Friday, February 27, 2015

Rest in Peace, Leonard Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy (l), with Mission: Impossible cast members. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Leonard Nimoy died this morning.

He is, of course, best known for his portrayal of Mr. (later Captain, later Ambassador) Spock on Star Trek.  Leonard Nimoy's nuanced performance made Spock into the most human character of any of Trek's incarnations. He was a symbol for anyone who was different. As a lonely child, Spock was my hero and role model.

But Nimoy also turned in memorable performances as the brilliant and amoral William Bell on TV's Fringe; the master of disguise Paris in Mission: Impossible; and as Vincent Van Gough's brother Theo in the one man stage play Vincent. Nimoy also directed several films, including the hit Three Men and a Baby, wrote poetry, and even owned a pet store. An Army veteran (he attained the rank of Sergeant), Nimoy worked as a taxicab driver during the lean years before Star Trek. In later life, he recalled one of his passengers was a young Senator named John F. Kennedy.

I am actually two degrees removed from Leonard Nimoy. My uncle, Jim Drake, was a Hollywood extra who appeared on numerous TV shows of the 1960s and 70s - including Star Trek. In the episode Turnabout Intruder, he played a security guard who placed Mr. Spock under arrest.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Nimoy. May your memory endure into the 23rd Century and beyond.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

A Visit to Bletchley Park

From our usual tube station, located just a few blocks from our hotel, we headed to Euston Station – a “mega” station that encompasses both the underground and long distance rail lines.  Despite the vast setting, we were able to quickly locate ticket concessions (both automated and staffed concessions are provided), and obtain our round trip tickets to Bletchley – some 50 miles north of London.  (We could have used our Oyster Card, but didn’t want to dig too far into our balance.)
Soon enough, the city was fading into the distance as we entered London’s version of suburbia, populated largely by row houses with relatively few free standing homes.  Then we were in the country and saw cows and horses.  A little over an hour later, the train pulled into the Bletchley railway station.
A messenger's cycle.

Pond at Bletchley Park, with mansion in background

Memorial to the codebreakers.
Bletchley Park is a mere five minute walk from station, and near an attractive new housing development.  The site was originally a private mansion with extensive grounds which passed through several aristocratic owners before the government purchased it in 1938.  Although some green space remains, today the Park largely consists of buildings constructed during the war (note than when British mention “the war”, it still refers to World War II – some 70 years after its conclusion), with the main mansion located further up the property.  The “huts” in which the codebreakers toiled to break the Germans’ “unbreakable” Enigma code were primitive even by the standards of the 1930s-1940s.  Despite their hard work, they made slow progress until Alan Turing created his code breaking “bombe.”  Turing’s original machine was dismantled immediately after the war’s end.  But a working replica has been created.
I will not pretend to understand the details of how the bombe actually worked, but it was somehow able to decipher how the rotors in the Enigma machine were set (the Germans changed the settings daily), and use that information to decrypt the messages.  Watching the machine in action, I couldn’t help wondering what Turing, who died in 1954 – apparently a suicide – would make of our computer driven era, with instant connectivity and real time communications.  Even more, I thought of how Turing suffered under the repression of the era, and how the Western world has evolved to the point that I could bring my same-sex spouse to Bletchley Park, how we could walk the streets of London hand-in-hand, with no one so much as batting an eye.
Alan Turing (photo: Wikipedia)

