Thursday, August 4, 2011

After Princeton - the way home

With minimal time wastage in transfers, I found myself clambering out of the train in Philadelphia. Unlike a few other US cities, I really knew nothing about Philadelphia. A few of my friends have been before, and recommended some stuff to see, but that's about it. I walked from the station through Rittenhouse Square to my couchsurfer, D. She accepted my couch request despite leaving for Ghana less than 24 hours later. She'd hosted about two dozen people since joining CSing in April, which I thought was impressive. We climbed onto the roof, I washed the dishes, and then we went for a walk to a nearby bridge to look at the skyline, sunset, and contemplate a swim in one of the rivers. Only about half of it was under an oil slick.

On the way back, we were caught in a brief downpour, but it's so warm and humid even at 8pm that it was no big deal. I picked up some kosher chocolate dessert stuff, and we walked to a Jewish university students potluck dinner. I think it's the first time I've been the only non Jewish person in a large roomful, but it wasn't too scary. Good food, and sitting in a circle swapping names, universities, and majors. At length we left a disappointed dog (having eaten all the dinner by ourselves) and walked back to D's place, and collapsed into an inflatable mattress. Next morning it resembled the Schwarzschild metric, but fortunately did not strike the ground. D left for Ghana, I walked into town, scoped out a good vantage point for the Wanamaker organ in the children's clothing section of Macy's, and dozed slightly through a 45 minute recital on the world's largest operational pipe organ. It has about 31000 pipes, 462 ranks, 6 manuals, etc. I picked up some lunch and met the next CSer, W, and we talked our way into the Mutter museum for free.

The Mutter museum was originally a collection of medical samples; skeletons, models, two-headed foetuses in jars, and so on. Nowadays medical pedagogy has stepped forward, so the collection is now in a museum. For me it was closer to fascinating than gross, but there were still a lot of surprises. Highlights included a case full of models of stuff that can go wrong with eyes, skeletons of various bone deformities, including giantism and dwarfism, severe kyphosis (hunchback), and the results of late-stage terminal syphilis. It's hard to believe survival was possible with the degree of damage shown in some cases.

Following that we walked back through the city trying to find W's car, which he had lent to some friends who were moving. We found them at about the same time as they finished moving, so accompanied them to a beer distributor (bottle shops are separate by law in Pennsylvania), which we carried up to their roof. I was wearing one of my nerdy teeshirts, and had a good chat about the foundations of special and general relativity. The sun set and W scoped out a CS potluck for dinner. We dropped the movees off to collect their bikes, then swung past a factory-flat-convo to pick up another person. This place was basically one big room, and there were about half a dozen people present, an eclectic mix of furniture, 5 dogs, and a variety of smoking paraphernalia scattered here and there. I got the feeling that the place was trapped in an eternal present, as both the past and future seemed impossibly remote in that environment. We ate some spaghetti and meatballs, and sat around making references to events and films noone could quite remember. In the nick of time we remembered to meet the moving people at the next place and took our leave, as though evading an impending forest fire.

By the time we arrived at the CS meetup, the eating part had wound up (so I only got one dinner), but about a dozen of us headed down the road to a rather interesting bar for further entertainment. A converted house with all internal walls removed, it had a dance floor upstairs. The DJ stood in the bath with his turntables on the sink, and the floor sagged convincingly with pounding of 'modern' style dancing. W had been up until 6am that morning, so at midnight we took out leave, headed back to his place in Fish town, and after a quick shower/clothes wash, slept through the heat of the morning.

Next day we got up at about 11am, and sat chatting about travel, the various sub-cultures W was familiar with via his work in photography, and the possibility of figurative death and rebirth through life-changing experiences. At about 1pm we realised we hadn't eaten breakfast yet, so went to a local Irish cafe and fed ourselves well. I had a steak, potatoes, mushrooms, tomato, sausages, and toast. Om nom nom!

