Travel

Good Night, Hiroshima

I’ve been in Japan for twenty-six straight days now. That’s almost twice as long as I expected this business trip to last, and I still have no return ticket booked. The delay is the mundane kind — no catastrophe, no accident, just an engineering project that’s been 90% of the way complete for days. If you’ve ever tried to debug a cabinet full of wires or find the one broken sensor in a tool the size of your bedroom — or if you’ve ever struggled to find the right word, or labored to fix a mysteriously leaky faucet — you know how infuriating that last 10% can be, like you’re swimming up and up and up in a deeply black ocean, the surface perpetually out of reach until one day, suddenly, in a stroke of insight and with no warning whatsoever, your head breaks the surface and you gulp down victory like oxygen.

So I’m here. Still swimming. But as places in the world to be trapped go, I’ve picked a nice one.

Matsuyama is the largest city on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. Even with a population of more than 500,000, Matsuyama has a reputation for being a little sleepy, and certainly when compared to the nonstop electric veins of Tokyo, Matsuyama’s pulse beats slower. It’s a hot spring town, built around the Dōgo Onsen, a spring that’s been used for over a millennium. (I checked, not a translation error.) There are cherry trees on the hills and a long history of haiku poetry, all surrounded by a ring of emerald mountains that shepherd the city to the sea. The city’s age leads to narrow streets, compact cars, and without a burrowing subway like Tokyo’s, the narrow streets are almost always full of those compact cars, so that my five-mile morning commute stretches on in the backseat of a taxi for half an hour. But no one seems to mind the pace, no one seems to mind the wait, and whether this is Japanese politeness or just Matsuyama’s own relaxed tempo I haven’t yet been able to determine.

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The downtown is dominated by a giant forested hill, capped with Matsuyama Castle, a 17th century fortress built by some feudal daimyo that overlooks the entire city. My hotel sits in the shadow of the castle, as does the prefecture capitol building and Okaido, the half-kilometer-long covered pedestrian thoroughfare that’s lined with shops, sushi restaurants, and 7-Elevens. The new nestles right up to the old. Following Okaido away from the castle on the hill, it dead-ends into the Gintengai pedestrian alley, which runs perpendicular for another half-kilometer of fashion, ramen, and fancy stationery until it dumps you out at the city’s gargantuan department store, topped by a massive Ferris wheel that carries you up into the sky until you, too, can have the view of a feudal lord. You can see for miles in every direction, but in the summer there are almost always clouds threatening tropical rain on the horizon.  Every restaurant has a cache of cheap umbrellas they give out to patrons if the sky opens up during dinner.

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I’m working in a neighborhood called Nishihabumachi, an industrial port right south of the airport. I’ve watched planes land and planes depart, and a week after I first arrived a giant container ship, the Santa Serena, pulled up to dock a hundred meters away, gravid with logs — more logs than I’ve ever seen. I watched the massive metal cranes on the ship’s deck duck and nod for two whole days, unloading piles and piles of wood, before with a blast of its foghorn the Santa Serena heaved itself loose from the shore, turned, and headed back out to sea. More planes took off. I took a taxi back to the hotel.

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But today is clearer than I’ve ever seen it in Matsuyama, so clear I can see islands in the distance between the Seto Inland Sea and the Iyo-nada Sea that I didn’t know were there. The geography I can see from Nishihabumachi is breathtaking, all these rocky islands that burst from the crystal blue ocean, dotting the sea and the horizon as they fade away into the distance, into eternity. It’s hard to be upset about being here, looking at those islands. But they are all so separate, so distinct, that they seem lonely, isolated despite their numbers. The more islands that reveal themselves out of the mist, the lonelier they look. They are travelers that surfaced from the sea to find themselves adrift and unconnected.

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Matsuyama is 42 miles south-southeast of Hiroshima. I’d have a clear line of sight to the famous city from the pier where I ate lunch today if it weren’t for those islands. For the first time today, as the sea seemed to stretch on forever, I realized just how close I am to Hiroshima, how close I am to the place where mankind dropped hell out of an airplane and onto a city for the first time, where in an instant we turned 80,000 lives into glass and smoke.

