Archive for June, 2009

The 9th Avenue Terminal

Monday, June 29th, 2009

The 9th Avenue Terminal is one of my favorite buildings along the Oakland waterfront, so I often end up taking pictures of it from different vantage points as I find them. The building has been underutilized for most of its existence, because it was built just before shipping containers revolutionized the industry half a century ago, and it’s an unsuitable structure in a part of the harbor that can’t accommodate large cargo ships—literally the wrong building in the wrong place at the wrong time.

9th Ave Terminal

Sadly, if the city ever manages to develop the stagnant and moldering stretch of waterfront from Jack London Square to Brooklyn Basin (a project I support with some reservations), the enormous building will likely be turned into little more than a facade. That’s a shame, and there is a movement (possibly quixotic and doomed, but that is my favorite kind of movement) to find alternative uses for the entire structure.

9th Ave Terminal

One of these days I’ll figure out how to hold a camera straight, so that the Transamerica Pyramid in the distance doesn’t keep resembling the Leaning Tower of San Francisco in my photos.

This Headline Contains No Puns

Sunday, June 28th, 2009

Here is the beginning of the New York Times stylebook’s entry for “puns.”

puns have a place in the newspaper, but as a trace element rather than a staple. A pun should be a surprise encounter, evoking a sly smile rather than a groan and flattering the intelligence of a reader who gets the joke. Plays on personal names never qualify; no one will be flattered to read, say, that a pitcher named Butcher carved up the opposing team.

It goes on from there, too longwindedly for my taste, but the basic advice seems sound for a newspaper (or hell, even for a blog) that aspires to a dignified tone (who could begrudge the Post or Daily News their front-page puns?). I don’t know if the Los Angeles Times has any similar guideline, but an article in Friday’s LA Times, about Czech women who choose not to add the feminine “ova” to their last names, bore the following headline and subhead:

Being a Czech mate can cause women pain and suffix

Their society and the very language have an ‘ova-reaction’ to eliminating last names’ feminine endings

I count three puns in 25 words (a 12 percent pun rate!), and none of them particularly flatter me. “Pain and suffix” is especially clumsy. The article itself is unobjectionable—even interesting!—and blessedly pun-free until the final few paragraphs. Is this what happens when you halve your editorial staff in less than a decade?

Eyes on the Skies

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

I often walk my dog over to a neighborhood called Haddon Hill, which looms over Lake Merritt from the East. It’s a nice neighborhood, with a lot of pretty streets, well-kept properties, and a bit of local history (Henry J. Kaiser, for example, had a large home built for himself which still stands at the corner of Haddon and Hillgirt). It took me a while to notice that there’s another reason why the neighborhood is good for walking: there are no telephone poles or overhead wires. In an area of about 8 or 10 square blocks, all that infrastructure which often clutters our urban and suburban skies are submerged, except for the occasional streetlight. Here is a shot looking one direction from the “dividing line”:


And here is a photo shot from the same location facing the other way:

High Wire

The neighboring streets, which have wires criss-crossing them every few dozen feet, are still very nice, but once you notice the visual clutter, it starts to seem more offensive. A bit closer to my apartment, here’s a view toward the palm trees of 9th Avenue, which used to form an allee on John “Borax” Smith’s estate. It could be a nice view of a hillside and some trees, if it weren’t for all the obstructions:

A Good View Spoiled

I wonder whether anyone has ever studied possible correlations between visual pollution like that, and home values, or crime rates, or residents’ peace of mind. Remarkable research done by a group at the University of Illinois has shown that the presence of greenery in public housing projects is correlated with lower crime, stronger communities, and reduced stress. Could the same be true for all the poles and wires breaking up our views of the skies? When telephone poles were being erected around the country in 1880’s, some locals would cut them down. In 1889 The New York Times ran an article with the headline “War on Telephone Poles,” a title which was borrowed for a recent Harper’s article on the subject (unfortunately, I cannot read it since my subscription to Harper’s lapsed years ago). We laugh at those NIMBYs and luddites now, but were the late-nineteenth century technophobes onto something?

Of all the offensive things that have been done to the American landscape, urban telephone poles and the wires sprouting from them are surely among the least awful, but we’ve become so inured to the depredation of public space that we hardly even notice its features anymore. One of my commenters recently remarked about the dramatic contrast in Los Angeles between its impoverished public sphere and the sumptuous private spaces there. LA is worse than a lot of cities in that regard, but the disconnect exists all over, and blocking our sightlines with a tangle of wires probably doesn’t help.

Spank Salon

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

This place in Alameda gives new meaning to the phrase “kinky hair.”

