Sunday, December 30, 2018

Three Billboards blows away the other movies I saw this month

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: This Coen Brothers’ masterpiece had been in my queue for far too long. Finally I got ahold of a copy and watched it at 2 a.m. one night. Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand, not to mention Sam Rockwell, deserves all the award love they received last year for what is probably the filmmaking duo's best effort since The Big Lebowski (Rented from library; 5 out of 5 stars)

Mary Poppins Returns: The original had lots of memorable tunes, but I’m not sure I’ll remember any of these new numbers for long. The performances by Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda are admirable, and there’s a lot of great cinematography, but there’s not nearly enough of a story. (At the movies; 3.5 out of 5 stars)

The Florida Project: I’m pretty much a sucker for anything Willem Dafoe is in. But he’s not really the main focus here. He gets you in the door, but then a bunch of unknown actors play the roles of trailer trash living in a forgotten landscape on the outskirts of Disney World. It's a pretty fascinating look at a way of life, if a bit of an aimless plot. (Rented from library; 3 out of 5 stars)

It Follows: Great music highlights this fairly middling horror flick that tells the story of a girl battling a multi-faced ghost that chases down people who have had sex with her and a string of other unlucky souls. An ok premise but slow pacing doesn’t add to what should be a more suspenseful story. (Netflix; 2.5 out of 5 stars)

Dumplin’: I guess I randomly picked this stinker because I like Jennifer Aniston a lot. This is her worst performance. There are lots of good morals to the story and, as my wife reminds me, "this was not made for a 48-year-old male," but that still doesn’t make up for the deplorable script and bad acting. (Netflix; 1 out of 5 stars)

Friday, December 7, 2018

McDonald’s attracted talent by making its headquarters transit accessible

I wrote this post originally at

CEOs and business leaders could do a lot to improve terrible traffic. Quite a few businesses are starting to understand this concept.
But what’s missing is a sustained, large-scale effort to assure businesses that a focus on improving the transportation habits of their employees is good for their bottom line. Perhaps even better for those CEOs and businesses to hear is the message that getting non-driving customers into the store is a formula for success.
Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council recently released an impressive report down this path entitled Transit Means Business. It features case studies of efforts by McDonald’s, Caterpillar, Bosch, Method, Revolution Brewery, MB Financial, Motorola Solutions, and other businesses and universities throughout Illinois to locate near transit as a way to survive and compete.
McDonald’s had been headquartered in the Chicagoland suburbs for 40 years before making the decision to relocate to the West Loop earlier this year.
“McDonald’s couldn’t get people to apply for jobs anymore. Ninety percent of their employees were driving to work. They moved downtown in May to help people take transit. Now 90 percent of their employees take transit,” said Audrey Wennink, transportation policy and planning director at the MPC, during a roundtable discussion this week at Transportation For America’s Capital Ideas conference in Atlanta.
From the report:
McDonald’s planned only 295 parking spaces in its new building for its 2,500 employees and employees must pay to park. Before the move, employees were encouraged to drive downtown at rush hour one day to experience the commute by car. While before the move only one-third of employees planned to ride transit to work, now more than 90 percent of workers arrive via non-auto modes, mostly Metra and CTA.
And it’s not just companies moving their headquarters to a new, transit-friendly location. Take State Farm Insurance, which closed up tons of small offices across the country to consolidate into bigger spaces near transit in Atlanta and other cities, said Steve Davis, who leads communications for T4A and Smart Growth America.
It remains a mystery why McDonald’s and others have waited so long with their corporate moves. After all, they know their storefronts do really well near transit, so why wouldn’t they consider also placing their headquarters there? According to a former McDonald’s senior director, the consistently top-performing U.S. and international locations are the “Rock & Roll McDonald’s” in downtown Chicago and Moscow’s Pushkin Square. It’s no coincidence that those are extremely transit-friendly places.
To hone in on helping businesses embrace transit-oriented strategies,Wennink said that communicating about “return on investment” hasn’t seemed to resonate; hence, the MPC’s strategy to produce a beautiful, glossy report with real-world business examples of success that others can emulate.
McDonald’s is already attracting larger numbers of high-quality job applicants since its move to the West Loop. Company officials have called its discovery of the wonders of transit “a culture change.”
Photo by Thomas Hawk on Flickr’s Creative Commons. 

Friday, November 16, 2018

What will Amazon mean for Metro riders?

