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  Edition # 109  
San Francisco, 12-21-2014
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Figure [1]: A thief is carrying a stolen bike up the stairs from a parking garage, taped by a surveillance camera.

Michael Lately, there's an upswing on burglaries in our neighborhood, as we know first-hand from Nextdoor (Rundbrief 09/2014). About six months ago, we fell victim to a burglar too, who cracked open the lock to our parking garage and stole my bicycle. I had been aware that dubious creatures keep wandering around there at night, and took precautions by locking the bick with a thick solid metal lock and tied the bike to a steel pipe by means of a metal cable.

Alas, the thief apparently had brought along a bolt cutter, because when Angelika set out to drive off in the morning, she noticed that the cable was cut and the bike was gone. Thinking back, I had purchased the bicycle exactly 16 years ago at the price of $400, and although the loss hurt because I had put countless hours into replacing worn out or stolen parts over the years, it wasn't the end of the world. I filed a police report by calling the non-emergency number 553-0123 in San Francisco, and was pleasantly surprised to see that later that same day, two police officers showed up at my doorstep to investigate. I showed them around in the garage and answered questions about the bike while they were scribbling notes into their notebooks. Well, to be honest, I didn't get my hopes up and soon forgot about the whole thing.

Figure [2]: The burglar used a bolt cutter to sever the steel cable lock.

Six months later, a downtown San Francisco police officer called us at home, leaving a message with Angelika that he had recovered my bicycle. The good news came quite by surprise, and I was asked to stop by the police station on 6th Street in San Francisco after work.

If you don't know your way around downtown San Francisco, let me assure you that it's a lot cleaner now than 20 years ago, with less homeless people crowding the streets. But if you're curious about taking in a lasting impression of one of the most run-down city areas, I recommend you stroll down 6th Street at the brink of dusk. It's almost like being placed into the ficticious world of the TV series "Walking Dead", where one needs to constantly be on high alert, making sure to not get caught and eaten by individuals who are romping around there and apparently drugged up to their eyeballs. That being said, I don't think the locals there are really a public threat, because I'd be surprised if any of them could actually afford a gun, mainly because all of their money is most likely spent on the next crack pipe. Which reminds me, there's been a funny article onCraigslist on crack pipes lately, which you might enjoy.

Figure [3]: The 6th Street station of the San Francisco police looks somewhat dubious, but it is real.

So I ended up waiting in the middle of this mess, like an idiot with my laptop-filled backpack, in front of a strangely shabby but apparently real (Flying US flag, surveillance cameras) police station, which was closed shut! I got my phone out and texted the officer, who told me he'd already gone home for the day but a fellow officer would stop by soon to get me my bike back. A while later, I saw a few cops patrolling down 6th street and asked them about their colleague. They knew about the case, and one of them asked me to follow him to a storage room nearby. On the way there, he stopped several somewhat beligerent hoodlums hanging out on the sidewalk and even searched one guy's bag! I was following at a distance feeling really uneasy, silently cursing about having agreed to this handover.

But, low and behold, after a few minutes we arrived at a storage room, the officer unlocked the door and I spotted a seriously deteriorated version of my bike. The frame was the same as on my original, but all other parts like handlebar, saddle, and gears had been replaced by cheaper components. Brakes were lacking entirely. The officer asked me if the bicycle was in rideable condition, which I was somewhat skeptic about and illustrated my point by bringing attention to the missing brakes. But since they all had been working hard to get my stolen property back, I decided to give them a break and took the bike with me. I called Angelika to pick me up by car downtown, we stuffed the bike into the trunk and drove home. I placed the bike back into the garage, where it's been waiting since for the next burglar to appear.

Figure [4]: The "Bait Bike" sticker is supposed to deter thieves.

