July 2003 Archives

sean keane versus deep blue

(Originally appeared on the fine KALX radio program "Bobbing For Lobsters")


MARK: Two weeks ago today, Sean Keane delivered a challenge that has reverberated throughout the world. Calling it a "test to the limits of artificial intelligence" and "an epic battle between man and machine," Keane challenged famed supercomputer Deep Blue, the computer that defeated chess grandmaster Gary Kasparaov, to a best-of-seven series. The game: Checkers.

(Inspirational. Hank Williams, Junior-style theme music plays)

MARK: Today, "Bobbing For Lobsters" takes you live to the Haas Pavilion at UC Berkeley, where Sean Keane is preparing to take on supercomputer Deep Blue. I'm Mark Stapanovich, and with me today is former world checkers champ Paul Culderfeld. Paul, how do you see the matches shaping up today?

PAUL: Mark, I see this being a tough challenge for Keane. Deep Blue is a scalable, highly parallel system that utilizes 256 processors, capable of calculating 100-200 billion moves within three minutes. This makes Deep Blue a very formidable opponent. What complicates matters is that Keane is, well, just not especially good at checkers.

MARK: Not especially good, Paul?

PAUL: No. Mark, not really. Keane is a timid player, extremely emotional and cautious. He refuses to move his back row of checkers, for example. Also, any slight bit of adversity leaves Keane whining and complaining, leaving him vulnerable to any opponent with even the barest amount of guile or aggressiveness.

MARK: So you think Keane will be vulnerable to Deep Blue, Paul?

PAUL: I do, Mark. Though Deep Blue's specialty is chess, it has played nearly six trillion games of checkers in the last two and a half days.

MARK: Plus, Deep Blue is unlikely to be rattled by Keane's flamboyant checkers style, which we heard in an interview earlier this week.

SEAN KEANE: (on tape) I am the greatest checkers player in the history of the world! I'm gonna treat Deep Blue like he was an Apple 2E! I'm gonna jump jump him like I was Kriss Kross! I'm king of the world! I'm pretty! I'm a baad man! I'm gonna king... (tape stops)

MARK: It looks like they're getting started, so let's go down to the board.

REFEREE: Alright, Mr. Keane has won the toss and elected to defend the south side of the board. He will be playing red. As black, you have the first move, Deep Blue.

SEAN: Hey! Why does he get to go first.


SEAN: Stupid computer.

MARK: We'll be right back with more of Sean Keane versus Deep Blue.


MARK: We're back at the Haas Pavilion, where Deep Blue has taken a commanding lead of two games to none in its landmark checkers battle with Sean Keane. Paul, can Keane turn things around?

PAUL: Mark, as long as he can calm down and stop crying, he still has a shot. Deep Blue is running WinAmp, Free Cell, and four different windows of Mozilla, so his decision-making isn't nearly as fast as usual. It looks like Keane is taking his time with his next move.

SEAN: I'm going to mo-o-o-o-ove from D-4 to squa-a-a-a-are... E-5.


SEAN: No way! I didn't take my finger off!


REFEREE: Actually, Deep Blue, the replay shows that his finger was still on. Sean gets a do-over.

SEAN: Yes!


SEAN: I'm going to mo-o-o-o-ove from A-2...to...squa-a-a-a-are... E-5.


SEAN: Dammit!

MARK: Looks like Keane is starting to fall apart. We'll be back.


MARK: We return to the Haas Pavilion where it has been all Deep Blue so far. Still, Keane has refused to resign, and after an afternoon of dominance by the supercomputer, Keane has rallied in the fourth game and is threatening Deep Blue's back row. Let's go down to the action.

SEAN: Alright! I made it to the back row! King me!


SEAN: What's the problem?


MARK: Paul, this is quite a turn of events!

PAUL: Incredible, Mark.

SEAN: But... Deep Blue... that's not fair. You're cheating!


MARK: It looks like Keane is...he's pulling out the wires attached to Deep Blue's CPU!


SEAN: Yes, I'd like to hear it, Deep Blue. Sing it for me.


REFEREE: By forfeit, Sean Keane is the winner!

(Crowd erupts)

MARK: Do you believe in miracles, Paul!?!

SEAN: I am the greatest!

PAUL: Mark, what a dramatic ending! What a display of heart from this proud, sentient, chess-playing computer!

MARK: This is going to go down in the annals of computer-human checkers battles, to be sure. This has "Bobbing For Lobsters" coverage of Sean Keane versus Deep Blue. For Paul Culderfeld, I'm Mark Stapanovich saying, "King me...please!"

A letter written to notably tall Korean Jay Lee, after the Golden State Warriors traded forward Todd Fuller to the Utah Jazz. Fuller was the Warriors' first round pick in 1996, selected two picks ahead of Kobe Bryant, three ahead of Peja Stojakovic, and four ahead of Steve Nash - truly, one of the least savvy personnel moves in NBA history.)

February 4, 1999

Dear Jay,

I can barely type, as the tears in my eyes are clouding my view of the monitor. I sensed that this day might come, but I was hoping it wouldn't come quite so soon. The Golden State Warriors have turned their backs on an off-season of hard work and a devastating spin move, and traded Todd Fuller to the Utah Jazz for a second-round pick. Apparently, the Warriors had too many players under contract, and decided to get rid of, in the words of Garry St. Jean, "the worst player in NBA history."

