Monday, April 29, 2013

Is Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood a Political Hack?

President Obama nominated on Monday Anthony R. Foxx, the Mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, as the next Secretary of Transportation. The sitting secretary, Raymond LaHood, has agreed to remain in office until the Senate confirms his replacement. What can we say about Secretary’s LaHood’s four years in office? Is the former Republican Congressman from Illinois a political hack? The Congressman from Peoria was known to be a conservative on most issues, but not when it came to spending. He was a prince of pork, quite willing to spend the public’s money on pork barrel projects, as if he were a spendthrift Democrat. Democrats have their tax and spend representatives, and Republicans have representatives, such as Secretary LaHood, who are big on spending, but without the taxing. Secretary LaHood had two major unexpected problems on his watch: The Toyota sudden acceleration at the beginning and the Boeing lithium battery fires on the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner at the end. They were not of his agency’s making and are not resolvable by his agency. Whether or not he handled them right will be judged by history, especially after the Dreamliner has flown for years. He has failed two major tests though: California’s Bullet Train and the FAA Sequester. The Bullet Train is the train from nowhere to nowhere at the beginning, from Bakersfield to Merced. The so-called high-speed train is supposed to go from San Diego to Sacramento in less time than Southwest Air’s 737’s. California’s voters in a paroxysm of blind optimisms voted to bond $8 billion for the train. That is just the entry fee for a project estimated to cost $100 million, but than scaled down to use existing tracks in spots and not be high speed. The new estimate is under $70 billion, but never forget that the “Bullet Train” is a government spending boondoggle for planners, press agents, lawyers, contractors, and the union builders. Once, if, built and running, the train is expected to lose to lose a large, but unknown, amount annually. Coupled with the interest on the bonds, Californians will be paying for the train for decades. Secretary LaHood would never miss an opportunity to spend the taxpayers money. He approved another $3.7 billion in federal funds to prime the train’s pump. As long as the Republicans control at least one branch of the federal government, the federal spigot will be closed. The train will probably never be completed, going down in history with Solyndra, Fisker, and all the other broken green dreams of the Obama Administration. The most politically cynical act of his reign over DOT was to furlough air traffic controllers last week in an exercise of Obama Administration pique over the Sequester. The Sequester required the FAA to cut $637 million from its budget. The agency decided to cut a disproportionate amount from the air traffic controllers’ budget, such that the controllers would have to give up one day for every ten worked i.e. 11 workdays by September 30. In essence 1,500, 10% of the controllers would be off the job every day. The agency warned it could escalate to affecting 6,700 of the 30,000-35,000 daily commercial flights. The FAA was willing to thrust the blunt of the Sequester on air traffic control eventhough 2/3 of the Agency’s revenues (and budget) comes from the taxes the Agency imposes on airline passengers. The Agency was either so smart or stupid that it could only inform airlines a few hours in advance of expected shortages for the day. Thus, the airlines could not plan nor readjust their schedules. The attitude of the Obama Administration has been transparently political: use the Sequester to gain political points over the Republicans in the House, either by hurting the public, as with the bonehead FAA action, or by cutting highly visible operations, such as public tours of the White House. The tragedy of the Obama Administration is that they look through the prism of politics to decide seemingly every act by the President. The issue for them is not to do what’s right for Americans, but how to maximize the political advantage. Remember though that a cabinet secretary is not a free agent. He or she must follow the policies of the Administration, that is, POTUS. The historical alternative was the risky course of resigning. Very few in Washington escape Potomac Fever; thus, resignation is not an option for them. The Senate voted unanimously on the 26th to end the Sequester on the air traffic controllers. The House followed on Friday through a 361 - 41 vote. Congress voted to transfer $253 million from other FAA accounts to pay for the controllers through the end of September. Is Congressman LaHood a political hack?” To ask the question is to answer it!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The President's Bully Pulpit and Student Loans: One Year Later

The President’s Bully Pulpit and Student Loans: A Redux One year ago on Saturday, April 28, 2012 I posted “The President’s Bully Pulpit and Student Loans.” It has become, for reasons inexplicable to me, by far my most popular posting with 24,583 page views as of a few minutes ago. The thesis was that the President was using student loan interest rates as a wedge issue to win the student vote by showing he was fighting for them by stabilizing their interest rate on the Stafford loans at the existing 3.4% from the scheduled 6.8%. The blog pointed out that the biggest problem for last year’s grads was not the interest rate, but the facts that half of them couldn’t get a job. The interest rate is irrelevant if you have no income. In addition, the sharply rising tuition costs were a great concern to the students. It costs the students more each year than the interest costs. The third major cost issue for students is the high inflation in college texts. Yet the President’s use of the bully pulpit allowed the President to control the debate. The Republicans caved on the student loans rather than point out the economic realities to the students. Here we are a year later and the interest rates are once again scheduled to double on July 1, 2013, two months from now. The rate on federally subsidized Stafford Loans for undergrads will jump up to 6.8%, up from the current 3.4%. As Yogi Berra said "It's deja vu all over again." How can that be? Didn’t the President fix the problem last year? His cynical reelection stratagem succeeded. No one told the students that the fix was only temporary, for one year – well past Election Day. They were told that President Obama saved them thousands of dollars in interest costs over the life of the loans – not that the fix only lasted one year. Where is the President’s Bully Pulpit this year on the costly increase in student loan interest rates? AWOL IN DEFAULT His agenda consists of gun control, immigration reform, and tax increases. The students served their purpose. They voted for him last year. He was reelected President. He does not need them anymore. The only action he had taken is to bury within his proposed budget bill for next year a proposal to index the interest rate annually to .93% above the interest rate on 10 year Treasury Notes. That would cut the rates now, but prove costly to students when interest rates sharply rise, as they must with the nation’s public debt. Don’t forget that even the Democratic Senate consistently rejected on a bipartisan basis his proposed budgets in recent years. The current situation for today’s students is high interest rates on student loans, no jobs, rising tuition, rising textbook costs, and an indifferent President. Maybe they will learn a lesson from this. It is a teachable moment.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Senate's Stealth Sales Tax Increase: "The Marketplace Fairness Act"

