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.

Tilted Twister: A LEGO Rubik’s Cube Solver

I had been thinking of getting a LEGO Mindstorms set, but wasn’t sure how much they could do.

Then I saw on the web that a fellow named Hans Andersson had designed a Rubik’s Cube solver that uses only the LEGO Mindstorms NXT Retail Kit.

Watch the video!

My LEGO Mindstorms NXT set is now on order, using my livesystems.com sale money.

I actually got a little more money than that, but of course I shared some with
Industry Figure Chris Gibson.

Initially he told me to just take all the money, but I protested:
“Surely you want half? Even Bill Gates gets half!” [Copyright 1997 TheOnion.com]

“Well, I don’t want to be as greedy as Bill Gates; give me a third,” he said, and so we did.

See full construction details for Tilted Twister, including software, at tiltedtwister.com.

livesystems.com, Mark 2

A previously-unknown Swiss guy, Yves Kilchenmann, contacted me out of the blue about buying my old domain, livesystems.com, and eventually we agreed upon a price, which is enough to put me into, for instance, a nice LEGO robotics set (actually a Danish product, but very possibly what I’m going to spend the money on).

Their building, in Switzerland:
The LiveSystems Building in Switzerland

Ooh…looks like I could have asked for more money, rats.

If you’re wondering about how strangers go about transacting a domain sale, we used escrow.com, and I was extremely pleased with their service — really great, I’ll totally use them again.

Here’s a link to an automatically translated version of the new livesystems.com site, via beloved Google.

DRM Worst-Case Scenario

Microsoft is [obviously] not going out of business any time soon, but it’s gotten to be just too much of a hassle for them to continue to support their PlaysForSure Digital Rights Management scheme that they pushed on device manufacturers and customers for years, before deciding that it wasn’t good enough for their own Zune.

They’ve notified their customers that no new authorizations for playing a given song on a given PC or a given device will be issued after August 31, though any existing authorizations will continue to work, as long as you’ve started to play the song at least once on the existing PC or device, and haven’t had to reinstall Windows, or purchased a new PC or device that you were hoping to play music on. Enjoy!

(“So, everybody run out and buy a Zune! We’ll never screw you over a second time!”)

One customer posted the text of the letter, along with his “snarky translation of the meaning”:

“MSN Music is constantly striving to provide you, our user, with the most compelling music experience that we can. We want to tell you about an upcoming change to our support service to ensure you have a seamless experience with the music you’ve downloaded from MSN Music.”

Translation: We’ve got bad news that’s really going to piss you off, and we need to soften you up first…

Read the full Dear-John Letter from MSN Music, and Translation

Good Movie: Ponette

It’s in French!

Ponette, a young girl, has recently lost her mother in an auto accident, but still sees her, sometimes.

Ponette (to the Dead Mom): Will you stay with me?

Dead Mom: No, I’m dead.

Ponette: Not anymore.

Dead Mom: I’m still a little dead.

The young actress, Victoire Thivisol, who plays Ponette, was discovered by director Jacques Doillon and cast as the title character at the age of 3 1/2. She does an astonishing job; I’m sure she has the most lines of anyone in the movie.