pergamond: ([Tamora Pierce] Circle // Tris)


Notre Dame Basilica is set in the heart of Montreal's old town. With its twin bell towers, you could be forgiven for thinking that the name comes from its famous Parisian counter-part. You may even be right, but no one will admit to it; not wikipedia and not the Sound & Light show we attended on Saturday evening.

The flier for this event shows the church nave decked with triangular sails upon which artfully coloured blobs were projected. In a second image, the sails were gone and red and blue lights illuminated different parts of the ornately carved facades. I was therefore expecting the acoustical and elaborately designed interior of the church to be taken advantage of in an abstract interpretation of thundering music.

What I got was a history lesson. Which was somewhat of a surprise.

In 1657, the French settlement of 'Ville Marie' was founded in the new land and with it, a small chapel. The small colony faced difficult times along with their European compatriots up and down the coast but eventually it expanded enough to build a hospital and the chapel was re-housed inside it.

The colony continued to grow and finally in 1672, it got its own parish church which was given the name 'Notre Dame'. The population did not stop there and it reached the stage where thousands of the village worshippers were forced to gather outside the church's doors each Sunday. A new building was needed and an Irish architect by the name of James O'Donnell was brought in for the job. O'Donnell was residing in New York and was originally a Protestant, but converted to Catholicism on his deathbed, quite possibly so he could be buried in his own church. He lies in the crypt alone, so possibly no one else believed in his change of allegiance either. The show mentions that O'Donnell's remains lie beneath your feet, but does not mention his abrupt conversation; wikipedia being a far more reliable source for such juicy details.

O'Donnell lived to see his church open in 1829, but his death in 1830 came eleven years before the construction of its first bell tower. Until that time, the bell was rung from the old church building that was still situated in front of its replacement. While undoubtedly impressive, O'Donnell's design was flawed by his choice for lighting. Behind the alter, there was a large window whose light blinded the faithful who sat in the middle pews. The --undoubtedly more guilt ridden-- parishioners who had slunk to the side were shrouded in darkness. Feasibly no one in the congregation had a problem with this but nevertheless, the interior was redesigned between 1872-79 by Victor Bourgeau, who also designed the intricate pulpit which winds like spiral treehouse to the left of the alter. The front of the church is now covered by an elaborate wooden façade and light enters the church from stained glass side windows. From the outside, you can see an extension now backs onto that part of the church, so presumably the old window is completely bricked up. The interior is undoubtedly very impressive, even if one of my friends proclaimed the pillars to look like Christmas wrapping paper.

All of this was told to us through narration interspersed by --it must be said-- somewhat dubious and sycophantic actors. That aside, the content, which highlighted Notre Dame's history intertwined with that of Montreal's, was extremely interesting. Images of the early settlement were also shown on the sail screens and, when points about the church's architecture were discussed, lights lit the relevant part of the décor.

In 1982, Pope Jean Paul II visited Montreal and raised the status of Notre Dame to a basilica. It also was the location of Celine Dion's wedding in 1994. The show mentioned the former, but not the latter. No prizes for guessing where I got the second fact from.
pergamond: ([Futurama] Bender // Applause)


Window shopping in Seoul was proving to be somewhat challenging since the shops didn't have windows. Well, strictly speaking they did; the mall consisted of the usual array of glass-fronted stores on multiple levels connected by a central escalator. The difference was that the shops seemed unable to be contained behind their façades. Like an outdoor market, rails of goods spilled onto the aisles making it impossible to tell where the actual front of the store began. It also bustled with people and it was past 10 pm.

When booking flights between Sapporo and Toronto, I discovered I would have to stop in Seoul for an eight hour layover. Feeling this was a stupidly annoying length of time to be stuck in an airport, I'd added an extra 24 hours to the stop and booked a couple of nights in a hotel. The plan was to see the entire South Korean capital in exactly a day and a half. Much more sensible.

I'd already fluffed part of my plan by falling asleep when I reached my hotel (it had an air-conditioner) so I emerged rather sheepishly in the evening to see if I could still get something to eat.

Since the hotel was in the Dongdaemun Market commercial district where the shops are open for 18 1/2 hours a day until 5 am, this turned out not to be a challenge.

Outside the mall, I browsed through the stalls of street venders trying to choose between meat skewers, sushi-like rolls or an orange pasta-looking dish. In the end I selected the possible-pasta, accepting a bowl of hot somethings with a cocktail stick to eat it with. The orange sauce turned out to be pretty spicy and the pasta consisted of a glutinous rice dumpling. I took a photo with my phone and posted it on facebook. This action had two results: the first was the discovery that the dish was called 'Ddukppoki' (떡볶이) and is apparently a very popular snack in Korea. The second was facebook asking me whether I had a Korean name that I'd like to add to my profile...

It was just dinner, I tell you! It didn't mean anything.

Prices in Seoul varied a great deal. My hotel was good value for its location, but not cheap at $100 a night. Food prices ranged a fair bit and transport was very cheap. It costs only $1 to ride the (extremely nice) subway and the shuttle bus from the airport to my hotel cost only $14 for roughly an 1.5 hour journey. Also, I did not invent the cheesy title to this post; every English language guide book I saw was entitled something similar. By contrast, the French version had the boring translation of "A guide book to Seoul". But, eh, they deserve it.

The following day I set out for some serious site-seeing. I started at the Gyeongbokgung Palace (top left photo); a royal palace that dates from the Joseon Dynasty in Korea. This period of Korean history lasted five centuries and ended --ultimately-- with the annexation of Korea by Japan at the start of the 1900s. This had the unfortunate consequence of most buildings being reconstructions of the original (although some are still quite old) which met their untiming decimation at the hands of Japanese forces. Each of the small information plaques beside the buildings states their use, their original date and the date they were destroyed by the Japanese.

... I was starting to see the historical problem between these two countries.

Traditionally, the Japanese and Koreans hate each other. Their history is bloody, destructive and recent, with the annexation of Korea only ending in World War II. The present conflict has a different feel to it than the one between the English and the French. Don't get me wrong, of course I can't stand the French! But that's because it's just such fun to beat them at football[*]. One of my Japanese friends (while somewhat inebriated) once told me; "Older people are very prejudice against Koreans. I don't feel that way and yet ... I understand why they do." Some wounds are still too raw to be confined to sporting events.

My guide books' pictures of Gyenogbokgong palace did not do it justice. They shows the outer wall; a military-looking affair at one end of a large concrete square. Behind this, however, the palace buildings extend back into large gardens around a central lake. There is not one huge building like the large houses and palaces in the UK but rather a multitude of smaller establishments designed for different purposes. Each of these was compact enough that you could see its extent by looking through the wide doors and windows. Despite their open frontage, the breeze passing through high-ceilinged rooms felt cool, smelling of wood and incense. If it hadn't been completely inappropriate, I would have jumped the rope barrier and laid out on the tatami mats; Seoul in July is not comfortable.

After the palace, I took a cable car ride up to the communication tower overlooking the city. It was slightly cooler here and there was a demonstration of ancient battle techniques which was pretty awesome. Many a straw dummy did not live to provide opposition for another day. I later walked back down to street-level where I saw a mother luring her small children up a steep set of stairs with a game of 'rock, scissor, paper'. The person who won each round was allowed to climb five steps. Cunning, very cunning.

Finally, I browsed in Namdaemun Market (right-hand photo); the largest traditional market in Korea. It was remarkably similar to the malls.

