Are you a raving LOST fan? Have you run out of people who want to hear your theories about how the island is really a projection into our universe by a hyperintelligent transdimensional race and was once mistaken for Atlantis? I know I have!
Never fear! The LOST crew is out there with yet another alternate reality game, in the form of the website:
It’s just the kind of maddening, quasi-canonical thing I’ve come to expect from the LOST folks. Themed after the scientific-religious hippie group, the Dharma Initiative, which is reforming and wants you as a recruit. So far, you have to answer a bizarre, somewhat non-sequitarish psychological profile to sign up, and then, you get a logic puzzle!
Jonathan Coulton is an absolute favorite of mine for his geeky, funny, and sometimes incredibly touching songs. Mash him up with one of the sparkling performers from the Adventurer’s Club at Disney, and you get a total tear-jerker of a funny, romantic, nerdy song. We saw this performed just the other night and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house afterwards, it was sooo sweet. As we were walking away from Pleasure Island that night, I heard these two girls talking about it in a tone of voice reserved for back-rolling, tail wagging, head tilting puppies with giant eyes. “Oh,” one said, “That robot army song was sooooo touching.”
How many times are you going to hear that said?! Bravissimo to Emil, and thanks to Jonathan Coulton for writing the song. Enjoy, but keep a hankie handy.
This ones for all my single friends who play World of Warcraft. Discovered the other day that there is a dating site for World of Warcraft players — datecraft.com. I know, I know. You’re picturing pasty white goth chicks who have known more twinkies than other human beings. But, at least with the cursory look I gave it, the chicks on the site seemed fairly hot.
If you ask me, WoW girlz appear to be the sexiest gamers I have seen. Of course, I didn’t grow up with ready access to the Internet, so I have no clue about just how true the pictures on Internet dating sites might be. I had to meet people in person. Oy!
And hey, I mean, at least you might find someone to play the game with…
If you’re not familiar with Oliver Sacks, he’s a neurologist who has sort of popularized the field of brain science in much the same way that Carl Sagan has popularized the field of astronomy. He’s written a tall stack of books detailing the unique cases he has come across in his profession, and providing a unique insight into what it is to be human.
His latest book, Musicophilia, is a look at the relationship between the human brain and music — an a unique relationship it turns out to be. For instance, you know how you occasionally get one of those obnoxious jingles stuck in the musical part of your brain. “Have it yooooour way, have it your way…” all day long? Now imagine the same thing, only not in that slightly muffled music area of your brain, but concious, as if a radio was playing, but only you could hear it. Sacks details people who live with this issue everyday — music playing in their head that only they can hear, and that in some cases is impossible to disregard. And in many cases, it’s not even music the person particularly likes! ACK! Contiunuously tuned into the Brittney Spears station on ethereal radion would surely drive me mad.
And yet, for every tale of something that seems a malady, Sacks tells a story of something unique and sublime about the human relationship with music. Alzheimer’s patients who can still perform beautiful, passionate music, or can at least sing their favorite songs. Children with Williams Syndrome, who almost seem, from Sack’s description to be elvish — another species, tremendously friendly and likeable, with a love of the melodies and rhythms of music.
I have to say I really found the book both frightening and fascinating. I’ve read bits about Buddhist wisdom where they basically describe the world as an illusion created by the self. I’m sure at first glance, most people dismiss that as being kind of self-centered philosophy. “Oh, there’s just me and everything else is my imagination.” But the brain science in Sack’s book makes it a lot easier to understand what’s being said there. Everything we see, or hear, or sense in any way is the result of our brain intepreting changes in the environment around us through our senses and our preconceptions. When Sacks talks in his book about the people who are hearing music in their heads as if it were real and present, you begin to realize that the sensory system we depend on to show us “truth” cannot always be depended upon. It’s a scary notion, but manageable, when you wrap yourself around the idea. Everyone really is an individual that sees the world in a unique way depending on their basic physical hardware and their personality or self. It becomes a more challenging thought to walk in someone else’s shoes then, since, because they have had a whole different set of experiences during their lifetime, and their senses might work a little differently, there are differences between us (even if we are all human).
It’s not all sort of confusing and dark, though, as music really is a transcendent force as portrayed in the book. It’s amazing that the fact that music develops sort of separately from things like speech and memory, makes it something that can be helpful in the rehabilitation of stroke victims, or can make the life of those with dementia happier. It can even make it easier to connect with a loved one with those challenges by providing a common ground.
I’ve been trying to make music a bigger part of my life, since it does seem to bring a shared happiness to people. Musicophilia confirmed for me that I should continue in this path as musical skills are something one can share long into your life. Music brings hope, and hope is often what life is made from.