Fuller went to the Jazz because they were under their quota of tall white players with no offensive skills. This may just be the player who gives the Jazz the final push they need to win the NBA title. Don't under-estimate the value of 2.1 rebounds and 3.4 points per game; over the course of an entire NBA season, that works out to over 150 rebounds and nearly 300 points! Let me tell you, when Fuller comes in for the final 45 seconds of the fourth quarter with the Jazz up by 25, he is going to show some mad skills. Dare I say, this is the player that could make the Utah fans forget Mark Eaton.

By trading for the second-round pick of the Jazz in 2000, which could very well be the very last pick in the entire draft, the Warriors sent a message to Fuller that said; "By rule, this is the least we could have gotten for you, but if it were possible to trade you for less, we would have." Knowing the strong will and work ethic of Fuller, I am sure that he will redouble his efforts to show the Warriors their mistake, and in two or three years, make it to the second unit, and be the valuable fifth-man-off-the-bench, contributing his six fouls to the winning effort. Why, by the time Fuller is done with his career, he will be in the hallowed company of such luminaries as Charles Jones and Frank Brickowski.

So, goodbye, White Tornado. May you spin to a better place, and play your 2.5 minutes a game using 110% of your limited skills. Godspeed.


(Note: The Warriors received the 55th pick in the draft, not quite the very last choice, and selected forward Chris Porter, who was out of the NBA one year later.)

Todd Fuller Player Page

On Wednesday, July 2, and Tuesday, July 8, I attended baseball games at the world-famous Network Associates Coliseum in Oakland, known affectionately as the Net Ass. It was two separate days and two separate displays of fantastic, fundamentally-sound, ass-kicking baseball. Unfortunately, these displays were put on by the Athletics' opponents, the league-leading Seattle Mariners and the league-trailing Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

The first game was part of the ever-popular Double Play Wednesday promotion, where the A's offer two-dollar tickets and one-dollar hot dogs. Informally, this promotion is known as Two Dolla Wednesday, and it always draws a large, bargain-crazy crowd to the games. Last year it was Dollar Wednesday, but the A's have wisely decided to raise the bar to keep out the riff raff. They have also restricted discount seating to just the third deck, rather than the second and third decks, which I attribute more to cheapness than an actual marketing strategy.

Double Play Wednesday reflects the Oakland philosophy of keeping costs down, mantaining modest expectations, and cutting corners. They're the Southwest Airlines of baseball. You can see this on the field, where journeyman catcher Scott Hatteberg replaces MVP Jason Giambi at first base, and the team dreams of getting past the first round of the playoffs. You can also see it in the concession stands, where the woefully understaffed workers struggle to accomodate the large dog-hungry crowds. Buying dollar dogs is a lot like going to Ben and Jerry's on Free Cone Day: the marginal cost of waiting in line for multiple innings usually exceeds the bargain price of the food. As a final insult, Oakland also understocks their condiments. After two innings in line waiting for lukewarm hot dogs, the subsequent ten-minute wait for mustard and sauerkraut just breaks your spirit.

By the time we arrived at our seats, the Mariners had already taken a 2-0 lead. And it just got worse. The Mariner pitcher was young hotshot Joel Pineiro, whose first name is pronounced "JO-el", like he's from Krypton. He only gave up three hits in his eight innings of work, so maybe he did have some otherworldly powers. Perhaps the A's could defeat him if they didn't have to play on a planet with a yellow sun. After he struck out Jermaine Dye in the seventh inning, he may have even exclaimed, "Kneel before Zod!"

Meanwhile, the Mariners were hitting the hell out of the ball. Every player in their lineup had at least one hit, even the ones hitting below .200, and they all reached base at least twice. Through the sixth inning, Seattle already had seven runs and twelve hits, and it only got worse. Naturally, our interest moved on to drinking heavily, making up songs about struggling Oakland players ("Goodbye Ruby Durazo," about Oakland's DH, wondered "Who could hang an 0-for-4 on you?"), and rampant gambling. We bet on the Cap Dance. We bet on the BART train race. We bet on Dot Racing. And it goes without saying that anytime you overhear someone refer to the Red Dot as "that cheating motherfucker Red", you know Dot Racing Fever has become an epidemic.

The best wager came from Dustin Reed. After the A's had been meekly retired in the bottom of the eighth, Dustin bet that the A's would actually suck more in the final inning than they had the rest of the game. Given that it was currently 9-0, and only one Oakland baserunner had reached third the whole game, I thought this was a safe wager. But once Frank Menechino's throwing error opened the door for a four-run Mariner ninth inning, I had to hang my head and pay up. Not even my chant of "Greatest Comeback of All Time" could inspire the A's to get a single hit in the ninth.

Final totals: Mariners - 13 runs, 20 hits, no errors. A's - 0 runs, 3 hits, one error, zero pride.

(Read Part 1 2) At this stage in my life, I am not an especially direct person. There was, however, a time when I had no hesitation in saying exactly what I thought, as long as it wasn't about something I myself wanted. If I had commentary or thoughts about someone else, I had no problem reporting immediately and truthfully on whatever it was that I saw or felt. This directness was on full display during a trip to the supermarket with my father, Dennis, at about age 4. As we walked through the aisles, I spotted a very corpulent man pushing a heavily-laden cart. "Look Dad!" I exclaimed. "That guy ith weally fat!" I pointed at the fat man, who tried to ignore me. Dennis, deeply embarrassed, tried to argue with me. "He's, he's not that fat, Sean", he stammered quietly. "Why don't we get some..." I cut him off. "No, Dad, look at him! He'th weally, weally fat!" My speech was still impeded at that age, but not the loudness of my voice. My young voice resonated through the store, identifying the fat man, describing his fatness, and giving nary in an inch in my debate with Dennis over said fatness. It may be difficult to get Contemporary Sean to stop talking, but shutting up Young Sean was an impossibility. I had to be physically dragged to another part of the store, while the fat man probably fled the store once I began adding a fourth "weally" to my description of his rotundity. Dennis was humiliated. I was informally banned from the grocery store for a few weeks. Upon my return, I proved I had learned nothing from the experience by loudly insisting to my mother that a portly woman in her fifties was "pwegnant."

