London and Oxford

Let’s start with the obligatory Big Ben shot with the bonus double-decker bus. We were staying with a friend near Leicester Square and this was taken not far from there.

Westminster Abbey now charges a £20 entrance fee. It’s a new fad at popular tourist churches throughout Europe. We passed, and just looked from outside.

St. James Park looks like a painting. There are 3 parks that are one after the other. Our host said he still can’t tell St. James Park from Green Park.

Seeing ducks at the park always reminds me of the story told by a social worker specializing in helping refugees adapt to their new country. She has to tell Asian refugees that the ducks in the park are not for dinner and that it’s forbidden to hunt them. (But they look so juicy!)

No trip to London is complete without a slow stroll through Harrod’s food halls to ogle the cakes. What is a hummingbird cake, anyway? Does hummingbird taste like chicken?

I’m not sure if her face is cracked on purpose. I do like her lounge lion though. Maybe they sell them at IKEA.

We spent a day in Oxford. This is the Bodleian Library.

And the Radcliffe Camera

And this is an old wooden door with rusty bits and a lion. Europeans are obsessed with lions. I’m sure they find me very odd for taking pictures of their doors. Maybe they wonder to themselves whether I’m from a country where doors haven’t been invented yet.

We went to a couple of museums, including one full of curiosities like shrunken heads, but I’ll spare you. The outsides were lovely.

This man with his giant bird friend — maybe it’s supposed to symbolize a friendship between America and France. That guy looks pretty French. And I’m sure that ridiculous bird is our national mascot.

Christ Church now charges an entrance fee too. But Evensong is free. I took a few sneaky pics on my way out. The ritual of evensong is slightly goofy, with a lot of standing and sitting, and a priest doing monotone chanting.

We had a kebab dinner (from the kebab truck at Pembroke Square)

and watched the sun fade out over Christ Church meadow.


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Shaun the Sheep in London

Just got back last week from a two-ish month trip to Europe. We started in London where N’s friend has a spectacular flat near Leicester Square. Shaun the Sheep was everywhere, doing a promo tour for an upcoming movie.

I was first introduced to Shaun the Sheep last winter during a stay at N’s uncle’s house in the north of France. He doesn’t speak English and my French is incomprehensible. But we could both understand the language of sheep antics! He had a stack of Shaun DVDs for his grandson — or so he claimed. (He watched them nightly, even when his grandson wasn’t around.)

Here’s Shaun is in Trafalgar Square dressed as Napoleon:

And on the border of Green Park, another Shaun the Sheep! I overheard someone saying there were 47 around London.

A geometric / modern art Shaun in front of the British Council

A chinoiserie Shaun in Chinatown

A child spots Shaun! Shaun looks wary.

My favorite is the Cath Kidston Shaun. Pictured here staring at a man in purple hoodie. While he stared back.

I’m a little frightened of the smile-faced grey cloud on top of this Shaun’s head

Very meta

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How to make MUNI as good as Leap or Chariot

Fancy busses are popping up all over San Francisco. Okay, mostly in the Marina. Services like Leap and Chariot are only a nudge more expensive than MUNI and somehow much more appealing. How can MUNI keep up?

1. Delegate

Wheelchair service should be its own separate thing. SF Paratransit can be expanded, or, if there are enough wheelchair users who can afford it, some private company can be formed to service them. Or maybe they can avail themselves of services like home grocery delivery. There’s no need to inconvenience a bus of 50 commuters by making them wait for the painfully slow wheelchair ramp.

2. Ensure fare payment

This will help keep busses nice in two ways: it keeps the homeless off and it increases revenue. San Francisco introduced all-door boarding when the Clipper card was introduced. While this practice supposedly “doesn’t increase fare evasion”, that could be because MUNI drivers were never that thorough with checking proof of payment. In London, the busses have an inspector at the door, making sure you either pay or get off. But on London busses, it’s easy to make sure you paid, and that brings me to the next point.

