This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Speeding Up the Assembly Line

            Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason, took a different approach to writing than most authors. According to published reports, it went something like this:
            He would sketch out a plot outline and list of characters, and turn the whole thing over in his head for a few days or weeks until he was ready. Then he would go into an office, armed with coffee and cigarettes, set up a Dictaphone, and dictate the entire book in an uninterrupted 24 to 48 hour stretch.
            Considering how many copies his books sold, you can’t argue with success, but having read a couple of those books, I’d have to say that if you didn’t know how they were written, you might have guessed. Even by the lightweight standards of the mystery novel, they are pretty Spartan. True, the story rushes along and keeps you turning pages, but not so well that you don’t notice the lack of description, character and atmosphere.
            Compare Gardner to a couple of his contemporaries, such as Raymond Chandler or Earl Derr Biggers, author of the Charlie Chan novels, and you can tell the difference. If not for the success of Perry Mason on TV, I suspect that only a handful of genre scholars would be reading Gardner today.
            It is true that there have been a handful of good authors who could be brilliant in a hurry. Charles Dickens — channeling God, the Creative Spirit, or whatever you want to call it — supposedly dashed off his manuscripts in such a state of inspired frenzy that each page of foolscap flew to the floor as quickly as he wrote it.
            On the other hand was Joseph Conrad, who found writing such hard and painful work that his wife just about had to drag him out of bed and push him to the desk each morning.
            Most writers fall somewhere in between those poles, but I would argue, based on experience and observation, that most writers derive considerable benefit from reflection and revision, two qualities that are the bedrock of style and consistency.
            It used to be that publishing-house editors caught mistakes and helped an author improve style, organization and consistency; no more. It’s mostly on the author now, and almost every book published has several eye-popping mistakes as a result. Revision, particularly after setting a piece aside for a while and viewing it again with a fresh eye, is what winnows out the clich├ęs, redundancies, and flabby prose.
            These reflections were inspired by a recent story in the Times, reporting that authors of genre books (mystery, romance, science fiction) are increasingly being pressured, by the demands of e-publication, to do more than one book a year to satisfy insatiable demand from readers who have no concept of patience.
That may not seem like a lot to some people, and certainly many authors have done it. In the 1930s and 40s, John Dickson Carr pounded out two or three mysteries a year, and he did it with typewriters. He also wrote in an era where detective technology was considerably less than now and hardly any research was necessary.  A book a year is a lot of work, and considering how much sloppy writing and how many mistakes, large and small, creep into the ones written at that rate, it’s hard to see how speeding up the production line will improve or even maintain quality. It will simply turn every author into Erle Stanley Gardner. Haul out the Dictaphone and bring in the coffee and cigarettes.

