The sharing economy

I stayed in my first airbnb in SF last night (hotels were sold out because of a urology conference)

Thoughts after an eventful first night:

  • It came with a Nest thermostat, which hundreds of random people have used, making the task of guessing what temps everyone wants at what time rather difficult for the AI engine behind it because no two people are alike and it was designed to sit forever in the same house with the same people attached to a Nest account. At 3AM it promptly cranked the temp up to 79ºF and I woke up overheated wondering what the hell was going on.
  • I didn’t notice there was a motion sensor on the only light in the bathroom. Also there were no windows in the bathroom. So what I did notice was that after ten minutes, while I was in the middle of a shower in a strange bathroom, it went totally pitch black like I was in a cave. On the plus side, I was also barefoot on a slippery floor plus naked so it was super safe and fun to finish out the shower and fish around for my towel in the empty blackness. I’m sure the unit saves a lot of money on lighting costs, so that’s good.
  • The ducting system would scream out about once an hour as air rushed through it whenever the heater turned on. It sounded like cries of help from my cursed elders who died tragically hundreds of years ago and were demanding that I avenge their deaths. 2AM AAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH then at 4AM AHHHHHHHHHHHH and at 5AM AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH and 6AM AAAAAAHHHHHHH.

My year in movies

Late in 2017 I remembered I’d always had an account at Letterboxd, but I barely used it in the past and didn’t know what I’d ever use the site for. But in early January, I decided that I’d log every film I watched during 2018 and I would leave a quick rating along with a simple review.

Now that it’s 2019, I am really happy with the results. I watched 93 films in 2018, and about half of those were new films in movie theaters, as I made it a nearly weekly habit to check out new movies.

Going through my list of films and my reviews, it reminds me of the first time I started keeping a journal in highschool or started blogging in 1999. I can glance back at my list of ratings and reviews and remember where I was when I saw each one, and recall what was going on in my life. Looking at the lists, it made the year feel longer as I can’t believe how many things I got to watch and enjoy.

The only film I gave a perfect 5 stars to was Free Solo, but to be honest I think it was 5 stars for a documentary. It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen but it wasn’t 100% perfect. I saw lots of 4.5 and 4 star films.

I watched three entertaining, almost perfect films a lot. About once a month I watched either Logan Lucky, Magic Mike XXL, or Baby Driver. They’re all three punchy, fun, good looking films with well-written stories and when I’m bored and want to enjoy something light, I watch them. I’ve seen Thor: Ragnarok several times as well and it’ll likely end up on that list too.

In the process I found out I really like Letterboxd for tracking my own films, and seeing reviews from my twitter social graph as well. One of my favorite things is to see ratings and reviews from someone I follow on twitter and have great respect for their work, but their taste in films baffles me. Stuff I love, they hate, and stuff they love I don’t get at all. It’s a fun game to see what their take is on new films because I can never predict it.

Lastly, I found a true gem on Letterboxd is everyone’s favorite comedian on Twitter, Demi Adejuyigbe. His reviews are honest, punchy, fun to read, and hilariously funny. He has an infectious love of movies that comes through in his reviews. They’re not deep, they’re visceral, but they’re always great.

For 2019, I’m going to keep it up. I paid for Letterboxd pro and I intend to use it. Also I like round numbers so I’m going to try and hit 100 films in 2019, and like last year, see as many as possible in the theater.

How are stories kept a mystery in your mind?

I woke up from a nightmare where my daughter was injured and it “shocked” me awake. I was having a pleasant dream about a day walking around with family in Montreal, a city I’ve never visited before. It was lovely and fun for what seemed like ages, until a freak accident ended it.

How was this a surprise to me? The story unfolding all came from my brain. But the accident storyline did as well. What’s the mechanism that “hides” the nightmare ending from my conscious mind in order to surprise me? How are dreams ever unknown to us? How did my brain convince me I was in Montreal when I’ve never been and what did it use to fill in the blank spaces? Are storylines simply health related? After my nightmare I had to pee fairly urgently, so was that my autonomic system throwing a wrench in my happy narrative to get me up to relieve myself and feel better?

