Bounce Trip: IAD

This week included a "bounce" trip to DC, in order to give a presentation at a conference. The conference center (more about that later) has a shuttle straight to and from IAD, so I flew BOS-IAD (and actually got bumped to First Class... whoah).

Arriving at the terminal building, I had to look up at the soaring ceiling, and say, "Yep, very nice, Mr. Saarinen."

If you didn't see it previously, I geeked out about Eero Saarinen, the architect, on a previous trip to DC. There was an exhibit at the National Building Museum; one of my reactions was:

As much as I harsh on modernism, Saarinen aesthetics were pretty spectacular--they really create this 1960's-Jetsons-here's-our-cool-future aesthetic that gives me nostalgia for an era before my time.

If you care for more photos of the terminal, there are a bunch of them at Great Buildings Online. The night photos are quite striking.

The other fun thing about Dulles is that it has these ridiculous-looking "mobile lounges," to take passengers to and from the concourse buildings. They link up to the main building, and look for all the world like goofy 1970's science fiction prop vehicles, with big balloon tires, and a cab that rises up and down:

I have always chortled at the name, "mobile lounge." Oh yeah, set us up with a disco ball, some beanbag chairs, and a thumpin' bass sound system, and I think we're all set. Although that red carpet really has to go...

I have long wondered, "Did they not realize that, just maybe, a tunnel connecting these buildings might not be a bad idea? Like every other airport that I've been in?! Well... as usual, Wikipedia to the rescue:

Dulles is one of the few remaining airports to use the "mobile lounges" and "plane mates" for boarding and disembarkation from aircraft, to transfer passengers between the midfield concourses and to and from the main terminal building. ... The MWAA plans to retire the mobile lounge system for inter-terminal passenger movements in favor of the underground people mover and pedestrian walkway system (now in service to concourse B). However, some plane mates will remain in use to disembark international passengers and carry them to the International Arrivals Building, as well as to convey passengers to and from aircraft on hard stand (i.e., those parked remotely on the apron without access to jet bridges).

Aha... the original plan was to use these mobile lounges to link up directly with aircraft! Fair enough--check out the Plane Mate manufacturer's page... lower down on the page they show that linkup... pretty neat.

Anyway, it sounds like the "mobile lounges" are being replaced by an automated tramway system. Unbelievably, I had time at Dulles, but failed to earmark time to check out their geeky exhibit on the tramway. Dammit!

I actually walked by the tramway without noticing--I was taking a shot of the neat structural elements here... those closed in glass areas are the tramways. My flight was out of one of the D gates, which is not connected by the tramway system.

I hopped the shuttle to my conference--it was being held at the National Conference Center (NCC)--it is absolutely gigantic, out in (formerly) middle-of-nowhere Virgina... but now being surrounded by brand-new exurban townhouses. But check it out--they have postcards of this place... wow... that rivals airport postcards in ridiculousness!

The interior is filled with windowless conference rooms, and you can get completely turned around very easily (okay, where is N4-226?). Check out the aerial view... it seems like some type of insane ancient fortification or step-pyramid ruin in its architectural style.

It made me want to riff into...

[PBS Announcer Voice:] The ancient Ziggurats of N'CC, located on the banks of the Potomac River, were only recently re-discovered by explorers this past decade. Its structures enclose 265,000 square feet (24,600 m2), and contain 250 conference rooms, an athletic facility, and 917 guest rooms. The best reconstruction of the historical record show that it was hewn from the raw forests of Virginia circa 1970. Its maze-like passages were known to have trapped countless conference attendees, who were forced to subsist on cookies and coffee from the break stations until they could find their way out again. Archaeologists are still working to decipher the color coding of their mysterious "living-learning modules." It still stands today as a testament to the technical prowess and fortitude of the Beltwei peoples.

Overall, though: traveling ~8 hours round trip to give a 1-1/2 hour presentation... man, that's pretty rough on the system. Ugh. Hey, it's Friday now.


Healthcare Costs and Life Expectancy

I am embarrassed to admit that I have not been following the health care story nearly as closely as I should be (yes, I do know the headlines, and have read a bunch of articles). I found a Frontline documentary from 2008 very informative (Sick Around the World):

In Sick Around the World, FRONTLINE teams up with veteran Washington Post foreign correspondent T.R. Reid to find out how five other capitalist democracies -- the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, Taiwan and Switzerland -- deliver health care, and what the United States might learn from their successes and their failures.

