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Could Google’s New Mobile Game Make the City Safer?

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By Beth Winegarner
Wednesday, Apr. 10, 2013

On any given night, Golden Gate Park’s Music Concourse is bustling with smartphone-wielding gamers, battling over virtual energy-spewing “portals” on the park’s landmarks.

Unlike the park’s usual complement of crazies, these gamers are playing Google’s new mobile augmented-reality game,Ingress. Although Google won’t divulge just how many Ingress players are in San Francisco, the game was born at the tech giant’s Spear Street office, and the city remains one of Ingress‘ most competitive zones, says John Hanke, vice president of Niantic Labs, the game’s design team.

Niantic includes engineers who created the technology underlying Google Maps, and Ingress is entirely location-based. Fire it up on your phone, and you’ll see a grid of the streets around you, lit up with portals centered on landmarks such as Lotta’s Fountain or Cupid’s Span. Players compete day and night to capture portals for their faction.

As anyone who reads the local papers knows, local thieves are making a pretty steady gig out of snatching smartphones from distracted users’ hands. Mobile-device theft continues to make up about half of all San Francisco robberies, says Sgt. Michael Andraychak with the San Francisco Police Department.

And nothing’s more distracting than a video game, right? But actually, there hasn’t been any spike in cellphone robberies sinceIngress launched last November, Andraychak says. In fact, Bob Lotti, who supervises the city’s park rangers, speculates that a game bringing more people out to San Francisco’s parks and streets could make those places safer.

Hanke agrees. “Our hope was to get people to use public spaces more,” he says. “It’s good for people to use them, and I think they’re safer when people use them.”

When those places are populated, particularly at night, it not only discourages no-goodniks, but people can report any suspicious goings-on, Lotti says. Local Ingress players report feeling no more or less safe when they’re playing than when they’re walking around the city with their phones out of sight — but some have stepped in when they came across a bad scene.

After Dexter Lau watched a nightclub bouncer punch a drunk man to the ground, he stuck around to make sure the man got help. Tom Campbell tried to intervene one night when an inebriated cyclist attempted to bicycle home, and also chased away a fellow Ingress player who had unsafely parked in a bus zone to play.

There are less-savory moments, too, as when meth users harassed Eisar Lipkovitz in portal-rich Clarion Alley and insisted he take a hit with them. Andraychak and Lotti urge players to use the buddy system and keep their eyes peeled for trouble. After all, “not everyone in Golden Gate Park is playing a video game,” Lotti says.

This article originally appeared in the SF Weekly.

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Written by Beth Winegarner

April 10, 2013 at 11:26 PM

Infested BART: Inspection Reports Reveal Serious Pest Problems

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by Beth Winegarner
September 12, 2012

Trying to keep BART stations clean is akin to bailing out the Titanic with a shot glass.

For starters, you’ve got folks using elevators and escalators as their own personal toilets. Then there are the rats and the pigeons, skittering and swooping and excreting willy-nilly. It’s enough to drive a station agent bonkers, as we discovered recently when we examined a stack of station inspection reports.

June 12, 24th Street station: “RAT PROBLEMS MAJOR RAT PROBLEMS.”

June 18: “CAN WE JUST SIMPLY GET SOME MORE RAT TRAPS PLEASE.”

June 19: “RATS RATS RATS.”

June 25: “Greeted this morning by the residential rat. Then a few early morning passengers (older females) were startled (she says it nearly gave her a heart attack) by two (2) rats (not mice). Rats running up down the stairs playing in the plaza (her words).”

June 26: “RATS ARE STILL TAKING OVER THIS STATION”

Twice a day, BART station agents report how well service workers are keeping the concourse, platform, stairs, and conveyances clean. There are 20 separate chores each day, from wiping escalator rails to mopping platforms, says BART spokesman Jim Allison.

Station agents file these reports to provide an objective look at service workers’ performance. But the demands of coping with tense BART customers can leave agents feeling less than copacetic — hence the theatrics, Allison says. “Some are obviously upset about what’s going on at that station, and maybe emotions are running high when they write the reports.”