Friday, May 25, 2012

A Job That Got No Respect

            It took a while for the penny to drop, but after working at the newspaper for a couple of years I finally figured out who the most important employee was. Not the editor; not the business manager; not the office manager who processed payroll and did our checks.
            No, it was the switchboard operator.
            The epiphany occurred when Jeanie Ewers, the extremely competent operator at the time I got hired, was promoted to a better-paying position in the business department, and a series of short-lived successors were hired to follow her. In hindsight, we should have raised Jeanie’s salary to what the editor was making and given her the switchboard job for life.
            Nothing makes you appreciate a job well done as much as seeing it subsequently done badly. That’s when you realize how demanding the job really is and what’s missing in the performance of it.
            When the city hall reporter is getting calls at deadline that were intended for the society desk or the classified ad department; when messages from missed calls have names so badly misspelled that you can’t figure out who they were from; when the call-back number for a school district official takes you to an escort service instead, it’s a problem.
            And when all those things happen several times a day, it’s not happenstance; it’s not coincidence; it’s a bottom-line issue for the whole business.
            In addition to those obvious mistakes were the more subtle ones that strained tempers and wasted countless hours of time. A complaint call that goes to the wrong editor wastes that editor’s time by interrupting him or her twice — once to take the call, and again to repeat the information to the editor it was intended for. A newsroom call put through to a reporter furiously trying to complete a story five minutes before deadline — when three other reporters were done with their work and sitting around — interrupts the reporter, can cause the paper to be late to press, and all but guarantees that the caller will be given short shrift. A good switchboard operator has an understanding of the business, combined with good powers of observation so nearly every call goes to the right person on the first try.
            Considering the cost of these problems in terms of lost ads, missed stories, and wasted productivity, I concluded the paper should be hiring college graduates for that position and paying them executive salaries. Instead, they hired high school graduates and paid a hiccup above the minimum wage. In many cases, they didn’t even get what they paid for.
            For all the prattle we hear about the efficiency of free markets, there are a lot of places where businesses are myopic about their own best interests. This is a classic example of what I would refer to as a silent loss. The boss can see the salary of the switchboard operator on the balance sheet, but there’s no line on that sheet to quantify the wasted time, lost productivity, and missed business caused by underpaying the operator and absorbing the ensuing havoc.
            Once the people at a business get an idea in their heads as to the worth of a job, it’s almost impossible to change that thinking. If you think only a Harvard MBA can run the company, you’ll overpay for that degree and pass on some better candidates who may have lesser credentials but higher competence. If you think anybody can run the switchboard, you’ll underpay for that job and suffer consequences you don’t even realize. It’s a subtle form of disrespect that comes back to bite the disrespecter.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Tragedy With Two Morals

            Several miles from my house is a stretch of road I drive about once a week. At one point along the route there’s a stop sign where you really wouldn’t expect one, at an intersection with a small feeder street that carries very little traffic.
            There’s a story behind that.
            Back in the late 1980s there was no stop sign at the intersection, but there was a crosswalk across the main road. On a fine May evening, well before sunset, a pedestrian in that crosswalk was struck and killed by a car.
            Our newspaper reported the story, and if memory serves, the pedestrian was a child, which added to the sense of shock. The driver failed a sobriety test, was arrested, and subsequently did a stint behind bars. It was one of those random, senseless tragedies that leaves you shaking your head at the sheer awful cussedness of things.
            Then came the aftermath. People who lived in the area felt the need to do something, which is a common reaction in such cases. Almost overnight petitions were circulated and presented to the county, asking for a stop sign where the fatality occurred.
            County public works staff emphatically recommended against the stop sign, arguing that by every standard of traffic analysis known to man, there was no rationale for one at that location. I was writing editorials at the time, and went out to the scene at the time of day when the pedestrian was killed to see for myself.
            Approaching that intersection from the same direction as the driver, I noticed that the sun was behind me and the visibility approaching the intersection was excellent. There was no reason a driver going the speed limit, or even ten miles over, should have had any difficulty seeing a pedestrian and stopping.
            A sober driver, that is.
            For a day or so I thought of writing an editorial opposing the stop sign, but finally dropped the idea. If you’re going to anger people who are grieving and emotionally aroused, it had better be over something more important than a traffic sign. Apparently feeling the same way, the county Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the sign, and there it is a quarter-century later.
            To the best of my knowledge no other pedestrian has been injured or killed in that crosswalk since the stop sign was put up, but then, to the best of my knowledge no one had been injured or killed in that crosswalk before the fatality that led to the installation of the stop sign. If you want to believe that the stop sign has made any positive difference, you pretty much have to take it as an article of faith.
            Two morals can be drawn from this story. The first is that in the wake of tragedy people feel an overpowering emotional urge to do something, often unaccompanied by any realistic and analytical appraisal of the effectiveness of that something. The problem was a drunk driver. We’ve tried Prohibition and that didn’t work, and the police can’t catch all the drunk drivers, so let’s put up a stop sign. I have my doubts.
            Second, this illustrates the contradictions of democracy. An elected government can’t always be run like a business because it also has to be responsive to the desires of the people, who aren’t always thinking of the bottom line. The neighbors who agitated for that stop sign weren’t doing any cost-benefit analysis, but I believe they were sincere in believing a stop sign would help, and they convinced the elected board. I still don’t think the stop sign is necessary, but I’m grateful to be living in a country where the people can demand and get one.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Reflections of a Union Man

