AUSD & Charter Schools

I was sent an interesting email yesterday that mentioned that an Alameda Unified School District board member, in fact the board President, had made some pretty scathing comments about how she feels about California’s Charter Schools generally. The comments were made as part of the discussions surrounding the renewal of the charter for a school that has moved to Oakland (because it was unable to find a suitable space it could afford in Alameda, but is still authorized by AUSD). The renewal was approved, in a 3-2 split vote, with the president actually voting in favor of the renewal, which makes the comments even more odd.

What Ms Kahn said was:

I oppose Charter Schools generally because I think they’re predatory. I think they’re dishonest. I think they don’t give a hoot for the community that they’re in. I think their self-interest overrides everything that they do. I think they put themselves forward as a free, on the public dime, option for parents that would like to have, remove themselves from a public school into a private school, but they can do that for nothing by buying into a charter.

Obviously, Ms Kahn is entitled to her opinion on whether charter schools are a good idea or not, but as she herself said in an interview with The Alamedan prior to her election, “charter schools are here to stay.” She went on to say “like it or not, by law the district has to cooperate in the development of charters, while exercising oversight to guarantee that they are delivering what they promised.”

Predatory & Dishonest

Her comments at the board meeting on November 10, 2015 do not seem consistent with those pre-election statements. Furthermore, it is disingenuous to label charter schools generally as “predatory” and “dishonest.” From my own research, the charter schools in Alameda are committed to providing a quality education to their students, and are popular with both students and their parents. Like it or not, they are working (and, at least in the case of the Alameda ones, they seem to be working better than most of the district’s schools).

Private Education

I also found it personally offensive that Ms Kahn would imply that parents looking at charter schools are trying to get a private education on the “public dime.” Like most parents, I am looking for the best possible education for my children. If that is a charter school, then so be it. If it is a private school, then we will certainly consider it. I certainly can’t see anything that would suggest that AUSD’s schools stand out as being excellent by any measure! I can also say categorically that the charter schools we have looked at are nothing at all like private schools (I attended private schools from age 7 up, so I have some experience there).

Perhaps, if the AUSD board president feels that private schools offer a better education than the district’s schools (they almost certainly do), she should make it a priority to fix that disparity rather than making disparaging comments about parents looking at charter schools instead of district ones. Furthermore, if she feels that charter schools are able to deliver a better quality education on a public education budget, then perhaps she should look into how they can do that, and what can be improved in the district’s schools to achieve the same results. (To be honest, I don’t think the charter schools are delivering as much as they could

Bylaws

AUSD board members should probably also be aware of the section of the AUSD Board Bylaws that states:

Board members shall hold the education of students above any partisan principle, group interest, or personal interest.

(From BB 9200 – Board Bylaws – Limit of Board Member Authority)

Any attempt by AUSD board members to block a charter school’s existence based purely on a personal opinion about whether charter schools in general should exist, would seem to be contrary to that bylaw (and possibly to California state law). It also seems to me that the AUSD should be celebrating successful schools in its district, whether they are directly run by the district or merely overseen as a charter.

Starbucks Mobile Order

With the tag line “No time? No line.” Starbucks rolled out their mobile order & pay app a month or so ago. I’ve used it a number of times since then, not always successfully, and my initial impressions would be that they released an MVP. I’m hoping it will get more of the features it currently lacks.

First (and second) Impressions

The first time I tried to use it, I thought it was Android only because my iPhone app didn’t show the ‘Order’ option at all. That, it seems, is because the feature only works if you allow it to access your location (and I’d turned that off for Starbucks on a previous mission to try to save battery – I rarely need a store finder, and if I do, I find the Maps app works just as well).

The second time I tried to use it, I was in a hurry and was hoping to skip the line. But it insisted the nearest store was almost two miles further away than the store that was less than a mile away. And which I know was supporting the program because I’d heard mobile orders being called out on previous visits. When we stopped at the store, the line was indeed long, leaving me wondering whether the mobile ordering system is trying to route me to a different store. If so, that’s a major fail in my opinion. The store I wanted to go to was on my route; the one the app was insisting I order from was in the opposite direction (and across the estuary in Oakland where I would also have been unable to find parking easily).

Third Time’s a Charm

The third time it worked as expected. When I arrived, the order was not ready (apparently four mobile orders had come in at the same time & overwhelmed the system). A minute or two later I had my drinks & food; all good.

Missing Features

While they seem to have done a good job on the ordering part, the payment section needs work. As far as I could see right now, there is no way to use a loyalty reward to pay for a drink. Nor is there a way to enter a “coupon” code for one of the offers they email out. Both basics for online checkout systems.

Obviously, I also can’t order & use a personal cup (though I would love to see if they could incorporate that somehow – perhaps taking the cup at the delivery area).

I have also heard from some that drink customization is near impossible unless the option is in the app. Not a problem for my simple latte drink!

Timing

Unlike other mobile ordering systems (e.g. Chipotle’s), there is also no way to add a delay to the order. If I know I am 15 minutes away when I leave home, I either have to expect a cooled down drink & food, or order while driving (not going to happen until they add voice ordering).

