Archive for October, 2009

A Site for Sore Eyes (and Sore Bicycle Rims) on Lakeshore Ave.

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

Some people’s thoughts bend toward the numinous when they see a crude outline of the Blessed Virgin Mary in a cloud, or in a piece of gum stuck to the sidewalk. Others of us worship differently, and feel the presence of grace when we come across a crude outline of a bicyclist indicating the imminent birth of a bike lane, like this one I photographed yesterday on Lakeshore Avenue in Oakland:

Lakeshore Bike Lane

I haven’t been so excited about seeing a bike lane since I saw the protected 9th Avenue bike lane in Manhattan (complete with its own bicycle traffic signals) in August, or the lovely bike lane at the eastern end of Alameda in April. What makes this latest bike lane special isn’t its design—it looks to be a standard 5-foot paint job between the car traffic lane and the car parking lane—but rather its location, and the contrast with what was there before. Lakeshore Avenue alongside Lake Merritt has long been a truly awful road on which to ride a bicycle, which is unfortunate for me because my bicycle is my primary mode of transportation and Lakeshore is the most direct way from my apartment to most points north or west of here.

Lakeshore was terrible to bike on for many reasons: the pavement was pitted and rough; there was almost no room to squeeze between the car traffic and the parked cars; drivers went too fast around Lakeshore’s many curves; the heavy recreational use of Lakeside Park means that a lot of people are getting in and out of their parked cars, increasing the likelihood of being doored; and after dark the road was not particularly well lit. If you took all the most dangerous aspects of riding a bike in a city and put them together in one street, you might end up with something resembling Lakeshore Avenue in its former incarnation. I would sometimes take a less direct route home, especially after dark, in order to avoid having to bike on Lakeshore.

Lakeshore Bike Lane

So the brand new pavement, the reduced number of car lanes from 4 to 2 (which will hopefully reduce speeding) and the new bike lane really do come as a revelation. I knew that bike lanes were included in the master plan for the park and roadways around the lake, but I had also heard some recent speculation from people in the neighborhood that bike lanes were not going to be painted on Lakeshore after all, because there wouldn’t be enough room between the parking lane and the car traffic lane. I’m glad to see that those rumors were unfounded, and we are definitely getting our bike lanes after all.

I’ve been pretty down on Oakland lately, for reasons that I can’t entirely pinpoint, but the privileged status of the automobile here is certainly one factor. The danger posed to vulnerable pedestrians and bicyclists from automobiles (which are all too often controlled by reckless, oblivious, or downright angry people) was tragically brought home two weeks ago when an 11-year-old girl in East Oakland was killed by a hit and run driver as she walked across a crosswalk from a bus stop to her school at 8 o’clock in the morning (as far as I know the killer still has not been identified). I’ve written plenty before about the importance of making the world safe for pedestrians and cyclists (including schoolchildren). The resurrection of Lakeshore Ave.,with its new pedestrian islands in the median, its bike lanes, and a reduction in its number of car lanes, should be a model for other parts of the city (like, say, lower Park Boulevard, perhaps?).

A Dodged Bullet last November

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

John McCain on one of the Sunday shows:

“I think that a fundamental difference we have is whether we think government does a good job at administering health care in America or providing health insurance for the American people,” he said. “I don’t think they do.”

Sure, Mr. McCain, whatever you say—this is why Republicans are trying to scare senior citizens into thinking that Democrats want to take their government-administered health insurance plan away, right? The fact is that people on Medicare are significantly more satisfied with their health care than people in private plans, and the VA system produces significantly better care for patients than private plans while managing to control costs impressively, in comparison to skyrocketing costs everywhere else. McCain’s comment is especially rich—which is to say, infuriating—because he has been the beneficiary of government-administered health plans for literally his entire life, first as the child of a naval officer, then as a naval officer himself (who tragically needed extensive medical care after the torture he received from his Vietnamese captors), then as a veteran, and then as a member of congress, and then as a person over 65.

