Windmill spins at Golden Gate Park

November 12, 2018


 

Yesterday I went on the SF City Guides Golden Gate Park: West End tour. Among other points of interest the tour stops at the park’s two windmills — the Dutch Windmill to at the northwestern corner of the park, and the Murphy Windmill a block or two south.

Most of the time the windmills are completely still — not due to a lack of wind, but the potential for too much of it. If they were allowed to spin freely they could break apart and become a safety hazard, so they’re typically latched in place.

For whatever reason the Murphy Windmill was spinning yesterday morning, as you can see in the video above. I’d never seen either windmill spinning in person before; the motion makes the windmill look even larger and more majestic than when it’s sitting stationary.

Why does Golden Gate Park have windmills? They were built in the late 19th and early 20th century as the park’s irrigation system, pumping water out of wells up into lakes in the park. Unfortunately for the windmills, electric pumps became available shortly after they were built. No longer needed, the windmills began to decay and the metal in the internal mechanisms was salvaged for scrap.

But San Francisco’s love for antiques meant there was interest in preserving the windmills, similar to how the cable cars avoided destruction. The Dutch Windmill was restored in 1981 and the Murphy Windmill much more recently in 2012. For more details on the history of the windmills and the preservation efforts, read this 2007 paper from University of Vermont student Sarah LeVaun Graulty, which also includes historic photos and illustrations.

My favorite bit of trivia I learned from the City Guides tour is also mentioned in the paper. Golden Gate Park’s windmills are Dutch-style, but are far larger than those in the Netherlands. So what do Dutch windmill enthusiasts call this pair of unique windmills? What else could they be called — the “San Francisco Giants.”

Last Stop / First Stop

November 11, 2018

Last Stop/First Stop
 

While hanging out at Ocean Beach and the west end of Golden Gate Park today I happened to notice something new; the funny little building at the N-Judah turnaround received an updated design recently. If you never noticed this small building before it’s located directly across Judah Street from Java Beach Cafe.

The new design features the words “Last Stop / First Stop” written in large capital letters painted at an angle. A quick Google search revealed this to be the work of local designer Jeff Canham. Canham’s designs can be spotted all around the city, including Mollusk Surf Shop a couple blocks away from the N-Judah turnaround.

Unreal Garden review

November 4, 2018

Unreal Garden
Entrance to the museum… or an acid trip?
 

On a stretch of Market Street between Civic Center and Powell is a fairly plain looking two story white building. Up until recently the sign on the front said “International Art Museum of America.” That alleged museum recently vacated the ground floor lobby to make way for Onedome Global, a mixed-reality exhibit space.

In this context, mixed reality means there’s a physical space to walk around in and look at seemingly fixed 3D art projected in front of your face with a Microsoft HoloLens augmented reality headset.

I decided to check out their current exhibit, Unreal Garden. For my part I purchased tickets and signed a waiver online, but in practice it seemed like none of that was strictly necessary as the place wasn’t terribly busy and tickets can be purchased on site.

I’d never used a HoloLens before — let alone seen one in real life. To put it on you rotate a dial to adjust to your head size, tightening as needed. Onedome has super friendly employees to help you through the process. Once you’re in they’ll show you the basics. The primary interaction is to use your finger to “touch” the 3D objects. This aspect worked surprisingly well considering I wasn’t holding a controller or anything.

Without spoiling too much, the Unreal Garden artwork is largely organic-looking animated 3D objects, some of which are activated by touch.

While the art was fun to look and poke at, the rest of the experience is sorely lacking for two reasons. First, HoloLens has a shockingly small field of view. It’s about the size of a business card held a few inches in front of your face. In a way this works out for the best, since you can easily see the other visitors walking around without bumping into them. Perhaps in the future HoloLens will come with a better screen. The only aspect of the headset that really impressed me was the tracking ability — it always seemed to know which way I was looking and what I was touching, but this can’t eliminate the shortcomings of the screen.

The second limitation is the Onedome space itself. They left the weird jungle-like interior of the “museum” lobby largely intact. This makes the entire thing look cheesy; they should have ripped it all out and let the 3D art speak for itself without the physical distractions. This change also would have allowed for a larger exhibit area with fewer tripping hazards. As it stands now, the exhibit only takes around a quarter of the total floor plan, if not less.

It’s not well advertised but there’s also a fairly large cafe in the back that I believe is open to the public. It was deserted when I was there.
 

My recommendation: Skip it. The technology’s barely ready, and Onedome deserves a better interior for their exhibits.

How I got mentioned in an art history dissertation

November 2, 2018

It’s been brought to my attention that yours truly is mentioned in a master’s dissertation — and even cited as a source.

