Sunday, April 26, 2015

New York New York

To celebrate being married for 15 years and for both of us turning 40 this year, Wifey and I took a trip to New York.

We packed the kids off to stay with my parents and we had some 'us' time. Four days altogether, which is the longest we'd been away from the boys.

The lead up to the trip was a bit fraught. Would the kids be OK? What would happen if our plane crashed? What do we do when we arrive? What if the snow in America (it was in a middle of a big freeze at the time) wrecks our flying plans? Erk!

Well, the flights were fine and we got to and from our hotel easily enough. In fact, we had a jolly old time in NYC and it was truly the trip of a lifetime (albeit too short for such an amazing destination).

New York is, as I'm sure most people will tell you, amazing. It it big and loud and noisy and scary and wonderous and baffling all at the same time. Not only that but it's one of the most well-known movie locations ever (more on that later).

At the time of our visit, the North Western part of the US was experiencing extremely cold weather - colder than what they were used to. Walking out of JFK we were hit with a blast of frozen air, which was to become a common experience for our entire trip.

Staying near Times Square
Our hotel, The Muse, was in a great location situated just off Time Square. Some people have described TS as 'hell on earth', probably because it is some kind of consumerist centre of gravity for capitalism. Ginormo-screens glare down at your from every direction filling the place with their LED-glow, advertising world-famous brands promoted by faultless pouting models imploring you to buy whatever it is they are hawking in a never-ending loop. It has its own beauty. I didn't really notice the products or bands being sold, as such, just the staggering amount of LEDs shining at me in all directions.

A glimpse of Times Square

[Funnily enough, Cardiff has its own Ginormo-screen. Just the one. It's on Queen Street and reminded me of Times Square, but only a very tiny bit because it is one small screen compared to the seemingly hundreds plastered about 5th Avenue.]

The hotel itself was OK - nothing amazing. I don't think we'd rush back there anytime soon. The central heating didn't cope very well with the icy temperatures so our room could have been warmer. We also had problems with the plumbing too. A cold shower for two days running was not much fun. Saying that, the staff were friendly and helpful and when we complained about our problems they were quickly sorted and we even had a free breakfast because of our trouble.

The List
Together, we'd compiled a list of things we'd like to do in the big apple and managed to do most of it in the time given:
  • Statue of Liberty - lady liberty was pretty breathtaking. Beyond iconic, we couldn't visit NYC without going to see the old gal. It was a bit surreal seeing something we were so familiar with, thanks to movies and TV, in reality. To be honest, I spent more time taking pictures of the thing than actually looking at it which I'm really annoyed with myself about.
  • Central Park - well, we spent about fifteen minutes actually inside the park. It was a blanket of snow and pretty deserted. I am proud to say I used the central park toilets. That was about it.
  • Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) - we felt like we should at least enjoy some culture while in the greatest city on earth, so did some wandering around looking at paintings and stuff. We saw Van Goch's Starry Night which was pretty cool as well as some Jackson Pollocks and Andy Warhols.
  • Broadway (Jersey Boys) - we couldn't visit New York without seeing a show, and opted to see Jersey Boys. It was the best I'd ever seen in terms of performance, humor and music. The thing about Broadway is that you get to see the cream of the crop in terms of talent and we weren't disappointed.
  • New York City skyline (Top of the Rock) - another iconic view is that of the New York skyline and it was a beautiful clear day when we visited the Rockefeller Center. It was breathtaking to see the city's sprawl of skyscrapers including the famous Empire State building and the great expanse of Central Park.
The Rockefeller Centre
Getting around
We did a fair amount of walking on foot - just to wander around with these great skyscrapers all around us was a spectacle in itself - but for longer distances the only other option was the subway.

Again, another iconic aspect of NYC, it was not much different to taking the London Underground. The map took a little getting used to, and once we'd figured out the difference to Uptown and Downtown we were sorted. We managed to avoid the experience of rush hour and didn't see too many crazies (as one would assume from watching the movies).

