At What Price?

November 9th, 2010

I don’t know how long this banner has been hanging, but I only noticed it today:

Good Fortune for Sale

No matter the price, it sounds like a better bargain than the “Special Sale! Misfortunes” which are advertised a few blocks away.

Do We Have a Mayor Yet?

November 8th, 2010

Ten years and one day ago was the 2000 presidential election, which, as everyone presumably remembers, took about a month to resolve. Since I was working on the national desk of a newspaper at the time, it meant that I hardly got to take a day off. I did have one weekend free, however, and I drove overnight from New York to Ohio with my father and brother and six-month-old nephew, so that my ailing grandmother could meet her new great-grandson. Whenever someone turned on the TV to hear the latest updates in the Florida recount battle, she would call out impatiently from her wheelchair, through the oxygen tubes running over her upper lip to her nose, “Do we have a President yet?”

With the news that the Alameda County Registrar won’t have the final count of the Mayor’s race done today as expected, I feel a bit like my grandmother did. Do we have a Mayor yet? No, Grandma, not yet—ask me again tomorrow.

I’ve been saying publicly since the preliminary ranked-choice results were released on Friday that I think Perata is almost certainly toast, because I just can’t imagine a realistic scenario in which he wins enough of the remaining 10,000 or so votes in order to beat Quan. I’m not much of a statistician, though, and while I don’t see how the ranked-choice counting system fundamentally changes Perata’s long odds, it does make back-of-the-envelope calculations (which are the only kind I have the patience for) a bit more convoluted. So I’m eager to get final results not only because I care about who the next Mayor will be, but also because I’m eager to find out whether I’ll end up with egg all over my face for dismissing the possibility of a Perata victory.

Time for a Change at BART

October 26th, 2010

Those who have seen my bike know that I prefer it unadorned and minimalist—no brand name, no logos, no stickers, no extraneous parts, and no colors except black and white. So it was not without hesitation that I temporarily scraperized it and turned it into a rolling billboard for Robert Raburn’s campaign for the BART Board of Directors:

Raburn for BART Board

I don’t have the craftsmanship of the scraper bike artists, but since I lack a yard or street-facing windows, I had to do what I could. In a mostly depressing election season, Raburn’s run for the BART Board in District 4 (encompassing Alameda and about half of Oakland) is one of the few bright spots. He is well-qualified for the position, with an academic background in transportation and urban planning, and a long history of public action on urban transportation issues. He also offers a stark choice between competing visions for what BART should be. Carole Ward Allen (the incumbent) and most of her fellow directors prioritize grandiose but imprudent projects like the Oakland Airport Connector and expensive expansions to far-flung suburbs, where ridership consistently fails to meet BART’s projections. Raburn, in contrast, wants to refocus BART’s priorities on core services, putting more resources into increasing reliability, decreasing headways, decreasing blight in and around stations, and improving passenger connections between BART and other modes of transportation, whether they be bus or bike or pedestrian.

Raburn has his work cut out for him. Not only is Carole Ward Allen a 12-year incumbent who is deeply embedded in the East Bay political machine, but Raburn is pushing back against 40 years of BART history. The sad fact is that BART has always acted more like a commuter rail system than an urban subway system, so Raburn’s focus on strengthening core services in the bay area’s most densely populated areas is surprisingly revolutionary.

It may be an uphill climb, but Raburn does have some things going for him. As the longtime director of the East Bay Bicycle Coalition, Raburn has very active support from the cycling community (see the photo above for an example—and I picked up that yard sign at a supportive bike shop in Alameda). He will also benefit from the highly motivated, highly organized opposition to the misguided Oakland Airport Connector—there are a lot of people like me who never paid any attention to the BART board before, but who are now more eager to vote for a BART director than anyone else on the ballot.

The airport connector, which will likely provide worse service than the current AirBART bus, but at twice the cost to passengers (and a cost of almost $500 million to BART) is not only a strong argument against Carole Ward Allen, who championed the project, but it also offers a more general lesson on why these down-ballot elections are important. Advocacy groups such as TransForm (not to mention a veritable army of local bloggers) fought heroically to get BART and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) to reconsider their plan to endanger BART’s financial future by taking out loans to fund a wasteful and unnecessary tram, but ultimately the MTC deferred to the BART board and approved the project. The airport connector is a prime example of why it’s more efficient—and effective—to elect the right people to these positions in the first place, instead of having to fight long, difficult battles over every lousy project.

