Traveling Local

This past weekend, I went up to Sausalito with Julie and my cousin Adam, a fresh Bay Area transplant. After a typically slow drive through San Francisco, I drove northbound across the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time in my 3 year old car into this cute, throwback town across the bay from San Francisco.

We started with a late lunch at Lighthouse Cafe, a small throwback diner where we sat at the bar and saw our lunch come together. I learned that the trick to perfect eggs is to use a lot of oil to make sure they don’t stick. Also, if they don’t turn out perfect, throw them out and try again.

We walked over to Bay Model, a massive 2 football field sized model of the Bay with water accurately flowing to emulate tides and such. It’s a former US Army Corps of Engineers research facility turned museum because computer models made physical models outdated. Sadly, my home was not in the model because we’re too far away from water, but we did trace through various towns and roads we had traversed.

Photo credits go to Julie who can actually appreciate visual things

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My Super Bowl 50 experience

As hopefully all of you know, the Denver Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 24-10 at Levi’s Stadium. As a football fan living here in the Bay Area where Levi’s Stadium is located, I got to experience in the game in a few different ways.

First, I saw the Bay Area as a resident annoyed at the effect of tourism. We were warned that millions would be descending upon the city and that traffic and public transit would be problematic. To be honest, however, I didn’t really notice much of a difference as my daily life doesn’t seem to intersect with the public very much.

Second, I saw the Last Monday, I headed up to Super Bowl City, a few blocks of downtown San Francisco taped off for a bunch of booths and free concerts for the public. On the evening I went up, it was relatively chilly, and there wasn’t a concert going on. As such, most of the activity was centered around modular buildings for companies such as Kaiser Permanente, Verizon, and Intel. Most of the things worth doing, however, had relatively long lines that we weren’t patient enough to wait for. Overall, it wasn’t a particularly interesting experience, but I’m glad I went since I would have regretted not seeing it.

Third, I saw the game like any good US resident: at a Super Bowl party. One of my co-workers helpfully “volunteered” his place to host, and we prepared the usual array of chips, frozen pizzas, chicken wings, and other generally unhealthy game snacks. Somehow, the Super Bowl has ended up being one of the great, annual American culinary events alongside Thanksgiving and the 4th of July. However, it is unique in my mind because I don’t think about elevating it with creative recipes or “good” food, per se. I would rather just eat the same bags of chips and bake frozen foods.

I also paid attention to the important parts of the game by taking my bathroom break while the Panthers were on offense so I didn’t miss any commercials. I generally enjoyed the commercials this year: it seems like they have cleaned up a lot of the most outrageous ads, and they generally seem to do fun ads now. I think my favorite commercials were the avocados in space and the prius getaway car. I also really enjoyed the half-time show.

Fourth, I saw the game like a football fan. Specifically, I watched as a fantasy football team owner who wasn’t really rooting for either team but wanted to see a good game. And for a defensive struggle, it was a surprisingly good game. Most defensive struggles end up being quite boring while nothing really happens as both teams stop each other. This game, however, had 7 fumbles and 2 interceptions for a totally wild ride.

Few, singular events end up affecting me in so many ways, but the Super Bowl really has its own culture around it far beyond what happens on the field itself. Like Game of Thrones, I see it as something big enough that it’s worth participating just because everyone else is. So regardless of whether you got a 4-faceted experience like me or if you were rooting for the winning or losing team, at least we all share something to talk about this week.

How Friendly Public Transit can be Cynical

People seem to agree that the Caltrain is a better experience than BART as public transit options in the Bay Area. Whereas the BART is a dinky, old subway system, the Caltrain is overall a comfortable and happy experience from station to station. I agreed with Caltrain’s superiority until recently when I had several difficulties with it that have me thinking that BART is overall an easier, friendlier system.

