There’s a little town called Solvang in California, about an hour from Santa Barbara. It bills itself as an original Danish settlement, and gets a lot of tourists coming to its quaint shops and cafes and all. But a lot of people call it a bit overdone and kitschy.
I went with a friend during my swing through California by bus and train last winter. And we stumbled onto the set of a movie. I guess it’s not surprising, we were 2 or 3 hours from LA, but I’m not used to that kind of thing!
The movie was meant for either Hallmark or Lifetime. Let me tell you what happens. There’s a tall, handsome man called Sawyer, and there’s a shorter, very blonde, long-haired, pretty woman — I believe she was called Ms. Lane. Well, they are going to fall in love and get married (lucky guess), but we didn’t see that part. We saw the part where they were having an argument. Sawyer is from Solvang, or lives there, and is very attached to the town, and he is showing Ms. Lane around. Ms. Lane is a journalist and is writing a book. The argument starts because Ms. Lane denigrates what Sawyer has been showing her — she wants the real Solvang, not the tired tourist traps. And Sawyer gets mad. “You know what! I don’t think I could ever show you the real Solvang! And it’s not Solvang’s fault! It’s because your heart is closed off to the true meaning of Christmas!” (It was just before Christmas, and the town was decked out!)
Then Sawyer turns on his heel and marches away. Ms. Lane sends a flabbergasted look after him.
They were filming all this right between the entrance of two stores with an extra dash of Christmas lights and decorations glistening over the doorways. During takes (they did at least 15), all the real tourists like us either had to stay inside the store we were in, or had to wait outside. So we waited and waited, switching our position between the two stores, and then playing audience outside, so we caught the scene from all angles.
In between takes, Ms. Lane, who was very fashionably dressed and thinly dressed the better to catch her slim figure, covered up from the cold in a bulky puffy winter jacket. So really, what you see on TV is not real!!
I’ve been on the two-day California Zephyr between Chicago and San Francisco; the two-night/one-day Sunset Limited between Houston and Los Angeles; and the two-day Southwest Chief between Los Angeles and Chicago.
So, in terms of your basic needs (sleep, food, using the bathroom, and, if you like, prayer), how will you survive??
First, know the layout of the train. The trains are pretty cute because they have all these nice touches — like the bathrooms and luggage storage are neatly on the first floor of each carriage, and then you climb these cute little stairs — and it makes you feel like you’re tiptoeing into a new land, past this realm and into the next — and then you’re on the second floor of the carriage, and that’s where the seats are [**if you don’t really think stairs are that cute because you might have trouble climbing them, then no fear — some of the carriages are arranged with seats for disabled or elderly passengers on the first floor]. Across each window are curtains that you can pull back and forth. Then you can walk through your carriage, and the next and the next, and you’ll finally get to a nice big carriage that’s the observation car. There’s no regular seats, just lounge chairs and tables. It’s like your parlor. Below is a cafe car with turkey sandwiches, yummy grapes, and ginger ale, and cheese pizzas, and cheese and crackers, and vegan burgers (quite a nice kitchen).
This account, by the way, is for passengers, like me, too poor to buy a sleeper car. You have only enough to buy a coach seat. Technically, that means you are entitled to exactly one seat, but just listen here. There’s a very good chance you can nab a seat with no one sitting next to you, and if that’s the case, you just stretch out on both seats at night when it’s time to sleep and you’ll be very comfortable. Especially so, because the seats have these massive leg-rests that you pull out from right underneath. It makes the seats twice as wide. So if you lie down, and you have your knees curled up and jutting out a little, they’ll still be supported underneath.
Depending on what train and when you get on, there’s some strategies involved for having two coach seats to yourself all night long:
Strategy #1: you board the train in the middle of its journey. That, at least, has been my experience. This is what I mean. I boarded the California Zephyr at its starting point in Chicago. I was assigned a seat next to someone else. Likewise, I boarded the Southwest Chief at its starting point in Los Angeles. Again, I was assigned a seat beside someone. On the other hand, I boarded the Sunset Limited in Houston. The Sunset Limited had already been chugging all day coming out from New Orleans. Well, all of us passengers boarding in Houston were placed in an empty car, and there were so few of us that everyone (except families who wanted to sit together) got their own seat. It was so comfortable! And throughout the rest of the journey, really no newly boarding passengers were introduced into our carriage, so we stayed the same amount of people and never had to share seats the whole way.
