Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Rocky Butte a.k.a. Weathertop

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Some pics of Rocky Butte [map], up in far NE Portland next to I-205, just south of the airport. I was going to start this post by saying Rocky Butte needed no introduction, since (unlike Kelly Butte) everyone knows about the place already, and there's lots of useful stuff about it on the net.. Everyone takes their out-of-town tourist friends there to snap a few quick photos. Everyone goes there in the summer to watch the sunset with a loaf of bread (legal, I think), a jug of wine (technically illegal), and that special(ish) someone (legal, up to a point). Everyone went there when they were 17 to slam down a 40 of Old E (illegal), attempt some crude graffiti (way illegal), attempt to set stuff on fire (illegal, duh), and engage in some juvenile fumbling with that special(ish) someone (possibly illegal). Not that I would know anything about any of that, of course. No, really, I mean it.

(Btw, if Google sent you here and you're really looking for info on Kelly Butte -- which actually happens a lot -- you've come to almost the right place. The post you're really looking for is here. If you aren't sure which Portland-area butte you're looking for, you can just wander through the posts tagged "mini-volcano" and see if I've covered the one you're interested in.)

moss & stone, rocky butte

I really thought everyone knew about Rocky Butte already, which would've saved me the trouble of writing, doing research, etc., but I was talking to my mom today and she'd never even heard of the place. "Is that the place with the jail?" she asked. Anyone over a certain age who doesn't know about the park is bound to ask the same question. So yes, there used to be a jail around here until the Justice Center opened back in 1983. I'm not sure where, exactly, but I think it was down by the base of the hill, near, or possibly under where I-205 is now. There used to be signs on the freeway long ago ordering you not to stop or even slow down for any reason whatsoever on this stretch of the freeway, and fer chrissakes don't pick up any hitchhikers, especially ones dressed like male dental assistants in bondage gear. I could be a bit hazy on the precise wording of those signs. It was a long time ago.

sun & clouds, rocky butte

Besides the old jail, the place's other big claim to fame is the Grotto, the Catholic theme park, er, sanctuary on the north slope of the butte. These photos are not from the Grotto, though, since religious stuff always creeps me out, plus they're still running one of those crowd-drawing holiday festival-of-lights extravaganzas, and I'm not into that very much either.

So what you're looking at in the photos is not the old jail, all appearances aside, and it's not the Grotto. It's also not related to the uber-scary old military school / megachurch on the north side of the butte (more about that later). This is the weird castle-like structure on the very top of the butte, which is a public park open to all and sundry. The city calls this "Joseph Wood Hill Park", and the steep forested slopes surrounding it are the "Rocky Butte Natural Area" which I think exists just to preserve the view from the top. The "fortress" was built as a WPA project back in the 30's, around the same time Timberline Lodge went up, and I think you can kind of see a resemblance in the stonework. It was basically built to give tourists a reason to stop and spend money in the neighborhood around 82nd & Sandy, in the rural olden days of yore back before "lingerie modeling" was invented.

The place does provide one useful service, actually. Right in the center of the flat area atop the battlements, there's a fenced-off area with a metal tower, and atop the tower is a rotating beacon for the airport, located due north of here. I don't have any pictures of that tower. It's not very photogenic, and I'd probably get a visit from a nice (ok, not very nice) man in black from Homeland Security if I had any and posted them here, and I don't want that. So no pictures of the tower. It's not the prominent radio tower on the south side of the butte, which you'll drive right past on the way down. That's just a regular radio tower, as far as I know.

Updated 2/9/2011: It turns out that I was completely wrong about the beacon, and there's an entirely non-waterboardy explanation for it. The beacon dates all the way back to 1931 (when the main Portland Airport was still located at Swan Island), and it was an important navigational aid back in the days before LORAN and GPS, basically functioning as a sort of lighthouse for airplanes. It was officially put out to pasture back in the 60s, and is now part of the National Register of Historic Places. No, really. The National Park Service's set of guidelines for aviation-related Historic Places specifically mentions the beacon. There's more about the beacon, and Rocky Butte generally, in Laura O. Foster's Portland Hill Walks (a book I've recommended here more than once).

north from rocky butte

There are a couple of cool winding roads up to the top. The way I've always taken is to turn onto NE Fremont going east off 82nd. Just stay on the main road as it winds up the hill and changes names a couple of times, and soon you'll get to the aforementioned religious mega-complex I mentioned, which is quite large. It features a couple of huge brownish domes and an array of smaller, older, and very military-looking buildings. I don't know exactly where they stand, theology-wise, but looking at these buildings I suspect the "Left Behind" series is required reading, and people pray to Dubya in the hope he'll intercede with God on their behalf. That's my guess, anyway. I could be wrong. It started out as Hill Military Academy long ago, and only became a religious institution much later, so they were stuck with the existing buildings. Maybe they're a sect of pacifists, and they cringe at the sight of the military buildings, for all I know. But I kind of doubt that. Anyway, if you keep driving eventually you'll pass the thing and continue on up the hill. There'll be stone retaining walls on your right most of the way up the hill; these were also part of the WPA project. Here and there you'll see a smattering of recent surburban-style houses. Nearly all look like they were built after the old jail closed, which I guess is understandable. When you get to the top, there's a loop road around the base of the fortress, and you can take the other road to the bottom. If anything, the other road is even cooler, although both have recently been defiled with speedbumps. At one point on the way down there's a tight hairpin turn inside a freakin' tunnel, if you can believe that. Yeehaw! Our fair city's legions of Zoobombers would absolutely love this place, if only there was a quick and easy way up to the top, the lazy bastards. I don't have any photos of the road or the tunnel, since I was busy driving and all.

eastern sky, rocky butte

So what's there to do here? Other than the aforementioned, mostly illegal activities, I mean. There aren't any hiking trails that I can see. If you want to go downhill from here, you don't so much "hike" as "plummet". So it's pretty much the viewpoint at the top, and that's about all. If it's cloudy, there isn't even that. Whatever the weather, I suppose you could imagine you're on Weathertop, fending off besieging ringwraiths, if you're into that sort of thing, or orcs if you don't mind bending the canon a little. You have to admit the place sort of looks the part. Ok, besides that, in the summer it's a popular spot to tie the knot with that special(ish) someone (legal, if you have a $97.50 permit from the city). And you can watch planes coming and going at the airport, if you're into that sort of thing. When I was little I was often dragged along on plane-spotting outings, and at one time I could identify most or all of the airlines and airliners that flew in and out of Sea-Tac, up in Seattle. That was a while ago, though. If the subject interested me, I could probably get up to speed again, but really what would be the point of that?

As for the view: The best things to see here are the mountains: Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, and bits of Mt. Rainier and Mt. Jefferson off in the distance. There's also the Columbia River and the entrance to the Gorge. Sunsets over the West HIlls, and I suppose sunrises if you're weird and deliberately get up that early. This is not the best place for pics of downtown Portland, though. Rocky Butte really is pretty far east from downtown, and the buildings are little more than specks off in the distance. You could go buy an expensive telephoto lens and a tripod, but it's much cheaper to just go somewhere else closer to downtown, like the Eastbank Esplanade, for example. Looking north there's also the I-205 bridge and the airport. Looking east, if you know what to look for, there's the tiny burg of Maywood Park, a town of a few hundred people just on the far side of 205, entirely surrounded by the city of Portland. The town was incorporated in an attempt to prevent 205 from going through, which obviously wasn't very successful. I understand that now the residents prefer to remain independent because their city taxes are vastly lower than in adjacent parts of Portland.

