Wednesday, August 30, 2006

A Question for the Drivers

When you are approaching an intersection in which another car is waiting to turn left across traffic and you intend to push through a yellow light, should you flash your lights to warn the car waiting to turn? Or does the flash indicate to the turning driver that it is safe for him to commence his turn?

It is a good idea to get these things squared away before trying to use them.

Goodbye, Wake Island

At least for a little while. A Category V typhoon is scheduled to sweep over the remote Pacific island tomorrow, and is expected to submerge the island and destroy anything not made of concrete. There are no permanent residents on the island, and those working there are being evacuted to Hawaii, but this is a sobering reminder that an island in a storm is often not a safe place. We saw during our trip to the Bahamas how low the land is relative to the calm water; a storm surge of any strength can devastate low lying areas. When the entire expanse of the land is a low-lying area, the island simply disappears from the map for a while. It is a very unsettling thought to this life-long continental dweller.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Soccer Update

Michael starts in AYSO's youngest division this year. The teams have five boys each, and play short 3-on-3 games that are more open play time than a real soccer game. It should be very cute and fun.

The uniform for the team is a very sharp blue with a red and white diagonal slash. The boys selected their team name: Team America! Yeah!

We're going to go without a team song this year, in case you were wondering.

Toad the Wet Sprocket: A Totally Biased Concert Review

I make no apologies for the fact that the sentences to follow contain roughly 89% more subjectivity than federal regulations allow for a certified “Concert Review.” If I wanted to deconstruct artists I hardly knew, trying to be one of the cool kids by throwing in references to obscure musicians without recording contracts while coolly dismissing all music as we know it as mere cogs in the soul-crushing corporate machine that rules our very lives, I could have found a job with LA Weekly.

Instead, this is a fan’s journal.

The bizarrely-named Toad the Wet Sprocket rose to something slightly less than total obscurity in the early 1990’s with earnest, sometime opaque lyrics set to folksy electric guitar pop hooks. A gentler, less substantial cousin of R.E.M., a more melodic relative of Gin Blossoms, Toad put together a nice set of records over the course of about ten years, with a couple of genuine hits, a bunch of nice songs, appearances on a couple of tribute albums, a few soundtrack contributions, and, like most bands that reach the national level, a dedicated cadre of loyal fans.

The band has not put out a studio album since 1997, however, and essentially disbanded in 1998. However, the band members’ subsequent work has not been substantial enough to permit them to distance themselves from their work in Toad. Plus, I suspect that the bonds of boyhood that brought them together at Dos Pueblos High School in Santa Barbara have never been broken, regardless of the vicissitudes of the music business that led them to believe that the right way to proceed was separately. As a result, Toad has reunited several times for small tours or one-off concerts. After missing out on the tours from their days as a recording band, as well as subsequent tours, I made sure that I took the opportunity to see them on the current tour.

They played at the Galaxy Theater in Santa Ana, which used to be the Coachhouse. It is a little dinner theater space set in a non-descript light industrial park. The stage is small, the floor is semi-circular and intimate, and the whole setup is ringed with tables of four or six in four tiers. We arrived promptly in time for the doors to open and were shown to our table in the third tier, after a heart-stopping moment when the host could not find our reservation on the official sheet. We were seated with a young couple from Colorado, both engineers, who had come out to California to see Toad after having seen a number of the lead singer’s solo shows.

This encounter provided me with two distinct points of information; one I anticipated, one I did not. I was curious, first of all, to see what kind of folks would come out to a show like this – a band that was popular with sensitive college kids ten years ago (or so the cynics would say). My guess was just about right: most people were in their 30s and 40s, with relatively few younger than 25. Overall, it was a pretty mellow group. A bouncer, sporting a splint from a performing his official duties at a different show the night before, chuckled as he observed the line of people coming in, sharing that he was sure his night would be much easier than it had been the night before. My second reaction was how unsettled I was at suddenly being in the presence of hundreds of other fans of this band, among whom were undoubtedly dozens who were more fanatical than I am. Wait, aren’t these my guys? They came up in Santa Barbara when I was there! I took classes from the drummer’s dad! Who are all you people, getting in on my gig?

I got over it, somewhere between the limp, overdressed salad and chewy steak.

The concert opened with an energetic singer-songwriter who could draw amazingly big sounds out of his twelve-string guitar. He was amusing, in an often ribald manner, and his songcraft was strong, but he has risen to his level. Songs about her, or she, and how he lusted after her/loved her/still loves her/misses her/is bitter about how she dumped him but still kinda thinks she’s cool, can only take a songwriter so far. He did have a fun little Journey sing-along, though, so we all had a good time.

