Museum Month: Spark Museum Of Electrical Invention

I was enchanted from the moment I hit the start button on the “Ben Franklin discovers electricity” display. A nerd at heart, I love history and gadgets and complicated objects that look like they could be steam punk sculptures but actually, changed the course of history, of modern life. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Enrico Marconi and that cultish nerd of all nerds, Nikola Tesla, all have a place at the Spark Museum of Electrical Invention in Bellingham, Washington.

I’ve made the pilgrimage to this oddball temple of electricity two, or three times. Something crazy always happens. A docent played Queen’s “We Are the Champions” on the theremin. (Sorry, we asked, that guy doesn’t work there anymore. You’ll have to settle for this YouTube video.) A tall skinny guy with an encyclopedic knowledge of the dangers of current sparked off the Tesla coil. A gray-haired veteran wound up the gramophones and played the songs of another era, dragging us backwards through time. I swooned over the Bakelite radios, the brass and oak telephones and a TV with a round display. I took off my hat and my hair stood up, full of static from playing with the hands-on experiments that are targeted at kids – but who’s not a kid when there’s the blue snap of sparks and the chance to stick a balloon on the side of your mate’s head?

The museum has been around in various incarnations since 1985. They moved in to their expansive space in downtown Bellingham in 2001. If you’re even the tiniest bit geeky, you’ll need more time than you’d expect to knock around the old brick warehouse. If a docent offers to show you how something works, say yes, you won’t regret it.

And a tip, hardly a secret one, but worth knowing all the same: when your blood sugar drops from all that dorking it up over Leyden jars and radio tubes, head across the street to Rocket Donuts. They’ve got bacon maple bars, vintage sci-fi on the TV in the seating area, and a life-size replica of Gort from “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Nerd heaven.

[Photo: Vacuum Tube Displays, American Museum of Radio & Electricity by Lumachrome via Flickr (Creative Commons)]

Off the radar museum: SantralIstanbul

After over four months and eight guests, I’ve seen nearly ever museum and tourist attraction in Istanbul, at least once. At this point, I don’t need a guidebook to tell visitors the history of Hagia Sofia or what’s worth checking out in the Grand Bazaar (the “Wall Street” alley is a bright spot amongst the swag). Still I try to find something new or interesting each week and recently, my explorations took me to the north end of the Golden Horn to see SantralIstanbul. Santral is a university campus-gallery-museum-cultural complex converted from an Ottoman Empire-era power plant, with multiple cafes (including a Starbucks), a playground, concert facilities, and even a nightclub on weekends. Even after an afternoon of wandering around, I haven’t entirely wrapped my mind around the concept, but it is one of the coolest museums I’ve seen, and one I will certainly add to my itinerary for future visitors.

%Gallery-102551%Don’t miss: Along with temporary art installations and exhibitions, the showpiece of Santral is the Energy Museum. I was less than excited about at first, but as soon as I walked in, my jaw dropped and I wondered if they were really going to let me wander around freely in an old power plant (yes, they were). The Energy Museum is where all your mad scientist, vintage sci-fi, steam punk, Dharma station fantasies are realized. The lower floor is comprised of interactive exhibits common to many science museums – how a battery works, fun with magnets, electric globes, etc – as well as some fun concepts like the Reactable music (apparently the future of electronic music) room and a few dangerous-looking electricity experiments that would surely invite lawsuits in America. Walking around the exhibits gives you a sense of being in a factory-like space, but it’s not until you go up to the upper level that you get the full effect of being in a nearly 100-year-old power plant. Enormous metal engines surround you on the second level, dating from 1931 and earlier, like an industrial petting zoo. Catwalks and stairs lead up to the most fascinating room – the Control Room, pictured above – the nerve center which once produced and supplied electricity to all of Istanbul. Dials, switches, and various vintage contraptions are perfectly preserved, as if the engineers just stepped out for a tea break. A few touch-screen monitors provide some information on the turbines and machines, but it’s almost more fun to let your imagination take over the explanations and enjoy the experience. If this space were transported to the United States, it would surely have all of the cool stuff roped off, only open as a location for Lady Gaga’s next video or the latest alternative event venue. In Istanbul, it serves as a perfect period piece, the occasional photo shoot background, and probably the most fun field trip in town.

How to get there: There is a free minibus shuttle from Taksim Square outside the AKM cultural center (large, black, rather ugly building opposite the beginning of Istiklal Caddesi) every half hour but they aren’t obvious to spot, look for a Bilgi University sign in the bus window and ask if they are going to Santral. You can also take public bus 36T from Taksim or a number of buses from Eminonu to Bilgi University, but it’s easy to get lost (which I did on my way back). Save yourself some headache and if you can’t find the shuttle bus, take a taxi (with the address written down) from Taksim or Eminonu.

Honolulu (and the island of Oahu) is lights out

It’s not like I didn’t warn you. What did I say just a few days ago? (We know, Brenda, you told us HECO was completely incapable and that it is a completely useless electric company). I guess, in anticipation of the storm that is coming, someone at HECO really messed up and now the entire ISLAND (yes, that’s what I said, the entire island of Oahu) is out of power and we’ve been that way for four hours and counting.

