Friday, October 8, 2010

Florida trip

Last weekend I took the opportunity to catch up with my friend and expert zoologist Vladimir in Florida before he leaves to other, less exciting places! The weather was just turning in downtown Pasadena as I took the metro to union station, and in light rain the flyaway shuttle to LAX airport. I had already checked in on line and received an electronic boarding pass on my phone, which I used to pass through security to proceed to the xray.

I wound up in a queue that led to one of the few backscatter xray scanners. For several reasons (privacy and ionizing radiation being at the top of the list) I opted to get frisked instead of zapped, although the guards were pretty annoyed about it, going so far as to suggest that opting for a frisk was an admission of guilt, which I thought was a bit over the top. As several people have demonstrated fooling x-ray machines is not particularly difficult and the so-called privacy safeguards are a complete joke.

This refers to microwave scanners, but is similar in principle http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xBfHMCiatK0&p=1AA6C5D94197406A&playnext=1&index=81

In summary, I find someone whose face I can see frisking me far less invasive than electronic measures, which I feel have been hastily rolled out with no real evaluation of the long term risks.

Killed time at the airport waiting for the flight (fortunately I was early), and noticed next to the boarding gate was a room entitled 'American Airlines rebooking office', which made me nervous. Not to worry, my electronic boarding pass had me on faster than anyone could actually check it!

I arrived in Florida, and after a short delay, drove with Vladimir back to a neighbourhood near the university, parked the car, then walked across a golf course to his office. Once there we talked Russia, travel, volcanoes, animals, science, teaching, academic careers, and so on for several hours. Having eaten about one decent meal in the last few days I was a bit hungry, but managed to eventually warm up some corn and Vienna sausage, which was a nice relief! Eventually, we retired to the floor of the office and slept, as Vladimir has moved out of his apartment.

The following day we battled blinding sunlight and drove to the Everglades. On the way we discussed the stories of several scientists who managed to defect from the Soviet Union, including a coral researcher (Slava Kurilov) who was prevented from leaving the country, but took a Russian based cruise that went 'close' to the Philippines. At the crucial moment he put on a wetsuit and jumped overboard - four days later he found land! Many years later he formed his own sea-based religion, and subsequently died by drowning in the bath.

Vladimir also told me about the state of universities in Russia. His alma mater is now best known for its UFO research, in which one self appointed expert built a flying saucer landing site with a few million tonnes of concrete, but is still waiting for the first landing.

At length we arrived in the Everglades, and took several walking paths around looking for interesting animals and plants. We saw many snakes, frogs (one was transparent under torch light), toads, alligators, baby alligators, herons, and lots of water. It had rained a lot in the past few days and the Everglades, which is essentially a very broad, shallow sheet of water flowing slowly to the ocean, had filled up a bit. Closer to the sea we saw several vultures and crocodiles, and many fish in the water. Later we checked out a few 'hammocks', or islands of rainforest that originate with crocodile pool digging and eventually evolve into Gaussian humps of hurricane resistant tree growth. Each hammock has its own subspecies of tree shells - shells that climb trees and hang there. Fireflies also blinked. By far the greatest feature was mosquitos, which became fierce in the evening as Venus and Jupiter came up. Apparently in the 50s a cyclist broke his chain at the end of a not particularly long path, and was actually killed by mosquito bites walking the bike the two miles back to the road.

On the drive back I saw a particularly excellent sign, advertising "BT's gentlemen's club - parking and entrance in rear". By now it was about 11pm and we were keen to eat something, so keeping an eye out we saw a Mexican restaurant, ordered ENORMOUS meals, and sat back as an old man with a saxophone played happy birthday in a very jazzy, pitch approximate way.

At length we returned to the office, looked at pictures of Russia, volcanoes, and watched Tim Minchin singing questionable songs. Vladimir told me about Mathias Rust, a man who used to fly people out of the Soviet Union on the one day a year that he knew the border guards were drunk. In 1987 during glasnost, he got the head of security sacked by landing his small plane on red square! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mathias_Rust

Next morning we drove to the beach for a swim. Vladimir explained that the beach with the pretty girls was 200 miles to the south - which I thought was TERRIBLE planning. Such is life. I didn't fully understand previously either, but there's a road which connects nearly all the keys, which is pretty cool. The water at the beach was very warm, so I was able to swim for nearly five minutes before I got tired and drowned. Well, not quite - I can touch the bottom! But despite living in the US for a few weeks I'm yet to undergo a positive shift in density, which is probably a good sign.

