Ghostwatch reviewed by an American in 2016

October 29, 2016


 

For Halloween this year I thought I’d so something a little different — I got my hands on a copy of an infamous British TV horror special and decided to write a review.

For those unfamiliar with the show, Ghostwatch is a 1992 Halloween TV horror special from BBC. It never aired in the US, nor has it ever been made available to US viewers through legal means (unless you have a region-unlocked DVD player.)

The TV special scared many viewers at the time because it masqueraded as a live, non-fiction TV show featuring hosts familiar to BBC viewers. You can read more about the effects the show had on its audience over on Wikipedia.

I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it, so I’ll just give you a brief rundown. The 90 minute show alternates between a talk show host with a paranormal investigator, and two on-scene reporters investigating an allegedly haunted house where two girls live with their single mother. The talk show segments include everything from “live phone calls” to interviews with a skeptic from New York.

 

 

The type of horror leans toward the subtle variety one would expect from BBC. Think Doctor Who and you’re not far off. There’s no terrifying violence or jump scares here. As an American viewer, I’d say the closest analog would be if The Blair Witch Project had been a TV special hosted by Geraldo Rivera.

One minor spoiler: the ending won’t be a surprise to you if you’ve seen The Onion’s Halloween episode of In The Know. For all I know The Onion could have been making an homage to Ghostwatch.

Overall I can say it’s entertaining, but twenty four years later it feels very dated. TV shows don’t do call-in segments anymore, for example; instead they read responses on social media. But the biggest problem isn’t the format, it’s the storytelling. The haunting theory presented toward the end casts the ghostly villain as two lazy stereotypes; mentally ill and transgender.

I don’t mean to say that a mentally ill transgendered person returning as a ghost couldn’t be compelling, but Ghostwatch doesn’t make a case for this. Instead these attributes only serve to advance the story while neglecting any potential motivations behind the ghost’s actions.

The horror aspect also deserves some critique, as the host segments tend to deflate the sense of dread building up in the on-scene segments. For the most part the tension built up inside the haunted house dissipates once the show returns to the comfort and safety of a TV set.

 

 

There are two paths Ghostwatch could have gone that would have made it a more timeless classic. One, it could have played its cards closer and have never tried to explain away the details of the haunted house. Two, it could have gone the opposite route and explored the alleged ghost in more depth.

That said, I could easily imagine the show doing well in the US market in the early 90′s when similar “truth seeker” reality shows were popping up on Fox, cable TV, etc. But stripped of its cultural context, the show seems more enjoyable for its curious novelty factor than its ability to scare.

 
Verdict: B-/C+

Good for: People curious about unusual television history, those looking for a mildly scary 90 minutes of television.

Not good for: Those bored by typical horror tropes, anyone seeking modern horror.

Hiking Bernal Heights Park

October 2, 2016

If you live in San Francisco you’re undoubtedly familiar with Bernal Heights Park, even if you don’t know it by name — it’s the big rocky hill at the south end of the Mission District. From a distance, it looks like a bonsai arrangement due to a few short trees growing at the top.

 
 

Somehow I’d never actually hiked to the top of it before, a strange lapse on my part especially because I’ve spent many afternoons in Precita Park, which is just below Bernal Heights. Not having anything else to do on Saturday and given the reasonable weather, I thought I’d go exploring.

There’s a variety of ways to get to Bernal Heights Park. I took one of the most obvious routes: starting on Folsom Street, I walked all the way to the southern end of the street. The sidewalk ends on the right side, but continues on the left. If you turn around at this point you’ll see a home with an interesting mural.

 
Bernal Heights
 

Not far up the road there’s a somewhat infamous rock that tends to get painted over by local pranksters. Not long ago it was painted to look like the poo emoji. More recently it was painted a bright cyan color, and someone added a troll-ish looking face.

 
Bernal Heights
 

Crossing the street here leads to an entrance to the park. There’s a gated paved road winding around the hill that’s presumably intended for utility workers, but for parkgoers it’s a place to walk, bike, or play fetch with your dog.

From this particular entrance you’ll spot a colorful memorial honoring the life of Alex Nieto, a young man who’s life was tragically ended by police brutality. Though his death was over two years ago, the memorial is still immaculately maintained.

 
Bernal Heights
 

Continue walking around as the road turns and you’ll eventually encounter a stone labyrinth. Right now it could use some love, but you can still see the rough outline of the maze.