3. Make everyone use the Clipper reader

No more cash, no more transfer slips, no more paper muni passes for any group. Everyone gets a Clipper card or an RFID enabled paper ticket. No ticket purchases on the bus. Every single person must pass something over the card reader, get a beep of approval or be asked to leave the bus. With all-door boarding, this can be achieved by having human beep-checkers at each door. Job-creation, yay.

4. Friendlier bus drivers

Apparently, being a MUNI driver is a highly-paid and highly sought-after job. Fantastic. Encourage riders to text the MUNI bus number with their problem to a complaints hotline. A driver passes a stop even though the bus isn’t full? The driver is rude or grumpy? 3 strikes and you’re out. There are plenty of people lining up for that job.

5. Special lanes and light priorty

This has already started, but congested areas around the city should have MUNI only lines and stoplights that give priorty to MUNI busses.

6. Reduce number of stops

Busses should stop once every 5-6 blocks instead of every 2-3. I think doing #1 makes #6 entirely feasible. If it’s a great hardship to walk a few extra blocks, there’s probably a better service for you.

The most pleasant thing about services like Leap and Chariot isn’t what they provide, it’s what they exclude. I don’t really care about plush seats or bars or pressed juice and coffee. Wifi is great, but so is my cell phone’s data plan. The main draw is that there probably won’t be any crazy homeless people and the inevitable urine smell that clings to them. There won’t be people listening to ghetto rap so loudly (and on such crap headphones) that I’m forced to listen too. Or people who eat sunflower seeds and spit the shells on the floor. Or people who take hooker baths with makeup remover sheets then discard them all over the floor. Or old ladies on flip phones having shouting matches in an angry-chicken Asian language. Or delusional vets who scream about non-existant enemy tanks. (Yes, I have personally encountered all of these on MUNI busses).  I think #2 above might help MUNI with these things too. The fare inspector can kick people off for bad behavior or disturbing others even if I am mistaken and the examples I cited were all paying customers.

Generally, having private companies pop up in competition with public services indicates there’s something that can be done better. With a few improvements, MUNI might yet put these obnoxiously hipster little startups out of business.

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Tidal: why Jay-Z and Taylor Swift are wrong

Jay-Z, along with Madonna, Kanye West and other thoroughly cringeworthy big names in music have launched Tidal, ostensibly to protect music, musicians, art. But this Instagram post from Madonna is telling. She says, in part

And remember nothing is for free! This is a universal LAW. Somewhere-Somehow-Someone has to pay.

Let’s not forget that this is also the woman who compares an album leak to rape and terrorism. How could such a person possibly be wrong about the future of music? I guess she’s in pretty good company though, as Taylor Swift (who is also on Tidal) pulled all her music from Spotify, saying

Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.

But she and other artists who believe they’re being paid too little under the streaming model are wrong. Here’s why.

1. No one else gets paid forever for work they did once

Art is indeed valuable. No one is contesting that. But isn’t everything valuable? Nursing care, doctors, teachers, the guy who painted your house. The software engineers that make Google work, or the ones who maintain Wikipedia. All of their work is valuable. But does the engineer who wrote part of Google’s search code get paid $0.0006 every time someone does a Google search? Does the guy who installed your toilet get paid every time you flush it? Even if their work continues to be of value, even if there’s a measurable way in which it’s being used, most people do not get paid forever for work that they did once. What millionaire musicians don’t seem to realize is that they already enjoy a position of great privilege in the royalty system and they should be more grateful. It’s easy to understand why they aren’t: they see that Spotify pays 70% to the recording companies, which leaves a smaller share to them. But the answer is not charging the end user more money.

2. Making streaming more expensive will not increase revenues

The same applies to making streaming more difficult. If someone wants a playlist with all their favorite artists, but the artists each have exclusive contracts with five different streaming services, it makes life difficult. If streaming costs $20 per month, it makes the service less attractive. In fact, according to data analysis done by David Touve of the University of Virginia, the price of streaming that will maximize revenues is around $6/month.

