Thursday, December 16, 2010

Literary decisions in haiku

In his book, The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America (1994, Doubleday), author David Whyte recalls the epic hero Beowulf's battle with Grendel’s mother. Beowulf is forced to descend into the murky depths of a lake to face his fears — despite an urge to stay safe in the light. Whyte points out that the search for one’s own soul and the corresponding need to make a momentous, life-changing decision is a common theme in literature. Below, I enter the heads of other great literary (and one cinematic) characters as they make a decision — in haiku.

(Super-minor spoilers for classic literature):

Enkidu, my friend
I wish I were more like you
Able to know me

It’s a long way home
I’ll see my loving wife soon
But first, I explore

The abyss beckons
His mother wants to kill me
But I find a sword

Nine circles explored
I abandoned hope, entered
The soul’s journey ends

Elizabeth Bennet:
Marry for money?
Never! I’ll marry for love
Darcy? Not so bad …

Jo March:
Aunt March wants me home
I’d rather visit with Laurie
Beth, how I miss you

Anne Shirley:
Oh, that currant wine!
The red soil of my home
Won’t keep me rooted

Jay Gatsby:
Having a goal helps
I choose to be in West Egg
To be near Daisy

Tom Joad:
We came here for hope
California was no home
For Okie workers

Rick Blaine:
My café is free
What is important? Elsa
I will help Lazlo

Holden Caufield:
Too much phoniness
This school is not where you learn
Big Apple beckons

Atticus Finch:
Race should play no role
Justice needs an example
For my two children

Doctor Manhattan:
I am above them
Ozymandias is right
Deception saves man

Monday, December 6, 2010

What goes through a kid's mind at dinner

While I was in class tonight, the missus took the opportunity to take Ian out to dinner with a couple friends. If you ever wondered what a kid thinks while he's at a restaurant, just give him an iPhone and tell him to take notes.

My six-year-old wrote the following:

6:06 p.m. -- We are almost at the restaurant
6:44 p.m. -- We are now at the restaurant
6:45 p.m. -- We're at Outback Steakhouse
6:46 p.m. -- I like Outback Steakhouse
6:47 p.m. -- My food is not here yet
6:47 p.m. -- I am getting Chicken
6:48 p.m. -- Bread is here
6:48 p.m. -- But my food is not
6:49 p.m. -- I got Root Beer
6:51 p.m. -- They are getting my food
6:52 p.m. -- Outback Steakhouse is good
6:55 p.m. -- My Food is still not here
6:56 p.m. -- I like songs
(food comes, they eat, Ian resumes taking notes)
8:13 p.m. -- We we're at Outback Steakhouse
8:14 p.m. -- Sharkboy and Lavagirl are cool
8:15 p.m. -- Fireboy and Watergirl are cool also
8:17 p.m. -- I made up Sharkgirl and Lavaboy and Firegirl and Waterboy

Grammar and spelling as by the author. And "Sharkboy and Lavagirl" was horrible.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Cricket is an evil sport

Like many cities, Perth offers special bus service to major sporting events. When I was last there, there was a club cricket match at the local oval. Why do I think cricket is evil (despite loving Lagaan)? Check out the special service route number on the bus.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

My music collection, by the numbers

I was at the San Carlos Library today prior to a meeting and perused the compact disc section. It got me musing -- for the first time in a while, it seemed there was nothing there I wanted to copy.

I've admitted in the past to occassionally borrowing a CD from the library and copying its contents. I'm not proud of the practice, but I'm also not going to pay $14.99 for a CD that I want one song from. I consider it a minor copyright violation sin on the level of photocopying a page out of a library book.

Of course, there are sites where you can legally download single songs, such as the iTunes Music Store,,, etc., and I routinely use them. With that in mind, I did a quick perusal of my iTunes music library (above) and tried to figure out approximately what percentage of my digital music came from what source.

The early very-rounded guesstimates:

65 percent copied from CDs belonging to me or my family;
15 percent copied from library discs;
10 percent from legitimate online music purchases;
10 percent from, er, illicit means (old Napster, etc.).

Of the library and "illicit" numbers, I consider that I legitimately own about a third of that 25 percent because I've downloaded/copied a lot of music that I actually paid for years earlier in the form of cassettes but never replaced with CDs. So I guess we can figure that about 16 percent of my music has not been paid for (there goes the political career!). But to be honest, if I didn't buy it legitimately, I probably wouldn't (or couldn't) have bought it anyway.

In the comments, I'd love to hear about what percentage of my readers' music collection is "valid."

On a side note, I'd like to note that I think the San Carlos Library is one of the best, if not the best, in San Mateo County. Great CD and DVD collections, large graphic novel collection (of which only 50 percent is manga) and a large study area. Everyone sings the praises of San Mateo's new library, but I prefer San Carlos.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

South City keeps Bell, 29-22

I covered the annual Bell Game between nearby South San Francisco and El Camino highs this afternoon. I see about 15-20 games per year, and this was the best game I've seen in a long time. A combination of a tight game, a huge, enthusiastic crowd on both sidelines and some questionable officiating and coaching made this one memorable. I'm reprinting my story here because I knew the Times is going to going to butcher it for space. Hey, I gotta have my clips somewhere!

(The Times does have the story online with minimal cuts. I'll have to see what makes the actual paper on Sunday.)

SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO — Despite the tears in his eyes, El Camino coach Mark Turner held his thumb and forefinger just a smidgen apart and smiled.

“One inch,” Turner said. “For years, over the history of people playing sports, people have put their two fingers together and said they were ‘this close’ to winning. Usually it doesn’t mean they were that close to winning … but we were literally an inch away from winning.”

Turner was referring to a play that happened with 52 seconds left in Saturday afternoon’s 48th Bell Game between El Camino and host South San Francisco. The Warriors converted a critical 4th and 2, with the tip of the ball just touching the marker pole on the ensuing measurement, then scored on a 16-yard pass from Brad Los to sophomore Robert Johnson to secure a 29-22 win after a two-point conversion on the next play.

With the win, South City (5-4) retains the Bell and has won 39 of the contests between the two South San Francisco schools. El Camino just missed out on its 10th win in the series.

The rivalry inspired the game situation Saturday, coaches admitted. For example, take the case of the Warriors trying to make the critical fourth-down play instead of attempting about a 35-yard field goal. (Right: The referees award the first down to South City High as El Camino players, in red, look on.)

“Do we make that play against Menlo School? No,” said South City coach Frank Moro. “Maybe that little extra shot of adrenaline playing for a Bell in front of a big crowd (did it).”

But to even see how the Warriors got in a position for the winning score, one must regress to just after the Colts scored a go-ahead touchdown to lead 22-21 with just 2:42 left. Turner had El Camino line up for an onside kick, but South City recovered on their own 49 to set up the final drive, in which good starting position proved critical.

“If you don’t get the ball on the 50, maybe you don’t feel you have a chance and you start sputtering,” Moro said. “(The Warriors) didn’t give up. It was almost like a gift.”

Turner argued that South City had brought back the ball nearly to midfield on almost every kickoff anyway, and thought that by kicking it short some Colts player might get lucky.

“Our kickoff coverage team this year has been a little scary,” Turner said. “I know it’s something a lot of people are going to question in hindsight, but hindsight is 20-20.”

El Camino (5-5) had taken a 14-13 lead into halftime after pair of touchdown passes from Omar Kharrob to Justin Eclavea and Tyler Rios, for 16 and 5 yards, respectively. South San Francisco (5-4) had gotten its first half scores on a 59-yard run up the right from Falah Salem and JJ Vaioli’s eight-yard run.

After a scoreless third quarter, the Warriors broke through with 8:36 left in the game when Salem capped a 10-play, 94-yard drive by running the ball in two yards, then also brought in the two-point conversion to give South City a 21-14 lead.

