Shuffleboard At McMurdo
May 16, 2016 8:44 AM   Subscribe

Maciej is a beloved Internet nerd who runs the bookmarking service Pinboard. He's also an excellent writer, particularly wry observations on travel. His travelogue of Yemen is particularly amazing. This post is the first from his Kickstarted trip.

My favorite quote from the Antarctica essay:
Consecrated in 1947, Antarctica has always been friendlier to Christianity than to the other Abrahamic faiths. Judaism and Islam have problems at high latitude due to an unhealthy preoccupation with sunsets. Christianity works right out of the box.
posted by Nelson at 9:14 AM on May 16, 2016 [19 favorites]

Nelson, I already had that exact paragraph from deep in the article in my paste buffer to paste here. That is a marvel of good writing.
posted by mcstayinskool at 9:28 AM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

I would totally read a Maciej travelogue book (or any other sort of book) with this sort of wry Bill Bryson style. Anecdote plus infodump delivered via dry humour is a simple formula, but it really cooks when it's done well.
posted by figurant at 9:42 AM on May 16, 2016 [6 favorites]

This is the first piece I've read about Antarctica/McMurdo that's left me depressed.

I figure that's a good thing, though. It means that before now I must've only imbibed rah-rah party line propaganda, and it's best that I have those goggles cracked off. And it's well-written and funny as it does so.
posted by theatro at 10:56 AM on May 16, 2016

Oh man, that Yemeni essay is brilliant.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 11:40 AM on May 16, 2016

Try reading Nicholas Johnson's (RIP) Big Dead Place - it's fun and funny too .

...was just about to post the same thing!
posted by praemunire at 11:48 AM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh man, that Yemeni essay is brilliant.

and topical. Maciej must have been practically the last "western" tourist to pass through Yemen before Saudi Arabia and the US decided to destroy it.

here's hoping we don't declare war on Antarctica now that's he's gone there...
posted by at 11:49 AM on May 16, 2016

Such great writing! I'll restrict myself to two passages:
The whole thing is like one of those Russian fairy tales, where the hero must cross seven seas and seven mountains, slay Koshchei the Deathless, find the giant oak, exhume an iron chest, open it to find a hare, cut the hare open to find a duck, dig through the duck to find an egg, and crack the egg open to reveal an enchanted golden needle, or in this case, Zippo lighter.

. . .

Soon our landing party is stretched into a thin line along the road from Sausage Point. The worried volunteers shuttle back and forth between us, muttering into their radios. It has taken us fifteen minutes to leave the landing area and in the process we have, as military historians would say, ceased to function as a coherent organized unit. Sausage Point has become our Hamburger Hill.
And for heaven's sake don't miss the explanation of why it's called Sausage Point.

I met Maciej in 2004!
posted by languagehat at 12:05 PM on May 16, 2016 [7 favorites]

Oh man, I hadn't seen that about Johnson. That's sad. Fucking tragedy that his online presence was allowed to lapse.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 12:29 PM on May 16, 2016

The Shokalskiy rolls to thirty degrees every four seconds, back and forth, all the way across the Southern Ocean. A few times a day the ship tilts past forty degrees, the angle at which the grippy foam placemats on every surface release their hold on a coffee mug. And at least twice during the voyage, we roll past fifty degrees ①. At that point it makes more sense to try to stand on the walls than the floor.

I felt seasick just reading that.
posted by Existential Dread at 12:30 PM on May 16, 2016

A few tons of sausage buried in the ground during a previous era had been discovered by a Fleet-Ops operator who was drilling into the earth in preparation for a new building down by the sea ice. With the drill he struck a noxious pocket of primeval sausage slime that squirted onto his face, searing his eye with a swift yellow infection that puffed up half his face and put him out of commission for about a week. The earth-sausage mixture was excavated from the frozen ground and dumped in piles beside the road, where a squad of GAs [general assistants] was dispatched into the feeding swarm of skuas to separate the meat from the rock and throw it into triwalls that we banded up and loaded in milvans to be exported to the United States.
And that, folks, is why you always wear your eye protection.
posted by Existential Dread at 12:35 PM on May 16, 2016 [5 favorites]

I excuse myself for a moment to go enjoy the feeling of peeing into something stationary.

