W.F.T (San Francisco)

March 14, 2019

W.F.T (San Francisco)
W.F.T (San Francisco) W.F.T (San Francisco)
 

This evening I decided to take a walk by the Civic Center area to check out a brand new art installation: W.F.T (San Francisco) from artist Joseph Kosuth. W.F.T. — or “Word Family Tree” — is a neon light piece that wraps around the Polk St. side of the Bill Graham Civic, lighting up an otherwise boring brick wall with bricked-up windows.

I was held up too late at work to make it to the lighting ceremony though by the time I arrived there were still a few people lingering around taking photos. From the street level it’s easy to miss; the neon lights seemed dimmer than I’d expected, and are high enough from the ground level that the best view is from across the street.

The neon lights form trees breaking down the etymologies of the words “Civic” and “Auditorium.” It almost looks like notes taken by a college student in a linguistics course, except if those notes were inexplicably turned into light and attached to the wall of a four story building.

While I admire the unusual decision to put a brainstorm cloud of words in neon on the side of the building, the unfortunately ugly fire escapes get in the way, literally blocking your view depending on where you stand. It’s hardly the fault of the piece though.

My only critique is the use of the word “auditorium.” To most of us locals the building is called “Bill Graham Civic.” Honestly I’d forgotten the full is name of the place is “Bill Graham Civic Auditorium” until today. It’s not ear splitting like when an out-of-towner says “The BART,” but if someone told me to meet them at “the auditorium,” I wouldn’t know what they were talking about.

The building itself dates back to 1915 when it opened as part of the Panama Pacific Exhibition. Since then it’s served various purposes, including a basketball arena for the Warriors, an opera house for San Francisco Opera, and an exhibit hall where a very early prototype of what we now think of as a computer was first demonstrated.

Also, I saw The Smashing Pumpkins play there once back in ’98. Cool show, man.

These days it’s primary a concert venue. The name was changed by the city in the early 90′s to honor legendary local concert promoter Bill Graham after he died in a helicopter crash.

If you’re in the area when it’s dark enough — whether for a concert or just getting off work — you’d might as well wander by the Polk St. side of the building and take a look at W.F.T. for yourself. Until now you probably haven’t seen neon signs written in Greek and Latin, let alone many of them stuck all over the side of a building. There’s plenty of time to check it out in person as it’s considered a permanent installation. Of course even in the best conditions neon lights don’t last forever; better to check it out sooner than later if you’re interested.

Six most outrageous moments during the 2019 On Cinema Oscar Special

February 28, 2019


 

Last Sunday I stayed home to watch an exciting live event: the 2019 On Cinema Oscar Special (video available here). What, did you think I’d waste time on the “real” Academy Awards?

I mentioned On Cinema here before — to sum it up it’s a tragic comedy about a pair of would-be movie critics, Tim and Gregg, and their many personality clashes. For a complete backstory of the On Cinema universe check out this article at Vulture.

Due to the outcome of a civil lawsuit Tim lost control of On Cinema last season. The Oscar Special was advertised with Gregg appearing as the movie expert and a new host by the name of Rafael Torres. How would this turn out? Could On Cinema possibly outdo itself again?

The short answer is yes. Here are the top six most outrageous moments in this year’s On Cinema Oscar Special.

Warning: spoilers!
 

6. Dekkar’s awful cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody”

Tim often interrupts On Cinema with his latest music, much to Gregg’s chagrin. This time Tim’s band Dekkar reunites to perform a cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” which at the very least is on topic due to the Oscar nominations of a film of the same name. Unfortunately their performance is… well, it’s a train wreck. Tim’s vocals are slurred, off-key, and it’s unclear if he even knows most of the lyrics.

I might have rated this moment in the special higher if I hadn’t seen a similar version last month at their live show here in San Francisco. It’s a solid laugh, but like any joke it’s better the first time.

 

5. Gregg’s unmentioned reference to Scientology

In a segment called “Where The Stars Were Born,” Gregg shows us the birthplaces of various Hollywood actors using shaky footage he presumably shot on his phone.

Gregg casually displays recent footage of the former hospital where Jamie Lee Curtis was born without commenting on the fact that it’s now the Hollywood Scientology building. These days the building serves a rather different purpose for certain Hollywood celebrities, including Tim’s favorite actor Tom Cruise.

 

4. Tim’s entrance and latest conspiracy theory

During a pre-taped interview with Steve Carell, Tim is heard in the background forcing his way onto the set of the special. He barges on set with pepper spray and a gun-toting security guard/actor named Mike. Somehow Tim wins back Gregg’s trust despite having blocked all the doors and exits, accidentally hit everyone with pepper spray, and forbidden phone calls (especially to 911.) The official host Rafael retreats to his dressing room after being assaulted by Tim and won’t come out.

Tim demands they run a Q-Anon style conspiracy theory video he put together regarding the allegedly impending arrest of elite Hollywood liberals — at 7:10 PM, specifically — during the Academy Awards. Gregg immediately rejects this conspiracy. When Tim’s prediction doesn’t come to pass he blames his security guard for giving him bad information.

 

3. Tim’s latest quack medicine… or is it?

Lifting his shirt to reveal a suspicious vest, Gregg is initially concerned Tim is wearing a suicide bomb. But it turns out the vest is only loaded with magnets — for health reasons. Tim claims he bought the vest at Magnets.com, and the powerful magnets have finally cured his diarrhea.

At first this seems relatively benign compared to Tim’s many other questionable health choices. But after Tim takes a tour of Gregg’s archive of VHS tapes while wearing the vest, a new problem develops. More on that in a moment.