The BART is rapid transit, so it’s like a subway but mostly above the ground. The trains follow several different routes half way down the peninsula and up and down the East Bay, so it’s particularly useful if you need to go to the airport or Oakland. The trains themselves feel old and rickety with fabric cushions that make you think about every hypothetical previous rider and their hygiene. Running through Oakland, I have been led to believe that the trains are full of hoodlums at all hours. To get on and off the train, you have to get prepaid tickets and swipe them at turnstyles on entrance and exit. When you swipe upon exit, it’ll deduct the proper amount from your ticket.

One form of BART tickets is the Clipper card, which is like a prepaid debit card for public transit around the Bay Area. Load it up with money as you need it, and ride to its remaining balance. Without one of those, you can buy a disposable ticket at BART stations for precisely the amount of your fare.

The Caltrain is a train that runs primarily from San Francisco to San Jose on a single track. Stations lie in one of the 6 zones, which determines the total fare. The trains are spacious with seats made out of some synthetic material, and open containers are allowed (primarily for pre-gaming Giants & Niners fans). The stations are open, so you buy your ticket in advance and walk right onto the train. You can either buy one-time tickets from one zone to another, or you can “tag on” with your Clipper card at a machine at the station and then “tag off” at the end. On the train, the conductor will walk up and down the aisles to check that you have a valid ticket. At the end of your ride, you just walk off the train and move on to your final destination.

Overall, the Caltrain just feels nice. The stations are well-kept, the conductors are nice, the seats are comfy, and the riders are generally friendly (and the seatbacks are high enough that you can keep to yourself if they aren’t). It’s friendly and open and easy, until it’s not, as my recent experiences have led me to discover.

To get to a conference in San Jose, I bought an 8-ride pass from the Stanford zone to the San Jose zone. These rides were put onto my Clipper card at a slight discount over 8 single ride tickets between these zones. The first problem I had was that I once forgot to tag off. The net effect is that for a $5 ride, I was out $13. $5 was the lost use of one of my 8 rides that I had prepaid for. The $8 was the Clipper penalty for not tagging off. So that people can’t take advantage of Clipper to get valid tickets for less than the actual cost of their ride, Clipper deducts the maximum possible fare when you tag on, then refunds the proper amount when you tag off. Since I didn’t tag off, I in theory could have ridden all the way to Gilroy, and Caltrain understandably wanted to charge me for that possibility.

I forgot to tag off: I knew the consequences and made a mistake. Caltrain even puts up signage around the station to remind you to tag off. Even so, the station is laid out to make tagging off compulsory before leaving the station. In this case, the open layout of the station requires Caltrain to adopt the cynical policy of maximum fare with a refund to address possible exploits. Were everyone required to tag off before leaving the station, this loophole wouldn’t be possible, and this policy wouldn’t be necessary. In short, a trusting environment leads to distrustful policies that punish honest mistakes.

The next issue I had was that I ended up skipping a day of the conference and had 2 extra prepaid rides on my Clipper card. This wouldn’t have been a problem except that these rides expired in a month, putting me out another $10 or so. Expiration is logical for Caltrain: since the 8-ride passes are discounted, a clever rider would just buy 8-ride passes to use as single ride tickets and assume that he or she would use the rides eventually. Again, Caltrain has an apparently generous design (discounts for regular riders) that punishes honest mistakes because of the need to deal with loopholes.

The worst situation, however, occurs when a rider is on the train with an invalid ticket. Riding without a ticket is clearly a problem and is punishable by a roughly $300 fine. Riding illegally sounds bad, but it’s actually quite easy to mistakenly do. You might

  1. fall asleep on the train and ride into another zone
  2. take the wrong train and ride into another zone
  3. failed to tag on properly
  4. misunderstand the conditions of your ticket

If you’re caught in this situation, you’re only hope is the generosity and understanding of the conductor.

These problems all sound like necessary conditions of the system as is, but with a small tweak, these all go away. Like BART, add turnstyles on entry and exit from the stations. It makes us feel like robots for a few seconds and requires locking down the station, but it results in a clear policy with fewer consequences for mistakes.

By requiring a valid ticket at the exit turnstyle, BART doesn’t need to deduct the maximum fare on entry: it knows exactly how much to deduct at the end. If you rode farther than you intended, it simply charges you more. If you didn’t pay enough, you can go to a machine to add more money to your card. Because of that, you can’t ride BART illegally without jumping a turnstyle. The ticket got you in, and you’re never “out of zone”.