The police officer asked me to apply a so-called "Bait Bike" sticker to my bike (Figure 4). This was news to me, and the officer explained that some bikes are allegedly left out there on purpose and equipped with GPS transmitters, so that if they're stolen, the location of the thief can be pinpointed. Getting a transponder onto every single bike would be prohibitively expensive, so all non-equipped bikes simply get a sticker, which will allegedly deter potential thieves. Personally, I'm not too sure this approach will actually work, but at least it won't cost much to try.

Bicycle thieves in San Francisco have pretty much free reign, there's no real effort by the city to stop this kind of petty crime. News repots and even entire videos of bicycle thieves in action (Figure 1) show that there really is a problem. What's funny is that the thief caught on camera turns out differently than you might expect at first: That white dude with his backpack looks like a hipster who just got off the Google bus!

Figure [5]: Police recommends you register your bike with a photo on this website.

It looks like hawking stolen bikes is a profitable business in the Bay Area. I've even seen scientific publicationson the economics of stolen bicycles. And one remarkable theft victim combed through Craigslist postings, searching for his stolen bike, and hit paydirt 600 miles north, in Portland, Oregon. He went there and took the thief to task. Well worth watching!

Petty Crime on the Rise

Figure [6]: Homeless guy stealing succulent plants from someone's sidewalk flower bed.

Michael Reactions differ significantly. Some residents stoically ignore the rising crime rate, while others go ballistic even with petty crime, like when homeless people steal their potted plants in front of their houses, to sell them to nearby nurseries. Recently, one of the culprits was caught red-handed on camera, by a so-called Spotcam surveillance cam mounted by the home owner to monitor their premises (Abbildung 6). As you can imagine, this started a major dispute on Nextdoor between relentless law and order men and droves of confrontation-averse hippie idiots populating San Francisco, who send their children to Montessori schools.

Or take the package thieves: Since postal delivery employees often simply drop packages at people's doorsteps if no one is at home, apparently there's now a number of individuals patrolling our neighborhood to quickly steal those deliveries. But since many of the wealthy home owners are running so-called Dropcams, which are easy to set up even for the technically not inclined, a lot of caught-in-the-act videos have made it to Youtube, like this footage of two package thieves in Noe Valley. After several of her packages had gone missing, a Chinese lady in our neighborhood had had enough, trapped the thief, hunted him down armed with a traditional Chinese sword (a so-called "bokken"), and finally knocked him out with a can of bear spray purchased at a local outdoor store. Alas, vigilantism is illegal in the United States, which prompted the thief's attorney now to in turn file a law suit against the lady.

Figure [7]: The surveillance cam caught the package thief entering the premises.

But it's getting worse. Lately, several citizens were robbed at gunpoint in the late evening hours. According to the news this happened by "young african americans" who must have been traveling to our neighborhood solely for that purpose from other areas. Apparently, many techies are carrying backpacks holding $1,000 laptops even at night, and everyone owns a $600 smartphone these days, making them a profitable target, especially since SF police rarely patrols the rich neighborhoods and so far has not made arrests. Not too long ago, a robbery victim was even shot by the mopes!

As a result, late night party goers now hesitate to go five blocks in our neighborhood, although it is considered to be rather safe in comparison. Even supervisor Scott Wiener, the jack-of-all-trades in San Francisco politics, has had a rude awakening and is now planning on sending more cops to patrol the rich parts of town. As always in San Francisco, this kind of measure has to be approved by the voters, the proposition is coming to the ballots soon.

Diluvian Rainfall

Figure [8]: As soon as San Francisco gets a bit more rain than usual, some streets are flooded. Foto: Frédéric Poirot

Angelika Last Thursday, the weather gods bestowed us with heavy rainfall, so much in fact, that San Francisco and its surrounding areas reported flooding emergencies. While California truly needs the rain because of the ongoing drought, the extremely dry grounds can't absorb the water of prolonged rainfall, and water starts to dam up. And the hopelessly obsolete infrastructure with poorly patched-up roads makes things worse, of course.