I have conflicting feelings about the U.S.’s atomic bombing of Japan. I think everyone must. It’s an impossible question, a moral morass — was it necessary to end the war? was it a way to intimidate the Soviet Union? was it the best use of a generation of scientists’ talents? was it revenge for Pearl Harbor? did it save countless American lives? did it murder thousands of Japanese civilians? did it spare the lives of Japanese soldiers?  I don’t envy Harry Truman, the farmer turned haberdasher turned senator turned president, thrust into the decision by Roosevelt’s sudden and complete cerebral hemorrhage. But mostly what I thought about today, as I ate lunch and stared across the sea — tried to stare straight back in time — is what Matsuyama must have seen on August 6, 1945.

This is Hiroshima on that day in August, 71 years ago. A tower of flame, an inferno 60,000 feet tall. Fire and fury and ash and void. Buildings vaporized; human lives turned to shadows on the pavement. If you were standing where I was standing in Matsuyama, would you have seen the flare, brighter than anything in history, a new sun rising violently on the horizon? Would you have heard the blast, loud as hell’s own thunder, rupturing the air? Surely you would have seen the cloud, that ominous cloud of smoke and souls, rising like a hunched vulture above the city, above the rain clouds themselves?

Maybe it’s because the sea northwest of Matsuyama is so beautiful, but it’s hard for me to imagine any of that. This is not a desolate or war-torn or ugly place, not a desert in New Mexico or a war zone in the Middle East, but blue and alive and sparkling. And yet there are plenty of 80-year-old Japanese men and women I’ve passed in the streets, eaten next to at sushi restaurants. There are people to whom this is not history but reality, not an abstraction or imagination but something seared into their memories.

This is, more or less, a feeling I’ve had before, when I visited a concentration camp in Germany. That the world was so beautiful — the sky so perfect, the grass so green — that nothing atrocious could have ever possibly happened here. It’s a fallacy, obviously, but it makes me wonder what will happen when the witnesses are gone and only history remains. It’s easy to lose the past in the present.

Japan seems to be keenly aware of this, and integrates its past with its future fairly seamlessly — I’m in a town where the main tourist attraction is a thousand-year-old hot spring, after all.  I’ve linked to yesterday’s obituary of Elie Wiesel in the previous paragraph, but I think I want to close with two quotes from him, both given in speeches, not written in his books.

First —

It’s up to you now, and we shall help you — that my past does not become your future.

And second —

If anything can, it is memory that will save humanity.

Good night, Mr. Wiesel.  And good night, Hiroshima.  May we leave the world a better future than your pasts.

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Seasons’ Greetings

SUMMER

Washington, D.C.

Summer in Washington, D.C. hits you like a wall.  It’s a gelatinous season, a jello mold of equal parts humidity and rigidity that seeps right into the jetway at Dulles and smothers the city from June to September.  In a way, D.C.’s geography mirrors its summers: three perfectly straight lines separate our nation’s capital from the rest of Maryland, but D.C. is slowly dissolving on its southwest side into the sopping maw of the Potomac.  Watching the aides and consultants and lobbyists rush around the marble monuments in business casual, you can almost see them melting in the heat, too, the stark lines of their formalwear dark with spreading sweat.  You walk a block or two down the streets — either lettered, numbered, or named after states — and find yourself looking for an excuse to duck back inside, into the loving embrace of an AC unit.  The city seems thick — humid, yes, but also muggy with history and with activity, as you watch recent graduates like yourself scurry down halls that have been scurried down since John Adams was president.  Everyone in D.C. is either twenty and just moved there or sixty and has lived there forever; like in Congress, there is no middle ground.  It’s a mixture of free-flowing youth and enduring marble, and the amount of conversation, information, and aspiration is enticing and intoxicating, even more so than the Irish lagers at the pub near Dupont Circle.  So you sit on the Mall at night on the Fourth of July (only the darkness tells your California brain that it’s night, since the temperature and humidity have barely budged), watch the fireworks behind the Washington Monument, and wonder what it would have been like to major in Political Science.  You also wonder, once you get home, if you can figure out a way to watch “The West Wing” reruns in your gym’s sauna.