I left my hotel early Sunday morning to head out to the airport. The traffic in Seoul is notoriously bad but at 6:30 am it was still relatively quiet. The main people about were the street cleaners ... all of whom had "The Seoul of Asia" embroidered on his breast pocket. The old jokes are apparently the best ones.

--
[*] When, you know, England knew how to play
pergamond: ([Futurama] Bender // Applause)

"What are those lights between my legs?"

This unfortunate choice of wording was underlined by my friend having to clutch the handle of her own illuminated machine as she doubled over with laughter. Our tour guide made a brave attempt to answer my question straight-faced.

"They tell you the segway is activated."

Yes, I was on a segway. One of those electric two wheeled mobiles that look somewhere between a scooter and a circus act. It was one of the multiple options I had for taking a tour of Chicago; bus, boat, bike or segway. Sorry, did I say this was a choice? Who wouldn't take a segway?!

Segways are operated by touch sensitive pads under your feet. Move your weight onto your toes and you will accelerate, lean back and you slow down. Lean too far back and you reverse; not a good thing. Pulling the handlebars straight to the left or right causes you to turn. After a brief instruction, we were set free to wheel around a small square in Millennium Park. Forwards, backwards, round and round and ... okay, I was good to go!

Our tour guide explained to us that our route would involve many hills and dips and a few road crossings. By the time he had explained what we had to do to handle each of these events (lean forward, back, speed up slight to go over bumps) I was less good to go. Actually, I was quite sure I was going to die.

Myself and a long-standing friend were the only two people taking this particular tour. This situation (me feeling death was imminent while my friend wondered where the turbo-boost button was located) had been mirrored multiple times throughout our childhood. It perhaps didn't help that I had been reminded of a certain horse riding incident from when we were about eight twenty minutes previously. Currently, I was concerned about how I'd explain what a segway was to Saint Peter at heaven's pearly gates.

Evidently, my anxiety regarding this near-future conversation must have shown on my face. Our tour guide kindly suggested I went behind him in our line and my friend behind me. As we reached the road, he put a hand on my segway to ensure I survived the crossing, or at least had company into the afterlife.

After a short distance, I gained more confidence and zipped off after our guide around Chicago's parks. A typical segway has a maximum speed of 12 mph and when switched on, cannot be over-turned. The police, incidentally, have suped-up segways that can travel up to 30 mph, go down stairs and can be over-turned so the riding officer can jump over the segway's handle to bring down a suspect. I tried to show enthusiasm for this information while feeling secretly grateful my segway could do no such thing.

The paths we travelled along where largely very smooth, making it ideal segway conditions. Occasionally, we did go over a bump large enough to warrant me holding onto the segway's handle pretty firmly but the large wheels meant they weren't a real problem.

"Boing." I helpfully supplemented as we went over a particularly big crack.

We saw the Chicago Planetarium, the Buckingham Memorial Fountain (which is one of the largest in the world and is bizarrely operated by controls in Georgia), the spot where Barack Obama gave his acceptance speech for president, the four-story presidential suit on top of the Hilton Hotel (complete with helicopter pad), the building that looks more like a vagina than a penis (apparently an intentional move by the female architect) and the outside of the aquarium and Field Museum where Sue the most complete (and male) Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton is housed.

Our tour guide greeted people cheerfully as we moved around the pavements. This had the combined effect of being good publicity and preventing people from getting annoyed at the more unpredictable driving of the people following him. As we drew level with a runner, our tour guide glanced at the computer on his segway and said casually, "You're going at about 8 mph." He then glanced back at us and shrugged. "I thought he might want to know!"

Finally, we headed back to the rental shop. As we roller over a few cracks in the street, our guide turned to me, looking slightly exasperated;

"Thanks to you, all I can think of is 'boing!' everytime we go over a crack."

My work here was done.
pergamond: ([Futurama] Bender // Applause)
"Guess what? I'm going to be on the news!"

I felt this was a surprising statement, seeing as I'd only been left to my own devices for about 10 minutes at the stop for the tour bus I was taking around Santiago. The fact neither of my friends showed any great astonishment was either a reflection on my ability to cause enough trouble to hit the headlines in a very short amount of time or an insiders knowledge of Chilean reporters love of Gringos.

'Gringo', incidentally, is a Spanish term for 'foreigner' and, as an accurate description, is of course not insulting. In exactly the same way that 'gaijin' isn't in Japanese. Yes. >.>

My appearance on channel 11's news that night, however, was not for any nefarious dealings in the Chilean capitol but rather due to a roving reporter looking for visitors' views on the city. While slightly taken aback to have a camera suddenly focussed on me, I happily waxed lyrical about how great I'd found Santiago and how I'd recommend this clean, blooming city to everyone back home.

It was true too. Santiago is blooming, both in its glass tower high rises, the swaths of flowers in their summer glory and the people; a surprising number of which seemed to be pregnant. Chile's money comes primarily from copper which appears to have suffered less in the current economic down turn that other commodities. The previous president, Michelle Bachelet, was also allegedly careful with funds, putting aside a pillow for difficult times that had clearly paid dividends now. If it wasn't for the palm trees (some of which were actually disguised cell phone signal transmitters) and the mountainous backdrop, I could have convinced myself I was in any exceptionally wealthy western capital city.

I attempted to convey my enjoyment to the reporter without sounding flat-out astonished. Possibly I failed. Before coming here, my previous knowledge of South America was ... um ... the presence of a bunch of telescopes, the fact that Santiago could be full of smog, that a friend had spent a summer building ovens in rural Peru and an Oxfam alpaca another friend has adopted on my behalf as a birthday gift. I therefore naturally concluded that ALL of South America consisted of oven-less huts where people rode around on alpacas which appeared as two giant eyes in the fog filled landscape.

The fact that I had six friends all living in Chile for the last few years had not over ridden these assertions. They were observational astronomers; obviously they knew nothing. Also, they probably spent all their time at the telescopes. Which they reached via mountain-climbing alpacas. Yes.

I'd like to point out that NONE OF THEM had expressly told me I was wrong.

Santiago's impressive facade had therefore been rather unexpected. Nor was this attractiveness only skin-deep. Only last year, an 8.8 magnitude earthquake had hit the region, causing my friend's apartment on the 23rd floor to swing by over 1m and the roof-top pool spew its contents over the side of the building (apparently an intentional design, since it's preferable to having the weight of the displaced water elsewhere on the structure). The visible damage to the neighbourhood though, was a few tiny cracks in the plaster work and a single pane of cracked glass in an area packed with transparent buildings. The market downtown had taken more of a battering, but it was being replaced with something stronger and better. This infrastructure was for keeps.

All of this I had been admiring from my tour bus which was one of the ones that zoom around London. No really; it was a expatriated London bus, in the traditional brilliant red. The only difference was the enthusiasm for passengers to sit on the open top deck; a position rather better suited to the Santiago summer. From my view point, I could see the alpacas were sadly lacking from the paved streets, although I did see a mobile information booth attached to a Segway which was rather pleasing. The smog turned out to be more factual than the camelids, but only occurs in winter when the mountains trap the air over the city.

I had disembarked my British ride just outside ESO: the European Southern Observatory campus. Currently, I was just after lunch, but the following day I would be giving a talk. The buildings were decked with photographs of the telescopes they ran. I thought that possibly, like the smog, their presence was a fact I had not made up about South America. Then I saw a large photograph of an instrument not in existence and decided to group them in the same class an alpacas for now.


--
'Gaijin' translates to 'foreigner' in Japanese and, likewise, is not technically insulting, but the way it emphasises your difference leaves the point rather clear when liberally used.
pergamond: ([PoT] Atobe // on phone)


... wear it.