That day (Sunday) was a street festival near the Piazza (pronounced without a glottal stop, apparently) on 2nd St. Over time the day cooled off, W achieved an extraordinarily tight park between two frighteningly shiny cars, and the crowd came out. There were some of the most colourful clothes I had ever seen. W and I started a game of 'spot the hipster' for 5 points, but eventually had to change the rules to 25 points for slapping a hipster in the face. There were just too many of them! One of the stages had robot legs, so we called it 'rocktimus prime'. At some point I ate a few mini donuts, and the streets exploded with time-travelling wizards, and a rather ironic conversation about astrology was had. The bottom line performance was by a band called 'tuneyards', that used some nifty recording/playback technology to build up a very interesting sound. Despite the heat about 2000 people crowded the Piazza and danced. About half a dozen or so did a double-take on my "Maxwell's equation in differential forms notation", since it wasn't quite ironic enough. One person even recognised me as a physicist! There were free iced-coffee energy drinks being given out. I don't recall the brand, but the can said 'consume no more than 3 daily', which gives you some idea of the kick they delivered. Also in abundance for some peculiar reason was red-heads. About 50% of the people present, as well as being deliriously alternative, had flaming red hair. I felt like I was back in Ireland, though I've never actually visited...

Once more the sun set, and it was time for the next house party! We stopped by a supermarket to buy some ingredients, and once there, prepared (laboriously!) gula melaka for dessert! I had never made it before, but at least stirring it reasonably regularly gave me an excuse to absent myself from the rather smoky balcony at regular intervals. There was also a piano on which I played a few songs. Fortunately the action was not up to a recital of my less socially inclined pieces. The main course was a pretty awesome selection of mainly vegan food. The conversation was, as always, right out of left field. Time-travelling magicians made a reappearance, with a discussion of amphibian transmutation. At some point a passer-by offered to sell us some 'oxys', but we already had enough beer to last us until morning at least. Sadly the tapioca had stuck to the bottom of the pot, so I spent about 20 minutes scratching it off in the sink with my nails, while engaging one of the housies S in a fascinating discussion of late 1960s feminist lit crit on Freud 50 years later. As the evening wore on and I finished off most of the food :) I showed W how to throw a library card down the street. This time we got home and to sleep by 3am.

Next morning I was up at 11am, but packed slowly enough that I had to rush to the train station. I caught the train to Atlantic City with minutes to spare, but as the train pulled out realised I'd done a 19-year-old-me and forgotten to eat again! Fortunately I wasn't yet starved. In Atlantic City I navigated between enormous casino towers to the Irish Pub, one of the cheapest hotels available. I had been unable to find any CSers here, but fortunately the Irish Pub is both atmospheric and 111 years old. AND has a bar/restaurant downstairs, at which I had shepherds pie and steak fries for breakfast/lunch. I'm in a tiny un-airconditioned room with a shared bathroom and shower (one per floor), and it's basically perfect. This is how inns should be! Most of my fellow people are older American men down at the beach from Philly or somewhere, or Irish people gunning for patriotism. At about 5pm I went for a walk and covered about 8 miles of the Atlantic City boardwalk - the world's first. Watching boards zoom beneath my feet caused an odd 'vibration' effect, probably as the eye's saccades were drawn to some critical speed. I scoped out my destination for tomorrow's tour (of the organ in the boardwalk hall!), and went for a walk along the beach. The beach is not particularly nice or clean or anything, but as the sun set it did not particularly matter. Large clouds rolled in and a distant storm began to flash. I saw a nun walking along the beach covered in white, except for a prominent cross and rosaries. An interesting place for a nun - amongst all the casinos and massage parlours. The illusion was shattered somewhat when she winked at me!

In short order the storm blew around and soon lightning crackled everywhere. I stood on the beach experimenting with long exposures (trying to get lucky) as the entire sky lit up with mostly cloud-to-cloud strikes. In the end I got one reasonably good strike, though of course nothing is like cold drops of rain, rumbles of thunder and a distant band, warm breeze, crashing waves, rough sand, and millions of volts of electricity only a few hundred metres overhead.

I returned to the sitting room of the inn and sat between deaf men shouting at each other, snooped some wireless, and uploaded photos. Lightning: That evening I stayed up late washing clothes and hair. I'm looking forward to being able to wear a different shirt when I get home!

Next morning, I woke at 8:30am after just over 3 hours of beautiful sleep! I found bacon and eggs for breakfast, then walked down the boardwalk between other 'early' risers to the Convention Hall. This, indeed, was the reason I had trekked all the way to Atlantic City. The convention hall was built between 1929 and 1932 and could originally seat 41000 people. To provide music for the hall, a pipe organ was also commissioned. Designed by Senator Richards (as were 3 others in Atlantic City), it was on a scale never before seen. Built and installed by 80 technicians, it has 449 ranks, ~33000 pipes, and one of only two 64' stops in the world. The other one is in the Sydney Town Hall! Additionally, there are 10 32' stops, 4 ranks on 100" of pressure. One of these, the Grand Ophicleide, produces the loudest musical sound ever built, of around 150dB. The hall itself is enormous, with a 6 second reverb that can be actively exploited to play music at certain tempi.

