All posts by Colin Blake

Building Upward

By Colin Blake

San Francisco is getting taller. In fact, if the city’s 15-tallest buildings were laid end-to-end, they would be over 300-feet taller than the Golden Gate Bridge is long. This growth spurt isn’t slowing down, but accelerating.

San Francisco is in its fifth-straight year of economic and population growth, according to the city’s five-year financial plan released in May. What’s more, Mayor Ed Lee’s 2015-2020 city prospectus expects continued growth for both variables in the next five years.

As a result, city planners have continued dotting the Financial District and South of Market skyline with high-rise apartments and office buildings to accommodate San Francisco’s continuing expanse – resuscitating an old term: Manhattanization.

Manhattanization refers to the symptoms of vertical growth within a dense city, much like Manhattan experienced in the 1930s, a period in time which saw the completion of some of the world’s tallest buildings, including the Empire State Building.

“The term is very specifically talking about tall buildings blocking views, blotting out the sun and shadowing the streets, just like in Manhattan,” said John King, the architecture critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.

According to King, who has covered city-planning-related issues for nearly two decades, San Francisco must build to keep pace with its economic and population growth, and has been doing so for a while. Much of what is visible this decade was set in motion in the last.

In 2005, then Mayor Gavin Newsom signed the Rincon Hill Plan, which, in conjunction with the Transbay Terminal Project and other neighborhood upgrowth from the period, is expected to add a total of 6,620 new units of housing to the area once fully developed.

The Transbay development, the larger of the two, aims to transform the South of Market neighborhood into a dense residential and mixed-use zone, creating 4,400 units of housing and 6 million square-feet of new office space.

Planners made this possible by up zoning, a special exception in the Transbay plan which changed the permissible height of structures in the area to allow for towers as tall as 550 feet.

For the Rincon Hill Plan, street-side housing, not on the crest of the hill, was up zoned to allow for eight-story buildings. This effectively tripled or quadrupled the units of housing many lots could accommodate. Two luxury apartment buildings occupy the top of Rincon Hill now – one was completed in 2008, the other in 2014. Together they have added 709 units of housing to San Francisco.

“San Francisco has targets set by the regional planning agency and the state to try and produce the amount of housing needed to keep pace with job growth,” King said.

In the past five years, nearly 45,000 new residents have called San Francisco their home. However, in that same period of time only 8,000 units of housing were added to San Francisco’s total housing stock of nearly 380,000 units.

In 2014, 91 percent of all new housing units added to the market were structures containing 20 units or more. Comparatively, in the 1990s only 60 percent of new housing stock contained structures that housed 20 or more units.

In fact, many were in the hundreds and one, the NEMA Luxury Apartments in the South of Market District, contains over 750 units. In the south of the city, the Schlage Lock Project, approved in 2014, will create over 1,670 residential units in the Visitacion Valley.

Even with construction elsewhere, the city’s 2014 housing stock analysis said that 74 percent of all new housing units were built in three downtown districts: the Financial, South of Market and Mission Bay Districts.

“There’s no turning back in the downtown area,” King said. “It’s really localized there. It’s not like the city is planning a 55-story building in the Outer Sunset District.”

For 2015, 88 percent of planned construction will consist of structures containing 20 units or more. The planning department stops differentiating beyond a unit count of 20, but building proposal records show many to be several hundred units in capacity.

According to King, these larger buildings have the benefit of bringing people closer to transportation, city services and jobs. The drawback being, to some, is that the look and feel of the city is completely changed.

“If you’re going to live in a city, you can’t expect your view not to change,” King said.

One view that is not changing is Sue Vaughan’s.

“We recognize the need of the city to prevent sprawl,” Vaughan, the chair of the San Francisco chapter of the Sierra Club, said. “But we support the idea of smart development. You have to balance development with open space.”

On Nov. 3, San Francisco approved Proposition D, which granted approval for the San Francisco Giants to develop Pier 48. The 28-acre waterfront project, also known as the Mission Rock Development, has drawn criticism from the Sierra Club.

The primary concern for Vaughan and the Sierra Club is the walling off of the waterfront properties which would ultimately reduce open space and visual intrigue.

“They want to put a 10-story parking structure right on the waterfront,” Vaughan said. “This is the 21st century. San Francisco cannot be catering to cars while not making open space a priority.”

In the development plan the Giants will be able to exceed the height limitations currently placed on the site: no building greater than one story. This voter-approved zoning exception will allow three mixed-use towers to be raised to 240-feet tall. Furthermore, 10 adjacent acres will be zoned for multi-use development up to 190 feet. This development is expected to create anywhere from 1,000 to 1,950 units of housing and 3,100 new parking spaces for cars.

According to Vaughan, San Francisco leadership fast-tracks development plans without thoroughly looking at environmental or aesthetic consequences of the projects.

“The reason Manhattan is beautiful is because of the skyline,” Vaughan said. “The reason San Francisco is beautiful is because of the bay. We won’t be able to see the bay if we build like Manhattan.”

Jasper Rubin, the Chair of the Urban Studies and Planning Program at San Francisco State University and a former member of the city’s planning department, said the effort to build upwards has been going on for more than 50 years.

“Maybe the first example of Manhattanization in San Francisco would be the construction of the Fontana Towers,” Rubin said. “The neighbors were incensed because it blocked their views of the bay.”

The Fontana Towers, located west of Ghirardelli Square, were built in 1962. They are both 230-feet tall and feature 18 floors of residential space. According to Rubin, this new construction really struck a chord with residents of the time and, perhaps for the first time, differentiated the mentality of residents of San Franciscans and Manhattanites.

“Manhattan was always tall, it was always big, very antithetical to the idea of San Francisco’s connection with nature,” Rubin said. “When you live here, you feel connected to nature because of the hills, or because you have water on three sides.”

