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<   No. 3320   2014-02-23   >

Comic #3320

1 {photo of the Golden Gate Bridge}
1 Caption: Golden Gate Time

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Square in the rain
Union Square. Yeah, it rained while I was there.
So, since I've spent the past few weeks telling you that I'd be away in San Francisco, I thought I'd spend this week telling you a bit about what I got up to over there. Also, I'm still a bit tired from my flight home and it's been a hectic first week back at work, so it's easier for me to type up something biographical than researchy.

I think this was my eighth (possibly ninth, I've honestly lost count) trip to San Francisco, so I've seen most of the major tourist attractions already. There was one thing on my list that I've never managed to get to before though, and I was planning specifically to go visit it this time. Coit Tower. However, I discovered that it's currently closed for renovation! So once again my plan was thwarted. Perhaps I am doomed never to see the view of San Francisco from this landmark. (Perhaps I will, and maybe after over 25 years of frustrated build up it might be a bit of an anticlimax, but it's going to remain on my list of things to do in the city.)

Another good thing about having visited a place many times is that you have the time to relax and explore at a more leisurely pace than the typical tourist who dashes quickly from one attraction to another, not getting time to absorb the stuff in between. I visited Cow Hollow, which I'd never even heard about before this trip. I visited The Castro, which I had heard about, but never been to. I explored parts of Chinatown that I never knew existed, beyond the Grant Avenue tourist drag that was the only part I'd ever seen before. I walked the blocks surrounding Union Square several times on my way to and from my hotel, my conference venue, and other places, and became familiar with the street names and many different shops and cafes in the area.

Water drop
Me at the Exploratorium.
The conference was the reason for this trip. My employer (Canon Information Systems Research Australia) sent me to present a paper on some work I did a few years ago on estimating the distance from a camera to objects in the scene it is photographing, using image processing technologies which I was researching at the time. The work is a few years old because, as an employee of a corporate research and development company, I am prohibited from publishing or talking about my research until it has been protected by a published patent (and patents are published a year after they are filed with the Patent Office).

At the conference I also attended many other talks, of varying relevance to my work. The Electronic Imaging conference is fairly big, with several sub-conferences on specific themes within imaging science. These themes run in parallel, so you can only attend one talk of what may be a dozen or so talks running at the same time. I mostly attended the digital photography theme, but flipped over to the 3D video stream and the human vision stream occasionally. The human vision stream is often very interesting, as they do lots of psychophysical studies and apply image processing techniques to things like 16th century paintings. One talk I liked analysed the directions of the shadows in paintings of St Mark's Square in Venice by Canaletto, and also the direction of the sun as inferred by the shading on the bodies of people in the square. The conclusion was that while the shadow directions were consistent, the shadings on the people were not, so Canaletto might plausibly have just painted the individual people at different times of day. While inconsistent shadow directions would be obviously wrong to anyone looking at the painting, the more subtle shading error is not, and Canaletto himself may not have realised the problem.

Chocolate in the rain
Ghirardelli Square. Yep, still raining.
While I was in the conference, my wife, who travelled with me on this trip, explored parts of the city. On my previous trip I'd visited the California Academy of Sciences, so she took the opportunity to go there without me. After the conference was finished, we had almost a week to do other things together. We visited the Exploratorium, the de Young Museum of Art, and took a bus trip to the Sonoma and Napa Valleys to sample wines at a few of the wineries there.

On one particularly touristy evening we had a seafood dinner at Fisherman's Wharf. I had a whole steamed Dungeness crab, which I'd never had before and which was delicious. We walked over to Ghirardelli Square and had a sundae at the Ghirardelli chocolate shop for dessert. Despite visiting the city many times, I'd never done any of these things before. And then we rode the Powell-Hyde cable car back to our hotel (I had done that before).

On one fine day we walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, then down the hill on the north side to Sausalito. I thought this walk would be trivial, just following the road for a couple of kilometres. However when we got to the top of the road, we found it had no pedestrian path next to it. We had to walk on the roadway, being careful to face the oncoming traffic and stay as far to the edge as possible. The thought had never occurred to me that there wouldn't be a pedestrian path on this road. I wonder if the thought had never occurred to the car-loving American mindset to put a pedestrian path there.

For our final dinner in the city, we went to a place we discovered through watching Anthony Bourdain's TV series The Layover, in which he spends 48 hours in various world cities. The place was the Tonga Room, buried in the bowels of the grand Fairmont Hotel, which sits on the very top of Nob Hill. (I haven't read the history of why it's called Nob Hill, but since it's the rich part of town I assume it's because it's the hill where all the nobs live.)[1] The hotel originally had a swimming pool in the basement, but for some reason it wasn't very popular, so they changed the room it was in into a restaurant. But they kept the pool in the middle. They decorated the surrounding area with bamboo and thatched grass and carved wood to give it a Pacific island theme. Then they installed sprinklers above the pool and thunder and lightning effects to simulate a brief tropical rainstorm every 30 minutes or so. And they floated a boat in the pool, on which a three piece band plays while you sit at a table and eat.

Tonga Room storm
The Tonga Room. It even rained indoors.
It sounds kitsch, but Bourdain in his "kid who never grew up" style called it the greatest place in all of San Francisco. So we booked a dinner there. It does feel a bit kitsch, but honestly that just adds to the fun. What's more, the food was excellent (if expensive). We had some cocktails (one served in an actual hollowed out pineapple), ate good food, and danced the night away. At one point we asked our waiter where Anthony Bourdain sat. He knew what we were talking about and said that he sat, alas, not at our table, but at the one immediately next to it.

On my last day in San Francisco, before heading to the airport in the afternoon, I took a guided tour of AT&T Park, the home field for the San Francisco Giants baseball team. This was a lot of fun. Although more of a cricket fan than any other sport, I enjoy baseball when I get the chance to see it (which is not that often because of the time zone difference in broadcasting games from the US). I have attended one game, back when the Giants played at Candlestick Park, and will be going to my second Major League game in approximately one month - because I have tickets to the 2014 MLB season opener game between the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks, being played in my home city of Sydney. That's pretty exciting! Interestingly, I've been on a similar guided tour of Lord's Cricket Ground in London, and in neither tour did I get to actually go out on to the playing field. At Lord's, the actual grass is considered so sacred that they simply don't allow the general public to touch it. At AT&T Park, the tour normally includes the chance to go on to the field, but, on the day I was there, there was a special function with various VIPs on the field, and they didn't allow anyone else out there. Ah well.

Last but certainly not least, earlier in the trip I visited the Cartoon Art Museum. I made a special trip here for two reasons: firstly, it's cartoon art, why would I not go see it? And secondly, because the museum is run by the husband of Shaenon Garrity, author of such notable webcomics as Narbonic, Li'l Mell, Skin Horse, and Monster of the Week. So it was a chance for me to meet Shaenon and talk webcomics, which was a lot of fun. During the conversation, I mentioned to her an idea I had for a new webcomic. Her reaction was, "You must do this!" (not even paraphrased!) So, plans are afoot...

Anyway, that was my trip in a nutshell. A bit of work, a lot of fun, and more experiences to remember in one of my favourite cities.


[1] And a little post-writing research tells me that this is, essentially, correct.

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