Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Cloud Lifts

It's now nearly midnight on a Sunday night, and I just got home from work after putting in about 15 hours at the office over the weekend. This would have to have been a warm weekend, of course, so not only did I miss out on a lot of outdoor fun, the air conditioning in the office goes to an energy saving sauna setting.

I feel great, though. Vacation started as soon as I left the office building. Working hard to finish important projects, both long term and suddenly-appearing, is very satisfying. I could not, in good conscience, have left without finishing them. A clear conscience is really underrated.

Now, in less than seven hours, we point the car north ... for the next ten hours after that.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Saturday Sports Highlights

Welcome to the premiere of video at Nowhere Near The Edge. Not a link to a YouTube clip, but original content. You always get prime product for your blogging dollars here.

Welcome to Moraga Ranch Swim Club, at the dual meet between the Piranhas of Moraga Ranch Swim Team and the Legends of Orinda's Sleepy Hollow Swim Team. We join the action in heat five of freestyle for the 7/8 year old boys division ...

Friday, June 26, 2009

Legends Do Not Pass Quietly

Michael Jackson's death has made its mark on popular culture in ways that echo the significance he and his music had. His iconic album, Thriller, is again number one, this time in sales on Amazon. And the demand for information about him and his rumored passing was so intense that even the mighty Google servers could not handle the surge of search requests.

Michael Jackson will always stand as a cautionary tale on the pressures of fame and fortune, but his talent was undeniable, and "Thriller" holds up, 26 years later, as a terrific album.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Too Early To Hope?

70 games into the season, the New York Yankees, the colossus of a franchise with the eleventy-billion dollar payroll, has a record of 38 wins and 32 losses. That's a solid season, one that keeps the Yanks within sight of the division-leading Red Sox and well within the early consideration for a wild-card playoff spot.

The other team in baseball to have a 38-32 record? That would be the San Francisco Giants, leading the race for the National League wild-card playoff spot. The experts always say that pitching and defense win championships. The Giants, with their stellar pitching and anemic offense, will put that theory to a severe test. It's a long season, but the Giants have not been anywhere close to this successful in many years. It will make for an entertaining summer.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Prison Sentence Lotto

One man runs over and kills a pedestrian while driving drunk in the middle of the night. Another man steals three bikes.

One of these men receives a three year prison sentence. The other, a 30 day jail term.

Children's placemats in restaurants often include simple games in which the child is to match items in one column with something related in a second column. Imagine, if you will, the placemat a particularly demented restaurant could produce in which the crimes listed in one column are matched with the sentences in the other. At our hypothetical CPK (California Penal Kitchen), little Johnny would confidently lay a crayon line between the bike thief and the 30 day stay in the pokey, and from the drunk driver to the three year trip to the Big House.

Little Johnny would be wrong.

The drunk driver, who happens to be a star NFL player (and who also agreed to a financial settlement with the dead man's family), is serving his 30 day sentence now. He has, however, been suspended indefinitely by the NFL.

The bicycle thief, who stole three bikes during this year's Tour of California from Lance Armstrong's team, including one of Lance Armstrong's $10,000 bikes, will soon be sentenced to three years in prison.

Monday, June 22, 2009

When Keeping The Home Fires Going Is Not A Good Thing

More amusing than cops who commit crimes, more obvious than the dentist who doesn't brush, a group of Oahu firefighters recently caused a fire at their station. It seems that they really did leave the stove on when they went out on a call, returning to their station to find a kitchen fire that caused $25,000 in damage.

The View From The Back Of The Field Is Just Fine

Just as we were told by many people before we joined, the swim team experience has, to a significant degree, taken over our lives. It has done so, however, in what I believe to be positive way. The most immediate benefit is that both kids are well on their way to becoming water safe, a concern we probably share with nearly every parent. A second benefit is that the kids get to be around friends all summer long, and we get to meet many adults as we slowly but surely enlarge our new circle of friends. We have all been having a great time so far. The meets cause a fair amount of angst for Michael when he has been scheduled to swim, but he is working through it well.

I have identified a more subtle, personal reason why I am enjoying the swim season. I get to see how my kids handle adversity, and how we as parents deal with our kids' lack of success. It sounds perverse, but it is proving to be an important development for all of us.

We have been very, very blessed to have kids who have never struggled in the classroom, the primary yardstick of "success" for children and, more perniciously, their parents. Neither child falls into the freakish genius category, but both have responded well to everything that the classroom has thrown at them. Kelly's marks have always been good, and she brought home straight A's for sixth grade (including two A+'s in the second semester). In the two years that Michael has received report cards, he has almost always received excellent marks. We know just how blessed we are, and are continually thankful that the classroom has not proven to be a discouraging place for them.

The downside to relatively easy classroom success is that the lessons of hard work are often not learned, since the kids' grades are often the product of a basic quick understanding and retention of the concepts taught, not hard work. Kelly has learned a lot about working hard in studying this year, and she rose to the challenge and did very well. She did not always enjoy the experience, but she pulled it off and learned some valuable time management and study habit lessons along the way.

Both kids have also been moderately successful with sports. Neither has blown anybody away with their prowess, but they have both become reliably competent soccer players, Michael is becoming a good baseball player, and Kelly quickly learned to be a solid volleyball player. In keeping with their academic tendencies and strengths, in almost every instance they have picked up and executed textbook techniques in each sport, even while generally lacking the dash of inspiration that characterizes elite athletes.

