10+1 images from my first year back in Utah

At the end of May, I marked the first anniversary of my returning to Utah. To celebrate the occasion, I reviewed the photos I took from the past 365 days and picked ten that highlighted some of the fun activities from 2016-17. There’s also a bonus picture — the first photo I took upon my return.

Click any photo to embiggen…

Hitting 11 million image views on Google Maps

My profile on Google Maps.

My profile on Google Maps.

Just a year ago, I passed 2 million views on Google Maps. Imagine my surprise when my images surged past 10 million views just a couple of months ago. The 190 images I’ve published on Google Maps has been viewed 11.1 million times as of this writing.

I wish I could claim total responsibility for this accomplishment, but it seems like it’s more a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

Since I started uploading photospheres to Google Street View, none of them had exceeded 1 million views (although one was close at 970,000 views). Following the Oroville Dam crisis in February, I had two photospheres reach past the one million mark, with one reaching past two million.

In my experience, the most successful spheres are those that are featured in Google’s search results. I don’t have definitive proof that this is the case, but I’ve found the images that featured in the search results seem to perform best. The example that came to mind was my photosphere for Bear Hole in Bidwell Park. I was surprised when I saw it suddenly surge beyond 100,000 views. I wasn’t sure why it was performing so well.

The most plausible explanation was that it was featured on the search results on Google Map. When I searched for Chico, CA in Google Maps, the search engine returns a map of the city, but there’s also a card showing useful information — and photos of the city. Often times, these are popular pics of major landmarks or the like. Google also includes photospheres. This is often from its own Street View service, but it increasingly appears to include photospheres taken by its users.

A Google Maps card for Oroville, California on Monday, May 29, 2017. The top image is from one of my photospheres.

A Google Maps card for Oroville, California on Monday, May 29, 2017. The top image is from one of my photospheres.

I think this is behind my most “popular” photospheres, including ones taken at regional parks, train stations or other landmarks likely to be searched by people.

Adding credence to my theory was another photosphere of Bear Hole taken by another user. I saw that it too was featured at times in the Google Maps search results and it had a view count similar to mine,

That brings me to the incident that brought my views surging to new heights. In early February, there was a natural disaster that prompted the evacuation of more than 200,000 people in Northern California. Although the emergency spillway at Oroville Dam didn’t breach, I imagine there were a lot of people interested in learning the location of Oroville Dam and the surrounding area.

Indeed, the most popular photospheres featured the now-destroyed main spillway at the dam. It’s interesting that my most popular image is something that no longer exists.

The second most popular image for me was a photosphere of sculptures at Centennial Park in Oroville. It’s not associated with the park because there’s no entry for the park on Google Maps, but it is the first thing that comes up on Google Maps when someone searches for Oroville.

Several other images from Oroville have jumped following the Oroville Dam crisis, but those are by far the most popular.

I don’t know if a view is counted merely because someone sees it on a search result or if someone actually clicked through to see the full image. I would like to think it’s the later, but information on Google support forums indicates that merely seeing an image in a search result counts as a view.

Ultimately, I would like to think that people are viewing my images — it’s nice to think that millions of people are seeing my work. If it’s true, these images are the most popular thing that I’ve ever done.

 

2013 – Day 6(ish) of the 9 Days of Christmas Cards

After shooting around Chico for my first five cards, I went all out for the 2013 Christmas card and ended up with what is probably the most beautiful of the cards that I’ve shot so far.

After years of joking about doing a Sierra Nevada Santa Claus — where jolly Ol’ St. Nick enjoys a local brew similar to the iconic Coca-Cola ads — I finally came up with a workable solution.

I always had a number of reservations about the Sierra Nevada Santa, including the fact that I don’t want to encourage drinking and sleighing. I also didn’t necessarily want to go to the expense and effort of renting a Santa costume, especially because I had doubts that I could pull off a convincing Santa.

After some consideration, I thought that I could build a snowman wearing a Sierra Nevada shirt. I always strive for a PG-rated card and the shirt in of itself is fairly innocuous. I would also need to go to a location where there was snow and my first thought was of Lake Tahoe.

I’d never been to Lake Tahoe before and I was excited to check it out while shooting my card. Although I’ve always maintained that one of my goals was to create Chico-oriented cards, I made an exception because it doesn’t really snow in Chico and that I was remaining in Northern California.

As time passed, I worried about being able to get to the picturesque lake in time. After hearing of snow in foothills and Sierra Nevada, I decided to try a location closer to home up Feather River Canyon on Dec. 8.

It was a total bust. After driving up Highway 70 along the winding Feather River, I made it to Quincy. My hopes were buoyed by the fact that the snow cover increased as I headed further uphill. I sought an open field to build the snowman and picked Feather River College just outside of town.

Attempting to build a snowman in Quincy

Attempting to build a snowman in Quincy

It … didn’t go well:

The snow didn’t clump very well and it was impossible to build a firm enough snowball to form the nucleus of the snowman.

