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Global Entry–Just Get It April 20, 2011

Posted by gordonwatts in travel.
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A month or two ago I was traveling back from Geneva with a friend of mine. Kaori and I were on a flight that was late – about an hour late. We landed at IAD and really had to race to make our connections (we had less than an hour). We raced to immigration and I got in line. Looking around – I couldn’t find her… looking over to the side, I saw her at some kiosk… in about a minute or so she was racing through to the baggage pick up. Me… I hung out in the line for about 5 minutes.

She was using the Global Entry program. Having signed up and used it for my most recent flight… I’m a fan. It is fairly cheap – $100 bucks for 5 years. You do have to give up finger prints and picture to the US government – as far as I know that is the first set of finger prints any government agency has on record for me – so that was a little weird. As an example, on my last flight into IAD the plane doors were opened at 4:10 pm. At 4:22 pm I was in the X-Ray line. This included more than 5 minutes of walking since our plane was waaaay down the terminal. You use a kiosk instead of a person in the immigration area. I’d say it took the same amount of time as dealing with an officer who decided not to ask any question and if there were no lines – about 90 seconds or so. Extra bonus: no filling out those @*#&@ blue custom forms (there is an abbreviated version on the kiosk). And, when you go through customs, there is a separate line that lets you cut to the front (at least, in IAD). You just hand them a bit of paper that the immigration kiosk printed out and you are done.

I could imagine there are a number of circumstances that don’t make this worth it. If you always travel with kids under 14 you can’t use this (well, the kids can’t use this), if you always check baggage the time saved will be a small fraction of your total time, and I think there are only about 20 airports that support it (these are where your international ports-of-entry). Oh, and if you like watching people while standing in lines to relax after that long flight being cooped up… then this isn’t for you either.

My flight into IAD earlier this week was over an hour late. I had less than an hour to connect. A student of mine and I were both on the plane and both were on the connecting flight to Seattle. Neither of us had bags checked. The Seattle flight was in D29 in IAD (which means a long walk). I did a brisk walk and made it before boarding started. He had to sprint some of the way and made it after everyone had already boarded – but he still made it. BTW – I was also able to skip to the front of the X-Ray line which can be killer in IAD because I’d been upgraded on that last leg. That probably saved me an additional 10 minutes or so on this trip.

So… I’d recommend getting this if you flight internationally with any frequency. It definitely made that part of my trip quicker and, thus, more enjoyable!

As a side note… WHY don’t they design the airport so that if you don’t have to pickup your luggage you don’t have to go thought security again?


Chat on the Airplane July 18, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in physics life, travel.

I guy I work with (and know fairly well) recently dictated a column to the NYTimes Frequent Flyer Column:

I ALWAYS laugh when people say they don’t want to talk to their seatmates. I’m a friendly guy and, on occasion, I wouldn’t mind having a chat with a fellow passenger, especially if I’m not that busy with work.

It is so true. My seatmates almost always steer the conversation to another topic as soon as they find out what I do. And, as anyone that knows me knows – I like to talk (well, I write a blog, don’t I?). Part of the problem is that I fly a lot – so I end up seated in the front of the plane, near the other frequent flyers – which means no one wants to talk to anyone else. Head down, buried in a book, magazine, or work. If you start a conversation – well, you are clearly a Sunday Traveler!

That isn’t to say I’ve had some long discussions with folks about what I do on planes. I remember two of them clearly. One was on a flight to Chicago from Seattle and the guy sitting next to me owned and ran some number of tire stores. He was from Eastern Washington. He was very curious about what I did and asked lots of questions. Right before we got off the plane he asked me what had clearly been bugging him for much of the ride: “Why don’t we do faith-based science funding and research?” The other one I remember was a guy that was convinced the LHC could generate electricity and save us from our power problems. We talked about this for a long time – I’m pretty sure I was able to convince him that this wasn’t possible…

Most conversations (even these ones I just mentioned) are actually pretty good – it is often surprising to hear what people think you are doing. The will have read about it in the newspaper and the newspaper reporter will have heard about it from interviews, emails, etc. – so it is very much a bit of a telephone game, each step colored by the recipients own interests and past education and hobbies.

