Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Pre-war intelligence

I had my second guest out to San Jose this past weekend when my brother Pat took a few days off work and ventured west. I've been looking forward to this for a while, and did my standard pre-visit thing of looking up possible activities and starting to think through itineraries.

I was a little worried about the airport pickup; just the day before some fellow Rocket Mobilers (Mobilites? Mobilians?) had run into nasty traffic en route to the airport and missed their flight. I had smooth sailing all the way up, though, and got to chill for several minutes before he came in. One nice feature about SJC is the "Cell Phone Parking Lot," a little strip separate from the airport where you can park, turn off your car, and wait for a call from your arrival. This is an awesome idea - you don't burn gas constantly circling the terminals, and the traffic at the airport is lighter because the only people driving are the ones currently in the process of a dropoff or a pickup.

I had to go back to work so I deposited him at my apartment. Apparently he has made the same terrorist list that I have; he wasn't allowed to check in online, and so he had to leave for Midway at an ungodly hour. I advised him to sleep and ventured back to work.

Our first night was pleasant and pretty low-key. After chatting a while and catching up, we decided to get some food. Here the adventure began. I poured over one of those "100 Best Restaurants" lists, picked out the cheapest places, and asked Pat what looked good. After some discussion and analysis we decided to try a nearby barbecue restaurant, which is a tricky proposition - we both love BBQ, but I've been trying to avoid it, just because I've lived in KC recently and feel certain that the Bay's offerings cannot be as good. Still, at some point I'd need to see just how they stacked up, and I knew that this particular place came recommended by some folks at work. So we piled into my car and headed out.

We circled around the street a few times, unable to locate it. Rather than spend another two minutes to go home and double-check the address, we went to downtown San Jose to check out Zhang, a pan-Asian restaurant. The food was quite good, the decor was attractive and the diners were casual.

Back home we realized that I had remembered the completely wrong address, hence the absence of barbecue. Pat introduced me to the series "Deadwood," which I'd heard a lot about but never seen. As always he showed his good taste; I'd need to see more to get a better feel for the series, but just the pilot was stunning and surprisingly dramatic. We finished off our TV-themed night with "My Name is Earl" and "Arrested Development."

Saturday we hit up the Tech Museum of Innovation, a San Jose landmark. En route we found a great little Mexican restaurant, one of those wonderful cheap-and-tasty spots that serve an incredible volume of food for a few bucks. We also spun around downtown a bit, I showed him the new City Hall (sadly no longer open to visitors on the weekend) and the library (second-best view from the city, though this day was a bit too hazy for a good shot of the mountains), then we ambled over to the bright mauve museum

The main attraction at the museum was "Game On!", an exhibit that started in London and is making the rounds. Game On! is a great look at the history and art of video games. It contains venerable artifacts, including an original PDP-1 on which the game "Spacewar" (arguably the first video game) was written. The bulk of the exhibit was made up of playable games, which was incredibly cool. Pat and I competed in "Pong" hooked up to a huge screen. (I will neglect to mention who triumphed and who suffered crushing defeat.) All of the classic arcade games were represented, as well as some old ones that are not well known. The exhibit wasn't restricted to arcade games, though. Every console had a few games shown, all the way from Atari up through the XBox. Even PC games were represented, and we were both delighted to see Douglas Adams' Infocom game "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" included.

The atmosphere here was great. Everyone was enjoying the games, but nobody "hogged" any of them; people would play for a few minutes, remind themselves how fun (or frustrating) it was or experience it for the first time, and move on. Any game that supported two players would have two controllers hooked up, and both friends and strangers worked with or competed against each other. And while everyone enjoyed the games, there was still a lot of interest in the primary source material and other artifacts on display. I was particularly wowed by a large replica of the design board used by the "Grand Theft Auto III" team. There were also several listening stations offering full tracks of video game music, from the synthesized wails in 80's games like "Ghosts and Goblins" through licensed music in the latest games. While there was certainly a "gee-whiz" factor in seeing the advance of technology, one didn't walk away from the show feeling with a sense of constant progression; there's an undeniable charm to the earlier works that still holds up decades later.

