Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Job for the Most Interesting Man in the World

If you always wanted to be a pilot but were put off by the bus-driver mentality ... if you always wanted to be an international spy ... if you always wanted to be a thief ... there is a job for you: airliner repo man. I would happily listen to these guys tell war stories all day.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Chinese Volvo

We spent the evening watching a news program on CCTV International, a Chinese-based television network. The perspective on world events was much broader than anything you would see on a domestic US broadcast, or even CNN. The news broadcast, headed by an Englishman but run and reported by Chinese nationals, was followed by a three-man panel discussion show in which the host and his guests discussed the acquisition by Geely Automobile of Volvo. Largely unnoticed in America, Volvo became a Chinese company on Sunday (the deal will close in the third quarter).

If the television host's reaction is any indication, the Chinese view of the takeover of Volvo is that China has stepped up onto the world's automotive stage in a big way. China is now the largest automobile market in the world, and is eager to start making cars that the rest of the world also might want to buy. Chinese designs are famously derivative, to put it politely, and are notoriously poorly designed and built. The acquisition of Volvo, in Chinese view, will go far in raising the stature of the Chinese auto industry. Volvo is viewed as a luxury brand known for safety and quality, even though its products are not very well known yet within China itself. Geely, which is not a very prominent domestic maker, is seen as learning a great deal from Volvo's technology while enjoying the halo effect of the worldly Volvo name.

In fact, commentators believe one of the most important tasks for Geely will be to avoid damaging the Volvo brand. Unfortunately, to Westerners, this may be a nearly impossible task. Many car enthusiasts I am in contact with are deeply suspicious of Chinese carmakers, and believe that Volvo will suffer both in reputation and in actual product development. It will not surprise me at all if Volvo's sales in the U.S. fall precipitously in the next few years. Volvo not only faces the prospect of assuring American customers that Chinese ownership will not adversely affect its design and construction capabilities, but the sale by Ford and business losses over the last couple of years have delayed product development. For instance, the XC90 should have debuted a redesign this year; instead, it has received only minor cosmetic updates. The redesign has been pushed off a few years, which by the time it arrives will be years behind its competitors. This may do as much damage to the Volvo brand as fears about Chinese design and manufacturing prowess.

Even though Volvo will purportedly retain its Swedish management, the Chinese commentators speak of the buying power of the huge Chinese market causing the Volvo product line to change to favor smaller, more economic cars to suit the Chinese market, rather than the larger, luxurious models that have defined the brand for years. In this flexing of the muscle by the Chinese domestic market can be heard not just a potential makeover of the Volvo brand but the coming dominance of the Chinese economy.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Saturday Sports Highlights

The kids are well into their sports seasons now.

After one practice and one practice game (which her "Penn State" team won), Kelly's volleyball team is now 2-0 for the season. The difference in quality of play between sixth grade and seventh/eighth grade is dramatic. It helps that Kelly's coach drafted a team of girls who all have good basic skills, but throughout the league, bump-set-spike is much closer to reality than it ever was last year. Kelly has proven to be a reliable, contributing member of the team, with a surprisingly effective underhand serve, solid passing skills, and an ability to set the ball wherever it is needed. She also saved a key point this weekend with an outstretched left hand that was pure instinct, coupled with some skill and court awareness.

For the record, Penn State beat St. Mary's 2-1 in the first week, coming from behind to win the first game. This week, Penn State beat USC 2-0, after again falling way behind in the first game only to roar back to win 25-22.

Scenes from the practice game against Pepperdine:

Michael's baseball team is off to a good start. You never know how good you are until you get in the arena with someone else who has the same goal. As an unofficial assistant coach, I have been to most of the practices from the beginning, and have been witness to the many, many drills devoted to the simple act of catching and throwing the ball. That basic skill was a challenge to much of our team in the early practices. The rainy weather that forced us to play on the blacktop probably did us a favor, as all we could do was stick to basic skill practices rather than get ahead of ourselves with baseball drills.

The A's prevailed over the Red Sox 17-5 in the first week, and beat the Orioles 12-4 in the second game, with a rainout in between. Yesterday, the A's obliterated the Yankees 22-2. The game was notable for several things. The least surprising development, based on our practices, was that our bats woke up in a big way. Considering that teams are limited to five runs per inning, and that the A's only batted five times because they were the home team (and did not bat in the bottom of the last inning because of the lead), we scored 22 out of a possible 25 available runs. Michael is not a big hitter, but he hits the ball sharply. He went 4-for-4, with three runs scored and three runs batted in. More significantly, this game confirmed what we were beginning to suspect, that all the work we have done on basic defense is paying off. The A's have given up far fewer runs than any team in the league, and our boys made a bunch of solid defensive plays. The one play that none of us expected to ever see was a triple play. Michael started it by catching a line drive from the pitcher position. He threw to first to double off the runner, then our first baseman (our best player) threw a dart across the diamond to third base to catch the runner leaving from third. That one play showed both skill and smarts by several different players.

