Why you should definitely not fly from Houston to LA

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!

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Sunrise over a river in the Texas desert. View courtesy of the Sunset Limited.

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.

 

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Our big, not so pretty, not so sanitary, slightly grimy, yet still endearing and sweetheart-ish train going out west.

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.

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I think those mountains are in Mexico. We were really close to the border a lot of the way.

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.

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Leaving downtown Houston on a Wednesday night in December.
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Arriving in downtown Los Angeles before dawn on Friday morning.

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.

Construct3D: Making animations with real-life puppets

I saw a really cool talk the other day. It was the keynote on the opening night of the Construct3D conference. The speaker was Brian McLean from a movie company called Laika. They are in Portland, Oregon.

Now, I’d never heard of that company before, but they’ve won some Oscars, and been nominated for more. So I got to meet and talk to a person who has an Oscar. Pretty cool.

This company makes stop-motion animation. I didn’t know what this was until when I saw “Chicken Run”, the movie. Actually, I watched the movie a few times, and later on someone told me it was made through stop-motion animation, and explained what that meant. That you’re not creating characters on a computer program. But instead you have actual little clay figures. And you can move and bend them. And every time in the movie when anything moves at all, it means that they stopped the camera, had someone lean into the hand-made scenery where all the characters are perched, and move the characters’ hand or eyebrow or a tree branch by hand.

This process sounded so spine-chillingly and nerve-upendingly time-consuming and long that at first I was sure I had misheard, but that’s exactly how it works!

Any case, I have never watched any of the 5 films that Laika has made, but I’ve heard of some of them at least. The one I had heard of was Coraline. Now that I’ve met one of the people involved in making them, I’m going to try to watch it.

With Laika, they don’t make their little character puppets using clay or ceramics. Instead, they 3D print their characters — at least, they 3D print their characters’ faces. And since at every moment in a movie when a character is on camera they want the character’s face to have an expression perfectly suited for that moment, they end up printing tens of thousands of faces. And then these faces can be snapped onto the character’s head.

Indeed, this takes a long time! The speaker told us it takes them 4 to 5 years to make a movie. But, it’s apparently not as expensive as 3D computer animation. He said that it cost Pixar something like $150 million to make Toy Story, while LAIKA spent $60 million on their last movie, The Missing Link. I’d like to watch that one, too.

But, then when it comes time to release the movies in the theatre, not a lot of people go watch them. I know the feeling! So they don’t actually make all their money back. Instead, they are bankrolled by the son of the founder or head of Nike!

The speaker had brought some of the actual movie puppets with him … and some of the snappable, 3D printed faces. It was super cool.

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Real puppets and 3D-printed faces from LAIKA
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Brian McLean from LAIKA and his puppets

My poster at Construct3D

There’s a “makerspace” conference that’s been around for 3 years now. It started first back in 2017. This year, it was held at Rice, and I got to go to it. I presented a poster at it. It’s called Construct3D.

The Makerspace is where you have cool things like laser cutters and 3D printers and paints and sewing machines, and a wood shop, and iron smelting (or some sort of metal work). I love it all!

Here was my poster: what do you think? I’m trying to develop a lesson for my work at Rice that involves laser-cut blocks.

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My poster at Construct3D

Of course, during the poster session, I was as usual left standing forlornly by my poster to which hardly anyone walked up, I was just all alone.

This was also the most intense poster session I was ever part of. Standing by your poster, and having little chats with passers-by, wasn’t the main feature. Instead, they had all of us poster-people go stand in the center of the big room; and then they had a guy with a microphone; and then we had to give a minute-long speech about our poster in front of everyone else at the conference. Each had our own turn. Well, I introduced my poster, and apparently I flunked the ordeal, cause no one wanted to come talk to me later.

But the conference was so cool! I learned and saw and heard and thought. The speakers were amazing. I’m going to write a post about three of them for my next pieces.

