Saturday, September 02, 2006

All About the Mass Transit

I'm up at the APSA meetings. In Philadelphia.

On Thursday, I thought I would come up here on the Amtrak. Given everything I had heard about bad service and lateness, seemed like a natural blog subject.

What a disappointment! Consider:

1. The train was supposed to leave Raleigh terminal at 5:40 am, didn't leave until 6:30am. A great start. But we ended up getting into the Philadelphia terminal at 2:20, about ten minutes late. Not bad.

2. And this was at the downtown terminal, mind you. About 6 blocks from my hotel. Made it to my panel at 4:15 very easily.

3. I had a roomette. Nice little bed up top, comfortable seats, my own little potty and sink. Plugs for laptop, free water and orange juice. All for $255 one way. A little pricey, but worth it. Arrived rested and happy. A regular ticket was only $55, which is fine. I was so sure we'd be ten hours late that I bought the roomette, and then didn't need it.

Well, there was one thing, lest you think I am losing my knack for bizarre retail experiences. Part of the first class ticket was "free meals." So, about 12:15, I go back to the dining car (right behind the first class car, so the tubbos in first class don't have to strain themselves).

I sit down, look up, and see why railroads are disappearing the U.S.: three middle-aged white guys are working the dining car, as waiters. Now, where have you seen three middle-aged guys working in a restaurant? Only in the very most expensive restaurants. Most places pay low wages, and so hire more women and minorities. But union work rules allow the railroads to pay top dollar for rude gorillas.

Union man #1 saunters up, and hands me a ticket. "Need your name, room number, and car number, chief." Monotone, no eye contact, a smirk. This is union work, so he doesn't actually to provide any real service. And being nice is beneath a railroad union man.

I fill out the little sheet. Hand it to him.

"So, what'll it be, sport?" Staring at the back of the car, where his two boys are cutting up and giggling. At least five other tables are awaiting service.

I try to order the chicken ceasar salad. He interrupts; "Nope."

Staring at him, I ask: "Why not?"

"Don't have it." Pleased with himself. He made me ask; points for him.

"All right," I said, and handed him the menu.

Now I have his attention, unintentionally. He goggles at me. "Look, sport: we don't have any salads. Look at your menu, and pick something else."

Me: "Sir, I'm not entirely stupid. I understood what you said. You have six menu items. Five are some sort of fried something on a bun, served with potato chips. One is a salad. Even with only six items, you can't be bothered to have them all available, at the BEGINNING of the lunch shift. So, no, I am not going to pick something else. I am going to finish my diet coke, and go back to my little room."

On the plus side, this was said in a level voice and not too loud. On the down side, and for reasons I still can't explain, I said this in an increasingly strong, and entirely fake, British accent. Changing from a southerner to a Brit in the course of diatribe does not help when you want to be taken seriously.

I think he thought I must be crazy. He took the menu gently, and said, "Sorry, sir" in the most polite voice he had used yet. I later realized that passing up fried food and potato chips (crisps, I should say, in my Angloglossiac dementia) was so foreign to him that he might actually have BELIEVED I was a Brit.

Sat and finished my soda. Hoped no one else would talk to me, since speaking in bad foreign accents accidentally is not something I am proud of. Each of the three guys would occasionally get up, the other two would sit, and the one "working" would go and pester a couple of passengers for about five minutes. "Everything okay here?" " haven't brought our food yet." "Okay, good, I was just checking." Union guys must have their irony bone removed at a young age.

So...overall, the trip was a real solid B+. And if you bring your own food, probably would have been an A-. I am going to take the train again, for trips in the Eastern corridor.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Apocalypse, Sign of the

Metallica baby lullabies

Government in Action

RL sent me a nice little case study of government in action.

And, he was so kind as to write the lede for me, also, in the email:

The current mayor made opposition to a bridge that would connect a small airport on an island a football field away from downtown the centerpiece of his election campaign. Upon winning, he killed the project. The result was a multi-million dollar settlement to aggrieved parties that enabled one businessman to ~start~ a commercial airline at the airport. Even better, he got to evict what would have been his main competitor. Federalism at its very best- local govt kills a business venture, but the feds step in and provide seed money and a chance to build a monopoly.

