independence hall, philadelphia, liberty bell, where was constitution declaration of independence signed (1)
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The world’s symbol for liberty

Independence Hall, Philadelphia It seems appropriate that trying to visit Independence Hall in Philadelphia is an act of democracy in itself. This is, after all, the building in which the United States Declaration of Independence and Constitution were both signed. So it's fitting that for those who want to see it, there's an equality in the system. You can only go inside Independence Hall as part of a guided tour. The tickets are free but they're only available from 8:30 in the morning, and they're allocated for the day's tours on a first come, first served basis. For someone like me, who arrived in Philadelphia on a bus at lunch time and was hoping to see the sights before jumping on another bus that evening, there was no chance. The tickets to go inside were well and truly gone by the time I tried my luck at the visitors centre. They had been...

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21 July
plane art, philadelphia, street art, jordan griska (3)

In plane site

Philadelphia street art There’s something cool about street art at the best of times, but especially when you’re a tourist. There’s something about the installations in public areas that says a lot about a city. The artwork represents the thoughts of the inspired, using symbols to tell the true tale of the place. And it’s telling what a city allows to be installed! One work in particular caught my attention when I was in Philadelphia. It's hard for a huge fighter jet crashed into the pavement not to catch your attention! I walked around it, surveying it from every direction. I looked inside the windows and was surprised by what I saw. I touched it and felt the cold metal on my palms. I made a mental note to find out more about it. I'm glad I did. It turns out the work was made by a young local artist called Jordan Griska. He had...

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20 July
visiting monticello, thomas jefferson's house, university of virginia, architecture, jefferson and slavery (9)

All men are created equal

The genius of Thomas Jefferson There’s no doubt what the finest creation of Thomas Jefferson was. It’s the thing with the words. You know… these words: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” That’s right – the United States Declaration of Independence, probably the most famous piece of American writing. When it comes to deciding on his second finest creation, you would be misguided to look beyond Monticello, the house he built on a hill in Virginia. Over many years he developed the plans for the residence, helped build parts of it himself, changed the designs, and expanded it. Originally based on the neoclassical principles of Italian architect Andrea Palladio, it was later influenced by his time in France. These days it’s the only...

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17 July
national cryptologic museum, national security agency, nsa, maryland, codebreaking, military codes, spy codes (9)

How to make being a spy boring

The National Security Agency Being a spy is supposed to be cool. If it’s not tuxedos, cocktails and casinos, then it should at least be safehouses, martial arts and a mysterious bank account in Switzerland. Surely being a spy means having a secret cabinet of weapons and gadgets hidden behind your bookshelf at home, a special entrance to your office through a phone booth, or at least the apparent ability to never have a hangover despite the amount you drink. If being a spy is supposed to be so cool, then why is the museum at America’s National Security Agency (NSA) so boring? I mean, seriously, these guys are the pin-ups of the espionage community? When I say it’s ‘boring’, I don’t mean that it’s not ‘interesting’. It has lots of facts… and history… and exhibits… and, y’know, stuff. But it’s not ‘cool’.  Somehow the only museum in the United States that’s run...

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13 July
Bladensburg Dueling Grounds, Maryland, duels near Washington DC (2)
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A challenge of a duel

The duel in the town The idea of a duel seems somewhat strange, doesn’t it? It seems so final, so uncompromising, and so unjust. It doesn’t leave room for mediation, for discussion of alternative solutions, or acceptance that there might be more to a situation than a simple right versus wrong dichotomy. And I wonder if it is even fulfilling. Certainly, if the duel does according to plan, one person will end up dead. But who is to say the right person will die? If an argument is started by one person being in the wrong, then surely that person should be punished – not an equal chance given to the survival of either party. And if the argument is mutual and inconclusive, how do a couple of bullets judge which side is correct? Still, dueling was the way that, for many years, men solved a dispute. I say ‘men’ not just because...

