Monthly Archives: July 2010

Overpass World

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Down where the northern slope of San Francisco's Potrero Hill flattens into the southwestern edge of South of Market, two big elevated freeways merge–Interstate 80, which begins its cross-continent trip about a mile west of the Bay Bridge, and U.S. 101, which emerges from its southbound passage on city streets and heads toward San Jose and Los Angeles. Below the freeways are a maze of streets where at least two of the city's clashing grid systems come together. I've worked in the area on and off for nearly a decade, and when I take the North Berkeley casual carpool over to the city, I hike through the heart of the area beneath the freeways–Overpass World, you might call it. It's bordered by an interior design district to the east and to the west by jewelry, antique, and auction houses. Overpass World itself is full of parking lots, invisible clouds of particulates spewed out by the hundreds of thousands of vehicles that pass overhead every day, homeless camp sites, and the occasional attention-grabbing graffito. And regarding those last couple of items, above is a scene from my walk into work on Friday morning, on San Bruno Avenue near 15th Street.


View Underpass World in a larger map

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The Infospigot Review: ‘Comes a Horseman’

Somewhere back in the ancient past–the late 1970s, I reckon–I went to a theater and saw a modern-day western called “Comes a Horseman.” It is a horsey melodrama with what on paper looks like a terrific cast: Jason Robards as a grasping, off-his-rocker land baron; Jane Fonda as his hard-as-nails rival and one-time paramour; and a young-ish James Caan as the World War II vet just looking to rope a few cattle and breathe free on his own spread in God’s country. (Hard to believe I don’t write this stuff for a livin’, ain’t it?) Alan Pakula, whom I believe directed Fonda in the perhaps much overrated “Klute,” helmed this feature.

However, the movie’s script doesn’t live up to its cast,r and some truly dark bad-guy moments are wasted in a swirl of flames, smoke, and gunfire. In fact, the denouement rolls by so fast and the story ends so abruptly and on such an empty note that it feels like the filmmakers ran out of film and told everyone to go home. Which is why there’s not much reason you’d have heard of “Comes a Horseman.”

One thing about the movie stuck with me all these years, though, and made me want to see it again. Richard Farnsworth plays Fonda’s ranch hand, character by the name of Dodger. His performance is natural and unadorned and is marked by an honest sentimentality. Though he’d been in movies for decades as a stuntman and supernumerary–I see that he’s listed with an uncredited part in the Marx Brothers’ “A Day at the Races” in 1937, for goodness’ sake–this movie launched a pretty decent late film career for him. For Farnsworth alone, “Comes a Horseman” is worth a spot in your Netflix queue.

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East Bay Local History: Rainbow Trout

We wanted a local outing Sunday afternoon, and Kate wanted something that fit into her current interest in local watersheds. So we drove up to Redwood Regional Park in the Oakland Hills, and drove down the east side of the ridge to where Redwood Creek heads down to Upper San Leandro Reservoir. Kate had read about a fishway there–an aid to migrating rainbow trout. I had no idea that the Oakland Hills had any fish populations that would benefit from something like a fish ladder, so I was curious to see what was up there.

And what was up there was a little piece of history. Specimens from the watershed were the first to be identified as “rainbow trout,” back in the 1850s. And then later, fish biologists came to realize that these trout were the same species as steelhead found elsewhere on the West Coast and first collected by European biologists on Russia’s Pacific Coast in the 1730s (for more on that tale, consult Peter B. Moyle, “Inland Fishes of California.” See his discussion of the rainbow trout’s name.

Here’s a little album of the afternoon’s expotition (and if it’s not visible below, check it out here).

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Berkeley Classifieds: ‘Job Seeker Lady’

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Spotted on our Sunday morning walk, on University Avenue, just down the street from Acton Street.

