Tuesday, July 28, 2009

while on my bike, I recently hit a car door

On a Tuesday morning, May 12, 2009, around 7am, I was bicycling on this stretch of road, just leaving North Oakland and crossing into South Berkeley:

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Traveling at a high rate of speed, I was on the right side of the road northbound on Martin Luther King Jr Way, having just passed Angel Light Books & Gifts. I crossed in front of the fenced playground area of Shelton's Primary Education Center (Since I wrote this, Shelton's moved, and the building is now occupied by American International Montessori) when suddenly a car door flipped open directly in front of me. My right shoulder caught the top of the door corner and my right pedal the edge of the lower door, and I was thrown off my bike, landing on my back in the middle of the street. After I heard a female voice ask if I was alright, I got up, dusted myself off, and took notice of the driver standing before me, dressed for an early summer morning and ready for work, possibly at the very school we had collided in front of; on the other side of the vehicle stood another woman, who may have been a passenger, dressed similarly and carrying her purse and some papers. I made sure I was ok, asked the driver if she was ok, and picked up my bike to inspect for damage. The African American female driver seemed genuinely concerned about my well-being, and I noticed that the tip of the lower metal edge of her car door was bent and protruding, having clearly been struck by something, which I later surmised had been the right pedal of my bike, the force of which had spun me around and thrown me out onto the street on my back. I seemed to be in one piece, though my bike had some minor damage; I was still in a hurry to get to Kinko's in downtown Berkeley to print out a document before riding into work. I felt embarrassed for not being more attentive to the parked vehicle immediately ahead of me and to my right, whether there were any occupants to worry about, and I remarked to the woman that I was ok, but that the repair to her car door would cost a lot more than the repair to my bike. I was operating under the assumption we were both at fault for the incident, and given the possibility in the back of my mind I might be held liable for any damages to the woman's car door as a result of my haste, I didn't see the need to exchange information with the driver. I remarked to both ladies that it was an interesting way to start the day, got back on my bike and rode off, noticing the slight wobble in my now out-of-true front wheel.

Over the next two weeks I saw a noticeable dark bruise appear on the upper part of my right chest where it had caught the car door's corner and felt severe pain in my right shoulder area whenever I picked up my bike and lifted it, or made certain motions with my right arm; luckily for me, gradually the sharpness lessened and over time the ache in my shoulder disappeared.

On Saturday morning, July 18, 2009 at 11:15am I was at Missing Link's repair shop to get my wheel trued. I asked the bike mechanic Bill about his summer plans for his two kids, then described the incident that led to my being in his shop, and was surprised to hear from him that the woman was almost surely responsible for the incident, that a driver is almost always at fault for a bicyclist being "doored". This idea was reinforced when on Thursday, July 23, 2009 I was listening to my favorite radio personality Len Tillem's noon to 1pm call-in radio show. A woman named Sunny called saying her daughter, who was driving, had opened her car door and a female cyclist had collided with the door, breaking her wrist. Sunny claimed the bicycle rider, a woman in her early 40s, caused the accident and so was liable for any damages resulting from the impact of the bicycle against the car door when her daughter opened it. Sunny explained her rationale for defending her daughter as not motivated by the expected protective instinct a mother might have for her child, but simply that the woman on her bike was riding too close to the vehicles. In her daughter's defense, Sunny, herself a cyclist, pointed out how some states have the door zone law, but in California there is unfortunately no such law, only a pending statute. Len seemed skeptical, saying Sunny's daughter, if she had just checked over her shoulder, would have seen the cyclist, and was in a better position than the woman on the bicycle to prevent the collision. Later, Jim, a retired California Highway Patrol officer, called in to confirm Len's initial assessment, saying that whenever a bicyclist hits a car door that opens into traffic, the person who opened the car door is at fault, quoting California Vehicle Code section 22517. In response to Sunny's rationale, Jim added that a bike rider is required to ride as close as possible to the right side of the roadway:

Thursday, July 23, 2009

determine your prorated share of the utility bill

Americans are scared, for these are lean and mean times, for anyone who has read the news, though we may be encouraged by signs that the economy has hit bottom and the downturn could be due for an upswing. With experts saying the unemployment rate is likely to go up past 10% before companies start hiring again, the sheer number of unemployed Americans in the middle of a jobs recession will likely provide the necessary heat to make people change their debt-accumulating, hypomanic ways. What I mean by "necessary heat" is, in a recent Lehrer News Hour segment analyzing the latest political events (concerning David Souter's retirement and Arlen Specter changing party affiliation), David Brooks offers a profound insight that, after turning it over in my head, I would tend to agree with more than not:
You don't change when you see the light. You change when you feel the heat.
Reference: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/politics/jan-june09/politicalwrap_05-01.html

Because this economic slump may be severe and prolonged, an article on how Americans need to start consuming again makes the following points:
  • We've gone from an age of entitlement to an age of thrift.