The airport connector appears to be a fait accompli (although BART’s “groundbreaking ceremony” last week before the contracts have been finalized was a premature piece of campaign season theater), but there will be plenty of other decisions for the BART board to make down the tracks. If you live in BART District 4 and care more about increased and improved service than another expensive extension to some doomed outpost of the cheap-oil empire, then I urge you to vote for Raburn. (And if you live in BART District 8, then I urge a vote for Bert Hill for similar reasons—with the added bonus that you would be helping to defeat the unctuous James Fang, an especially unappealing character and San Francisco’s only elected Republican.)

Avanti! Avanti!

October 22nd, 2010

Almost a year and a half ago I posted a photo of The Grateful Tree a few blocks from my apartment. In the intervening months, time and the elements took their usual toll, and the little tree eventually looked like it would be grateful for a bit of sprucing up itself.

I walked the dog past there today, and was glad to see that the treelet has been given new life as The Grateful-Hopeful Tree. Passersby are now asked not only what we are grateful for today, but also what we are hopeful for tomorrow, and a small lamp has been installed, perhaps to help light the way toward that brighter future:

The Grateful-Hopeful Tree

I’m cautiously pessimistic about the future myself, but nonetheless I applaud the tree’s new forward-thinking mindset. I’m reminded of what I heard an irreverent newspaper columnist say when he was told that all the masthead editors were away at a retreat: “A retreat? Never retreat; always advance. Avanti! Avanti!” Whether the future is bright or dim, it is indisputably our destination, so the wry columnists’s exhortation is pretty hard to argue with.

Truthiness in Advertising

October 18th, 2010

Looking at this glossy 8.5 X 11 inch mailer sent to residents by the Jean Quan campaign, you would probably never guess that headline of the Tribune’s Mayoral endorsement was “We recommend Rebecca Kaplan for Oakland mayor.”

Half-Truth in Advertising

This is just one more unexpected complication of our new Instant Runoff Voting system, where we forgo primaries and instead rank our top three choices on the ballot, with 2nd- or 3rd-choice votes only coming into play if one’s 1st-choice candidate is eliminated during the vote-counting process. (There still seems to be much confusion out there about Ranked Choice Voting; helpful primers can be found at the Alameda County Registrar’s website or at A Better Oakland.) Even though the Tribune recommended putting Quan as third choice (behind Kaplan and Tuman) and the Guardian recommended putting Quan as second choice (behind Kaplan), Quan has been boasting on Facebook and Twitter, and now in these mailers, that she was “endorsed” by the Trib and the Guardian. This mailer takes that misleading claim beyond those niche markets and into the mailboxes of thousands of potentially low-information voters who won’t bother to look up the actual editorials to see what they say. (The East Bay Express endorsed Kaplan, Quan and Tuman without recommending what order they should be put in.)

Personally, I think Quan should be pretty embarrassed that the Tribune put a City Council neophyte and a college professor with no political experience above her on their list of recommendations, but I suppose that the two most common ways of dealing with embarrassing facts are to ignore them, or to deny them. As political half-truths go, I don’t know where on the scale this falls—it depends on what the meaning of “endorse” is, as Bill Clinton might say. (The Guardian’s endorsement does explicitly say that they are “endorsing” both Kaplan and Quan, even though they recommend making Kaplan the first choice vote and Quan the second.)  The inside of Quan’s mailer is less misleading, saying that “The Oakland Tribune, Bay Guardian and East Bay Express all say that JEAN QUAN should get one of your votes for Mayor,” and pointing out that all three papers specifically criticized Don Perata.

Politics as usual, or over the line? That probably depends on how one feels about Quan in the first place. I’ve made it pretty clear on several occasions in the past that I am not impressed at all by Quan, so unsurprisingly, I’m not impressed by this mailer either, but I suppose that if one sees this race (and she hopes that we will) as a two-candidate horserace between her and Don Perata, then it’s perhaps less misleading to claim that she has been “endorsed” by the Trib and the Guardian.

Goodnight Oakland

October 15th, 2010

I haven’t posted—or written, for that matter—any doggerel since my very first post, but since I apparently don’t have much else to say these days, I might as well. I happened to look up at the moon when I went out for my little just-before-bed dog walk last night, and this is the result. My apologies to the ghost of Margaret Wise Brown.

