Friday, December 22, 2006

When Adpeople Attack

You have to enjoy the joie de vivre exhibited by the ad agencies in these spots:

Shuttle Landing Day ... Where?

The Space Shuttle is supposed to come home today, but nobody knows where. As I type this, the flight director just informed the crew that rain is expected in the vicinity of the shuttle landing area in Florida, with a deorbit burn for that landing site required in less than an hour. Ordinarily, this would fill me with joy, because the shuttle would be diverted to Edwards, giving us a shot at going out there to watch it land (as we have done before). However, Edwards is currently experiencing windy conditions that could interfere with a landing. As a result, the White Sands area of New Mexico is getting ready for only the second shuttle landing there, the first in 24 years.

The NASA bosses haven't given up hope on Florida or California yet, as each site would allow for a far more efficient post-landing turnaround of the orbiter. Plus, it sounds like New Mexico has little more than a guy with a Handicam and a toothless old codger at a broken down gas pump ready to receive the shuttle. Nevertheless, the weather at White Sands is stable, making it a secure backup site if the others cannot be used today.

Right now, NASA is still aiming for a landing at Kennedy on orbit 202, landing at about 3 pm CST. The first set of backups would be on orbit 203: landing at Edwards at about 4:27 CST; landing at New Mexico at almost exactly the same time; or landing at Kennedy at about 4:32 CST. The second set of backup landing plans would be on Orbit 204, landing at Edwards at 6:00 CST or New Mexico at 6:02 CST. The final backup landing plan for today would be on orbit 205 at Edwards at 7:36 CST. NASA must commit to any landing plan it chooses more than an hour prior to the actual landing, as the de-orbit maneuvers take that much time.

There are final landing options for Saturday, but only as a last resort. Because of an extra day spent fixing the ISS, the shuttle has less resources in reserve than usual. In short, it will run out of gas on Saturday, so NASA needs to get it on the ground soon. Ordinarily, NASA would take any extra time it could to wait for a landing window to open up at either Kennedy or Edwards. In this case, though, because of the smaller margin for error, there is a strong likelihood that the shuttle will end up on the ground in New Mexico today.

UPDATE, 11:03 PST: the first landing opportunity at Florida has been waved off, with the parenthetical remark that the next opportunity at Florida will likely also not be a "go" due to weather. Edwards is on the clock.

UPDATE, 12:15 PST: Winds at Edwards are "somewhat more favorable." Weather is also trending more favorable, although it is not clear like California. The order has been given for fluid loading, in which the astronauts begin consumption of liquids to help them readjust to life on the ground (the body sheds liquid in space because in a zero gravity environment bodily fluids shift toward the head, leading the body to believe it is retaining too much fluid). This means they are committing to come down on this orbit.

UPDATE, 12:25 PST: NASA is now providing the shuttle commander de-orbit information for an Edwards landing. We may not be able to get out there in time, but we'll stand by for the sonic booms at 2:22 PST. Houston is still debating landing sites, though. They really want to come back to Florida.

UPDATE, 12:50 PST: Shuttle support vehicles are rolling out at Edwards.

UPDATE, 12:57 PST: Winds have picked up at Edwards, with too much unpredicable crosswind behavior. They are now loading computer targets for Florida. Drat!

UPDATE, 1:22 PST: with only about 5 minutes remaining prior to the scheduled de-orbit burn, Houston has given the go-ahead for landing in Florida. The weather looks pretty gloomy, but flight controllers believe that the shuttle will be able to avoid any showers. The shuttle commander was very happy to get the approval.

UPDATE, 2:35 PST: Discovery is home. The flight director should get something nice in his stocking this year; he saved the American taxpayers millions of dollars by pushing through pretty ugly weather to land in Florida anyway.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Auto Repair Scam

I have resisted posting or linking to YouTube clips, partly because I can't vouch for all of the garbage that may be on the YouTube site, and partly because it's just too easy to post amusing little clips. I look for a higher degree of difficulty with my blogging.

