Forward to the Future

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:47 pm, August 31st, 2015

Los Angeles, Boston, Washington D.C. and San Francisco all submitted bids to be the United States’ entry in the competition to host the 2024 Summer Olympics. Boston won that competition, and then backed out a few weeks ago. Now, Los Angeles has been named as a last-minute replacement.

While hosting the Olympics is usually a money-losing proposition (sometimes to a disastrous extent), the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics actually turned a profit, the current bid relies mostly on existing infrastructure, and LA has been pretty fiscally sensible lately, so I’m optimistic that it won’t turn into a boondoggle. An initial review of the bid proposal raised some concerns, but I suspect those will be addressed in order to win city council approval.

Financial considerations aside, having the Olympics in LA would be pretty awesome. I was a poor college student who hopped on a Greyhound and went to the 1996 games in Atlanta without much money or anywhere to sleep, and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Whether I’m still living in LA or not in a decade, this would definitely be the second Olympics that I attend, and this time I wouldn’t have to sneak into venues and would actually be able to afford a ticket for some of the premier events.

Beyond the thrill of being able to attend another Olympics, the benefits that the Games would bring to the city are also exciting. Obviously sporting venues like the Coliseum would get an upgrade, as well as venues like the Convention Center and Shrine Auditorium. Plans for the Athlete’s Village call for developing a downtown rail yard and then converting the development to residential use after the Olympics ended, thus creating a new neighborhood out of a blighted area. Additionally, the Olympics would be cause for a massive housecleaning throughout LA, with everything from metro stations to medians to signage getting spruced up.

The bid still has to be approved by the City Council, something that will almost certainly happen, and then LA will compete with international cities including Rome, Hamburg, Paris and Budapest. With the games not having been in North America since 1996, and with LA making a strong proposal, it seems like the odds of being picked should be pretty good. Count me as excited by the possibility.

Olympic Coliseum proposal

Rendering of the upgraded Coliseum and swimming venue in Exposition Park. Image from LA24 via NBC Sports.

Back to the Past

Posted from Culver City, California at 6:20 pm, August 30th, 2015

There are two big ecological restoration projects in the works for the LA Area. The bigger of the two is the restoration of the LA River. Currently the “river” is little more than a concrete culvert through the city, but LA has secured the support of the Army Corps of Engineers for a $1.3 billion plan to restore eleven miles of the river to a more natural state. While there will be some benefits for nature, this project seems mainly to be about about the recreational and economic benefits of revitalizing an eleven-mile long corridor within LA. That’s not a bad thing – I’m visiting San Antonio twice a month right now, and the San Antonio River Walk shows clearly how a river can improve the quality of life in an area. I suspect that environmentalists won’t be satisfied with the eventual plans that emerge in LA, but the reality is that a small river running through a massive city will never again return to a truly natural state, and the best one can hope for is a waterway that provides some benefits for nature while offering significant quality of life improvements for humans.

The second restoration project is the Ballona Wetlands. At the end of this year the Environmental Impact Report will be released, offering options for restoring the remaining 600 undeveloped acres, or about 1% of the historic wetlands area. This project will be far less expensive than the LA River restoration, and while it will offer far fewer economic benefits it will offer some notable environmental benefits. Wetlands are tremendously important to migratory birds who use them as stopover points, fish that use them as spawning grounds, numerous creatures that use them as a food source, and the surrounding area that benefits from their ability to filter pollutants and lessen flood severity. With so many wetlands already lost to development, restoring even a small one has an outsized effect. Perhaps more importantly, residents of LA have little exposure to nature and thus little chance to learn to appreciate its benefits, so creating a destination for school fieldtrips and weekend visits will expose future generations to an environment that they might not have otherwise realized was important to protect.

Both restoration projects still face numerous hurdles, and have already had setbacks. An effort by the Annenberg Foundation to build a $50 million visitor center in the Ballona wetlands was killed by environmentalists who opposed any development at all on the site. While restoring every available acre might be a noble goal, the reality is that 99% of the historic wetland is already gone, and the remaining wetlands probably have more educational value than environmental value. Similarly, draft restoration plans for Ballona have been opposed for not going far enough in returning the area to its original state AND for going too far, thus disrupting the wildlife that is currently present; ongoing arguments could conceivably halt any attempts at restoration and leave the area in a degraded state. While plans for the LA River are still in the very early stages, the involvement of architect Frank Gehry has already been called “the epitome of wrong-ended planning“, and further conflicts will no doubt threaten to derail the project moving forward.