Conventional wisdom says the politically divided Senate can’t agree on anything. The conventional wisdom is wrong. Conventional wisdom says Republicans will not vote for a tax increase. The conventional wisdom is wrong, at last with the Senate. The Senate voted 74-20 on Tuesday to consider the Marketplace Fairness Act, otherwise known as “stick it to small merchants and Americans who buy through the internet and mail order companies.” A final vote is scheduled for May 6. President Obama, who has yet to meet a tax he doesn’t like, has promised to sign the bill if it reaches his desk. Those of us who live in states with sales taxes, which are most of us, have to pay a sales tax in the state on taxable purchases, whether it be a soda or luxury car. The law has been clear for decades if we buy an item from an out of state seller. If they have a physical presence in the state, then they have to collect the state’s sales tax on purchases sent to the state, but they cannot be forced to collect the sales tax if they don’t do business in the state. For example, Massachusetts has a 6.25% state sales tax, but neighboring New Hampshire has no sales tax. New Hampshire residents purchasing an item in New Hampshire would pay no sales tax on it, but they would pay a sales tax if they cross the stateline to purchase it in Massachusetts. Conversely, a Massachusetts resident would pay no sales tax by crossing the line to purchase it in New Hampshire. If though the New Hampshire company does business in Massachusetts such as by operating a store in Massachusetts or delivering the product itself to Massachusetts, it is supposed to collect the tax from the Massachusetts resident. The store would not know the residency of the consumer who’s physically in the store purchasing, but if they order online with a Massachusetts address, or have it delivered to Massachusetts, then the merchant would have to collect the tax. The Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on the Commerce Clause is also clear that since Congress is the ultimate arbiter on the Commerce Clause it could change this rule and require shippers to collect the sales tax for the state the item is being shipped to. Companies did a thriving mail order business in consumer electronics, such as the once fabled 47th Street Photo in Manhattan, by shipping cameras out of state and thus charging no sales tax. The out-of-state buyer would pay neither a New York sales tax nor a sales tax in the state of residency. The rise of the internet and greatly increased the amount of non-taxable, interstate purchases. The savings to consumers are substantial, an estimated $22-24 billion annually. The states are salivating at getting their hands on these revenues. These figures though are suspect. The Census Bureau estimated e-commerce retail sales of $225 billion in 2012, up 16% from 2011. Since very few combined state and local taxes equal %10, the “lost” sales tax revenue of $22-24 billion seems high. The savings by a Massachusetts resident on a $1,000 purchase in New Hampshire would be $62.50. If a mail order company, such as LL Bean in Maine, absorbs the shipping costs, then the savings to the consumer are greater. Connecticut residents living near the Massachusetts line will often cross the stateline to but their gas in Massachusetts because of a substantial difference in the state’s gas taxes. They might also drive up to New Hampshire, as one Massachusetts state senator did, to reap substantial savings on booze from the New Hampshire state Liquor Stores. Brick and mortar retailers, including the big box chains such as Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy complain they lose sales to consumers who will check the products in their sores, and then order online without paying a sales tax. They claim it is unfair to them. It’s no coincidence that the House Bill is sponsored by the erstwhile conservative, Arkansas Republican Congressman Steve Womack. Never forget that Wal-Mart is based in Bentonville, Arkansas. Small merchants would have to deal with the complexities of trying to collect sales taxes for over 9,000 jurisdictions with no uniformity in tax rates. The die was cast last year when agreed to collect the sales tax for California, Pennsylvania, and Texas this year, and Connecticut and Massachusetts next year. wishes to build large distributional warehouses in these states, thereby acquiring a physical presence in the states. It now supports passage of the Marketplace Unfairness to Consumers Act., leaving E-Bay as the major retail holdout. The Bill in its current form would exempt small retailers with less than $1 million in interstate sales from its coverage. E-Bay, representing its scores of small retailers, is trying to get the figure lifted to $10 million. The Senate will pass the bill, leaving its fate up to the House. No indication has come out of the House, especially from Speaker Boehner, of how the House will act on the Bill. The Representatives more closely represent the grass roots of America than the Senators. Perhaps they will listen to the consumers on this week off, and not the lobbyists for the Big Box stores and the governors and mayors who have squandered existing tax revenues, but claim the bill will help preserve Ma and Pa on Man Street. Conventional wisdom also says "Politics makes for strange bedfellows." I understand Democrats and republicans acting bi-partisan on measures, but Wal-Mart and mayors who are trying to keep Wal-Mart out of their cities? One question remains: Why would Republicans vote to increase taxes that will fuel the growth of government?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Brothers Tsarnaev and Capital Punishment