I'll make an exception now, however. One of the local television stations ran an expose on Jiffy Lube over the last few months that was pretty revealing, especially since it involved a Jiffy Lube that I used to use. It's a pretty sobering story for all of us who secretly (or not so secretly) think that we're always getting ripped off by auto mechanics. For once, the proud little (literally) consumer crusader doesn't overshadow the story itself.

As an added bonus, for those who know the SoCal news scene, you get Paul Moyer!

Monday, December 18, 2006

My Greatest Aspirations, Almost Realized

As I hinted a while ago, I had an opportunity to do another driving event this fall. This time, it was put on by Road & Track and Car and Driver. At least, the banners said so.

In reality, it was a Cadillac event, only slightly less manufacturer-centric as the Mazda events I've attended.

The gimmick is that the attendees are "editors for a day." The lucky ones get their pictures and brief comments in a Cadillac ad in the two magazines. We were given clipboards and open-ended questionnaires to complete about the four vehicles we would drive:

a BMW 530xi

a Cadillac STS

a Lexus RX350

and a Cadillac SRX

The event was extremely well organized. Each group of drivers numbered about 48, split into two groups, SUV drivers and sedan drivers. Two examples of each vehicle were available, and all of them would be driven on the same short autocross course at the same time (with adequate spacing from each other, of course). Each driving group would be split in half further, with one set of drivers out on the course while the remainder poked and prodded parked examples of the cars that we were driving.

The structure of the event allowed us to drive the course a total of eight times, which dramatically improved my ability to evaluate each car on its merits rather than spend all of my time trying to sort out the course. The impressions were numerous and, in some respects, surprising. In my opinion, the BMW had the best driving feel and response to control inputs, although it felt heavy and understeered substantially (a function of the all-wheel drive setup mandated to match the STS). The back seat, unlike 5-series in the recent past, was amply capacious in all dimensions. The iDrive, unfortunately, was every bit the disaster that it has been made out to be. Not only was it difficult to figure out how to find certain control menus, some of the menus did not make sense once you found them. The Cadillac STS was a very agreeable sedan, with an attractive interior and strong driving dynamics. Unfortunately, it is just a bit too small, particularly in the back seat, to be a serious exective transport. Its equipment level and general level of quality fell just a bit behind the BMW, as well.

The Lexus had, in my opinion, the most attractive interior, although like most suburban SUVs, its cargo capacity was somewhat less than that of our Passat wagon. The touchscreen control panel was well-situated high on the dash, was organized in a manner that would be intuitive to anyone reasonably well versed in operating a modern home computer, and provided easy access to all of its features, while most of the usual functions (radio, climate control) also had redundant analog controls on the dash, marked in clear, large Lexus style. The Lexus also had the most power. Unfortunately, the touchscreen washed out completely in the sun, and the nannyish transmission prevented me from getting all of that power to the ground. I had the opportunity to drive the Lexus on three laps, and the transmission refused to give me a lower gear when I asked for it coming hard out of a corner at the same point on the course every time.

The Cadillac SRX is basically a high-riding wagon. I was not favorably inclined to the dark interior, which had control switches scatted about a bit more than it should. The control screen was also too low in the dash and was not as easy to use as the Lexus (but light years better than the BMW). The SRX had room for a third row of seats, which were suitable for children only. For those who need the flexibility of being able to carry five or six people, that can be a critical issue. The SRX may have been the most fun to drive of all of the vehicles. It was more prone to rotation than any of the others, which may not be as safe, but is a lot more entertaining.

In the end, all of these cars were thoroughly modern and comfortable, with sufficient, albeit not overwhelming, power. Given the opportunity to drive them somewhat harder than one would in the usual test drive, while also being given an extended amount of time to thoroughly evaluate the accommodations and features, we had the chance to learn some things that might not have otherwise revealed themselves. Plus, it was a heck of a lot of fun.

Wanna see? Click here to see me driving the STS. I never did get that hairpin right, and no, I did not knock down any cones. What you are seeing is superior driving skill on display. How strange that Roger Penske hasn't called yet.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Let's see: guy owns a snake. A 13-foot boa constrictor, whose sole function in life is to encircle and squeeze other living things until they are no longer unwilling to be snake food. Guy gets into the cage to play with the snake.

