Monday, June 30, 2008

Movie Review: Wall-E

"Wall-E" is a Pixar movie. I don't think anything else needs to be said.

You know how "The Incredibles" was great animated cartoon but not terribly funny? It was more like a super hero movie with a humorous element. "Wall-E" is a science fiction movie with a humorous element.

Wall-E is a waste elimination robot. Quite possibly the last one on Earth. Certainly the last in his neighborhood. 700 years ago the garbage problem became so severe that the humans jumped in space ships and left. They were supposed to be colonizing a new world. Instead they found a place in a distant nebula and stayed there. The WALL-E model robots stayed behind to clean up. Now there is only one. As parts break he just pulls replacements off of other dead Wall-Es.

One day a ship lands and released a probe droid. Wall-E, who has been watching the same old romantic movie nearly every day for who knows how long, falls in love and follows her. When she finds what she came looking for she shuts down and sends a signal for her to be retrieved. Wall-E grabs on to the ship that comes for her and returns to the human ship with her.

I tell you that much because you can see most of that from the trailers.

There is very little dialog in this movie. Only 7 human actors were used for voices. One of the central characters is performed by MacInTalk software. I think it was the Ralph setting.

There are several messages in this movie. A fairly obvious one about protecting the environment. Another about living too much inside our own computers. A third about giving too much control over to the robots. A fourth about working to solve our problems instead of running away.

I'd suggest your kids be 7 or 8 years old before you take them to see this. The theater was packed with 5 year olds that were getting scared.

I will be getting this on DVD.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Movie Review: Wanted

I caught a screening of "Wanted" last night. This movie had totally failed to catch my attention before. I'd seen a trailer or two but they focused on Angelina Jolie and guns. The curving bullet trick was neat but it just came off kinda lame. But I won tickets so I went.

It's hard to talk about this movie without giving something away. So instead I'm going to tell you a different story. In Greek mythology there's three women: Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. They're The Fates (a.k.a. Apportioners; a.k.a. Moirae). Clotho, a young woman, spins the thread of our lives. Lachesis, the middle aged one, measures the threads. Atropos, an elderly woman, cuts the threads. They have parallels in Roman and Norse mythology but the Greek version is best known.

Keep the idea of threads as human lives in mind when you watch this movie.
Or perhaps think of threads as a story. Then watch the threads on screen as the movie progresses.

Now back to the movie:
1000 years ago a group of weavers formed an order of assassins called The Fraternity.
Our hero is a complete goomba with a crap job, a cheating girlfriend, and nothing to live for.
Our hero is recruited by The Fraternity to take out a rogue member.
His father, who left when our hero was a week old, was in The Fraternity.
But maybe I've said too much.

It's equal parts "The Matrix", "Mr and Mrs Smith", and "The Bourne Identity". They're not shy with the blood. Lots of great action sequences.

I'm torn about whether to get it on DVD or not. It's a great movie and I'm really glad I saw it. I'm just not sure that it's something I want to see over and over again.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Movie Review: Futurama: The Beast With a Billion Backs.

The cartoon "Futurama" was canceled because it was often preempted by sporting events so only people on the west coast got to see it. That played hell with the ratings and the rest of us really didn't know when to expect it. It got canceled. But the reruns have great ratings. They want new episodes. So, during 2008 Fox is releasing 5 new "Futurama" movies. "The Beast With a Billion Backs" is the second of the five movies.

The first movie was pretty good. Maybe they were coming back after a long time off and were full of fresh ideas. Maybe they worked extra hard on the first so we'd be more likely to pick up later ones. Maybe it was just the thrill of getting to see a new one after all these years.

This one wasn't as good. It's not bad. Don't get me wrong. It's just not on the same level as the first movie. This was more like a regular "Futurama" episode.

When we last left our heroes, at the end of the last movie, a huge rift had formed in space above Earth. A month later not much has changed. A few people are still standing there screaming but most have gotten back to their lives. Fry is dating someone new. That never works out well. After that inevitably blows up Fry goes through the rift where he meets a giant tentacle planet which wants to enslave every living being in our universe.

Thanks a lot, Fry.

Some people get married. Some people die. Stuff happens.

There's an extra half hour video done in 3D that looks like it might have been a video game that they decided not to release or something.

Look, I either had you at "Futurama" or I didn't. This is just a warning that it doesn't live up to the first movie. But if you liked the show you'll like this.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Having no car means I haven't really gotten too far outside DC's Metro range since I've been here. So I jumped at the chance to go see Annapolis last weekend with the No Kidding1 group.

