Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Underground in Seattle

The Montgomery Muni station in San Francisco is filled with ads touting the joys of 2 Days in Seattle. In the opinion of the many, those worked on me as we packed our bags and flew the friendly skies north for the weekend.

Bill Speidel's Underground Tour was one of the top items on the todo list, and it surely didn't disappoint. The tour was packed. We mitigateg this by showing up early and ordering something from the café, which yields priority seating. Bonus: the cone of fries was quite good.



The tour opens with a 30 minute light-hearted history of Seattle. In this we learn about things like the original settlers' homes being destroyed 3 consecutive years by the weather, and rebuilding in the same location each and every time. It was explained that Seattle's great tradition formed in these moments:

Once we have — beyond a shadow of doubt — realized our idea is stupid, we stick with it.

There was also the enchanting tale of an early sawmill entrepreneur and mayor by the name of Henry Yesler. Yesler's less than honorable qualities include bringing a lawsuit against the town as a private citizen for unfair taxes and settling with himself as the governor out of court for cash...more than once.

But at the top of the comedy list is the city's rivalry with nearby Tacoma, which found itself the butt of several jokes before and during the tour.

In all seriousness though, Tacoma is a lovely place if you're looking to get stabbed.

The Underground

The story of how the underground came to be started with a great fire, just like some other city I know. Oh the olden days, and how they loved to build with wood. A glue fire spread to the next building — full of whiskey — before making its way to a hardware store with dynamite. Jeers from the crowd at the volunteer firefighters prompted the firefighters to produce one of the earliest Cartman responses. The firefighter's packed up and effectively said screw you guys, I'm going home.

The fire took the city.

Rebuilding was smartly only to be done in stone from now on, and on stilts of 10-30 feet. This decision is what created The Underground.

Some of the items recovered during the early days of the tour included the original water system of Seattle, built in...wood. These three pieces were retained for historical purposes while the rest were naturally shipped to Tacoma, as they were upgrading current systems.

Seattle's Original Water System

Interestingly enough, I also learned on this tour what those little glass squares are on sidewalks you sometimes see in cities. They look like this from above.

glass in the sidewalks

glass in the sidewalks by lauren_pressley on Flickr

They actually provide lights for tunnels below them in skylight form. Here's one of them in action.

Sidewalk Skylight from Below

All in all, it's an awesome tour filled with comedy, history, and the smell of whatever building is on top of the place you're currently standing.

Some say you can hear the ghost of an old bass guitarist here from time to time...others say it's just the music store right above this.

Note there's more photos on Flickr

Sunday, March 18, 2012

St. Patrick's Day in San Francisco

Yesterday, wearing festive blue, I stumbled into San Francisco's St. Patrick's Day Parade. It wouldn't be fair to call me a connoisseur of floats or color guard, but the majesty of a few exhibits simply had to be shared.

Naturally, the Sprinkler Fitters Union was well-represented.

Sprinkler Fitters Union

The Union of Glaziers were looking festive with their For Official Use Only Navy truck.

Glaziers, Architectural Metal, and Glass Workers Union

BART was also represented in a Thomas-the-Tank-Engine way. In an unfortunate bit of subliminal advertising, the BART was ahead of me and I still caught up to it on foot.


Proud Iron Workers dawned San Francisco's icon on their float: The Golden Gate Bridge, completed a mere 74 years ago.

Iron Workers Union Float

Finally, Hangar 1 Vodka responsibly demonstrated the ill-effects of alcohol on decision-making by using this ground-only SUV for their blimp tour.

Note There's more on Flickr

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Trouble with Taxis

I've recently been introduced to über, a car service that is obliterating all the worst aspects of taxis. It works like this:

  1. Send a request for a cab via iPhone app/Android app, which includes location
  2. See the car moving on a map and get a message saying the car has arrived
  3. Don't worry about cash or tip, because that's built into the cost, which is billed to your credit card on file

The Troubles

I'd almost always rather walk or take public transit when I need to be somewhere. Occasionally that just isn't fast enough. Chicago is largely immune to this first problem mentioned below, but San Francisco certainly is not

Impossible to find

You can mostly walk out to any main road in Chicago and within minutes cabs will be stopped on both sides of the street vying for your fare with their horns. Not so in San Francisco, where one can expect to stand on the busiest of streets for 15 minutes without an empty cab passing by.

Exhibiting poor customer service

I've taken cabs a handful of times here in SF, and perhaps it's just my luck...but I'm a perfect 5 for 5. No matter what side of Market Street I get in the cab on, the driver informs me I should have gotten in on the other side. I must be missing why it's such a disaster to have to go one more or fewer block before turning, particularly when you're charging by the distance you've driven.


I wish I never had to carry cash again. I used to be able to put a $10 in my wallet and make it 6 months, because virtually no business requires cash anymore. It was all around better. I spent the same amount of money, got a rewards percentage from American Express, and could easily track where my spending was going.

Dealing with cabs on a weekly basis actually brought me to the point of choosing a bank that doesn't charge ATM fees. The constant disappointment and barrage of "I'll take you to your bank for free. What's your bank? Where is it?" is exhausting.

In fairness to the cab drivers, they're dealing with an outdated model that needs to change. I asked one time what the big deal was. Drivers lease their cabs from a company for something like $700/week. Drivers cover gas. Cash, obviously, goes directly into their pockets. Credit is processed and held by the cab company, and then deducted from the next week's leasing cost.

über to the rescue

Obviously, über takes care of all of these (admittedly minor) problems. Payments are the biggest one. I love not having to carry around cash and fuddle with the awkwardness of a tip.


I have a hunch virtually every consumer-driven market is ripe with opportunities to strip the nonsensical payment systems.

A competitor solving only the problem of locating cabs is the also-excellent cab-finding app Cabulous.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Small World

I've been lucky enough to spend 4+ months in some major cities over the past few years. During this time, I've had some déjà vu when meeting new people.

Let's review, in classic dialogue format.

Chicago, I'm actually from Detroit originally.
Person AHey! Me too. Go Blue!
Person BWow! Did you guys say you're from Detroit? So am I.
6 more people join in as the conversation turns to Michigan vs Michigan State.

Los Angeles, I grew up near Detroit.
TeammateReally? I'm from Huntington Woods!

Little Rock, I'm actually from Detroit originally.
TeammateWhat! Do you know Eminem? Have you ever been to 8 Mile?

San Francisco

Barber...and people think the tenderloin neighborhood is dangerous, but I'm from Detroit, so...
MeWeird... Me too.

Let's Form a Hypothesis


11-08-09 by idovermani on Flickr

Certainly were I member of the scientist group pictured above, we'd be forming hypotheses about any of the following:

  • Every US city is 90% Michigan-based
  • Eminem has overtaken Henry Ford as the most famous Detroiter
  • Detroit is the planet's toughest city
  • Detroiters tell more people where they're from than persons of other cities

Naturally, there is a photoset.