Humility is an editor’s constant companion

I was amused to see “CQ” prominently displayed on the Sacramento Bee’s online home page this morning. Why? Because it reminded me of my years as a Bee copy editor and the knowledge that the road to public embarrassment is often paved with best of intentions. Copy editors are supposed to remove errors from stories, not insert them. Yet there are so many ways to blunder when you’re rushing to put out the newspaper – or the first draft of history, as we under-appreciated wordsmiths liked to say.

The Bee’s top teaser story was about a Folsom woman’s nine-day ordeal after she was injured while hiking in Sierra National Forest. Beneath the headline was a photo of the woman, Miyuki Harwood. Unfortunately, her name in the caption came out this way: Miyuki HarwoodCQ.

Among journalists, “cq,” written with or without capital letters, is an age-old notation that indicates the preceding word is correctly spelled. This eliminates the need for unpleasant editors to yell across the newsroom: “Has this name been cq’ed?” Typically, “cq” is typed into computer copy with a style code designed to keep it from being set in type. I assume a copy editor forget to insert the style code or overlooked its omission by the reporter.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that many non-journalists are unfamiliar with the “cq” notation and wonder what it stands for. So do I. Several journalism sites online say it’s an abbreviation for the Latin phrase “cadit quaestio,” which means “the question falls,” or less literally, “the argument collapses.” The term is used in legal circles to suggest that no further argument is needed and the issue is settled.

Neither of my desk dictionaries makes this connection. “CQ” is defined either as a military abbreviation for change of quarters or as a signal given by radio amateurs, inviting others to enter into communication. I prefer to think of “cq” as an in-joke concocted by inebriated editors long ago. It makes as much sense as journalistic locutions like “lede” for the first paragraph of a story, “hed” for headline and “htk” for “ hed to kum,” meaning the headline will be written when the copy editor sobers up.

While computers have been a godsend for copy editors, especially for fact-checking, they are not fail-safe. Forget a tiny symbol, and you add CQ to a person’s name. Rely on spellcheck automatic corrections and get ready to do some explaining. I think it was the Fresno Bee that stumbled years ago when it decided to refer to blacks as African Americans. An automatic change was programmed into its computers. Before long, it ran a story about the finances of a prominent company, noting “the company has been in the African American for a decade.” Oops, make that “in the black.”

In the New York Times Sunday, writer Judith Newman wrote about the perils of relying on auto-fill to complete names and information after just a few keystrokes. She detailed horror stories of nasty notes going inadvertently to one’s boss or sexually explicit invitations going astray. One woman thought she was sexting her husband until her daughter’s charismatic Christian babysitter inquired why she was sending such notes to him.


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Sacramento arena breeds confusion over parking, new housing

Since the city of Sacramento needs to generate millions of dollars in new parking revenue to pay for the downtown Kings arena, how come city officials and promoters are eager to increase light-rail use on game nights?

If the city wants quick turnover on street parking to promote local businesses, how come officials are waxing enthusiastic about sophisticated new meters that will allow drivers to extend their meter time through apps on their smart-phones?

How high will parking rates go and when will residents and visitors decide the price isn’t worth the hassle of going downtown?

Why do some City Council visionaries think sports and concert enthusiasts will hop on their bicycles at night and pedal to the arena on clogged streets lacking bike lanes? Or do they think bicyclists will be sharing sidewalks with hordes of pedestrians?

These are some of the questions I’ve been asking myself as conflicting and confusing verbiage about Sacramento’s excellent future intensifies.

I find myself in a similar fog about plans for revitalizing the central core by increasing the housing supply. As residents well know, the downtown area goes vacant after government workers leave the workplace at 5 p.m. According to a city staff report, roughly 58,000 people lived in the central city in 1950. Today, the population is half that, and much of the old housing stock has been destroyed to make way for government office buildings, the Bee noted recently.

Mayor Kevin Johnson has started pushing an initiative to build 10,000 housing units in the central city in the next 10 years. Of that total, 6,000 would be market rate, another 2,500 would be “affordable” housing units, and 1,500 would be rapid re-housing units for homeless individuals. Johnson and others say downtown needs to be alive 24/7 with schools, grocery stores and other amenities.

