Showing posts with label #Newspapers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #Newspapers. Show all posts

Friday, April 14, 2023

Red States, Blue Cities, Dynamic America.

"President Barack Obama and Cabinet."
White House East Room, September 10, 2009.
via Wikimedia Commons.

In today's New York Times, David Brooks discusses the trend of people migrating from blue states to red states in the US. Between 2010 and 2020, the fastest-growing states were mostly red, such as Texas, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and South Carolina. This growth is attributed to lower taxes, fewer restrictions on home construction, lower housing prices, and more pro-business policies. However, the growth in red states is concentrated in metro areas, often blue cities in red states. The dynamic success stories are a result of a red-blue policy mix where Republicans provide a business-friendly climate and Democrats influence education, social services, and civic atmosphere. The column argues that no political party is currently embracing this policy blend, which has proven effective in creating a dynamic and cosmopolitan society. The author suggests that the Democratic Party's growing strength in Southwestern states could potentially give rise to a new kind of Democrat that promotes this policy mix.

David Brook's career began as a police reporter in Chicago, and he recognizes the significant impact it had on his perspectives. His experiences on the crime beat shifted his views from a more liberal standpoint to a more conservative one. Brooks seems to be highly conscious of the concept of black-and-white morality, which leads him to seek a balanced approach where both sides of an argument have valid points. In essence, Brooks proposes that a third option, which incorporates ideas from both sides, is often attainable.

Here, I think Brooks misses some of the essential characteristics of how cabinet-style dynamics function, which I generally accept as a starting point for analysis of most government decisionmaking. In "The English Constitution," Walter Bagehot highlights the significance of blending old and new minds in the British parliamentary cabinet system for effective governance, emphasizing the importance of secrecy and trust in maintaining unity and functionality. By combining experienced ministers' continuity and institutional knowledge with new ministers' fresh ideas and energy, the cabinet can adapt to changing circumstances and address contemporary issues. Secrecy ensures confidential cabinet discussions and disagreements, fostering open dialogue and consensus-based decisions. Trust among cabinet members is essential for upholding collective responsibility and loyalty, even when personal disagreements occur. Ultimately, Bagehot argues that the balance of experience and innovation, combined with secrecy and trust, contributes to the effective functioning of the government.

Bagehot argues that the most dangerous person to a cabinet government is the disloyal insider. A disloyal insider can undermine the collective responsibility principle, where all ministers must publicly support cabinet decisions, even if they personally disagreed during internal discussions. By breaking this trust and revealing confidential information or dissenting opinions, the disloyal insider can weaken the solidarity and unity of the cabinet, disrupt its decision-making process, and potentially harm the government's credibility and stability. Thus, Bagehot emphasizes that disloyal insiders pose a significant threat to the cabinet government's effectiveness and overall political structure.

Bagehot's central argument highlights the importance of consensus in a government composed of both cautious old minds and and fresh energetic ones. Brooks fails to consider that a political party's drive to act stems from their shared values and the aspiration to advance them. Brooks appears to suggest that experienced and fresh minds together would embrace a logical compromise on the very shared values that unite them. However, it is more probable that both groups would view this approach as flawed and dismiss those promoting it.

Brooks doesn't offer realistic solutions for a feasible third way, and his argument appears at odds with the realities of media influence and political communication. Rather than individuals blending positions, a stronger argument would recognize that blue cities in red states play a vital role in holding their governments accountable, encouraging debate, and preventing complacency in the ruling red-state governments. By remaining committed to the nation and their democratic values, these blue cities enhance the political system's stability and effectiveness while pushing the red-state governments to improve and refine their policies. Ultimately a stronger America emerges from that dynamism, as has been noted in the Economist recently. 

Thursday, April 13, 2023

A Salty Solution to Lithium Woes?

"Containerized Vanadium Flow Battery"
UniEnergy Technologies
via Wikimedia Commons.

The New York Times' Keith Bradsher writes today about the development in China of batteries that use sodium instead of lithium, a far cheaper and more abundant material. Sodium batteries have the advantage of keeping almost all of their charge when temperatures fall far below freezing, which is an issue for lithium batteries. Recent breakthroughs mean that sodium batteries can now be recharged daily for years, which has been a key advantage of lithium batteries.

Sodium batteries are being developed at Central South University in Changsha. Chinese companies are leading the way in commercializing the technology, and they have figured out in the past year how to make sodium battery cells so similar to lithium ones that they can be made with the same equipment.

A significant challenge, however, is where to get the sodium. While salt is abundant, the United States accounts for over 90 percent of the world’s readily mined reserves for soda ash, the main industrial source of sodium (Chinese ventures generally use expensive synthetic soda ash). Another question hanging over sodium is whether lithium will remain costly. Lithium prices quadrupled from 2017 to last November, but have since dropped by two-thirds.

As Bradsher notes, utility companies could benefit from using sodium batteries, but they face unique challenges due to the regulated nature of their operations. These companies have to plan well in advance because they need regulatory approval to recover costs and adjust prices. Furthermore, utility assets like power plants and transmission lines can last for decades. Many of the facts that need to be ascertainable for utilities to implement sodium batteries are still question marks, as there's no prior history or long-term operational record.

