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.

MinisterEricSir

August 24, 2018


 

As of this week I’m an officially ordained minister of the Church of the SubGenius. I am not alone in this pecular profession; you too can become a SubGenius minister yourself for the low price of $35 plus shipping!

What is this church, you ask? It’s the world’s only admittedly for profit religion; donations are not tax exempt.

The teachings are simple. In the 1950′s a pipe smoking salesman named JR “Bob” Dobbs assembled a television set only to be contacted by a video feed of JHVH-1, a somewhat evil alien god. The rest as they say is history. The message of “Bob” and his primary wife, the blessed anti-virgin “Connie,” is that we must achieve maximum Slack before planet Earth is destroyed on X-Day in 1998.

But wait — what is Slack? And didn’t our planet survive 1998? The answers are simple. Slack is indefinable, and due to the conspiracy nobody knows what year it is, let alone if we’re on planet Earth, or if 1998 was upside down and the planet will actually end in 8661.

Unfortunately “Bob” was assassinated here in San Francisco at the Victoria Theater in 1984 while on stage with Dr. Owll (known to the conspiracy as Harry S. Robbins, aka Dr. Hal, aka Commander 14) though “Bob” occasionally comes back to life when it’s convenient.

As a minister of the Church am I able to assist in your marriage? Absolutely, unless you subjugate yourself to the conspiracy’s definition of marriage. For those who care about immigration or taxes seek out a minister who’s part of the conspiracy.

Praise “Bob”! All hail Slack! It’s time to pull the wool over your own eyes — only the Church of the SubGenius offers eternal salvation guaranteed or triple your money back.

Reflecting on fifteen years in San Francisco

August 16, 2018

Palace of Fine Arts
Palace of Fine Arts as seen recently after dark
 

Today marks the fifteenth anniversary of when I moved to San Francisco. I originally came here for college and wound up staying to build my career. Not that I had any other plans.

This isn’t about me though — I wanted to look back and consider everything that changed in the past fifteen years. Spoiler alert: a lot has changed. In some cases, not fast enough.

 
Everything became more expensive

Let’s start with the obvious. I can’t compare the price of avocado toast because nobody was making avocado toast in 2003, so we’ll have to look at other prices.

Fifteen years ago an adult Muni transfer was one dollar, and a monthly pass was $35. You could save on transfers if you were downtown by purchasing a bag of tokens, which cost slightly less than the cash price of a transfer. Muni still used paper transfers back then, if you were lucky a driver might hand you an all-day transfer instead of the normal 90 minute one.

Housing prices also skyrocketed of course. In college I lived out in the Parkside neighborhood and paid $585 a month for a room in a shared house. It’s hardly the most exciting neighborhood, even by Outer Sunset standards, but now you’d pay around $1,000 a month for a room out there. No wonder adults making six figures live with roommates long after college in San Francisco these days.

 
Museums

In Golden Gate Park the Conservatory of Flowers reopened after a long restoration, the new DeYoung opened its doors, followed by the Academy of Sciences. The latter two had to be rebuilt due to heavy damage in the 1989 earthquake (this will be a common theme here.)

Due to a large donation SFMOMA significantly expanded. The Exploratorium found a new location along the Embarcadero, and the outdoor plaza at its old location — the Palace of Fine Arts — underwent a lengthy restoration followed by landscaping work.

The quirky Musee Mecanique decided not to return to the Cliff House once restoration work wrapped up there, opting to stay at their Fisherman’s Wharf location instead.

 
Some big projects wrapped up…

The first phase of Muni Metro’s T-Third line opened down Third Street along the bay. Aside from everything else along that corridor, it would go on to serve the brand new UCSF Mission Bay campus.

The first skyscrapers in SOMA began popping up with Salesforce Tower recently taking the crown as the tallest in the city. Its neighboring Millennium Tower opened a few years earlier, promptly sinking and leaning over.

The replacements for Doyle Drive and the eastern section of the Bay Bridge were completed after decades of planning. The Bay Bridge was infamously damaged in the ’89 quake, and Doyle Drive wasn’t predicted to survive the next big earthquake.

Westfield took over the SF Centre mall, expanding it to the old flagship Emporium building next door. Despite a strong opening day this was a mixed success in retrospect, with retail stores dying out in favor of online shopping. At least it actually opened, unlike the nearby 6×6 mall which is still completely empty.

Just last weekend the new Salesforce/Transbay Transit Center finally opened (sort of) and we got a fancy new park out of it to boot. This complex replaced the old Transbay Terminal, which had been damaged by the ’89 quake too.

The last vestige of elevated freeway north of Market Street finally got the axe due to a combination of earthquake damage and long-running unpopularity, leading to a new Octavia Boulevard and the revitalization of the Hayes Valley neighborhood.

 
…and some didn’t

The old freeway over Octavia Boulevard was supposed to make room for low income housing. Construction still hasn’t even begun on it yet!

The Central Subway — phase two of the T-Third project — is still under construction. At least there’s visible progress. Same with the near-constant work on the Twin Peaks Tunnel; will this be the final time it’s closed off for months? Somehow I doubt it.

And then there’s the train tunnel to the new Salesforce Transit Center. Not an inch of dirt has moved yet, even if the alignment plans have been finalized.

Don’t even get me started on the plans to fix Geary Street’s awful transit. That’s been a third wheel of SF’s politics long before I moved here — or was even born if you want to go back that far.

The most shameful things that didn’t change were the somehow still undeveloped Hunter’s Point shipyard site as well as Treasure Island. Both have their own challenges of course, and the nuclear waste contamination doesn’t help. All the foot dragging there is just dragging rents up.