That’s it.

Caltrain makes a better first impression than BART does, but because BART has a more structured and less trusting design, it doesn’t need a strict policy. Public transit here needs rider payment to run, and BART has offloaded that process to technology and layout. Caltrain, however, compensates for its open design with a punitive policy.

In the end, these two systems aren’t alternatives: there’s only a short stretch that they both serve, none of which has ever been relevant for me. The takeaway for me was realizing that technology can be a trust-inducing tool. Nowadays, we hear more about privacy rights, malware, surveillance, and other evils of technology that make us suspicious of the world we’ve built. There is, however, something comforting about the cold rationality of technology that can wipe away our own cynicism. When we know the machines have our back, we don’t have to worry about what other people may do.

My Life in Sandwiches

Last week, Julie and I got around to visiting The Melt, a startup grilled cheese restaurant. Well, the “startup” claim might be a stretch: I think their claim to the title is their fancy grilled cheese making machine invented especially for this purpose that makes their preassembled sandwiches a breeze to prepare. And having tasted 2 of their offerings (Julie and I go halfsies on all meals), I have determined that it was probably all just a bunch of hype. If you want a grilled cheese sandwich in the Bay Area, the American Grilled Cheese Kitchen is in SOMA and is far better.

I have actually ended up at a lot of sandwich places in the area. For a summer, George and I made a dedicated effort to try the pizza places in Palo Alto. For a few years, Julie and I have made a dedicated effort to try the sandwich places in Palo Alto because she’s always excited to try and never forgets the opportunity for a new sandwich.

Not to say I’m opposed. In some ways, I feel like my life was destined towards sandwich enjoyment. For 12 years, my regular school lunch was a sandwich packed by my mom. In retrospect, the offering was somewhat simple: it was usually a single thin slice of some cold cut and a piece of romaine lettuce between 2 slices of bread, once homemade but then store-bought once we moved to Houston. On good days, I would also get a slice of cheese, usually havarti. In that time, I became a huge fan of corned beef, but came to dislike turkey (since it was often kind of slimy).

The summer after my freshmen year, I became aware of other sandwich methods as George would use more meat and sometimes put Kraft singles in his sandwiches, too. I became a fan of the former, if not the latter, but more importantly, I realized that sandwiches could have more variety than I had eaten before. The summer after, Leland added cured meats to his sandwiches in addition to the primary meat, which added another dimension. Last summer, I started making vegetarian sandwiches, and tomatoes, which I had once disliked (probably why my mom’s sandwiches for me were so simple), became a mainstay. And this summer, I started regularly adding mayo to my sandwiches. After 12 years of almost daily sandwiches, I think I’m far beyond ever getting tired of them, and clearly there are always new things to change up the experience.

In case you’re ever on campus for the day, or maybe if you’re tired of Stanford Dining, I made a map of the sandwich places I’ve tried. Most are heartily endorsed, so let me know if you ever need a companion to go along!

View Sandwiches around Stanford in a larger map

Letter about a Palo Alto pedestrian mall

I was inspired to write the following letter, which I may or may not try to find someone to send this to. Feel free to comment on it, especially if of the “what are you thinking, it would be an idiot move to let anyone official read this” variety, because I honestly have done 0 research in writing this. It’ll probably get polished before I send it to someone, as well. And if anyone knows who that person to contact would be, I guess that would be good, too.