Strategy #2: go get yourself a new seat. So suppose you are in fact boarding the train at its very first stop, and the Amtrak workers herd everyone into a single car. This is exactly what happened to me when boarding the Southwest Chief in Los Angeles. There was a horde of passengers who boarded in LA. Also, they segregate you based on your final location. So everyone who was going from Los Angeles to Chicago had to sit together in the same car, and we filled up the entire thing (and there are like 60 seats per car). I had to sit next to this 70-year-old man who told me, yes, his 50-year marriage had been long, nice, but happy? Um … Well, any case, he was really nice, but by the second night onboard, I really really wanted to stretch out. Every time I took a stroll up and down the train, I would pass through these other carriages where the passengers were not crammed together side by side. Everyone had two seats to their credit, and there were even some empty seats. Those were the lucky passengers who had boarded at stops beyond Los Angeles — they had more room just to themselves, just like I’d had when I boarded the Sunset Limited midway in Houston. So I just took it upon myself, in the evening of that second night, to move to one of those empty seats. I took the little ticket tag that the Amtrak attendants leave hanging over your seat assignment, and re-inserted it at my new seat of choice. It was bad luck, because the Amtrak attendants had cleverly written what my seat number was in the old carriage (seat 8). Well, seat 8 was taken in the new carriage, so I couldn’t do the thing seamlessly, but I found that seat 58 was empty, so that seemed the best bet. Well, no one said anything at all. I had the nicest night ever, lying down and curled up under my blanket and coat, and the next morning, in fact, the Amtrak attendants had swapped out all the ticket tags anyways with new ones. I now fit right in.
Now, this does not always work, but it was my experience on the Sunset Limited, the California Zephyr, and the Southwest Chief. I will add that I did all three of these train trips in December, anywhere from three weeks to one week before Christmas (the time of your trip might affect the crowds).
I have seen other people sleep on the floor of the large bathroom for people with disabilities. You open up the door, and surprise! Someone’s spread out in front of you. It kind of gave me a fright. I do not recommend this.
Once, I was on a 1-day, 1-night trip from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon. That train was miserably crowded. It’s called the Coastal Starlight. There’s not much of the magic and mystery of starlight onboard that train, believe me, both times I’ve been on it. I could not find any empty seats anywhere, but I was able to find 2 or 3 seats free to sleep on in the Observation car. So go check that out if you have nowhere else to go.
Last but not least, bring a blanket and a coat so you can be toasty and warm.
You are going to be doing a lot of sitting, so you don’t need a lot of food. Also, the bathroom situation is not as comfortable as you’d probably like, so the less you eat, the better from that aspect.
On the other hand, you will want to eat because what’s cozier than stuffing your face as you watch the vast landscapes of the country unfold out the window? Here’s how I managed. For breakfast, the best cost-benefit analysis seems to be to go to the dining car and eat their scrambled eggs. It’s pretty good, and it comes with a side of potatoes (or grits, but yuck), and a small croissant. Slather everything with butter (I end up using like 8 of those little butter tubs, which are free and available), and that will be quite nice and filling. It’s $8.50, and that’s about the price of scrambled eggs and potatoes in most cafes, no? And it will last your stomach a long time. That is honestly the only thing I recommend you get from the dining cars. I do not recommend the dining car menu for lunch or dinner. First, the food doesn’t sound all that good — and the stuff that did sound good had pork sausage in it, or something, so I couldn’t eat it anyways. There was stuff like seafood, which I don’t really like. And for dinner, there’s an option of a big steak. Now, this is the last thing you should eat onboard a train when the bathroom situation is so dire. When I was on the Sunset Limited, everyone who ate the steak woke up the next morning complaining about how many times they’d had to use the bathroom, and how crummy they felt. You don’t want this to be you. They do have this nice pasta dish for dinner — but it’s $16 and I don’t think it’s worth it.
