2011 Train Trip — Union Station

I recently had one of my best vacations ever, travelling by Amtrak from Los Angeles to Chicago and back (with some side trips by car thrown in). It was lovely, though of course it chewed up a couple of extra travel days. Totally worth it!

I rode out on the Amtrak Southwest Chief, from Los Angeles’s Union Station (LAX) towards Chicago’s Union Station (CHI), and the first nice thing about it was that I didn’t have to go to the “other LAX”, Los Angeles International Airport, a well-known hellmouth. In fact, I just had my friend and cat-sitter Beverly drop me off at LA’s North Hollywood Metro Station (about 10 miles from my house), and took the Metro Red Line in to Union Station, along with my bags.

Ah, the bags. Let’s start with those. Amtrak allows you up to 3 bags checked luggage, up to 50 pounds each, and two carry-on bags (also 50 pounds each), as well as any personal items such as a laptop bag. I knew that I’d be walking with my bags, so I bought two light, cheap rollers bags (one of them a garment bag), and a large light duffel bag. That meant that I could roll along with the duffel on top of the garment roller bag, and the laptop bag on top of the smaller roller bag. All pretty easy to cope with, so long as it didn’t rain (as someone from L.A., I did not plan for rain). I’ll have to think about a solution for that in future; as it was, I lucked out.

Arriving at Union Station about an hour before departure (cutting it a bit close), I could see several long lines, but these appeared to be coach check-ins for specific trains. Hey, a booth for general Amtrak Info, and ooh, no line!

Me (indicating luggage, showing ticket): “Checking bags for Southwest Chief?”

Information Clerk: “Yes, you should still have time to check bags for that train. Go to the Amtrak Ticket Office, right around there.”

So that made sense: If you have to check any luggage, you do that at the ticket office, just as for plane travel. Well, I was only going to being checking my large duffel bag. And yay, almost no line!

Ticket Clerk: “Ok, checking one bag. No drugs, no food, no electronics?”
Me: “That’s right.”

She does some bag-checking stuff, and has me put my bag on the scale. It’s a bit heavy.

Ticket Clerk (skeptically): “No drugs, no food, no electronics?”
Me (huh?): “Right.”

Ticket Clerk (sternly): “What’s in the bag, sir?”
Me (must be the beard): “Um, books…why, is it too heavy?”

She gives me a look like, “What the hell, you’re harmless — why are you wasting my time?”

Ticket Clerk (dismissively): “No, you’re fine, sir.”

And that was that. No metal detectors, no naked-body scanners, no blue-gloved groping. When I returned to LA later I noticed some cops with sniffer dogs in various other parts of the station, but they never hassled me.

I had reserved a room in a Sleeper Car for my journey, and it turns out that Sleeper Car passengers are considered to be traveling First Class. The first evidence of this was when I asked what track my train was coming in on.

“Are you traveling by sleeper?”
“Why, yes I am.”
“Just wait right here, sir. A tram will be by in just a moment to take you to your track.”

And sure enough, a nice lady drove up, grabbed my bags and those of several others travelling by sleeper in the same train, checked our tickets, collected a few coach passengers to fill up the tram, and whisked us away, down the corridors, up a ramp, and out onto the platform.

Of course, she had to drive through a crowd of people heading for their trains, but the crowd parted magically before her, none of them having to work any harder than pigeons have to work to avoid your car — step, step, step.

She stopped the tram, turned to me and said, “You sit tight, sir. I’m going to let these people off, and then I’ll take you right to your car.” And so she did, backing up the tram along the crowded platform until she arrived at the chosen spot. My train wasn’t even there yet (it was just pulling up as she dropped me off), but sure enough, she literally dropped me off right in front of my very train car, got my bags, accepted my tip, and took off to take the next group of people to be literally in front of their car. Nice!

Each sleeper car on a train has a number for that trip, so there’s an electronic display on each sleeper car showing the number (mine was 0430).

We were each greeted by our car’s attendant (each sleeper car has its own, who is with you for the entire trip), and were told where to find our rooms. I put my big garment bag in the communal carry-on baggage storage area (each sleeper car has its own), but took my smaller roller bag to my room, on the advice of the attendant — “It’ll fit really well on that ledge: that’s what I do!” In the end, I put my roller bag in my room where they expect you to hang your suit and jacket. I like my way because there’s a strap to secure it, and because it left the other ledge free. My laptop bag fit neatly on a shelf beneath that ledge, too — snug!