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12 July
visiting US Naval Academy, annapolis, maryland, naval training, USNA (1)

The future of the US Navy

The United States Naval Academy “You can’t park here,” the man with the crisp uniform and shaved head tells me. “This is for official naval vehicles only.” It’s about as strict and direct as the guards get here. I leave the car in a nearby street and walk back in. An officer takes a cursory glance at my ID and then I’m inside, left to my own devices, free to wander as I wish. I had expected more security. This is, after all, the training ground of one of the armed forces of America. This is the United States Naval Academy. On the shore of Chesapeake Bay, the school almost looks like it could be a yacht club. The sun is shining today and pleasure crafts cruise by, those on board waving to those of us on land. The whole city of Annapolis, Maryland, feels a bit like a resort town and the...

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11 July
National Museum of Health and Medicine, maryland, silver springs, abraham lincoln assasination, lincoln bullet (1)

America’s hidden history

The National Museum of Health and Medicine It’s not large like Mount Rushmore, iconic like the Statue of Liberty, or symbolic like The White House. It’s small and virtually hidden from view. Most locals don’t know it still exists and most tourists wouldn’t know where to find it… even if they knew to look for it. Yet it was right at the centre of one of America’s most famous events. I stumbled on it by accident – which is, I assume, how most people must find it. I had gone to a museum in Silver Springs, Maryland, near Washington DC, not for any particular reason except that the title offered the potential of some interesting discoveries. The National Museum of Health and Medicine. With a name like that it could have been full of boring scientific exhibits but thankfully there was much more to it than that… including America’s hidden history. I was the...

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09 July
Gram's Place Tampa Florida (7)

The Tribute

Gram's Place at Tampa, Florida tribute |ˈtribyoōt| (noun) An act, statement, or gift that is intended to show gratitude, respect, or admiration It was exactly two decades ago that a young man built a tribute in Florida to a musician he revered. It was no statue, though – no lifeless representation of what had once been. This young man decided to build a youth hostel as his tribute, and through the energy and vitality of the community that grew within it, he created a heaving and breathing monument that captured the spirit of his idol. Tributes have many layers and they often say more about the creator than the hero. Four years ago that young man – twenty years older but, by all accounts, light of heart – took his own life. The hostel didn’t close, though. It still remains today, still welcomes in visitors from around the world and still fills the night...

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11 November
civil rights, racial equality, deep south, america, usa, african american

Civil rights and wrongs in the Deep South

Deep South civil rights When it comes to civil rights and racial equality, there’s a lot of food for thought during a trip through the Deep South of the United States (and I’m not talking about the fried chicken!). Everywhere you go you’re confronted with overt signs of the gap between black and white. Sometimes it’s the poverty you notice, other times it’s to do with status, occasionally it’s about the opportunities. Mostly it’s a blending of many factors that makes you wonder how far this country has come in addressing deep-rooted social disadvantage. Let’s take New Orleans, for example. It’s a city with a population that is 60 per cent African American but when we went to a music festival there we saw predominately white faces and only a few black ones (Snoop Dogg, excepted). Then there was a moment when I was passing through an airport in North Carolina that had...

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10 November
New Orleans, Louisiana, crime, poverty, katrina, is New Orleans safe

The Big Easy is harder than you think

Crime in New Orleans Just a block or two from where I was out drinking one night, two people were shot dead and several more injured in altercations that escalated quickly. The next day the local newspaper had a big article about the murders, filled with the usual fist-shaking condemnations of police and politicians. Next to that, though, was a similar-sized article about what effect the shootings would have on tourism. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the essence of New Orleans. It’s a city where decadence meets dangerous and where it’s not just the drink prices that are criminal. New Orleans is one of the most popular destinations for visitors in the US but outside the purring tourist-fuelled economy there’s suburb after suburb of poverty, crime and hopelessness. Hurricane Katrina didn’t help, and it gets most of the attention these days, but it’s not the problem. It merely exacerbated it. There were many...

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08 November