About Me

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After 35 years in public education as a university administrator and a high school English teacher, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalists awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

AMAZON and UPS: A Failed Marriage

It was a dark and stormy night at the Riehl’s a couple of weeks ago, when Karen told me her ancient computer keyboard had been misbehaving. I suspected it only needed dusting, but unable to find our compressed air canister, I ordered a new keyboard from Amazon. It arrived the next day.

A few days later, I ordered a four-pack of Falcon Dust Off Electronics Compressed Gas Dusters. Amazon wouldn’t sell me just one. Buying four online was easier than driving to the nearest CVS store to pick one up.

Judging by how seldom we use them, our four new keyboard dusters will last longer than both of us. I must have inherited my security issues from my father. At my age, Dad wore a belt, plus suspenders.

Two weeks after my order, Amazon notified me that my package could not be delivered. I was told to check with UPS to find out why.

According to the UPS website, the package had been delivered on December 3, at 9:42 AM to “San Marcos,” left at the “front desk,” and “Lanny” signed for it. Deliveries by Amazon have always been placed at our front door, accompanied by a friendly knock.

Our Château Lake San Marcos is a gated community, so I assumed the delivery truck driver left the package with the concierge in the château’s office. But that was not to be. No package there, nobody named Lanny to sign for it. I called UPS but could not reach a live person. A recorded message told me the package had been delivered.

Out of desperation, I called the nearest UPS store. Brianna (not her real name) told me they didn’t get the package and that nobody named Lanny worked there. She suggested I try the city’s other UPS store. There was no package or Lanny there, either, but Savanna (not her real name), gave me a number to call, assuring me they could help.

Upon calling the number she gave me, I was greeted by an electronic voice, urging me to try for a free Royal Caribbean Cruise vacation by answering a few questions. Taken aback by this UPS gimmick, I did not answer the questions truthfully. What they learned about me is I’m under 25 and don’t like vacations. Not to my surprise, I was congratulated for winning the free cruise, except for a nominal $65 per person boarding fee.

I was then greeted by a human, who gushed, “Welcome to Royal Caribbean Cruises! This is…” It wasn’t a UPS scam after all. I hung up, figuring Savanna had given me a wrong number. At this stage, I was unwilling to concede an error on my part.

Karen suggested I try calling the retirement community next door to see if my package had been dropped off there. But Vanessa (her real name) politely informed me there had been no delivery, no Lanny on their staff.

Alarmed by my heavy breathing and reddening face, Karen told me to abandon my quest, forget about the $16.99 I paid for the canisters, and take to my blog to write about the experience. It would be therapeutic.

But, before following her advice, I took a last look at Amazon’s website, where, under “continue to customer service,” I found, “have us call you right now.” There was a space for me to enter my home phone number. Under it was a button titled, “Call me now to talk to a specialist. We will call you immediately.”

Yeah, right, I scoffed to myself, as I typed in our number and pressed the “Call me now” button. Before I could count to three, (I’m not kidding here), the phone rang with a live person on the other end.

She knew all about my order, including the claim that it had been delivered. After I explained how hard I worked to find the package, she gave me a full refund. She told me, if the package eventually reaches our door, I could keep it with no charge.

And that’s why I do my shopping at Amazon and hope for a UPS divorce.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Ghost Guns, Armed Teachers, and School Shootings: A Deadly Recipe

There was another school shooting last weekend, this time in a grade school parking lot in Union City, California, 30 miles from San Francisco. Two boys, 11 and 14 years old, were shot to death while sitting in a parked van at 1:30 AM on a Saturday morning.

This was not a typical school shooting, of course. It took place after school hours, with the shooter, or shooters, still unknown.

But nine days earlier, a student at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, celebrated his 16th birthday by assembling his own .45 caliber handgun and shooting five of his classmates. Two died, before he turned the gun on himself.

The common denominators in these tragedies were guns and children dying. I wanted to know more about how a teenager was able to obtain gun parts online, together with do-it-yourself instructions on how to assemble it. Here’s what I found in an Internet search at ghostguns.com.

