Muni Murals outside Laguna Honda

May 7, 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 3, 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 22, 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.

Castro Valley’s Lake Cabot

March 5, 2017

Recently at work we had a day trip — normally that wouldn’t be worthy of a blog post, but in this case we took a trip to place I’d not only never been to in the Bay Area, but honestly had never heard of: Lake Cabot in Castro Valley.

Lake Chabot is not a natural lake. According to the official website, it’s actually an emergency backup reservoir built in the 1870′s. It was turned into a park in the 60′s but still used as a reservoir today.

Lake Chabot

The park features a number of picnic sites with your standard wood tables and barbecue grills. At our picnic site the grills and tables were in fairly new condition. Beer and wine are officially allowed, though the park rangers didn’t bother us for bringing in hard liquor. Then again, we weren’t a particularly rowdy group — I bet they’d have used the liquor as an excuse to kick us out if we’d been troublemakers.

There are hiking and biking trails throughout the park. Apparently there’s a golf course nearby, but I didn’t get to see that. The most intriguing feature of the park is boating. They have a small pier with some kayaks, pedal boats, and a couple of motorboats for big parties. I believe you’re allowed to bring your own boat (the other BYOB?) The company that rents out the boats also has a small cafe in the park, you can take a look at their website here.

I rented a pedal boat with co-worker, and it was only $20 for an hour for the two of us, life jackets included. The photo above I took near the middle of the lake.

Now there’s one caveat here — you don’t want to get in that water. Aside from the fact that it’s kind of gross to have people swimming in a reservoir, the water is filled with toxic algae. I’m told it’s also toxic to dogs. Apparently it’s not toxic to fish though, as there were a few people out with fishing poles.

If you’re thinking of visiting Lake Chabot, I’d recommend it if the weather’s agreeable. It’s a somewhat off the beaten path destination suitable for picnics and various outdoor activities.

How to get there: it’s about a 10 minute drive from the San Leandro BART station. I wouldn’t suggest biking unless you consider yourself a hardcore cyclist, since there’s a hill and a winding road involved. If you drive your own car there’s a parking fee, so you may be better off with a taxi. That said the entrance to the place is not well marked. One co-worker told me his Lyft driver had a tough time finding it. The directions on Google Maps weren’t very clear either, so watch carefully for the sign.

Breakers to Bay

February 19, 2017

Earlier this afternoon I decided to do something I’d never done before: walk all the way from Ocean Beach to the Embarcadero, across the entire length of San Francisco. It’s been so rainy recently I haven’t been able to reach my goal of 10,000 steps per day on a consistent basis, so I felt like I had some catching up to do.

To begin I took the N-Judah outbound to the last stop at 48th Avenue, and walked over to Ocean Beach. It was an incredibly windy day in general, but the wind was intense at the beach. So it should come as no surprise that people were windsurfing and flying kites, and that birds were everywhere. What I didn’t expect was the thick layer of sea foam blowing around. It’s kind of like when someone pulls a prank and fills a water fountain with soap, except it’s a natural phenomenon that forms at beaches. I think I managed to avoid inhaling any of it.

Ocean Beach Ocean Beach Ocean Beach Ocean Beach windsurfers

I also didn’t expect to find a mural honoring Lemmy from Motorhead, but they always had a strong following in San Francisco. Or at least that’s what I would assume based on the number of motorcycles that appeared whenever they had a show here.

Ocean Beach

After climbing back up the stairs from the beach I made my way through Golden Gate Park. It’s a long walk but I’ve done it many times before — I always try to take a different path every time to maximize the chances of getting lost and stumbling across something new so I sort of zig-zagged all over the place.

At the Music Concourse I noticed there’s a statue of Beethoven. Which, wait, why, exactly? He died before San Francisco was even on the map, really. Seems like an odd choice. As a city we’re better known for bands like… um… Third Eye Blind? Okay, maybe we’re better off with Beethoven. Forget I said anything.

Golden Gate Park Beethoven, Golden Gate Park

I’m going to spare you the details of walking down Haight Street, which was even more uncomfortably crowded than normal with tourists for the holiday weekend. It’s a classic case of a sidewalk that’s far too narrow for the number of people. The Lower Haight wasn’t so bad, and by the time I hit Market Street it was pretty easy going. Check out this rad skateboard mural I came across:

Skateboard mural, Market Street

Then I hit the Union Square area and… no thanks. I walked a block over to Mission to avoid the hellhole of consumerism on my way to the Bay. And, speaking of which, here’s one final photo: The Bay Bridge’s Bay Lights lighting up in the twilight of the evening. As with all photos in this post, click if you’d like to see a larger version.