Of course, as the husband of an heiress, he can afford whatever health care he wants without any government involvement, but unless he has a plan for enabling the 46 million uninsured Americans to marry heirs and heiresses, it would be nice if he at least allowed them to buy into a government-administered health plan similar to the ones that he has relied upon throughout his life. Chutzpah is often defined as killing one’s parents, then suing for the inheritance, but if anyone is seeking an alternative definition, I can think of one.

I know it’s not a shock to hear this sort of knee-jerk nonsense from politicians and pundits, but it’s especially galling when it comes from someone with McCain’s biography and health history. Whatever Barack Obama’s faults are, and whatever inadequacies the final health care bill will inevitably contain (assuming that a bill does get passed this year—knock on wood), just think about what the terms of the health care debate would have been if John McCain had been elected instead.

The Gentleman Doth Protest Too Much, Methinks

Monday, October 19th, 2009

Phil Bronstein has a silly post on his SFGate.com blog in which he points out that the New York Times article on Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts uses the same anecdote in the lede that a San Francisco Chronicle article used two months ago, about Batts initially declining to apply for the Oakland job, then changing his mind after the four Oakland police officers were killed a few days later. Bronstein gets all huffy and suggests that the New York Times took the anecdote from the Chronicle—the headline of his post refers to the Times’s “borrowing policy” and he claims to have compared the bylines on the articles to see if they were the same:

Maybe the Times was just being economical. So I checked the names. Chronicle reporter Matthai Kuruvila wrote our story. There was another completely different name on the Times piece.

And it probably wasn’t just me. A few of the other (57 percent) of the Times readers who also get the Chronicle may have felt like they’d seen it before, too.

Here we are, always bitching about how Google or MSN or Yahoo is stealing our original content and making money from it. It doesn’t really help our case if we’re raiding closets and borrowing outfits from members of our own fraternity without at least asking.

To be fair, a reasonable amount of what was in the Times story was different than the Chronicle’s, and written well enough.

Why is this silly? For several reasons: first of all, it’s obvious from the Times article that the reporter interviewed Batts, and the exact quotations used in the anecdotes are different. So it’s pretty clear that this is one of Batts’s standard anecdotes, which he recounts whenever he talks to someone about his decision to leave Long Beach and come to Oakland.

Secondly, the Chronicle’s own article made clear that the anecdote was told by Batts at a press conference when he was introduced as Oakland’s next police chief, and in fact the Oakland Tribune also recounted the anecdote on the same day as the Chronicle, in its own article about his press conference. Does Bronstein believe that the Chronicle has exclusive rights to anecdotes told by public officials at press conferences? Or does he merely believe that once an anecdote has been used as the lede in one article, no other publications should be allowed to use that anecdote as a lede ever again? Unfortunately, Bronstein didn’t explain precisely what he thinks the Times’ crime was, because he was too busy coming up with metaphors about fraternity brothers raiding one another’s closets. (Earlier in the post, he used a metaphor about how the Times arrived in the Bay Area wearing “panties and floaties” instead of “full battle gear;” I knew Bronstein was kind of the macho type, but still….)

If Bronstein thinks it’s so terrible for a paper to use an anecdote which has already appeared in another paper, then he might be disturbed to discover that yet another version of Batts’s anecdote had appeared in the Long Beach Press-Telegram five days before it appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. Obviously this doesn’t mean that the Chronicle “borrowed” or “stole” anything from the Press-Telegram; all it means is that Batts tells this anecdote a lot, and reporters from many different papers (I think we’re up to four so far, after about 2 minutes worth of “research” on my part) find the anecdote interesting enough to feature prominently in their articles.

Bronstein ends his post this way:

Note to NYTimes Editor Bill Keller who, like his predecessors, still puts out a generally impressive product: The interwebs has all sorts of digital magic to check stories for prior use. Punch up the Tribune before you make your next move into Chicago.

Note to former SFChronicle Editor Phil Bronstein: The interwebs has all sorts of digital magic to check stories for prior use. Punch up the Google before you make your next indignant complaint about an oft-repeated anecdote being proprietary to the Chronicle.

