Saturday, August 12, 2006

Patrick's return

The last thing Patrick Neal needed was $8,000 from the Army. The son perhaps the greatest nine-fingered litigator in the world, money had never been a motivation for him to join the Army. Instead, he wanted to lead men, help repair America's damaged standing in the world and perhaps launch a political career.

But no sooner had he arrived at Officer Candidate School this January did he begin to doubt the nobility of the institution he had joined. The very first day, officers briefly mentioned problems that had arisen with the signing bonuses that recruiters had promised them. As Patrick would learn later, the Army was trying to figure out a way around a provision of U.S. code that prohibits offering signing bonuses to officers.

No one mentioned the bonuses again until the day before the class of 115 was due to graduate and receive their commissions. Junior officers circulated a memo advising the candidates that the bonuses would not be paid, and told everyone they had to sign it. Pat, of course, did not sign it, reasoning that if he had a contract that called for him to receive an $8,000 signing bonus that he was never going to get, that contract was invalid.

Over the course of the next three months, Patrick's case sparked a clash between his superior officers that would eventually force a change in the Army's policy. After some initial harrassment, Patrick received a commission as a second lieutenant and an honorable discharge. He returned home Wednesday to yellow ribbons and American flags. (A "Mission Accomplished" was not arranged in time).

For his friends and family, Patrick's safe return after what he called his free trial in the Army is by far the most important issue. But the larger questions are still very troubling. Why were recruiters making promises they could not deliver? How many officials knew about this and why did they approve it? How many other people have been lied to?

At an impromptu welcoming party for Patrick, at which his mother smiled for the first time in a year, we discussed the case of Steven Green, the soldier accused of raping a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and then murdering her and her entire family. Green, despite at least two misdemeanor crimes on his record, received a "moral waiver" that allowed him to enlist. He was honorably discharged before the allegations against him came to light. His case has very little in common with Patrick's, but they both show the desperation tactics to which military recruiters have resorted in order to fulfill their quotas.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The writing on the wall

Joseph Krueger, I have some good news for you.

Sure, a judge increased your bail $1 million after you and your friend allegedly attacked a black man in Pioneer Park while yelling white supremacist statements. And maybe everybody is planning public gatherings and vigils to denounce you. And then there's that pesky (albeit unverified) rumor about a man showing up to your court with sleeves rolled up to show his white power tattoo.

But here's the good news: Your mother believes you.

The editor chose to bury my favorite quote from her interview with the Ceres Courier -- "Actually all their friends are mainly hispanic and lots of blacks." It reminds me of a guy I lived with in college. We affectionately called him "Angry White Ben." Born in New Hampshire, the Ceres of New England, he used to angrily defend himself against charges of racism by arguing that he knew several Jewish kids growing up.

At one point, he told me that the reason the Native American tribes were wiped out was because of their failure to "see the writing on the wall."

"They were up against a superior force," he said.

This, of course, presented me with a rare opportunity to win an argument by beating someone up. In short, he didn't see the writing on the wall.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Lucky for him our sh*t doesn't stink

Three-and-a-half years ago, the city of Los Altos dumped 36,000 gallons of raw sewage into Tom Burns' house. Tree roots clogging the sewer line sent enough waste to fill two swimming pools pouring out of the sinks, drains and toilets throughout the house, forcing Burns to move out for 9 months and, not surprisingly, leading to a bitter public and courtroom fight. The case has put the city's aging sewer system in the spotlight, including an alleged coverup of overflows into Adobe Creek and nearly a dozen other instances in which the city has paid damages to homeowners.

Somehow, Burns lost the case, and the two sides are in court again this afternoon to hear his appeal in the case. Burns wants the city to pay more than a million in damages, but the city is sticking to its argument that Burns was at fault for not installing a backflow device, an argument that the judge apparently bought the first time around.

A friend says Burns, a rheumatologist, is also working on a book in the case. If nothing else, it should have a good title.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Wait until our 10-year reunion

As president of the Los Altos High class of 1998, [name redacted] left Los Altos (among other things) a $500 tug-of-war rope as well as the best quote I have ever managed to print in any article ("Jon, why do you have to ruin everything good?").

[Name redacted] is also the person responsible for calling off our five-year reunion, reasoning that nobody was doing anything interesting enough at that point to justify a reunion anyway. Better to wait until we've been out 10 years when people have better stories to tell. Personally, I think I'd have been prouder to tell people that I was the water polo coach and a reporter for a local paper than that I'm in law school, but hopefully the rest of you 98ers will take advantage of the opportunity to do something interesting in the next year and a half or so.

For her part, [name redacted] will be done with law school. She's entering her third year at George Washington and worked as an intern for Dianne Feinstein this summer. When I visited her recently, she introduced me to the culture of Hill interns and political consultants.

"I've been working on campaigns since 1992," said one 24-year-old, who proceeded to introduce the CFO of her 2010 campaign for Washington State's 4th Congressional District.

[Name redacted] also volunteers with Human Rights Watch's Guantanamo project and periodically saves the lives of crime victims. She is open to suggestions about where and when to hold the reunion (I said Safeway Parking Lot, but that didn't go over well).

"Here's a quote for you, Jon," says [name redacted]. "Jon Wiener is as reliable as your drugstore tabloids. I think you should learn how to draw a boundary between work and play."

MV loves the hook-ups

An e-mail from Ellen Fletcher, former Mayor of Palo Alto, to the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition listserver:

"We urgently need more volunteers for the three-day Grand Opening of the new REI store in Mountain View today, Saturday and Sunday.

