Space Shuttle Endeavour

October 29, 2019
Space Shuttle Endeavour

 

Today I went to the California Science Center — a free Los Angeles museum mostly aimed at kids — to see something pretty amazing: a Space Shuttle that flew 25 missions in space.

Looking back it’s easy to see the Space Shuttle program as a weird quirk of space travel history, or at worst as a total flop. It was however the only part of the much more ambitious Space Transportation System (STS) program from the late 1960’s to actually get built and used, so it could also be argued it was a modest success from a certain vantage point of history.

Unfortunately two of the Space Shuttles didn’t make it — the Challenger blew up seconds after liftoff on its 10th mission in 1986, and the Columbia broke apart upon re-entry after its 28th mission in 2003.

The Endeavour was ordered in the wake of the Challenger disaster. In those days the Space Shuttle program was still in full swing and a replacement was needed — the Endeavour would be the last one ever built.

And yes, for the record it’s spelled “Endeavour,” not “Endeavor” despite the latter being the American English spelling of the word. It was named in honor of a ship sailed by Captain Cook in the 18th century, hence the British spelling.

The museum also has an external fuel tank outside. In the near future they plan to exhibit the Endeavour with the fuel tank and two mock solid rocket boosters, but the building for this is not complete.

Seeing it up close the Endeavour looks like an airplane, but of course that’s completely misleading, and a sign in the museum points this out: after taking off straight up strapped to rockets, the wings were only there so it could land like an airplane… kind of. In order to de-orbit it had to do a barrel roll, and as a safety measure that began with the Endeavour it also had a parachute pop out the back to add additional drag.

One interesting aspect of the exhibit is a short film that shows how the Endeavour as well as the fuel tank were delivered to the California Science Center. The Endeavour was strapped to the top of a 747 and flown in, as NASA used to do to in order to move the shuttles between launch pads. The fuel tank was put on a giant barge and shipped through the Panama Canal and up to Marina Del Rey. From there they both had to be placed on giant flatbed trucks and slowly towed in, which meant moving telephone cables, street lights, chopping down trees, and closing streets in order to clear enough space.

The film shows the Endeavor slowly inching along as curious onlookers gather to see this crazy historic event.

 

Space Shuttle Endeavour

 

In one corner there’s an engine on display. These are about the size of a small car, and each Space Shuttle had three of them. NASA had plenty of extras on hand and they were apparently relatively easy to swap out for maintenance.

These engines were one of the more successful parts of the Space Shuttle program and will likely be used again in the future.

 

Space Shuttle Endeavour

 

Although the above photo may look like a futuristic torture device, that’s actually a Space Shuttle toilet. According to the description there’s a very small hole for defecation, and a hose for urine. Light suction was used to make sure the cabin air was not contaminated.

It’s an interesting reminder that humans aren’t really meant for zero gravity environments.

 

Space Shuttle Endeavour

 

Around the interior of the building containing the Endeavour are photos of the crews of each STS mission with a short description of what happened and which Space Shuttle was used. The two disastrous missions show the deceased crew in black and white photos.

One aspect of this I hadn’t considered is the number of people onboard increased toward the end of the program, as the Space Shuttles were later used primarily for bringing people, supplies, and experiments to and from the International Space Station.

My one criticism of the exhibit as it currently stands is it doesn’t really touch on the International Space Station all that much, and yet it was clearly the most successful part of the entire Space Shuttle Program. Not only has it outlived the program, it got Russia and the US to cooperate on a major project. It’s a shame we don’t do that more here on the ground.

I got to see Neil Hamburger live at a small venue in LA

Neil Hamburger live

 

On Sunday night I went to see Neil Hamburger (with special guests) live at The Satellite, a small venue in LA’s Silverlake neighborhood.

For those unfamiliar with Neil Hamburger he requires a little explanation: he’s not a “real” person but a comedian character played by Gregg Turkington. Neil is a sad sack, third rate comic who appears to be a relic from a forgotten era. On stage he wears large glasses, an ill-fitting suit that looks like he probably woke up wearing it, and his damp hair is swept over his forehead. He frequently whimpers and coughs directly into the mic and constantly spills the many drinks he has cradled in his elbow.

The genius of the character is that he subverts the audience expectations of this seemingly cranky old man by telling dirty knock knock jokes, jokes in the form of questions with tasteless punchlines, and/or intentionally bombing with an idiotic punchline after a long and convoluted set up.