 

2. The Living Oscar

Celebrity impersonator Mark Proksch nearly died during an on-set accident in last year’s Oscar Special; since then he’s been in a coma under Gregg’s care. For a new series of “Live Oscar” segments Gregg dressed Mark’s limp body in a tight-fitting gold suit and propped him upright. Gregg asks the Living Oscar statue questions, answering them with sound clips from Mark’s past performances.

In the final Living Oscar segment Gregg activates a turntable under the stand. When Mark becomes tangled up in the tube for his breathing device, Tim rushes over to help, accidentally knocking Mark onto the floor. The fall causes Mark to snap out of his coma. Tim’s hardly a hero though as he still refuses to let anyone call 911.

 

1. The grand finale

Gregg’s intended final segment is a “live sequel” to the movie Kramer vs. Kramer. Unfortunately Gregg loses focus on the segment because his tape of the original Kramer vs. Kramer won’t play. After Joe Estevez points out Tim’s magnets might be the problem, Gregg fumbles and curses while trying to find if any tapes in his collection are still playable.

The episode wraps up with a distraught Gregg going through his tapes while Tim’s band mates from Dekkar arrive with more liquor. Dekkar performs two songs including the aforementioned Queen cover. Suddenly the police show up — almost as Tim predicted would happen at the real Academy Awards. Tim drunkenly escapes the premises before the police can catch up to him. The police have questions about “gold man” Mark, who’s still wearing the gold Oscar suit and has blood on his face. As the episode ends Gregg is clearly talking to one police officer about Tim’s crimes against his prized VHS collection.

 
Honorable mentions

There were a few pretty crazy, but not completely outrageous moments that didn’t make my top six cut. In no particular order:

  • Gregg interviews frequent On Cinema guest Joe Estevez. Meanwhile Tim gets drunk on spiked Mountain Dew and makes loud, obnoxious comments the entire time.
  • Tim eats raw noodles from a Cup Noodles with a crazed look on his face, at one point squeezing the cup so hard it explodes sending dry noodles everywhere.
  • Gregg’s obsession with the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies continue as he hires Hobbit-themed band “Thains Of The Shire” to play despite his own personal distaste in On Cinema’s music features. When Dekkar shows up they borrow Thains Of The Shire’s instruments and equipment without asking.
  • The “Whaleman 2020″ shirt Tim wears as a reference not only to his cameo role in Ant Man And The Wasp, but also is a subtle dig at Gregg who had a cameo in the first Ant Man movie.

Moscone Center skyway lights

February 23, 2019


 

With the Moscone Center rebuild (mostly) complete, one element particularly stands out after dark. Every time I walk by at night I see people snapping photos of the light display in the glass-walled skyway between Moscone North and South.

I was pretty surprised when the contractors began construction on the skyway — why would a convention center that’s mostly underground need an above ground walkway? It’s particularly odd considering the new above ground space is only in Moscone South, though to be fair I haven’t been inside since the recent renovation.

But now that it’s there the skyway’s colorful LED light display fits with SOMA’s other light displays including the Metromile building, the Bay Lights on the Bay Bridge, and the video screen hat on Salesforce Tower.

While it lacks the playfulness of the Bay Lights or the detail of Salesforce Tower’s videos, the Moscone Center’s skyway lights makes up for these shortcomings in sheer intensity. Like a house covered in far too many Christmas lights you really can’t miss it. I suspect that’s why it’s becoming a spot for photos.

Here’s to hoping this relatively simple LED light show works better than the failed video art screen at Moscone West.

A visit to the Oakland Museum of California

February 10, 2019

Oakland Museum of California
 

With so many museums in the Bay Area to choose from, I’d never gotten around to visiting the Oakland Museum of California until yesterday. It’s not that it wasn’t on my radar, I just wasn’t sure what it was aside from a funny looking building I occasionally pass by while walking from the Lake Merritt BART station to Lake Merritt itself.

The reason I finally decided to visit was the Eames special exhibit (more on that below.) A while back they had a special exhibit on Pixar and I’ve been kicking myself for missing it ever since; the Eames exhibit ends on February 18th and I was determined not to make the same mistake twice.

Before going any further, what is the Oakland Museum of California? The name tells you where it is, but not what kind of museum. Is it an art museum? Science? History? Who’s the target audience? There’s no definitive answer but I’ll provide the best one I can at the end.

I bought tickets at the museum rather than online. In the morning this wasn’t an issue, but in the afternoon the lines grew significantly longer. If you buy a “print at home” ticket you only have to wait in a short line to exchange your printouts for a sticker. As far as I know you can’t present tickets on your phone.

For backpacks and jackets they have a number of free lockers available. These work like hotel lockers where you punch in your own PIN. Be sure to test these before you leave your stuff here, I tried two lockers before I found one where the lock worked correctly.
 

Special Exhibit: The World of Charles and Ray Eames
 

Oakland Museum of California
Oakland Museum of California Oakland Museum of California

If you’re at all familiar with mid-century American furniture you’ve probably heard of Eames. Even if the name doesn’t ring a bell you’d probably recognize many of their iconic designs from shows like Mad Men or even cheap knockoffs sold at chain furniture stores.

Eames wasn’t some big faceless furniture company — it was the name of a Los Angeles design firm headed by husband and wife designers Charles and Ray Eames. While they both passed away a few decades ago, many of their iconic furniture designs are still manufactured today. In fact I’m even writing this from the comfort of an Eames Aluminum Group Management Chair.

