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The Yangtze restaurant, viewed from the context of Tom Peterson’s flat head

Before I came to California’s Inland Empire, I attended college in Portland, Oregon. Now many people think of Portland and think of rain, or roses, or a semi-trendy downtown.

Most people DON’T think of Southeast 82nd Street.

During the time that I was in Portland, Southeast 82nd Street was known for many things. One of those things was its Saturday night lifestyle. Young people with cars would go to 82nd Street and park with their lights on…staring at each other, I guess. Another thing was Tom Peterson, who at the time had two stores, right next to each other at Southeast 82nd Street and Foster, advertised with a cartoon image of Peterson’s military-cropped head – with arrows pointing at the head.

Another thing was Southeast 82nd Street’s Chinese-American restaurants. 82nd Street was not exactly a dining Mecca, but you could certainly dine there. And your culinary choices included Chinese-American restaurants.

What do my early 1980s experiences in Portland, Oregon have to do with the closure of a restaurant in Ontario, California in 2015?

Everything.

My Chinese-American restaurants in Portland, as well as the Yangtze Restaurant in Ontario, were part of a larger movement known as American Chinese cuisine. As Adam Lapetina notes, this is American Chinese, not Chinese.

[M]ost of what we eat today from paper takeout boxes would confuse the living hell out of a person in Beijing, and not just because they can’t see it clearly through the smog.

America’s got a type of Chinese food all its own, and it’s super different from what they’ve got across the pond.

Lapetina then proceeds to list ten facts about American Chinese food. Here are a couple of them:

It wasn’t until after World War II that it started to become more mainstream. Chinese chefs would often have two menus: one for Chinese people and one for Americans… but as its popularity grew, the American-tailored menu came to dominate….

The reason the Americanized menu was so popular? It used super-sweet, syrupy sauces as opposed to traditional ones, mostly due to the cheap, widespread availability of canned fruits like pineapple and cherries….

Which brings us to Ontario and its downtown Yangtze restaurant, opened in 1961 and scheduled to close on March 31, 2015. In his article about the closure of the restaurant, David Allen notes that the restaurant is from another era:

Yangtze remained proudly frozen in time, its avocado-green vinyl booths and menu items like chop suey and egg foo yong reflecting an earlier era.

Latecomers like myself didn’t get it.

I can speak to this from personal experience. I had never been to Yangtze Restaurant until a few months ago. I went there recently with some people who have lived in Ontario since the 1960s, and who last visited the Yangtze a long, long time ago. None of us was enthused with the experience; our tastes had changed because of exposure to more modern forms of Chinese food.

Actually, more modern forms of AMERICAN Chinese food. While we may say that Yangtze and other Chinese-American restaurants consciously pandered to American tastes, the truth is that all restaurants pander to local tastes to some extent. While looking for previous posts of mine about Portland’s Tom Peterson, I ran across a 2008 post in my mrontemp blog that also discussed the Chinese-American restaurants on Southeast 82nd Street. And that 2008 post includes a quote from a David Allen blog post:

So there’s a lot to be said in China Gate’s favor.

But in looking over the 100-plus-item menu, it must be said that there’s a 1980s feel to it, and maybe even older. Have you noticed they still serve not only egg foo yung, but chop suey? How very Yangtze of them. And China Gate may be the valley’s most authentic Chinese restaurant.

And even your most authentic Chinese restaurant makes some slight changes in its menu to accommodate the foreigners who patronize it.

So will the post-World War II Chinese-American cuisine eventually die away? Or will it become historically significant, with preservationists insisting on maintaining the lost art of ordering by number?

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California Assembly Bill 642 and newspapers of general circulation

Early Saturday afternoon, I was sitting in Goodwin’s Organic Foods & Drinks in Riverside, California, sipping on a carrot apple juice. However, I wasn’t planning a sit-in to protest genetically modified snail darters. Instead, I was reading a newspaper.

