Posts Tagged ‘Rant’

Has Safeway gone too far?

May 29th, 2011

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While trapped at the Market St. Safeway during the rainstorm today, I made a shocking discovery: Safeway carries not one, but THREE brands of frozen chicken nuggets shaped like dinosaurs.

Does this alarm anyone else?

Why do we need to make food shaped like extinct animals? Are there children out there somewhere who refuse to eat nuggets not shaped like dinosaurs? “No mom, I can’t eat this, it’s not shaped like a dinosaur.” Clearly, such a child needs to be loaded with ADHD medication and spanked repeatedly, not indulged in his absurd food preferences.

Sure, Safeway has four isle-long freezers, but there has to be a better way to fill them than this.

What do you think, has Safeway gone too far this time?

An American tourist’s reaction to visiting Mexico City, Toluca, and Metepec

March 31st, 2011

This is part of a series about my trip to Mexico City and the surrounding area. Also see part 1, part 2 and part 3.

There’s cultural differences between Mexico and the United States that surprised me during my recent visit. There were pleasant surprises, and not-so pleasant surprises. Let’s explore them all.

Latino Americana tower from the Palacio de Bellas Artes

The good stuff
Mexico City is in many ways a world-class major city. Good restaurants, hotels, street food, and the entire place is huge and packed with people and businesses. They have easily the best public transit I’ve ever seen, with a Metro where trains are spaced less than two minutes apart, bus rapid transit, electric trolleys, as well as traditional buses. (Traditional buses in Mexico are independently operated, sort of like shared taxis with pre-planned routes.) I never got to try the bicycle sharing program, but it looked like something to try.

It’s also a beautiful city with art everywhere. They’re big on statues. Certain parts of the city are very walkable, with pedestrian streets.

I’m told safety is an issue, but I never really saw any crime; of course, I was traveling with Mexicans who knew the country much better than I did and were aware of which areas to steer clear from. The police in Mexico City often have automatic weapons. They seem to mainly patrol tourist areas, which is nice if you’re a tourist but I’m sure is infuriating if you’re a local.

Some of the things surprised me not so much as an American, but as a San Franciscan. Sidewalk vendors seem to have free reign in terms of the space they take up and what they do. Street food was everywhere and often delicious. I can safely say I had better Mexican food in a Toluca parking lot than anywhere else, ever. One guy was selling homemade sorbet right outside of an elementary school, a concept that would make American parents’ jaws drop.

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Now all this said, there’s a few big issues that Mexico needs to address, the sooner the better.

Lack of trust
We take it for granted in the US that we can walk into almost any store without surrendering our bags to the front desk. In Mexico, this is unheard of. In most stores, everything is either sold from behind the counter, or you have to check your bags before they let you go in. (Why I’m supposed to trust someone who makes $3 a day with a $500 camera was never explained to me.) There were exceptions to this, but they were mostly convenience stores or stores swarming with security guards. One store even had security guards standing on stools to watch over everyone. Another store insisted on putting cable ties on the zippers on my backpack so it couldn’t be opened.

But the lack of trust extends much further than shopping. Most homes in and around Mexico City are small buildings made from cinder blocks. They line the edges of the roofs and balconies with broken glass, sort of a cheap alternative to barbed wire. The outside of these homes is almost never painted, because to paint your home would suggest that you have money, which would be like putting up a “Please rob my house” sign.

It’s hard to imagine why everyone is treated like a criminal. I’m sure there’s a good reason for it (i.e. lots of crime) but unless you’re used to this sort of treatment, it’s damn insulting.

Poor sewers
It’s funny, but I thought the worst plumbing I’d ever have to deal with was in my trip to Greece. There, toilets simply couldn’t handle toilet paper. I was told many toilets in Mexico had the same problem. But in my entire visit to Mexico, I never had a problem with flushing TP.

But there was a different problem — stinky sewers. I don’t know know a lot about plumbing, but whatever they’ve done in Mexico can’t be right. All three hotels we visited had major odor problems in the bathrooms, especially at night. Street sewers often smelled terrible, even worse than our stinky street sewers in San Francisco (exception: foul street sewers on 19th Ave outside of SFSU which could probably kill a person.)

Someone from the Mexican tourism bureau needs to get a team of plumbers together and go around fixing this ASAP.

Another issue which may or may not be related is the foul-smelling rivers! This was especially noticeable in Toluca, where a river a couple blocks away from our hotel smelled so bad that I was able to smell it inside hotel, even in spite of having a stuffy nose due to my cold.

