Archive for: August, 2007

Poetry and Motion

Aug 21 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

It's good to take the train every now and then. It lets you get a taste of something special, something that you don't find much any more. Modern air travel sucks the soul out of the journey. It takes the process of getting from Point A to Point B and boils it down to the barest essentials. You drive to the airport, sit down on a plane, read a book, watch a movie, get a little work done, get off the plane, and leave at another airport. The airports even look the same. They've all got the same vendors, the same stores, the same seats, the same overpriced conveniences, and the same indifferent people providing the same indifferent services. If the airline pulled a fast one on you and substituted a simulator for the real plane, you might not figure out that you've been had until you're on the way to the airport.

Rail is different. When you get on a train, you get to experience a part of the journey that air travel leaves out: the stuff in the middle. The little towns, the small cities, the countryside and the people aren't seven miles below. They're fifty feet away, and they slide by slowly enough to let you catch the flavor of things you pass. You can see the personality of the countryside from the ground in a way that you just can't when you look down from the sky.

I miss that sometimes. I miss the poetry that goes with rail travel, too. Today, the train that I was on left from Penn Station in New York. This isn't the old Pennsylvania Station, this is a hole in the ground under a sports stadium, with dirty floors, low ceilings, and no personality. When I was a lot younger, and the trip on the train was the highlight of the whole vacation, Amtrak still used Grand Central Terminal in New York. The glory days of the station were long past. It was dingy and grimy and smelled of a generation's worth of diesel fumes, but there were still hints of magic there.

The ceiling of the terminal hadn't been cleaned in decades, but you could just make out the gold stars and outlines of the constellations up there. The entrances to the platforms were still through the old gates, and with trains lined up at every platform there was a sense of purpose and business to the station. Even the train announcements had more personality.

They had to, of course, because trains don't skip everything in between the two main points. Trains go to lots of places. The train to Buffalo isn't just the train to Buffalo, it's the train to everywhere in between New York City and Buffalo. Announcing a train departure properly can't help but have more personality than an airport speaker's monotone statement that 1st class passengers are now welcome to step onto flight somethingoranother going to whothehellreallycares. But there was one guy at Grand Central when I was growing up who could really do it right. I can still remember:

"Now boarding at Gate Number twenty-three, Platform A, Train Number 63, The Lake Shore Limited 2:30 departure for Buffalo. Making station stops at Crrrrrrr-Oton HarmonPoughkeepsieRhinecliff HudsonAllll-Bany Rensselaer. Schnectady. AmsterdamUticaRomeSyracuseRochesterBufffffff-Alo Depew! Continuting on to Erie. Cleveland. Chicago. Connect at Chicago for Allllllllll points west and south. Now departing Gate Number Twenty-Three Alllllll-A-bo-oard!"

It had rhythm and poetry. It was a performance in the spoken word. And I miss that magic.

5 responses so far

New York Pictures

Aug 20 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

Here's a few pictures from the New York event. I might post a couple of more in the next couple of days, but most of the pictures I took are really similar to the stuff some of my other Sciblings have posted.


Professor Steve Steve was not only kind enough to attend, he brought a puppet friend of his own.


Janet was very, very careful when she made the jukebox selections. Almost as careful as she was with the shots.


Josh decided to do a quick strip before the filming session started.


Grrl and Mo were bad on the way home, so they had to go stand in different corners.

2 responses so far

New York, New York

Aug 20 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

If you read the blogs here, you probably noticed the lack of posts on Friday and Saturday, but you definitely shouldn't tale that to mean that things were quiet in the Scienceblogs world. A large group of Sciblings got together here in New York this weekend for two days and long nights of fun. The results included some truly legendary karaoke (which I unfortunately missed); the consumption of Indian food (some of us ate more than others; I didn't have any); fun at a museum (thanks again, Sheril); several great parties with good food, good drink, and good ideas; and a minimum of one truly monumental hangover.