            Nearly twenty years ago I was a dues-paying union member for five months. The union in question was the Cabrillo College Federation of Teachers, which I joined after being hired for one semester to teach a journalism class at the community college.
            Owing to the temporary nature of my position, I wasn’t required to join the union, but did so anyway. The dues weren’t much (neither was the pay) and I figured that since, a decade earlier, I had been in management when we had a union newsroom at the newspaper, I should check out the other side.
            There wasn’t much to check out. No contract negotiations were going on at the time, so my only contact with the union came when I picked up my monthly paycheck and noticed the deduction. Over the five months, I think it came to fifty or sixty dollars. If memory serves, I made a little over four thousand for teaching the class.
            Apparently the union got a report showing I had joined, because several of the more permanent faculty members thanked me during the semester for joining when I didn’t have to. That’s probably as close to union solidarity as I got.
            When we had a union in the newsroom for four years (it was eventually voted out), a management consultant hired by the newspaper group used to come by from time to time to help the company deal with it. One of the things he used to say was that any company that had a union probably deserved it. He meant that by the 1980s, employees didn’t vote to join a union unless they felt the company was seriously neglecting or maltreating them.
            That wasn’t the feeling I had at Cabrillo, which was a very pleasant place to work. But my experience with the union was typical of what that has since become. More and more, unions in this country are seen at public agencies and institutions, which don’t altogether deserve them, rather than private businesses, which increasingly do.
            The standard liberal line on this phenomenon is that unions have lost ground in the private sector because the law and the National Labor Relations Board are not protecting the rights of workers. While that’s true as far as it goes, it ignores two huge cultural changes affecting the attitudes of businesses and employees.
            From an employee standpoint a union makes a great deal of sense to someone who goes to work somewhere and expects to stay there for a working lifetime, or close to it. The printers and pressmen at our newspaper, and most others, were in unions because they weren’t going anywhere, had limited opportunities for promotion, and so had to get the best deal they could for doing the same job over the long haul. With all the creative chaos in the private sector, a government job is about the only place an employee can find that sort of long-term stability today.
            Businesses, for their part, are looking at a changed landscape owing to that creative chaos. When Safeway’s competition was Lucky and Albertson’s, having a union was no problem, because the competitors had it too. Now that the competition is Wal-Mart, Costco and Target, all non-union, it’s a different game. For a manufacturer, the now easy option of moving overseas has altered the landscape, and the employees know it too.
            Economic fairness over the next few decades is going to depend on whether unions can reinvent themselves in the context of the new reality or whether some other mechanism for improving wages and working conditions will take their place. Will that happen? I don’t know the answer, but that’s definitely the question.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Crime Story That's Not on TV

