Archive for April, 2009

Sign of the Times

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

Letters from my landlord don’t come often, and in the past they have usually indicated one thing: higher rent. So when I saw the envelope in yesterday’s mail, my first thought was, “Damnit! How can they raise my rent when rents are falling in the area?” It turns out I had jumped to conclusions:

Rent Decrease

I have heard stories of tenants successfully bargaining their rents down recently, but I don’t often hear of landlords taking the initiative to lower rents on existing tenants. Not that I’m complaining, and presumably the decision was made for sound business reasons and not pure generosity (a couple of other tenants have left the building recently, and maybe the landlord hopes to prevent further departures). That said, given some of the horrific landlords in the world, I’m glad to be in my building that is managed with decency and competence.

The Ongoing Legacy of the New Deal

Monday, April 27th, 2009

As someone with a casual interest in local history, I was interested to learn from another Oakland blog about the Living New Deal Project at UC Berkeley. In addition to producing a book and collecting testimonials from people who worked on (or witnessed) New Deal projects, the Berkeley scholars are compiling a searchable database of the New Deal’s legacy around California, complete with an interactive map.

Lux et LexOne appealing aspect of the project is that members of the public are encouraged to contribute, by submitting projects that are missing from the database. (The best-known local sites are already included, including the somewhat stumpy Alameda County Courthouse alongside Lake Merritt shown here.)

Given how much the New Deal changed the physical character of cities, towns, rural areas, and parklands in the United States, I was surprised to learn that no one had previously tried to compile a comprehensive online database of New Deal sites. Some other websites have collected information about WPA art, and San Diego State University hosts a database of California WPA murals, but apparently no effort had been made to compile an exhaustive online database of buildings, infrastructure projects, and so on. The scholars at Berkeley are hoping that their California project can eventually be a model for a nationwide database.

Sausal Creek culvertWhile the list of sites is extensive, there are surely still some local New Deal projects which aren’t yet included, so if anyone happens to know of any others, the folks at Berkeley would be grateful for whatever help people can give. I noticed, for example, that the culvert holding a section of Sausal Creek, which bears W.P.A. stamps from 1939 and 1940, was not in the database, so I submitted it to the project and it now appears on their map. I wonder if they would be able to include some of the W.P.A. sidewalk and gutter stamps that have been documented at the Oakland Sidewalk Stamps blog. (Yes, there’s an Oakland Sidewalk Stamps blog—why shouldn’t there be?)

I’ve mused before about whether the current economic downturn will produce a legacy akin to that of the great depression, and one reason the Living New Deal project interests me is the parallel—or lack thereof—between that era and our own. In the 1930’s, many parts of the west, including the East Bay, were just becoming major population centers, and the need for civic buildings, bridges,and other basic infrastructure was pressing. Even if the Federal government were to fund public works projects on a similar scale in coming years, the physical legacy would presumably be very different from that of the New Deal.

There are also some New Deal projects included in the database which don’t have any photographs to accompany them, and the scholars seem to welcome help in that area too. For instance, that there were no photos of the Park Street and High Street bridges between Oakland and Alameda, and since I ride my bike across both bridges on a pretty regular basis, I offered to take a few photos which may end up being added to the website.

Those two bridges are both drawbridges, and although they were built 4 years apart, they have nearly identical designs and were constructed by the same general contractor. The only differences seem to be that the Park Street Bridge is twice as wide (4 car lanes instead of 2), and it is painted green while the High Street Bridge is silver. I created a new set on Flickr as a repository for shots of New Deal projects that I happen to have photographed, and here are photos of the Park Street Bridge (1935) and High Street Bridge (1939), respectively:

Park Street Bridge

High Street Bridge

The general public cannot add information or photographs to the Living New Deal site ourselves, a la wikipedia—we can only submit things for the consideration of the gatekeepers running the site. If anyone happens to know of other New Deal projects around Oakland (or anywhere else in California) which aren’t included in the database, I encourage you to submit them, or to let me know in the comments, because I am eager to know about them myself. The potential for this kind of collaborative project is one of the things I appreciate about the internet, but it only works well if enough people get involved.


Saturday, April 25th, 2009

Back in January, I wrote about this boat rusting away on a tidal flat in the Oakland estuary, but I didn’t have a camera capable of doing it justice at the time. I finally got a chance to take some better pictures yesterday (those are the lights of the Coliseum in the background):

The Hulk

“Be Nice Don’t Dump”

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

Be Nice. Don't Dump.