El Camino then ate up the clock with a 13-play drive which culminated with Tajah Childs running a route up the right for a five-yard scoring reception with made it 21-20. Although Childs made the catch, the referees ruled he was interfered with and charged South City with a half-the-distance penalty on the PAT. With only four feet to go to the goal line, Turner played for the win and Nathan Huey barely made it in for a two-point conversion and a 22-21 El Camino lead with 2:42 left.

Salem led all rushers with 178 yards on 25 carries. DJ Peluso led the Colts with 104 yards on 17 carries, while Huey’s 26 rushes led to 79 total yards.

“We made a great defensive play and the tip of the ball met the pole. Maybe there was a lot of extra cushioning on the pole, but we were less than an inch from winning the game,” Turner said.

“I told the seniors to remember this date, Nov. 13, 2010. They’re going to remember it, but they’re going to remember it by that one inch.”

El Camino (5-5) 7 7 0 8 — 22
South San Francisco (5-4) 7 6 0 16 — 29

EC-Eclavea 16 pass from Kharrob (Reinke kick)
SSF-Salem 59 run (Torres kick)
SSF-Vaioli 8 run (kick failed)
EC-Rios 5 pass from Kharrob (Reinke kick)
SSF-Salem 2 run (Salem run)
EC-Childs 5 pass from Kharrob (Huey run)
SSF-Johnson 16 pass from Los (Bildhauer pass from Los)

Yards rushing 207 206
Yards passing 50 103
Total net yards 257 309
Turnovers 2 2
Fumbles 1 0
Fumbles lost 1 0

EL CAMINO (att-yards) — Peluso 17-104, Huey 26-79, Kharrob 7-16, Samson 1-6, Carr 1-1, Childs 1-1.
SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO — Salem 25-178, Los 3-15, Vaioli 2-14, Johnson 1-3, Bildhauer 1-(minus 2), Tufono 1-(minus 2).

EL CAMINO (com-att-yds-int) — Kharrob 7-18-50-1.
SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO — Los 8-17-103-2.

EL CAMINO (rec-yds) — Eclavea 2-28, Rios 2-15, Childs 1-5, Peluso 1-2, Francesconi 1-0.
SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO — Vaioli 3-29, Bildhauer 2-26, Salem 1-18, Johnson 1-16, Moro 1-7.

Three classes are killing me

Sorry for the dearth of posts, but I'm taking three classes this semester on top of gainful employment and the workload is killing me. But I've got some stuff coming up. Stay tuned.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Many Bothans died to bring us this information

George Lucas has made no secret that the overarching theme of his original Star Wars trilogy was inspired by classical mythology and studies about it (PBS, 2004). What the filmmaker may not have realized is that the organizations within the saga also reflect several examples of classic organizational theory.

Right: The Ewoks, proponents of open systems theory.

The last film of the original trilogy (sixth in the internal chronology), Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (hereafter as “RotJ”), features three organizations which appear to operate according to historic organizational theories espoused by pioneers in the field. One example is the much-maligned Galactic Empire — a classic example of Max Weber’s theory of bureaucracy. The Rebel Alliance closely follows Henri Fayol’s theory of general management. Finally, the Ewok clan on the forest moon of Endor operates in some form of an open systems model. Return of the Jedi provides a compelling comparative study of these theories in action.

Circumstances leading up to the climactic Battle of Endor, where two great (and one not-so-great) cultures clashed in a conflict that would help decide the fate of a galaxy far, far away may not have resulted from differences in organizational culture. But organizational culture — particularly the adaptability of the Ewoks and the better motivation of the Rebellion — arguably helped decide the outcome of that battle. It should be noted that there is one organization featured prominently in the film that does not fit well into any classical management theory: the criminal gang headed by Jabba the Hutt. That group utilizes elements from numerous theories and is featured in the sidebar.

Emperor Palpatine and Max Weber, peas in a pod(racer): The Galactic Empire, as headed by Emperor Palpatine and his iron grip, is a classic example of Max Weber’s theory of bureaucracy in action.

The parallels become readily apparent in the opening moments of the movie. First, we see the parade of workers, neatly lined up by function and uniform (stormtroopers, speeder-bike troopers, Death Star crewmen, etc.) to honor a visiting dignitary, demonstrating Weber’s hierarchy of authority. Then, starting at 00:04:00 the condescending conversation between Darth Vader and the construction foreman simply drips a “spirit of formal impersonality” (Tompkins, 2005, p. 48). Vader expands a bit from Weber into McGregor’s “Theory X” seconds later when he speaks of finding “new ways to motivate” the construction workers — an inherent threat to coerce and control the crews under the tight direction of a Dark Lord of the Sith. The foreman’s reply of “We shall double our efforts” seems very much in tone with Herzberg’s “negative psychological KITA” — the implied cruelty being sufficient motivation to proceed (Ott, Parkes & Simpson, 2008, p. 174) — as well as Fredrick Taylor’s obsession with control (Tompkins, 2005, p. 84).

Discipline, as is typical in a Weberian bureaucracy (Ott, Parkes & Simpson, 2008, p. 50), is tight, with no room for insubordination. This is illustrated at 1:41:00 into the film (time marks in this paper are based upon the 2004 Special Edition DVD release of RotJ) when the Imperial admiral orders the fleet to hold in place despite being told his ships were in attack position. His subordinate accepts the answer without question, just as the admiral had accepted it from the Emperor. But — like Weber’s idea, when put into practice — the Empire also falls victim to the irrationality of workers who put their own political needs ahead of the company’s at 1:57:00 when Vader turns on the Emperor, who is in the process of making Force fricassee out of his son. The Empire, like Weber’s ideas, falls quickly out of style soon thereafter.

Fayol and Mon Mothma, revolutionaries: Just as the Rebel Alliance was a reaction to the heavy-handed policies of the Empire, the Administrative Management Theory of Fayol, Mooney and Gulick was a rebellion against the heavy-handedness of Weber and (to some extent) Taylor’s scientific management. The more people-oriented structure of the Rebels reflects especially well on Fayol’s Fourteen Administrative Principles (Tompkins, p. 100).

Some of the policies espoused by the Rebellion come straight from the 14 principles: for example, authority and responsibility are earned together, there is unity of command and unity of direction (Mon Mothma leads the Alliance, but assigns one leader for a group of activities having the same objective — i.e., Han Solo leading the ground assault on the shield generator). Members subordinate their individual interests to the general interests — a prime example being Luke Skywalker turning himself in to the Imperial garrison when he realizes Darth Vader’s obsession with him might endanger the mission.

Lando Calrissian, savior of the Rebellion.

One primary principle helped lead the Rebels to a narrow victory in the skies above Endor. Fayol’s 13th administrative principle is “initiative,” valued even at the expense, sometimes, of the scalar chain. At 1:35:00 into RotJ, Admiral Ackbar realizes the Rebellion has been led into a trap and begins preparations to withdraw. Lando Calrissian, moments later, notes that the Star Destroyers of the massive Imperial Fleet have stayed back to let the Death Star do the dirty work of destroying the fleet (as noted in the previous section) and sends the Rebel fleet into the midst of the Imperials to buy time. Using his own initiative and over-ruling the admiral, Calrissian was able to initiate a strategy that kept the Rebel fleet intact long enough for his compatriots on the Endor moon to shut down the shield generator protecting the Death Star.

Finally, there is room for emotions within the Rebellion and this helps develop esprit de corps, Fayol’s 14th point. When the Death Star blows up 2:02:00 into the film, Nein Numb (co-pilot of the Millennium Falcon) is just one of many who were cheering. Such celebration would be discouraged in the Weberian Empire — it takes away from time that could be used for production.