Now perhaps I need to explain that term to younger readers. You see, a “newspaper” is just like it sounds – a collection of news stories printed on paper. It’s kind of like having an AOL publication such as the Huffington Post, but instead of looking at it on a computer as normal people do, you actually hold pieces of paper – sometimes very large pieces of paper – in your hand to read the news. In fact, some major news web sites, including famous websites such as the New York Times, actually started out as newspapers!

(Someday I’ll post the story of my years as a “paper boy.”)

Oh, and because it prints on paper, the newspaper copy that you have may not have the latest news. In fact, I was looking at a newspaper from Friday, the day before – which is probably why it was left lying around.

So what was in Friday’s paper – in this case, the local Riverside Press-Enterprise? Well, I saw a few stock quotes from Thursday – not a lot of them. And I saw an account of the Heat-Pacers basketball game from Thursday night. And I also saw an ad, placed by the paper itself, regarding California Assembly Bill AB 642.

If you haven’t heard of AB 642, it is a legislative attempt to change the definition of a “newspaper of general circulation.” Why is this definition so important? Because in California, as in many other jurisdictions, a newspaper of general circulation is the only type of newspaper that is authorized to publish official notices – fictitious business name statements, petitions to change names, notices of auctions of unclaimed property, and the like. So if you happen to be a newspaper of general circulation, you can run these ads – and charge money for them, which provides a nice revenue stream.

But what if the definition of “newspaper of general circulation” changes? Well, that’s what AB 642 proposes to do. Here’s part of the legislative counsel’s summary of the bill:

AB 642, as introduced, Rendon. Publication: newspaper of general circulation: Internet Web site.

Existing law requires that various types of notices are provided in a newspaper of general circulation. Existing law requires a newspaper of general circulation to meet certain criteria, including, among others, that it be published and have a substantial distribution to paid subscribers in the city, district, or judicial district in which it is seeking adjudication.

This bill would provide that a newspaper that is available on an Internet Web site may also qualify as a newspaper of general circulation, provided that newspaper meets certain criteria.

Now this bill, if passed, means that current newspapers of general circulation, such as the Riverside Press-Enterprise, would have to compete with Internet-only publications, such as the Lake Elsinore-Wildomar Patch, an online-only news source in the Press-Enterprise’s territory.

As I mentioned, the newspaper that I was reading had some comments about AB 642. You can guess how the Press-Enterprise feels about it.

Although I couldn’t find the Press-Enterprise’s ad online, I did find similar sentiments from another newspaper publisher, Brian Hews. In a March 15 piece entitled AOL, Patch Declare War on Newspapers in California, writer Randy Economy quotes from Hews:

“AB 642 requires no brick-and-mortar presence, no business office, and therefore, likely no local publisher, editors, reporters, local ad staff, production and circulation staff. A single regional editor aggregating content from the worldwide web and rewriting news credited at great expense by real newspapers would qualify,” Hews said….

“AB 642 would allow the adjudication of a petri dish,” Hews said. “This will kill some great local newspapers.”…

“Internet-only publications, especially The Patch are undependable, have no permanency, are subject to constant change and susceptible to technology failure. Internet connections fall, server’s crash, links die and websites are hacked all the time,” Hews said.

But not everyone is worried about the crashing of “server’s.” To some, the anti-competitive stance of the current newspapers of general circulation is the last gasp of a dying industry. In a letter to the editor of the Press-Enterprise, Dana Sutton was unimpressed with the Press-Enterprise’s arguments:

In response to your large advertisement March 27 that urged opposition to AB 642, I urge California legislators to support the bill….

What we have is a yelp of pain coming from a moribund industry. Spokesmen for the whale oil industry no doubt issued similar howls when electricity came along. But, of course, technological progress always creates losers as well as winners. The Legislature has no business protecting such victims from the natural and inevitable consequences of obsolescence.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, I found all of these quotes on the Internet. But on the other hand, Sutton took the time to pen (I mean type) a missive to this generation’s whale oil salesmen.

