Wandering in Bay Area

As the pandemic subdues, real world travels are resuming, but I can still do virtual travels. This article remembers my five trips to San Francisco Bay Area, a populous region in Northern California.

San Francisco seen from Twin Peaks, 2012-06-05

San Francisco as a Tourist

My first visit to the Bay Area was in June 2012, with my roommate John. We took a train to Los Angeles, and then travelled to San Francisco on Chinatown bus tour.

Golden Gate Bridge seen from east, 2012-06-05

The bus tour squeezed all the major tourist attractions within one day:

  • Golden Gate Bridge
  • Fisherman Wharf
  • Lombard Street
  • Palace of Fine Arts
  • St Mary Cathedral
  • Twin Peaks
  • Castro District

My favorite is Lombard Street, which is known as "the crookedest street in the world" (but not the only one). Standing on the sidewalk, I can see a series of eight switchbacks decorated with trees and flowers, with vehicles driving through these sharp turns slowly and carefully.

Lombard Street seen from bottom, 2012-06-05

Computer History Museum

San Francisco Bay Area is home to Silicon Valley, a global center for high technology and innovation. During my final year at grad school, I was invited to several on-site job interviews at tech companies in this region. I wasn't able to get into those highly competitive positions, but I received five free trips to the Bay Area.

Typically, an interview is a two-day trip. On the first day, if I pick an early morning flight, I can arrive in the Bay Area around lunch time, and have an afternoon for sightseeing. The interview itself starts in the morning of the second day, and then I fly back to Tucson in the evening.

One of the places I visited in one of these afternoons is Computer History Museum, a museum that explores the evolution of our technological world. In its main exhibit Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing, I learned that:

  • My grandma's abacus (算盘) is a form of computer.
  • Some computers are analog, not digital.
  • Not every program is on a disk or punched cards: they could be wires on a patch panel.
  • Some memory device do not support random access: delay lines and magnetic drums are serial access.
  • Some floppy disks are larger than 5.25-inch.
  • You need to place your telephone handset on a MODEM, instead of plugging in the telephone wire.

abacus, Computer History Museum, 2017-06-15 EAI patch panel, Computer History Museum, 2017-06-15 ADC-300 modem, Computer History Museum, 2017-06-15 IBM 1401, Computer History Museum, 2017-06-15

My favorite cabinet in this museum is the step-by-step process transforming a semiconductor crystal into an integrated circuit. I'm also excited to see a few "big" computers, such as IBM System/360 and UNIVAC. There are two functional room-sized computers, PDP-1 and IBM 1401, at the museum. However, there wasn't a demo scheduled on the day of my visit so I couldn't see these computers in action.

Hiller Aviation Museum

Another Bay Area museum I visited is Hiller Aviation Museum. It is an aircraft history museum, with a collection of about 50 aircraft.

Most aviation museums start with a (replica of) Wright Flyer, but I saw something older at this museum: an 1869 Aviator. The Aviator had no pilot and was a lighter-than-air flight, but it's 34 years older than Wright Flyer.

My favorite exhibit at this museum is the cockpit of a Boeing 747-100 airliner. The docent let me sit in the captain's seat, and then introduced to me some of the controls.

me in Boeing 747 cockpit, Hiller Aviation Museum, 2016-11-13

Hiller Aviation Museum is located adjacent to San Carlos Airport, a real-life general aviation airport. After I left the museum, I went to the end of SQL Runway 30, watching airplanes taking off and landing.

BART, Caltrain, and Cable Car

San Carlos is a general aviation airport that for light airplanes. As for major airports for commercial traffic, I've been to three: San Francisco (SFO), San Jose (SJC), and Oakland (OAK). If I was not provided with a rental car, I prefer mass transportation rather than taxis to reduce my carbon footprint.

I can leave SFO airport by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), a subway system with trains going to downtown San Francisco every 15 minutes. I figured out BART pretty quickly, because it's very similar to the subway systems in Shanghai and Beijing.

SJC and OAK airports did not have BART service when I visited in 2017, but they are close to Caltrain, a commuter rail system that runs around the San Francisco Peninsula, with trains every 30 minutes. Caltrain is full of traps to a visitor like me: I need a Clipper card for fare payment, and I must tap the card at the station before boarding a train and tap again at the destination after exiting the train. Forgetting to tap or double tapping would result in either a fine or being charged the maximum fare.

Powell & Mason line cable car, 2017-02-20

Rants aside, the most unique ground transportation system in the Bay Area has to be the San Francisco cable car system, the world's last manually operated cable car system. I rode the cable car in the rain, visited the Cable Car Museum to learn its history and operations, and then stood at a street corner to watch how gripman starts and stops the cable car at a hilltop station. It's an interesting experience to see, learn, and ride this national historic landmark.

EarthCache in Bay Area

I became a geocacher in 2013, which changed how I travel. I tried to include a bit of geocaching in each of my four Bay Area trips in 2016 and 2017.

Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, 2016-11-13

The first park I visited is Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I selected this park because it has an unusual shape on Google Maps: dozens of thin curved lines surrounding dozens of small "lakes". When I arrived on site, I understood how the shape came to be: the refuge stretches along a marshy shoreline, where each "lake" is a pond, and each curved line is a levee that separates adjacent ponds and provides a hiking trail. There are 4 EarthCaches in this park, asking me to view and measure various sediments deposited in the levees and surrounding area. These are the first geocaches I logged in Northern California. I also hiked in the adjacent Coyote Hills Regional Park on the same day, and found my first physical geocache in Northern California.

Coyote Hills Regional Park, 2016-11-13

Apart from these, I also visited the oldest passenger railroad station in California, and found out what's behind Facebook's iconic 👍 sign.

Sun microsystems sign, 2017-06-21 Facebook thumbs up sign, 2017-06-21

Goodbye, Bay Area

After six visits to the San Francisco Bay Area, I moved to east coast, and now lives very far from Northern California. Nevertheless, I still remember my short few days in the Bay Area, especially when I watch Silicon Valley HBO.