Actually, I think scientists need to talk to people more. After all, we work for the people, all people, the taxpayers. We should do our bit to explain where your money is going and why our work is interesting, important and what it means to you and your future.

Totally true! Thanks to Paul Grannis who posted an internal news item pointing this out.

Back To Marseille June 20, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in Marseille, travel.
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Term is done. It was done a week ago. Next week I move back to Marseille for three months. Those of you who have followed this blog for a while know that I spent 2007-2008 there. Well… I’m going back. Ironically, in 2007-2008 I was really hoping that I’d see first collision at CERN when I was there (it is less than 4 hours door-to-door from Marseille to CERN). This time there is no hope (there was a power outage there today – I wonder if that affected the LHC’s state? Nope, not really!). I was lucky enough that IN2P3 had some money available to help fund my three month trip (thanks IN2P3!).

To celebrate my return there I put together a synth of some 1000-odd pictures I took of the train station when I was there last time. There is lots of cool stuff up there (check out this one  of the Hubble repair mission).

Synth’s are a very cool way to arrange a large collection of photo’s of a single subject. At any rate, enjoy it. I’m going a little crazy trying to get everything ready for the trip!

BTW – I wasn’t able to make this 1000 image synth until I got my new computer with huge amounts of memory – during the synth process it always ran out of memory! The irony here is that synth code is 32 bit. I guess Windows 64 bit gives just a bit more memory space to 32 bit programs than the 32 bit version of windows!

AF 447: All anyone is talking about June 2, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in travel.

I’m spending a week at an ATLAS meeting here in Geneva. The day I flew was the day of the horrible Air France 447 crash. The plane just disappeared over the Atlantic on its way from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Paris, France. Just disappeared. It flew through heavy turbulence and a thunder storm. And just disappeared.

As I’m sure you’ve read by now modern airplanes (which this A330 is most certainly one of) are built to deal with these sorts of conditions. Being struck by lighting, flying through strong and gusty winds, etc. So what happened?

Of course, none of us know. But many of the group of people over here at CERN that I hang out with are from the USA. Which means we take these long distance flights all the time. In the past month I’ve taken the equivalent of two of these flights. The uncertainty is really getting to us. Most of us will be on one of these long distance flights (and some on a A330) in less than a week. So you can imagine…

There is another plane crash I remember – Swiss Air 111. This flight was going from JFK to Geneva in 1998. It happened during the CHEP 1998 conference. There were a bunch of people on that flight from the CHEP conference.

I guess one comforting thing for those of us that have to fly is that this is the first A330 crash ever (besides one initial test flight). Still, it is the main topic of conversation over beer and lunch right now. Which is probably just making it worse.

Regardless, our hearts go out to the folks that survived the passengers of 447. We are all connected to the people on that flight one way or the other.

UPDATE: Now that they have found the wreckage they are sending a submersible down there to search for the black boxes. Apparently, the submersible they are using is the same one that is used to repair the Antares experiment (a neutrino experiment on the floor of the ocean).

UPDATE II: I went to dinner last night with someone that was actively trying to get on that Swiss Air 111 flight. It was sold out, fortunately. He knew some people from BNL that were on that flight, on their way to CERN.

777 Is Not Big Enough May 18, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in travel.

A Boeing 777 is a big plane. Apparently, however, it is not big enough. I’d swear going over Canada we were actually a paper airplane. Or the pilots were entertaining themselves.

There is a great Farside cartoon (which I can’t find) – it shows two pilots in a jet and one saying to the other “Let’s do that again! Announce more rough air ahead”. Brilliant – it was about how I felt during this flight!

