The Seattle Saga - And the rest

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The Date: 27th July to August 3rd

The Place: Seattle

The Occasion: A meeting with the Puppetmasters


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EMP and the Space Needle

Over the next three days we spent most of our time in downtown Seattle; Dan finally watched A.I. and I saw it for the second time (it's better the second time around - you know what you can expect). Lots of interesting shops where I bought a whole medley of cheap little gadgets and thingummies that I gave out to people on my birthday in a hobbit-like ceremony, but a remarkable lack of Internet cafés. I suppose it's because everyone in Seattle has wireless net access or something...

I was pretty pleased that I only went to McDonalds once during the entire trip (and that was only because I was running out of cash). Still, I figure that I was sampling the indigenous cuisine of the culture I was in.

We made a few trips back to GameWorks, purely for a fact-finding purpose for research in my upcoming paper on the effects of audio-visual interactive entertainment on the wallet. I tried in vain to retain a dispassionate attitude to the whole thing but failed miserably when I got on a three-storey ride where you zoom up and down a video screen on chairs. When one of the game attendants saw my Urban Outfitters bag, he remarked that the stuff there was really offensive since he'd once bought a T-shirt with words in Japanese that he later discovered meant 'Stupid American' - I had a bit of a chuckle at that one.

There are two places most people associate with Seattle: The Space Needle and the new Experience Music Projects (okay, the two things most people would name would be Microsoft and Starbucks, but they aren't as interesting or photogenic).

We never actually went into the EMP or the Space Needle as we didn't have much time left and they both looked a bit pricey. The EMP was pretty photogenic though and had the shiny-metal look that attracts men so much.

The Space Needle can be summed up in three words: Not That Tall. When you've seen the CN Tower and the Eiffel Tower, the Space Needle ain't that good, even if it does feature in the opening credits of a successful sitcom.

In one of those expensive gift-shop places in which anything you buy you find a week later at half the price back at home, we found this rather amusing Absolut Vodka advert which would've done well as an A.I. poster.

Museum of Flight

I checked out the Museum of Flight on Wednesday afternoon; if anything, it had the SR-71 to look at. I managed to pass as a 17 year old on entering, so I saved a few dollars there (my friends reasoned it out for me: If they charged me the full rate, I couldn't have afforded it, but if they charged me the youth rate, I'd save money and they'd get one more visitor than otherwise. Everyone's happy.)

The SR-71 reconnaisance plane, with experimental drone plane attached to the tail. It's one mean looking piece of aerial machinery and has an official max velocity of 2000 mph. It was made in the late 50's, which makes you wonder exactly what they're capable of making now...

A recreation of the lunar rover. The wheels are pretty decent since normal wheels would probably have been punctured on the ultra-sharp unweathered rocks on the Moon.

The Mercury Space Capsule. Fairly small. Quite scary.

A super-shiny mockup of the Apollo Re-entry Capsule. Also small and scary, but less so than the Mercury capsule.

I thought that the Washington Museum of Flight wasn't a patch on the Air Museum at Duxford in England but then conceded that Duxford is the UK's best air museum whereas the Museum of Flight is only at the state level and besides, it has lots of space-related stuff while Duxford has approximately zero (also reflecting the involvement of the UK in space, but don't get me started on that one).

An exhibit at the Air Traffic Control section of the museum. It didn't look half as exciting as the stuff I saw in 'Pushing Tin', and there was no Angelina Jolie to be seen. The computer exhibits were also laughably dated which is frankly inexcusable in a city that is home to both Microsoft and Boeing.

The beautiful bronze X-Prize statue, which will be awarded to the first non-governmental flight into space along with the princely sum of $10 million.

It's pretty obvious that the Museum had a fair bit of space stuff. My favourite exhibit was the Hubble docking simulator, where you take the role of an astronaut in a Manned Maneouvring Unit and have to fly to a certain place on the telescope. The kid who went on it before me didn't have much knowledge of inertia and so went flying off into outer space, wailing to his mum that the controls didn't work. I lurked in the shadows, smiling and waiting my turn...

Being a guy who has a passing interest in space (I can just hear my friends snorting at this) I figured that I'd have to show these kids a few things or two about 'inertia'. When it was my turn, I rolled up my sleeves and began to feel the Need for Speed. A few seconds after the sim had started, I was rocketing towards the telescope in an attempt to beat the high score. And I would've done, had it not been for the fact that I ran out of fuel at the last second!