Most of his jokes come at the expense of celebrities — especially musicians. A few examples:

  • Why does Eric Clapton close his eyes during his guitar solos? Well, because his audience is so ugly.
  • What do you get when you cross the members of The Red Hot Chilli Peppers with an octopus? Junkies with eight arms to shoot up into.
  • What does the movie Oceans 13 have in common with rapper Tupac Shakur? Both were shot in Vegas.

Neil also has recorded a few music albums over the years. My personal favorite song of his is “The Recycle Bin,” in which he angrily denounces people who put non-recyclable stuff into recycle bins.

The evening began with Todd Glass. His set ran a little long, but his overall message was about how comedy should be inclusive rather than punching down, and making fun of comedians who can’t wrap their heads around the concept of improving themselves. He was joined by a band on stage.

The Puterbaugh Sisters arrived on stage next as “conjoined twin” ghosts. Halloween is a serious thing in LA and they used it to their advantage. Most of their material covered the problems they were having dating, being dead conjoined twins and all.

Jamie Loftus had a quirky set about eating eggs that included a PowerPoint presentation. She brought a brave member of the audience to play her dad in an embarrassing sketch.

Second to last, Natalie Palamides had a Halloween themed comedy set where she was dressed as a witch. She cast some “spells” and stole the soul of one member of the audience, only to return it after deciding he was too boring.

An unbilled performer whose name I can’t recall came out to test out a short routine he was preparing for an upcoming episode of Conan. It needed work, but that’s obviously why he was testing it on a small audience.

Finally it was time for Neil Hamburger to hit the stage. He started out with some new material, some seemingly improved jokes complaining about the Halloween decorations behind him, finally followed by a set of his classic material — mostly making fun of The Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Neil’s set seemed on the shorter side, although to be fair I wasn’t exactly checking my watch or anything, and the show did unfortunately get off to a late start.

This show seems to be a monthly thing at The Satellite as there’s another show scheduled in November. For all upcoming Neil Hamburger shows, visit his “unofficial” website, AmericasFunnyman.com.

The Triforium

October 27, 2019
Triforium

 

Easily the strangest thing in downtown LA is the Triforium, a concrete sculpture covered in colorful glass prisms in a public plaza, surrounded by government buildings.

The obvious question — what is this thing? — doesn’t have a simple answer.

Artist Joseph Young built the Triforium for the plaza. Originally the plan was for it to have a computer controlled system of lights to illuminate the prisms, to rhythmically illuminate it in sync with a carillon.

Oh, and it was supposed to be topped with a laser that projected straight up into space.

There was one problem: it was 1975, and the technology was too primitive to realize this vision successfully. Also, the laser was never installed as it was already over budget. LA Weekly has more details on its history.

The public apparently didn’t care for the Triforium much after a while, the sound was disabled, and as attention to LA’s urban core shifted outward, the Triforium was not only ignored, but the reflection pool under it was drained and replaced with plants.

Now that downtown LA has become a much more vibrant place again, with it is renewed interest in the sculpture. Twice over the past few decades there have been restoration efforts, adding a new sound system, a modern computer, and LED lights to illuminate the prisms.

 

Triforium at night

 

Unfortunately it’s still not always on, even at night. I took the photo on Saturday well after sundown at around 8 PM and it wasn’t doing anything. I suspect it’s only activated for special events.

Fortunately Curbed LA has several short videos of the Triforium back in action. I just wish I had the chance to see it working in person.

LACMA and the La Brae Tar Pits

LACMA

 

I left the Hollywood History tour a little tired, but decided to soldier on via an LA Metro bus to see LACMA and the La Brae Tar Pits next door. I should point out in advance I didn’t pay to enter either museum; LACMA’s main gallery is currently being rebuilt, and the La Brae Tar Pits museum is largely aimed at kids from what I understand.

The first exhibit I encountered at LACMA’s grounds is an outdoor piece called Levitated Mass. It’s an enormous boulder held in place with bolts over a subterranean concrete ramp. Seems simple enough, but due to a mishap with the original boulder the artist had selected, it took several decades to complete.

 

LACMA

 

The other big installation outdoors at LACMA is Urban Light, a series of outdoor light posts you might find lining a street, except all bunched up in close-knit grid.

It is kind of a headtrip to wander through this and see standard urban street furniture intentionally misused, though the main attraction seems to be getting one’s photo taken among the light posts.

