Engaging with San Francisco history as a newcomer

I moved to San Francisco from the Midwest a few years ago, and I’d been missing a strong sense of history since then. I’ve been to a few events in an attempt to learn more about my new home, such as a Dolores Park history day, or a history-relevant event in the Mission as part of Litcrawl, but I struggled to absorb a history for the city that went beyond “gold rush, earthquake, tech boom, bust, boom”.

But last week I was at the library and saw an event that was being held in conjunction with the display of the Bay Model throughout SF public libraries and Take Part SF, called Vanished Waters. It was about Mission Bay history so I skipped my regular workout to attend. It was well worth it!

Vanished Waters is also a book, so that was the loose structure that the talk revolved around, and was given by Chris Carlsson, an expert on San Francisco history and an engaging speaker. He co-founded Shaping SF, helping to maintain a digital archive of the city’s past.

My favorite fascinating facts that I learned at the talk were that in 1852, Market street ended where 3rd street is in an 80 ft tall sand dune.

SoMA was really hilly and marshy, but then some dude with a steam shovel was like “sup let me move that sand for you” and also “sup let me help you fill in this lot that you bought that is literally just water”. That’s my paraphrasing, but the actual details are to be read on Found SF.

The whole idea to fill the San Francisco Bay in is hard to imagine now because it’s not polluted, but if it was a stinky polluted putrid mess full of garbage it’s easier to imagine it being a good idea. (The whole idea to fill in the Bay is why the SF Bay Model was built).

However, my favorite part of the talk was when Carlsson discussed using this history to inform our present and future decisions. He pointed out that there is a lot of rhetoric in San Francisco about how to build more housing to manage the growth of the city, and what kinds of development is best suited to accommodating all of the people that move here.

However, there’s not much rhetoric (if any) about staging a managed retreat from climate change. San Francisco is a coastal city, built on top of marshland, sand dunes, or literal land fill. What happens when the sea level begins to rise, or more volatile weather patterns cause bigger storms and potential flooding?

I realized after this talk that some city dwellers love to judge southeastern coastal city residents that build or rebuild homes in the path of hurricanes or immediate climate change threats, and yet, New York City and San Francisco are both at high risk from sea level rise.

That’s not to mention the earthquake risk in San Francisco. Our current development plans are not necessarily smart, as this article in the New York Times points out.

It’s fascinating to explore what the city used to look like less than 200 years ago, and imagine what it might look like in 2057 in the face of climate change. I lost nearly an hour clicking around the maps on David Rumsey’s website (recommended by Carlsson).

Here’s a map of the 1857 coast, overlaid on modern San Francisco.

This map in 1869 of land lots makes it clear just how much of the land that was sold during that period wasn’t actually land. This essay in Collector’s Weekly covers how that land speculation happened and how it shapes modern real estate in the city.

This exploration all happened because of this talk and the display of the 1938 3D model of San Francisco in the San Francisco Public Libraries. If you want to help find the model a permanent home for display in the city, sign this petition. Just imagine making this map overlay of what San Francisco looked like in 1938 into a tactile experience.

The model is still on display in SF Public Library branches throughout the city, and you can stay engaged in city history through the San Francisco Department of Memory, the California Historical Society, Shaping SF, and Found SF.

Prescriptive Design and the Decline of Manuals

Instruction manuals, and instructions in general, are incredibly important. I could be biased, since part of my job involves writing instructions for systems, but really, they’re important!

As this look into the historical importance of manuals makes clear, manuals (and instructions) make accessible professions, tools, and devices to anyone that can read them (which, admittedly, could be a hurdle of its own):

“With no established guild system in place for many of these new professions (printer, navigator, and so on), readers could, with the help of a manual, circumvent years of apprenticeship and change the course of their lives, at least in theory.”

However, as the economy and labor system shifted, manuals did too:

“in the 1980s, the manual began to change. Instead of growing, it began to shrink and even disappear. Instead of mastery, it promised competence.”

And nowadays, manuals are very rarely separate from the devices or systems they seek to explain:

“the help we once sought from a manual is now mostly embedded into the apps we use every day. It could also be crowdsourced, with users contributing Q&As or uploading how-to videos to YouTube, or it could programmed into a weak artificial intelligence such as Siri or Cortana.”

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Parks, America, and Reading

It’s Thursday! Not Friday. Go to work tomorrow. When you don’t have to work, though, you can go outdoors! Because July is Park and Recreation month. So. If you’re not working, and it is nice outside, go outside. Weekend, planned. Just for you.

Bruce is a jungle dog.

National parks are a great place to go outdoors. The National Parks Conservation Association is taking care to recognize people who identify as LGBT+ by doing more to preserve historical locations important to the legacy of LGBT+ life in the United States. More national parks, more important history preserved, lives validated. Recognized.

Mostly white people visit national parks. Fact. As of 2011, “only 7 percent of visitors to the parks system were black.” It hasn’t always been this way. The Boston Globe interviews geographer Carolyn Finney, who is recapturing the role of African-Americans in the history of the national parks system and the environmentalist movement.