Here’s some pictures from my Makerspace times back in Chapel Hill:

Other stuff I made in the Makerspace:

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My first lesson in the Makerspace. We were on the sewing machines. We made a little pouch 🙂

 

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A lovely view from one of the science libraries in Chapel Hill. I’ll bet these were made in the Makerspace.

 

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An open house at the Makerspace. The kids were delighted. They’re looking down into the laser cutter, cutting away. I used that machine a lot!
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Some of the stickers I made with the vinyl cutter!

 

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A card I made from laser-cut shapes and words.

And finally, I don’t think have a picture of it, but I went to a Makerspace workshop in Chapel Hill where we soldered some metal and light bulbs and sticks, and we made a Harry Potter “lumos” wand! I didn’t even know what it meant to solder before that!

Public transportation in Houston

Everyone says public transportation in Houston is horrible.

I’ve lived there now for a few months, without a car, and it’s not as bad as everyone makes out. There’s some real positives, in fact — but there also are some real drawbacks.

I’d say the biggest drawback is that you really cannot get out into the suburbs, at all. If you go to Chicago, or Philadelphia, or New York, or San Francisco, or Washington D.C., you can take a train or a metro quite far out of the city. For example, if you’re in Chicago, you can take a local train out to Wheaton College (27 miles away), or the cute little town of Glen Ellyn. If you’re in D.C., you can take the metro to New Carrollton (okay, fine, that’s only 12 miles away, not that far.) If you’re in Philadelphia, you can take the trains and buses out to Ursinus College (30 miles away, and very cute), or out to the quaint town of Doylestown (almost 35 miles away, although it’s debatable whether it’s actually all that quaint.)

In Houston, sadly, you can’t do any of that. There’s no local trains taking you out of the city. There’s just some buses. For example, you can take the bus to the suburb of Cypress, which is about 30 miles away. Now this is all fine and dandy and totally great, EXCEPT, these buses only run Monday through Friday, only during commuting hours. So you can’t go to Cypress on the weekends, at all, via public transportation. And if you’re in Cypress, you can’t head for the city. This is true for all the surrounding settlements around Houston. You can’t go to Sam Houston National Forest, north of the city; you can’t get to Bear Creek Pioneers Park, to the west. Just suppose you’d really like to get to the suburb of Pasadena, for a Christmas market; well, you can’t. Or you want to go to visit someone in the suburb of Sugarland. Can’t do that, either. You’re just stuck in the city. The only direction slightly accessible is to the southeast, towards the seacoast, as you can get a bus to Galveston.

I used to live in Philadelphia. The city was somehow just more manageable than Houston. I biked all over the place. I wouldn’t probably bike there today, having lost my youthful fantasy of invincibility since then; but it was doable. Most of the streets are set out on a grid, most of the streets have sidewalks, most of the streets connect simply and easily to each other. It might take you two hours, but you can definitely get from one side of the city to the other. Not so in Houston. When I compare back to Philadelphia, Houston feels like one big freeway. Freeway here and freeway there — even if you wanted to bike, how are you going to manage it when everything connected by freeway?

Just another note on that commuter bus that goes to Cypress: its sole destination is a park-and-ride lot in Cypress. That’s it. So everyone else gets off the bus and just goes to grab their car and drive home; but if you don’t have a car waiting for you, then you either are going to walk to circles around the park-and-ride lot, or you are going to have to call for a Lyft to get to your final destination, wherever that is in Cypress. There’s no other bus at the park-and-ride lot to take you anywhere. It sucks.

Given all of this, if you want to live in Houston without a car, then you need to live pretty close to your work, for two reasons: 1) if you live in the suburbs, then there’s a good chance you won’t be able to get to work on the buses; and 2) if you live in the city, but, say, 5 miles away from your job, there’s a good possibility that the buses will take an hour to get you to work. So good luck with that!

This means that you probably want to live no more than two to three miles away from your job to make the commute reasonable; and that kind of limits you to the parts of town where the rents are highest.