 
Bernal Heights labyrinth
 

From there you can get a clear view of the top of the park, where there’s the trees and a mysterious wireless hub of some sort. I headed up to check out the wireless thing. I’m not entirely sure what it is, but the building at the bottom is covered in murals, and there’s one of those air raid sirens next to it that’s tested at noon every Tuesday.

THIS IS A TEST. THIS IS A TEST OF THE OUTDOOR WARNING SYSTEM. THIS IS ONLY A TEST.

 
Bernal Heights Tuesday at Noon siren on Bernal Strange device on Bernal Heights
 

Jutting out just below the top of the park is a flat-ish rocky area where some children were running around, dogs were being walked, and some dude was flying a kite.

 
Kite flying on Bernal
 

I walked out to the edge of this area and snapped a giant panoramic photo. Click the image for the full view and you can see the “bonsai” trees on the left. Moving right you can see Sutro Tower, the top of the Golden Gate Bridge, the office towers downtown, and the two spans of the Bay Bridge near the left.

 
Bernal Heights pano
 

As for getting back down, there’s really only one way to go. Why? One word: slides! If you head to the northwest side of the park, there’s an unmarked staircase heading down to Esmeralda Ave. Head down that staircase, walk one block in the same direction, and you’re at the slide park. Grab a piece of cardboard and let gravity do its thing.

After that, keep heading in the same direction and you’ll get to one of the city’s smallest parks, Coleridge Mini Park. This tiny “park” is really nothing to write home about, but there’s a nice view of Sutro Tower from there and a micro-sized playground for little kids.

 
Sutro Tower from Coleridge Mini Park
 

To get to Mission Street, keep heading down the hill and you’ll wind up near the intersection of Mission and Valencia.

Want to see all the photos I took on this excursion? Take a peek at this Flickr album.

City Guides tour of Lands End: Sutro Heights

September 6, 2016

I’m no good at planning, so it comes as no surprise that I’d neglected to make plans for Labor Day and had to find something interesting to do at the last minute. I figured I’d go on another City Guides tour — I’ve been on dozens of these — and somehow managed to pick one of the most interesting tours with spectacular views on a day that was shockingly not foggy. I’d highly recommend this particular tour.

If you’ve never been on a City Guides tour, here’s the briefing: they have many 100% free walking tours in San Francisco led by volunteers every day. The program is run by SF Public Library and paid for through the hotel tax and donations by people like you and me. At the end of each tour they pass around envelopes and you can put in a few bucks if you like, but there’s no obligation. The tour groups range in size greatly depending on a number of factors; sometimes there’s only a couple people, other times — like today’s tour — there’s over forty.

As the title suggests I went on the Lands End: Sutro Heights tour. I’m writing this to entice you to go on it yourself so I’m keeping the “spoilers” to a minimum. But I’m going to bait you with some photos of the views and a few neat tidbits you probably haven’t heard about.

The tour starts at the Sutro Heights park, which is just up the hill from Sutro Baths and across the street at 48th Ave; look for the big lion head statues.

Like many things in San Francisco, Sutro Heights is named after a certain local businessman and former mayor Adolph Sutro. The area is now a park, but was originally where his own home once stood. Sutro made the area into a garden with flowers and statues, but the flowers died out long ago and most of the statues mysteriously disappeared. Someone even removed the antlers on this remaining deer statue; now people occasionally replace what’s left of the antlers with tree branches.

 
Sutro Heights
 

Back in Sutro’s day there were a number of observation decks open to the public with a spectacular view of Ocean Beach. The only remaining one was built in stone, and once had an area (now sealed off) that acted as the wine cellar for Sutro’s home.

Not pictured, but just to the right and below is the Cliff House, which Sutro bought and turned it into a restaurant; one factoid the City Guides tour mentions but is strangely absent from most tourist literature is what the Cliff House was used for before it was a restaurant. (Hint: it involved sex.) After Sutro bought the place it was infamously blown up by accident, rebuilt, burned down, then rebuilt as a small cement building that still stands to this very day.

As with other photos in this post, click on the panorama below for a larger version.

 
Sutro Heights
 

Another interesting story is Sutro’s long, expensive battle against Southern Pacific Railway, which he felt was gouging travelers coming to spend money at his attractions. After all, how can you squeeze money out of someone when their pockets are empty? But that’s a story too long for this post, so either go on the tour yourself or read about it online or in a history book.