While investigating BART’s elevator-tinkler woes, SF Weekly requested a month’s worth of inspection reports for San Francisco stations. The results revealed a BART computer glitch preventing 13 days’ worth of inspections being reported (which they fixed once we inadvertently alerted them to it), 22 soiled elevators in the remaining 17 days, and a wildlife population that would pique Jeff Corwin‘s interest.

And it isn’t just the rats.

On June 5, at Powell, the agent reported, “Pigeons are nesting, having babies throughout the station.” There was so much pigeon poop, the report stated, that passengers were slipping around in it.

Throughout the month, agents at Colma station begged for more pigeon-proofing measures, pigeon-dung cleanup, and “DO NOT FEED THE PIGEONS” signs, which are not standard in BART stations. Rats are not an ongoing problem, and when they arise, BART hires an exterminator to set out traps, Allison says. Pigeons, on the other hand, are regular denizens of the transit system, prompting plenty of counter-measures.

“Pigeons are pretty resourceful birds, and they find a ways around a lot of the anti-pigeon measures,” including nets, spikes and barriers, he says. He doubted anti-feeding signs would be added: “There is probably more important information we need to convey to customers.”

This article originally appeared in the SF Weekly.

Written by Beth Winegarner

September 12, 2012 at 11:16 PM

Smartphone thefts give wake-up call

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By Beth Winegarner
Special to the Examiner
April 6, 2012

All over town, folks are tuning out the world and tuning in to their smartphones — playing games, checking email, sending text messages. They’re also making themselves sitting ducks for robbery.

San Francisco thieves stole 180 cellphones in 30 days this year, according to police Chief Greg Suhr. Plenty of those were snatched right out of people’s hands. In the Tenderloin alone, 38 percent of robberies in January and February — where items were stolen directly from a person — were cellphones, said police Sgt. Michael Andraychak.

Most smartphone robberies are crimes of opportunity, where suspects approach suddenly and either snatch the phone or use force and fear to take it, Andraychak said. In late January alone, suspects pulled off four such robberies in Glen Park, according to police reports.

One woman was holding her phone outside a grocery store when a suspect hit her on the back of the head and ran off with the phone. In another case, an 11-year-old boy was using his phone in the Glen Park Branch Library before a suspect followed him into the bathroom and took it from him.

Despite the risk of robbery, Chester Hartsough said he uses his smartphone frequently when he’s out to send text messages or check bus schedules. “I make sure I’m aware of who’s around me,” he said while using his phone to arrange a coffee date with his wife.

“It wouldn’t bother me to have my phone stolen,” Hartsough said. “It would suck, but I wouldn’t be scared or traumatized by it.”

But many victims of cellphone robberies definitely feel traumatized.

Art gallery employee Megan McConnell was waiting for a downtown bus after an exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art when a teenager grabbed her iPhone and ran. She chased him, but wasn’t able to keep up.

“I was angry and totally astonished,” McConnell said. “I got home and felt very violated. When I woke up to an email from my bank saying someone had tried to log in to my account, I felt even more violated.”

Smartphone use is unquestionably on the rise. One-third of adults own a smartphone, according to a 2011 Pew Internet & American Life survey. With that ownership comes increased use, which becomes habit-forming. A 2011 study from the Personal and Ubiquitous Computing journal found that smartphone owners briefly check their phones many times a day, particularly when they’re bored or waiting for something, like a bus.

“I think it’s individual addiction, but also a socially constructed problem,” said Leslie Perlow, author of “Sleeping With Your Smartphone,” due out in May. “When the phone beeps, you want to see what it is. There’s also a sense of feeling important, of being needed.”

Perlow asked 1,600 managers and professionals how they would feel if they lost their phones, and 44 percent said they would experience a “great deal” of anxiety.

To keep people from losing their phones, police recommend that people pay more attention to their surroundings, not use smartphones and other electronics as they walk or use transit, and not use the tell-tale white earphones that come with Apple devices, Andraychak said.