While Game On was the highlight, there was a ton of other stuff at the museum. Some was a little hokey; I felt weird walking through an exhibit on The Internet. I'm glad it exists, but after taking advanced college courses on networking, it's a little disconcerting to see those same concepts show up again, heavily glossed as cartoon characters. Still, it's definitely aimed towards non-experts, and I appreciate the effort.

Other exhibits were more interesting. There was a large exhibit on space exploration; another on engineering, including an earthquake simulator; robotics; quite a few on biology including DNA mapping and generic engineering; vehicles; "invention" and several smaller ones scattered around. There was also a daily Segway demonstration and a scary theater show we didn't dare enter.

Pat had gotten in touch with a friend of his earlier; David is pursuing a Master's/PhD at Stanford. He was attending the football game earlier in the day. We got another call from him later after we'd headed to Fry's Electronics (the most amazing electronics store I have personally seen) and decided we'd touch base later. After perusing the motherboards (Pat is considering an upgrade) and looking at the LCD HDTV monitors (again, Pat is considering an upgrade), we split for the movies.

We'd determined to either watch "Capote" or "Good Night and Good Luck." As luck would have it we hit the theater a few minutes after GN&GL started so we headed in. It's been on my list since it came out and I was not disappointed; excellent flick. Shot in black-and-white, this movie is a dramatic look at the historical confrontation between Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joe McCarthy. What had attracted me were the eerie parallels between this movie's events and our present situation, where powerful men use the specter of a shadowy enemy to silence their detractors. The movie stands up well on its own, I think in large part because the source material is so strong. As Pat remarked afterwards, over half of the script is either actual footage (of McCarthy, Eisenhower, the hearings, etc.) or verbatim reenactments of actual broadcast transcripts. This story is just incredibly compelling. I vividly remember the days we spent on McCarthyism during my senior year class, "Cracks in the Republic: Civil discontent, dissent and protest 1955-1970." We watched entire hearings and McCarthy's entire rebuttal, and while the film does a phenomenal job of capturing the tenor of these events, the actual footage is just as compelling. Those were dark times, and it's amazing that in at least one instance the powers of media were turned against villainy in government.

I've long wanted to try "Pizza My Heart," which my co-workers assure me is some of the best local pizza. As luck would have it, there is just such a restaurant in the lobby of this theater. As luck was against me, they were out of pepperoni pizza. We were faced with a dilemma: wait 8 minutes for the next pie to finish, or spend half an hour driving to an "In n Out Burger"? Obviously, we opted for the latter. We're young, and need to feel like we're in constant motion.

Before he came, I'd asked Pat to pick out some stuff he'd like to do. The only definitive thing he came up with was going to an In n Out Burger. I didn't remember having ever heard of it, but as he reminded me, this is the burger joint in The Big Lebowsky. In n Out is a quintessential California restaurant. The owners take pride in their freshness - nothing is ever frozen or nuked. They slice the potatoes right in the restaurant. The menu is simplicity distilled - they sell burgers, fries, and shakes. (Yes, that's it.) We were both enchanted by this utopian ideal of a relatively healthy and worker-friendly fast food place, so off we went exploring.

It took a little longer than I had planned. If I'd thought to stop at home first I could have picked a better route, but instead, inspired by my Google experience a week earlier, I attempted to navigate using only directions I got on my cell phone. We eventually got there, reassuring each other as we pulled in that surely, considering it was past 8 at night, the place would be dead. We were rudely dissuaded by the long line of cars wrapping around the building. Pulling the old midwestern gambit of walking inside to beat the line, we ordered. I was shocked to see that in addition to being fresh and wholesome, the food was also cheap, barely more than McDonalds.

We had to wait a few minutes for our food and were amused by the antics of the staff. It was a scene of bizarre, beautiful chaos. There didn't seem to be any manager, nobody was in charge, everybody was doing their own thing and switching from job to job, and yet everything was getting done. We got our previous bags and went back to the car, determined to make it home before the food got cold.

