Friday, April 29, 2011

Vacation in San Francisco

Last week I took my little family on vacation to San Francisco. We were originally planning on going during the summer, but I figure we cut the cost by about 40% by going during our oldest kids' spring break instead. The risk, of course, was that the weather would be bad, but in the cold calculus of our cheapitude, a lot of money saved outweighed the threat of a little rain. Even so, we still spent a pretty penny (there goes our tax return ...), but it was well worth it. As there is absolutely no way that I have time to do a complete run-down of our experiences, I'm going to show one picture from each of the places we went, most of them NOT the typical tourist pictures, which hopefully will give a feel for what we did ...

Sunday, April 17th

We drove up north on Sunday, which is something we always try to avoid, but it just didn't make sense to do anything different. Even so, we wanted to have some religious content to our day, so on the way up we stopped at the Oakland Temple, where we took a lot of pictures. Again, I'm only going to show one, but suffice it to say that we took pictures of the temple, of the awesome view from the temple (we still have to assemble the panorama shots), of the inside of the visitors center (there's some amazingly beautiful paintings in there), etc. In what was to become a pattern over the next week, the children each had their own cameras, which they used to take pictures of everything from their legs to black walls.

Of course, being in Oakland, we were on the wrong side of the bay, so we went across the Bay Bridge. My wife had purchased a San Francisco travel guide, and read to the kids the history and information on the bridge. The older two didn't really care, but our youngest son, who is into all things mechanical, thought it was awesome. Their biggest complaint was that they couldn't see the bridge very well from the back of the van.

We were hoping to see Fort Pointe Sunday night before it got too late, as it is only open Friday through Sunday. Alas, in making our way there, we got stuck due to construction and by the time we figured out how to get there, it was past closing time. Even so, in part of our unexpected detour, we found ourselves in the Presidio military cemetery. My wife had never been in such a place, and it was a good reminder to everybody of the sacrifices that people make so that we can enjoy our freedom. We noted many tombstones that showed many people had actually participated in more than one war.

Even though Fort Pointe was closed, the wiggly part of Lombard Street, arguably the crookedest street in the world, doesn't ever really close, so we went over there to show the kids. We made the mistake of going east on Lombard Street towards the top of the hill, which meant we were in a row of cars many blocks long all trying to go down it. While waiting, I had the wife and kids get out of the van and walk up the hill a few blocks to get there and they actually were able to walk down and then back up it and return to the van before I had moved more than two blocks closer. We eventually bailed from the long line, and determined that we could skip it altogether by coming from the south along Hyde Street and simply turning right at the intersection. The kids were alarmed that we were "butting in line", but to me it was a demonstration of great wisdom rather than a show of a lack of ethics. Note to all future Lombard Street tourists: do what we did.

Monday, April 18th

Monday morning we set off for Golden Gate Park, a beautiful tract of greenery cutting a swath through urban San Francisco. Within the park was the Japanese Tea Gardens, which was free to go into if you got there before 10 am. We arrived just after 9 and walked through the gardens. It was slightly drizzly (the worst weather we had all week, actually), so the kids were a little anxious about that (remember, they're Southern California children ... rain is very much akin to a meteor shower in both their frequency and their potential impact). Even so, the walk through the gardens was beautiful and we were able to convince our daughter, at least, to just be still and enjoy the peaceful surroundings.

After we went to the Japanese Tea Gardens, we walked across the street to the Academy of Sciences, a museum that had lots of different sections. We walked through the butterfly infested rain forest, stared down the albino alligator, grinned at the sharks, and played with the starfish. The kids love that kind of stuff, even if they'd rather look and run rather than gaze and read. We spent nearly the whole day there, and were so very happy that we were able to get in to the planetarium for a star show. The children had never been to anything like that and they were truly in awe as we appeared to zip through the stars and swerve between planets. It was very, very cool.

After we left the Academy, we went over and, after a bit of difficulty, found some parking near the Children's Playground. The kids had a great time going down the concrete slide and climbing the rope tower. My oldest son was too afraid to go all the way to the top until his younger sister showed him up (after I demonstrated to her it could be done -- yeah, I'm a big kid). I think it was that night that we came back to the hotel and went swimming at the hotel pool, which waters were quite warm, but the air was SO cold. The kids got in, but my wife and I didn't. In fact, my wife stayed back at the room because she was so cold. Undeterred, the kids had a blast, though.

Tuesday, April 19th

No trip to San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf would be complete without stopping at Pier 39 to watch the harbor seals. The noisy, smelly, rude animals always make me laugh. The kids were under-impressed, though, so we moved on.

