Stan’s Obligatory Blog

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2/28/2017

Visiting the Nevada Test Site

Filed under: — stan @ 8:59 pm

I first met my friend Gordon at our first job out of college, back in 1982. We were at McDonnell-Douglas in the department that dealt with modeling nuclear weapons effects. So we read and thought about nuclear weapons quite a bit in those days, and we both thought that it would be interesting to get a chance to see an actual nuclear test. Since above-ground testing ended in 1962, and even underground testing ended in 1992, it’s just not possible. But going to see the place where they did the tests back in the 1950s was the next best thing.

The tours of the test site are given once a month, and they fill up fast. I signed us up for this tour last July. And Tuesday morning, we headed over to the Atomic Testing Museum for the tour.

There were about 45 people on the tour. We all got on the bus for the long ride out of town to the test site. On the way there, we passed by Creech Air Force Base, where we saw a drone flying around and practicing touch-and-go landings. A little bit farther out, we finally got off the main road and entered the test site. The streets in that part of the base were all named for nuclear test series’ from the 1950s. Tumbler, Snapper, Ranger, et al. We had a snack stop there, and then we got back on the bus to head out to Yucca Valley.

On the way to Yucca Valley, our guide pointed out some old wooden benches next to the road. He said these were the benches that spectators sat on to watch the early tests at Frenchman Flat.

We rode the bus all the way through that valley and over a small pass to get to Yucca Flat. There, they took us to see the site of the last prepared underground test. It was put together and ready to go in 1992 when all nuclear testing was stopped. So we got to go inside the tower and see the test rig, complete with a small dummy warhead at the bottom and all the instruments to record the explosion mounted above it. The whole thing was suspended over the hole, ready to be lowered down for the test.

Continuing on in the bus, we stopped for our one photo-op of the tour. The guide had a camera, and he took a group picture of us on the observation platform at the edge of the crater left by the Sedan test in 1962. This test was supposed to be a demonstration of ‘nuclear earthmoving’, and there was actually a proposal to use this to dig a harbor in Alaska, and even talk of using nuclear bombs to dig a giant roadcut for Interstate 40 in California.

Getting back on the bus, we headed back toward Frenchman Flat, with a short side trip to see one of the houses that was built for the Apple 2 test in 1955.

We stopped for lunch at the cafeteria at the test site. In the hallway there, there were large photographs of some of the tests.

After lunch, we got back on the bus to go to Frenchman Flat. We saw the nuclear waste dump site there. And then we went to see the remains of the buildings and other structures built for the 1957 Priscilla test. The railroad bridge with the bent steel girders was particularly impressive.

That was the end of the tour, and the bus headed back to Las Vegas. As always, one must exit through the gift shop, so we got to go to the Atomic Testing Museum’s gift shop at the end. It was an interesting and entertaining day.


2/27/2017

A day in Las Vegas

Filed under: — stan @ 10:12 pm

Monday was our only full day in Las Vegas between the stair climb on Sunday morning and the Nevada Test Site tour on Tuesday. So Gordon and I spent the day playing blackjack. It was entertaining, much like when we used to play back in the ’80s. Then that evening, we went downtown to Atomic Liquors. And that was our day.

2/26/2017

Scale the Strat 2017

Filed under: — stan @ 6:52 pm

Today was the 2017 edition of the Scale the Strat stair climb. Up the core of the Stratosphere tower to the observation deck. That’s 1,391 steps and about 805 vertical feet. I’m not really trying to go fast at these things any more. My goal for the day was just to make it to the top without stopping, and to average at least one foot per second vertical.

When we lined up, I made sure to get toward the back of our group, since many of them were planning on going considerably faster. When it was my turn to go, I started my watch, and then started up the stairs at a fairly relaxed pace. For some reason, the climb seemed shorter this time. It’s only about 20 flights to get to the first rest area, and then 23 more to get to the second. Then 21 more to the top of the tower core, and then it’s just 7 short floors to the finish. In the end, my time was 13:20, which is exactly 800 seconds. So I made my goal, and even though I was coughing for a good bit of the rest of the day, it wasn’t too bad this time.

After getting cleaned up, Gordon and I went downtown to play some blackjack at the Fremont and at the El Cortez.

Here’s my chart of the staircase.

2/11/2017

The Santa Susana Field Laboratory

Filed under: — stan @ 2:22 pm

Some months ago, I ran across some information about Boeing giving tours of the old Rocketdyne Santa Susana Field Laboratory. This is the bit of rugged terrain in the hills west of Chatworth that I’ve seen lots of times from the window of an airplane on its way to landing at Burbank. But I didn’t know that they offered tours. So this was a chance to see some aerospace history, as well as an infamous bit of nuclear power history.