The city’s homeless situation improved a little in recent years with new tactics including Navigation Centers. Yet the success rate is at least two orders of magnitude below what’s needed — hundreds helped vs. tens of thousands in need of help — to declare any kind of success would be beyond premature. There’s still a long road ahead, we must do better here.

 
The cult of venture capital

Venture capitalists had begun funding tech companies in San Francisco back in the 90′s, but over the past fifteen years they became willing to fund anything and everything in SF — modern taxi companies, food delivery, questionable juicing products, even restaurants.

Food and transit aren’t generally high margin businesses, so it’s hard to see why investors would look at these industries and see a cash cow. Would VCs have invested in these businesses if they were headquartered in, say, Nebraska? It’s something to think about next time you’re using a money losing service backed by VCs like Uber.

 
Food, drinks, and dining

Where to start on this one? While the Bay Area has a long history of high end dining, the Ferry Building reopened as a food hall shortly before I moved here; a sign of what was to come.

The city became a lightning rod of trends from food to cocktails to coffee. “Fine dining” with its waiter service and starched tablecloths somehow made way for experimental fast casual, chaotic dining.

Fifteen years ago a good coffee establishment wasn’t easy to find. Making the trek to Blue Bottle or Ritual was a time commitment for many of us. Fortunately the “third wave” coffee trend made its way across the city after a while.

One thing that hasn’t changed are the tough, hard-working, and often heavily tattooed folks behind the counter rushing out top quality drinks and dishes at a breakneck pace. Please tip them well.

 
Fun and entertainment

The Outside Lands concert series started in Golden Gate Park, proving that San Franciscans love shivering in the cold while listening to music — and paying for it too, unlike the long-running free Hardly Strictly and Stern Grove Festival series.

Dolores Park went from an odd scruffy park to the victim of its own popularity. I still miss Dolores Park Movie Night. The recent refurbishment of the park didn’t change much in terms of the crowds, but at least the bathroom lines are shorter.

A number of long running music venues shut down, but others came to fill their place — some not publicly, and often not legally either. One of my first SF music venue memories was The Pound over at Hunter’s Point, a punk club that didn’t last long.

New forms of art and theater emerged seemingly out of nowhere. From Nonchalance we got some weird interactive stories, including (my personal favorite) The Jejune Institute. Local immersive theater show The Speakeasy became a mainstay, bucking the trend of temporary immersive shows. A bunch of pop-up selfie-friendly “museums” appeared like the Color Factory and the Museum of Ice Cream.

Sunday Streets became a thing ten years ago, but it still feels like it was yesterday. It became wildly popular in the Mission, with varying degrees of success in other neighborhoods. From kids learning to ride bikes to adults working off their brunches, there’s a little of something for everyone there.

For some reason the cultural phenomenon known as the “Burning Man rapture” seems to have subsided. Fifteen years ago when it was Burning Man the city emptied out. Now, it doesn’t seem like the lines are any shorter or BART is any less crowded.

 
Final thoughts on my “San Franciscoversary”

In fifteen years you can expect a lot of things to change in the ebb and flow.

What makes San Francisco a little different than many places is it’s succumbed to many natural disasters. Not everything built after the 1906 earthquake was strong enough to survive the 1989 earthquake. It’s also rather embarrassing how slow construction projects tend to move these days. When I moved here in 2003 it was already fourteen years after the ’89 earthquake. You’d think that would have been enough time to rebuild, retrofit, and replace everything — and you’d be wrong. Worse, structures damaged in 1989 are still being replaced today (I’m looking at you, Salesforce Transit Center.)

Yet this is still a city that remains artistic, innovative, and kinda quirky. For such a small city I’m often surprised to hear about something new to me that isn’t new to anyone else. Keep on surprising me, San Francisco.

Salesforce Transit Center, opening day

August 12, 2018

Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

After years of construction it seemed like the new Transbay Salesforce Transit Terminal Center would never open; and yet today, it finally did… sort of. It’s clearly unfinished, and construction workers were still there today (a Saturday) working on the gondola. The underground train platforms weren’t open, and no physical work has been done to even build the tunnel to the station.

So perhaps it’s best to think of this as opening day, with a few major caveats. For now only a few local transit agencies serve Salesforce Transit Center via bus, with bus operations to and from the East Bay to start tomorrow. Permanent restaurant and retail space is also still also on the to do list.

But enough about the future for the moment; let’s start with what’s there now.

 
Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

The building itself is hard to miss; it’s a wavy undulating mesh hovering over several streets, with trees popping out from above. Heading in just past Salesforce Tower is an enormous lobby, with monolithic signs everywhere pointing to different transit agencies. Filled with natural light, the lobby is bright, clean, and frankly looks like a transit station. Not all the displays showing departure times were hooked up yet.

I kind of expected just to walk in and check the place out, but little did I know many others had the same idea. Turns out I’m not the only one who likes to see new things. Despite getting there early I had to wait in a long line for the escalator. SFPD acted as crowd control, only letting groups up at a time.

It seems the crowds weren’t expected; the lines leading up to the escalators and elevators were ad-hoc, taking up so much space that a group of dancers gave up on dancing and began posing for photos instead.

 
Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

When I finally got on the escalator I looked straight up and saw a skylight… with shadows of people standing on it. Normally standing on a skylight is a bad idea, but this one is intended to act as a floor.

The main escalator skips the second floor, heading straight to the bus stops on the third floor. Here you’ll be able to take a bus to the East Bay and beyond. For opening day it was a sort of museum exhibit with presentations from local transit agencies.

 
Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

AC Transit showed off their new double decker bus. Various transit agencies had well-preserved antique buses on display. Someone had brought in an old car from Hupmobile, a semi-obscure defunct car manufacturer. I confess I thought it was a Ford Model T at first glance.

