Killer BOB wanted poster spotted in SOMA

February 9, 2018

“BOB” wanted poster
 

While waiting to cross the street outside the LinkedIn building, I noticed a wanted poster taped to a light post and did a double take — it’s a recreation of the Killer BOB wanted poster from the original Twin Peaks. The poster implores you to call Sheriff Truman if you’ve seen BOB.

If you’re unfamiliar with the surreal crime drama, BOB is an evil spirit of sorts who possess people. In his physical manifestation he was played by Frank Silva. Silva does have a connection to San Francisco as he had a degree from SF State. Unfortunately he died back in 1995.

(Spotted at Second and Howard)

New Age “sovereign citizens” found guilty of bank robbery

February 4, 2018


Mugshots of Heather Ann Tucci-Jarraf and Randall Beane from the Knox County Sheriff website.
 

Recently a strange “sovereign citizen” court case caught my eye due to one of the defendants involved. If you’re not aware, sovereign citizens are people who believe for various reasons they’re beyond the reach of law, often because they found some kind of legal cheat code that gets them off the hook for anything from a parking ticket to a standoff with the FBI.

In this trial and as in so many other sovereign citizen cases, both defendants were found guilty. But before we get into that, let’s take a trip down memory lane so I can explain why this is relevant to my interests.
 
 

Free energy and a flight to Morocco

Four years ago I wrote a post on this blog titled Anatomy of a free energy scam in which I detailed a woman calling herself HopeGirl who kept raising money to build a free energy machine. (Many of the links in that blog posts no longer work but you can still find backups on Archive.org.) Shocker: four years later, the QEG free energy machine still doesn’t work.

HopeGirl and friends wound up moving to a community of like minded folks in Aouchtam, Morocco. This community evolved out of an odd hybrid group called One People’s Public Trust (OPPT), which mixed sovereign citizen beliefs with bizarre financial ideas and some New Age woo thrown in for good measure.

Before the relocation to Morocco, OPPT filed a series of documents which they believe “foreclosed” on the US federal government as well as major corporations, banks, and the Federal Reserve. Yet they curiously continued asking for donations in US currency, almost as though they didn’t actually believe what they were saying at all.

One of the main players behind OPPT was a former prosecutor known as Heather Ann Tucci-Jarraf — let’s just call her Heather. At some point Heather had been married to a man from Morocco, which could explain OPPT’s decision to move there.

Aside from functioning as a lawyer of sorts for the group Heather also helped spread a philosophy of BEing and DOing. You can learn more about this at a website run by Heather and her followers, although I’ll warn you right now that it involves watching hours of long, poorly made YouTube videos that no sane person would ever be able to sit through.

Do the terms BE and DO sound familiar in this context? HopeGirl’s website and forum for her QEG magic energy machine was located at be-do.com (site now dead, link is to an archive.org backup copy.) HopeGirl eventually became disenchanted with the New Age weirdos who she joined in Morocco and publicly distanced herself from the group, which she explains here. Unfortunately her realization was short lived, as HopeGirl continues blogging about free energy, “chemtrails,” “orgone,” and other magical thinking that still sounds suspiciously New Age-y.

Between Heather and HopeGirl moving to Morocco together and their shared terminology at the time, I hope you can see how my interest in the QEG scam eventually led me to try and piece together what happened to Heather when she popped up in the news recently.
 
 

Numerology bank robbery

Here’s the story behind the case as I understand it based on the court documents as well as newspaper articles. Links to these articles and related online forum threads are at the end of this blog post.

A US Air Force veteran in Knoxville, Tennessee named Randall Beane got himself into some serious financial debts despite making a six figure salary as a software engineer.

Rather than turn to a financial advisor or even trying to refinance on his own, Randall turned to YouTube where he found a video channel run by a man calling himself Harvey Dent, named after Batman villain Two-Face. Is your Spidey sense going off yet… oh sorry, wrong comic.

Harvey Dent’s YouTube channel is difficult to describe. It’s a mix of crazed rants on various topics, most of which are mercifully short. He’s a self-styled guru who claims to lead an “intellectual freedom movement,” whatever that means. He also has a tendency to erupt in laughter at random times which makes the videos a challenge to take seriously.

At some point Randall allegedly came across one of Harvey Dent’s videos, possibly this one, that explains a sovereign citizen concept about how the government is somehow monetizing our birth certificates with secret Federal Reserve accounts that can be accessed through some kind of… numerology? It’s bafflingly incoherent. (Note: Harvey deleted his previous YouTube channel, so it could have been one of his older videos that’s no longer available.)

Randall decided to go with this scheme he learned about from Harvey Dent’s video and somehow wound up enlisting Heather’s help, presumably because she was promoting the video. Taking Heather and Harvey’s advice, Randall withdrew money from his super duper secret bank account at the Federal Reserve and deposited into a certificate of deposit (CD) at his bank, USAA. Due to some fluke this temporarily worked, and he immediately used that money to purchase a luxury motor home for half a million dollars.

Heather and her friends’ website deserves some credit for posting actual court documents from her case — even if they apparently don’t believe the court is legitimate presumably due to the aforementioned foreclosure against the government. Regardless much can be gleaned from the court documents.

