Japan – Niigata: when my camera was terrible

Today’s smartphone cameras have become so capable it’s hard to remember that carrying a camera was once a conscious choice. Once upon a time I had a camera in my pocket that was five times the size of a smartphone and it was complete garbage. Times have changed, have you noticed?

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On this blog, we are very, very slowly making our way through my past travels. Lots of Japan to go. Wanted to do a complete, worthwhile post on Niigata, but can’t. Nearly every one of my shots from that trip are absolute, grainy, garbage.

Most of that was me. I’m not the expert photographer I am now (cue laugh track including laughing by drunken hyenas). But also, at the time my camera was pathetic. I don’t even have it anymore, or remember what it was.

Here are the only shots worth posting. Enjoy. Who gardens better than the Japanese? Not me. Not you.

Uh, Niigata’s great. Go.

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The National Gallery of Art – you’re not welcome

Sometimes the safest way to get through the day is to never get excited about anything. That way if things tank, you can just shrug and go get a beer. Instead, I got somewhat excited, things tanked, and it sort of robbed me of part of my brain for the rest of the day.

Those unfortunate to be long time readers of this blog will remember I occasionally go to galleries, dig Japan, and like weird art. I thought this was encapsulated in a visit to the National Gallery of Art which I walked to after being in DC for work.

They had a visiting exhibition on Japanese art and animals. What could go wrong?

The exhibit appeared to be underwhelming, and lacking structure, so I was having a hard time getting sucked in. But, this was because I spent the entire time looking over my shoulder to see whether a security guard was going to yell at me again.

I’ve probably been to a dozen galleries across the globe and never had to talk to a security guard, let alone interact negatively with one. It happened to me at The National Gallery of Art, four times, in less than an hour. Whether they were unhappy with the way I was carrying my backpack, or how close I was standing to an exhibit, or so on, they were in your face. They even got directly into the face of some poor old guy who was clearly hard of hearing.

Here is how a normal human interaction should work:

“Excuse me Sir, we would ask you stand back from the exhibit. You’re a bit too close. Thanks so much.”

This is how The National Gallery of Art thinks human interactions should work:

“HELLO!!!???”

I literally walked out. I said something unfortunate to the fourth guard, waved him off, and stormed out. I’ve never done this before. I was in the place for less than an hour. What a shame.

Turns out my experience is not rare. So now I’ll turn it over to some additional online reviews for folks who didn’t appreciate a Stasi like experience while looking at art, some of these are just heinous:

Lived in Paris where I had the very best art available. This is the best American art displayed I have seen by far. One complaint: I have a service dog and the staff who watch over the art in each of the rooms containing art were always anticipating my service dog was going to do something wrong (which never happens….ever) and they were anxious to catch it in the act. It was hard to relax and enjoy the art when someone is doing that to you in every room you enter over and over and over for hours.

Wow my son is 12 and I’ve raised him correctly, I dont need you following you telling me to not let him touch.

there are scumbag security officers working there. i was not warned in advance about closing time i didnt gave time to gather stuff. they got physically aggressive with me when it was closing at five pm. i am deaf and schizophrenic. i was trying to draw in peace in their galleries. i recommend to avoid the area. dangerous staff and guards. even the info desk lady scowled at me for being evidently deaf. avoid this hellhole.

The place is jammed with sweaty rude security guards that looked at me as if I had no business there and followed me around as if I was in a department store about to steal something. If I had blue eyes and blonde hair I’m certain I would have had a different experience. If you are of color go with someone or be prepared to be uncomfortable . I’m so disappointed because I love art and had planned to visit often but the security staff is extremely unprofessional and ruined the atmosphere for me to fully enjoy the art. Also no curator at any of the popular exhibits I visited. I expected more from the nations capital😶😢😒