Despite the Eames name being most closely associated with furniture it’s hardly the only type of design work they produced. The exhibit doesn’t go too deep into how Charles and Ray got their interest in design, instead delving into World War II as the couple experimented with molded plywood to develop leg splints and stretchers for wounded soldiers. When this didn’t pan out they turned their focus to home and office furniture after the war, partnering with Herman Miller for manufacturing and sales.
 

Oakland Museum of California Oakland Museum of California

This is where the exhibit took an unexpected (to me, at least) twist into film. After working on a few very short films Eames was hired by IBM to create a film for an exhibition. The film was displayed on several screens and explained in simple terms how to break down a problem into a model so a computer could help solve it. One such example involved predicting the weather, using the weather data to predict attendance at a baseball game, which the stadium would use to know how many hot dogs to order. Like most old educational films it’s a little hard to judge this one by modern standards. For one thing I doubt most people need to be sold on the concept of computers anymore.

Another Eames film in a similar multi-screen format was originally shown in the Soviet Union as part of a cross-cultural program. The description said this was intended to highlight advantages of American capitalism. This film didn’t age well; the dated images of Americans driving to shopping centers came across less like a promotion of capitalism and more like a parody of suburban banality. Between the dimly lit room, slow pacing, and the Eames Lounge Chair I was relaxing in, it felt like time for a nap. Each mini-theater at the exhibit featured Eames chairs to sit in but this one felt like a particularly poor choice.

 

The last film in the exhibit surprised me the most because I’ve seen it several times but had no idea it was created by Eames: Powers of Ten. The exhibit includes three versions of the film, starting with a glorified storyboard and ending up with the final 1977 version above.

Each version begins with a guy sleeping after a picnic in a park, then zooming out exponentially in powers of ten until ending up at the limit of the observable universe. The final version also zips back in the opposite direction into the nucleus of an atom inside the picnicker’s hand. I think the film still holds up even if the graphics look a little dated. Spend the next ten nine minutes watching the video above for yourself if you’ve never seen it.
 

Gallery of California History
 

Oakland Museum of California
Oakland Museum of California Oakland Museum of California

After grabbing lunch at the museum’s cafe I headed back across from the special exhibit hall to see one of the three permanent exhibits: the Gallery of California History. Those of us who grew up in California probably won’t get much out of this one, but for kids there’s a lot of objects you’re free to touch or little doors and boxes to open.

The exhibit starts with the lives of California’s first human inhabitants, the native Ohlone people. From there time skips ahead with the arrival of the Spanish, followed by the takeover by America and the Gold Rush. Here the exhibit takes a bold yet straightforward stance: it refers to American settlers slaughtering California’s Native Americans as genocide.

This dichotomy of high and low moments continues throughout the decades as the exhibit goes on. Chinese laborers build the transcontinental railroad, only to return home to California facing racism and violence. Hollywood movie studios sprang up, but all the good roles went to white actors. The 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed most of San Francisco leaving hundreds of thousands of people scrambling to find new lives, if not outright inventing new ones due the destruction of their paper documentation. Japanese internment camps stripped over one hundred thousand people of their rights during World War II.

Black Californians began protesting for equal rights in the 1960′s and 70′s, and at this point the exhibit’s timeline starts to seem more familiar. News footage, statistics, and a list of demands from the Black Power movement still seem relevant today.

 
Oakland Museum of California

The final section of the California History gallery wasn’t 100% operational during my visit, but what was open felt both interesting yet incomplete. It focused on the achievements of Silicon Valley with Hewlett Packard and Apple starting out of their founders’ garages. Yesterday’s computers were behind glass, including an early Mac and a Palm Pilot. I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt old seeing these “ancient” relics in a history exhibit.

The absence of any deeper insight of this part of the gallery was surprising. Perhaps it’s too soon to say who benefited or lost due to Silicon Valley’s rapid rise? It hardly fit the rest of the exhibit’s analysis of California’s history.
 

Gallery of California Natural Sciences

 
Oakland Museum of California

Just under the history gallery is the first floor exhibit on nature in California.

I hate to say it but this exhibit doesn’t have much going for it. The environmental info was hardly new or surprising, and the taxidermied animals felt a little creepy. Not sure who it was intended for as this exhibit was nearly deserted during my visit with maybe five or six others.

I quickly bailed on this gallery, but not after snapping the above photo of Oakland’s tree logo built out of pipes.
 

Gallery of California Art

 
Oakland Museum of California
Oakland Museum of California Oakland Museum of California Oakland Museum of California Oakland Museum of California

The art gallery includes many styles and forms of art from or relating to California, arranged chronologically. The first part of the gallery largely focuses on 19th century oil paintings, mostly landscapes. Yosemite Valley is a recurring theme here as well as Gold Rush era San Francisco.

Gold Rush era photographs are displayed in a small side room, which I almost missed. That would have been a mistake — although the photos are very small, they’re also quite detailed and provide a glimpse into the past most of us rarely get a chance to see.

Walking away from the entrance is like a trip forward in time, with figure paintings, photographs, Impressionism, dioramas, modern art, and lastly a few contemporary special exhibits. It’s undoubtedly a solid collection though I wasn’t clear how some of the pieces connected to California, even after reading all the descriptions.

Unlike the rest of the museum there’s not much for younger children to do in the art gallery.

Before moving on here’s a couple paintings early on in this gallery I found interesting.

Oakland Museum of California

This piece by George Henry Burgess captures an unfamiliar landscape… or does it? The painting shows Gold Rush era San Francisco featuring Telegraph Hill in the center, with what I believe is Montgomery Street (or perhaps a parallel street west of Montgomery) leading up to the hill.

