How I built my own electric guitar from a kit

February 5, 2017

Why did I build an electric guitar from a kit? Let me admit upfront that I can barely play a guitar at all. For me, building an electric guitar was on my bucket list for several years. I like the idea of building things from scratch to learn about what makes them work. But building an electric guitar from scratch requires more woodworking skills than I have. Even if building the guitar body is potentially something I could do on my own, the neck — particularly the fretboard — is far beyond my abilities.

While you can buy pre-made necks, it’s not really “from scratch” at that point. So I rationalized that I’d might as well go with a kit to avoid going too far down the rabbit hole.

The kit I got is similar to a Gibson “Flying V” though the headstock has in-line tuners like you might see on a Fender. It was sold by a company called Albatross Guitars, which I think sources their parts from various factories in China.

Oh, and no instructions were included.

Here’s what the guitar kit looks like in the box, though keep in mind I’d already taken it out and examined the parts a few times at this point.

DIY guitar kit

With the exception of the strings, the parts were of much higher quality than I was expecting. I’d read many horror stories online about people trying to build kit guitars only to find that many components were unusable. The issues I ran into were mostly cosmetic, and even the tangled and bent-up strings weren’t a total loss, as we’ll get to in a moment.

 
Sanding

The first step was sanding the wood. The body had clearly been sanded down to some extent already but it was still rough, particularly on the sides. I started with a 220 grit sandpaper, and after a few passes worked down to a 500 grit in some areas. I wanted to leave it slightly textured partially to give it a natural look, but mostly because so it would have some grip to the surface for holding it.

The neck didn’t require much sanding, but it had other imperfections. The very top of the headstock had a minor dent that I sanded out with the 220, and I took a single pass with the 500 grit over the rest. There was still another problem though; the hole for the truss rod adjustment screw had a big splintery dent in it.

DIY guitar kit

I used my Dremel to grind out the defect, then sanded it down.

The nut also had a minor scratch in it, but the only fix there would be to replace it. This didn’t seem worth the hassle to me.

 
Staining

The rosewood fretboard was already stained, but the rest of the wood was unfinished. So I put painter’s tape over the edge of the fretboard and got to work. Originally I’d intended to use the same light water-based stain on both the neck and body. But I found the neck and body took on very different color characteristics — while the neck looked great with the light color, the body turned a sort of sickly gray color as it dried.

DIY guitar kit

Fortunately it’s trivial to take lightly stained wood and make it darker; you just need to apply a darker stain over it. Unfortunately, none of my local hardware stores sold any water based stains in darker colors.

So let’s talk about the difference between oil and water based stains. Water based stains are a newer category, and they work a little bit like a super runny nail polish. Like any stain you just brush it on, mop up any excess with a rag, and repeat. It smells bad for an hour or so, but water based stains are relatively harmless.

Oil based stains are a different matter completely. You generally only want to use these outside, because they smell like death and are flammable. The smell takes a good ten hours or so to dissipate.

I didn’t have the option of working outside because my apartment building is being retrofitted, and the outdoor area is currently off limits during the day. My only option was to get up early, open all the windows, and apply the oil based stain before heading to work. Not ideal, but I was too impatient to wait 16 months or so for the construction to be complete.

The darker stain revealed a pretty nasty “scar” on the front of the guitar body that runs under the bridge. Despite several attempts to cover it with more stain, it didn’t help at all. If anything it made it a bit worse.

At first I wasn’t happy with the scar and thought about covering it with a sticker or something. As time went on though I found I was fine with it. I’ve got plenty of actual scars myself, who am I to complain?

DIY guitar kit

Once the stain was dry, I applied a water based polyurethane over both the body and neck. I applied several layers, sanding a bit between each application as recommended by the manufacturer. I did my best to avoid blotchy drips, but still had to sand down a couple of those anyway and reapply in a couple of spots. It happens.

 
Assembly

Once the wood was ready to go, I pounded the metal recesses that hold the bridge in place. This guitar has a two-part bridge, with the bottom part that holds the string and the top part that creates the ridge that the strings stretch over as separate parts. Many guitars have a single piece that does both. It’s a matter of design preference.

