Sometimes I go places and do things. Sometimes I play with radioactive things or radiation producing machines.

Occasionally, I do them at the same time.

Las Vegas (Part 1): CES 2011 & Good People

You’re gonna have to bear with me, as this is gonna be a long one.

A great confluence of events brought me to Las Vegas with very short notice. First, was a trip to Disneyland over New Year’s which had me in need of retoxicification. Disney tried to leach all of my vital anger, alcohol, sarcasm, and bloodymindedness and replace it with joy, cheer, togetherness, and love for my fellow man. It left my back and shoulders a rock hard knot of stress as I defended myself against the hordes of people and pleasantness. What I needed was a return to good bedrock values of venality to relax. I needed excess and indulgence. Steeping in sin as if it were a hot tub. I needed Vegas.

Second, CES 2011. A chance to see the coming year’s toys in all their splendor. A new friend I hadn’t actually gotten a chance to meet yet, Ed Zitron, was going to be working the show, something he was notified of with short notice. I had been trying to instruct him on the finer points of my favorite game in the casino, craps, and had rapidly run into the the brick wall of “This is much easier to do in person”. I suddenly had a chance, plus convenient craps tables to teach on.  Also, there was a several year old outstanding promise to my Lovely Assistant regarding a Cirque d’Soleil show that had come due.

While mulling all this over, Steinwielder Vegas Prime placed an order for a 1000ml FMJ. That clinched it. I asked if he would be willing to accept hand delivery because, with that, I was going to Las Vegas.

WORDS OF WISDOM: Beware driving under the influence of BBotE with Megadeth blasting on straight desert highways. You will be tempted to drive very fast. Your car doesn’t go faster than the California Highway Patrol and they’ll make you stop in the middle of Bat Country.

We arrived somewhat late in the evening, courtesy of the CHP delay in Barstow, at The California Hotel near Fremont St. I would like to take this moment to marvel not only at the Boyd Gaming market strategy (i.e. the regional targeting of the Hawaiian gambler with daily flights to Kona & Honolulu), but at how happy everyone was there. I’m not just talking about the front desk and dealers, who have strict pleasantness policies imposed on them, but housekeepers and ancillary staff like the shopkeepers in their arcade. People actively seek positions here, and fight to keep them, for the work environment because it is fun and pleasant. The fact that the sister casino across the street by skyway, Main Street Station, has a brew pub and 20x odds craps certainly helps raise it in my esteem.

A few things about CES 2011, for which I must give glorious thanks to the Steinwielder Vegas Prime for providing passes to the Lovely Assistant and I. It was big, very big. I’m to understand it has been larger but I don’t see how that would have been survivable as an attendee. I could go a long time without every seeing another iPhone or iPad case again and after your 10th or so 70″+ flatscreen TV they start to blend together until you stumble upon a 92″ one. Cars at an electronics show were a bit of a surprise, including the electric conversion for the Smart ForTwo for the American market (still a far cry from the European offering). I also got to give Logitech a piece of my mind about their lack of actual ergonomic offerings, so that was a plus.

But there were two things I would have put my ill-gotten gains toward if I could. The first is Sphero, the bluetooth smartphone/computer controlled rolling robotic sphere. If I could have bought one on the spot I would have as it is the best cat toy I have seen since the laser pointer. People, it is a ball your cat can play with…which you can suddenly cause to chase your cat. Comedy gold may not get much better than that.

The second were the Polli-Bricks by Miniwiz. Re-melted and blown office cooler water bottles turned into structural material, power generation and lighting. It is playing with Legos on a monumental scale but the hexagonal groove structure reminds me of a structural pattern I saw in the occassional Roman herringbone brick-courses. In that pattern, there are no clear “lines of sight” from one side of the wall to the other in mortar gaps, adding strength and thus explaining why that wall is still standing 2200 years later despite earthquakes and time.  They have other toys too, but the bricks are what impressed me to the point that I think the boothie was concerned I was going to do something unclean to his display.

Also, I bestowed upon Mr. Zitron a couple bottles of BBotE along with a bag of sample vials, more than he could safely consume himself, and set him loose upon CES. If you were very, very nice to him he might have shared with you. He was still wide awake when I dropped him back at Harrah’s so I have no idea how much he consumed vs. shared. All I know is that it didn’t go home with him on the plane as the silly bugger didn’t bring any checked luggage.

A review of Cirque d’Soleil’s “Zumanity”: Very flexible naked people with good music. Pleasantly bawdy humor, but we’ve got a way to go still to hit the humor of antiquity. That’s traditional values I can get behind.

Next: The Atomic History Museum and the sad tale of SL-1.

The Black Lodge, Antarctica

While I muster together all the Las Vegas, CES, and nuclear accident thoughts, something else popped to the front of the line that demands sharing.  I recently picked up the Twin Peaks gold box, which is what dredges the story up from the depths of memory.  It is worth noting that I was the Science/Cryogenics Technician from Amundsen-South Pole station for 2002-2003.  Yes, I was there for an entire year.  I was also their bartender.

