- I See Stupid People
- Stupid Shout Outs
- Prep-Walk Photos
John: Another voyage home
Saturday, January 3, 2004 -
At the moment, I'm sitting in the passenger seat of my mom's car as my sister, Michelle, drives us down I-80. We just passed the exit to Guthrie Center, which leads to the home town of Jeannine, a.k.a. Grandma III. As we fly down the road, 80 miles away from where we were an hour ago, I wonder how she's doing. Before long, we'll be passing an exit that leads to Mechanicsville and Clarence, Iowa, where Donna, a.k.a. Grandma II, and her son, Bryan and his wife, Cheryl and their children, live. I wonder how they are doing. I wonder if Bryan and Cheryl's daughter, Ashley, has visited the site recently enough to be "caught up" with our journals. Yes, I know these are sort of rambling thoughts rather than a linear story, but I suppose I'm going for more of a "what's on my mind" kind of thing. Oh yeah, and technically this is my car as I traded my mom another car for it. Perhaps I'll get into that later. I must also remember to tell you about the friendly Mormon Elders that visited my apartment recently.
We're nearing Des Moines now, not far from where Romey is living in Urbandale. Michelle is whipping us around a long slow curve as we listen to techno dance music supplied by my laptop piped through the car's stereo system. Exit 126 to Urbandale just went by… Hi Romey. (o; I suppose it would make a little more chronological sense to talk about the days after we arrived in San Francisco, right?
The days after we visited Alcatraz are already more than a little blurry, mostly because my memory is rather poor (and Michelle isn't very helpful either, so perhaps it's a genetic thing we share, hehe.) Anyhow, much of our time was spent writing journals, making updates to the site, etc. There were several little issues I tracked down and corrected to make the site run better and Erik was working on naming photos for hours. Andy seemed to have the most problems of all getting any done. Many of the times I'd walk by to use the rest room I'd see him either staring blankly at his screen or a little Minesweeper game would be running instead.
There was supposed to be an apartment available for us to use while we were there for a few days as the current resident was to vacate only a day after we arrived. Sure, the guy finished moving out, according to the apartment manager, and we even got a key. However, when we cracked open the door, we were greeted by a little portable radio still singing tunes. There was no one there. A pile of dirt lay in the bath tub and other random things were scattered about the main living area including stacks of clothes. The kitchen still had a number of food items in the cupboards and the pantry. On top of all that, it smelled a bit on the strange side and we began to wonder if the guy had plans to come back or something. So, we decided to stay in the apartment with Michelle and Jon. It still amuses me that Michelle would always come home with a giant smile on her face, happily exclaiming, "There're people in my house!"
While we might have been able to concentrate more on our journals in an empty apartment, it was nice to be in a place where we had drinks, food, and television (which did do an excellent job of distracting us on occasion.) What we didn't have was a decent Internet connection. Michelle's husband, Jon, had ordered it weeks ago, but the cable company had kept breaking their appointments, so I promised to call them every day to make sure we got it hooked up for him while we were there. I also decided to put up the rest of the video we'd taken after we got home (since the video is stored on a web server in Teresa's apartment.) Eventually, after a couple of days, we were successful, and finally got a technician to come out to hook us up.
The guy was pretty nice, or at least he seemed so at first. I had taken care of plugging everything in on the inside of the apartment so we could get it up and running with minimal effort from the technician. He took care of the wiring on the outside of the building first and then I led him up to the apartment, using the rickety, fun elevator, of course. The lights on the cable modem indicated that we were connected and ready to go, but no matter what I did, we couldn't get to any web page. The tech. explained that he was only supposed to do a "basic" installation where they make sure the cable modem is working and the rest is up to us. To configure the computer would cost an extra $50 and be considered a "premium" installation. I became more than a little unhappy since I have years of experience configuring computers and I positively knew I'd set it up correctly. I even had him call his manager and a second technician came to the apartment and told me the same thing.
Since we got hooked up so late in the day, I assumed that we were the last visit of the day for these guys and they probably just wanted to be done so they could go home. The refused to tell me anything more about the cable modem setup, the one guy saying that he knew what the problem was and could fix it in a moment as long as I paid them fifty more dollars, and I felt that was highway robbery. I told them to go, promising I'd make a call about them, although really all I wanted was to get the stupid thing working.