According to Rubin, early challenges facing city planners were devising ways to accentuate the natural topography of San Francisco, which is actually adorned with nearly 50 hills that make getting a view of the bay easy.

“Eventually, the planning department realized if we are going to build tall buildings, we need to build them at the top of tall hills,” Rubin said. “When you build on the hill, it maintains the notion that there is a hill there.”

The city adhered to this principle until approval and subsequent completion of the Transamerica Pyramid in 1972. At 853-feet, the Transamerica building is San Francisco’s tallest building. It boasts 48 floors and lies in the northern part of the Financial District.

“That threw a lot of people off,” Rubin said. “This is one of several reasons why San Francisco passed Proposition M in 1985. People saw a lot of tall buildings going up around them.”

Prop M amended the city’s Office Development Annual Limit Program. From that point forward, any office space project greater than 25,000 square-feet required additional square-footage to be reviewed and approved by the planning department.

As a result, the planning department now has the discretion to allocate 950,000 square-feet of additional office space per year, and any unused allocatable square-footage is carried over to subsequent years for disbursement. The planning department could technically allocate two Transamerica buildings worth of office space every year.

It’s really the office buildings that are driving overall growth in San Francisco. Of San Francisco’s 50 tallest buildings, 35 of them are offices, with nothing under 400-feet tall appearing on the list. As the tech economy burgeons, the supporting infrastructure to house the workers will have to grow as well.

“The thing is, it brings more demand for housing,” Rubin said. “They want to live closer to their jobs.”

What’s more, there are currently nine towers under construction, mostly in SoMa, that are greater than 400-feet tall, most notably the Salesforce Tower. Once completed, the Salesforce Tower will be the tallest building in San Francisco, reaching a height of 1070 feet.

On top of that, developers have submitted proposals for 15 more buildings greater than 400-feet in height. The tallest of these buildings would be 905-feet tall and contain one million square-feet of office space as well as 111 residential units.

This development may eventually spread to areas like the Marina, Western Addition and Sunset Districts as the Board of Supervisors debates relaxing height and density restrictions in those neighborhoods with a so-called density bonus program.

“There is no clear statement in any policy document, and there is nothing in the city’s charter that says, ‘OK, we’ve built enough, there’s a limit here,’” Rubin said. “Who knows if it’s good for San Francisco.”

All the while, debate will continue as to what the city is starting to resemble.

“We are always comparing ourselves to a city we don’t want to be,” Rubin said.

Goodbye Guns: San Francisco’s Last Gun Store Rides Off into the Sunset

Steve Alcairo, general manager at High Bridge Arms checks the sights of his personal rifle during downtime. Photo by Ryan McNulty

By Colin Blake

[dropcap size=”50px”]I[/dropcap]n 1971, Harry Callahan, played by Clint Eastwood, was the ice-cold San Francisco police inspector tasked with catching the city’s serial killer in the blockbuster movie “Dirty Harry.” Callahan solved this problem with astute, yet brute detective work, but ultimately closed the case with a Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum revolver.

At first glance, San Francisco might appear as if it welcomed swift, bullet-riddled judgement at the hand of one, but despite box office success, the characterization of Callahan and his methods were fictitious from the start.

A total of five “Dirty Harry” movies were made in San Francisco over a period of 17 years. Each iteration was arguably more and more contrary to the reality of San Francisco police work.

In 1978, two years after the third “Dirty Harry” installment, San Francisco saw real, bloody crime scene photos of two prominent San Franciscans as they lay lifeless on the marble floors of city hall. Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were shot by former Supervisor Dan White on Nov. 27, 1978 with a Smith & Wesson .38-caliber revolver.

Following White’s trial, after which he served five of a seven-year sentence at Soledad State Prison, the White Night riots protested everything from gay rights to police brutality and the frequency of which guns were used as a primary tool of resolving issues.

Now, San Francisco, in what is a culminating into a politically-sticky event, will be the firearms antithesis of what was portrayed in the movies of yesteryear.

By the end of October, San Francisco’s last legally operated gun store, High Bridge Arms, is shutting its doors for good. The closure will make it impossible to buy firearms legally in the city by removing San Francisco’s last California firearms license holder.

However, High Bridge Arms isn’t being forced to close. The business is willingly closing to spare its customers from perceived intrusions coming from a new batch of gun control ordinances proposed by Supervisor Mark Farrell, which unanimously passed the Board of Supervisors Oct. 27.

High Bridge Arms, the last gun shop in San Francisco only has two guns left to display due to the closing of the shop. (Imani Miller/Xpress)
High Bridge Arms, the last gun shop in San Francisco only has two guns left to display due to the closing of the shop. Photo by Imani Miller

Supervisor Farrell’s regulations require all gun stores in San Francisco to operate multi-angle camera systems that law enforcement can draw upon if necessary.

More than that, the law requires comprehensive record keeping of ammunition sales, including, but not limited to, the purchaser’s full name, address as well as the caliber of the ammunition.

“This isn’t the first attempt to get us out of here,” said Steve Alcairo, general manager of High Bridge Arms. “Everyone is a little tired of fighting this stuff.”

In late 2009, High Bridge Arms closed briefly because the owner, Masashi Takahashi, believed it was too much work. Then, in 2010, High Bridge Arms was set to reopen for business at the same location.

Attempts were initially delayed due to the city holding off retail permits to the store because the neighborhood association Northwest Bernal Alliance claimed the store brought violence to the area.

Sgt. William Coggan, who led the permit committee in 2010, told SFGate that claims of violence were unfounded and that “High Bridge appears to be a reasonably well-run business.”

Permits were issued soon thereafter.

Supervisor Scott Wiener has long supported lessening access to firearms in San Francisco.

