Cheap Geek Tour
(Monday, Sept 27, 2004)
Yesterday, as we parked at the subway station, we wondered what happens if the lot gets full. Well, technically, Laura wondered, as Robert was convinced that the lot would never GET full. "Look at all these spaces! How could it ever get full?"
Well, it did get full, and after driving around Braintree a couple of times (it's a little town), we realized that there WAS no backup parking garage. So, we got on the highway and drove to the next train station, Quincy Adams. Apparently, this town decided to make a few bucks by building a parking garage that's got two towers and seven floors and has plenty of room for us.
The weather is nice and sunny, but the chirpy weather people on TV are promising that the End of the World (in the form of remnants of Jeanne) will arrive tomorrow. Nothing makes TV weather people happier than the prospect of destruction on a large scale.
We have dodged our way through construction sites and past backhoes and finally found the Boston Museum of Science (MoS). Man, everything here is being torn up!
The MoS sits in the middle of the Charles River (actually, on top of a dam on the river), and this baby is one bitching Science Museum. It's three floors, with six or so exhibits per floor. The exhibits are well-maintained (you try keeping delicate equipment running when 8 billion little kids come by and use it as a drum), and include something for grown-ups as well as little kids.
We label this the Best Science Museum we've ever seen (Best Natural History Museum still goes to New York, but this one beats OMSI).
One of the remnants of the Computer Museum (various signs say "When we joined forces with the Computer Museum...") is an Alto computer.
This is a 1975 computer developed by Xerox at their Palo Alto research center. We have a lively discussion about how the heck did Xerox--who invented the mouse, the GUI, the laser printer, Ethernet and pretty much 90% of everything we use on our computers today--manage to screw the pooch so badly?
Anyway, there's a TV commercial for the Alto from 1975 which is eerily prescient. It shows a business guy looking at his computer screen, checking his mail. He even prints out some of the e-mail just like we do today! And, of course, he decides to forward a joke to "everybody on the routing list."
The other interesting thing about the Alto is that the screen is proportioned like a sheet of paper. This is because Xerox was a paper-oriented company (all their early 80s machines used the same type of screens). The sideways screen we all use today comes by way of the punch card, and represents one of the few standards that Xerox didn't develop.
They have the original Van de Graaf generator here! (A Van de Graaf generator is a ball that sits on top of a tube and has sparks coming out the ball. You see it a lot in old monster movies and in science demos to make your hair stand on end.)
This baby is huge! It's about two stories tall and has two balls mashed together. Originally, the balls were separate and were used to create and study X-rays, as well as play practical jokes on other researchers ("Hey, Albert! Shake my hand!").
This is all in the Hall of Electricity, which is loaded with little gadgets that play with electricity. Robert's favorite is sending the circle of aluminum soaring 15 feet in the air, because there's a really loud "Bwang!" when you do it.
Time for lunch, and Robert has the Boston Special of the Day (a pizza with bacon and tomato), while Laura has a glass of french fries (the french fries are all whole, they're just served in a drinking cup).
The most popular exhibit here is a Lord of the Rings movie exhibit, which has sold over 100,000 tickets. You can see actual props from the movie, take a test to see what character in the movie you are most like, and see how they did the special effects in the movie.
It costs extra to do this, and we fail to see the scientific application here (besides, we're still seeing all the other cool stuff). But, if that's what it takes to get people in the door...
We are sitting in a duck waiting to take our tour. Not a quack quack duck, but a DUKW (a military code name). These were developed in WWII to carry artillery and troops on both land and water and are basically a truck in a water proof shell. With no suspension.
While we are waiting, Robert reads the Emergency Procedures card. His favorite is: "Never abandon the duck." Words to live by.
"Amelia Airhead" is our driver--all the drivers have cute nicknames that they try to live up to--and she's wearing a leather flight jacket.
We start out with an explanation for all the construction mess we keep picking our way through. Seems that this is the "Big Dig" that us West Coasters sometimes read about, but never pay attention to (Robert thought it had been finished). We find out that in Boston, the rush hour lasts for eight to ten hours per day. That's HOURS each day. Yikes! Hence, the Big Dig—an attempt to fix it.
The Big Dig is putting the main freeway through town under ground. And making it bigger. Also, the ground isn't always "ground" in the sense of "dirt." A lot of Boston is back-filled marsh.
Consequently, it's gonna take a few bucks to make this happen. Specifically, $15,000,000,000 ($15 billion) of which $11 billion you and I have generously contributed (Federal money).
Which works out to about $1.5 billion per mile (for 10 miles). And in a mere two to three more years, it'll all be done.
