Abstract photo from Terminal Island near the Port of Long Beach, California. Taken using the iPhone Hipstamatic app.
It’s the 99th Episode of CatSynth TV, and we have a special treat for all our readers and videos. It combines many of our interests: synthesizers, cats, experimental music and film, and highways.
Video shot along Highway 99 in California from Manteca through Stockton and heading towards Sacramento. Additional video and photography at CatSynth HQ in San Francisco.
Guest appearances by Sam Sam and Big Merp.
Original experimental synthesizer music by Amanda Chaudhary, based on melodies from “99 is not 100” by Moe! Staiano.
- Arturia MiniBrute 2S
- Big Fish Audio John Cage Prepared Piano Sample Library (Kontakt)
- Nord Stage EX
- Mutable Instruments Plaits
- Metasonix R-54 and R-53 2hp Cat module
- 4ms Spectral Multiband Resonator
- Make Noise Echophon
There was a brief period of respite at the beginning of August between the end of the Outsound New Music Summit and the start of a new job. Time was tight, so there wasn’t time for an extended odyssey in the deserts of southeastern California. But the north coast, specifically Humbolt County and the area around Eureka, were well within range for a two-day trip. I have never been that far north on the coast. I got an Airbnb in Eureka. I researched a mixture of industrial and natural spaces for photography and exploration. I even got a new lens for the big camera. And early on Saturday morning (or at least early by CatSynth standards), I was ready to go.
Eureka is a direct shot up US 101 from San Francisco, about a four-hour trip in good conditions. It’s a major freeway up to the border between Sonoma and Mendocino counties, and then a mixture of an expressway and a two-lane road through the redwoods, with spots of freeway near major towns.
I never made it to Eureka.
The beginning of the trip was enjoyable and largely uneventful – and the Russian River gorge section after crossing into Mendocino County is spectacular. North of Ukiah, I felt like I was actually transitioning into exploration, as this was somewhat novel territory (technically, I had been as far north as Legget in 2013, but that was in the evening and rushed). Once CA 20 joins with 101 north of Ukiah, the combined route begins a long, steep grade into the hills. It is here where things started to go a bit wrong. The temperature gauge on the car, usually quite steady, suddenly shot up beyond the red “H”. This is definitely not good. I shut off the air conditioning and things calmed down a bit as we got into the new Willits bypass, a Super-2 limited access highway. North of the bypass, 101 becomes a steep windy road through the woods; the temperature gauge shot up again. This was definitely not good. I limped back to Willits to give the car a break and figure out next steps.
I’ve been through Willits a few times, but never really stopped there. The little downtown has some cute old brick buildings. But I had no time to play – I needed to find a repair shop. Nothing showed up in Yelp as open. I probably should have called AAA at this time, but I did find an open shop in Ukiah, so I limped back. I drove conservatively, with the windows open, the vent fully open, and one eye on the temperature gauge.
I was relieved when I finally pulled into Tony Lopez Automotive. It was out a strange little industrial side-street south of downtown. Tony was clearly not pleased to have someone wander in with car trouble just as he was getting ready to close, but he was also chivalrous and ready to help out a damsel in distress. We got the car cooled down; and after a bit of diagnosis, he identified a small but pernicious radiator leak. The diagnosis took some time, and while I was sitting I noticed a rather interesting pile of old car parts. I snapped an iPhone photo, which became a Wordless Wednesday featured a couple of weeks ago.
I regret not grabbing my better camera out of the car to get a higher-quality image, but it was not my priority at the time. And I do like the abstract quality the pixelation provides. Tony did notice the fancier equipment still in the car, though, and it sparked a conversation about my writing and photography and about this site. I wonder if he has checked it out.
Once things were ready, I left town – I would have loved to stay, but I was eager and anxious to get home. I also left Tony Lopez a glowing Yelp review. If you on 101 in the vicinity of Ukiah and need auto help, please patronize his shop and tell him that Amanda from San Francisco sent you.
The trip back to San Francisco was sad but uneventful, and in this case uneventful was good. I didn’t record the trip back on Highway☆, but here is the exact same trek that I did record on a short but happier trip in July.