How can you get kids interested in art if they are not welcome at all! I went to visit with my 3 kids (10, 7 and 5). We live in the area but I was waiting for the right time to go as I was hoping to get them interested in art at a young age. Unfortunately my experience was really bad. The museum is great as it hosts great works of art, however almost every person I interacted was either a snob (very common on people interested in art for some reason) or plain rude. As soon as we entered the very first room, my 7 year old got to about 2 feet from a painting pointing at something he liked. My wife quickly stopped him and started explaining that he needed to stay away from the art. Even though she stopped him in time and we clearly had the kids under control, a security guard came and started scolding my son. My son got really scared, sat on a sofa and started sobbing silently, since he wanted to cover his face he put his legs on the sofa to cover his face with his knees. The guard came to him again and told him he needed to take his shoes off the (very cheap and plastic) sofa. I told the guard he was overreacting since he was just a kid and then he started with his typical speech of “you cannot tell me how to do my work” and actually asked us to leave the room. We did not leave the museum but you can imagine the kids have no interest on ever going to that museum again, and neither do I. I have great respect for the Smithsonian as an institution and love all other museums, however I was deeply sadden with the experience. I really cannot imagine how art can be promoted to kids if they are not welcome at all.

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fuck this place

REAL ID = real stupid

A few weeks ago me Ma hands me this partially threatening letter from the Giant Octopus (in government form) instructing her to update her driver’s license to REAL ID standards or they’d unleash three wild rabid crocodiles into her basement. I had no idea what this thing was. But whatever, I made her an appointment and we worked out all the documentation requirements. But now people from my office are taking off from work to get this ID update done. I guess eventually I have to do this too? I guess? So we did some research to get the backstory of this dumbest of ideas.

In 2005, Congress (that institution that never works) passed a law mandating enhanced requirements for government issued identification. This was done in response to the September 11th attacks. I guess the idea was to prevent the use of fraudulent identifications. The federal government was really after the States who issued poor quality or easy to forge driver’s licenses. For example, in Alabama they use old crop husks and in Oregon they use congealed kombucha base. Both of these are now unacceptable.

So what do you need a REAL ID to do? Well, according to the Department of Homeland Security (that institution that never works) it’s required for: “The purposes covered by the Act are: accessing Federal facilities, entering nuclear power plants, and, boarding federally regulated commercial aircraft.”

If you need to get on a federal facility they’ll give you their own specific ID for it. So unless you’re Homer Simpson the only real reason you need the REAL ID is to get on an airplane. That’s it.

Oh my! Where do we start?

1) Act passed in 2005 but not required to complete before 2020; 15 year introduction cycle (or three times longer than World War II).

2) In 14 years since Act has passed not one commercial airliner has been brought down or nuclear power plant infiltrated due to a forged identification thus bringing into question the entire relevance of the Act.

3) REAL ID is required to board a plane, but not required to board a train, bus, autogyro, get into a sports stadium, library, school, Valhalla, or any other place with 743% less security than airplanes and airports.

4) Assumption that technology developed and implemented by government will somehow produce 300 million REAL IDs that cannot be (at least easily) forged. Because surely an evil bad guy who really means it will find it baffling to forge an ID also produced by the genius wizards of your local MVA.

5) Despite bullets (1) through (4) above, the wheels of the bureaucracy have continued to turn for 14 years without nary a thought of perhaps: “maybe we don’t/shouldn’t really need to do this”.

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behold! the definition of futility

Boeing has a lot to answer for

Everybody should withhold final judgement until the Ethiopians and the American investigators have gotten a crack at the boxes.  But eyewitness reports indicating that the aircraft was breaking up in flight are troubling.

I flew yesterday on a 737-800 which looks mostly like a 737 Max and I was glad when I got aboard and realized it was an 800.  I mean I’m not trying to be too dramatic, my rental car drive to the airport was 700 times more dangerous, but I did sleep better on the flight.

It used to be that Airbus built planes that killed people with wacky failures in the electronics and systems.  Airbus hasn’t done that since Air France 447 in 2009.  Has Boeing now assumed that tragic role?  And if so, why and how?