After a few minutes of trying, I gave up and retreated down the hill back to Chico frustrated but happy that I had enough time to pursue alternatives.

The alternative came up quickly. I realized I could use my California Rail Pass that I would buy to travel to San Diego for the transportation to South Lake Tahoe. The Rail Pass was a great value — for $159, a passenger can travel to destinations within California on any seven days during a 21-day period (with several conditions). Although Amtrak doesn’t have a train that goes to Lake Tahoe, it has a motorcoach that makes the connection from Sacramento.

Leaving Davis Station in December 2013.

Leaving Davis Station in December 2013.

On Dec. 14, I made the trip to South Lake Tahoe via Davis and Sacramento. I was bundled for the cold, but it was a gorgeous sunny day. I primarily slept on the bus as it traveled on Highway 50, which was probably for the best because it is a very windy road up to Tahoe.

When I arrived in South Lake Tahoe, I was a little bummed out that the buildings were a little dowdy. I had pictured either a quaint downtown with classic old buildings or picturesque mountain village. What I saw was neither — much of the construction was simple, modern boxy construction.

Adjusting my expectations appropriately, I consulted with a map at the visitor’s center to look for an open field that would help provide an appropriate view of the mountains that ring the lake. Seeing a place that I could work, I walked a short distance to Rabe Meadow.

The meadow was perfect. There were houses nearby, but the meadow presented an open field with near-pristine snow with either stands of trees or the mountains themselves as possible backgrounds.

The snowman as I was about to leave Rabe Meadow

The snowman as I was about to leave Rabe Meadow

After picking an ideal spot, I set to build the snowman. It went far easier than before and I was able to quickly build the three spheres that would comprise my model. When it came time to put the Celebration Ale shirt over the snowman, I quickly realized that its torso was too big.

Because I was working with snow, I used my gloved hands to hack away at the snowman’s torso until it was just broad enough for the shirt to fit comfortably. As some of the photos show, the lower part of the snowman is disproportional to the rest of the snowman but I generally refrained from photographing the snowman’s whole body.

After putting on the T-shirt, I wrapped a scarf around the snowman to add further character to the creature. For his face, I used a handful of stones that I’d gathered outside my apartment in Chico. Once he was decorated, I think he resembled an Ewok or perhaps a stuffed teddy bear I had as a child.

A close-up of the Sierra Nevada snowman

A close-up of the Sierra Nevada snowman

Getting everything set up went fairly quickly and I was able to take dozens of photos of the snowman from different angles and distances. It was tricky because I wanted to adequately capture the background in addition to featuring the snowman prominently while showing the Sierra Nevada T-shirt.

It was a positive that I could rotate the snowman to capture different backgrounds. I tried to shoot pictures with the mountains stretching across the horizon and others with a stand of trees extending into the background.

Complicating things was trying to capture the scene without having odd objects in the background intruding on the snowman at weird angles. It was also warmer than I had expected and the snow was melting. That ordinarily wouldn’t be too big of a problem, but the water was starting to soak the T-shirt which showed up on a few shots and the rock eyes began to fall from the snowman’s face. (It turned out that it was best that I shot photos on that day because there was no additional snow that month amid the ongoing drought).

Generally, the photography went well with terrific early winter sunlight. A passerby was nice enough to take a photo of me with my creation.

The Sierra Nevada Snowman and me.

The Sierra Nevada Snowman and me.

After finishing the shoot, I was able to enjoy walking around South Lake Tahoe. I had booked a room overnight, so I had plenty of time to walk out to the beach and then head back toward town for some food, libations and entertainment before calling it a night. It was definitely a great trip and I felt that I had a great card on my hands.

When I returned to Chico, I had the challenge of finding the right photo and creating the best possible card. I went through the dozens of photos and picked the two or three that I felt best captured the moment. I generally liked a photo where the snowman was in front of the mountains with the blue sky in the background. However, I ultimately preferred a picture with the snowman in front of the stand of trees because I like how the evergreens contrasted with the white snow and red T-shirt.

Once I picked the photos, it was a matter of picking the right card template. I generally didn’t like the Costco templates because I felt they failed to showcase the actual photo prominently enough. This year, I looked at the Apple iPhotos card templates and found a couple of viable options. I also tried different messages including “A Celebration for All Occasions.”

Thumbnails of possible 2013 cards.

Thumbnails of possible 2013 cards.

I definitely liked the iPhoto designs better than the Costco ones, but it was tricky to adapt a template set for one perspective to Costco’s 6 inches by 7.5 inches. I also wanted to feature as much of the photo as possible and the iPhoto templates generally didn’t do that … except for one.

I ultimately went with a simple green banner across the bottom featuring the message “May Every Occasion Call For Celebration.” It was easiest to adapt for the Costco print sizes and definitely put the picture front and center.

The 2013 Christmas Card — "May Every Occasion Call For Celebration."

The 2013 Christmas Card — “May Every Occasion Call For Celebration.”

Ultimately, this was one of the most fun Christmas cards to make. It’s probably the best and most beautiful card I’ve created too, although I would definitely try to keep the standard high in the years to come.