Not everyone heeds that advice. Christina Yu, sitting at a bus stop while wearing white earphones and texting on her phone, didn’t notice a reporter standing inches away from her.

“Yes, smartphone thefts do worry me,” Yu said. “I always make sure to keep my phone in a zippered part of my purse.” But she doesn’t take any precautions when using the phone publicly. “No, I just have it out,” she shrugged.

Tracking software can foil criminals

When a teen stun-gunned a woman in Japantown and stole her belongings, including her smartphone, the device’s GPS technology led police right to the suspect.

San Francisco police frequently attempt to track down stolen phones and other electronics. However, a number of things have to happen before that works — including installing the right software and obtaining cooperation from cellphone makers and service providers.

Liana Lareau had her iPhone snatched from her hands while she was waiting in line at El Farolito on Mission Street. But police couldn’t get it back for her.

“Sadly, I hadn’t activated the ‘Find my iPhone’ feature,” she said. “The police took the serial number, but I didn’t try very hard to follow up on it.”

Phone-tracking software is optional and must be installed by the user before police can take advantage of it in robbery situations. Such programs also let people remotely lock or erase lost or stolen devices, which can keep sensitive data out of robbers’ hands if tracking doesn’t work, according to Jen Martin, an Apple spokeswoman.

“Some phones can be located using GPS technology,” said Dan Newman, a spokesman for AT&T, which offers a secure website where a subscriber can trace a phone’s location on a map.

In addition, if the thief — or the company — turns off the phone, its tracking signals will go silent, foiling police efforts.

“Installing tracking software can be a useful way of following a stolen phone or laptop after the fact,” said police Sgt. Michael Andraychak. “However, our crime-prevention strategy has been one of education, and preventing thefts and robberies to begin with.”

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

April 6, 2012 at 9:43 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

School Lunches: Study Recommends a Joint S.F.-Oakland Kitchen

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by Beth Winegarner
March 7, 2012

San Francisco public school students haven’t eaten fresh-cooked cafeteria food since the Reagan era. In fact, many schools no longer have kitchens; some have no more than a closet-sized room where prepackaged meals are reheated. Sure, there are salad bars in about a quarter of schools, and health-savvy options like brown rice and whole-wheat pasta in others, but most meals served by the San Francisco Unified School District — supplied by Preferred Meal Systems — consist of entrees like waffles, chicken nuggets, pizza, and hamburgers.

Enter the San Francisco Food Bank. Last year, with the SFUSD’s blessing, the food bank commissioned a $180,000 study of the district’s student-nutrition program — a study mostly paid for by ConAgra and the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation. The long-winded, labyrinthine results were delivered privately in December but have not yet been made public.

According to a memo obtained by SF Weekly and authored by Ed Wilkins, SFUSD’s food-service director, the study makes a number of run-of-the-mill suggestions for reducing financial losses, spiffing up drab cafeterias, and serving breakfast in more elementary school classrooms. But it also contains a whopper: SFUSD and Oakland Unified School District should operate a central kitchen where meals for both districts could be cooked from scratch. Wilkins wrote that the Food Bank believes the joint commissary “may provide the best possible combination of flexibility, cultural sensitivity, coverage, and efficiency.”

Many parents support a revival of from-scratch cooking, and some district leaders have long backed the idea of a central kitchen, or something like it. Board of Education member Jill Wynns tells SF Weekly that it might make a good item for future bond funding. But in his memo, Wilkins contests the recommendations — both for a joint kitchen with OUSD, and renovating the district’s own kitchens. He added that the Oakland plan would need “analysis of logistics and political feasibility.” Wynns calls it “a crazy idea” and criticizes the study’s failure to fully analyze the potential costs. And Wilkins himself notes that SFUSD is already exploring the central-kitchen idea at an unnamed school site — and seeking funding to make it happen.

Funding is key, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture only reimburses California schools $2.94 per lunch for the lowest-income kids. SFUSD already loses $3 million a year from its $18.3 million food programs, and paying cooks San Francisco wages could nix the whole thing, according to Wynns. But there’s a payoff: School meals offer “the biggest opportunity to provide critical daily nutrition to hungry and food-insecure children in San Francisco,” says Teri Ollie, associate director of policy and advocacy for the food bank.

