Saturday, December 27, 2008

See Dick Sing. Sing, Dick, Sing!

Video games are often derided as the agent of laziness that are turning the brains of today's youth to mush. Some people, usually those who play videogames, attempt to defend viedeogames in a variety of ways. Some games have a certain amount of educational value. There are many successful programmers who grew up in front of their Ataris or TRS-80s. The increasing complexity of some games has allowed the defense that a military career may be a logical next step for the budding virtual special ops practitioner.

To these ideas we can add "helping Johnny read." Motivation being a primary component of effective learning, kids who are motivated to succeed at a videogame can achieve surprising results. For Christmas this year, we added Rock Band to our house of toys. The game allows up to four people to live out their Lizard King fantasies by playing and singing real rock songs in a videogame format. The vocal portion is essentially a karaoke machine. It is a non-trivial exercise for a little kid to keep up with the words scrolling across the screen, however. For the subset of wannabe rockers who are barely beyond the "Green Eggs and Ham" stage, song lyrics at tempo is a significant challenge. However, the urge to rock is strong.

This primal impulse is what leads seven year olds to warble, with great concentration, "I'm a cowboy, on a steel horse I ride ... I'm wanted...dead or aliiiiiiive."

Thank you, Mr. Bon Jovi, for helping my son learn to read.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas in The City

There is nothing quite like Christmas in a big city. Or so I've heard. I grew up in the suburbs, and lived in Los Angeles for the last 15 or so years, so I wouldn't know. Los Angeles is a big city, but it has no heart.

On the other hand, San Francisco, for all its looniness, is a world-class city on a par with any on the East Coast or Europe for its sense of an identifiable center. Christmas brings out the best in The City. It is lit beautifully, the many stores are brightly decorated, and, most importantly, it is alive with people out to experience the season.

We took advantage of our newfound proximity this year to spend an evening taking in the scene. We took BART to the Powell Street station, where the cable cars turn around to take tourists up the hill toward Union Square. We walked up to Union Square ourselves, where we watched people ice skate and take pictures by the huge Christmas tree:

We took a look at the chocolate castle at the St. Francis Hotel:

We had dinner at a festively decorated diner around the corner (my limited local knowledge came in handy):

Christmas is a time that is marked by busy-ness as much as anything else, so it was a treat to take some time to soak up the celebration of the season.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Flawed Soul of a New Machine

It bears repeating, and shouting from the mountaintops, that Top Gear just may be the best show on television, let alone the best car show by orders of magnitude. Not only is it on BBC America several times a week, but it is also one of the most heavily downloaded shows in the world. For those of us in the U.S., downloading is the only way to see the current series, as BBC America is currently showing episodes that are one or more series in the past.

[If you have any interest in seeing the most recent episodes, let me know. I, um, might be able to suggest ways to find the new shows.]

The biggest delight of Top Gear is usually the sheer lunacy of the contests the three witty hosts engage in, the way only clever Englishmen can do it. The most recent Top Gear, though, broadcast last Sunday night, was journalistically unusually hard hitting. Top Gear conducted what must be among the very first full tests of the much-celebrated Tesla electric sports car. The Tesla, based upon a modified Lotus Elise chassis and built here in the Bay Area, has generated (sorry for the pun) a lot of publicity in the several years of its gestation. Hollywood celebrities have enthusiastically plunked down the requisite $100,000 to be the first on their blocks to have one.

The Tesla, for all of its high wattage publicity (pun again, sorry), has not had a smooth trip to market. The car has undergone a number of developmental problems. The most significant design issue has been with the transmission. The original two speed gearbox proved to be unable to handle the considerable torque of the electric motor, so production Teslas leave the showroom with a single speed gearbox (albeit connected to a motor that can spin upwards of 13,000 rpm). Rumors have also dogged the Tesla program that the car's range was nowhere near the 200 miles advertised.

The Top Gear boys put the car to a proper test, the first I can recall seeing anywhere, print or otherwise. The car proved to be extremely quick, dusting the Elise in a sprint. However, the tradeoff in the considerable extra weight of the batteries (and high-efficiency, non-sporting tires) revealed itself as the Tesla slewed about the handling course. More significantly, after some enthusiastic driving, the car came to a dead halt ... in 55 miles. While that car underwent its 12 hour charge, they brought out another one to continue the test. It stopped with an overheating motor within a few minutes. After charging, the first car was brought back out, whereupon it promptly suffered a brake failure.

As a new car maker on the world stage, trying to forge ahead with new technology amid plenty of politically correct hype, the Top Gear review was devastating. Not by anything the hosts said, but by the way the car performed under real, albeit heavy, use. The car exhibited a lot of failure for $100,000.

Later, the show demonstrated a better way forward. One of the hosts made a rare trip to Los Angeles to sample the Honda FCX-Clarity, a remarkable car in very limited release. Also an electric car, it is powered not by heavy and environmentally disastrous batteries, but by a fuel cell powered by compressed hydrogen. With a range of at least 200 miles, emissions consisting only of water, and refueling taking only the usual couple of minutes, the host made the salient point that cars like the Clarity are likely the best bet for the future because they are the most like the present. No overnight charging, no hazardous and heavy batteries, and quick fill-ups make for a consumer-friendly product. If Honda can convince energy companies to enlarge the distribution chain for compressed hydrogen, a real paradigm shift may take hold in the automotive world, one that even car enthusiasts could embrace.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Fullest Full Moon

If you have clear skies in your area Friday night, be sure to draw the shades if you want to get any sleep. The full moon on Friday will be larger than usual, because the Moon's elliptical orbit will bring it to its closest approach to the Earth this year.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Remembering the Dawn of an Era

Forty years ago this week, the Stanford Research Institute demonstrated a machine that was the progenitor of the computer you are using right now. It had a visual display interface, a mouse, and could connect with other computers miles away. Given that the typical computer of the day took up much of a room, was controlled with punch cards and gave its output in printouts, the new machine was a quantum leap forward. It took more than a decade for all of the innovations shown that day to be put to widespread use, but the die was cast, and the world changed forever.

If you want to see the original 1968 presentation, click through to the Stanford site for the video.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Diamonds in the Sky

The stars truly will be aligned tonight. Or rather, a couple of planets and a moon. If you have clear skies this evening just after sundown, don't miss the show to be put on by Venus, Jupiter and Earth's crescent moon, which will be in rare close proximity to each other (as viewed from the Earth, anyway). We saw a preview last night; the kids thought it looked like a very long happy face in the sky.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Making the House a Home

At the time we bought the new house, it came with a non-functional old refrigerator. It was housed next to a slim cabinet that was further subdivided into a messy broom closet. It was one of the few real weak spots of the house: there was no pantry in the kitchen, or enough cabinets to serve that purpose. One of our priorities upon moving in was to somehow clear some space in the cabinets to make a pantry.

While we were having some other work done before we moved in, we decided to rip out the cabinet by the old refrigerator. We had discovered, in the course of shopping for a new fridge, that the old refrigerator was a size that is no longer available (42" wide, as opposed to the now-standard 36"). As a result, in a 72" wide space, the fridge took up 42", leaving only 30" for the cabinet. Knowing that we would buy a 36" wide new appliance, we could fit in a standard 36" wide cabinet as well.

We selected and ordered the cabinet from Lowes weeks ago, but the installer was only able to come out this past Saturday to put it in. After a similar number of weeks of putting off prepping the space, I put two coats of paint up Friday night, and the cabinet went in as scheduled on Saturday. Having never had a real pantry before, we are delighted. The house is starting to feel like ours now.


