I love Twitter, but I hate this book

December 15, 2009

I put off writing this review of “140 Characters” for far too long. The problem is, I love Twitter but I hate this book.

I think part of my problem with “140 Characters: A Style Guide for the Short Form” is due to its subtitle. The truth is, it’s not much of a style guide.

‘140 Characters’ isn’t about how-to help

140 Characters: A style guide for the short form

140 Characters: A style guide for the short form

In the 12 years I worked in newspapers, I turned to the Associated Press Stylebook for advice on everything from the difference between Baptists and Lutherans to the correct way to note the caliber of pistol ammunition. I still keep the stylebook close at hand. But the AP Stylebook is a practical, no-nonsense guide to how to construct discrete elements of whatever it is you happen to be writing, regardless of whether it’s a serious analysis of international monetary systems or a column about a new cartoon show on TV. It spends little space trying to inspire writers to write, encouraging them to be creative or gushing about the joy of being a journalist. Even the AP’s Guide to News Writing is more “how to” than “how marvelous.” “140 Characters,” on the other hand, seems mostly concerned with convincing the reader of the unbearable wonderfulness of using Twitter.

I love Twitter. It’s interesting and informative — dare I say wonderful? — and I use it every day. I really wanted to like this book, but I don’t have any time for 179 pages of syrupy evangelism for Twitter. If “140 Characters” had been subtitled something such as “Find your voice on Twitter” and presented as an inspirational tome, the book might have been easier to swallow and might have been more clearly targeted toward the kind of people who go to writers’ groups to talk about how great it is to be a writer.

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Why budget disaster may save California

June 2, 2009

California is broke, its elected officials are paralyzed in mortal fear of making tough decisions, and the people are angry.

Good.

Total system failure may be the only thing that can save California

I’m a father of two native Californians and a nearly lifelong resident of the state. I visit my state parks and beaches regularly, and I’m disappointed that most of them seem set to close. I believe that government is an appropriate tool for addressing some of California’s biggest issues. So, how can I believe that mess we’re in now is good?

It’s good because utter failure may be the only thing that can possibly snap California out of some long-cherished illusions and eventually set it back on a path toward government that is efficient, appropriate and responsible.

Let’s be clear about this. No matter what short-term steps the state takes to keep itself in business, including the measures Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is scheduled to discuss before a joint session of the California Legislature Tuesday, to a lot of people are going to be hurt. Consider yourself lucky if the only pinch you feel is that your favorite state park closes or starts charging a fee – and spare some thought for those whose families will see diminished opportunities for work, education and health.

California’s leaders and voters must take this crisis as an opportunity to disillusion themselves from the idea that the problems with the state’s budget and governance are temporary, and the mistaken belief that once we round the next corner everything will be fine. As painful as the coming budget cuts will be, greater harm would come from refusing to face up to the fact that the state’s structures for gathering income, spending funds and agreeing on a budget completely fail to serve the needs of Californians.

I don’t share anti-tax groups’ confidence that the only possible reading of May’s special election vote is a mandate for big cuts in state services, or the liberal interpretation that voters were rejecting spending limits. I think it just as likely that voters’ rejection of the proposed budget “solutions” reflects a simple annoyance that they were asked to make the decisions they elected other people to make.

But the reality is that we cannot deny the state government income while also demanding it provide a high level of service. The reality is that we have created a system that encourages elected officials to duck responsibility and dodge compromise in favor of pushing decisions onto the voters who put them in office. The reality is that until California examines itself under a very bright light, it will continue to operate in a fantasy of vain hopes and fake fixes.

Eight questions for California

California must address some questions at the foundation of the state’s problem with governance. I don’t have the answers to all of these questions, and it’s possible that we can fix our state by addressing only some of these issues. But all of these matters bear strongly on California’s ability to govern itself and to find the level of services and costs that Californians really want.

