Friday, July 30, 2010

Front And Center

One of the Silent Auction items available in the swim team's fundraisers was a set of four tickets to a Giants game. We won the tickets and went to the game this week. It turns out that the seats were pretty good.

We were in the third row of regular seats (behind the section of crazy-good special seats behind the backstop) almost directly behind home plate. It was a terrific place to see the ballgame. You could see everything that happened in the field, and the players seemed larger than life rather than the distant tiny figurines you see from our usual seats in the bleachers or upper deck. It didn't hurt that food was delivered to us in our seats, either.

Being close means you get a good look at the players.

Giants starter Matt Cain:

Rookie of the Year candidate Buster Posey, who got a hit for the 20th straight game:

Local product (Bellamine HS) Pat Burrell:

The game was exciting, with two top notch pitchers playing well, several home runs, and an eighth inning comeback by the home team (fueled by two home runs) to earn the win.

We don't get to too many games, but we try to make them memorable. This one is right at the top of the list.

Swim Season In Review

The regular season for the swim team has come to a close, with only the massive nine-team finals swim meet to go. It has been a terrific season for Michael, who has achieved nearly all of his goals, becoming a pretty quick swimmer along the way.

The swim league has "bronze," "silver" and "gold" time standards for each event. A "gold" time is the ticket to the County meet and the measure of a truly fast swimmer. The "bronze" and "silver" times are great targets for all the other swimmers. Last year, as a truly beginning swimmer and in the bottom part of his 7/8 age bracket, Michael improved over the course of the year, but only got to the point by the last meet that he could start to think that maybe he would get a "bronze" time. He came into this year with the firm goal of earning "bronze" times in his main strokes of free, back and fly.

Before the season was half over, he earned his first "bronze," in fly. A couple of meets later, he earned his "bronze" in free by a solid margin. Just last weekend, in a 25-meter pool (a bit longer than the more common 25-yard pools), he finally earned a "bronze" in backstroke.

Another one of his goals was to do a "no-breather," in which he swims the length of the pool without taking a breath. After achieving the goal in practice, he accomplished the feat in a meet about halfway through the season, and has done so in every free race since then. The first time he did it, the coaches were ecstatic, giving him a ton of praise, recognizing that he met one of his most important personal goals.

Over the course of the season, Michael also had the opportunity to participate in several freestyle relays, including one with three of our top swimmers (Michael filled in for a faster swimmer who didn't get to the meet). He also took part in medley relays (swimming the fly leg), and on one memorable evening, the individual medley. He nearly got a "bronze" time in the IM, even though he was dead tired by the end.

The season culminated in a nearly perfect meet this week. Michael won two of his three heats and set personal bests in all three, including finally breaking the 20 second mark in freestyle. Last year, he always placed at the bottom of every group of swimmers. This year, by the last meet he was solidly in the top 40%. He is not big enough to have a ton of speed, but his strokes are technically correct, and he has learned a lot this year about competing across the whole length of the pool. He has a drawer full of first place ribbons, which represent many come-from-behind victories since his starts are always the weakest part of his races. In all, he has become a faster swimmer and a mentally tougher competitor.

Through it all, Michael had fun with his friends, swimmers of all speeds.

But how could he not be faster ... the kid is ripped!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Subpar Day

When I started the day in a dentist's chair, I thought the day could only get better. I was wrong.

On my way into work, my teeth and gums still aching from the determined attention of the hygienist, I heard and felt a fluttering from the back tires, then the whole car squirmed a little bit. Luckily, I was coming down a hill toward a small park, the only level, open area in my commute (anyplace else, and I would have been faced with a steep, winding road with no shoulder, or a freeway). I pulled straight to the side of the road and got out, expecting to see a flat tire. For once, I was disappointed that my diagnostic skills were so sharp:

I have taken the wheels off the car on multiple occasions to engage in the seemingly pointless pursuit of cleaning them thoroughly. As a result of my vanity, I was well versed in how to jack up the car and remove the wheel. What I was not so sure about was the spare tire. It looks like this:

In typical Germanic fashion, the spare tire system is unduly complicated. Also in typical Germanic fashion, it worked flawlessly. The spare tire is deflated; Porsche considerately includes a small air compressor designed to inflate the tire. Porsche also includes a full tool kit, a huge plastic bag perfectly sized to carry the bad wheel to keep the interior clean (there is no way to fit it in the trunk), and plastic gloves to keep your hands clean. My only concern is whether the thirteen year old, unused spare and compressor would work.