Batteries are an increasingly important technology and the investment is definitely news. It's a tough area for a reporter to work in because a pair of the subjects (Technology, China) have familiar tropes that can get in the way. The national security implications of battery technology, though, do appear to be ones that the United States is taking seriously, as NPR's All Things Considered reported in August of 2022 in the case of vanadium redox flow batteries. Batteries are a component of green energy, and expecting foreign direct product rules to come into effect concerning the same may be a mere matter of time.

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Carriage Court in Santa Rosa.

"A mobile home park in West Miami, Florida"
By Dr Zak
In Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 

Carriage Court, a mobile home park for seniors in Santa Rosa, it is reported today by the Press Democrat's Marisa Endicott, is being converted to an all-ages park by new management company Harmony Communities. The company claims that the change is necessary for the park to stay afloat and make a profit. However, residents are concerned about potential displacement and culture shift, as many of them rely on fixed incomes and have limited options if costs increase. The change comes in response to Santa Rosa's new mobile home rent control ordinance, which limits how much park owners can raise rent, according to Nick Ubaldi, regional manager for Harmony Communities. 

Residents are also worried about Harmony Communities' track record of litigation over evictions and rent increases. The company is involved in multiple lawsuits across the state and has a reputation for strict rule enforcement and eviction attempts. The Golden State Manufactured-home Owners League has noted that Harmony's "reputation is terrible." The director of communications for Harmony Communities identifies as a crude epithet, Heywood Jablóm, a false name and a classic sign of a bad actor. Indeed, Mariah Thompson, a staff attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance, noted that Harmony Communities will "often just see what they can get away with[.]” 

Mobile home parks, especially in American culture, are stereotypically viewed as lower-income housing for occupants living at or below the poverty line who have low social status. As Wikipedia notes, despite the advances in trailer home technology, the image survives. Residents, especially the elderly, can be targets for unscrupulous business practices. 

Here, Ubaldi is contending that an updated rent control ordinance, designed to protect senior citizens, is in fact the source of senior citizens' distress. This is an obvious attempt to reverse victim and offender, which is harmful to the democratic process, beyond the specific harm it inflicts on the residents of Carriage Court. Sowing confusion and undermining accountability only weakens the norms we all rely upon to effectively address our housing crisis, which is bad and getting worse. Ideas, like housing, are more of a public good, like a forest, than a commercial context, like a marketplace.  We all must recognize that public discourse is vulnerable to the same damage that can be suffered by the woods should the balance between individual advantage and long-term sustainability be violated callously.

Monday, April 10, 2023

Attendance, Housing, and Basic Aid.

 Sonoma County's 40 public school districts continue to see attendance declines. The lack of housing and a steadily declining birth rate are among the factors contributing to the decline. Sonoma County is predicted to experience a 16.9% enrollment drop by 2031, the fourth worst in California, as reported by the Press Democrat. In the past five years, Sonoma Valley has already experienced an 18.9% decrease in attendance, and as a trustee, I am familiar with the very profound changes that can cause. 

The article elides past some distinctions that are worth noting. First, school funding in California is based on attendance (the so-called "ADA," or average daily attendance), not enrollment (ADA is usually about 90% of enrollment, although there is a lot of variation).  Paying attention to the attendance figure will be the more reliable indicator of the state of school finance going forward in Sonoma County. 

Second, and related to the first point, is that as of November 2022, 16 of the 40 school districts in Sonoma County were "basic aid" districts, whose revenues do not change with either attendance or enrollment. In 2021‑22, the state had 118 basic aid school districts (about 13 percent of all districts).  As attendance continues to drop, more and more Sonoma County districts will become basic aid. Basic aid will increasingly be the default rule in Sonoma County. These districts (like Sonoma Valley) will ironically end up with more money per student given declining attendance, which is why many of these districts may very well not be interested in district consolidation intended to cut costs, as such consolidation would in fact reduce per-student funding.  There are a number of these districts in San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Marin counties, those counties having had many of the same housing issues as Sonoma County for a longer period of time, and the trend in those counties has generally been against consolidation of districts.   

A final point, which comes up here from time to time. "Affordable Housing" is a term of art in many respects, and while there is a shortage of housing that can be afforded in Sonoma County by most people, that is different from "Affordable Housing." Sonoma County just lacks housing, period. Narrowing the issue using the term of art is probably not the most helpful, because it obscures the fact that the response to the crisis needs to be comprehensive.

Monday, April 3, 2023

Grayer Angels.

Kim, Richard. (2012, June 22). The Nation. 
In a recent Press Democrat article, Phil Barber discusses Braver Angels, an organization run and co-founded by David Blankenhorn, who was a proponent of Proposition 8, which was designed to ban same-sex marriage. Notwithstanding that, the article seeks to present Braver Angels in a positive light, discussing a recent meeting held in Petaluma. But Barber fails to address Blankenhorn's past actions, which may contribute to the very polarization the organization seeks to remedy.

Some background on Blankenhorn's work illuminates the issue. As Richard Kim noted in his piece in the Nation, Blankenhorn's Institute for American Values "has attacked single mothers, championed federal marriage promotion as welfare policy, railed against cohabitation and no-fault divorce, and opposed access to new reproductive technologies. One of his institute’s latest crusades has been against anonymous sperm donors (because they lead to “fatherless” children, an abiding preoccupation of his)." This amounts to a comprehensive assault on some of the most powerless groups in our society, with little evidence to support the positions themselves.

