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Monthly Archives: May 2012

In which your writer reflects on a month of writing and shares his thoughts on Syria and reporting on an NYPD initiative.

The now previous day of May 30th marked a completely unimportant occasion in all manners aside from my own ego. This is the day that Another Note in the Cacophony surpassed a month of active publication. This of course is a nice moment for myself as I feared I would get tired of writing this in a week (as occurred with many a writing project in the past), and because this blog has actually gotten some attention in its microscopic—even by online standards—lifespan.

One of the pieces on here, my reflection on the slow-burning crisis at Bronx Science was republished by the New York based education blog Gotham Schoolsand prompted a response from the school’s administration,while a recent piece on media coverage of conflict gained attention from the media watchdog group FAIR. While I’m writing this blog more for my own health than for any of the small morsels of recognition I might stumble across, it is good to see that my content is appreciated. There are some interesting topics I have in the works for the coming month, which you will find out as soon as I get the out-of-the-blue idea to write about them.

But enough about myself. Here are some things that stuck out for me in the first half of this week.

Cheers: Public radio brings a new angle to an old story.

I came across an excellent piece on WNYC radio Tuesday (disclosure: I have done volunteering for the station) about the NYPD’s’ notorious practice of “stop and frisk”. That there is news coverage of the practice is not news; a Google news search of the phrase brings just over 3,000 results, but this story puts a  new spin on it. Reporter Ailsa Chang decided to illustrate the heavily skewed statistics of the stops by actually interviewing teenagers (would you believe that?) at two New York high schools.  It is a story that is conceptually simple in hindsight but does a major service in illuminating the issue. The first teens we hear from are at Stuyvesant high school, an elite public institution that uses the same entrance exam as my own alma mater Bronx Science. That school is mostly Asian and Caucasian, and none of the students the reporter asked experienced any stops. Statistics bear out the anecdotes, as the area around the school received 20 stops last year. The reporter then went to a almost exclusively black and Hispanic high school in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, one of the few parts of New York that still can be considered fully “dangerous”. There students told of being stopped two to three times by police, with a member of the reporter’s own focus group going as high as seven times. The story also came with an excellent overlay map (prepared by the station’s newsroom staff, it seems) of police stop raw data by census tract in the city.

Among parts of the city that I have experience with(living in and going to school), there are hotspots of police activity/harassment in the Amsterdam Houses, a housing project in my old neighborhood of the Upper West Side (perhaps because of its well-off surroundings, the project is much cleaner and safer than your stereotypical public housing complex). Walking though the projects from my apartment building on my way to and from the Lincoln Center subway station, I did notice NYPD vans almost permanently parked on the walkway. Another hotspot was around the campus of Martin Luther King Jr. high school, another mostly minority school across the street from both the opera houses of Lincoln Center and a prestigious arts school.

Other “warm” areas (the stops are so heavily skewed towards Brownsville and Bed-Stuy blocks that most other notable tracts in the city show up as moderate areas by comparison), blocks of Harlem (despite the area being far safer than reputed), and areas in Manhattan Valley (where the gifted middle school I attended shared a building with a—you guessed it—low income minority school). Surprisingly, the area around Bronx Science—the span from the Jerome Avenue Reservoir to Grand Concourse, is the dull shade of beige on the map—representing stop numbers in the mid to low double digits—that most populated areas of the city have. This is despite the not-so-subtly raised fears by many prospective BS parents about the “safety” of the neighborhood. A great map to compare stop/frisk incidences with would be the locations of housing projects in the city. There would likely be a strong correlation.

Jeers: CBS This Morning asks failed military strategist Donald Rumsfeld about military strategy. In the Middle East, no less.

There are too many things wrong with the way this segment turned out.

I tuned in again the past morning to the respectable CBS This Morning, a several month old experiment by the network to create a morning newscast that isn’t full of bullshit. While the program does have strong reports, I was dismayed by an early guest on today’s edition, Donald Rumsfeld. Even worse was the setup; while a picture of his last book was in the studio background, the “peg” for the interview was the situation in Syria. Specifically, what a certain leading western nation should do about the situation there.