            This summer TNT will air the final episodes of its police procedural The Closer, and the series will ease into perpetual syndication. Linda and I have been faithful viewers from the beginning, and I’ve enjoyed it, though less for the stories than for the ensemble of performers who make up a congenial major-crimes unit.
            If you’ve never seen it, The Closer features Kyra Sedgwick as Brenda Johnson, head of the aforementioned unit, who is a wizard at extracting confessions in order to close a case with an arrest. In more than one episode, she has said, as she goes in to break down an unwary perp, “There’s nothing like a confession.”
            In crime fiction, that’s absolutely true, and the tradition goes back nearly a century, to the early British murder mysteries where the detective calls all the suspects together, explains how the crime was committed, and gets the guilty party to confess — or at any rate, to kill himself, attempt to escape, or otherwise behave guiltily.
            Not so much in real life, however. A couple of months ago The New York Times had a lengthy article on convictions that had been overturned or called into doubt by subsequent DNA evidence, and well into it, the reader came across the statistic that in nearly one out of five such cases handled by the Innocence Project, the innocent person had confessed to a crime he didn’t commit.
            Many of the innocent parties were not exactly what you would call good citizens. They had a low social status and a history of (usually nonviolent) crime that called police attention to them in the first place. Once pulled in, past memories of police encounters made them behave suspiciously, and led police to try to break down their protestations of innocence.
One such suspect said he confessed to get a grueling interrogation over with, figuring the police would quickly realize he wasn’t the killer and let him go. Instead, confession in hand, they wrapped up the investigation and didn’t look into anything else that might muddy their case. The prosecutor didn’t bother to run DNA tests, and an incompetent defense attorney didn’t insist on them. Believing in the fairness and competence of law enforcement cost the man years in prison and very nearly his life.
Stories like this are more common than we’d like to believe, yet we almost never see them on TV or in the movies. We’re much more likely to see a film or show about a guilty creep set free by a bleeding-heart judge over a “technicality.” That certainly happens, but not to the degree it’s depicted in popular entertainment.
Actually, the whole question of how TV and movies warp our understanding of crime and affect social policy is probably something you don’t want to think about if you have a queasy stomach. I love crime shows as much as the next guy, but they would leave you thinking that this country is full of cunning, vicious psychopaths preying on innocent people whose cars break down or who otherwise happen to get in their way.
The reality is that today’s crime rates are low by any long-term standard of measurement and that if you’re the victim of a violent crime, it’s probably at the hands of someone you know. The additional reality is that hardly any criminals are shrewd and calculating. As one of our local judges, a former prosecutor, likes to say, “If they weren’t dumb, we wouldn’t catch ‘em.”  If they weren’t dumb, they wouldn’t confess, either, so it would be a grave mistake to take such a confession as the last word.


Friday, May 11, 2012

John Galt's Pension Plan

            Perhaps the best political line of the last half-century is the one that goes something like, “I think you can spend your money better than the government can.” It’s brilliant for two reasons, the first being that there’s no possible answer because no politician who wants to get elected is going to argue the point.
            The second reason is that it’s not true.
            After decades of behavioral research, it has been pretty well established that the average person is terrible at managing money. People consistently underestimate what they need to salt away for retirement and tend to indulge themselves now, rather than planning for the future.
            When you add to that all the income shocks that can occur in a lifetime (serious illness; lingering endgame for a parent; kid with a drug problem; divorce; period of unemployment), even people who are reasonably prudent and frugal are likely to come up short at the end of their working lives. So you would think that a social policy based on people managing money shrewdly over the long haul would be a non-starter.
            If you doubt that, consider how many people, faced with the choices for investing their retirement money, chose the most conservative path they could imagine: investing in their own company, which they felt they knew. When that company was Enron or PG&E, they lost everything; in other companies, the loss may not have been total but was still devastating.
            I’ve always believed that it’s silly to have a system that expects people to be other than what they are. It’s why I can’t imagine a Marxist society ever working. It’s also why I can’t imagine there being any good ending to Congressman Ryan’s proposals to convert Social Security and Medicare to individual accounts. Ryan, an acolyte of Ayn Rand, believes his ideas would encourage individual responsibility.
I’m all for responsibility, but if a policy based strictly on that virtue would result (as I believe it would) in 90 percent of the people being worse off than they are under the present system, what’s the sense in it? What’s the morality? Letting old people die of starvation because they invested badly or from lack of medical care because they bought the wrong health-insurance policy is no different, morally, from killing them in re-education camps because they were unwilling to embrace communism.
The beauty of Social Security and Medicare is their simplicity and their guarantee. Social Security says you will get a check from the day you retire until the day you die. Medicare says you will get basic medical coverage from age 65 to the grave. The sharp decline in poverty among the elderly over the past four or five decades is proof that these programs work.
No one disputes that they are in need of an overhaul, but the overhaul has to be built around maintaining the fundamental concepts. Letting people go their own way, however appealing that might sound to the libertarian mind, amounts to setting up many, probably most people to fail.
Ryan’s old-age plan changes wouldn’t affect my generation (a shrewd political calculation on his part) and I wouldn’t live long enough to see the outcome. But I can write the scenario. Go down the path of individual retirement plans and individual senior health plans, and forty years from now you wouldn’t be able to drive across town without encountering dozens of geezers holding cardboard signs offering to work for food or asking for help with their medical bills. John Galt’s pension plan would be on public display at every street corner.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Disappearing Independent Grocer

