The next day Beth was scheduled to fly back to the UK before heading out to Kenya, of all places. We were stopped at a motel which advertised shuttle bus service to the airport and reasoned that as Beth’s flight was an early one, we wouldn’t need to get the bus before 6am. So, rising at the ungodly hour of 5.57am, I accompanied her to get the bus so as to catch her 8.05 American Airways flight.
Regular readers may recall that i’ve been, shall we say, less than impressed with American Airways in the past. Once again they failed miserably to endear themselves to me (or Beth). Firstly things got a little stressful when we realised that the shuttle bus was not going direct to the airport as we assumed – rather it was going via pick-up at 5 other motels first. As we realised that we really should have been on the 5.30 bus, this was making things a little tight. Fortunately however the bus driver consented to my request that we go to the American Airways terminal first – and the rest of the bus kindly agreed, and so we saved a little time there. Still, we were running well behind the advice of arriving two hours before scheduled departure.
The sight we witnessed at the American Airways check-in area was not a pretty one. There must have been 200+ people divided between two queues. One queue was waiting to be checked-in by an actual human being – but as it was only one actual human being things weren’t moving very fast at all. The rest were forming a bigger queue to get to the electronic “self service check-in” computers. Now I can see why companies like American Airways like self-service check-in: machines don’t need to be paid wages and they don’t unionise. Here, however, is a list of reasons why self-service check in for airlines is a bad idea.
Firstly, if you put 150 ordinary people on computers, they do stupid things. This is just a fact about mixing people with technology. Secondly, computers are prone to break, go wrong and generally delay processes even when manipulated by experts – things get worse when you put Joe Public in charge. Thirdly, self service check-in for airlines is a really pointless idea when you realise that the machine prints out the special bar-coded label for your luggage which is supposed to stop your bags getting lost…on the other side to where you are allowed to stand. So you have to wait for the lone human being behind the machines to come over and give you the sticky label, meaning the process thus becomes drastically slower than having say a couple of people checking-in everyone the old fashioned way.
So having turned up late and witnessing this state of affairs, Beth and I started to get rather stressed as to whether she was going to make her flight. She got in line for the computers (which seemed to be moving a little faster), and I went to find somebody to talk to. Of course there was nobody around, and when I eventually found somebody from American Airlines to ask if Beth would make her flight standing in line, or whether she needed express check-in, they yawned in my face and gave my some vague reassurances, which I’m fairly sure I would have gotten if I’d asked whether we were on time for the next space bubble bound for the chocolate-encrusted planet of Epsilon Twelve. In the end Beth got to the front of the self-service que, and with a little mild frustration from the machine, which may have been programmed-in by American Airways to remind you that flying AA is the equivalent of paying to be dragged face-first through pig excrement, we were all set…to wait 20 minutes for the man behind the counter to bother to come over to our end and hand Beth her bar-coded sticky label. When Beth asked him if she would need to re-check her luggage at JFK, she received some vague bovine-like mumblings which may have indicated confirmation or otherwise somewhere in the universe, but meant nothing to mere humans at San Francisco International.
By this point it was getting kind of late, but Beth rushed off through security and made her plane ok, no thanks to American Airways, and is now in Kenya hopefully alive and well and not eaten by lions. I’ve noticed a couple of times after writing about companies or places on this blog I end up getting little comments and messages from the PR people paid to sit on Google all day, track-down discontented blog posts and send out platitudes. So if you are working for American Airways and reading this, don’t bother leaving some inane comment apologising or promising better unless you are offering to replace my Delta flight to London Heathrow out of San Francisco this coming Thursday at 9am with an upgrade to American Airways business class. If not, please take your comments elsewhere. As for everyone else, do yourself a favour and never ever fly American Airways.
After getting all that drama out of the way I was keen to go back and sleep at the motel until check-out at 11am. But the morning’s fun wasn’t over yet. At the courtesy shuttle bay I had to wait 90 minutes until the bus people bothered to come and get me, possibly because nobody was inclined to pick up the telephone on twelve thousand times I called to request a bus. In the end I made it back and slept for a couple of hours, then checked out and took the shuttle bus to the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station – but not before I had successfully failed to make waffles on the waffle machine, creating a terrible mess and fleeing before anybody could notice. I didn’t do it on purpose, but short of licking waffle batter out of the waffle-maker which was now, at last, heating up I had little choice.