I was a little thirsty after waiting so long to get up to there. The vending machines were largely not operational yet. Fortunately SFMTA had a table with free Hetch Hetchy water and cups to match.

 
Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

The real star of the show on the third level is the suspension bridge. This is a bus-only bridge over Howard Street that can be easily spotted from Second and Howard. They were letting people walk onto the base of the bridge to get a peek at it, but no further.

It’s too bad they didn’t incorporate a sidewalk with space for people to take photos, I could imagine this funny little bridge being a popular selfie spot for travelers.

 
Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

The entire third level was open to let people walk around. Normally you won’t be able to get up close to the metal lattice “skin” of the building on the bus level, but for opening day there was no risk of getting run over by a Greyhound.

I’ve watched the lattice go up in sections for what felt like ages, so it was neat to finally get a peek outside from within.

 
Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

Obviously people hadn’t flocked here to see a bunch of buses. The real draw was to see Salesforce Park, the city’s first elevated park.

Despite crowd controls this was wall-to-wall people, gawking at the scenery. It’s a bit of a head trip — you look one way and there’s a green park with trees and grass, you look the other way and it’s office towers and skyscrapers. Unless you look over the ledge there’s not much visual indication that you’re above ground at all. This dissonance may grow with the trees and shrubs themselves.

Plaques throughout the park explain what you’re looking at — a fountain (it was off), seismic joints in the building, plants in the garden, etc. There’s a playground for kids, a couple of plazas, and a few grassy areas for lunches and picnics.

The park connects directly to both Salesforce Tower and 181 Fremont. The sky lobby for Salesforce Tower hasn’t been completed yet; I could see construction workers and unpainted drywall behind glass windows.

I’ve heard this park was inspired by New York City’s High Line Park, but I’ve yet to visit NYC so I’m not able to make any comparisons.

 
Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

For opening day there were a few vendors in one plaza, selling food, coffee, beer, and oddly enough cookie dough. Stands with free to borrow books and board games were available as well. There were a few tables to sit at, though not nearly enough to meet demand. When the novelty wears off I could see this park as a place for nearby workers to take a lunch break.

Bands and DJs played at two stages in the park. Due to all the buildings around it, some parts of the park were shady whereas others were sunny on an unusually warm San Francisco afternoon.

One big question that kept lingering in my mind was how this new station would outlast the one it replaced. Although the old Transbay Terminal was once touted as the “Grand Central Station of the West,” by the time I was around to see it the place was kind of a mess. The “terminal” aspect of it largely referred to the trains that once arrived at the station coming over the Bay Bridge. The building’s restaurant and bar had closed ages ago, and the waiting area was essentially used as a homeless shelter.

Until train tunnels are built — this time from the Peninsula side, and eventually perhaps a second Transbay Tube — it’s hard to see how the Salesforce Transit Center will be much more than a fancy elevated park. The bus level is nice and all, but you don’t need much space for a bus stop. It’s also worth pointing out that the new low-cost bus operators like Megabus and Flixbus haven’t announced plans to stop at the Transit Center.

Perhaps the most odd omission is the lack of connection between the Transit Center and Montgomery Station. It’s a very short walk, hopefully some signs will appear soon directing travelers between the two. Should be easy enough to fix.

If the new Transit Center has one thing going for it, it’s the neighborhood. Between when the original Transbay Terminal was built and today, the surrounding area has grown tremendously. Factories and shipping businesses were replaced by offices filled with knowledge workers. Moscone Center opened, expanded — and is being expanded again, right now. New hotels sprung up, new subways, a new baseball stadium… the list goes on. This version of the Transit Center seems more likely to succeed; at least if its underground train platforms ever see service, that is.

 
Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

Of course, all of this will have been for nothing if the Millennium Tower — currently sinking and leaning towards Salesforce Tower — comes crashing down.

Perhaps that should be addressed before the next earthquake, let alone before any new tunnels are built in the area.

 
Salesforce Transit Center, Opening Day
 

By the time I made my way back to the escalators to leave, the crowds had grown immensely — I was glad I’d arrived early. It also seemed unintuitive to me that so many folks wanted to check out the new Transit Center when the city was also hosting Outside Lands, the Filipino Parade, and a Giants game all on the same day.

With all of those activities going on, who knew the opening of a new Transit Center and park would attract such a large crowd? Not me, that’s for certain.

Strangest aspects of Europe’s bathrooms

August 11, 2018

Stockholm
My Airbnb’s bathroom in Stockholm
 

For those of us used to North American bathrooms there are many oddities about European bathrooms that tend to stick out. I don’t mean to scare anyone away from making a trip to Europe but there are some aspects to be aware of in advance. These are mere observations from my own travels, the list is by no means exhaustive.
 

Shower wands

Most showers in Europe have a “wand,” or a shower head attached to a hose. There’s often a place to clamp this to take a hands-free shower, though the freedom of the wand can be useful to clean hard to reach areas.

It can also make a giant mess if you’re not used to showering with these things. Try not to spray the entire bathroom with water.
 

Really small showers

Shower stalls in Europe seem to vary between the size of a phone booth (if you remember those) to the size of a bathtub. For the most part you’ll be dealing with the phone booth showers. If you’re lucky there will be shower walls, if you’re not so lucky you’ll have a tiny curtain wrapped around you.

Some older bathrooms don’t have a shower enclosure at all. It’s just you naked in the corner of a bathroom spraying yourself with water.
 

Shower rope/chain

Some hotels have a rope or chain in the shower that you should pull in the event of an emergency, such as if you slipped and hit your head. If it’s not an emergency though, don’t touch it.

