Each year the guys on my block take turns dressing up as Father Christmas and sit out on a sled in the median on our street asking kids who line up each night between 6:30 and 8 chatting about their hopes and dreams for Christmas morning. It’s a tradition that goes back to the 30’s and one that allows for me to take the pulse of the in toys for the season.
Here’s my unofficial survey of what’s popular in 2016.
Pokemon cards are back! Several kids asked for specific decks of this old school game which is experiencing a comeback no doubt due to their older siblings who are playing it again on their phones. Pikachu stuffed dolls and other characters from the game were a close runner up. Props to the kid that insisted (much to the frustration of his mother) on posing for his Santa photo with his poke-ball.
Playstation 4 beats out the XBox. There was also one mention of a Nintendo DS.
iPhones were mentioned a few times with one girl asking specifically for the iPhone 7. One kid also asked for a GoPro. No mention of any Android devices or Apple Watches.
One kid asked for a Nerf Gun and the parent’s and I did a double-take when we heard his younger sister say she wanted a, “shotgun” but she later clarified that it was a Shuriken. Best to stay clear of that house on Christmas morning.
There were several wishes for a dog and one boy that wanted a swimming frog while his sister hoped for “birds in a cage” but the prize for the best wish goes to the little girl who is wishing for a flying turtle. The father and I exchanged a panicked look and I said something about “seeing what I could do” – maybe her dad can rig up a drone or something, he’s got his work cut out for him.
It was in this spirit that a group of “guerrilla artists” carefully installed beautifully-crafted replicas of famous lighthouses around Alameda Island where I live. There was no explanation, no release party, just a curious mention in the local paper of a Lighthouse Model Assemblers Organization (LMAO) written by a Honorable Admiral Banyan Azimuth, (Retired) Most shrugged it off as an April Fool’s prank but upon further investigation, after spotting another lighthouse on the other end of the Island, further layers of the onion peeled away and it was very, very real.
We take our performance art seriously here. If Chicken John runs for mayor, he is not only doing it to have some fun but also to make a statement. My journey to uncover the four lighthouses of Alameda took me to the nether corners of the Island all along the coastline into hidden corners and pocket parks that I didn’t know existed. I discovered that Alameda was a major destination for steamships bringing fruit to North America where they were packaged by Del Monte before being loaded on to the trans-continental railway. The puzzle forced me to reach out to others to try and connect the dots.
Art exercises the mind, public art exercises society.
My progress was tracked until finally a totem was left on my front doorstep. Later, I received a text message asking for my presence at an awards ceremony where I, along with Eddie Cruz, another local Alameda resident, were presented with secret elixers and a ceremonial chalice while we were inducted into the Alameda Lighthouse Appreciation Society (ALAS). There is a group of elves in Alameda, at play with the world around us. If you want to join them, leave a note below and they will find you.
Barbara Lee is my Congresswoman. She was the lone voice of reason who, in the wake of September 11th, questioned the language around the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) which was drafted in response the the terrorist attacks because there was no one we could declare war upon. The whole show is worth a listen but the bit about Barbara starts at 6:30. I am proud to have her represent me in Congress.
After delivering a print out of my previous post summarizing all my notes and theories (thank you everyone who chipped in their ideas) I found this on my front door step. Written on the side was the phrase
et respondendum est quod
which translates to, “and the answer is that”
I still haven’t quite figured out the translation of the riddle that made up the phrases on the side of each lighthouse. I’ll leave that for another day. Tonight I raise a glass to the Honorable Admiral Banyan Azimuth. Thank you for making life interesting.
About a month back I read with interest a strange article in our local paper. The byline was from a Hon. Admiral Banyan Azimuth, Retired and it described a mysterious society, acronyms, a puzzle, and hidden treasure. All good material for a quest.
The Alameda Lighthouse Appreciation Society (ALAS) has collaborated with the North American Lighthouse Regents (NALR) in Fort Digby, Manitoba, as well as the Nordic and Icelandic Lighthouse Guild (NILG) in Reykjavik, Iceland and the El Faro la Luz de la Admiracion Surtido in Yelapa, Mexico to bring a variety of mini-masterpieces to the fair Island City. Four scaled-down lighthouses (one for each point of the compass) ranging from four- to six-feet tall will be calling various obscure locations in Alameda home for the month of April.