Are our brains and bodies a bundle of parts of competing systems that all fire independently at random times or is it a brilliantly orchestrated single cohesive system above it all that chooses what to reveal to me along with what it should hide?

How could you even begin to design an experiment to figure out how stories unfold in our dreams?

A visit to the Olympic Peninsula

I’ve lived in Oregon for over 15 years now, and I realized in all my trips to Seattle, I’d never explored anything further west than Olympia, in the middle of the state. I’ve always wanted to visit Olympic National Park and I knew it’d be cold and wet in the winter, but it’s only a few hours drive and I’ve heard lots of good things before, so last week we took a family trip up to Astoria, Oregon, then over the bridge and along the coast north into the Olympic peninsula.

Here are my favorite shots from the trip. Click/tap any to see them larger.

We spent a couple nights at Kalaloch Lodge, which was a fine base to explore the region. We stayed in the old 1960s hotel building, but I wish we could have had one of the cool standalone cabins that surrounded the grounds (they’re often booked many months in advance). The hotel restaurant had pretty good food but fairly slow service. And the Lodge isn’t messing around when they say there is no WiFi, no TVs, and very little cell service. Though we surprisingly had good LTE phone connections all the way up the coast no matter how remote the roads seemed, the moment we stepped off highway 101, our phones went to 3G, EDGE, or no network, including in the hotel room.

The “tree of life” just north of the Kalaloch Campground is not to be missed, If you can catch it on a sunny day, the ground remaining underneath it just glows.

The towns that dot the 101 highway were quite tiny. The city of Forks where all the Twilight movies were filmed was remarkably small and forgettable. The area around Crescent Lake was sublime and looked like any random mountain lake in Switzerland, flanked on all sides by snow capped peaks and giant trees. Definitely check out the Marymere Falls trail there. Port Angeles had great restaurants and is worth a visit.

The lodge told us a few days before that despite the government shutdown, they would remain open and Olympic National Park would be open for most access. I called the information hotline and they said to follow their road closures page on their site, which showed a great number of roads blocked by debris from a recent storm, but unfortunately, they stopped updating the closure list at the start of the shutdown, so there was no way to know what roads were open and closed without the website updates.

We found ourselves enjoying a few beach hikes and some hiking trails to see big trees, but the big Hoh Rainforest road was closed 11 miles up from the highway with no visitors allowed (and unfortunately with no signs on the highway alerting you to it, you had to drive up into the hills to find the closed sign yourself). I was really looking forward to seeing the trails around the Hoh Rainforest but I guess I’ll try visiting again in the future.

One last bit of advice is to take the idea of a rainforest seriously. I’ve always sort of half-believed that Western Washington was one of the wettest places on earth, it seems a bit far-fetched when you think of tropical rainforests, but the area around the Hoh gets nearly a half inch of rain per day, every day on average. We had a couple days of sporadic drizzle, then our last day up there featured driving rain propelled by 20mph winds and the hikes we did that day soaked us to the core. Water resistant shells and gore-tex were no match and I would suggest buying cheap plastic/rubber slicker type pants and jackets to wear as your outer layer to have any hope of staying dry.

It was a great trip overall, and I’m kicking myself for not visiting it earlier. It’s a gorgeous section of the state that doesn’t see too many visitors and I’m definitely going to check it out next summer when hopefully everything is open again.

X-treme BMX Mary Poppins

The new Mary Poppins has been out for a week so I’m gonna talk about the only WTF moment for me: the extreme sports moment in it (skip this if you consider a critique of a scene a spoiler)

At one point in the film, they need to get across town and decide to go by bicycle and they need help to accomplish their goal so all the other lamplighters on bikes join in, and then it happens: pointless bike stunts.