Capital punishment was common throughout history, both to punish criminals and to execute political opponents, including the United States. Joe Hill became a martyr to the labor movement in the United States: “I dreamt I saw Joe Hill last night.” Methods of execution could be brutal: boiling alive, burning at the stake, crucifixion, drawn and quartered, stoning, and tied to the mouth of a cannon. The British used this method after suppressing the 1857 Sepoy Revolt in India. Among the famous historical figures executed for political reasons are Jesus Christ, Joan of Arc, Saint Thomas More, and Socrates. Social values changed in the last half of the 20th Century. The tragedy of World War II and the brutal dictatorships of Hitler, Stalin and Chairman Mao led to a humanitarian reassessment of capital punishment. The European Union bans capital punishment in its member nations. Turkey thereby abandoned capital punishment in its so far unsuccessful effort to join the EU. The majority of the world’s nations no longer have capital punishment, although the four largest by population, China, India, Indonesia, and the United States still retain it. China has been by far the largest practitioner of capital punishment with Iran also being active. A minority of states, led by Michigan in 1846, including Massachusetts, have abrogated capital punishment. Connecticut has recently eliminated the death penalty. Texas leads the way in the United States in executions, which are rare in the federal system (Think Timothy McVeigh). Strong objections have been made to capital punishment in the United States because it has disproportionately been used against minorities, especially African Americans and Hispanics. Some jurisdictions acquired a reputation of being swift to convict and execute. In addition, if a mistake is made, the result is irrevocable. A strong anti-capital punishment bar developed over the past 4 decades. The result has been increasing delays in carrying out the death sentence, delays exceeding a decade in many cases. Appeals follow appeals with increasingly ingenious arguments. The costs of delay and litigation to states exceed millions of dollars. States have thereby found it desirable to end capital punishment for financial as well as humane reasons. Under the old English common law almost every felony was punished by capital punishment, usually followed by a speedy execution. English jurists who opposed capital punishment or were sympathetic to a particular defendant found, and created, loopholes and technicalities to avoid the punishment. Many jurists in the United States today have the same attitude. Two prime examples were the California Supreme Court under Chief Justice Rose Bird and the Ninth Circuit. The California Supreme Court heard 64 capital punishment cases during Chief Justice Bird’s ten years on the bench. It reversed 61 with the Chief Justice penning the opinion in each. California’s voters got their revenge on November 4, 1986 when they voted her out of office by a 67%-33% vote. Justices Joseph Grodin and Cruz Reynoso also lost retention in the election. The Ninth Circuit and the Supreme Court have long been at philosophical and jurisprudential odds. A famous example occurred with the scheduled execution on April 21, 1992 of Robert Alton Harris in California’s gas chamber. A district judge issued a ten day stay on April 18. A panel of the Ninth Circuit reversed the stay, but then ten judges of the Circuit issued a stay on April 20. The Supreme Court reversed. Robert Alton Harris was strapped into the chair in the gas chamber with the cyanide pellets about to drop when Ninth Circuit Judge Harry Pregerson issued a truly last minute stay. The Supreme Court was miffed. It vacated the stay and ordered “No further stays of Robert Alton Harris’ executions shall be entered by the federal courts except upon order of this Court.” Yet, sometimes society wants capitol punishment, out of a sense of outrage and vengeance for horrific crimes. Thus, few opponents of capitol punishment objected when Timothy McVeigh was executed on June 11, 2001 for the mass killings of 168 including 19 children, in his bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. Another 450 were injured in the bombing. 2000 demonstrators outside a Florida prison on January 24, 1989 cheered when the serial killer Ted Bundy was executed. His most recent crime had been killing two Chi Omega sorority sisters and battering two others at Florida State on January 14-15, 1978. Ted Bundy killed at least 30 women in Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. Little sympathy was expressed for John Allen Muhammad, half of the D.C. Sniper, when he was executed by Virginia on November 10, 2009 for the 10 murders committed over three weeks in October 2002. An additional three victims were severely wounded in these attacks. James Holmes killed 12 and injured 58 in a shooting spree in an Aurora, Colorado movie theatre on July 20, 2012. His lawyers sought on March 27, 2013 a deal with the Arapahoe County District Attorney, George Braucher, whereby Holmes would plead guilty in exchange for life imprisonment. The DA denied the request, stating he was seeking the death penalty for Holmes. That brings us to the Brother Tsarneav. Tamerlan, named for a brutal conqueror, is dead, but the younger brother, Dzhokhar, is expected to live. Dzhokhar only faces life imprisonment under Massachusetts law, but could face the death penalty under federal law. Massachusetts State Representative James Miceli introduced several days before the Boston Marathon Bombing a bill into the Massachusetts Legislature seeking the reinstatement of capital punishment. Governor Romney had earlier unsuccessfully sought this action in 2005. The Massachusetts House of Representatives voted 119-38 on Tuesday to send the Bill to a committee to study it. The action avoided an up or down vote by the Representatives on capital punishment. Even if enacted, it could not be retroactively applied to Dzhokhar. Dzhokhar is clearly guilty. The only question is if the federal prosecutors will seek the death penalty or settle for life imprisonment. Oklahoma made it clear in the case of Timothy McVeigh that the state would seek the death penalty if the federal government failed to execute McVeigh. That alternative is not available with the younger brother in Massachusetts. This Administration will probably go all the way with Dzkohkar eventhough it has fumbled the case against Major Nidal Malik Hasan. If Dzhokhar escapes with life imprisonment, he will probably spend the rest of his life in Florence, Colorado at the government’s supermax prison, essentially in solitary confinement, sharing the facility with the Unabomber, The Underwear Bomber, the Shoe Bomber, the Times Square Bomber, the Olympic Bomber, Terry Nichols, the 1993 World Trade Center bombers, and a host of drug cartel, Mafia, and gang leaders.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

John Galardi, The Last of California's Fast Food Pioneers: R.I.P.

