Stan’s Obligatory Blog

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5/22/2014

Open! – Another adventure with the Obscura Society

Filed under: — stan @ 11:39 pm

Ever since we got on the mailing list for Atlas Obscura, we’ve found the most interesting and odd things to do through them. That’s how we got to tour the Corriganville Movie Ranch, the Hyperion sewage-treatment plant, Pasadena Field Trip Day, and The Bunny Museum. Tonight’s adventure was “Locked – A Lock Picking Workshop”. Lock picking has been a minor hobby of mine ever since I read Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman! back in the ’80s. In the chapter about when he cracked the safes at Los Alamos during the war, he briefly described how to pick locks. And after reading that, I taught myself to do it, using a screwdriver and a paper clip. That was good enough to open desks and file cabinets, but not anything harder. Some years later, I was able to obtain a real lock picking kit, and I was even able to use it to wake Lucinda up when she overslept at her mom’s house one time.

We had a full crew for this adventure. Kathleen wanted to learn, Lucinda’s wanted to learn since that day back in 2010, my friends Steve and Morgan from work wanted to learn, and I wanted to learn how to do it properly, and what all those other funny picks in the kit are for. All these years, I’ve pretty much just used the one pick that most resembles the bent paperclip I first learned with. So I thought seeing it done by an actual lock-picking master would be good.

Our instructor for this was Schuyler Towne, who competes in lock picking contests, does security consulting, and leads workshops such as the one we attended. He was really quite a character, and very entertaining. And the class came complete with a set of basic picks, a tension wrench, and two locks to practice on.

He talked about the history of locks, and about how the basic pin tumbler lock we all use today dates back thousands of years, and has been essentially unchanged since the 1800s. He also talked about variations, such as locks with special pins in them to make them harder to pick, and about different types of locks, and how the principles of picking are very similar for all.

Defeating locks can be done in many different ways. He talked about the Kryptonite bike lock recall of 2004, and how Kryptonite basically shot themselves in the foot there. Apparently, the flaw that was discovered in their locks dates back a long time, and their original locks back in the ’70s were not vulnerable to it. But somewhere along the line, they switched to a slightly cheaper locking mechanism, and that’s where the trouble began. And in the end, I know that it cost them customers. They replaced my old lock for free back in 2005. But the new lock they sent me had a locking mechanism that was so poorly made, it barely worked, and it was very hard to open. So in the end, I junked it and bought one of their competitor’s locks, and it has worked well for nearly a decade now.

Another way to defeat locks is just to get an impression of the key in order to be able to copy it. He showed us how to take a quick impression by pressing the key into our wrist. And no, that’s not my house key. That’s the key to the practice lock from the class.

The last trick we learned was how to use an aluminum shim from a soda can to open padlocks and handcuffs. After all, one never knows what the day will bring.

Overall, this was a very good adventure, even if it was kind of a late night for a weekday. Have I mentioned lately how much I enjoy the Obscura adventures?

4/19/2014

The Corriganville Movie Ranch

Filed under: — stan @ 9:23 pm

Today, we went on a tour of the former Corriganville Movie Ranch, which is a place in Simi Valley where a lot of western movies were filmed in the 1930s and ’40s. It was later made into an amusement park, and now isThis was another adventure we found through the Los Angeles Obscura Society.

It was a nice day for being outside, which was good, since that part of L.A.-adjacent can be pretty unpleasant when it gets hot around here. We headed up there and met up with the group at the entrance to the park. We were joined by our guides, and we headed off to see the ruins of the former movie sets. The landscape, and particularly, the rocks, are pretty distinctive, and they showed us photos from the movies where we could see the rocks around the actors,and from that, we could see that John Wayne had been standing on this very spot.

We also saw the concrete pool, where they filmed some of the early Tarzan movies, as well as some Robin Hood movies. The holes in the little dam at the end of the pool were for filming the underwater scenes. They said that that was where they filmed Tarzan fighting a rubber hippopotamus in one of the movies.

All around, this was a very entertaining little side trip. The Obscura Society is great for finding odd little things around the city.

4/12/2014

It only took me 19 years to get around to this

Filed under: — stan @ 7:20 pm

This weekend, Kathleen wanted to go to Tomatomania. We’d missed their events in Encino and La Cañada when we were away in Seattle and San Diego. So what was left was the stop in Fillmore. At first, I thought going to Fillmore for tomato seedlings seemed absurd. But then I thought about the clipping I have from the L.A. Times from March, 1995 about the Fillmore and Western Railway. Going there and riding the train has been on my list of things to do for 19 years now, so we decided to go and make a day of it.

