Archive for March, 2011

Carl Fucking Sagan!

March 31st, 2011

Carl Fucking Sagan

Spotted in the patio of The Sycamore.

Lone Star Swan’s written works

March 31st, 2011

Lone Star Swan, 16th Street’s favorite eccentric pigeon caretaker, was immortalizezd in a mural. But did you know he’s also a writer?

Swan occasionally hands out a piece of xeroxed writing; sometimes typed, sometimes scrawled; and often with a self portrait and/or drawing of a pigeon.

Yesterday, Mr. Swan handed me the following written piece as I walked by. Note the remarks throughout insisting that this be given to the press, so take note, media. (Click to enlarge.)

lonestarswan - 3 30 11

Swan has been handing out written works for years — long before I lived in the area. Here’s a few he’s given me over the past few years.

lonestarswan - the return lonestarswan - 1-15-10 lonestarswan - 3-4-10 lonestarswan - 12-29-09 lonestarswan - 12-19-09

An American tourist’s reaction to visiting Mexico City, Toluca, and Metepec

March 31st, 2011

This is part of a series about my trip to Mexico City and the surrounding area. Also see part 1, part 2 and part 3.

There’s cultural differences between Mexico and the United States that surprised me during my recent visit. There were pleasant surprises, and not-so pleasant surprises. Let’s explore them all.

Latino Americana tower from the Palacio de Bellas Artes

The good stuff
Mexico City is in many ways a world-class major city. Good restaurants, hotels, street food, and the entire place is huge and packed with people and businesses. They have easily the best public transit I’ve ever seen, with a Metro where trains are spaced less than two minutes apart, bus rapid transit, electric trolleys, as well as traditional buses. (Traditional buses in Mexico are independently operated, sort of like shared taxis with pre-planned routes.) I never got to try the bicycle sharing program, but it looked like something to try.

It’s also a beautiful city with art everywhere. They’re big on statues. Certain parts of the city are very walkable, with pedestrian streets.

I’m told safety is an issue, but I never really saw any crime; of course, I was traveling with Mexicans who knew the country much better than I did and were aware of which areas to steer clear from. The police in Mexico City often have automatic weapons. They seem to mainly patrol tourist areas, which is nice if you’re a tourist but I’m sure is infuriating if you’re a local.

Some of the things surprised me not so much as an American, but as a San Franciscan. Sidewalk vendors seem to have free reign in terms of the space they take up and what they do. Street food was everywhere and often delicious. I can safely say I had better Mexican food in a Toluca parking lot than anywhere else, ever. One guy was selling homemade sorbet right outside of an elementary school, a concept that would make American parents’ jaws drop.


Now all this said, there’s a few big issues that Mexico needs to address, the sooner the better.

Lack of trust
We take it for granted in the US that we can walk into almost any store without surrendering our bags to the front desk. In Mexico, this is unheard of. In most stores, everything is either sold from behind the counter, or you have to check your bags before they let you go in. (Why I’m supposed to trust someone who makes $3 a day with a $500 camera was never explained to me.) There were exceptions to this, but they were mostly convenience stores or stores swarming with security guards. One store even had security guards standing on stools to watch over everyone. Another store insisted on putting cable ties on the zippers on my backpack so it couldn’t be opened.

But the lack of trust extends much further than shopping. Most homes in and around Mexico City are small buildings made from cinder blocks. They line the edges of the roofs and balconies with broken glass, sort of a cheap alternative to barbed wire. The outside of these homes is almost never painted, because to paint your home would suggest that you have money, which would be like putting up a “Please rob my house” sign.

It’s hard to imagine why everyone is treated like a criminal. I’m sure there’s a good reason for it (i.e. lots of crime) but unless you’re used to this sort of treatment, it’s damn insulting.

Poor sewers
It’s funny, but I thought the worst plumbing I’d ever have to deal with was in my trip to Greece. There, toilets simply couldn’t handle toilet paper. I was told many toilets in Mexico had the same problem. But in my entire visit to Mexico, I never had a problem with flushing TP.