I think I may have tried that exact line with an ex-girlfriend once. If I had known at the time that dumping was illegal, maybe I could have been more persuasive.

No Dumping

More seriously, I think that Broken Windows Theory 101 would dictate that if you are trying to discourage people from treating your semi-vacant lot on Park Boulevard in Oakland as a dumping ground, then it would be prudent to make sure that your “Be Nice Don’t Dump” notice does not itself resemble blight. It would have been only slightly more trouble to make the request look more orderly, and I suspect that if the lot looked more as if anyone actually cared about it, then it would be treated with a bit more respect by potential dumpers.

An Unlikely Route to an Immigrant Visa

Saturday, April 18th, 2009

If I’m reading this New York Times article correctly, the young pirate whose three cobrigands were all killed by Navy SEAL snipers may eventually live freely here in the United States. Talk about winning the immigration lottery!

Just how swiftly a trial would be held is uncertain, and much would depend on the defense strategy, which almost certainly would involve an investigation into the man’s background and the circumstances under which he became involved in the hostage-taking.

The suspect has been identified in news reports as Abduhl Wal-i-Musi, and is described as being in his late teens.

“We don’t know a thing about him,” said Joshua L. Dratel, a lawyer who has handled terrorism cases in federal court and Guantánamo Bay. “He may have been a conscripted child soldier. There may be a whole back story to his motivation that’s very different than just criminal behavior and criminal intent.”

The defense could also seek to have him cooperate with prosecutors in return for being placed in a protected prison program, and even later relocated in the United States, if he could provide truly useful information about how the pirate networks operate, who runs them and who pays for them.

If he ever ends up living in America’s largest Somali community in Minneapolis-St. Paul, then I propose turning his life into a movie titled: “Abduhl, Abduhl: A young man’s strange journey from Mogadishu to Minneapolis.”


Friday, April 17th, 2009

10 Speed Bicycles

Is San Jose’s mayor out of touch, or just a panderer?

Friday, April 17th, 2009

Every so often, newspapers print articles about the struggles of some of the wealthiest people in our country, who are barely scraping by on several hundred thousand dollars a year. The New York Times’s 2007 story on “working class millionaires” in the Bay Area was a classic of the genre. And last year, when the San Francisco Chronicle’s conservative columnist Debra J. Saunders dared to call people making $200,000 to $250,000 a year “rich,” she received so many indignant responses from high-earning readers that she decided to follow up in her next column, answering the objections of people like the lawyer who wrote in to inform her that a $200,000 salary cannot, by definition, make someone rich because “a ‘rich’ person does not need to work.”

The Wall Street Journal had a version of this old chestnut yesterday, in an article about how much people who make $250,000 to $400,000 a year will suffer if their taxes go up during President Obama’s administration. I won’t waste too much time explaining why it nauseates me, particularly in these tough economic times when many people are losing their jobs entirely, to hear people who earn more than 98 percent of Americans talk about how they struggle to pay their bills, but here’s an excerpt that gives you a sense of how hard it is to eke out a living on $260,000 a year:

“I’m not complaining, but the reality is Obama may call me wealthy, but I thought we were just good old middle class,” says Ms. Parnell. “Our needs are being met, but we don’t have a load of cash to cover wants.”

…For the Parnells, their perception of themselves is based on the math. The value of their house is down $60,000. Ms. Parnell says the couple’s gross income last year was about $260,000. Taxes, premiums for medical care and deductions for Social Security and their 401(k) contributions cut the gross to about $12,000 per month. The family tithes $1,300 a month at their church. Their mortgage, second mortgage and payment on land they bought is nearly $4,000 a month. Other expenses, including their family car payment, insurance and college funds, as well as basics like food, utilities and donations to charities, leave them with about $1,200 left over each month.

“I’m not after sympathy. We are blessed. What I want is a reality check on what rich means,” Ms. Parnell says. “I can pay my mortgage and I can buy some clothes. I’m not going without, but I’m not living a life of luxury.”

If anyone needs a reality check, it’s people like Ms. Parnell. (It’s interesting how the word “rich” is often the trigger that provokes such a strong reaction; people such as Ms. Parnell are perfectly willing to admit that they are “blessed,” or “fortunate,” or any number of other euphemisms, but call them “rich” and you will immediately be challenged.) I understand that life is expensive for a family of five, and that even for households who earn a quarter of a million dollars a year, there are a lot of things that they cannot afford, but do the Parnells realize that the $1,200 that they have left over each month—after putting money into their retirement accounts and college funds and tithing to their church and donating to charities—is more than the entire monthly income of about 15% of American households? Another person quoted in the article makes $400,000, but says, “I’m barely getting by.”