I was quoted in a Washington Post article (it was also the cover story in the Washington Post Express) about Amazon's announcement to open one of its second headquarters in the Washington DC region.
The article about it is excerpted from
A key part of why Amazon, the world’s second trillion-dollar company, chose Crystal City in Arlington, Va., today as a second headquarters location is transportation.
The office-park neighborhood is supported by Metrorail, Metroway (the Washington, DC region’s only bus rapid transit route), plenty of bus routes, and National Airport.
This is a great opportunity for Metro to boost its declining ridership. But with Metro’s sometimes poor reliability and Uber and Lyft’s growing prominence, there’s no guarantee that Amazon employees and their families will choose Metro.
My quote in the article:
“Metro has to make itself really attractive to get [Amazon employees] to choose Metro over any of the other options perhaps people are finding more attractive at this point."
Some observers predict that Amazon will attract high-earning millennials to the DC region. This might not bode well for Metro, as this is the demographic reducing its ridership the most. 
Luckily, there’s a good chance that Amazon will provide unlimited transit passes to employees, as it does for employees at the Seattle headquarters. This strategy is known to both boost transit ridership and increase employee satisfaction.
Yet Amazon’s arrival means that many more people – not just Amazon employees – will be moving to the DC region. For Metro to win those riders too, the agency needs to up its game. That means improving service and making it easier for people to ride Metro, with better signage, real-time information, and marketing.
And for Amazon itself to help improve the quality of transportation options throughout the DC region, it can start by offering its own employees the very best corporate transportation incentives.
Photo of Arlington Cemetary Metro station by Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab. 

Monday, November 12, 2018

A Star is Born comes along as shockingly great

With two little kids, I admittedly don't make it the movie theater to watch adult movies much these days. So I can't make huge pronouncements at the moment about the competition, but I hope A Star is Born sweeps the Academy Awards in a few months.

Bradley Cooper as the aging rock star. Best Actor. Check. Lady Gaga as a genuine person who goes from nothing to the top. Best Actress. Check. All the big players. Best Supporting Roles. Check. Best Picture. Check.

I went to this film thinking I'd like it but that it easily could border on romantic schmaltz. But the story is all there. And the characters are all so real. No gloss whatsoever. And oh the songs, made even better by the fact that Cooper and Gaga wrote them all and performed them often live in front of festival and other audiences. Just incredible. I actually cried during at least four songs. (Here's a good article in Vanity Fair about how Cooper became such a great singer and songwriter.)

Run out and see this before it leaves theaters as quickly as you can.

5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Aretha Franklin made us all feel like a “natural woman”

While reading the always-remarkable music journalist Mikal Gilmore’s remembrance of Aretha Franklin (there is a lot of dirt in the profile, about her nastiness to a lot of people and becoming a mother at age 12 AND 14), I was inspired to watch this performance from late in her career in front of the Obamas at the Kennedy’s Center Awards.

If anyone ever doubted her talent, all it takes is one viewing of this clip.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Kids today are fascinated by 1980s movies

My kids (and many others whose parents have told me so) have been on a real kick of watching movies from my childhood. And I’m not complaining because somehow there are still many that had escaped my viewing back then.

Recently I’ve boosted my movie knowledge by adding Teen Wolf, Uncle Buck, Adventures in Babysitting, and Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead to the list of older movies I’ve seen for the first time with and because of my kids. Heck, I’d never even seen Wayne’s World (excellent, by the way). I let my 5-year-old watch Austin Powers, thinking she would be bored within about two minutes. But she watched the whole thing and now often says “yeah baby” to me in a groooovy British-ish accent.

My 10-year-old and I watched Teen Wolf last night. It’s an awful movie - that we couldn’t take our eyes off. That's probably because Michael J. Fox is so universally lovable. But, like many of those 1980s and 1990s movies, there is a lot of not-so-subtle male misogyny and rape-y culture. Those elements would likely be much tamer today, or at least far more subtle - at least in PG and PG-13 offerings. 

Many of the more politically incorrect movie scenes remind me that kids do crazy things. It's what they do, no matter whether it's the 1980s or the 2010s. Kids are pretty much raised to either know when they’re doing something crazy and be measured about it or to simply have no clue and basically be future candidates for the penitentiary. The good thing about today is that even the ones grooming for prison should know better because of the national conversation happening with #MeToo and Trump and Brett Kavanaugh’s good old boy network. If politics were a movie, those two would be playing the drunken, rapist, pink-sweater-wrapped-around-the-neck jerks at all the parties in 80s movies.

Pop culture note: With his movies, Fox has never topped his legendary TV role as Alex P. Keaton in Family Ties. But my favorite of his films, in order, are Casualties of War, Bright Lights Big City, Back to the Future, and The American President.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Do Uber and Lyft really care about being environmentally sustainable corporations?

In my role as director of Mobility Lab, I got interviewed for this CityLab article. Here are some tidbits:

For Paul Mackie, director of communication and research at Mobility Lab, which studies transportation behavior and policy, the announcements are another sign of how these companies are adopting roles as “societal partners” rather than just ride-hailing services—ones that can change the way public transit is marketed to the masses. In moving into the bike- and scooter-sharing markets, Uber and Lyft are also encouraging more people to ponder driving alternatives, and making it easier for them to change their behavior.

Lyft’s campaign resembles the new subscription service the firm is experimenting with in Salt Lake City, in which participants pay a flat $200 every month for 30 rides. But by integrating bikeshare and public transit, Lyft’s “Ditch Your Car” initiative goes one step further, potentially demonstrating how public transit agencies could benefit from a new payment model. “You think of these other smart industries—like Netflix or food recipe subscriptions—those are working and it's showing that it's what people want,” Mackie said. “Why is public transit so slow to have that model?”

