Saturday, April 02, 2011

Cheap Groceries in the Mission

A little while back, I saw a comparison of grocery stores in Jamaica Plain. People there have been bemoaning the opening of a Whole Foods, and someone set out to show the prices at Whole Foods really aren't that bad. At the time, I thought it would be interesting to do something similar for the Mission. Today, I finally had the time.

First the results, and then the explanation....


Foods Co. is the cheapest I found. Rainbow Grocery is the most expensive.

Item Casa Guadalupe Duc Loi Safeway Foods Co. Rainbow Grocery
Vegetable Oil (48 fl. oz.) 4.49 3.99 2.99 3.48 8.76
Plastic Wrap (200 sq. ft.) 2.99 2.99 2.49 1.88 3.38
Corn Starch (per pound) 1.99 n/a 0.99 0.98 0.89
Orange Juice (Half Gallon) n/a 5.49 3.99 3.88 6.59
Soy Milk (Half Gallon) 5.18 2.79 3.29 2.50 3.59
Tofu (per pound) n/a 0.99 1.69 1.48 0.99
Rice (per pound) 0.59 0.70 0.95 0.45 1.05
Spaghetti (per pound) 1.501.29 1.10 1.06 2.09
Can of Tomatoes (28 fl. oz.) 1.49 1.99 1.99 1.38 2.19


The trick for all of these was to try to find a unit of measurement that was relatively fair. In all cases, I'm going for the cheapest item (without consideration for quality or whether it's organic). I'll describe a bit about what I was looking for in each item. Note that I'm vegan, and so are all these ingredients.
  • Vegetable Oil. Any vegetable oil at all, as long as it came in 48 fl. oz. container. Rainbow Grocery only had no 48 fl. oz. containers, so I went with 32. I also checked the bulk price. The cheapest bulk oil was 3.05 per pound. Assuming 0.92g/cm^3, this becomes 8.76 for 48 fl. oz. (which is worse than the non-bulk price). This was slightly cheaper than the 6.08 for 32 fl. oz.
  • Plastic Wrap. Any plastic wrap will do. 200 square foot rolls was available everywhere except Rainbow Grocery. It only sold a 100 square foot roll.
  • Corn Starch. One pound containers. Safeway had a special sale (not sure what their regular price is). The Rainbow Grocery price is from the bulk section. Couldn't find it at Duc Loi.
  • Orange Juice. A little luxurious here with only containers of orange juice not from concentrate. Casa Guadalupe only had fruit punch stuff, so I skipped them. Prices vary wildly. (Note: the cheapest Tropicana, if you are a brand name whore, is also at Foods Co. And by a pretty big margin.)
  • Soy Milk. Some places are getting slammed here for only offering organic soy milk, which may or may not be fair. Casa Guadalupe only sold organic quarts, so it's getting doubly slammed.
  • Tofu. One pound firm. Couldn't find it at Casa Guadalupe.
  • Rice. This one is probably not fair at all. I had problems finding a size that all stores would carry. Smaller stores only carried 5 pound bags. Some places did bulk. The bigger stores really only became cost effective at the 15 or 20 pound range. So, Foods Co. wins with a 20 pound bag. But Casa Guadalupe is a close second (in my books) because that's their bulk price.
  • Spaghetti. Specifically spaghetti. I was aiming for 2 pound bags when I could find them. Duc Loi and Rainbow Grocery only had one pound bags. Rainbow Grocery bulk prices were more expensive than the pre-packaged prices.
  • Can of Tomatoes. Any type of canned tomato (whole, diced, stewed, whatever). Casa Guadalupe didn't have them in the 28 fl. oz. size.
And the stores:
  • Casa Guadalupe. I'm not entirely sure this is Casa Guadalupe. This is the grocery at the corner of 22nd & Folsom. If you get a receipt, it shows up as Casa Guadalupe. However, there is no real identifying sign. There are other Casa Guadalupe stores on Mission (maybe a trademark dispute?).
  • Duc Loi. Mission & 18th. More of an asian grocery.
  • Safeway. Market & 14th.
  • Foods Co. Folsom & 14th.
  • Rainbow Grocery. Folsom & 13th. Lots of organic and specialty foods. You can get a 10% discount here if you're a member of San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. (This discount is not included in the prices above, but it wouldn't have made much difference to the outcomes.)


First of all, I was blown away by the bulk prices at Rainbow Grocery ... and not in a good way. I really went into this thinking that Rainbow Grocery would pick up a few wins with its bulk foods. It did get one (corn starch), but the bulk prices were sometimes expensive than the pre-packaged foods in the same store ... and far behind the prices for pre-packaged foods in other stores. I found this disappointing.