With paint:


Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Daily Grind

My commute these days is a bit of an improvement over LA freeways:

Monday, November 17, 2008

Night Launch

Last week, the space shuttle Endeavor made what is likely the last night launch for the shuttle program. An acquaintance from one of my online car clubs who lives in central Florida made the trek to the NASA causeway about 7 miles from the launch site to view the launch. He managed to get this spectacular 166-second exposure photograph of the launch itself:

I'm afraid it's looking more likely that I will never see a shuttle liftoff, much to my regret.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

November in Moraga

After a few rainy days, a last heatwave is on its way.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Cy Young Award Comes to the Giants

In the middle of a miserable sports year for the area, San Francisco received the happy news today that Giants pitcher Tim Lincicum won the National League Cy Young Award today, the first Giant to win the award in over 40 years. Lincicum won 18 games for a mediocre Giants team, setting a San Francisco Giants record for strikeouts in a season, while pitching the third most innings in the league with the second lowest earned run average.

Lincicum is a physical anomaly. He stands under 6 feet tall and weighs less than 180 pounds, the antithesis of the big horse physique that most teams look for in a pitcher. However, with a home-built wind up that makes the most of his slight stature through the miracles of flexibility and torque, he can gas it up into the high 90s with a delivery that hides the ball well from hitters. Thanks to his unusually well-developed tactical and physical abilities, he also throws a changeup that is nearly unhittable.

Even in the midst of a poor season, Lincicum starts became must-see events. We were fortunate enough to see one of his starts on a Friday night in late August this year. As expected, he pitched well, overpowering the San Diego Padres. The buzz in the stadium when he is on his game, which is most of the time when he has the ball in his hand, is a genuine thrill. At the tender age of 24, he is already a regional treasure and is expected to be the centerpiece of the Giants for many years to come.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Flying Blind

I can think of only a few things more terrifying than being in control of an airplane and suddenly losing one's sight. The chances of that situation being resolved happily would seem to be very slim. The knowledge that you were far above the ground with no way to land safely, knowing that you were only minutes from near-certain calamity.

Or so it would seem.

The pilot of a small airplane in England recently suffered a stroke while flying, suddenly and severely impairing his eyesight. The RAF managed to talk him down by sending up an airplane to fly next to him, guiding him all the way to the landing without further incident.

I would be scared to drive down my street into my driveway with a blindfold on and a guide talking me through it. I can't imagine how frightening and difficult landing an airplane would be under those conditions. The minute and constant reactions necessary to keep the craft on target would be nearly impossible to pull off.

Well done, chaps.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

First Term Grades

Moving is never easy; uprooting kids and forcing them to make new friends and find their way in new schools can be the most wrenching part of the process. We have been blessed. Kelly and Michael have been nothing but supportive and excited about our move from just after we told them it was coming more than a year ago. Even so, we harbored normal concerns about the schools they would be going to. Both had done well where they were. How would what they had done translate to new schools that are, by all measurable means and reputation, very high quality if not downright ruthlessly competitive?

So far, so good. Both kids have made a lot of friends, have had fun with soccer, and are doing great in the classroom. Kelly brought home her first quarter report card yesterday: an A in every class (A+ in PE, she would want me to point out), with nice remarks from several of the teachers about her contributions to the class. She agonizes over every lost point (or half point), so earning the perfect grades pleased her to no end.

Lest this come across as churlish for bragging about my kids, the interesting part of this process is not so much the grades (of which we are all proud) but how hard Kelly has had to work to get them. She routinely puts in two to three hours of homework every night, usually covering almost all of her classes. She has had special projects in just about every class already. The substantive work does not seem to be that hard, but the amount of work is considerable. We figure it is our job at this point in her schooling to teach her how to study and budget her time, which is probably her biggest weakness. She is learning, though, and having her effort rewarded with great grades should help reinforce what we're trying to do.

The classwork does not get easier. The school has even warned sixth grade parents that the workload will increase over the course of the year, presumably as the kids develop the skills to cope with it. The local high school is the best in the state and, by all accounts, extremely competitive. Our goal for the kids is not necessarily that they always get the top grades, but that they learn how to put in the effort necessary to get the best grade they are able to attain based on their innate abilities. I find that it is the effort and efficiency skills that are the most useful out in the real world; learning them now in ways I never did can only help them down the road.

It looks like the education the kids received in the Glendale public school has not left them playing catch up. Learning how to study is going to be the ongoing effort this year, but it is off to a solid start.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

And You Thought Your SatNav Was Complicated

In another life, this would have been my office. It's the cockpit of the new Airbus A380 jetliner, an enormous two-deck commercial aircraft that has recently begun passenger service.

For an aircraft designed so recently, the seats look surprisingly drab and uncomfortable. Perhaps we don't want the pilots to be too comfortable, although these airplanes can fly themselves from takeoff to touchdown with only a minimal amount of human interaction.

Note, too, that there are no control yokes in front of the pilots. Instead, it looks like Airbus took advantage of a CompUSA blowout sale to pick up a couple of Logitech flight joysticks. That's good to know; if there is ever a problem with the pilots, I know I can count on the fifteen-year-old gamer in row 33 to fly us to safety.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Internet Pet Peeve of the Day

I understand why they exist, but word verification applications are a constant annoyance, and an example of a half-baked solution to an ongoing problem.

Anyone who has ever posted a comment to a blog or news article online within the last few years has had to deal with a word verification program. It usually consists of typing a series of letters or numbers depicted on the screen in graphical format rather than as regular text. This, as I understand it, is to deter spambots that used to flourish by blitzing comments. The spambots cannot read the images generated by the word verification system, so no spam can be deposited.

It's a simple solution, which is usually the best solution, but it is the details that sometimes let the system down. I have often found that the image generated by the word verification program is so distorted that I cannot read it. This is a mild annoyance when posting here (where it is a constant problem), but when I'm trying to buy concert tickets or something else of value that I may lose if I can't complete the transaction, it becomes a major problem.

Please, anti-spammers, don't throw the legitimate user baby out with the spammy bathwater. Give us a tool we can actually use!

Why Tuesday?

Among the many arcane rules of political life that have survived the decades without notice, why is election day the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November? It seems like a rather arbitrary selection.

It is not.

According to this Congressional Research Service Report, there are very specific reasons why that day was selected as election day:

Elections for all federal elected officials are held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even-numbered years . . . ; presidential elections are held in every year divisible by four. Congress selected this day in 1845 (5 Stat. 721); previously, states held elections on different days between September and November, a practice that sometimes led to multiple voting across state lines, and other fraudulent practices.
By tradition, November was chosen because the harvest was in, and farmers were able to take the time needed to vote. Tuesday was selected because it gave a full day's travel between Sunday, which was widely observed as a strict day of rest, and election day. Travel was also easier throughout the north during November, before winter had set in.
The accommodation for travel time is apparently because most voting was conducted at the county seat, and horses could only take you so far each day.

So get your harvest in, people, and point your horse toward the county courthouse. There's electin' to do!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I Want My MTV!

Remember when MTV stood for "Music Television"? It has been many years since MTV actually featured music as a substantial portion of its programming, now preferring instead to broadcast a steady diet of reality shows exploiting teens striving to be a lot cooler and sexier than they really are.

Good news for those with a nostalgic longing for old Duran Duran videos, however -- the music is coming back. MTV is not changing its programming; instead, MTV has enabled online access to all of its videos. This may be a bit trivial in the grand scheme of things, but MTV is not without significance in pop culture history. There was a span of years in which exposure on MTV could absolutely create a career (see, Madonna) or give eternal life to one-hit-wonders that would never have been known otherwise (see, a-ha).

For those of a certain age, imagine yourself dropping your backpack at the front door, pouring a bowl of cereal and settling down in front of the Trinitron for an afternoon of mindless radio on TV until mom nags you to get started on your homework. In this small way, you can go home again ... to 1982.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Inevitability of the Useful Lifespan

It is axiomatic that appliances will blow a fuse or spring a leak the day after their warranties expire. A little known codicil to this truism (or at least one that was not known to me) is that the moving gods will punish the affront of a homebuyer discarding appliances that came with the house by causing the buyer's own appliances to spew their guts within a month of moving in.