Organ website (with sound samples):

The tour took about 4 hours, and we visited 4 of the 8 pipe chambers, inspected many varieties of pipes, checked out the relay rooms, 1929 solid state memory devices, and gargantuan 7 manual console! We also got a good look at the operations of the hall and the smaller Kimball pipe organ in the ballroom. One of the tour guides told me a story about how his family had met an girl from Blacktown during a tour in Australia in 1983. She then visited them in upstate New York, and subsequently fell in love with and married one of his sons!

Sadly, both organs are in various states of disrepair. The ballroom organ will probably be fully operational within 6 months. In 1996 the right stage chamber was pushed to 75% operational status and a series of recordings done. These recordings, despite shortcomings of less than a quarter of the organ being available, are still extraordinary! Conservation and restoration continues at a steady pace. The pipework is fine, but many wind chests, blowers, windchests, etc need fixing or replacement. Each pipe has its own electromagnetic valve, and of course the relays need replacement with a modern computerised relay system which is much easier to maintain. Already, fire suppression systems and asbestos removal has taken place. Without a serious infusion of money, however, it will be a decade or more before any part of the organ is functional, tuned, and ready for action. Realistically, the entire thing will probably not work all at the same time without a small army of technicians and tuners! In my opinion, the only valid business model for its continued operation is the donation of time by organ builders and assistants in some sort of monastic tradition. Still, given the opportunity I'd rebuild a few dozen ranks. Then you'd only need a few hundred more people like me and the whole thing would be working again...

After the tour I returned to the Irish Pub, ate lunch (they have the best deals in town), and had a siesta until the evening. At about 9pm I set out and walked up and down the beach looking in curiousity shops and restaurants, and eventually sat down for a 3 course $20 meal. When the bill arrived, I was bemused to see a compulsory 18% gratuity added BEFORE tax was calculated. I walked back down the beach (now without a thunderstorm), completed some internet, and went to sleep.

Next morning I was awoken by a very loud fighter plane flying over head, just in time to check out, eat breakfast, and take a cab to the airport. At security a TSA agent asked about my accent. Are they actually doing the Israeli "how are you, where are you coming from?" security thing now? Somehow I doubt it. Once in the terminal I discovered that my flight was delayed about 90 minutes. Fortunately (for me) the same plane is doing the connecting flight, and there is wifi (of a sort) available in the lounge. Ah... Spirit Airlines. You never exceed expectations!

At length we boarded and taxied out onto the tarmac. One flight attendant gave us the wrong flight duration, so during preflight checks the pilot said "would our wonderful flight attendants and the other one prepare the cabin for take-off". I dozed until a late afternoon landing in Detroit, and confirmed that the same plane would be continuing to LA. In this case I didn't miss my connection, which was lucky. At 8:10pm we pushed back, and during the taxi the sun set over the airport. During take-off we climbed faster than the rise of the terminator, and popped out of clouds back into sunlight, experiencing an evening sunrise. The plane flew west slightly slower than the sunset, meaning the sun took about 3 hours to set from our view. In this way we got two sunrises and two sunsets, one of them rather drawn out. This is one of my favourite things when flying, but it only happened to me once before, during a flight from Warsaw to Vienna on the 20th of December 2006 (or thereabouts).

Eventually the sun set as we crested the Rockies. For a while, the flight got rather bumpy as we zoomed between dozens of enormous storms with lots of excellent lightning. The woman sitting next to me was reading 'Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul 2'. It seemed to consist of a whole bunch of stories of fights against the odds with terrible things happening. The various protagonists unflinching faith in their beliefs seemed to be the only common thread running through the stories, prompting evil me to question correlation vs causation. One is also inclined to wonder just how much chicken soup the christian soul needs, if the original book warranted a sequel. I'd also be interested to know if there's a book of chicken soup for the non-christian or zoroastrian soul or something.

On landing at LAX, I stowed my maths notebook, and saw a long daisy chain of lights leading back from the airstrip into the sky, consisting of a queue of aeroplanes coming down to land. I jumped in a shuttle and made my way back to Pasadena, where future (on FRIDAY!) housie R provided me with some lovely dinner. Borscht, rice pilaf and water. Yum!

Overall, a very interesting 18 days on the road!

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