We walked over to the Aquarium of the Bay and got there just as it opened. A relatively small aquarium (we were used to the likes of the Monterrey Bay Aquarium), we only spent a few hours there. The kids enjoyed it, though, particularly the really long tunnels that wrapped around under their big tanks. The kids had their cameras out and were taking picture after picture of sharks and rays and schools of fish floating over their heads. It was a great time.

When we were done at the Aquarium, we walked down the street to Joe's Crab Shack for lunch. It's totally bad for your body, but it is arguably one of my favorite places to eat. I'm a big burger fan, so when I saw their "Surf 'N Turf Burger", I was sold. It's a big hamburger with shrimp on top with deep fried onions and sauce (okay, there's lettuce and tomatoes on it, too). Again, it was totally bad for my body, but it was so totally worth it. Oh, and the wife and kids enjoyed it, too.

After lunch, we walked/sauntered/rolled over to the Hyde Street Pier. We just wanted to take a quick look at the ships from the pier, but then discovered that all of them were open to visit for free that day. Never ones to turn down free stuff, we happily clambered aboard each of the ships in turn. Our favorite of the bunch was most definitely the Balclutha, which not only had an interesting story, but was well-fitted for visitors. The kids were well-engaged and had a great time walking its decks. There was actually some kind of a youth program going on at the time, too, with people pretending to be sailors instructing a bunch of pre-teen kids on how to take care of a ship. Judging by all the sleeping gear left in one of the cabins, I think it was an overnighter for them. Such an amazing ship, we were stunned at its size and, given how we are used to such a mechanized world, amazed that such a huge thing (fully loaded, even!) could be moved just by wind power alone.

That night, we drove over to the Financial District. The kids wanted to see the Transamerica Pyramid. We drove around and the kids again took lots of pictures, most looking up at the buildings around us. They're city kids, but not city kids, and thought it was really neat. I still don't think they comprehend just how many people live in the big city, being so densely packed in compared to where we live.

After the Financial District, we drove up to Coit Tower and were stunned to find we could drive all the way to the top and get parking! All the previous times I'd been there, traffic to the top was a nightmare and we ended up parking down below and hiking up, so parking at the top was a real treat. We went inside, but declined the ticket to go to the top. Even so, we enjoyed the murals on the inside (the kids finding the part where a guy was being held up) and the view from the outside. We took some playful pictures, and also some great shows of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Wednesday, April 20th

Wednesday morning we went to the U.S.S. Pampanito. See my innermost thoughts on this here. We had a great time climbing through the submarine, and the children were very impressed by how cramped the quarters were, how tiny the kitchen was, how the sailors just slept wherever there was space, how there were pipes and wires and knobs and dials practically everywhere in sight, and how huge the torpedoes were. I don't think they truly appreciate the challenging life of a sailor, particularly one at war, but I'm confident I don't, either.

Later that afternoon, we took the ferry over to Alcatraz Island. For a place with such a dark past, the island is actually quite delightful to visit. The National Parks Service has done an excellent job, and the ranger/guide we followed for a 45 minute walk was engaging and entertaining. We were regaled with stories of people who attempted to escape from the prison, which was a wonderful lead-in to the actual audio tour itself. Each of us donned a pair of headphones and walked the halls of the prison. I walked with my six-year-old son as we listened to the stories of the place. Occasionally, he would hear something and look up at me with a long face and surprised eyes. It was priceless to watch his expressions change as he heard about the inmates' misbehaviors. I think each of my children appreciated that prison is not someplace they want to be. We'll be renting "Escape from Alcatraz" soon.

Thursday, April 21st

Thursday morning we went to the Exploratorium. My wife and I had visited there when we lived nearby just after getting married, and loved it then. In the years since, it hasn't changed beyond recognition, and still was quite enthralling to the kids. (Okay, and us, too. Blast it, it's just so hard to hide that we're nerds!) Again I went with my youngest son while my wife stayed with the older two children; their paces were just too different to stay together. We had a great time exploring each section, and actually ran out of time (which made the kids kind of grumpy when we left). They wanted to stay all day to play with the various exhibits. I think that of all the stuff there, a few favorites were the iron filings that could be assembled into structures on two opposing magnetopoles (you could actually see the magnetic field lines in the structures that could be assembled!), the sound tube that ran for 100 yards that you could talk into and hear yourself echo, the camera that took multiple frames that superimposed images with slight time offsets (my wife had, like, 30 arms!), and the wall where you could assemble tubes and ramps to make marbles roll down. My older children also really enjoyed all the stuff on electricity on the upper floor, a concept my youngest didn't quite understand (though he did really enjoy putting wires together in random, meaningless ways).