I had recruited three volunteers for each shift, thinking that would be more than enough. However, between 8 am and 10 am this morning seven of us were working and there was a line of bicyclists waiting to have their bikes parked.

When we got there at 8 there were already people in line, many, if not all, had slept there overnight. By 10 the line had gone around all the buildings next to REI all the way to the back parking lot - maybe 1,000 people!"


Thursday, August 03, 2006

The best-educated burrito truck in England

One is a Los Altos High School valedictorian, Ivy League graduate with a master's from Cambridge. The other has an L.L.M. from the University of Texas. Together, they are mannamexico.

British people have an odd habit of greeting each other by asking, "You alright?" (At least that is what it sounds like they are saying). This is perhaps because of the fact that British people are frequently not alright, according to Friends of the Earth's rather ridiculous Happy Planet Index. People I have met here offer a few possible explanations from this. The cost of living is incredibly high, leading to a widening disparity between rich and poor. The weather is dreary. But, most of all, the food is terrible. So much so that the national newspaper is lamenting the decline of dishes such as pigs' cheeks in brine and boiled calf's foot. A burrito truck (they are currently looking to expand into a storefront) doesn't sound like quite such a bad idea, now, does it?

As the newspaper boy was yelling as we boarded the tube to Cockfosters, "Get it before the panic buying starts!"

REI opening tomorrow

A year after notifying the Mercury that it were planning to open a store at Charleston Plaza in order to keep the story from coming out first in the Voice (but who's bitter?), the new REI is finally ready to go, and they've got a pretty good opening weekend planned.

Doors open at 10:00 a.m. each day, with the first 200 people through the door getting free gift certificates of $5 (or perhaps more). Among other offers, the store is serving free breakfast at 9:00 a.m., and donating $10 to the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition for every person that takes advantage of the guarded bike parking the group is providing.

Was it a racism test?

Quick, name something for which the cities of Los Altos and Los Altos Hills both deserve A+ grades. Spraying raw sewage into people's living rooms? How about their creeks? Racist and illegal ordinances that cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars? Embarrassing public debates about "the gay agenda" or the overly diverse nature of local high schools (both of which also wound up costing taxpayers thousands of dollars)?

If you guessed helping address housing affordability, you would be right, according to the Bay Area Council. In a laughable report issued two weeks ago, LA and LAH received A+ grades for their commitment to helping the Bay Area achieve a sustainable balance between housing and jobs. Mountain View, with far greater residential density in its existing neighborhoods and 3,000 new units planned for vacant industrial areas near transit lines, received an F.

MV cleanup costs likely to rise

Fairchild can stop telling Jane Horton that her son has nothing to worry about.

Five years ago, under heavy pressure from the Pentagon and manufacturing companies like Fairchild, the Bush administration ordered the National Academy of Sciences to review a new finding by the EPA that a chemical solvent known as TCE was 70 times more likely to cause cancer than previously thought. At the time, the move helped polluters keep their cleanup costs down while frustrating those who lived on or near Superfund sites contaminated with the solvent.

The National Academy released its report last week, and the conclusion vindicates the EPA gives the agency the go-ahead to finalize its earlier finding. What this means in terms of real consequences for Mountain View's eight Superfund sites is unclear. Locally, the EPA has always tested for the provisional standard, and -- despite being powerless to compel polluters such as Fairchild Semiconductor, Raytheon and the Navy to factor it into their cleanup plans -- has generally received good cooperation from these parties.

The Navy's decision to reconsider a proposal to demolish Hangar One has earned most of the attention this week. But though this this story has gone largely unnoticed in the local press, it has much wider implications.

I wouldn't be surprised if the new standard is the nail in the coffin of the already embattled plan to demolish Moffett Field's Orion Park housing development and build a reserve training center on the contaminated land there. The Navy and EPA and semiconductor manufacturers appear to have made little progress towards determining responsibility for the cleanup.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Enjoy Venice while it lasts

There is something vaguely terrifying about Venice. Part of it is the sense of impending doom hanging over a city that already floods during high tides 250 times a year. Part of it is that the people seem to be missing -- city leaders banished the glassblowers and Jews to separate islands centuries ago, and most of the 67,000 remaining residents (outnumbered 3-1 by tourists) make their livings hawking papier-mache masks and crappy gelato. But mostly, the strangest thing about Venice is that there are no cars.

So, why is this terrifying? Because Venice is not the utopia that one would expect to naturally grow in the absence of automobiles. Aside from the total lack of green space and natural light, the place just seems wrong. Maybe I've been around cars so much that the world doesn't feel right without them, the same way that silence can be deafening to someone who moves from Niagara Falls. Let's hope that's not true, although if it is.

In another note, I did what I believe to be the first Mitzvah of my trip today, when a Hasidic Yeshiva student convinced me to put on the tefillin prayer boxes and say the shema ("Oye Israel, God is our God, etc. etc." in the gender-neutral parlance). I told him I was a member of a Reform congregation -- the same revelation that once prompted Roy Dar to say "You might as well say you don't have a religion" -- so he made me repeat after him.

We finished up by saying, "we want/Messiah/now." I realize may seem awkward to those of you who believe the Messiah already came and my people killed him, but bear with me. I barely managed to stifle a laugh. Personally, I'm not sure I want the Messiah to arrive quite yet. I think I might need some more time. But even if I did, I don't think that trying to recreate European ghettoes is the way to lure said Messiah to Earth.

Unfortunately, when I took that class on the ghetto in college, I didn't actually read either the book about The Ghetto of Venice or Hasidic People, both of which contained knowledge that might have been helpful today.