“Despite popular belief that the Federal Government can restrict all gun ownership, unconstitutional laws like the National Firearms Act of 1934 and the Gun Control Act of 1968 can only regulate the transfer and sale of weapons. And so, making a weapon on your own, without the intention of transferring it or selling it is not prohibited by Federal agencies such as the ATF.

Here’s what you can buy on that website, from a variety of do-it-yourself pistol and rifle kits to gun magazines, bulletproof backpacks, and T-shirts:

$997.99 AR15 Build Kit

At Ghost Guns we took the 16" AR15 lightweight rifle and made it even better to give you an unregistered weapon system that's ready for almost any combat scenario.”

The words “unregistered weapon,” and “ready for almost any combat scenario,” together with the sale of 21-Round Magazines and bulletproof backpacks, suggest the do-it-yourselfer is probably not preparing for target practice, hunting, or self-defense.

The website’s bizarre logo sets the tone for the sale of merchandise designed to kill.

Some say arming teachers will increase school safety by discouraging potential shooters from attacking schools and protecting students in shoot outs.

But that’s not true, according to The Trace, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit newsroom dedicated to shining a light on America’s gun violence crisis, Do Armed Guards Prevent School Shootings? April 6, 2019, by Alex Yablon.

“Active shooters do not favor ‘gun-free’ zones. Louis Klarevas, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, analyzed 111 shooting attacks between 1966 and 2015 for his book Rampage Nation, and found that only 18 took place in areas where firearms were banned. In four high-profile 2018 school shootings, attackers stormed campuses, despite the presence of armed guards. In all four of those cases, guards failed to stop the gunman from killing.”

As for protecting students in the classroom, according to Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence, a nonpartisan group dedicated to fighting the epidemic of gun violence, “Arming teachers wouldn’t decrease risk to students—it would increase their risk. Our comprehensive analysis finds there have been more than 80 publicly-reported incidents of mishandled guns at schools in the last five years, including a teacher’s loaded gun falling from his waistband during a cartwheel, and a teacher unintentionally firing a gun in class during a safety demonstration.”

In addition to learning how to handle and shoot a gun safely, teachers would need to be trained on how to stop an attacker, when to get involved or not, and how to deal with crowded rooms and buildings.

Texas State University’s ALERRT Center boasts of providing the best research-based active shooter response training in the nation. Its Active Shooter Incident Management Course requires 24 hours of training over three, 8-hour, days. Just as police officers do, they’d need refresher training periodically over the years. As a former high school English teacher, I can understand why teachers, engaged with helping students, grading papers, and preparing lesson plans, would not want the added responsibility.

If teachers with guns won’t work, check out this article about those who use them by George S. Everly, Jr.: "Profiling" School Shooters: Can we tell who will be the next to kill?” (Psychology Today, Mar 29, 2018)

1. The vast majority were male.

2. Nine out of ten were current or recent students at the school.

3. Anger and revenge were the common themes. Three out of four felt bullied or harassed

    by other students.

4. They tended to be socially awkward, with few (if any) friends.

5. They expressed fascination with violence, morbid media, or death.

6. The media contagion effect (copycat killings) may serve as an especially powerful


7. They tend to express their frustrations and anger using art and/or social media posts.

Maybe we can reduce the number of school shootings by stopping the sales of ghost guns, not by giving teachers guns, but by arming them with the sensitivity, skills and resources to identify and find help for their troubled students.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Papa Doug vs. the Enemy of the People

I shook my head in disbelief three years ago, when I learned Douglas Manchester had been offered the position of ambassador to the Bahamas. President Trump made the announcement the day after he was sworn in.

I worked, briefly, for Papa Doug, his preferred moniker, seven years ago, after the real estate magnate bought San Diego’s North County Times.

After having witnessed his disaster as a newspaper publisher, I was delighted to see this week’s CBS News investigation, explaining how this country’s diplomatic corps escaped the embarrassment of an Ambassador Papa Doug.