Columbus, OH

But nothing — even the nation’s capital — embodies the Fourth of July like the Midwest.  The suburbs in Ohio are America in its purest form, Eisenhower-era environs that ooze charm and apple pie.  The perfect grids of tree-lined streets in Columbus are made for fanfare and parades, and you sit in a folding lawn chair on the curb and watch ruby red firetrucks roll by, flanked by troops of meticulously groomed girl scouts.  The mayor, the veterans’ brigade, the Model T club — mainstays of main street motorcades drive by like the decades rolling past, right before your eyes.  Columbus feels like it’s been plucked from a bygone era, which is not to say it’s backwards or parochial.  It’s the opposite: vibrant and close-knit, woven into the fabric of an America you thought was only true in textbooks and television.  You go to a neighborhood block party — an actual neighborhood block party, hosted by a solid block of houses in the neighborhood — with tables as far as the eye can see, rickety folding legs bent heavy with the weight of rib racks, jello molds, hamburgers.  People you’ve never met welcome you into their yards, and after the sun sets they herd you through the crowded streets to the best vantage point for fireworks.  When the pyrotechnic afterimages fade from the sky, streaks of saltpeter and slashes of sulfur drifting into mist, ten thousand fireflies rise up from the grass to take their place, and even in the cool night air a warm glow remains.

San Francisco, CA

Like many cities, San Francisco is prettiest from a distance: exiting the tunnel on the 101 South, barreling down the hills from Marin to the Golden Gate Bridge, there’s a vista where, for a few brief seconds between twisting turns, you see the entire fifty square miles of San Francisco spread out before you.  It’s a pastel cityscape tableau that grows from west to east, starting with the perfect rectilinear grid of low-slung houses in the Sunset, moving to the three-story cake frosting homes that crowd around Alamo Square, crescendoing to the dizzying spires of the financial district which spear the sky behind the slender, piercing point of the Transamerica Pyramid — and then crashing, abruptly, into a jumbled series of wharfs that tumble into the bay.  The slender white spiderweb of the Bay Bridge shoots out from the east to grab at Treasure Island; the stately vermillion span of the Golden Gate Bridge thrusts north to anchor the peninsula to Marin.  That’s the view you see, at least, if you’re lucky.  But most summer days, the drive down from the Marin hills is a descent into a gray unknown, a heavy layer of coastal fog that envelops everything from the headlands to the peninsula in thick, slate-colored clouds.  San Francisco seems to slumber under this shroud, with only the peaks of its bridges and skyscrapers emerging above that mist, that impenetrable cloak that hides San Francisco from the outside world like the lost city of Atlantis.  In many ways, San Francisco is an Atlantis — a city set apart from the rest of the United States.  It is a sophisticated, technologically advanced utopia, the birthing grounds for miracles of science and software that the rest of the world can only dream of and never truly understand.  It is also a nightmarish dystopia of conflict between old and new, tradition and progress: a bastion of progressive idealism and a derelict hulk without the infrastructure to sustain it.  San Francisco is all these things at once: old and new, progressive and decaying, Uber-laden and taxi-heavy, space-age and Victorian — and so it makes sense, perhaps, that in the middle of summer, this funereal fog rolls in and drops the temperature so low that software engineers venture out of their overpriced apartments in peacoats.  The beauty of San Francisco lives in its contradictions, and the seasons are no exception.

