MakerFaire Day Two: Game of Drones, Flaming Octopi

dragon and ocotopus makerfaire
Flaming dragon AND octopus. As one does.

I spent most of this day at MakerFaire hanging out at the Game of Drones encampment, but got the chance to wander around the main show area again.

I left early in the morning, arriving from my place in Palo Alto around 8:15 AM, and quickly learned one useful MakerFaire trick: the Franklin Templeton Investments outlet in San Mateo was offering free parking to attendees, only about a ten minute walk from the event grounds.

You might want to remember that tip for next year. Why Templeton did this — I can’t answer that one, although it’s certainly not often that I harbor kind thoughts about a global investment firm.

Game of Drones kicked off another long day of vicious aerial robot battles, which were eternally well-attended. I think they’re really onto something here, judging by the rapt fascination of both kids and adults who showed up to watch the action and the well-delivered calling. I could see this being a highly amusing new road-show — like Robot Wars but a lot speedier.

The Barbie Dream Drone.
The Barbie Dream Drone.

A true profusion of UAV makes and models competed in the action, but my favorite was definitely the Barbie Dream Drone, made by Edie Sellars. I think I need to make a My Little Pony themed model for next year.

reiner freeing barbie drone

The safety net proved to be the undoing of more drones today, although the pilots were getting better at avoiding it. On the plus side, the crowd goes nuts when a drone gets tangled in the netting. Also, turns out a PVC tube with a toy gripper claw operated by string works pretty well for getting the UAVs down.

game of drones victory 5

The organizers of MakerFaire seemed to agree about the event: Game of Drones scored an Editors Choice award, which was presented in a delightfully country-fair analogue little blue ribbon. I wish them all the best. And hope to get my filthy paws on one of their Sumo quad airframes soon.

bow before thy flaming octopus

Turns out El Pulpo Mecanico gives the occasional show, with bursts of superheated flame coordinated to blippy electronic music. If you can’t get to Burning Man and are in fact opposed to spending $500+ to hang out with your parents and their friends while they drop endless quantities of acid, the sculptures here at MakerFaire may represent your next best bet. The El Pulpo operators occasionally give the flames full blast without warning, scaring the hell out of the spectators milling around the area. It’s very, very fun to watch.

glassblowing makerfaire

Glassblowing, blacksmithing, jewelry and more by complements of The Crucible. I am fairly certain I’d end up covered in third degree burns if I tried to imitate my favorite Skryim character in real life, but I’m glad someone does it. They’ve got classes on offer if you want to take your faux video game skills into the real world, and make some sweet swords or something. Or spoons. You could also make spoons.

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I managed to resist the urge to buy everything I wanted at MakerFaire, which would have been a hilariously expensive proposition, but this bronze giant squid necklace from Dragon’s Treasure was too awesome to resist. If you’re as fond of eccentric jewelry as me, you should check out their website immediately.

I was also very impressed by the biologically-friendly creations of Bug Under Glass, including beautiful butterfly wing jewelry. And framed beetles riding tiny bicycles, which is pretty much my idea of good home decor.

Here’s some more random-access images:

Korean Food at Myung Dong Tofu Cabin – San Mateo, California

Myung Dong Tofu Cabin
2968 S Norfolk St, San Mateo, CA 94403
(650) 525-1484

tofu cabin pork stew
Pork and kimchi stew.

I love California strip malls. Well, allow me modify that: strip malls of a particular variety and tone. The sort I’m talking about aren’t populated with dollar stores and sporting goods marts. The sort of strip mall I like functions as a small oasis of excellent Asian food, where multiple Asian restaurants cluster together, seemingly for protection — the equivalent of small natural bastions of biodiversity.

The excellent Myung Dong Tofu Cabin sits in one of these Asian food gallerias, next to a Chinese bakery and a pho shop. Owned and operated by a small crew of middle-aged women, the delightfully named Tofu Cabin specializes in Korean home-cooking, with a couple of DIY BBQ tables for those feeling fancy.

At this home-cooking — the heart and soul of Korean cuisine, if you ask me – this place absolutely excels. With lower prices by a buck or two than the other Korean restaurants I’ve found in the Peninsula, I believe I’ve found my new standby.

pork bbq myung dong
Spicy BBQ pork.