But you can’t survive all day on just scrambled eggs, so what to do? Well, instead of the dining car, go to the cafe car for lunch and dinner. The offerings are pretty good. There’s chicken sandwiches, turkey sandwiches, and you can grab as much mayo and mustard as you like; there’s small cheese pizzas and vegan burgers and fruit and crackers and cheese and chips and big juicy grapes and chocolate and other comfort food. Now, the prices are quite high for what you’re buying, but cheaper than the dining car. They also sells all sorts of sodas, but I don’t recommend buying those — empty calories, and more bathroom trips, and too expensive.
And last but not least, bring lots and lots of snacks with you. I think about a third of my suitcase was just snacks — both salty and sweet. I had:
I had 12 little packets of tiny fudge-dipped oreos, yum, yum, yum, except I don’t know if these packets were a good idea. Each one only had like 7 cookies in it. Maybe buy a few of the larger packets instead
three apples as a way to clean out my refrigerator
eight packs of wheat-and-cheddar sandwich crackers, each of which had 6 little cracker sandwiches in it
and something else I don’t remember.
These were nice choices because everything was so individually packaged; so eating one little packet in one go would not result in any contamination of the remaining packets. Nor, like if you bring a big bag of chips, for example, would you have to leave it partially uneaten, leaving it open to the possibilities of spills or messiness. One the other hand, the individual packaging is not good for the environment. On the other hand, you’re on the train instead of the plane, so you’re already doing (almost) the most good you can.
I ate the snacks whenever I wanted; and had scrambled eggs for breakfast; and would buy one single sandwich from the cafe car at night; and one night I was feeling kind of full, so instead of a sandwich I had juicy grapes; and that was it! The snacks lasted two cross-country train trips, several overnight bus trips, and the various stays along the way — it was three weeks in total.
Also, if you are on the Sunset Limited, there’s a certain stop — but I don’t remember which — was it El Paso? — where someone called the burrito lady is standing outside the train tracks, and has a sack full of warm burritos in all flavors, and sells them. The vegetarian ones were only $2. They weren’t that great, to be honest. But very popular. We stopped in El Paso for like 30 minutes, so there was time for everyone who wanted to buy one. She will sell it to you and then give you a Christian blessing.
If you are on the Southwest Chief, the station in Albuquerque has a restaurant with burgers and pizza. That was very popular, too, though again, I’m not sure if greasy food is the best choice for your train trip. And that brings us to the next topic:
The way the trains are set up, the bathrooms are all on the first floor of the train, and the seats are all above on the second floor, once you slip behind the bend of the little magic staircase. It’s nice that way, because although you can get up those stairs, the smells of the bathroom mostly don’t seem to follow.
Now, what about the bathrooms themselves? There are about 5 per first first floor, all smushed into one half of the car, and they are tiny closets mostly. Actually, way smaller than most closets. I’m small-sized, and really there was not enough room for me between the door, the toilet, and the sink. It’s kind of gross. But there’s three other options:
1) at the very end of the hallway with the bathrooms, there’s one more door, with a slightly different sign. It’s a “lounge”. You go into the lounge, it has two sinks in it and a cushioned bench and a big mirror. You can brush your hair and do your make-up here, if you like, or freshen up. And there’s one more door inside the lounge, and that goes to one more closet-sized bathroom. It’s still small, but it should mostly be women using this bathroom. So less traffic and a little neater. I recommend it.
2) the bathroom for handicapped people and elderly. This is a large bathroom present on the first floor of the cars. But not all the cars. Sometimes, the first floor is split between racks for luggage on one side, and the bathrooms on the other side. Other times the first floor is split between seats for elderly and disabled passengers one side, and bathrooms on the other. If the cars has the seats for the elderly and disabled on the first floor, then it also has a large bathroom, with plenty of room to move around in. The trick is, if your particular car does not have this bathroom, then just go to the next car over. Is it wrong of me to recommend that people who are able-bodied use this handicapped bathroom? Hmmm, that actually only just occurred to me. Just don’t stay in there too long in case someone who actually cannot use the regular bathrooms is in need.
3) if the closest-sized bathrooms in your car are really dirty, then again, go over to the next car and see if those bathrooms are any better.
I will write another post about prayer on the train, stay tuned.
Think of the train ride as part of your trip, and enjoy it. Most likely, you’ll get to talk to some friendly, interesting people, and be alone with your own thoughts. Don’t count on having wifi. Enjoy the scenery. Enjoy the escape. Just cuddle up on your seat, alone with yourself and your thoughts, and let the train rock and hold you tight.