FALL

Santa Clarita, CA

It’s probably the years of academia talking, but fall always felt like new beginnings to you, far more than some random month in winter did.  January was always an arbitrary line drawn in the Gregorian sand, but fall — fall was when things changed.  This feeling has lessened since grad school, in that post-college desert you’re left to wander through without markers or signposts every September.  But it never goes away, and especially not in your home town.  Eighteen autumns you woke up here ready to embark on something new, something different.  And five more falls after that you found yourself, for one reason or another, in Santa Clarita before heading back to school.  It’s an incubator, a launching pad, a nest — it’s home.  Two valleys removed from Los Angeles, Santa Clarita was amalgamated out of smaller towns in the area, communities knitted together at the seams and now rapidly climbing up the slopes of the hills around them with one tract housing development after another.  What used to be mostly onion fields is now mostly sidewalks and wide streets, planned neighborhoods with fake Spanish-sounding names, dozens of chain restaurants, and one large amusement park.  It’s also almost literal proof of the fallacy of trickle-down economics: the affluent neighborhood of Stevenson Ranch, where Weeds was filmed and where the streets are all named after famous writers, perches atop the hills to the west, affording its residents a spectacular view of the Santa Clarita Valley and the poorer, older neighborhoods in downtown Newhall or far-flung Canyon Country.  But despite its flaws, Santa Clarita is welcoming, inviting, comforting.  Maybe it’s the personal history, or maybe it’s the spacious streets.  Maybe it’s the old, brick buildings of your high school, or maybe it’s the oak trees in your parents’ backyard.  Maybe it’s just a halcyon, nostalgic haze.  But like those oaks, Santa Clarita stands tall and central in your mental map of California.

Silicon Valley, CA

The 280 winds like a snake’s spine along the center of the San Francisco Peninsula, cutting northwest from the 101 and straight up to San Francisco.  It’s a wide freeway that swoops and swerves through the foothills, revealing majestic vistas of both the hills and the Bay as it barrels on to San Francisco.  About a third of the way along this sixty-mile interstate, the hills are split by a deep, perfectly straight cleft that crosses under the freeway at an oblique angle and seems to go on for miles.  This is the Stanford Linear Accelerator — SLAC — a two-mile long cannon that blasts electrons from Menlo Park into Palo Alto.  It’s also one of the few views of the Valley you get from the 280, since the highway runs through the hills above the cities, but the view is an appropriate one: Silicon Valley often feels like it’s the epicenter of high-energy collisions.  SLAC sends electrons hurtling towards each other at ludicrous velocities, creating bursts and bouquets of subatomic particles, and the Silicon Valley has done the same thing with emerging technologies.  It was semiconductors first, the silicon itself, huge R&D facilities set up in Santa Clara to soak up talent from Stanford and Berkeley PhD programs.  Then massive, Scrooge McDuck piles of money appeared on Sand Hill Road, and more intangible ideas started to grow, drawn and pulled and formed out of the sea of brilliant engineers and venture capitalists like those silicon ingots the decade before.  As you travel north in the Valley the technology gets more abstract: from Applied Materials to Intel to Hewlett Packard to Apple, eBay, Google, Facebook, or whatever the hell a company called Kaggle is supposed to do.  You come back every fall, as students pour into Stanford, and flow of talent is almost tangible.  Engineers come from around the world, descending on the Valley like pilgrims with MacBooks, and the resulting explosion of ideas means tech startups blossom and grow in a spray of creativity.  Like any pilgrimage, that means plenty of snake oil vendors and charlatans have set up shop on the roadside, peddling “big data” and “disruption” as if the words themselves held the secret, as if being “mobile” and “local” will save your soul.  The Silicon Valley’s soul seems to swing back and forth, from life-changing technologies to $6 lattes, from crucibles of ingots and innovation to hyper-inflated rent, from the soaring hills of the 280 to the roil of molten ideas in the Valley, each screaming and clambering for the chance to be pulled from the froth as that fragile silicon crystal grows and grows and grows.

Las Vegas, NV

Southern Nevada is miserably hot in the summer and miserably cold in the winter, so that leaves only a couple months to visit Las Vegas if you want to soak up the Strip instead of spending your entire trip at a poolside club or in the heated confines of the labyrinthine hotels.  But if the weather in Vegas isn’t oppressive in the fall, certainly everything else is.  Las Vegas: the words have become a metonym for excess, for a land with lights everywhere, noise everywhere, money everywhere, and a thin golden glitz stretched over every surface like plastic wrap.  The Strip is unlike anywhere else in the world, a road where Egyptian pyramids jockey for skyline space with Roman palaces and miniature Manhattans.  Everyone wants to sell you something infinite: endless buffets, bottomless drink tickets, innumerable call girls.  But the Strip is only four miles long, a mirage constructed in the sand out of sheer force of will, lush with lust and bustling in defiance of the desert around it.

