SXSW by way of the Texas Eagle

1950’s ticket for the Texas Eagle

It takes twenty-eight hours to travel between Chicago and Austin aboard the Texas Eagle, and in that time, I fell in love. With train travel in the United States, that is. The gentle rocking, the horn steadily blaring through the night, the rushing countryside and quick peek at cities and towns, the extended leg room, the atmosphere conducive to writing, the delicious food and trading stories with passengers: these experiences are unlike any I’ve had on a plane, car or bus. Factor in the historical significance, and I have to wonder why I previously dismissed commuting long distance by rail in North America.

I didn’t think I was going to make it to SXSW last week — I was originally planning on road-tripping with my mate but he pulled out at the last minute — and the train became the solution to my logistical problem for a fourth the price of airfare. (Reason #1 to take the train to SXSW : the price!)  I quickly became charmed by the idea of using a culturally significant technology hundreds of years old — older than the car or plane — to get to a festival devoted to celebrating new technology.

Springfield, Ill. seen from the train

My Amtrak ticket was purchased on Wednesday night (by my mate), I boarded the Texas Eagle Thursday afternoon and arrived in Austin 6:30pm on Friday.  Along the way, I watched the snowy landscape change to Southern brush, and rode through 25 cities and countless towns, urban areas that literally built themselves around the railroad tracks that pass through them.

Reason #2 to take the train to SXSW : the history! 

A hundred years ago, the Texas Eagle was actually called the Sunshine Special until it was renamed in 1948 by the Missouri Pacific Railroad (MoPac), one of the first railroads west of the Mississippi. Spurred by the California gold rush, MoPac began officially in 1851 with a five mile track between St Louis and Cheltenham City, a project that took a year to complete. Expansions continued despite interruptions caused by the Civil War. By the late 1870’s MoPac was taken over by railroad developer Jay Gould, who in 1880 connected it to the Texas and Pacific Railway, allowing passengers to commute from St. Louis to Dallas (see this 1903 MoPac railway map). Around the same time, Gould acquired control of the rail lines operating from Chicago to St Louis, allowing passengers to commute from Chicago, Illinois all the way down to San Antonio, Texas all before the 1900’s.

Dining car on the Texas Eagle, circa the 1950’s

The Missouri Pacific Railroad is no more, and there is nothing on the current Texas Eagle to indicate its rich history, except for its name and the rail road the train operates on. The tracks have long been replaced and so have the train cars. Even the 1950’s Dining cars, a missed opportunity given Mad Men’s popularity, if you ask me.

Speaking of eating on the train, I am not kidding about the food being delicious.

Reason #3 to take the train to SXSW: the food! 

Amtrak actually employs chefs to make their food, and it shows. Here is their menu. If you travel in a roomette (small room with a bed), your meals are included. I was Coach, which means they were not.

On both evenings, I ordered the Amtrak Signature Steak (medium rare) and everything about it was juicy and fantastic. The mashed potatoes perfectly seasoned. The cheesecake was …. just all right, but still better than airplane food.

Texas Eagle menu cover, 2014

I also ordered a glass of red wine the first night, a half bottle of wine the second. Total price for this dinner meal is comparable to a fancy restaurant ($45) but for those looking for something cheaper, the snack bar offers microwave-able sandwiches and food items. I opted to get a full meal from the Dining car, because how often do you get a well-cooked meal on a train? (For breakfast on the return trip, I ordered the Classic Railroad French Toast, which again, did not disappoint.)

If you want the whole train shebang and have the means, you really need to have a meal in the Dining car. It is an experience: unless you are traveling in a group of four, the dining staff will seat you with strangers at a booth. If you haven’t already struck up a conversation with strangers sitting in the Lounge or Observation car (or near you in Coach), you most definitely will in the Dining car.

Reason #4 to take the train to SXSW: the people! 

On the way back to Chicago, I was seated with an elderly couple clad in cowboy hats, the wife the chatty one, the husband the quiet nodding and smiling type. We were joined by a mid-30’s male who upon seating, the wife in a cowboy hat insisted he introduce himself as that was the way things were done around here.  The wait staff nodded, because, yes that was indeed the way of the train. The Dining car is just as much for eating as it is for conversation. And some of those conversations may lead to genuine friendship. No promises, but it happened to me.