Which takes us to Sutro’s other attraction, Sutro Baths. Before people had showers and bathtubs in their homes, your average Joes would head over to a public bathhouse to clean themselves. Without getting into how fucking gross this is, the project was a severe miscalculation by ol’ Adolph; by the time he’d built the thing it was already obsolete as most homes in the area had modern bathrooms. Whoops.

The building stood there until the mid 1960′s when it was burned down, probably on purpose. Now it’s this strange modern ruin that attracts tourists for some weird reason that I’m not sure I fully understand.

 
Sutro Baths
 

The City Guides tour itself ended before we walked down to the baths, presumably for liability reasons. But I headed down anyway and have a couple more photos to share.

First, here’s the ruins of Sutro Baths from the walking path just above it:

 
Sutro Baths
 

Next up: until this afternoon I’d somehow never walked through the cave next to Sutro Baths. I couldn’t get any great photos because a) it’s way too dark and b) it was filled with people. Also I was too busy trying not to trip on the rocks inside the cave to get my phone out.

The cave is completely terrifying — you can hear the echo of waves crashing against the rocks and the entire thing feels like it’s going to probably collapse at any second, and one day it inevitably will. Until then, you can see the ocean waves in a couple of spots where it’s already eroded a hole away. Incidentally, these waves were also what fed into the Sutro Baths. The ocean water went through a natural aquifer, then into a steam-powered heater.

 
Sutro Baths
 

On my walk home I decided to head past the beach and through Golden Gate Park, so here’s one final shot of Ocean Beach. It was such a sunny day there were nine (nine!) beach volleyball games going on at once, and that’s only at this end of the beach.

If you look carefully at the photo you can see both of the windmills in Golden Gate Park. But did you know? Those windmills both served an important function in the park back in the day, and there was once a third windmill in Sutro Heights. What where they used for and why? You’ll have to go take the tour yourself to find out.

 
Ocean Beach

What is it a nice day for?

September 4, 2016

It's a nice day...
 

Near 24th and Folsom I encountered the above pull-tag flyer, which sports an old photo of Billy Idol along with the heading “It’s a nice day.” The pull-tags include the following phrases:

  • To start again
  • For a white wedding

If you’ve somehow never encountered the 1982 hit song this is referencing, here’s the music video for your enjoyment. Have a nice day!

 

Murals of Lilac Alley

These days it seems pretty much every alley around 24th and Mission is a de-facto canvas for street artists. Overall this is a good thing; it keeps the Mission’s colorful, artistic elements in plain view, acting as a counterbalance to the obscene housing prices that have made the area affordable to many artists. Go out there almost any weekend and you’re bound to find at least one such mural in progress.

Here’s a few I snapped photos of today on a stroll through Lilac Alley. Click any of them for a larger view on Flickr.
 

Lilac Alley murals

Lilac Alley murals

Lilac Alley murals

Lilac Alley murals<

Lilac Alley murals

Lilac Alley murals

Lilac Alley murals

Sam and Max mural spotted in the Mission

August 21, 2016

Mural of Max (of Sam and Max, Freelance Police)
 

While wandering through the Sunday Streets crowd today I got a little off the beaten path and spotted the mural above. It’s unmistakably a depiction of Max, the short, sarcastic, violent bunny character from Sam & Max. I looked around but couldn’t find a corresponding mural of Sam, the 6-foot tall dog who dresses like he just walked out of a hard-boiled detective novel.

For those unfamiliar with the characters, Sam & Max started out as a series of relatively obscure comic books by artist Steve Purcell. The two characters work together as “freelance police” to solve crimes, though they don’t have any particular respect for the law themselves.

In 1993 Purcell produced an adventure video game based on the characters at LucasArts called Sam & Max Hit the Road. In the game the two go on a road trip to solve a missing persons case, visiting tacky tourist destinations (a carnival freak show, the world’s largest ball of twine, etc.) It’s widely regarded as one of the best — and funniest — adventure games of the era.

In the years since the characters were adapted to a short-lived animated TV show and several smaller adventure games from Telltale.

So why is this find interesting enough to be worthy of a blog post? It’s not uncommon for street murals to feature well known commercial characters like Ronald McDonald, Bugs Bunny, or even the Mario Bros. But these characters are not well known outside of a relatively small circle of fans. I bet most people who’ve seen this mural don’t know what it’s referencing.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go rummage through my closet and see if I still have my old Sam & Max comics somewhere.

