Archive | October, 2007
October 30, 2007

The infamous In-N-Out 100×100

in-n-out 100x100

100 meat patties, 100 slices of cheese, 19,490 calories. Yes, someone did order a 100×100 (at an In-N-Out in Vegas back in ’04) and managed to document the entire process, with plenty of photographs.

in-n-out 100x100

Only 21 days until I am back in California. Not that I’m, uh, keeping track or anything.

October 27, 2007

Feds hate wiffleball

Just learned from the PWL Commish that the bureaucrats over at the National Park Service are putting an end to our glorious wiffleball Sundays at Gravelly Point:

The formality and lack of a personal nature caused my senses to prepare for bad news immediately. I’d received several notices from the United States Department of the Interior over the last few seasons. Usually a confirmation of the permit to engage in organized sports activity, in this case wiffleball, at one of the National Park Service managed properties, in this case Gravelly Point, part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway National Park.

This form letter, however, was different. It was notifying me that the last thing that was right about America was about to change. It was shattering not only my hopes and dreams, but taking away something that has become so much a part of the lives of close to 60 people.

Starting January 5, 2008, weekend sports activities at Gravelly Point will only be permitted from 6 AM to 9 AM.

No, that’s not a type-o…three short hours, 180 minutes, and quite possibly the worst 180 minutes of the day. For league that plays from 11:30 AM to 3:30 PM, the new rule is a death certificate.

The federal government’s anti-wiffleball stance does not surprise me, as it is generally acknowledged that the federal government disapproves of any activity that its taxpaying citizens might enjoy (i.e., travel to Cuba, Cuban cigars, absinthe, and large scale securities fraud).

You can sign a petition to the NPS that asks them to reconsider their anti-wiffleball stance, but I think this calls for some real action, like making protest signs and marching on the Department of Interior headquarters.

If the NPS still says no, then why not continue to play regardless? Would the Park Police really arrest us for playing wiffleball? On second thought, they probably would.

October 21, 2007


National Air and Space Museum

Drove down to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center today. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum doesn’t have enough room at its location on the National Mall, so they built the Udvar-Hazy annex near Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia to display more of their collection. It opened in December 2003, but I hadn’t made it out there until today. Visiting the Udvar-Hazy Center is a must do if you have any interest in aviation, as the collection of aircraft assembled in this giant hangar is truly impressive.

National Air and Space Museum

SR-71 down below

Boeing 707 and Concorde
Boeing 707 and the Concorde

Enola Gay
Recognizer that B-29? It’s the Enola Gay, the bomber that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945.

Enola Gay
Enola Gay
Enola Gay

Space Shuttle Enterprise
Space Shuttle Enterprise
Space Shuttle Enterprise – NASA’s first shuttle, built for atmospheric test flights. It was originally supposed to be named “Constitution”, but a bunch of Star Trek fans waged a letter writing campaign and NASA caved-in to nerd pressure, thereby naming the shuttle “Enterprise” (sorry, I can’t stand Star Trek).

Concorde supersonic airliner. DC to London in 3.5 hours.

This is what computers used to look like…and you couldn’t even play games on them.

SR-71 Blackbird
SR-71 Blackbird

Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer
Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer, the plane Steve Fossett used for his record breaking solo nonstop flight ’round the world.

North Vietnamese propaganda rocket
North Vietnamese propaganda rocket

Korean War MiG-15
MiG-15 used in the Korean War.

Korean War MiG-21

A-6 Intruder. This was one of my favorite planes as a kid, probably because of the movie.

This would probably be the first thing I would purchase after spending time in a Soviet prison, too.

Yokosuka MXY7 Ohka</a> (Cherry Blossom), rocket powered kamikaze aircraft”><br />
<a href=Yokosuka MXY7 Ohka (Cherry Blossom), rocket powered kamikaze aircraft.

Rest of the photos are here.

October 19, 2007

Reprogramming that basic Russian DNA

From Bush’s most recent press conference (don’t bother reading the entire transcript, it’s too painful).

