Friday, July 15, 2005

Brown Shirt and Crazy Pants

Yesterday we were scheduled to interview Congresswoman Judy Biggert, a Republican representative from Illinois. I wanted to speak to her because she was a Republican, she was chair of the Energy sub-committee of the Science committee, and because she had spoken out against the budget Bush released as being "counter-intuitive." Our plan was to meet on the Capitol steps (Andrew and I were coming from a hotel, Monica was staying with friends) at 10:30. Having to lug all our gear for a couple of miles down streets and in and out of the Metro stations, Andrew and I were running late. As we were huffing it towards the Capitol, I got a text message from Monica:

"Get here! I am being watched! Here they come!"

Andrew and I finally arrived, but were on the wrong side of the Capitol. There were guards and tourists, and I got out the camera to get some shots of the building and down the Mall towards the Washington monument. I called Monica and she said the guards had been circling over on her side. She had mentioned something to them about waiting for the camera crew, and had given them the shpiel about being part of a documentary group, blah blah blah. It sounded like the "business end" of the Capitol was on Monica's side, so we headed over there.

On this side there were limos, men and women in dark suits and ID tags walking quickly in and out, and occaisional smiling politician posing on the steps with a visiting special interest group (that day it was several hundred blue-jacketed Future Farmers of America), and more guards. Up on the stairs were a couple of guards with semi-automatic rifles and mirrored sunglasses. Naturally, I pulled out the camera and started shooting. Right away, of course, a group of three guards came over. To their credit, they were all pretty nice. Even relaxed.

"What are you guys up to?" One of them said. I told them. He nodded and asked a couple of questions about the documentary, actually sounding a little interested. "We saw you on the other side," he said. Monica was right, they had been watching us. I think he was bored and a little diversion was always welcome. I asked about setting up the tripod and ran into an example of procedure trumping common sense.

"No tripods," they all said. "If you want to use a tripod you have to get a permit."

OK, how do you get a permit?

"You can give me your name and I can contact the sargeant of arms and set up an appointment. Usually takes about five days."

Five days?


But, it was OK to use the same camera without the tripod. Sure, I can understand that they don't want someone setting up a rifle on a tripod to get a good shot at something. But here I am, holding a video camera, not a rifle. Put it on the tripod: ALERT! Take it off the tripod: yawn.

Anyway, I packed up the tripod and walked off to get some wider shots (I actually used a big orange traffic cone as a makeshift tripod). While I was gone, another guard, this one big, bald, and more uptight, came over by Monica and Andrew with a walkie-talkie. Monica heard him say "I'm standing over here by Brown Shirt. Yeah. Over." Monica looked down. Yep, she was wearing a brown shirt. Then the guard said in a not-so-quiet voice, pointing in my general direction. "Is she with Crazy Pants?"

Crazy Pants?

The other guard nodded. Monica, extremely amused, asked the guard who had been speaking conversationally with us, "did I hear right? Did he just call my co-director 'crazy pants?'" The guard looked a little embarassed and said, softly, "some of these guys are a little more hard-core than others."

But, Crazy Pants??

When she related this to me, I must confess I looked at myself in the mirror every time I went into the bathroom. My pants were black, cotton, nothing special. Monica and Andrew both assured me there was nothing special about my pants.

It does highlight the different world we live in now --- Monica said she remembers a time when anyone could just walk in to the Capitol, go right up to the observation gallery and watch them on the house or the senate floor, and even walk right into the office of your representative or senator. Just walk right in. If you tried that now, they would shut down the capitol and you'd be arrested. Not that you'd ever get that close, with semi-automatic rifles, guards, and their keen powers of observation. They've got you pegged from the moment you step near the Capitol.

But, really. Crazy Pants???

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

On the Potomac

I'm sitting in the lobby of our little hotel. Today we interviewed John Marburger, the president's science advisor. He was sincere and honest, although, understandably, at times a mouthpiece for the administration. It was interesting to hear particle physics put in a large context, though --- he said "when you're working on a project, of course it's the most important project in the world. When it gets canceled, of course you think it's the worst thing that could have happened. But there are other things more relevant to human progress than particle physics." Yesterday we heard from our physicists from Fermilab as they argued for continued funding for Fermilab at a High Energy Physics Advisory Panel meeting --- I don't think they would have appreciated the kind of marginalizing rhetoric that Marburger employed, but it will be an interesting spot for the viewer of our movie in which to find him/herself: so, what is the importance of particle physics? Why should I care?