They did.

The car looked a little humiliated.

Complex though the spare system was, it worked perfectly and got me home safely.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Set The DVR

Although our television is usually tuned to Giants games, news or the Disney Channel, we make a little bit of time for series television. For instance, we watch Burn Notice on USA, a breezy crime/spy program, because one of our friends is a writer on the show.

When we lived in Southern California, nearly everyone we knew was connected to the entertainment industry somehow. Some were very successful, whether on screen (such as the Little Mermaid) or as part of the vast army of busniesspeople, cameramen, technicians, scenery and makeup artists and the like. We knew just as many people who spent year after year trying to gain a foothold in the industry, whether as a writer, actor, editor or some other capacity. When the dream of Hollywood takes hold, it does not let go. The tenacity of these people in the face of daunting odds is inspiring.

Our friend the Burn Notice writer lived the dream. Not long after he and his wife arrived in Hollywood, he managed to meet the right people and intern for the right projects so that he was in the right place at the right time when Burn Notice came along. He started off as a writer's assistant, and as the show became a hit, he worked his way up to become one of the senior writers, with at least a couple of the episodes to his credit. The show is enjoyable in the manner of a summer movie -- fast paced and witty, with explosions. It has an honored place among Mythbusters and Top Gear in our DVR's schedule programming.

Another show that we will add to our DVR roster starting this weekend is Mad Men. We arrived late to this party. Over the past three years, Mad Men garnered enormous critical acclaim even as it toiled in the far reaches of most cable lineups on AMC. We finally gave it a shot a few months ago, Netflixing the series DVDs. It quickly became one of those shows that we could not turn away from. The next disk could not arrive in the mail fast enough. The show expertly evokes the look and feel of the early sixties, or at least the early sixties as we imagine they were. The smoking, drinking, casual sexual harrassment ... it's all there. They even use these glasses, which I grew up with, and I'm pretty sure still live in Dad's cupboards:

The show plays like a long movie, with multiple story arcs given plenty of opportunity to live and breathe. The story payoffs are satisfying, and there is a depth of character that can only exist in long-form TV series, of which Mad Men takes full advantage. The lead character is one of the most intriguingly flawed figures in recent TV history; you find yourself questioning why you like him so much and pull so hard for him. The show is highly stylized, yet it is the imperfection of its lead that gives it deeper roots in humanity than almost anything else on television. Sure, it's a soap opera with moodier lighting and better clothes, but it is produced with great care and expertise.

We finished going through the first two seasons just as the disks for Season 3 were released, which we dashed through quickly. Season 4 begins on AMC Sunday evening. Now that we have caught up to the broadcast schedule, we will have to suffer through weeklong delays as each episode is released. The horror.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Summerime, And The Livin's Easy

We have enjoyed a summer that has felt as pleasantly aimless as we imagine summers ought to be. With the exception of occasional bouts of morning gloom, the weather has been sunny and warm without being uncomfortably hot. Our new resident has added a dimension to our activities without overwhelming us. Most importantly, from my working-guy perspective, our weekends have been relatively open and stress-free.

The Fourth of July weekend was about as perfect as one could hope for. The weather was great, sporting events were on hold for the holiday weekend, and we did not use up hours of our free time traveling. We love to visit family and friends, but sometimes using all of the available hours in a holiday weekend to simply be at home is as refreshing as a week in Hawaii.

(Okay, that’s crazy talk, but spending the holiday weekend at home is pretty nice.)

I started the Fourth of July weekend right by finishing a light remodeling of our guest bathroom. My household projects tend to happen on three-day weekends, which is why the spackling and repainting that I started on Memorial Day weekend did not conclude until the Fourth of July weekend. After pulling the last piece of masking tape and hanging the last towel rack, I found myself contemplating something I don't often face: a fully completed project.

We maximized our fireworks exposure, too. On the 3rd, we went to an event in Concord that has been going for more than 20 years. In a large public park, a local church sets up what amounts to a small county fair, with games for kids, food, and a concert/fireworks show. The stage backdrop is a 30 foot tall American flag which doubles as risers for a choir. From our ideal seats on a grassy knoll under a cloudless sky, we enjoyed a show with dancers, soloists and funny characters to entertain the kids of movie and musical numbers, worship songs, military service academy anthems (including Taps) and American patriotic songs. The evening ended with a suitably energetic fireworks display.