Ewoks, the open systems wild card: It could be argued that it was only with the intervention of the Ewoks that the Rebels were able to defeat the Empire at Endor. By the 1:37:00 mark of RotJ, the Rebel raiding force had failed to shut down the shield generator and been captured (save for the droids). Then an Ewok counter-attack helped the Rebels get free, overpower their opponents and blow up the shield generator — resulting in the space victory moments later. The Ewoks’ flexibility in being able to come to a relatively quick decision to help the Rebels and being able to adapt to an uncertain environment puts the Ewoks firmly into the open systems model of the competing values framework (Tompkins, p. 263).

The Ewoks seem to have an organic management system which helps them deal with the adversity they find on Endor’s forest moon. As put forth by Tom Burns (Tompkins, p. 253), workers are given broad, loosely defined roles and are expected to contribute their knowledge and experience to the common task if the group as a whole. When Wicket, a young Ewok, finds a dazed Princess Leia in the woods, he uses his own initiative to take her back to the Ewok village. This proves critical in building trust between the Ewoks and Rebels later.

Elements of other organizational theories are evident studying the small hunter gatherers. When the Ewoks have to conference over what to do with their new “god” C-3PO and his less-golden friends, there definitely seems to be a depersonalized authority, ala Mary Parker Follett. Moreover, the Ewoks demonstrate a form of cooperative decision making as they, in the words of Threepio, make the Rebel raiding force “a part of the tribe” (1:17:00 in RotJ).

In another illustration of the Ewokian flexibility, by the 1:47:00 mark of the movie, the furry beings are attacking Imperial AT-ST walkers with whatever means they have at their disposal. To wit, the Ewoks use rolling logs, rocks dropped from primitive gliders and booby traps made from vines. Pfeffer and Salancik (as quoted in Tompkins, p. 262) note that in actual practice, performance is largely determined by environmental factors — and this is evident as the Ewoks know how to adapt to their environment much better than do the Imperial forces and their overbearing management style.

The people over the bureaucracy: Much as Weber eventually fell out of favor, done in by evolving ideas, so did the Empire. When faced with the spirited Rebellion and the adaptability of the Ewoks, Imperial forces failed despite having both superior numbers and technology. This is paralleled in the real-world example of Weber’s (and Taylor’s) theories not being able to deal with more educated and self-aware workers whose motivation come not from the threat of being choked from afar via the Force, but rather through a strong investment in the goals and ideals of the organization with which they are affiliated.
The curious case of Jabba’s Palace
One other, less formal, organization in Return of the Jedi deserves a brief mention — that which formed in the Tatooine “palace” of Jabba the Hutt. The entourage of this “vile gangster” (as labeled in the opening scrawl) shows elements stereotypical of many classical organizational theories. Jabba’s gang shows organizational structure without the rigid ranks of the Empire and Rebels and without the cooperating systems seen in the Ewok clan.

At first glance, the crime family appears to have a strict hierarchy straight out of Weber. You have Jabba, the powerful executive, ruling with an iron fist. He throws dancers he disapproves of to the Rancor and has all outside contact with him set up through his major domo, Bib Fortuna. When R2-D2 and C-3PO are put on Jabba’s “payroll” by the droid supervisor (0:12:10), the emphasis of their orientation is that they “will soon learn respect.”

Jabba is not one to be held to strict bureaucracy, however. Like Argyris, Jabba values interpersonal competence — which is reflected in a person’s ability to solve interpersonal problems in a way that they remain solved (Tompkins, 2005, p. 216) — and operates accordingly. This is demonstrated when a bounty hunter (actually Princess Leia in disguise) completes a difficult negotiation with Jabba by threatening him with a thermal grenade (0:16:10 in Jedi). The Hutt responds by raising his offer price and stating, “This bounty hunter is my kind of scum, fearless and inventive,” (which also indicates Jabba has a fondness for the rational goal model in the competing values framework: he is ends oriented and values efficiency).

This goal-attainment focus could be one reason why Jabba’s minions do not express Fayol’s esprit de corps, with the associated willingness to see the organization succeed at risk of personal costs. This lack is illustrated when panic breaks out aboard the Hutt’s sail barge during the abortive execution at the Sarlacc pit. Jabba is left alone and unprotected, allowing Princess Leia to strangle the crime lord with a giant pair of chains in the film’s 34th minute. A reverse corollary of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (as explained in Ott, Parkes and Simpson, 2008, p. 133) may explain this development: as higher-level motivators fall by the wayside, employees revert to protecting more basic needs — such as saving their own skins from a blond man with a lightsaber instead of their boss from a princess in a metal bikini.
Works Cited

Kasdan, L., Lucas, G. (Writers), & Marquand, R. (Director). (2004 (1983)). Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (2004 Special Edition DVD) [Motion Picture]. 20th Century Fox.

Ott, J. S., Parkes, S. J., & Simpson, R. B. (Eds.). (2008). Classic Readings in Organizational Behavior (4th ed.). Belmont: Thompson Wadsworth.

PBS. (2004, January 13). About George Lucas. Retrieved August 12, 2010, from American Masters:

Tompkins, J. (2005). Organization Theory and Public Management. Boston, MA: Wadsworth.

Monday, August 9, 2010

What I saw at Comic-Con this year!

Right: Klingons apparently took over the Gaslamp trolley station. Glad to see San Diego MTS getting into the Comic-Con spirit!

When I went to Comic-Con last year (also here), I went solo and was much more organized. This year I brought my family (Claire's been here with me at least three times previously, but Ian's only been here as a baby), and had to make adjustments. I saw fewer panels and waited in more lines, but still had fun.

Highlights of what I saw:
Kids love Legos, Harry Potter and the Simpsons. Put them all together and you have this.

Stan Lee (far right of photo to the left) and Neal Adams (center) previewed a Holocaust-related motion comic called "Messenger from Hell" about Jan Karski, who smuggled himself out of Poland during World War II to bring news about the extermination of the Jews to the West. Lee is doing the narration and Adams is doing the art.

Quoth Stan: "Neal is one of the most socially minded people I've ever met. This is really something he sheparded. It was both depressing and triumphant."

Adams, who was illustrated a series of six motion comics in the series, noted that early warnings about the Holocaust be such public figures as Fiorello LaGuardia were often discounted.

"The hardest thing to think about (the Holocaust) is why did nobody raise a voice?" he said. "People did raise a voice."

Information about the series is available online.

(Right:) Ian got to brush up on his Norse mythology!

(Below right:) Gosh, the baggy shorts and loose shirt make me look fat. No wonder the kid beat me!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Sandra Baker (1948-2009)

My mom (above, with me in 2002) died of lung cancer last October. We never got around to a service in the chaos, so instead we threw her a birthday party yesterday -- what would have been her 62nd birthday -- at my sister's house. I gave the following speech:

Thank you all for coming.

I realize it’s been a while since my mom passed, and as time grew long since that day in October, I began to feel guilty that we hadn’t yet given her a proper send off. But then I realized that she was not one who wanted a fuss made over her. Even as she grew sicker, she downplayed her needs in favor of making sure everyone else had what they needed.

And that was Mom in a nutshell. Until the last, she was as nurturing as one could possibly be. In effect, it was what defined her life. Look at all the young people here who called her “Grandma” (or some derivation), despite not being related by blood or the law. My mom’s love and desire to care, especially for children, made her stand head and shoulders above the crowd.

I found the following note in her handwriting while going through her things last fall. I don't know if she wrote it or just found it on the Internet, but it symbolizes a lot of my feelings for her: "Love is what dreams are made of ... Wealth is not what we have but what we are ... The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams."*

To some people, being successful in life might mean advancing to being in charge of an organization, making a lot of money or earning a position of power. Unfortunately, my mom never really accomplished any of those endeavors. In fact, the last few years of her life were a financial and career struggle. But I’d like to argue that Mom was in fact one of the most-successful people I’ll ever know.