My roomette was bathed in air-conditioned comfort, and I was off!

Sean Meets the Face-Blindness Live and In-Person

I’ve written before, many times, about my horrible face-blindness.

My son Sean recounts a recent misadventure:

Our first La Mirada Disc Golf Saturday trip this year began with Dad and I making our ritual trip to McDonald’s for sweet, sweet Egg McMuffin action. The drive-through line was packed, and time was running out, so we ran inside.

I go to the fountain to fill my soda while Dad received our food, and I turn around to see him holding our bags and looking around, as though I had vanished into thin air (not an unfamiliar expression). I approach him with a wave of my drink hand, and start to say something as I get within I-know-you range of him. He gives me this look, like, you’re way too close to me; you are probably a crazy person in McDonald’s, and pushes me aside. He marches to the soda machine, puts his hand on the shoulder of a young 5’7″ half-Asian guy with short brown hair, a tee-shirt and shorts, says “Hey, boy, ready t… oh I’m so sorry, I thought you were my son,” as the stranger gives him the now-familiar you are probably a crazy person in McDonald’s look.

Now, admittedly, I am young, have short brown hair, and was, at the time, wearing a tee-shirt and shorts. But, he had to push the real Sean Chappell out of his way (waving a drink!) in order to confuse/distress this vague half-Asian approximation of me. Dad immediately realized that the weirdo he’d been recently accosted by was probably the next best guess as to where Waldo was, so we very quickly scrambled out of there.

Dad had, in the past, shared his harrowing tales of picking me up from school and having to guess at the identity of every vaguely-me person walking in his general direction (okay, he’s about Sean’s height; he’s walking right towards me, Sean would do that; he’s saying ‘Hi Dad’, there’s no one behind me; he’s probably Sean).

I never fully understood/believed these stories until that McDonald’s incident, but to Dad’s credit… I’ve known him my whole life and it took me this long to see the face-blindness rear its ugly head, so that’s pretty impressive coping.

In my defense, I think Sean must have been approaching me from my blind side (because I have some actual-blindness in addition to the face- kind, and I just literally didn’t see him as I brushed by him to accost his half-asian Doppelgänger. But yep, that’s my life, 24/7.

Gin, Television, and Social Surplus

Clay Shirky has a wonderful short post on the Cognitive Surplus, and which, as a bonus, may nudge you to do something else, anything else, rather than passively consume more entertainment:

Did you ever see that episode of Gilligan’s Island where they almost get off the island and then Gilligan messes up and then they don’t? I saw that one. I saw that one a lot when I was growing up. And every half-hour that I watched that was a half an hour I wasn’t posting at my blog or editing Wikipedia or contributing to a mailing list. Now I had an ironclad excuse for not doing those things, which is none of those things existed then. I was forced into the channel of media the way it was because it was the only option. Now it’s not, and that’s the big surprise. However lousy it is to sit in your basement and pretend to be an elf, I can tell you from personal experience it’s worse to sit in your basement and try to figure if Ginger or Mary Ann is cuter.

Read the full article — it’s great! — here.

On The Bike Again

…after too long off it.

16 miles, riding in the hills near my house in Sunland on Sunday, took my pulse rate up to 163 beats per minute, almost 98% of my theoretical maximum (which, if you’re not too familiar with typical pulse meter readings, is more or less stunning).

My breathing has been stellar the last few days, so I’m guessing that the high pulse rate is due to:
    (a) 13 months off the bike, and
    (b) the recent ALYX blood donation, which takes a double-dose of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. I’ve read complaints from athletes that it makes a noticeable difference, compared to a normal donation.

I’m lucky to have these lovely hills so close that I can literally step out of the house, hop on the bike, and be among them just a few minutes later.

I didn’t have any problem actually climbing the darn hills; the only limiting factor was some lower-back pain, and then last night, some leg cramping, both of which definitely have to do with lack of practice.

On Big Tujunga Canyon road, an evil hill
On Big Tujunga Canyon road, an evil hill.

Next up: a longer ride later this week!

Flowers and Blood

I went to buy some flowers yesterday (having taken Good Friday off), because I have some nice vases at home, and I decided that I liked having some cut flowers around the house.