The article takes a one-sided approach to highlighting Braver Angels' stated mission to bridge the political divide through dialogue, empathy, and understanding. With 92 chapters and events in all 50 states, the organization seems to target an older demographic, as evidenced by its appeal to the rapidly growing gray population in America. However, this approach has obvious limitations with younger generations, who face unique challenges and navigate their social and political lives through social media and identity-driven communities.

Young people today grapple with unprecedented economic hurdles and may feel alienated by Braver Angels' workshops, which cater to an older generation that enjoyed greater economic stability. Participating in these workshops could very well exacerbate young people's feelings of financial insecurity and anxiety. Furthermore, young people often engage with political discussions through the lens of their identity, which they defend and support in online communities. Braver Angels' approach, then, might feel more like (and might indeed be) an attempt to dismantle a protective shield rather than extend a hand of understanding. There are some members of the local community, such as Mary Munat, who are involved in the organization, who are trusted, and who I think mean well. But given the group's president's past and continuing actions, and the fact that nearly 10% of the money raised by the organization goes directly to Blankenhorn, it is tough to see how such concerns can be mitigated. 

Acknowledging the unique challenges faced by younger generations, such as economic insecurities and the importance of identity, is critical in seeking to create a more inclusive and resonant political discussion. Only then can we genuinely bridge the troublesome divide that so many have come to recognize is our central challenge to furthering public trust, without which all efforts in government come to naught. 

Friday, March 31, 2023

@TheEconomist and @duncanrobinson on #RoaldDahl.

Puffin, the publisher of Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, etc.), recently edited some of Dahl’s works for sensitivity, removing words such as "fat," "flabby," "ugly," and "Kipling." This act, which sparked a backlash, it is argued by Bagehot, the Economist’s British politics columnist (Economist articles are traditionally unsigned, but this one is by Duncan Robinson) is part of a broader trend in British publishing, where books are being censored or dropped, and sensitivity readers are employed to ensure adherence to modern morals.

Roald Dahl, 1954. 

While the right to prepare derivative works is at the core of copyright, the editing of Dahl's work by Puffin, a Penguin imprint, is argued to be just one symptom of a deeper issue in the publishing world. Making an impressive leap, Bagehot contends the argument that suppression of speech is only a problem in totalitarian states fails to recognize the "veiled censorship" in British publishing. There is an orthodoxy that right-thinking people are expected to accept without question, and resistance to the same leads (at least in the mind of the columnist) to being silenced with surprising effectiveness.

Publishers, in an attempt to look likable, often panic and preempt offense, leading to the removal or editing of content. However, this nervousness and desire to look nice can have nasty results, as it stifles creativity and prevents important discussions from taking place. The observation that the publishing industry is susceptible to peer pressure sounds in truth, as any observer of media generally is keenly aware of herd effects and the power of groupthink in the industry.

Where the columnist goes awry (and this is perhaps to be expected for a print journalist) is that there are a variety of means where unorthodox ideas can reach a broader audience. If anything, the rise of misinformation through alternative channels presents far broader problems for democracy than were ever perceived twenty to thirty years ago. Editors and publishers are not all wrong, and sometimes, they are even right as a group. I feel I can understand both the germ of the argument and the (veiled?) frustration of the writer given the unique power of publishing in certain professional and cultural circles. Sending ideas out into the world in book form is a form of professional and social recognition oftentimes far exceeding the economic import of such an activity.

Given the foregoing, I think the argument advanced, and particularly the vignette of how the suppressive mechanism works, is powerful. “What is striking is how apparently mild the sanctions are for speaking out … what really terrifies you is that your colleagues will think a little less of you. Most people do not require the threat of being burned at the stake to shut them up; being flamed by their peers … is more than enough.” Nudges in favor of conformity are often powerful precisely due to their superficial innocuousness – a timeless observation if there ever was one.

Monday, March 27, 2023

Questions from the Press, March 27, 2023.

 As has come up here from time to time, I serve as a trustee of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District, in the northern part of the San Francisco Bay Area. My practice is to post answers I am asked by the press in that capacity, because the amount of information that can be conveyed by a newspaper is necessarily limited. On Monday March 27, I received the following questions from Dan Johnson, a reporter for the Sonoma Index-Tribune (Sonoma County has three "major" newspapers, the I-T, the Petaluma Argus-Courier and the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, all of which are owned and controlled by the same company). I have printed his questions and my written answers to them below. The questions concerned the realignment of our District, which is often reduced down in practical terms to which schools sites will continue to operate, and which will not, given declining attendance. 


 1. During the portion about School district reconfiguration, did the board decide to end student enrollment at Dunbar and enroll its students at other districts beginning in the 2023-24 school year? Was a vote taken, and if so who supported and did not support this?

 No. The agenda was changed at the start of the meeting, and that item was struck on a 3-2 vote. Trustees Knox, Winders and I voted to strike the item.