Suffice it to say, there wasn't much left for the cops to do once they got to the guy's house.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Snark Alert

Mmm, this Apple Kool-Aid sure is tasty!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Dr. Wingspan, I Presume

Here in the West, we have pioneered all sorts of marvelous medical techniques and equipment that have enabled doctors to perform feats of healing that would have seemed utterly miraculous a generation or two ago. Everthing from arthoscopic surgery to MRIs and countless other advances in medicine have vastly improved the standard of our lives by enabling doctors to diagnose and treat ever more diseases and injuries with less and less adverse consequences to the patients.

In China, for all of its astonishingly swift emergence as a modern society, still does a few things the old fashioned way. Or, at least, the hands-on way. In the same week that it was announced that a species of dolphin indigeonous to the Yangtze river has, it appears, passed into extinction, China's finest veterinarians pulled out all the stops to extract pieces of plastic from the stomach of two dolphins in a Bejing aquarium. When the tools of the trade failed them, they made the leap in logic any of us would have followed: use your local resources. Fortunately, the local resources included the tallest man in the world:

So what can the world's tallest man add to the effort to save the life of the dolphins? Why, the world's longest arms, of course. As CNN reported it:

Chen Lujun, the manager of the Royal Jidi Ocean World aquarium, told The Associated Press that the shape of the dolphins' stomachs made it difficult to push an instrument very far in without hurting the animals.

People with shorter arms could not reach the plastic, he said.

"When we failed to get the objects out we sought the help of Bao Xishun from Inner Mongolia and he did it successfully yesterday," Chen said. "The two dolphins are in very good condition now."

Photographs showed the jaws of one of the dolphins being held back by towels so Bao could reach inside the animal without being bitten.

As if this fellow's life wasn't weird enough already.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Least Surprising Endorsement Announcement of the Year

It seems that Tiger Woods, who almost single-handedly turned Nike's golf division from nothing into a major player, has renewed his endorsement deal with the Beaverton, Oregon-based sporting goods colossus. Tiger entered the professional golf world at the age of 20 in 1996 under Nike's banner and the tag line, "Hello, world." That deal was worth $40 million over five years. In 2001, Tiger renewed the deal for another five years and $100 million.

The terms of the current arrangement have not been disclosed. It is speculated that Tiger will receive Oregon's Willamette Valley and title to some of the nicer neighborhoods in Portland in the deal, as well as the University of Oregon's athletic department.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Sad News About Someone I Never Met

The worst fears of friends and family have been confirmed. The body of James Kim, the man who became lost in the Oregon backwoods with his family after Thanksgiving, has been found. Having passed through that area at the very same time that the family was huddled in their car for about the fifth straight day trying to stay alive, this story hits home to me. All the pretty pictures of snow in the posts below take on a darker tone, knowing that the snowfall that Monday night made a bad situation much worse. Unfortuately, the hard lesson is that unless you know the country well, you are far better off staying on well-traveled roads.

And just like we have tried to teach our kids, if you think you are lost, don't move. Someone will come looking for you, so give yourself a chance to be found. Our opportunity for that object lesson came one afternoon in a Best Buy with Kelly, and lasted about five minutes. That's more than enough for me.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Thanksgiving 2006, Part II

Leaving behind the snowy vales of Oregon, we ended our first day of return travel in San Francisco at Cheryl's sister's new house. The Bay Bridge:

The boys got right to work:

As did the girls:

In the morning, we were treated to spectacular views of the northwest part of the city, the Sunset district, and the Golden Gate Bridge:

Snow? What was all that fuss about, twenty four hours earlier? Pacheco Pass and the approach into Valencia show that we were indeed home:

Thanksgiving 2006

Despite driving 2000 miles within a week (1800 of it in the course of four days), our family trip to Oregon was a lot of fun, and provided a much-needed break from everything for me. We left on Tuesday afternoon, as soon as Kelly was done with school. Traffic was light and fast, and the weather was generally good.

