In early 2011, my mother, sister, and our foreign exchange student were ‘invited’ to visit my elder sister in San Francisco and stay for a week or two doing touristy things. I decided to go along since it was a rare opportunity and I could also go to a LW meetup or two, which ought to be fun. Furiously going through ticket-prices, the cheapest ones wound up putting me there substantially before and after the others. Shikata ga nai, as the Japanese say. Knowing how fragile memories are from my previous trips, I resolved to take notes.
Drive to La Guardia. Very long security line; get to terminal just 30 minutes before plane leaves. Quiet boring flight to Kansas, and then to SF—my budget shopping did not fail me. (Flights aren’t too bad for me since they destroy my appetite and I don’t feel thirsty or hungry.) Can’t use laptop, seats too narrow on Frontier Airlines plane. Get out at SFO, have trouble finding BART station, then ride it to Market Street without problem, long walk to apartment. Turns out no rock-climbing that Tuesday (we’d do it later), instead we go to public library, I wander around and am pretty impressed; Allison check out for me Poundstone’s 2003 How would you move Mt. Fuji. (To my great disappointment, that question turns out to be simply a Fermi calculation involving heavy excavation equipment; all these years I had been failing to find a copy in local libraries, I had been expecting cleverer solutions than brute-force.) We eat with Mike (her roommate) and a Facebook guy at an Indian restaurant.
I hang around all day—rainy. Can’t really leave since I have the only other keys and dare not lock anyone out. I try to walk to Whole Foods at night to buy some oatmeal, can’t find it. Allison goes to bar with her friends; I stay since I would be unable to hear anything and alcohol only depresses me.
Molly & Mom & Leila arrive; the major item of note was a big dinner with a bunch of Allison’s friends like her current beau, a tall German guy, and an Appler named Akiba (or was it Akiva?), who was loud and chatted a lot with Molly. (He was very close-mouthed about what he did at Apple, divulging no details, although he talked about how he was thinking of quitting Apple after the project was finished since he had a lot saved up; I was skeptical he would since when I asked, he didn’t really have any ideas about what startup he would join or found. In October, I heard that he had been working on the iPad at the time and had then worked on some version of the fourth iPhone.)
We went to Trader Joe’s to stock up. They no longer carry the gluten-free brownie mix Allison wanted, so we went to the apparently famous Rainbow Grocery Cooperative. Allison said they’re particularly famous for their bulk grain selection which you can scoop out what you want. To my considerable surprise, they had a large selection of loose teas, with the best prices I’d seen in SF yet. I wound up buying 0.09lbs of a Benshan oolong tea and 0.14lbs of roasted barley (which makes roasted barley tea)—you see iced barley tea sometimes in anime/manga and I’ve always been curious how that & genmaicha (green tea + roasted brown rice) tasted. Turns out both are pretty tasty, and a little bit of barley makes the benshan oolong better.
Molly & Mom had me buy some kava tea, and 2 snack-bars (cranberry & apple pie oatmeal). Not sure what Allison & Leila bought.
Bruce Schneier remarks somewhere that there is a certain aptitude for computer security where the person can’t look at any object or system and not think about how to break it. I may have that mindset, because out of ignorance of how the Rainbow Grocery bulk goods system worked, I put my barley into a brown paper bag and the oolong tea into a clear plastic bag. Then I figured out that you wrote the ID number of the good onto a little twisty-tie and you sealed the bag; the cashier later types it in and prices it by weight. The barley was, as you would expect, much cheaper than the oolong: $8.97/lb versus $94/lb. Nor was the oolong the most expensive thing there; many spices far exceeded it. (I was a little shocked when I looked at the wax-sealed packets of saffron—something like $5 for a minute speck. I had known it was one of the most expensive spices but I hadn’t really understood it.) But the cashier didn’t open the bag or glance hard at them. It would have been trivial to mislabel & put in a more expensive tea or steal spices; so trivial that I was sure I had misunderstood how one goes through the system, and I was dreading being rebuked by the cashier. He didn’t blink an eye. That Rainbow Grocery can do this speaks to the level of trust they have in their customers, and is another example of what I mean when I feel that San Francisco is, in a difficult to describe way, a friendlier place than New York City. There seems to be higher levels of social trust/social capital.
This is an interesting claim. Robert D. Putnam has shown that high levels of ethnic or social diversity are correlated with low social trust/capital; but one would think, and SF certainly trumpets this, that SF is a very diverse place. My guess is that it’s not as diverse as it likes to think. On the BART ride from the SFO airport, I noticed that there seemed to be fewer Asians and blacks than I had expected, and a lot more white people. Nor has going through the tourist areas and living in Embarcadero changed my impression much. I was going to analogize this to the satirical blog Stuff White People Like, but then I searched and found that there was already a SWPL entry on SF and its diversity. One might say the ideals of diversity are honored most in the breach.