Having only ever really cruised the local Florida waters before, it was an odd experience to pull into our final port and know there was still 4000 or so miles between us and home, and many hours before we could start that journey. When we made our way up to deck for breakfast and I sat looking out at the cold, damp, misty mountains, I found myself thinking about the things I hadn’t gotten to do in Alaska. I hadn’t walked on the side of any of the majestic, snow-covered mountains. I hadn’t seen a bear, despite being told there was one every square mile. I hadn’t seen a moose, even though I was told they were very, very dangerous — even moreso than bears. Would I regret not having done those things? Probably a bit. Ahead of us was our long final shore tour that was described as a trip up a tramway to have lunch at a resort, and then a trip to the airport to sit around a few hours and wait for our flight.
And yet there were still surprises left. Like the fact that once we were comfortably ensconced in our motor coach, we would have to travel through a very odd tunnel. The tunnel that leads out of Whittier, which is the only way in or out of the coastal town in a ground vehicle, is 2.5 miles long and a single lane. It was built by the military when Whittier was a military town, and was there to provide the military supply train a way to get to the base. Now, vehicles can drive through for $12. There’s a set schedule as to when the tunnel is open in each direction to what kind of vehicle. For example, our buses had a window from 10 – 10:15 am.
And I say buses because, although they could fit us all on the one giant motor coach, they had to split us up when we went through the tunnel. You see, in case of catastrophe, there are pull-offs arranged throughout the tunnel with supplies, air, protected areas, and they are sized for a specific number of people. So a single vehicle can only carry a certain amount of people.
Credit to military engineers, I found the tunnel to be very safe-seeming and had a blast driving through it. I kind of wish there was a tour. It looked like an amazing piece of engineering. Though our tour guide told us if you drive through with your windows rolled down, it’s kind of smelly.
After that we paused to take a peek at the Portage Glacier, and collect the rest of the travelers on our bus from the tunnel overflow bus. Then we proceeded on to the first surprise of our tour, a stop at the Alaskan Wildlife Conservation Center.
Yes, fate had heard my thoughts. Here we were, pulling into the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, a beautiful, huge nature preserve where they take in animals who, for whatever reason, are no longer able to live in the wild. At first, we were just rolling through in a motor coach with a guide aboard chatting about the animals. There I was, snapping some fairly crappy pictures through the windows of the coach, thinking, “Just let me out here. I’ll get a taxi to Anchorage!” And sure enough, we get to the brown bear area and we get to leave the coach! Woohoo!
The brown bears there were AMAZING! Giant! Stupendous! Aboslutely terrifying. And yet, somehow, cute. While I was taking the pictures, I saw some space further ahead and started to jump forward into it when the biggest bear in the enclosure, right in front of me, stands up on it’s hind legs and just towers over me. I’m standing there, looking up, going, “Holy sh– wow — oh, my!” And then I think, camera! And of course, the bear drops back down. Still, it was amazing to having this giant, furry, clawed and toothed wall of hair towering over me. I’ll trade the pictures for that moment of OMFG. Lest you worry about us, the sort of flimsy fence between us was labeled “electrified”, and the bears didn’t seem interested in getting past it. They seemed perfectly happy in their huge environment. And best yet, they seemed happy and curious about us. As we hopped back on the bus, one of them was floating on his back in the water with his paws sticking up. The perfect image of some little tourist statue labeled something like, “Getting Bear-Naked In Alaska!”
I thought we were going to get trapped back on the bus for more riding around, but they took us over to the visitor’s center and dropped us off to let us explore a bit. I was ecstatic! I got to see just how big mooses actually are. And how absolutely stunning a red fox is. So brightly colored, and the eyes are gorgeous! It look just like a little dog as it made it’s little turn and sat down in front of me, soaking up some sunshine with its eyes squeezed tight in satisfaction.
The black bears looked and acted amazingly like dogs for as big as they are. The one I have pictures of just flopped himself in front of the tourists, looking like a contented hound. When he’d had enough of our clicking away with our cameras, he went and checked out some bones that looked fairly worked over. Finding not much to chew off them, he started using it to scratch his face and head. It was absolutely cute in a sort of morbid, glad that isn’t my bone kind of way. You have to keep thinking, as you watch these bears, how absolutely huge and strong they are. I think I’ve said of Alaska before, Nature there left me feeling small.
I was almost sorry to jump back on the bus, but I was hungry for both food and more adventure. Our next stop was the Alyeska Mountain Resort. Driving up to it, there’s a quaint little town of artist houses. One house has beautiful stained glass in the windows. Another, through the big bay windows you can see a giant stuffed bear. I must be in the wrong line of work if artists can afford these kinds of houses!
