May 16, 2011

The Space Shuttle Endeavour, STS134 and the NASA TweetUp

I entered today tossing and turning, trying to force myself to sleep. Yesterday I was privileged to take a trip out to Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Centeralong with the other 78 or so folks who had returned for a second launch attempt at the NASA Tweetup (for those of you who care, get on Twitter and search for #STS134 and/or #NASATweetup). We drove past the press, all clustered at the bottom of the pad ramp looking directly at the Shuttle's 'top' where it was hidden by the RSS, and drove around to the side of the pad before spilling out of the buses NASA had provided and immediately all pulling out cameras and various Twitter-enabled devices.

We were in a large roped-off area, by ourselves, just across the service road from the fence around Pad 39A. From where we were all clustered, it was perhaps a few hundred yards across open ground to the huge pile of steel. The iconic External Tank and SRBs were visible; the Orbiter itself was still completely hidden by the RSS. As we set up gear and started watching, we noticed small things. The "beanie cap" - the fueling attachment - was poised above the tip of the External tank, but had not yet rotated down to seal onto the valves. The external tank itself was several shades darker than it had looked in the photos of Endeavour when she was rolled out - the foam insulation on the tank darkens over time when exposed to the elements.

Suddenly, there was a wingtip showing.

I couldn't help referring to the whole thing as a 'spaceship striptease' but there it was - eighty people cheering as recognizable shapes of the Orbiter emerged from behind the RSS. After a few minutes, the right wing was fully visible. We all stayed glued to cameras, and soon enough the whole glorious shape of the Shuttle was there - from our vantage point, we were looking directly at the right wing, with the tail (the 'top') of the shuttle pointing to our left.

There was a flurry of activity as we all took turns taking pictures of each other with the shuttle in the background. I noticed off to the right that there was a ball-shaped white structure some two hundred yards away. A couple of days before, a co-worker and I had been looking at Pad 39B on Google Earth and he has pointed out that very structure and wondered what it was - maybe fuel storage? Indeed. The words LH2 STORAGE were painted on the side, so I snapped a picture of it and emailed it to him with the message "You were right!" That was pretty cool.

Around the perimeter of the pad, both inside and outside the fence (behind us, near the scrub treeline) there were dozens of film and video cameras. Some were in elaborate white shield boxes; others bare. Some had mechanical drives on them, some were simply placed there. I felt like David Attenborough: "For it is here, in the scrub pines and cacti of Central Florida, that the elusive Camera Boxes gather to stalk their prey...the majestic Space Shuttle."

We clambered back on the buses half an hour or so after the RSS rollback had finished. We stopped at the north side of the shuttle long enough to take pictures from the same angle as the Press crew. In a pond next to the bus, two alligators came to the surface to eye us suspiciously. Several of us managed to get pictures of the alligators with the Shuttle in the background - a complete win I with my point-and-shoot was unable to replicate. But the pics were immediately passed around on the airwaves of 3G and WiFi.

After getting off the bus, another Spacetweep and I went off to the Associated Press trailer to be interviewed by John Belmont, a nice man with a killer radio voice. We spent a half hour talking about what the Space Shuttle meant to us before bidding him adieu and heading off to find drinks with the rest of the crew (he would later email us apologetically to say that his equipment had mangled our audio and he couldn't use it. Space is Hard(tm)).

We ended up at Fishlips, a complete tourist jankhole on the canal where I'd been a couple of weeks earlier on the way out of town from the scrubbed launch. Forty of us invaded, found tables and ordered drinks ranging from water (huh?) to various beers (better) to Rum Runners (myself and a co-tweep at the end of the table). The last time I'd been there, I'd sat on the deck at their wonderfully cheesy Tiki Bar overlooking the canal, but this time, the Tiki Bar was closed. In those two weeks, Florida was invaded by the biannual (I think) scourge of the Love Bugs - small to medium-sized black beetles whose purpose in life at the moment was to find a mate, attach themselves at the, um, ends, and spend the next few days flying around whilst so commingled. As a result, there were entire drifts of dead love bugs on the deck, and thousands upon thousands of them were crawling around on the windows. Bugs don't bother me much, but it creeped out several folks, and I sure wasn't going to sit out there.

While we were there, an enormous Carnival Cruise Lines cruise ship (the Sensation, I think) left Port Canaveral and maneuvered gracefully (no really, they have thrusters now, and those enormous whales can almost dance) through the canal out towards the open sea. I took a few pictures of the ship as it silently slid past the bug-infested window, thousands of passengers visible on its balconies and decks.

I still had no urge to take a cruise. Every time I see a ship like that, I think of David Foster Wallace's "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," one of the best essays I've ever read. And one of the funniest pieces of writing I've come across. Yes, it's about taking a packaged 7-night Caribbean cruise (7NC). Read it, if you haven't.

At around 2:30, we started to straggle out. While some folks were heading off to search for entertainment and dinner, I (feeling my age) opted for the safer route of heading back to my hotel room, drawing the curtains, and trying to get as much sleep as possible starting around 4:30pm.

