Tuesday, July 25, 2006

United We Sit

I've known more than a few doctors in my life for whom the expression, "Physician, heal thyself" was apt advice.
While admonishing patients to clean up their life styles, they privately endulged in cigar smoking and bourbon drinking that would make a trucker blush. I only mention this by way of admitting that I too am guilty of failing to practice what I preach. Indeed, I didn't heed my own words that appeared on these pages in May predicting that this summer's air travel season would set new records for frustration.
"You don't need to be a genius to see that air travel this summer will amount to squeezing toothpaste into the tube," was the way I phrased it.
I then quoted an airline official as saying, "As load factors have crept up, we have been seeing involuntary denied boardings go up proportionately, and we'll see them go up even more so this summer."
I thought about these words long and hard one recent evening when I found myself stuck in Denver with several thousands of my closest traveling companions, looking for a way out.
Do you remeber the scene in the movie "Dr. Zhivago" where scores of Muscovites crammed the train station hoping to flee their city which was in the throes of a violent Bolshevik revolution? It was something like that.
For reasons that remain unclear, almost every single United Airlines flight into or out of Denver that day was either delayed or cancelled.
This is no small deal. Denver is a major hub for United and the resulting chaos was instantly evident.
It didn't appear to be weather. There was some rain in the area but nothing that would ground a jet. Based on a weather map that United conveniently displayed on a large flat screen near its complaint department, the only bad weather appeared to be over the Dakotas, the land that time forgot. No cause for delays there.
Security breach? Nope. Overbooking and bad management? Probably. My problem was minor compared to most. I had an 8:30 p.m. flight to Burbank that was being delayed to 10 p.m.
I was told I could try standby on a flight to Orange County but I figured I had better odds of winning the lottery. And besides, it would have taken me longer to drive from Orange County to my home in Glendale than it would to fly from Denver to John Wayne airport.
I was right about the standby odds. At a gate for a flight to San Francisco, the attendant announced she already had 125 standbys and that any others should go away.
In the midst of all this, it was remarkable to see the patience and fortitude that most the traveling public shows in the face of this bovine boogie we call air travel.
A woman with three young sons was trying to get to Birmingham, Ala. A United representative said they could get her as close as Miami. She kept her cool as she traveresed the customer service line that stretched almost the length of the terminal to try to work things out.
Another couple walked by, discussing the fact that the next plane to their destination would be three days hence. But they talked as though they were discussing their dinner entree.
Another woman had arrived at O'Hare in Chicago at 6 a.m., finally got a flight into Denver but now as denied a connecting flight to Los Angeles. Bleary eyed and clearly agitated, she nonetheless kept her cool.
Maybe that's the problem. Maybe we, the traveling public, need to raise holy hell with everyone from the Federal Aviation Administration to our congressional representatives to the ticket clerk to the sky cap until the airlines begin to understand that an acceptable level of service is not treating passengers as though they were qued up for a meat packing plant.
Then again, this is an industry where bankruptcy in the norm and employee strikes are commonplace.
As for me, I got out. My 8:30 flight left at 10:30. This was no small concern since there is a nightime curfew at Bob Hope airport. And it was hardly a comfort when, before we left, United employes started passing out blankets so travelers could sleep on the floor.
As air travel horror story goes, however, it doesn't touch one told to me by a friend who used to travel the world for the government.
In a flight over Nigeria one evening, the co-pilot emerged from the cockpit to shake hands with the passengers and wish them a pleasant jounrey. Moments later, with the plane on auto, the pilot emerged to get a drink of water from the galley. Just then, the plane hit some turbulence, slamming the door to the cockpit shut, locking both pilots out.
They had to break down the door with an axe to regain control of the plane.
Happy landings.