John Galardi Has Passed Away One cliché is that California sets the trend for America, especially with culture, such as music. This premise was especially true with the rise of fast food restaurants in post World War II California. MacDonalds, Jack in the Box, Carls, Jr., In and Out Burger, and Taco Bell were born in San Bernardino, Los Angeles, and San Diego Counties. Many are now based in Orange County. Del Taco and El Pollo Loco came later. These chains populate the ubiquitous strip malls of Southern California. The MacDonald Brothers and Ray Kroc of MacDonalds, Carl and Margaret Karcher of Carls, Jr., Glen Bell of Taco Bell, Harry and Esther Snyder of In and Out, and Robert Oscar Peterson of Jack in the Box were the pioneers. The last of the pioneers left us earlier this week. John Galardi founded Der Wienerschnitzel in 1961 with a hot dog stand in Wilmington on the PCH. It now has 350 outlets in ten states and Guam, mostly in distinctive A-Frame buildings. Ironies: John Galardi’s first major job in California was working for Glen Bell as he was starting his business, and Carl Karcher also started with a hot dog stand. Galardi’s was the greatest challenge. He had to convince Americans to go out to eat hotdogs, a commodity they could purchase in cheap in packages at the supermarket or convenience stores, and then boil or BBQ at home. No culinary expertise is needed with hot dogs. The hot dog buns are also readily available at supermarkets. Tacos, burritos, and even burgers with fries, sodas or shakes, coupled with Kids Meals can be very attractive to parents. But hot dogs? 120 million hot dogs annually. LA Dogs, Chicago Dogs, Kraut Dogs, Pastrami Dogs, Corn Dogs, but no wiener schnitzel. Galardi’s genius was chili. Forget the mustard or relish; he topped his hot dogs with chili from his secret recipe. Thus, chili dogs and chili cheese dogs are big sellers. His genius was also that only his and the Snyder’s businesses remain in a family corporation. The rest have often gone through several owners. The other sold out early, with the exception of Ray Kroc who had bought out the MacDonalds’ brand name and rights to expand. More recently John appeared in Wienerschnitzel ads, celebrating the chain’s 50th anniversary. Many of the fast food pioneers, including Galardi, became philanthropists. He served California well.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Brothers Tsarnaev and the Paralysis of Fear

A teenager shut down Boston and its environs yesterday: the MTA went nowhere, schools and universities closed, Red Sox and Bruins games cancelled, airspace over Boston closed. Residents were ordered to shelter in place; that is, to stay inside their residences. Boston was silent, except for the sounds of police and fire. A bustling city was still. Such was the power of a wounded nineteen year old who was cowering under a tarp in a boat. Christopher Dorner paralyzed Southern California with fear from February 3-12 earlier this year by killing two innocent civilians and two police officers, while wounding three officers. Such was the power of a crazed ex-cop holed up in a mountain cabin. The D.C. Sniper (John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo) terrorized the Beltway (D.C., Maryland and Virginia) for three weeks in October 2002. People were scared of traveling to Washington, D.C. Such was the power of an unknown assailant engaged in random acts of violence. The odds of being attacked by the Brothers Tsarenaev, Christopher Dorner, or the D.C. Sniper are far less than being in a bad auto accident in Boston, Los Angeles or the Beltway. Yet we willingly accept the risks of driving daily, but are scared stiff of a perpetrator of random acts of violence. Such is the power of fear. Boston was actually safer when locked down. No one had to brave the streets with the crazy Boston drivers (I’ll rather drive in Midtown Manhattan or the 405 during rush hour than in Boston). Boston had great air quality during the lockdown – no dirty auto exhaust fouling the air. Fear can be terrible, irrational, unfounded, but it exists. The irrational fear manifests itself, often in tragic ways. We should be cautious as Londoners were during the years of IRA terror, but they continued with their lives. Be cautious of unattended packages, but don't freeze. Fear can freeze us when we must act. Fear can grip us and deprive us of our senses. It can bring forth primeval emotions. It may possess us. Demagogues appeal to our fears. We have feared leprosy and lepers back to Biblical times. More recently, smallpox, tuberculosis, and polio aroused great fear. AIDS victims, including school children attempting to use a school’s drinking fountain, were ostracized 2-3 decades ago. Ryan White was expelled from middle school in Kokomo, Indiana because he had AIDS, despite medical studies that showed he posed no risk to others. Fear causes us to boycott and sometimes commit violent acts against people of other religions, ethnicities, and national origin. The recent prejudices and fears directed towards Hispanic immigrants were earlier expressed against the Irish and Italians, Jews and Catholics. Fear causes people to burn down halfway houses before they open, and smallpox and tuberculosis houses in the past. Much of nuisance law developed around lawsuits brought against these establishments to block them. Fear expresses itself today in opposition to new developments as opponents pull out a parade of horribles and NIMBYs engage in what if’s. What if this? What if that? All of which are extremely unlikely, but people are susceptible to taking the worse case scenarios as extremely probable. NIMBYs have acted against airports, apartments, bridges, cell towers, churches, dams, donut shops, fast food restaurants, food trucks, golf courses, halfway houses, highways and toll roads, hostels, incinerators, industrial parks, low income housing, pipelines, ports, post offices, power plants, prisons, rehab centers, respite centers, retirement homes, sanitary landfills, schools, solvent recovery centers, stadiums, subdivisions, transmission lines, and wind farms. The result is as much freezing of infrastructure improvements as the citizens of Boston yesterday. Fear can freeze civilization. FDR told us that the only thing to fear is fear itself.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Great Orange County Penis Slicing Trial is Underway