(From an economics-Robin-Hanson-style perspective, the very architecture of SF says that its inhabitants talk a lot about diversity and opposing racism and segregation but their actions belie their words. They have no problem choosing between their picturesque 2 or 3-story Painted Ladies, and high-density apartments affordable to the poor (read: ‘black’). And they choose the former.)
After shopping, we drove out to Muir Woods National Monument. This was a long drive and when we got there, the only parking was like a mile down the road, so Mom dropped us off, drove down and slogged her way up. The feel of the woods is hard to convey, but deeply impressive. One feels in a Tolkien novel, and at peace. The moss by the river banks was deeply beautiful. The redwoods soar so high that one feels in a woody and well-ventilated building rather than outside. I have occasionally read studies indicating that wild arboreal settings are good for one’s mind—reducing stress and other mental disorders—and my own experience in the redwoods gives me more credence in this idea. One wonders that Muir ever left the woods.
On our way back, we buy a bag of nuts from an road-side stand. (Exactly as it planned.)
After dinner, we went to a performance of The 39 Steps. (This was a busy day—we only get to the play at 8 PM or so.) Hoity-toity affair, but because I used their infra-red audio system I could hear everything and followed most of it. Very funny impressive display of acting and pantomime and stagecraft; the plot makes little sense (a theater scene leading into a murder scene, a number of train scenes, a Scottish peasant & his wife scene, a study scene, and then a theater scene is basically the entire plot) but is an excuse for the 3 male actors and the actress to play many character simultaneously and switch off as quickly as possible. If you’ve watched much magic, you can pretty easily spot the sleight of hand, but it’s still entertaining watching 3 actors sway back and forward in unison on the pretend train, and it broke the fourth wall only in amusing & tasteful ways. Well worth watching, I thought.
Afterwards, Allison’s gaggle of techie friends finally got their heads screwed on straight and we went to a local Mountain View gelato shop. I had green tea gelato and most of the rest had hot chocolate. My gelato was pretty substantial for the price and made me realize that the gelato stand at the Marketplace earlier that day was overpriced, even if their blood-orange gelato was very good. One of Allison’s more bipolar friends (in his manic phase, as it were) ordered a big waffle thing, which looked pretty good but arrived last and kept us there for a while.
The big event of the day was walking down to Fisherman’s Wharf. Along the way we stopped at the same place where the gelato was to browse again. At the Wharf, we spent our time wandering from tourist trap to trap. (Deeply frustrating to my bargain-hunter sensibilities—‘that’s junk!’ ‘Molly, why are you overpaying for that poster?’ ‘There’s better stuff online!’ ‘Are you kidding me, you actually want to buy a left-handed notebook?’) My favorite part was lunch on the Wharf: clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl (from Boudin Bakery, naturally, whose big store/factory was just down the street). It was probably the most delicious thing I ate in SF.
The seals were few and somnolent. Apparently they’re most impressive in late summer.
The big thing today was going to see Alcatraz. We sluggishly rolled our ways out of bed and into showers and headed down the esplanade as so many times before. The line was annoying and I couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that even on this 5 minute ferry ride, there was still a line of people for the ferry’s little concession stand. (What, they were hungry already?)
Alcatraz Island turned out to be much more interesting than I had expected. The conglomeration of structures at the bottom were rather old-fashioned, stemming from the early military use of the island; I was fascinated by the old diagrams showing interlocking rings of fire. Very late-1800s naval Imperialistic—one could almost imagine the white-suited Japanese admiral leaning over a briefing table pointing to the batteries and discussing how to position the Yamato to knock out and defeat them in detail. The other exhibits were interesting; I watched the entirety of the documentary on the Indian occupation of Alcatraz in the ’60s, pondering the general stupidity of the action the entire time.
That done, we strolled past the foreigners and exhausted elderly up the very long switch-back ramp which leads higher up the island. (Various staircases being closed off.) It was striking how much plant life there was, and also how many geese and other birds. One certainly does not think of blooming flowers when one thinks ‘Alcatraz’. The prison proper was strikingly small: the main building is basically a shell around 2 free-standing concrete blocks in which little caves are dug out. The audio tour was long, but I have to commend it for keeping my interest. The audio mentioned that the prisoners could often hear the noise of parties in SF, which I could believe, and that this made imprisonment all the worse (likewise). I thought of the flowers.
Perhaps more interesting than the descriptions of the prisoners and their lives were the descriptions of the staff and the children that lived there, commuting to school in SF via ferry. I might have known that when I was a child reading all about Alcatraz, but if I did, I had long since forgotten.
I don’t think the others found it as interesting as I did.