Which we did. We popped on the previous "Colbert Report" while eating, delighting in the antics of Stephen. This episode (the fourth) was not as solid as the first two but still darn entertaining. I expect to see some changes in the future because, frankly, some of it could use improvement - the interview needs to either be cut or drastically refactored - but the underlying sensibility is solid.

Soon David swung by. I realized once he arrived that I'd actually met him before; he sat in front of me when I went to watch Pat's production of "Landscape of the Body." He's an amazing guy, an engineer who wants to work in developing third-world nations, and was able to squeeze into the theater department at Northwestern. Now he's trying to decide on a faculty advisor and an area of research for the next seven years of his life. David talked about how he was trying to decide between a project that studies how lizards can climb walls and ceilings and try to develop robots to do the same thing; and a project working on... actually, I forget what the other project was. There's a lot of interesting work being done in robotics, and he told us about a team at MIT that's working on developing robots that can recognize human emotions and react appropriately. (The idea is that, as robots become more ubiquitous in our lives, they'll increasingly need to interact with humans to accomplish their tasks.) Pat commented that the congruence of these research endeavors disturbed him: "If I walk into a room, I don't want to worry about, first of all, whether there's a robot on the ceiling, and secondly, whether he's angry at me." We laughed about how one day we'd be telling our kids that there was a time when we thought it would be a GOOD idea to give robots MORE powers than they had before. "And that's why we're locked in this toolshed."

I was also fascinated by David's inside account of Stanford culture. I've had this vague idea that Stanford is basically an ivy-league school that happens to have wonderful weather. From his stories, it's also where weirdos from around the world congregate. Their marching band is infamous for their antics, and is actually forbidden from several other stadiums because of actions like urinating on the field in unison during halftime. They don't have a band uniform, and instead everyone dresses with salvation army-type castoffs. Tuba players decorate the inside of their bells with portraits of George Bush, Chairman Mao, etc. At graduation, they don't have a stately processional like other schools. Instead they have the "wacky walk", a twenty-minute period in which students amble into the yard, start playing volleyball, sunbathe in a bikini or otherwise let it be known that this really isn't a very important event. At the end of the time everyone eventually makes it to their seats, at which point they become Stanford graduates.

I probably shouldn't recount the rest of the conversation, even the interesting deviation into where Lot pitched his tents. David headed out and we stayed up a little later before crashing at the end of what felt like a very long day.

Sunday we chilled, played Pirates! and perused the Mercury News. Pat's friend Cameron lives in San Francisco, and another friend Anne was in town this weekend to visit, so we decided to head up to The City and socialize. This probably would have been a perfect time to practice driving there, but fear triumphed over greed and we caught a Caltrain headed north. This can be a slightly aggravating experience on weekends because of how long it takes (over 90 minutes), but it's easier when you have someone along to chew the fat.

Pat enjoys good used bookstores, so our immediate destination was Acorn Books, a spot several blocks north of the Civic Center that was well-reviewed online. By now I can navigate SF without a lot of help, though I did bring along my pocket map to see if any cool sidetrips would prevent themselves. We took the Muni to Civic Center and then hiked - literally uphill - to Acorn.

It's a unique store. I couldn't help but compare it to Bloomsday Books, my favorite used book store in Kansas City. That store (before they moved) rambled over two stories, filled with bookcases of varying heights, as well as several open bins of movies and such. Acorn, being a bookstore in the heart of an extremely crowded city, decided to build up instead of out. Massive stacks towered above you everywhere in the store, and it was difficult to walk down an aisle if even one other person was there. Ladders offered access to the upper reached, though I mainly contented myself by craning my neck and squinting.

Their collection was certainly impressive. They focus on rare and first edition books, but contain the usual assortment of titles you would find in a quality used book store. No cheap paperbacks or romance novels anywhere, just slightly musty, well-loved books. You could also tell it was a city bookstore by the prices. I'd grown used to bargain-basement deals on good books at Bloomsday; here, even an unremarkable regular edition of a small book would sell north of $10.

I was tempted by a few titles, from my fanboyish longing for an out-of-print REM book to my nerdy desire for some classic Time Magazines. In the end I was content to just browse. Pat picked up a collection of Mamet essays and then we met up with his friends.

