Thursday, November 26, 2009


Happy Thanksgiving!

A pleasant restful day with relatives and great food. We worked on cub scout belt loops, watched the Space Shuttle/ISS pass, and I received some feedback on the Neon-test tutorial. I corrected the typos and republished the document.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Smithville – Amory

Day 4

The first order of business was to work out at the gym. The gym is across the parking lot from the hospital in Amory, which is about 7 miles away. I listened to POTUS, a satellite radio channel, in the rental car on the way. POTUS was launched to cover the 2008 presidential election, but remained on in lesser form as a political news channel. The degradation in quality, from my point of view, is the current domination of daytime programming by a dreadful talk-format program called Stand Up with Pete Dominic. It’s hours and hours of a tepidly presented and superficially informed blowhard-style call-in, with the host always “running out of time” on his way to talking about nothing in particular.

This racing to nowhere style talk radio (and TV) is the bane of my existence. I can’t stand it. I don’t like it. Have I mentioned that I find it irritating?

“Blah blah blah and in the 9 seconds remaining, can you recommend a solution for mid-east peace?”

“Well, host person, it’s a very complicated issue with great historical and cultural –“

“I’m sorry! We’ve run out of time! Up next, we’ll ask our next guest about Afghanistan!”

“Welcome back to our show!

“Blah blah blah, and in the 9 seconds remaining, should we sent more troops to Afghanistan?”

“Well, host person, it’s a very complicated issue with enormous political and economic consequ-“

“I’m sorry! We’ve run out of time!”

Rinse, repeat, all day long.

If it’s not patchwork crazy quilt pseudo conversations, it’s yell kings baiting guests to snap and bite at each other like clever children. This is why I watch about 3.7 hours of this stuff per year. Just to check and see if it’s still as bad as I remembered.

I know I sound like a total grouch. I’m not, really. I just prefer a real conversation, where you put your opponent and your comrade in the one and the same most positive light; where you direct your remarks to the most intelligent person in the audience, and not the most base or partisan.

Anyway, the gym was great. I covered three miles and had some good coffee there in the small cafĂ© overlooking the pool. I’m updating the Livescribe smartpen (I highly recommend this tool) and have some work to do today in terms of packing up things in the storage room in downtown Smithville and in continuing the interview process for the writing project I’m here to start.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Smithville - Aberdeen - Smithville

Day 3

I got up after it turned light outside. The bed is really comfortable here, so it took a while. It was still pretty early. My son was still soundly asleep and wasn’t going to get up. I didn’t blame him – he played pretty hard yesterday, and probably still needed some beauty sleep. Upstairs seemed deserted. My relatives are true morning people. While I may be at my best in the morning, they have already had a good head start on being productive and such by the time I get around to thinking about getting dressed.

Eventually, they noticed I was up and Atom, and I got some coffee made for me (yum!), talked about global warming deniers and the latest news about Palin, had a small very tasty cheesy-egg breakfast, went to the gym, jogged 3 miles with a few huff-and-puff walking breaks on a treadmill while listening to the beginning of Ayn Rand’s “The Art of Nonfiction”, came back home, took a shower, had lunch, got a tip about a document I need to read, checked in on the NEON/FFTW Google wave, headed out to visit more relatives, went to storage site where I’m supposed to pack up a bunch of stuff for the movers to take back to San Diego, packed up a bunch of old hardback science fiction from decades ago that my grandfather had collected as a science fiction book club member, had cheese and merlot for dinner, then talked about all sorts of things before settling into the first big book interview.

The task ahead is to gather, gather, gather information and then try and define, define, define the story for this project. There isn’t any way to really summarize the complexity of the engineering project that I’m trying to talk about. The most important thing, to me, is to try and make it possible for people to feel what it was like to work on a particular, large, complicated engineering project during the cold war, and to provide some understanding of how the context and justification for the project shifted over time.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Olive Branch - Memphis - Smithville

Day 2 of travel

We got up and strolled over to help-yourself-to-hot breakfast. A seated and nearly-done-with-breakfast party of four was the only other non-staff people I’d seen in the hotel since we checked in. The television in the lounge was blaring what appeared to be a soap opera. It made the room feel like a bad meeting at work.