 2. Were any other decisions made regarding reconfiguration of the district in 2023-24 or any subsequent years?


 3. What did you feel were the main points made during the Perkins-Eastman presentation?

 The trustees, after extensive discussion, focused on Scenario 1A provided by the Perkins Eastman consultants, which would see the Dunbar campus made available to Woodland Star Charter, with middle schoolers at Altimira, and Prestwood remaining open. This would be the 3-1-1 alignment discussed previously, where the three District elementary schools would be Flowery, El Verano and Prestwood, the middle school would be at the Altimira campus, and the Broadway site for SVHS and Creekside. I have attached the "skittle" graphic illustrating this alignment below.

 The board gave direction to staff to answer two questions at the April 20th meeting, first, what are the costs to retrofit Altimira as estimated by the engineers versus the costs to expand Adele Harrison, and second, what are the pros and cons, and costs, of moving to a 7-8 middle school model, with 6th graders remaining at elementary sites. The board gave direction to staff bring a motion for the trustees to act on April 20th to realign the District in this fashion, with discretionary language included regarding choosing Altimira or Adele as the District's middle school, and with discretionary language included regarding shifting to a 7-8 middle school model. The Board also gave direction to staff to implement the timeline over two academic years, with the Dunbar campus being addressed in academic year 23-24, and the remaining realignment in academic year 24-25.

 4. During the school safety discussion, did the board discuss whether or not to bring the SRO program back? Was this topic agendized for the April board meeting?

 In the proposed scenario, what would happen to Sassarini, Adele Harrison and Sonoma Charter School? No, the board did not discuss whether to bring the SRO program back. No, the topic was not agendized by the board for April 20th. Staff informed the trustees that there is a trustee request that the SRO be agendized for April 20, and I believe the request is from Trustee Landry.

 5. What did you feel were the main points made during the school safety discussion?

 The materials for that agenda item were not provided in advance to the trustees. This violated our norm of "no surprises." Further, there was no description of the item in any way, including the minimal description required by the Brown Act. The materials were also not provided to the public in advance. These procedural failures necessarily limited discussion. There was no explanation offered by the Board President for why the item was added to the agenda without this routine and ordinary requirements being met. 

 In the room, Director of Educational Services Jillian Beall gave a presentation on statistics regarding incidents of student discipline, which are down by 58% this academic year versus last. However, suspensions are up by 11%, and there have been five (5) expulsions, versus just one (1) in the previous academic year. 

 Sonoma County Sheriff's Office (SCSO) Lieutenant Brandon Cutting (who also serves as Sonoma's Chief of Police) gave a report on handling emergencies at SVUSD campuses, including discussing the general aspects of the prepared responses of the SCSO to school sites located in the County portion of SVUSD, and then in the City. The specifics were not included for operational reasons. Because the meeting ran quite long the agenda item was concluded at approximately 2:45 without discussion of the SRO and without any listening circles being conducted regarding school safety. 

 6. Would you like to say anything else?

 On March 9, and again yesterday, members of the public showed up and treated the school board meeting as a "sporting event," cheering and booing positions with which they supported or disagreed. This is unacceptable behavior from members of the public. The Board President must instruct members of the public to either maintain decorum or excuse themselves from the room, especially when she agrees with their position. Individual school board members should never have to use points of order to ensure effective uninterrupted conduct of the meeting, which indeed did happen on Saturday.


 Shortly thereafter, Dan Johnson asked the following additional question, which I answered as well.

 7. In the proposed scenario, what would happen to Sassarini, Adele Harrison and Sonoma Charter School?

 The trustees requested a motion be prepared that is specifically focused on what facilities will be used by SVUSD for its existing instructional program, with an emphasis on cutting waste. The board gave no direction for a motion to be drafted to repurpose any of the sites you referenced and I do not expect such a motion on April 20.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Questions from the Press.

At the Niners-Saints Game, Nov 27, 2022. 

 I serve as a trustee of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District, in the northern part of the San Francisco Bay Area. In that capacity, sometimes the press asks me questions about a given subject. I generally prefer when they do that in writing, because I can answer the questions and post them, so that constituents and stakeholders can see not just what was put in the newspaper, but the context of the conversations. 

 I think that making sure the press gets answers is important. I don't know of anyone who has figured out how to make a democracy work without newspapers. Press freedom is properly the fourth protection guaranteed in the First Amendment for a reason.

 On Tuesday December 6, I received the following questions from Dan Johnson, a reporter for the Sonoma Index-Tribune (Sonoma County has three "major" newspapers, the I-T, the Petaluma Argus-Courier and the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, all of which are owned and controlled by the same company). I have printed his questions and my written answers to them below. The questions concerned the settlement of a dispute between the school district and the local construction trades council (a group of construction unions, such as electricians, plumbers, and carpenters, amongst others).   

So, without further ado:

1. Why did you vote in favor of the settlement?

It seemed to me that the general sense of the board was that the agreement was in the interests of the District, and I agreed with that evaluation. 

2. What is your reaction to the passing of it? Were you surprised? 

The PSA that was approved had been discussed for some months by the attorney representing the District and the attorney representing the building trades, and the final document reflected careful work by both lawyers. Given that the District and the building trades had told their attorneys to try to come to an agreement, I think that the success of the negotiation, and ultimate approval of the proposed PSA resulting therefrom, is not a surprise.