We rode a tram up to the house. Our tram driver closed the door and yelled, “Lightspeed!” Nice! Made me feel like I was at home. (“Lightspeed to Endor!”) At the top, we got to pick out a little boxed lunch kind of thing in the snack bar, which turned out to be fairly yummy (Natasha and I both had crab salad sammies) and included a, to quote Natasha, “cookie as big as my head!” After lunch, we explored the mountaintop. Yes, I wanted to walk on a mountain, but in the end, I decided I didn’t want to walk very close to the edge with all the ice and wet mud around. But the view was still amazing, especially since the sky was full of para-glider thingies. They have a tandem service up there for people who want to learn or try it. It looked amazing. The tandem team that was up there while we were basically were able to swoop back and forth around this little sort of rounded valley between the peaks, right near the visitor center. Swish! They’d fly over to the edge of the mountain and just catch a wind coming back and shoot back to their launch area, until they finally shot off the side and glided over the valley. Must be exhilirating. I would have peed my pants!
Our next stop was the Alaskan Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. It’s a fascinating living museum covering all the native cultures in Alaska. There are your typical museum pieces in a small area, but there are also native artisans right there, answering questions and selling their wares. If you’re more into living culture, there’s a stage where the gregarious young cultural instructors were playing music and teaching people native dances. Outside, arrayed around a lake, there are examples of the kinds of dwellings the native people build. Each one has a small stuff of cultural reps who can tell you about traditional native life. One of the reps there showed us a rain chaser, a kewl, whizzing device you spin on a string. He said he’s used it that morning to make the rain go away. I have to admit, it looked pretty miserable in Whittier, and it was cold. But by the end of our tunnel ride it had warmed up and we were gifted with a sunny day for our explorations, so I think there is some magic in Alaska!
Anchorage brought back a little bit of home. I knew we must be getting close when I saw the Sears, and the Target shopping plaza under construction. Soon enough we arrived at the airport, and soon after that our giant metal raptor was whisking us away from the frozen north. With one last look out the window, one last look down upon the glaciers rumbling down the majestic mountainsides, I said “Thanks” to Alaska, for showing me there was still wilderness out there, in my very own country. Still hardy settlers, struggling to survive surrounded by the immensity of the natural world. I’ll take home the absolute conviction that we need to protect every bit of this we can.
Cruising into College Fjord was like being the first explorers to travel through Alaska. Early on, the wind was whipping down the deck into our faces and low clouds covered everything around us, lending a mysterious, ominous feel to the trip, as if we could suddenly sail off the side of the Earth, as early explorers thought. Early on, we did a “running catch” of a small boat, which whipped up along side the cruise ship to drop off the harbor pilots that would guide us through the ice fields around the fjord. Here I thought the might stop the ship, but instead the tiny boat just plowed right up to a hatch at water level and settled in with engines buzzing to match speed and have the pilots jump aboard. An exciting process to witness.
Knowing I was going to a fjord was exciting to me, in a total geek out kind of way. I don’t think I had ever seen one in person before, but I’d been fascinated with them since Douglas Adams had introduced us to Slartibartfast, the Magrathean coastline designer in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. “Lovely, crinkly edges indeed! As the first edges of the fjord came into sight and the clouds began to lift, I could certainly see why Slartibartfast won an award for doing fjords. They’re certainly an art form.
It’s amazing to see the smaller glaciers on the way up College Fjord. They’re like tremendous ocean waves, frozen solid in the act of pouring down the mountain. A sculpture of water, frozen in the act of shaping the Earth. And yet not frozen, as you begin to see the heaps of fertile ground atop and in front of the glaciers. Rich land that will provide all kinds of new potential for life. These are the titanic beings of the planet, like Tolkein’s Ents, moving slowly, geologically consideringly, shaping the mountains just the right way.
And all around us is the sea of ice islands. And then you look closer, and there are tiny brown dots in the water. Through the camera lens, I can tell the dots are sea otters. Some dive beneath the water as our cruise ship passes, frightened by the giant monolith rolling through their home. Others paddle backwards slowly, watching warily, and when I get the close-up lens on them, I realize they are pairs — a momma sea otter with her baby gliding along on her chest, sleepily looking up at us as we rolled past. As our guide on the nature tour yesterday pointed out, mom is reluctant to dive under the water with their babies, as they have to then lick the water off them and untangle their fur, which is a long and tedious process. Once again, they prove to be the cutest animals I have ever seen.
Our naturalist, Michelle, tells us the story of how the glaciers were named. E.H. Harriman, a rich railway entrepeneur, was told he needed to take a chill pill and go on vacation. His idea of a vacation was to take eminent scientists, artists, and naturalists up to Alaska and explore. They collected all kinds of information, and named all the glaciers in the fjord for famous colleges. It’s an amazing story. I think if I were an Internet millionaire of the current age, that would be my kind of vacation. Take an adventure and bring along the best and the brightest. Kind of like Star Trek, boldy go!
