Stan’s Obligatory Blog

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6/18/2016

Towerthon 2016

Filed under: — stan @ 4:11 pm

Today was the 2016 edition of the San Diego Towerthon. This is perhaps the single hardest stair-climbing race I’ve ever done, and also probably my favorite. It’s 422 steps, 239 feet, 72.9 meters from the lobby to the 20th floor. And we climb it over and over and over and over for two hours. This is my fifth time doing this event.

Last year, I only managed to do 19 climbs. The year before, I did 20. The two years before that were in a different building, so they aren’t easily compared. But the 2012 event was the origin of the Vertical Mile as a thing. In this building, 22 climbs is a vertical mile, but I’m not in good enough shape for that right now, although I did manage to do a two-hour vertical mile in practice at the Aon building in 2013.

This time, I started off at my regular ‘easy’ pace. I was aiming to climb the building in a bit over four minutes each time. And I managed to stick to that pace for quite a long time. There were some problems with the elevator shuttle back to the lobby at first. For a time, there was only one elevator running, and we ended up having to wait for several minutes at a time at the top. But after about a half-hour or so, they got the elevators working, and also the herd thinned out a bit.

I had some water and Gatorade on the table in the lobby, and I stopped to tank up about every 15 minutes. At the one-hour mark, I stopped long enough to change to a dry headband. It wasn’t until about 90 minutes in that I really started to slow down. I kept a watch on the time, and I made it in to the stairs for my final climb at about 1:57 on the clock. So I knew that the last climb would count for my total, and that it really didn’t matter how long the last one took. Still, I managed to eke out a little burst of speed for the last three floors, just because I knew that I could stop when I got to 20.

Sadly, I didn’t get a lot of pictures this time. There were a few that other people took near the start, and Jeff showed up about halfway through. He wasn’t racing, owing to having been sick. But he was able to get some pictures for me on the last few climbs.

In the end, I managed 19 climbs, which was the same as last year. I think I’m slightly stronger this year, though. If we hadn’t lost those minutes waiting for the elevators at the start, I think I could have easily done 20 climbs this time. Still, I can’t complain. After all, my 19 is the same as the 19 George did, and he’s generally in better condition than I am these days. So all around, it was a good time.

Full results are at https://gemininext.com/results/?event_id=5066


4/16/2016

The Wende Museum

Filed under: — stan @ 7:52 pm

Today was Obscura Day, when Atlas Obscura puts on events in many cities to showcase odd and interesting things to see and do. We first attended Obscura Day in 2012 to see The Bunny Museum. Last year, Lucinda and I went to Dapper Cadaver. And this time, it was a visit to the Wende Museum. They are a museum dedicated to the Cold War, and they are the reason why there is a section of the Berlin Wall on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.

The tour was in the afternoon, and I was going to be spending at least part of the morning climbing the Aon building in downtown L.A. So I brought my bike along, so I could ride the Metro out to Culver City and ride to the museum for the tour.

The museum didn’t have a lot on display. They are in a little building, and it’s pretty much crammed full. So the tour was mostly being shown around inside, while they pulled out various things for us to look at. It was an odd grab bag of stuff. They had the entire print run of the East German newspaper, Nueue Duetschland, the sign from Checkpoint Charlie, uniforms and parade flags from Soviet and other Eastern Bloc countries, not to mention about 100 busts and statues of Lenin. It was a weird and somewhat overwhelming collection of odd stuff. And of course, that meant that I enjoyed seeing it tremendously.

4/15/2016

Harry Potter World

Filed under: — stan @ 9:41 pm

Today was a special treat. Kathleen and I went to Universal Studios to see the new “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” there. Just for the experience of it, she sprang for the full “VIP Experience” tickets. We got there about 8:45 or so and checked in. Then we went up to the room where they had breakfast for us. While we were there, our tour guide came and found us, and at 9:15, we set out on our tour.