After Manchester donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration, his ambassadorship languished in the Senate for two and a half years. When Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel asked him for another $500,000, as a donation to help the RNC meet its fundraising goal, Manchester offered, instead, a good faith $100,000 donation from his wife, with a promise of more to come after he was confirmed.

That was a bridge too far for Papa Doug. The Republican National Committee told CBS News, "Mr. Manchester's decision to link future contributions to an official action was totally inappropriate." They said they cut ties with Manchester and returned the money his family donated this year.

Following my retirement from Cal State San Marcos in 2003, I began writing letters to the editor, leading to an invitation to write a biweekly opinion column on subjects of my choosing, so long as they were on local issues. The opinion page editor gave me free reign for my opinions, many of which were highly critical of the city’s elected officials.

Nine years later, shortly after purchasing the San Diego Union Tribune, Papa Doug bought the North County Times. It was bad news for this writer.

Here’s what I said about that in my October 17, 2012 blog:

The Incredible Shrinking Newspaper

Manchester has not been hesitant to declare his goal as a newspaper owner is not to produce quality journalism as a service to the public. It’s to promote a conservative agenda and be a booster of business and pro sports in San Diego County.

Editor of the North County Times, Kent Davy, told a KPBS interviewer his mission for the NCT was to be a mirror of the community. Manchester’s mission for the U-T San Diego North County Page Insert is to be a mirror of himself.

The day Editor Davy refused to publish that, I stopped writing for the North County Times. He explained it was a threat to NCT staff writers, fearing more layoffs from the newspaper’s change of ownership. I didn’t blame him for trying to protect his writers, but it didn’t stop Papa Doug from killing North County’s only daily print newspaper.

Fortunately for me, I found other outlets, thanks to Anna Daniels of the San Diego Free Press, Steve Marcotte, editor of OsideNews.com, and the good folks at OBrag.org and EscondidoGrapevine.com.

As a proud co-conspirator with Trump’s “enemies of the people,” I just can't stop blogging.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Palomar College President: Not Ready for Prime Time?

The average tenure of a community college president is 3 ½ years, according to Wheelhouse: the Center for Community College Leadership and Research at the UC Davis School of Education. 

It looks like Palomar College’s President, Dr. Joi Lynn Blake, who took the position in July 2016, is right on track. 

Many years ago, when I was director of admissions at Indiana State University, I attended a graduate class in leadership taught by Dr. John Moore, in his first year as ISU’s president. Unlike his long serving predecessor, he was unusually popular with faculty, staff and students. 

During his first two months Dr. Moore fired two vice presidents, after asking for feedback on their leadership effectiveness from those who worked with them. He told us he had to do that right off because leaders enjoy their greatest support on their first day in office. From there it’s a steady slide downhill. Tough decisions become increasingly more difficult, if not impossible. 

I found that to be true for the presidents of the three universities where I worked during my combined 30 years of middle management in higher education. 

It looks like Dr. Blake’s tenure at Palomar is following the same path. Here’s the San Diego Union Tribune’s July 8, 2016 headline, announcing Blake’s appointment. 

“Woman of La Mancha takes helm at Palomar,” quoting her claim for the title, as she told reporter Gary Warth, “I’ve had a lot of windmills I’ve had to slay.”

As a former English teacher, I wondered if she really meant to say that. “Tilting at windmills” derives from Cervantes’ Don Quixote and has come to mean “attacking imaginary enemies.”

Three years and four months later, on November 11, 2019 the SDUT headline reads: “Palomar College faculty to present no-confidence vote on college president.”

English Professor Rocco Versaci told reporter, Deborah Sullivan Brennan, “The vote is not binding, but it’s highly unusual, with only the second one taken since 1946, the year the college was founded.”

Is this just another windmill for Palomar’s Woman of La Mancha to slay?
A review of Dr. Blake’s previous employment calls into question the judgment of Palomar College’s Board of Governors in appointing her.

