28 Jun 2014 / Pre-Christmas Yosemite Trip

After graduation, my core group of friends from Columbia (Mecha Bananas) ended up either on the East or West coast. In 2011, the first winter after graduation, everyone flew or drove in to the Bay Area around Christmas time to eat, drink and explore the Bay. This get-together has become an annual tradition that I think will continue for a long time to come.

Last year, two of our annual east coast visitors, Vinny and Meixin, joined Sean and me on an adventure to Yosemite National Park.

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Yosemite in the winter is a peculiar place. As it is a valley, different sections of it receive vastly different amounts of sunlight. While one patch of ground my be complete dry and warm, another a few feet away could be cold and covered in a thick layer of snow.

The following picture captures it well. If you crop the top half off, you have a beautiful winter wonderland. Crop the bottom off and you have a typical California mountainside in spring or summer.

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The weather in the valley also poses some interesting problems for getting into and around the park. We took my car into Yosemite. Even though it has four wheel drive, it still needed tire chains during sections of road due to the ice on the roads. I never thought much of it, but driving with chains is a pain. You can’t go very fast and the chains create noise and vibrations as you drive.

At first glace, my car may not look like an offroader considering that it is basically a family van. However, I think it looks well suited to the snow and icy roads.

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On the first day, we arrived in the park in mid day. We knew that we wouldn’t have enough time to go on a long hike. So, we instead explored a bit on foot and then dropped by the visitors center to scope out a trail for the next day.

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With the help of the park rangers, we chose the Yosemite Falls Trail. It is 3.4 miles of beautiful scenery that takes you 2700 feet up from the bottom of the valley to the top of the valley, above Yosemite Falls

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I put together this video in Google Earth using GPS data I got from RunKeeper. It should give you a good idea of the terrain.

As you look through the pictures in this post, pay close attention to the terrain and to what we are wearing. It will give you a good picture of the extremes in temperatures that we experienced. Here we see Vinny towards the beginning of the hike wearing quite a few layers.

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And soon after here is Sean wearing far fewer layers.

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Asians taking photos of scenery!

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The view from the trail was breathtaking, but I don’t need to say that. Just look at my photos.

If you are wondering if the photos are completely natural, my photos have been only minimally post-processed. I shot RAW on my X100 and applied a VSCO 04 Velvia preset. So, the beauty is just a result of the lighting that morning and the clear air.

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I think Vinny’s smile is proof of how much fun we had along the way.

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Even though the top is open to direct sunlight, it was covered in a bed of snow. It was so tranquil that I forgot how far we had hiked to get there.

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Some steep icy parts required climbing up and glissading down.

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We were one of the first groups to reach the top that day. While at the top, aside from the footsteps of hikers before us, we were alone.

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This isolation from other hikers and tourists is one of the best reasons to visit during the off season. Yosemite is one of the most visited National Parks and can be quite crowded in the summer.

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There were some pretty steep drop-offs, but fortunately they were lined with handrails. I wonder who installed them. Getting them up there and installing them must have been an interesting task.

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The hike was great, but best part of the day was lunch. We brought with us sandwiches that we prepared early in the morning. Nothing can beat cold cuts and cheese on bread after a few hours of walking

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Surprisingly, we had great cellular data at the top. We Facetimed from the top. It felt like an Apple commercial.

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Fallen icicles were embedded in the snow along the way, like bizzare fossils.

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I had a great time at Yosemite. It was a chance to bond with friends and get away from civilization.

If you haven’t visited Yosemite in the winter and live close by, you are missing out. Going in the winter offers you the chance to see a unique and beautiful side of this California landmark.

18 Feb 2014 / The Art and The Streets of Chicago

You many not believe it, but Eric, Kailing and I actually did things other than eating and drinking when Eric and I visited Chicago late last year. One of them was soaking up the art and architecture of America’s 3rd largest city.

The Art

First is one of the city’s most famous landmarks, the Flamingo, a 53 foot tall “Calder red” colored stabile by Alexander Calder.