Newer hotel bathrooms usually don’t have these, and in older hotels… who knows if the thing still works?
 

Central drain

Most European bathrooms have a drain in the bathroom floor. This can be an advantage if you spill something, the sink or toilet overflows, etc. In some cases the shower drains into here as well — or even the sink. Look closely at the photo above for an example of a drain that does all three.

If you get the floor all wet showering it may take a while for the water to reach the central drain, so be careful not to slip in the meantime.
 

Hot water switch

In private home bathrooms (friend’s places, Airbnb apartments, etc.) the hot water heater isn’t intended to be run all day. Instead there will be a switch — usually a circuit breaker — that activates the hot water heater. If you can’t get hot water you probably need to ask where to find this switch.

Remember to flip the switch off when you’re done as energy is expensive in Europe.
 

Mysterious knobs on the wall

Hotel bathrooms in particular often have a pair of hot and cold knobs on the wall that don’t appear connected to anything. I think these are shut off valves? Whatever they do, leave them alone.
 

Toilet flushing mechanisms

There are so many different types of European toilets I could probably make a long blog post just about how to flush them, but I’ll break it down quickly here:

  • Toilets with a tank above your head. You’ll either have to push a button on the tank or pull a chain to flush these. Shorter people and children may have trouble with these.
  • Tanks on the toilet with a metal circle featuring a larger button and a crescent button. These are two options, you push the crescent shape for a small flush and the larger button for a bigger flush. Save water and only use what you need.
  • A rectangle on the wall. This is common in newer bathrooms where the tank is hidden in the wall (Europeans love hiding stuff in walls.) Just like above there are two buttons; one for a big flush and one for a small one. In public bathrooms the big plastic buttons are occasionally broken off by vandals, but you can still flush them by tapping the exposed levers.

 

Ancient toilets

If you’re in a very old European building the toilet may just be a hole in the floor. It’s easy for men to pee in, but for all other purposes you’ll need to assume a squatting position as there is no seat. These aren’t commonplace though on rare occasions you might still find one in a restaurant or bar. Typically these are flushed by pulling a chain.
 

Standalone bidets

Those used to traveling in modern Asian cities (or working at Google) will be familiar with bidet toilet seats, but some European bathrooms have standalone bidets. These look like a cross between a sink and a toilet.

Part of the reason these are common in some parts of Europe is because…
 

Small garbage cans for toilet paper

Old sewer systems can’t necessarily handle toilet paper. This is true worldwide though in Europe the state of the sewers varies wildly from one place to the next.

If you occasionally forget and flush a few pieces of toilet paper it’s no big deal, but if you don’t know about this and try to flush a lot you’re in for a world of trouble. Those garbage cans are there for a reason — and they need to be taken out regularly.

Always ask if you can flush toilet paper before using the bathroom.
 

Horrible smells

Dirty toilet paper aside if you look under the sink in any American bathroom, you’ll see a U-shaped pipe connected to the drain. This is called a “trap” because it traps a small amount of water, which prevents bad smelling sewer air from wafting into the bathroom.

In Europe these are often not present which leads to bathrooms that smell not just like a sewer, but like an old sewer. You’ll want to keep the bathroom door closed at all times if this is the case.
 

Washing machine in the bathroom

Again on the theme of private home bathrooms if there’s a washing machine in the home it’s most likely located in the bathroom. Washing your clothes in the bathroom makes some sense, but if it’s a foul smelling bathroom you may want to consider alternatives.

Don’t expect to find a dryer at all — Europeans tend to hang dry their clothes. Look for a rack in the home to hang your damp clothes on. Running an extra spin cycle in the washer can help dry out your clothes too.
 

Public pay toilets

Public bathrooms in Europe often charge money. Some take coins, others take credit cards. You’ll find these everywhere from standalone restrooms in public plazas to train stations.

Bathrooms in cafes and restaurants are usually free if you make a purchase so try to strategize bathroom breaks while you’re out.

Oh and PLEASE don’t just pee on the sidewalk to avoid pay toilets. The locals will hate you, and if enough people do this they’ll develop a (legitimate) grudge against tourists.
 

Pissoirs

It’s sexist in a way, but if you’re a guy and not concerned about washing your hands you can often find a free urinal-like toilet. Sometimes these are drains in the ground, they may be temporary structures, other times they look like a sink without a faucet. The name says it all — it’s a place to piss.
 

Unclean tap water

Most of Europe has excellent tap water but that’s not true everywhere. On Greek islands for example you shouldn’t even use the tap water to brush your teeth. Always ask if you’re unsure. One sign that the water may not be clean is when the hotel includes free bottled water.

How I was financially compensated for a delayed flight from Europe

August 2, 2018

My flight home from Oslo had a prolonged delay. The kind of delay where it slips so many times you start to lose track of which gift shops you’ve already browsed, and you have more than enough time to think about which restaurant you want to use your meal voucher at.

It turns out that delay earned me a pretty significant discount — more than 50% off in my case.

How? A couple days after the flight I got an email from TripIt, a free website I use for scheduling trip activities (hotels, flights, tours, etc.) The email said I might be eligible for compensation due to the flight delay. They included an estimate of the compensation and offered to direct me to a third party that would help me collect.

Immediately this sent off some alarm bells; it sounded too good to be true. The flight cost just under $800, and the compensation amount was about $450.

I did some sleuthing online and it turns out there’s a law in the EU called EC 261/2004, also known as “Flight Compensation Regulation.” The goal of the law is to squeeze airlines for poor performance, sending the penalties straight to the consumer. As a skeptical person I’m always happy to be proven wrong though there was a catch — according to the Wikipedia page I was owed 600 euros, or around $700 USD at current exchange rates.

