Tuesday, February 28, 2023

A summer weekend in San Francisco

Rome wasn't the only iconic and historic city I finally visited in 2022. Last June, as part of a larger trip with my family to Lake Tahoe, Corinne and I spent a weekend in San Francisco. (It only took me eight whole months to write about it...)

I had heard horror stories (like this one) about San Francisco's current condition as a hyper-liberal, anything-goes hellscape where legions or homeless people roamed the streets in search of their next fentanyl dose, smash-and-grab burglaries were routine, and shoplifters brazenly pillaged stores with impunity.

However, the San Francisco we discovered last summer didn't seem quite that horrible. In fact, we found it to be a beautiful city that we want to visit again.

Haight Street, near Ashbury. Unfortunately, the Hippies have long since been gentrified out of this neighborhood.

San Francisco’s “homeless problem” may be overstated by the national media. With the caveat that I did not venture into the Tenderloin, I didn’t see a homeless population in SF any more severe than I might see in Downtown or Midtown Houston. I didn’t have to step over any unhoused person (or their encampments, or their puddles of piss or piles of shit) as I walked along San Francisco’s sidewalks. 

The homeless people that I did see generally kept to themselves and did not accost us for spare change or otherwise make us feel uncomfortable.

Robin Williams Meadow in Golden Gate Park, with Sharon Art Studio and Sutro Tower in the distance. 

There were, however, signs everywhere around the city warning people not to leave valuables in the their cars. And I noticed that at least one large chain clothing store on Market Street had a line of people waiting to enter; security guards were limiting the number of people who could be in the store at one time, presumably to combat shoplifting.

These were indicators that San Francisco does indeed have a property crime problem that the city is trying to battle. But, as tourists, Corinne and I never felt unsafe anywhere we went.

Golden Gate Bridge, as seen from the Visitor's Center on its south end, partially shrouded in fog.

"You just have to see it in person” is a cliché, but in the case of the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s true. I have seen pictures, videos, and movies of the bridge for my entire life, but none of them do it justice. It's hard to appreciate just how big and impressive it is until you've seen it for yourself with your own eyes.  

The bridge, which connects San Francisco with Marin County to the north, opened in 1937.

The south tower of Golden Gate Bridge, which rises to a height of 746 feet.

It is possible to bike or walk all the way across the bridge; in fact, we saw people jogging across it. Corinne and I only went as far as the south tower, but we were still treated to a magnificent view of the bay, Alcatraz, and the city. It was cold and windy on the bridge itself, but downtown San Francisco, off in the distance, was bathed in bright sunlight. The city's weather is famously interesting.

The entrance to Fisherman's Wharf. We didn't make it down to Pier 39 to see the sea lions, but we did go to Ghirardelli Square for some chocolate and a beer, so we did a few of the touristy things.

There are so many good seafood restaurants here in Houston. But, respectfully, none of them do crab cakes like they do in Fisherman’s Wharf. Those were surreally delicious. 

In fact, every meal we had in San Francisco, from lunch at a French cafe in Height/Ashbury to dinner at a Thai restaurant in The Castro, was excellent. We weren't in San Francisco long enough to even scratch the surface of all the different cuisines the city has to offer.

The Powell and Hyde Cable Car turntable near Ghirardelli Square.

We brought the Muni day pass ($5), which allows unlimited rides on buses and light rail for an entire day. This was very convenient for us as we explored the city, although we still did a lot of walking. 

The iconic cable cars are a big tourist draw, and you need a special ticket to ride them (the Muni day pass won't get you on board). We didn't feel like standing in a long line and paying $8 per person just to ride a cable car, but we did have fun watching the cars be manually turned at the end of their route.

The 1886 rigger Balclutha, with Alcatraz in the background.

As I mentioned previously, San Francisco's weather is famously interesting. During the day, the weather was generally wonderful. Once night fell, however, things got cold rather quickly. "The coldest winter  I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco" may not have been said by Mark Twain, but it's an accurate quote nevertheless.

Powell Street BART Station. Along Market Street in downtown San Francisco, MUNI trains run one level below the surface while BART runs two levels below the surface. 

Muni provides transit service in San Francisco itself, while BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) is a metro system serving the entire Bay Area. Obviously, as a transitgeek I had to take a ride.