“San Francisco supports strict gun control, as do I,” Wiener said.”It’s fine with me for San Francisco not to have a gun shop. Guns whose sole purpose is to shoot people have no place in our city in the hands of civilians.”

[pullquote align=”right”]”San Francisco supports strict gun control, as do I,” Wiener said.”It’s fine with me for San Francisco not to have a gun shop. Guns whose sole purpose is to shoot people have no place in our city in the hands of civilians.”[/pullquote]

Mayor Ed Lee and Chief of Police Greg Suhr had to deal with a high-profile, murder-by-firearm case in July. A .40-caliber handgun was used to murder Kathryn Steinle as she walked with her father on Pier 14.

Steinle, 32, was shot once in the chest by Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez in what prosecutors are calling a random event. Remanded until the trial, Lopez-Sanchez could serve the rest of his life in prison if convicted as charged. The family of Steinle is filing a wrongful death suit against the city of San Francisco.

The Steinle case brought the issue of gun control into focus in San Francisco politics.

Second amendment lawyer Doug Friesen said this new legislation would have done nothing to prevent the Steinle shooting, nor would it really get to the heart of gun violence.

“This is really just a feel-good fix,” Friesen said. “The real issue is, the underlying issue, is mental health and being able to treat people who need it.”

If the regulations pass, High Bridge Arms could challenge them by taking the city to court, according to Friesen. However, battling court cases is an expensive, arduous process which many people do not pursue due to financial reasons, no matter the strength of their case.

“The question here is, ‘is this going to be worth it?'” Friesen said.

Even if High Bridge Arms will be no more, establishments beyond gun stores sell firearms and ammunition. Places like sporting good stores and Walmarts have long been selling these accoutrements throughout California and the United States.

A Walmart does not currently stand in San Francisco, but a Big 5 Sporting Goods does. The sporting store does not sell firearms or ammunition.

Mark Smytheman is one-of-two assistant managers at the Big 5 Sporting Goods on Sloat Boulevard.

“No, we stopped selling guns and ammunition about five years ago,” Smytheman said.

Smytheman referenced the city’s 2012 and 2013 Master Fee Schedule of Budget Submissions, which steadily increased the cost to file, purchase and maintain the various licenses associated with selling firearms and ammunition as the reasoning for the decision.

“You can go down the road to Daly City and buy some,” Smytheman continued. Having previously worked at the Daly City branch, Smytheman estimates that half of the people in the store buying firearms were coming from San Francisco.

If not a sporting goods store, a final avenue where guns might be available is a pawn shop. Some pawn shops do have firearms in their business models, however, that is not the case in the city, according to licensing records.

Sunny Martin works at Pawn Shop on Sutter and Polk Streets in San Francisco.

“If a customer brings in a gun or a weapon to pawn, we have to send them elsewhere,” Martin said. “I don’t think we are permitted to, plus it’s company policy.”

The only pawn shops that he knows of that are capable of dealing with firearms are located outside of the city.

San Francisco’s proposed gun control ordinance is not groundbreaking or rare. From Los Angeles to Sacramento, several municipalities have implemented ammunition tracking as well as store surveillance for more than a couple years, with new regulations annually. Despite the growing trend, San Francisco will be unique in that it will be the only city lacking a firearms supply store.

Proposition E

By Colin Blake

Come Nov. 3 San Francisco voters will have the option to approve Proposition E, which aims to bring more participation to the political process by live streaming all public government meetings, allowing for digital and pre-recorded comment so constituents can engage in the political process remotely.

“With this, we are able to bring more government meetings to more people,” said David Lee, the San Francisco State political science professor whose students, in conjunction with himself, wrote the proposition.

Proposition E, also known as The Sunshine and Open Government Act, was added to the ballot after the application received nearly 17,000 signatures; Only 9,000 were required

Currently, San Francisco holds around 2,000 public meetings a year that are hosted by nearly 120 individual committees or boards. However, at a cost of $3.4 million to run SFGovTV.com and traditional tv broadcasting, San Francisco manages to cover the actions of only 33 of the committees and boards.

According to Lee, the meetings that are not shown control $6 billion of the city’s $9 billion budget.

Committee-Actions

Implementation of Prop E’s internet live streaming would have an initial start up cost of $1.7 million and an annual operating cost of $750,000, according to a report from the city controller. With that cost, full, translated coverage of government meetings would be possible.

“We think the cost will actually be much less because technology is constantly improving,” Lee said.

Prop E, beside the ability to view government meetings, would allow the public to comment via recorded video or audio messages. These comments would need to be submitted 48-hours in advance. In order to submit comment, residents would need to create an account that would confirm residency and provide attribution.

Convening governing bodies would retain the power to determine how long the comment section is – so long as it is not less than 30 minutes – the duration of the comments and the ability to screen comments for profanity and threats.

“This legislation has been formulated to afford the board or committee the most flexibility in administering this technology,” Lee said.

However, committees and boards would be bound by time-certain agenda items. This means items on meetings outline start as advertised. Also, if 50 or more persons request an item be moved to a specific time slot at least 48-hours before, the policy body must abide if possible.

“It’s a pretty simple idea,” said Lee. “If you come to a board meeting for particular item, it starts on time.”

Formal opposition to Prop E is condensed into the group Smart Open Government SF. Pledges of support for the group come from the SF Bicycle Coalition, San Francisco Democratic Party, President of the Board of Supervisors London Breed and the San Francisco Labor Council just to name a few.

Requests for comment from Smart Open Government SF have not been returned.

However, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, through its communications director Chris Cassidy, did make a comment.

“We aren’t heavily involved in the campaign,” Cassidy said.

Smart Open Government SF, through their webpage, contends that “Proposition E is billed as a ‘good government’ measure. In fact, it is not. Under the guise of good government, this proposal will reduce participation of San Franciscans in the policies that affect us.”