Swimming, however, is a very different story. Until two months ago, neither could be called a competent swimmer. While their peers darted and cavorted in and out of the water, our kids would play in the shallow end of the pool, not venturing beyond where their feet touched the bottom. When we signed Michael up for the swim team, we had no idea quite what would happen. The anxiety I felt for him on the day of the first time trials was nearly as intense as the fear he felt about actually doing them. I have no idea if he could even swim the length of the pool, let alone do it with four different strokes. I worried for him and his own pride, imagining how he would feel struggling down the lane in full view of all of his friends. When he finished his first 25 yard swim without stopping, I almost popped out of my skin with pride and happiness for him. He came in nearly dead last, but the time was completely secondary. The completion of the task was all.

Michael now has a couple of swim meets under his (skin-tight Lycra) belt. At the first week, he went slower in two strokes, but improved his backstroke time from "nearly drowning" to "just fine for a beginner." At the most recent meet this Saturday, Michael improved his freestyle time by a bit and dramatically increased his backstroke time again.

Even with the improvements, he was still dead last (albeit not by much) in freestyle and next-to-last in the backstroke. This is where the life lessons come in. Michael may be slow, but he is still learning, he is a lot smaller than most of his peers, and he is showing improvements. Consistent with his achievements in other sports and in the classroom, he is also demonstrating outstanding technique. His backstroke, in particular, is quite pretty. He may never develop much speed, but as he grows, the foundation will be there for improved performance if he wants it. That, applied in all areas of the kids' lives, is all we can hope for.

Kelly, too, has shown significant improvements in the water as a result of watching the swim team's activities and having a few lessons. She goes about it in her quiet, solitary way, but for someone who has always been uncomfortable with water on her face, she is showing great determination in improving her swimming.

As I watch the fast swimmers and their parents at every meet, I appreciate what those kids can do, and identify with the pride their parents feel. It certainly would be fun to one of them. However, I have found just as much satisfaction in watching our kids face their fears, process instructions, and improve themselves in areas that they know are weak. They probably will never be great competitive swimmers. I have to believe, however, that the determination they must commit to simply reach competence will be as valuable a lesson as shaving a couple of tenths off a time to earn a medal could ever be.

As parents, learning how to encourage, challenge and support the kids as they stuggle with something that doesn't come easy to them is also an important lesson for us. I see little value in systems that only reward participation and do not recognize excellence. However, I have found great value in challenges that must be measured in incremental progress rather than ultimate "success." All we have ever asked of the kids is to give their best effort, but that request has usually sounded a little hollow since their classroom achievement masked how much (or how little) effort they put out. Good grades have made it easy for us to praise them and have not challenged our own convictions. When the kids are faced with real challenges, though, we are forced to make good on our promise to support effort over final result.

It's working. The kids are showing that they have the will to learn and improve, and not give up when they don't meet with instant success, and I am learning how to give them positive support as they work through it. We're the caboose on the swimming train in this town (improving all the time!), and yet I could not be more satisfied or proud of my kids.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Eichler Homes In Prime Time

The latest series of Volkswagen ads, which feature a Microbus voiced by Thomas Hayden Church, also include another mid-century icon: the Eichler home. Perhaps a reflection of the growing popularity of the spare furniture and architecture of the pre-space age, the VW ads are set in front of rectilinear, modernist houses designed by John Eichler (located, in this instance, in a neighborhood in Orange County, California). Found in several communities in the western US, Eichler homes are characterized by their open design, flat roofs, atriums and radiant (in-slab) heating systems. The design concept, achieved through floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding glass doors throughout the houses, was to promote the ideal of gracious California living by engendering a sense of being outside even when inside.

I lived in an Eichler home as a kid. Mid-century designs were not in vogue at the time, since the culture was still in the middle of rejecting everything that would invoke anything having to do with the mid-twentieth century. All high concept design ideas aside, I remember the house as stifling hot in the summer, cold in the winter, leak-prone in the rain, and generally lacking in storage space. The almost yearly re-tarring of the roof, when the smothering scent of the tar combined with roofing gravel filtering through the ceiling planks, added to the general discomfort of living in the house. Like many consumer products exalted for their aesthetics or philosophy over function, the high concept design left quite a bit to be desired in execution.

Friday, June 19, 2009

High Noon At The F1 Corral

Motorsport is perhaps the most unstable of all forms of professional sports. Not only are rules changes implemented on an annual basis (at a minimum) to keep up with advancing technology, but sanctioning bodies themselves regularly rise, merge with others, and fold. Although racing fans in the United States have enjoyed relative stability with NASCAR, which has been owned by the France family for its entire existence, other forms of stateside racing have not enjoyed similar stability. USAC at one time controlled most forms of motorsports, including the Indianapolis 500, but its influence has waned to the point where its major series is local dirt sprint tracks. Sports car racing has undergone countless changes in racing series, from Can-Am to IMSA to the current Grand-Am/ALMS split.

The racing world meltdown that received the most mainstream attention was the fissure of open wheel racing a decade ago, when Tony George, whose family owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, broke away from CART to create a new open wheel series. The Indy Racing League was, at its inception, intended to promote American drivers on American-style tracks (i.e., ovals) with costs kept in check by using spec chassis and engines. The American appetite for open wheel racing, however, was not hearty enough to support two top-level open wheel series. CART had the more technologically advanced cars, more interesting tracks and better drivers, but it did not have the Indianapolis 500, the only open wheel race that most casual sports fans will watch, if they watch any at all. The IRL had Indy, but it had inferior cars and drivers.