 

LACMA

 

A more traditional sculpture garden off to the side features various sculptures, currently focusing on “The Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness” by Zak OvĂ© .

This series of statues feature a semi-faceless series of nearly identical statues that look abstract yet somehow of African descent. I was surprised to see it again as this particular work was recently exhibited at Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco.

Unlike the San Francisco version of the exhibit, LACMA’s is enclosed on three sides by a fence with a security guard out front. This changed the meaning completely for me — as a white man — particularly since the security guard was a black man. I don’t know what more to say here other than art can be powerful when the context is shifted.

 

LACMA

 

While trying to find the restrooms I wandered through a massive, two story tall geometric sculpture called “Smoke.” From ground level it felt intimidating, but when I wandered up the stairs and looked down upon it, it seemed much less interesting.

It’s amazing what perspective can do with large scale art installations.

 

La Brae Tar Pits

 

On the other side of the block there’s the La Brae Tar Pits, an excavation site where various fossil remains were dredged up back in the day.

Today the tar pits are known for their absurd recreations of… woolly mammoths, I guess? They look like some embarrassing 1950’s highway attraction like the “world’s largest ball of twine” or whatever.

The tar pits themselves smell like tar, similar to when a building is getting a new tar roof. It’s not very pleasant.

I’ll admit part of the reason I went over there was to see if I could spot LA puppeteer, actor, artist, and singer David Liebe Hart — an oddball local character who’s known for hanging out there. Unfortunately for me he was nowhere to be found.

 

The LA Metro Purple Line extension is being built a block down the street, and since it’s located so close to the tar pits the excavation is a slow process with paleontologists ensuring our natural heritage is preserved. As such I had to take a very crowded Metro Rapid bus back downtown instead of the yet to open subway.

Hollywood History walking tour

Walk of Fame

 

This morning I took the LA Metro to Hollywood and Vine, the meeting place of another Downtown LA Walking Tour, Hollywood History. The name of the tour company is kind of a misfit here as Hollywood is not located downtown.

The first thing anyone should know about Hollywood Boulevard is — if the two wax museums and the Hard Rock Cafe weren’t a dead giveaway — it’s a tourist trap. Expect people to try to hand you pamphlets for bus tours, and unlicensed costume characters to pose for photos with you in exchange for tips. I counted at least two Spider Men, three Mickey Mouses, and one Edward Scissorhands.

The tour makes all of this a little more palatable by focusing largely on the history of the place rather than the current spectacle.

 

Capitol Records Building

 

The starting point of the tour is also kind of the starting point of Hollywood as it relates to the entertainment industry. Although these days Hollywood is almost synonymous with the film industry, the intersection of Hollywood and Vine is where both local and national radio broadcast studios were located, as well as record companies. The 1950’s era Capitol Records Building — shaped like a stack of records — is located half a block away.

On a related topic, the Hollywood Walk of Fame (see photo at the top of the post) is not just movie stars, but recognizes entertainment stars in various categories. Theater actors, singers, TV actors, etc. are also eligible in their respective categories. This also means a few people have more than one star for their multiple talents.

I wasn’t paying super close attention, but I spotted stars for everyone from W.C. Fields to Lucy Lui to the band Rush.

 

Egyptian Theater Chinese Theater

 

Heading east along Hollywood Boulevard, the sights of the tour started looking more familiar. The Egyptian Theater and the Chinese Theater are two of the more iconic cinemas in the area where new films are screened, though they’re not the only ones.

One weird quirk our tour guide pointed out about the Egyptian Theater is the Spanish tiles on the roof. Apparently the building was originally going to be built in the Mission Revival style, but just after construction kicked off, King Tut’s tomb was discovered. So the plans were shuffled to cash in on the newfound popularity of Egypt, but the owner was too cheap to redo the existing roof.

The newest theater on the street that I unfortunately didn’t get very good photos of is the Dolby Theater, where the Oscars now take place. It’s attached to a new strangely shaped mall with a series of viewing platforms where tourists can go to get a clear view of the Hollywood sign.

 

Jimmy Kimmel Live theater

 

The theater where late night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live! is filmed is also on Hollywood Boulevard. Filming notices are posted outside, but if you’ve ever seen Jimmy Kimmel’s show on TV you’re probably aware a film crew might pop out (possibly with a celebrity in tow) and strike up a conversation to use on the show. Our tour guide had a personal story about this.