Even if the place is completely fogbound, there's always the fortress itself and its stonework to look at. It's the usual high quality WPA workmanship, stuff you couldn't duplicate today with any amount of money. I sure do miss FDR. The guy died many decades before I was born, but I still miss the guy. Of course, I could go off on a pet tangent of mine, which is that societies that devote a lot of effort to building enduring monuments to themselves are usually in serious trouble. Sometimes it's the Depression, others it's barbarian hordes from the deserts (Egypt, China), or globalization (France), etc. It's a pop sociology notion I play around with sometimes, often after reading about yet another new war memorial or worshipful presidential monument going up in DC.

ramparts, rocky butte

So anyway, what else is there to say about the place...
  • Like basically all the other hills in town, Rocky Butte is a small, extinct (we hope) volcano. The US Geological Survey has the dirt about that here. Apparently it's one of at least 95 known or suspected volcanic features in the Portland area. Jeepers!
  • The butte is a popular climbing destination, for people who like to go climb a rock wall to unwind after work, although opinions about the place are decidedly mixed, what with the litter, car breakins, and other urban problems.
  • The link about the military academy (above) mentioned something about a 1930s incident where an academy student died while exploring a cave close to the school. So apparently there are caves here. Not a huge surprise really -- where there's lava, there's often lava tubes. But still, it's fun to know for a fact that they're up there somewhere, because caves are the best. Yay, caves.
  • Besides the city park at the top of the hill, Metro owns another 5 acres on the butte, and there's supposedly a "Rocky Butte State Park" around here somewhere too, according to most maps. I can't find any sign of it on the ground, but I think it's part of the steep eastern slope of the butte, right next to the freeway. Maybe it's what's left of the jail grounds, I'm not sure. I didn't search that extensively, since I wasn't up for poking around in the brush next to the freeway, right around sunset on a cold December day. Maybe I'll look for it again when the weather improves, if I can find out anything more about the place and it seems like a worthwhile destination.
  • Elsewhere on the interwebs, posts about Rocky Butte at the Dirt Cheap Guide to PDX, the Zinester's Guide, iExplore, Home & Abroad, PortlandBridges, SITO, & Klaas Acts, the last calling the place "the park in the sky".
  • Oh, and as mentioned in the comments below, this humble post now has interweb linkage. Check out the post over at Goldfishcake. The photos over there are better, too.

Sunday, December 24, 2006



Today's photos have sort of a "night" theme, in honor of the shortest day of the year a couple of days back. These are mostly older pics from the archives, which should tell you that I don't have any fresh material at the moment. No photos, nothing to write about, not even any low-quality video clips.

Above is yet another pic of the infamous (on this blog) sculpture Rusting Chunks #5, a.k.a. Leland One, in case you were waiting for another of those. This one makes it look all Stonehenge-like, which seems appropriate given today's belated winter solstice theme.


Sunset over Mt. Tabor, a few months ago.


Flowers under streetlights, taken in the middle of the night sometime last summer. There's something vaguely unsettling about this photo, but I can't really put my finger on it.


A rather blurry photo of the KOIN tower at night.


Your basic b+w photo of the sidewalk, streetlights, & shadows, downtown.


The mirror in the men's room down at the Tugboat brewpub. I think it was night outside when I took this, probably.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

An evil scumbag pervert pays a visit

Weird Google hits are usually good for a laugh or two, but earlier today this blog got a search hit from some pervert looking for kiddie porn. I want to describe just how angry and disgusted I am, but words fail me. If I had the guy's full IP address, I'd post it. If I knew his name, address, phone number, etc., I'd post those too, and alert the authorities, whoever they might be in this case. Sadly I don't have all that info, but here's what I do know about this scumbag. He appears to be in Olavarra, Argentina, using Telefonica de Argentina (a.k.a. as his ISP, with an address in the 190.48.21.* range. So probably he's a dialup user, and having the full IP addy would be of limited use anyway, unless the ISP's willing to cooperate. He showed up here at 2:47:34 PM Pacific time, and his browser info string is "Firefox Mozilla/5.0 (X11; U; Linux i686; es-AR; rv: Gecko/20061117 Ubuntu/breezy-security Firefox/". I bet the guy's using a bootable Ubuntu CD to avoid leaving cookies, cache files, etc. on the hd of the machine he's on. This suggests to me that he's afraid of getting caught. And he should be, if there's anything I can do about it. His exact search phrase was pretty bizarre: "zubr - tiny little ones child sex galleries!.url". Eeewww! It's hard to tell from that whether he's a native English speaker or not. I have this mental image of someone like that creepy JonBenet guy who popped up in Thailand, but it could also be a local who thinks he might have better luck searching in English. I'm mystified how this blog popped up given that search string, and there's no way in hell I'm going to try his search url to find out. Whatever it was he was looking for, I sure as hell don't want to find it. I'm just happy that nothing caught his interest here and the sicko didn't click on anything once he arrived. Good fucking riddance, and I sincerely hope all his other search hits were just as unhelpful.

And yes, I realize posting his search string might potentially reel in more guys like this slimeball. If they show up here, I'm posting their info too, guaranteed. The evil bastards.

Yechhh!!!! And I repeat: Yecchhh!!!!

Updated: I was right, I've gotten additional search hits for the same thing. The precise, identical search phrase, in fact, which is more than a little peculiar. One hit a few days ago from Voronezh, Russia, and earlier this morning another from Harlow, UK -- with the caveat that geographic info is whatever the browser reports, so that can obviously be faked. I was in a rush when the Voronezh hit came in and I didn't take down all the particulars, but here's what I've got on the perv in Harlow, as reported by his browser:
  • IP address: 86.8.111.# (NTL Internet) <-- NTL is a large ISP in the UK, so this doesn't tell us much.
  • Reported latitude/longitude: 51.7833, 0.1667
  • OS: Microsoft WinME
  • Browser: Internet Explorer 5.5 [Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 5.5; Windows 98; Win 9x 4.90)]
  • Visitor's Time (GMT) : Feb 9 2007 1:22:37 pm
  • Resolution : 640 x 480
  • Color Depth : 1 bits

    It's the last bit that makes me wonder whether the browser info is faked. WinMe+IE5.5 wouldn't surprise me; given my low opinion of these morons, I think it stands to reason they'd happily use a "please-sign-me-up-for-your-botnet" OS & browser. But I doubt anyone looking for images would settle for 640x480 monochrome, unless they're on some sort of ancient laptop or something -- and I'm not sure one of those would run WinME.

    So anyway, this is the info I've got. If all of these hits are from one guy trying to conceal his identity, or possibly traveling around the world, I hope the proper authorities catch up with him. If the identical search string means there's a global ring of these sickos out there, I hope they catch all of them.
  • mostly about sidewalks

    sidewalk tiles

    Another batch of mostly-unrelated photos, some from today, some from the archives. The top photo is of some ceramic tiles embedded in the sidewalk on NW Flanders near 14th, close to the Rogue brewpub. I'm sure there's a "who" and a "why" behind this, but I know nothing more about it than what you see here. Kind of cool, though.

    moss & cobblestones

    Moss growing between cobblestones near SW Harrison, downtown.


    Morning over the South Umpqua River, southern Oregon.


    A banana peel on the sidewalk somewhere in the Pearl District. I swear I didn't put it there, cross my heart, etc., so I gather that someone else sees the Pearl much the same way that I do.

    midwinter moss, lovejoy fountain plaza

    More moss, this time on the steps in Lovejoy Fountain Plaza. I hadn't posted a new photo of the place in days, so I figured it was way overdue. Although if nobody else on the planet feels that way, it wouldn't come as a complete shock to me.


    No, this isn't the logo of some forgotten folk-rock band from the 70's. It's a sign on the Elizabeth condo tower in the Pearl. Apparently this is where they keep their emergency generator, and you can tell from the sign that it's an upscale emergency generator, probably imported, because in the Pearl not just any old generator will do, even in an emergency.

    Wednesday, December 20, 2006

    Merry Blogoversary

    Today is this humble blog's first birthday, and to celebrate I'm sitting here at home with an annoying head cold. Yay. I'm not going to do a retrospective of the past year, because I think that would be stupid, plus it would be more work than I feel like doing just now. So I'll just say it's been a good year, for the most part, and I'm looking forward to doing more of whatever I'm inclined to do over the next year. How's that for a resolution?

    Rather than waxing on lyrically about crap, here are a few bite-sized items related to sitting around at home with no energy and no attention span. This post will probably be somewhat underwhelming for anyone expecting a momentous monumental year-end post. If you fall into that category, feel free to take the issue up with my Customer Service department.

