Who Celebrates Columbus Day Anymore?

I was driving into work yesterday when the KGO 810AM traffic report on the radio mentioned that traffic was light throughout the San Francisco Bay Area because of the Columbus Day holiday. That didn’t make any sense. The northbound traffic on the 280 came to a crawl because of an accident in Cupertino. Not surprisingly, the accident was long gone when I drove by and the next traffic report mentioned the slowdown. As for Columbus Day, who celebrates Columbus Day anymore?

The last time I celebrated Columbus Day was in the second grade in the 1970’s, where the boys wore Indian feathers, painted red “war” paint on our bare chest, and ran around with rubber tomahawks to menace the girls in their “settler” sundresses. I didn’t want to be an Indian. I wanted to bring in my cap rifle and guns to shoot the Indians dead (I had grudges against several of my classmates), but there were no cowboys around when Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492.

I inquired with a co-worker if we were supposed to be at work since Columbus Day was a holiday. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that kind of a holiday. This paleface wouldn’t be driving back home to go back to bed. This was Monday, work had to be done and I needed the paycheck. Getting up late in the morning was for the weekends and real holidays.

My co-worker also told me that Columbus Day should be called Indigenous Day of Remembrance—not to be confused with American Indian Heritage Day in November—for all the evil things that Columbus did when he set foot in America: the slavery and small pox epidemics that decimated the native populations. All the stuff I wasn’t taught about in the second grade. No surprise there. I didn’t learn anything about American history until I took courses in college.

The only time Native Americans are discussed in modern day America is whether or not Elizabeth Warren has Cherokee and Delaware ancestry and Senator Scott Brown’s supporters are doing the tomahawk chop in the U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts.

I’m not even sure if Italian-Americans celebrates Columbus Day. At least, not in Silicon Valley. None of my relatives from that side of the family invited me over for spaghetti and meatballs last night. Considering that the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s are reeling in the playoffs, no one was in a celebratory mood. Forget about some dead old white guy. Another “Battle of The Bay” world series may not happen this year.

Strange Bedfellows In The Supreme Court Health Care Decision

Some people were surprised that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts would abandon the conservative wing to uphold the health care decision. It shouldn’t. If you ever studied supreme court history, the chief justice will almost always try to be on the “correct” side of a major court case that has significant implications for the country. Although still young for a chief justice, and this probably won’t be his last big decision, Chief Justice Roberts has an obligation to protect the Supreme Court as an institution even if the other two branches of the government choose to go to political hell.

Did Chief Justice Roberts throw a gift-wrapped bone to conservatives by declaring the individual mandate penalty to be a tax? Maybe, maybe not. With politicians being afraid of raising taxes, everyone is scrambling to figure out where they stand tax-wise to the health care decision. Interestingly, the Mitt Romney campaign is having a harder time with this issue than the Barak Obama campaign: denying that it’s a tax, acknowledging that it’s a tax, and fending off calls from Rupert Murdoch and Jack Welch to shake up campaign staff.

We live in a strange world where a moderate conservative president for the liberal party can introduce a health care proposal that embraces many ideas from the conservative party, have it enacted into law by the liberals on a party line vote, be repudiated everywhere by the conservatives as unholy, and uphold as constitutional by a conservative chief justice on the nation’s highest court. Something to think about on America’s 236th birthday.

Tombstone Beach In San Francisco

If you thought finding a paved over pauper’s cemetery at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose was surprising, THE CITY (what my late father called San Francisco during the mid-twentieth century construction boom) topped that with tombstones washing up on the sands at the Ocean Beach seawall, including one that dates back to 1890. Even the dead couldn’t stand in the way of California’s hot real estate market in the 1930’s when the graveyards were moved out of San Francisco and unclaimed tombstones were used for landfill.

The tombstones became visible this week, including bits and pieces of marble and granite that once marked the final resting places of citizens long dead.

One of them is the nearly intact marble tombstone of Delia Presby Oliver, who died at the age of 26 on Apr. 9, 1890.

Her remains were removed and reburied when San Francisco authorities closed nearly all the city cemeteries and moved the bodies to Colma in the early 20th century – part of a move to make space for the growing city. Oliver’s original tombstone and thousands like it were used as landfill or in other ways throughout San Francisco.

The park service has no plans to remove the tombstones, letting the shifting sands cover them up again to be rediscovered by beachcombers every few years.