Q. And what would it mean for Russian democracy if, when you leave power, assuming you do, in January 2009 — (laughter) — if Vladimir Putin is still in power?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, one of the interesting — well, my leadership style has been to try to be in a position where I actually can influence people. And one way to do that is to have personal relationships that enable me to sit down and tell people what’s on my mind without fear of rupturing relations. And that’s how I’ve tried to conduct my business with Vladimir Putin. We don’t agree on a lot of issues; we do agree on some. Iran is one; nuclear proliferation is another. Reducing our nuclear warheads was an issue that we agreed on early.

But I believe that diplomacy requires good relations at the leadership level. That’s why, in Slovakia, I was in a position to tell him that we didn’t understand why he was altering the relationship between the Russian government and a free press — in other words, why the fress press was becoming less free. And I was able to do — he didn’t like it. Nobody likes to be talked to in a way that may point up different flaws in their strategy. But I was able to do so in a way that didn’t rupture relations. He was able to tell me going into Iraq wasn’t the right thing. And to me that’s good diplomacy. And so I’m — and I’ll continue to practice that diplomacy.

Now, in terms of whether or not it’s possible to reprogram the kind of basic Russian DNA, which is a centralized authority, that’s hard to do. We’ve worked hard to make it appear in their interests — we made it clear to them that it is in their interests to have good relations with the West. And the best way to have good long-term relations with the West is to recognize that checks and balances in government are important, or recognize there are certain freedoms that are inviolate. So Russia a complex relationship, but it’s an important relationship to maintain.

WTF does that mean? Hey, Russia, you guys aren’t getting this whole democracy concept so we’re gonna have to reprogram your DNA, ok? Isn’t he constantly decrying stereotypes like these in his speeches on democracy in the Middle East?

WashPost has a semi-scathing editorial on the remark.

October 15, 2007

Looking ahead: Pyongyang and Mount K

“Where are you going next? And DON’T say North Korea.”

“Uh, China, I think, and maybe a weekend in Pyongyang.”

Despite my dad’s wishes otherwise, I’m still determined to get to North Korea by 2010, as I mentioned a few years ago. For a limited time this year, the North Korean government issued visas to American citizens for three day tours of Pyongyang and the DMZ. I’m hoping this continues in 2008, so that I can end a week/week and a half in China with a trip to North Korea. And while this trip is entirely dependent on the whims of North Korean bureaucrats, there is also the matter of finances and where I will be, say, six months from now. And yes, I do realize that the concept of voluntarily visiting North Korea sounds completely insane to a normal person, which I’ve certainly never claimed to be.

North Korean travel advertisement

Also, my friend Katerina called me a few days ago and declared that she would like to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, to which I replied “Dude, I’m totally up for that.” So apparently we will be climbing Kilimanjaro sometime in the next few years…before we’re 30, which is a scary thought in and of itself. In order to climb Mount K, we’ll have to start a training regimen that involves a lot of hiking, or whatever. To accomplish this, I will have to move back to California, because the “mountains” on the (l)east coast are mere hills. Also, I will need to win the lottery or rob several banks à la Point Break to fund this expedition.

October 10, 2007

Required reading: October 10, 2007 (Iraq / Armenia / Georgia / Etc.)

I’ve never been a huge fan of Christopher Hitchens, but his latest column, “A Death in the Family”, is a magnificent, albeit heartwrenching, tribute to Lt. Mark Dailey, a 23 year old Californian killed by an IED in Mosul, Iraq. If you read one article today, make it this one.

In other news, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, despite vigorous protests by the Bush Administration, approved a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide. The resolution will likely be forwarded to the full House for a vote. I find it amazing that – some 90 years since it occurred – this historical event (and yes, it was genocide, despite the U.S. government’s reluctance to use the “g word”) could inflame such passion within the U.S., and potentially worsen relations with Turkey. As for the Turks, they’re spending $300,000 a month on communications specialists and lobbyists in D.C. to tell their side of the story, which basically amounts to “well, as you know, war is a messy business.”

A new Sim City, brought to you by…BP?:

One wrinkle in the game’s marketing is that relatively clean systems like wind farms, natural gas plants and solar farms are branded with the BP logo, while the dirty options like coal are not. Gas stations in the game also carry the BP brand.