I examined the boot in front of me and concluded that it would probably be too loose. That is because it was designed for a cow. My eyes slid down to another piece of footwear with huge pinecone-esque spikes on the sole. Now those would give the right impression during my next presentation!: "Any questions? No, I didn't think so."

I was not in fact at the latest sale from 'Foot Locker' but at a museum dedicated entirely to shoes. Three floors, all packed with footwear, although there was one exhibit on socks which was arguably pushing its luck.

People, dogs, cows and dolls; everyone's pedicural comfort was catered for. Did you know that Polly Pocket's shoe size is a third of that of Barbie's? Or that Ken's shoes are considered (by fashion experts) to be conservative while Barbie's feet are only able to wear high heels?

That particular style has made two débuts in history. The first appearance of high heals in the 16th century saw them being donned by men as well as women to extend their height. Their more recent occurrence was a backlash against claims that the rise of women would see the end of femininity. I looked down at my trainers and wiggled my toes. Screw femininity, you can't do that, Barbie!

Examples of the shoes for bound feet in late 19th century China were also on display. The ideal foot size women of the time was a scant three inches and girl's feet were tied at a young age to prevent proper growth. Feet that remained (through bone breaking deformities) this ideal size were known as 'jin loan' or 'golden lotuses' (right from centre picture). Only girls from the Han ethnic group were privileged enough to forfeit all ability to walk painlessly. Manchu girls were forbidden to bind their feet and therefore wore high platform shoes to stilt their gait and allow them to emulate the 'lotus walk' of their bound footed counterparts (far right photo).

The opposite extreme of the golden lotus shoes had to be the trainer from basketball star, Shaquille O'Neal, who is 7 feet 1 inch tall and wears a size 23 trainer.

Of course, no story of shoes could be complete without mentioning Cinderella. It turns out this originally French fairy tale is told the world over with the glass slipper switched out for culturally favourite footwear. In Korea, a girl named Peach Blossom looses a straw sandal which is found by a handsome magistrate. For some unrecorded reason, he deems this item worth returning to its owner and is promptly enchanted by her beauty and asks for her hand in marriage. One can only conclude the law gives even its enforcers problems.

But whether lawyer, prince, scullery maid or peasant, the magical shoe reveals hidden virtue and transforms an underprivileged beauty into a princess. This says much for the continuing prospects of sketchers but rather less for the hope of humanity. Marrying a girl because she looks swell in a pair of shoes?! It'll be all over even before you get her pregnant and her ankles swell up.

Of course, some shoe transformations have a more practical edge. Alongside the glass slipper was a heavy boot with a large metal ring attached to it. This 'Oregon boot' was for the transport of criminals who couldn't peg it with such a weight on their feet.

Moving upstairs into the side attraction of socks, I discovered the first evidence of such items was a first century letter from a Roman soldier who mentioned a pair being sent to him, probably by his Mum. Much later during World War II, there was such a shortage of nylons that women drew a seam up the back of their legs to imitate their appearance. When the war ended, Macy's sold out of their entire stock of 50,000 pairs in six hours. The production of nylon transpired to be deeply unattractive. And wet. It is produced at the interface between the chemicals diamine and dicarboxylic acid. Drip.

For the ultimate highlight, however, what could beat Geri Halliwell's own Union Jack knee-high boots? Well, possibly the cow boot. But then, aside from the decoration, they were remarkably similar designs.
pergamond: ([PoT] Eiji // Huh?)
My face was wet.

It had all been in the name of science. I was walking along the street, admiring the immaculate parks that lay in between the immaculate houses of Aspen town. How did they keep them so green in this baking heat? A large splash mark on the pavement provided a possible answer. It looked like the product of a sprinkler system, except I could not see the sprinkler anywhere. Hmm .... Perhaps it was actually the product of a very large dog.

With that in mind, I gave the puddle a wide birth, stepping onto the lawn. It was then I noticed a peg-sized depression in the ground. Was it a miniature mole? Perhaps like handbag dogs, such downsized creatures had become popular in wealthy Aspen. I bent down to examine it ....

... and was promptly sprayed on the nose as an underground sprinkler popped up and turned its jet right on me.

I sneezed and rubbed my face clear just in time to see the sneaky little watering can disappear into the ground again. Oh the temptation to place a large rock over it! (No, I am not remotely above taking revenge on inanimate objects. We all know that was on purpose.)

Feeling hard done by, I continued on my way. It was obvious physicists were not the main brand of person in this town, or surely there would have been complaints from the regularity of this occurrence.

Of course, there were a few other clues that the Physics Centre was a little out of place here. I stood on a residential street of large detached houses and looked along it. Three mail boxes had been customised to resemble a train, a polar bear and a dog. Little yellow replicate street signs hung outside another four houses, declaring them a Beagle / Maltese / yappy handbag dog x-ing.  The last house in that row was for sale ... by the international auction house, Sothebys. My eyes swept over the deserted windows. Apart from myself, the only people in sight were the gardeners, who had driven in from out of town to keep the flowers in a riot of colour. The property owners were apparently at one of their other multi-million dollar homes; it was not the ski season after all.

Given this obvious display of wealth, it was surprising to see the town had a McDonalds. It is unclear exactly who frequented this. Possibly it was there because every American town must have such an object. Or it could have been there to pacify the black bears, whose regular presence was evident from the extremely complex trash cans. Sadly, I did not get to see a bear during my visit. If I had though, lopping a big mac at it might have seemed like a good option.

I might have altitude sickness but you, you my large pawed friend, now have heart disease, kidney failure and gummed up arteries! Ha!

In anycase, to compensate for this common monstrosity, Aspen felt the need for four large art galleries within view of one another. These exhibition stores sold nothing less that full wall-sized pieces. I attempted to buy a card in one but the concept did not appear to be understood.

Our own apartment had a huge living room with a balcony and a compulsory ski closet outside. I might have been tempted to stay, but the third week in Aspen swept in a cold wind to remind us that the town's actual inhabitants would soon return. I remarked on this sudden change of weather to a friend who replied:

"Well, we've just had labor weekend. It marks the end of summer."

... Huh. Who would have thought the calendar would be so accurate?
pergamond: (Alanna: won't look back)

"The canyon beckons across the ages for you to slow your pace, even for a little while. Take your time, touch a juniper tree, listen to the river, feel the breeze, and you will see beyond the brink of time."


Words to rival even the Scientology orientation video and I could not help feeling, as I read the pamphlet over a friend's shoulder, that the rangers of the Gunnison National Park spent a little too much time alone.

The Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park is named on account of the steepness of its sides, causing its interior to be shrouded in inky shadows. It has an average depth of 2,000 ft, extending to a maximum of 2,722 ft and a total length of 53 miles, 14 of which are inside the park. It is also narrow, with a minimum rim-to-rim distance of 1,100 ft, closing to a mere 40 ft at the river on its bottom. This water stream (otherwise known as the Colorado River), undergoes one of the steepest drops in North America from the surrounding mountain peaks and it is the force of this that had created the canyon over millions of years.

The guide we had acquired from a box at a trail head took us round on a short loop of ten observations points. The canyon itself was the obvious highlight, the likes of which seemed hard to match since they then told us to examine the shrubs. The quote above actually came from the rangers' log book, but when we stopped by the north side ranger's station, it was deserted apart from a board for rock climbers to sign in and out on. Possibly, upon the log book being read, the quote had been stolen for visitor information publications and the ranger himself sent for intensive shock treatment. 