So where can you get to in Houston? Well, there is a very nice light-rail system, and this will take you to downtown Houston, to Rice University, and to the northern and southern parts of the city. There are also buses that can take you to the movie theatre and Ikea (about an hour — as a reference, in Philly, I could bike to the Ikea. It was a bit of a stressful bike ride, but I managed). You can also take the bus to Trader Joe’s pretty easily (if you’re starting at Rice), and to a Barnes and Noble. You can get to the big cluster of museums (some of which are very nice) near the center of the city, and you can get to Herman Park, which is a green oasis with a lake and boats and trees. I have also been able to get to eye doctors, dentists, and regular doctor appointments.

One time, I took a bus north to get to a free museum. I got off the bus stop and I had to walk for a few blocks west. My steps took me right through a university I’d never heard of, and they were hosting an Italian festival I’d also never heard of. So I saw both the festival and the university, and the free museum. On my way back, I arrived at the bus stop just as the bus zoomed off. Feeling grumpy, I decided I didn’t want to wait for the next bus, so I started walking back south. I walked one block, and I came upon the most delicious lovely library ever! So I just ducked in there while waiting for the next bus (there was another bus stop right outside). Occasionally, someone with mental problems starts yelling at me on the light rail platform or on the bus, but so far, nothing violent has happened. Sometimes, I get a little nervous because it’s dark out, and I’ll be waiting for a transfer between buses at some bus stop in the middle of the city, and I’ll be bracing myself for something to happen; but then after all, it ends up feeling quite safe.

At each bus stop, you can also text a number, and a text will come back letting you know when to expect the next bus. Sometimes, it will say 5 minutes; but then 5 minutes come and go, and there’s no bus, and so you text again, and this time it says 3 minutes. And sometimes you text and it says 20 minutes; so you browse around inside a store, and because you didn’t keep texting, you didn’t realize that the bus was speeding up and after all, the bus comes in 18 minutes and you miss it.

You can also get to the airports. To get to the smaller airport, you take the light-rail all the way south, and then you take a long bus ride. I did this once. I got yelled at by the people in the airport: don’t you know the buses aren’t safe, ma’am, you don’t want to get onboard those. Excuse me, what do you think I’ve been doing all this time?

To get to the larger, international airport, you take the light rail downtown, and then you take an even longer bus ride. You know what’s funny about that bus to the international airport? It is called an “express” bus … but somehow, it’s got over 60 stops, and takes an hour to get to the airport, and goes through all these neighborhoods. But okay.

The nicest part of the public transportation in Houston is that your ticket only costs $1.25. This is the same cost of a bus in the no-one’s-heard-of-it town of Concord, North Carolina. Can you believe it? Except the Houston tickets are even better, because your ticket there is valid for 3 hours. You can ride on as many buses and light rails as you want within that 3 hour period. In most other places, a ticket just gets you a ride and a single transfer — and in Concord, there’s all these ornery rules and conditions limiting the type of transfer you can muster.

So given the nice price, and given that I was able to get to the movie theatre and Ikea and the Amtrak train station and to go see the downtown Christmas lights, I was thinking, oh, the public transportation in Houston isn’t so bad after all. It gets a bad rap unnecessarily. Also, I should add that many of the buses are quite frequent — sometimes every 15 minutes — and usually my transfer waiting time between buses aren’t that long — and the light rail sometimes comes by every 5 minutes. I was thinking of all this, and thinking, I guess the public transportation in Houston deserves some respect.

But then I went to Chicago just before Christmas. I went to Chicago on cross-country trains. And while I was there, I took the local trains all the way from downtown Chicago to a far-away suburb. While sitting on nice, tidy, local train, it finally struck me: this is what’s missing from Houston. You really can’t go anywhere outside the city without a car. And then I started remembering a bit more of when I lived in Philadelphia, and how much of the city was accessible, and more and more I am starting to see the difference in mobility.