Tips for flying Southwest

April 15, 2019

One of these airplanes is not like the other
“Um, excuse me, this is the one that doesn’t crash and kill everyone on board, right?”
 

After the unfortunate sunsetting of Virgin America I’ve found a new favorite airline for inexpensive travel throughout the United States: Southwest.

It’s a quirky budget airline that has some unusual tradeoffs. Most famously you can change your flight for no extra fee if you pay the price difference. However there’s a lot more to it than that which I’ll get into in far more detail.

This is all based on a combination of research and personal experience. The more you know ahead of your flight the less stressed out you’ll be. Trust me, you want to know all this in advance instead of asking gate agents or Googling “how to board Southwest” in a last minute panic at the airport.

Without further ado here’s what you need to know when flying Southwest.
 

Aircraft, seats, and entertainment

Southwest only flies 737′s, and they’re all arranged with 3×3 seating arrangements — in other words a single aisle with three seats on either side. All seats are effectively the same, though you will get more legroom in the emergency exit row.

I’ll explain this in much more detail below, but there’s no assigned seating on any Southwest flight.

Unlike most airlines where there’s an in-flight entertainment system built into the back of the seat in front of you, on Southwest it’s strictly a bring your own device affair. They do have a few free movies and TV shows to watch on their in-flight wifi so bring headphones and a fully charged device (there are no outlets.)

To be clear the onboard wifi does not provide general internet access unless you pay an additional fee. All you get for free are the entertainment options, a neat little flight tracker page, and the option to purchase alcoholic beverages.
 

Luggage

All Southwest tickets include two checked bags, one normal sized carry on, and one small personal carry on like a purse or laptop.

What you chose to bring as a carry on may be important; be prepared to have it converted to a checked bag at the last possible second, so in other words bring anything you’ll need onboard like snacks or medication by stuffing them in your pockets.

I’ve observed they don’t count bringing a bottle of water on board as a “small personal carry on.”
 

In flight food and beverage

All Southwest flights include light snacks and beverages. Depending on the length of the flight you may be offered multiple snacks and beverages. For very short flights they may just have pretzels.

For around six to eight dollars extra you can order alcoholic beverages like beer, wine, and extremely tiny bottles of hard liquor. Some of the included beverages are actually cocktail mixers, though you don’t have to order liquor to enjoy a virgin cocktail.

Obviously if you’re a picky eater or have dietary restrictions, bring your own. The only restriction is you’re not allowed to bring alcohol and drink it during the flight.
 

Boarding system and checking in

Last and definitely not least is how you board on Southwest. Unlike other airlines, it’s all open seating. (Side note: remember when movie theaters had open seating?) So what’s important to keep track of here is when you get to board the aircraft.

There are four distinct boarding groups which board in the following order: A, families with small children, B, and C. If you’re not in a family with small children, you line up next to the metal poles in the boarding area when your group is called. Next is the number on your boarding pass: 1-30 lines up on one side, 31-60 lines up on the other. Passengers are supposed to work out the ordering among themselves by comparing the numbers on their boarding passes.

Families with small children do not line up in this system, but instead form a separate line in an ad-hoc manner. The only restriction is they cannot use the emergency exit row, which for safety reasons is limited to able-bodied adults.

Since it’s open seating if you’re picky about your seat — especially on longer flights — it’s to your advantage to board as early as possible.

There’s also a second perk to boarding early: remember what I said about carry on luggage? If you’re like me and prefer to travel light with a carry on bag, you might be required to check your bag if there’s no space in the overhead bins. It’s not the end of the world, but it means you’ll have to wait at the baggage claim instead of walking out of the airport.

So how do you get into the earliest boarding group?

If you fly Southwest a lot, you’ll get bumped up to what’s called “A-list.” This means you not only get the first slots in the A boarding group, but you also get to skip to the front of the TSA security check line. It’s a neat loyalty perk that most of us will never achieve. You can also buy “Business Select” tickets which cost significantly more but also get you into the A boarding group. It’s not a true business class since you’ll share the same seats as everyone else.

I don’t think it’s supposed to work this way, but in practice if you’re anywhere in the A boarding group TSA might wave you to the front of the security check line when you show them your boarding pass.

Two other factors determine your place in line: when you check in to your flight, and if you purchase the “Early Bird” add-on. You can check in 24 hours before your flight’s scheduled departure online or in the Southwest app. The sooner you check in, the better your boarding position. If you purchase Early Bird you’ll automatically get checked in before the rest of the plebes who didn’t buy business select or have A-list.
 

Lastly here’s a clip from stand up comic Beth Hoyt explaining how not to fly Southwest. If the embedded time code doesn’t work the bit about her bad experience is from approximately 1:44 to 3:25.

Kicking off my trip across America

"L" platform in the snow
“L” station platform in Chicago
 

Back in 2017 I found a crazy cheap flight to Barcelona and built a month-long trip to Spain, Italy, and Greece around that lucky find.

The following year my Greek friend invited me to his wedding, so I made a three week trip out of it to Stockholm, the Greek island of Hydra, and Oslo.