Lack of customer service
I think part of this is related to the lack of trust (described above) but there’s also an issue of just not caring or trying very hard. It’s not like Greece, where everybody moved too slow. This was something much worse about Mexican customer service that was hard to pin down.

Some examples:

  • On many occasions, when asking for help finding something at a store, they were simply unwilling to help. I found this not only to be bad service, but also generally rude.
  • The aforementioned bag-check at many stores as not only an insult, it was a hassle as well.
  • Larger stores tended to have long, slow moving lines. There wasn’t any rush to get people through the checkout.
  • We went to extend our stay at the first hotel we were at, but they insisted we had to pay 700 pesos ($70 USD) per night instead of the 350 pesos ($35 USD) we had bought the original two nights for via Kayak.com. They said it was fine though if we wanted to order online to get the discount. So we did that, and then they told us we’d need to print out the e-mail confirmation, and “no you can’t use our printer.” Would it have been that hard for them to explain that we would need to print the e-mail BEFORE we placed the order? It would have saved about 20 minutes, and wouldn’t have been hard to explain in the first place.
  • One more example: a cashier at a drink stand refused my 100 peso ($10 USD) note for a bottle of water that cost 10 pesos ($1 USD). She claimed she didn’t have change. I didn’t buy anything there, including the cashier’s lame excuse for laziness.

Granted, this wasn’t true everywhere. But for the most part, I really got the impression that everyone who worked for someone else was doing the bare minimum necessary to keep their jobs. Were it not for the fact that I was visiting my girlfriend’s family — who were all very nice to me — I would have been under the impression that most Mexicans were lazy, self-centered assholes.

Cerveza

Conclusion
Overall, I’m a little torn on whether I’d go back to Mexico or not. On the one hand there’s still a lot more to see and do. I need to finish climbing the pyramids! But on the other hand, between the problematic customer service, the stench, and the way everyone is treated like a criminal, it’s a bit hard to justify returning.

I hate to say this, but perhaps the deciding factor is the price; Mexico is a cheap place to go, and it’s close enough to the United States that traveling there is inexpensive as well. Round trip airfare was less than $200 (USD) per person even after taxes and fees, rides on the Mexico City Metro were 3 pesos ($0.30 USD!!), and there’s excellent food for mere dollars.

So yeah, I’ll be back in Mexico someday. But it’s not at the top of my list.

Muni needs signal priority

March 16th, 2011

The SFMTA recently announced some big changes to the messy intersection at Church and Duboce, which is a notorious mess for Muni Metro, the 22 line, bicycles, private vehicles, and pedestrians. Streetsblog covered the changes in depth in an excellent article.

One strange aspect to the renovation which Streetsblog mentions is that there will still be no traffic signals at the intersection.

SFMTA staffers said adding traffic signals would cause unnecessary delays to Muni lines, particularly for the 22-Fillmore running north on Church Street, Kaufman said.

Traffic lights = delays? Somehow that statement doesn’t ring true.

Anyone who regularly travels on Muni Metro through this intersection, or the similar intersection at Ulloa and West Portal, can testify that these intersections are a major source of Muni Metro delays. (The West Portal intersection is actually worse, since Muni Metro has a signal but other traffic does not.)

If we really want to be a “transit-first” city, doesn’t it make sense to have traffic signals that give preference to transit? Especially in the case of Muni Metro, which is supposed to be “rapid” but when mixed with traffic is anything but.

Other transit systems give signal priority to trains and buses. Even VTA in Santa Clara County — which admittedly is a lousy system for many other reasons — gives signal priority to express buses.

Since Muni Metro in many cases has special traffic signals which do not apply to cars, couldn’t we at the very least use these signals to allow Metro LRVs to pass through intersections with priority to all other traffic?

Signal priorities could give many other Metro lines an advantage on many lines, including:

  • T line on 3rd St
  • Both the T and N lines on King and Embarcadero
  • M and K lines along West Portal
  • M line on 19th Ave
  • N line at 9th and Irving
  • J line on Church
  • Granted, this is an expensive proposition, as it involves altering traffic signals, adding signal remotes to trains, and operator education. But when it comes to making getting around the city with reliable speed, it’s worth the cost.

Things San Franciscans despise: sidewalk advertising

February 12th, 2011

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San Francisco is a city of people who are indecisive and disagreeable. We even manage to disagree about really basic things, to the point where basic issues like panhandling and slow public transportation go unsolved for decades.