The letter of apology (right-click to open at full size)
Much has been rightly made of the fact that the British government issued an apology to Alan Turing, and Queen Elizabeth II’s subsequent pardon of him.  Now there is a movement underway to formally pardon all those who were prosecuted under the UK’s anti-homosexual laws.  I support this movement, and I welcome how both the United States and the United Kingdom continually reexamine their own histories.  In the 1980s, the US Government offered a formal apology and reparations for families who suffered under Japanese-American internment during World War II.  And although racial, religious, and sexual prejudice continues to be a problem here, there are very few who would defend our ancestors’ treatment of Native Americans, and almost no one who would dare to speak in favor of slavery, lynching, or the KKK.  We Americans are unafraid to air our dirty laundry, and it appears the British share this same trait.  Contrast that with many other nations, in particular Japan, which continue to deny some of the most savage crimes against humanity committed in the wake of their nationalistic movements.  No nation’s history is devoid of stains.  Redemption is gained not by whitewashing, but by facing up and making restitution.
While at Bletchley Park, we saw a group of school children on a field trip.  This was one of several groups we saw during our trip, who were invariably better behaved than their American counterparts.  With all the talk of Common Core and teacher pay in America, I believe we also need to look to the parents –who should be the ultimate guide in teaching their children good manners.  From what I observed, we could learn a lot from the British.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Keep Calm and Mind the Gap - Getting Around in London

The most important advice I can give to anyone visiting London is: Wear comfortable shoes.

The second piece of advice I would offer is this: If you’re staying within Greater London, don’t even think of renting a car.  First of all, there’s the issue of learning to drive on the left hand side of the road, to say nothing of differing signage and road markings.  Second, London is among the most congested cities in terms of traffic – to the extent that transport authorities have wisely instituted a congestion charge of £11.50 for private vehicles operating within central London between 7:00am and 6:00pm on weekdays.  The result of this is one sees relatively few private vehicles operating within central London during these hours – the majority of traffic is double-decker buses, London’s characteristic Taxis, and service vehicles including police cars, ambulances, and trash/recycling trucks.  (The few private vehicles seen during this time are invariably Mercedes, BMW, and other luxury cars.)

So, how to get around in London?  The best way is to purchase a Transport for London Oyster Card after reclaiming your baggage at the airport.  One can purchase an Oyster Card for seven days unlimited travel in Zones 1 & 2, and top-up with additional funds for more extended travel – all for less than the cost of a single taxi ride from the airport to Central London.  You simply tap the Oyster Card on the card reader when you enter a tube station, and tap out at the exiting station.  It’s that simple.  One can use the Oyster Card on the Underground, the famed Double-Decker buses, some Ferry services, and Light Rail.  We made use of all of these except, sadly, the buses.  We just never got around to taking one, as they were not as easy to manage in terms of learning the routes.  But I suspect the buses will still be running the next time we visit London.

The London Underground (52% of which is actually above ground) was our primary means of transport while in London.  The “Tube”, as it’s best known in London, is an engineering marvel, with some 250 miles of track.  The oldest subway system in the world, the first part of the Tube opened in 1863 – when Abraham Lincoln was President.  It has grown into a vast network, part of a larger public transport network that includes the other options mentioned above.  (Tube stations were even used as air raid shelters during The Blitz.)  Consider that London has been populated for some 2,000 years, grown in fits and starts, endured plagues, burned down, been bombed from the air – a continual process of development, tear-down, and redevelopment.  All through this period, modes of transportation were being devised, implemented, revised, and discarded.  It’s amazing people can get anywhere with convenience and relative efficiency, given the organic nature of London’s growth.

We ventured beyond Central London twice, both times using alternate transportation.  The first time was to Bletchley Park, some 50 miles north, where we took the National Rail from Euston station.  The ride was smooth enough that we dozed off on our way back into London.  The second time was to Greenwich, a borough southeast of London, to see the Cutty Sark and Royal Observatory.  Although the tube does go there, we decided to make use of the ferry out of convenience and to get a better view of London from the Thames.  The boats operated on time and featured well designed interiors, including a coffee/snack concession, and comfortable seating.  I will blog more extensively about our trips to Bletchley and Greenwich in a future post.

As someone who spent nine years in Boston and made extensive use of that area’s excellent public transport, I am not easily impressed.  But London decisively put Boston in its place.  The convenience, orderliness, and cleanliness of London’s public transport are unsurpassed.  As you approach each station, a pleasant recorded voice tells you which station you’re approaching, which transfer lines are available at that station, and reminds you to “mind the gap between the train and the platform.”  If the next station ahead is closed or in limited service, that information is also included.  The volume is modulated to be clearly audible, yet not harsh or overwhelming.