When the female lead on the show threatened another with a gun, I asked the party of four if they were watching it. None of the middle-aged and British-accented people admitted to being interested in the program. They had been trying to talk over the Shatneresque dialogue for a good minute or two, which is the classic sign of not really being into a show.

I walked over to the set, which was a nice new flatscreen mounted high on the wall, and failed to find a power switch. Waving my hand along the side, searching for any buttons, caused a staff person to magically appear.

“Do you want to change the channel?”

“Not exactly,” I said politely. “I want to turn it off.”

“Well!” she said, her eyebrows raised as high as they could go. “I don’t know if we should do that. I mean, these people might be watching it!” She seemed surprised at the very idea of shutting off the television.

“They said they were not. I would not do that without asking,” I said quietly. The foursome interrupted me to enthusiastically agree about shutting off the set. She retrieved a remote control from an Undisclosed Safe Location back in the kitchen and shut the TV off.

We resumed breakfast and it was a lot more pleasant. The atmosphere seemed to clear, volume-induced stress melted away, and violent acts weren’t looming in my peripheral vision. I talked with my son about all sorts of funny things, since I can finish my breakfast way faster than he can play with his. The other folks finished their post-breakfast conversation and cleared their table, ambling off down the hall. I made a cup of coffee, and was expounding on some fact or another to him when another staff person whizzed through the room, checked the coffee, the egg tray, the oil-soaked bacon, and the untouched grits and gravy, and asked if I wanted the television on.

“No thanks,” I answered, turning from my son to the staff person.

“But what about the news? Or cartoons for your boy?”

And interrupt a great conversation? Are you kidding? I said, “No thanks, we’re enjoying the quiet.”

You should have seen the look I got.

After breakfast we packed up and headed out for the Pink Palace Museum. I’d been lured there by talk of a fashion/sewing exhibition. The museum, overall, was great. The sewing exhibition was somewhat of a disappointment.

The clothing hinted at on the website was indeed there… with a big “Coming Soon” sign in front of all the clothing (on manikins), which were crowded onto a small dais in the center of a room dedicated to other stuff. There was limited placard verbiage. There was no interpretive elements, diagrams, explanations, definitions, or even the fabric content of the clothing. There literally was more content on the website teaser than there was actually in the exhibit.

Another minor annoyance was that one of the exhibits required an additional ticket. I must have missed the part at the ticket counter. They have an IMAX theater, and I didn’t get that ticket either (on purpose). However, when you sell an “exhibits” ticket, then I guess I sort of expect to be able to see all the exhibits.

Regardless, it was worth seeing – if only for the Indycar themed Christmas tree in the decorated Christmas tree exhibit hall. It was garlanded with slot car tracks! Photo set to follow.

There was a space science exhibit, minerals, natural history, and New Madrid Earthquake area. There were lots of fossils, plenty of really good regional history exhibits, and an animated hand-carved enormous circus model. It was larger than HO scale, but smaller than G, and was pretty incredible. One guy spent pretty much his whole hobby life working on it. His particular style reminded me of a ceramic monkey statue that Ken won for last place at a charity golf tournament at work. It had that pre-Mattel toy vibe, with a palette of colors from the 1930s, and wonderful hand-lettered signage. The track was unique - the horse-drawn carriages and traincars are actually drawn by the teams of hand-carved horses. Along one side of the room (the entire center was the circus animated model) was a case detailing the process the artist used. Quite the exhibit all on its own! And, there was more.

The Pink Palace is a mansion that was being built by the guy that came up with the idea of self-service grocery stores. Before, it was like oldschool libraries, where you were not allowed back in the stacks. You had to bring your list to a clerk. Grocery stores were like that too. The guy that founded Piggly Wiggly (the most awesomely named store ever) was named Clarence Saunders, I believe, and a full-sized model of the first self-service grocery store in was just down the hall from the giant animated circus.

After my son couldn’t stand it anymore – literally, his feet were aching – we got back in the car and headed for the Wal Mart supercenter. We got a gigantic lego set and clothes. This would be the first time that I’ve ever attempted to live off the land, as Ken puts it, as existential frontiersmen. Frontierspeople. Frontierspersons? Whatever.

Anyway, this was a travel experiment. Money saved by not checking baggage: $40. Money spent at Wal Mart (minus the legos) buying the same stuff I would have packed if I had checked the baggage: $200.