You see, as I’ve grown older I’ve seen many of my own early expectations for myself fall by the wayside. I’ll probably never be an astronaut, world-trotting journalist or President. And I guarantee you that there’s not one other person in this room — those under 15 excepted — who’s lived up to the wildest dreams of their youth either. But, thanks to my mom, I have learned it’s just as important to be there for others.

And Mom was there for me. When I was in kindergarten, she ran interference for me with the pre-school when I broke a cot during naptime. In the seventh grade, she wrote my English paper on the outer planets when I failed to do so (an approach I do not advocate for those of us with children, but I appreciated nonetheless). In high school, she clandestinely bankrolled my senior prom when the other half of my parenting unit refused to help me cash in the savings bonds I wanted to use to do so. When I had first moved to the Bay Area, without my asking, she sent me leftover travelers checks from a trip she and my father took because she knew I needed the cash.

She was there for my sister, Elizabeth, as well, in many ways. I hope I’m not betraying any confidences, Liz, when I say that if not for Mom’s help over the past decade that you wouldn’t be half as well adjusted as you are. She was there for Bill as well. For Josh … Mikey … Jeremy … Ian … for just about everyone here in one way or another.

That’s why I can say she was a success. You see, I believe that humankind makes it as a species only as one part of society does everything it can for another part of society. Mom’s love and care made my life — and the lives of many others both here and elsewhere — a bit more fulfilling. I’ve tried to use her as a role model while dealing with my own son, as an example. Maybe Ian will grow up to be president, maybe he’ll grow up to be a painter. But any way you slice it, I think his life will be a little more pleasant because of my mom’s influence on me, and his future family will also indirectly benefit as a result.

That’s my mom’s legacy. She won’t have an entry in the encyclopedia as a historical figure. But she will live on in a small way as a part of everything I, Liz, Ian and Mikey do for the rest of our lives. In fact, one of the last things she did, one of the last things that gave her happiness in life, was to hold her namesake over there, Baby Sandy. I know some part of my mom lives on in that little one, even if Cassandra won’t ever have a solid memory of my mom.

I don’t know many of you all that well. But seeing you here makes me happy — both that you got to know my mom and that she knew you. Memories may fade, but you all knew Sandra Lee Brooks or Baker and I’m sure you all appreciated her in one way or another. In that sense, in the back of your minds, my mom will live forever and her life will be felt for centuries.

I’ll conclude with one minor bit of preaching here. Tobacco took my mother from me. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, please stop.

Again, thank you all for being here. Thank you for the support you’ve given my family in what’s been a difficult time and thank you for being a part of my mom’s life.

* I've since found out the last section ("beauty of their dreams") is attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Homeward, a soothing TNG episode

Paul Sorvino as Nikolai Rozhenko.

I have the pleasure, at this moment, to be watching one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Homeward." It's not the best-written or best-directed episode of the show, but it does have some special meaning for me.

While the episode was by no means a classic, it was indeed a fine tale. It involves Worf's human brother Nikolai (played by Law and Order's Paul Sorvino) violating the Prime Directive in order to prevent a race from going extinct due to a planetary catastrophe. While the morality tale doesn't quite work, it does have some good family interaction between Sorvino and Michael Dorn.

The reason this episode resonantes with me is that it first aired on Jan. 17, 1994, the date of the Northridge Earthquake in Los Angeles -- about which I blogged recently. While other channels in LA showed non-stop images of death and destruction, KCOP Channel 13 took a break and showed "Homeward." It was a soothing distraction on what was otherwise a very stressful day, and to this day I am grateful to KCOP for showing the episode.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Not setting a good example

Caltrain conductors are apparently exempt from reading signs right above their heads — like this one on a northbound train last week in Burlingame.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The $111 band-aid

So SFSU charges a $111 "student health fee" every semester, whether a student is insured or not or even, as in my case, takes almost all of his classes in an off-campus location. So when I got a small cut on my pinkie Tuesday, I decided to go to the Health Center see what I get for my money. Voila! Circled is the band-aid I paid $111 for.

I better get a headache by the end of the semester so I can get some aspirin or something.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Who won the Cold War? The answer may surprise...

If there was a victor declared in the Cold War, China would have to be considered a contender for the title. No other major country came out of the undeclared conflict with as few scars — psychological and structural — as China. While the United States suffered through internal crises such as the Vietnam War and the growth of the military-industrial complex, and the Soviet Union simply ceased to exist after the Cold War, China managed to successfully developed during the conflict from a backwater into a modern (if still backward provincially) industrial state with enormous potential. While facing vehement opposition from first one side in the Cold War, then the other, the Chinese were eventually able to play both sides against the middle and forward their own ends, while sometime forwarding those of the United States or Soviet Union.

The People’s Republic of China suffered few psychological scars during the course of the Cold War because it suffered most of them during its formation. The country was radically changed almost literally overnight from a near-feudal state to socialism. The flexibility engendered from such a change was to come in handy as China was forced to develop in the wake of changing geo-political realities during the Cold War era. As benefiting a nation that had the world’s largest population and one of the largest territorial area, neither the Soviet Union nor the United States could afford to ignore China. Neither did — both nations had periods of pragmatic friendship and outright warfare with China between 1950 and 1990.

After China was “lost” in 1949, the United States felt threatened by almost a billion new communists. The Chinese intervention in the Korean War and Mao’s early alliance with the USSR only served to exacerbate the perceived problem. America’s support of the Kuomintang leadership on Taiwan led into disagreements that still echo to this very day. Every crisis in the Taiwan Straight, such as the persistent shelling of offshore islands like Quemoy and Matsu, threatened to escalate into open warfare among Chinese, Taiwanese and American forces. Eventually, the United States and China realized the advantages of working together against a mutual adversary, the Soviet Union. Rapprochement began in the early 1970s with such endeavors as secret state visits and ping-pong tournaments. It later grew into strong economic links. By the end of the Cold War, although the United States was once again healthy socially and economically, it had to face the fact that America’s interests had been severely overextended, and its psyche bruised, by stalemate in Korea, an effective loss in Vietnam and other legacies of the Cold War.

On the other side, as Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the geo-political situation reversed completely. Chinese rapprochement with the United States advanced rapidly, as the two nations found common cause in their antipathy toward the Soviet Union. Border clashes between the USSR and China, sometimes involving whole divisions of troops, symbolized the rapid deterioration of relations after the Soviet Union was de-Stalinized. Mao Tse-Tung (right) took de-Stalinization as a threat to his own style of leadership and proclaimed himself the new leader of world revolution accusing Khrushchev of being an “American stooge.” Rivalry between the Communist powers became ideological as well as personal. In response, Sino-American cooperation increased dramatically, and — partially as a result of having to confront the West (and its massive and technologically advanced arsenal) as well as China simultaneously— the Soviet Union also overextended its strength, which contributed significantly to the final collapse of the Soviet empire in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

China meanwhile, emerged from the Cold War with a massive industrial economy, as new western markets opened to its manufactured goods. By moving forward with their own policies and alternatively confronting both the Soviet Union and United States when it suited their needs, Chinese leaders were able to position their country into a spot where China could move ahead in the post-Cold War area. By alternatively working with both East and West, China was able to become the important state its population warranted, and not just a “paper tiger” as Mao characterized “imperialist” countries.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Kaiju and airline change fees

I'm not normally one to promote my dreams, but I enjoyed one last night:

So I'm waiting with my luggage at a bus stop in front of a gas station somewhere in southern Japan for a ride back to the airport (while I'm supposedly in Japan, the street -- a wide boulevard somewhat reminiscent to Geary Boulevard in San Francisco's Outer Sunset District -- has right-side driving). Suddenly a giant monster, in the shape of a male Japanese college student (several hundred feet tall, with glasses and teased black hair) began attacking the city while speaking nonsensical Japanese (how I knew it was nonsensical, I don't know).