 

The Hollywood Roosevelt

 

The tour ends just across from The Hollywood Roosevelt, a large hotel frequented by celebrities, politicians, and — according to legend — ghosts. I wandered into the lobby to snap some photos. Can’t say if it’s haunted or not though the interior is quite stunning.

 

My recommendation: Like I mentioned in the opening paragraph, this is a tour of a neighborhood that’s become a tourist trap. I’m of mixed feelings about this one, I think someone who’s more interested in Hollywood than myself would get more from learning details of the history of the area. That said it’s certainly much more enjoyable than trying to take a stroll down Hollywood Boulevard on one’s own.

Arts District tour

October 26, 2019
Arts District Arts District Arts District

 

Yesterday afternoon I took a tour of LA’s Arts District from Downtown LA Walking Tours. I had the same tour guide as I did when I took the Chinatown and Little Tokyo tour on my last visit, and as it turns out he’s intimately familiar with the local art scene through his other job as a photographer.

The general story of an art district anywhere in the world follows pretty much the same pattern: a bunch of old warehouses in a poor part of town become available on the cheap, artists show up and turn them into art studios, those same artists improve the neighborhood over time, and are then forced out when the rents increase. It’s a classic tale of self-gentrification.

LA’s Arts District is a little more complicated than that, as it turns out — these artists were more organized than most. First the city codified the status of artists living in former warehouses where they worked, even if the buildings weren’t up to code. Second, some of the artists were able to hold on to their apartments even as those buildings were changed to new uses. Lastly, there are still a number of galleries in the area.

Oh, and the chickens. I should explain the chickens.

The first stop on the tour is Hauser & Wirth, the LA outpost of a Swiss chain of high-end art galleries. It’s actually several galleries in a building that was constructed as a flour mill.

In the patio of the building there’s a restaurant called Manuela, which is pricey but also apparently well liked, and is often frequented by celebrities. They grow some of their own spices and such on the patio outside, and have a fenced in area with chickens to provide fresh eggs. The chickens even have their own Instagram.

Like the former flour mill, other buildings in the area were either warehouses, or production sites for companies like Challenge Butter and Coca Cola. These businesses all left the area when the shipping economy shifted from railroads to trucks.

 

Arts District Arts District Arts District

 

Though the tour stopped at three very different galleries, there’s also a focus on the outdoor art, from enormous murals to sculptures, which includes the oversized mailbox seen above.

There’s so much street art in the neighborhood that the same tour company has a tour devoted just to that topic. Unfortunately it wasn’t available during my trip this time or I would have booked that as well.

The last place we visited, Art Share LA, is more than just an art gallery. It also includes classrooms, studios for resident local artists, and even an event space that’s used for everything from ballet classes to church groups to weddings. The whole place has a welcoming atmosphere and features some of the most quirky art in the area.

 

Arts District

 

One of the last spots on the tour is Wings by Colette Miller. What started as a simple pair of angel wings painted on a corrugated metal wall right here in the Arts District, designed to attract selfie-takers, is now an oft-imitated global phenomenon. Miller herself has been commissioned to paint many of these all over the world.

Even if you haven’t seen the original, you’ve almost certainly seen someone’s photo on Instagram standing against a wall with wings painted on it.

 

My recommendation: If you don’t know much at all about LA’s Arts District this is a solid tour. I’ve barely scratched the surface of what you’ll see on it, so if it sounds interesting I’d recommend it.

Grand Central Market

On my last visit to LA I kept kicking myself for not taking any photos of Grand Central Market, the big local food hall downtown. It’s also one of the best food halls I’ve ever been to and I have some recommendations. So here we go.

 

Grand Central Market Grand Central Market Grand Central Market

 

Opening at 8 AM, a handful of vendors serve coffee and breakfast. Although I’m not much of a morning person myself the weirdly named Eggslut chain has a popular outpost here with their various egg-based sandwiches, and long lines to show for it.

Lunch is the main attraction at Grand Central Market when everything is open. Aside from made to order lunches from pasta to tacos to salads, you can also buy ingredients from tiny grocery stores to cook your own food.

Snack foods and beverages are also available. I’d recommend trying La Fruteria, a Mexican street food joint with spiced fruit cups and aguas frescas.

 

Grand Central Market Grand Central Market Grand Central Market

 

Grand Central Market closes around 10 PM, but many of the vendor stalls close after the lunch rush and the crowds thin out.