3. Lost album sales is the wrong way of looking at things

Musicians just need to forget about the glory days when buying a CD or waiting around for the song to play on the radio were the only ways for a fan to consume their music. The metric of “lost album sales” is misleading. There’s no evidence that if pirating and streaming weren’t options, those fans would all be paying for albums.

4. The only way to increase revenue is to increase value

It should be fairly obvious that free or nearly free streaming and pirating are here to stay. It should also be obvious by now that fighting these (with encryption, lawsuits, shutting down sites like The Pirate Bay) are a temporary stopgap at best. If it’s easy to get free music, the only way to convince people to keep paying a premium price for it, whether via album sales or costlier streaming services, is to offer them something extra. Tidal claims it offers some exclusive content, but I think they’ll have to do better. Promotions like “buy this album and be entered for a chance to win a dinner with this artist” or “subscribe for N months and you can qualify to get these limited edition items” — things that freemium streaming and pirating don’t and can’t offer.

I’ll end with simple armchair psychology. If musicians alienate their fans by complaining that an estimated $6 million per year earned from Spotify is too little, fans will be less likely to care about “hurting the artist” by pirating.

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Transgender and social norms

I wonder what percentage of cases of gender identity issues can be explained by rigid gender roles in society. For example, a boy likes playing with Barbie dolls, and his father tells him he can’t because “Barbies are for girls.” It doesn’t make him enjoy them any less, so he concludes that he must be a girl.

If someone were raised in isolation, with no notion of gender, would it be possible for them to identify as transgendered? Would they look down one day and conclude that they have the wrong parts even if they’ve never seen the “right” parts?

It’s sad that this is considered a disorder in the individual instead of a malfunctioning of society. In Leelah Alcorn’s widely published suicide note, she said “I felt hopeless, that I was just going to look like a man in drag for the rest of my life.” That’s the thing — if we lived in a society where men and women didn’t look any particular way, she wouldn’t have felt the need to transition, would she? If there was nothing we could point to and say “that thing is for women” and no way to tell male from female by looking (because everyone is gender-fluid and wears whatever they want, regardless of today’s gendered clothing/makeup/hair rules) then would there be any such thing as gender identity disorder?

The other day I saw someone at the supermarket who looked to be a cute girl — long pony tails, knee high boots, a flowered sundress. Then he* turned around and was also sporting a handlebar moustache. When he was five, one of my friends got to choose any outfit he wanted from a store. He chose a flowing, sparkly princess gown and his mother bought it for him. He wasn’t trans or gay — he just happened to like that gown the best of all the clothes in the shop. There’s nothing wrong with any of this, and we should stop acting like there is. People shouldn’t have to choose a team and only like/wear/do things associated with that gender. As a society, we should be more accepting of everyone’s choices, and gentler with ourselves for liking things of the “wrong” gender. Why should it matter that a boy prefers dance to football, or if a girl likes monster trucks instead of baby dolls? Even if she wants to wear boy clothes and have short hair and do boy things — why should it be necessary for her to feel like she has to surgically or hormonally change herself in order to live honestly? Can’t we just share? Let’s share. I’m a girl and I don’t like makeup. So some boy out there can take my makeup rations and doll himself up. :)

* I didn’t ask his pronouns, so this is an assumption

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Kim Kardashian: the new American dream

If you look at the comments section of any online article featuring Kim Kardashian, you will find detractors. There are the people who deride her appearance, who call her fat, who say she’ll be nothing when she’s 50. There are people who say she’s vapid and doesn’t deserve fame. There will always be someone who asks why she’s given any attention at all, and “why can’t she just go away.”

The reason is, we won’t stop talking about her. Or clicking on articles about her new nude photos or her latest cleavage bearing, flesh colored, slit-up-to-her-netherparts vinyl dress. We can’t. I think our collective fascination with her is that she’s the new American dream. It’s got nothing to do with the old one: the one where your parents come as immigrants and you work hard every day of your life and give your children a life better than your parents ever dreamed. No, not that one.

