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2010 December 31

SF mini-vacation

This week my family took a mini-vacation to San Francisco.  We followed our usual strategy of taking the Highway 17 Express to San Jose, then the Caltrain up to San Francisco.  Our favorite hotel (the Grant Plaza Hotel in Chinatown) did not have any rooms, so we had booked a room in a different budget hotel, the Hotel Bijou near Union Square.  Because of the hotel’s location, we took the N-Judah streetcar instead of the 30 Stockton bus that we usually take from the Caltrain station. After checking in, we took the N-Judah line again out to Golden Gate Park and had lunch at Park Chow, a popular restaurant for park goers.  The food was pretty good standard American fare, but seemed a bit over-priced (our other meals in San Francisco were better and cheaper).

After lunch went to see the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.  I have not been there for a while and wanted to see the new building.  I m not a big fan of modern architecture, and I was very sorry to see the beautiful old buildings for the de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences torn down.  Neither of the new buildings is particularly good looking though I’ve been told that they are more functional.

The one good feature of the new California Academy of Sciences building is the green roof.

The green roof of the California Academia of Sciences as seen from the viewing terrace on the roof.

Inside the acoustics are terrible, with large spaces that echo and make the place very noisy.  The atrium has an intricate industrial look which is moderately interesting, but lacks the gravitas of the old lobby.  I’ve never cared much for bare concrete, and the interesting parts of the atrium are at the ceiling, which few people look up to admire.

View down into the atrium of the California Academy of Sciences.

The exhibits are pretty much as they were before the remodel, except for noisier, and without the interesting architectural details of the old building. The Steinhart Aquarium has been improved by the remodel, inspired by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The coral reef tank is quite impressive, and I liked the leafy sea dragons and weedy sea dragons.

I took a picture of the weedy sea dragon (despite the "no-photos" sign), but I was careful to make sure that the flash was off, as the photography prohibition is to protect the aquatic animals from bright lights.

We did not visit two of the main attractions, as the Planetarium shows were sold out and the entrance to the rainforest had a line that was taking 30–45 minutes to snake its way into the exhibit.

Overall, I have to say that I was disappointed in the “new” California Academy of Sciences.  As a natural history museum it doesn’t approach my memories of the Field Museum of Natural History from my youth in Chicago, and the new architecture makes it look like it is trying to be an amusement park, but without the amusement.  Even the museum store is lacking in much of interest.

There was one special exhibit for the holiday season that we enjoyed: seeing the reindeer outside.

Two rather damp reindeer were on display in the graden. It was possible to pet one of them, but we were not particularly keen to get the smell of wet wool on our hands.

We took the N-Judah back to our hotel and went out for dinner.  We were planning to try a highly rated Japanese noodle place a few blocks away, but the lines there were terrible, so we went to Chaabaa Thai instead.  The food was quite good and reasonably cheap (better and cheaper than lunch). After dinner we went to see the holiday decorations at Union Square, but the rain and wind made walking a bit unpleasant, so we spent only a little time in Union Square before heading back to the hotel.

Although Hotel Bijou shows free films (with San Francisco settings), we were too tired to stay up for them, so we turned in early.  After a good breakfast in the morning at the hotel (included in the room rate), we split up, with my son and me going to the Exploratorium and my wife visiting various art museums, libraries, and bookstores.We took the 30 Stockton up through Chinatown and across the Marina District to the Exploratorium.  That bus is the one I have taken the most in San Francisco, and it has a rather scenic route.  It is astonishingly slow though, particularly going through Chinatown.  The bus is always packed in Chinatown, but is empty by the time it gets to the end of the line on Broderick.

The Exploratorium has a much lower entrance fee than the California Academy of Sciences, and there is much more to do.  It is in almost all ways a superior museum for children and teens (and dads).  We were not able to visit the Tactile Dome (sold out—I think you have to purchase tickets ahead of time on the web if you go on a busy day).  The Exploratorium has lockers near the entrance, so we stashed our luggage there for the day.  Unfortunately, I left my camera in the locker also, so I got no pictures from the Exploratorium.

Although the Exploratorium was very full (more so than the Academy of Sciences), there was no waiting in long lines:  there are so many things to do that people spread out fairly uniformly over the whole museum and no single exhibit had a line of more than 2 or 3 people waiting a turn to play. I think that the Exploratorium had more people per square meter, but it felt less packed, because people spread out so much more uniformly.