We went up relatively early so that we could pick out some tomatoes before going to ride the train. We brought a cooler along to put the plants in so that they wouldn’t get baked in the hot car while we were on the train.

The train ride is about 10 miles from Fillmore to Santa Paula. It was pretty scenic, with the train cruising by endless citrus and avocado orchards. Some of them had beehives to pollinate the trees, and the train passed through big clouds of bees there. We were riding in the open-air car, but the bees ignored us.

When we got to Santa Paula, the train let us off for about an hour, so we walked into downtown and had some lunch. Then we took a walk back to the train station, stopping off to look at the memorial for the Saint Francis Dam disaster. While we were there, we found out that the restored WWII bombers that we went to see in Burbank were doing an airshow in Oxnard. We saw the B-17 fly by a couple of times during the afternoon.

On the way back, the train stopped off at The Loose Caboose, which was a very weird grab bag of stuff. Kathleen stopped to feed the goats, and we had a look at the koi ponds and turtles. It was a strange, but very entertaining place.

The trip to Fillmore made for a long day, but it was a fun time.

4/5/2014

I can still see my house from up here

Filed under: — stan @ 4:42 pm

Today was time for the Los Angeles edition of the Lung Association’s Fight for Air Climb. 63 stories up the stairs at the Aon building downtown. This was the first stair climb I ever did, back in 2009. At the time, I had no idea what I was getting into, and certainly no idea I’d still be doing it five years later, or that I’d end up making an actual contribution to this insane little sport.

Since I’ve been having major back issues since November, I went into this with the idea that I wanted to have no expectations. And that was my intention. But since I’ve been doing a little bit of faster stair climbing in practice, I thought I’d maybe try for at least a little bit of speed. But when we got there, I realized that I’d forgotten to bring my watch. So even if I wanted to go for speed, there was no way to really do that without a watch. So that made it easy to go into this event with no expectations.

When we got there, Lisa was warming up in the lobby of the building, wearing an altitude-training mask. She said it’s supposed to restrict breathing just a bit to simulate the lower oxygen levels at high altitudes. Well, mostly, it made her look a bit like a Hannibal Lecter of the stairwell. Which I guess is a good thing.

When it was time to go, we all lined up, roughly in numeric order, and roughly in the order we thought we’d finish in. My only goal at that time was that wanted to not have anyone pass me. And that worked out all right. I didn’t pass anyone, and nobody passed me. So that was all right. And in the end, my time was 12:41. Not especially fast, at least by my standards, but it was all right. It was faster than my time the first time I did this, and even though I was just taking it easy and not trying to go fast, there were only four people my age or older who went faster than me. So I really can’t complain too much about that.

When I got to the top, I took the obligatory picture with the view. and then I headed back down. I knew that Morgan was on her way downtown, and I’d told her I’d walk up with her to pace her. So we met up at the bottom and got in line for the stairs.

Meanwhile, Kathleen had started up the stairs just a bit behind me the first time, and she walked most of the way up with a group of firemen in their full regalia. She also got a picture with the view on top before heading back down.

The second time up, I walked with Morgan. I tried to be an encouraging coach, and she did very well. She maintained a steady pace all the way up. We passed lots of people, and nobody passed us. A few times, we ran up against big groups of people who were hard to get through, and at least once, I had to go ahead to sort of plow a path through them so we could pass. And when we made it to the roof, Morgan realized she should have brought her sunglasses. Who thinks of bringing sunglasses along for a stair-climbing race? But that’s the difference between a Saturday morning in April and a Friday evening in September.

When they started posting the results, I saw that they’d made a typo, and they had me listed as being 14 years old. Hmm. I had to email the timing company after we got home to get that corrected.

All told, it was a pretty good time.

3/30/2014

Weekend in San Diego, and a few stairs

Filed under: — stan @ 8:38 pm

This weekend, we took an overnight trip to San Diego to visit my father, and along the way we did a bunch of other stuff.

The trip started off Saturday afternoon, when we headed down to San Diego. We visited with my father for a bit before we all went to dinner at The Prado in Balboa Park. We had a nice, fancy dinner out, and Trinh got an extra dessert, since Sunday was her birthday.