This one is much more glamorous. The new American dream is that anyone can become rich and famous and jetset around the world. After all, Kim Kardashian did it, so what does she have that you or I don’t?* You don’t have to be particularly pretty — she’s not ugly, but she’s not exactly a supermodel either. You don’t have to be smart. You don’t have to have a college degree. You don’t have to have any particular talent or skill. You don’t have to be interesting. I’m not criticizing her: she’s just thoroughly average, the way that most of us are.

Who am I supposed to be impressed by? Stephen Hawking? Bill Gates? Hilary Clinton? Those people were born brilliant. I expect them to do great things. Kim was born average and she’s achieved wealth beyond what most of us can imagine. I’m impressed the way the rest of the world is impressed when someone with Down’s Syndrome writes a book.

There you have it. If you conveniently ignore that she was born into wealth, the rest of her is average. But that gives us hope. We see her and think — maybe someday, for no good reason at all, I can be the idle rich too. I can get paid $20,000 for a tweet. I can go to fashion weeks in Paris, New York, Milan and sit in the front row. I can go to the Met ball. I can fly off to Dubai on a whim. I can have any dress, any purse, any shoes, any house, anything anything anything I want. Won’t that be marvelous? We sneer over every mistake she makes and every poor fashion choice. We make fun of every tasteless misstep, but it’s really because we’re imagining how we would do it better. That’s why we can’t stop looking, clicking, talking. It’s because we’re all secretly dreaming.

* It may not sound like it, but I deeply admire Kim and of course I wish I could be just like her. That’s why I wrote this: she truly is the new American dream!

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Benedict Cumberbatch’s shotgun wedding


A few months back, when Benedict Cumberbatch announced his engagement in The Times (of London), I thought “That’s interesting — I didn’t know he was seeing someone.” It was not that surprising though, since he’s famously protective of his privacy. Good for him. I left it at that. A week or so later, he was in my newsfeed again, commenting on his engagement. When asked if he was happy about the fan approval he was getting, he responded that he was, but

The only support I really need, to be honest, is from the woman I love, who I proposed to.

That seemed strange and unnecessarily distancing. That quote was when I first thought something was off. Is that the reaction of a man in love? Someone who is happy spreads joy involuntarily. He’d gush about his future wife and his lovely fans.

A month later, his fiancee was rumored to be pregnant, and a month after that, it was confirmed by his PR. Then, things started to make more sense, e.g. why Benedict seemed grumpy and irritated rather than happy. After news of the pregnancy, I googled for any indication that the engagement was the result of an unplanned pregnancy and came across the delightfully addictive Sophie Hunter Gossip Blog. In one sitting, I must have hit “previous posts” about a hundred times. It was a joyous occasion, discovering that I’m not the only one who doesn’t buy the “we fell in love and had to get married right away” spin they’ve put on it.

What do I want?* I think it’d be nice if he had a sit-down interview and just told the truth instead of trying so hard to sell this fairytale version of it. Something like — they just started seeing each other, she got pregnant, he’d been wanting kids since he was a kid, Oscars season was coming up, everyone advised him to play it up as a happily ever after and he tried but his face gave him away. Oh, wasn’t that silly. Still, they’re making a go of it, and who knows, it could work out. I see nothing wrong with that story. It has a charming honesty and relatability to it.

There’s been speculation that he has ambitions to be the next Hollywood leading man like George Clooney or Brad Pitt. A better way to court a larger fanbase is by staying dorky and lovable. Who says you can’t be a huge star and a goofball at the same time? Just look at Taylor Swift! People value authenticity and kindness. Trying too hard to emulate someone more famous doesn’t play well. Feeding the paparazzi may garner Kardashian status at best — but if he really cares about the longevity of his acting career, that isn’t what he wants. It isn’t too late to come clean, and I hope he does soon. Maybe his new baby will inspire some honesty.

