Monday, November 22, 2010

The Friendly Skies

I'm back in Washington, D.C. again. Although I worried myself sick to point of throwing up about porno-scanners and enhanced pat-downs, my admin's decision for me to fly out of Long Beach airport on Jet Blue meant that I had the opportunity to
a)Observe a 1950s terminal in person
b)Have the friendliest baggage check I've ever had, including one of the TSA staff chuckling at my red bag next to my red computer and saying, "I think I've guessed your favorite color."
c)Amble across the tarmac like a sixties celeb to the sky stairs.
d)Try to hump my baggage up sky stairs which are actually stairs you have to climb, despite a really bad knee, trick hip and generally decrepit body. (I guess if your definition of carry-on luggage is "luggage the passenger can carry, upstairs if necessary, and place in the overhead cabin" then maybe I didn't have carry-on luggage at all and I should just give up flying.)

JetBlue seem more human than many airlines. At the terminal (yes, my flight was delayed), the JetBlue guy called for someone to check in.
"Yao Ling, Yao Ling, to the middle desk area please."

Nothing happened. Five minutes later:

"Yao Ling, Yao Ling to the middle desk area. I promise it's nothing bad."

And the captain made some sort of joke on the way, too.

I'm not looking forward to the flight back, from a tight-arsed port like Dulles, but we'll see. I've read many a horror story about the TSA, but I flew out from there only three weeks ago. Let's see if they've turned into Nazis since then.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Above and Beyond: Earth from orbit

This is what our home looks like from above.

It's claustrophobic, isn't it, floating so close to all that choking water vapor? It's a start though. If you can get that far out of the well, you can get nice clean colonies in space. One day.

Lead in his pencil

Dalton Ghetti is an artist who carves pencil lead into miniature sculptures. [link dead, alas]

Lovely stuff.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Dead Weather, Halloween 2009

Breathtaking video of their Shoreditch 2009 performance. No idea how this got onto the interwebs or whether there's more, but for all Jack White and Dead Weather fans, this performance of Treat Me Like Your Mother is a real big deal.

Monday, November 15, 2010

We choose to go to the moon and do the other thing...

Driving home this evening I was listening to Radio One's Zane Lowe, who had discovered the new king of hip hop, the savior of rap. Sorry, I've forgotten who that was, but I'm sure I'll be reminded in short order. The first track he played was, in the words of Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, "needlessly messianic" but fairly catchy, and was introduced by a long sample of one of the most inspiring speeches of the 20th Century, the "We choose to go to the moon" speech.

Which Zane Lowe, with an awed shiver in his voice, described as "Nixon's moon speech".

Not quite, but it does throw out a number of ideas for an alternative history. The speech in question is from 1962, and is JFK's...which I thought everyone knew but you can't take things for granted these days.

(You can watch the awe-inspiring full speech here.)

Remarkable stuff. I can't imagine a modern president - Obama included - who could speak of progress and science and exploration as a great endeavor we should undertake because we have a calling. I'd be surprised if a modern president could pull off a halting speech inspiring the rebuilding of a crumbling bridge. Speeches about how we have to take our clothes off in front of strangers in order to avoid being massacred by beardies living in caves, we got 'em.

I miss the 20th Century.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Back to Washington

Today my boss's boss's boss, on a conference call, said, "We're asleep at the switch and the competition are eating our lunch."

Wise words.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Air and Space Museum

Flying back from Washington proved to be quite fun too. Mostly due to the easy vodka. It had never occurred to me ask the stewardesses (or whatever they're called now) "I'd like two vodkas and orange please". I assumed you'd have to buy things one by one, like in a real bar. So a million kudos to the drunk in front of me on the trip out from SNA to DFW last Friday afternoon who taught me otherwise (by example).

We'd spent the previous day at the Air and Space Museum, so we went to the Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center on the way back to Dulles. This is where the Smithsonian stashes all the aircraft that are too large to go into the Hair and Face Museum on the National Mall.