The climbers we spotted as multicoloured dots against the black stone of the canyon. One stretch of the canyon's side is known as the 'Painted Wall' and is the tallest vertical wall in the state of Colorado with a height of 2,250 ft. This is a popular spot for, our guide warned us, experienced climbers. As we watched them cling to invisible ropes like small brightly coloured beetles, I felt that a hefty dose of insanity was required too. If they lived, perhaps they went on to become park rangers.

The summary then, must surely be left to the same rangers who also noted in their official log:

"More importantly, though, the scene jolts us, awakening our senses toward the gorge. The clock that ticks away our lives seems very distant, and visiting the canyon is a way we can experience time on our own terms."

... the ranger station could be empty for a while.
pergamond: ([She-rah] Triumphant)


Bouncing around to my iPod the first week I arrived in Aspen, I sprinted up the hill to our rented apartment. Blasting through my headphones, 'The Scissor Sisters' had just finished their chorus line of "I can't decide whether you should live or die" when their question became completely academic as I doubled over on the side-walk heaving for breath.

I .... must have .... the fitness .... of .... a ......

I looked around, but frankly everything right then looked fitter than I was. Including the large statue of a bear and the rectangular postal box, which was looking positively svelte. Head swimming, I staggered up the remainder of the road and tumbled through my door to collapse on the coach.... whereupon I was confronted with a brochure lying on the coffee table, detailing all the fun you could have at 8000 feet.

8000 feet above sea level. 

Aspen is high.

I scooped up the pamphlet which suggested gondolas, horse-back riding and family hikes. Oddly, it did not suggest breaking into sudden sprints up hills because 'The Scissor Sisters' had a faster beat that 'Owl City'.

While still too low to be a serious problem, there was no doubt that Aspen's altitude was noticeable. At 8000 feet, Oxygen in the air has dropped by about 25%. It you were to make the summit of the highest peaks at 14,000 feet, then it would have dropped by 40%. I had a headache for several days, stuffy nose, I ran out of breath quickly and my recovery time was shot to pieces. I felt the Physics department rather emphasised the problem by offering free bike rental.

Rather than taking a bike, I took the pamphlet's advice to heart and bought a week's pass for the gondolas. One of these led from the centre of Aspen to the summit of the aptly named "Aspen mountain". The other led up from the nearby resort town of Snowmass. Once at the top, there were hikes that looped around in trails along the mountain ridges.

Completing a few of these hikes revealed an important fact; the best views were from where the gondola deposited you. This had actually been true of our trip to Maroon Bells too, where the bus left you by the scenic shores of Maroon lake, but you had the option of walking much further. I have to say, I found this faintly unrewarding, but it probably saved on countless mountain rescue operations for a bunch of fainting tourists. The Aspen gondola even had a jazz concert at its summit, surrounded by many deck chairs.

It was a hint.
pergamond: (Eiji Inui Juice)

It was a dangerous decision. According to the presentation we had yesterday, the chances of us all returning alive were slim. We were supposed to be staying in our nice safe bear-proof physics office.  Yet we ignored it all and went for a hike. We didn't even bring along an expert.

The chosen site for our inevitable demise was Maroon Bells, one of the best known beauty spots around Aspen. A bus ran from the town up to Maroon Lake where a trail led up to a second pool, Crater Lake. So popular is this wilderness park that no cars are allowed inside the boundaries between 9am and 5pm, unless they have a special overnight permit. To further minimise damage from people, no electricity or water system is run up the mountain. Instead, solar panels provide basic power to the information station and the toilets are the latest flush-less compost systems (a.k.a. pits).

In fact, such precautions are still not enough to guard against environmental damage. A short way into our walk we passed a dispenser bin for "disposable travel toilets". These were bags for ... poo ... that backpackers could use (multiple times per bag, no less) and carry their poo with them to dispose of in the trash at the end of their hike. Apparently, the weather conditions in the Rockies are such that human waste can only decompose four months of the year which just isn't long enough for the annual influx of campers. But don't worry -- the instructions said reassuringly -- the bags are double lined to prevent against leaks.

While Alaska has the highest peaks in the USA, Colorado has the highest average elevation of any of the states. Where we started in the Maroon Bells scenic area, it was 9,580 feet and we walked to around 10,100 feet. The path weaves through a thick forest of Aspens from which the nearby town takes its name. Aspens (we learnt on the bus on the way to the park) reproduce by setting down a long root system from which genetically identical trees spring. Biologists consider the resulting cloned forest (which can extend to 100s of acres) an individual body, resulting in the Aspen being classed as the largest single organism on Earth. I watched the thousands of quaking trees and was irrefutably reminded of 'The Day of the Triffids' in which bioengineered plants move to take over the world. It was an unnerving concept but with one silver lining; our bus driver told us that the population of fast growing Aspens were protecting the slower growing juvenile pines who would eventually mature and take over the mountain side. Perhaps I should buy the URL www.pineskiresort.com in preparation for the necessary rename and secure my fortune.

The path through the military tree infestation was rocky underfoot and surprisingly hard going, possibly due to the altitude. Of course, then we mislaid the path entirely and became horribly lost.

.... back at the Physics Center yesterday's speaker was probably pouring himself one very smug cup of coffee.

We survived on wild raspberries and were shrieked at by a pika (I might have provokingly called it a tail-less rat) before rejoining the actual route half an hour later and continuing on to the lake. Bouncing over to the water in relief, I proceeded to sink ankle deep into the mud and be laughed at thoroughly by my advisor while I painstakingly hauled my way free.

It was sad. And muddy. And wet. I complained. No one cared. That was sad too. And muddy. And wet. Bah D:

Once I was free and promised many facebook profile pictures from everyone's camera, our group of seven split into three parties. Two people went on for a three day hike (complete with a poo bag), two went to nab a local peak and I with the more sensible British contingent continued on past the lake for an hour and then turned back.

As we reached the first lake again, we came across signs placed by the US Forest Service. Their name for 'The Maroon Bells' is 'The Deadly Bells'. Apparently, climbers die frequently by underestimating how unstable the peaks are, causing ropes to slip and rocks to fall on even experienced mountaineers. Of course, there was now nothing to worry about. We were safely on our way home and our companions ... well ... they had laughed at my mud incident.
pergamond: ([PoT] Ryoma // !)
With the weekend looming, the organisers at the Aspen Center for Physics gave a short presentation on hiking in the local area. The sun was shining as we entered the auditorium, lighting up inviting green hills up which a stream of gondolas were gaily making their way. Everyone from the elderly professors to the young researchers clutching babies was keen to get outside.

The speaker was a retired Physicist from Chicago who started his speech with a clear pronouncement that he proceeded to repeat:

"If you want to go hiking, you should find someone who has been before. What we call an expert."

I looked sceptically out at the landscape around one of America's most up-scale tourist centres. Of course, all hiking had risks, but the walks around Aspen were not known for being technically difficult. Our guide however, was most insistent. A waterproof coat was essential if you were even looking in the direction of a mountain. As was a topologically detailed map, a cell phone (although this wouldn't work, so relying on it would result in DEATH) and you should inform at least three people and a lamppost where you were going and when you were expected back.

It was sound advice but presented with a strong side-dollop of terror, which swiftly became the main course as our host warmed up to the theme.

For Cinderella, the time of destruction was midnight, but for us hikers in Aspen, it was midday. Be up on the mountain after this time and a lightening storm would descend upon you, causing your hair to stand on end and leaving you nowhere to run. Then you would be electrocuted and promptly eaten by a bear. The end.