Our first stop was the “Harry Potter” area. As part of the “VIP Experience”, we got to to the front of every line, which was kind of fun. Our first stop was the “Flight of the Hippogriff” ride. This was a small roller coaster, and not terribly exciting. It was about like the “Gadget’s Go Coaster” at Disneyland. But there was nothing wrong with it.

After that, we headed into the main Harry Potter ride. And on the way in to the ride, we got to walk through parts of Hogwart’s, and to see Dumbledore’s office and the Potions classroom along the way. The ride itself kind of defies description. It’s sort of a combination of a real ride and a motion simulator ride. To put it in Disneyland terms, it’s sort of like if you mashed up “The Haunted Mansion” with “Soarin’ Over California” and “Star Tours“. It was very well done.

Next was a visit to Ollivander’s to shop for wands. Which was apparently a very popular thing to do. The shop had a long line to get in. But the little show was entertaining. Then we moved on to our next stop, which was the “Despicable Me” ride. The trophy over the door going in to the ride was funny. This was another motion simulator ride. I’m usually not impressed by motion simulators where just the seats move, and the movie screen is fixed. But this one was good. Even with the screen fixed, it was a convincing effect.

Next, we headed down the hill to the lower lot for the “Jurassic Park”, “Transformers”, and “Revenge of the Mummy” rides. The Mummy ride was the one that Lucinda and I rode eight times on the cold and rainy day we spent there back in 2010. The “Transformers” ride was pretty good, but amazingly loud. I had to make some makeshift earplugs before I could stand it.

Then it was time for lunch, which was included in the VIP package. And the lunch was actually quite good. Considering that you’d probably have to spend $20 for a burger at a theme park, this lunch probably would have cost upwards of $50 each. It was really quite good. And after that, we headed down for the studio tram tour. But instead of waiting in line for the regular tram ride, they had a small tram for just two of our groups, which was about 24 people total. They took us around to see all the regular tour sites, as well as a few that aren’t on the regular tour. They took us inside one of the sound stages to see the hospital lobby set that they built for the TV show “Heartbeat”. It was pretty big, and had a lot of detail. I asked them if they had to take more time building TV sets now that TV has gone HD, and they said that they did. I’d gone to see some sets from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” back in the ’90s, and they looked pretty rough. But this set looked real enough that it looked good even up close.

We saw their collection of movie cars, and the flood set. Then they took us to Wisteria Lane, where we go to get out and go inside Bree’s house from “Desperate Housewives”. They said that most of the houses there were just exteriors, although a few had interiors. The one we went in had just a little bit of inside decoration. Just enough that they can open the front door and it looks like there’s an interior. But on a practical level, it had a bathroom, which was useful.

The next stop was the prop warehouse, where we got to see an enormous collection of all manner of props, most of which were used in any number of movies and TV shows. The only one they pointed out specially was the Evil Queen’s throne from “Snow White and the Huntsman”, which everyone wanted to get their picture sitting in. After that, they took us up the hill to the “Psycho” house and the airplane crash set from “War of the Worlds”. We got to get out there for pictures with the house, as well as the crashed airplane. Getting up close, it was obvious that the airplane was not a prop made of styrofoam and plastic. Looking into the tail section, I could see the aft pressure bulkhead, so it looked like they’d made this set out of a real airplane. They told us it was an actual junked 747 that they bought and had hauled there, and then cut up into pieces to make the crash set. And while we were looking around there, I saw a small pond and building behind the plane crash set that they said was the “Site B” raptor breeding facility from “Jurassic Park”.

After the tour, we all headed back up with our group and saw the special effects show. At that point, it was about 4:30, and we were turned loose to go do whatever we wanted for the rest of the day. Kathleen and I went back to Hogwart’s and rode the Harry Potter ride again, and I rode the Hippogriff roller coaster a couple more times. Then we did the Simpsons ride, and the Mummy one more time. Being able to just walk right up to the ride without waiting in line makes the whole theme park experience much more fun.

Overall, it was a fun day.