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Tour de France: 39 Seconds

Unremarked by the Versus boys–Phil and Paul–in their wrap-up of today’s Tour de France time trial is the significance of the margin between first-place Alberto Contador and second-place Andy Schleck. The gap is 39 seconds, and that happens to be the precise amount of time that Contador gained on Schleck on the final climb and descent on the Tour’s 15th stage. Yes, that’s the one where Schleck attacked, dropped his chain, and Contador attacked as Schleck first slowed then was forced to dismount to fix his mechanical issue. At the time of that small mishap, Schleck was 31 seconds ahead of Contador in the overall standings; at the finish of the stage, he was 8 seconds down. Controversy attended Contador’s move, since many feel it was unsporting to attack a race leader suffering a problem with his bike. That a fair number of cycling fans appear to subscribe to this unwritten rule of Tour sportsmanship and disapproved of Contador’s tactic became obvious when Contador was awarded the yellow jersey at the end of the stage: many in the crowd booed, a reaction I don’t remember hearing before, even with some of the rats who have worn yellow.

In the end, that slipped chain and the 39 seconds that Contador gained determined the winner in this year’s Tour. Pending the results of all the Tour doping tests, of course.

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A Passing: Daniel Schorr, 93

NPR's all-staff message on the passing of Daniel Schorr this morning:

On Behalf Of NPR Communications [Communications1@npr.org]
Sent: Friday, July 23, 2010 9:48 AM
To: AREPS; allstaff@npr.org
Subject: [areps] From Vivian Schiller: Dan Schorr

All –

I have very sad news to share. We’ve just learned that Dan Schorr died peacefully this morning surrounded by family, at the age of 93. His family has asked us to share this news with the extended NPR community.

It’s impossible to overestimate Dan’s impact on journalism – from his early days working with Edward R. Murrow, to the founding of CNN, to the last 25 years as NPR’s news analyst, a familiar and beloved voice to millions of listeners. Every one of us who happened to see Dan coming in to work — walking a little more slowly with time but with a razor-sharp wit and warmth that never dimmed – learned a lesson in the dedication, determination, and integrity that it takes to be the best. He was.

NPR will air an obituary, and you’ll soon find tributes, Dan’s archived commentaries, and a retrospective on NPR.org. Additionally, we’re preparing a one-hour special about Dan to make available to all stations. Joyce MacDonald and her staff will be in touch with stations as soon as possible with those details. We’ll share news of a possible memorial service once we know more.

Please join me in remembering this great man.

– Vivian

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Lifestyle Critique

“Robbers of the world, they have exhausted the land and now scour the sea. If their victims are rich, they despoil them; if they are poor, they subjugate them; and neither East nor West can satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal greed both poverty and riches. To robbery, murder, and pillage they give the false name of empire, and when they make a desolation, they call it peace.”

–Part of a speech attributed to the Caledonian chieftain Galgacus in Tacitus’s history “Agricola,” vol. 32, p. 29. Quoted in Gray Brechin’s “Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.”

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Berkeley Cycling: A Dangerous Place, Part II

[Previous post: ‘Going to a Dangerous Place‘]

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post called Going to a Dangerous Place” about a series of stories about the death of a cyclist, Kim Flint, on South Park Drive in the Berkeley Hills. In particular, I took issue with the description of Flint as “obsessed” with a socially networked training-log site called Strava, whether his concern for attaining speed records for various road segments drove him to ride dangerously on the hazardous South Park descent, and whether his death could really be blamed on the service that Strava provides. A few days ago, a Berkeley cyclist I’ve met named Patrick Gordis offered to set me straight on some of the issues I raised. What follows are his comments on some of the issues raised by this incident. Patrick posted these as a long comment on the blog, but he gave me the OK to repost it as a separate entry (and the picture below comes from him, too; I’ll post a better version later). Here’s his post:

Dan: Thank you for your thoughtful analysis of this tragic accident. I would like to add a few more details to clarify the record. First of all, I don’t know if you came across the account of his accident as reported in the Daily Cal? Note in particular the following quotes of his partner of 19 years:

