New Mexico Trip

We recently got back from a trip New Mexico, visiting my brother Jim and his family.  They live in the rugged and storied town of Los Alamos.  It was a great time, good to see them and catch up, and we did some sightseeing and lots of hiking in the north-central part of the state.  I’ve never been to that part of the country before and I must say the landscapes are spectacular.  Very different from California, Nevada or Arizona.  Incredible color palettes between the rocks and sky and vegetation.  Also lots of layers of history and culture, and some really good food to boot.

Despite the fact that you can get to the other side of the world from New York City in just a few hours, there is no real convenient way to get to Los Alamos.  The best you can do is two flights and then a two-hour drive.  So Friday was travel day.  We got up super early but the kids did alright.  Got to the airport.  Stood in line.  Waited.  Flew to Denver.  Waited.  Flew to Albuquerque.  Got a car.  Drove off thru the desert, where things started to get interesting.  Up to Santa Fe and then across the Rio Grande for the climb up to Los Alamos.  Lots of mind-blowing scenery on the way.  Total travel time was just about twelve hours, which the same as it takes to get to India.

One you get there, you get a sense of why it’s so hard to reach, why there are so few roads.  Geography is the crucial factor.  The town is situated on an outcropping of finger-like mesas separated by deep gorges, halfway up a much larger structure — the remains of a supervolcano that erupted 100,000 years ago and is roughly 100 miles in circumference.  The town of course grew out of the Manhattan Project, and most of the houses there were built in the 50’s, and there’s really no new places to build, so it has the feeling of an island.  Alot of houses are hanging right off the edges of the cliffs.  Friday afternoon we took a little walk around their neighborhood, and Sunday we took a longer hike down into the local canyons.  Los Alamos is the only town I’ve ever been to where they give you a combination street map and trail map.

We spent the weekend mainly hanging out at Jim & Una’s house.  There was fresh snow Saturday morning and again on Easter Sunday, although it got considerably warmer both afternoons.  The kids had a great time playing with their cousins. We all built a big tower out of Duplos together.  After a while we thought it was too tall and wobbly so we separated it into two towers.  Which we then connected with a bridge.  Then this grew too unstable and we took the whole thing down and built a massive train track setup that ran from the living room thru the dining room, front hall, side hall and down into the kid’s room, where it turned around. The thing had multiple stations, buildings and vehicles.  It was so big we actually used lego trains to transport legos from one end of the thing to the other.

Friday night we went out to an excellent local restaurant, the Blue Window.  The rest of the weekend Jim made some fantastic dinners.  We also had alot of great southwestern food on the trip, all kinds of burritos other things with red and green chili sauce.

Saturday we went for a swim at the local aquatic center, which was really nice and the kids enjoyed.  We also went to the Bradbury Science Museum, which is a cool public display of the history and continuing research of the Lab.  They have replicas of Little Boy and Fat Man, the first two a-bombs.  I felt kinda like the place needed a Slim Pickens style mechanical rodeo horse in the shape of a bomb that you could ride for a quarter.

Jim works in a part of the lab that has nothing to do with weapons and explosions or reverse-engineering crashed alien spaceships, but rather with genetics and protenomics, as a software developer doing informatics and scientific visualization of data.  Pretty cool stuff.  He showed me a book which he worked on that lists the genomes of various strains of the HIV virus along with the protein sequences they encode, and from that a sort of family tree and history of mutations of the virus.  The purpose of this research is to help other medical researches working on a cure for HIV.  At home he built his own TiVo using a Linux box that looked like a piece of stereo equipment, running a bit of software call mythTV.  We watched a few episodes of the classic 60’s show Star Trek, which I haven’t seen in well over twenty years.  I’d forgotten how good (in a cheesy way) that original series was.

Monday we started touring around the state, mainly hiking and looking at rocks.  In the morning Una took us to meet her horse Whitney in a horse park out on another mesa, and the girls got to go for a ride.  Then we drove up to the rim of the supervolcano and down into the caldera, which is a massive crater miles across, with smaller volcanoes (actually full-sized mountains) dotting the high plain.  Everything was still covered with snow, and we saw a herd of elk off grazing in the distance, a bunch of tiny specks.  On the way down, we drove by a local ski place that looked pretty fun and challenging.

