Archive for the ‘Local’ Category

Murder at the Conservatory

October 29th, 2017

Conservatory of Flowers light show
 

Last night I had the pleasure of attending Murder at the Conservatory, a game that takes place monthly at the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. It’s a benefit for the conservatory and as such the tickets are a little pricey. You must be 21 or older and have a valid ID to enter.

This post does NOT include spoilers, but if you want to go in completely fresh stop reading here.
 

The story itself will be familiar to anyone who’s read Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, countless other murder mystery authors, or even played the game Clue for that matter. One of several characters has committed a murder, and a detective has to figure out who did it.

This event differs from other murder mysteries in a number of ways. While you’re free to dress up if you wish you’re only asked to work as a detective, not play as a character in the mystery. All characters in the story are played by actors, giving the production an immersive theater vibe. You’re free to interact with them and ask anything you want as part of your investigation.

As is typical for the genre, the setting for the story — at least the current story — is the conservatory itself in the Victorian era. This makes the 1870′s location a perfect fit. Amusingly, the characters were confused by the audience’s modern technology (mobile phones, etc.) One audience member asked a character about DNA evidence only to get a rather silly, confused reaction.

All clues are all held by or in the immediate vicinity of the characters, who stay in one place throughout the night and interact with audience members who stop by. I’d estimate the audience consists of up to about 80 people.

It’s a little weird at the moment because a nightly light show is projection-mapped onto the conservatory building for the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love. Though nowhere near as ambitious as the City Hall 100th anniversary celebration it’s a quirky exhibit which can be noticed during the murder mystery. It’s all a mishmash of celebrating both Victorian and late 1960′s time periods in the same place (see photo above.) That said I didn’t find the light show particularly distracting.

The trick to solving the mystery is finding out what happened and when, what was the murder weapon, who knows what, and the relations between the characters. Fortunately you’re provided a notebook with the backstory and plenty of space for taking notes. A map is included which shows where to find each character.

A light dinner and beer or wine is included in the price of the ticket. The food was mostly vegetarian-friendly when I went, though your mileage may vary. Most of it was not vegan. Drinks can be consumed throughout most of the Conservatory with the exception of the butterfly exhibit. The first drink is free but additional drinks are expensive, though credit cards are accepted.

Before you ask… no, I didn’t correctly guess the guilty party. Like any good mystery there were multiple motives and misdirections. There’s no penalty for blaming the wrong character, but only those who figure out the right answer are entered into a drawing for prizes at the end.

Getting to the Conservatory of Flowers is relatively straightforward. Follow the Google Maps directions, and from there you’ll find clear signage directing you to the event. That said, I took the N-Judah and while it’s a more or less straightforward path from the UCSF stop through the park, getting back in full darkness and fog proved challenging. Turns out Golden Gate Park is tough to navigate in near darkness.

The current season of Murder at the Conservatory runs through January. In February they’ll be back for a new season with a new mystery to solve. Meanwhile, there are still tickets available at upcoming shows.

Tips:

  • Although the event is two hours long, the first half hour is just for reading the story and grabbing a drink and some food. If you’re running a little late you might not get a seat in the bar room but you won’t miss anything.
  • Pay attention to what the characters say; if they give you insight into another character, take note and be sure to ask the other character for more details.
  • For that matter, remember who is who! Many of the audience members seemed to get the characters mixed up. Perhaps they’d imbibed one drink too many.
  • Bring your own pencil or pen, the provided pencils are cheap crap.
  • Enjoy your surroundings! Going inside the conservatory after dark is a truly unique experience.

Just some parrots chilling on 16th Street

August 26th, 2017

Parrots on 16th Street
 

While heading down 16th Street earlier this evening I spotted some parrots; not the wild variety you find on Telegraph Hill but rather the domestic variety. A man eating at Pakwan on 16th Street brought along a few pet parrots. While two of them sat on a tree branch attached to a bicycle (pictured) a third sat with the owner, attempting to open a glass Coke bottle with its beak.

All of this was, of course, surrounded by amused folks taking photos of the colorful birds with their phones — myself included.

A robot served ice cream at Bi-Rite Creamery

July 30th, 2017


 

Yesterday just before 7 PM I got an unexpected series of texts from a friend:

I got ice cream from a robot
I’m at 18th and Dolores.
 