Annapolis is the capitol city of Maryland. It's also one of the older cities in the country. They work very hard to maintain that appearance. I didn't see much of the residential area. We spent all our time down in the historical, tourist district. The sidewalks are mostly uneven brick which must just play hell with the skateboarders. The shops are small and zoned to keep out most big chain stores. There were some Starbucks, a Subway, and some chain ice cream place but they were overwhelmed by the non-chain ice cream, restauraunts, pubs, clothing stores, craft shops, etc.

We toured a restored house and garden that once belonged to William Paca. Paca was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

We took a short, 40 minute, boat tour up and down the bay to check out the neighborhood. There are lots of other, much longer, boat tours.

A day trip out there may be an option for people who are on their 5th or 6th visit to DC and have exhausted even the Postal Museum as places to visit.

1No Kidding is a social group for people who don't have/want children.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Movie Review: Get Smart

Don't listen to the movie critics.

I know, that's a pretty obvious statement. They love the stuff that nobody else will watch and hate the stuff that's really pretty good. On a rare occasion they will like something good. I was blown away by how many liked "Batman Begins". That just tells you how truly awesome that movie was.

The critics I heard from really didn't like "Get Smart". Not sure why. A year or three back I downloaded a bunch of old "Get Smart" episodes. What? I didn't have cable growing up so I didn't get to watch all the Nick-at-Nite stuff. So, the show was very Mel Brooksian. Lots of gags that got repeated from show to show. Some awful puns. A funny show when viewed week by week. Kinda lame all viewed together. Probably wouldn't survive a season today.

I thought the movie was funnier. Not a Leslie Nielsen type of humor like the show. Somewhere between James Bond and "The Spy Who Knew Too Little". Ok, that probably doesn't help. It's inspired by the old show, and it pays homage to the old show, but it's a more intelligent humor while still keeping much of the old slapstick. It's a comedy but it's still a quality action/spy movie movie in it's own right.

Steve Carell does a good Don Adams but still manages to make the Maxwell Smart character his own.

I recommend this movie and I will be getting on DVD. I will also be going to see the sequel that they obviously have planned.

Monday, June 23, 2008


I'm assuming you've played "Stratego" as I write this.

I finally got a copy of the board game "Stratego". Not for myself, even though it's staying at my house. I'd been looking for one in toy stores for a year or so. I couldn't find it. Even the people that work in the toy stores were blown away that they didn't have one. It's one of those basic games that everyone has. It's like "Monopoly", "Battleship", "Life", etc. So finally I just bought a copy online.

Because I live in Washington, DC.
Maybe I should explain that. I grew up several miles from everything. I was surrounded on three sides by cows. I killed time by wandering around in the wild, poking at a primitive computer, reading, and playing some board games.
Now I live in Washington, DC. There are no ditches to fish for tadpoles in. No crawdads, no (nearby) woods to explore, the locals can't read, they can't afford a computer even if they could write well enough to do a Google search. There is a playground or two but not anywhere close to me. Popular activities among DC teens involve joining gangs and playing video games.
Since I'm about the only adult who spends time outdoors I wind up with the kids and have to find ways to entertain them. I loan them video games, we watch Dr. Who, and we play games. I have UNO to play with the really young ones. I bought "Battleship" because I knew the schools weren't going to cover graphing. I got "Stratego" because It's a great game.

I wasn't sure how well the twins (just finished 10th grade) would do with "Stratego". After 3 summers they're still struggling with "Battleship". They seemed a little befuddled as I explained the rules. They asked questions like "how many pieces do we start with?" I'll just name them "red" and "blue" since they always use the same colors and I can't tell them apart any other way. Red started putting out his pieces with a plan. He understood enough to be able to work on fortifying his defenses and keeping his flag hidden way in the back. Blue seemed to just start in the back left corner and start putting out pieces almost at random and placing them from left to right in four rows. No real plan. He placed all of his bombs along the back row. The flag was in the front row hidden behind a pond.

The battle was started. A few pieces were exchanged. Red sent out his 10 and attacked the opposing spy. The spy is useless for everything except taking out 10s. There's only one of each. He then marched his spy out so both spies went up in a blaze of mutual destruction. So now he had no defense against the opposing 10. As the game progressed Red chewed his way through the middle of Blue's forces and started attacking the back row where he knew Red must have placed his flag. Suddenly Red's strategy seemed brilliant. Blue sends wave after wave rushing right past the flag to poke at the back row and blow themselves up. Red has been watching what Blue moves and what Blue moves around. He's sending in 3s to take out what can only be Blue's bombs. Red has lost everything numbered higher than a 5. Blue is gently poking around Red's army with an 8, a 9, and a 10.