(You do have to read through some amazingly inane stuff in that article before you get to amazingly dumb stuff)

Thanks, RL!

ProfGRRRRL strikes

Poor ProfGRRRRRL has been to too many faculty meetings (i.e., N>=1)

She nails the patois:

Step 3 -- Random comments and brainstorming (may occur in any order)
CF 2: [excited ramble about why this would benefit the department]
CF 4: [excited ramble about how this would benefit his students]
CF 3: [attempt at joke]
CF 5: [segue into pet project issue that is not entirely related]
Chair: Let's get back on topic
CF 6: [excited ramble about how [idea] would please the dean's office]
CF 1: [pie in sky brainstorm about how this might increase FTEs, solve world hunger, and improve the entire university's ranking]

Step 4 -- Original dissenters are supportive
Policy Wonk: It sounds like there is interest in [idea], and if there is no policy preventing it we could try.
Historian: As long as we make sure to not repeat past mistakes

Step 5 -- The put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is moment
Chair: Well, if we're going to do this, we should figure out who would be in charge. Maybe we need a subcommittee. Who would like to volunteer?

Step 6 -- Crickets

Yepper, yepper, yepper. She left out the part about the Chair seething with fury from start to finish, knowing at Step 1 that it would end up at the same play as always. But maybe other Chairs don't do that.

A bonus: The Night Before School Starts, also by ProfGRRRRL.

(nod to Dirty Davey)

Monday, August 28, 2006

Best Patent Ever

I literally weep with joy at the chance to deliver this news to readers of the End.

There is a patent, an actual US Patent # D419,233 , for a...device? Article of clothing? What would you call it?

Because it is a "unisex short with reversible condom."

It works like this: You wear it as an "innie" or an "outie", just like a belly button.

Men would wear it with the condom covering their protuberance. Women would wear it...well, you know how women would wear it. That would be the "innie": this space available.

Both sexes might want to wear something over it, unless they are in Venice Beach, CA. Or Pittsburgh, CA, the home of the inventor, Roly R. Brodie.

The images are....not work safe, I'm sure. And I could not view them with my browser. So, I may have this wrong, on the details. Please let me know....

(Nod to David Reid)

UPDATE: You just need AlternaTiff to view the images. Not that you will want to, really.

The Laws of Space and View

I had an epiphany. For the past few years, I have had a "chairman" type office. 160 square feet of floor space, corner, three large windows, looking directly onto Duke's lovely main quad. In those years I have done....crap. Chairman stuff. As I wrote about before, the urgent stuff crowding out the important stuff.

Anyway, the epiphany is that there are two dimensions that almost perfectly describe the assignment of office space in academics. These are (1) space and (2) windows/view. Let me explain.

1. Space: the unused frontier. Here is "Munger's Law of Academic Office Space":

The larger the office, the less time it will be used.

This could be because the (non)occupant is travelling a lot, of course. But it is just as likely that the person with a large office has (yes, I'm not making this up) another large office! In academics, the people with large offices are more likely to have multiple offices. In any case, new assistant profs are assigned a grotto, and fill it completely with stuff, because they pretty much live there. The real capis have more, but use it much, much less.

The reason it is important to have two offices? Paradoxically, it is to explain why you are not using your office! "Where is Dr. Smith?" "Oh, he must be in his other office." Yeah, yeah...THAT must be it.

2. Windows/View: the antidote to work. Here is "Munger's Law of View":

The more windows in the office, and the better the view, the less actual academic work will be done in the office.

As far as I can tell, "nice" offices used to be given out to people as compensation for administrative duties. That is, we all know it sucks to be an administrator, but we'll give you an office with these beautiful views of the Old Well, the bell tower, the mountains, the ocean, something.

But after the proliferation of McAdminstration in state universities*, there are dozens of demi-deans scampering the halls. If you aren't careful, you crunch three or four of them underfoot, like little cockroaches, just walking to a meeting. They are there to ensure that real administrators don't have to do any administrative work, to go along with the academic work real administrators at state universities are being paid extra not to do.