  • the American population, continually infused with immigrants, has self-selected for hypomania, i.e., a tendency to action, an appetite for risk, an endless belief in human possibilities
Reference: http://www.slate.com/id/2213595/pagenum/all/#p2

Ever since I turned 19 and left home for college, I've lived with other people (and still do). This has not only expanded my social repertoire, but saves me a lot of money. In the spirit of the age of thrift, you, former sole occupant of the 1 bedroom or studio apartment, now may be in a shared housing situation, via Craigslist, living with one or more mates in a room, flat or house. When it comes time for roommates to divvy up the gas and electricity bill by figuring out who owes what, one of the more difficult tasks to settle may be how to fairly apportion the amount you owe, given that the day you move in may be after the day the billing period begins (or the day you move out before the date the billing period ends). In either case, you may not feel it's entirely fair to divide the gas & electricity bill, which accounts for energy usage in the unit, evenly among you and your fellow tenants under the lease, because then you would be liable for days when you could not possibly have drawn power from the grid or gas from the line. Now, courtesy of my former housemate Kimberly Scott (now Kimberly Lightholder), who provided this formula to me after a bit of trial and error, here's a simple and easy way for you to fairly prorate your share of the utilities (assuming, of course, that there are no other issues involved in the fair split, or prorating, of the monthly bill, such as one or more flatmates' constant use of a high energy consuming device, such as the central gas heater, or an electric heater, air conditioner, mini-refrigerator, grow lights, and/or aquarium):

The test for this formula is, if you add up the amount that each person is calculated to owe, for all residents, that should equal the amount in the electric & gas bill.
  1. ascertain the number of billing days in the billing period. Let's call this b. For example, if your billing period is from June 7 to July 8, b should be 32 days

  2. count the number of days you lived in the residence. Let's call this a.

  3. determine the number of total billing days. That is, add up the number of days each person lived in the unit, for all residents. For example, let's say 4 people were already residing in the 5 bedroom house you just moved into:

    total billing days = b + b + b + b + a

  4. divide the bill amount by the total billing days. The quotient let us call k. k is what you will multiply by the number of days you lived in the residence in order to arrive at your prorated share:

    amount of power bill
    -------------------------- = k
    total billing days

  5. k * a = your prorated share of the utility bill

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Freebase Hack Day

today was my third time in the offices of Metaweb, which operates freebase. 80 of us met on the 4th floor of a building off of Hawthorne Street in downtown San Francisco to learn how to interact with freebase, a database of structured data which currently has 6 million topics (a topic is a thing in Freebase). Besides being a database, Freebase is also an API and development platform. In other words, you can use freebase as a source of information for your software, say, Microsoft Excel or Google Spreadsheet or MySQL database, but you can also issue commands to freebase and it will behave in a predictable way, and you can use freebase to create new kinds of software. Any given topic in freebase has one or more types assigned to it, e.g., Queen Latifah, when considered as a topic on freebase, has at least 3 types assigned to her: person, musical artist, film actor. A type in freebase has one or more properties, e.g., the musical artist type has at least 3 properties: genre, instruments played, music recorded.

Thuon Chen with Kirrily Robert, Freebase Community Director

When one lands on freebase, there is so much to take in it may seem overwhelming at first, and it took some time for me to wrap my head around it. When freebase finally made sense was when I spoke with a Metaweb employee, Alex Botero-Lowry, about our mutual interest. At the beginning of Hack Day, Alex announced in front of the group he was working on television data, specifically liberating the extraction of said data. My curiosity piqued, I approached Alex and said I believe we are living in the Golden Age of television. One of my favorite writers, Tim Goodman, expounds beautifully on the sheer number of high-quality, well written and expertly produced recent television programs in a very compelling piece he put together containing lists of exceptional series sorted into categories:

Reference: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/12/30/DDDGU66SJ.DTL

So if we wanted, we could ask Freebase to give us the list of episodes for a given tv program, sorted primarily by season number, secondarily by episode number:

