Monday, December 17, 2007

Life Imitates Art

If you have ever seen The Shawshank Redemption (and if you haven't, you really should), you know how this story works: "Pinups of Bikini-Clad Women Hid Jailbreak Route, Officials Say." I can't believe it actually worked.

The authorities should probably check Zihuatanejo.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The End of the Playoff Road

Kelly's soccer team, the Lemonheads, went down to defeat Saturday and Wednesday, ending their season. The campaign was a successful one, though, with a final third place ranking out of twenty teams. Strong defense was the team's hallmark all season, as it almost always is with good teams at any level. After squeezing through with two 1-0 playoff wins the week before, the Lemonheads lost 1-0 last Saturday. Then, in the game they had to win to get to the championship game, the Lemonheads staged an epic battle against the Beckhams, taking a 1-1 draw through regulation time and two overtime periods, before finally bowing out, 4-3 on penalty kicks. The game could not have been more tightly contested. (Ironically, the coach of the team that won is the same coach that led the team that knocked Kelly's team out of the playoffs two years ago.) The girls were disappointed, but are to be congratulated for playing so well as a team and competing with such intensity.

The last two games were played at the Glendale Sports Complex, on a full size artificial turf field. The very last game was actually played at night under the lights, in unexpectedly cold temperatures. There was a real East Coast feel to the whole experience (that many of the West Coasters did not adapt to well). It was a good way to wrap up the season. The girls will remember the experience of it much longer than they remember the result.

We will miss this AYSO region. It is exceptionally well organized and supported by the community, and has greatly enriched the lives of countless families, not the least of which our own.

Flight of Fancy

Last night's Mythbusters tackled one of my most cherished Walter Mitty fantasies: a civilian landing a commercial airliner. With all of the flights I have made lately (20 since mid-September), and my lifelong love of flying, the thought of playing the dashing hero who brings the airplane in safely after the pilots are mysteriously incapacitated is one that has played out in my head many times. By golly, I know lots about how planes work. For instance, I know airplanes have flaps! That ought to count for something.

Using a huge NASA simulator, the Mythbusters guys tried to land what appeared to be a 767 in Denver. In their first attempts, without any assistance from a controller, they both failed in spectacular fashion. Interestingly, with the guidance of an air traffic controller, both novices managed to land the plane smoothly right on the centerline of the runway.

I felt a lot better about my prospects for future glory. However, there are two additional facts to consider. First, a civilian has never been called upon to land an airplane in American commercial aviation history. Second, in the most modern airplanes, there is literally a button that can be pressed on the autopilot, marked "APP" (for "approach") that will essentially land the plane on its own. Drat.

Well, at least I know about that button now. Frankly, I wish some of the Southwest pilots would use it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Pointless Internet Game of the Day

This is an interesting exercise in mouse control, spacial awareness and anticipation. A completely unfounded rumor has it that the Air Force requires its pilots to survive this for at least two minutes.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Linguistic Nitpick of the Day

Those colorful stones and other shiny adornments?


Not Jewlery.

Thank you.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Hoops Renaissance?

Don't look now, but the UCSB Gauchos may be on the rise again. Well, what counts for a rise when you are a mid-major men's basketball program.

The women's team has had most of the success over the past 15 seasons, routinely winning the conference and making nine consecutive NCAA tournament appearances along the way, while the men's team has not made it back to the NCAA tournament since 2002, and has not really had a great team since 1992, when the Gauchos made it into the second round. The assistant coach for that team, incidentally, was Ben Howland, now head coach at UCLA, and a graduate assistant was Jamie Dixon, now head coach at Pitt. UCSB's other great teams all played between 1987 (the Brian Shaw years) and 1993 (including a win over eventual NCAA Champion UNLV, then at the height of its powers). The program has had modest success over the intervening years, but nothing resembling those exciting times.

This year, the Gauchos have started 8-1 after a victory over Pepperdine last night. Although conference games have not yet started, and most of the games have been at home in the Thunderhome, there is reason for Gaucho fans (or fans of small programs in general) to be optimistic. The team brings back a senior guard, Alex Harris, who is among the NCAA scoring leaders, and a solid, experienced supporting cast. Lacking a dominant center, UCSB is unlikely to be one of the disruptive mid-majors that Billy Packer hates so much, but the prospects are looking good that the Gauchos may go to the big dance.