There’s a robot here
Bi-Rite Creamery

Intrigued, I texted back letting her know I was on the way; what sort of maniac could say no to watching a robot serve ice cream? I raced over from BART, practically running down 18th Street.

The “robot” as it turned out was a pair of robot arms attached to a mannequin torso, sitting on a table under a tent on the sidewalk outside Bi-Rite Creamery. A guy waving around a pair of HTC Vive controllers caused the two arms to scoop up ice cream and sprinkles — for free — to robot and/or ice cream fans passing by the creamery on 18th Street.

Not wanting to spoil my appetite for dinner, I declined the ice cream, but happily watched as others partook. My friend said the ice cream was oddly flavored with a mix of blueberry and anise, but is the taste really the point? Much like robot arm serving coffee in Cafe-X in the Metreon, sometimes it’s the mechanized process that’s the star, not the resulting food products.

The robot did seem to have a camera in its “head,” and I noticed there was an unused Vive virtual reality headset sitting on the table. The desktop PC controlling everything had a high-end GeForce GTX graphics card glowing from under the case’s grill which seemed capable of driving the headset. When I asked the operator if the VR headset worked with this contraption he confirmed that it does, though he said it’s difficult to see what he’s doing while wearing the headset.

Perhaps in the future this might be addressed. At that point it’s only a matter of time before a remote operator could use this device to serve ice cream, then a few years down the line the contraption could be fully automated with artificial intelligence to remove the need for a human operator at all, thus putting hard-working ice cream scoopers out of a job.

For now though this device not only requires a human operator, but also requires the recipient of the dessert to carefully move their bowl as the ice cream drops out of the serving spoon.

 
Watch my video above to see this somewhat chaotic process in action, and check out some photos in the gallery below.

Ice cream robot at Bi-Rite Creamery Ice cream robot at Bi-Rite Creamery Ice cream robot at Bi-Rite Creamery Ice cream robot at Bi-Rite Creamery

Visiting the top of Coit Tower

June 11th, 2017

Coit Tower
 

Despite living in San Francisco for (checks watch) almost 14 years now — and the Bay Area my entire life — somehow I’d never bothered to take the elevator to the top of Coit Tower… until yesterday.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve climbed up Telegraph Hill more times than I can remember. I’ve walked up and down the staircases of both the Greenwich Steps and the Filbert Steps, as well as semi-staircase sidewalk along Filbert Street from Washington Square on the western side of the hill.

But Coit Tower itself? Sure I’ve gone in and looked at the murals, but as for the trip up to the top I was always turned off by the price and the long lines.

Well, it turns out you can take the elevator ride to the top either for free, or without waiting in line — but not both. How? Let me explain.

If you’re not interested in paying, all you have to do is sign up for a library card at any SF Public Library location. Once you’ve done that (or renewed your card if it’s expired) visit the Discover & Go website and log in with your library card and PIN. From there you can get free access to various local museums, pools, etc. Select the Coit Tower option, which includes “Free admission for up to two adults accompanied by up to four children under 18.”

Or if like me, you’re more turned off by the lines than the price, book a reservation with a skip the line ticket at least one day in advance. In addition to a $2 advance booking fee fee, adults pay $9.00 but residents of SF with a valid ID only pay $6.50. Seniors and children get a discount as well regardless of residence status. (All prices are as of this writing in 2017.)

In my case the employees seemed a little confused by the skip the line ticket, but accommodated me nonetheless. If there’s a line at the front door, just present the printed pass and they’ll wave you through to the gift shop. From there, the cashier took my pass, gave me a hand stamp and a receipt, then told me to go back to the elevator and wait for the next group.

Once the elevator operator has taken you to 15 or so stories up you’re actually not at the top — you’re at a lower observation platform for people with disabilities. Assuming you’re able there’s still two flights of stairs to climb.

 
Coit Tower
 

The top of the tower looks pretty much like what you’d expect from the ground — it’s an open air viewing area with sets of three windows on each side. That said, to my surprise, many of the windows were open. Visitors were sticking their cameras out of them to take photos. I wonder how many people have accidentally dropped their cameras?

From these windows, weather permitting there’s an amazing view of North Beach, the bay, and downtown. Click the photos in the gallery below for a full view.