Violet Hefner, Flint’s partner of 19 years, said she is “99 percent certain he was trying to regain his lost record,” the day he was killed. Hefner said they had originally started cycling together, but she thought it was too dangerous. “He knew that I was very, very afraid of him riding on city streets,” she said. “I begged him not to.” Hefner added that once Flint joined Strava, his interest in his speed and his ride statistics became more intense. “Things really escalated once he got involved with Strava,” she said. “It became an obsession with him.” Flint holds a best time of an average of 33.9 miles per hour on the “Centennial Drive Descent” in Berkeley as well as the record for the “Skyline Boulevard Descent” in Oakland with an average of 30.4 miles per hour. Hefner said Flint had been focusing more and more on getting “king of the mountain” – the highest speed for a certain stretch of road – for downhill segments over the last two months. Hefner added that though the website fueled Flint’s urge to push himself, she didn’t blame the competitive nature of Strava for his death.

south_park_15mph_curve.jpg The Daily Cal story also seems to imply that Kim may have entered the sharp corner towards the upper section on South Park Drive where he sidewiped a passing car at close to 45 mph. Based on my own experience on that turn, I would say anything over 30 mph at the apex of the turn would be a difficult, if not impossible line to sustain without use of the entire road (even then, anything near 45 mph seems too fast for a turn of that kind – even for “Il Falco”). (Click picture for larger image.)

Furthermore, I had some private email exchanges with Kim the weekend before his death in which we discussed various Strava segments of a 95-mile ride we had taken together with one other cyclist. In particular, he analyzed for me why, in his view, he did not get the KOMs on the Palomares north side descent or the Joaquin Miller descent from Skyline to Mountain. From these email exchanges, from conversations I had with him about Strava on our rides and from observing him descending, it’s clear to me that he was very focused on obtaining Strava downhill records and attempting to reclaim any that he lost. For example, he carefully analyzed how he could enter the beginning of a Strava downhill segment with the maximum possible speed (based on different possible approaches). He concluded his analysis of our last segment down Joaquin Miller Road by noting, “Now I’ll need to plan a ride just with winning this one in mind. It’s not right to see a descent in the East Bay without SteveS or me at the top!”

Like you, I respect and admired Kim’s strong competitive spirit which (as you note) is often, on one level or another, a strong animating force in many serious or avid cyclists of various stripes. However, based on my own extensive riding and competitive bike racing experience, I don’t concur with your equation of Strava with pretty much any competitive group ride experience.

You wrote, “That having been said, the focus on Strava is misguided. The virtual competition encouraged by the site is simply another version of what happens whenever groups of fast, fit, competitive cyclists get together. They’ll often ride aggressively–on the climbs, on the flats, in sprints, and yes, on descents, too. Why? Bottom line, it’s challenging and fun.”

On group rides, a relatively less experienced cyclist like Kim would likely try to follow the wheel of a faster, more experienced rider down a technical or superfast descent. This is a valuable learning experience by which one learns how to descend fast and safely by trying to follow the best lines through turns, learning how to set up for the next turn and how fast to approach sharp curves which more seasoned riders have successfully cornered at high speed many times. On a group ride, you can learn to go faster in a controlled manner, profiting from the years long experience of other riders. When you are racing a Strava opponent, it is more analogous to some type of virtual or online/videogame opponent – a faceless entity you probably do not know at all.

When Kim analyzed for me in our email exchange his unsuccessful attempt to gain the Palomares descent KOM (Kim wrote that he was the fastest on the steep upper portion, but lost time on the flatter section lower down), he did not know that he was comparing his performance to a multiple national track and crit champion who is as close to a local cycling legend as we have in this area. In a nutshell, at least for me, that is the central danger to downhill racing on Strava. Aside from the obvious risks to innocent bystanders, Strava can set up a direct competition between someone like Kim who had been avidly cycling for about two years, mostly riding on his own or with one other rider, and pit him against someone who may have been a national champion or a professional cyclist.