            The other day I was setting up an appointment in my former newspaper town, and the other person suggested a coffee shop in one of the shopping centers, right next to the Super Max. Super Max? For a minute I drew a blank, then the penny dropped. Lambert’s.
            You’d have to be of a certain age to remember Lambert’s grocery store, which was sold after the principal owner’s death about a quarter of a century ago. It changed its name to Fairway then, and later became Super Max. There may have been another iteration or two in between; I don’t remember, but I do remember Lambert’s very well.
            When I began working in Watsonville in 1972, Lambert’s was one of several locally owned independent grocery stores. There were also Heights, owned by the Brandon family; Daylite, owned by the Wongs; Happy Burro, Freedom Food Center, Bi-Rite and others.
            There weren’t, in fact, many chain stores. Lucky had a store in the Crestview Center and Albertson’s came along a few years later. Safeway came into town in the early 1960s but couldn’t make a go of it; they sold the building to the newspaper, and I worked in that building for nearly two decades. Now the newspaper has moved to another location and there’s a Grocery Outlet bargain market in the old Safeway building. Full circle.
            All those family-owned stores are gone now, but at the time they offered a diversity of supermarket culture that you don’t get from the chains today. A lot of people thought Lambert’s had the best meat section in town, and I remember taking my recently widowed mother-in-law there to buy provisions for a Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner.
            It’s next to impossible for an independent grocery store to make it these days, and there generally have to be special circumstances. We have one in our town, Deluxe Foods of Aptos, and do most of our shopping there. Terrific store that it is, it nonetheless benefits from the fortunate circumstance of being one of only two supermarkets serving an unincorporated town of about thirty thousand souls.
            The other supermarket in town is a singularly dreadful Safeway that is depressing in every aspect of its operation. It must be a pleasure to compete against that store, and the next nearest super is five miles away. An independent grocer pretty much needs that kind of market niche to make it these days.
            Forty years ago, those independent grocers played a major role in paying my wages. They all bought a page or a page and a half of advertising in the newspaper every Wednesday, which, for reasons unknown, was food day. Bud O’Brien, then the wire editor, once said that the biggest news in the paper on any given Wednesday probably wasn’t anything we put on the front page; it was the price of hamburger at Lambert’s.
            As the locally owned grocery stores gave way to the chains, the ads in the paper gave way to pre-printed inserts, which weren’t nearly as profitable. Shopping habits changed as well. The wife isn’t staying at home comparing the prices in the ads in Wednesday’s paper; she probably has a job, and her husband may well be doing the grocery shopping. The disappearing independent grocery store mirrors a disappearing way of life on several levels. Back in the seventies, I thought that way of life would go on forever. I probably won’t make that mistake again.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Time of the Long Nights