By the numbers:

278 — miles traveled for the 2013 card (83 miles to Quincy for the initial failed attempt and 195 miles via bus to South Lake Tahoe).

11 — Days before Christmas when I did principal photography.

127 — Principal photos for the card (out of 211 pictures shot during my two trips).

Photos for the 2013 Christmas Card

Photos for the 2013 Christmas Card

Monday Tuesday Karaoke in Utah

Richard plays a saxophone cover of 'hello' during karaoke night at Keys on Main in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016.Richard plays a saxophone cover of “Hello” during karaoke night at Keys on Main in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016.

It’s been interesting getting used to a different karaoke scene. Back in Chico, I knew where I could go out and sing every night of the week, even when it wasn’t practical to go.

Since I moved back to Utah nearly three months ago, I’ve gone out to karaoke four times with last Tuesday being the latest. Part of my challenge is that I now work most evenings, except for Monday and Tuesday. The pickings have been relatively slim, but I’ve still been able to find some gems.

Although my sample set for testing is limited, I’ve been impressed with the quality of the performers in Salt Lake City. Conversely, I was disappointed by the general unprofessionalism of the karaoke night I found in Provo on Monday. I’ve also been happy to take advantage of late-evening runs on the TRAX light rail and FrontRunner commuter trains, although it does end my evening at around 11:30 p.m.

Beginning with a Twist

My first time getting back on the karaoke horse was last month at Twist, located just north of 400 South and Main Street in Salt Lake. It was in what could be described as a small street or alley, so I didn’t know what to expect. Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised when I walked up to the establishment. The entrance was raised and set back from the street. Patrons have to walk up some broad, shallow steps and past an enclosed patio to enter the restaurant.

Inside, the establishment was divided into three areas. The main serving area was the top-most level with the bar and kitchen. I didn’t immediately see the karaoke setup, so I headed down the stairs to a basement that included a smaller bar area and bar games, including pinball.

The basement area was too small to host karaoke so I headed up a second set of stairs and discovered a mid-floor that housed some restrooms. As I made my way around the space, I thought that it seemed a little risky to have so many stairs in an establishment that caters to people drinking alcohol, especially with the restrooms on a mid-level. Thankfully, some of my concerns were ameliorated when I discovered a second set of restrooms on the main floor — there really wasn’t a reason to go down the stairs unless a patron was partaking of games in the basement.

When I reached the top of the second set of stairs, which ended near the back of the business, I could see the karaoke setup. I didn’t immediately see the karaoke host, so I moseyed to the bar and waited, somewhat distracted by the large projection screen hanging over the opening to the basement.

The evening was off to a slow start, which is unfortunately pretty predicatable for most karaoke nights. Thankfully, the night eventually started and I was able to pick up a mic and have some fun.

My setlist was a mix of songs that are particular favorites and one Fourth of July song because the holiday had just passed. I warmed up to the karaoke host when he was surprised that he had Los Cadillac Fabulosos’ “El Matador” in his library. He was eager to sing it himself on a future night.

Here are the songs that I picked for that night:

  • “Mr. Blue Sky” by ELO.
  • “El Matador” by Los Cadillacs Fabulosos.
  • “America the Beautiful” by Ray Charles.
  • “Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room)” by Flight of the Conchords

The set up was basic — the by-now common laptop connected to a sound system. I don’t remember where the flat-screen monitor was on a stand or a table top, but it was an average situation with no serious demerits.

The crowd began to trickle in. Many of the first people to sing seemed like regulars and their friends. A couple of the regulars seemed to be fairly talented and I found myself thinking about the quality of performers possibly being a little higher in Salt Lake than relatively small Chico.

It was fun to sing again, although I’ve gotten a bit self-concious about singing after watching a recording I made at a live concert where I’m heard singing along with the crowd on a song. This self-conciousness has extended to when I sing along with the radio in the car. It’s not enough to deter me from singing or staying away from challenging songs, but it’s a good reminder that I’m still a rank amateur and these evenings are just for fun (especially when singing difficult tunes, like “El Matador”).

All too soon though, I noted I had to catch the light-rail back to my car before the system shut down for the night. As much fun as it is, I definitely I don’t want to be stranded away from home for the evening.

Unlocking Keys on Main

About three weeks ago, I stopped in a place across from Gallivan Center on Main Street that advertised karaoke on Tuesday — Keys on Main. As with Twist, I didn’t have a good idea of what to expect but the evening was ultimately a success.

The evening got off to a slow start — I guess it would be more noteworthy if a karaoke night actually started on time. There was a small group taking turns singing, so there was already a modest rotation by the time I added my name to the list.

As with Twist, there seemed to a handful of regulars joined by a small group of others. So far, I haven’t really seen a place since I’ve returned to Utah that was hopping. That’s probably because of the day of the week — two years ago, I went to a place off of Highland that eventually got crowded, but it was on a Saturday.

