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Time Travel

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.

Steam Locamotive on Encinal
Steam Locamotive on Encinal during the early 1900s
Encinal Avenue today
Encinal Avenue today
Commuter train from the 40's on corner of High and Encinal
Commuter train from the 1940’s on corner of High and Encinal
High Street Station today
Location of High Street Station today

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.

Full set of photos (higher resolution) on flickr.

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.

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House of Cards

Kevin Spacey in House of Cards

Just finished all 13 hours of the first season of the latest Netflix series, House of Cards. While I didn’t binge view as some of my colleagues did in the name of journalism, I did find myself staying up later than normal to watch “just one more episode” of this dark cousin to West Wing.

Apparently Netflix dropped $100 million to produce two 13 episode seasons. The result is a Season One that plays as a 13 hour movie about the dark, evil underbelly of Washington politics. Given such resources and space the characters are wonderfully developed and, if like most, you watch the series over a short span of time, you come to know them as an extension of your reality. The depth and detail of House of Cards makes the typical 2 hour feature film feel like a rough character sketch.

The series was shot with digital RED cameras which allowed them to shoot takes continually without stopping the camera.

Obviously, shooting digitally helps, [House of Cards was shot using the RED camera] because I never had to cut. I could say, ‘Go back out and come in again,’ and it’s amazing the pace you get. It’s a Frank Capra trick from way back. Because he could only print so many takes, he used to say, ‘Keep it rolling, go out and come in.’ What he found was people were more energized, and it gave this effervescence, and I ended up having to do that.

But the most interesting thing is that Netflix decided to release all 13 hours of the first season in one go. At first I was skeptical. Traditional television leaves you with cliff hangers that bring you back each week for what they used to call appointment television. Netflix knows a thing or two about “binge viewing” and based on their data, felt they could generate more buzz if they released everything at once. I agree. The coverage has been fantastic for Netflix and I’m sure it’s driven a spike in membership. Indeed, they are watching data on viewers to inform their next original series.

Further Reading

House of Cards’ Forth Wall –  Exploring the lead character’s asides to the camera.

Playing with a New Deck – details about how multiple director’s filmed the series and were given freedoms not normally extended to directors of television series.

House of Cards coverage on GigaOM & paidContent

 

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Loss of Innocence

Yesterday, my 10 year-old daughter, discovered that the Tooth Fairy no longer exists. I was packing to return home from our vacation and was about to stow some bandages in my toilet bag when she caught a glimpse of her note and tooth that she had left for T.F. under her pillow several days ago. It was a real shock for her.

My son, who is older, was different. He likes to figures stuff out for himself. My wife and I knew he no longer believed but weren’t sure when he stopped believing. He was a good sport about it though and kept Julia in the dark for the past few years, playing along, saying nothing. Today I finally asked him when he was clued in. He looked up from an episode of MythBusters and said he figured it out when he lost a tooth but decided not to tell us. He put the tooth under the pillow and nothing happend the next morning, the tooth was still there. Eliminating the variables, he put it together.

As fat tears rolled down Julia’s cheeks, between sniffles, I could feel her ache of losing something magical, something bigger than herself, someone with whom she could keep secrets. With the fall of the Tooth Fairy, others soon would follow. She tugged at this loose spiritual thread and asked me point blank about Santa, the Easter Bunny, and so on. Knowing it was time to come clean, I lay down the cards for her. By mid-morning, not only had the Tooth Fairy ceased to exist but all the other childhood myths lay shattered in pieces.

I wonder how this will change her over the next year. She’s about to go into 5th grade, the last grade before she goes on to Middle School. Many of her classmates have been telling her that Santa and the others do not exist but she’s been resisting them, choosing to have faith. Now, with that dream broken, she’ll be on the other side of the fence. Those who know the existentialist truth of a world without the Tooth Fairy.

A father worries, what will become of that innocent smile?

Photo by CC Marks
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It’s Elementary

via @jarnovayrynen

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Cancer Sucks

I’m in Japan this week to visit my father. He has colon cancer and just checked in for surgery.

This is not a total shock. He is getting old after all and I’ve come to accept a time when something like this would happen. He’s taking it well. He has openly embraced his body slowly falling apart like the owner of an old MG learns to deal with a tricky carburetor.

He could have gone in for check-ups and caught the cancer earlier and addressed it. Maybe he could have put some time between now and where we are today but that’s not Rick Kennedy’s style. He is not really a doctor kind of guy. He proudly tells the story of how, when diagnosed with a kidney stone he, “somehow managed to piss it right out.” I’m told that is extremely painful, most opt to dissolve it with drugs or other treatments. He has a high tolerance for pain and the cancer grew in him as an annoyance until it became something he couldn’t ignore. Let’s hope it’s not too late.

My father influenced me in many ways. As I am raising a son myself, I have an appreciation for how he was able to plant seeds of interest that lead me to take the path that I’ve chosen in life.