    • First, a couple of awful movies. It's good to have a stack of awful movies on DVD when you have a cold. Monster from a Prehistoric Planet is your standard cookie-cutter 60's Japanese monster movie (or "kaiju"): Researchers go to primitive Pacific island, find baby creature (called a "Gappa"), take it back to Japan, mom & dad come looking for it, stomping all over Tokyo in the process. Eventually people wise up and give the baby back, and the happy Gappa family flies off into the sunset. Some posters on IMDB assert it was supposed to be a spoof, but I'm just not seeing it. Still, if you've always wanted to see Tokyo attacked by huge jet propelled lizard-chickens, this may be your only chance. I'm not really a kaiju fanatic -- no, really, I'm seriously not -- but I've seen enough of them to know this isn't the cream of the crop.
    • Second bad movie of the day is the "classic" Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. This is my dose of Xmas spirit for the year. Well, this and the occasional holiday-themed beer. Sadly, I didn't have any holiday-themed beer handy. It probably would've helped. Kids on Mars are sad, and do nothing but sit around and watch Earth TV all day. It's a planetary crisis, so the leader of Mars and several helpers go to Earth and after several thrilling adventures they capture Santa and a couple of kids and haul them back to Mars, to be their Santa for a change. Everyone seems happy with the new arrangement except for a handful of grumpy malcontents. They plot against Santa, and "mirth" ensues. The baddies lose, and Santa & the kids head back to Earth just in time for Christmas. Yay!

      If this had been on TV when I was 6, I might've actually liked it. Yes, it's corny and stupid. I defy you to name a single Santa Claus movie that isn't corny and stupid. (No, Bad Santa doesn't count.) Yes, the costumes are really poor, and continuity breaks down at several points -- what ever happened to the rescue mission from Earth, for instance? On the other hand, the mod 60's Martian house is pretty damn groovy, if you ask me, and when the bad guy rants about TV turning people into imbeciles, you have to admit he makes a valid point.

      This movie usually shows up on lists of the worst movies of all time, but that's unfair. It's a kids movie, and you can't compare it against grownup or even teen fare. And even as movies for kids go, there's far worse out there, even if we limit ourselves to holiday movies. The Star Wars Holiday Special is wayyyy worse than this.
    • Today's new taste sensation: Smoked salt caramels from Fran's Chocolates. Amazing. I've read a number of raves about salted caramels recently but had never tried the stuff, so when I saw these at the grocery store, I thought I'd give them a try. It doesn't sound like this would be good, and it's not easy to describe the taste or why it's good, but it is. The only similar thing that comes to mind is the late, lamented bacon caramel milkshake you could get for a short while at one of the food carts on 5th avenue in downtown Portland. If you had one of those when you had the chance, these are kind of like that, but not cold or bacony.
    • I was going to write about a fun 1903 astronomy textbook I found at Powell's the other day, but I'm not feeling sufficiently brainy to really pull it off. But I will note that the maps of Mars show the canals. How cool is that?
    • The local news today was nothing but handwringing about those stupid missing mountaineers again. Yes, I said "stupid". If you go climbing an 11,000 foot mountain in December without basic safety equipment, that qualifies as stupid in my book. It's not like they were climbing to search for the rare cancer-curing moss that only grows at the top of the volcano, or anything worthwhile like that. Other than being able to tell people that you did it -- boring them to tears in the process -- there's nothing much on the reward side of the risk/reward tradeoff. But then, I just don't really get mountaineering, I don't see the attraction, and using the stock "because it's there" excuse on me is just going to lead to more questions.
    • Oh, and I haven't forgotten Iraq. I haven't posted about it lately because it's just been more of the same, day after day, but now it looks like our Glorious Leader has a great new plan that's bound to work out great. Somehow, the results of the last election, weekly poll results, and events on the ground in Iraq have all been filtered and distilled and tweaked and stretched to the breaking point, so that now we're told that what the public really wants is a massive escalation, not a withdrawal, and all this time we've actually been begging George to please, oh, please, send another 20-30,000 troops into the meat grinder. Really. I had no idea that's what we were asking for. Shows what I know, I guess.

      The really weird thing is that everyone keeps presenting this as a step towards getting out of Iraq. Really it's a step instead of getting out, taken purely to make it look like George & friends are "doing something", without having to face any uncomfortable facts or make any fundamental policy shifts. Everyone wants to pretend otherwise, but that's what it is, just another stupid publicity stunt. Anything else you hear is just more lies and spin, and I'm surprised anyone believes that crap anymore. Maybe they're the same people who always sign on for the fad diet of the month, where you're supposed to stuff yourself with nothing but steak and chocolate frosting every meal and still drop 300 pounds in a week. If the logic part of your brain is broken or missing, I guess you'll believe just about anything George says.

    Monday, December 18, 2006

    a better sunrise


    In a recent post, I offered a couple of sunrise photos while whining about having to get up so incredibly early. These are from the very next day -- when I had to get up early yet again, and the sunrise was way better. Go figure. I didn't post the pics then because two days in a row of sunrise photos would be... what's that word again, the word 'X' that means "X is to tedious as tedious is to exciting"? I'm drawing a blank at the moment, but two sunrise posts in a row would definitely be a steaming pile of X, whatever it is.


    So it's been a safe waiting period now, and here they are. They're just too purty not to post, and there aren't a lot of other natural sources of bright colors this time of year, so I'm making the most of what's available. Just so you know, they haven't been GIMPed or Photoshopped or tweaked or enhanced in any way. To the extent that a digital camera captures 'real' colors, this is what it looked like. To the extent that I remember anything clearly from that ungodly hour, before I'd even had any caffeine, this is exactly what it looked like. These were taken in downtown Portland, looking east (duh!). If any out-of-towners are reading this, the pointy snowy bit off in the distance is Mt. Hood.


    As a sop to dialup users, I promise, swear up-n-down, that the next post won't have any photos in it. I'm way overdue for a post with some actual writing in it anyway, so this way you win, I win, we all win. Yay for us!




    cold day at tanner springs


    Winter at Tanner Springs Park, deep in the Pearl District where the shadows lie. This is always fun to see, since 9 out of 10 Pearlies are rich Californians who've never seen weather this "severe" before, and it scares the bejeezus out of 'em. Until this morning, they'd had no clue that ice occurs in nature outside of a highball glass. While I was at the park taking a few photos, it was nothing but one rich twit after another walking past, all bundled up in designer mountaineering gear, strutting along with their darling pugs (in matching designer mountaineering gear, of course), all serious and determined like they're running the freakin' Iditarod. With pugs. How much sense does that make?

    ice, tanner springs

    I'm probably supposed to make some comments about how calm and contemplative and "Zenlike" it was at the park, since (as always) nobody else was there. Plenty of busy passersby, sure, but nobody stopped to soak up the purity and inner calm the design-junkie crowd keeps lecturing us about and telling us we need. Never mind the fact that if a.) we need inner calm, and b.) it can be provided at taxpayer expense, the park ought to be located somewhere in outer SE portland, not here. If we're going to prioritize who's in the greatest need of some serenity and inner calm, I'm not convinced that the richest 1% of the population are the people who need it most. Do something to relieve the constant stress of low wages and economic insecurity for everyone else, and then let's talk about the idle rich and their designer yoga mats. Do we have a deal?


    All that said, I do tend to come away with reasonably interesting photos of the place. I rather like the cobblestone one at the top. For contrast, here are some earlier photos of mine from back in August and September, and an earlier rant about the place (and a few other places) from last January.


    icy ivy 1

    Has it really been a week since I've posted anything here? Am I really that busy? Apparently I am. That, or I'm running out of stuff to say, like that goofy Gartner study predicted just the other day.

    ice, lovejoy fountain plaza

    We're coming up on this blog's first birthday in a couple of days, and I'm almost at the golden 365 post mark, believe it or not. So expect a number of smallish posts over the next couple of days, to boost the all-important post count up a bit.

    icy ivy 2

    Oh, and about the photos: It was really cold this morning. By Oregon standards, I mean. No actual, y'know, carbon dioxide freezing out of the atmosphere like you'd see on Mars, nothing serious like that, but it was still pretty cold.