That afternoon we drove down, first to White Rock, where a scenic overlook offers spectacular if a bit scary views for miles in every direction, including into the valley of the Rio Grande (still over a mile above see level at this point).  Then is was on to Bandelier National Monument, home of ancient Pueblo cliff dwellings.  They’re set in a valley canyon like those of Los Alamos, but around the crater a few miles to the southwest.  The cave dwellings were built into to soft rock of the cliffside 500 to 1000 years ago and have been remarkably well preserved and/or restored.  The kids had a blast checking out the and climbing up and down ladders, and we all got a good sense of that life here must have been like in pre-Spanish times.  Una is very knowledgeable out the local geography and history and was a terrific guide.

That evening the train Duplos were replaced by a Rube Goldberg style marble rolling system.

Tuesday Jim and Una were both busy, so they lent us their truck and we struck out on our own.  Our first stop was another area of Bandelier.  This one was right at the bottom of the canyon from town.  It was a hike up and across the on top of a mesa and then back along the cliffside on a narrow snaking trail.  I had Michelle hold my hand pretty much the whole second half of the trip.  This site was much less excavated but perhaps more interesting because in addition to ruins of round villages and a bunch of caves there were some good petroglyphs and the views were spectacular.  Around 11:15 AM we heard a big explosion echo across the countryside.  Una says they blow stuff up at the lab from to time.

Then we drove north a good hour to Ghost Ranch, our main stop of the day. The place is famous for being the site of a famous dinosaur dig in the 1940’s, the discovery of Ceolphysis, a small carnivore.  They had a neat little dinosaur museum and an anthropology museum full of pottery, blankets and arrowheads.  The geography is pretty different up there but also very beautiful. We went for a hike up towards the very improbable-looking Chimney Rock.  Then we drove up the road a piece to this little open-air museum that had a bunch of cool stuff about the geology and the ages of the various layers of multicolored rock.  It turns out this was also right near where Georgia O’Keefe lived and did a lot of paintings, so the were a gallery of her art, including some great semi-abstract landscapes.  The last place for the day was Echo Amphitheatre.  This is a natural rock amphitheatre at the top end of a canyon inlet with really cool echoes.  The kids really loved it.

On way back I got pulled over bogus traffic stop, a blatant trap where the cop claimed I failed to observe a no-passing sign for going around a car making a left in the second lane.  This was on an Indian Reservation, and there were a few weird things about it.  The cop claimed he could bring up my license in his SCMODS, but since he was such a nice guy he wouldn’t write me up for that.  Gee thanks.  As he was going thru his spiel, a wind came up so strong he ran back to his SUV.  At least we got to see some real tumbleweeds rolling by.  He came back with an abbreviated rap, and told me to sign the ticket without explaining it, which I’m pretty sure is not legit.  When I read it later it said sighing it is an admission of guilt and I waive my right to trail, just go ahead send a check.  Hurm.  Well if I signed the other place that would’ve meant I agree to wait in jail at the reservation until a Judge happens to come along.  Yeesh.  Literally highway robbery.

Wednesday the whole lot of us rode on down to Albuquerque.  We checked out a couple more sights on the way.   The first was a place called Tent Rock National Monument, which was another canyon valley, this one full of rocks shaped like Kremlinesque domes and cones.  This one was really in the middle of nowhere and getting there involved a long dirt road.  We stopped for lunch at a casino truckstop diner. Chicken fried steak with green chili.  Yum.  Closer to Albuquerque was Petrogylph National Monument, a series of hillsides of black tumbled rocks full of ancient drawings and carvings.  The edge of town was right at the bottom of the park, and you could look out at the vast sprawl of the town.

After this we checked into our hotel, and old style casita in the heart of the Old Town district.  The place was quaint and cozy with a quiet little courtyard.  Within walking distance was the original 18th century church and town square and bunch of buildings of similar age that are now mostly shops and restaurants.  Also running right thru this neighborhood was the historic Route 66.  We had dinner at a great place.  Most everyone else had steak or other red meat, but I had a red chili pasta that was our of this world.  Also excellent Margaritas.