The Day The Golden Gate Bridge Got Flatten

This Memorial Day weekend was the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Seems like the celebration was a ho-hum affair as the fog kept away for the fireworks show that was shot off the bridge. If you remember the 50th anniversary from 25 years ago, where 300,000 people walked across the bridge on foot at the same time, the bridge flattened out from the overwhelming weight.

Picture this: Hundreds of thousands of people are crammed shoulder to shoulder on the Golden Gate Bridge when suddenly the bridge’s gentle arch begins to flatten out. A metal groan then echoes across San Francisco Bay as the majestic towers begin tilting toward each other.

As the towers hit their breaking point, the 3-foot-thick main suspension cables slacken and the roadway splits open, dropping waves of pedestrians more than 200 feet to their deaths.

That almost happened 25 years ago today, at least according to urban legend.

On May 24, 1987, 300,000 people were stuck in human gridlock for hours while getting a rare chance to cross the 1.7-mile bridge en masse on foot to celebrate the bridge’s golden anniversary. Officials quickly closed the bridge, so a half-million other people waiting to cross never got the chance. Still, the enormous, unprecedented weight caused the middle of the bridge to sag 7 feet.

Engineers were kicking themselves that day for not anticipating this historic event  and putting sensors on the bridge to measure the flattening out effect. The current generation of engineers have a hard enough time maintaining the bridge throughout the years.

As my father liked to tell me when I was growing up, the Golden Gate Bridge could never be built today. A worker died for every one-million-dollar spent was the norm back in the 1930’s. Although today’s safety and environmental laws could prevent a worker’s death, a barrage of lawsuits that could delay a project indefinitely could come about before the project even gets off the drawing board.  The California high speed rail is a good example of that.

What the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge means today is that America has become a nation of small ideas, where the big ideas like a building a bridge across the treacherous Golden State Strait is a monument to our past.


Building The City Of The Future

Pegasus Global Holdings plans to build a new city in the New Mexico desert that will feature all the latest technologies you can expect if you were to build a city from scratch: renewable solar/wind energy, a desalination and water purification plant, airport and train stations, a downtown with four- to six-story buildings, suburban neighborhoods, farming, secured borders and high-speed wireless Internet.

How many people will live in this city of the future? Zero.

The new city is meant to be a testbed for new technologies that normally can’t test in an established urban environment as people would get in the way. I can understand in theory why a simulated test environment would be needed. However, real life with real people is supposed to be messy. Technology developed in the simulated world often go awry in the real world as unanticipated scenarios unfold to screw things up.

As I told my co-worker when he pointed this story out to me, all the new city needed was a bunch of androids to go berserk and start killing visitors (i.e., the 1973 movie, “Westworld,” directed by Michael Crichton). Or maybe the U.S. military will use it for weapons testing and/or urban warfare training.

Having read too much bad science fiction in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, I can’t help to think that maybe this project is a prelude to the mile-high city states where the 1% ruled from the penthouses, the 99% worked the lower levels, and sentient computers run everything else. American society is ripe to make this happen.


A Pauper’s Cemetery At Santa Clara Valley Medical Center

Construction workers at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose discovered 15 pine coffins from a pauper’s cemetery during excavation that halted work on a new medical building in February. The cemetery was established when the county hospital was built in 1875, marked on a 1932 map as a cemetery and unmarked on a 1958 map as a parking lot. An estimated 1,450 coffins might be in the way of another new medical building to be built. The county is taking legal steps to remove the cemetery. If they can’t identify the next of kin, the the remains will be cremated and scattered over the ocean.

I wasn’t surprised that an old pauper’s cemetery was paved over by progress. Paving over the old for the new is de reigueur  in the San Francisco Bay Area.

After I turned 18-years-old in the late 1980’s, I worked in masonry construction with my father in San Francisco since I had nothing better as I was a high school dropout. We had this one job in Chinatown where a backhoe operator digging a trench broke open an old sewer line made from red clay ceramic pipe. We gathered around to see this buried piece of ancient history four feet below street level, standing across from an alley that ran behind a bunch of Chinese stores that smelled worse than an open sewer. My father and the other superintendents discussed the history of using ceramic pipes in sewer construction.

After El Camino Real was re-routed around Santa Clara University, construction crews tore out the roadway that divided the campus in the half. Underneath two feet of asphalt were old railroad tracks. I mentioned this to my father. He told me that a trolley line used to run down the middle of El Camino Road from San Francisco to San Jose before World War II. Prior to the modern freeway system being built after the war, El Camino Real was the only the way to San Francisco.

