The new order: putting the 20 Questions Ball in charge of TEP

20Q Ball, now running Muni

With Muni's TEP program threatened by the city's budget cuts and awash in the inevitably complicated process of citizen input, it's time to consider applying technology to the problem. Specifically, the magical technology of the 20Q 20 Questions Ball, which turned in so many stockings this holiday. Otherwise bound for the thrift stores within the month, this sophisticated device can make beeping noises, ask questions and react to the answers, thus placing it ahead of your typical SFMTA manager by at least two out of three.

Before inaugurating our new oblate spheroid masters, it's essential to allow for an orientation and transition phase, where the new rulers can confront the problems first hand and to establish strategic policies. To frame the public debate, we've chosen two different problems confronting this great municipal transit system, namely the 38 Geary and the 12 Folsom. It's often a leader's job to help shape the discussion, so the 20 Questions Ball's rapid Q&A approach seems ideally suited.

38 Geary

So in a city with a large residential area on its western side, and its employment concentrated more or less along the central axis, you could reasonably infer that there's going to be a crosstown bus running between them. So, clever contraption who, unlike the SFMTA runs on batteries and lights up when its buttons are pressed, derive the existence of the 38 Geary.

Q: I know what you're thinking!
A: That's reassuring. I like my representatives to know what I'm thinking. I've noticed that many of them carry blackberries now, but then I've also noticed that sometimes they get them out in the middle of Public Comment time at Supervisors meetings instead of listening. Maybe you can do better.

Q: Ready?
A: Yes.

Q: Is it animal, vegetable, mineral, other?
A: Well, it's kind of an animistic experience and it passes by a lot of shops selling vegetables, but I can't think of any real mineral qualifies to it. Other.

Q: Does it break if dropped?
A: Yes -- it breaks all sorts of other ways, dropping it would be a nice change of pace.

Q: Does it store information?
A: Sometimes. Do iphones count? How about all the tags etched onto the windows and stickered onto the light fixtures? They've got to store a few bytes each.

Q: Is it larger than a pound of butter?
A: Um, yes. And smellier, too.

Q: Does it open?
A: Usually. Unless you're on one of the new hybrids with those back doors with the signs that say "touch to open," in which case they don't. Those aren't often found on the 38 line, though, so let's say Sometimes.

Q: Can it be refilled?
A: Well, assuming you could ever empty it, yes. That's not happening at the rate we're creeping along and hitting way too many stops.

Q: Is it very large?
A: Yes, a bus is pretty big. Especially the ones with the flexy sections.

Q: Is it colorful?
A: Yes. Frequently too colorful. Often after the first 45 minutes or so I'm ready for less color, and maybe a quiet park bench to lie down on or something.

Q: Does it roll?
A: Um, that implies a state of groovy movement that doesn't quite match up with the more usual grinding and lurching. Sometimes, though. At night it rolls okay.

Q: Aha! Let me think about that.
A: You do that. Maybe you could install smoother brakes or rapidly tow people who double park.

Q: Is it dangerous?
A: God, yes. I hear they can smell an ipod from two blocks away, and leave you laid out on the sidewalk with only your dog and a license plate stuck to your face.

Q: Can you blow it up?
A: I've certainly been tempted. They did in that movie Speed, but getting the 38 up to 50mph in the first place is going to require some impressive special effects. Let's give it the benefit of the doubt and say Sometimes.

Q: Do you know any songs about it?
A: Dude, we've got Youtube videos about it. Yes.

Q: Is it electronic?
A: You're confusing "electronic" with "electrical". Lots of people do that. But yes, it runs on electricity. Or walks.

Q: Is it tall?
A: Counting the overhead wands, yeah, I suppose.

Q: So much for that idea.
A: No, see "short bus" means something else entirely. Tall ship, long haul, short bus.

Q: Does it produce light?
A: Well, it's got headlights. And those fluorescent fixtures inside, which the taggers usually haven't obscured completely. Yes.

Q: Is it white?
A: Nothing on Muni stays white for long. No. There's some white on the outside, but only when they couldn't sell a bus-side ad on the thing.

Q: Does it have a trunk?
A: No, and I wouldn't try to put a bicycle on the front rack either.

Q: Is it bright?
A: Frankly, no. If it were one of those gifted bus lines we'd be sending it to special classes so it could learn French in its spare time.

Q: Do you love it?
A: Um, no. Sometimes I love being there it goes, and it's easy to love the enabler even if they've really just accelerated your abuse. But sometimes it's just how you get to work, and I don't love being at work, either.

Q: Does it bring joy to people?
A: Not really. It sometimes brings people to joy, or at least korean food, which is kind of like joy only you can get kim chi with it.

Q: I'm thinking... You win... JUST JOKING! It's a locomotive?
A: Um, no. You're thinking of the N Judah or something.

Q: Does it get wet?
A: I'm not sure how that's relevant, but when it rains, yes. And then in addition to being full of shopping bags and iphones it fills up with wet umbrellas. Yay!

Q: Is it cool?
A: Jesus squirty hemhorraging fuck no (turning device over, looking for right button to press to emphasize this fact adequately).

Q: Is it warm?
A: Usually it's pretty cold in there. Unless it's one of those days in summer when the fog doesn't form over the city and there's no wind. Let's say sometimes.