Thursday we decided to take a drive up the old mining trail in the mountains to the east of town.  One mining museum was closed, although there was a large steam locomotive on display outside.   Another one was very eclectic and featured all kinds of relics from over 100 years ago, including lots of blue glass bottles, as well as large collection of minerals including many grades of turquoise and its ore, and even a giant fossil femur from a Brontotherium, a prehistoric member of the rhinoceros family related to the Baluchitherium.

Then we drove up to Sandia peak, which looks down on the high plain of the Rio Grande valley from an elevation of 12,000 feet.  We got lunch in right up there (green chili burger), with the observation deck view out the window.  We walked around and checked out the various vistas, but it was too cold to stay long.  That evening we walked around the old town some more, buying souvenirs and having another excellent dinner.  This time chili rellenos for me.

Friday morning we got to the airport bright and early and said our goodbyes.  We were a bit concerned because the Weather Channel called for a chance of snow in Denver, where we’d have to make our connection to NYC.  Little did we know it would take us almost 36 hours to finally make it home.

I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such extremes of weather in such a short period of time.  There was snow a few time is in the trip, but since the elevation was so high, it got pretty mild in the day, at least down around five or six thousand feet.  Now today back home summer has come early and it’s 96 degrees out.  Luckily we finished off the bulk of our spring yardwork yesterday so right now I’m inside trying to stay cool until a bit later in the afternoon when the sun isn’t so strong.  My main goal for today is to take my old ’67 Mustang out for a short ride.  I tried last week to turn it over but the battery was dead.  Today the battery is fully charged, so it’s time to give it a try, but it’s so hot out I might not bother.  I’ll let you know what I decide and how it goes.

Coming soon: vacation pictures!

Long Way Home

I just got back from a great vacation in New Mexico, visiting my brother and his family.  More on that soon, including lots of photos.  For now I want to tell about my adventure getting home.

Like Santa without Rudolf we left Albuquerque flying blindly into the heart of a massive snowstorm, heading to Denver to make a connection to New York.

Our flight out of Denver pulled out from the gate on time, but as we were waiting for our turn to take off, the rain turned to snow. We taxied off to the de-icing station and back, and by the time we were at the front of the takeoff queue again the pilot decided we needed another de-icing. The snow turned heavy and we taxied back to the de-icing station a third time.  By this time an army of snowplows had been dispatched and it looked like they were only landing planes. After three hours of back and forth they finally closed the airport for takeoffs.  Then there was a queue to get back to the gate so that took another hour and a half before we could get off the plane. By this time it was dark and the snow had turned back to rain.

Meanwhile the pilot was rather unhelpful with infrequent and inaccurate updates, and the chief stewardess, who was a dude, grew hostile and insulting to the passengers as time went on. After the second de-icing the announcement came for everyone to get back to their seats immediately, breaking up a long line to use the one and only bathroom in coach.  But then the plane sat there for another half hour or more. From then on people just ignored the crew and things got a bit chaotic. One stewardess was nice and took a little extra concern over whether the kids are alright, which they were (thank you).

When we finally got off the plane our flight was canceled (although the plane took of bound for L.A. soon after) and there was no one from the airline to help us. We couldn’t really go anywhere because the kids were exhausted. The line at customer service about a quarter mile away already had hundreds of people waiting anyway. Luckily Jeannie was really heads up on the phone as went off in search of food. United was offering to rebook people on a flight on Sunday, but she pushed and got us on a Delta flight for the next morning to Kennedy. Then we got a hotel room, a cab, and finally we got to crash for the night close to midnight. I guess we were pretty lucky. By the time Jeannie got off the phone, the Delta flight was full. By the time we got to the hotel, there were no more rooms available.

Saturday at dawn we were on the bus back to the airport thru raging wind and snow and our prospects looked pretty bleak. Luckily the snow turned to rain and then that lightened up, so when the plane took off on time it was a huge relief. When we got to NYC, we found out that our luggage was waiting for us at LaGuardia, so we swung by and picked it up on our way home. So all’s well that ends well.

But the most exciting part was landing at Denver in severe gusts of wind. Literally seconds before were about to land, the plane hit a huge air pocket and lurched down and to the side. For a moment I thought it was a particularly bumpy landing with a big bounce, but by the time I realized what was happening the plane was in a steep climb. We never actually touched down, although we came within a few feet or maybe even inches. It’s no exaggeration to say we almost crashed, and the quick reaction of the pilot probably saved us. About 45 minutes later the airport had changed the direction of the runways around and we did a second, successful landing. The whole cabin broke into applause.