These instructions were followed by a tale of warning about a Physicist from the centre who went missing for three days. Apparently, despite having a topological map and other appropriate equipment, he became lost. Because he was a loner, no one noticed he was gone until his wife called the Sheriff's office after not hearing from him for two nights.

That could be YOU, you friendless socially awkward geeks

was the unvocalised message.

After fifteen minutes, a blue booklet listing walks was waved at us and our speaker departed with a cheerful, "I strongly encourage you all to get out and about!"

There was stunned silence in the auditorium.

This event was directly followed by a seminar on 'crumpling'. Yep, that's right. An entire scientific talk on crumpling paper. Or Physicists. Somehow it was oddly appropriate.
pergamond: ([HP] Dumbledore // magic)


"Oh you may not think I'm pretty, but don't judge on what you see, I'll eat myself if you can find a smarter hat than me."


The Hogwarts sorting hat; magical sentient artefact, previous property of Godric Gryffindor and currently being used to sort random visitors into school houses at "Harry Potter: the Exhibition" at the Ontario Science Museum in Toronto. The exhibit consists of items used in the Harry Potter movies and has been on tour across North America. However, this description does not do it justice for it is far more fascinating than you would expect to find a close-up view of a bunch of stage props.

For instance, did you know Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) was allergic to the original metal his glasses were made from and came out in a rash? Or that Hagrid's extreme height was not done by clever camera angles but the actor was put on stilts? Hagrid's costume is on display and dwarfs everyone in the room. Each actor also had to have six wands; three hard version and three made of rubber for stunts.

The making of a soft, unbreakable version of a prop was common practice and many items had doubles, including the goblet of fire and the crystal balls for divination. This second item initially caused problems since a rubber crystal orb was no more than a child's ball and it bounced higher and higher as it rolled down the stairs; not at all the effect the irate Hermione was trying for when she pushed it!

Many of the items on display were particularly fun to get up close to. In one of the areas dedicated to the Defence Against the Dark Arts classrooms (multiple version of these due to Dumbledore's inability to hire anyone who wasn't working for Voldemort/incompetent/a bitey furry/working for Voldemort/wanting to work for Voldemort/partially working for Voldemort or indeed, working for Voldemort) there was the rattling wardrobe that contained the boggart in book three, along with the gigantic jack-in-the-box that Parvati 'riddikules' her boggart into.

Opposite Lupin's classroom set, Dolores Umbridge's pink office of hell was shown complete with gambling (though mercifully stationary) kitten plates. Something I had not consciously noticed in the movie was that the shade of pink Umbridge was decked out in gets steadily harder throughout the film to reflect her growing unpleasantness.

In the face of such candy coloured evil, I went to try my hand at scoring with a quaffle. Several of the displays were interactive, from the initial liaison with the sorting hat to a lamp-lit entrance through Hogsmead station. There was also the chance to pull up a mandrake and to sit on Hagrid's giant chair.

One of the most surprising elements I saw were models of the CGI creations in the movies. Dobby, Kreature, the centaurs, Buckbeak the hippogriff, the giant spidery acromantulas and the head of the Hungarian Horntail were all made at a life-size scale. Apparently, scanning the image into the CGI works best on 1:1 detail and the presence of the models on the sets helps both the actors and the lighting directors. Although stationary in the exhibit, Buckbeak's replica actually could move and follow actors around with its eyes. My audio guide assured me this made him popular on the sets. I edged away and went to check out the mandrakes.

These baby-faced plants are not CGI but animatronic, although the ones you get to play with did not move. The squirming plants went over very well with the school children actors and led to a problem with ensuring they were collected in after filming.

Just down from the gigantic spider was a model of the petrified Colin Creevey. This one didn't move (since that would defy the point) and I had always assumed the actor had just been threatened with something enough to freeze him for the duration of the scene. It would seem nothing short of an actual basilisk was scary enough so a task of over two months was undertaken to create the figure. For the exhibit, they had moved his hands down from his face slightly - a slow and painful task on a statue designed to be rigid!

Upon emerging from the exhibit we found a machine that allowed you to send free electronic postcards of scenes from the museum. It occurred to me that I had not explained to my advisor why I was missing the group meeting that day....
pergamond: ([HP] Dumbledore // magic)

When I was 8 years old my images of what it was like to be 30 were different. There was a matching home on a housing estate, a permanent job, a couple of kids -- including a daughter called Adora, because I was seriously into She-Ra -- and a dog. Or maybe a dinosaur. Hey, I was flexible like that.

The reality?

ROCKS SO MUCH MORE!
(apart from maybe the dinosaur)

I spent my 30th birthday at Hogwarts.

Universal Studio's Islands of Adventure theme park in Florida recently opened "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter". This new island consisted of the main street in Hogsmead and Hogwarts castle. There was Zonko's Joke shop, Honeydukes sweet shop, The Three Broomsticks and Hogshead pubs, the post office, Dervish & Banges, butterbeer, pumpkin juice, the Hogwarts Express .... need I say more? Yes. Yes, I think I do.

Somewhat bizarrely, to reach the wizard section of the attraction, you have to walk through Jurassic Park. I skirted the pterodactyl ride and began to re-think the dinosaur idea. Crossing the bridge, we dropped down into Hogsmead village, although I did take the opportunity to turnaround and take a clearly classic photo of the "Welcome to Jurassic Park" sign right next to Hogwarts castle.

The first feature that strikes you as you walk down the street is the incredible attention to detail. The place really does appear as it is described in the books. Snow covered gabled roofs are on both sides of you, with icicles dangling from their crooked tiles. Sadly, the actual temperature was well into the 30s but this was alleviated by our first stop at a giant barrel cart selling butterbeer. Since children are known to have zero restraint, this particular version was completely non-alcoholic but it was personally approved by J. K. Rowling. It tasted like ... well, I'm not going to tell you. You will have to go and try for yourself.

We decided to risk insane crowds and eat lunch at The Three Broomsticks. This proved to be a surprisingly good decision. While we had to queue for a short time to enter the pub (not a hardship because there was so much to see), once we had ordered there were plenty of tables to sit even seven people. The displayed menu showed a moving image that panned over the dishes and our waiter was a house elf. Fortunately, he was not just wearing a tee-towel.

Basic desires met, we went on a tour of the shops. Although a primary (and completely successful) purpose was to shake even more galleons from our purses, the shops themselves were an attraction and made to look as authentic as possible. Broomsticks hung from the ceiling of Dervish & Banges, the Monster Book of Monsters rattled in a cage and model owls looked down at you from the post office shelves. The goods themselves were everything you could expect from the shops in question. Magical paraphernalia from sneakoscopes to Quidditch bats, school robes and fanged wallets could be found in Dervish & Banges, a huge display of Bertie Botts Every Flavoured Beans was in Honeydukes along with Weasly favourites such an tongue ton toffee and Zonko's held such delights as fanged frisbees and boxing telescopes. The window displays of the shops, including ones that were not "open" were also fascinating to see. Honeydukes had a ribbit-ing chocolate frog, there was a bookshop with a excessive display of Gilderoy Lockheart volumes, complete with a moving picture of the man himself, and a botany store had a large mandrake and mimbulus mimbletonia behind its glass.

After all that it was time for a pumpkin juice. I would be lying if I said there weren't insanely large queues (although the books often describe similar scenes on Hogsmead weekends). Despite this, the park got a number of important things right, including our relaxed lunch and the lack of a wait for the (clean and pleasant) toilets.