3. How will the settlement help the district?
I think that the agreement will provide jobs that prioritize a locally based skilled and trained workforce, and joint apprenticeship opportunities for Sonoma Valley students. These joint apprenticeship opportunities will afford students access to career pathway options that will provide family supporting wages, healthcare and retirement benefits, and the ability to live and work in their own community. 

4. Do you think that critics of the settlement made some valid points, and if so, what were they?

I thank the members of our community who took the time to share their thoughts with the board, both those who were in favor and those who were against. The democratic process depends upon constituents and stakeholders taking the time to express their beliefs. I don't have any other comment in response to this question. 

5. It seems to me that the two main changes in the ultimate agreement are shortening the agreement to five years and covering all work costing more than $212,500, rather than $50,000. Were there other significant changes in the agreement?

Regarding the specific changes from the agreement passed on 11-17-20, the issue was briefed by our attorney, Glenn Gould, for the board, and I would point you to that presentation. 

6. How could this process have been handled better by the board?

The settlement was handled in the fashion that one would expect. The board received legal advice that was of high quality, and acted accordingly. 

7. Several trustees said that they felt it was time to move on and focus on the needs of the students? Do you share this feeling?

I am always focused on the needs of our students. As far as my fellow trustees are concerned, I believe their words speak for themselves. 

8. How will the board be able to deal better with such matters in the future?

This was the final act of this board, and it will have no other matters to deal with in the future. 

9. Would you like to say anything else?


10. I’m wondering how the changes I mentioned in question No. 5 came about. It seemed that The North Bay Building Construction and Trades Council opposed negotiating with SVUSD about the agreement, and yet two main concessions were made. Did the council end up negotiating with SVUSD attorneys?

After Sonoma Valley Unified lost twice in court hearings, Michael Allen, a former state assemblyman and representative of the building trades, reached out to the District to see if a compromise could be reached, which was what led to the settlement. 

11. Initially, the document was referred to as a project labor agreement, but at some point, it began being referred to as a project stabilization agreement. Why the change and what did it mean?

It has always been referred to as a project stabilization agreement. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

@TheEconomist on a hybrid #VirtualParliament.

"Back to Abnormal"
Bagehot, The Economist, April 25, 2020
available at
This past week the Economist's Bagehot columnist wrote about the implementation of what are Zoom meetings for the United Kingdom's House of Commons, and some of the practical consequences. Adrian Wooldridge writes the column at this time. It is named after Walter Bagehot, a former editor of the Economist and author of "The English Constitution" (one of the books I kept from undergrad). He's also known for his rule for central bankers in a panic from "Lombard Street ("lend freely and at a penalty rate"). Both have been very practical of late, given COVID-19.

I wonder how we will regard the hybrid approach described herein in a few years.  While change has come for everyone, not least the "Mother of Parliaments" (churches were closed in the UK this year for Easter for the first time since apparently 1218), the piece makes clear the essential work that elected officials must do to support newspapers in their efforts to scrutinize the government. In the UK it is essentially only MPs that possess the combination of three critical tools -- they may ask written questions that the relevant ministers are obliged to answer, they have detailed knowledge of their own local constituencies, and they have the ability to speak on behalf of the voters.

Perhaps the "hybrid" we should be watching is not online versus in person meetings of Parliament. Instead it may be that recognizing that government accountability in the United Kingdom increasingly depends upon cooperative joint scrutiny by MPs and the press. Perhaps it would be best to call this the era of the dual hybrid Parliament ...

Sunday, October 6, 2019

@econbartleby and @billswindell at @TheEconomist and @NorthBayNews, respectively.

As I lamented the result from St James' Park this morning, I looked for an insightful article from The Economist. A nice part of focusing on one piece is the chance to learn about the writer. Knowing these journalists grow up and live in a certain context humanizes them. For example, I ran across a piece by Motoko Rich of the New York Times a few years ago, and was surprised to find she grew up in the small town literally next door in Sonoma County.

Philip Coggan
available at
So, today, it's the Bartleby columnist, Philip Coggan. He's a graduate of Sidney Sussex College, one of the constituent colleges at Cambridge University. His work at the Financial Times, authorship of several books, and awards won belies his skill, but details on his person are scarce. He has a feed at Medium, though, where his words on the loss of a pet say much. It recounts how he, his daughter, and his wife said goodbye, recalling Philip's loss of his own father as a child:
"We take small pleasures from our pets. The purr of a cat as it is stroked; the excitement of a dog as it chases a ball; the occasional bursts of madness as a cat attacks a piece of string or a dog chases its own tail. They create a rhythm to the day; the morning feed, the afternoon walk, the night-time arrival of cat on bed, eager for shared bodily warmth. And there is satisfaction from a relationship that is so uncomplicated; in return for food and affection, the dog or cat will stay around. There are no arguments; no sudden estrangements. These small joys help us through the long days and nights. My cat will no longer be the first to greet me when I open the front door. How can I not be sad that he’s gone?"
Julian Richer
available at
Perhaps fitting for a financial journalist with such a sense of the personal, the piece this week is his writing on the appropriately-surnamed Julian Richer.  Richer made his fortune in peddling high-end audio equipment in the UK, from stores cheekily named "Richer Sounds." Richer's parents had both worked for Marks & Spencer (for an American, think maybe Macy's), and he entered the business at fourteen.  Coggan draws attention to Richer for the unusual fact that Richer has planned to give away much of his wealth to his employees.

