Blood Moon!!!!

Posted from Culver City, California at 11:31 pm, April 16th, 2014

The natural world is astounding. If there is a Creator, the fact that we encounter mind-blowing phenomenon on a daily basis reflects an infinite intelligence and master artist who set the universe in motion. The recent blood moon is yet another example – who knew that the already-amazing full moon would turn red during an eclipse? The cosmos is awesome.

Full moon, pre-eclipse

The full moon, before the evil had yet begun.

Full moon, partial eclipse

A scene very similar to this one took place during 2010: The Odyssey Continues, after which Jupiter exploded and aliens took over. That did not happen during this lunar eclipse.

Blood moon

Blood moon!!!!

Adventure

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:26 pm, March 31st, 2014

“Boredom, Tyler. Boredom, that’s what’s wrong. And how do you beat boredom? Adventure, Tyler. Adventure!” — Never Cry Wolf

This journal started in 2002 as a way to chronicle an epic, three month adventure through Alaska and Northern Canada. Since then there have been additional amazing trips captured on these pages – Antarctica on an ice breaker, South Georgia island on a 90 foot yacht, the Galapagos on a motor yacht, and even some trips that didn’t involve boats. Some of these journeys were done on my own, others with friends and family, but all had a profound impact.

The next odyssey is scheduled to start in late July and last through early October, with Audrey joining for the latter half. The route is still being fully fleshed out, but the trail looks like it’s going to lead through Turkey, Tanzania, Kenya and Namibia, with Audrey then joining for ten days in South Africa followed by a month in Madagascar.

I’m fortunate to be in a position to be able to break from the day-to-day routine and head out to experience the world, and can’t wait to see what insights this next journey brings. Three-and-a-half months and counting.

Legos for Grown-ups

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:41 pm, March 30th, 2014

While the East Span of the Bay Bridge is finally operational, there are a bunch of other projects going on in California that the engineer in me continually follows up on. While I may be the only one interested, it’s fun to re-read these entries a few years later, so here’s a status report on a few of them:

  • Transbay Center – This San Francisco project is essentially building the Grand Central Station of the West Coast, a $4.5 billion development that will bring together eleven different transit agencies and eventually include Caltrain service in downtown, and (theoretically) high-speed rail. Shockingly the project is mostly on schedule, with most of the below-ground work done and the above ground work set to start this summer. Completion is scheduled for Summer 2017.
  • Subway to the Sea & Exposition Line – Despite Beverly Hills doing its best to derail the $4 billion subway project, one of LA’s busiest traffic corridors might soon have a subway, and people on the West Side will actually be able to get to the rest of the city without spending an hour in traffic. As a bonus, subway excavations are unearthing huge caches of Ice Age fossils. Meanwhile, the first phase of the Exposition light rail line has already exceeded its 2020 ridership projections, with the second phase to Santa Monica on schedule for a 2015 opening. It’s ridiculous that America’s second-largest city has such terrible mass transit, but things are improving rapidly.
  • California High Speed Rail – Caveat: high speed rail is something that should absolutely be built to connect America’s cities, as is done throughout the rest of the world. However, the $68 billion California high speed rail project has missed every deadline so far and has no viable solution for moving forward. I don’t envy the people trying to make it work – they are saddled with a set of difficult and often conflicting constraints that are set by law, a political environment in which financing is uncertain, and everyone from Congress members to farmers trying to use whatever legal options are available to delay or kill the project – but more than five years after approval there is absolutely no excuse for not having a workable plan. Killing the project now probably means it will be another decade before anything new could be proposed, but that might be better than building it poorly, and in the interim it might be possible for a less ambitious (and probably more profitable) route from LA to San Diego, or LA to Las Vegas, to be built and prove the viability of such a system.
  • Farmer’s Field – If anyone could bring an NFL team to Los Angeles and redevelop a huge section of downtown with a stadium and other venues it would be AEG, and most of the approval for this $1.2 billion project is in place. However, with no NFL team ready to move, the continued redevelopment of downtown Los Angeles is on indefinite hold, and in the interim parking lots and unused office buildings fill an area that should be a centerpiece of the LA area.

I’ve always been a big nerd when it comes to huge construction projects, and these four projects are particularly exciting ones since they all have the potential to dramatically change the regions in which they are built.

Kraftwerk

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:59 pm, March 24th, 2014

As part of my ongoing arts and culture education, Audrey took me to see Kraftwerk at Disney Hall last week. I know nothing about electronic music, but apparently for someone who is a fan of the genre seeing Kraftwerk is like an engineer meeting Nikola Tesla or Wernher von Braun, i.e. you bow down while chanting “we’re not worthy” when they appear. The band was doing eight shows over four nights, each show featuring a different album played in full along with a “best of” set, and tickets had sold out in a matter of minutes.

I went in knowing nothing about what was going to happen, beyond the fact that it might be weird. Those suspicions were confirmed after my ticket was taken and I was handed a pair of 3-D glasses, and I settled in for a fun evening. The lights went down, the curtain dropped, and there on the stage were four 60-something Germans, each standing at a lighted console, all in front of a giant screen, with nothing else on stage. Also, they were wearing unitards, because when you’re a 67 year old German electronica legend, why not?

The show was bizarre in a very fun way. The girl was extraordinarily happy, I was entertained, the Germans were very German, and – surprisingly – I thought the music was all right; I even grabbed a copy of Autobahn from iTunes to add to the music collection. Even better, afterwards I read a bit about the band and discovered the following fun tidbit:

The band is notoriously reclusive, providing rare and enigmatic interviews, using life-size mannequins and robots to conduct official photo shoots, refusing to accept mail and not allowing visitors at Kling Klang Studio, whose precise location they used to keep secret. Another notable example of this eccentric behavior was reported to Johnny Marr of the Smiths by Karl Bartos, who explained that anyone trying to contact the band for collaboration would be told the studio telephone did not have a ringer, since during recording, the band did not like to hear any kind of noise pollution. Instead, callers were instructed to phone the studio precisely at a certain time, whereupon the phone would be answered by Ralf Hütter, despite never hearing the phone ring.

Good times, although I will never again be able to go to a concert without feeling slightly let down when I don’t get a pair of 3-D glasses after passing through the gates.

Kraftwerk at Disney Hall

Kraftwerk on stage at Disney Hall. Photo from the LA Weekly.

Photographic Slides on the Interwebs

Posted from Livermore, California at 9:16 pm, February 28th, 2014

Here are a handful of photos that haven’t shown up in the journal before, all discovered while looking for images to put in the new digital picture frame. Each of these was scanned from a slide taken more than a decade ago, back in the pre-digital days when you’d shoot perhaps three rolls of film during an entire trip and then perform various voodoo rituals to hopefully ensure that maybe one or two of the pictures didn’t completely suck.

Half Dome from Yosemite Valley

Half Dome from Yosemite Valley, 1998. Fall color is pretty.

Buddha in Angkor Wat

Buddha in Angkor Wat, 2001. I might be the only person on the planet who loves this shot, but it was a great moment sitting in Angkor Wat with the light hitting this Buddha in just the right way to light up the orange robes.

Pyramid of Khafre in Giza

Pyramid of Khafre in Giza, 2002. Bucket list, check.

The Future is Now

Posted from Livermore, California at 10:51 pm, February 27th, 2014

Two notes about two of my favorite companies:

  • Tesla Motors announced a bit more about their proposed “gigafactory” this week, which (if built) will produce as many lithium ion batteries in a single, massive US plant as were produced in the entire world in 2013. They will be partnering with established battery manufacturing firms, giving them the necessary know-how and experience to make this happen, and making it possible that a component that we take for granted as coming from Asia could suddenly be produced primarily in the US. What’s more, by bringing production in-house Tesla foresees significant economic advantages, and I suspect that they will work hard to innovate in battery technology and thus quickly drive down the cost and improve the efficiency of their most important component. Longer term, Tesla Motors might follow Apple Computer in dropping the second half of its name as the company gains the ability to produce massive battery packs that could be tied to the electric grid to provide large-scale energy storage, thus revolutionizing the electrical grid in as significant a way as what Edison and Nikola Tesla did at the turn of the century.
  • Meanwhile, Spacex will be launching another rocket to the International Space Station in mid-March. While they have seemingly made the once-unthinkable task of private rocket launches seem almost mundane, this launch will be noteworthy for having landing legs attached to the first stage. The plan is to try to “soft land” the rocket into the ocean as a test, with the goal of controlling things sufficiently that the rocket can eventually be flown back to the pad and re-used. Spacex has already reduced launch costs to almost one-third of what their competitors charge, but if they can create a truly reusable rocket then costs will plummet (think of the difference in costs of air travel if we only used each plane for a single flight) and an age of space exploration that rivals the journeys of European explorers after the Middle Ages could conceivably begin.

It is of course entirely possible that either of these companies could fail in their efforts, but it’s not hyperbole to say that if they each meet their goals that they will change the world as we know it in very dramatic ways. It’s a fun time to be alive.

2014, so far

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:46 pm, February 23rd, 2014

Here’s a recap of adventures in 2014 thus far:

  • Last weekend I had to make a very quick trip to the Midwest for a funeral, the first return visit to Cleveland in five years. Cleveland in February is not the best of months, but it was still both fun and sad to re-visit. The Cleveland Museum of Art has been significantly expanded and rivals any museum in the world, Case Western has upgraded everything from student housing to campus buildings, and Shaker Heights still feels like it would be a pleasant place to live. On the flip side, the economic downturn has not been kind to Cleveland, and the potholes were scary, the downtown was a ghost town after 5PM, and many buildings that weren’t vacant ten years ago are now shuttered.
  • After visiting Cleveland, I picked Aaron up at the airport at 11PM, and we then braved snowy roads in a Chevy Skidsalot for the two hour drive to Erie, slept for a very short time, and then got to see a bunch of people we’re related to. We’ve got some fun relatives who most definitely fall on the “good people” side of the spectrum.
  • Aside from expeditions to the Midwest, 2014 has mostly been about enjoying living in Southern California. Audrey got treated to lobster for Valentine’s Day, we took advantage of nice weather during a visit to the Getty, and there have been a few trips to the ocean to see what birds are visiting.
  • In homeowner news, a crack team of plumbers came to install a gas line and other hookups last Friday, and my first ever appliance purchase is now operational: the Samsung Future drying machine from space. It has knobs and LEDs and settings and musical tones and dries good. Removing the old, 320 pound stackable unit from its previous home in a hallway closet made for some good times, but I emerged (mostly) unscathed and much wiser in the ways of appliance disassembly.
  • One last minor note, but my iPhone battery was having trouble holding charge for more than a few hours, and rather than pay $80 and send my phone away for a week I figured I’d replace it myself for $25. After an hour, much stress about screws the size of dust molecules, cable connections smaller than fruit flies, and screen removal instructions that involved a suction cup and the admonition to “pull harder than you might think necessary”, my phone luckily turned on again and I am now completely certain that bomb disposal technician is not a wise future career choice for me.

Not the most exciting of starts to the year, but planning is underway for grand adventures that begin in July, so while it is slow now, there should be many, many days worthy of a journal entry during the latter half of 2014.

Shortly after landing I texted Audrey to let her know that I had just seen both of the buildings, and she was jealous.

Iceland Revisited

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:54 pm, January 31st, 2014

The Annenberg Space for Photography is doing an exhibit celebrating 125 years of National Geographic photography. Rather than simply print a handful of photos, the exhibit uses a number of LCD screens to showcase over five hundred iconic photographs. Immediately after visiting I came home inspired and purchased the largest-available digital frame I could find (18.5″) and Audrey and I now have about a hundred of our own photos on display in the living room.

In the process of going through photos to put into the frame I found a bunch from Iceland that may not have made it into the journal before, and since they are pretty and since it’s the end of the month and I need a third entry to meet my self-imposed quota, here are a few of them:

Breidavik church at sunset

Breidavik church at sunset. If I remember correctly this was taken at about 1AM – it gets dark late that far north.

Landmannalauger landscape

Landmannalauger landscape. This area is a bizarre volcanic region filled with amazing colors and twisted landscapes that is accessible only to cool people in high clearance four-wheel drive vehicles.

Skogafoss landscape

Skogafoss landscape. Skogafoss is a waterfall, and it turned out that the area upstream was also heart-warming.

Hafragilsfoss waterfall

Hafragilsfoss waterfall. This waterfall is downstream from Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall.

