Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Amazing Meeting 2013

Last weekend P and I went to TAM, otherwise known as The Amazing Meeting. Held every year at Southpoint Casino in Las Vegas, TAM is one of the largest conferences on science and skepticism. Organised by the James Randi Educational Foundation, it boasted a packed four day schedule of talks and panels by the leading lights in the skepticism movement.

I'll write a separate blog at some point covering the conference matter; this is a quick update otherwise unnecessary to inform and delight my diligent readership of some additional, unforeseen adventures!

We left Las Vegas on Sunday afternoon after our final farewells and headed for the coast. Unsurprisingly, there were several traffic snarls along the way, and the sun was setting as we pulled in at Barstow for a quick break. Setting out again, the engine was making a peculiar noise. I reckoned it was a faulty bearing somewhere on the serpentine belt, but as the belt looked fine and was still running, we set out once more at a slightly conservative pace. The engine tone was normal, the oil temperature normal, and no warning lights were visible. The only other thing wrong was that the AC had stopped working. Driving through Hesperia, just before the Cajon pass, the belt abruptly snapped, followed shortly thereafter by a bang as the coolant overflow tank cap made a break for it. We pulled in at the next off ramp, and as coolant dripped, tried to figure out what to do. 

It was about 9pm on Sunday night, and the number of mechanic shops open was zero. Oddly enough, that simplified the problem. None of the other TAMites were anywhere near, and we were not prepared to abandon the car in any case! I searched on my phone for a local hotel, picked the nicest looking one, and asked if they had any last-minute deals. Turns out they did, so we parked the car in a lot, took a taxi to the Courtyard Marriot (rather nice, incidentally), and after hitting a nearby Denny's for dinner, had an early night.

The next morning we were up bright and early. One shop opened at 7am, and by 8am we we'd been towed there by the shiniest tow-truck I'd ever seen. Once on the floor, the mechanics confirmed our fears - the AC compressor had seized. Not being able to be bypassed, it had to be replaced, which is a non-trivial operation. It looked like neither of us would make it to work that day. On the other hand, some TAM decompression would not go astray, so after making sure everything was under control and retrieving our supply of biscuits, we made for a nearby mall and rented a sleek black prius.

I've always wondered what was in the San Bernardino mountains. I've never been able to justify a lengthy detour going anywhere in the area, and although I once climbed San Gorgonio, the whole area of Big Bear Lake and so on seemed rather mysterious. We headed for the hills. 

After about an hour of windy roads and locals going insane speeds, we popped out into the valley. We drove around the lake looking for a nice patch of grassy shade in which to spend the day and catch up on some sleep. In the end, the north shore proved promising and I parked beneath a large pine. With the sail-like side of the prius catching the passing breeze we cranked the seats back and had a pleasant siesta. Around 2pm we drove around to the town of Fawnskin and looked for a cafe from which to obtain breakfast/lunch/dinner. As it happened, I'd parked just across the road from the North Shore Cafe, which according to google was the finest cafe within a hundred miles. If the meals we had there are representative, that claim is probably accurate. In a small area with a large number of knowing clientele, I put away an ahi burger as nice as any I'd had in Hawaii, and P demolished a peculiar sandwich burger hybrid I'd never heard of before.

All too soon it was time to head back to town. On the way back, we had a terrific view north from the transverse ranges across the desert toward Barstow. The plains are light in colour; the mountains are dark, dark rock, and the effect was really quite amazing. Again, despite pushing 70 in a 55 zone, locals in large utes whizzed by as if we were standing still, and we descended through a series of hills and rubble mines. 

Back at the shop, they were 20 minutes from finishing - needing only to recharge the freon lines. As we finished off the auxiliary biscuit supply, one of the funniest things I've ever seen occurred - two elderly women drove into the shop. The hood/bonnet of their car had flipped up over the windshield. It was not apparent how they were able to see, but I think they were sufficiently little old ladies that they could see through the half inch gap between the wipers and the edge of the metal.

Soon enough, we were on our way. Ominously, the AC still didn't work very well, but at least the part was new. By 6pm I was back in the office. Home, sweet home.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Hawaii 2013

I recently spent a fortnight in Hawaii. The purpose of the trip was mainly to catch up with my Australia-bound family, but I found time for a few adventures here and there. I will attempt to relate some of them without writing a short novel! If you're more of a visual person, check out the photos:

The adventure begins with one of the most eventful airport shuttle rides I've ever had. The driver had difficulty stringing two words together and, at one point, hit another vehicle. But I digress. I made the flight with whole minutes to spare, and before long was strolling through Hilo airport. I found my parents and we set out in search for dinner.