The engine temperature stayed within an acceptable range, and it was fine over the next few days in San Francisco, but the radiator definitely needed to repaired ASAP. This experience also cured me of any sort of “fun with highways” wanderlust for a while and I have remained close to home since then (except for μHausen). But the bug is starting to come back, and I might have to start exploring again. I might even make it to Eureka one of these days…
See more of Northern California and many other fascinating places in our Highway☆ app, available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.
I-80 towards the Bay Bridge from Kate St.
We at CatSynth love traveling and exploring our adopted home state. This includes day trips from the Bay Area as well as longer adventures. But one thing remains a bit of a challenge. For much of the state, the main highways are primarily north-south, with very few east-west routes. One chooses one of the long-haul north-south highways, California 1, US 101, I-5, California 99, or US 395 and is pretty much locked in with only a few options for efficiently traveling east to west. There is I-80 in the middle north, California 152 or California 46 from the coast through the Central Valley and California 58/I-40/I-15 further south.
North of Sacramento, east-west travel becomes even more difficult, with routes like California 20 and California 299 being relatively rural and windy for much of their length. The end result is that most of our trips – especially single-day trips heading north – are forward and back along one of the main north-south routes unless we have extra time or necessity to use the smaller east-west roads.
This north-south bias can be seen in an almost self-similar way when zooming in on the extended Bay Area. South of San Francisco, there is California 1, I-280, US 101, I-880, I-680 and then not much at all until one gets to I-5 in the Central Valley.
In the North Bay and wine country, a similar pattern appears with CA 1, US 101 and CA 29, with another large gap until I-505 and I-5. We have made use of east-west roads like CA 128 to get between them as in our recent wine-country trip that featured Elsie the Library Cat. But this is a long detour.
This north-south axis may be frustrating at times (especially the further north one gets), but there is nothing particularly sinister about it. It’s all a matter of Calfornia’s geology. The interface of the Pacific and North American plates that give us our reputation for earthquakes also lead to long bands of north-south mountain ranges and valleys. The Sierra Nevada may be the most dramatic, but it is only one of several that form vertical stripes, with the Central, Sacramento, Salinas, and Napa valleys in between. The San Francisco Bay can be seen as another such valley in a way, with shallows bounded by high hills running north-south.
The exception to the “north-south rule” can be found south of the San Gabrial mountains and into the desert. From Los Angeles and San Diego, one can easily travel east-west to the desert towns and to the Arizona border on I-10 and I-8, with a network of other east-west freeways in between. It is definitely a different experience traveling down there once one gets over the Grapevine or the Tehachapi Pass and into the southern realms. As for the rest of the state, there is no escaping the geographic reality, so it is best to embrace it, and even enjoy it.
I found myself back again in Napa Valley wine country a couple of weeks ago. Specifically I was in St. Helena to meet Elsie the Library Cat. I am not a morning individual, but Elsie apparently is, so at the early hour of 7AM, I headed up from San Francisco, crossing two bridges before exiting the I-80 onto Highway 29.
I have written about traveling through the Napa Valley on Highway 29 before, specifically in a post from 2007. Once again Highway 29, multiplexed with Highway 12, was a parking lot south of the city of Napa, so I was once again able to snap a photo at almost the same exact location. It was quite theraputic to do so, chasing away some of the demons of 2007, which themselves chased out the demons of 2000. The road has been upgraded into a better expressway, and Highway 221 (just a short connector to downtown) is now signed.
The traffic thinned out north of Napa as the road narrowed north of Yountville. Here the landscape is dotted with modest vinyards and over-the-top mansions and tasting rooms. Finally, I arrived in St. Helena, my favorite town in the region. I pulled into the library parking lot around 9AM, just in time for my visit with Elsie.
Elsie is a very sweet cat, and quite playful at times despite her advancing age. With her black coat, she reminded me a bit of Luna, though Elsie has mismatched-colored eyes compared to Luna’s emerald green. She and the staff of the St. Helena Public Library were great hosts and extremely welcoming of me and my video project. If you haven’t already seen our CatSynth TV feature on Elsie, you can watch it here.
It was still relatively early when I finished at the library, so I headed to the main street in town for brunch – a protein-heavy heuvos rancheros and some additional coffee seemed like a good idea after the morning video shoot and before heading out for wine tasting.