I’m usually a bit ambivalent to SoonDooBoo, perhaps because it’s often rather uninspired. The soondooboo here was a molten, flavorful, slightly creamy brew, with bits of beef. They took us seriously when we said “spicy.” My sinuses were rendered as open as the Panama Canal.  Pork BBQ was the right kind of greasy and exceedingly prolific in the full portion, with a potent dose of red pepper and sliced jalapeno. It was particularly good in a fresh lettuce wrap with some kimchi and a bit of hot sauce.

Seafood dolsot bibimbap was also excellent, served in a very large black stone cauldron, and filled with shrimp and squid. I was less impressed with the kimchi ji gae (pork and kimchi stew), which definitely featured far more kimchi than it did slices of pork belly.

banchan tofu cabin

The banchan selection is fresh, if slightly austere, and by austere I think I actually mean “healthy.” (Where’s my mayonnaise drenched noodle salad?) Sweet black beans are a rare site on these spreads in recent years. Still, where’s the tiny fish with equally tiny eyeballs? They defined my childhood. The kimchi is excellent. A Korean restaurant rises and falls upon the virtue of its kimchi.

Service is friendly and homey, and the food comes out pleasingly quickly. Free green tea and the correct kind of purple rice. I’ll be back, probably over and over and over. Korean food has a peculiar addictive quality for me, a Proustian madeline.

Huong Lan Sandwich – San Jose, California

Huong Lan Sandwich
1655 Tully Road
San Jose, California

huong lan sandwiches

It’s hard not to love banh mi, as any Californian with sense will inform you. I tend to subsist almost exclusively on these sandwiches when actually in Vietnam, enjoying both the comically low price point and the delightfully variable flavor — every small stand manned by elderly women, turning out ever-so-slightly different variants on the theme.

BBQ pork, chicken, pate, mysterious but tasty headcheeses, served with mayonnaise and pickled vegetables and even, at times, some of that curiously unperishable Laughing Cow cheese. Chili sauce and fried shallots and jalapeno, and (if lucky), a bit of hot left-over juice from sauteed pork. I’ll eat it all. Happily.

You can get good banh mi in America, of course. Anywhere with a large Vietnamese population will inevitably have a clutch of banh mi shops, which fill the ecological niche of Subway with both style and considerable thrift.

huong lan interior

Huong Lan, in San Jose’s Little Saigon, is one of those sandwich-and-deli shops that I grew up with, and of which you know the type if you grew up in an area with a Vietnamese population. There’s a wide selection of prepared Vietnamese food, including Hue style rice cakes (banh cuon, et al), a profusion of spring roll varieties, and noodle bowls. There’s a hot fast food bar that offers rice plates on the go, with freshly fried spring rolls and catfish claypots covered with shrink wrap. There’s also a counter offering fresh BBQ meats. I was able to pick up some MSG saturated and delightfully nostalgic fried seaweed snacks, which made me happy. Curiously — I couldn’t find any fish sauce, although they did have shrimp paste.

huong lan banh mi

The sandwich was only OK, I’m a bit sad to report. It was lacking some sort of special oomph. The bread wasn’t warmed up and was not quite shatter-y enough, and that, in my mind, makes all the difference. Further, the fillings were a bit inadequate in volume. I like a good banh mi to make an intolerable mess of any surface I’m eating it over. What was there, however, was good: BBQ pork was given a garnish of peanuts and fried shallots, which added some earthy, oily crunch. For $3, I can accept an unremarkable sandwich.

huong lan meat

The real appeal at Huong Lan, then, is the counter serving up BBQ pork, duck, and chicken. Crispy slabs of pork with crackling still on. BBQ ducks, noisily chopped up on a big wooden block. I chose soy-sauce chicken, which cost me a little less than $5 for a pound, and was delightfully tender and flavorful. Why bother with those morose rotisserie chickens from Safeway? Here, they’ll even throw in the feet.