There were several new exhibits since we were last there, but a couple of my son’s favorites were gone (the teapot in a mirror exhibit was one he missed). I missed the bicycle powered by pneumatic cylinders, though I always had trouble coordinating the four button presses well enough to get a smooth cadence.

I was impressed by how well maintained the exhibits were.  Despite the intensive hands-on use (and abuse), very few exhibits were non-functional, and those generally fairly minor ones.

The museum store is one of the best I’ve seen, though I did not buy anything on this trip.

We stayed until closing time at 5, then took the 30 Stockton back to Chinatown and had dinner at the Hang Ah Tea Room (which claims to be the oldest dim-sum restaurant in San Francisco).  Eating at the Hang Ah is a tradition for us, and the food was as good as always, but there was only one waitress working and the service was rather poor.  After dinner we took the 30 Stockton back to the Caltrain station, and took the Caltrain and Highway 17 express back to Santa Cruz, getting home around 10:30 p.m.

All in all, it was a successful mini-vacation, one I would be glad to do again next year.  It would be better, perhaps, to go to the museums some time when school is in session, to avoid the crowds.

2010 July 10

Exclusive Boston Harbor Tour

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 19:09
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Today, my extended family got an exclusive Boston Harbor Tour: just the eight of us on a 90-minute Boston Harbor sightseeing cruise, and for less than $180!

We didn’t have any secret connections—we just got there during a thunderstorm.  The boat captain told everyone waiting to get on that they wouldn’t see much and that they could get a refund at the ticket booth.  We were the only ones who still wanted the cruise.  They told us that they would do the tour if we really wanted to, but that we wouldn’t see much in the pouring rain and that we could get a refund (hint, hint).  We voted to take the cruise any way, since we were out of the rain on board the boat, and had no better place to be.

As it turned out, Dan, the tour guide, was very knowledgeable and chatted with us (rather than using the loudspeaker) for the whole trip.  Initially, we couldn’t see much, but it cleared up after about half an hour, and the rest of cruise was great, with just the eight of us getting a marvelous private tour.  We were all very pleased to have gone on it.

They probably lost a lot of money running the tour for just the eight of us, but I can speak very highly of Boston Harbor Cruises and their commitment to fulfilling the commitments they made by selling us tickets.

2010 July 9

Boston Museum of Science

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 19:38
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Yesterday was my last day before the ISMB conference started, so my son and I walked over to the Boston Museum of Science and spent the day wandering around the exhibits.  I was impressed at how well maintained the exhibits were—only a few of the interactive exhibits were not functional.  The math exhibit is very nostalgic for me—it is almost identical to the one I remember from the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago when I was a child, almost 50 years ago.  Math is timeless (or no one has come up with a better informal education exhibit in 50 years—you choose the explanation).

Of course, the best thing about the Boston Museum of Science is even older: a 3-story tall original Van de Graaff generator and the “lightning” show they do with it.

Boston Museum of Science Van de Graaff generator

A little spark from the tip of her finger.

We enjoyed the show so much, we watched it twice (at noon and at 4).

2010 July 8

MIT Museum

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 03:48
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I’m in Boston this week for a combination of family vacation and the ISMB conference.  Yesterday, my family did a self-guided tour of the MIT campus and visited the MIT Museum. It was a mercilessly hot day (Boston is having an unusual heat wave), so my family was unwilling to do the usual guided tour, but we did do about half the self-guided tour (concentrating on the air-conditioned buildings, rather than outdoor stuff).

The high point of the day was the exhibit Gestural Engineering: The Sculpture of Arthur Ganson. These mechanical pieces were whimsical, beautifully made, and mesmerizing to watch in action.  Still photos do not do the sculptures justice, but it seems that there are DVDs available from Arthur Ganson’s website.

We had a decent lunch at a combination Thai/Szechuan restaurant across the street from musuem.  I’m not used to the high synchronization of East Coast lunchtimes:  the restaurant was jammed when we got there around 12:30 but suddenly emptied just before 1.

We ended up our MIT visit at the MIT Coop, where we bought a few fantasy books to tide us through the week here. The Coop is a decent college bookstore, though I tend to prefer Stanford’s bookstore.  I get a bit sad when I think about what an awful bookstore my campus has—I guess our students don’t read (or, at least, don’t buy books) and our campus is too isolated to get non-student shoppers.

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