San Francisco Tech Dems is also listed as a supporter of Smart Open Government SF. Request for comment from its chief of policy, Rebecca Lee, were not returned.

David Maass is an investigative researcher for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. EFF is a nonprofit that advocates for and defends civil liberties in the digital age. Maass and EFF have taken the position of supporting Prop E.

“This is a pretty ambitious project,” Maass said. “But if 10 teenagers can organize a video chat over their cell phones, government should be able to do this.”

While Lee contends that only San Francisco residents will be able to comment during meetings, Maass said more residents have a legitimate interest in San Francisco politics and should be involved.

“What if you have someone who works 60-hour weeks here?” Maass said. “They have a vested interest in how the city deals with policy because it affects them too.”

Maass also said expert testimony could be hindered if non-residents could not comment.

“Sometimes an expert on subject matter may be in Oakland or Huston,” Maass said. “The experts and advocates don’t always live in the area.”

Overall, this legislation would be a boon to keeping government transparent and accountable because more eyes on government is always better, according to Maass. However, some elements will need alteration if approved.

“The time table is a little ambitious,” Maass said. “The board of supervisors should, and probably will, vote to increase the time required to implement this.”

If the proposition passes, the city will have six months to begin implementing the live streaming network and the policy-body-specific links to view the feeds. A simple majority vote is required for passage.

“What we are trying to do here is for the people, not the politicians,” Lee said. “If this passes, this is designed to give the average citizen the power to see their government.”

Technology Hits the Pavement: Electric Skateboards Gain Traction in the Bay Area

Boosted boards are modeled on the floor of Black Diamond Sports in Palo Alto. (Colin Blake/ Xpress)

 

By Colin Blake

A skateboard is a very analog form of mobility in that the rider is responsible for the propulsion. However, several cities, San Francisco included, have skateboarders whose feet seemingly never touch the ground. Instead, a new skateboard has hit the streets where the rider commands its direction and its speed through a handheld remote control. These skateboards, sold exclusively with bright orange wheels, are the start of a trend in electrically-powered transportation based on the design of decades-old longboards.

Boosted Boards, a company based in Mountain View and founded by three former Stanford students, is the originator and distributor of these boards that are rising to ubiquity in the emerging electronic skateboard market.

“There’s five or six electric boards on the market — Boosted is the best,” said Jon Hoag, owner of Black Diamond Sports, a dealer of electric boards. “It’s the highest quality.”

Structured with a slightly-concave deck made from bamboo that is clad in pitch-black grip tape, Boosted Boards use the best trucks, bearings, bushings, and fasteners, on top of the most powerful electric motors of all electrified boards, according to Hoag.

What’s more, other manufacturers, such as Leiftech, don’t focus on electrifying a skateboard for amplification of the board’s original purpose: linear movement and two-axis control. Quite distinctively, more than a couple boards were designed to recreate the purpose of the skateboard. The Leiftech board in particular is designed to simulate the sliding and drifting of a snowboard, but on city streets.

Boosted, however, forgoes alternative functionality, to instead offer varying degrees of power for each riders’ needs.

Boosted offers three boards across its range: the Single, Dual and Dual+. For the Single, the price is $999 and climbs to $1499 for the Dual+. All the boards are capable of traveling seven to eight miles before needing to charge, but the main difference between them, excluding price, lay in the top speed and how that is achieved.

Capable of traveling at 22-miles-per-hour, the Dual+ features two electric motors that drive the rear wheels. Boosted claims this speed can still be achieved even when climbing a hill at 25 percent grade. Meanwhile, the Single is powered only by a sole motor that drives one rear wheel. The Single can reach a speed of 18-miles-per-hour and is limited to a road grade of 10 percent.

“Probably 95 percent of the boards we sell are the Dual+ model,” said Hoag. “It’s the one that makes the most sense.”

Even though Boosted Boards are selling well, and their performance is adequate, if not great, the real limiting factor to how good electric boards could be is reliant upon battery technology, Hoag said.

When Boosted was developing their prototype board in 2011, lithium polymer batteries were used. After two years of testing, Boosted found that lithium polymer batteries were easily damaged and if overheated, overcharged or punctured the batteries could catch fire.

Now, Boosted has implemented lithium ion batteries, the same battery chemistry used in laptops, phones, and even Tesla vehicles. These newer batteries are lighter, smaller and more powerful than the originals. As a consequence of the battery improvements, the battery pack is tucked tightly under the board leaving the deck unobstructed.

After these hardware upgrades, Boosted was approached by an un-named security firm this summer, which claimed the boards were susceptible to hacking because they are controlled by a Bluetooth remote. Hackers would be able to control acceleration and braking through this hack, which had the potential to launch someone off their board.

The security firm substantiated its claim that caused Boosted to quickly upgrade and encrypt its remote-to-board communication software, fixing the problem for now.

With reliability, functionality, and ease of operation, Boosted has been able to attract people who like the idea of a transportation device that works every time, according to Joe Maloof, a sales associate at Black Diamond Sports.

“The margins for people who don’t know about electric boards, especially Boosted, is getting smaller and smaller,” said Maloose. “We have about 15 boards to rent, and they are always gone.”

Matt Fitzpatrick is pursuing a math degree at Stanford and regularly rides his Boosted Board from campus to downtown Palo Alto. Prior to owning a Boosted, he had never owned a skateboard.

Fitzpatrick bought the middle of the range Dual board. The Dual differs from the Dual+ by it’s slightly slower top speed of 20-miles per hour and different grip tape, otherwise it is identical.

“I bought a basic one because I didn’t want to lose a bunch of money on what is basically an experiment for me,” said Fitzpatrick. “Stanford is really bike friendly, but I kept getting flat tires, so I wanted to try this.”