My main winery destination was Flora Springs, also in St. Helena. In 2014, I had come here for both wine tasting and a photo shoot – you can see one of the photos in this old Wordless Wednesday post. I had selected it because of the modernist architecture and interior design, but I enjoyed the spicy bold reds as well. Plus they have a patio that is lovely on a warm afternoon.
The same qualities that attracted me to this winery four years ago were in play again – the modern style and bold red wines. I particularly liked the Trilogy red blend and the Holy Smoke single-vinyard cabernet from Oakville. This visit was also featured on CatSynth TV.
Having enjoyed a full glass of both the Trilogy and Holy Smoke along with tastings of the standards, I decided I shouldn’t do anymore tasting for a while. But I still wanted to some more exploring. So instead of heading straight back south, I turned east onto Highway 128 in Rutherford towards Lake Berryessa, with the goal of finally completing the route. (Yes, I am weird that way.)
The narrow but well maintained highway took us out of the valley and into the hills to the east, winding our way through several canyons. The central towns of the Napa Valley were largely spared from last fall’s devasting fires, but here along Highway 128 one could still see some of the scars from the Atlas Fire. The green wooded hillsides were periodically streaked with bands of ashen gray and bare trees. But even within those bands, one could see bits of green. Some of these were trees that were spared during the fire, which jumps from one tree to another, as well as new growth replacing the burns. It’s amazing to see how quickly nature bounces back, especially compared to human development. It will take a bit longer to replace the homes, wineries and other businesses, and the mental and emotional scars may never heal.
Eventually, the highway aligns to the southern shore of Lake Berryessa, an artificial lake created by damming the Putah Creek. It’s quite large and major center for water recreation. I was just there for the visual aspect – I was particularly curious to see the “Glory Hole.”
The Glory Hole, which as also featured in a recent Wordless Wednesday post, is an internal spillway for the reservoir. When the lake gets too full, the water drains out through it like a bathtub. This happened in 2017, and must have been amazing to see.
We followed the highway down from hills into the Sacramento Valley, where it ends in the town of Winters. I had stopped here on the way to Portland a few weeks earlier, so had already shot some video. But that one is still a work in progress…
See more of California’s Napa Valley Wine Country and many other fascinating places in our Highway☆ app, available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.
Facebook has been in the news quite a lot of late. None of it for good reasons. But buried amidst the articles on data privacy and the Cambridge Analytica scandal I found the story “Welcome to Zucktown. Where Everything Is Just Zucky.” in The New York Times. Basically, it discusses Facebook’s plans for a new community adjacent to its Menlo Park campus, with housing, shops, and such.
As seen in the above screenshot from our Highway☆ app, Facebook’s campus is at the remote northern edge of Menlo Park, straddling the Bayfront Expressway (California Highway 84). Even by the standards of sprawling Silicon Valley campuses, this one is isolated, with access primarily by car or company busses. The proposed development, which is formally called “Willow Village” (Facebook dislikes the nickname “Zucktown”) would be to its east, between CA 84, Willow Road (unsigned CA 114) and University Avenue (unsigned CA 109), and adjacent to the neighboring town of East Palo Alto. While ostensibly an open community with public access and some affordable housing units, it is clearly being designed for Facebook employees. And although the benefits of living close to work – and cutting down on commutes – are abundant, there is a difference between living near work and living in work. And that is why it touched a raw nerve with me. One of my main critiques working the industry, besides the subtle but rampant sexism, is what I call forced togetherness. In the culture of many tech companies, it isn’t enough to do good work every day or even work long hours. There is tremendous pressure, implicit or explicit, to be socially present at all times, to treat the company as one’s community, one’s “life”.
Forced togetherness comes in much smaller ways than planned communities of coworkers. At a previous job of mine in 2014 at a tiny startup, everyone ate lunch together almost every day. Ostensibly, it was supposed to be Monday, Wednesday, Friday, but it quickly became clear that Tuesday and Thursday were expected as well. One day early when I politely passed on lunch – and was looking forward to going out by myself for a little bit – the CEO seemed perplexed and kept trying to offer one option after another for ordering lunch in. I had to finally just say “Look, I’m a big girl, I can feed myself!” This was met with some quiet and awkward laughter. It’s not that lunch was mandatory, but there was a social expectation, and implicit coercion, that eating together was the right thing to do.