The next night, we went up to the hillside parking lot of our church to see the fireworks show that would be set off from the golf course immediately below. For being such a small town, Moraga puts on one heck of a fireworks show. Many years, including two years ago when we rolled into town in our first moments as residents, fog creeps over the hills to put a damper on the fireworks display. This year, the weather was spectacularly perfect. Not only were the fireworks visually enjoyable, but the sound they made, reverberating in rolling thunder up and down the little valley, was stunning (and possibly frightening to anyone who has dealt with explosives in a less festive context).

We closed the weekend on the holiday Monday by fulfilling one of Michael’s long-term ambitions: a lemonade stand. Lemonade stands are a frequent sight in our neighborhood; we had three within five blocks this past weekend. Michael and his good friend Lily had agreed to run a stand together, which meant their parents found themselves bound to get the venture off the ground. We all helped with the materials, but the kids did great job. They positioned the stand across the street from Lily’s house at a wide spot on the main road at a four-way stop. Lily put together a great sign, mixed lemonade and made rice crispy treats, while we supplied ice tea, ice, brownies and a cooler. They kept at it for more than three hours, doing brisk business and pulling in more than $70.

That, right there, is Americana.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Quantum Physics Comedy Club

A cop pulls over Schroedinger.

During the course of the stop the cop asks Schroedinger if he can look in the trunk.

Schroedinger gives him permission. The cop looks in the trunk and finds a dead cat.

"Excuse me sir, do you know there's a dead cat in your trunk"

Schroedinger replies,

"Well, there is now!"

End of an Epoch

Hewlett-Packard, the original pioneering company that helped create and define what become known as Silicon Valley, will be closing its Cupertino campus. Although HP is more closely associated with its birthplace in Palo Alto, its Cupertino operations were extensive in size and longevity. I grew up within a couple of miles of the Cupertino campus, went to a church that was across the street from one corner of the 100-acre site, and even worked there for two summers. Many friends of mine, or their parents or grandparents, worked there. Consolidation and retrenching is a normal part of the long-term business cycle, but it is nevertheless a pity to see the closure of a campus that has been a presence in that part of town for as long as most people there can remember.

I don't quite buy all of the stated justifications for the closure, however. In the politically correct speech patterns that seem to particularly afflict South Bay PR personnel, the closure has come about because consolidating local operations "will create a more productive, flexible, ecological and highly energized work environment." HP also stated that the closure "allows HP to better use space, continue to reduce our carbon footprint and provide employees with a more collaborative work environment." I track with everything except the "ecological" and "carbon footprint" remarks. These buzzwords must be used to ensure that the corporate image is one of a progressive caretaker of the earth, a de facto requirement for anyone who wishes to do business around here. However, I doubt very much that changing the commute of several thousand people from a couple of miles across town to a dozen miles up a gridlocked 101 to Palo Alto is actually a net positive from an ecological, carbon footprint viewpoint.

Reduce your carbon footprint all you want, HP. Kudos to you, but retain your integrity. Closing the Cupertino site has nothing to do with advancing environmental issues; by redirecting employees north to the Palo Alto mothership, the closure will create more traffic and pollution than before. Close the site if you must, but leave the dishonest feel-good lingo out of it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Willful Ignorance

It has come to light that people are shocked -- shocked! -- to discover that compact fluorescent light bulbs, those magnificant, earth-saving gifts from the gods themselves, are a bit problematic when it comes time to dispose of them. It turns out that CFLs, like all fluorescent bulbs, contain mercury, one of the more virulent toxins. (It's not like we didn't know this was coming; I wrote about it more than three years ago.)

Fine print on the packaging, of course, alerts consumers to both the presence of mercury and the fact that you cannot just throw them in the trash. Undoubtedly, CFLs are showing up in dumps, leaching mercury into the soil. Experts are now coming out of the woodwork to point out that these devices, which use less energy than incandescent bulbs, require special disposal infrastructure. Those extra collection points and processes come at a cost; not just the direct cost of the materials and procedures needed to collect, dismantle and dispose of the CFLs separately from all other refuse, but also the environmental damage done by improperly discarded CFLs.

