Archive for July, 2009

My Centenarian Blog

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

I just noticed today that this blog is 100 posts old (yesterday’s post was the 100th). I won’t do any navel-gazing the way I did last time I marked a milepost when the blog was a month old, but I do have some minor housekeeping matters to mention, and I might as well use this opportunity.

First of all, you might have noticed that I changed the “Marginalia” section of the sidebar so that it now contains mini-blogposts instead of Twitter updates. I plan to use it to post short items that don’t merit a full post, or to post links to things I find interesting or noteworthy around the web. While they act like regular blog posts in most ways, those mini-posts do not appear in the RSS feed for the main blog, so if anyone reads this blog through an RSS reader and wants to get the Marginalia posts too, then you have to subscribe to the Marginalia feed separately (I like this feature, because it allows Fragmentary Evidence’s most devoted readers to collect all the evidence that they want, while more casual readers can opt to get only the main blog feed, which will be slightly more fragmentary but still have all the substantive posts).

For now, I have both Marginalia and my Twitter feed on the sidebar. I like the somewhat minimalist aesthetic here, so I may end up losing the Twitter feed at some point, but I plan to keep them both for now and see how that works out. The main reason I changed Marginalia is that I wanted people to be able to leave comments on those items the same way they can leave comments on regular posts, without having to sign up for Twitter. Now all you have to do to comment on a Marginalia mini-post is to click on the mini-headline and enter a comment as you would on any other of my posts.

Speaking of comments, that brings me to the second item on my agenda: I love to get comments! It’s always nice to know that people are reading, and that I wrote (or photographed) something that they found interesting enough to respond to, but also, I’ve been happily surprised to see that the comment thread on a post will often be much more interesting than the post itself. I seem to have a few new readers in recent weeks thanks in large part to links from two great Oakland blogs, A Better Oakland and Living in the O, so I want to state for the record that I welcome comments, especially when people disagree with me. As an anti-spam measure, the first comment someone makes usually needs to be approved by me, but I have never yet deleted a comment from a real person (as opposed to an automated spammer), and after someone’s first comment is approved, then subsequent comments should appear instantly. Unless a comment is extremely offensive or potentially libelous, I am almost certain to allow it to stand, even if you are telling me that my post is stupid and wrong six ways to Sunday.

I know that some bloggers either don’t accept comments, or enjoy getting in flame wars with those who disagree with them. That isn’t me: I like a good debate, and I generally don’t take things personally. Indeed, I view some of my posts more as hypotheses than as declarations, and the comments I get are one way of testing a hypothesis. (Which fiction writer said something like, “I write to find out what I know?” I think that applies to blogging as well as to fiction.) So if you ever feel any inclination to leave a comment, I encourage you to do so, no matter how frivolous or argumentative or whatever. Alternatively, if you want to say something privately, I welcome messages via email or Twitter, both of which can be found in the sidebar.

And lastly, thanks for reading!

Lessons from the Obama Campaign for Prop 8 Opponents?

Monday, July 27th, 2009

Today’s New York Times has an article about the debate among supporters of marriage rights over whether to pursue a reversal of Proposition 8 in 2010, or to wait until 2012 when there will have been more time to recruit large donors, shift public support, build a broader grassroots movement, and so on:

Marc Solomon, marriage director for Equality California, said he spent June and early July asking the opinions of nearly two dozen California political consultants and pollsters and had been surprised by the almost unanimous opinion that a 2010 race was a bad idea.

“I expected having watched the protests and the real pain that the L.G.B.T. community had experienced that there would be some real measurable remorse in the electorate,” Mr. Solomon said, referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. “But if you look at the poll numbers since November, they really haven’t moved at all.”

A major factor in any California balloting, of course, is money; campaigns here are remarkably expensive, with a number of costly media markets. The Proposition 8 campaign, for example, cost more than $80 million, with opponents spending some $43 million.

[…]

The argument against 2010 was expressed by a new coalition of groups known as Prepare to Prevail, which announced in a statement on July 13 that going back to the ballot next year “would be rushed and risky.”

“We should proceed with a costly, demanding and high-stakes electoral campaign of this sort only when we are confident we can win,” the statement read.

The issue of timing has increasingly divided gay rights advocates, with larger, more established groups seemingly favoring a more cautious approach and grass-roots groups — some of them formed since the November election — more vocal in support of a quick return to the polls.

John M. Cleary, president of a Los Angeles group called the Stonewall Democratic Club, said many younger activists were particularly eager to fight Proposition 8. “I find the language of some of the organizations really self-defeating,” Mr. Cleary said. “And I think we have a moral obligation to overturn this.”

