Saturday, December 24, 2011

My Christmas playlist

Running right now on my iPhone's Christmas playlist as we prepare the house for tonight's Christmas Eve festivities (alphabetically by artist):

Do They Know It's Christmas: Band Aid (1984)

Overly sentimental, but a classic. One criticism: I know it was 1984, but did Simon LeBon really deserve the longest solo? Also, Sting and Bono have great harmony.

• Sleigh Ride: Debbie Gibson (1992)

OK, so I never got over my teenaged crush on Debbie Gibson. But Gibson also shows a little soul on this sassy take on a classic.

Oiche Chiun (Silent Night): Enya (1997)

Enya has always been haunting, and she gives a little dignity back to the holiday here.

She Won't Be Home: Erasure (1988)

I am absolutely flummoxed that this isn't considered a Christmas pop classic. Vince and Andy were never in finer form than this tale of a lonely Christmas.

Baby, It's Cold Outside: Glee Cast (2010)

Darren Criss is about the only thing watchable on "Glee" these days, and his character Blaine's duet with boyfriend Kurt is sweet and smooth.

Happy Xmas (War Is Over): John (Lennon) & Yoko And The Plastic Ono Band with the Harlem Community Choir (1971)

Hands down a classic. A very effective anti-war song wrapped up in a Christmas song. The kid's choir is sometimes overused in pop music, but has a great effect here.

Christmas Bells: Original Broadway Cast of "Rent" (1996)

Jonathan Larson's talent for writing overlapping harmonies and switching to multiple storylines within one song was never on better display than in this number. From the despair of Christmas among the poor in AIDS-ridden early '90s New York to Roger and Mimi's courtship to Angel and Benny's bonding, this is one of the most-critical songs in advancing the plot. Too bad the movie cut it.

Fairytale Of New York: The Pogues Featuring Kirsty MacColl (1987)

Talk about an epic storyline. When a song starts off "It was Christmas Eve in the drunk tank" and contains the most-unexpected line of "You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot, Happy Christmas your arse. I pray God it's our last" in an intentional attempt to make us loathe the characters, you know it's a good one.

Christmas In Hollis: Run-DMC (1987)

It seems 1987 was not only a good year for Christmas music, but it also taught us that hip-hop could cover the holidays as well as any other music genre with this diddy that was also featured in my all-time favorite Christmas movie: "Die Hard."

Merry Xmas Everybody: Slade (1973)

This hard-rocking, humorous song from the original creators of such hair-band classics as "Cum on Feel the Noise" has regained popularity in recent years from its inclusion in recent Doctor Who Christmas specials.

You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch: Thurl Ravenscroft (1966)

Written by Dr. Seuss with every bit of the verbosity for which he's famous, this is a classic.

Christmas (Baby Please Come Home): U2 (1987)

Mostly on this list because MTV played it constantly in 1987, but also because it's a very good version of a longtime favorite.

Linus & Lucy: Vince Guaraldi Trio (1965)

Seriously, what North American child's Christmas tradition didn't have a viewing of "A Charlie Brown Christmas?" This song is not only a great jazz instrumental, but brings back fond memories in almost all who hear it.

Christmas Wrapping: The Waitresses (1981)

Talk about your "story songs." This one rivals "American Pie" in its proto-rapped narrative, about a busy young woman's missed connections with a certain gentleman from the previous Christmas. A happy climax at the A&P over a can of cranberry sauce is just one snippet from this tune I'm happy to hear any time of year.

Last Christmas: Wham (1984)

Stick it. This may be a guilty pleasure, but George Michael was never in truer vocal form than here, singing about the brevity of a holiday romance.

Monday, December 12, 2011

It takes more than five minutes to master social media

Infographics, by design, are supposed to make complicated matters appear simple. Sometimes, however, they oversimplify the topic.

One such over-simplifying graphic is at Mashable’s 5-Minute Guide to Getting a Job in Social Media. The infographic, originally published on Sept. 2, 2011, offers many good tips, but they might be either a little too vague or too generic to help those interested in getting paid for their social media use.