And, of course, that's one of the main questions we will be asking.

Also got some B-roll of the white house, to locate us here. Tomorrow we meet with Judy Biggert, a senator from Illinois, and the chairwoman of the science subcommittee, followed by Chris Mooney, a journalist specializing in the intersection between science and politics. Alas, Natalie Angier had to cancel due to a family emergency, and House Speaker Hastert had to cancel due to his schedule.

Must get to bed now --- more later.

Monday, July 11, 2005

DC, here we come

Today Andrew and I fly out for Washington DC. Monica drove out over the weekend, so she's already there. We've got several interviews scheduled, so it should be a busy three days. It's an amazing statement of electronic engineering to say that everything (our camera, our lights, our sound gear, and our video tapes) can fit into one medium-sized rolling suitcase. Add the tripod and you have an incredibly portable rig. At this fidelity, this was not possible even 10 years ago.

Wish us luck...!

I'll try to post once or twice from the road.

Wednesday, July 6, 2005

At last, and pictures

I apologize for the strange spacing --- I can't quite figure out the html code to make this neater.

We managed to get the tiny wireless video camera strapped into place on the wing. Dr. Zager brought along a couple of strips of velcro, which he mounted perfectly on the right side. He and Andreas, the Swedish Physicist, devised a terrific plan to acquire the shot we wanted.

If you remember, I was looking for a shot of the Fermilab hi-rise (the main building in the facility) from the air (see "bird's eye view - sort of"). The plane that they strapped the camera to belonged to the Barnstormer's club, and was what they call a "trainer." This is sort of like the cars that they used in Driver's Ed in high school, the ones with the extra brake on the instructor's side. There were two remote control consoles wired together. One of them was the "trainer" console and the other was for the student. The trainer could assign control to the student and then take it back in an emergency (such as a nose-dive).

It was Andreas' idea to try to fly the airplane by watching the video feed --- in other words, he was going to sit at the picnic table with one eye smashed against the viewfinder of the video camera and fly the plane by, in essence, looking through the wireless camera on the wing. Imagine mounting a video camera on the hood of a car and trying to drive by watching the feed on a TV. Heck, it's basically a video game.

Anyway, Dr. Zager had the trainer console and they took it up in the air. After about 10 minutes they started to get the hang of it. We heard a lot of "Do I have it?" "You have it." "OK, I'm taking it back." "Do you have it?" "Do you want it?" "Give it to me." "No, I've got it." "Take it!" "Where is it?" "Who has it?" It was really quite exciting. And I think we got our shot. They had a lot of fun, and are extremely excited to get the footage from the flight.

Jim Zager, Barnstormers president, prepping the plane

The camera, mounted with velcro
Andreas, aka "The Swedish Physicist"
The plane, ready to fly

Here are some pictures from CDF, which is the huge building that houses one of the two detectors. The detectors are located on opposite sides of the 4-mile ring, and they are two spots where the protons crash into the anti-protons. In a sense, the detector is like a giant MRI tunnel. The collisions happen (millions per second) and the giant donut shape takes "pictures" of the resulting sub-atomic debris. These pictures are some of the more photogenic equipment we found in there...

I'm sure there must have been a plan
I don't know why they need liquid helium, but they do
Beautiful, in its own way
The Control room in the detector, where they monitor the collisions. Not to be confused with the Main Control Room, where they run the entire accelerator and where we got yelled at (see "trouble in the control room"
The Control Room, wide shot

Sunday, July 3, 2005

Andrew comes through

Andrew, as I said, has been working furiously to prepare for our trip to Washington D.C. While Monica and I were interviewing the Fermilab archivist, Monica's cell phone beeped with a text-message. It was from Andrew. "We got Marburger!"

John Marburger is President Bush's science advisor. It's a little daunting to think we'll be speaking to a fairly high-ranking member of the Bush Administration...

It's amazing what you can accomplish if you just ask. Plus, Andrew writes a mean email.

PS we achieved radio-controlled airplane cinematography. Images to come.