Monday, June 22, 2015

What Is Love?

You just never know where it will come from, you just don't know. I'm not even her real grandfather, I'm her step-grandfather, but Sara asked me before she was born if I would consider myself her real grandfather. I was surprised, delighted, and honored – I wish I could come up with less hackneyed words, but there they are, and they are commonly used together for a reason, I think. It's like there is a syndrome of feelings that go together.

And so it has been with Lola. I have always considered it an honor when a child likes me. Or a dog. Why I should feel that way, I don't know, but I think it gets communicated subliminally, because children and dogs tend to like me. Maybe I smell OK. Or maybe I'm uninhibited enough and fearless enough to solicit their interest, and they feel the same way, too, that they are honored when someone wants them to like them.

I've worked for it, I know. I have taken care of her a lot, taken my responsibility seriously, and known that she was a gift. And she is adorable. Even other people outside the family say so, that she might be something special. Of course, who knows? When I was with Allie and his newborn, his first and likely only biological child, in May, we rode together and he said, “You know how everyone has these babies, and they show them to you, and you're supposed to say 'Oh aren't they cute!' And you do say that, and they're happy, but really, the kids are just kind of annoying? But then when you have your own, like Tete (his new daughter), you see them and you feel this thing for them, but you know that others must think the same thing that you thought?”

So I said to Allie, “Yes, but she really is cute.”

And he turned to me even while he was driving with a look I can only call avid, and said, “Isn't she??!! Isn't she!!”

So, you have to be careful and just talk subjectively about your near and dear, because objectivity is really impossible. (But, really, isn't Lola wonderful, really???)

I remember our sitting out on our neighbor's steps when she was two and singing “I hear music and there's no one there!” And then we watched the Youtube of Call Me Madame, which I actually hadn't realized it came from. And later on we heard it somewhere and Lola said, “Baba! That's our song!” It's those afternoons of sitting and walking and listening to the birds and telling some stories about the Pied Piper of Hamlin, and the story about how Lola was born (“Baba, tell Felix about the day I was born!”) that sit in the back of memory for a very long time and make life a good thing.

So, yesterday was Father's Day. I don't make a big deal about it, because my policy is not to have expectations, and anything that comes up is a plus, and there are no minuses. We came home from The Vault, our usual Sunday breakfast, and as usual Lola was with us, Grandma and Baba, for the morning. This day we sat at home comfortably and I put on some shows for her and I worked on my computer putting together a list of opening and closing tasks for a family member visiting our vacation house. It was quiet and nice.

But something was happening that I wasn't aware of. And then, all of a sudden, Lola came in and said, “Baba, come here.” What was up? I hadn't noticed anything, I was typing. But first, she took me to the little sunroom we have, where I have sometimes sat with her and read her some stories, and where we sometimes have played board games (every play Trivial Pursuit with a four year old?) on the floor. There by the chair she had a brie sandwich she had helped make, with lettuce and whole wheat bread, and for some reason, since I was wearing my sneakers, she had my shoes up there on the little table by the chair. Couldn't figure that out. It was only 11:30, but I guess I could be ready for lunch. I can pretty much always be ready for lunch.

Then she said, “Baba! Come on!”

She had taken her favorite blanket that she wraps herself in on the couch when she is watching Paw Patrol, and she had put it over the transom of the sun room exit to the garden. It's white and pink, but it was pretty clearly a red carpet.

So we walked over the transom to the outside and she had some stuff laid out. Over to the side where “our turtle” is, a one foot ceramic turtle she and I had bought at Orchard Garden Supply, and which now forms part of our “turtle collection,” she had put a bottle of Pellegrino water. She loves “bubbly water,” and we drink a lot of it. It's a treat. An unopened bottle, sitting there by the turtle in the garden.

And then over in the corner of the garden near the gate she had put my Warriors' cap. My Warriors' cap, after we had been to the Championship Parade on Sunday with her new dad Eric, and with Peter.

And back in the house she had a grapefruit for me that she had picked off our grapefruit tree.  On Friday we had picked one off the tree and each of us tasted it -- I liked it, she didn't, but she saw that I did.

