Monday, November 1, 2010

Rally to restore Sanity

... or March to Keep Fear Alive.

So the event was a success. Apparently there were more than 200,000 people in attendance. I got to Citi-Field at about 6am to find thousands of people and hundreds of buses lined up. I jumped the line a few times and got on to a bus by about 8am. After flying down the NJ Turnpike, we came to a slow crawl through Delaware, Baltimore, and then into Washington. Then we came to a clusterfuck at the Metro station, so I walked the 2.5 miles to the mall.

By then it was after 1pm, and the rally was already on for more than an hour. On the bus, people were breaking out their iPad and iPhones and streaming the feed off Comedy Central. Somebody on the bus passed up their speaker to plug into the iPad so more of us could hear. We heard The Roots play and saw The Myth Busters attempt to start an earthquake.

The mall and the surrounding areas were jam packed with groovy people from all walks of life. Everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves, being pleasant and not angry. There were a few signs from some left wing wackos, including a 9/11 Truther, some people advocating socialized medicine (not mincing words, owning up to the term "socialism"), and lots of anti-Tea Party jabs (making fun of Sarah Pallen and Christine O'Donnel). But mostly they were signs geared towards the intent of the rally, to promote cooperation and to lighten up a bit.

There were absolutely no political endorsements from the podium. It was mostly an extended Daily Show and Colbert Report, followed by a speech by John Stewart. The main thrust of the speech was to raise awareness as to the danger of the 24 hour news cycle as seen on the cable TV news networks. This is not a new theme for Stewart, it's essentially the same message he was preaching years ago when they had him on Crossfire.

His big metaphor was how cars merge on the highway when entering a tunnel. Even though people are from every political slant, and every walk of life... they still work together allowing each other to get down to two lanes and get to the light at the end of the tunnel, even if that light is not Paradise, but is only New Jersey. He said that the American People work together in harmony and peace "every damn day". Only in Washington and on the cable news stations do you find the jerks who ride up the shoulder and try to cut people off. The rest of us are willing to say "You go, then I'll go... you go, then I'll go..."

And yes, I DO feel a bit guilty about jumping the line to get on the bus.

The trip took 4.5 hours down, and 6 freaking hours back. All that for about an hour and a half of actual on-stage entertainment at the rally, plus a nice walk around the mall snapping pictures of the funny costumes and signs, and the hike back across town to RFK stadium to catch the bus back home.

Was well worth the effort, though if I had to do it again I would seriously consider booking a hotel and taking the train. Much thanks to Arianna Huffington and the Huffington Post for paying for the hundreds of buses and getting us there safe and sound at no cost. She was there at Citi Field at 6am, and I have a picture to prove it. If I was more on the ball, I could have gotten my picture with her. She was with an entourage, but was accessible and able to talk to people and take photos. Not that she is an A-list celebrity, but she is pretty famous, did pay for all the buses, and didn't HAVE to be there in person.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Exploring Mercury with The Messenger Spacecraft

Wow, what a great experience last night. It was so refreshing to be in the presence of highly intelligent, competent, enthusiastic people pursuing science for it's own sake, attempting to discover the secrets of the universe by reaching beyond our own planet and into the inner edge of our solar system. Sean Solomon is a role model for all human beings.

Here are a few things I learned...

- A while ago, NASA approved nine big ticket projects collectively known as the Discovery Program, one of which was the Rovers on Mars. One of which was the space craft called "Messenger" which is tasked with achieving orbit around Mercury and gathering data.

- the last space ship sent to explore Mercury was many years ago. It was a straight shot from Earth towards Mercury. Late in the project a European mathematician explained how it would be possible for them to actually loop around Mercury so they could get two whole passes at the planet before it fell into the sun (or smashed on the planet's surface... wasn't clear what it's fate was). This flight took about 6 or 8 months of travel.