When I read these quotations, I can’t help but think of the 2008 Presidential campaign, specifically the Democratic Party’s nomination fight, and the debate about whether it was “too soon” for Barack Obama to run for President. Before Obama announced his candidacy in early 2007, and even into early 2008, many of the “larger, more established” voices in the party were arguing, based on expert advice from “political consultants and pollsters,” that Clinton’s nomination was inevitable, that the country was not yet ready to elect a black guy with the middle name “Hussein” as President, that Obama would not be able to compete financially because “major donors” would not invest in a risky candidacy, etc., etc. Meanwhile, many “younger activists” believed that the establishment of the party had been too cautious, too ready to concede defeat on matters of principle, and too willing to believe that poll numbers were set in stone.

Throughout 2007, Obama hovered betwen 20% and 25% in nationwide Democratic nomination polls, while Clinton began at 35% and was over 40% in the last months of the year. Obama did not lead Clinton in a single major national poll until after he won the Iowa caucuses. Let me emphasize that: no major national poll showed Obama with a lead over Clinton until after the voting had already begun. (He did lead in some state polls, although even in Iowa most polling showed Clinton with a lead up until the end, which shows that, yes, “community organizing” and get-out-the-vote efforts can be decisive, especially but not exclusively in caucus votes)

2008 Democratic Nomination Polls

That polling situation, combined with the overwhelming support of the party establishment, led many political consultants to believe that Obama simply couldn’t win the nomination. They might admire the guy’s political skills, and they might tell reporters that he could be the future of the party if he waited for his time to come, but many were convinced that he had run too soon and would go down in history as 2008’s Howard Dean, able to raise a lot of money online and excite a certain young, educated, urban slice of the base, but unable to actually win the nomination. Is there a lesson here for supporters of same sex marriage?

Before I get any angry comments about how Obama himself has ended up being too cautious, has been too ready to concede defeat on matters of principle, and has betrayed the GLBT community by putting gay rights on the back burner since he was sworn into office, please understand that I am not making any ideological analogies between the nomination battle and the fight for marriage rights. I’m only addressing the political strategy and tactics. Obviously every campaign has its own dynamics, and perhaps Obama would have gone down in history as just another Howard Dean if there had not been such an overwhelming appetite for a change from business as usual. Both sides of this internecine debate make pretty compelling arguments, but I personally come down on the side of moving quickly and continuing to try, try again.

Who can forget the criticism that Gavin Newsom received from establishment political consultants when he took the sudden step of allowing same sex couples to get marriage licenses in San Francisco in 2004? People said he had moved too quickly and too boldly, had not laid enough groundwork, and had set the larger gay rights movement back with his rash, unilateral action. More than five years later, despite some backlash and some setbacks, I believe he ultimately advanced the cause of same sex marriage, and I doubt that same sex marriage would have been legalized in six states (not including California’s brief moment of sunshine) if Newsom hadn’t forced the issue into the national debate. Sometimes politics, and leadership, requires setting out to actively change public opinion through pressing an issue, over and over and over if need be, rather than assuming that the state of public opinion is an immutable given. Back to the Times article and John Cleary:

He and others who support a 2010 campaign say they have a number of factors in their favor, including a newly galvanized base, a decline in advertising costs in a depressed television market and two potential Democratic candidates for governor — Attorney General Jerry Brown and Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco — who have been outspoken in support of same-sex marriage.

But some national leaders are dismissive of such arguments.

“A slapdash effort based on wishful thinking, rosy scenarios, and passion, is not enough to win on,” said Hans Johnson, a board member of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

That may be true, but how about a non-slapdash effort based on wishful thinking, rosy scenarios, and passion? The Obama campaign showed us that wishful thinking, rosy scenarios, and passion can be a winning strategy if it is carried out with discipline, perseverance, and intelligence. Proposition 8 is a stain on California’s constitution, and anyone who has ever spilled anything on a tablecloth knows that the sooner you wash out the stain, the less likely it is to remain forever.

So Quaint, Those Brits

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

Some eminent British economists sent a letter to the Queen explaining how they failed to foresee the financial crisis. (Here, we just give such people high government posts instead.)

Big Brother Google

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

Like a lot of other people, I have gotten used to the targeted ads that Google serves up as I make my way around the web. When I am using Gmail and get an email message about, say, Vikings, the message is invariably accompanied by a list of ads in the sidebar trying to sell me things like Viking ships or pillaging equipment (or pricey kitchen ranges—the software isn’t always able to pick up on nuances of context). And it no longer surprises me to see frequent banner ads for Soccer.com on websites that I visit, since I have done web searches for soccer gear and have visited soccer.com in the past.