To pound in the metal recesses, I didn’t want to damage the wood or the chrome, so I went to the hardware store down the street and asked to buy a mallet. The only employee working there wasn’t familiar with the term “mallet,” so I described it as a “rubber hammer” and she immediately knew where to find it. Sometimes simpler language is better.

DIY guitar kit DIY guitar kit

The tuners were a breeze to install, each one had an associated nut to screw in, then a tiny screw in the back to hold them in place securely.

DIY guitar kit DIY guitar kit

Next, I stuck the neck into the body and… it didn’t quite fit. A couple rounds of sanding the inside of the neck pocket and it was ready to go. But not quite.

After tightening the neck on all the way with screws, I realized there was a pretty serious problem. I tried putting in a couple of the poor quality strings included in the kit, only to find that they were flush with the frets! For all intents and purposes this makes the guitar unusable.

If you’re not familiar with how fretted stringed instruments work, let me explain. Frets are those metal bumps in the neck. When you put a finger against a string, it stretches the string over the fret below it, that’s what changes the pitch — you’re effectively “shortening” the length of the string. With this arrangement, the string would essentially be stuck against the lowest fret. Not gonna work.

Ideally you want about maybe a quarter centimeter between a fret and the strings, so my first thought was that the neck was too thick where it goes into the body. Why? Part of me suspected that this guitar body was originally intended to have another layer on top of the front. This is actually quite common with electric guitars.

A manufacturer might use a cheaper wood for the main body, then cover it up either with a layer of higher quality wood, or a plastic pick guard. Either way that thin layer would have meant the bridge sat slightly higher and pulled the strings up. Both methods would have hid the aforementioned scar as well.

Made sense to me. And it turned out to be completely wrong.

After shaving a couple of millimeters off the neck wood, I’d made no progress. Somehow the strings were still pressed against the neck. What was going on?

To make a long story short, a week later I pulled out a ruler and was shocked to discover the neck hole on the body was cut at an incline! The part toward the bridge was a full 2-3 millimeters higher than the part towards the head. Oops.

Lacking the woodworking tools to correct this problem in the guitar body, I decided to go in the additive direction this time. I superglued a piece of a used fake leather belt that I’d originally bought at Goodwill for my homemade Assassin’s Creed costume, into the top of the neck hole.

When I’d removed the original screws I’d stripped them a little. To be on the safe side, I bought a new set of wood screws at a local hardware store. The original screws turned out to be the oddball size of 10 x 1 – 3/4. I got a small box of stainless steel screws of this size for about $1.50.

After screwing in the neck a second time it was finally straight. I put the strings back in to confirm that the alignment was correct.

DIY guitar kit

 
Installing the pickups

There wasn’t a whole lot to do to get the pickups installed, but before we delve into that, let me clear up a couple of misconceptions I had about how they work.

First, although they look like electromagnets, pickups are just regular plain magnets like you’d stick on your refrigerator. (You can easily prove this by unplugging an electric guitar and sticking a screwdriver against them to see that it sticks.) The wiring wrapped around the magnets isn’t creating the magnetic field, it’s actually measuring it. So you can think of it kind of like a microphone that measures the magnetic field instead of air pressure.

Second, the pickup is the entire row of magnets, not the individual magnets. In fact, some electric guitars have one long magnet instead of six individual ones. Incidentally, this is why pretty much every guitar you’ll ever see has the strings slightly “misaligned” in relation to those six magnets — the placement doesn’t need to be exact. The magnets act in concert to form a single field.

This particular kit comes with dual-coil pickups, also known as humbuckers. As the name suggests, this type of pickup reduces (or “bucks”) the feedback (or “hum.”) Most often, this feedback is generated by the 60 Hz signal coming out of your electrical appliances.

Single-coil pickups will generate some feedback if not properly shielded. The dual-coil design eliminates the need for this with two magnetic fields that cancel one another out. One row of the pickup’s magnets faces north, the other south. This results in a type of noise reduction called phase cancellation.

Of course, musicians can use electric guitar feedback intentionally. One example of this is Mayonaise by The Smashing Pumpkins, a song famously built around a cheap guitar’s feedback.

Sometimes the neck and bridge pickup will have different electrical characteristics to get a desired sound. In my case I measured the pickups on my ohmmeter but couldn’t find any real difference in resistance between the two, so I arbitrarily decided to install the one with the red wire by the neck, and the one with the yellow by the bridge. (The only reason I’m including the color here is in case I forget and need to remember later.)