After we left there, we walked the Palace of Fine Arts briefly, so that we could take some pictures. Even with how beautiful the place is, its history is equally enthralling. However, I was struck with a sense of disappointment in that there really wans't much symbolism or meaning associated with the place. In comparison to the monuments and churches and other things we have seen in London and in Germany, it just seemed kind of ... second-hand. Still beautiful, but without the emotional resonance.

That night we took the cable cars over to Chinatown. Our first stop was the Sam Wo restaurant in San Francisco. I remember that place from over 20 years ago when I went there with my parents and siblings. Ever since then, every time I go to Chinatown I have been able to stop for dinner there. It is such a quaint little place with wonderful food. You have to walk through the kitchen area to a flight of stairs that takes you to the seating area where the waitress, if that's what she is, took our order. The food was delivered by dumb waiter to the second floor and we had to be careful to order water in cups, otherwise they bring bottled water and charge you for it. My youngest really doesn't do mixed or saucy foods, so he pretty much just ate rice, but the other two children really enjoyed it, as did I. My wife had a great meal of mostly meat and vegetables, which is just what she needed to keep her hypoglycemia at bay. We all walked out with smiles and slightly distended bellies.

Walking around the rest of Chinatown, we wandered the streets somewhat, stopping at a fortune cookie "factory". It was really just a garage where fortune cookies were assembled by two older Chinese men. I'm not really sure how food establishments pass food inspections in Chinatown, because nothing seemed terribly sanitary, but the kids thought that was interesting. We also did our shopping for souvenirs there, and the kids loved spending their hard-earned money on random things. Between the wooden sword, the really cool dragon paperweight, and the Baoding balls (and more!), we got sufficient touristy stuff to keep everybody happy.

Friday, April 22nd

Friday was our last day in San Francisco. We had ridden the cable cars the night before, but wanted to ride them again during the daytime. We took a different line this time, which still landed us in the Financial District, but this time we were able to get better pictures. The kids enjoyed the ride, especially my youngest son, who would often turn around and just watch the cable car operator as he worked the handles. We spent a bit of time learning about how they worked (which was different than we thought ... check it out). My two older children were excited to be able to hang off the side, and while they were somewhat disappointed that they weren't allowed to jump off it while it was still moving, and that they weren't allowed to hang out over the street, they greatly enjoyed themselves nonetheless. Truth be told, the time I ended up standing was actually a better experience because you can see a lot more of the buildings around you from that vantage point.

After that, we checked out of the hotel and drove up to Twin Peaks. Having lived near San Francisco, in hindsight I'm surprised that I'd never been up there before. The views were great, but that particular morning it was cold. We originally anticipated that we'd have a leisurely lunch and climb the nearby hills to the top, but it was just so cold that we had a quick lunch, snapped a few pictures, and left as soon as we could. The next time we're in town, we'll try again.

We then drove over to Fort Pointe. After finally navigating there successfully, we had a very nice visit at the fort. The kids like climbing all over the place, and while they weren't interested at all in the historical exhibits, they did like climbing the neat stairs and looking out at the Golden Gate Bridge and the bay.

Finally, we actually drove across the Golden Gate Bridge and stopped on the other side. By this time, everybody was cold and tired and had sore feet. My daughter being the most vociferous of the bunch, she actually threw something of a tantrum about not wanting to walk out across the bridge. After much difficulty, we got her out there in time for her to see a few seals playing in the waves. It was really cute to see my youngest periodically stick his head between the rails so he could see if we were over water. We walked out to the first/north tower and took lots of pictures there.

We had a wonderful visit to San Francisco, and we are so glad we took a week to see the sights. As always, I was happy to be able to spend the time with my wife and kids.

I think there was much more we could have done, and it would have been good to have a few more days, but we all left satisfied with the experience. After the long drive home, we found all mostly well at home: our cat was still alive, we only lost one fish, and only one of our two frogs had croaked (sorry, couldn't resist).

(Postscript: it took me a week to assemble this! *phew!*)

The Missing Magnitude of Accomplishment

Last week I had the chance to visit the U.S.S. Pampanito in San Francisco. Frankly, it was incredible. I'll not talk much about that experience here, because I have something else I want to muse about.