Bay Lights on the Bay Bridge

Stray observations:

  • My fitness tracker says this was just shy of 20,000 steps. Your mileage may vary.
  • Google Maps predicted the total walk time would be about two and a half hours, which proved accurate.
  • Basic manners seem to be obsolete these days. A shocking number of people stepped right in front of me while I was walking in a straight line as though I were somehow invisible. What the hell?
  • Jeans and a thin wool shirt were adequate for the windy 50 F weather. No need to dress up in a thick jacket when you’re on a long walk.

Temporary public art: Night & day edition

February 14, 2017


If you’ve ever read this blog before, you’ve probably figured out that I spend a lot of spare time wandering the streets of San Francisco and taking photos of stuff. (Hey, it keeps my fitness tracker happy, okay?) On Sunday I happened to come across two strangely similar temporary public art installations, one in Patricia’s Green in Hayes Valley, and the other in Civic Center just outside City Hall.

But before we get into that, let me get philosophical for a moment. When it comes to public art, I appreciate the recent trend in temporary installations. The idea of permanent public art seems both ridiculous and impossible. Ridiculous because what people appreciate about an art piece today may be loathed in a decade or three, especially in the harsh light of public space. Impossible because nothing is truly permanent; if vandalism doesn’t destroy the piece then natural disasters certainly will. Or the piece proves so far ahead of its time that it simply doesn’t work. Even if the civilization that created and loves the art still exists, good luck in a few billion years when the sun burns out… yup, I went there. Permanent my ass. Nothing truly lives forever, the “permanence” of a work of art really boils down to whether it has an end date marked on the exhibition calendar or not.

For these reasons, I’m a fan of temporary public art. If the work resonates with people they’ll find a way to keep it around longer — remember what happened to The Bay Lights? People responded so well that its temporary status got a reprieve almost immediately.

So back to Sunday. First, I found myself wandering through Hayes Valley and wound up at Patricia’s Green. This space has been the site of many temporary public art exhibitions, which are generally tied to Black Rock Arts Foundation and therefore have a special relationship with Burning Man. The current exhibit is from HYBCOZO with two three dimensional geometric shapes made of metal, carved with fractal-like shapes.


Next, I found myself a few blocks away at City Hall where Hong Kong-based artist Freeman Lau had installed a series of oversized lanterns to mark Chinese New Year.

Sui Sui Ping An - Peace All Year Round Sui Sui Ping An - Peace All Year Round

At first glance, these two pieces seem to have little in common, aside from the medium of temporary public sculpture. But looks can be deceiving. I poked my head up to the installation at Patricia’s Green. What’s this strange mechanism?


Likewise, what’s up with those plastic anti-trip strips between the lanterns at City Hall?

Oh… there’s a connection here — light. Lanterns aren’t for the daylight, and neither are those geometric sculptures at Patricia’s Green. If ever there was a time of year for temporary public art that took advantage of light, it’s in the winter when light is scarce in the evenings. So I took another stroll at night to find out what these installations look like without the sun.

First, here’s HYBYCOZO‘s pieces at night:


The colors of both shapes faded in and out and changed between colors in a dynamic fashion that’s difficult to capture. There were so many people wandering around taking photos that I couldn’t get a good video, but even that would hardly do it justice. Do yourself a favor and get over there when it’s dark out and see for yourself. That said, I bet this would be even more impressive if Patricia’s Green weren’t so well lit at night — I’m sure HYBYCOZO’s works are more delightful at places like Burning Man where city lights don’t impede the shadow patterns they cast on the ground.

Second, here’s the lanterns outside City Hall at night:

Sui Sui Ping An - Peace All Year Round Sui Sui Ping An - Peace All Year Round

While the lanterns don’t have the dynamic nature of the metal shapes, they’re strikingly bright and colorful against the black and white facades of the main buildings surrounding Civic Center Plaza. Just like during the day, at night both professional photographers and couples taking selfies with the giant lanterns impeded my view, making it a challenge to get a clear shot. But from the perspective of the artist, this looks like a resounding success.