This year I wanted to do something a little different. For the longest time I’ve had the notion of taking one of those lengthy Amtrak trips across the country. There’s a certain old fashioned 19th century charm to the idea. (I guess “old fashioned charm” is one thing I have in common with the anti-vaxxer crowd, except I prefer not dying from measles.)

After weighing the options I decided on the California Zephyr route, which connects San Francisco (really Emeryville) to Chicago. Originally I planned to hop on the train in Emeryville and start heading east. But once I’d figured out where I’d like to stop along the way that plan didn’t make sense; each stop only sees one Zephyr train per day per direction, and in the eastbound direction many of the places I wanted to stop had very inconvenient times like 4 AM.

So I reversed my plans and decided to begin “Ameritrip 2019″ by flying to Chicago and heading west, which has much more palatable stop times for all the places I’d like to see.

Last night my plane landed at Chicago Midway and I took the “L” to my Airbnb here in the Fulton River District, one stop away from The Loop. I’ll spend almost an entire week here before heading to Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Reno before returning home.

I’ll have more on visiting Chicago in the near future, for now all I’ll say is the weather had a big surprise in store: snow. Yes, it snowed in mid-April. Not only was I unprepared, I’ve never even seen snow fall from the sky in person, only its aftermath. I had no idea what to do at all so I followed the time honored strategy of looking at others and copying them. Here’s to hoping the rest of this leg of my trip will have more vacation-friendly weather.

Ambient sound of new and old BART trains

April 10, 2019

Now that BART’s new “Fleet of the Future” trains have been in regular service for a while, I’ve found myself on them dozens of times. The extra set of doors in the middle is my favorite feature, followed by the significantly improved ventilation. The live map is nice too.

But the biggest change is the audio. No more unintelligible operators mumbling what train you’re on or what station you’re arriving at; now a generic female voice clearly states this information automatically.

This got me to wonder what else might be different about the way the new trains sound vs. the old ones. Listen below to two recordings I made with my phone on two short morning BART commutes.

 

 

For comparison, here’s the same ride on a much older BART train. The only automated announcement is the warning that the doors are closing, and there’s also no door chime.

The biggest surprise to me listening to these on my headphones is the slight rattling sound. Definitely didn’t notice that when I was recording this and I’m surprised my phone’s microphone even picked up such a small detail.

 

 

You can tell in both recordings there’s still some squealing as the trains go around the corner from 16th and Mission to Civic Center, though nowhere near as much as with the previous wheel design. I kind of wish I’d made a recording a couple years ago for comparison but I don’t know how that awful sound would have come out on a phone. Lest we forget, the old BART rail screech was so unbearable in the Transbay Tube it was once recorded by an audio designer for a survival horror video game.

Monty Python Hall: A Monty Hall simulator in Python

March 25, 2019


Public domain illustration from Wikipedia
 

The infamous Monty Hall problem goes something like this: Monty Hall, the host of TV game show “Let’s Make A Deal” shows a contestant three doors. Behind one door is a new car. If the contestant picks that door, they win the car.

The other two doors have a goat behind them, which are not prizes. I guess this puzzle falls apart if you for some reason find a goat more valuable than a car. Anyway, point is the door with the car behind it is the prize.

Once the contestant picks a door, the host Mr. Hall opens a second door to reveal a goat. Now Mr. Hall asks the contestant to select one of two options:

  1. Stay with the original door they picked
  2. Switch to a different door (the one remaining door that is not open)

Here’s where most of us get tripped up: it shouldn’t matter, right? There are only two remaining doors, one has a car behind it and the other a goat. Why does it matter if you stay or switch doors?
 

What’s going on?

As it turns out the odds in this situation are counterintuitively not 50%. When the contestant initially selected a door the odds they selected the prize door were one out of three. But this changes once Mr. Hall opens a door to reveal a goat using his prior knowledge. We know Mr. Hall will never open a door with a car behind it, and he will never open the same door the contestant initially selected.

The contestant’s initial choice remains fixed in time: one out of three. Now that a door revealing a goat has been opened the initial choice is still one out of three. But if the contestant switches doors, something unexpected happens — their new choice has a two out of three chance of winning.

If this problem sounds familiar you probably heard about it in Parade magazine back in the 90′s when columnist Marilyn vos Savant spent years covering this problem. It’s also been tested on Mythbusters. For a quick explanation check out AsapSCIENCE’s video on YouTube.
 

Another approach

Like many people, I often find probability mathematics baffling — and the Monty Hall problem is no exception.

When I was a kid I remember visiting The Exploratorium here in San Francisco and coming across a simple computer exhibit that simulated dice rolls. I’d never considered before that when you roll one six sided die the probability of landing on each side is equal, but when you roll two dice and add the numbers together, the probability of rolling any number between two and twelve are not equal. There’s only one way to roll a two or a twelve, but plenty of ways of getting, for example, an eight.