As much noterity as the Golden Gate Bridge gets for being an engineering marvel (and it is), the BART Transbay Tube also deserves some recognition. This tunnel, which will celebrate its 50th birthday in just a couple of years, zipped us underneath the Bay from San Francisco to Oakland and back in a matter of minutes. 

Tribune Tower in Downtown Oakland.

The primary purpose of the trip to Oakland was to ride BART; we were in that city just long enough to walk down to Jack London Square and stop in for a drink at a local bar. I was on my best behavior as an Astros fan and refrained from telling A's fans how much their team sucks. 

Jack London Square in downtown Oakland.

The differences in microclimate around the Bay are really amazing. When we took the trip across the bay, it was cold and windy in San Francisco but warm and clear in Oakland. Did I mention that this place has interesting weather?

The corner of 18th Street and Castro Street, which is the center of San Francisco's famous "gayborhood." Note the maze of trolleybus catenary wires; the electric motors of Muni's trolleybus fleet handle San Francisco's steep grades better than standard diesel-powered buses. 

Corinne and I have a problem when we travel: we say to ourselves, "let's travel to place X and scratch it off our list of places to see." Then we get there and spend a few days, and realize that there is just so much more to do and see that we have no choice but to return. 

Since we’ve been together, this has been a problem: instead of getting shorter, the travel list keeps getting longer because there are simply so many places we need to return to: Germany, Mexico City, Austria, Venice, Washington DC, Greece, Rome, etc... Now we have to add San Francisco to the list as well. There are entire neighborhoods and attractions - Chinatown, the Embarcadero, the Presidio, Russian Hill, the zoo, Oracle Park, all the museums - that we didn't get a chance to see during our all-too-brief visit.

A residential street near Duboce Park.

One final note: Most of what we saw in San Francisco while we walked through it - downtown, Haight/Ashbury, Golden Gate Park, Chrissy Field, Fisherman’s Wharf and the Castro - were normal people doing normal things: hanging out in parks with their kids, fishing off Torpedo Pier, walking their dogs, biking, jogging, having conversations over drinks in outdoor cafes, etc. The city was not a dystopian hellscape.

Does San Francisco have its problems? Yes. Every major city does. However, at a time when this country is horrifically polarized, please do yourself a favor and do not buy into media-driven stereotypes about an entire city.

Sunday, February 05, 2023

Boeing delivers the final 747

I've been following the gradual demise of four-engined commercial aircraft on this blog, so I knew this news was coming. Still, it's a bit sad:

More than half a century since the original jumbo jet ushered in a glamorous new jet age, helping bring affordable air travel to millions of passengers, the last-ever Boeing 747 was delivered on Tuesday, marking the start of the final chapter for the much-loved airplane.

In a ceremony that was broadcast live online, the aircraft was handed over to its new owner, US air cargo operator Atlas Air, at Boeing’s plant in Everett, Washington.

In a dramatic opening of the hangar’s sliding doors, Atlas Air’s new plane was revealed behind flags bearing the liveries of every carrier that’s ever taken delivery of a 747. The company has 56 of the aircraft in its fleet.

Going back to the iconic aircraft's first delivery in early 1969, a total of 1,574 "Jumbo Jets" have come off Boeing's assembly line in Everett, Washington. The last 747 intended for passenger service was delivered to Korean Air in 2017; deliveries for freight carriers continued for a few additional years, culminating in this final delivery to Atlas Air.

While the final 747 won’t be carrying paying passengers, its delivery is another milestone for the distinctive double-decker “Queen of the Skies,” which revolutionized intercontinental travel while also appearing in James Bond films and even giving piggyback rides to the Space Shuttle.

With the last passenger 747 having entered service more than five years ago, the end of the 747’s enduring career now moves even closer, hastened by airlines switching their preferences to smaller and more economical aircraft.

Sine entering production in 1968, the 747 and its many variants (including the shorter, longer-range 747SP) managed to outlast its three- and four-engined widebody rivals, including the Lockheed L-1011 (manufactured from 1968 through 1984), the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and MD-11 (1970-2000), the Airbus A340 (1991-2012), and its only double-decker competitor, the Airbus A380 (2003-2021):
It was the introduction of the European double-decker plane in the early 2000s that prompted Boeing to announce, in 2005, one last version of the 747 design that by that time was already starting to show its age.