Spank Salon

Shepherd, Shepard, Sheperd

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

shepcanyIt’s impressive, in a way, that Google Maps manages to spell this Oakland locale three different ways in about one square inch of map. Of course, some ‘Shephard Canyon’ partisans might argue that all three are incorrect. (Yahoo Maps follows general convention, and official City of Oakland terminology, by going with ‘Shepherd Canyon’ for all three.)

Pavement to Parkland

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

More of this, please:


Happiness on Two Wheels

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

It’s been a while since I waxed rhapsodic about riding a bike, and now that summer is upon us, this is probably as good a time as ever to sing the praises of the two-wheeled commute. We cycling evangelists are sometimes considered strident and holier-than-thou about our choice of transportation. I suppose that’s unavoidable, since it’s self-evident that we are morally and ethically superior to our fellow human beings in every way. Whatever the merits of our self-righteousness, however, lecturing and scolding can be counterproductive when one is trying to spread the good word to benighted souls, and our emphasis on the environmental, financial and geopolitical benefits of burning up less petroleum can give the impression that riding a bike is a difficult sacrifice, a hardship that must be endured for altruistic reasons.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, so I want to dwell a bit on another benefit of getting around by bicycle which is sometimes given short shrift: the psychological benefit. I’ve thought about this in the past, but it was clarified for me during last month’s Bike to Work day. I usually don’t observe Bike to Work Day in any special way, since I bike to work every day anyway, but for some reason I got into the spirit of it this year, so I woke up early to join a loose peleton (which included my city council rep) from the Grand Lake Theater to City Hall, where they were serving a free pancake breakfast to bike commuters in the plaza out front. I then picked up a free Arizmendi scone at an “energizer station” next to Lake Merritt, then a free cup of coffee at Fruitvale BART station, and by the time I got to work I was as happy as a clam.

Now, I’m a real sucker for free food and drink, but it wasn’t only the free stuff that put me in a good mood. It was also noticing that all the other people riding their bikes to work that day, some of them presumably for the first time, had smiles on their faces. How often do you see car drivers smiling as they commute to work? Almost never! Instead you see a lot of stressed-out grimaces and furrowed brows. It occurred to me that people on bikes tend to look pretty happy as they cruise around town, and will often give a friendly wave to each other as they pass. People in cars, on the other hand, generally look tense and anxious in the gnarl and snarl of rush hour traffic. Sure, some of the friendliness among cyclists is probably just the camaraderie that comes with encountering a kindred spirit, but I am convinced that the cheerfulness of many bike commuters can also be attributed to the salutary psychological effects of riding a bike instead of driving by car.

As I thought about it, I realized that I’ve always tended to be in a better mood upon arrival to work after getting there by bike. When I used to drive a car most of the time, I would occasionally ride to work if my car was in the shop, and while I’d be annoyed about have to leave the house earlier, I would arrive feeling refreshed and chipper. Thinking back to when I lived in New York, I remember when I started riding my bike from Brooklyn to Times Square sometimes, instead of taking the subway every day. The trip took the same amount of time, but when I rode the bike, I would be more alert and cheerful when I arrived, whereas I would still be groggy and grumpy on the days when I took the subway. What’s amazing is that even though I was aware of the correlation between biking to work and feeling good once I got there, I still used to drive my car, because it was “more convenient” and would “save time” (as if time can actually be saved, rather than just spent in more or less rewarding ways). What folly! It wasn’t until my car was totaled that I was able to fully recognize that it was more a curse than a convenience.

So I can sympathize with the stressed-out commuters in their cars, because I used to be one of them. My usual route to work now takes me over and alongside Interstate 880, but in the past I used to join the unhappy masses on 880, and the experiences couldn’t be more different. I used to be just another agitated driver strapped down to my seat, tailgating slower drivers out of frustration (to the point where I once rear-ended a Camry that stopped short in front of me), and changing lanes obsessively in hopes of gaining a few seconds’ advantage. I now quite literally rise above all that, and every time I glance down at the people in their cars, I remember how miserable I used to be driving down that same stretch of road.


Nowadays I pass over that unsightly ribbon of stress and ride along the waterfront instead, which is why I end up taking so many pictures from that area. Instead of having to stare at bumpers, asphalt and concrete, I get to look at boats, buildings, parks, water and the occasional piece of art. Instead of being subject to the vagaries of traffic, I can ride happily along at whatever pace I choose, enjoying the scenery, breathing in the relatively fresh air coming off the water, and probably feeling the effects of exercise-produced endorphins.