  1. Does California need a full-time Legislature? Often, laws proposed in the Legislature can’t gain enough support to pass as they are first written. In most law-making bodies, this is when legislators alter their proposals to make them acceptable to more of their colleagues, or offer to exchange support of an opponent’s proposals for support of their own. In California, however, many times these failed proposals are simply kicked to the voters in the hope that political campaigning can achieve what compromise could not. This isn’t a problem with the people who hold office today, it’s a problem with the system. If legislators are unable or unwilling to fulfill their basic function of making law through debate and compromise, why pay them for a full-time job when they only do part of the work?

  2. Is California’s system of voter initiatives doing more harm than good? According to a new survey conducted by students at the University of California, Riverside, voters still favor using ballot initiatives to decide budget matters. Perhaps this means that voters view initiatives as a way to make decisions the Legislature cannot or will not make, an understandable sentiment, but ballot measures are imprecise tools that institute changes that can’t be modified without another vote of the people. If California wants to hang on to this tradition of direct democracy, maybe it’s time for at least a common-sense change to our initiative process to require propositions to deal with only one subject at a time instead of mixing often unrelated issues in the same measure.

  3. Does Proposition 13 still make sense? Prop. 13, which limited increases to property taxes in California, is still an untouchable issue to many state politicians. And indeed, voters may not yet be ready to change it. But more and more Californians have acquired their property long after the proposition passed, and some of them don’t see themselves as sharing the interests of those who still pay property taxes at 30-year-old rates. What we’re doing in California with Prop. 13 is penalizing new investment in the state – new buyers of homes – without producing any gain for the state on the surge in value some owners have realized simply by virtue of having bought a long time ago. Another effect of Prop. 13 that works against the interests of many Californians is the shift it produced in where local governments get their money. Prop. 13 is a big part of the reason so many small to mid-sized municipalities seem to keep building the same retail outlets instead of producing needed housing: Because of the limits on property taxes, local governments can’t get enough money out of new housing to pay for the increased level of services new residents require. In other words, because of Prop. 13, in many cases new housing costs local governments money. Retail development, on the other hand, does allow governments to obtain the necessary funding to support government services.

  4. Are term limits causing more harm than good? I’ve never liked the idea of someone else telling me who to vote for, or when to stop voting for them, so I’ve always opposed term limits. But beyond my philosophical opposition, there are some important reasons why California might want to reconsider its term limits. One is that under our current term limits, legislators know they’ll be moving around so fast it’s unlikely they’ll be held accountable for the decisions they make – or dodge – in any single year. The effort required to build expertise on any given topic of governance and build the consensus required for substantive new laws just doesn’t pencil out for legislators who won’t be in their current office for long.

  5. Are state electoral districts still favoring extreme politics? Last year, voters approved Proposition 11, which created a new method to set the geographic boundaries of state electoral districts. New district lines are expected to be in place for 2012 elections, but it remains to be seen if the new districts will be any more effective than the old in producing lawmakers who can meet in the middle of their ideologies to govern effectively. In the meantime, what’s certain is that we’re still stuck with too many legislators who occupy the far edges of the Republican and Democratic parties.

  6. Is it time to eliminate the two-thirds requirement to pass a budget? The idea of modifying the requirement for a two-thirds vote for the Legislature to approve a state budget is particularly popular among Democratic lawmakers and activists. I don’t oppose a change on ideological grounds, but I think this proposal is looking at California’s problems from the wrong direction. If we change the structures that favor a flaccid and unaccountable Legislature, it’s far less likely the two-thirds vote requirement will be a problem. In any case, that UC Riverside survey found that the two-thirds requirement to pass a budget is still popular among voters.

  7. Is it time to change the requirement that tax increases require a two-thirds vote of the people? As with the two-thirds vote requirement for the Legislature to approve a budget, many on the left are talking about trying to modify the requirement that many taxes require a two-thirds majority approval from voters. I can’t say that I think California’s tax income is always well-spent, and I’m wary of making the leash on new taxes too loose. But when voters decide whether they want low taxes or lots of services, this is one option they might very well choose.

