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Postcards from Travel Near and Far by Jia-Rui


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94109, San Francisco

Loads o' beef in the aptly-named Tenderloin!

Dear ——–,

Geoff suggested we go to dinner at a Vietnamese place called Pagolac in the Tenderloin. He took me on a particularly seedy walk to get there, but maybe that was part of the experience. Steven and I shared the specialty, 7 Flavors of Beef. Even though I’m not into raw meat, I thought the first course carpaccio was quite delicious. I pigged out on the next two courses, which required cooking thin slices of beef at the table (first in an onion broth, second on a cone-shaped grill). We rolled them into softened rice paper with lettuce, coriander, mint and assorted vegetables. I was full by the time the skewers and sausages showed up. But stomach space finally cleared and I gobbled down the last bowl of deep, savory beef porridge. (Why can I only account for six kinds of beef?) As we talked about advertising and newspapers, Geoff and Steven marveled at how the timbre of my voice cut through the background noise. I told them Bryan, ever the music engineer, likes to say that I have a lot of  3 kilohertz in my voice. That’s apparently the frequency that human ears are most sensitive to.

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94103, San Francisco

Earth and planetary scientists descend on the Moscone Center

Dear ——–,

Sixteen thousand earth and planetary scientists descended on San Francisco, as they do every December, for the fall conference of the American Geophysical Union. This is one of the few conferences where they serve beer free, every day at 3:30 p.m. I showed up at the Moscone Center on Thursday to talk up the Cassini mission to Saturn and the outer solar system. At least I came armed with an image release about the first flash of sunlight ever seen on another world besides Earth. I expected a lot more reporters, but I think the economic woes befalling newspapers and other media outlets have hit science reporting particularly hard. Maybe it’s a luxury they decide they can’t afford any more. (Health and medicine will probably be fine because those are clear pieces of news you can use. But Saturn might be a harder sell.) I was nervous introducing myself around the press room, but I did my best to highlight what was cool about Saturn’s moons. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that some of the reporters will follow up!


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90029, Sunset Junction

El Cid was so packed for the storytelling slam that people had to sit behind the storytellers.

Dear ——–,
The guy on stage was telling a story about stuffing a chocolate heart into his mouth when he was 10. This was Tuesday night, when I finally went to the Moth, a “storytelling slam” with roots from New York. Alan invited me and I met him at El Cid shortly after 6:30 p.m., snagging one of the last seats. This event’s theme was gifts and Alan was thinking about telling a story about a kidney donor. Most people went for laughs. The chocolate heart guy talked about a Valentines Day many years ago, when a girl gave him the heart, watched him ram it into his mouth and and asked him to go out with her. (He said no and went to play kickball.) Another guy told a story about a frog, a dissection kit and masturbation. Some of the stories were really heavy. One guy talked about how a relative showed him how to mourn. In the end, the guy with the chocolate heart won. I guess cuteness trumps all.


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93437, Vandenberg Air Force Base

This picture doesn't do justice to the amazing WISE launch!

Dear ——–,

I couldn’t stop babbling, “Amazing … wow … ” as the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer launched from a pad about three miles away from where we were standing at Vandenberg Air Force base this morning at 6:09 a.m. Next to me, Amy Mainzer, the deputy project scientist, clapped with delight and shouted, “Woohoo! Go, go, go!” Here was the moment where, as she described later, she was a proud mamma bird watching her baby bird finally fly off from the nest. A handful of reporters and photographers from papers in Santa Barbara, Santa Maria and Pasadena were also standing in the field with us. One of them said she was so excited she was shaking. We could hear the rumbling for a few minutes after launch and watched the bright spot fade as the spacecraft blasted away from us. Somewhere out there beyond our sight, the nose cone was opening like a clamshell and WISE burst out and put itself into the correct orbit around Earth. Dawn broke clear and bright a few minutes later.


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93436, Lompoc

NASA scientists and engineers, ready for the launch!

Dear ——–,

At the last minute, I got called up to help NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The drive up took me along the beautiful coastal 101, where the setting sun tinted the clouds pink above the rolling hills. I stopped at the Summerland Winery tasting room just south of Santa Barbara, where I picked up two and a half bottles of their delicious pinot noir and a bottle of dry chardonnay. (We first fell in love with a Summerland pinot noir at the Restaurant at Convict Lake near Mammoth.) I arrived at the WISE launch pad with Whitney, the other media rep, around 8 p.m. We had to surrounder our cell phones at the gate because they were worried about excess radiation — so unfortunately I didn’t get any close-up shots. The Air Force let us and a camera crew stand within a few hundred feet of the rocket. Around 10:10 p.m., the hydraulic machinery groaned and the service tower rolled back along railroad tracks. The blue and white rocket, with WISE tucked into its nose cone, slowly emerged into the spotlight. A light rain began to fall. Hope it stops by tomorrow morning!


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91801, Alhambra

Eating frozen yogurt in the cold of winter

Dear ——–,

In the huddle before our volleyball playoff game last night, Eugene offered to take us all to dinner if we beat the other team. Well, we did win, becoming the champions of the vaunted coed C Pool at Monterey Park’s Westside Volleyball league. I convinced everybody to go to Yogurtland in Alhambra instead. A few years ago, I was ready to relegate frozen yogurt to the stupid food trends of history. But then Pinkberry showed up and I was back on the bandwagon. Other volleyball friends were the first to introduce me to the deliciousness of Yogurtland this summer. It has so many more flavors and toppings and it’s self-serve. You can fill your cup with green tea, egg nog, pistachio AND cookies and cream yogurt if you want. The clincher, though, is that you can top off your Yogurtland with glops of sweetened red bean. Last night, I heaped it on, with watermelon, kiwis and Ghiradelli chocolate sauce. I shivered as I headed out the door into an actually cold winter night in Southern California. But, hey, it was a celebration!


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93546, Mammoth Lakes

The best skis I've ever had, on the ride up the gondola

Dear ——–,

I would not shut up today about these Stockli skis. It was totally worth buying them 70% off at Memorial Day and staring at them all summer, going mad as I waited for winter to arrive. They were awesomeness incarnate. Bryan said the surface at Mammoth was icier and slipperier today, but I didn’t notice. The Stockli Lasers glued me to the ground and rode so smoothly that the jarring I felt yesterday with my lighter Salomon Mynx skis didn’t bother me at all today. (The Salomons turn on a dime and float on snow, so I’ll probably use them on fresh powder days and tree runs.) The new skis required a bit of change in attitude. Turns took a little longer to develop, so I had to find a Zen-like state. I had to know that if I just eased into turns, I’d make them in time. And even though I felt more relaxed piloting these skis, I was actually whipping more quickly down the slopes.