    Aerial tram in the mist

    I guess it's nice to see that the tram can operate under these conditions, considering how much we paid for it. Eventually I'm going to get tired of taking pictures of the thing, but right now it's still so weird...

    Monday, December 11, 2006

    Tram, tram, tram and eggs

    Thrilling video of our fair city's new aerial tram, taken fresh this morning. Watch in astonishment as it inches its way up Pill Hill. Gape in awe as it glides by, kind of like a ski lift only much more expensive. Ok, so the tram's the little grey bit off in the distance. Stupid camera didn't want to zoom any further than that in movie mode, unfortunately. But hey, it's what I've got, and here it is. Besides, you aren't paying a cent to watch this, so what's the use in complaining?

    Don't bother turning up the sound; all you'll hear is road noise from nearby Interstate 405. I mean, be my guest if you want to -- it's basically just white noise, almost like listening to the ocean (but not as relaxing). It's just that the audio track contains nothing remotely tram-related, which presumably is the reason you're visiting this post. So, well, whatever.

    Sunday, December 10, 2006

    bad movie octet (plus one)

    It's been ages since I've done a bad movie post. I've been keeping notes and saving up material and so forth, but I haven't gotten around to posting. So I figured, hey, I'll just do the whole list at once and clear out the backlog and get my precious peace of mind back, even if it means relaxing my normally high (or at least highly wordy) standards somewhat.

    FWIW, the title is the way it is because I started out with a list of eight movies and then remembered another one I wanted to cover. I couldn't just change "octet" to "nonet", because "nonet" is a silly word and nobody's going to know what it means. And I can't think of any other word offhand that means "nine of something", because stuff usually doesn't come in nines. Then I figured, it's really in the B-movie spirit to mess up and then try clumsily to patch things up after the fact, with decidedly mixed results. Well, whatever. That's how the title got that way, for good or ill.

    So here's today's crop of movies...

    The Atomic Brain aka Monstrosity

    Your basic mad-scientist brain transplant movie. This time, the MS is working for a nasty old rich lady who wants a fresh, young replacement body. Made in 1964, this movie represents a sort of awkward transitional phase in the B-movie galaxy. Part 50's creature feature, part 60's exploitation flick. Don't get your hopes up, though. It would kinda like to be exploitation, but it lacks the courage of its convictions. No skin, and the allegedly revealing outfits are decidedly on the frumpy side, at least by modern standards. Oh, okay, in one of the lab scenes you get to see a bare navel. That was a big deal back in '64, apparently. We're also treated to a couple of ooky scenes of the old lady ogling the three transplant candidates, and some leering remarks from the narrator, but that's about it. Oh, about that narrator. Someone was getting paid by the word, I guess. Or the director realized he had a real stinker on his hands and thought he'd toss in the world's longest narrated intro to try to salvage the plot as best he could. I mean it. The intro is really, really long.

    Oh, there's atomic energy involved. The MS needed it for the brain transplant machine. At one point he nonchalantly mentions he could blow the neighborhood sky-high with atomic energy if the cops got wise to his plan. Okayyyy... I suppose that can be an effective way to cover ones tracks, but there are subtler ways to go about it. There's a longer piece about this movie, complete with screenshots, at Horror-Wood. Enjoy!

    Creature with the Atom Brain

    People don't often realize how many B-movies of all kinds are really police procedurals under the hood. This baby's one of 'em. Sure, there's a mad scientist, atomic mischief, mind control, and whatnot, but it's a cop movie. See, this time the MS is working for a revenge-minded mobster. Seems the best way to get revenge on one's enemies is to lay hands on a few spare bodies, wire them up for remote control, juice 'em full of radioactivity to keep 'em going, and send them shambling around town doing people in. No, really, that's the best way. Seriously. Completely foolproof, almost.

    If you can get past that part, this movie really isn't so bad, all things considered. I mean, at least you can follow the plot, basically, and it's paced decently, the acting is good enough, and the radio-controlled atomic zombie minions are pretty effective. It's just that a real mobster would get, I dunno, regular real-live hitmen to do the dirty work, more than likely. But still, this movie is fun and worth a watch, if you're into this sort of thing. There's plenty of stuff about this movie out there on the interwebs, including this article at 1000 Misspent Hours.

    Bride of the Monster

    Yes, the Ed Wood classic. I hate to admit this, but I hadn't actually seen this until recently, when Rob Zombie introduced it on TCM just before Halloween. Plan 9 is, uh, more of a classic, although Bela Lugosi is always a decent mad scientist. He's tired of working for the man, and has struck out on his own, working to create a race of atomic supermen, etc., etc. Remember what I was just saying about police procedurals? This it totally a police procedural. No matter what sort of crappy movie Ed Wood was making, there had to be cops in it somewhere. This is the movie with the classic bit where various people have to flail around on top of a completely inanimate monster octopus, flailing the rubber arms around themselves and screaming in agony. Kind of funny, and there's just enough so that it doesn't wear out its welcome too badly. The really scary part is watching the heroine wander around the burning lab in a taffeta wedding dress. Yikes. You can be sure Ed Wood didn't pay her enough to take that kind of risk. There's something to be said for this newfangled CG fire we have these days.