Presumably these people know that a lot of people “get by” just fine on much less than they do, so even if they don’t want their taxes raised (who does?), you might think that they would be a bit embarrassed to tell a newspaper that they are “barely getting by” or “don’t have a load of cash to cover wants.” (If the mysterious “land they bought” was not a “want,” then what was it? A need?)

I’ve read so many articles like this before that I am no longer surprised when I see some of our nation’s highest earners explaining to reporters how tough it is for a family to make ends meet on a mere $150,000 a year after taxes. I was surprised, however, to see the mayor of San Jose buying into this blinkered view of the world:

Changes to the tax code don’t generally make adjustments for high costs of living in particular areas of the country.

San Jose, Calif., Mayor Chuck Reed calls a family living in Silicon Valley earning $250,000 “upper working class.” That is about what two engineers working at a technology firm can expect to make, but “a family earning $250,000 a year can’t buy a home in Silicon Valley,” he said.

What on earth is Reed talking about? If he wants to think of Silicon Valley engineers as “upper working class,” then I guess that’s his right, but the notion that a family earning $250,000 a year can’t buy a home in Silicon Valley is absurd. The median single family home price in Reed’s own city of San Jose is now under $500,000, down from about $600,000 a year ago. In nearby Mountain View, the median price is under $1 million. If Reed’s hypothetical household of Silicon Valley engineers bought an above-median home in San Jose or a middle-of-the-road home in Mountain View and took out an $800,000, 30-year mortgage at a 6% rate (that’s higher than current rates), their payments would be a bit less than $4800 per month—less than $60,000 per year. Even if they only brought home $140,000 after taxes, they would still have more than $80,000 left after their mortgage payments.

To put that number in perspective, the census bureau reports that San Jose’s median household income was $76,354 from 2005-2007. Let’s round that up to $80,000. So our hypothetical engineers could buy a decent house in many parts of Silicon Valley, and the money they had left over after taxes and mortgage payments would still be more than the median pre-tax income of all San Jose households. It’s obviously true that $250,000 doesn’t get you as much in Silicon Valley as it would in most other parts of the country, and you might not be able to afford a house in Atherton on that income, or a vacation condo at Lake Tahoe, or private school tuition for 3 school-age children, or any number of other things that you might wish you could afford, but it’s still more than most residents of San Jose earn, and it is certainly enough to buy a home, if that is your goal and if you have any basic ability to manage your other spending.

I don’t follow San Jose politics at all, so I don’t know if that quotation is characteristic of Reed, or if he just said a silly thing this one time, or if he was quoted out of context, or if he just figured that the price to pay for saying something dumb was less than the price he would have paid for offending his well-off constituents by failing to commiserate with their plight. But if I were among the 50% of San Jose households who earn less than $80,000 a year, I would wonder whether Reed is out of touch with the parts of his community that are truly “working class.”

The State of California announced this morning that the official unemployment rate reached 11.2 percent in March. Many Silicon Valley technology companies are laying off workers because of the economic downturn. Even Google, which somehow made a profit in the 1st quarter even though most of its revenue comes from advertising, has laid off some workers for the first time in its history.

Given that context, I would have hoped that a public official like Chuck Reed would add some much-needed perspective to the views of the other people quoted in the article, instead of endorsing their distorted view of reality.


Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

Andy Rosenthal, the New York Times Editorial Editor, had this to say in response to an online question about why the Times has no “serious” female columnists:

I would be the last person alive to suggest that Maureen Dowd and Gail Collins are not serious columnists. They are indeed, very serious.

The last time I saw Rosenthal call someone “serious” was when he said this about Bill Kristol, who had just been given an Op-Ed Column:

The idea that The New York Times is giving voice to a guy who is a serious, respected conservative intellectual — and somehow that’s a bad thing. How intolerant is that?”

Kristol, remember, is the “serious, respected conservative intellectual” who met Sarah Palin during a stopover in Juneau on a Weekly Standard cruise, and was so impressed with her that he went back to Washington and became one of her biggest cheerleaders. As for whether Palin herself is a serious, respected intellectual, we’ll have to check with Rosenthal about that.