But when corporations use litter and graffiti as a form of advertising, San Franciscans have a rare moment of clarity and unity. The same way we’re against fighting for oil in the middle east, we’re willing to hold protests and call in the national guard over advertising agencies stenciling our sidewalks.

We didn’t stand for Levi’s or Microsoft spray-painting our sidewalks. Today, we won’t stand for HP littering the city either. They’ve put QR code posters up on the sidewalks and on street poles all over the Mission.

(Side note: did you know that HP stands for “Horrible Printer”? Now you know.)

Why are San Franciscans against sidewalk advertising? Well, first of all, public space is for the people, not for corporations. A coffee stand at the park? NO! A taco truck on the street outside Best Buy? NO! Oh wait a sec, those tacos are delicious. You know what? Never mind. We’ll discuss this later… OM NOM NOM.

Second, corporate advertising on public property offends our artistic sensibilities. Public art is fine with San Franciscans, and even though we can’t agree on whether or not graffiti is art, we can agree that corporate graffiti is NOT art. Art isn’t supposed to be an expression of greed unless you’re really ironic about it, like Andy Warhol or the guy who makes OBEY merchandise.

Now, every rule as its exceptions, and I found one down the street from the offensive HP sidewalk pollution.

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I think it’s safe to say that a handmade flier taped to the sidewalk advertising a party at El Rio is an exception to our “no sidewalk advertising” rule. Because, well, we make exceptions for things we enjoy — like tacos.

Muni’s repeated derailments

February 11th, 2011

You’d think that the title of 6th best public transit system in the country would mean something. Or at the very least you’d think that at the point where you’re the 6th best at something, you’re not repeating your own mistakes.

But you’d be wrong.

Today’s Muni Metro derailment sounds awfully familiar. A train suddenly came off the tracks between Castro and Forrest Hill station, and nobody knows how it happened.

Why does it sound familiar?

Because the same thing happened in November of 2009. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the exact same scenario happened in August of 2006.

Allegedly, Muni tried to fix the tracks in 2007, several months after the first derailment. But that didn’t solve the problem.

Obviously, train systems are not a new technology; the basics are old and well understood. There’s no excuse for deferred maintenance and half-assed fixes.

Android: not the droids you were looking for

September 22nd, 2010

When Google first released Android, it was presented as a modern, open-source operating system for phones. It sounded great; all the hip buzzwords and you can write programs in Java? Who wouldn’t want this?

But Google’s strategy for selling the OS was… odd. The OS would be sold through a chain of resellers. And Google’s license agreement allows modifications to the OS at any point in the chain.

The reseller chain starts at the manufacturers, who build a phone and install Android. Now unlike PCs, phones are proprietary devices. Even though Android apps are portable between devices, the OS itself is not.

Every piece of hardware on every phone, from the motherboard to the graphics to the input device, varies greatly from one phone to the next. Google relies on the manufacturers’ ability to develop drivers and other custom software to fit their phone. Many of the handset manufacturers went a step further, changing the look-and-feel of Android entirely.

Next in the reseller chain is the phone companies. When a phone is sold through (for example) Verizon, they often “brand” the phone with a new name, a new look, and even more custom software.

This approach of allowing resellers to modify the OS before it reaches the user has a number of unintended consequences that damage the user experience.

What’s wrong with Google’s approach?

Openness

Many of the phone companies lock down the phone to prevent unauthorized applications. Users can still get apps from the Android Market, but these applications are limited to those approved by Google. If this sounds familiar, it’s because the App Store on the iPhone works exactly the same way.

For a lot of people, the idea of Android being “open” didn’t just mean that the source was available, it also meant you could install any software you wanted. But if the OS is locked down to outside applications, then it’s not open in this respect.

Even Windows Mobile allows users to install any applications they want… and Windows Mobile is closed-source!

This app lock-down is only possible because Android’s reseller license agreement doesn’t prohibit locking-down the phone. Google could have specifically forbid this practice in their license agreement, but chose not to.

Security

Let’s say an Android system component was found to have a security vulnerability. Unlike Windows, iOS, Linux, or other systems, Android users can’t just download the patch directly from Google. Users have to wait for the patch go from Google, to the handset manufacturer, and then to the carrier, before it has any chance of reaching them.

With Android there’s always two steps between Google and the end-user, even for critical security patches. Google simply cannot update the end users’ devices since updates could break proprietary software and drivers installed further up the chain.

And it’s not just critical software patches. Even minor patches tend to take a long time to get to the user’s phone — if they ever make it!