  8. Does California need a constitutional convention? This is the big gun of California reform efforts, and it’s already gathered some good momentum. A constitutional convention would be able to undertake fundamental changes to the most basic structures and systems of California government. I don’t think a constitutional convention is the only possible solution to California’s situation, but it certainly would provide a means to resolve many issues at once and to produce a relatively simple, clear proposal for reform instead of relying on a bunch of disparate plans. In spite of the uncertainty of what kind of new constitution we might end up with, this is one idea California must consider seriously.

What’s your idea to fix California’s broken systems?

I’ve presented a handful of ideas for changing the way California does business, but there are many others out there. Do you have a plan, a solution, a proposal? Leave a comment and join the debate, and if you’re on Twitter, @ me a reply.

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My Muni express bus story published on Spot.Us

March 16, 2009

Crowd-funded journalism site Spot.Us has published my story on Muni’s express bus service!

For years, a lack of information left Muni in the dark about what it was doing well, what it had to improve and what its riders actually needed. But a proposed shuffling of resources following the Transit Effectiveness Project, a massive systemwide study, would add more frequent service and extend routes on some express lines serving city commuters. …

Julie Kirschbaum, manager of Muni’s Transit Effectiveness Project, says there also are other reasons why Muni doesn’t run more expresses. One is that although they might seem to be highly efficient – buses fill to capacity and swiftly transport full loads of passengers all the way across town with a minimum number of stops – there are some hidden costs to express service. …

Shrinking transit funding from the State of California and the City of San Francisco – as well as the federal government’s preference for funding buildings and equipment, rather than operating costs – will have an effect on Muni, including potential hits to vehicle maintenance, which would reduce Muni’s reliability systemwide.

And budget problems will have an impact on the TEP. “We do expect the budget challenges to slow the implementation of the TEP,” says Muni spokesman Judson True.

In 2008, an idea emerged to charge riders who pay cash fares an extra dollar to board express buses, but the proposal petered out. True said there’s still a chance the SFMTA might decide to pursue an express-bus surcharge again.

“Once an idea is out there it never really goes away. … It’s still out there as an idea,” said True.

In fact, the SFMTA Board is scheduled to discuss its budget for the coming fiscal year at a meeting Tuesday morning, March 17 — including the possibility of raising express cash fares. According to documents prepared for the meeting, Muni could gather an additional $1.4 million by raising the fare for all cash-paying express riders by $1.

Either way, because the TEP is focused on ways of doing business and on redirecting existing resources, Kirschbaum says she thinks the TEP’s recommendations for improved express service will remain largely intact: “Because the TEP service plans are resource-neutral, we’re still looking forward to implementing the TEP route proposals.”

I’ll post the rest of it here soon, but in the meantime please see the story by visiting http://spot.us/stories/76.

In related news, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency meets Tuesday to discuss its budget for the coming fiscal year, including the idea of charging some riders an extra dollar to board express buses. The SFMTA meets at 2 p.m. in Room 400, San Francisco City Hall.

While you’re at Spot.Us, be sure to check out the other stories and ideas there. Spot.Us has brought to light some good old-fashioned journalism, using new methods of publication and funding.

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Some riders of San Francisco Muni buses could pay an extra dollar

March 16, 2009

Would you pay an extra dollar to ride a Muni express bus? If you pay a cash fare you might have to do just that, under an idea being considered to help offset big cuts to the transit agency’s funding.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is scheduled to discuss its budget for fiscal year 2010 at a meeting 2 p.m. Tuesday, March 17, and one of the ideas covered in a presentation prepared for the meeting is to charge cash-paying express riders an extra buck: “Currently approximately 25,700 passengers ride the express routes daily. Assuming that 20% pay cash fares, increasing the cash fare by $1.00 over regular cash fare” would yield about $1.4 million for Muni.

If the SFMTA Board likes the idea, it would present the proposal — and any other potential changes to fares — at public meetings in April, according to documents prepared for Tuesday’s meeting.