posted by euphorb at 12:43 PM on May 16, 2016

Thanks for the kind words, everyone! I'm chiming in to recommend Big Dead Place to anyone who is curious about life at McMurdo. If you hate The Man and like dark humor, you're in for a treat with Nick Johnson. RIP to Antarctica's best writer.
posted by idlewords at 12:48 PM on May 16, 2016 [49 favorites]

My favorite McMurdo book is Sara Wheeler's Terra Incognita. It's a fantastically well researched intro to Antarctic history.
posted by Bee'sWing at 1:21 PM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm kind of suprised they didn't just leave the skuas to do the job. Maybe they were afraid of poisoning them all?
posted by tavella at 1:23 PM on May 16, 2016

posted by duende at 1:26 PM on May 16, 2016

From what I know about skuas, no one would be afraid of poisoning them.
posted by Bee'sWing at 1:33 PM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yay for maciej and this project!
Also this leaves me weirdly agitated about whether the crew member got her lighter.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:07 PM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Great article...and now I'm making my way through the Yemen articles, just fascinating and great writing (let the qat out of the bag!!)
posted by dabug at 3:29 PM on May 16, 2016

Pretty spot on, and it's really interesting to read about the McMurdo experience from the tourist side. I do take some exception to this:
To come to Antarctica, a place where human beings do not belong, you have to tell yourself lies. Basic courtesy says you should respect the lies other people tell themselves, too. We pretend to be a ship full of explorers instead of a floating rest home, and McMurdo pretends to be a scientific research station instead of a placeholder for Exxon-Mobil (or secret missile base).
I think most people at McMurdo are aware of the geopolitical purposes it serves, but that doesn't mean they share the same goals. The scientists, at least, are there to gather as much quality data as they can, and in my experience most of the staff is pretty enthusiastic about science as well (although since I was there as a scientist, or "beaker" in the local parlance, maybe I just didn't meet the ones who weren't into that sort of thing.) If the research is ultimately only getting funded so the U.S. can throw its weight around, well, at least it's getting funded.

I'm kind of suprised they didn't just leave the skuas to do the job. Maybe they were afraid of poisoning them all?

I expect they were concerned about the skuas hanging around after they were done with the sausage and making even more trouble than usual.

And for the collection of favorite excerpts:
Erebus is a likable, industrious volcano, one of the few volcanoes that does its business day in and day out without fuss. No melodrama, just quiet, dependable volcanoing. Occasionally the mountain may show some flame, or hurl a rock or two skyward, but mostly it’s content to emit a plume of smoke, exactly like in a child’s drawing of a volcano, and for this it is universally esteemed.
Looking forward to the next installment!
posted by fermion at 4:45 PM on May 16, 2016 [4 favorites]

How nice to hear from a real McMurdoite! I didn't mean to imply that the scientists or staff at McMurdo are acting in bad faith, and I'm sorry that passage came across that way. I had a nice caveat about scientists in particular that I couldn't find a good place for in the final draft.

I think whatever disingenousness there is about the program is more likely to be found in Denver or DC than McMurdo. The distance between the official voice of the Antarctic program and the experience of people doing the actual work (both science and support), is one of the things I find most fascinating about the place.

Definitely do all the research you can while you can, whatever the motives of the top brass. And thanks to your colleagues for taking the time to show my skeptical ass around.
posted by idlewords at 5:04 PM on May 16, 2016 [14 favorites]

As the administrative heart of McMurdo, the Chalet has the power to (unofficially) stamp our passports, and the passengers line up excited for this little formality. In this respect, McMurdo has our number. I have learned that people willing to spend a fortune on Ross Sea travel share a love of grandeur, remoteness, and filling out forms. During our trip south, the passengers have sometimes seemed more interested in the official names of things than in the things themselves. They fight over the map instead of looking out the window. Their idea of heaven would be completing a tax return on Mars.

