Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Mystery trip to Florida

It started with an innocuous enough email; spare ticket available, any takers?

Four days later, I was zooming east to Orlando (via Charlotte). D, the man sitting between me and the window, was an environmental scientist from Houston. We had a quick chat about speculative physics and at the airport, his father and friend gave me a lift to my hotel, the retro-chic Days Inn.

Sitting in the lobby some time later between naps, who should I run into but J, a guy who graduated from my high school a few years ahead of me, and who I hadn't seen in 8 (?) years. Here for the same reason, of course. What reason? (I hear you cry.)

I took a few naps, answered some emails, and ate dinner at a local Indian place, which was satisfying. I ordered extra naan to fold up and stuff it in my pocket. At 1am we got in the car and drove to the bus meeting place, met the rest of our six person group, and jumped on the bus. The next 10 hours consisted mainly of waiting in over air-conditioned buses or rooms, in
traffic jams and security procedures. I'm not sure what security was looking for, but it wasn't particularly thorough. We also spent 2 hours at the Kennedy Space Center before 5am, checking out the exhibits. Most were quite good, but some were hilariously outdated. Eventually us and 8000 other people were funneled out into the car park, put back on buses, and delivered to the east causeway by about 9am. We found a place with good visibility and borrowed some chairs
from under a marquee, and settled in. I munched my pre-stowed naan, folded my arms and legs in the traditional manner, and duly passed out.

By about 11am the countdown (did I give it away?) was proceeding apace, weather trouble had abated, and the feed provided an interesting insight into the processes of putting the astronauts inside, taking spare stuff out, sealing the hatch, leak checking, retracting gantries, and so on. I pulled out my binoculars and got the focus just right. At 9 minutes, the last hold went through, prompting cheers from the people lining the shore. At 31 seconds, control passes to the orbiter's computer, which began oxygen flow. The countdown paused! A sensor on the ground had failed, and the gantry might not have retracted adequately. Camera 61 swung into position and confirmed that it was indeed retracted, the countdown resumed (within a 10 minute launch window!), and shortly afterwards the shuttle was obscured completely by billowing clouds of hot, poisonous gases. As the peak of the shuttle emerged from the cloud a deep rumble reached our minds and bodies, and the shuttle continued upwards on blindingly bright pillars of gas. For about 40 seconds it remained in view below the clouds as the loud speaker updated us on its consumption of fuel and steadily increasing speed and altitude. At half a ton of fuel per second, it's not really a hybrid. A minute later it was seen between a gap in the clouds for a few more seconds. 10 minutes later it was in orbit. A video can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lSY4Z_nso5U;

Rather astounding, and definitely worth the last minute hassle of organizing it! The shuttle was inefficient, expensive, and did not fulfill its mission criteria. But the shuttle was a flagship project; a signal of wealth and prestige. Certainly lessons have been learnt, and I await the maturation of the SpaceX developed Falcon rockets. Already they've launched a seven person capsule into a stable orbit with functional life support. To me this is astounding. A private company has achieved in a few years what most space-faring nations have still not demonstrated.

Photos: https://picasaweb.google.com/105494084231616659850/FloridaShuttleTrip

Back to the hotel by 3pm, a well earned shower, and sat in the lobby using wifi, but MSNBC nonstop news, featuring pointless analysis of the Casey Anthony acquittal blared right into my brain.

That evening we stacked the apartment. At some point D rolled over in his sleep and grabbed my ear; a very strange way to wake up during the night. Of course after that I had some bizarre lucid dreams featuring harpies, unsafe auditoriums, and steampunk styled caverns in which
gravity was optional. The following day wifi was much more usable, as the TV in the lobby had apparently broken. There were two more days in Orlando, and only 1000 pages of quantum and stat mech/thermo to revise for Tuesday's qualifying exam. If I pass it, it'll be the last exam I
ever do which counts for anything. :) Possibly...

Next day I had a slow start, plenty of revision, ate some snacks, and read a lot of physics. At about 5pm I got in touch with a local CSer, A, and he took me on a tour of the nicer parts of Orlando, after which my attitude to the place softened considerably. After chatting about
his Obama mannequin, testing the trampoline, and sharing insane travel stories, he dropped me at his blue-haired housemate's parkour gym. I walked into the un-airconditioned warmth and felt the sprung floor beneath me. About 20 guys aged between 10 and 30 were bouncing all
over the place. I signed over the rights to my undamaged organs and joined a queue of 'beginners' doing forward somersaults from a trampoline onto a mat. I watched it a few times, figured out the essential elements, and soon enough was pulling flips with the best of them. I even didn't land on my head most of the time! As I tumbled in free fall I noticed a hole in the wall right next to me...

Meanwhile a few other guys were learning tricks of various kinds, jumping over obstacles, doing forward, back, and sideways flips, jumping off the roof and rolling, and (very rarely), falling
spectacularly. A kid who looked about 12 sat at the side with his arm in a sling, and offered to teach me 'anything'. Apparently he was an instructor within the group, along with about half a dozen others. I had never seen these sorts of antics before in person, and the agility impressed me. Here's a video of similar stuff: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1fouvwilGWc, the free-running scene from a recent James Bond film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJubOZLpp4A. The video I shot: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXGq8L333kQ

I jumped a few obstacles, fell a few times, and judged when I'd exhausted my luck's ability to hold out. As I left, I noticed that the mothers of the boys in the class sitting in the air-conditioned foyer, ostensibly keeping an eye on their children and discussing how best to interest them in school work. I'm pretty sure they were there for the shirtless and obscenely well-muscled gymnasts doing their thing, though. Eventually A returned with P, and we headed for dinner. Sadly all the pho joints had closed and we had to settle for hotpot, confusing the restaurant's wait staff no end, since not one of us was Chinese! After dinner we walked into town, checked out the rather noisy clubs, walked a few blocks on the railway tracks (balancing, of course, to the bemusement of some mounted police in the area), and eventually I cabbed back to the hotel.