Over time, the IRL discovered that its business model simply did not make for interesting racing. Once the IRL added road courses and drivers from all over the world to its schedule, there was little to differentiate it from CART. But because the IRL had sole rights to the Indianapolis 500, the eventual fate of the two series was set. Last year, the two series unified. That is to say, the IRL drove CART out of business. Now, with fewer races, better teams and better drivers, top-level open wheel racing has the best chance for success it's going to have.

The situation is no different elsewhere in the world. Today, the racing world is on the verge of one of the biggest shakeups it has ever seen. The majority of the teams in Formula One, including the crown jewel, Ferrari, are engaged in a ultra- high stakes game of brinksmanship with its sanctioning body and the organization that owns the commercial rights to the series. The FIA typically tinkers with Formula One's technical specifications, but recently proposed a new level of control. Starting next year, the FIA has proposed that the teams voluntarily limit themselves to a development budget of $60 million for the year, but that teams would be allowed to exceed that budget. However, teams that adhered to the budget would be permitted technical advantages over the higher-spending teams. Teams representing major auto manufacturers such as Toyota, BMW, McLaren (Mercedes) and Ferrari (which is not a major street car manufacturer but is the heart and soul of Formula One), which routinely half a billion dollars or more a year on their teams, objected to the creation of a dual-tier championship. Formula One's self-proclaimed mission has always been to race the most technologically advanced that the engineers could devise. In the estimation of eight of the ten race teams, the Formula One governors want to turn Formula One into a mere spec series.

On the day the teams were required to state their commitment to the series for next season, the major teams have announced their intention to withdraw from Formula One and create their own series. Part of their motivation comes from the technical restrictions imposed by the FIA, but another part of their motivation comes from their desire to have greater control over the commercial rights of their product. The governing body and commercial rights holder usually win these fights, which arise with some regularity, usually because the teams cannot hold a coalition together. This dispute is different, because Ferrari is leading the charge. Ferrari, which is the only team to have competed in every season of Formula One since its inception, is the one team in Formula One cannot do without. In a major blow to the FIA, there is now word that Monte Carlo would not hold its race if Ferrari were not part of the field. Monte Carlo holds the same position in Formula One that Indianapolis holds over stateside open wheel racing. Without Ferrari, there is no Monaco. Without Monaco and Ferrari, there is no Formula One.

I share the view of many racing fans I have heard from that I would much rather see Ferrari and the other major teams compete at the highest level rather than in a contrived series with all teams using the same engines as the FIA suggested it wants in the future. Although the FIA holds contracts with the best tracks, with Ferrari in the fold the breakaway teams would presumably be able to secure the use of the most of those tracks, such is the allure of teh Ferrari race team.

The next few weeks will tell the tale. The battle for Formula One's soul barely registers a blip on the radar of the American sporting landscape (in part because the commercial rights holder idiotically wrote off both the Canadian and US grands prix this year), but for those who follow the sport, it is a clash of epic proportions.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Now Departing From Launchpad 41

Originally scheduled to follow the Enterprise, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission has leapfrogged the manned mission and is scheduled to launch today at 5:12 EDT. If you are so inclined (and why wouldn't you be?), the launch will be broadcast on NASA TV. Sadly, the once-ubiquitous Miles O'Brien will not be hosting a cut-in on CNN, which cut its science and technology unit last year.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Dodging Raindrops

This week's Mythbusters episode dealt with whether it is possible to stay dry in a convertible in the rain by driving fast. I could have saved them a lot of time and effort (and saved a very nice Porsche from a wet interior). I conducted that experiment under real-world conditions, and can conclude that the myth is confirmed.

Dad and I contrived a plan to drive his convertible (the sadly departed M Roadster) from LA to Oregon a few years ago. Our plan was to drop the top and take the spectacular coast roads all the way up. After going as far as Santa Barbara the first evening after work, we awoke to rainy skies. Not ones to let a little precipitation get in the way of our plans, we set off for points north with the convertible top stowed behind us and jackets zipped up to our chins. I can only imagine what people bundled up in their SUVs thought of us as we scooted past them in our open roadster in a driving rainstorm, but we stayed remarkably dry. A little water curled in the side, soaking our outboard shoulders, but otherwise the rain stayed away from the cockpit.

As long as we kept at speed on the freeway.

Everything changed when we pulled off in Pismo Beach for breakfast. At a stoplight at the end of the freeway exit, we got more wet in ten seconds than we had in the prior ninety minutes. Despite our clever use of aerodynamics to keep us dry and yet enjoy the outdoors for well over an hour, we still dragged into Marie Callendar's looking exactly like what most people would think someone would look like who didn't have enough sense to put the convertible top up in a rainstorm. What they didn't know is that nearly all of that soaking happened in the couple of minutes since we had pulled off the freeway. If we had managed to keep driving until we got out of the storm, nobody would have been able to tell that we had driven for miles though rain without a roof over our heads.

Best road trip I ever took.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

It's The Most Activity-Laden Time Of The Year

Summer vacation has arrived for the kids, much to their relief. Although they began their academic careers in a year-round system, they have adapted quickly to the more traditional rhythms of late spring, marked by the joyous cries of school children raised microseconds after the sounding of the final bell of the school year.

What better way to kick off these happy days of newfound freedom, then, than to pile on more activities? Michael’s 45-minute afternoon swim team practices have turned into hour-long morning workouts. Both kids also have 20-minute one-on-one lessons in the afternoon this week. Michael has swim meets this Wednesday evening and Saturday morning; I will be working as a timer at both events.