Okay, it's only December, but the rabid support of all things Cal around here puts me in a college frame of mind. Expect to endure read more here as the season goes on.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

All We Like Sheep

Southwest Airlines takes a lot of flack for being the Greyhound of the skies: the pack in a lot of people with no frills. In its favor, Southwest has always had good fares compared to its competition, it has a lot of flights since they are almost all relatively short-haul, and, in this era of rapidly disappearing onboard services, Southwest’s relatively austere cabin service no longer is out of step with the industry. In fact, with complementary drinks and peanuts (two packs!), Southwest is now ahead of some of its rivals.

[Okay, that may be the Stockholm Syndrome kicking in. Moving on…]

Southwest has recently overhauled many of their procedures, the most visible of which is the boarding process. Southwest has never assigned seats, favoring instead open seating, which had the downside of adding to its cattle-car reputation. Back in the day, they used to hand out California-shaped plastic, numbered boarding passes that you had to acquire at the gate, then surrender on the way to the airplane. They eventually did away with that in favor of three boarding groups, one of which would be designated on the boarding pass that the passenger would acquire from the ticket agent or (glory be!) his or her own printer. The problem with that system is that people would begin to line up at the A, B or C posts long before the scheduled departure time, often before the aircraft had even arrived. In my experience, as a person who, like most, does not like to sit in the middle seat, this would lead to some discord in the boarding area. People would keep an eye out over their reading materials to see if other passengers were starting to line up in significant numbers. It never failed that at a certain point, like solids precipitating out of a solution, a stampede to fill out the line would take place, forcing everyone out of their seats and into a line, only to stand there for the next half hour. (That’s a psychology experiment about crowd behavior waiting to happen.)

This past month, Southwest modified its procedure to subdivide the A, B and C boarding groups into groups of 5. Each boarding pass now has a letter and a number, and at the appropriate time (not before!), the passenger goes to the set of stainless steel posts in the gate area that display the number sets; a television monitor or rotating sign displays the letter at the front of the line. There are six posts; five passengers are to stand between each set, up to 30. Numbers 31 to 60 stand on the other side of the posts. The gate agent calls A 1-30; after they board, A 31-60 board while the people with boarding passes B 1-30 line up in the space the first A group just vacated (the TV or sign switches from A to B), and so on. The procedure takes up much less room and, more importantly, relieves everyone from competing with their fellow passengers for space in line.

Sadly, this appears to be far too confusing for some of the fine folks who live among us. I have made several trips under the new regime, and each one has featured several people wandering among the properly assembled boarders holding their boarding pass in front of them like a lost tourist with a dimestore map. These poor souls then complain to those of us who will listen (who had no trouble matching the number on our boarding pass to the number on the big, shiny posts arrayed in the middle of the boarding area) that this process just doesn’t make sense, it’s too confusing, etc.

I confess that it makes me sad that people can be so easily befuddled, especially when the actual result of the new scheme, if they could manage to think about it clearly, makes their lives better. These lost people did not have to stand in line for 45 minutes (where they surely griped about having to get in line anyway); even better, the entire boarding process takes only about three minutes from the order to assemble to the procession down the jetway.

Change simply for the sake of change can be a step backward. Sometimes, though, it is for the better. The refusal of some people to recognize this, and their apparent joy in complaining about “the new,” is baffling to me. Less time spent standing in line, more time for relaxing, eating, buying trinkets (whatever you do in an airport to pass the time)? Bring it on. If you can’t handle it, trade in your A pass for a C pass, take your seat crammed between two people who knew what they were doing, and eat your peanuts in shame.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Creeping Oldfogeyism, Part One of Many

In other "I'm getting old" laments, a remastered edition of U2's "The Joshua Tree" was released today. How can that be? Remastering is only done for old albums! It cannot be that the most meaningful album of my generation (I will defend that to the death) is old, can it?

The day you hear a Muzak version of "Bullet the Blue Sky" in a dentist's office, just take me to the nearest ice floe and set me adrift.