Before coming to Palomar, with its enrollment of nearly 26,000 students, Dr. Blake had only 1 ½ years of experience as president of the College of Alameda, with its enrollment of 13,500, and only another two years as Vice President of Student Services at Skyline College with its enrollment of under 9,000.

Is it any wonder Palomar College’s inexperienced new president is facing difficulties, after fewer than four years of senior level administrative experience at colleges less than half the size of Palomar’s?
The Governing Board should be embarrassed, if not ashamed.        

Friday, November 8, 2019

What a Difference Five Miles Makes: Comparing My Two North County Hometowns

A year and a half ago, Karen and I moved to San Marcos from Carlsbad. We didn’t move because we were unhappy there. We moved to the Château Lake San Marcos, an “Independent Living, Active Adult Community,” because we discovered aging in place was not for us.

Twenty years ago, we moved from Terre Haute, Indiana to Carlsbad, when I accepted a job at four-year-old Cal State San Marcos. We chose to live in Carlsbad entirely because of its location. After eight years in the Midwest, these two west coasters were eager to return to a home on the ocean’s edge.

We no longer live so close to the ocean, but we’re happy here on the shore of a beautiful lake. Out of belated curiosity, and free of buyer’s remorse, I’ve now set out do what most others do when looking for a new home: compare locations. 

I began with a search of Neighborhood Scout, https://www.neighborhoodscout.com/ a site that allows users to compare location characteristics that are important to them. 

Here’s what I discovered, from 2018 census figures, about my new hometown, population, 96,000 compared to my old one, population 115,000. 
One of every three Marcosians is a college graduate. More than half of Carlsbadians are. 

The median household income in San Marcos is $70,000, compared to $103,000 in Carlsbad. 

In San Marcos 12% of residents have incomes below the poverty line. It’s 6% in Carlsbad. 

45% of San Marcos residents are white, compared to 72% in Carlsbad. 

In San Marcos 62% of residents speak English at home, compared to 83% in Carlsbad. 

24% of San Marcos residents were foreign-born, compared to 14% in Carlsbad.

The median home value in San Marcos is $481,000. In Carlsbad it’s $961,000. 

The overall crime rate in San Marcos means the city is safer than 48% of all US cities. Carlsbad’s higher crime rate means it’s safer than only 29%. 

The violent crime rate in San Marcos is the same as Carlsbad’s, at two per 1,000 residents. 

In San Marcos there are 12 property crimes per 1,000 residents. In Carlsbad there are 20. 

The chances for becoming a victim of a property crime in San Marcos are 1 in 81, compared to 1 in 40 in Carlsbad. 

Household incomes and home values show San Marcos is the less affluent community. But what explains the substantially lower property crime rate? 

A paper published in 2016 by two University of Central Oklahoma researchers, Neil Metz and Mariya Burdina, Neighbourhood income inequality and property crime, may have the answer. 

The results of the study indicated, as the income gap with one’s poorest neighbor increases, property crime in one’s own block group increases. We also found that the poorest block group relative to its neighbors tends to have lower property crime rates. 

The University of Central Oklahoma study compared neighborhood blocks within Nashville, Tennessee; Portland, Oregon; and Tucson, Arizona, unlike the Neighborhood Scout comparisons of North County’s neighboring cities. 

But what if we do a “thought problem,” as my mathematician friend often suggests. What if San Marcos and Carlsbad were to merge into San Carlsmarcosbad, population 211,000? Would there be a link between the crime rates and income inequality in West San Carlsmarcosbad, and its poorest neighbor, East San Carlsmarcosbad? 

You do the math.   

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Playing the University Admissions Game

I was in my third year as Director of Admissions at Western Washington State College 40 years ago, when our head basketball coach approached me one Saturday afternoon while I was painting my front porch.

“Hey, Dick, can I give you a hand?”

I couldn’t believe he drove over on a weekend just to help me paint, so I politely turned him down.
“No thanks, coach. What’s up?”