Orlando is a rather spread-out city, but not every attraction is hugely expensive. There is, for
example, a section of 1970s era parks which often have a single attraction, such as one water slide, or put put golf with live alligators. Apparently there's also a restaurant run by a middle aged Chinese woman with peroxide blond hair, who has a cable channel pushing the philosophy that world peace will come about when all people, AND animals on earth convert to veganism. The videos also feature simultaneous subtitling in 30 languages, which is apparently quite something.

I had noticed very few mosquitoes throughout the trip, even when on the causeway. Apparently the local government sprays a LOT of some relatively un-carcinogenic chemical to keep them at bay. Some other local oddities include sinkholes, which open up at random in response to depletion of the local aquifer in the otherwise flooded limestone of Florida. Main methods of remediation include conversion to a lake (neaten up the edges) or filling with concrete. D and I agreed that re-adjusting to Pasadena time would be a good idea, so stayed up until about 4am surfing the internet, editing videos, writing websites, reading physics, etc.

Next day I got up at about 2pm, ate breakfast, read physics, ate lunch, read physics, and ate dinner at the Indian place again. The food was excellent, but the mathematics in the check/bill was terrifying. Maybe I've just got quantum physics in my brain? I think a currency based on non-commutative representations, or complex numbers, or something stranger still, would be very interesting.

That afternoon, a fellow guest and I had a long question and answer conversation, which ended disappointingly (but unsurprisingly) with him equating cancer and sin as potentially curable yet possibly unknown diseases. I think I landed a hit when I pointed out that actually 1) the ten commandments were explicitly superseded by the gospel of JC, and 2) the ten commandments do not prohibit slavery, amongst other things that should be pretty obvious to people living in
the 21st century. Overall the affair was refreshingly civil, and happily terminated before frustration levels rose!

Next day I got up at 8am, took a cab to the airport with a rather chatty great-grandmother, who had apparently found a new boyfriend a few years before at the age of 81 =D. The auto-check-in at US Airways nearly destroyed my passport, then my patience, but in due course I was in the line for security. The agent, Ashby, was the nicest, funniest TSA agent I've ever seen. Possibly the only one. Orlando international airport has free wifi, so all my material needs were being met.

In the departure lounge, I met a number of zumba instructors, who informed me that in fact there had been a convention that weekend in Orlando, and 6000 people were there! They then proceeded (without prompting!) to give me an account (complete with photos) of some of the outrageous parties they had held over the weekend. The fun I missed out on while sweating on my computer in front of endless iterations of Schrodinger's equation...

I also indulged (privately) in a game evil-me likes to call 'fatty-roulette', in which one looks around the lounge and tries to estimate the odds of having to share half your seat in economy with someone who will probably insist on having the arm rests up, and quite possibly have questionable hygiene too. Ah, the joys of cattle class. More leg room than in coaches, and better seats, but still, at my size, a bit of a squeeze. Flying international I usually can manage an exit row for at least one leg, but in the US you have to pay extra! If it's any consolation, the people in first class always look pretty unhappy and uncomfortable, which has always been a bit of a mystery to me. Fortunately, in both legs of today's travel I was okay! First one I had a chatty, bright and tiny 5 year old, and second leg was a French tourist. When I think of foreign words for something now, I think in Russian. Pushing that to one side, an amorphous soup of Latin, Italian, and French floats to the surface. Simply set the jaw at the correct angle, clear the throat, and hold forth.

At one point I looked forward through the window and saw an awesome and rather exciting row of enormous thunderstorms ahead of us. The bumps were, however, a mere 3/10 before the pilot descended 'for your comfort'. In 2004 I flew Narita to Sydney in July on a 777 and it was spectacularly bumpy. They served breakfast and dinner during the same 10 minute quiet spot, but otherwise moving around the cabin was impossible. The entire plane shuddered up and down, and since I was up the back, side to side too, with a nice wide range of frequencies, interspersed with multiple consecutive periods of freefall. The first two the flight attendant calmly ascended and descended from the ceiling, but on the third she screamed, which is when, I suppose, it was getting interesting. That was probably a 9/10.

West of the storms, the air was spectacularly clear, and though I saw neither the Grand Canyon nor the Sierras from my side of the plane, the graben block faulting is still visible and awesome in that part of the world. Quite reminiscent of the Mongolian Altai. Beautiful rugged dark mountains between flat alluvial pans with confused and jagged drainage patterns.

Soon enough we kissed the tarmac at LAX, I jumped in a shuttle, and was home. The advantage of travelling with only a few shirts stuffed around your laptop is that it took about 2 minutes to unpack! The only casualty of the otherwise highly successful trip was a small container load's worth of astronaut icecream, which is substantially more brittle than I had expected. Same (i.e. nil) nutritional content, however, in powder form.

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