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01 A new look at the Lookout

Looking into the EHDD-designed Lookout at Lands EndLooking into the EHDD-designed Lookout at Lands End.

When we moved to San Francisco more than a year ago, I was still using a black-and-white cellphone that flipped open. It could generously be termed an antique. “You can’t show that thing in public if you want to be taken seriously,” my wife gently suggested. “Not in this town.” She was right. San Francisco is a city forever chasing the new new thing: gold, peace and love, iPods, Google Glass.

Today, armed with a smartphone designed south of the city in Cupertino and possessing more computing power than a NASA Mars rover, I head out to Lands End, a windy sliver of national recreation area on the city’s extreme northwestern edge, where deep-rooted cypresses hug tall cliffs. I’m also test driving a high-tech wristband from Fitbit designed to encourage exercise and better health by tracking and analyzing your daily activity – perfect, in other words, for a brisk hike in one of the planet’s most stunning urban parks.

From the ruggedly modern Lookout, a visitors’ centre designed by EHDD architects and unveiled in 2012, my friend Josh and I head down a wooden staircase to the remains of an old new thing. The Sutro Baths, opened to the public in 1896 by an ambitious former mayor and once housing the world’s largest glass-enclosed swimming pool, are now nothing more than ruins.

I hop over to a nearby cave, snapping a smartphone photo of Josh, who came west five years ago to found a digital publishing company called Inkling. He’s using his smartphone to take a picture of the roiling Pacific crashing against the rocks below our feet. It’s all very meta. Josh posts his cave pic to a new photo-sharing app that’s still in stealth mode; a dozen company insiders are testing it out. “Before you hit beta testing, it’s called dogfooding,” he informs me.

While we hike, my wristband tracks my steps and calculates the calories I’m burning. Inside is an altimeter and all manner of stuff I barely comprehend. At the top of one particularly steep hill, I consult its OLED display screen. “That was exactly nine storeys of vertical rise,” I say, panting from a climb of 30 metres.

We emerge from the Coastal Trail and run smack into an Instagram-worthy vista of the Golden Gate Bridge. Josh consults his phone. “Dude, my cave photo got five hearts!” A Yelp map indicates that we’re not far from Hong Kong Lounge, a famed dim sum palace I’ve long hungered to visit. On the walk there, seven pulses vibrate on my wrist: I’ve hit 10,000 steps for the day. Ravenous, I think to myself that if there were an app for pre-ordering a serving of baked barbecue pork buns, I would download it.


02 The bridge that spans then and now

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen riff on the form of a suspension bridge with Cupid’s Span, their Embarcadero installation.Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen riff on the form of a suspension bridge with Cupid’s Span, their Embarcadero installation.

I like to host visitors in San Francisco. It lets me play tourist in my adopted hometown. My brother Michael, a Canadian Olympic rower, is in town for 36 hours. It’s a stopover on his way home to Victoria from a nearby winter training camp. We ride the creaky cable-car line, created by inventor and builder Andrew Smith Hallidie in the 1870s, down California Street close to the Embarcadero to take in a monumental mashup of old and new technology.

The Bay Bridge was built during the Great Depression from 165,000 tonnes of steel. Now it’s the city’s largest art canvas. Leo Villareal calls his Bay Lights installation, which opened in March 2013, a “digital campfire.” Here’s the data: 25,000 LED lights, each capable of emitting 255 different brightness levels, are strung via 7.6 kilometres of wire along the vertical cables of the bridge (the entire installation includes another 22.9 kilometres of cable). Villareal’s computer algorithm creates dynamic, non-repeating light patterns that shimmer and shuffle across the bridge. Each night’s dusk-to-dawn electricity bill is around US$30.

The perfect spot from which to take in this light show is at Waterbar, three blocks from the office where Fitbit dreamed up my wristband. It’s a fashionable waterfront seafood joint that I would likely have never explored if I hadn’t had a visitor in tow. But the Marshall Select oysters, from nearby Tomales Bay, are fatty and briny and go down very easily with a tangerine-and-jalapeno-spiked mignonette and a bracing glass of Napa Valley sauvignon blanc.

The Waterbar in San FranciscoDiners at Waterbar enjoy postcard views of the Bay Bridge - and Leo Villareal’s Bay Lights installation, whose 25,000 LED lights come alive at sunset thanks to a computer algorithm - along with their fresh seafood and California wines.