To be fair, I thought the styling of the obviously modern bmx jump bikes were fairly close to the relic that Lin-Manuel Miranda was riding, and most people wouldn’t catch they were modern bikes since they were styled to match the look of older classic bikes.

The stunt riding cracked me up. For no reason, there’s a double peg grind on a handrail. Then a few tabletop airs off some quarterpipes built into the scenery. And then Emily Blunt does a Blender! Madness I tell you, all of it.

Here’s a proper Blender done by an old friend Pete Brandt that rides regularly to this day outside of the Ferry Building in SF. I used to ride with him in high school and early college when I still did flatland bmx (I used to have a tiny blog dedicated to me trying to keep it up, that’s me in the header graphic). It was hilarious to me that they made it appear that Mary Poppins was doing this.

Anyway, my main beef is this: the new film was made like a timeless classic, and it felt like a throwback to the style of the original film, but then there’s a moment of modern BMX thrown in for no reason. It’s like as if it was filmed in 1996 and you had a big set of rollerbladers in a scene for no reason.

Pointless BMX is going to date this film instantly as something from the 2010s while adding nothing to the story. It didn’t ramp up the excitement for me, it just felt out of place and weird.

Aside from this minor point, the film is beautiful looking and the costumes are great as well as the choreography and music. The songs aren’t catchy as the originals and the film goes a bit slowly for my tastes but overall it was a fun time at the theater.

It just didn’t need any BMX in it.

The Great War

I saw Peter Jackson’s WWI movie They Shall Not Grow Old where they restored clips frame-by-frame and colorized them, and then combined those visuals with audio recordings of soldiers talking about the war, and on the surface it was an interesting project that really brought home how young everyone was and how brutal the war was. Being limited to audio interviews meant it had no historical context besides what someone told an interviewer 50-60 years ago. Thanks to a 30 minute short that played after the film, Jackson shared stories of how the movie was made and assembled and after getting more context and information, I felt ultimately it was kind of a big dumb vanity project for Peter Jackson that fell short of the mark.

He set out to make a movie for non-historians to watch, made by non-historians, and that’s an interesting concept and I get that making a big Ken Burns style exhaustive historical film would add a ton of work and become a different beast. But ultimately through the 30min follow-up extras, Jackson makes it clear he chose to cut out any archive film about the navy ships and battles, cut the entire story of the first airplanes in war, and chopped out any war front footage besides that from the fields of Belgium and France.

The moment that crystallized it for me was when he showed his own research photos he took during the colorization process, including a scene we saw of soldiers looking scared in a gully below a field, and he located the exact field and the exact gully and took a photo from the same angle and casually mentioned the look of horror on the young soldiers’ faces was due to them getting ready to storm the field above them which was filled with German soldiers in camp, and how almost certainly 90% of people in that piece of film died about 30 minutes after it was captured.

That’s quite a revelation to pick up in a small aside, and reframed the bit of film and explained so much that was lost in how the movie was ultimately made. By adding no historical context, the segment of scared soldiers just felt like an odd moment among hundreds of other clips, notable only for the frightened looks on a couple faces that are unexplained and entirely left to the viewer.

We should never forget the horrors of war. If we ignore the lessons we are doomed to repeat them, and I think the concept of the project was a wonderful one, but the execution fell far short of the mark. It didn’t have to be an exhaustive Ken Burns style project that takes 5-10 years to complete, but on the other hand, 90 minutes of daily life footage combined with soldier stories isn’t quite enough to tell a full picture of what took place.

I wanted to like this more than I did, and I wanted it to be a great piece of history, but ultimately, it was not.

hashtag rich guy goals

Lately I’ve thought of all the ways my life would change if I ever became a rich guy. Think of this as an action plan, if I ever got to act this way. It’s sort of like becoming a prepper, it’s just I’m prepping for opulence instead of post-apocalyptic annihilation.

I’ve come up with three things so far.

Number one is easy. Guac on everything. Yes, I would like to add avocado to my omelette. I’ll take chips and guacamole as soon as I sit down anywhere serving it. Yes I know it’s extra, but I’m fine with that. Always and forever going forward.