My problem is twofold; the fact that he is on television and held up as an expert in the first place mildly disturbs me, but the other is that there was little criticality in the questioning, even on his Syria advice. To use a courtroom analogy, he was treated by the hosts (Charlie Rose and Erica Hill) like a prosecutor would treat a bland but vital prosecution witness in a trial (an upstanding family doctor, perhaps), when he should have been treated like the defendant him/herself. Sure, I don’t expect a whole Anderson Cooper style Keeping Them Honest segment badgering him on Iraq WMD intelligence, or them to go all Frost/Nixon on him, but at least recognize that even as a military strategist Rumsfeld’s Iraq record should discredit him alone, let alone the plausible claims of the invasion being illegal under international/UN law.

Final thought: Syria rhetoric and the west as savior.

I leave for today with some more thoughts on Syria. I’m not a foreign policy expert, which is why this blog wisely talks about it only through the lens of media coverage. That said, I am struck by the sort of rhetoric we keep hearing on the subject. That we “can’t stand by” while innocents are massacred/slaughtered (it’s always those words). Here is former presidential candidate and Republican foreign policy mainstay John McCain saying that in as many words on CNN several months ago.

This is staggeringly awful logic. The fact that bad things are happening in the world does not compel America, or anyone in the west, to do anything at all that “our” own interests do not also force us to do. This whole “we have to save them” logic is, if one takes it to the reductio ad absurdum, a modern version of the “White Man’s Burden”, to a “t”. Let’s just think about all of the bad things in the world that have happened where the west was content to issue declarations and diplomatic cudgels but not use military force—there are too many to count, though it is instructive what the earlier mentioned senator had to say about the situation in the Cote d’Ivoire last year. I’ll spare you a full summary, but this was one in which the US intervened diplomatically and the French—the West African nation’s former colonial occupant—only bothered to use force when they remembered that they had their own citizens under threat in the country. That interview was several months after the crisis began, and he told Howard Kurtz of Newsweek/Daily Beast last year that:

“While McCain opposed the U.S. military actions in Lebanon and Somalia, he is sympathetic to humanitarian missions—and would even consider sending troops to the war-torn Ivory Coast if someone could ‘tell me how we stop what’s going on.’”  

(emphasis very much my own)

I flag this passage for two reasons—and it proves my point twofold. First it shows that US military actions motivated by humanitarian reasons are not always considered worth supporting by those who tend to champion them. That proves my “willing to allow terrible things to happen” point. But more importantly, McCain’s lack of knowledge on “how we stop” strife in the Ivory Coast goes to a deeper problem with western “humanitarian” interventions. It’s that if western leaders do not know what they are doing (or have a cadre of intelligence analysts who are on the ball), they inevitably make the situation worse. Again, too many places for me to discuss here, such as arming a certain Afghan unit of Mujahedeen a few decades ago.

So go on cable news and stir the pot for Syria intervention if you must, but don’t tell us we can’t sit by. The west is more than willing to sit by in many instances, and even interventions that are truly motivated by the best of intentions tend to make things worse when the commanders have not done their research.

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The ratings at the network have not stood as tall as this logo for quite a few years.

In which your writer thinks about how to make watching (American) CNN a non-masochistic endeavor.

This time last year CNN seemed like it was finally awaking from its decade-long ratings doldrums. The first half of the year was punctuated by many of the journalistic set-pieces that make cable news worth watching. From the uprising in Egypt, to the western intervention in Libya, the tsunami in Japan and the rather out-of-the-blue killing of Osama Bin Laden, the months were full of bold transitional graphics (“EGYPT UPRISING”, “TARGET LIBYA”, “LIBIYA WAR”, “BATTLE FOR TRIPOLI”, etc.), “BREAKING NEWS” markers that were actually justified, and plenty of reports from international correspondents not normally seen by American audiences of the channel.

One can tell CNN considered the Libya conflict an important topic by the size of the font here.

Reports were that CNN had turned a corner. I remember catching a story on NPR about the rejuvenation expected at the network under the new news chief, Mark Whitaker. There was talk about how CNN’s newsgathering muscle was on display covering the upheaval in the Middle East,  and Fareed Zakaria, host of what easily is the best program on CNN (Fareed Zakaria GPS) spoke about how he saw CNN improving:

“CNN is getting smarter, and you can feel it in the stories,” Zakaria says. “You can feel it in the depth with which they’re covered, the kinds of people in terms of guests who are brought on air, the ways in which issues are discussed.”