Toad then came out, and promptly ran into technical difficulties. The body strap for the bass guitar was loose, so Dean valiantly played on while a technician crouched beside him for a couple of songs securing the strap. The band played an interesting mix of songs, including some less-than obvious choices that I was very happy to hear. Interestingly, they played nearly every song several steps lower in pitch than the recorded versions, I suppose to preserve their voices. It had the effect, for me, at least, of rendering the songs somewhat more subdued than might otherwise have been the case. Nevertheless, the band was very tight in their playing, lead singer Glen showed off impressive guitar chops, guitarist Todd displayed a pleasant voice on lead vocals on two songs, Dean just seemed pleased as punch to be there, and drummer Randy was … short. Very short. But he had his wife and son with him onstage during the entire show, which was very sweet, especially considering that it was their anniversary. Glenn and his wife had recently celebrated their thirteenth anniversary, as had Cheryl and I, so the whole event came together in a nice bit of synchronicity.

I loved seeing the concert in the small venue. I will admit to getting a little charge out of seeing the Toad tour bus at the end of the parking lot. I will also admit to being just a bit underwhelmed, even though the concert was very, very good and the band played all of the right songs. I think I had it in my head that I would be within an arm’s reach of the guys, or that the room would be more energetic somehow, or that the guys would invite me backstage for a post-concert chat ... you know, realistic expectations. However, as the days have passed since the show, I find myself appreciating the concert more and more. It was a truly great show that formed the basis for a brief getaway for us. They filmed the next show, so I may even be able to relive it a little when the DVD comes out.

Now I just have to look out for their next reunion tour.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Pilot Error

The tragic crash of a commuter jet at a small regional airport in Kentucky yields some curious questions about how such a horrible event could have happened. The airplane attempted to take off from runway 26, which, as has been widely reported, is only 3,500 feet long. Heavily laden jet aircraft require more distance for a takeoff rollout. The airplane should have departed from runway 22, which is approximately 7,000 feet in lenght, more than enough for most commercial airliners (and, incidentally, quite a bit longer than the heavily-used runway 8 at Burbank, which is only 5,800 feet long).

The flight began at approximately 6:10 am in the pre-dawn near-darkness. Yet, it has been reported that the runway had no lights. Surely an experienced commercial pilot would have questioned whether he was in the right place if he were looking down a dark runway. However, the airfield was underdoing rennovations, which may have led to both an error in ground navigation and a mistaken lack of alarm over missing lights. A mistake with tragic consequences, to be sure, but one with many causes.

What is much more vexing for me is how the pilot ever could have begun his takeoff roll on runway 26, knowing he was cleared for runway 22. The lights may have been absent or off and the taxiways may have been improperly routed, but one item in the pilot's view should have unequivocally told him something was wrong: his compass. Runways are identified with a numerical designation that corresponds to compass heading to which the runway points. Thus, runway 22 points to 220 degrees on the compass, or approximately southwest, while runway 26 points to 260 degress, or approximately west. According to FAA information, the orientation of runway 22 is 226 magnetic, 222 true, whereas runway 26 is 265 magnetic, 261 true. A plan view of the airfield shows this convention at work:

I am not a pilot and have never taken classes in order to obtain a pilot's license. I do not know the checkoff procedures undertaken by any pilots, let alone commercial airline pilots. I have no desire to impugn the reputation of the pilot; he has lost his life as a result of whatever errors were made. However, crash investigations take place in the hope that something might be learned that would prevent a similar disaster in the future. In this instance, it seems to me that the basic rules of runway identification should have been enough to alert the pilot that something was seriously amiss. If the airplane was to take off from runway 22, it seems that the compass should have shown a direction somewhere in the neighborhood of southwest. Unfortunately, it appears that in the rush to get the commuters on their way on a confusing airfield, this simple check was overlooked.

There are two words to describe this event, it seems to me. One is "tragic."

The other is "preventable."

Friday, August 18, 2006

Joke of the Day

A plumber sat next to a lawyer on a long flight from L.A. to New York. The lawyer leans over to him and asks if he would like to play a fun game. The plumber is tired and just wants to take a nap, so he politely declines and rolls over to the window to catch a few winks.

The lawyer persists, saying that the game is really easy and a lot of fun. He explains how the game works. "I ask you a question, and if you don't know the answer, you pay me, and vice-versa." Again, the plumber politely declines and tries to get some sleep. The lawyer figures that since his opponent is a just a plumber, he will easily win the match, so he makes another offer.

"Okay, how about this, If you don't know the answer you pay me only $5, but if I don't know the answer, I will pay you $500." This catches the plumber's attention and, figuring that there will be no end to this torment unless he plays, he agrees to play the game. The lawyer asks the first question.

"What's the distance from the earth to the moon?" The plumber doesn't say a word, reaches in to his wallet, pulls out a five-dollar bill, and hands it to the lawyer.

Now, it's the plumber's turn. He asks the lawyer, "what goes up a hill with three legs, and comes down with four?"

The lawyer looks at him, puzzled. He takes out his laptop computer and searches all his references. He taps into the Air phone with his modem and searches the Net and even the Library of Congress. Frustrated, he sends E-mails to all his co-workers and friends he knows, all to no avail. After over an hour of searching for the answer he finally gives up.