For context in understanding some of Heather’s court document filings, the frequently cited Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) is a suggestion for a framework of laws to facilitate commerce between individual states. Most states adopted UCC into their own laws in one form or another, but it’s important to remember that UCC is a recommendation for laws rather than laws in and of themselves. This distinction is something Heather seems to willfully ignore in her (many) irrelevant filings.
 
 

Go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect a half-million dollar motor home

Randall’s bank transactions quickly raised red flags. Not only was the initial deposit into the CD a banking error, but withdrawing money from a CD prior to the maturity date incurs a significant penalty.

Before Randall could even drive “his” motor home away — presumably with the intent to sell it and pay off his debts — FBI agents arrested him.

Heather intervened on Randall’s behalf by going all the way to the top of the government she allegedly foreclosed upon, showing up unannounced at the White House for an impromptu meeting with Trump.

The Secret Service had none of Heather’s shenanigans, getting in touch with the FBI instead. After an identity hearing Heather was shipped off to be tried along with Randall in a court in Knoxville.

Heather and Randall chose to represent themselves in court. And by represent I mean they did very little, aside from re-filing court decisions with Heather’s fingerprints and the word “REJECTED” written on the documents. It’s not clear they even participated in jury selection. At least Heather had the foresight to bail herself out while leaving Randall in jail, as any good attorney would.

Needless to say both Heather and Randall were found guilty and now face significant sentences. Heather faces conspiracy money laundering. Randall faces bank and wire fraud. Now behind bars, both are scheduled to be sentenced in June.
 
 

Conclusion

The sad thing about this case is there aren’t really any winners. Ultimately taxpayers pick up the cost for court cases and incarceration, while the Federal Reserve clearly messed up when they allowed a fraudulent transfer to take place.

Worse yet, I’m not sure Heather’s followers will learn anything when they can spin this as a pair of heroic citizens fighting “the man” and losing in a court they don’t think is legitimate. No matter what happens it’s difficult to imagine Heather’s clan from seeing this as an abuse of power from a government they don’t recognize.

For his part Randall seems like the dopey fall guy. I’m not saying he deserves to get off the hook for what he did, but he’s likely to get the tougher sentence for being the one who executed the robbery in his own name despite not being the mastermind behind the scheme. He seems to me an extreme case of what can happen if you believe everything you see on the internet.

Still it’s reassuring for us Americans to know the FBI and Secret Service can still do their jobs even in this turbulent era. The worst outcome would have been Randall and Heather getting away with bank robbery. Thankfully they did not.
 
 

References

These news reports are the sources for most of the information in this blog post:

The following web forum threads helped provide context and information while researching the trial:

 

Update
The Daily Beast wrote an excellent piece on this saga: Sovereign Citizen Convicted After Giving Advice on Plundering Federal Reserve

Honey bear invasion

January 30, 2018

Tony the Tiger honey bear Honey Bowie bear Flava honey bear
 

On the way to work this morning I noticed SOMA had been invaded by honey bears. Anyone familiar with local street art — or regular readers of this blog — would immediately recognize this as the work of fnnch. But what was up with all the bears appearing at once? And why were they strapped to the utility poles instead of painted on?

I didn’t have to wait long to find out, because pretty much every local news outlet covered the project.

To sum up an already short story, fnnch got a bunch of friends together to raise awareness of a petition to decriminalize certain types of street art. But to learn more in fnnch’s own words, check out this post on Medium about the project.

Robot barista cafe expands to second location

January 24, 2018

Cafe X at Market and Second
Cafe X at Market and Second Cafe X at Market and Second

A while back I visited Cafe X in San Francisco’s Metreon only to find its robot barista charged me for health care.

I thought for sure the novelty would wear off quickly, but it seems every time I’m at the Metreon there’s still a bunch of people gawking at the robot arm shuffling cups around. I’ve even ordered a couple more times myself when I was too desperate for coffee to wait in Blue Bottle’s notoriously long line.

But still, I never expected to see another Cafe X robot barista. Well, I was wrong.

Last night as I headed home I noticed something unexpected: a new Cafe X location at a small storefront on Market Street near Second Street. Despite walking by frequently somehow I hadn’t noticed the signs going up. I peered in the window and sure enough, there was the robot, sitting still, waiting for an order to be placed. A paper sign on the window indicated the grand opening was the following day.

Fast forward to this morning and I decided to stop by and grab a coffee on the way to work. The place was busy, but I breezed through the gawking crowds, fired up the Cafe X app on my phone, and ordered a cappuccino. A few moments later the robot arm gave me my coffee and I headed to the office.

Yes, yet again a robot charged me for health care. Perhaps it’s time to embrace our future of robots and spurious surcharges.

Why the new Firefox logo looks wrong, yet oddly familiar

January 14, 2018

Back in November Mozilla released Firefox 57, aka “Quantum.” It was the first major change to Firefox in many years with a new look, new extension system, and significantly faster performance. While it did break some of my favorite extensions this was a temporary problem, and despite a few bumps the upgrade was ultimately a huge win in my book. Finally, Firefox became as performant as Chrome while retaining most of its customization options.

There was another change though that didn’t seem quite right — the logo.

Sure the new logo isn’t that different than the old one. It’s just a few visual tweaks here and there, and the colors were modified slightly. No big deal, right? Shouldn’t be, but something looked off and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what bugged me about it.

Then in a moment of realization I figured it out: the new Firefox logo bears a stunning resemblance to Trump’s infamously bad hairstyle:


 

Unfortunately once I saw this I couldn’t unsee it. Enjoy!