Next we visited the Miami Seaquarium, where I managed to catch a few shows and check out many animals. Lots of dolphins, seals, and manatees. I had never seen a manatee in person before - they really are huge sacks of fat with extremely fluid movements that float around eating stuff. Pretty cool really. Saw nurse sharks being fed a few fish, with the odd piranha floating around - they are quite spectacular fish. I saw a sea lion show, which was pretty clever, but also pretty corny - thoroughly aimed at young teenagers or little kids. Still, it was pretty cool seeing what they could do. A key different to the sea shows done at the Manly Aquarium that I remember (as it was explained to us) is that in Sydney the trainers deliberately make their gestures subtle, flexible, and constantly shifting to ensure the seals pay attention. At Miami, it was pretty obvious what the trainers were doing, and that the sea lions weren't really paying attention. Meanwhile a heron managed to steal a few fish, which I think was probably part of the show. Another part of the show is getting splashed, which was pretty funny.

One hour later I went to the dolphin/killer whale show, in which Miami's killer whale (Lolita, her mate Hugo died a few years ago) and 5 pacific white sided dolphins did all sorts of clever stuff. The dolphins were really fast, and able to jump 5m out of the water. It reminded me of a paper on animal creativity I read a while ago, in which dolphins were trained to improvise moves. It took them a few weeks to catch on, but then they went nuts to the point that the trainers could no longer deduce any structure to the moves. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cetacean_intelligence#Creative_behavior)

The killer whale was also pretty cool, carrying the trainer around, jumping, making big waves, and splashing everyone - not bad for a whale that's longer than the radius of the tank it's kept in! The ethics of keeping whales in tanks is an ongoing question - there's many excellent resources on the web if you're interested. It reminded me of a story I saw in one of Australia's many excellent whaling museums. In Eden (on the southern NSW coast) there used to be a killer whale called Tom who would tow the whaling boats out into the bay, then help his pod herd other whale species close to the shore, where the humans would spear them. Tom and his family would eat the lips and tongue of the killed whales. His skeleton in the museum shows dental wear where he held the rope, although its age at death is much smaller than the duration of this behaviour, suggesting that perhaps Tom's grandfather began helping the hunters. Aboriginal Australians also have stories of killer whales helping them hunt whales from canoes!

Soon it was time to drive to the airport, where I discovered that I'd somehow managed to book my return flight on the wrong day (in fact 3 days previously, well before I'd even left LA). I'm not sure how this took place, as I'm usually pretty careful. Perhaps the online booking system shunted me towards a cheaper fare on a different date without making it obvious, but in any case, after a 2 hour foray into the depths of stupidity and terrible customer service, I forked out another $300 cash (as the previous transaction had got my card blocked by my bank - apparently budget airlines are common recipients of credit card fraud) and made the plane with at least 60 seconds to spare. Budget airline indeed!

On the flight back I spent most of the time up the back in the galley chatting to one of the air hosts - with no inflight food service, they have time on their hands. As a former member of the navy, he had an interesting take on the current administration's attempt to repeal 'don't ask, don't tell' - apparently when he was in the service a gay man outed himself to obtain a discharge, but being annoyed with the process, attempted to out several other men in the unit. Of course even insisting you're straight is grounds for dismissal, so it was just a pain. In essence, the presence of this rule gave people who were belligerent or didn't want to follow orders a way to do so without suffering direct consequences. He also confirmed my suspicion that most gay members of the armed forces are usually the most competent fighters in a unit. The other half of the conversation was about the horrors of the job as a flight attendant. Apparently a few months before an attendant (Steven Slater) flipped off a passenger, stole some alcohol and excited the aeroplane (while it was taxiing) by the escape slide. Style!
On another occasion he delivered a baby, though I never found out if it was named after him. What excitement.

In due course I arrived at LAX, then found a taxi driver who had missed his fare, who drove me swiftly to Pasadena for a very reasonable price and some excellent conversation about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism amongst expat communities before and since 9/11. He was a Lebanese (christian) immigrant, and had heard about the race riots in Australia a few years before. I'm still not sure what the upshot is, but the process of integration is never helped by nationalism, which in my mind is one of the four great evils of the last century (and probably more generally, together with racism, sexism, and religious extremism).

All in all, a very interesting weekend, well worth the huge set-back in terms of homework!


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