11/14/2015

Working Wildlife

Filed under: — stan @ 9:53 pm

Today was a tour of Working Wildlife, which is a ranch in Frazier Park where they train animals for movies and TV. This was yet another Atlas Obscura adventure. As it turned out, it was the same day as the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s stair climb, so I had to leave right after climbing the building in order to have the requisite 90 minutes to make it all the way out there. But I made it just in time, and it was a fun time talking to the animals.

At the beginning, we got a little history of the ranch, and got to meet a few of the smaller animals. Our host and guide was Jeff, who is one of the trainers, and the nephew of the owner. The lemur, porcupine, and the binturong got to just walk up and down the table and meet us directly. And after that, it was time to meet some larger animals. We saw a few foxes before heading over to the lions. We saw a couple of mountain lions, and then some African lions. They all seemed to have a good relationship with Jeff, since they all came over to him and wanted to be petted and scratched just like very large cats. I seem to recall he said that the pumas are the largest cats that purr.

The last stop was to see the bears. They also came over to be petted, although, like with the lions, the petting did not involve us, since the bears and lions don’t know us. The only other part of the operation we didn’t see was the wolves. Apparently, they trained the wolves that were used in “True Blood” and other TV shows, but the trainers were working with the animals and didn’t want them to be distracted by visitors. Still, it was all very interesting to see.

10/24/2015

A bit of aerospace history

Filed under: — stan @ 6:19 pm

Back in the late ’80s, I spent a few years working at Hughes Aircraft Radar Systems Group in El Segundo. Part of our department was moved to offices at the old Hughes Helicopter plant near Culver City. I had occasion to go over there a few times, and I’d heard that the land there had been built up after Hughes Aircraft was divided up and sold in the ’90s. So when I got something from the L.A. Conservancy about a tour of the remaining buildings there and how they were being renovated as new office spaces, I figured a visit was in order. I called up my old friend Kathleen, who I first met while we were both working at Hughes, and we made plans to go visit the old place.

The tour started in Building 15, which is an enormous wooden structure that was built in 1943 to accommodate building the H-4 Hercules, otherwise known as the “Spruce Goose”. It was impressive to see how they were able to build such a big building out of wood. Our docent said that the only metal parts were hinges, nails, bolts, and the reinforcing plates on the support arches. But I put my long lens on the camera and got a close-up picture of one of the plates, and we could see the wood grain of the plywood. So even the reinforcing plates were made of wood. They told us that the enormous building had been used as a sound stage since the early ’90s, and that it was used for movies that needed to build large indoor sets that would be used for an extended time.

The next stop was the building that used to be the company cafeteria. The docents told us about the design of the building, and also about how the Hughes cafeteria was known for serving good food for the employees. Kathleen and I could verify that. The cafeteria where we were in El Segundo was quite good. The old cafeteria building has been fixed up, and now it’s offices for a video game design company.

The next building was formerly the company fire station. It’s been turned into offices and studio space for Youtube. We didn’t get to see much on the inside there, since the studios were all in use. And the final two buildings were formerly office buildings in the Hughes days. And they’re still office buildings. The are leased by an advertising company. But because of that, we were not allowed to take pictures in those buildings.

It was fun seeing the old place again.

9/19/2015

San Andreas Fault Scavenger Hunt with Atlas Obscura

Filed under: — stan @ 5:43 pm

Last November, Sue Hough took a group of us from the USGS office on a field trip to see some earthquake-related sights around the San Andreas Fault. I thought this was all very interesting, and I also thought that this could make a good Obscura Society event. I first talked to Erin about it in February, when we did the bar crawl in Los Feliz. I talked to Sue and she agreed to come along to narrate the tour. And after we worked out all the scheduling details, Field Agent Sandi was ready to put it all together. She arranged for a bus and driver, and I worked out the route and sights. We added three additional sights that were not on Sue’s original tour. This time, we were going to stop at the Lamont Odett Vista Point on the 14 freeway in Palmdale. This overlooks the fault, and we could see the trace of it stretching off into the distance in both directions. The second extra stop was to climb the small hill so we could get a better look at the famous road cut on the 14. And finally, we stopped at the Pallet Creek site where Kerry Sieh did his original trenching studies back in the ’70s. With all that in place, we were ready for the first Atlas Obscura San Andreas Fault Scavenger Hunt.