Since about halfway through the game they'd agreed that the winner took me on. Near the end I'm laughing and telling Red that he's gonna kick himself when the game is over. So once Blue finally reaches Red's completely undefended flag I reach out and turn Blue's flag around. Red flips. "REMATCH! You and me! We're going again! Rematch!" Blue and I laugh our asses off. Red demands a rematch but their dad is calling them home.

They got their rematch the next day. I could tell from their new layouts that some thought had gone into the game over the night. Still, I reached behind their boards and moved a few pieces around. I didn't explain why until after the game. It's amazing how two guys who still think that they should fill every single hole in "Battleship" are able to plan so well in "Stratego".

Friday, June 20, 2008


I was listening to NPR this morning (OK, Wednesday morning) and listened to a report about the Christians in California responding to the recently legalized gay marriage. They think they'll get the state constitution changed so that courts can't say the ban is illegal. I hope their wrong.

So on the way to work I found myself singing a little ditty.

If you're a bigot and you know it say "Amen".
If you're a bigot and you know it say "Amen".
If you're a bigot and you know it
You know exactly how to show it
If you're a bigot and you know it say "Amen".

Yeah, there's a few religious people who aren't against two people of the same gender getting married. But they're few and far between.

Personally, I think the subject of marriage, gay or not, is a religious one. I'd take the government out of the equation completely. Just establish a legal contract between two people for all the same benefits of a marriage but call it something else. And if someone wants to use the word "marriage" then they can find a church willing to do it. Make it a fight between faiths and churches. As public opinion shifts one way or another churches can succeed or fail depending on how open minded or bigoted the local population is.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Movie Review: Animation Show 4

Mike Judge, creator of "Beavis and Butthead", "King of the Hill", and "Idiocracy", has been putting together annual animation festivals. It's big enough this year that it's being shown at the independent movie theatre down on E street.

There are submissions from all over the world. Few use words so language isn't an issue most of the time. Quality, however, is. There weren't many cartoons that made me laugh. There were several amusing ones. And then there were those that weren't even that.

I'd say the ones worth watching made up just more than half of the show.

I could have skipped it.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Book Review: World War Z

I forget what author recommended this book. I just know that I'd seen this book on the shelves and gave it a pass. But an author that I respect put it on his list of favorite reads. And I see why now.

"World War Z" by Max Brooks is a collection of people telling their own stories from the Zombie War. Not short stories. More like a documentary. And put the zombie bit out of your mind. Sure, the enemy was the living dead but the book reads like a war story.

The author claims that he was on Congress' committee to write the after action report on the war. Sort of like the 9-11 Commission but for the Zombie War. But half of his work was cut from the final report for being too personal. They wanted facts, figures, numbers, and quantifiable data. But that's not what war is about. War is about the people. In this case it's about the survivors.

The author has traveled the world for these interviews. He interviewed a doctor in China who was one of the first to encounter the infection. He interviewed surgeons in South America who accidentally implanted an infected organ in a patient. He interviews priests in Russia who helped resurrect the faith and establish a new Holy Russian Empire. He interviews people in India who tell about people trying to board ships that were being scrapped. He interviews Germans who talk about how they came up with their strategy for dealing with zombies. A Palestinian talks about Israel's early acceptance and response to the crisis. We read about the early military disasters in fighting back the waves of undead and later we read about the American push to clear out every last one when the people are safe(ish) in their camps.

Really, it's a fabulous book. You should at least pick up a copy in the bookstore and read a tale or two. If they don't sell you on the book then it's just not your kind of book.

This one goes in my top 25 books selection.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Movie Review: The Happening

M. Night Shyamalan, best known as the writer of "The Sixth Sense", has made yet another weak movie. I knew it was weak when I went but it still seemed intriguing. The most interesting part and the climax all take place in the first twenty minutes.

You may have learned in high school science that plants produce chemicals to attract or repel insect. A traumatized plant can produce chemicals that communicate this to other plants. Well, what if plants found a chemical that would interfere with normal brain functions in humans? That's what happens in this movie. Plants in the American northeast start producing this chemical. First you start to talk funny, then you get disoriented and stop walking, then you kill yourself.

The trailers sort of go over this. They never explain what's causing it. They tell the steps and that Marky Mark is fleeing something. We assume it's something cool. Instead we get a group of people fleeing from waving grasses. Ok, I did that as a kid. We'd look across the pasture and see the wind knocking over the grass and we'd run. But that's not the basis for a whole movie.

It's not worth buying, but the first 15-20 minutes is good enough that it's worth putting on your NetFlix cue. The scene where people are walking off the top of a construction site is pretty impressive.

Movie Review: The Incredible Hulk

First some definitions.