To get from Houston to Los Angeles by trains, there is no need to ever switch trains or any hassle like that: all you do is take one single train, the Sunset Limited. And I think you should almost definitely take the train, and not fly, because it’s a cute train; and it’s nice scenery; and it’s more convenient; and better for the environment; and flying isn’t actually going to save you that much time!
So first, the cute train. I thought it was very cute. There’s little curtains on the windows. The carriages are two stories. You have plenty of room in your seat. I’ve been on this train twice and it wasn’t crowded either time, so hopefully no one will be bumping into you. You can visit the observation car, and the dining car, and the cafe. The train rocks you gently all night long.
The scenery: I don’t normally try to say anything nice about Texas, but the desert scenes were quite nice. The sun rising over the desert rivers was lovely. I had never seen this part of the country before, I had no idea what it would look like. I saw El Paso and Tuscon, Arizona. I saw over the border into Mexico. It was all fascinating to see.
Convenience: instead of taking an hour-and-a-half bus ride to the airports in Houston, I just rode the light-rail and then a bus to the Amtrak station. In all, it took about 30 minutes. Plus, the bus took me right through downtown Houston. It was Christmas time, and I saw all the pretty Christmas lights that were up. There were blocks and blocks of golden light glowing in the black night, hovering over all the trees, from city square to city square. And from the Amtrak station there was a view out on all the skyscrapers of the city, all lit up, and even the Ferris wheel by the aquarium. Same with arriving in Los Angeles. We arrived smack in the downtown. I’ve never been to LAX but of course, as everyone else, I’ve heard it’s awful, and far from the city, and you probably don’t want to deal with it.
Time: the plane will not save you much time! I’ve worked this out. See, you get on the Sunset Limited in Houston at 7 pm, you spend the next day entirely on the train, and then you get to Los Angeles at 5:30 in the morning. It is a two-night and one-day trip. Well, during those two nights, you’re just going to sleep, and hopefully, you were planning to sleep even if you’d stayed at home, so that doesn’t really count as time lost. The only real time to consider is the full day on the train. In my opinion, this is pretty much exactly how much time you’d spend if you took the plane. If you take the plane, you have to get to the airport 2 hours in advance. The airport is probably an hour or more away from where you live, plus once you get to LA, let’s say (counting traffic) that the airport is two hours from where you’re trying to go. That adds three more hours. Also, you have the stress of airport security and all the crowds and the blinding lights, and the carbon emissions, and most likely, you won’t have a direct flight. You’ll have a lay-over somewhere. Even if you did not have a lay-over, there’s a big chance the plane will be late, and even if the plane wasn’t late, this whole sequence of events will still take you all day to get from Houston to LA. So you really might as well just take the train! No security, no angry people, and you can pretty much bring as much luggage as you can manage to carry.
A protoplanetary disk is, in my opinion, a stupid word that means something very sweet … it just means a solar system in its infancy, when it’s still a baby, still developing. But instead of just calling it a “baby solar system” or, to be more regal, an “infant solar system”, they had to christen it with an ugly, long, totally unnecessary name. It makes it sound like a super foreign, enormously complex idea: what else could a protoplanetary disk be, if not something that you can only understand if you spend many years getting a PhD? Really, it’s a pretty straightforward, though! It’s an infant solar system. But the people getting their PhDs in this have to pretend that their research is sooooo complicated and would go over all your heads, and therefore … we’re stuck with a “protoplanetary disk”.
I should make one more note: I said a protoplanetary disk is “sweet”. It’s sweet because it’s a baby in a sense. But they’re not actually all that sweet. They’re like violent places full of collisions.
Any case, I made one in Blender 3D. This right here was the image I tried to mimic. And this is what mine ended up looking like:
Isn’t it nice??!! You can see it spinning in animated form here.
The spinning might be a little fast.
I made this 3D model on my own. I mean, there’s not tutorial out there titled, “How to build a protoplanetary disk in Blender”. So I had to skulk around in several different tutorials and get tips from each to figure out how I was going to do this. One of the few times I’ve completely improvised my Blender work when it comes to a more complicated object. Makes me proud when I experiment and do this. One tutorial in particular that got me started on some ideas was this one on making clouds.