We asked for the existing washer (relatively new, front loading) and dryer (older, but gas heated) to be removed in conjunction with the sale of our new house. The seller did not remove them, so we had to go to the extra effort of having them hauled away after we moved in to make room for our 12 year old matching washer and dryer set. Maybe we should have taken their stubborn determination to remain in the house as a sign.

Just before soccer games began this morning, our washer decided it no longer wanted to keep its water to itself. It wasn't an inlet or drain hose problem; the main tub overflow blew a seal of some kind, flooding the laundry room and adjacent bathroom.

It will be a busy week upcoming. Our friendly neighborhood Sears delivery man will be bringing a replacement washer tomorrow. A pantry will be coming sometime this week. Living room shutters will finally arrive on Wednesday. A breakfast table will be here Thursday. The guest room closet organizer was installed on Friday. In the span of about a week, most of the final pieces of the basic move-in improvements will be done. The broken washer was just the unexpected cherry on top.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Superior, Relatively Speaking

I flew again this week for the first time in a while, and the first time since the airlines began charging fees for just about everything. One phrase came to mind:

"Lower your standards!"

John Lovitz was about 15 years ahead of his time (a phrase that cannot often be uttered) when he created this catchphrase. There was a time when Southwest Airlines was a punchline itself, the place you went to be crammed into an aluminum tube like cattle, fed only with peanuts.

My, how times have changed.

With airlines now charging for every service they provide, all the way down to a simple cup of water, Southwest now looks pretty good. Look, peanuts! And they're free!

Friday, October 17, 2008

New Proof of Media Bias!

Big Media can no longer sanctimoniously claim it is not taking sides. The revealing gaffe was right out there for everyone to see.

Last night, in the sixth inning of the Tampa Bay Rays' 7-0 blowout of the Boston Red Sox in the fifth game of the American League Championship Series, when a win by the Rays would send them to the World Series, the announcers began thanking their audio engineers for a great season. The obvious implication is that the TBS crew believed it was working its last game.

To make things worse, in the top of the seventh inning, TBS sent its sideline reporter into the stands to talk to a high ranking executive of the Philadelphia Phillies, the National League representative in the World Series. The reporter and executive proceeded to congratulate the Rays on a terrific season and spoke of the Phillies' task in facing them in the next round.

It is so transparent. The TV guys know you do not assume a win in a big playoff game, as anyone who watched Dusty Baker present departing pitcher Russ Ortiz with the game ball in Game 6 of the 2002 World Series would know (on the verge of elimination, the Angels staged a miracle comeback in that game, then won the series in the next game against a shellshocked Giants squad).

What this all means is that -- no surprise -- the big media outlets want big-market Boston to win. The best way to accomplish that goal, obviously, is to poke the baseball gods in the eye, throw karma to the wind, proclaiming Tampa Bay the winner nine outs before the game was over. If I could have, I would have put money on the Red Sox to win that game the minute the guys in the truck received their on-air thanks.

Yeah, baseball. What did you think this was about?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Moving Day, Illustrated

We have all been through it. We all know the peculiar anxieties, stresses and exhaustions of moving a household. Luckily for you, you get to relive mine.

Unlike the Mayflower guys who moved us from SoCal to NorCal, who were exceptionally prompt and worked swiftly, our little crosstown movers arrived almost an hour late on the appointed day. The got everything moved, but in my view disassembled furniture more than was necessary. Where the Mayflower guys would wrap up a cabinet, for instance, these folks would take it apart first. That causes two problems: it takes longer to move out, and because there is more to reassemble, there is a greater likelihood that something will be put back together incorrectly. Or, as in our case, it will just take longer to put back together, a double time-whammy. Did I mention that they were paid by the time spent, not pounds moved? Smaller truck, too:

Nevertheless, they were careful and got everything moved without any drama. That was the one day all summer, of course, that threatened rain, and the sprinklers at the new house had turned the area by the front walk into a muddy bog, so I had to lay out a lot of plastic to protect the new, light-colored carpet.

The house was so orderly, once:

Not so much by that evening:

We left the other two thirds of our possessions in the garage, and have been working our way through boxes ever since.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Can't Leave Well Enough Alone

Here, finally, are some happy snaps from the last six weeks or so.

No sooner did we get the keys to the new house than we set about tearing it apart. We ripped out some cabinets and put in a doorway to connect the area we will use as the dining room with the front family room/kitchen:

Painting was the next task, which remains ongoing (before/after [or, more accurately, during]):

The week before the move, our storage unit was been delivered. Thanks to Dad, its contents now fill half of our garage.

Next up: the move (almost a month ago now).

Friday, October 10, 2008

Financial Bizarro World

You want a measure of how crazy the financial markets are right now?

With about 45 minutes to go in today's trading, General Motors, which makes cars, has a market cap of about $2.75 billion.

Hasbro, Inc., which makes toy cars, has a market cap of about $4.05 billion.

[Incidentally, I find that fact to be a reflection of GM's poor management and products more than a consequence of the current credit market shakedown, although the GMAC wing certainly is not helping the bottom line. It's still weird, though.]

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Nostalgia Days

My 20th high school reunion was this past weekend. I attended the 10th, which was predictably awkward and all too reminiscent of high school itself.

This one was far better. The reunion was planned by our own people, not an outside firm. For the last six months we have had a website that included not only the basic information but also a message board and a member section that allowed each classmate to post personal information, photos and any other information they wanted to share with the class. The sense of anticipation for the event was heightened immeasurably by seeing what people have been up to, with a new addition almost every day.

The early opportunity for contact gave rise to an expansion of the event. On Friday, a bunch of people met at a San Francisco bar owned by one of our classmates, while another group of people met at a wine bar in Fremont owned by another classmate. The reunion itself was Saturday night at a hotel. The food was simple (Mexican) but good, the pictures, music and atmosphere were fun, and the fellowship was pleasant. The vibe was much more relaxed than the 10 year; people seemed genuinely happy to see each other. I did not personally speak to many more people than I usually spoke to back in high school, but there was something enjoyable about seeing familiar faces across the room ... just like twenty years ago.

I did get a chance to speak to just about everybody I had hoped to see. I even discovered that one of my friends from back then had also gone to all the same elementary schools that I had (it was complicated because of a school closure and a split campus); we even had the same first and second grade teacher. He might be the only person in the world that shares that particular history.

Almost better than the reunion was the family picnic the next day at a park less than a mile from my old house. The weather was great, and there was both a playground and full soccer field with nets for the kids to play on. Kelly was the oldest kid there and spent much of her time playing soccer. We eventually got several other kids to join ours as a small game broke out.

After it was all over, I found myself unexpectedly nostalgic. Part of it comes from being back in the Bay Area, but a lot of it is an odd longing for those days. I hadn't thought about it much previously, but as I get farther away from that time of my life, I gain an appreciation for it. High school was not the best time of my life (college was the pinnacle of my school days), but I see now with greater clarity that it was still a good time. Maybe it would have been fun to go to a real party or two (let's see, I missed ... oh, all of them), but I now see that for all the constant activity and uncertainty about the future, there was still the freedom of childhood underlying everything. Maybe I would have enjoyed spending more time with the kids who went to all the games, but that fact is I knew most of them anyway and called many of them friends.

In this age, now that we have reconnected, it is far easier to stay connected. A Facebook group has been created, which has led me to a junior high alumni group, an elementary school alumni group, and a "You know you grew up in Sunnyvale if ..." group. I've now heard a bunch of names that I haven't even thought of in decades. It all helps me appreciate that I grew up in a nice area, with good people around me. I can always say there were other things I wish I had done, people I could have known better, places I could have gone, but there is no regret. I have never idealized my high school years, but I am happy to revisit them now, more content than I expected I would be, and more eager to see these people more as the years go on.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Where Is Our [Fill In The Blank]?