We started off at Caltech. This was partly because it’s fairly centrally-located and has available parking on weekends, and also so I could take the group on a short tour of the Seismo Lab before we left for the actual field trip. We started out at the downstairs exhibit, including a small piece of the Pallet Creek trench that is in display there. Then we headed upstairs to see the Media Center. I had some fact sheets and such to hand out, and I showed them a bit about the displays there. And on our way out, we stopped at the relief map on the wall in the hallway, and I showed them were we were going to go on the tour today. Then we headed down to the bus.

The first part of the tour was the relatively short ride to San Fernando to see the fault scarp next to the McDonald’s. On the way there, Sue entertained everyone with stories she found when writing her biography of Charles Richter. When we got there, she described to us how the scarp had formed in the 1971 earthquake. There was a guy on the tour who had spent some time back in 1971 traveling around and photographing the earthquake, and he had some good stories to tell.

Then it was off to Palmdale. It’s kind of a long ride to get there, and we’d wanted to play a video about earthquakes on the bus, but the player didn’t work properly. It was having trouble reading the disc, and so the video was choppy. So we gave up on that, and Sue told us about more Richter-lore. When we got to Palmdale, we turned off at the Lamont Odett Vista Point off the 14 freeway. This overlooks Lake Palmdale and the California Aqueduct. And also the San Andreas Fault. The lake started out as a sag pond on the fault, and from there, we could see the trace of the fault stretching out as far as we could see in both directions.

Next up was the famous road cut where the 14 freeway crosses the fault. The movement of the fault has pushed up a little hill, and in the process, it tortured the layers of rock in the hill. Then the freeway came along and blasted a cut through the hill, so we parked the bus and walked up one side of the hill so we could look down into the cut and admire the twisted rock layers.

By now, it was lunchtime. Our lunch stop was at Charlie Brown Farms in Littlerock. This is a very odd place. They have bacon-flavored soda. And kangaroo meat. And dinosaurs outside. It was very strange, but entertaining. So we spent some time there having lunch before heading off for the rest of the tour.

The next stop was only a few miles down the road. There is a spot on Pallet Creek Road where someone has put up a pair of signs to mark where the fault crosses the road. From there, again, we could see the trace of the fault stretching off into the distance as far as we could see in both directions. But mostly, it’s a photo-op to get our pictures with the sign marking the fault.

Just a short distance down the road was the actual Pallet Creek site where Kerry Sieh did his original trenching studies back in the ’70s. This was how he found evidence of large earthquakes prior to recorded history, and was able to estimate that they happen along that stretch of the fault about every 150 years, on average. Ken Hudnut from my office had recently brought a group up to see this site, and he’d prepared a poster to show them to explain what they were looking at, and he’d graciously given it to me to bring along today. So Sandi and I held the poster up, while Sue pointed out the features of the sediment layers, and in particular, the one spot in them where the layers were broken and offset. This marked the actual trace of the fault, and everyone had a chance to go and touch the spot and actually feel a little bit of the San Andreas Fault.

The next stop was a ways down the fault, and up into the mountains. The bus was working hard, climbing up the mountain road to Big Pines. This was a bit of a problem, since when the bus was working especially hard, it would automatically cut off the air conditioner. Coming up from the hot desert, this was a bit of a problem. But we finally made it up the the road cut up in the mountains where the cut went right through the fault, and one side of the cut was entirely sandy fault gouge. Sue showed us how it is basically ground-up rock, but we could dig in it and pull out chunks of rock. But since the rocks had been shattered by earthquakes, we could crush them in our hands. Everyone seemed to enjoy that. It’s not every day when you can take a chunk of granite and crush it in your hands.