2014 Predictions

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:33 pm, January 23rd, 2014

Following a disasterous set of 2013 predictions, predictions for 2014 are now ready to be proven incorrect. For those wanting to read about things that never came to pass, past year’s predictions can be found at the following links: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013. Here’s what the crystal ball shows for the coming year:

  1. Since 2014 is mid-term election, here’s the obligatory election prediction:
    • Democrats will hold the Senate, barely, with their 55 member majority reduced to between 50-52 members (current projections are that it will be 50-50 after the elections). I think the Obamacare web site issues will mostly be forgotten in November, but I also think Republicans are likely to nominate better candidates than they did in the last two cycles.
    • The House will stay under Republican control – currently Republicans hold 234 seats, and after the election they will hold 224-234 seats (current projection is 228). The way House districts are drawn make it tough for things to change much so soon after the redistricting that took place for 2012.
  2. The values of Facebook (currently $56) and Twitter (currently $63) will both decline by at least twenty percent due to growth and revenue concerns. Revenue models based on the dual belief that everyone on the planet will sign up and that they will then spend money on Farmville are not something that smart investors should be banking on.
  3. Tiger Woods will win at least two major championships. He remains the most talented golfer alive and is way overdue.
  4. No significant new laws will be passed in the areas of gun control or immigration reform prior to the mid-term elections. For the record, I think it is inevitable that immigration reform will happen eventually, and thus in addition to the fact that it is a good idea on the merits, Republicans would be wise to pass something soon to prevent this from continuing to be an issue that damages them in national elections, but their less moderate members will continue to block any action.
  5. Google is going to make some sort of HUGE move into the entertainment space. It’s clear that with Google TV, Youtube and Google Fiber that they want to be in the living room and delivering content, and I suspect that they will try hard to make any such move well ahead of Apple to gain whatever advantage comes from being first.
  6. Lebron James will re-sign with the Heat, as will Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. There is noise around the idea that once he becomes a free agent Lebron will return to Cleveland or go elsewhere, but he wants to win as many titles as Michael Jordan and will thus stay exactly where he is. Also, Cleveland is cursed.
  7. Apple’s share of the tablet market will continue to fall precipitously. It dropped from 40% in 2012 to 30% in 2013, and will drop another ten percent to less than twenty percent of the total tablet market by the end of 2014. Since its announcement in 2010, and after four generations, the iPad hasn’t offered much new beyond better screen resolutions, and as a result most cost-conscious consumers will choose other options.
  8. Tesla will not deliver the Model X as scheduled in 2014, but will plan on delivering their next vehicle no later than Summer 2015. They will also not have rolled out their battery swapping technology due to a lack of demand – I think they announced that capability just to shut up critics, but I don’t think it’s something that people who are actually driving the car want. Finally, they will not have moved forward on their plans for a battery factory as their focus continues to be on the hugely successful Model S and their next generation vehicle, which if they can meet their goals will (I believe) be the most important vehicle since the Ford Model-T.
  9. The next evolution of TV – 4K resolution, which offers four times the resolution of current HD TVs – will be well underway by year’s end. While a handful of TVs are currently available offering 4K resolution, content is hard to come by, but by year’s end cable companies will have streaming 4K offerings, a few shows will announce plans to film in 4K, and the movie studios will be on the verge of announcing a 4K format to succeed blu ray.
  10. The Browns will draft a quarterback with their first pick, and whoever they get is not going to be nearly as successful as recently drafted QBs like Russell Wilson or Andrew Luck. The team should just grab the best available player in a draft with a ton of talented guys, and ideally they would use a few of their many picks to build an impenetrable offensive line – even a moderately talented QB with a reasonable amount of time to throw will be a success – but they will screw it up and reach for a guy that won’t be starting in three years. Sadly, I’ll still root for them until the end of time.
  11. Following Colorado and Washington, California and at least two others states will vote to de-criminalize marijuana use.
  12. Apple and Google will both unveil products and strategies that will focus those companies heavily on home automation. Google just bought Nest, a company that was a pioneer in putting thermostats and smoke detectors online, while Apple has already made small efforts to connect music sources, printers, etc, but this will just be the tip of the iceberg. We live in an era where companies are starting to find value for customers by putting even things like solar panels and lightbulbs online, and that will continue with everything from hot water heaters to alarm systems getting the “smart” treatment, resulting in more efficient energy usage whilst we wake up to lights that mimic the sunrise.

And there they are. Some of them may not seem impressive in retrospect (everyone would put money on Lebron staying put), but that’s what I’ve come up with after staring at this screen for far too long and trying to predict the future. The comments link is available to anyone who either wants to mock me or add some predictions of their own. See you in twelve months for the (likely embarrassing) retrospective.

2013 Prediction Scorecard (aka Warthog-Faced Buffoon)

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:54 pm, January 11th, 2014

2013 marks a new record of futility for my annual predictions, and it breaks the previous record by a margin that can in no way be considered small – while these recaps are usually at least partially tongue-in-cheek, my pride is actually hurt by such an utter and complete failure to guess where the world was headed. I take heart, however, in knowing that dumb luck alone says that I should almost always get at least a couple of correct predictions, so this record of shame is unlikely to be broken in 2014. As a reminder, here’s the past scorecard: 2009: 31% correct (5 of 16), 2010: 44% correct (7.5 of 17), 2011: 50% correct (7 of 14) and 2012: 40% correct (6 of 15). And now, the carnage that was 2013:

  1. The resolution to the current debt ceiling debate will permanently defuse the debt ceiling as a future threat.

    Luckily a last-minute agreement prevented the self-destruct button from being pushed on the US credit rating, but while politicians were afterwards making noises about not repeating this masochistic exercise, nothing was done to actually defuse the bomb and we are headed for more potential drama in March. Zero-for-one in the prediction game so far, and it gets much worse.

  2. Usain Bolt will not win an individual gold medal at the 2013 Track & Field World Championships and will be overshadowed by his training partner Yohan Blake who will win both the 100m and 200m.

    Usain Bolt won both and Yohan Blake (the Olympic silver medalist) didn’t even run after sustaining a hamstring injury a month before Worlds. Even had he run it’s unlikely that Blake would have beat Bolt – I thought Bolt would slack off after the Olympics, but he continued to make everyone else look like they were competing for second place.

  3. A la carte cable, in which consumers can choose only the channels (or even the shows) they want, will be announced (or on the verge of reality) from one or more companies capable of making it happen for the vast majority of America.

    In fairness, this is something that I very much want to happen, that I think makes all kinds of sense, and that realistically I should have known the cable companies would do everything in their power to delay. It will happen someday, and maybe even someday soon, but it didn’t happen in 2013.

  4. The unemployment rate will drop from its current rate of 7.9% to around 7.3% (+/- 0.1%).

    Officially it was 6.7% at the end of the year, but if I’m going to be wrong, at least it was because the job situation improved more than I thought it would. For those counting at home, that’s four straight wrong predictions.

  5. With Washington and Colorado having legalized marijuana, there will be a push at the national level to either reduce penalties for marijuana or to give states greater flexibility.

    Aside from assurances from Eric Holder that he wouldn’t send in the feds unless pot was crossing state lines, there was a great big “nothing” that happened on this front. Clearly lawmakers aren’t yet ready to have their fingerprints anywhere near anything that has to do with easing the war on drugs.

  6. The NFL will announce a deal to bring a football team to Los Angeles

    There are TWO stadium plans for LA, the Rose Bowl and Coliseum are available as temporary homes, and still the NFL can’t find a way to get a team to America’s second largest TV market. Does anyone in Jacksonville even know that they have a team there? Florida doesn’t need three teams – send one over here and see if they notice.

  7. Star Trek Into Darkness, Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and Man of Steel will be three of the five highest grossing movies of the year.

    How did they mess up Superman? While it ended up #5 on the year, two hours into it I didn’t care at all about any of the characters except for Pa Kent, who they killed off after the first hour. Hunger Games was a solid flick and ended the year #1, but Star Trek was underrated and finished at #11 (per the 2013 domestic box office). Seven predictions, and still not one that was correct.

  8. The next iPhone will offer the same form factor as the current iPhone 5, but will add the ability to use the phone for credit-card-like payments using near-field communication (NFC).

    I got the form factor right, but that’s too obvious to warrant any credit. The exciting new features for the iPhone 5s were – more colors and a fingerprint sensor? I like Apple, I think they’re an amazing company, and I even own Apple stock, but they need the ghost of Steve Jobs to give them a kick in the pants because they haven’t been breaking any new ground lately.

  9. Increased demand for the Model-S will cause Tesla to increase its production target for 2013 from 20,000 vehicles to at least 30,000.

    While there has been huge demand for this amazing car, I under-estimated how tough it would be for Tesla to ramp up production. They smartly focused on improving their quality and margins, and as a result will still exceed their delivery goals but won’t hit the 30,000 vehicle number despite the fact that they have a long backlog of orders.

  10. Congress will not pass significant immigration reform this year.

    I GOT ONE RIGHT!!!! Passing immigration reform is the right move for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it helps the economy, helps individual immigrants, and eliminates this issue as something that Democrats can attack Republicans over, but Boehner didn’t have a majority of his caucas willing to support it. I predicted last year that it is an issue that may return after the primaries, when Republicans will be more willing to prove that they can get things done and appeal to independents, but for now the bill is gathering dust in the House.

  11. At least one of the following companies will not survive the year: Sears, J. C. Penney, or K-Mart.

    I don’t understand how any of them stay solvent.

  12. Spacex will carry out 4-5 launches of its Falcon rocket (they have at least six planned) and one successful test launch of their massive new Falcon Heavy rocket.

    I’m giving myself half credit, mainly out of self-pity. There were four Falcon-9 launches in 2013, but if a Falcon Heavy has even been built yet I haven’t seen any news. A test launch of that uber-cool monster of a rocket remains on their launch manifest for 2014, and they have a busy schedule of Falcon-9 launches planned for this year, including a successful launch that put a satellite in geosynchronous orbit last week. It’s a good time to be a fan of spaceships.

  13. California High-Speed Rail will break ground in the Central Valley as scheduled this year.

    They issued a contract to get ground broken, then put it hold due to a lawsuit and other issues. I’m a strong believer that high-speed rail is an amazingly good idea and an investment that should be made, but the mis-management of this project is enough to make even me believe that it might be better to shut down the current efforts and start over. Build a high-speed train, but do it with a more realistic and effective plan, and a competent team in place to oversee its implementation.

  14. The Browns will have a winning record in 2013.

    In my defense, I added “this is the type of prediction Browns fans make every single year, and are wrong about every single year“. 4-12. Ouch. They were a better team than that record shows.

Final score: 11% (1.5 of 14). Eleven percent, and that’s after rounding up from 10.7%. To put that number in perspective, there is a woodchuck in Pennsylvania that makes yearly predictions and has a 39% success rate, so my predictions are nearly four times worse than a rodent’s. An octopus, a creature with a brain the size of a green pea, correctly predicted seven straight World Cup match results in 2010. Meanwhile a grown man with a normal-sized, albeit questionably functional, human brain barely exceeded a ten percent success rate. A smarter man would retire in shame, but I am not such a man and will be back shortly with another set of horribly inaccurate predictions for 2014. Watch this space.

Man Trip Postscript

Posted from Culver City, California at 1:03 pm, December 31st, 2013

After getting home Sunday night I woke up Monday morning at 6:30 and headed down to the Marina to see what was stirring. Turns out that the place is lousy with grebes, which have apparently converged here in huge numbers for the winter.

Western grebe in Marina del Rey

Western grebe in Marina del Rey. As I told Audrey, the bird’s red eye is really pretty and also a clear indication of demonic possession.

Where the Streets Have No Name

Posted from Ojai, California at 6:53 pm, December 29th, 2013

Today ended up as a meandering journey through the hills and mountains of Southern California. Wake-up preceded the sunrise in the Carrizo Plain, and I wandered about in the early light enjoying the quiet. Following a short hike along the San Andreas Fault the path led in a roundabout way to the Tule Elk State Reserve, which was home to the last of the species when it was formed in 1932, and which has been the source of nearly all of the 4000 tule elk that today roam numerous locations throughout California. From there it was off to the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge, which is where much of the protection efforts for the California Condor have been focused. Sadly access to the refuge is closed to the public, and since no birds were visible from the highway I settled for enjoying the mountain scenery and the many hawks that managed to outsmart my photographic attempts.

From there all paths seemed to require crossing Los Angeles County, so despite the inner voice telling me to deal with the traffic and highways of LA and then visit the Salton Sea, I decided to make this year’s trip shorter than in years past and explored the backroads of the Los Padres National Forest while heading in a generally-homeward direction – we’ve got some surprisingly cool mountains within a two hour drive of the Culver City abode. Tonight’s sleeping place will either be back in my own bed, or in the back of the Subaru if an interesting option presents itself along the way.

Sunset over the Santa Barbara Channel

Sunset over the Santa Barbara Channel. Were I better with Photoshop and less conscientious about altering photos the towers on the mountain would not be in this photo any longer.

Next Services: 82 miles

Posted from Carrizo Plain National Monument at 6:37 pm, December 28th, 2013

It’s quiet here. Utterly still. I stood on a hillside this morning and could hear the footsteps of people walking on a trail more than a half mile away, and that was one of the few times that I was around other people. I probably needed to get away to a place like this one.

The Carrizo Plain protects one of the last undeveloped stretches of California grassland, a famous set of petroglyphs, the largest concentration of endangered plants and animals in California, and a stretch of the San Andreas fault that shifted nearly thirty feet during an earthquake in the 1800s. To my eyes the area looks like it needs time to recover from centuries of heavy grazing, but with the relatively recent designation as a national monument hopefully it will get there. As a travel destination it is suffering from the third straight dry year – Soda Lake, known as a good winter wetland spot, is a dry salt flat – but it’s still a great location for getting away from everyone. It seems bizarre to be only about one hundred miles from Los Angeles, but to feel like this is the absolute middle of nowhere. The roads here are almost all unpaved old ranch roads, so I spent the day roaming about before parking for the night in a corner of the park with a view of the plain and absolute silence, aside from the occasional bird flying by. This journal entry is being written from the back of the Subaru with stars blazing, the cell phone showing “No service”, and the nearest town an hour’s drive away.

Man Trip 2013

Posted from Paso Robles, California at 7:32 pm, December 27th, 2013

Audrey has dubbed the annual post-Christmas road-trip the “man-trip”, and this year’s adventure started off in much the same way as last year’s: a visit to the Cosumnes River Preserve followed by a sunrise trip to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. The Pacific Flyway is busy this time of year, and it’s invigorating for the soul to stand on the edge of a wetland while tens of thousands of ducks, geese and cranes are calling out.