I took a few pictures, but they're stuck in the camera for the time being. I'll post some once I get access to an SD card reader. Some others may show up here later, or may never see the light of day, depending on how good a response I get to my extortion attempts. If you want pictures in the mean time, there are a few available - Paul "The Bar Escape King" Myers, Mo "Sleeps Silently" Costandi, Bora "Have You Heard About PLoS" Zivkovic, and Rob "Nerd In Any Habitat" Knop have all posted some.

4 responses so far

Continuing Adventures in Airport Hell.

Aug 17 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

They've got a while to go before they catch up to Southwest in my personal pantheon of airline demons, but ATA seems to be getting set to give it a real good try. When we woke up - already at the airport - at 5, our 6 am departure was listed as being on time. That lasted for a whole 20 minutes - the pilot went out to preflight the airplane, and discovered that there were multiple tires that were unacceptable. We're currently sitting in chairs at the gate waiting for new tires to be flown in for the airplane, and our estimated departure has been pushed back by at least 3 hours.

Hey, ATA, here's a question for you: how much of an extra effort would it have required to have one of the mechanics check the plane after it arrived here last night? You still might not have been able to get new tires in until late this morning, but at least everyone wouldn't have had to show up three hours before the plane's gonna be ready.

I've got to say, though, it's good to see that the airline industry's making an effort to ensure that Congress isn't the group of workers with the worst approval ratings in the nation.

One response so far

A Google News Juxtaposition

Aug 17 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

Every now and then, the placement of stories on Google News can be slightly amusing. Here's two stories that turned up, one on top of the other, this morning. It's always nice to know that we're getting the important news first.


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"Customer Service" at Southwest Airlines.

Aug 17 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

If getting there is half the fun, I don't want the other half, thanks.

The family and I are on our way to New York at the moment. It's been too long since I've had a good slice of pizza and a good bagel, and visiting family and friends is a great excuse to fix that problem. We're in transit instead of there right now for a variety of reasons, mostly related to the weather. But not entirely. A large chunk of the problem can be chalked up to Southwest Airlines. An even larger chunk of my current state of anger comes from what they term "customer service" here at Chicago Midway.

If you've been watching the news, you probably know that it rained in Houston today. A lot. There was thunder, lightning, and all of the fun that goes along with getting grazed by a tropical system. Being sane, rational humans, we were totally unsurprised to find that our departure time had been pushed back by three hours. We did expect, being sane, rational humans, that once Southwest let us get on the airplane they would be ready to depart. Silly us.

The airplane for our scheduled 1:45 flight from Houston to Chicago arrived at about 4:30, and the ground crew did an absolutely fantastic job turning the plane around - if anyone's looking for a NASCAR pit crew, those guys could probably do it. The gate agent moved fast, the flight attendants from both the incoming and outgoing flights helped clear the plane, and they had everyone on board before 5. As the last people got on the plane, one of the flight attendants got on the intercom and asked everyone to get in their seats quickly. Another line of thunderstorms was approaching, she said, and they wanted to get us off the ground quickly so that we wouldn't be held up any further by the weather. Miraculously, every person on the fully loaded 737 did exactly that. We sat down, fastened our seatbelts, and waited.

And waited.

After about five minutes, the flight attendant got back on the intercom and apologized for rushing us. It seemed that the plane wasn't actually quite ready to go just yet, because there were still a couple of empty seats up front that they needed to fill before we could leave. Two empty seats on the whole darn airplane, and wouldn't you know it, they were both in the cockpit. So we waited another 25 minutes to fix that little problem. Then we pushed back from the gate, taxied out to the threshold, and waited another half hour for that line of thunderstorms the flight attendants had warned us about to pass. We finally got in to Chicago's Midway Airport at 8:09 pm. Our connecting flight had departed at 8:00. And that's where our fun with Southwest really began.

It started at the arrival gate, when I tried to find the "customer service supervisor" that the flight attendants had said would meet the plane. Nobody was at the gate, and it took a few minutes to find out which podium the guy was hiding behind. He promptly informed me that since the next leg of my flight was on ATA, I'd have to go to Gate B-26 to reschedule, and that there was nothing he could do. We were at A-19 at the time, so that was a bit of a hike. Got there, and there was nobody behind that counter - we had to wait 5 minutes before someone showed up. While I was looking for someone to help, I made the mistake of checking with another Southwest gate agent. This one told me that he couldn't help with tickets bought through ATA. When I told him that the tickets had been purchased through Southwest, he told me that I should call the 800 number and rebook through reservations.