The exhibit drew a graph of the number of times it simulated a two-dice roll, with a bar for each possible outcome. After some number of rolls it always looked like a hill with most of the rolls in the middle range and fewer at the higher and lower numbers.

Since I was learning to program at the time, this idea of taking a mathematical problem and breaking it down into a computer simulation really appealed to me. In fact when I got home I wrote my own version of the dice roll simulator in QBasic. In only an hour or two I managed to put together a working dice roll simulator complete with a bar graph, just like the exhibit at The Exploratorium.

A computer simulation isn’t a mathematical proof of course, but it’s a good sanity check to validate a hypothesis.

Thinking about the Monty Hall problem again recently I thought I’d take that approach I’d learned as a kid and write a simple program to simulate it and tally up the results.
 

Monty Hall problem in Python

As a software engineer I mostly work in Python these days. It’s a fairly easy to understand language so I thought it’d be perfect for simulating the Monty Hall problem. That’s how I came up with “Monty Python Hall,” a Monty Hall problem simulator in Python. The idea is to run the Monty Hall three door problem any number of times and tally up the results at the end.

Once you’ve installed a Python interpreter on your system you can try out my Monty Hall simulator from the command line. Clone the repo, open the directory in a console and type “python run.py” and you’ll see an output like this:

Games run: 1000
Games won stayed: 351
Games won switched: 683

If you edit the source you can change the number of games run, but the result always comes out about the same: the contestant wins 2/3 of the time if they switch, and only 1/3 of the time if they stay.

I designed the program to prioritize simplicity over efficiency, so if you run it too many times it may be slower than you expect. For example look at the way the host selects a door:

while host_choice == player_choice or host_choice == car_at:
    host_choice = pick_random_door(num_doors)

This is more complex than it needs to be; the host’s choice is simulated randomly until it meets the required conditions.

Why? I think it’s more interesting to let people play around with the program, and the simpler the logic the easier it is to modify.

For example what if you change the number of doors? It needs to be at least three for the contestant and host’s choice to work. But what if there were ten doors? In my version of the program the host opens one door with a goat behind it no matter how many doors there are. But what if the host opens half the doors with goats behind them? Or all of the doors except the one that may hide a car?

My implementation of the Monty Hall simulator in Python is available under the free, open source MIT license. I encourage you to try it and modify it as you see fit.

If you find this useful in any way feel free to send me an email. I’d love to hear about it!
 

Find this project on Github

W.F.T (San Francisco)

March 14, 2019

W.F.T (San Francisco)
W.F.T (San Francisco) W.F.T (San Francisco)
 

This evening I decided to take a walk by the Civic Center area to check out a brand new art installation: W.F.T (San Francisco) from artist Joseph Kosuth. W.F.T. — or “Word Family Tree” — is a neon light piece that wraps around the Polk St. side of the Bill Graham Civic, lighting up an otherwise boring brick wall with bricked-up windows.

I was held up too late at work to make it to the lighting ceremony though by the time I arrived there were still a few people lingering around taking photos. From the street level it’s easy to miss; the neon lights seemed dimmer than I’d expected, and are high enough from the ground level that the best view is from across the street.

The neon lights form trees breaking down the etymologies of the words “Civic” and “Auditorium.” It almost looks like notes taken by a college student in a linguistics course, except if those notes were inexplicably turned into light and attached to the wall of a four story building.

While I admire the unusual decision to put a brainstorm cloud of words in neon on the side of the building, the unfortunately ugly fire escapes get in the way, literally blocking your view depending on where you stand. It’s hardly the fault of the piece though.

My only critique is the use of the word “auditorium.” To most of us locals the building is called “Bill Graham Civic.” Honestly I’d forgotten the full is name of the place is “Bill Graham Civic Auditorium” until today. It’s not ear splitting like when an out-of-towner says “The BART,” but if someone told me to meet them at “the auditorium,” I wouldn’t know what they were talking about.

The building itself dates back to 1915 when it opened as part of the Panama Pacific Exhibition. Since then it’s served various purposes, including a basketball arena for the Warriors, an opera house for San Francisco Opera, and an exhibit hall where a very early prototype of what we now think of as a computer was first demonstrated.

Also, I saw The Smashing Pumpkins play there once back in ’98. Cool show, man.

These days it’s primary a concert venue. The name was changed by the city in the early 90′s to honor legendary local concert promoter Bill Graham after he died in a helicopter crash.

If you’re in the area when it’s dark enough — whether for a concert or just getting off work — you’d might as well wander by the Polk St. side of the building and take a look at W.F.T. for yourself. Until now you probably haven’t seen neon signs written in Greek and Latin, let alone many of them stuck all over the side of a building. There’s plenty of time to check it out in person as it’s considered a permanent installation. Of course even in the best conditions neon lights don’t last forever; better to check it out sooner than later if you’re interested.

Six most outrageous moments during the 2019 On Cinema Oscar Special

February 28, 2019


 

Last Sunday I stayed home to watch an exciting live event: the 2019 On Cinema Oscar Special (video available here). What, did you think I’d waste time on the “real” Academy Awards?