For example, while the first two tips (“establish an online presence” and “be proficient in all social channels”) might seem relevant to those interested in social media, the remaining topics (“be creative and relevant,” “be a professional,” “know the industry/company,” “network,” “know the lingo,” etc.) are good advice no matter the profession.

And how much demand is there for the profession? As a late-September article in the Los Angeles Times put it, “No one knows exactly how many social media jobs exist, but a quick scan of online recruitment sites shows a bounty of businesses looking to hire.”

So, in essence, no one can predict how long this social media hiring spree will last or how widespread it really is. Moreover, the tips given by Mashable are either common sense or rather vague.

The accuracy of the salary charts listed in the infographic is also up for debate. A salary of $80,000 to $100,000 annually for a social media manager sounds good, but as the number of avid social media users grow, corporations will no doubt realize that they can hire some fresh-out-of-college kid to Tweet and post to Facebook, and pay accordingly. Moreover, until the analytics come in as to how successful social media is in acquiring and nurturing customers, salaries might come down unless an increase in sales due to social media is affirmed.

One tip that I personally might find hard following is the advice to “be proficient on all channels.” I am an avid Twitter user, and have made a number of LinkedIn connections. But I was an early avoider of Facebook, initially thinking it too much like MySpace. When I finally had to open an account for a SFSU journalism class, it was under a pseudonym. I have made only four friends there (and befriended one only because she wanted it for her birthday present and another — a teenage cousin — only after she practically cried when I initially ignored her friend request). So I am obviously a latecomer to Mark Zuckerberg’s world. Maybe it’s time for me to upgrade. I’ve personally always felt superior in having an underutilized Facebook account.

Sadly, my life is boring enough that I don’t have any pictures of me getting drunk at parties, so “being professional” is not a problem of mine.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Dropsie Avenue — Eisner's Tenement Trilogy, part III

Note: This is a review of the third book in Will Eisner’s Tenement Trilogy. The first two books, A Contract with God, and A Life Force, were previously reviewed in October and November.

Anyone who’s spent time in an old part of a big city can tell you that neighborhoods have personalities of their own. San Francisco’s Mission District or North Beach, for example, or New York’s Hells Kitchen, have long, storied histories that developed as time moved on.

In Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood, the third graphic novel in what I call Eisner’s “Tenement Trilogy” we learn the story of one fictional neighborhood in what is now the Bronx.

While A Contract with God was a series of short stories set in the Depression-era neighborhood and A Life Force essentially focused on an extended family through the 1930s, Dropsie Avenue focuses on the one character that is present through the series: the neighborhood itself.

The story begins in the 1870s on a farm owned by a Dutch family. A series of tragedies soon strikes the family and soon after, new folks, “The English” as they’re called in the story, move in.

In what will be a recurring motif, one of the characters laments the newcomers and feels the neighborhood (and property values) will suffer. Later, the Irish begin moving into the neighborhood and we see the same lament.

Then the same "they don't belong here" with the Germans.

The Italians.

The Jews.

The Puerto Ricans.

The “Negroes.”

In the 1910s, tenement housing goes up. Eisner shows us how corruption permeated every aspect of early 20th Century New York, down to the placement of subway stations and what organized crime would do to protect its investment.

Later on, as the story moves to the 1950s and 1960s, we see how the “old guard” in the neighborhood continues to be suspicious and hateful of newcomers — even when they once faced discrimination themselves.

By the era of the Vietnam War, the neighborhood becomes a run-down shell of what it once was. But we see that money is still to be made — if your morals are loose enough.

Of course, the building "mysteriously" burns down later.
Some say the "One Percent" are still doing stuff like this.

While the “Dropsie Avenue” neighborhood is fictional, the stories reflect some real-life history of New York. Obviously a composite neighborhood, Dropsie Avenue shows the struggles seen in many old cities as the United States grew.