But then the year of news passed, and the improvement in CNN’s news coverage passed along with it. Much as I hoped the CNN commentator was noticing a real improvement, the channel has reverted back to its tendency to cover bullshit (or cover actually important news events through an idiotic prism). This Monday I was flipping channels when I caught a segment on a guest-hosted edition of Erin Burnett’s program in which noted rocker and reality TV star Gene Simmons was brought on for political analysis. Needless to say the remote continued to flip.

Fast forward to this year. Another month of low ratings (and an apparent 20-year low) has brought forth more handwringing, and more pleas from executives that a new course will be charted.

What to do about this? 

I would argue that  CNN should take those words seriously. At this point, perhaps the only thing the channel should do is give up in trying to beat Fox and MSNBC. To this end, the bosses at Time Warner would do well to cut back on CNN/US as a separate channel and turn the CNN slot on our cable systems into a semi-simulcast of CNN International.

Let me flesh that out a bit. CNN should still have a few hours of content specifically targeted at American audiences; keep a morning show, keep some of the primetime lineup (much of which is already simulcast internationally), and keep the Sunday morning programs (especially GPS and Reliable Sources). The real payoff of dumping most of the American CNN schedule is losing the mediocre off-peak programming, most of which is branded under the CNN Newsroom banner.

Many of the editions of the rolling new program consist of arguments between partisan talking heads, “in-depth” analysis of the latest piece of political flotsam (“What does this comment by Mitt Romney’s deputy Alaska campaign manager mean for the presidential race?”), and segments that are very clearly time fillers. If you look closely, one may notice that most of the CNN segments that are held up by late night comedians like Jon Stewart for mockery] come from this mid-afternoon wasteland.  Also get rid of The Situation Room. The program would be alright were it not for its air of manufactured urgency. In fairness, a program that titles itself after the White House’s center for managing worldwide emergencies probably has that built in.

CNN has more staff then if MSNBC and Fox News combined their entire payroll. Twice over. There is truly no excuse for CNN to waste time telling us what’s going on in the Twitter-verse. (stats from an FCC report)

As Fareed said in the earlier mentioned NPR story, CNN should see its competitors as outlets like the New York Times, NPR, and the BBC. That CNN already exists. Looking at CNN International, which directly competes with both Al Jazeera English and BBC World News (and predates even the latter in international broadcasting by nearly a decade) shows a channel that actually puts the superior international newsgathering infrastructure of CNN to work. Programs on the channel include a daily business program entirely devoted to the BRIC emerging markets, Christiane Amanpour’s interview program, and 3 weekly feature programs focusing on the African continent (almost certainly an hour and 15 minutes more than all three American cable channels devote to the continent on a weekly basis). The channel is not perfect by any means, but it stands head and shoulders above the US version.

Look at the difference in international newsgathering ability. CNN has bureaus in places the average person probably couldn’t point to on a map. (from the same FCC report as above)

Aside from incorporating a true international focus, CNN should improve its political coverage of the United States. During primetime, instead of interminable arguments between party “strategists”, perhaps have reports on the ground of battleground states, and in addition to talking to voters, perhaps do more stories on the issues of the campaign—the actual issues, not the issues through the lens of gaffe-type comments by campaign surrogates. Perhaps the channel could have a program covering political races locally, a compilation of reports on battleground races from CNN’s large network of affiliate stations. And, of course, try to do something about the “leave it there” problem. In the situations when you must have talking heads on, at least have the producers do deeper research and call them out on false talking points. The fact that they don’t perhaps indicates that even the producers see these segments as time-filler in the program.

I’m not delusional about cable news. It’s never going to be NPR on TV, for example, and the medium kind of lends itself to the things we all hate about the 24 hour news cycle—hyping non-stories, an emphasis on creating “moments” rather than journalism, but the cable news network, at its best, is capable of using its larger news-hole to illuminate a wide range of global stories in an easily digestible format. 

The “Retired General” as cable news fixture; Is it high time for a counterbalance? (from the New York Times)

In which a tweet gets this writer thinking.