 ... “It would be naive for anyone to think that Uber and Lyft aren't thinking about what’s best for their bottom line,” said Mackie. The two companies also want a seat at the policy-making table, with both ramping up their lobbying spending over the last few years. (Uber’s backing of congestion pricing, as CityLab previously reported, could be a win-win for both company and city.) Uber is still scrubbing its brand after the multiple scandals associated with former CEO Travis Kalanick, while its smaller competitor Lyft is sticking with its famous “better boyfriend” strategy, donating to the ACLU and giving voters free rides to the polls.

But the companies are still leaving out the one thing cities really want: data. Uber’s gift to SharedStreets may be a gesture toward handing over more of this precious resource, and Mackie thinks this could be another win-win for both sides. “Cities have curb space and parking—things that could really help Uber and Lyft,” he said. “We like to think that if they did share their data, then the governments can work with them to make cities much nicer working grounds.”

 And Mackie also credits Uber and Lyft with encouraging more people to consider sustainable transit options. Despite the rise of ride-hailing, Americans are largely still holding on to their private cars, and the concept of shared mobility remains novel to many.  “So it’s another thing to be a bit of cheerleader for Uber and Lyft because we want them to incorporate this sharing mindset in all of us,” he said. “It’s a noble experiment in behavioral change.”

E-bikes: An exciting alternative

This article originally appeared in the Sierra Club's newsletter.

It’s too early to tell if electric bicycles hold the secret to grand pronouncements such as “the
future of transportation.” But there’s definitely something interesting happening.

Anecdotally, I researched e-bikes for years before I felt comfortable enough to buy one as a
way to improve my mobility options in a ridiculously congested place like the Washington D.C.
region. There weren’t enough retailers who would also be able to make necessary repairs,
something this is more complicated than with traditional bicycles. The battery technology
wasn’t good enough to carry a charge decent enough to get back-and-forth across the city.

The first e-bike I bought ended up being too difficult to get repaired and I returned it,
thankfully (after lots of headaches), for a full refund from the German company, with a
California wholesaler and a D.C. retailer.

But earlier this year I tried again. After test riding many e-bikes and researching online (and,
despite the excellent Electric Bike Reviews site, with so many manufacturers and models, it’s
still an intimidating purchase decision), I purchased an excellent Magnum Metro from Hybrid
Pedals in Arlington, Va.

I’ve never met anyone who didn’t agree that, after riding an e-bike, it changed their life. The
problem is that so few people have actually ridden e-bikes. The U.S. market grew by 25
percent in 2017, to 263,000 e-bikes sold. At that rate, it will take a long time to make much of a
dent in the still-small percentage of people who bike for utilitarian purposes like getting to
work, going to eat, or meeting friends.

Some of the good news is that new and trendy options like Uber, Lyft, e-scooter shares,
dockless bikeshares, and soon autonomous shuttles may slowly be getting people out of their
century-long drive-alone mindset. In an increasingly crowded and polluted world, e-bikes could
play a valuable role in being a gateway to switch from this bad habit to these healthier, more
sustainable, more affordable, and just plain fun choices.

If all bikes today - every single bicycle in the entire world - were suddenly thrown away and
replaced with e-bikes, that wouldn’t be good for the environment. Obviously.
But e-bikes are good for the environment in a somewhat surprising way: because riding an ebike
is less physically demanding than a regular bike, making it easier to climb hills and go
longer distances, people might ditch cars for e-bikes.

Sounds far-fetched, but research says otherwise. An extensive survey of more than 1,800 ebike
users in the United States by the National Institute of Transportation and Communities
earlier this year found that most participants switched to e-bikes to reduce car use.

“What stood out, however, is how many motives involved eliminating driving hassles,”
Bicycling’s Selene Yeager wrote of the study. “Twenty-eight percent of respondents said they
bought an e-bike specifically to replace car trips. Others pointed to craving a more car-free
lifestyle, such as using e-bikes to carry cargo or kids, avoid parking and traffic woes, be more
environmentally minded, and have a more cost-effective form of transportation.”

But Americans are buying e-bikes at much lower rates than people in China and Europe. In fact,
the Wall Street Journal quoted a transit expert in 2016 claiming that 60 percent of all battery
production in China was for e-bikes. That’s a lot of batteries.

So how can we fix this? We can educate people on the benefits of e-bikes (and make sure they
know that riding an e-bike is still good for your health). We can advocate for better bike
infrastructure, which is proven to increase rates of bicycling across the board.

The research holds for me personally as well. I definitely bought my e-bike to maneuver more
easily and efficiently through D.C.’s stressful traffic. My car trips have gone way down, and
now my 17-mile roundtrip work commute is often the best part of my day.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Cord cutting my cable gives me unlimited TV options this fall

Some might think my recent decision to get rid of cable TV for the first time ever is crazy in the midst of the peak-TV era. But I'm super excited to watch as much TV as ever with my simple cord-cutting strategy.