Using a ruler and the strings for reference, I lined up the pickups as best I could and screwed the plastic plates they were attached to into the body of the guitar.

DIY guitar kit

 
Wiring

To reiterate, this kit did not come with instructions. No wiring diagrams, nothing.

Thankfully, I found a number of resources online about how to wire electric guitars. One diagram in particular matched what I had — two pickups, a switch, a volume knob, and a tone knob. This is the one I used.

First I soldered wires onto both parts of the jack, then I soldered in the pickups and the knobs. I quickly wound up with something that worked… occasionally.

DIY guitar kit

The problem turned out to be the negative wires. There were so many of them that I’d wound up soldering them all together into one big mess. If I pushed on them slightly the whole thing worked right, but it was clearly untenable.

After removing most of the solder, clipping some of the wires, and replacing one wire entirely, I headed over to RadioShack (did you know RadioShack still exists?) and bought a pack of assorted twist-on wire connectors. The connector cap twisted on over the negative terminals perfectly fine, and the wiring was good to go. I put the plastic plate over the wiring cut out and screwed it in.

Overall I’m impressed with how simple it was to wire up the guitar. Then again it’s not like electric guitars are a particularly new technology. Anyone with rudimentary electronics and soldering skills could wire one together with a little effort.

DIY guitar kit

 
Strap and strings

With the exciting work done, I finally put in a new set of strings and purchased a new strap as well. Oddly, the kit came with strap buttons (these are the metal nudges that the strap attaches to) that were not mentioned in the description.

After some time on Google, I found that the classic Gibson Flying V design usually had one button in the inside “wing” of the v-shape, on the upper side facing the player; and the other built into the metal base plate that the neck screws go into.

Well, my neck plate didn’t have that, instead I had two screw-in strap buttons that I could mount essentially anywhere on the body. One piece of advice that a number of guitarists had suggested on forums was to place the right strap button closer to the middle of the v-shape rather than toward the end like Gibson tends to do. For the other one I wasn’t quite sure and wound up screwing it in on the opposite side near the neck. I’m not sure this is ideal and I may wind up revisiting it, but it seems workable. At the very least, I don’t have the common complaint about the Flying V design where the neck tends to “droop” while you’re wearing the strap.

DIY guitar kit

 
Testing

Aside from testing that the guitar makes sounds without crackling on my cheap, used Fender amp, I also plugged it into my computer and tested with Rocksmith 2014. If you’re not familiar with Rocksmith, it’s basically the same as games like Guitar Hero or Rock Band, but instead of using fake instruments, you use real ones and learn to play guitar or bass guitar along the way.

Once I got the electronics working steadily and not making a “crackling” sound due to shoddy wiring on my part, I was able to tune the guitar using Rocksmith and play around with it. At that point, I considered the project complete.

DIY guitar kit

 
Conclusion

In under a month I assembled an electric guitar kit without any instructions. Despite various small setbacks, I now have a new guitar. More importantly I learned quite a bit along the way — which was, after all, the point.

Should you built a guitar from a kit? It depends what your goal is. I think I got lucky, the kit I got was better quality than some, though it still has its quirks. You should also ask yourself what your skill level is. If you’re moderately handy with assembling and fixing things, you could probably build a kit like this. If anything goes wrong there’s plenty of info out there on the internet, and you can always get replacement parts if needed.

I’d caution that this isn’t for the faint of heart. If you aren’t at least somewhat familiar with an electric guitar already, you should borrow or buy one — plenty of used electric guitars on Craigslist — to familiarize yourself with the basics before jumping into something as crazy as building your own. Especially if there’s no instructions.

Revisiting the Winchester Mystery House

January 30, 2017

Winchester Mystery House

Photo from Flickr user *bri*, used under a Creative Commons license.
 

As a kid, I took the Winchester Mystery House tour with my aunt. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, maybe around twelve. It’s a memorable tour and I still recalled a lot of it when I went back recently with a friend.

The house itself defies description; doors with nothing behind them, skylights in floors, rooms that were never finished or never fixed after the 1906 earthquake, doors disguised as cabinets… imagine 160 rooms with these types of bizarre features and the list could go on for a while.