No more information will be related on this rare and iconic installation, so Alamedans will be left to their own devices, ingenuity and cunning to locate these glowing treasures, and to break their ancient code. All April Foolishness aside, residents who decode the lighthouse mystery could win a prize.
Despite the fact that the article mentions that the lighthouses were made by a groups called the Lighthouse Model Assemblers Organization which spells LMAO, and that the article was published on April 1st, I set out to see if I could find any of the mentioned lighthouses. To my surprise, I did spot one fairly quickly, over near the bike bridge that takes you from Alameda Island over to Harbor Bay. After several more afternoons of exploring the Alameda coastline, I have discovered two more of the four model lighthouses mentioned above.
Each lighthouse, they stand about 4 feet tall, has what looks like Latin phrasing on the side. They read:
maria _ _ vitas _ _ et _ _ inimicum _ _ non _ _ est _
_ aspera _ replete _ macilentum _ _ portus _ desset _ _ casus _
_ _ iter _ _ est _ temporibus _ sed _ copia _.
It looks like phrases from a poem of some sort. Using Google Translate, I put in the English translations below each phrase:
maria _ _ vitas _ _ et _ _ inimicum _ _ non _ _ est _
Maria _ _ lives _ _ and _ _ enemy _ _ not _ _ is _
_ aspera _ replete _ macilentum _ _ portus _ desset _ _ casus _
_ rough _ fill _ lean _ _ port _ benefit _ _ case _
_ _ iter _ _ est _ temporibus _ sed _ copia _.
_ _ journey _ _ east _ the times _ but _ store _.
The cities and organization names listed in the article are curious too:
Alameda Lighthouse Appreciation Society (ALAS) in Alameda, California
North American Lighthouse Regents (NALR) in Fort Digby, Manitoba
Nordic and Icelandic Lighthouse Guild (NILG) in Reykjavik, Iceland
El Faro la Luz de la Admiracion Surtido in Yelapa, Mexico
I mapped each location as best as I could (as far as I could tell, there is no Fort Digby in Manitoba) but that didn’t help.
And here I am stumped. Can anyone push this forward?
UPDATE: There was a suggestion from Nancy (see comments below) that the style of lighthouse might and its location might provide a clue. Here’s where I found the three that I have located. Could these perhaps be replicas of actual lighthouses that exist in real locations?
Acting on a tip from a sharp-eyed reader (thanks Mike Schmitz) I found the last lighthouse on the corner of Moreland and Fernside. What threw me is that it wasn’t even on the water, casting its glow into the passing traffic.
The text beside it reads:
May the staff of Orin & the Eye of Isis light your way
To find my 3 brothers, search for a Bridge, a Port, & a Southern Shore
The Bridge was the one next to the blue bicycle bridge to Harbor Bay (Southeast), the Port was across from the Port of Oakland (Northwest), and the Southern Shore was by the Encinal boat ramp (Southwest).
Mystery solved, I printed out this blog post and put it into an envelope and dropped it off addressed to the Hon. Admiral Banyan Azimuth and the kind person who answered the door promised to deliver it tomorrow.
Thank you everyone who pitched in to solve this mystery. It was truly a group effort.
“Like the Mets, the Athletics are the less popular team in a two-team region — less popular everywhere in that region, based on the data from Facebook. Again, winning the World Series matters. The Giants have won two of the last four. The A’s have won none of the last 24.”
I always knew that there are a lot of East Coast transplants in the Bay Area, 6% of them being Red Sox fans sounds about right.
The strange origin of the Glomar Response and its relation to a shipbuilder in Alameda.
We finally got a decent Winter storm here in California which meant that instead of my usual train/ferry & bike commute I had to shlep it home on a bus to stay dry. The bus is comfortable but it involves a good 60 minutes so it’s a good time to catch up on podcasts.
Today I listened to a fascinating piece which told the story of the “Glomar Response” which is that foggy response that a PR flack gives when they want to answer a question with a non-response.
