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

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

My favorite South San Francisco eateries

I'm not a great foodie, but I do know what I like. I don't get too fancy or too adventurous, but I am willing to go out on a limb now and then, foodwise.

So my list of favorite places to eat in South San Francisco doesn't get too fancy or adventurous either. The restaurants on the list below are not necessarily the best (I've never been to the Basque Cultural Center, for example) or the ones I most visit (no fast food places), but are the restaurants to which I most like to go.

First, a map of the locations below:

View South San Francisco eateries in a larger map

I tried to balance the list out a bit in terms of geography, type of food served and how often I go to a particular place. In no particular order:

Pho The Gioi

Pho The Gioi
2239 Gellert Blvd / (650) 754-1888
Genre: Vietnamese
Yelp Review

While in a strip mall, Pho The Gioi’s generous portions of pho and other spicy noodle dishes make you think you’re in a far-fancier place. The location (Next to Pak and Save and OSH) is a great attraction for west of El Camino Real suburbanites. Admittedly the food is not the real attraction at Pho The Gioi. There is a well-reviewed Vietnamese place downtown (Ben Tre, 219 Grand Avenue), but I’ve not been there.

Little Lucca's

Little Lucca Sandwich Shop
724 El Camino Real / (650) 589-8916
Genre: sandwiches
Yelp review

Little Lucca looks like a house left over from the days before suburbanization, when single family homes lined El Camino Real – “The King’s Highway.” And the sandwiches at Little Lucca really are made for a king — piled so high that one really can’t get their mouth around it (unless they’re a snake). There’s always a line out the screen door into the front yard (remember, this place is basically a house) at lunchtime, but an efficient line crew moves the queue swiftly.

Darby Dan's

Darby Dan's Sandwiches
733 Airport Blvd / (650) 876-0122
Genre: sandwiches
Yelp review

Completely on the other side of town from Little Lucca, Darby Dan’s is in a much-more traditional setting than the other sandwich shop. A favorite among bio-tech workers on the east side of Highway 101 (although located just on the west side), Darby’s Dan’s specialty is the eponymous Darby Dan sandwich: salami, pepperoni and mortadella piled high with garlic mayonnaise on Dutch crunch. It’s a spacious restaurant on the inside (right): especially compared to its seat-less crosstown rival. If you’re downtown and don’t want either a “corporate” sandwich or one from a questionable deli, hike a few blocks north to Darby Dan’s.

El Taco de Oro

El Taco de Oro
Usually in front of Orange Park (W Orange Ave. and Tennis Drive) / No phone
Genre: Mexican/taqueria/food truck
Yelp review (for Alviso location)

Part of a chain of taco trucks that usually is ensconced in South Bay locations, the El Taco de Oro truck has a prime location. Usually parked from mid-morning to dusk in front of South City’s largest park, it serves several niches: From moms taking their kids to the playground; to athletes needing fuel for their pickup soccer games on the adjacent athletic fields; and to members of the community who make special trips to the truck. At $1 per taco (try the al pastor), $3 for a large burrito, it’s a great deal, in an uncrowded location.

The "snack shack" at the SSF High football field

South San Francisco High Snack Shack
400 B Street (football field) / No phone
Genre: American and Polynesian comfort food

A kind of an “out-there” choice, considering it’s usually only open five nights per year (10 this season, because El Camino shared the South City High field this fall). But it’s a favorite of mine. The char-broiled smell of burgers and sausages wafting over the football field is a fall tradition in South City. Specialties include the decent-sized burgers (complete with a do-it-yourself fixings bar) and, reflecting the large Polynesian population in South San Francisco, the teriyaki bowl. All at reasonable prices that support local youth programs. Usually a hopeful diner would be out of luck by this time of year, but this season both South City and El Camino made the playoffs and South San Francisco hosts Willow Glen on Friday night at 7 p.m.

La Tapatia "Mexicatessen"

La Tapatia
411 Grand Ave / (650) 589-5881
Genre: Mexican/taqueria
Yelp review

One of South San Francisco’s best eateries doesn’t look like one. It looks like a small Mexican market – and in fact, it is. But walk back to the deli counter and there’s an amazing taqueria. Directly across from South San Francisco’s ornate City Hall, the carne asada and other burritos are delicious.

El Faro
435 El Camino Real / (650) 589-6288
Genre: Mexican
Yelp review

First-time visitors to this no-frills Mexican restaurant on the main road will come with low expectations. And, at first glance, they’ll be met when their take out comes packed in cheap Styrofoam and a paper bag full of chips. But — despite the packaging — the main dishes are filling and authentic. Claire swears by El Faro’s tostada, and I’ve shared many a carne asada plate (too many onions) with Ian. The place even has a drive-through!

Ristorante Buon Gusto
224 Grand Ave / (650) 742-9777
Genre: Italian
Yelp Review

If I had an Italian grandmother — or a Mafioso godfather — she would feed me like Buon Gusto. “Healthy” portions made with exactly the right amount of seasoning (even if it’s different every day due to the preference of the chef) and amazing, maybe even over-the-top, service enhances the family atmosphere. The interior d├ęcor is very busy, but the food (your standard array of pastas, beef, poultry and fish) is what you’ll be looking at.