Where will the mayor find space for such new housing in a downtown jammed with state office buildings? I don’t know. As a regular bike rider in Land Park and downtown, I don’t see an abundance of vacant lots. The old railyard north of downtown, all 244 acres of it, seems like an obvious spot for substantial housing, although the site has been plagued with toxic-waste problems. Yet, most of the media talk is about a new Kaiser hospital, a possible UC Davis extension and a soccer arena. A 200-unit apartment building with “affordable” rents might break ground in 2016.

Nearly a mile south of the arena site, The Mill at Broadway is beginning to take shape. About 1,000 homes are envisioned for this 32-acre infill project south of Broadway between Third and Fifth streets. A wood-processing plant used to be on the site. Prices for the initial units would range from under $200,000 for small duplexes to $400,000  for large townhouses, a Bee article said. The aim is to sell homes primarily to young buyers from the “millennial” generation, those born starting in the early 1980s, the story said.

In additional to its unusual marketing strategy, The Mill will have to encourage buyers to live between the I-5 freeway to the west and two public-housing projects just to the east that are scheduled to be razed and rebuilt as a mixed-used neighborhood. That project could take a decade or more to complete.

The emerging arena has sparked a lot of rosy talk and pie-in-the sky economic projections. Hard questions and in-depth analyses are needed as we merrily roll along.










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Winners and whiners on the basketball court

While waiting to play a pickup game Monday with the 40-and-over crowd, I watched a fellow named Mike miss on a drive, grab his own rebound and make a power move for a quick put-back shot. The defender slammed him hard on the shooting arm, and Mike missed the shot. I saw him hesitate for a moment, as though waiting for the defender to acknowledge the foul. When he didn’t, Mike said nothing and headed back up the court to play defense.

Later, I saw Mike, a strapping big guy about 45 and one of the better basketball ballplayers at the club, and teased him on about the incident.

“What a guy,” I said. “I saw you get whacked out there, and you didn’t even call a foul.”

He shook his head and frowned. “I’ve got to work on finishing. I’ve got 20 years on that guy. I shouldn’t miss a shot like that.”

“You’re a man after my own heart,” I said.

From prior conversations, I knew Mike was a city ballplayer out of Washington, D.C. He seems to have the same kind of playground mentality that I have: Play the game and don’t whine about getting fouled. Learn how to make your shots even if you get hit. You’ll be a better player in the long run.

When I was a young teen, Oscar Robertson was my basketball idol.  He led his Indiana high school team, Crispus Attucks, to the state title in 1955, the first time an all-African-American team had won the state championship. The club won a second crown the following season. He later became an All-American player at the University of Cincinnati, followed by a dominating career as a pro.

I remember reading an article in which Robertson explained why he didn’t use classic jump-shooting form. He held the ball further back than most great shooters, almost directly over his head, and elevated his elbows more, making the shot difficult to block. He adopted this style, he said, because he didn’t feel he could trust most white refs of that era to give him a fair shake. In clutch situations, he needed to look out for himself. No excuses.

I respect players who tough things out on the court while vowing to improve their play through hard work and practice. They’re the opposite of the whiners who try to gain an advantage by manipulating the system to make up for their lack of ability.

One of the over-40 regulars automatically cries foul whenever defenders block his move to drive the baseline. Maybe 10 percent of his calls have some validity. But he whines and argues every time because he knows, under the time-honored rules of pickup ball, defenders have to accede to foul calls made by the guy with the ball. If not, the game ends. In time, defenders ease off this guy because they don’t to waste their time arguing, and this whiner gets more baskets than he deserves.

The basketball court can be a microcosm of the larger world. Talent and hard work are not the only paths to success, as I was taught. Cheating often succeeds. Low ethical values can pay off. Wealth and friends in high places help.

But how you play the game counts for something, doesn’t it?


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Homeless copper thieves in Carmichael — imagine that!

I understand that it’s hard to dump on poor people, desperate immigrants and the homeless without looking mean-spirited. I suppose that’s why bullies and bigots prefer to hide behind myths, lies and half-truths like Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” and Donald Trump’s tale of  disease-bearing hordes from Mexico.

In Sacramento County, we have a rising tide of homeless people invading the fashionable suburb of Carmichael and undermining the quality of life there, groans Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton. But it’s worse than just that:  The ranks of homeless people are riddled with copper thieves who have begun to take a toll on progressive development in Carmichael, the columnist says.

Now, I’m not one to downplay the problem of copper theft. Personal friends have suffered costly losses from sophisticated burglars who extracted copper equipment and wiring from small office buildings they owned. I’m aware of the widespread theft of copper from Sacramento streetlights, schools and public utility sites. The rising price of copper in recent years has made the metal an enticing target for thieves, both locally and across the nation.

