Tuesday, May 26, 2009

As If I Needed Another Reminder That I'm Getting Older

While watching lacrosse on TV this weekend, one of the announcers noted that a player was following in the footsteps of his father who had played for the university in his day. The comment immediately brought to my mind's eye a slightly faded square Kodachrome, white border around the edge imprinted with a small "Jul 68." A youngish man with shaggy hair, an oddly wide collar and a mustache standing with a grinning little boy dressed in wildly incompatible colors and patterns completed the mental image.

Then I started doing some arithmetic. Had my life gone only somewhat differently than it has, that sepia-toned image could be updated to show a red "Jul 92" in the lower right corner of the borderless 4x6 Fugifilm picture. I could be the father of a college-age kid; I know people my age who are.

It made me realize that it may be too late for me to replenish my supply of college sweatshirts, or at least garments that don't have the word "Alumni" on them. If I wear college gear around here, I'm afraid that someone will assume that I'm wearing it in support of some child of mine away at Santa Barbara, rather than (as it turns out) feebly trying to hold on to the carefree days of youth.

It's time to remind myself that, for a couple more weeks anyway, I still have a first grader.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Backpage Sports Weekend Preview

Memorial Day weekend is usually a good one, thanks to the extra day off. It also happens to be home to a number of big events in lesser-followed sports. The NCAA finals of men's lacrosse take place on Saturday and Monday, one of my favorite events of the year. Unlike football or basketball, which are thinly veiled professional farm systems, the lacrosse finals make you believe you really are watching college kids. Okay, they may be the frat boys that you always hated (or secretly envied), but they look, act and pull for dear alma mater they way real college students do. The sport played at the highest level is good fun to watch, too.

This weekend also offers both the timeless Indianapolis 500 and the peerless Monaco Grand Prix. Put all of that together with the third games of suddenly compelling conference final series (final score point differential through four total games: 7 points) and a bunch of baseball games and you have a great weekend for sporting events.

So put your DVR to work and get outside!

What Impending State Insolvency Looks Like

The people of California will soon begin feeling the pinch of the state's widely publicized budgetary mess. Immediately after a series of ballot propositions that would have raised additional funds failed to pass, the Los Angeles Superior Court announced that it will initiate a one-day-a-month furlough program beginning in July. Amounting to about a 5% pay cut for its employees, the court will close on the third Wednesday of every month. The cost savings are expected to be in the range of $18 million per year.

I happened to be in court on Thursday morning and had the opportunity to engage in what must have been one of the first discussions with a judge about the scheduling quirks caused by the furlough days. The closures complicate life for everyone who uses the court system, in part because filing dates for motions and other papers may be effected, depending on whether the furlough days fall within the period of calculation. Because no published calendar shows the closed days, and because it is only LA Superior that has the furlough (for now), it is inevitable that attorneys are going to blow deadlines.

In the face of a $20 billion budget deficit, $18 million does not seem like much of a savings, but it will take measures like this from state government agencies across the board to bring California's spending into line with its revenues. It's a shame that the elected legislators have left it to their constituents to do the dirty work.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Problem Solving At 350 Miles Up

I acknowledge that I may be the only person not employed by NASA who watches the live NASA TV coverage of shuttle flights, but the mission currently ongoing is a big one. The Atlantis has pulled in the Hubble Space Telescope for its last servicing. The crew is replacing what seems like the majority of the instruments the telescope uses.

Shuttle crews have done this before. What is remarkable about this mission is that the crew will also repair scientific instruments, not just replace self-contained instrument modules. Unfortunately, the work they are performing was never expected to be done, in space or anywhere else. The astronauts, swaddled in bulky space suits and oven-mitt gloves, are expected to undo hundreds of tiny screws and washers in order to access the innards of the instruments.

NASA has fabricated a spectacular array of custom tools to undo fasteners and keep the components from floating off into space. What captured my attention this morning, though, was how utterly common their work was. I, too, have tackled repairs of things around the house. Just like the astronauts, I equip myself with as many of the tools and fasteners I hope I will need. Unlike the astronauts, my tools don't float away from me if I forget to tether them to me. I can also go to the garage (again and again) if it turns I out I have grabbed the wrong tool or, more likely, the wrong size tool. The astronauts don't have that option, which is why they have rehearsed this trip and all of its repairs for two years.