A big part of the fun of these trips is that I generally have no idea where I’m going to end up, and while the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest was considered, the closure of Tioga Pass sent me in the opposite direction, and it looks like I may be spending some time roaming the Carrizo Plain. The area became a national monument in 2001, but shockingly since my road atlas is out-of-date it’s a green dot within California that I’ve somehow never visited, an oversight that will hopefully be corrected tomorrow.

Great blue heron

Great blue heron at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. He sat in the water thirty feet away so long as I stayed in my car, but the second the door opened he was gone.

Sandhill cranes at sunrise

Sandhill cranes at sunrise. The one on the left is bad at following.

Killdeer

Killdeer. After the heron experience I didn’t tempt fate by even thinking about exiting my vehicle.

Holidays

Posted from Paso Robles, California at 6:56 pm, December 27th, 2013

December totally flew by. Wow. Here’s the recap for everything prior to the current road trip:

I haven’t had to make the trek out to Boise since October, so work has consisted of the bedroom-to-kitchen commute, eight work hours that may or may not involve getting dressed, and the agonizing decision over what to eat for lunch – there is a good sushi restaurant that delivers in our neighborhood, which is a very, very dangerous option to have available. On paper, my life is extraordinarily good, and in reality it’s pretty swell, too.

Christmas and birthday gifts are usually something I do only when there’s something good to give, and 2013 was such a year – if you haven’t been to beardhead.com then you are a more mature person than me. The Holliday men spent Christmas Eve sporting new looks and laughing a lot. Aaron’s contribution to the madness was nerf dart guns, so Ma and Pa got to endure their 33 and 38 year old boys rampaging through the house with plastic guns and fake beards.

Christmas day saw Ma and Pa receive a new TV from the boys, and saw some very happy folks from craigslist getting the old TV – everyone won. Ma made a scrumtrillescent turkey dinner, and following that Pa nearly cracked a rib from laughing during a game of Balderdash – it got to the point where if anyone even began to read a definition he would go into spasms, so this game may need to be revisited frequently during future visits. Meanwhile, back in Culver City Audrey hosted her mom, sister, and three others in our fully-decorated house. I’m told the highlight of the meal was her pie with a likeness of Cthulhu made out of crust on top, since it’s not a Wiechman Christmas unless there is dough made into the shape of a human (or part thereof), animal, or mythical cosmic entity.

Post-Christmas, Ma and Pa took me to the Lafayette Reservoir to look for white pelicans since I’ve been chasing all over California trying to get a glimpse of these odd birds. After numerous road trips and no success, of course there were a dozen pelicans twenty minutes from my folks that were practically swimming up to people. Following the visit with the birds and a delicious lunch it was time to depart on the annual post-Christmas road trip, which barring surprises will be covered in subsequent entries.

Holliday family beard heads

The men of the Holliday family. Photo credit goes to Aaron.

Thanksgiving Recap

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:55 pm, December 1st, 2013

The Thanksgiving holiday started with Audrey and I making the long drive up to the Bay and paying a visit to my brother at his brand-new townhome. While it was distressing to see a guy who once scored three Turkey Bowl touchdowns with a busted head now enthusiastically discussing window coverings and throw rugs, he saved face somewhat by putting snowboarding videos on repeat on his new giant flatscreen. The following day we arrived at Ma & Pa’s, and Aaron and I immediately set off on a hike on Mt. Diablo followed by some basketball and a photo op on the giant digger that was parked next to the court. Ma did her usual stellar job with the Thanksgiving dinner, and pants had to be loosened before the night was over.

The next day Audrey and I set off for Moss Beach to see her friend Kris. Along the way we got to make a trip over the ridiculously cool new Bay Bridge, and while Audrey was better about containing her excitement than I was, I have no doubt that somewhere deep down inside her inner engineer was jumping and cheering. We paid a quick visit to the sea lions at Pier 39, checked into our posh room at the Seal Cove Inn, then joined her friends for drinks on the coast followed by dinner. Sadly, at some point towards the end of dinner the men in the brain sent a sudden signal that something had gone very wrong, and things reached defcon five just before I could pull into the hotel parking lot, and I had to make a mad dash to refund my dinner on the side of the road. Audrey spent the remainder of the evening with her friends, while I slept off the after-effects of my forced weight loss.

The following day was Audrey’s birthday, and after a fancy breakfast at the hotel we joined her on her annual birthday trip to the library before embarking on a tour of the peninsula. She flew home late that night, while I shacked up in the back of the Subaru and woke up before sunrise to head off for a return visit to the cranes, hawks, and geese at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge. That was followed by a quick trip to the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, and then lots of time to partake in the joy of stop-and-go Thanksgiving traffic on the long route back to LA.

California quail

California quail that showed up in the garden outside of our hotel room to greet Audrey for her birthday.

Black-necked stilt

Black-necked stilt at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge.

Scared the Children

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:10 pm, November 26th, 2013

Here’s a belated recap of the annual Halloween extravaganza (see also: 2012, 2005):

  • This year’s big addition was a well with images of a ghost projected into it – imagine the freaky angels at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but flying up from a well. Too many people walked by not realizing what was inside, but for those who looked it was pretty creepy.
  • Audrey added a new set of teeth to her costume. “They’re really horrific” was her enthusiastic endorsement after trying them on for the first time.
  • I again got the best job in the world as I was dressed in all black and stationed inside of our blacked-out entryway, with my sole responsibility being to be invisible, wait until someone got close, and then growl. At the end of the night we found a pile of candy next to where I was stationed – I apparently literally scared the candy out of a few people.
  • The proof that our efforts were worth it came early in the evening when a kid stood in our driveway for a good thirty seconds loudly repeating “it’s not worth the candy… it’s not worth the candy”. He didn’t make it to the door, but gets the honor of being a part of Scare the Children lore for years to come.
  • Others who participated in the scaring this year included a guy dressed as a clown with an axe (“that’s really disturbing” was the initial assessment), Audrey’s current boss who made a surprise appearance and was later found hovering in a tree over the sidewalk, her friend Monty who stood completely still, looking fake, and got a few screams when he reached out at folks walking by, longtime participants Gina and Shelly, Meghen in the coffin, an executioner who didn’t take kindly to the many kids who mistook him for a ninja, and Audrey’s friend Stephanie doing logistics.
  • Finally, in what may not have been the best move for building relations with the neighbors, our across-the-street neighbor came by and chatted with Stephanie at the door for three minutes before asking “where’s Ryan”. Unseen and six inches behind her, I whispered “Boo”. She immediately retreated back across the street, and word has it that “Ryan’s dead”.

If you haven’t “liked” the Scare the Children Facebook page then you should do so to ensure you don’t miss out on important future scaring updates.

Scare the Children 2013

That’s my girl.

The Holliday Timeline, Part 2

Posted from Culver City, California at 12:01 pm, November 23rd, 2013

Following the recap of events from 1975 through 1996, here’s a sampling of further major events during the second half of my lifetime. It’s weird how you sort of feel like things haven’t really changed, and then you look at what has happened and realize that computers and cell phones only showed up recently, while things that dominated everyday life for decades like Communism and Pan-American Airlines disappeared only a short time ago and now seem solely like subjects for the history books.

The 1990s

  • April 13, 1997 – Tiger Woods wins his first major golf championship at the Masters, setting records for youngest winner (21), lowest score (-18), and largest margin of victory (12 strokes).
  • May 11, 1997 – IBM’s Deep Blue computer beat chess grand master Gary Kasparov in a six game match, the first time that a computer defeated a chess world champion.
  • July 9, 1997 – Eleven years after being ousted as CEO of Apple Computer and only months after his return to the company, Steve Jobs is named interim CEO. At that time Apple was losing money and had to negotiate a $150 million investment from Microsoft; in 2012 the company would report a yearly profit of $41.66 billion on $156.5 billion in sales and would have $121.25 billion in cash on hand.
  • August 31, 1997 – Princess Diana dies after a high-speed car chase in Paris. Her funeral on September 6 was watched by over two billion people.
  • September 4, 1998 – Google is founded in Palo Alto by two Stanford PhD candidates.
  • November 25, 1998 – The first module of the International Space Station is launched into orbit from Russia. Humans take up permanent residence on November 2, 2000, meaning that for over thirteen years there has been a continuous human presence in space.
  • December 31, 1999 – The US transfers control of the Panama Canal to Panama after 85 years of American operation.

The 2000s

  • January 10, 2000 – America Online (AOL) announces an agreement to purchase Time Warner for $164 billion in what was, at that time, the largest-ever corporate merger. In 2002 the failing of AOL would result in a write-off of $99 billion, which was also a record for its time as the largest loss ever reported by a company.
  • July 25, 2000 – The Concorde crashes after take-off in Paris, leading to the end of supersonic passenger transport in 2003.
  • December 12, 2000 – Thirty-five days after the election, the Bush v Gore Supreme Court decision is announced, leading to George W. Bush being declared the winner of Florida by 537 votes (out of almost six million cast), and thus the next President of the United States.
  • January 15, 2001 – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit, launches.
  • September 11, 2001 – September 11 terrorist attacks.
  • October 7, 2001 – The War in Afghanistan begins.
  • October 23, 2001 – Apple introduces the iPod.
  • January 1, 2002 – Euro notes and coins go into circulation in France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Finland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Austria, Ireland and the Netherlands.
  • February 1, 2003 – Space Shuttle Columbia and its seven member crew is lost during re-entry after sustaining damage to its protective tiles during launch. This accident would lead to the end of the shuttle program in 2011.
  • March 19, 2003 – The Iraq War begins. US forces would seize Baghdad on April 9, but the war would continue until the last personnel left Iraq in December 2011.
  • February 4, 2004 – Facebook launches with membership initially limited to students of Harvard College.
  • June 21, 2004 – Spaceship One successfully completes the first privately funded human spaceflight.
  • December 26, 2004 – A magnitude 9.3 earthquake in the Indian Ocean spawns a massive tsunami that impacts countries around the world and kills over 180,000 people.
  • April 2, 2005 – Pope John Paul II dies. He is succeeded seventeen days later by Pope Benedict XVI.
  • August 29, 2005 – Hurricane Katrina makes landfall along the Gulf Coast, killing at least 1,833 people and doing $81 billion in damage.
  • January 9, 2007 – Apple introduces the iPhone; it goes on sale June 29, 2007.
  • September 15, 2008 – Lehman Brothers files for bankruptcy, a major catalyst of the Great Recession.
  • September 28, 2008 – The SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket reaches orbit, becoming the first privately developed space launch vehicle to do so.
  • January 20, 2009 – Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th president of the United States.
  • February 17, 2009 – President Obama signs a $787 billion stimulus package into law as an effort to address the Great Recession.
  • June 25, 2009 – Michael Jackson dies just before his 51st birthday, and just prior to a scheduled fifty show tour at London’s O2 Arena.

The 2010s

More Reason for Optimism

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:20 pm, October 30th, 2013

I wrote about rat eradication efforts on South Georgia Island back in March. While it is too soon to know for sure what the result of that effort will be (note: things look really good so far), an older effort is worth examining.

Rat Island, a ten square mile island in the Aleutian Islands, has had to be renamed.

Rats arrived on the island during a shipwreck in 1780, and since that time they have wiped out nearly all of the native bird life. In 2008 efforts were made to remove rats from the island, and today a once silent island is described as “…hardly recognizable among the cacophony of birds calling everywhere; it’s alive with bird fledglings – teals, eiders, wrens, sparrows, eagles, peregrine falcons, gulls, sandpipers.

As of today there have been over 1100 successful removals of invasive species from islands, including 500 rat removals, worldwide. I’ve seen firsthand how removal of invasive species impacts the native plants and animals in the Galapagos and on the Channel Islands, and hopefully some day I’ll get to see the results on South Georgia.

We live in a world where news about nature always seems to be negative, but there is reason for optimism. Invasive species removal continues on other islands, governments are beginning to look to things like dune, wetland, and floodplain restoration as a cost-effective way to combat flooding, obsolete dams are being torn down to increase fish stocks, and numerous other positive developments are going on around the world. Not all of the news is good, but there is definitely reason to think that the outlook for our future isn’t as bleak as the news might lead us to believe.

The Holliday Timeline, Part 1

Posted from Culver City, California at 12:01 am, October 30th, 2013

The world has changed a lot since I was born – in November 1975 no American craft had visited Mars, Mount St Helens was still intact, communism was very much a thing, no one knew what it meant to “use the Force”, and Michael Jordan was a twelve year old. While reading through Wikipedia’s yearly summaries of important events the following stood out – part two will follow at some point when there is time to review the next eighteen years.

The 1970s

The 1980s

  • May 18, 1980 – Mount St. Helens erupts.
  • April 12, 1981 – The first shuttle, Space Shuttle Columbia launches on its first orbital flight.
  • November 18, 1981 – IBM introduces the PC computer.
  • October 1, 1982 – Epcot Center opens in Orlando.
  • November 30, 1982 – Michael Jackson’s Thriller album is released.
  • January 3, 1983 – Kīlauea volcano begins erupting in Hawaii; the eruption continues today.
  • October 26, 1984 – Michael Jordan plays his first NBA regular season game, scoring 16 points against Washington.
  • March 1, 1985 – Mikhail Gorbachev becomes Secretary General of the Soviet Communist Party.
  • May 16, 1985 – The ozone hole is discovered by British scientists in Antarctica.
  • November 18, 1985 – Calvin and Hobbes debuts in 35 newspapers.
  • March 14, 1986 – Microsoft holds its initial public offering. By July 2010 the stock had risen to 288 times its IPO price.
  • April 26, 1986 – The Chernoybl nuclear reactor explodes, resulting in the worst nuclear power plant disaster of the twentieth century.
  • November 22, 1986 – Mike Tyson beats Trevor Berbick to become heavyweight champion.
  • March 24, 1989 – The Exxon Valdez runs aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, spilling 240,000 barrels of oil.
  • June 4, 1989 – The Tiananmen Square square protests end with thousands of casualties as the Chinese military clears the square after six weeks of occupation by students.
  • November 9, 1989 – Fall of the Berlin Wall.