I was surprised to find out that Switzerland was actually a country that had only implemented public health care within recent memory (1994), and it came from a private system similar to the US. Just something that gave some hope, during the debate.

I also recommend this Atlantic article ("How American Health Care Killed My Father"):

After the needless death of his father, the author, a business executive, began a personal exploration of a health-care industry that for years has delivered poor service and irregular quality at astonishingly high cost. It is a system, he argues, that is not worth preserving in anything like its current form. And the health-care reform now being contemplated will not fix it. Here’s a radical solution to an agonizing problem.

One thing that I have heard over and over again in the debate is that the United States has the highest per capita health care costs, but with completely mediocre results, by any metric. I did some web-sleuthing to see if I could find a plot or something along those lines. Google to the rescue--a Columbia prof plotted per capita healthcare expenditures against life expectancy (his full blog post here).

Wow. I say again, wow. The US is even more of an outlier than it was in the religiosity-vs.-income post from a few years ago. It's impressive just to look at these first-world countries that have no problem maintaining good lifespans while spending roughly half of the US amount; the professor's blog post has a less streamlined scatter plot, but with even more countries on it.

Overall, I am glad that this country is starting to move towards the rest of the world in terms of having a more-rational health care system (at least I hope so). But I am afraid that I am not very hopeful on the plan's ability to bring costs down... which, if you look at the graph, seems to be the fundamental problem.

Anyway, as a last note--the Atlantic had a post (Understanding How Health Care Reform Will Affect You):

Last night the House of Representatives passed the Senate health care bill, and the Democrats' year of living flirtatiously with failure ended with what I would call the greatest progressive achievement of the last two generations. We -- that is you, me, and everyone we know -- have spent months wrangling over the implications of health care on the deficit and the cost curve and the tenor of DC politics. But now that the bill has become a law, the most useful approach to health care is to servicey rather than debatey: so what does it mean for you, anyway?

It included a useful link to a Washington Post interactive tool "...that asks users to enter their source of health care (employer, Medicare, etc), household members, marital status and income, which it uses to calculate how the new health care law will affect you." I tried it out: it claims that there will be no change in my insurance coverage, and I will not pay additional taxes. Fair enough... let's keep an eye on all of this.


DIY Biohazard Remediation

S. is going away for two weeks for a business trip to Europe, so while I was at her place this weekend, I took it upon myself to clear out the perishable items that wouldn't last the trip. It started out innocuously enough... here's a slightly soft red pepper that I can cook tomorrow... a bag of Brussels sprouts, and some grapes. A plastic bag with... uh... three-week old restaurant leftovers. Fair enough; she's been slammed for the past few weeks.

Then I started digging through the deeper parts of the shelves. And checking the dates on the package. For example... Egg Beaters from August 2009? Uhhh.. whuuuuh....

Wow... I didn't realize that you could make-your-own Craisins. But with a bag of cranberries, undisturbed refrigerator storage, and enough patience... voila!

And on this shelf... yogurt from January 2009? Aieee!

But the winner was when I picked up a half-carton of eggs.... and they felt... well, way too light. I took out an egg, and it felt hollow. Nope... no holes in the eggshell. Don't tell me that these eggs actually evaporated away through their shells?!? Let's check the date... May 2009?!?! Oh no, sweetie.... [facepalm]

I had to admit that I was incredibly curious, so I had to (cautiously) crack one open. It appears that the white had completely evaporated, and that the yolk (which contains fat) was frozen.

Anyway, I made dinner tonight using those "fridge saves" (red pepper and Brussels sprouts). But as for the rest... well, let's just say that the garbage disposal and my compost bin ate well this weekend.

For the record, I am officially putting A. and JMD on notice--you are no longer in the running for worst fridge management results among my circle of friends.

Oh, and in case any of you were wondering--S. and I had a huge laugh over all of this. I was hesitant to blog this, but she said that I definitely should... I hope that you might share this laugh with us.

Cutting the Cable...