  1. go to http://www.freebase.com/app/queryeditor

  2. now we want to query the vast resources of freebase (imagine yourself face-to-face with a large machine with blinking lights). The most important things to know at this point are:
    1. the position of the blinking cursor within the query data structure, i.e., [{ }]
    2. the 'Tab' key
    If we wanted all the episodes for a given tv program, we would simply type in:
    "type": "/tv/tv_program",
    "name": "The Wire",
    "episodes" : [{}]
    If you click within the data structure for episode, [{ }], i.e., click in the area between the curly braces inside the square brackets, and press the 'Tab' key, you will get a set of properties for 'episodes', and you can find out such information as the person who was credited as the writer or director.
    freebase query editor

Just to give you a sense of how there's more than one way to get the same or a similar result in freebase, the following are two paths to our destination: for a given tv program, get all the episodes, in ascending order, categorized by season, in ascending order. Nick and Jason at Metaweb helped me formulate my first query, and the latter query is courtesy of Alex Botero-Lowry:
"type": "/tv/tv_program",
"name": "the sopranos",
"episodes": [{
"episode_number": null,
"season_number": null,
"sort": ["season_number", "episode_number"]
"name": "30 rock",
"type": "/tv/tv_program",
"seasons": [{
"id": null,
"name": null,
"season_number": null,
"sort": "season_number",
"episodes": [{
"name": null,
"id": null,
"episode_number": null,
"sort": "episode_number"

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

taking the police at their word

Confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination begin next week, and I wanted to share an article on the Obama nominee's powers of persuasion in a previous ruling that hinges on her taking the police at their word, then asks how broad are the grounds for arrest; Sotomayor's ruling nullified the decision of a jury that saw a process rife with police abuse of power:

A semi-truck breaks down on an expressway, with about 4 feet of the trailer jutting out into the right-hand lane. Worried about causing an accident, the truck driver runs almost a mile to the nearest gas station, which has a payphone with an extra long cord attached to the receiver that, at the time, was being used by a man sitting inside his car.

The truck driver claims he ran up and told the man there was an emergency because his truck was jutting out onto the expressway. The man told him to find another phone. The truck driver repeats it's an emergency, the man swears at the truck driver, the truck driver hangs up the phone, and soon the man in the car (who turns out to be an off-duty police officer) has a gun pointed at the back of the truck driver's head. Eventually another officer formally arrests the truck driver.

The man in the car claims he was asked for the phone by the truck driver, but there was never any mention of an emergency, and that the truck driver hit him in the face with the receiver, at which point the off-duty police officer pulled out his gun, and made the arrest.

Reference: http://www.slate.com/id/2219251/pagenum/all/

Thursday, July 2, 2009

where is journalism going ?

I find myself habitually navigating to one website (sfgate.com) for local breaking news and weather forecasts. Other fountains that I drink deeply from are The New York Times, Slate and The Economist. With the latter three, the content is more like steak and requires sitting down and more leisurely-paced chewing than the former, which is a bit like a quick bite of pesto and olive tapenade on toasted sourdough over the kitchen counter. Like most of you, I don't pay for what I read, and if you're like me, you feel a pang of guilt when reading of the troubles in the newspaper industry. Journalists need to eat, and the good ones usually need to go to college in order to speak, read and write well. Food requires money, and who will pay these journalists for their sweat and labor at the sites I mention if we all contribute nary a red cent for the carefully prepared content that we consume ? This was the question I struggled with as what a journalist friend said turned over in my head, specifically her lament that newspapers were "in a death spiral", with every single major national paper having "major, devastating layoffs".

After this sobering assessment, one would think newspapers really were going the way of the Neanderthal. To the contrary, Jack Shafer, Slate's editor at large, believes we may be entering the Golden Age of journalism. He compares what's going on now with the newspaper industry in 1938, when Mark Sullivan, a journalist, then 64, published his memoirs lamenting the state of his trade amidst all the upheaval caused by a new technology then coming into its own, the radio:
But just when you're ready to dismiss Sullivan as another doom and gloomer, carping about modern-era disappointments and disruptions, he zigs from the normal zag to find opportunity in the decline of newspapers. He writes:

Not only did the market for writing shrink. New means of expression, of conveying thought and facts and description and narrative, came into the world. …

I felt as if I were like one of those old monks, the scriveners, who continued to copy by hand long after printing had been invented. To young writers looking forward the lesson is as plain, and even more important, than to old writers looking backward. Learn the art of writing, of course, but learn also the art of the motion picture, and of the radio.

Reference: http://www.slate.com/id/2221856/pagenum/all/