I managed to get in a 2-3 hour nap before waking back up, just slept *out*. Tossed and turned for several more hours, through midnight. At around midnight, the crew of were woken up in the crew quarters at Kennedy Space Center; 12:30 was breakfast, and then they began their long and exciting day.

I managed to get a couple more hours of sleep before the alarm kicked in at 2:30am. We were told we had access to KSC via the employee gate (gate 2, on Florida State Road 3) starting at 3 AM - and this time, since there was no tent set up for the TweetUp (the 'Twent' had been a wonderful, air conditioned haven with power strips and wifi) we had all decided to get an early start to try to stake out spots at the Press Site.

Driving north on State Road 3, I meant to pull into CVS to get some protein bars, but they were still closed. Ah well. I did manage to score another artery-clogging dose of McD's breakfast and coffee, and then headed north into the night towards the lights. Yes, lights - a lopsided cone, the searchlights around Pad 39A were blazing pale white up into the night sky. Even though the Pad and Shuttle themselves were hidden behind low hills and scrubby trees, I could follow that beacon - and the huge boxy shape of the Vehicle Assembly Building, also lit up - northwards. Reached a security checkpoint just before Gate 2; produced my TweetUp badge and my driver's license and the efficient security officer there waved me through.

When I got to actual Gate 2, a KSC uniformed guard looked at my credentials and grinned at me before waving me on with a "You have a good time, sir." Thumbs up.

Parked in the dark, out in the grass lot near the press site. Wandered over. I'd been worried enough about seating to steal-*cough* borrow a towel from my hotel in case I needed something to sit on to protect me from the fire ants and small cacti that are plentiful around the KSC grass areas, but when I got to the area near where the Twent had been, there were two bleachers set up, and the NASA folks who had already been so helpful in shepherding us around told us that those were *ours* - the only caveat was that if NPR showed up, they had two spots reserved at the top of one of the bleacher sections. Uh, no problem! I headed for what looked like far too cool a setup - a bleacher with power strips and desks for laptops! - and found that yep, it was already half-full of TweetUp folks. Pulled out my iPad, keyboard and camera and claimed a spot.

At 5:00 am, we all drifted back over to the access road with our cameras, leaving laptops and gear haphazardly stacked at our seats. The last time we'd been here, the Astrovan had come past carrying the crew to the pad - and right in front of us, stopped and made a U-Turn (which we had dubbed the 'scrub turn') which indicated that the launch had been scrubbed. This time, several folks in the TweetUp crowd carried helpful signs with 'ONE WAY ->' pointing to the pad, and 'NO U-TURNS!' written on them to wave.

After only a few minutes, the tell-tale helicopter escort appeared over one of the the low buildings. The moon, gibbous, was just setting behind that same building - and there it was, the Astrovan. In convoy with several vehicles, it came out at a good clip and...stopped right in front of us. NOOOO! But it was OK; this time, it was just to let the Launch Director and some other NASA folks get off and walk over to the . We waved furiously, and several arms clad in the orange of the Ascent Suits waved back, just as hard! We gave a good cheer, I think, and then they were off, to be strapped into their spacecraft.

Wandering back towards the bleachers, we all straggled back long enough to make sure that the helicopter in fact went all the way to the pad, escorting the van...and it did. No scrub! The NASA information sources told us that no issues were being worked which would impact the launch, and that the weather officer was still predicting 70% chance of 'go.'

At the urging of our escorts, we all walked over to the official NASA Briefing Room auditorium (where they give the press conferences from) and found seats. Several folks representing the STORRM project were there to explain to us what that was. Representatives from Lockheed Martin, Ball Aerospace and NASA Langley showed us mockups and models of the STORRM - a test of new sensors designed to make docking spacecraft with the ISS easier. At present, we learned, the Space Shuttle uses *three* different systems while approaching the ISS - two radar systems (long range, medium range) and then for the final phase, a laser scanner (LIDAR) which bounces off reflectors installed around the 'docking target' on the station. STORRM is a single laser-based system which will replace all three of those. It starts working at 5 km from the station, where the first docking radar is used now, and works all the way in to approximately 1-2 meters from contact, when the docking camera takes over. This means that one system can be used rather than three on the spacecraft or other future spacecraft, saving weight and power. There are also various plans to use the LIDAR sensor of the system to map objects - think of it as a big 3-D scanner with a range of a few kilometers(!). One big improvement over the current laser system was evident - the STORRM uses 'eye-safe' lasers, whereas the current system uses beams which can damage the eye. Some other trivia - the STORRM experiment that was waiting to fly on STS-134 (*OUR* Shuttle) was a test which would just record tons of data as the Shuttle docked with (and, later, performed a flyby of) the ISS. It is, we think, the first data collection system flown in space which has over a terabyte of storage capacity. It is built with COTS parts, and was put together in only 14 months - an amazingly fast time for a NASA project! It was accelerated because this flight, STS-134, is the only chance that STORRM will have to work with the Shuttle and the ISS since all space on STS-135, the final flight, is taken. Fortunately, the necessary laser reflectors were installed on the ISS during STS-132, so all is in readiness.

