Lawrence Hosken: Departures: Philly 1996: Part 0

a forgotten pen, a plane ride, amateur optics, where your money's been

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On Saturday, August 10th, 1996, as I boarded the plane on the first leg of my trip to Philadelphia, I didn't think I had forgotten to pack anything except for a pad of paper and a pen. I like to be able to take notes when I go travelling, and thus paper and pen would come in handy. No bother; I would surely be able to find them at the hotel.

I was going to Philadelphia to watch Bryan Clair get married. Bryan and I had been friends since high school, and had shared a house while going to UC Berkeley. He was getting his Math PhD in UChicago now; I was still living in Berkeley, technical writing. He had met Elissa while at UChicago and was going to marry her in Philadelphia. Elissa's parents lived in Philly. This was one of those world-spanning romances, or at least nation-spanning.

Anyhow, I probably should have had paper and pen with me during take-off from the Oakland airport because the minutes that followed may have been the best of the trip.

It was still rather early as the plane took off from Oakland airport, heading out over the bay, and the sun was still low in the sky. In fact, the sun was just at the right angle to reflect off of the water in the most beautiful fashion. To describe it as a rippling of blue and yellow is not sufficient. To say that the bay was embroidered with sunlight does not capture the moment. "Sparkling" isn't the word I'm looking for. Would you believe, "a constantly shifting weave of blue and gold"? Anyhow, it was pretty.

As we flew further, I could see brown under some of the water, and I knew it for a shallow spot in the bay. I tried to look around, to figure out if it was the shallow place where a sailboat I'd been on had run into trouble, but I couldn't tell.

We turned East. We were over land. In a minute, we were even with the flat where I lived. Less than a minute later, we were even with the crest of the Berkeley hills. Less than a minute after that, we were further East than I'd ever walked from Berkeley.

Flying over the Sierras, I didn't recognize them; they were so moist. There were things in the Sierras about which I thought, "That's not a lake; that's just a bunch of water that doesn't have anywhere to go." Of course, that's all a lake is; but you got the impression that these spots didn't see lakes that often. I saw some isolated lakes that had been formed by dams. It was strange--these lakes were out in the middle of nowhere in the mountains. If you'd been hiking through the woods, such a dam would be an unexpected encounter.

Lake Tahoe was very blue. The salt flats (which you see before the Great Salt Lake) were monstrous. I spent all my time looking out the window until a while after the Great Salt Lake--and then only stopped because clouds blocked my view of the land.

I read a bit in The Quark and the Jaguar, a book in which the physicist Murray Gell-Man tries to find interesting things to say about the Simple and the Complex, plus talks a little about quarks and quantum physics. The Simple and the Complex were pretty simple; the quantum was complex. Which is to say that I didn't really learn much from the book, even though it presented some material I didn't know.
Tiny Tetris was a novelty at this time

Speaking of science, I saw a neat thing on the approach into Philly. (Should I talk more about the plane trip, the ease with which I switched planes at O'Hare? How the girl next to me on the plane had a device the size of a belt pager that was a Tetris game? No, I shall skip to the Philly approach now.) As we came down out of the clouds, I started to watch the ground. There were these hills down there, only they weren't really hills so much as ridges; their peaks were 2-dimensional, not one-dimensional. Anyhow, I was looking at the little buildings on these peaks. Something strange was happening to them--just before my view of them was obscured by the wing, they got longer somehow, as if there was a curved piece of glass around the wing that was distorting my view.

I don't know much about optics; my physics education never got that far. But I do know that light gets bent when it passes between media of different densities. My glasses don't really bend the light per se; it's the transition from air to glass and from glass to air again where the light gets bent. Also, I knew that the air density above an airplane wing is less than that of normal air; that's where the lift comes from. And the air density right where the wing first meets the air's has to be pretty dense. So, I thought, maybe that's what's going on. Or maybe I'm just really tired, am hallucinating, and a delirious set of neurons is stirring up some fake physics in my head.

I arrived in Philly, deplaned, and looked around for the cheap shuttle buses which someone at the hotel claimed would bring me to any hotel for $10. After five minutes of searching, I gave up on finding the buses and got a cab. Or rather, someone got a cab for me. I walked up to the first cab at a taxi stand, and a dispatcher ran out of a booth to open up the door before I could reach it. She handed me a booklet from the city of Philly, letting me know Fair Fares to various places. I wondered if they'd had lots of troubles with dishonest cabbies to need to print such a book. When we arrived at the hotel, the fare with tip was about $30. I handed over $40 and asked for ten back. The cabbie opened up the glove compartment and looked through the money there--some twenties, a couple of ones. He opened up the ashtray and looked in there--a twenty. He looked back at me uncomfortably. He rolled his sock down and pulled out a thin roll of bills. He pulled a $10 out of the roll and handed it back. "You can't be too careful around here," he said, somewhat bashfully. "Thanks for the warning," I said. He seemed like he wanted to say something else, but couldn't find the words. I smiled, got out of the cab and said, "Later on." Which just goes to show that sometimes you DO know where your money's been and you still don't want to put it in your mouth.

Having ensconced myself in my hotel room, I fell asleep quickly. (continued)

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