The kaiju circled the gas station a couple times, as I hid under the station's awnings, then eventually moved on without attacking. Seconds later, an American Airlines 757 (below, right) landed in front of me on the wide boulevard, the side of the plane opened like a DeLorean, and someone asked if there were any Americans around.

I somehow immediately knew it was a State Department evacuation flight and climbed aboard. Right behind the open cockpit, there was a luggage rack like one would find on an airport bus, where I first put my suitcase then climbed into myself. I watched as the pilots took the plane off the street, narrowly avoiding buildings, then up to cruising altitude and engaged the autopilot.

I then walked toward the rear of the plane, past the first class and economy seats to the back, where there was a small kitchen and a community room with a recliner. With all the twenty-somethings about, it reminded me of a youth hostel. I was about to go back up front to fetch my laptop from my bag so I could sit with it on the recliner, when I noticed the short, dumpy flight attendant.

At that point I asked her where the plane was heading, hoping it was a west coast destination like San Francisco or Los Angeles. To my disappointment, she said "Newark." I asked if we would get a note saying we had boarded an emergency evacuation flight so I wouldn't have to pay United Airlines a change fee to switch my Osaka-SFO flight to EWR-SFO. The flight attendant didn't know.

It was only then that I woke up with fright.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Unfortunate political namesakes

Sorry to do two posts in a row on Australia, but the following headline was too good not to comment on:
Now you just know that the Sydney Morning Herald was waiting for former Australian treasurer Peter Costello to have some sort of conflict with Liberal Party Leader Tony Abbott so they could run some variation of the headline above.

Remind you of anybody?:
(Are Abbott and Costello well-known in Oz?)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The "shocking" fall of Peter Garrett and how it symbolizes the political process

When in Canberra a few months ago, I posted a brief note here about how interesting I found it that former Midnight Oil frontman Peter Garrett (right) was Australia's minister of culture and the environment.

Garrett, and the Oils (my second-favorite Aussie band, and the one whose music holds up the best) as a whole, have long been known for their activism. Their 1988 single "Beds Are Burning," highlighting White Australia's mistreatment of its Aboriginal peoples, is perhaps the most-famous example. Garrett was elected to Parliament in 2004 and become a minister when the Labor party came to power a few years later. Now Garrett finds himself in significant political hot water, and how the press and public have turned against him is an interesting case study about what the public expects from its leadership.

Part of Garrett's portfolio included supervision over federal energy conservation measures, and that included supporting a home insulation program. As most of us know, proper insulation can lower energy costs by keeping the insulated building either hotter or cooler, as desired. Thousands of Australian homes received insulation in their attics as part of this program -- insulation that was coated in metal.

That insulation has directly resulted in the deaths of four workers, either through electrocution or heat stroke, and has been implicated in about 90 house fires (the metal has in some cases contacted electrical wires, causing short circuits). As word got around about the program's poor safety record, pressure on Garrett steadily increased, with calls for his resignation being heard far and wide. Eventually, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd demoted Garrett, stripping him of his energy duties.

This was an interesting case for me. How far up the ladder should someone fall on their sword in such a debacle? Did Garrett know about the safety problems beforehand? Apparently not. Does he have a background as an electrician? No.

A recent experience with the South San Francisco Housing Authority showed me that the public expects its officials (elected or otherwise) to be able to micromanage all the way down the food chain. Sometimes that's quite simply not possible.

Take the example of the SSF HA. Of the board members, two are retired from non-technical backgrounds, two (including myself) are college/university students and two are "resident" commissioners, who live in the authority (not to cast any dispersions, but one has to be low-income to live in the complex, so it's unlikely they have expertise in municipal finance). Those might not be the best backgrounds for the kind of work we do, but I don't consider us unqualified -- we truly are representatives of the general public, regular Joes who are trying to serve the community. For technical matters, including contracting and finance, we have to rely on the expertise of paid staff.

So it is with Garrett as well. He certainly has the background for the "cultural" part of his ministry. But like us has to rely on the experts' opinions on technical matters beyond his background. His consultants with expertise should have known better and warned him of the dangers, and should face discipline. Should Garrett?

I don't have a good answer. In my case, I'd certainly be a better commissioner if I had a background in contracting or even painting (my MPA will hopefully help address at least the former). But one beauty of America (and Australia, for that matter) is that credit is due to concerned individuals who do their best while others sit and complain when things don't go their way.

It happened to us, and it happened to Garrett.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Woodrow Wilson and Newton's Laws of Motion

Future President Woodrow Wilson’s 1887 essay The Study of Administration is considered a classic of public administration, elements of which are still key tenets of public administration curriculums across the United States. In some regards, Wilson’s essay echoes previous revolutionary works like Issac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, published exactly 200 years earlier. That landmark tome presented Newton’s views on physics, gravity and scientific research methods that still resonate in today’s scientists. While Einstein, Heisenberg, Hawking and other later physicists tweaked Newton’s theories, Principia is still regarded as an essential starting point for the study of physics. So it is also with The Study of Administration and public administration.

The Study of Administration, like Principia, distilled a number of theories into one cohesive document. Like Principia, The Study of Administration has been studied, refined and had its concepts tweaked by succeeding generations of (political) scientists. And why not?; it is an influential scientific work. One reason is that it gave a clear definition for administrative duties. Wilson notes that “The object of administrative study is to rescue executive methods from the confusion and costliness of empirical experiment and set them upon foundations laid deep in stable principle.” (p. 22). Here, Newton (left) and Wilson (above, right) differ, as Sir Isaac was a firm believer in the scientific method. But just as Newton set the table for later experiments with his theoretical foundation, Wilson — the anti-experimenter — helped establish a firm base from which future public administration experiments jumped off.

With such similarities between the two mens’ manuscripts and their impacts, a compelling comparision can be made between a simplified version of Newton’s three laws of motion (introduced in Principia) with three main Wilsonian concepts introduced in The Study of Administration that still resonate with public administration scholars — and administrators — today.

Newton’s First Law: “A body persists in a state of rest or of uniform motion unless acted upon by an external force (aka the “inertia law”).” Public administration in Wilson’s time was fighting the inertia of the old spoils system that had recently been eliminated with the election of James Garfield and his “Half-Breeds,” whose advocacy of a merit system eventually cost Garfield his life at the hands of a disgruntled office seeker. Wilson recognized that, in order to be effective, politics and administration should be entirely separate fields. This was the framework of what would be expanded by Goodnow and later called the “Politics-Administration Dichotomy.” This separation of the political and operation is a trait of administrative government in the present day and few would argue with its necessity. Indeed, scholars such as Stivers (1990), take the tack that Wilson’s main thrust was that only apolitical administration was legitimate: it should be “taking its orders from the representative legislature and executing them according to dictates of rationality.” The concept of spoils or patronage is distasteful to most Americans now, but in 1887 the debate as to whether professional management would do a more-effective job was still open. Wilson helped send the political inertia in another direction.