We travelled as far as Redding, where we checked into a Motel 6 (with its 19-inch TV!) for the night. The Weather Channel showed two bad patches of weather in the entire nation: a storm in New York, and snow right up the I-5 corridor in Oregon. We had heard that the weather across the Siskiyous at the Oregon border would deteriorate by the time we planned to pass through on the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving, so in order to guarantee that we would not encounter snow, I bought chains the night before we left. Worked like a charm. We found only rain. Lots of it.

We quickly adapted to the Oregon mentality. Rain did not stop us from going to the park:

We enjoyed a full Thankgiving dinner at Mom's house:

Four generations partaking:

The kids got to do some trail exploration at Dad's place:

We all enjoyed a morning at the children's museum that has been created at the home of A.C. Gilbert, the inventor of the Erector Set and a whole bunch of other "learning" toys from years ago:

A final surprise came the night before we left, when a Canadian air mass that was to wreak havok across the midwest hit the Pacific northwest first, covering all of Eugene with an inch or two of snow:

As we found out on the way home, all of western Oregon got hit with snow, making for a beautiful drive:

And then we saw this:

Surely, that sign and the statement on the weather conditions radio station that all cars were required to "chain up" were just left over from the night before, right?


The snow ended just before the summit, and as soon as we drove down into California, evidence of snowfall was nowhere to be found. Ah, home again.

From the "People With To Much Time On Their Hands" File

If you need a little smile inducer today, enjoy this and this.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

A Great Weekend for My Schools

Okay, you may have heard of a little football game that was played here in the greater Los Angeles area this weekend. There is always a stout measure of satisfaction gained when UCLA takes USC down a peg or two, and knocking the Trojans out of the national championship game is a mighty big peg. It allowed UCLA to finish on a relatively high note, winning their last three games in a row, capped by one of their most significant wins ever.

But did you notice this one: UC Santa Barbara won its second NCAA title ever today, in Men's Soccer over ... UCLA. No mixed emotions here -- this household was pulling hard for UCSB. The Gauchos have put together an impressive program; this is their second trip to the final game in the last three years. They lost to Indiana on penalty kicks two years ago, but got ahead of UCLA early and hung on for the 2-1 win.

UCLA's next championship will be its NCAA-leading 100th. I'll cheer for that another day. For today, it's Go Gauchos!

UPDATE: And the hits keep on coming. The UCLA men's basketball team is now ranked No. 1, off to its best start since the 1994-1995 season when it won the NCAA title -- I was even there to enjoy that one.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Blimey, I'm Going Brit

I have undergone a strange transformation this year. The most obvious external manifestation is this: on Sunday afternoons this fall, I can usually be found slumped on the couch in near-somnabulence, a beverage and perhaps popcorn at my side, the TV on, tuned to a football game.

No, not that football. The original football. Soccer.

English soccer.

Somehow, I have managed to have my U.S. passport revoked, but the facts are true. Lately I have been more likely to watch an English Premier League match on a Sunday than I am to watch an NFL game. How has this abomination in the face of all that is American (this is our country, after all, as Mr. Mellencamp endlessly reminds us) come to pass?

I chalk it up to a couple of developments over the past few years. First, the unexpected. Several times in her short school career, Kelly has been given an assignment to produce a project designed to celebrate her "heritage." That is a pretty loaded concept around here, and usually results in a project-day malange of Armenian pizza, tamales, colorful Eastern and Mid-eastern dress and a broad sampling of non-Western music. These assignments forced me to confront, seemingly for the first time, what kind of mutts we are. In the time and location I grew up, European muttishness was the norm, and as a result, "cultural heritage" assignments did not exist, as they would only accentuate the differences of the relatively few minorities in our midst (although, to be fair, I grew up with quite a diverse population, with a prominent Asian faction in particular).

In our community, however, Kelly is a distinct minority, by coloring as well as heritage. As is often the case with minorities, I suppose, I began to focus on what that heritage truly is. Through her mother, Kelly relates back to the very first American settlers, including John and Pricilla Alden. As a result, she has a distant but direct English background, as well as Germanic heritage through her maternal grandmother. On my side, she has a strong and relatively recent Scotch/Irish lineage, with plent of English and some German thrown in. So, for us, heritage-wise, it is "Rule Brittania."