We also took a total of three cab rides - two for travelling between the airport and hotel, one for getting from a restaurant back to our hotel. Our trip back to JFK was nice and pleasant and the cabbie was an older gent who was very friendly.

Movie Locations
Being a movie buff, I was naturally excited about visiting one of the most filmed cities in the world. Of course, New York itself is a movie location and everywhere we went there was a familiar view, but we didn't go out of our way particularly to visit locations simply because we were pressed for time. The Statue of Liberty, Times Square and Central Park were places to tick off that had had their more than fair share of screen time. One particular location took us (well, me) by surprise and that was the New York Public Library. We just turned a corner, and there it was! It's been in quite a few movies, but I remember it mostly from the opening scene from Ghostbusters, one of my favourite childhood films. Sad, I know, but it was quite a moment...

It's those lion statues ...

New Yorkers
New Yorkers are world-famous for being rude and short-tempered, but like most generalisations it's not true for everybody. Some of the locals we interacted with were friendly and welcoming (the cabbie and hotel staff, for example), but others fitted the stereotype better. We asked some cops directions and they looked at us like we were from another planet. The security staff at the tourist places were miserable as sin (not surprising given the soul-destroying job they had to do), and there were street hawkers all over the place. We were jumped on numerous times by these people trying to get us to ride a sightseeing bus, buy theatre tickets, buy CDs (bit random that one) and other touristy things. It was tolerable, but a bit annoying.

15 years and still going stong!
We certainly ate our fair share of Americana including New York staples (hot dogs, pretzels, pizza). We ate out a couple of times at an amazing diner called Juniors for breakfast. Having sampled pancakes, coffee and other yummy delights we were set up for the day (albeit feeling very stuffed). On one of the evenings we went to Hell's Kitchen for a fancy meal and ate at a restaurant with the same name and the food was incredible. One big disappointment was that we couldn't find any decent supermarkets anywhere. I was really looking forward to stocking up on various US treats not normally available at home (S'mores, Twinkies etc.), and there was nowhere to get anything. Sure, there were corner shops and the like but their range was limited. We did manage to get a few items from a giant candy section in the FAO Schwarz toy store (movie location for the film 'Big' no less) but even there I couldn't find everything we wanted. Not that I can complain, really - we got quite a lot!

Our haul of goodies

We packed a load into our trip considering we were only there a short time. It would have been great to have a week or two but we really couldn't leave the kids much longer, and New York is expensive - not just the touristy stuff, but the basics like food and travel as well. It's only because of the kind generosity of Wifey's dad that we could afford to go.

I've always said that I love America and the fact that my brother and his family live there is a good excuse to go back sometime. With New York, however, it feels like we barely scratched the surface.

Which is a good thing, because that gives us a good excuse to go back, and maybe next time ... we'll bring the kids.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The glaringly obvious problem with space travel

We seem to be in the middle of a space travel renaissance at the moment. Numerous companies are working on all sorts of rockets, satellites and other space vehicles. Astronomers are discovering new exoplanets light years away all the time - and the desire to colonise new worlds, especially places like Mars, is stronger now more than ever.

It seems the planets and stars that we see in the heavens are almost within reach, but there are so so many obstacles in our way preventing our species from expanding out into the starry night.

Space is relentlessly, unashamedly hostile to human life. Not only that, the distance between planets is mind-boggingly huge. It's going to take decades just to put humans on Mars - but getting there is the easy part. Trying to live on a cold, radiation-soaked, low gravity rock devoid of a decent atmosphere is more akin to suicide than anything else.

In the midst of all these challenges, there's one thing that appears to be amiss from all of the chatter about space travel. It's blindingly obvious to me, but I've not come across it and it's something that I reckon is one of the biggest hurdles there is.

You see, although space is mostly a dark, empty void it's actually still got stuff floating around in it - albeit very very very spread out. There are planets and stars, of course, but then you've got dwarf planets, planetoids, asteroids and comets. Small chunks of ice, rock and dust are out there too in all sorts of shapes and sizes. From the size of a small car down to microscopic specs - they're just spinning lazily around in the black soup happily minding their own business.