What was all this about? It turned out that on Saturday she had been to her school friend Leo's birthday party – about eight boys and two girls, one of which was Lola – and they had had a treasure hunt, her first. So this was her treasure hunt for Baba.

Tell me what a full heart is. You tell me, because I can't put it into words.

What a girl, what a girl.

Budd Shenkin

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Bill, Hillary, and Money

OK, it looks bad. Bill leaves office, cavorts with Ron Burckle and other money guys – we call them “entrepreneurs,” but “money guys” might be more straightforward – and he gets hundreds of thousands of dollars per one-hour talking gig. He also raises hundreds of millions for the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Charity, and there is controversy about how that is handled. Hillary does the same thing, out of office and onto the gravy train. Looks bad.

I was tending to make that judgement myself, not only looks bad, but is bad. Gotta be selling influence. And what are these guys doing, grubbing for money? Is that what they are about? Isn't that some sort of dishonorable pursuit?

That's what I thought, and probably a lot of people have the same, sometimes inchoate thoughts. But now that I think about it while shaving – showers and shaving are undervalued intellectual conditions, nowadays everyone's about meditation, but I'll stick with showers and shaving – I think what they are doing is fine. Here's my reasoning.

Bill and Hillary were public servants, and they were not corrupt. They didn't even shave the edges the way Lyndon Johnson did when he invested Lady Bird's money into a fortune in Texas, which was legal but problematical. They looked and looked at the Clinton's, that great right wing conspiracy that actually existed, and all they could come up with was Whitewater, in which, let's not forget, they lost money, so there was actually a risk. The hundred grand Hillary got from that stockbroker early in their careers, not so untainted, but not a lot of money, either.

So as uncorrupt public officials, they had to forego (is “forewent” a word? I guess so.) significant income for decades, while they were at the absolute top of the system. That is a financial sacrifice. While Hillary's “We were broke” comment was awkward, the sentiment was actually right. They had assets and they had more importantly the prospect of assets, but it was time for them to make some money in 2001. They didn't take a vow of poverty, after all.

So, giving talks for money is honest income. Is Bill's canned speech worth $200,000 or $300,000 a pop? Depends how you look at it. The butchers or bakers or whoever they are have a convention, what's the budget? $2 or 3 million? If they can spend some fraction of that and get Clinton to talk, imagine how much they improve their attendance, imagine the prestige of the organizer, imagine the thrill of being personally addressed by his majesty King Bill, the best 'splainer of his generation. Is it worth it? You bet. You don't have to say that it “buys access,” that he is “selling his soul,” even though there would be some access, sure there would be. But influence? Not so much, really, especially if he is doing a lot of speaking. I have more trouble with talking to Goldman Sachs, actually, or taking big campaign contributions from the moneyed interests. Giving talks to pipefitters? What's wrong with pipefitters? Is that infra dig in some way?

And they had a lot of making up of income to do, if that was what they wanted, and it was. Nothing really wrong with that. How much have they made? They are in the tens of millions, maybe up to 50 or 60 million by now, I guess. A lot of money … but not in Mitt Romney's class! And they did it an honest way, not Mitt's buy'em and raid'em method (OK, Mitt's a low ethical bar, I grant you.)

But remember, in this modern world a lot of entrepreneurs, money-men, make that kind of money for putting together a company or something. It isn't like being a billionaire, even though it's a lot of money. And there are plenty of billionaires, too. But Bill was a two term President of the United States, and some would say the preeminent politician of his age. So I can't see that it's unjustified, if that's what they want to do. And it doesn't dirty them.

The charity? Well, in some way, that was inventing a job for Bill, and he's probably done it well. I don't like the way they have parked political associates there – I'd have to see if they actually did real jobs that were charity related – but after all, in all pursuits, if we have associates whom we trust, we make room for them. Again, there's the payoff issue, and if lots of foreign money came in to keep Hillary's political machine intact, that's a real problem. The Clinton's can always be too clever.

But, to the central question the world is waiting for – actually, “the world” in this case might be me and my own ambivalence about money – I'm giving Bill and Hillary a pass on the way they are making their money, and how much they're making. Talking to groups – the more mundane the better, the more connected to the ordinary non-financial world the better – is just fine with me. And becoming rather wealthy is fine, too. Why not?