After they left, I called up the cable company's support line and a much friendlier phone support representative asked me a few simple questions that cleared things up in a hurry. He wanted to know if I had a setup CD or if the install guys had offered me one. I did not have one and was irritated that the other guys hadn't asked. I found out from the fellow on the phone that I needed to go to and could only go to the cable company's web site in order to verify the setup before I could get access to the rest of the Internet. Another very important piece of information the install guys had left out. It was probably all just to get me to pay them the $50 premium fee. I finally got online with the help of the guy on the phone, and I thanked him several times after getting information on whom to report jerky installer guys to.
So, we finally had a high speed Internet connection, which was very nice to have back as all three of us had gotten very used to practically instant Internet before we'd left on the trip and we missed it! Journals and pictures were uploaded and we all had fun playing around for a bit on the Internet, including visiting our own bulletin board to see what people were saying.
Later that week, we went to see Bubba Ho Tep with Karin and her friends. Bubba Ho Tep stars Bruce Campbell, the B actor made famous by movies like Evil Dead, Army of Darkness, and things like that. Bubba Ho Tep is about Elvis living in an old folks home where everyone thinks he's just an old Elvis impersonator. Oh yeah, and there's an old mummy running around killing other old folks that live there, too. While we thought it'd be a funny movie, and it was, it's much more about the neglect of our elderly that's so common in our country right now.
I'm not going to say too much on it since I'm a bit guilty of it myself. I admit that I never considered visiting my grandparents to be that fun of an event. The movie did make me realize that, though, and I have kept it in mind since I saw the movie. People rarely give much attention to the old, when we should realize that they have so much interesting stuff stored up in those old heads of theirs. Many of the older people we met on the trip had all kinds of cool stuff buried in their brains, from the details of genetically engineered corn crops to the history of prostitution in Nevada.
Such thoughts make me hope that someday I can get my kids (no, I don't have any yet) to really like being around my parents and perhaps be able to get my mom and dad to tell them stories of old crazy things, too. Even Teresa's grandparents are in a situation that makes me a bit sad.
They used to live in their own house in Lincoln, Nebraska, and were delivered meals to make sure they were kept healthy. While both her grandpa and grandma aren't in perfect health, they were able to take walks around the neighborhood and do their own thing in their house. Now, they've been moved into an old folks' home in a small town and rarely do anything aside from watching television. Teresa's aunt, who lives in the area, has faithfully taken care of things for quite a while and made the executive decision that they could no longer care for themselves, and had them moved into the rest home near her house. I know she has good intentions, but when you realize they have such weak excuses for lives now, I really wonder why they were moved there.
Teresa's mom used to live in Nebraska and that's whose parents are there now. Teresa's dad's parents were put into a similar situation long ago and it bothered her dad to no end, so the fact that his wife's parents just got into that situation just drives him nuts because it's such a reminder of his own parents. Her dad flew to Nebraska and found much better accommodations, but it seems Teresa's grandparents are going to stay where they are. Once again, I wonder how it'll go with my dad and mom, and ultimately, with me. Of course, I don't intend to ever die, so I suppose I've got to hurry up and find the fountain of youth (hmmm… sounds like time for another trip, eh?) (o;
Yikes, for not saying much about that, I sure blathered on for a while. Sorry about that. Let's get on another topic, shall we?
Vesuvios, a very hip little two-story bar in the coolest downtown area of San Francisco, hosted a party that Friday for us. I suppose you would more accurately call it a get together than a party, as only a few folks (very cool folks) showed up. Of course, we three were there, along with Jon, Michelle and Aditya (Jon's Indian friend - we pronounce his name as "Audit" even though I think that's not exactly correct.) Karin showed up and Tim and his wife, more fans from the site, also attended. The owners of the bar, Chris and his wife, Janet, were the gracious hosts and Chris was awesome enough to supply us with some booze and pizza as well. For those of you that kept up with the web site quite a while ago, you may remember when a nice person translated the article from the major French newspaper Le Monde. Chris is that person (does he rule or what?)
After we left there, we stopped by a very interesting museum right next door that was open in spite of the late hour. There they had everything from old wooden rocking horses to skulls to mummy caskets (yes, I thought of Bubba Ho Tep almost immediately.) On the drive home, Jon tortured Auditya some more, which is always fun (yes, even for Auditya, who grins the entire time.) We got home and fell into our usual sleeping spots on the floor.