- To achieve a true orbit around Mercury, Messenger needs to be launched at a high speed (just to get off the earth, then to not get sucked into the sun, etc). Then it has to decelerate at 100Km/s... not mile per hour or meters per second, but Km per second... that's a daunting amount of deceleration. It can't be done practically with thrusters. So they chose to use a more elegant solution. The ship first circled the Earth, twice, decelerating on each pass. Then it circled Venus, twice, decelerating again each pass. Then it circled Mercury once, decelerating yet again... and started to send us data on Mercury at that time. In approximately 6 months time, the Mercury Orbit Insertion will be attempted, and if all goes well, it will remain in orbit around Mercury for several years until they run out of propellant needed to make the fine adjustments. At that time, the sun's gravity will influence the orbit and it will crash on the surface of Mercury.

- This circuitous journey is taking 6 years of travel time.

- The mission is funded for one year after the insertion date, and they hope to be extended for some time after that if the data collection is going well.

- Right now they expect to get as close as 200 Km away from the surface of the planet. They hope, towards the end, to attempt to get even closer.

- The ship had to be designed to deal with the extreme heat. Thanks to a ceramic curtain on one side, the craft will exceed 700 degrees Fahrenheit on one side facing the sun and will remain at room temperature on the other side facing Mercury. That's where the electronics and data gathering equipment (the payload) reside.

- This payload consists of about 12 devices including a high resolution camera, a magnetometer, several spectrometers, and a few things I won't remember... but sound really really cool.

- From the one spin around the planet, we have already gathered an immense amount of data including high res images (as in, this is what you would really see with your eyes if you were there), maps of the small magnetic field, composition of the atmosphere (not technically called an atmosphere as it is not dense enough... the atoms contained don't interact and are unaware of each other's presence... similar to the outer edge of Earth's atmosphere), maps of elements from the solar wind as it passes around Mercury, mineral distribution on the surface, maps of volatile compounds being emitted from the planet, evidence of volcanic activity as seen by huge impact craters that seem to be filling themselves in over time (billions of years) and even pouring over their edges, various topographical features indicating tectonic activity...

- We are going to learn a hell of a lot about planets in general, and Mercury in particular over the next couple of years.

- When you gather amazing people from many different disciplines in science, you can do mind-bendingly amazing things.

- This is a great time to be alive.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Across The Universe

Picked this up cheap on Blu-Ray at Costco. I saw some clips on YouTube and figured it was worth watching. I will give it a "should see", especially to music fans, pop culture fans, 1960's gurus, film enthusiasts, and lovers of choreography. For Beatles fans, this is a "must see"... though any true Beatles fan has already seen it, and doesn't need me to tell you that. I would put this as a modern version of the movie "Hair", but with all the music selected from The Beatles' extensive catalog.

The original Broadway play "Hair" did not have contain a narrative, but was a collage of songs, dances, and essays; the movie took those elements and wrapped them loosely around a plot. This is essentially what happens in "Across the Universe". A group of characters meet up and interact as music and dance occurs around them, sometimes occurring within the reality of the movie (such as performances by Sexy Sadie), but more often in typical musical fashion where they just break into song and dance as the plot is revealed.

This is certainly a quality production on many levels. The dancing and singing is quite good, the camera work is very imaginative, the choreography is also innovative and well executed. The script contains uncountable references to Beatles lyrics on top of the fact that all the characters take their names from Beatles tunes. There are also infinite references to various pop culture icons and events of the era. Of course the War in Vietnam is a central theme, the burning of draft cards, Yippies marching in the streets with analogous characters to Abbie Hoffman and other real life people, a scene from an "Electric Cool-Aid" party where you can see a Gerry Garcia-like character, an Allen Ginsberg, and many others.

Oddly enough, though certainly a conscious effort, there are many drug references yet the characters do not themselves partake. They mime smoking weed, but say things like "I don't even smoke". They do, however, drink beer.

The movie is speckled with well known celebrities such as Joe Cocker, Bono and Eddie Izzard (Brit comedian).

There are some anachronistic elements, such as musical interpretations that just didn't exist back then... like a bit of heavy punk-ish sounds, and general singing styles that didn't come into popularity until much later. But this is not really a problem as this is not a historical piece, it is a modern interpretation of the 60's era.

Lots of "making of" features on the Blu-Ray, director's commentary, detailed commentary on the correography, and all that good stuff. This works pretty well as a movie, and pretty well as a video album.

I recommend experiencing this one through a good audio system. I'm not sure it would hold up over plain old TV speakers. Swing on by if you want to have a look.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Bizarre occurance on my way to Florida

Finally got around to writing this one up...

