus opinion is that it was too subtle for the typical online reader, who can be expected to browse through a post, rather than reading it in detail. I shall take that advice to heart and henceforth I shall keep my jokes as broad as possible.

This breaking news just in: The Bay Bridge has yet to collapse!

The old span closed last night at 8 pm to allow construction staff to connect the new bridge to the road at both ends. For reasons that are hopefully obvious, the old and new bridges need to be closed while the work is being done. The ceremonial last car across the old bridge was a 1930 Model A. Reports are unclear, but it appears that the driver was required to pay the normal toll: toll collectors didn’t leave their booths until after he passed through the toll plaza onto the actual bridge.

The new bridge will be officially opened at 3 pm Monday with a chain-cutting ceremony attended by almost none of the politicians who were instrumental in extending the bridge replacement process to almost a quarter of a century. Depending on how smoothly the construction goes, traffic will start flowing at some time in the 12 hours after the ceremony.

Traffic was mixed this morning. Reports were that the other bridges were crowded, but not totally blocked. A quick local inspection showed that I-80 was wide open headed south towards the Bay Bridge through Richmond, El Cerrito, Albany, and Berkeley, but noticeably slower than usual headed north towards the Richmond-San Rafael bridge. An on-the-spot report (thanks, Maggie!) says that BART trains headed for SF were close to 50% fuller than usual, and parking garages were noticeably more full than usual (the Chron’s website notes that BART police issued a larger-than-usual number of tickets to cars parked in permit-only lots).

The Federal Highway Administration says the new bridge is safe. Caltrans says the new bridge is safe. The only important voice not yet heard from is Mother Nature. I’d suggest that she run a QA test on the bridge’s seismic stability, but any quake large enough to give the bridge a decent test would shut down BART for at least several hours while the Transbay Tube is checked for damage, and possibly much longer if any damage is done.

In a related story, Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.

Scientists at the University of Washington report that they have successfully conducted an experiment in mind-control over the Internet. OK, I exaggerate. One scientist, connected to an EEG, visualized moving his index finger. The recorded signal was sent via network to the second scientist who wore a “transcranial magnetic stimulation coil” positioned to stimulate the portion of his brain responsible for controlling his right hand. When the signal was received, his index finger moved as pictured by the sender.

Sounds creepy, doesn’t it? The team points out that it’s not quite as disturbing as it seems. It was done under ideal conditions, requires highly specialized equipment carefully positioned, and can not override the receiver’s will. All true enough; on the other hand, this is a first step, not an end product.

And despite what Internet rumor may suggest, the research was not funded by the NSA. Funding actually came from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and, well, the U.S. Army Research Office. It’s definitely much to early to get alarmed about this research, and there are certainly many, many good uses for the technology once it matures, but it’s something I intend to keep an eye on.

Finally, if you’ve been wondering what the title of this post has to do with the contents, allow me to elucidate. Thanks to the influence of singer Allan Sherman, I’ve long suspected that Goulash and Ministrone were designed as ways to use up leftovers. I won’t try to convince you. Check the recipes below, listen to Sherman’s take on the subject and make up your own minds.

Hungarian Goulash

Minestrone Soup

Bits and Pieces

I’m going to continue Friday’s “short notes” theme with some updates on continuing issues.

Leading off: BART workers are not on strike. No, there isn’t a settlement. Management’s lead negotiator left the table about 8:15 Sunday night, and everyone else knocked off about 15 minutes later. Management asked Governor Brown to impose a 60 day “cooling off period” to block a strike. Instead, he blocked a strike for a week and appointed a three-person panel to “investigate” the talks. During the week-long investigation, both sides will have to present their offers and reasons for supporting or opposing the cooling off period to the board. More details in a story at SFGate. So I was right that there would not be a deal by today, but wrong that there would actually be a strike. I also predicted that a deal would be reached late Wednesday with service resuming on Friday. The governor has charged negotiators to continue meeting while the board investigation continues, so it’s still possible that a settlement could be reached Wednesday. Stay tuned.

Regardless of one’s feelings about labor actions, government intervention, and who’s in the right in this case, it was clearly a good thing the governor stepped in: a truck fire on the freeway Monday morning closed two lanes for hours. Traffic backed up across the bridge and for miles up the freeway. If there had been a BART strike, and all those additional drivers were on the road, the traffic jam probably wouldn’t have cleared up until Labor Day.

Batting second: I was a bit off the mark in my prediction that we would start seeing third-party apps supporting Chromecast last week. A quick check of Google Play shows exactly one app touting Chromecast support. That’s “RemoteCast and it’s in beta. As best I can tell, it’s also not an actual media player, it’s a remote control for whatever content you’re already streaming to your Chromecast. So technically I was right, but from a practical standpoint I was a bit optimistic.

Why was I wrong? The interest is definitely there: I’ve seen several apps listing Chromecast support as “coming soon” and several others whose developers are promising support if they can get their hands on a device. However, Google is deliberately slowing things down. They’re describing the current SDK as a “preview”; apps built with it will, they say, only work with Chromecast devices that have been registered with Google for development and testing. Until they release the final SDK, don’t expect a whole lot of apps available for download.

In the third spot: The leftover sauerkraut has been used up. The “Lemon Chicken Baked on a Bed of Sauerkraut” recipe actually called for the entire remainder of our bottle. It turned out reasonably well, but needs some tinkering. The sauerkraut didn’t add much flavor to the chicken, though the chicken added a fair amount to the sauerkraut. That could probably be fixed by layering the chicken between two layers of ‘kraut instead of setting it on top of a single layer. More spice is a must. If we try it again, we’ll probably up the lemon juice a bit, definitely use more rosemary, and crank up the pepper significantly. Probably worth adding some thyme as well. Still, we enjoyed it enough that we would consider trying it again.

We usually use leftover cooking liquid as the basis for soups and stews, but decided against it this time, largely because it seemed like most of its flavor was coming from the dissolved chicken fat. So we put it out for the four-legged neighbors, who apparently enjoyed it immensely, as the bowl was darn near polished. We suspect it went mostly to the raccoons, which is fine: that means more of the cat food went to the cats.

Batting cleanup: It’s been very quiet on the Bay Bridge front lately. The only information I’ve seen is a note from Matier and Ross about the “shim” proposal and the swiftly decreasing likelihood of the bridge opening Labor Day weekend. They point out that because Caltrans is asking both their seismic review panel and the Federal Highway Administration for their opinions of the proposal, the soonest they could get the go-ahead would be mid-August. Caltrans would then need to give a couple of weeks’ notice that the bridge would be closed for four days to switch the lanes from the old bridge to the new. That would be cutting it close. Adding to the pressure against a Labor Day weekend opening is the fact that the Metropolitan Transportation Commission–the master overseer of the bridge project–is on summer vacation until after Labor Day. So all-in-all the prospects for a quick-fix-assisted opening seem dim.

Random thought: does it seem suspicious to you all that the BART fiasco has completely driven the Bolt Botch out of the news? Granted that BART contract negotiations are always messy, but this time around it seems like both sides have gone out of their way to foul things up. Anyone think Caltrans might have been “encouraging” negotiators’ missteps to draw the public’s attention elsewhere while they try to figure out where to pin the donkey’s tail of blame? Not saying they have, but it does have a bit of a “tin foil beanie” feel about it.