Yesterday I was looking through my Twitter feed, when I noticed a tweet from Peter Hart, “Activism Director” of the left wing/progressive media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). I don’t always agree with their conclusions, or the worldview that underpins their criticism, but their narrative on the media is substantially closer to reality than that of right wing media watch groups. Mainstream journalists would do well to pay more attention to FAIR’s commentary than to live in constant fear of their right flank.

But I digress. The tweet itself was one fuming at ABC’s hiring of more retired generals to provide military analysis. This is what he wrote:

Peter Hart of media watchdog FAIR seems here to be very impressed with the credentials of ABC’s new hires.

This got me thinking; obviously the tweet was in jest, but what if networks had peace correspondents? What would they report on? Do some outlets already have such a beat? Here, first, are a few visions of what a “peace” correspondent would be?

One direction the beat could take is a focus on diplomacy and statecraft; looking at how states solve conflicts aside from war, and counteracting the phenomenon of “mainstreaming war” by portraying diplomacy as it actually is; the primary means of resolving international conflict and not simply foreplay to military action.

Another direction would be, and I think this is where Peter Hart would lean more towards, is coverage that emphasized the “human impact” of war. If we look back to the massive intelligence community and American media fuck-up that was the buildup to (and in the case of the media, initial months of) the Iraq war, we can see that the ubiquitous presence of retired generals on television led to skewed views of the probability of conflict, the case for war, and the ease of war. The video below is of a PBS Newshour (then the The Newshour With Jim Lehrer) report on the practice, pivoting off of this infamous New York Times expose of the Pentagon’s use of retired generals to influence public perception of the impending invasion.

Even worse, even if the information they were given wasn’t being slyly manipulated by the Pentagon, this military based frame does ignore the on the ground effects of military action. Here is another clip detailing the overreliance of cable heavyweight CNN, specifically, on military analysts.

A peace correspondent, then, would be a counterweight to that, presenting stories of the country that was to be attacked, humanizing the “other side,” if you will, and shedding light on the nuance of the politics of the region. Even looking at last year’s Libya intervention, we can see that most of the initial coverage was—admittely cool looking—shots of cruise missiles flying off of military ships and warplanes zooming off carriers. The imbalance between such, to be blunt, gung-ho coverage and more nuanced analysis of the consequences of intervention in the region, to the Libyan people, and such was so severe that it gained notice from establishment media critics. Below is Howard Kurtz criticizing this problem on his CNN program during the start of the bombing last year:

Perhaps the third direction is straight beat coverage of peace movements; following antiwar activists, covering antiwar protests, and the like. Arguably, a “dissent” correspondent would be good here, a correspondent who specifically was tasked to cover grassroots movements on the ground, and give the perspectives of protesters. This is an interesting idea that I might explore in another post.

So with those 3 visions set out, I wanted to take this further and look at whether media around the world (I’m going to limit this to English language, non “alternative” media) have correspondents filling any of these sorts of roles. The first vision, diplomacy correspondents, are more or less standard fare at more internationally aware media outlets. CNN has a UN correspondent , NPR has numerous foreign correspondents but apparently not one assigned to covering diplomatic matters, the New York Times has a DC based “diplomacy” correspondent , Al Jazeera has several correspondents with diplomatic reporting experience,  and the Washington Post  has their own diplomacy correspondent.

In terms of the second vision, I thought the first place to look would be The Guardian. As a publication that tends to look at the world from the sort of left wing prism as FAIR, I thought this would be a nice place to see such a concept at work. The Guardian does have a diplomatic editor, but no “peace” correspondent. Looking at other outlets, there is one I came across in looking up sources for this called the Peace Reporter. Funded by an Italian NGO providing medical assistance to war victims, the site claims to want to present the human side of war in an aim to prevent conflict.

So to conclude, should media organizations have peace correspondents? I would argue the term is less a real idea and more a sort of rhetorical peg to get one to think about the generally pro-conflict orientation of the media. For reasons I’ll explore in another post, I don’t think the media is pro conflict because they are ideologically right wing. Not at all; in fact the media seems to take this approach because they simply have a bias towards novelty, towards conflict, towards excitement. And as anyone who has picked up a copy of Civilization or Rise of Nations has probably experienced firsthand, where’s the fun in a peaceful victory?

Of course, the problem is when this mindset is applied to conflicts in which real people can and do die.