We wandered down to the heart of SF to take—it was inevitable—the trolley tour. This was not as fun as I had hoped. The most interesting part of the trolley ride was riding past the Chinatown schools where the children were at play, and how regulars would hop on and off the trolley, flashing their seasonal passes or whatever. (That was very cool—the trolley was still ‘real’ to a small degree.)
Following that, we wandered the Castro, ogling the various peculiar stores which rent leather clothes or sell pornographic foodstuffs. I split off at some point while we were traveling back, visiting a free streetcar museum, buying a loaf of Boudin sourdough bread, using one of the free self-cleaning toilets-houses (quite cool), and just stopping in an open garden to rip hunks of bread off the loaf and enjoy the sunlight.
Dinner was an excellent seafood stew, followed by the whole group driving to the outskirts to go indoor rock-climbing. I felt fat and out of shape compared to all the young techies and miscellaneous types there with their bodies as hard as the rocks, but I still turned in a credible performance on some medium ascents until my hands gave out. (Better than the women, anyway, if not the men.) That was a lot of fun. I don’t know if I’d like rock-climbing if I did it more than annually, but it certainly is fun when I do do it.
Woke up around 8 AM; Zeo data was knackered again. Mom & Leila were packing up and Molly was at the pancakes again. Allison was already gone to work (she’s taken some real hits in vacation time to spend time with us), and Mike was hiding in his room as usual. There was no real hurry to activities—they were already showered and the taxi was scheduled for 9:15 AM so we were able to truck the baggage out early at 9 Am. Cabbie surprisingly wasn’t black like all the others we’d seen. Maybe he’s working through college.
Once they left in apparent good spirits, I headed back up. Good day to try to catch up on things. I did all the usual browsing, caught up on my entire Mnemosyne backlog from the past 4 days, imported & edited photos (mailing off Leila’s), looked into Allison’s neat Withings wireless WiFi weight scale (added it to my buying list & cleaned that up while I was at it), went through backlogged manga, knocked off a number of ReadItLater pages, read a few PDFs, and started this memoir.
In part I’m starting it today because I have nothing pressing. I only have a few things on my itinerary and none of them seem very pressing with the full block of the 24-28th. The only fly in the ointment is that I am apparently spending the weekend at Boriss’s, and I don’t know how that will go. The items are:
- visit Emperor Norton’s grave in Colma
- visit the Asian Art Museum
- visit the Japanese tea garden and nearby museums/buildings in the Golden Gate Park (which is surprisingly far from the bridge)
- visit the City Lights Bookstore (to take photos and compare with Ergo Proxy) & possibly dine at a nearby garlic restaurant
- attend the LessWrong meetup on the 26th
I suspect that Allison is exhausted from our visit and the rock-climbing last night, and wants to recuperate & put her life back together, so I predict she has no plans involving me tonight. I’m on my own for dinner. Fortunately, I have been meaning to have another meal of the trout from the Crossroads cafe near the Delancey Street restaurant, and the cafe does take-out. Unfortunately, by the time I begin to feel like I’ve caught up on some things and can tackle new projects like these memories or the Girl Scouts essay (which was prompted by ruminating on the prices of the cookies on the esplanade), I’ve lost too much time. Google Maps estimates BART will take around an hour to get me to Woodlawn Cemetary and I have to be here whenever Allison gets back to let her in.
As it was, I went and had a nice trout dinner at CrossRoads, reading iWoz as I did so. I wound up doing no work on the Girl Scouts essay. Steve Wozniak strikes me as a naive guy who seems to willfully let himself be exploited because to be less exploited would entail abandoning some idealized sense of childlike innocence (I was particularly incensed by Wozniak handing free millions to a hedge fund just because Wozniak had made a verbal agreement months or years before—that the hedge fund broke!—and they came back asking for more); Steve Jobs inadvertently comes off as a grasping penny-pinching asshole. My opinion was modified only somewhat by reading Isaacson’s Steve Jobs: Jobs could be munificent and non-penny-pinching—for anything to do with himself.
Once I finished, Allison called. It was Game Night at a nearby apartment in the same development. After some wandering around in the development innards, I made my way up. Some excruciatingly complex quasi-roleplaying game was in progress with a few Asian boys & girls and 2 Caucasian guys—geeks all. I tried to puzzle out the rules but failed, so I killed a few minutes working on the essay. Thankfully, they wrapped it up (Allison was busy cooking some sort of pasta meal for herself and serving white wine to those who wanted some) and we moved to the couch to play a card game. It was one entirely new to me; it was based on collaborative storytelling with adversarial aspects. The players take term narrating an improvised fairy tale, and like Uno, get to discard cards with story elements when they manage to weave them into the developing tale, but other players can steal the role of narrator if a story element happens to match their cards, and the winner is the one who discards all their cards and can then manage to bring the story to a convincing end that matches their ‘goal card’. (One goal card was something to the effect “…and that is why you should distrust strangers you meet traveling”.) The game does require a fair bit of cooperation and good-faith interpretation among players, though. (I am still mildly annoyed that my attempt to steal the narratorship failed when the others disagreed that mention of our protagonist’s parents implied that they were married and I could steal with my ‘husband and wife’ card, arguing that this could be a modern story with unwed parents or even homosexual parents! Come on, guys.)