When asked why, Coggan writes that Richer claims inspiration from the nearly 40-year-old book "In Search of Excellence." Richer maintains (and Coggan appears to agree) that the case studies therein illustrate that top performing companies treat both customers and employees well. "Organizations that create a culture based on fairness, honesty, and respect reap the rewards ... [t]hey attract motivated staff who are there for the long haul."

Coggan does not concede that Richer's arguments are ones for general application. He notes that Richer Sounds' turnover is a mere $157 million. That about matches the four supermarkets in the little City of Sonoma. However, he points out that the UK's high street retailers and supermarkets (M&S, Asda) have sought Richer out for his insight, suggesting lessons for the business community as a whole.

The point Coggan doesn't quite tease out (and I give him the benefit of the doubt here, for the column is a brief one), is that Richer, while not running a family business, is definitely in the family business.  His folks were retailers.  His approach to employees mirrors many family businesses in my part of semi-rural California. Bill Swindell of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat made this point five years ago, with his article "All in the Family." Swindell's quote from Marcus Benedetti (Clover-Sonoma) sums it up, as the CEO of the longtime dairy said "I look at myself as a temporary steward of something I can pass on to my children."

Over the past months and years, increasingly, navel-gazing about the raison d'être of companies has been a recurrent theme in the business press. The Economist has been no different. Contemporary capitalism often feels simultaneously disconnected from place while focused on individual cults of personality, provoking something of a crisis. It has not always been thus. When so many large business organizations in the United States came into existence in the Gilded Age, the personalities involved were known to one another, and the ownership thereof was often family-based, if dysfunctional.  Discomfort with family-type structures may therefore be present for good reasons -- embarrassing, emotional strife was and is common, messy details are inevitable, and nothing saps a meritocracy like nepotism.

Business is replete with family fortunes won-and-lost, the proverbial "shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations." It is understandable then, that with family life often resembling nothing so much as a blooper reel, that businesses would have a long-deep discomfort with management principles that may very well be family-derived. What irony there is, then, in the unstated suggestion of Mr. Coggan's piece — that at the core of successful businesses, those impersonal machines of prosperity, is the resiliency, reciprocity, and, yes, care for one another upon which family depends?

Thursday, June 7, 2018

@TheEconomist on #Homelessness in @SFGov.

I blog from time to time on the trustworthiness of news sources, and in general in the United States, the Economist is often considered the most reliable when surveys of the public are conducted. Before the June 5, 2018 primary in California, they took a look at San Francisco's Mayor's race. Their article touched the twin problems of the cost of housing and of homelessness, and I recommend the piece (available online here).

It's disturbing reading.  The author (The Economist eschews bylines) confronts the lived reality in terms that the reader can almost smell.  But the striking sentence to me was "[t]o voters, though, the problem seems to be getting worse ... '[but t]here’s not more homelessness than before. It’s just a lot more visible,” says [Jeff] Kositsky [San Francisco's Director of Homelessness Services]."

We all struggle in the San Francisco Bay Area to understand how wealth disparities in the nine county area can rival those on display in what the article characterizes as "poor-world entrepôts." But that the situation has become clear to so many is not in dispute, and perhaps that is the silver lining -- for we must have awareness before we can take action together.

Friday, July 1, 2016

@eloisanews, nice article on #Sonoma grad rates ...

Eloísa Ruano González
image available at @eloisanews
So, I don't personally know Eloísa Ruano González. I do read her articles via the Press Democrat from time to time, though.  Her writing caught my eye earlier this year regarding Cloverdale High; recently it was a piece about graduation rates in Sonoma County overall. I'm typically favorably disposed towards education writers, particularly those that focus on the interplay between education and economics, and so I'm very supportive of Eloísa for focusing on statistics for the different parts of Sonoma County.

Of course, a well researched article on an important subject often makes people want more of the same, and I thus wonder whether an article on the County's A-G graduation rate might now be a good idea, too. For those who find education jargon impenetrable, that's the difference between whether a graduate has or has not met the college entry requirements for the University of California ("UC") or for the California State University ("CSU"). The technical requirements of A-G completion are complicated, but can (very roughly) be boiled down to passing the second semester of Algebra II with a C- or better.

Most parents and voters think that a graduate's a graduate, and that anyone receiving their diploma is ready for college, but that's not necessarily the case.  And that's where Sonoma County seems to have trouble, because while the statewide rate for A-G is 43.4%, in Sonoma County it's only 33.7% (for my friends and neighbors reading this post, Sonoma Valley High's rate is 47.2%).  I feel like I'd really like to see our educators explain the overall rate of preparation for college being achieved by Sonoma County's high school graduates to a reporter like Eloísa ...

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What Do Bubbles Look Like?

Sentinel Media Services
"Midcentury Modern in Sonoma"
 The San Francisco Chronicle, Nov 19, 2014
screenshot taken Nov. 19, 2014
The San Francisco Chronicle gets my attention today.  On a fairly regular basis, the paper features a particular piece of real estate for sale somewhere around the San Francisco Bay Area.

Today, they're publishing about a property on Austin Avenue, in the Prestwood neighborhood of Sonoma.  The asking price is $2,295,000. The house is a little under 1,900 square feet.