These ruminations came against the background of the past two World Cup soccer tournaments in 2002 and 2006. I watched quite a bit of the 2002 World Cup, which was an accomplishment in itself because the tournament was held in Korea and Japan, meaning that the games typically aired at about 4 am. This year's tournament was held in the much more convenient location of Germany. In addition to be a superb venue for the games (the parties outside the stadia looked like a tremendous amount of fun), the games came on relatively conveniently in the early morning (watch before work) and lunchtime (home for lunch).

I watched or followed most of the games this year, and found myself drawn to the English team (as well as the American team -- I'm not a complete turncoat). I found myself enjoying the spectacle and excellent play of the athletes simply as a fan of sport, similar to the enjoyment I derive from the Olympics. As I followed the commentary of other fans on sports-oriented websites, some of those in the know suggested that us newbies enjoyed this soccer, we would really enjoy the English Premier League. The sales pitch was that the teams were comprised in part of many of the same international-level players featured at the World Cup, the gameplay was even better than the World Cup due in part to more aggressive tactics and less diving, and many of the games are broadcast in the U.S. on the Fox Soccer Channel and a couple of other even more obscure channels.

Lo and behold, I discovered that our cable system does have Fox Soccer Channel (but not the NFL Network -- go figure). During the summer, the off-season for the Premiership, I watched replays of key games from the prior year, enabling me to learn some of the key players and teams. At the same time, prominent internet sportswriter Bill Simmons of ESPN had a similar revelation, and wrote a long series of articles about the Premiership as he had his readers help him pick a team to follow. The pros-and-cons of each team laid out by the true fans helped me identify the important teams and players to follow. By the team the season started, I was good and ready to give this a go. After three decades of being a sports fan, picking up an entirely new sport was a bit of a daunting task, and I felt like a bit of a Johnny-come-lately, but it couldn't be helped. I was in, for good or ill.

I even picked a favorite team, very organically, I think. As I watched old games, read about the players and learned the recent history of the game, I found myself following one player in particular, a midfielder whose innate abilities had been celebrated since his youth, who had signed and remained with the team he had idolized since childhood even when he had opportunities to sign for big money elsewhere, and who had almost singlehandedly lifted his team to the top in the past season. It is because Steven Gerrard is such a great player (see some of his exploits here, if you can bear to watch soccer highlights) that Liverpool became my team of choice. Truly, there are few in the world who can imagine, let alone execute, some of the long-distance diagonal passes he makes. When he's on top of his game, he is amazing to watch.

Shockingly, the first replica jersey I have ever owned is a Liverpool Reds kit.

I always thought the first, and perhaps only, jersey I would hang in my closet would be a (now vintage) Will Clark San Francisco Giants uniform top. What happened to me?

All I know at this point is that after years of watching baseball and football (American style), I am really enjoyed getting to know a new sport, a new league, new players, and the droll English TV announcers. Saturdays are now enlivened with three English games in the mornings, two of them live. It is all new to me, and thus not boring. I haven't been there, done it all. It helps that I am predisposed to enjoying soccer because I played it, and because the kids play it now.

And if you are curious about this whole thing, if you will only consent to watch one English league soccer game this year (or any year), check out the game this Saturday between Manchester United and Chelsea. It is a clash of the titans, the two top teams in the league, fielding what amount to all-star teams.

Now, if you don't mind, please turn off that American football rubbish and switch the telly over to the Prem; the Gooners and Spurs are about to take the pitch in a classic London derby (pronounced "darby," doncha know).

Friday, November 17, 2006

Dumb Criminals Make For Comedy Gold

There is nothing funny about a death threat. Nothing, that is, unless it is delivered with flood-tide levels of ineptitude and lunacy.

Former Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Sandra Day O'Connor has revealed that the members of the Court, as well as several other prominent national officials, received poisoned cookies from a Connecticut woman in 2005. A threat of that kind is serious business. Fortunately, the crack security detail assigned to the Justices acted on a hunch, performing a mass-spectrometer analysis on the baked goods just before the Court consumed them at a pleasant late-afternoon tea ...

Well, no. See, the cookies were accompanied by a note for each Justice. Not a note thanking them for their work on behalf of the nation, with a cookie as a token of appreciation. No, the notes said, "we are going to kill you. This is poisoned."