Goodnight moon
Goodnight city
Goodnight to the neighbor flattening cans
Goodnight lake
And the saxophone man
Goodnight pugs
Goodnight thugs
Goodnight fixies
And goodnight mixtes
Goodnight tacos
Goodnight potholes
Goodnight A’s
And goodnight gays
Goodnight cranes
Goodnight trains
Goodnight speeders
And psychic readers
Goodnight to the ladies
On East Fourteenth
Goodnight bars
Goodnight air
Goodnight noises everywhere

Life is So Uncertain

October 14th, 2010

This is the first sentence of the Boston Globe’s Friday article about the latest developments in the Red Sox owner’s efforts to purchase Liverpool FC:

The Liverpool Football Club will host Blackburn Sunday; that much is certain.

The only problem is that Liverpool is playing their Liverpudlian neighbors Everton on Sunday. (They’ll host Blackburn on the following Sunday—or should I say, “Sunday week.”)

Who could have predicted that the most dramatic news story of the week would be bicontinental legal wrangling over the purchase of a football club, rather than the rescue of the Chilean miners? (And no, I’m certainly not certain about that.)

Dirty Pool

September 29th, 2010

Who is subverting the democratic process more?

a) Candidate A, who uses his political allies to exploit a loophole in Oakland’s campaign finance law in order to exceed spending caps

or:

b) Candidates B and C, who use their positions as city council legislators to attempt to modify clarify* Oakland’s campaign finance law 5 weeks before an election in order to prevent Candidate A from exploiting the longstanding loophole

Background (complete with tendentious headline) here. This is not an entirely rhetorical question, by the way.

*I changed “modify” to “clarify” above for accuracy’s sake. Candidates B and C may not precisely be trying to change the law itself, but rather mandating a particular procedure or set of “guidelines” for how the law should be interpreted and implemented. If any lawyers out there care to elaborate on the possible distinction between changing the actual statute and changing the “guidelines” used to implement the statute, then please feel free to clue me in below. For instance, would such “guidelines” be a legally binding part of the municipal code, or something less than that?

When the Dog Bites. When the Bee Stings.

September 17th, 2010

These are a few of my favorite things: coffee, bikes, music, and the reclaiming of public space from the tyranny of the automobile. Imagine how delighted I was, then, to be able to take a picture of a coffee shop, a bike shop, a record shop, and a (temporary, alas) parklet installed on 40th Street in Oakland today as park of the annual Park(ing) Day takeover of curbside parking spots:

Coffee, Bikes, Music, Parklet.

I rode up to Berkeley today, so I swung by a few of these spots. I love the idea of Park(ing) Day, but I have to admit that seeing it in practice made me a bit sad. These parklets are sort of cute, but they were all surrounded today by the ugly, charmless streetscapes which pervade Oakland. Instead of being little oases of green, the seating areas in front of Subrosa (above) or Actual Cafe were unused at lunchtime until I plopped myself down and had my cappuccino or bagel or egg cream. Rather than giving me a small glimpse of how nice streets such as 40th or San Pablo could be someday, they just reminded me of how inhospitable to human beings those arterial streets are, and how dramatically they would need to change in order to feel like they were made for people instead of for cars.

Two other places I rode past which were supposedly participating in Park(ing) Day (Tip Top bikes in Temescal and Good Chemistry bakery on Grand) did not seem to have taken part after all, and Farley’s East on Grand, which looks like it had a great and well-used setup this morning, had moved everything up onto the sidewalk and given up the parking space to a car by the time I rode past in mid-afternoon. Given how low-density most parts of Oakland are, I have some real doubts about whether any amount of improved streetscaping or road diets or redevelopment or reclamation of public space will ever make it feel like a truly pedestrian-friendly city, except in small pockets here and there.

On a less pessimistic note, I was riding to Berkeley because I have wanted to check out Waterside Workshops in West Berkeley since I first heard about it a couple of months ago. It’s a non-profit which runs a boatbuilding workshop, a bike shop, and a cafe. They have local disadvantaged teens serve as interns, teaching them how to craft wooden boats, fix up old bikes for resale, and serve customers at the waterfront cafe. Obviously the main point is to instill good work habits, pride of workmanship, and collaborative and customer service skills, but who knows, boatbuilding and bike repair may end up being in demand if we start to run out of oil in the next few decades.