 
Coit Tower Coit Tower Coit Tower Coit Tower Coit Tower Coit Tower
 

Despite being an iconic tourist attraction, I was surprised by how non-touristy it felt at the top. The atmosphere was relaxed, the elevator operator was very chill, and the only crowd was the line in the lobby.

I should point out there is a second activity at Coit Tower that isn’t as well advertised, and I have yet to try it myself: in addition to the Depression era murals in the lobby, there’s a small second floor above it with more murals. This second floor was closed to the public up until 2014 and still isn’t as open as the lobby. You can book paid mural tours either in the ticket window at the lobby, or through the skip the line website (see above.) Or if you’d rather not pay anything, SF City Guides has a free tour of the murals on a regular basis. Both include access to the second floor area.

Are there other floors in the tower? I’ve long heard about how the tower’s original caretaker lived in a small apartment located within the tower, but always assumed the tale was apocryphal. Yet according to SF Gate the apartment was real:

If you are up there at the right time, you can see staff coming out a door, beneath Ben Cunningham’s “Outdoor Life.” This is something else as unknown as the second-floor murals: the long-rumored Coit Tower caretaker’s apartment, now converted to an office.

What were they thinking?! With a location like that, even a cramped apartment could have easily fetched a steep rent — especially if it included unlimited roof access. I’d certainly consider moving in.

Visiting the new Venus sculpture at Trinity Place

June 1st, 2017

Trinity Place sculpture garden
 

Trinity Place, the aggressively rectangular apartment buildings in mid market are still under construction. But the main plaza and much reported on Venus sculpture by artist Lawrence Argent have already been installed and are ready for their close ups.

So, how can you go see it?

From Mission Street between 7th and 8th Streets, the Venus sculpture is clearly visible from a fence. One might think the sculpture is accessible from there — not so. The gates in the fence are locked (presumably residents have a key.)

But if you walk around to the 8th Street side of Trinity Place between Mission and Market, there’s an alley without a gate. And that’s where things get interesting.

Walking down the alley, I noticed something unexpected: a sculpture seemingly trapped in a blue/green ringed glass container. This was at one end of a small hallway leading to the plaza where the Venus sculpture rests. At the other end of the hallway, what do you know — a second trapped sculpture. Both seemed reminiscent of the main attraction in that they all exhibit eerily modern looking distortion applied to what otherwise seem to be classic Greek or Roman-like works.

 
Trinity Place sculpture garden Trinity Place sculpture garden
 

It turns out that the Venus sculpture is the largest part of a a series of art installations called C’era Una Volta, which includes the aforementioned sculptures, the plaza itself, and a number of intricate rock carvings.

Without C’era Una Volta, Trinity Place would look like a bland, generic apartment complex; with it, I could almost forget the buildings even existed. The modern, whimsical sculpture garden was easily captivating enough to distract me from the otherwise uninspired surrounding architecture.

 
Trinity Place sculpture garden Trinity Place sculpture garden

Public notice: Beware of robots

May 29th, 2017

Public notice: Robots
 

The other day I noticed an inconspicuous flyer attached to a phone pole at 16th and Valencia. Upon further examination, this notice combines seemingly every stereotype about San Francisco circa 2017. Here’s the full text of the notice:

NOTICE OF OPERATION
 

From 5/23 to 6/5 automated delivery carts will be used at this location for the purpose of food delivery. Operation hours are 11 AM-4PM, 5 PM-12 AM Monday-Sunday.
 

Typically, the automated delivery carts will be supervised by a chaperone and loaded in a specially marked zone adjacent to the restaurant entry at 3109 16th St, Truly Mediterranean, during operation hours only.
 

If you have any concerns please contact:
 

Marble Robotics
1660 16th St.
San Francisco, CA 94107
415-654-3207
 

For complaints or other related concerns, please contact 311.

https://www.sf311.org/

 

If you haven’t heard, Marble has partnered with Yelp’s Eat 24 food delivery service for short range food delivery. Their robots are basically small self-driving cars that drive along the sidewalks, which is why the board of supervisors is already itching to ban them. (Why they have to drive on the sidewalk is beyond me.)

