The Editor's Back Fence

The Editor's Back Fence

By Becky O'Malley
Monday June 09, 2008 - 12:23:00 PM

June is a month of final acts: graduations, performances, recitals. We’ve gone to several recitals in the last two weeks and enjoyed every one. Nothing beats the sight of a bunch of fresh-faced kids polished until they shine and on their best behavior, enjoying themselves—albeit with a bit of tension—making music or dancing. And if the music sounds good, or if the dancing delights, that’s a plus, but it isn’t really about the product, it’s about the process. 

Music teachers are miraculous. Most of them operate on a shoestring, often out of home. They’ve voluntarily taken on the burden of transmitting the common culture from their own generation to the next, and they take their job seriously. For the latest recital over the weekend one of the young musicians drew a charming program cover and the teacher added a few words of comment on the back.  

She pointed out that studies show that on average music students get higher SAT scores than their peers. That’s probably true, but is it the consequence of having studied music, or does being a better student (or at least a better test taker) also help you concentrate on learning music? 

Impossible to tell, because in the average group of recital performers and their families we’re firmly in the world of Lake Wobegon, where “all the children are above average.” How could they not be, when the parents work so hard to pay for lessons, and struggle to make sure the kids get there and constantly encourage them to practice? The kids at the recitals we went to are a fortunate group. They clearly benefit from all that attention, and it’s good for them whether or not they turn out to have musical talent in the end.  

Time was, not long ago, when most children had at least some exposure to music at school. Not now, or at least not in California. You can bet that Governor Schwarzenegger, whose sizeable fortune comes from the entertainment industry, makes sure that his four kids have their music lessons, or if he doesn’t Maria surely does. They go to private schools, of course. But what about the vast majority of California kids? As budgets get cut, school music is an easy target—any time you turn your back some eager budget balancer has axed a part of the music program, even in Berkeley, and it’s worse elsewhere.  

It’s sometimes believed that studying music, particularly European-American classical music or African-American classic jazz, is an elite pursuit. But the bouquet of faces at the recitals we went to, all shapes and colors and sizes, and the assortment of nations represented in the names on the program, many improbably hyphenated to reflect national origins separated by whole oceans and continents, indicate otherwise. It’s clear that studying music doesn’t divide people, it brings them together.  

These students all seemed to be having fun, which was not always the case for music students in the past. Even after the formal program was over on Sunday, they noodled around on the instruments just for pleasure while the adults enjoyed punch and cookies. That’s a lifetime benefit of learning to play an instrument: it’s something you can always enjoy doing, even if you never get to be a virtuoso. It beats video games hands down. 

But the final product of each year’s process, the recital performance, has a special value that’s different from just enjoying making a little music from time to time. Even if it’s not ultimately perfect, there’s nothing which quite matches the experience of working toward a goal and getting the adrenaline rush that comes with standing up in front of an audience to show how well you’ve succeeded.  

Several, perhaps most, of the students in Sunday’s recital made small missteps in their pieces, lost their place in the score perhaps, but all without exception made a gracious and almost imperceptible recovery before the end. That’s a lesson in itself.  

We don’t know whether little Hillary Rodham took music lessons when she was a girl in the Chicago suburbs. Chances are that she did, because most girls like her did in those days, and she probably participated in her share of recitals. If so, it was good preparation for the final performance she was called upon to produce on Saturday. 

When the Democratic primary race was getting off the ground, a girl of my acquaintance, a beginning music student, was asked whom she was supporting. This is a child who said “dumb Bush” when she saw him on television at 2 and a half, and had a Kerry sticker on her bedroom wall by the time she was 3. At the ripe old age of 6 she is looking forward to the next election.  

“I’m for Hillary, because I’m a girl and she’s a girl”, she said at first. But as the race progressed she was swept up in the general excitement and moved by other considerations to a more sophisticated set of criteria which eventually brought her to Obama. 

Many of us, especially those of us blessed with a predominance of daughters and granddaughters, were similarly inclined to go for “the girl” first. Even though we eventually decided that another choice was better, we wanted to see Hillary finish her run with style and grace. That’s why we were pained to see that she appeared to have lost her place in the score in the last couple of months.  

Being the first seriously credible woman candidate for president isn’t just about winning, just as playing in a recital isn’t just about becoming a professional musician. And as of Saturday’s very well-reviewed speech, it looks like Hillary’s recovered her chops just in time, not a moment too soon. Being a role model for future generations of women means showing them how to recover from the occasional mistake or even loss, not just how to win, which is much easier.  

We knew she could do that, though, didn’t we? As faithful Lake Wobegon fans, we know that not only are all of our men good-looking and all of our children above average, but all of our women are strong. Including, as we thought all along, Hillary Rodham Clinton.  


May 30, 2008 


What? You still don't know who to vote for? Even with the editor's endorsements? 