Even New York, which has been trying to build a particular subway branch for 90 years, is left in the dust - to say nothing of the very limited public transport options offered in my hometown of Cleveland.  Of course, to compare Greater London - with nine million residents, to Greater Cleveland - with under two million for Cuyahoga County, would be like comparing coconuts to grapes.  It would be impractical for Cleveland to attempt the comprehensive public transport system that London has.  But we can do better than our present, inefficiently run bus and rail lines.

Back to my first bit of advice about comfortable shoes: Londoners walk, and they have the rules of foot based commuting down to a fine art. When on an escalator, stand on the right, pass on the left.  Do not enter a rail carriage until people have exited.  Never cut in line.  Those who violate these courtesies risk an angry glare, along with possible verbal reprimand and public embarrassment.  Partly as a result of their extensive walking, there are relatively few overweight residents.  Most Londoners look astonishingly fit, and the men – unlike in much of the US – wear relatively form-fitting trousers.  As a somewhat overweight person, I blend in here in the US, but in London I stood out like a sore thumb.  You can also tell the tourists from the natives – the natives look directly ahead and walk briskly to their destination, while the tourists gawk – and there’s plenty to gawk at in London.

Enjoy your time in London.  Remember to always keep calm and Mind the Gap.

My next post will cover our trip to Bletchley Park.  Those of you who’ve seen The Imitation Game will find much that’s familiar.

Monday, February 23, 2015

A Tale of Two Airlines - and Four Airports

As previously mentioned, Dan & I recently travelled to London.  It was the realization of a dream I’ve had since I was seven years old, when I first became interested in all things British.  Beyond the obvious benefits of R&R, travel can be an opportunity to expand your horizons, challenge your perceptions, and question your beliefs.  This trip afforded me numerous opportunities for that, starting with getting to our destination.

When we arrived at Cleveland Hopkins Airport, it was as we’ve expected since last year, when United Airlines announced they were eliminating their Cleveland hub: quiet.  There was no one waiting in line as we checked in with the very nice attendant from American Airlines, and only three people ahead of us as we made our way through security.  It was shortly after arrival at our gate that I had a panic attack as I suddenly couldn’t recall if I’d locked the door to our home.  Fortunately, I was able to log onto Hopkins’ free Wi-Fi and contact a friend via facebook, who was able to go to our house and confirm the door was properly locked.  As we waited to board the plane, there was little foot traffic to be seen, and I mused to Daniel that, more than ever, I believed that Cleveland should close Burke Lakefront Airport and divert the traffic to Hopkins – freeing Burke’s valuable property for redevelopment.  Eventually we boarded the Embraer RJ145 for a quick, bumpy flight to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

As we made our way between terminals at JFK, looked over the paltry selection at the food court, and discovered that the airport charged for Wi-Fi, I couldn’t help the thought that the former President would spin in his grave knowing such a mediocre airport was named after him – a man who advocated for technological progress at every chance.  I also thought of my mother as I gazed out the airport windows toward the borough of Queens, where she spent her first 15 years.  How I wish she’d lived to witness me travelling to the land of our ancestors, with the man I love.  The four hour layover seemed to stretch into eternity as we waited to board the British Airways Boeing 747 for our flight to London Heathrow Airport.  And that’s where our perceptions were really challenged.

The BA plane was laid out like your typical jumbo jet: first class at the front, economy toward the rear – with a central row of four seats bordered by two aisles, which in turn were bordered by the outer seats.  Even though we were just a few rows from the back of the fully sold out plane, the seats seemed larger than those we’ve encountered on American carriers.  Waiting for each of us on our seats were a blanket, pillow, and a small plastic bag with headphones, toothbrush and toothpaste.  After the usual instructions from the smartly attired (with ladies’ hair pulled back, men cleanly groomed and wearing ties) flight attendants, taxi, and takeoff – we were treated to a choice of complementary wine, beer or mixed drinks.  About an hour later, as we were enjoying the in-flight entertainment (I watched Paddington, mostly for the London sights), we were brought a hot meal – which consisted of choice of chicken or vegetarian dish, dinner roll, small salad, and dessert, along with another beverage.  I’ve been travelling via plane since 1979, and I well remember when this kind of service was standard on American carriers.  But those of a younger generation will have only experienced the way things are today – with passengers crammed in and treated like cattle.  I cannot help the thought that this is largely due to the viscious cycle of deregulation and mergers, resulting in a race to the bottom as carriers chase the lowest price point. 