Sometimes it’s not always the old that gets paved over in the name of progress. After San Carlos Street that ran through San Jose State University was torn out for a grass meridian, the county transit authority had the concrete foundation for a east-west light rail line built down the middle and buried underneath six inches of dirt. Unless money pours from the sky after the Facebook IPO, the half-dozen east-west light rail lines to connect with the existing north-south light rail lines will never be built. We’re still waiting for the BART extension to San Jose to be built a generation later.

Before my father passed away a few weeks ago, I started a new tech job at a different hospital to replace old computers. My work area is located around the corner from the morgue. Whenever the scent of vanilla hangs heavily in the hallway outside, a dead body was delivered to the morgue. These days I see dead people everywhere.

The Unsinkable Titanic II Direct From China

Clive Palmer, an Australian billionaire mining magnate, is planning to build a $500-million USD  replica of the Titanic that was sunk century ago. Although nearly identical to the ill-fated ship, the Titanic II will have diesel engines to replace the coal engines, a bulbous bow and other modern features below the waterline.

The ship will be built in China, which has never built a luxury cruise liner as most are built in the European shipyards, and the Chinese navy will escort it from United Kingdom to New York City on it’s maiden voyage in 2016. Not sure how the British and American navies would take to the Chinese navy plowing the North Atlantic waters.

Although the new ship shouldn’t sink this time, a norovirus infection can doom a cruise ship faster than any rogue iceberg.

If you can’t wait for the maiden voyage of the Titanic II, check out the 2010 direct-to-DVD movie, “Titanic II,” from Asylum Studios. The ending is somewhat predictable.


When The Titanic Came To San Francisco

The “Titanic – The Exhibition” came to the Metreon in San Francisco in 2006. The most impressive item was the “Big Piece,” a 40-foot tall, 15-ton hull section. The Titanic was 11-stories tall and had more rivets (three million) than the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge (1.2 million). Although scientists and historians might come up with new reasons for why the Titanic collided with an iceberg, we must never forget that 1,500 people died in this tragedy and the captain’s last words were, “Every man for himself.”

A Retro Cold War

For students of Cold War political history, the last several weeks has been fascinating. Georgia, the small republic on the coast of the Black Sea, attacked the Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia to reclaim their break away region on the eve of the 2008 Summer Olympics, where most of the world leaders attended and presumably were too occupied with sports to notice this brazen act. Except the Russians did noticed and responded with a massive show of force that caught the Georgian military off guard. Not surprisingly, the Russian military conducted an exercise the month before for the same scenario that played out. If you wake up the Russian bear, expect big trouble to come down in a hurry.

A lot of political hand wringing ensued. The Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, has expected NATO and the United States to rescue him from the foolishness of his own actions. The Europeans didn’t lift a finger in response, and, perhaps wisely, chose not to admit Georgia into NATO due to the potential border conflicts with Russia. America didn’t lift a finger to help since our military are still stuck in Afghanistan and Iraq, and any potential conflict with Russia could escalate into a nuclear conflict.

President Saakashvili didn’t help his own cause by hurling insults at the Russian leadership, invoking the West losing Poland to Nazi Germany in World War II, and wildly claiming that the Russians were marching on the capital to provoke the West into action. The Russian leadership dished back the insults with equal ferocity, even demanding that a war crimes trial be held at The Hague. The Bush Administration didn’t help when it publicly enabled the Georgian military to get cocky about winning a confrontation with Russia while telling them in private not to provoke the Russians by disregarding the historical sensitivity that Russia has towards threats on its borders.

While the Russian leadership signed the cease-fire agreement brokered by France and Germany, the real action is still happening on the ground with the Russian military neutering the Georgian military. Fear and trembling is being felt along the old borders of the Soviet Union, the West is reconsidering their relationship with the Russians, and the Georgians are wondering where the heck America was in all this. The only people surprised by these events are the ones who don’t learn from history.

If you want to understand the nuttiness of the Cold War, watch there three classic movies: The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (a stranded Russian sub freaks out a New England coastal village), The Mouse That Roared (a small European kingdom declares war on America and wins), and Dr. Strangelove Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Loved The Bomb (a crazed American general orders a nuclear bomber into Russia). These movies, made in the 1960s when nuclear annihilation was only a thumb press away from happening, are biting satires of the world we once lived in—and may return to by the way things are going.