On top of all that, Michael started rec-league basketball this week. The neighboring city of Lafayette puts on a short basketball league that shows a keen awareness of the lives people like us lead around here. Practices are scheduled for Saturday afternoons specifically to avoid interference with swim meets, and games are Monday nights, sufficiently late enough that the teams will have full parental support. The teams are also large enough that they can absorb the vacation schedules of the players without resulting in forfeitures.

Michael has never played organized basketball before, but has spent a lot of time in the last few days practicing. He can barely get a regulation size basketball up to the rim, but that hasn’t stopped him from shooting all afternoon at the hoop at the swim club. The work paid off; he had a very good debut at his team’s first game last night, scoring two-thirds of his team’s points. Of course, he only scored four points, but the six points his team scored were enough for a tied final score.

Michael had a great time, and showed some innate understanding of the game. He usually brought the ball up the court like a proper point guard, even walking it up casually away the truly arrogant great players do. He made the first shot of the game off of a series of crisp passes from his teammates, and later (much later) made the last basket for his team on a swished 10 foot jump shot from the corner that was truly impressive considering his tiny stature. Michael also showed a tenacity and willingness to challenge the ball on defense, while still staying in his assigned zone position, that he seldom showed when playing soccer. When the other five person unit from his team was on the floor, he was so into what was happening that he couldn’t sit down. Overall, his team of second-graders-to-be showed a lot more interest in passing then I would have expected, and chaotic though it was, the game was a lot of fun to watch.

An interesting dynamic we observed was that the kids quickly developed a sense of comfort with certain other kids on their team. Some boys would only pass to certain other boys, whereas the tallest player on the team, a girl from Michael’s class, probably received more passes than anybody on the team because she was a very visible target. We are hopeful that as the season goes on, they will learn to distribute the ball evenly, rather than look past teammates they don’t know to force a bad passes to their buddies.

This team has reinforced for us yet again what a different and pleasant experience it is to live and play in this relatively small and self-contained community. Michael knows half of the kids on his team already from school, which gives us yet another chance to get to know the parents better. We will see them at school, on other sports teams, at the swim club, at church, at stores or at parks around town. After many years in which sports were merely an outlet for the kids’ physical activity but never a social event, the integration between the kids’ sports and the rest of our lives as an entire family is a welcome development, and has been a crucial factor in our quick and enjoyable adjustment to living here.

The kids still have some free time in their schedules somehow, though. We’d better figure out a way to fill it up. I hear there may be a lacrosse summer league, or maybe origami lessons at the community center. Stanford doesn’t take slackers!

Remembering Apollo 11

In recognition of the upcoming 40-year anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, Popular Mechanics has compiled an oral history of the events of the launch, landing and splashdown of that historic mission from some of the people who were involved. PM makes good use of the multi-media capabilities of the internet by mixing in video and audio clips as well. The multi-part report is a long but engrossing read.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Poorly-Chosen Metaphor Theater

In a column about the noises made by some female tennis players (which I also find to be obnoxious at times), Sports Illustrated writer Jon Wertheim comes up with this illustration:

Grunting, of course, is not new to tennis. Monica Seles was doing her stuck-pig impersonation in early 1990s, prompting a London tabloid to measure her auditory output.
Really? That's the metaphor you decided to use? Let's review Ms. Seles' career for a moment. She was the best in the world for a time, a strong foil to the dominant Steffi Graf in the later years of Graf's career. Unfortunately, while at the pinnacle of the sport, her career was effectly ended in 1993 by a lunatic. What did deranged Graf fan Gunter Parche do, Mr. Wertheim? Surely you must remember. Oh yes, that's right:

He stabbed Seles in the back with a boning knife while she was on court in the middle of a match.

Stuck pig? Vivid. To be fair, Martina Navratilova originally came up with that imagery, but to refer to it now is just a bit careless.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

If The Season Ended Today

After the misery of the last couple of years, it's a good time to be a San Francisco Giants fan again. The club mortgaged its future in the last few years of Barry Bonds' reign to try to win with veterans, which left the cupboard bare when he stopped playing two years ago. The minor league rosters had been stripped of talent in trades for experienced big leaguers, and the young players left behind were not ready to play in the bigs. Unfortunately, they had to.

Last year was the first in a while that showed some promise and hope that the callow youth would soon start to live up to their potential. The organization had begun to draft well again (losing seasons bring high draft picks, which can make anyone look like a genius unless you are managing my fantasy baseball team). One home grown product was little Tim Lincecum, who shocked baseball by winning the Cy Young award last season. Now an earlier draft pick, Matt Cain, is a leading early candidate (along with Lincecum again) for an All-Star game birth and Cy Young award after his complete game to complete a weekend sweep of the Oakland A's. The game featured an inside the park home run from young Nate Schierholtz, topping off a weekend that saw a complete game shutout from Lincecum, local boy Randy Johnson's 301st career win and a reunion of the 1989 pennant-winning team.

Because they are not either the Red Sox or the Yankees, they get absolutely no national media attention, but the scrappy, previously weak-hitting Giants are making things happen way out west. Not only do they have a dominant pitching rotation of three Cy Young winners (including a rejuvenated Barry Zito, whose enormous free agent contract and poor performance has been a constant source of irritation to fans until recently), but they are achieving real results. As the season approaches the halfway mark, the Giants, shockingly, lead the wild card race. If the Giants' bats stay lively and the pitching holds form, the rest of the country might get a chance to meet the most fun young hitter nobody outside of the Bay Area nobody has heard of, Pablo Sandoval, and a quartet of aces no team will want to face in a short playoff series.

Yes, it's early to talk playoffs, but after several years of wandering in the desert, a little irrational enthusiasm won't hurt anyone.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Michael ... Phelps?