Once I got the basic shape, this is what it looked like:
It’s got the concentric circles, but it’s a bit too solid.
So I changed the material a bit, tried to make it transparent, and …
This made the disk look a little more insubstantial, which is what I wanted. On the other hand, it made it look like there was a stump in the middle. There was actually no stump there, but this particular material, combined with the light source, produced the aspect of one.
So I finally just cut out some of the vertices in the center of the disk. And also, I changed the way I was setting up the light source. At first, I had set up a sun lamp right over the disk, and let it shine down onto the center. But once I carved out the hole in the disk, I got rid of the sun lamp; added an icosphere in the gap left by the hole; gave it an emission shader; and then amped up the strength a whole bunch.
So again, it ended up looking like this:
This is how I got there:
First, this is what the model looks like in Blender: you can see both the disk and the “sun” in the center.
The disk is just a plane, extruded upwards a bit, with several modifiers on it. Here you see all of them:
I added a subsurface modifier between all the others not because I knew what I was doing, but because I saw someone do that in a tutorial. So it seemed like an impressive thing to do.
Here’s what the parameters of the wave modifier look like:
Here is the Displace modifier parameters, along with the linked texture:
And finally the Simple deform modifier. This one was super fun! I tried out the Bend, Twist, Taper, and Stretch options, each in its turn, and it was so cool to see the results.
Like I said, I added an icosphere to put in the middle of the disk, and then this is the material I assigned it. Simple and straightforward: an emission shader, a yellow color, and a high strength of 100. I deleted all the other lights.
The material to color the disk did not end up so complicated at all. Here are the nodes:
For the world material, I used a background image:
The background image I used is located in the description provided for this YouTube tutorial. That particular YouTube tutorial is what I used to make the first animation in this Twitter thread.
Animate the disk
To make the disk spin, there’s two things you need to do.
First, go to the wave modifier and make sure the speed is set to 0. Otherwise, the disk will spin all by itself, and no matter if I turned the speed up or down, it was rotating way too fast.
Now you can manually animate the disk by adding keyframes. Save the position at the beginning of the animation, and then go forwards on the timeline, spin the disk however much you want (press R-shift-z; the shift-z will make sure the “R” for rotate doesn’t cause the disk to wobble up and down), and then keyframe the new position.
And that’s it! My approach to making a protoplanetary disk in Blender.
I wrote about getting feedback on my animated Twitter threads earlier. I was sad because I was told about how bad and unpolished my work was.
Well, after all my whining and complaining, I did the teacher’s pet, good-girl act of “let me learn from my mistakes” and “take the feedback to heart”. I decided to act all mature and pretend I was happy to be told I sucked. While making the new Twitter thread on planet collisions, I paid attention to the backgrounds and colors I was using. I worked on it for a month, and tweeted it out last Thursday. It was in fact my last act at work before becoming a Coronavirus refugee.
Then I sent this new thread to one of the people who had given me feedback. What do you think now? And in a very cutesy, inspiring turn of events (thankfully), I was told: this looks great! Big improvement! Nice job!
Isn’t that nice?
Further: that the colors and similarities in style between the different animations makes it much more evident that they all go together. That they have a relationship to each other through the color choices or the dark background.
You know what, though, I don’t know that I can fully appreciate my own work. I, for example, thought there should be something distinctively consistent in the background for each animation — something I wasn’t able to ensure. But upon receiving my feedback, that was when it first dawned on me that just the simple consistency of a dark background in each animation was enough — nothing fancier than that. So I still have a lot to learn, but it’s definitely nice to receive praise, and I think if I iterate this cycle of experimentation on my part, and feedback from others, I learn little nuggets of insight at a time.
As always, I use Blender3D to make these animations.
I had to make a map of Brazil — of a specific province in Brazil called Paraná. The map was for this story, that I also wrote. The map is the second image. I know it looks small and insignificant, but my, that map took me a long time to make.
It first takes a while to process through what maps you will need. Then you have to find them. In my case, I need at the very least a map of Brazil and a map of Paraná. Luckily, I found those shapefiles (map files) easily enough through quick searches. And then I opened up the map software I like to use, which is QGIS.
