Entries by Peter Schurmann

Peter Schurmann

Silicon Valley's New Suburb - San Francisco

By Peter Schurmann, Apr 16, 2012 12:20 PM

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A report on the housing market in San Francisco noted that homes closer to available shuttle services ferrying residents to their office spaces in Silicon Valley – Google, Facebook – sell for significantly higher amounts. A home that might go for $1.5 million, for example, sells for $2 million if it’s within walking distance to one of Google’s shuttle buses.

$2 million!

As a lifelong San Franciscan, it’s a commentary more bitter than sweet. Surely, our city by the bay benefits from the ongoing tech boom redux in terms of increased revenue and an overall sense of prosperity. This weekend’s San Francisco Chronicle ran a piece arguing that the city – I mean The City – is somehow replacing Silicon Valley as the hub for would-be tech entrepreneurs.

It strikes me that exactly the opposite is occurring. Silicon Valley is swallowing San Francisco hook, line and sinker.

I remember when San Jose was nothing more than a smattering of suburban housing complexes interspersed by cow paddies stretching from Santa Cruz to Gilroy. As a kid, my family and I used to drive there to visit friends and it always felt to me like we were venturing into the hinterland – a region devoid of the characteristic landmarks that distinguish so many of San Francisco’s neighborhoods.

In San Jose, everything looked the same. Like a computer chip.

Maybe that’s why so many of the area’s employees prefer to live here. And they bring their stellar salaries with them, driving up prices left and right. While the city’s topography and architecture retain that old bohemian spirit, in the face of such an economic tidal wave, I wonder about its residents.

Peter Schurmann

San Francisco's Death Machines

By Peter Schurmann, Apr 12, 2012 11:10 AM

The “wiggle” is a stretch of roadway in San Francisco that allows cyclists to avoid some of the nastier hills separating the city’s east and west ends. On the west end, it dumps out onto a flat, green straightaway known as the panhandle, which ends at Golden Gate Park.

Long before anyone outside of a few messengers knew what the wiggle was, there was a stenciled bit of art on one corner of the panhandle, just before coming to one of several traffic lights. “Death Machines Ahead,” it read, in a foreboding crimson meant to heighten the impending danger cyclists face from automobiles.

That sign more or less typified cyclist's attitude toward cars.

But today’s death machines, according to a number of city residents, are of the two-wheeled variety, specifically the kind with no brakes.

They’re called fixed gears, and yes… they make absolutely no sense in a city with near-vertical drops of the kind San Francisco is renowned for. I should know… I rode one here for years. And I never hit a soul.

At a recent press conference in City Hall (convened following the death of Sutchi Hui, an elderly Chinese pedestrian who was killed by a cyclist last week) a member of the SFPD’s traffic division noted in response to a question that, “fixies are VERY hard to control.” Frankly, I doubt he’s ever ridden one. The reporters in attendance, meanwhile, all seemed to have it out for the cycling community. None looked to be part of it.

But my point here is not to talk about fixed gears. What I’d like to share with anyone interested is some very general, unscientific observations made during my own commute home the other day from South of Market to the Richmond.

I have been riding in this city for close to twenty years. (I no longer ride a fixed gear, by the way.) I’ve been in numerous accidents and near-accidents, and by far the overwhelming majority have not come as a result of my own indiscretions but rather because of the carelessness of pedestrians and drivers both.

Doors, jay-walkers, speeders, California rollers… it reads like a bad sushi menu.

I ride slow these days. I’m in no rush. I stop at the lights and come to a near stop at stop signs. What I saw yesterday demonstrated to me that the anger directed at the cycling community here is completely out of proportion to the danger we represent versus that which we face on a daily basis.

• 8 – The number of jaywalkers. When you’re cycling down the street, and a person jumps off the curb, you either collide with them or veer into oncoming traffic. Neither option is appealing.

• 6 – The number of pedestrians walking against the light. (Should we start offering licenses to pedestrians, as has been suggested for cyclists?)

• 4 – The number of doors that swung open in front of me as I came slowly meandering down the lane. No apologies were forth coming, only a bewildering and unsurprising obliviousness from the drivers.

• 5 – The number of cars that failed to make a complete stop at stop signs.

• 2 – The number of drivers I saw on their cell phones while driving.

Seems to me the numbers speak for themselves. Yes, there are unruly and dangerous cyclists. But does the bike riding population here deserve the level of vitriol that is now being directed at them? I don’t think so.

For every bike out there that is one less car drivers have to deal with. The city saves on road repair expenses, medical bills from would-be accidents and a slew of other benefits. Rather that jumping down out throats, the city should honestly be thankful our numbers are rising.

