How strong is that sunshine?

I am heading to the Cook Islands in a few weeks to explore the island of Rarotonga. This is a tiny island, covering 26 square miles and with a population of 10,000, in the south Pacific.

To prepare for the trip, I have been monitoring the weather out there. This is their rainy season, so it’s getting pounded with thunderstorms (eek!). I’m hoping it will clear up a bit before my trip.

In addition to thunderstorms, I noticed the weather report on the UV index, which has been varying from 7 to 9 during the day. At first I thought maybe the max value was 10, but then saw it go up to 11. So I looked up what exactly the UV index is. I learned that it doesn’t have a max value! It’s a measurement of the amount of “sunburn-producing UV radiation”, so it focuses on the amount of radiation in the 295-325 nm range. It is unitless, and the range is linear (so a UV index of 10 is twice as strong as 5). It was originally designed so that 10 would correspond to typical noontime summer (max) sunlight. However, this was established in 1992, and since then, higher and higher values have been observed, up to the world record of 43 (!!!) in 2003, although that value is contested and might “only” be 26.

Wikipedia’s guidelines suggest that one should limit midday exposure if the UV index is anywhere over 3, and over 6 yields “high risk of harm from unprotected sun exposure.” If it gets over 11, “unprotected skin and eyes can burn in minutes.” So, time to break out the sunscreen and protective clothing… unless I’m stuck indoors due to thunderstorms :)

Olympian wonders

Last weekend, I took the train north to Olympia, WA, to visit my friend Marcy. She put together an action-packed weekend with tons of new experiences and fun times. The list of “firsts” for me included:

  • Eating Voodoo Doughnuts that I picked up in Portland during the train’s stopover there, at Marcy’s suggestion. My favorite was the butterfinger one. Yum!
  • Attending a punk house show (that’s when a collection of bands show up at someone’s house, set up in the living room, and play for the benefit of a group of strangers who’ve also shown up). Imagine a house painted completely black (with some wood trim), decorated with things like a poster of Shirley Temple with “SHIRLEY’S FIRST BLACK EYE” written on it, a slouched crowd of smokers out on the stoop, and punk music booming from inside. A sign on the bathroom door urged you to pee outside. There were three bands that evening, the best one being TacocaT — aside from scoring points for their palindromic name, they write cute/edgy songs mainly from a girl perspective. Check them out!
  • Playing Urban Golf through the streets of Olympia. This involves dressing up in your best argyle, tweed, or houndstooth and hitting nerf balls with golf clubs on a predefined course. Marcy and I set up the course she’d scouted by duct taping squares of astroturf (to tee off from) and then marking “holes” to aim the balls into. It was an absolutely hilarious time. We got lots of strange looks but only a few comments, and no one called the police. Hooray!
  • Waving my hand through the water of Puget Sound to trigger bioluminescence. This is completely awesome. Too bad the water’s so cold. I can only imagine how phenomenal it would be to SWIM while glowing blue!
  • Attending a rock concert in hipster bar. I only recently learned what a hipster was! But this place apparently sold the right beer and attracted people with the right fashion sense. The highlight of the evening was a Japanese band called Mugen Hoso, which consisted of two too-cute Japanese guys in the middle of their “BIG BANG! BANG! BANG!” tour. They’d driven 40 hours from Austin, TX, to arrive 5 hours before this concert, but were buzzing with energy and played their hearts out. So charming, so rockin’, so cute!
  • Climbing up on a bench to escape a moshing crowd. At first I thought Mugen Hoso had inspired some massive brawl, but it turned out that the people were intentionally slamming into each other and apparently enjoying it. Beer quickly slicked the floor, and it got harder to pay attention to the band. Even though I had a great view from the bench, I had to be ready to catch and push back on random bodies that came flying at the bench. Headbanging I’d seen before, but this? Wow.
  • Picking blackberries and eating them with vanilla ice cream. Mundane for many, perhaps, but a marvelous treat for me :)
  • Attending a roller derby match. I didn’t know anything about roller derby, so was grateful to have an informed friend along! Basically, it’s two teams of super-athletic women racing to score points by passing the other team’s members around the rink. It’s quite a spectacle, with players decked out in fishnets and face paint, but what really steals the show is the amazing skating (on old-fashioned four-wheel skates, no less). Olympia has a world-class team, and they demolished their opponents from Cincinnati with a final score of 299 to 81! (Check out this picture from the match.)
  • Watching salmon prepare to head upstream, and seeing a “fish ladder” that helps them get past a dam. Wow, those salmon are huge! We also saw seals swimming around them ready to catch a meal, and blue herons winging all over — beautiful.
  • Cutting someone else’s hair. I got to use a comb and scissors, just like a pro! Marcy is a brave, brave woman.
  • Attending a party where I was the only one without a tattoo. Well, okay, I think Marcy is also tat-less, but we were definitely the only ones. Turns out that tattoos don’t keep people from wanting to play croquet, though!
  • Mutton Bustin’. Technically I didn’t actually get to see this, although we did call up some videos. Marcy and I met up with a high school friend of mine who talked about how her son had just won 3rd place in a Mutton Bustin’ competition at the fair. This is a sport in which small boys are put on sheep (yes, sheep), then the sheep is tickled and prodded into a frenzy, and then they are let out into a yard where the boy tries to cling to the sheep and not get bucked off. Wow!
  • Being in a comic strip. That’s right, one of Marcy’s friends who also golfed with us, Chelsea Baker, is an illustrator and comic artist. She created this summary of Urban Golf, and I ended up in it!