I like that one because it is free and open-source, and who wants to pay or get reliant on ArcGIS anyways?!
Now, what I still had to figure out was, how would I add the rest of the world in the background. First, I tried with the OpenStreetMap option that is available right in QGIS.
However, I ended up not liking this because way too many cities were labeled, and there were distracting black squiggles that you couldn’t even read everywhere. It just made the map look busy and pock-marked.
Luckily, I then ran into something called Natural Earth. It’s a map-making kit. I found it on this great tutorial that explains how to make pretty maps in QGIS. I have been using this tutorial, I believe, for perhaps 8 years by now. I discovered when I was working in Maryland. And this tutorial is so nice and step-by-step, and it keeps getting updated. It is still as relevant for QGIS today as it was 8 years ago. I swear, every time I make a map in QGIS, I come back to this tutorial. This time, it’s been updated with a link to the Natural Earth kit. I downloaded the kit and used it for my own map of Brazil. It took a bit of clicking around to understand how the maps in the kit are arranged, but I finally figured it out, and I ended up with a nice background of the western hemisphere:
Maybe I should have made the inset map of Paraná smaller? Well, any case, I’m sure there’s still room for improvements, but it’s a nicer and cleaner map than the first one I made. At least, you can see exactly where Paraná is, right? That was the whole point.
I’ve wanted to walk along one of the canals in Houston to get to an event. The canals here are called “bayous.” Whatever floats your boat.
This was the route I approximately wanted to take: starting from around the Museum of Fine Arts, and ending up at the University of Houston stadium.
Hey, you know how there’s University of California and University of North Carolina, and all these universities of different states? But then you come to a university for a single city. It seems like a big undertaking.
Now, to clarify, when I first google-mapped this route, it suggested a path straight through the city blocks, but I adjusted it to hug the Bayou. This particular bayou is called Brays Bayou (there’s a couple in Houston.) I was not so sure how safe it would be, but now that I’ve done the walk, I can tell you it felt pretty safe, and it was actually a beautiful walk.
First, you walk along the north side of Hermann Park. That was nice.
Then you go just a little bit south and you meet up with the Bayou. There was no path to get down there, so I just made my carefully-footed way down the kind of steep hillside to the Bayou sidewalk. Now, if you’ll notice, you just at that point you go under the bridges of some major freeway. That part is a little creepy as you walk under giant pole after giant pole. Huge blocks of concrete everywhere. Just colossal infrastructure hunting you down from every angle. Lots of nooks for a axe murderer to hide out in. I walked fast and kept looking over my shoulder.
But after that, it was really pretty. It was a long walk, but it was worth it. Because will you believe it, for the first time, Houston did something nice. They’ve planted all these beautiful wildflowers along the banks of the Bayou. Ooooh, they were so pretty. They were yellow and purple, and then every now and again there were tall stalks of sunflowers.
One dog shouted at me. But thankfully, it was behind a fence and didn’t try to jump. There was one single intersection that had broken down buildings, but that passed quickly. The rest was homes and apartments.
Then towards the end, you go north. That part is nice, too. You just pass a bunch of churches and apartments, and then you get to the University campus, and that was nice, too.
So you can walk Brays Bayou, too, without too many worries.
And when I got to the University stadium, there was a rally for Bernie Sanders! That was cool. I had a moment of worry, because after walking for over 1.5 hours, I got to the stadium and there were all these rules I hadn’t known about. You can’t go into the stadium with a bag, unless it’s a clear bag. Clear all the way through. It’s a security thing. The only exception is if your bag is 6 inches by 4 inches. My bag was I believe more like 8 by 6 inches, but they let it by. I also had a canvas bag with me. I emptied it and stuck it in my jacket pocket. And then I carried my book and my empty container of food up to security and they let me and my armful all go in. Once in, I got the canvas bag back out and refilled it.
It was really nice, because they were selling popcorn and nachos and all this other stuff. This was the nicest campaign rally I’d ever been to. I’ve seen Obama twice. Both times were kind of miserable. We were just standing in a large fields, thousands of people, waiting for hours and hours, everything was late — and then were too far away to hear well, or really see. This time, we could sit on the seats in the stadium and be comfortable while we waited. There was a nice band playing. I read my book. There was free wifi. And Bernie came on time.