New water feature installed on Second Street

January 5, 2018

Fire hydrant vs. truck
 

With the fountains at the 303 Second Street plaza and the muddy rocks thing at the c|net CBS Interactive building, one would think Second Street has enough decorative outdoor fountains already.

But a certain truck driver decided to create his own temporary water feature installation this evening at Second and Stevenson, located between the KPMG building and Uno Dos Tacos.

It was dazzling many passers by on their evening commutes, many of which stopped to take photos and videos. Even a crew of fire fighters showed up to enjoy the spectacle!

One has to wonder if this artist could secretly be Banksy in his most audacious display of guerrilla art yet? We may never know.

Greece

December 24, 2017

Mount Lycabettus, Athens
 

After checking out of my Airbnb in Rome, I caught the “Leonardo Express” train to the airport, then hopped on a flight to Athens. My friend was gracious enough to pick me up at the airport and let me stay with him and his father at their home in Glifada, Athens.

I was a little nervous about returning to Greece — the last time I was there, we experienced a gas shortage due to a strike that almost left us stranded a few times. It turns out my fears were almost warranted; shortly before I left Rome, Athens resolved a garbage worker’s strike that had gone on for ten days. If that doesn’t sound so bad to you, remember that Greek summers are very hot, and this is a country where toilet paper goes in the garbage, not the toilet.

As luck would have it, everything went better this time around. It was also a less hectic trip, and I spent most days exploring Athens on my own. Having already seen the major sites last time, I opted to look for small, unusual tours and to somewhat off the beaten path destinations.

Street art, Athens Street art, Athens Street art, Athens Street art, Athens

My first full day in Athens was packed. My friend drove me to the nearest Metro station, where I was shocked to discover the price hadn’t increased in the seven years since I’d been on the Metro last time. Although I was running a little late, I arrived more or less on time for the street art tour I signed up for. The group was surprisingly large and diverse.

The tour explores the street art in the Thiseio neighborhood, ending near Monastiraki. The tour guide treated it almost like a museum tour as he knew the names of the artists, how and where they learned their craft, and which murals were commissioned and which were informally painted on abandoned buildings. The art ranged from silly and abstract to overtly political, and in size from small murals on doors to sides of large buildings.

Mount Lycabettus, Athens
 

Having some time to kill before my next tour and feeling guilty for eating so much pizza back in Rome, I decided I should work out a little. So I climbed to the top of Mount Lycabettus.

This turned out to be much harder than I’d anticipated. Not only were the directions on Google Maps confusing about how to get to the starting point of the trail, but even once I got on the trail it wasn’t clear which direction I should go. So there was a lot of fumbling around and asking locals for directions.

Eventually I got to the peak, which has a patio outside a small chapel. The view is incredible (see also the panorama at the top of this post.) But at this point my heart was pounding and I was drenched in sweat, so I wasn’t prepared to appreciate it. Luckily there’s an enormous restaurant near the peak that has great air conditioning. You can also take a funicular up and down the hill from this building, but that’s cheating. Anyway, after a beer and a huge bottle of water I was ready to go back outside, take some photos, and apply another layer of sunscreen.

Acropolis, Athens Roman water clock, Athens
 

As the evening approached I took one last tour — the Athens Free Walking Tour. This was a pretty big group, but the guide was very knowledgeable about the era spanning from Ancient Greece to the Roman days, and explained many artifacts, ruins, and religious monuments near the base of the Acropolis hill.

In the above photo on the right there’s a funny looking octagonal tower. In English it’s called the Tower of the Winds and is believed in Roman times to have housed a device known as a water clock. Unlike a sundial which can only be used during the day, a water clock runs as long as water is able to flow through it. Though the building’s exterior is in good shape the clock mechanism is no longer intact.

After the tour I wandered back to the Metro, grabbing a much needed bite to eat at a local market. I also stopped by Pittaki Street to see the unusual light installation. Despite being dark it was not illuminated — I found out later that some locals had rallied against it for some reason I never clearly understood, and as such it had been shut off. Sigh.

Athens Athens Athens
 

The next morning I woke up exhausted. After another trip on the Metro system I found my way to the starting point of the aptly titled “Get lost in Athens with an Insider” tour. This low key tour involved only me and the guide, as apparently nobody else had registered. The tour really lived up to its name, as I learned all kinds of odd trivia that even my local friend wasn’t aware of. Here are the highlights illustrated in the photos above.

  • One of the first stops was a sculpture representing the Star of David all ripped apart (big photo above.) This represents how the Jewish population of Athens had been torn apart in the Holocaust. Today the Jewish population in Athens is a small fraction of its pre-World War 2 days.
  • Anafiotika is a small neighborhood built in the same architectural style as the old towns on many Greek islands. Think small blue and white stucco buildings, narrow winding streets, all built into the hillside landscape in such a way that patios and rooftops all blend in together. On the way there, we walked by a restaurant where the cook was throwing pieces of meat and fish out the door, which had attracted a crowd of cats.
  • Some local Irish crank named Tom squats in an abandoned building just down the hill. He’s allegedly a local drunk who makes his living selling wire sculptures, and is particularly well known for his pro-Irish and anti-EU views. Though I wandered by later in the trip as well, I never saw Tom or got to speak with him but his presence spanned a small intersection. From what I gathered based on his painted walls he’s very much pro-Brexit despite now living in central Europe. (Talk about a mixed message.)
  • What’s missing in Athens? My guide’s unexpected pop quiz led to an answer I wouldn’t have ever guessed if I hadn’t been told. The historic architecture of Athens intentionally excludes the entire period in which they were ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Ancient and classic Greek architecture stands alongside a handful of Roman buildings, but Greeks resented Turkish rule so much they demolished hundreds of years of historic architecture, plazas, and statues once they regained their independence in order to forget an entire era.