            This coming Sunday marks the beginning of what I call the 91 days of light. It’s the day of the summer solstice (June 20 this year) and the 45 days on either side. The period from May 6 to August 4 will be the quarter of the year with the longest days.
            At some point in the past this must have been considered summer, hence the designation of solstice day as Midsummer. Actual summer runs from June 20 to September 22. What I think of as high summer, the time when students are out of school and the beaches are packed on weekdays runs roughly from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
            Even that is not a strictly accurate measurement. It used to be, in California at least, that the schools didn’t get going until after Labor Day. Now they start a week or two before, which makes those last two weeks of August a great time for a getaway for mature adults.
            During the days of light, sunset is at 8 p.m. or later, with another half hour of decent light immediately afterward. In the mornings, it’s light before 6 a.m. Plenty of time, in any event, for a walk before work or after dinner.
            Every season has its points, but summer, however you calculate it, is my favorite. Growing up in Los Angeles, it meant staying out playing really late in warm, if not downright hot, weather. Now it means barbecuing in shorts and a T-shirt (if the fog hasn’t rolled in early) then going for a walk on the beach after dinner. On the whole, the longer days and extra light mean more time to appreciate the world around you.
            That sense of squeezing every moment for all it’s worth is particularly powerful when you’re on vacation. If you’ve spent a day getting somewhere, and have only a few days there once you arrive, long summer nights are value-added. In my formative years, our parents took us on several long driving trips during summer vacation. Often, we’d check into a place around 4 p.m. and have dinner, then my sister and I would play afterward.
            It’s amazing how vividly I can recall some of those places 50 years later, and a large part of that is that we had a long summer night to impress them on our minds. Just off the top of my head, I’m flashing back on a cabin on the Snake River in Idaho; a motor court along the Willamette River in Oregon; a ranch in Wyoming; a summer home without electricity in Puget Sound, Washington; and a garden-variety motel in Penticton, British Columbia, where we sat outside the door under an overhang, watching a powerful thunderstorm break up at sunset.
            Plenty of fishing memories, too. My father always used to insist that you had to get up early to catch fish, a theory for which the evidence seemed spotty at best. I remember plenty of May and June mornings in the mountains, where we hit the water before 6 a.m. and were freezing and miserable for three or four hours before the sun finally warmed things up. On a more positive note, there’s nothing like being on Hat Creek when a good evening insect hatch gets going in May and June and the fish are on a binge.
            We have no plans to go anywhere during the 91 days this year, so I’ll be enjoying them at home. And in coastal California, it takes a long time for summer to dissolve into fall, so we could get two more months of summer after the 91 days end — but without those long nights.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Reflections While Waiting in Line

            There certainly would be no shortage of candidates for best invention of the Twentieth Century. A short list of the usual suspects would probably include the Internet, the personal computer, the microprocessor, television and penicillin. My vote, though, would go to none of the above. It would be cast for the smart line.
            I’m not even sure that’s what it’s called, or if it even has a proper name, but when I describe it, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s what you see at just about every bank, where you get into one line, and when you reach the head of it, go to the next available teller when the time comes.
            Before smart lines were introduced, you had to size up the line at each teller window and make a snap decision as to which one you were going to commit to. It was gambling in its purest form. At least half the time, the shortest line had someone in front of you who turned out to be attempting to cash a $100K check on a Lithuanian bank. With no ID. And no comprehension of why that might be a problem.
            If you drew that hand, you were essentially cooked. While you waited (and waited, and waited) for the resolution of the Lithuanian check caper, three dozen people who walked in the door after you were able to transact their business in another line and be on their way.
            The smart line takes the decision away from the individual and prevents the aggravation of seeing people who came in after you did get served first, just because they made a luckier guess. That’s been replaced by a new aggravation. As banks cut back on tellers and other customer-service expenses, it’s not unusual to see only two tellers on duty.
            If one of them is out of commission for half an hour with the Lithuanian check casher, all it takes is another customer of the same stripe (say a merchant bringing in $20K in small bills and coins) to tie up the other one and freeze the entire line. At least you have the comfort, cold though it may be, of knowing you’ll get through before the person ahead of you. This is what we call progress.
            Waiting in line has become the curse of modern life, as businesses go out of their way to avoid spending money on human beings to deal with customers. The two post offices I frequent tend to have one or two clerks working and never call for help, even when the line is going out the door. The Safeway near my house seems to have a policy that under no circumstances is a checker to call for additional help when the lines get long.
            Sometimes the business will suggest that you use an automated service, rather than waiting in line. A postal clerk suggested that once, and I took her up on it the next time I came in and saw an impossible line. I went to the vending machine in the lobby, bought $8 in stamps and paid with a $20 bill. For change, I got 12 Susan B. Anthony dollar coins, and it took nearly a month to get rid of them. Never again.
            Now I patronize a locally owned grocery store that’s adequately staffed with great checkers and go to a bank that offers better teller service than the others. The post office, alas, has no competition, so I’m stuck on that one. But at least they have smart lines.