The 1990s

  • April 24, 1990 – The Hubble Space Telescope is launched aboard Space Shuttle Discovery. Shortly after launch the telescope’s mirror is determined to be flawed, and it will not be fixed until a servicing mission in 1993.
  • November 13, 1990 – The first known web page is written.
  • January 16, 1991 – Operation Desert Storm begins with air strikes and eventually involves over 500,000 US troops.
  • December 4, 1991 – Pan American World Airways ceases operations after 64 years.
  • December 26, 1991 – The Soviet Union is formally dissolved by the Supreme Soviet.
  • May 22, 1992 – Johnny Carson’s final appearance as host of the Tonight Show.
  • October 31, 1992 – Pope John Paul II issues an apology, and lifts the edict of the Inquisition against Galileo Galilei.
  • June 12, 1994 – Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman are murdered outside the Simpson home in Los Angeles, California.
  • March 1, 1995 – Yahoo is founded.
  • September 4, 1995 – eBay is founded.
  • December 31, 1995 – The final Calvin and Hobbes comic strip is published.

I Get to Live Here

Posted from Culver City, California at 1:25 pm, October 20th, 2013

Less than two miles from the house is a shockingly good place for wildlife – birds, sea lions, dolphins, and random crawly things like crabs. These photos were all taken in past two months within walking distance of where I get to live.

Elegant Tern

An elegant tern that kindly stayed in focus.

Sandpipers

Sandpipers being cute.

Brown Pelican

Brown pelican taking a bath. At sunset. In really pretty light.

Black Oystercatcher

Black oystercatcher. He was picking these really colorful purple urchins out of the water and having a dinner of uni, but I didn’t photoghrasize that so good.

Willet

Willet. I’m embarrassed to admit how I remember this bird’s name, but yes, I hear them make a loud call and think of a Different Strokes reference.

The Foxes

Posted from Santa Barbara Channel, California at 3:41 pm, September 17th, 2013

Last day of the trip, and the best one by far. I woke up at 5:30 and went out to take another look at the squid and take in the stars, although unfortunately the latter were hidden by clouds. At around six we began a really pretty navigation around the east end of the island before embarking on my favorite hike thus far. With no wind (a first on this trip) and blue skies we set off along the sea cliffs near Scorpion Anchorage with an army of ravens making all manner of weird sounds to send us on our way. The views were spectacular, a peregrine falcon made a brief appearance, and we also saw our first island fox. The destination – the confusingly named Potato Harbor – was home to sheer sea cliffs of many colors and the sounds of sea lions echoing from below.

The return trip was via a slightly different route with the destination being what we had been advised was the best place in the entire island chain for seeing foxes – the campground. And sure enough, we arrived to find a fox sniffing around campsites. These foxes nearly went extinct within the last couple of decades, but heroic efforts led to one of the fastest recoveries in the history of the endangered species act. I followed one mangled old fellow around the campground for about an hour apparently without him caring at all – twice he wandered to within 10-20 feet of me.

The last activity of the trip was a snorkel in the kelp forest next to the pier, and in addition to a ton of decent-sized (1-2 foot) fish I saw three rays. The second ray swam right next to Audrey without her seeing it, prompting the girl to display her sad face. Luckily, a short time later a MASSIVE (3-4 foot) stingray swam by, and I made enough noise to get the girl’s attention. The stingray settled on the bottom, showing off for us for a bit before moving on.

The navigation back through the Santa Barbara Channel started out a bit rough but calmed noticeably, and I don’t think anyone refunded their lunch. As a last farewell the ocean sent us school after school of dolphin – for a good 15-20 minutes they were following along and playing in the bow wave, an experience that feels very akin to sharing pure joy with another animal as they leap and twirl.

We should be home later this evening, and while no further adventures are planned I’ve got three more days off to recover from these two excellent vacations.

Island Fox on Santa Cruz

Island Fox on Santa Cruz. This guy was a bit scroungy-looking and he was adept at staying out of the good photography light, but nevertheless still pretty cute.

Island Fox on Santa Cruz

Same fox (note the mangled ears) after digging up something that was apparently pretty tasty.

Common Dolphins in the Santa Barbara Channel

Common Dolphins in the Santa Barbara Channel. Any day spent with dolphins is a good day.

Squids look like fishes

Posted from Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park, California at 8:47 pm, September 16th, 2013

I slept ten hours last night but still woke up in time for sunrise. This may be an unprecedented sleep event.

This morning’s activity was a hike through a canyon on Santa Rosa island, aka the windiest island in the world (at least it seemed that way). Unlike yesterday we weren’t required to stay with the guide, so Audrey and I got to roam about on our own. The trail led along the beach, up through a canyon, and then over a ridgeline with incredible views and wind that was strong enough to nearly knock us down. It ended at a campground where they’ve had to build permanent windbreaks to prevent tents from blowing away.

Whether because of the wind, the sun, or something else I finished the trail feeling less than one hundred percent, so after the night of much sleeping I returned to the boat and took a two hour nap. The afternoon’s activity was snorkelling in the kelp with garibaldi and myriad other fish. Having only swum with tropical fish before I had no idea what I was seeing while swimming in the cold kelp forest, but nevertheless enjoyed it greatly. Back on the boat we watched the birds and a group of about one hundred sea lions chasing something that was probably delicious a few hundred feet from where we were anchored. The day’s final event began after the captain set up a floodlight on the side of the boat and thousands of small squid came up from the depths to check us out.

The Channel Islands are an interesting place – the land is pretty bleak, but the ocean is full of life and amazing to explore. Tomorrow we’ll do some hiking and hopefully get another chance for snorkelling before braving the choppy ride back to Santa Barbara.

Santa Cruz Island Sunset

Santa Cruz Island Sunset. The tiny black dot is a pelican – they were being highly uncooperative despite repeated requests to come in closer and thus provide a nice silhouette against the setting sun.

Nametags

Posted from Santa Rosa Island, Channel Islands National Park, California at 7:28 pm, September 15th, 2013

When Audrey signed us up for this trip to the Channel Islands we had very few details about what to expect, although knowing we would have three days on a boat in the islands was a strong enough selling point to get us to send in our deposits. We were guessing that the trip would be fairly free-form, and that the trip participants might skew older and female, and so far both of those predictions appear to be true. Luckily, while some fears have materialized – nametags were distributed on the first night – as yet we haven’t had to sit in a circle and say our name, home town, and one thing we’re most excited about for the trip, and my current sense of things is that getting to live on a boat and visit the islands for several days will more than outweigh any disadvantages of group travel.

After getting on the boat last night and almost immediately heading to bed, today’s activities started early, with many passengers waking up a couple of hours after departure when the seas got rough at around 5:30. For the next two hours a parade of people visited the side of the ship, including the boat’s two cooks, although Audrey managed to keep things down while I suffered no ill effects and ate a hearty breakfast whilst surrounded by bodily fluids and carnage. Our first stop was the very remote and seldom-visited San Miguel Island, home to 30,000 pinnipeds, although unfortunately they mostly stick to the extreme northwest tip of the island and thus can only be accessed via a sixteen mile round-trip hike. Our visit consisted of a five mile hike to the top of the island, featuring various birds, petrified tree stumps, and steady wind and fog. On the rare clear days I suspect the views would be incredible, but even with the rough weather this was still an enjoyable hike.

Once back on the boat fresh brownies awaited as we motored off to spend the evening anchored in a calm harbor at Santa Rosa island.

$25 Sliders

Posted from 35,000 feet over Wyoming at 6:33 pm, September 13th, 2013

I always consider it a sign of a good vacation when you return home completely exhausted, and by that measure this trip has been an excellent one. We’ve got a one day intermission before we head off on phase two, and both Audrey and I will sleep well. There should also be some time to review photos and post these journal entries, although time and internet access will be limited on the next adventure so entries may again get posted a few days after they are written.

For our last day I dragged Audrey out of our fancy room at 6AM and off to Moose Wilson Road in Grand Teton National Park, which numerous people had said was an amazing spot for bears and moose. Unfortunately only one bull moose made a fleeting appearance today, but it was still a pretty drive in the clearing fog, and we emerged at the base of the Tetons with some dramatic views of the mountains.

After a morning of photography we checked out of our fancy hotel and headed over to the ridiculously fancy Amangani Resort – I’m not quite ready to shell out four figures per night for a hotel room, so we settled for having lunch while enjoying their views and decor. After a week of animal watching it felt slightly wrong to eat them, but Audrey nevertheless had a bison short rib sandwich while I went for the lamb, bison and elk sliders – there were slight pangs of guilt, but the food was still pretty damn delicious.

After another animal-free journey up Moose Wilson Road we went for a short walk at Jenny Lake, then hopped on the plane for the flight home. I’m ready for a shower and a shave, and should have just enough time to get myself looking respectable again before we drive up the coast to catch our boat tomorrow night.

Grand Teton summit

Grand Teton summit.

“Are You Serious?”

Posted from Jackson, Wyoming at 10:00 pm, September 12th, 2013

The last day in Yellowstone, and both Audrey and I were again up at 6:30 and off to see the animals. A repeat trip up to the park’s north border yielded a bighorn sheep and a herd of elk, including two bulls engaged in a competition to figure out who had the biggest rack. Following breakfast we roamed around the weird terraces created by the bubbling water of Mammoth Hot Springs. Thereafter it was time to head out of the park, and we embarked on the long drive south, waving at the bison and elk along the way (literally).

It was an intermittently stormy day, so when we arrived in the Tetons the skies were pretty dramatic, and many photo stops were made along the way. At nearly 8PM we pulled into our fancy hotel in Jackson, and after checking in headed downstairs for a drink. When the bartender asked for my order I told him that since Audrey had just ordered a tequila and I couldn’t possibly get anything more manly than that, I’d go the other direction and have the raspberry chocolate cheesecake martini. He paused, looked at me sideways, and asked “Are you serious?”. I was, and it was delicious.

Audrey at Elk Ranch Flats

Audrey looking pretty as she photographs some Tetons.

Trees at Sunset, Grand Tetons

Backlit trees at sunset. Yes, after a day of photographing some of the most dramatic mountains in the world, I looked at all of my photos, hung my head in shame, and decided to post a picture of trees.

Everyone Who Saw a Grizzly Bear, Raise Your Hand

Posted from Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming at 9:36 pm, September 11th, 2013

Today was the day of many animals. Wake-up at 6:30 was followed immediately by a drive through the northwest corner of the park. Audrey was half-in-the-bag as we communed with elk and sandhill cranes. Following breakfast ninety minutes were allotted for the trip’s first downtime, and then we departed for the park’s north entrance, visiting with more elk, a handful of pronghorn, and a few bighorn sheep along the way. The elk were particularly good sports, with a herd of a dozen or so playing in the river while the resident bull kept tabs on everyone. We then returned to town, where due to its green lawns the park headquarters is an attractive home to a small herd of elk, including a massive bull who attacked no less than five cars this morning (“he got ‘em good” is the word on the street). Park rangers had dutifully cordoned off the elk behind wooden barriers labeled “Event”, so we viewed these city dwellers from a safe distance. With the preliminaries thus completed, the real safari began.

The destination was the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone’s northeast corner, but we stopped numerous times along the way, including at an overlook where we spotted a herd of several hundred bison in the valley below. Upon entering Lamar a pronghorn greeted us at the side of the road, and after we had stopped he ambled directly up to me – I got back in the car to get out of his way, but he was still almost close enough to pet. He then posed for what are likely to be the best photos I’ll ever take of a pronghorn. And this encounter was just the beginning.

Continuing through the valley bison were everywhere, often standing just a few yards off the road. Eventually we stopped at a spot with an expansive view and got out the binoculars to see what we could find – perhaps a hundred bison, maybe fifty pronghorn, and a dozen cranes were the result of that survey. At around 5:30, with the sun beginning to sink, we headed back to a pull-out where earlier a couple had told us there was a nearby buffalo carcass that had attracted bears during the past two nights. As the time went by more and more people appeared, many of them with spotting scopes in hand. After just over an hour of chatting with the many hardcore wildlife enthusiasts who had gathered, I spotted some black dots moving on a far-off hill, and shortly thereafter a lady with a spotting scope began yelling “they’re on the carcass!” For the following hour we watched a mother grizzly and three large cubs feast on buffalo, with a brief interlude while she fought off what was either a pair of wolves or coyotes. Eventually she wandered off, and through binoculars and scopes we followed the family back into the woods. A brilliant sunset, a drive home in the dark featuring deer and elk, and a delicious and most-definitely girly drink (the “Huckleberry Princess”) finished off an excellent day.

Pronghorn Antelope

Hats off to this pronghorn for posing against a perfect background.

Pronghorn Antelope

I’m not sure what the protocol is for having a wild animal approach within a couple of feet, so as he walked a bit too close I snapped a photo and retreated back into the car; this photo was not taken at maximum zoom.

Lamar Valley Sunset

Lamar Valley sunset. Awesome end to an awesome day.