Athens Athens

After the tour I wound up having an hour or so to kill before dinner, so I decided to spoil my appetite by visiting a nearby vegetarian restaurant called Avocado. I ordered a couple of appetizers — a small gazpacho soup and some guacamole — in addition to a beer and a glass of wine. Not traditional Greek food by any means but it hit the spot.

Shortly before heading back to the Metro I got a brief glimpse of the changing of the guard ceremony outside of the tomb of the unknown soldier; more on that later.

Spetses, Greece Spetses, Greece Spetses, Greece Spetses, Greece Spetses, Greece Spetses, Greece
 

The next day was Saturday, and the three of us got together again for a long weekend on the Greek island of Spetses. The hydrofoil ride there from Athens takes a couple hours. Spetses was once a naval asset, and while most of it doesn’t look like a fortress there are a few rusty cannons still positioned along the shore. To add to the old fashioned ambiance, many couples and families ride along the harbor coastline on horse-drawn carriages.

We were lucky to get an Airbnb not far from the harbor with a friendly and helpful host. We got lost walking to the place, because as it turns out Spetses doesn’t have addresses. As such, Airbnb and Google Maps led us to a random location on the island. After calling our host he gave us a course correction and we soon found our way there. The home turned out to be more spacious than we needed; the opposite of our cramped Airbnb in Rome.

Sunday we figured out how to take a crowded tourist bus to a beach called Agioi Anargiri on the west side of the island. The beach features a natural cave known as Bekiris. The tide was too high to get into the cave while we were there, but I’m told it’s well worth exploring if you can. The trail there is short and well marked. We had lunch at the beach’s only restaurant before heading out. Although the restaurant had a captive audience and an ambiance I can only describe as “nearly deafening cicada chirps,” the food was surprisingly good.

That night we watched Going in Style, the American bank heist comedy at an outdoor theater called Titania. It was reasonably priced, the beer was cheap and they added an intermission which was useful for a bathroom break. The only other movie theater I spotted on the island was also an outdoor theater so if you’re there when it’s raining, I guess you’re out of luck if you want to watch a film on the big screen.

On our last day on Spetses before departing, we took one last trip to a beach near our Airbnb. While Spetses is advertised as not having cars on the island, well… many of the locals have cars and they drive at insane speeds on narrow roads without sidewalks. As I’ve stated numerous times in my blog posts about Greece, Greeks don’t seem to take safety very seriously. That said it wasn’t a long walk to the east side of the island where we found a nice beach with a variety of amenities.

Grocery store, Athens Grocery store, Athens
 

On the way back from the port, my friend mentioned he needed to do some grocery shopping at a supermarket. Normally in Europe a “supermarket” is about the size of an American convenience store, but this one was the size of your average Safeway or Albertsons, if not larger.

All their shopping carts all had a built-in mechanism that required the deposit in the form of a coin that could only be returned if you brought back the cart. Strange idea, but it seemed to work as long as you remembered to carry the required coin with you.

The store carried a dazing array of worldwide foods from kopi luwak coffee to a display of Mexican foods to… Anchor Steam beer! My memories of eating a burrito in Berlin were flooding back. While I wasn’t about to make a burrito, we had to buy a couple overpriced bottles of Anchor Steam just for fun.

We eventually wound up drinking most of the beer while playing the remastered LucasArts classic adventure game Day of the Tentacle. Never though I’d wind up halfway around the world re-playing an old video game but hey, that game still holds up.

Greek/Turkish style coffee, Athens Food tour, Athens Food tour, Athens Food tour, Athens
 

My second to last day in Greece I went on a food tour called Taste of Athens. Once again, I wound up being the only person in the tour group.

  • The first stop was a traditional Greek coffee joint called Mokka. They brewed the finely-ground coffee in a small pot that was partially buried in sand, which I’m told is to help maintain heat consistency. And yes, Turkish and Greek coffee are exactly the same thing — but don’t tell them I said so.
  • At the cafe I also learned a completely unrelated factoid. The Greek version of “jinx” (where two people coincidentally say the same thing at the same time) works a little differently than ours. Both parties are required to touch something red, otherwise according to legend they will start a fight. The more you know!
  • We walked through the meat and fish markets, then through a number of shops that sell dry pasta, spices, etc. Plenty of options if you want something to take home, or are planning to cook for yourself in Athens.
  • Next up was a cafe with a new twist on a classic baked good. A koulouri is the Greek version of a narrow bagel that’s common in that part of the world. At Oven Sesame they have koulouris that aren’t completely hollow in the middle, but contains a pita pocket. You can order these with a variety of fillings.
  • At another nearby cafe we got an enormous plate of appetizers. The sheer quantity of food rapidly became a problem at this point, and I was starting to think I wasn’t so lucky being the only guest on this tour.
  • Finally, and against my better judgement, it was time for dessert. We went to Lukumades, nearby joint that sells, well… loukoumades. What is that, you ask? It’s a bunch of fried dough balls, basically like donut holes but served fresh, and covered with a variety of toppings like chocolate sauce, nuts, etc. Certainly delicious but also very heavy for someone who was already on a gluttony streak. Fortunately I also got a small bottle of tsikoudia, a type of brandy from Crete. This numbed my digestive system to the point where could coke down a few loukoumades.