New art museum opens in Moscow, solicits donations to destroy Tsereteli-designed monuments that plague Moscow:

Indeed, Markin has gotten into trouble for placing a box in his museum for donations toward the cost of destroying all the monuments in Moscow by the sculptor Zurab Tsereteli. Tsereteli is Moscow’s best-known and most powerful sculptor, his massive, patriotic pieces rising amid, and occasionally above, the cityscape.

“I hate his work,” Markin sniffed.

Tsereteli’s grandson visited Markin and asked him to remove the box, and he did.

“We had already received enough money to tear all the monuments down,” Markin said.

Russia on Its Mind, Georgia Flexes Its Muscle in Iraq. Quid pro quo:

At a time when other countries are pulling troops out, Georgia has more than doubled its troop levels in Iraq, to 2,000 soldiers from 850, and agreed to send them from the safer Green Zone in Baghdad to this area along the Iranian border. That gives Georgia, a tiny Caucasus mountains nation, the second-largest troop presence among American allies in Iraq, behind Britain.


A dozen or so of the Georgians said in interviews that they understood their service in Iraq as directly linked to their own security — as a means of helping Georgia join NATO when Russia’s international ambitions are stirring again.

Sgt. Koba Oshkhereli, looking out of the dusty gate of Forward Operating Base Delta at the trash-strewn streets of Kut and all the danger it holds, put it this way: “The bear was sleeping. Now the bear is awake and stomping his feet.”

Oh yeah, and Thomas Friedman dubbed my generation “Generation Q” (I thought we were Generation Y? Can we settle on a damn letter?!) because we are optimistic and idealistic and travel, but all we do is e-mail, post to our blogs, and join Facebook groups. Whatever, dude.

October 9, 2007

The Chernobyl Riviera?

As bizarre as it sounds, wealthy Ukrainians are building vacation homes near the 30km exclusion zone surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear reactor:

The sky is a cornflower blue and the lake is calm. Sunburned fishermen pull up to the dock in motorboats, their nets filled with pike.

On the deck of a hunting lodge, couples are feasting on their catches and rehashing the day’s adventures. Farther down the road, crews are finishing the roof of yet another lakefront, luxury home.

The latest villa to sprout on the shores of the Kiev Reservoir is just a few metres from the barbed-wire fence that marks the 30-kilometre exclusion zone surrounding the infamous Chernobyl plant.

Yes, nature lovers have discovered Chernobyl. The region near the scene of the world’s worst nuclear accident is now dubbed the “Chernobyl Riviera” for its grand homes and commanding vistas.


Twenty-one years after a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, ripping off the roof, and spewing radioactive poison into the countryside, Ukrainian holiday-makers are flocking to the region to bask in its quiet and enjoy the abundant wilderness that sprang to life when humans were forcibly evacuated.

Today, the woods and waters surrounding the village of Strakholissya – a half-hour drive from the stricken plant – are among the best hunting and fishing grounds in Ukraine. Wild boar, deer and wolves roam in the dense birch and pine forests.

Not one of the many weekenders interviewed expressed concern about potential health hazards. “It’s more contaminated in Kiev,” one fisherman said, laughing.

Recently, Ukraine’s rich and famous discovered the tranquil spot. They are mainly from Kiev, townspeople say, and they have built a line of lavish homes, hidden from prying villagers’ eyes by tall fences.

Their magnificent houses, docks and swimming pools are on full display if you rent a boat and ogle from the lake.


At the hunting lodge, Mr. Kuzmenko, his wife and friends said they weren’t worried about radiation levels.
“Our bodies have adapted to this,” said Sergei Ivanov, who, along with Mr. Kuzmenko and their wives drove up from Kiev for a weekend of duck hunting.

The group were up at dawn with their rifles. By early afternoon, they were back at the lodge, relaxing on the deck, the corpses of their hunted fowl hanging from the railing. Mr. Kuzmenko’s wife, Oksana, was looking forward to sunset.