Porkchop the Magic Geyser

Posted from Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming at 9:45 pm, September 10th, 2013

We’re going to bed with the sounds of a bull elk bugling a few hundred yards away. This is a good vacation.

This morning’s wake-up call was at 6:30, and even though all activities are optional Audrey joined me for a stroll through the Upper Geyser Basin. We had it mostly to ourselves as the mist cleared, and spent time photographing Morning Glory Pool with two ospreys keeping us company. Following that adventure we ate breakfast at the Inn and then departed Old Faithful, embarking on a tour of many paint pots as we visited Fountain Paint Pots and Artist Paint Pots and their boiling muddy mud. The sound those things make is strikingly similar to what one hears two hours after a baked bean dinner, and Audrey did a lot of eye rolling while I did a lot of giggling during the mid-day excursions.

After the tour of many paint pots it was time for the visiting of much falling water, with photo stops at Firehole Falls and Gibbon Falls; my streak of ugly waterfall pictures continues, but Audrey got some nice ones. With the waterfall options exhausted we hit Norris Geyser Basin, the park’s oldest and hottest. This basin is far-and-away the most other-worldly, and after several miles of strolling the camera’s memory cards were full and we were composing ballads dedicated to Porkchop the magic geyser – the sun was strong today and may have scrambled our brains moreso than usual.

Following our departure from Norris the trip was first interrupted by a bison strolling down the double-yellow of the road and passing within a foot or two of the car, and then by a bugling elk who stopped traffic in front of the Mammoth Hot Springs. After arriving in Mammoth and eating dinner we walked back to our cabin in the dark with more bugling greeting us – apparently the resident stud is out prospecting for additional lady friends. Tomorrow is another animal day, with another early start planned, so hopefully the wildlife gods will smile down upon us yet again.

Bison in Upper Geyser Basin

This is the stock bison photo that everyone who visits Yellowstone takes, with the one exception being that this photo is of Stumpy the tail-less bison.

Porcelain Basin in Norris Geyser Basin

Like most photos I take, this one doesn’t come close to doing justice to its subject – the Porcelain Basin in Norris Geyser Basin truly feels like something from another planet.

Gurgling Magma

Posted from Old Faithful Inn, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming at 9:57 pm, September 9th, 2013

It’s EXTREMELY late by the standards of this trip, so this journal entry may be somewhat abbreviated.

We’re staying on the geyser side of the park, but the animals mostly reside on the opposite side, so today we got up early-ish (6:30) and headed off to the Hayden and Lamar valleys. The weather was nice, the scenery was tremendous, and elk, bison and pronghorn were out in abundance. Other sightings included an osprey chick on its nest, a few zillion geese, what we assumed were cranes (they were far off, but the shape was right), and some bubbling thermal features that looked scary enough that “do not touch” signs were not a necessity. There was also some confusion early in the day when we pulled over at a sign labeled “Sulfur Cauldron” and encountered a coned-off vent sending a wisp of steam up from the asphalt, but things were clarified quickly thereafter when we realized there was a MASSIVE sulfur spring sending plumes of steam skyward just a few hundred feet away.

Despite the fact that we’re seeing most of the wildlife from a car traveling on a paved road, one of the great things about Yellowstone is that when you’re here you feel like you’re seeing America as it existed 150 years ago. The trees haven’t been logged, there aren’t roads, mines or buildings off in the distance, and the ecosystem is more-or-less what’s it’s supposed to be. While three million visitors each year obviously means that the “pristine” feel is somewhat of an illusion, it’s nevertheless quite inspiring to get at least a glimpse back in time at something that is otherwise mostly gone forever.

The Loon of Lewis Lake

Posted from Old Faithful Inn, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming at 8:13 pm, September 8th, 2013

We woke up in the Tetons and Audrey and I are now sitting on the third floor of the Old Faithful Inn lobby under the 92-foot high log ceiling and with its 500-ton, 85-foot tall stone fireplace as our view; life could be worse.

The great vacation of 2013 truly got underway today with a meandering drive through the forests, canyons and mountains of Yellowstone and up to the geyser basins, where Audrey and I made a pilgrimage to the Grand Prismatic Spring. The overlook we hiked to isn’t on the maps, but also apparently isn’t a place that the park discourages visiting, and while she wasn’t happy with me initially after forcing her to hike up the steep hillside (no swearing was involved, but if looks could kill then this journal entry would have been written from the other side of the clouds), Audrey later admitted that the views of this unbelievable natural feature were most definitely worth the exertion.

It’s been a while since I’ve had an extended period to just go out and meander in nature, and the following days should be a much-needed chance to refresh the soul – I can’t (and shouldn’t) complain about my work situation, but day after day in front of a laptop doesn’t always leave a person feeling like they are living life to its fullest. Tomorrow’s plans for soul restoration include searching for animals on the east side of the park – aside from a lone bison the beasties have been surprisingly elusive thus far. A late afternoon thunderstorm cut the day short today, but tomorrow the weather forecast is for sun and the plan is to head to Hayden Valley, so photos of critters should accompany future journal entries.

Grand Prismatic Spring

Grand Prismatic Spring – we had a much more dramatic and complete view than the (tiny) people on the boardwalk at its edge.

VACATION !!!!!

Posted from Jackson Hole Airport, Wyoming at 8:35 pm, September 7th, 2013

Audrey sent me an email this morning asking if my lodging last night “had wheels”. Yes, yes it did. And it also had an awesome view of the stars through the car’s moonroof.

The beginning of the vacation was delayed for a bit when word came in that the company’s web site was crashing, and since crashes are bad I stayed at the office to help resolve the situation until about 7PM Friday night. This issue occurred while Bodybuilding was celebrating the grand opening of their new headquarters, so the joy of dealing with a site issue was enhanced by having visitors and their many children roaming the office. Once the problem was finally found I headed out to my rental car, and I won’t be writing or thinking about work again for two weeks.

Audrey is flying into Jackson Hole to meet me, so I drove down from Boise to pick her up and am currently writing this from the airport parking lot. The stops along the way were myriad – the route from Boise to Jackson is a pretty drive – but the most notable stop was at Craters of the Moon National Monument, where some improvised spelunking was done (improvised = me, a Maglite, and no idea what I was doing). There are four lava tubes open for exploration, but Boy Scout Cave was the day’s winner. The entrance to that cave is a squeeze around boulders, but the cave then opens up and extends for several hundred feet. It’s cold enough to see your breath, there are tiny crystals on the walls, and when I shut off my flashlight the darkness was so complete that eventually my brain started manufacturing flashes of light that didn’t actually exist. Starting the trip off in a cave while experiencing trippy mental mirages seems like winning strategy.

Tomorrow we’ll begin our five days in Yellowstone, so odds are that a photo of an animal or two may be forthcoming.

Craters of the Moon landscape

Craters of the Moon landscape. Because lava is hard to photograph I took pictures of flowers with lava far, far away in the background.

Self-portrait in Beauty Cave

Outside of the entrance to Beauty Cave. I go on vacations and spelunk and stuff.

Giving Immunity Necklaces to Legislators

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:30 pm, August 31st, 2013

I enjoy following politics, and enjoy looking back at old journal entries about political issues, but I also try to avoid writing too much about politics in this journal since it’s a subject that tends to evoke a visceral reaction in a lot of people. People have strong opinions on a lot of subjects, but politics and religion seem to be the two subjects where differences of opinion too often lead to arguments rather than discussions.

That caveat aside, this journal entry is a hopefully non-controversial, and very random, brainstorm of one possible way to address the fact that Congress seems to be making a mess of things. It’s not really a viable solution, but is a fun thought experiment that might generate further (civil) discussion on how to improve the current system.

Some background

The upcoming deadlines for passing a budget (important!) and raising the debt limit (much, much, MUCH more important!) are two highly visible instances where Congress seems to be unable to do even its most basic job. After reading this Josh Barro article I’m not as worried that Congress will fail to raise the debt limit and thus plunge us back into economic chaos similar to 2008, but the fact that one has to worry whether the US government will endanger the US economy is a sign of significant problems with the current system. Our Congress should be an example of the best and brightest minds coming together to do great things, rather than a collection of angry people fighting with one another while barely managing to keep the system functional.

As an engineer, any time there is a problem I wonder how it could be fixed. Following standard engineering practices, the first thing to do is to identify the primary source of the problem. After not-nearly-enough thought, I would posit that the US Constitution did a great job of building in checks and balances to our system of government, but it failed to account for political parties, much less a two-party system that incentivizes “supporting the team” over focusing on the merits of specific issues. There are other issues (money in politics, difficulties in scaling representative democracy for a nation that has grown hundreds of times larger, etc), but a very strong argument can be made that it is the tribalism of the two-party system that is most often the impediment to a smooth-running legislative process.

The Ryan Plan

To solve this issue, some reward would need to be introduced to ensure that the most effective, respected lawmakers are focused first and foremost on making the government run well, and that they are rewarded more for being good legislators than they are for being good party members. Note that while elections are supposed to fulfill that purpose, unfortunately our system is heavily impacted by voter apathy, the influence of money, name recognition, and other factors that have little to do with a legislator’s competency. Since the premise of this journal entry is that any option is open for discussion, and reminding anyone still reading that I haven’t had a ton of time to think this through, I offer a plan that allows the best legislators to face re-election less often. This plan is very loosely inspired by another dysfunctional tribal system: that of the TV show Survivor.

Proceeding from the premise that the incentives for lawmakers are too far skewed towards promoting their party interests, any solution must provide an even greater incentive for putting aside party interests in cases where they conflict with the national interests. Since politicians are most interested in their own re-election, why not take a page out of Survivor and its “immunity” challenges and reward the most effective lawmakers with another term without having to face re-election? In both Congress and Survivor, what individuals fear most is being voted off the island, and thus immunity from ejection is the biggest incentive one can possibly offer.

How it would work:

First, some broad principles. This proposal should be created in a way that ensures legislators still have to go before voters, but it would allow the most effective legislators to do so less often. Second, it needs to be structured in such a way that “most effective” really does mean legislators who do the best job of legislating, rather than simply rewarding those with the longest tenure or highest party rank; in the same way that rankings are developed for schools, doctors, and myriad other things, we should be able to identify and reward the best lawmakers. With those disclaimers out of the way, here are some rough thoughts on how this proposal could work:

  • Each election cycle a non-partisan office (similar to the CBO) would be responsible for creating a nomination list of the most effective legislators, with the list to include 30% of the legislators up for re-election, divided in proportion to party. As an example, for the 2014 election that would mean:
      Democrats up for re-election Democrats to be nominated Republicans up for re-election Republicans to be nominated
    House 201 201 * 0.3 = 60 234 234 * 0.3 = 70
    Senate 21 21 * 0.3 = 6 14 14 * 0.3 = 4

    Factors to consider when developing this list might include things like the legislator’s effectiveness in passing legislation, the legislator’s approval ratings in their district, their ability to find innovative solutions to legislative problems, etc.

  • From those candidates identified by the non-partisan office, each house of Congress would then be responsible for narrowing down the list by a further one-third (representing 20% of the legislators up for re-election), again in proportion to party.
      Democrats up for re-election Democrats exempt from re-election Republicans up for re-election Republicans exempt from re-election
    House 201 201 * 0.2 = 40 234 234 * 0.2 = 46
    Senate 21 21 * 0.2 = 4 14 14 * 0.2 = 3

    The final list would need to be a compromise arrived at by both parties, and would need to pass with a two-thirds majority to ensure there was broad support from both parties. This process would ensure that the parties still had some say in approving or rejecting individuals that were of particular interest.

  • A Senator could not be exempt from re-election for two election cycles in a row, so even the best Senator would still have to face re-election each twelve years. A House member could not be exempt from re-election for three election cycles in a row, so a stellar House member would still face re-election every six years.
  • A recall process could be set up for cases where voters in a district were unhappy with this process, although the need for a recall should be very, very rare if the non-partisan office did its job correctly.

There are clear holes in this proposal, and the logistical challenges of trying to implement it make it almost impossible – a Constitutional amendment would be needed, and undoubtedly groups would complain about reducing the “voice of the people” – but if it was implemented it would lessen the reward for legislators who merely complain the loudest, and give legislators a chance to actually earn re-election by building coalitions to get solutions implemented. As a side benefit, the best legislators would need to spend less time fundraising and campaigning, and could instead focus on doing their jobs as lawmakers. With less need to focus on fundraising, this approach might also help to address some of the issues related to money in politics, although any such impact would likely be limited and would probably be better addressed via legislation.

This proposal is just a random idea that occurred to me while trying to come up with a third journal entry topic, and was a fun way to engage in political discussion while (hopefully) not offending anyone’s sensibilities. I’d be interested in other crazy ideas that people might have, and will offer two bonus points for anyone who can link their idea with a popular TV show or movie, or three bonus points if the movie is Forrest Gump. Meanwhile, unless October comes and the debt ceiling isn’t raised, this should be my last political post for a while and I’ll return to writing journal entries about bobcats and Steve Martin.

August Recap Part 2

Posted from Culver City, California at 11:03 pm, August 28th, 2013

Following the wedding, the concert, and the working, August got a bit more nature-y.