I have come to look for red flags in this regard. In my current job search, another very small company reached out to me with an interesting opportunity. But they were located in Redwood City. I have more than once stated I would sooner move back to New York than take another job on the peninsula – but I played along and politely explained that I prefer to work in San Francisco proper, but did they have flexible or remote work options. I got the following reply.
We do not do remote. It hinders the culture of the company we are building and we love hanging out with each other.
There are many good reasons that some companies require employees to be on site. But what this message told me was that the policy was based not on a business or practical necessity, but on a virtue, a belief that this is how people should be. It says they are more interested in a culture based on “hanging out with each other” than on “getting things done.” It says that to succeed in that culture, one must be someone that they like to hang out with. And this suggests how cultures of forced togetherness go beyond just wiping out the boundaries between work and the rest of one’s life, but also how the monoculture of Silicon Valley is perpetuated. If one is looking for “people we love to hang out with”, one is probably going to hire people that share a similar set of backgrounds, styles, and personalities. Hence, we find bands of mostly young men of white, Indian, and East Asian backgrounds who perpetuate college dorm life into their post-collegiate adulthood.
Of course, these are just simply two anecdotes, along with the concept writ large in Facebook’s Willow Village. I hope to dive deeper in these phenomena in future articles for the “Forced Togetherness Fridays” series, along with some positive stories of how things can go right instead of wrong with only a few cultural changes. And I welcome thoughts from others as I move forward, either sharing your own stories of forced togetherness in the workplace, or even counter-arguments in its favor. Until then, I plan to enjoy some quiet time working hard, by myself with just my cat for company.
A few years ago, I traveled California’s Highway 41 on my 41st birthday. I had hoped to make this a regular tradition, but various circumstances have kept me from following through, until this year, when I drove the southern half of California Highway 45. It wasn’t exactly on my birthday, and I didn’t complete the route, but was still a fun and eccentric way to celebrate the conclusion of my 45th year of life. It was also a good excuse to try out the new travel-mapping feature in our Highway☆ mobile app.
Highway 45 begins in the small town of Knight’s Landing in Yolo County, so I first had to schlep up there via Interstate 80 and then turn north on Highway 113 near U.C. Davis. 113 is a major freeway at this point, but a bit further north it narrows to a two-lane country road before reaching the junction with 45.
Knight’s Landing was actually a very small but cute town along the Sacramento River. Before embarking on the formal part of the trip, I stopped along the levee at Front Street to view the continuation of Highway 113 across the river. Front Street was rather beaten up compared to the rest of the town center, perhaps due to the nature of the levee or to discourage unnecessary driving, but it made for a nice little walk.
I then returned to the car and finally turned onto Highway 45, heading northwest out of town.
The highway zig-zagged on a grid between fields on the western side of the Sacramento River, but far enough for the river to mostly remain out of sight. But there were some lovely wide-open farmland vistas, made more dramatic by the bands of clouds in the sky marking what was a lovely day after a week of dreary weather.
It is when the landscape opened up that I was able to fully relax into the trip. There is always a point along the journey during which stresses, mundane or otherwise, start to melt away and the road, landscape, and solitude take over the mind. As Highway 45 is remarkably well signed, there was no ambiguity or uncertainty. The result is a sense of flow and well being that allows one to both think about other ideas, like music, while remaining fully engaged in the moment. It is something I have experienced many walking the streets of San Francisco, but not lately. I certainly hope it isn’t gone – as much as I enjoy these long excursions to other regions, I would love to return to the sense of external flow in my own community as well. Perhaps it is the familiarity or the many stresses and dramas, but I hope to regain it.
The highway turned due north in Colusa County, providing great views of the Sutter Buttes, considered to be one of the worlds smallest mountain rangers.
The Buttes are a small circle of volcanic lava domes that rise suddenly from the rather flat Sacramento Valley. The contrast is fascinating, and I would love to come back and explore the geology at a warmer time of year. Unfortunately, public access to the Buttes remains limited as far I can tell. (If any readers have any advice or new information about public access to the Sutter Buttes, please share in the comments.)