NJ Transit logo.

Here is the response NJ Transit sent today to the concerns I raised in a previous post.

Dear Abraham,
We are replying to your feedback of 5/18/2012 regarding subject: Bus System ease of use. We are pleased to hear that your travel on our No. 92 Line was satisfactory, thank you for sharing that information. NJ TRANSIT operates approximately 260 bus routes. Along with these bus routes there are over 15,000 bus stops and 2,000 bus shelters. We have not been able to produce a map of our bus system, on a manageable scale that will show a meaningful level of detail for our customers. We do provide the individual bus route map on each bus schedule, county bubble maps and online route information. There are a number of systems to help you with travel such as Google Maps and our online itinerary planner. Please also be advised that a number of counties throughout New Jersey produce a transportation guide for their area (please contact the county for information).Thank you for alerting us that Bus Stop #17228 does not list the No. 92 Line, I will notify the bus stop program manager. Please remember that our Transit Information Center operators are available to assist you with route, schedule and fare information daily, 7AM to 7PM, telephone (973) 275-5555. We believe pre-planning before travel generally produces a much more satisfactory travel experience.NJ TRANSIT looks forward to serve your transportation needs.
Sincerely,

[Employee name]
NJ TRANSIT Customer Service Team

Is the third time the charm for this series?

In which I consider the latest attempt to revive the city building genre. 

I’m not much of a gamer, but I occasionally will be peppering this blog with reviews of games I come across. Mostly because this is much easier than complaining about the media all the time. Or transportation. 

Last week I picked up the latest iteration of the relatively unknown city building series, Cities XL. The original version of the game was initially met with hope by the city-building community, as it was announced on the heels of Sim City Societies, a game universally panned in the city-building community for a lack of realism and its “too easy” game play. XL was seen as an attempt to create a realistic city construction experience. But then it was rushed to release with a badly constructed Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) aspect and with a lack of crucial features. The community revolted again.

Several years and a further two versions later, the game has finally come to a finished state; the MMO project was aborted, and features like public transit options that were missing from the first version were added. The game has also managed to cultivate a community of custom content creation, further extending its replay value.

The globe view is a pretty ill graphical representation, so to speak.

I began the game as someone with experience playing several of the Sim City games, most recently Sim City 4. As a result, much of my review will be framed, for better or for worse, in terms of comparing the two games. As I turned on the game, I did appreciate the laying out of the cities on a globe. Doesn’t really affect the game play, but it looks cool.

The first thing you notice when starting up the city is the stark difference in interface. The familiar RCI graph from the Sim City games is gone (more on that later) and there is no minimap to make shifting around the city map easy (which is just as well as the plots in CXL are massive). The graphics are pretty good, certainly a step up from Sim City

The “Sim City 4” economic graph at its most complex.

Now for the economics of the game. The “residential” zones are divided into four wealth groups; unskilled and skilled workers, executives, and elites, which roughly correspond to Sim City’s three wealth groups of lower, middle, and upper income. This, however, is where the similarity ends. The next zoning group is “industry”, which covers “food industry”, “heavy industry”, “manufacturing”, “high tech”, and “offices”. Several of these then include four zoning  density levels and an extra slot for “exceptional” buildings. This here is where the more radical break with the Sim City paradigm comes—the first four “industry” zones do correspond with levels of industrial zoning in the SC games, but the “offices” category is basically the bulk of Sim City’s “commercial” zoning category. The third category, “commerce”, includes “retail”, “hotels”, and “leisure”.  I like the fact that “retail” is separated out into a different category and is something residents demand separately, a touch of realism.

The Economic graph of “Cities XL” at its most complex. Keep in mind this is one of two graphs.

To focus more on the economic system of the game, running a successful city is a tighter economic balancing act than in the Sim City games. The concept of resources has been added to the game, so in addition to the city needing water, power, and waste disposal to grow (as in Sim City), Cities XL 2012 adds fuel, food industry, and “leisure” to the mix. In fact, each and every one of the categories of citizens, industry, and commerce, in addition to those basic resources, has to be kept in fine balance with one another for business to grow and for cities to prosper.