A passerby might mistake it for a piece by Mark di Suvero. He has made such a big name for himself with his public art that I don’t know many large American cities without at least one large scale piece by him. Di Suvero’s pieces might be newer than this Calder, but the Calder feels so much fresher.

Calder is most famous for his kinetic mobiles, but I find his stabiles to be more interesting. Unlike human-sized sculptures, their sheer scale allows them to stand with the buildings around them as equals instead of just being accessories like fences, lamp posts and mail boxes.

I love the large arching forms contrasted to the jagged diamond pieces. The structural ribs along the edges of the arches make them look like they are single extruded pieces instead of the welded sheets that they actually are.

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One thing I immediately noticed was the juxtaposition of the asymmetrical, continuous curves of the Flamingo against the clean rectilinear lines of the Kluczynski Federal Building. The International Style building isolates the sculpture from the rest of the city and serves as its backdrop. Even though the lines and textures of the building and the sculpture don’t match, they are both monochromatic and similar in scale. I think this is why they work so well together. A more intricate, multicolored sculpture by someone like Dubuffet or Miró would definitely not work in this space.

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There is even a scale model of it! It was shown in the adjacent Loop Station Post Office for some time, but was moved to the Art Institute of Chicago, where we got to see it.

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Speaking of the Art Institute, we visited in order to among other things view a special exhibition, Beyond the Great Wave: Hokusai’s Images of Mount Fuji. It featured a large number of Hokusai‘s wood block prints.

I have been a fan of Hokusai’s work for a long time since I first saw The Great Wave off Kanagawa. However popular the Great Wave may be, my favorite at the exhibition is A Gust of Wind at Ejiri. I love how Hokusai is able to portray movement in a medium that otherwise lends to very flat and static looking images.

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A Gust of Wind at Ejiri by Hokusai

 

Why is there a pile of candy in the corner of the museum? It is actually “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. According to the Art Institute it is, “an allegorical representation of the artist’s partner, Ross Laycock, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1991. The installation is comprised of 175 pounds of candy, corresponding to Ross’s ideal body weight. Viewers are encouraged to take a piece of candy, and the diminishing amount parallels Ross’s weight loss and suffering prior to his death. Gonzalez-Torres stipulated that the pile should be continuously replenished, thus metaphorically granting perpetual life.” Wow.

I wonder how many museum patrons actually read this description and leave understanding the meaning of the piece.

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Naturally, we each took a candy.

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The next work is titled Hinoki. It may look like a log but is actually a copy of a log in California that was carved by expert artisans in Osaka, Japan. The whole story is fascinating and worth a read.

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Kailing’s shoes match this painting!

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Another Chicago landmark is Cloud Gate (aka the Bean) made by Indian British artist Anish Kapoor. Just as the 5th Avenue Apple Store is the most photographed landmark in New York city, Cloud Gate could very well be the most photographed landmark in Chicago. It at least seems like that by the number of times it pops up in my Facebook News Feed.

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We had a chance to walk around the Chicago Cultural Center. It is a beautiful neoclassical building that formerly housed the central library. I love the 38-foot Tiffany glass dome above the central atrium. Though, we didn’t get a chance to look at it very close since there was a concert being held under it.

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Another eye-catching piece of public art is a mosaic titled Time is the Enemy by Carlos “Dzine” Rolon in the Sedgwick L station.

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The Streets

Chicago has a great transit system. Though it isn’t as wide spreading as the Subway in New York, the ‘L‘ is still very convenient. Chicago wasn’t the first or the only city to have elevated trains. They existed in many cities and even New York still has some elevated sections of the Subway. However, elevated trains are most prominent in Chicago.

The system itself is very similar to  New York’s. Both use a 600V third rail for power and have train cars that are very similar in size and appearance. The biggest difference is that the interiors of New York’s trains are equipped to fit more riders.

The L covers most of the city and even has a direct line from the airport into the city center. Also, the stations are much cleaner than New York’s, as you can see below.

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I had to take the obligatory long exposure of a train passing by.

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I think that the following photograph captures some of the many layers of a stratified city.

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Some more street snaps.

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You all know how much I love cars. So, I had to stop to photograph this one. It is a relatively rare, quarter million dollar Lamborghini Gallardo Supperleggera LP570-4.