My name is Kevin Leung, and I’m a junior here at Stanford University. I am writing to you because I wanted to give you another perspective on having a pedestrian mall along University Avenue. I had heard about it from friends on Facebook and have thought about the consequences of having it created. Particularly, a recent vacation to Athens made me consider what University could be.
When I think of Europe, I think about the clear differences in lifestyle. One of these aspects is the large difference in night life: Europeans tend to eat dinner much later than Americans, and a common image is a group of friends or family sitting around a table at a cafe past sundown, sipping coffee or throwing back beers. Until this past trip, I had never seen it, but my hotel happened to be down a street of cafes, bars and dessert shops. Already narrow, the street just barely had enough space for a single, very careful taxi driver to pass between tables. From 8:00 onward, the street was crowded with people around tables, enjoying their drinks and conversation. The insides of the restaurants were empty as everyone wanted to enjoy the weather and ambience. Even though I’m sure several of them had been drinking for hours, it wasn’t boisterous, but had that classic, calm, relaxing feel.
This model, of course, isn’t too different from University Ave. Indeed, it’s the striking similarities that made me compare these two places. Palo Alto is an upscale area, and that sense of classiness exists in both that street of cafes in Athens and University. The restaurants along University offer a wide variety of cuisines, with largely great quality. California weather also happens to be fantastic, and barring rainy season, I would be happy to be outside just about any other evening.
I appreciate it even more considering what I’ve been accustomed to. When not at school, I live in Katy, Texas, a suburb of Houston, where we have nothing that nice. Most apparently, the weather means that you never want to be outside. Sitting outside either results in great sock and t-shirt tans during the day or an unending plane of mosquito bites during the evening. Because of that, everyone drives from air conditioning to air conditioning, so casual streets have never developed. Moreover, Houston is largely urban sprawl, so everything is far apart, and many parts of the town are largely undesirable. Except for a small area near Rice University, I’m somewhat afraid to venture to downtown Houston. Given that, I hope you believe me when I say that I appreciate what University Ave. offers to local residents.
Perhaps it’s ungrateful part of me, but I would like to think that it’s my desire to see University fulfill everything that I want to see that is making me write this. What follows is my current perception of and attitude towards University Ave. Admittedly, this might be a very skewed perspective that is very unaligned with either what you see or the absolute truth. Even in that case, I feel like Palo Alto has misbranded itself, as I’m certain that my attitude is not uncommon among students.
Even though I live, eat, sleep, and study within 2 miles of University Ave, I will visit it about twice a quarter, which is slightly less than once a month. Given its proximity to Palo Alto, Stanford University and the “Stanford Bubble” doesn’t seem to extend into Palo Alto. I have often told friends that Stanford doesn’t really have a college town like UT has Austin, or Hanover has Dartmouth College. Instead, I gripe to my classmates that University is lined with uninvitingly upscale, expensive restaurants and Oriental rug stores. Instead, students will often go to surrounding areas to hang out. Castro Street in Mountain View seems more inviting. Redwood City has walks around the movie theater, giving it a very open feel.
Walking along University, I often get the sense that people aren’t stopping to enjoy it, but simply walking along it to get somewhere. Even with all of the tables pushed up against restaurant walls, the sidewalks are narrow, so a group of three or four friends can severely constrict traffic. It feels crowded, but not alive. More notably, I often feel like there’s nowhere that I want to stop at. While this might be an entirely separate issue, I think an important distinction between University and, say, Castro Street or downtown Santa Cruz is the presence of fun shops. On Castro Street, I’ve seen toy shops, music shops, and lock shops. In Santa Cruz, I stopped at a souvenir shop, a CD store, and an independent bookstore. On University Ave., I end up having to point out Facebook to visitors because I feel like there’s nothing else that would seem to interest them.
And for me, there’s little value to being in a car on University. Traffic is certainly slow enough to facilitate browsing, but one is typically too frustrated about traffic to point out the artwork outside of the Pizza, My Heart. Knowing better, I never take University to 101 because it’s so slow, and I really only end up on University to get to one of the side streets to park. Starting just beyond the Caltrain station and the turn to Alma, University feels like a dead zone of traffic that I would want to avoid at an time.
It seems unfair for me to stop with just criticism and no suggestion, so here’s my vision about what University could be. As I mentioned above, an important step in improving upon many of these shortcomings would be to make University a pedestrian mall, if even only for the evening and/or weekends.
A pedestrian mall would mean that restaurants could place more tables outside, allowing customers to dine with more space and without the din of cars driving by. Instead of just being somewhere to eat, University could become a place for students to “chillax”. I would hope that the greater reliance on outside space would shift customer behavior to more of a European attitude, where groups can just enjoy the evening around a table outside.
A pedestrian mall would means that foot traffic would increase. Instead of scrambling along a narrow sidewalk, people could walk openly in the middle of the street, seeing both sides of University without being hustled to get out of the way. This would encourage shops to move outside as well to approach their potential customers. I would imagine that foot traffic results in more sales than car traffic anyways.
Finally, a pedestrian mall would result in a place where the tastes of students and upper-class residents could meet. The better chance for students to hang out on University would help to chase away the student perception that University was filled for the richer residents and not the students. While a pedestrian mall would be approachable for students, Palo Alto could stay just as classy for the residents.
Admittedly, I’m not sure what the consequences of the change would be from a more official perspective. I don’t know how traffic would be re-routed, or if there would be legal difficulties, or how to get the buy-in of owners along University, or what the economic situation or plan of Palo Alto. To be honest, I actually didn’t even do much research on whether this plan has been considered before writing this (I should note, though, that such news hasn’t been made clearly available to students, and there’s a lot of interest in knowing the progress and setbacks and doing what we can to move this along). Given that, I’m certainly not the one to tell you how this will all work out because I have no expertise on the matter. I just felt that there were models of what University Ave. might be and to point out what I see to be the potential places for improvement in adding a pedestrian mall.