Honorable mention
These places are good, but not quite up to the standards of the eateries above:

Gunters (1057 El Camino Real) is a good, old-fashioned coffee shop. Busy in the morning with probably the same crowd that’s been going there since 1957. If the laws hadn’t changed, you’d expect a cloud of smoke when you walked in the door. Good for a group breakfast.

Bogy’s Hofbrau (207 Linden Ave) lies on a downtown side street, and if you like roasted turkey or beef, mashed potatoes and other “down home” foods, consider this place. But the wide windows and uncomfortable seating detract from the dining atmosphere.

Genentech (1 DNA Way) has one of the best corporate cafes on the planet. Great food, lots of variety, decent prices. Free food on certain Fridays. Unfortunately one has to be an employee or their guest to eat there.

Royal Pin Donuts (551 El Camino Real) has great doughnuts, an atmospheric dining room and a quick (and rare, for doughnut shops) drive-through. I have to hold it off my main list, however, because if you’re there after 9 a.m. on a weekend your choices will be severely limited — and who wants to go out before 9 a.m. on weekends?

The only reason that Taqueria La Morena (307 Baden Ave) isn’t on the main list is that I thought more than one downtown taqueria would be excessive. Every bit as good as La Tapatia, but without the market and not on the main drag.

Chevys (141 Hickey Blvd) is the token big corporate chain restaurant on the list, mostly because of its excellent all-you-can-eat tortilla chips and salsa, its community fundraising and the fact that this branch is much less busy than the one at Stonestown.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Bell Game 2011 - SSF beats El Camino eighth straight time, 34-9

Catching air
South City cheerleader Byanka Avalos is thrown into the air by teammates in an effort to excite the crowd before the Bell Game at South San Francisco High on Nov. 12, 2011.

Even in these days of declining interest in high school sports, there's usually a once-a-year occasion when a town rallies behind its high school teams.

In South San Francisco, that day is usually the second weekend in November, when the city's two high schools, South San Francisco High and El Camino High, face off in their annual Bell Game. While South City has typically dominated the match, winning 40 of 49 contests, it's always a day when the city rallies around its football like a small Texas oil town.

Last year, South City rallied in the final seconds to win 29-22. This year (in a game I covered for the San Mateo Times), after a close first half, the Warriors dominated in the second half to win 34-9.

Below is a slideshow I made covering the atmosphere of the local contest:

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Time to ditch ballot box for online and mail-in voting

Turnout was light in San Mateo County for Tuesday's election.

I worked as a poll worker in Tuesday’s election here in South San Francisco and, as seen in the photo above, most of my time was free — we had only 29 people vote at Precinct 1801, my table. The two other precincts also stashed in the Sunshine Gardens Elementary cafeteria had similar numbers.

The folks I worked with — a retired Pan-Am flight attendant, a South San Francisco High senior getting bonus points (and a day off) for his government class, and our smart-alec inspector — helped pass the time. As did Steve Jobs’ biography.

Part of the reason for our low turnout was no doubt the lackluster ballot (right). While folks in nearby San Francisco had an exciting mayor’s race, we only had a community college bond, a board election and a city council race with two incumbents running. While the lone city council challenger had a nickname of “Midnight,” as usual, incumbency prevailed.

More than one person told us “thanks for volunteering” as they left the polls. It was all I could do to point out that I was hardly volunteering — I was in it for the cash.

So let’s see what the County of San Mateo bought at my precinct for its cash: three general poll workers at $125 each plus an inspector at $150, so $525 for 29 votes. Or, $18.10 per vote — not counting the salaries of the county technicians that occasionally checked in on us, or the labor/gas needed to transport our four voting machines, ballots, supplies, etc. from the San Mateo area to South San Francisco. Times that by the 440 precincts in San Mateo County and there’s a lot of money.

If not for people saving 44 cents by dropping off their mail-in ballots for free, it would have been a very quiet day at my polls. At least there was some cute kids' art (left) to look at.

One reason for the poor showing was that about half of the registered voters in our precinct of 600-odd people are registered to vote by mail. And with our lackluster ballot, this would have been an ideal election to have an ALL-mail election. It’s been done before. By eliminating the poll workers alone, hundreds of thousands of dollars could be saved, even if vote by mail ballots are sent out with postage paid — which they somehow inexplicably aren’t.

San Mateo County had just 22.3 percent turnout for this election, including mail-in ballots. In fact, there were 54,262 votes cast by mail, compared to just 19,604 people voting at the polls. So an all-mail election makes sense to me.

Or, how about online voting? Surely if there’s enough security in place to file my tax returns online, there’s enough for me to vote online. (Note, this would be alongside an option for mail-ins — we don’t want to keep people without computers from voting.)

“But,” some might say, “if we let people vote at home, we don’t know who’s REALLY voting.” But isn’t that the case now? As mentioned, half the people in the precinct I worked are registered to vote by mail anyway. And heck, election workers aren’t allowed to ask for ID in California, so who’s to tell if there’s fraud going on now?

In this age where technology is improving at the same time that governments are having to find ways to save money, doesn’t doing away with polling places altogether make sense?

As the chart I made below shows, there was a rush of voters trying to vote at my precinct just after working hours, suggesting people are having trouble finding time to vote. Give them the option to go online with a pin/password, and I’d bet you’d get much HIGHER turnout if polling places were eliminated.

Votes by hour in Precinct 1801.