Needless to say, I felt compelled to take a couple more turns on the exhibit (I took care to do it when no-one else was waiting since I thought it was a bit unfair to monopolise it) and actually managed to dock on both. I didn't get very close to the high score on either attempt, but I put that down to the fact that the controls weren't reversed like in proper flight controls.

This is a pretty depressing poster that outlines the UK's involvement in space. This is just a photo of a section of the poster that shows a bit of the International Space Station. The US and Russia make most of the modules and parts. See that purple bit, the Colombus Orbital Facility? That's the European bit. It's small. Now, imagine it divided into over 20 pieces. Just one of those pieces represents the UK. See, this is why I tell all of my friends who want to be astronauts that they have to get out of this country as fast as possible.

Just before I left the Museum, I caught a video of the Solar System made by NASA that purportedly had 'State of the Art' CGI. Yeah, right. To be honest, I wasn't too impressed with it, as it said confidentally that Mars had huge oceans and rivers of water in the past, and that there's a huge layer of ice below the surface. Yes, there might have been all of this, but any planetary scientists worth his or her salt won't be able to tell you that they were definitely there, based on the information we have now.

It's a minor quibble, I suppose, but videos like these cause a lot of misunderstanding among the public, which is the exact opposite of what they are meant to do.

West Seattle

On the last evening we were in Seattle, we went to West Seattle to have a look at downtown over the water.

Lots of fishermen catching extremely small fish.

A charming Statue of Liberty replica built by some Boy Scouts.

And really that's it, my trip to Seattle. I had a very fun time and while I'd been to the US twice in the past, those trips were both for conferences and I'd never had a chance to get out and experience the country, so Seattle was in a way my first proper holiday in America.

The flight back had its fair share of interesting experiences - a woman a few seats to the side of my was speaking with great confidence on all sorts of matters, such as:

Amsterdam: "Yeah, they have these cafés where they sell joints, all full of wasted kids. You know, I was mugged by a few of them last time I was there."

[Reality: Hardly any young people go to those cafés and in fact a smaller proportion of people in the Netherlands smoke cannabis compared to America. The crime levels are also much lower than America.]

Jetlag: "I got this really got homeopathic treatment for jetlag, it only cost $6 and it's supposed to work really well. They dilute it or something. And that melatonin stuff, it's not very good, it just resets the body clock."

[Reality: There's a technical term for homeopathic medicine among biologists and doctors. It's 'placebo' - they dilute the damn allergen substance so much that there isn't even a single molecule of it left in the stuff you drink, and the entire concept of 'water memory' is so flawed its unbelievable. As for melatonin, I've studied physiology and molecular biology intensively for a year and I still couldn't give you a decent explanation of its effects.]

My opinion: A little knowledge can go a long way, and in this case it makes you go a long way in the wrong direction.

I finished reading Teranesia by Greg Egan on the way back. It had some of Egan's best ever characterisation in it (Egan can't write real people for shit, but he has some great ideas about science and computing), and if he left it as a non-SF novel it would've been fine. Unforunately in Teranesia he switches to biology instead of quantum weirdness and doesn't even mention a word of it for the first three quarters of the book.

By the time you get to the end you get hit by a blast of science to make up for its absence in the rest of book, and you can literally feel Egan's resolve cracking as he resorts to the good old 'quantum weirdness' effects to wrap up the plot. It's a bit of a shame, really, since it could've been a pretty decent book. As it was, I only spent £1 to buy it from a seconds bookstore ($1.40) so it wasn't a loss.

The in-flight movie was Beethoven the 4th, starring Judge Rheinhart. As I saw Judge doing the movements, I thought to myself, 'Poor Judge, how far have you fallen since the dizzy heights of Beverly Hills Cop? For shame, Judge, for shame that you would star in such a terrible straight-to-video excuse for a movie.'

And then we got back to Schipol Airport, where I bought a hands-free kit for my mobile phone, and finally we landed in the UK. And that's really it. I hope you enjoyed this report, and if you didn't it's not as if you really care since you probably only read it for the A.I. stuff anyway...