Pancho Villa Taqueria – San Francisco

Pancho Villa Taqueria
3071 16th St, San Francisco
(415) 864-8840

Whenever someone comes to visit me in the Bay Area, I am duty-bound to drag them to a taqeuria at least once. Decent tacos are one of the birth-rights of the Bay, up there with eery white Google buses, microclimates, and people who want to tell you about their IPO. Meanwhile, the majority of the US is a filthy taco-free desert, hostile to both civilized human life and actual flavor. So when my college friend Raj stopped by for a few days, we headed to San Francisco, with a taqueria stop built in — near the MIssion and 16th BART station.

pancho villa inside

I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t go to San Franscisco that much, although I do attend Stanford and could theoretically be spending more time there. Possibly because driving through the city during traffic hours is sort of like traversing a Hieronymous Bosch painting with the added risk of mowing down a tech hipster with an astounding litigation budget. Regardless, I figured we could probably find a good taqueria somewhere in the neighborhood, and we did: enter Pancho Villa, up the street a block from Hoff.

Long lines, even at 1:30 PM on a Friday, but no matter. The first thing I noticed was the seafood selection, and not the usual deep-fried and yawningly pedestrian stuff, either: red snapper, grilled salmon, and hot and spicy prawns. No cabeza (beef head), which is somewhat disappointing if you’re into the macabre and delightfully fatty,  but they do have lengua. B+.

You order your food from a slightly harried looking attendant and move up to the line to pay, walking past an impressive display of Jarritos and freshly-made Aguas Frescas in large jars. Prices in this competitive bit of town are good, with a massive plate of shrimp with black beans, rice, and fresh avocado retailing for a mere $10.25, and containing enough calories to fuel you for a weekend or two.

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The real allure of Pancho Villa is the incredible salsa bar, which is a rainbow-colored array of chile pepper confections, reminiscent of my absolute favorite kind of vegetable-powered candy shop. They’re not shy about this, this profusion of salsas: they’ve won multiple state fair prizes for these things.

I was particularly taken with the neon orange mango and chile salsa, which had a creamy texture and a slightly sweet bite. Also excellent was roasted green chili salsa, as well as creamy avocado. You could, if you were feeling frugal and a bit douchey, make an interesting meal out of just fresh-cooked tortilla chips, guacamole, and a veritable bucket of salsa here.

spread colorful panchovilla

Hot and spicy shrimp was truly excellent. Most Mexican restaurants just simmer shrimp in sauce, but here, medium-sized shrimp with the shell on appear to have been pan-fried then tossed with a smoky, pleasingly spicy sauce with both pureed and dried chili, as well as mushrooms, onion, and green pepper. None of the cloying sweetness of some camaraone ala diabla treatments, and definitely hot enough to wake you up if you’re feeling sort of boring and languid.

The shrimp were served with non-greasy black beans and sliced avocado, and perfectly accompanied with (extra charge) cebollitas, grilled green onions. I’d come back for this. And maybe try the tacos next time.

The clientele at Pancho Villa, like most places in this district, is aggressively Tech Bro — a sociological quirk that allows for great people-viewing if you have visitors in town.  We got to overhear a conversation between two very intense men in pinstripes at the table next to us. “You’ve got to let me know if you’re ready to make it big. To really GO for this,” one  man said, in between bites of a burrito. The other nodded quietly. “This could be IT,” the noisier one said, speaking as if about an apocalypse instead of what was probably a Highly Disruptive App.

Meanwhile, a middle-aged female marachi singer with a truly impressive, masculine baritone roamed the tables. I gave her a dollar, which she received in a pink gift bag. She smiled winningly at me, and moved on.

Pancho Villa: authentic (to San Francisco) in all ways.



Why Paintball is Awesome

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 10.53.27 AMLast weekend, I shot little balls full of multi-colored goo at people I don’t personally know.

There was lots of screaming, and shouting, and ducking behind obstacles and convenient hiding places. In other words, I was playing paintball, a practice more commonly associated with twelve year old boys and emotionally frustrated rednecks than with young journalists with an interest in social issues.

Turns out I love it.

This all started when I went to visit my friend Eli’s paintball range to fly a camera-drone over some unobstructed turf.

Perhaps I should explain: I do indeed possess a small consumer-range camera drone, and I do indeed require lots of empty space to fly it over, lest I run afoul of strict FAA regulations that frown upon that kind of behavior. Let’s move on.