Whatever the crowd, the regulars were definitely solid singers. One fellow named Richard even brought a saxaphone to play Lionel Richie’s “Hello” as a solo and then joined Millie as a duet called “Millard.”

The set up at Keys was as professional as Twist and DJ Wes ran a pretty tight show. Instead of being casually set up in a corner of the bar, Keys’ karaoke set up on small stage that also accommodated dueling pianos (which were actually keyboards that were turned off, much to my disappointment). I definitely like having a stage to perform on, but any place that isn’t cramped or awkward is OK.

My song selection was based on tunes that I like singing, but haven’t had a chance to sing in a while.

  • “Little Lion Man” by Mumford and Sons.
  • “Fat Bottomed Girls” by Queen.
  • “Here For a Good Time (Not a Long Time)” by Trooper

Some of the songs have generally gotten a good response (like Queen), while others are just fun, like the Trooper tune. After I sang “Here for a Good Time,” a couple of guys said they really enjoyed it and wanted to know the artist. They were interested to learn that it was a band from Canada, which they reasoned why they didn’t know the song.

Again, I had to leave early so I didn’t get stranded. One patron was generous enough to offer me a ride to the train station, but I had plenty of time to get back to Salt Lake Central Station.

Disappointment in Provo

On Monday, Aug. 15, I decided to finally check out the limited downtown Provo night scene. While I’m happy to live in downtown, there’s only three late-night spots on Center Street and I have had no real compulsion to visit any of them. For example, City Lights looked appealing on the outside, I was turned off by photos of interior’s light wood paneling that screams family basement from the ’70s.

I’m not going to say which establishment I visited because what I found might get them in trouble (although there may be enough context clues for someone to take a big guess and figure it out).

I was pleasantly pleased when I first entered the business. It felt a bit like a dive, but I prefer places that are comfortable and a little lived in. I was excited when I heard somone singing on a back stage. The crowd seemed pretty diverse, although tending to be on the younger side. Overall, it was a pleasant surprise considering what I was expecting from Provo. 

I grabbed a beverage and headed back to see if I could sign up for a song, even though it was getting late. I stopped in my tracks when I saw that the karaoke host was using YouTube to play the karaoke tracks. I politely waved at the karaoke host when he looked my way, but I decided I wasn’t going to try to sing that night.

I’m generally positive about karaoke tracks on YouTube … at home. It’s exciting that several karaoke music companies post their music videos to YouTube. It can be great fun to do YouTube karaoke at a house party.

However, a professional karaoke event is not a house party. Some things that people can get away with at a house party can’t fly in a place of business. For example, playing a stereo or watching a football game is generally OK at home with a small group of friends. At a local business, the owner needs to have a license or face fees from licensing groups.

The main problem with YouTube is that it is generally licensed for private, personal use. I don’t know if Google has a YouTube that’s available for commercial use.

In some ways, it doesn’t matter as the KJ handled YouTube in an amateurish way. The YouTube status bar was often visible during performances and autoplay would automatically start another (unrelated) video after the singer was done.

On top that, the KJ would scramble to mute the sound when an ad came up. Overall, I wasn’t impressed with the host. He was obnoxiously enthusiastic and interacted with performers to the point where it was distracting. Toward the end of the evening, he jokingly cursed at the audience for not being engaged.

But seriously, YouTube karaoke could be trouble

I am not a lawyer, but my impressison is that karaoke hosts generally need to use tracks licensed for commercial use — they can’t just download them from iTunes. There may be some winking at these restrictions (I don’t know how many karaoke hosts or regular people who can vouch for every song in their library). However,  using YouTube as a core component of a professional gig seems like an invitation for trouble, especially if a licensing group does decide to look closer at an establishment or KJ.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. When I shared my concern online, one friend who’s a KJ responded: “Very unprofessional and they could get into some trouble if the right people found out.”

Back to Keys

I returned to Keys on Main last week. It definitely confirmed that the singers that I though were regulars were indeed regulars (although there was no sax that night and some people I thought were regulars were not present). The crowd was also about the same as before — filling less than a quarter of the seats in the large space. I don’t know if they anticipated more people — there were song sign-up slips on most of the tables, so perhaps there was a time when the place gets busy.

I drove into the city that night, so I didn’t have to worry about catching the last train out of town. I did have to watch my beverage intake and limited myself to one, which is for the best in more ways than one.

When it came time to pick songs, I stayed towards the tunes that I like singing and usually get the best reaction.

  • “Graduation (Friends Forever)” by Vitamin C.
  • “The Distance” by Cake.
  • “Africa” by Toto.
  • “Lights” by Journey

I was surprised to find that I haven’t sang “Africa” in a few months, considering that it became such a favorite in Chico. I started off with “Graduation,” explaining that I usually sing it at the end of the school year, but didn’t get to during the spring.

A couple of song choices were dictated by the fact that the songs I would’ve preferred to sing where either unavailable or unplayable. I would’ve rather sang Cake’s cover of “I Will Survive,” but “The Distance” was OK. I jumped to “Lights” when The Tragically Hip’s “Blow at High Dough” wouldn’t load (which is a shame given that the band was just ending what will likely be its last tour).