I mentioned On Cinema here before — to sum it up it’s a tragic comedy about a pair of would-be movie critics, Tim and Gregg, and their many personality clashes. For a complete backstory of the On Cinema universe check out this article at Vulture.

Due to the outcome of a civil lawsuit Tim lost control of On Cinema last season. The Oscar Special was advertised with Gregg appearing as the movie expert and a new host by the name of Rafael Torres. How would this turn out? Could On Cinema possibly outdo itself again?

The short answer is yes. Here are the top six most outrageous moments in this year’s On Cinema Oscar Special.

Warning: spoilers!
 

6. Dekkar’s awful cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody”

Tim often interrupts On Cinema with his latest music, much to Gregg’s chagrin. This time Tim’s band Dekkar reunites to perform a cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” which at the very least is on topic due to the Oscar nominations of a film of the same name. Unfortunately their performance is… well, it’s a train wreck. Tim’s vocals are slurred, off-key, and it’s unclear if he even knows most of the lyrics.

I might have rated this moment in the special higher if I hadn’t seen a similar version last month at their live show here in San Francisco. It’s a solid laugh, but like any joke it’s better the first time.

 

5. Gregg’s unmentioned reference to Scientology

In a segment called “Where The Stars Were Born,” Gregg shows us the birthplaces of various Hollywood actors using shaky footage he presumably shot on his phone.

Gregg casually displays recent footage of the former hospital where Jamie Lee Curtis was born without commenting on the fact that it’s now the Hollywood Scientology building. These days the building serves a rather different purpose for certain Hollywood celebrities, including Tim’s favorite actor Tom Cruise.

 

4. Tim’s entrance and latest conspiracy theory

During a pre-taped interview with Steve Carell, Tim is heard in the background forcing his way onto the set of the special. He barges on set with pepper spray and a gun-toting security guard/actor named Mike. Somehow Tim wins back Gregg’s trust despite having blocked all the doors and exits, accidentally hit everyone with pepper spray, and forbidden phone calls (especially to 911.) The official host Rafael retreats to his dressing room after being assaulted by Tim and won’t come out.

Tim demands they run a Q-Anon style conspiracy theory video he put together regarding the allegedly impending arrest of elite Hollywood liberals — at 7:10 PM, specifically — during the Academy Awards. Gregg immediately rejects this conspiracy. When Tim’s prediction doesn’t come to pass he blames his security guard for giving him bad information.

 

3. Tim’s latest quack medicine… or is it?

Lifting his shirt to reveal a suspicious vest, Gregg is initially concerned Tim is wearing a suicide bomb. But it turns out the vest is only loaded with magnets — for health reasons. Tim claims he bought the vest at Magnets.com, and the powerful magnets have finally cured his diarrhea.

At first this seems relatively benign compared to Tim’s many other questionable health choices. But after Tim takes a tour of Gregg’s archive of VHS tapes while wearing the vest, a new problem develops. More on that in a moment.

 

2. The Living Oscar

Celebrity impersonator Mark Proksch nearly died during an on-set accident in last year’s Oscar Special; since then he’s been in a coma under Gregg’s care. For a new series of “Live Oscar” segments Gregg dressed Mark’s limp body in a tight-fitting gold suit and propped him upright. Gregg asks the Living Oscar statue questions, answering them with sound clips from Mark’s past performances.

In the final Living Oscar segment Gregg activates a turntable under the stand. When Mark becomes tangled up in the tube for his breathing device, Tim rushes over to help, accidentally knocking Mark onto the floor. The fall causes Mark to snap out of his coma. Tim’s hardly a hero though as he still refuses to let anyone call 911.

 

1. The grand finale

Gregg’s intended final segment is a “live sequel” to the movie Kramer vs. Kramer. Unfortunately Gregg loses focus on the segment because his tape of the original Kramer vs. Kramer won’t play. After Joe Estevez points out Tim’s magnets might be the problem, Gregg fumbles and curses while trying to find if any tapes in his collection are still playable.

The episode wraps up with a distraught Gregg going through his tapes while Tim’s band mates from Dekkar arrive with more liquor. Dekkar performs two songs including the aforementioned Queen cover. Suddenly the police show up — almost as Tim predicted would happen at the real Academy Awards. Tim drunkenly escapes the premises before the police can catch up to him. The police have questions about “gold man” Mark, who’s still wearing the gold Oscar suit and has blood on his face. As the episode ends Gregg is clearly talking to one police officer about Tim’s crimes against his prized VHS collection.

 
Honorable mentions

There were a few pretty crazy, but not completely outrageous moments that didn’t make my top six cut. In no particular order:

  • Gregg interviews frequent On Cinema guest Joe Estevez. Meanwhile Tim gets drunk on spiked Mountain Dew and makes loud, obnoxious comments the entire time.
  • Tim eats raw noodles from a Cup Noodles with a crazed look on his face, at one point squeezing the cup so hard it explodes sending dry noodles everywhere.
  • Gregg’s obsession with the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies continue as he hires Hobbit-themed band “Thains Of The Shire” to play despite his own personal distaste in On Cinema’s music features. When Dekkar shows up they borrow Thains Of The Shire’s instruments and equipment without asking.
  • The “Whaleman 2020″ shirt Tim wears as a reference not only to his cameo role in Ant Man And The Wasp, but also is a subtle dig at Gregg who had a cameo in the first Ant Man movie.