I’m troubled to think the Exxon Valdez disaster happened not too far from here. How horrible to think of the whales and sea otters and sea birds and seals covered in oil. Dying unknowing what this muck was that did not normally flow in the seas. Brought here by us. Dumped there because we were negligent in our duties to protect our home above all things. They told us how the natives of the area erected a “shame” totem pole to Exxon. They deserve one for every single thing they damaged or destroyed. A crime against us all.
I zoom in on some of the ice islands near the glacier and I can see whole colonies of sea lions there, lazily sunning themselves. They’re giving the otters a run for their money in the cuteness pageant. Here and there, one even claims a small island for itself. They watch us curiously, locals eyeing gaping tourists. “Hey, it’s just a big piece of ice.”
The captain turns the ship giving each side 25 minutes of viewing time. I can’t figure out why, considering we’re all on deck and can just walk around. I guess there are people who can’t stir themselves from their cabin or chair at the buffet. Why the heck would you come to Alaska and not get up and look around? It’s awesome, gigantic, incredible. And it needs to be seen firsthand, with no glass in the way.
As the ships thrusters slowly rotate the ship, they stir up the water, and sea birds dive down into it, to be blown around on the surface, spinning like rubber duckies in a strong bathtub current. Our naturalist tells us it’s because the thrusters stir up yummy things from the bottom for them to eat. I’m not so sure. I don’t see them eating. I think maybe they like the warmer water, or just enjoy the spinning ride I see them repeat, flying up and spinning back.
The Harvard Glacier is massive. Sitting in front of us, dwarfing the ship. It’s a mile away and blocks an entire mountain valley. And it groans! Every so often there’s this deep, keening walla that echoes all over. The glacier speaking its slow Ent-language. Haroom! The native Alaskans call it “White Thunder”.
Whatever you think about global warming, about oil…isn’t the Earth, the wonders like this, worth the effort of turning out a light, or recycling, or driving a smaller car? Maybe you’re a big human. Maybe you tower over all of this inside. Not me. I know my place. Humility is lesson one. This world, creation, is so much more than just you and I.
If I seem a little momentous here, I plead, “Big place, big thoughts.” And the sea otters are too cute. I want them to be around a long, long time.
We started the second half of our day in Sitka with lunch at Victoria’s, a local restaurant near the church that was recommended by our tour guide. (Always, always, ask a local where the best place to eat is. It’s an eternal rule of travel.) The fresh caught halibut and chips there was delicious enough that I think it went straight from the hook to the coating to the fryer. Yum!
After that, we proceeded out to meet the fish, on a wildlife cruise. The tour company offered a refund if you didn’t see “a sea otter, a bear, or a whale.” For them, I think that’s like a New York City tour guide offering a refund if you don’t see a tall building, a bus, or a wino.
Almost immediately we saw a grey whale surfacing, which they said was rare in that area at this time of year. Then we went over to visit some sea lions and a raft of sea otters. The first group of otters we saw got scared off. The guides were saying someone in the general area of the boat I was in was using a flash, which they take great pains to get people not to do, including offering painters tape if you can’t or don’t know how to turn your flash off. One thing they hadn’t considered, I think, is the auto focus assist beam on most new cameras, which actually fires before the flash. It can be bright and fairly continuous on some cameras. That’s something I might drop them a note about.
Quite frankly, sea otters are the cutest animal on the planet.
After that, we moved into an inlet where the water was so clear you could see the jellyfish and sea stars under the water. I almost expected to see a sponge with a jellyfishing net. (It’s a Spongebob Squarepants reference…) There was also a fenced off area leading to an inland lake. They use the fences to run the salmon through some fish counters — only when the count reaches a point where they can sustain the salmon population do they allow salmon fishing there. Just seeing that gave me an appreciation for why eating natural and not farmed salmon is the way to go. They take great pains to try to maintain the natural population, but the fish farms that are dropped in areas like that cause all kinds of concentrated pollution that destroys the environment.
Going back our captain got word of some whales nearby. We pulled up near a fishing boat and got another spectacular view of a pair of humpback whales, probably a mother and a calf. Our knowledable guides were able to stay carefully behind the whales and time out exactly when they should be surfacing. At one point, the water just erupted a hundred feet or so off one side of the boat as the tale of one of the whales slapped the water! What an incredible view!
This was just the part of my appreciation of the natural wonder and uniqueness of Alaska that really changed the way I look at the world. While I intellectually know it’s important to protect the wilderness, coming this close to it gave me an appreciation for why. I had never seen anything quite at this scale in my life. And it speaks very directly to the soul about how important it is that we appreciate these areas more than any diamond they might be offering in the Diamonds International store back in the town.
Although, technically, there’s no DI in Sitka. Like I said, it’s a real town, with a tourist industry that is more homegrown than imported.