With luck all parties will realize that compromise is necessary, that “perfect” is the enemy of “good”, and in another 5-10 years LA will have a vibrant river corridor that offers habitat for wildlife and revitalized neighborhoods and recreational areas for humans. Additionally, if all parties can find agreement then restoration of Ballona will move forward to create a healthy wetland that can be used to educate future generations about the value of nature while providing food and shelter for species that currently struggle to survive due to the severe loss of their coastal wetland habitat.

Ballona Wetlands restoration proposal

Artist’s rendering of a proposed Ballona restoration. Fill dumped in the wetlands during the creation of Marina del Rey, currently 20 feet deep in some places, has been removed to allow land to again be inundated by the creek and tides. The levees around the creek have also been partially removed to allow a more natural flow. Image from the Ballona Wetlands Restoration Project.

The Busy-ness

Posted from Culver City, California at 6:32 pm, August 29th, 2015

So much working. Here are the non-working things that have been happening:

  • After getting incredibly lucky and winning tickets on the radio (thanks 100.3 the Sound!) I took Audrey to see her favorite band in the last show of what may be their last tour. After finding our seats at the Fabulous Forum, Rush did a set consisting of their hits played in reverse chronological order, with the stage continuously updated to match the band’s status at the time the song was released. A stage that started out filled with futuristic displays changed to stacks of amps before they ended the night with two amps balanced on chairs in front of a projection of a high school gymnasium while playing “Working Man”, a song off of their first record. I wasn’t a fan of Rush prior to meeting Audrey, but I’ve got to admit that it’s pretty amazing that just three people can produce that much sound.
  • The next big musical event was a return visit to see the LA Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. They performed Wagner, Strauss, Liszt and others, all in perfect sync to act as the background music for the Bugs Bunny cartoons being simulcast on the Bowl’s screens. My knowledge of classical music is so extensive that I recognized each and every piece, from Kill da Wabbit all the way through the Rabbit of Seville.
  • Peppered throughout the last month have been numerous trips to San Antonio for work – they are excited that it is finally cooling down to where high temperatures are only in the nineties.
  • The final adventure of late was a trip to see Audrey in the Bay Area. I flew in from Texas late Friday night, we hung out with my parents for Saturday’s lunch, and met her boss and co-worker for an amazing dinner in Sausalito. On Sunday I wanted to revisit my old haunts in Palo Alto, and in the process discovered that absolutely nothing there is familiar – I couldn’t even pick out the house I used to live in; apparently I was more sleep-deprived during the dotcom days than I realized.

Audrey will be home regularly in September before returning for good at the beginning of October, so life may get more interesting once I again have someone around to force me out of the house on a regular basis.

Rush at the Forum

Geddy Lee and the Rushes at the Fabulous Forum. Taken mid-concert during the “giant stacks of amps” phase of the show.

The Final Frontier

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 5:42 pm, July 31st, 2015

As is often the case, when it’s the end of the month and I don’t have anything in particular to write about, I write about spaceships.

  • The cause of the SpaceX rocket explosion has been announced as a strut that snapped due to a manufacturing defect. It doesn’t sound like there is 100% confidence that’s actually what happened, but if it was the cause then it’s a relatively easy fix and one that will lead to a more reliable vehicle. Future launches aren’t expected to be postponed more than a few months while the issue is addressed.
  • NASA’s giant new rocket, creatively named the “Space Launch System (SLS)”, has had several successful engine tests and is scheduled for first flight in 2018. It would be the most powerful rocket ever launched, but is unfortunately a machine without a clear purpose – there are no imminent plans to send people to Mars or the moon, and at least $500 million per launch (and up to $5 billion by some critical estimates) it is far more expensive than any other option for satellite launches or space station resupply missions.
  • The New Horizons spacecraft just zoomed by Pluto, providing some surprising information about a dwarf planet that is about 40 times further away from the sun than the Earth is. This plucky little spacecraft was initially cancelled in 2000, but a large backlash revived its funding, and it spent nearly a decade after its 2006 launch reaching the edge of the solar system. Its useful life is expected to be 15 years, meaning there should be plenty of science to come as it travels through the Kuiper Belt.

Last of all, for anyone not quite clear on how far away Pluto really is, here’s a model of the solar system that has been scaled so that the moon is the size of a single pixel. Spoiler alert: Pluto is FAR away.