If you're a vegan trying to live on the cheap, I'd recommend buying most of your stuff at Foods Co. If Foods Co. doesn't have what you're looking for, then hop across the street to Rainbow Grocery to pick up the rest.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Bright Angel Trail

When poking around looking for descriptions of Bright Angel Trail, I noticed that no one really got into the details I find interesting. Namely: how much can we push it without risking our lives? So here they are, for those that want them.

Spoiler alert: if you like figuring stuff out for yourself, you'd best stop reading now.

The Stage
Let me set the stage. Susan and I knew Bright Angel Trail was about 8 to 9 miles of distance and 4500 feet of vertical in each direction. On flat land, that's a three hour walk. But 4500 feet is maybe 400 stories. And one of the directions has to be up. We knew that the National Park Service specifically advised against attempting the return trip in one day. We are also known to be stubborn and competitive when it comes to hikes. Checking against the web at large, it seemed as though the biggest issue was heat and that hiking in winter was supposed to be enjoyable. In winter, temperatures are freezing at the rim and more moderate at the river.

On our part, Susan and I are in great shape. We both get about 10 hours of exercise a week. We'd hiked Half Dome before (which is similar in terms of distance and vertical). It seemed like a one day return was possible.

Weather forecasts a week or two before were showing highs around 40F at the rim, and 60F at the river. Temperatures would drop to 20F over night. Cold, but not that bad. Or so we thought.

The Plan
We extrapolated from Half Dome, and conjectured a 9 hour round trip. With some buffer for chilling out, we were figuring that we should set out an hour before sunrise and get back (in the absolute worst case) at sunset. About 12 hours. With no plan to stay in the canyon, we would pack warm gear and emergency blankets, but neither tents nor sleeping bags.

You can get rough estimates on calories from some web sites. We were packing enough calories. I brought energy bars. Susan brought peanut butter cookies. We figured that -- with refilling available at Indian Garden -- five litres of water would be enough between the two of us. We packed CamelBaks.

Warnings from the National Park Service said the top mile or two were covered in ice and snow, so we packed YakTrax over-shoe traction devices.

We were planning to stay at El Tovar Hotel the night before and the night after. It's pretty deluxe for where it is, and we figured on appreciating a hot bath after the hike. This hotel is pretty kicking; I recommend it.

Last Minute Change of Plans
Shortly before the trip, the weather forecast started showing snow advisories for Grand Canyon and the surrounding areas. Some estimates were predicting as much as 12 inches of snow in 24 hours -- right in the middle of our hike! I was worried.

We knew this wasn't going to be snow at the river, so we had to prepare for both rain and snow. We did the best with the gear we had. I brought a ski jacket and light snowboarding pants. Both are water resistant, and the pants are useful for trail blazing in snow. Susan brought a water proof jacket. I sprayed a fresh coat of water repellent on my boots.

How It Played Out
We left right around sunrise: 07:00. A little later than expected, but snow made the last bit of the drive from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon entertaining. An extra hour of sleep seemed prudent.

It was drizzling on and off during the descent. Nothing too bad. At first, I thought we were in for a dreary day but nothing close to the foot of snow forecast. Boy, was I wrong.

The top of the trail was snow and ice. The YakTrax worked beautifully, but one band broke on Susan's shortly after starting. Irritating, buy still usable. I'd still recommend them; Susan was less impressed. At least on the terrain we were on, it allowed me to treat ice like normal rocky terrain without affecting my gait.

After snow it turned to mud. Slippery, red, get-all-over-everything mud. My boots and bag are still stained red in places. The rain kept coming on and off, but our gear was holding up well.

We reached the river at about 10:00. We felt close for a while, but the winding canyon walls make the actual river a surprise. Unexpected and big. The weather wasn't wonderful. So, after a few minutes of playing around near the river (and the obligatory photo), we turned back to start the ascent back to the rim. What do they say? It's the journey, not the destination.

About an hour back toward Indian Garden, it started to rain. Not "this is refreshing" on and off drizzle. This was rain that was meant to soak the trail and everyone on it. This rain made me question my love for Susan and her desire to hike this trail. But as the signs on the trail continually point out: "Down is Optional. Up is Not."

At about this point, we ran into a ranger. He asked us some pointed questions, and eyed us up and down with a concerned eye:

"Are you heading to the rim today?"
"The wind has really started to pick up near the rim."
"Do you have crampons?"