The signature ride on the island was the part-coaster, part-simulated  "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey". The seats for this are on a robotic arm which swings you about in combination with sophisticated animated screens.
.
.
.
What, you wanted more details? Seriously, people, did you read my experiences on the 'Hello Kitty' ferris wheel? It was never going to happen. I did stand in line for it. That is a more exciting statement than you might first suppose, since the queue is part of the attraction and weaves through a series of scenes inside Hogwarts. You see Dumbledore's office, complete with a 3D hologram of the man himself who welcomes you to the school. You then pass through a corridor where portraits of the four founders are arguing over the wisdom of allowing muggles to see so much. The queue terminated in a classroom where Harry, Ron and Hermione appear (as holograms) and tell you they are going to kidnap you away from the tour Professor Bins has planned to go and see a Quidditch match. I wished there was a way to keep with the original program and ducked out to go and sit in the kids room where the first movie was playing to entertain the under 4 feet while the ride was in progress. Again, the attention to detail was beautiful. The moving portraits in particular were rather good, looking very much like the genuine article and not digital screens as they walked into each others frames. 

At various times during the day, members of Beauxbatons and Durmstrang appeared to do a brief exhibit and the Hogwarts frog choir performed a few songs. Exhausted from the day, we summoned up the energy to queue one final time for Ollivanders' wand shop, who evidently had decided to cash in on the new business development in Hogsmead and moved over from Diagon Alley. Here, a group of a dozen visitors were let inside and one was picked to go through the wand selection process with Ollivander. The scene was directly from the movie with floor to ceiling wand boxes and the first two attempts by the would-be witch causing objects to break. Finally, the lights and air came up around her as a unicorn tail wand found its match.

The wand chooses the wizard....

If you were inclined, you could purchase any wand you desired from the movies, including Harry's own phoenix tail feather affair to the death eaters' sticks of doom.

It was an amazing birthday with possibly my only disappointment being that I would have liked to hug Lord Voldemort, Mickey Mouse style, if he had been walking around. I did at least get to hug my friends a lot, even if their lack of red-slit eyes was a trace disappointing. So, sorry, Adora my would-be daughter, you're going to have to wait. Oh, and I might call you Voldermortaphine. It'll be great.
pergamond: (Hello Kitty)
Using stray planks of wood, a skateboard and once an old baby bathtub, a series of prototypes for a Formula 1 racing car were developed in a small town just outside Oxford. Admittedly these early models lacked a few of the later luxuries such as ... breaks ... or indeed, steering. The engine also consisted of a small seven year old girl, as indeed did the unfortunate driver. None of this, however, stopped said prototype being test run on every street in the housing estate with quite genuinely zero thoughts for the consequences.

Nowadays our parents would probably be arrested by Social Services for allowing small hands near exposed, probably tetanus-covered, nails. Back then, it merely added a point of interest to the dinner time conversation.

At some point in the intervening years, go-karting lost its intense appeal. I think it was around the time I acquired a driver's license. So quite sometime had passed between my last outing in a kart/bathtub and the one I was about to have at San Diego's indoor kart racing track. I was in California for a computer code development meeting and this was how our group had decided to interpret the scheduled item "benchmarking". There were eight of us racing, one of whom had been before but the rest of us had a similar collection of 7 year old memories to work with. Then there were the two other guys who joined us, both of whom brought their own helmets and one who also brought his own whiplash support. I eyed the kart and my concept of 'what's the worst that can happen?' rose several notches.

The karts themselves had only two pedals -- stop and go -- and could reach speeds of up to 40 mph. Although bumping into both the barriers and other karts was a frequent occurrence, you were not allowed to do the latter on purpose.

Perhaps in the same way that running a race is fun even though you walk everyday, kart racing turned out to be great. The end results revealed that I had a much higher regard for life than anyone else at this conference, since they all out stripped me by five laps. This was fine though; they had done all the code development work so if it was only me left to run the simulations and reap MEEEEELLLLLIONS of research papers, well what could you do?

At the end, I came in last with a fastest lap time of 49.8 seconds. The top two racers were our new friends with their own helmets who got 30.9s and 31.4s respectively. Our final view was of them speeding out of the car park ... in their smart car. Suddenly, much became clear.

pergamond: (narnia: once upon a time)


Hardwick Old Hall was built by Bess of Hardwick, a feisty and incredibly rich (thanks to four marriages) woman in Elizabethan times. "Building Bess" designed the hall herself to replace the original family medieval manor house that sat on the same site in Derbyshire. Once she had eight children (via marriage number two) and become a countess (marriage number four), Bess wanted an abode that would reflect her new station in life and, naturally, one that would live up to those of her friends. An understandable enterprise made fractionally more ambitious by the fact her closest companion was Queen Elizabeth I.

A prophesy was foretold that Bess would not die while she continued building and it was perhaps this that caused her to start work on Hardwick New Hall before the Old Hall was fully complete. England's aristocracy frequency held different residences around the country but the notable fact about the New Hall is that it was built right next door to the Old Hall. This is quite literally so; they are as close as two spaciously detached houses although rather on the larger side. The picture at the top shows the New Hall photographed from the Old Hall.

Unlike the first building, Bess did not design Hardwick New Hall, employing instead the professional architect, Robert Smythson. The defining feature of the new abode is its owner's initials, in large stone letters, scattered liberally about the rooftop and the wide windows, which produced the phrase "Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall" to describe the location for the last 400 years.

Despite this brave attempt to keep the building work continuing, a hard frost in 1608 halted work and Bess died, fulfilling the prophesy. A cynic to such topics might point out that her being over 80 might have also had something to do with it.

Even though the Old Hall and New Hall were built a mere three years apart, they now look vastly different. The New Hall has been completely maintained while the Old Hall has fallen into ruin. The latter came about because descendants of Bess in the 18th Century sold part of the building to raise funds while they lived at their preferred location in Chatsworth. Apparently, declaring that you had not the cash, but your debtors could help themselves to eastern dinning hall wall was completely acceptable ...

The western half of the Old Hall is less ruinous than its eastern side and you can climb up the stairs to gain a stunning view over the Derbyshire countryside. Between the trees, you also catch a view of the M1 motorway, something I am quite sure Bess intended. Everyone, after all, likes to keep an eye on visitors, especially estranged husbands who were cracking until the strain of their indomitable wife.
pergamond: (Alanna: won't look back)


The problem with tourist attractions is that it tends to be only tourists who schedule going to see them. In fact, I didn't think I'd ever been to the Tower of London before until a dim memory of the sparkling crown jewels resurfaced. Since that time, I'd developed a strong obsession with reading Tudor history (and probably learnt to read period; it really had been a while) where the majority of the notable figures seemed to like to hang out in the Tower and, you know, be decapitated.

We took advantage of the tour offered by the Beefeaters, the origin of whose name is lost in history but most likely stems from their original payment being of meat; a reasonable fare in a time where most could only afford vegetables. Members of our tour group came from around the world and included Americans, who, the Beefeater cheerfully pointed out, would be able to claim all this history if only they had paid their taxes.

With our guide, we started at the watergate, later renamed 'Traitor's Gate' where prisoners were brought into the tower by boat. One of the most famous entrants through this system would have been Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII and later her cousin, Henry's fifth wife, Katherine Howard. Neither ever emerged and are buried alongside one another in the Tower's chapel by the place they were executed. Next to them lies Anne's brother, George, Duke of Rochester (beheaded for supposedly frequenting his own sister's bed) and his wife, Jane (beheaded later with Katherine Howard for concealing her ... sharing nature in regard to bedroom partners). When it comes to playing with power, the great Tudor families were not quick learners.