So here’s to temporary public art, and especially this strange new frontier of electrically illuminated public art designed for viewing at night. We’re clearly on to something here, and I’m happy to see that San Francisco is on the forefront.

How I built my own electric guitar from a kit

February 5, 2017

Why did I build an electric guitar from a kit? Let me admit upfront that I can barely play a guitar at all. For me, building an electric guitar was on my bucket list for several years. I like the idea of building things from scratch to learn about what makes them work. But building an electric guitar from scratch requires more woodworking skills than I have. Even if building the guitar body is potentially something I could do on my own, the neck — particularly the fretboard — is far beyond my abilities.

While you can buy pre-made necks, it’s not really “from scratch” at that point. So I rationalized that I’d might as well go with a kit to avoid going too far down the rabbit hole.

The kit I got is similar to a Gibson “Flying V” though the headstock has in-line tuners like you might see on a Fender. It was sold by a company called Albatross Guitars, which I think sources their parts from various factories in China.

Oh, and no instructions were included.

Here’s what the guitar kit looks like in the box, though keep in mind I’d already taken it out and examined the parts a few times at this point.

DIY guitar kit

With the exception of the strings, the parts were of much higher quality than I was expecting. I’d read many horror stories online about people trying to build kit guitars only to find that many components were unusable. The issues I ran into were mostly cosmetic, and even the tangled and bent-up strings weren’t a total loss, as we’ll get to in a moment.


The first step was sanding the wood. The body had clearly been sanded down to some extent already but it was still rough, particularly on the sides. I started with a 220 grit sandpaper, and after a few passes worked down to a 500 grit in some areas. I wanted to leave it slightly textured partially to give it a natural look, but mostly because so it would have some grip to the surface for holding it.

The neck didn’t require much sanding, but it had other imperfections. The very top of the headstock had a minor dent that I sanded out with the 220, and I took a single pass with the 500 grit over the rest. There was still another problem though; the hole for the truss rod adjustment screw had a big splintery dent in it.

DIY guitar kit

I used my Dremel to grind out the defect, then sanded it down.

The nut also had a minor scratch in it, but the only fix there would be to replace it. This didn’t seem worth the hassle to me.


The rosewood fretboard was already stained, but the rest of the wood was unfinished. So I put painter’s tape over the edge of the fretboard and got to work. Originally I’d intended to use the same light water-based stain on both the neck and body. But I found the neck and body took on very different color characteristics — while the neck looked great with the light color, the body turned a sort of sickly gray color as it dried.

DIY guitar kit

Fortunately it’s trivial to take lightly stained wood and make it darker; you just need to apply a darker stain over it. Unfortunately, none of my local hardware stores sold any water based stains in darker colors.

So let’s talk about the difference between oil and water based stains. Water based stains are a newer category, and they work a little bit like a super runny nail polish. Like any stain you just brush it on, mop up any excess with a rag, and repeat. It smells bad for an hour or so, but water based stains are relatively harmless.

Oil based stains are a different matter completely. You generally only want to use these outside, because they smell like death and are flammable. The smell takes a good ten hours or so to dissipate.

I didn’t have the option of working outside because my apartment building is being retrofitted, and the outdoor area is currently off limits during the day. My only option was to get up early, open all the windows, and apply the oil based stain before heading to work. Not ideal, but I was too impatient to wait 16 months or so for the construction to be complete.

The darker stain revealed a pretty nasty “scar” on the front of the guitar body that runs under the bridge. Despite several attempts to cover it with more stain, it didn’t help at all. If anything it made it a bit worse.

At first I wasn’t happy with the scar and thought about covering it with a sticker or something. As time went on though I found I was fine with it. I’ve got plenty of actual scars myself, who am I to complain?

DIY guitar kit

Once the stain was dry, I applied a water based polyurethane over both the body and neck. I applied several layers, sanding a bit between each application as recommended by the manufacturer. I did my best to avoid blotchy drips, but still had to sand down a couple of those anyway and reapply in a couple of spots. It happens.


Once the wood was ready to go, I pounded the metal recesses that hold the bridge in place. This guitar has a two-part bridge, with the bottom part that holds the string and the top part that creates the ridge that the strings stretch over as separate parts. Many guitars have a single piece that does both. It’s a matter of design preference.