So I guess I bit off a bit more than I could chew on my trip to Florida at the end of January. I was leaving on a flight from McArthur Airport on Wednesday at 4:10. So in the best of all worlds, I should have been at the airport at 2:10. But I had noticed that the registration on my car was about to expire, and since I had recently changed license plates, I really wanted to go to DMV in person to be sure all went smoothly. How long could it POSSIBLY take to get my car registered anyway? Half an hour? Forty minutes? An hour? OK, so I budgeted a good hour and a half and gave myself some wiggle room on top of that. I was all packed and ready to go. Just had to get the reggie, and drive 45 minutes to an hour over to Islip.

At the Yonkers DMV I got my form and my "deli" ticket... I was number C706. Checking the light board I saw C660. OK, so I guess there were about 46 people in front of me. Or perhaps more than that, but 46 people in front of me who were there to register their cars? So I sit and wait... and wait... and I see that their are lots of other numbers being called, that begin with A, B, D, E, F, G, H, and I. Oh bloody hell... there could be NINE TIMES forty six people in front of me... and apparently there were. Two and a half hours later, they are up to C700, but I could not wait for one second longer. I would miss my flight. So I ran out of there as angry as a human could be, without actually killing somebody.

Mind you, I was sitting there ready to go with my license, old registration, insurance card, form, and debit card all in my nice little folder ready to just drop at the desk. I shouldn't have had to say a word, and the transaction should have taken about 5-7 minutes.

So out I ran, and headed towards Islip. My travel mate, Corey, assured me that McArthur Airport security is pretty lax, that the place is more like a bus terminal than an airport, and that it's quick to get in and out. Still, I was seriously pressed for time at this point. The plan all along was to leave my car at Corey's house, and have his wife Dom drop us off at the airport. On the way I called ahead and Corey was nervous... he said he's gonna have Dom drop him off at the airport, and then she could make a second trip with me if I got there in time. There was traffic on the Throg's Neck Bridge, but I made good time on the L.I.E. I pulled up to Dom and Corey's house as Dom was on her way back from her first trip. Five minutes later, I'm on my way to the airport, Dom laughing at me the whole time for being so predictably late.

Well I got to the airport a good 20 minutes before the plane was supposed to take off. Corey was right... curb side check-in was a breeze. I gave my bag and told him my name, and had my boarding pass printed up in seconds... keeping my backpack of electronics with me.

So now I'm doing the "Go OJ" through the airport up to security. HERE's where it gets weird.

So I come up to the security maze and pull out my wallet to get out my license. OMFG !!! My license NEVER leaves my wallet... where the HELL is my license ?!?!? Nooooooo... it's in the folder in the compartment of my car along with the DMV form and my insurance card.

So I guess that's it.. there's no way to get my ID in time to catch the flight... and BOY am I gonna hear it from Dom. So this TSA uniform guy sees the look of panic on my face and says "What's the matter son?" Mind you, he was about my age. So I say "I left my license in the car back at the house." He asks, "Well, what DO you have? You got a Costco card???" I simply don't believe he just said that. It's just too surreal to believe. I said "Yeah I have a Costco card... I got credit cards... got a New Jersey boating safety certificate (stamped with the State of NJ seal), etc..."

He looks at my stuff and grills me for about a minute... "You live in New York but your boating certificate if from NJ?? Where are you going anyway? What for? When will you be back???" Apparently I did OK and he could tell that I was not a sweating stammering underwear bomber... though I was nervous as hell and completely upset with myself.

He said "OK, I'm convinced that you are who you say you are. Let me sign off on this boarding pass" as he scribbles with his pen. He said "I don't know what will happen on the other side when you make the return trip, though." He then unhooks the velvet rope and lets me to the front of the line for security check. I unload all my gear into bins, zip through the check point, pack up my gear, and head to the gate.

I still can't believe it happened. I meet up w/ Corey and Ant and we still have 15 minutes before the plane starts to board. I'm totally convinced that any second somebody is gonna come by and say "Would you step over here sir..." but it never happened. In fact, once on the plane, the 4:10 flight actually was IN THE AIR at 4:13. I said "What happened to the 45 minute approach to the runway?" Corey assured me that that NEVER happens at McArthur.