I like this a lot. But then, I actually do love filling out forms. You rock.
posted by limeonaire at 5:28 PM on May 16, 2016 [4 favorites]

No worries, idlewords, tone is hard on the Internet! And that cruise ship crack was out of line; I have frequently thanked my lucky stars that I got to take a nice comfy 5-hour plane ride to get to McMurdo rather than enduring days or weeks of the Southern Ocean like you did. (I'm glad you got to see the coffeehouse, by the by; it's probably my favorite building on the station. I've heard distressing rumors that it's slated for demolition soon. Also, since you mentioned the sewage plant in your article, I feel like you might enjoy this blog post I wrote about its inner workings.)
posted by fermion at 5:34 PM on May 16, 2016 [9 favorites]

Wonderful piece, so many great, quotable lines. I'm particularly in love with this one:

In a nod to geopolitical realities, the Russians will be taken directly to the gift shop.
posted by Doleful Creature at 8:40 PM on May 16, 2016

I have no use for it, but I really want one of those lighters now. Not going after it, though. I'm cold enough where I am.

Great article, idlewords, and thanks to the man of twists and turns for posting it.
posted by bryon at 10:36 PM on May 16, 2016

Nice blog post fermion, although I admit I had to read this line a couple of times as I had images of tons of microbially-digested shit being dumped on top of a room full of journalists:

The sewage spends some time in the tanks, being merrily digested by enormous hordes of bacteria, before it’s decanted into the press room.
posted by jontyjago at 2:57 AM on May 17, 2016

I was a "real McMurdoite" for five-ish years all told and this made me feel very defensive at first, but then I saw your bit about Denver above and I feel better now.

The machine of the US Antarctic Program is sprawling and monolithic and mismanaged and employs some of the most amazing, inspired, inspiring, talented, creative, and hard working people I have ever known. McMurdo was my home. It's hideous and it smells constantly of diesel exhaust and frying food and the skuas hunger for your blood and HR is trying to ruin your fun but I kept going back because it's the most amazing place I have ever been. I was one of the fortunate few whose jobs took them off the station with any regularity and I got to see some incredible things but I was just as happy when it was pitch dark for 24 hours a day and eighty below and there was nowhere else to go or be.

I think about Antarctica every day.

I'm one of the few people down there who actually liked Herzog's film, but for a universally endorsed (by actual MacTown workers, not scientists or explorers) look at day to day life, check out Antarctica: A Year on Ice.

This was a bit disjointed and ranty (for which I apologize), but seeing pictures and reading about the place brought on a complex flood of emotions that got in the way of a more coherent comment.
posted by deadbilly at 3:02 AM on May 17, 2016 [22 favorites]

And yes, please if you have any interest at all in what life is like down there, read Big Dead Place. Nick was one of a kind, and we miss him dearly.
posted by deadbilly at 3:03 AM on May 17, 2016

(Another Antarctic scientist here ...)

I was coming in to say what fermion & deadbilly did, but they said it better =) Despite that, I love Maciej’s writing, even fed by only a very shallow glimpse of McMurdo. (But very different from mine - thanks for the sausage history!) Also, I hope y’all made it to Scott Base! When I visited, they had the best postcards, for those with a macabre sense of humor.

I will second that it’s impossible for scientists to be unaware of the geopolitics that drive nations to have a presence in Antarctica. The way the treaties are structured means that political power plays are forced to take the form of increased science funding. I’m definitely biased, but I think we’re using those resources to answer some pretty important questions: How much ice is there exactly? How quickly is the continent losing ice mass? How can we predict its future contribution to sea level rise? (If you don’t like those, then: penguins! They’re adorable, with crazy biology!)

I’ve also been struck by the level of international cooperation that I’ve seen while down there - last season, I (an American) worked with Australians, Indians, Russians, and Chinese. They were collaborating both for logistics and for science. I can’t help but find that inspiring and heartening. Individual stations/camps may vary along the scale of “you scientists are making more work for us” -> “science is why we’re here; how can we help?”, but most I’ve seen cluster to the right of that scale =)

p.s. I'm still utterly boggled that tourists would choose to go to McMurdo. With that much empty, beautiful continent to visit ... why there? As much as I've loved my time working in McMurdo, I think it's best described as having the visual appeal of a mining town. (Also true of other cold-war era stations … only the modern ones aren’t blights on their surroundings.) … I guess that was the “cultural” part of the trip? ;-)
posted by Metasyntactic at 3:11 AM on May 17, 2016 [8 favorites]

p.p.s. I think I have a new, partial ranking of ways to get to Antarctica, ordered based on comfort. Contributions welcomed!