It's huge. I've seen a Concord(e) of course (yawn) and an SR-71 Blackbird (more yawns) too, and a great deal of the others, but Udvar-Hazy holds the ace of all times - a space shuttle.

My god was it big and impressive. It was more like an ocean liner than a plane and dwarfed the other space craft there and in the Mall without even trying. This is a Gemini Capsule; this is an Apollo Capsule; hello up there (cranes neck), you must be a Space fucking Shuttle.

It sort of embodies American superiority. "Hi Russia! Hi China! What did you do on your holidays? Well that's nice. I did THIS!" [Whips out a Space Shuttle.]

Then I was back to the airport to endure the usual. Shoes off! Laptops out! Who knows why they go through this crap. It's not to make us more safe - the idea that the security theater at the airports makes us safer is simply risible. I guess it's better to be seen to do something than to do nothing, even if 'something' is expensive, intrusive and disruptive and achieves bugger all. It is, after all, something.

No one should believe the latest 'terror scare'. Flock-sprayed printer cartridges with some sort of printed circuit glued on the outside? It's even more amateurish than the last three or four underwear and shoe scares. It's amateurish enough that I don't even believe the government orchestrated it, as I think even the American government could mock something up that was a little more believable. But you have to admit, it was convenient for it to happen just a couple of days before the elections. Vote For Fear!

Meanwhile, FedEx doesn't actually fly planes from Yemen. And isn't it weird that the Brits said the printer cartridges tested harmless, until the Yanks demanded that they weren't? None of this story hangs together. All we have here is a demand to be afraid, be very afraid, with nothing to back that up. And of course, the fact that a cargo plane (of dubious factuality) contained a bomb (of lead azide, I read somewhere, which would take a second device to actually burn) means that passengers on non-cargo planes will now be required to have a pornoscan (if the airport is so equipped) or a 'thorough' (read 'ball-squeezing') pat down if no scanners are available.

"The mail bomb threat prompted DHS to roll out additional security measures at passenger airports. An "unpredictable mix" of security layers for passengers were implemented, TSA announced, including explosives detectors, bomb sniffing dogs and additional pat downs."

Because you know, vague and unlikely threats to cargo always mean each individual human being on a passenger flight needs to submit to search. Under those circumstances, you should give up your constitutional rights against unlawful search or seizure. It makes COMPLETE SENSE.

They say the bomb could have been activated by wi-fi. Seems unlikely, there's not a lot of wi-fi in the sky. Pressure, altitude, timer, garage door opener, car door fob, GPS motion sensor...much more likely. Except there's no evidence the "bomb" had any of those on board. Anyway, it was a fake bomb. .

I've read a shitload of message board posts about this in the last few days. Many say that the Fourth Amendment is kind of not needed and could be done away with. That having pictures of your naked body examined by strangers is reasonable, and you should just get over it. It's not really a strip search since you don't strip (someone actually said this). Anyone who doesn't want to go through that, and isn't overjoyed by the alternative, a squeeze-frisk, must have something to hide.

Yeah, I do have a different alternative. There are people from that demographic trying to kill Americans. To reduce that, personally, I'd go for not killing people's families with drones, and not occupying other people's countries. I think that would be significantly cheaper and as a bonus would stop teh brown people developing red masks of blood vengeance as they survey the scattered limbs of their families, blood of their daughters soaking into the dry dust of their devastated houses. Call me a big silly if you like, but I sometimes wonder if blowing the fuck out of a family with a missile doesn't make the surviving family members wonder exactly how much they love the US.

Maybe I just have my head in the clouds.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Halloween in Baltimore

With a trip to Washington DC under my belt, it was time to head for Baltimore, home of Edgar Allan Poe, for a trip around the crypts and a some short story readings.

On the way there, we visited the American Visionary Art Museum. Definitely worth a visit, if you're there. It mainly focuses on work by people who don't really see things the same way as other people. Some of them are religiously inspired, and some are just...different. I forget the PC term.