“In the evening, the water gets an interesting colour,” Ms. Kuzmenko said. “The moon gives a white light, which makes [the lake] look like ice.”

Personally, I’d rather invest in beachfront property and spend my time surfing instead of picking radioactive mushrooms, but that’s just me. To each their own.

Related: LAist Interview: Director/Adaptor of Voices from Chornobyl, Cindy Marie Jenkins, Chernobyl plant to get a proper burial

October 8, 2007

Ukraine/Poland ’07 Roundup

Yeah, I’m finally done writing about this trip. Only took me four months. Still, that’s a significant improvement over last year’s trip to the Caucasus, which I didn’t finish writing about until December. I haven’t the slightest idea why it takes me so much time to write about places I’ve gone, considering that my travel posts are what most people stumble across, and therefore e-mail me about.

So, if you missed anything, here you go:
1. LOT – The airline of the proletariat
2. Ukraine Photos: Touring the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
3. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part I: Dude, where’s your Geiger counter?
4. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part II: Liquidators Memorial / Kopachi / Catfish / Reactor 4
5. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part III: The ghosts of Pripyat
6. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part IV: Chisto?
7. Kiev: Post-Chernobyl food run/4th of July dinner (or how I flew 6000 miles to partake in Oreo Madness)
8. Ukraine Photos: Kiev
9. Kiev: You’ve seen one Rodina Mat, you’ve seen ’em all
10. Make sure to secure the door when I am gone. There are many dangerous people who wanna take things from Americans, and also kidnap them. Good night!
11. Kiev Pechersk Lavra (Kiev Monastery of the Caves)
12. Poland Photos: Krakow / Auschwitz-Birkenau / Wieliczka Salt Mine
13. Kraków
14. Auschwitz
15. Wieliczka Salt Mine: Goin’ Deeper Underground

October 8, 2007

Wieliczka Salt Mine: Goin’ Deeper Underground

Wieliczka salt mine entrance

Wieliczka salt mine entrance

I’m not really sure why I was inspired to visit a salt mine. I mean, seriously, touring a salt mine? Seems like a bizarre thing to do while you are on vacation (granted, not as bizarre as touring Chernobyl), but it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and was supposedly worth visiting.

Until recently, Wieliczka was one of the world’s oldest continuously operating salt mines. Production of table salt began in the 13th century and ended only recently, in 2007, due to flooding. The mine is massive, stretching some 186 miles (300km) underground and reaching a depth of 1,072 feet (327m). That’s nearly twice the height of the Washington Monument (555 feet). The official tour route took us through 2 miles (3.5km) of these underground tunnels.

Our English language guide was Sebastian, a cute fellow, in that tall and lanky, Eastern Europe-accented English and great sense of humor kind of way. When he casually mentioned that we would be walking down 54 flights of stairs to begin our tour, I thought he was joking until he opened a heavy wooden door and we found ourselves hurrying down a seemingly endless staircase.

Wieliczka salt mine stairs

While walking through salt tunnels and caves is thoroughly exciting, it’s not the main draw of the tour. Over the years, artistically inclined miners have fought boredom by carving salt into grandiose sculptures that honor important Poles and the history of the Wieliczka Salt Mine.

One of our first stops on the tour was the Burnt Out (Spalone) Chamber. In this chamber there are several carved figures that honor the men who worked as the mine’s “pentinents”. Prior to the installation of a proper ventilation system, the so-called pentinents were responsible for burning off the methane that would accumulate in the ceilings of the mine’s chambers. To accomplish this, they would dress in wet clothing and and crawl along the floor of mine chambers clutching a long pole with a lit torch on the end. As you can imagine, this was one of the riskiest jobs a man could hold at the Wieliczka Salt Mine, and as such, they were often rewarded handsomely with…extra bags of salt to take home to their families (keeping in mind that salt was an extremely valuable commodity in the Middle Ages).

Wieliczka salt mine methane burners
The “pentinent” methane burners. And yeah, I need to learn how to use my camera.

Wieliczka salt mine gnomes
Gnomes…mining salt. Gnomes were the good luck charm of Wieliczka miners.