From there, we continued on up the mountains and through Wrightwood. We went down the road down Lone Pine Canyon. That is the road that follows the trace of the fault, and it’s the way we went last time we did this tour. But since I was more involved and navigating this time, I realized just how scary a descent that is. The road down the canyon is many, many miles of 10% downgrade, and it was kind of intimidating. But our driver was good, and he got us down to the bottom just fine. We got on the 15 freeway for one exit, and then we got off to go visit Lost Lake.

Lost Lake is a little sag pond on the fault near Cajon Pass. It’s a very improbable thing. A little lake in the middle of the desert. No stream feeds it, and no stream drains it. The water is cold, and it just comes up out of the fault below. One thing I did notice, though. The water in the lake was quite a bit lower than it was last November when we visited. I guess it’s yet another casualty of the drought.

That brought us to the end our our tour. We got back on the bus for the trip back to Pasadena. It seemed that everyone liked it, and Sandi was talking about wanting to do it again. I’m game for that, although I’m not sure Sue was. But I think that’s all right. There are other scientists in the office who might be willing to do this, or, if it comes down to it, I can do the narration myself. So I think we may well do this tour again.

It was a fun day.

9/12/2015

Sea Turtle Trek with Atlas Obscura

Filed under: — stan @ 1:32 pm

Some years ago, I read that there is a colony of green sea turtles living in the San Gabriel River, near the power plant in Long Beach. The last time I went on the bike club ride to Seal Beach, I tried to look at the river there and see if I could see one, but I couldn’t spot any. So when I found out that Atlas Obscura was going on a tour of the Los Cerritos wetlands and to see the turtles by the power plant, I got us tickets right away.

We met at the entrance to the wetlands, right next to the San Gabriel River in Seal Beach. After a little introduction by our guides, we set off. It was about a mile of walking through the wetlands and around oil wells and such before we got to the power plant. The spot where we were going to look for turtles is right across the river from the power plant. But as we were crossing the bridge, someone spotted a turtle coming up to breathe right below us. Fortunately, I had my camera out and ready, and I snapped a few pictures before the turtle went back underwater. It looked like its shell was probably two or three feet long.

We continued on to the turtle-viewing area. Our guide spotted one turtle head coming up briefly when we got there, but the rest of the time we were there, we didn’t see any more turtles. On the way back, some people saw another turtle while we were crossing the bridge, but I didn’t see that one. So in the end, I only saw one turtle, but I did get a pretty good picture of it, so I can’t complain. This was still a pretty good adventure.


8/29/2015

Rock Hunt with Atlas Obscura

Filed under: — stan @ 2:50 pm

Today was yet another little adventure with Atlas Obscura. Today it was Rock Hunt: Rubies. This was a short hike to a rock slide where the many of the rocks have corundum crystals embedded in them.

The night before, the organizer emailed us the location to meet. It was a bare set of lat/lon coordinates, which turned out to mark the location of a turnout off Mt. Baldy Road above Claremont. I put them into Waze, and it worked out how to get there. At the start, our guide passed around some rocks for us to look at so we would know what we were looking for. Then we headed out. We walked a short distance down the road to a small road that branched off down into a canyon. At the bottom, we took a trail that led us down to the river at the bottom of the canyon. Since we’re in our fourth year of drought here, the river was very small. We were even a bit surprised to see running water in it at all. We hopped across on some rocks and kept walking.

In a bit less than a mile, we got to the hillside with the rockslide. We all just sort of picked a spot and started digging and breaking rocks. In about ten minutes or so, I found my first ruby crystals. Once I’d found the first one, it was pretty easy to find more. We stayed there for about two hours, and in the end, I had about ten pounds of rocks collected.

On the way back, we stopped at the blackberry patch. Looking closely, we saw quite a few blackberries on the bushes. Most of them were just out of arm’s reach, but there were some we could reach, and they were very tasty. This was an interesting and entertaining little adventure.

The one final bit of drama was on the freeway going home. Traffic stopped suddenly, and up ahead, I could see there had been a spectacular truck accident, and the CHP had temporarily completely blocked traffic in both directions. Most of the wreck was on the other side, so our side was only stopped briefly, but it was still dramatic-looking.