Details leaked regarding mysterious new restaurant at 17th and Valencia

August 8, 2016

Almost a year ago I reported that the team behind Garcon seemed to be quietly working on a new restaurant at the former site of Young’s BBQ in the Mission. Normally restaurant openings involve some press releases and fanfare, but this one seemed to fly under the radar. Naturally, that made it all the more intriguing.

Now new details are slowly starting to emerge in public: namely, the name: “Bayou.” New signage recently appeared above the space:

Bayou
 

Here’s where things start to get a little fuzzy though. A quick Google search revealed a link to Bayou’s website, which is still incomplete. There’s missing information, like the phone number being listed as “(415) XXX-XXXX.”

Other signs that the website is incomplete include the fact that many links go nowhere, and the social media links direct you a brand design agency called The Imagists.


 

Sleuthing a bit further, The Imagists have a page on their online portfolio about Bayou, which includes this description:

A new multi-location concept, Bayou Creole Kitchen & Rotisserie proposes a casual offering of creole and cajun-inspired dishes to the lunch crowd of the Mission and Financial districts [sic] of San Francisco.

The second Financial District location isn’t mentioned on Bayou’s website, nor could I find any reference to it in the California liquor license database. Perhaps that’s intended for the future or was just a bit of wishful thinking. As for the “lunch crowd of the Mission,” that’s not even a thing.

Regardless, the one item on their website that appears to be (mostly?) complete is the menu. As the name suggests it’s focused on the cuisine of New Orleans. It features everything one might expect such as gumbo, fried green tomatoes with shrimp, rotisserie chicken, and po boys. Not much for vegetarians or vegans at the moment.

Perhaps the biggest bombshell on Bayou’s website is bad news for fans of Garcon. Though he’s still listed as the executive chef on Garcon’s website, Arthur Wall’s bio on Bayou’s website indicates he’s moving on:

Arthur Wall is the Executive Chef and proprietor of Bayou Restaurant in San Francisco. He previously spent six years serving as Executive Chef of Garçon restaurant in the Mission district, where he developed a strong, local following and connection to the community.

Obviously I can’t vouch for any information on an unfinished website, but it’s certainly unusual for news to leak like this in the hyper-scrutinized world of Bay Area dining.

I’ll update if I hear more.

Mini Strandbeest

August 4, 2016

Mini Strandbeest
 

I received an unexpected gift at work today; a Mini Strandbeest kit. Like a wildly complex Ikea furniture set, there’s dozens of parts to stick together, but it doesn’t take terribly long if you follow the directions.

If you’ve been stuck under a rock for the past few decades and are unfamiliar with Strandbeests, check out the Wikipedia page on the artist who created them.

This particular tiny Strandbeest is powered by wind, with a small windmill and two reduction gears. Like its peers you can also just push it along with your hands, but it’s far more entertaining to blow on the windmill and watch it spring into action.

Want to see it walk? I placed it on the floor and pointed a fan at it. Here’s a short video of the result, complete with silly music to complete the effect:

 

Turn Up: There’s a whole other world up there

July 31, 2016

This year I’ve been doing a number of “30 day” projects where I try to see what I can accomplish in my spare time in only 30 days. For July I decided to focus on photography. First I had to come up with some rules and make some decisions about what I was going to photograph and how.

Here are the rules I came up with:

  • Take at least 30 photos during the 30 days. This turned out not to be a worry at all, I took well over ten times that amount; the difficulty was in narrowing it down to the best of the bunch.
  • Give back to the community by offering the photos under an open license. I decided on a Creative Commons attribution, non-commercial, share alike license and marked the photos as such on Flickr.
  • Only photograph with my iPhone 6 and only make minor adjustments to the photos. I didn’t want to distract myself with tools I didn’t already have in my pocket, and didn’t want to dive into RAW photo development either. This was to limit the scope of the project so it would fit in a 30 day period.
  • Most importantly, the photos needed a theme. I went with “Turn Up,” which I’ll describe more below.

The theme “Turn Up” comes from something I’ve heard from two disparate sources, video game designers and urban planners. Both point out that when left to our own devices, we typically don’t turn our head to look upward at the world above us. Sure, there’s a whole other world up there, but we rarely stop to look at it. Urban planners take this to mean that we should focus design efforts on making street level experience as friendly as possible and worry less about making, say, the exterior of higher levels of an office tower visually pleasing. Video game designers on the other hand have to find various ways to suggest aiming the mouse/controller up to see the rest of a puzzle, for example.