So far so good. These ads tailored to my specific searches and/or browsing habits were a bit creepy at first, but I’ve gotten used to them, and I (naively, perhaps) trust that Google won’t do anything too sinister with any information it collects about me. I have to admit, however, that I was a bit alarmed when I was visiting a non-Google site (a Yahoo site, in fact) and the following banner ad appeared at the top of the page:

Banner Ad

That string of terms—“oakland airport connector kerry hamill city council”—is an exact Google search that I had performed a day or two beforehand, when I had been looking for information about BART’s Kerry Hamill trying to get the Oakland City Council to delay any discussion about the merits (or lack thereof) of the Oakland Airport Connector last month. (BART has been successfully deploying a “delay plus inevitability” strategy: first argue that it’s too soon to debate the merits of the project because planning isn’t yet far enough along to have complete information, then later argue that it’s too late to debate the merits of the project, because planning is already too far along to change course.)

I have to admit that I was pretty disturbed to see a verbatim string of my Google search terms appearing in a banner ad on a different website. I assume that Google provides the banner ads to the other site (in this case Yahoo, which has an advertising partnership with Google), and I also assume (or at least I hope) that the ad was being served directly from a Google server, so that the third-party site (i.e., Yahoo) never had access to that particular search string, and only someone who happened to be looking at my screen could know that I had performed that search. I did not click on the banner ad, so I can’t say for sure where it would have taken me, but from the look of the underlying target URL, it seemed like clicking on the ad would probably have brought me to some other search engine where I would have found results related to those search terms.

As it happens, this particular Google search is not something that I’m at all embarrassed about, but it’s easy to imagine how this “innovation” in advertising could cause problems for people. Imagine that someone on a lunch break at work does a Google search for an embarrassing medical condition, or for something related to a personal problem in their life, or any number of other private matters. Then the next day,  the person is working on something with a colleague, and when they visit a third-party website, a large banner ad at the top of the page says “Click here for [embarrasing medical condition]” in a large font. Not only could it be pretty mortifying, but depending on the content of the search terms, one can imagine scenarios in which it could cause the worker serious professional problems.

I’m not sure why I find it so creepy to see a verbatim search term parroted back to me by a banner ad, since I already knew that my web habits would be used by Google to tailor ads to me. The ad above, which I have seen several times on a several different visits to a Yahoo website, felt very different from the usual targeted ads I see, which might be based on search terms I have used, but which don’t reference the exact search terms themselves. And admittedly, I’m not well versed in the subtleties of online privacy policies. I spent some time yesterday at Google’s “Privacy Center,” and while they are upfront about using cookies and collecting “aggregated non-personal information,” it’s all pretty vague and I couldn’t find anything specific about how a particular search term could be used to target advertising to users on third-party sites. (This may be a failure on my part, but if the information is there, it wasn’t very easy to find. I sent a message to their privacy people asking for clarification, and if anyone has a better grasp of this stuff, I’d welcome more information.)

I don’t know if this experience will change my web habits—I’m already somewhat careful about what searches I perform, and what sites I frequent, but after this experience, I will probably be even more careful, and I recommend that people use due caution when performing web searches or surfing the web, especially from work computers or computers that are shared with other people. I was so put off by seeing my Google search term in a banner ad that I have been using Bing for my searches for the past 24 hours, not because I trust Microsoft any more than I trust Google (in fact, I trust Microsoft less), but because I already use Google to get my email and my RSS feeds, and somehow it seems like diversifying a bit might be wise, so that at least there is some part of my online life which isn’t being monitored, analyzed and exploited by a single company.

Anyway, my general rule of thumb is that it never hurts to assume that your online activities could become public at some point, or could be turned over to government officials. Most likely one’s online activities won’t ever become public or get turned over to a Federal agency, but really, you never know. Google seems like a relatively benevolent company, and of course they have a strong incentive to protect people’s privacy, since it could be devastating to their business if they became known as a company that didn’t protect user information. On the other hand, they also have incentives to misuse personal information, especially if they can do so without anyone knowing about it, so it might be prudent to go use a computer at the public library if you want to do that search for the embarrassing medical condition or whatever other private matter you want to research. Otherwise you—or your spouse, or your housemate, or your child, or your coworker—might start seeing the search appear in banner ads the next day.

