Archive for March, 2009

The Ascent of Man

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009


The same design is available on all sorts of other things from the seller at CafePress. I think I still like these “53 miles per burrito” shirts even more.

In Which We Update You on the Adventures of a Young Pirate

Saturday, March 28th, 2009

When we last heard from our diminutive pirate friend, he had set a northerly course and promised to stay in touch. True to his word, a bottle washed up on the shores of San Francisco Bay a few days ago, with some tidings of his exploits.

He hung out in Portland, Oregon for a while and did some sightseeing in the area, including a trip to Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge:

Multnomah Falls

And he didn’t offer any details, but it seems that he got in some trouble with the authorities (he is a pirate, after all), and had to appear in front of the Oregon Supreme Court in Salem, where he mounted a pro se defense:

Oregon Supreme Court

Oral Argument

It’s rarely wise to represent oneself, but apparently his arguments were persuasive, because soon enough he was on the move again, going to see the Space Needle in Seattle before heading to the familiar waters of the South Pacific, where he quickly settled back into his old swashbuckling ways:

Hula Girls

We’re not sure where the little fellow is now—rumors suggest Hawaii—but we’ll keep you posted if we hear any further news.

Man and His Symbols

Saturday, March 28th, 2009


A storefront on East 14th Street in Oakland.

The Texture of an Economic Downturn

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

The evidence of tough economic times is abundant, and most of us could probably cite numerous statistics or events as examples: An official unemployment rate that is over 8 percent (double digits here in California—we’ve always been trendsetters!); enormous companies entering bankruptcy or limping along with subsidies (sorry, make that “capital injections”) from taxpayers; tent cities forming on vacant land; friends or family members who have lost work or been subject to mandatory unpaid days off; commercial districts in cities and exurbs alike becoming ghost towns; irreplaceable local institutions like the Parkway Theater closing forever.

We Love You Too

In addition to those much-noted signs of recession, I’ve been wondering recently how our economic troubles will manifest themselves in less obvious ways: in our public spaces, in our daily habits and routines, in our civic engagement. I’ve long been intrigued by the look and feel of cities, and in the ways that small, seemingly insignificant aspects of the urban fabric can have big consequences, but my specific interest in the visual symptoms of economic collapse was prompted by a discussion in the comments to a previous post.

A commenter wondered what I was seeing with my own eyes that “reflected the country’s current ailments,” and I realized that I didn’t have a very clear notion of what I would expect a deepening recession to look like in a city such as Oakland. I see more empty storefronts around, and more signs in front of foreclosed homes (although I feel as if I see fewer than I did six months or a year ago), and perhaps more people out and about during the traditional working hours.

I realized, however, that in a city which has always had more than its fair share of blight, poverty, and unemployment, the signs of a worsening economic situation are probably less glaringly obvious than they are in, for example, exurban developments in the central valley or the Mojave Desert that have gone from boomtowns to ghosttowns in just a few years. Ever since that discussion, I’ve had the question in the back of my mind, and I’ve been taking note of small local indicators of economic trouble that might not show up in a statistic or a news article.

During Depression Only

Since I’m trying to be attuned to these symptoms as I roam the streets (i.e. walk the dog, bike to work, etc.), and since I still have a very limited mental image of what a deeper, prolonged downturn might look like in the modern world (will we see more “Hoovervilles” and bread lines, or will our age have its own different, less obvious manifestations of hardship?), I would be interested in hearing any other thoughts readers might have about subtle ways that the recession is affecting the look and feel of our cities.

Assuming that things continue to get worse before they get better, might we see a strengthening of neighborhood ties as people becoming increasingly concerned about property crimes? Or will people in fact become more isolated, because they will be more fearful of crime in the streets, and will have less money to spend in local restaurants and the like? Will the physical environment deteriorate dramatically, as public services and private investment continue to dwindle?

I don’t have any well-formed answers to these sorts of questions, and obviously much depends on just how bad things get, and for how long, but I’m curious — and more than a little nervous — about how further economic collapse might show itself in our streets, parks and sidewalks.

Two Ships Passing in the Day

Friday, March 20th, 2009

Looking toward the Port of Oakland from across the estuary in Alameda:

Two ships passing in the day

Now will somebody take this damn camera away from me, so I can get back to writing my blog? Thanks in advance!

Back on Base

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

I had to go back to NAS Alameda unexpectedly today, but thankfully I had my camera with me, so I took some new pictures. I added about a dozen of the new batch to the same Flickr set that has the shots from my visit last week. If you liked some of the other ones, then you’ll probably like some of these too.

Armed But Not Dangerous


Music, Dancing, Games & Snack Bar

Bird hunting in Oakland

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

Yesterday I “shot” another “bird” that I pass on my ride home:


I might as well take a picture of every bird between work and home, until I can’t find any more. Hunting for birds will make the ride home a bit less monotonous.

“Now Open,” Now Closed

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

This billboard near my home has outlived the business whose opening it was advertising. (The dealership only lasted for two months and closed a few weeks ago. We’ll see how long the billboad lasts.)

