Saturday, September 13, 2014

Pop-Culture Catch Up: Rum Diary, Enough Said, and Frozen

I'm not going to lie. Having two kids is often more difficult than having one. By the end of so many days, I can barely keep my eyes open long enough to read one magazine article, let alone devour something of pop-culture value and then report its worth back to you, my fine and faithful readers.

That said, it's time to catch up with a few artifacts I've explored over the past weeks. And, I'll try to start blogging more regularly again after a pretty unimpressive summer collection of quantity and quality.

The Rum Diary is the first Hunter S. Thompson I've read since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas back in college. The "long lost novel" was apparently written in the 1960s and not published until 1998. It is basically the tale of Hunter himself (under the name Paul) going from New York to live and work at a newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

He carouses with the lowlifes who work at the paper and risks life daily drinking and fighting and romancing in a foreign land. It's the epitome of gonzo journalistic writing and serves as an underrated highlight of Thompson's prodigious career. Johnny Depp found the manuscript and had it published, then starred in the movie, which I should now go see for the first time.

**** out of ***** stars

Enough Said is a small rom-com that gains weight by the very fact that it was about the last thing James Gandolfini filmed before his death. Julia Louis-Dreyfus seems a little less great than usual in the film, despite very positive reviews.

The couple wins me over by the end as they suffer a series of setbacks while firing up an unlikely romance, but I still was a little disappointed and not that impressed with the overall story, general awkwardness, and pacing of this film.

*** out of ***** stars

Frozen is of course all the rage with the youngsters, but I was bored silly, wishing I could rematch The Lego Movie, The Jungle Book, Snow White, or any other kid movie.

Tip of the hat to Disney for making it about the importance of family instead of the usual fare of the importance of the prince. But if I have to hear someone else humming or singing "Let It Go" again, who knows what I'll do. Bad music in a hack of a story. It doesn't help that I don't particularly like any of the actors behind the voices.

Way overrated and hopefully will lose some of its runaway-hit momentum as soon as some better Disney films are released.

** out of ***** stars

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Yes, We Could Get More Stupid, and Idiocracy Shows Us How

It's believed that Mike Judge's 2006 sci-fi comedy Idiocracy was released in far fewer theaters because of the way companies like Starbucks and Carl's Jr. were portrayed in it.

Fox, the distributor, allegedly didn't like that its advertisers were being treated unkindly. This is probably just one of many reasons to, even now, eight years later, watch the movie, which runs from time to time on cable TV.

I caught it on Comedy Central last night and thought it was hilarious. Luke Wilson and Maya Rudolph play an average soldier and a prostitute respectively who get shipped 500 years into the future in a military experiment gone awry.

Once there, they encounter an America that has seen its gene pool deteriorate to the point where nobody is literate and people sit on their toilet loungers watching TV shows that make today's reality television look like Lawrence of Arabia.

Someone could easily say Idiocracy is, like what the Washington Post called the musical comedy I wrote with Dan Sullivan called Wiener Sausage: The Musical!, "tasteless and popular." But you can't even really say that. Sure, it's tasteless, but not many people saw it. Over the years, it has built a cult following and is becoming relatively more popular.

But if you're a fan of other Judge offerings, like Beavis and Butt-Head, Office Space, and Extract, go quickly to your DVR to schedule Idiocracy.

**** out of ***** stars

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Wiggle, Protected Lanes, and Bikeshare Bring Hope to San Francisco Bicycle Commuting

This article was originally published at Mobility Lab.

photo 2[1]

I got to explore San Francisco by bicycle over a couple of days during this month’s crucially educational Association for Commuter Transportation conference.

SF Market StreetThere’s no doubt the city is a leader at promoting bike riding. However, even in San Francisco, where dozens of riders pour down the protected bike lanes of Market Street every minute all day long, it is amazing that so much work remains to get Americans on board with doing something fun, healthy, efficient, and, yes, safe. (I mean, like, radically safe. So safe, in fact, that there has never been a death of anyone on a U.S. bikeshare bike.)

Start with the numbers: Commuter stats are a way to get a good read of a city’s bikability because if the streets are no good for urban bike commuting, then they’re probably not good for any other bike trips or for sightseeing bicycle tourists.

ACT SFPortland’s bicycle commuters make up 6.3 percent of its population, based on 2011 numbers from the League of American BicyclistsThat’s as good as it gets in the U.S. and, frankly, it’s still pretty pathetic. San Francisco, Minneapolis, Seattle, Washington D.C., and Madison hover somewhere in the 3 to 4 percent range. Anywhere besides those places and seeing a bicycle taking up a lane may be a little like seeing a UFO for drivers.