Newton’s Second Law: “The net force on an object is equal to the mass of the object multiplied by its acceleration.” Wilson was among the first to promote the idea of public administrators treating government like a business. His call for efficiency and fixed responsibility quickly took over the field. “To be efficient,” Wilson wrote, “[Government] must discover the simplest arrangement by which responsibility can be unmistakably fixed upon officials; the best way of dividing authority without hampering it, and responsibility without obscuring it.” As adoption of the “businesslike” atmosphere accelerated, the substance of the idea eventually helped it gain a critical mass and predominate. Many public administration thinkers (e.g. Rosenbloom [1983] and Moe [1987]) think Wilson’s business idea is his greatest continuing legacy to the field. Indeed, Wilson’s businesslike preferences later saw a revival late in the 20th century with the market-like forces driving the New Public Management philosophy.

Newton’s Third Law: “To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Wilson, like Newton, recognized that different systems will affect each other — if one pushes, one will be pushed back. To avoid this, Wilson recognized, a public administrator needs to cooperate with different levels of government, to embrace a federal system: “Our duty is to supply the best possible life to a federal organization, to systems within systems; to make town, city, county, state and federal governments live with a like strength and an equally assured healthfulness, keeping each unquestionably its own master and yet making all interdependent with mutual happiness.” That holistic approach to federalism, intergovernmental relations in today’s parlance, is a hallmark of local governments, which need far more help from other levels of government than was needed in Wilson’s era.

Who, then, is Einstein to Wilson’s Newton, proving that while the original theory is sufficient in most cases, it runs into difficulties as the pace gets faster and density increases? A good choice might be H. George Fredrickson, whose 1971 essay Toward a New Public Administration claimed that adminstrators need not be the neutral, operative stalwarts Wilson recommended they be. Fredrickson wrote: “[Administrators] should be committed to both good management and social equity as values, things to be achieved, or rationales” (Fredrickson, 1971, p. 297). Just as Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity essentially reaffirmed basic Newtonian concepts but showed there are cases where they simply did not hold true, Fredrickson’s calls for social equity influenced a generation of public administration scholars to be “short-haired radicals,” and stray from the narrow confines of Wilsonian stoicism.

But Wilson is still very much with us. Shafritz and Hyde (2007) note that Wilson attempted to do nothing less than refocus political science into concentrating on how governments are administered. They wrote, “Wilson was concerned with organizational efficiency and economy — that is productivity in its most simplistic function. What could be more current?” (emphasis added).

Two illustrious men, with their flaws: Wilson and Newton. Wilson’s social credit has eroded over the years due to his racism, Newton’s reputation as a scientific genius has had to co-exist with Sir Isaac’s occult beliefs. But both men wrote a great work whose impact continues to be felt centuries later. Newton’s Principia was the starting point of modern physics. As for Wilson, whatever specific organizational techniques the future president laid out, The Study of Administration is notable in and of itself for becoming the founding document of the science now known as “Public Administration.” These giants of science, political in Wilson’s case and physical in Newton’s, continue to have tremendous influence on their respective fields. Their similarities prove that great ideas can come to quickly be adopted and still be respected more than 100 years later.
Fredrickson, H.G. (2007 (1971)). Toward a New Public Administration. In J. Shafritz, & A. Hyde (Eds.), Classics of Public Administration (6th Edition ed., pp. 296-307). Boston: Thomson Wadsworth.

Moe, R. (2007 (1987)). Exploring the Limits of Privatization. In J. Shafritz, & A. Hyde (Eds.), Classics of Public Administration (6th Edition ed., pp. 460-469). Boston: Thomson Wadsworth.

Rosenbloom, D. (2007 (1983)). Public Administration Theory and the Separation of Powers. In J. Shafritz, & A. Hyde (Eds.), Classics of Public Administration (6th Edition ed., pp. 434-444). Boston: Thomson Wadsworth.

Rosenbloom, D., Kravchuck, R., & Clerkin, R. (2009). Public administration: understanding management, politics, and law in the public sector (7th ed.). New York, NY, USA: McGraw-Hill.

Stivers, C. (2007 (1989)). Toward a Feminist Perspective in Public Administration. In J. Shafritz, & A. Hyde (Eds.), Classics of Public Administration (6th Edition ed., pp. 460-469). Boston: Thomson Wadsworth.

Wilson, W. (1887). The Study of Administration. Political Science Quarterly, 2, 197.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Response to KGO story

Above: My moment of TV fame. How long has my nose been that big?

The story on the South San Francisco Housing Authority's painting contract aired last week, and the funniest comment I heard was when my wife's uncle agreed that I was the "least-incompetent" sounding member of the Board of Commissioners. High praise indeed.

The story is up on the KGO site (click here), with a video link.

What's even more exciting is that Axios linked to my previous blog posting and offered me some good-fun criticism (maybe it wasn't meant as such, but that's how I choose to take it). The owner, Nicolas Theodorides, felt obliged on Feb. 7 to register simply to belittle my blog posts (at least that's currently — as of 2:30 p.m. on Feb. 9 — the only content). I'm sure he meant it to take apart my side of the story, yet I really enjoyed it (save for one particular part, below). Apparently, I wrote a bunch of stuff between the lines that I wasn't even aware of!

(Also, being nervous on camera is apparently incriminating, according to Axios.)

Axios keyed on my love of cookies (which, I might add, I buy myself and bring to my SamTrans meetings) and the company's blogger even offered to buy me cookies in thanks for my entertaining them with my post. While I'd like to say I prefer toll house with walnuts (or if Theodorides wants to introduce me to some Greek cookies, kourambiethes), Theodorides seems to have so much bile for the SSFHA that I'm worried some will get into the batter. Therefore, I must decline. If he'd like to donate some cookies to a local food bank (such as Second Harvest) on my behalf, it would indeed be appreciated.

Also, they seem to think that my linking to a "bizarre" Twitter post made at 2:17 a.m. one morning was somehow relevant -- apparently there's some significance that I'm awake at that hour tweeting about cookies. Well, Mr. Theodorides, like your employees, I have to work for a living. It just so happens that my shift is overnight. (As for it being "bizarre," if the folks at Axios bothered to read my Twitter timeline, the tweet would have made more sense). As for it being included at all, this was a personal blog post not an official statement.

I can take criticism, good-natured or not. The only thing that was truly irritating to me in Axios' post was the insinuation that I was trying to suck up to Dan Noyes as a "peer." I realize I am in no way close to Noyes' class as a journalist. He has much more experience and insight than I do (there I go sucking up again). But I do indeed have a BA in journalism, three years experience on staff for local newspapers and, yes, another decade's experience stringing for newspapers and magazines both in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. The wonderful thing about this country is there's no licensing authority for the media and it's not for anyone else to tell me whether or not I'm a "journalist."

While the author of Axios4Fairness remains anonymous, he (or she) seems to think I made a mistake by being forthcoming. While I did want to present the facts on the bid as I saw them (and most folks would probably agree that such a perspective is valuable), the primary focus of the blog posting was to give an insight into the process from the interviewee's side. I agree with Theodorides (or whoever wrote the Axios blog) that I was unusual in being so forthcoming in my blog -- but don't you want that from your public officials? (We have to register our holdings with the FPCC, so yes, we are classified as public officials.)

As for the piece itself: I’m disappointed that Noyes did not ask for our side of the story about the rejected bids, nor mention one key point — the Board wholeheartedly agreed with Tripsas that the exclusion of bids such as hers over semantics was ridiculous and immediately changed the policy. We now do not require any specific language, simply a clear statement to the same effect as “sealed bid.” Unfortunately for Tripsas, to make the policy retroactive would have required the board to reopen ALL bids and delay the painting contract for at least a month. These buildings — again, not painted in seven years — had spots where the paint was peeling and needed the work done fast. Not to mention such a move would inevitably draw a protest from one or more of the previously accepted bidders who would think the change unfair.