This whole episode, including the behind-the-scenes jockeying by competing business interests, is merely another illustration that technology itself is easy to change. Heck, technology would permit THIS blog to publish official notices – something that would strike fear in the hearts of the Press-Enterprise and AOL alike. It’s the business rules that are tough to alter.

Google Transit will NEVER be enough? Maybe not.

I recently needed to research a particular mass transit problem. Because of the large size of southern California, I was required to consult three different transit agency websites: Metrolink (a local commuter train service), the Orange County Transportation Authority, and Omnitrans (the mass transit provider for western San Bernardino County).

Well, actually I started with Google Maps. Google Maps incorporates a service called Google Transit that attempts to calculate transit connections that use multiple agencies. However, at present Google Transit is not perfect, so I have to go to the underlying transit agency web sites to refine things.

One of the services that I mentioned, Omnitrans, recently tweeted a link to a post entitled “guest post: nate wessel on why google transit will never be enough for small to medium-sized systems.” Omnitrans tweeted this because it is a medium-sized system. Nate Wessel wrote it because he lives in a city (Cincinnati) served by a medium-sized system.

My first reaction, when looking at the post title, was that Wessel was a little strong. As Romeo Void reminds us, “Never say never.” Certainly, I thought, improved algorithms and additional information on Google’s end will allow it to improve the information that it provides.

So I started to read Wessel’s post to see how wrong he was. (Read to the end of the post for my conclusion.)

Wessel started with an explanation of the two things that a traditionally printed map provides to the reader:

[M]aps show us what’s possible in the physical world. They tell us that Spain is a place in Europe, that Queens is connected to Manhattan by subways and bridges, and that it’s not similarly connected to Britain. We can’t think of taking transit until we know what transit does and doesn’t.

The other critical thing maps (and some other media) do is provide us with answers to specific questions. These might be:
• “Which line can I take to Queens?”
• “Are there coffee shops within walking distance of my current location?”
• “Exactly how much will the bus cost?”

Wessel then asserted that Google Transit is very good at answering the second question (answer specifically), but is terrible at answering the first (inform broadly). He explains:

…Google Transit suggests we take the #19 northward, but says nothing of the invisible #17 that runs parallel to it at more than twice the frequency. You can easily imagine someone who’s once looked up their route on Google Transit regularly letting a #17 pass by while they wait for a #19 and complain about headways. Similar situations must happen a thousand times a day.

Exploring a transit system with Google Transit is like blind men trying to understand an elephant by touch. This part is thick, this part is bumpy, we don’t know how any of the parts attach to each other, and the whole thing is constantly, inexplicably moving.

Once I read this, I absolutely knew that Wessel was dead wrong. As I mentioned above, algorithms can take care of suggesting possible alternatives, and Google is perfectly capable of layering information about other routes so that I can compare the alternatives in Google Transit itself.

But once again, I figured that I’d hear Wessel out.

It turns out that one of Wessel’s talents is his ability to create a thoughtfully hand-rendered transit map. The word “thoughtfully” is important here. Rather than throwing a bunch of information into Google’s engine and displaying it, Wessel asserts that there is an additional requirement to “thoughtfully” abstract the information into something meaningful to the reader.

The example that Wessel provided was of Washington DC’s Metro system – a system that I used for several years. If you go to the Metro “maps” page, you can see two views of the Metro system. One of the views is called the “Google Map” view.

metro-google-map

The other view is called the “Rail Map” view.

metro-rail-map

As it turns out, the map used by the majority of Metro riders is the latter view, the Rail Map view. This view is inaccurate, is not to scale, and is missing the information that you would find in a regular map. But the “rail map” serves as an easy-to-understand abstraction of the rail system, providing the exact information that a rider needs.