If you look closely a the edge of the bay there’s a pier under construction. All the ships are much further out in the bay, since the water was far too shallow near the eastern edge of San Francisco to bring ships closer in. What’s now Embarcadero and the Ferry Building would have been underwater.

Oakland Museum of California

The above painting by Albert Bierstadt sits at the end of a hallway. At first I didn’t think much of it — it’s clearly Yosemite Valley, perhaps on a hazy morning — but the background is so overdone it looks almost cartoonish.

But in front of the painting there’s a few seats with headphones. I sat down, put on a pair of headphones and hit the play button. An unnamed narrator (who sounds suspiciously like Oakland-based podcaster Avery Trufelman) walks the viewer through a short meditation-like exercise of essentially imaging oneself in the painting.

I came away enjoying the piece more after this exercise, and wondered why museums with audio guides don’t have similar features to help guide viewers in appreciating a piece rather than simply discussing facts about it.
 

Garden

 
Oakland Museum of California
Oakland Museum of California Oakland Museum of California

A network of terrace gardens, stairways, and patios extends across and above the museum, with a grassy field at the bottom. There’s a number of outdoor sculptures to see. During my visit some of the walkways were covered in large puddles due to the rain earlier in the day.

On the field down below a Chinese New Year celebration was taking place. Not many people had turned up, probably due to the weather.

I’m not sure if you need museum admission to enter the garden. I put on a sweatshirt that completely covered my museum admission sticker and nobody stopped me or said anything.
 

So, what is the Oakland Museum of California?

With the three galleries covering different topics and exhibits for both children and adults, this museum wants to be all things to all people. Without any clear focus it’s a hit-or-miss affair, never quite going into the depth I’d expect for a museum of this size.

To me it seemed almost like three museums glued together. So it was no surprise to read this about the museum on Wikipedia: “It was created in the mid-1960s out of the merger of three separate museums dating from the early 20th century…”

There’s something else going on here too: according to the education section of the museum’s website students can “[e]xplore art, history, and natural science under one roof…” The website also includes curriculum for teachers. During weekdays the museum must act as a magnet for school field trips.

 
My recommendation: I don’t think I’d visit the Oakland Museum of California just for the permanent collection. That said if there’s a special exhibit that sounds interesting it’s worth checking out the rest of the museum too while visiting, or at least the top two floors (history and art galleries.) The cafe’s fine, though you could probably find better options nearby.

Future transbay tube fantasy planning

February 4, 2019

Recently there’s been talk of building a second rail tube under the San Francisco Bay. This new tube would be larger than the existing transbay tube and serve two major purposes:

  1. BART could offer limited 24 hour service while still having a maintenance window if one of the tubes had to be closed
  2. Future expansion possibilities for CalTrain, high speed rail, and perhaps even Amtrak

If we put aside the question of when to build this second crossing the next question is where? There’s no pressing reason to build a second tube next to the existing BART tube between Embarcadero Station and West Oakland.

BART has previously expressed concern about a tube to Treasure Island due to soil stability issues so I won’t include that as an option (even though I personally like the idea.)

Here are the fantasy transbay tube plans I’ve come up with. All maps images are courtesy of Google.
 

Alameda connections

The distance between San Francisco and Alameda (the island, not the county) is short enough that a tube could be practical. Today Alameda isn’t well served by transit so this route may help bring visitors to Alameda’s breweries and boat adventures.

On the Oakland side BART could connect to the existing Lake Merritt Station, ideally stopping along the way at a new Jack London Square Station. There’s also an obvious place to connect to Amtrak as well.
 

Geary Street

Let’s start with the obvious: BART intended to build a subway under Geary Street since day one, but somehow never got around to it. It’s easy to see the appeal: Geary is close to the Legion of Honor, Japantown, the Presidio, and could potentially go all the way out to the beach and the Cliff House. It’s also a major shopping district with restaurants, bakeries, bookstores, etc.

On the eastern side this subway could connect to the existing Market Street BART subway before meeting at the Transbay Transit Center and exiting San Francisco through a tube to Alameda.

The biggest problem with BART adding a Geary Street subway at this point is how it would get there: Muni Metro’s's upcoming Union Square station is quite deep, probably too deep to tunnel under. Digging under the Financial District seems equally troublesome. If only San Francisco had some kind of “subway master plan”
 

Mission Bay

Connecting somewhere near Mission Bay, BART could build a new line to major event spaces like AT&T/Oracle Park, the new Warriors stadium, etc. It comes close enough to the CalTrain line to provide an opportunity for future expansion, and would serve as a connection to Muni’s upcoming Central Subway line near the south portal.

On the San Francisco side BART would have a few places to connect to its existing subway, though all of them would be expensive. The longest route would be to tunnel all the way to Cesar Chavez, the shortest would be to go under 16th Street.

The pros of this plan seem pretty clear: connecting BART to one of San Francisco’s biggest new neighborhoods is a no brainer. The cons? There’s no direct connection to BART’s busy Market St. tunnel or the Transbay Transit Center.
 

 

North Bay connections

It’s unclear BART will ever go to the North Bay, but this was part of the original plan and I have a few ideas. Just getting BART to connect with the new SMART trains in the North Bay would be a major achievement and is worth considering for that reason alone.

For better or worse these plans involve skipping the East Bay entirely and focus on the North Bay via San Francisco. Connections from the North Bay directly to the East Bay are out of scope for now, negating the ability for BART to operate 24 hours — but it’s still worth thinking about. These are fantasy plans after all.
 