The corollary to this philosophy I suppose is telling someone who’s afraid of heights not to look down when they walk over a bridge, which of course is what they’ll inevitably do when told not to. People are like that.

Through the perspective of the lens of a camera, looking upward feels just as awkward as it does through our own eyes. For this reason many photographers stay way from such photos, lamenting the unnatural, often forced nature of this perspective. Part of that “otherness” I would argue is an odd feeling of familiarity. We were all children once, and we were constantly looking up at adults, taller children, or pretty much everything. The world is not made for small people.

Whatever the case, that sense of otherness is exactly what excites me about such perspectives. So for the past month I’ve been wandering around the city, finding tall things to look up at and often squatting down to photograph them from low angles.

And here, in no particular order, are the results.

 
1. Lotta’s Fountain

Contrasted by the much newer buildings behind it, we look upward to the 1875 Lotta’s Fountain on 3rd and Market. According to legend, the fountain served as a meeting place for survivors of the 1906 earthquake and fire, which is why people still meet there every year far too early in the morning on April 18th. The fountain was restored in the late 90′s.

Allegedly the fountain is still operated on special occasions, but I have to admit I’ve never seen water flowing through it.

Lotta's Fountain

 
2. Rincon Center atrium

Sometimes I wonder how many health-conscious office workers grabbing vegetarian quinoa bowls for lunch at the Rincon Center’s outdoor plaza ever explore the rest of the complex. My guess is not many.

Built adjacent to an old post office that was preserved for its historic murals is a 1980′s office/retail complex with a beautiful sun filled atrium (yes, we’re getting to that other downtown 1980′s atrium in a moment, hold your horses there folks.) What overshadows this atrium more than a cloudy day is the water feature in the center, where water falls from a shower head several stories above to collect in a pool in the middle of the floor. This in and of itself is all well and good, but a sign next to the pool of water claims that this is actually part of the building’s climate control system.

This is a claim so dubious I have to wonder if anyone out there believes it. Certainly if a fountain designer discovered a way to stabilize a building’s temperature with a water spout we’d all be doing this, because traditional HVAC systems are notorious for creating cold/hot spots, and have to be repaired all the time by grumpy maintenance workers. So if you believe a fountain can accomplish what an air conditioner cannot, I have a bridge to sell you.

Rincon Center atrium

 
3. Contemporary Jewish Museum

I’m not sure what it is with Jewish museums and wild architecture that eschews standard 90 degree angles, but that seems to be some sort of unwritten rule. This photo captures the Contemporary Jewish Museum (or the “Jewseum” as the hip kids call it) at its most unexpected angle, framed against the backdrop of more typical architecture.

The cube structure is made from steel panels, jutting out from a much older brick building that once served as a PG&E substation. The museum opened in 2008.

Contemporary Jewish Museum

 
4. Old Mint

The Old Mint at 5th and Mission was actually San Francisco’s second US Mint, which was eventually replaced by the one behind the Safeway at Church and Market today. While the New Mint no longer prints currency, it’s still used to stamp out special collectible coins.

What makes the Old Mint photogenic in part is the fact that it’s been recently restored. Occasionally plans have been floated to turn the building into a permanent museum, but so far nobody’s been able to raise enough funds to do so. If only someone had a machine that printed money…

Old Mint

 
5. Dolores Street’s palm trees

Dolores Street is one of the most consistently sunny parts of the city, so it makes sense that the street’s wide median is covered in palm trees. In this photo I tried to capture several trees of various heights on one such sunny day.

The trick to capturing this photo wasn’t so much the angle or getting the palm leaves to frame the photo, but rather kneeling in the grassy median without getting dog shit on my pants. Even as a hobby, photography is truly a glamorous endeavor.

Palm trees of Dolores Street

 
6. 16th Avenue Steps

There are several places in San Francisco where a street or avenue is so steep and narrow that it’s actually a staircase. One section of 16th Avenue is an example of this.

Back in 2003 a local resident decided that the bland concrete steps could use some sprucing up, and two years later a long colorful mosaic was installed on the 16th Avenue stairs. If you want to see what the stairs used to look like, walk about a block east to see a separate staircase that never got a mosaic upgrade.