WINTER

Flagstaff, AZ

You know Arizona is a desert, but that doesn’t quite prepare you for Flagstaff’s winter.  This isn’t Phoenix, where the climate ranges from “pleasantly warm” to “center of the sun.”  Flagstaff is high desert, a plateau thrust up seven thousand feet from the sea, and that means it’s fucking cold in the winter.  You get there, check in to your hotel — your haunted hotel, if you believe the placard on your room’s nightstand — and venture out into the little brick- and sand-colored downtown, wishing you brought a heavier coat because there are actual snowbanks on the side of the icy road.  Christmas lights are strung along facades and electric wreaths hang on old iron streetlights, bathing the streets in a yellow-orange incandescent glow.  The word charming keeps popping into your head, because the city looks older than it is, still clinging to frontier town status even as the world’s frontiers, let alone the United States’, disappear.  Huddled for warmth in a cozy pub, you can imagine stagecoaches clattering down the streets, even as cars race by on Route 66.  The red dust around Flagstaff stretches on for miles, but it may as well be forever, leaving this city a frozen time capsule buried in the hot Arizona sand.

New York, NY

In New York City, at least, you’re prepared to be cold, but the first winter weekend you spend there isn’t nearly as bad as the ice skaters at Rockefeller plaza would make you think.  The canyons of Manhattan whistle with winter winds, but it’s early in winter still and it hasn’t snowed yet.  The air is crisp, the skies pastel, the streets inked with the blacks and grays of winter coats.  Despite the clear skies above, you find New York claustrophobic, in a way: all these people and all these buildings crammed onto Manhattan Island with nowhere to go but up and up and up.  Everything you could ever possibly want is in those twenty square miles, but somehow that’s limiting, not liberating.  You could live a full life without ever venturing farther north than Harlem — and this is the fact that makes you happy you’re here for a weekend.  Not that this makes New York any less captivating, and its sheer size and history and promise live up to your lofty expectations.  Even the skyline of the city is spellbinding, each building telling a story about the year it was built: the rectangular financial district towers; the twisting, majestic tower of One World Trade Center; and, of course, the art deco diadem of the Empire State Building.  Regardless of the current year or fashion fad, New York is an art deco city, a city centered on geometric shapes and patterns.  From the gridline of streets and avenues to the sharp profiles of skyscrapers, the city’s countenance is shaped by human hands — not grown but engineered.  Even Central Park, the heaping helping of nature scooped into the trough of Manhattan, is bounded by perfectly rectangular borders.  Winter seems to makes these lines clearer, starker, as trees lose their leaves and become another instance of the patterns of lines and angles, a desolate mathematical beauty that begins to merge with the regular tessellation of fire escapes and the crisscrossed burrowing of subway trains.

Los Angeles, CA

Christmas in Los Angeles means something different to you, you who have never celebrated any Christmas, let alone a white one.  There’s no muffled snowfall, no bootprints in blanketed white forests — just the normal buzz of traffic and some palm trees with extra tinsel.  The city of Los Angeles sprawls across southern California, indolent in the heat, covered by a blanket of azure sky pulled up to the neck of the San Gabriels.  Emerald lawns sparkle in the dew of industrial sprinkler systems, bringing color to the lavish front lawns of Beverly Hills, the pristine golf course on Sepulveda Pass, the glamorous cemeteries of the rich and famous.  It’s seventy degrees on Christmas day, so you hide in an air conditioned movie theater along with half your suburb.  Maybe you think about going to the beach, but the chill of the Pacific knows no season.  Winter in Los Angeles is like summer in Los Angeles, the season only given away by the crisp, cold mornings’ condensation on your windshield that turns to rivulets as the sun rises over Mulholland.  L.A. will always be strip malls on Ventura Boulevard, will always be houses perched precariously in Laurel Canyon, will always be billboards and lights and freeways.  It is timeless, a snow globe without the snow.  Unlike San Francisco or New York, cities defined by their geography, the L.A. downtown rises from nothing in the middle of a wide basin, buildings stretching up to pierce the sky like a blossom of crystals.  Lattices of concrete and steel build and grow on top of each other, amethyst windowpanes budding and duplicating, and though the landscape changes, to you this wonderland is always the same, always home, in a way that nothing else will ever be.  To you, it is truly crystallized, lapidified, and though crystal-gazers will stare at this snow globe trying to pierce the veil of celebrity and scry the next trend poised to erupt from Los Angeles and ripple over the country, the warm winters remind you that L.A. will always be there as you remember it, always be there when you need it.