Perhaps more sympathy should be shown to the 16 year old who lies buried at their feet. Lady Jane Grey ruled for nine days, having been coerced onto the throne in opposition to the Catholic Mary by her father and father-in-law. Her husband, Guilford Dudley, met the same fate and engraved his wife's name twice on the walls of his cell, which can be seen along with the stone etchings of many other unfortunate residents of that room.

The chapel also contains the remains of Charles II's bastard son. The merry king was blessed with 14 (acknowledged) children, but since none of them were from his wife, the throne was due to pass to his brother (an unpopular move, but surprisingly one that did not end in the Tower). His eldest illegitimate off-spring attempted to take the crown himself, resulting in the removal of the necessary body part for said ornament. Upon beheading, however, it was realised that no official portrait existed for the son of this king, which apparently was unacceptable. The head was therefore stitched back onto the body, adorned with a large ruff and an artist called in to capture the likeness within twelve hours, least the corpse start to smell. The painter finished in eight and the image is now in a private collection. Our Beefeater tour guide claims that it does not look life like.

This is of course, only a fraction of the people who met their end in England's greatest stronghold (another one being the inspiration for this entry's title; Sir Thomas More, later canonised for what compensation that is). Close to 1000 bodies are buried under the floor of a chapel that contains no more than ten rows of seats. When the building was restored in Queen Victoria's time, the floor was uneven due to the shallow shuffling of graves.

In the centre of the grounds stands the White Tower. Originally build by William the Conqueror in 1077 as his place of residence, it is the oldest of the buildings and contains a museum of armour. It is also where a chest containing two small skeletons was found, identified as the remains of the "Princes in the Tower". These two boys (12 and 9) were murdered around 1483 by persons unknown, although eyes tend to drift towards their uncle who seized the throne even while they lived.

Opposite the White Tower is the most secure place on the site where the crown jewels are kept. The doors that allow you into that area weigh 2000 kg each. Rather like the Scottish deep fried mars bar, here lies anything that someone thought might look good dipped in gold. Crowns, swords, spurs and a whole load of plate.

Twinkle.

One crown, known at the India crown, was only worn once, during a visit of George V to Delhi in 1911. Since by Old Royal Law the official crown (or, more accurately, the crown jewels) is not allowed to leave the country, another priceless identical one was created for the occasion...

As closing time rolled round, we vetoed the prospect of spending the night in the dungeons in favour of a pub in Charing Cross. This area of London turned out to be full of black phone boxes. Black. WTF, London?
pergamond: (Atobe)
Like any decent Spanish city, dinner in Barcelona doesn't kick off until past 9 pm. Either in an attempt to entertain us or due to some perverted psychological experiment (the latter was claimed in the conference summary) the scheduled talks lasted until this time on two of the five days. Friday night therefore found me, worn and beat, taking a meandering route back to the apartment through Barcelona old town.

I had completely lost two out of my three friends. As unfortunate as this was, I was not concerned. Even as midnight approached, the streets were packed with people and well lit. They and I would be perfectly safe and more to the point, both the map and the only key to the apartment were in my possession.

As I headed past the Cathedral, the sound of live music reached my ears from a nearby courtyard. I almost passed by, but it occurred to me that, like moths to a flame, my friends might have been sucked into this madness. It was a good instinct, since we emerged from adjacent streets at the same moment. On the far side of the plaza, musicians playing instruments including a double base and flute, sat on stone steps while before them, Spain danced.

Perhaps this was a form of Spanish Ceilidh, since the steps to each of the jigs that played seemed to be known to the masses. The first involved grasping hands with anyone you could reach and rushing to the centre like a gigantic hokey-cokey. The next involved dancing with your hands above your head while the third required a partner and, more oddly, a flower. These flowers were no ordinary blooms. Held in the couple's leading hands while in ballroom position, they were made of paper and contained a candle. One might deem this combination worrisome and, indeed, it seemed to be a competition as to whose flower would survive the dance. It was similar to an egg and spoon race, but with the exciting possibility of personal combustion.  Half way through the dance, it appeared that it might be a flat out draw with absolutely no winners but the occasional flower-come-flaming-torch lighting the night sky.

Sellers pushed through the crowd offering cans of beer and one guy who declared his name as "Canada" (complete with a badge of the flag of my country of residence) was claiming to be collecting for the musicians. It seemed a dubious story and indeed, we saw him walk off as we left the scene for the night.

On the way back, we stopped for gelaati. I had a scoop of pistachio and one of bubble gum flavour (due to being sucked in by the bright colours). This resulted in a sugar rush that has me greeting the early hours with an alertness I am liable to regret come daybreak.

Playing God

Jun. 3rd, 2010 02:08 pm
pergamond: (PJ_lightningthief)


It's hard to describe my job without sounding like a deity-in-training. This is a shame since the glamor of the genuine situation is somewhat diminished by the stream of profanities I tend to spout at my code (it's quite amazing what you can make "Enzo"1 rhyme with if you truly dedicate yourself to the task). Explaining this to friends and family is often a disillusioning process and I really must say, putting a supercomputer IN A CHURCH is not helping my cause.

The MareNostrum supercomputer in Barcelona Spain was number four in the world when it first came online in 2005. It regained that status after an upgrade in 2006 and currently sits at number 87. It does, however, still top of the list in terms of beauty.

Installed in the deconsecrated chapel Torre Girona on the Polytechnic University of Catalonia campus, the computer sits in a highly air-conditioned clear box that fills the chapel's centre. The surrounding area is very warm, heated by the 10,240 CPUs contained within this machine. As part of the conference, we were offered a tour of the facility and were able to walk around the chapel and look down on the supercomputer from the balcony area. It is quite attractive and quite quite bizarre. Old stone archways and stained glass depicting Biblical scenes surround a high-tech national facility used for cutting edge research, including astrophysics.

All in all, it's a religion I feel I could get behind.... providing they keep upgrading of course.

[1 The name of the astrophysical code I insult work with.]
pergamond: (yukimura evil eye)

I admit I am probably not on a psychic's top 10 favourite people to walk through their door. Not because I am intent on exposing their art as fiction, but because I lack the common neuroses that normally drive individuals into their curtained centre of operation. I am unplagued by relationships past, feel good about my job and positive about the future. Plus, I went with a close friend and comparing your secret and private fortune is hardly to be encouraged. However, it was the combination of all these good vibes that made the prospect of visiting a psychic while in New York City a truly humorous and enticing prospect.

The sign outside the door advertised a reading for $10. Of course, once inside, we were told that this was only for a face reading of your personality and really what we wanted was a palm reading for $25 or, more likely, a tarot card reading for $65 and probably a crystal ball gazing for a couple of hundred. We originally opted for the palm reading but eventually allowed ourselves to be talked into a combined offer for palm + tarot cards.

My palm, I was told, predicted a long life and a happy one. It portrayed me as a cheerful, kind individual who said things to people's face and not to their backs. Well, flattery will get you everywhere and I am blogging; I say things to everyone's face. In the world. I was also told this would get me into trouble and wondered vaguely if this resulting post would cause me to be sued.

We then moved on to the tarot cards. To my disappointment, my psychic did not read the cards per se, rather she placed them face up on the table and claimed to "draw energy" from them to give me my fortune. This was the point when I started seriously disappointing the poor woman.

Attempt #1:
"I see there is a past relationship that you cannot stop thinking about. Who is that man?"