Moscone Center skyway lights

February 23, 2019


 

With the Moscone Center rebuild (mostly) complete, one element particularly stands out after dark. Every time I walk by at night I see people snapping photos of the light display in the glass-walled skyway between Moscone North and South.

I was pretty surprised when the contractors began construction on the skyway — why would a convention center that’s mostly underground need an above ground walkway? It’s particularly odd considering the new above ground space is only in Moscone South, though to be fair I haven’t been inside since the recent renovation.

But now that it’s there the skyway’s colorful LED light display fits with SOMA’s other light displays including the Metromile building, the Bay Lights on the Bay Bridge, and the video screen hat on Salesforce Tower.

While it lacks the playfulness of the Bay Lights or the detail of Salesforce Tower’s videos, the Moscone Center’s skyway lights makes up for these shortcomings in sheer intensity. Like a house covered in far too many Christmas lights you really can’t miss it. I suspect that’s why it’s becoming a spot for photos.

Here’s to hoping this relatively simple LED light show works better than the failed video art screen at Moscone West.

A visit to the Oakland Museum of California

February 10, 2019

Oakland Museum of California
 

With so many museums in the Bay Area to choose from, I’d never gotten around to visiting the Oakland Museum of California until yesterday. It’s not that it wasn’t on my radar, I just wasn’t sure what it was aside from a funny looking building I occasionally pass by while walking from the Lake Merritt BART station to Lake Merritt itself.

The reason I finally decided to visit was the Eames special exhibit (more on that below.) A while back they had a special exhibit on Pixar and I’ve been kicking myself for missing it ever since; the Eames exhibit ends on February 18th and I was determined not to make the same mistake twice.

Before going any further, what is the Oakland Museum of California? The name tells you where it is, but not what kind of museum. Is it an art museum? Science? History? Who’s the target audience? There’s no definitive answer but I’ll provide the best one I can at the end.

I bought tickets at the museum rather than online. In the morning this wasn’t an issue, but in the afternoon the lines grew significantly longer. If you buy a “print at home” ticket you only have to wait in a short line to exchange your printouts for a sticker. As far as I know you can’t present tickets on your phone.

For backpacks and jackets they have a number of free lockers available. These work like hotel lockers where you punch in your own PIN. Be sure to test these before you leave your stuff here, I tried two lockers before I found one where the lock worked correctly.
 

Special Exhibit: The World of Charles and Ray Eames
 

Oakland Museum of California
Oakland Museum of California Oakland Museum of California

If you’re at all familiar with mid-century American furniture you’ve probably heard of Eames. Even if the name doesn’t ring a bell you’d probably recognize many of their iconic designs from shows like Mad Men or even cheap knockoffs sold at chain furniture stores.

Eames wasn’t some big faceless furniture company — it was the name of a Los Angeles design firm headed by husband and wife designers Charles and Ray Eames. While they both passed away a few decades ago, many of their iconic furniture designs are still manufactured today. In fact I’m even writing this from the comfort of an Eames Aluminum Group Management Chair.

Despite the Eames name being most closely associated with furniture it’s hardly the only type of design work they produced. The exhibit doesn’t go too deep into how Charles and Ray got their interest in design, instead delving into World War II as the couple experimented with molded plywood to develop leg splints and stretchers for wounded soldiers. When this didn’t pan out they turned their focus to home and office furniture after the war, partnering with Herman Miller for manufacturing and sales.
 

Oakland Museum of California Oakland Museum of California

This is where the exhibit took an unexpected (to me, at least) twist into film. After working on a few very short films Eames was hired by IBM to create a film for an exhibition. The film was displayed on several screens and explained in simple terms how to break down a problem into a model so a computer could help solve it. One such example involved predicting the weather, using the weather data to predict attendance at a baseball game, which the stadium would use to know how many hot dogs to order. Like most old educational films it’s a little hard to judge this one by modern standards. For one thing I doubt most people need to be sold on the concept of computers anymore.

Another Eames film in a similar multi-screen format was originally shown in the Soviet Union as part of a cross-cultural program. The description said this was intended to highlight advantages of American capitalism. This film didn’t age well; the dated images of Americans driving to shopping centers came across less like a promotion of capitalism and more like a parody of suburban banality. Between the dimly lit room, slow pacing, and the Eames Lounge Chair I was relaxing in, it felt like time for a nap. Each mini-theater at the exhibit featured Eames chairs to sit in but this one felt like a particularly poor choice.

 

The last film in the exhibit surprised me the most because I’ve seen it several times but had no idea it was created by Eames: Powers of Ten. The exhibit includes three versions of the film, starting with a glorified storyboard and ending up with the final 1977 version above.