I've got Amazon Prime, Netflix, Sling TV, YouTube, and MLB on my Roku and get to spend about $100 less than I was with Verizon Fios, which I basically never watched and had a big pile of junk on my DVR that I always felt obliged to watch.

After trying a few other apps, Sling TV is clearly the best. I'm paying $45 a month for the channels I want to watch and even have 50 hours of cloud DVR included. And maybe the best thing about Sling compared to cable is that I can watch live or recorded TV anywhere on any of my devices.

Here are some shows I hope to catch this fall and where I'll watch them:

Netflix brings continuing tales like Ozark, and new shows like Maniac, which stars Emma Stone and Justin Theroux in a drug trial gone wrong. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina sounds intriguing as a bit of spinoff from Riverdale and starring Mad Men's Kiernan Shipka as the protagonist.

Amazon's new Forever, starring Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph is being billed as a must-see take on a faltering relationship. And The Romanoffs is producer Matthew Weiner's first return to TV since Mad Men.

Viceland on Sling has The Hunt for the Trump Tapes, with Tom Arnold searching journalist-style for at least a handful of Trump's pre-presidential idiocies. I can't imagine The Cool Kids could be good, but it is co-created by It's Always Sunny's hilarious Charlie Day and I can watch Fox on Sling. I'll probably also continue to give The Good Place a shot on Sling's NBC.

Once the football, college basketball, and baseball seasons end and I can switch up my sports-heavy Sling subscription (you can change it around anytime rather than being locked into a cable contract), I'll subscribe through Sling to Showtime. Jim Carrey is being hyped as a return-to-form Mister Rogers type in Kidding. And Escape at Dannemora, about the recent prison break in upstate New York, looks like true-crime fun.

I might have to splurge for the HBO app at some point too. Not that Lena Dunham's new Camping is the thing that will break me towards doing it, but it won't hurt either.

And of course, like any good cord cutter, I bought an antenna for $20, which allows me to watch the two "networks" I don't get through Sling TV, CBS and PBS. Can't think of a reason besides football that I would ever watch CBS, but the Native America documentary on PBS could help me put that antenna to use.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Stop signs can help us make the world a better place

Originally published at

Americans can take action to slow the decline of civil society simply by focusing on the ubiquitous stop sign.
If you’ve ever ridden a bicycle on city streets, you recognize that there are a ton of people driving while texting. It’s easy to see because a person on a bike can easily see down into people’s cars.
If you’re walking, you know how often people driving won’t stop for you in clearly-marked crosswalks. They either don’t notice you or don’t care, feeling smugly protected in their cages.
Meanwhile, everyone in cars sees people on bikes and foot doing things we deem as reckless (zipping in and out of traffic or not watching what’s in front of them on the sidewalk).
This all fits into a fascinating little brief commentary in the Glendale (Calif.) News-Press that horrifyingly documents the war zone that exists in the vicinity of stop signs.
Do you stop at stop signs? So few drivers do that Glendale posted temporary electronic signs informing drivers to “stop at stop signs.” What’s next: “breathe in and out”?
The other day I pulled up to [a four-way] intersection. Cars were at each of the four stop signs.
To my left was a car making a left turn. The next driver to go was supposed to be me. Just as I released my brake ready to enter the intersection, the car immediately behind the one that made the turn quickly followed right behind so closely that it appeared one car was towing the other.
It was one of those eye-popping “did that just happen” moments. There were at least five other drivers who witnessed that illegal and highly dangerous maneuver.
What was going through the mind of that man behind the wheel? Obviously, he did not give a whit about the rules of the road and was determined to shave off a few seconds from his commute — to hell with everybody else.
In what little research that exists on the matter, there is no correlation between getting moving violations and changing one’s driving habits.
The author goes on to make the suggestion that parents and school systems need to do a better of teaching the increasingly lost art of social responsibilities. Schools are definitely cutting funding for driver’s ed.
That’s one problem. It’s also a sure sign that, if there’s not as much education about how to drive as part of the rules of the road, there is almost certainly not much teaching going on about how young people should operate in an increasingly multimodal society.
Since police forces no longer put much time into ticketing people who run stop signs, one transportation demand management offshoot strategy is to petition local governments for street-calming measures such as speed humps, traffic circles, bike lanes (or, better yet, protected bike lanes), wider sidewalks (or, in many cases, any sidewalks), and many others.
On a hyper-local level, I’m leading a neighborhood charge in my city of Takoma Park, Md. Even though my street already has a nice sidewalk and stop signs that aren’t too far apart, we have noticed more and more of exactly what the journalist in Glendale details. Despite the high prevalence of kids playing and people walking, drivers constantly blow through the stop signs in front of our house. They seemingly don’t care or have lost the muscle memory be able to stop in the name of either the law or human decency.
All my crusade will take is 2/3 of the households on my block and the two adjacent blocks to agree to get the city to install a speed hump in front of my house. That equates to 12 households, which seems like a pretty easy task in the name of perhaps saving the lives of the kids on our street.
Even if my petition fails to get the required signatures, at the very least, I’ve informed my neighbors about the research that shows speed humps are a valuable addition to our transportation spaces.
As always, so much of TDM’s success hinges on getting infrastructure to adapt to new trends. Steps like my petition for speed humps is a perfect example of the importance of TDM, also known as transportation education.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Living better often means having calmer mobility options

Originally published at Mobility Lab.