That first night on the Texas Eagle, I hung out with the three people the dining car attendees sat me with, including a man that filled a large Dasani water bottle with vodka. He shared this with me and another woman from our dining table, a woman named Angie I now text because we became actual friends after getting wasted together (I’d share the picture of her I took for my phone contact info here, but no, because privacy.)  Angie endeared me to her immediately by also wearing sweatpants and a baggy t-shirt, and I joked it’s the best “leave me alone/don’t hit on me” outfit. The  three of us spent hours talking in the Observation car — they teased me over taking too long to transcribe a 30-minute interview — and we shared stories about our jobs, families and various life experiences. By 2AM, we were joined by a woman who couldn’t sleep and a man with neck tattoos who had 5 children with 3 different women. He’s a busy man, in more ways than one.

My daytime Coach seat mate on the way to Austin I dubbed my “travel mom,” and  she gifted me some ibuprofen for my Dasani hang-over. She complimented my cellphone photograph of the state capital building in Springfield (above), and vowed to take one with similar composition on her way back. She was very proud of her son, a master welder, who she was going to visit in Iowa.

one of many “art for assholes” SXSW pics

En route to Chicago, I sat next to  another senior citizen, a Native American named Thundering Waters traveling to meet his brother for their annual fishing trip.  He had good taste in turquoise rings (of which he wore many) and told me of the dream that named him. I shared my similar dream achieved also through days of fasting and dehydration (but not intentional) from that time I was in India last year. Thundering Waters and I bonded over anger at Andrew Jackson still being on the $20 dollar bill, the middle finger that is Mount Rushmore and his discomfort of young predominantly white hipsters appropriating Native American imagery for their art, clothing and jewelry. I showed him pictures I took at SXSW of what I like to affectionately call “art for assholes” and he shared images of his website-less friend Richard Branson (not the British investor) whose two painting –one of a group of crows, the other of a medicine man — I’m still thinking about days later.

Thundering Waters also helped identify the name of the black and white birds of prey I kept seeing. They would fly in groups above the Texan landscape and could either be the  the zone-tailed hawk, the turkey vulture, or the Mexican eagle known as the Caracara.

Which brings me to reason #5 to take the train to SXSW: the sightseeing!

View from the Observation car

 True, the landscape from Chicago to Austin is flat and full of woodlands but staring out the window still yields exciting results. Or maybe I am easy to please. Besides the birds of prey in Texas, red-tailed hawks hung out on stumps and trees by the tracks. I spotted a large group of deer in the woods. Once you got further south, especially Texas, there are herds of cattle, sheep, goats and horses chilling out on ranches. As for architecture, the Texas Eagle route is a crash course in middle and southern American cities (including St Louis and Dallas) and towns. Smaller skyscrapers the shape of diamonds, St Louis’ Gateway Arch, bridges that looked like modern art, young males skate-boarding in a makeshift skate park, graffiti: there was always something to see.  Some of the smaller towns we passed in Texas were caricatures of themselves, resembling movie sets on a Western feature enough that I questioned if this was indeed real life and not a dream. The poverty that stretched along the rail road was also a bit shocking, especially the condition of houses seen in state capital cities like Springfield, Illinois or in Texas near new condo developments.  (Here’s a PDF with quick factoids of the towns and cities on the route, one I wish I read before embarking)

Reason #6 to take the train: the time for contemplation, reading, writing

Amtrak announced their writer’s residency program this month after a writer tweeted about it, prompting CNN to ask “who knew so many writers did their best work on trains?” I didn’t know this, but after riding on one for more than a day, I totally buy it. I managed some writing for my own book (more than five years in the making now, oh god why is not finished yet) and got some work done besides transcribing an old interview. Alexander Chee told  CNN about his own residency and experiences, “there’s a mix of anonymity and rootlessness to being on a train that makes you feel you could be anyone, anywhere — which turns out to be excellent ground for writing fiction.” I wouldn’t describe it in this way as I haven’t written fiction in a while, I’d say in my case it’s more the partial isolation of the train is friendly enough to help you focus and decompress, but not enough to make you bored, tired or lonely.  The Texas Eagle doesn’t have wifi access, so perhaps that also helps to disconnect.

view of the setting sun from my Coach seat

The major con!

