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.

B Is For BART

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?

B^2

Catching up and cleaning up before I start on the research for today’s main post.

There isn’t a lot going on publicly with the Bay Bridge at the moment. There’s no official word yet on whether Caltrans will be proceeding with the proposal to install shims to allow the bridge to open before the saddle is completed. Presumably Director Steve Heminger is still sulking in his tent after being cut out of the loop on the shim proposal.

The Bay Bridge Bolt Botch affects the eastern span of the bridge; the western portion didn’t need to be replaced after the Loma Prieta earthquake. It has received a set of seismic updates. Now we find out, courtesy of Matier and Ross, that there’s a problem with those updates. 37 of the 96 seismic dampers (essentially, shock absorbers) are leaking lubricant. Caltrans is refilling them, but considers that to be a temporary fix and plans to replace all 96 dampers beginning in 2015. Why wait that long? Because they’re not sure the specs are correct. Currently Caltrans believes that the specs are inadequate for the amount of vibration the dampers receive from wind, traffic, and temperature changes. They’re using the next year plus to beef up the specs.

Meanwhile, over in BART-land accusations and recriminations continue to fly between BART officials and the unions. The unions continue to claim that BART’s chief negotiator has a history of labor law violations and provoking strikes. BART, of course, denies that. Said chief negotiator is currently on vacation; BART says the vacation was incorporated into their planning, and that they can continue to negotiate without him. BART, for its part, is trying to line up retired staff to run the trains in the event of a renewed strike. That’s necessary because under their current agreement they can’t start training new drivers until a strike actually occurs–and the training includes a required 15 week safety course.  Yes, I said “week”.

Details of the negotiations are being kept secret, but nobody seems to think an agreement is close.

Away from the negotiating table, BART is showing off a mockup of the new rail cars it expects to begin buying. Union members are countering with letters to the newspaper decrying BART’s lack of engagement on safety issues.

Finally, a correction: I predicted that the unions would strike again July 31 and an agreement would be reached over the following weekend. The extension of the old agreement actually expires August 4, not July 31 as I had thought. So my updated prediction is that the unions will go back on strike on Sunday the 4th; a deal will be reached late on Wednesday the 7th–too late for the morning commute on Thursday.

BART and Bolts

A couple of unrelated Bay Area transportation-related updates today.

First, a quick update on BART for those who are interested: the strike lasted essentially all of last week. Service resumed at 3pm Friday, too late in the day to do much for the afternoon commute. There is no settlement. The union members have returned to work while negotiations continue. State mediators pushed both sides to agree to extend the current contract for 30 days. Both sides continue to claim that an agreement isn’t close and that the other is negotiating in bad faith. Neither side is doing much to boost their image with the general public.

My prediction: There will not be a new agreement by the time the extension expires. Workers will strike again on 31 July, and an agreement will be reached over the following weekend.


In Bay Bridge Bolt Botch news, it appears that Labor Day is off the table for opening the new bridge. So are Columbus Day and Halloween. Ditto Veterans Day and Thanksgiving.

Caltrans gave a closed-door briefing to state legislators yesterday, and an official announcement is planned for tomorrow. The word coming out of yesterday’s briefing is that constructing and installing the “saddle” to anchor the seismic stabilizers will take until December 10. We’ve discussed the saddle in the past. It’s intended to serve the same function as the snapped bolts, and will add only $10,000,000 to the cost of the bridge. A true bargain for the sense of security it will provide! I’m sure we’ll all feel much happier about driving over the bridge with the saddle in place.

Oh, and the other 2,000+ bolts? Caltrans is still testing them. On Sunday, our friend Jaxon quotes a corrosion expert as saying that the sort of simulated aging tests being done are “a roll-of-the-dice kind of thing” in terms of their ability to give an accurate picture of the long-term condition of the materials. He also quotes a UC Berkeley materials science professor as saying that the tests are unlikely to provide any new information. He says “You know what it is going to prove? That high-strength steel is susceptible to hydrogen-assisted cracking.” I find it interesting that the testing is intended to simulate aging over a ten year period. The new bridge is supposed to have a 150 year useful lifespan.

