Monday, April 26, 2010

A Bad Act

TV political commercials have been downright boring lately. How many
times can you watch GOP gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and
Steve Poinzer endlessly bash each other for being “li-ber-al,”
rolling the word off their tongues as you would “ped-o-phile” or

Recently, however, Proposition 16 backers have come thundering across
the vast wasteland, reaching into their deep pockets to bombard the
airways on behalf of their Taxpayers Right to Vote Act.

Before I sorted through the messy details of this initiative, I was
curious: Don’t taxpayers already have the right to vote? Is somebody
trying to take that right away from us? Has Glenn Beck been right all
this time?

But, no. Upon closer inspection it turns out that the Taxpayers Right
to Vote Act is the most misleading ballot title since the California
Marriage Protection Act of 2008 which in fact did nothing to protect
your marriage if you are gay.

Likewise, the Taxpayers Right to Vote Act takes away more than it

Written and funded to the tune of some $30 million by Pacific Gas and
Electric, Prop. 16 would require local governments to win the
approval of two-thirds of the voters before providing electricity to
residents through a local utility.

While PG&E concedes that many municipalities do hold elections to
decide if they should get involved in the power business, it is
demanding in this initiative that all citizens should be guaranteed a
say in all cases.

Sounds democratic, right? In theory, yes. In practice, PG&E
understands that getting two-thirds approval on anything this side of
motherhood is a steep mountain to climb and that requiring such a
mandate would have a chilling effect on public officials, who lack
the financial resources to face down a big bucks private utility.

The result: PG&E gets locked in as the provider and crushes any
future competition.

We have already seen how this plays out. In Sacramento in 2006 and
San Francisco in 2008, PG&E's deep pockets helped defeat
simple-majority ballot measures that would have allowed or expanded
municipal utilities, according to media in those cities.

John Geesman, who served on the California Energy Commission from
2002-2008, sees it this way:

“If passed, Proposition 16 will actually result in less voting than
occurs under existing law – at least that's the strategy PG&E's CEO,
Peter Darbee, recently boasted about to Wall Street investors,”
Gessman wrote in the Sacramento Bee.

“In Darbee's words, ‘the idea was to diminish, you know, rather than
year after year different communities coming in as this or that and
putting this up for vote and us having to spend millions and millions
of shareholder dollars to defend it repeatedly, we thought that this
was a way that we could sort of diminish that.’”

Aha, I see. So the Taxpayers Right to Vote act is actually an attempt
to prevent voting. Worse, it’s an exploitation of the initiative
process by a greedy special interest group.

PG&E isn’t the only one playing games.

Mercury Insurance is sponsoring Prop. 17, which would allow auto
insurance companies to base their prices in part on a driver’s
history of coverage.
What that means is that state law would be revised to allow insurers
to attract new customers with discounts, as long as the drivers have
been insured for most of the previous five years.

Sounds good, right? But critics say such a discount could mean higher
rates for drivers who were not previously insured even if it was
because they didn’t own a car, had a brief lapse in coverage or were
away at college or in the military (although troops stationed
overseas would be protected).

It would also gut Prop. 103 approved in 1988 which established a
connection between policy price and risk.

I’m guessing two things would happen if this passed. (1) Mercury and
other insurers would make a lot more money boosting rates for the
previously uninsured then they would spend offering discounts and (2)
the resulting higher prices would result in more uninsured drivers.
Then everyone’s rates would rise.

Stay tuned: In November, we get to vote on the "Regulate, Control and
Tax Cannabis Act of 2010" which Los Angeles County District Attorney
Steve Cooley says " ...will not regulate, not control nor effectively
tax marijuana in California."

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Finding Fault

“The grapevine reported that the California Institute of Technology
in Pasadena, home to the premier seismology laboratory in the area,
had ordered its employees to leave town. Underground water tables
were said to be dropping, a sign that the Big One was about to hit.

“Caltech received so many panicky telephone calls that seismologists
working for the university and the United States Geological Survey
called a press conference on Thursday to squelch the rumors.

"There's no reason to think that there's still some accelerating level of
stress" on the San Andreas, said Dr. Thomas Heaton, a seismologist at
the Geological Survey's Pasadena office.

“Dr. Heaton assured reporters that no one was predicting doom, no one
had been told to flee and no water tables had dropped. In any case,
he added, falling water levels are not known to be harbingers of
earthquakes. "You may have noticed that we're not able to predict
earthquakes," he said dryly. "And if we were, we'd certainly be
telling you."

--- New York Times, 1992.

I’d like to say in the 18 years since that story appeared we have
developed a healthy skepticism towards earthquake predictions.