Eisner’s storytelling in this book takes a little getting used too. Unlike the vignettes of A Contract with God or the clear, sometimes tense plotting of A Life Force, Dropsie Avenue reflects a continuing, ongoing history of the birth, life, death and rebirth of a neighborhood (with subtle hints that the cycle will continue). There’s 120 years of history to cover in a little more than 180 pages, so things seem condensed. We see couples meet, court, marry and have children in a few panels. Some characters last less than five pages before they move on – but we may see their children a decade or two later.

The pacing was hard to get used to, and somewhat confusing even for an experienced graphic novel reader such as myself. Eisner seems to eschew characterization and plotting at certain points because he was trying to say something important. Certainly Eisner has written one of the few graphic novels to tap into the controversial sociological theory of the neighborhood life cycle (joining last year’s ACT production of “Clybourne Park” as one of the few depictions of the phenomenon in the arts).

But Eisner also does something interesting in Dropsie Avenue. He makes a non-speaking, non-moving neighborhood into one of the most real characters ever seen in a graphic novel. You might not care much for the people walking on its streets, but by the end you care a lot about the neighborhood itself.

Henry Holmes died in a horse race

Henry W.V. Holmes' tombstone in Adelaide's West Terrace Cemetery
Open picture in new window to enlarge.
Occasionally, I have the macabre hobby of walking through cemeteries (developed when I had to take shortcuts through Colma). I look to look at the tombstones and wonder a bit about peoples' lives. I think it's nice to be remembered long after you're gone.

When I was in Australia a while back, I disembarked from the train at Adelaide's Keswick Station for a brief tour about town. Next to the train station is the opulent West Terrace Cemetery.

While there, I saw this particular tombstone, and I don't know what struck me more: That Henry Holmes died at about the same age as I am, that he died riding in a local horse race (a hurdle race, at that), that his tombstone was in danger of falling over, or that his wife's name appears to be misspelled.

(On the side of the tombstone is even something more somber: the birth and death dates of two Holmes children who died in infancy. What a tragic family.)

But Henry's ghost can take solace in the fact that he's remembered a century later -- his marker is at the front of the cemetery and can be seen easily from the nearby sidewalk.

No word on Kanmantoo's fate.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Go ahead, put your bananas in the refrigerator

The United Fruit Company, may have overthrown Latin American governments, hired Columbian death squads and exacerbated economic and social divisions throughout the Americas. But, damn, could its adwriters write a good jingle.

Even the youngest among us have heard the Chiquita Banana song:

For those who missed it, here are the lyrics:

I'm Chiquita banana and I've come to say
Bananas have to ripen in a certain way
When they are fleck'd with brown and have a golden hue
Bananas taste the best and are best for you
You can put them in a salad
You can put them in a pie-aye
Any way you want to eat them
It's impossible to beat them
But, bananas like the climate of the very, very tropical equator
So you should never put bananas in the refrigerator

Don’t refrigerate the banana? Why not? What are the consequences?

I’m not the first to ask this question, nor will I be the last. Opinions suggest that refrigeration is fine, but ripening is slowed. But I needed to find out for myself.

Only one way to sort this out — experiment time!

Our experimental bunch of bananas. Click on photos to embiggen.

Day 1:
Step 1 — Got a pledge from my wife that she would make banana bread out of any rotten bananas.
Step 2 — Bought a small bunch of four barely-ripened bananas (above) from Safeway.
Step 3 — Lettered them from A to D, then left them to ripen in the four most-common fruit storage methods that I could think of:

• Banana A (the control) was simply put in my fruit basket with the other fruit;

• Banana B was put into the refrigerator to test the assessment in the song;

• Banana C was put on top of the refrigerator because that’s where my mom thought fruit best ripened;

• Banana D was kept in a paper bag, based on folk wisdom that keeping fruit in paper bags helps it ripen faster.

I then let nature take its course. The first few days, all the bananas looked the same, with the first brown splotches showing up on all four on day 3.

Sadly, tragedy struck on Day 6 when Banana C (on the top of the refrigerator) was eaten prematurely by an absent-minded housemate. The best I can say was that it looked little different on Day 5 from any of the other bananas.

Day 7: After one week, I compare my three remaining bananas (right).

Banana A is a bright yellow, with several round brown spots. Would still pick up and eat based on physical appearance.