"Um. Well, I don't actually know. My last relationship finished a while ago and I really wasn't that bothered."
 
Attempt #2:
"You wake up feeling very lethargic and you feel you have made bad decisions in the past."

".... Not really. I'm really pleased with the way my career is going and the changes that have happened.... I woke up slightly hungover this morning?"

The woman's eyes narrowed. No love issues, no career issues. A happy, optimistic customer. This lead to really only one obvious conclusion...

Attempt #3:

"I sense someone is very jealous of you. I see a woman with black hair."

My eyes slid to the right. I couldn't help but notice that the other psychic had black hair. Still, I did know one person who was pretty irritated at me for no decipherable reason. She doesn't have black hair, but you know, it was a good try and I was impressed by the logic: Your life seems to rock. Therefore someone probably hates you. It could be me or my friend over there.

At the end, I was allowed to ask two questions of the cards. I scratched my head:

Q: "I travel a lot. Do you see me ever settling down?"

A: "Yes, I do. But not this year. This year is a good one for travel."

Good line to throw at the girl with the British accent in New York. I had to give her some credit for using her head.

Q: "Do you see me getting married?"

Well, doesn't everyone ask that question?

A: "I see you meeting your life partner in 2 - 3 years from now."

2 - 3 years? Well, there's no point in dating anyone I've met recently then.

A: "You will also have three children and be very happy."

.... Three?!

In the back of the room behind a curtained partition a small boy starting screaming his lungs out. The psychic turned to bellow at him to shut up.

.... Happy?!

I shifted in my seat. As we drew to a close, the woman told me she wanted to give me a stone. By "give" I mean "sell at an exorbitant price". Apparently, I was lacking amethyst in my life and I should keep a stone close by me at all time to give me energy and protect against jealousy. I should also tell no one about it.

.... Oops.

I was sceptical and declined. She dropped the price. This protection, she insisted, was essential. I lifted an eyebrow and turned to my friend who was also just finishing.

"Have you just been offered a stone?"

"Yes. I was thinking no."

Psychic: "How about just $10 for the stone?

I considered it. "Well it would make a cool souvenir."

My psychic looked askance, but the other one smiled and agreed. In the end we gave in and I purchased a small lump of amethyst, my friend a rose stone. We then took them over to a jewellery making shop in Brooklyn and turned them into pendants. Were we ripped off? Of course! These stones cost about a $1 on the street. Do we have the most awesome memento of our crazy psychic trip? Yes. Yes we do.

Psychic reading: $45
Protective stone: $10
Memento of crazy psychic trip with childhood friend: Priceless

As we wound wire around our rocks, my friend and I compared our futures. They were incredibly similar. Clearly we were really twins separated at birth.

In conclusion, my friend declared: "This trip has saved me so much money!"

I stopped winding wire and looked up. "Saved?!"

"Yeah. She said I was to have two boys. I only want a girl, so there's no point in having kids at all. They would have cost me loads!"

JFK airport when I finally ended my trip was in carnage. I collected my boarding pass to discover yet again, I still didn't have a seat. But this time, THIS TIME, I had an amythst power necklace. What could possibly go wrong?
pergamond: (it's gonna be me)
"How do you feel about blowing off half a day of the conference?"

"What an outrageous idea! I'm here to learn not to holiday!"

"We've got tickets to the live recording of '
America's Got Talent' in Orlando."

"... I fell in with such a bad group of people here."


So it turns out that Britian's contribution to American society is ... game shows. 'Who wants to be a millionaire?' (which morphed into a show of the same name, but substantially less money), 'Pop idol' (which morphed into 'American idol') and now 'Britain's got talent' (the morphing of this name will be left as a problem for the reader).

The last of these shows (for those not indoctrinated via Susan Boyle) involves any form of activity from singing, dancing, juggling, stripping (... we'll come back to that one), acting and so forth with your prowess being assessed by three judges. These crushers of poorly conceived dreams were Piers Morgan (who pretty much failed every act before it was done), Sharon Osbourne (wife of Ozzy) and Howie Mandel (known for his fist knocks because of an OCD that makes him hate hand shakes).

Watching the show live is far slower than the resulting production. We were told to arrive at 6 pm, yet they weren't due to finish recording until after 11. In addition to breaks between acts, there was a large amount of time spent on audience filming where we were told to pretend to be cheering a contestant, booing them and gazing at the stage with the intensity normally given to the finale of 'Lost'. These snippets were clearly going to be used as fillers in the editing room which just goes to prove; live audience reaction? Not so live. As it was, we gave up on America's talent at 9:30 pm and disappeared to find the more certain talent of the Cheese Cake Factory. The judges should have done the same; chances of passing to the next round dropped exponentially with time.

The dress code was strict; no shorts, no hats, nothing with a logo printed, no bags, cell phones or cameras. Overall (it was stated) our attire had to be 'hip'. This caused raw panic among the group of astronomers I was traveling with. We had dedicated our life to Physics ... largely because we had failed to be exactly this. 

Biggest surprise of the night? Probably the 74 year old grandmother who performed a heavy rock song in a spangly black dress. Worst act? I'd say the stripper. Yes, that's right, this guy's speciality for one of the biggest talent shows in the world was removing his clothes, down to a tight pink tee-shirt and Y-fronts. The judges laboured the point that this was, indeed, the smallest talent they had ever seen.

There was also a British (and everyone seemed okay with that ...) juggler, a knife thrower and an ex-army dude whose story begged the producers to use the 'intent staring' footage they'd pulled off the audience earlier.

During our return journey, I debated whether I should have entered myself. After all, I did have my conferenece presentation all ready to go right there on my laptop. There were some damn fine graphs in it. Damn fine.
pergamond: (Alanna: won't look back)
The crack of dawn (actually a few minutes before) found me sprawled on a blanket on the grass at Cape Canaveral watching the space shuttle, Discovery, launch on one of its final missions. Said vertical departure was scheduled for 6:21 am and due to a cunning plan that saw us with a NASA employee in our car (the fact she was on crutches was not our doing), we bagged VIP spots inside the Kennedy Space Center about six miles away from the shuttle. This is almost as close as you can get, since greater proximity results in death from fumes, noise or pissed off alligators; largely to be avoided.

At 6:10 am, the International Space Station (the shuttle's destination) could be seen as a bright, fast moving speck crossing the moon. This was the indication that the narrow window for launch was now open and with no problems to forestall it, the engines fired and Discovery vanished in a white burning mass that lit up the night. It had risen well into the sky by the time the noise and vibration reached us, and we followed the reverse shooting star until the speck finally vanished, leaving an artistic cloud design that was dyed different colours as the sun rose.

My photos are still on my camera, so I am going to cheat and steal one of [livejournal.com profile] ad_exia's:



I've seen a couple of launches before, but always in the day time. Technically, this was not a night launch, but the experience cannot have been terribly different since the only hint of dawn was a slight lightening on the horizon. On one of my previous times I also had VIP tickets, allowing a close viewing spot, and was able to see the shuttle physically turn over as it ascends (the fuel tank is bright orange which gives away the orientation if you can make it out). In the dark, this was impossible since the shuttle was completely obscured by its burning fuel but you were able to follow its path for considerably longer.

Escaping the Space Center was rather less fun and we succeeded in moving 2 miles in an hour. I declare this speed suboptimal. Still, four hours later found us eating a large breakfast .... or was it lunch or dinner? .... with eggs, soar bread toast and sausage \o/

I also discovered Starburst jelly beans. As a result, I still feel fractionally unwell.

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