But the one thing the tour doesn’t do is explain conclusively why the house was built this way. Rather, it posits the theory that Sarah Winchester was into spiritualism, as was common at the time, and was told by a psychic that she’d be haunted by the spirits of those killed by her family’s Winchester rifles unless she built a house that was constantly under construction. To put it another way she was allegedly building rooms and hallways faster than the ghosts could chase her.

As though to provide evidence for this theory, the winding mile-long tour makes its way to the middle of the building where there’s a small room described as the seance room. It’s here, the tour guide explains, that Mrs. Winchester would hold seances to communicate with the dead.

I suspect most people walk away from the tour with the impression that Mrs. Winchester was simply crazy, which is understandable. I’d also suspect that this theory is completely wrong, and an intentional deception to sell tickets.

The recent essay collection Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey includes an essay about the mansion. It’s a fascinating book, if you’re into American ghost stories at all I’d highly recommend it. While the book isn’t about debunking ghost stories in general it makes a good case against the official Winchester Mystery House tour explanation. Two of Dickey’s arguments stand out in my mind. First, there’s really no evidence that corroborates any of the details about Sarah Winchester’s spiritualism or reasons for building the mansion the way she did. Second, after her death the house was purchased by a theme park operator.

However, I’d take this one step further — the tour itself contains a contradiction that’s pretty obvious when you stop and think about it. According to the tour, Mrs. Winchester was said to be very reclusive after her husband’s death. The only people she allowed on the premises of her mansion were her staff, construction workers, and occasionally her favorite niece.

So if that’s true, then who are the people holding these seances with her? Normally in American style seances, you would have a group of people in a circle, sometimes at a table, maybe holding hands, with a medium responsible for contacting the spirits. If Mrs. Winchester didn’t have people over, who was participating in these seances? Her construction workers?

For these reasons very little of the information in the tour should be taken at face value. Most of the information out there seems to either come from the tour itself, or secondhand through “ghost hunter” TV shows. Which is to say it’s not exactly credible.

There are also simpler explanations to the “crazy” design of the mansion itself. After the 1906 earthquake, the building was damaged and significantly downsized. The “stairways to nowhere” the house is known for may have gone somewhere originally, and perhaps if Mrs. Winchester had lived longer they would have gone somewhere again. Since she moved out of the house after the earthquake it’s not clear how closely she was paying attention to the construction work anyway.

The other consideration is Mrs. Winchester was suffering from arthritis in a time when pain medications weren’t very good. Her solution seemingly was to build fireplaces all over the house for warmth, and to build stairways with extremely shallow steps to minimize the amount she would have to move her knees. Changing the mansion to accommodate for additional chimneys and staircases that took up more space could have easily altered the house in ways that were unexpected and difficult to plan for, particularly considering she already had earthquake damage to correct.

Lastly, Victorian architecture was a fashion, not a necessity; many Victorian homes were renovated frequently to keep up with the styles that were in vogue in the time. Which is to say Mrs. Winchester’s constant renovation was the norm in those days, but she took it to the extreme. Some of the quirks could have resulted from a sort of botched “cosmetic surgery” to the building.

So while I’m glad those steep ticket prices they charge for the tour are going toward maintaining and preserving San Jose’s most infamously strange home, I wish they could do it in such a way that didn’t cast such a judgemental light on a woman who we truthfully know very little about. Notable people’s memories are often exploited, but in this strange case, it’s the lack thereof that provides ample room for exploitation.

How I lost 65 pounds

December 31, 2016

Weight loss

This graph would have been far more dramatic if I hadn’t been too embarrassed to weight myself at my heaviest.
 

It’s almost New Year’s and that means it’s time to make a New Year’s resolution. For many people, “lose weight” is their resolution this year, and probably was last year as well, and the year before that, etc. I hear you on that. So with that in mind, let me tell you how I lost weight, and am continuing to lose weight.

Before I say anything else, let me say upfront that I’m telling you my personal weight loss journey. None of this is a medical recommendation, I’m not a doctor. I’m not here to sell you anything, I’m not telling you what will work for you. If you’re looking for a magic solution you won’t find it here (or anywhere.) I’m not even going to post before and after photos. This is not a pitch.

End of disclaimer. Let’s start at the beginning.
 