The move, it happened. We are now in our new house surrounded and overwhelmed by boxes full of everything we own. Ah, the irony: we have it all, it we don't know where any of it is. Plus, anything we unearth may not be in that same location half an hour later as the process of unpacking and reorganizing begins. I never realized how much I piece it gave me for 10 years to know that at any time, day or night, I could find my 3 foot level. Or my socks.

One of the things that went unexpectedly well was the fact that we will not be without Internet access while AT&T gets its act together to switch their plug from house A to house B. Thanks to the Dawn of the Age of WiFi, one of our unwittingly generous neighbors has provided us with a robust (and unlocked) connection to the Internet. That means pictures will come soon, I promise, once we have a few minutes that aren't dedicated to painting, unpacking, rearranging, or staring blankly at the walls as fatigue sets in.

It's a happy fatigue, though.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Moving Day, Again

It has been a very hectic week. Thanks to Dad, we unloaded our portable storage unit last week, filling half of our new garage. We also took over a bunch of boxes from our rental house, filling the other half of the garage. Thanks to Cheryl's parents, we have packed up our rental house again and put in shelf paper at the new house.

And the movers don't even come until later this morning.

Pictures, etc. to come later when we have a moment to breathe.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The New Cold War

Astronaut Tom Jones (four Shuttle flights) has given an illuminating interview concerning the challenges facing NASA and American manned space flight. Beyond the somewhat obvious budgetary problems, Jones discusses a new complication for the space program: Russia.

The way NASA is funded and organized now, the Shuttle program will shut down in 2010, and the new Orion capsule program will begin no earlier than 2012. That leaves a gap of at least two years, likely to stretch out due to budgetary issues, in which the U.S. will have no ability to send Americans (or anyone else) to the International Space Station, nor bring anyone home. The existing plan is to hitch rides on Russian rockets to get up there, and return in Russian Soyuz capsules to get home. Even the lifeboat system on the ISS is Russian-made; the American program was canceled in the early 2000s.

This all seemed like a perfectly workable system, until Russia invaded Georgia and brought a chill to U.S.-Russia relations. Until diplomatic equilibrium is regained, the prospect exists that only Russian will have the keys to the ISS, of which the US funded 80%. One can presume that the current high anxiety between the countries will dissipate by 2010, but the current conflict highlights the surprising vulnerability of U.S. manned space missions.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Incredible Shrinking Value

I've noted previously that food producers and grocery stores have been pulling a subtle fast one on us by reducing the size of packaged products without lowering costs. I first noticed this with ice cream because I had, ahem, a fair amount of experience buying ice cream. "Half Gallon" was the coin of the realm, but it is now downright rare to find a container of ice cream that holds that much yummy goodness.

Once they started, the food companies just couldn't stop. CNN is reporting that the widespread application of "downsizing" food packaging has now made its way to the cereal aisle. I suppose in this era of overindulgence and overeating, downsizing should be a good thing. However, it should be done honestly by lowering the price to reflect the reduced amount of product sold, rather than skimming money off consumers by charging the same for less.

Interestingly, in the article, the tipoff of downsizing for an interviewed shopper was ... ice cream. Late night snackers, unite!

Friday, September 05, 2008

A Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On

We just got hit with a 4.0 earthquake about five minutes ago. According to the USGS, it hit just a couple of miles away, so we got quite a noisy jolt. Being so close, it was rough but quick. The kids are little rattled, but nothing even fell off the shelves.

It was violent, though. If it had lasted any longer than it did (no more than about ten seconds, if that), there would have been a lot of damage around here.

... Done

Escrow closed without any drama. The loan was funded yesterday, the title was recorded this morning, the keys were delivered this afternoon.

We're homeowners again.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

A Return to the 80s for Braves Fans

The Atlanta Braves enjoyed an unprecedented stretch of regular-season dominance from 1991 to 2005, winning the division title every year. The Braves were renowned for their pitching staff, picking up six Cy Young awards during that era. Glavine, Maddox and Smoltz formed a devastatingly effective rotation, one of the best in the history of the game

Just prior to their rise, however, the Braves were just as well known for their ineptitude, averaging only 65 wins per year from 1985 to 1990 while inflicting their brand of baseball on the country on a nightly basis on WTBS.

The Braves appear to be returning to their old ways. They started play today half a game worse than the woeful (albeit not quite as woeful as expected) Giants. Even worse, their starting rotation for an upcoming series will be the who-dat trio of Jorge Campillo, Jo-Jo Reyes, and Jair Jurrjens. If you are not a baseball fan, don't feel bad for not knowing who those guys are. Baseball fans don't know, either.

... Almost There ...

We received word this morning that our loan has been funded. Once the administrative task of recording the title is completed tomorrow, the home buying process will be done.

A year ago this week, we were emptying and sprucing up our old house, getting it ready to sell. What a difference a year makes.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Shameless Plug

Not shameless at all; very proud, in fact.

It is time to harness the power of the blogosphere, all five of you who read this. Please check out my sister's entry in a photo contest to put a real face on the front of, an online community for parents of special needs children. Megan draws a lot of support from the site, and has taken a great picture of my nephew George, the sweetest little autistic kid you could hope to meet.

In the long-ago words of the Bartles & Jaymes guys, thank you for your support.

Home Sweet Home ... Almost

Loan documents and wire transfer signed yesterday. If all goes according to plan, we get the keys on Friday.

Most of our family has now had a chance to see the house first-hand. In just a few days, we get to start making it our own.

Incidentally, the pictures on the website were taken the same evening we viewed the house for the first time. We were literally standing behind the camera while several of those shots were taken. I intend to ask for copies of the pictures when this is all over, as a way of remembering how we felt that afternoon, when we thought we were going to make an offer on a different house until we showed up and saw this one.

And also as a way of remembering how the house looked before we cluttered it up.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

In Memoriam: The Best American Racing Driver You Never Heard Of

Phil Hill died today of complications from Parkinson's disease. Although he does not have the name recognition of Mario Andretti, Tony Stewart or Jeff Gordon, he was the first great American racing driver who achieved heights in his profession that have scarcely been equalled.

Hill was the first American Formula One champion, driving for Ferrari in 1961. He also won the Le Mans and Sebring endurance races, and was a successful sports car racer all over the globe. He retired from racing before the advent of widespread television coverage, so his name is best known only by sports car and racing fanatics whose interest runs back to the days well before NASCAR's rise to prominence. He also retired from the sport without injuries in an era when fatalities were a routine cost of doing business.

By all accounts, he was a brilliant, generous and kind man. He contributed to Road & Track magazine for years, which is how I came to be aware of him. The world of sports car and racing enthusiasts has lost a great champion.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

My Hand Hurts

I just signed my name forty seven times on numerous disclosure documents as our house purchase enters the end game. At least I know I will sleep better, aching wrist aside, knowing that I have read and acknowledged a letter from the California Energy Commission regarding New Duct Sealing Requirements that became effective on October 1, 2005.

And they say that California has budgetary problems every year. I can't imagine why.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

First Day of School

Not only is it the first day of school, but it is the first day of new school for each of the kids. As a new middle-schooler and new to the idea of switching classes during the day, Kelly and I scouted out her classroom locations last night. We weren't the only ones.

After walking her to school, we walked up the road to take Michael to school. He had seen his classroom yesterday at a popsicle social. As kids arrived and filled the play yard with their shouts and games, he got upset as he realized that they all knew each other and he didn't know anyone. By the time he went into class, though, he was back to reasonably good spirits.

It will probably be a long week for both of them as they not only adjust to the elevation in grade (kindergarten to first grade, fifth grade to middle school), but also must do it without knowing anyone else at their schools. Soccer also starts this week, though, and their coaches have been very nice about promising to make sure that the kids are included in everything.