An ethical question for all you journalism professors out there (with probably no right answer): Noyes produced many documents and e-mails (including bid packets) that Axios’ lawyer gathered through a Freedom of Information Act request. Noyes used them in his package, yet did not once include the disclaimer that he got them through Axios. (There was no request to the Housing Authority seeking documents from Noyes, ABC 7 News or any other media organization.) If I recall Prof. "Mac" McClary's media ethics class up at Humboldt State more than a decade ago, a reporter should mention that the bulk of the documentation comes filtered through one of the interested parties so the readers/viewers can judge for themselves if they've been filtered).

Otherwise, hey, good piece. The unfortunate portrayals of a couple fellow Board members, at least compared to how I perceived my own performance, did reaffirm my belief that silence in the face of a media investigation is counter productive. We had nothing to hide and I stated as much, answering Noyes' questions to the best of my ability to remember events from seven months previously. (I am disappointed that the only bit of the five-minute interview that Noyes used was the part where I seemed to throw my fellow board members under the bus!)

To summarize my thoughts on this process, yes there were problems in accepting bids. I agreed with Tripsas at the June meeting and urged the board then and there to change the policy. Yes, I think that the recommendation to throw out the highest and lowest bids was arbitrary, which is why I dug deeper. And yes, I think that the next-lowest bidder should have gotten the bid and my motion at the meeting reflected that. I still, however, stand by my not accepting Axios' bid. Again, no references were listed (if Axios' owner had people willing to vouch for him from his previous company, the company should have listed them) and the insurance certificate was listed as "pending" in the bid packet. Sorry, but I don't gamble like that.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

For once, I'm on the other side of the media ... and it's more exciting than it should be

A couple buildings in the South San Francisco Housing Authority.

Note: The following contains my own personal opinions and recollections and is in no way meant to represent the opinions of the South San Francisco Housing Authority, its Board of Commissioners or the City of South San Francisco.

I will be on TV during the Thursday night newscast on San Francisco's channel 7, and am not particularly thrilled about it.

In April of last year, I was appointed by the South San Francisco City Council to a term as commissioner on the city's Housing Authority (SSFHA). Now it might come as a surprise to some that South City even has public housing, but we do -- about 80 units in 37 buildings on a C Street cul de sac near South San Francisco High (map below).

View Larger Map

Like my involvement with SamTrans, where I am the chair of the Citizen's Advisory Committee, I take my duty as a housing commissioner seriously. It is a great way to give something back to the community and is just a step above volunteer work -- we are compensated with a mere $50 (taxable) per month for a job that usually involves about three or four hours work (including meetings, site visits, discussions with staff and residents, reading large agenda packets and the like), plus cookies at meetings. Cookies at meetings are important. The commissioners are tasked with, among other duties, approving regulations in the authority and (relevant in this case) approving contracts with outside companies for maintenance and the like. One contract approval last year has turned into an interesting spectacle, with one rejected contractor taking its disappointment to the media.

Last spring, the Housing Authority sent out a request for proposals to paint the exterior of the authority's 37 buildings, which had not been repainted for seven years. The job would be paid for using ARRA stimulus funds doled out by the US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which has oversight over public housing. We had about 22 bids -- 14 of which were deemed "noncompliant" due to one procedural misstep or another (that process in itself was difficult, as the minutes of our June meeting attest).

Ultimately, the Housing Authority's staff submitted eight bids to the Board for its review. The report the commissioners received from the staff did not include a recommendation about which contractor to select, but did include a notation that the Housing Authority wanted an "inexpensive but quality job" (paraphrased) and staff thusly recommended that the two highest and two lowest bids be rejected (kind of like when the highest and lowest judge's scores are thrown out in the Olympics, I guess).

"Now, wait a minute," you might be asking, "Aren't public agencies obliged to choose the lowest bid?" No. We are actually tasked with accepting the lowest responsible bid. This means that, besides price, public agencies are supposed to also consider all criteria associated with a bid, including experience, insurance, perceived ability to do the job, etc.

One bidder, Axios Painting of San Francisco (I feel comfortable naming them because the company has taken its case to the media), had the lowest of the eight bids submitted to the board, saying it could paint the buildings for a little over $72,000. Another contractor, Ljungquist Painting of Palo Alto, said it could do the job for about $97,700. The third-lowest bidder, Metro Structural Painting of South San Francisco, submitted a bid for $116,000.

I didn't quite buy the "throw out highest and lowest" logic in picking a responsible bidder, so I closely examined the two lowest bids. Axios, at the time, was a very new company. It DID NOT LIST A SINGLE REFERENCE in its bid and its insurance certificate was listed as "pending" in the bid packet. As a result, I did not consider it a complete bid. I wouldn't hire someone with no references or insurance to paint my home, so I certainly wouldn't hire it to paint the homes of 80 other families either.

(It should be noted that the director of the Housing Authority determined, using estimates of total man hours needed to complete the project, that Axios would not be able to pay what are called "Davis-Bacon Wages." Davis-Bacon wages are pay rates determined by the US Department of Labor to meet the prevailing wage rates in the area to be paid on federally paid-for construction projects. If the contractor the SSFHA picked did not pay Davis-Bacon wages, we ran the risk of not being reimbursed by HUD.)

Ljungquist had all the required references and paperwork in my opinion, and was $18,200 cheaper than the next-lowest bid. So I moved that Ljungquist be awarded the contract. As the minutes indicate, my motion died for a lack of a second. The other board members, so I gathered from the discussion, agreed with staff's recommendation that the lowest bids be rejected in search of a high-quality job. In addition, the SSFHA's procurement policy at the time had a provision that a "preference" be shown to South San Francisco contractors (that provision has since been removed at HUD's recommendation), so the it was moved that Metro Structural get the contract.

The Board voted unanimously to award Metro Structural its $116,000 bid. While I would have preferred Ljungquist get the contract, I did vote yes for Metro Structural after seeing that it had the rest of the Board's support. Sometimes, politically, it's better to present a united front. Besides, other that the price, Metro Structural did have a good bid with many references, including local schools.

Normally, the story would end there. The buildings would get painted and most folks would be happy. But the owner of Axios didn't take losing the bid lightly. He first complained in a letter to the SSFHA and attended the July board meeting, I guess to see what we do. He then took his protest to HUD, which bounced it back because we followed our then-current procurement policy -- but not before holding up our stimulus payment for several months, forcing the SSFHA to take money from its reserves to pay the painting bill.

Not satisfied, Axios took its case to KGO TV news in San Francisco, alleging we were wasting stimulus funds. Lo and behold, investigative reporter Dan Noyes and the "I-Team" were at our January board meeting. I recognized Dan immediately, becoming a fan after he did a story recently about alleged spending abuses by San Jose/Evergreen College District Chancellor Rosa Perez, whom I myself profiled a couple times, most recently in 2004 for The Spectrum Magazine when she was president of Cañada College.

I also knew why he was there, having dealt with the aftermath of this painting contract for months. Dan asked to speak with me on camera, and I agreed -- knowing from almost a decade's worth of reporting experience that silence speaks volumes. I wasn't quite prepared for the way Noyes asked the questions, but I did the best I could -- taking extra care to not once say "I don't know," probably the most incriminating thing a public official could say.

You'd think, having been on the other side of hundreds of interviews, that I'd have been comfortable giving one. But I could feel the slight nervous tick developing, could sense an inordinate amount of "uhs" coming from my mouth and uttered my words probably a whole octave higher than my usual speaking voice.

Was I nervous? Sure. But mostly I felt a bit of anger. Not at Dan Noyes, who was just doing his job. But at the circumstances. I felt we were being pilloried for rejecting an unqualified bid. If Axios had references and an insurance certificate, I would have been happy to move that the company get the contract. But now, it seems like sour grapes on Axios' part.