The lack of an easily viewed graph of this balance does make this harder to work, but it is managed. The separation of resident wealth levels by zoning, however, I find rather annoying and unrealistic, adding an unnecessary level of complexity that does not reflect the real world. The Sim City games modeled wealth levels of all zones based on “land value”, which in turn was based on other aspects you could control, a more realistic sysyrm. The resident wealth zoning is also what makes dividing the different sections of industrial zoning by wealth unrealistic. Again, what sort of industry is created (in the Sim City) games depended on the education level of the populace and tax incentives. Again, more realistic. As for the third category, commerce, while I do think separating out retail stores (supermarkets, delis) into a new category and zoning that separately is good, one thing I detest about the game’s engine is that citizens demand “leisure” (parks, Ferris wheels, bowling alleys) buildings that the city has to build and maintain. Zoning for private companies makes sense, but not city management. The government providing its citizens such amenities in the real world may smack of the dreaded S-word, but the game was originally developed in France, after all.

Bus routes radiating from a depot in the game.

I both like and dislike the way transit is done in Cities XL. I dislike the fact that you can’t build roads or civic buildings (overwrite, essentially) over previously zoned private buildings, meaning that instead of dragging a higher capacity road over the current congested one, you first need to demolish the surrounding buildings. In Sim City, this was done as you put the new road or civic building in place. Not a huge problem, but inconvenient. What I do like is how public transport is dealt with. Instead of placing bus stops randomly, Cities XL introduces the concept of bus terminals, from which bus routes must begin and end. Between, the player lays out stops on streets, creating routes. The subway building system is slightly more annoying, as the tracks are auto-constructed as you lay out stations, but this is still more realistic than the treatment in Sim City 4.

“Over-abstraction”, case in point; instead of portraying levels of crime, the graph instead presents a level of “satisfaction” with the “security”, presuming that the service exists in a vacuum divorced from the negative effect it is designed to combat.

However, while the economic system in the game is at once complex, it is also oversimplified. This brings me to another aspect of the game I’m not much of a fan of; what I will call its tendency towards over-abstraction. Let me explain; all of the resources I mentioned earlier, for example, are presented not as any sort of tangible unit (pounds, kilos, ton(ne)s, etc.), but as “tokens”. These “tokens” can be traded between cities, but it’s very vague where they leave and come in. “electricity” and “water” (and “fuel” for that matter) magically get to buildings, with no pipes or wires needing to be laid. Perhaps the most egregious is the treatment of government service buildings and amenities. There are no quantifiable graphs or maps showing educational or health attainment, or of crime levels and fire hazard. Instead, the nebulous metric of satisfaction is used (e.g. education, security, fire rescue satisfaction), overlaid on a map. This, to me, seems like a cop-out from attempting to give the player more realistic data on the effects of these services. However, credit must be given for ditching the arbitrary circle-shaped coverage area of Sim City 4 and replacing it with a road-based coverage reach. That said, even the passage of time in the game is not measured in any actual units of time, but in “ticks” of a tiny circle in the panel. These ticks, of course, create the paradox of  representing the endless passage of frozen time.

In sum, Cities XL is a good enough game and custom content does fix some of the problems I pointed out, but it is in some ways lacking. Still, it is a respectable effort to follow in the footsteps of the Sim City series. Of course, with a new iteration of the venerable series set to release early next year, this is the perfect way to pass the time until then.

Final Focus

Graphics: 7/10- pretty good, mostly realistic buildings and vehicles, but all of the citizens in the game seem like they were drawn by one of those caricature artists that dot the tourist sections of Central Park and 5th Avenue like a plague.

Gameplay: 6/10- good efforts to break from the Sim City economic paradigm, but not executed in the best manner

Replay Value: 6.5/10- from having developed several plots already, I can say that the game is predictable enough once you realize how the economic system works. Still, the building and trading is engaging inanof itself.

Overall: 7/10- the problems with the economic system can easily be overlooked, and the game can be enjoyed on its own terms. I did get a chance to play the pre-release beta of the original Cities XL and I can say that the latest version is significantly improved. If you’re a fan of the genre, Cities XL 2012 is worth the buy (unlike the original), but expect to have frequent feelings of longing for aspects of Sim City 4 as you play. Also: no disasters. 

Taking this is a much bigger pain than it has to be.