Obviously these third parties that collect compensation on your behalf will take a cut, but $450 on a $700 windfall seemed like a bad deal. I spent the next couple hours digging around trying to figure out how to submit my claim directly to the airline. While their claim submission form was easy enough to find their website didn’t really explain how to use it or what information they wanted. I thought about giving them a call, but at this point the phrase “sunk cost fallacy” was already swimming around in my head. I gave in and let the third party collect and take their cut.

As you might imagine these services make it a snap to enter the information they need, upload the required documents, and presto — a couple days later they’d organized my documents, filed the claim, and soon they’d transferred the money into my checking account as promised.

I still would have preferred getting home on time to getting money back, though there’s something to be said for getting a discount on a sub-par experience. More countries should consider implementing penalties like this, and they should make it easier for consumers to collect in the event of a delay.

Sailing in the bay

July 30, 2018

Sailing in the bay Sailing in the bay Sailing in the bay
 

On Saturday I went sailing with some coworkers, or to put it more accurately a pair of coworkers sailed a ship while instructing the rest of us on what to do. For my part I barely know port from Starburst starbird starboard, but if you need someone who can pull on whichever rope you tell me to, I’m your guy.

We began sailing from a boat rented at Club Nautique in Alameda. After strapping on life jackets our captain (one of my coworkers) gave us the safety rundown, we stepped on the boat, and I started the engine so we could motor our way out into the bay.

Once we were headed straight into the wind we deployed the sails, killed the engine, and were under wind power.

There’s something strangely relaxing about sailing on the bay’s calm southern waters; perhaps too relaxing. We were all jolted awake when an enormous cargo ship snuck up behind us and honked.

Unlike on land, in the water right of way is apparently kind of complicated but the basics are simple enough: smaller vessels need to stay out of the way of bigger ones. We only got a single honk, which I’m told is a warning. Five honks would have been the signal to move immediately and/or expect a visit from the Coast Guard.

 
Sailing in the bay Sailing in the bay Sailing in the bay
 

I’d never approached San Francisco from Alameda on a boat before. In some ways it’s a little disorienting. For example I kept thinking “what’s that big green thing?” before suddenly realizing I was looking at the stands of AT&T Park. Likewise Sutro Tower not only looked further south than I’d expected but seemed very surreal, poking up out of the foggy skyline like a pitchfork.

As we went under the Bay Bridge the second in command wondered what the deal was with the “bow and arrow.” I explained that it’s called Cupid’s Span and it evokes the romantic idea of Cupid and Tony Bennett’s song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Not exactly what the artists intended though it’s close enough.

 
Sailing in the bay
 

Maneuvering around some ferries we docked at pier 1 and 1/2. This is just north of the Ferry Building, right behind the restaurant La Mar. It’s one of the few public places boats can dock in San Francisco. We all brought our own food and snacks and ate at a nearby public table. Despite many restaurants in the area, we had no way of knowing if there’d be an open place to dock so we came prepared.

Protip: There are two single occupancy public restrooms at the pier. Just go inside the front door facing The Embarcadero; they’re both in the lobby.

 
Sailing in the bay
 

The return voyage was a calm one, with the wind in our favor. There were few other boats to contend with aside from other sailboats and the RocketBoat.

At a certain point I looked back at the city skyline and noticed it had begun to look almost like a mirage. The features on the buildings disappeared and it took on a gray shadowy appearance, back lit by a mountain of clouds. After docking the boat back at Club Nautique we all went our separate ways for the day.

Having lived in San Francisco for the past fifteen years I’ve never visited the city via sailboat — all this time I didn’t even know it was possible to step off a sailboat and walk right over to the Embarcadero waterfront. Who knew?

Outdoor art in Oslo

July 25, 2018

Oslo
Oslo Oslo
 

On my first night in Oslo I wandered the streets of Grünerløkka looking for a relaxing place to eat, then to find some groceries. Along the way I kept stopping to snap photos of the street art painted on the sides of buildings. These weren’t always off in the alleys but often on streets with pedestrians and streetcars passing by.

Thinking about it in retrospect I didn’t see much street art while visiting Hydra and Stockholm. Street art doesn’t go with the crumbling brick and stucco wall aesthetic of Greek islands, but what’s going on with Stockholm? I know there are places where to find street art but you have to head pretty far outside the main city to find it. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time for such excursions.

Athens street art is its own story, which I wrote about during my visit last year. Go read that if you’re interested.

 
Oslo
 

While heading back to the apartment with a bag of groceries I happened to walk through a small park. In that park I spotted a sculpture of a young woman clutching her belly. This got me thinking — why do we tend to think of outdoor murals as “street art,” but not outdoor sculptures? Art museums often feature both paintings and sculptures, so if street art is simply outdoor art without an admission fee, shouldn’t this description include sculptures as well as paintings?

I don’t mean to make this out to be a profound idea, but I kept coming back to it as I visited (or stumbled upon) Oslo’s outdoor art.
 

World War II memorials

 
Oslo
 

On a hill overlooking Oslo’s waterfront and a stone’s throw from city hall is a statue of American president FDR. Why? According to a tour guide Norway was criticized during World War II for falling to Nazi occupation despite initial Allied military support. This criticism felt unwarranted by Norwegians who fought the occupation, so when FDR took to the airwaves to commend the Norwegian resistance movement he earned the respect of Norway.

It’s worth noting the statue depicts FDR as the disabled man he was, sitting in a chair rather than standing, but doesn’t directly comment on this particular pose.