As we approached Heathrow, our flight attendant handed out cards for us to complete and give to their Border Control officers, codifying where we would be staying while in London and when we expected to leave.  Heathrow is easily the largest airport I’ve ever seen, but orderly enough that we were able to make our way to Border Control and were welcomed to the UK by a very pleasant yet professional officer.  There was never any sense of tension despite the recent terrorist attacks in France.  Security was present but not obtrusive.  

From there, we retrieved our baggage and then followed the signs to the Heathrow Terminal 5 Underground Station.  Dan had done his research and recommended we each purchase an Oyster Card with seven days unlimited use for Zones 1 and 2, with an additional £20 for further trips.  We were soon on the Piccadilly Line which had us within a few blocks of our hotel in under an hour.  (I will blog about London’s rail transportation in an upcoming post).  The whole process from disembarking the plane to hotel arrival took less than two hours.

Nine days later, we reversed the process and headed back to Heathrow Terminal 5a via the Piccadilly Line.  As we checked-in, the very pleasant BA officer presented us with United States customs forms to complete before our arrival in Chicago.  We hadn’t purchased anything beyond the usual touristy stuff – clothing, refrigerator magnets, tour books, and three tins of tea – so completing the forms was a snap.  From there, we proceeded through the most orderly security screening line I’ve ever seen into the departure terminal.  Dan & I had a few hours to kill, but with all the money we’d spent on our trip, we avoided the duty-free shops and made use of Heathrow’s free but rather sluggish Wi-Fi while we waited to board our plane.  The flight to Chicago was on a Boeing 777, which is more up to date than the 747 we took from New York.  Unlike our initial flight, the return trip was less than half sold.  Again, we were offered a free alcoholic drink (I chose white wine), hot meal, further beverages, and a sandwich toward the end of the flight.  I was too keyed up to sleep, so I watched Lucy, Fury, and the final episode of True Blood before our arrival.

·         After Heathrow, disembarking the plane and entering Chicago’s O’Hare airport was like leaving Starfleet Headquarters and finding oneself at a stagecoach depot.  Signage leading to Border Control was virtually non-existent, with airport officers merely shouting “THIS WAY to Border Control, keep moving people!”  The Border Control officers looked like retirees who’d rather be anywhere other than their jobs.  We then retrieved our baggage, went through customs control, handed over our forms, and we’re asked if were bringing any food into the country – I didn’t witness anyone’s baggage being searched.  Despite the presence of bag sniffing dogs (Beagles), I couldn’t help the thought that someone could easily sneak contraband, or worse, into the country.  Dan & I then rechecked our baggage and headed to another terminal for the final leg of our flight.  The trip through security was a sad contrast to what we witnessed in London – confusingly laid out, with people cutting in line and TSA officers seemingly uninterested in maintaining order.  The wait at O’Hare’s Terminal 3, with free Wi-Fi limited to 20 minutes and heavily throttled, was interminable.  As we boarded the Embraer RJ170-195 for the bumpy ride home (including a landing where it seemed we skidded on the snowy runway), I felt utterly spent – shorn of patience and disappointed in my home country.

I love America.  I really do.  We Americans have been brought up to believe we’re the greatest country in the world.  But beyond the money we spend on our military and the percentage of our own people who are incarcerated, I seriously doubt we’re number one in much else.  What must foreigners think when they enter our country for the first time, and see out-of-date, unwelcoming airports such as JFK and O’Hare? 

An American in London

Dan and I just returned from a vacation in England, most of which was spent in London. I will blog about our experiences in the coming days.