Here are a few tidbits of new information which might help you finally decide. 

Hancock v. Chan (state senate)  

Ignore all the icky mudslinging , theoretically from third parties commonly known as IEs (Independent Expenditures). Both candidates have benefited from these nasty mailers (or suffered from them.) The next reform to the election process should be to regulate this kind of activity, within constitutional limits of course. 

For one last chance to compare the contenders, check out their joint interview on KQED's Forum with Michael Krasny

I caught a couple of questionable Hancock statements in my distracted listening to it while doing other things.  

Asked about the possible fourth tube proposed for the Caldecott Tunnel (Orinda is pro, Berkeley mostly con), she waffled. She said she's been meeting with "neighbors", and that there's no money for it anyhow. But, she said, she thought a good "mitigation" would be to build more housing on this side of the hills.  

That's screwy, especially when coupled with the longstanding Hancock/Bates effort to gentrify West Berkeley for the benefit of land speculators. In the discussions she pointed with pride to her effort to spruce up San Pablo from Richmond to Oakland, but said nothing about where service and light manufacturing jobs all along the route would have to go once San Pablo's lined with big-box condos. Auto repair, salvage, upholstery, bakeries—we need them all. Some of them are messy, noisy or smelly, but building more condos with small, ugly and empty retail pods on the first floor isn't the answer. The condo-dwellers will have to work somewhere, and it’s probably going to be an office park in Dublin, through the tunnel. 

Worthington v. Skinner v. Thurmond v. Polakoff (assembly)  

A fragment of a poll was leaked to this space by a not-terribly-reliable source. It's a week or so old. At that time Skinner was ahead by about 7%, with Worthington next and gaining. Thurmond and Polakoff were far behind.  

Since then, however, Thurmond has been endorsed by the corporate press: Dean Singleton's Media News Group megaconglomerate, also known here as the Bay Area News Group ( including the Contra Costa Times, Oakland Trib, San Jose Mercury and the Hills papers, including the Voice, the Montclarion and the Journal) and the Hearst Corporation's San Francisco Chronicle.  

Worthington has been endorsed by the lonely outposts of the independent press, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and the Berkeley Daily Planet. Skinner and Polakoff haven't been endorsed by the press, but she's the designated successor in the Bates/Aroner/Hancock line.  

Will any of this matter? Who knows? Vote Early and Often, as they used to say in Chicago. 


May 27, 2008 

In today's experiment, the executive editor will answer a couple of letters. We've been longing to try this ever since the paper was started. For years letters to the editor and the editor's often sarcastic replies were the centerpiece of the much-enjoyed Anderson Valley Advertiser. The Greater Berkeley Area takes itself more seriously than the Anderson Valley, so what he did there might not work here. But occasionally we get letters that deserve an answer, serious and not-so-serious.  

Here's a serious one: 

I am sick and tired reading about how bad Willard is. Riya has never had anything good to say about us. Instead of investigating the reality here at Willard, she just rehashes old news about our ex-vice principal and reports on faulty data. Had she spoken with our Principal like any reporter worth their weight would do, she would have a more balanced report. But as with the other articles she has written about us, Riya again just publishes inaccuracies.  

I have been teaching here for 9 years and have seen Willard go from a rough school to a diamond in the rough. Report on our increased API scores last year (biggest gain of all middle schools), report on the fact that in a school survey completed by students and parents, 92% felt that Willard is a safe place, report about the fact that we were the only middle school to reach our participation percentages on the standardized testing last year, report on the fact that we don't hide any data about our school - we are an open book and we have nothing to hide. We know we are good, I just wish those who report about us do their job better and stop bashing Willard.  

Sharon Arthur
6th grade teacher.

I emailed back to Ms. Arthur: The principal refuses to return phone calls. Perhaps you could discuss this with him. The data we published was also in the Chronicle. If the data was faulty, he or anyone is welcome to provide correct data, to us and to the Chronicle.  

But there's much more to say. This case is a good illustration of why Berkeley needs a sunshine ordinance, preferably one which applies to the public schools as well as to the city. Actually, we'd settle for compliance with the California Public Records Act, which is already the law. Riya Bhattacharjee, our education reporter, has gone to great lengths trying unsuccessfully to get accurate data about suspensions at Willard, including a string of CPRA requests which were largely ignored plus many letters and phone calls to all sorts of BUSD officials, also ignored.  

The Chronicle's respected and very experienced education reporter Nanette Asimov had similar problems getting accurate information about what's happening at Willard.. In case you no longer read the Chronicle, here's what she said: 

With 254 incidents, Willard reported one of the highest violent-suspension rates in the Bay Area last year: 1 for every two students, or 54 percent.  

Principal Robert Ithurburn said Willard actually had 177 violence suspensions, a rate of 38 percent. The discrepancy could not be readily explained.  