    That’s me with the hat and argyle sweater over my shoulders.

Now that’s an incredible, learning-filled weekend!

Train-based history of Oregon and Washington

Yesterday I had the pleasure of riding the Coast Starlight train north from Albany, OR, to Olympia, WA. As always, I was entranced by the stunning views, the vast comfortable ease of travel, and what interesting things there were to learn and see. From Portland north to Seattle, the train has volunteers from the National Park Service who sit in the observation car and offer interesting bits of history or explanations about what you’re seeing outside those huge picture windows. This is brilliant! I learned a variety of interesting tidbits:

  • Portland got its name as the result of a coin flip. The two founders, Asa Lovejoy and Francis Pettygrove, each wanted to name it after their favorite back-East city, respectively Boston and Portland (Maine). They flipped a coin and Pettygrove won. (Speaking of names, ever wonder how Oregon got its name? The wikipedia article on this is disappointingly inconclusive, but the various hypotheses are interesting.
  • A Columbia River drawbridge was open when we arrived, so we had to wait for it to finish letting some ship through. The Columbia has been dredged multiple times to permit the passage of deep-sea ships up it.
  • The Coast Starlight’s running speed is 75-79 mph. (It doesn’t feel that fast because it’s so smooth and quiet on the inside!) That speed limit is dictated not by the trains but by the track system, which was designed to accommodate the (much slower) freight trains. Apparently if the CS ran any faster, it would outpace the signaling system (e.g., the triggers prior to an intersection that sound the bells and lower the gates).
  • Wheat grown in Washington is soft/winter wheat, mainly used for noodles and doughnuts. 90% of it is shipped to the East. Wheat from Montana is harder (heartier?).
  • As a southbound train went by, full of grain cars, our guide commented that each train car holds 100 tons of grain; there are 110 cars in 1 train; and the contents of 6.5 trains fill 1 ocean carrier.
  • We passed several artificial mounds and hills as we passed through Washington, which are formed from clearing ash from the 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption. Ash had to be scraped off of hundreds of miles of roads and tracks.

Now I’m in Olympia, where more things to learn await. :)

National Train Day… and more trains

On May 7, I headed down to Union Station to celebrate National Train Day. I rode the Gold Line Metro to Union Station, delighted not to have to tackle parking in downtown Los Angeles. I arrived just as the event started, in time to trail along behind a contingent of the USC Marching Band (!) that was proceeding with much fanfare through the station.

The festivities included a variety of fun sights and experiences. There was a large model train setup with three trains running at the same time, weaving their ways through miniature trees and houses. There were tons of booths giving out railroad safety stickers, brochures about how to get to San Diego (and many other places) on the train, and information on the railroad workers’ union. A particular highlight was a cooking demonstration by renowned chef Tom Douglas, who owns five restaurants in Seattle and has crafted recipes for Amtrak’s trains. He showed how to make a grilled salmon + cucumber salad dish using the kind of stove available on the train — and then everyone in the audience (100+ people) got to try it. It was fascinating to see a top chef fillet a 15-pound salmon up close! (See picture at left of Chef Douglas, with an angled mirror above him so you could watch him work.)