Athens Athens Athens
 

When the tour was over I walked back to the Parliament Building just in time to see the changing of the guard. A large crowd was already gathered to watch the soldiers in silly uniforms go through their weird hourly ceremony in which the guards slowly march in front of the tomb of the unknown soldier to change shifts. The slow march looks ridiculous, but makes sense considering the heat.

Next I headed to the National Gardens behind the Parliament Building. It’s a large peaceful park with plenty of shade and a variety of animals including ducks, chickens, and turtles. It’s easy to get lost in there, but it’s also one of the few places in Athens you’ll find free bathrooms.

While relaxing in the garden deciding where to go from here, my friend sent me a text message suggesting I check out a bar on top of a hotel called A For Athens near Monastiraki. I headed over there along Ermou Street, a busy shopping corridor with high end stores and outdoor chandeliers above the street. Finding the entrance to A For Athens proved challenging as it wasn’t well marked, but once I was inside and asked for the bar the front desk staff waved me to an elevator in the back. Soon a glass elevator lit in red took me to the top of the building. From one side, there’s a glass wall with an amazing view of the Acropolis in the distance with Monastiraki Square down below. I sat for a while sipping a cappuccino while taking in the view.

Hydra, Greece Hydra, Greece Hydra, Greece Poros, Greece Aegina, Greece
 

My last day in Greece I embarked on an adventure to three small islands I’d never been to on the One Day Cruise. After a lengthy voyage the first stop was Hydra, an island with a small harborside town where all transportation is either by foot or by donkey. Tired and somewhat hungry, I stopped by The Pirate Bar (also known as The Pirate Cafe) for a salad and a Mythos before exploring the naval fortress. Much like Spetses, a few rusty cannons still sit along the old fortress’ walls.

At this point we were heading back towards Athens so the stops were much closer together. Next up was the tiny island of Poros. Along with many other travelers, I climbed up to the peak of the island where there’s a clock tower and a huge Greek flag. From here the mainland looks so close you could swim there, not that I’d recommend this. I took a long walk along the shore before we had to head back to the ship.

Our last stop before returning to Athens was Aegina. These days this island is mostly known for growing pistachios, but was apparently an important place throughout various eras of Greek history. The port town here isn’t terribly interesting, many of the businesses look to have closed along ago, and the beach is small and uninviting. That said, there’s a small stand near the port that sells bags of pistachios. If you’re a fan (or know someone who is) definitely buy a bag or three, you won’t regret it. You can also find pistachio flavored gelato and such at restaurants and cafes around the island.

 
My last morning in Athens we said our goodbyes and I hopped on a plane back to Barcelona for the last few days of the trip.

To conclude my post on Greece, here’s all the tours I went on.

  • Street Art Tour from Alternative Athens. If you like exploring side streets and looking at street art, you can’t go wrong with this one.
  • Athens Free Walking Tour. This tour mostly covers the historic area around the Acropolis, and ends near the entrance to the Acropolis and the Acropolis museum. Totally free, but bring a cash tip for your guide if you found the tour enjoyable.
  • Urban Athens Collective’s Get lost in Athens with an Insider tour. I paid 32 euros for a group tour, but since I was the only one who registered it wound up being a personalized tour. Not sure if this is the norm for this one, but ten euros an hour for a one-on-one tour of Athens’ best kept secrets is an insane bargain; even a coffee was included. I’d do it again.
  • Taste of Athens from Urban Adventures. Again I lucked out and had this tour to myself. Aside from a glutinous amount of food included in the price, the tour also stops by a few local markets and shops in case you’d like to buy food to take home. The tour ends not far from the Acropolis. I called ahead and they were happy to accommodate my vegetarian diet.
  • One Day Cruise. This three island tour starts early and ends shortly before dinnertime. They have a bus that stops by many nearby hotels to take you to the cruise ship terminal. Grab breakfast before you go as only lunch is served on board. Various tours are offered on each island as an upsell, if you do any of them I’d recommend booking one on Aegina as it’s the last stop and there’s not much else to do there.

 

For more photos from my trip to Greece this year, check out this Flickr album.

This blog post concludes my month long journey over the past summer to Spain, Italy, and Greece. For all blog posts in this series head over here.

Murder at the Conservatory

October 29, 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.

Rome

September 23, 2017

Colosseum, Rome
 

From Florence I took a high speed train to Rome in late June. I stayed at a small Airbnb loft near Palatine Hill, the Colosseum, Circus Maximus, and many other historic locations.

Since I was a kid I’d been fascinated by Rome, a small city that somehow became a vast empire through technological superiority and military might. Today it’s a bustling city with an unusual mixture of history and modernity on nearly every corner. Although I also had a sillier reason to visit; more on that in a bit.

Not long after arriving in Rome I was joined my Greek friend and his girlfriend for the first part of the trip; I joined them again in Greece, which I’ll get to in a subsequent post.