Will I Keep Using It?

Probably sometimes, but the timing part is going to be the hardest part to work around. It is rare that I can order 3-5 minutes away from the store.

Android Marshmallow / GMail Data Use

I upgraded my Nexus 5 to the latest Android version. 6.0 aka Marshmallow, and didn’t really think much of it. Then, on Monday, I needed to run a test on some software that required the Wi-Fi to be turned off. I noticed at the time that the GMail app was having some problems; I received regular crash notifications from it (while it was running in the background).

Then tonight I checked in on my test and was surprised to see an Android mobile data warning in the notifications area. Tapping through, I saw that in the last few days I have consumed ~5GB of mobile data. On a phone that has been sitting on my desk without me touching it. The culprit? You guessed it, the GMail app was responsible for almost the entire 5GB. In less than five days.

Massive Data Consumption

I also received an OS update this evening, and since then the GMail app seems happier. I am back on Wi-Fi now though and will continue to monitor it. Had I been on a 3GB plan, I would have been more than a little annoyed (and had to pay for the extra data). As it happens, this phone is on a 20GB shared plan, so I have some headroom.

Pebble Time Steel: Initial Impressions

Pebble Time SteelOne of the new toys that arrived last week was my new Pebble Time Steel watch. This was one I was excited about as, despite some occasional problems with my original Pebble & Pebble Steel watches, I am still a believer in the platform and decided to go with the Pebble Time Steel rather than an Apple Watch.

I’m not going to do the traditional unboxing photos, suffice to say it came presented more like a watch this time (in very retail-friendly packaging, so I expect to see these hanging in my local Target store soon alongside the other Pebble watches they carry already).

The other big change is the style aspect. Personally, I like the new style, though I do agree with some of the other reviews I’ve read that the black border around the screen seems very large on the Time. It would have been nice to see a screen that went much closer to the edges of the watch. Of course, that would have made the screen a different pixel size to the current ones which introduces a bunch of complexities for developers, but we cope with that on Android and iOS, and even on the Apple Watch.

My watch shipped with only the leather strap. The metal bands for the Kickstarter orders are on backorder and will be coming later; I believe the retail orders only come with the leather bands though.

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Lima: First Impressions

The last week has seen two of my crowdfunding investments delivered. The first of those two was Lima. Lima is a small box that connects between my home network and a USB hard drive and promises to make my documents & media files appear on my computers, and mobile devices no matter where I am, or which device I am using. My own personal DropBox. 

The device arrived last week, but I ordered a new 4TB RAID 1 external drive for it that didn’t arrive until this week. Tonight was set up time. 

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Guns? Really?

I’ve seen a number of articles suggesting that the problem with gun control in the US is that, while a majority of people support better background checks at time of purchase, congress is so worried about the loss of NRA funds that they refuse to pass any real laws that might restrict gun ownership. One of the best articles I’ve read, entitled “We’re Just Haggling Over Price“, suggests 90% of Americans support the enhanced checks, and that the changes would only delay purchasing by a few minutes.

While some may consider it to be a step in the right direction; I don’t. I’m sorry, but a law like that would be just another lame compromise, a bit like the Affordable Care Act was a massive compromise. Of course, the difference between the two was that the ACA was passed, but gun control laws fail every time they are proposed, no matter how many people are killed.

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Stanford Children’s MyChart

In 2013 our pediatrician’s practice was acquired by Stanford Children’s Health which, at the time, seemed to be a positive move. The pediatricians at the hospital where both our kids were born was part of the same group and they were great.

Indeed, the actual doctor part hasn’t really changed beyond the introduction of computerized records (believe it or not they were still using paper records until around a year ago). What did change though was how we pay the bills. Initially, there was some confusion as the billing was moved from the old system over, which, while not really acceptable, is at least understandable as a temporary problem.

Finally though, the bills were being sent out as Stanford Children’s Health bills, and to pay them online we need to login to their MyChart system – something that appears to have been licensed from Epic Software. Quite why this is necessary I don’t understand; all the other medical bills I’ve ever paid allowed me to simply go to a payment portal, enter the details of the bill and pay it without needing an account. But, SCH requires an account at MyChart. And that is where the confusion starts.

Account Holder

Obviously, the patients in this case are not paying the bills, so the account needs to be created in an adult’s name, and associated with the patient. The first to receive a bill under the new system was my daughter, following a visit when my wife took her. But I pay the bills. When the account was created, I entered the magic code from the bill, and my email address. But somehow the record had been created with my wife’s name on it, so now the account is in her name, with my email address. Unfazed, I just paid the bill and left it; it doesn’t really matter much.

Next to visit was my son, so now I have a bill for him. And here is where MyChart falls apart. It would seem that nobody at Epic ever considered the possibility that a family might have more than one child. I can’t create a new account for him because my email address is already associated with an account (I guess I could use a different email address, but I don’t want to deal with two accounts for this either). And I can’t see his bill on the existing account because that account is associated with a different patient (my daughter). And there is no way for me to link him to the existing account. Which means there is no way to pay the bill online. Total failure!