We got to ask them a bunch of questions. My best contribution - when the NASA Langley project lead admitted that the calculations for docking would be performed by a standard NASA/ISS laptop running LabVIEW on Windows, I said "Wait, you're serious? You're actually running Windows for Space Stations?" I got a laugh, and the other project lead from NASA made the infamous 'three-finger salute' on an imaginary keyboard.

When we left the auditorium, light was coming over the horizon. We trekked back to our bleachers, toweled off the condensation from our various gear, and continued to Tweet as hard as possible. I spent ten minutes screwing around with my camera bag to improvise a 'holder' for the Flip video camera I'd brought. Everyone, NASA and otherwise, had told us: whatever you do, don't take pictures during the launch. Watch it. There are hundreds of cameras documenting this. Use your eyes. So I set up the little Flipcam and resolved to start it a few minutes before launch and leave it. The countdown continued. We'd watched, on the monitors in the briefing room during the demo, as the crew suited up in the White Room (with black curtains...just kidding) and moved into Endeavour. The Closeout Crew assisted them, helping them into their seats, shaking their hands. The hatch, with its cover and ENDEAVOUR symbol, closed behind them.

At this point, the excitement was really starting to bubble up. People were jittering in their seats. We were all glued to the information feed from Launch Control. Into the second-to-last preplanned hold at T-20:00, there was An Issue - apparently the Closeout crew, on closing the hatch, noticed that the protector sheets placed around the shuttle's nose had, during their removal, damaged a tile around the main hatch. BREAKING, the tweet read, TILE DAMAGE. EVALUATION UNDERWAY.

We groaned, but quietly, and all held our breath for ten or fifteen minutes before the long-awaited tweet came through: "TILE DAMAGE WILL NOT IMPACT LAUNCH SCHEDULE. COUNTDOWN CONTINUES. PREPARING TO COME OUT OF HOLD." There was a cheer then, let me tell you.

Eventually, as the clock started to count down from T-9 minutes, I hit 'go' on the Flip camera and then grabbed my point-and-shoot and wandered, with most of the rest of the tweeps, to stand close to the waterline. I ended up standing with three other guys some feet back from the line of tripods and photographers crowded at the water - just about equal with the Countdown Clock, perhaps ten yards to the right of it as you faced the pad. All four of us held devices and followed along as the count passed 5 minutes. Then 3. Then 1. I started my point-and-shoot going in 'video' mode and just aimed it generally in the direction of the pad. Then, suddenly, the whole crowd was shouting: "10! 9! 8! 7!" ...I added in the proper order, "GO FOR MAIN ENGINE START!" and then "THREE! TWO! ONE!" and we all dissolved into an inchoate mass of cheering and screaming as the billowing steam cloud arose on the horizon, spurting out northwards from the flame trench under Pad 39A. The shouting grew - I realized I was jumping up and down, didn't care, everyone around me was hopping around - "LIFTOFF! LIFTOFF! LIFTOFF!" and the second cloud flooded south as the boosters fired, and then...then...then...

There are some things about a Space Shuttle launch which are impossible to understand if you've only seen one on television. In the order they became apparent:

IT'S BRIGHT. TV cameras have filters and automatic aperture. Rocket exhaust, on TV, is just a 'light area.' Not in real life. A second sun appeared amidst the steam and smoke and then lifted off the ground, jumping for the heavens.

IT'S LOUD. About twelve seconds later, just as Endeavour was starting its roll maneuver, the NOISE hit. It didn't rumble. It didn't crackle. It went straight into the inner ear and into the chest cavity and crashed into distortion, the entire world flapping in and out of audibility with the trillions of joules being fired out into the atmosphere.

IT'S FAST. We had a low cloud deck for launch - perhaps 5 or 8 thousand feet. The Shuttle cleared the tower, then immediately started to roll to head east, downrange. From our position, nearly directly west of it, it seemed to hesitate and reorient itself, and then- BAM it was going, going, gone. Into the cloud deck, orange bloom of holy fire entering the gray surface and flooding it with light from within, and the noise battering us from all sides, and...and...even then, the noise fading, muffled by the clouds, the light vanishing, and poof.

All that was left was an enormous smoke cloud, slowly rising up from Pad 39A. I realized I was still screaming and jumping, and everyone around me was screaming and jumping, and I was having trouble seeing the smoke cloud through the tears. When we calmed down, we huddled around a couple of Macbooks with Verizon modems and watched the familiar litany, punctuated by more outbreaks of cheers from the diverse crowd around us as milestones were reached.

"Max Q."

"Endeavour is go at throttle-up."