I picked out a few loose flowers, including one of Sylvia’s favorites, the Stargazer Lily, and had them make up a nice arrangement for about $25:

Good Friday Flowers

…and then while I was at the flower shop, I saw a bloodmobile ad for a blood drive at the church where I go to vote, so I went down there to check if they could fit me in, and they said, “Sure!”, so I made an appointment, took my flowers home and came back and donated.

It was the first time that I’d given blood where they take a double-size donation of red blood cells, separate out the plasma and return it to you for you to cherish.

Here’s a picture of the ALYX machine, separating my blood into flavors. It has three pouches on the left, and you can see the whole blood going into the right-most pouch of the three, the red blood cells being accumulated in the middle pouch, and the plasma on the left waiting to be fed back into me. Technology!

ALYX Blood Donation

They do it all with just the one needle in your arm, and an automated blood pressure cuff. First the cuff presses down, and the right-hand pouch fills maybe quarter-full or so with whole blood, and ALYX works on separating it into parts into the other pouches, and then at some point the cuff lets up, and you feel a chill as the left-hand pouch is emptied and the plasma is returned. Then it repeats for maybe four or five cycles. Takes about 10 minutes longer than a regular donation, but with all the paperwork and waiting and so forth, it’s a huge win all around to get what is effectively a double donation in so short an additional time.

Seriously, though, I can’t imagine (or can barely imagine) thinking about that problem and saying, “Sure, we could build that!”

Sylvia Chappell Memorial Fund at Kiva.org

Sylvia ChappellSeveral people have asked if there is some memorial that they could donate to in memory of Sylvia, so I have set up an account at the Kiva.org micro-lender in her name.

Anyone who is interested can just send a Kiva.org gift certificate to sylviachappell@gmail.com.

I will lend the money out to third-world entrepreneurs in her name, and as the loans are repaid, will initiate new loans to new entrepreneurs.

You can track the progress of the loans initiated by the fund here.

…and isn’t this a lovely photo of Sylvia, by the way? Look at that smile!

This American Life — “Bad Bank”

Where you’ll hear a former IMF economist paraphrase a global bank’s recent strategic white paper as:

“That sure is a nice global economy you’ve got there…
…Be a shame if anything were to happen to it…”

This is the third big program on the economy from the This American Life/National Public Radio team that brought you The Giant Pool of Money and Another Frightening Show About the Economy.

Listen to the full episode by going to the Bad Bank program page at This American Life,
and hit refresh if you don’t see the Full Episode download link.

“Bad Bank”
February 27, 2009

Explanation For ‘Face Blindness’ Offered

From ScienceDaily.com:

For the first time, scientists have been able to map the disruption in neural circuitry of people suffering from congenital prosopagnosia, sometimes known as face blindness, and have been able to offer a biological explanation for this intriguing disorder.

…[U]nlike that of normal brains, there was a reduction in the integrity of the white matter tracts in the brains of individuals with congenital prosopagnosic. Moreover, the extent of the reduced white matter circuitry was related to the severity of the behavioral impairment.

…People with congenital prosopagnosia are not able to recognize faces, while the ability to recognize other objects may be relatively intact.

…So far, few successful therapies have been developed for affected people, although individuals often learn to use feature-by-feature recognition strategies or secondary clues such as hair color, body shape and voice. Because the face seems to function as an important identifying feature in memory, it can also be difficult for people with this condition to keep track of information about people, and socialize normally with others.

[T]hese individuals appear not to be able to compensate for their inability to recognize faces even though they have had ample opportunity to do so over the course of development,” said Marlene Behrmann, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon.

Behrmann said the team was excited by the possibility that the failure to propagate signals between different regions of the brain might provide a biological explanation for this perplexing disorder.

So distressing to have myself and my face-blind peers around the world referred to as “[T]hese individuals”, and have our brains presented in stark contrast to “normal brains”.

On the other hand, you’d have to say that normal people, when picking up their son at school, wouldn’t have to stare into the crowd on Day 3,000 and wonder if that kid was the one. And really, on balance, it’s a relief to know that there’s a real physical reason for it, and not me just being goofy.

Read the full article in Science Daily.
November 28, 2008

As well, here’s something that made me laugh out loud when I saw it used recently on a forum: someone had posted a message about some subject (as it might be, face blindness), and someone else had posted a reply, asking for a link to more information on the topic. In short order, a link had been posted in a reply, along these lines:

“Sure, it’s here.”

Oh, that made me laugh and laugh.