It’ll be the first immediate switch that flips in my life. No hesitation, no delay, I want guac in everything and I’m going to order it that way. Every chef wants to offer it, but it costs a little more. With such low-level worries in my rearview mirror, I’ll finally be ready to always say yes to extra fat and flavor from then on out.

Two. This might not be universal, but pebble ice is the best ice in drinks on planet earth and I want a personal ice maker in my house that makes perfect pebble ice on demand. I know this isn’t that outlandish. I might have even tracked various sales on Amazon and remember a tabletop pebble ice maker once dropped to about $250 down from $600, but I still couldn’t make myself pull the trigger. Two hundred and fifty dollars (on sale) just for ice? Are you kidding? What am I, some kind of rich guy?!

A real pebble ice maker fit for a bar or restaurant runs in the two to three thousand dollar range new. Trust me, I’ve looked. On eBay, you can find shuttered places selling off their pebble ice makers for less, often around $1500, sometimes as cheap as $900. But they’re big, about the size of a hotel ice maker from the 1970s. As much as I love pebble ice, I can’t justify that, but a tabletop maker? Someday, I hope to make one mine.

Third, and perhaps most indulgent on the lifestyle change list is buy the entire dessert menu, whenever the opportunity arises. Let me explain.

Often you’re at a nice place and you had a good meal and you’re asked if you’re interested in dessert. I never know how to convey how very much interested I am in dessert, always. I love talking about it, thinking about it, and eating it. I think about it more than I think about steaks or appetizers or cocktails.

Every time I go out, near the end of the night I’m presented with an impossible quandary. Here are six things. Here are eight things. Here are five things. Almost all of them sound amazing, but most importantly for almost everyone: you may only choose one.

A bunch of years ago, I took a group of friends out for a special dinner and at the end we realized there were eight different desserts that sounded good and there were eight of us. And even though all eight people wanted a mix of 5 or 6 of the options I got to utter the most powerful words to our server I’d ever wielded inside a restaurant: “I’d like to order all the desserts. Yes. We’ll take the entire dessert menu for the table.”

Everyone got a bite of all eight things. And of course we all loved two or three things more than the rest and maybe one or two options were deemed unsuccessful, but it was the principle of the thing.

“I’ll take one of everything, my good sir.”

I’ve only been in two other situations in the last twenty years where it worked out that we had enough people to match the number of dessert menu items and I got to order the entire lot. And let me tell you I remember each one of those three meals and all the desserts entailed within each.

So, my new rule once I become a rich guy is when the dessert menu arrives I’ll wave it away with a flourish of my wrist and I’ll say “yeah, I’ll have them all.

To be clear, I don’t want to eat all of them—a bite of each is the perfect amount to figure out what works and doesn’t and why. It would be tremendously wasteful but I’d finally get to leave no stone unturned at the end of any posh meal.

I’m so ready for this someday rich guy thing.

My first second line

One of the best experiences on my recent trip to New Orleans was getting to witness a second line brass band parade from start to finish.

I was there with a friend documenting the work done by the social clubs that put them on, and as much I tried to stay on the sidelines and away from the action, every person I encountered and was introduced to was warm, gracious, and welcomed me as a guest in their space.

We began at the house where the procession started, awaited the kickoff at noon, and watched one brass band after another play out dance squads and parade kings and queens as they emerged from the home. Then we spent a few hours following the parade at various points.

I remember a moment early in the day, when the first groups were coming out of the house and I heard this incredible live music all around me along with all the smells of food and drink being prepared in the street and everyone was cheering on a dance squad decked out in matching suits with big feathers to accentuate their moves and then another brass band joined in and then there was the queen surrounded by 5 feet of feathers all around her head looking absolutely like queen of the entire planet earth. It hit every one of my senses at once. It was a celebration and a culture unlike anything I’d seen before. And it was beyond wonderful. I just lost it and started crying at the pure joy of everything happening all around me.