It’s a fun game: my team lost the first game, but won the second when the strange story about a perpetually happy boy named Fred who keeps running into bandits & poisoned fruit ended in Fred burning down the house of his beloved’s father (who had imprisoned Fred); we argued that this met the victory condition of ‘burning an evil place’ (to paraphrase).
Then we played a curious Keynesian beauty contest game where the lead player picks a random image and a possibly misleading clue word or sentence, everyone tries to come up with a more fitting image to get points that turn, and the lead player is trying to have at least one person correctly guess which image was the lead player’s image but not have everyone guess which one was his. (I don’t remember its name; a reader suggests it was Dixit.) I didn’t do too great at this, although I at least beat Allison.
There was more than game-playing, of course. One of the Asian dudes had a fancy-looking camera and kept snapping pictures of everything and anything as we played. (Why, I have no idea.) The room-mate and his girlfriend (or was it the other way around?) came home toward the end of the last game. And so on.
Once these three games were over, we disbanded for the night. Apparently some of the guys needed to catch trains back to Berkeley or wherever. They were nice people in general, and it’s too bad I won’t be around for the next game night. I should play more board or card games. I don’t think I’ve ever sat down with a bunch of strange geeks to board games and not enjoyed myself. (For example, it has always worked well at ICON; there was one bad game in the SF Forum, but that was more due to problems with the rules.) I thought I got along well and made some good verbal contributions during the story-telling game, though I didn’t run the narration much (kept getting interrupted and the cycle of narration meant I got few chances to begin with).
Allison left a little early, but I lingered to hear the conversation. Newsflash: some of them were planning to do some traveling soon. And the perpetually smiling Fred was discussing ‘serious’ games like Puerto Rico that took longer than half an hour or hour, and suggesting they do a ‘Serious Sunday’ and a funner Game Night. Speaking of Fred, he looks a little like the teddy bear Lotso in Toy Story 3 but his eyebrows and mouth are more curved and he seems perpetually happy & smiling. It’s a little off-putting, actually. You don’t know if he is really happy or unhappy.
It wasn’t a bad thing that I lingered. I munched the last of the pizza and was able to take back with me Allison’s iPhone (which she left behind).
On getting back, I finished watching Shakugan no Shana Second (and finished off both the plum wine & the mead). SnSS remained mediocre. (I think I watch it only out of a hatred of incompleteness.) Shana remains an awfully cute character design.
Allison poked her head out of her room to ask me to take care of the recycling tomorrow and warning me that she would be busy with parties & networking for the next few days, but there was a party at the same apartment as game night on Friday. I might go, might not. I’m not big on parties. More important is to get my tourist stuff done. And now to bed.
Dark & dreich. Allison & Mike are already gone. Looking out the window I instantly feel depressed. The Tea Garden and Norton are right out. I could still visit City Lights or the Asian Art Museum, but I have no motivation and delay showering until 3 PM at which point the visit to the Museum would not be worthwhile (they close at 5). By then, it had started raining harder. So another day of catch-up, it seems. I dawdle since I don’t really want to work on the Girl Scouts essay, but by 9 PM or when Mike came back, I finally got really started and managed to get a solid first draft done by 11:30 PM. Exhausting! Particularly tiring was puzzling through the Girl Scouts USA IRS forms detailing their financials; all the previous charities I had examined filed much simpler forms. But I feel glad to have gotten it down on paper; too many of my interesting thoughts get forgotten or never get beyond the cached-thought-which-I-emit-in-response-to-related-material.
Optimistically, I do the usual morning computer stuff, shower, eat, and manage to head out at around 12:10 PM—an hour out to Norton, half an hour there, an hour back, and that leaves me 2 hours for the Asian Art Museum & then I can spend whatever time is left at the Library dealing with the Herbert LPs.
I hop on the Brannan Street Muni eager and… wind up getting out at Embarcadero, thoroughly confused that the train to Colma doesn’t seem to pass through that station. I walked down Market Street to the next station and did little better. At this point, I realized I had succumbed yet again to the planning fallacy and decided to cut my losses by cutting Emperor Norton out of the itinerary. (Truthfully, I had suspected that I was being overly optimistic but I tried to do all 3 anyway.) So, I found the library & museum; the museum’s signs claimed to check bags for food & drink.