“We can neither confirm nor deny the existence of. . .”
When did such a phrase come about? What were the circumstances that required someone to come up with such a turn of a phrase? The good folks at Radiolab dug in and found the answer. Give it a listen, it’s an amazing piece of cold war yarn.
Here’s the Alameda connection. A sister ship to the Hughes Glomar Explorer was the HMB-1. This was basically a floating dry dock which had ballast tanks that would flood and submerge the dock underwater beneath the Explorer. Inside was the massive claw device used to grab the submarine mentioned in the story. The sub could then be pulled into the docking bay while it’s still underwater and the HMB-1 surfaced and the retractable roof pulled back over on top, all the while hiding it’s cargo from the prying eyes of Soviet spy satellites. It’s all very James Bond.
Later, the HMB-1 was commissioned by the Navy for the Sea Shadow, an experimental ship built back in the 80’s when stealth technology was all the rage.
The HMB-1 was designed to hold this top secret boat, again, to keep it from prying eyes between engagements.
The Sea Shadow never was produced and it, along with it’s floating/submersible covered dry dock was eventually mothballed in Suisun Bay north of Martinez.
The Alameda connection takes place several years later when the Navy decides to auction the whole package off.
Even though Bay Ship & Yacht Company would eventually be awarded the vessel, the company’s bid wasn’t the highest. “The highest bidder was a Chinese outfit, I believe,” Cameron said. “Even though the Sea Shadow project had been declassified, there were still some privacy issues, so the government didn’t want to sell her to a foreign entity.”
“And the second highest bidder, which was a company in the Gulf Coast, backed out when they realized how much it would cost to move her down there. We actually wrote it off as ‘not gonna happen’ when we found out we’d been outbid. Then we got a call a month later letting us know she was ours if we still wanted her.”
The $2.5 million price tag was small compared to the $15-$20 million that it would cost to build a new traditional dry dock, which Bay Ship & Yacht had been considering for some time. “And we wouldn’t have that cover, which makes HMB-1 such a strong and unique piece of equipment,” Cameron said. He estimates that to build HMB-1 now would cost upwards of $50 million.
The biggest challenge that shipbuilders and ship repairers face with traditional open-air dry docks is weather. Rain (or any moisture) and wind can bring a job to a screeching halt, making income harder to come by during winter months. “HMB-1 is definitely going to be an asset in that respect this winter,” Cameron said. “But it’s the ability to be more efficient and the environmental aspects that we’re all really excited about.”
Bay Ship & Yacht Company is, “one of America’s leading service, refit and new construction yards for superyachts and commercial vessels” based on the old naval base on the West end of Alameda. If you have ever taken the ferry over to the Alameda Antique Fair or visited Rosenblum winery, you can see the HMB-1 docked right next to the ferry terminal.
I picked up a book of old photographs last weekend that detailed Alameda’s railroad history. I had heard that the island where I live used to host a network of light rail lines that served the community but had no idea how extensive it was until I browsed the pages of Alameda by Rail this past weekend.
Each photo was meticulously documented with approximate location and year of the photo so I took it upon myself to locate some of the places where the photos were take to see if I could approximate what the view looks like today. The results are below.
Having an awareness of what had once been gave me a whole new appreciation for the history of our neighborhood. Alameda today is a bit cut off from San Francisco as most drive (it takes about 30 minutes without traffic). The nearest light rail station is Fruitvale BART station which is about 10 minutes away on bicycle. Apparently trolleys raced back and forth across the stretch of the Island every 30 minutes and, if you wanted to go to the city, a ferry was waiting over on the West End that could take you directly downtown to San Francisco.
Imagine how different life would be if you could catch a train to the city by walking out your front door! Too bad the ripped up all the tracks – with the price of gas and parking today, it would be nice having those old trains back and less cars on the road.
UPDATE: If you want to try this poor man’s time travel trick but don’t have a book with old photos, check out WhatWasThere. The upload and overlay onto Google Street View is a bit finicky but if you get the alignment right, the effect is quite stunning.