Cameron is one of the many, the proud, the brave: the San Francisco drivers. I've always been frightened of bringing my Saturn into the city and nothing I saw this day changed my mind: streets are crowded, hills are scary, and parking is nearly impossible to find. Still, I was extremely grateful for her expertise as we fought our way north. Our destination was Ghirardelli, the (in)famous confectionary. While driving I enjoyed hearing Pat catch up with his old pals. Anne is working as a political reporter for CNet, and was in town to attend some sort of diversity training program. Pat has lost none of his ability to make people crack up.

The stars aligned and after an extremely illegal U-Turn and the tightest parallel park I've seen, we snagged a spot. It was a few blocked to Ghirardelli, where a massive and imposing line dissuaded us from our original plan to get ice cream. Cameron, showing her native street-smarts, demonstrated that the store portion is entirely separate from the restaurant, and boasts free chocolate to boot. We wandered briefly, like young adults in a chocolate store, marveling at the variety and attractiveness of all the premium chocolates on display. Then it was back to the car.

Intent on providing us with a positive ice cream experience, Cameron chauffeured us to the second-best ice cream in the city, which was indeed delicious. I had what might be the most delicious sundae I've ever tasted. I tried to ignore the Vikings losing while eating.

From there it was a meandering shot to the Haight. Cameron drove us by her house and pointed out some local landmarks, including Charles Manson's house and the house from... um... Saved by the Bell? Maybe?

We eventually alighted in (well, a few blocks near) the Haight. It's been on my list of neighborhoods for a while; once the epicenter of SF Hippie-dom, it's now a center of commercial counterculture, a gleefully embraced oxymoron. We just saw a small slice of it, but it was pretty groovy. Colorful stores, tons of people, very vibrant atmosphere.

Our sightseeing finished off at Amoeba, a massive music store. I mean really, really massive. It was a warehouse. I wandered in shock for the time we were there; anything I could think of, they had. It got to the point where there was so much I wanted to buy that I couldn't buy anything.

Cameron and Anne bade farewell and Pat and I headed for the L line. For the third time, I made it back to the Caltrain depot having missed the train by a few minutes. Having been in this situation before, though, I knew what to do. We wandered through the neighborhood and cut down behind SBC park to the pier, which was, once again, totally deserted. After mocking the names of sailboats in the marina, we completed the circuit back to the station and caught the next train home.

I grabbed an SF Guardian (the venerable alt-weekly) and read it on the 90-minute trip back. Interestingly, it contained a long article totally blasting the area around the station, which we had just walked, as being the antithesis of San Francisco: it wasn't a neighborhood, it didn't encourage people to walk around and meet people, it had no families. I thought it over and decided I agreed; while the area directly along King is very nice and feels safe, it also feels insular and, like the article said, you could find the exact same kind of street in any large American city (which can't be said for most of SF's other neighborhoods). So that made me a little sad, and I wondered just how many more times I would find myself in the Caltrain station with an hour or two to kill.

Other than ice cream, Pat and I hadn't eaten anything since breakfast. Since it was now past 9, it was time for Mexican! We returned to the very same place I had eaten at the day I moved in and grabbed a variety of food. We took it back and devoured the burritos, nachos, and flautas while watching "Annie Hall," my second-ever Woody Allen movie. It was amazingly good, and immediately jumped into my Top Ten list. I especially enjoyed the portion late in the movie when the tension between New York and Los Angeles becomes a major theme; I've only lived here for a few months but am already supremely comfortable in hating Southern California. Beyond that, the humor was incredibly sharp, the film had a slightly surreal flavor that I loved, it had some amazing cameos (the earliest appearances I know of Christopher Walken and Jeff Goldblum), and it had some really solid thoughts on relationships and the way we humans seek to connect with one another while maintaining our identities.

Of course, all good things must come to an end. We bade each other good night, and the next morning I returned to work; a few hours later, Pat flew back home. It was an awesome weekend for me, a great chance to play host and explore still more potions of this area that I'm growing to learn and love.

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