Somehow, the Justices narrowly avoided misinterpreting this mysteriously ambiguous message by eating the gifts, and had them tested instead. Each cookie apparently was infused with enough rat poison to kill the entire Court.

The mystery deepened when the authorities set out to catch the malicious chef. The notes were cunningly signed in a feigned scrawl with a false name. However, the dedicated sleuths swiftly turned up a vital clue: the letters and envelopes in which the letters were mailed contained the sender's name and address. Typewritten.

Ever the gracious host, Justice O'Connor still referred to the deadly delights as "a wonderful package of home-baked cookies."

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Making Saturdays More Simple

With all of the running around we do on Saturdays, with soccer games all over town, birthday parties even more randomly sited, and Home Depot runs slipped in when the time can be found, I think I've found something that could help us out. Mainly by substantially reducing the amount of time spent in transit:

A nice little upgrade over our current Passat, boosting the go-ness to 300 horsepower. Look, honey, it comes in a wagon!

It's a Volkswagen. How irresponsible could it be?


A Modicum of Class and Civility Returns

The decline of civility in the American culture has been extensively chronicled and bemoaned. Everything from the Beatles to hippie culture to "Saturday Night Live" to Fox to Howard Stern to Borat has been blamed for the unceasing erosion of general decorum in society over the past forty years.

Thankfully, it appears that our long national nightmare may soon be over, at least in part. In a historic reversal, the National Football League will allow its head coaches to wear suits and ties on the sidelines during games for the first time since 1993. Finally, less of this:

And more of this:

Of course, the NFL insists on protecting its lucrative clothing licensing deals, so the coaches may wear any suits they like, so long as they are made by Reebok. Look for them in the newly-opened Men's Formalwear section of your local Sports Chalet.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Soccer Updates

The kids' soccer seasons are drawing to a close. Each has one regular-season game remaining; Kelly's team will then go into the division-wide playoff tournament.

Michael has had fun with his Boys Under 5 team. The games are a challenge for the coaches, simply to get the boys to pay attention and remember to play. It is a solid, nuturing program, though. The three-on-three format, with active involvement of the coaches and the freedom to stop the action or substitute players at will is well-suited to the attention spans of little boys.

Kelly has had a different sort of year. After going very deep into the playoffs last year in her first year in the Under-10, this year's team has gone winless. The girls have generally kept a very positive outlook, although they have been disappointed with the losses. There have been some blowouts, but they have managed to stay in most of the games. The year started well for Kelly: she scored the first goal of the year to turn the tide in what was headed toward a disasterous beatdown, then she scored in the next two games. She began the season as one of the apparent offensive weapons, but too often she was not paired with other solid offensive players, and her productivity as a striker waned. She is a very complementary player, who sees the field well and passes intelligently but is not always very fast on the ball, which makes her ideal for midfield or defense. Her coach has started using her as one of the featured defenders and (like last year) in goal, which has yielded dividends. This past weekend, the Red Hot Sparkplugs won their first game in convincing fashion. It was obvious to me that the coach, who has been even-handed in his personnel rotations to the detriment of outright winning, put his best lineup on the field for the first quarter: his tiny but clever twin daughters as wingers, a tall, strong but somewhat awkward girl at striker, Kelly and another aggressive defender at the side backs and one of Kelly's teammates from last year as center back. I confirmed with the coach later that the fully intended to go for the jugular with that lineup, and it paid off immediately, with three goals in the first ten minutes. By the end of the game, the girls, parents and coaches were giddy with the win. It was nice to see the payoff for all the hard work over the course of the season.

The irony is that the win came against the team of Kelly's best friend, plus another girl from Kelly's team last year. Kelly had been looking forward to the game all year; I think Kelly and her friend were both a little shocked that it turned out the way it did. After the game, though, they couldn't stop kicking the ball around after they came over to the little boys' field to watch their brothers play (on the same team):

It has been a good year for Kelly, whose skills have improved dramatically. Next year, though, she will go back to being one of the little kids, one of eleven on the field at the same time. She loves the game and likes to improve, so we can't ask for more than that.