"SRB separation is complete." The pictures on the screen showed the immense boosters arcing away, flames guttering from their back ends, falling back towards the ocean and the waiting recovery ships which had put out from Cape Canaveral earlier. And then, the noise level dropped as people waited for it, you could feel the hush, and... "MECO! Main engine cutoff, and Endeavour is in orbit." And that got the last concerted cheer.

In those few minutes, the people that had waved to me from perhaps fifteen yards a few scant hours earlier were now across the Atlantic ocean, two hundred miles up, moving at 17,500 miles per hour, and they were in space.

We milled around, wanting to avoid the traffic crush as people hurried to leave (leave KSC? Why? In the name of all that's holy, why would you leave here, where such things can happen...) so we wrote and tweeted and compared notes and all watched replays. You could tell when groups were watching replays because sudden cheers would break out from huddled clusters of people at random intervals. The press, doing their job, started prattling on to their cameras for later coverage. Fox News, right next to our bleacher, actually begged us to hold down the noise so they could finish their reporting (which a bunch of us immediately tweeted as "FOX NEWS TOLD ME TO SHUT UP! WINNING!") I got a message from some friends of mine back in New York City - they excitedly told me that they had been watching the launch on NASA TV, and the camera angle for the launch had been aimed at the shuttle from in front of the clock - and that I was visible, clearly, on the right side of the frame jumping up and down.

Immediately after MECO, I moved back to my backpack and fulfilled my own personal mission - I lit a cigar (an Arturo Fuente Gran Reserve) in front of the Countdown Clock, and standing in front of it with a few other smokers (including some other cigar smokers) I reflected that for the first time in a few years, I could say unequivocally that Today Was A Good Day.

It turned out that my handheld camera was pointed mostly in the wrong direction (don't care) and that my Flip camera back at the bleachers, while it had been aimed right, worked great until 10 seconds before launch - when the people in the row ahead of me stood up to watch. So I have a minute of a nice lady's back, and when she sits down again, the smoke cloud is hanging there quietly on the screen (don't care). Finally, a couple of hours later, we began to disperse, trading email addresses and pictures and more. I'd given one gent a video interview of What The Shuttle Launch Meant To Me, and reduced myself to tears again - but that was OK, everybody else kept crying too.

And when I left the Kennedy Space Center some two-plus hours later, those six nice folks who had waved to me had gone around the world.



I know the Space Shuttle program has to end. It's time to retire them. But oh, people - we need things like this. We need big projects which thousands of people pour their lives into to cheer for. As an astronaut said, "What other federal agency has 700,000 people lined up outside its gates on a Friday afternoon just to see what they're up to?" We need the big noise, and the big light, and the wonder and the thrill of it all - we need that. Capsules will give us some of it. But they're not SPACESHIPS. They're not. I hope we build more spaceships in my lifetime, but even if we don't, I can tell my nephews that I saw one of the last of them launch, in person, and when Endeavour comes home and goes to her final sleeping place in Los Angeles to doze away the years in honor, wrapped in bunting, I will go there and try to lay a hand on her cool sleeping surface and I will whisper to her "I was there, and I saw you, and I heard your Dragon roar when you left Earth that last time, and I love you."

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February 7, 2009

Lest we forget

Spent a few minutes today staring into the cockpit of the Enola Gay.



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July 9, 2008

At least I have a goal in life

My new short-to-mid-term life goal is this:

I will fly myself across Australia in a Cessna (or other light plane). Aiming to do this within the next three years.

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March 21, 2007

Texas, Texas, Texas.

The New Gig has me in Houston. I almost got run over by what I vote to be one of the most futuristic looking rapid transit systems ever. I was all set to be really impressed with it.

Then I checked the map.

Ah. It doesn't really go anywhere; it just looks good all day.


Still, the whole 'the fountains turn off to let the train slide through them' thing is neat-o.

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November 9, 2006

CNN is pathetic. The Earth is cool.

Why is this 'Offbeat News'??!?! New landmass on the planet as the result of vulcanism is...well...not only scientifically and geographically interesting, but damn cool. Plus legitimately important to commerce (navigation and local environmental disruption, etc.)

Plus, any chance to legitimately use the name 'Tonga' in conversation is noteworthy in and of itself.

Update: Here are some photos of the new island and the pumice rafts resulting from its creation. Coolness.

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August 29, 2006

Las Vegas

Las Vegas, to make an entirely unoriginal observation, is the United States of America on its fifth drink having just taken a snort of crystal meth. It is composed of, and brings out, all the worst parts of the American character, carefully nurtured by the most efficient parts of the American business model. Looked at through the eyes of a cautious but supportive capitalist, it is an icon of the service industry; a money filter so efficient that you are tempted to simply drop to your knees and throw the wallet into the wishing fountain and get it over with.