When the ATA folks arrived at their gate, we were re-ticketed for the next available flight, at 6 am, and told that because we had missed the flight due to a Southwest delay, the best they could offer us was a discounted rate at a hotel. Then we went back to Southwest, where we were told that because the delay was weather-related, they were not obligated to offer us a hotel room. When I pointed out that we wouldn't have missed the connection if their pilots had been there on time, they told me that not having pilots is a weather-related problem. I asked to speak to a supervisor, and after a bit of a wait I was told that the supervisor wasn't going to come down to the gate I was at, and if I wanted to talk to her I should walk down to B-7 and find her. When I did, she told me that even if not having pilots isn't actually weather-related, they still didn't need to provide a hotel because the problem was "mostly the weather." So, no hotel.

The next adventure hit around 11, when we tried to find something softer than the concourse floor to sleep on. I found, for the first time that day, a Southwest gate agent who was courteous and helpful, and got a couple of blankets for the kids. She also mentioned that there were going to be cots set up down near the A concourse. So, tired and irritable, we packed up the stuff, and trudged down the length of one concourse and halfway up another without seeing a single cot. When I stopped and asked another Southwest gate agent, she told me that the cots were back the way we'd come. When I told her we'd been through there and there weren't any, she radioed her supervisor - the same one I'd had so much fun dealing with before - and was told that the cots were there.

They weren't.

I know this for sure because when I walked back that way an hour later (after we'd finally found some softer sleeping arrangements at the USO), there were several very tired-looking passengers looking for the legendary cots. Unless "cots" is Southwest's term for food court tables pushed against the wall, there were none in sight.

Taken individually, none of the "problems" I had with Southwest is a big deal. Unfortunately, I didn't get to take them individually. Instead, I got them all in rapid sequence. Their "customer service" at Midway yesterday managed to do nothing right. Given the number of chances they had, that's actually quite a feat. I'd be impressed, if I wasn't so thoroughly annoyed.

3 responses so far

A couple of bird pictures

Aug 16 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

Here are a couple of pictures I took of a Great Frigate Bird (Fregata minor) that was cruising around near Flat Island, just off Kailua, Oahu back in March.

Flat-Island (1)


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The "Sensible Centrists"

Aug 16 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

Paul has a post up with a really great political cartoon. I just printed it and stuck it on my refrigerator. You should, too.

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Planning for Stormy Weather

Aug 15 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

Right now, I'm sitting under one of the outer rain bands associated with newly-formed Tropical Storm Erin. We're seeing a moderately heavy thunderstorm right now. The rain's coming down fast and heavy. There's a lot of lightning right now, with thunder that's loud enough to set off the occasional car alarm and close enough to send my thunderphobic dog off to the dubious shelter of the bathtub. Under the circumstances, it seems like a pretty good time to talk about getting prepared for a storm.


This really should go without saying, but while this might be a very good time for me to write about emergency preparedness, it's a bad time to be thinking about the subject for the first time. If you haven't finished your preparations by the time the storm hits, you - or your next of kin - will probably wind up paying for it down the road.

The next-of-kin line was not intended to be a flip remark, by the way. Very few of us go through life completely alone. Most of us have family and friends who love us, and who just might worry about us a bit when they hear that something bad is happening where we are. If they know that you've got a good emergency plan, and they know some of the most relevant details, they might be just a little less frantic when they hear that your area is about to become the scene of a FEMA declaration and a Presidential photo-op.

Continue Reading »

5 responses so far

I guess he did know what would happen in Iraq.

Aug 15 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

Deadeye Dick Cheney, talking about why we shouldn't invade Iraq:

That was back in 1994. It's sad how right - and prophetic - he was ten years before the big screw-up started.

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