 
Oslo
 

On the topic of WWII there’s a sculpture near Oslo S featuring a hammer smashing something on a stone slab. What’s the hammer smashing? It seems the artist made it intentionally difficult to view, let alone photograph.

The simple answer is the hammer is destroying a swastika. The more complicated answer; as you approach the shiny metal swastika, you’ll see your own face reflected in the mirror-like surface. What is this piece saying? Hopefully it’s quite obvious.
 

Sorry if that got depressing; let’s move on to some lighter works.
 

Ekeberg Park

 
Oslo
Oslo Oslo Oslo Oslo
 

I took a streetcar to Ekeberg Park, a wooded hillside park that doesn’t seem to have caught on (yet?) with the tourist crowd much. Most of the people I saw in the park were clearly locals jogging or walking their dogs. There’s also a restaurant near the entrance which seemed pretty busy, and a lookout with a nice view of the city.

The park is best known as the place that inspired The Scream. One evening in the late nineteenth century Edvard Munch was taking a stroll through the park with some friends, and the sunset turned the sky a particularly vivid red hue. Munch interpreted what he felt was a scream from nature through the paintings (there are more than one.)

Over the past few years the park added various sculptures from different artists, ranging from more conceptual pieces to classic figures of humans. Some sculptures didn’t look like much during my visit, but outdoor sculptures can take on a very different context depending on the lighting or weather.
 

Blå

 
Oslo
Oslo Oslo Oslo Oslo
 

If you follow the river south from the Mathallen food hall there’s a bar and nightclub called Blå. You know you’re in the right place when you see walls covered in murals and various outdoor sculptures, including a giant chandelier dangling over an alley. During the day it’s a relatively quiet bar with a patio under the trees, at night it transitions into a music venue with everything from DJs to live music including jazz and hip hop.

The murals vary a lot in both style and quality, which makes sense when you consider there’s an art school campus a couple blocks away.
 

The Waterfront

 
Oslo Oslo Oslo
 

Back in the day Oslo’s waterfront was an industrial neighborhood. But as in so many other blue collar parts of town around the world, the waterfront became luxury housing, upscale restaurants, tourist friendly museums, and picnic areas. The area around the Astrup Fearnley Museum is littered with sculptures to check out while enjoying coffee and ice cream from nearby vendors.
 

Royal Palace

 
Oslo
Oslo Oslo
 

I don’t know if this is a regular thing, but the Royal Palace gardens had a small temporary outdoor exhibition of sculptures. These were more pop-art crowd pleasers than typical outdoor art in Oslo — not that there’s anything wrong with that. Still, it took some waiting to get clear shots of these as people waited around for their turn to snap photos.

Individuals and groups of all ages wanted photos of themselves under the rainbow, or selfies with the faceless puppeteer. Much like the Color Factory or Museum of Ice Cream, perhaps this type of photo-friendly sculpture represents some hitherto unnamed future of participatory art. Who’s to say?
 

Frogner Park

 
Oslo Oslo Oslo Oslo Oslo
 

Though the name is a little confusing, the infamous Frogner Park is the same thing as Vigeland Sculpture Park. The park is covered in sculptures by artist Gustav Vigeland as well as grass, gardens, and water features.

The sculptures are largely nude human forms in both metal and concrete. Some of them seem more serious than others, with the guy fighting off babies as the best known statue of the park’s more comical artistic stance.

During my visit I saw groups of tourists eagerly take their shoes and socks off to wade around in the water and take photos of one another. Scandinavians typically take their shoes off when entering a home, so I’d imagine this is pretty disgusting to the locals.

The park is a promenade extending from the entrance over to the phallic sculpture of human bodies tangled together at the other end. Several sculptures are hidden down non-obvious passages, such as the baby balanced on its head which is located in a dead-end under a bridge.

 
Oslo Oslo
 

And then there was this mysterious sculpture. While it wasn’t originally intended to be a sculpture the phone company added a plaque to commemorate it as though it were one. After taking photos of the old phone booth a group of teen girls appeared behind me, waiting for their turn.

As I walked away I noticed one of them picked up the receiver and tried to make a call while the others used their smartphones to take pictures.
 

Everything else

 
Oslo
Oslo Oslo Oslo Oslo
 

What amazed me about Oslo’s outdoor art was how it’s everywhere — from big sculpture parks to small alleys, there’s something for everyone to find whether you set out to do so or are simply wandering from point A to point B. From the big colorful murals to the surprisingly clean statues (where’s all the bird poop?!) the outdoor urban landscape of Oslo is almost like an open air museum.

Aside from Frogner Park or what you may see on a guided tour, the majority of the outdoor art isn’t mentioned anywhere on the internet. I’m not sure it needs to be; part of the fun is spotting it on your own while spending time in Oslo.

Oslo expeditions

July 22, 2018

My five days in Oslo were packed and I still left with the impression there was much more to see. When my flight home got delayed I was annoyed because there were still a few hours to go out and see the museums I’d missed — let alone a ferry trip I’d meant to take to the islands — but not quite enough time to do any of those. In a way it was Stockholm all over again: I should have booked a couple more days. Ah well, better to err on the side of taking off before you’ve seen it all and get bored I suppose.

Since I went on fewer tours than I did in Stockholm I’ll go into each tour individually, though I’m saving all the outdoor art segments for the next post.

 
Oslo
Oslo Oslo
 

Free Tour Oslo City

This free (donation requested) tour hits many tourist friendly destinations. Starting at the tiger statue outside Oslo S, it heads to a view of the Opera House, up to the main square of Christiania/New Oslo, over to the fortress, to the waterfront, City Hall, and finally to parliament. That list isn’t comprehensive but covers the gist of it.