What we do know is that the Lion Air crash in Indonesia was partly a maintenance failure, but also Boeing’s fault.  The pilots had the correct input on the controls, the airplane ignored them.  The plane killed those people.  Again, we’ll see what Ethiopia says on this latest crash.

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supersonic will soon be back, but it won’t be big

Sometimes technology seems to go backwards.  For example, the US used to operate the shuttle which was a relatively advanced reusable spaceplane.  Now NASA has nothing, and the replacement vehicle in development has more in common with the Apollo or Soyuz space capsules than it does with the shuttle.

Likewise, Concorde first flew in 1976.  Here we are over 40 years later and every single commercially viable passenger plane of any size is exclusively subsonic.  I’ll save my thoughts pf NASA’s failures for another day.  Today I want to focus on supersonic.  More and more in the news you see that several companies are trying to dive back into supersonic.

But first, what happened after 1976?  In short, supersonic failed for a number of reasons:

– It was never cost effective: Concorde burned a lot of fuel, had a large maintenance footprint, and could never get the cost per seat / seat vacancy ratios correctly to turn a consistent profit.

– Development: Because of the cost considerations, nobody saw a reason to develop a successor to Concorde.  By the end of the 20th Century, Concorde was a 20 year old design and the airframes were reaching the end of usable service.

– 2000: The Air France crash was the end of the road.  Adding up the cost and service life against the reality of a full crash was the end of the program.

And there we’ve sat for decades.  But now folks are willing to try again.  Why:

a) Air travel and airline technology has become so advanced as to be scary in terms of safety. Western airlines have a safety record that’s downright miraculous. Lawnmowers kill more people each year.

b) Modern super fuel efficient engines combined with advanced computing might be close to cracking the code on the cost problem. When you add in the composites that make the newer airframes strong and lighter I think they might cross the threshold on turning a profit per flight.

c) Humanity is more obsessed with time. In the business world, seconds matter whereas when Concorde last flew perhaps only minutes mattered. Think of it, in 2000 smartphones didn’t even exist.  The world has gotten faster, and so I think folks will be far more inclined to put down the cash when they’re staring at the reality of a flight time that gets cut in half.

But will it work?  Well, let’s examine the most realistic commercial supersonic venture.

Boom Supersonic has already booked aircraft orders, 10 from Virgin, and 20 from JAL.  The expectation is they’re flying commercially by 2025.  Its jets will seat 55 passengers, go across the Atlantic in half the current time, and cost approximately $5K per ticket.  Boom claims to have cracked the code on fuel efficiency and subduing the impact of the dreaded sonic boom.

My conclusions:

1) I searched online, trying to book over two months in advance, Heathrow to JFK with a one week dwell.  The cost for an Economy seat is $400.  Boom’s jet is single aisle, single seat each side.  To me, this is an exclusively Business / First Class jet.  Economy does not apply. For a Business flight it’s all over the place.  You can go on TAP Portugal for $2.1K.  Air France is $6K.  United is $7K  To fly BA is $7.5K.

So let’s get something straight.  If Boom states that it’s $5K per seat they either mean the cost to them and/or they’re fibbing on future prices.  When all the major carriers are already charging Atlantic rides for well over $5K for subsonic, then my back of the napkin math says a Boom supersonic seat costs closer to $10K.

So right off the bat you’re looking at a ticket that’s 20 times more expensive between Economy and supersonic.  Thus, to declare that the supersonic ticket is already in the realm of the super-rich is an understatement.  Already it’s the same high-risk niche market Concorde had to struggle with.

2) I don’t care what Boom or others claim, the sonic boom problem is a major problem.  Even if Boom can produce a severely muffled boom, they still can’t break physics, there will still be a boom.   And if there’s a sonic boom, it’s going to be regulated.  If it’s regulated, it’s not going to be easy.

All supersonic has to do is lightly tap one skyscraper apartment window in Manhattan and there will be people up in arms about how the boom is giving them phantom headaches.  Then the lawyers come out of the bushes and it’s a gigantic mess.  Can Boom and other companies get around this by only going supersonic over water, sure.  But in the end as with Concorde, the sonic boom problem is not going to be a rounding error.  It’s a big problem.

