Archive for the ‘Government’ Category


March 22, 2017

In a previous post I alluded to the loss of N’Golo Kanté as a possible factor in Leicester City FC’s dismal performance in the season at that time (only five wins in 25 league games), in contrast with their winning the Premier League championship the previous season. This poor record led to the firing of the celebrated coach Claudio Ranieri, who previously had been widely praised for last year’s miracle finish.

But something funny has happened since. Under the management of the unheralded Craig Shakespeare, who had never been anything but an assistant manager (and, for one game, a caretaker manager), the club has won not only three straight League games, but overcame a first-leg loss to Sevilla to win on aggregate and advance to the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals, the only English team to do so.

I have long been skeptical of the value of “supermanagers” (be they sports coaches, company CEOs, city managers, police chiefs, school superintendents, or university presidents), typically hired by the institution’s governing board amid great fanfare and after a national or international search, and usually based on the candidate’s supposedly stellar performance at another institution.

The hiring of celebrity architects for public buildings falls into the same category.

What such individuals have in common is a talent for self-promotion (I have written about one such specimen here and here, and another one here).

And what I used to find surprising is the ease with which the boards fall for the spiel. After all, corporate and institutional boards, city councils and the like are supposed to be made up of smart people, who — one would think — could see past the bullshit, as glibly as it may be presented.

But I am no longer surprised. They are, I have found, not all that smart. Typically, they have attained their positions as a reward for  some success in life, and this success (often due to luck) has led them to believe that they are smart. So that they are, in fact, under the same self-aggrandizing illusion as the candidates that they interview for management positions.

That makes it hard to see past the self-promotion.


I squared

February 3, 2017

A couple of years ago I published a post titled I, meaning not the subjective first-person singular pronoun but an abbreviation of “incompetence.” I focused on the California Department of Transportation, and mentioned in passing the CIA and FBI, where I interpreted the I in the abbreviations as just that.

My discussion in that post was based on observation, not personal experience. But since my mother died, two months ago, I have had the opportunity of experiencing institutional incompetence first-hand, and specifically with respect to institutions dealing with insurance of one kind or another. I’m therefore calling this post I2, for Insurance Incompetence.

There were three institutions that gave me this opportunity, one governmental and two private. The governmental one is, of course, the Social Security Administration (SSA), and this is the one I will discuss today.

On January 28 I received this letter, addressed to my mother:


Now, my mother died last December 3, and, since I was told by both her social worker and the funeral director that the mortuary would inform SSA of her death, I didn’t think that I needed to bother doing so, until, some time in early January, I noticed that a Social Security payment had been credited to her account. I immediately called SSA, and when I finally reached a representative, I was told that they had not been notified of her death, but that it would be registered right away. So, imagine my surprise at receiving the letter, sent about three weeks after that.

Since the letter gave me the direct line of Mrs. X, I called it as soon as I could. Of course I got her voicemail, and left a message to call me back (which the outgoing message promised to do “as soon as possible”). There was no callback, so I called again the next day, and this time I got her. When I identified myself there was no acknowledgment of my message, and, once again, I was told that there was no record of her death. Would I please fax a copy of her death certificate? After I did that I was assured that there would be no more payments, and that the surplus payment would be deducted by the Treasury.

Guess what? Today another payment appeared in my mother’s account.

Next time: private insurers.


May 6, 2016

A few weeks ago I published a post titled “Cities,” and just the other day one titled “M Cities.” Here I go again, with “City.” And they have nothing to do with each other.

In the Unites States, on forms that require someone to fill in their address, the space for street address is almost invariably followed by “City, state, ZIP code.” There is one big exception: federal tax forms, in place of “City,” have “City, town or post office.” But state tax forms, at least in California and New York, have the usual “City.”

This has never been a problem for me. All the places where I have lived in the US have been cities, and in every one of them the name of the post office has been the same as the name of the city. So that there has never been any doubt about writing Los Angeles, New York, Berkeley, or El Cerrito.

But there are many possibilities where this might not be the case.

First of all, many Americans do not live in cities. They might live in incorporated municipalities that are not called “city” but town, township, borough or village — the federal “town” is, I suppose, a stand-in for any of these — or in unincorporated areas. The post office serving such an area may or may not have the same name as the corresponding locality; sometimes it is, in fact, that of a nearby city, possibly leading a correspondent to believe that the person lives in the city in question. A case in point is the unincorporated area of East Los Angeles, whose addresses are listed as Los Angeles.

