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Archive for September, 2010

Another monsoon

It has been raining for four days now.  Just as the nights started to get cool and the thickness of the humidity starts to recede, the rain starts.  If this year is anything like that last, then it will rain straight through March.  It will be like a monsoon, the rain can come down at any minute in extreme intensity, and off and on all day.  Today the clouds were so slow, it seemed like all you would have to go is climb one of the trees to reach into the clouds.  Here’s to hoping that it will be a drier Autumn this year.  I’ve been here in Charleston for over a year now and if this autumn is a repeat of the last, I am in for quite a disappointment.

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Eurotrip 2010 – Prelude and Postfix

The doors opened and I was hit with a burst of damp, sticky and lifeless air.  I was in Atlanta again.  After ten days of Autumn weather with no humidity, nothing would have prepared me for that humid Southeast Atlantic air.  It hit me a few moments later, I have to go to work tomorrow.  How nice it would be if I could just be on the road…permanently.  Yet tonight it was a good feeling again to be behind the grill working on the last batch of summer’s corn.  Autumn has not yet arrived here, and I’m patiently waiting for my favorite season to arrive.

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So It was a trip that my wife and I had been thinking about for years.  We decided in June to make the trip due to two reasons:

1) Delta informed us that all of the mileage that we acquired with Northwest in our transpacific flights over the years would be expiring in 2011 unless we fly with Delta again…and flying with Delta is never nice.
2) Our son will be two at the end of the year and will no longer be able to fly at reduced fare

I suppose we also knew that if we did not take the trip while Liam is still small, we’d probably never be able to take the trip until we’re in our 50s, and then we might not have the energy for such trekking.  We would be one of those couples on the tour groups with silver hair not really caring what we see just as long as we didn’t have to plan or do anything ourselves.

On Airlines

Flying with Delta is an experience in pulling teeth without Novocaine.  Trying to use award reservations is even more trying.  Before I describe the trip, I thought I’d write a little about traveling on frequent-flyer miles.  The airlines go out of their way to make sure you cannot use your miles.  The airlines like to advertise about where you can go and how many miles it takes, but unless you make your reservation a calendar year in advance, you cannot use the low mileage rates described on their websites.  I don’t know many people who have the luxury of planning travel more than a year in advance.  Essentially, we had to use the regular rate, which requires twice as many miles.  After searching and searching, however, my wife did find a reservation for 75,000 miles each that would get us to and from Prague via Atlanta.

Also, keep in mind that the flight schedules are not very friendly.  You cannot do a 7-day package unless you’re willing to fork over extra miles again.  We ended up having to book flights on September 11th and September 22nd; otherwise, we would not have had enough miles to book any flights.  Luckily I had enough paid time off for taking off eight business days from work.  The airlines also do not tell you that if you bring a child under two, thought domestic travel is free, you have to pay 10% of the cost of regular fare for the international legs of your travel.  This ended up costing us $400 because Delta charges you the price of a regular ticket on the day of a flight and not the price of a ticket when you make your reservation.  They never mention this to you because they’re shysters.

Also, as a stewardess informed us, the lap-child tickets will be going away next year or the year after.  It looks like the airlines are looking for more ways to guarantee revenue just like a shady Japanese landlord.  Those traveling with infants will have to bring a car seat for the child.  I suppose the positive thing about this is that you cannot be refused a cab in Los Angeles or Berlin for not having a car seat.  I just wonder if cheapskate airlines will charge extra baggage fees for the baby car seat…wait, don’t put it past them yet.

On Airports

While Atlanta seems like a decent airport, when Atlanta is your final destination you still have to go through security once again, and even though you have no flight, they (i.e. TSA) confiscate your beverages and handcreams and whatever you were allowed to use on the flight.  JFK Airport in New York is an insult to the man’s name–they have replaced seating and resting areas with souvenir shops and expensive sports bars meaning that while waiting for a flight you’ll most likely be standing or sitting on the filthy floor.