SPRING

Chicago, IL

It takes you a while to make it to Chicago, despite its promise and its prominence.  O’Hare and Midway seem to be just that — midway, stopping points on journeys elsewhere.  Even once you reach Chicago, the city takes its time to reveal itself.  It seems backwards, twisted, because it runs headlong into an endless body of water on the east, not the west.  But once you travel down the Chicago River, the buildings unfold.  The water runs through skyscrapers and high rises like a twisting river through a canyon, cutting a path through glass and steel and concrete the way a stream wears down rock and stone.  The walls of this constructed canyon are tall, perilously steep, and getting taller everywhere as cranes sweep back and forth in a delicate ballet of ballast and beams.  Every turn of the river reveals new views, new petals of Chicago’s blooming skyline.  The downtown district seems massive, full of skyscrapers everywhere you look, and you feel like an explorer on a boat through uncharted territory. Between the modern mirrored glass facades are glimpses back in time, staid concrete behemoths as well preserved as Sue the tyrannosaurus.  Older buildings, adorned and crenelated, face jutting slabs of sparse modernism, and through it all the river winds on and on until it deposits you at the edge of the steel blossom, back in districts with wide streets and brick low rises, the wind rising off the lake and pushing you away from downtown, back west, faster than you wanted it to push.

Eugene, OR

It’s green in Eugene — so many shades of green that you struggle to describe them all, the emeralds and jades and celadons that cover everything, even seem to tint the slate, overcast skies.  But the greens are deep, rich; none of the shades are sickly or yellowed or look anything other than acutely alive.  The city looks alive, too, and like it emerged from the ground, shouldering aside vines and trees as it thrust and clawed upwards.  The land in Eugene wasn’t bulldozed and leveled and constructed on — the buildings emerged as part of the landscape, draped in verdure like a cloak.  The effect is more primordial than houses have a right to be, but Eugene nevertheless feels lush and somehow old, a somnolent titan waking from underneath the earth and slowly shrugging off the moss.

Whitefish, MT

The size and grandeur of Montana are spellbinding.  You’ve spent the last three days driving here from California, watching the landscape transform from redwood forests to the Columbia River gorge, then swell into the rolling hills of eastern Washington and the lakes and valleys of Idaho.  But Montana is on an entirely different scale than anything else you’ve driven through, like someone found the corner of the landscape and dragged it up and out, scaling everything up and up and up.  From a distance, the Rocky Mountains seem impossibly large, behemoth stone gargoyles perched on the horizon; at their feet the Rockies are simply unfathomable. It’s still chilly before Memorial Day, and Glacier National Park still looks the part, with snowdrifts in the upper crevasses of the mountains that make them seem even larger, even more looming.  Glacier is a place where nature dominates, and the manmade additions — the giant lodges, the enormous cabins, the roads blasted through the rock — simply pale in comparison.  Every winter Montana swallows them up one by one, yet every spring the lodges and roads are thawed and returned to civilization, doled back out as if for good behavior.  The cycle goes on, year after year.  Freeze and thaw, melt and ice.  Winter and summer and winter again, season after season, our cities standing like pillars of rock amid crashing ocean waves.

Little Trouble in Big China

In the last six months, I’ve spent about twenty days in China — twenty-five if you count Hong Kong and Macau.  I would not consider myself an expert in any regard (at 26, I’m hard pressed to think it’s possible for me to be an expert about anything, really), but I find the place fascinating, and I’ve tried to unravel what goes on behind the scenes there many, many times in my head.  I don’t think I’ve been successful, but it at least means I have some stories.

*

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A R R I V A L

Light.