Local newspaper executives have said that they are not threatened by the Times’s expansion of its Bay Area coverage, and that’s probably true in some ways—the Times is not really equipped to compete with local dailies when it comes to getting scoops or covering breaking news, and local publishers and editors certainly have bigger problems than the New York Times to worry about. Bronstein’s post suggests to me, however, that resentment about the NYT’s bigfooting on local turf, which has always existed in regional newsrooms, may have grown larger now that the Times has planted a flag more securely in Bay Area soil. And while the Times may not be able to compete journalistically with the Chronicle, it can certain compete for home delivery subscribers and web readers.

Goodnight Sun

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

Last night’s sunset over Lake Merritt was a doozy. I even got off my bike (well, out of the pedals, at least) to take some photos.

I didn’t record any musical accompaniment, so you’ll have to imagine the convivial sounds floating across the water from Lake Chalet restaurant on the opposite shore (if you look closely, you can see its blue sign under the silhouette of a tree). If I didn’t know any better, I might have gotten the impression that Oakland was a pretty nice city, albeit one with a stumpy skyline.

San Francisco Tropical

Saturday, October 17th, 2009

There’s been a bit of a blogging lull here in recent weeks, so here’s another placeholder post—some photos from the California Academy of Sciences a few days ago.

I didn’t take too many pictures, but I wanted to see how photos from the dim exhibition halls or through glass and water in the aquarium would come out. For the most part, I was pleasantly surprised, although some of the shadowy lighting—in the frog photos, for example—caused some difficulties.

Stealth Jellyfish

Some young fashion plate may want to consider this color scheme for his or her next fixed gear bike:

Fish of Color

Are you really what you eat? A sampling of objects that have been found in the stomachs of great white sharks:

Omnivorous

To each his own

Inner Circle

The New York Times Places a Bet on the Bay Area

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

I cancelled my home delivery of the New York Times about 3 years ago, after they raised the subscription rate for the second time in a single calendar year. Having read a hard copy of the Times nearly every day for more than 15 years (not to mention having worked there for about 5), I expected the absence to be a shock to my system, but in fact I have hardly missed the paper edition. I read some of it online, and the stuff I no longer read apparently wasn’t as indispensable to me as I once believed.

Since I haven’t really missed getting a dead-tree edition, I never expected that I would feel any temptation to restart my subscription, but I have to admit that the Times’s launch of expanded Bay Area coverage on Fridays and Sundays is slightly enticing, and I feel some temptation to support their efforts by subscribing again:

The Bay Area pages initially will be written and edited by New York Times journalists and contributors and will include enterprising coverage of local concerns, focusing on public affairs, culture and lifestyles in San Francisco, the Silicon Valley, the East Bay and the region. The pages will expand on the work of The Times’s 10-person San Francisco news bureau and its already extensive coverage of the Bay Area.

A longer-term objective of this initiative is to work with local journalists and news organizations in a collaborative way, first in the Bay Area and then in other major markets around the country. The Times is in discussions with news organizations in the Bay Area about supplying journalism for these pages.

The first Bay Area section will appear tomorrow, and next week the Times website will start a blog called “The Bay Area” as well. When it comes down to it, I probably won’t end up resubscribing because it’s quite expensive for me (just getting the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday paper costs a whopping $10.40 a week—more than $500 per year!), but even if I don’t start taking the paper again, I can see myself buying a hard copy on the occasional Friday or Sunday, which I never do these days. And just the fact that I feel even a slight temptation to resubscribe suggests to me that this is a smart move for the paper—this region is full of the sort of educated, well-to-do people that make up the NYT’s target audience, and if expanding local coverage tempts even a few readers to drop their subscriptions to the atrophying Chronicle or BANG papers, and switch to the NYT, then it’s probably an experiment worth trying. (Even if it doesn’t attract a significant number of new subscribers, but draws more people to the website, then it may still be worth it.)