Budd Shenkin

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Commercialization -- Why Stop Halfway?

Years and years ago, 1972 to be exact, I came back home from a year in Sweden.  I had gone there knowing very little about the country except the common headlines -- country of advanced social policies, beautiful women, and a different sense of sexual morality.  I found out a lot about all of that.

But as I drove in from the airport in the US, what hit me as hard as the bright summer sunlight was ... the billboards.  Billboards everywhere, hawking this and hawking that.  Bright, loud, assaulting on the senses.  Wow, I thought.  I hadn't noticed this very much when I was here.  Only the absence of billboards in Sweden in favor of a natural environment made me aware.

But in fact, I hadn't seen anything yet.  The day of commercialization had been going on for centuries, of course, but the sun wasn't even yet at high noon, little did I know.  Sneakers were still Chuck Taylor, Air Jordans still more than a decade off.  Superpacs in an even more distant future -- Elizabeth Drew hadn't yet written about how much time in a legislative office needed to be spent raising money for the next campaign.  And stadiums were still called Franklin Field after Ben, or more prosaically, Convention Hall.  Such a lack of imagination!

Now, we have just finished a wonderful basketball season, and the Warriors, which has been my team since I was a grade school boy in Philadelphia pushing a ball has hard as I could toward the basket and yelling, "Joe Fulks!", have won a World Championship.  Yes, the championship is a little tainted by injuries that weakened every single opponent while they have remained unscathed, but there is skill in that and not just luck, and as they say, "It's part of the game."  So we'll take it, and we'll take the poetry of cooperation, and vision, and unspoken ballet coordination of the parts, and the unerring intelligence of assembling the parts, and coaching with great intelligence and intuition.  We'll take it.

But we can't help but notice the venues.  Here in Oakland -- I hear that the commentators were forbidden from saying "Oakland," but had to say "Golden State" and "The Bay Area" unerringly, what with the impending move to San Francisco and all the real estate and construction profits to be had there for the VC and Hollywood owners, one with the thickest New York accent that one associates with hated teams of the past, yes, forbidden from saying "Oakland," that city of a less glitzy image and history, or even saying "East Bay," which is so local, so lacking in glamor, maybe with better weather but who wants to own a team from "Oakland?"  Only after the game, away from the commercial broadcasts, did the basketball people come to say "Oakland," when they just couldn't help themselves, because that's whose team it is.

But as I say, we can't help but notice the venues.  We have the "Oracle" Arena, they have the previously unimaginable "Quicken Loans" Arena.  "Quicken Loans Arena."  "Quicken Loans Arena?"  "Quicken Loans Arena."  How easily it springs off the tongue, how mellifluous the sound, how so very ... oh how so very American.

George, George Orwell, are you there?  George?  George, does language characterize a country, or what?  What evil lurks in the heart of man?  What language depicts the very essence of being?  Billboards?  How quaint!  Billboards?  That's ridiculous.  That's nine o'clock in the morning, before the Congress was owned, before the rules were changed, before 1984 and 2001 had come.  Way before.

What are we going to get at high noon?  One can't tell the future, but I'd say, let's move on from sports and arenas, let's get on to cities.  We need to commercialize to save beleaguered cities.  I can see, not just "Oakland," but "Google-Oakland, California."  That should solve Oakland's budget deficit.  And what about states?  Brownback's Kansas problem could be saved by a little inventiveness and entrepreneurship.  How about "Monsanto-Kansas, USA?"

But if you think about it, that's probably just 11 o'clock.  At 11:30, we'll move into the Federal Government.  I'd start with the legislative committees.  How about the "Exxon-Mobil House Judiciary Committee?"  How about the "Koch Industries Senate Finance Committee?"  And that's just the legislature.  The executive branch can't be far off, let alone Scalia's and Alito's judiciary.  We can see it now.  American ingenuity springs eternal.   What deficit problem?

Come on, country!  Let's not stop halfway.  Is this a great country, or what?  Let's make it pay!