On the surface this seems surprising since I hold a master’s in computer science. I’ve never written a serious academic paper on art, let alone history. But as you’ll soon see it’s not that kind of citation.

Last year an art history major named Kat Lukes-Caribeaux at York University wrote a dissertation titled The Epistemology of Elsewhere: Space and Play as Laboratories of Multivalent Participatory Knowledges in The Games of Nonchalance. In it she describes the events of Games of Nonchalance (aka The Jejune Institute) in great detail while examining its interaction with its own surrounding public space and how that fits with the concept of play.

The final act was at the Hyatt Recency San Francisco in 2011. In Lukes-Caribeaux’s description of the event:

On the afternoon of March 11, 2011, the Games of Nonchalance-dedicated Unfiction forum hosted a spark of new activity. The Jejune Institute had just announced a Socio-Reengineering Seminar for April 10th at San Francisco‚Äôs Hyatt Regency [...] In the two days preceding, 300 registered persons were emailed with a room number at the Hyatt and an appointed time for a “pre-screening” examination conducted by representatives from the Jejune Institute. Tasked by the Elsewhere Public Works Agency to infiltrate the Jejune Institute one last time, participants were instructed to retrieve a small round object called a Bio4ce Globe from the pre-screening room without detection by the examiner. Regardless of what happened, the instructions warned participants to under no circumstance place the Globe in water. After their operatives retrieved the globes, the EPWA hoped to kidnap Octavio Coleman Esquire.66

 
On April 10th, ticket holders were greeted by Antoine Logan, the seminar’s featured speaker (fig. 12). After four hours of various team-building activities that included breathing exercises, parachute games, watching a video of a “dolphin telling jokes,” and yelling “yes!” at a stranger while the stranger shot back varying intonations of “no!,” Antoine faced the crowd with a knowing look. “Some of you brought something with you…”67 This produced a documented anxious response amongst participants who had successfully retrieved a Bio4ce Globe from the pre-screening, an anxiety that only heightened when Antoine asked they reveal it, and then drop it into a supplied glass of hot water. In a video posted by MrEricSir on YouTube of the incident, an audience member is heard shouting defiantly “why?,” protecting their Globe. “Because,” Antoine calmly replies, “that is how we make tea.”68

You’ll have to read the paper (linked above) to see all the relevant citations, but you can see my video of the tea ceremony below. The moment described above occurs at about one minute in:
 


 

For the record, I’d only pulled out my phone to shoot this video a couple minutes after Antoine first asked us to put the ball in the water. Silence and hesitation filled the room for quite some time — like everyone else, I had no idea what would happen if I chose to make the tea or resisted. It was easily the hardest “should I make tea or not?” decision I’ve ever faced.

Either way I’m glad I shot the video, if for no other reason to do my little part for Lukes-Caribeaux’s interesting dissertation.

Sandbox VR

October 25, 2018

Sandbox VR Sandbox VR
 

This week I got to try Sandbox VR, a shared virtual reality experience for a group of people in the same room.

Currently Sandbox VR has only two locations in the United States, a local one in “San Francisco” (actually at the Hillsdale Mall in San Mateo) and the other in Los Angeles. All their VR content is created by the company in Hong Kong so you won’t find it elsewhere.

My team wasn’t totally on board with their horror game option “Deadwood Mansion,” so we went with the zombie pirate themed “The Curse of Davy Jones” instead. The suit up process took about 20 minutes for our group of six. Everyone wears a motion tracker on each wrist and ankle, a haptic feedback vest, a PC backpack, and an Vive Pro virtual reality headset. The room is painted green with tracking cameras on the ceiling as well as fans to simulate wind effects.

Once they switched it on we could see each other in VR as glowing blue apparitions, able to wave to one another and dance around a little. A brief tutorial focuses on the gameplay area, shown in a red outline on the floor, which is important since you can’t actually see the walls of the room with the headsets obstructing your view. If you get too close to a wall, a red grid will appear in front of it.

After selecting our characters and weapons the game started. I don’t want to spoil too much here but it’s mostly a combination of shooting and/or dodging monsters. Due to the limited field of view the dodging part felt more challenging to me than the shooting aspect.

When you “die” in the game your field of view becomes black and white and everyone else sees you in red. There’s of course nothing to stop you from moving when you’re dead, which is a little counterintuitive if you’re used to multiplayer games. Dead players can be revived by a living player touching their shoulder for a second or two.

I wouldn’t describe the gameplay as particularly deep, it’s like cooperative laser tag basically. But it was great trying out a multiplayer VR game in realtime with everyone in the same room, able to walk around freely.