Figure [9]: The Yahoo morning shuttle on the freeway, stopped by heavy rainfall.

I've got to admit that I found the brouhaha created by the press on Wednesday about the upcoming rain storm rather annoying. As soon as there's rain, all those sun-spoiled Californians go nuts and hopelessly exaggerate. Because I grew up in northern Germany, rain is very natural to me and just makes me chuckle. You can imagine how I was rolling my eyes when the news announced that several school district were closing their facilities on Thursday because of the rain. Back in the Lower Saxony part of Germany were I grew up, the only time I can think of that schools were closed were when we had black ice or wind blowing with more than 60mph.

Figure [10]: This citizen expects flooding caused by prolonged rain and prepared by laying down sand bags.

Figure [11]: This sand bag arrangement seems to require some more work to withstand significant rainfall.

Even our Chrismas party at work was cancelled. And on Thursday morning, when I tried to drive to work I got stopped cold: An underpath on Cezar Chavez Street I needed to pass through, about seven minutes from our house, was flooded and traffic came to a complete stop. Luckily, 3-wheel meter maid scooter had blocked off the area, so no one got stuck in the water, but this meant I could neither proceed forward into the water nor back out because of the stalled traffic behind me.

Figure [12]: A popular surf beach in Pacifica has been closed because of heavy rainfall.

The meter maid advised me to make U-turn on the four-lane road. Alas, this turned out to be quite difficult because the street had a center devider with a curb, but somehow I managed finally to drive over it, turn around and drive back home. On Friday, everything was back to normal. But Michael was really bummed out after he saw that his favorite surf beach in Pacifica was closed due to the heavy rainfall and the amount of sewage that had been swept into the ocean. A sign on the beach strongly advised surfers to stay out of the water that weekend. Oh my!

Never Ending Constructions

Figure [13]: A newly rich paid 1 million Dollars for this run-down building.

Michael American construction sites all have one annoying thing in common. Regardless if it's a big project like earth-quake proofing the Bay Bridge or renovating a run-down house around the corner: They keep dragging on for years and years. It appears that there's no affordable way for the owner to draft a contract to ensure that a building is ready by a specified date. According to my personal research, simple home renovations in our neighborhood take more than a year on average. And remodeling the Bay Bridge, as you might have heard, took more than 30 years.

Figure [14]: The collapsing dog house in the center sold for 1 Million Dollars, and I'm not kidding.

To give you an example, recently, a nouveau-riche dimwit bought a fixer upper in our neighborhood for the astounding amount of 1,000,000 (one Million Dollars), evicted the family who had been living there for decades, and has spent the last two years employing Mexican day laborers to renovate it. At the end of 2013, a few individuals appeared, starting to make a lot of noise, but little progress, seemingly unmotivated, almost like hobbyists. Every day at 7:30 in the morning, they started hammering and sawing like crazy, only to suddenly cease work at 9:00, with no following activity for many hours. Later in the day, occasionally, you could hear timid hammering noises here and there, but rather lackadasical, apparantly without accomplishing anything of value until the end of the day. The construction company "Rodriguez Builders" has now been on the project for about a year and keeps throwing the construction waste into the front yard. Sometimes, there's one worker dabbling here and there, sometimes there's three of them making infernal noises on Saturday mornings with a table saw that they're switching on once per hour to cut some wood, instead of cutting all the wood at once and be done with it.

Figure [15]: The day laborer eyes the table saw with suspicion: Should I saw today or postpone it till tomorrow?

This raises the question: How can someone who poured 1 million Dollars into a fixer upper be so stupid as to be taken for a ride by a construction company who's apparently progressing at their own discretion, pushing out the completion date time and time again? You would think that the owner be interested in having the house ready as soon as possible, either to move in himself or rent it out to the tune of 5,000 Dollars per month.

