Welcome to Charming.... uh... Lowell?

"Hey Sarah, we have a free weekend! What do you want to do?"

"Well, Saturday is Smithsonian Museum Day--free admission to museums around the country."

"Cool! What's around here in Massachusetts?"

[Option... option... option...]

"How about the American Textile History Museum in Lowell?"

"Sure! I've wanted to spend some time exploring Lowell for a while..."

[Questioning look]


So yes, that's how my sweetie and I spent a day in Lowell--one of the classic old mill towns on the Merrimack River. Yeah, I know, like I don't spend enough of my work life looking at old mill buildings.

We started out with lunch--based on a Yelp hit, we chose a Laotian restaurant. We had the Homemade sausages (sai oua mou)--yummy, followed by sweetened natural purple rice with creamy coconut sauce and egg custard for dessert. A tasty and neat dish.... purple rice... wacky...

Then on to the museum!

The first part of the museum seemed a bit slow, but there were some cool discoveries. For instance, I really had no idea what linen (and flax) were, as a textile. It turns out that the flax plant takes a ridiculous amount of preparation to turn it into spinnable fibers, which is why cotton took over the market in a huge way once mechanization was used to process fibers. Many things that you would expect in a textile museum... the history of Lowell (it was actually a planned community, based on its location at the confluence of two rivers), stories of the textile workers, and the way the industry went into decline in the 1920's, when the jobs started shifting to the South.

Another interesting bit of trivia--I've long known that purple was the royal color in ancient times, because it was so expensive to dye cloth that color. But I didn't know why: Tyrian purple required catching and killing thousands of murex snails to make one ounce of dye ("The dye substance consists of mucous secretion from the hypobranchial gland of one of several medium-sized predatory sea snails found in the eastern Mediterranean"). And it was valuable as a color until synthetic aniline dyes came along.

Some of the more interesting stuff--they have a large collection of operational machinery, and they sometimes operate them. They showed videos of the machines while working, with explanations.

Then they got into the high tech uses of fabric and textiles. Carbon fiber, protective suits for firefighters, body armor--stuff like that. Also--airbags!

As well as astronaut gloves. They had a pretty clever exhibit--they pulled a vacuum on the clear box (note the clear rod in the middle, which keeps it from collapsing). You can stick your hand into it, and note how difficult it is to move with an atmosphere of pressure across the fabric. There were two right-hand gloves in the exhibit.

"This glove is a bit smaller... it fits much better."

"Uh, like a glove, sweetie?"

Wow... apparently these astronaut gloves are well-articulated enough that you can flip someone off.

After the museum closed, we wandered around the canal walks around Lowell--a good portion of the town is a National Historic Park. All of the exhibits were closed by the time we were wandering, but it was a nice walk.... including the canals...

...and some pretty buildings. Man... Lowell had serious money back in the day.

A very nice time. During our walk, there was only a small percentage of obvious gentrifiers vs. locals of various sorts... not sure if this will change over time, but they are definitely pushing the high end condo market. Anyway, we definitely want to go back sometime to explore the park... however, it closes for the season in a few weeks (October 11th).


PSA: Nextbus

That is, in fact, a public service announcement, not Prostate-Specific Antigen. Although I'm moving towards the age where I'll need to get that checked.

Anyway: this announcement is for the website NextBus--they have installed GPS units in buses, so that they can post predicted wait times for a bus on a given line (as per their "about" page):

NextBus uses satellite technology and advanced computer modeling to track vehicles on their routes. Each vehicle is fitted with a satellite tracking system.

Taking into account the actual position of the buses, their intended stops, and the typical traffic patterns, NextBus can estimate vehicle arrivals with a high degree of accuracy. This estimate is updated constantly.

I remember seeing this system out a few years ago on MUNI buses out in the Bay Area... wow, so not dumb! I was pretty psyched to find out that it had come to the MBTA.

So how does it work? Um... mostly well. I've been using it on the 77 bus, and the Silver Line at the airport, with my BlackBerry web browser. You can hit update, and it corrects timing. But there are occasional snags... times bouncing back and forth, or going from "3 minutes" to "5 minutes" to "arriving" (a bit like the xkcd strip, "the author of the Windows file copy dialog visits some friends").

But hey... definitely much better than just sitting around feeling frustrated. Also, useful for figuring out, "Do I have a stupid-long wait, that I can use to run into CVS and pick something up?" Although I've been biking to work a lot lately (given the great weather), I'm glad that this service will be around come winter, when I'll be bus-bound a lot more.