Each version begins with a guy sleeping after a picnic in a park, then zooming out exponentially in powers of ten until ending up at the limit of the observable universe. The final version also zips back in the opposite direction into the nucleus of an atom inside the picnicker’s hand. I think the film still holds up even if the graphics look a little dated. Spend the next ten nine minutes watching the video above for yourself if you’ve never seen it.
 

Gallery of California History
 

Oakland Museum of California
Oakland Museum of California Oakland Museum of California

After grabbing lunch at the museum’s cafe I headed back across from the special exhibit hall to see one of the three permanent exhibits: the Gallery of California History. Those of us who grew up in California probably won’t get much out of this one, but for kids there’s a lot of objects you’re free to touch or little doors and boxes to open.

The exhibit starts with the lives of California’s first human inhabitants, the native Ohlone people. From there time skips ahead with the arrival of the Spanish, followed by the takeover by America and the Gold Rush. Here the exhibit takes a bold yet straightforward stance: it refers to American settlers slaughtering California’s Native Americans as genocide.

This dichotomy of high and low moments continues throughout the decades as the exhibit goes on. Chinese laborers build the transcontinental railroad, only to return home to California facing racism and violence. Hollywood movie studios sprang up, but all the good roles went to white actors. The 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed most of San Francisco leaving hundreds of thousands of people scrambling to find new lives, if not outright inventing new ones due the destruction of their paper documentation. Japanese internment camps stripped over one hundred thousand people of their rights during World War II.

Black Californians began protesting for equal rights in the 1960′s and 70′s, and at this point the exhibit’s timeline starts to seem more familiar. News footage, statistics, and a list of demands from the Black Power movement still seem relevant today.

 
Oakland Museum of California

The final section of the California History gallery wasn’t 100% operational during my visit, but what was open felt both interesting yet incomplete. It focused on the achievements of Silicon Valley with Hewlett Packard and Apple starting out of their founders’ garages. Yesterday’s computers were behind glass, including an early Mac and a Palm Pilot. I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt old seeing these “ancient” relics in a history exhibit.

The absence of any deeper insight of this part of the gallery was surprising. Perhaps it’s too soon to say who benefited or lost due to Silicon Valley’s rapid rise? It hardly fit the rest of the exhibit’s analysis of California’s history.
 

Gallery of California Natural Sciences

 
Oakland Museum of California

Just under the history gallery is the first floor exhibit on nature in California.

I hate to say it but this exhibit doesn’t have much going for it. The environmental info was hardly new or surprising, and the taxidermied animals felt a little creepy. Not sure who it was intended for as this exhibit was nearly deserted during my visit with maybe five or six others.

I quickly bailed on this gallery, but not after snapping the above photo of Oakland’s tree logo built out of pipes.
 

Gallery of California Art

 
Oakland Museum of California
Oakland Museum of California Oakland Museum of California Oakland Museum of California Oakland Museum of California

The art gallery includes many styles and forms of art from or relating to California, arranged chronologically. The first part of the gallery largely focuses on 19th century oil paintings, mostly landscapes. Yosemite Valley is a recurring theme here as well as Gold Rush era San Francisco.

Gold Rush era photographs are displayed in a small side room, which I almost missed. That would have been a mistake — although the photos are very small, they’re also quite detailed and provide a glimpse into the past most of us rarely get a chance to see.

Walking away from the entrance is like a trip forward in time, with figure paintings, photographs, Impressionism, dioramas, modern art, and lastly a few contemporary special exhibits. It’s undoubtedly a solid collection though I wasn’t clear how some of the pieces connected to California, even after reading all the descriptions.

Unlike the rest of the museum there’s not much for younger children to do in the art gallery.

Before moving on here’s a couple paintings early on in this gallery I found interesting.

Oakland Museum of California

This piece by George Henry Burgess captures an unfamiliar landscape… or does it? The painting shows Gold Rush era San Francisco featuring Telegraph Hill in the center, with what I believe is Montgomery Street (or perhaps a parallel street west of Montgomery) leading up to the hill.

If you look closely a the edge of the bay there’s a pier under construction. All the ships are much further out in the bay, since the water was far too shallow near the eastern edge of San Francisco to bring ships closer in. What’s now Embarcadero and the Ferry Building would have been underwater.

Oakland Museum of California

The above painting by Albert Bierstadt sits at the end of a hallway. At first I didn’t think much of it — it’s clearly Yosemite Valley, perhaps on a hazy morning — but the background is so overdone it looks almost cartoonish.

But in front of the painting there’s a few seats with headphones. I sat down, put on a pair of headphones and hit the play button. An unnamed narrator (who sounds suspiciously like Oakland-based podcaster Avery Trufelman) walks the viewer through a short meditation-like exercise of essentially imaging oneself in the painting.

I came away enjoying the piece more after this exercise, and wondered why museums with audio guides don’t have similar features to help guide viewers in appreciating a piece rather than simply discussing facts about it.
 