You can see the location here. One nice thing about Zillow is that it will show you the recent sale history of the property.  I took a screenshot of that, and that's on the right, too.  

The Zillow history shows that William Grecian tried to sell this property back in November of 2010 for $445,000; he couldn't find any takers.  He dropped the price to $420,000 in April of 2011, but still didn't find a buyer.  He dropped the price another $12,500 -- and that's when Laura and Richard Tackett made their offer, for $407,500 on July 15, 2011.
"826 Austin Ave, Sonoma"
 screenshot taken Nov. 19, 2014
available at
Laura and Richard held the property for 872 days.  On December 3, 2013, they listed it for sale at $648,000, a 59% price increase.  Laura and Richard figured the change in the real estate market meant that they'd just made an investment with approximately a 20% annual rate of return.  Of course, Richard and Laura were wrong; the property didn't sell for $648,000. 

Instead, it sold 17 days after listing for $730,000. 

More like a 26% annual return.  

The property was purchased by an LLC, which is more or less the general practice in California with real estate projects that are expected to appreciate significantly.  The registered agent for the LLC is Patrick Doyle of Petaluma, who's a general contractor and is the manager of the LLC. The Deed of Trust on the property (which I checked) reveals the equitable owners. The Deed of Trust is a public record and if anyone's particularly excited to find out who put up the money for this deal, feel free to head to the County of Sonoma's Recorder's office -- they're open 8-5 Monday through Friday.  

The LLC listed the property for sale on November 5, 2014.  The LLC held the property for 320 days.  I can't calculate the annual rate of return, because the calculator I use presumes that the values change monthly; here, the ∆ in the price is so substantial that the number of days included can change the implied rate of return.  But it looks like about a 215% presumed annual rate of return.

Comments, "Midcentury Modern in Sonoma"
Sentinel Media Services
The San Francisco Chronicle
screenshot taken Nov. 19, 2014
There are a great many things I could say about this situation. I'm going to hold those observations, and I think I'll revisit this blog post in a couple of years (months?), perhaps updating it with the transaction history of the address.  

At this point, though, I do want to draw attention to the comments about the house on the Chronicle's web site.  

One poster thought the property looked like a good "flip."  

Another wrote that "I can't believe anyone would pay over 2 million for this toy house."


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Trust Levels of News Sources.

I caught this on Twitter yesterday, and found it revealing. The Pew Research Center (previously came up here and here) conducted a survey across the United States to determine which media sources are the most trusted.  However, the researchers introduced nuance into their model, by investigating the ideological identification of the respondents.

One irony of the survey is that the sources that Americans trust the most are the Economist (a British newspaper masquerading as a magazine) and the BBC (the British Broadcasting Corporation).   The most trusted American sources are NPR and PBS, followed by the Wall Street Journal (which happens to be the only publication more trusted than not across the spectrum).

One interesting feature is the "hard shift" in this table, where the spectrum doesn't gradually adjust from one side to the other through the "equally trusted and distrusted" data point, and instead goes right to "distrusted" -- and where the "mixed" group also distrusts the source.  There are only three -- The Daily Show, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck.

I also note (without comment) that even those who identify as "mostly conservative" express skepticism towards Rush Limbaugh, who is the least trusted generally known figure in the table ...

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Overton Window.

Glenn Beck (first and last time he'll be mentioned here, I figure) wrote a novel in 2010 called "The Overton Window." I haven't read it, and don't intend to -- it's #30,293 on Amazon, and this review should discourage anyone tempted to pick it up.

But Beck's choice of title broadened knowledge of the eponymous concept. It's named after Joe Overton, the former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan. Overton thought that policy debates are usually limited by a "window" of public acceptance, and that ideas outside the window are rejected without examination. Overton argued that advocating "unthinkable" ideas could "move" the window, thus making slightly less radical ideas seem more acceptable.

Which is where I turn in trying to understand why the Sonoma Index-Tribune published this piece by Roger Hartley.

The paper's decision seems forgivable at first. Roger looks like a Sonoma kind of a guy -- his LinkedIn profile suggests he's a silver-haired outdoorsy engineer. His appearance and background would make most people give him a +1 on  credibility.  But I offer that more as an excuse for the paper than as a reason --  because publishing his piece is the equivalent of the Index-Tribune forwarding the "5¢ surcharge on every e-mail" urban legend to thousands of inboxes.


Hartley alleges that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District is "[a]n uncontrolled bureaucracy [that] has criminalized our quiet enjoyment of life and in true Orwellian fashion has turned neighbor against neighbor with an anonymous tip hotline to report any suspected criminal activity. From a Constitutional point of view, the real criminals are BAAQMD and the 22 politicians that sit on its board."

"Q40a. There needs to be stricter laws and
regulations to protect the environment?"
Time series, 1987-2012, The Pew Research Center
available online at
That's a pretty remarkable charge. I mean, clean air's kind of a big deal -- since 1987, essentially every Democrat in America, and even half of all Republicans, have agreed that we need stricter laws to protect the environment.  The San Francisco Bay Area is something of a Democratic stronghold, so finding strong environmental protection here should be akin to discovering that water is wet, or there's coal in Newcastle.  Claiming that local politicians and government officials acting to protect the environment are breaking the law means there'd have to be some pretty remarkable evidence of malfeasance to prove that, let alone credibly charge it.

