Mobile Cacti

My Phoenix hotel has an interesting way of reminding guests that they are in the desert — as if the near-constant sunshine weren’t enough of a clue. No, the hotel keeps wheeled racks of little barrel cactus plants and other desert flora at hand, ready to wheel out to remind us that we’re in an arid zone.

I like desert plants, so I think it’s pretty cool. In fact, I wish I had one of these gadgets for my office.

Elevator Art

What do hotels consider when deciding whether to decorate their elevators — and, if so, what to use for elevator art?  You’re talking about a space that every single guest uses multiple times during their stay, when they may be in multiple mindsets:  when they first arrive after a day of travel, first thing in the morning when they’re heading down for breakfast, and when they’re heading back up to their room after a long day.  How much care and attention goes into the decision of how to decorate that very unique setting?

You could, of course, choose to leave your elevator unadorned, with just standard elevator walls, the basic mirror facing the door so that people entering can check their hair and their tie, and some information about the hotel restaurant and the daily weather forecast by the row of floor buttons.  Or, as has been the case with some hotels I’ve visited, you could turn the elevator into a kind of tropical rain forest, with photos of exotic birds and insects and foliage and an accompanying sound track with the gentle patter of raindrops and distant thunder to soothe the jangled nerves of your guests.  Or, you could feature compelling photos of noteworthy places to see in the city where the hotel is located, to entice the traveler to leave the hotel premises and explore the city they are visiting.

Or, if you’re the proprietors of the hotel in Phoenix where I’m staying for meetings, you could post this big photo of a reclining woman wearing ripped blue jeans kicking up her heels, with a cowboy hat on her airborne foot.

What message are you sending this this image in an otherwise generic hotel elevator?  The cowboy hat signals that we’re in the western United States, for sure, in case the guests had forgotten that fact.  But what else?  That the friendly folks in Phoenix often lie down and balance their hats on their feet, just for kicks?  That, in a world where ripped jeans seem to be everywhere, in Phoenix they are really destroyed?

I’m guessing that the choice of the kicky gal’s legs was the product of a careful process that included some other potential choices.  Wouldn’t you like to know what some of the other finalists were?

Faucet Shock

Back in the ’70s, futurist Alvin Toffler coined the phrase “Future Shock” to refer to the mindset of many people in modern societies.  According to Toffler, “Future Shock” occurred when constant technological advancements and other changes in the world produced a peculiar psychological state in which individuals were overwhelmed by experiencing too much change in too short a time.

Me, I’ve just encountered “faucet shock.” 

That’s the baffled condition you experience when you go into a bathroom in a hotel where you’re attending meetings and the sink complex looks like the controls of a motorcycle, or maybe a video game, with nary a lever or handle or anything labeled with a C or an H in sight.  So, what do you do here?  Which gleaming device supplies water?  Do you grasp the wings sticking out of the central column and twist or turn?  Or just wave your hands around underneath the whole complex, hoping that there are photoelectric cells somewhere that will activate the water flow?

If you’re confronted with this bathroom set up, here’s what I learned after some embarrassing “faucet shock” trial and error.  First, you stick your hands under the little unit to get a dollop of soap foam, then insert your hands under the central column to activate the water flow — with no option to change the lukewarm temperature of the water, incidentally.  Then, after your hands are soaked, you place them under the wing pieces to have a Dyson unit blow-dry your hands. 

Or, if you feel silly doing that, as I did, you just grab a few paper towels, briskly dry your hands the old-fashioned way, and back away from the whole enterprise.

Into The Public Domain

Most Americans have been to the Smithsonian Institution museums on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  — whether it was on a family vacation, or on their 8th grade field trip to the nation’s capital, or because they lived or worked in the D.C. area as Kish and I did back in the ’80s.  The museums are a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon and are filled with interesting things and insights.

But you can only enjoy them if you are on the National Mall.  Until now, that is.

dezp7clwsaed2ydThe Smithsonian is releasing 2.8 million images from its collection in all of its museums, libraries, and archives into the public domain.   The massive release includes both two-dimensional and three-dimensional high resolution images that have been downloaded onto an open-access online platform, which you can find here.  The on-line platform invites the public to “download, share, and reuse millions of the Smithsonian’s images—right now, without asking.”  The first download is just the beginning, as the Smithsonian continues an effort to digitize its collection of more than 155 million items and artifacts.

The Smithsonian’s release is part of a growing effort by museums to move their collections into the public domain, where they can be perused and enjoyed by anyone with access to a computer.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and more than 200 other museums across the world are part of the effort, although the Smithsonian release is by far the most extensive.  The Smithsonian magazine article linked above explains that the materials in the Smithsonian on-line platform are now covered by a Creative Commons Zero license, which frees the items “from all restrictions, copyright or otherwise, enabling anyone with a decent Internet connection to build on them as raw materials—and ultimately participate in their evolution.”  And the on-line platform is easy to use, with a simple search function.  I like dinosaurs, so I did a search for an allosaurus, and downloaded the image above — which is now in the public domain.

I’m a museum lover, and can happily spend hours browsing through exhibitions, so I hope there is always a place for the quiet, thoughtful, in-person museum experience.  But I also am a proponent of putting things into the public domain and increasing access, and applaud the Smithsonian and the other museums participating in the effort for taking a leadership role in making their collections accessible to everyone.