Chad Dawson is a sales associate at Wise Surfboards, located off Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

“A lot of people who are buying them don’t have cars,” said Dawson. “That’s their way of getting around.”

As San Francisco unceasingly increases its population density, Dawson feels it will become even more impractical to drive or even take a bus if city streets are clogged up. This has prompted many who live in and around San Francisco to consider options like a Boosted board, according to Dawson.

Toni Chi, lives in the Richmond district and bought the Dual+ a little less than a month ago. Ever since he has picked one up, he said his two roommates have taken it for rides and begun to appreciate it even though none of them were skaters prior.

“I don’t have time or money for a car here anymore,” Chi said. “If my friends want to meet me somewhere, they know I’m arriving on the board.”

For Chi, the electric board is not about carving steep San Francisco hills, but transportation.

“I don’t think it’s the lazy way of skating,” said Chi. “People want different things from a board.”

Answers, Not Questions by Colin Blake: Altoids Tin Flashlight

 

 

Feature image 2

By Colin Blake

When the last Altoid is consumed, the container is often tossed as soon as possible. However, even though the tin material is not resilient like steel, or as rigid as aluminum, it can be turned into a vessel for a great many things, one such project is converting the tin into a usable flashlight. If small-scale electronics, repurposing and recycling, along with testing your finger dexterity is of interest, this project is for you.
Making a flashlight from a Altoids tin will not yield a high-energy light in most cases. However, it will yield an interesting conversation piece that can illuminate a table to find missing keys, bring light to a dark corridor, and clarify what you just stuck your hand into, if the need should arise. More than that, it is just fun to challenge your abilities at making something.

Suggested prerequisite skills:
1. Basic soldering.
2. Basic direct current (DC) knowledge.
3. Rudimentary power-drill experience.

Total parts pic

Step one: amassing parts.

1. Two 5mm 12v indicator LEDs.
2. One three-amp toggle switch with rubber boot.
3. Two nine-volt battery connectors.
4. Two nine volt batteries.
5. An Altoids tin.
6. Various lengths of heat-shrink tubing.

This project should not cost a lot of money: Assuming no tools need to be purchased, this build should cost no more than $22 or $23. The most expensive category in this build is batteries: Two nine-volt batteries cost $10. For this build, all the electronics components were purchased through eBay.

LED measurement

LEDs for scale

Step two: drill holes for the lights.
These are small LEDs: the shank diameter is only 5mm, making them near the smallest LEDs available. Because of that, it is paramount to make these be nearly a press-fit into the body of the casing. Mark lightly and accurately the position of the holes to be drilled. Once marked, center punch the Altoids tin in the location the LEDs are to be. Once the case is center punched, drill a small pilot hole, 3/16ths of an inch or less, and gradually increase the size of the bit until 5mm is reached. Trying to drill the hole in one shot will likely tear the metal since tin is soft, made worse by how thin an Altoids tin is.
Drill pilot holes

Drill holes complete
Step three: drill a hole for the switch.
Mounting a toggle switch is personal preference, but here, it’s mounted opposite the lid hinge and in front of the battery bank for packaging purposes. This switch also has a 5mm shank, therefor, making the drilling process exactly the same as the lights.

Switch parts

Switch measurement

Test fit LEDs and switch
Step four: packaging.
This flashlight is being designed to run for hours at a lower luminosity than a regular light would be. Because of that, two nine-volt batteries are to be placed side-by-side and wired in parallel to boost amp-hours, leaving no room in the rear of the case for a maze of wiring. All of it must be centralized in front of the battery bank to avoid pinching wires. The gauge of the wires used is thin enough that it is likely possible to route wires above the batteries, but this light has no safety fuse and should avoid that risk.

Battery test fit
Test fit the batteries, LEDs, and switch to get a rough idea of where the wires will need to be routed.

Small lesson: wiring the batteries in series will double the voltage of the battery bank output. Using a multimeter, the voltage jump can be seen. Doubling voltage may immediately blow LEDs, reduce their lifespan, or if the situation is grim, cause a fire.

Single 9v voltage

Two 9v's in series

Step five: solder the connections.
Crimping wires isn’t an option on this build. Crimped joints are far too weak, bulky, and impedance-generating; all of which is unacceptable here. Dexterity and finesse are virtues here. In particular, soldering the leads of the wires on the switch is the most challenging portion of this build. Crimp-style, blade connectors exist to make this job easier, but they are rare, overpriced, and still a crimped union, which is weaker. Calculating the length of wire needed and wiring the switch outside of the tin is likely the best bet in getting a good soldered union.

Sorting positive leads

LED's wired to switch

Planning power and ground
Remember: Modern LEDs are almost entirely non-polar units. This means that although they have red and black wires coming from the internal circuit board, it doesn’t matter if red is positive or negative when being wired. However, check to make sure that is indeed the case for LEDs that are purchased for a project: back-feeding a circuit is sure to destroy it.

Circuit complete

Circuit complete 2

Order of current flow:
From the positive terminals of the parallel nine-volt batteries, power should flow to the switch in the off position. From the switch, which is still in the off position, direct the power to the LEDs: these are to be wired in parallel. Finally, terminate the grounds of the LEDs to the battery bank negative terminals. The circuit has now been completed and the lights should turn on if the switch is flipped.

Step six: odds and ends.
This is the the the time to look over all the work: Wiggle any wires to check for a loose connection, tug at the switch to make sure it is tight, ensure the batteries are connected, make sure the soldered joints are insulated with heat shrink, and of course, make sure the lights turn on.

Nepal Quake: Architecture’s Role

Featured Image: USGS

Following a 7.9 magnitude earthquake on Saturday, Nepal’s infrastructure, once erect to serve its people, now lay atop those very people, ultimately killing thousands. The capital, Kathmandu, was hit hardest.