Prague has a wonderful airport just fifteen minutes by taxi from Central Prague.  Thought it is not connected by rail with the rest of the Czech Republic, it is a fantastic airport with affordable places to eat, plenty of seating while waiting for flights, and even children’s play areas so that the kids won’t be bored while waiting.  Thought it is a small airport, it is one of the best I’ve ever experienced.

Charles De Gaulle, however, is probably one of the worst–thought the absolute worst is LAX in Los Angeles.  Not only is it irrationally ugly and lacking in elevators for the handicapped or those with child strollers, the terminals are designed such that you need to ride a bus to get around if you make a mistake.   Inside, there is little but expensive designer perfume and clothing stores.  There is a food court, but it is open for limited hours around lunchtime only.  There are no fast food stands, you have to go to “bio” cafes where two coffees, an apple juice and two half sandwiches will cost your nearly 24 euros (one of the most expensive meals of the trip!).  When traveling early in the morning in Paris, make sure to buy something the night before.

Rail travel

Regarding Eurorail travel, it is largely painless, but you really need to make your reservations in advance.  For example, the cheapest tickets are available only if you order them from Deustche Bahn directly, and you cannot pick up the tickets at the station, they have to be mailed to you by post.  And no, they will not use courriers like FedEx or DHL, so you have to make your reservations well in advance.  Also, the trains do not do well with large international size luggage.  Luckily we only had one piece of that size and we somehow made due.  But it was not easy.

So…

With my ranting out of the way, I hope to write up my experiences in Prague and Berlin here in the coming days.  Story-book like Prague and East Berlin were wonderful, and I have so much more to stay.  Stay tuned, please!

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Life After Death

As I was driving through the nothingness that is between Atlanta and Augusta in the state of Georgia, I passed the time listening to Ira Glass’s latest This American Life program. The show can be a real hit or miss–sometimes it is best to turn it off when driving as it can put you to sleep. I always give it a chance though. This week’s program, Life After Death, was a very good one that really makes you think. The topic was guilt over accidental death, and how an individual deals with it.

The story covers three people:

  • A twelve-year old thought he was responsible for the death of his friend because he challenged the devil
  • An 18-year-old who hits a bicycle pedestrian
  • An Iraq war veteran and his experience in the war and in returning home

I thought the bicycle accident story was particularly strong and forces one to pause and give thought. After all, it could happen to any of us any day, whether in the car or on the bicycle. Give this a listen while at work or commuting or where ever you have some time in the day.

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On Malaya

My wife was hospitalized before our son was born and I spent a great amount of time commuting in the rail system of Japan from Hachioji to her hometown on the weekends. Each two-hour one-way train ride offered me the chance to read my copy of Forgotten Wars: The End of Britain’s Asian Empire. If history interests you in any way, I highly recommend this book.  Growing up in North America, naturally all of the history I read was very much specific to the USA. This book, however, focuses on the former British Empire and the demise of British colonies in Burma (modern Myanmar), India and Malaya (Malaysia).  It also touches on the fall of the Dutch Empire in Indonesia and French Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia).

Today I finished another novel on the history of Southeast Asia, Noel Barber’s War of the Running Dogs, which focuses on the counter-terrorism war in Malay against Chin Peng and the Malaysian communists.  Barber is a gifted writer, and while he walks you through the history of the conflict, his anecdotes from interviews with important figures in the British and Malayan government make you fell like you’re right there in the jungle or on the front with the men who experienced the insurgency first hand.  In some ways the book does read like British propaganda, like a pat on the back for the good ol’ boys of the civil service, but in the end the book considers critical perspectives as well.  Though this book is not a pure source of academic writing, it is a great book for understanding the Malayan Emergency and getting to know the region better.

I suppose my next step is to find a book covering the race wars in Malaya and the eventual founding of Malaysia and Singapore as separate states.  I’m very much fascinated by Sinagpore and thirsty to know more.

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George Clooney is…

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……………. Golgo 13 ?????

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Patriot’s Point

This is my last post on airplanes and military technology, I promise!  It was a rainy August day and we were supposed to be going to the beach with our niece, but due to the rain we took her to Patriot’s Point in Mt. Pleasant, which sits at the mouth of Charleston Harbor.