Banana B is greener than its counterparts. Browning is more diffuse than other bananas (in blotches more than spots). Would eat this one last based on physical appearance.

Banana C: Missing.

Banana D: What do you know? It appears the paper bag method works. Appears to have gotten more ripe than other bananas. Even spotting. Would eat based on physical appearance.

Day 14: After two weeks, the experiment was over. I put all three bananas (below) on the counter, examined their appearance and resolved to take a couple bites from each.

Banana A: The best looking of the bunch and the only one I would pick to eat based on how it looks. Still fairly yellow, with high-contrast spots. After peeling, severe mushy spots apparent on top end. Bottom is still edible and appetizing, but upper half is a waste.

Banana B: This banana has a fairly even brown skin at this point. Based on appearance alone, would not choose to eat. But upon peeling, I am very surprised. The actual fruit is still firm and good-looking. Without a peel, this banana still looks fresh! Tastes good. Actually finish.

Banana C: Missing.

Banana D: Almost completely covered with splotches. Not very appetizing in appearance. Peeled skin. Interior was almost completely brown and mushy. Did not eat.

So the moral? If you need your bananas to ripen quickly, try a paper bag but don’t leave them in too long. If you want your bananas to last, refrigerate them, Chiquita Banana Song be damned. Just don't expect them to look good.

* Footnote: My wife notes that this was a bad experiment, as the third banana went missing. “It’s like Jonas Salk was about to cure polio and someone ate the moldy bread,” she said.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Klout and the Observer Effect

Rohn Jay Miller’s “Delete Your Klout Profile Now” (published Nov. 9, 2011 on brings up a couple interesting points about measuring “influence” on social media. First, he brings up the fact that Klout is, in fact, a corporation seeking to leverage its subscribers into become influencers or advertisers for the company at little cost to itself. Secondly, Miller points out that Klout (and other SM measurement sites) are somewhat perverting the actual purpose of social media, making an immeasurable product into one that can be analyzed and sold. While Miller has valid points, he is missing the worst aspect of social media “influence” measurement — the fact that Klout’s measurement is affecting those it purports to monitor.

Physicists write about a phenomenon called “the observer effect” — referring to changes that the act of observation will make on the process being observed. Klout is similar. While there may be moral problems in Klout’s packaging its measurements — gained for free through the efforts of countless social media users — there is a bigger problem in that many users are changing their online behaviors in an effort to gain more “influence.” I have heard numerous social media users note that they are Tweeting at certain times of day or about certain topics, or even trading “+K” on Klout in an effort to improve their influence scores. Even if Klout’s scoring system is otherwise accurate, its propensity for being gamed (like Google search results) by users brings its credibility — and usefulness — into doubt.

Klout succeeds in that it meets a basic human need for recognition. This human desire makes Klout’s business model a successful one: some sample of people will alter their online behavior in order to improve their Klout score. And while there are philosophical issues as to whether Klout (or similar sites) is entitled to use its data in a business sense, there is a larger issue of credibility. If Klout’s measurement is affecting social media behavior, is it actually measuring accurately at all?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

SamTrans plans radical service adjustments in 2012

Most SamTrans lines are beneath industry standards for both amount of trip subsidized and boardings per hour, according to officials at the transit system.

SamTrans, San Mateo County's mass transit authority, has been bleeding financially for years. In 2009, the agency cut service by about seven percent (down from the 15 percent initially proposed) and raised fares by 25 cents each way in order to trim about $7 million from its budget.

Even so, the cuts have not been enough. SamTrans has been running a "structural deficit" (one in which even in good economic times, expenditures exceed revenue) for almost a decade. This past fiscal year, that deficit initially amounted to nearly $30 million, leading to -- among other things -- a two-thirds cut in the District's contribution to Caltrain (which almost doomed the latter agency). SamTrans Chief Executive Mike Scanlon told me last year that while reserves had covered losses in previous years, it was "only a couple" more years until those reserves were depleted. Some have even theorized that SamTrans is on the brink of dissolution because of its poor financial state.