It’s great when journalists dig down deeper into the core, fundamental meaning of the issues.
Alex Marshall of GOVERNING does a commendable job of digging deeper down into the word “mobility.” It is an imperfect word, but it actually gets about as close as possible to defining the way people move around.
Despite not giving an explanation as to why he finds the word mobility “pretentious,” the article lands on some pretty insightful conclusions, including this one, which begs to become a tagline for one of the gazillion new mobility startups:
Sometimes the slower you move, the farther you get.
He points out the communities with all the amenities located in a dense space, like his in Brooklyn, N.Y., have a good thing going, and that avoiding most instances of needing to get in a car (except when you just need that refreshing Sunday drive) creates a much better, happier standard of living.
Then he quotes me:
Paul Mackie … points out that we all have different spheres of mobility – including our neighborhood, our city, our region and the world beyond – and they vary in quality. “In your Brooklyn example, you might have great access to everything by foot in your walkable neighborhood, but your ability to access your doctor on the Upper West Side is limited because driving in the city is difficult and the subways are delayed,” he wrote in an email.
Although I find the term “mobility” pretentious, it may have come into favor because it takes in other options besides personal driving for getting around. And having more ways to travel improves your mobility, by my scorecard. “The mobility mix is getting really interesting now with Uber, Lyft, e-bikes, e-scooters, bikeshare, dockless bikeshare, hover boards, autonomous cars, autonomous shuttles, work shuttles,” Mackie wrote, and people are waking up to that. “They’re not simply sleepwalking into the cars in their driveways in the morning.”
Whatever one’s thoughts are about the term mobility, it’s heartening to know that more journalists are starting to get the memo that transportation and mobility aren’t always about driving and flying.
See our recent article on what mobility means.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Waterworld was not Raiders of the Lost Ark because ...

There's a thin line between success and failure in movies.

Take, for example, Kevin Costner's "epic" Waterworld, which I've somehow managed to miss until now. In fact, people have always told me I'm right to have missed it.

But really, there's very little difference between Waterworld and other classic action adventures like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Costner is almost as cool as Harrison Ford, with the gills behind his ears, his webbed feet, and his ability to swim all the way to the bottom of the ocean to see lost cities, kind of like the Statue of Liberty's famous appearance in the original Planet of the Apes.

Where things get dicey is the moment his co-star, Jeanne Tripplehorn, says, "We're going to die here, aren't we?" after Dennis Hopper's gang of Smokers leaves them for dead on Costner's beloved burnt-to-a-crisp ship.

Of course they're not going to die there. Just moments before, Costner had shown Tripplehorn how he can breathe under water for inordinate amounts of time. And still before that he had shown her how he could take her all the way to the bottom of the deep sea with absolutely no problem at all.

Writing and plot-point slips like that keep Waterworld from becoming a classic. Or at the very least a cult classic. It's a damn compelling movie otherwise. The premise is hard to beat when it comes to sci fi: the Earth has been swallowed by the sea and this is what happens many years later for the surviving barbarians.

Even the second-to-last scene, when Costner hilariously (I literally burst out laughing) jumps out of a balloon to pluck the little girl out of the water before she is potentially killed by a bunch of evil knuckleheads on ATVs, couldn't have kept the wack-job film from becoming a classic.

It's no surprise that the two female leads, who suffer from the hands of an earlier time when it was normal for the likes of Costner and Hopper to bat them around like rag dolls again and again, never saw their careers take off like rockets after Waterworld.

Tripplehorn somehow managed to salvage a bit of a career with roles in TV's Big Love and as Jackie Kennedy in Grey Gardens (she does look like Jacqueline O). Tina Majorino as the little girl could have perhaps become a massive star if not for her involvement in Waterworld, with great dabbles of success in Napoleon Dynamite and also a bunch of TV shows, also including Big Love.

I frankly couldn't take my eyes off Waterworld. Like a ship going down. But it did take me three installments of watching over three consecutive nights. I would have hated to be in the movie theater watching it all in one stretch.

2.5 out of 5 stars (mediocre, which is pretty much panning it since it was supposed to be a slam dunk)

Friday, July 6, 2018

Drive-By Truckers bring Southern charm to Yankee territory

Hard to believe it had been nine years since I last saw the Drive-By Truckers, and even longer since I've seen co-leader Patterson Hood, who was out with walking pneumonia for that show.