Unappreciated Jobs

Today’s post is dedicated to what I believe might be one of the most unappreciated classes of jobs: the public transit driver. The train conductor. The bus driver. The subway guy (the underground system, not Jared). Most people never notice them when they do a good job but will show their worse side when things aren’t on schedule. But in unappreciated jobs, that’s pretty common. But things are worse. Their job is to get people to places on schedule. That’s really 2 jobs. One, pick up people, and two, be on schedule. Unfortunately, these happen to work against each other far too often.

Just yesterday, I went in to San Francisco to meet my sister and hang out. To get there, I planned to take the Caltrain (a train) from Palo Alto to Millbrae, switch to the BART (a subway), get off at Embarcadero, meet my sister, then take the MUNI (a bus) to Fisherman’s Wharf. I arrived at the Caltrain station around 11:20 for the 11:31 train and had plenty of time to get my ticket and wait for it to come. The train arrived and pulled up a little farther than where the cluster of people were standing, so we walked up forward along the station. As I got closer, I saw the last car was the luggage car, and a lot of people were trying to get on it. I figured I would walk up the station to the next car and get on there. Just as I stepped up, the door closed. I looked back and saw the luggage car still loading, so I figured they would re-open the doors. They didn’t. As I started to move back towards the luggage car, they finished loading, the door closed, and the train started to pull away. Looks like I would be an hour late.

Contrast to the BART. When I finally arrived at Millbrae, I got on the subway with plenty of time. Since Millbrae is at the end of the line, the subways typically sit for awhile to catch everyone. To warn when it’s about to leave, they usually close the doors about 30 seconds before it actually leaves, then re-opens and closes as it pulls away. I saw the warning, but it looked like a couple people were just getting through the turnstiles and wouldn’t make it. But the driver saw them, and waited. As the doors closed again, another couple was running towards the train. Instead of going, the driver waited again, let them on, and then left.

The drivers seem to have some leeway with how they run their schedule, and in both of these situations, it seems like the right thing to do is to wait for the couple stragglers. The problem with this is that it throws off the schedule. Take the BART/Caltrain interchange. Coming back from the airport to campus, I have to take the BART to the Caltrain, again at Millbrae. Once, the BART was just a little behind, and as I got off the BART, I saw the Caltrain pull away. Given the schedule, I had to wait an hour for the next one.

So the costs seems obvious here. If the drivers keep the schedule, they’ll strand a couple people. If they don’t, the minute or even seconds might matter behind switches. In either case, passengers who suffer the consequences will likely be cross with the driver. I certainly was (until I walked to the Borders and looked around instead of waiting at the station). What seems really unfair about this is that they’re the scapegoat for our failures as passengers. If we could all arrive on time, know the schedules, and load quickly, none of this would be a problem. I guess it’s just easier sometimes to not take responsibility for it.