Ok, existential-frontier-travel-light-live-off-the-land-plan version 1.0… #fail.

And, this was shopping selectively – mainly from the sale and clearance racks. I got pants for $3. Running shoes for $20. Shirt for $8. Wal Mart is in-your-face cheap. It pulls no punches. There are no questions about where the decimal point is in these prices, and it’s almost always further to the right than you expect.

But, 5 days worth of clothes for two people, a workout set for me, and a jacket for the son adds up. Oh, I also bought bacon, two things of cheese, breakfast sausages, and cheddar wurst sausages. I probably wouldn't have packed that. But still, those things didn't cost the $160 difference between "would have spent" and "spent".

The checkout clerk complimented me on my savings, so I didn’t feel too bad. Let my experience be your guide. Go ahead. Pack heavy for the plane. Pay the fee. It’s really hard to buy a suitcase full of luggage for the fee they charge, unless you buy half-off fabric and have a sewing machine, time, and skill at your destination. Oh, and did I mention time? It took a good 1:45 to achieve shopping nirvana. The good news is I actually got some new clothes that I didn't sew myself. It was kind of fun. I might do it again someday. Not anytime soon, though, because I love sewing.

We arrived in Smithville after a leisurely drive, and visited all evening. We went out to Mel’s Diner and had a pleasant late dinner. My relatives know everyone there, and we wrapped up the evening in the lab, talking about the decline of newspapers everywhere, comparing and contrasting newscasts (San Diego Channel 10 and the local news received in Smithville), standardized testing in Mississippi and California and all the fallout thereof, political scandals, all the recent photography projects, and a bit of the philosophy concerning doing photography for free, which is pretty much what I do with a large fraction of my time.

Looking forward to the gym and packing up stuff to ship to San Diego, and research for a book project, all things I hope to do tomorrow.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

San Diego - Dallas - Memphis - Olive Branch

Today my son and I traveled from San Diego, California, through Dallas, Texas, to Memphis, Tennessee, to Olive Branch, Missisippi.

We were dropped off at the airport early in the morning. I was able to teach my little one about airports, security, carry on luggage, tickets, boarding passes, jetways, terminals, and concourses. We had a wonderful time watching all the parts of the wing move. I explained pitch, roll, and yaw, and we went over every square millimeter of the Boeing 757 emergency exit guide in the seatback pocket. We had our escape routes totally memorized.

The plane change in Dallas afforded two opportunities to take the tramway, since there was a gate change in between then time they announced it on the plane and the time we showed up at the gate. This gave me another opportunity to emphasize the importance of checking the monitors because "things change".

Michael bought his own Subway sandwich, and got a drink on the house for being a gentleman in line. He successfully negotiated a window seat with the gate agent for the flight from Dallas to Memphis.

We took the bus to Alamo rental cars and picked up a nice car. I used the new phone (Droid) to navigate, and experienced a few setbacks. The database didn't know about one-way entrances, and roads that were marked as "no left turn". This resulted in a detour through some really sad looking neighborhoods. Several boarded up houses and an entire apartment block boarded up and busted up, with "KEEP OUT" spray-painted ineffectually on the plywood. It looked pretty scary, and it was still daytime.

We got back on track on Union Avenue, and parked on Beale Street. Our destination was Hard Rock Cafe, Memphis, and we had stageside seats for our big dinner.

Hard rock cafe memphis

We bought t-shirts, we spent a lot of time looking at all the items displayed on the walls, we talked at length about Elvis, Beale Street, rock and roll, and playing the drums, since my son started playing the drums in the school band this year. In the gift shop, we were able to buy "Memphis" flame-decorated drumsticks!

While walking to the car, after a stroll around the somewhat-down-at-heel Beale Street Drag, I told him that his drum teacher would be quite impressed with his fancy new sticks. To this, he declared that he wanted to keep the drumsticks as a souvenir instead of using them! Alas, he takes after me. I might have to buy a second pair - one for keeping and one for using.

We're now in the hotel room. He's watching a football game and cheering for Chicago, and I'm working on various documents that have to do with understanding the NEON processor better, so that I can help add NEON support to a software package called FFTW. We're looking forward to more travel and adventure tomorrow.