Eventually after a few minutes in the air I finally convinced myself that this was not a dream, ant that this actually happened. BTW: Dom overnighted my license to me. And it's a good thing she did, because there was NO WAY I could have gotten through Tampa airport without it... never mind the obvious fact that this COULD NOT happen at LGA or JFK.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Saga Continues

So yesterday I went to take care of the Manhattan leg of my car ticket woes. Already took care of Yonkers last week. I was enlightened, disgusted, relieved, and befuddled.

Quick recap (not posted on this blog, sorry)... my front license plate had been missing, and I got a few tickets before I realized it was gone, and another after I got new plates, but before I could get the front plate mounted on my bumper. Had one Spanish guy at the local auto parts store try to screw it into my metal bumper and then had to attempt to explain that he would actually need a drill to do it because the bumper is not plastic. Finally got J and Tray's guy in Riverdale to do it.

So the plan was to plead to the judge that I got four tickets for the same offense, tried hard to get it fixed as soon as possible, and made all attempts to rectify the situation. So the day before, I checked online to see if there was any info I might be able to use to make my case. HOLY CHRIST ON A CRACKER !!! There were SEVEN additional tickets that I didn't know about. I had almost $1000 of outstanding fines. I'm AMAZED my car had not been towed. I immediately brought the car to the parking garage so the sharks w/ the tow trucks didn't scoop me up. All these tickets were BEFORE the first ticket I had ever seen for the missing plate... they were parking IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD, double parking, alternate side parking, missing registration and inspection, and missing front plate. HUH? I didn't do any of those things... except missing front plate. Further scrutiny of the tickets (immaged online) and I saw the vehicle description... Blue Ford Pickup !!! I drive a BLACK JEEP !!! Now it all makes sense. Bucci called it right away, though it never occurred to me... somebody either swiped my plate off my car, or off the ground, and slapped it on the back of his unregistered vehicle and parked wherever he felt like parking. I wish I checked the vehicle description on my Yonkers tickets... wish the judge bothered to look too. Some of the NYC tix had a note saying VIN not visible, but two of them had a VIN listed which was NOT mine.

OK, so here's where it gets weird. Down at 66 John Street to the NYC department of finance where you can adjudicate your tickets and pay your fines. First step they send you to a window to get a printout of all your tickets. Next you go to the waiting area where you read the posters which detail the procedure. You have TWO CHOICES. First you go to a clerk, not a judge, and (s)he will automatically offer you a significant reduction of your fines (for most offenses). Then you can choose to take this reduced fine, OR go see the judge. The judge is not allowed to reduce the fines. He can dismiss the ticket or uphold the ticket. It's an actual gamble that you are taking.

So, before I get to the clerk/judge, there's the incompetent lady. She's got the clip board, calls the numbers, ushers people into seats where you wait for the clerk. She tells me, "fill out this form, go down this hall and have a seat". I ask politely if there is a pen I could use (my fault, I shouldn't go anywhere... especially court... without a pen). She assures me there's a clip board down the hall. So I walk a few feet to the end of the hall and there are chairs on both sides. I take a seat as she walks past me and wanders further down the hall. I spot the clipboard, stand up to get it, am walking back to my seat while fitting my form into the clipboard. She starts to berate me... "Sir, PLEASE have a seat. There's no reason for you to be standing up." I sit down and start to fill out the form. She says "So you're going to see the judge?" I say, "Yes, I intend to. But first I'd like to see what the reduced fine is." (This was spelled out clearly on the posters) Incompetent lady then says "No, you already gave up that choice." I calmly said "I'm sorry, but I didn't make any such choice." She said "But you're sitting on this side of the hall, that means you chose to see the judge." I said, "No, I sat where you told me to, and have not many any choices yet. I'd like to see what my reduced fines will be." She said "Then why are you on THIS SIDE... you should be on THAT side." (she points to seats three feat away on the other side of the narrow hall). "OK, thanks, I'll sit there then."