8/2/2015

Pangolin!

Filed under: — stan @ 7:03 pm

About two years ago, when I was riding the train downtown for stair-climbing practice, I read a short article in National Geographic about the pangolin. The pangolin is an odd little animal that looks like a cross between an armadillo and an anteater, but apparently is not related to either of them. The electronic edition of the article also had a short video of a pangolin walking through the forest. I was immediately fascinated, and I wanted to see one of these animals. Doing some research, I discovered that there is only one zoo in the United States that has a pangolin. That would be the San Diego Zoo, and the animal in not on regular exhibit. They only bring it out with a keeper once a day in the summer for about fifteen minutes. When we went to the zoo last year, we missed it by just a few minutes. Back in June when we were here, I called the zoo to ask about it, and they said that they were not on the summer schedule yet, and so the pangolin would not be making an appearance. So this time, I checked that they are indeed on the summer schedule now, and that the pangolin would be coming out at 1:30.

We got to the zoo at about 1:15, and we set off to look for the place where the keeper would have the pangolin. It turned out to be in a remote corner of the zoo. It was a place we had never been to before. We had to ask directions, and one of the zoo employees took us over there, since he said that he couldn’t describe how to get there. But we made it there, and we waited just a few minutes by the sign before the keeper and the pangolin came out.

The zoo’s pangolin is a tree pangolin, which is the smallest of the pangolin species. It has a long prehensile tail so that it can hang from branches. The tail is covered by scales, and the tip of the tail looks like a finger, complete with a fingernail. All in all, it is one weird little animal, and I’m glad we finally got to see it up close.

The pangolin was the main attraction of the day. After seeing it, we went down the canyon to see the giant pandas. One was taking a break off-exhibit, but the second was sitting out and eating bamboo. The keeper said that the pandas have massive jaw muscles, since the bamboo they crack open to eat is tough like bones, so they need very strong jaws and teeth.

After the pandas, we took a walk to the Australia exhibit to see the koalas. They were all sleeping in their trees. We only could see one baby koala this time. Then we went over to see the Tasmanian Devils. They were all sleeping, too. They’re kind of cute in a ferocious way. Just look at those fangs. And that made our day complete. We’d seen the fabled pangolin, so we headed for home.

7/26/2015

That’s an even bigger telescope…

Filed under: — stan @ 1:26 pm

Last September, we went to Mt. Wilson for an evening with the 60-inch telescope. But last spring, I got a notice from the Atlas Obscura people that they were going to be doing an evening with the 100-inch telescope. That telescope is the one that Edwin Hubble used to discover Cepheid variable stars in the Andromeda nebula, which enabled him to establish that it was in fact another galaxy. This was a major discovery, since it proved that the universe consisted of far more than just our galaxy. It was also the telescope he used to discover the expansion of the universe. All told, it’s a big piece of astronomical history.

Our group met up in La Cañada before heading up Mt. Wilson. At the top, our session director, Shelly Bonus met us and led us back to the telescope. Inside, we got a tour of the dome while we were waiting for nightfall. As it started to get dark, they pointed the telescope at the moon so that we could have a look. The magnification on such a big telescope is pretty large, and we could only see a few craters in the small field of view. After that, they moved the telescope just a bit to have a look at Saturn. The Cassini Division was clearly visible, and this was the first time I’ve ever seen the C-ring. The planet also showed some nice color, and bands in the clouds.

Next up was M13, the big globular cluster in Hercules. I didn’t recognize it in the big telescope. In my little telescope, it looks like a ball of fuzz. But here it was big, and it was resolved into stars. Many, many stars. Then we moved just a short distance away to M92, which is a smaller globular cluster. It didn’t fill the field of view, so it was more easily recognized as a globular. We looked at a few double stars just to admire the resolution of the big telescope. Then we looked at Campbell’s Hydrogen Star. The nebula around the star was a deep red color, and it looked good. All in all, it was a fun time in a geeky way.

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