Recently, JMD and I were discussing our cable bill: it is ~$120/month for internet & cable TV (basic package; no premium channels). Yuck. I had previously assumed that JMD wanted cable TV (since she signed us up for it), but she actually remarked that she didn't want it anymore--especially because they were about to jack rates an additional $10/month. So the cable box got disconnected, and [gulp] all of it was returned to the company. I believe that our rates are going to go down by ~$40/month (internet only).

Those of you who know me probably are aware of this, but my television watching is pretty minimal. Maybe 75% PBS, 20% Discovery Channel, with a smattering of other things (the odd hockey game, TLC, History Channel). Also, DVDs, NetFlix/Amazon on demand, iTunes movies, or downloaded video files (via my hacked together media station). So I didn't think of it as that much of a loss.

My plan was to grab an antenna, in order to tune in boring, old, over-the-airwaves digital TV. However, I thought, "Huh... I could just plug the cable into the back of the TV and see if it picks up anything..." Well...

Schweet! With a built-in digital tuner, it picked up the unscrambled on-air channels from the cable no problem--including all the on-air HD channels. No idea if this is going away in a month or not--but it seems like it might be more of a pain than it is worth for the cable company to shut off over-the-air channels on their existing infrastructure. And if they do... well, oh noes, back to the plan of installing an antenna.

But I quickly realized: all that I really had lost (in my TV selection) was Discovery Channel. So wait...we were paying an extra $40 a month just for Discovery Channel? As well as whatever JMD was watching (TNT? the Law and Order channel?) Not to mention the privilege of not getting HDTV?! (the cable company was going to charge extra for an HDTV cable box). Dammit! That would have been a nice dinner every month for how many years now?!?

The New York Times actually had an article talking about the phenomenon of "cable cutters"--Changing Channels, From Cable to the Web:

...people who do watch television — sometimes plenty of it — but don’t own a cable box.

Those who belong to this crowd are only too happy to remind you that they can watch most of what you watch, but don’t pay $60 a month or more for the privilege. They will explain gleefully how they (legally, for the most part) circumvent the cable companies. And they are becoming more voluble, as cable bills rise and technology improves.


It’s impossible to quantify how many people have ditched their cable service, and the cable providers are eager to paint them as a minority fringe. But with devices like Xbox and Apple TV and software like Boxee making it easy to stream Internet content to a television, mention the phenomenon in just about any gathering, and someone is likely to pipe up about his or her way of watching cable free. And, yes, by and large they do enjoy making other people jealous.

However, it is only seen as a fringe element... although given how various internet appliances are making entertainment convergence that much easier for the masses, this might not be a fringe trend forever:

Cable executives say they are not worried. Setting up a cable-free life is still too daunting for most people, since most of the work-arounds involve a lot more than just grabbing the remote (assuming you can find it under the sofa cushions).

“We don’t consider it a threat to our business,” said Maureen Huff, a spokeswoman for Time Warner Cable. “Being able to watch TV on the Internet is not new.”

Without question, the cost of watching television is going up: The average household cable bill in the United States hit $64 a month in 2009, up from $47.50 in 2004, according to Leichtman Research Group, which specializes in media research.

Even so, most cord cutters are “really just a bizarre breed of people, usually in New York or San Francisco, who don’t watch a lot of television in the first place,” said Bruce Leichtman, the president of the New Hampshire-based group.

I am betting that my audience here probably overrepresents folks who don't bother with cable TV. Anyway, while we're on the topic of television, I had to mention this Atlantic Monthly article ("The Future is Cheese"). It had a choice quote from the creator of the TV show Heroes, which made me laugh out loud:

Speaking at a screenwriter expo in Los Angeles, Tim Kring struggled to defend his sci-fi-tinged show, which has endured two seasons of faltering ratings. Heroes is presented in a serialized format, meaning that stories “arc” over the course of an entire season rather than conclude at the end of each episode, as in a sitcom, or a police procedural such as CSI or Law & Order. The serialized format is “a very flawed way of telling stories on network television right now,” a blogger quoted Kring as saying, “because of the advent of the DVR and online streaming. The engine that drove [serialized TV] was, you had to be in front of the TV [when it aired]. Now you can watch it when you want, where you want, how you want to watch it, and almost all of those ways are superior to watching it on-air.”