It is also, if you look carefully, a place where the fine old art of people watching can be taken to a high art. It just requires a very effective squelch circuit. New Yorkers are at an advantage, here; the reflex ability to tune out very intrusive people coupled with the recognition that fascinating individuals are lurking in dark corners is just what's needed. I suffered a major dislocation from New York, since I stayed in the Big Hotels; I roomed in the Bellagio, and confined my wanderings to the connected venues of Caesar's, Paris, Bally's, the Imperial, Aladdin (what part of it was open during the renovation), and a few glimpses of the Rio. The problem is that the PTB of Vegas have every interest in making the experience as safe as possible in order to painlessly separate you from your money, so in fact there is a sterility to it all; a sense of risk packaged up in blisterplastic and offered on the shelf, with price tags clearly marked. The signs discreetly offering assistance to 'compulsive gamblers,' the notices that the odds favor the house, the pamphlets and diagrams explaining the various games - as well as the unobtrusive but heavily visible security presence everywhere - meant that the typical New Yorker reflexes were somewhat out of place. Those reflexes are designed to protect life, then limb, then wallet; in Vegas, life and limb are heavily pampered in order to take your eyes off the third. After all, that's what you're here for.

The buildings are impressive in sheer over-the-top silliness. The malls are ridiculous. The services expensive and complete. I intend to return to the Bellagio and spend a ludicrous amount of money in the Spa I visited only briefly, this time. The 'World's Largest Chocolate Fountain' at the bottom of my hotel tower was fun to walk past and drool at.

A plus - I can smoke cigars, here, everywhere except in the hotel tower. Bathroom? Sure. Bar? Sure. There are restaurant non-smoking sections, but that's about it. Well, okay, not in the health club, either. I'm poisoned and I like it.

Gaming - I've decided I'm not a gambler. I tried to learn craps, but all the games in action were fast ones, and I couldn't get the flow. I'm presently up $310 on roulette, but I have six hours before I have to head to McCarran airport, and who knows? Either way, it won't touch what I've spent on the non-gaming part of the trip, but that's OK too. My method is simple: I define my shirt as $80/day, or roughly what I've spent on food/drink. I can spend that. No going to the ATM. Update: This trip, I've lost my shirt. It's kept me entertained, though.

In any case, I've found that (gambling in three casinos, now) if I stay myself, that is relatively quiet and interested, it's possible to meet people with good stories. The gaming tables are self-selecting, mostly; the quiet ones and the loud ones. The quiet ones are split between the hardcore players, those who are relaxing after the 'thinking' games of poker or craps (that's what they tell me), and those, like me, who are here for entertainment and consider their money spent when they sit down. Some of those have fun stories to tell. I've spoken to people from Japan, from England, from the Philippines, Russia, Sweden, South Korea, Pakistan, and Syria this trip. All were pleasant and friendly, and all wanted to trade stories while tempting the devil Chance.

For that, I salute Vegas and will return; and for their sake, I can ignore the desire to punch the people wearing T-Shirts that say "FCK: The Only Thing Missing Is You," "Fuck me, I'm Irish" and similar messages while shouting incessantly. Oh, and McCarran Airport's baggage claim system.

A quick observation: I decided, entirely on a whim, to rate the various hotel/casinos purely by their public restrooms. Using that criteria alone, Bellagio/Caesar's (the MGM/Mirage properties I've visited) win handily with clean, complete and inviting ones. The Bally's/Paris facilities were a couple steps down, with Bally's looking like a bad Loew's Theatres in the mid-1980s. The Imperial...we won't go into that. Rio had OK loos.

Other random reviews...the A. Fuente cafe in the Forum Shops makes a passable Mojito to go with your cigar. An expensive one, but no more than anywhere else around's pricy! The Prime steakhouse in the Bellagio is pretty darn good, but I still prefer Morton's back in Boston. I didn't get to try the Palm in the Forum Shops; would've if I'd seen it sooner :-) Ah well, next trip.

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May 26, 2005

I call official sucks on Philly airport.

The surprising bit about connecting through Philly was the quick, easy and efficient manner with which Customs and Immigration was handled. I was through both in perhaps seven minutes. Kudos to Homeland Security (ugh) for that one.

However, in order to connect from a US Airways arriving international flight to a US Airways domestic flight, I was (after going through customs and immigration, naturally, which is of course de rigeur) forced to walk pretty much the length of two terminals, around a completely pointless hundred-meter detour designed entirely to absorb the lines that would apparently result from...

...having to pass through Security. Yes, after Customs had riffled my bag, Security then wanted me to do the entire remove-shoes-put-laptop-onna-tray-step-through-sir routine. This, after a seven and a half hour international flight, is not designed to produce docile happy passengers. Couple that with this conversation:

"Sir, I need to see your computer operate."

"Open it."

"I did. It ain't doing nothing."

"Yes. That's because the battery is dead. Because I just got off a SEVEN HOUR FLIGHT."

"Well, we gotta see it turn on."

"You got an outlet around here I can use?"




"Sorry, just boggled by the fucking stupidity. Well, if you don't have an outlet, you're not gonna get to see it work."

"Sir, there's no need to be difficult."

...and around we go.