“Lizzie Borden took an axe And gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done She gave her father forty-one.” Catherine Kieu said “You deserve it” thrice And then emasculated her husband with a slice. The tragic terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon and the horrific fertilizer plant explosion and fire in West, Texas have kept attention off the Orange County version of John Wayne and Loretta Bobbitt. Catherine Kieu and Glen B. met in a gym, fell in love, and married on December 29, 2009. Alas, Glen B. filed for divorce in May 2011 after less than a year and half of non-connubial bliss on the grounds of “irreconcilable differences.” Yet they continued to live together in the same condo in Garden Grove, California. Glen put pillows between them when they shared the bed. On the assumption they were separated, he resumed dating a former girlfriend. That was a mistake. They argued about friends staying at the residence. Jealousy reared its ugly, little head. Catherine Kieu, now known as the Orange County Chopper, was enraged. She celebrated Independence Day a week late on July 11, 2011. She cooked him dinner spiced with Ambien. He thought the tofu had a metallic taste, and then drifted asleep. Catherine got him into the bed, and then tied his arms and legs onto the four corners of the bed with nylon ropes. She set up a voice-activated recorder to tape the oncoming festivities. She waited for him to awaken, and then pulled down his pants, grabbed his penis, and pulled out a ten inch, razor sharp kitchen knife. She screamed at him three times “You deserve this” and with but one quick slice severed his penis. She placed the severed member in the garbage disposal and turned on the power. Then she returned to him, stuffed a towel into his bleeding crotch, and called 911 telling the operator her husband was bleeding and confessed to her misdeed. She calmly waited for the police and paramedics to arrive. Catherine is one premeditated sick woman. The responders retrieved the mangled organ from the garbage disposal, but the surgeons were unable to successfully reattach it. The trial began yesterday. She’s charged with aggravated mayhem and torture. She faces life imprisonment because of the knife if convicted. She pled not guilty, essentially relying upon an insanity defense. She’s guilty. Her own tape is devastating. Glen testified “She murdered me that night; I will never have a sex life again.” The Toledo Blade has picked up the story. She’s guilty of violating one of the most sacred unwritten norms of civilization. Even a wandering penis stays attached. Her public defender made two arguments in his opening argument. First, the victim subjected her to verbal and sexual abuse and that she suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome. She grew up in war torn Vietnam. Her mother died when the 50 year old Kieu was 5. Her brother repeatedly raped her when she turned 6. She’s clearly guilty. Reporters said the male jurors showed no interest in her defense and the female jurors displayed no sympathy for her. The trial is expected to last two weeks. Why? Of course, all she needs is one juror for a hung jury. (I was sorely tempted to writ this blog as purely humor with scores of double entrendres, but that would be unfair to Glen B, whose last name is easy to find if you wish). ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- April 30,2013 Update The jury yesterday took only 4 hours to convict her on all counts. She faces 58 years to life at the sentencing hearing on June 28. June 28, 2013 Update Judge Richard Toohey sentenced Catherine Kieu to 7 years to life in prison.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Old San Francisco Neighborhood Remains

Who said “You can’t go back?” I went back Saturday to the old Sunset neighborhood in San Francisco on 46th and Irving. Our fist residence was a cottage on 48th Ave., where I fell down some cement stairs, broke my nose, and started speaking like a New Yorker from the Bronx or Brooklyn, or even perhaps from Boston. My “accent” is in fact a speech defect. The cottage is long gone. The cool ocean breeze is the same. Actually, I don’t have a neighborhood; we lived all over the city, but the first home my mom bought was 4443 Irving. We lived there a number of years. I walked several blocks to Francis Scott Key Elementary School. No parent in his or her right mind should let their child walk that distance today to school at that young age. It’s too dangerous. The wood clad house is still there, as beautiful as ever as it stands out, albeit set back, from the surrounding, nondescript, pedestrian, drab homes of the 1950’s built wall to wall on 25’ X 100’ lots. Kiddie corner on the opposite corner for decades was the Busy Bee Market. San Francisco seemingly had corner markets on every block. It is now a surf shop. The Surf Theatre sat next to the Busy Bee Market. We used to watch the Saturday double features of Hollywood B movies, especially westerns and other action movies. The Surf survived for a time as an art movie house, but is now a church. The third corner was a chicken slaughtering house, where customers bought fresh chickens and eggs. It later became a pre-school. It’s now a three story building with the Happy Feet sleepware shop. The real market area was on Judah, a block away, from 46th to 44th Avenues. The bus and trolley stops are still there. The northwest corner of 46th and Judah was a Safeway. It’s been a 7-11 for seemingly forever since then. Kiddie corner from Safeway was a small pharmacy. The other two corners were small grocery stores. The Western Grocery on the Northeast corner is still there, now named the Western Sunset Grocery. It looks like it hasn’t changed in six decades. The other grocery, where the owner provided credit and played Christmas music over the Holidays, and where my mom sent me to buy cartons of cigarettes, is gone as is the pharmacy. I don’t remember much about the street from 46th to 45th up from the Western Grocery, except for a restaurant on the block and a pet store around the corner on 45th. A restaurant is on Judah, but with a glorified frontage, next to a tattoo shop. Also on the block are a cleaners and general store. The opposite side of Judah had a Laundromat on 45th, a butchershop, the Glen Five and Dime Variety Store, and an ice cream shop on the 44th St. corner. The Laundromat is still there, but the rest have been replaced by a café, employee owned food coop, and a juice bar on the corner. Across the street on 45th and Judah was a gas station, next to a large neighborhood pharmacy where we bought ten cent comics, which would probably be worth something today if we still had them. The gas station became an auto repair shop, and is now sitting there, abandoned, enclosed by a fence. The pharmacy is no more, replaced by a dental office and Mango Merry deserts. The small fire station on 45th between Irving and Judah remains, but the fire engine is double parked on the street while the station has cars parked inside. Two larger establishments on 48th Avenue have disappeared, replaced by residential buildings. Between Judah and Kirkland, close to Judah, was an ice skating rink. You could smell the ammonia as you walked by. On the other side of Irving was a large auto repair shop. One other thing is gone. Since we are talking the 1950's in the Cold War, the foot of Golden Gate Park, a block away, had a mobile radar truck with antiaircraft guns next to it. That would freak out the City Fathers today. You can’t go back to what was, but what is today is mostly the same – small shops, ma and pa operations, geared to the needs of today’s population. It's still a quiet neighborhood, compared to the hustle and bustle further up Irving,Judah, Clement, and Geary. I was pleasantly surprised.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Cautionary Remarks on the Boston Marathon Bombings