16th Avenue Steps

 
7. St. Anne Church

While the Catholic Church may not approve of Barbie, there’s no question in my mind that Barbie would approve of this aggressively pink Catholic Church. The palm trees out front make it look like something from LA, the gray skies above in this photo make it clear this is in the Sunset District.

The 1930′s building features asymmetrical towers and dozens of white plaster sculptures stuck just above the entryway. Fog permitting, the towers are often visible from across the Sunset District.

St. Anne Church

 
8. Spencer House

Across from Buena Vista Park at Haight and Baker is a classic Queen Anne Victorian known as the Spencer House. Built for a man named John Spencer in the late 19th century, the mansion was restored about 15 years ago. Unlike many of its contemporary buildings it was never converted from a single family home into apartments.

One important note: unlike the other Queen Anne Victorian later down this list, you may be able to afford to stay in this one if only for a few nights. Even if you’re not interested in booking the room, check that link for some shots of the home’s gorgeous interiors.

Spencer House

 
9. Sanchez Street tree lanterns

Not far from Duboce Park Cafe I happened to look up and spot these paper lanterns hanging out in the trees above. Who put them there? Why are they there? I have no idea, but it’s some harmless fun.

Oh, and to the half naked guy in the window I accidentally took a photo of when I was trying to capture the paper lanterns? Sorry! I deleted that photo.

Sanchez Street tree lanterns

 
10. Armory

What can you say about the Armory that hasn’t been said already? It started out as an actual armory, and it sure looks like one. Since then it was briefly a hospital, it’s hosted various events, and now it’s a porn studio that occasionally hosts concerts.

From this angle it almost looks like the building is begging a rock climber to come along and try to climb up it. Come to think of it, that’s probably not the best design for an armory. Then again, I’m pretty sure rock climbing wasn’t as big in 1914 as it is today.

Armory

 
11. Forest Hill Station stairs

In college I was taking Muni Metro somewhere with a friend and we got out in Forest Hill Station. He started walking towards the stairs, so I stopped him and said we should just take the elevator. He looked at me like I was insane and said, “Do you really trust Muni to rescue you if you get stuck in a broken elevator?”

Sadly, he had a point. But despite being the deepest underground of all of Muni’s subway stations, the stairs aren’t as strenuous of a walk as they look at first glance. Besides, it’s the oldest subway station in San Francisco that hasn’t been renovated. It still looks almost exactly like it did when it appeared in the film Dirty Harry, and by then it was already over 50 years old. So if you skip out on the stairs you’re missing part of the old-time aesthetic of the station.

IMG_8990

 
12 and 13. Hyatt Regency San Francisco’s atrium

This late 1980′s hotel in the Embarcadero Center is one those places where you might wander in and be so busy with your luggage or whatever that you forget to look up. This would be a mistake; between the wildly designed elevators to the pyramid of floors above, the atrium does itself a disservice by holding the world record for the largest indoor atrium. That’s so missing the point of the spectacle of this incredible space.

I first found myself in here as a teenager, and I’ve returned many times. It still blows me away.

Hyatt Regency SF atrium

Hyatt Regency SF atrium

 
14. Embarcadero Center tower

The Embarcadero Center took nearly two decades to build, and features an open-air mall topped with four office towers. Each tower has a similar design, but they’re all ever-so-slightly different. From far away you could be forgiven for mistaking the towers to be featureless and rectangular, but up close the rectangles have an unexpected, almost organic nature.

I’ve already forgotten which tower is reaching for the sky in this photo, but it’s definitely either One or Four (the two taller ones.)

IMG_9037

 
15. Embarcadero Center entry hall

Okay, one more photo from the Embarcadero Center and then we’re moving on. I promise.

This plant-lined hallway with a gentle stairway takes you into the Embarcadero Center. Look up and you’ll see a plant-lined trellis of sorts above, but be careful not to trip on the stairs while you’re doing so. Unfortunately nobody ever seems to use this entrance to the western side of the complex, which is a shame because it’s so photogenic.

Embarcadero Center entry hall

 
16. Transamerica Pyramid

Sometimes you just have to go with a safe choice, and the Transamerica Pyramid is exactly that. It’s safe because it’s an icon of San Francisco.

The depression-era Glass–Steagall Act forced Bank of America to spin off its insurance division into a separate company, which they named Transamerica. Decades later both firms built nearby skyscrapers in the Financial District. This shot was tricky to get because the building is currently surrounded on all sides with maintenance equipment, so forgive me for the unintended lens flare.