Aaron had two bobcat sightings on Mt. Diablo recently, and since I didn’t want to be the only Holliday child not to see a bobcat in 2013 we did a couple of twilight hikes during the Bay Area visit. After some turkeys, bats and a few deer, the bobcat made an appearance on the trail ahead of us. You haven’t seen an annoyed cat until you interrupt a bobcat on his nightly rounds, but despite the attitude we were both pretty stoked at the find. The next night we took another hike in the same place, and while the bobcat stayed hidden the turkeys and bats were out again, and we also managed to spot a skunk and a tarantula. With Aaron having spotted the tarantula (two points) I negotiated for five points if I could get it to walk across my hand. The evening’s final score: Ryan 6, Aaron 3.

With a full weekend available for the drive home, the trip back to LA was via the scenic route. I’ve done a lot of road trips through the Sierras, but after scanning the map realized I’d never been through Sonora Pass and set off for the second-highest mountain pass in the Sierra Nevadas. It’s been far too long since this grown man slept in the back of a car, so after a late-afternoon bushwhack up a small peak the evening was spent sprawled out at high elevation in an automobile. The next morning the road led over the Sierras and to the ghost town of Bodie. During the gold rush days Bodie was a den of sin and hard-living, but today the sin has mostly gone elsewhere and the California park service maintains the town in a state of “arrested decay”. Another man might have walked through the deserted streets pretending to be a cowboy, but I’m 37 and clearly too mature for such shenanigans.

After leaving the ghosts the highway led to Mono Lake, and beyond that a pilgrimage was made to Galen Rowell’s Mountain Light photo gallery in Bishop; his photos are some of my favorites of all time. After that it was a straight shot south to LA, but Mother Nature intervened to make things interesting – a dust storm brought visibility down to almost nothing for a short time, and that was immediately followed by a lightning storm that struck a town next to the highway, setting something ablaze. Lightning has been rare during my time in California, so to not only see a huge storm but to also see it set a fire was pretty insane.

There are two weeks of vacation scheduled for September, so journal entries should be plentiful as Audrey and I head out on a couple of (brief) adventures, and provided UPS delivers on time they will be done with a new camera in hand.

Bristlecone Pine near Sonora Pass

I decided to do some hiking in the high mountains, and pulled off the road by a smallish granite dome. My trailblazing was less-than-impressive, and I emerged three hours later with cut feet, torn pants, and this photo.

Bodie Ghost Town in the Eastern Sierra

The ghost town of Bodie. The park guide notes that “by 1879 Bodie boasted a population of about 10,000 and was second to none for wickedness, badmen, and ‘the worst climate out of doors’“.

Mono Lake Tufa Towers

The tufa towers of Mono Lake. These should be underwater, but diversions for the city of LA have dropped the level of Mono Lake by more than thirty feet.

August Recap Part 1

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:08 pm, August 27th, 2013

As expected, August was a month of much excitement. So much excitement, in fact, that it warrants two entries for the summary, which is a good thing given that it’s the 27th and I still need to write three entries to meet the monthly quota.

The previously mentioned wedding in Santa Barbara was all kinds of fancy, but your humble author was most impressed by the five red-headed woodpeckers hanging out in the palm trees above the bridal party. Another highlight was watching a bunch of engineers on the dance floor – after some unfortunate experiences in my early twenties I’ve learned that dance music and engineering degrees should never be combined, so Audrey and I stayed on the sidelines and enjoyed observing the carnival of awkwardness. Luckily we also got a few minutes to catch up with my very, very busy former roommate and his new bride, something that numerous wedding guests agreed is extremely tough to do these days given his other commitments.

Speaking of all kinds of awesome, Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers was an insanely good concert – if they are playing anywhere near you then you should most definitely go to there and see the things. After an opening by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band featuring their giant, prancing tuba player, Steve Martin took the stage. When you start off by bragging about how you’re going to perform a song “that you have completely memorized”, and follow that up with some ridiculously good bluegrass, amazing harmonies, and grammy winning band, you’ve got my attention. Bring in Edie Brickell to sing some songs with lyrics so poignant that all the girls cried, and then strum the banjo at about a million miles an hour, and Ryan is a happy boy.

The month of many events continued with a trip up to the Bay Area for a week working from Berkeley. In addition to single-handedly reducing the productivity of all of my co-workers by at least thirty percent during our office hours, the group headed out on the Bay for a cruise from Berkeley to Tiburon, past the Golden Gate, along the San Francisco waterfront, and then under the new Bay Bridge. While a romantic cruise with a bunch of software engineers isn’t something that’s on my bucket list, it was still a really great evening.

Bay Bridge Self-anchored Self-Suspension Span

This is either a neat photo of the soon-to-be-opened self-anchored suspension span of the new Bay Bridge, or a really, really terrible picture of the moon over San Francisco Bay.

Photos of Iceland

Posted from Boise, Idaho at 11:08 pm, July 31st, 2013

Five years ago this month my dad and I were in Iceland taking pretty pictures of pretty things. I’ve still not managed to process most of the photos from that trip, much less get them online in a gallery, but here are a few that seemed nice to look at as I was browsing through them tonight.

Waterfall on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Lesson #1 on this trip was that rain and generally crappy weather (both of which Iceland provides in large quantities) is ideal for photographing moving water.

Skip on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula

The Skipper modelling typical Icelandic beachwear.

Razorbills at Latrabjarg

Razorbills at Latrabjarg.

July 2013

Posted from Boise, Idaho at 10:05 pm, July 29th, 2013

Here’s the recap for the month:

  • Audrey is in charge of the 4th of July (I get Thanksgiving), and this year decided to invite the neighbors over for a barbecue before walking down to the Marina for fireworks. Despite a marine layer that partially obscured the fireworks it was a decidedly fun evening, and especially cool since we live close enough to walk to the Marina and thus avoid the horrid traffic.
  • Audrey’s next big social event was getting everyone together to go to the Hollywood Bowl. In an effort to promote culture without confusing me completely we attended the latest incarnation of the LA Philharmonic showing Bugs Bunny cartoons while playing the music live. Beyond seeing “Kill da Wabbit” performed by a world-renowned orchestra, a highlight of the night occurred during the national anthem when the four professional singers and four choir members in our group belted out an impromptu harmony, causing those seated nearby to begin looking around to find out where the singing was coming from, and to then offer an ovation when the last note was sung. Incidentally, the Hollywood Bowl is another place that will eventually make it onto my list of reasons why LA can be a pretty awesome place to live.
  • The month concluded with some friends getting married. While at most weddings having groomsmen in full Scottish attire would have been the best part of the event, for this wedding the highlight was the music. Since they’re both singers a significant portion of their friends are also singers, so in lieu of wedding gifts they asked people to sing at the wedding. The wedding choir included somewhere around fifty people who perform in everything from church choirs to the LA Master Chorale, and after three rehearsals the result was a performance of eight(?) amazing pieces of music; it may have been the most impressive musical event I’ve ever seen in a church.

Things should stay lively through August, with a work trip to Boise this week, a wedding in Santa Barbara this weekend, another trip to the Bowl next week, and numerous other hopefully-journal-worthy activities throughout the month.

Bugs Bunny at the Hollywood Bowl

You don’t get classier than a live orchestra, the Hollywood Bowl, a beautiful evening, and Elmer Fudd.

A Day in the Life

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:27 pm, July 23rd, 2013

During every notable vacation I try hard to do a daily journal entry, but at home few days are exciting enough to warrant their own entry. However, having just read through some journal entries from about ten years ago, writing one entry that captures a snapshot of what daily life is like right now might be an interesting thing to re-read many years from now. Warning to those who continue reading: currently daily life really doesn’t warrant its own journal entry.

  • Today the alarm went off at 7:30, at which time I crawled out of bed and wandered into the kitchen, firing up the two laptops sitting on the table. The birds were making a racket outside, Audrey was still asleep, and the morning news wasn’t making much sense pre-coffee.
  • At 8:00 the workday started with a daily status call. With the rest of the bodybuilding.com team on speakerphone I stumbled through an update on yesterday’s progress and today’s plans, after which I settled in for the workday.
  • With the coffee beginning to clear out the brain fog it was time to start on the day’s tasks. The morning involved helping people out with a random series of issues (loading some test data on a machine, answering some questions, chasing an issue in production for the business) and reviewing and testing some new code I’d written that changes the logic in the site’s shopping cart. The latter task required a fair amount of focus, since a screw-up could very well lead to revenue being lost in quantities that I can barely begin to fathom; with great power comes great responsibility.
  • Another status call followed, with the highlight being a quick discussion about “snacks on the catamaran”. After that it was a quick rush out to Tender Greens to grab a salad and sandwich (and a homemade pop tart because I couldn’t resist the impulse dessert). I got back just in time to call in to a meeting while simultaneously responding to three different people’s questions in various chat windows.
  • The afternoon was mostly filled with reviewing documentation and code related to the multi-language search capabilities of the ATG software that this project uses. In layman’s terms, I read a lot of PDFs, searched through code, and pestered teammates in an effort to build a plan for allowing someone in Brazil to search the site for “proteína em pó”.
  • After yet another meeting, the day finished up with a series of failed attempts to reproduce a bug that has been seen intermittently in the QA environments. In this case I got to play scientist, proposing a theory of what might be going wrong, figuring out a way to test that theory via creation of specific data or code changes, and then going back to square one when my theory didn’t pan out. I am not a good scientist.
  • Work was followed by an excessively long nap – one of the neighborhood dogs has a lovely deep baritone bark that carries forever, and has taken up the hobby of barking non-stop for 5-10 minutes every two hours on random nights. Apparently my sleep schedule has gone all wonky as a result.
  • A ride on my Lance Armstrong stationary bike while catching up on the day’s news and then crashing in the living room to write a journal entry concluded the activities for today. Around midnight it will be time for bed, with the cycle starting again tomorrow morning.

After spending much of 2002-2005 playing, it has now been about eight years of working steadily. While work days pay well, as this journal entry demonstrates they are slightly less fulfilling than those spent trekking around the Antartic or snorkeling in the Galapagos.

A Journal Entry About SPACESHIPS!!!!

Posted from Culver City, California at 11:50 am, June 30th, 2013

It’s not a secret that I think Elon Musk’s three companies (SpaceX, Tesla Motors and Solar City) are three of the most exciting businesses out there, and that each is likely to radically change the world for the better. Enough has been written about Tesla lately, but two items of great excitement with respect to SpaceX haven’t gotten a ton of attention.

First is their efforts towards a more reusable rocket. As Elon Musk has put it, space travel today is comparable to airline travel if you had to throw away the plane after each trip – most of the reason that space launches are so expensive is that you either don’t get the vehicle back after launch (most rockets), or when you do it takes so much work to get it back into flight-worthy condition that there isn’t any cost savings (the space shuttle). SpaceX originally planned on recovering their rockets in the ocean using parachutes, but when that proved infeasible they moved to a vertical takeoff and landing model. Here’s a video of a test of SpaceX’s ten story take-off and landing vehicle rising 250 meters into the air, then landing vertically. They’ll be testing this system on actual rockets returning from space starting later this year, with a goal of being able to reliably land and re-use the rocket in a few years time.

Second, they are planning on a test launch of their new Falcon Heavy vehicle in the coming year. If you need to put 117,000 pounds into low earth orbit, this will be the only vehicle that can do it, and combined with its lower launch costs could create all sorts of new options for satellites (for comparison, the Delta IV Heavy is the current largest rocket on the market, and it can carry around 50,000 pounds). Even more exciting, this will be the first rocket since the Saturn V moon rocket with that amount of power.

It’s sad that after advancing from airplanes to moon rockets in under two decades our exploration of space has seemed to stagnate for fifty years, but it’s hugely exciting to be on the precipice of another major evolution of travel beyond the planet’s atmosphere.

Who, What, When, Where

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:30 pm, June 27th, 2013

Here’s all that’s new since the last status update:

  • Proving that at age thirty-seven I am truly a grown up, I called a plumber and got a new water heater installed after the old one died. No nineteen year old is even thinking of hot water heaters, much less bugging the installer with stupid questions about efficiency and reliability as he’s installing it.
  • Audrey and I actually went out and saw TWO movies in one month, which may be a record. Reviews: Star Trek was excellent entertainment, and I even got to make a starfleet insignia and wear it so that Audrey could brag about how cool I was. Man of Steel was average. I wanted it to be great, and you could see how much potential there was in what they were going for with the whole “what is my place in the world” thing, but I never really felt like I cared that much about any of the characters, and as a result it didn’t really matter who was super-punching who at any given moment. Hopefully this series is like Batman, where a lackluster first film is merely setup for an amazing second film.
  • In another stunning example of grownup behavior Audrey and I joined some friends for a fancy dinner at the Getty Museum (side note: the Getty will be near the top of the eventual “great things in LA” list). Despite being a high-end restaurant, there was only one fork to deal with so the meal was completed without any truly embarrassing mistakes.
  • Our friend Greg, who was an early buyer of the Tesla Model-S, invited us to join him at Tesla’s recent announcement about battery swapping. The event was set up like a party, with lights, drinks, many hundreds of well-heeled attendees, and techo music blaring (comment from JB: “I keep telling Elon to let up on the techno but he loves that shit”). The main event was an Apple-style demonstration of a Tesla driving up on stage, the battery pack being automatically replaced from underneath, and the car driving off fully-charged ninety seconds later. I’ve posted about why I’m so impressed with Tesla’s engineering and strategy before, but it will be interesting to see what the next reason people come up with to disparage them will be now that the “no one wants to wait thirty minutes to charge the car during a roadtrip” issue has been addressed.
  • Finally, following the monthly pilgrimage to Boise, we met some friends for a birthday celebration at Mar Vista Lanes. The music and disco lights came on at ten, and while I may have scored the most points, the clear winner of the evening was Brett and his magical (and intoxicating) bowling dancing. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a man in a Green Lantern shirt perform a two minute routine to disco that culminates in a gutter ball. Hopefully a video will someday show up online.