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LP570-4 refers to longitudinale/posteriore, the longitudinally mounted engine, the 570 horsepower output of that engine and the 4 wheel drive system the engine is mated to. Superleggera translates to super light. It is basically a Gallardo built for the track.

This one was being driven by a man wearing a scarf. It is an interesting choice of car. I would have expected a Jaguar or an Aston Martin.

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I saw this faucet sticking out of a wall of a building near the University of Chicago campus. How weird.

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The large triangular building in the foreground of the next photograph is a federal prison, the Metropolitan Correctional Center. When I saw the tower with the slit windows, I instantly knew what it was because of a show about it by my favorite podcast, 99% Invisible. I have embedded that show below. I highly recommend that you listen to it and subscribe if you like design, art, architecture or even just interesting stories.

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Yet another picture that shows the layers of Chicago.

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The Chicago River has a very interesting story. Did you know that it runs backwards due to a large capital improvement project in the late 1800s? Learn more about it in yet another show from my favorite podcast that I have embedded below.

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I loved my time in Chicago. In many ways, it feels like the younger sibling of New York. It has the tall buildings, the great transportation system and much of the hustle and bustle. It also has its own versions of many things that make New York famous.

However, it still feels unique and that is what is important. It can stand alongside New York, London, Tokyo, Paris and the like. It is a real American city with its own culture and quirks that it built and earned over centuries.

From what I saw, I would love living in Chicago and I certainly like it more than my closest big city, San Francisco.

05 Feb 2014 / Arun Has a Blog. Now wider!

If you visited my blog in the last few days, you may or may not have noticed a small change. My blog is now 60% wider!

When I first started this blog in 2008, I tried out a few different themes before settling on this one. That was in 2010. Back then, my monitor was 1440px wide, iPhone screens were 320px wide. A 500px wide blog was acceptable.

Now, my monitors are 1920px and 2560px wide while my iPhone is 640px wide. As my blog has changed to focus more on my photography, 500px just wasn’t cutting it anymore.

To fix that, I have widened the site to 800px. All new posts will be 800px wide while old posts will remain at 500px wide. The font in new posts is also slightly larger. Maybe in the future, I’ll make some more drastic changes to make it easier for me to tell stories and present my photos and video. Until then, I think this change will be great.

As always, feel free to give me any feedback or criticism you may have.

I’ll leave you with a photo from a weekend in San Francisco as a preview of how photos will look on my blog.

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03 Feb 2014 / Food and Friends in the Windy City

In early October last year, after a few months of tossing around the idea, Eric and I bought airplane tickets to visit Kailing in Chicago. We packed our bags, went up to SFO and took an American Airlines flight from SFO to ORD arriving late on a Thursday night.

Day 1:

Eric and I telecommuted most of Friday. I worked out of coffee shops and Eric worked out of the small Facebook office. For lunch, we met up at Latin-Asian Fusion joint, Saucy Porka, where I had some pozole. It had plenty of depth, umami and heat, though there wasn’t enough hominy. Hominy is the star ingredient in pozole and the main reason why I love it so much. It was their first week serving it. Maybe they have improved it since then.

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After a few more hours of working, Eric and I met up with Kailing at her place and we left for dinner. Where? Topo Gigio Ristorante in Old Town. It’s an Italian restaurant that, based on the mouse themed decor, must be named after the old TV character of the same name.

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I don’t eat a lot of Italian food these days, and Topo Gigio was a well needed change. I can’t remember exactly what we ordered, but I do remember that the calamari was tender and the pasta was perfectly cooked.

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Our next stop for the night is probably the best bar that I have ever been to, Headquarters Beercade. While it may not have a hip speakeasy vibe or artfully crafted cocktails, it has something that I think is much better: 37 vintage arcade games.

They have a long menu of beers and cocktails and a few bars around the arcade. All the games are free. So, HQ only makes money from drinks. The atmosphere was relaxed and the clientele were friendly.

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My favorite game was the Star Wars Episode I pinball game. Coincidentally, it is actually the last game ever made by Chicago based pinball manufacturer, Williams (WMS Industries).