Opening hours permitting the tour goes inside Oslo’s City Hall. While the building doesn’t look like much from the outside the interior has wall to wall murals covering various art deco styles. Sculptures in the courtyard outside built into the walls have typical arts and crafts designs.

The tour doesn’t sugarcoat the dark side of Oslo’s history during its occupation by Nazi Germany. A number of plaques on the ground written in Norwegian have a person’s name and the word “Auschwitz” — you can easily guess what that means. After the tour guide pointed these out I began spotting them all over Oslo.

 
Oslo
Oslo Oslo
 

After the tour ended I wandered back to check out the Opera House firsthand. Or maybe “firstfoot” would be a more appropriate term as the exterior of the building is an enormous sloping plaza. It’s currently surrounded by neighborhood construction on two sides — and water on two others — but you can still visit via a small bridge. While the outdoor space is always open, the indoor lobby and restaurant have posted hours.

I’m told the Opera House plaza can get very slippery during the winter. During the summer the white exterior is almost blinding to look at. Either way you need to watch your step due to the uneven surface. Seems like a lawsuit waiting to happen, or at least that’s how it would end up in the US.

 
Oslo
 

At my host’s suggestion I visited the botanical garden. No tour here, just a serene and impeccably maintained garden filled with exotic plants. It’s a perfect spot away from the crowds to sit around and sip a cold coffee on a hot summer day — you can bring your own or visit the cafe in the middle of the garden.

It’s free to visit but they have a donation box for those inclined to contribute.

 
Oslo Oslo
 

The Culinary City Walk

This food tour is from the same company that runs the food tour I went on in Stockholm. Oddly, while waiting at the meeting point for the tour guide to show up I was mistaken both for the tour guide and for a participant in a nearby Pokemon Go event.

The first proper stop on the tour was Mathallen, a hip modern food hall built into an old industrial brick building. This stop introduced me to Norwegian brown cheese, a caramelized dairy product (not technically cheese) often eaten at breakfast with waffles or crepes. Personally I though it was fine, though some find it quite divisive.

We took a long winding stroll to reach our next destination on the waterfront. As an aside I spotted a taco truck parked by the streetcar stop on the waterfront, which I went back to later on my own. The tacos were surprisingly good, and I had a lime Jarritos to go with it. Little taste of “home” as it were.

Anyway, back to the tour. We went to a seafood-focused restaurant on the waterfront called Rorbua where we were served a large sampler platter. Mine was all seafood, but the meat eaters in the group were served some rather exotic meats including whale and reindeer (sorry, Rudolph.) Not everyone seemed to have the stomach for eating whale. As far as seafood the trout and shrimp were particularly tasty.

Unlike the Stockholm tour where we ended on coffee, the food tour in Oslo ended at a bar with a beer tasting. Seemed a little early for beer, but most of us went along with it. All of it was brewed in Norway yet in traditional British styles. The only one that stood out to me was an IPA that had a more subtle hoppiness than the in-your-face styles we tend to have at home in California.

As we departed the tour feeling a little tired from all the food and beer, a bunch of protestors marched outside the bar towards city hall as if it jolt us awake on cue. I think they were protesting against the imprisonment of an East Turkestan independence advocate, though the connection to Oslo’s city politics (if any) was entirely lost on me.

 
Oslo
 

Discover the Charming Westside of Oslo

Here we have it: the first tour on this trip that was a total bust. Maybe the online info is just outdated, but the guide never showed up.

Since I hadn’t paid in advance there wasn’t much to be mad about, just a little annoyed that I’d brought 200 NOK in payment. The tour was supposed to start near the royal palace (see above photo) so I just wandered around the gardens for a little while. The gardens are open to the public and pretty popular with tourists; palace grounds include a small park, a duck pond, and oddly enough a beehive. There’s probably a joke about a queen bee in there somewhere.

The palace gardens were hosting a small temporary sculpture exhibit I found amusing, which got me thinking — the tour was supposed to end at the Frogner Park sculpture garden, so why not just head over there? After all it’s not like the sun was going to set.

So I hoped on a streetcar and visited Frogner Park. Would have been nice to have a tour guide, but the evening itself wasn’t a total failure. I’ll go into all the sculptures in the next post.

 
Oslo Oslo Oslo
 

Hipster Oslo (Grünerløkka)

I wanted someone to take me around the neighborhood where I was staying and discovered this tour almost at the last minute. A young family had signed up for the tour even more at the last minute than I did, moments after the guide showed up.

I highly recommend this one — it’s inexpensive, goes into great detail, takes you to many historical spots in the area, and the guide was practically a walking encyclopedia of knowledge. If you want an off the beaten path tour of Oslo, this is it.

The tour was so long I’ll just stick to the highlights. It starts off in the labor union square on the edge of the neighborhood, passes by a former bathhouse, then snakes through a few streets lined with boutiques and restaurants, before hitting the campus of a world renowned art university and along the river, highlighting a couple of waterfalls.

Continuing up a hill we passed a hip outdoor area lined with street art (also in the next post, I promise) followed by a steep street lined with some of the oldest surviving wood buildings in Oslo. Going around a corner or two we went through a cemetery where many famous locals were buried, including Edvard Munch.

All the famous individuals buried there had QR codes next to their graves in case you wanted to look up their obituaries. Someone had left a handmade book at Munch’s grave of their own sketches of Munch’s famous paintings, including The Scream. It reminded me of a quote from the show Westworld — “Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin never died; they simply became music.” There’s a certain truth in this idea.

Passing through the cemetery we were supposed to go through a church but it was closed due to construction. Instead we detoured around a communal garden and ended the tour at the Mathallen food hall.