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USS Clamgore (SS343) – a diesel powered submarine

I was approached by a Navy recruiter about joining the submarine fleet as an engineering officer just before graduating from the university.  When he told me I would have to relocate to South Carolina for a few years, that, coupled with the small living quarters in a submarine, I decided against pursing the option any further.

Well well well, now here I am stuck in South Carolina.  Sweet irony, no?  But after touring this submarine, I still think I made the right choice.  The living quarters, if they can be called that at all, are something to see.  There was less than 30 inches of space between each bunk in the sleeping quarters!

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The submarine cook used this small kitchen with just enough space to turn around

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From the periscope you can just make out the Arthur Ravenel Cooper River Bridge – taking pictures of television screens usually doesn’t help much either.

The USS Washington, a World War II era aircraft carrier, is the main exhibit at Patriot’s Point.  On the flight deck, numerous retired aircraft are available for viewing.  On the Hanger deck there are several museums with old equipment from the ship, the Mercury space program, and World War II aircraft.  Finally, you can tour the living area of the ship: machine shops, living quarters, mess hall, et cetera.  It really was like a floating, small city inside of the carrier.

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From this plane to the front of the carrier was probably 30 meters or less, it is hard to believe that jets can really take off from such small carriers

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Reconnaissance aircraft

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The F-18 – made famous by the Air Force’s Blue Angels which fly the same aircraft in air shows

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The USS Washington was deployed in the Pacific arena and it looks like they liked to keep statistics.  Luckily I didn’t have to try to explain this to my niece.

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The key to the above statistics board

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Even though it is just a dummy, when you stand in front of this gun you still have to pause for a moment

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It amazes me that the wings could fold like this and still be deployed in dog fights while performing amazing acrobatic feats

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My favorite aircraft stares back at me – “C’mon man, when are you going to take me for a spin?”

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Spaceman or ocean diver – you decide

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The officer’s eating quarters on one of the decks – it was so much nicer than general mess hall, and it makes you realize that there were two different worlds on such ships just like as in real live – the working class and the upper class

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An officer’s living quarters – the desk folds up into the wall to create a little area of space for putting on one’s uniform.  The cot in the back looks a lot more comfortable than the racks where the enlisted men slept.

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Inside an Apollo Mercury space capsule – there wasn’t any room to move at all, just enough space to flip switches and press buttons

Well now, back to business as usual on this blog for awhile.  I sure am enjoying this three day weekend!

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A&S Museum: Lost in Space

My final entry on the Air and Space museum is on the space wing of the museum. Besides the space shuttle, this wing also houses a great deal of exhibits: rocketry (ballistic and transport), space capsules, satellites, and much more.

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The space shuttle, I never realized how small the wingspan is on this vehicle.  It is also very square, except for the nose of the craft and the rocket thrusters in the rear.  It really is like a flying shoebox.

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Impressive engineering – I cannot imagine designing all of the piping that turns here and there and all over the place.  I assume someone (or some machine) had to calculate all of the thermodynamic parameters for this…

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A Mercury capsule

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The Regulus 1 cruise missile

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A Sperry Univac – it look like something straight out of Our Man Flint

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What ever you do, don’t press the red buttons!

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This is a circuit used in a satellite – the picture quality is awful, but this was entirely hand-soldered.  Very few people outside of SE Asia would be capable of such precision and quality anymore – we’re too dependent on automated soldering processes now

I walked away from this exhibit a little disheartened, actually.  When I was going through engineering school, I had envisioned myself working on applied technology projects for aerospace or new semiconductor technology in California of even Taiwan.  I didn’t expect to be writing software for telecoms and capital markets.  Don’t get me wrong, I am very happy to just be employed.  I suppose my advice to young people in technology fields is the following: unless you see yourself in a business role (marketing, sales), get your Ph.D. no matter how much work it really is.  The Ph.D. is what opens your door to real cutting-edge and interesting projects.  That Ph.D. will open more doors than it will ever close.

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