All in all, the Monday Tuesday karaoke scene isn’t too bad. It’s not hopping like it was most nights in Chico, but it’s something that can get me out of the house every once in a while. I don’t know if I’ll be making the trip every week, considering the time and distance involved (especially with curling league starting on Mondays), but it’s a nice option.

One reason why I may go to Buffalo Wild Wings & one reason why I may never go back

Online trivia is probably the biggest reason why I'll go back to Buffalo Wild Wings, if it's available at the Chico location.

Online trivia is probably the biggest reason why I’ll go back to Buffalo Wild Wings, which appears to be available at the Chico location.

Buffalo Wild Wings completed its expansion to Chico this week. Judging by photos of early lines and posts in my Facebook feed, it seems a lot of people are happy about the development. Although I love saying “The game is on!”, thanks to the eatery’s unceasingly repetitive TV commercials, I don’t know if I would go back after a visit to the Natomas location in May 2014.

Why I may go back – While I was generally impressed by the huge bar area with a standing wall of giant TVs and the beer selection (although I think Sierra Nevada was largely missing), the food is pretty standard for this type of quick-service restaurant and the prices are higher than I think they should be (the Chico menu lists a wing combo at $16.79, otherwise fries and slaw cost extra). Ultimately, there was only one compelling reason why I could become a repeat customer and that’s online pub trivia.

When I dropped by the first time, I was pleasantly surprised to see the old familiar blue consoles of Buzztime trivia. I first played Buzztime when I was living in the Midwest from 2001-05, but no Chico tavern has offered it for more than a decade … until now.

With the blue console, a bar patron plays quick, 20-minute trivia matches with clues broadcast on one or two TVs scattered across the bar. The questions are nearly always multiple choice and the difficulty level is closer to the earlier rounds of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” than “Jeopardy!” After every question, you can see how you’re faring against other barflies. When the round ends, the scores are calculated across North America and you can see your nationwide rank.

There are multiple types of games in the primary trivia channel, but there are other channels including virtual poker. During football season, many sites offer QB1, which allows contestants to win points if they correctly guess the offense’s play.

During my visit, I was the only one really playing trivia (everyone else seemed to be focused on an MMA match featuring a fighter from Sacramento). Still, it was fun to play while I ate and had some soda.

I can get my fix through a number of online and smartphone apps that are available, such as QuizUp, but Buzztime can be a little more sociable as the pacing of the games aren’t rigorous. While you want to ring in promptly when there are questions, there are frequent breaks to continue conversations with your friends (if you have any) and to order more food and drink (which is what I’m sure B-Dubs and other bars want you to do).

Several of my friends and I have gone to live trivia at some Chico restaurants, which is generally fun, but can be quirky. Online trivia like Buzztime is generally available anytime, so it may be easier to get a bunch of friends and just go.

Here's why I may never go back to Buffalo Wild Wings -- the restaurant making Bud Light as its "Beer of the Month" in May 2014.

Here’s why I may never go back to Buffalo Wild Wings — the restaurant making Bud Light as its “Beer of the Month” in May 2014.

Why I may never go back – While I was generally uncomfortable with the prices, there was one incredulous discovery that baffled me. As I was leaving, I saw that the restaurant’s “Beer of the Month” for May 2014 was Bud Light.

I’m not a fan of Bud Light (although it’s not unpalatable), but that’s not the primary reason why I was turned off to the point where I may never go back. Bud Light is _the_ most popular beer in America by far. Although sales have reportedly dipped recently, a Vox chart shows it outsold its nearest rival (Coors Light) nearly 3:1 in 2013.

Given such market dominance, Bud Light doesn’t seem to really need to be highlighted as a “Beer of the Month.” It’s a default, go-to beer for a lot of people — you would expect nearly every bar in the country to offer this product. It’s like naming Christmas the Holiday of the Month for December, salt as the Seasoning of the Month or if Little Cesar’s named its ever-available pepperoni pizza as the Pizza of the Month.

One possible factor is that Budweiser’s owner Anheuser–Busch InBev advertises the brand quite heavily. Maybe there was an advertising consideration when Buffalo Wild Wings made such a banal selection for its beer of the month?

If you do choose to sample the exotic and unknown Bud Light, Buffalo Wild Wings offers these tasting notes for the American-style light lager — “Subtle fruity and citrus taste notes with a fast, clean finish.”

The price of this special brew was $4.25 in 2014, which wasn’t too bad, although one may find better deals on far more superior beers elsewhere in Chico.

Postscript – After writing all this, I checked the restaurant’s beer menu and found the _two_ beers of the month:

Here are  Buffalo Wild Wings' beers of the month, as seen on Aug. 10, 2015.

*sigh* Here are Buffalo Wild Wings’ beers of the month, as seen on Aug. 10, 2015.