Bouillabaisse at the Getty

A very fancy plate of bouillabaisse at the very fancy restaurant at the Getty, with my super fruity cocktail in the background.

Star Trek Into Darkness

Only the coolest movie-goers wear homemade Star Trek insignias to see the show.

Still Innocent

Posted from Boise, Idaho at 9:39 pm, June 12th, 2013

“If you want to know why Americans remain leery of government, it’s because of this combination of power and incompetence.”
Andrew Sullivan

I recently received papers in the mail notifying me that I was being sued (again). This new case was completely unrelated to the prior debacle, so it is clear that in a past life I was an evil lawyer and in this life I’m getting my comeuppance. The timeline of events for this latest comedy of errors went something like the following:

  • Mail arrived stating that in thirty days I would be served papers for a lawsuit filed by LA County against me over failure to pay child support. To be clear: unless I was lied to during those awkward classes in junior high, there is absolutely zero possibility of any Ryan Juniors being out there. The letter attached to the legal documents offered the helpful option of being able to come into their office to pick up the court papers should I wish to avoid the potential embarrassment of being served in public.
  • I called the contact number provided to try to figure out what was going on, and was sent to an automated number asking me if I was the parent of a child. Upon answering “no” I was transferred to the line for lawyers. Upon stating that I wasn’t a lawyer I was transferred to the line for parents and asked for my support number (which I didn’t have). After five minutes of this I was eventually transferred to the LA County call center where an actual human picked up.
  • The woman on the other end of the line asked me for my support number (which I still didn’t have), and then asked why I was calling if I didn’t have a support number. I told her I did have a stack of papers telling me that LA County was suing me; she put me on hold.
  • When she picked up again she asked for my social security number, entered it into her system, told me it wasn’t on file, and then paused as if waiting for me to respond. I was a bit confused – I didn’t really care that my social security number wasn’t on file, nor did I really know what it meant to have the number on file or not, so I assured her that this really was my social security number and always had been.
  • With a failure to get anywhere based on social security number, I told her that there was a court case number on the legal documents I had received and read that to her. Doing so apparently opened up some magic on her end, and she then asked me to repeat my name. After more confusion she suggested that “this might be a case of mistaken identity” and that she would note this in the file. Since I had no access to the file, but I did have a massive pile of documents letting me know that I would be found guilty and be forced to pay monthly child support if I didn’t appear in court, I asked what this meant. She said that it meant someone would look at the file.
  • After I noted that the legal papers stated that I had thirty days to resolve the situation, she assured me that someone would be in touch soon; it was fairly clear that there was no more that she was going to do. I ended the call by asking if there was a way to call directly without having to navigate the convoluted automated menus; she assured me that there was not.
  • Twenty-five days later I hadn’t heard from anyone, so I called again, spent five minutes navigating the horrible phone system, and finally got to talk to a real person. She asked me for my support number (which I still didn’t have). I politely let her know that when I had called before I was told this was a case of mistaken identity and that I had a court case number that she could use; she then put me on hold and hung up.
  • Five minutes, no support number, and a different person later, and I started off by saying that I didn’t have a support number but that LA County was suing me, and gave her the court case number. She told me that the file was flagged for review and asked if there was anything else she could help with. I let her know that the legal papers I had been given indicated that I had thirty days to resolve the situation, and that the thirty days was nearly up; she let me know that the file was flagged for review, there was nothing more that anyone could do, and that “sometimes they don’t begin court action at exactly thirty days”. I was not reassured.
  • A week later I got a call from an unrecognized number, which resulted in a voicemail letting me know that my case was being reviewed and that I should call them back. I called back immediately, and the phone then rang for two minutes with neither a human nor voicemail picking up.
  • Two hours later I received another call from an unrecognized number and I picked up immediately. The guy on the line indicated that I was being given three days to resolve the situation, cited the court case number, and then asked me for every bit of personal information I have – social security number, mother’s maiden name, driver’s license number, etc. Immediately after getting off the call I checked all of my bank accounts and credit cards, just in case I was the victim of an elaborate con.
  • Shockingly, four days later a two-sentence letter arrived stating that the case in question appeared to be a case of mistaken identity, and ominously that I should keep a copy of the letter should it be needed as proof in future cases.

While this case was resolved, it could have easily gone much, much worse – an immensely powerful bureaucratic apparatus was randomly pointed at me, and I had basically no means available to do anything about it. I heard a much more extreme example of this on the radio the other day where a woman was sent to jail for seventeen years for a crime she didn’t commit, and even after being exonerated she remained in jail for an additional four and a half months while paperwork made its way through the system. Luckily I didn’t face anything even remotely comparable, but both stories illustrate how this powerful and impersonal behemoth can so easily go horribly wrong.

One final caveat: government does many things, and it does a surprising number of them very well – millions of people get their social security checks on time, the national parks are fairly well run, elections almost always go off smoothly, and the FAA directs thousands of planes from point A to point B each day without incident. However, given the nearly limitless ability of the bureaucracy to disrupt our lives, and the fact that often no individual piece of it really seems to care about much else besides passing you on to someone else, it is very easy to understand why so many of us wish the whole apparatus was stripped down to bare bones. I have spent long periods of time going from desk to desk at City Hall to obtain a “business license” so that I could work from home. We’ve all stood in line for hours at the DMV just to be told that some form was filled out wrong. And the theater of the TSA at airports, where one can’t even wear shoes anymore, is enough to make you want to scream out at the idiocy of it all. One can only hope that some day we’ll figure out how to run things better, or at least figure out a way to allow people to call LA County child services without first spending five mind-numbing minutes navigating an automated phone tree only to eventually be sent to an agent who is incredulous at the idea of anyone calling them without being able to provide a support number.

California Has the Things

Posted from Culver City, California at 12:34 pm, June 1st, 2013

For no particular reason (aside from the fact that it’s the end of the month and I’m one entry short of the three-a-month goal), here’s a random sampling of places that make California so extraordinary:

  • Death Valley Most places that have “death” in the name probably don’t deserve it, but this one most-assuredly does. That said, visiting outside of the summer months is awesome – Badwater Basin is an expanse of salt flats like no where else, the surrounding mountains rise to over ten thousand feet in elevation, and the rock at lower elevations is a rainbow of mineral-stained artistry. Visiting the backcountry requires traversing roads and terrain that make you wish you had an extra two feet of ground clearance and rock climbing gear. And around each corner is something surprising, ranging from giant craters to dry lakes to remote signposts decorated with teakettles.
  • Big Sur It is doubtful whether anyone has ever put together a list of “prettiest roads in America” that didn’t include Highway 1 along the Big Sur Coast. Seacliffs are always scenic, but then you also get redwoods, sea otters, millions of birds, raging oceans, and a road not meant for those prone to car sickness.
  • The Salton Sea. The first time I visited this engineering debacle I was shocked to discover how bizarre it was. Several years later when I returned with Audrey she remarked that she was shocked that it was “exactly as weird as you described”. Ghost towns consisting of 1960s vacation homes, a stinking toxic lake filled with huge numbers of birds, and scattered human populations that seem reminiscent of a Mad Max movie. PLUS, it’s 120 degrees in the summer, so you get to take in the scenery while slightly delirious from heatstroke.
  • The Sierra Nevadas Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park are the two most obvious highlights, but Highway 395 along the Eastern Sierra passes by the massively-odd Mono Lake, travels past the highest mountain in the lower-48 states, and then lets you out next to the home of Virgin Galactic and an airplane graveyard.

There is much more – the Redwoods, Mount Lassen volcano, the random roads that traverse the area around Mount Shasta, Joshua Tree, Monterey, San Francisco Bay, the wildlife refuges hidden throughout the Central Valley, etc, etc. Overall, not too shabby of place to have settled down.

Brown pelican in La Jolla

For a photographer of limited skill looking for birds to “stand still and look pretty”, La Jolla is a top-notch destination.

Badwater Salt Flats in Death Valley

Taken during a road trip in 2005 after an unusually wet winter, the salt flats were particularly crusty and other-planet-like.

I Don’t Get It

Posted from Culver City, California at 11:39 pm, May 27th, 2013

This journal entry is a rant. Posts about mastodons and tar pits will return in the future, but those expecting stories of spaceships parked at donut shops might want to skip this entry.

For those still reading, Elon Musk recently tweeted the following:

It is unfortunate that climate change was brought to public attention by Al Gore, as it then became a “left wing” issue.

That tweet gets to the heart of something that is both saddening and frustrating about today’s discourse: a number of issues, many of which are very important, are now approached with the mentality of sports fans: “My team is right, your team sucks!” Just as with sports, individuals support “their side” and ignore the merits of the argument.

Consider Musk’s example of global warming: admitting (or denying) that climate change is a serious issue is a litmus test for the far left and far right; commentators on the right are constantly screaming that it is either a hoax or not caused by human activity, while on the far left you might think that anything less than the elimination of all fossil fuel usage is akin to Armageddon. However, looking at it from the standpoint of the scientific community, there is similar certainty that human produced greenhouse gases are heating up the planet at a dangerous rate as there is for theories such as the big bang or evolution. Meanwhile, saying that climate change is a problem that should be addressed will get a politician voted out of office on the right, while far left activists are chaining themselves to the White House gates over the construction of a single oil pipeline, and in the mean time not even a minimal amount of action is taken to mitigate something that will have serious negative future consequences.

Similarly, I’m convinced that ten years from now no one will buy a new car without debating whether or not that car should be electric. From an engineering standpoint (mechanical engineering grad here!) electric cars are undeniably better technology. Consider:

  • Battery technology today allows a range of 300 miles, and that technology is improving at about eight percent each year.
  • Maintenance on electric cars is minimal – no oil changes, no belts or hoses, no transmission, no emission system.
  • Electric engines are approximately three times more efficient than gas engines.
  • The driving experience in electric cars is vastly better – you have full torque immediately, offering a ridiculously fast acceleration.
  • Electric cars have no emissions – the smog and related pollution issues of cities like LA will diminish significantly with a move to electric vehicles.

However, with Romney and much of the right wing having labeled Tesla Motors as a “loser” and an example of an Obama “failure” during the campaign, any mention of Tesla is now followed by comments about how the company is a beneficiary of “crony capitalism”, is merely building a toy for the rich, and will be bankrupt any day now. This, despite the fact that Tesla repaid its government loan (issued under a Bush administration program) nine years early, was funded solely with private money for its first seven years, is one of the few new manufacturing ventures in the US, is the first successful new American car company in several generations, has always planned for a mass-market ($30,000) vehicle as part of their roadmap, and has built a car that literally has people cheering after test drives and has won awards from every automotive group that has reviewed it, including the highest score in Consumer Reports history, and Motor Trend Car of the Year. If we can’t support this example of American ingenuity, what has gone wrong in our discourse?

Other issues evoke similar reactions: nuclear power is supported on the right and opposed on the left despite studies that seem to indicate that use of nuclear power has saved lives. Environmental issues are now immediately dismissed as left-wing, although the vast majority of people support clean air, clean water, and a place for wildlife. The list of issues goes on and on: guns, GMOs, healthcare, taxes, immigration; all of these devolve into “my team versus your team”, despite the fact that there is clearly a huge amount of middle ground on which agreement (and action) is possible.

In spite of the seemingly grim atmosphere, things do tend to work out in the end, although given the state of rhetoric today it seems that we’re making it much, much harder to get to that end state than it needs to be.

End of the Month

Posted from Culver City, California at 3:18 pm, May 26th, 2013

As a few people noticed, the server that runs the site died an ignominious death last week, so there has been a bit of a scramble to buy a new machine and get things running again. While I’m always excited to get a new toy (16GB RAM!!!), it’s been rather tiring trying to get three web sites and countless applications running on the new computer. At this point mountaininterval.org should be back-to-normal, with the notable exception of email notifications when comments are added (I’ll get to that); please let me know if you see anything else that is amiss.

Technical issues notwithstanding, May has so far been a relatively uneventful month:

  • Audrey and I finally managed to visit the saltwater portion of the Ballona Wetlands a couple weeks ago. Most of the existing wetlands were destroyed or filled in during the construction of Marina del Rey and Playa Vista, but the undeveloped portions (which are now basically grassy fields) are on the state’s list for habitat restoration, so hopefully in the next few years the area will return to a more natural state and again become the home to fish and birds.
  • We also put our memberships to the Natural History Museum to good use and visited them early for Bug Fair. Audrey was excited about the creepy-crawlies, and I was excited about getting to visit the spaceship again at the next-door science center after our morning with the insects was over.
  • Somewhere during the month I also added to my haul of Marriott Rewards Points™ with yet another trip to Boise. Amazingly I’ve now been working with Bodybuilding.com for nearly two years. Being able to work most days from my kitchen, in pajamas, with music blaring, on a project that is well-managed with good co-workers is definitely a nice situation to be in.

April 2013, Part II

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:17 pm, April 30th, 2013

Continuing from Part I of the April 2013 recap…

Audrey’s favorite band in the whole wide world is Rush, and they were finally voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. With the induction ceremony being held at the Nokia Theatre in downtown LA it was a matter of seconds from the time tickets went on sale until she had four in hand.

