Cheap Geek Tour
Thursday, Sept 30, 2004
Hoo boy! What an action packed day—from old battleships to the inventor of Karaoke, we had a L-O-N-G day.
We have dragged ourselves out of bed and gotten out the door in what we hope is enough time to make sure we don't have to drive into Boston. The Braintree lot is full (again), but Quincy Adams isn't. (By this point, the idea of a place called "Quincy Adams" no longah seems strange to us. We think we'ah being assimilated..)
We arrive at the Boston Commons, so-called because at one point, everybody let their cows and horses roam around and poop here (it was a "common" pasture).
One thing the guide books didn't mention is the number of panhandlers hanging around this area (really, the whole downtown area). It's not as bad as some places in California (where the weather is nice enough that you can sleep outside and wake up alive in the morning), but there's still a fair number. They are, however, polite panhandlers who don't chase you down the street. (We especially liked the guy panhandling in front of a bar—must be a former efficiency expert.)
The Boston Commons is where the "Freedom Trail" starts. The Freedom Trail connects a bunch of historical places. As you follow a painted red line (sometimes it's red bricks), you will see a lot of History. Note that 95% of this history is early American History—apparently, there's been an agreement that nothing historical would happen in Boston after about 1790.
Remember the movie "Glory" with Denzel Washington and Matthew Broderick? It was about a bunch of black troops led by white officers in the Civil War. There's a monument to the white officers who agreed to lead the black troops (a duty that didn't exactly endear them to their fellow officers, their families, their friends, or most of society). The monument is here because the regiment came from Massachusetts. Recently, they've added the names of some of the black troops who were killed as well.
The monument is directly across from the State House, which has a giant gold dome on it that's shining brilliantly in the sunlight.
Apparently, the legislature is in session, because the streets are lousy with limos, old white guys in suits, and young aides rushing about. As near as we can tell by our in-depth research technique of glancing at the headlines before turning to the comics, the current Speaker of the House took another job just before he got indicted/fired.
So, a new Speaker of the House has been picked and everyone is running around spewing politics (in this neighborhood at least; everywhere else in Boston, people are talking about the Red Sox).
Dunkin' Donuts are a huge deal out here. According to the Duck Lady, there are 94 Dunkin' Donuts in Boston (one of them with a sushi bar in it). So we decide to check it out. Laura gets a plain cake donut, and allows that it is a good donut.
We stop at the old State House, where the "original" Democratic Donkey is. Seems that when Andrew Jackson was running for president, the opposition took out some attack ads that said he was stubborn as a donkey. Turning to his pollsters, Jackson decided that this could be turned to his favor and he adopted the donkey as his mascot.
(See? There really is nothing new under the sun.)
Anyway, there's a statue of a donkey and it claims to be the "original" donkey and you can climb on him and have your spouse take a picture of you, so that's what Robert does.
The Freedom Trail has led us to "King's Chapel" which is the very first Anglican church in the colonies.
Instead of bench pews (like regular churches), the old style was to have a "box" pew, where the walls came up four feet or so. Inside, there were benches all around (usually the kids faced away from the pulpit). Families would rent a box (which, happily enough, provided income for the church and eliminated a lot of stewardship drives) and they would all sit in there (it looks like each box could handle six to ten people). The walls were short enough (and the priest was high enough) that the priest could look into the boxes and see if you were sleeping or playing cards.
The reason for all this was the lack of central heating. With stone walls, it got pretty dang cold in the church. So, you'd stick a bunch of hot coals in a foot warmer, and put it in the pew and your family would huddle together, and the walls of the pew would cut down on the draft and maybe you wouldn't catch pneumonia from going to church.
King's Chapel also has the oldest pulpit in the US, and more than 30,000 sermons have been preached from it. 30,000! By our calculations, that's over five years of napping!
We buy some honey-roasted cashews from a street vendor (because Laura thought "honey roasted" was "hand roasted"). Robert continues his work for the Lesser Seattle Chamber of Commerce and tells the vendor about all the volcanoes we have there (St. Helen's looks due to blow again).
"Volcanoes? Huh, that's tough."
We are now at the most visited place in the United States, and it ain't Disneyland, pal. Nope, it's "Fanueil Hall" (fan-you-all), which is basically—a mall.
Yup, it's a big shopping area, and has been a big shopping area since Benjamin Franklin was a small boy. There are four buildings with stores in them, of which Fanueil Hall is one (the others are the North Market, the Quincy Market, and the South Market). These places are loaded with food stores, gift stores, museum stores, more gift stores, souvenir stores, restaurants, and places to buy trinkets. Your basic mall.
The big news is that a new Victoria's Secret store has just opened there, and there are two thuggish guys outside providing security. As the day wears on, a line forms outside the store of mostly women waiting to get in to buy uncomfortable underwear.