(Read Part 1 2 3 4 5)

We drove in luxury throughout the state of California in a stately 1995 Volvo station wagon belonging to Gene's 17 year-old brother, Jessee. As a token of gratitude, I asked actor/singer Rick Springfield to compose for him a song of thanks. Here is the result:

Jessee's Car

By Rick Springfield

Jessee is Gene's brother
Used to live in the cubbyhole under the stairs
But lately things have changed and it's far from obscene
Jessee's got himself a car and he's lending it to Gene

And he's driving it with such style
And he's using the turbo boost, I just know it
And he's defogging the windshield late late at night

You know I wish that I had Jessee's car
I want to drive Jessee's car
Where can I find a Volvo like that?

I sit alone in the back seat
Folding down the arm rest, the design's pretty neat
You know the breeze feels nice when Gene opens the sunroof
I want to put up my own window but the switch is childproof

And he's driving it with such style
And he's using that turbo boost, I just know it
And the dashboard displays temperature in Farenheit

You know I wish that I had Jessee's car
I want to drive Jessee's car
Where can I find a Volvo like that?

Like Jessee's car
I wish that I had Jessee's car
Where can I find a Volvo
Where can I find a Volvo like that?

And I'm looking in my driveway all the time
Wonderin' why my own car's so shitty
If I'd driven the Corolla down to SD
I would have broken down 'fore King City

Tell me
Where can I find a Volvo like that?

(Read Part 1 2 3 4 4)

Gene doesn't use pet names with Kristen. You don't usually hear a "sweety," a "cupcake," a "honey" from him. If he's in a sentimental mood, maybe a "kid" will slip out, but that's about all.

I theorized that this might just be a matter of taste. Gene doesn't love the ice cream as much as the cake, nor the steak as much as the potato. Much like a well-pressed dress shirt, Gene is happiest when he is full of starch. Gene is also similar to the mythological Cyclops, because many of his favorite things to eat are Greek. So I suggested some alternative pet names:



"Chick Pea"


Kristen vetoed these choices, but decided that "Tahini" would be acceptable. At which point Gene did not begin using this new name, but instead behaved like an ill-tempered Attila, throwing around "hun"s all over the place.

Perhaps Gene does have a verbal sweet tooth after all.

(Read Part 1 2 3)

On Monday, I visited the world-famous San Diego Zoo in world-famous San Diego, California. Usually I try to tie together my jokes and humorous observations, but I feel that the sheer number and variety of these wonderful animals necessitates a less holistic format for this particular installment. Much like visiting the zoo itself, readers can read the different portions in any order they choose. As a warning, there's very little about birds, because watching them kind of freaks me out. I think it's because of the herky-jerky head movement. And the similarity to dinosaurs.

- We started at the Reptile House, and learned that contrary to popular belief, giant snakes are not evil, just poisonous. Still, there was a sign asking, "Giant Snakes: Myth, Monster, Or...?" which leads me to believe that the San Diego Zoo itself may not be entirely convinced of this.

The Reptile House is also home to the albino snake, which appears to be the CEO of the House, as it has the corner office. false water cobra, which is not poisonous. It succeeds by looking just like other snakes that do have venom. Basically, the false water cobra is to posionous snakes as Bush is/was to grunge music.

- Our next destination was the pen of a monitor lizard, which was inexplicably paired with a large flightless bird. The bird drew the ire of a middle-aged woman who felt it was pretending to be hurt or injured to avoid drinking the bottled water she was pouring into its pen. "That bird is faking!" she yelled. "What a brat!"

I wondered why the zoo had chosen to put the lizard and bird together. Perhaps they were trying to give this area a wacky buddy comedy feel. Possible episodes: Monitor lizard eats bird egg, thinking it's a crocodile egg. Bird's parents think monitor lizard is gay. Monitor lizard has two dates for the prom, one of which is the bird, in drag! This is a million-dollar idea.

- Cyclura is the name of a Caribbean rock iguana. I couldn't help yelling out, "Are you ready... for Cyclura?!? Are you ready to rock?!?" in a high-pitched wail. Nearby families were not amused.

- Watching animals lounging in their cages and pens makes me realize that I mostly just want to watch the animals eat, shit, or try to hump each other. I'm a simple man, with simple ways. When I was eight, I visited the Oakland Zoo and saw an elephant eating hay and taking a dump at the same time and I think that, even now, it may have been the most exciting moment of my entire life that didn't involve breasts and/or professional sports.

- Fans of the film "Fierce Creatures" would be delighted by the presence of zoo employees clad in large animal costumes roaming the grounds. My companion Gene wondered if there was a variant of American Sign Langage for costumed performers. He suggested the first sign could be for "Help, I'm dying of heat-based sufocation."

- Chimps and orangutans are fascinating and sad, to me, mainly due to their similarity to humans. Maybe I'm being species-ist, but the captivity of those animals bothers me more than others, even with all of the cool climbing equipment they have to perform tricks on (called "enrichment activities"). I was surprised to learn that orangutans are an endangered species in a large part due to the illegal pet trade, because a swinging, excrement-hurling, potential-arm-off-ripping orangutan sounds like just about the worst pet possible to me. Then again, people buy chihuahuas, so what do I know?