Also hard to believe, as long as I've been coming to the Adirondacks, that I'd never seen a show at the Saratoga (N.Y.) Performing Arts Center, an outdoor amphitheater. Stanton, Jason, and I scored sweet seats about 15 rows back in the center, thanks to Rachel's grandmother's "patron" status at SPAC.

The sound was a little too muffled for my taste during the Truckers' set (it oddly sounded clearer when I wandered on the lawn out back). Of course, there is never any comparing to D.C.'s 9:30 Club, where I last saw the band and which always has immaculate sound.

The setlist leaned heavy on the American Band LP, which I ranked as the 36th best of 2016. They played "Ramon Casino," "Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn," "Surrender Under Protest," and "Kinky Hypocrite" from that release. All strong mid-tempo chuggers.

Some of the definite highlights were off the Truckers' classic albums, including the Skynyrd-y "Sink Hole" from 2003's Decoration Day, "Let There Be Rock" from 2002's Southern Rock Opera, and Hood's epic slow burners "A Ghost to Most" from 2008's Brighter Than Creations Dark and "Babies in Cages," which obviously couldn't have been more timely, as America currently licks its chops at taking great pride in ripping families apart from each other.

My favorite was "Marry Me," off Decoration Day, which may be their best best, most signature track. Bassist Matt Patton's (formerly of the excellent Dexateens) showcase Ramones' cover "The KKK Took My Baby Away" was my second favorite moment of the night.

Also, I liked openers The Marcus King Band, and headliners Tedeschi Trucks Band was entertaining too, as the place really became electric once the sun went down after the Truckers' set.

Drive-By Truckers: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Stephen King's latest novel captures the zeitgeist of our immigration times

Stephen King's novels often take place in Maine, and could often happen in just about any timeframe.

Some of that could be said for his latest, The Outsider. But it still ends up feeling very much of this time and place. "The outsider" feels like code language for the country's ongoing struggle with what we think immigration means. We as Americans seem to have a very hard time trusting people who aren't quite like us. And King displays how that lack of trust often extends even to the people we think we know intimately well.

Also, the setting is in Oklahoma and Texas (with a little good-old Midwestern Ohio thrown in), places where the immigration debate rages especially strong. Like the epic tale's early protagonist, Terry Maitland, I too studied English and coach baseball. Perhaps that helps me relate especially well.

Maitland is one of Cap City's most loved personalities. But several eyewitnesses catch him kidnapping a young boy who is later found partially eaten and sexually attacked. The townsfolk turn violently against Maitland and his family.

Meanwhile, a second story unfolds through the book's second half, when investigator Holly Gibney comes to town to assist in finding whether Maitland or an imposter who can shape shift into others' faces and bodies is the perpetrator. A group of investigators go on the search to a scary mine shaft in Marysville, Texas, and it's not too much of a spoiler to say some of them won't return.

The Outsider may be the shortest 560-page book I've ever read. That's because it's such a page-turner. Like with many of King's books, this one has so many levels of suspense going on all the time that it becomes painful to have to put down. This is one of several of his books that left me sad that it had to end.

On my list of favorite King books, I put this at #7, right behind Pet Cemetery and in front of Under the Dome.

4.8 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Stephen Malkmus helps Pavement's legacy continue to grow

No matter how many years go by since the demise of my third-favorite band of all time, Pavement's legend just keeps growing because leader Stephen Malkmus just keeps adding so much music to the catalog. (Much like how the combo of Velvet Undergound/Lou Reed maintains its place as my fifth-favorite ever.)

And that huge catalog translates to great shows every time I see Malkmus (like the last time in 2014 and, needless to say, the Pavement reunion show in 2010).

The latest, June 18 at Black Cat in D.C., was no different.

The show began with a great one-two punch of two of my favorite songs from the new album Sparkle Hard. "Cast Off" was the warm up for both the album and the show, followed by the hipster bike-lover showcase of "Bike Lane."

In fact, some of the strongest moments came courtesy of Sparkle Hard: "Solid Silk" is mesmerizingly beautiful. "Refute" is fun, corn-pone goodness (and includes Kim Gordon, formerly of Sonic Youth, on the record).

Two songs off 2005's Face the Truth were definite highlights. "Malediction" is an under-rated happy ditty and "Freeze the Saints" (with just singing and no guitar from Malk), would make any greatest hits collection should there ever be one for his post-Pavement material.

2011's Mirror Traffic also made an appearance with the mellow "No One Is (As I Are Be)" and the soaring "Stick Figures in Love." (Strangely, there were no songs from 2014's Wigout at Jagbags.)

"Dark Wave," although far from the best song on 2003's Pig Lib, was the weirdo tune needed for the middle of the set. The new "Future Suite" kept the loopiness going. Then "Shiggy," also off Sparkle Hard, brought the screamo Pavement-like rock.

The weakest moments of the show were "Brethren" off the new album (the representative of what now seems to be a requirement for every Malkmus album, the one song that sounds like a Grateful Dead outtake) and the new, droning and ProTools-y "Rattler." And I've never been all that crazy about "Baltimore," from 2008's Real Emotional Trash, but it definitely fit well as the guitar-jam for the end of the main set.