Our comeuppance will arrive at some point during the season, but for now, the boys are really showing progress. There is something exceptionally pleasing about watching the boys take infield grounders adeptly and make throws smoothly, and even line up cutoff throws accurately, as they did at practice this afternoon, things that only our best few players could do with any alacrity at the beginning of the season. What matters most of all is when Michael declares on the way home from practice, as he did today, "I love baseball!" As long as he keeps saying that, all the work will be worth it.

Warming up:

The pitch is on its way:

Ready to run:

Manning the hot corner:

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Gaels Country

The attention that the St. Mary's basketball team has brought to itself by its run to the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament reminds me of why I enjoy college basketball. Little else in the sports world compares to the intense national focus the tournament can bring to schools that would not otherwise garner notice. The unexpected triumph of David over Goliath, when the whole sports world is watching, is a good time, guaranteed. When it happens to a college with an enrollment of 3,500 in a town of 15,000 people, it's a great time. Moraga is abuzz about the Gaels (as much as this laid back town can abuzz about anything), and St. Mary's success has taken the sting out of the failure of the much larger local favorite, Cal, to advance in the tournament.

Click here for video of the team receiving a hero's welcome upon its return to campus in Moraga earlier this week after its memorable, two-win weekend in Providence. (Here is another nice article about the team coming home.) In the video, it is the slightly bashful look on the faces of the first players off the bus that reminds us that these are still boys playing a game. Overnight, their world has changed. For most of them, these two weeks will be the high point of their sporting lives. For one of them (center Omar Samhan, the gregarious kid at the end of the video), a future as a professional athlete that was a laughable thought a week ago may now be a possibility.

Samhan is living everything that is right about this team. He grew up locally, he is outgoing and funny and clearly enjoying everything about this improbable run in the national spotlight, and he is a senior with loads of game experience. Four years of collegiate practices and games have given him moves on the basketball floor that few big men in the college game can match.

(It is so rare for a top player to stay in school that teams with talented seniors can surprise the best teams that are stocked only with underclassmen. Samhan has developed skills in four years that gave him a tremendous advantage over his opposition in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. No matter how much high school and AAU ball a top recruit has played before getting to college, talent can only take a player so far against a player who has been through thousands of hours of practice and games at the collegiate level. Cornell, for example, an even more improbable Sweet 16 participant than St. Mary's, relies heavily on smart, experienced upperclassmen.)

Now that St. Mary's is no longer a secret, other teams may neutralize Samhan and clamp down on the Gaels' outside shooters. Even if Baylor (or Duke) sends St. Mary's home, it will take up residence as a happy footnote to this year's tournament.

St. Mary's plays at 7:30 Eastern on Friday. Tune in to see a bunch of guys playing the game well, with joy.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


One of the unique features of our area is the very sharp delineation between prosperity and poverty. Our three little contiguous communities (Orinda, Lafayette and Moraga) together comprise a tranquil valley of moderate affluence, with Orinda on the high side, Moraga on the low (relatively speaking) and Lafayette somewhere in between. Just on the other side of the hills that shelter Moraga and Orinda lies Oakland, one of the most notoriously poor and crime-ridden metropolitan areas in the country. In truth, there are many nice areas of Oakland, but the majority of the city is governed by gangs and struggles to rise above the material and spiritual poverty that the criminality of the gang culture cultivates.

Those who live in the so-called Lamorinda area are very self-aware of the stark disparity in living conditions between the two areas that are only separated by a one mile long tunnel. There are many readily available opportunities for people of greater means and available time on the east side of the hill to serve those on the west side of the hill. There are rescue missions, soup kitchens and the like which many members of our community support faithfully with their hands and feet as well as their dollars.

Thankfully, the lesson to reach out to others evidently is being taught to the children of our community. A player and former player in the baseball league Michael plays in recently held a donation drive to collect used baseball equipment to give to inner city baseball organizations on the other side of the hill. These two kids collected $30,000 worth of bats, balls, gloves, shoes and other equipment, which has now been distributed to nearby inner city areas.