Since the initial seismic event, the U.S. Geological Servey reported an aftershock event Sunday. Originating near Mount Everst, it measured at 6.7 in terms of magnitude. This further raised the death toll.

Nepal, according the United Nations, is one of the world’s poorest and underdeveloped nations. It has some of the least seismicly-secure structures and resides on one of the most active and intense above-water fault zones: The Indus-Yarlang Suture.

This is the same fault responsible for forming the massive Himalayn mountain range, but at the same time, responsible for the 1934, 8.2 magnitude Nepal-Bihar earthquake.

Nearly 10,600 people died and 25 percent of structures fell, according to the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences.

During the initial quake on Saturday, nearly 200 people were climbing the Dharahara Tower when it collapsed, killing 180 in the spire, also trapping 20 in the base. The tower, built in 1832, and overlooking the Kathmandu Valley, was a popular tourist attraction.

“It’s buildings that kill people, not earthquakes,” said James Jackson, head of earth sciences for Cambridge, to the Associated Press. “The construction is appalling in Kathmandu.

Jackson was one of about 50 earthquake and social scientist who visited Nepal last week. The aim of the trip was to offer solutions to secure the poorly-built, but densely populated housing in Kathmandu.

Time moved quicker than their committee.

According to the Nepali Ministry of Health and Population, 1.45 million people live in the Kathmandu Valley.

“It was sort of a nightmare waiting to happen,” Jackson told the AP. “Physically and geographically what happened is exactly what we thought would happen.”

Furthermore, up until 1994, Nepal had no building codes, nor seismic retrofit program. Even when codes and guidelines were enacted from that year forward, enforcement was not, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Further still, the Kathmandu Valley is a World Heritage site. This status preserves the site almost as-is for its historical significance, making alteration difficult. Meanwhile, use of the structures are still permitted.

Now, tens of thousands of the Nepali people have voluntarily vacated their homes for fear of eventual collapse. This has left many truly homeless and exposed.

California Drought: There Isn’t Much Left

Featured Image: NASA comparison between California in 2013 (left) and 2014 (right).

 

There are 38.8 million people in the state of California. Collectively, they use four trillion gallons of water for domestic and municipal purposes annually. However, that amount accounts for only 20 percent of water allocation in the state; the remaining 80 percent is used by big agriculture.

This information, from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, is becoming the basis of conversation for many who question the impact of the recently enacted, drought-focused executive order from Gov. Jerry Brown.

On April first, for the first time in California’s history, the governor enacted a mandatory 25 percent water reduction for all cities and towns. This came after Gov. Brown attended an annual snow-pack-measuring convergence in the Sierra Mountains.

Credit: Rich Pedroncelli, AP. Gov. Jerry Brown speaks about California drought plan.
AP. Gov. Jerry Brown speaks about California drought plan. Photo credit: Rich Pedroncelli

“Today we are standing on dry grass where there should be five feet of snow,” said Brown in a statement to attending media. “This historic drought demands unprecedented action.”

“Therefore, I am issuing an executive order mandating substantial water reductions across our state,” said Brown in closing. “As Californians, we must pull together and save water in every way possible.”

However, the phrase, “in every way possible” does not actually mean in every way possible. Most of California’s 74,600 farms and ranches have been given full immunity from these cutbacks.

What’s more, Brown, and his administration, prevaricated requests for explanation on the exemptions by citing “hardship” and “previous, significant cutbacks” as reason enough to leave agriculture out of legislation.

Reality, however, differs on this account: As an industry, agriculture was valued at $46.4 billion in the also-drought-stricken year 2013, according to the CDFA. This represents a 15 percent increase in value; also, the most value ever generated by agriculture.

The 2014 numbers are not yet available.

Furthermore, “hardships” – what seems to be the euphemism for fallow fields – is strangely not accurate. There are currently 880,000 acres of fallow, or soon to be fallow, fields in California due to the drought, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior. This represents 3.3 percent of California’s 27 million acres of cropland, a full double-digit percentage difference from cutbacks being asked of non-agriculture.

California also boasts 16 million acres of strictly grazing land, which is not in any drought calculations or legislation at all.

Voices attune to this balance-discrepancy, have not only been vocal on Gov. Brown’s lack of equal cuts, but the methods agriculture uses to stem the problems of the drought.

Drought map of California.
Drought map of California.

Mark Hertsgaard is a San Francisco-based environmental journalist and author of the book “Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years,” and recently spoke with Alternet, an enviro-news group.

“If you go down to the Central Valley, where most of the farming takes place, we are now in a kind of an agricultural arms race down there,” Hertsgaard said. “Farmers, neighboring farmers, everyone is trying to drill deeper and deeper wells to get down and grab that groundwater.”

According to the California Department of Water Resources, groundwater makes up 40 percent of agricultural irrigation water. However, due to a prolonged drought, that number may climb as high as 60 or 65 percent.

“The big danger of that, though, and this is the real, potential doomsday scenario here in California, is that the more you go down and use that groundwater and suck it up like a straw, the greater the danger is that you collapse those aquifers underground,” said Hertsgaard.

Collapsing an aquifer is serious and irreversible, according to the United States Geological Survey.

Credit: Kgs.ku.edu. Aquifer depletion map.
Credit: Kgs.ku.edu. Aquifer depletion map.

“The compaction of unconsolidated aquifer systems that can accompany excessive groundwater pumping is by far the single largest cause of subsidence,” a December 2000 USGS study, republished in 2013, found.

“The overdraft of such aquifer systems has resulted in permanent subsidence and related ground failures,” said the study.

NASA estimates that California would need 11 trillion gallons of rainwater to replenish the state from the drought. That equates to nearly 170 days of Niagra Falls’ water volume.