The authorities will discover the bomber(s), perhaps not quickly, but they will put the pieces together. Years passed before the BI could discover the identity of the Atlanta Olympic Bomber and the sender of the anthrax letters, after false starts. The choices are either home grown terrorism, state sponsored terrorism, or terrorist group sponsored terrorism. It will come down to 1) a solo nutso, 2) a conspiracy of like minded domestic nutsos, 3) international terrorism, or 4) a sudden Jihad terrorist. Interestingly, no Islamist terrorist group has stepped forward to take credit for the Boston attack. Usually they want the publicity to attract new members. The authorities will also be able to determine the “fingerprints” of the manufacturer. They have probably already pieced together the précis of the bombs. Whoever it was will make a difference in the nation’s response. The country is currently overreacting with security at public venues. That’s normal though as public officials must show they are doing something and fear exists of a subsequent blow. The long term will witness an increase in security, but America cannot be made absolutely secure. America is a country of infinite targets, not all of which can be protected at the same time. Trying to secure every inch of a 26 mile marathon is essentially impossible. The NFL can secure an isolated venue, such as the Super Bowl, and the Secret Service Pennsylvania Avenue during a Presidential Inauguration, but it is impossible, for example, to secure every Fourth of July Parade in small town America or NASCAR race. A terrorist attack, such as 9/11 or the Boston Marathon, receives great attention because of where it occurred. A series of attacks on our nation’s suburbs and small towns could be even more devastating to the American psyche, showing no on e is safe anywhere in this country. In addition, the study of most of these terrorist tragedies, such as 9/11, reveals human error as one cause of the tragedy. People get complacent and careless as time passes by without additional attacks. Human error cannot be totally eliminated. Let us also recognize that while air traffic can be highly secured, other forms of mass transit, such as busses and rail, remain vulnerable. England, Spain, India and Israel certainly understand that. Universities cannot be made secure against guns, knifes, and bombs, but steps can be taken to minimize the risk and to respond rapidly to reduce the victims of an attack. One purpose of improved security is to deter the potential terrorist; let him, and it is almost always a him, move on to a less secure target. The difference between a successful and unsuccessful terrorist attack is often luck. The Times Square Bomber, as well as the Shoe-lace Bomber and the Christmas Day Bomber, made mistakes, fortunately for hundreds of potential victims. The Boston Marathon Bomber did not repeat their mistakes. The reality is that our foreign terrorists are smart; they learn from their mistakes. They figure out how to improve bombs and evade detection. Too much info on building bombs and engaging in other terrorist attacks is available on the internet. New York City has prevented many potential attacks since 9/11 through intelligence and infiltration, perhaps bordering on entrapment on occasion. Many school attacks have been averted because the winnable teenage killers discussed their plans online. Authorities now monitor the internet. As President George W. Bush pointed out on many occasions, the authorities have to succeed every time to be successful; the terrorists only once. The Boston Marathon Terrorist(s) succeeded the one time, but not the last time.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The New Lowell High School Celebrated Its 50th Anniversary Yesterday