Wieliczka salt mine
The air is pure, and the temperature a cool 55 degrees. Just don’t get lost.

Besides carving methane burners and gnomes, the miners undertook larger projects including a number of chapels, the largest being St. Kinga’s Chapel, which was carved out of a massive green salt block in 1896.

Wieliczka salt mine chapel
Walk down the salt stairs leading down to the salt chapel to view the salt carvings lit by the salt crystal chandeliers

Wieliczka salt mine chapel
They hold Catholic Mass here on special occasions, and if you’re so inclined, you can even get married down here, which someone apparently did the evening prior to our visit.

Wieliczka salt mine chapel
Bored with the floor’s design? Carve a new one.

Wieliczka salt mine chapel
Detail of the chapel wall

Wieliczka salt mine chapel last supper
The Last Supper

Wieliczka salt mine chapel Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II

Wieliczka salt mine chapel
Great place for a dinner party

Wieliczka salt mine chapel
One of the many underground lakes

Wieliczka salt mine guides
Laura, Sebastian, our Polish guide whose name I cannot remember but he was really nice, and me

At the end of our tour, Sebastian announced that the wait for the tour group elevators was too long, so instead we would be cramming into the service elevators used by the mine workers. It was amazing how many people we could fit into the small cages, which sped to the surface of the mine at a rate of 12 feet per second.

Wieliczka salt mine elevator

If you do find yourself in Krakow and have some time to spare, the Wieliczka Salt Mine is definitely worth checking out. And yes, you can buy little bags of salt to hand out to your friends and family back home.

October 6, 2007


Auschwitz gate

“With one stroke, mankind’s achievements seemed to have been erased. Was Auschwitz a consequence or an aberration of “civilization”? All we know is that Auschwitz called that civilization into question as it called into question everything that had preceded Auschwitz. Scientific abstraction, social and economic contention, nationalism, xenophobia, religious fanaticism, racism, mass hysteria. All found their ultimate expression in Auschwitz.” – Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, December 1986

A mere 50km from the beauty of Krakow lies a mid-sized city by the name of Oświęcim, recognizable to most people only by its German name: Auschwitz. It was near Oświęcim that the Nazis established the largest of their extermination camps, the mass killing machines designed to fullfill their “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” By the time that Soviet forces liberated the camp in January 1945, over 1.5 million Jews, political prisoners, Soviet POWs, and other people deemed “undesirable” by the Nazi regime had been systematically murdered.

Auschwitz was actually composed of several camps: Auschwitz I (the main administrative camp), Auschwitz II (Birkenau), Auschwitz III (Monowitz), and a number of smaller subcamps associated with various slave labor operations. Of these camps, we toured Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Birkenau).

Auschwitz I
Auschwitz I, the administrative center of all the Auschwitz camps, was established on the site of old Polish army barracks in May 1940. It was at Auschwitz I that prisoners marched to and from their work assignments under a gate that declared “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work sets you free”).

Auschwitz gate
Auschwitz gate
Auschwitz perimeter
Camp perimeter

Auschwitz barracks
Auschwitz barracks
Prisoner blocks

Several of the blocks that formerly housed prisoners have been turned into educational exhibits detailing prisoner origins, camp life, and the process of selection and extermination. In some blocks, mounds of shoes, human hair, suitcases, Zyklon B canisters, and prisoner belongings fill massive glass display cases. Perhaps the most moving, though, is Block 11, the building that housed Polish political prisoners and others accused of sabotage or participating in the camp’s underground resistance movement. Many of these prisoners perished in the starvation cells and standing cells located in Block 11’s basement. It was also here, in September 1941, that the Nazis conducted their first experiments using Zyklon B for mass murder, killing 600 Soviet POWs and 250 Polish prisoners taken from the camp hospital.

Auschwitz execution courtyard

In the courtyard situated between blocks 10 and 11, there is a black wall built out of logs and covered with cork. At the base of the wall lie several wreaths, flower bouquets, and lit candles to commemorate the thousands of prisoners who were executed on this very spot.