Direct, meaningful involvement in the lives of your neighbors is how society is best lived and its prospects raised. The plight of the desperately poor kids in Haiti after the earthquake, especially the orphans, affected Michael deeply. Of his own volition, out of his personal empathy for kids his age, he chose to give his old baseball glove to a group of people from church who coordinated a donation effort for Haitian orphans. By the same token, if these local donations not only get a bunch more kids out in the sunshine playing a game instead of waiting for the gangs to swallow them up, but also show some materially blessed kids how to live in kindness and kinship with their peers, there will be hope yet for the generation to come.

March Madness Tips Off

The NCAA men's basketball tournament kicks off again this morning, with a few items of local interest. The most prominent media story is Cal (23-10, 13-5 in Pac-10), which won the Pac-10 regular-season title for the first time in 50 years. However, Cal comes into the tournament like the first runner up in an ugly contest. The Pac-10 was horrible this year; the only reason two Pac-10 teams are in the tournament is because Washington earned an automatic bid by winning the conference tournament -- by beating Cal. Cal was rewarded with a number eight seed, and will face off against talented number nine seed Louisville. With the game being played in Jacksonville, Florida, Cal's prospects for advancement are even money at best.

Of interest even more local to us than Berkeley is Moraga's own St. Mary's. St. Mary's finally forced its way into the tournament after posting a 26-5 record (11-3 in the West Coast Conference). St. Mary's went 25-6 through the conference tournament last year, but did not make the NCAA tournament. The one-game improvement was a crucial one: a win over conference regular-season champion and NCAA tournament darling Gonzaga to earn the conference's automatic bid into the big dance. St. Mary's, seeded at number 10, has drawn a matchup against Richmond, a number seven seed, to be played tonight in Providence. St. Mary's is a better team than most people realize, and they are a strong candidate to pull the upset. (Gonzaga, long a favorite of the NCAA tournament organizers for its consistent runs to the Sweet 16 from what could be described as a mid-major conference only with a large helping of charity, was given a number eight seed and a matchup against Florida State, a game Gonzaga should win.)

Our personal interests run to our beloved Gauchos of UC Santa Barbara (20-9, 12-4 in the Big West), who return to the NCAA tournament for only the fourth time in their history, and the first time since 2002. UCSB won the Big West conference regular-season title and the conference tournament game. For those accomplishments, UCSB received a 15 seed and a matchup against number two seed and likely Final Four contender Ohio State. At least the high-profile opponent will probably mean that the Gauchos gets some airtime Friday night. That is, until the score inevitably gets out of hand. Of course, 15s have beaten 2s before; this would be a fun upset for us. Go Gauchos!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Enterprise To Fly Again

The first space shuttle, the Enterprise, will be moved soon from its current home at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum Annex near the Dulles airport. The Udvar-Hazy Center will receive the Discovery once its flights have concluded later this year. That means the Enterprise, NASA's approach and landing test vehicle in the early days of the shuttle program and current star resident of teh Udvar-Hazy Center, will be looking for a new home. It will get one more trip atop a modified 747, just as it did back when it proved the shuttle design was viable for a controlled-flight return to earth from space.

The final resting place of the Enterprise has not yet been determined. With any luck, the Enterprise or one of the other three remaining shuttles will be displayed somewhere on the West Coast. It was a thrill to see the Enterprise at very close range (the Udvar-Hazy Center is outstanding); I hope the permanent shuttle displays to come are equally as viewer-friendly.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Stranger in a Strange Land: Prologue

In preparation for our trip to China, I found myself at the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco twice this week. On my first visit, I learned what should have been some self-evident facts. The Chinese consulate in San Francisco is the primary point of contact on this part of the West Coast for anyone wishing to interact with China; consulates handle travel and immigration business of its own citizens, not just that of prospective tourists; and San Francisco has a large population of Chinese nationals and immigrants. I first rolled past consulate at about 1:30 on Monday afternoon, and was able to identify quickly entrance to the visa office by following the line of people -- almost entirely Chinese -- that extended all the way down the block. After finding parking (no easy task) and joining the line myself, I realized that the limited hours of the visa office meant that there was no chance of getting in before the office closed. I resolved to return later in the week and lineup concert-style an hour before the office opened.

On Thursday, I returned to the consulate on a beautifully bright, clear morning and hour before the Visa office opened. Even that early, I was in about 25th place in line; I was also the second Caucasian person in line. Once the doors opened at nine, we all took numbers and were called to separate windows to meet with consular officers to submit the visa paperwork. My officer, a smiling young Chinese woman with the incongruous name of Sofia (according to her name tag), cheerfully approved us for a longer-term visa because the cost would be the same and because it would give us an opportunity to return to China more than once, which she indicated a great thing for us to do. She also got a good laugh out of Michael's application picture, in which he gave his usual charming grin. As a consular officer efficiently processed my paperwork and conversed briefly with me in broken English, I gained some insight into what Greg has been doing, in mirror image, for two years. I immediately regretted not having enough confidence to speak the simplest Chinese pleasantries I have learned.