It’s disappointing to see Bud Light nab this spotlight again. Buffalo Wild Wings also has an odd definition of “Import,” as Goose Island is a Chicago brewery. It’s worth noting who Goose Island’s owners are — Anheuser-Busch InBev. AB InBev _is_ based in Belgium, so maybe that was a criteria in defining “Import.”

On a slightly positive note, Sam Adams remains its own independent company. At least there’s that, although Sam Adams seems to have similar issues to Bud Light.

Pin-a-Go-Go transforms Dixon into pinball paradise

The multi-ball feature of Star-Jet pinball machine on display at the 2014 Pin-a-Go-Go show in Dixon, California.

The multi-ball feature of Star-Jet pinball machine on display at the 2014 Pin-a-Go-Go show in Dixon, California.

Looking for something with a little pop or an idea to bounce off your friends this weekend? People can find endless hours of fun with unlimited gameplay on more than 100 pinball machines at Pin-a-Go-Go at the Dixon May Fair this Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

The A-Go-Go pinball machine on display at the 2014 Pin-a-go-go festival in Dixon, California.

The A-Go-Go pinball machine on display at the 2014 Pin-a-go-go festival in Dixon, California.

My friends and I made the 2-hour drive to the festival last year and we were amazed at the machines on display in three large spaces on the fairgrounds. Newer novelty machines were on display and playable (like one based on the most recent “Star Trek” movies). The machines went back decades, including some of the first tables that were based on releasing a ball and watching it bounce of pins, giving the game its name.

Getting to Dixon was straightforward — it’s off of Interstate 80 between Davis and Vacaville. The fairgrounds are just south of the downtown, so be ready for a little bit of off-highway driving. Parking was free and the lot was fairly expansive.

Entry into the event _wasn’t_ free, but the $25/30 admission was worthwhile to both the attendee and the town, as the proceeds benefit local community groups. Be forewarned — much of the event is cash only, although an ATM card can be used for some transactions.

After you get in, all the machines that are playable are set to free play. If the machine is open, you can just walk up and give it a whirl. You can usually play a couple of short games before common courtesy prompts you to give the machine up to anyone waiting in line.

A panorama of one of the rows of playable pinball machines at the 2014 Pin-a-Go-Go in Dixon, California.

A panorama of one of the rows of playable pinball machines at the 2014 Pin-a-Go-Go in Dixon, California.

Some of the machines were provided by museums, like the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda. Many of the tables were provided by private collectors who thankfully share their treasures with others for a few days.

The playfield board for the Monopoly pinball game on display at the 2014 Pin-a-Go-Go show in Dixon, California.

The playfield board for the Monopoly pinball game on display at the 2014 Pin-a-Go-Go show in Dixon, California.

Spending a few hours among the tables gives you a more expansive view of this gaming world beyond the couple of neglected pinball machines that you might find at a pizza parlor or bowling alley. There are vendors offering parts to help keep the machines running and modernize the devices somewhat (like switching out old bulbs with LED lights). One vendor had a playfield for the old Monopoly game which underwent the LED conversion. I played that machine for years at Madison Bear Garden. I still love how it looked, especially with the upgrades.

Each of the tables includes a small white card detailing who the owner is and if the machine is for sale. Some machines trade hands over the course of the weekend (and some of those purchased devices are sometimes taken out of play once a deal is completed).  There is also a fundraising raffle of a couple classic tables, which we did NOT win last year.

The number of machines available for play are overwhelming. The main room has several rows containing dozens of tables and there are two more halls beyond that. One hall appeared to be dedicated to more vintage machines, like “Classy Bowler” or a rocket-themed game called Star-Jet which featured one of the earliest examples of multi-ball.

Backglass art for the Classy Bowler pinball game on display at the 2014 Pin-a-Go-Go show in Dixon,

Backglass art for the Classy Bowler pinball game on display at the 2014 Pin-a-Go-Go show in Dixon,

The third hall is in a separate building a short distance away and appeared to feature mostly newer machines, although there were some gems from the 1970s and ’80s, including a giant-sized “Superman” table that Atari later adapted into a failed video pinball game (which I played in Alameda).

It seemed impossible to play every single one of the machines in a day. There’s little seating so you begin to enter something of a fugue state after a few hours of standing and ceaselessly bouncing silver spheres through ramp- and trap-filled cabinets.

There is some respite — there are a handful of tables and a snack stand selling hamburgers, hot dogs and the like. On Sunday, there is the free All British Motor Vehicle Show & Swap Meet on the fairgrounds so you can enjoy a different sort of chrome than pinball. There are also clinics for people to learn the best pinball tricks (I never learned to really bump the table) and mini tournaments geared to people with different playing experiences. Basically, you’re not going to get bored here.

Backglass art for the 1978 KISS pinball game

Backglass art for the 1978 KISS pinball game

As our visit progressed, I lost track of the different pinball machines we played. Generally, the earliest tables were the hardest to play — some of the early bumpers were too short and the ball dropped out of play too quickly. The tables from the 1950s and ’60s showed a considerable amount of creativity and were fun to play as a novelty, but they were still missing a lot of features found in more modern games.