If there’s one thing SFUSD and the food bank agree on, it’s the value of being tight-lipped. SFUSD avoided letting us speak directly with Wilkins, and both agencies refused to tell us when the study will go before the school board — and whether it will need to go before Oakland’s, too.

This article originally appeared in the SF Weekly.

Written by Beth Winegarner

March 7, 2012 at 9:41 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Neighbors Weigh In On Lucas’ Big Presidio Move

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Beth Winegarner, Editor

July 5, 2000

George Lucas’ Letterman Digital Center came one step closer to fruition last week as officials from the Presidio Trust and Letterman Digital Arts shared their updated plans for the project at a public hearing.

About 200 neighbors and interested parties attended the meeting to see the designs and share their concerns about the proposal which would move six of Lucas’ Marin-based companies — including Industrial Light & Magic, LucasArts Entertainment, LucasLearning, THX Group, the George Lucas Educational Foundation and Lucas Online — to the former military base in north San Francisco. Currently, these companies are located in various sites in and around San Rafael.

Late last month, Lucas officials revealed an updated version of their designs for the 23-acre site. Many of the changes had been made in response to earlier phases of public comment on the originals, which were first unveiled in the spring of 1999.

“Over the last 13 months, we have been working to enhance the design based on comments from the public,” said Gordon Radley, president of Lucasfilm. “We are interested in continuing to make it the best possible project.”

In August of 1998, the Presidio Trust, which oversees the property, announced that it was seeking proposals for development on the site in the hopes of meeting the government’s requirement that it become financially self-sufficient by 2013. Lucas’ proposal was chosen last year as the preferred alternative for the site, which currently houses the Letterman Hospital, a medical facility which served military personnel and veterans.

Radley prefaced the introduction of the new designs with some caveats about Lucas’ role in developing plans for the Presidio. “Our company is not a developer. We are not coming into this from a real estate perspective. We wanted to come to the Presidio and help build a community here,” he said.

The design was motivated by a desire to make the site as unobtrusive as possible, with underground parking and a huge, publicly accessible “great meadow” which faces nearby neighborhoods. Designers also tried to create structures which blended both with the military structures on the site and the Panama Pacific International Exhibition (PPIE) structures — of which only the Palace of Fine Arts remains — and to preserve views of the Palace of Fine Arts and the Golden Gate Bridge.

“We chose an architectural style that is harmonious to the others on the site,” Radley said. “This is not about ego architecture or making a statement.”

According to Frederick Knapp, the historical architect working on the project, it was a challenge to find designs which would be harmonious with the practicality of the cream-colored, red-roofed military buildings and the “exuberant, playful and eclectic” designs of the PPIE sites — which included Japanese gardens, a French pavilion, and a 400-foot-tall clock tower which was covered with glass tiles which glittered in the breeze.

In complement, the Lucas buildings are slated to be cream-colored or brick with terra cotta roof tiles, and a glass-paneled dining pavilion, for employees only, will be situated at one end of the meadow.

One of the biggest changes was to the meadow, which architects now describe as a “pastoral” setting with rolling hills, trees and wooded areas, footpaths and a creek winding down to a lagoon near the dining pavilion.

“Without getting too poetic, we hope it will create a pastoral journey,” Radley said. “There’s a tradition of going from urbanness to nature in order to find the truth of who you are, and return to the city, bringing back what you’d learned. We wanted to integrate man and nature [with this design] and create a sense of living harmoniously with the world.”

Mixed opinions

Despite Lucas officials’ optimism about the project and the updates made to its design, public comments were mixed regarding the improvements, as well as the plan itself.

Many speakers commended the architects on their design — and on their willingness to let public concerns guide the project. But a number of suggestions and critical comments were also delivered to the group, which said it would reply to all comments in writing by August 15.