The temporary exhibit was on the theme, "What Makes Us Smile?" What mostly made *us* laugh were the Whoopee Cushions that went off whenever someone sat on a particular bench. Adults mostly did it by accident, being able to read the name on the cushions but failing to do so and getting embarrassed, and kids mostly did it deliberately because they love fart jokes. Apart from that, most people wandered around doing things like looking at pictures of Alfred E. Neumann or reading jokes by Jon Stewart with a scholarly air of absorption. My friend Kali was laughing at the jokes, and when I pointed out to her that no-one else was, because a MUSEUM IS SERIOUS BUSINESS GODDAMMIT it only made her laugh more.

Then we ate too much (a recurring theme on my trips with Kali Durga) and went to Westminster Hall and Burying Ground for the Annual Halloween Tour. Westminster Hall is a suitably twisted burying place for Poe. The original graveyard was in operation from 1786 (and contains a number of veterans of both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812). When a church was needed, in order to avoid disturbing the remains, the church was designed to be built on stilts. The graves are still there, complete with headstones, underneath it. Not only that, but there are above-ground crypts both underneath it and around it. (The church was completed in 1852.)

Poe is not underneath the church - he died too late for that, in 1849. His original grave was unmarked, but as interest in his stories grew, his remains were disinterred and moved to a more prominent spot, and given a large marker.

The Halloween tour included the inevitable Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on the organ (pictured above - those are the decorative fake pipes, the real pipes occupying much more space behind them), trips around the crypts (none of which were lying broken open with bones strewn around, disappointingly. I'd even have lived without seeing gnaw marks if there had been a bit of strewing), cider and popcorn, and a recitation of The Telltale Heart by a dead ringer for Tom Baker, The Doctor, both in looks and performance. Excellent portrayal of nutcasery by a fine local actor whose name I did not catch.

Milk Run

As we milled around the National Mall during the Million Moderate March, the fancy took me for a hot dog, and for some reason I believed I'd be able to get one in the Hirshhorn Museum. This turned out to be an incorrect assumption but since rallying with moderates (and Zombies) was getting tiring we took to the subterranean gallery of the museum and looked at the Color Forms exhibits.

One of them, Milk Run, was in a special room and came with instructions, which I didn't bother to read, and so was soon walking down a completely dark corridor and round two sharp bends that cut off any light at all from outside. (I ran into the wall on the second bend.) After that, I staggered forward for a while towards a pale glow, hand trailing the wall and feeling for every footstep in case there was a step up or down in front of me. I'd been doing that when someone behind me hissed, "Hey, you people are *in* the exhibit. Come back here." And someone else giggled, "It's like watching zombies stagger around."

I made it back, with considerable help, to the bench from which you are actually supposed to observe the pink glow. As our eyes gradually dark-adapted over twenty minutes or so, the slight sensation of light turned into a deep red rectangle that seemed to hang in mid-air, white highlights to one side of it and a feeling of a frame hanging in a different plane so that it did not enclose the work, but rather set it off as an accent.

It was an impressive piece of art. Pictures don't do it justice, since you're not in the dark, but here is one, FWIW. But much more impressive was watching the next wave of non-dark-adapted zombies arrive, and then the next and the next. Each time there was a 'thunk' as at least one of every party walked into the wall in the corridor, and then the strange stagger, similar across all but always different, as the new arrival, completely in the dark, tried to orient themselves using the faint glow. At the back, with our adapted eyes, we could now see them very clearly, silhouetted against the artwork. Some staggered and tried to get out through the light source of the piece. Some felt along the wall. Some had read the instructions and had some idea there was a bench at the back and just needed encouragement. One couple kissed and I briefly entertained the idea we were in for a very naughty shadow play, but they got bored and staggered out after a while. A few hopeless sad cases used their cell phone lights, which of course risked burning our retinas so we shouted at them.

STB said, "You can do this in art. If this was a science experiment you'd never get the IRB to okay doing this to people."

Good fun.

And I managed to get a hot dog from a vendor outside afterwards.


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