Cherub’s Best Friend

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009


Still Life with Bunnies and Eggs

Sunday, April 12th, 2009


A front yard on Lakeshore Avenue in Oakland. Is it Easter or something?

A Bike with a View

Thursday, April 9th, 2009

A low center of gravity might help one’s stability on a bicycle, but sometimes you have to get up high to see over all the damn SUV’s—and to make sure the SUV drivers can see you too. This was sent to me by a reader in Boston:

High Rider

Hearing Punctuation

Thursday, April 9th, 2009

A blogger at Crooked Timber, Eszter Hargittai, has a complaint:

Too often I encounter the following kind of sentence: “I’m wondering if people could improve their grammar?”

One of my pet peeves is when people put question marks at the end of sentences beginning with “I wonder if”. I’m always left wondering if the person is wondering about whether they’re wondering. (Of course, chances are they are not, but why the question mark then?) This is an incredibly common mistake for reasons not clear to me.

I wonder if this is really a mistake? (Go ahead and groan—you have my permission.) I suspect that the answer to that question depends on a fundamental disagreement about the function of punctuation. For a lot of people, including me, punctuation’s main purpose is to tell the reader how the text would sound if it were heard out loud. Spoken language is primary, and the point of punctuation in writing is to give readers help figuring out how the sentence would sound if it were spoken instead of written.

So for people like me, the way to test whether or not a written sentence is punctuated properly is to imagine it spoken out loud, and to try to discern whether the punctuation in the written sentence matches the rhythms and tones and pitch changes of the spoken sentence. Did I pause long enough between those two words to add a period, or would a semicolon or some other punctuation mark better match the length of the pause? Did the pitch rise enough at the end of the sentence to deserve a question mark, or should I use a period instead? Should the text gallop along with few commas in order to mimic the frenzied speech of an anxious mood, or should it move at a more leisurely pace, with punctuation to match?

For some other people, this talk of “hearing” punctuation may sound like mumbo jumbo. When I worked at a newspaper, the paper’s arbiter of official style once sent around a memo pointing out a punctuation “error” in an article. I hadn’t written the article, but I also didn’t think it was an error, so I sent him a friendly email explaining that the punctuation in the article seemed fine to me, based on the way I “heard” the sentence. Even though I was at the bottom of the newsroom totem pole and he was near the top, he was very nice about my gentle challenge to his authority, but in a different memo on an unrelated matter shortly thereafter, he made a teasing reference to “those poor benighted souls who ‘hear’ punctuation.” (I have a suspicion that he is actually one of us, although he wouldn’t admit it publicly.)

My sense is that people are divided into two groups: those who see punctuation as merely an imperfect representation of spoken language, intended to provide a written translation of the sounds of speech, and those who see it as a separate system of rules and symbols which, even if it is originally derived from spoken language, must now follow its own internal logic.

So back to the complaint from the Crooked Timber blogger: Is it wrong to use a question mark at the end of sentences beginning with “I wonder”? I would say no. For better or worse (that’s a question for another day), Americans seem to be increasingly using interrogatory rises in pitch at the end of sentences when they speak, in order to turn what is structured as a declarative sentence into a question. I have no doubt that people who write sentences such as “I wonder if this is grammatical?” are accurately transcribing the way they would have spoken the sentence if they were talking to their friends. And the use of the question mark seems especially defensible in the case of sentences whose main verb is “wonder,” since wondering is an inherently questioning thing to do.

Hargittai notes in the comments to her post that she encounters this “grammatically incorrect” (her term) use of question marks in “emails and status updates and tweets and blog comments, etc.” In other words, she encounters it in informal writing, where people are less likely to worry about following grammatical “rules” that were drilled into them in school, and more likely to use punctuation that accurately represents the way they hear sentences in their heads.

This punctuation question may be just one little side skirmish in the ongoing war between “descriptive” linguists and “prescriptive” scolds and pedants (oops, sorry—make that “grammarians”). I intentionally didn’t look to see what’s been written about punctuation elsewhere, because I didn’t want to get deep into the weeds on this, but that comment about “poor benighted souls who ‘hear’ punctuation” has stuck with me for a decade now. I would bet that the vast majority of people do use punctuation that they “hear” in their heads when they are writing informal emails, blog posts, facebook status updates, tweets, IM’s, text messages, etc. It is only small minority of poor benighted grammar watchdogs who recoil at the thought of indicating that a sentence is a question by changing the punctuation at the end.