No, probably not. But we had a good time at the first dual meet of the season. Michael is still just learning the basics of swimming the full 25 yards, let alone swimming it with several different strokes. He is getting more confident in the water all the time, though. He improved his time in the backstroke today, and understands a little bit more every time how to swim faster. The meet makes for a long morning (we started with warmups at 7:45, and we were not done until 1:00), but we are all getting to know the kids and parents on the team. It helps a lot that we live across the street from the club for home meets, so we can run home for a snack, or just a break. It will be quite the party every Wednesday and Saturday through early August.

Coming off the blocks for the freestyle:

Early in the freestyle swim, not drowning:

Friday, June 12, 2009

To The Moon

It is relatively common knowledge that the Space Shuttle Endeavor is scheduled to launch tomorrow morning for a trip to the International Space Station. (A worrisome part of that story, however, is the remark that "NASA is pushing to launch Endeavour now because of the tight lineup of shuttle flights over the next 1 1/2 years. The space agency is under presidential direction to retire its three remaining shuttles and complete the station by the end of 2010 if possible." Let's not forget that NASA's disasters, particularly Challenger, occurred when it attempted to rush what it was doing.)

What is probably less widely known is that the United States is also scheduled to go back to the moon next week. As early as June 17th, JPL will launch the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, a probe that will perform preliminary sensory investigations as a precursor to the potential resumption of manned lunar exploration.

It will be interesting to see what's become of the old neighborhood. Since the United States and its Apollo 15 crew left the moon in December 1972, the Soviet Union made several unmanned trips to the lunar surface (five successful trips out of 14 attempts), the last in 1976. More recently, India landed a probe on the moon on November 14, 2008.

"Landed" is perhaps a misnomer. The Indian probe impacted the lunar surface, as planned, at 3100 mph. Be careful opening those overhead bins; items probably shifted in-flight.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Saab Can Go Home Again

A funny thing happened along the way to globalization of industry. Rather than become too big to fail, some prominent companies became too big to survive. GM's meltdown is a function of numerous causes, not the least of which is poor product design and manufacturing that arose from decades of management by accountants rather than engineers. GM also got greedy when it was flush with cash, buying up other businesses and even entire automobile manufacturers. Neither move helped improve GM's core products, and damaged the businesses it bought.

Saab is Exhibit "A." Always quirky, but innovative in its unique Swedish way, Saab could not survive into this decade without significant financial assistance. GM swallowed up the smaller carmaker, and as expected, much of the Saab-ness of the cars faded away. Although Saab had engaged in joint ventures with other manufacturers before (the Saab 9000 and Alfa Romeo Milano were built on the same platform), Saab under GM's ownership ceased to push the envelopes of innovative design and style as it had in the past.

I had hoped that our family would buy one back in Saab's heyday of the late 80's, but they were just a little too unconventional and expensive for our tastes. That did not stop me from spending about half an hour sitting in the back of a 9000 at the San Francisco Auto Show in 1987 or so, dreaming of the spacious, luxurious accommodations that could have been mine. The fact that I picked up the flu that evening and spent the night having vaguely disturbing fever dreams about that back seat only tempered my enthusiasm slightly. I still like Saabs to this day, but more for the memory of what they used to be than for any innovations they sell today.

Now comes word that GM will sell off Saab to Koenigsegg, a Swedish designer and manufacturer of lunatic-fringe supercars. This is the best possible outcome, in my view. Ownership of Saab is returned to its country of origin, and the new owners are nothing if not innovative and quirky. They do not have experience with high volume mass production, but the way Saabs have sold lately, that may not be much of a problem. Here's hoping that Saab again finds its place as an interesting alternative to the largely homogenous family sedan segment of the auto industry.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Convenient Excuse For Washing Out Of The Spelling Bee

If you struggle with spelling, don't dispair. Writing in English is a big job; the language just added its one-millionth word (according to one source, anyway).

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Come For The Stars, Stay For The Costars

Some movies bear watching not because the movie itself is superior or the stars do their star thing, but because someone lower on the bill turns in a great performance. Even iconic movies can become so encased in their own reputation that brilliant performances by the lesser lights can be undeservedly overlooked. I enjoyed two last night:

"Casablanca" rightfully earned its legendary status: Bogey at his crusty sentimentalist best; a luminous Ingrid Bergman; bad guy Nazis. What makes the film a particular joy to me, however, is Claude Raines' Captain Renault. He is quick witted and corrupt, but Raines does not play Renault as a one-dimensional lackey. As with all great actors, Raines' eyes show that the gears in Renault's head are always turning.

And don't miss Don Cheadle's scene-stealing turn as the unhinged Mouse is "Devil In a Blue Dress." Denzel Washington does his sensitive-macho Denzel thing, but Cheadle brings an unforgettable glee to the mayhem Mouse inflicts.

Monday, June 08, 2009

A Lowbrow Culinary Triumph

Marinated flank steak grilled up on the barbecue must be one of the easiest and most common dishes to prepare, especially here in the barbecue-happy West. My roommates and I in college were marinating and grilling flank steak, tri-tip, and any other cheap piece of beef we could find when we had little money or cooking experience, so there is little innovative or complicated about it. Just about anybody who has ever thrown a slab of meat on a hot grill has a go-to beef marinade recipe.

It is relatively easy, then, to get a good meal out of marinated flank steak. However, a great meal is one to be celebrated and shared. Simple and undoubtedly common though it is, the recipe we used this weekend gave us a truly great meal.