False color image of Pluto

False color image of Pluto, taken by the New Horizons spacecraft. We live in a time when robots are sending us photos of other planetary bodies from 4.7 billion miles away, and that is AWESOME. Photo from NASA.

Not Political

Posted from 35,000 feet over Texas at 10:48 pm, July 28th, 2015

Despite the higher-than-normal number of recent journal entries on political topics, there’s still a bunch of political stuff that I’d like to think through further via a journal entry – the ongoing drama surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline, the controversy over the hunting death of Cecil the Lion, the Iran nuclear deal, etc. But too much politics gets old fast, so here’s an entry about groceries and Tanzania instead.

Exactly one year ago today on July 28, 2014 I was travelling from Istanbul to Tanzania on a plane that turned out to be too broken to fly. This flight occurred after two amazing weeks exploring Turkey and with two-and-a-half months remaining in what may be the most epic trip I ever take in my life. I woke up the following morning with a view of Mount Kilimanjaro, spent the next four weeks on safari, then roamed South Africa for two weeks before Audrey and I embarked on a four-week odyssey in Madagascar. In what seems to be some sort of time displacement that gets more pronounced as I get older, that trip feels like it took place an incredibly long time ago, but simultaneously it somehow doesn’t seem like a lot of time has passed since it ended.

Today I’m writing this journal entry from a plane on a comparatively much less exciting trip to San Antonio for work. HEB made the prudent choice of selecting Commerce Architects to take care of their web site in the coming months, so I’ll be visiting Texas on a regular basis and working with a small team to turn their site into a streamlined grocery-dispensing beast. While photographing lemurs would be more exciting, selling groceries online is a surprisingly interesting application given all the constraints around what can be shipped, what needs to be picked up from the store, differing inventories across hundreds of stores and warehouses, etc, so it should be a fun technical challenge. I’m not one of those people who would gush about loving his job – I’d rather be on an extended road trip – but especially when things are going smoothly I enjoy the constant problem-solving, and it’s extremely rewarding when the solution to those problems ends up being particularly elegant or clever. The flip side of that “rewarding” aspect is that Audrey often discovers me spending an inordinate amount of time pacing around the living room when the elegant solutions prove to be elusive, often resulting in long periods of frustration followed by concentrated bursts of inspiration, but if that wasn’t the case they probably wouldn’t call it “work”.

Life continues to move along in positive directions, and I continue to be grateful for the abundance of good fortune I’ve experienced thus far.

Cappadocia sunrise

Cappadocia sunrise from last July. Life lesson: when you are taking time to enjoy the sunrise on a regular basis, things are usually going pretty good.

Flags

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:51 pm, July 22nd, 2015

Against better judgement, here’s one more political post about a current event that’s been on my mind. Journal entry topics should return to postings about the heat in San Antonio and pictures of birds very soon.

The Confederate flag has been in the news, and companies have been scrambling to disassociate themselves from it, even to the point where TV Land pulled re-runs of Dukes of Hazzard from its schedule. I’ve got three thoughts.

First, I think many of those opposed to the Confederate flag have failed to recognize its legitimate use as a symbol of Southern identity. Just as Black culture or Irish culture or Japanese culture is a thing, so is White southern culture – hunting, fishing, country music, saying “ma’am”, driving a pickup truck, drinking sweet tea, etc. Insofar as people identify with that culture, having a shared symbol of that identification is a way of celebrating a lifestyle, and many of those flying the Confederate flag view efforts to remove it as an attack on their identity as a group. Despite that obvious fact, I’ve not heard anyone who opposes the flag tempering their opposition with a recognition that people should have every right to celebrate their identity. The General Lee didn’t have the Confederate flag on it because Bo & Luke were racists, it was there because they were Southern and proud of being country boys.

Second, it’s inarguable that to many people the Confederate flag represents racism. The KKK doesn’t carry the flag at marches to show that they like fishing, and if you’re a Black person you most definitely don’t see the flag and think of country music. Insofar as the Confederate flag was the symbol of a society that embraced slavery and oppression of minorities, it has no place in public squares or on government buildings. Furthermore, those that display it as a way of celebrating Southern identity should recognize that what to them is a celebration of culture is something that represents the worst of humanity to many others. Southerners have every right to celebrate their identity, but it’s long overdue for there to be a serious discussion about finding another symbol of Southern identity that isn’t simultaneously a symbol of racial hatred.