That said it does have a few limitations, both in the bedroom-sized gameplay area and the capability of the motion tracking. We definitely bumped into one another a few times since the character models in the screen can’t accurately represent where everyone’s body parts are really located with the current technology.

From a technical perspective I have a couple minor gripes. The haptic feedback vest felt barely noticable and didn’t offer enough motion tracking to give me a sense of where a monster who snuck up on me was actually attacking from. I also wasn’t too impressed by the way the microphones on the headsets were used. There was no feedback of how loud I was speaking, and if someone spoke loud enough I didn’t really need to hear their voice through my headset anyway.

In the future like to see more gameplay types offered — stealth, puzzle, and adventure games jump to mind. Sandbox VR says they’re working on new games as well as other types of VR experiences. In the near future I could see shared virtual and/or augmented reality experiences taking over large retail spaces recently vacated by Toys ‘R’ Us, Sears, and K-Mart. For now limited gameplay styles in a small room in a mall will have to suffice.

 
My recommendation: At around $40 per person it’s a solid half hour of fun with high end VR gear. To me it makes more sense than buying your own VR rig at home — it’s like paying to go on a ride at an amusement park with your friends vs. building a roller coaster in your backyard. If you’re interested and know a few others who may be as well, give it a shot.

Doctor Who on Frank Chu’s 12 Galaxies

October 15, 2018


 

Tonight’s episode of Doctor Who features a race, of sorts. Minor spoilers follow for the second episode of the new Jodie Whittaker-era Doctor Who.

Last week’s episode ended with the Doctor and her three companions in a cliffhanger (space hanger?) situation. This week they’re all rescued by the two remaining participants in “the last ever rally of the 12 Galaxies.”

If you’re a Bay Area local and the name “12 galaxies” rings a bell, it’s for one of two reasons. You’re either thinking of local eccentric Frank Chu (pictured above) who coined the phrase “12 galaxies” on his protest signs, or the short-lived Mission District bar and music venue named in Mr. Chu’s honor.

Although the number of galaxies mentioned on Mr. Chu’s iconic sign would grow over the years, he’s widely known in the for the 12 galaxies era due to local media attention at the time.

Coincidence? Probably. But it’s enough to make a person ask if Mr. Chu knows anything about Time Lords from the planet Gallifrey.

Magritte exhibit at SFMOMA

October 12, 2018

SFMOMA & Magritte
 

The Rene Magritte exhibit at SFMOMA, “The Fifth Season,” wraps up at the end of October. If you haven’t seen it yet now is the time. This isn’t the largest exhibit with only around 70 works, but what’s there is impressive.

I finally went to see it last weekend and strongly recommend it, with some minor caveats.

Not familiar with Magritte? You’ve seen his work before but may not know his name. He’s the artist behind “Son of Man,” aka the guy with the bowler hat and the apple floating in front of his face (see above) as well as other paintings including “The Treachery of Images,” aka “C’est ne pas une pipe.”

Instead of focusing on his life as an artist overall the exhibit focuses on a few key later points in Magritte’s life. This approach has its strengths and weaknesses, in particular it focuses on Magritte’s most well known periods while leaving out how he got his start.

 
SFMOMA & Magritte SFMOMA & Magritte
 

Magritte’s works tend to look simple at first glance, but on closer examination contain surprising visual contradictions. His paintings have themes between them, but the themes aren’t always clear unless they’re pointed out. Thankfully the exhibit’s arrangements and audio guide do an excellent job of explaining this.

The audio guides for the Magritte exhibit are worth checking out, available as a mobile app (bring earbuds and your phone.) There’s about half an hour of audio content including interviews with an artist who lived in Magritte’s attic.

Ultimately I would have stayed much longer listening to more tales of Magritte’s life and works if they’d been available. For an artist who has so many well known paintings, he also went through periods of different styles, particularly during World War II, that are difficult to contextualize against his most familiar style.

The trivia I found most interesting was how Magritte titled his paintings, or more accurately how he didn’t. He tended to bring out his latest works to friends over dinner and wine and let them come up with appropriate titles.

The entrance to the exhibit features floor to ceiling curtains, echoing many of Magritte’s works. Some reviewers felt this to be a little too on the nose but I thought it was amusing. The exit was more startling. By standing in certain places one could insert themselves into digital versions of Magritte’s works. To me these felt like they belonged at the Exploratorium, or worse at some Instagram-friendly “museum.”

And of course you have to exit the exhibit through a gift shop, with special Magritte-focused merchandise.
 

