Friday, July 06, 2001

Casa Grande

It's not every day in this country that you get to see the ruins of a 700-year-old building. But today was one of those days. We were supposed to go to Kitt Peak National Observatory last night to take part in their Nightly Observing Program. But monsoon season came early, so they canceled on us.

I still felt a need to get in a certain amount of tourism on this visit, however, so I selected Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, and my parents and I drove there today. Casa Grande was built by the Hohokam people, who occupied this area for almost two millenia before fading away around 1450. Nobody is quite sure what happened to them, but I was personally relieved that the white man can't be blamed for this one.

In 1694, Father Eusebio Kino passed by and named the ruins "Casa Grande." According to the Pima Indians who lived nearby, the people who used to live there were "all used up" or "ho-ho-kam". And thus the Hohokam got their name. Over the next couple of centuries, travelers drew closer to the ruins, with a rail line within 20 miles and a stagecoach path practically bumping up against it. However, it appears that there were only about a dozen years of serious danger (and some vandalism) for the ruins before Benjamin Harrison issued an executive order making it a National Monument. In the intervening years, they've built a canopy to protect it from the elements.

There's not a lot to see. The Park Service web site says that you should allow about an hour to look through the visitor center and to walk around the ruins, and that seems about right. The building is a shell, with detailed features hard to make out. You can see the holes in the walls that allow the sun to shine through exactly on the summer solstice (or mark other astronomical events). But the main thing to do is wander around marveling at the fact that there were people building multi-story buildings, playing ball games and building irrigation canals many, many years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. And, of course, enjoy the desert vistas.

World Heritage Update

  • Casa Grande is not a World Heritage site (yet), but it is on the U.S.' provisional list.
  • Martin has been to 9 World Heritage sites. Ken writes that he's been to 4, but his wife has made it to 12.
  • The 13 sites that Bryson mentioned as meeting all 4 of UNESCO's criteria for inclusion as natural World Heritage sites are the Great Barrier Reef (Australia), the Tasmanian Wilderness (Australia), the Wet Tropics of Queensland (Australia), Shark Bay (Australia), Talamanca Range-La Amistad Reserves/ La Amistad National Park (Costa Rica/Panama), Galapagos (Ecuador), Te Wahipounamu (New Zealand), Lake Baikal (Russia), Vallée de Mai (Seychelles), Yellowstone (USA), the Grand Canyon (USA), the Great Smoky Mountains (USA), and Canaima (Venezuela). Since his book was published, Gunung Mulu National Park (Malaysia) has also been added. Pretty impressive list.

Thursday, July 05, 2001

World Heritage

"Of the five hundred or so sites on the planet that qualify for World Heritage status (that is, a site of global historical or biological significance), only thirteen satisfy all four of UNESCO's criteria for listing, and of those special thirteen places, four--almost a third--are to be found in Australia."
--Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country, pp. 204-5.

I came across this sentence in my reading yesterday, and it has intrigued me. For one thing, how many World Heritage sites have I been to? I took a look at the list and counted. I've been quite the world traveler of late, so I thought I'd accumulate a pretty fair total.

Seven. That's all. (I'm only counting ones I've been to since I graduated from college. If I counted back to eighth grade and before, I might be able to add one or two others.) They are Brugge (Belgium), Paphos (Cyprus), Suomenlinna (Finland), Durham Cathedral (UK), Fountains Abbey (UK), Hadrian's Wall (UK), Edinburgh (UK).

Any notion of using this as a tourism checklist is scotched by a number of factors: the size of the list (690 properties), the rate at which new properties are added to the list (61 last year), and the location of some of them (e.g., Iran, Iraq, Libya). Still, it helps identify places of universally recognized interest, and I probably will make an effort to see more and more of them in my travels.

I find it somewhat funny that none of the places I've been is in the US. The National Park Service does maintain a list of places it would like to have as World Heritage sites; I've been to a handful of those.

Let's get interactive for a change. How many World Heritage sites have you been to? I'm curious. Drop me an e-mail and let me know. (It's not too hard to go through the list, since you can skip over countries you've never been to.)

As for the original Bryson quote that led me down this path, I think it's in error. There are 4 criteria for being named as natural sites. The Great Barrier Reef is one of the Australian sites he describes as meeting all 4 criteria. But of the 690 sites, 529 are cultural, 138 are natural and 23 are mixed. So I think it would be closer to say that of the 138 natural ones, only thirteen satisfy all 4 criteria (though even that I haven't verified).


Wednesday, July 04, 2001


Greetings from Arizona, where I'm spending the 4th with my parents. The flights out were amazingly uneventful. Amazing to me, at least, after I almost got stranded overnight in Minneapolis -- or Chicago -- a couple of weeks ago.

My flight from BWI to O'Hare went fine. The plane was full -- I guess a lot of leisure travelers, like me, are taking advantage of the holiday to get in an extra day of vacation without using up annual leave at work. The flight took off on time, and landed with half an hour to go before boarding was supposed to begin for the flight to Phoenix.