And with that, protracted drought conditions, desertification, economic hardship, and perhaps even diaspora are real possibilities, if 80 percent of California’s water usage is untouched by drought legislation.

The Buildable AR-15

Photos by David Henry

 

A gun is fired once the trigger is pulled, causing the hammer to hit the firing pin, which strikes the primer that ignites the smokeless powder, thus twisting the bullet down the barrel’s rifled interior, and onto its intended target. But in this instance, the gun, an AR-15, could not complete that sequence, without first being completed itself.

The AR-15, with its separable upper and lower receivers, has become the most popular buildable firearm nationwide, given its price and accessories aftermarket. Only recently, the AR-series lower receivers have been available in incomplete form for the user to complete. The less-than-legal nomenclature of “80 percent” has arrived to describe them, requiring machine-work to finish the gun to 100 percent functionality.

Credit: David Henry. AR-15 in its two component pieces.
Credit: David Henry. AR-15 in its two component pieces.

These incomplete firearm receivers, with more than hand tools, adept machining, and adequate funds, can be turned into guns legally without ever stepping foot into a gun store. The Gun Control Act of 1968 clearly states that “an unlicensed individual may make a ‘firearm,’ for his personal use, but not for sale or distribution.”

Carl, of Kerley’s Hunting and Outfitting in Cupertino, California, has been selling the registered, pre-made AR-15’s for more than a decade.

“We don’t sell ’80 percents’ here, but we have been selling fewer AR’s,” Carl said. “I know that we also have been selling a lot of upper receivers… That tells me a fair amount of people are building their own now.”

The upper receiver is combined with the lower, either pre-made at a factory or made by an individual, to make a working gun.

It is important to note that “80 percent” guns are not required to have a serial number, registration, or identifying marks unless for sale or transfer. Sale or transfer must happen under the supervision of a federal firearms license holder: basically gun stores.

Even though they start life as nothing more than fancy paperweights, guns that are made by private individuals must adhere to federal and state laws regarding the legal features of guns once they are operational: This is not a loophole for fully automatic guns. Moreover, if an individual is not eligible for firearm ownership to begin with, milling an incomplete receiver to complete status is still a felony, according to the Gun Control Act.

Even still, final word on what is and is not a firearm comes from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. On two separate occasions, once in 2012 and again in late 2013, the ATF wrote memorandums legally qualifying features that constitute completion; all “80 percent” receivers now follow this framework in order to avoid being sold as guns.

In short, the lower receiver must not have the capability of dropping the firing pin on the primer of the bullet, thus ejecting the round. It can, however, have provisions for a grip and buttock, fully-formed magazine well and assembly lugs, and minute aspects like a bolt release lever.

When gun purchases skyrocketed under the specter of President Obama’s 2012 gun control push, which followed the Newtown Connecticut shooting, AR-15’s sold out in days, according to the Office of the Attorney General. Major retailers like Cabela’s, MidwayUSA, and Walmart, had no inventory and no estimates for replenishment.

All told, the ATF estimated that nearly 1.1 million guns were sold in the U.S. for the year 2012 — the most ever in a single year. This statistic was the basis for the National Rifle Association calling President Obama “the best gun salesman in history.”

Credit: David Henry. Two AR-15's; one built, one bought.
Credit: David Henry. Two AR-15’s; one built, one bought.

With demand outstripping supply, new non-gun makers sprang up to sell incomplete AR-series lower receivers to meet demand. These sellers were able to pop up quickly because they were not selling firearms; therefore sellers did not need to apply for an expensive and onerous federal firearms license.

Ares Armor, 80Percent Arms, and the now-famous Defense Distributed, are companies that hold major market share in the buildable firearms industry. These companies, and others, have been so successful that they have moved on from offering just AR-15 components, to offering kits to build AK-47’s and model 1911 pistols: supremely popular guns.

What once fired the basic .223/5.56 caliber cartridge, the buildable AR-15’s can be tailored to the users shooting needs: A bullet as small as a .22lr, designed for plinking soda cans at the range, or something as massive as the .50 BMG, which is designed for extremely long range shooting, can be chambered.

Credit: David Henry. The .223 bolt carrier group for an AR-15.
Credit: David Henry. The .223 bolt carrier group for an AR-15.

The .50 BMG caliber is presently illegal in California after the passage of the 2004 .50 Caliber BMG Regulation Act. California is the only state to enact such restrictions, citing the bullet’s threat to the “health, safety, and security of all residents,” which is the language of the regulation act.

These various caliber options allow AR owners to quickly change their upper receiver, while keeping their original lower receiver to fire a different caliber based on what ammunition is available.

The culmination of all this is the gun owners, who seem to face stigma due to the actions of a psychotic few, want anonymity, choice, and convenience.

Greg Phaxton is a gun collector and shooting enthusiast who has recently turned an “80 percent” lower into a shooting, precise gun.

“I really think the ’80 percent’ receiver has changed how we view guns and regulations forever,” said Phaxton. “I first bought one ’80 percent’ receiver, did a rough job finishing it, and it shot just like my Bushmaster.”

Bushmaster, located in Windham, Maine, has been a long-time producer of the AR-15.

“Nearly every caliber I can afford to shoot, I can make an AR for now,” Phaxton said. “It still is expensive though.”

Factory-made AR-15’s can sell for as low as $799 to as high as $5,000; The average “80 percent” is $120, but depending on the quality of material, design aspects, and caliber, the price fluctuates.

Credit: David Henry. AR-15 during ceasefire.
Credit: David Henry. AR-15 during ceasefire.

Nevertheless, the tooling to complete a receiver can be hugely expensive. Factors of speed, repetition, precision, and automation, all play a role in deciding what tools to buy.