In which your blogger marvels at the awfulness of the New Jersey bus system.

As those of you who I regularly communicate with probably know by now, several months ago my parents moved to New Jersey, which of course means my permanent address moved across the river with them. We now live in the fairly affluent enclave of Glen Ridge, a comparatively small municipality sandwiched between the larger towns of Montclair and Bloomfield. While Glen Ridge itself is constructed in a manner that actually allows for walking to things, including the town’s train station, the same can’t be said for most parts of this state.

Which is where I begin the story. Today I had a job interview in an area further to the west of the state, in a town along another rail line. One of the side effects of growing up in Manhattan was that the ease of a car-free, transit based lifestyle meant I never got around to getting a learner’s permit, let alone a full license. That came back to bite in the proverbial backside this morning.

The trouble began before I left home. After getting the Google directions via transit to the interview location, I went to the NJ Transit website to consult the bus map. Alas, but there is not one. While the agency does publish schedules for individual lines, there is actually no official map of the entire system. Hopefully you live in a municipality that produces one of their own, or are adventurous enough to search for one of the unofficial maps that dot the internet. This proved not to be too large of a problem as the directions indicated exactly which bus to take.

After walking the half mile from my home to the bus stop in Bloomfield (Glen Ridge—in my limited experience—seems very much like the sort of town that would formally protest the placement of too many bus stops within its municipal borders), I was momentarily worried when I noticed the bus stop did not have marked on the sign the bus I was supposed to take, the #92. The crossing guards who happened to be standing near the stop reassured me that reality differed from what the sign was claiming. She also helpfully advised that I should stick my arm out when I saw the bus (similar to the classic New York taxi hailing gesture), lest the driver mistake me for someone who just happened to be standing patiently next to a bus stop, instead of someone who actually wanted to board the bus.

You better have done your research before getting here. (Bus stop on Glenwood Avenue in Bloomfield, Essex County, New Jersey)

This brings me to the other shortcoming of the NJ Transit bus system; there was no schedule posted at the stop (as with many NJT bus stops). Instead, there was a number, another number, and directions to text one of those jumbled digits to the other jumble of digits to get the next scheduled bus arrivals. And then hope that other forces didn’t intervene to make those scheduled times meaningless. While I will admit that this service worked as advertised, the lack of a printed schedule only adds to the impermanence of the stop and service. (this is actually, according to transit planners, very important to public perception and usage of bus systems)

Eventually, I saw the bus I had to take and stuck my arm out. The bus wheeled sharply to the curb and the doors whizzed open. The bus accelerated just as sharply, disrupting my attempt to extract the exact change the system demanded. Used I was to the relatively simple 1-fare, Metrocard or coin system of New York City’s bus system, I instead had to recall the fare structure for my ride (luckily I checked this before leaving), then feed the box the amount for two zones. To their credit, the NJT fare boxes accept dollar bills, a practice the MTA dispensed with decades ago.

The bus continued along its route, winding through the streets of Bloomfield, then through the progressively sketchier streets of Orange and South Orange. Due the earlier-mentioned lack of a bus map, and the fact that the timetables NJT does provide portray the bus route as an abstract line intersecting other vertical nubs at irregular distances, I had to constantly check my directional printout as the bus approached each stop, trying to interpolate the geometry of the streets I was traveling along to the mini-map on my sheet that indicated where to transfer to the rail line. Doing all of this while dressed in a suit, of course, makes one rather conspicuous. Luckily someone else more familiar with the route dinged the Stop Request tape before I had the chance to overshoot my destination.

While all of that above was only the first leg of a journey that also included navigating a barely-sidewalked highway, I’m focusing on the bus aspect because it is the one that stood out to me as the most problematic (and the most fixable). The problematic part came from the fact that, as I observed, the bus was clearly the primary mode of transport for most of those on it; I saw many lugging heavy strollers with their children onboard, others wearing shirts indicating work at a fast food establishment, and still others flashing the driver Medicare and Medicaid (American government healthcare plans for the old and the poor, respectively) cards for fare discounts. The problems noted above tend to plague suburban bus systems in other regions, and reduce ridership to those who don’t have a choice but to take the bus (page 24).