The marinade recipe used the expected soy sauce (1/2 cup), garlic (5 smallish cloves, minced) and olive oil (1/4 cup). This one was different from marinades I had used in the past in that it called for a portion equal to the soy sauce of a fruity red wine. Admittedly, this is not at all an unusual ingredient for a marinade, but not one I had tried before. I used one of the unopened bottles of red wine we happened to have around – a Beringer Alluvial, not the French wine. A fruitier variety like a Merlot might have added more flavor, but what I used was perfectly adequate. (I’m trying really hard to sound like a Northern Californian here.)

I added fresh pepper but omitted parsley, scored the 1 ½ lb steak diagonally every two inches or so, then marinated the whole thing overnight. Before grilling, I salted and peppered the meat directly. On a hot grill, I cooked each side four minutes, moving the steak to the unused part of the grill with a ninety degree turn halfway through cooking on each side.

The meat came out a perfect medium rare, tender throughout with tremendous flavor. Part of the appeal, I suppose, came from the saltiness of the marinade, but the wine added a subtle but distinct flavor that went beyond what straight soy sauce can provide. Even my considerable powers of modesty cannot keep me from saying that it was just about the best flank steak I have ever had.

What made the whole thing amusing, on top of being tasty, was that I found the recipe through an iPhone recipe app. I knew we had a flank steak we need to cook, so I typed in "flank steak" into the program, and it gave us a great Sunday evening meal to top off an excellent family weekend.

Yes, I have an iPhone recipe app. Two of them, in fact. What of it? We can’t all be graduates of Le Cordon Bleu.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Swimmers, To Your Marks

Sometimes I can only stand back and admire the bravery of my children. A day after Kelly won a league championship in a sport she had never played four months ago, Michael participated in his first swim meet five weeks after starting pre-season practices as essentially a non-swimmer. I hated swimming as a kid and still have bad memories of the one week I was forced to take swimming lessons when I was about Michael's age. In a cruel turn of fate, we joined a swim club and signed Michael up for an actual swim team even though he could swim no better than I could at the same age. I would have hated me if I were my own dad!

This is a swimming-mad area. Each little community has multiple swim clubs, which compete with each other throughout the summer. As hard as it is to believe, swimming is a bigger deal than soccer and baseball. Moving in across the street from one of the swim clubs, joining the club was almost compulsory, but we had no idea we would become involved with the swim team. Too many people we met enthusiastically recommended it as a great time for kids and parents alike, though, so we took a chance that Michael would be able to overcome his beginner status to at least have a good time and become water-safe.

Today's event was time trials, an event for our club alone in which the swimmers could set their baseline times for the season. The neighborhood was packed with SUVs and minivans, and the lanes were full of kids warming up smoothly.

As the season-opening event, the coaches organized a pep-rally for the swimmers and their parents to pump everyone up.

Michael was understandably anxious. Given that he has never made it more than halfway down the 25-meter pool without stopping, and has only learned backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly within the last two weeks, I may have been more anxious than he was, worried about how he would feel about struggling in front of several hundred people.

I needn't have worried. The kid has plenty of competitive fire and toughness in reserve.

Michael took the starting position very seriously, even though it resulted in an inelegant belly flop (a technique he shared with many of the younger or less experienced kids).

Hitting the water for the first time all day, Michael made it all the way down the pool in freestyle, even beating one of the kids in his heat. He was not fast, but neither was he painfully slow, and he did not even come close to stopping. He also did not demand to go home. Considering that he had no idea how to breathe while swimming a month ago, that's a tremendous accomplishment. He followed that result with a slow but complete breaststroke heat, and a meandering (but complete!) backstroke. Toward the end of the afternoon, he turned in a very promising fly leg, again beating one of the other kids in his heat. None of his swims were fast, but the mere fact that they happened is a major achievement. And he knew it.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Weeeee Are The Champions ...

The champions of the LMYA Volleyball Tournament, 6th Grade Division, are the Nebraska Cornhuskers!

Following a nailbiting (and noisy) third place game that went to 16-14 in the third game (best of three games, first to 15 in the third, must win by two), Nebraska and Illinois faced off in the final. Unlike most matches earlier in the season, the contest progressed slowly as each time worked on grinding it out. Nebraska jumped out to a quick lead against the better-drilled but not more talented Illinois squad. While Illinois lived (and often died) by advanced volleyball techniques of bump-set-spike, the scrappy Huskers kept swatting the ball back to the Illini any way they could. Illinois mounted a comeback toward the end of the first game as Nebraska could not sustain any momentum on serve, and ran off seven consecutive points midway through the game to nearly erase the large deficit. Nebraska salvaged enough points from side outs and serves to stay ahead, though, and finished out the game 25-22. Coming out with a win in the first game was just the punch in the nose Nebraska needed to deliver against a team that clearly believed it was the better squad.

Nothing went right for Nebraska in the second game. The teams engaged in an epic, multi-volley point with great plays on both sides, but the point went to Illinois. Nebraska hit the retracted basketball backboard multiple times. Nebraska's best player finished off a great reaction save from Kelly with a wild spike out of bounds. Nebraska got a total of two points on serve from its two best players, who each had two opportunities to serve (the two of them almost single-handedly wiped out Texas earlier in the week). Nebraska hung tough and stayed close, but Illinois closed out the second game, 25-21, taking both the game and the momentum. Nebraska's players, particularly it best player, were clearly rattled by their erratic play. Going into the third game, Illinois had found its stride and looked well positioned to finish the march to the title that they clearly expected.