The end result was that we were both feeling a little more apprehensive with our plan. We started to really move. It was about this time that I also grew sick of eating my energy bars. Susan had snagged a burrito from Taco Bell the night before, and whipped it out for a quick lunch. I felt jealous. Next time I'm packing sandwiches.

Within half an hour, my jacket and pants had let water in. Before we reached snow it had soaked through. Both of us were soaked from the waist down. Then snow. My energy started dropping rapidly, to the point where I was shuffling along the last mile of the trail. We couldn't stop, 'cause the temperature had dropped too far.

This was the moment we shoot for. One of us has to doubt our ability to make it. It was my turn on this hike. Going up was a struggle. Hungry. Cold. I thought we were going to have to reverse back down to Indian Garden and wait out the rain and snow. It seemed to take forever to cover the last mile up to the top.

We reached the trailhead slightly before 14:00. (Yes. Three hours down and only four hours up.) When we got back to the hotel it took me about half an hour to feel warm again. The snow continued into the evening.

What Went Right
  1. We correctly judged our fitness level. In fact, we outperformed, which allowed us to get back during the warmest hours of the day.
  2. We had enough water with us.

What Went Wrong
  1. My gear was not waterproof, and under the steady rain eventually gave out. Staying warm in wet gear is not easy.
  2. Our back up gear got wet. While we didn't actually use it, we would have been better to have stowed it in plastic bags.
  3. Monotonous food. I only had one type of food. This meant toward the end, I wasn't eating enough and allowed my energy level to drop.
  4. This was our first time using CamelBaks, and we overestimated how much water we were drinking. I only drank one litre, and Susan drank even less.

Monday, January 03, 2011


Susan got "Viva Vegan" for Christmas, a cookbook by the other half of the Post Punk Kitchen. If the first recipe is any indication, we're going to really enjoy this cookbook.

Pupusas stuffed with black beans and plantains, topped with a tomato sauce and served with a slaw and avocado. Yum!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mauna Loa

Our third day of insane hiking came a few days after the Kalalau Trail. We hiked to the summit of Mauna Loa. Mauna Loa is a mammoth mountain in terms of proportions. Most of the island of Hawai'i is actually part of that mountain. It is also an active volcano -- most recently erupting in 1984. This trail is something else. There are a few ways to reach the summit, but we opted for the trail that can be done in one day. We didn't really have time to do the more laborious routes that start further down the mountain. Instead, we drove up to just over 11 000 feet, and parked at a weather observatory that is situated there. Then, over the next five long hours, we climbed 2500 feet over 6.5 miles. This was a much more arduous process than Half Dome. The sun was exceptionally intense. It beat down mercilessly. Not only is the peak of Mauna Loa at about 20 degrees of latitude (hot), but it rises above the clouds (no shade), and is composed entirely of rough volcanic rock. One type of volcanic rock, 'a'a, is like sharp pieces of popcorn each about 2-4 inches in diameter. It is an unsteady surface to walk on, and did some serious damage to my hiking shoes.

I was prepared for the possibility that altitude sickness would force us to turn back. Mauna Loa is 13 679 feet at its highest point. While I was prepared to have to abandon the hike, I wasn't prepared for the uncertainty and how miserable that height and heat can make one feel. Less than a mile from the summit, we were seriously contemplating abandoning the hike. We both had the start of a mild headache, and were operating at noticeably less than our normal capacity.

And then the final concern is cloud cover. The trail up the rock is only marked by small cairns made from the same volcanic rock as the trail. This makes them sometimes hard to spot in clear daylight. In the afternoon, clouds start to ascend the mountain. Most of the time, they will not reach the summit. But it is always a risk that they will. It's not a good idea to be up there when this happens. If the clouds come in, then one will lose sight of the cairns and be forced to camp until the clouds clear. This is not the the idyllic paradise of Kalalau. Camping overnight would be horrendously cold and unpleasant. So we kept looking at the clouds with a little trepidation.

But we prevailed, and were rewarded with spectacular views of the volcanic crater at the summit. The crater is maybe 2 miles across and almost a thousand feet deep. The floor is undulating fields of black volcanic rock. Around it's perimeter are sheer cliff faces overlooking the floor.

And again, no one around. On the day we hiked, there was only one other couple attempting the summit (and they didn't make it) and one older couple who were just hiking part of the way up. It was just us, our feet, and many square miles of barren volcanic wasteland.

While the ascent was 5 hours 7 minutes, the descent was only 2 hours and 38 minutes. Down truly is easier than up.