Considering how careful those who are particularly passionate about environmental issues tend to be about toxins like mercury, I confess I'm a bit baffled by the lukewarm response to the hazards posed by improper disposal of CFL. People are willing to balance poisoning the soil or exposing oneself to mercury if a CFL were to break, again saving a few bucks on an electric bill, and come out in favor of the cheaper bill. As a person interviewed for the linked article says, "if it's really toxic, I'd probably stay away from it. But,if it's a really small amount, and if the bulb's really energy-efficient, then I'd say the good outweighs the bad, and I'd buy it."

"Really" toxic? It brings to mind Kevin Pollack's takedown of Demi Moore in "A Few Good Men," ridiculing her for "strenuously" objecting when her first, ordinary objection was overruled. Being a little toxic is like being a little pregnant: either it is or it isn't. When did a little bit less electical consumption become good enough to outweigh the bad of a toxin that can injure or kill you right now in your home by the simple accident of dropping a bulb, or poison acres of soil or groundwater?

I guess every principle has its price.

Another Sign You Are Aging

When you are young, drama sometimes follows your favorite bands. Singers end up in drug rehab, guitarists take a leave due to "exhaustion," and drummers end up with broken bones from random tumbles off the stage, or hotel balconies. Those are young peoples' afflictions.

You know you are getting old when your favorite rock group, the iconic band for an entire generation of rock music, must delay its tour to your area because the lead singer has ... a bad back.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Lunacy Central

Oakland tried to tear itself to pieces again yesterday. The city had been on edge for weeks, waiting for the verdict in the trial of a BART policeman who shot and killed a passenger in the aftermath of a fight on a train after New Years Eve last year. The fact that the cop was white while the victim was black created an instant flashpoint for unrest. Rioters broke windows and looted businesses downtown when the officer was first arrested. The city was ready for another eruption of violence, with law enforcement officers prepared to drop in from neighboring communities to assist the overburdened Oakland police department. Self-appointed civic leaders planned peaceful demonstrations at the central plaza, and pleaded for calm in anticipation of a verdict that would anger the black community.

My office is across the street from City Hall, which gives us a front-row seat for any demonstration any given day of the week. It put us in the eye of this particular storm, however. Starting last week, I noticed numerous local businesses putting up posters in their front windows expressing support for (or at least empathy with) the victim. These businesses did not necessarily have anything to do with the victim or his race (our local burrito shop, for instance, or a nearby Korean-owned hair salon). The posters were the modern equivalent of Old Testament blood spread across the lintel, praying that the curse of rioting will pass over these stores. It was well established that most of the rioters in the first event were from outside the area, anarchists just looking for any excuse to destroy property and spit (literally) in the fact of authority.

The word filtered out to us yesterday at about 2:30 p.m. that the verdict would be read around four. Several of our people commute via BART, and we all had to be able to get home. We, like most businesses, decided to send everyone home. Outside, I could see people streaming from the nearby buildings toward BART or their cars. The street outside the building jammed up, which never happens. In our parking garage, the public level quickly became gridlocked as the clerks could not process the ticket payments fast enough to accommodate everyone who wanted to leave at the same time. The attendants eventually just let people leave without paying. On the permit level in which I park, there were lineups about ten cars deep, something I had never seen before.

Once out of the garage, I found a massive police presence waiting for the verdict to be read and the hordes to descend. I was able to get across Broadway and on my way without any further trouble, and arrived home just as the verdict (involuntary manslaughter) was read.

Thankfully, there was less violence than before, although a lot of anger and a few clashes with police, all of which were at intersections right around our building. It was not until night fell that the professional anarchists arrived to commit random acts of violence. These low-lifes, dressed in black hooded sweatshirts, spray painted slogans, confronted police and looted businesses (most notably relieving a Foot Locker of its inventory of sneakers).

Putting aside the merits of the trial itself, there is something fundamentally tiresome about the threat, partially realized, of the rioting. A few months ago, four Oakland policemen were killed by a criminal. The criminal was black, the officers were not. In spite of this senseless tragedy, there were no riots. There was not even a thought that there would be. In the case of the BART cop, riots were expected, simply because the victim was black and the cop was white. It is both patronizing to assume that those conditions will result in rioting, and deeply disappointing that it did.