It's tough being the new kid, but fortunately, they can each take refuge in their classwork and soccer until they develop a network of friends.

That's great for them, but what about us?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Time Wasting Internet Game of the Day

This game seems simple enough.

Until you see how some people tackle the problems.

Of course, it is possible to stay simple, or even green (no engines).

Let your inner Rube Goldberg run wild.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

I'm Not One To Advocate Regulatory Legislation, But I Called This One

I noted awhile back that hybrid vehicles, for all of their benefits, present a peculiar danger to the public. They are silent when running at parking lot speed. Golf carts are noisier.

It is not a trivial point that golf carts also emit a high-decibel screech or beep when in reverse. This is obviously to warn nearby duffers of the presence of an electric vehicle being driven by someone who is potentially more likely to fail to see hazards behind the vehicle (particularly if it is late in the round and the beer cart has been by a few times, but that's a different issue). There is a clear and long-established understanding that electric vehicles, particularly when driven in reverse (impairing the driver's ability to see), present a danger to those in the immediate vicinity.

Hybrid automobiles, thanks to their refined engineering, are very, very quiet when in electric-only mode. I have been suprised by a hybrid in more than one parking lot over the last few years. The California state legislature apparently shares my concern that a 3000 lb. vehicle running silent, even at parking lot speeds, represents a potential for serious injury for pedestrians. The elected officials in Sacramento have passed a bill to require hybrids to make more noise.

As with all legislation or ballot proposals, it pays to actually read the law to understand its true scope and effect. The bill does not require Toyota to put baseball cards in its Prius's spokes. Instead, Senate Bill 1174 will establish a commission to convene a "Quiet Motorized Road Vehicle and Safe Mobility Committee" made up of representatives from vehicle manufacturers, the blind or visually impaired pedestrian community, the insurance industry, vehicle research entities, and law enforcement organizations. The committee is to study the stimuli needed by visually impaired persons to accurately detect the location and speed of an automobile, as well as determine the feasibility of adapting current vehicular avoidance systems for use by visually impaired pedestrians to detect approaching automobiles. The committee is to present its findings on or before January 1, 2010, and will then disband.

I am generally not in favor of burdening industries with regulations that force an outcome without an understanding of how that outcome might be achieved. However, this committee does not impose a direct cost on automakers (which would then be passed on to consumers). In the meantime, I would hope that automakers, which are in the best position to understand their own products and their dynamics, take note of this legislation and create a cost-effective solution to what could be a real problem before it is imposed upon them (and us) by our often foolish citizen-lawmakers.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Strange Word of the Day

I think everyone has blind spots when it comes to spelling certain words. I don't mean spelling bee level words that nobody has ever heard of, but words that are ordinary in usage yet have the capacity to flummox otherwise well-informed people. I believe this is a highly personal quirk, so that a word that is the bane of one person's existence doesn't cause a moment's concern to someone else. For instance, back when Speak and Spell was a state of the art marvel, "bureau" always slowed me down, and still does.

Today I found another one. What is the next item after the eleventh? Twelfth. Roll that one around in your mouth for a bit. No word should combine "l," "f," and "th" in such close proximity. It is a word fit only for Sylvester.

Or maybe that's just me.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Cars and the Ballplayer

I lived in the Los Angeles area for more than 15 years and had only intermittent brushes with celebrities. (My favorite tale is that I became friends with, and once sang with, the Little Mermaid.) Just a few months removed from living in the celebrity laden SoCal, I have now already had dinner in the company of a major league baseball player.

One of the benefits of being a member of a club founded upon a hobby is that enthusiasts of that hobby generally fall across the social spectrum. When the hobby is enthusiasm for a certain semi-high-end sports car manufacturer, you end up rubbing shoulders with some pretty interesting people in these clubs.

C.J. Wilson, currently the closer for the Texas Rangers, is a Porsche enthusiast of the highest order. Although he has not yet signed his "big deal" yet in his young career, he has managed to entertain himself with a short but very impressive list of particularly choice examples of the breed. He is also a very active member in two of the online clubs in which I also take part. Despite his relatively high profile occupation, he has never been shy about attending get-togethers hosted by club members.

Taking the opportunity presented to us by the Rangers’ weekend series against the Oakland A's, a few of us put together a dinner Saturday evening in C.J.'s honor. Lest that sound too grand, the dinner was really simply an excuse for a bunch of gearheads to get together and yack about their cars among like-minded individuals who understand the obsession.

We went to the game that afternoon under warm blue skies, then went to the dinner in Half Moon Bay that evening in thick fog. There were about 20 of us in a back room at the restaurant, all enjoying good food and good company. C.J. got a break from the grind of the 162 game schedule to talk cars with fellow enthusiasts, and we got the opportunity to spend some time with a big leaguer. He turned out to be extremely nice and grateful for the opportunity to get together with everybody.

The restaurant probably didn't mind us being there, either. The parking lot was pretty spectacular -- and I count my contribution as the least of all. Notwithstanding the extensive multi-stage wash, polish and wax job I performed on the car before we left, mine was by far the most ordinary of all of the cars brought by our group at night.

One of the pleasant things I have learned in a few years of ownership is that there are an awful lot of nice, humble people who simply happened to be Porsche enthusiasts and owners. As in any part of society, self-important jerks are out there. Fortunately, the people I have been lucky enough to meet -- including the occasional professional athlete -- have been uniformly decent and fun to know.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Annoying Language Crutch Of The Day

It is hard to figure out how some verbal tics become commonplace. Nevertheless, every once in a while a useless new word or phrase enters the lexicon, usually without notice until it has infected all forms of written and spoken media. Or, as today's pick would have it, pretty much everything you read and hear.

I first became acutely aware of the overuse of "pretty much" when reading Leigh Montville's otherwise well-written biography of Ted Williams. The frequency with which that phrase was employed made me consciously wonder where his editor was the day the proofs for those pages came through. An empty meringue of a modifier, the term adds nothing to any sentence in which it is found. Once my radar was tuned to that frequency, though, I discovered that "pretty much" had pretty much taken over. I have seen the phrase used in news stories, feature stories, news broadcasts ... now, of course, it jumps off the page or the TV screen at me.

As it now will for you. You're welcome.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Home Sweet Home, Again

After months of searching, waiting and hoping, we will have progressed from seeing a house for the first time to being under-contract buyers in less than 48 hours. Lest that seem dangerously impulsive, we have been examining our neighborhood with a microscope for nearly a year, so we have a very strong sense of location and value. This house popped up at the right time for the right price (approximately), and after a quick offer and counter-proposal, we will sign the papers to go into escrow tonight.

Assuming that all inspections and financial details work out without drama, in less than six weeks we will be moving into this house. It is very typical of the houses in the area: mid-1960s ranch style home, four bedrooms, two baths, everything modestly sized. The house has some recessed lighting, updated windows and some new tile and appliances in the kitchen. The garage is somewhat wider than a typical two-car garage, so we will be able to have plenty of storage and work space. A key feature for us is a bonus room that will serve as a family/rumpus room and guest bedroom. The house is about two blocks from where we are now, so it is still close to shopping, and even closer to both schools. There are some changes we would like to make, but it is very livable immediately.

There are a lot of details to iron out between now and when it becomes ours, but it is amazing to us that we have finally come this far. We saw the house on Monday thinking it would be a backup possibility in case another house we had been looking at fell through. Little did we suspect that by Wednesday night, we would have an agreement to buy it ourselves.

I'm exhausted.

Monday, July 21, 2008

But The Cockroaches Survived Anyway

So a guy blew up his apartment while trying to exterminate bugs. A couple of thoughts:

If it took that much poison to deal with the critters, he's better off detonating the place.