Sleeping in Coach is not that comfortable, even if you’re drunk. Sure, it’s more comfortable than sleeping on a plane or on a bus — the seats lean back and a bottom portion of the seat comes up underneath your legs to make a semi-bed — but you’re still not going to get a good night’s rest.  Even if you end up getting two seats for yourself, like every overnight rider (myself included) did, it’s still not the same as sleeping in an actual bed. Next time I do a day-plus train trip , I’ll be sure to bring a pillow. Or if I go with my mate, we’d get a sleeper (because sex on a train).  Folks in First Class (aka sleepers, roomettes) also get access to a shower.

If I go back to SXSW next year, I will definitely travel by train. Maybe I can convince fellow Chicagoans heading to Austin to ride with me, and it could turn into some community-oriented fun time like the recent Indie Train Jam. We could  talk about everything we’ve learned and heard at the conference and festival, the people we met and the things we saw, or catch up on our writing.

Consider this post a toast to two awesome train rides between Chicago and Austin and to future rides with friends both new and old.

wine


How Sexism Plays Out on YouTube

“I want to both have sex with her AND strangle her to death. But in which order…?”

That’s the disturbing question user menace8012 posed recently in the comment section of “I Gotta Feeling,” a Black Eyed Peas parody by YouTube star iJustine, posted originally in July 2009.

The response? A few joking replies and little else. Not a single person objects or scolds the users. No one even clicks the “dislike” button on menace8012’s comment.

The incident is evident of a larger trend on YouTube, where sexist attitudes towards women run unchecked. It’s not just the trolls or haters in the comments section of videos; YouTubers have cyberbullied women based off their appearance since the site’s inception.

Menace8012’s comment, and the community’s response (or lack thereof), may seem extreme to the casual YouTube community safarian, but it also perfectly portrays why so few women have found success on YouTube. Many women on YouTube try to avoid this negative sexist environment by cloistering themselves in the beauty section of YouTube, but that does little to combat the anti-women sentiments running rampant throughout the rest of the site.

Like rape apologist ideology, YouTubers who silently upvote, or in this case “like,” menace8012’s comment are implying iJustine deserves the threats and derogatory comments she gets, daily, because of the way she looks and dresses. Sometimes in her videos, the blonde, blue-eyed and pretty iJustine wears a tank top and lip gloss, and that little bit of sexuality occasionally sends both genders into a sexist frenzy. Read the rest of this entry »


Thanks Rolling Stone and Tsarnaev, I guess, for legitimizing the cellphone selfie

My favorite time to take selfies is when I am drunk and alone in the bathroom. I tend to take the majority of them while inebriated, actually, and online evidence proves even middle-aged women do the inebriated selfie in the bathroom too.

Yes, even the Boston Marathon Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, when he wasn’t sober, whipped out his cellphone and took selfies. And one of these non-sober self-portraits (speculatively) is on the cover of Rolling Stone right now and making a name for itself as the most controversial selfie on our planet.

Media critics are calling Rolling Stone everything short of evil for using his selfie photo as cover art, never mind that Instagrammed self-portraiture is becoming a legitimate form of art and feminist self-expression. This universality is exactly why the self-portrait of the young and handsome (and murderous, don’t you forget) Tsarnaev as cover art choice is outrageous. How dare we relate to a killer! How dare a magazine make us feel this way! If I were the art director over at the Rolling Stone right now, I would be creaming my pants: this is the type of feedback creative types have wet dreams about.

Tsarnaev’s selfie effectively normalizes him, and as the three-day long controversy has shown, we just cannot deal with that. We would rather depart reality and delude ourselves into thinking national-headline-making killers are ugly and have nothing in common with us than see them engaging in everyday behavior. If we could somehow magically teleport to a place where we all believed Tsarnaev didn’t know how to operate a phone, we would.

In fact, to portray Tsarnaev as ordinary is dangerous, they imply, because in order to feel better about the bombings we need to see the differences, not the similarities, between ourselves and the cruel killer. It sounds absurd, but this is more or less what the critics are saying. The New York Times thinks this kind of madness is a result of the heatwave. Possibly. I think it might be a combination of Tsarnaev’s image making fresh the horror of the bombings, much like that just-healing summer scrape you accidentally pick at only to have it start oozing.