That evening I was scheduled to stay with an old Balliol Tutor, Mr Kinch Hoekstra, so I thought I’d spend the day chilling out in San Francisco. Unfortunately I didn’t get much chilling done. Although I read a book for a while over coffee until lunchtime, which was nice, when I tried to buy a salad and my debit card was refused, I started to get a little worried – this was at least the fourth time the card had failed to work in two days, so I decided to get on-line and find out what was up. Loath to pay for anything I decided to trek to the San Francisco public library, figuring there would be free internet available. This was quite a walk from Union Square, and took me through some of the rougher parts of San Francisco, just to the edge of the Tenderloin area. Actually, the Bay Area holds a special sort of significance for me because a lot of the punk bands I grew up listening to (Rancid, Dead Kennedys, Operation Ivy, AFI etc) are from round here and sing about various geographical locations (e.g. the East Bay itself, Tenderloin) or features (the number 60 Bus, Daly City Train), so kind of just walking around San Francisco -even through bad areas – is cool for me because I can put sights to words I grew up listening to back in Southport, of all places.
Yet despite this it was a muggy day and the walk to the library was long – only to find out that the only internet access was for 15 minutes at a time, and there were about 30 people waiting to get on-line. The wait didn’t seem worth it, so I set off back towards the area where the BART stations live and happened across an internet cafe. There I was able to read an email from my mum explaining that my bank had stopped my card because of suspected fraudulent transactions – hence of course my card wasn’t working, and not just in salad bars and motels, but anywhere. Naturally this stressed me out especially when I logged on to internet banking and found that there was no evidence of fraud, which made me angry with Alliance and Leicester. Being stressed I decided it would be a good idea to drink loads of coffee, and did that until the evening.
Feeling thoroughly wired I took the BART over to Berkeley on the East Bay to get to Kinch’s house, where he lives with his partner Heather. I got there on time and with no mishaps – unique for the day – and it was really good to make it. Kinch taught me in both my first and second years at Balliol, and was a great influence. He was one of the tutors that really helped me calm down generally and slow down intellectually, and encouraged me to think much more clearly and precisely, kind of like a proper philosopher. I owe him a lot both for the eventual degree classification I earned, but more importantly for the way my intellect was trained, sharpened and developed – something I honestly believe I would not have received at any other college, let alone another university.
Kinch left Balliol in my third year to come to the University of Berkeley, but he was still up to speed with many Balliol happenings and it was good to chat about the place. Actually, I hadn’t realised just how great my enthusiasm for the college has become until I heard enthusing endlessly to Kinch. But furthermore it was really good to be in the presence of a true master in the field; conversation would quickly and periodically turn to philosophical matters, and I must confess I’d forgotten just how unbelievably sharp and quick Kinch’s mind is. It was actually pretty fun to find myself working really hard to keep up and stay in conversation, as well as trying to keep track of my own arguments in order to avoid the philosophers’ bete noir of self-contradiction – both with Kinch and Heather, who is no dull edge herself – especially as it’s now been several months since I’ve had that sort of intellectually intense (and usually tutorial-based) interaction with a fellow philosopher. Especially fun was the last night of my stay when Kinch and I talked at length about Hobbes (a personal favourite of mine) and Plato, as well as other areas in political philosophy and intellectual history generally.
One thing, however, which I felt a little sad about was the fact that Kinch appears to be as over-worked as ever. When I was at Balliol he was Senior Tutor, and the role clearly took its toll on him, leaving him with less time for intellectual pursuits than I think he would have liked. Though I don’t know his exact duties at Berkeley, i’m worried that he hasn’t escaped the drudgery of administrative work leaving him with less time for research and writing than would be ideal both for himself and for those who read his work. What I’m coming to see though is that this is a problem faced by many people in academia; it’s not all reading Leviathan and discussing Nietzsche after all, i guess.
Anyway, during my time in Berkeley I spent the first day in doors avoiding daylight and updating the blog after nearly two weeks of neglect – except to call up my bank who confirmed that there really had been fraud on my card that they’d detected, and so yes the card really did need t stay blocked. This was kind of shitty, though Kinch helped me out by lending my some cash and in the evening Heather introduced me to the TV show Arrested Development which I highly recommend, as well as the video section of The Onion, which is also well worth a visit. The next day I finished my self-appointed internet duties, and then headed out into Berkeley to see the campus, as well as to meet Kinch and Heather for an afternoon chat and then dinner at a really good salad bar (with the biggest portions I have yet seen in America, which is actually saying something).
The Berkeley Campus is really cool; it’s kind of similar to Harvard but on a smaller, more humane scale so that it doesn’t feel overly grand and imposing, and the surrounding town is very vibrant and alive – hence it doesn’t suffer from Princeton-syndrome (developing a thousand-yard stare at the mere thought of spending more than half a day in the place, let alone years).
