Motorvating along Third Street toward downtown the other day, The Observer fell in behind the Google Steetview car. If you've been trapped in a shipping container since 2001, Google Streetview is the service on Google.com in which — with a few clicks of the mouse — you can see a curbside photograph of most any spot on most any public street in most any city in the country. The Google Streetview car — a sporty compact with a beachball-sized pack of cameras atop a mast on the roof and a WHOPR supercomputer-grade wad of hardware and storage inside — is the mechanism by which those pictures find their way to the Internet. The car trolls up and down each and every lane, circle, drive, boulevard, place and street, with cameras whirring. Even in a smaller city like Little Rock, that's a heck of a lot of driving when you think about it. Only in America could we dream up something simultaneously so odd and artful.
Yeah, seeing a stalkerific picture of The Observatory on the Internet was a little creepy at first, but we're a fan of Streetview now. Too, everybody else's house is on there as well, which makes getting bent out of shape about the privacy aspect of Streetview kinda like getting mad that your name is in the phonebook (or used to be in the phonebook, anyway. Also: Kids, a "phonebook" was a paper book with alphabetized lists of everybody's name, address and phone number in it. Check Wikipedia).
Though The Observer knows better than to mess with a man when he's workin', we're enough of a geek that we couldn't help but tail the car for a few blocks. To be that close to a piece of rolling pop culture was kinda thrilling for an old geezer; borne of the same reason we still get excited when we see the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile parked somewhere (we've got several plastic Wienermobile whistles at home. Want one?).
Too, we must admit we had an ulterior motive. While The Observer treasures our anonymity, let's just say that if you were to look at the streets around Ringo and Third once the new Streetview maps for Little Rock come out, you might see a certain incognito idiot smiling and waving through the front windshield of a dirty white van. That gleam in the driver's eye? A dream of Internet immortality — or at least what passes for immortality in this fleeting age.
For two weeks in July, 48 middle school students — 24 boys, 24 girls — went to a sleepaway camp that offered no sports and few recreational activities of any kind. They were not in the great outdoors. Instead, these kids, between the ages of 10 and 14, were camped at UALR, engineering structures to withstand earthquakes.
These campers — up at 6:30 a.m. — took classes not in knot-tying but engineering design, physical science, math, English, chemistry and technology. They got to shoot off rockets in the evenings. They met with astronaut Bernard Harris, the first African-American man in space.
The Observer watched as UALR professor Amin Akhnoukh gave a demonstration on concrete strength testing, deep in the bowels of the Engineering and Information Technology. A concrete cylinder that would hold the same level of stress as an entire bridge was placed in a whirring machine and the campers, who by this point were crowded around with digital cameras, were told to step back to prevent from getting hit by debris. The popping noise at 45,000 lbs. of pressure made a few people jump but seemed decidedly anticlimactic. The crumbling cylinder was passed around, and everyone got to take home a hunk of broken concrete.
The Observer visited an English class, where the campers studied, with a less than enthusiastic eye, the mysteries of pronoun-antecedent agreement. They would have to write up reports on their earthquake-proof structures, after all. They perked up when they heard their teacher refer to grammatical errors she sees on Facebook. The teacher had a Facebook account?
At lunch, The Observer talked to a couple of the students. Brandon told us that he appreciated the laid-back teaching style and the field trips to places like the Mid American Science Museum. Omarri lamented the long hours, but conceded that he was enjoying the experience too. The main topic of anguish was the counselors. Counselors were described as "sassy" and "strict at nighttime." But they weren't homesick, the campers said, and there was another bonus: the boys pointed to a group of girls and named the ones they liked. Future engineers, but interested in other things, too.