Painting San Francisco

Monday, July 20th, 2009

This is sort of cool. I had to go out to the old Naval Air Station in Alameda again a few days ago (photos from previous visits are here and here), and I took some photos looking across the bay to San Francisco. Unfortunately, they didn’t come out very well, in part because some kind of distortion was introduced into the images. I don’t know what caused it—possibly something I did wrong (I’m still learning how to use the camera properly), or maybe the effects of the heat rising from the old runway where I was standing in the hot sun, or maybe…

Anyway, for whatever reason, the images aren’t very clear, but when I was looking at them in full resolution, trying to understand why they didn’t come out as well as I had hoped, I noticed that the distortion actually produced a pretty nice “painterly” effect, almost as if they weren’t photographs at all, but rather oil paintings done in a slightly impressionist style. I didn’t edit or manipulate them intentionally to create this effect—this is how they came straight out of the camera (I did crop them, so these are just small pieces of the full images).

Telegraph Hill

That’s the Bay Bridge with Telegraph Hill (topped by Coit Tower) behind it. Here’s another one (from a different original image) of downtown SF:

Transamerica

If anyone happens to know what might have caused this particular kind of distortion, I’d be curious to hear an explanation. I checked some other photos that I shot from the same location with the same camera (and similar settings) a few months ago, and while they aren’t necessarily any crisper, they don’t remind me of painted landscapes the way that these do.

Hell Hath No Fury Like a Parker Scorned

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

The Grand Lake Theater here in Oakland is well known for its political advocacy, from messages on the marquee calling for the prosecution of people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to anti-war events featuring Barbara Lee and Sean Penn. Normally the issues the theater focuses on are national, at a safe remove from the day to day lives of local residents—heaven forbid you should make your liberal bay area customers feel uncomfortable about their own lifestyles, when it’s so much easier to reassure them that they are right-thinking and right-acting, unlike those nefarious folks in Washington.

The management of the Grand Lake have recently found a local issue that is worthy of their attention: increases in parking meter hours and fees. To the barricades, drivers!

Cause Celebre

Judging from media reports and the reactions of some residents of my neighborhood, the theater’s stance is squarely in the mainstream of local opinion. The San Francisco Chronicle published an article about how the increased meter hours, increased fees and increased enforcement are “inspiring a revolt.” CBS5 had a story a few days ago featuring indignant drivers and business owners on Grand Avenue, which concluded by saying that people plan to “storm the city council meeting next week.”

Even though I don’t own an automobile and think that most of our cities are far too car-centric, I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the plight of these drivers or merchants. Obviously I don’t want commerce to move away from local stores and neighborhoods and toward malls in the suburbs, and I can also understand how infuriating it is when a mismanaged government or institution (BART comes to mind) punishes the poor and middle class with increased fees in order to make up for shortfalls in its budget. (Increased fees of various kinds, whether they be parking meter fees in Oakland or tuition fees at state universities, are a predictable consequence of a dysfunctional government and a population which has been persuaded by pandering politicians that governments can somehow keep spending more and more money without raising taxes.)

As sympathetic as I might be, however, there are benefits to extended meter hours and increased fees that deserve to be spelled out. Anyone who has driven to (for example) Grand Lake or Chinatown for dinner after 6:00 when the parking used to be free has probably spent some time circling the block looking for a parking space. When people drive in circles looking for scarce open spots, the costs of parking have not disappeared, they have just been transferred elsewhere: instead of paying for a meter, one is paying in wasted time, and paying in agitation, and paying in extra gasoline use, and paying in toxic emissions, and paying in increased traffic volume as other cars circle looking for parking as well.

Donald Shoup, a UCLA professor who has become an unlikely guru among many urbanists, has spent years trying to persuade people that parking should cost more money, and that failure to apply market pricing to public parking has been terribly detrimental to our cities (his best-known work is titled The High Cost of Free Parking). His basic rule of thumb for curbside parking is that meters should cost the lowest possible price which will render about 15 percent of spaces vacant at any given time, and that the money earned from meters should be used in that same neighborhood for local improvements (streetscaping, sidewalk cleaning, security, whatever), so that local residents and business owners feel invested in the meters instead of oppressed by them.

Setting meter prices high enough so that there are always some vacancies eliminates the Yogi Berra problem (“nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded”) and encourages more turnover, so that you have more shoppers making more visits to a particular street, instead of a smaller number of visitors occupying spaces for longer periods of time. And if higher meter costs encourage some people to walk, bike, or use mass transit instead of driving—well, so much the better. An alternative “solution” to parking shortages has always been to build more and more parking, but that has some unfortunate repercussions: it ruins public spaces with unsightly parking lots, and it just gives people an incentive to drive even more, which in turn increases the demand for parking even more, leading to the construction of yet more parking lots. Some people might think that more car traffic and more parking lots would be good for Oakland’s most walkable shopping districts in the long run, but I’m not one of them.