The new Lowell High School celebrated its 50th anniversary yesterday. The new Lowell is the same as the old Lowell, except it moved to a new building on a 23 acre campus miles from the former block wide site on Hays and Masonic. Lowell High School was founded in 1856 in the early days of California and Anglo San Francisco. This is the fourth Lowell as the school followed the population outward from downtown into the avenues. The previous Lowell, the old red brick building on Masonic should not be confused with the smaller red brick building a few blocks away, the Catholic home for unwed mothers. Both red brick buildings exhausted their use around the same time. As students, we never knew of, much less appreciated, the struggles and political battles the principle, Jasper A. Perino, waged to get the new Lowell built. Lowell has periodically fought battles with the other high schools, who are jealous of its success. The ole brick building was past its usefullness. Indeed, the top floor was cordoned off because of seismic concerns after we moved out. I was privileged to spend a year and a half at both the old and new Lowells. The new Lowell is at 1101 Eucalyptus Drive, a distinguished address, but the building is an undistinguished, unmemorable 1962 edifice. An institution though does not achieve greatness because of its facilities, or even the furnishings or technology, inside. The first clue that this high school is different is the name on the auditorium, The Carol Channing Auditorium. Greatness is achieved by the people, the wise administrators, supporting staff, great teachers, and brilliant, hardworking students – all of which Lowell has in droves, clothed in a tradition of 150 years of academic excellence. Lowell is a special high school. It is the oldest public high School west of the Mississippi river, older than any of California’s great universities. It is consistently ranked among the nation's best high schools. Unlike most of the schools ahead of it on the lists, it is not a small academy or charter school, but rather a large high school with 2,600 students. It is a school of academic excellence with Berkeley historically being the safety school. Berkeley, MIT, Stanford and the Ivies are common for Lowell grads. Lowell remains the largest feeder school for the University of California. Admissions officers at the nation’s top colleges and universities know Lowell. Lowell grads include Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, Rick Levin, the outgoing President of Yale, William Hewlett of HP, Rube Goldberg, Marty Links, Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket), Pierre Salinger, Alexander Calder, Dian Fossey, Naomi Wolf, Bill Bixby, three Nobel laureates, and a host of movers and shakers in the history of San Francisco and California. Several Lowell grads were the gold medalists at Berkeley, the top undergraduates at graduation. Lowell grads were in the inaugural class at Stanford, convincing Stanford to adopt Lowell’s colors, red and white, and its mascot, the Indian. Lowell and Stanford have since migrated to the cardinal. How special is Lowell? How many alumni of another public high school would return to honor a 50 year old building? Somewhere between 750-1,000 turned out yesterday for Lowell. In the face of draconian budget cuts for the San Francisco schools, Lowell alumni have provided over $1.75 million in support over the past 5 years to sustain academic programs. How many other public high schools have such a record of generous alumni support? Lowell became a magnet school, before magnet schools existed. It is a school of academic excellence that San Francisco parents seeking academic success for their children seek to send their children. About 65% of the student population is Asian American today with over 50% Chinese American. They are but the latest of generations of San Franciscans seeking the American Dream, the Irish and Italians, the Jews, the Chinese, and to a lesser extent Hispanics and African Americans. Lowell was under a consent decree for a number of years. It had to restrict the admissions of Asian American students in preference to African American and Hispanics. The decree was lifted. Much of Lowell remains the same, except for the unisex faculty bathroom (This is San Francisco, after all). This new Lowell could never be built today. It separates Lake Merced from an affluent, quiet residential neighborhood. Today's residents would sue to stop the development. California, being California, no longer allows junk food to be sold on campus. The school cafeteria was closed, but four food trucks, with both healthy and unhealthy food and beverages, were parked outside the Lowell entrance. San Francisco is deservedly ranked as one of the world's greatest cities. Lowell represents the best of San Francisco.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The TSA Groper and I: The Seattle Patdown

I've waited several days before composing this blog. One should always calm down before touching the send or post button. We’ve all heard of the TSA Follies, and perhaps seen some of the videos – the toddler, grandma, and celebrity/politician patdowns, and confiscations. We know the screeners have a tough job trying to prevent another 9/11. Yet, some are overzealous, or worse. I encountered one last Sunday in flying from Istanbul to Orange County via Paris and Seattle. I may be one of the few travellers who liked the “x-ray” screeners. My knee replacement will automatically set off the metal detector. If it doesn’t, something is wrong with the setting of the metal detector. I signal to the screeners that my knee will set off the machine, which it does. The response will, of course, be some sort of patdown or wand screening, perhaps even with a chemical patch swab. No problem – I get to airports early in case of delays. And snafus. Last Sunday in Seattle was different. An older “gentleman” (the term is used loosely), who looked creepy, commenced a long, slow, through patdown, including pulling open the waist band and sending his long fingers down to the “package.” He suffered from a case of lingering fingers. I’m sure TSA would utter the usual patter that he was simply acting within the prescribed TSA guidelines. None of the other TSA gents paid attention. This cretin was either extremely diligent or grossly “overzealous.” He may also simply have been stupid. Mind you, I had previously gone through security at Amsterdam and Paris earlier in the day. This was the security check after you leave passport control and customs before returning to the main terminal. There must be a presumption that as you retrieve your suitcases for customs you will pull out, amidst the crowds and video cameras, a dangerous item, such as a pocket knife which TSA is proposing to legalize. The groper didn’t find anything. It wasn't embarrassingly or humiliating - just troublesome.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

What have I missed?

We’ve been away for ten days out of touch with America. Have we missed anything? We were busy. Seven full days in Istanbul and three days traveling. No English newspapers, not my daily dose of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, or Orange County Register. No Fox News, MSNBC or CNN (except a Turkish CNN). No local news, Justified, Glee, Psych, CSI, Vegas, Golden Boy, Elementary, or Monday Mornings. No Sig Alerts Access to the internet was limited due to time constraints - barely access to headlines and perusing emails. What did I miss? Did President Obama begin to govern rather than campaign and cavort? Did the Obama deliver any memorable speech, perhaps about the dismal employment numbers? Has a grand bargain on the budget been reached? Has any budget deal been reached? Has any deal been reached on anything? Did the President broker a deal on gun control with the recalcitrant Senate Democrats? Has he reached a deal on immigration reform? Did he, and not Vice President Joe Biden, misspeak? Has anyone seen Vice President Biden? Did Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid utter another of his Reidisms? Did Iran or North Korea do anything stupid? Has California really solved its budget problems? Has Mayor Bloomberg announced new new nanny regulations? Have more green companies failed? Is the Michigan Legislature going to punish the University of Michigan for extending its union contracts prior to the March 28 commencement of Right to Work? Is ObamaCare proceeding steady on course or is it imploding on its internal contradictions? Will the President even learn that mass transfers of wealth ultimately impoverish all? Sequester? What sequester? What’s happening in the NBA? Did the Lakers stumble into the playoffs? Which celebrities screwed up while we were gone? “Nobody ever died for Dear Old Rutgers,” but why is the Athletic Department and Administration falling on their swords? Did my students miss me the past week? 10 pounds of bulk mail were waiting for us on our return. I did not miss that. Above all, how could I not watch the last three Michigan (Florida, Kansas, Syracuse) victories into the NCAA finals? That’s what I missed!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Impressions of Istanbul