Golden Gate Tube

Okay, let’s return to the Geary Street subway. Originally BART planned for the Geary line to go over the Golden Gate Bridge on the lower deck. Unfortunately this wouldn’t be feasible today without major changes to the bridge. Building a second Golden Gate Bridge presumably wouldn’t be very popular, so why not go underground?

The subway tunnel would head west under Geary, take a sharp turn somewhere near the Presidio, then go underneath the Golden Gate before connecting somewhere on the North Bay side. Clearly there’d be a BART stop in the Presidio, if not two.

How this would connect to the Transbay Transit Center is a whole other can of worms but it does provide a potential shared crossing, assuming some minor hand-waving about the details of the Transbay Transit Center connection.

 

Island tubes to Tiburon

I’ve saved my favorite for last, a costly plan best described as “a series of tubes.” Specifically three of them.

What if BART built a subway tunnel from Market Street to Columbus Avenue in North Beach to a tube system connecting via islands to the North Bay? This would hit many key areas including the Financial District, North Beach, and Fisherman’s Wharf. Tubes would be built to connect Alcatraz, Angel Island, and Tiburon.

Connecting this huge tunnel system to the Transbay Transit Center could be reasonable depending on the route configuration. While some North Bay locals would benefit from this plan, it could also be a huge benefit for tourism. Imagine coming to San Francisco on vacation and taking a train to not only Alcatraz but also into wine country. Obviously the ferry companies would strongly disagree with me here.
 

Those are my proposals. Will any of these ideas ever come to fruition? If so hopefully I’ll be remembered as a modern day Emperor Norton.

I built the San Francisco LEGO kit

January 25, 2019

LEGO Architect San Francisco
 

Today after coming back from lunch the office manager stopped me to say “Hey, I got something for you. It’s on your desk.” When I saw what she’d left me I couldn’t help but to laugh.

A few months ago I spotted a rumor in the SF Examiner about a supposedly upcoming San Francisco LEGO kit. I half-jokingly posted to a company Slack channel that we should get one for our San Francisco office.

Turns out it became a real product, and I now had one! After powering through a long day of work I got to my second job: building San Francisco.

 
LEGO Architect San Francisco
 

Unlike the kid-friendly LEGO kits this one doesn’t come with an easy to assemble base. Building the base part felt tedious due to all the flat and tiny pieces.

You might notice some extra pieces in the corner of the photo. I think it’s normal for LEGO to include a handful of extra pieces, so good news if you tend to lose small objects between sofa cushions.

 
LEGO Architect San Francisco
 

Following the instructions the first building to go up is Salesforce Tower. Clearly they weren’t going for chronological order.

The most interesting part is the way the pieces fit together with some bricks fitting in the typical top-to-bottom fashion, while others hang on to the sides. Other buildings and the Golden Gate Bridge towers used similar techniques.

 
LEGO Architect San Francisco
 

Here’s the downtown skyline wrapped up. From left to right: Bank of America building (aka 555 California), Transamerica Pyramid, Salesforce Tower.

Two co-workers who wandered over while I worked on this important project didn’t recognize the Bank of America building — not because I screwed up or LEGO’s design was way off, but they weren’t familiar with it in the first place.

I think the slanted road at the bottom with the blue and red boxes is supposed to depict cable cars, maybe? Not sure.

 
LEGO Architect San Francisco
 

Alcatraz goes over the black “offset” pieces in the base. The tower on the left looks to be the island’s water tower, and on the right its light house.

For the record the red piece sticking out on the right is not part of the island, that’s a tower mount for the Golden Gate Bridge. It doesn’t actually touch Alcatraz.

 
LEGO Architect San Francisco
 

Next up: The Painted Ladies at Alamo Square. Perhaps not the best LEGO depiction of Victorian architecture, though at this scale you have to temper your expectations.

 
LEGO Architect San Francisco
 

The second to last step is Coit Tower, which looks kind of pointless without Telegraph Hill lifting it up to the skies. I wouldn’t have even guessed it was supposed to be Coit Tower without the instructions.

 
LEGO Architect San Francisco
 

Finally, the Golden Gate Bridge! To build this I assembled the two towers, then the roadway between them, and then gently bent the three included plastic “straws” in place between the towers and ends of the bridge.

As I fitted the straws in place I snickered at the result — rather than holding up the bridge, it caused the towers to bend away as the straws attempted to straighten out. Look I’m no civil engineer but that’s really the opposite of what you want from your cables in a solid suspension bridge design.

 
Many have criticized this LEGO kit for failing to include their favorite parts of San Francisco, like the Ferry Building or Chinatown. One coworker jokingly suggested the Millennium Tower.

My criticism is the depiction of the city’s geometry. I realize the kit is a diorama and that’s fine, but from what possible perspective could you see the Transamerica Pyramid between the Bank of America building and Salesforce Tower? Since the set places Alcatraz in front of the Golden Gate Bridge and Fort Point on the left that means we’re looking at San Francisco from the East Bay, so the skyscrapers should be ordered Salesforce, Bank of America, then Transamerica in left-to-right ordering. Coit Tower is roughly in the right position, but the cable cars should be behind the skyscrapers and the Painted Ladies would be facing in the opposite direction.

Still it’s somehow recognizable as San Francisco. Not sure it’s worth the $50 price tag though if you ever get a chance to build this kit for free while sipping complimentary LaCroix from an office fridge, it’s a solid 90 minutes or so of frustrating yet fun entertainment.

Mission mural roundup

January 20, 2019

Calvin and Hobbes mural
 

It’s been too long since I posted about murals at home here in the Mission District. To fix that here’s some recent photos of murals in the neighborhood, starting with the Calvin and Hobbes one above across vacant storefronts.