Google Eyed

By ROBERT RECTOR The folks over at Merriam-Webster, the dictionary publishers, don't move especially fast when it comes time to include a new word in their book.
Usually, they wait 10 to 20 years to make sure a word or turn of phrase has entered everyday use.
Look up the word "ecstasy," for example, and there is no mention of the infamous drug favored by the dance club subculture, but simply "the state of being overpowered by emotion..."
But the MW linguists moved with lightening-like speed recently when they decided to include the word "Google" a mere five years after its first known public reference as a verb in that standard of grammatical excellence, the New York Post.
Google, of course, is the Internet search engine whose speed in obtaining data is apparently only exceeded by its rapid use in everyday conversation.
Want to find something? You google it. I've uttered it myself.
So if you're a Google executive, you're delighted that your brand has become part of the language, joining Xerox, Band-Aid and Coke has staples of our language, right? Wrong.
According to published reports, Google's 2005 report to investors noted that "there is a risk that the word Google could become so commonly used that it becomes synonymous with the word 'search.' If this happens, we would lose protection for our trademark, which could result in other people using the word 'Google' to refer to their own products."
It's happened before. Asprin, bikini, escalator and crock pot, once trademarked, have fallen into generic use.
I could fill a book with letters I received over a long career in journalism from angry attorneys, taking my paper to task for abusing their trademarks.
A letter from the Max Factor cosmetics people once complained when we didn't capatalize "pancake makeup," which they said was their brand. General Electric once scolded when we lower cased "Laundromat," which they claimed as their own. Who knew?
"Google" appears to be the only term with trademark baggage to make the new dictionary but there are many others making a debut.
Mouse potato, a person who spends a great deal of time using a computer (and, presumebly, googling stuff) is now official. As is "avian influenze" (or bird flu to you), gastric bypass, supersize, drama queen, big box and sandwich generation ( a generation of people who are caring for their aging parents while supporting their own children). All pretty much self-explanatory.
Less obvious: Labelmate ( a singer or musician who records for the same company as another) and qigong (an ancient Chinese healing art involving meditation, controlled breathing, and movement exercises).
Then there is unibrown, "a single continuous brow resulting from the growing together of eyebrow" (do we really need a word for this?) and polyamory, "the state or practice of having more than one open romantic relationship at a time" (which is nothing new in Hollywood and other foreign lands).
Interestingly enough, it's been 200 years since Noah Webster penned "A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language" which contained 37,000 entries including thousands of words that were in daily use in America but not listed in any other dictionary.
So what was new in 1806?
Electrician, "one versed in electricity," made its first appearance. So did psychology, vaccinate ("to inoculate with the virus of the cow pox'), caucus ("name of secret meetings for electioneering purposes"), census, chowder, Americanize, ortheopy ("the art of just pronunication"), publicity, sectarian, surf and spry.
Most seemed to have staying power.
So here's to you Google. May you last 200 years and may your name always be capitalized.

Trial by Jury

Just as surely as Christmas, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July roll around once a year, so does my summons for jury duty.
Remarkably, those in charge of such things manage to pinpoint the most inconvenient time to pull me in. But inconvenience is rarely an excuse so off I go to do my duty at $15 a day.
In the last 10 years, I've heard criminal, civil and federal matters in locations throughout the county.
I've seen everything from shoplifters to drug runners, victims of everything from fender benders to plane crashes.
And almost every time, I've not only been selected for trial but I've been chosen foreman. I used to think it was because I wore a tie but even dressing down didn't work.
So it was pretty much business as usual when I trudged off to court in downtown Los Angeles one recent week.
But a couple of things made this particular term of service unusual. One was a confrontation in the jury assembly room. The other was a case that said a lot about the society we live in.
Those who would know Los Angeles need only to visit a jury assembly room. There, dozens of strangers from every conceivable ethnic and socio-economic background huddle together like unhappy passengers waiting for some long-delayed airplane.
The drill is simple. Bring something to read, sit down, shut up and wait to see if you are called for a trial. There is one other rule: If you need to use your cell phone, take it outside in the hall.
One guy didn't get the cell phone message. One who did took umbrage with the one who didn't.
The conversation went something like this:
"Would you please have some respect for others and take your cell phone outside."
"I took it outside and it didn't work there." "Well, my cell phone worked outside." "Let me borrow yours then."
"That's not the point, just don't use it in here." "OK, that's fine, let me use yours."
At this point, testosterone was beginning to best civility and a couple of clerks had to intervene.
As jury assembly room drama goes, it was edge-of-the-seat excitement.
One of the combatants was white, the other black. Just another example of how cell phones bring our worlds together.
Eventually, I was selected to be a potential juror in a domestic abuse case. Sitting in the jury box, the attorneys and judge sorted through us like clothes at a garage sale in an attempt to select a panel.
Where did we work? Were we married? Kids? Do you know a cop? Ever been a victim of domestic violence?
That's when the rubber met the road. In a panel of 20, 10 were women. Of those 10, five indicated they had been victims of domestic abuse. Several others said they knew someone who was. A couple of women were quite adament that they could not deliver an unbiased verdict in the case.
Were they telling the truth? The five abuse victims met with the judge and both attorneys in chambers. We will never know what was said but all five were eventually dismissed from the panel on challenges from the defense attorney. As were several other women.
At the conclusion of the first day, the jury as constituted was nearly all male.
As I drove to the courthouse the next morning, I was thinking that jury selection could continue for days while they sought what to me was an elusive commodity: Women with no strong feelings about domestic abuse.
After all, a Harris poll released last month found that large percentages of adults say that they have some familiarity with domestic violence, with 79 percent recalling "seeing or hearing something" about domestic violence in the last year. Fifty-three percent admit they have heard of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, however this number rose substantially to 71 percent among those who admit they have been victims of domestic violence.
California law enforcement officials answer nearly 200,000 abuse calls a year. Those are the ones who call. Several of the women on my panel said their abuse was never reported to authorities.
When I arrived at court, I found that the matter had been decided without a trial and we were dismissed.
A waste of time? For some perhaps, but every experience is an education and this one taught me how domestic abuse is all around us.
I can only hope justice was served.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Testing Limits