One solid place for dinner — also open for lunch, but is usually slammed — is Olio, an Italian place. Though they offer salads as well, the real focus is on small thin crust pizza. It’s a better bet for dinner just because there will be open seats and you won’t have to wait as long, though if you’re willing to take it to go lunch works too. The dough is a little chewy for my taste, but the perfect tomato sauce, cheese, and toppings more than make up for it.

Even if you don’t consider yourself a “foodie” Grand Central Market is located between two Los Angeles landmarks: Angel’s Flight and the Bradbury Building.

Pershing Square

Pershing Square Pershing Square Pershing Square

 

Just like my last visit to Los Angeles I’m staying near Pershing Square, a public plaza spanning an entire city block. I’ve also found it’s a convenient orientation point when I’m not quite sure where something is located in downtown LA.

The square is named after American WWI general John J. Pershing. Though he was a famous general in his day, as far as I can tell he has no direct connection to Los Angeles.

In its current incarnation the square features a mix of boxy and curvy concrete structures, mostly painted in pastel purple and orange. It should come as no surprise this design is the work of the late Ricardo Legorreta, whose designs are notorious for this style and color scheme.

But what surprises me most about Pershing Square is just how similar it is to Union Square back home in San Francisco. Aside from being public squares in California, consider these similarities:

  • Both are named to honor wars that have very little to do with their respective locations, let alone the west coast.
  • Both are in historic neighborhoods, surrounded by hotels, shops, and restaurants.
  • Both were rebuilt on top of underground parking garages in the mid 20th century.
  • Both are located downtown on one city block and are about the same size.
  • Both have a subway station located located nearby.

Obviously there are many, many differences between Los Angeles and San Francisco, but I think anyone who spends time in both California cities would be surprised by the similarities in their respective downtown squares.

The Last Bookstore’s upstairs labyrinth

October 25, 2019

The Last Bookstore: Upstairs

 

On my last trip to LA I just sort of stumbled across The Last Bookstore, a large bookstore selling new, used, antique, and rare books and comic books as well as vinyl records.

Both times I wandered in I was a little distracted by well-attended events they were holding in the store with authors and poets. Not a bad problem to have for The Last Bookstore by any means, but it meant I couldn’t explore the space as freely as I would have liked.

As it turns out I’d missed two key aspects to the store. One I knew about: the upstairs. The other took me by surprise: the bank vaults. Yes, the building was once a bank, and the open bank vault doors now reveal small rooms lined with books.

So what’s upstairs? Balconies on each of the four sides of the building are roughly half devoted to art gallery spaces, and half to a quirky “labyrinth” of oddball book decor and oddly arranged shelving.

On those shelves you’ll find a strange blend of genres from science fiction to identity politics. A few bookshelves are devoted to single topics — Sherlock Holmes, for example.

Here’s a short video I put together of the crazy upstairs labyrinth at The Last Bookstore. I had to remove the ambient audio due to copyrights.

 

LA’s Union Station

LA Union Station

 

It’s been almost two years since my last visit to Los Angeles, a trip I accidentally over-planned to the point where I had three times as much stuff to do as I did time to do it. So today I’ve returned for a few nights in an attempt to cross a few more of those items off the list.

But my first stop was actually a new item for me: Union Station. I’d become interested in the grand train stations of yesteryear during my Ameritrip2019 excursion on Amtrak. Many of these classic stations are named “Union Station” since they served a group — or union — of different passenger train services, like the one in LA still does today.

As it happens Union Station was the closest stop to my Airbnb on the LAX Flyaway “express” bus — which in reality has to share the same clogged freeways with everyone else.

The bus stops at a bus area behind the station. A short walk down a ramp leads into the newer half of the station, with the LA Metro’s subway downstairs, and both the regional Metrolink as well as Amtrak and Amtrak California on the outdoor upstairs level.

 

LA Union Station LA Union Station LA Union Station

 

The main passageway continues straight into the old part of Union Station. Unsurprisingly it’s the most interesting part of the complex, the uniquely beautiful interior in particular.

The building was completed in 1939, combining the Mission Revival style with Art Deco — a combination that sounds objectively terrible on paper, but the designers somehow fit it together perfectly. It’s worth noting the LA City Hall was designed by the same team.

Today the old half of the station is mostly waiting areas with shops, cafes, and a pair of outdoor courtyards. Still, my favorite feature in today’s 98F weather was a little more modern — the air conditioning.