We followed our favorite brass bands for a few miles and walked up and down the route amidst all the people taking part. There were so many cool examples of people doing what they loved. There were bicycle clubs, motorcycle clubs, people on horses, people with huge 4x4s and people in lowriders. There were people selling burgers, beers, drinks, and cocktails from the backs of their cars and trucks. There were dogs everywhere and people with snakes and people smoking weed in the streets and dancing along and there were even cops at the start and finish of the procession but everyone was cool with each other. I didn’t hear a single voice raised in anger anywhere. I never saw the cops do anything but shake people’s hands and keep the party moving. It just was so many handshakes, hugs, and dancing for hours.

It was an entire day of pure joy and celebration of great music and people. And it happens every week! Over 40 Sundays per year! I was overwhelmed in the best way possible by the whole day and I couldn’t help but think it must be incredible to get to experience it every week. No matter how bad your week was, or how unfair things seem, there’s always the party on Sunday to feel good again and celebrate the best life has to offer.

Second lines are fucking incredible.

A small sample of what it sounded like

Visiting the Whitney Plantation/Slavery Museum

Statues of the children that lived and died on the plantation were ever present throughout the grounds and our entry badges contained the stories of each one of them

When I read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy a few years ago, I remember being shocked not just by the stories about today’s justice system, but the revelation that the first slavery museum in the US was opened to the public just a few years ago. Hundreds of years of detailed, brutal history and zero museums dedicated to it before 2014? I knew the next time I went to New Orleans, I would visit the Whitney Museum, and today I finally got to experience it.

I’d read Just Mercy, I’ve read the People’s History of the United States, I’ve read a bunch of Ta-Nehisi Coates, so I naively thought I had some idea of how bad slavery was.

After visiting and hearing the stories from my guide and seeing the displays, I really had no clue.

Think of the worst thing you can possibly imagine that one human being might do to another and know that what really took place was a hundred times worse.

It was a real journey today that I’m still processing. But it began immediately with a memorial showing the names of all the slaves that lived and died on the property, as it went from farming indigo to sugar cane.

Name after name after name, almost all of them anglicized to remove their history, family, and heritage. To remove their humanity. To reinforce they were property. To make it clear that they were little more than machinery for the farm. For profits. People can do horrible things to one another when their overseer doesn’t consider their slaves to be human and instead treats them like cheap, replaceable farm equipment.

In another memorial, we visited the results of a genealogy project that displayed 107,000 names of recorded slaves between 1719 and 1820 in Louisiana (this misses the 45 years at the height of slavery that followed). It was a tremendous amount to take in at once, just slab after slab of granite etched with thousands and thousands of names going all around a big open field around you.

Late in the tour, a third memorial was devoted to the 2,000 children who died on the plantations in just the local parish (parishes are treated like counties in Louisiana, there are 64 total). There we learned the birth rate on the plantations around New Orleans was -13%. That for every 100 children born into slavery, 113 died before they reached the age of an “adult” which is ten years old. This was the second time I cried this day.

The darkness and brutality of slavery was evident from start to finish on the tour. In the “Gold Coast” around New Orleans, slaves lived for only 7-10 years after arriving on plantations in the region, no matter what their starting ages were. Slave owners insured their property (including their slaves) and would get up to 75% of their investment back when slaves died, so plantation owners had every incentive to work everyone to death, making many times over what they paid thanks to their free labor and when their slaves did die, owners were rewarded by recouping most of their original investment. The entire economic system was designed to support it.

The utter danger of plantation work was made clear. Slaves on this plantation had to weed 1,800 acres of cane fields by hand, frequently encountering venomous snakes. Sugar cane was harvested with long sharp blades that could easily slice you open or take off a foot accidentally. Sugar cane processing started with huge grinders which caused gruesome accidents.