Kalalau Trail

Unbeknownst to me, one of the hikes we did in Hawai'i has a reputation as being one of the most dangerous hikes in the United States. The Kalalau Trail is a gorgeous hike through a variety of little micro-ecologies along the north coast of Kaua'i. One moment, you are deep in a tropical rainforest and the air is filled with the sounds of tropical birds like one normally hears on those recordings of tropical rain forests. It's like walking through a rain forest exhibit in a zoo or museum... except it's very real. Guava is growing everywhere. Then in the next moment, you are high on a cliff with a full 180 degree view of the ocean and sky. It was not uncommon to see a rainbow somewhere out over the ocean water.

Luckily, I did not read that article about Kalalau being so dangerous, or else I would have been a little more concerned. We did get lucky, however. The weather was only scattered showers and no heavy rains. It was also only just the start of low season, and so the trail was still in good condition. That's the real problem with Kalalau: the trail is simply not that good in places. At it's most extreme, you will be walking along a trail that is at best the width of two feet side-by-side, with an angling drop away into nothing. The ground won't always be rock either, but will sometimes be loose coarse sand that crumbles and slides away from your feet. You will be carrying a pack, and you will be seriously contemplating your sanity.

The trail has other fun tidbits. There are lots of streams along the way, but the risk of bacterial contamination is very high. A filter is required. (If you do this trip, I can recommend a UV light filter as an excellent light weight option.) The sun is also extremely intense. High humidity and heat in the forest valleys, which comprise the first 6 miles or so. The last 5 miles however are largely exposed to the sun and dry. Head protection is needed!

Then there is the physical stamina required. The trail is 11 miles or so in each direction. The trail is rarely flat. It is almost always climbing or descending steep inclines, with the heavy use of switchbacks. By the end, I was swearing under my breath every time I noticed another switchback starting.

The lucky part: we managed to avoid one of the worst risks. In the event of heavy rain, the trail will become impassable. It is very easy to become stranded in between two ex-streams that are now raging torrents. Some folks have drowned trying to ford the streams when the water is high. While we had light rain on the first day, we only really suffered from wet and muddy shoes.

But the trip is worth it. At the end of 11 miles is Kalalau Beach. This is a secluded strip of sand, with it's own waterfall, a small transient community of hippies and hikers, and small caves. The beach is only accessible on foot or via kayak. There aren't many people there. It's exceptionally peaceful. Waking up early in the morning on the second day, we sat and stared and the most beautiful and bright sea of stars I have ever seen.

One last recommendation to hikers. If you try this trail, I suggest you pack exceptionally light. We managed to do the trip carrying about 10 and 20 pounds, respectively. You will be a lot safer on the cliff-side parts of the trail, and have a lot more energy. We saw some folks carrying huge 50 pound packs and hating every moment of it.

And one last thing. Bragging rights. The return trip from the end of Kalalau Beach to the parking lot at the trailhead took us only 6 hours and 7 minutes. I dare you to try to beat that time, and I imagine you'll enjoy the journey.

Friday, September 11, 2009

A Bet

Susan and I have embarked on a rather interesting bet. The premise is simple: engage in no form of passive entertainment. The bet: which of us can go longest. Watch a film? No. Surf the internet? Nope. Listen to music? Nuh-uhn. Reading fiction is no good (non-fiction is kosher). Going to restaurants is out, but coffee shops are okay. The idea was hatched on the grass at a park in San Francisco while watching some skateboarders doing awesome tricks. Why can't we do that? I guess we're just spending our time ineffectively.

So here I am, in an airport in Phoenix, Arizona. I haven't gone to any airport restaurants. I haven't listened to music, watched a movie, or a played a video game to pass the time. It's just me, a book by Thich Nhat Hanh, and this blog post.

It is interesting to notice the changes that are taking place. I'm chatting to people a bit more. I'm spontaneously singing a little bit more. I'm calling up old friends on the phone. I'm getting more stuff done at work. And sometimes, I just sit and breath and think. The result is that I find myself a little bit happier. It's hard to say whether this is just the novelty of trying something different, but I guess time will tell.

The bet has also had the unintended side effect of spurring some interesting conversations. Is a thought-provoking fictional novel or film really a passive form of entertainment? Is whole-heartedly paying attention to a piece of music really passive? Maybe you folks will discuss this in comments on this post, but I won't be able to join you. At least, not until one of us loses this bet. :)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Time Has Passed

Dear Friends,

It has been a long time since I wrote. There is no excuse for such things, except that sometimes it is better to live life than to write about it. "Mais il faut choisir: vivre ou raconter" (Jean-Paul Sartre, La nausée). But tonight just strikes me as one of those nights to write things down. So, when you find a moment, settle down and read what I've been up to.