Jaxon was apparently unavailable to write today’s article on the report to the legislature. That was done by Michael Cabanatuan in Tuesday’s paper. In regard to the bolts that haven’t cracked, Michael quotes the report as saying that based on inspections done to date, the installation of the saddle will be sufficient to allow the bridge to open. 740 bolts will need to be replaced, but that can be done “after the span opens”. How reassuring. Why not replace them now? After all, it’s going to take three months to get the saddle installed. Is there a reason not make use of that time?

The report, by the way, also addresses the question of responsibility. Says Michael, “Caltrans, bridge designers T.Y. Lin International/Moffatt & Nichol Design Joint Ventrue and bridge builder American Bridge/Fluor Joint Venture share responsibility for the rod failures, the report concludes.” I’ve got news for you, Michael: one cannot hold a corporation or public agency as a whole responsible for anything. Responsibility vests in individuals.

I’ve been saying for weeks now that some specific people should have signed off on the design, the choice of materials, and the manufacture and installation of the parts. Either those signoffs were never given, or they’ve all been mislaid. Regardless of which scenario is more likely or which actually occurred, it’s the people who signed off or should have signed off but didn’t who should be identified as “responsible”.

Maybe we’ll get more information when the report is formally released tomorrow, though I doubt it. As Wikipedia tells us, collective responsibility “often breeds distrust and isolation…and is almost always a sign of authoritarian tendencies in the institution or its home society.” This is a situation where Caltrans, the contractors, and the legislature need to build trust, and blaming anonymous members of largely faceless corporate entities will not do that.

What if they built a bridge and nobody drove over it? If BART has settled its strike by December, we may very well see a huge spike in BART ridership at the expense of automobile and AC Transit’s Transbay bus service.

BART Strike

Since y’all are asking about it in email, here are a few words on the current transportation woes in the Bay Area: “GET BACK TO WORK!”

And that’s not just aimed at the striking workers. It’s also aimed at BART officials.

Strikers, you’ve made your point. Transit is a mess without you. We get it. (We knew it already–we remember the last time you went on strike, when BART wasn’t as critical as it is now–but thanks for making it crystal clear.) So now that you’ve reminded us that we can’t get by without you, please get back to work while negotiations continue. Thanks in advance.

BART officials: How about making a serious offer? 2% a year after four years of frozen wages is barely an offer; combined with the increases to pension and health care costs, it’s bordering on an insult.

Speaking of those negotiations, union negotiators: what the hell were you thinking, leaving the negotiations at 8:30 Sunday? Dumping an offer that you knew was going to be unacceptable to BART on the table and then walking out doesn’t just border on an insult, it is outright insulting. Not to BART management, but to the general public who relies on BART to get to work. That says “We don’t give a shit about you, but we expect you to back us.”

All of you: Whether we like it or not, BART is an essential resource. Today there is literally no way to get from home to work for anyone who does not work in San Francisco. If you need to commute between Richmond/El Cerrito/Berkeley and Walnut Creek/Concord/Pittsburg or Dublin/Pleasanton/Hayward/Fremont, you’re on your own. No bus connections, no casual carpool, no Caltrain or Amtrak. I’m not suggesting that BART employees (or transit employees in general) should be legally prevented from striking, just that they should seriously consider limiting their strikes to short, specified strikes as other essential workers do (one or two day strikes get the point across without burning all of your goodwill).

Remember folks: there’s plenty of blame to go around to all sides on this one. Settle quickly, or don’t be surprised if the public at large spits on you all.

One final thought for the commuters: Congratulations on making today not nearly as bad as most of the predictions. Here’s hoping you can keep it up. If AC Transit goes on strike tomorrow and everyone who burned their weekly telecommute day today is trying to get to the office, it’s going to make those predictions look optimistic.