Over the weekend I got to play dream maker again. Each December, my street transforms itself into a carnival of lights. Each house on the 3200 block of Thompson Avenue in Alameda drapes itself in lights including the big pine trees down the center isle. This is a tradition that has been going on since the 1920’s and people come from all around the Bay Area to walk down the street each evening to take in the sights. Also part of this tradition is that all the dad’s volunteer to play Santa for visitors to the block and this past weekend was my turn.
We’ve been on this block since 2004 and each year the spectacle gets a little richer. This year was our first time back after two years away, and it’s clear that things have definitely turned up a notch.
Christmas Tree Lane (as our block of Thompson Avenue is called) now has a Facebook page, reviews in Yelp, and even some intrigue as thieves hit some houses on the street last year to making off with some of the decorations. Thankfully, the community rallied even stronger and a dancing troupe called the Tap Dancing Christmas Trees raised everyone’s spirits and raised funds for those that lost their decorations. This year the Trees came back for another performance, this time they are raising funds for a trip to London for the 2012 Olympics.
One of the great things about being Santa is that you get an intimate glimpse into the hopes and dreams of kids today. Lots of requests for BeyBlades and iPods but also some challenging ones (a real dragon? a reindeer?) that require some quick thinking. I’ve learned to repeat loudly the presents the children ask for so a quick sidelong glance up at the parents tells me whether that new bike or ‘puter is a go or no go.
A couple of kids wondered where the reindeer were (they were “resting up”) and then there was the precocious young man who, after asking him what he wanted, replied, “Don’t you remember? I just told you yesterday!” and glared at me until his parents quietly reminded him that Santa sees lots of kids leading up to Christmas and tends to be forgetful. All the more reason to write a letter.
There are some challenges. The child with a mom, reeking of vodka, trying hard to make the best of it, and the young girl who couldn’t stop frowning. When I asked her what was wrong, she said she wanted her grandma back from Christmas.
Some glimpses of hope too. A few kids asked not only for something for themselves but also wanted to make sure that I remembered what their kid sister or brother had on their list. One boy even reminded me that her mom wanted a necklace which made her (and Santa) smile.
Very much worth it and a great way to kick off the holidays.
Over the past month, I have been unwinding my life in the San Francisco Bay Area and getting ready to move the family (and dog) over to Helsinki, Finland where Nokia, my employer, is headquartered.
For the past four and half years we have been living in Alameda, an island in the East Bay, about 20 minutes from San Francisco, over the Bay Bridge. We settled here because, Izumi, spotting Alameda on a map noted it’s location in the middle of the Bay, making it most convenient to most locations.
It took two months of intense house hunting (remember, this was 2004, the peak of the housing bubble) but we finally found a place that we could call home. We lucked out and were fortunate to find a neighborhood that we loved on a block surrounded by families with children that really bonded with our kids and grew up together over the years.
Tyler started in kindergarden when we moved in and just finished forth grade, Julia’s finished first grade. Edison School, where we walked our kids to school each day, is the only school that our kids really know. It’s been tough for them to imagine what their life will be like in Finland so it’s been hard for them to leave.
Izumi too has made many friends here and as we walk the island people often wave or honk their horn, it’s that kind of place. Because English is not Izumi’s native language and she didn’t grow up here, she sometimes misses some of the cultural references people make in casual conversation but the community embraced her and Izumi really came to feel like one of the community. It’s been rough for her to uproot herself and get ready for our move and the past few days have seen a lot of teary goodbyes.
It’s sad to leave but it also represents a new beginning, a fork in the road. We’ve had the good fortune to live in Tokyo, Princeton, and Alameda. Now we have a chance to live in Helsinki, in a semi-socialist country with a totally different climate – a place where we’ll live with a built-in sauna, the schools and hospitals are excellent, and when we arrive it will be light out until 10pm. We been given the choice to live day-to-day in Europe and add that to our life experiences. What we do with this experience and what we make of it is up to us.
We’re leaving Alameda today but are making plans for a reunion in Europe next Summer and hope to make it back for a visit the Christmas after next. Thank you Alameda for taking us in and keep in touch!