Ever since 9/11 turbulence has been a fascination of mine. Before 9/11 I never cared about it. I was in a plane on 9/11, on the way back from China. It was a smooth ride. But something about that whole experience…

How many people listen to Channel 9 when it gets rough? Available on United, it enables you to listen in on radio communications. When flying through heavy turbulence the first thing you learn is that… no, it isn’t heavy. “Light Chop”, as defined the by pilots, is the stuff that makes the plane go bumpity-bumpity-bump. You, the non-flight attendant, can still walk, but you might hold onto something as you do it. At the upper end of the light scale the pilot turns on the seat belt sign. Then comes moderate.

I think that is worst I’ve ever bin through. I’d hate to know what the other two feel like (“heavy” and “extreme”). At the low end of moderate you could walk if you first violated the seatbelt sign (who doesn’t!?) and really held onto things tightly. Flight attendants even start holding onto things here – and at the upper end they have to sit as well. Now the plane is making decidedly un-plane like noises (thump! Groan! Creeeeek!). Listening in on Channel 9 I heard another pilot describe +- 20% pitch, gusts across the plane that caused “significant sheer”. In the understated language of jet pilots, significant is well, probably significant (the flight controller responded with “Wow!”). Another guy said something like “we are being tossed all over the place – like salad!” No one, of course, had any fear in their voices. We were decidedly below a plane’s breaking point

Uncharacteristically, however, our plane wasn’t changing altitudes to find smoother air. This is what caused me to listen into Channel 9 in the first place. Every other plane was hunting around, trying all sorts of different altitudes – looking for a bit of smooth air. That is what I’m used to. It sounds like way down at 29,000 feet it was smooth. We were up at 37,000 and it was decidedly unsmooth!

Every time the flight controller would ask how the air was up here, our pilot would always say light chop with intermittent moderate chop. This is exactly what everyone else was saying, and what every other plane was going up and down trying to figure out how to avoid. But not our guy. He just powered through it. The result: I didn’t sleep a wink until we were well over the Atlantic and things smoothed out.

That was another thing. As long as we were over North America all conversations were between the flight controller and the pilot. As soon as we left Canadian airspace, there was a “switch to frequency xxxx, end radar coverage”. After getting a backup frequency, the pilot switched over, announced himself (as they always do when they change). And then the pilots talk to each other “Hey – anyone know who won the Preakness?” 🙂 The other thing is it sounded like the planes, once they start the “crossing” can’t change altitudes. They are allocated a slot before they start, which is cleared in some central clearing house, and then they have to stick with it for the whole flight.

Pay The Man: ATT 1 Gordon 0 April 8, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in physics life, travel.

I got lost in Prague. My hotel was very near a central transportation hub with two very large tram stops on opposite sides of a corner. Instead of walking I decided to be clever and hope on a tram to my destination. About 20 minutes later I was totally lost. I got off the tram but I could see no land marks. The obvious thing was to get back on the tram, but what would have been even better would have been to look at a map. Of course, I was far enough out of the central tourist area that there were no maps on the tram stops.

Ah! I have a smart phone. It has a GPS chip. A few minutes later I knew where I was – not that far from where I wanted to be, just on the wrong side of a hill. How awesome is that?

It was pretty awesome until I checked my cell phone bill online. That quick fix required about 0.9 megabytes of data. And cost me close to 20 bucks!! Yikes! Imagine what would have happened if I’d actually left the cell phone going, receiving emails, etc.