If you ask me, protected bike lanes are where it’s at for getting children and elderly people bicycling on city streets. Once there, much of the rest of the population might follow. And there are not nearly enough protected bike lanes in San Francisco.

photo 5That said, the protected bike lanes there are the best I’ve seen in the U.S. The medians installed to buffer cars and bike traffic in front of Twitter headquarters are even pretty. They have cactuses in them, and Heath Maddox, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s bikeshare program manager, told me the first time they planted the cacti, they were all stolen. Now they are anchor locked beneath the ground.

The Wiggle is another highlight of bicycling in San Francisco. It’s a mile’s worth of green street markings and signage that allows riders to get from Market Street up to the Panhandle Bikeway leading into Golden Gate Park without having to climb any of the city’s infamous hills. I didn’t see any similar guidance in other parts of the city, although more wiggles would be most welcome elsewhere, as well as in other hilly parts of other cities.

photo 4And perhaps most hopeful of all towards improving bike commute share is the nearly year-old Bay Area Bikeshare, which has 350 bikes and 35 stations in and around downtown San Francisco and 35 stations along the Caltrain corridor in other cities like Redwood City, Palo Alto, Mountain View, and San Jose.

Introducing bikesharing to the city was a goal of former Mayor Gavin Newsom, and the SFMTA gave Maddox, a bicycle and pedestrian planner in the agency’s Livable Streets subdivision, the job of leading the effort. Taking some time out from our conference, several of us from Mobility Lab and partner organizations goDCgo, Arlington Transportation Partners, and Arlington County Commuter Services were lucky enough to get a personal tour of the city on BABS from Maddox.

Like Capital Bikeshare in D.C., the system is managed by Alta Bike Share and it is publicly funded, by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Maddox is currently waiting to tabulate some of the first ridership survey data, but until then, we know that in San Francisco there are already about 3,000 members, and each of the 350 bikes average about three trips per day.

Heath Maddox
Heath Maddox of Bay Area Bikeshare leads us on a tour of the city’s bikeshare system.
Maddox said there have not been that many complaints from riders, probably because there have been no major rebalancing issues. It’s relatively easy to keep the stations stocked since BABS is still confined to the areas north and south of Market Street and no further west than Van Ness Avenue.

Maddox said, “Mainly we just get questions about when we’re going to expand the system. We’ve reassessed that we can do things less densely. We can still do a little infill of adding stations in neighborhoods where stations already exist, but we’re planning to introduce bikeshare to new places earlier than we had originally planned. We hope to go next into the Casto and the Mission districts.”

He added that he hopes BABS can expand to about 3,000 more bikes in the future, although that would depend upon getting a big sponsorship of some kind and about $25 million.

Concerns that he noted to work on include:
  • The overwhelming majority of bikeshare members are white, well-off males.
  • San Francisco’s “very well-developed bike-rental industry is really concerned that bikeshare will hurt their businesses and they’re hyper involved.” But he cited Capital Bikeshare’s data showing that companies located near stations see an increase in business because of traffic from bikeshare riders, so he hopes those concerns can be alleviated. (I rented a bike overnight for $36 from Blazing Saddles on Mason Street near Union Square and there certainly appeared to be no shortage of customers.)
  • Taxi drivers may be unhappy because about 50 percent of bikeshare trips appear to have been trips formerly taken by taxi. (So that leads me to think that the smart taxi drivers will mount bike racks on their vehicles.)

San Francisco is on the right course, promoting bicycling through protected lanes, The Wiggle, and Bay Area Bikeshare. These are all tools that will need to continue to be enhanced if the city has any realistic hopes of reaching its goal of 20 percent bike commuting by 2020, which was set in its 2009 Bicycle Plan and even harkens back somewhat to its 1973 “Transit First” policy, which noted that “travel by public transit, by bicycle, and on foot must be an attractive alternative to travel by private automobile.”

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Boyhood Perfectly Captures Exactly What Ages 6 to 18 Are Like

I saw Boyhood several weeks ago and never got around to blogging about it. But I just can't get it out of my head.

It's a beautiful film, and I'm pretty sure it will be my favorite of 2014. Following a boy in real life from age 6 to 18, Boyhood succeeds because it reminds us of the touchstones of our own lives growing up during those years. Nothing much happens. Everyday life unfolds. Minor occurrences seem major to a teenage boy, and to the other teens and other adults in his midst.

If you're a fan of director Richard Linklater's other classics like Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, Before Sunrise, Slacker, Fast Food Nation, and Bernie, then you will surely think this is brilliant.

Ethan Hawke, who continues to be one of Generation X's best movie actors, plays the dad to best-actor-worthy Ellar Coltrane (who plays Mason Jr. to Hawke's Senior). The way they age and adapt and bond to each other is simply what life is all about and in turn mesmerizing.