3) Think about the turnover rate of a standard subsonic jet.  Take a 737 flying inside the US.  On any given day, one jet is expected to fly over half-a-dozen flights.  They have to turnover at the gate in less than an hour and get back in the air.  They have to not seriously break over hundreds of hours of constant flight.  They have to do it at the safety rate of zero crashes.  Can Boom or other companies crack the code on this, keep the aircraft available enough to fly again and again to generate profit, and do it safely every single fight?  I think they can definitely do it.  But I’m not sure they can do it and consistently make money.  New technology is hard to master.  And going supersonic on a completely new airframe isn’t going to be an easy thing to do.

You need only look at the development hell Airbus and Boeing have gone through with their latest subsonic jets to realize how hard building airplanes is.  Going supersonic is going to generate a whole new level of difficulty.  Plus, Boom is a company that doesn’t have a sustained record of success with previous aircraft models.  Look at what happened with the Bombardier CSeries.  That jet crashed out in development hell because Bombardier made too many mistakes.  They had to sell out the airframe to Airbus for like $1 to avoid bankruptcy.  And the CSeries is a pretty basic modern subsonic jet, and it still was impossible for Bombardier to succeed.  I’m not sure I think companies like Boom truly understand how hard their task will be to develop and build supersonic without going bankrupt in the process.

In closing, I think we’ll see supersonic return and soon.  But given that the passenger market is still only the exclusive rich, the remaining associated problem of profit risk, and my concerns about technology development, I think the end result is supersonic is going to be a very, very small footprint by say 2030.  Only a handful of jets will fly and the companies that run them will be scraping by paycheck to paycheck on cost.  In the end, I don’t think supersonic is going to be viable for major airlines on anything but a small scale.  It’ll be a niche market, or perhaps become a major chunk of the private jet market.  But large scale from major airlines?  I just don’t see it.

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But who knows, maybe I’m wrong?

Alexander Part II: The journey aboard the Memnon

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Years later, we would often debate on who had made such a grave mistake.  With the remains of the previous night’s raki still fogging our brains every memory was clouded by nonsense.  And so each version of events was as different as the personalities in our party.  But I for one, regardless of whose mistake it was, am always reminded of a tenant of life: Never ask a thief to buy something for you.

And so after an expert, hearty breakfast prepared by one of Zeki’s men, we prepared to depart Istanbul bound for our adventure.  Stelios met us at the central terminal having bought the tickets that (somebody) had volunteered him to procure.  With glee, and a slap upon his packet of papers did Stelios state with a flourish, “Granicus.  Let’s go!”

All of us stared at Stelios without comprehension.  Until Mut offered, simply, “Granicus is Ottoman.”

“Yes!” Stelios lit a cigarette and dragged with pleasure.

“We’re going to Greece,” said George wearily.

Stelios waved his lit cigarette, “Why would we…”

“Greece is where Alexander started…”, George implored.

“…but to find Alexander,” Stelios clapped his palms together, “we must of course venture to his first great victory against the Persians!”

Mut shook his head, “Greece first.”

“No, Granicus,” Stelios stabbed his cigarette, “We will let you guide us through the oh so many Moslem worlds that await us, but for the moment, this is my part.  My part, and to Granicus we go.”

Mut again, deadpan, “Granicus is Moslem.”

Either out of frustration or sheer drive, Alianna stepped forward and ripped the tickets from the packet, and with the slightest of whispers did state into Stelios’ ear, “Idiot.”  And she was off toward the ticket office.  The rest of us meekly and with resignation followed.  She returned shortly afterwards with the steamer tickets for Chalcis.

Alexander was born in Pella, in theory.  But at that time he was just a baby, a human, and a reasonable calculation would have termed his political future (and his very life) doomed.  We were bound for Chalcis, and then through the dusty background of the Greek countryside we would edge the outskirts of Attica and then cross over the borders into Boeotia.  Finally we would stumble upon a little hamlet, the place where Alexander was born.  Chaeronea.  Granicus would come, but only later.