The B747-8I (or B747-8 Intercontinental), as this last variant of the venerable jumbo jet is called, proved to be a swan song for large four-engined airliners.

Even though the A380 is currently enjoying a revival, with airlines rushing to bring stored aircraft back to service in response to the post-Covid air traffic recovery, these giants of the skies struggle to compete with the operational flexibility and fuel economies of smaller twin-engined jets.

As of December 2022, there are only 44 passenger versions of the 747 still in service, according to aviation analytics firm Cirium. That total is down from more than 130 in service as passenger jets at the end of 2019, just before the pandemic crippled demand for air travel, especially on international routes on which the 747 and other widebody jets were primarily used. Most of those passenger versions of the jets were grounded during the early months of the pandemic and never returned to service.

Lufthansa remains the largest operator of the passenger version of the B747-8, with 19 in its current fleet and potential commitments to keep the jumbo flying passengers for years, possibly decades, to come.
Indeed, even though the newest 747s, including this final freighter, will likely be flying for decades, the 747 is already obsolete. Two-engined aircraft might not be as iconic or as interesting as the Jumbo Jet, but they are significantly more fuel efficient, and the evolution of ETOPS regulations means that twin-engined aircraft can fly on just about any long-haul route in the world. While some 747s, A340s and A380s are currently being reactivated to handle post-COVID premium-seat demand, routes once flown by these four-engined aircraft will be increasingly turned over to twin-engined widebodies such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350.

I flew on a 787 to Europe and back last November. It was perfectly fine. But it just wasn't as "cool" as flying a 747.

 NPR and CBS News and The Points Guy have more on the 747's final delivery. Simple Flying considers how the 747 changed aviation forever and lists the commercial routes still using the aircraft (including Houston-Frankfurt on Lufthansa later this year). Boeing workers reflect on the 747 to The Seattle Times.

2023 Houston Cougar football schedule released

Last week, the Cougars' schedule for 2023 - their inaugural season in the Big 12 - was released:

Sat Sep 02     UT-San Antonio
Sat Sep 09     at Rice
Sat Sep 16     TCU
Sat Sep 23     Sam Houston State
Sat Sep 30     at Texas Tech
Sat Oct 07     (off)
Thu Oct 12    West Virginia
Sat Oct 21     Texas
Sat Oct 28     at Kansas State
Sat Nov 04    at Baylor
Sat Nov 11    Cincinnati
Sat Nov 18    Oklahoma State
Sat Nov 25    at Central Florida

On one hand, this is a schedule that will definitely sell some tickets. That October 21st date against the Texas Longhorns will doubtlessly be the biggest game in TDECU Stadium history, but games against CFP runner-up TCU and Oklahoma State will also be big draws. ESPN chose Dana Hologrsen's showdown against his former employer, West Virginia, for an interesting Thursday night game. Even the out-of-conference games, against a UTSA team that took the Cougars to the wire last year and a Sam Houston State program transitioning to FBS, should be well-attended. UH faithful who always wanted a schedule full of regional rivals and marquee programs got their wish in spades this year.

On the other hand, this schedule is such a big upgrade from UH's previous slates that I honestly don't see more than four wins this fall. Every opponent on this schedule, in fact, has the ability to beat a Houston team that underachieved last fall, will be starting a new quarterback this fall, and is still coached by the underwhelming Dana Holgorsen. The second half of the schedule - starting with the Longhorns at home and followed by back-to-back roadies against KSU and Baylor - is going to be especially brutal.

That said, there are some aspects of this schedule that will benefit the Cougars. Namely, the relative lack of travel. Houston plays eight games in the City of Houston and only leaves the State of Texas twice, for trips to Kansas and Florida. There are two pairs of back-to-back home games. The Thursday night game against the Mountaineers gives the Cougars an extra couple of days to prepare for Texas. The Coogs miss having to play a Kansas team that embarrassed them last year and don't have to face Oklahoma or BYU.

The bottom line: it's fantastic that, after wandering in the wilderness that is the Group of Five for the last 27 seasons, the University of Houston's football program once again has a seat at the table with the big boys. For Cougar fans such as myself, this has been a long time coming and I am certainly going to enjoy it, win or lose.

But with joining the big boys comes growing pains. The Cougars better be prepared to experience some this fall.