So it's no surprise that the agency is looking to completely revamp its service. The district is formulating what it calls the "SamTrans Service Plan," using a combination of professional planning, consulting and public input at a series of public workshops along the Peninsula.

The objective, according to SamTrans documents is to identify both service strengths and areas for improvement, as well as seek to improve ridership over the next five to 15 years. Ultimately, the agency seeks to become a more "market-responsive" entity.

"Our goal is to increase ridership and respond to the different markets in our community," said SamTrans planner Marisa Espinosa to about 20 members of the public and a number of transit officials gathered Wednesday at SamTrans headquarters.

SamTrans facts:
Vehicles: 399
Bus stops: 2,564

Bus operators: 294
Mechanics: 90
Administrative*: 301
Total: 685
*(Shared with Caltrain and San Mateo Transportation Authority)

Each weekday, according to the National Transit Database, more than 51,300 trips are taken on SamTrans -- less than one-tenth the number handled by San Francisco Muni. Passenger fares cover only about 18.6 percent of SamTrans' operating costs (actually an above-average figure for a suburban bus district), meaning that each bus rider's trip is subsidized about $5.14 from tax dollars.

In a series of public meetings culminating in a Wednesday workshop at the District's headquarters in San Carlos, officials gauged public reaction to three different alternatives for SamTrans' future. SamTrans planners and consultants briefed attendees about the process, including a summary of recent ridership studies, and collected instant feedback from clicker devices supplied to audience proposals about a series of proposed service adjustments.

The first alternative was simply to leave service more or less as it is now. While most of the audience liked that such an alternative would not drastically cut service, a full 50 percent of those voting thought the biggest drawback of that scenario was that it reduced opportunities for investment in new or productive service. Support for the "stand pat" alternative was lukewarm, with only 23 percent of the voters strongly supporting it.

Scenario number two would drastically increase service on the heavily traveled routes on El Camino Real, to as little as 10 minutes peak service between Daly City and Redwood City and 15 minute (all day) between Redwood City and Palo Alto. But such an increase would come as the price of reducing service on local, cross-town routes in San Mateo County. Some poor-performing routes (specifically lines 53, 58, 72, 132, 141, 280 and 294) might face elimination altogether.

While 73 percent of those voting thought that more-frequent service on El Camino Real would be the best outcome in this scenario, 7/12ths of those voting were not happy with the trade-off of cutting service to other routes. Only 19 percent of the voters strongly supported scenario number two, while 50 percent either somewhat or strongly did not support the scenario.

The problem with an El Camino Real emphasis, in my opinion, is that it is based on a false premise. Certainly the ECR routes are the most crowded, but that's because service is already so geared to serving the ECR corridor -- going back to at least the 1998 reorganization of SamTrans' service, which forced most service onto El Camino Real. I believe that if SamTrans is to attract the discretionary rider, it needs to have significant service near people's homes then get them onto ECR or to a train station for a longer commute.

The third scenario may be the most revolutionary, and potentially shows the most promise. This scenario would invest in the productive El Camino Real corridor, but also invest services in the "core market" areas (where housing denisty and transit use are greatest) of Daly City, South San Francisco, San Mateo, Redwood City and East Palo Alto. While some areas of the county might see reduced service (sorry Belmont) and there would be less service into downtown San Francisco, other services would gain.

To me, the best part of this plan is a service I have long advocated for: a limited-stop bus along El Camino Real. For nine years on the SamTrans Citizens Advisory Committee, I told administrators that it shouldn't take almost two hours to get from Daly City to Redwood City on the bus (some rush hour trips hit this mark). A bus that stops only once a mile or so (instead of the 1/4-mile between most stops) would cut a significant portion off that time. Santa Clara County VTA's line 522, which I took frequently while working in Santa Clara over the summer, has been a great success.

Besides the limited stop service, the frequency of regular buses on ECR would increase and important cross-town routes, like the 130 in Daly City/South San Francisco and the 296 (from East Palo Alto to Redwood City), would also come more often. Fully 58 percent of the audience somewhat or strongly supported scenario three (I was in that latter group).