I wasn’t always fat. In fact, I used to be a skinny guy. In college my weight fluctuated a lot, like many of us. For me it I entered college around 130 pounds and after some ups and downs left grad school at a just over 165. Add in some bad eating habits as I started my career, a messy romantic breakup, and a few years later I found myself at 235 pounds. Yikes.

Today I look at photos of myself from that era and it’s shocking. What did I do to myself? Well, let me give you some clear answers to that question, and then how I got my weight back down to a manageable level.
 

Packing on the pounds

The path toward fatness was pretty simple: I like learning how things work and I’m one of those types who likes making things, doing it yourself. And I liked pizza and beer. Well, guess what? Making pizza and beer at home is fun and interesting, but it also means you have an awful lot of pizza and beer to consume. Those empty carbs have to go somewhere, and in my case they tended to go into my mouth, and wound up as fat.

Breakups are always rough, especially if you care about the person you’ve been with and have a hard time being apart from them. I wasn’t the first person to gain weight after a breakup, and I won’t be the last. But in my case it wasn’t just overeating from post-breakup depression; all those empty carbs I was consuming were being shared across two people — now they were all going into me.

I kept thinking, week after week, month after month, that I had to take action. Somehow, I had to lose the gut and get back to a reasonable weight. Technically at 5’11″ I was over the line into the “obese” column on a BMI chart. Not good.

Could it have been worse? Yes, but it always could be worse.
 

The decision

I didn’t suddenly decide to lose weight on a New Year’s resolution. Instead I thought about taking action for a few years before I decided to actually do anything about it.

While I was thinking about how I should really lose weight I did go out and buy one of those “smart scales” that logs your weight online. It’s kind of silly, but I’m too lazy to chart this stuff in a spreadsheet or anything — more on this later. I also sold the beer making equipment on Craigslist.

For me the deciding factor to finally “Make Eric Fit Again” was pretty simple. I was scheduled to fly to Shanghai for a friend’s wedding. Aside from looking better, I also figured I’d have to be able to squeeze into seats on a Chinese airline meant for your typical Chinese citizen — in other words, not your average American fatass like me.

The first thing I tried was the so-called “juice fast,” a fad at the time. The idea is you don’t eat and only drink mashed up vegetables and fruit, so you’re getting all the nutrients you need and a little sugar. It’s essentially a very low calorie diet. This concept was popularized in the 2010 movie “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead.” I didn’t watch this film until later — I was surprised the film was so well received since it’s clearly a thinly-veiled infomercial for a specific brand of juicers. Despite the film, the concept still seems appealing, if not extreme in retrospect.

I did multiple juice fasts for various lengths of time. The longest I ever did was five days, the shortest was two. In all of the times I tried it, I did lose weight. But as time went on, it delivered diminishing returns. That’s a theme we’ll get back to shortly.

Juice fasts also aren’t something I was able to stick to for a long time, and I bet most people feel the same way. The trick to a diet is finding something that works for the long term. Diets aren’t a shortcut to losing weight, they’re a lifestyle change that you need to continue for the rest of your life; otherwise that weight will come right back.
 

Switching gears

So while I did lose weight, it was clear I needed a better method. My next weight loss experiment was to go low carb, but with a soup and salad approach. This isn’t terribly difficult if you work in downtown San Francisco where there’s soup and salad spots on nearly every corner. My initial thinking was that I’d refuse any bread and just go with the soup or salad on its own. I should mention that I’m pescatarian though that had little impact on this decision — I just wanted to eat healthy and figured, hey, vegetables are healthy.

I eased into this diet over time, adhering to it more strictly as time went on.

What did prove challenging though is that soups and salads aren’t necessarily low carb. Soups are often thickened with flour, which adds an enormous carb load — not to mention calories. Similarly, salads can have this “hidden carb” problem, particularly with sugary dressing or a lot of fruit. Not that I think anyone out there has gained weight from eating too much fruit, but in the spirit of the diet I tried to cut back on fruit to a limited degree.

It turned out that this approach worked quite well once I got in the groove and began sticking with it every day. A lot of healthy restaurants post nutrition facts online which is also very helpful. But I want to point out two important factors here that most dieters don’t consider. One, my version of low carb dieting involved eating an enormous amount of leafy greens. This means I got significantly more fiber than your average steak-devouring low carb dieter. Two, the initial weight loss slowed after a while. Why? The answer is pretty simple, and it applies to any diet.
 