Auschwitz guard tower
Guard tower

Auschwitz fence
Electric fence

We walked to the opposite end of the camp and entered a small building that served as the camp’s gas chamber from 1942-43, and was later converted into an air raid shelter. Directly above us, cut into the ceiling of the gas chamber, were holes through which the SS poured the deadly Zyklon B pellets onto their unsuspecting victims below. We passed through the gas chamber and into a side room containing two ovens. This was the camp’s crematorium, where the bodies of executed prisoners were loaded onto steel trolleys and shoved into the ovens.

Auschwitz gas chamber
Auschwitz gas chamber
Entrance to the gas chamber

Auschwitz II (Birkenau)
Due to overcrowding at Auschwitz I, the Nazis began construction on Auschwitz II (Birkenau) in October 1941. With the construction of four gas chambers and crematoria, it was designed to execute mass amounts of prisoners as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Auschwitz-Birkenau railroad tracks

Prisoners arrived at Birkenau via long journeys in sealed cattle cars. Conditions in the train cars were so horrendous that some prisoners died before arriving at Auschwitz. The wreath placed on the tracks displayed the colors of the Hungarian flag, in memory of the Hungarian Jews sent to Auschwitz:

With the deportations from Hungary, the role of Auschwitz-Birkenau as an instrument in the German plan to murder the Jews of Europe achieved its highest effectiveness. Between late April and early July 1944, approximately 440,000 Hungarian Jews were deported, around 426,000 of them to Auschwitz. The SS sent approximately 320,000 of them directly to the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau and deployed approximately 110,000 at forced labor in the Auschwitz concentration camp complex.

Auschwitz-Birkenau selection area
Upon arriving at Auschwitz, prisoners were forced out of the cars and ordered to stand in line as an SS doctor made his selections, looking a prisoner over and simply declaring “right” – an assignment to a work detail – or “left” – to the gas chambers. With a mere glance from this doctor, a prisoner would be given a chance at life, or condemned to an instantaneous death.

auschwitz selection

It was late at night that we arrived at Auschwitz. When we came in, the minute the gates opened up, we heard screams, barking of dogs, blows from…from those Kapos, those officials working for them, over the head. And then we got out of the train. And everything went so fast: left, right, right, left. Men separated from women. Children torn from the arms of mothers. The elderly chased like cattle. The sick, the disabled were handled like packs of garbage. They were thrown in a side together with broken suitcases, with boxes. My mother ran over to me and grabbed me by the shoulders, and she told me “Leibele, I’m not going to see you no more. Take care of your brother.” – Leo Schneiderman

Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chamber
Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chamber
Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chamber
Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chamber
Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chamber
Ruins of the Krema II gas chambers and crematorium, where over 500,000 prisoners – told that they would be taking a shower- were gassed to death. In an attempt to hide their crimes, the Nazis blew up the gas chambers days before the Soviet Army arrived at Auschwitz.

Auschwitz-Birkenau guard tower
Guard tower

Auschwitz-Birkenau death gate
The “Gate of Death”

Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoner barracks
Site of former prisoner barracks

Living conditions at Auschwitz were horrible. Food rations were meager, disease was widespread, and the living quarters were unfit for human habitation. When we visited Auschwitz in July, it was cold and windy, with the occasional light rain. I was glad I had brought along my jacket. I couldn’t imagine how cold the winters were for these prisoners, with nothing but a wooden shack for shelter.

Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoner barracks
Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoner barracks
Prisoner barracks

Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoner latrines

We climbed the stairs to the top of the “Death Gate” tower for a view of the camp. The size of Birkenau, when compared with Auschwitz I, is staggering. Brick chimneys, the only remnants of many of the barrack buildings, stretch for hundreds of acres.


Visiting Auschwitz was an incredibly moving experience. Standing in the gas chamber of Auschwitz I and on the train tracks of Birkenau, it was hard to comprehend that 1.5 million people were systematically murdered here, in this beautiful Polish country side. As a history minor in college, and history aficionado in general, I had certainly read a fair amount of material about the Holocaust, but no amount of reading or sitting through college lectures could prepare you for a visit to Auschwitz, where silence reigns and the smell of ash still lingers throughout the vast Birkenau complex.