I'm not sure what's going on, maybe the owner ran out of money and he's delaying the project to avoid paying property taxes (a whopping 14,000 Dollars per year), because he'd fall off a financial cliff otherwise? We'll never know for sure, but the fact he paid 1 million for a doghouse seems to substantiate my suspicion that he might not be the brightest person around and probably blindly fell prey to the real estate parasites who are now sucking him out for good. I can't say that I feel sorry.

Figure [16]: Construction worker on the phone.

Figure [17]: Every construction site is required to display the permit issued by the city.

The other day, our local news station reported that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg purchased a building in our neighborhood for an exorbitant amount of money and the neighbors are complaining about the disturbance, because the builder has been making noise every single day for an entire year now! If you're interested, "Fort Zuckerberg" went for 10 Million Dollars. At night, there's a security guard watching over the premise. It seems that money is no issue for Zuckerbertie.

Las Vegas, Baby!

Figure [18]: The "Main Street Casino", located in Old Town Las Vegas.

Angelika We keep going back to Las Vegas, and if it is just because this is where we met for the first time, both travelling the U.S. independently during a long long summer break. Las Vegas keeps reinventing itself, and it's hard to keep track on how fast things are changing. Both being college students back in the day, we were drawn there by the unbeatably low expenses in gambler's paradise: There were all-you-can-eat buffets for only five Dollars and rental cars were cheap, too, to explore the nearby world-renowned national parks. It was not until a few years later that newly themed casinos like the "New York New York", "Treasure Island", or the pyramid-shaped "Luxor" were built on the strip.

Then came a time of economic slowdown, and hardly anyone could be convinced to travel to Las Vegas, unless hotels offered killer deals. Savvy travelers set themselves apart from the masses and splurged 150 Dollars per night for dream rooms with two separate levels or round 200 gallon jacuzzis. Recently, ultra modern hotel towers are all the rage, like the "Aria" or the "Cosmopolitan", featuring contemporate room decor and all kinds of technical gadgets for the iPhone and Youtube generation.

Figure [19]: Time has been standing still on Fremont Street in Las Vegas Old Town.

While this was happening, prices exploded in Las Vegas. It's not as easy anymore to find reasonably priced rooms on the Las Vegas Strip and the cheap all-you-can-eat buffets have vanished like CD sales. Restaurants by internationally acclaimed chefs like Gordon Ramsey, Wolfgang Puck, or Joel Robuchon are the new trend. But it's not an easy task for any chef in Las Vegas to impress guests coming from culinary relevant metropolitan areas. We've come to realize that upscale food options in Las Vegas don't quite match what you'd get in San Francisco, let alone that most Las Vegas establishments nowadays are tourist traps that are about twice as expensive as top-notch places in, say, Los Angeles. It's evident that the restaurants on the strip have found out that business people from rural America are happy to overpay, because they're flush with money and don't know any better than mistake mediocre food for high-end cuisine, because at home they're eating dinner at the local diner with their baseball cap on.

Figure [20]: Many years ago, there were many restaurants like that on the Las Vegas Strip.

I've got to say, though, that we were pretty impressed with the "L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon" restaurant inside the MGM casino. It's expensive, but you get excellent classic french food with a modern touch. There's a more formal and yet more expensive restaurant "Joel Robuchon" next door, but if you like it more casual and enjoy watching the cooks preparing your food from the counter, I'd recommend L'Atelier with its exquisite food and wine selection.

Figure [21]: Hard to imagine what kind of slogans advertisers used for restaurants back in the 50ies.

During our last stay in Las Vegas, we strayed from Las Vegas Boulevard ("The Strip") a couple of times and explored other neighborhoods. We revisited Downtown Las Vegas again after a long hiatus, birthplace of many famous casinos, and playground for the mob way back when. The Mob Museum there charges quite an exorbitant entrance fee, but it's quite fascinating to study the criminal history of Las Vegas, going back to the times of Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly.

Figure [22]: Mostly older folks swarm Downtown Las Vegas to play the slot machines.