    The East Side Kids Meet Bela Lugosi aka Ghosts on the Loose

    I bought this for the Bela, and there's not much Bela to be had. The "East Side Kids" were a sort of comedy group/troupe/gang from way back when, doing the streetwise Brooklyn schtick that was everywhere back then (think Bugs Bunny), and you just never see anymore. Bela, sadly underused, is a German agent who's settled into a nice suburban house with several of his colleagues, where they churn out subversive Nazi propaganda. They ward away inquisitive neighbors by making the house seem haunted. Mirth ensues, and there's the usual array of gags with revolving bookcases, odd noises, suspicious paintings, the works. Eventually our gang of heroes unmasks the evildoers, and order is restored, the end. This isn't really a monster movie, or a mad scientist movie, but it's got Bela Lugosi and a "haunted" house, and it shamelessly plays off Bela's prior fame, so it's sort of an honorary horror/monster pic, and it's definitely a grade-B, Poverty Row production. The movie was shot by WIlliam "One Shot" Beaudine. His nickname came from his tendency to only shoot one take of any given shot, and use it even if people flub their lines, or bump into the scenery, or whatever. This movie is famous (in certain circles) because of one brief bit, so quick you'll miss it if you blink. In one scene, Bela is spying on our heroes by pretending to be a painting, because nobody can tell the difference if you just hold really still. The boys are trying to fix up the house, and they're dusting, and the dust makes Bela sneeze... but instead of "achoo" he says a very obvious "oh shit". There's no mistaking it. It's kind of amazing the Hays Office didn't blacklist everyone associated with the picture. Well, not so amazing. Censorship always works in inconsistent and ridiculous ways. Just don't show any navels in your big-budget musicals, and the Powers That Be will leave you alone, for the most part. And no wardrobe malfunctions in your halftime shows, dammit. One fun tidbit is that the movie features a young Ava Gardner in one of her first credited, speaking roles. She doesn't have much to do in the film, but if you're ever playing "Six Degrees of Bela Lugosi" with friends you can pick up a few extra credit points here, assuming they know who Ava Gardner is, the philistines. More at Moria and
    Bloody Mallory
    [Not embeddable, but free to watch, direct from the studio here].
    I just don't get the French when they try to be funny. I really don't. This thing is sort of a French answer to Buffy, with a dash of Mystery Men tossed in. The pope is kidnapped off to another dimension, and a crack team of supernatural commandos are sent to rescue him, only to discover he's actually an evil fallen angel plotting to destroy humanity. The tone of the film ricochets back and forth between Saturday morning cartoon and bitter anti-Catholic rant. Too serious in some parts, and not enough in others. I suppose it boils down to Cultural Differences, like these things always do. In particular, I don't think anticlericalism really translates unless you're in a traditionally Catholic country. Otherwise you just sort of shrug off the dark mutterings about Jesuit plots and whatnot. Judging by the reader comments on IMBD, a lot of people love this thing, and you might be one of them. It mostly didn't do it for me, although the pink hearse was a nice touch. But... talking bats? That's just st00pid.
    The worse sequel to Westworld. Westworld was pretty crappy too, but at least it had Yul Brynner as that scary robot gunfighter. Gave me nightmares as a kid, it did. He does have a cameo in Futureworld, but only in a groovy, allegedly "sexy" dream sequence, one which makes even less sense than actual dreams do. The thing that's really bad about both movies is that they don't make good use of the premise. Both start out by dangling the enticing wish-fulfillment in front of you, and introducing what you'd think would be the standard 70's disaster movie ensemble cast. Then they contract down into long chases through dark underground corridors full of pipes and ladders and pulleys. It's as if they ran out of money part of the way through production and had to dismiss nearly all the cast and sell off all the sets and film the rest of the thing in the steam tunnels under the studio back lot. And then it happened again when they made the sequel, that's the remarkable part. It doesn't help that Futureworld seems like the most tedious and annoying "Space Camp" vacation I can imagine. Who the hell would do that when Romanworld is a short people-mover ride away, robo-orgies and all? The only appealing part of the whole Futureworld concept is the ultra-lifelike "Rockem Sockem Robots" game. But even then, I'd feel bad for the poor robots. I really would. And sheesh, there aren't even any aliens. No green-skinned alien women, nothing. Just a bunch of 70's dorks in corny jumpsuits. If you can't even bonk a robot that looks like an alien, what's the freakin' point of Futureworld, I ask you? The underlying fantasy in the movies is that, since the people you're dealing with aren't real, you can click off the empathy part of your brain and live out every base desire. Since they're Hollywood movies, they hint at the sex a little, and then go and wallow in the violence. There was a real theme in 70's SF movies about the dangers of the unchecked id; Logan's Run comes to mind right away as another example. Everyone was so afraid we were becoming a bunch of hopeless lotus-eaters. The original movie was written by Michael Crichton, who went on to write Jurassic Park. The guy clearly has serious amusement park issues. Plus he's spent the last few decades sourly lecturing us about one exotic "danger" after another, always ripped from today's headlines. Sometimes it's "Japan is bad", other times it's a lecture about how men are the real victims of sexual harassment, somehow, and then there's always that groovy 70's-style lotus-eatin', which is Awful for some reason. Sadly, lotus is no longer on the menu in this country. Instead we've gone the opposite direction and it's nothing but apocalypic bible thumping and hypocritical moralizing and fire and brimstone and war all the time. But I digress. Futureworld didn't even get the Crichton treatment, and was released by AIP instead of MGM, but at least this means we get an AIP stock-issue mad scientist this time. This MS wants to rule the world by inviting the world's leaders to visit the park, and quietly replacing them with obedient robots. His nefarious plan fails when the intrepid, heroic pair of reporters escape and tell the world what they saw. This is a particularly dated post-Watergate twist, something you just wouldn't see in this day and age. Think about it: When was the last time you saw a new movie with a heroic reporter in it? If I was a movie industry type, it would be really tempting to remake, or "re-imagine" these movies, but do it right this time (and there are persistent rumors someone or other wants to give it a try). But I'm not so sure it's possible now, since it's not the 70's, and we just don't have that particular perspective on life anymore. They should've been done right the first time. Either with a bigger budget and a better screenwriter, turning it into The Towering Inferno in the Old West (and ancient Rome, and medieval England, etc.); OR do 'em as foreign films, probably Italian (they'd do Romanworld right, and Westworld too, probably); OR just film 'em as pornos, and give people what they really want to see. I mean, the movie folks can lecture us all they want about how people's deepest fantasies are about violence, but everybody knows that isn't true, at least not for normal people.
    Revenge of Dr. X aka The Double Garden
    Ooh. A crappy Venus Flytrap Man, and the world's angriest mad scientist. This time the MS is a NASA rocket scientist. He takes a break for some R&R in Japan, and this is what he does. One hell of a vacation, if you ask me. The climactic battle is right out of Frankenstein, with angry villagers pursuing the monster into the hills. By which I mean, right out of Frankenstein, except sucky. In the end the MS and the monster take a tumble and plummet to their doom, roll the credits. There are dogs barking all the freakin' time in this movie. You're supposed to be horrified when the doctor proposes feeding puppies to the creature, but all you can think is that it would be a real relief. Sadly, the version I saw was edited for TV, and was missing a crucial scene where the MS goes diving in search of some sort of rare undersea plant, and he's assisted in his search by a bevy of female assistants who swim around topless for no apparent reason. Well, that's not entirely true. They swim around topless to get people into the theater, because there's not much else about this movie that will. Anyway, the monster's one of the corniest you'll see. This movie came out in 1970, but the monster is pure 1955. But don't take my word for it; there's a much better review over at Bleeding Skull. Yes, that's the website's name. Another piece at Weird Wild Realm.
    The Tomb
    Like, totally awesome mid-80's Egyptian vampire crap, by Fred Olen Ray, the same guy who brought us Wizards of the Demon Sword. Yes, it's tongue in cheek and all that. I realize that. But even as a spoof it's still kind of crappy. The movie does have a mad scientist, although he doesn't do all that much. Mostly he's secretive and lies to a few people and stupidly seeks an interview with a hot Egyptian vampire, which doesn't turn out so well for him. I do, however, really want to hold up an ankh and shout "Stop in the name of Amun-Ra!" I don't know when that opportunity might arise, or whether I'll have an ankh handy when it does. And even if I do, chances are nobody will get the movie reference anyway. Trash City has a writeup. As that review mentions, Mr. Ray specializes in gratuitous nudity, which we get here in the generous form of Kitten Natividad. And nobody else, unfortunately, not even Michelle Bauer, who plays the vampire. He's less, uh, restrained in his more recent work, movies like Bikini a Go Go. Which (as you can probably guess from the title) is a truly dire movie, complete bottom of the barrel type stuff, but he doesn't cheat you on the nekkidness, FWIW. What you really get in the movie are a series of cameos by ex-stars and sorta-stars who were willing to lend their name to the production for 30 seconds of screen time. Sybil Danning appears briefly at the very beginning of the film and never again, while the, ah, legendary John Carradine has a brief spot as "John J. Andoheb", appearing for a bit of talking-head action to move the plot along. Watch his eyes. He's reading his lines off a script, or maybe cue cards, and he isn't even trying to hide it, the cheeky bastard.
    Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster
    No actual Frankenstein here. Just a NASA android who crash-lands in Puerto Rico and goes AWOL and happens across a very small plywood spaceship full of nefarious aliens. They're here to kidnap them some womenfolk to repopulate their species, the usual drill. But the noble robot stops 'em, the end. The best sequence is the extended Vespa ride around vintage San Juan. It's as if the director was born to film a Puerto Rican Roman Holiday, but didn't realize it at the time, and wasted his career making crap like this instead. So sad. Hint to aspiring filmmakers: Plywood, when covered in shiny black paint, still has an obvious plywood texture. The audience will be able to tell. Unless they're drunk or baked or something, which they probably are considering they're watching this kind of crap and haven't changed the channel or kicked the disc out or anything. Quite possibly they're just watching for Princess Marcuzan. That headdress thing of hers is pretty cool. If you're a big fan of stock NASA and military footage, you'll find a lot to like about this movie. I'm starting to think that being able to weave a thin plot around a raft of stock footage has become a lost art. Nobody does it anymore. Much, much more at Monsters at Play and DVD Drive-In.

    Wednesday, December 06, 2006

    red sky @ morning


    There's nothing even remotely civilized about waking up for 7am conference calls to India, other than the occasional winter sunrise. Once the sun was up, the day was all downhill from there.


    Tuesday, December 05, 2006

    Portland Firefighters' Park

    Here are some photos of tiny Portland Firefighters' Park, in downtown Portland at SW 19th & Burnside, right next to PGE Park and the shiny new Civic condo tower. It's kind of a weird little spot, but before we get to that, a (sorta) quick history lesson. If you'd rather go directly to the weirdness, click here.