The selfies we share on the web are supposed to be the best reflection of ourselves. This skewed mirror is precisely why the Boston Globe in a Thursday post echoing the collective rage calls the use of the selfie “ill-advised” and “irresponsible.” While many of us cannot fathom Tsarnaev’s terrorist intentions, we can all relate to photographing ourselves and dare-I-say-it, creating a typically blemish-free personal brand online. The self-portrait via cellphone is a “language we all understand,” but …we don’t want to understand a bomber. Please don’t make us understand one.

This now infamous selfie, originally displayed on Tsarnaev’s twitter profile, was the “mask” he chose to portray to the world and glorifying it by featuring it on a rock-and-roll magazine is akin to “collaborat[ing] with Tsarnaev in the creation of his own celebrity,” continued the Boston Globe.

Need I remind everyone, Tsarnaev was already a “celebrity” before his Rolling Stone cover, having graced the front pages of newspapers the world over with some even featuring that same image. Rolling Stone is not responsible for this mass media interest, the spread of the photo, or for Tsarnaev’s fanbase of young girls cooing over the soft locks in his approachable selfies. To suggest Rolling Stone is appealing to Tsarnaev’s misguided female fans by choosing this already-widely circulated photo when this same criticism was not levied against the New York Times, is logic I’d only be able to process if my head was in the sand.

CVS banning the sale of the magazine in its shops (and now Walgreens too), and folks celebrating this decision, is akin to saying “monsters must be clearly portrayed as monsters, or else.” Who wants to live in that black-and-white society, presumably filled with bad art? Not me. (Not to imply Tsarnaev’s selfie as cover photo of a magazine is good art — it is in fact the opposite for a variety of reasons and not just because of the bad captions.)

The disconnect between the villain within and the exterior shell of Tsarnaev as a potential sweetheart through his selfies is precisely why the self-portrait should be used for feature-length pieces about his descent into terrorism. But don’t just take my word for it.

Cover Think points out Rolling Stone’s cover is “doing nothing more than reflecting back to us the vanity of a young man’s narcissism, complete with his Armani Exchange T-shirt.” The Washington Post writes “the photo in question jibes with the impression of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev that has emerged from countless interviews with friends and schoolmates” before calling the cover art choice “an accurate and journalistically responsible portrayal of this young man.”

To not use the photo as cover art because it humanizes, then, reveals a willful ignorance on the modern human condition. It is not only “irresponsible,” but bad journalism too. Art that elicits strong emotions is powerful, but banning it only increases its strength.

We can’t will away Tsarnaev’s cellphone, his looks or his seemingly normalness, just like how we can’t will back the lives and limbs his actions stole. And maybe that’s okay, because sometimes we need to see the similarities between ourselves and the villain in order to help us understand the differences. Cellphone selfie and all.

As for the cellphone selfie as legit art form, well, this controversy took care of that.


Guide to this year’s Techweek in Chicago, as a non-dev/programmer/entrepreneur

This is a guide for people who are more interested in the cultural and societal implications of technology from a non-technical background. (I’d recommend attending all the “future of TV/media”  talks as a  beginners guide to video distribution and social media use.)

Thursday, June 27th:

The US  First Robotics Challenge, from 12pm – 4pm.

“US First’s mission is to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership.”

KIM DOTCOM WILL BE SPEAKING at “The Downloaded Era: Battle for Internet Rights“, 4pm – 4:30pm,

“The debate around how we should view the concept of intellectual property and copyright in the digital age has continued since the launch of Napster in the ’90’s until today. Why is file-sharing still so limited and how has it affected the world at large?”

Friday, June 28th: 

Funny or Die‘s “When Humor is Serious Business,” from 11:00am – 11:30am, featuring Funny or Die CEO Dick Glover. (I have an inkling what Glover will discuss, but being as I have never heard him speak, he might surprise me.)

“Funny or Die is now synonymous with Internet humor…What makes their business model so successful? How do they acquire high quality content with a low budget? What does the future of Funny or Die—and Internet entertainment in general—look like?”

Digital Art; From Easels to Pixels, 12:00pm – 12:30pm

“Art infilitrates everyday life, and every surface, object, or open space is fair game for medium. See how artists are incorporating technology into their work, whether as a means to an end or as the finished product itself. These people are innovating on what it means to be a traditional artist and the burgeoning interest in creating art meant to be consumed in digital form.”