We have lunch at a restaurant in Quincy Market, which features lobster pizza. That's right—you can get lobster on your pizza. Apparently, they have so much lobster here that they have to come up with new ways to shove it down your gullet. Since eating it in its natural form is like sucking down an insect, this is probably a good idea.
But still—lobster pizza? What's next? Peanut butter and lobster sandwiches? Lobster lattes?
We are at the "Cheers Bar" alongside Fanueil Hall—one of two Cheers Bars. Seems that the opening shots for the TV show featured a bar in downtown Boston. So people would come to Boston and find that bar and go in and (surprise!) the inside wouldn't look anything like the one on their teevees. They would be very disappointed that the television show they loved was making things up.
So the people who owned that bar went and built a bar that DOES look like the one on the teevee, so that people could go to this bar and spend money and feel good about themselves and buy Cheers souvenirs.
To get the full Cheers experience, then, you need to go to the outside of a bar in downtown Boston and then come to the inside of the bar here. And buy the mugs and T-shirts and books and pictures, of course.
We're now at Paul Revere's House ("House? I thought the sign said 'horse'!" says Laura, who's contacts are beginning to silt up).
The North Church—where they hung the lanterns to alert him—is pretty much around the corner from Paul's house. We had always envisioned him sitting in the middle of nowhere, with a cloak around to keep out the cold night air, patiently waiting for the signal to come so he could ride.
Instead, probably his wife rolled over and smacked him in the head—"Paul! Get up! Go save the nation!"
We walk the block to the Old North Church (as it's called now, on account of it's even older than we are). It's an Episcopal mission with a congregation of about 150 people.
Robert flags down the vicar outside and yaks with him for a while. The vicar says he doesn't mind being a mission after being around for more than 200 years. Most of the members of his parish are empty nesters and yuppies (they move to the suburbs once they have kids).
He's very involved with local government and helped install the new Speaker of the House (Robert manages to forgo the "hope you wired it up correctly" joke). He says they're always meeting with legislators letting them know what they think.
Robert wishes him luck with the blessing of the animals this Sunday (St. Francis Sunday) and hopes he doesn't get bit. The vicar says "Amen to that!" and we're on our way to the next stop on the Freedom Trail.
We walk through the Italian Restaurant district. No kidding—this place is all Italian Restaurants. There must be a hundred restaurants and the cooking smells on the street are so good we've gained five pounds just walking past.
We're now at the USS Constitution, a big old wooden sailing boat also called "Old Ironsides" (not because it was actually made of iron, but because somebody watched a cannonball bounce off the side and was pretty damn impressed).
The boat is run by the US Navy (your tax dollars at work) and is actually floating in the harbor. Once a year, they drag it out of its stall and turn it around before parking it again. This is so that it weathers evenly (although to us, it seems like it would be easier to just paint half of it every year, but what do we know?).
It has been under partial sail recently (about ten years ago), and is ready to spring into action, should those darn British invade again.
There's also a free museum next to it, that talks about the various battles the Constitution has been in, and shows how it was outfitted. Among those who got government contracts was Paul Revere, who provided a bunch of copper sheathing for it (no word on whether he was investigated for contract irregularities, but we wouldn't be surprised).
Our feetsies are just about worn out, what with all this hiking around peering at history (the whole Freedom Trail is only three miles, but it's the Weight of History that wears us out).
So, we decide to catch a Boston vaporetto (okay, this isn't what it's actually called, it's what they're called in Venice, but we can pretend). The boat is part of the MBTA system, so the 7-day passes we bought way back on Sunday are good for it. (It was definitely a Good Idea to get the transit pass—we've been on enough different trains, trolleys, buses and boats to easily pay for it.)
The transit boat has dropped us at the aquarium (the same aquarium that Paul Revere used to go to as a boy!) which is where a Blue Line transit stop is. We Subway Pros repeat our old trick of changing from Blue to Red via Orange (riding each line for one stop) and pretty soon we're Harvard bound!
Once again, we find ourselves in the miniscule Harvard Square. We decide to drop in on the offices of the Car Talk radio show, and boy howdy, are we glad we have directions.
You have to stand in a particular spot and look for the "Dewey Cheatham and Howe" lettering in a office window. Then you find the door to that building, and look up the offices of "Dewey Cheatham and Howe."
Once there, you open the door, and pow—you're in the offices. Their mail is on the desk and nobody's in the room. "We better hurry before they call security!" says Robert.
There're two life-sized cutouts of the Car Talk guys (Tom & Ray Magliozzi) and we take pictures of ourselves next to them.