Anyway, so to sum this all up, here’s why this notice is essentially the essence of 2017 San Francisco distilled into a single document:

  • Self-driving robots are seemingly everywhere, though they still require humans to watch over them.
  • San Franciscans are too lazy to walk to a restaurant to pick up their falafel, would rather order delivery online.
  • High tech robots stealing jobs from hard-working Americans.
  • A public notice is required for seemingly anything and everything.
  • The board of supervisors wants to ban it.

There aren’t many practical ways this could be more peak San Francisco, but that didn’t stop me from thinking of a few:

  • The robot could be programmed to smoke pot and piss on the sidewalk.
  • During its off hours, the robot could join political protests outside of City Hall.
  • At Critical Mass, the robot could somehow get into a fight with a bicyclist.
  • The robot could live in an overpriced apartment, sparking a wave of fully autonomous gentrification.

These are just a few ideas off the top of my head. See if you can come up with your own — unless you are a robot, in which case please don’t.

Hiking Mount Davidson

May 7th, 2017

Mt. Davidson

 
San Francisco has “seven hills,” depending how you count. Before I’ve written about hiking up Mount Sutro, Twin Peaks, and Bernal Heights. Yesterday I finally got around to hiking around Mount Davidson, the tallest of all the hills.

Back when I lived in the Parkside neighborhood in the mid 2000′s, I remember occasionally seeing this giant concrete cross on a hillside and wondering what the deal was with that. Of course, most of the time it’s so foggy on the west side of the city that you can’t see it, so I rarely gave it much thought.

Then a while back I was re-watching Dirty Harry which features a sequence where Clint Eastwood’s character has to deliver a ransom. He winds up all over the city, including Forest Hill Station and finally makes his way to the cross on Mount Davidson. Although he’s forced to make a bunch of random stops in between, in real life Mount Davidson is only about a 30 minute walk from Forest Hill Station, or a ten minute bus ride on the 36. Something to keep that in mind if you’re not delivering a ransom payment to a crazy killer.

Anyway, back to the real world: yesterday I managed to take the elusive City Guides tour of Mount Davidson. Elusive because it’s only offered twice a year. And even then, only when the weather is good. If you’re interested in the tour but your schedule doesn’t line up, the tour guide also runs a website about Mount Davidson with information about the park.

Interestingly, not many people seem to know about Mount Davidson, despite the sweeping panoramic views. It’s a little harder to get to than Twin Peaks. The park attracts dog walkers and bird watchers — I spotted a pair of hawks and a bluebird without paying much attention.

 
Mt. Davidson

Mt. Davidson Mt. Davidson
 

So what’s up with that giant cross, anyway? It turns out a church group used to build temporary big wooden crosses up there every year for Easter. At some point they decided to build a permanent one. This caused a first amendment issue when the park became public, city owned land. As with ten commandment issues at courthouses, you either can’t have them, or you have to allow anyone else to put their religious statues nearby.

While it would have been funny to see a 100 foot tall statue of L. Ron Hubbard next to the cross, the city’s voters decided to sell off the land under the cross to a group of private citizens in order to avoid the issue. This is explained in signs all around that part of the park.

 
Mt. Davidson
Mt. Davidson
 

On a clear day, the views are amazing. The towers downtown look like tiny from so far away, but you have a view of Sutro Tower, Twin Peaks, and a partial view of Bernal Heights.

There are trails and stairways leading up and around the park. None are particularly well marked or maintained. Many don’t seem officially sanctioned. If you decide to go on your own, I’d recommend just wandering down whatever paths you like. The park isn’t big enough to get lost.

Finally, here’s a panorama from the east side of Mount Davidson’s peak. Click through for the full size version.

Mt. Davidson

Muni Murals outside Laguna Honda

May 7th, 2017

About a year ago, the wall facing Forest Hill station at Laguna Honda hospital got the mural treatment. Today I (finally) found myself over there and decided to check it out. Among other aspects, the mural features two fun depictions of Muni over the years that connect the past with the present.

First, here’s a Muni trolley exiting Twin Peaks tunnel at West Portal. This represents the original West Portal station, a glorified bus stop with a facade that looks similar to those of the old piers along the Embarcadero.