In a related development, on March 10 I filed my long-time-coming article on Muni express service with crowd-funded journalism site Spot.Us. Spot.Us tells me they anticipate either publishing the article themselves or reaching an agreement on selling the piece very soon, perhaps even before Tuesday’s SFMTA meeting.

I spoke with Muni spokesman Judson True and Transit Effectiveness Project manager Julie Kirschbaum for my story, and I asked them about the idea of charging express riders a premium on top of the regular fare — something that came up in 2008 but didn’t go anywhere. True told me at the time that although the idea was still out there, he didn’t know that anyone in Muni was considering it actively, but it looks like changes to Muni’s revenue and spending projections changed that pretty quickly.

More information on Tuesday’s SFMTA meeting, including an agenda.

A PDF of the presentation on Muni’s fiscal year 2010 budget.

Watch a stream of the SFMTA meeting live on SFGTV2.

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Obama’s Iraq speech Wordle

February 27, 2009

Here’s a Wordle I made of President Barack Obama’s speech about Iraq at Camp Lejune Friday, Feb. 27, 2009.

Wordle: President Obama Iraq speech Feb. 27, 2009

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Update on Muni express story for Spot.Us

February 18, 2009

I’ve had a couple of questions recently about the status of the story on San Francisco Muni’s express buses I’m writing for the crowd-funded journalism site Spot.Us, so here’s a quick update.

I am finishing some interviews this week and expect to file my story by this time next week. Once it’s in Spot.Us’ hands, a fact-check editor will have a go at it before publication. My belief is that they’ll publish soon after that, but it’s up to them.

This story has been pushed back longer than I would have liked. But the way Spot.Us works, there’s no definite deadline for pieces — and since I have a wife, two kids and an older house to think about, when I’ve found work that does have a deadline and also provides enough to cover the mortgage payments, I’ve taken it. The unfortunate result is that I’ve put off the Muni story.

One observation about the expresses that I’ll share now won’t surprise daily express riders, but it seems almost surreal to people used to the regular bus or the streetcar: By and large, express riders are really polite. Trying to get on most streetcars and buses can sometimes resemble a contact sport (I’ve had plenty of jabs in the ribs from people who try to shove their way in the door of the L-Taraval ahead of everyone else, regardless of how long others have been waiting), so it’s very odd to see passengers line up neatly for the express and head to the back of the line if they arrive late. And although it can be hard to get a seat, depending on the time and where you catch the bus, the ride itself usually is quiet and civilized.

I’ll post further updates if I have anything new to report, including when I file the story. In the meantime, do visit Spot.Us. Some great pieces already have been published, and others are still in need of funding.

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‘The time has come to set aside childish things’

January 20, 2009

Yes, I know, Barack Obama probably is going to disappoint me. He probably is going to disappoint a lot of people. Nearly every politician — nearly every person — fails to live up to the potential of what he could achieve, and that always is

Thank you for being our president. Make us proud. Artist Arlene Elizabeth created this portrait of Obama from 1,000 origami cranes.

My daughter (with white backpack) writes a message to President Barack Obama in San Francisco's Civic Center on Inauguration Day: "Thank you for being our president. Make us proud." Artist Arlene Elizabeth created this portrait of Obama from 1,000 origami cranes.

disappointing. But standing among my fellow San Franciscans in Civic Center Plaza on Inauguration Day, it was impossible not to share some measure of the hope, pride and excitement that filled the crowd as Obama took the oath of office and issued an inspiring call to strive toward the pinnacle of our collective potential, even knowing that we may fall short of the goal. That, after all, is what many Americans of the post-Baby Boom generations have awaited for so long: a call to make big changes, a call to do great things, a call to right wrongs, a call to strive to become better than we are. Earlier generations heard their own calls and faced their own tests in accordance with the challenges of their time, and if what I saw in that crowd on Inauguration Day was any indication, young Americans are eager to take up the challenges and opportunities of our day. I hope for the sake of the country that we can remember that while falling short of our potential is part of the human condition, so is getting up to try again.

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