False advertising


Saturday, March 14th, 2009

I had to go to the Alameda Naval Air Station (more landfill!) for work yesterday, so I brought my camera and used the opportunity to bike around taking some photos before I left the base:


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Stardust and Serenade

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Watch your step

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Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here

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If you lived here, you'd be home now

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Door 12

Many more are available at my Flickr set. There was a lot that I didn’t get a chance to photograph, so I’ll probably take some more shot next time I’m over at Alameda Point.

Smart Chimpanzees, Stupid Human Beings

Friday, March 13th, 2009

An Associated Press dispatch from Sweden:

STOCKHOLM – A canny chimpanzee who calmly collected a stash of rocks and then hurled them at zoo visitors in fits of rage has confirmed that apes can plan ahead just like humans, a Swedish study said Monday. Santino the chimpanzee’s anti-social behavior stunned both visitors and keepers at the Furuvik Zoo but fascinated researchers because it was so carefully prepared.

According to a report in the journal Current Biology, the 31-year-old alpha male started building his weapons cache in the morning before the zoo opened, collecting rocks and knocking out disks from concrete boulders inside his enclosure. He waited until around midday before he unleashed a “hailstorm” of rocks against visitors, the study said.

“Anti-social behavior?” Who locked up whom in a confined space? Further down in the article, we get this:

For a while, zoo keepers tried locking Santino up in the morning so he couldn’t collect ammunition for his assaults, but he remained aggressive. They ultimately decided to castrate him in the autumn last year, but will have to wait until the summer to see if that helps. The chimpanzees are only kept outdoors between April and October and Santino’s special behavior usually occurs in June and July.

“It is normal behavior for alpha males to want to influence their surroundings … It is extremely frustrating for him that there are people out of his reach who are pointing at him and laughing,” Osvath said. “It cannot be good to be so furious all the time.”

Here’s a thought: It also cannot be good to be kept indoors for half of the year! And even chimpanzees, our closest relatives, can probably tell when they’re being laughed at!

Bird of Prey

Thursday, March 12th, 2009

Bird of Steel

I shot this near the Oakland waterfront on my way home from work today. You can click the image for a larger version.

Do It Yourself Crimefighting

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

I finally got around to reading this Boston Globe article about the selective implementation of the “broken windows” theory of crime in Lowell, Mass. A partnership between some academics and the police department identified 34 crime “hot spots,” then in half of the places they took proactive steps to clean up blight, provide social services, or do more to combat misdemeanors and loitering. In the other half of the high-crime locations, they continued with traditional police techniques (basically doing normal patrols and responding to 911 calls, but nothing preventive or proactive).

The Globe article summarizes the conclusions of the researchers as such:

The results, just now circulating in law enforcement circles, are striking: A 20 percent plunge in calls to police from the parts of town that received extra attention. It is seen as strong scientific evidence that the long-debated “broken windows” theory really works – that disorderly conditions breed bad behavior, and that fixing them can help prevent crime.

Without knowing the details of the study, I’m not so convinced that this “plunge” is so “striking.” While a 20% decline is substantial, it seems predictable that any kind of extra attention given to a crime hot spot will be likely to reduce crime in that particular location — you could assign a few officers to stand at a certain location 24 hours a day, and crime at that spot would “plunge” by close to 100%, but so what? The more important question is which kinds of extra attention accomplish the most good in the most efficient way.

Thankfully, the researchers must have taken steps to isolate certain kinds of “extra attention” from others, and that’s where the more interesting information is. According to the Globe, “the Lowell experiment offers guidance on what seems to work best. Cleaning up the physical environment was very effective; misdemeanor arrests less so, and boosting social services had no apparent impact.” The correlation between the quality of the physical environment and the likelihood of people to commit crimes has also been established by some fascinating experiments in the Netherlands.

Assuming that these findings are valid, they could be very useful for people (and governments) in high-crime areas. Social services, however much they may help in other ways, are probably not an efficient way to reduce crime (sorry, bleeding heart, thug-coddling liberal hippies); zero tolerance for misdemeanors is also probably not a very efficient way to reduce crime (sorry, tough on crime, lock-’em-all-up conservative fascists). If you want bang for your buck, the way to reduce crime the most is to make the place you spend your life prettier — sounds like a win-win situation to me!

Since I live in a medium-crime part of a high-crime city, and since I’m interested in the effects of the urban physical environment for unrelated reasons, I find these studies to be pretty heartening news.

Unlike providing social services or cracking down on misdemeanor crimes, the aesthetics of the physical environment is something that residents of a neighborhood can easily improve without requiring the aid of the police department or city hall. Oakland’s police department is chronically understaffed, plagued by repeated scandals, and led by incompetents or worse, so it is a relief to know that there are ways to combat crime that don’t involve a responsive and accountable police force. Most of Oakland’s elected officials are too busy bickering over parking spaces at City Hall or trying to drive business away from the city to actually get anything useful done, so it is a relief to know that there are ways to combat crime that don’t involve a responsive and fiscally healthy municipal government.

That’s not to say that it’s easy to combat blight in our neighborhoods (it’s hard to get residents to care about anything beyond their own walls, and the collapsing economy is obviously not helpful), but small things such as picking up litter, turning an unsightly patch of dirt into a flower or vegetable garden (whether it be one’s front yard or an abandoned lot down the block), or painting over graffiti on one’s front stoop are not very hard to do, and are probably more effective than trying to get someone from downtown to do something productive in a timely manner.