In general, software vendors don’t like to issue patches because it means spending money. With Android, resellers have to integrate Google’s patch into their custom versions of Android, then perform QA to make sure it all still works. This is very expensive, and it means resellers will often hold out on even the most important security updates.

If the phone model didn’t sell well, it’s difficult for manufacturers to justify spending any money at all on testing. In this case, there’s a good chance the patch will never be available.

Who to Blame

Despite strong sales, it’s clear Android hasn’t lived up to its initial hype. But is this Google’s fault? Yes and no.

Android’s default setup is actually quite nice. The ill-fated Nexus One, designed and sold by Google, ships with a default Android OS. It’s open in the sense that users control which applications they can install. And Google releases patches for the device in a timely fashion.

All other Android phones are released by third parties, so they don’t get timely updates. And apps can be locked out of them entirely. Is this Google’s fault?

Like Microsoft, Google isn’t forcing the phone manufacturers to update their software. The core OS components and drivers require developer and QA resources to be upgraded.

But what about the other components? Say the SSL validation component, or the web browser, or the e-mail client? Google could use a software updater (similar to the Chrome updater on Windows) to keep these components up to date automatically, and out of the control of resellers.

Sure, the drivers may not be upgradeable. But the kernel is only one part of Android. The other pieces could be upgraded individually without breaking comparability with existing phones.

And what about the so-called “openness” of the phone? This is a contractual issue, as it comes down to what Google is willing to ask of their resellers. There’s no technical reason that Google can’t force the manufacturers and phone companies to allow any app on their phone.

However, at this point it seems the carriers especially are scared of openness. What if someone developed an app that allowed users to bypass paid features, like SMS or tethering? This impacts the bottom line of a phone company, so it’s a scary proposition — for them. For their users, it would be awesome.

If there’s one thing Apple showed the world, it’s that a handset manufacturer can stand up to a phone company — and win. Google has the opportunity to take Apple’s users-first approach a step further by demanding openness on all Android phones.

Conclusions

By compromising on their values, Google has allowed the promises of Android to be forgotten.

Google needs to step up and make sure all Android installations are secure. With updates in the hands of resellers, there is little they can do.

Furthermore, the closed nature of Apple’s iOS drove both users and developers to Android. But the locked-down Android they got in return was exactly what they had run away from.

Two steps to get Android back on track would be an auto update mechanism and a reseller license agreement to make the phone truly open.

On purchasing a Muni FastPass

June 2nd, 2010

Muni (by MrEricSir)

It used to be that buying a FastPass was a simple affair. There was only one type of adult pass available, and many places to buy one.

But Muni screwed that all up.

Let’s look at how my FastPass purchasing experiences have changed over the years.

Here’s how I bought a Muni pass while I was at SF State:

  1. Check sign at info desk to see if passes were in
  2. Withdraw cash from ATM
  3. Use cash to pay $45 to info desk
  4. Receive pass

Fast forward a few years to when I got my current job in SOMA. Up until a few months ago, the process for buying a pass was very similar:

  1. Receive Commuter Check from work
  2. Hand Commuter Check to cashier at Montgomery St. station Muni booth
  3. Receive pass

But no, it couldn’t be that simple! First, the ticket booth at Montgomery St. was closed permanently. This place was always a mob around the first of the month, but I could usually time it right so I didn’t have to wait much.

Second, I no longer get Commuter Checks for some reason. Instead I have a commuter debit card thing that they don’t take at Powell St, and most/all stores, meaning I have to buy my tickets at Embarcadero Station.

Here’s my new routine for 2010:

  1. Head all the way to Embarcadero Station
  2. Walk to Muni ticket booth
  3. Stand in line for 10+ minutes
  4. At front of line, am told the “A” passes are now sold out, come back tomorrow
  5. Wait one day, repeat

Eventually I do get my pass, but it’s always a crapshoot. For some reason this ticket booth isn’t open late enough most of the time; I was once told they close at 6:45 PM. And they seem to close even if there’s still people in line.

And yes, I could probably use TrannyLink or NailClipper or whatever the hell it’s called this month. But you actually have to buy the card (WTF?!) unless you manage to score one at the coveted “free” days that are heavily advertised, yet the people never show up to distribute the cards. (Yes, I’ve tried.)

Anyway, Muni you guys need to get your heads out of your asses. I’m trying to PAY YOU. Don’t you want my money?

Newspaper industry

August 14th, 2009

There’s a lot of talk about how the newspaper industry is dying. And there’s some truth to this — NY Times is in debt, Seattle PI went out of business, etc. etc.