- Flamingos look like white collar criminals, due to the monitoring bracelets on their ankles. Freunde Christian thought they resembled "guys who work out but they don't exercise the legs."

- The zoo has a program in which they pair up dogs, usually rescued from the pound, with large predatory animals. A plaque commemorates the deep friendship of one dog-cheetah pair, Anna and Arusha, which I thought was a joke at first. It's serious. The dogs help the animals to socialize and, in the case of one timberwolf, act as a substitute for the pack. Trainers stress that the dogs have to establish a "dominant relationship" right away, which seems to imply that the dogs are tops. The dog-cheetah plaque also says that the original dog-cheetah pair are together now in heaven, which seems like a pretty fucking stupid thing for a scientific institution to say.

- Pandas are incredibly fascinating. I don't know what makes pandas so great, since they mostly sit around eating bamboo all day, but they are great, and I'm not going to question it, especially if questioning it means I have to stop watching those cute little bastards eat bamboo. As cute as it is, eating bamboo looks really painful, like chewing on blades. Pandas are bears, so their stomachs aren't really made for digesting bamboo in the first place, making it seem especially harsh. Is bamboo-eating really an evolutionarily stable strategy, pandas?

The panda exhibit also has a lot of panda sounds on tape, which you have to listen to by picking up a telephone, since broadcasting panda baby cries would understandably freak out the pandas. That doesn't make it any less creepy to pick up a telephone and listen to the sound of a female panda in heat - it's a little too close to phone sex with a panda for me.

- Giraffes have a gestation period of 457 days. That is a tough pregnancy. I wonder if pregnant giraffes hassle their mates a lot: "Oh, honey, I just had this craving for leaves. Yeah, and maybe some bark. Could you go get some leaves? Thanks, baby."

- There's an Alaskan brown bear at the zoo. Not surprisingly, it looked hot. Honestly, July in San Diego for a bear from Alaska - is that even fair?

- A gazelle farted and began shitting right as we walked by. I was somewhat pleased, but freunde Christian was absolutely delighted. He may have even applauded.

- For whatever reason, there is a steel drum band that plays pop songs, Jamaica-style, all day long, although every member of the band is Caucasian. Gene and I debated whether it was worse to have to play "Love Is The Seventh Wave" in faux-reggae fashion, or to have to dress up as faux-old man and zoology expert "Zookeeper Willie." Our debate was cut short when Willie had to judge a hula hoop contest in front of the band, and it got too pathetic.

- Visiting the zoo confirmed the old adage: An elephant never forgets... to take a big crap. I felt like I was eight years old again.

- Short conversation in front of the Arabian onyx:

Sean: He looks like he's waiting for something.
Gene: He's waiting for us to make a mistake.

- A four year-old enjoying "Tiger River" stood in front of the glass chanting "Tiger tiger tiger" over and over again. It was very annoying. Behind the barrier, the tiger paced back and forth, back and forth. I had never seen a tiger so close up before. It was impressive. Though I am no tiger expert, I am fairly confident that the tiger was thinking, "Oh, how I want to eat this god-damn kid!"

- Finally, the laziest animals in the zoo had to be the Australian ones. Maybe it was the heat or the time of day, but the koalas and tree kangaroos did not do a damn thing the entire time we were there. They didn't really even have cages, or high walls to their pens. It was as if the zookeepers knew they didn't have the energy to make a try at escape. Even if they did, what were the koalas going to do? Eat eucalyptus leaves in a different tree? No thanks. G'night, mate.

zembla goes south, part 3: tijuana

(Read Part 1 2)

Before this trip to San Diego, I had never left the United States. I saw all the other guys leaving the country, heard the talk about international travel around the locker room, but I was still hesitant. I kept telling myself that it was OK to have stayed in America, that not crossing a border didn't make me any less of a man, that I was saving myself for a trip to a very special country, someday. Finally, this week, I decided to just get it over with and lose my international virginity to Tijuana.

We parked in San Ysidro and walked across the pedestrian bridge and walked into Mexico around 1:00. The very first thing I saw on the Mexican side of the border was a large table run by the Church of Scientology urging me to read Dian�tica, by L. Ron Hubbard. Very soon I realized that Tijuana was the most aggressively commercial place I'd ever visited, beyond even Las Vegas or Times Square in New York. Every person one encounters in Tijuana, aside from federales, either makes their living off of tourists, or is a tourist themself. I know this isn't representative of Mexico as a whole, of course, just a consequence of Tijuana being a border town.

The main focus seems to be on products or services that are more illegal and/or expensive in the United States. I knew this before going, but it was still surprising to see three or four pharmacies on every block advertising the ease in which one can get prescription-free painkillers and sexual aids. Alcohol for American kids age 18-21 appears to be a big industry, as do tax-free cigarettes, Cuban cigars, and "massages." Also big in Tijuana are horses painted to look like zebras, and children selling small packages of chicle, but that last one is almost too sad to mention.

In his travel writings, Allen Haim has mentioned how being in a place that's both economically depressed and aggressively commercial makes you stop seeing people's humanity, and I noticed the same thing. Nearly every store employs a man to sit in the doorway, yelling slogans to entreat passerby to come in. At first, I tried to decline politely, but soon realized that any response at all just encourages more aggressive pursuit of your tourist dollars. My travel companion Gene Wood called it a super-competitive breeding ground for memes, as each place tries to determine the most effective combination of "Hey guys," "Hey friends," or, in one place, "Picture for your neighbor's wife?" to rope in buyers. I didn't stop anywhere, partially because I didn't need any gold chains or religious figurines, and partially because I didn't want to feel like I was participating in the exploitation.