The norm held, though: Admin people get nicer offices. And nicer furniture. Even though most of them never receive visitors except other admin people. They have never done any academic work, and never will. But they have a most excellent view of the football stadium, and Saturdays they could see part of the game from their window. If they were ever there on a Saturday. Or even a Friday afternoon.

*I haven't been at a state university in some time, and perhaps things aren't as bad as I remember. But I bet that if anything it has gotten worse. I have to admit, I don't see the same trend at private universities. There is a proliferation of administrators to deal with students, but that is at least partly a response to customer demand. But I don't see the same proliferation of "vice associate deputy provosts of building custodian management" as at state schools.


It is true, I have the oddest retail experiences of anyone I know. People ask if I stand in line all the time, but I don't. It is just that.....well, listen.

Stop at a BP station, ten miles outside of Knightdale, NC. Not a metropolitan setting. I set the gas pump to fill the tank (it has one of those little clips on the handle, so you can start pumping and then walk away).

Go inside to get some coffee. Behind the counter, implausibly (we are 20 miles from a town of even moderate size), is a very Sikh man. Turban*, loud non-English yelling into a cell phone, Indian music from a small radio.

He is yelling nearly non-stop. I congratulate myself on what an international, cosmopolitan place I live in. I pour the coffee, get the cream from the little cups with paper tops, and then look for a place to throw away the little cups (each of which holds exactly one spit of cream).

There is a white trash can over at the entrance of the cash register enclosure. I put the spit-o-cream cups in the trash. The can had a swinging lid, and I pushed my hand through and dropped the trash in.

Walk around to the front of the little counter, put down the coffee, and say, in my best "Southern Gentility Welcoming Person of Color and Foreign Origin to the New South" voice, "Good morning, sir!"

And my Sikh guy stops talking for the first time since I entered the store, looks at me like I just spit on him, and says, "WHAT!" Not a question, more like an accusation.

Astonished, I hold up the coffee. What I want is pretty obvious. I want to give him money.

"What about the Skoal!" Again, not a question. And his eyes made it quite clear I would need to work quite a bit to rise about the status of simple excrement.

It took me a second to realize he meant the famous Skoal, perhaps America's favorite smokeless tobacco. "Just a peench between your cheek and gum," as Walt Garrison used to tell us in the TV commercials.

"I don't want any Skoal." Meekly. I'm not sure why. But the attack was so unexpected. If he had been white I would have yelled at him. But I was being welcoming and cosmopolitan. And Sikhs were treated rather badly after 9/11 by people who thought they were Muslim (as if THAT were an excuse).

Sikh puppy, shouting again: "You took some Skoal! I heard you. I heard you take it!"

Now, I don't see how he could have heard anything through the third world economics lecture he had been giving over the cell phone. But he could not have heard me take Skoal, since I hadn't.

The only thing he could have heard was the trash can lid. I said so. "I got coffee, got some cream, and put the cream cups in the trash." And then I stared at him.

He backed down, but only in a technical sense. "Sorry, sir, I thought I heard you get some Skoal." His tone was precisely that of, "So, I hear yo mama is a Christian, you piece of dung."

I walked out to the car, and he was still peering at me out the window. Last I saw, his turban was bobbing behind the window; for all I know he was writing down my license number so he could call the police on another "Skoal absconder."


1. If I were black, it is likely I would have an experience like this, or worse, at least once a week. Since this REALLY pissed me off, realizing the fact in the previous sentence is pretty unsettling. So, I did learn SOMETHING from the experience. It sucks to have people just completely mistrust and disrespect you, for no reason. This is not exactly news, but it is useful for white people to get reminded of it (society takes care of reminding all the non-whites).

2. BRITISH Petroleum? Like it is still the Raj? Is that the problem: a taste of the deflated empire?

3. Skoal? Of all the things to be accused of shoplifting. I want to think I look more like a sensual guy, the kind who would need to steal condoms because I go through so many (well, not literally, but...). But Skoal? I don't have any teeth missing.

*This description of Sikh turbans is unintentionally quite amusing.