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.