To pound in the metal recesses, I didn’t want to damage the wood or the chrome, so I went to the hardware store down the street and asked to buy a mallet. The only employee working there wasn’t familiar with the term “mallet,” so I described it as a “rubber hammer” and she immediately knew where to find it. Sometimes simpler language is better.

DIY guitar kit DIY guitar kit

The tuners were a breeze to install, each one had an associated nut to screw in, then a tiny screw in the back to hold them in place securely.

DIY guitar kit DIY guitar kit

Next, I stuck the neck into the body and… it didn’t quite fit. A couple rounds of sanding the inside of the neck pocket and it was ready to go. But not quite.

After tightening the neck on all the way with screws, I realized there was a pretty serious problem. I tried putting in a couple of the poor quality strings included in the kit, only to find that they were flush with the frets! For all intents and purposes this makes the guitar unusable.

If you’re not familiar with how fretted stringed instruments work, let me explain. Frets are those metal bumps in the neck. When you put a finger against a string, it stretches the string over the fret below it, that’s what changes the pitch — you’re effectively “shortening” the length of the string. With this arrangement, the string would essentially be stuck against the lowest fret. Not gonna work.

Ideally you want about maybe a quarter centimeter between a fret and the strings, so my first thought was that the neck was too thick where it goes into the body. Why? Part of me suspected that this guitar body was originally intended to have another layer on top of the front. This is actually quite common with electric guitars.

A manufacturer might use a cheaper wood for the main body, then cover it up either with a layer of higher quality wood, or a plastic pick guard. Either way that thin layer would have meant the bridge sat slightly higher and pulled the strings up. Both methods would have hid the aforementioned scar as well.

Made sense to me. And it turned out to be completely wrong.

After shaving a couple of millimeters off the neck wood, I’d made no progress. Somehow the strings were still pressed against the neck. What was going on?

To make a long story short, a week later I pulled out a ruler and was shocked to discover the neck hole on the body was cut at an incline! The part toward the bridge was a full 2-3 millimeters higher than the part towards the head. Oops.

Lacking the woodworking tools to correct this problem in the guitar body, I decided to go in the additive direction this time. I superglued a piece of a used fake leather belt that I’d originally bought at Goodwill for my homemade Assassin’s Creed costume, into the top of the neck hole.

When I’d removed the original screws I’d stripped them a little. To be on the safe side, I bought a new set of wood screws at a local hardware store. The original screws turned out to be the oddball size of 10 x 1 – 3/4. I got a small box of stainless steel screws of this size for about $1.50.

After screwing in the neck a second time it was finally straight. I put the strings back in to confirm that the alignment was correct.

DIY guitar kit

Installing the pickups

There wasn’t a whole lot to do to get the pickups installed, but before we delve into that, let me clear up a couple of misconceptions I had about how they work.

First, although they look like electromagnets, pickups are just regular plain magnets like you’d stick on your refrigerator. (You can easily prove this by unplugging an electric guitar and sticking a screwdriver against them to see that it sticks.) The wiring wrapped around the magnets isn’t creating the magnetic field, it’s actually measuring it. So you can think of it kind of like a microphone that measures the magnetic field instead of air pressure.

Second, the pickup is the entire row of magnets, not the individual magnets. In fact, some electric guitars have one long magnet instead of six individual ones. Incidentally, this is why pretty much every guitar you’ll ever see has the strings slightly “misaligned” in relation to those six magnets — the placement doesn’t need to be exact. The magnets act in concert to form a single field.

This particular kit comes with dual-coil pickups, also known as humbuckers. As the name suggests, this type of pickup reduces (or “bucks”) the feedback (or “hum.”) Most often, this feedback is generated by the 60 Hz signal coming out of your electrical appliances.

Single-coil pickups will generate some feedback if not properly shielded. The dual-coil design eliminates the need for this with two magnetic fields that cancel one another out. One row of the pickup’s magnets faces north, the other south. This results in a type of noise reduction called phase cancellation.

Of course, musicians can use electric guitar feedback intentionally. One example of this is Mayonaise by The Smashing Pumpkins, a song famously built around a cheap guitar’s feedback.