When about 45 minutes passed, I was a little nervous. But then they started to board. I was able to get on right away, by virtue of an upgrade to First Class. United gives its Premier frequent fliers 4 500-mile upgrade coupons for every 10000 miles we fly. You redeem enough coupons to cover your flight and hope there are seats left. As "Bill" has pointed out, that means that if you play your cards right, you fly in first class roughly 1 out of every 5 flights. Playing your cards right, for me, meant not being willing to use 1000 upgrade miles for the 621 mile flight from Baltimore to Chicago, but using 1500 miles for the 1440 mile trip from Chicago to Phoenix. Apparently, a mere Premier member often has difficulty using the upgrades, but I think most of the high-miles road warrior were at home for the holiday.

When I sat down in 1st class, it was next to an 11-ish-year-old boy. Pretty soon a woman came up to me and asked if I would change seats so they could sit together. Ordinary, I'm extremely accomodating to such requests but I looked at my window seat, and the aisle seat she was offering me. I said that I'd really had my heart set on the window seat, but if she couldn't find somebody else, I'd make the switch. She soon came back to tell the boy that the guy next to her was willing to trade seats with him. At this point, however, he decided that life was good where he was, so he stayed put. Which made me all the happier I hadn't agreed to switch.

On the way out here, I read In A Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson. I'm planning to be in Australia a year from now for a conference, so I've decide to start learning more about the Land Down Under in order to plan my stay there. I'll probably take a week or so off before or after the conference to travel around, and a travelogue seemed more promising a way of learning what parts of this vast country are worth visiting than merely perusing a guidebook. This book certainly helped me get a feel for the country and its sights. Bryson's writing style is interesting...wry and thoughtful.

Monday, July 02, 2001


We saw A.I. at the Rio in Gaithersburg yesterday after lunch at the Hamburger Hamlet. I had never been to the HH before, and they did produce a fine hamburger. After living in University Park for 3 years, Gaithersburg's sort of jarringly outer-suburban. But it's pleasant, I'll give it that.

In general, I enjoyed A.I., though it wasn't spectacularly good. I wonder what Kubrick would have done with it. (Though after having seen Eyes Wide Shut, I no longer believe in his infallibility. Oh, yeah, and Barry Lyndon, too.)

Warning, a spoiler or two in the review ahead.

In a word, I found the whole thing pretty creepy...can you imagine having Haley Joel Osment as your kid? I would have dumped him in the woods even if he were the real one. Cree-py.

The plot ambles on, exploring this 21st (?) century post-global-warming society. It will from time to time take big leaps. Sometimes those leaps require a certain suspension of disbelief. (Don't the future police choppers have LoJack?) But mostly it's just a fairly interesting story with fairly distant characters and pretty cool special effects.

The original story upon which this is based is on-line here. Apparently there are two other sequel stories which also figure into the plotting of the movie, but I haven't seen them. Although Kubrick and Spielberg changed a number of things from the story (I'm disappointed that they got rid of the tapeworm -- that was one of the more believable parts of the story), the movie did have the feel of a science fiction story. Most SF movies feel to me more like some other genre -- typically western or thriller -- transplated into "the future." A.I. fell more into the speculative fiction genre I'm used to reading.

Anyway, 3 stars out of 5.

There is an interesting Washington Post article about Osment today. He sounds like a bright, interesting kid. But creepy.

Sunday, July 01, 2001


I have seen the future and it doesn't work

Take Sean Connery. Put him in a ponytail, sideburns, a fu manchu mustache, and...oh, yes, a loincloth. Add a giant flying stone head. Make 2293 look strikingly like 1974 (when the movie was made). You probably couldn't get anything as messed up as Zardoz, the movie we watched last night.

The year is 2293. This giant stone head (Zardoz) tells people (Brutals) that guns are good and penises are bad. The people go out at kill other Brutals who have been reproducing. But lately, Zardoz has been getting his Exterminators to make the Brutals agricultural workers. Why is this? Well, you see, Zardoz is actually the creation of an Eternal who lives in a Vortex (where the women often frolic topless), and you see, some of the Eternals have become Apathetics, and the Eternals need food for them.

All this was going well and good (huh? it was? what?), until Zed (Sean Connery) enters the picture. An Exterminator, he kills the guy behind Zardoz (don't worry; he's an Eternal, he'll be back) and rides the giant stone head to a Vortex. Well, once that happens, life in the Vortex will never be the same, as Eternals alternately employ Zed as their flunky, lover, and executioner. There's also some trippy stuff with crystals. Who am I kidding? It's all trippy.

It's worth seeing if only for the overwhelming feeling of, "What is Sean Connery doing in this movie?" and "Why didn't Mystery Science Theater 3000 ever do this movie?" Oy. According to something Fox Movie Channel scrolled across the screen, Stanley Kubrick served as an advisor on this film. You think between him and Sean Connery, they could have prevented it from seeing the light of day again...