They Play Solitaire

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8) A visit to the art extension

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This week, I went over to the art extension. I hadn’t been there since it had been established and I had heard that the whole decommissioned army supply depot was now accessible to anyone, as long as they checked in at a building near the main gate. I figured my press pass etc. would keep me from having to justify my visit. It’s not like I expected a lot of security — just that there might be casual questions that I would have elaborate answers to, if I got into it at all.

The art extension rooms were deserted. I realized that it was probably closer to dinner time than I had considered. I checked out the general layout of the place and looked in some windows. It looked every bit like the art department of a small college, with a few details that indicated that the artists were K-12 students.

I heard somebody call my name. It was Bobby. He came over and asked me who I was looking for and said he was looking for somebody too.

“No,” I said. “I just wanted to see the place and assumed there would be people around.”

“Nobody’s working. Either went home or they’re in the cafe. Somebody’s doing a thing with music and… You know.” And added, “I’m going home.”

I said, “You don’t need a ride… “

He said, “I live right over there,” pointing to a wall with homes behind it.

Bobby looked in at the door of a building and didn’t seem to see who he was looking for. I asked him who that was.

“Sylvie,” he said. I didn’t know the name. “Do you have any time? Everybody has stuff they want to show you. What are you working on. I have a couple of things… “

“I have time. I’m not doing anything specific. What are you working on?”

Bobby said, “Come over and see my projects.”

I said, “I’d like to.” And also said, “I could maybe meet your mom and dad.”

“They won’t be around. Maybe later on tonight. We can have something to eat. Always something to fry all together or microwave. Lots of stuff to drink.”

“What kind of piece is it?” I asked.

He said, “I don’t really do any art stuff… Just the music.”

” …and musicians work at a desk a lot these days… ” I said.

“No.” He smiled. “This is my main thing.”

I went along that way. “Not an artist. Not a musician. Who are you today?”

He puffed-up his chest facetiously. “I’m an engineer.”

“What, like on the railroad?” I asked.

“Um, sometimes.” Which surprised me.

When we got to his house I expected to see a kid’s bedroom with the usual set-up for doing homework. What I actually saw was an office. He pulled-open a folding chair and set it next to his.

“Let me show you some railroading,” he said and brought up a window that began to animate a structure of some kind coming together. A set of four train wheels, then a platform — the wheels close together in the center, some uprights and then the roof they held up: It was a side view of a small streetcar; seats facing forward, but then more facing sideways; two steps — like running boards — with footprints, blinking; grab-handles, also blinking. Step, next step, grab, next step, repeating. I could see that this was indicating that you didn’t “enter” this streetcar — you climbed “aboard” like something from the nineteenth century: Like a San Francisco cablecar, but the materials list displayed in a box on the side indicated alloys and composite plastics.

“I thought about re-rendering it all in carbon fiber,” he said. I expected more explanation, but he was clicking open another window. It showed a landscape that had the look of an outdated video game. As the “camera” moved, some areas broke up a little. A line, then another, drew themselves in parallel along the floor of a small valley seen from one end, above, off to one side; rolling hills, clumps of oaks: A typical California scene. Just green, brown and sky blue. At the far end of the valley, a car like the first one he showed me popped into the scene, but too far away to see much detail. A house drew itself at our end of the valley. I looked at Bobby.

“Station,” he said, then it blinked off — gone. “Don’t need it.”

Another little car rolled into our end of the valley on the same tracks; more detailed, some “people” — basic figures — not the quality you would see in the latest video game. As the first car came down the valley from the far end, it became populated, as well. Both cars were on the same track, headed toward each other.

“Not going to be an exciting collision,” I said.

All he said was, “Hmh mm,” then, “I put a lot more work into this part.”

The cars came together and the “people” got off each, milled around a little until the cars filled up and went back in the directions they came.”

The whole thing then evolved into pages of elaborate structural plans: Materials descriptions, load factors, fasteners and adhesives; geek stuff. Much more sophisticated than the little movie; dense, data. The last thing that came up looked like a web page; lists of text links about what looked like resources.

“Nice science fair project,” I said. No intention to get down on him about it. “What’s the idea?” I asked.

“It’s an emulation of an interurban electric streetcar system from the 1890s, down around San Diego. Two, actually. They would lay tracks out of town the way they figured the development would go — lots of politics — and sometimes they would meet-up with the same thing coming from the other direction. During the real estate booms, you could ride out to the sticks and buy a lot, come back later, as the house was built. Think about whether you wanted to do business out there. Start a town. Why L.A. has so many little areas that have names.”

“And you want to do an updated version… “

“Wouldn’t work. Or maybe way up in the north part of the state, the way it is now,” Bobby said. “The right-of-ways in and around most cities are all totally developed right up to the tracks. There’re some huge ‘light-rail’ systems on all that. Huge infrastructure. Vehicle-weight-to-carrying-capacity ratios as bad an SUV. Worse. Especially in San Diego, here in Sac’to. BART — over in the bay area — has nice views, when it’s not underground. Huge infrastructure. All of ‘em. Stations with parking lots — you still gotta have a car. And when they get into the downtown, it’s just one line. No grid. Bus transfers, schedules, weird bus routes that are supposed to be cost-effective. Hours to get from one part of the sprawl to another. Job security for ‘rapid transit’ bureaucrats and Washington lobbyists. Pork,” and he looked over to see where I was with all this. “But they’re not the real problem. The only sustainable, cost effective system has to have all the best things about cars and all the best things about trains.”

I couldn’t imagine what he was talking about. “Do you have anything where you can you show me what you mean?” I asked.

“I’m working on it.” He said.

“To what end?”

“Transportation hasn’t evolved to any where near the current level of communications and manufacturing technology. You can talk to anybody about anything, any time — synchronous or asynchronous as you want — but we’ve made it almost stupid to try to go where ‘they’ are and meet them. You’re not going to drop in on ten or twelve people in a day, where they’re doing what they do. We’re everywhere and nowhere. Today, you’ll be here at my parents house, the art extension and home or wherever, with a lot of lag time that you use to plan an ‘effective’ itinerary for the next day and so on. Mom, Dad and the kids have to do heavy logistics on mostly dull duties. Lots of trucks, that define what it is they carry — what we ‘consume’ — based on the way trucks work. Table without detachable legs? Forget it. Drivers never see anything but traffic and loading docks …unless they’re doing packages out in the ‘burbs — the lucky ones, if you like that kind of stress. This ain’t livin’.”

He brought up another animation. One of his little streetcars — smaller — came off a suburban boulevard into a downtown area and morphed into a simple box; no longer bothering with detail at all.

The animation swung to a direct overhead view. Strings of these rectangles representing cars moving around on what looked like a city map; streets. Units in the string were detaching and going off alone. Sometimes they would connect-up with a different string. The animation was no more elaborate than Pac-Man, but it was unlike any existing transportation system.

Bobby said, “I’ll show you how the street-tracks work, when I get the presentation running.” Then he said, “Here’s the other thing.”

[continued at “Later, Maybe“]


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Written by Kenny Mann

05/01/2006 at 2:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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