The worst was hearing that pressed and ground sugar cane had to be boiled down in these large, wide vats, going from largest to smallest as they boiled off all the water to get sugar. Anyone that’s ever done any kind of candy making today knows that getting just a drop of molten sugar on your skin can burn it deeply and severely. Imagine people tending boiling vats of sugar 24 hours a day in shifts for several months a year. Mixing and mixing around the clock, being exhausted, and trying not to make a mistake that can instantly kill you.

Slave quarters were appalling. And we learned there was no metal in the buildings, which were assembled with tongue-and-groove woodwork along with wooden dowels to hold beams together, as nails and spikes could be used as weapons, so they were completely omitted from construction.

I didn’t know most plantation owners and their families typically only visited during harvest, to oversee the most valuable part of the work from about October through December. All that pomp and circumstance of constructing those opulent buildings but they only got used a fraction of the year, with most rich families living in fancier New Orleans houses, or spending their summers on the coast to escape the heat and bugs on the farms.

The most disturbing aspect of the entire tour was hearing about the slave rebellion of 1811. It was the story of an elaborate escape, and the freeing of slaves at other plantations, but also their eventual capture, and their sentencing to death, and their decapitation, then finally the story of plantations mounting their heads on pikes to display along the river, to serve as a lesson to others to never try anything like it again.

Other things I learned that were new to me:

  • Automation revived slavery in the early 1800s. As the indigo trade was dying, it wasn’t economical to keep slaves, until the cotton gin and the paddle wheel steamboat and other processes to increase output made agriculture profitable again.
  • African resistance to diseases like malaria made them ideal slaves over any Europeans or indigenous people more susceptible to disease.
  • Today’s racists try to revise history to make slavery seem less barbaric because even they are aware in hindsight that slaves were humans and the actual practices that took place were almost unbelievably brutally barbaric.
  • In the 1800s you received more whips as punishment for having a pencil and paper (even if you were illiterate) than for escaping from the plantation.
  • Brooks brothers had a line of clothing for slaves to dress them up for auction day to fetch the highest price.
  • Plantation houses are placed, built, and landscaped to optimize for cool breezes off the river, and all those ideas were taken from their African slaves. African homes were constructed in these ways to keep homes as cool as possible in summers.
  • The blacksmiths and the cooks were the most valuable slaves on a plantation, and both had multiple apprentices aged 10 and up, there to learn the trade in case anything happened to their mentors so they could replace them quickly.

It’s fascinating to think how all of this history could be so easily forgotten, due to how little records were kept. The Whitney plantation has records on their slaves due to a variety of unusual circumstances. There was a lawsuit between two descendants of the family fighting over their fortune in the 1800s that introduced all their slave record keeping as evidence in the case. The children who died were recorded in church documents for their parish. The WPA did first person interviews in the 1930s with former slaves (who were all in their 80s and 90s) and recorded their stories of being children at the Whitney Plantation. Without any of these, details are forgotten and 200 years does a lot to soften memories. It’s abhorrent that we don’t have museums dedicated to this subject all over the country. Or that the first one in America opened in 2014.

Our guide Ali, was incredible. In fact, I’d suggest you phone ahead to make sure he’s your guide when you visit. He told grim stories and always broke them down to their elements. How people were separated and pitted against one another. How a tiny minority controlled a vast army of slaves. How you keep oppressed people down, how you keep them away from education, how you remove any shred of self-worth, and how you make it seem like there’s no other option.

He also connected those lessons to today. How we still continue to repeat these brutal processes to keep much of humanity down. How we live in a country where 1% controls the other 99% and makes laws to benefit the 1% and the other 99% go along with it. How tools of oppression worked then and still work today (we passed a large for-profit prison on the way to the plantation, which provides a sub-minimum wage workforce to companies and offers little-to-no rehabilitation to help prisoners escape the system)

Overall, it was a sobering and haunting day, and I’m still weighing the gravity of the visit. I would recommend anyone wanting to know more about slavery should visit the Whitney Plantation.

It was an incredible experience I won’t ever forget.