There were brochures and information of every stripe, except one. I asked around a few places for information on Amtrak’s USA Rail Pass. I’d read some information about it online, but I was sure at this event, of all places, there’d be more to learn. But I came up totally empty-handed. You could learn how to get to Fillmore, to shows in Anaheim, and even to the Grand Canyon, but no information on the 6-month rail pass. The best I could get was a suggestion to call an 800 number. Amtrak, what a huge missed opportunity! (Or do you not want people to take advantage of the rail pass for some reason?)

As time went on, the number of people at the event ballooned. Apparently this was THE place to be on a Saturday afternoon with your kids. I was glad I’d arrived when I did, since an hour later there was an hour-long wait just to walk past the booths with brochures and stickers. However, because I’d saved the “Train Equipment Tour” for last, I ended up not getting to see what it was all about — the line stretched almost all the way through the station, with waits even for people who’d requested timed tickets (I didn’t know you could do that :) ). So, perhaps another time!

In related news, I later got to visit Travel Town, a local railroad museum. It’s a yard full of old engines and cars, most of which you (sadly) cannot climb on or walk through. Some few are open for curious eyes and hands, though. It’s also fun just to walk around and work out how the wheels and brakes and other pieces on the outside must function. You can even rent out a rail car for birthday parties. I admit, I was tempted! It turns out that Travel Town, like so many other organizations, makes good use of volunteers; you can even volunteer to learn how to LAY TRACK! Oh, for more hours in the day.

I also recently watched “Unstoppable”, a movie about a runaway (uncrewed) train that is a dramatization of real events. It’s exciting and action-y and definitely a dramatization; but interestingly, the main setup and events really did happen. It is an awe-inspiring thing, to see a behemoth of mechanical energy loosed from human control and rampaging blindly through the countryside. How, how to stop it? Watch the movie and find out!

Off to Mars — to stay

Could it make sense to take a one-way trip to Mars? This notion has been floating around for years, but it got some recent press when Drs. Schulze-Makuch and Davies published a paper titled “To Boldly Go: A One-Way Human Mission to Mars.” Their thesis is that this might be the solution to several of the barriers to a crewed mission, providing among other benefits a major reduction in mission cost (up to 80% reduction, which is pretty dramatic!). This can only be accomplished by shifting our perspective on what such a mission is: not a there-and-back-again jaunt like a trip to the Moon, but the establishment of a sustained presence on Mars, paving the way for future colonists and expeditions. Schulze-Makuch and Davies declare that:

“… to attain it would require not only major international cooperation, but a return to the exploration spirit and risk-taking ethos of the great period of Earth exploration, from Columbus to Amundsen, but which has nowadays been replaced with a culture of safety and political correctness.”

The initial reaction to a one-way trip concept is often one that assumes that the humans involved would immediately expire at the end of their mission. “One-way” sounds like “suicide”. But it’s not more of a “suicide” than inhabiting Earth, which is just as much of an ultimate death sentence — we just don’t think of it that way. Well supplied and informed, an expedition to Mars could survive for a long time, albeit in a harsh and demanding environment. They might not live as long as they would on Earth — or they might live longer; no one’s going to get hit by a car on Mars! And just think of the amazing accomplishments this group of 21st-century pioneers would attain, in technology and in science, and also in poetry and psychology: making Mars a human location, not just a light in the sky.

This short paper is definitely worth reading to see how Schulze-Makush and Davies set out the arguments for, and the conceptual design of, such a one-way mission. I was heartened to see their clear statement that “No base on the Moon is needed to launch a one-way human mission to Mars.” This is true of any mission to Mars, but has become somewhat lost in the various Constellation program discussions.

If there really were an opportunity to volunteer for a one-way mission to Mars, where you’d live out your days in a “cave-centered biosphere”, exploring and discovering and serving as a pathfinder for future advances — I’d sign up in a heartbeat. It’s difficult to think of any more important and meaningful goal to which I could devote my life here on Earth. (I know some, or all, of you will disagree with me on this, which neither offends nor dissuades me in the least. :) )

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