The signs spooked me into going and spending an hour or so at the library copying the essays on the Frank Herbert records (Sandworms of Dune, The Banquet Scene, & The Battles of Dune) instead while I surreptitiously drank the wine I had gotten for Norton’s grave and ate the last of our blood oranges which we had bought at the farmer’s market. The essays were quite interesting, and I remembered to take photographs so I could check my transcription later if need be; but I was very disappointed that the library had no record players or other digitizing equipment! That’s more than a little strange, I thought, storing objects for which one has no player; and they had hundreds of records there too. (I have hopes that other Dune fans may digitize them someday.) When I finished my food, I left for the museum.
They charged me an extortionate $12 (as a student!) for entrance to the Bali exhibit. The Bali artwork struck me as the product of an extraordinary amount of work, but at the same time, it’s obvious that Bali was a place of grinding poverty—how poor and overpopulated must a place be before everyone is willing to farm a postage stamp carved out of the side of a mountain? And if it’s that poor, what sort of burden did all this religious art represent? Especially given how much of it is meant to be quickly consumed & destroyed? (It’s one thing to make Mount Rushmore, since that art will endure millennia, but another to make something which will last a few days at most.) The exhibit didn’t stress this at all, but one video shows a family exhuming its patriarch 6 years after death and mentions as an aside that poor families will save for years in order to afford a proper cremation of someone’s bones. Again, one wonders—what sort of financial burden is a funeral that families must save for half a decade or more to afford it? These are the same sorts of thoughts I had at the Tower of London and Versailles; how many human lives were consumed to make these baubles and gew-gaws? And often they aren’t even attractive bibelots; they have the usual flaws of conspicuous consumption in valuing ostentation, brightness, and pointless consumption of human labor. (The textile exhibits often fell into this pattern: discussing as if it were a good thing how very intricate and demanding some process was, despite it producing results that looked little better, to this initiate, than the others.)
There was also some mask dancing in the foyer before the exhibits; it was fairly dull and repetitive, not much more complex than the lion dances I saw over the Chinese New Year. People were applauding considerably, which was transparent conformism. It may have cultural value or build character, but let’s not lie about whether we’re enjoying it or have any reason to think it is skilled and difficult, people!
Then I headed up into the 3rd floor, which showed off their extensive Chinese and Indian collection. Their Tibet collection was nice, but what I was particularly impressed by was the jade collection. Hundreds of pieces of all kinds of colors and formats, and any number of rock crystal and other materials. Jade (either nephrite or jadeite) is remarkably versatile given how difficult it is to work. White, translucent, green, blue, yellow—it seemed every color was there. I breezed through the Indian section—never much cared for Indian art of any kind, for some reason—and lingered a while in the Chinese paintings and wardrobe sections. I almost overlooked the furniture on exhibit. The chosen furniture, though from the 1600s, looked like it could have been taken from a random upper-class room. This is not something you could say of the colonial furniture in Williamsburg, and says something about how much Western arts have been influenced by Chinese & Japanese art over the past century or so. The modern paintings were also quite nice. A week or two ago I mentioned in IRC that I had the general impression that there wasn’t much modern Chinese art, and this might be connected to China’s quest for economic growth and its non-existent intellectual property rights regime; I should add a corollary that this is not to say that the art is bad, just that there doesn’t seem to be nearly as much as one would expect for 1.4 billion people.
Then came the Korea section, which I had been looking forward to. At this point it was like 4:45 PM and warnings had already gone out that the museum was closing. I looked interestedly at the crude early Korean stuff, was amused by a vase depicting a Korean idiom (“long ago, when tigers smoked pipes”) and took pictures of it, and was looking interestedly at a modern work where the Korean-American artist took a blowtorch to a fine stainless steel mesh to ‘paint’ lotus-like patterns. At this point I was told to leave. Kind of annoying to walk through the long Japanese section and not have time to look at anything.
I stopped in the gift shop on the way back. Some nice textiles and some very nice celadons (I liked one mug), but all far too expensive for me, and I was quickly ushered out of there as well.
So I headed back to the library (where I learned about the lack of record players) and spent the hour reading a new book about the NYMEX oil futures market (The Asylum: The Renegades Who Hijacked the World’s Oil Market). Fairly interesting; she has a clear ideological orientation, but the quotes and facts seem pretty damning. These are efficient markets?
I headed back on the Muni and after much thought, managed to get on the exact right Muni. After my previous failure, that made me feel much better. More computer time (Mike came back, Allison remained gone), then I went out to CrossRoads to have more trout. (What can I say? $7.30 for that much tasty fish is a real bargain in SF. At the Golden Gate Bridge, the shop was selling crappy sandwiches for more, and the little deli convenience store that Mike eats at charges as much as CrossRoads for less. You might think I’d’ve gotten sick of it by now, but that is a common human mistake1.)