Either way, Willard's rate far exceeds 5 percent, and Ithurburn said he is working to change a culture of lax supervision.  

It's important to keep good track of what you're doing to know what effect it has. It looks like Willard is suspending lots of kids, but how many and to what effect can't be assessed with no data. 

As regards the departed ex-vice principal, whatever she did or didn't do about suspensions, it's safe to bet that without Bhattacharjee's investigative pieces she'd still be working at Willard. We still don't know exactly why she left so suddenly.  

What's wrong with lots of suspensions? you might ask. As an experienced parent whose three daughters went through Willard, and a grandparent of a current junior high school student in another city, I view suspensions as failures. Whether you're kicking half your kids out of school or only two-fifths of them, when they're not in school they're not learning. And if the parents are working as most are (or are absent, as is the case for all too many students these days) the student is out in the street looking for trouble. 

"Changing a culture of lax supervision" at school, if that's a problem, might be fine, but suspension doesn't solve that one—supervision is not done by students, but by teachers and administrators. And the school my granddaughter attends has almost identical test scores to Willard's when broken down by ethnicity, with a much lower suspension rate. Why is that? 

I answered the question of educators' eternal desire to have only the good news reported in the press long ago, in 2003. Through the magic of the Internet, you can find what I wrote then here. 

Not much seems to have changed. 

And now the less serious answer:  

Dear Editor, 

You comment on the front page of your website, in an article "The Editor's Soapbox," dated May 13, defending your frequency of publication of news, "Friends, there’s new stuff posted on this web site almost every single day: news, opinions both letters and commentary, columnists, you name it, something new every time you turn around..." Today is May 24, and there is not a single article less than ten days old on the front page. There is a "Flash News Update: Man Shot to Death on Durant Avenue" dated May 14. It is embarrassing to call ten day old events "flash news," and even more so to then harass your readers for calling for more frequent updates.  

Scott Fay
Berkeley Resident

My answer to Mr. Fay: 

You don't seem to be looking at the current issue--perhaps you haven't refreshed your browser?  

I make the same mistake myself sometimes—it's easy to do. You can also hit the "current issue" button near the top left of the online Planet's home page to get the latest articles.  


May 20, 2008 

Every week a new experiment...this week, we're trying out a Web-only column of short items. People send us things that are not serious enough or big enough or current enough for a full-fledged news story or a full-dress editorial essay, but are too good to pass up. And increasingly they send us links to good stuff in other Internet locations which Planet readers would like to see.  

This spot (at least this week) will be where to find short takes on interesting or amusing topics between the Thursday print papers. Of course, we expect our readers to contribute most of the items, just as neighbors in the fabled small towns of yore shared gossip over the back fences. Hence the name. 

At first, we thought we should post these on Mondays, but Monday came and went this week. And why not just post them as they arrive? So that's the plan for this week.  

Our goal is to get our on-line readers to check out the Planet Website each and every day, maybe more than once a day, so that they don't miss anything. And it's not just this column....we have something new online—news and columns too—almost every day now.  

Here's just one juicy little item to get the ball rolling. A reader forwarded this invitation: 


Wednesday, May 7th from 5:30 to 7pm
Don Yost & John Norheim
along with co-hosts: ... Mark & Erin Rhoades, Ali
Kashani & Ed Church
Invite you to meet and support Nancy Skinner
At the offices of Norheim & Yost
2332 5th St, Berkeley

Just in case your program doesn't list the names and numbers of all the players: 

Yost and Norheim are the commercial real estate brokers who control most of the listings in beleaguered West Berkeley.  

Mark Rhoades is the former City of Berkeley Director of Current Planning (planning czar), who went through the Planning Department's revolving door to become the business partner of  

Ali Kashani, who was formerly with the non-profit Affordable Housing Associates, but has crossed over to the Dark Side to become an emphatically for-profit developer. 

Mark is also the marital partner of Erin Rhoades, who is also the president of the thinly-camouflaged developers' lobbying group Livable Berkeley. Until Mark left the planning department Erin used her maiden name of Erin Banks in her job with the DCE consulting firm, founded by David Early, which has had a number of lucrative contracts with the City of Berkeley and UC Berkeley. Early was also her predecessor at Livable Berkeley. Presumably Erin used her birth name in an attempt to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest with her husband's job. Caesar's wife, after all, must at least appear to be above suspicion. 

Ed Church is the man behind the attempt to turn the Ashby BART station into a condo-complex, an endeavor which is now on hold because of the huge public outcry which greeted it. No stake has been driven through its heart, or his, however. 