We bade goodbye to Istanbul, a place we would remain inexplicably linked to throughout our adventures but would not see for a very long time.  Zeki had left me with a great deal of letters and contacts for our forthcoming journeys.

The docks were a mass of humanity.  Shoulder to shoulder we pushed through the crowds for the steamship piers.  All of Istanbul seemed primed to dispense with most of the day’s business before the afternoon, before the heat returned.  Yet surrounded by traders, hackers, herders, moneymen, longshoremen, one quickly heats up anyways.

As always I was glad for my loose traveling clothes which equally fit a sun scorched mountain as a busy dockside.  George’s apparel quite agreed with my style.  I didn’t know how Mut and Stelios did it, with their tailored and pristine suits, saved from a bath only by the handkerchiefs they repeatedly bore.  Or Alianna, who wore her styled intoxicating garb with grace, but seemed to carry no handkerchief nor any sweat upon her brow.

We plowed our way to the jetty and our ride in Memnon, a coastal steamship whose material condition seemed perfectly suited to safely take us the seven-hundred yards across the Bosporus without incident, but not much further.  I made a note to thank my Uncle for teaching me how to swim the next time I found myself compelled to pray at some point in the forthcoming month.

I observed with pleasure the timetables and that our journey south would likely mirror the routes in which the triremes had sailed these waters.  We would hug Ottoman Europe and the Greek coast until we met Chalcis.  We would stop for passengers by choice.  The Ancient Greeks had to stop most nights and pull their vessels ashore just to remain afloat.  Our journey would take two days, theirs took weeks.  We would eat comfortably amongst our fellow passengers.  They would cook along beaches by the fireside.  Despite Memnon’s condition, I felt safe enough to enjoy the forthcoming ride.  They praised the gods every time their journey ended without them consigned to the deep.

As we pulled from the shore we left behind the heat that emanated from the city like a bird fleeing a warm desert rock.  The cool sea breeze dried the moisture from our faces and we drank it in as energy more powerful than the best of coffee.  Though Alianna had already found a mug of that too, and I began to wonder if she would always have some attached to her hand.

Memnon’s captain helmed her with the skill of a man who has done something thousands of times, effortless and with art.  The Bosporus certainly had all the charm of history, but could have done without the filth that clouded its historic waters.  After five thousand years, civilization had taken its toll on the cliffs, the stark beaches, the fishing settlements, and suburbs of the great Ottoman city.

I found my forearms planted upon the rail until the sun reddened the back of my neck.  Mothers dumped buckets of waste across the shore as children played behind them.  Fisherman plied their trade in thumb sized boats unchanged in their design since Alexander.  Bland villages found their way atop bluffs, astride cliffs, all competing pell-mell for access to the sea.

It was difficult, impossible even, to accurately imagine a time with most of this land as barren countryside between the oasis of villages that dotted the desolate landscape like stars in the night sky.  Much to my sickness, I allowed my mind to wander too far, too beyond usefulness.  And my thoughts turned to the reality that all our ship passed as it strode south was now in service to the maw of one singular man in The Sultan.

So much history, so much progress, and yet a poor fisherman still conducted his life driven by base needs, equipped with the minimalist of technology, and still bound by fate of the same kind of ruler as had been in charge for longer than it took the wind to smooth jagged rocks.

Were my adventures, my efforts any different?  I began to regret ever coming upon this journey.  I suddenly found myself wondering what in God’s name I was thinking.  I felt the need to escape.  My Browning, expertly tucked inside my belt at the small of my back, round chambered, began to feel three times as heavy.  I wanted the adventure, but I felt as if I didn’t want to go through the effort to get it.

Only shame kept me from doing anything other than gutting it out.  And the hope that once we really got started, things would begin to feel better.  Though my companions were all volunteers, and certainly knew the danger, I wondered if they understood just how many of those I’d traveled with in the past were by now but dust and bones.