Things change after electronics take hold in the pinball world. Manufacturers also threw a lot of ideas against the wall to try to combat the rise of the arcade machines (which fell prey to home video gaming in a few short years).

There were some brand tie-in machines that looked good, but weren’t necessarily a lot of fun. Some of these boards included KISS and “Doctor Who.” The KISS machine was definitely very unique, but it wasn’t easy to get into the game before it ended. However, people will have another shot at the game because they’re bringing it back.

A portion of the playing field for 1994's World Cup Soccer pinball game on display at the 2014 Pin-a-Go-Go show in Dixon, California.

A portion of the playing field for 1994’s World Cup Soccer pinball game on display at the 2014 Pin-a-Go-Go show in Dixon, California.

Doctor Who brought back a lot of nostalgia because it was made after the series’ original run ended in 1987. The game has a complex array of options as each incarnation of the Doctor offered a different set of bonuses, but it wasn’t too hard to get into a multi-ball. It also featured a lot of moving parts (which lead to a higher rate of breakdowns, from what I hear).

World Cup 1994 is a machine that would seem be instantly dated after the competition ended 21 years ago, but it seemed to gain some relevance as soccer has surged in popularity in the United States. The machine had some unique challenges, including trying to deflect the pinball of a whirling soccer ball into a goal (just like in real life!).

Some of the playfield art for 1994's World Cup Soccer pinball game on display at the 2014 Pin-a-Go-Go show in Dixon, California.

Some of the playfield art for 1994’s World Cup Soccer pinball game on display at the 2014 Pin-a-Go-Go show in Dixon, California.

There also appeared to be some odd attempts to add sex appeal — like depicting the referee as a buxom woman in a form-fitting uniform. Throughout the history of pinball, there were many shameless attempts to use sexualized images. It is something that has regrettably continued to this day with such machines like “Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons,” which features a cute, cartoony farm theme marred by gratuitous, over-the-top references to female anatomy.

Ultimately, Pin-a-Go-Go is a great event for people of all ages. Even after hours of pulling back the spring-loaded plunger to launch the pinball into play, it’s a loud, colorful buffet of entertainment that makes you want to go back for more.

New Muni map offers cleaner design, but misses key info

A side-by-side look of the the old and new Muni maps.

A side-by-side look of the the old and new Muni maps.

The San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority launched a Muni service increase over the weekend. Called Muni Forward, the changes included a new map that offers a cleaner, more readable perspective of the bus, light-rail, streetcar and cable car routes, but I’m wasn’t happy. Most of the following post is adapted from a comment I left on the SFMTA site.

I suppose it’s nice that it’s a cleaner presentation, but there are so many things missing from this new map compared to the last version. As someone who is only a frequent visitor, I appreciated being able to orient myself with the Muni map by comparing routes with landmarks that I’m either near or where I would like to go. Most of that is gone with the new map.

To give a recent example, I wanted to visit the first weekend of the Cherry Blossom Festival in Japantown. I knew the general location and the route, but I was much more comfortable telling my traveling companion where we were going when I could point it out on the transit map at the nearest shelter.

A side-by-side comparison of how Japantown is depicted in the old and new Muni maps.

A side-by-side comparison of how Japantown is depicted in the old and new Muni maps.

I couldn’t do that with the new map. There’s no neighborhood labels, even for the more commonly known ones (including Chinatown). If I wanted to know where Haight-Ashbury, North Beach, Castro and Mission were located, I couldn’t easily know for sure with the new map. While major streets are identified, the names of many smaller streets are omitted.

If I wanted to go to a specific place in the Presidio, like Fort Point, Crissy Field or the Walt Disney Family Museum, I could easily find those locations before whereas this new map of the Presidio is a relatively blank, green canvas. The new map is even missing the Palace of Fine Arts, which is one of the most-common sights in the city.

A side-by-side comparison of how the Presidio is depicted in the old and new Muni maps.

A side-by-side comparison of how the Presidio is depicted in the old and new Muni maps.

The map does have some advantages. Even looking at my examples, the map is easier to read and discern information about transit routes. It’s easier to follow some routes and determine when some limited-stop Rapid routes don’t stop for boardings and alightings.

Perhaps the map doesn’t need to provide as much information as it used to. After all, we’re in a world of smartphones, where most knowledge is available near instantaneously. Even before that, there were tourist guides and maps in multiple languages to guide people through this city.

However, cellphone batteries die and people don’t always have tourist guides on hand. Tourist guides and maps also tend to focus on the most popular or common, whereas the old map featured playgrounds, museums, community centers, even pier numbers.

I don’t know what the priorities were for this new map, but it doesn’t seem as user-friendly as it could be for tourists, visitors to the city or residents traveling to new neighborhoods. It’s missing many of the landmarks and detail that give much of San Francisco its vibrant identity. The map is ultimately a disservice to many transit users and will force them to turn elsewhere for less-optimal solutions.