And yet we have more sources for our news than ever before: 24 hour news networks, blogs, Twitter…

Has our attention has shifted from newspapers to other forms of media?

It seems like the answer to this is a resounding YES. But unfortunately, we’ve made a terrible trade off.

Before we discuss this, let’s think of a few reasons about why having several local newspapers is a good idea:

  1. We need to see different informed views on a subject. One voice means there’s only two views: for or against. This is a bad place to be, because any sufficiently complex issue needs to be looked at from a variety of angles before a reasonable assessment should be made.
  2. We need to have good local news. Without a good local paper, who’s going to call out the mayor on stealing money from the city? Who’s going to tell us that our schools are failing too many kids? Without a local paper, our communities are lost in the dark. The local TV and radio news will never have the same depth as a solid local paper.
  3. We need real news. In a world of hype, angry yelling, and ignorant opinions, newspapers have managed to maintain a calm and informed voice, for the most part. Occasionally, newspapers even engage in reporting real news and conducting investigations. Imagine that!

So what’s wrong with the “new” news media? Why is it different than a newspaper?

  • 24 Hour News Networks. All you have to do is watch a few minutes of so-called “reporters” blathering on and on about nothing for hours on end on CNN. Then try watching Glen Beck and friends yelling on Fox. It’s easy to see that 24 hour news networks aren’t reporting anything new at all. It’s mostly reactions to news that was originally reported in a newspaper. Even local news shows do a better job at investigative reporting than the 24 hour networks (and that’s not saying much.)
  • Blogs. Likewise, blogs do very little reporting and mostly tend to be humor or angry yelling (think Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly.) Those that do actual reporting have a narrow focus and only a handful of reporters. This is fine, but the idea doesn’t seem to scale. Blogs just don’t make enough money to be effective at covering an entire locale.
  • Twitter. And how about Twitter? Come on. Twitter is a way for ADHD celebrities to communicate with their ADHD fans. If something can be said in only 140 characters, it’s not new and therefore not worth saying to an audience.

Don’t get me wrong, the consumers of news are not entirely to blame. Sure, they should be demanding better news. We could (and should) all call up Glen Beck and Keith Olberman’s advertisers and tell them we won’t buy their products anymore. That would be a good start.

But the news media needs to make changes as well. The newspaper industry is to blame here as well. Newspapers are looking quite thin these days, and the content remaining is not up to par. To sell papers, they need to make some big changes, particularly in the face of their boisterous competition.

So what can the newspaper industry do?

  1. Do some actual reporting. This facet of running a newspaper seems to be lost on many. An opinion page is fine, but anything more than that and you run the risk of overshadowing your editorials with journalism. That said, the opinion page shouldn’t be a bunch of insane rants. If there are factual errors or obviousl problems with the reasoning, they simply should not be printed.
  2. Stop lying. Recently, Fox News was sued for reporting false information as news. Unfortunately, the ruling was in favor of Fox, because there’s no law against reporting false information. While we’ve all come to expect ridiculous lies from Fox, the newspaper business needs to hold itself to a much higher standard if they want to continue to command respect from their readers. But even at the NY Times, a reporter was fired for making up stories, and he wasn’t the only one. Who would trust a source who constantly lies to them? People stop subscribing when they’re lied to, and rightfully so.
  3. Investigate. When a newspaper reports on opinion polls and what someone said, it’s hardly newsworthy. Our world is filled with scandals, injustices, and other actual hard news. This is real journalism. Reporting on a car crash or whether babies should really be wearing diapers are not journalism. It’s that simple.
  4. Stop whining. Not a month goes by without a newspaper story about how nobody reads newspapers anymore. Maybe if the news reporters would do their job instead of whining constantly, they would get more readers. Crazy idea, huh? Must not be — the NY Times mentioned this idea in a story about (what else?) how nobody reads newspapers anymore. It’s time for the editors to tell their reporters to stop their whining.
  5. Get serious about the internet. Almost every newspaper has a website. But why? Most of them don’t make money or even have plans to make money on their website. The news organizations are stuck in the 1980’s, treating the internet like some exotic new thing instead of a real distribution format. If they have to charge for it, so be it. But the subscription model isn’t likely to work in a world of links and copy/paste. I’m not saying there’s a right answer to this. This is something the newspapers need to take a lot more seriously.

Conclusion: even though newspapers are becoming worse and worse, they’re still the best news source we have, by far. And they probably won’t get any better until the industry takes a good look in the mirror.

What a mess.