He told me he was recruiting a very talented kid whose high school grades were questionable. He asked if I could get him in, since he was not only a “helluva good basketball player,” but a “really nice kid.” He said he’d like to bring him in to meet me. I told him I couldn’t make any promises, but I’d be happy to talk to him.

Early Monday morning the two of them appeared at the door to my office. I noticed the young recruit, whose name was Tom, had to duck his head as he entered the room.

After Coach Randall excused himself, I asked Tom what came hardest for him in high school. He told me his most difficult subjects were the ones requiring a “lot of reading and writing.” I told him there was a lot of that going on here, but he could get some practice doing that at a two-year community college before coming here. To my astonishment, he agreed.

I thought of Tom a few days ago, after watching Academy Award-winning actress Felicity Huffman walk away from her two-week stay in prison. She’d been in there for paying someone to correct her daughter’s mistakes on the SAT to buy her daughter’s way into the University of Southern California. Huffman admitted she had gamed the admissions system, a system I spent 30 years enforcing at three universities.

Today’s admission scandals, ranging from cheating on tests, to bribing university officials, are alien to my own experience as a gatekeeper to higher education. At Western Coach Randall put very little pressure on me to do what may have helped his team but hurt a young man’s future.

The pressure I felt for making admissions exceptions came from applicants, parents, friends, faculty and the occasional state legislator. On only one occasion was my decision overturned by a higher authority.

When I shared my experience at Western with a colleague, Purdue University’s director of admissions at the time, he just laughed at my innocence of big time athletics. In his world, recruits were promised admission and scholarships by the athletic department. No need for student athletes to begin with admissions applications.

The greatest challenge of my career in admissions began on November 4, 1987, when Western’s president, together with two vice presidents, died in a small plane crash. In addition to the shock and grieving to the University community, the tragedy brought national attention that caused admissions applications to soar.

Struggling to handle them in a timely manner required me to take unusual steps to control enrollment, including adhering strictly to application deadlines and raising standards. The pressure to make exceptions came from all directions. It was the only time in my career that someone asked if there was anything they could do for me personally to change my mind.

After 16 years at Western, which did not offer athletic scholarships, I took the same job at Indiana State University, which did. I arrived there ten years after All-American Larry Bird brought national attention to the basketball program in the NCAA championship game.

The ISU athletic department was far more interested in my admissions decisions. Fortunately, Indiana State had a learning skills center that provided help for “conditional admits” who needed help to succeed in the classroom. The University had a history of serving first generation college students, which supported my admissions exceptions. Many student athletes fit into that category.

After eight years at Indiana State I accepted a similar position at California State University San Marcos. The school had no athletic teams at the time. My boss, the vice president for academic affairs, supported my decisions, except for the time the president entered my office with a transfer student I had denied in tow. With a broad smile on his face, he asked me, “Hey Richard, I think we can find a place here for this young man, don’t you?”

I agreed. The student had sweet-talked his way into President Stacy’s heart and into the university.   

My experience has been entirely with public universities with moderate admission standards, designed only to identify students who are prepared to succeed in college, based on high school grades (the best predictors of college grades), and standardized test scores.

More selective universities use grades, test scores, essays, personal experience, ethnicity, and children and grandchildren of graduates (legacy students) to choose their entering classes.

Follow the money. Those are the universities most susceptible to cheating in the admissions game.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Getting to Know My State Senator

My 38th district State Senator, Brian Jones, emailed me yesterday. The subject line, “Will I see you?”made me wonder where I had met him, on what occasion, and where and when he hoped to see me again. But the senator’s salutation: “Dear Friends,” suggested his fondness for me only began with his discovery of my name on a list of his district’s registered voters.

My new friend’s form letter alerted me to his legislative open house next month. “Hundreds of local elected officials and community leaders have already RSVP’d,” he gushed. “Believe me, the Open House will be the place to be in East County this fall!”

Well, it won’t be the place for me.