I had a whole Friday evening planned out for myself. I was all ready to paint the town red and attend the 5th annual Head Gear Party, hosted by my high school classmates. (I was going to be a very stylin’ Chinese cowgirl, by the way). Instead, I found myself sitting by candlelight for the second time in a week! While I do really enjoy feeling like I’m in the back woods of Maine all over again, I have to tell you I would much prefer having a gin and tonic with my high school friends and catching up on old (and embarrassing) times way back when we were teenagers.
I guess, instead, it’s really time to dig up my list of things to do when things go bad. That really comes in handy right about now. So, as follow up to my list, here’s some commentary:

  1. Be creative: Does driving around in the dark, with no stoplights telling people when to go count? There is bumper-to-bumper traffic on Pensacola Street (just one block away from me) right now, and people are irate. I can hear sirens blaring, dogs barking, and people yelling. It is not a happy scene here this Friday evening at 11 pm. If I could make a slight amendment to my tip, I would say you might be better off walking around in the dark, because DRIVING around in a blackout is just plain dangerous.
  2. Letter to a loved one: I would still support this activity. It really helped me calm down as I texted the heck out of every one of my friends who are across town (maybe in traffic or playing Scrabble with each other by candlelight).
  3. Conversation with a stranger: Sorry, I’m too scared to invite a stranger into my home and make small talk by candlelight. Maybe next time…
  4. Indulge in food: I was cutting eggplant and almost ready to fry it on the stove when the electricity cut out. I am really wishing I’d stocked up on that Peanut Butter ‘n Chocolate ice cream I spoke of, but I didn’t. I haven’t had dinner yet, I can’t bear to open my fridge for fear of letting the cold air out, I’m hungry, and I’m grumpy.
  5. Sleep: This is my only alternative. Yes, I think sleep would be good for me right about now.

… but thank goodness for Hele Wireless internet! With traffic, newspaper presses, and regular internet at a complete standstill, Gadling might just be one of the first sites with really pertinent news that, if we were smart enough, we probably would’ve already known:

  • The Hawaiian Electric Company has no business being Hawaii’s electric company.
  • There are over a million very unhappy Honolulu residents right now.
  • Cell phone companies likely made BANK between the hours of 7-9 pm this evening, when the entire island of Oahu went black and people had nothing better to do but call their loved ones (see #2 on my list) and complain about how this situation is really, really bad.
  • At least we are thankful for it not being less than 70 degrees outside.
  • Even more Hawaii residents are thinking about getting off the grid – not just me (thanks, Marilyn, for the link!).
  • It’s a Friday night, but at least there’s always Saturday night!

[This photograph was taken at 10:53 p.m. Hawaii Standard Time. If you look really closely, you’ll see my very unamused pug Iris by my chin.]

Five things to do when things go bad

I opened the front door to my apartment yesterday evening to find an early, unwelcome, and unpleasant Christmas present waiting for me inside: my power had been turned off. Apparently, the Hawaiian Electric Company finds it completely acceptable to turn off your service when you are a new tenant in the building — and gives you NO warning, by email or otherwise, as to when or why it is happening.

What made this matter worse is that my friend came over to cook steak on my electric stove. We were hoping to drink a bottle of Merlot, and watch “Superbad” on DVD. Instead, we both showered by candlelight, ate out at a mediocre Vietnamese pho restaurant, went to Walmart to stock up on more candles, and are calling it a night.

There are, however, some awfully good lessons to be learned from such an experience as this. If you’re one of the many travelers stuck at an airport in the northern U.S., an unhappy backpacker in the middle of nowhere, or a peeved resident living in a city serviced by an incompetent and unresponsive electricity company, then please resist the urge to cry about it. Here are a few things you could try to get your life back on track when things go bad.

  1. Be creative: If you’re not having fun in your current situation, find a way to make it fun. As long as there’s gas in it, your car can be one of the most enjoyable tools for happiness. Turn up the heat in your Chevy, take a road never traveled, and slowly find your way back home. If you don’t have a car, use your feet. You’ll be surprised how much you never noticed about even the most familiar of surroundings.
  2. Reach out to a loved one: So, you’re all alone in some backward country that you thought you’d love, but it turns out you hate it. Think positively: things will not be this bad forever. Take out a piece of paper and write a letter to a loved one, using your pen as an outlet for frustration, anger, sadness, and expression. Or, if you can get to a phone, give that person a call and tell him/her how much s/he’s missed.
  3. Strike up a conversation with a stranger: I love making new friends in the most random places. The conversation starter here would be your current, shared, miserable experience/existence. My best friend met her husband while waiting for flight in Albequerque. It’s amazing how much a light conversation can ease your inner tension. If nothing else, your little debate can pass the time.
  4. Indulge in your favorite food: Forget that Weight Watchers diet. Take out that stash of Baskin-Robinns Peanut Butter ‘n Chocolate ice cream (sorry for the food plug here, it’s my one weakness) and go to town. At least your belly will thank you.
  5. Get some zzz’s: Sleep is one of the best cures for whatever crisis you might be in. Shrug off your problem for a few hours with a little shuteye.

I hate the sight of frustrated tears, and I particularly detest angry protests by customers upon innocent flight attendants (though, I must confess, I too have instigated such arguments). The best thing you can do in rough times is grin in bear it. Things always get better in time.

U.S. Airports Just Now Installing Charging Stations?

I was reading this story over at Yahoo about U.S. airports installing electric charging stations to “bring precious energy more conveniently to millions of travelers who rely on a plethora of battery-powered devices.” Hmm, I thought… that sounds familiar. And then I remembered why.

When I was in India, there wasn’t a single airport I visited that didn’t have something like this. These were the same airports that had dogs running around on the tarmac, and women in saris perched several stories high on bamboo scaffolding to repair a broken P.A. speaker. Point being, these were most definitely NOT high-tech airports, yet they had the same power options that American airports are just getting around to installing. I wonder why that is?

I browsed around my photo collection, but unfortunately could only find a shot of a “facility for charging mobile phones,” which is pictured above. This was taken at the domestic airport in Mumbai.

So what’s been your experience with power options in U.S. airports? Good or bad? Personally, I’ve never had a problem — domestically or otherwise — finding an outlet to use, whether it was part of a charging kiosk or otherwise.