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Annals of Late-Night Dog-Walking

So we’re walking on a dark block. Near an intersection just outside a city park, a couple other pedestrians, young males from the sound of their voices, stroll past in the middle of the street. I can make out one in dark clothes, including what looks like a black hooded sweatshirt, and another one wearing I can’t tell what. The second guy is holding a cellphone–I can see the light from the screen. He seems to stop by a car on the other side of the street, but I can’t tell for sure until I get an angle on him and the car where I can see his silhouette. Yeah–he’s bent down fiddling with a car door, maybe 100 feet from where I’m standing. I can hear a metal-on-metal sound, like maybe he’s fiddling with the door lock.

So far so good. He doesn’t see us. I watch for five, maybe ten seconds. And then this next bit happens.

“Yo!” I shout. “What you doin’ my car?!”

The guy pauses. He fumbles the cellphone and drops it. Then he picks it up and runs in the direction I’d seen his companion go. I walk back toward the car, hoping someone in one of the houses along the street has heard the commotion and will come out. A dog is tied up in front of one of the houses and starts barking–it had been quiet while the guy had been working on the car. After a minute or so, a woman sticks her head out the door. I ask whether she knows who the car at the curb belongs to because I saw someone who might have been trying to break into it. After a wary pause, she says it’s her car, and comes out and checks it. No damage, though in fact the front door is not locked. She thanks me for alerting her to what happened, whatever it was. We compare notes on walking dogs at night, and I tell her even though The Dog–the one I’m walking–is a pretty gentle creature, folks tend to give a wide berth, especially after dark.

And that’s it. We go on our way. I’m thinking, ” ‘What you doin’ my car?!’ ” Where did that come from?

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Today’s Red Herring: Oakland’s ‘Outside Agitators’

Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts, along with other city officials and community leaders, wants to find someone to blame for the vandalism and looting that followed the verdict in the Johannes Mehserle trial last Thursday night. And they’ve found someone: outside agitators and faceless anarchists. Friday, the day after the mini-riot that followed an emotional but peaceful post-verdict gathering outside City Hall, Batts made a big show of breaking down the hometowns of the 78 people arrested. The police said 19 of those arrested were from Oakland, 28 were from the Bay Area outside Oakland, 19 were from elsewhere in California, and 12 were from out of state. “There’s a time that we have to say that people coming from outside that impact our city, our town, the place that we live, that we work, that we play in, needs to stop,” Batts said.

That’s a good line, especially for a guy who just moved here from Long Beach, but it’s meaningless. For one thing, it ignores how easy it is to turn the arithmetic around: You say three-quarters of those arrested came from out of town? I say three out of five of them came from our own backyard. You say there were dozens of anarchists armed for trouble? I say that of the 78 arrests you made, 66 were on misdemeanor charges, mostly failing to obey police orders to clear the area.

Batts and others also ignore that people communicate with all sorts of little devices, including cellphones with video cameras, and that lots of people from lots of places heard about and saw tape of Mehserle, a young white transit cop, shooting and killing a young, black, unarmed train passenger, Oscar Grant. The shooting, and law enforcement’s initial ham-handed response to it, enraged many–even people who live outside Oakland. News travels, and people travel, too. The killing of Oscar Grant was not an Oakland tragedy, though it was played out there.

The biggest flaw in trying to point the finger elsewhere for the troubles that have attended the Grant case is that it tries to whitewash the issue of who was actually out on the street smashing and grabbing. Check out pictures of some of the looting that broke out Thursday night--here’s a slideshow from the Oakland Tribune–or read the accounts of what happened out on Broadway. One business owner the crowd victimized told the San Francisco Chronicle, “I feel like they were familiar with the store. They knew what they wanted.”

Let’s disperse the mystery about why the hell-raising happened. It wasn’t a conspiracy, and it wasn’t a bunch of out-of-towners out to ruin Oakland. It was a crowd of thugs, opportunists, and recreational miscreants from a variety of ZIP codes and demographic profiles seizing their moment–again. Beyond the destruction and stealing, the hell of it is that this is what most of the media–meaning me and people in my line of work–end up focusing on. That, instead of the fact the thousands of people who feel wounded by the case and are doubtful of the quality of justice the system is handing down are trying to deal with the disappointment and anger in a contemplative and constructive way.

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