Then, in a fit of pique for which he is still apologizing, he said: “So on-air is [relegated] to the saps and the dipshits who can’t figure out how to watch it in a superior way.”

Saps and dipshits indeed. Yeah, I feel a bit of pity for folks who don't realize that there are options. Okay, not that much.

We Ate There... So You Don't Have To....

A few weeks ago, JMD, S. and I were on our way back from visiting Bird & Jen (Jen's welcome-home-coffee-hour), around dinnertime. As we were kicking around dinner ideas, one option was: ".... hey, what about that Tiki restaurant that you see from I-95?" Huh, sure... we were game. S. figured out the name and location on her iPhone; the place is Bali Hai, in Lynnfield. She even started reading us Yelp review--they were filled with snarky and amusing asides, and gave us a decent idea of what to expect:

The place is very retro, very dated, and the entryway has a smell of stale smoke. But it doesn't matter. The service was excellent. The decor is very classic, kitschy Polynesian. The food is ample and delicious. ....

If you can appreciate kitsch and like cheap food and drinks, and can designate a driver, this place is for you.


Like I said, I've never been to Bali Hai before. And upon entering, I also stumbled into some place I've never been before. The 1970s. In this case, though, that's not a bad thing. It makes for a good atmosphere. Polynesian Kitsch is what I'm gonna call it.

The food was alright. Nothing worth going here for alone. But it was cheap. There was a whole page of sub $5 menu items. But what's even cheaper than the food is the booze, and boy do they try to get you tanked! The drinks are just as fruity as any other chinese restaurants, with at least double the alcohol.

Okay: retro faux Polynesian and cheap drinks. Sure--worth a shot! Well, we got there, and my first reaction was, "Wow... it is a time warp!" A degree of sad rough-around-the-edgeness decay, with Powerball and Keno as the dominant notes of decor. Another thing in the lobby--a cigarette vending machine?!? Wow... I haven't seen one of them in ages.

So what do they have for cheap and potent retro-Polynesian drinks? Check out this Ty-D-Bol-esque combination. Cool. And wow... what a menu too!

Anyway, on to the food. Here's what $20 of appetizers ("Happy Talk Platter: Spare ribs, crab Rangoon, shrimp puffs, chicken wings") looked like.

Yeah, pretty terrifying. We barely put a dent into it, between the three of us. We also ordered another dish that involved chicken, Virginia ham (no lie!), and a fryolator. We had the exchange with our waitress: "It take long time." "Uh, really?" "20 minute." "No problem."

It ended up being hard nuggets of chicken wrapped around ham, fried into submission--kinda a chicken cordon jerky. Overall, I would describe the food as terrifyingly whitebread Chinese/Polynesian/kinda-Asian.

So overall, maybe with the right crowd--who would enjoy the hipster irony--this place would be entertaining. But our experience was mostly depressing (as well as heartburn-inducing). But like I wrote--we ate there... so you don't have to.


Back in the Saddle...

For those of you not on the East Coast, we have had a wonderful spate of great weather recently--sunny, and highs up in the 60s. Also, I have been gradually recovering from my flu/pneumonia mess. As a result: this Thursday was the first time I biked to work since--[embarrassing!]--February 5th!

It was nice to do that again--waiting for the bus can get really old. Plus the nice feeling of having a bit of a workout before and after work, and enjoying the sunshine.

Incidentally, I got to try out my new prescription sports sunglasses on this ride--they work pretty darn well. Some people might criticize flexible spending accounts (FSAs) as "helping the rich," but hey, I'm pretty happy to buy them with pre-tax dollars.

They are photosensitive, not straight-up sunglasses--so they are still useful after dark. They are Liberty Sport F8 Slams--strong recommend--wrap-around frame, and comes complete with an integrated brain strap. The frames are close-fitting enough that they touch my face--takes a little getting used to, but they are okay after that.

However, I have to admit that when the tinting turns "off," they do look pretty dorktastic (yeah, almost birth control device dorktastic). As evidenced by the photo above. Heck, S. even got in on the action too in this glamor shot (wearing Jean's new crocheted creation)!

Yeah, I think she needs to be flying an open-cockpit biplane with this outfit on.