Next, there is the case of large cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, that have annexed nearby localities which nevertheless have kept their postal names. In New York, only Manhattan addresses have New York, NY as the “city”; otherwise it’s Brooklyn, Bronx, Staten Island, or any of the various districts that make up Queens. In Los Angeles, the districts of the San Fernando Valley, the western area (West Los Angeles and Westwood) and the harbor area (San Pedro and Wilmington) have their own post offices. Addresses in Hollywood can be either “Hollywood” or “Los Angeles”, and the ZIP-code areas of the separate city of West Hollywood overlap with those of Los Angeles, leading to further confusion. I have often found in online searches for my mother’s house, located in Los Angeles, listed as being in West Hollywood because of a shared ZIP code. Similarly, when I lived in the Thousand Oaks district of Berkeley,  whose ZIP code is shared with the nearby village of Kensington (I call it a village, though the term isn’t used in California, since it’s a small unincorporated area with some limited self-government), I would sometimes get mail addressed to me as though I lived in Kensington. (One time this created confusion with a tax return: Kensington is in a different county from Berkeley and, since at the time the two counties had different locations for mailing tax returns, some clerk at the Internal Revenue Service confused ZIP codes with counties and informed me that I had sent my return to the wrong place.)

And then we have neighboring cities where an area of one city is served, for the convenience of the Postal Service, by a post office located in the other city. An example of this is half a mile from my house, where San Pablo Avenue divides El Cerrito on the east from Richmond on the west, but both sides of the avenue are served by the El Cerrito post office. There are thus businesses on the Richmond side that not only have an El Cerrito address but even put “El Cerrito” in their names; but they are not in El Cerrito.

Also, the eastern portion of the Berkeley campus of the University of California lies within the city of Oakland, but of course the university’s installations in that area, including the Lawrence Berkeley (sic!)  National Laboratory and the Lawrence Hall of Science, carry the university’s Berkeley address and are thought of by most people as being in Berkeley.

In the United Kingdom, the Royal Mail has created the concept of “post town” to cover all addresses, it being understood that the post town is not necessarily the same as the actual town (or city or borough or whatever) where the address is located. How about “postal city” to cover the same need in the US?







Of the French

August 15, 2015

In cryptic-crossword clues, “of the French” is usually translated as the sequence DU or DES, since the French words du and des can both be translated as “of the” — the former in reference to a singular masculine noun, the latter to a plural of either gender. For singular feminine it would be de la, but I don’t recall ever seeing DELA so clued.

I don’t mean to write about crosswords, however, but about the fact that for a year or so (1791-92) following the French Revolution, when France was a constitutional monarchy, Louis XVI’s title was changed under Constitution of 1791 from King of France and Navarre (Roi de France et de Navarre) to King of the French (Roi des Français). The same style was adopted later by Louis-Philippe (1830–1848), and an analogous one (Emperor of the French) by both Napoleons. Only under the Bourbon Restoration (1815–1830) was the old style revived.

Moreover, every time that France has been governed as a republic it has been as République Française (French Republic), not, say, République de France. It seems as if the use of the demonym rather than the toponym made the regime seem less autocratic and more “popular.” But, as the royalist historian Guy Augé has pointed out, the change to Roi des Français was a “curious and unconscious return to the expressions of Medieval Latin.” In fact, the Old French Rei des Franceis was a meant as a literal translation of the Latin Rex Francorum, a title that had been used continuously until about 1190 and intermittently — alternating with Rex Franciae — thereafter. I have found only one instance of Rei des Franceis in an official document; it dates from 1266, a time when such documents in anything but Latin were extremely rare.

Rex Francorum (King of the Franks) was originally a tribal title, first used in the 5th century by Clovis I, at a time when Germanic warrior tribes moved around Europe and their rulers governed whatever territory they happened to conquer. Clovis ruled over much of what is now France (the French consider him to be their first king), but divided his kingdom among four sons, every of whom was also called Rex Francorum, and so it went on for the next several centuries when the kingdom was repeatedly reunified and redivided.

The Franks, like the other Germanic peoples who invaded various parts of the Roman Empire, came to constitute a warrior caste that governed their territory, and Rex Francorum meant, essentially, something like warrior in chief. The territory that they ruled came to be called Francia. In the 9th century, under Charlemagne, a distinction began to be made between western (Occidentalis) and eastern (Orientalis) Francia, the latter being the land inhabited mainly by Germans. The division became official at the Treaty of Verdun (843), in which a middle kingdom (Francia Media) was also created, but this soon thereafter became known as Lotharingia. During most of the 9th century several of the Frankish kings (east and west) also held the title of Roman Emperor, which was the primary title they used, and those who didn’t usually called themselves simply Rex so as not to limit the extent of their reign, in contrast with the fact that in reality their actual rule did not extend beyond their immediate fiefs while their vassal dukes and counts became more and more independent.

In the 10th century the imperial title became a monopoly of the Eastern kings, who stopped using any reference to the Franks; the first of these emperor-kings, Otto I, was not a Frank but a Saxon. Now only the Western kings, beginning with Charles the Simple, used the title Rex Francorum, and by the 11th the term Franci (Franks) lost its ethnic significance and came to mean all those who were vassals of those kings, if only in name. Normandy and Catalonia, for example, were at the time a virtually independent duchy and principality, respectively. The former’s dukes were, of course, ethnic Norsemen, and the latter’s princes — known as Counts of Barcelona — were of Visigoth descent. Nevertheless, in the Bayeux Tapestry the Normans conquering England are called Franci, and in the Poem of El Cid francos refer to Catalans.