By far the most interesting part of the trip came when we tried to recross the border. The trip back to the US requires walking over a ramp and then, somewhat counter-intuitively, walking across an eight-lane highway. After that, there are a lot of parallels between the trip across the border and an amusement park line. The line to America winds around and goes into different rooms, so that you don't notice how long it is. There are pictures of wacky characters, only they're suspected drug traffickers instead of anthropromorphic animals. There is a large caution sign, not involving ride safety, but instead, warning that all conversations and actions are being videotaped. Judging by reactions in our line, I suspect a good percentage of that video footage is of people reading said warning sign out aloud. Just like how people in whelchairs can cut to the front of the line at Space Mountain, anyone with a bicycle or ticket for the Mexicoach bus gets to go into a shorter line at the border. This particular quirk leads to businessmen in thousand-dollar suits clutching battered child-sized BMX bikes, in order to return to America more quickly after purchasing discount cigarettes. It is clear that for many in line, America is the happiest place on Earth.

My trip to Mexico was pretty brief, but I think that's to be expected for your first time. I was confused and scared, I felt like crying at times, and after it was over all I wanted to do was go to sleep. Still, I could see what a special, intimate experience international travel can be, and I'm sure that the next time I find a special nation I really care for, I'll be a gentler, more compassionate tourist.

(Read Part 1)

Gene: I have a headache.

Robyn: I have a toothache.

Gene: (Pause) Bite my head.

It's Friday morning, July 11. I, Gene, and Gene's German freunde Christian have just exited Sunset Boulevard, just past UCLA. Christian takes a picture of an LA Unified School District bus, while I silently wave to Cassie Wu, hard at work at the Getty Center. The San Diego Freeway is at a dead stop. Gene pulls onto the shoulder, gets out the CD player and puts on the excellent "405" by Death Cab for Cutie.

I like it when bands write songs about freeways and bridges. I think people often have close relationships, sometimes even sentimental, with the roads they drive all the time. It can be a very direct concrete association for listeners. Though the the Death Cab song is not about the Southern California 405 - its another 405 that loops into the suburbs of Seattle - I'm glad Gene put it on, because otherwise I would have had the song running through my head at least until Manhattan Beach, if not Irvine.

One thing the song confirmed for me was that the Southern California fashion of referring to highways as "The #" has taken hold in other states as well. Death Cab for Cutie, natives of Bellevue, Washington, are clearly misguided by the 405. In Northern California, the song would simply describe taking _405_ straight down into your center. You can hear this any time you ask for directions in the Bay Area. Going to the Oakland Coliseum? Take 24 to 980 to 880. Wondering the best way to get to Stockton from Berkeley? 24 to 680 to 4. In Southern California, it's different. To get from Redondo Beach to Redlands you take the 405 to the 110 to the 91 to the 215 to the 10.

This naming convention stems from the great number of highways in Southern California. Southern California is like a devoutly Catholic Irish couple with 15 children. Yes, Southern California loves all of its children, but there are an awful lot of them. All of the freeways are strong, wide, and clearly marked. True, they can get a little congested, but what state's major thoroughfares don't have their growing pains? It's not surprising that Southern California takes its freeways for granted a little bit. I bet when the 10 is misbehaving, Southern California often calls it "the 110" or even "the 15" by mistake.

Northern California, by contrast, is like an older couple that was unable to have children until later in life. They don't have as many children, and maybe they're not as well-designed as the freeways in Southern California, and maybe half of the on-ramps are clover leafs that require you to accelerate from 25 to 65 MPH in 2.5 seconds on your merge, and maybe 580 East and 80 West run concurrently for 20 miles, but they still love all their freeways. The highway from Richmond to Albany isn't just the 580, it's their 580.

(Read Part 1 2 3 4 5 6 of Ward Street Week)

At the end of the month, Sean Keane will be moving out of his apartment of four years, the Berkeley apartment known affectionately as Ward Street D. Over those four years, Ward Street D has been home to at least nine different people, but, much like the television station in the classic film UHF, Ward Street D belongs to everyone. This will conclude the Ward Street Week suite of blog entries. Feel encouraged to share your favorite memories and stories about Ward Street D in any of the comment spaces for WSW.

Thank you for supporting Zembla and Ward Street Week. The support of readers like you is what makes great stuff like weblogs, Cement Horizon, and America such runaway successes. Zembla may go on temporary hiatus until July 17th, but will return better than ever with brand-new comedy, commentary and cuteness, the "three 'C's" that made Zembla what it is today. Maybe the colors will also be different. Or even the font. It's Tahoma now, I think. Anyway, Zembla thanks you. Take it easy.

Why Don't You Come Out Here?

I am going to become a resident of San Francisco soon. I am looking forward to the move, to having bars, restaurants, and shops within walking distance. At Ward Street D, the only neighboring stores are ones that do nearly 50% of their business in sales of 40s. One of these, McGee's Market, is a hotbed of action, argument, and neighborhood tension, reportedly taking gunfire in a recent "turf" skirmish. Also, McGee's sold my friend Tyler a beanie which had depicted a beer, a woman, a marijuana leaf, and a pill labeled "Viagra" below the phrase "Eso es vida." But I digress.

With the move to San Francisco, I am clearly going to become that most hated creature, the Person Who Lives in San Francisco, or PWLISF. The PWLISF lives in San Francisco, and loves it, because it's great, and there's a ton of stuff to do there. Unfortunately, the PWLISF doesn't want to leave San Francisco to go to inferior places, and neither will I frankly.

"Let's go out to a bar," I'll say. "Sure," my drinking buddy will reply. "But where should we go?"