Retcon: When you change the back story to allow something you're doing now to work better.
A good example of this was in Spiderman 3 when they tried to implicate Sandman in the death of Uncle Ben back in the first movie.

Reboot: When you've screwed the story up so badly the only thing left is to go back and start again.
The Batman movies are good example of this. Michael Keaton and Tim Burton did a good job. Once they left it all went to hell. So they started over from the beginning again with Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan.
Superman did this when they claimed that 3 and 4 didn't exist when making 5.

"The Hulk" came out in 2003 with Eric Bana and Jennifer Connelly. While the fight scenes between The Hulk and The Army were pretty awesome there wasn't much else about the movie to like. The story was all screwed up, villains were altered horribly, and they tried to make it a comic book movie instead of a superhero movie, if you catch my meaning. It was a disaster.

"The Incredible Hulk" opened Friday. It is NOT a sequel to the 2003 version. This is a reboot. I know, usually they wait a decade or so before rebooting.
The cast was completely changed. The origin was changed again. The fight scenes aren't up to the 2003 movie's standards but everything else was much improved.

Instead of telling the origin story right up front, as they usually do in a superhero movie, they reveal it in flashes in the opening credits and then again slowly as the movie progresses. I don't think I'm giving away any great spoilers when I say that instead of a proper gamma bomb test, or even the gamma based medical research from the 2003 movie, this time Banner was working on a revived Super Soldier program and experimented on himself. After injuring Betty he fled to South America like he did at the end of the 2003 movie. So this movie almost seems to pick up where "The Hulk" ended.

Banner keeps chatting with a Mr. Blue who knows him as Mr Green and is helping him work on a cure for The Hulk. Considering all the crossovers, spinoffs, and buildups that Marvel is doing in their movies these days I half expected Mr. Blue to be Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four. But considering how wrong everything goes they couldn't cast Reed in that role.

This movie seems to be based fairly heavily on the TV show from the late 70's. There's lots of running from the Army and looking for a cure. But there's also a big comic book villain and the promise of another for the next movie.

Things to look for.
Stan Lee is the guy who drinks an infected bottle.
Lou Ferrigno is a security guard just like in the 2003 movie. He's also the voice of The Hulk.
As Bruce Banner is flipping channels we see an old show starring Bill Bixby.
Bruce gets a package addressed to David Banner. They used the name David in the TV show because the producers thought the name Bruce was too gay.
In the opening credits you'll see the name Nick Fury on a document.
The full name of SHIELD appears a time or two.
The name "Stark Industries" appears repeatedly.
And you can hear the song "The Lonely Man" played as Banner walks in the rain.

I can excuse you not knowing the song "The Lonely Man". Go hear it at

The movie ends with Banner fleeing into Canada. I doubt they'll do anything with this, but that's where Wolverine ended up going, too. But it's a big country, right.

This is the second of a series of movies in which Marvel is building up to a much bigger movie. The first was "Iron Man". If you sat through the credits of "Iron Man" you saw Samuel L Jackson appear briefly as "Nick Fury". A lot of people sat through the credits of "The Incredible Hulk" hoping for something else and were disappointed. However, Tony "Iron Man" Stark approaches General Ross at the end of this movie and mentions that he and some others are starting something.

I'm told there are 70 minutes of footage that was cut. This had the makings of a "Lord of the Rings" length picture. I'm also told that footage will be on the DVD. Among other things there's a scene where Bruce Banner has a nice chat with Captain America. Steve "Captain America" Rodgers was the result of the original Super Soldier program back in WWII.

So I will be getting this on DVD.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Movie review: Prince Caspian

I wasn't planning to see this movie. I wasn't impressed with the first one and just wasn't feeling the need to see the sequel. But I was in Florida, I'd checked out of my hotel. I needed to kill time before catching a train that evening. So I hit the mall. There was a showing of "Prince Caspian" about to start so I went in.

In the first story our heroes find a magical Biblical allegory in the back of a wardrobe. There they become royalty and live out their lives before coming back to find only a few hours have passed.

Now a year has passed since they returned. Someone in Narnia blows a horn and our heroes are whisked off of a train platform and sent back to allegory land just several centuries after they left. We get a history lesson that explains how once they left the neighboring kingdom of humans swarmed in and killed all the magical creatures.

Now Regent has tried to kill Prince Caspian the Tenth so the Regent can take over for good. Caspian escapes and almost immediately stumbles upon the surviving magical creatures who have been hiding for centuries and thought extinct. He blew the magical horn that summoned our heroes.