Beyond the bar’s immense picture windows, we watch houses in the Oakland hills reflect the gilded light of sunset. It looks like a gold mine under torchlight, recalling the 1848 gold rush that birthed this boom town. Then dusk falls and the lights kick in. Even my brother, a human calorie-processing machine, stops eating for a moment. Villareal’s patterns shift quickly in character, from rigid, linear streaks to ephemeral “gusts of wind.”

“It’s pretty simple to appreciate visually,” says Michael after he orders another half-dozen oysters. “But I bet only, like, one percent of people have any idea how the back-end technology works.” We, it seems, are the 99 percent.

The sky grows darker, the lights more entrancing. The bridge morphs from a functional thing, ferrying a slow parade of commuters across the bay, into a canvas. We chat and sip more wine and fall back into long silent stretches spent staring at the lights. Yes, it’s a lot like sitting around a campfire.

When all the oysters are gone, we head outside and shoot video of the bridge with our phones. He sends clips through the ether to a girl back home in Canada. I post mine to Twitter, and soon @TheBayLights favourites my tweet.


03 A night at the museum

Looking up at Rafael Lozano’s pulse spiral at the Exploratorium Science Museum.Looking up at Rafael Lozano’s Pulse Spiral at the Exploratorium.

I lost track of Altay a decade ago. We’d taken physics classes together at Harvard and had formed the unconventional but groovy Turkish-Canadian rhythm section of a Latin dance band. We reconnected on Facebook when I discovered that we live on the same street. Altay runs a talent agency for programmers and designers called 10x Management; nerds are rock stars in today’s San Francisco. I buy us two tickets to After Dark, the monthly adults-only night at the Exploratorium. We decide to meet inside the interactive science museum, so I e-mail him a PDF of his ticket.

The museum was founded in 1969 by physicist Frank Oppenheimer. For 44 years, it lived at the Palace of Fine Arts, a Greco-Roman-style campus near the Presidio. But in 2013, the museum and its 600-plus in-house-built science exhibits relocated to a gleaming new building at Pier 15. Designed by EHDD, the same architects behind the Lands End Lookout, it’s all warehouse rafters and lots of windows, with nighttime views of illuminated Financial District towers.

After Dark is organized around a monthly theme. Altay and I convene for Sexplorations. Brainiac twentysomethings – the technocrati – form long lines at the bar and cradle plastic cups of wine as they spill out of a room where a scientist is projecting the real-time fertilization of a sea-urchin egg via microscope onto a big screen.

We run into my friend Dilek and her husband, Kevin, who is a roboticist. Together we build circuits at an interactive exhibit where you can attach batteries and switches to “sexy” objects. We connect two battery packs in series to a switch made from a zipper; when I unzip it, our rubber ducky vibrates. “Careful with those batteries!” says Kevin. “You don’t want to burn out the motor.”

Several drinks later, when the night is ending and the museumgoers are hailing private drivers via such apps as Uber and Lyft and Sidecar, Altay spots one last exhibit for us to play with. It’s a pair of robotic legs mounted on bicycle pedals. You tap four buttons and, if you get the timing right, two pneumatic pistons fire and set a wheel spinning.

Maybe it’s the four cans of IPA coursing through my circuitry, but I can’t quite manage to spin the legs properly. Altay performs far better. He was always the clever one.


04 Finding a secret garden

The Melt in San FranciscoDial up your grilled cheese at the Melt; want (green) space? There’s an app for that.

I’m at the Melt with Allison Arieff, an architecture and design writer for The New York Times and editorial director of the urban planning organization SPUR here in San Francisco. I tell her enthusiastically that I’m going to order our lunch via smartphone.

The result is that, within 20 seconds of meeting a writer whom I’ve long admired, I’m staring at my phone and tapping the screen in frustration and asking her questions like, “Do you want pickles or chips or both?” It is not my most charming hour.

The Melt, founded in 2011 by Jonathan Kaplan, the inventor of the Flip Video camera, trades in that most beloved of programmer foods: the quick, simple, satisfying grilled cheese sandwich. Kaplan decided that technology could make it even better and commissioned the Swedish engineers at Electrolux to design an original induction-plus-microwave grill that creates the perfect mix of melty cheese and crispy bread. I walk to the counter and scan a QR code on my phone. Our order pops up in a digital queue.