As we parted ways I pulled the 200 NOK note out of my pocket I had leftover from the no-show tour and handed it to the guide as a tip — a 100% tip. She was clearly surprised, but it was my last full day in Norway. I enjoyed the tour and had no interest in bringing Norwegian currency back with me. Hopefully big tips aren’t considered insulting or anything.

 
Oslo
 

Once again back at Mathallen I was hungry and ready to try something new. After washing up at the bathrooms in the basement I sat down at a Spanish food stall serving pintxos. Much like traditional Scandinavian cuisine, pintxos are open face sandwiches with various toppings. Or kind of like avocado toast back home… hmmm, who else would grab lunch at a place like this in Oslo?

The guy next to me kept trying to order in barely passable Spanish. I couldn’t help snickering when the employees replied in English. At some point he turned to me and said “Hey, where you from?”
“San Francisco.”
“Oh? Me too! What neighborhood?”
“The Mission. You?”
“Twin Peaks,” he replied.

We got to chatting a little before we both left separately… and then we both wound up in line at Tim Wendelboe, an espresso shop that seemed remarkably familiar. I ordered an espresso and after a long wait it arrived with a shot glass of sparkling mineral water. I kept looking around for the Blue Bottle logo, yet it was nowhere to be found.

 
Oslo Oslo Oslo
 

Later on my last night I went to explore the Akershus Fortress, which sits on a hill above the waterfront. Even though its military presence is long gone the area is still patrolled by royal guards with bayonets. Its clearly all for show as the guards seemed happy to take photos with tourists.

From the fortress there’s a good view of the waterfront — a sensible place for a fortress. Cruise ships dock just outside the fortress though, so if there’s one in the way the views may not be so hot.

Oslo

July 17, 2018

Oslo
 

Following the wedding in Greece I flew to visit another city I’d never been to: Oslo, Norway. Yup, I took a V-shaped trip through Europe — not the most efficient plan, but this is what happens when you base your vacations around cheap airfare.

At first I worried Oslo would be a smaller version of Stockholm. After all it’s another old Scandinavian waterfront city, and to make matters potentially worse somehow I’d inadvertently booked an Airbnb in the hip part of Oslo just as I’d done in Stockholm.

Fortunately this worry was unfounded; both cities have their own character. Compared to Stockholm, Oslo has significantly more public spaces, outdoor artwork (I’ll get to that in another post), and an embrace of modern architecture.

 
Oslo Oslo Oslo
 

Getting from the airport to central Oslo is simple enough. There’s an express train but it’s kind of pricey and not much faster than the NSB commuter train. To take NSB from the airport I purchased a Ruter transit card and loaded a multi-day pass on the card, plus an NSB ticket. The NSB ticket machines ask you where you’re going, load the ticket onto the Ruter card, and tell you which platform to wait on.

A quick train ride later and I was at Oslo S. My host had suggested taking a Ruter bus to the Airbnb, but after sitting on an airplane for several hours I decided to walk — it was only a 12 minute walk anyway, and Oslo is a fairly flat, walkable city for the most part.

What I didn’t anticipate is the apartment I’d be staying at was at the top of a four story building. After climbing all those stairs I needed to sit down for a while and cool off. Due to the heat wave at the time, and the fact that it was an attic apartment with windows on the ceiling, the “cooling off” part of the equation was not meant to be. Who knew Oslo could get so warm in the summer?

 
Oslo Oslo Oslo

I stayed in the Grünerløkka neighborhood, and no I’m still not sure how that’s pronounced. It’s home to many cafes, boutiques, bars, and restaurants serving everything from Neapolitan pizza to falafel to veggie burgers. There’s a small river running through the neighborhood and a lot of outdoor spaces including a large (and free!) botanical garden. Many of the buildings have backyards, often used as outdoor seating for restaurants.

Since Norway is notoriously expensive and I was staying in an apartment with a full kitchen, I opted to buy groceries and eat in about half the time. Just on the block I stayed on were a couple of chain grocery stores, a butcher shop, and two produce markets. As I later found on a walking tour the area also has an upscale food hall — point is, the neighborhood’s a foodie heaven. My preconceptions about Norwegian cuisine being bland and boring were wildly wrong.

 
Oslo
 

This is a side tangent but that botanical garden has something I’d never seen before: a robot lawn mower. It wandered around sort of like a Roomba, cutting the grass before returning to its docking station. Sounds like a way to accidentally lose a toe, but their website claims it’s perfectly safe.

 
Oslo
 

As for getting around I took the Ruter streetcars on a daily basis. They’ll take you pretty much anywhere, assuming you’re able to climb a few stairs to board them. The stops all feature maps with real time arrival information. They’re also well integrated with Google Maps directions. Sometimes Google Maps suggested I take a bus instead but I always opted for the streetcars as I found them more charming, if a little cramped at times.

In Oslo the streetcars always have right of way so you have to be careful when you’re walking — they will not stop for you!

 
Oslo
 

Just as in Sweden the government of Norway controls all alcohol sales. To purchase anything harder than light beer you have to visit a chain store called “Vinmonopolet,” which translates to the amusingly honest phrase “Wine Monopoly.”

I noticed a few parks had small congregations of what I assumed were homeless people living there. However a tour guide later corrected this assumption — Norway has a problem with heroin, and the folks squatting in the parks were most likely addicts. So maybe their government is solving the wrong problem with their semi-prohibition on liquor. That said I never saw a single needle on the streets.

In the following posts I’ll go into tours I went on Oslo and the outdoor sculptures and art. During my brief visit to Oslo the weather didn’t lend itself to spending time indoors, so no — I didn’t visit the most famous painting there. Nevertheless, the legacy of Edvard Munch is all over Oslo.