Origami Tower

I’ve had the idea for some time to make an origami War Elephant, basically an elephant with a castle on its back, and maybe some bigger tougher tusks and other scary-looking armaments.  The main design challenge is how to integrate the castle with the rest of model and still make it out of a single uncut square.  The two main options are it would come out of one corner – probably the where the tail would be, or to make it come out of the middle.  I’ve been investigating the  middle way.

There is a good base for this as it turns out. I don’t know the name of it, but it’s a simple, elegant classic tessellation. Jeanie folded one a few years back and it’s been decorating our sideboard ever since.  The tower I had in mind had crenulated battlements ringing the top, and something resembling arches on the sides.  I had tried a few other approaches to the tower but none of them was very good.  This time I started with just the simple base, and it worked out really well.  In this simple tower all the edges of the paper are along the bottom edge, so it should be fairly straightforward to embed it in a larger square.

In fact the cool thing about using a tessellation as a base is that it basically gives you a small square in the middle of your main square.  The number, size and position of the small square can be manipulated, so it is very flexible.  It also gives these gussets that run along the major axes, effectively giving you four extra points.  I might be able to use this make a LotR-style Oliphaunt with four tusks!  It also means I can make a bunch of towers together on the same sheet and link them with walls, forming a Castle.  I’m thinking of one larger central tower surrounded by four smaller ones.

I hope to finish these experiments this spring.  BTW, my book is coming along.  I have twelve models diagrammed now, and hope to get to sixteen by the convention in June.

New Skates

I bought a new pair of rollerblades last week.  My old ones are 17 years old and from another generation of rollerblade technology, and though they are well-nigh indestructible, they’re at the point where they need new wheels and bearings, and the boots are pretty worn anyway, having been repaired once already with duct tape.

I generally hate shopping (apart from our local grocery store, which is nice and small and easy to get around).  I don’t really understand how some people really enjoy it as a form or recreation; it’s usually a big pain.  I do as much shopping as I can over the internet, or just leave it others.  But some things you have to actually go to the store for.  I did some research online first, but is one of the worst web sites I’ve ever seen.  No useful information, and hard to navigate and slow respond to boot.  Ah well, off I went to the gigantic mall one day on my lunch hour to the giant sports store.  The store was dead, no customers, but somehow the people who worked there were slow and unresponsive.  They had a whole wall of skates, so I asked a rep to explain to me why one is $50 and the other $300.  He has some vague ideas, but no real detailed technical knowledge.  His beeper went off, an he excused himself, saying he had to go help some other customer, and complaining he can’t get any time to himself.  “Well you are at work.”  I reminded him as he shambled off.

So looked thru the selection and tried on a few pairs and picked one that had a comfortable boot, no obvious design flaws, and cost $150, marked down to $100.  I got them home and tried them out on the street, and they worked nowhere as good as my old skates.  Much less maneuverability, much more friction.  The skates didn’t seem to roll and pick up speed on a gentle slope, which is a problem.

One big reason was the skates weren’t rockered.  Rockering is when you raise up your front and back wheels so that only two wheels touch the ground at once.  I originally rockered my skates up about 7 years back when I was playing alot of hockey.  At the time I also put on new high-performance axles and bearings, spacers and mounts.  Well, apparently rollerblade doesn’t make skates anymore that you can rocker, and the chassis on my new skates use a totally different system of parts that are not interchangeable.  What people do nowadays when they want to rocker their skates is put on different sized wheels.  So I ordered some smaller wheels and the other night I put them on the font and back, and while I was at it, I took out the middle wheels and oiled up all the bearings, and removed the brake.  There doesn’t seem to be any analogue in the new setup for the bearing spacers, which seems like a potential weakness down the road for stress and wear and tear, but there’s nothing to be done about it for now.  I supposed I could look into replacement axles in the future.

Yesterday I went out after work and the good news the performance is much better.  So on we go into a new season of skating.  I doubt we’ll get 17 years but we’ll see how these new skates hold up.