And, doesn't anyone watch Mythbusters anymore?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Downsizing Everywhere

Amid news that Starbucks is closing 600 stores and Americans are using less gasoline comes word of another reduction that will affect your everyday life:


Or, more accurately, the space after punctuation.

It turns out that the holy writ of period usage -- two spaces after a period at the end of a sentence -- is no longer the standard. The spacing required for a clear demarcation between sentences typed in the monotype fonts of yesteryear has been obviated by computers and their ability to manipulate proportional fonts. Both the MLA style manual and the Chicago Manual of Style now allow for single spacing after a sentence-ending period.

To think of all the time I have wasted over the years making that extra hit on the space bar...

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Little Semi-Obscure Baseball History

The name of my fantasy baseball teams is the Eefus Aficionados. The eefus (or eephus) pitch is a seldom-seen high lob that has appeared in major league baseball from time to time. I picked the name for its aura of self-deprecation, in that the pitch is usually used when the pitcher has no other conventional resources (also known as "talent") to survive, and because it works well with my name in the logo I created:

Here is an enjoyable article giving some of the colorful history of the pitch.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Comcast [Stinks]

Who knew that my comment about companies hearing about what they do wrong in a nanosecond would come home to roost so soon? If I had been paying attention to what everyone was telling me, I should have.

I was coy in my earlier post about the identity of our cable provider, since I felt no need to provoke the plodding giant with possibly unjustified criticism. I no longer feel such need to protect the good name of Comcast, since there is so little good that requires protecting.

From start to abrupt finish, our experience was a disaster. The website offered packages that did not reveal the channel lineups because the section of the website listed channel lineups did not use the same package names. The people on the phone couldn't help because I was ordering products and services through their Internet group. The Internet sign-up process culminated in a chat, which would have been a completely pointless and time wasting exercise except for the fact that it gave me the opportunity to order a box for a second television, which was impossible to do through the regular site.

The installation of Internet service (which essentially consists of screwing in a coaxial cable into the back of a modem) could be mine for the low, low price of $100, or $150 for two computers. As an alternative, I could order a do-it-yourself kit for $10, which of course I selected. Or I tried to, until I got to the gatekeeper questionnaire that would determine whether I was qualified to order the do-it-yourself kit. The first qualification is that I had to be an existing Comcast customer. I was not, of course. Cheryl's genius suggestion, as she peered deep into the heart of the byzantine beast, was to order cable TV first, then order the Internet service. Ah, requiring customers to do something in two steps that could have been done in one. Could it really be? As soon as I closed the chat window on my cable-TV order (thereby establishing me as an existing Comcast customer), I reopened the browser and ordered Internet service. Brilliant.

We had to wait a week for actual installation, of course. The installation technician did not appear during the 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. window, of course. When I called Comcast at 11, the person on the phone told me that our appointment had been rescheduled, of course. In fact, the appointment had been rescheduled at 7:50 a.m. that morning. Did we receive a telephone call alerting us to this important fact? Of course not.

When the technician finally arrived at 1 p.m., he spent the entire time he was in the house warning us that we probably would not get very good reception, and that our Internet connection would also probably be spotty at best. This, from the representative of the company that was delivering those very services. He said we should upgrade the cables in the house -- for a fee, naturally. However, he did not bother to stay to do the work he recommended (he said he was running late for his next appointment -- ha!) and that we might have been willing to pay for. Before leaving, he told us that it would probably take a couple of hours for all of the channels to come online. Uh, what? The last I checked, the cable box was not powered by vacuum tubes.

By the time I got home in the evening, perhaps a dozen channels were viewable on the family room television, and none came through in the bedroom television. The rest said they would be coming "soon." By hooking the cable directly into the television and bypassing the box -- on the technician's recommendation -- we could finally see several dozen of the basic cable channels. No high definition, though, and nothing with a channel number higher than 75. Outstanding.

At least we could reengage with the rest of the world through the Internet. My wireless router worked immediately and well. Upon hooking up our modem, however, I discovered that we were not receiving any signal. When I called Comcast yet again, I was flabbergasted to learn that they had no record of me ordering Internet service at all. When I asked what it would take to start that service, I was told that I could not do it over the phone because I had ordered the cable TV/Internet service bundle over the Internet. Just to be sure that we were on the same page, I verified with the person on the phone that they expected me to go online to correct the problem with my nonexistent online service. I don't think he grasped the irony of the situation as profoundly as I did.

With Cheryl urgently making throat slashing gestures in the next room (to her credit, she had foreseen nothing but disaster), I advised my friendly Comcast representative that our next step would be to cancel the television and (nonexistent) Internet service immediately.

"I'm sorry, Dave, I can't do that."

"Why not, HAL?"

"Because that group closed for the day half an hour ago."

The level of failure at that point was comprehensively breathtaking. Our television service, which required guesswork at the time of ordering, was providing about a dozen stations through one television and none through the other (with a horribly clunky on-screen interface to boot). Our Internet service, for which I had endured a lengthy and ultimately pointless Internet chat session, simply did not exist. I could not rectify the situation on the phone because I had ordered through the Internet, and I could not rectify the situation through the Internet because, apparently, I had not ordered Internet service, my confirmation number for the order notwithstanding. I could not even cancel service because those elite, specially trained people had gone home for the day.

Suffice it to say, twelve hours later, we have now unsubscribed from Comcast's "services." At my insistence, I have been told by the person on the phone (no doubt one of the highly trained cancellation shock troops I'd just missed the night before) that my service would be backdated so that I would not be charged. It should go without saying that I no longer have any expectation of this actually being the case.

AT&T, you own me now. Landline, DSL, Dish Network (maybe even an iPhone)... it's all yours.

Monday, July 14, 2008

More Southwest Goodness

Sometimes it pays to be nice. I recently sent a letter to the President of Southwest Airlines expressing my gratitude that the airline, by its mere existence but also by its efficient operations, allowed us to pull off our recently-concluded nine month odyssey of separation. I felt a little sheepish doing it, like a kid writing to his baseball hero. However, businesses everywhere hear from their customers nanoseconds after something goes wrong (especially the airline industry), so I felt it was fair for them to hear nice things from a genuinely satisfied and grateful customer.

I was surprised today by a message that I had received a companion pass, entitling me to designate someone to fly with me for free for the next twelve months. As I examined it a little more, I realized that I didn't meet the normal qualifications (100 flights in a year). My last flight was also a couple of weeks ago, so I had not just taken a flight within the last few days that would have generated the reward as a response. I can only conclude that someone appreciated my kind words and threw a little extra reward my way. That's the way to handle customers and build goodwill.

It's just a love-fest all around, I guess.

To anyone from Southwest reading this: Thank you, sincerely.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Economical Hands Free Device

There has been a mild amount of angst over the recent inception of a new law in California that requires drivers to use a hands-free device for all cell phone usage. Wireless headsets can get pretty pricey. Thankfully, low cost alternatives are readily available:

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Danger, Will Robinson!

We have become quite daring in our spacefaring adventures. Today, two residents of the International Space Station removed a potentially defective explosive bolt (which packs the power of a large M80 firecracker) from the Soyuz reentry capsule, putting it in a stainless steel explosion-proof container. To perform the operation, insulation had to be cut with a serrated knife. Sharp objects are generally shunned in space, especially on spacewalks, because any breach of a spacesuit would mean quick death for its occupant. The task was necessary because the last two Soyuz returns were well short of optimal, plunging at ballistic trajectory and speed, thought to be caused by the failure of some components that were not jettisoned as planned due to malfunctioning explosive bolts.

It should be noted that the American astronaut stayed inside with a laptop, some books and music while his Russian roommates performed the potentially deadly operation. After all, it was Russian explosive bolts that malfunctioned. You boys messed it up, y'all get to go fix it. We'll just wait here in case something goes horribly wrong and you die keeping everything in order until you get back.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Almost Home

We spent all last week preparing for our move. We have now relocated ourselves to Northern California, and the truck with half of our lives in it will arrive tomorrow morning.