On Sunday morning, we managed to convince Lucinda, Trinh, and Melissa all to do the Lung Association stair climb with us, so we had five of us signed up to do it. It was a short one, only about 30 stories. The climb was from the lobby to 32, but the building skipped 13. I wanted to go back in and do a proper survey, but the organizers were kind of being redacted about it, and they wouldn’t let me go back in. But we did make the Channel 10 news that night:

www.10news.com/news/fight-for-air-climb-was-an-extreme-sport-for-some-an-emotional-day-for-others-03302014

After the stair climb, we headed back to our room to get cleaned up. We didn’t stay for the awards, but I found out later that I managed to place 3rd in the 50-59 age group. Not bad for coming back from not being able to walk a couple months ago.

Finally, we all went to La Jolla Cove to see the baby seals. The pups are generally born in February, so they were still pretty small, and really, there’s nothing cuter than baby seals.

3/23/2014

Visiting Seattle for the Big Climb

Filed under: — stan @ 9:00 pm

Back in November, when we were on our way to Chicago to climb the Sears Willis Tower, we got word that registration was opening for the Big Climb in Seattle. Everyone said it’s a good event and a fun time, so we signed up for it. Months came and went, and in the meantime, my back when to hell. But the trip is all arranged and paid for, so we decided to go on it anyway. I’d never been to Seattle before, and I’ve got both friends and family there, plus it’s a chance to play tourist.

On the way there, when we were flying over (I think) about Reno, I saw a little black wisp rising out of the clouds. It looked like a Dementor from Harry Potter. I got out the big lens for my camera, and close up, it looks like it was probably a military jet. It just looked strange, since it was going almost straight up out of the clouds.

A bit farther, I started to see the stratovolcanoes of the Cascades. I was trying to spot Mt Lassen, since that’s the one Cascades volcano I’ve climbed and seen up close, but I couldn’t locate it. I did see Mt Hood, with Portland right next to it. And that told me that we were near Mt St. Helens. And within a minute or two, we were flying right over it. I managed to get a pretty good picture of the crater.

When we got to Seattle, we made our way to our hotel, which turned out to be right downtown, and only two blocks from the Columbia Center tower, which we could see out the window. That night, we met up with my cousin Irene for dinner.

Saturday was our day to play tourist. In the morning, I took a little walk while Kathleen was getting ready. The “Field Trip” app on my iPhone told me about the Arctic Building, which was around the corner from our hotel. It said that the tusks on the walrus heads were originally made with real ivory. Yikes. I also poked my head into the downtown Transit Tunnel. It was odd seeing buses and trains sharing the same tunnel, but it seems to work, and we had occasion to ride the train later that day.

Our one real outing of the day was to Lake View Cemetery to visit the graves of Bruce and Brandon Lee. No trip is complete without a celebrity grave tour. We also played tourist a bit, going on an underground tour that’s not the original one, but a spinoff located nearby. It was pretty entertaining. (I’d link to them here, but their web site crashes my browser. Hey, guys! Getter a better web developer!) We also visited the Gum Wall and rode the Seattle Monorail, both of which we found through Field Trip.

Finally, we met up with my old friend K.D. for dinner. She and her partner Amy were among the first to get married after Referendum 74 passed in 2012.

On Sunday morning, it was time to climb. We walked up to the building and found our group. I took it easy going up. My plan was to do my regular easy pace of 4 1/2 floors per minute, which would get me to the 73rd floor in about 15 minutes. But it ended up taking only about 13:45. I was a little surprised by that, but when I went up a second time with PJ to do a survey of the staircase, the reason became clear quickly. The floors in Columbia Center are only about 11.4 feet each, where most office buildings are 13 – 13.5 feet. So I was doing my regular easy pace of 1 vertical foot per second, and that translated into more floors per minute than it would have in another building. And of course, I made a chart for future reference. We also found that once again, the published step count and climb height for the event were incorrect, and it was actually higher and more steps than the event had claimed.

After doing the stairs, we got cleaned up and met up with Irene for lunch before heading back to the airport. All told, it was a fun trip.

3/15/2014

Helter Skelter

Filed under: — stan @ 5:46 pm

Since I took Lucinda to the Museum of Death last year, I got us tickets to go on the Dearly Departed Helter Skelter tour. I’ve gone on their regular Tragical History Tour many times, as far back as 1990, when it was still called the Grave Line Tour.

We rode around in the van for the whole morning, and we got to see most of the locations associated with the Manson Family murders in 1969. It’s a multimedia tour, too, featuring movie and TV clips from the time with people involved in the case, as well as songs written by Charles Manson. There was even a song he wrote that was recorded by The Beach Boys. It was all very interesting, at times horrifying, and very entertaining tour. A very good father-daughter bonding activity.