Shoup argues, based on real-world examples such as Old Town Pasadena, that while merchants and residents typically resist increased parking fees at first, they often become supporters after they get used to the change, because they see the benefits that can accrue from increased revenue and increased consumer turnover, especially when money is used directly for neighborhood improvements that make the area more welcoming to shoppers, such as nicer sidewalks, less grime, less crime, etc. San Francisco is experimenting with a demand-based pricing system in certain neighborhoods which causes prices to fluctuate dramatically from less than a buck an hour to over ten dollars an hour for the same parking spot, depending on when it is being used. (The gist of Shoup’s arguments are outlined well in this Streetfilms video and this Toronto Star article, and in many other articles and interviews linked to from his UCLA website.)

I’ve gone on at some length in the past about some of the unexpected benefits of getting out of one’s car (or losing it altogether) and biking and walking places instead. Yes, it often takes a bit longer, but there are quality of life benefits that far outweigh the drawbacks, as far as I’m concerned. (For an example of the stress and anxiety that can come from driving a car everywhere, see the gentleman featured in the CBS5 report I mentioned above—some people complain about how shrill and entitled we bicyclists are, and I won’t argue with that, but I’d say we can’t hold a candle to the average American driver when it comes to entitlement and righteous indignation. Even the CBS5 reporter, who seems generally sympathetic to their point of view, describes people as “ranting and raving.”) As I mentioned in my post about how much nicer it is to get around by bike instead of by car, it wasn’t until I was forced by circumstance (a totaled car and not enough money for a new one) to start riding a bike everywhere that I realized that I actually preferred it for most local trips. I think human beings are often remarkably bad at knowing what will actually bring them satisfaction.

Given how hard it is for people (all of us, not just automobile drivers) to imagine that a change in lifestyle might actually improve our lives, I can’t help but wonder how many of the people who are outraged about having to pay more for parking in Oakland live within walking distance of the destinations that they currently drive to, and whether they might discover that spending 20 minutes strolling to the Grand Lake Theatre for a movie, or to Arizmendi for coffee and pastry, or to Walden Pond Books for a used paperback is actually a much more pleasurable experience than driving there and looking for parking (even free parking). I agree that it would be a shame if people start driving to malls in the suburbs instead of driving to Oakland neighborhoods for dinner or a movie, but if some significant number of people start walking and biking to those Oakland neighborhoods instead of driving because they don’t want to pay $2/hour for a meter, or because they fear getting a parking ticket from an overzealous parking enforcement officer, then I would consider that a feature, not a bug.

Some Free Advice

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

If your mood levels are highly correlated with ups and downs of the S&P 500, then you are probably overinvested in stocks. Similarly, if your mood levels are highly correlated with the quality of your internet connection, then you probably spend too much time online.

Riddle, Mystery, Enigma

Monday, July 13th, 2009

The photo in my last post is from a long walk I took with the dog the other day, a loop from my home east of Lake Merritt up to Berkeley and back (a bit over 10 miles altogether, according to the handy Gmap Pedometer). I had some errands to run along the way, but I also hoped to get some good pictures. As it turned out, I only took a handful of photos, and I’m not wild about any of them, but here is a sampling:

Skirts

Fans of the crossword puzzle and the jumble in your local newspaper (if your city still has a local newspaper) might appreciate this sign, because the only way you can make sense of it is to figure out a missing word (Wadi or arroyo, 4 letters) and then unscramble another.

Car Peon

Two things you’ve probably noticed about time: it only goes one way, and what you’ll find in that particular direction is a big unknown. So this sign on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland must be an advertisement for the future:

This Way

Any, um, questions?

That is the Question

Etc.

Real Estate Collapse

Sunday, July 12th, 2009

On Telegraph Avenue in North Oakland:

Sign of the Times

Tykes on Bikes

Sunday, July 5th, 2009

They closed off a few streets of downtown Oakland for some criteriums today, the 5th Oakland Grand Prix. I only had time to swing by for a few minutes, but one of the races I caught was the “local kids” category (they did a single lap). They may not have been as fast as the adults, but they were much cuter:

Starting Line
(The kid on the yellow Specialized took off on an early breakaway and never looked back. You can tell he meant business because of the spandex and racing gloves.)