By the 11th century the name Francia, previously confined to Latin documents, passed into the vernacular as France. Before that, France had another meaning. In the 9th century the counts of Paris were also called Duke of the Franks (Dux Francorum), and the territory of which they were overlords — Paris and some counties surrounding it — was also called Francia. It is much more likely that a term will be adopted into the vernacular if it corresponds to everyday experience, and the denizens of this region came to call it France, alongside the demonym franceis (modern Français), to contrast it with neighboring regions such as Normandy and Champagne; the larger Francia was not of much importance to ordinary people. This usage survives in place names, such as Roissy-en-France (the home of Charles de Gaulle airport) as distinct from another Roissy which is in the old county of Meaux, at the time a fief of the counts of Champagne, and in the division of geographic formations such Vexin to the west into Vexin français and Vexin normand, and Brie to the east into Brie française and Brie champenoise. But in the 11th century Franceis came to be the French equivalent of the Latin Francus, and was used retroactively in the Song of Roland, interchangeably with Francs, to refer to Charlemagne’s Franks fighting in Spain.

Note, however, that all these references to Franks or Franceis are to fighting men, from knights to dukes, and not to commoners. The title Rex Francorum (or Rei des Franceis) continued to carry the meaning of leader of the warrior caste, not of the common people. The change to Roi de France meant that the king ruled over all the people of his territory, including the increasingly important merchant and artisan classes of the cities, which struggled with the crown for autonomy throughout the later Middle Ages. This is just the opposite of what the French revolutionaries had in mind.



November 3, 2014

Every so often — too often, alas — I find myself forced to refer to the CIA or the FBI as the Central Incompetence Agency or the Federal Bureau of Incompetence, respectively.

But the government agency that to me represents the ultimate in bureaucratic incompetence has, unfortunately for me, no I in its common designation. I am referring to the California Department of Transportation, commonly known as Caltrans. I have yet to find a derogatory name for it that would properly show what I think of it.

The department’s disastrous mishandling of the rebuilding of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge following the Loma Prieta earthquake (almost exactly 25 years ago!) has been thoroughly documented in a long series of articles by Jaxon Van Derbeken  in the San Francisco Chronicle, and I don’t think I need to dwell on them. What I’d like to write about is the many little ways in which a driver on California’s freeways can be annoyed or inconvenienced by the department’s incompetence. I had thought, at one time, that I would collect a long list and write about its items in one fell swoop. That is impractical; I can’t very well take notes or pictures while driving. So I’m going to do a few at a time. I will begin with three illustrations gleaned from the Web.


report-drunk-driversThis electronic sign is ubiquitous along California’s freeways. What does it mean?

First off, it’s illegal to use one’s mobile phone while driving, so that only passengers can comply with the request. And what does it mean to “report drunk drivers”? Drunk driving is a felony under the law, and one therefore does not become a “drunk driver” unless duly tried and convicted. So what it possibly might mean is, maybe, “seemingly drunk drivers” or something like that. And how is someone in a moving car to determine who seems to be drunk? Obviously weaving might be an indication, but this is very rarely observed. So, all in all, the sign is meaningless at best and confusing at worst.


fractionIt’s nice that the distances to nearby exits are posted on signs. But how is one to use this information? For an engineer there’s of course no problem: we can convert ordinary fractions to decimal ones in a flash, and use the odometer. But this is an example of what the linguist Geoff Pullum has called nerdview, characterized by the way that “people with any kind of technical knowledge of a domain tend to get hopelessly (and unwittingly) stuck in a frame of reference that relates to their view of the issue, […] not that of the ordinary humans with whom they so signally fail to engage.” Odometers, of course, register only decimal fractions of miles, but a great many people are not able to convert ordinary to decimal fractions in a matter of seconds, and so signs like the one above are useless to them. Not to mention that other distances are sometimes shown as 500 or 1000 or 2000 feet!


interchangeHere we are on an eastbound street and are told that to take the southbound freeway we need to be in the right lane in order to make a right turn. Great! To take the northbound freeway, we go straight. But then what? If the interchange is a cloverleaf, we would need to turn right and therefore stay in the rightmost lane that goes under the overpass. If, on the other hand, it’s a diamond, we would need to turn left and therefore be in the leftmost lane. In most cases we don’t find this out until we are very close to the on-ramp. Note that there no markings on the roadway, only the overhead sign. And often (I have no picture to illustrate this now, but I’ll try to find one) the road is a curving one so that the lane that the sign appears to be over is not the one that it refers to.

Silly, niggling things, aren’t they? But they show a culture of not doing the work competently.

More in future posts.