"Oh, I know a cool bar by my apartment," I'll say, because there will be, invariably, since I'll live in the City. "Why don't you come out here?"

"Why not come out to my place? The bars and restaurants here are better than the East Bay. So are the parks. And museums. So why not come out here?"

"It might be hard to find a parking spot near my place, though. Don't worry, getting out here is easy. Just get off BART at Powell, get a transfer, and then MUNI will drop you off three blocks away. We'll go to this Thai restaurant near my apartment. It's really authentic. Then we'll check out this Irish pub which has live music on Thursdays. The bartender is really cool - he's from Ireland."

"BART stops running at 12:30, but if you miss it, you can just crash here. Come on, just crash here. Why do you think we bought the futon? Here, I'll help you move the nookitchen table out of the way so you can fold it out. We call it that because it's a breakfast nook and a kitchen."

"Just come out here. You work in the City anyway. Well, Berkeley. You can take the Transbay bus. It's a really good deal. And if you buy a pass, it's even cheaper. Plus, it will give you an excuse to come out here more often. To San Francisco. Where I live!"

The thing is, I'm going to act like that and love it, because San Francisco really is going to be way better, and then I'm going to look back on how I used to live and scoff at myself retroactively, remembering how there was a time in my life I felt sort of proud to live in a town governed by washed-up hippies and the university. Going back to Berkeley will be like going back and visiting an old job you left for a better one, where it's somewhat nostalgic, but you're glad you left and even vaguely embarrassed for people still there. I'm going to stop flinching when I write a $700 rent check, as any true PWLISF should, and I'm going to wonder how I ever could have eaten at the Durant Food Court ("the food ghetto") at all, let alone five times a week, when San Francisco has so many great places to eat, really authentic, and it's not that far, just a quick BART ride and two busses, so why didn't I just go out there?

(Read Part 1 2 3 4 5 6 of Ward Street Week)

At the end of the month, Sean Keane is moving out of his apartment of four years, a South Berkeley four-bedroom apartment known affectionately as "Ward Street D." This week, Zembla will present pieces involving or inspired by Ward Street D over its long, uninspired, mediocre run. Ward Street D: The Mike and the Mechanics of West Berkeley apartments.

The überbong

It was a delightful Giants game, that warm April afternoon in 2001. The boys in black and orange triumphed, and we headed out of the parking lot with spirits high. Mom was explaining why the struggling Alan Embree would remain in the Giants' bullpen (Dusty Baker likes a second lefty) as we arrived at Ward Street.

"Hold on," said my dad, Dennis. "I'm gonna use your bathroom" he said, and hopped awkwardly out of the minivan. Instantly, I became worried. Dennis was going to come upstairs, to my apartment, on a weekend afternoon? Think of the filthy bathroom! Think of the unswept floor! Mainly, think of the roommates smoking weed in the living room!

Not an unrealistic expectation. At the time, it wouldn't have been shocking to find the living room a smoky, dank cave at 5 pm on a Saturday. Ward Street D was even the temporary home for a friend's elaborately-engineered smoking device, an Alhambra water cooler bottle converted into an enormous bong through the addition of valves and plastic tubing. It was so massive that it could only be used in conjunction with a bathtub, or possibly an inflatable wading pool. It had the Nietzschean moniker of The überbong, a bong that destroys old ideals and triumhs over nihilism. Because the designer of überbong was moving home temporarily, he stashed his creation in our home.

So when my father full-bladdered father emerged from the vehicle, I began talking loudly, making noise, trying to alert my roommates to the presence of an authority figure. If we'd had the budget, my warning would have been accompanied by sirens and claxons, and a deep robotic voice intoning, "GROWN-UP ALERT! GROWN-UP ALERT!" I stalled, fumbled with the key, gave them time to hide whatever needed to be hidden, spray whatever needed to be sprayed. I opened the door anxiously, but the Ward Street bong, "The Age of Reason," was nowhere to be seen. Dennis jogged to the bathroom, said hello to the roommates and was quickly on his way, without a word. I breathed a sigh of relief and made a mental note to look up claxon prices online.

Fast forward a few months. Tom Petty is playing the Concord Pavilion, and Dad has bought tickets for the whole family. During an early lull in the show, the old couple in front of us lit up a joint and began passing it back and forth. Megan made a joke about it, to break the tension, and then Dennis said something to the effect of that while tempted, he couldn't very well smoke weed in front of his kids. We all laughed, and Petty launched into "I Won't Back Down."

I ventured my own weed jibe. "Maybe we should have gotten you a bong for Father's Day," I said. Dennis parried immediately. "What, like the one in your apartment?" he asked. My jaw dropped. When you're caught, you're caught. There ain't no easy way out. Still, I was sure the Age of Reason had been hidden. I tried to stand my ground.

"What do you mean?" I stammered.

"You know." replied Dennis. "That big thing in the corner with the plastic tubes coming out of it."

He was referring to the überbong, forgotten in the corner. Now, Dennis not only saw me as a marijuana user, but as a user so addicted and depraved as to require a space-age, futuristic marijuana delivery machine. Dennis knew from years of watching me struggle with Pinewood Derby cars, shoebox dioramas, and countless woodshop projects how incompetent I was with tools. To create an überbong, his son must be enthralled in a perilous addiction indeed.

No one said anything further, but I didn't make eye contact with anyone else during "Mary Jane's Last Dance" just in case.

(Read Part 1 2 3 4 5 6 of Ward Street Week)

At the end of the month, Sean Keane is moving out of his apartment of four years, a South Berkeley four-bedroom apartment known affectionately as "Ward Street D." This week, Zembla will present pieces involving or inspired by Ward Street D over the years, a final tribute to Ward Street, our first, our last, our everything.