Sometimes the neck and bridge pickup will have different electrical characteristics to get a desired sound. In my case I measured the pickups on my ohmmeter but couldn’t find any real difference in resistance between the two, so I arbitrarily decided to install the one with the red wire by the neck, and the one with the yellow by the bridge. (The only reason I’m including the color here is in case I forget and need to remember later.)

Using a ruler and the strings for reference, I lined up the pickups as best I could and screwed the plastic plates they were attached to into the body of the guitar.

DIY guitar kit


To reiterate, this kit did not come with instructions. No wiring diagrams, nothing.

Thankfully, I found a number of resources online about how to wire electric guitars. One diagram in particular matched what I had — two pickups, a switch, a volume knob, and a tone knob. This is the one I used.

First I soldered wires onto both parts of the jack, then I soldered in the pickups and the knobs. I quickly wound up with something that worked… occasionally.

DIY guitar kit

The problem turned out to be the negative wires. There were so many of them that I’d wound up soldering them all together into one big mess. If I pushed on them slightly the whole thing worked right, but it was clearly untenable.

After removing most of the solder, clipping some of the wires, and replacing one wire entirely, I headed over to RadioShack (did you know RadioShack still exists?) and bought a pack of assorted twist-on wire connectors. The connector cap twisted on over the negative terminals perfectly fine, and the wiring was good to go. I put the plastic plate over the wiring cut out and screwed it in.

Overall I’m impressed with how simple it was to wire up the guitar. Then again it’s not like electric guitars are a particularly new technology. Anyone with rudimentary electronics and soldering skills could wire one together with a little effort.

DIY guitar kit

Strap and strings

With the exciting work done, I finally put in a new set of strings and purchased a new strap as well. Oddly, the kit came with strap buttons (these are the metal nudges that the strap attaches to) that were not mentioned in the description.

After some time on Google, I found that the classic Gibson Flying V design usually had one button in the inside “wing” of the v-shape, on the upper side facing the player; and the other built into the metal base plate that the neck screws go into.

Well, my neck plate didn’t have that, instead I had two screw-in strap buttons that I could mount essentially anywhere on the body. One piece of advice that a number of guitarists had suggested on forums was to place the right strap button closer to the middle of the v-shape rather than toward the end like Gibson tends to do. For the other one I wasn’t quite sure and wound up screwing it in on the opposite side near the neck. I’m not sure this is ideal and I may wind up revisiting it, but it seems workable. At the very least, I don’t have the common complaint about the Flying V design where the neck tends to “droop” while you’re wearing the strap.

DIY guitar kit


Aside from testing that the guitar makes sounds without crackling on my cheap, used Fender amp, I also plugged it into my computer and tested with Rocksmith 2014. If you’re not familiar with Rocksmith, it’s basically the same as games like Guitar Hero or Rock Band, but instead of using fake instruments, you use real ones and learn to play guitar or bass guitar along the way.

Once I got the electronics working steadily and not making a “crackling” sound due to shoddy wiring on my part, I was able to tune the guitar using Rocksmith and play around with it. At that point, I considered the project complete.

DIY guitar kit


In under a month I assembled an electric guitar kit without any instructions. Despite various small setbacks, I now have a new guitar. More importantly I learned quite a bit along the way — which was, after all, the point.

Should you built a guitar from a kit? It depends what your goal is. I think I got lucky, the kit I got was better quality than some, though it still has its quirks. You should also ask yourself what your skill level is. If you’re moderately handy with assembling and fixing things, you could probably build a kit like this. If anything goes wrong there’s plenty of info out there on the internet, and you can always get replacement parts if needed.

I’d caution that this isn’t for the faint of heart. If you aren’t at least somewhat familiar with an electric guitar already, you should borrow or buy one — plenty of used electric guitars on Craigslist — to familiarize yourself with the basics before jumping into something as crazy as building your own. Especially if there’s no instructions.

Revisiting the Winchester Mystery House

January 30, 2017

Winchester Mystery House

Photo from Flickr user *bri*, used under a Creative Commons license.

As a kid, I took the Winchester Mystery House tour with my aunt. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, maybe around twelve. It’s a memorable tour and I still recalled a lot of it when I went back recently with a friend.

The house itself defies description; doors with nothing behind them, skylights in floors, rooms that were never finished or never fixed after the 1906 earthquake, doors disguised as cabinets… imagine 160 rooms with these types of bizarre features and the list could go on for a while.