Some wanted to be sure the exotic trees — planted by the PPIE designers in the early 1900s — would be saved; others encouraged more native plants in the development. A few were concerned about placing the child care center so close to the entrance and a major intersection; neighbors expressed fears about drunken visitors leaving the public restaurant and making noise on the streets.

One even wanted to know when the first three “Star Wars” movies would be released on DVD.

Holly Simons, an education advocate, suggested that Lucas consider adding an elementary school and high school to the concept in order to provide an educational component to the site.

John Rizzo, chairman of a Sierra Club committee, applauded the architects’ consideration of environmentally friendly design elements, such as circulating fresh air instead of installing air conditioning, but expressed some concerns over how much water would be used to sustain the meadow and creek.

“I’m happy to see that the team has been listening,” said resident Lucia Bogota. But she felt the pastoral meadow was “a little too cute. This is not a frivolous place.”

Many residents said the project created too much of an enclave, with the backs of its buildings to the rest of the park and the meadow protecting it from the nearest public intersection at Gorgas and Lyon Streets.

Tom Sergeant, manager of the Thoreau Center, which houses 40 non-profit organizations on the Presidio, objected to Lucas’ concept of modeling its buildings after the older ones. “This is a historic site. There should be a natural boundary between new and old so people can tell the historic from the new,” he said.

Michael Alexander, a member of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area Advisory Commission, said he was glad to see that architects had made so many improvements to the design. “I expect the third iteration will be improved even more,” he said.

Possible impacts

If all goes according to plan, the first employees would be relocated from their offices scattered across San Rafael to their new workspace in the Presidio by 2003. In all, some 1,500 employees will eventually be moved to the San Francisco site. That situation has caused concern both for employees of the company as well as San Rafael officials who are concerned about filling the void Lucas will leave.

“We fully understand Mr. Lucas’ desire to bring all his companies onto a single campus,” said San Rafael Mayor Al Boro. “[They] have been wonderful corporate neighbors to the community.”

San Rafael City Manager Rod Gould said that while the decision to move the companies to the Presidio would mean an emotional loss for Marin, the move would not be the kind of blow to Marin’s economy that some could make it out to be.

“If Mr. Lucas had asked us to decide whether to move his empire to the San Francisco, we would vote unanimously no. We’ve enjoyed being part of the magic,” Gould said. “What all the commercial realtors tell us is [Lucas’] space is commercially desirable.” In addition, Lucas intends to maintain his headquarters at Skywalker Ranch in Marin.

Even so, some former employees expressed reservations about what the relocation would mean in terms of commute time or moving costs.

“I think it is a good idea to get all of the Lucas companies in one place. It would be much easier to work between the companies, when there aren’t several miles of road between offices,” said Dan Mihoerck, a former hardware and software compatibility technician for LucasArts. “But I am sure that if it came down to it, I would have had to leave the company when the move went through.  The salary I was making would not have paid rent and living expenses for me to live down in San Francisco [and] the commute would have been horrid.”

Marcus Gaines, who also worked as a a hardware and software compatibility technician for LucasArts, said, “I thought that they were alienating a large portion of their workforce — all the ones who lived in the North Bay — by making a long commute even longer. I certainly wasn’t going to commute all the way to San Francisco for the kind of money they were paying. Nor was I going to move to San Francisco since I could barely afford to live in the North Bay on my LucasArts wages.”

“No matter where we moved, it would have affected some of our employees,” Radley said, adding that 25 percent of Lucas employees currently live in San Francisco. “We couldn’t find an appropriate place in Marin for this expansion, and the Presidio was an opportunity we couldn’t resist. But we’ve been working with our employees all along to minimize the effects of the move.”

The Presidio Trust will continue to accept public comment on the site through August 15. Meanwhile, it will continue its lease negotiations with Lucas Digital officials and make plans to demolish the monolithic Letterman Hospital so construction can begin. For more information about the Presidio Trust, including how to submit public comment on the site, visit its web site at http://www.presidiotrust.gov.

This article originally appeared in the San Rafael News Pointer.

Written by Beth Winegarner

July 5, 2000 at 3:41 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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