Downtown Las Vegas faded into insignificance in the 1960ies, when a construction frenzy started on the "strip" and the casinos opened their doors there. The gambling parlors in Downtown lost their glamor and started to attract an audience known as "low rollers", who prefer to work the five cent slot machines. But recently, there's been a wave of nostalgia, and many follow the trend to explore old Las Vegas again. Looking at the interior of the "Main Street Station Casino" gives a taste of a different long-lost era. Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos (a popular online shop for shoes), is driving an initiative to turn Downtown Las Vegas around to lure a younger crowd to this long neglected part of town.

Figure [23]: The newly opened "Container Park" in Old Town Las Vegas.

Hsieh first transferred his firm's headquarters to downtown Las Vegas und then invested 350 million Dollars of his own money into the so called Downtown Project. The goal is to get small independent stores, companies, and restaurants into the downtown area. The Containerpark on Freemont Street is a good example. Surrounding a big playground, small container-like buildings are hosting shops and restaurants. All over the property, chairs and tables invite visitors to sit down and relax in the sun.

Figure [24]: At the container park, tables and chairs are invite visitors to sit down and relax.

It's really a promising concept, especially since Las Vegas is inundated with chain stores. At the Container Park, I found a nice jewelry store named "Blu Marble", which we'll also be featuring in this edition's top product section below. A few famous chefs have also discovered downtown Las Vegas and have opened small restaurants there. Like renowned chef Kerry Simon, who hopped onto the new trend with "Carson Kitchen" in the downtown area. We had a memorable lunch there with excellent food and at a reasonable price, absolutely on par with places in San Francisco. Yepp, things are in motion in downtown Las Vegas!

Top Product: The Blu Marble Necklace

Figure [25]: A necklace by Blue Marble

Angelika Calling Las Vegas an exemplary environmentally friendly city would be a huge stretch by all means of imagination. I'd even wager that Las Vegas is pretty high up on the top 10 polluters list in the United States. There's hardly any recycling efforts in the casinos yet, although at least the McCarren airport has introduced separate trash containers for recyclables recently.

That's why I got pretty excited when I noticed the small jewelry store "Blu Marble" at the Container Park in downtown Las Vegas. It sold all kinds of trinkets made of glass, including beautiful necklaces with glass pendants. Obviously, I had to strike quickly and purchase a few, which is when I noticed a flock of geese as a motif on one of them, reminding me of the popular "Grey Goose" vodka bottle. The sales person clued me in that all of the store's products are indeed made of old booze bottles, discarded by the casinos, which would be simply thrown away otherwise. The pendant on the necklace I had chosen indeed had been part of a "Grey Goose" vodka bottle! The Blu Marble jeweler is collecting about 15,000 bottles every year from the casinos on the strip and processes them to make jewelry from them. Top idea and top product for this edition!

Growing a Mustache in November

Figure [26]: My impressive mustache mid November.

Michael For many men, one of the more whimsical traditions in our crazy area is growing a mustache during the month of November. Since "mustache" starts with an "M", November simply becomes "Movember".

It's all for a good cause, as by doing so, the proud mustache growers raise awareness for typical male diseases like prostate cancer, which can often be recognized and treated effectively when screenings are done in a timely manner.

At my workplace, for example, our director donated $100 to the Movember Foundation for every employee who started clean-shaven into the month of November and then kept growing a mustache for the next 30 days. With the money, the foundation sponsors health programs.

Needless to say, I was in on it as well, and kept growing an impressive mustache. It was really fun to watch my colleagues do the same and more often than once I couldn't help but crack up noticing me sitting in a meeting with ten other men proudly wearing mustaches.

To provide equal opportunities for everyone, the ladies at work were invited to join in on the fun as well, and those who showed up with a glued-on plastic mustache at the party at the end of the month were counted as well.

Greetings from our crazy world:

Angelika & Michael Edit

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