The Difference Between Oakland and Berkeley

A few years ago, I used to visit another Ward Street D, different from my own. My friends Sonia and Sarah lived on Ward, near Telegraph, and her place was more house-like, but equally D-lightful. I spent lots of time there drinking, shooting the shit. and playing Chu Chu Rocket on an imported Japanese Sega Dreamcast. We'd barbecue with the grill right there on the sidewalk while listening to indie rock and underground hip-hop. I started listening to both Jurassic Five and Belle and Sebastian due to my visits to the alterna-D. Goddamn was I a lot cooler when I was going there.

One evening, there was a party at other D. A homeless guy came up to the group of smokers outside, and got into a war of words. The homeless man, enraged, ended up shouting, "I'm a crack dealer, and I got a machine gun!" before staggering away down the street. A wise friend opined that said crazy man reflected the fundamental difference between Berkeley (where alterna-D was located) and his home city of Oakland.

"In Berkeley," he began, "There's not really that much crime, but there's are a lot of crazy people. In Oakland, you have more poverty and disenfranchisement, but not so much the insanity. So in Berkeley, it can really freak you out if there's a guy yelling about his machine gun, because, as far as you know, he's crazy, and he might do anything."

He paused, and a firecracker exploded in the vicinity of Stuart and Ellsworth. He continued: "In Oakland, you wouldn't react as much. Maybe he is a crack dealer, maybe he even does have the machine gun, but thatt doesn't really matter if you're not buying or selling crack. He's a businessman. You interact with him in a non-crack environment, it probably won't even come up. You guys might even have a class in common at Laney College."

Our Ward Street D is in a somewhat rougher environment. We're close to Ashby BART, near the Berkeley-Oakland border, and on the west side of MLK Way, all factors that increase the hardscrabble quotient. Some local publications claim we're in the middle of a "turf war" between rival gangs. One of our neighborhood dealers was shot in the buttocks outside our apartment complex (when we asked a police officer about the shooting, he expressed confidence that the dealers would take care of it "in-house"). But we're still in Berkeley, just two blocks away from the Berkeley Mental Health Clinic, so our serving of crime comes with a dollop of crazy.

I used to ride the 15 bus line up to campus, which also picked up many patients from the Mental Health clinic. On one occasion, the driver angrily lectured a waiting passenger about not grabbbing the exterior doors before the bus had stopped. I overheard one man loudly proclaim that though he'd been prescribed anti-depressants, he still considered brandy to be his medication. A woman told me about how the multiple voices in her head weren't as bad as they could be, because they were all real people.

Still, the intersection of crime and crazy is what makes Ward Street D truly special. The phone rang at 4 am a few weeks ago. It was the next-door neighbors, the drug dealers who moved in after the old resident had beern arrested for attacking his tenants with a crutch. The neighbors were drunkenly complaining about a note that Gene had left on their van, mentioning that its alarm had gone off on consecutive evenings, and offering his help. He'd left the note weeks earlier, and the alarm had seemingly been fixed, but the neighbors were raging. After multiple hang-ups and much drunken slurring of words and challenges to Eugene's manhood, it finally emerged that they were upset that Gene had not put a date on the note.

That's the kind of etiquette you can't learn at Laney College - you've got to live it.

(Read Part 1 2 3 4 5 6 of Ward Street Week)

At the end of the month, Sean Keane is moving out of his apartment of four years, a South Berkeley four-bedroom apartment known affectionately as "Ward Street D." This week, Zembla will present pieces involving or inspired by Ward Street D over the years, a final tribute to the best little whorehouse/apartment in Texas/Berkeley.

Scenes From "The Matrix," If The Matrix Were My Apartment, Ward Street D

Agent Smith: Can you hear me, Morpheus? I'm going to be honest with you. I hate this place, this flat, this apartment, this slum, whatever you want to call it. I can't stand it any longer. It's the smell. The smell of cats. Cats outside. Pissing. Shitting. Leaving dead rats on the stairs. I feel...saturated by it. I can taste the cat stink. And every time I do I feel I have somehow been infected by it, it's repulsive. I must get out of here.

* * *

Boy: Do not try and bend the spoon. That's impossible. Instead only try to realize the truth.

Neo: What truth?

Boy: There is no spoon.

Neo: There is no spoon? Wait, you probably mean that the spoon itself doesn't bend, rather, my perceptions and self change, thus making it appear that the spoon is bending. I think I'm finally understanding this crazy apartment.

Boy: No, there just aren't any spoons. Morpheus has been staying at his girlfriend's place, and Cypher never does the dishes on his own.

* * *

(Morpheus and Neo are sparring really fast and futuristically anti-gravity-like. Morpheus does the one-inch punch. Neo's ass is totally kicked.)

* * *

Morpheus: Do you want to know the truth about Ward Street D? Unfortunately, no one can be told what Ward Street D is. You have to see it for yourself. After this there is no turning back. You take the blue pill, the story ends, you go back to your old apartment and your high rent and your "cleanliness" and your "dignity". You hit the green bong, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you just how deep the rabbit hole goes. (Pause) Actually, there's a lot of cats living in the rabbit hole right now, so maybe we can just play NBA Showtime.

* * *

Neo: Whoa, deja vu.

Trinity: What did you just say?

Neo: Nothing, I just had a little deja vu.

Trinity: What did you see?

Neo: A black cat went past us, and then another that looked just like it.

Trinity: Dammit, another set of kittens! I talked to the neighbors three times about spaying and neutering. Morpheus, stop feeding the cats canned crab meat!