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Looking Back

This must be one of those moments in time when Twitter is reminding me of events long gone. The buildings I worked in during my gap year & for the first summer break while at university was the first trip down memory lane. Now I am reminded about graduation by seeing all the photos of this year’s Kent graduates at Canterbury Cathedral.

For me, that trip was 22 years ago. It doesn’t seem that long, or at least it didn’t until I started thinking about what has changed since then. Graduating in a building with the history & grandeur of Canterbury Cathedral is quite an experience. Especially when the university itself is very young (established in 1965, so only a few years older than I am). That experience, I’m sure, hasn’t changed. Nor will the excitement of dressing up in robes and finally being admitted to the degree that has been the focus of a few years of their lives. (And, perhaps, some will have the opportunity to make unwitting tourists believe students wear the robes every day, or to have a swift pint with friends while dressed in them, like we did.) But plenty has changed.

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First Job

This tweet from @robleathern that I saw in my feed this afternoon got me thinking about the buildings where my first job was located.

So, I thought I’d try to find out what the building was used for today, and even see if I could get a photo. That actually proved difficult, even though the buildings it was part of are in fact pretty historic having been the place where a number of very significant inventions were created.

I started as a trainee in the year between graduating from secondary school and before starting at university. For that year, I was to be working at Thorn EMI in Hayes, Middlesex. The first six months were in the training department, located in Vulcan House, the remainder of the year we were split into different divisions of the company, but my assignment was to Radar Division, based in the nextdoor building, Mercury House, in Hayes.

This is the best photo I can find online for the entire site:

Thorn EMI, Hayes

If you look in the lower left corner of the highlighted area, the thin building right on the boundary is Mercury House; the larger, square footprint building next to it is Vulcan House.

Right now it looks as though they either have been, or are being, converted into something called the Old Vinyl Factory, but several pictures I found online seem to suggest that both of these two are somewhat derelict now (Thorn EMI moved out of the site in the early 1990s, and we were relocated to a site in Crawley that is still in use today, although under different ownership).

I mentioned that they were somewhat historic. Before WW2, the buildings were on the cutting edge of audio recording technology. Alan Blumlein, the inventor of stereo sound recording, worked in these buildings, and the very first movie with stereo sound was shot from one of them, looking down at the railway lines alongside the site (which were still there while I was there, but no longer with steam trains!). The buildings were also home to a lot of the early development work on television, with Blumlein listed as an inventor on several TV-related patents. Pretty significant stuff, but perhaps the more significant work was still to come.

As Europe was embroiled in war, the same people shifted their focus to other technology, including the development of radar, which was so critical in the defence of the UK. Blumlein was a key developer in the top secret airborne H2S Radar system project. Sadly, he was killed in a plane crash while testing the radar in 1942; just imagine what we could have achieved otherwise. At the time, some thought the H2S project would fail without him, but it survived (and in fact was still in active use as recently as 1993). Additionally, some of his early radar-related inventions are still in use in modern radar systems.

Alameda Municipal Power Mix

We had a visit from an AMP employee/representative the other day trying to get us to sign up for their Alameda Green, 100% renewable source electricity program. That is something I have been meaning to look into for a while, and I might have signed up on the spot had it not been for one thing that seemed fishy: suddenly they are saying that the power mix for the ‘regular’ electricity is only 22% renewable, when I remember the power labels mailed in the bills showing that as being much higher.

A little digging and I found one of those power mix labels for 2012 in the AMP Flash PDF on their own website. Here’s the label if you don’t want to open the PDF:

Alameda Municipal Power Mix Label 2012

So, that clearly states it is “actual” and shows eligible renewable as 60%, and another 15% coming from large hydroelectric. Then there is the 25% from unspecified sources (most of which I suspect are non-renewable!).

Suddenly, in 2013, the eligible renewable drops from 60% to 22% (from this label) and unspecified sources jumps to 63%. That meant that the guy who knocked on our door was able to say that the regular program is just 22% renewable, but the green label program is 100%. Looking carefully at the 2013 label, at the very bottom there is this statement:

While AMP’s power mix exceeds California’s requirements for clean power, it has dropped due to the short-term sale of a portion of the utility’s excess renewable energy. AMP continues to own the same generation resources and, after 2016, the utility will return to providing a high level of renewable energy to customers. Even better, overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will be lower after 2016 due to the projects paid for by the short-term sale of some of AMP’s excess renewable energy.

So, they sold off the “excess” renewable energy, and bought “unspecified” power back, thereby lowering the eligible renewable mix of the main product. The cynic in me might wonder whether that decision was to make the green label product look more attractive (after all, going from 75% to 100% carbon neutral is a lot less impressive than going from 37% to 100%). And after a couple of years of signing people up, the regular power mix returns to its very green levels (75% carbon neutral is much higher than the overall state average of just 23% in 2012).

This kind of “marketing” is what made me pause at the weekend. And now is giving me real pause for thought on the whole thing.