    The main feature of the park is a fountain honoring David Campbell, an early 20th century fire chief who died in the line of duty. Next to the fountain are smaller plaques honoring all of the city's fallen firefighters.

    There's surprisingly little about the park on the web. In particular, the city parks department barely mentions the place. It doesn't appear on their list of parks, and only gets a mention in passing on their 1921-1940 history page:

    Funded by donations from the public at large through promotion by the Portland Telegram newspaper to honor Fire Chief David Campbell who lost his life in the line of duty, the Campbell Memorial Fountain was placed in the triangle at West 19 and Burnside. (It has since been dedicated as a memorial to all Portland firefighters killed in the line of duty.) The bronze plaque features a portrait of Campbell and was created by American artist Avard Fairbanks.

    That's all they've got about the place. The fire bureau's history page has a bit more:

    With a fleet of motorized fire apparatus and a force of proud firefighters, Portland Fire Department was at the top of its game on June 26th, 1911 when the second alarm came from E. Salmon and Water Street. A pump at the Union Oil distributing plant had thrown a spark, igniting gas accumulated in its motor pit. Chief Campbell was one of the first to respond. By 0830, every fire company in the City was at the scene.
    As fumes expanded inside one of the half-empty, bulging oil tanks, it groaned, then finally exploded. Flames lashed out in a giant column, and smoke unfolded slowly against the Portland gray sky.
    Campbell borrowed a turn out coat from one of his men, then he and two other officers entered the building to begin an interior attack. An ominous rumble from deep inside the basement warned that accumulated gases in the basement had reached their flashpoint. With the second tank explosion, a ball of fire hurled firefighters to the ground and lifted the roof off of the Union Oil Company. The officers with Chief Campbell retreated from the building, but Campbell never made it out. A fire lieutenant saw him silhouetted against the flames, holding his arms up to brace against the falling roof. At 1045, they found Chief Campbell, huddled dead in a front line firefighter’s turnout coat. You could still read “F.D” on one of the buttons.

    To this day, Portland Firefighters honor bravery and sacrifice in the line of duty with the Campbell Memorial Ceremony, which takes place the third week in June every year.

    The only other resource I've come across on the net is a pair of pages at, one about the park, and another about Campbell's Fountain, both with good, recent photos. From the description of the place on both pages:

    Campbell's Fountain (1927) is a memorial for David Campbell, Fire Chief 1893-1911, and other Portland courageous firefighters who died in the line of duty. The memorial is constructed of Caen stone, a light colored limestone imported from France. The memorial was designed by Paul Cret of Philadelphia with Earnest F. Tucker of Portland. The bronze relief was sculpted by University of Oregon Artist Avard Fairbanks. The fountain is turned on once each June.
    The park surrounding the memorial was created in 1963 and 1964 by the Portland Chamber of Commerce with the assistance from a number of civic-minded businesses, the local labor unions, and the Oregon Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

    Since one of the architects was from Philadelphia, an organization called Philadelphia Architects and Buildings has a page about the fountain, and an image gallery with vintage photos, blueprints, and the works. If you want to see larger versions of the photos, you'll have to join PAB, which I haven't gotten around to just yet. It's $40/year, which would be tempting if I lived in Philadelphia, which I don't. The PAB pages call the fountain "Campbell Memorial Fountain". I'm not sure what the official name is, and I wouldn't care overly much except that knowing the right name might make Googling a little easier.

    The Multnomah County Library comes to the rescue, a little, with their full-text search of the Oregonian dating back to 1988. A search brings up newspaper stories about the Fire Bureau's annual David Campbell Memorial Service in 1989, 1990, 1991, and 1992, 2002, and 2005. Also, stories from 1999 and 2000 about the old 1873 fire bell that's now on display in the park. It's over two tons of bronze and silver. I won't tell the meth tweakers about it if you won't.





    So the last section explains why the fountain's here, but it doesn't explain why the fountain is the way it is. You can walk or drive right by and pay no attention to the place, but the closer you look, the weirder the place gets. I don't really see how the quasi-Egyptian fountain with the goat head relates to firefighting, and the lion heads and horned pagan gods don't offer a lot of clues either. The details look quite similar to those at Ankeny Park, also on Burnside, about 10 blocks due East. So probably both had the same designer, or this was just the trendy look back then, at the tail end of the Beaux-Arts era. I mean, if we're looking for mundane explanations.

    I like to think this blog plays a small role in demythologizing all the made-up weird crap people in this city like to believe about the place, but sometimes it can be tempting to switch sides for a while and start making myths instead of debunking them. This is one of those times. Here are a few uncanny "facts" about the place, and I'll let you draw your own conclusions:

    • As I mentioned, this park and Ankeny Park have certain similarities: For starters, both are situated just south of Burnside, along the line where the city's magnetic-north and true-north street grids collide.
    • Both parks center around altar-like fountains featuring horned gods and other pagan symbols. Both fountains face north. I'm not sure whether it's true north, magnetic north (circa either 1845 or 1927), or something. I'm not a surveyor by trade and I couldn't really say one way or the other -- but either pole will work just fine, since we're making myths here. Perhaps the fountains define lines that intersect at some obscure mystical point in the far northern wastes, and they don't really point at the pole at all. You can come up with a variety of convincing variations on this, if you like.
    • Burnside marks the city's north-south dividing line, and IIRC it's an old survey line, so we can probably work in something about milestones, ley lines, and so forth.
    • The goat-headed fountain is turned on just once a year at present, for a fire-related ceremony that occurs suspiciously close to the summer solstice. Coincidence? I was going to go off on a tangent somewhere in this post about how both fountains ought to be restored and run continuously during the summer months, but I'm starting to worry about the potential costs, and I don't mean the water bill. So what happens when the new condo owners in the new ritzy building next door start demanding a year-round fountain? That could upset the cosmic balance. I can't even begin to imagine all the possible consequences.
    • There are at least 3 other public fountains on the same alignment, all just south of Burnside: Skidmore Fountain between Naito & 1st Avenue, the "Car Wash" fountain on 5th, and the smallish black Art Deco piece at the Burnside entrance to Washington Park, up around 24th Ave. The latter two could be said to be facing north, but otherwise the three don't really look the part, so including them may be somewhat of a stretch. Surely there's got to be some way to work them in, if you're creative enough.
    • The rationales for the two parks, firefighting and restrooms, are so uncontroversial and middle-of-the-road that they've just got to be cover stories, and the fact that nobody's blown that cover for close to 100 years now just proves there's a conspiracy of silence going on. Those firefighters are up to something, mark my words. But what could it be?
    • If we're making up myths, we may as well make the firefighters the good guys. Just maybe, the fire bureau is all that stands between our world and an unholy, all-consuming conflagration of mystical flame, emanating from some weird demonic plane of existence. There are strange rituals to be performed, and dark secrets to be kept, but in the end it's all part of the job, protecting the public from fire in all its forms.

    Ok, maybe I'm getting a little carried away. I've been reading too much Lovecraft lately, so that's probably where the blame lies. But feel free to repeat as gospel whatever subset of this you think your audience is likely to believe. Especially if they're tourists, and they're planning to come here and spend lots of money and then (here's the key part) go back where they came from. They tell their friends, who come here, spend lots of money, and go back where they came from, and so on, and so forth. Updated 8/31/10: We have linkage from the "Save Portland Firefighters Memorial" group on Facebook.