The encore couldn't have been more perfect. The best song on the latest release, "Middle America," led into Pavement classics "Shady Lane" and "In the Mouth a Desert" ("when you treat it like an oil well"), at which point Pablo and I got so excited in the 12th row or so that we spilled beer everywhere.

****1/2 out of ***** stars

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

How Uber and Lyft are scooting their way to global domination of transport

I got the last word in this solid roundup from the San Francisco Chronicle of the latest news on Uber and Lyft's plans heading into the future of transportation.
“Not many people in our country take bikes and scooters for utilitarian trips, for going to work, the grocery store, out at night even though it’s a low-cost healthy way to get around,” said Paul Mackie, director of research and communications at the Mobility Labs think tank. “It’s great that Uber and Lyft are putting money and publicity and building interest in these other great ways to travel. It lends credence to them as mobility companies, not just tech companies.”

Monday, June 18, 2018

The best way to do microtransit? Have transit agencies operate it

This article originally appeared at

We’ve written skeptically about how genuine microtransit services and ride-hailing companies, like Uber and Lyft, are about truly enhancing transit ridership and accessibility.
When I asked four such entrepreneurs what percentage of rides their services provide are “first mile” or to transit, 150 people [in attendance at a recent mobility conference] could hear a pin drop in the silence.
When no good answers or data can be offered in response to such a question, it’s not a long shot to assume the worst. And the worst is? That those entities are actually trying to steal customers from core transit services, like buses and subways, that offer the top societal benefits.
Since microtransit companies talk so much about their services connecting people to transit, it’s puzzling that they so rarely mention specific “first mile, last mile” projects and their results. But with some digging, one can find examples of some good things companies and cities in the microtransit space are attempting.
The Sacramento Regional Transit District (SacRT) just received $12 million from the Sacramento Transportation Authority to begin shuttling people this summer between residential and commercial places that are lacking transit options.
Rides on the shuttles only cost between $1.35 and $2.75 – price points considerably more affordable than taking an Uber or Lyft. And it’s already been working. Since February, ridership has been steadily increasing. (It doesn’t hurt that a commercial hub for riders is the Historic Folsom area, a bustling district billed as “the place where the West came and stayed.”)
Sacramento is hoping people will not only use microtransit to reach the Fulsom business district, but also the nearby train station, which can serve as a major transit artery for the rest of the region.
The city is running their pilot with TransLoc, a North Carolina-based company that builds software to help transit agencies operate their own microtransit services. The company was acquired early this year by Ford Smart Mobility.
Aaron Berdanier, a data scientist who works on microtransit projects for TransLoc, said the project’s target audiences are “people who were not taking the train before because they didn’t have access, and other riders already going to the train station but didn’t have a way to get there.”
TransLoc’s CEO Doug Kaufman added, “SacRT’s success in deploying innovative, on-demand microtransit is a proof-point for the huge potential impact of microtransit across the nation, particularly for riders. We are incredibly excited [that] the success of their pilot resulted in a grant to fund its expansion.”
Berdanier said, “Goals for this pilot were to increase ridership, which they’ve done dramatically, and to plug into this area they didn’t have access for – Citrus Heights. The agency has been very innovative and forward thinking,” he said, noting that this was a great opportunity to enhance Sacramento’s Dial-A-Ride system.
TransLoc also focuses on connecting microtransit to transit hubs in the region between Raleigh and Durham, N.C. In an area with lots of big office parks – including the likes of IBM and Cisco – TransLoc helps GOTriangle make it easy for their riders to use their smartphones to jump on microtransit.
Berdanier said 75 percent of those microtransit riders connect into the regional transit hub there (see the map) and then get on a microtransit vehicle to take that last mile to work.
This is another reason why it is so important for transit agencies to become key microtransit players. When transit agencies are the ones in charge of the routes (rather than willy-nilly routes that people could organically take or that even Waze or Google Maps could algorithmically take them), it’s more likely there will be better outcomes (such as fewer traffic jams, healthier travelers, and less air pollution).
It’s encouraging that Uber and Lyft are also beginning to understand the need for transit to be at the center of multimodality. Detroit and cities along the Brightline passenger railway in South Florida have partnered with Lyft to get people to transit stations. And Uber paid Metro in the D.C. region $100,000 to keep trains running later after a recent National Hockey League playoff game.
Photo of people boarding a DC Circulator bus by Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab. 

Monday, May 28, 2018

Best magazine reads: Quincy Jones offers a true insider’s look at fame, gossip, and rock royalty

After hearing a lot about the GQ feature on Quincy Jones for a few months, I finally got around to reading it, and it’s worth it! Here are my favorite pop-culture insights offered by the no-holds-barred, 84-year-old record producer.