Which, I think, is a problem for us wannabe spacefarers.

At the moment, our spacecraft are just hunks of metal welded together. Granted, the walls of these vehicles are probably a few feet thick, but should they collide with a piece of space debris bigger than a tennis ball they might as well be made of tin foil – especially if that piece of junk is travelling at any kind of speed. The Sandra Bullock movie 'Gravity' illustrates the danger of mid-space collisions pretty well in all its terrible zero-G destructiveness. Various space stations and satellites have experienced small-scale damage over the years and NASA has previously researched the effects of meteoroid and space debris damage on spacecraft with its LDEF (Long Duration Exposure Facility). It's one of the many hazards associated with space exploration and, as we venture further and further away from home, will become more of an issue.

Colliding with something in a geo-stationary orbit is one thing. Hitting an obstacle while travelling at 17 metres per second is another. Voyager 1 is the first man-made object to enter interstellar space and is going that fast. It doesn't have much time to do an emergency stop, that's for sure. Obviously, Voyager 1 has been sent on a course that minimizes any chance of hitting something but surely eventually one day it will hit something. Maybe not for thousands or million of years, but it will no doubt one day be smashed to smithereens on some lonely moon out there in the cosmos (either that or gracefully fall into the fiery furnace of some distant star).

And that's the thing - yes, the chances of colliding with another object far out into deep space are pretty small, but we don't know what's out there in the quiet regions of space. Our telescopes wouldn't detect tiny fragments of rock left over from some ancient cosmic incident, and hitting one of those fragments at 17 metres per second is pretty much going to tear a hole in your ship that's going to be difficult to repair.

What's worse, though, is that any spacecraft headed for the nearest star systems will most likely be travelling much faster than that. Even at ten percent the speed of light, it would take about forty years to reach Proxima Centauri, but travelling at that speed is incredible: 30 million metres per second. Yes, that's right. Ten per cent the speed of light is a mere - ahem - 1,764,705 times faster than Voyager 1's current velocity. Imagine hitting a grain of sand at that speed! I don't know the physics, but surely it's going to do some damage? Maybe small particles would simply vaporise and be of little danger, but I'm not entirely convinced.

How could we possibly chart a course into deep space that avoids a collision with not just large asteroids but the tiniest speck of matter?

Now, making a short hop to the closest star system is challenging enough, but were we to develop some kind of faster than light engine (as featured in most sci-fi shows or movies) where we wanted to travel further afield, then we would be going at insane speeds, like 1.5 billion metres per second. Again, hitting something miniscule that fast is going to cause problems. Hitting anything sizeable could simply mean adios amigos.

I guess the interstellar void between stars is pretty unlikely to have anything in it. Presumably anything floating around in space is naturally drawn to any source of gravity so stars have done the job of hoovering up any bits and pieces that could potentially cause problems. But - you never know what might be out there. Should we ever get to a 'Star Trek' level of sophistication when it comes to space travel, there's also the very slight (but still possible) chance of smashing into another one of our craft if we're not too careful.

My feeling is that the only way to traverse these brain-achingly vast distances is to make use of worm holes, bypassing the need to do any travelling as such and simply 'hop' from one place to another. How we achieve that exactly is anyone's guess and probably will be beyond our capability for centuries.

Interestingly, a recent scan of the stars concluded that there are - as far as we can tell - no alien galactic empires anywhere. Assuming that a galaxy-conquering race would emit certain heat emissions, no traces were found in around 100,000 potential candidates. It's not conclusive proof that intelligent alien life doesn't exist out there in the cosmos but it's a strong indication that even intelligent life may struggle to get very far.

So, either we are very alone in the universe - or it's practically impossible to travel great distances among the stars.

Which is a real shame, because who wouldn't want to fly around in the Millennium Falcon like Han Solo? I know I would...