I’ve been resisting paying an extra 25 bucks a month for cheap (limited) data access over in Europe. But modern smart phones are just too useful. The question is – will the limited amount of data (20 MB) be enough for one week of travel? Time will tell…

Pink Light District!? March 29, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in life, travel.
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I’m just finishing up a short stay in Paris to check out my new nephew. I’m staying near the Sacre Coeur Basilica. It is famous – you recognize it:


My hotel is right around the corner from there, as is my sister’s home. My sisters house, on the hill approaching Sacre Coeur, is in a very nice area – lots of small streets and restaurants – almost exactly what comes to mind when most people think of Paris. My hotel, on the other hand, which is about another 200 meters away, is in a totally different area:



I’ve been to Paris more times than any other city outside of the USA other than Ottawa and Vancouver. I had no idea there was anything like this in Paris (duh – how did I miss it?)! This isn’t the red-light district (which is around the corner from Gare du Nord) – where you can see prostitutes everywhere. There is a two block length of the street is one sex show after another. And in between are bars and dance clubs, and just off the main drag are lots of good restaurants. The place is teaming with people – even tonight (Sunday night) of all types, from the expected desperate men to normal couples. No one seems phased. The barkers for the clubs are pretty aggressive, they step out and grab you with cards offering a free drink or similar and are just as likely to be a middle aged guy as they are to be a middle aged woman. It is surreal walking down this street – everyone treats it as normal.

BTW – this is right around the corner from the Moulin Rouge – which tourists line of for 100’s of meters to see. Craziness:


You have to look carefully – but the queue is there! It’s a famous old French cabaret.

A Sledge Ride February 5, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in Snow, travel.

I’m at a trigger workshop in Beatenberg, Switzerland. In the Alps. There was an ad-hoc trip arranged – a sledge ride. When this was first mentioned all I could think of was the stuff that comes out of a sewer plant (sludge). The second thing was a really big sleigh pulled by horses or rain deer. I’d never heard of a sledge before!

It is basically a sleigh. We took a cable car to the top of the local mountain, and then for 25 minutes whizzed down at break-neck speed. These things aren’t like the sleigh’s I used when I was a kid: there are no handles to steer with. You sit up on them instead:


You use your two feet – your heels – to steer. It is opposite steering, of course: you dig in your left heel in to turn right. The problem is you are going so fast that your heel doesn’t just dig in: it skips. This means a big plume of snow shoots up and totally blinds you: which alleviates your need to turn because you can no longer see where you are turning! To break you bring your feed flat and push down. To help, this was at night with just the light of the moon and these tiny little lanterns.

I crashed twice. Both times at the same place. Everyone had boots except me and one other person. We had sneakers. Sneakers do not bite into hard packed snow very well, and when the snow is crusted over there really is nothing that can be done! I was wearing jeans and they were frozzen solid by the time I was finished. If you look at the picture above you can see a small plume of snow behind the boot heel – when you are going fast this plume is quite a bit larger and shoots straight up your jeans. 🙂

But boy it is a lot of fun! A run is 25 minutes long. The last time I was on a sled was at Tommy’s pond, back in New Jersey. It took about 30 seconds to sled from top to bottom. I’d do it again in a second. Reminds me I really want to learn how to snowboard. Pictures from this and the rest of the week here.

UPDATE: I must not be remembering correctly – left heal means turn left, not right. My body knew what to do (I only lost it due to steering once!), but my mind was on the fritz! Sorry – and thanks for spotting it.

The Sun Should Not Flicker!! February 1, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in life, travel.

I just flew over to Geneva from Seattle. I was seated right behind the wing, and the sun set behind us gave the clouds and the plane a fantastic color:


But here is the weird bit – the light on the bottom of that first cowling (??) was flickering – rapidly. I did my best to capture it with my camera’s video. Look at the end of the video. You can just make out some rapid flickering. It isn’t so obvious with the camera – but it was quite obvious looking out the window.

What causes that? We were in very smooth air at the time – so it couldn’t have been the bouncing of the plane. The only thing I could think of was there were some clouds on the horizon that were blowing by and obscuring the sun briefly. Unfortunately, without opening the plane door, I couldn’t check! Is that it?