* * *

Agent Smith: Have you ever stood and stared at it, marveled at its beauty, its genius? Four people just living out their lives, oblivious. Did you know that the first Ward Street D was designed to be a perfect apartment. Where none suffered. Where everyone would be happy. With a dishwasher. And air conditioning. It was a disaster. No one would sign the lease. Entire foursomes were lost. Some believed that we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect apartment. But I believe that college students define their reality through misery and suffering and drinking and illicit drug use. The perfect apartment was a dream that their primitive cerebrums kept trying to wake up from.

* * *

(Neo downs five shots of vodka in less than thirty seconds)

Trinity: How did you do that?

Neo: Do what?

Trinity: I've never seen anyone drink that fast.

Neo: I just didn't want Morpheus to call me a pussy again.

* * *

Agent Smith: Do you hear that, Mr. Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability. That is the sound of your death. Goodbye, Mr. Anderson.

Neo: (listens) It sounds like cats fighting and the guy next door revving his Camaro.

Agent Smith: I have got to get away from these fucking cats.

* * *

Neo:: I know you're out there, San Francisco landlords. I know that you're afraid. You're afraid of us. You're afraid of change. I don't know the renter's bill of rights. I didn't come here to tell you how you're entitled to interest on your security deposit, or how your landlord needs to give you written notice at least 48 hours in advance if he or she wants to inspect your residence. I came here to try to find a three-bedroom place near public transportation, preferably with a washing machine. I'm going to hang up this phone and then I'm going to beg an elderly Vietnamese man for a 8 am appointment to view a flat in the Lower Haight.

(Read Part 1 2 3 4 5 6 of Ward Street Week)

At the end of the month, Sean Keane is moving out of his apartment of four years, a South Berkeley four-bedroom apartment known affectionately as "Ward Street D." This week, Zembla will present pieces involving or inspired by Ward Street D over the years, a final tribute to the apartment where Sean has spent years, like the Seaver family of sitcom lore, sharing the laughter and love.

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

I broke up with my landlord yesterday. We've known for a while that things were coming to an end at Ward Street D. Aaron was going to San Diego, I got a job in San Francisco, and Gene wanted to live across the Bay. We were growing apart from Ward Street D. The new paint job and extra couches couldn't hide the fact that we'd become different people, different apartments. We'd been staying together for the sake of the cheap rent, but by now, we were ready to move on, see other apartments. Still, it was with a heavy heart that we called Aziz to our place. You can't break up over the phone, after all.

Aziz was his usual exuberant Pakistani self as he entered the apartment, but he seemed to sense something was up. Gene gave him the rent, and then told him we needed to talk. He broke the news as gently as possible, but it was clear that the announcement had shaken Aziz. Gene moving out was a blow, but not an unexpected one - Gene's globe-trotting ways and motorcycling bravado made it clear he wasn't going to get too attached to any one apartment or landlord. But I had been there for four years, through broken heaters and flooded kitchens, through ant infestations and wasp swarms, from crazy geriatric dog-owning neighbors to crack-dealing youthful dog-owning neighbors. Aziz and I had had something real.

Stunned by the announcement, he stammered a little bit. "How long have we been together?" he asked. "Four years... four years..." He told us about buying the apartment complex, how he'd turned it into a livable, gangster-free space eight years ago. His relationship with us and Ward Street D had never been about money, he assured us, and I believed it, especially since I'd only been paying $375/month. Aziz told me how much he'd liked and trusted me, letting me handle the turnover of roommates without question. He'd never had any problems in our four years living there, he told us, stopping just short of saying we were the best he'd ever had.

Aziz didn't ask about our new landlord, and I didn't bring up the subject, out of respect for his feelings. He asked that we get our security deposits from the new tenants. I agreed, knowing it would be less awkward that way. By the end, Gene and I were promising to come back and visit Ward Street, lying that we would be back "all the time, sure."

I had trouble looking Aziz in the eye during this whole talk. He'd been a great landlord, always making repairs promptly, never hassling us if the rent was four or five days late. He was always there for us when the water heater would burst (usually every four months or so), paid us the interest on our security deposits, unclogged the massive balls of hair in our shower drain. Was I making a mistake in leaving?

I saw myself in six months, standing outside Aziz's place in the rain. "I made a mistake!" I'd yell. "I think about Ward Street all the time. I keep reaching for a house key that isn't there. I haunt the Richmond BART line all night, getting off at Ashby without even realizing it. Please let me rent from you again!"

But it would be too late. The place would be rented to someone new, and Aziz would have moved on. Maybe he'd tell me then how my departure hurt him, how he waited for me, but eventually moved on to other tenants. He'd try to convince me that moving out was best for both of us, as we'd grown as landlords and tenants, and he'd been able to increase the rent tremendously. I'd leave in tears, cursing my foolish decision and gentrified SF rent.

Then the crack dealer began revving his Camaro in the back yard and his pit bull started barking and there was loud rap music blasting from a car idling outside and I realized that I hadn't loved Ward Street for a long, long time, and you can't live on nostalgia, even if it is only $375/month.

February 2012
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
      1 2 3 4
5 6 7 8 9 10 11
12 13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28 29      

About This Site

Sean Keane on Tumblr

Sean Keane Comedy Dot Com
Short posts, better name-branding

Backup Blog

Friends and Associates

San Francisco Comedy

Fine Sporting Websites

Local Bands


Sean Keane's Internet Famousness

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from July 2003 listed from newest to oldest.

June 2003 is the previous archive.

August 2003 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Powered by Movable Type 5.04