1. He wears a ring that old buddy Frank Sinatra wore on his finger for 40 years.

2. About Sinatra, many of whose records he helped arrange, he says, “He was bipolar, you know. He had no gray. He either loved you with all of his heart or else he'd roll over your ass in a Mack truck in reverse. He was tough, man. I saw all of it. You know, I'd see him try to fight—he couldn't fight worth a shit. He'd get drunk, and Jilly, his right-hand guy, stone gangster, would get behind him and break the guy's ribs.“

3. “Frank was always trying to hook me up with Marilyn Monroe, but Marilyn Monroe had a chest that looked like pears, man."

4. He says Taylor Swift can’t write songs.

5. He says Truman Capote was a racist, even if he later profusely apologized to Jones about what sounded like some racist preconceptions.

6. About Ray Charles, he says he “went 30 years with heroin, and then the police told him he couldn't get his license to play clubs unless he stops. And he did, and then he started on black coffee and Dutch Bols gin for 25 years. Ray, all of his veins were dried up and black, 
and he's shooting himself in the testicles.”

7. He talks about a night Michael Jackson and Prince both made short cameos at a James Brown concert and Jackson blew The Purple One out of the water.

8. He hung out with Joseph Goebbels’ girlfriend and she told him all about how Hitler and most fo the Nazis were huge cokeheads.

9. He was with Jay Sebring a few hours before he was murdered at Sharon Tate’s house by Charles Manson’s gang, and Jones was even supposed to have been there but forgot to go.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Hamilton is inspiring in many ways, including rereading about the Revolutionary War

After seeing Hamilton on Broadway, the inevitable next step is to dig back into Revolutionary War literature. I figure one place to start and not go wrong is with acclaimed author David McCullough. 

His book 1776 opens with, in 1775, despite much opposition in the press and throughout the country to the troubling war in America, King George III addressing a whopping 60,000 people in London’s St. James Park. Can you imagine that many people gathering back then?

Having seen the crazed wickedness of George on hilarious display in the musical, some of the small personal details at the start of 1776 are well worth lapping up, such as his “whitest hands ever seen” with a large red ring on them and the four-ton exceedingly elaborate carriage he had made to carry him around London. Many found the King a bit dull and, unlike in the play, he refused to wear a huge white wig, the fashion of the time.

George was steadfast throughout his life, even in his later “mad” life, that America must obey England, even though he had never been a soldier or to America, or the Scotland and Ireland which he often praised.

The play, by the way, is every bit as astounding as everyone says. It was also fun sitting in the 10th row center with the likes of Jerry from Parks and Recreation and film and TV star Alfre Woodard of St. Elsewhere and 12 Years a Slave.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Escape Campervan-ing, an Arizona safari, and ending Spring Break in Phoenix

I never wrapped up the blog series on our recent family Spring Break #vanlife trek out west. Having already recounted our time in Vegas, Zion, Lake Powell, the Grand Canyon, and several other places in between, we headed to Rachel’s grandmother’s house in Scottsdale, a suburb of Phoenix.

But first we spent an afternoon north of the city at Out of Africa, a well-done safari in the desert. My favorite animal was the grizzly bear, which we were able to get within an arm’s length and is a majestic and downright pleasant-looking creature. One of several tigers also stretched up into a massive form along a gate next to our walkway. And a baby tiger jumped out from its hiding spot at one point to nearly surprise Zoey and I out of our shoes. But perhaps best of all was when Jackson fed a giraffe right out of his mouth, including a smooch on the lips that incorporated his very long tongue.

I highly recommend a visit to this American/African safari. 

And I should also mention the I-66 shop we visited in Williams, Arizona, if only because of all its pop-culture lunch boxes (and signs).

Finally, anyone who rents an Escape Campervan, which are now available in many cities throughout the country, won’t regret it. The customer service was incredible, the price was maybe even less than renting a typical minivan without a kitchen or pop-up bed, and we were able to pick up lots of groceries and other necessities like a cooler and firestarter wood in our pick-up location where others returning from their trips left the materials in a community-share area. And it was fun to count the other Escapes along the way. Jackson’s final tally was 27, and we talked to many of their occupants about our similar travel experiences.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

It the movie(s) simply can’t compare to the classic book

As readers of this blog know, I’m a huge Stephen King fan. I keep wanting to deny that as I get older and supposedly more mature, but King just keeps being every bit as awesome as ever.

2017’s It has been high on my list of movies to see for many months, but it ends up being a letdown. At 2 hours and 15 minutes, it moves slowly in parts, doesn’t develop enough of the kids’ characters, and suffers from perhaps too many shocks and scares.

That said, it is indeed scary, but it would be scarier if it were less scary all the time.

Granted, pulling off a re-creation of one of the great horror books is not an easy task. It’s a long and detailed book. But with a slew of it neglected, the movie should have just gone ahead and been considerably shorter.

The 1999 TV miniseries suffered from different elements. It was long enough to capture better characterizations, but it was far less scary and fairly cheesy.

I’ll still look forward to the supposed sequel being planned for when the kids are adults and It comes back to the town of Derry, Maine on its usual schedule. But probably the best use of my time would be to simply read the book again.

3 out of 5 stars