    Tuesday, November 28, 2006

    collected tidbits, 11/28

    I've been neglecting my RSS-reading-and-aggregating duties for far too long. Sorry about that. Here's the latest in my occasional series of tidbits found on the interwebs:

    • The very latest fascinating post over at Cafe Unknown, full of local history and trolleys and bygone bridges and such. I try to do a reasonably thorough job when I cover local history and oddities and related topics, but I'm a total piker compared to the Cafe Unknown guy.
    • The Champagne of Blogs posse visited the Oaks Bottom pub recently, and they had the good sense to take plenty of food photos. In particular, they have a beautiful photo of a nice plate of totchos. Totchos? You know, like nachos, but made with tater tots. Mmmmm.... Tater tots..... Mmmm.... beeeeer....
    • Also, this year's Holiday Ale Festival is nearly upon us. When you see the tree going up in Pioneer Courthouse Square, you can be sure that roasty sudsy tipsy holiday goodness is never far behind. Mmmmm... beeeer....
    • The Guilty Carnivore has a great piece bashing the soulless, corporate Chipotle Mexican Grill. I mean, some of my best friends are accountants, seriously, but they don't know jack about how to run a good restaurant.
    • Goddamn that rat bastard Dan Saltzman. On top of everything else, now I can't wave my numchuks around in public parks anymore. Anywhere. In the entire city. We have tons of off-leash dog areas; why aren't there any designated areas for those of us who don't have dogs but want to be irresponsible anyway? I hereby propose a citywide system of Amateur Ninja Zones (clearly marked, of course), where the city just isn't legally responsible for anything people in the zones do to themselves or one another. Poke yourself in the eye with your own ninja star? You saw the entrance signs saying "Caution: Amateur Ninjas! Enter at own risk!", so you've got nobody to blame but yourself. People can be stupid to their hearts' content, and the city has no liability when the inevitable happens. Everybody wins!
    • Also at the Mercury, plenty of photos of cute cats, complete with fun captions.
    • From Pink Tentacle, covering all sorts of weird stuff from Japan, a rather scary mall security robot, and a gallery of dekotora, or decorated trucks, which are sort of Japan's answer to the lowrider.
    • Less weird but cool in a transit-geek sort of way is the "dual mode vehicle", which can run on rails like a train, or on the street like a bus. This might be a great answer to all the nonsense the city of Portland is preparing to do with the downtown transit mall in the next few years.
    • Finally, an amusing cartoon about matrix transforms. Thanks, xkcd!

    Today's thrilling echidna roundup:

    like amethysts beneath my feet

    If you live or work in downtown Portland, you may have noticed the little purple glass squares and circles set into the sidewalk here and there, at seemingly random locations. If you're like me (which I admit is unlikely) you might've been curious about them. They're obviously quite old and a bit weatherbeaten, but it's not so obvious what they are or what they're for. Fortunately, in this modern era, the answers are just a few keystrokes away, out there on the interwebs.

    The purple glass bits are known as "vault lights". See, a "vault" is an underground area, well, ok, a vault, situated under the sidewalk or under the street proper. If you want natural light in your vault, you install some of these. Hence the name. In Canada, they call them "sidewalk prisms", which has a more poetical ring to it. It's also a bit more informative, since the lights do have prisms on their down-facing sides, for diffusing sunlight all over the subterranean vault. Flat glass on the bottom would mean a few small pools of intense sunlight, which isn't what anyone's likely to want.


    Vault lights aren't all that common anymore in Portland but underground vaults are all over the place. Some are abandoned and bricked up, while others are used for storage. If you've seen the super-cool freight elevators that pop up out of the sidewalk, they exist to provide direct access to your sidewalk vault right from the street, so you can stock up your underground storeroom without hauling everything in through the front door. This can be very helpful, since our fair city generally lacks back alleys for that sort of thing.

    I can't find a comprehensive list of vault lights in Portland, but I'm making notes now when I run across them. I'm certain these aren't the only ones, but these are the ones I know of right now. The largest collection I'm aware of is around the Galleria building, which is where the top two photos were taken. The south side of the building facing the MAX tracks has an array of clear vault lights, which I'm guessing may be more recent replacements for older lights. The third photo is from outside the Dekum Building, on SW 3rd around Washington or Alder, I think. A third grouping is in front of the Clyde Hotel building on Stark St. You could also count the clear lights that serve as skylights for the visitor center in Pioneer Courthouse Square. They obviously aren't any older than the park itself, but I guess we can still count them if we want to.


    [Updated 1/2/07: Two more vault light sightings to report, both on the edge of the Pearl. #1, the sidewalk outside the North Park Lofts building, on the North Park Blocks at Everett. #2, outside the office supply place at 9th & Flanders. ]

    I was curious why they're always purple: If that was just an aesthetic choice, or was mandated by law, or something else. Turns out the answer is "something else" in this case; the lights actually started out as clear, but prolonged exposure to UV light caused impurities in the glass to turn purple over time. In the early 20th century, it was common to add managanese to glass, to combat existing impurities that would make the glass green. That works great in the short term, but eventually your 'clear' glass turns purple, sort of potassium permanganate colored. Manganese is actually the cause of the very similar purple color in amethysts, the only difference being that amethysts are quartz instead of glass. Still, they're close cousins, and the family resemblance should be pretty obvious. Restoring vault lights could be kind of a problem; do you restore to clear glass, or to the purple glass everyone's so used to?

    As an aside, if you ever see anything advertised as "vaseline glass", with a fluorescent yellow-green color, just be aware that it gets its color from... uranium. Seriously.

    Back in the Galleria's heyday, the vault area was just part of the mall, and you could stand there and look up and out. You couldn't get a clear look at the foot traffic passing overhead, but you could tell they were there. I remember thinking that was very cool. Of course, I've always had a fascination with all things subterranean, I mean, the very name of this blog refers to a 50's sci-fi mole machine, so I may think this stuff is cooler than the average person might. But really, how can you not love having another entire world directly beneath your feet. That's just cool.

    I have a dream here. Vault lights are cool, sidewalk elevators are extremely cool, and I just don't think either is being used to maximum advantage. Imagine, an underground bar, purple vault lights in the roof, as many as the city will let us have. And instead of carrying freight, the sidewalk elevator is the bar's main entrance. You press a call button, the elevator pops up out of the sidewalk, you hop in, and it whisks you down to a secret space beneath the feet of passersby. Decorwise, either Art Deco speakeasy, or Victorian boudoir would seem fitting. I'm not sure what I'd call the thing; the obvious choice is something using the word "vault" or "prism", but perhaps that's just too obvious. Failing that, as a geek I've always thought "/dev/null" would be a great name for a bar, although it doesn't exactly have a retro ring to it.

    Further resources about this stuff:

    • An extremely thorough page about vaults (a.k.a. "sidewalk basements") and vault lights. Everything you ever wanted to know, and much, much more. Plenty of photos, too.
    • Two pages concerning city regulations of sidewalk elevators. So far I haven't seen anything that explicitly prohibits using them to carry passengers instead of freight.
    • More resources about how glass gets to be purple: here, here, and here. From the first link:

      Take a century-old glass bottle, and expose it in the desert to the ultraviolet radiation present in strong sunlight. Come back after ten years, and the glass will have acquired an attractive purple color. Heat the bottle in an oven, and the color disappears. Next expose the bottle to an intense source of energetic radiation, as in the cobalt-60 gamma ray cell of Figure 24, and within a few minutes an even deeper purple color appears, as shown in Plate XI.
      A century ago, glass used to be decolorized with manganese additions to remove the green color caused by iron impurities. It is the Mn2+ left from this process which loses an electron to form the purple Mn7+ shown in Plate XI in the solarization process described at the beginning of this section.