Disclaimer: I’m a fan of his work, but I’m too lazy to be a really dedicated fan. I’ve never had the energy to fantasize about marrying him, nor have I even paid to see any of his movies. Forget about seeing him live or waiting anywhere for an autograph. I think my favorite of his work must be Parade’s End, and it seems like life is now imitating art.

* (Okay, yes, who cares what I want because I’m a dog on the internet)

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Life-changing, indeed

I just read Marie Kondo’s “the life-changing magic of tidying up” in one afternoon. I think it’s one of the most touching books I’ve ever read, and even after memorizing her philosophy and putting her method to use, I would still keep a copy of this book on my bookshelf.

The introduction sounds a bit like an infomercial, talking up the (unproven) benefits of tidying, which are said to include weight loss, better looking skin, and even finding your purpose in life. It was a little off-putting (after all, I’m reading this book, so I’m already sold on the idea of tidying) but power through it. It does get better.

So, this isn’t a technical guide. It’s not one of these no-nonsense “10 steps to a cleaner house” sort of things. Where you get rid of X things every day or you clean K square feet. It isn’t antiseptic that way. Her book is more like a philosophy of life. Why won’t you need to tidy ever again? Because you’ll have gotten rid of most of your things. But the point is: you can clearly live without those things.

What drew me to this book was the premise that we should only have things we love. The things we own should spark joy, she reiterates throughout. She personifies things in what is perhaps a Shinto tradition. I grew up as an only child and did the same. I felt very sorry for the stoplights, doing their jobs throughout the night even when there were no drivers to benefit from their labors. It becomes much easier to let go of my things and to quiet the internal monologue (“but that was expensive” “I’ll wear it when it’s warmer out” “I could wear it around the house” “I could still need that someday” “I haven’t read that yet”) when I think about how my just things want to be useful to me and I’m shoving them into a dark corner of a closet to die slowly of neglect. That’s sad. Sadder than slavery and the holocaust combined. And it’s my fault. But there’s something I can do about it.

I can set my things free. I can give them a better life with someone who will appreciate them and use them. My things and their new owners can be happy together. The beautiful thing is that my old items won’t go to waste. They’ll go to Goodwill, or clothing swaps. They’ll be sold on the dozens of selling apps I have or given away on Yerdle. I only hope they will bring joy to someone else.

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I only watched this movie because it won the Academy Award for best picture. Unsurprisingly, I found it to be thoroughly mediocre. I guess the award was because the voting members could see themselves or people they knew in the struggle of the celebrity-turned-stage-actor main character?

One annoying feature was the drum noise. It happened throughout, sometimes during dialogue, sometimes while characters were walking around. Yeah, there was an unnecessary amount of people walking — down the street, in hallways, back and forth on the stage, etc. Even more obnoxious than the drum noise was the attempt to cleverly explain it, e.g. the walking character would pass a guy drumming in the street.

There was character development that never amounted to anything. Details that had nothing to do with the main story and weren’t interesting or detailed enough to be side-stories. Too many scenes left me wondering, “what was the point of that?” This question was never answered. There was no point.

If a movie can’t have a compelling plot or an interesting story, I understand. Not every story can keep an audience interested just on the merits of its plot. Then at least the characters should be appealing. I should want to know what happens to them — I should care. And lacking both of those things, a move should at least be visually stunning. This movie offers none of the above.

The acting is mostly people getting worked up and shouting monologues at each other. The one worthwhile scene is when the main character’s daughter (played by Emma Stone) tells him that he doesn’t matter:

Actually, I think it’s a good message for everyone. Let’s say the movie wasn’t a complete waste of time. The moral is good: I don’t matter. You don’t matter. No one cares. Get over yourself. Or, to spin it in a more positive way, don’t let what others may think of you dictate what you do with your life.

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Cigarette cards: coronation series

Coronations in England were so fancy that each person even had an assigned outfit. It’s hard for me to tell someone important from servants just by looking. Well, except the guy with a horn, I guess.

Maybe the super fancy ones wear capes? Let’s bring capes back. Yes, indeed.

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