In Search Of Eyeball Planets

Let’s say we’ve moved some time into the future, when interstellar space travel has become commonplace.  You’re on board a Virgin Galactic or SpaceX or Blue Horizons or Heinlein Enterprises flight down to Nimbus, in a solar system in the Orion constellation, when you look down at your destination and . . . it’s a planet that looks like a giant, unblinking eyeball against the dark, star-filled sky.

That would make your cool little space voyage even cooler, wouldn’t it?

planetscouldlooklikeeyeballs_600Scientists believe that there may be “eyeball planets” out there, just waiting to be visited.  They would look like eyeballs because they would be tidally locked with the star they are circling, so one side of the planet always faces the star — just like one side of the Moon always faces the Earth, so that we Earth dwellers never get to see the Dark Side of the Moon.  In such circumstances, the “light side” of the planet facing the star and absorbing the brunt of the sun’s radiation, heat, light, and solar wind, is bound to be a lot different than the “dark side” — hotter than the dark side, for sure, and probably different in other ways, too.

Scientists theorize that there could be at least two kinds of eyeball planets out there, and probably more.  Hot eyeballs would be planets located close to their sun, where the sun side is totally dry because the heat has caused all of the moisture on that side to evaporate, and the dark side is one enormous ice cap — with a temperate ring caused by melting ice, in perpetual, unchanging twilight, separating the two sides.  Icy eyeballs would be farther away from the star, where the dark side would be one huge glacier but the sun side would still have liquid water — perhaps with a few islands and continents thrown in for good measure, just to give the eye an even creepier appearance.

The Elephant In The Room

As coronavirus continues to spread, with the total number of reported cases now exceeding 77,000 people worldwide, stock markets plummeting because of the impact of the virus on the global economy, and the World Health Organization saying that the world should be prepared for a pandemic, scientists are trying to figure out exactly how the virus spreads.

According to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, one of the apparent pathways for the disease is through the fecal matter of infected people.  The Chinese CDC “recommends strengthening sanitation and hygiene measures to prevent fecal-oral transmission” in areas where the coronavirus is present, with the hygiene measures to include “drinking boiled water, avoiding eating raw food, implementing separate meal systems, frequent hand-washing, disinfecting toilets, and preventing water and food contamination from patients’ stool.”  The concern is that infected persons’ “stool samples may contaminate hands, food, water” and cause infection when the microbes enter the mouth or eyes, or are inhaled.

gettyimages-693551624What does the apparent transmission route through fecal matter tell us about who is at risk in the event of a serious outbreak in the United States — something that hasn’t happened yet?  It seems that one logical course should be to target specific populations where sanitation and disposal of human waste aren’t well controlled.  If I were a public health official in America, I’d therefore be considering what can be done to anticipate and prevent a nightmare scenario in which coronavirus reaches one of the colossal homeless encampments found in some U.S. cities, like Los Angeles.  Public health officials have already identified poor health conditions and contact with fecal matter in “homeless zone” as the source for transmission of diseases like typhus, typhoid fever, and tuberculosis in Los Angeles.  What would happen if a rapidly spreading disease like coronavirus were to reach one of the densely populated, squalid encampments?

America hasn’t shown much of an appetite for tackling the issue of homelessness, which has become the unspoken of elephant in the room in many American cities.  When it comes to public health and disease prevention, however, we’re all in this together, and potential avenues for rapid disease transmission can’t simply be ignored away.

I’m hoping that the potentially disastrous implications of coronavirus reaching homeless populations will cause local, state, and federal officials to finally work out a solution that helps the homeless find places that are safe, secure, and healthy, with adequate sanitation facilities and running water.  If we’re going to get a grip on the spread of coronavirus, or the next disease coming down the pike, it’s time to be proactive and to act to protect the vulnerable and the rest of us as well.

Rediscovering Pompeii

In 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying nearby Pompeii — a thriving Roman village during the height of the Roman Empire — killing the inhabitants, and covering the town in a thick and deep coating of volcanic ash.

pintura-de-gladiadores-e-descoberta-na-antiga-cidade-de-pompeiaHidden under its ashy cloak, Pompeii lay undisturbed, and forgotten, for hundreds of years.  The blanket of ash had the effect of preserving the town as it existed on the date of the eruption.  Excavation of the site at Pompeii didn’t begin until the mid-1700s, and continued haphazardly until the mid-1800s, when systemic, organized preservation efforts began and Pompeii became known as a unique opportunity to get a glimpse of what everyday life was like during the heyday of Rome.

Interestingly, Pompeii is still disclosing her secrets.  A huge, hundred million dollar preservation, restoration, and excavation project is underway at the site, which is aimed at repairing the parts of Pompeii that were crumbling and making new discoveries.  And new discoveries have been made, including uncovering an inscription that helps archaeologists better date the eruption of the volcano, a tavern with a vivid fresco of a bloody but victorious gladiator, and other colorful paintings and decorations.  And there are still areas that remain unexplored where the preservationists hope that excavations will yield additional surprises.

We visited Pompeii on our trip to Italy years ago.  It was a hot day, we stupidly did not bring bottled water with us for the visit, and the combination of broiling temperatures and the volcanic dust that still is found at the site made that day the thirstiest day I think I’ve ever experienced.  Still, it was fascinating to get that peek at life in the distant past.  With new discoveries being made, it may be time to make another visit to the town that time forgot.