We grab our sandwiches, and I use the SPUR-created app called SF’s Secret Spaces and Hidden Oases to locate a POPOS, or a privately owned public open space. As we enter a heavily treed terrace with gazebo-topped benches that we have all to ourselves, I redeem myself. “I’ve never been here before,” says Arieff. Good words to hear from a professed urban flaneur. Based on a 2009 project to map hidden spaces, SPUR launched the app in 2012. It leads curious explorers to unexpected downtown oases, like this rooftop deck off a poorly signed staircase in the corner of a retail mall.

As I munch on a Mac Daddy sandwich – stuffed with mac ’n’ cheese and, yes, still crispy – Arieff tells me about a recent conference on smart cities that she attended in Barcelona. After the day’s sessions had ended, she set out to explore the city with some fellow journalists. “I told them about this amazing restaurant I’d visited 20 years earlier. They all whipped out their phones to google the name and map it. I told them to put their phones away; I’d lead us the old-fashioned way.” She takes a sip of her tomato basil soup. “It’s a shame to remove serendipity from our experience of travelling.”

As we finish our lunch, our secret garden’s cover is blown. A man in a bright green shirt leads a dozen-strong group of teenagers onto the terrace. I ask him how they found this place. He points to a nearby skyscraper. “We’re an ESL class in that building, up on the 18th floor. I just looked out the window and spotted it.” Chalk one up to serendipity.


05 Digital cash, analog coffee

SoMa's SightglassSoMa's Sightglass roastery and café was hand-built by its owners and friends to serve Third Wave coffees and hand-packaged beans. You wouldn't know to look that this was also one of payment interface Square's beta testing grounds. 

On a Friday, I walk clear across the city to a coffee shop in the heart of SoMa, the South of Market district, where Pinterest and Airbnb and Eventbrite all live. My route covers eight kilometres in 5,771 steps.

Sightglass began humbly in 2009 as a coffee roaster. After local design firm Boor Bridges Architecture designed the roastery and café space on 7th Street, and while the Sightglass owners and their friends built it, the caffeine-slinging start-up sold cups of coffee from its entryway. Sightglass also became one of the first retail testing grounds for a new digital payment interface dreamed up by a coffee-loving founder of Twitter named Jack Dorsey. The payments company became Square, and Dorsey became a Sightglass investor.

The café, which finally opened in 2011, strikes me as part rustic Sonoma barn, part industrial city warehouse, part Danish interior-design catalogue. I fall instantly and hopelessly in love with this place, which is playing Elvis Costello’s album Get Happy!! on vinyl.

At the counter, I order a cup of Japanese-style pour-over coffee made with beans from Kageyo Station, Rwanda. A tattooed guy in a brown tuque – beanie in California-speak – swipes my credit card through a Square, a white square-shaped reader plugged into the headphone jack of an iPad. I sign with my finger, add a tip and receive an e-mail receipt in seconds.

Armed with my three-minute coffee – one glass cone, one stainless kettle, one patient hipster barista – I settle in on the upper-floor balcony. From this perch, I look down on a hulking German Probat Burns roaster, built in the 1960s, that transforms 22-kilogram batches of green coffee beans into black gold. Around the periphery, employees in jeans and hoodies pack expertly measured paper bags full of beans into flip-top plastic delivery bins hand-scrawled with names like Twitter and Dropbox and Google. It’s an analog operation for delivering fuel to the nerds who are engineering San Francisco’s digital future.

As I swallow the last citrusy sip of my bespoke coffee and flip my laptop shut – there’s no Wi-Fi here, which makes it ideal for writing – my friend Josh shows up. “There’s got to be a good dive bar with a cheap happy hour somewhere nearby,” he says and pulls out his smartphone. “Put that thing away,” I say. “I know a place not far from here. Follow me.”

 The SFO Tech Address Book

The Bay Lights San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, through March  2015,
Lands End, 680 Point Lobos Ave.,
Exploratorium, Pier 15,
SPUR, 654 Mission St.,
Hong Kong Lounge, 5322 Geary Blvd.,
The Melt, 115 New Montgomery St.,
Sightglass, 270 7th St.,
Waterbar, 399 The Embarcadero,

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Comments… or add another

American Observer

Wednesday, August 13th 2014 21:18
Once again, enroute proves to be a superb site for journalism. I won't lie; I've chosen to fly Air Canada in the past over less expensive options, simply because I knew that Andrew Braithwaite had a cover story.
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