And now for some simple solutions

So how to fix these problems? First step would probably be to actually draw up a bus map. Presumably New Jersey Transit has the geographic information for the state lying around in one of its offices. They also know where the busses go. Both necessary ingredients for compiling an accurate map satisfied, right there. Second, put a basic schedule on at least some of your stops. New York City introduced the “guide-a-ride” boxes (pictured below; showing schedule, route, and fare info) on bus stop poles back in the 80’s.  It’s not a terribly new innovation. Third, upgrade the fare boxes and develop cards that actually swipe or contact with a reader, thus saving the driver the trouble of manually inputting the age group (child/student/adult/senior), distance (# of fare zones), and mode of payment (exact change/rail pass/bus pass/transfer receipt) of each person boarding the bus. All of that adds to the dwell time, or the amount of time a bus spends parked at a stop boarding instead of actually going somewhere. While a professional transit planner could probably suggest a variety of other changes, these steps above are some of the basics.

Guide-a-Ride: Making bus riding in New York City as easy as basic literacy.

On the map point, New Jersey Transit truly has no excuse. The other major suburban bus operators in the New York area, Bee Line in Westchester County and NICE in Nassau County on Long Island (formerly MTA Long Island Bus) both provide maps.

I emailed a much shorter version of these complaints to NJ Transit. I’ll revisit this post if I get any sort of meaningful response out of the agency. 

UPDATE: Here is their response.

Dear Leader, now in theaters.

In which I give my opinion on a recent comedy film. Spoilers follow, sort of.

Yesterday I managed to catch the rather timely new satire by Sacha Baron Cohen, The Dictator. The timeliness of the film was underscored by the contents of the opening montage; among the clips is what I recognized as Obama’s words before the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC in January. The film is seemingly a send-up of some of the themes that have animated our last decade; terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and even the Arab Spring.

Unlike Cohen’s previous films, The Dictator dispenses with the ambush/fuck around with people aspect that drove the plots of both Borat and Bruno, and this is arguably for the better. First this is simply because the conceit was already wearing old in Bruno, and certainly would have come off as completely stale in this film, but also because the character that holds the plot of The Dictator together, Admiral General Aladeen, works better as a fully scripted character than simply as a 1 sided foil to the shocked reactions of average Americans.

So, to the plot, then. The film begins with Aladeen, the leader of the fictional North African nation of Wadiya, fending off western inspectors concerned about its attempts to develop nuclear weapons (sound familiar?) Aladeen, after being shown the rather incompetent nuclear program, is told that he must speak before the United Nations to avoid the passing of a resolution authorizing western force against Wadiya.

Here I must comment on the excellence of Cohen’s creation, Aladeen. The character, a seeming amalgam of various eccentric autocrats of the past quarter century, from Muammar Gaddafi to Kim-Jong Il and Saddam Hussein. Add to that a dash of the stupidity that Cohen seems to write into all of his characters, and you have the makings of a nice satirical centerpiece.

The same can’t be said for the character of Zoey, the manager of a stereotypical green-hippy commune that Aladeen comes across in New York after becoming the victim of a scheme by a supposedly trustworthy aide. The character comes off more as a foil of Aladeen’s casual racist, anti-Semitic misogyny than as something serving a full-fledged narrative piece in the film.

Despite that, however, what I really like in the film are some of its sharper points of satire, like finding out that all of the people Aladeen ordered executed were actually spared by the executioner, instead ending up in a corner of New York called “Little Wadiya.” Or the film’s treatment of bringing “democracy” to the country; first it’s simply cover for oil companies to exploit the region, then Aladeen seems to actually convert to the virtues of free elections, only to see the vote conducted in a manner that’s anything but free or fair.

That last bit leads me to see the film partly as a satire of the Arab Spring, in addition to its obvious target of middle eastern autocrats. While some parts of the film, true to Cohen’s punch-the-viewer-in-the-face style, are tastelessly crude, The Dictator is still worth the price of admission, if dark, topical satire is the sort of thing you like.

Now if this were a newspaper review, I’d give this film a rating out of 5 stars and give a few notes on content, but this is my own blog so I don’t play that way. Just kidding.

3 out of 5 stars. The Dictator is a Sacha Baron Cohen film that is rated “R”. Taking your pre-teen to see it makes you the bad parent, not the studio the bad actor.

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