But I’d be wrong.

This paper reported this past week that rumors spread like wildfire
on the Internet and via text messages about an impending earthquake,
triggering a rash of calls to Caltech, the U.S. Geological Survey and
the Pasadena Fire Department.

It was dismissed as a hoax. "It's a rumor that Caltech is predicting
a major earthquake and sent all employees home - not true," said Jon
Weiner, director of media relations at Caltech. "We can't predict
earthquakes, and we're not sending employees home."

So much for healthy skepticism.

The difference between now and 1992 is that rumors spread by nut jobs
now have an audience in the tens of millions thanks to the Internet,
texting and networking sites, the same folks who have given the world
unfettered access to political wackos, porn stars and spam.

Just to underscore the point: There was a rumor making the rounds on
the Internet several years back that Zero Population Growth
boobytrapped men's toilets with razors set to castrate the

I rest my case.

The quake rumor was reportedly spread on Twitter, a networking tool
whose seriousness of purpose is reflected in its name.
One such text message read, “WARNING: State of California has
released a statement that there is a possible 8.4 earthquake within
24hours. Pray, inform and be prepared. please forward this.”

An e-mail version went something like this: "My buddy's wife works at
the seismology dept. in L.A. and they called everyone in today and
said get your kids out of school and stock up on water because there
is going to be a major quake within 24 hours."

There is no seismology department in the city or county of Los
Angeles of course, and the last time I checked, the state wasn’t in
the quake prediction business. Even if it was, it would have been the
victim of budget cuts by now.

To set the record straight, anyone who predicts that an earthquake
will strike California on any given date is going to be 100 per cent
correct. We have quakes --- dozens of them --- everyday. It’s the
nature of the state we live in and the planet we live on.

It’s when predictions specify locales and magnitudes that it gets

Search the Internet and you’ll find dozens of sites run by people in
the earthquake prediction business. They claim psychic powers, or
insight based on physical ailments such has headaches or back spasms
or predictions based on the behavior of chickens, dogs or goldfish.

I had a woman call me on the city desk of the Los Angeles Times some
years back to tell me she often suffered bouts of diarrhea shortly
before an earthquake struck. This was after the Northridge quake
almost leveled our entire operation so I called her methodology into

None of this is intended to minimize the threat of a major earthquake
in our area. It will happen eventually and we should be prepared for

But when you hear a prediction, run don’t walk in the other direction.

Susan Hough, of the U.S. Geological Survey, when asked in an
interview if we will ever be able to predict earthquakes, said, “I’m
inclined to doubt it, but I think it’s possible. The question is: Are
we ever going to be able to identify something in the earth that
tells us—unmistakably—that a “big one” is coming. It’s worth keeping
the lines of investigation going, but there’s been an awful lot of
work and we haven’t found anything yet.”

Flights of Fancy

Let's play pretend.

You're the CEO of a major airline company and things aren't going well. Revenues are shaky, fuel costs are up and the public ranks you slightly below Rosie O'Donnell on the likability index.

But you have to increase cash flow so what do you do? There's got to be some sort of revenue stream out there just waiting to be discovered.

American Airlines chief Bob Crandall once famously removed an olive from each salad served to passengers some years back. A single olive would never be missed, the reasoning went, and savings amounted to at least $40,000 a year.

That's the kind of inspiration you seek.

Then the light bulb goes on over your head.

Why should passengers be allowed to lug their carry-on baggage onto the plane for free? Charge the hell out of them for that coveted overhead storage space. If they don't like it, they can wear two or three changes of clothes.

It's brilliant in its simplicity. Problem is, this is no fantasy.

Spirit Airways announced last week that it intends to charge as much as a $45 fee for carry-on baggage.

That's skyway robbery.

"I didn't think anyone would go this far," Jay Sorensen, an airline consultant who specializes in airline fees, told the Associated Press.

But wait, it gets worse.

Not to be outdone, Ryanair Airlines, based in Dublin, Ireland, disclosed it is considering a plan that would require travelers to pay either 1 Euro

or a British pound (about $1.33 or $1.52) for using the bathroom on flights lasting one hour or less.

The carrier said it is working with Boeing to develop a coin-operated door release so that when nature calls, passengers would need to deposit the change before being able to use the facilities.

(The good news is that if Boeing is in charge of the project, there will be a 500 percent cost overrun and it will run 10 years behind schedule).

The idea is to encourage people to use restrooms in airport terminals before boarding, Ryanair said.

And why do they want to do that? So they can remove two of the three lavatories on some of its planes and squeeze in up to six extra seats. The refurbishing would reduce fares by at least 5 percent, Ryanair claimed.