From this angle it looks like either an alien space shuttle, or some sort of highway to the sky.

Transamerica Pyramid

 
17. Coit Tower

While we’re talking about the most iconic structures of San Francisco, here’s Coit Tower. Looking up at it from this angle, it seems to almost touch the sky. Or maybe that’s just me hallucinating after climbing what felt like a million stairs to snap this photo.

You’ve probably at least been inside the lobby of Coit Tower and looked at the murals, but — did you know? — there’s a second floor with even more murals. It’s typically only open to the public on special tours.

Coit Tower

 
18. Mark Hopkins Hotel

It’s almost impossible not to look up at this hotel, seeing as how it’s one of the tallest structures on top of Nob Hill. The hotel is named after a railroad baron who once lived on Nob Hill.

According to a City Guides tour guide, it was a tradition for women to take their husbands or boyfriends to the top floor bar, the “Top of the Mark,” before he was sent away to fight in World War Two. The bar is still there today.

Mark Hopkins Hotel

 
19. Grace Cathedral

For all its luxuries, Nob Hill is topped with a poor man’s 20th century knockoff of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral. But if you ignore the drab exterior walls, the ornate windows — such as these in the back — have merit in their own right.

Initially I’d planned on photographing the towers on the front, but those were covered in a giant banner at the time. I “settled” for the back, but in retrospect this is a more unusual shot. A happy accident, as they say.

Grace Cathedral

 
20. 8 Octavia

This condo complex seems to elicit very strong love-it-or-hate-it reactions. Personally I lean more towards the love it side simply because it’s different. I’ve never seen anything with fins quite like that outside of the heatsink squished on top of the CPU in my computer. That said, I wouldn’t want to be the guy who had to clean building’s exterior.

It took a good ten minutes to get a photo that came out at all — those glass fins are all too happy to reflect sunlight into a camera lens, so this might be a good place to live if you’re constantly hounded by paparazzi.

8 Octavia

 
21. Supreme Court of California (Earl Warren Building)

This classic-looking building only dates back to the 1920′s, but has been added onto over the years. It was badly damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake but has been repaired since. The courtrooms are supposed to look quite nice, but if it means getting roped into a jury I’m happy to take in all in from the outside. The law and justice motifs mean there’s no mistaking this place, it’s definitely a court house.

Supreme Court of California (Earl Warren Building)

 
22. UC Hastings College of the Law

The pure blandness of this building makes it stick out like a sore thumb in the Civic Center area, completely out of touch with the classic French look of the rest of the neighborhood. (See #21 which is right down the street from here.) But the clean geometric lines also beg for this type of photographic treatment, flipping the blandness to an unexpected angle where it’s almost enduring.

Planning insists that this building dates back to 1907 — if that’s true it clearly must have been overhauled in the mid 20th century.

UC Hastings College of the Law

 
23. 101 California Street

This early 80′s skyscraper is notable for its round shape and the impossible-looking triangular “bite” taken out of its glassy lobby. The structure essentially stands on massive stilts, which seems ill-advised but what do I know — the place survived the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. I think it looks more daring in person than it does in any photo I took of it, but this was the most intriguing photo of the bunch.

Unfortunately architecture is not what the building is best known for. It was the site of a grizzly mass shooting by a deranged gunman who thought MSG was controlling his brain, or something. This tragic incident led to a short-lived ban on assault weapons.

101 California Street

 
24. Twitter’s headquarters, aka San Francisco Furniture Mart

This 1937 Art Deco building was once the home of San Francisco Furniture Mart, also known simply as “SF Mart.” It closed in 2008 and sat empty for a number of years until it was converted to offices and Twitter moved in (along with several other companies) enticed to the area under a bizarre tax deal, even by the standards of San Francisco tax laws.

Historical notes aside, the ornate geometry of the Art Deco styling coupled with the brown exterior almost makes this building look like an ancient tomb that Indian Jones might pillage.

Twitter headquarters / SF Furniture Mart

 
25 and 26. Sutro Tower before and after

The other day when I hiked up Mount Sutro I had this sneaky idea that I’d head over to Sutro Tower and take some photos of it for this project. But our old pal Karl The Fog had some different ideas, and was looming over Twin Peaks by the time I’d made it out of the woods.

So I had to return the following weekend to get a clear shot of Sutro Tower without Karl’s cold embrace, but decided to include both photos as an exercise in contrasts. As it turned out, getting a shot of Sutro Tower from the same angle was much more difficult when I had to carefully position myself so that the tower blocked out direct sunlight. The two photos don’t quite line up, but this was my best attempt.