But I digress, I digress.  For now, just for now perhaps, but just for now, we'll take what we are given.  We are given a team that brings us joy, that makes us proud, that shows that despite all the glitter and the distractions and the diversions and the craven lack of taste that is network television, despite the names, despite the prices, despite the pressures of the world, despite everything, there is still poetry in the world, there is still a drive to perfection, there is still a place where work and work and drive and work and inspiration pay off in what was just a possibility.  Now they will see what it's like to experience a triumph of performance art, and I will go to the parade on Friday and hope not to get injured -- after all, it's Oakland -- and we will wait to think about next year at least until baseball season is drawing to an end.  Baseball season, at Arena, and AT&T Park.

Budd Shenkin

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Shenkins and ScotRail - Denouement

The denouement of the Shenkins' ScotRail adventure approached! This weekend was the expected date of publication for the latest muckraking article by acclaimed BBC personal finance reporter Brian Milligan, this time highlighting the unethical business policies of UK railroads in issuing vouchers rather than cash to reimburse passengers! Who was to be featured? US visitors Budd and Ann Shenkin, whose outraged and ironic comments would turn up the heat on the business bureaucratic miscreants. All was going according to plan.

Then, just before the weekend, I received an email from Brian. There was good and bad news. The good news was this: the so-called Rail Delivery Group had just announced that they were rescinding their policy that had stood for 20 years, and would be reimbursing customers in cash! A great win for train passengers in the UK!

The bad news was this: now the article would not be an outraged, inflammatory feature article, but a news article that, while triumphant, would have a reduced profile, and the Shenkins' comments would be curtailed. Yes, sports fans, for the purposes of the article, it was a case of Premature Capitulation.

Still, what a triumph! The long suffering UK consumers had won a small victory, and possibly (I actually doubt it, by my friend Nick Mathew, a Brit here in Berkeley, urges us to claim it as our own, nonetheless) we had a part in it. O happy day! And, most importantly of course, we got our picture in the BBC. BBC!

So, without further ado, here is the URL, the picture, and the article.


End of the line for rail compensation vouchers

By Brian Milligan Personal finance reporter
  • 6 June 2015
  • From the section Business
Millions of rail passengers who suffer travel delays will soon be able to claim refunds in cash, after a major policy change, the BBC has learned.
Up to now most train companies have only offered vouchers as compensation.
The voucher system has long been criticised by consumer groups, as vouchers cannot always be used online or to access the cheapest fares.
The Rail Delivery Group, representing train operators and Network Rail, said the change would come in this summer.
"Planned changes to the National Rail Conditions of Carriage will enable passengers to claim their compensation in cash, instead of rail vouchers," said a spokesman.
"This will be a welcome move for passengers."
It is not yet known whether customers with existing vouchers will be able to swap them for cash.

'Our money'

The move marks a major change in policy, as the current voucher system has been in place for around 20 years.
The news was welcomed by Transport Focus, which has campaigned on the issue for some time.
James Daley, a consumer expert with Fairer Finance, called it "a victory for common sense".

Ann and Budd Shenkin were initially told they couldn't have their money back
It was also welcomed by Budd Shenkin and his wife Ann, two Californian tourists who were frustrated by the voucher system.
After paying for first-class tickets on a train from Inverness to Edinburgh last month, they boarded the train to find no first class available.
When they tried to get a refund at the ticket office, they were told they could only have vouchers - of little use to a couple only in the UK on holiday.
"They sold us seats that didn't exist - and then wouldn't give us our money back," said Ann, a retired lawyer.
But her husband Budd said he was pleased to see that good sense had now prevailed.
"Implementation is always an issue, however," he told the BBC.
"Nothing short of putting a credit onto the customer's credit card without a physical visit to the office should be acceptable."
After being approached by the BBC, ScotRail eventually agreed to refund their money.
Most people don't claim compensation they are entitled to

Delay Repay

However, Transport Focus is still concerned that too few people claim refunds when their trains are delayed.
In a survey published in 2013, it found that 88% of passengers entitled to compensation did not bother to ask for it.
And that's despite the fact that the rules on compensation have been widely toughened up.
Nearly half of the 26 train operators have adopted the so-called Delay Repay guarantee, which means passengers are entitled to redress after a delay of as little as 30 minutes.
Furthermore, those train companies cannot get out of paying by claiming that the delay was not their fault, because they, in their turn, can claim compensation from Network Rail if the delay was caused by signalling problems or other network issues.
The companies not signed up to Delay Repay usually offer compensation when a train is at train is at least 60 minutes late.