A funny thing happened along the way to that coronation, though. Nebraska's athletes showed what they could do. The Huskers still got nothing on serve from its best player, but she contributed to save a lot of other points, just as she had all season. Two of Nebraska's less talented players suddenly decided that they knew how to spike the ball, winning several great points from the front row. Instead of an Illinois runaway, the game was knotted halfway through at 7-7. After a couple of good serves from a teammate, Kelly came up to serve with the game still very much in the balance at 9-8. When she left the service position, Nebraska led 12-9, a critical stretch of solid serves and good play from her teammates that gave Nebraska a little breathing room and put the finish line in sight. Good teams never give in, and Illinois fought hard, but serving down 13-14, they knocked the ball out of bounds, and the title went to Nebraska.

The players on both sides did not need to say anything about how seriously they took this "recreational league" final. There was a lot of nervous energy, big cheers and quite a few tears on Illinois' side at the end. Illinois expected to win, but the little band of spirited, red-clad athletes did everything they had to do to turn the match in their favor. After the match, Kelly said that her legs got wobbly at the end from the tension (I know my mouth was dry).

Kelly played very well, contributing a number of well-controlled bumps, an overhead save from the back row, and consistently solid serves. All she could do at the beginning of the year was bump a ball hit lightly directly to her; by the end of the year she was a valuable, smart player who could contribute anywhere on the court. Her teammates made similar strides in their skills. Even more valuable was the esprit de corps the players showed. Between most points, they would give each other high fives, even after mistakes or tough plays.

This was the first championship anyone in our family has ever won; Kelly was still marveling at it hours later. She probably would have been fine coming in second, and actually expected to (her natural pessimism coming to the fore), but she happily accepted the win.

And the trash-talking payback with a half-dozen of her closest friends who played for Illinois and all but promised a victory at school on Friday. The spirit of participation and sportsmanship is great and all of that, but winning sure is sweet.

Friday, June 05, 2009

The Internet Mocked The Video Star

The Internet is an amazing place. It remains true to its initial mission of being a means of communicating information. However, with the advent of the World Wide Web, it became a forum for the display of creativity in myriad forms. Much of what passes for "creative" endeavor on the web is dreck, of course. Nevertheless, every once in a while something pops up that simply puts a smile on your face in appreciation of the clever thought and talent (limited though it may be) to bring it to life.

Modern computers and digital media have given everybody the ability to do things with video that were the sole province of seasoned technicians only a few years ago. For those of you who appreciate both Star Wars and Magnum P. I. (and you know who you are), here is a clever little video clip that came my way this week.

One of the memes that has been running around the Internet of late is replacing the song lyrics from old music videos with literal descriptions of the action in the videos themselves. The golden age for music videos was the 1980s, which provides a rich vein to be mined of easily mockable hair and clothing styles, silly songs, and pretentious, often inscrutable art direction. The first of this genre that I saw was a reimagining of the classic one-hit wonder, "Take On Me" by the Finnish band A-Ha. The video actually was, and remains, a remarkable artistic achievement, which brought both MTV and the band well-deserved recognition. However, the story told to great effect in the video has nothing to do with lyrics of the song, so the folks who put together this literal video have some good fun with it.

As is the way of the Internet, as soon as one person comes up with a clever idea, a million copies follow. YouTube is full of them. Here is what I consider to be one of the better examples, based on the general cringe-worthiness of both the song and the video, and the sport the re-writers have with it. Fair warning: I have not been able to get this song out of my head all week. You're welcome.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Hurricanes, But Not Thunderstorms?

The tragedy and mystery of Air France flight 447 that crashed in the Atlantic Ocean of the coast of Brazil raises questions about the structural strength of aircraft and the force of meteorological events. Much of the speculation about why the Air France Airbus 330 fell from the sky centers on the severe thunderstorm it was apparently flying through at the time. There has been some thought that the storm was a major factor in the crash, either because lightning disrupted the aircraft's systems or the violence of the storm itself caused the airplane to break apart.

Anyone who has spent any time on commercial aircraft has flown through bad weather and turbulence. In those moments, as I clench the armrests and watch the wingtips waggle, I tell myself that people routinely and intentionally fly into hurricanes for the sake of science, and live to tell the story. Not only that, they do it in venerable old airplanes like my old friend, the P3 Orion. If that old bird can survive the violent winds and air pressure differentials of a hurricane, surely a modern jetliner can make it through any conventional storm that a professional pilot would see fit to fly in.

Or maybe not. With the Air France flight recorders thousands of feet below the surface of the ocean, we may never know exactly why it crashed. If weather played a part, though, the question becomes, how? Just how violent is a thunderstorm, and why is it that a relatively new airplane, as technologically advanced as any on the planet, could not survive it? Did the Air France flight run into the meteorological equivalent of a rogue wave, or is there something inherent in the construction of the Airbus that makes it vulnerable to unusually violent winds or lightning strikes? There is nothing in its history to suggest this possibility, and I would like to believe that the crash can be pinned on pilot error or a specific system that failed, rather than a general inability to survive being tossed about in a big storm.

As aircraft builders move toward new methods of construction (the structure of the forthcoming Boeing 787 will carbon fiber instead of aluminum), there may be new frontiers of structural strength and integrity yet to be probed. The manufacturers will have tested for every possibility, of course. Yet that did not stop a seemingly healthy A330 from falling out of the sky this week.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Volleyball Tournament Update

As if the French Open and NBA Finals aren't riveting enough, the Lafayette-Moraga Youth Association's sixth grade girls volleyball tournament is through its second round to much acclaim. Our "Nebraska Cornhuskers" dispatched the "Texas Longhorns" two games to none, after losing to them earlier in the season. The Huskers jumped out to an early lead as the Horns struggled to return serves, but the game tightened up as their best servers scored a series of unanswered points. Nebraska managed enough side outs to close out the first game, then jumped to a 9-1 lead in the second game behind the powerful serves of our two best players. Texas had no answer for Nebraska's serves and teamwork (Kelly set up our best player for a spike midway through the game, and scored several service points of her own), and Nebraska finished off the second game in a rout.