Rome Rome Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Rome
 

Google Maps had somewhat screwy walking directions near the Airbnb. As it happened, the Airbnb was steps away from a number of other historic sites including Rome’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (locals jeeringly call this the “wedding cake”) and the Basilica of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli church. Both are built on top of a partially excavated site adjacent to Palatine Hill.

Today Italians refer to this weird mix of structures from various eras as “architectural lasagna,” a theme that’s especially present in Rome.

Rome
 

The three of us went to the Vatican on a guided tour. You can’t talk about Rome without discussing Vatican City. Technically it’s a separate country from Italy with its own governance, but no sane government would allow so many people into such tight quarters. The Vatican apparently doesn’t believe in fire codes. Seriously, the place is not only a tourist trap, it’s a potential fire trap as well.

My tour group wasn’t alone in being rushed through one tight room after another, finally going through a densely crowded Sistine Chapel. Is it Michelangelo’s most impressive work? I couldn’t tell you, as Vatican security yelled at everyone to keep moving so fast that I barely caught a glimpse of it. My takeaway here is that the Vatican is not worth visiting, it’s just another overcrowded tourist trap. Unless you can arrange for an off-hours visit, skip the Vatican; there are many more pleasant places to visit in Rome.

Rome Rome Rome
 

One of the oldest Roman buildings still standing is the Pantheon, a temple built with a non-reinforced concrete dome. These days it’s a church and is free to enter — and is well worth visiting. If nothing else the structure is an outstanding example of ancient architecture which still survives to this very day.

Here I should point out that Rome had an unusual history of flooding. For centuries, Rome had floods that brought more and more sediment, bringing the street level slightly higher after each flood. For this reason the Pantheon — like many excavated structures below Palatine Hill — sits below today’s street level, evidenced by trenches around the structure.

Rome Rome Rome Rome
 

Around this time we started making regular visits to Trastevere, a hipster foodie mecca on the east side of the Tiber river. We visited a few excellent restaurants, my favorite of which was La Boccaccia, a Roman-style pizza joint. If you’re unfamiliar with Roman pizza it’s a relatively thin, flat pizza made in rectangular pans and served in rectangular slices. The comparison to Little Little Ceasars is obvious, but a good Roman pizza is much thinner and has a variety of delicious, high quality toppings.

Later in the trip I ventured out to a food tasting trip in Trastevere which I’ll cover shortly.

Down at the level of the Tiber was a film festival on Tiber Island, with a variety of shops and activities on either side of the riverbank across from the island, mostly in white tents. The funniest of which was a roller coaster simulator that involved moving chairs with Oculus Rift headsets. This festival was particularly active during the evening.

Rome Rome Rome Rome
 

The following day the three of us arrived slightly late to our appointment at the Galleria Borghese, an art museum focusing on the sculptures of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a few of his contemporaries, and paintings from Caravaggio and others from the same late-Renaissance era.

It’s a small but remarkably well organized museum. I was particularly impressed by the sculptures. The first of the photos above depicts David in a battle-ready and clothed position, quite different than how Michelangelo had portrayed him earlier.

The Galleria Borghese is located inside a park called Villa Borghese Gardens, which is just outside the historic city wall of Rome. Unfortunately we didn’t get to explore the park due to an unexpected rain storm.


 

This museum has an unusual appointment system that I should probably explain here. Unlike most museums where you can stay as long as you like during the open hours, the Borghese requires visitors to book an hour long visit. You can come and go freely during that time, but when it’s over everyone has to leave so the next group can come in. The last ten or so minutes a loud breathing sound effect is played throughout the gallery, alerting visitors that their time is almost up. (Immersive designers may be interested in this fusion of modern technology with old-fashioned artwork to evoke a sense of creeping urgency.)

An hour was about the right amount of time in this museum; we went with the official English-language tour that covered the most important works, which only lasted about the first half of our booked hour.

Rome
 

From there we visited the Trevi Fountain, a beautiful 18th century fountain that’s a tourist magnet. Like many sites in Rome it was heavily policed. By this point in the trip I was pretty much done shoving my way through crowds — if you visit during tourist season I’d recommend going at night when it’s less crowded.

The same evening we went on a tour of the Capuchin Crypt, a display of human bones from the Capuchin Monks in the basement of one of their churches. The tour included a bus trip just outside of Rome’s historic walls to an early Christian catacomb, which was after hours and as such an uncrowded a peaceful relief from the heat. It was also a hiding spot for Allied soldiers during both world wars, who left behind graffiti. Unfortunately, photos were prohibited at both sites.

Rome
Rome Rome Rome Rome
 

The following day our time together in Rome came to a close, but not before a tour of the Colosseum and Palatine Hill. Although this tour was ostensibly through Walks of Italy, for the majority of the Colosseum tour our group was merged with other tours for an official Colosseum tour, which includes the underground, the nosebleed section, and a few unusual spots like the bathrooms and the elevators from the underground to the arena floor.

The Colosseum’s exterior has been power-washed recently to remove blackened exhaust reside, but it’s still visible in the interior. Private cars are no longer allowed on the road outside the entrance to the Colosseum — but there’s a Metro station there, and a second Metro station was under construction for a new line.

Palatine Hill and the area just underneath were interesting, although much of the structures that once adorned it are now in ruins. A church and the former Senate Hall still stand just below the hill, as do a number of triumphant arches (at least three?) I should point out that you can get a combined official ticket to both the Colosseum and Palatine Hill without a tour.