Suddenly, a guy appears in the doorway to an inner office, but he assures us that it's fine for us to hang around and take pictures and look at stuff. There's also a freezer full of Ben & Jerry ice cream we can help ourselves to ("The guys did a commercial for them a couple of years ago, and part of the deal was a life time supply of ice cream").
On a bookcase is a collection of Puzzler Answers that listeners have sent in—including an addressed coconut, a plank of wood with the address on it, and an assortment of foreign $20 bills.
If you're a Car Talk fan or you want a free ice cream bar, it's definitely worth a visit.
The place where Laura has decided we're going to eat dinner isn't open yet, so we find a nearby bah (one nice thing about Boston—the nearby bar is ALWAYS near by) called "Cambridge Common" and filled with college students.
"Look!" says Robert, pointing to a sign, "You can register to vote! In a BAR! This is sooo cool!" He thinks you should be able to register to vote in a bar in EVERY state.
Speaking of registering to vote—have you? Most states require you to register to vote by Oct 2 (which is—TOMORROW!) and this is one election you do not want to miss. Go get registered. And then vote!
We are in the Sanders Theater at Harvard anxiously awaiting the start of the 14th First Annual Ig Nobel Awards.
The Ig Nobel awards are given for science that cannot or should not be reproduced, and is our whole reason for coming to Boston. Basically, it's a science geek thing, put together by other science geeks (including the lady who put together the Studmuffins of Science calendar).
Paper airplanes soar through the theater before, during, and after the show. At some points, the entire stage is covered with paper airplanes, and you need to keep a sharp lookout for incoming flying fuselages.
Laura got the tickets, so naturally, she got them about 3 nanoseconds after the box office opened and we have GREAT seats, down in the press gallery a couple of feet from the stage. (Unfortunately, pictures are forbidden except at the end, so words will have to suffice to describe it.)
And if your idea of scientists is a bunch of humorless, boring folks—well, you can lose the "humorless" part of the description. There are no less than four Nobel Laureates on stage (including two Chemistry laureates) and they take an enthusiastic part in the proceedings, starting with the beautifully disorganized entrance of the Laureates and other Important People (including the Major Domo and the Minor Domos).
Winners of the prizes are allowed to make a two-minute speech. If they exceed their time limit, a cute nine-year old girl designated "Miss Sweetie Poo" will walk over and stand next to them and repeat "Please stop. I'm bored" until they stop.
The theme of this year's awards is "Diet" and there is a four-part opera called "The Atkins Diet Opera" that is performed at various points during the evening.
The keynote address is given by Dr. John Trinkaus, who has written more than 80 published papers about things that annoy him (such as the percentage of people who don't come to a complete stop at a particular stop sign).
He tosses Twinkies to the crowd, and points out that mankind has been interested in diets since the beginning of time ("Eve had Adam on an apple diet"). He offers a summary of the most effective diets: "" (in other words, Keep Your Mouth Shut).
The off-keynote address is given by Dr. Moeliker, who documented the first occurrence of necrophiliac homosexual behavior in ducks (for which he won an Ig Nobel award last year). He says a few words about ducks.
The off-off-keynote address is given by Nobel Laureate Dr. William Lipscomb who says: "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we diet."
(Whenever anyone says the word "diet", the entire audience shouts "diet!" This is not anything we were told to do. We just did it.)
During the entire show, there is a man and a woman painted completely silver with silver bathing suits on. They carry flashlights and wander about the stage shining their lights on speakers and performers; their relevance to the proceedings is never otherwise explained.
And now, the awards. Bear in mind that everything is true, and in the case of scientific papers, actually published research.
Ig Nobel Prize for Medicine
Given for a paper "The Effect of Country Music on Suicide."
Ig Nobel Prize for Physics
Given for an investigation into the dynamics of hula hooping. The presentation of this award is followed by a demonstration of hula hooping by the Nobel Laureates, and we find it heartening that we can hula hoop at least as well as a Nobel Laureate.
A Moment of Science
Then we have a Moment of Science. A large translucent rubber balloon is put in a large bucket on stage. A container of liquid nitrogen is poured on it, and it shrinks to a very small size. The balloon is removed and placed on the stage where we watch it magically restore itself. The balloon is then released into the audience, where it spends the rest of the show being bounced around.
Ig Nobel Prize for Public Health
Given to a high school student for her scientific investigation of the 5-second rule postulating it's safe to eat food that's been dropped on the floor as long as you pick it up within 5 seconds (yes, it is).
Ig Nobel Prize for Chemistry
Goes to Coca-Cola corporation for converting water from the River Thames into Dasani (which they actually did). The winners would not, or could not, attend, so instead we got a comment from a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry. He pointed out that it is barely legal to pour Coca-Cola down the drain. In the case of the River Thames water, however, they added chlorine and ozone and ended up with ten times the legal bromate limit. Travel tip: Don't drink the bottled water in England.