Together they develop a plan to invade the castle and reclaim the kingdom for Caspian so he can return Narnia to the magical creatures. Of course, there's a voice of dissent. The little girl thinks that they should wait around for a lion to come save them all. If they all just have faith the lion will save them all.

Here, this cartoon tells it better. (source:

I did like this movie better than the original. And once you get past the idiotic message that Jesus will stop an army of thousands if you just believe hard enough it's not bad.

I will not be getting it on DVD.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Hen and chicks

I've always thought that the succulent plant called hen and chicks were kinda cool. I got a couple from Grandma's yard a few years back and have been letting them take over a window planter. I didn't know that they flowered. Maybe it's something they only do when they get too crowded.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Book review: Murder on the Orient Express

I've never read any Agatha Christie before. As much as people rave about her I was put off by the PBS renditions of her stuff. But I've got an outline for a sci-fi murder mystery forming in my head so I thought I should familiarize myself more with the English Manor House Murder genre. "Orient Express" counts in that genre because the whole thing takes place in an isolated setting where nobody can enter or leave. It had been sitting in my to-be-read pile for a few months. What better time to crack it open than when riding a train?

This is a Hercule Poirot mystery. He's returning from a case in Syria and manages to squeeze into the last cabin in a sleeper car on the Orient Express train. Naturally, somebody is murdered. The train gets stuck in the snow leaving Poirot to solve it instead of waiting for the proper authorities at the next station.

The book is an easy read that flows well. I'd have no trouble handing a copy to an 8th grader. Or at least where I think an 8th graders reading level should be. There's a reason Agatha Christie's books have survived so long and appeal to a wide cross section of society. They're good books and easy to read. This isn't something by Dickens that only appeals to people who need to feed a superiority complex.

p.s. I've also picked up a copy of the movie "Clue" for my research.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Book Review: Children of Tomorrow

I picked up this book primarily because of the author. A.E Van Vogt isn't someone you think of when you think of science fiction authors. You think Asimov, Clarke, Niven, Pohl, Bear, and the like. But when you ask those guys who they like to read among the list is always A.E. Van Vogt. So when I was at the Friends of the Arlington Library Book Fair I saw this book and picked it up.

New concepts in science fiction are rare. Clarke has the Space Elevator and communications satellite. Asimov defined robots. Niven gave us the Ringworld. I read one guy who predicted the dancing colors in the music player on your computer years before there were even personal computer. He just gave it an MTV type setup. "Children of Tomorrow" gives an interesting twist to an old favorite.

There's a zillion old short stories from the 50's that talk about men going off in rocket and being gone for years or even decades while the wife and kids sit at home and wait. I guess those must be left overs from WWII where men went of to war for years and the family waited like good little housewives.

This story takes place in the city/military base of Spaceport in what I presume to be Florida. It's about the size of Wichita, KS (pop. 300,000) and consists largely of military personnel going to space, the support and command staff, and their families. The book takes the somewhat sexist view that the women couldn't raise their children alone. Not to mention that only men seem to go to space. I mean if the book were copyright 1950 I'd understand, but it's 1970. As a sci-fi writer I expected him to be more progressive.

Ok, off the subject. Anyway, some fleet of ships have just returned after 10 years exploration. They found something. They met aliens and the aliens attacked. There was a battle and the humans ran for Earth, making sure to duck, bob, and weave all the way back so they wouldn't be followed. It didn't work. But that's not the unique part.

Since the men on this ship were gone for 10 years their kids started running wild without the strong guiding hand of a man. Yeah, just take it as part of the made up part of the story and go with it. K? The kids have joined what they call "Outfits". At first blush they seem like gangs. They group together for protection and raise each other. But upon further reading they're more like Scouts. There are lots of small Outfits of a dozen or so boys and girls. Almost everybody between about 12 and 18 are members of one. Parents can call upon them to help make their kids too young for an Outfit to behave. They have extensive rules about what they can and cannot do and punishments to fit. Until you're 18 and leave the Outfits there's no lip kissing and special rules about who can kiss what cheek. The teens are assigned several younger kids to work with. They have jobs and responsibilities and authority. The outfits are officially sponsored so when punishments need to be inflicted on bad parents they have the full backing of the military authority.
Punishments for kids often involve short term suspensions from their Outfits. More severe punishments involve expulsion and even juvie camps for the worst offenders. For adults they can bring in MPs to take down the violent cases. For merely troublesome parents they can take control of what food the family is allowed to buy.

Van Vogt is a clear and easy read. The story was interesting and engaging. He didn't really deal with the tech so he didn't screw it up or use much in the way of impossible tech (i.e. transporters, warp drive). It just deals with space travel as a fact of life even if it is still restricted to military and research personnel. It's just the Navy in space.