Taverna Romana, Rome Taverna Romana, Rome
 

Just after the tour we headed to Taverna Romana for lunch on the recommendation of our guide. This turned out to be one of the better places in the ultra-touristy neighborhood of Monti, with almost everything made in house, including pasta and deserts. Surprisingly, the prices were very reasonable.

A few hours later my friends headed to the airport and flew back to Athens, and I was on my own again for the next six days.

Non-Catholic cemetery, Rome
Non-Catholic cemetery, Rome Non-Catholic cemetery, Rome Non-Catholic cemetery, Rome Non-Catholic cemetery, Rome
 

The following morning I took a long and meandering walk to see the pyramid in Rome. Yes, that’s right — there’s a pyramid in Rome, albeit a small one. It’s located in the “non-Catholic” cemetery which is also the resting place of two Romantic-era English poets, Shelley and Keats, among many other people.

It’s still an active and well maintained cemetery with beautiful gardens, but also serves as a cat sanctuary. While most of the cats were young and skittish, one big fat friendly calico cat resting on top of a large gravestone meowed at me, so I went to pet him. Five minutes later I found myself covered in cat hair and regretted not bringing along a lint roller to clean off my clothes. Thankfully, the cemetery also has a free bathroom with paper towels.

Aqueduct Park, Rome
Aqueduct Park, Rome Train cutting through Aqueduct Park, Rome
 

From the cemetery I walked over to the “Piramide” Metro station nearby and rode the to the Park of the Aqueducts, a public park somewhat off the beaten path that contains ruins of the Roman Aqueducts. The surrounding area is decidedly non-touristy, and not everyone in the area necessarily speaks a word of English. This was only slightly problematic when finding a quick bite for lunch.

The park itself is a somewhat rural mishmash between the various historical aqueducts — at least two that I spotted — as well as picnic areas, day care centers, and fenced off areas for various train systems. Despite being near-peak tourist season the park was largely deserted, aside from a few locals going for a jog or having lunch. I was disappointed though not surprised to find the oldest aqueducts heavily covered in graffiti.

Walking to the Metro station on the other end of the park I got a little lost, and heard sheep baaing in the distance. A sign pointed to a ranch somewhere inside the park but I never managed to find the animals. On my way to the Metro, Google Maps led me through a small neighborhood, took me on a pedestrian and bike path under a rail bridge, and around some apartments. Though I found the aqueducts fascinating to see up close I also felt glad to be back in modernity. Rome’s ancient past is somehow still very much alive and well to this day alongside its urban counterpart. For those interested in Roman history I’d recommend this park, and even if you’re only mildly interested the place is surreal enough I think most visitors would at least find it intriguing.

Rome
St. Valentine's Skull (allegedly) Rome Aventine Keyhole, Rome
 

In the morning I went on a free walking tour that included a number of interesting sites, including the legendary Mouth of Truth, the alleged skull of St. Valentine, and the Aventine Keyhole, the later of which is the above photo of all the people waiting in line to see it. Despite my best efforts I couldn’t get a decent photo through the keyhole, but you can easily find photos on Google Images.

I happened to mention to the tour guide that I’d seen a version of the Mouth of Truth that’s a fortune telling machine at home in San Francisco. He theorized that these fortune telling machines were all over and were part of the appeal of seeing the real thing. But he also pointed out something else we had a replica of in San Francisco…

Turtle Fountain, Rome
 

Does the above fountain look familiar to you? If you’ve been to the park on top of Nob Hill in San Francisco, it should — because it’s a replica of this original one in Rome. Located in a small square in the Jewish Ghetto, the original Turtle Fountain was built during the Renaissance. Oddly, the turtles by which its known weren’t originally part of the fountain, but were added decades later.

Rome Via Ezio, Rome
 

For lunch I stopped by the nearby Pizza Florida, another excellent by-the-slice Roman pizza joint that I’d recommend almost as much as La Boccaccia. Across the street there’s an excavation site which was once the Largo di Torre Argentina temples, notably the place where Julius Caesar was assassinated. Today one corner is accessible and operates as a cat shelter.

After a long walk in what was becoming unbearable heat, I found one of the silly things I knew I had to see in Rome — Via Ezio. See, it wasn’t exactly a coincidence I visited three of the cities in Assassins’ Creed II (one of my favorite video games of all time) which stars a character named Ezio Auditore. Seeing places I’d only visited virtually in the real world, albeit a few hundred years after the events of the game were to have taken place, was part of the Italian leg of this trip’s appeal. Some of it felt downright uncanny. So I had to make an out of the way pilgrimage to a short street that happened to share the name of the main character.

Avocado toast, Rome Rome
 

The next day I wandered over to a fast casual restaurant near the Colosseum called “Avocado Bar” and ordered their avocado toast for brunch. When in Rome… amirite? It was great and unexpectedly filling, with a layer of beets under the avocado and topped with nuts.

After lunch I headed to my appointment at the “Domus Romane di Palazzo Valentini,” a multimedia museum located in the basement of a (relatively) modern building. The basement was excavated by archaeologists who found two layers of history; a series of Renaissance era structures on top of a couple of mansions from the Roman Empire. A surprising amount of the mansions remains intact, from various rooms to tile patterns on the floor.

While visiting this site, you’re mostly looking down through a glass floor, with lights and projection-mapped visuals timed to an audio guide explaining what you’re looking at. In some cases the projection mappings visualize what archaeologists imagine how the original buildings appeared. At the end of the tour there’s a video explaining Trajan’s Column, a monolith just outside the museum which tells the story of a Roman battle.

Photography isn’t allowed anywhere inside Domus Romane di Palazzo Valentini, but you can get a good idea of what it looks like from their website. Personally I enjoyed this one, it’s a creative and modern way to peek into history.

Rome Rome
 

Not having learned my lesson from the ultra long walk through Aqueduct Park, I decided to take another epic stroll through Trastevere to a hill that’s either spelled “Janiculum” or “Gianicolo” depending who you ask. The way up the hill isn’t obvious, and I somehow managed to take a route that was partially fenced off due to construction. Oops. Anyway, at the top I found a giant church, which was hosting a wedding at the time. Rather than crash the wedding — which I wasn’t dressed for anyhow — I continued on and found an enormous fountain as well as some other recreational structures, part of a park on the hilltop. It also features spectacular views of Rome.

It’s not difficult to find an amazing view in Rome, but this one has many vantage points and is completely free. When I went the hilltop had thinner crowds than other touristy spots in Rome.

After heading back down the hill I went to La Boccaccia again for some more pizza, because hey, I was already in Trastevere and who can resist a perfect slice of pizza? Not me, apparently.

Baths of Caracalla, Rome Baths of Caracalla, Rome Baths of Caracalla, Rome
 

The next morning I went to visit the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, an enormous bathhouse from the days when Rome’s power was at its peak. Today it’s used mostly as the backdrop for a series of outdoor operas. The building is surprisingly well intact considering it hasn’t been used since AD 500 or so, including original tile floors, and has been exposed to the elements for most of that period.

But the real draw for me was in the basement level, which was once a Mithraic temple. They tended to be in basements and there are many in Rome, but most are closed to the public. This one’s free, although none of the original artifacts are still down there. The audio guide available at the baths goes into this a little, but as much as I would have liked.

Rome
Giordano Bruno statue, Rome Rome
 

In the evening I took a walking tour that visits allegedly haunted locations. The tour features some brutal subjects including a heretical monk roasted alive over a spit fire and women poisoning their husbands to avoid divorce.

Like any modern city, Rome has its own modern ghost stories too — one of them involves the filming of a recent James Bond movie. Be warned that this tour can go late.

Ancient wine cellar, Rome Rome
 

On my final day in Rome I took a late afternoon food tour in the Trastevere neighborhood. We stopped at a small restaurant for light appetizers, then an old synagogue basement now used as a wine cellar (left photo above) for a wine tasting and more appetizers, a deli where we tried various small items, an excellent pastry shop (right photo above), a tiny “street food” restaurant that served fried cheese balls, a freshly-made pasta restaurant, and finally a gelato joint for desert.

As a non-meat eater they made special arrangements for me at a few locations, though for the most part I had the same food as everyone else. I was completely stuffed at the end and ready to call it a night.

Rome
Colosseum, Rome Colosseum, Rome
 

The above photos aren’t connected to anything, I just thought it would be fun to end on some photos of Rome at night. It’s a scenic city after dark — although I bet it wasn’t before electric lighting came along.
 

So to wrap this all up (is anyone still reading this post?) here’s a list of all the tours I went on in Rome:

  • Vatican Tour from Dark Rome/CityWonders. Maybe this is better in the off season, but I’d stay away if I were you. Other tour operators aren’t going to be any better, the crowds were the real issue.
  • Galleria Borghese. You have to book this one in advance and you only get to stay for an hour. We did the guided tour, which doesn’t take the full hour. It’s much more tastefully presented than anything you’d see in the Vatican.
  • The Crypts & Catacombs at Night: With Exclusive After Hour Access from Walks of Italy. More than a little morbid, but that’s all part of the appeal. No real crowds to contend with since it’s after hours.
  • Walks of Italy’s VIP Colosseum Underground Tour with Roman Forum & Palatine Hill. This one felt both rushed and too long at the same time. I’d recommend booking the Colosseum and Palatine Hill separately if possible.
  • The free walking tour from Veni Vidi Visit isn’t the only free walking tour in Rome, but it included somewhat more esoteric stops that I was more interested in seeing. Bring a cash tip if you go.
  • Domus Romane di Palazzo Valentini, the multimedia archeology exhibit. Definitely go, and definitely book way in advance.
  • Baths of Caracalla’s audio guide tour. Not sure if there’s an official website for this one, but it doesn’t matter. It’s pretty easy to find, relatively cheap, and if you pay slightly extra for the audio guide you can go around looking at the ruins instead of reading text in small print on the signs scattered around the place.
  • The spooky story Dark Heart of Rome tour from City Wonders is fun — if you’re into that sort of thing. This one involved more walking than the others.
  • Twilight Trastevere Food Tour from Eating Italy. This one fills up fast, which is why I had to go in the afternoon, so book it in advance if possible. It’s great if you like Italian food — I wish I’d gone on their sister tour in Florence.

The remaining photos I took in Rome can be found in this Flickr album.

Come back next time when I complete the Eurotrip 2017 series with my visit to Athens and a handful of Greek islands.

Just some parrots chilling on 16th Street

August 26, 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.