Another reason that riding a bike improves one’s sense of well-being is that one feels far more connected to the places one is passing through. (In this, it resembles evolution’s ideal innovation in human transportation—that is, walking.) Even if one avoids the freeways in a car, the physical separation between a driver and his surroundings means that one often doesn’t care, or even notice, whether the streetscape is pretty or ugly, or whether a neighborhood is alive or dead. The effects of that alienation from the surrounding environment may be hard to measure, but I believe that it has real consequences for one’s state of mind. Even a description of my route to work conjures a comforting sense of place: instead of getting to work via “Interstate 880,” I now get there via Brooklyn Basin, Embarcadero Cove, Union Point, and Jingletown. Have any freeways ever had such evocative names? Not all of my ride to work is beautiful, but none of it is dull.

Port of Oakland

Even the decaying vestiges of the area’s industrial glory days are fairly picturesque:

Dock of the Bay

What’s most remarkable to me when I compare riding to work and driving to work is how driving a car can dramatically change one’s relationship with other people. You can take a generally calm and easygoing person—for example, me—and put him behind the wheel of a car, and he is suddenly transformed into a kind of sociopathic monster, who sees other drivers as the enemy, sees pedestrians and bicyclists as irritating obstructions, and is willing to put lives—his own and others’—at risk by running a red light, or swerving around a blind corner, or cutting off someone else on the gamble that you won’t both pull a reckless move at precisely the same moment. And for what? To shave a couple of minutes from one’s commute? Agitation and anxiety are a high price to pay for that small amount of “saved” time.

I don’t know precisely what psychological mechanism is at work, but there really seems to be something about being inside a metal box, separated from the rest of humanity by a barrier of glass and steel, which encourages anti-social behavior. I can still feel the change in mindset occur on the rare occasions when I get behind the wheel of a car, and I need to remind myself to breathe deep and relax—and to stop for those bothersome pedestrians at crosswalks. We like to think that some people are nice and some people are assholes, but the truth is that most people can be both at different times; context, circumstance, and the expectations of others can have a huge impact on one’s behavior. I really think there’s something about getting behind the wheel that can often make normal people act like psychopaths.

Of course some bicyclists also ride recklessly and selfishly, and I can attest from personal experience that being on a bike doesn’t make one immune to road rage. Just as a lot of car drivers are very responsible and considerate, a lot of bike riders are jerks (it’s worth noting, however, that a jerk on a bike is extremely unlikely to maim or kill anyone). And riding a bike does have its drawbacks, such as arriving to one’s destination sweaty, and the danger inherent in sharing roads with heavy metal objects moving at high speeds. (That last issue is why it’s so important to design streets that feel safe to ride a bicycle on—there are a lot of people who would enjoy getting around by bike, but who are reluctant to do it because they simply don’t feel safe riding in traffic.)

When it comes to fostering peace of mind and mental health, I doubt any mode of transportation will ever beat walking, but when getting someplace by two feet is impractical, the two wheels of a bicycle are the next best thing. Exercise, fresh air, independence, and none of the stress that comes with stop and go traffic, or waiting for a late bus, or crowding into a subway car: what’s not to love?

Liar’s Paradox

Friday, June 5th, 2009

I question the wisdom of distracting other drivers with logic puzzles like this one:

Liar's Paradox

Eyes on the Waterfront

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

I had hoped to have one or two more substantive posts up by tonight, but it looks like they’ll have to wait for some other time. Meanwhile, you can look at yet another photo taken along Oakland’s waterfront on my way home from work.


An Editorial on a Local TV Newscast?

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

I was surprised to see an editorial at the very end of the local NBC affiliate’s 11 o’clock newscast last night. I’m not saying that they did a story that was so opinionated that it should be considered an editorial rather than a news story (that wouldn’t have been so surprising). It wasn’t even a commentary from a single person’s point of view, a la Andy Rooney on 60 Minutes, or the experiment with outside commentaries that CBS did when Katie Couric first took over the CBS Evening News.

No, this was explicitly an editorial along the lines of what you see in most newspapers, labelled as such on the screen and with the station’s “Editorial Director” using the royal “we” to describe the station’s editorial position (you can watch it yourself here). The topic was same sex marriage and domestic violence, and this was the summation:

NBC Bay Area believes that to protect marriage, we should spend time and energy on problems that truly affect marriage, and stop using the word “protection” to disguise discrimination. That’s what we think; what do you think? Log on to

I’ve lived in several cities around the country, and have watched a lot of different local newscasts in those cities, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a newspaper-style editorial done by a TV station before. So I’m curious if I’ve just had my head in the sand, or if this is as unusual as I think it is. I tend to watch the CBS affiliate’s local newscast most nights, but I do occasionally watch the ABC or NBC affiliate instead, and I’ve never seen them do this before. The page you reach when you go to lists only one other editorial, from May 20th, so maybe this is a new feature.

Does anyone know of any other TV stations which do editorials?