My early interest in cycling gave me love for the sport that I experience everyday as I ride to work. He was there in the late-70s with a fixie back before anyone heard of such a thing, an original hipster. I fondly remember watching grainy video tapes with him of European coverage of Paris-Roubaix and other European classic bike races as we learned about the sport together. Part of our weekly grime clean routine was to disassemble our chains, wash them off with an old toothbrush and kerosine, then dip them into a coffee can full of oil warmed up on the kitchen stove. My mom hated that. We were bike nerds.

My dad had a nose for the eccentric that would drive my mom nuts. For two years he somehow convinced my mom that we should live in a commune. It was fun for me and my sister because there were always lots of kids to play with but the shared chore list made my mom crazy because most people slacked off and she ended up having to do a lot of it. We moved out shortly after a lady named, Tomorrow nearly burned the house down after one particularly memorable party.

Dad was a writer. (Good Tokyo Restaurants, Little Adventures in Tokyo) Originally an editor at Random House, we moved to Japan when he convinced Sony they needed someone to help make their user manuals less laughable. He took great care to chose the right words and was quick to criticize sloppy use of the English language. To him, bad writing shows a carelessness that offends him.

We have an on-going debate about the craft of writing, often about the merits of print vs. online. He will never understand hashtags or data-journalism. “I’m just a print guy,” is his refrain. On his way into today’s operation, he insisted on carrying a copy of The Spectator and New Yorker to read just in case he got bored. The nurse had to remind him that he’ll be under while they operate on him. His books were his security blanket. He loves to read and has a hundreds of books he’s collected over the years at great expense. When I asked if I could bring him anything new from the US he declined, “Some people save up money for retirement, I’ve been saving books.” He has a stack of 15 books on the table next to his hospital bed and I’ve been asked to bring with me several more. AJ Liebling, Anthony Powell, Cyril Connolly.

Dad was incurably optimistic. To a fault perhaps. I remember seeing the book, “A lazy man’s guide to enlightenment” on his shelf. That was very much his philosophy. The secret to happiness is being at peace with what you have, not pushing for more that you might not get. He doesn’t like anyone to fuss over him but I think he is secretly enjoying his time in a Japanese hospital. The nurses are angels and are so gentle and kind. Japanese society is coddling to begin with so you can only imagine what this place is like.

I have no idea what to expect of Dad’s operation. As can be expected, he is brushing this off as an annoyance but also says things like, “It’ll be good to know you’re here,” which sounds ominous. My mom tends to suppress bad news by ignoring it and she hasn’t really been asking many questions. Keep your fingers crossed. We’re all hoping for the best.

Thanks to everyone who has already sent along their wishes. Thank you to all those at GigaOM who are filling in for me while I’m away. I am thankful to my managers who, when they learned of the news, told me to absolutely, without question, take as much time as I needed. Stand up folks at GigaOM they are, I feel your support and it means a lot.

I’ll update this post when I hear more. He should be getting out in a few hours.

UPDATE: All good! After five hours doctors where able to cut out about 20 cms of his colon and a big, ugly looking lump of evil. He’s resting in the ICU now and doctors say he’ll be wobbling about on his feet tomorrow. He’ll stay there for a week or more depending on how he heals. Luckily they were able to do the whole thing through a few tiny incisions so at least the outside will heal quickly.

The first thing he said? He wants a few more Anthony Powell books!

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Caine’s Arcade

Caine’s Arcade is a charming short film about a 9-year old boy who built a homemade  arcade out of cardboard boxes at his dad’s used auto part store in East LA and how a community rallied to show him some love.

One day, by chance, I walked into Smart Parts Auto looking for a used door handle for my ’96 Corolla. What I found was an elaborate handmade cardboard arcade manned by a young boy who asked if I would like to play. I asked Caine how it worked and he told me that for $1 I could get two turns, or for $2 I could get a Fun Pass with 500 turns. I got the Fun Pass.

Nirvan Mullick

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Christmas Tree Lane

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.

The Blacktop Knights roll down the street

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.

Being Santa

Also see my post, Playing Father Christmas, from 2004.

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Julia on Violin

She’s been wanting to play for years.

A new way to play the ukulele

and now she’s now learning to pluck the strings.

Julia on Violin

Yesterday, Julia received certification from the Royal College of Music.

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Captain Haddock

Captain Haddock in Tintin in Tibet

I jumped on the latest Facebook meme and changed my profile picture to a comic character from my childhood. My father, whenever he went on a business trip, would buy me a new Tintin book. After awhile, I had every single issue and would read them from cover-to-cover, over and over again. Funny now when I leaf back through my old copies to see that Captain Haddock, my favorite character, was basically an alcoholic. Not a role model that would pass muster today but we live in different times.

Captain Haddock was famous for his colorful insults (Billions of Blistering Blue Barnacles and a Thundering Typhoon!!). You can experience them for yourself on the wonderful Captain Haddock Insult Generator.

