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.