I do recommend this book and this author. Once I whittle down my pile of unread books I'll start looking to expand the A.E Van Vogt wing of my library.

Monday, June 09, 2008

vacation slides

The view from Kennedy Space Center

Launch zoom. You can just make out the booster rockets.

The resulting smoke trail. You can see the shadow from the smoke.

The rocket garden. A museum of old rockets.

One of two Kennedy Space Center gators. Most of the island is a wildlife refuge with hundreds of gators. One of the museums talks about the history of the island and what lives on it now. KSR has a pond with two gators and several large turtles.

Friday, June 06, 2008

The return trip

Having destroyed my spine on the way to Orlando by trying to sleep in a train seat I decided to go ahead with the upgrade for my return trip. My trip was cut short by having everything go according to plan so all that money I intended to blow on hotel, car, and food wasn't getting spent. So I decided to enjoy the trip back.

I had considered flying back, but the train trip was factored in as part of the vacation. This is the first trip I can call a vacation since I tried to see a shuttle launch in 2002. Who knows when the next one will be. No, seriously, I want to see hands. Who knows when the next one will be?

Coach isn't like you see in TV and movies. There's not a lot of little compartments with people facing each other. It's set up more like an airplane. Lots of rows with everyone facing forward. The seats are just as uncomfortable but about the size of first class seats on airplanes.

Sleeper cars are more like what you picture. Not as deep. You get two people facing each other in good sized seats that are a bit more comfortable. But maybe that's just because I'm sitting with my legs resting on the seat across from me. Reclining is not an option. But there's a bed. The bed is on a track and lowers from the ceiling. There's several lights, and air vents. And best of all an electrical outlet. No, strike that, the bed is definitely best of all.
It took me a bit to find the door. It, like most doors here, slides into the wall. There's bottled water waiting for me. A newspaper in the morning. Food is included in the cost of the ticket. For me that means 3 meals. There's a fold out sink and a covered toilet. Obviously you want to share a cabin with someone you know well. There's a burser of sorts. I'll probably have to tip him. He does look a bit like wossname from Love Boat.

As soon as I got on I was told that my dinner reservations were already made and could progress straight to the dining car. I got a table with a woman and her daughter who are going to DC. When we get there I'm going to introduce them to how the Metro works. The daughter is an Agatha Christie fan. So we had to talk about "Murder on the Orient Express" for awhile. She's a sci-fi fan, too. Gee, if only she were 20 years older. Her mom and I talked Dr Who. Gee, of only she were 10 years younger, wasn't married, and didn't have kids.

By the time I got back to my cabin the sun was long gone. I sit here at my keyboard watching the dark zip by.

Isaac! That's his name. The Love Boat guy.


Being in your own cabin sure doesn't mean the train sways any less. I'm almost scared to find out how much it'll swing when I'm in bed and that much closer to the ceiling.

[later still]

Just finished the book I've been reading while in Orlando and wrote up my review. You'll see it in a few days.
I brought down the bed. Isaac helped set it up. I would have missed the security straps. Not really sure if they're to hold the bed up or hold me in as the train swings. There's lights up there so I'm going to start reading my next book up there.

Strike that. I'm gonna watch some movies I dumped on this laptop. It's 11:00 already. I'll just get rocked to sleep while watching... let's see ... Pitch Black might do it. Let's see where the border between being rocked to sleep and shaken senseless is.

[next morning]

I still woke up several times in the night. Mostly due to sudden shakes and noises from the train.
I'd like to try one of those high speed trains in Japan or Europe. These American trains share the same crap tracks as the cargo trains. They're not meant for speed or smooth rides. They're just there to keep you going in the right direction.

I'd like to say that trains are going to become more popular as the gas prices rise. But you've seen the prices at the pump. $4/gal for unleaded and $5/gal for diesel. In two or three years I'm gonna look at this entry and laugh about how cheap gas was. Kind of like thinking about the first time I saw some con artist charging a whole buck per gallon just because he was the only station you could find in 20 miles.
Oil is oil. If it goes up for airlines and cars ...

Holy crap, I think we left the rails for a moment there. First one side and then the other. It's bad enough when you feel the wheels on one side touch down on the rail.'ll go up for trains as well. And if you're traveling coach planes are the same price as trains.

It's kind of depressing going this way.
There's plenty of old abandoned rail stations. At the very least they'd make for good restaurants.
I have to wonder how many of these towns we're going through are really this poor and how many are just that poor along the tracks. One town looked like that may have been main street at one point. Now 1 out of every 5 shops is boarded up and the rest don't exactly look profitable. The street has had lots of cracks filled but probably hasn't been resurfaced in 20-30 years.
I've lost count of the number of mobile homes we've passed. I can't even say most are in parks. Somebody had a plot of land, a few vehicles on blocks, and a mobile home.