Muni Murals

 

The second Muni-themed part of the mural depicts a modern Muni Metro LRV heading to the nearby Forest Hill station. Once known as Laguna Honda Station, it’s the oldest San Francisco subway station that’s still in use today. Regular Muni Metro riders can identify the station’s platform level in the mural by the checkered pattern on the wall. Or you might recognize it from a certain Clint Eastwood movie.

Muni Murals

 
“But wait,” is the question I doubt anyone would ask, “Which Clint Eastwood movie that takes place in San Francisco could you possibly be referring to?” Well, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for the next blog post to find out. Try not to let the suspense kill you!

The Cable Car Museum

April 3rd, 2017

Some museums require a complicated explanation about how to get there; not so with the San Francisco Cable Car Museum. Both of the Powell Street lines stop outside of the museum, and the California Street line has a stop a few blocks away.

Despite living in San Francisco for almost a decade and a half, I’d never visited the Cable Car Museum, and decided on a whim today to pay a visit.

Most of SF’s tourist attractions fall into one of two buckets: a horrid tourist trap (Pier 39, Grant Avenue in Chinatown) or are actual gems that you shouldn’t miss (Telegraph Hill, Musee Mecanique, Cliff House.) The Cable Car Museum, I’m happy to report, falls into the latter category. That said there’s not much to the museum itself. The real show here is watching how the cable car system works.

I suspect an average tourist doesn’t give much thought as to how cable cars work — it’s just a weird old wooden train with a bell, right? Just like a big version of Mr. Rogers’ trolley? Anyone with that notion will be in for a shock if they visit the museum and watch the motors pulling the cables. More on that in a moment.

The Cable Car Museum is free to visit and is open most days. There are bathrooms open to the public, and of course a gift shop with books and trinkets. Much of the museum consists of panels explaining the history of the system, how it was invented, etc. Most of these factoids you could just as easily find on Wikipedia.

The most interesting of these exhibits explain in detail how the mechanisms that power the cable cars work, for example the grip and the truck pictured below.

 
Cable Car Museum Cable Car Museum
 

Another cool feature are the old cable cars. Did you know that at one time they had two cable cars hitched together? Or that ads on public transit apparently go way back further than you may have thought? These are the quirky little details you won’t find anywhere else.

 
Cable Car Museum Cable Car Museum
 

But like I said earlier, all of this is really secondary to what the museum is really about: seeing the mechanism that powers the cable cars up close. It’s like a factory tour in a way — the museum’s located inside the building that powers the entire cable car system in San Francisco.

Several enormous wheels spin a thick braided metal cable, one for each line. That cable is what the “grip” mechanism in each cable car latches to, which is what propels tourists between Powell and Market and Fisherman’s Wharf. Normally you can’t see those cables since they’re underneath the street, but here they’re in full view.

Apparently it’s some guy’s job to sit there watching the cables, checking for damage as they wiz by, and if there are any frayed bits they have to be repaired at night when the cable cars aren’t in service. While I’d assume this is the sort of job that could be easily automated, in the spirit of preserving a historical system maybe that would be cheating.

 
Cable Car Museum Cable Car Museum
 

In the basement of the building you can see the wheels that act as pulleys, tilting the cables into different directions for each line. Unfortunately it was too dark down there to get a usable photo.

A portion of the building is devoted to a machine shop. The cable cars are custom made, so if a part needs to be replaced it’s not like SFMTA can go on Amazon and order a new one. I spotted several fresh looking grip mechanisms sitting in one corner, ready to be installed as needed. Since it was a weekend there was unfortunately no activity in the machine shop. There might be more action to see if I’d visited on a weekday.

One last fact to mention here is the noise level. With the motors driving the giant wheels and the cables spinning around, this is not a quiet museum. Check out my very brief video below to look and listen to those motors in action.
 

Honey bears invade BART station

March 22nd, 2017

BART Honey Bears from fnnch
 

A series of fnnch’s honey bears have invaded the Powell BART/Muni Metro station as I discovered on the way home this evening. These are among the larger honey bear murals I’ve come across, though I think thees are the same size as the one that was once across the street from Dolores Park.

According to Broke-Ass Stuart, these murals are a little different from fnnch’s other work in that they were painted on panels that were then taped to the wall. It’s an interesting mural technique because it makes it simpler to put up (and remove, presumably) but also opens the door to this type of street art installation in a confined space where spray paint fumes wouldn’t be welcome.