I don’t know a lot about Rush, but I have learned that they have extraordinarily passionate fans. The crowd milling about before the Nokia Theatre doors opened was evidence of this fact as at least half of those present were wearing Rush shirts, Rush jackets, Rush purses, Rush flags, etc, despite the fact that seven other groups or individuals were being inducted (Heart, Randy Newman, Public Enemy, Donna Summer, Albert King, Lou Adler, Quincy Jones). The point was driven home further when the ceremony started, and the chairman of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame began reading the names of each inductee. There was applause and cheering for each individual until he said “And from Toronto”. What followed was two minutes of pandemonium as people screamed, cheered, chanted, clapped, and otherwise lost their damn minds, during which the guy at the podium could do nothing but stand and wait. As Dave Grohl of Nirvana later stated in an interview:

They didn’t even say the name and the place went fucking crazy… It was pretty awesome tonight to see Jann say, “And from Toronto,” and the fans just went, “FUCK YEAHHH.” Everyone at the tables were just like, Jesus! It was amazing. That’s what it’s all about.

John Mayer had similar thoughts:

As Mayer stepped into his Escalade, he was still blown away by Rush’s fans, who cheered the band for several minutes when Hall of Fame Chairman Jann S. Wenner’s mentioned a “band from Toronto.” “Man, I want Rush fans to come to my shows now, that is some fandom,” Mayer told Rolling Stone. “If you’re a Rush fan, you should get in any show free.”

Other highlights of the evening included being in the same room with Oprah, Jack Nicholson and Tom Petty, some pretty good music, and a hugely amusing speech from Cheech and Chong. The ceremony will be broadcast on HBO in late May, although hopefully they’ll trim most of Flavor Flav, whose rambling, incoherent induction speech seemed like it would never end, was frequently interrupted by other members of Public Enemy trying to get him to stop, and which Rolling Stone described as a “filibuster”.

The remainder of April was supposed to be uneventful, but Tuesday night Audrey came into the living room shaking, and said that she had gone out to the hot tub, reached into the control box, and barely escaped disaster when she found thousands of bees inside. This seemed clearly to be a job for the Bee Warrior, so I donned appropriate attire and went out to investigate. Citronella candles were ineffective against the swarm, so the next morning we called Bee Capture, which turned out to be a tiny lady in a truck who showed up in the evening. She donned her bee gear (which was lame compared to my own – no Mexican wrestling mask, nor a college letterman jacket) and proceeded to scoop 40,000 bees out of the hot tub controls and into a “bee box” that she had brought along to act as their new mobile home. The next day several hundred bees had returned, so the bee warrior re-emerged to spray them with vinegar, but with the bees still undeterred we called Ruth again and she came back to scoop away the stragglers.

Audrey and I at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

Audrey wore a Rush shirt to the Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony because Rush was being inducted. I wore a Captain America shirt because Captain America is awesome.

Ryan Holliday, Bee Warrior

One member of the household was stung during the bee invasion; it was not Ryan Holliday, Bee Warrior.

April 2013, Part I

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:37 pm, April 28th, 2013

April has been a relatively eventful month so far, with everything from fancy resorts to insect invasions to barfing to rock and roll. Given that there have been so many adventures, and since I need two journal entries in the next three days to meet the three-a-month goal, here’s part one.

At the beginning of the month Audrey had a rare Sunday off from her weekly singing gig at All Saints’ Parish, and I was a bit burned out from work, so we scheduled a four day weekend that was evenly split between nature and relaxation. Unfortunately after spending the night in Ventura and arriving early for our boat ride out to Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park we were told the trip had been cancelled due to weather – despite the calm morning, forecasts for the afternoon called for 40-50 mph winds, and they apparently don’t take people when they can’t guarantee a return trip, which is probably a good policy to have even if we were bummed not to be able to go.

The following day we enjoyed a barbecue with Audrey’s friend in Santa Barbara, then made our way a bit further up the coast to the mighty fancy Bacara Resort. After being the lucky recipients of an upgrade to a suite we checked into our giant room next to the ocean, and while Audrey did some reading I curled up into the fetal position before eventually refunding all of the day’s meals. Whatever sickness I had prevented us from fully appreciating the pillow-top, high thread count sleeping options available as Audrey was forced to spend the night on the couch while I prayed for relief from the host of demons that were madly shoveling things out of my stomach.

Monday morning I rallied, and by “rallied” I mean got a massage (yep, Ryan is pampered) and a very fancy dinner overlooking the sea coast; the life of this programmer is not filled with an inordinate amount of hardship.

After returning home and surviving a short work week we made a pilgrimage to the La Brea tar pits (“La Brea” means tar, so “the tar tar pits”). I’d never visited the world’s largest known deposit of Ice Age fossils, a spot where (according the the Page Museum’s web site):

Since 1906, more than one million bones have been recovered representing over 231 species of vertebrates. In addition, 159 species of plants and 234 species of invertebrates have been identified. It is estimated that the collections at the Page Museum contain about three million items. Our current Project 23 excavation may, when completed, double this number.

Living a few miles away from such a weird spot, home to a massive cache of pre-historic animals, is another point in the plus column for LA. AND there’s a really good build-your-own burger place next door, which may not be a reason to move here but is a nice bonus when you’re hungry after a long day of looking at mastodons and giant sloths.

Mastodon skeleton at the Page Museum

The mastodon was a prehistoric animal that was very similar to modern day elephants, but with 50% more awesomeness.

Ryan and mastodons at the La Brea Tar Pits

I might have been excited about the giant mastodons and pools of tar. Photo by Audrey.

Commitment

Posted from Boise, Idaho at 9:32 pm, April 15th, 2013

The very sad events at today’s Boston Marathon are cause for grieving, but to a greater extent people seem to be focusing on those who immediately rushed into the smoke to help, or on the fact that in the aftermath so many people donated to the Red Cross that their web site crashed, or on the commitment of the individuals who chose to run the grueling race. On the latter subject, Ezra Klein wrote an article that does a good job of capturing why the marathon is so inspiring entitled ‘If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon’:

My wife has been training for a marathon. She leaves the house early in the morning and runs for hours and hours. She comes home tired and sore. And then she does it again. And again. And again.

There’s no reason for her to do it. There’s no competition or payoff or award. It’s just a quiet, solitary triumph over the idea that she couldn’t do it, and it all happens before I even wake up.

It’s thoughts like these that provide hope in spite of tragedies. The runners in a marathon are a case study in human inspiration: yes, running 26 miles is impressive, but the reason to cheer each finisher is as much about the days or years of effort that lead up to that accomplishment, and the idea that any human being who is willing to dedicate themselves to the task can complete such a mind-boggling feat.

A friend of mine in LA, Arkady, not only finished the 50 mile Comrades Marathon through the mountains around Capetown, but was in the top 15% of competitors. Several years before, this same ironman was 80 pounds heavier with 40% body fat, and made the decision to change his life. That single commitment, revisited day after day after day over many years, is what people celebrate when Arkady finishes a race, and is what they were celebrating as he finished (safely) in Boston today.

Another friend, Angela, decided one day that she wanted to run a marathon, and started out by running around the block once. The next day she ran around the block twice, and before long she was carrying a wooden box of matches with her and transferring them from one hand to another to keep track of her laps. Rather than stopping at the marathon, she trained for the world’s toughest race, the 135 mile Badwater Ultramathon through Death Valley in the summer, and today is one of the very few people on the planet to have actually finished that race. That seemingly-impossible accomplishment started out with an average person simply making the decision to do something extraordinary, and then getting out each day to put in the required work over a period of years to make the impossible possible.

Sport is about incredible human accomplishments, but a key reason that we stand along the road and cheer during a marathon is because the athletes in the race show us that a completely normal person who simply makes the decision to commit each day to a task can do something amazing and thus prove that things that seemingly can’t be done are within anyone’s reach. The bombings today are a tragedy, but the fact that so many people are taking notice of good things in the world, and perhaps themselves making a decision to commit to do something inspiring, provides hope that even such a horrible evil can be a catalyst for a great deal of good to come.

OH MY GOD SPACESHIP !!!!!

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:56 pm, March 31st, 2013

I live in a city with a space shuttle, and that makes me very, very happy. Yesterday the girl took me to visit it at the California Science Center, and there was much rejoicing. The supporting exhibits include a wealth of information about the mysterious “space potty”, computers from mission control, and a history of the shuttle program. The highlight, obviously, is the opportunity to visit up close with a vehicle that has traveled at 17,500 miles per hour, fixed the Hubble telescope and built the space station, cost $2.1 billion to build, and withstood temperatures of over 3000°F.

For reference, here are journal entries from past encounters with the spaceship:

The Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center

This vehicle has been to space, repeatedly, which pretty much makes it the coolest thing ever built.

The Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center

While it takes rocket scientists to build a space shuttle, decorating one apparently requires a dyslexic flag painter.

Everything is Amazing

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:39 pm, March 28th, 2013

"’I had to sit on the runway for 40 minutes.’ Oh my god, really? What happened then, did you fly through the air like a bird, incredibly? Did you soar into the clouds, impossibly? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight and then land softly?…You’re sitting in a chair in the sky. You’re like a Greek myth right now."

–Louis CK

Given the opportunity to live in any time period in human history (live in, not just visit), right now seems like a pretty clear winner. Aside from the odd mental patient, no one wakes up each day wondering “is a barbarian horde going to invade my town and burn me alive?”. If you get a cut, or catch a cold, your friends don’t have to place bets as to whether or not you’ll be dead at the end of the week. Very seldom do we head out to the store worrying whether a wild animal will devour us during the journey.

If you have a question, the magical cell phone in your pocket will connect to millions of computers to find an answer. If you want to travel you can visit literally any corner of the earth in a matter of hours or days, and don’t have to worry that scurvy will cause your teeth to fall out along the way. Instead of each day wondering where our food and water will come from, the big concern is whether we’ve eaten too many delicious meals and will have to spend more time at a gym where we can mimic the physical exertion that our bodies have evolved over thousands of years to expect would be needed simply to stay alive.

When I get hungry, I can use my my phone (which has no wires) to call a local restaurant. Without doing anything other than reading numbers from a plastic card I can get them to bring me sushi, which has been caught from who-knows-where and brought fresh to the restaurant. The delivery person travels a couple of miles to my house over communally-maintained roads using a vehicle that runs on drops of a clear liquid at speeds of up to 100 miles an hour. I then return to my job, located in my kitchen, where my background music is any one of thousands of songs which are stored in digital format on my laptop. That job involves collaborating with dozens of people who are hundreds of miles away, each of us using computers to build something that exists only as bits of ones and zeros on a series of magnetic storage devices, something that thousands upon thousands of people will use each day to make transactions that total millions of dollars each year.

With some credit to Louis CK, we live in a time where everything is amazing. Of course, it would still be pretty awesome to pay a visit to the Renaissance, Ancient Rome, or pre-colonization America, but right now is very likely the best time in all of human history in which to live. Not convinced? Here’s a gallery of amazing photos, many of which were taken IN SPACE, that you can browse via the magical internet. Need more? Go to amazon.com and buy anything you can possibly think of just by typing in numbers from a plastic card. Still need more? Go to Google and have any question you can think of answered. Everything is amazing.

The Planet Mercury

The planet Mercury, located 96.6 million miles from Earth. Photographed by the Messenger spacecraft, a robot that traveled through space and then sent pretty pictures back to Earth at the speed of light.

Penguins

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:08 pm, March 20th, 2013

I might need to go back

Magellanic penguin, Carcass Island

Magellanic penguin, Carcass Island.

King penguin, St. Andrews Bay

King penguin, St. Andrews Bay.

Chinstrap penguin, Bailey Head

Chinstrap penguin, Bailey Head.

‘Sup

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:01 pm, February 28th, 2013

There hasn’t been a generic status update in a while, and I’ve got less than three hours to meet my three-entry-a-month goal, so that’s as good of an excuse as any to write one:

  • The job at Bodybuilding.com is in its nineteenth month and is scheduled to run through the end of the year. Shockingly, after spending more than half of my days between July 2002 and August 2005 on one adventure after another, I’ve now been working more-or-less solidly for almost eight years.
  • In yet another sign that I’m becoming a grown-up (at age 37), last Friday we hired tree trimmers to take care of a ficus that was attempting to eat the back office, as well as a star pine that made the Leaning Tower of Pisa look straight. With significantly less vegetation now blocking the western edge of our yard Audrey and I stood outside on Friday night with the sound of sea lions barking a mile away in the marina clearly audible. Our house is awesome.
  • Younger Holliday is working again, this time selling houses in the Bay Area for Shea Homes. With the real-estate market heating up I may not be the only Holliday boy who owns the roof over his head much longer.
  • Audrey’s favorite band of all-time is getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so she scored tickets for us to go to the Nokia Theatre on April 16 to see Rush at the Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. There are some downsides to living in LA, but there aren’t a lot of cities that regularly host events that you can re-watch a few months later as an HBO special.
  • Speaking of the girl, our adventures have been mostly culinary lately. We accidentally hit a food truck extravaganza on Abbott Kinney a few weeks ago and enjoyed massive lobsta rolls for dinner. On Valentine’s Day lobsta was again on the menu as the girl cooked steak and lobster tails. The following night I took her to a fancy dinner at a restaurant that had lights made out of underpants ’cause I’m all about ambiance. The weekend prior to Valentine’s Day saw us making a pilgrimage to the ridiculously delicious Sadle Peak Lodge, which is now by far number one on my list for French toast – the homemade-bread-and-bananas-foster delight that was served to me at Saddle Peak puts them so far ahead of anyone else that the competition can probably be declared permanently over.
  • And that is all. Things have been slow, but with luck there will be baby bird videos to share soon.

Dante's View, Death Valley

Dante’s View in Death Valley. Sponsored by Nike. Just do it.