Let's start around New Year's Eve. It's as good a time as any to start. New beginnings. Expecting little, I was surprised with much more than that. A twist of fate led a woman from Philadelphia, by the name of Susan, to San Francisco over the holidays. In the way of love stories, a chance encounter has begun to spun itself into something intricate and beautiful -- like a spider spinning a web. We're sticky and the sun makes us glitter. Unlike Hollywood, however, the story doesn't unfold in the span of a couple of hours. Instead, it has been taking place over several months.

Before meeting Susan, I knew little about Philadelphia. In fact, I had only a vague notion of where it appeared on a map, and I wasn't at all sure whether it was inland or coastal. For those who have been watching my Facebook status messages, there is no Google office in Philadelphia. These trips have been for something else. I have learned that the Rocky movies were filmed there. I have learned how nice it can be to sleep in a quiet neighbourhood sometimes.

But the distance has been hard. There is no denying that. Though now I know how pricing generally works across the major hubs connecting San Francisco to Philadelphia. I have also learned that it is possible to commute from Philadelphia to San Francisco on a Monday morning -- though it makes for a very long day. It's possible to fly red eye Friday night, and connect back on a commuter flight Monday morning. When this year's mileage is tallied, it seems likely that I'm going to end up with the ability to jump airport lines and such like.

Not that Philadelphia has been my only destination. In May, I found myself in New York City for a fair chunk of time. I had a good opportunity to visit with Jane in Manhattan. I'm glad to have had the opportunity, as flights to Canada are not nearly as inexpensive nor as convenient as those south of the border. I enjoyed hearing about Jane's life on the moors of New Brunswick.

New York City itself was a bit shocking after spending such a long time in San Francisco. I flew a red eye out Thursday night, and found myself at Penn Station during rush hour on a Friday morning. No place to stand. Jostled constantly. Little sleep. I wanted to go home. Manhattan has four times the population density as San Francisco, and it gets even higher right around rush hour. Not that New York is all bad. There are moments to be caught here and there. Dance parades through the city. Musical theatre....

... The Brandy Library. This was quite the experience. For those not in the know, after spending most of my life avoiding alcohol rather completely, Google has driven me to drink. There is a rather large scotch culture at Google, and there is no better place to experience that kind of culture than at The Brandy Library in Manhattan. Imagine stepping into what looks like a slightly large drawing room -- one that you would see in a Hollywood movie when the characters are mixing with old money. Along the walls are book shelves -- floor to ceiling. However, these shelves don't carry books. Instead, the walls are filled with the rarest and most exceptional bottles of fine liquour that you will have the pleasure of seeing. So, if you're hankering for a 1960-something bottle of scotch, this may be the place for you.

At one moment, I almost felt like Manhattan could be a home. It was one night after work. A co-worker had loaned me a bike for the week, and I was heading home -- to a corporate apartment on the upper west side. I followed the bike path up the Hudson River while the sun set over New Jersey. Perfect.

But it was also interesting to notice other differences. The NY demeanour, for example, is much different. Gruff. Cold. Harsh. Abrupt. Tense. Much different from warm SF smiles, and relaxed SF attitudes. I saw nothing like Mission-Dolores Park while hanging out in Manhattan, and it really comes as no surprise to me. I also discovered how comfortable I've become with the perpetually mild climate of San Francisco. NY was hot and humid -- not even as hot as it can get. I found it uncomfortable, and was longing for the 60 degree weather that prevails in San Francisco most of the year.

Work has been good, though this week has been quite long and stressful. A few emergencies on Wednesday made for a 16 hour day. (Maybe it's shallow, but it makes me proud to help keep something like Google running smoothly and getting better every day.) After such an intense day, today I really just hung out, chatted with people and played pool. Fair's fair, after all. My team has grown, and I'm travelling a little bit. Next week, I get to see Pittsburgh. I'm not sure what to expect. Last week I found it on a map. It is inland. :)

All of this travel reminds me a little of my ex-wife, Ania. Old endings. And that's the other big news. My divorce with Ania is now final. Or, at the very least, there is a piece of paper from the British courts granting a divorce. (Ania lives in London now.) It wouldn't surprise me, however, if some government or lawyer somewhere wants us to file another piece of paper, and charge us money for it. But, that somewhat ends an era. There was a party. Tequila was served. Stories were told. I met Ania for the very first time December 1995.

I hope all your lives are full of endings and beginnings, like mine. It's time for me to dig into "The White Tiger" by Aravind Adiga....


P.S. I would recommend "Autumn" by Louderbach (album) or "Skokkian" by Louis Armstrong (song).