There’s light everywhere in China.  Not just the blinding fluorescent light that douses any airport in any country — there to help you forget what godforsaken hour it is in this part of the world — but lights of every color, every shape, a colorful panoply of illumination that pulls your eyes in every direction at once.  Giant Chinese characters burning with lambent neon fire, colossal LCD billboards shining like squat searchlights in the night, scrolling LED signs playing message after message written by some calligraphic pointillist.  If territorial holdings were what ensured the sun never set on the British empire, it’s technological holdings that make certain the sun will never truly set on the Chinese empire.

(more…)

Flight 1964

Every time I fly back from a trip home to southern California, which I seem to do in fairly regular three- or four-month intervals, I take the same flight.  Not always the same number, I suppose, but the same flight path, the same rituals, the same trip: a Southwest flight from Burbank to San Jose.  It’s about an hour gate-to-gate — forty-five minutes in the air — or just about long enough for the flight attendants to sprint down the aisle and throw peanuts at me before we start our descent.  It’s a great flight, Burbank may be the easiest airport in the world to fly out of, and Southwest is pretty cheap.  So why would I ever change the itinerary?

The one thing I do change, I suppose, is the side of the plane that I sit on.  Most of the time this comes down to where my carryon fits, since Southwest has this (possibly Marxist?) no-assigned-seats policy, but it gives me dramatically different views of southern California as I leave.  When Southwest takes off from Burbank, the runways point south, so the plane has to wheel around after takeoff to avoid taking us all to Tijuana or — god forbid — Long Beach.  That means if you sit on the left side of the plane you’re on the outside of the turn, and there’s a brief moment after the wheels retract and before the plane starts to bank that you can see the Los Angeles skyline emerge from between two hills that separate the valley from the LA basin, sliding into view as the plane rotates.  The LA skyline isn’t a skyline that rushes to the water, buildings elbowing each other out of the way in a rush to reach the shore; there’s no precipitous architectural cliff that tumbles from the city into the ocean, like the canyons of New York or San Francisco or Boston or Seattle.  Like everything else in Los Angeles, the skyline is sprawling and bizarrely positioned, spikes of steel and glass that rear out of the middle of, well, nowhere really and stretch towards the sky, metal fingers jutting from the impossibly flat sea of the basin like a slowly sinking ship.  Then the plane starts to bank and LA is swallowed by the sky, sometimes smoggy and gray, sometimes clear and cerulean, but always hungry.  By the time the plane levels out it’s hills and farmland and sometimes the coast until the pilot announces the descent back to San Jose.

On the right side of the plane, the inside of the turn, the views are very different.  Burbank looks like a grid of gray roads and grayer buildings, and when the plane starts to bank your eyes are drawn to a cemetery, the lone patch of green seemingly for miles.  The cemetery is beautiful in its own way, as individual plots blur and smear into a greenish-gray hole in the city, but it’s certainly not as striking as a skyline.  The cemetery always makes me think about who’s buried there, under the shadows of countless flights, the eyes of innumerable passengers — voyeurs, always looking at the stones, but never able to read them.  Then the plane starts to level out and it’s hills and farmland and sometimes some mountains until the pilot announces the descent back to San Jose. 

As for the landing, well, I’m usually too immersed in a book to notice anything until wheels hit tarmac.  Maybe the next flight I’ll pay more attention, but that would involve changing my mental itinerary.

die Sonne

An observation, which comes from a vacation I just took to Germany:

When you happen to find yourself on a train traveling from Munich, Germany to Salzburg, Austria, you have a lot of idyllic landscape to inhale.  But the stunning thing is that as you travel from one perfectly bucolic farm to the next, each rustically charming farmhouse (German: Farmhaus) you pass has one thing in common with its predecessors: a solar panel array on the most south-facing part of the roof.

Germany is a paragon of renewable power, to say the least.  It’s amazing what the right tax credits and incentives can do.  But the kicker lies in these two maps.