Staying motivated

Let’s talk about motivation and diet. This is the most important part of this post in my opinion.

If you’re dieting you’re going to have to weigh yourself frequently to see if it’s working. Personally I’ve been weighing myself almost daily with a Withings smart scale that automatically syncs to the internet (hello, Big Brother) that I’ve owned for several years at this point. From there I can see that my weight loss has been very rocky, with many fits and starts, and plenty of plateaus on what’s generally a downward slope.

One odd thing about this is that jumped out to me after a while is the shape of the graph. The plateaus seem to occur at nice round numbers, pounds divisible by 5 or 10. I have the strangest feeling there’s a psychological element at play here, and if I’d measured in kilograms the plateaus would have occurred at kilogram masses divisible by five as well. But I have only anecdotal evidence to back this up.

The most pivotal discovery I made is that while the weight simply flew off when I started dieting, it dramatically slowed down the further I went. If you think about this logically, of course someone who’s super overweight would have an easier time shedding fat than someone who’s skinnier. After all, the amount of weight you can lose is a factor of your body fat percentage! We’re talking about a logarithmic scale here, not a linear one.

To me the logarithmic scale factor is important. In my mind, I want to see a nice steady progress towards the goal. As I continued my effort and saw diminishing returns, I started to feel helpless. Should I just go back to beer and pizza because I’m only losing half a pound a week instead of three? On the surface the question sounds absurd, but after years of effort… it starts to feel degrading.

At some point I started realizing that diminishing returns were inevitable. I found I had to accept that this wasn’t a failure at all, but rather an unavoidable artifact of biology.

Let’s break this down with an example. Say you weigh 500 pounds. In that case, losing 10% of your body weight means losing 50 pounds. Sounds like a lot, but 450 pounds is still pretty fat. It’s not a big change… if you’re that heavy you might not even notice. On the other hand, if you’re 100 pounds, losing 10% of your body weight means losing 10 pounds — the difference between 100 and 90 pounds is so drastic for a typical adult it’s potentially dangerous.

The point here is that you have to be realistic about your weight loss goals as you continue losing weight. If you expect a linear progression, as our minds are want to do, you will inevitably be disappointed. You MUST accept that your weight loss will slow down as it continues.
 

Exercise

The other point to consider is exercise. Depending on your goals, you may wish to build muscle while losing weight. Not all exercise is intended to build muscle of course, but if you want to do so remember that muscle weighs more than fat. This may give your scale the impression that you’re not losing weight as fast as you could, even if your muscle to fat ratio is increasing.

Personally I’m on my second rowing machine (I used my first one so much that I broke it) but I love the form of exercise. It’s something to do while watching TV or listening to podcasts, and it’s more physically demanding than riding a stationary bike.

A lot of people seem to be under the impression that exercise alone is a path towards weight loss. Technically that’s true, but I haven’t found it to be nearly as an important factor as diet. Unless you’re an Olympic athlete you too should probably focus more on diet than exercise.
 

Conclusions

In the end, my lesson here with weight loss is this: slow and steady wins the race. I know it’s not what most people want to hear but it’s true. Stay focused on the long term goal, try different methods and see what works for you.

The important thing is achieving the results you want. But you have to be flexible about your expectations in the meantime, because your pace can and will vary. Mine certainly did. 65 pounds later though, I’m glad I lost the weight. You will be too if you choose to stay the course. There’s nothing that feels better than bumping into someone you haven’t see in a while, watching them gasp, and say “Holy shit, you look great!” I always reply with “It turns out there’s something to that ‘diet and exercise’ fad after all.”

Hôtel de ville de San Francisco

December 11, 2016

SF City Hall in red white & blue
 

I stopped by City Hall today to find it’s still lit up in red white and blue in commemoration of the attack on Pearl Harbor 75 years ago. It looked particularly dramatic set against the wild evening skies.

But then I got to thinking about it: those three colors are pretty common choices for flags. In this case, the stripes of color seem to evoke France’s flag specifically. This evocation is compounded by the fact that SF City Hall is specifically built in the Beaux Arts style of French neoclassical architecture.

So in the immortal words of Nicholas Cage, “Vive la fuckin’ France man!”

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.