Q: Can you buy it?
A: It had to come from somewhere, but I've never tried. Usually I just pay to rent a seat on it for a while, or more regularly a patch of floor and four inches of bacteriologically questionable overhead rail. Unknown.

Q: Is it combustible?
A: That's like asking if it could be blown up. It opens whole new vistas of populist excitement, especially if we could string it up from one of those big cranes while we light it on fire. But then everyone would still have to get to work, and you can't just assume everything will be easy after the regime change. You have to plan for the occupation. So yes, but you have to go to the UN first.

Q: I'm thinking... I will guess again. It's a pickup truck?
A: Um, no. Unless it's one of those technicals that turn up in ugly east African wars. In that case I'd be willing to try it once or twice. It probably won't go any faster east of Gough, but we might have more fun with the produce trucks.

Q: I didn't get it! How human of me. You win! I know you want to try again!
A: Yes. I'd like to go back to the time when oil, tire and auto companies were buying up the rights-of-way to the trolley lines, ripping the rails out and selling cities on this whole diesel bus thing. Let's try that again. There used to be tracks running across the bay bridge, for fuck's sake. I totally want to try that again. Anyway, you've got your work cut out for you on that route, 20 Questions Ball. It's a route in crisis, with our east-west axis on the brink of collapse. You can own the success or the failure, it's up to you.

The 12 Folsom

It's one third hipsters, one third poor folks getting their groceries home, and one third uncategorizable. TEP says it should become the 12 Pacific, and stay out of the Mission altogether. Now it's supposed to go past 4th & King to Potrero instead. You tell me, 20 questions ball.

Q: Is it animal, vegetable, mineral, or other?
A: The 12 is a very strange animal.

Q: Can you lift it?
A: Me personally? No. But I've seen those big wreckers that can, and sometimes when I've been waiting an hour or so for a 12 to show up, one gets towed right past me. So, yes.

Q: Is it a vegetarian?
A: Judging by the people who ride it and the wrappers they leave in the back, no.

Q: Is it tall?
A: Well, it's diesel, so it doesn't have the wands. Let's say no.

Q: Does it have paws?
A: Well, not usually, but sometimes after it's gone up 11th past the clubs it does seem to acquire a few, usually worn by riders sitting towards the back smelling like half a pack of cigarettes.

Q: Is it striped?
A: Well, there are a couple of orange stripes in the muni livery. Yes.

Q: Is it brown?
A: Only indoors and on some of the passengers. Not viewed from a distance or anything.

Q: I bet you think that will throw me off track.

Q: Does it live in the forest?
A: No, I think it lives in that big yard over on the edge of Potrero hill, actually.

Q: Does it live in salt-water?
A: No, you're thinking of the 18 46th Ave. I wonder how often they have to repaint those things.

Q: Is it white?
A: If it was striped, how could it be white? Let's say sometimes.

Q: Does it need love?
A: God, it needs something. Maybe people will love the 12 Pacific more than they love the 12 Folsom, I'm not sure. I won't, since it will no longer go anywhere I need, but that must be someone's commute to work or something.

Q: Can you buy it?
A: You tried this line of reasoning with the 38. I suppose you could buy the whole line, since TEP is basically trying to buy it for Potrero. Let's say yes.

Q: Is it heavy?
A: Um, yeah.

Q: Can it climb?
A: Not terribly well, but if it's going to cover that route through Potrero hill after the route change it'll have to learn. Sometimes. Other times, like on that stretch down Harrison, it's more of a plains bus.

Q: Is it a specific color?
A: Yes, it's the color of grocery bags in the front, hipsters and commuters in the middle, and a random assortment in the back. Except for the time that guy sat in the back of the 12 all the way to 18th St periodically huffing gasoline out of a can he'd brought on board. That wasn't any specific color, though there was definitely color going on. Things were going a bit pink and sparkly over where I was sitting.

Q: Is it dangerous?
A: Less than the 38 Geary, but I've seen a driver operate it entirely using their left leg and left arm, while the others lolled in the aisle, so let's say yes.

Q: Do you love it?
A: You're really getting repetitive. No.

Q: Does it live in groups (gregarious)?
A: Oddly, no. It's a pretty solitary creature. The 22 Fillmore certainly lives in groups -- you usually see two or three at once, migrating gradually through traffic in single file, like how elephants link their trunks and tails together so they don't get lost. The 43 Masonic is pretty gregarious too, and likes the company of its own kind. But not the 12 -- usually you only get one. Or none, sometimes.

Q: I get it on the first guess. Was it used over 100 years ago?
A: No, a hundred years ago we hadn't hit on the idea of connecting the financial district with the outer Mission.

Q: Does it bring joy to people?
A: I think it's safe to say that there is no joy along the 12's route, except the basic taoist joyfulness of utility, and I think I'm stretching it to get that far.

Q: I'm thinking... You win... JUST JOKING! It's a tiger cub?
A: Yeah, 20 questions ball. It's a tiger cub. You're awesome. Now let's drive over to cruise the Souza brother's street, what say?

Q: I Win! I love it when people pick the easy ones.

I'm glad you do, 20 Questions Ball. It's time for change, here's your mandate. Go forth and make Muni work. Sometimes.