George seemed much the same, only more so.  It seemed Allah’s sight did not progress beyond the brow of the Ottoman ship, and given the large number of Greek passengers, alcohol was served with abandon.  It wasn’t long before George was drunk, and stayed drunk.

Mut gambled, and gambled.  Then he gambled some more.  Cards, dice, dominoes, what bird would get the next fish, what time we’d make our next port, the fate of his daughter (I don’t believe he had one), and whatever else struck his moment.

Stelios seemed glued to the stern, where he had somehow procured the finest of deck chairs.  There he planted his liberated bare feet upon the rail, his jacket off and sleeves rolled, leaned back and read almost anything he could find.  I did not inquire where he got the chair, one that seemed fit for a king, or perhaps a steamboat captain.

I tried, quite hard, to make myself useful in what became an expedition for Alianna to talk to just about anybody who seemed capable of conversation.  It quickly dawned on me that she either relished it or needed it, constantly, it was her alcohol, her gambling, her reading material.

She seemed to select candidates from among the other passengers.  Once she found her mark, whoever was the most interesting, they became her focus to the exclusion of all others.  The Sultan’s detective from Gallipoli who was on the case but bound for the wrong port, the accountant from Alexandroupoli who had just made his fortune, the graceless Thessalonian grandmother who Mut couldn’t beat at anything, and the Albanian child who wrote poetry in pencil on the margins of discarded newspapers.

I couldn’t keep up with her, much to my disappointment.  I didn’t know yet if I wanted her, but any man in the presence of any such woman would be inhuman not to desire at least some attention.  As it was never forthcoming, I found myself retiring to my meager cabin more and more.  Often with the kicker required to relax and sleep with ease, though not nearly at the levels George seemed to require.

Somewhere along our brief time at sea I once again had that feeling of being watched.  But my mood, the drink, or the benign nature of riding a derelict steamship all combined to force my aspect into one of complete disengagement.  If we were watched, I didn’t care.  It didn’t matter to me.  The adventure had just begun, but perhaps had already lost its edge.

It had never been that way for Alexander.  His adventure took half a decade to lose its steam.  Mine lasted three days.

But as with all things, life can turn at any moment.

And in the dark of my cabin, well into the dead of a silent night, was broken by pounding, a sharply opened door, and a wide-eyed-bare-shirted Stelios who scraped, “George went over the side!”

I was out the door in a blink and darting with Stelios towards the stern.  Our bare feet patted the deck in slaps.  “Why didn’t you go in after him?” I fiercely shouted.

Between breaths, “I can’t swim, by God.”

As we made it to the stern and Stelios’ deck chair I nearly vaulted over the rail but found it nearly impossible to see anything other than the whitewash of the wake against black water and a cloudy night sky.  Within a second I came to the overwhelming calculation that a drunk George was a dead man the second he departed the boat and well before he ever hit the water.

And then my eyes caught up with my nerves, and I realized that Stelios’ deck chair hadn’t been vacant, but very much occupied.  I snapped around and behind me, very much seated, was George.  I then received the unbridled laughter of them both.

Out of relief, and remembering things I had done in my past, I began to smile and chuckle, but fueled by anger I grabbed for Stelios’ collar, but got his neck instead forgetting he was without a shirt, “In God’s name are you insane!”

“His face,” Stelios spit to George, “His face was the payoff.”  More laughter.

George, his eyes barely open but hopeful, “We’re out of fuel, have you got any money?”

I turned about, my palms on my head.  Then came about again and rammed a crunch of bills from my pocket into George’s chest.  He was on his feet and headed forward far faster than he should have been able in his condition.  And I suddenly knew I needed a huge pull of whatever he returned with.

Unconsciously, I began to smile, widely.  Then I laughed, and felt alive, so very alive.  Stelios, now clearly intoxicated to my calmed eyes, clapped me on the shoulder and leaned in, “Just so you know, I really can’t swim.  Not a bit.”