The image seemed familiar; after Googling around I found the original on this page, which claims it was for the LA Times to accompany an interview they did with Bill Watterson.

 
Mission Street Mural
 

Further down Mission Street is this mural depicting a bird’s impossibly-colored feathers with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. It’s by Cameron “Camer1″ Moberg, who also created the mural at the nearby Cornerstone Church.

Now on to Clarion Alley. I haven’t been terribly impressed with many recent murals there, but a few caught my eye.

 
Clarion Alley mural
 

The mural of a woman here somehow fits this funny bookmark-shaped spot perfectly. If it looks familiar, it replaced a similar mural by the same artist group, WHOLE9 from Osaka, Japan.

 
Clarion Alley mural
 

The least serious mural here is a depiction of Adam Bomb (scroll down) of the Garbage Pail Kids. If you don’t remember the Garbage Pail Kids, they were collectible stickers parodying the wholesome Cabbage Patch dolls by depicting them in disgusting and disturbing situations.

There is a local street artist who goes by GPK, but the “GPK” here could also be a reference to the Garbage Pail Kids? Or both? I’m not sure about this one.

 
Clarion Alley mural
 

Somehow I never took a photo of Girlmobb‘s depiction of disembodied hands holding smartphones until recently, but the mural’s been there for a while. There’s something amusing about taking a photo of this one with your smartphone.

 
Clarion Alley mural
 

I’m afraid I’ve saved the saddest one for last. This one’s by Twin Walls in honor of Luis D. Gongora Pat. If this mural’s the first you’ve heard of him don’t be surprised — he was killed by SFPD but the news of his death didn’t get much local coverage. For all the details you’ll have to read about it in The Guardian. (The British paper, not the defunct local publication.)

Toward the end of his life Gongora Pat became homeless and spent a lot of time practicing soccer on Folsom Street in the Mission. Never knew the guy but that’s where I remember seeing him, kicking a ball around on the sidewalk.

On Cinema Live in San Francisco

January 13, 2019


 

Last night I went to a show I’ve meant to see for ages: On Cinema Live. This particular event was at the Palace of Fine Arts and is the first of On Cinema’s upcoming live tour — for that reason I’m going to try my best to avoid major spoilers of the live show here. That said I’m dropping many spoilers of On Cinema overall so stop now if you’d like to go back and watch it all first.
 

What is On Cinema? Well… it’s tough to explain. At the core it’s a dark, slow burn comedy disguised as a Siskel and Ebert style movie review show. The two main characters are:

  • Tim Heidecker (best known as half of the Tim & Eric comedy duo) plays a version of himself as a blowhard conservative with no attention span. He’s a big fan of Trump and also alternative medicine — but only because it’s not covered by Obamacare. Tim rarely watches the movies he reviews, and often struggles to pronounce the names of well-known actors.
  • Gregg Turkington (best known as off-the-rails stand up comic “Neil Hamburger”) plays a version of himself devoted to movie expertise. In practice he cares more about quantity than quality such as when he set out to watch 501 movies in 501 days. His pride and joy is his extensive collection of VHS tapes. Unfortunately for Gregg, Tim regularly destroys these VHS tapes; often accidentally. Gregg is simply billed as a “guest” rather than a co-host due to Tim’s out of control ego.

The best way to watch On Cinema is to start with Season 1 and work your way up to the latest episode. If you don’t want to invest the time just yet here’s a brief recap.
 

The story so far

First go watch this YouTube video. It quickly sums up the first eight seasons better than I could.

Since that video was put together a few things happened in the On Cinema universe.

Tim was put on trial when 20 teenagers were killed at his “Electric Sun Desert Music Festival” after using Dr. San’s vape system (Dr. San himself committed suicide before the trial.) Once in court Tim decided to represent himself. Tim wasted most of his time settling scores including bringing Star Trek writer Nicholas Meyer to the stand in order to best Gregg in a long standing debate about which Star Trek movie takes place in San Francisco. Eventually Tim “won” the trial due to a hung jury. Gregg didn’t buy it and accused Tim of bribing a juror.

Frequent collaborator Mark Proksch nearly died during the show’s most recent Oscar Special, and has been on life support ever since.

In the 10th season of On Cinema, Tim went full Alex Jones with a sponsorship from Rio-Jenesis, a questionable company promoting germ removal products. Partway through the season the show switched to “virtual reality” which gave viewers a 360 degree view. Clever viewers discovered if you flip around in Gregg’s filthy closet you can spot Mark Proksch in a vegetative state on a hospital bed. The season ended when the family of one of the the victims seized Tim’s assets including his sponsorship income. To add insult to injury, the new owners handed control of the show to Gregg. Tim lost it, destroying the show’s set in a fit of rage and angrily announced his run for district attorney of San Bernardino County as vengeance against the current DA who nearly bested him in court.

Following Gregg’s cameo in the first Ant-Man movie, Tim had a cameo in the sequel Ant-Man and the Wasp.
 

The live show

Some first impressions: the place was packed. It hadn’t technically sold out but there weren’t many empty seats. I had no idea On Cinema had so many fans in the Bay Area.

In typical sketch format the show alternates between live performances and prerecorded videos to allow time for costume and stage changes.