Rocketdyne built the engines for nearly all U.S. ballistic missiles, from the earliest ones with engine designs based on the German V-2 rockets, all they way through the Saturn V and on to the Space Shuttle. And most of them were tested on the stands at Santa Susana. They tested engines all the way up to the J-2, which powered the second and third stages of the Saturn V. The F-1 engines for the Saturn V first stage were tested out in the desert at Edwards Air Force Base.

Not all of the test stands are still there, but the small one where they tested the engines for the Atlas missile, and the large one where they tested the J-2 were still there. At the first stand, we got a short talk by a Rocketdyne retiree who was there in the 1950s, and worked on the Atlas project. He told us about how they did the tests, and how they calculated everything on slide rules.

A lot of what goes on at the site now is related to cleanup from the old days. Apparently they used a lot of trichloroethylene to clean the rocket engines between test firings, and a fair amount of it got spilled on the ground. They told us that studies have shown that most of it soaked into the sandstone underneath the site. That’s good in that it kept it from going into the groundwater. But it’s bad in that it makes the solvent essentially impossible to clean up. So there’s that…

The other big piece of sightseeing was the site of the Sodium Reactor Experiment. That’s an infamous bit of nuclear history in that the reactor suffered a partial meltdown in 1959. For something that’s just over the hill from the San Fernando Valley suburbs, that’s a pretty terrifying idea. There’s basically nothing left of it on the site any more. Just a flat plain where the building housing the reactor used to be. In any event, it was interesting to see the site, and it’s appropriate in that I’m signed up to take a tour of the Nevada Test Site when we go to Las Vegas at the end of this month.

So all around, it was an interesting morning.


12/1/2016

More on the earthquake tour

Filed under: — stan @ 10:01 pm

I found out this past week that one of the people on the earthquake tour is a writer for the Los Angeles Times travel section. And she wrote a short article about our tour, and about how Atlas Obscura does tours of all sorts of odd things.

http://www.latimes.com/travel/deals/la-tr-southern-california-atlas-obscura-tours-20161129-story.html

11/19/2016

Earthquake Tour with Atlas Obscura

Filed under: — stan @ 8:55 pm

Last year, I helped put on the San Andreas Scavenger Hunt with Atlas Obscura. It was pretty popular, and people have been asking when we’d do it again, so today was the day.

We met up at the Seismo Lab at Caltech for a quick tour. I brought everyone in to the first floor exhibit, where our geologist guide Kate explained the peel from Pallet Creek and told a bit of the history of trenching studies and how they tell us about the history of earthquakes at a site. Kate was a good guide for this, since she does trenches as part of her research at the USGS.

Next, we went upstairs to the Media Room, largely so everyone could see the room where the TV people go after an earthquake. Jen is the new staff seismologist at Caltech, and she spoke for a bit about how the displays work and how they are used after an earthquake.

Then we all got on the bus for our first stop at the McDonald’s in San Fernando. This is the small fault scarp from the 1971 earthquake that they just sort of smoothed over and planted grass on. Kate brought along a poster that showed a map of surface ruptures from the 1971 earthquake.

Our next stop was the overlook off the 14 freeway in Palmdale. That was a long ride from San Fernando. But it also meant we got to pass by Vasquez Rocks. I made sure to point out the famous spot where Captain Kirk faced off with the Gorn in the original series episode, “Arena”. When we got to the overlook, Kate explained what we were looking at and how we could see the trace of the fault stretching off into the distance. Then we got back on the bus for the short ride to Avenue S, where we walked up the hill to look at the famous road cut where the 14 freeway goes through a small hill that was pushed up by motion on the San Andreas.

Our lunch stop was at Charlie Brown Farms, which is a weird little place in Littlerock. And after that, we went to our photo-op stop at the signs marking the fault line on Pallet Creek Road. We took a group photo, and make sure to point out that from that side, we could see the trace of the fault going off into the distance in both directions.

Then we went just a short distance down the road to the Pallet Creek site. This was where Kerry Sieh did his original trenching studies back in the ’70s and established a timeline of past earthquakes going back several hundred years. Kate does trench studies, so she was able to point out lots of details in the face where the fault trace was exposed.

The next stop was a road cut near Big Pine. One side of the cut is a hill of sandy fault gouge. I showed everyone how you can dig out seemingly-solid chunks of rock from the sand and crush them in your hands. That’s always a hit.