The next morning, Michelle drove us around a bit, and we went by several areas that were filmed for The Matrix movies. Michelle sped through one of the tunnels used in the movie for a high-speed chase scene, and that was kind of fun. We visited the new house that Jon and his dad and uncle have been working on. The place was designed by Jon and guarded by the colorful character named Lawrence who lives in the garage. It's a very neat place, three stories tall, with an apartment on the first floor and a house on the second and third floors (to give the best view of the area to the home owners and supply an extra line of income to help pay for the mortgage or house a mother in law.)
Jon's architectural design firm is called Urban Meliors, which basically means that they improve urban environments. His website, not yet complete, is www.urbanmeliors.com. I honestly considered staying there to help them work on the house since I really like doing that kind of construction. I think it's almost kind of therapeutic (since you're doing real work rather than staring at an evil little screen all day, hehe.) It'd be neat to see something get built as a result of the work done by me and others. I truly believe that Jon will be a very successful architect in a few years.
Probably one of the most interesting things we did, on the day before we left San Francisco, was to go with Karin and her astronomy students to the Lick Observatory outside of San Jose. Michelle let me drive and once we got to the mountains leading to the peak where the observatory lay, the road became very fun to navigate, with an amazing amount of twists and turns. Some of the switchbacks consisted of turns greater than 180 degrees and often there was nothing on the side of road but a cliff leading to oblivion. Well, maybe not oblivion, but it was a very long way down if I made a mistake driving, which was possible considering I took a few corners with squealing tires. (o;
Once we got to the observatory, many of the students from the University were already there waiting for the rest to arrive. The view was simply spectacular and we looked over the city for quite a few minutes before the final stragglers parked their cars. The lady who was running the night's tour, a prominent scientist named Elly Gates, introduced herself and then led us around the grounds of the observatory, showing us all of the different white globes that hid several different telescopes.
One telescope interested me because it was fully automated by a very smart computer. It's programmed to be a rather intelligent searcher of the skies. Every night, the telescope's computer checks the weather to make sure it's "safe" to opening its dome. Once the computer opens the dome, it begins scanning the night sky methodically, looking for specific things the scientists have "taught" it to look for. Once it thinks it's found something, it logs its location and, on another night, looks again to verify that it did indeed find what it's looking for. Once the computer verifies the discovery, it sends e-mails to the scientists who programmed it and then they verify the discoveries.
This robot telescope has been searching for binary star systems, where a solar system has two stars orbiting around one another. When this search was done only by humans, perhaps a few were found each month. Now that the robot telescope is doing the search, it discovers several every single night! I asked Elly if the robot gets credit for the discovery and she laughed and said that the scientists who programmed it get the credit.
We walked into one of the newest observatory domes and Elly showed us all of the cool new technology being used to search the skies, including her own specialty, called adaptive optics. The military came up with this device not long ago and it has just recently been declassified for civilian use, so the scientists are pretty excited about it.
If you've ever watched a sunset or stared at the stars (and if you haven't, then stop reading this right now and go outside!) then you know what I'm talking about when I talk about the way they look a little bit out of shape, blurry and/or blinky. That happens because of the layer of gasses above our heads, called the atmosphere, has all kinds of warm and cold spots that warp the light randomly. In the past, this "fuzziness" caused all kinds of problems in the field of astronomy because it could screw up the positions and calculations of stars and such.
Adaptive optics "fix" this little problem in a simple yet ingenious way. A little flexible mirror is warped by hundreds of little computer-controlled pins underneath it in the exact opposite way that the image is being warped by the atmosphere. The way that the computer does this is to fix on a very bright star and use that as a guide, checking how the star wiggles about hundreds or thousands of times per second and moving the pins to warp the flexible mirror to compensate. What this means is that there must be a very bright star near the area of the sky where the astronomer wants to check things out, otherwise they cannot use adaptive optics. This isn't a very good situation because the sky actually has very few bright stars, so the scientists got smart again and came up with a solution.
The solution is to shoot a very, very high powered laser up into the sky to create an "artificial star" that they could use as a calibration star. The laser is set to match the frequency of phosphorus atoms that just happen to exist in a very thin layer on the top of our atmosphere and the atoms vibrate back and forth and give off a very bright light (becoming an artificial star.) Once again, I'm amazed by what neat things we can do with the right brains and technology.
After we left that telescope, we headed to the main building where the oldest telescope is kept. This is the one we'd spend the most time with. (I'm pausing here to take over driving from Michelle as it's begun to snow.)