Nebraska now faces the winner of the "Illinois"-"Stanford" match. Illinois is skilled, very well coached and was undefeated for the season. Nebraska beat Illinois in a scrimmage game, however. Nebraska has already beaten Stanford in a regular season game. The final match will be on Saturday; stay tuned for the game recap.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

A Brave Kid

One of the unexpected pleasures of Michael's baseball season was getting to know the head coach and his son. When Jack Zembsch entered first-grade last fall, his parents sent an open letter out to the school to introduce Jack and let everyone know how to deal with him. Jack has Metatrophic Dysplasia, a rare dwarfism condition that involves, among other things, very soft vertebrae. The extreme curvature of Jack's spine, coupled with his frame's small stature as a result of the underlying dwarfism, threaten his life because his internal organs will not have enough room to grow.

Jack is very small and hunched over, but he has more spirit and optimism in just about any little kid you could ever hope to meet. Jack did not have enough mobility to do much in the field, but at the plate, he was surprisingly effective. Playing in a division where simply fielding, throwing and catching a ball is a challenge for most of the players, Jack regularly hit the ball pitched to him and made it to first base safely. In our last game on Saturday, Jack went three for four, completely legitimately, with no mercy shown by the other team (not that either Jack or his parents would want any).

Jack's parents engaged in a long fight with their health insurer to allow them access to the only expert on this condition in the country, who happens to be in Delaware. Stories about their efforts, including at least one published California court case, can be found online. Thankfully, they prevailed in their fight, and the day after our last game Jack and his family flew back to Delaware to begin a series of surgeries that will take all summer and will, if successful, substantially improve his quality of life and extend his life expectancy. We just received word that he made it through his first surgery today in good shape.

Jack's parents are fierce advocates on his behalf, and have done everything they can to allow him to lead as normal a life as possible. They are very open about Jack's condition, which allows those who come in contact with him to be at ease with him.
Jack makes it easy to like him; he is enthusiastic and funny, and yet still just as silly as other boys his age. Thanks to his parents and his own will, Jack participates in all the things that little boys do, and the other boys love him for it.

I felt a lot of pride in Michael's new love for the game of baseball and his proficiency in playing it this season. Beyond that, though, my best memories of this season will be of coaching Jack, watching him improbably hit a waffle ball 40 feet out of his tiny, stooped crouch, and carrying him on my shoulders cross the field from our wiffle ball station to the main diamond when our drills were done.

Jack has a lot of people pulling for him now. It's going to be a long, painful summer for him, but he's going to have a new body for his new school year. The doctors are working on his frame, but they don't need to change anything about who he is inside.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Spring Sports Update

The kids' spring sports activities are almost done. Kelly's volleyball team plays in the second round of the league tournament tomorrow night, with a final game to follow on Saturday. Her ragtag, small team (only eight players, compared to at least ten on every other team), which did not receive strong coaching for much of the season, managed to string together a series of wins toward the end of the season to finish a hard-charging third in the league. They also won their first tournament game, so they are playing in the winner's bracket with the top four teams. They also beat the number one team in a scrimmage, so they have a chance to finish very strong.

Kelly, as is her nature, has become a solid defender, passer and server. Nothing fancy, but she has developed very good fundamental skills in her first year of playing the sport.

Michael's baseball team turned into a very tight-knit, successful group. Score is not kept, but our "Cal" team could compete with anyone. I became an unofficial coach since I was able to help out at practices and games. The two real coaches provided as much organization as I have ever seen in youth sports. Considering that we were trying to keep 11 first graders engaged and active, structure was vital.

Michael, too, made significant strides in his development. By the end of the season, he could throw the ball accurately across the diamond, field throws and ground balls well, and hit consistently. He was among the most complete players on his team, and played with a great deal of intelligence. He knew to go only halfway between bases on fly balls, he could position his teammates and himself on defense, and always hustled on the basepaths. In the last game, he darted to his left from his position as "pitcher" (sort of a close shortstop) to field a sharply hit ground ball, and came up throwing a quick dart to first base. The throw was about an inch above his first baseman's glove, although it would have been perfect had an adult received the throw. The play did not result in an out, but it was done so smoothly, which such a strong throw, that it drew ooh and ahs from the parents.

Michael's batting also improved over the course of the season. He never became the most powerful hitter on his team because he was smaller than most of his teammates, but he learned how to make good contact. Thanks to his coaches, his technique improved dramatically, from swinging off his front foot:

to keeping his weight back properly:

That last picture shows the traveling road show our team became. On gameday, while some kids warmed up their arms, others hit in the portable batting cage the coach brought (the blue structure in the background) while the rest hit wiffle balls (what Michael is doing in the foreground).

I ended up as the wiffle ball coach for practices and pregames, then bench coach during the games (which amounts to making sure the right kid has a batting helmet on at the right time). It was a pleasure to get to know these boys over the course of the season, especially since we run into these kids everywhere: at school, on other sports teams, at the swim club, in stores around town. I also helped out with Kelly's volleyball team, so I got a chance to work with older kids as well. All told, it has been a very fun, very successful spring season, which will finally conclude Saturday.

Just in team for the swim team's first meet on Sunday.