3/10/2014

The Crappiest Place on Earth

Filed under: — stan @ 8:22 pm

This morning, Kathleen and I took a tour of the Hyperion sewage treatment plant on the beach just south of LAX. This outing was organized by the Obscura Society. We’d been on their “Field Trip Day” last fall, as well as trips to Pinball Forever and the Bunny Museum. So when we got the notice about a trip to “The Disneyland of Poop“, well, we just had to sign up.

The tour began in their visitor center, where they issued us hairnets and hard hats. Then, we got on a tram, just like at Disneyland, for the ride around the plant. We saw the big settling tanks, and the tall digesters, all of which were mercifully covered. We stopped in to the building where they load the sludge on trucks to be taken to the farm that DWP owns in the Central Valley. They said it’s used to fertilize the crops there, which are then sold for animal feed.

Next, we went to see Headworks. This is the first stage of processing, where the raw sewage is passed through coarse screens to filter out large solid objects. They said they get a lot of candy wrappers, and also a fair amount of money. And indeed, we saw a dollar bill that was raked up by the automated screen-scrapers. They told us the money is sanitized and ends up back in circulation. And here, I always thought “flushing money down the toilet” was just a figure of speech. But it’s a real thing. Mostly, though, the rakes were just continuously pulling up a foul-looking and smelling glop of toilet paper and such. Yick.

The final stage of treatment is the clarifying tanks. By now, the water is clean enough that the tanks can be open, and there were ducks and seagulls in them. At the end of the tour, we came back to the visitor center, and we went upstairs to see their little museum. They had a piece of 12-foot sewer pipe to stand in, just to get an idea of just how much sewage they process every day.

Lastly, we got a tour of one of the labs with a marine biologist who works there. She showed us a fish tank with specimens of the sorts of fish and other creatures that live in Santa Monica Bay. It is the biologist’s job to be sure that the outflow from the plant doesn’t damage the undersea habitat.

So, after all that was done, it was only about noon. Since we had taken the whole day off, we thought that going to the real Disneyland might be a fun way to round out the day. So we went from “The Crappiest Place on Earth” to “The Happiest Place on Earth”. This adventure sort of bookends the whole human experience in a way.

1/21/2014

Back to the stairwell

Filed under: — stan @ 9:30 pm

I had to go downtown today to visit the Federal Building and pick up my new government ID card. I brought along my stair-climbing clothes in case I felt up for some stairs afterward. I’ve been going to physical therapy for a week, and I’m able to walk a bit now, so I thought it might be a good experiment to try if I felt up to it.

After I finished at the Federal Building, it was still too early to go to the Aon building for stair practice. So I walked down the block to L.A. City Hall. I’d heard that they have an observation deck on the top floor there, and I was curious to see it. I went and checked in at the front desk, and they told me how to get up there. I asked them if I could take the stairs. They just looked at me, even though I was standing in front of them with my “Elevators are for Wimps” shirt on and everything. But I managed to convince them that I was serious, and they showed me the way to the staircase.

The climb up wasn’t bad. I figured that if I could climb to the 27th floor at City Hall without any sciatica pain, then I was up for trying the 51 floors at the Aon building. When I got to the top, I took a walk around all four sides of the observation deck. It was kind of the Land that Time Forgot. They had signs on each side showing the major buildings and other landmarks. And it was pretty obvious that the signs date back to the late 1970s. The view of Bunker Hill had the current Aon building, completed in 1973 and the Bonaventure hotel, built in 1976, but was missing the Wells Fargo building, which was finished in 1983.

After that little sightseeing trip, I headed over to the Aon building and got changed for stair climbing. Right now, I’m just trying to practice walking upright so I can learn to do it reliably without pain. So I didn’t plan on using the railing while climbing. I walked up at an easy pace of about four floors per minute, just holding the railing for balance. And I was able to make it all the way to the 55th floor without any back or leg pain. So that was pretty good.

I rode the elevator back down, and I did it again. I went a little slower the second time up, but I was still able to stay upright. So it was a Good Thing. Still, I was kind of tired after the second time up, since I’m a bit out of practice now. So I thought I’d better stop at two. I’m going back to the doctor on Thursday, so I’ll wait for that before deciding if I’m going to go downtown for practice again that night.

12/31/2013

2013 Year-end Wrap-up

Filed under: — stan @ 6:47 pm

It’s the end of the year, and time for my annual wrap-up of the year’s adventures. And yes, being old-fashioned, I still print copies of this and mail them tucked inside physical cards. My personal rule is that the letter must fit on one side of one sheet of paper. So here it is, complete with links:

www.1134.org/xmas/xmas2013.html

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