Monday, May 21, 2012

Solar Eclipse

Yesterday my brother and I went to the California Academy of Sciences to see what kinds of solar eclipse goings-on were going on. We almost talked ourselves out of it.

Bro: So do you have any protective eyewear? How were you thinking of seeing it?

Me: I was just going to poke a hole in a card and project it.

Bro: Oh.

Me: You can also just look at shadows from trees.

Bro: I see.

Looking at a spot of light the size of a pinhole wasn't sounding too exciting. I was also hoping to take pictures, but after reading photography tips online I realized it was too technical for my limited skills. And cameras don't like to look directly at the sun, either.

We went anyway, with my homemade pinhole in tow. Along the way we saw a few drunken party-goers from the morning's Bay-to-Breakers milling around, trying to look directly at the sun using all the tricks listed under "Unsafe Ways to View the Eclipse." There were lots of sunglasses stacked together, lots of attempts to peer through empty beer bottles.

It turned out the steps in front of the Cal Academy were packed with amateur astronomers like us. Some more advanced amateurs had brought their own fancy telescopes, or made them out of FedEx tubes and aluminum foil. We made eclipse-shaped shadows on the ground with our fingers, snapped photos of other people's telescope images, tripped over dogs.

It was just as cool as the last eclipse I saw, in 1984. The actual image you see is just a crescent of light, even if the cause is cosmically spectacular. I remember it being brilliantly fascinating to me in fourth grade, before my child-like wonder was muted by decades of human wear and tear. But I'm happy to report that apparently, the child-me is still alive and kicking. Check out the neat-o photos I took.

The eclipse seen through the pin hole I made all by myself

Friday, May 18, 2012

Give a Nini

Let's travel back in time six or seven years to the the Peace Corps office in Nairobi. Some volunteers had started a communal giving box called "Give a Nini, Take a Nini." The idea was that you could put anything into the nini box that you didn't want but deemed fit for inheritance by another volunteer or Peace Corps staff, and anyone was welcome to rifle through the ninis and take any treasures they discovered. One American's trash, as the saying goes.

Nini in proper Swahili means "what," but is often used by Kenyans as a stutter word when they're trying to think of what to say next, or as a filler word that essentially means "whatchamacallit."

As in, "Mzungu, you will give me your nini when you leave Kenya."

Which translates to, "Mzungu, if you're so inclined, I would be deeply grateful if you would leave me your laptop when you leave Kenya."

Music, clothes, food, terrible movies, old meds, flip flops, tampons -- anything was fair game for the nini box. Including P-MATES, the portable, disposable pee-anywhere-standing-up cups for women. Finders keepers.

It turns out that my current office also has a Give a Nini box, but you might guess it's not called that.  It probably yields about the same proportion of actual treasures as the Peace Corps nini box. About half an hour before I took this photo, there was a burnt, moldy, half-English muffin sitting on top of the Sports Illustrated. Someone must have wanted that.

The sign says: Free Things Table. Here you may leave useable items, books
and other freebies for anyone to take. Similar items left on the kitchen
table will be moved here as well. Please note that any unclaimed treasures
will be discarded or recycled, usually after a week or so. Thanks.

I'm still pretty excited about the huge unopened bag of loose leaf Earl Grey tea that I scored a couple months ago from this box. You can see from the packaging that it was from a different season. Mokka, it turns out, is a coffee shop in Berkeley that sells what else but fair trade, organic coffee beans and teas. I can't speak for anything else they have, but the Earl Grey is pretty good stuff. This bag will surely last me until next Christmas.

I've only had one brand of Earl Grey that's better, the Mighty Leaf that usually costs anywhere from $10 to $13 for a box of 15 teabags. Amazingly, I found it for $7 a box at a Chinese grocery store on Clement Street. I snapped a photo of the display with the price tag, but seem to have deleted it, so here's a photo from their website:

I think a lot of the yuppie tea drinkers in the neighborhood have gotten wind of this secret, because I after grabbing one box and walking away, I decided to go back and get more. Only 15 minutes had passed and there was only one box left.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

New Green Things on the Wiggle

I was biking on the Wiggle today and saw the new bright green bike "sharrows" (share the road + arrows) they've started painting on the street to point bikers along the zig-zagging route. I'm a big fan of green but I find these a bit gaudy. I do think they guide bikers who aren't familiar with the route, and they're certainly more helpful than the Wiggle PSA that flashes street names MTV-style across the screen (see my previous post).

