Viewing entries in

Futuristic Ruins


I recently checked out the new additions to the San Antonio Botanical Garden. The Welcome Center, Discovery Center, Culinary Garden and Family Adventure Garden are all great enhancements to the San Antonio institution but as I explored the gardens I was reminded of how great the Lucile Halsell Conservatory truly is.

Designed in the 1980s it was one of the first major projects by Argentinian architect Emilio Ambasz. The project consists of a series of subterranean greenhouses that feature plants from different biomes from around the world. Each of these gardens is illuminated by geometric skylights and the overall composition somehow feels like a futuristic spaceship and a ancient ruin.

San Antonio has it's fair share of good buildings, but I've always felt this was one of its most underappreciated gems.



In Praise Of The Sectional Chart

Last year the FAA established new standards for the commercial operation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, drones, etc.) in US airspace. What that meant for me was that I could no longer use my drone for what I had originally purchased it for without obtaining a Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Airman Certificate. I am in the process of doing that now and have spent the last week or so studying for my Aeronautical Knowledge Test.

I've spent about a week studying the material and like most exams (the ARE, the bar, etc.) some of the material covered is of dubious importance. For example, I've learned all about runway markers even though my quadcopter doesn't need a runway to takeoff. Still, I now know what the colored markers mean that are pictured on the left side of our rendering of our design improvements for the Stinson Municipal Airport Control Tower. The yellow "B" on the black background indicates that is Taxiway B and that the white "32-14" numbers on a red background indicate that taxiway is about to cross runway 14/32.

One thing that has been worthwhile to learn is how to read a VFR Aeronautical Charts (see above). Produced by the FAA and updated every six months, these so-called "Sectional Charts" are designed to give pilots the information they need to navigate under visual flight rules. As such they illustrate and label landmarks that would be visible from the air (cities, roads, lakes, etc.). But overlaid on top of that are several layers of information that is completely invisible.

For example you also see the multi-colored concentric circles you see describe the various classes controlled airspace that surround various airports. The solid magenta circles you see around San Antonio and Austin are for the "Class C" airspace that surround San Antonio International and Austin–Bergstrom International Airports. This type of airspace exists as "inverted layer cake": the inner circle represents a layer that goes from the ground all the way up to 4,800 feet whereas the outer circle represents a layer that starts at 2,000 feet and goes up to 4,800 feet.

Plenty of other information can be found here as well: control tower radio frequencies, the location and height of large obstructions and areas where the military conducts low-altitude operations. Almost everything a pilot needs to know can be found on the charts. Even current weather conditions can be found by listening to the Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS) broadcast whose radio frequency is provided on the Section Chart. 

The density of information is part of what makes these charts so compelling. Seeing your world rendered in a way you don't normally see it is equally fascinating. It's like looking at an aerial photo of where you live in Google Earth: the landscape it renders is both familiar and foreign at the same time. It is also abstracted in a way that I would argue is beautiful.

For an even greater level of abstraction, check out IFR Aeronautical Charts (see below). These documents are for pilots using only their instruments and so provide no visual reference to what's happening on the ground. Instead all that is rendered are the invisible airways and waypoints that crisscross the sky above us.

Notes From a Contested Border

My daughter at the US / Mexico border

My daughter at the US / Mexico border

A couple of weekends ago I took my girls out to west Texas. I picked them up from school on Friday and headed west on I-10 out to Fort Stockton. We stayed there overnight before making our ascent into the Davis Mountains on Saturday morning. We visited the fort, we hiked and we went to a star party at the McDonald Observatory. It was a great little adventure for us to share.

On Sunday morning we made our way back toward San Antonio via U.S-90. The highway takes a more southerly route that hugs the Rio Grande for about ninety miles between Dryden and Del Rio. For much of that time it's possible to look across the rugged Chihuahuan Desert landscape, over the Rio Grande valley and into Mexico. In Langtry there's even a state-run Visitor's Center and you can walk a short trail down to the border itself.

Over 12,000 miles of America's 19,000 mile border with Mexico is between Mexico and Texas. Most of this area is sparsely populated (El Paso, Laredo and the Lower Rio Grande Valley being notable exceptions) and although the Rio Grande acts as a physical demarcation, it isn't much of a physical barrier. The line on the map is often invisible here. There are no walls here nor are there fences.

Nor do there need to be.

Here the desert itself acts as a barrier and even so the US Border Patrol maintains a strong presence. The idea is that even if the border itself might porous, the ways out of it are not. In addition to a series of constitutionally questionable interior checkpoints, Border Patrol agents are constantly patrolling the area. We probably passed twenty of their vehicles on our drive.

More importantly, there are no marauding bands of illegals. There are no murders. There are no rapists. In all my trips along the border, I have never seen the "illegals" that are supposedly pouring across the border. I'm not saying they don't exist, but the fact is the system implemented over the last several decades works well and the increase in security there after 9-11 has been a economic boon to the region

I know that there is a narrative that exists that the border is a lawless place that is unsafe. That is not true in my experience. I've found the border to be a place of rugged beauty; a place teeming with wildlife; a place where I would happily take my daughters.