But the one thing the tour doesn’t do is explain conclusively why the house was built this way. Rather, it posits the theory that Sarah Winchester was into spiritualism, as was common at the time, and was told by a psychic that she’d be haunted by the spirits of those killed by her family’s Winchester rifles unless she built a house that was constantly under construction. To put it another way she was allegedly building rooms and hallways faster than the ghosts could chase her.

As though to provide evidence for this theory, the winding mile-long tour makes its way to the middle of the building where there’s a small room described as the seance room. It’s here, the tour guide explains, that Mrs. Winchester would hold seances to communicate with the dead.

I suspect most people walk away from the tour with the impression that Mrs. Winchester was simply crazy, which is understandable. I’d also suspect that this theory is completely wrong, and an intentional deception to sell tickets.

The recent essay collection Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey includes an essay about the mansion. It’s a fascinating book, if you’re into American ghost stories at all I’d highly recommend it. While the book isn’t about debunking ghost stories in general it makes a good case against the official Winchester Mystery House tour explanation. Two of Dickey’s arguments stand out in my mind. First, there’s really no evidence that corroborates any of the details about Sarah Winchester’s spiritualism or reasons for building the mansion the way she did. Second, after her death the house was purchased by a theme park operator.

However, I’d take this one step further — the tour itself contains a contradiction that’s pretty obvious when you stop and think about it. According to the tour, Mrs. Winchester was said to be very reclusive after her husband’s death. The only people she allowed on the premises of her mansion were her staff, construction workers, and occasionally her favorite niece.

So if that’s true, then who are the people holding these seances with her? Normally in American style seances, you would have a group of people in a circle, sometimes at a table, maybe holding hands, with a medium responsible for contacting the spirits. If Mrs. Winchester didn’t have people over, who was participating in these seances? Her construction workers?

For these reasons very little of the information in the tour should be taken at face value. Most of the information out there seems to either come from the tour itself, or secondhand through “ghost hunter” TV shows. Which is to say it’s not exactly credible.

There are also simpler explanations to the “crazy” design of the mansion itself. After the 1906 earthquake, the building was damaged and significantly downsized. The “stairways to nowhere” the house is known for may have gone somewhere originally, and perhaps if Mrs. Winchester had lived longer they would have gone somewhere again. Since she moved out of the house after the earthquake it’s not clear how closely she was paying attention to the construction work anyway.

The other consideration is Mrs. Winchester was suffering from arthritis in a time when pain medications weren’t very good. Her solution seemingly was to build fireplaces all over the house for warmth, and to build stairways with extremely shallow steps to minimize the amount she would have to move her knees. Changing the mansion to accommodate for additional chimneys and staircases that took up more space could have easily altered the house in ways that were unexpected and difficult to plan for, particularly considering she already had earthquake damage to correct.

Lastly, Victorian architecture was a fashion, not a necessity; many Victorian homes were renovated frequently to keep up with the styles that were in vogue in the time. Which is to say Mrs. Winchester’s constant renovation was the norm in those days, but she took it to the extreme. Some of the quirks could have resulted from a sort of botched “cosmetic surgery” to the building.

So while I’m glad those steep ticket prices they charge for the tour are going toward maintaining and preserving San Jose’s most infamously strange home, I wish they could do it in such a way that didn’t cast such a judgemental light on a woman who we truthfully know very little about. Notable people’s memories are often exploited, but in this strange case, it’s the lack thereof that provides ample room for exploitation.

How I lost 65 pounds

December 31, 2016

Weight loss

This graph would have been far more dramatic if I hadn’t been too embarrassed to weight myself at my heaviest.

It’s almost New Year’s and that means it’s time to make a New Year’s resolution. For many people, “lose weight” is their resolution this year, and probably was last year as well, and the year before that, etc. I hear you on that. So with that in mind, let me tell you how I lost weight, and am continuing to lose weight.

Before I say anything else, let me say upfront that I’m telling you my personal weight loss journey. None of this is a medical recommendation, I’m not a doctor. I’m not here to sell you anything, I’m not telling you what will work for you. If you’re looking for a magic solution you won’t find it here (or anywhere.) I’m not even going to post before and after photos. This is not a pitch.