Not surprisingly, lots of people seem to be upset this new development. My recent experience on the Wiggle is that bikers seem more cautious than ever. They stop at intersections and let cars cross. They take turns slowly. I'm sure there are still idiots on bikes, just as there will always be idiots in cars. I don't think ugly green bike markings on the street make bikers less conscientious or give them a greater sense of entitlement, as some of the comments claim. The arrows seem to be having the opposite effect, as far as I can tell.

I've always thought that adult bikers and drivers should be required to go through some sort of training on how to ride/drive safely and considerately. The content for drivers could be incorporated into driver's ed, and perhaps bikers would have to take the class and get a sticker on their driver's license or ID showing they completed it.

I do think there are a lot of people who get upset every time they see something that might make the city more bike-friendly. The mentality seems to be that if bikers are allowed to become an accepted part of traffic, that it somehow threatens drivers' and pedestrians' right to be on the road. (Who has the sense of entitlement now?). It's similar to the idea that letting gay people get married somehow threatens straight marriages. It's as if some people never learned to share - the road, the community, the institutions of society that are meant to be for everyone.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Wiggle

The Wiggle, San Francisco's well-known bike route for cutting across the city without having to go over any hills, now has its own PSA! The Wiggle has evolved quite a bit in the last ten years or so, going from a nearly unmarked local biker secret to getting its own bike path markers, green painted lanes and bike route signs.

And now it has its own video featuring ironic hipsters and a catchy jingle. I think it's hilarious and fun, but if I were actually trying to learn the route based on the PSA I'd have to watch it at least ten times. Its entertainment value is exponentially higher than its educational value. And the folks doing the world's dorkiest Wiggle at 0:58 manage to make even me, the girl who wears clear safety goggles when I ride my bike, embarrassed for them.

Today was Bay Area Bike to Work Day, known to me as Another Day I Biked to Work. I'm not really the target audience for Bike to Work Day, whose main purpose is to encourage people who are a bit intimidated about commuting on their bike to start doing it, but a part of me is sad I didn't catch any of the festivities.

Said festivities apparently involved "energizer stations" offering snacks, drinks, commuting-related freebies, perky experienced bikers eagerly offering advice and encouragement, and some manner of bike repair. There were also bike convoys leading timid newbie bike commuters along safe, comfortable routes to their workplace. I missed all of it. My route to work goes up several hills, and no bike convoys seemed interested in going my way.

Bike to Work Day is one of the many things that I love about San Francisco. So many people here think biking is a great idea. The cycling community here is large, diverse, well-organized and politically active. (Don't be misled by the PSA, which makes it look like only white hipsters ride bikes.) Cyclists are generally well-behaved, law-abiding and careful not to be aggro in traffic. Naysayers are always desperate to point to the one shithead outlier and claim that the remaining 99% of bikers are the same. Folks, don't hate on the bike. I have no doubts that dude is a deep douchebag off his bike, and a complete jerkface in his car, but I don't hear anyone accusing all drivers of being like him. Oh, the prejudices we embrace.

A well-articulated article about bigotry against cyclists. Couldn't have said it better myself.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Macro Setting

I bought a new camera recently to replace the one that was swiped from my apartment in December. It's a Canon SX260 HS, which doesn't really mean anything to me, but if you're into cameras, there's the link for you. I was looking for something that had most of the same features as my old camera, which was a Canon S2 IS. I fall about in the middle of the photography competency spectrum - I take photos in different light settings so I like being able to adjust things manually if I have to, but if the camera can do something automatically, I'm not going to complain either.

My only major requirement for the new camera was that I wanted a zoom upgrade. I've always had a bad case of zoom envy, so six years ago when I bought the S2 IS I made sure it had one of the longest zooms for its class.

My new camera is a smaller camera with a bigger zoom, and technically falls in the point-and-shoot category. There's no viewfinder. There's no flash that you can manually flip up and down rather than setting it using the buttons and screen menus. There's no lens cover - a big source of anxiety for someone who likes to walk along sandy beaches exploring tidepools and chasing sea birds.

Also, one of my biggest complaints is that it's so small and the casing so smooth that I feel like I can't really get a professional hold on it. Its size and smoothness also make it hard to take arm-length self-portraits, which I do shamelessly despite nearly always getting poor results. It takes better video, though, but most of today's cameras do compared to six years ago. And although I haven't tried it yet, it has GPS for geo-coding photos if you're the kind of photographer who occasionally goes on whirlwind six-country tours in seven days.

