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Archive for February, 2009

I’ve just spent a fascinating day in the desert an hour and a half north of Los Angeles.

It was an Art Center College of Design field trip. First stop was a hangar-cum-workshop at the Mojave airport – officially, and very grandly, the Mojave Air and Space Port — where I met Jon Sharp, a charming, civilized 50-something guy who built (with his wife Patricia) and races a two-seat airplane called NemesisNXT.

The fastest plane of its kind on earth

The fastest plane of its kind on earth

The plane is made from a so-called “composite” material – molded plastic pieces glued together, essentially, like a giant model airplane. Last fall at a race in Reno he flew 409 miles per hour, which is now the world record for his class of homebuilt plane. When NemesisNXT turns at those speeds it subjects Jon to 6 Gs of gravitational force. He also said he’s flown the little plane from my home state of Nebraska back to Mojave in four hours, including a stop for gas, which is amazing.

You can buy a kit from the Sharps to build your own NemesisNXT, which will run you something over $300,000.

On the other side of the airport — Space Port, I mean — is Scaled Composites, which is the 320-employee company founded and still presided over by Burt Rutan, the most famous living aircraft designer. Among other achievements, Rutan designed the Voyager, the first plane to circumnavigate the planet nonstop without refueling, and SpaceShipOne, the first private spacecraft.

At Scaled I met Bob Williams, the company’s program manager, who hates the federal government (a frequent client) and “the media,” and doesn’t seem to think that climate change is a result of human activity. But he obviously loves helping to build unprecedented, record-setting aeronautical marvels, and he was hard not to like.

Twenty minutes from there – that is, in this wide-open part of the world, next door – I toured NASA’s Dryden Research Center, which is on Edwards Air Force Base. CIVILIANS WELCOME! says the sign in the cafeteria, and the portraits of Barack Obama and Joe Biden are already up.

A mural inside the NASA research center at Edwards AFB

A mural inside the NASA research center at Edwards AFB

One of NASA's F-18s (I think) in its hangar

One of NASA's F-18s (I think) in its hangar

There we saw historic planes (such as an X-15, which was the subject of the first non-fiction book I read as a child) and the research planes they use today – such as an autonomous robot plane that can fly on its own for 31 hours.

winfieldsignphoto

On the way back to L.A., my Art Center pal Nik Hafermaas took me to the middle-of-nowhere headquarters of Gene Winfield. In certain circles, Winfield is a god: now 81, he is an old-school hot-rodder and custom-car designer who has made cars for movies (including Back tothe Future, RoboCop and Blade Runner) and still makes them for well-to-do car freaks.

winfieldcarsphoto His parts yard, where we wandered and stared as a bluesy rock instrumental blasted from behind a closed shodoor, was like an art installation.winfieldjunkphoto

winfield47photo

A concept car Winfield designed for Detroit a half century ago

A concept car Winfield designed for Detroit a half century ago

At the end of my day in America – a version of the country that I’d never really stepped into, and had really only  read about, in The Right Stuff and The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby – I was utterly bedoozled. The desert sun helped.

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photo credit: Dan in LA/flickr

photo credit: Dan in LA/flickr

Attending the Oscar ceremony last night, I realized why the pre-show red-carpet rigmarole has become more and more a focus of the television coverage over the last decade or so: that’s the juiciest part of the quasi-official event, a reality-show The Day of the Locust without the apocalyptic ending.

First there’s the arrival by car through a half-mile-long cordon sanitaire enforced by scores of LAPD officers and quasi-military LAPD vehicles, crawling at a few miles per hour past roped-back hundreds of noisy citizens. (The printed Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences instructions noted that limousines longer than 39 feet could not be accommodated.)

A few of the citizens were waving vicious you-Hollywood-people-are-damned signs. But most of them were just celebrity-besotted bystanders eager to be in the proximity of the spectacle, and to gawk. (Like me, in other words, but without tickets.) I also spotted an FBI agent among the police, and wondered: why? The slow-mo mob walk up the red carpet was entertaining; I felt as if I’d stepped through the looking glass — or, rather, through the TV screen. No one asked me who I was wearing; I would’ve been obliged to answer, “Armani circa 1993 for the jacket, Men’s Warehouse 2009 for the pants.”

As splendidly and inventively staged as the show inside the theater was, the audience scene there, despite the strictly black-tie costuming, isn’t exactly thrilling. The celebrity ratio is low. A friend, like me a first-time attendee, remarked that it felt to him like “New Jersey prom night.” And by the way? Waltz With Bashir was robbed.

The party thrown afterward by Vanity Fair at an old hotel on Sunset Boulevard, however, was astoundingly glamorous, like a Hollywood party as portrayed in a Hollywood movie. In general I disapprove of name-dropping, but what choice do I have? In a space no larger than my house I walked and stood within a few feet of Amy Adams, Judd Apatow, Jason Bateman, Halle Berry, Danny Boyle, Larry David, Robert Downey Jr., John Hamm, Mick Jagger, Elton John, Nicole Kidman, Jude Law, Debra Messing, Rupert Murdoch, Natalie Portman, Seth Rogen, Ben Stiller, Meryl Streep, Tilda Swinton, Uma Thurman and, according to my wife, the young male stars of Twilight and The 300.

Having absolutely gorged on glitz for 10 hours, I am now exhausted, and feel as if I should retreat to a monastery for several weeks. Or at least read Henry James and take a nap.

– Kurt Andersen

Header photo credit: sanjoyg/flickr

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Gaze up above any low slung building in LA and this is the view.

Gaze up above any low slung building in LA and this is the view.

Greetings from the other side of the Pacific Rim– Los Angeles! This winter/spring Kurt Andersen has a special residency at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and we’ve got some LA-based stories and interviews in the works. I finally walked around my new nabe today in mid-city. (I’m calling it LaVicPic– near the intersection of La Brea, San Vicente, and Pico), and I stumbled on what I thought was a record store, called 33Third.

cans o paint at 33third

The name is a reference to the vinyl it used to sell. The record bins were empty, but on the opposite wall was a mesmerizing grid of aerosol paint cans in colors with names like eggplant, smurf, and aspen. Each can goes for $7 or $8 bucks. Bill, who was working the register, told me the vandals shop elsewhere; taggers prefer the $1 cans from the hardware store. Turns out high end paint for graffiti artists makes 33Third way more money than vinyl records ever did. Then he opened up the back door for me to check out the yard. Every available surface is covered with graff art, even the BBQ. In March they’ll have DJs, live bands, and graff parties out back, it’s not warm enough now, Bill says. How is that possible? It was at least 80 degrees here today!

— Michele Siegel

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Blogger Lisa Katayama took Kurt to Tokyo’s girl haven: the sticker picture booth.

You can download the video here.

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We have a show!

We proudly present the complete Studio 360 in Japan episode! Listen here:

Check out our website for more Japan stories, video and photos.

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Ladies and Gentlemen…

Greetings from Studio 360’s home base in New York City!

After weeks of listening to tape and mixing (and remixing) our stories, we’re proud to post the first sounds of our trip to Japan. On this past week’s show, we broadcast an interview with the writer Pico Iyer in Nara Park (remember Bad Bambi?), a lesson in Japanese tea ceremony, and Pejk’s trip to a mysterious forest at the base of Mt. Fuji.

Also, with the help of Matthew Cavnar, we present the first of three Studio 360 high-definition shorts. The first is from Kurt’s conversation with Pico in Nara Park:

We’ve got a full episode of material from Japan in this week’s (upcoming) episode. Hope you’ll tune in!

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