Whenever I learn about stuff during the World War II era, be it flying fortresses or concrete bunkers built into the side of giant craters or aircraft carriers or atomic bombs, I'm always struck by just how awe-inspiring it was that these things came to be.

You look at today's technology, so carefully crafted with smooth and sleek curves (see Apple, Inc.), and things just seem so ... modern. But then I look at things like the Pampanito, and I remember what a heady time World War II was. It was a time when science and mechanics (and budding electronics) walked hand-in-hand with raw willpower under the demands of pure expedience to create some of the most amazing technological breakthroughs the human race has ever seen. The shape of the world today, for all it's flaws, is the result of World War II.

People of that time just built stuff. Their engineers planned, sure, and they tried to be just as deliberate as we try to be in their designs, but when it came right down to it, if there was a need to put a wire here or a pipe there, they did just that because they had to and they didn't look back. They tried things that had never been tried before, and often failed in the effort, but with each failure they learned something which they would incorporate into the next attempt. Clambering through the "spacious" decks of the Pampanito makes this every so apparent. (Okay, I'm no doubt grossly generalizing, but from the vantage point of 50 years removed and being poorly informed, that's the way it seems to me.)

I'm not saying that reckless design is a good thing, but as an engineer who occasionally gets so fed up with paperwork and process and review, I am in awe that they did what they did. I sometimes think that our modern engineering world is so frightened of making mistakes that we make the even worse error of failing to even try.

I love the world we live in today. I love that, at least for me and most around me, it is a comfortable and secure and content place. Nevertheless, I look back at the accomplishments of the early half (ok, 2/3rds if you include the Apollo program) of the 20th century and I look around at the world of today, and I just don't see the same frequency or magnitude of accomplishment, on such a grand scale.

With all the posturing in the hallowed halls of Washington and the budget uncertainties and the shaky economy and the media fear-mongering, I yearn for days when we can try and not fear. I don't think days like that will come anytime soon.

(See here for a similar rant on the absence of audacious goals in today's world.)

Full disclosure: I manage a small team of engineers developing software to help coordinate activities at Mars between various spacecraft operating there. This is pretty cool. However, the least favorite part of my job is that every year I have to spend gobs of time begging for money from the higher-ups to pay for this work, when to me it is obvious that it is important and necessary. I love my job, but hate that aspect of it, particularly since I don't need very much money to do what needs to be done. This post is very likely a reaction to that frustration and a desire to be free to do what I want and not have to account to anybody. This doesn't make me a bad person ... it just makes me like everybody else in the world with an ounce of ambition.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Sometimes I Really Love My Job

I was sitting in a meeting just now watching as representatives from four different spacecraft operating at Mars were coordinating how they were to work together to transmit data between them. The meeting had broken up, and everybody stood to leave, but lingered to discuss other details of what had to be done to make the next planning cycle go smoothly. I also stood to leave, but paused at the door to marvel at the spectacle. Since my job is focused specifically on trying to get these various projects to work together, the sight brought warm fuzzies to me.

Smart people + working together = great things accomplished.

Sometimes I really love my job.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Gifts My Youngest Son Got for His Birthday

My youngest son had his birthday yesterday, and we had a wonderful time visiting with the in-laws and watching General Conference. All the while, he quietly (really! well ... mostly) played with some of his new toys that he got for his birthday. Here's the run-down on what he received:
  • Some money from his paternal grandparents, which he promptly stated he wants to spend on a model with wheels he can paint.
  • Stinky The Garbage Truck, which his maternal grandparents miraculously found for a steal at $15.
  • Tickets to a monster truck rally in a month.
  • A TRIO blocks wrecking ball crane, which my wife and I miraculously found at Ross for $15, which includes a dump truck.
  • A chocolate cake with a monster truck on it.
Does anybody detect a theme to all these gifts? Yes, my youngest son is indeed a boy and loves trucks and planes and trains and pretty much anything that moves. The other day, he put a push-broom on the front of his tricycle in the back yard and proudly proclaimed, "Look, Dad! I made a machine!" That's my boy!

His sister gave him some candy and his older brother "gave" him the upper bunk, which he was so happy to sleep in last night. We also let him stay in his pajamas all day long, which, for some reason, is a treat to the kids.

He feels like such a big kid now, and it is very strange to us to know that he is now 6 years old! He's still our "little guy", but he is getting bigger all the time. You can see his missing teeth here, which is so indicative of the age:

We love him so much, and are grateful that he is such a good-natured and happy boy. He really does bring great happiness to our family, and I feel greatly blessed to be his father. Love you, kiddo!

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