I was flying, with the assistance of Eli, when he suggested that I try playing paintball. I’d already driven there and I was in a pretty good frame of mind, what with the sudden arrival of both spring and some modicum of expertise with a camera drone. So I agreed to try paintball.

Yes, it's really called "woodsball."
Yes, it’s really called “woodsball.”

I was outfitted with a large black hoodie, as well as a full-length facial mask that resembles the sort of thing that a plague doctor might wear during the Dark Ages. Professional players wear more protective equipment than these rather basic remedies, but it’s really all you need: paintball pellets will sting like a bitch when they hit your tender exposed flesh, but won’t actually cause permanent injury. (The same can’t be said about your eyeballs, which is why everyone wears the face mask at all times within the range).

I was then handed an air-powered gun, with a battery-powered tumbler on top that takes in the paintballs. They’re ejected with extreme prejudice when you pull the trigger. You don’t pull the trigger like that of a normal gun, where you do it once and with great intention and purpose. Instead, you toggle your fingers on a paintball trigger really rapidly, like when you’re tapping on a desk and expectantly waiting for somebody. “Spray and pray” is an effective technique in this sort of game.

“Try it out,” Eli said, and I walked over to a small target range that looked exactly like a lesser Jackson Pollack painting. It took me a few minutes to pick up the toggling motion, but once I did, I was merrily pinging targets with extreme prejudice.

“She’s a killing machine,” Eli’s brother said, approvingly.

Then I went to actually play. The paintball range is set in a huge stand of eucalyptus trees, outfitted with blinds and hiding places and brush, allowing you to lurk and pick off the unsuspecting. The Delia family has outfitted the place with a number of forts that resemble something right out of a National Historic Site brochure about doughty pioneers. Players can take over these forts than protect them against the opposing team. This is considered extra fun.

The players, almost all dudes (a shock!), were outfitted in tactical-looking protective gear and baggy clothing. The baggy clothing is strategic — it helps cushion the blow if you do get hit. “You can always tell the sharks because they have nice guns,” Eli’s brother pointed out.

Some of them had decorative face shields painted with skulls or fangs, or other appropriately aggressive items. One guy had added rainbow-colored feathers to his. Ages ranged from 10 to pushing 60 among the immediate paintball warriors, with most clustering in that fuzzy range of adolescence from 13 to mid—twenties.

As paintball players will point out, there’s an instructional purpose to the soft-tissue trauma of getting whomped with a paintball pellet: it motivates you to get a lot better at paintball.

Paintballs_greenPaintball isn’t real warfare, but as it turns out, the adrenaline rush you get isn’t too far off from the real rush of having angry people spew hot lead at you at close quarters. Police and the military use paintball as both training and recreation.

That’s why I loved it, I’m pretty sure. I’ve spent the past three years living in places where crossing the street can become an exciting exercise in existential terror. A week where I don’t find my heart thumping with the exultant pleasure of continuing existence after escaping yet another run-in with the Death Angel (in the guise of, say, a tuk tuk) is one that feels somewhat muted and colorless of late.

Coming from a Southeast Asian metropolis with limited rule of law to the manicured and aggressively safe climes of Palo Alto and Stanford is enough to give anyone in their right mind whiplash. If you’re me, it mostly makes you unusually pissy.

Paintball fills that emotional gap. All of the adrenaline and aggression. Absolutely no risk of being run over by a drunk in a 4-Runner in broad daylight, as would be my likely undoing in Phnom Penh.

I spent the rest of the weekend after my stint at the paintball range in an unusually cheery mood — smiling at random motorists on the freeway (whom I usually consider rat-bastards), being unusually pleasant to skeezy old guys at the bar, waiting in lines with much more patience than I can usually muster

Paintball, in my mind and in the mind of others, is usually associated with libertarians — the kind of people who want to corner you somewhere and talk about the Gold Standard in increasingly agitated tones. This being California, Paintball Jungle is a lot less about Apocalypse Prepping, and a lot more about having a good time pretending to be engaged in urban warfare.