Linklater allegedly told Hawke that he would have to finish the 12-year project if he died. Another interesting sidenote is that the film was originally supposed to be called 12 Years, but then Linklater heard about 12 Years a Slave and changed it to Boyhood.

***** out of ***** stars

Monday, August 11, 2014

Robin Williams' Top 10 Performances

Robin Williams has supplied humor to the world in parallel to my own life. I was a kid when his beloved alien hit network TV. Mork and Mindy is my 61st favorite TV show of all time. I grew up into my teens as he nailed some of the wildest standup comedy you'll ever see. Good Morning, Vietnam is one of my favorite movies, although it is sorely missing from my list of 60 funniest movies and list of 90 favorite movies of all time.

R.I.P. Robin, and here are my favorite performances. The top five are true powerhouses.

10. The World According to Garp (1982)
09. One Hour Photo (2002)
08. Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
07. Deconstructing Harry (1997)
06. Moscow on the Hudson (1984)
05. Dead Poets Society (1989)
04. Good Will Hunting (1997)
03. Mork and Mindy (1978-1982)
02. Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
01. Live at the Met (1986) and other early standup routines like Off the Wall (1978) and An Evening with (1982)

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Apes are Slowly Making Their Move Towards World Domination

Dawn of the Planet of Apes is the second episode in a new series of prequels to 1968's classic Planet of the Apes. 

Much like after 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes (I saw both of these new ones with Dan), it is still not apparent how these will connect with the original, in which humans annihilate themselves with a nuclear bomb.

In that respect, nothing much happens in the evolutionary course of events with this 3-D movie. It's a transitional piece. 

Caesar was raised a decade ago by a scientist (played by James Franco). He is now leader of the apes in Muir Woods. A plague has since wiped out 499 of every 500 humans, but a few hundred are living in a tower in downtown San Francisco.

When some of them venture into the woods as a last-ditch effort to fix a dam that would provide them with enough energy to survive, the humans and the apes rekindle a relationship that has a bunch of miscommunications that could have resulted in eternal peace but instead ends ominously for what lies ahead when the next prequel is released.

The apes are stunning and, if I had to cheer for a side, it wouldn't be the dumb humans. Barring Charleton Heston in the first couple of original films, humans have never really been the interesting ones in Ape movies. They are particularly unworthy of cheering for in this one. All unlikeable and clueless, even stars Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman (usually entirely reliable), and Keri Russell seem to sleepwalk in the shadow of Andy Serkis, who again plays Caesar with endless heart worthy of Oscar consideration.

I also really miss the music of the original series, which was so creepy in a late 1960s kind of way. (Although the song that comes on at the gas station when the power starts working again does work pretty well.)

The stage is set. The next in this series should be a doozie, and I would say the humans are in big trouble.

**** out of ***** stars

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Tips for Effective Transportation Blogging

Here's an article By Paul Goddin from Mobility Lab that nicely quotes me at the end.
Mackie and MalouffThis article was also published by Greater Greater Washington.

Begin with your most important point. Use short sentences and clear, non-jargony language. Remember your end goal.

These were among the tips BeyondDC creator and Greater Greater Washington  (GGW) blogger Dan Malouff imparted at this week’s Lunch at the Lab. Malouff discussed effective blogging and how to get published by websites such as GGW and Mobility Lab.

Among his main points:
  • Put the most important information up front, in the first paragraph, with more specific details and supportive facts following. The glut of information and competition demands clarity and incisiveness. “Lead with the takeaway,” Malouff said.
  • Inform before you persuade. The best articles use a piece of news or data as a starting point, and then use it to draw conclusions or make an argument. It’s important to explain the context, as readers are not all experts already.
  • Transportation and city planners (not to mention lawyers) like to use jargony language. Blog readers respond better to simple language. Complicated, wordy prose can make an otherwise compelling article unreadable and/or suspicious. Use the rule that easier-to-read is better.
  • Don’t use the passive voice much if at all. If you can insert “by zombies” after the verb, then you are using it. For example, the sentence “The use of passive voice is discouraged” is easy to identify as passive voice since one could add “by zombies” to its end and the sentence would still make sense. Instead, the sentence should read “Don’t use the passive voice.” (Avoid nominalizations, like “the utilization of this grammatical construction leads to complication of the communication,” too.)
  • Keep articles short. A thousand words is typically too long. The “sweet spot” for web writing is 300 to 600 words.
  • Keep the blog post to one main idea. If you want readers to remember more than one big takeaway, then split the article up into multiple posts.

Mobility Lab Communications Director Paul Mackie facilitated the lecture. He called blogging an inherently democratizing medium. He said that institutions such as the New York Times are no longer the gatekeepers of information. Anyone with a keyboard now has a voice. Mackie described blogging as a way to “become a thought leader.”

(Author’s note: This article is 374 words long and, therefore, perfect.)

Photos by M.V. Jantzen