But there was a different problem — stinky sewers. I don’t know know a lot about plumbing, but whatever they’ve done in Mexico can’t be right. All three hotels we visited had major odor problems in the bathrooms, especially at night. Street sewers often smelled terrible, even worse than our stinky street sewers in San Francisco (exception: foul street sewers on 19th Ave outside of SFSU which could probably kill a person.)

Someone from the Mexican tourism bureau needs to get a team of plumbers together and go around fixing this ASAP.

Another issue which may or may not be related is the foul-smelling rivers! This was especially noticeable in Toluca, where a river a couple blocks away from our hotel smelled so bad that I was able to smell it inside hotel, even in spite of having a stuffy nose due to my cold.

Lack of customer service
I think part of this is related to the lack of trust (described above) but there’s also an issue of just not caring or trying very hard. It’s not like Greece, where everybody moved too slow. This was something much worse about Mexican customer service that was hard to pin down.

Some examples:

  • On many occasions, when asking for help finding something at a store, they were simply unwilling to help. I found this not only to be bad service, but also generally rude.
  • The aforementioned bag-check at many stores as not only an insult, it was a hassle as well.
  • Larger stores tended to have long, slow moving lines. There wasn’t any rush to get people through the checkout.
  • We went to extend our stay at the first hotel we were at, but they insisted we had to pay 700 pesos ($70 USD) per night instead of the 350 pesos ($35 USD) we had bought the original two nights for via They said it was fine though if we wanted to order online to get the discount. So we did that, and then they told us we’d need to print out the e-mail confirmation, and “no you can’t use our printer.” Would it have been that hard for them to explain that we would need to print the e-mail BEFORE we placed the order? It would have saved about 20 minutes, and wouldn’t have been hard to explain in the first place.
  • One more example: a cashier at a drink stand refused my 100 peso ($10 USD) note for a bottle of water that cost 10 pesos ($1 USD). She claimed she didn’t have change. I didn’t buy anything there, including the cashier’s lame excuse for laziness.

Granted, this wasn’t true everywhere. But for the most part, I really got the impression that everyone who worked for someone else was doing the bare minimum necessary to keep their jobs. Were it not for the fact that I was visiting my girlfriend’s family — who were all very nice to me — I would have been under the impression that most Mexicans were lazy, self-centered assholes.


Overall, I’m a little torn on whether I’d go back to Mexico or not. On the one hand there’s still a lot more to see and do. I need to finish climbing the pyramids! But on the other hand, between the problematic customer service, the stench, and the way everyone is treated like a criminal, it’s a bit hard to justify returning.

I hate to say this, but perhaps the deciding factor is the price; Mexico is a cheap place to go, and it’s close enough to the United States that traveling there is inexpensive as well. Round trip airfare was less than $200 (USD) per person even after taxes and fees, rides on the Mexico City Metro were 3 pesos ($0.30 USD!!), and there’s excellent food for mere dollars.

So yeah, I’ll be back in Mexico someday. But it’s not at the top of my list.

Dangerous Muni Metro tricks

March 30th, 2011

Muni Diaries recently mentioned a couple of dangerous Muni Metro tricks at Van Ness Station.

An unusual way to ride the escalator

Bad place to wait for a train

Stupid? Dangerous? Insane? Yes, yes, and yes. But there’s even dumber things you can do on Muni. And I’ve seen it!

In the mid 2000s, I once witnessed someone ride Muni through the subway by grabbing on to the outside of the train and riding between two train cars. It’s probably really fun, as long as you don’t mind spinal injuries and/or death.

Another dumb idea: out on the street, is there a 2-car Muni Metro train in your way? Just jump between the two train cars over the coupler. Sure you might get your leg chopped off if the train starts while you’re in the middle, or you might jump in front of a car and die. But hey, you’ll save 15 seconds by not walking around the train.

How to take the census

March 30th, 2011

Next time I have to take the census, I’m going to use Christopher Walken’s method.


March 29th, 2011

Do you, um lovelife?


Spotted at the Richard Gamble Memorial Park. (That’s the weird little park at the West end of the Sunset Tunnel, if you needed to know.)