You have until October 28th to check out the Magritte Exhibit at SFMOMA. Tickets cost as much as $35 and include access to the entire museum. I highly recommend the SFMOMA app both for this exhibit and SFMOMA in general.

This cat is fine

September 26, 2018

This cat is fine
Spotted at 2nd and Howard
 

A flyer for an open source account breach alert service from Mozilla parodies a typical “lost pet” flyer you’d expect to see taped to a utility pole like this.

You can sign up for Firefox Monitor here, and they’ll let you know if your email address appears in any new breaches reported in the Have I Been Pwned database. There’s no guarantee that every breach will show up in their database of course.

So while I can’t vouch for the Firefox Monitor service being perfect I can say that the flyer was capturing people’s attention. In the 30 seconds or so I waited for the stoplight to turn green, at least two other people went up and snapped a photo of it.

Tenderloin National Forest

September 24, 2018

Tenderloin National Forest
Tenderloin National Forest Tenderloin National Forest
Tenderloin National Forest Tenderloin National Forest
 

Next door to 509 Ellis Street in the Tenderloin are a big pair of gates with a peaceful little garden behind them. This garden is known as the Tenderloin National Forest. A non-profit art gallery next door called Luggage Store Gallery operates this particular “National Forest.”

As with any volunteer driven art project it’s open when it’s open, so don’t believe anything you read on the internet about operating hours. Sometimes it’s open for special events, but most of the time it seems to be open on certain weekday afternoons.

That said it’s reliably open to visitors during Sunday Streets in the Tenderloin — like earlier today.

To understand the space you have to look back almost 30 years ago.

The story of the “Forest” starts in 1989 when it was Cohen Alley, a short but especially filthy little dead end alley in the Tenderloin that housed a dumpster. When the neighboring gallery wanted to hold outdoor events they started using and maintaining the alley.

In 2000 the city let the nonprofit lease Cohen Alley for one dollar a year. A local artist built and installed the big metal gates. Over time volunteers planted numerous trees and shrubs, installed a cobblestone walkway, painted murals, and built a small pizza oven. Needless to say it no longer resembles any other alley in the Tenderloin.

A few years later a local student dreamt up the moniker “Tenderloin National Forest.”

Today I couldn’t help but to notice the plants and trees have grown significantly since my last visit a year or two ago. Especially on a sunny day, the foliage does give the place a little bit of a sense of a forest. It’s easy to see why the name stuck.

If nothing else the place is a respite from the Tenderloin’s gritty streets. On that note, today a tourist handed me her iPhone and asked me to take her photo as she stood in front of one of the murals. It’s difficult to imagine that interaction taking place in other outdoor Tenderloin locations, even during a relatively welcoming event like Sunday Streets.
 

For more on the Tenderloin National Forest:

Muni Metro updates its subway audio announcements

September 14, 2018

Hear the new announcements for yourself in the above video I recorded at Church Station. Please forgive all the background noise, it’s a subway station after all.

 

Recently Muni Metro has been undergoing somewhat of a renaissance, from the new light rail trains to the colorful real time information signs to the upcoming Central Subway.

Another recent Muni Metro upgrade hasn’t made any headlines — the new automated voice announcements at the subway stations. Like the previous version of the announcements they begin with two piano notes representing inbound vs. outbound, but now the outbound voice is male. The inbound voice remains female.

Both voices sound significantly more natural and less choppy than what they replaced. The previous female voice spoke in a halting rhythm with uneven tonality, which gave the announcements a robotic quality. This video (not mine) has some good examples. That announcement voice replaced a different choppy female voice sometime in the mid 2000′s. Many of us jokingly referred to these voices as “Ms. Muni” back in the day, as in “hey grab your backpack, Ms. Muni says our train’s arriving.”

They’ve also added information about where the arriving train is headed. For whatever reason the previous announcements confusingly only included the destination for inbound trains, and only the route designation letter on outbound trains. Why make this change? To make a long story short, Sunnydale will presumably flip from the T-Third’s inbound destination to its outbound destination when the Central Subway opens. The new announcements ought to streamline this transition.

Additionally the new announcements dropped the practice of saying the route destination letter twice for a two car train. No more “two car, L. L. in five minutes.” The reason for these pecular announcements was largely historical, as Muniverse explains:

When both Muni Metro and the Market Street Subway openend, [sic] one and two-car trains were coupled into three and four-car trains as they entered the subway at West Portal and the Duboce & Church tunnel portal. It was a problematic workaround to deal with tunnel capacity problems before the Market Street Subway was completely computerized.

In other words Muni Metro’s audio announcements finally entered the 21st century. It’s about time.