He wakes the plumber and hands him $500. The plumber politely takes the $500 and turns away to get back to sleep. The lawyer, who cannot imagine what the answer is, and is going nuts trying to figure it out, is more than a little frustrated. He wakes the plumber and asks, "Well, so what goes up a hill with three legs and comes down with four?"

The plumber reaches into his wallet, hands the lawyer $5, and goes back to sleep.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Oh, Those Wacky, Forgetful Rocket Scientists!

This ought to give all Americans, and particularly those who voluntarily strap themselves onto gigantic rockets, a warm sense of comfort. NASA has lost the original recordings of the first moon landing, including Neil Armstrong's famous "one small step" speech. It gets better: in all, NASA has lost 700 boxes of historic documentation and recordings from the Appolo lunar missions. NASA's on the case, though. They've been looking for the boxes for, um, a year.

Yep, that's confidence-inspiring, all right. The shuttle's fine, you say? Great! We'll take your word for it, because NASA stands for the best and brightest that this nation has to offer. What could possibly go wrong?

Friday, August 11, 2006


Tonight's the night. The annual Perseid meteor shower will take place over the next couple of days. Unfortunately, the glare of the nearly full moon will wash out some of the meteors, but this is still the best opportunity to see dozens of meteors in an hour. I have fond memories of sitting on a lawn chair at Grandpa and Grandma Evans's farm late at night in August, ooh-ing and ahh-ing as little streaks of light burst all over the sky. Set the alarm for 2 a.m. (I'm too old now to know anyone who would not have already gone to bed), catch a few falling stars, then sleep in -- a perfect schedule.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

I'm a Dreamer

After years of thinking about it, I finally took the plunge today:

Golfing legend Bobby Jones said of the young, dominating Jack Nicklaus, "He plays a game with which I am not familiar." I feel that way about bicycles these days. We are a long, long way from 10-speeds. The Specialized I bought today is, I think, at or very near the bottom of their range of products for "road bikes." It has clips for regular shoes rather than purpose-build cycling shoes. It has midrange componentry. It is not as light as some bikes are these days. The improvement beyond my last experience with bikes, however, is phenomenal. Some cyclists today might be concerned that one derailleur set changes gears slightly faster than others, and weighs 15 grams less. Ha! I'm just amazed that the gears change automatically at the flick of a lever, like the semi-automatic transmissions that have become so trendy in cars lately. This era's cyclists bemoan the extra few grams a titanium frame costs over an equivalent carbon-fiber frame. I'm perfectly happy with the aluminum body (with a c-f front fork), a huge improvement over the steel frames of my cycling days, which are now about 15 years in the past. This bike is freakishly light. It has aerodynamic wheel sections, high pressure tires (you can't get the old, wider kind anymore), and really pretty red paint. I also got a relatively inexpensive trip computer that operates wirelessly. Not only is this bike easily the equal of anything Greg Lemond rode in his day, but there are parts of this package that didn't even exist then. And yet, as I mentioned, I think this was the cheapest bike offered by Specialized, if not the cheapest bike in the entire store (the really excellent Cycle World). Truly, we live in interesting times.

Be sure to check in for my next posts: "Oh My God My Legs Hurt," "Diminished Lung Capacity and You," and "Anybody Want a Slightly Used Road Bike?"

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Cheater Redux

Notwithstanding all that fascinating stuff I wrote about hormone ratios, alcohol and legal painkillers, it appears that Floyd Landis may actually have doped. According to published reports, further testing of Landis's "A" sample has revealed the presence of synthetic testosterone.

Synthetic testosterone doesn't just appear in one's blood by accident; the reasonable explanations for the positive test are rapidly melting away. The cyclist's own legal team no longer expects a contrary result from the "B" sample, which is due to be tested soon. What an embarrassment.

We've been in the artificial performance enhancement era in sports for a long time now. "Greenies" (amphetamines) have been a staple of baseball clubhouses for decades. American football players are widely known to have used steroids for nearly the entire of the history of the post-merger NFL. A British cyclist died in the Tour de France in 1967 as a result of amphetamine usage. What is different about the current "era," which is about five years old, is that the wink-and-nod acceptance of days gone by has been replaced by increasingly strict testing and punishment. The NFL, probably the worst offender of all and still holds its cards close to the chest, but will suspend players for the use of illegal substances. Baseball has made significant strides under intense public scrutiny. Cycling and the Olympics have taken the hardest line, yet the problem continues.

The designer drugs developed over the last 15 years have turned the battle for the soul of pure sport into a cloak and dagger pursuit worthy of Cold War spy stories. The drug makers continue to put out products that remain a step ahead of the ability of the authorities to detect their products. With the extraordinary money at stake at every level of professional athletics, the incentive to continue to do so will not abate any time soon, either for the drug maker or the athlete who uses the drug to gain that fleeting moment of glory.