Once upon a time, in the austral summer of 2002, Mark the Science Electrician, Patty the Cargo Mistress, and I tried to organize a David Lynch-A-Thon over the course of several weekends during the summer.  This didn’t work out well since the only day off during the summer is Sunday and people generally decided to devote that to drinking (or the recovery therefrom).  Understandably, it ended up being just the three of us in the Summer Camp Smoking Lounge.

Oh, the poor smokers of Pole.  They only had two indoor places to hide and both of them are gone now.  The new elevated station is decidedly non-smoking.  There had been plans for a smoking lounge but they were changed.  If you want a smoke now, it’s out into the frozen wastes for you.

I really can’t do justice to the windowless, thick point sharpie marker graffiti’d, place where furniture came to die that this was.  Every time you sat down, you were enveloped in a fog of ash and cigaratte funk.  The only thing you could ever find left in the bar was a bottle of Jack Daniels but there were never any shot glasses.  The profane scribbles on the wall spoke to a heritage of five decades of drunken, surly construction workers and Navy enlisted men.  Once upon a time, it had been the Last Chance Saloon, its facade somehow constructed from crates.  Truly, it was heaven second only to Club 90 South.  I long to be seated behind the bar there with my feet propped up on the beer cooler still….

A little after 3am, after the the last of my victims passed out or staggered home, I packed away my portable bar and the three of us went over to the smoking lounge to watch the pilot of Twin Peaks which had just arrived in the mail for Mark.  He had shipped his complete VHS set to himself two months before leaving for Pole, making a total transit time of four months before it came off the plane in Antarctica.  After finishing the pilot, I dug into my portable bar and brought out the bottle of Hapsburg absinthe that had been smuggled to me from New Zealand by the pilots.  I figured that the green fairy was the only way to cope with Senor Lynch after nearly a decade without watching the show.  Mark and Patty agreed.

After a glass each, we figured what the hell, we can watch the next two and it’ll be time for breakfast.

After four episodes and a few more glasses, we decided, drunkenly & erroneously, that alcohol metabolized to sugar just like all other food which meant, basically, that we were having breakfast already.  (I do not claim that this was good reasoning)

Eventually, we had watched it all, including the movie ‘Fire Walk With Me’, had drank an entire bottle of absinthe between the three of us plus many beers, and hadn’t eaten in 24 hours nor slept in 48.  We were, understandably, a little bit loopy when we finally emerged into the never-ending daylight glare of Antarctic summer.  When I turned around to look back at the entrance of the smoking lounge, door still open, it seemed an inviting gateway to infinite darkness.

That was when we decided to rename it The Black Lodge.  Shame they tore it town 6 years ago.  Probably still in trash boxes waiting to be shipped out.

A Field Trip To NASA Ames/Moffett Field

Let me start with this, zeppelin hangars are very large.

Hangars 2 and 3

Hangar One, East from the RunwayThey may look big from the freeway but you need to enter the cavernous space to get the full enormity; only the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center has been comparable. They were also built around the same time as the last proper zeppelins, which is to say prior to the Americans with Disabilities Act and OSHA.  Plummeting to one’s death from the arch while working on an airship was definitely considered bad form, but hardly a thing one would call a stop work order for.  It was a different time.  Americans are now a soft people and I, as a personal representative of Americaness, am hardly fit enough to climb the concerning ladder/staircases of Moffett Field’s Hangar 2.

This trip all began back in May when John, a machinist at Ames, asked if I’d be interested in a tour of the hangars if he could wrangle one.  I said hell yes and asked if my friend Erik could join us.  I got told to hold my horses and to wait and see if he could make the excursion even happen first.  Sadly, Erik died the week after John made the tentative offer and it took four months to wrangle a trip outsiders could go on.  This most definitely was a trip Erik would have enjoyed.  It was dirty, it was normally inaccessible, and it was full of Science and History.

First off, Hangar 2:

Hangar 2 Interior, Facing North

Hangar 2 interior, Facing North

The smallest of the three hangars and occasional former home of the ZR-3 Los Angeles. It is where Airship Ventures, AKA the ad blimps you see cruising the Bay Area, are based. Additionally, this is where the experimental helium turbine that went up over Haiti for emergency generation and comms after the earthquake lives. And that all is in just the rearmost tenth of the hangar in this shot (PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: NASA would be quite happy to lease space for joint ventures). The rest is mostly littered with the detritus of 30 years of projects that seem to come to a resting place here. For example, this was a mirror mount for a telescope, not a Stargate prototype:

Not The Stargate

With no small amount of effort, I scaled the hairy with dry rot wooden structure of the hangar with John and our representative from flight ops. My Lovely Assistant declared the ground to be quite good for her and no way was she going up. I did not die, though a heart attack seemed possible, even likely, from time to time while making the long ascent. It was more comfortable than the gangsta lean ascent I experience scaling the staircase of the dome on St. Peter’s in Rome however. Sadly, by the time I got to the top I was too tired and it was too dark up there to take any pictures competently and the blurry shot below was the best I managed. My legs were wobbling for the rest of the day after getting back down.