1. Ride on ice breaker, calm seas. This is actually like a relaxing, 2-week cruise, especially once you get in among the broken-up sea ice and there are no waves. Great way to get to know your colleagues before the real work starts.

2. Australian Airbus. Normal passenger jet, but due to weight restrictions you’ll get a whole row to yourself.

3. C-17. When they slide in a pallet of seats, that’s great. The jump seats along the sides aren’t horrible either. There are a few tiny windows you can look through, plenty of room to wander around, and the Air National Guard are super-chill flight attendants. It’s a revelation to fly on an airplane where the pilots aren't afraid of you! You’re even allowed to visit the cockpit.

4. LC-130. The jump seats are more like jump nets … and you’d better be friendly with the person across from you. Takes longer than C-17, and has more primitive toilet facilities.

5. Maciej’s Russian ship. No ... just no. I find myself wondering if the beds had nets to strap yourself down with, because I know I'd have spent the whole trip a huddled, seasick mess.
posted by Metasyntactic at 3:16 AM on May 17, 2016 [4 favorites]

Re: the geopolitical realities, it's not an accident that the onetime "United States Antarctic Research Program" is now the "United States Antarctic Program". The charter of which begins with "To maintain a permanent strategic presence at McMurdo Station, South Pole, and Palmer Station" and THEN says "to support science on the Antarctic continent"
posted by deadbilly at 3:18 AM on May 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

4.5. C-141. Bigger than a C-130 but more crowded.
posted by deadbilly at 3:20 AM on May 17, 2016

Yup! It can be fun to watch the maneuvering, for a certain, cynical value of fun.

Australia has been generating some headlines recently where they're trying to beef up their logistics presence in the name of enabling ambitious science (collecting ice cores!), while cutting any funding for any science divisions that work on climate change (including analyzing ice cores!) I look forward to seeing how this plays out ...
posted by Metasyntactic at 3:30 AM on May 17, 2016 [3 favorites]

This is such a fantastic piece of writing - thank-you for posting this.
posted by docpops at 7:24 AM on May 17, 2016

minor point, Lockheed sold PAE off in 2011
posted by Dr. Twist at 12:29 PM on May 17, 2016

2. Australian Airbus. Normal passenger jet, but due to weight restrictions you’ll get a whole row to yourself.

And the food is fantastic! And you can visit the cockpit! Wilkins is pretty ordinary though (tiny waiting room with not enough chairs and little food, fucking freezing outside) - and the trip to Casey in a Hagg is not something one would experience without a good reason.

Where do you rate icebreaker in rough seas though? I've never been on one, but I've seen videos.

The "tourists have as much right to be here as the workers thing" got up my nose too. The non-boffin to boffin ratio is much higher than most people would expect, but it's not like the plumbers or electricians or cooks are unnecessary if you want to do science. Or, want to do science in something resembling civilisation.
posted by kjs4 at 12:03 AM on May 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

fermion: "I feel like you might enjoy this blog post I wrote about its inner workings."

OMG - I love the ending of that. Going back now to read all the entries.
posted by exogenous at 6:27 AM on May 18, 2016

A few years ago, I worked on a project that had a trailer of equipment down at McMurdo collecting data from Erebus.

Unfortunately, I never got to go down there, but I can certainly vouch for the science being done. Some of the work that my coworkers did has made meaningful contributions to aviation safety, understanding earthquakes, nuclear disarmament, and meteorology.

As far as bang-for-the-buck goes, geophysics research is surprisingly great, and the poles are a fantastic environment for collecting certain kinds of data. McMurdo is apparently a bit of a basket case (I don't think I've ever heard anybody favorably talk about the general institution and location of McMurdo), but I don't even remotely question the Antarctic program's legitimacy.

If you liked this article, you might enjoy reading Guillaume Dargaud's journals, detailing his time working as a scientist on Antarctica, including the establishment of the French research station at Dome C.
posted by schmod at 10:17 AM on May 19, 2016

Jonathan Franzen on his recent Antarctic voyage.
posted by mwhybark at 10:59 PM on May 20, 2016

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