Even the FBI has taken note of the problem. According to a 2008 agency report, “copper thieves are threatening U.S. critical infrastructure by targeting electrical sub-stations, cellular towers, telephone land lines, railroads, water wells, construction sites, and vacant homes for lucrative profits. The theft of copper from these targets disrupts the flow of electricity, telecommunications, transportation, water supply, heating, and security and emergency services and presents a risk to both public safety and national security.”

Although the report was written during the height of recession, the FBI does not draw a connection to the rising tide of homeless people. Instead, it says: “Organized groups of drug addicts, gang members, and metal thieves are conducting large scale thefts from electric utilities, warehouses, foreclosed and vacant properties, and oil well sites for tens of thousands of dollars in illicit proceeds per month.”

It seems obvious that copper theft requires a certain criminal sophistication. Even small-scale jobs can be dangerous. “This person had to know about electricity,” said a Sacramento City Unified police officer after the theft of 100 feet of copper wire from a local elementary school.

Breton’s tale of homeless copper thieves is anecdotal, of course, and springs from a real estate investor who is developing a former Carmichael strip mall into what he hopes will be a destination akin to San Francisco’s Ferry Building. There are no facts given, no arrests cited, no eyewitness accounts, no financial estimate of the damage, no interviews with police officials. Nor are readers even given any indication how many homeless people are in Carmichael.

According to a 2013 report by Sacramento Steps Forward, the total homeless population in the county is about 2,300. Of that number, about one-quarter suffers from serious mental illness, while hundreds more have drug problems or are victims of domestic violence. It strains credulity to think such people have the expertise, time or self-discipline to be significant copper thieves while living on the streets of Carmichael.

What isn’t hard to believe is that a Bee columnist would use a disingenuous tale of homeless copper thieves to hammer away at Sacramento’s poor while hiding his disdain behind a veneer of journalistic responsibility. It’s a shoddy piece of writing that cheapens the Bee and diminishes its credibility.

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Sex slaves, ISIS and Thomas Jefferson

I was surprised to find myself drawing connections the other day between the Islamic State and Thomas Jefferson. Usually, I have ISIS filed away under depraved actions and barbaric images and Jefferson in the pantheon of great presidents afflicted with all-too-human failings.

First, I read a New York Times story detailing how the Islamic State is making sex slaves of captured women and girls from the Yazidi religious group. “The systematic rape of women and girls from the Yazidi religious minority has become deeply enmeshed in the organization and the radical theology of the Islamic State in the year since the group announced it was reviving slavery as an institution,” the story said.

Islamic State leaders consider the Yazidis despised unbelievers and their subjugation as sex slaves justified by writings in the Quran. They also point out approvingly that slavery was common back in the day of the Prophet Muhammad.

After finishing the lengthy story and reflecting on the depravity of human beings in faraway places, I turned the page and found an Associated Press science story. It said that a DNA test had confirmed that former President Warren Harding fathered a child with a long-rumored mistress.  The story began with this lead: “DNA testing all but confirmed Thomas Jefferson slept with his slave Sally Hemings. Now it’s rewriting another lurid chapter in presidential history, this one from the Roaring ’20s.”

The phrase “slept with his slave” connoted none of tragic debasement described in the plight of the Yazidi women, none of the implicit outrage at the twisted religious thinking that justified such horror. No, this was just a matter-of-fact statement about the relationship of a slave owner and his slave in the American South. There was no suggestion that an esteemed president had raped a black woman who had been deprived of basic human rights under an entrenched system that viewed her as property. Many verses from the Bible could be cited – and frequently were –to justify the righteousness of slavery.

Even sex with slaves could be justified by judicious use of the Old Testament. Consider the tale of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar in the book of Genesis. When Sarah, Abraham’s wife, can’t conceive a child, she offers Abraham the services of her slave woman, Hagar. Abraham goes for the idea, leading to the birth of Ishmael and all manner of complications. Put this biblical tale in contemporary terms and you might see rape and oppression.

As a product of American culture, I’m repulsed by the barbaric acts of the Islamic State and wonder how human beings can act like that. Yet I understand why Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings is viewed through a different cultural lens and usually described in neutral or benign terms.

I feel an unsettling disconnection there.

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