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Children, Espionage, and Pain

Here’s what was important this week…

If you have a child abroad, and you’re a U.S. citizen, you can get your child U.S. citizenship as well. However, as Tori Marlan investigates  “the rules that determine what babies can become citizens seem to be butting up against the modern circumstances under which Americans are having babies.” Most notably, modern practices that involve children being born before marriage, or through fertility treatments, or to same-sex couples. Proof is needed to prove that the child is “born of” the U.S. citizen–implied in heterosexual couples, but not as much for homosexual couples. Alexis Madrigal explores further implications that the future of reproductive technology will have for how we define parenthood.

In an unprecedented move, the U.S. indicted 5 members of the Chinese military on economic espionage charges.

As security expert Bruce Schneier points out, we’re guilty of nearly the same:

“The only difference between the U.S. and China’s actions is that the U.S. doesn’t engage in direct industrial espionage. That is, we don’t steal secrets from Chinese companies and pass them directly to U.S. competitors. But we do engage in economic espionage; we steal secrets from Chinese companies for an advantage in government trade negotiations, which directly benefits U.S. competitors. We might think this difference is important, but other countries are not as as impressed with our nuance.”

And James Surowiecki writes for the New Yorker on the fact that the U.S. got its start as an industrial power by engaging in just that kind of espionage, to the point where “State governments financed the importation of smuggled machines.”

As Surowiecki concludes,

“engaging in economic espionage is something developing countries do. When you’re not yet generating a lot of intellectual property on your own, you imitate. These days, China is going to try to steal, and the West is going to try to stop it. But the tactic of using piracy to leapfrog ahead? That looks like an idea it stole from us.”

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Software, Sharing, and Music

Here’s what was important this week…

Software is everywhere lately. My boyfriend asked me what I thought the next big website would be (after the success of Google, Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), and I realized it’s just as likely (if not more likely) to be a software application rather than a website. Paul Ford took some time to enshrine some works of software in a “software canon” — Microsoft Office, Photoshop, Pacman, the Unix operating system, and eMacs (which I’d never heard of until this essay came out).

Software has had a noticeable effect on our day to day lives (especially those with smartphones), but it’s also had a huge impact on music and the way it’s created, recorded, and produced. Fact Magazine went through 14 works of software that shaped modern music (electronic music started way earlier than I thought). One of those software applications is Auto-Tune, and the Sounding Out! blog happened to post about the history of Auto-Tune.

 

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Noise, Medicine, and Music

Here’s what was important this week…

More than you probably ever wanted to know about refrigerators and refrigeration:

“Refrigeration is the invisible backbone on which the world’s food supply depends — and given our climate-changed forecast of more extreme weather events, it may yet prove to be its Achilles’ heel.”

Oh how I wish this had come true:

 “All mechanical fridges work by controlling the vaporisation and condensation of a liquid called a refrigerant. Most fridges today do this control with a special electric-power pump called a compressor, but there’s also the technique of absorption, which is kicked off by a gas-fuelled flame. The fridge’s hum wasn’t inevitable.” 

I have somewhat of an aversion to background humming noises, like that of a refrigerator, central air system, fluorescent lights, or washing machines.

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Bitcoin, Security, and Photography

nananananananananananana BITCOINNNN

I had to talk about it eventually, and Thursday’s news was a good impetus. Newsweek had a big “scoop” potentially unmasking the founder of Bitcoin. The magazine saved this story for the cover of their return-to-print issue. The story features stalking masquerading as investigative journalism, as the author tracked down this man through national records, then tracked his interests to a model train forum, where she emailed him purporting to be interested in trains, then began asking about Bitcoin (at which point he stopped responding).
Then she tracked down his home and family members, and interviewed them extensively about the man and itcoin. She finally paid him a visit at his home, and instead of answering the door he called the cops. This surprised her. Read the article in full, if you’d like to know more about the lengths some people will go to find people who don’t want to be found (and who haven’t done anything wrong).(After some sushi and a car chase the man himself claims he is not involved with Bitcoin).

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Writing and Race

Here’s what was important this week…

I spend a lot of time writing, but it never seems like enough. Partially because I spend so much time reading the writing of others, and partially because a lot of the writing that I do is IT documentation for my job. I feel truly accomplished when I manage to finish a blog post (there are at least 11 partially completed, with an entire doc full of more ideas). A lot of the time that I spend working toward a blog post is spent reading, tweeting, and tumbling (how I archive the articles I read). I tell myself it’s like research, and I do find it to be valuable network-building especially when I find a rich creative environment lacking at times. Writer Emily Gould told herself many of the same things, until she had a realization:

“For many years I have been spending a lot of time on the internet. In fact, I can’t really remember anything else I did in 2010. I tumbld, I tweeted, and I scrolled. This didn’t earn me any money but it felt like work. I justified my habits to myself in various ways. I was building my brand. Blogging was a creative act—even “curating” by reblogging someone else’s post was a creative act, if you squinted.”

She was trying to write a book, but only spent time on the internet. (Jacobin has more on the literal labor of social networks online).

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