My Inner Museum

Today, I am Chinese. I road the MUNI bus along Stockton through Chinatown. The Shanghai and Tokyo subways have nothing on that bus. The bus makes 3-ish stops through Chinatown, and at each, an army of Chinese grocery-shoppers waits with bags and canes ready to remove any (likely living) obstacle between them and the bus. Our stop was the kicker to the previous one. On the third bus that passed, I finally got close enough to the door and mustered enough courage to push my way onto the bus. The first step of the bus, actually. At least in the busy subways, they can squish everyone in on one go.

If you were wondering, I was back in Chinatown and San Francisco this weekend again to do some grocery shopping. But not just for the grocery shopping. Family friends came in this weekend to visit Stanford and the Bay Area, and I tried to spend as much time with them as possible. That meant museum-hopping.

Which is something I wanted to do this summer. On Friday, we went to the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose and the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. Both were individually interesting, but visiting both in a day showed the range of a spectrum of museum styles. The Tech Museum covered many elementary topics in an elementary manner, with exhibits explaining how integrated circuits work, how genetics influence individuals, how the internet and worlds such as “Second Life” work, and more. Many of them had a link-up to online resources and activities one could access from home, and while the topics have great depth, the museum was largely targeted towards children. The examples and activities worked at a high level, but being simplified representations of complex systems, more knowledgable visitors wouldn’t have much to see.

Onto the Computer History Museum, where the primary focus is on a warehouse-ish room filled with actual computing artifacts, including part of the ENIAC, an Apple I, and once functional core memory. The museum, still very new, has only two other constructed exhibits, both relatively small. Julie and I chose to dodge the tour and explore ourselves, catching bits of familiar lore in a timeline of mostly modern computing. Unlike the show of the Tech Museum, this museum was all tell. I looked at machines behind metal railings and trinkets inside of glass cases. Which I understand, considering the uniqueness of the items. The content was absolutely fascinating, but everything had a geek trivia feel to it. Highly recommended if you enjoy that sort of thing.

The following day, we went to the SF MOMA. I recently visited–and wrote about–it, but fortunately, out of three main floors of exhibits, only one holds a standing collection. Walking through the Matisse and Stills works again, it was interesting to get a second opportunity at interpreting the works, though I feel no more enlightened. The new exhibits included the photography of Lee Miller, primarily known as a “Vogue” WWII correspondant, and contemporary Chinese art. And on the last day, we went to the Exploratorium, a more successful hands-on museum. All explanations came on the far side of an example, such as a host of optical illusions and crankable engines.

It was interesting to see the different types of museums side-by-side, but what I found more interesting was doing museums in SF. I had known that the area had many well-acclaimed (and many more smaller) museums, but only once in the trips to the surrounding area have I gone to a museum. When I think about taking a day trip around here, about getting the real look at the Bay Area, I think about crowded buses, meandering in the Marina District, walking from Market up through Chinatown and North Beach to the Fisherman’s Wharf, peeking into chocolate shops. But I admit that I’ve become attracted to educational vacation with tours and museum visits.

To say that museums are all the same is certainly a lie. Some aren’t as good as others, but each has its own take, and it’s certainly a point of exploration on a trip. There’s so much more, though, to what really composes a city. Museums are the territory of academics, often with a district of its own. The real feel and culture of a city is in the streets, the lives, the spontaneous, the routine. But I think I still might be hard-pressed to convince the next visitor to take the Stockton Street MUNI.

A Little Diversion

I was arduously working on my CS program here at my desk for awhile. Suddenly, everything on my desk started to vibrate.

Oh, how typical. Probably someone with really loud bass. But I can’t hear anything. And everything keeps vibrating. And then it’s gone.

Such is the super-exciting life of an earthquake. Apparently a decent one hit NorCal just around 8:00 local. Everything here is just fine, just a minor distraction from work.