Based on public input during the recent workshops, planners are scheduled to come out with a preliminary proposal over the winter. Following another round of public comment, a final proposal for service adjustments should be before SamTrans' Board of Directors in Spring 2012. SamTrans officials said they welcome continuing public input. Comments can be made online at, SamTrans on Facebook, or by calling (650) 508-6338.

Some of SamTrans' most heavily subsidized routes may face elimination under new service proposals. The route with the largest subsidy, Line 38, is used to transport homeless individuals to the Safe Harbor shelter near San Francisco International Airport.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

CSU teachers hold one-day strike to protest pay freeze, fee increases

CSU Faculty Association members demonstrate at CSU East Bay. Photo by Justin Beck, via Twitter.

Teachers from the California State University system protested today at two campuses after two years without pay raises, and they used social media in an attempt to urge students to support their cause.

Professors rallied at both CSU East Bay and CSU Dominguez Hills -- the first-ever labor action since the California Faculty Association got collective bargaining rights in 1983.

Demonstrators at CSU East Bay marched in front of multiple sides of the Hayward campus. According to witnesses on scene, the crowd was loud and active …

About 50 faculty and staff on Harder Rd side of #CSUEB campus. Chant "what's this about? EDUCATION!" #csustrike@XpressNews
Nov 17 via Twitter for iPhoneFavoriteRetweetReply

Union officials said via Twitter that the dispute isn’t just over their pay, but also over escalating student fees and staff cutbacks over the past 13 years, despite raises to administrative pay during that same time period:

Change in CSU Salaries & Student Fees, 1998-2010 (adjusted for inflation, base year 1998) #csustrike#highered#occupy
Nov 17 via webFavoriteRetweetReply

The teachers, adept at giving grades, gave a failing one to CSU Chancellor Charles Reed:

A San Diego State professor explained that cutting CSU classes while raising tuition harms those who would most benefit from the system:

#csustrike majority of our students are working class, first generation college, and students of color.
Nov 17 via Twitter for iPhoneFavoriteRetweetReply

The demonstration got some support from students:

"I definitely support them, they don't paid enough for what they do." Autumn Stanley, sfsu freshman BETA major. #csustrike#jour650
Nov 17 via Twitter for AndroidFavoriteRetweetReply

Supporters at some campuses even organized transportation to the universities where demonstrations took place:

#csustrike 12:45 bus leaves in one hour! There is still time to get on the bus and join us at CSUDH.
Nov 17 via webFavoriteRetweetReply

Students from San Bernardino come out in solidarity to support their faculty #reclaimcsu#csustrike
Nov 17 via Twitter for BlackBerry®FavoriteRetweetReply

At both CSU Dominguez Hills and CSU East Bay, the campus was described as being virtually empty:

DH campus=a ghost town except 4 the picket areas. No 1 will strike huh Charlie? Ur as good a prognosticator as u r a Chancellor. #csustrike
Nov 17 via webFavoriteRetweetReply

CSU public relations staff felt compelled to do a little damage control and reply to posts on the Web, such as this post from a CSU Northridge student:

@calstate maybe the board of trustees should take a pay cut too. Every member! I'm sure they're making over 100k a year.
Nov 17 via Twitter for iPadFavoriteRetweetReply

Which brought this response:

SergiosThoughtsSergio Valencia
in reply to @SergiosThoughts

@sergiosthoughts There is no pay to cut. The members on the CSU Board of Trustees are volunteers so they get zero dollars.
Nov 17 via HootSuiteFavoriteRetweetReply

Video taken at the CSU East Bay protest showed a peaceful demonstration, with picketers circling and traffic patiently waiting for its turn to cross:

How i spent my mornng -- CSU Strike, 11.17.2011
Nov 17 via Tweet ButtonFavoriteRetweetReply

Some classes at Dominguez Hills and East Bay were cancelled, and classes at other campuses saw their routine disrupted:

Because of the #csustrike my class is at Shakeys tonite.
Nov 17 via Twitter for iPhoneFavoriteRetweetReply