The Spanish Moss has vanished. As have the plants with point leaves. We must be out of Florida.

The engineer does love his horn. I don't think it honked this much on the way down.

[near the end]

Just been reading and letting the speeding greenness out the window hypnotize me. Took a few pictures of some swampland.
The hamburger was awful.

Tomorrow it's back to work. Feh.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Enchanted Forest

I went back out to Merritt Island to get a look around and see if I could get a better look at the shuttle assembly building or anything. Turns out there's a lot of gates that I didn't see yesterday. I didn't see anything new.

Instead of turning around and heading back I took a different route. Shortly after leaving the island I found the "Enchanted Forest Wildlife Preserve".

I pulled up and looked inside the building. There was one person way back in her office but that was it. So I grabbed a map and headed out. Driving around the area there's lots of foliage just off the road. I kept wanting to pull over and poke around. This was better.

There were about a zillion of those Florida lizards.
I saw ant lions in their natural habitat.
I got a good close look at spanish moss. It's clearly in the bromeliad family.
There were lots of other kinds of bromeliad growing wild. Itty bitty ones and ones the size of my foot.
I saw my first live armadillo. It didn't seem to notice or care that I was there. It just went shuffling around under the filth. There was also a huge orange tree that crept in from one of the area orange farms.

I didn't hit all the trails. Most are in the shade and I scurried in places that weren't shaded. But there's just enough trails and it's humid enough that even I had to bow out after a few miles. But I snuck out with some tiny bromeliads and an orange that fell in the path.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Not even a good try

I loan some video games and DVDs to the neighbor kids. All but the Grand Theft Auto games. For those I insist upon a note from their parents. The kids insist their parents don't care and I believe them. I'm still not loaning them these games without a note.

So a couple of kids show up about half an hour ago (this is Tuesday the 27th at 6:47 PM). They have a note and a busted digital camera. The note is written in a horrible scrawl on the back of a movie ticket stub. It says "My son [scribble] have". They say one of their dads wrote it but can't agree on whose it was. They explain that the scribble is "can" and there's an "it" squished at the very bottom. Also, someone's dad wanted me to have his digital camera.

Now, this is DC so I can almost accept that their father is a barely literate buffoon with the handwriting of a kindergartner. But I think even he would use something better than the back of a movie ticket and give me a VERY broken digital camera. So I let them tell their story a bit before telling them I don't believe a word of it and why.

I go back inside. I open the bedroom window. They've gotten another piece of paper and their pencil stub and are sitting on my front porch writing another note on a slightly larger piece of paper. I lean out the window and watch them bicker it out for about a minute before I'm noticed. They run off.

A bit later I take out some garbage. They're at the corner sitting on the sidewalk working on their note.

This note.

That's right. They came back and tried to sell me this nonsense again.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008


I left work at noon to catch a 3:00 train. Got home, threw a few last things in a bad, buy nibbles, and off to Union Station. Amtrak says show up half an hour early. I got there closer to an hour and a half early. If you know where you're going and what you're doing they're right, half an hour should do.

As it was Union Station was still in the middle of the lunch rush. High school tours and business people everywhere in addition to the people trying to get to their train. It was worse than navigating from one gate to the next in an airport.

The line at the ticket counter moved pretty fast. They had more agents than most airlines have windows AND automated machines. My info came right up instead of the agent spending 10 minutes working on their novel or whatever they're doing pushing all those buttons. Checking my bag consisted of "here's my bag", "Ok, here's your stub. NEXT!" I went off and got some lunch. Ate at my leisure. Bought new headphones at the music store. Went to the gate. Had half an hour still to go. People started lining up at 15 minutes until departure. At 10 til they let through the elderly and people with kids. The rest followed about a minute later.

We went down an escalator to a filthy platform between to trains. It looks easy enough to clean. A good ladder, a hose, a soapy brush most of the grime should wipe right off. As we moved down the platform it started to look more like what you'd expect a train platform to look like from the movies. Metal beams, lots of rivets, and unpainted wood stopping the rain. It looks like the filth was from diesel engines idling in an enclosed area. Seats were assigned as you actually got on the train.

Seating is like first class on a plane but without the arm rests. There's one arm rest by the window and one on the rather ample aisle. They support elbow to mid-forearm. That is to say they're nigh worthless. I rested my arm on the window sill most of the time instead. The seats are big and have plenty of leg room but are not comfortable. About half the passengers moved to the refreshment car instead.