Waterside Workshops

It is very Berkeley, and very awesome. Sadly, it was also very closed today, due to a water outage caused by a nearby construction project. My visit will have to wait for another time, but I’ll probably take some photos and write about it more after I finally get to take a look around.

This Year’s Soccer Mom?

September 8th, 2010

I just got back from vacation today, and I see a lot more yard signs and window signs for the mayoral and city council races than I did when I left town ten days ago. Looks as if Don Perata is hoping to win the “creepy, shadowy figure lurking on a porch” demographic:

A Representative Sample of One

August 23rd, 2010

With people dropping their landlines and screening all their calls with caller ID these days, it’s hard for lonely pollsters to find people to talk to, and harder still to make sure the people they talk to are a representative sample of the electorate.

Since I still have a landline (and for some reason still answer it even though most of my friends and family don’t even know the number), and I don’t have caller ID, and I apparently don’t have anything better to do than talk to pollsters, I end up answering telephone surveys from time to time. I’m generally happy to do it—since I voraciously consume poll results during contentious elections, I figure that it would be hypocritical for me not to answer questions when pollsters call. So on Friday, 20 minutes after I happened to have posted comments on some of the Oakland mayoral candidates, I found myself answering questions about the upcoming local elections. And less than 48 hours later, I found myself answering another set of questions from a different polling outfit.

If I try to remember all the questions verbatim, then I will inevitably get things wrong, but since I had an inquiry about who had taken the polls and whether they asked about all 10 candidates for mayor, I’ll try to summarize the surveys as best I can from memory. The first survey was about 5-10 minutes long (it felt like 15, but I wasn’t looking at the clock, and it probably wasn’t quite that long), and was conducted by a woman identifying herself as being with Mountain West Research (I thought she said Madden West, but when I googled for information about the firm, I discovered that Mountain West is a big telephone survey operation, so I assume that I misheard her.)

The poll seemed pretty standard: In a neutral tone of voice, the woman would read something (a candidate’s name, or a summary of a ballot initiative, or a general statement about fiscal policy) and then ask me to say whether I strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree. The questions addressed everything from my ideological self-identification (I chose “very liberal”) to my assessment of the tax referendums (despite my self-identification as “very liberal,” I said I “somewhat opposed” most of the tax proposals on this fall’s ballot), to my opinions about some of the Mayoral candidates. (Quan: “somewhat unfavorable;” Perata: “somewhat unfavorable;” Kaplan: “somewhat favorable.”) I believe Joe Tuman might have been included also (if so, “somewhat favorable”), but frankly, I can’t remember for sure. I’m fairly sure that I was not asked to evaluate any of the other 6 candidates. I was also asked the approve/disapprove question about the Mayor and some of the city council members who are not running for mayor (I believe I was asked about Kernighan, who represents my district, and De la Fuente, Brooks and Reid, but not about Nadel or Brunner).

Other questions were more general, getting at the same issues addressed by the ballot measures, but slightly more abstractly. I can’t remember the exact wording, but there were questions along the lines of “The city of Oakland is expected to face a large budget deficit for the next fiscal year. Which of the following statements best describes your position: ‘I support balancing the budget by increasing revenue through additional taxation,’ or ‘I support balancing the budget by cutting spending’?” Another question was something like, “The city of Oakland has laid off about 80 police officers, and city officials say that they may have to lay off 150 more if they do not raise additional revenue. Would you support additional property taxes in order to prevent further layoffs?”

I was a bit surprised that the Mountain West survey also asked about my district’s city council race, just because I never expect much polling to be done in city council races. In addition to the question about whether I approve or disapprove of Councilmember Kernighan (“somewhat favorable”), I was asked about whether I approve or disapprove of her opponent, Jennifer Pae (“somewhat favorable,” although if “no opinion” had been a stated option I probably would have gone with that one, since I know almost nothing about her except that she’s a young mover and shaker, and comes across as very cheerful and enthusiastic on Twitter). I was asked which of the two I would vote for if the election were held today, and that was one of the few questions that I wouldn’t answer at all, because I really don’t know—I am not unhappy with Kernighan, but if I learn anything that makes me think Pae would be better, then I am open to persuasion. (If any readers care to weigh in below, then I’m all ears, since I assume that a lot of people are more familiar Pae than I am.)

That was about it for the Mountain West survey. After it was finally over, I asked the interviewer who had commissioned the poll, and she said (as they always do) that she didn’t know. All in all, it seemed like a typical, professionally done survey, and I couldn’t tell from the questions whether it was being done for a candidate, or a media organization of some kind (Can local media even afford to do expensive polling on local elections? Beats me), or a union, or…who knows.

The second survey, done by McGuire Research, was quite a different thing. It was much shorter, and let’s just say that the interviewer had a much less formal mien. That’s not to say that it was a push poll (that is to say, a poll which is designed more to influence the opinion of the electorate than to measure it), but the interviewer had a much more relaxed style, and oddly seemed to veer almost into small talk at times. As for whether this was done intentionally in order to subtly guide my opinions in a certain direction, or whether it was done intentionally in order to elicit more honest responses from the interviewees, or whether it was done unintentionally due to poor training, I won’t speculate, but it was unusual.

The questions were much more limited than the first survey’s, and as far as I remember, they all related to the mayoral race. I was asked whether I was familiar with Don Perata, Jean Quan, Rebecca Kaplan, Joe Tuman, and I believe Terence Candell and Marcie Hodge. It’s possible that he also asked about Don MacLeay or Greg Harland too (my memory is a sieve, and I didn’t take any notes), but I am pretty sure that Fields and Young weren’t mentioned at all. I was then asked whether I had favorable or unfavorable opinions of some of the candidates (again, I can’t remember exactly which ones—certainly the first four listed above, and maybe one or two others). I was also asked whether I knew that Ranked Choice Voting was going to be used in the November election (“Yes”) and which candidates I would put as my first, second and third choices if the election were held today.

The interviewer had used a pretty casual conversational tone throughout the interview, but I had chalked that up to his being a native English speaker, whereas the woman doing the first interview sounded like she was probably not a native English speaker. But at a few points during the survey, the interviewer from McGuire seemed to go a bit overboard in his informality. For instance, when I said (as I did in my post on Friday) that I would probably put Rebecca Kaplan as my first choice if the election were held today, he said offhandedly as he was noting it down, “Okay, Kaplan…lots of people seem to be saying Kaplan,” or something along those lines. Excuse me? Since when do people doing surveys for political polls tell the interviewees how other people have been answering the questions? My gut feeling is that he was not trying to influence me in any way, but it seemed like such an unprofessional thing for a surveyer to say in the middle of taking a poll that it did make me wonder.

That was the most striking example, but there were other moments where his chatty style seemed to border on the unprofessional. For instance, when I told him that I might just leave the third choice blank if the election were held today, he said something like, “okay, so you wouldn’t put any of the other candidates there, Candell or Marcie Hodge or Quan or anyone else…?” Again, I really didn’t get the feeling that he was pushing me to give particular answers, but it seemed a bit odd for him to start throwing out names like that.

I’m generally a skeptic, but not a conspiracy theorist, and my guess is that his informality was just a personality or training issue, and not anything more sinister. It seemed as if he had a list of candidates in front of him on a piece of paper or a computer screen so that he could mark down my choices, and he was just sort of thinking out loud as he glanced through the list. It was a bit strange, however, and people can draw their own conclusions. (The main reason it struck me is because these interviewers are always so determinedly lacking in personality, as if they are doing their best to imitate a robot when they read through their scripts. Being surveyed by a guy who sounded like a normal human being having a normal phone conversation was disarming!)

As I do whenever I am interviewed, I asked him at the end who had commissioned the poll, and he replied, as expected, that they are never told who has commissioned the poll so that they won’t bias the results. So there you have it. I did a half-assed Google search in case I could determine who was doing the polling, but as far as I know such information isn’t always easy to find, at least not until quarterly campaign spending disclosures are filed, which might show what campaigns have hired what polling firms (and even that might not shed a lot of light on things, however, because often a pollster will contract out the grunt work to a surveying firm such as Mountain West, so Mountain West or McGuire might not have been directly hired by the organization who had commissioned the poll.) If anyone happens to know who paid for the polls, I’d love to know, just to satisfy my own curiosity. Better yet would be to hear some actual polling data. There seems to be a widespread assumption that Perata, Quan and Kaplan are the only candidates with a serious chance, and I have no particular reason to doubt that, but like most assumptions, it would be nice to have more data to back it up

Lake Merritt Denizens

August 20th, 2010

The Charge of the White Brigade

Lakeside Serenade