Archive for the ‘Local’ Category

Remembering the “clap-along” at Century Theaters

November 26th, 2018


Century Theaters clap-along video

 
If you watch movies in the Bay Area (or anywhere in the western part of the US, really) there’s a good chance you’ve been to Century Theaters. Formerly known as Syufy Theaters, Century typically operated multi-screen cineplexes in out of the way locations. Around the year 2000 or so the chain began pivoting away from this model, closing their old freestanding theaters and opening new cineplexes in malls and shopping centers. Today Century Theaters is part of Cinemark but still operates as an independent brand.

Those who lived in the Bay Area in the 80′s and 90′s probably remember a peculiar crowd phenomenon at Century just before the movie started — the clap-along song.

Truthfully it wasn’t even a song, so much as a cheesy rhythmic backing track playing during a pre-film bumper explaining all the ways you could spend your money at the theater, in case you forgot to buy popcorn or drop quarters in the video games at the “Starcade.”

The song’s rhythm contains a repeating bass and brass section that goes something like this:

Doo doo doo… DO-DO-DO, DO-DO-DO

At many showings the audience would spontaneously clap along to those last six beats: clap clap clap, clap clap clap!

Sort of like “the wave” at sporting events, it’s difficult to pinpoint who started this in general, let alone who started it at any individual film screening. For my part as an individual I never felt singled out for not participating in the clap-along, yet it was somehow embarrassing if I was the only one doing it.

The only time anyone outright laughed at other participants is if they clapped at the wrong time. Due to the timing of the song the clapping part isn’t completely consistent throughout the song, you had to know when it’s coming in order to get the timing right.

From what I recall the clapping phenomenon was more prevalent at certain Century Theaters, and tended to happen more at late night screenings and almost never during matinees.

But the oddest aspect is where the audience tended to clap along to the song. It seems almost unknown outside of the Bay Area, and yet Century Theaters can be found throughout California and many other states.

According to one former Century Theaters projectionist:

It was always a fun bit of unprompted audience participation that made moviegoing feel like something that overlapped the feeling of kindergarten with the feeling of being in a fun-loving cult.*

*Funnily enough, a friend who grew-up in Ventura County said that she encountered the Century Theaters clap-along ritual when visiting relatives in Northern California as a kid and it freaked her out.

I can’t say this “ritual” ever felt cult-like to me, just a whimsical piece of Bay Area lore that never meant anything. It was a funny way to pass the time while waiting for the movie to start — sometimes more fun than the movie itself if my memory of sitting through Waterworld is anything to go by.

Ultimately the clap-along video was replaced by a new video with a less memorable song that nobody claps along with.

If the 90′s era video at the top of this post doesn’t seem familiar, check out this older version that’s a little before my time:

Windmill spins at Golden Gate Park

November 12th, 2018


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Stop / First Stop

November 11th, 2018

Last Stop/First Stop
 

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

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

Unreal Garden review

November 4th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How I got mentioned in an art history dissertation

November 2nd, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

Doctor Who on Frank Chu’s 12 Galaxies

October 15th, 2018


 

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

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

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

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

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

Magritte exhibit at SFMOMA

October 12th, 2018

SFMOMA & Magritte
 

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

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

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

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

 
SFMOMA & Magritte SFMOMA & Magritte
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tenderloin National Forest

September 24th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more on the Tenderloin National Forest:

Muni Metro updates its subway audio announcements

September 14th, 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.

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.