I managed to avoid being arrested before boarding my connecting flight, which promptly sat at the gate for half an hour after departure and on the taxiway for an hour. I strongly wished I'd actually assaulted one of the Security Personnel having that conversation with me, it would have spared me the full-757-held-on-the-ground purgatory.

Philly airport sucks.

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May 24, 2005

Enter the Marketdroids

Ardbeg distillery, as told in snatches by Emma the Taciturn Tour Guide.

Ardbeg was first licensed to produce alcohol (well, a farm owned on the site was) in 1815. Ardbeg has been owned by various companies, opened and closed down over the years - most recently, it was closed in 1980, sold in 1990 to a new firm and used to make only new (raw) spirits for blending, then sold to Glenmorangie PLC in 1997 and ramped up to produce actual whisky again. Glenmorangie was put up for sale in 2004 as a family company, and LVMH (Louis Vuitton blah blah) purchased the Glenmorangie distilleries (Glenmorangie, Glen Moray, Ardbeg) to add malt whisky to their stable of beverages. The distillery has been almost fully rebuilt since the 1980-1990 shutdown.

Random trivia:

  • They are approaching their maximum annual production of 1 megaliter.
  • The limiting factor is that they only have two stills, one wash and one spirit. Other distilleries with more stills have higher output.
  • The mill which crushes the peated barley to grist (there's only one) is a mechanical mill manufactured by a 'John Boby LTD in assoc. with VICKERS ENGINEERS LTD' around (they think) a hundred years ago. It was originally designed to mill flour; new rollers (metal rather than wood) and adjustments to the roller separation allow it to produce the rough grist rather than flour.
  • There are no spare parts for it, nor another mill. This mill is a single point of failure for the entire Ardbeg process. Once per year, they disassemble it, clean and maintain it, and bring it back online. It runs approximately thirteen times per week, processing 4.5 tons of barley per run in approximately 1 hr.
  • Only three distilleries still floor malt their barley - Laphroaig being one of them. The rest purchase their malted barley from the malting facility in Port Ellen. Ardbeg uses 60 tons of barley a week, all of which is shipped in via ferry.
  • This coming weekend, they will be selling the last remaining three barrels of 1975 Ardbeg from the warehouse, which have slept there through three or four owners and the ten-year hiatus from 1980-1990, and were just recently bottled. In 2010, the supply of thirty-year-old Ardbeg will run out, not to return until 2027 - assuming they save any of the 1997 barrels. They're in a bit of a crunch right now - the 'standard' bottle of Ardbeg is 10 years old, but the new production is really only seven or eight years along. In a couple of years, they'll be able to start selling the new stuff. They have a bottle called 'Very Young Ardbeg' - a six-year-old, the first barrels from the new distillery. I was warned, in strong English accent, by two older gentlemen in very polite, reserved terms that this was "firewater, and not to be trusted at all, sir."

I have purchased a bottle of the evilly-marketing-droid-named 'Serendipity.' The story they tell at the distillery is that several barrels of very old Ardbeg had been removed to a bottler's in (Glasgow?) to be packaged, and hence emptied into a holding tank for the bottling system. There was an oops, and someone emptied a quantity of Glen Moray into the same tank, ending up with an 80/20 mix of Ardbeg to Glen Moray. The Glen Moray is a highland malt, sweet and floral, and Ardbeg is...well...not. After (presumably) heads rolled, someone got around to drinking some of it (no doubt with a sorrowful mien, or possibly with a 'haha, look what we get for free!' mien) and it was...tasty.

Enter the marketdroids.

Hence, the Serendipity. It's a blend, technically - a blend of two single malts, 80/20. It's also pretty damn yummy, I think. They have (they claim) no plans to do it again, having had no plan to do it the first time, if you believe 'em - which I might, old Ardbeg being rare enough that mixing it on a marketer's say-so seems foolhardy when the stuff sells mighty well all by its lonesome. It's Ardbeg, but with a nice sweetness running through it - not quite as brickbat-to-the-head-peat as the usual stuff. So they have a couple thousand bottles...while I'm sure distributers in the U.S. can get it if they try, why the hell not?


Posted by jbz at 9:38 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

On the ground, later

I met two more nice folks at Ardbeg who, it turns out, are also from Cambridge Massachusetts. Go figure. They were kind enough to put up with me and schlep me about in their car, since they, too, were here to visit distilleries; we visited Laphroaig together for a tour, then returned to Ardbeg for the tour at 11:30 (late start since Ardbeg was short staffed). Then we checked in at Lagavulin (closed for the whisky festival other than scheduled tours, which we were not) and returned briefly to Laphroaig to pick Finally, lunch at the White Hart Hotel over pints of 70 Shilling. Nice folks whom I look forward to meeting up with in Cambridge for additional whisky enjoyment.