End of disclaimer. Let’s start at the beginning.

I wasn’t always fat. In fact, I used to be a skinny guy. In college my weight fluctuated a lot, like many of us. For me it I entered college around 130 pounds and after some ups and downs left grad school at a just over 165. Add in some bad eating habits as I started my career, a messy romantic breakup, and a few years later I found myself at 235 pounds. Yikes.

Today I look at photos of myself from that era and it’s shocking. What did I do to myself? Well, let me give you some clear answers to that question, and then how I got my weight back down to a manageable level.

Packing on the pounds

The path toward fatness was pretty simple: I like learning how things work and I’m one of those types who likes making things, doing it yourself. And I liked pizza and beer. Well, guess what? Making pizza and beer at home is fun and interesting, but it also means you have an awful lot of pizza and beer to consume. Those empty carbs have to go somewhere, and in my case they tended to go into my mouth, and wound up as fat.

Breakups are always rough, especially if you care about the person you’ve been with and have a hard time being apart from them. I wasn’t the first person to gain weight after a breakup, and I won’t be the last. But in my case it wasn’t just overeating from post-breakup depression; all those empty carbs I was consuming were being shared across two people — now they were all going into me.

I kept thinking, week after week, month after month, that I had to take action. Somehow, I had to lose the gut and get back to a reasonable weight. Technically at 5’11″ I was over the line into the “obese” column on a BMI chart. Not good.

Could it have been worse? Yes, but it always could be worse.

The decision

I didn’t suddenly decide to lose weight on a New Year’s resolution. Instead I thought about taking action for a few years before I decided to actually do anything about it.

While I was thinking about how I should really lose weight I did go out and buy one of those “smart scales” that logs your weight online. It’s kind of silly, but I’m too lazy to chart this stuff in a spreadsheet or anything — more on this later. I also sold the beer making equipment on Craigslist.

For me the deciding factor to finally “Make Eric Fit Again” was pretty simple. I was scheduled to fly to Shanghai for a friend’s wedding. Aside from looking better, I also figured I’d have to be able to squeeze into seats on a Chinese airline meant for your typical Chinese citizen — in other words, not your average American fatass like me.

The first thing I tried was the so-called “juice fast,” a fad at the time. The idea is you don’t eat and only drink mashed up vegetables and fruit, so you’re getting all the nutrients you need and a little sugar. It’s essentially a very low calorie diet. This concept was popularized in the 2010 movie “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead.” I didn’t watch this film until later — I was surprised the film was so well received since it’s clearly a thinly-veiled infomercial for a specific brand of juicers. Despite the film, the concept still seems appealing, if not extreme in retrospect.

I did multiple juice fasts for various lengths of time. The longest I ever did was five days, the shortest was two. In all of the times I tried it, I did lose weight. But as time went on, it delivered diminishing returns. That’s a theme we’ll get back to shortly.

Juice fasts also aren’t something I was able to stick to for a long time, and I bet most people feel the same way. The trick to a diet is finding something that works for the long term. Diets aren’t a shortcut to losing weight, they’re a lifestyle change that you need to continue for the rest of your life; otherwise that weight will come right back.

Switching gears

So while I did lose weight, it was clear I needed a better method. My next weight loss experiment was to go low carb, but with a soup and salad approach. This isn’t terribly difficult if you work in downtown San Francisco where there’s soup and salad spots on nearly every corner. My initial thinking was that I’d refuse any bread and just go with the soup or salad on its own. I should mention that I’m pescatarian though that had little impact on this decision — I just wanted to eat healthy and figured, hey, vegetables are healthy.

I eased into this diet over time, adhering to it more strictly as time went on.

What did prove challenging though is that soups and salads aren’t necessarily low carb. Soups are often thickened with flour, which adds an enormous carb load — not to mention calories. Similarly, salads can have this “hidden carb” problem, particularly with sugary dressing or a lot of fruit. Not that I think anyone out there has gained weight from eating too much fruit, but in the spirit of the diet I tried to cut back on fruit to a limited degree.

It turned out that this approach worked quite well once I got in the groove and began sticking with it every day. A lot of healthy restaurants post nutrition facts online which is also very helpful. But I want to point out two important factors here that most dieters don’t consider. One, my version of low carb dieting involved eating an enormous amount of leafy greens. This means I got significantly more fiber than your average steak-devouring low carb dieter. Two, the initial weight loss slowed after a while. Why? The answer is pretty simple, and it applies to any diet.