It is rare that I turn to the city of Los Angeles in a search for sanity.
But according to published reports, there is a movement afoot in L.A. to extend the tenure of elected officials from two terms to three.
That's right, folks, they're taking a monkey wrench to term limits. And not a moment too soon.
According to a story in the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters have decided that what term limits actually do is create a whirlwind of office shuffling while elevating the power of bureaucrats and lobbyists.
"...The difficulty of getting things done requires a good deal of time and a sustained commitment to a vision," said George Kieffer, a law firm partner and key player in the Civic Alliance, another powerful group expressing interest in the proposal. "That's more and more difficult to do with people looking at short-term horizons and other offices."
I'm surprised it took the good and visionary people of Los Angeles this long to see that term limits aren't working.
All they needed to do was gaze northward to the sort of chaos that exists in the state legislature to see what actually gets limited in Sacramento is leadership, constructive compromise and vision. As our action-hero governor has discovered.
For the record, Assembly members are limited to three terms of two years each. State senators serve two four-year terms.
Given the steep learning curve, the reelection demands and abundant number of adjournments, the time spent in actual governance is shockingly limited.
I did some reporting out of Sacramento at one point in my career. I thnk the thing that struck me most was the turnover, especially at the committee chair and speaker level and the void in leadership and institutional knowledge that it ultimately created.
I admired Bob Hertzberg when he was speaker of the Assembly. He was visionary, adept at molding bi-partisan consensus and energetic. And he wasn't around long enough to accomplish one-tenth of his agenda.
Lame duck leaders get no respect and it seems in Sacramento, everyone is a lame duck.
There were subtler problems. There seemed to be a dependence on lobbyists and other special interests types in Sacramento who often had a better take on the issues becasue they had been around longer.
Most importantly, a Public Policy Institute study showed that legislators operating under term limits screen out fewer bills assigned to them and are more likely to see their work rewritten at later stages.
The practice of hijacking Assembly bills, gutting their contents andamending them thoroughly in the Senate, has increased sharply.
In addition, legislative oversight of the executive branch has declined significantly, according to the study. There is a widespread sense in Sacramento that something needs to be done soon to provide more stability and expertise to theLegislature's policymaking process.
And last but not least, while term limits may have had the noble intent of abolishing career politicians and power mongers like Jess Unruh and Willie Brown, what they have in fact created is a new kind of career pol. The new model operates out of suticase.
The city council in Los Angeles, for example, includes two former state legislators who were termed out. Another announced his intent to run for state Senate only weeks after being reelected. In fact, the mayor himself is a former Assembly speaker who walked the term plank.
My favorite take on term limits comes from David S. Border, writing in the Washington Post:
"If bankers were limited to 12 years in their jobs, for example, would we logically expect that loan policies would become more prudent? Hardly. The knowledge that they won't be around when repayment time comes would probably impel them to gin up the volume of loan approvals and let their successors worry about those that are, in banking jargon, "nonperforming."
"As Tom Lehrer wrote in his wonderful song about the German-born missile-designer of famously flexible loyalties, "Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department, says Wernher von Braun."
Let's hope that the rocket being launched in Los Angeles lands in Sacramento.