For example, let’s say that you want to get from Franconia-Springfield (in the lower left corner of the map) to Shady Grove (in the upper left). If you look at the “Google Map,” you can’t even find the stops. But if you look at the “Rail Map,” you can easily see that there are several different ways to get between the two points. I won’t go into the details, but anyone who has lived in the Washington area can recite the options to you – and tell you which option is the best around 5:45 pm on a Friday.

Well, now I knew that Wessel was wrong. Google could incorporate those abstracted maps into Google Transit.

But then Wessel said something that stopped me in my…um, tracks.

It seems like most big American cities put these questions, at least so far as transit is concerned, largely to rest decades ago with their famous metro maps but that many small and mid-sized cities, particularly those that primarily use buses, provide little if any coherent, holistic map of how their system operates. They often seem content with either no system maps at all or only topographically accurate maps that de-emphasise and confuse the areas that can benefit from transit the most: those that are dense and well served by multiple lines.

In essence, Google cannot incorporate information into its data-crunching machine if the data itself doesn’t exist. For a place such as western San Bernardino County, a nice neat abstraction of the Omnitrans system does not exist. (Whether such an abstraction could be created for a bus system, which is more complex than a rail system, is open to question.) And Google isn’t going to create such an abstraction. And Nate Wessel can’t run around everywhere and create them for every single transit system in the entire world.

So I was forced to agree with Nate Wessel. Google Transit will NEVER (or, as Taylor Swift would put it, never ever ever) be enough for small to medium sized systems.

Is he wrong? Am I wrong?

Unexciting is good – we won’t see virtual furniture for some time

I happened to notice a tweet from Inland Valley Daily Bulletin columnist David Allen. (For those who are not familiar with the newspaper, it is based in my hometown of Ontario, California.) Allen said the following as part of his tweet:

Former Borders Books in Montclair gets a new, if unexciting, tenant: a furniture store.

Allen then linked to his column, “Furniture replaces fiction in Montclair.” The new tenant is Ashley Furniture, and the store is expected to open in April. Ashley Furniture will occupy (#OccupyFurniture) the space formerly used by Borders and by a Sport Chalet.

In the column, Allen (an avid reader) makes a comment regarding the change from a bookstore to a furniture store:

It’s good news for Montclair to fill such a high-profile vacancy, even if a furniture store isn’t going to add much to Montclair’s cultural standing.

I’m sure that many of you know the story of Borders Books, a company that started back in the day when people purchased physical books sold in bookstores. Borders, unlike other companies, was unable to successfully adapt to the new environment, in which virtual books are sold from web pages.

Despite Allen’s cultural concerns, the switch from bookstore to furniture store is actually a good thing. While it is possible to replace a physical book with a virtual one, it is difficult to replace a physical table or chair with a virtual one.

I say difficult, but not impossible. You can go to a website and order a chair or a table without ever setting foot in a physical store. The furniture that you receive, however, will be physical and not virtual, and it will take some time to arrive at your home (unlike a virtual book, which you can receive in seconds). And it’s certainly conceivable that you can use a 3-D printer to print a chair or table; again, the resulting furniture will be physical.

That having been said, it’s apparent that a brick-and-mortar furniture store may potentially enjoy better success these days than a brick-and-mortar bookstore.

Even though the Ethan Allen (no relation) store in Montclair has also closed, along with the Borders and Sport Chalet. It’s fair to say, however, that Ashley Furniture enjoys a larger addressable market than the expensive furniture from Ethan Allen. Although if you’re so inclined, Ethan Allen has an online store also…

When a city unintentionally lies about its age

David Allen is a columnist with the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, and he recently shared a story in his blog.

One of his readers, Rubio R. Gonzalez, happened to be looking at his water bill from the city of Pomona, California. He then noticed that the city seal on the water bill listed a founding date of 1988 for the city.

The only problem? The city was actually founded in 1888, not 1988.

Is it possible that the goddess Pomona was lying about her age?

As Allen’s post notes, the mistake had eluded everyone until Gonzalez found it.

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