Peter Schurmann

AAJA Issues Guidelines on Lin Reporting

By Peter Schurmann, Feb 28, 2012 11:02 AM

Last week the Asian American Journalists Association issued a set of guidelines on how and how not to report on NBA sensation Jeremy Lin. The guidelines come after a spate of incidents involving racially charged language by media persoanlities at such high profile outlets as ESPN and FOX. The latest incident involved ice cream makers Ben and Jerry, who'se latest Lin-Sanity flavor comes chock full of fortune cookies. The company has since issued an apology and has withdrawn the name.

Peter Schurmann

Whitlock's Twitter Linanity

By Peter Schurmann, Feb 17, 2012 1:22 PM

Twitter hasn’t been kind to black commentators lately. CNN’s Roland Martin put his proverbial tweet in his mouth last week for anti-gay remarks, and earlier this week Fox News columnist Jason Whitlock riffed on a common stereotype when he took aim at Chinese American basketball phenom Jeremy Lin’s masculinity.

Peter Schurmann

Black in America -- Not in Silicon Valley

By Peter Schurmann, Feb 16, 2012 12:49 PM

CNN’s Black in America series recently touched on the struggle African Americans entrepreneurs face in breaking through the tech ceiling of the “new promised land” that is Silicon Valley. At one point in the segment, a successful South Asian businessman tells the group they need to hire a “white front man” if they ever want their ideas or businesses to see the light of day.

Peter Schurmann

Study: Top Teachers Away from Students of Color in LAUSD

By Peter Schurmann, Jan 13, 2012 2:22 PM

As the debate around teacher evaluations heats up, a new study put out this week by Oakland-based Education Trust-West shows that the distribution of so-called “high value-added teachers” is skewed away from high-need schools in Los Angeles.

The two year study, titled Learning Denied: The Case for Equitable Access to Effective Teaching in Los Angeles Unified School District, California’s Largest School District, found enormous disparities in the value, both academic and monetary, that a teacher in the top 25 percentile brings to a student as compared to teachers of less proven effectiveness.

The findings come on the heels of another 20-year study conducted by Harvard and Columbia and reported last week in the New York Times that provided hard numbers in terms of the actual monetary value that a value-added teacher brings to a student over the long run.

“All else equal, a student with one excellent teacher for one year between fourth and eighth grade would gain $4,600 in lifetime income, compared to a student of similar demographics who has an average teacher,” the New York Times reported. “The student with the excellent teacher would also be 0.5 percent more likely to attend college,” and be less likely to become pregnant as a teen.

This new study by Education Trust-West goes a step further in examining just where these high value-added teachers are, finding that “low-income students and students of color in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) are less likely to be taught by the district’s top teachers – the very teachers capable of closing the district’s achievement gaps.”

All of this comes as teachers are increasingly put under the microscope as states, and particularly California, struggle with the twin monsters of shrinking budgets and slumping test scores.

One of the conclusions drawn by the authors of the Ed Trust-West study point to what are referred to as “quality-blind layoffs,” or the firing of talented teachers based on their relative lack of experience when compared to more senior faculty.

“Quality-blind teacher layoffs in 2009 resulted in the removal of high value-added teachers from the highest need schools. If the district had instead laid off teachers based on effectiveness, only about 5 percent of the ELA teachers and 3 percent of the math teachers actually cut by LAUSD would have been laid off.”

Those are stunning numbers! But what do the teachers themselves, and especially those working in traditionally low-performing or low-income schools, have to say about value-added metrics and evaluations in general?

The California Teachers’ Association wrote last year in response to an LA Times piece that used these metrics to evaluate the district’s educators: “The effectiveness of a teacher cannot be measured by one or two standardized test scores and the Times did a great disservice to all educators by reducing something so multifaceted and complex to something so simplistic.”

Of value-added measures, it added, “all education research has concluded that using value-added models as a primary measure for evaluating teachers is not appropriate as the measures are too unstable and too vulnerable. It is impossible to fully separate out the influences of students' other teachers as well as school conditions, classroom assignments, and student attendance. Parents know their child is more than a test score, and so are teachers.”

Yes, education is more than testing. But in a time of economic crisis such as our own, the cold reality is that numbers – not letters – often dictate policy direction.

Peter Schurmann

Sikh Diwali in Union City

By Peter Schurmann, Oct 27, 2011 3:21 PM

“Do you see that pole,” my friend asks as we approach a crowd gathered around a glowing bed of candles. “In the Punjab, you can see that pole for miles… travelers know it means food and shelter.” There’s one in front of all Sikh temples.