We learned a deal about whisky making today. I'm glad I made the trip out; I've managed two full distillery tours and several 'wee drams' as well as a few more in the pub. I purchased two bottles of potable, one or both of which may not be available in the U.S. (at least, not easily) but which aren't too expensive, coming in right around the same price as a single malt at home- the Ardbeg Serendipity and the Laphroaig Quarter Cask. By main force (and looking at the prices) I refrained from purchasing a bottle of Ardbeg Lord of the Isles (25 year, 119 pounds) or Laphroaig 40 year (1000 pounds!)

Now, in a cybercafe in Port Ellen (a hall with a pool table, a snooker table and four Windows PCs - but no 802.11 - I have parked myself to charge up the Powerbook, type a few lines, and await the 1800 ferry. Actually, I'll likely wander down to the waterfront to have a cigar before then. My new acquaintances will be heading off to ride horses, brave souls.

Posted by jbz at 10:37 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

On the ground

It's 9:37 am (Sorry, 0937). I don't know if the touring couple on the ferry was interested in hitchhikers, as I never got a chance to ask. I did, however, meet a very nice couple who are actually on Islay for business - Sam, the wife, is organizing an environmental rally here on the island. She and Scot, her husband, also explained to me why I was unable to find a bed - next week, apparently, is the Whisky Festival, and folks have been securing lodging by purchasing week-long blocks to be sure of having a slot next week. Scot noted that one gent working with them had to make upwards of thirty calls to find a bed, and ended up having to exploit local connections hard.

So I don't feel quite so slacker in my lack of prep. Not that any of that excuses it.

In any case, after a nice chat on the ferry, I bid them goodbye - but as I was walking off, Scot came up to me. Sam was putting up posters in town, he was to meet her in forty minutes, and he offered to give me a lift out to Ardbeg, the furthest of the three distilleries up the coast road from Port Ellen. I accepted gladly, and he cheerfully zipped me the four or so miles up the lane - we discussed his attempts to get Linux running on their computer, stymied so far (apparently by a bit of British software named Serif). I resolved to send him and Sam a copy of NLD - spread the word, brother. Spread the word.

Now, however, it's 0942, and I'm sitting at a picnic table outside the Ardbeg Distillery Cafe. They open at 1000, I believe- no sense trying the door before then. Various folks are about their business - two strapping gents are working on the landscaping, and I heard (and have walked around back to see) another couple shifting barrels. Ah. Barrels. Empty but redolent with the smell of life itself.

Haven't spoken to anyone yet- all have just nodded and grinned at me. This is somehow even more friendly - the fact that strange Americans with Powerbooks sitting around at their place of work in the morning with nothing apparently to do is normal.

This means the pilgrimage is understood.

I will drink whisky here.

If I'm fortunate, as I walk back towards Port Ellen, Lagavulin will forgive my lack of foresight and allow me entry despite my failing to have phoned ahead first. We will see. If not, I completely understand - I'll wander aboout nearby, have a look at the ocean from near where the Lagavulin issues forth, and smoke a cigar in homage.

Four mile walk back, and the ferry isn't until 1800. This is good. The air is...not clean, there's a whiff of diesel in it from ships and from the various trucks shifting about, but it's definitely ocean air, and there's the hints of peat smoke and malt in it, wonders of fire and gold.

Hm, time to go inside.

Posted by jbz at 5:05 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Islay's pronounced 'eye-la.' Yes, I learned the hard way.

Well. Haggis, yes. Black pudding, no.

I'm reminded forcibly of weekend trips to Nantucket - I sit on the Motor Vessel Erein Arrain, or Isle of Arran, en route from Kennacraig Ferry terminus on Loch Fyne to Islay, home of so many wondrous potables. It's a two hour and twenty minute trip aboard a car ferry, out to an island off the coast in the Atlantic. Of course, we're going west instead of east.

Due to a shortness of time and piss-poor planning on my part, I'll likely only be able to spend the day on Islay - I was unable to procure a bed, and the last ferry back leaves at 6pm from Port Ellen to Kennacraig (where my car is). I figure I can make it from Kennacraig (departing around 8:40pm) to Glasgow and back to the hospitable flat of the ever-patient Mr. Skinner by around 11pm - in time for an hour or so of WoW and snooze before returning the car to Avis (Glasgow Downtown) on Wednesday. Flight home is Thursday morning.

J recently commented that Americans tend to journey for the destination rather than the trip. I'm about to prove him right in spades - due to the compressed timeframe of this excursion to Scotland in general, as well as to the original purpose. See, I didn't really plan on coming here for a general vacation. I came here to see a show, with Aidan - Alabama 3 were playing in Glasgow on Saturday, May 20th. Given that I'm a madcap A3 fan (and Aidan knows that) he informed me of the fact before he bought tickets, and given that I was a bit cheesed off with sitting in the U.S. in general, I said "Buy me one, sport."

So here I am.

My trip, then, was really a goal-based one. See A3. Several other goals, ancillary ones, layered themselves on top - drink good whisky, naturally. Aidan added one when he called a week before I was to leave and announced he was procuring tickets to Episode III for Friday the 19th, as well - good man. As I packed to go, another fell into place - enjoy a Cuban cigar or two, naturally, in a land outside that particular repression.

