All the News

Kind of a strange news day yesterday.

It started with the Amtrak train derailment in the Seattle area. Nothing inherently weird about the story itself–sad, depressing, and dispiriting, yes, but not weird. What was odd was that the first mention of it I saw was a tweet linking to a news report on an Irish newspaper’s website.

I have mixed feelings about what Robert Heinlein described as “the unhealthy habit of wallowing in the troubles of five billion strangers.” “Think globally, act locally” is appropriate in many cases–climate change springs immediately to mind–but are we really better off as a species when we can find out about every disaster, no matter how small, anywhere in the world? Maybe if the small triumphs were as widely reported as the failures.

But I digress. My original point was that I find it fascinating that not only does news travel so quickly, but so does news about the news. Taken by itself, I find that cause for a certain amount of optimism: it shows that transparency has never been a more attainable goal.

A couple of thoughts about the accident, as long as we’re on the subject. It’s laudable that Amtrak took steps to move their passenger service onto tracks not used by freight service. In theory, sharing tracks shouldn’t be a problem. In practice, the revenue generated by hauling freight has resulted in those trains being given absolute priority. The result has been ever-increasing unreliability in the passenger service, which results in lower ridership, which widens the income gap, and around we go in a spiral that makes it harder and harder to sustain the passenger side of the business.

So there’s that. But the fact that the accident occurred on the very first run over those new tracks suggests strongly that driver training was inadequate. Combine that with American railroads’ persistent unwillingness or inability to adopt train control safety technology that’s been in use everywhere else in the world for decades, and an accident of this severity seems inevitable.

It’s almost enough to make one start thinking in terms of conspiracy theories. Emphasis on “almost”.

Anyway, back to the news.

We also had an unusual example of synchronicity here in the Bay Area. Sunday night, a Richmond police officer began walking around a San Francisco hotel. He was allegedly talking about spirits for some time before he fired half a dozen shots, apparently into the walls. Eventually, he surrendered to the San Francisco police.

Then, apparently to balance the scales in some kind of karmic sense, on Monday a San Francisco police officer pulled into a parking lot in Richmond and shot himself. According to the Chron, he was under investigation, and he was being pursued by a Richmond police officer.

The timing of the two incidents is, of course, coincidental, but they did add a bit of surreality to the day.

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!