The train moved very slowly from Union Station to Alexandria where it stopped again. DC and the surrounding area was the only part of the trip where we were actually running on elevated platforms over the city instead of blocking traffic. I'm sure everybody involved appreciated that.

I watched out the window for a long time. This is a great way to see the wide diversity of scrub brush along the east coast. Lots of really tall weed things. Some areas plant bamboo or some ancient tall grass along the tracks to make them look better. Other places plant plants. Chemical plants. Gravel plants. The backs of malls. Stuff like that. And you really can't tell the grafitti in DC from that anywhere else along the coast.

There's really two speeds on a train. A slow creep and too damn fast. You could walk the slow creep. Too damn fast means the train is shaking because it wobbles so much on the rails. I've been on rollercoasters that didn't shake that much. Not many, but a few. To be fair there were some places where we went a speed that shook that weren't scary.

Supper is by reservation in the dining car. The booths are comfortable. The food is reasonably priced and not bad.

And then there was sleep. Or at least an attempt at it. You can lean back 20° or so and put out a leg rest. But that's not nearly enough. That was the most uncomfortable bed I've ever slept on. Remember, the guy saying that slept on his office floor for two months, his couch for a year and a half, and has gone camping on really rocky ground.

I picked up my book about half an hour down the track. Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express". I finished it 15 minutes before pulling into Orlando. I also spent time doing really scribbly crossword puzzles in pen and listening to audio books.

So for $94 I made it from DC to Orlando in 19 hours. For about the same price I could have taken a plane in 3-4 hours. There's really just no reason to take a train other than the experience of having taken one or a fear of flying.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Kennedy Space Center

Kennedy Space Center is Disneyland for nerds. It's located near Orlando, has rides, exhibits, and isn't what you wanted anyway.

When buying tickets for a Shuttle launch the most important thing to do is to know somebody. Whether you want the big air conditioned room or the site with the big clock you need to know somebody who can set you up.

If all you want is to be nearby then Kennedy Space Center is a good place. Even then you should probably buy tickets there and come back later for the show. I bought mine over the internet and got some rather lame tickets. There's yellow, blue, green, and purple tickets. The colors get you on tour buses to show you the rest of the structures on the island. All except the blue ticket. The blue ticket gets you in and that's it. I had a blue ticket.

Shortly after writing this I intend to drive back out and see how many of those roads are publicly accessible when it's not a launch day.

The latest you want to get there is three hours before hand. They start closing the roads two hours before hand. I left my hotel about 10:00 and got parked a little after 11:00. About the time the traffic passed over highway 1 it stopped. We then crept along for another 45 minutes before getting parked.

There are museums, displays, rides, and overpriced vendors everywhere. The museums don't really cover much you won't see at the Air and Space Museum in DC or the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, KS. But this place has several old rockets standing or lying about outside. There are capsules, modules, and gangplanks you can climb in and walk along. There's a truly awesome kiddie play area. There's a shuttle replica you can walk through and see what they look like inside. There's a large building with a launch simulator ride. I'd suggest doing all this when it's not a launch day. Yes, KSC is open every day but Christmas but on launch days there's lines.

The main show floor has a big, but not really all that big, TV and bleachers you can sit on. You can sit out in the Florida sun and bake for several hours while you protect your spot and watch NASA TV. And when the Shuttle finally launches behind those flag poles off to the left there's a big honking tree in the way.

I picked a different spot. I found a place on the good side of the trees AND in the shade. And I only had to sit there for 3 hours protecting it. Because once people realized I had a good spot everyone else wanted in, too. It was along the sidewalk that runs along their pond. In the pond are several large turtles, softshelled tortoises mostly, and a couple of alligators. But as launch time approached the railing along the pond filled up and I had to join them or lose my view.

You can't see the launch site from KSC. But if you pick a good spot you can see the trees that the Shuttle will launch behind. Then you see a column of smoke with a bit of flame at the top. A good eye can make out the rocket boosters. Kind of anti-climactic. It's really much better on the NASA site or via YouTube.

After the launch I hit one last museum that talks about the nature preserve on the island. Everybody was leaving, traffic would be awful, why not find something better to do? When I finally got back to my car I sat and read for more than an hour before heading out. I waited until the main driveway was clear. But it wasn't long before I hit the car blockage again. I missed the turnoff but didn't really care. That was until 15 minutes and a mile later with 8 more miles to go before the main highway. I turned around to the road I really wanted. I got several miles before that jammed up too. But I only had two miles of jam to sit through.

Anyway, I was there, but I don't feel like I was there. Probably the best thing to do is rent a boat and get as close to shore as you can. You'll get a better view.

Pictures soon.