Garden

 
Oakland Museum of California
Oakland Museum of California Oakland Museum of California

A network of terrace gardens, stairways, and patios extends across and above the museum, with a grassy field at the bottom. There’s a number of outdoor sculptures to see. During my visit some of the walkways were covered in large puddles due to the rain earlier in the day.

On the field down below a Chinese New Year celebration was taking place. Not many people had turned up, probably due to the weather.

I’m not sure if you need museum admission to enter the garden. I put on a sweatshirt that completely covered my museum admission sticker and nobody stopped me or said anything.
 

So, what is the Oakland Museum of California?

With the three galleries covering different topics and exhibits for both children and adults, this museum wants to be all things to all people. Without any clear focus it’s a hit-or-miss affair, never quite going into the depth I’d expect for a museum of this size.

To me it seemed almost like three museums glued together. So it was no surprise to read this about the museum on Wikipedia: “It was created in the mid-1960s out of the merger of three separate museums dating from the early 20th century…”

There’s something else going on here too: according to the education section of the museum’s website students can “[e]xplore art, history, and natural science under one roof…” The website also includes curriculum for teachers. During weekdays the museum must act as a magnet for school field trips.

 
My recommendation: I don’t think I’d visit the Oakland Museum of California just for the permanent collection. That said if there’s a special exhibit that sounds interesting it’s worth checking out the rest of the museum too while visiting, or at least the top two floors (history and art galleries.) The cafe’s fine, though you could probably find better options nearby.

Future transbay tube fantasy planning

February 4, 2019

Recently there’s been talk of building a second rail tube under the San Francisco Bay. This new tube would be larger than the existing transbay tube and serve two major purposes:

  1. BART could offer limited 24 hour service while still having a maintenance window if one of the tubes had to be closed
  2. Future expansion possibilities for CalTrain, high speed rail, and perhaps even Amtrak

If we put aside the question of when to build this second crossing the next question is where? There’s no pressing reason to build a second tube next to the existing BART tube between Embarcadero Station and West Oakland.

BART has previously expressed concern about a tube to Treasure Island due to soil stability issues so I won’t include that as an option (even though I personally like the idea.)

Here are the fantasy transbay tube plans I’ve come up with. All maps images are courtesy of Google.
 

Alameda connections

The distance between San Francisco and Alameda (the island, not the county) is short enough that a tube could be practical. Today Alameda isn’t well served by transit so this route may help bring visitors to Alameda’s breweries and boat adventures.

On the Oakland side BART could connect to the existing Lake Merritt Station, ideally stopping along the way at a new Jack London Square Station. There’s also an obvious place to connect to Amtrak as well.
 

Geary Street

Let’s start with the obvious: BART intended to build a subway under Geary Street since day one, but somehow never got around to it. It’s easy to see the appeal: Geary is close to the Legion of Honor, Japantown, the Presidio, and could potentially go all the way out to the beach and the Cliff House. It’s also a major shopping district with restaurants, bakeries, bookstores, etc.

On the eastern side this subway could connect to the existing Market Street BART subway before meeting at the Transbay Transit Center and exiting San Francisco through a tube to Alameda.

The biggest problem with BART adding a Geary Street subway at this point is how it would get there: Muni Metro’s's upcoming Union Square station is quite deep, probably too deep to tunnel under. Digging under the Financial District seems equally troublesome. If only San Francisco had some kind of “subway master plan”
 

Mission Bay

Connecting somewhere near Mission Bay, BART could build a new line to major event spaces like AT&T/Oracle Park, the new Warriors stadium, etc. It comes close enough to the CalTrain line to provide an opportunity for future expansion, and would serve as a connection to Muni’s upcoming Central Subway line near the south portal.

On the San Francisco side BART would have a few places to connect to its existing subway, though all of them would be expensive. The longest route would be to tunnel all the way to Cesar Chavez, the shortest would be to go under 16th Street.

The pros of this plan seem pretty clear: connecting BART to one of San Francisco’s biggest new neighborhoods is a no brainer. The cons? There’s no direct connection to BART’s busy Market St. tunnel or the Transbay Transit Center.
 

 

North Bay connections

It’s unclear BART will ever go to the North Bay, but this was part of the original plan and I have a few ideas. Just getting BART to connect with the new SMART trains in the North Bay would be a major achievement and is worth considering for that reason alone.

For better or worse these plans involve skipping the East Bay entirely and focus on the North Bay via San Francisco. Connections from the North Bay directly to the East Bay are out of scope for now, negating the ability for BART to operate 24 hours — but it’s still worth thinking about. These are fantasy plans after all.
 

Golden Gate Tube

Okay, let’s return to the Geary Street subway. Originally BART planned for the Geary line to go over the Golden Gate Bridge on the lower deck. Unfortunately this wouldn’t be feasible today without major changes to the bridge. Building a second Golden Gate Bridge presumably wouldn’t be very popular, so why not go underground?

The subway tunnel would head west under Geary, take a sharp turn somewhere near the Presidio, then go underneath the Golden Gate before connecting somewhere on the North Bay side. Clearly there’d be a BART stop in the Presidio, if not two.