Nostalgia Tour

I finished a court appearance in San Jose today with enough time to dawdle in the South Bay before heading home for the evening, so I took the opportunity to pass through some of my old haunts. I've been by the old homes a time or two over the past number of years, but I had not been able to take the time to just soak up some of the more prosaic aspects of my old hometown. It was the kind of trip that would bore my wife and kids to tears, but just driving down roads that I took countless times in my youth is as meaningful to me as going to an old home.

I was pleasantly surprised at how bucolic Sunnyvale still is. I feared that I had romanticized it over the years as some Utopian Everytown, USA -- if not the perfect town to grow up in (which even I would not suggest), at least better than anyplace else I've been. The city center, including the library, really is a great expression of civic pride. Meandering through town today, tracing some of my many formerly habitual routes, I was amazed in particular at how wide the streets were. Even in the middle of neighborhoods, the streets allowed plenty of room for traffic, parked cars andbikes. Of course, in those days, my primary mode of transportation was bicycle. Buried deep in my psyche is a recollection of which streets were extended gradual uphill grinds; the slightest grade, as I learned back then, made all the difference in my enjoyment of the ride. Or, to put it into teen angst mode, my resentment at not being able to borrow the car. I must say, I got a bit of a kick out of toodling around the old neighborhood in my current ride. I never came out of the Sunnyvale Library to get into that.

For all of the deep resonance that just being in the same old neighboods brings, nothing stays the same forever. My first Sunnyvale home has been painted baby blue (a highly questionable choice), and both the apricot and pine (fir?) trees have been removed, the latter very recently, to judge by the wood chips and fresh, huge stump. Victoria Station and the Velvet Turtle, the only fancy restaurants I knew of as a kid, are both gone. The Victoria Station still has the railroad cars that comprised the restaurant, but now it is a Vietnamese restaurant. In fact, just about every business in that immediate area, including our old church, caters to either Mandarin or Vietnamese population that must be very prominent in that neighborhood now. I did deposit a check at the Bank of America that was my first bank, though. I even went inside just to see the old counter where I used to deposit my meager minimum wage checks.

In the course of being back in the Bay Area, I have learned how little I actually knew about my home when I grew up here. People at work now ask me questions about the South Bay, and I find that I have very few answers. I was out and about a lot back then, but, as it turns out, only within a very narrowly drawn area. I did very little more than about five miles from home. My travels encompass a much longer radius now. I'm thankful, though, for all the living I packed into those few miles. It is not likely that I will live there again, as much as I would love to do it. Still, it's nice to be able to visit now and then.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Serious Winter Storm

It appears that my many family members and friends in the Pacific Northwest are facing a particularly vicious winter storm, with hurricane level winds and 40 foot high waves at the coast. Certain details of news reports have me particularly concerned:

Mudslides halted north-south Amtrak passenger train service between Eugene, Oregon, and Vancouver, British Columbia, fallen trees and flooding blocked all highways into Tillamook, authorities said.
Think of the cheese, people, think of the cheese.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Shortening My Life, 60 Minutes at a Time

It's December, which means Kelly's soccer playoffs, of course. She was fortunate to be on another good team this year. She has been a solid contributing member of the team, usually playing right wing, in spite of the fact that she is the shortest kid on the team, and usually the gameday field as well. Her team went 9-1 to win their division outright, giving up only six goals along the way (four of those in one game alone).

The playoffs began yesterday, where they managed a 1-0 win. The other team finally mounted an attack right at the end of the game, but our goalkeeper stuck herself into the scrum to save the day. The next game was this morning against the team we beat in the first game of the season. We won that first game 1-0, with Kelly netting the only goal. That team went on to finish 8-1-1, with their only loss coming against us. It was no surprise, then, that the teams were evenly matched, with the flow of the game going up and down the field throughout the match. We got a nice putback goal midway through the first half, and we withstood numerous fierce challenges the rest of the way to finish up with another 1-0 win.

While most of my weekend trips home this fall have been a nice relaxing respite from the work week, I have slept poorly this weekend. Gameday adrenaline has roused me in the predawn hours each day, and I'm still bleeding off the tension of today's game, a couple of hours later. Fortunately, Kelly seems to handle it far better than I do.

With one more win, we're in the championship game, although it is likely we will have to go through a 10-0 team that scored five goals a game to get there. More sleepless nights ahead.