The next day we took a trip to Kalapana, the town buried by lava in the early 1990s. We set out across the old field of lava toward the water entry, where lava drains into the ocean. The surface was a ropey texture formed by smoothly flowing lava, though with the texture and risk of broken glass, should one stumble or trip. At the entry site, lava poured from the rock into the sea, generating a great cloud of sulfurous acid and lots of red hot pumice. We stood much too close to the edge of the bench and watched, mesmerized, as the sun sank over the lava-covered subsidence cliff to the west. On the way back I had a good chat with one of the guides, about 21 years old. He filled me in on a variety of topics, including the Hawaiian independence movement, and we discussed various quirks of language. Hawaiian is quite an interesting one, as it has the fewest phonemes of any spoken language. Meanwhile one unlucky fellow had stumbled as we walked along with flashlights and had lost a lot of skin. The guides patched him up, but by the time we drove out, all the restaurants had closed. In the end we found a 7/11 from which to savour the local delights.

The highlight of the following day was a trip to South Point. I stranded my long-suffering parents on a beach and jogged a few miles to visit the fabled green sand beach. It was a lot further and hotter than I anticipated, but I made it back within the allotted hour and all was well. The beach sand is of olivine and sits in a drowned volcanic crater.

Next day we drove back to Hilo to pick up my brother M, who had flown in. Luckily we eventually worked out the time difference because of the international date line, otherwise we might have been a day late. That night we stayed in an old plantation house near the incredibly beautiful Waipi'o valley, but I was slammed by a headache (parent allergy?) and had the rare pleasure of watching both the moon and the sun rise as geckos and frogs scampered around the house. Next stop was the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel, which was a rather grand edifice over looking the ocean. M and I managed to suss out the pool and checked out some of the coves to the north of the main beach, while he filled me in on the wonders of having a real job, including his recent purchase of an actual car with actual wheels that actually goes. Although I spend most of my working days researching insanely mind-blowing stuff, I was complete unprepared for this revelation and spent the remainder of the day in a stunned daze. Over the next few days we settled in and tried not to suffer too much between excellent meals. We spent a good portion of the day swimming with colourful fishes and checking out the fresh-water springs along the coast, where the aquifer flows into the sea. As in Greece, this produces a delightful shimmery effect in the water. One night I even spotted a few mudskippers (terrestrial fish) hopping along the beach.

All too soon it was time to leave and drive on, this time up the saddle road and further into the clouds, as high as it was possible to go. Clouds gave way to red rocks and cinders, and at the summit an amphitheatre of high-tech telescopes. I was thrilled. As a theorist it's always unusual and fun for me to actually see the machines of science and the products of some of the few billions not spent on weapons and war. We passed around a finger pulse oximeter to assess our blood saturation, but none of us got low enough to feel ill. I even jogged around a bit to remember what it felt like. Basically driving up saves a ton of effort!

The next place we stayed was a very interesting house with lots of bedrooms and quaint furniture, but a strangely absent proprietor. At one point she assured me that the buttermilk crumpets she 'made' from a mix bag were dairy free. I was rather hungry, but fortunately had no difficulty sleeping through the deafening sound of frogs, dogs barking, and the airport next door. M and I returned to the lava flows at Kalapana and checked out a lava-flooded van. I think the warranty might be void now. After a quick run past the lava lake at Kilauea we turned off-road to find the Kazamura lava tube cave tours. 

Apparently some time back in the 90s, this family found a cave entrance in their back yard (which, like most backyards on Hawaiian spaghetti blocks, is never explored). The guide, Harry, then spent a few thousand hours exploring his section. The system has more than 40 miles of passages, and is one of largest caves in the world. Fortunately we didn't see the whole thing! Highlights included Lavacicles, various growths on the cave walls, collapsed lava pools, lava waterfalls, skylights, multilayer tubes, and so on. That evening my family gave me the car keys before tucking into a series of pina coladas as we listened to a rather talented musician perform a very yodelly version of the usual Hawaiian chants.

The next day we dropped M at the airport and went into town to check out the tsunami museum. Hilo is less economically explosive than it once was. In fact, parts of it were downright sleepy. But it's worth remembering that at least half the town was washed away by two tsunamis (in 1946 and 1960), and in the late 1800s a decent chunk was wiped out by a lava flow. My parents were due to leave the following morning, so we relaxed about town, discussed the economics of leisure and labour surplus, and I found a gecko on an ornamental flower in our slightly run-down hotel.

The next morning my parents flew out and I was all alone. I sat in the hotel feeling downright glum. Eventually I summoned the courage to check out and wandered into town. Before long, I found a gay pride march and a farmers market. I bought some bread for lunch and sat in a park, and my spirits were raised. It's always a rather abrupt gear shift to switch from home/family to backpacking/couch surfing style travel! I checked out the Lyman museum (which was very interesting, including the original mission house from 1837) and then picked up my hire car. After a few u-turns I found my couchsurfer, who lived out in a subdivision in the middle of nowhere. He had retired to the jungle, built a cozy home, and was hosting international travelers almost incessantly! That evening we went back to the volcano to check out the glow of the smoke in the dark. Although the lava lake cannot be seen from the Jaggar museum, its glow is reflected in the clouds it produces and illuminates the entire crater.