And Nancy Skinner ? She's the anointed candidate of the Bates/Aroner/Hancock organization (never call it a machine, unless you want to get angry letters from old friends) for their successor to the family seat in the California Assembly, and judging from this invitation she also seems to have inherited their developer campaign contributors. Not bad for a beginner. And she's already raised a bundle of money, with more TBD right before the June primary, too late to be reported by the media.  

(Full disclosure: I endorsed Kriss Worthington for the job, long before the B/A/H mantle dropped on Skinner's shoulders.) 


Here's a half hour of comedy viewing for the city council junkies among you. The Acting City Attorney and several of the councilmembers skate right up to the precipice of contempt of court as they fool around with ignoring Judge Frank Roesch's order to rescind an earlier bit of foolishness (he called it "abuse of discretion"), granting extra perks to developer Patrick Kennedy for the notorious Gaia building, now owned by equally notorious rent control foe Sam Zell. The CA wanted to tack on a whole bunch of extra stuff that the Judge had not asked for, but plaintiff Patricia Dacey and her attorney Anna DeLeon finally managed to convince the unwilling members that they might go to jail if they carried on as they were. But you do have to watch the whole episode to get the full nuanced comic flavor. Jump the video to item 11 on the agenda. 


Randy Shaw of Beyond Chron has an excellent analysis of who those "angry working class white voters" who say they won't vote for Obama AREN'T. He says he media are afraid to call a racist a racist. 

---Becky O'Malley 


May 13, 2008 

As our Internet experiment ("daily online, weekly in print") moves forward, we’ve encountered a certain amount of guilt-tripping from our friends and neighbors for “deserting” them on Tuesdays. Everyone seems to like getting their weekend paper earlier, on Thursdays, but they whine that they’ve been accustomed to having another little news fix earlier in the week, and they hate to give it up. Friends, there’s new stuff posted on this web site almost every single day: news, opinions both letters and commentary, columnists, you name it, something new every time you turn around. . . Today, check out the surprise announcement of the Mayor's State of the City Address, something we didn't know about when we put the print paper to bed last week.  

Look for the red datelines to alert you to what's new  

The great thing about the Internet, something you just can't do with print, is that we can also direct you to interesting material that there would never be room for in print, or that we would never have time to organize into print even if we had the room. Case in point: the opinion submission from the people who aren't too happy with AC Transit's Bus Rapid Transit proposal. Technically sophisticated, they turned in their thoughts as a nicely formatted .pdf (image) file, complete with all those clever indentations and bullets that are a newspaper formatting nightmare. After a little online negotiation, we persuaded them to add an executive summary suitable for print, but we were also able to put their full arguments online in all their organized glory. Online readers can experience this product in our Reader Commentary section today. 

And other media today are full of horror stories of the multiple disasters around the world, leaving our readers wondering what, if anything, they can do to help. With our online presence, we can pass along to you a message we received from a soprano friend now living in Japan, who sent us an appeal she received from a fellow musician who is working at a music school in Yangon (Rangoon) in Myanmar (Burma).  

The teachers and students there are organizing a relief effort to help the hundreds of thousands of people in lowland rural areas affected by the recent cyclone. Their web page has been turned into an information site to let people in the outside world know what's going on, and to make it possible for them to donate to worthwhile organizations already operating inside Myanmar.  

The soprano writes from Japan: "As you can see from her website, she is practically ground zero for the recent typhoon and tsunami that hit Burma...I am trying to raise funds through concerts here in Japan; would it be possible for you all to consider a fund-raising concert project to help assist the disaster survivors? You can get information on the foundation (no money-grabbing; I vouch for Kit 110%) from her web-site; all money would go directly to the people of Burma, no ear-marking or deletions." 

The site is well worth a look. It has lots of current news and photos, with a number of buttons that can be used for one-click donations to a variety of responsible groups already doing what they can for the relief effort. You don't even have to organize a concert; just send money. 

Incidentally, the music school itself sounds pretty terrific too. Here's a description from its "about" page: "In Pali and Burmese, 'gita' means music, and 'meit' means friendship. Gitameit Music Center was started in 2003 by pianist Kit Young and colleagues from Myanmar in order to build a supportive community of musicians and audiences locally, and to encourage sustained, meaningful contact with international institutions, teachers and performers. Gitameit Music Center is a non-profit community center and music school in downtown Yangon devoted to music teaching & nurturing, performing, offering exchange possibilities for Burmese students to study abroad, and inviting international artists & teachers for performances and workshops in Yangon."  

Music is one of the best ways of crossing formidable borders. While you have your credit card or checkbook out to donate for cyclone victims, you might give some thought to what the future will be like in Myanmar, and give a bit to encourage Kit's musicians while you're at it. 

And now we come to the audience participation part of this program. On the right side of the page you'll find a simple survey, designed to let us know if anyone's actually reading the new and improved Berkeley Daily Planet on the Web. It won't take a minute, and it will help us understand how we can best serve our readers.