Overall I preferred the feel, shape and weight of the old camera. It was bulkier and less convenient to stow away when traveling or trying to snap photos while riding my bike (yes, what?), but ergonomically it was a photographer's camera, instead of a tourist's camera. I really miss the whole physical and tactile aspect of photography that I had with my old camera.

However, the one thing that I find amazing on the new camera is the macro setting. My old camera had a pretty awesome one:

Slide Mountain, Catskills, NY (Photo by P. Cuce)

But I think the new one has it beat:

Who knew flower petals had hair? And spider webs? (Usal Road, Sinkyone Wilderness, Mendocino)

This may not have been the macro setting. It may have just been the 20x zoom. (Land's End, San Francisco)

Friday, May 4, 2012

Things Thai People Like

Work consists of reading lots and lots of articles about needle exchange programs implemented in different countries to prevent HIV infection. Today I was scrolling through a long report about programs that try to minimize risks associated with injection drug use, and this photo caught my eye:

The caption on the photo says, "Thai activists in a moment of celebration at a harm reduction training in Bangkok."

I think anyone who has ever been at a work-related event in Thailand will instantly recognize that the photo is not "a moment of celebration." It's a bunch of Thai people singing karaoke. Because no gathering - professional or otherwise - in Thailand is complete without a whole lot of karaoke. (And usually whiskey.)

Then again, I suppose that qualifies as a moment of celebration.

Screenshot source: IHRD (2008). Harm Reduction Developments 2008. New York: International Harm Reduction Development
Program of the Open Society Institute.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Tourists, Part I

I don't understand local disdain for tourists. At least not in the U.S., where people who live in touristed areas have similar income levels as those who come to visit. (Local disdain for tourists who are exponentially wealthier than the people living there -- that's much easier to understand.)

I live off a MUNI line that runs right past Alamo Square Park, site of the iconic Painted Ladies. There are always a few intrepid tourists on my bus, clutching MUNI maps and nervously jumping up at every intersection to make sure they're not missing their stop.

The Painted Ladies. You've seen them before. Now see them
in a photo I took that looks like every other photo you've seen of them.

Big red tour buses also pass by every day with shivering tourists in the upper deck, taking pictures of anything they can, which sometimes includes lil' ol' me pedaling along in the bike lane. I think it's cute and sweet that people come from all over the world to admire the place I call home, snap terrible pictures with their point-and-shoots, and return home renewed and impressed, with a little more sparkle in their eyes, a lot less heaviness in their heart.

Beyond that, I'm proud and grateful that I've been lucky enough to make a life here when other people have to take vacation time to visit. And in case you don't fully understand what that means to me, allow me to reach into the archives for a moment.

So I don't understand when people like the folks riding my bus one night complain about "all the tourists."

"They just come in, don't know anything about the place. Years ago when I was growing up here, Alamo Square Park was a nasty place. Things happened there at night that you don't ever want to know about. And now, because of all the damn tourists, they spent all this money to put a nice, clean bathroom in that park."

Our bus driver chimed in, "I hate these tourists. I only say that because I can tell no one on this bus is a tourist. Why do they come here to look at these houses, like they're something special or something? We got these houses everywhere. What's the big deal?"

Admittedly these are not two of San Francisco's more eloquent or thoughtful complainers, but I've heard these sentiments from others.

Folks, lighten the hell up.

Tourists are not only coming from afar see what all the fuss is about, which is a huge compliment in itself, but they're also on vacation. They're in a good mood. They're friendly and curious and open-minded and chatty. They're not native English speakers, yet they speak English better than the dude who sells me kale at the farmer's market. When I travel abroad, I'm hard pressed to find American tourists at all, much less any who are similarly good-natured and likeable.

So stop bitchin', neighbors. Just because we live in the greatest city on earth doesn't mean we look down on those who don't.

I welcome tourists with open arms. Please, be my guest. Ride the streetcar, marvel at seagulls, eat clam chowder from a slightly stale sourdough bowl, puff up hills in sneakers you bought just for this trip, never wander beyond the trinket shops in Chinatown, shop on Haight-Ashbury, pay way too much for mediocre chocolate at Ghiradelli Square and go home feeling like you've had the authentic San Francisco experience. You haven't, but you might notice you've managed to fall in love with the place anyway. And there's nothing inauthentic about that.