It’s a multiplayer game that allows players to independently work their way up the Jedi ladder while battling Darth Maul and stealing multiball progress from each other. Kailing and I were okay, but Eric did well enough to put his name up on the high score list.

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I think that there are plenty of people like me out there who don’t like typical bars, but who love bars with games. We are an underserved group.

We need more HQ Beercades, Fat Cats and 1ups, especially in the Bay Area. I hope that people continue to think outside the box and create more spaces like this.

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Day 2:

After a good nights sleep, we started off the next day with some exploring around the city.

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For breakfast, we ate Cronuts at Alliance Bakery & Cafe in Wicker Park. I haven’t been to Dominique Ansel yet. So, I don’t know what the original cronut tastes like. However, I can safely say that the cronut I had that day at Alliance wasn’t special. The cream was not bad, but the cronut itself was incredibly dry and messy to eat. It wasn’t the flaky croissant-doughnut hybrid that I had heard of.

Hopefully, I can get my hands on an authentic Dominique Ansel cronut sometime this year.

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We had hot dogs for lunch. Not dirty water hot dogs from a street cart, but gourmet hot dogs at Franks ‘N’ Dogs in Lincoln Park.

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Eric had the Banh Mi dog: lemongrass & coriander chicken sausage, pickled daikon & carrot, sriracha mayo, jalapeno, cilantro and spicy pickled duck egg.

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Kailing had the Krazy Kimchi dog: spicy beef sausage, braised short rib & turnips, kimchi, wild rice and basil.

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I had the Mystery Corn Dawg Platter. I think the platter is something to be shared. It was just too much sausage and corn meal for me.

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A trip to a major city is not complete without fine food. Our choice for dinner? Kailing’s favorite, the Michelin 1 star gastropub, Longman & Eagle. While we waited for our table, we visited nearby G-Mart Comics. Then we moved into the Longman & Eagle bar to have some whiskey and whiskey based drinks, two things that they are famous for.

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Below is the first thing we had. I actually don’t remember what it was. ): Kailing, maybe you could help?

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Of course we had to have their roasted marrow bones. They served it with bacon shallot jam, preserved meyer lemon, sea salt and sourdough toast. It was savory like meat but smooth and spreadable like butter. Mmmmm meat butter.

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Next we had some surf and turf. Longman & Eagle’s take on the pub classic is porchetta of pork belly and bbq gulf shrimp on a bed of anson mills cheese grits with roasted shishito peppers and braised collard greens.

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Unfortunately, I initially didn’t remember the name of the next dish. I really need to make it a point to either take the menu with me or at least take a picture of it. ):

However, after some thought and staring at my pictures, I figured out that the fish is laying on a bed of salsify. Then, after some creative googling, I found a tweet from Longman & Eagle’s Twitter with the exact dish we ate!

On one side, we have pan roasted skuna bay salmon on a bed of milk poached salsify and red wine veal reduction.

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On the other side, we have brandade ravioli, topped with a porcini ragout.

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The food and atmosphere were perfect. I can see why Kailing likes it so much. If I lived in Chicago, I would visit every month.

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Day 3:

Chicago seems to have its own version of everything that New York has. New York City has the subway, New York hot dogs and New York pizza while Chicago has the L, Chicago style hot dogs and Chicago style pizza. I don’t know if I really consider Chicago style deep dish to be real pizza, but I can’t argue against one fact. It is delicious.

We got our fix at Lou Malnati’s.

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In my book of late night food,  deep dish is definitely up there with tacos, poutine, grilled cheese sandwiches, New York pizza, curry, ramen and anything fried.

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I’m not sure what’s going on here.

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Our last meal in Chicago!

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Hot Pot at Lao Sze Chuan in Chinatown. I love hotpot, though I couldn’t have it too frequently. It takes too much effort and can be messy.

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You might be wondering, “did you do anything in Chicago other than eat?”. We did! Stay tuned. I have a post about art and the streets of Chicago coming soon.

Also, thanks Kailing for showing me and Eric around! I still think New York is the best city in the world, but Chicago is not far behind.