Inevitably, I'll mess something up, like stripping a screw head. I have felt the rising fury, and sense of impending helplessness, of that particular failure more than once. This morning, the astronauts faced exactly the same problem. In order to proceed with their delicate work on the telescope's priceless electronics, they first had to remove a grab handle that blocked their access to a cover panel -- an irritating obstruction, but one that should be dealt with easily. Unless one of the eight screws holding it in place becomes stripped. I could hear in the astronaut's voice the same rising tension as he informed his fellow crew members and the mission control guys in Houston that all of their suggestions to solve the problem would not work. NASA could not possibly be stymied in its billion-dollar mission by an inconsequential handle. They put their best brains on the problem. As Mr. Fixit around here who has faced a similar dilemma before, I love their ingenuity:

The had the astronaut yank the useless handle off with brute force.

That leads to an inevitable conclusion: I must have the Right Stuff.

A Bounty in the Back Yard

Our house was landscaped with a nice variety of flowers and trees. One of the odd pleasures of the house is that, because we bought the house in September, we did not know exactly what flora we had, other than a persimmon tree that we have not figured out how to use. Yesterday we saw a crow escaping the yard with something red in its beak. Upon further review today, we got a nice surprise:

Cherry tree!

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Most Exotic Fish Market Ever

Alton Brown is one of my favorite television personalities (admittedly, that is not a long list). He is the creator, producer and star of Good Eats, a witty and very informative cooking show that has run on Food Network for almost ten years. We have cooked a number of his recipies, and I have learned any number of kitchen techniques and cooking theories through his show and cookbooks.

He will be in our general area this weekend, speaking and cooking at a well-to-do function centered around protecting the environment through responsible food development. Sounds like a fun time, but for one thing: it's at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

So come to the aquarium for the dazzling exhibits, which just happen to be good eats!

There is something inherently wrong with the image, on an aquarium website, of fish grilling.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Tragedy In Paradise

I can now say, sadly, that someone I have known personally has been murdered.

I received word today through a network of old friends that a former colleague and his wife were killed in their home couple of days ago. He was an attorney at the firm where I started my career. I never worked directly with him, but I knew him a little bit through firm events. He was very intense and by all accounts a very good lawyer. I will always remember the moment when he told me, only partly in jest, that if you don't make the witness cry during a deposition, you haven't done your job correctly. Despite his professional ferocity, he was also memorably playful with the kids of the firm's personnel.

Even when I knew him more than 10 years ago, he had a very firm idea of what he wanted for his future. He lived simply, even though he was presumably making pretty good money as a high-hours partner in a large law firm. He told everyone who would listen that he was putting away as much money as he possibly could toward his retirement. It turns out that he had begun to realize his dream. He recently relocated from Fresno to Santa Barbara where he had built a home overlooking the ocean. The firm even followed him there, allowing him to open an office in town.

Unfortunately, that's where the story begins to unravel, it seems. According to published reports, his brother, who was involved in building the house, is under arrest for the murders. The two brothers were in a dispute that ended up in court over the construction of the house.

There is probably a hard lesson to be learned about hazards of focusing too intently on goals, but that's for another day.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Backup, Before It's Too Late

It's official. The old hard drive is dead, taking three years of documents, financial data and photographs with it. The only document I can think of that was unusually valuable is our Christmas card list, and the financial data is all in hardcopy form or on websites elsewhere. Losing the pictures, though, is a kick in the gut. We have a select few pictures stored online (including many of our vacation photos, fortunately), we recently printed out a bunch covering the last few years, we have our annual collages, and I think we may still have all of our old pictures on our much older and now unused laptop. There may be a couple of random CDs with pictures on them somewhere, too. The vast majority are gone, however.

In the era of digital cameras, we probably take six to ten times more pictures than we would with regular print film, so many of the lost pictures were not necessarily great pictures. Still, it is distressing to know that several birthday parties, Christmases, vacations and family gatherings are lost to history.

If you take digital pictures, come up with a backup system or three. It seems obvious, but I suspect many more people are like me than are willing to admit, knowing that backing up is a good idea ... to get to tomorrow.

External hard drives are relatively cheap. Get one. We now have a backup system in place. We don't want to go through this again.