Sutro Tower (with fog)

Sutro Tower (no fog)

 
27. Mission Dolores Basilica tower

After the 1906 earthquake knocked down the Gothic-style brick church that once stood here, a stucco building replaced it. What you see here is the bell tower from the 16th Street side. Apparently it was a bit bland until they added some finishing touches to it in the mid 1920′s. From this angle you can’t see the bells but that’s probably for the best given the pigeon netting that would be visible.

Mission Dolores Basilica tower

 
28. Market Street pedestrian/bike overpass

If you’ve ever made the hike up Twin Peaks from Noe Valley this may be a familiar sight. This tower winds around at a gentle slope to take you up to a bridge that crosses over the hilly part of Market Street. If walking up or down this thing doesn’t make you at least somewhat dizzy, nothing will. Fortunately since it’s on a hill you’re at ground level on the other side.

While the geometry of the corkscrew design makes for an interesting photo, I’m not sure I’d want to be walking in this thing during an earthquake.

Market Street pedestrian overpass

 
29. SFMOMA expansion

Designed by architecture firm Snøhetta, the expansion of the SFMOMA includes a white “skin” to the back of the building that looks like an undulating wave. Particularly at this extreme angle, it feels as though you’re floating across a slightly off-white sea.

New back of SFMOMA

 
30. John Daly’s mansion at 21st and Guerrero

According to the Planning Department, this beautiful Queen Anne Victorian was built in 1895 by John Daly (yes, the man Daly City is named after) and was recently restored in 2009. Confession: I’ve wanted to live in this building since the first time I saw it years ago.

Since this building is built into a hill it’s possible to view it from many angles, but I prefer looking up to it from here because it emphasizes that gorgeous tower.

John Daly's mansion
 

That’s all thirty! If you’d like you can also view these photos in this Flickr album.

How (not) to think like a product manager

July 27, 2016

A Medium post titled Clouseau: A Postmortem has been making its rounds on the internet today. While the title isn’t particularly revealing, the subtitle gives you the gist of the story: “How I vetted and dumped a startup idea in ~20 hours and for under $1000.”

For those who haven’t read the article, here’s a quick summary:

  • A product manager from Google went on a vacation in Europe and stayed in some fancy hotels
  • Those fancy hotels did a poor job of providing rooms dark enough to sleep in
  • The product manager spent time and money investigating a business plan around measuring light levels in hotel rooms
  • This data would be offered as a service and would be a “natural monopoly” in the industry
  • Two light meters were purchased and a logo was commissioned for the project
  • This plan failed because hotels don’t let people barge into their rooms to measure light levels without reserving the room, which was cost-prohibitive

What this unintentionally illustrates is classic “product manager thinking:” marching ahead with a pre-conceived solution set in mind despite having given little or no thought to the problem space as a whole. Instead, they limit themselves to areas where they have existing domain knowledge and try to build a solution around that. In this case, that involved coming up with a data-driven approach built around a technological solution.

But just because someone has a pre-existing toolkit for solving problems doesn’t mean that toolkit is always going to be the best method — or even an adequate method — to solve every problem. As the saying goes, to the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

As a software engineer I’ve witnessed this type of thinking in every product manager I’ve ever encountered. No matter what the problem, somehow software was going to be the answer, because that’s what they had to work with. Is the toilet broken? Great! Since the problem is broken toilets, we’ll build an app that lets you hire a plumber. Problem solved… sort of.

So I don’t mean to single out this particular product manager when I point out that his “rapid prototype” was an unnecessary waste of time. If anything that’s the industry norm.

Instead, if he’d only taken a couple minutes to ask someone who travels frequently — or even someone who lives in a neighborhood with a lot of nightlife — he’d know that this was a solved problem. In fact, it was solved so long ago that the solution is offered in thousands of stores from dozens of different companies:

Yup. A humble sleep mask will block out light. And for good measure, buy a couple sets of earplugs. Believe me, if you travel a lot, you’re going to wind up in some loud, bright hotel rooms where you’ll need both.

The message I want to leave you with is to avoid this pitfall. Yes, sometimes gathering data and offering it as a service is a sensible solution to a problem. Or maybe some other type of technology. But unless you’ve fully explored the alternatives, don’t limit yourself with a hammer/nail mentality.