I’m registered as an NPP, no party preference, voter. One in four Californians are now so registered. The percentage has doubled in the last ten years, from 12.5% to 25%, rising to the second largest number of registered voters.

Since I have no party affiliation, here’s how I evaluate each candidate.

Does the candidate have the experience and judgment to do the job?
Do their positions on the issues match my own?
Who is paying for their campaign?
How might campaign donors expect to be rewarded?

Here’s how I follow a candidate’s campaign money:

City elections: https://www.san-marcos.net/your-government/city-council/campaign-statements
County elections: https://www.southtechhosting.com/SanDiegoCounty/CampaignDocsWebRetrieval/Search/SearchByCandidateName.aspx
State elections:  http://cal-access.sos.ca.gov/Campaign/Candidates/
Federal elections:  https://www.fec.gov/data/

Vote Smart: https://votesmart.org/ is my favorite website for researching candidates. Its mission is “to provide free, factual, unbiased information on candidates and elected officials to all Americans.” Among its founders were: President Jimmy Carter, President Gerald Ford, Senator Barry Goldwater and Senator George McGovern

Here’s what the worker bees at Vote Smart do:

Picture this: thousands of citizens (conservative and liberal alike) working together, spending endless hours researching the backgrounds and records of thousands of political candidates and elected officials to discover their voting records, campaign contributions, public statements, biographical data (including their work history) and evaluations of them generated by over 400 national and 1300 state special interest groups.

With this much information handy, there’s no need to attend bloviating political rallies to guide my voting choices.

Here’s what I discovered about my new State Senator pen pal on Vote Smart, and why I won’t have to drive to Santee next month for his open house.

BS, Business Administration, San Diego State University, 1988-1992
Senator, California State Senate, District 38, 2018-present
Assembly Member, California State Assembly, District 71, 2010-2016
Member, City of Santee Council, 2002-2010

Here are the titles of a few bills he voted against on issues that caught my interest. They easily passed either the House, Senate or both:

Urges the Federal Government to Pass Universal Firearm Safety Regulation
Prohibits Firearms with Detachable Magazines
Prohibits the Possession of High-Capacity Gun Magazines
Prohibits Purchasing More than One Gun per Month
Rescinds Federal Freeze of Environmental Deregulation
Prohibits Smoking on State Beaches and Parks
Prohibits Discrimination Against Transgendered Individuals

Although Jones, a Republican, rarely voted for a bill passed by a California legislature dominated by Democrats, here are two he supported:
Authorizes Bars to Remain Open Until 3:00 AM
Authorizes Sleeping in Vehicles

Vote Smart reports, “Brian Jones has failed to provide voters with positions on key issues covered by Our 2018 Political Courage Test, despite repeated requests.” But Jones did respond to the issues identified on its 2010 test.

Calling himself Pro Life, he answered no to the question, “Should abortion be legal if a woman’s life is endangered?”

On State Spending he did not support any increases, with slight decreases for education and welfare.

On State Taxes he supported great decreases for corporate and gasoline taxes, and slight decreases in sales taxes and for income taxes of middle and high income families.

To balance California’s budget he supported mandated furloughs and layoffs of state employees, reducing benefits for Medicaid recipients, and privatizing certain government services.

On environmental and energy issues he supported state funding for both alternative and traditional energy sources, like coal and oil.

On gun issues he supported allowing individuals to carry concealed guns, rejecting additional background checks on their purchase and possession.

On social issues he believed marriage should only be between one man and one woman. He rejected same sex domestic partnerships, as well as affirmative action.

On legislative priorities he listed jobs and spending.  He boasted, “I am the only candidate, who, as an elected official, has actually contributed to creating jobs in the district.” He claimed his city of Santee, where he served on the city council, “has not raised sales taxes ever” and still balances its budget by cutting its budget.

Jones received $430,000 to fund his 2018 campaign. His most generous supporter was the California Association of Realtors, with a donation of $16, 400.

Jones isn’t up for reelection until 2022. I’ll check back for a Vote Smart update before casting my vote in that election.