At this point, Highway 45 comes closer to the river, and between Grand Island and Grimes, comes right up against levees, before turning north again. It is not surprising to see such high levees, as the entire region seems like a giant flood waiting to happen.
Further north, we join with California Highway 20, a major east-west highway in this rural part of the state connecting to Yuba City to the east and to Lake County far to the west. The road became wider, smoother, and significantly busier as we continued on the duplex into the town of Colusa.
Colusa is a picturesque town on the river, with a small but nice town center and a quiet park along the levee and riverbank. It had warmed up considerably since I last got out in Knight’s Landing, so stopped for a bit to enjoy the sight and sound of the river. You can see a bit in this Instagram video.
Nearby I found The Tap Room, a small pub that had a large selection of beers including some local brews. I don’t think they had Sutter Butte Brewing, but they did have some selections from Berryessa brewing including this IPA.
In the enjoyment of the trip, I had completely forgotten that it was St. Patrick’s Day. But I was quickly reminded by the bartender who was decked in bright green regalia and informed me of the holiday pub crawl that would be happening that evening. This was the talk of the local patrons who started trickling in as the afternoon wore on. Everyone was friendly and welcoming, but a night of drinking was not going to be compatible with my plan to get back to the city safely at a reasonable hour. So I bid farewell and headed out on Highway 20 back to I-5 and I-505 to return to the Bay Area.
Tired but accomplished, I crossed the Bay Bridge back into San Francisco and home later that evening. That would usually be the end of the story, but after resting, we made the last-minute decision to go out again that night. So I found myself getting dressed up and heading back over the bridge for the third time to Oakland to see Chrome with Helios Creed. We met up with quite a few friends at the show and had a great time. You can see a bit of Chrome’s performance in this CatSynth TV.
It was a great day of diverse geography and experiences, albeit a long one. Not every day can or should be like this, but hope there are more to come this year…
See more Northern California in our Highway☆ app, available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.
At least since 2010, all of my trips to NAMM have been road trips, heading east from San Francisco on I-580 to meet Interstate 5 for the long trek south through Los Angeles to Orange County.
I-5 takes a more direct route through the sparsely populated western side of the Central Valley, compared to CA 99 (former US 99) that connects the major towns and cities of the region, including Fresno and Bakersfield. The small communities that one does pass are related to travel on the interstate itself or to the farms and orchards that dominate the landscape between stretches of emptier space.
It is a long trip, and one that I know many people would find boring. But for me, it is something I look forward to, an integral part of the experience along with the show itself, the after-parties and all the other little adventures. This year there was the added fun of testing out Highway☆ on the road trip, but even without that heightened sense of purpose, it is simply an enjoyable “flow experience.” Once over the Altamont Pass and into the Central Valley, stresses begin to fade as the mostly straight line of the road and the low stimulation of I-5 takes over. It may seem “empty” but there is still is just enough detail along the route to provide balance. After many years, I have come to know just about every major junction and many of the other details, such as the names of the small communities along the highway. By the time I arrive in the Los Angeles basin, I am recharged, enough to even remain unfazed by the notorious traffic!
The return trip along a nearly identical route is similarly an opportunity for psychic calm and flow after the nonstop overstimulation of NAMM (I do spend a half day after the show either with friends or at a museum as part of the decompression process before getting back on “The 5”). This year was no different, as I headed back with a tailwind and sense of optimism. Life seemed calm, free, but also filled with curiosity and excitement about professional opportunities in technology, music, and even travel. That feeling lasted into our arrival back in San Francisco, at least until my second bout of this year’s awful flu kicked in, along with some other stressful local responsibilities. One of the mental exercises to help through the ensuing week was to focus on how my mind and body responded positively to the I-5 trip (and to the many tendrils of travel in and around L.A.) and thought experiments on how to capture that sense of enjoyment and calm even when not traveling down a straight and empty stretch of road. I come back again to flow experience and how much that seems to be a product of solitude for me, but it can also come in playing together with musicians at the highest levels. And then there are situations where flow is stymied or non-existent. It is important to recognize both, and I hope to explore these topics more in upcoming articles.
See more of Interstate 5 in California and many other fine places across North America in our Highway☆ app, available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.
Walking underneath the I-280 elevated structures in Mission Bay, San Francisco.