My only regret in this whole scenario (other than the stuttering interview that will probably be reduced to a few frames of me looking like I don't care about the public's money), is that I didn't push harder for Ljungquist to get the contract. I was new on the board at that time and a little hesitant to make enemies. I also may or may not instead have voted "No" in awarding Metro Structural the contract, but it was a fait accompli.

According to ads on channel 7, The I-Team story will run during the 6 p.m. newscast on Thursday, Feb. 4. Ironically, I'll be in my "Managing Budgets in the Public Sector" class at San Francisco State's downtown campus at the time. The ads seem to state that we misspent stimulus funds by "overpaying" 60 percent. Lovely. Again, I'd like to ask you folks if YOU'D pay an uninsured contractor with no references to paint YOUR house.

I'll post a quick reaction after the story airs.

(Update, Feb. 9, 2010: My response is up. A criticism of the above blog post from Axios is available at

Friday, January 22, 2010

"The Case of the Shhh!" (Complete Audio Book)

The author with his manuscript and its video game inspiration.

Ian wrote a book in class earlier this week. I thought we'd publish it below. (Copyright 2010 by Ian Baker and John Baker. Some characters copyright DC Comics.) Grammar is as by the author.

"The Case of the Shhh!"

By Ian Baker (& Ms. Angeles & Ms. Burke)

Characters: Batgirl. Robin, Batman, Nightwing, Ian Baker

Batgirl, Robin and Batman and Nightwing are flying outside of the room.

They were about to fall, they don't have any wings on their capes. Ian Baker had to go outside and catch them before they get hurt. Ian is catching them with his bare hands, and Ian has to fight the Riddler and Two-Face.

Ian will run into Two-Face and use his cane for the Riddler. And, Ian will say, "Shhhhhh ... Stop that! Stay down Riddler and Two-Face!"

The Riddler's legs fell off by itself because they are ruined.

The End

As a father, I am proud that Ian realized that Batgirl and co. can't fly. As a critic, I've got to say that the plot makes at least as much sense as a lot of Golden Age-era Batman stories. I see he's also put in a touch of post-modernism. The Riddler's legs being "ruined" sounds like something out of a Grant Morrison tale of the Caped Crusader.

Bonus: Click this link for a free audio book version of the story, narrated by the author himself.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Earthquake memories

Tuesday's earthquake in Haiti served as a reminder that today (Sunday) was the 16th anniversary of the 1994 Northridge Earthquake -- the largest I've ever been in (also, it was the 15th anniversary of the more-devastating Kobe Earthquake).

The Northridge quake offered me a fascinating insight of how both public safety and journalism react during a crisis. My experience:

I was living in with a roomate and two cats in a small house in Glendale, Calif., in January 1994. My roomate was in Santa Barbara with his then-girlfriend and I had stayed out until about midnight the evening before. I was sleeping at 4:31 a.m.when I heard a low rattling. The window above my bed was shaking and -- because we had had a very small temblor just a week or so before -- I immediately knew we were having an earthquake.

As soon as I was conscious enough to think "earthquake," I felt an acceleration upward then a quick drop down as the shaking began in earnest. I covered my head with my pillow, but not before seeing several blue flashes, no doubt caused by arcing powerlines touching. I think I said something to the effect of "Oh, crap, it's the Big One!" just before the earthquake stopped. I ran to the doorway of my room (much too late, of course) then into the living room, where I turned off the heater, worried about a gas leak. I then went to the bathroom and used the toilet, having drank about two liters of soda the evening prior.

I then flipped on my police scanner, which was kept next to my bed. I heard the Glendale Police conducting a unit roll call (all checked in OK) and heard the Verdugo Fire dispatch instruct its units to check their districts for damage. I heard about a collapsed parking garage behind the Glendale PD's station and began picking up LA County Fire radio traffic, including a discussion about the collapse of the intersection of the Interstate 5/Highway 14 intersection.

I decided a walk about the neighborhood would help calm my nerves, and of course the cats ran out the instant I opened the door. Going outside, I was surprised at how dark the sky was with power out across the Los Angeles Basin -- I could see the Milky Way for the first (and only) time in LA proper. I also noted a lot of my neighbors coming outside, crying and getting in their cars. I lived in a heavily Armenian neighborhood and many of my neighbors had either suffered through or lost family in the 1988 Armenian Earthquake and were justifiably traumatized.

After about a half-hour outside, I went back in and listened to the radio on the living room couch -- I even fell back asleep. I woke up when my mom called about 7 a.m. to say she was OK (I felt a little guilty later, because I think I told her something along the lines of "We should save the phone lines for emergencies."). The power came on shortly thereafter and I watched TV coverage of the disaster for a while before heading into the offices of the Glendale News-Press, where I worked at the time.

The newsroom was already in full swing, as you might imagine. The city editor, Steve Rosenberg, asked me to go with a photographer to a Luckys store in north Glendale, where I interviewed residents who were stocking up on canned food and bottled water ("A little late," I thought, and besides, the water system was fine). I also went over to the then-new Red Lion Hotel where I caught a couple out-of-town visitors and interviewed them about their first earthquake and a local restaurant, which was doing good business serving to rattled customers. I ended up having a couple bylines in the next day's paper, one under the headline of "Residents react with panic, panache."

I also did a few follow-up stories the next few days, dealing with the public transit situation (specifically the impacts on Metrolink) and the first day of classes two days later at Glendale College. I ended up getting a lot of extra work thanks to the disaster (much like after Sept. 11, 2001, where I earned a lot of extra money as a security guard at Candlestick Park).

As an aside, the one-year anniversary on Jan. 17, 1995, was also memorable for me. I was staying at a hotel in the Union Square area of San Francisco while I was house-hunting with my then-girlfriend in preparation for my upcoming move to the Bay Area. I had stayed up late the night before watching the pilot of "Star Trek: Voyager" on the hotel TV and woke up sleepily late that morning to see earthquake coverage. I initially thought it was a one-year retrospective until they made clear there had been a disaster in Japan that morning.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Recession and school

There was an article in yesterday's New York Times how the recession has pushed older adults back into graduate school and law school, and I was struck at some of the similarities with my own situation.

I loved the story of the awesomely named Prebble Ramswell -- a 37-year-old with two bachelors degrees and 10 years of work experience, who'd just gone back to grad school, all just like me. She was just one of many who is returning to education after being unable to find work.

While I'd been thinking of going to grad school for a while, it wasn't so much the recession that encouraged me to go back -- it was a realization that my life had stalled. I was no longer in public safety, an attempted return to journalism was a non-starter and I needed to get going. Starting an entry-level job somewhere at my age would not be beneficial and I needed a leg up. So grad school it was.

(As an aside, my first semester in the SFSU MPA program is over.The results were good! An "A" in both the Intro (PA700) and Urban Administration (PA780) classes, and an A- in the Policy Making and Implementation (PA715) class. I know I shouldn't feel bad about the A- grade, but having come oh-so-close to the mythical 4.0 GPA, I feel a bit disappointed to have missed it so narrowly. The next semester begins on Jan. 26, with classes in Urban Transportation and Public Sector Budgeting.)

Of course, getting into grad school or law school is no panacea. My wife Claire graduated from law school, passed the bar and got a job only to see it evaporate when the non-profit she worked for recently closed down. She's now trying to find another position and debating what other areas she might be interested in should the law field continue to yield no crops. I (only half-jokingly) told her I'd support her going back to school when she pays off her current law school debts.

Who knows if there will be any positions available when I graduate (especially considering some of the current backlash against "overpaid" public employees)? Maybe that's one reason I'm putting so much into "extracurriculars" right now, like my involvement with SamTrans and the SSF Housing Authority -- a degree is no longer enough. Am I optimistic? Not particularly. But I do know that things are cyclical and there's no reason to be pessimistic in the long term.