We now get a couple of 24/7 lectures. These are lectures by leading scientists who have 24 seconds to explain what their current thinking is on their field. They then have to summarize it in seven words that anyone can understand.
The 24 second version was way too long and boring for us, so we just wrote down the seven word version.
Nobel Laureate on genetics and heredity: Heredity means blame your parents, not yourself
Director of Science Center on Evolution: Evolution is the history of the universe.
Ig Nobel Prize for Engineering
Goes to the man who patented the comb over. This is a real US patent, issued on May 10, 1977 describing how to comb over your hair to cover a bald spot in the middle of your head (there were pictures of the patent, which included schematics of how to do it).
The prize was accepted by the "inventor's" grandson, who rambled on a bit too long and was cut short by Miss Sweetie Poo standing next to him and repeating "Please stop. I'm bored," until he quit talking. This proved to be a remarkably effective technique, and Academy Award organizers should take note of it.
Ig Nobel Prize for Psychology
To introduce this one, we are shown a short film with two groups of people passing a basketball to each other. We are asked to count how many times the team in white shirts passes the basketball.
In the middle of the film, a man dressed in a gorilla suit walks into the scene, beats his chest and walks off. Laura notices him right away, Robert doesn't see him until he's in the middle of the scene and several audience members were heard saying that they never saw him.
Thus, the prize in psychology is for work that shows when people pay close attention to something, it's all too easy to overlook anything else, even a man in a gorilla suit.
The prize winners are there (one of them is from Harvard, which frankly doesn't surprise us) and they thank the guy who loaned them the gorilla suit. They start to talk for too long and Miss Sweetie Poo appears to chastise them, but then a gorilla shows up and carries her away. (Salvador Dali would have loved this event!)
Ig Nobel Prize for Economics
Goes to the Vatican for outsourcing prayers to India and other third world nations. (This is a real thing. Apparently, Roman Catholics can request prayers from their priests for certain things, and the prayers need to follow a set form and be repeated a set number of times—in case God isn't paying attention the first 10 times. Priests in the US are pretty busy, so they ship the prayers to priests in India and pay them $5 to $10 a day to say them, which is a pretty good wage in India.)
The winners would not, or could not, attend.
More 24/7 lectures
Dr. Barry Sears, developer of the Zone Diet: Hormonally speaking, you are what you eat.
The National Geographic Resident Oceanographer: (Oceanography is) Exploration of most of the earth.
Ig Nobel Prize for Peace
The Ig Nobel Price for Peace goes to Mr. Inoue of Hyogo Japan for inventing Karaoke, thereby providing an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other.
Mr. Inoue comes out and the crowd goes wild. Everybody is on their feet, cheering for the guy who invented Karaoke (we didn't even know it had been invented!).
After his acceptance speech, which was mostly incomprehensible because he doesn't speak English very well, the entire audience sang "You're just too good to be true" to him, following the words that appeared on the screen. And when we got to the chorus ("I love you, baby!") the rafters were raised at least a foot and an half and amazingly enough everybody was on key and in the same rhythm. Mr. Inoue beamed and bounced along to the music, clearly enjoying everything.
In our humble opinion, anybody who can get an entire theater full of people all enthusiastically doing the same thing at the same time deserves TWO peace prizes.
Ig Nobel Price for Biology
The Biology Ig Nobel went to a team of scientists for their research showing that herrings communicate by farting. That's right—seems when you fart underwater (well, not you, because you'd never do something like that, but say, when the guy next to you farts underwater), it makes a fairly unique sound that carries. So, schools of herrings use farting to stay together (as one of the scientists says, "It's a bonding thing, and thus herring are like adolescent boys everywhere in that they use farting to band together").
We'll have more on this exciting topic as this will be explained in detail at the Ig Nobel lectures at MIT on Saturday (the OTHER reason we came to Boston).
Atkins diet opera
The final act of the Atkins Diet Opera is presented, wherein Dr. Atkins (a fictional character, we are reminded) chooses a new diet food (rejecting tofu, spinach, and cabbage as too boring). His new diet food? Coffee!
The grand finale features Nobel Laureates, Ig Nobel Laureates, and everybody else on stage doing the can-can to celebrate the new diet food.
We stagger out of the theater, our sides hurting from having laughed so much (and a few dents in our heads from the paper airplanes). And, hey—it's raining! When we left this morning (approximately 800 years ago) it was nice and sunny, so of course we don't have umbrellas.
We walk across Hahvahd Yahd aftah dahk gettin' soggy.
We stagger into our hotel room, surprised that our stuff isn't covered by the dust of centuries.
Never abandon the duck!
Robert & Laura