Staying motivated

Let’s talk about motivation and diet. This is the most important part of this post in my opinion.

If you’re dieting you’re going to have to weigh yourself frequently to see if it’s working. Personally I’ve been weighing myself almost daily with a Withings smart scale that automatically syncs to the internet (hello, Big Brother) that I’ve owned for several years at this point. From there I can see that my weight loss has been very rocky, with many fits and starts, and plenty of plateaus on what’s generally a downward slope.

One odd thing about this is that jumped out to me after a while is the shape of the graph. The plateaus seem to occur at nice round numbers, pounds divisible by 5 or 10. I have the strangest feeling there’s a psychological element at play here, and if I’d measured in kilograms the plateaus would have occurred at kilogram masses divisible by five as well. But I have only anecdotal evidence to back this up.

The most pivotal discovery I made is that while the weight simply flew off when I started dieting, it dramatically slowed down the further I went. If you think about this logically, of course someone who’s super overweight would have an easier time shedding fat than someone who’s skinnier. After all, the amount of weight you can lose is a factor of your body fat percentage! We’re talking about a logarithmic scale here, not a linear one.

To me the logarithmic scale factor is important. In my mind, I want to see a nice steady progress towards the goal. As I continued my effort and saw diminishing returns, I started to feel helpless. Should I just go back to beer and pizza because I’m only losing half a pound a week instead of three? On the surface the question sounds absurd, but after years of effort… it starts to feel degrading.

At some point I started realizing that diminishing returns were inevitable. I found I had to accept that this wasn’t a failure at all, but rather an unavoidable artifact of biology.

Let’s break this down with an example. Say you weigh 500 pounds. In that case, losing 10% of your body weight means losing 50 pounds. Sounds like a lot, but 450 pounds is still pretty fat. It’s not a big change… if you’re that heavy you might not even notice. On the other hand, if you’re 100 pounds, losing 10% of your body weight means losing 10 pounds — the difference between 100 and 90 pounds is so drastic for a typical adult it’s potentially dangerous.

The point here is that you have to be realistic about your weight loss goals as you continue losing weight. If you expect a linear progression, as our minds are want to do, you will inevitably be disappointed. You MUST accept that your weight loss will slow down as it continues.


The other point to consider is exercise. Depending on your goals, you may wish to build muscle while losing weight. Not all exercise is intended to build muscle of course, but if you want to do so remember that muscle weighs more than fat. This may give your scale the impression that you’re not losing weight as fast as you could, even if your muscle to fat ratio is increasing.

Personally I’m on my second rowing machine (I used my first one so much that I broke it) but I love the form of exercise. It’s something to do while watching TV or listening to podcasts, and it’s more physically demanding than riding a stationary bike.

A lot of people seem to be under the impression that exercise alone is a path towards weight loss. Technically that’s true, but I haven’t found it to be nearly as an important factor as diet. Unless you’re an Olympic athlete you too should probably focus more on diet than exercise.


In the end, my lesson here with weight loss is this: slow and steady wins the race. I know it’s not what most people want to hear but it’s true. Stay focused on the long term goal, try different methods and see what works for you.

The important thing is achieving the results you want. But you have to be flexible about your expectations in the meantime, because your pace can and will vary. Mine certainly did. 65 pounds later though, I’m glad I lost the weight. You will be too if you choose to stay the course. There’s nothing that feels better than bumping into someone you haven’t see in a while, watching them gasp, and say “Holy shit, you look great!” I always reply with “It turns out there’s something to that ‘diet and exercise’ fad after all.”

Hôtel de ville de San Francisco

December 11, 2016

SF City Hall in red white & blue

I stopped by City Hall today to find it’s still lit up in red white and blue in commemoration of the attack on Pearl Harbor 75 years ago. It looked particularly dramatic set against the wild evening skies.

But then I got to thinking about it: those three colors are pretty common choices for flags. In this case, the stripes of color seem to evoke France’s flag specifically. This evocation is compounded by the fact that SF City Hall is specifically built in the Beaux Arts style of French neoclassical architecture.

So in the immortal words of Nicholas Cage, “Vive la fuckin’ France man!”