San Francisco terminology defined

March 25th, 2011

Whether you read one of San Francisco’s terrible newspapers or our “witty” blogs, you’ll run into terminology that might be a bit baffling to the layperson. Here, I’ve defined a number of commonly-used terms to assist newbies in their understanding of the lingo often used by San Franciscans.

What they say: Dive bar
What they really mean: Normal bar, but the bathrooms haven’t been cleaned since the Carter administration

What they say: Transit-oriented
What they really mean: Not enough parking

What they say: Hipster
What they really mean: White person

What they say: TIC
What they really mean: The realtor wants you to close your eyes and imagine that you’re in a real condo, not a converted apartment that has legal and financial issues

What they say: Shared housing
What they really mean: Shared flat or house where everybody gets pissed at everybody else regarding their cleaning habits

What they say: Street art
What they really mean: Pretentious graffiti

What they say: Historic building
What they really mean: The water leaking through the roof is the only thing preventing this pile of kindling from catching fire

What they say: Vintage
What they really mean: A crackhead found this in the garbage and sold it to us for a fraction of what you’re about to pay

What they say: Organic, artisan, farm-to-table dining
What they really mean: Food that doesn’t look the slightest bit appetizing

What they say: Parklet permit
What they really mean: Method of ousting the worst NIMBYs

What they say: Parade
What they really mean: Adults getting naked and hammered on the street before 5pm, for a change of pace

What they say: San Francisco State University
What they really mean: Daly City State College

What they say: Luxury condo
What they really mean: Regular condo, but in a very undesirable location

What they say: Live/work loft
What they really mean: Housing for artists, and by “artist” we mean someone who works in Sunnyvale programming Javascript for a living

What they say: Oakland
What they really mean: Uncharted territory that somehow is just minutes away from San Francisco

What they say: Muni
What they really mean: The bizarre result of combining socialism with pure anarchy

Can’t Pinch This

March 17th, 2011

I had this custom made for St. Patrick’s Day.

Can't pinch this

(For you colorblind folks, the text is green. Sorry you had to miss the joke.)

No No Name Sushi

March 17th, 2011

It’s official: No Name Sushi (aka Nippon Sushi) is gone. The recently-rebuilt space is now for rent.

No No Name Sushi

According to the agent’s website, the rent is a whopping $3,500 for the tiny 525 square foot space. It’s intended to be used as a restaurant, and word on the street is there are interested parties. But few types of restaurants could operate in such a tiny space.

Muni needs signal priority

March 16th, 2011

The SFMTA recently announced some big changes to the messy intersection at Church and Duboce, which is a notorious mess for Muni Metro, the 22 line, bicycles, private vehicles, and pedestrians. Streetsblog covered the changes in depth in an excellent article.

One strange aspect to the renovation which Streetsblog mentions is that there will still be no traffic signals at the intersection.

SFMTA staffers said adding traffic signals would cause unnecessary delays to Muni lines, particularly for the 22-Fillmore running north on Church Street, Kaufman said.

Traffic lights = delays? Somehow that statement doesn’t ring true.

Anyone who regularly travels on Muni Metro through this intersection, or the similar intersection at Ulloa and West Portal, can testify that these intersections are a major source of Muni Metro delays. (The West Portal intersection is actually worse, since Muni Metro has a signal but other traffic does not.)

If we really want to be a “transit-first” city, doesn’t it make sense to have traffic signals that give preference to transit? Especially in the case of Muni Metro, which is supposed to be “rapid” but when mixed with traffic is anything but.

Other transit systems give signal priority to trains and buses. Even VTA in Santa Clara County — which admittedly is a lousy system for many other reasons — gives signal priority to express buses.

Since Muni Metro in many cases has special traffic signals which do not apply to cars, couldn’t we at the very least use these signals to allow Metro LRVs to pass through intersections with priority to all other traffic?

Signal priorities could give many other Metro lines an advantage on many lines, including:

  • T line on 3rd St
  • Both the T and N lines on King and Embarcadero
  • M and K lines along West Portal
  • M line on 19th Ave
  • N line at 9th and Irving
  • J line on Church
  • Granted, this is an expensive proposition, as it involves altering traffic signals, adding signal remotes to trains, and operator education. But when it comes to making getting around the city with reliable speed, it’s worth the cost.