More on this story

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Mirabile Dictu -- The BBC Reads Budd's Blog!

Picture:  Budd and Ann at the BBC, picture by Brian Milligan, BBC personal finance reporter

What does one do with unpublished and unpublishable writing? It used to be that you could type it up on a typewriter and stick it in a file cabinet, so you could be discovered after your death as a “genius undiscovered during his lifetime.” Or as a schizophrenic. Whatever.

But the digital age has changed it all. We use word processing instead of a typewriter, and we have blogs. Blogs! No longer need we file it away in our house for our mother to throw it all away – sorry, that was baseball cards. Crazy writing she might keep. But no, now we have blogs. We can type away on our computers and post it on a blog for all to see. URL's are marvelous things, accessible to all.

So I have blogged away, usually feeling that each entry is to be read chiefly by my friend Bob, who dutifully and enthusiastically comments nearly instantly on each one. But that's enough! One reader is enough for me, especially if it's Bob, who rarely has anything negative to say, and when he does, it's artfully couched in terms that will not offend. For truth be told, he writes a blog too –, and I read and am enthusiastic and couch any criticism artfully. It's a wonderful arrangement.

But then there is counter evidence to my supposed small readership. As of this writing Google tells me that I have had over 108,000 page views for the life of my blog! That's a lot, even if my own looking at my pages counts, which it does. Some of my blogs have been picked up by friends and colleagues and tweeted to the attention of others and I've had a lot of views for some of my posts – my August 2011 post on my trip to Neurosurgeryland, my post on the NFL crisis with Ray Rice and how I traced it to a lack of pediatric training, wanting to yell to Ray as I saw him on his video, “Ray! Use your words!” So, others beside Bob do read it.

But then this week occurred a great coup de théâtre. Believe it or not, sports fans, but after my ScotRail post, I got an email from Brian Milligan, who might not be a household word yet, but he writes on personal financial affairs for the BBC on-line – that's right, the British Broadcasting Company, the biggest such institution in the world! Contacting little me. I blush.

Seems as though some search engine had picked up my blog for a consumer transportation website in the UK, and Brian had found it there and read it. Seems as though this train ticket issue has been observed and protested about before, and seems as though we are the perfect test case. For others, issuing vouchers instead of credit card credits is a pain, such a pain that most afflicted passengers just let it go without claiming them or cashing them in. But in our case, visitors to the UK, it's perfectly clear that we will never be able to reclaim our money, which has essentially been stolen from us by unethical business practices by ScotRail. Perfect test case.

And, as Brian explained when Ann and I met him for an interview on Monday – happily, our hotel, the Langham, was literally across the street from BBC London – the British rail system has been pressed by the EU to adopt a more reasonable policy, but the UK-EU situation being what it is, the UK has resisted.

And so, Bob, and anyone else who might be reading, come this weekend, we expect that Brian will be posting an article on our plight and the more general issue of this policy on the BBC on-line. And, odds are that Ann and I will have our picture along with it. I feel like Paul Lynde in Bye Bye Birdie, when he envisioned himself being on the Ed Sullivan Show – “Ed Sullivan!  Ed Sullivan” he intoned dreamily, in one of the best numbers ever on Broadway. Hear me as I intone, “BBC!  BBC!”

And then, after the interview, Brian showed us around the BBC building top to bottom. He thought that there's “not much to see,” but that wasn't our view. Interesting and impressive.


And I asked him if he could put the URL for Budd's Blog in the article so I could get some more hits. But whether or not he does, I know Bob will read it.

Budd Shenkin

Monday, June 1, 2015

ScotRail Replies, and We Are Sad

Well, it seems that ScotRail still thinks that since we paid them for the seat they couldn't produce, it still is our problem to get our repayment -- we have to go to Scotland and either take a train ride or seek money back in return.  I understand that in addition, even if we wanted to take a train ride, the vouchers would not be good for promotional fares.  And we have only 28 days in which to exchange for cash!

ScotRail, O! ScotRail!  Why do you continue to fail us?  How did we offend you, that you treat us like this?  We want to love you, we really do -- but you are making it very hard.

Budd Shenkin