The following day I was hell-bent on poking me some lava, so I had V drop me at the other end of the neighbourhood, where a sign that said "WARNING TRAIL CLOSED, DANGEROUS CONDITIONS" promised some excitement. Skirting another burned out car ('tis the place for them) I skittered through the trail for 2 hours, passing a few carnivorous worms and a confused looking chicken. Originally, the trail ended at the end of the lava field, with a view of the active Pu'u o'o vent about a mile away. Since then, however, the volcano (continuously active for nearly 30 years now) burped and the trail ran into fresh lava that had overrun the last few hundred meters of forest. I switched to more sensible shoes and went for a quick excursion. My hand-held thermometer gun maxed out on 300C (~600F), but my shoes didn't melt on the crunchy (and somewhat cooler) loose crust. For the most part I was able to walk on the singed trunks of felled trees. My point of retreat, however, was an unrecognisable path in a forest that could be cut off by a fresh flow at any moment, so I did not venture far out onto the flow. After an hour of cooking in the staggering heat waiting for something to happen and being buzzed by helicopter after helicopter, I walked back along the trail, arriving at the trail head half an hour before our rendezvous time. So I set off up the road. After a couple of blocks, two pitbulls popped out of a hedge and started running toward me, barking. Armed only with a tiny sandal and a floppy hat, I beat a hasty retreat to the edge of the road, picked up a handful of loose rocks, and stood my ground. Mongolia taught me that few dogs will not recognise a stone about to fly, and after an hour of poking hot lava, my concept of fear had been recalibrated slightly. Nevertheless, I wondered just how good my second throw might be. Fortunately, they stopped about 15 feet away, as they came into effective range. They backed off, then came back again. After what seemed a lot longer than a couple of minutes, V appeared in his trusty Toyota pickup and I jumped in with no need for further discussion. As we drove back he filled me in on some of the local colour. The majority of his neighbours seemed to be poor and drug problems (particularly crystal meth) were rampant. Burned-out cars were visible every few hundred meters. Apparently threats of physical violence against pretty much anyone were common, and rarely empty. V recounted a few instances of attacks, rapes, and murders with obvious suspects going uninvestigated, let alone punished, due to some combination of cronyism, connections, or intimidation. Needless to say burglary was incredibly common. That said, parts of the area were lovely and there were some good people in the neighbourhood as well.

That afternoon, my second-last clean shirt already thoroughly marinated by my trip to the lava field, I proposed we sweat some more. Grabbing a few rusty but highly effective machetes we went to the back of the yard and attempted to cut a path toward the back of the block. After an hour or so we had made a few paths to points of interest within about 50 feet of the wall of the jungle, leaving about 200m to go. People never get to the back of their blocks! Where the ground had not been bulldozed it was intensely rugged, with large lumps of lava poking through the thin layer of dirt, deep cracks, and plenty of invasive species against which the vengeful steel could be swung. That evening I got a lesson in the spectrum of cooking possible with differing quantities of Madras curry and garam masala. I started to pack my bags. After another dark but frog-filled night, I finished my supply of breakfast cereal and set out for the volcano national park. This time I walked across Kilauea Iki, a solidified lava lake that erupted in the 1950s. With a clearly visible vent, crushed forest, shrunken plains of lava, old boreholes, and so on, it was really quite spectacular. With a few hours to spare I also drove down the Chain of Craters road, looking at all the interesting stuff along the way, including some really cool petroglyphs and an arch at the sea-cliff, where the pounding Pacific is eating away at the island.

At last it was time to drive down the Mamaloa highway (adopted by the Hawaiian Raelian Coven, of course) for the last time. Saw no more burned out cars, but one police SUV was blowing a LOT of smoke. In due course I returned the rental car, checked in at the airport, charged my laptop, and boarded the flight. After a long and tiring holiday, it was time to return to the restful confines of my office.

Post script: On the plane, I swapped seats so a couple could sit together and ended up in the second last row. After editing hundreds of photos, I found sleep stymied by noisy passengers and flushing toilets, so hatched an alternative plan. On United, you have to pay to eat food and watch the in-flight TVs. I found, however, that far superior in-flight entertainment was to be found in the galley. Like a number of other red-eye flights I'd taken, the stewards don't have much to do, and this time three of them and I sat around exploring the various bulkheads, swapping stories, alleviating boredom, and investigating what to do with the food left over from the previous flight. At 5am I arrived at LAX, and before 6 I was back in my office, entirely sleep deprived and otherwise back to normal.