    • Photos of vault lights in Portland, Astoria, Seattle, and Victoria, BC.
    • The National Park Service considers them part of the "look" of historic Lowell, Mass., and therefore worth preserving.
    • As part of an award-winning restoration of Seattle's Pioneer Square, "pre-purpled" vault lights were installed.
    • And two pages touching on vault lights in New York City.
    • If you need to buy modern replacements for your vault lights, here's one source for them. Not purple, though.
    • A mention of underground vaults in connection with persistent stories across the Old West that they were somehow connected with secret doings in the Chinese community. Our own "Shanghai tunnel" mythology may be connected to this as well.
    • Off on a bit of a tangent, a piece about obscure & unusual elevators in the state of Oregon. Sidewalk elevators get a brief mention here:

      The City of Portland in the past gave out permits for sidewalk elevators so the downtown buildings could receive freight below ground in their basements. As far as anyone knows there have been no new permits issued for a long time but there are some of these elevators used today. We will not list them.
    • An interesting, poetic blog entry about vault lights.
    • Portland's sidewalk elevators get a mention in this intriguing thread about the tech behind vaults and elevators, among other things. This post discusses how sidewalk elevators work, and has this to say about vault lights:

      The glass blocks you recall being imbedded in the sidewalk were called "vault lights". As you note, some businesses had extended their basements out past the "building line" and under the sidewalk. Usually, this was done to provide working space around a sidewalk type freight elevator, additional storage or utility space (as for water,gas and electric meters) or was done to provide space for coal bins or bunkers. I have been in a few such basements in really old buildings and walked in under the vault lights. It is a strange feeling to be "under the sidewalk" and see the changing light patterns as pedestrian traffic keeps right on walking accross the vault lights with no knowledge you are under their feet. In truth, a weak light, at best, came thru the vault lights. These were solid pieces of glass imbedded in a concrete slab which the formed the roof of the "vault" or extended basement. The glass was usually quite thick, ont he order of 2 or 3" thick. Over time, the glass became frosted from foot traffic, steel wheeled carts, and the use of sand and ashes on the sidewalks during winter weather. Typically, if you looked closely at the sidewalks where there were vault lights, you would see a strip of bronze imbedde dint he concrete- this marked off the limits of the "sidewalk vault". You might also see a small cast bronze tag imbedded in the concrete giving the name of the vault light maker. I haven't been down in the old parts of NY city in years, so don;t know if the sidewalk freight elevators and the sidewalk vaults and vault lights still exist.
    • JSTOR has the text of a book or article titled Superstitions from Oregon, but the Google search that led me there indicates there was a superstition about walking on sidewalk vault doors. Which isn't completely unreasonable, since some of them can get pretty slippery when wet.
    • The MySpace profile of a local guy who lists vault lights as one of his interests.
    • From the state building codes division, we learn that sidewalk elevators now only need to be inspected once every two years, instead of annually. (It's on page 4 of the linked PDF.) An earlier doc from the same agency informs us that yes, you do need a permit for a sidewalk elevator, and the pertinent safety regulations may be found in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers' A17.1 Part IV. Unfortunately I'd have to pay money to find out what that says. So first, I guess I need to find someone to fund my latest "coolest bar ever" idea, and then find out whether it'd actually be legal or not.

    Monday, November 27, 2006

    10,000 and counting...

    Wow. Earlier today, my lil' hit counter doodad hit the 10,000 mark. 104 visitors in less than a year. Sure, plenty of sites get that many visitors every minute, but still, I'm flattered. Although it's a bit late for Thanksgiving, I'd like to say thanks, everybody, all the same. I'll get to the Thanksgiving thrills, chills, 'n spills in a moment, but first a bit more about today's important milestone.

    Visitor #10000 came here looking for wisteria photos. I posted a few of those back in early May (see here), but this visitor probably never saw them; several weeks ago there was a sudden upsurge in search hits from, which would be neato except that they're basically all "junk" hits. Instead of directing users to a specific post, Google Images sends people to the archive page for the entire month in which I posted the desired photo(s). Needle, meet haystack. So instead of going to the specific wisteria post, user 10k ended up at my May '06 archive page. The wisteria pics are near the very bottom of the page, and the top story is a grim bit about the massacre at Haditha, something you're probably not in the mood to see if you're looking for nice photos of flowers. If this blog had a narrow focus on either flowers or the mideast, all these archive page hits wouldn't be a big deal, but whatever super-secret algorithm Google's using right now clearly discriminates against those of us with wide-ranging interests.

    Also, Google sends image queries your way if you merely link to a picture and don't actually include it in your page. Last December, I made the innocent mistake of linking to a photo of the Devil in his Tucker Carlson "harmless doofus" persona, just mentioning the guy briefly at the bottom of a mostly-unrelated post. Now, if you click the #2 image hit for ol' whatsisname, you'll arrive at my December '05 archive page. When you get there, you'll really have to search to find my brief snarky comment about the guy, and you won't find the linked photo at all, because it isn't here, dammit. It just isn't. All of this just goes to prove the guy really is the Devil.

    A few days ago, I got a brief flurry of silky anteater hits, and I'm still not sure why. Maybe Animal Planet reran the stupid nature show where I first heard of 'em. There's no way to know, really. But I'm willing to misinterpret that as a vast surge of popular demand for cute animal photos. I don't actually have a lot of those, unfortunately. I was just about to upload a handful of third-rate wildlife photos I had on hand, but I like to think I've achieved a certain level of quality here, and blurry long-distance photos of deer and hummingbirds just won't do the trick. So I think we'll go without photos for once.

    So whatever. As I was about to say before I interrupted myself, Thanksgiving was just fine. This year someone brought poker chips to the big family gathering, so us manly men would have something manly to do while the womenfolk were in the kitchen making pies and quilts and churning butter and gossiping and watching Oprah and doing who-knows-what. Seems certain male relatives of mine have caught the Texas hold-em bug, so I finally broke down and (sort of) learned how to play, or at least how to lose. Then grandpa arrived. He's 95, and he's been playing poker since about age 8 or so, and he hasn't forgotten a thing. Grandpa says Texas hold-em is a sissy game, and he wants to play 5 card draw or 7 card stud, with an occasional round of 3 card lowball. Which is fine by me. I learned to play (sort of) on the classics (thanks, Cub Scouts!), not this newfangled business with cards in the middle and small and big blinds and all this complicated crap. Switching to dealer's choice didn't help me a lot, since grandpa ended up with all my chips, but at least it was more fun. The unspoken rule of playing cards with grandpa is that he'll see what he can get away with, since he knows you aren't likely to call him on it. I see everything (I think) but I don't say a word, because it's just a marvel watching the guy work. You'd almost chalk it all up to fumbling 95-year-old fingers, except that it always works to his advantage, and it's always subtle. You won't catch the guy with five aces or anything egregious like that, and most of the time he plays strictly by the book and beats you fair and square anyway. Ever heard the saying about how old age and treachery defeats youth and skill? I think grandpa might've been the inspiration for that. Did I mention he's also basically unbeatable at pool, too? It's true. If I live to be 95, I figure I could do a lot worse than to be the resident poker & pool shark down at the senior center, and I expect I'd feel I, too, was entitled to beat the young 'uns at cards by any means necessary. As for the meal? I'm slowly realizing that "turkey" rhymes with "jerky" for a reason. That's all I'm going to say.

    The next day, it was time to go see the latest James Bond flick with dad. Well, with the whole family, but mostly with dad, who's a huge James Bond fan. He seemed to think Casino Royale is one of the better Bond films. I thought it wasn't bad, although I got a chuckle out of the extended casino sequence. Instead of baccarat, the gazillionaire high rollers have a tense high-stakes game of... you guessed it, Texas hold-em. I kept expecting to see some D-list celebrities show up, and maybe a camera crew from a third-tier cable network. I'm not asserting that rich people actually play baccarat in real life. They probably play bridge, perhaps the only card game in the universe that's even more complicated than baccarat, and it isn't even played for money. Maybe that's why the rich are still rich, I dunno. That aside, dad and I got to drool over the new Aston-Martin for a bit, so overall I suppose it was money well spent.

    The following day, it was time to hang out with a friend of ours who's single and newly 40, which means a rapid trek from bar to bar all across town, searching for eligible women. If none spring immediately to hand, it's off to the next bar. I don't entirely understand the role we play in this quest. I guess we're there as the normal-looking married friends who help him look safe and nonthreatening or something. Which is ok, since he really is safe and nonthreatening, he just doesn't look like it when you first see him. Sometimes it takes a few months to see past the dubious exterior, and we're there to facilitate the process as best we can. It hasn't worked yet, but we're all still very hopeful. At least, I think that's the role we play in his scheme. I'm not 100% sure. I don't really remember a lot about the evening, quite honestly. At one point there were tater tots and electronica, and I think that was the highlight of the evening, as far as I can recall.

    The day after that, I woke up and felt utterly godawful. Finally got over that and had just enough stamina to get up and go to the gym for the first time in a week, and after that it was nothing but junk food and beer and cheesy movies. Ahhhhhh. Now that's what I call a holiday...