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Sacramento may need lessons on cheering

A view of Power Balance Arena during the Portland Trail Blazers - Sacramento Kings game on April 15, 2012, in Sacramento, Calif.

A view of Power Balance Arena during the Portland Trail Blazers – Sacramento Kings game on April 15, 2012, in Sacramento, Calif.

These are exciting times for Sacramento, with the plans for a new Kings basketball arena moving forward and the attendance-record-shattering launch of a new minor league soccer team. After attending a Sacramento River Cats game over the weekend, I can see a huge area for improvement — Sacramento needs to learn how to cheer better.

I first spotted this shortcoming when I attended a Sacramento Kings game on April 15, 2012. There was pretty decent turnout for a game that didn’t matter too much (the Kings were well out of contention by that point).

However, the only cheer that had any traction was the ol’ “DE! FENSE! *clap, clap.*” The team and fans would crank up that cheer every time the Kings were on defense.

As I noted to a friend in attendance, the cheer got pretty old early in the third quarter. When you yell “defense” every time your team is on defense, you’re going to be shouting it for half the game — about 24 minutes of game time.

It was ridiculous and there seemed to be little enthusiasm for other cheers. By the end of the game, I tried shouting other cheers or jokingly use other words in the rhythm of the defense cheer.

A large crowd watches the Sacramento River Cats take on the Las Vegas 51s in minor league baseball on Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, in West Sacramento, Calif.

A large crowd watches the Sacramento River Cats take on the Las Vegas 51s in a minor league baseball game on Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, in West Sacramento, Calif.

There wasn’t a lot of spontaneity at last Saturday’s River Cats game against the Las Vegas 51s. There was another large crowd with a great family atmosphere at Raley Field in West Sacramento. Once again, there was an odd lack of cheering.

Yes, the crowd generally clapped along with the PA system prompts and celebrated the on-field performance. They even briefly broke into The Wave, although the stadium doesn’t have seating around the field.

However, there wasn’t a lot of clapping, chanting or cheering during at-bats. After watching Oakland A’s fans clapping for potential strikeouts earlier Saturday, I was struck by how quiet this Sacramento crowd was.

As I usually do, I shouted out my own positive encouragements during some at-bats (I was ecstatic at the coincidence that the River Cats batter usually put the ball in play after I started a cheer). The crowd seemed very laid back, although there was some amusement and laughter when one of my later cheers for “Sac-ra-men-to” degenerated into a Muppet-esque “Aaaaaaaaah!”

In a slightly ironic moment, I started the “Defense” cheer in the ninth inning when the River Cats were struggling. They needed two outs, but had given up three runs. Moments after I started the cheer, the 51s player batted into a double play and the game was over.

I don’t know who could do it, but someone should offer to help revitalize cheering and chanting during Sacramento games. The River Cats had a green crew that tried to lead some cheers as they collected trash, but they moved elsewhere in the stadium before building any momentum.

I would generally support anyone or anything that helps get the crowd into the game without resorting to insults or derogatory language. Supporters groups or pep bands can add a lot of energy to a crowd experience, but I’ve also seen situations where the band or group drowns everyone else out and makes it hard to get the fans engaged.

I’ll admit that my experience going to Sacramento sporting events is limited, but I certainly hope these two games are not typical of the game atmosphere. Sacramento has a great fan base — as shown by the recent fight to keep the Kings in the city. I hope there is an effort to make sure that enthusiasm consistently shows up at games.

Sacramento lights

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Here’s a different look at one of the chandeliers at Sacramento Valley Station. I was waiting for a late train returning home Dec. 30, so I set my sights on a different part of the station.

I wondered what people may have thought while I was constantly pointing my camera at the ceiling, trying to get a good shot.

Sing, sing a song … or 226 of them

Singing at Quackers

I sing a song at Quackers Bar in north Chico in October 2008. Photo by Olivia Drake.

I challenged myself to sing 200 different songs during karaoke in 2011. At the end of the year, I estimated I sang about 226 songs at karaoke — that’s about 14 hours of non-stop music. Here’s the list:

I think I did right by many of them, although some were challenging. I sang many of the songs by myself, even the duets, although I preferred a partner.

And, yes, all of them were love songs.

I’m planning to expand this later with thoughts about specific parts of my playlist, but it was a great year to have a song in my heart. I got to meet many new friends, and renew or expand current relationships. I sang in five Chico nightspots, plus locations in Paradise, San Francisco and Salt Lake City. In Oroville, I had a live band backing me and performed on a giant ballroom stage.

Thanks to Spotify, I was able to keep track of the songs (based on my tweets, notes and other recollections). It’s not a complete list because I started it in September. Despite my best efforts, I don’t think I remembered all of the songs. Also, Spotify is pretty good, but not all of my songs were in their library (and sometimes I had to substitute a cover version of the preferred one).

I haven’t started a list for 2012, but if you have a song you’d like me to sing, please let me know in the comments.

Photo: I sing a song at Quackers Bar in north Chico in October 2008. Photo by Olivia Drake.