How this would connect to the Transbay Transit Center is a whole other can of worms but it does provide a potential shared crossing, assuming some minor hand-waving about the details of the Transbay Transit Center connection.

 

Island tubes to Tiburon

I’ve saved my favorite for last, a costly plan best described as “a series of tubes.” Specifically three of them.

What if BART built a subway tunnel from Market Street to Columbus Avenue in North Beach to a tube system connecting via islands to the North Bay? This would hit many key areas including the Financial District, North Beach, and Fisherman’s Wharf. Tubes would be built to connect Alcatraz, Angel Island, and Tiburon.

Connecting this huge tunnel system to the Transbay Transit Center could be reasonable depending on the route configuration. While some North Bay locals would benefit from this plan, it could also be a huge benefit for tourism. Imagine coming to San Francisco on vacation and taking a train to not only Alcatraz but also into wine country. Obviously the ferry companies would strongly disagree with me here.
 

Those are my proposals. Will any of these ideas ever come to fruition? If so hopefully I’ll be remembered as a modern day Emperor Norton.

I built the San Francisco LEGO kit

January 25, 2019

LEGO Architect San Francisco
 

Today after coming back from lunch the office manager stopped me to say “Hey, I got something for you. It’s on your desk.” When I saw what she’d left me I couldn’t help but to laugh.

A few months ago I spotted a rumor in the SF Examiner about a supposedly upcoming San Francisco LEGO kit. I half-jokingly posted to a company Slack channel that we should get one for our San Francisco office.

Turns out it became a real product, and I now had one! After powering through a long day of work I got to my second job: building San Francisco.

 
LEGO Architect San Francisco
 

Unlike the kid-friendly LEGO kits this one doesn’t come with an easy to assemble base. Building the base part felt tedious due to all the flat and tiny pieces.

You might notice some extra pieces in the corner of the photo. I think it’s normal for LEGO to include a handful of extra pieces, so good news if you tend to lose small objects between sofa cushions.

 
LEGO Architect San Francisco
 

Following the instructions the first building to go up is Salesforce Tower. Clearly they weren’t going for chronological order.

The most interesting part is the way the pieces fit together with some bricks fitting in the typical top-to-bottom fashion, while others hang on to the sides. Other buildings and the Golden Gate Bridge towers used similar techniques.

 
LEGO Architect San Francisco
 

Here’s the downtown skyline wrapped up. From left to right: Bank of America building (aka 555 California), Transamerica Pyramid, Salesforce Tower.

Two co-workers who wandered over while I worked on this important project didn’t recognize the Bank of America building — not because I screwed up or LEGO’s design was way off, but they weren’t familiar with it in the first place.

I think the slanted road at the bottom with the blue and red boxes is supposed to depict cable cars, maybe? Not sure.

 
LEGO Architect San Francisco
 

Alcatraz goes over the black “offset” pieces in the base. The tower on the left looks to be the island’s water tower, and on the right its light house.

For the record the red piece sticking out on the right is not part of the island, that’s a tower mount for the Golden Gate Bridge. It doesn’t actually touch Alcatraz.

 
LEGO Architect San Francisco
 

Next up: The Painted Ladies at Alamo Square. Perhaps not the best LEGO depiction of Victorian architecture, though at this scale you have to temper your expectations.

 
LEGO Architect San Francisco
 

The second to last step is Coit Tower, which looks kind of pointless without Telegraph Hill lifting it up to the skies. I wouldn’t have even guessed it was supposed to be Coit Tower without the instructions.

 
LEGO Architect San Francisco
 

Finally, the Golden Gate Bridge! To build this I assembled the two towers, then the roadway between them, and then gently bent the three included plastic “straws” in place between the towers and ends of the bridge.

As I fitted the straws in place I snickered at the result — rather than holding up the bridge, it caused the towers to bend away as the straws attempted to straighten out. Look I’m no civil engineer but that’s really the opposite of what you want from your cables in a solid suspension bridge design.

 
Many have criticized this LEGO kit for failing to include their favorite parts of San Francisco, like the Ferry Building or Chinatown. One coworker jokingly suggested the Millennium Tower.

My criticism is the depiction of the city’s geometry. I realize the kit is a diorama and that’s fine, but from what possible perspective could you see the Transamerica Pyramid between the Bank of America building and Salesforce Tower? Since the set places Alcatraz in front of the Golden Gate Bridge and Fort Point on the left that means we’re looking at San Francisco from the East Bay, so the skyscrapers should be ordered Salesforce, Bank of America, then Transamerica in left-to-right ordering. Coit Tower is roughly in the right position, but the cable cars should be behind the skyscrapers and the Painted Ladies would be facing in the opposite direction.

Still it’s somehow recognizable as San Francisco. Not sure it’s worth the $50 price tag though if you ever get a chance to build this kit for free while sipping complimentary LaCroix from an office fridge, it’s a solid 90 minutes or so of frustrating yet fun entertainment.