It took Aidan's casual mention that Islay was only a hundred miles or so from Glasgow for me to start saying to myself "Hm. Islay. Lagavulin. Ardbeg. Bowmore. Yum. Um, er, can I..."

Well, I can't for long, unfortunately. The Sunday break in the middle of my trip, plus the need to spend Wed. night in Glasgow so as to make my Thursday flight, coupled with my typical lack of foresight, meant...well...that I picked up my rental car Monday afternoon and headed off to a hotel room in Tarbert Loch Fyne Monday evening with no other plan, really. Tarbert Loch Fyne is, as I was told and have verified, 15 minutes shy of the Kennacraig ferry terminal, so I'd at least be able to determine the realism of my goal.

Tour a distillery, sample its wares, and smoke a Cuban cigar on Islay, home of my favorite whisky. Sure, I hope I can see Lagavulin, but they only offer tours by appointment, and until I knew there was a return boat this evening (which I didn't until I showed up at the ferry terminal at 0530 today - for more info on why this is difficult to determine even onsite seed here) I wasn't willing to book a tour. Plus, I don't have a cell phone.


See, I resisted the tug. Walking down Buchanan Street in Glasgow, one is assaulted by all manner of shops offering the latest in personal communications gear. The Link. Carphone Warehouse. T-Mobile's branded shop. They all offer 'pay as you go' phones - one, I verified, for the reasonable price of twenty quid - a Siemens phone which would work on T-Mobile in the USA. It took a bit for me to bring myself up short at the display, there - why the hell was I shopping for a phone? My own communicator is sitting happily on my desk in Cambridge, MA, sucking at the tit of 120 VAC whilst no doubt accumulating a raft of voicemails which I'll answer in my typically tardy fashion. As I mentioned to Aidan, it's really liberating not carrying a phone for a bit.

I have a computer with me, naturally. I have, in fact, played WoW. I have banked via the web. I've surfed. All from Aidan's flat. Outside that comforting bath of 802.11, however, I've been cut right off from the Crystal Wind for the first time in quite a while. It's disturbing, really. I hadn't realized the degree to which public phones had atrophied until I reached Logan airport on the way out of town, remembered I hadn't mailed two envelopes I'd been carrying with me around the office and meaning to drop in the outgoing pile, and thought about calling my officemate. It's $0.50 for a local call. Last time I dropped a coin in a phone it was $0.25. Had to buy a coffee to get change.

So here I am, 15 miles out to sea on a ferry with no comm on me, on the way with no plan other than to try to find a distillery that will allow me to poke my nose in and pay humble homage to the low wines, new spirits, and the barley and perhaps pick up a bottle of old gold before heading back over to the mainland and a small Ford Focus.

I feel quite Scottish. I've got a packet of shortbread biscuits, a can o' Irn Bru, and I've (mistakenly) had black pudding for breakfast. Wooooo. Now to see if I can pull off the decadant trifecta. We saw Episode III in nice leatherette seats with drinks, and sat outside immediately afterward to go over it while I smoked a Cohiba and drank Lagavulin. Ding, a Good Day - New Star Wars, whisky, cigar. Saturday, we saw A3, worshipped at the First Presleyterian Church of Elvis the Divine, U.K. (The Right Reverend D-Wayne Love presiding)...and it was goooooood (despite severe tinnitus lasting around 12 hours). So here's to a distillery tour and a cigar on Islay, and to goal-oriented American vacationing. Hm, there was a young couple here somewhere who were debating the cost of bringing their car over for the day to visit distilleries...I wonder if they'd take on an American hitchhiker who'd be happy to contribute to their car tariff...

Posted by jbz at 3:17 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 23, 2005

Tarbert Loch Fyne

If you are ever in Glasgow, and decide to head West, I can heartily recommend the Columba Hotel in the small fishing village of Tarbert Loch Fyne (about two hours by car). They graciously accomodated a foolish American who hadn't made a reservation with a same-day arrival time, charged me 50 quid for a beautiful en suite double room (all they had) and breakfast, and were generally nice as heck. The hotel sits on the Loch on Tarbert Quay Road (when you drive into Tarbert on the A83, turn left at the corner rather than following the A83 to the right, and go about 1/2 a mile down the waterfront). The bar looks out over Loch Fyne, where you can watch fishing boats meander back in at the close of the day while drinking your pleasure or having dinner. For dinner, I had a spiffing deep fried brie over salad to start, and then (oddity for me, but when in Rome) a peat-smoked haddock in a cream leek sauce, topped with thick bacon rashers and Campbeltown cheddar. Yum yum yum yum.

Trivia of note: I giggled once uncontrollably at the thought of having Haddock, given that:

  • I'm a Tintin reader
  • I had driven there around the edge of Loch Lomond

Posted by jbz at 10:12 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack