Archive for August, 2018

MinisterEricSir

August 24th, 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 16th, 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 12th, 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 11th, 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 2nd, 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.