As newspapers wobble and topple around the country, there are definitely vacuums to be filled, and it remains to be seen how much of the void will be filled by local blogs, or by the non-profit journalism startups that are popping up here and there, or by other so-called “new media.” (I’m dubious of many distinctions between “old media” and “new media”—there’s good journalism and there’s bad journalism, and that’s the more important distinction to make.) It makes sense, though, for a paper with the national reach of the Times to try to step into the space left by shrinking newsrooms at local papers around the country, and the Bay Area seems like a sensible place for them to start. I won’t predict whether this bet will ultimately pay off or not, but I’m glad to see them trying—as far as I’m concerned, the more regional reporting there is, the better off we are, whether it’s being done by local blogs, j-school students, non-profits, or a newspaper based on the other side of the country.  I for one hope they manage to pull it off—whatever complaints I may have about the Times, I certainly don’t want it to shrivel up and disappear.

BART and the Repelatron Skyway

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

“Dad, I’ve just figured how to lick our whole problem. Instead of running a road through the jungle, we’ll build an aerial highway above the treetop level!”

Both Mr. Swift and Mr. Newton were astonished.

“I’m afraid that I don’t follow you, son.”

Tom went on enthusiastically, “By running the highway above the trees, we can sidestep the mess of hacking a route through the jungle!”

“Great, but how do you intend to support this aerial highway?” put in Uncle Ned. “It certainly can’t float in the air!”

“That ís just exactly what it will do,” Tom explained.

Tom Swift and his Repelatron Skyway

A BART's-eye View of Oakland

On Tuesday night, the Oakland City Council will consider a resolution opposing the current plan for the Oakland Airport Connector, which I wrote about at greater length (twice, actually! No wait, thrice!) back in May. To summarize: BART is planning to spend over half a billion dollars to build an elevated people mover from BART to the Oakland International Airport. For the privilege of schlepping our luggage across several additional traffic lanes from the shuttle to the terminal and saving a few minutes of travel time, passengers will pay twice as much fare as we currently do on the AirBART shuttle—not including the additional fee added onto all plane tickets out of Oakland Airport in order to recoup the money that BART has demanded from the Port of Oakland for the project. Meanwhile, Oakland gets yet another overhead band of concrete to add to the interstate overpasses and existing BART viaducts that already blight our neighborhoods. Oh, and BART is also borrowing $100 million from the Federal government to fund the project, so even BART riders who don’t live in Oakland and don’t visit the airport are likely to see their fares rise more in coming years in order to service all that additional debt.

All in all, it’s an unmitigated disaster, and the only superficially appealing argument in its favor is that it will create jobs in economically depressed East Oakland. The problem with that argument, of course, is that good public works projects create just as many jobs as bad public works projects, so even if people want to spend half a billion dollars on public transportation projects in order to create jobs, then the money should be spent on projects that will…I don’t know…just a crazy thought here…actually help to transport the public more effectively.

Also on the agenda for the city council meeting is yet another battle in the Great Oakland Parking War of 2009, so the city council chambers will be half full of furious merchants and drivers fuming about parking meters and tickets, and half full of furious transportation activists fuming about BART’s boondoggle. Unfortunately, the Oakland city council cannot stop the BART project directly, but the hope is that if the city council goes on record in opposition to the project, then it will get the attention of bodies that could stop the project, such as the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. (Some MTC commissioners have basically admitted in public meetings that the project is a big waste of money that will leave BART on bad financial footing for decades to come, but they mostly shrugged and voted to approve it anyway, apparently out of deference to BART’s board.)

For people who read local political and transportation blogs, this is all old news—and for those who live farther afield, it is probably of little interest—but since I have a little soapbox here I figure I might as well stand on it and say my piece. I took the photo above over a month ago, but for me it captures BART management’s attitude toward Oakland pretty well: they couldn’t care less whether Oakland gets trashed, as long as they can whisk suburban commuters to downtown San Francisco or the airports with minimal contact with Oakland soil. Elevated BART tracks carry passengers over Oakland’s neighborhoods while elevated freeways carry drivers over Oakland’s streets—a separate transportation grid several dozen feet above ground level, which “sidesteps the mess” below. I couldn’t help but think of Tom Swift’s “repelatron skyway” which was mentioned by a commenter on a previous post. Oakland’s a city, not a swampy jungle, but you wouldn’t know it from the way BART behaves. And when you protest that BART’s wasteful project can’t simply float on borrowed funds, they look you in the eye and tell you, “That is just exactly what it will do!”