I love history. Istanbul is a living history tableau, a mosaic of the past and present. Istanbul is a modern city built on a 9,000 year old foundation, following the footsteps of the Greeks, Romans, early Christians, Byzantines and Ottomans, walking in the steps of Jason and the Argonauts, Marc Anthony, Constantine, Justinian and Theodora, Sultan Mehmet II, Suleyman the Great, Sinan, the emperors and sultans, Ataturk, Trotsky, James Bond and Barbara Nadel, stepping on their cobblestone streets, entering their classic buildings, churches, and mosques, riding the fabled Orient Express, all that in a booming city of 16 – 20 million, a soaring feral cat population and wandering dogs. The crossroads of the ancient world, much of its history, including the Early Church, is Turkey. It's preserved for all to see, visit, marvel, and spend at great historic structures and museums. Marc Anthony did not go through passport control or drive in Istanbul. The palace tours - do the harems; visualize the intrigues and schemes as each wife and concubine attempted by hook or crook, or poison, to anoint her son as the heir to the sultan. Imagine the castrated eunuchs finding other ways of satisfying the Sultan’s women. Ottoman Architecture is more than Mosques and Palaces. If Paris is the City of Light, then Istanbul is the City of Universities, 36 in all. The Sultans advanced the arts and sciences. The world ranked Istanbul Institute of Technology opened its doors in 1773, making it older than almost all American universities. Turkey believes in educating women. They in turn have become highly successful professionals in the country, including a female prime minister. Some other Islamic countries could learn from Turkey. The Hagia Sophia and the mosques reached up to God and Allah. They are now dwarfed by the soaring skyscapers, except in the Old City, reaching for manna from Heaven. If England is the land of shopkeepers, then Istanbul is the city of a million entrepreneurs, large and small. The Turks are a proud, hardy, resilient, driven people, always rushing even while walking. Istanbul is a massive gridlock, but it moves. The speed limit is the flow of traffic. The city has a large, efficient but crowded mass transit system of light rail, busses, and ferries. Americans could survive, but barely, on American brands: CitiBank, Dominos and Pizza Hut, and even Papa Johns, Arby’s, Burger King and McDonalds, KFC, Krispy Crème (Yes, Krispy Crème), Coke and Pepsi, Doritos, Ruffles, Lays and Pringles, Avis, Budget and Hertz, Ford, Chevrolet and Jeep, Goodyear, Gray Lines, Kodak, Levi's, Tommy Hilfiger, the Gap, Nine West, Johnson & Johnson Baby Wipes, Sealy and Serta, and Victoria Secrets, Best Western, Marriott, Hilton, Renaissance, Sheraton, Wyndham, Miller Beer and Johnny Walker, and a galleria with a ice skating rink. And a Trump Tower. Autos alien to America are Citroen, Dacia, Fiat, Opel, Peugeot, Renault, and Mercedes trucks and busses. Vehicles alien to Turkey are pickup trucks and SUV's. Look out for the Gypsy cab or cabbie. We gave a 50 and a 20 lira to a cabbie for a fare. He claimed we weren’t paying him enough and showed us a 5 and 20. He had palmed our 50 replacing it with his 5. He’s good. He looked like one of the Balkan thugs in a James bond Movie. Istanbul is 20% of Turkey’s population, but is responsible for 40% of the GDP. Construction is the big industry. 70% of the population live in residences built in the past 30 years, not all designed for seismic safety. The fabled LA Sprawl is minor compared to the tentacles reaching out from the city center and climbing the hills, especially into ASIA with commutes of 2 hours becoming the norm. One new development will have almost 5,000 units Istanbul is a clean city, except for the ubiquitous cigarette butts, with its share of air and water pollution issues, and carbonic acid falling in the rain. Hovels are surrounded by high rises, but you don’t see the abject poverty present in other countries. The city has streets and boulevards, miles long, that echo the Lower East Side of a century ago and the modern Rodeo Drive. The Princes' Islands Archipelago Chain bans cars, just like Catalina and Mackinac Islands in the states. Long stretches of public recreation, beaches and parks line the Asian coastline, but not so much the European side and the Bosporus. The proud Turks are competing for the 2020 Olympics. Best wishes. American football has the Turk, but the Besiktas Football Club is over 100 years old. Istanbul is a city where the locals say you can easily get everything you don’t need. We have Turkish belly dancers, Turkish coffee, Turkish culture, Turkish cuisine, Turkish Delights, Turkish baths and spas, Turkish Tea, Turkish tobacco, and the Grand Bazaar. Above all, we have Turkish Hospitality.