We have been advised to stay hydrated on airplanes. Drink lots of water because airplane air can dry you out, and a dehydrated person is more susceptible to contracting illness. Now Ryanair has found a way to make hydration pay.

They just don't make capitalists like this anymore.

"By charging for the toilets we are hoping to change passenger behavior so that they use the bathroom before or after," said Stephen McNamara, a Ryanair spokesman.

It will indeed change passenger behavior. Ryanair will be as devoid of customers as it is toilets.

As for Spirit airlines, if they want to charge me for carry-on luggage, I'll tell them where they can stow it.

Coming soon: Fares based on your weight. Since we're treated like cargo anyway, the next logical step is to step on a scale.

Speaking of airlines, it was reported that a 91-year-old German man was refused entry to a flight in Liverpool's John Lennon Airport because he was dead.

The recently departed man was brought to the airport by two relatives, sitting in a wheelchair and sporting a pair of sunglasses.

Staff became suspicious when the man did not respond to questions by airport workers. His relatives, two women aged 41 and 66, were arrested.

The couple were believed to be attempting to flout repatriation fees for the dead man. Bodies being repatriated by air are required to be contained inside hermetically-sealed zinc-lined coffins and require paperwork to travel in the hold.

Of course, if they were flying Spirit Airways, they could have stuck him in the overhead bin for $45.

And I thought the only dead people at airports were the handlers who took an eternity to get the baggage to the carousels.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

The Write Stuff

Are you a person who appreciates a deft turn of phrase, who revels in sparkling wordplay, who soars on the wings of language well used?

If that is you, read no further. Because today's topic is bad writing.

It's the time of year that we celebrate a man who is perhaps the most visible bad writer of all time. His name is Edward George Bulwer-Lytton and in 1830 he penned the immortal opening line, "It was a dark and stormy night."

Actually, he wrote: "It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

This kind of turgid writing is not lost on the good folks of the English department at San Jose State University who are even now accepting entries for the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest in which authors are encouraged to "compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels." In other words, write something truly, deliberately bad.

The contest has become legendary over the years, attracting some 10,000 entries from throughout the world. It has also produced a truly remarkable body of work.

Some personal favorites:

"Jennifer stood there, quietly ovulating."

"Fleur looked down her nose at Guilliame, something she was accomplished at, being six foot three in her stocking feet, and having one of those long French noses, not pert like Bridget Bardot's, but more like the one that Charles De Gaulle had when he was still alive and President of France and he wore that cap that was shaped like a little hatbox with a bill in the front to offset his nose, but it didn't work."

"The dual-headed Zhiltoids from Beta Quadrant in the Crab Nebula, who lived entirely on a diet of steaming hot asphalt, thought they had died and gone to heaven upon landing in the Midtown Mall of Fresno, California on the planet Earth during the month they called 'July'."

"She walked into my office on legs as long as one of those long-legged birds that you see in Florida - the pink ones, not the white ones - except that she was standing on both of them, not just one of them, like those birds, the pink ones, and she wasn't wearing pink, but I knew right away that she was trouble, which those birds usually aren't."

"Dr. Metzger turned to greet his new patient, blithely unaware he would soon become a member of a secret brotherhood as old as urology itself."

"Sylvia leaned seductively back in her chair and downed the shot of cheap gin that Brad had poured for her, and speculated once again that, even if it did taste like something you'd rub on a horse, it had the pleasant side effect of softening Brad's facial symmetry which had always reminded her of the collapsed, pocked surface of a cheese quiche that's been cooked at too high a temperature."

"It seemed the stifling summer heat would never end, and it would not, for Bob was in Hell."

"Mike Hummer had been a private detective so long he could remember Preparation A, his hair reminded everyone of a rat who'd bitten into an electrical cord, but he could still run faster than greased owl snot when he was on a bad guy's trail, and they said his friskings were a lot like getting a vasectomy at Sears."

Anyway, you get the point.

As for me, I'm not a fiction writer. I depend on real-life experiences for inspiration:

"Bob drove to work on the 210 Freeway, the engine of his car humming like a watch - a really good one like a Rolex or Patek Phillipe, not a Timex or some knock-off - and passed over the Arroyo, home of the Rose Bowl, the Granddaddy of Them All, which like many granddaddies is falling apart and needs repair, before exiting the concrete ribbon on Lake Avenue, which is near no lake anyone has ever seen and, parking his vehicle, walked into the office in Pasadena, a city that cares about only one thing: parades, football, money, sex, power, politics and bike paths. It was there he wrote about bad writing of which the preceding is a classic example."