Whatever it was – it was very spooky – the sun is supposed to be rock solid! 🙂

Cyprus August 28, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in Cyprus, travel.
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IMG_4726We arrived back from Cyprus over the weekend. That was 6 days. While this was a vacation for me, it was a conference for Paula. We were in the town of Nicosia, which is the capital. While there are many tourist spots in Cyprus, Nicosia is not one of them. Nice town — but it is a working town. And without a car, it is pretty hard to get around. And Cyprus is hot. We were warned about 40-45 C, which is killer, but I don’t think it ever made it above 40 – but it was always above 39. And very humid. The 10 minute walk between the hotel and the conference over flat ground is enough to drench you.

But the vacation was nice. First, we stayed in the Cyprus Hilton. Under normal circumstances we could not afford this place – but it is right next to the university and was the conference hotel. Whew. This is the sort of place that after you check in everyone calls you by your first name — even though you are sure you’ve not actually met them before. The staff will do whatever you ask. And they really seem to care that you are comfortable – down to a person (well, there was one guy who very early in the morning wasn’t too happy to help, but that was the only time). Julia and I spent a lot of time together – much of it walking back and forth between our room and the large outdoor pool. She be-friended many people. Many of them even knew her name by the end of the stay.

The history of the Cyprus is fascinating. I was aware of the Turkish invasion in the early 70’s. If you follow international news it is hard not to be aware because Turkey is trying to join the EU and divided Cyprus is one of the things that the EU wants fixed first. What I didn’t know was what triggered the invasion. A dictatorship was in power in mainland Greece and had a falling out with the Cyrpus government. To fix this, Greece sponsored a coup of the Cyprus government and installed their own Greek government. The Turks on the island got worried, which got Turkey involved, which led to the invasion. It wasn’t until 2003, apparently, that you could even make a phone call from one side of the island to the other. Our conference host, who is Greek, was originally living on the Turkish side of the island and saw his house for the first time in 30 years in 2005 (or there-abouts). Turks and Greeks were living side-by-side, apparently, before the invasion (though I’m told there was no real mixing of the cultures). Further, it sounds like there have been many opportunities to both avoid the invasion and repair the damage afterwards, but it was always “just” missed. It reminds one of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (complete with trying to get people to move to Cyprus to increase the Turkish population) – but, thank goodness, no one is trying to kill each other.

UN sponsored talks between the sides to make the island hole are supposed to start on the 3rd of September. This means that everyone is laying the ground work for this. And some of that groundwork was occurring in the Hilton. I saw many ministers and the Cyprot president in the halls (amazingly, he had only two security people following him). Lots of cars with flags outside – including one with New York license plates (!?). The Greek Orthodox church was also there and it sounds like they aren’t in favor of the unification that is currently proposed. They had posters up in the main lobby of the hotel discussing missing persons, lost art treasures, and looted and vandalized churches on the Turkish side. The basic issue is who gets claim to land on each side that was formerly owned by someone on the other side. I wish them luck. The island is an amazing place; I learned about the Ottoman empire in high school; too bad the hangover still exists.

And finally… I don’t know if this is a Cyprot culture thing, a Greek culture thing, or because we met some really nice people (or all three). But everyone was amazing hosts. With Julia in tow the conference host ferried us around in his car instead of on one of the packed conference buses. It was extremely difficult to get anyone to allow us to pay for a dinner or taxi ride. And it felt like they would drop everything to help us if we asked – so we were very careful not to ask unless we were really desperate. But it was fantastic.

This conference of Paula’s is cursed, by the way. Last year we had a horrible experience, thanks to Al Italia. This year it was the same thing — we arrived 10 hours late; J-mo was finally in bed at 1am. She was so tired she lost it on the decent. Sorry to everyone else that was on that plane. 😦 Ironically, we booked our tickets through Al Italia (what were we thinking!?!?), but we never flew on an Al Italia plane. Cyprus Air was 3 hours late, which caused us to miss our connection, which meant sitting in the Rome airport for almost 7 hours.