Monday, September 28, 2009

Library advocating copyright violation to earn money?

Asian-language DVDs of "The Prestige" and "Terminator 3" on sale Sept. 28 at the South San Francisco main library. The post-it note states that a region-free DVD player is required.

I love libraries and think that "Friends of the Library" sales, where the library sells surplus or donated books, movies, etc. are a great idea. But I was taken aback when I saw the DVDs above as part of the sale at South San Francisco's main library on Monday afternoon.

Now I'm not sure that they're illicit copies (which I why I didn't bring them to the attention of library staffers), but the cheap, printed box covered with an Asian language and "Chingrish" writing on the back just screams "Bootleg!" I'd bet if I looked at the discs themselves, they'd be purple DVD-ROMs.

Heck, I admit to borrowing some CDs from the library and ripping songs onto my computer. But in this case, if the DVDs are fake, the library itself is possibly facilitating copyright violation -- the complete opposite of a library's ideals.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Some "sick" graffiti

The chalked writing says, "Swine Flu Warning: If you are sick, do not go to class."

I took the above picture yesterday afternoon on the main campus of San Francisco State University. I'm sure the supposedly outrageous graffiti (in easily erasable chalk) was probably written by someone in the university's health office (on the opposite side of the building upon which this note was written).

While the graffiti does offer sage advice, is it truly necessary or is it part of the paranoia we've seen around H1N1 or "swine flu?" Some early scares aside, it appears no more deadly than the average winter flu in the United States, just more easily transmitted.

This isn't 1919. Let's not shut everything down or panic. Let's practice some good hygiene and the problem will take care of itself.

(As an aside, my presence on the SFSU campus yesterday connects to why I haven't blogged much lately -- three graduate school classes have been seriously kicking my butt! Will update as I can.)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

SamTrans releases probable final list of cuts

I had planned on posting this after the Citizen's Advisory Committee meeting tonight, but SamTrans e-mailed out a press release at 4:20 p.m. today. CAC members got an e-mail late Monday listing what will likely be the final proposal given to the Board of Directors next week.

The short of it? Not nearly as bad as could've been predicted -- unless you're a rider of express service, in which case it's worse than you might have thought.

In addition, the 25-cent fare increase first proposed by CEO Mike Scanlon in July, will be put into effect. SamTrans' base fare for local service will now be $2.

I'm as pleased as I can be, considering the somewhat dire news. My two pet areas, preserving late-night service and Line 17 out on the south San Mateo County Coast, were served. Also the KX, which I recently began taking to downtown San Francisco on nights I both work and have class, has been retained. Not so lucky are all other express routes, which -- save for Pacifica's DX line -- will be eliminated.

The relevant cuts, as presented by Chester Patton, Director of Bus Services:
Our proposal advocates preserving service for transit-dependent and low-income groups, and consists of the following elements:

Rather than shrink the daily service hour span, the new proposal retains the late night service for hourly workers at SFO and other locations served by routes 292, 297 and 397. This also avoids a commensurate reduction of paratransit service.
Express service to SF is eliminated (except for the KX). The high fares and exclusive nature of the express services generally do not serve our core transit-dependent ridership. Research indicates express riders have much higher incomes than local route patrons, and have alternative options such as shuttles, local routes, Caltrain and BART, or the personal automobile.
The eliminated express service would include: MX, NX, PX, RX, DX, and FX.
Retained would be the CX, which does not serve SF but already terminates at Colma BART; the CX has a local fare.
A new local fare feeder service, with 6 daily roundtrips, would provide an alternative for the higher ridership FX service, circulating in Foster City and terminating at Millbrae Intermodal Station, connecting with BART and Caltrain.
The KX is retained as a hybrid local-express, but is reduced to 60 minute service, and eliminates the Page Mill segment.
The only impact to EPA is changing the 280 from 30 minutes to 60 minutes.
The bi-directional 14 would change to one direction before 7am and after 4pm.
The poor-performing 342 in Millbrae would be eliminated.
The 390 and 391 would change from 30 minute to 40 minute service on weekends.
Route 141 would change from 30 minute to 60 minute service, but remain at 30 minutes during school hours.

These changes save approximately $6.3m annually; when coupled with the fare increase, the total becomes $7.5m. The savings for FY2010, however, would be approximately $3.1m for the service reductions and $3.8m if the fares were increased February 1, 2010.

After last month's public hearing, a director or two made the point that it would be difficult for the board to pick and choose which lines would go or stay. So it seems that SamTrans left it to the professionals, who came up with these cuts.

"We believe that this proposal best balances the need to lower costs with our priority of protecting our most transit-dependent riders," Patton wrote. "This proposal is only a partial solution to our financial imbalance, and it should be noted that this is only the first step. These cuts could have been much deeper, but we were reluctant to inflict additional hardship on our dependent patrons."

SamTrans still faces a structural deficit of nearly $30 million, and more cuts may be necessary. And it behooves us to consider that a lot of people involved with the district will be losing their jobs -- as many as 30 operators, according to one of my sources in the operators' union.

If the economy turns around and people begin flocking to mass transit in the interests of being green (both optimistic predictions, I know) we may lament a lack of foresight. But in the meantime, this proposal was about as good as we could hope to get.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The House of Ideas bought by the Mouse of Ideas

Image at left purloined from

I'm not quite sure how I feel about this morning's news that Disney is buying Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion.

Personally, I always felt better about reading Marvel because, unlike DC, it WASN'T owned by a giant multinational corporation. It isn't that Marvel's not big already, but prior to this they didn't have an even bigger company telling 'em what to do.

Sadly, the transaction also kills my dream of one day buying Marvel Comics and reviving Shogun Warriors and Rom: Spaceknight.

But the main concern raised on some of the message boards has been whether Disney will start to either censor -- or cause Marvel to self-censor -- some of its edgier publications. It's a real concern. Would Marvel writers be able to, say, treat Tony Stark as the virtual villain he was in Civil War if Disney thinks it will "hurt the brand?"

It's a valid concern. DC has been owned by AOL-Time Warner (or its predecessor companies) for decades and there have been rumors about reduced creative freedom. On the other hand, DC has put out its sophisticated Vertigo line, which has issued some of the best comics of the last 20 years. Longtime comic blogger Rich Johnston brought up 10 important questions about the deal today, including the following relevant to editorial freedom:

[Marvel Editor in Chief] Joe Quesada points to the Pixar/Disney buyout which saw Pixar join the board of Disney and gave great autonomy to the computer animation studio. Pixar however generally makes content with a younger audience in mind, Marvel often goes to the extremes of mainstream comics with the likes of and Punisher, Dakota North and Kick Ass – with both extreme violence, nudity and the F and C words being sprinkled liberally. Disney distributes many other movies with similar content issues. But will the comics aspect be a sticking point with someone at Disney, unable to disassociate the message from the form? And with Disney’s long experience with movies, will interference occur not so much in the comics, but in the movies?

It'll be interesting to see how it all shakes out.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Skynet, here we come

David Mills, who hails from my hometown of Glendale, has an entertaining blog, "Undercover Black Man", where I found the video below. He asked the important question: "Shouldn’t we destroy all these Japanese robots now, instead of having to travel back in time and do it?"

And I have to say, the lady pushing the robot is probably why they will revolt in the first place.

The Terminator [Blu-ray]

Monday, August 24, 2009

When kids are too smart for their own good

So Ian, Claire and I went to the San Bruno Library tonight after dinner to pick up some reading materials.

(As I posted on Twitter: "I just realized with sadness that grad school means no more time for recreational reading. For the next three years.")

Ian eschewed a book and instead decided to borrow a Kipper video. Fine, the kid can read well and is allowed a video now and then. Ian then declared he wanted to watch the whole video this evening.

Claire, looking at the running time, told him he could just just watch a couple episodes -- it's a school night.

Ian, ever the astute reader, looked at the DVD box and said "No, it says '90 minutes of fun,' so I want to watch 90 minutes!"

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

NIMBYs, NIMBYs, everywhere

I'm a firm believer that one should buy a home because of the neighbors, the local schools, a short commute to work, etc. Maybe because there's a nice view. Basically a place to live. I do not think, however, one should buy a home as an investment (at least it's low on my list).

So it upsets me when I see when I see articles in the paper like I did in today's Palo Alto Daily News (the recent redesign of which I'm digging, by the way). A five-column headline, "High-speed rail hit with lawsuit," outlines the complaint filed last week in a San Mateo County court by Menlo Park resident Russell Peterson.

Peterson contends that Caltrain and California High-Speed Rail authorities need the permission of Union Pacific Railroad to use the railroad right of way for high-speed rail. Peterson claims that Union Pacific has "the exclusive power to hire an operator to provide intercity passenger service" on the tracks.

First, the entire reason that Amtrak was founded almost 40 years ago is that the big railroads wanted to get out of passenger service. So I doubt that Union Pacific is in any way interested what passenger service is on the tracks, so long as it does not interfere with its freight operations.

Second, Paterson needs a new lawyer -- an informed one.

I'm sure attorney Michael Brady's contention that high-speed rail officials "need to obtain Union Pacific's consent (to run high-speed rail) because Caltrain isn't really the owner" of its tracks will be news to the Caltrain Joint Powers Board and the taxpayers who funded the purchase of the railroad right of way between San Francisco and San Jose from Union Pacific's predecessor, Southern Pacific, in 1991.

While Union Pacific, as noted later in the Daily News article, has an easement to run freight on Caltrain’s tracks north of San Jose, any "rights to inter-city passenger service" -- the bone of contention in Menlo Park resident Russell Peterson’s lawsuit -- would have been superseded when the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board took over the tracks.

This is simply another meritless lawsuit by a NIMBY concerned about their property values. I think it's time for Peterson to take one for the team: the residents of the state of California.

I now quote wholesale from a previous post I made on this topic: high-speed rail is an extremely positive project for San Mateo County as a whole, with great benefits from proposed stops at San Francisco International Airport and a possible stop in the South County. In addition, high-speed rail will be in a position to assist Caltrain with electrification and grade separation projects.

I used to live in San Mateo on East 40th Avenue, one block from the tracks, so I understand the concerns of nearby residents. But there is a big picture and I hope that this post can remind Atherton and Menlo Park residents (and those in their respective city governments, which have filed suits against the project) of that big picture.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Public hearing on SamTrans cuts brings out crowd

Just a part of the crowd at Wednesday's SamTrans Board meeting regarding service cuts.

Note: This post was live-blogged from inside the SamTrans Board room as the meeting progressed. Apologies for it seeming disjointed.

SAN CARLOS, Calif. — A packed house offered their opinions about the proposed cuts to SamTrans service at the District’s Board of Directors meeting Wednesday afternoon.

The proposed cuts were blogged about in this post.

Comments from the numerous speakers at the meeting will be added to 1,436 comments made at community forums, CAC meetings and mailed, e-mailed and telephoned comments to District officials over the past two months. The Board will make its decision on the level of cuts at its September meeting.

The relatively limited capacity of the Bacciocco Auditorium was quickly reached, with a line of standees along the back of the room. There was an announcement that the nearby SamTrans cafeteria was wired to carry the sound as well, and about 40 people took up the offer.

SamTrans Chief Operating Officer Chuck Harvey said, "The agency is in an financial crisis," noting that the district is facing a $28.4 million deficit. Thus far, prior to any service cuts, SamTrans has saived: $750,000 with a freeze on administrative raises; $250,000 by reorganizing; $1.75 million with a hiring freeze; and $1 million in fuel hedging.

Harvey noted that there had been many calls to raise fares to entirely cover the deficit, but such a measure would not be enough. "The problem is we’d have to raise the fares to four times what they are today, because we only get 20 percent of our operating costs through fares."

Fifty-one speakers addressed the board over the two-hour open comment section of the meeting. Highlights included:
* “SamTrans is the best part of my life,” said one elderly woman who asked that the eligible discount fare not be raised and that line 391 be allowed to continue to downtown San Francisco.
* One rider said she lives in San Jose and works at a Redwood City school and begged that line 270 be retained. Besides Caltrain passes, she also buys VTA and SamTrans passes (perhaps unaware that a two-zone Caltrain pass is taken as local fare on both VTA and SamTrans).
* Half Moon Bay’s interim City Manager, Michael Dolder, stated that SamTrans did not properly take into account greenhouse gas emissions as mandated by the California Environmental Quality Act.
* Howard Cohen, superintendent of the South San Francisco Unified School District, pleaded for the directors to not cut youth service: "Young people do not leave their constitutional rights at the school gates. I believe they do not leave them at the public bus doors as well."
* CAC chair Wayne Kingsford-Smith outlined CAC opinions outlined at last week's meeting. (My thoughts from last week are presented below).
* Dave Taylor, who claimed he “represents labor and working class” argued against a fare increase: "Handicapped and seniors have no increases coming up in their paychecks." (Well neither do the rest of us right now, I reply.)
* One lady, arguing for the retention of line 17 on the San Mateo County Coast, noted through a Spanish translator that, “It’s better for seniors to take the bus than have seniors driving.”
* “For the love of God, what is Schwarzengger doing to us?” said an angry supporter of the 295, drawing approvals akin to a revival meeting from several members of the audience. The California governor cut state transit subsidies for the next three to five years after a number of budget initiatives failed in May's special election.
* Menlo Park councilmember Andrew Cohen said that cutting bus service at the same time large infrastructure programs are planned to take place on the Caltrain/California High-Speed Rail tracks 300 feet from his home is like “telling the poorest members of our community to eat cake.”
* SamTrans bus operator Pat Ketcham cautioned against wholesale cuts, stating that his bus is packed after 10 p.m. He said operators are concerned for the low-income riders who utilize the service and that operations staff is aware of the gravity of the financial situation. “The strength of a country is in how it treats its poor,” Ketcham said. “Our drivers are open, we understand reason. We are not closed-minded.”

After closing the hearing, the Board went into a brief recess prior to its regular meeting. As is typical at public hearings, board members were not permitted to discuss the issues related to the public hearing. Redwood City Councilman Jim Hartnett, a member of the SamTrans Board, did make one point in the regular session -- the Board does not have the technical skills to handpick which routes to save and will probably need to pick from the tiered alternatives.

"It's not what choices we have, it's what level we pick," Hartnett said. "From a financial point of view, we could easily justify a 15-percent cut or more. The real change that has to occur is a structural change. We don't have the money in the best of times to provide the level of service we do."

My opinions, as I expressed them at last week’s Citizen’s Advisory Committee meeting:

• Agree with (others) that a centralized, consolidated express bus from Belmont with an additional stop at Hillsdale/101 would be a good cost-saving idea. Though I must state for the record that I do not agree with proposals for having KX skip the airport and have those riders take BART (I have a long-standing disapproval of plans where a higher-priced alternative to SamTrans is promoted until and unless those routes [Caltrain or BART] accept SamTrans fare media).

• I have long favored reducing frequency over absolute cuts, back to the 193 and 282 eliminations a few years ago and the first time the 17 was slated to be eliminated. In particular as relates to the Pescadero to Moss Beach route 17, we cannot cut off our poorest, most-needy customers on the coast.

• I believe that 10 p.m. is absolutely much too early to stop El Camino Real service, even on weekends. Too many of our traditional demographic riders must work unconventional hours. Our downtowns and SFO are open well past midnight. When I was a dispatcher, I know we kept a lot of potentially unfit drivers off the road by suggesting a convenient SamTrans bus.

• I do believe route consolidation might be able to get us some of the savings we need. I do, however, worry that longer routes will mean more fatigue for our operators and want to confirm that they would get appropriate rest for both their safety and ours.

• Symbolism is important – to the public, the operators and mechanics, and to me. If SamTrans administration is going to get any wage concessions from its employees and/or lay them off, it would be a bold, affirmative step if there was an equivalent cut in administrative costs, either through wage cuts or redundancies.

• Finally, this process seems to have moved along haphazardly. To say the district needs to cut costs by an undetermined point and then leave it up to the board to make decisions has, I believe, left the public a bit befuddled and made it more difficult for transit advocates to respond. If we had had a definite plan to respond to, rather than a series of “what ifs,” it would have been easier for community groups to come up with a workable alternative. The issues have been too diffuse for my tastes. It almost feels like a cynical attempt by the administration to pick, say, a middle proposal and then have them be able to go to the public looking for congratulations by saying “Hey, we didn’t cut it as much as we could have.”

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Closing the books on Australia

Left: The Australian dollar dipped as low as 62 cents (US) while I was on my trip. It is currently at about 84 cents.

I recently did the math about how much November's Australia trip cost, and I was surprisingly close on my early estimates.

The verdict? My Australian sojourn cost me exactly $4,419.56 -- about 10 percent over budget, but not unreasonably so. That breaks down to $3,845.94 on credit cards, $546.73 in cash and $26.89 in fees paid out of my bank account. (All figures in US dollars).

That does not include: a couple hundred dollars worth of new clothes, accessories and hiking boots given to me as birthday gifts just prior to my trip; the fact that I spent about $2,000 on nasal surgery and follow up immediately before my trip, partially so I would be comfortable on it; two weeks of unpaid time off work during and after my trip; and the opportunity costs of buying everything on my United miles credit card to earn enough miles to take the trip in business class.

It was totally worth it, by the way.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Les pirates d'exacerber les problèmes Russie-Géorgie sur la guerre anniversaire

Un an s'est écoulé depuis la Russie et la Géorgie ont commencé à combattre leur mémoire a été en ce qui concerne l'Ossétie. L'année dernière, j'ai écrit que la situation était similaire à l'argument de l'OTAN et la Russie concernant le Kosovo et je pense que les similitudes restent. Nous avons une super forcé préconisant la sécession d'une région qui estime qu'il n'est pas desservie par un autre gouvernement légitime.

Hier, des pirates informatiques russes ont été soupçonnés d'attaquer Twitter, Facebook et Live Journal de réduire au silence un écrivain appelé "cyxymu", qui préconise des politiques pro-géorgien. Cela me fâche beaucoup comme un utilisateur de Twitter et retourna sur les hackers. Cette cyxymu a maintenant bien plus de publicité. Bon pour lui. La libre circulation de l'information ne doit pas être étouffée.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Comic-Con wrapup

And people wonder why I go back to Comic-Con year after year after year ...

Over the years, I've noticed I've spent less and less time on the Comic-Con floor in favor of instead going to panels (of course, as lines have increased I've been going to fewer panels as well). All told, I spent a little more than an hour on the floor this year.

Besides the panels I mentioned last time, on Sunday I hit the Doctor Who panel (below). The crowd went wild when David Tennant came out, mercifully drowning out the chants of ("Torchwood: Children of Earth" spoiler coming up), "Bring Back Ianto!"

Crowds, of course, were huge leaving the convention center at 5 p.m. on Sunday.

Sarah Michelle Gellar sings what all us fanboys do when told how much Comic-Con admission will be ($100 for a pre-reg pass for 2010!).

I ended up having dinner in Mexico on Sunday night, having $1 tacos and Tijuana bacon-wrapped hot dogs. The new requirement for passports at land crossings may not have helped the auto line entering the United States (above), but the walk-across was much quicker than I remember. I caught the trolley in no time.

Ian (right) gave me a big hug when I picked him up at school Monday and really liked the Chewbacca action figure I snagged him at Comic-Con. I got Claire a Battlestar Galactica "What the Frak?" T-shirt.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Name and shame

Seen at a San Diego Trolley stop in Chula Vista:
I personally don't think "name and shame" tactics work, and quite frankly pass re-sales like this are a natural outgrowth of the San Diego Transit system eliminating transfers earlier this year. SamTrans is planning a day pass once new fare boxes are installed system-wide. Will we see something like this at San Mateo County busstops?

Crescenta Valley High Class of 1989 reunion

Our class gift, a sign at what was once CV High's main entrance.

Some people think of high school as either the worst times of their lives or the best (in my opinion, if it’s either – assuming one’s out of high school – that’s pretty sad). To others the time seems to slip by quickly, with barely a notice. To me, high school was probably the most formative era of my life. It’s where I discovered my interests in publishing, law enforcement and civic affairs. It’s where I developed my personality, my humor, my knowledge base.

Right: Me at my high school graduation, June 21, 1989.

Last night was my 20-year high school reunion. The Crescenta Valley High School class of 1989 was gathered back together at the 94th Aero Squadron restaurant in Van Nuys.

What’s scary to me is not that this was our 20-year reunion, but rather that it’s been 10 years since our 10-year reunion. I had thought the first ten years went fast, but the next ten went even faster. Time seems to pass at an exponential rate.

My 10-year reunion was one when I felt much like I did after graduation itself – a time full of hope and potential. I had recently graduated from college, was freshly engaged and had a good entry-level job in the career of my choice. The future was wide open. Ten years later, I’m, after some employment setbacks, in an even worse career situation than in 1999 and will soon start grad school -- the third time I’ll be starting my education again after thinking it was finished. The time has flown by and I again feel as if I need to start my life (at least I’ve still got the great wife).

I’d been hesitant about going to the reunion, honestly. My wife Claire was unable to attend, so I’d need to go “stag.” The one fellow member of the CVHS class of 1989 with whom I maintain regular contact chose not to attend (most of my high school friends were in different class years). Therefore I would be going on my own – a daunting proposal, as I am not one of the more social people you would meet. But I also knew, high school being among the most-important times of my life, that I would regret not going, even if only to turn a page on a long-over part of my life.

The trepidation had built to a crescendo the past couple weeks, and I didn’t really know why. Were the opinions of these people – most of whom I had not seen in two decades – still important to me? I decided to find out.

It turns out that about a third of our class, which was about 350 strong, made it, along with various significant others and a couple fresh babies (and about five more in various bellies). I ended up being able to recognize about half the attendees without nametags, which I thought an accomplishment because my mental images of these late 30s-something people were stuck on their 16-year-old forms.

Our class president, Michelle S. (for their privacy, I’m not using my classmates’ full names except for those with a high public profile) was among the first I saw and not only did she look great, but the whole setup reminded me why I voted for her in the first place. A table of memorabilia lined the wall – old photos, programs from football games to awards ceremonies, cheerleader sweaters, etc. The well-anointed buffet table beckoned with a generous spread and the al fresco dining overlooking the busy general aviation runway of Van Nuys airport was inviting. She even got the weather to cooperate.

Because I came alone, I could fill any empty seat and was able to sit with a bunch of folks with whom I didn’t generally hang out with at CV. It actually worked out well.

For the second straight reunion, I ended up sitting at the same table as Cristy Thom, who later gained fame as Miss February 1991 and later showing off her considerable talents as an artist. I had a minor crush on her in junior high (she had the 80s Madonna thing going on before I had even heard of Madonna), but we got along like oil and water – even getting into a minor scuffle in the seventh grade. But the last couple times I’ve seen her she’s been as sweet as can be. I guess we’ve both grown up.

John Baker and Cristy Thom
Me and Cristy Thom

Besides Cristy, I was at a table with Tom T., Marc L., Tim P., Sadie L., and Victor R. (who probably was one of the first friends I made in the first grade at Fremont Elementary, although I doubt I exchanged more that a couple words with him since 1979). People seemed genuinely interested in my roundabout life story and I found theirs’ interesting as well.

Sadie L. and I had our longest, most-substantive conversation since the seventh grade. After the mandatory “you look good” comments were exchanged, we mutually came to the conclusion that only the “beautiful” people came to 20th reunions (very few folks were without hair or unusually overweight were in attendance). I think we liked the idea, as it appealed to both our egos.

I had the longest, more interesting conversations of the night with Allen A. and his wife Angela. Allen was a recent immigrant when the alphabetical closeness of his name put him directly in front of my in history class. It was a genuine pleasure seeing how he’s developed. Angela also recently finished an MPA program at CSUN, so she was able to give me some tips and allay some of my concerns about my upcoming program.

It was a pleasure seeing everybody, especially the following folks for the following reasons: Fred K. and Steve H., who are both actively working for Uncle Sam; Kim F., one of the first people I met at Fremont and saw all the way through; Kevin G., whom Rob and I got into a knockdown, drag-out fight on a summer night in the middle of Foothill Boulevard but harbors no ill will; Kurt R., whom I met on my first day at Rosemont Junior High and whose humor remains intact; and Bob J., one of my oldest elementary school friends, who continues to work in the railroad business. (If I saw you and didn’t name you, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t happy to see you.)

A lot of people didn’t go and their absence was disappointing. But I really did appreciate the chance to catch up with those who did attend and I extend my greatest respect and admiration to all my classmates, whether or not they made it to the reunion.

As I noted, I had some anxiety going in. But those worries subsided rather quickly once I got there and I quite literally felt a bit sad when I had to leave (had the big drive back to San Diego ahead, so I lit out about 11:30 p.m.). I am very glad I went and had a good time. Whether high school was the best of times or not, it was probably the most influential part of my life and it felt right to acknowledge it. Our senior prom theme was Whitney Houston’s “One Moment in Time.” While we can never get that moment back, it’s nice to be reminded it was there.

Edit (July 29, 2009): Can't believe I forgot to mention how proud I was of my classmates that the dance floor remained empty until "White Lines (Don't Do It)" by Grandmaster + Melle Mel was spun. My old school mates went "old school!"

Kurt R., Bob J. and myself.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Comic-Con days one and two

Spider-Man makes an appearance at the Marvel booth.

SAN DIEGO – I’m here at the 40th annual Comic-Con International, my 14th since 1992. I flew down Thursday morning on Southwest and think I was hit upon by both male and female flight attendants. Guess I still have it.

The lines here are, as expected, long. I had a 45-minute line simply to pick up my badge. I think Comic-Con should charge a couple extra bucks and male out the badges like they used to. Speaking of charging a couple extra bucks, pre-registration for 2010 is now $100! That’s up from $65 last hear and $50 two years ago. The CCI administration now recognizes it has a cash cow, but seems to have forgotten there is a recession.

Anyway, the first panel I attended was a retrospective by Richard Hatch, who starred as Apollo in the original Battlestar Galactica series and Tom Zarek in the “re-imagined” version. I then got in the long line for the Burn Notice panel, worrying slightly that I was further tarnishing the Con’s reputation by supporting a non-genre show (of which too many are at Con – C’mon, “Glee?”)

But Burn Notice actor Bruce Campbell – a fan favorite thanks to his roles in the Evil Dead and Spider-Man movies – allayed some of my fears by pointing out, “If you’ve ever been to Miami, you’ll know there’s a lot of aliens there.”

I should point out that while I was in the long line, I was in front of two of the few stereotypes I’ve seen here. A couple bearded, overweight gentlemen were discussing the comics field, then drifted into the movie field with comments like, “May 8, 2009 – the day ‘Star Trek’ died. The guy from Lost killed it.” And even, “I’m not even going to correct people when they say ‘Star Track’ anymore.”

They did make one good point, which I independently came up with a couple years ago, that Comic-Con should come up with a system similar to Disneyland’s Fast Pass system, wherein one picks up an “appointment” for a certain attraction (or ballroom, in this case) for a certain time and can come back at that time for priority admission. Some sort of panel ticketing system is a must.

My Twitter account has been updated frequently on this trip, but not as often as it might. At times, AT&T’s 3G service has been so overloaded that I couldn’t even text. The “free Wi-Fi” Comic-Con offers is so bogged down in the Convention Center that it’s useless.

In other news, Comic-Con continues to be clueless over what’s popular. The panel on Thursday night for “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog” was in the smallest open ballroom, was full and had the equivalent of another full ballroom waiting in line. I ended up watching “Iron Man” for about the fourth time in a nearby room. For popular panels, they need to do what they do at events like MacWorld, where panels are often simulcast in a satellite ballroom.

I like these actors, but will likely not watch their show. I have too much TV on my plate already.

On Friday, I arrived early for the combined Battlestar Galactica: The Plan/Caprica panel. The line went faster than I expected and I caught the earlier panel in the room for Stargate: Universe, staring Robert Carlysle of “Full Monty” fame and Ming-Na Wen (whom I’ve had a crush on since she was on “The Single Guy” in 1995). African-American Stargate star Jamil Walker Smith got a laugh when he related that his mother said he would be “the next Levar Burton” after hearing he got the part.

In the BSG panel, moderator Faith Salie got a laugh when she noted that the Battlestar crew was passing the torch to prequel-show Caprica “in true sci-fi style” --by passing it backward in time a half century. Salie also noted ironically that Edward James Olmos played Esai Morales’ father in “American Family,” and now Morales would be playing Olmos’ father in “Caprica.”
The passing of the franchise torch.

Show runner Ronald Moore made a point of calling it “a fraking crime” that no BSG actors received Emmy nominations in the course of the show’s run, and I agree. Mary McConnell, I think, should have received several noms.

Him: "Exterminate." Me: "Hey, I saw Captain Jack just around the corner, go after him instead!"

After BSG, I picked up some lunch (and a packed meal for dinner) at a nearby supermarket, then came back to roam the floor. Besides almost literally rubbing shoulders with Gene Simmons of Kiss, I also got close to Torchwood star John Barrowman and Hobbit Elijah Wood.

A TV Guide panel on science-fiction television followed in the early evening (the remake of “V” looks interesting) and I caught a screening of last winter’s “Push,” which I found quite interesting, although seeing it sleepy made it seem more complicated than I think it should have been.

I closed out Friday by attending last half of the Eisner Awards, the comics industry’s equivalent of the Oscars. Highlights included “All Star Superman” winning Best Ongoing Series. I checked out the first volume from the library last month and enjoyed it, thinking it had Golden Age flair combined with modern sensibilities. Nate Powell’s "Swallow Me Whole" won best new graphic album.

After a few hours at Comic-Con today, I’ve renting a car and driving to the Los Angeles area, where I will attend my 20th high school reunion tonight (arrgh, I’m old!). The will then put on my suit and Converse sneakers and run back to San Diego for Sunday mornings Doctor Who panel. I should already be in line, in fact.
Folks camping out overnight for the Lost panel, which I could not get into. I lightened the picture with Photoshop, that's why it looks like crap.

I am in line now (10:45 a.m. on Saturday) for a "Futurama" panel due to start at 12:45 p.m. I'll make it, but will have to sit through an hour's worth of (ugh) Seth McFarland first.

Other random pictures:
A mere one-fifth of the Convention Center floor.
Even Rorshach gets tired at Comic-Con.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Catchup week on the blog -- Part 3: SamTrans now faces fare hike

Ian might have to wait a little longer -- and pay more -- for his next SamTrans bus.

There was no good news for riders at this month’s SamTrans Board of Directors meeting. In fact, the bad news from last month was piled upon.

For the first time, transit directors spoke of the potential need – beyond the potential 15 percent service cuts already announced – to raise fares by 25 cents, just months after another fare increase and weeks after SamTrans officials said that no increase would be sought in these troubling times. SamTrans CEO Mike Scanlon said he had heard from some riders that they would prefer a fare increase to serious service cuts.

“It’s a distasteful (idea), but perhaps a little less distasteful than others,” Scanlon said while addressing the Board. “It would be another tool in the toolkit. Whether you use it or not is up to you.”

Scanlon suggested that a fare increase would potentially reduce the need for some of the more harsh service cuts proposed and would translate into a $2 basic fare for SamTrans, with passes going up by the same ratio as cash fares. Scanlon said his “worst dreams” do not envision the fare going beyond $2 at this point.

The proposed cuts (most of which I discussed last month) will be discussed at a series of community meetings (including July 27 at the South San Francisco Municipal Building at 6 p.m.) and a formal public hearing during the Aug. 12 regular Board meeting at 2 p.m. The SamTrans Citizens Advisory Committee (of which your blogger is a member) will also discuss options at its meeting on Aug. 5 at 6:30 p.m.

When the previous fare increase was announced near the end of last year, I had wondered – I admit I do not recall if I raised the possibility with anyone else verbally – whether we should just raise fares to $2 then in order to build a reserve and prevent a situation like the one the District is facing now. It now seems like that would have been a good idea. Oh well, hindsight is 20-20.

But I almost feel Scanlon’s fare proposal is a cynical attempt to either increase fares and say “Hey, at lease we preserved service,” or to have the Board not adopt the fare increase, but make cuts and say, “Hey, at least we kept fares down.”

It’s not helping that SamTrans management’s actions are worrying the rank and file. The District recently made an offer to spare about 20 jobs to the union if it would forego a scheduled pay raise. But, as the details were extremely vague, the proposal was not voted on at the June union meeting.

With as many as 70 layoffs on the table in the fourth quarter of this year, it’s no wonder one operator told me that “people are scared” and another admitted, “We see the economy; we see concessions; we are not without reason.”

But there’s another worry. This recession will not last forever, and times will improve. Ridership tends to rise and fall with the economy (we saw it in the last dot-com bust and boom cycle and, illustratively, SamTrans ridership is down 4.6 percent from this time last year) and it will one day improve – meaning the need for more service and more maintenance staff and bus operators. A little more long term, this is an environmentally conscious county, with more and more people turning to “green” transportation like mass transit. The District will need the staff to serve those people and I worry that mass reductions in staff will make it all the more difficult to increase service when needed.

Of course, that scenario may not come for a long time, and a nearly $30-million deficit now needs to be addressed. Do I have answers? No, not really.

I do think cutting the full 15 percent and eliminating express routes is out of the question (and I say that as an exclusive rider of local routes, BART and Caltrain). Maybe having some more-attractive service, like a limited-stop line on El Camino Real, will help draw riders and funds. I also think some line consolidation, minor service cuts, some modest union givebacks and, yes, the fare increase may be necessary. But a line needs to be held after this. We need to preserve transit professionals’ jobs with a view toward a busy transit future and need to do things with a mind toward attracting riders, not scaring them off.

There were also some interesting Caltrain facts presented at the July 8 meeting: a rash of Caltrain suicides have been in the news lately, but staff pointed out that there are an average of nine suicides on the Caltrain tracks annually – that’s nine out of about a 250 annual suicide average in the three-county service area (or 3.6% of people who decide to kill themselves in San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties). Chuck Harvey, Caltrain and SamTrans' COO, also said about 40 people have been taken into custody in recent months for their own protection.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Catch-up week on the blog -- Part 2: Florida

Continuing catch-up week, here is the long-promised quick recap of my recent trip to Florida.

My grandfather turned 81 in early June and to celebrate, Claire, Ian and I flew out to the Tampa Bay area (specifically Bradenton), where my grandparents live. Based on my off days and the availability of a free ticket I could purchase with United miles, I left on May 20 (a day before Claire and Ian flew over on Delta), arriving in the early evening at TPA, where my grandparents, Bob and Carol Baker, picked me up.

Our first stop was at St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field, where I treated my grandparents to a ballgame (below).

It turns out the Oakland Athletics had also made the trip from the Bay Area and narrowly defeated the hosting Rays, 7-6.

My grandfather and I at the ballgame.

On Thursday, I took a quick tour of Anna Maria Island, before driving back to Tampa and getting Claire and Ian. We then began what seemed to be recurring pattern of swim, dry, swim.

We swam in pools and jacuzzis (below) ...
We swam in the Gulf of Mexico ...
... and other fun stuff.

My Aunt Kathy (who's three weeks older than me and had her first child, Andrew, just two days before Ian was born) brought her husband and Andrew on Friday and we had an impromptu mini reunion. On Saturday, we headed to Bradenton's South Florida Museum (right) and saw Snooty the manatee -- among other local residents. While Snooty (below) was genial, the highlight for me that day was our visit to the A La Mode ice cream parlor in nearby Palmetto.

(Although I did have an awkward moment with my grandfather when I suggested his father was a bootlegger because he travelled frequently to Havana in the 1920s).

At left, Claire finds she has a fear of large reptiles.

We did more of the same over the weekend. It doesn't sound like we did much, but that was the point. We made it a real vacation -- with not much to do and did quite a bit of relaxing. (We had another awkward moment over the weekend when I accidentally broke my grandparents' ceiling fan while stretching to put on a new shirt, but a quick trip to Home Depot and $40 solved that issue). The most physical thing I did the whole trip was throw two 5-year-old boys (below) back and forth across the length of the pool. That was tiring.

The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful. On the way back, I had layovers in Denver -- where I discovered the restrooms are also tornado shelters (right) -- and Las Vegas (below), where I both had ice cream and blew five bucks in the slot machine. While it was more than 100 degrees in Las Vegas, after a week in the humid Tampa Bay area, I discovered what it means when people say, "At least it's a dry heat."

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Catch-up week on the blog -- Part 1: Grad school

Do I have a busy week ahead. I'm working today, enjoying a visit from my mom on Monday, have both a baseball game and a Wiggles concert to go to on Wednesday and fly down to San Diego on Thursday for the San Diego Comic-Con (which will always be my preferred name for the event). I'll be there until Monday, but will also take a side-trip up to Van Nuys on Saturday night for Crescenta Valley High School's Class of 1989 20-year (gasp!) reunion. Dang, I'm getting old.

But there's also the matter of catching folks up on a couple things that have happened recently in my life. While, I'm up to date on my Twitter updates, I've been remiss here on the details. I've promised blogs about the family's recent sojourn to Florida and an update on the SamTrans service cuts, both of which will be forthcoming.

But the biggest news is related to my educational plans. Let me preface this by saying don’t let anyone tell you that persistence doesn’t pay off.

I’ve previously outlined my quest to be admitted to a Master of Public Administration in this blog. I also sadly announced last winter that I had not been accepted to San Francisco State University’s program for the spring semester. I later saw a stat that the university took only about a third of the spring applicants – and no doubt there were many, many applicants with the economy going down the tubes.

Not one to take no for an answer, I reapplied recently for the fall semester. I wasn't expecting much, not after last time and also going to a workshop at SFSU's downtown campus where the instructor estimated the school was only going to be able to accept a fifth of applicants this year because of budget cuts.

But I got good news while at a baseball game in early May. My iPhone rang. It was my dear wife, Claire, who told me she had just gotten a call from the acting program chair at SFSU. They were offering me admission and thought I had "an interesting background." Needless to say, I'm thrilled. I think this master's program can give me a needed leg-up in the public service field and can help me gain my first interesting job since I left dispatching.

I credit my acceptance to my being able to finally say in my application essay how important public service is to me (and also drastically shortening the dang thing from the one I submitted the first time around). I think the purpose statement puts into focus a lot of my future goals and so I offer it here in its entirety:

To Whom It May Concern:

As one whose adult life has been geared toward public service, it would be an honor to be considered for admission to San Francisco State University’s Masters of Public Administration program.

Studying for an MPA will dovetail the two main motivators in my life: my search for knowledge and the desire to serve the public. I have always liked to learn, but I stumbled into public service more recently. After some bumpy early college semesters where I stretched myself both working and studying full time, I needed a fresh start. I moved to Northern California, where I began to concentrate on journalism, changing my major from criminal justice. I graduated and began working for a local newspaper, where I was assigned a civic affairs beat. Through that position, I became familiar with local government workings and the experience helped fan my own desire to serve.

When my staff newspaper job was eliminated in the “dot-com bust,” I started working as a public safety dispatcher, where I explored serving the public in a very tangible way, learning how to work within guidelines in often-stressful situations. At the same time, I began to develop my community leadership skills. Specifically, I served as a South San Francisco Library Trustee, where I made decisions regarding budgets and library guidelines. Currently I hold office as both a commissioner on the South San Francisco Housing Authority, where I help oversee contracts and policies in a low-income housing development, and as vice-chair of the San Mateo County Transit District’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee, where I serve as a bridge between the public and elected officials on mass transit-related matters.

While I have learned a great deal in those positions, my ultimate desire is to be more valuable to the organizations with which I affiliate by becoming a more-effective leader. San Francisco State would be the ideal place for me to learn that effectiveness. Not only does the MPA program have an excellent reputation, which was outlined to me by a number of graduates (including South San Francisco Councilmember Kevin Mullin*, when he interviewed me for the Housing Authority), but I also have a strong familial connection with the university. I earned a bachelor’s degree at SF State in 2003, during which time I was introduced to the public administration program via an online class, and my wife and mother-in-law both earned masters degrees at SFSU. I strongly desire to reinforce my affiliation, as I believe SF State is among the best public universities in the United States.

A community member may rarely deal with the federal government outside of sending a check to the IRS each April. That same citizen, however, may have frequent contacts with local government by taking the bus to work, watching local police and firefighters serve the community or by checking books out of their local library. A government agency or non-profit organization can become a much more immediate part of its citizens’ lives than might a typical business. This ability to have a positive and continuing effect on other people’s lives and the community as a whole is what draws me to public administration and is why I want to advance my career with an MPA from SF State. Indeed, I can think of no finer way to both enhance my service to the community and to satisfy my thirst for knowledge.

Thank you for your consideration,

John Baker

* Yes, I name-dropped someone whom I don't know well, but it was for a good cause.

Maybe a bit fawning, but the guiding principles behind the letter stand. I've reached 20 years past high school and now it's time to give something back.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Why the Internet is good for television

There has been much discussion as to whether the Internet is killing traditional television shows. Bit Torrent, etc., has hurt a lot of studios who are losing out on revenue (both advertising and DVD revenue). But online commercial-supported streaming may change that. For example, the multi-network/studio venture Hulu has led to a bunch of new TV viewing by me. To wit:

Ongoing TV shows I've started -- watching both online and on TV -- because of Hulu: Burn Notice, Parks and Recreation, My Name is Earl (OK, this has since been canceled, but the point remains -- they are getting an ad-viewing audience they would not have received otherwise).

Old, archive shows shows I've started watching because of Hulu: Dead Like Me (I love this show!), Firefly. I likely would never have watched these shows without Hulu and certainly wouldn't have bought the DVDs. So it's free money for the studios.

On the flip side, shows that I started watching on television, but now catch (or caught if since-ended) thanks to Hulu: Battlestar Galactica (2004 series), ER, King of the Hill, The Simpsons, American Dad, House. (In fairness, I will buy the BSG Blu-Ray when it comes out and I likely would NOT have watched ER if it had not been available online.)

(On the flip side of the Internet/television argument, I must admit to watching last week's BBC sensation "Torchwood: Children of Earth" through, shall we say, illicit means. I found it fantastic, good, thinking science fiction. It doesn't air until next week on BBC America, a channel I do not have. To make up for it, the Blu-Ray is on pre-order from Amazon.)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Most unfair baseball stat

On the occasion of today's All-Star Game in St. Louis, it's time to announce I've come to the conclusion that the most unfair statistic is baseball is "defensive indifference."

You know, when a runner -- usually on a team trailing by several runs -- apparently steals a base in the late innings of a one-sided game and the defense makes no attempt to throw him out. The official scorer often rules "defensive indifference," rather than crediting the runner with a stolen base.

Officially, Rule 10.07(g) states that the official scorer "shall not score a stolen base when a runner advances solely because of the defensive team's indifference to the runner’s advance." This usually happens when the pitcher chooses to concentrate on the batter and runners are free to take bases at their leisure.

I've never understood this stat. I know a lot of commentators will say that the runner generally represents a run that is "unimportant" or that there is more to be gained in concentrating on the batter. But isn't the whole point of baseball to score runs? And isn't one of the reasons baseball is great because there is no clock, and every run can become part of a slow developing rally?

More importantly, isn't it the job of a defense to get outs? A runner stealing second -- or advancing on "defensive indifference"-- with no one else on reduces the potential options for a force play by 50 percent. More importantly, the run is at least 90 feet closer to scoring. Nothing that gets a runner into scoring position should be so handily dismissed as "indifference." A defense may indeed chose to concentrate on a batter rather than a runner, but any runner that advance makes the defense's job all that much harder.

When Carl Crawford (left) stole six bases on May 3, it was one of the more exciting individual feats in recent baseball history. But I recall some discussion at the time as to whether some of those steals show be defensive indifference. Way to denigrate a great feat -- steals should be embraced in this post-steroids era and I hope that "defensive indifference" be eliminated from the baseball lexicon as soon as possible.

Maybe "Moneyball's"Billy Beane thinks stolen bases are over-valued. I think the opposite, and I think that any advancement by the runners makes things harder on the defense and players should receive full credit.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Persistance of youth -- the boy who never grew up

I've been doing a lot of thinking about the 1980s recently. I was never far away, at least culturally (more than half the songs in my iTunes have a 1980s date). But recent events, especially my upcoming 20-year high school reunion (arrgh!), have given the decade renewed prominence.

Perhaps the death of Michael Jackson will help crystallize my feelings. Was I ever a huge fan? No. But "Thriller"was the first album I ever chose to illicitly copy (a cassette held up the the speakers while my cousin Marco's LP played). Jackson was a cultural phenomenon while I was in sixth grade (Lincoln Elementary) and junior high (Rosemont Middle School) and I enjoyed his music and showmanship for what it was worth.

Not that I thought the music was great (some of it began to grate on me rather early), but I thought Michael was amazing -- partly simply because he was popular. As soon as I got into Rosemont, however, the dissolution of my beliefs began. Michael Jackson was one of the first times (but certainly not one of the last) that I saw "tall poppy syndrome" in action.

"He's gay" (then as now one of the most misused epitaphs). "He's weird." "Michael Jackson is sooo lame." The put-downs came from right and left. And although I never did anything to show my fandom and was never victimized because of it, my enjoyment of Michael's music faded prematurely -- simply because of peer pressure. And to be honest, these put downs of Michael came before any of his well-document later behavior.

Whatever his later problems (and I am in no way saying look the other way when it comes to allegations about child molestation), I will choose to remember Michael Jackson as an extremely talented performer, an outstanding dancer and spectacular songwriter.

None of the numerous 1980s songs on my iTunes are by Michael Jackson. But thanks to the radio (BBC Radio 1 played an hour-long block of MJ songs today) I am flashing back to a more innocent time where I could make my own choices without worrying what others thought. RIP Michael. You were part of my youth and you leave with my respect.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

SamTrans public hearing set for ... sometime

The San Mateo County Transit District's board of directors did as expected on Wednesday and scheduled a public hearing on potentially significant service cuts.

I use the term "scheduled" loosely, as the directors set the public hearing for some vague, unidentified time in "late July or early August."

(Disclaimer: The loose schedule is distressing to me. I am a member of SamTrans' "Citizen's Advisory Committee," which offers its input to the board regarding transportation matters but wields no actual power. We have no meeting scheduled for July and our August meeting is on Aug. 5. The CAC would like to have a well-thought-out opinion for the board, but right now it's looking like the board might have the hearing before our meeting.)

As I wrote last week, SamTrans is faced with a budget deficit of about $30 million and Chief Operating Officer Chuck Harvey is exploring services cuts up to 15 percent to close the gap.

A public hearing is legally required before any cuts are put in place, and SamTrans also hopes to hold four community meetings in different areas of the County before the directors vote on a proposal, probably at their September meeting.

Harvey presented the directors with a couple different proposals Wednesday. Outlining what he expected with a 7.5-percent cut, Harvey said: Lines MX, NX, PX/RX and 342 would be eliminated; Lines KX and 397 would be reduced to 60 minute headways in off-peak and weekend hours; and Lines 292, 390 and 391 would end service at 10 p.m. on weekends.

Under a 15-percent reduction, all of the above would occur, plus: Lines 141, 270, 280 and 295 would be eliminated; Line 391 would no longer provide service to San Francisco; and Lines 292, 390 and 391 would end service at 10 p.m. seven days a week.

"It seems to me that 7.5 percent is a minimum -- I hope 15 percent is an absolute maximum," said director, and Redwood City Councilmember Jim Hartnett. "I would suggest (staff) not be hesitant to come up with a different percentage in-between. (But) 7.5 percent is not going to get us where we need to go."

SamTrans CEO Mike Scanlon told the directors that SamTrans actually would rather add services, especially in the face of what he called "the most-enlightened federal policy in years." Most federal transit funds, however, are being distributed for capital projects rather than operational costs.

"We don't want to leave our most vulnerable (patrons) in a bad situation while we're supposed to be an answer in a sustainable society," Scanlon said. Paraphrasing a proverb, he added, "We're definitely going through Hell right now, but we're going through it. I hope the other side is not far away."

Years of the now-ended practice of subsidizing BART operations in San Mateo County continue to plague SamTrans financially, Scanlon added, and ultimately the agency might "need to get out of the Caltrain business" in order to properly run the bus system.

According to SamTrans Chief Financial Officer Gigi Harrington, SamTrans is providing $16.5 million for Caltrain operations this year, compared to Santa Clara VTA's $16.3 million and San Francisco Muni's $7.2 million.

One more sign of the distressing situation local newspapers find themselves in: once upon a time, our three local dailies would have pounced on this important story. Yet staffing cuts (the San Mateo County Times once had a dedicated transporation beat reporter) have taken their toll -- not one word of this proposal has made it into the Times, San Mateo Daily Journal or the Daily News.