Friday, April 17, 2015

No more Star Wars spoilers please!

Like the majority of geeks across the planet, I am very excited about the next Star Wars installment. Directed by someone with a good track record who clearly has a passion for the franchise I am, like most people, pretty optimistic.

Having seen two teaser trailers, my appetite has been suitably wetted, but I refuse to watch any more before I get to see the film. I am wary of trailers for big-budget movies - mainly because they either give away key plot points, spoil the finale or mislead you entirely about the storyline (or usually all of those combined). It's a cynical thing for studios to allow, because it hypes up a film to a ridiculous amount and then spoils the wonder and surprise, leaving a bad taste in the mouth.

You may remember this trailer whipping up a frenzy when it came out in 1999 (almost crashing the internet)...

...and then everyone coming out of the cinema afterwards scratching their heads realising they'd just watched a huge turd.

It's not going to be easy to avoid all the spoilery stuff between now and Christmas but I'm going to do my darnest because I want to go into the cinema with as little expectation as possible.

Sadly, even with these last two teaser trailers, I'm afraid I've already seen too much...

Friday, April 3, 2015

Leaders Debate - my verdict

I quite enjoyed this year's Leaders Debate on ITV. It was far more interesting than 2010's borefest (featuring a grimacing Gordon Brown - ugh!), and it was great to see a better gender balance up on stage.

Here are my thoughts on how each candidate did:

Green: Natalie Bennett came across as the most nervous, but made some good points. The only one to talk about the biggest crisis facing our species - climate change.
Liberal: Nick Clegg did his best to own up to his failures, and good on him for that. Nothing else he said, however, was particularly memorable.
UKIP: Nigel Farage is a fool. Unfortunately the rubbish he spouts will appeal to lots of uninformed people which is very worrying.
Labout: I think Ed Miliband stood up well to his main rival, Cameron, but I couldn't stop thinking about how Labour made a mess of things last time round.
Plaid Cymru: Leanne Wood was quite stilted in her delivery, but stood the corner well for Wales. She seemed a bit in awe of Sturgeon.
SNP: Of all the candidates, Nicola Sturgeon is the one I'd most like to vote for except I can't because I don't live in Scotland (glad Salmond's gone - didn't like him). Confident and gutsy.
CONservative: Smooth as a cucumber, PM Nicola Sturgeon fought with arrogance and condescension. He seemed to be talking about a completely different country where everything is doing great thanks to him. What a gimboid.

Quite frankly, as long as the Tories don't stay in power I don't care who wins the election in May, although Labour winning will make me a bit anxious (and UKIP winning would be a total disaster). A coalition of some kind would hopefully balance things out a bit.

Whenever I get talking or thinking about politics I always find myself getting angry and frustrated. The rich and powerful are lording it over the rest of us and having a laugh at our expense - we need our leaders to redress the balance and do it quickly before total anarchy sets in. Not an easy task. The problems we face as a nation and as a race are unbelievably complex and terrifying - bickering amongst each other and trying to score points in a personality contest are not the way to sort things out. Unfortunately that is what politics is about most of the time.

All I can do is cast my vote and pray that whoever is resident of Number 10 after May 7th will lead with honesty, fairness and justice.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

So Forty happened...

Back in February I turned forty and I'm still dealing with it.

Thanks to wifey and some friends I was able to brave the occasion without too much trauma. I think the main thing was that I got through it and came out the other side unscathed.

Every now and again I still catch myself contemplating the fact that I am four decades old. It really is weird - I am officially an old person. Not old in the sense of an OAP, but just ... y'know, old.

Anyway, here is a selection of my favourite birthday cards. The problem with being a 'number' birthday is that people tend to go for the number cards - and those don't stand out much (although I am very grateful for them all of course!!!). I did, however, get a few gems which I'd like to share.

This is one of the 'forty' cards that did stand out. Very stylish.

You can't beat a bit of 'I loves the 'diff'.

This is by far the most random and funny. Click here to see it larger.