Judging by the consular officer's reaction to kid's photographs, and my experience standing in line and being inside the consulate, being a distinct racial minority may turn out to be the most profound experience of our trip. It was not particularly surprising that I was at least 6 inches taller than every other person in the long line at the visa office (except for some of the Caucasians). More interestingly, once inside the visa office, the few westerners tended to seek each other out. My unscientific observations were that a few Caucasians in the room appeared to sit near each other and conversed with each other, to the limited extent that anyone was chatting at all. I suppose it is natural to do so if we assume that it is more likely that a Caucasian will speak English. On the other hand, we were still in San Francisco, and presumably many of the Chinese folks in the office would be just as able to speak English.

Do we ever set aside an impulse to align with what we perceive to be our own tribe? When in the comfort of our home, be it a house, school or town, I think even the marginally enlightened among us can feel perfectly at ease (or can learn to be so) with people of any race or creed. However, when we find ourselves away from familiar surroundings, particularly if we are others who are in surroundings familiar to them, it feels natural to cling to anything that is more familiar than the environment. The point of commonality need not simply the race. It could be a common identification by language, school, state or nation.

Experiencing life as a distinct, and distinctive, minority should be an important experience for all of us, and especially the kids. Not only are we Caucasian, but I am significantly taller than typical Chinese person, and the kids have red hair. Plus, will we be in the company of a Caucasian family in which the wife and two kids are blonde. We have had experience with this; Latino women used to follow Cheryl around in the Burbank 99 Cents store just to get a closer look at our redheaded kids. I expect more of the same in Shanghai, at least to some degree. Thankfully, the kids have grown up in places and in an age in which racial identity is neutral for them (unless members of a particular race choose to make an issue of it). Still, the experience of drawing attention to themselves as a result of their race will likely make a strong impression on them.

The visas will be ready next week. Then it will be time to think seriously about how we are going to pack for this adventure. Just what is fashionable in Shanghai this time of year?

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Saturday Sports Highlights

After a wet winter that played havoc with the practice schedule, the Moraga Baseball Association held its opening day ceremonies and first games on Saturday. All of the teams, led by Michael's Pinto-division A's (led by Michael) ran into the junior high gym to applause, raffle prizes and general merriment.

The local high school team, most of whose members played in MBA for many years, were also introduced to the assembly (towering like Greek gods over the little Pinto-level players).

Under grey skies that gave way to warm sun, Michael's Pinto A's took on the Red Sox. As with every other sport in town, they boys know just about everyone on the other teams. After some first inning jitters, the A's got their game into shape and prevailed 17-4. Basic skills like throwing accurately and catching reliably are still a challenge for most kids in the league, but our team showed the effects of active coaching right away with their good slides, outfielders backing up throws to first base, and aggressive baserunning. Michael had a decent game, making a couple of smart plays at second after a rough first inning at the pitcher position. He also got on base in each of his three at-bats, scoring on run and driving in another.

The best thing about the season is that the kid just loves the game.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Also Turning 40

The Boeing 747.

Bigger than expected, but versatile, and usually makes people happy when they see it. Yeah, that's sounds about right.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Further Evidence of the Decline of the English Language

The part of the world that turned "google" into a verb, and gave the world the means to carry out that action, may be on the cusp of adding to the world's scientific lexicon. There is a movement afoot to give a name to numbers of 27 orders of magnitude (27 zeros after the initial digit). The proposed appellation is "hella," a slang term that has its roots in San Francisco, which means, simply, "a lot."

This dubious development is brought to us not by the news parody site The Onion, but is instead a real campaign by a Cal physics student to petition the International Committee for Weights and Measures to add "hella" to the International System of Units. The student is getting his message out to the people through that venerated method of social change: a Facebook petition.

There is no truth to the rumor that a high school English teacher/surfing instructor from Santa Cruz has started a Twitter campaign to convince the Oxford English dictionary to change the superlative form of "better" from "best" to "most epic."


Time Keeps On Slippin'

Cataclysmic seismic events have obvious local consequences. They also can have much more far-reaching consequences that are not visible to most observers.

According to a geophysicist at JPL, a computer model of the earthquake that struck Chile last weekend indicates that the shift in land mass from that event has affected the balance of the entire planet. As a result, each day has been shortened by a projected 1.26 microseconds. The Indonesian earthquake of 2004 also shortened the day, by an estimated 6.8 microseconds.

Finally, an explanation; the days really are going faster these days.