Parts of the project are already done, and we pass one of them, the Bunker Hill bridge. This is a cable-stayed bridge (Laura's favorite kind of bridge, because it is beautiful and because of how the suspension forces are distributed—hey, we're BOTH geeks, you know).
The duck zooms all around downtown Boston, which itself is something of a feat, given that we're the size of two SUVs and Boston drivers are crazy. Seems that in Boston, traffic laws, lights, and crosswalks are regarded as suggestions.
The cool thing about the tour is you get Boston in a nutshell. We intend to revisit some of these places, but now we know about where they are. And they are all pretty much right next to each other. Once around the block and you've seen Fanueil Hall, Bunker Hill, Beacon Hill, the State House, the John Hancock Building, Trinity Church, the Boston Commons, and the remnants of Sculley Square (all that remains is a golden teapot suspended outside a Starbucks).
Please note, however, the Beacon Hill is a "No Quacking" zone, and you're not allowed to make quacking noises from the duck while we're driving along there. (But feel free to run over a few pedestrians...)
There's a children's book called "Make Way for Ducklings," which our friend Elizabeth loaned us, so that we could properly prepare for our Boston trip. This is about a family of ducks that waddles into Boston traffic (yikes!) and makes their way across town from the Charles River to the pond in the public garden.
Of course, a children's book by any other name is a Cult Religion. Here in Boston, they have a statue of the mother duck and the seven baby ducklings (and our driver can name them, in order). And every year, on Mother's Day, all the children in Boston dress up as little ducks and walk the same route as they did in the book.
Our lurching, bumpy, awkward Duck heads towards the water. "Nothing to fear, we're supposed to go in the water!" says Amelia Airhead.
Sure enough, when we drive into the water, we don't immediately sink (although a small wave would easily swamp us), but start moving very slowly forward (our top speed is 5 knots, meaning turtles can pass us).
The water we have lurched into is the Charles River, which divides Cambridge from Boston. Over in Cambridge is Harvard (a university) and MIT (another university), and they look to be pretty much right next to each other.
The guide points out the building where the Polaroid camera was invented by—all together—Joe Polaroid! No, it was actually Edwin Land and for many years it was called the Polaroid Land camera, until people starting asking for the Polaroid Underwater camera.
We pass by the local jail. Seems that Boston was planning to build a new jail in a ritzy part of town, and the Ritzy-ers said, "If you're gonna build a jail heah, you're going to make it look nice!" The result is the "Glamor Slammer," a lovely looking building with designer bars.
A huge deal in the area right now is baseball. Apparently, the Boston Red Sox have not won a World Series since 1918 (before we were born!). And this year, they have a chance to make it to the Series and maybe win. The Yankees are mixed up in this somehow, and they are the Mortal Enemies of the brave and stalwart Red Sox.
And they don't kid around in Boston when it comes to Mortal Enemies. People gather outside the hotel where the Yankees stay and do unspecified acts (nobody was willing to tell us what exactly they did, but the implication was that they were unsavory acts).
So, speaking as people surrounded by Bostonians, we say, "Go Red Sox!"
The boat tour also points out Fenway Park (the local baseball stadium). There's a "Citgo" sign outside that's traditional. Apparently, when somebody (a non-Yankee) hits a homerun, the sign blinks three times, spelling out C-it-go. When a Yankee hits a homerun, gunfire ensues.
We are back on dry land, sitting in the OmniMax theater waiting to watch "Forces of Nature," a movie about volcanoes and tornadoes and earthquakes.
The movie was pretty good, but one problem with OmniMax is that the screen is so huge, you're never entirely sure where you should look. We're positive, though, that we don't want to be close to either a volcano or a tornado or an earthquake.
We are in the process of finessing the subway system. We need to get to the Red Line, but first, we have to catch a bus to the Green Line. Once we reach the Green Line, we find out that the Big Dig has erased part of the Green Line (specifically, the part that lets us connect to the Red Line).
So, we catch the Green Line and go one station east to the Orange Line. Once at the Orange Line, we walk down a long hallway and up some stairs and catch an Orange train to one station south where we can connect to the Red Line. During all this, Robert realizes that the names of the various lines spell BORG—"We are being assimilated!"
Laura says, "It's sobering to realize that this is easier than driving."
Robert keeps singing:
Laura finally gives him the "Be a real shame if you were to fall onto the third rail" look that all married couples know and Robert stops.
Whew! After all that we're safely back home again. We head to a "bah" in Braintree and follow the local custom of sucking down "beahs" after riding the subway.
Never abandon the duck!