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Archive for July, 2010

How to kill time in Philadelphia Jul 31

If you read the previous post, you read a few things about getting your passport. The process has two stages—give them your info, and pick up the passport. You can have several hours between those stages.

The passport place (the US Custom House) is in the “center” of Center City, called Old City. I wrote about my lunch on my personal blog, Mushrooms to Motorcycles, but I walked around a bit, too. Walking is the way to do Old City. The streets are narrow, and some are cobblestone (read rough and bumpy). Besides almost everything you’d want to do has to be on foot, like explore interesting shops and visit historic sights. I’m not going to say much about the historic buildings except that they are all over the place.

I discovered the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Specifically its museum, which is free and on the first floor. They have a library, too if you’re deeply into chemistry, but the museum is pretty interesting all by itself. They have displays of lots of instruments and equipment, with ample and well-written descriptions. One item is the “cooker” in which they made the first plastic, bakelite. It’s a three-foot high egg-shaped cast iron vessel that held steam under a whole one hundred pounds of pressure. Their display of the elements is fascinating and multimedia. Another display tells biographies of chemists from the early middle ages to modern times. They even got the roles of the discoverers of DNA correct. (The gave the woman her due credit.)

This spectrometer was cobbled together from parts of other devices by some grad students. This is one end of the whole instrument.

Arrive at noon and you get a tour. I just missed it, but it was still an interesting browse. Do you have a favorite obscure place to visit? Tell us in the comments.

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Passport on the quick Jul 29

If you want to travel overseas you need a passport. You can find all sorts of info about getting a passport at the Department of State’s travel website. If you plan ahead a bit, it’s not too painful, and if you have an expired passport, you can even fill out a form online and send your stuff in by mail. Takes maybe six weeks. But you might not have six weeks. Depending on how much extra you’re willing to spend, you can shorten the time by more than half, or even get it done in one day.

That rectangular logo at the bottom indicates that the passport can be read electronically

I recently had opportunity to renew mine on short notice. Here’s how the “adventure” went.

First, I have an expired passport, so all I needed was that and a filled out form DS-82, which I filled out online and printed. (This is the form you mail in for a renewal if you have time. I didn’t.) Oh yes—I needed to bring my drivers license. And proof that I’m about to travel. And two passport photos. And money, $170 to be exact. $60 of that was for my renewal method—show up in person at the office in Philadelphia. This is the fastest way to get a passport (and most expensive), and they let you do it in person only if you have less than two weeks before you travel (Hence the proof of travel. Tickets or an itinerary will do). At least you can make the appointment by phone, and it’s all automated. Worked slick. Here’s the number, if you want it: 877-487-2778.

So I got an appointment and the confirmation number (another thing they say you need, but I didn’t need it). The US Custom House in Philadelphia isn’t hard to get to, but I was glad for my GPS. I don’t do Philly very often.

Here's where you get a passport in Philadelphia

The appointment gets you a place in line. Well, lines. I got into a 15 minute line to tell them I was there, then a 45-minute line (we got to sit in chairs) until they called your number. They have an automated sign that tells you how long the wait is. Look at it when you register. That’s your wait time. You can go to the nice little lunch room upstairs while you wait, but be sure to get back down to the room before they call your number. I had all my papers in order, so processing went smoothly, and the clerk was friendly. In fact, all the staff was friendly and good-natured. (You can smile in the passport photo, by the way. What’s important is that it looks like you. —I wonder if I could have made a face for mine.)

Then I learned that my passport would be ready in about three and a  half hours! So I got to do a nice walking tour of Old Philly.  Go to my personal blog, Mushrooms to Motorcycles, to get the details about that.

So I showed up promptly at the appointed time, but my passport didn’t show up for another hour. Lots of other folks got theirs on schedule, though. I was just unlucky, I think.

So I’m ready to go! Maybe there’ll be some posts about my trip in the near future. It’s a work trip, not a vacation, so I couldn’t use my Serenity agent (the company is making the arrangements) .

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Kids in Kars Jul 25

Most trips are taken by car. Most car trips include kids. Kids plus car trips equals stress. I believe the traditional mantra for this is “Are we there yet?”

In this day of electronic devices, we now have things that go beyond the tablet for playing tic-tac-toe, and looking for all the letters of the alphabet on highway signs.

Here’s a link to a nice little essay about games that you (I mean your kids) can play on your mobile phone or tablet computer to while away the miles in relative peace. It’s here.

It doesn’t mention my favorite idea. Remember that video cam you bought for the trip? It’s simple enough for a kid to operate, and they can watch what they shoot right on the little view finder. Filming themselves and the scenery out the window turns out to be pretty captivating.

How do you contain the little creatures when you go on a trip?

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How about a month-long vacation? Jul 23

Back last November this blog features a short series on Chicago. One of the best things to see in Chicago is the Museum of Science and Industry (called the MSI by its fans). I visited the place when I was a kid—my dad brought my brother and me along on a business trip—and it was impressive then. It has a real coal mine, a real submarine (German, captured in WWII), and piles of interactive exhibits and displays. Here’s the transportation gallery:

A very small part of the MSI

I remember it had a display showing samples of all 92 natural elements. If I remember correctly, the diamond wasn’t real, but they said this is what a diamond looks like.

If you visit Chicago and don’t visit the MSI, you’re shortchanging yourself. Budget at least half a day, too.

Now this is not the type of place to sit on its laurels. They repeatedly update their exhibits, and you should see their web site! And that leads me to the title of this post. One lucky person will get to spend a month at the MSI this fall. They’ll even pay for your plane ticket, provide room and board, and pay you ten grand. If you like learning about science, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. You have to apply, and only one person gets the prize, but what an adventure!

The application is on the long side, but at least you get to tell about yourself for the whole thing. Here are the details:

Give it a try. Maybe we’ll both be finalists.

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Wanna do a video of your vacation? Jul 21

First I’ll tell you my video adventure. I halfway suspect I’m typical. Back in the old days you bought a super-8 camera and a projector. You bought some film and shot the kid’s birthday party, or Christmas, or the family reunion. Then you took it to the developer, then ran it on the projector. Ah yes, home movies, and they were pretty much unedited, jerky, and full of people covering their faces.

Things have changed in some respects with the coming of digital videocams. For one thing, you can see what you shot, delete it, and reshoot at will. Before we left on our cruise (set up by our Serenity agent, excuse the shameless plug) we bought a camera that had the capabilities of a professional movie camera of the 1950′s except you could hold it in your hand (it didn’t weigh several hundred pounds) and you didn’t have to be a pro to operate it. Maybe you should be, but you can operate these things with very little expertise. Our videocam fit in my wife’s hand, smaller than a soda can. It even came with editing software. Our rationale was to learn how to make decent movies on the cruise in preparation for our real purpose. ‘Ysee, my wife is an accomplished china painter, and we have this desire to set up a web page on how to paint china. There happen to be some very good china painters in California, and they are getting old. We plan to use our Serenity incentive airplane tickets this fall to fly out there and shoot some painting lessons to put on our website.

So. Along comes the cruise. We had a great time, and I posted a lot about it way back earlier on this blog. I invite you to go read about it. The first post is here. Well, we used the camera as much to take still photos as to take videos. When we got home, we could watch some snippets, but we couldn’t get the editing software to work. We haven’t deleted anything, because who knows? maybe we’ll figure it out someday. Occasionally we look at the still photos.

My point is that if you plan to shoot video, you can’t do snaphots. You have to plan the video. I can’t pretend to give you good advice myself, but I found an excellent article with some good advice. Go read it before you take that videocam on your vacation.

Have you shot video on a vacation? How did it go?

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