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Cheesecake for Breakfast

I just got back from two weeks vacation in Paris with the Izumi and the kids. We opted to spend all our time in one place and rented an apartment so that we could soak in the rhythms of daily life in the city at our own pace. As an American from Silicon Valley, two weeks in one go seemed positively decadent but after experiencing a Finnish winter, I now understand why two, if not four weeks at a go is a Finnish right.

Parisians have created a wonderful alternate reality, a rose-colored bubble to keep out the noisy efficiency of the 21st century. The Paris we experienced mostly doesn’t know about sweatshirts or bulk food. It’s important to look good to keep up the illusion. It’s OK, if not preferred,  to wear bright red slacks and a shirt with white cuffs. People pull this off naturally, without looking the least bit pompous. When you visit a cafe, water comes to your table not rationed out in plastic cups but in functional stemware and a recycled wine carafe that says, “please rest easy, stay awhile.”

The bistros overflow not with tourists but locals, taking long, chatty lunches with co-workers or clients over home cooked meals that you need to slice with a knife and fork, all washed down with cool Rose and finished off with dessert and a demi-tasse of coffee. People eat to share the experience, not stuff something in the gut to stave off hunger. This is not the land of pizza slices or Subway food logs. Even the ice cream is artfully crafted into a bouquet to be marveled at before it is consumed.

Our apartment was in the Marias, a fashionable district on the right bank, (3ème Arrondissement if you must). Home to the Place des Vogues where Victor Hugo took and apartment and Henry II was mortally wounded with a lance to the eye while jousting to celebrate his daughter’s wedding. The surrounding area is fashionably hip and reminded us of Daikanyama or Aoyama in Tokyo. Packed on the main streets but more interesting on the fringes where you find the up and coming boutiques. We had a couple of guidebooks, Rick Steves’ Paris 2010 and the Eyewitness Travel Guide were good for a few walks but Izumi’s Japanese guidebooks were even better in pointing out interesting places off the beaten path (I would link to it but we left it behind in the apartment for others to use).

It was a stroke of genius to travel with Mimi, our small Terrier-Shizu mix. French people love dogs and Mimi was free to roam with us through the stores and was welcomed by her own bowl of water when we took her to lunch with us. The only regret is that dogs are not allowed in most parks and we had to leave her at the apartment when we chose to visit a museum. People say that it’s hard to get a waiter’s attention. All you need is a cute dog and you’ll immediately have half the staff fawning all over you, or at least your dog!

We settled into a daily rhythm of visiting one museum a day in order to pace ourselves. We would go either in the morning or late-afternoon to avoid the crowds, then spend the other half of the day out on long, exploratory walks with Mimi. Paris is such a great city to explore on foot so 2-3 hour hikes to investigate neighborhoods was the norm. We caught a break in the weather which was oddly cooler than the record-breaking heatwave in Helsinki. Average temperatures for the week was in the mid-20s (mid-70s Fahrenheit). In order to save a bit on costs (and also because the kitchen in the apartment wasn’t really set up to cook, we ended up making lunch our biggest meal of the day. Restaurants have great values during the lunch hours and you can fortify yourself with a two course Prix Fixe menu making anything more than cheese, pate, and baguettes for dinner unnecessary.

I was delighted to find the usual myths about the coldness of the French smashed during our trip. As mentioned before, having Mimi with us did a lot to charm people but also, because we walked the same streets each day, we began to recognize (and be recognized) by those we saw as we set out on our explorations. Strangers on trains were all polite and the instinctual civility of people who were quick to give up their seat to others or hold the door made things even more pleasant.

Our last evening, I mixed up the dates on my online reservation for the Eiffel Tower and expected there to be all sorts of trouble as my tickets were for the following day. The line for tickets that day was horrendously long so I prepared to have go at convincing the staff to give us a break and let us in a day earlier. Each step of the way as I steeled myself to argue our way forward, New York-style. I was met instead with a shrug and a, “fine with me, it’s really up to the next guy.” We went from ticket checker, to security guard, to ticket taker, to elevator operator before we finally realized that we made it all the way through to the second level.

Paris from the Eiffel Tower

We were driven to the airport the next morning by a cabbie I met the day before. He chatted colorfully all the way to the airport as we exchanged observations about the different places we had been. Sometimes he would start up a topic, other times it was me, lots of back and forth. He was originally from Algeria and observed that the Mediterranean cultures were definitely more chatty than those in the North.

Arriving back in Finland that evening, my few half-hearted attempts at conversation were as futile as trying to set fire to wet leaves. An icy stare on one word answers from our driver squelched any attempts at conversation. I felt like Kermit the Frog,  my curiosity kept at bay by his forearms, laced with menacing tattoos. The rest of the drive home was silent, punctuated only by the breathing of our driver through his nostrils. Vacation over. Back to Serious-land.