It was enjoyable enough. I spent the time reading Kevin Kelly’s new Technium book (What Technology Wants) and then switched over to the PDF edition of Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality fiction/novel. Some parts of it are funnier the second time around, some parts are worse. (The child abuse bit bothers me more, but the Hermione scene on the train and the Draco scenes are better.)
The LessWrong meetup (LW post) is apparently today! How the time passes. It’s a beautiful day and there apparently is a tea garden tour today at 1 PM, but the meetup is at 6 PM, and Google Maps says it will take me at least 2 hours to get to it (and Google Maps is always optimistic where it comes to me; I feel like I am Ryoga from Ranma ½ sometimes2), so I will want to give myself at least an hour extra, and leave at 2 or 3 PM.
As I try to plan the route, I find that I am terrified. This is not a new thought, but I should be honest and write it down—I’m a homebody as much out of fear of getting lost & having to deal with new people as for any reason like ‘having stuff to do at home’. I have been seriously considering not going to the meetup and simply resolving to go to the next NYC one, since I have spent many hours wandering the streets of NYC and riding its subways and I have no fear of them. But it would be more expensive to ride the LIRR & NYC subway to a meetup than to go on Caltrain to this Mountain View meetup, and the problem of procrastination & breaking resolutions remains—if you won’t conquer a problem now, when will you? So I am at least going to try, even though I’d give myself only 50:50 odds at following Google Maps’s route without problem.
Got a late start managed to distract myself missed first train but it took so long to find Caltrain and buy my ticket I didn’t have to wait too long for the next one, that went smoothly and comfortably, got out and found the buses without problem but got nervous and jumped on the first one to leave which was the wrong one not the express bus but they went along the same road so things worked out uncertain I got out where the bus driver guessed I wanted to get out and walked along el Camino real for 20 minutes quite relieved to eventually see the Palo alto medical foundation and then easily found Williams’s way but then wandered around for 10 or 15 minutes trying to find the unlabeled 800 with random house numbers strewn around where I could even see the house numbers then I followed some geeky guys and found the LessWrong meetup, which was being held in a small converted garage stuffed full of sketchy-looking characters.
As promised, there was plenty of nice food snacks like chocolate bars and strawberries and everyone was chatting loudly with someone else. I managed to find some people I could hear and talked to them, first long discussion with Richard Hollerith and a few others about uploads and computer security and then had a conversation about sleep and the Zeo and then an extremely long argument about AIXI and embodiment and closing the sensory loop and then issues of computability. After that, I began chatting with a former SIAI fellow about intelligence augmentation and how useful in scientific breakthroughs like FAI additional intelligence would be (I was arguing not much based on some historical analogy which was interesting and possibly worth developing but I have sadly forgotten). One short conversation with a Hindu-looking woman about—of all things—her service dog since my own family had trained seeing-eye dogs. Had a short conversation with Clement Huang, a VC. (If I had to describe him, it’d go ‘a Chinese Godel’, where the image of Godel I am thinking of is him in his white suit with Einstein; odd as that description may sound, it must have been true because I still remember it.) Around 10:50 I got nervous about managing transport back to the train station and left; I figured I might’ve missed the bus and if I did that, I’d then miss the 11:15 Caltrain. I was told a lot of people crash there overnight and indeed lots of people were still there, but all in all, I preferred not to. With great luck I overheard someone mention Caltrain before I walked off the dark, asked, and eventually found a black lady who was driving to Oakland and would pass through the Bay Bridge, right by Allison’s apartment. (I feel guilty I cannot even remember the name of the woman who did me such a service.) Besides the black lady there was one black kid who was a CS major and had come because of Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. Its success in recruiting remains a surprise to me, but seems to be real3.
In a testament to how well the night went, I managed to talk myself hoarse for the next few days.
Allison and Mike were pretty much gone all day. I don’t remember what I did, but I believe I ate trout at Crossroads again, and then used my cellphone to find out where everyone was. (Or had I walked down to Fisherman’s Wharf to buy more Boudin sourdough bread?) They were in another apartment in the complex, where the doughy friend was going to make steak. Steak was cooked as we sat around having some wine and Allison worked on her resume with the Dutch dude’s resume as guide (it was done on graph paper & pretty cool, even though he only wrote it to satisfy H-1B visa regulations). The steaks were really large and I felt full after finishing mine.
With everyone full, it was time for a movie, of course! They chose Memento, which only myself, and one other had seen, so at least half the group had not seen it. Well, it was entertaining enough a second time; this time, knowing how the pieces fit together, I was able to spend more time analyzing and I came out with a much worse opinion of the protagonist: he arranges for himself to do a lot of evil things. We finished it and wandered home to bed.
Around 11 AM, Allison, myself, and Mike went to an apartment in the same complex; it was one of her friends who I had seen previously, the one who reminded me of Michael Biehn in The Terminator. He had a really clean apartment, and some extremely impressive (and expensive-looking) sculptures—I was particularly struck by the metal 2/3-foot Alien sculpture. I have no idea how much it must have cost, but it wasn’t the first thing which reminded me that some techies have a great deal of disposable income. (His room-mate was out working on his car; he apparently has a hobby of working on cars he bought for races on weekends. I’m not sure but apparently they often switched up cars for each race, I infer, from one interesting rule they had: you could use only something like $2000 of new car parts, and this was enforced by the race organizers’ rule that you agreed to, at any time, hand over the car in exchange for a check summing the financial limit—so if you used, say, $3000 in parts, they could hand you the check, destroy the car, and now you would be out $1000 and be properly chastened.) He was equally fanatical about his cooking, it seemed—Mike and I had nothing to do because he and Allison were so busy in the kitchen.
While they baked (and he did more work in the kitchen), Allison pulled out her fashion magazine and we commenced mocking it. Around 12, the cookies came out. They were small brownish-black chocolate cookies with macadamia nuts in them. They were very good, although we had waited so long that I was antsy and began to wonder if I’d make it to the Japanese tea garden in time and could only have a few. When I got back and began crunching through the schedules, I found that if I assume I missed some trains (as I inevitably would), I’d have an hour or less at the garden, and so it wasn’t worth while. I decided to scrap the tea garden and just go to City Lights and the Stinking Rose instead.
That trip was in walking distance, and so much better. I left around 3 or 4 PM, saw much of the financial district as people started to rush home and formed long lines for buses, and made it to City Lights without much trouble. City Lights was quite nice—packed with quirky little books and recommendations. I read some poetry books upstairs (which was surprisingly packed) and then took pictures as I headed downstairs and explored the basement with its nonfiction and philosophy and SF. (The SF had some Gene Wolfe, but not his new 2011 Home Fires as I hoped; the philosophy section represented continental stuff well but analytic poorly, eg. they didn’t have Gary Drescher’s 2006 Good and Real). It looked, however, nothing like I expected from Ergo Proxy. (An old-fashioned sprawling single-level store; I don’t think I even saw any busts inside City Lights—I want a refund!)
Around 6 or so, I finished up and found The Stinking Rose, right up the street. I had a table immediately, and not too long after that had my appetizer: a number of tasty bread rolls and a small bowl of garlic cloves in olive oil. I think they were elephant garlic because they spread very well and didn’t taste too strongly. I ate them with great relish and asked for more bread, since I was cutting the bread in half, stuffing in cloves, and eating them as sandwiches. The decor was heavily on the ‘red’ side, and from where I sat, I could slightly see into a room which seemed to be decorated on either a circus or North African theme because one table was underneath a sort of tent jutting a foot out of the wall. I was particularly impressed by the long ropes of garlic crisscrossing the ceiling.
Looking over the menu, I was struck by how much many of the items cost. Instead of going for pizza, which would have ~$10, I decided to splurge and buy the rabbit entree for $20. During my long wait, I had opportunity to study the people around me. I couldn’t help but read into what I saw. For example, two middle-aged women eating dinner seemed to spend more time on their smartphones than each other. The 2 men and woman on the other side of me seemed very comfortable with each other and chatted a great deal—presumably the man & woman were married, and the man across them was their friend; I speculated that they were visiting their single friend in SF, and so they had a great deal to discuss. In such speculative games I pass my time; I wonder if it really was as easy in Victorian times as Conan Doyle made it seem with Sherlock Holmes.