Clerk calls "NEXT", and I go talk to her. She's a little better, but still seemed befuddled by the task of doing exactly what she's been doing all day, every day, for God knows how long. Seemed like a novelty that she had to go through a pile of copies of tickets, and check them off, and figure out what the reduction would be. I told her that I was planning on seeing the judge about the first 7 tickets... she said "Which are the first seven?" I said, "you see that form on top that lists my 11 tickets? The first seven on that list are the first seven tickets." Oddly enough, she seemed incapable of looking through a stack of papers without spreading them out haphazardly on her desk, and then stacking them back up in a random order. She did help me out, though. She noted that of the four tickets that actually seemed to be written for MY car, for an offense that was (arguably) my responsibility, that two of them were issued on the same day, so she waved that one right away. The reduced the other three from $95/$75/$75 down to $43 each. At that point I said, I'll take that deal and see the judge about the rest.

OK, now back out to the hall and sit on what I now know is the correct side. Incompetent lady is now ushering other people into seats. Mind you, she's supposed to put people in seats IN ORDER, because that's how they determine who is NEXT. She seats an Asian guy, who clearly has little capacity in English, on the correct side and he starts filling out his form. He says "Miss, can you please give me back my ticket." She says "Ticket? I don't have your ticket? How did you lose your ticket? I don't take nobody's ticket!!!" He talks to the Asian guy next to him, and he sayd "Miss, he says you took his ticket, and he needs it to show the clerk." She says "Oh wait... I DID take your ticket and I have no idea what I did with it." She wanders around aimlessly for a minute or two, then walks back to the front waiting area where the other girl working there says "Hey, you left this stuff here !!" She brings back his ticket.

Meanwhile, several people on my side have been called in to see the judge, so there are a couple of open seats. As incompetent lady ushers a few more people down the hall, they fill in the open seats, one of which was IN FRONT of me, others were in front of other people behind me. So she can't even seat people in the correct order, or keep track of people's documents... which is ALL she does ALL DAY.

OK, then judge calls me in to an office, swears me in, hears my story, looks at the tickets, believes me, and dismisses all seven tickets. We talk VERY briefly as he's printing out the documents for me... I can see things lightened up as soon as he decided I was not a liar or scammer. He asked if I called the police when I realized somebody was using my plates. I said I didn't figure it out until yesterday, but I figure as soon as I re-registered my care for the new plates, the old ones would raise a red flag for any police officer writing a ticket for the OLD plates. He laughed and said, "No, they just write the tickets. Nobody runs plates. You'd think writing a ticket for a vehicle with a missing plate, no registration, and no inspection, with the VIN covered up would be enough to have him call for it to be towed... wouldn't you?"

OK, yippie-ay-oh-kay-ay !!! I just saw $950 in fines turn into $130. Now all I have to do is pay. Over to the other side of the office and wait on fairly long line, but not TOO bad. I read carefully my paying options on the posters. Credit cards, debit cards, money orders, checks, cash... all good. In fact, one window kept yelling "anybody paying by check, please step up !!" I waited, since I was paying w/ debit. I get to the window, plunk down the paperwork and my debit and license. The guy in the window says "Sorry, we don't take VISA anymore." I said, "It's a debit, not a credit card." He said, "Yeah, but it's a VISA, and we don't accept them." (Now I'm getting mad) I said angrily "The sign says you take debit. It doesn't say anything about VISA. Where does it say that you don't take VISA." He said, "It doesn't, but that's the rules." I ask where there's a cash machine, he says "Outside the building and across the street." He was nice enough to offer that I come back to him without waiting on the line. (oh, and BTW there would have been a $3 PER TICKET fee for using debit... even though they swipe it ONCE, and there's ONE transaction, they somehow multiply the fee per ticket.)

OK, across the street, a bank of the super fast Citi-bank machines save me $6 since they only hit me for the one $3 fee. Back to the building where the front doors are LOCKED !!! Inside the glass doors I see velvet rope across all doors, and a sign saying "building closes at 4:30. I check my watch and see it's 4:10. Steam is now pouring out of my ears... but luckily a stranger who works there says "Don't worry, last door on the left is still open until 4:30. Thank god, or I might be in jail right now !!!!!

Back upstairs, pay my fine, and get the hell out of there ASAP. Hopefully I will never darken their doorstep again !!!