There are many stories and pictures to share, but we will not have internet access at the house until next week. The related thought for the day: when literally everyone you ask curses the name, nay, the very existence of the local cable company, do not be surprised when your installation process is clumsy, confusing, exasperating and expensive. I hope that the actual service we receive will be better than our initial experience.

I lapse into irrationality that way sometimes.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


Escrow closed yesterday, right on time, with no complications. We are now quite literally living here on borrowed time. Disconcerting.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Class of 2008

Yesterday was, finally, the last day of school. Because the school will be dropping sixth grade next year, the fifth graders also got a promotion ceremony. The kids and parents all complained about the many hours of practice the students went through over the last week. The result, however, was the most intricately choreographed graduation ceremony I've ever seen, and the kids absolutely pulled it off. The students processed down two aisles in the auditorium two by two, with pause points at four different spots (I have yet to see bridesmaids who can do this so well); they all went swiftly to their appointed seats; just as the processional song ended, the last student arrived at his seat; they sang a song in great voice; they sat wordlessly and motionless through an hour and twenty minute ceremony; and they received their (fake) diplomas in a swift, intricate processional as announced by each of the fifth grade teachers who also were on top of their game. Most of the kids complained the loudest about one of the teachers who was the drill sergeant for the whole thing, but that teacher (new to the profession, who looked like she was skipping homeroom at the local high school to be there) was unable to stop crying for the rest of the afternoon, she was so proud of how well the students did.

Kelly received a top award at the ceremony, one of a few students whose standardized test scores, grades and citizenship marks were at the top of the class. [Sorry, no pictures of the ceremony itself. Our little camera can do a lot of things well, but indoor, low-light environments are not its forte. It's time to save up for a proper DSLR.)

As a huge surprise, Cheryl also received an award. For her six years of leadership the foundation that raises money for the school, including complete funding for the school's computer lab and teacher through means like the eScrip program that she spearheaded, she was called up on stage by the principal to receive recognition, a trophy and a very nice watch. It was recognition that was well-deserved for the Foundation as a whole, which does more good than most people knew. It was a sweet way to part ways with a school in which Cheryl invested herself heavily.

Not incidentally, yesterday was also the last day of kindergarten for Michael. We went to a special lunch (Marie Callendar's), then caught an afternoon showing of Wall-E (Michael's request for weeks). It was a perfect last day of school, even if it was bittersweet because it is really the last day there.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

I Should Stay In The Office

I seem to get swept up in strange things when I leave the office for business. If it is not a nationwide airline computer meltdown, it is a horrific traffic accident that brings an entire region to a halt.

I was headed to San Jose this morning for a rare court appearance when I rounded a bend in the freeway and saw the first black plumes of smoke from a new fire about a mile ahead. As I approached and then came to a stop, it became apparent that the fire was on the freeway itself, and that it was a vehicle on fire. Not just a little bit; it was an entire truck, with flames roaring fifty feet in the air. The firemen eventually got there after five minutes or so and doused the flames. I came to a stop not much more than 100 yards away and watched the whole thing while we sat there for half an hour. People got out of their cars, taking cell phone pictures or commiserating with fellow stranded travelers. I had my office call the court, because it looked like we weren't going anywhere. Fortunately, the police let at least some of us through on the shoulder and I got to my appearance on time.

It was ugly, though. It was obvious that the truck had jumped the barrier, and by the ferocity of the flames, it was clearly a very bad scene. As it turns out, the truck had gone over the barrier avoiding a stopped car in front of it, then hit a truck coming the other way head-on. I didn't learn that until later; unfortunately, it was a double fatality. I could not have been more than a minute behind all of it in traffic as it happened. It is sobering to think that two people lost their lives right there within sight of where I was.

According to the news reports, southbound traffic was closed until 3 pm, so I was apparently very lucky to get through. Not only would I have missed my court appearance, I might have missed my flight home. Northbound traffic was closed until 7 pm. Keep in mind that the accident happened at 9:15 am. It was so bad that my 4:45 pm flight was slightly delayed at the gate because a number of people were running late because of the traffic delays.

Coming back from court on another freeway, I saw an overturned car on the other side of the road. It was a day to drive with caution.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

One Flight More

Tomorrow I will take my 63rd, and last, flight between Oakland and Burbank since mid-September. It is a measure of Southwest Airlines' competence that while I have grown tired of the fact that I had to travel every weekend, I have never grown tired of the travel itself.

Southwest may take its knocks as the Greyhound of the skies, but for my purposes the flight schedule offers a lot of flexibility and prices are market-best. Plus, its people know their business and do it well. It is not overstating the matter to say that Southwest kept our family together.

I won't miss my weekend flights, but I'll always be grateful that I had them.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Picking up the Pace

A great American once said, it's always darkest ... just before they turn the lights on. Our house has not been in such disarray since before we started clearing things out for our open houses back in Septebmer. The pieces are all starting to fall together, though. Over the course of the weekend, we had a garage sale:

Cheryl and her mom did all the work (a ton of preparation went into it), and the kids sold a lot of lemonaid and iced tea.

Meanwhile, I continued to pack our storage unit:

Other than wishing I could make a quick trip to the surface of the sun so that I could cool off a bit, the weekend was quite a success. The basement (i.e., Home of the Forgotten Boxes) has been cleared out, the garage has been roughly sorted out between giveaway and keeper items, and the rooms inside the house have been pared down to their essentials. The truck arrives next Wednesday, and after what will certainly be a long day of cleaning, we will be done.

Monday, June 23, 2008

In The Shadow Of The Moon, On Tonight

Programming note: Discovery is showing "In The Shadow Of The Moon" tonight. As I have said before, it is well worth the time spent if you have any interest in the Apollo program, especially if your interest was whetted by Discovery's "When We Left Earth" series that concluded last night.

On The Field At Dodger Stadium

As an end-of-the-season treat, Little League players from our area were invited to take a walk around the warning track at Dodger Stadium before a recent game. Michael and two of his teammates took part, along with the three dads.

Before the game, the outfield fence was opened and a temporary fence was put up near the outfield grass so that we could stand an watch batting practice on the field. The Cubs players were good sports about it and would occasionally come over to chat with the kids. There is nothing quite like having a fly ball launched at you from almost 400 feet away; a couple went right over our heads and over the outfield wall just behind us.

Just before the game started, they released the kids and their coaches (hey, I helped at the games a little) to walk around the park. We touched the grass, we walked right behind the catcher warming up the Cubs' starting pitcher (please don't miss the ball!), we walked past the Dodgers in their dugout (Nomahhh!), and generally had a great time seeing the field and players from close range.

The one conclusion I drew from the experience: I have carpet that is not as smooth as the Dodger Stadium grass.

Friday, June 20, 2008

An Amazing Bird

One of the most unusual and impressive achievements in aeronautic design was the SR-71 Blackbird spyplane, developed and built at Lockheed's famed Skunkworks where our local Target/Best Buy/Lowes complex now stands. The Smithsonian Air & Space Museum annex at Dulles Airport (an underrated showcase) has one for public viewing. An ultra-high performance aircraft, the SR-71 holds the airspeed record for jet-powered aircraft of 2193 mph (about 10 football fields every second). The SR-71 required usual care and feeding, such as refueling immediately after takeoff because it would lose so much fuel through body panels that would not form a seal unless the airplane was flying far beyond the speed of sound (thus heating and stretching the body to fill the gaps).