My general observations:

  • Aside from Tim and Gregg, Joe Estevez appears on stage along with Tim’s Dekkar band mates Axiom and Manuel. Other characters appear on video.
  • Much to Gregg’s annoyance Tim insists on several music performances. Dekkar performed their “hits” along with two covers. Tim’s act as an incompetent rock star faking his way to success seems even funnier after someone tried to do this in real life.
  • The merchandise stand integrated into the show. Even if you don’t want a t-shirt or a hat it’s worth stopping by to participate.
  • The pacing was absolutely perfect. A lot of the show is improvised and some of the audience’s biggest laughs were Tim’s repeated failures to stifle his own laughter at Gregg’s potshots.

Some observations about On Cinema coming to San Francisco:

  • Predictably Tim and Gregg bickered about whether it was Star Trek II or Star Trek IV that takes place in San Francisco. I’ll let you decide.
  • Tim joked about taking one audience member to North Beach for an Italian meal. Gregg said fans could find him tomorrow at the Sundance Kabuki.
  • When Joe referred to mayor London Breed as “he,” Tim immediately stepped in to correct him.
  • Tim ended the show in character complaining about “San Francisco values.”

 

In honor of Gregg’s fascination with running times, the show ran about two hours and twenty minutes including an intermission.

Overall this is the funniest live show I’ve ever seen. Somehow the sheer absurdity of On Cinema is full throttle at a live show, yet unless you’ve watched the YouTube series and the companion show Decker there’s a lot of material that may fly over your head.

The live show brought its tongue-in-cheek online bickering into the real world. On the internet fans typically either side with Tim (Timheads) or Gregg (Greggheads.) Hardcore fans in the audience ate this up, frequently shouting at the stage to support their favorite character or to scorn the other.
 

My recommendation: The live show is a perfect extension of this quirky series — fans will love it. If you’re unfamiliar with it, each episode of On Cinema is only around ten minutes. You’ll know if this is for you or not after watching a couple episodes.

I received the laziest ransom email of all time

January 6, 2019

Every now and then I check my email’s spam folder to see if something slipped through. Most of the time there’s little to see: lots of spam and the occasional newsletter I signed up for but immediately forgot about.

But today I found something that caught my eye immediately: the subject line was “Password” followed by a password I used to use years ago. Out of curiosity I opened and read the email. To be clear I don’t recommend opening unknown email unless you know what you’re doing.

Here’s the email as it appears with some minor redactions:

Subject: Password – [redacted password]
Sender: 196.181.140.173
To: [redacted password]
 

[redacted password] one of your pass word. Lets get directly to point. You don’t know me and you’re most likely wondering why you are getting this e mail? No-one has paid me to check about you.
 

In fact, I installed a software on the 18+ vids (porn material) web site and you know what, you visited this website to experience fun (you know what I mean). When you were viewing videos, your browser started operating as a Remote control Desktop with a key logger which provided me access to your display screen as well as web camera. Right after that, my software gathered your complete contacts from your Messenger, FB, as well as emailaccount. And then I created a double video. 1st part displays the video you were watching (you’ve got a good taste ; )), and 2nd part displays the recording of your cam, yeah it is u.
 

You do have 2 solutions. We will check out the possibilities in aspects:
 

1st choice is to ignore this message. Then, I most certainly will send out your video recording to every single one of your personal contacts and you can easily imagine about the awkwardness you experience. Not to forget in case you are in a committed relationship, exactly how it is going to affect?
 

Other option is to give me $991. I will call it a donation. Consequently, I most certainly will instantly discard your video footage. You can resume your way of life like this never occurred and you will never hear back again from me.
 

You’ll make the payment by Bitcoin (if you don’t know this, search “how to buy bitcoin” in Google).
 

BTC Address: [redacted Bitcoin address]
[CASE SENSITIVE, copy and paste it]
 

If you have been thinking about going to the law, good, this email cannot be traced back to me. I have taken care of my moves. I am not looking to ask you for money so much, I just like to be paid.
 

You have one day to make the payment. I have a special pixel within this mail, and right now I know that you have read this email message. If I do not receive the BitCoins, I will definitely send out your video to all of your contacts including friends and family, co-workers, and so on. Having said that, if I receive the payment, I’ll destroy the video immediately. If you really want proof, reply Yes! then I definitely will send your video to your 10 contacts. It is a nonnegotiable offer that being said don’t waste my time and yours by replying to this email.

So it’s a ransom attempt and Gmail flagged it as spam. Normally I’d think of spam as a Nigerian prince who wants to make me rich rather than extortion. At first glance this looks personal, but diving in there’s less to see here than meets the eye.

 
Breaking it down

Before I get into the technical details let’s go over this email line by line, shall we?

[redacted password] one of your pass word. Lets get directly to point. You don’t know me and you’re most likely wondering why you are getting this e mail? No-one has paid me to check about you.

Yeah, I’m not really wondering. That was my password on a few sites back in the day, including a major one that got hacked. Someone managed to get the email address and password I used on that site — admittedly over a decade later — and is now sending a spam message to everyone in that database.

Given that the password isn’t easily guessable and appears here in plain text, I’m pretty sure I know which database hack it came from.

In fact, I installed a software on the 18+ vids (porn material) web site and you know what, you visited this website to experience fun (you know what I mean). When you were viewing videos, your browser started operating as a Remote control Desktop with a key logger which provided me access to your display screen as well as web camera. Right after that, my software gathered your complete contacts from your Messenger, FB, as well as emailaccount. And then I created a double video. 1st part displays the video you were watching (you’ve got a good taste ; )), and 2nd part displays the recording of your cam, yeah it is u.