The candles illuminate a sea of faces, young and old, in flowing saris and neatly folded turbans. It is Diwali, and for the Sikh community in Union City, it is a time for prayer, reflection and of course food.

“You must come,” insists my friend, a native of the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, his eyes glowing as he describes the festive atmosphere that attends the annual celebration.

Originally a Hindu festival marking the return of the Prince Rama from his banishment in the forest, Sikhs commemorate the release by the Mughal emperor of an imprisoned patriarch, who insisted that all the other inmates be freed along with him.

“Hindus come for the food,” my friend’s wife says, with pride or sarcasm it’s hard to say. And indeed there is plenty, enough to feed the throngs of people that continue to stream in from all directions. Lines ebb and flow, widening here and thinning out there, a pulsating river of light and fabric.

The sound of prayer echoes from within.

“No one wants to get on Laxmi’s bad side,” says my friend and guide, pointing out that during this time people come to pray to the Hindu goddess of fortune. Nearing the altar I place a dollar in the tray and then bow, touching my head to the floor. My son dips his fingers into a cup of sweet bean paste, wondering at the scene.

The aroma of spiced chickpeas and fried poori pulls at me like an unseen, irresistible force. We come to the communal eating area and file into line. “When I was young, I used to get really upset at those who tried to cut… see them there.” He points as a group of elderly women make their way toward the front.

We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore…

I wonder at the mix of old and new… at the coming together of a centuries-old faith, bearded and wise, with the childlike exuberance that is Silicon Valley, with its indoor skydiving and flood-lit soccer fields. Kids walk past, their accents clearly California, their faith rooted in the scene that envelops us.

It is community, the “We” that sustains and is sustained through sharing, through eating and praying together. “This is the heart of the temple,” my friend tells me, pointing to a room where volunteers are busy doling out an endless stream of food and water.

He introduces me to several friends, including a former journalist who took to radio after leaving Amritsar in the Punjab, and another who went from farming and driving trucks to sponsoring programs fostering the development of Sikh art and dance.

As we leave my friend tells me of another gathering in Yuba City, Ca., set to happen in a couple of weeks. He says it dwarfs today’s event, drawing people from Sikh communities around the state, a day-long event promising food, shelter and spiritual nourishment for all comers.

Peter Schurmann

Lessons from the Hiker Saga

By Peter Schurmann, Sep 22, 2011 10:02 AM

Ed. Note: The following is a brief Q&A conducted with Joel Simon of the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York on the release of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal after two years in an Iranian prison. Bauer had worked as a correspondent for New America Media prior to his detention.

What lessons can we take from the two-year detention of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal in terms of protecting journalists in the future?

The circumstances of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal's arrest and detention are highly unusual. Neither was on assignment when they were arrested, and they were not targeted because of their journalism. It's therefore very difficult to draw any lessons other than the obvious one: The Iranian justice system is cruel and perverse. We should not forget the dozens of Iranian journalists who remain in jail and who are subject to regular abuse.

How do you think Bauer's being a freelance journalist impacted the course of events surrounding the hikers' detention?

I don’t see any impact. My understanding is that they were on a recreational hiking trip in Kurdistan when they accidentally strayed across the border into Iran. We spoke on Bauer's behalf to dispel accusations that he was a spy. Shane was -- and is -- a well-established journalist who was living and working the region.

How would you describe American attitudes toward the case of Bauer and Fatal?

No question that it was a struggle to get Americans to understand their situation. Most Americans do not go hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan. But if you live and work in the region, and Shane did, you know that Kurdistan is a scenic and safe area.

Do you agree with those who say that America's detention of journalists, most notably that of Al Jazeera reporter Sami al Haj, has set a precedent for governments or non-state actors to use members of the media as pawns in international maneuvering?

The unjust detention of Sami Al-Haj at Guantanamo represents a blot on the U.S.'s press freedom record. But I don't think it played any role in Shane and Josh's prolonged detention, which was based primarily on the political calculations of the Iranian government.

In light of Bauer and Fatal's release, what advice would you offer journalists looking to enter into conflict zones or other potentially risky areas?

Again, it's impossible to generalize from Shane and Josh's experience since as far as we know they were not on assignment and were not detained for their journalism. Obviously, journalists need to exercise caution and prudence when covering stories that involve danger. At the same time, we need to recognize that covering certain critical stories requires risk and we need to support journalists who put themselves in harm's way to bring us the news from the frontlines.