And Mr. Hartley duly provides a certain amount of innuendo to support his allegation -- specifically, that the location of the BAAQMD air quality monitoring station in Napa, California was deliberately chosen to create, in effect, "false positives" concerning air pollution, in an effort by government officials to justify the existence of their jobs.  However, Mr. Hartley doesn't actually include the evidence -- instead, he suggests his readers do the research themselves:
"a former employee of BAAQM has alleged that the system for monitoring air quality is intentionally rigged to produce more alerts. For example, the air sensor in Napa is on top of a Mexican bakery a few feet downwind from a BBQ restaurant ... (Google 'whistleblower BAAQMD')."
So, the readers of this blog will be familiar with my taking such claims and running down the evidence to support them.  Sure enough, I followed Mr. Hartley's advice, and ran the Google search.  The first result that popped up was from a site -- the one in San Bruno, California.  The article was helpful for a lot of reasons, but the key one is that the article gave the address of the monitoring station.  

It's at 2552 Jefferson.

Now, that address doesn't mean much to most people, but it rang a bell for me.  Following the hunch, I opened up Google Maps and took a look. And I immediately discovered that there are 2,158 reasons why that's exactly the place the BAAQMD should locate its air quality monitoring station -- because the site is across the street from Napa High.

I have a hard time imagining a better place to monitor air quality in Napa County than across from the flagship high school of the largest city.  I mean, there are a lot of kids there, pretty much all the time, and protecting the air that kids breathe seems like it's probably priority number one.  Hell, I'm just going to toss the mediated speech at this point.  It's so obviously priority number one I can't believe the point would be seriously challenged by anyone.

But, of course, I wanted to make sure that I really did have this issue pinned down, and so I went and checked the site's citation to the evidence in support of the "malfeasance" argument.  As seems to be the case from time to time, the link didn't work (I have no idea why newspapers have so many problems with getting hyperlinks right, but it comes up frequently).  After some sleuthing, I managed to track down the "evidence" the anonymous Napa source cites -- it's this PDF, starting at page 265.

Don't worry, I'm not going to make anyone download a 13.64 MB file just to see a page buried in the middle -- I pulled out the relevant documents.  There are two letters, the first of which is a 21-page request from Eric Stevenson (B.S., Chemical Engineering, UC Davis, 1986), the Director of Technical Services at BAAQMD, which was sent to the EPA.  The second is a 3-page response from Matt Lakin (Ph.D., Atmospheric Chemistry, thesis from UC Irvine, 2000), granting the request.

Even casual perusal of the correspondence (I'm talking about page 2 of the request) makes clear that the Napa monitoring station has been in the same location since 1972. Further, the point of the request from BAAQMD to EPA was that the station, as sited, would understate pollution due to scrubbing effects from ozone reacting with nitrogen monoxide emitted from vehicles on Jefferson Street.

OK.  For anyone that really wants to knock themselves out with the science behind this, and impress themselves with the extraordinarily careful work our government officials undertake when protecting the environment, reading these documents should substantially bolster your trust in your government. These are guys with top-notch educations in hard sciences doing the work necessary to justify their procedures to, well, everyone.  And along comes this editorial writer, Roger Hartley, and he accuses them of being criminals.  

Now, I can see that work being criticized by another chemical engineer, or another Ph.D. in chemistry, sure. Such a criticism would probably thoroughly engage the technical analysis of Mr. Stevenson, and point out some issue or another missed by Dr. Lakin.  But Hartley's neither a chemical engineer nor a Ph.D. in chemistry -- he's a civil engineer.  And Hartley doesn't engage the evidence at all.

It doesn't stop there. Hartley takes the crazy and puts it on stilts, and accuses Shirlee Zane and Susan Gorin of being criminals.  Presumably this is because they sit on the board of the BAAQMD, and they therefore supervised (!) Mr. Stevenson's request to the EPA ... that the BAAQMD be allowed to continue operating a station that's existed for forty years in the same location? Across from a high school.  Where children study. Because the air kids breathe is, like, not relevant to Napa's air quality or something.


Trust in government is the ball game.  I blogged about that last summer, fairly extensively.  If you decide to go after the public's trust, you better be right.  And we count on our newspaper to require a basic level of evidentiary support before allowing anyone to use its pages to start calling elected officials and dedicated scientists criminals.
"Confidence in Institutions"
Gallup, June 1-4, 2013,
available at

To me, this piece looks like nothing more than an attempt to move the Overton window, to suggest that, well, hey, of course, the claim that Susan Gorin is a criminal is wrong, but perhaps we just shouldn't vote for her because of her misconduct as a member of BAAQMD. Or because she's anti-growth, or some other specious, trumped up charge.  And pieces written for that reason, to game the public's trust, without any evidence, have no place in a newspaper of record.

It may very well be that the response to this piece is nothing at all (or, perhaps a half-hearted nod to editorial "balance"). But our newspaper is an institution we all should be able to trust, even if, in practice, as the graph to the right shows, most people do not. But where, as here, a piece is published that is fairly characterized as a hit piece on a sitting supervisor, to justify calling her a "criminal" without any, any basis whatsoever, well, that just doesn't help the political process at all.

I really think the Index-Tribune should be ashamed.