Pvgis_Europe-solar_opt_publication

NREL_USA_PV_map_hi-res_2008

These are equivalent maps — both show the total incident solar energy on a square meter solar panel tilted optimally towards the sun — but unfortunately, the colors don’t quite match up.  The map of Europe is in kWh/m²/year and the U.S. is in kWh/m²/day (hey, but at least it’s not hp/ft²/day, right?).  Multiplying the U.S.’s scale by 365.25 means the darkest red should be about 2447 kWh/m²/year — more than the darkest red of the Europe map.  The part of Germany I was traveling through on train is pretty solidly mindaro-colored, equivalent to about 1350 kWh/m²/year.  That works out to 3.70 kWh/m²/day, or a nice shade of emerald.

You know, emerald.  The same color as SEATTLE.

Pictured: our solar-powered future.

Gangnam Style

I just want to mention that I was actually in Gangnam for a day this summer.  And it’s pretty much exactly like Psy says it is.  Ridiculous cars, ridiculous outfits, locomotion via jockey-miming, the whole deal.

My only regrets are not getting awesome sunglasses and maroon slacks.

Whiskey Physics

When I ordered a scotch on the rocks in Korea, I was given this:

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That, as you’re probably wondering, is a single spherical ice cube.  A scotch on the rock.  Now, perfectly spherical ice cube molds are probably much harder to make and handle than an ice tray, so why go to the trouble?  Aesthetics?

Well, no.  (Though the sphere was almost the same diameter as the glass, which was pretty cool.)  The answer, of course, is science.

Let’s talk about ice: ice cools your drink.  How exactly does it do that?  At the most basic level, it’s because the universe really likes things to be the same — nature abhors a vacuum and all that.  In terms of temperature, which can be loosely defined as a measure of the speed of the atoms in an object, this manifests in what we call “heat transfer,” the transfer of kinetic energy from a collection of fast-moving particles (a hot thing) to a collection of slower-moving particles (a less hot thing) until the two objects have roughly the same internal kinetic energy (or, in other words, are about the same temperature).  In my drink example, the part of the slow-moving collection of particles is played by Mr. Ice Sphere, while the role of the fast particles is tonight filled by Mr. Been Sitting on a Shelf Room Temperature Scotch Whisky.

When you place the ice sphere in the glass and poor the scotch over it, heat transfer occurs — it’s not that the ice cools the scotch off, but rather that the ice and the scotch try to get to a common temperature that’s somewhere between the ice’s starting temperature and the scotch’s.  This is an exponential process governed by Fourier’s law, which you need a course in vector calculus to fully appreciate but generally states that the flow of heat between two objects is proportional to the difference in temperature between them and the surface area the heat flows through:

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Initially, the ice is quite cold but the scotch, which has been sitting on a shelf in South Korea in the summertime, is quite tepid — so that temperature difference is very large and dominates the system’s behavior, which tends to cool your drink off very quickly.  Because the equilibrium temperature is much closer to the ice’s starting temperature than the scotch’s and since this step happens relatively rapidly, very little of the ice melts, regardless of the ice’s shape.

But — after the ice has sat in the scotch for a few seconds, that temperature difference is very small, and so heat transfer tends to happen much more slowly.  This is where surface area and the geometry of a sphere come in to play — ideally, no ice would melt while you drink your scotch, keeping all that woody, smokey flavor cold without watering it down, but since the liquid and ice are in contact with the outside air that’s impossible in practice.  Instead, barkeepers can only try to keep the ice intact as long as possible, and that means they must minimize the only thing in Fourier’s law they have any control over: the ice’s surface area.

You’ve probably guessed at this point what shape minimizes surface area for a given volume — the humble sphere.*

It’s exactly that property that makes spherical ice cubes cool (pun most definitely intended).  Since they have a smaller surface area than an equivalent volume of normal ice cubes, they can keep your drink just as cold, but will melt more slowly, letting you savor your scotch and escape the sweltering South Korean summer that much longer.

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* I tried to think of a rigorous proof of this, but couldn’t come up with one… Math-inclined readers, suggestions welcome.  I can only offer the fact that the surface area to volume ratio monotonically decreases for Platonic solids with increasing numbers of faces, and logically it makes sense that a sphere would continue this trend.  Proof by hand-waving.**

** Which is better than the math professor I had who taught me about the Platonic solids and occasionally invoked “proof by intimidation.”