Half-way up, looking southHangar 3 is a fair bit wider than Hangar 2, possibly intended as a home for ZRS-4 Akron if it ever showed up at the same time as ZRS-5 Macon. Currently, it’s floor is split about 50/50 between Space Systems Loral satellite projects and NASA/Navy airframe restoration, mainly for museum pieces. I’d had enough climbing, so we contented ourselves with exploring the antiquities. These two, a piece of the Los Angeles‘ airframe and the gas envelope sleeve removal man’s extension ladder were of particular interest:

Piece of Zeppelin Airframe

Piece of Zeppelin Airframe

Zeppelin Servicing Extension Ladder

Hangar 1 was built to house the Macon but barely saw use before the airship crashed off of Big Sur in 1935. Sadly, this building will be gone soon as it gets reduced to a whalebone skeleton for decontamination and hazardous materials disposal. The skin of the building is lead painted asbestos tiles that are cemented together with PCBs. If only we could find a way to make it radioactive too so that it would be a maximally difficult to dispose of as toxic waste. It’s sad because the building is quite beautiful with corrugated glass windows (!), but environmental concerns trump historical site registry for this one. The Navy claims they will treat the skeleton to preserve it so that a new skin could be built if anyone were interested, but good luck to that I say. A new skin needs to be installed as the old is removed if things are to be properly preserved.

Hangar One - South Door

Hangar One, South Door Up Close & Personal

Moving on. Here’s me with my head in the breach of the Supergun:

Lock and Load!

This is a 16″ gun that’s been reamed out to 17″ and then sleeved in a larger barrel is part of the High Pressure Test Facility.   Here they fire small scale models from what are, seriously, modified WWII battleship deck guns re-tasked for SCIENCE! down a Schlieren photography rig at a very, very thick target at Mach Lots.  I got taken for the tour of all the armor plate patches and cement repairs from where models went off axis and went spang.  The thumb sized Apollo capsule went through 2″ of steel and 2′ of reinforced concrete when there was a little bit of a whoopsie.  How do I know this is a WWII battleship deck gun you ask?  Well, how about this:

Once upon a time you might have gotten one of these at the surplus store too...

16″ Mark 6 Model 1, 1942

This means I have now seen two out of the three of the Superguns. I’m going to need a Q clearance again if I want to see JASPER, however.

I also got to go wandering around inside of the Unitary Wind Tunnel but none of those pictures came out.

In summation, it is sad to see many Big Science facilities barely used due to lack of funding and interest.  Of everywhere I went, the Supergun sees the most business.  All the other facilities I visited seem to be largely used as storage for files and equipment from “When We Did Stuff”.  Oh, I’m told the computational areas see a great deal of action but eventually you have to make a model into reality and we don’t seem to be doing that much anymore.

As Warren Ellis says, DO SOMETHING.

Herr Dirketor Funranium, Down Under (100% Paul Hogan Free Content)

The quote of the trip so far: “I think that in the depth of winter, Australians have forgotten what summer is like and what it does to beer.  This thing is brilliant.  How many thousand have you sold to Queensland?”

Answer: None…yet.

Let me begin by thanking the exquisite attack hospitality of the people of Australia with their demands that I try their favorite beers.  A stein that is empty is a void that demands to be filled and no suggestion has been ignored so far and all enjoyed.  I do have to scoff at the declaration for one of the brews at the Lord Nelson Brewery that it was “very hoppy”.  The brewers of California are demented and fighting a war of nuclear escalation with their ever hoppier beers.  Like the decendents of white mice turning black in mutagenic defense against radiation in the MegaMouse Project, I’ve had to acclimate to the ambient beer.

The mother of the groom on being served a modicum of Kona BBotE declared in good British fashion, “Ooo, yummy!” with Wallace & Gromit cheese-related finger wriggles.  I’m calling that a win.  A budding librarian has her 2L of Ethiopian with gleam of delight & fear in her eye.  I look forward to hearing how it treats her.

I have, unfortunately, discovered that all the tales of indifference and horror attributed to Australian Post are entirely accurate.  There is a certain level of quantum uncertainty combined with a lackadaisical attitude that gives one the impression that an package will get there when a passing drunken traveler can be flagged down and bothered to care.  I realize this is a traditional postal service mode, but BBotE demands a higher level of professionalism.  Eventually, when sufficient money is waved in their faces, postal employees remember that they do have actual express mail options and have to go rummage for the forms and remember which buttons to press on the McMail Service register screen.

I did bring extra Steins of Science with me to the antipodes, but both the imperial pint FMJs have been claimed leaving only a 350ml and a 1000ml.  Unlike BBotE, the steins are not perishable and can be entrusted to the slow pace of Australian Post.  The listings are active on the main page, but I will refuse orders from anywhere outside Oz and NZ until the 13th of July.  I am all about the instant gratification.