After a short stop in Wrightwood, we headed down the other side of the mountains. Then we turned off to go to the last stop of the tour at Lost Lake. As we got to the railroad crossing, there was a train slowly making its way up the mountain. And then it stopped. We sat there for a few minutes, and then a very long train came by, going down the mountain. We figured that the stopped train might be waiting for the downhill train to pass, so we waited it out. When the downhill train finished passing, the stopped train still sat there. And then another downhill train came by. We waited again until it had passed. Then the uphill train started moving again and finally cleared the crossing. And we finally made it to Lost Lake. Sadly, the drought has taken its toll, and the lake was no more. The bottom was soft mud, which shows that there is still a bit of water there, but not much. Also, there had been a fire there recently, and the parking lot gate was closed. This presented a problem for turning the bus around. We ended up having to back up about 1/4 mile to a turnout to get the bus turned around.

By the time we got moving again for the trip home, it was dark. And the traffic on the 210 freeway was very heavy. So we ended up getting back to Caltech about 1 1/2 hours later than planned. But it still seemed like everyone liked the tour.


9/5/2016

Visiting SkySpace

Filed under: — stan @ 4:36 pm

Today’s a holiday, so we went downtown to see the new OUE SkySpace on the 69th and 70th floors of the U.S. Bank building. I’ve climbed the stairs in this building many, many times, but it felt weird to be going there for any other reason. We’d made reservations online, so when we got there, we were able to go right on up. They have three floors dedicated to this, which seemed a bit odd. The entire 54th floor was just sort of a waiting area with photos and artwork to look at while waiting for the elevators up to 70. But fortunately, it wasn’t crowded, so we were able to go right on up.

When we got to 70, we walked around, looking at the view in all directions. That was kind of nice, since when we get to the top of the building at the stair climb, we’re only able to look north and west. Then I walked down to 69 to see Kathleen go down the SkySlide.

I did take a moment to paw forlornly at the door to the staircase.

It was fun having the outdoor observation decks on the east and west sides of the building. And it was novel to be able to look down on all the other tall buildings that I’ve climbed in the past. So I guess this is probably the most fun I’ve had in a tall building that didn’t involve climbing stairs.

8/20/2016

Gyoza 2016

Filed under: — stan @ 3:54 pm

It’s Nisei Week in Little Tokyo, and that means it’s time for the gyoza eating contest. We’ve been there before, and it’s always simultaneously hilarious and horrifying.

In a departure from the format of previous years, they added a few side contests. One was a short one featuring some of the girls who were in last year’s Nisei Week court, as well as one pitting LAPD officers against LA County firefighters. Those were all entertaining, but were just a warm-up for the main event. Lots of the big names in competitive eating were there, and once the ten minutes began, it was obvious that they’re all professionals. The plates held 25 gyoza each, and empty plates started stacking up in front of the top eaters as their heads bobbed up and down and they did little shimmies and jumps to try and pack the food down as they ate. And of course, in the final seconds, they stuffed their cheeks like chipmunks to try and pack in as many gyoza as possible. I guess that’s the competitive eating version of a sprint to the finish.

In the end, Matt ‘Megatoad’ Stonie was the winner again, and by a convincing margin. He was the only one to go over 300. The full results are here:

http://majorleagueeating.com/news.php?action=detail&sn=970


8/13/2016

A Bit of History

Filed under: — stan @ 6:07 pm

Today I took a tour of the Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey with Atlas Obscura. We got a nice treat when they brought in an engineer who worked at North American Aviation, later Rockwell, from the early days of Apollo all the way through the Space Shuttle program. He had some good stories about the early days there.

Later on, we went upstairs, where there was a long conference table in the room. Remember this scene from “Apollo 13″?

This was the table the actual North American engineers used back in 1970 when they had to figure out how to piece junk together to get Apollo 13 home.


8/6/2016

Pangolin

Filed under: — stan @ 9:36 pm

We went to San Diego this weekend to visit my father, and since it’s summer, we also went to the zoo to see the pangolin. The San Diego Zoo is the only place in the western hemisphere to see a pangolin, and they only bring Baba our for 15 minutes a day, and only in summer. I’d taken Lucinda there to see the pangolin last summer, but Kathleen wasn’t able to go that time. So this was her chance to see one of the oddest animals ever.

We got to the zoo a little early, so we walked around and looked at some other animals while we waited for it to be pangolin time. Then we headed over to the children’s zoo. At 1:30 one of the keepers came out with Baba the pangolin. She put him on the little tree and platform they made for him so he could eat. She said that they feed him a slurry of cat food and ground-up insects, all mixed with vanilla-flavored Ensure. Yum. He seemed to like it all right, and it gave us a chance to see his famously-long tongue. After his 15 minutes were up, Baba climbed down off the platform and just started walking back to the building where he lives. This was interesting, since it’s the first time we got to see how he walks on the ground.

After pangolin time, we headed over to the Australia exhibit to see the Tasmanian Devils. As usual, they were all sleeping.

Finally, we walked down the hill to go see the hippos. A few years ago, we got to see a baby hippo there, so we wanted to go back again. And while we were there, we got to see fresh hippo poop. That always makes my day…


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