“I only allow positive people here,” said Eli’s dad to me, the founder of the place and a former international paintball star. And indeed, he was right: most everyone seemed to be in a good mood.

I’m glad I tried paintball – it’s the happiest kind of bloodlust.

If you want to try it out yourself, come to Paintball Jungle in Vallejo. It’s near the Wine Country, too. Imagine what kind of weekend you could have.

I Drive to Half Moon Bay A Lot

I drive to Half Moon Bay a lot, and I take pictures of landscapes. My one complaint is that it’s still too damned cold this time of year. Otherwise? Perfect.
kids at hmb

I don’t know these people, but they’re cute.

pint reyes textures

Weathered rocks, which are always appealing to me.

more abstract HMB


more surfers

Paddle boarders and using vignetting to compensate for over-exposure…beach footprints

I like this one.

more deets hmb

Nothing living in those tide pools — I think.

abstract HMB

Better you than me, swimming in that.

hmb viewMagic Hour, or just about.

Over the Hill

It’s easy to forget at Stanford that Half Moon Bay, and by proxy, all this nonsense, is literally a little jaunt over the hill. Like forty minutes in Sunday traffic.

These are all from the very scenic Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, which is known for tidepools and beautiful stands of cedar trees planted by a now-defunct hotel owner. I need to come back at low tide.
sea cliffs through the trees

A real enchanted forest feeling here, owing to the unnaturally straight rows of trees.

sea details


Details, details. more on the sea

This almost has a Hopper-esque feel to me. Probably the contrasting colors.

beach views more


Evidence to the court vis a vis Best Coast. The opposition has…what, Jersey?

The Space Shuttle Flew Over My Head, It Was Pretty Sweet


Sacramentans await the space shuttle.

I wrote this GlobalPost piece about the space shuttle flying over my head. I knew it was happening on Friday morning, but I can’t say I thought too much of it – figured I’d stand outside in the backyard and hope I got lucky, or something.

My mom and I concluded about 10 minutes before its projected 9:30 AM arrival time that it might behoove us to hop in the car and approach the State Capitol, where the shuttle was slated to arrive. So we did.

Much to our surprise, there were people everywhere: standing on the overpasses, packing the kids into the car, gathering in parks. Everyone was looking up. It reminded me of one of those touchingly-creepy scenes from World is Ending Due to Terrible Space Things movies, like Armageddon, where everyone looks at the sky in an anticipatory fashion.

Except instead of anticipating HORROR FROM ABOVE, everyone was anticipating the final hurrah of one of mankind’s most seminal technological achievements. Which we’re retiring for lack of funding.

The Capitol itself was jam-packed with people, who had streamed out of their office buildings in work clothes, driven there with their kids in vans, or arrived via their very shiny motorcycles. It was a rather festive atmosphere. We couldn’t park, so I took photos out of a moving car like a dork. Thankfully, one of them was usable.

See what I mean about my lens. But that is definitely the space shuttle.

As we were driving a bit away from the Capitol and looping back around, we heard a huge roar in the air: that was it. The Space Shuttle, riding on the back of a modified Boeing 747.

My telephoto lens isn’t exactly great, but it was very much recognizable as the Space Shuttle my generation has been seeing on television and in informative classroom videos from early childhood: an iconic image. It was nice to see it in the sky, in tangible form.

This is kinda what I think about the shuttle carrier.

As we drove back, there were still legions of people hanging around, wondering if it would make another pass. It was a touching thing to see. The usual busy activity of the Capitol, school days, lingering over the paper: for a remarkable number of people, that took a backseat to tumbling out into the (admittedly lovely) morning and straining to catch a glimpse of one of the final remnants of a majestic, ending era.

Rumors of the death of popular interest in space may be greatly exaggerated…if the hubbub over the Mars Rover wasn’t proof enough.

The Space Shuttle Endeavour will be stuck in a Los Angeles science museum, where it will doubtless enchant legions of small and impressionable children. But it is awfully sad no equivalent will replace it.

We generally as an aspirational species and as an aspirational nation prefer to move backwards and not forwards when it comes to technology. The end of the space shuttle program is one of those bleak moments when we have moved backwards.

But I am glad so many of us turned up to see it off.