The rabbit was quite good, and much meatier than I had expected. They must raise very fat rabbits on rabbit-farms. Believe it or not, but I didn’t seem to experience garlic fatigue even after I finished. I grabbed a handful of their fruity hard candies (for customers’ breaths), and was mildly shocked how much I wound up paying:
Stinking Rose receipt:
- bagna: $4.95
- rabbit: $19.95
- SF mandate tax: $1.00
- Tax: $2.46
- Tip: $3.00
- total: $31.36 (7:13 PM)
As I headed down the hill, I seemed to miss my turn and continued further down. The sidewalk was under construction, and I noticed that there was a old classical-looking building across the street which was well lit. In fact, looking closer there was a legend ‘Church of Scientology’, and on the second floor, I could see what looked like a class with young men looking keenly toward the front. I read the documents in Operation Clambake back in the ’90s, and it boggles my mind that anyone could take it seriously, much less devote a lovely spring evening to studying it. There was a real pathos to it, I reflected, standing there and taking pictures. (They didn’t come out well.) Later, I refined my thoughts into a haiku:
A sad sight of spring: lights shining in the Church of Scientology
I only semi-slept through the night. My anxiety about missing my flight was too high. The Zeo records some initial deep sleep but mostly light sleep; curiously, I thought I was awake when the Zeo went off but it claims I was in light sleep. Since I was effectively awake, getting up at 4 AM wasn’t hard. A quick shower, some tidying up, fearful looking around for lost items, fast oatmeal, and then a short break to read some more Methods of Rationality. I managed to get out by 5:05 or so. The walk to BART was not troublesome because there’s so little traffic; there was one odd incident with a fat black woman leaning a wall smoking—she asked me something but I was in a rush and not in the mood for beggars, so I ignored her, and as I left her in the distance I could hear her call me an asshole (I should just write her off as another beggar, but I can’t seem to let it go. What if she had been asking the time or something innocuous and now she thinks I’m a racist?).
I had hoped to not need to buy a BART ticket, but my Clipper is too empty and I take the time to do so. Then I rush to the bottom and there’s a BART train there seconds after I get there. It says San Francisco Airport on some of its signs, but is it going to or from? Worse, I think there’s only one track to SFO (the BART station at SFO had one side entirely blocked off with orange cones), so it’s being used by a leaving train, does that imply that there’s only one train coming or going at any time and that missing the right one means waiting hours? But I figured I could examine the map at leisure and hop off at the next station if I were wrong… I hoped. With only a few seconds to spare, I hopped on. Settling down, I looked around. A few people had rolling baggage like me. A good sign. In between stations, I checked the map. We seemed to be going the right direction.
I initially sweated bullets, but slowly relaxed as non-luggage people got off and the station names continued to seem right. Then we got there and everything was fine. There was a small snafu at the Southwest ticket counter where the machines wouldn’t take my driver’s license or debit card, and security took a long time as usual, but I got out with 30 minutes to spare.
And promptly spent all of it in the bathroom, expelling my guts in a burst of diarrhea and flatulence. I had felt a bit troubled along the way, but hadn’t realized how bad it had gotten. Apparently my intestines did not like the Stinking Rose’s fare at all. Everything was well-cooked, so it could only be the fault of a garlic overload, and the sulfur was coming out of me the hard way. I felt miserable and drained. The first leg of the flight was more or less comfortable, sitting next to a mother and her cute little girl—mercifully, the diarrhea was not the uncontrollable sort. I spent the flight reading my old New York Times and then reading PDFs on my laptop. When we got into Chicago (which had a very complex and disturbing approach to landing), I ducked out for another stay in the bathroom.
The first flight was the longest, and the second went much more quickly; that one I spent reading more Harry Potter: Methods of Rationality. While I had an empty seat next to me, the couple in front of me decided to put back both their seats so they could watch a Toy Story movie with their child, and that left me too little room to type. Ah well.
At Islip MacArthur, I farted out some more, and got picked up. Then a late dinner of Chinese, staying up until midnight reading, and sleeping in until noon the next day. (I might have gotten up early to go to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s lecture at Yeshiva University on Wednesday, but he said it was less interesting than his Thursday lecture at NYU, so I decided to go to that instead. On Thursday, I got distracted, and geared up to leave too late and canceled the whole thing. Damn akrasia and planning fallacy!)
There are a number of psychology studies about how humans let their current temporary like or dislikes govern their choices about the future—where they act as if the future were right now, and not weeks or months away.
For example, if you feed kids salty pretzels and then ask them whether they’d prefer a drink or candy tomorrow, many will say they would like the drink tomorrow, though before the pretzels they would have said the candy and if you ask them on the morrow, sure enough, they’ll say the candy.
Another experiment runs, ask the college student their favorite candy (Snickers, say), and then say they’ll get one a month for the next X months, but they have to make their choice now; the students tend to do something like ask for Snickers the first month, Mars Bars the second month, Twix the third… even though each candy bar is a month apart, and there’s no way they’ll prefer the Mars Bars or a Twix to Snickers just because they ate a Snickers months ago!
And sure enough, I enjoyed the trout as much as I did the first time several days ago, though I would not have enjoyed the 3 meals of trout if they had all been on the same day. Time heals all wounds, even that of familiarity.↩︎
It occurred to me the other day that this is the second Thanksgiving in a row where I have praised my GPS. What a mistake it was to never get one before.↩︎
For example, the 2011 LessWrong survey found 196 LWers claiming to find LessWrong via Methods of Rationality; and similar numbers were turned in by the 2012 LessWrong survey (enough that more fine-grained analyses could be done).↩︎