These are some pretty wild claims. Based on the email address and password I used a long time ago, this person installed some kind of hack on an unspecified porn video website that allowed them to control not only my computer, but also hack into my Facebook and email accounts. That sounds like something the NSA might be able to do — in a bad movie. The line “yeah it is u” is a little tricky to believe since so far they haven’t used even my first name in this message, how could they possibly identify me from a video?

Some other minor problems: I don’t tend to watch porn videos, or worse — use Facebook.

You do have 2 solutions. We will check out the possibilities in aspects:

The classic sales technique of limiting the options! Oooooh, I can’t wait to find out what the options are.

1st choice is to ignore this message. Then, I most certainly will send out your video recording to every single one of your personal contacts and you can easily imagine about the awkwardness you experience. Not to forget in case you are in a committed relationship, exactly how it is going to affect?

A couple tips:

  • If you’re going to make a threat it should be very specific. Name the target’s personal contacts, and brush up if they’re in a relationship or not in advance.
  • It’s hard to take a threat seriously with such poor grammar. Proofreading is important.

Other option is to give me $991. I will call it a donation. Consequently, I most certainly will instantly discard your video footage. You can resume your way of life like this never occurred and you will never hear back again from me.

A donation? Nice, so not only with this threat go away, but I can write this off on my taxes. And thanks for making it $991, what a bargain. If it were $1,000 I’d have second thoughts about making the payment.

You’ll make the payment by Bitcoin (if you don’t know this, search “how to buy bitcoin” in Google).
 

BTC Address: [redacted Bitcoin address]
[CASE SENSITIVE, copy and paste it]

Bitcoin? We all know that’s a huge pain to use, right? I have better things to do, maybe just send everyone the videos already.

If you have been thinking about going to the law, good, this email cannot be traced back to me. I have taken care of my moves. I am not looking to ask you for money so much, I just like to be paid.

“Hello, Internet Police? I’ve got a half-hearted ransom scam email to report.”

You have one day to make the payment. I have a special pixel within this mail, and right now I know that you have read this email message. If I do not receive the BitCoins, I will definitely send out your video to all of your contacts including friends and family, co-workers, and so on. Having said that, if I receive the payment, I’ll destroy the video immediately. If you really want proof, reply Yes! then I definitely will send your video to your 10 contacts. It is a nonnegotiable offer that being said don’t waste my time and yours by replying to this email.

Sounds like there’s a tracking pixel in the email (a surprisingly common trick/hack for read verification) and asking for proof of anything said here will have negative consequences.

Wonder who those 10 contacts are… can’t even name one of them?

 
Technical details

Gmail flagged this email as spam. It’s unclear why as Google’s spam filter is proprietary, but this email presumably set off some red flags. Namely there’s a lot of common text between this and other emails, the sender is a seemingly fake IP address, and it was sent over an insecure connection.

But it gets worse. The headers show the email allegedly came from the email server at mixedthings.net. This domains is known for sending spam according to a quick web search. Reports include similar ransom emails going through the same email server.

If there’s a theme here it’s laziness. The email was easily flagged as spam and contained so little personal information I doubt the sender even had a full database dump.

The saddest part though is the tracking pixel. The email was sent as base64 encoded text. Decoding base64 text is trivial — otherwise we wouldn’t be able to even read the email — but the resulting HTML text is the most telling aspect.

A tracking pixel is an image linked from an HTML email (traditionally a 1×1 pixel image, hence the name) containing a secret identifier linking the sender to the individual reading the email. This is used in advertising all the time to determine if someone opened an email. The HTML in this ransom request did not contain a tracking pixel; not even a fake one. Would a lazy scammer bother? Apparently not. Gmail’s web interface blocks all images from loading if an email is marked as spam so it’s a moot point here anyway.

Then again, why would a ransom request come through email at all?

Think about it — if someone really hacked your computer to demand a ransom, would they email you or lock you out of the computer until you paid? The later is called ransomware and it does happen from time to time. Some people unfortunately (though understandably) do pay the ransom to restore access to their computer.

This lazy email is not ransomware; just an empty threat.
 

Summary

As technology gets easier it also becomes easier to abuse. A few takeaways:

  • Email security is important. Even if you reuse other passwords the password to your email is the key to the kingdom. Email can remotely reset passwords to other websites.
  • Likewise, your computers/phones/devices should use a different password from your email. This is especially important if you use a cloud account (Google, Microsoft, Apple, etc.) to sign in to your devices.
  • On other websites your best bet is a password manager — and to only use that password manager on trusted devices. NEVER use your password manager on someone else’s computer.

Carl Sagan once said “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Isn’t a ransom claim extraordinary?

This scam is simply so lazy it’s embarrassing. That said unless people learn their lesson future ransom emails will only become more sophisticated.

My biggest surprise returning to San Francisco

January 3, 2019

Given my short holiday vacation I was surprised to return to San Francisco to notice a few rather obvious changes. On the smaller scale, the Muni Metro electrical substation upgrade seemed to have progressed faster than expected. The biggest physical change is at Moscone Center where the new structures appear to be nearly complete. If anyone worked over the holidays I hope they were well compensated.

But those changes have been in the works for years and were expected to some degree. The biggest surprise was what didn’t change: the ping pong table at 16th and Mission BART is somehow still there.

 
The People's Table The People's Table
 

The existence of the table was first reported by Mission Local on December 21st. Depending on your perspective that the ping pong table is still there is either due to its whimsical benevolence or the anarchist nature of BART’s public spaces. There’s no official statement from BART.

Though I’ve yet to see anyone play ping pong at this particular table during its short duration at 16th and Mission, perhaps it could be a new venue for the “Berlin style” ping pong once promoted by Mission Mission? Time will tell.