A $72 Ryobi router with $50 worth of end-mills could complete the job, but ensuring tight tolerances would be hard. On the other hand, a $60,000 5-axis CNC machine could complete the job to within one thousandths of an inch by hitting the “enter” key on a keyboard.

Even still, once tooling has been acquired, further spending is still required; but the buildable firearms trend is not about cost cutting. It is done in a sort of protest, a pushback against gun-owner generalization, or simply to stay off the grid.

“I just want to be left alone,” Phaxton said. “I’ve broken no laws.”

Fresh Renaissance Art at San Francisco’s de Young

Featured Image: National Galleries of Scotland’s Sandro Botticelli: Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child (ca. 1490)

A collection of rare renaissance art, on loan from the National Galleries of Scotland, is on display at the de Young museum for nearly three months.

From March 7 until May 31, the 55-piece collection titled Botticelli to Braque will reside in the Herbst Exhibition Galleries within the museum.

Two pieces from the collection are considered to be standouts: Sandro Botticelli’s Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child (ca. 1490) and Sir Henry Raeburn’s Reverend Robert Walker, Skating on Duddingston Loch (ca. 1795).

Credit: National Galleries of Scottland, Sir Henry Raeborn's The Skating Minister (ca. 1795).
Credit: National Galleries of Scotland, Sir Henry Raeburn’s The Skating Minister (ca. 1795)

Both are considered revolutionary transitions for the artist responsible. However, the Botticelli piece has never been shown in the U.S. before. Including its vintage, the National Galleries of Scotland considers it the headline piece.

“It’s very hard to move from picture to picture because each one is so fine,” said Dede Wilsey, president of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s Board of Trustees.

“You want to stay there and take it all in or have someone explain to you how great it is,” Wilsey said. “But you have to move along.”

Other featured artists include Diego Velazquez, Johannes Vermeer, Rembrandt Van Rijn, Frederick Edwin Church, Claude Monet, Paul Gaugin, Georges Seurat and Pablo Picasso.

These names span nearly 400 years of art production.

Credit: National Galleries of Scottland, Diego Valazquez: Old Woman Cooking Eggs (ca. 1618).
Credit: National Galleries of Scotland, Diego Valazquez: Old Woman Cooking Eggs (ca. 1618).

Given the weight of the names and the rarity of the pieces, guided-docent-tour frequency has been doubled. Additionally, headset-guided tours are available for an additional charge.

Prices vary from weekday to weekend, children to seniors, but ID-bearing students get $5 off.

SpaceX launches DSCOVR Satellite

Falcon 9 carrying DSCOVR, Courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

 

After two delays caused by weather, SpaceX launched the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite yesterday to beam back information about potentially harmful solar ejections heading toward earth.

With new instrumentation and quicker response times, the $340 million DSCOVR satellite will replace NASA’s old Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE), which was launched in 1997. Both are designed to alert and study solar eruptions that can be destructive here on earth.

Courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
DSCOVR imaging capabilities, Courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

“These geomagnetic storms can be very damaging to critical infrastructure on earth such as power grids, aviation communication systems, and satellites in orbit,” said Tom Gerber, the director of NOAA’S Space Weather Prediction Office, in the DSCOVR mission video.

DSCOVR will reach it’s observation post in 110 days: Lagrange Point One, staying in orbit between the gravitational equilibrium of the earth and sun. This Lagrange Point, of which there are five, is nearly 940,000 miles from earth, or four times the distance the moon is from earth.

Courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
DSCOVR during diagnostics, Courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Although the satellite launch was successful, SpaceX could not recover the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket for reuse. Inclement weather in the Atlantic halted the ability of its drone ship to provide an adequate landing pad.

“Unfortunately we will not be able to attempt to recover the first stage of the Falcon 9,” the post-launch report said. “The drone ship is designed to operate in all but the most serious weather… We are experiencing just such weather in the Atlantic.”

This is SpaceX’s first deep-space launch, and overall, a successful one in the eyes of the company’s founder, Elon Musk.

“Primary mission on target,” Musk tweeted after the launch. “Spacecraft headed towards the sun! All good there.”

Historic, Mussolini-linked Alfa Romeo fetches $3 million

Photo courtesy of RMAuctions

An exceedingly rare 1939 Alfa Romeo 6c2500, a gift from Benito Mussolini to his mistress Clara Petacci, just sold for $3 million at an RM Auctions event in Paris.

The first 6c2500 sold at auction in years, and given the role it played in the couple’s failed attempt to flee an imploding Italy for asylum in Switzerland, it is also the first curio & relic car sold in years.

Credit:RMAuctions
Photo courtesy of RMAuctions

The 6c marque was the designation for the Italian automaker’s performance line. The 6c2500 featured a 2.5 liter inline-six cylinder making 160 horsepower, propelling it to a top speed of 120 mph during its 1938 launch.

Credit:RMAuctions
Photo courtesy of RMAuctions

 

 

 

What’s more, this 6c2500 has its original chassis, body, and engine, according to RMAuctions, making it desirable for its originality, not only its famed story.

As the story goes, Mussolini and Petacci were fleeing Italy under the guise of being retreating Nazi soldiers, with Petacci as Mussolini’s sister. Their caravan of five or six cars was stopped at a roadblock with the 6c2500 leading the way.

Mussolini’s disguise failed. Because of this, the two were hauled off for execution and the car was confiscated, only to resurface in private hands years later.

Although the price tag of $3 million may appear to be high, it is dwarfed by Mussolini’s personal Alfa Romeo car that sold for $9.5 million in 2010.

Credit:RMAuctions
Credit:RMAuctions

However, both pale in comparison to the most expensive classic european car ever sold: the $29.65 million, one-of-one,1954 Mercedes W196R once raced by Juan Manuel Fangio.

It remains unclear how many 6c2500 remain in private hands, according to RM, but this is one of 18 known to be produced.