(I’m on a Mac, so for some reason the photos are all coming out really tiny and I haven’t the energy to solve it…)
Of all the campuses i’ve seen in the US, Berkeley is the only one that has really struck me as being a place I could see myself studying but also living in and around. The whole Bay Area has a great feel, and Berkeley has the academic reputation to supplement the really-cool-place-to-live factor. I may be chucking an application this way in a couple of weeks.
You’ll have noticed there are a lot of trees on campus. Indeed, just behind the main campus there are some old oak trees that there is some controversy about. Basically the Universtiy wants to cut them down, and the so-called “tree-sitters” have moved in to try and stop them. From what I can tell original sympathy as degenerated into almost everyone being pissed-off and fed-up with the tree sitters. Unfortunately when I went for a look around the tree sitters were just sitting around (but not in trees, at least not any that I could see) and looking dirty. I didn’t see anything fun happen, though some TV crews were assembling up the road so perhaps it all got exciting later.
After a very pleasant three nights in Berkeley I headed back over the bay to stay with Balliol host Emily Merriman, who lives over in the west of San Francisco, between the Golden Gate park and the Presidio (big de-militarised park thing). Her house looks like this:
And just around the corner is a Russian Orthodox Church:
Actually, these photos are really misleading, because Emily took them not me. Right now the entire neighborhood is almost permanently encased in fog, so the chances of a blue sky are virtually zero. During the summer months heat from the deserts inland in California sucks in cold air off the Pacific (that’s convection at work – see GCSE physics taught me something) and that drags in the fog. The result is that September and October are warmer than July and August in this part of town…but if you drive 5 miles east the you leave behind the fog and it’s blazing California sunshine. It’s because of this that Americans joke by saying “I took a summer vacation to San Francisco and it was the coldest winter I ever spent”. It’s all very odd for a non-local and hard to get used to as the lack of sunshine can make for quite a depressing feel – indeed Emily tells me that she spends much of her summer in Boston to escape the fog, and I don’t blame her at all.
On my first day staying with Emily I took a walk down to the Golden Gate park and then on to the Pacific Shore. I was hoping to get some pictures of the resident park bison, but clearly someone had failed to inform them that I was coming as they were being rather unobliging:
The shoreline was more spectacular, with some really massive waves hitting the cliff areas and the fog giving it all a kind of eerie feel:
Below is a shot of the ocean rushing into a sort of hollowed-out sea cave. The photo isn’t great but you get the idea:
After wandering around the shore line I returned to Emily’s apartment. We chatted for a while before she went out for the evening, and I stayed in with her two house-cats, Loki and Jasper, who I liked very much:
(Despite what it looks like I am actually just stroking Loki. Or perhaps I just stroke them funny…)
That evening began the stress of San Francisco accommodation. Basically I cannot be bothered to tell the whole long and boring story, but a combination of having my debit card blocked, having access to my Mum’s American Express card – the card which virtually no youth hostel in the world takes -, there being a big music festival on in SF this week, and that all the hotels in San Francisco appear to charge around $110 plus tax and up, meant that finding accommodation was proving to be virtually impossible. I got stressed for a while, sent out a lot of emails, and then quit for the night. Luckily I need not have worried as Alex Blasdel, former Balliol classicist and fellow Jowett Walk inmate during my 2006-7 incarceration has returned to his native Bay Area and came through with a couch for me to sleep on for a couple of nights.
The next day I decided to go to the big San Francisco tattoo convention held down in Daly City, kind of an unusual pathfinder activity but I have a special interest. However it was totally boring – i’m not sure why i expected anything else from a big room full of people getting tattooed – and apart from managing to get confused and stressed about the buses home, it was a fairly un-noteworthy day.
In the evening Emily took me to a fantastic Thai restaurant just a couple of blocks from her flat (she lives in a predominantly Asian area with dozens of Asian restaurants to choose from). The food was really great and the experience was enchanced by our having to remove our shoes and sitting on low-benches in a traditional Thai style. I really enjoyed talking with Emily, who has a relatively similar background to me as regards her life before Balliol, and who is now an assistant professor of English at San Francisco State University. Our conversation ranged over Balliol past and present, the importance of keeping cats, American politics, the extent to which nobody really understands Heidegger and is pretending when they say they do, and much more besides. Further, Emily gave me some really helpful advice regarding American grad schools and applications, both from the perspective of an academic and that of somebody who did her post-grad studies in the US after leaving Balliol. After the meal we returned to the apartment to feed the cats and get some sleep