Although a challenging aircraft to fly, their pilots loved them. Here are a couple of their stories, one frightening, the other amusing. (I don't know if that second story is true, but I'd like to believe that it is.)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Art and Context

If you have some time to spare, enjoy this article about how context can affect the appreciation of art.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Now For The Fun Part


It's going to be a long day.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Fantasy Baseball Update

Okay, that cleared out everybody but The Professor. Moving on:

I wonder why I keep playing fantasy sports. Every year, the team that I allow the draft computer to pick ends up near the top of the league (I'm in third place at the moment), whereas the team I pick inevitably sinks to the bottom like an old balloon. My season started brightly, with a very proficient if not very powerful offense, and what seemed to be a pretty solid pitching staff. Unfortunately, I've lost three key pitchers to injuries and one to the minors. Even my offensive numbers have drifted lower in the standings.

Henry Ford said that failure was merely an opportunity to start again. I will embrace the opportunity presented to me, then. Now that I have a mountain to climb in the standings, I will throw some of my usual caution (i.e., inattentiveness) to the wind and see if I can engineer even a modest comeback. I've been too distracted over the last couple of months to tackle my roster problems as I should have. I'm no less distracted now, but now I have nothing to lose, whereas in late April I was hanging with the upper tier of teams.

Just about the time that my comeback bid sputters to a halt, it will be time to draft my football team. A new opportunity!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

My New Least Favorite Word


I am coming to the realization that younger siblings must exist to give older siblings opportunities to practice the dismissiveness that will be their stock in trade as teenagers.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Something More For Space Junkies

The Professor sagely alerted me to the series that had its premiere on the Discovery Channel last night: "When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions." Much like "In The Shadow of the Moon," the Discovery series blends archive NASA footage with recent interviews of the astronauts. The show, running over several nights this week (and undoubtedly in reruns in perpetuity), provides a well-crafted, if extremely fast, overview of the entirety of the space program. So far, I prefer "In The Shadow of the Moon" because it only covers one program (Apollo), in much greater depth. However, "When We Left Earth" is very good even if it offers a somewhat superficial overview. Plus, Neil Armstrong makes an extrememly rare appearance. It is worth the time to catch it this week if you can.

This is another recent documentary that I think will give my kids a great look at history that they probably will not learn about in school. I may have to by the DVD set for myself, though, since I doubt that an eleven year old girl would think this would be such a hot Christmas gift.

iPhone Update, Again

I realize full well that I am doing little more than giving voice to my heretofore latent fanboy tendencies. If you are a fellow traveler, read on.

St. Steve revealed the worst-kept secret in the tech industry today. The next iPhone, to be released on July 11th, will have most of the goodies that people have been requesting. GPS, 3G, better audio and audio jack, e-mail exchange capabilities (a key to the device's acceptance in the business environment), and, crucially, lower prices. On the negative side, Word and Excel documents will still be read-only, and there is no IM capability.

I don't expect to post anything else about the iPhone for a while. Unless I get one. Then you can expect a series of short posts along the lines of, "OMG, like, this is sooooo cool!"

Friday, June 06, 2008

The Hills Are Alive

I guess it wasn't just a loopy dream. At some point in the middle of the night, I had a vague, near-waking sense that I was feeling an earthquake. I didn't quite wake up, though.

As it turns out, we had three, the largest of which was 3.5 on the Richter scale, all of them between 1:51 and 2:16 in the morning. The earthquakes are described as 5 miles west of Danville. What the reports don't say is that the quakes were 4 miles from where my head rolled around on my pillow in Moraga. It's been awhile since I have been that close to an earthquake. Li'l bitty ones like this are nothing to worry about, though.

I have long maintained that I would much rather live in an earthquake zone, where the likelihood of a catastrophic quake is limited to once every couple of decades or more, than someplace where widespread disaster is a seasonal certainty (see, e.g., Oklahoma (tornados); Florida (hurricanes)).

I'm sure my Oregon readership would say that they don't have to deal with any of that. Fine. But I like sunshine, too. In particular, I like sunshine in November. And December. And January ...

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Silent Regret Of The Rear Echelon

I recently watched Ken Burns' "The War," his summation of World War II. It is an excellent flim, as are all of his productions. Burns tells the story through the voices of people who were there, either in the theaters of battle or living through the war stateside.

One sentiment that was expressed by nearly every soldier who appeared in the film was the strong desire to be involved in combat. The recent passing of the youngest WWII Medal of Honor recipient lived out this compulsion. He lied about his age (14) to join the Marines, and was stationed in Hawaii once the truth was discovered. He then stowed away aboard a Navy ship to get closer to the fighting, and volunteered to fight once he was discovered again.

Some veterans observed that the bonds they shared with their foxhole buddies could not be matched by any other relationship. Generally speaking, veterans from that famously taciturn generation would only look to comrades in arms for support in working through the mental scars brought on by combat. They felt that only those who had seen what they had seen could understand them, even if they did not express themselves the way we in our culture of confession do today.

All of this presented a problem for the millions of servicemen and their families about who you seldom hear much said: those who supported the front line combat troops. One of my grandfathers served in this capacity. Oddly, given my long fascination with WWII, I never talked with him about his wartime service. My limited understanding is that he was in the quartermaster corps, involved with the organization of provisions and materiel, but that he wished he had been able to serve overseas. The closest I ever came to learning anything about it was when I saw my grandmother get angry for one of the few times in my life, as she expressed bitterness of the exaltation of combat troops over those who did not get into the fight. My other grandfather did ship out, but I knew even less about his experiences, and he never spoke of his service (in North Africa, I believe).

There is something deeply anachronistic, which looks like irrationality to today's eyes, about an impulse to engage in combat that is so strong that it causes boys to stow away on Navy ships and creates division among peers based on the gruesome fortuity that some fought and others supported those who fought. Certainly, those who faced the horrors of the front lines in WWII or any other conflict are worthy of the respect of their peers and those in whose interest they serve. It is a strange problem, though, especially for those of the WWII generation, that those who did not hear a bullett fired in anger have, in many instances, lived lives tinged with regret and possibly even shame. That they did not attain the greater glory of active participation in combat was not for lack of desire in many cases, but judgment was swift and permanent.

In the end, though, I could not have been more proud and humbled when Grandpa was given military honors at his funeral, all the more so because the ceremony was overseen by my brother-in-law, a man who served with distinction for many years.

I have resolved to learn more about the service lives of both of my grandfathers. Theirs are stories that deserve to be known and remembered, especially as the stories of their generation begin to sound more and more foreign to our post-modern ears. Individually, they may not have stormed ashore at Omaha Beach or raised the flag at Iwo Jima, but they were a part of a endeavor whose success depended upon the contributions of countless individuals doing their designated jobs. That is a principle that should never go out of fashion.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Dude, Major Conundrum

This may be the ultimate unstoppable-object-meets-immovable-force example for the Mendocino (and San Francisco, and Berkeley) crowd:

Man grows pot. (Yay! Stick it to the man!)
Man chops down old-growth forest to do it. (Not cool, dude.)

Monday, June 02, 2008

At Least He Won't Get Greasy

The recently deceased inventor of the Pringles can has been buried ... in a Pringles can.

It is rumored that the inventors of the Ziploc bag and Tupperware containers are now making changes to their wills.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

I Knew Him, A Fellow Of Infinite ... Curses?

The grave marker of William Shakespeare, after several centuries of exposure to the footsteps of clergy in his home church in Statford-Upon-Avon, is in need of repair. This would probably not be newsworthy but for the warning on the grave, purportedly penned by the Bard himself:

"Blest be the man that spares these bones/And cursed be he that moves my bones."

In this ultra-rationalistic, post-modern era, a 400 year old threat still has people jittery. Rationalizations are being made by various people who care about such things that it is only the marker that will be restored; the bones will stay where they are. "The curse is irrelevant for this work."

I'm glad they got that sorted out. I'm sure ol' Will, quite chapfallen though he may now be, is well pleased.