The very ambitiously titled “How the Second City Can Become the First in Fashion,” 5:00pm – 6:00pm

“Take the tech from the West and the high-end fashion from the East and meet somewhere in the middle. Where do you end up? Chicago, of course. Combining the best of both coasts, a slew of Chicago startups are leading the pack in terms of the merging of high-tech and high-fashion.”

Saturday, June 29

In the wake of Hasting’s mysterious death and the conspiracy theories suggesting his car was hacked I feel compelled to attend “Driverless Cars: Speeding to the Future,” 12:30pm – 1:00pm

“While flying cars are still just a figment of our collective imagination, self-driving vehicles—such as the Google Car—are on the imminent horizon. Not only does this technology have the potential to prevent millions of injuries and save countless lives, it also has the power to disrupt the flow of trillions of dollars in industry revenue. Nearly everyone will be affected: suppliers, automakers, service-and-repair shops, insurers, energy companies, hospitals, and car rental companies, to name a few. Undoubtedly, there will be huge implications for all transportation and logistics—the backbone of every company’s supply and distribution chains.”

Entrepreneurship in Eastern Europe, 1:30pm – 2:00pm

“Eastern Europe’s tech scene is small but growing. Find out what Google is doing to facilitate the growth of the tech sector in Poland and beyond, what ideas are brewing in that corner of the world, and how they plan to impact the future.”

 “Is the Internet Destroying the Middle Class?,”  2:00pm – 2:30pm


Nick Offerman is in with the Weird YouTube crowd

 

OH MY

offerman is weird YT too

 


Asher_Wolf quits Twitter, probably due to sexism

asherwolf quits twitter

Sexism drove Asher_Wolf away from Cryptoparty and it looks like Twitter as well.

Last night she “ragequit” due to something related to hackers posing as “bronies” attacking her website? That is what the rumors on Twitter are saying, at least. I write “bronies” because Internet pranksters love disguising as them (or anyone they hate, really. The #cutforbieber folks, for instance, tried to blame it on 9GAG in various comment section of YouTube vlogs on the controversy).

asherwolf bronies hacked my site

The time stamp for the brony attack is from December, but the intention behind whatever drove the people to harass Asher_Wolf is still the same.

Her last tweet, according to Topsy, was “offline.”

While I had yet to attend a cryptoparty – it was on my agenda – I relied on her Twitter stream to keep me updated on all acts of Internet activism. She was in Australia, and her timing jived with my late night Internet wanderings when insomnia kicked in.

I get her point of not having to stick around and take abuse, but why quit Twitter when it was her site that was disturbed, not her news distribution service?

I feel like I am being punished.

1:30 pm Update:

On secondary inspection, it was probably the trolls that came out following her Aaron Swartz post.

asherwolf didnt read lol 1/16, 2:14am Update: 

Asher_wolf is back on Twitter, no explanation for the hiatus.


The irony of Twitter bots, and a poem about RoboCop

I finally watched RoboCop last night. I know, I know, I should have seen it long ago, but the film was so 80’s in its gratuitousness violence and depictions of cruelty, I don’t think I could have handled the movie at a younger age. (My empathy levels when I am not sober are off the charts…and I am anyone.)

If it wasn’t for the occasional punchy joke, experimental depictions of masculinity and futuristic metaphors, I would have abandoned the film this time too. But I didn’t, and when it ended, I sat in the dark imagining the satisfaction growing inside what remained of the man-machine Murphy.  The movie made me laugh, made me cry, and before the credits rolled, made me nod with a sense of peace.

Before I watched the movie, I tweeted my intention to do so and a Twitter robot programmed to tweet one quote from the film responded to me immediately.  (As if I ever doubted this movie was an important part of our cultural lexicon!)

I hadn’t started the film yet so I hadn’t viewed that line, but from the robotic actions, I knew this line was important and a  joke I was supposed to laugh at. You could say I was culturally obligated, if not socially programmed, to laugh at line now. (I admit, the line would have been way funnier if that bot didn’t tell me of it beforehand, but I can’t disparage the bot’s existence either, it being a cultural artifact at this point.)

Later I would come to appreciate the Twitter robot even more when characters within the movie used that line – which comes from a fake commercial – as a pop culture reference.   Read the rest of this entry »


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