Finally, the focus on the flag came about after a horrific series of murders by a white supremacist. While this horrible act had the positive effect of focusing attention on issues of race, it seems to me that those who captured the moment focused almost all of the attention on a symbol of racial injustice at the expense of addressing the actual issues. One thing about the political correctness movement that irks many people (myself included) is that it seems to generate unending outrage, but little in the way of meaningful results. Raising awareness about why the Confederate flag is seen as a horrific symbol is good, but it’s a minor issue when compared with the actual problems related to race in America. Wouldn’t we be better off if the same amount of effort and attention that was put into repudiating the Confederate flag was instead put into encouraging people to attend events that promote positive interactions between different ethnic and social groups, or to attend a service at an inner city church, or to begin a serious national effort to address the continuing under-representation of minorities at colleges and businesses? Gay marriage was legalized because the majority realized that gay people were their friends and neighbors, not because we censored the word “faggot” from everyday language; similarly, racism will only disappear when we stop seeing people as different, and not because a flag is lowered. In this case, I can’t help but feel that media attention, protests, and speeches by politicians was a lot of effort devoted to winning a “victory” that will have little or no permanent effect on the real problems that truly matter.

As with most things, both sides in this debate paint it as black-and-white, when the truth is that the issue is hugely complex. Those opposed to the Confederate flag have a responsibility to recognize that Southern culture is real and worth celebrating, while those flying the flag have a responsibility to recognize that the symbol they have chosen to represent their culture comes with a massive amount of racist baggage. That said, the fact that the country chose to focus the debate on a flag, going so far as to celebrate a “victory” when a single copy of that flag was lowered at a state Capitol, while doing almost nothing that might actually address the very real racial divide that still exists in America, is a dismaying commentary on both the desire and ability of the USA to address this issue meaningfully.

It IS Rocket Science

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 9:37 am, June 30th, 2015

Despite being wiped out from four straight weeks of travelling for work, I got up at 7AM Sunday morning, partly because my brain is running on Central time and partly because I’m an engineering geek and wanted to watch the latest SpaceX launch to see if they would finally be successful in their ludicrous attempts to land a rocket on a barge in the middle of the ocean. Instead, about two minutes into the launch, I saw a live webcast of the rocket disintegrating as it was traveling at a speed of approximately 4000 km/h. From the video it was clear that something exploded on the second stage portion of the rocket, but unfortunately more than 48 hours later there still doesn’t seem to be any clue as to what specifically went wrong.

I’m bummed about it.

Prior to this flight the Falcon-9 rocket had a perfect record – yes, there were some minor glitches on previous flights (an engine exploded once…), but it successfully completed its primary mission on each launch, and did so at a fraction of the cost of any other rocket. At the same time, the way SpaceX was operating was a throwback to the early days of flight and space, when people dreamed big and not only tried to do impossible things, but succeeded with surprising regularity. Since those early days aerospace has become slow, bloated and hugely risk averse, so the upstart SpaceX provided the hope that they might be the ones to bring the future that seemed all-but-certain in 2001: A Space Odyssey closer to reality. With luck their engineers will be able to pinpoint the cause of the failure and return to service with an even more robust vehicle, but at this moment the cause of the explosion is a complete mystery, and thus the Falcon-9 is a machine with an unknown fatal flaw. For anyone who was amazed at the incredible successes of SpaceX thus far, and excited about what this rocket meant for the future of spaceflight, this setback is a disheartening reality check.

However, rocket science is very, very, very hard – that’s one reason I switched to computer programming, where if I make a bad assumption in my work it usually won’t result in pieces of a $60 million machine being scattered over a vast swath of the Atlantic. Given their surprisingly successful track record to this point, I would not bet against SpaceX recovering from this failure in a big way – they still have plans to ferry astronauts to the space station in a Falcon-9, are still on the verge of being able to land and re-use a rocket, and they still have a long list of customers anxious to use their lower-cost rockets for satellite launches.

On Saturday night prior to the launch I was watching a documentary about the dawn of powered flight that highlighted the competition between Glenn Curtiss and the Wright Brothers. On an early demonstration flight for the army the Wright’s flying machine crashed, killing an army lieutenant and putting Orville Wright into the hospital for months. Similarly, on a test flight the day before his first public demonstration, Curtiss had mechanical difficulty and his machine crashed. The Wrights regrouped and were soon aloft again, and Curtiss rebuilt his machine overnight and then made the longest powered flight in history the following day.

Elon Musk got the worst possible gift for his 44th birthday on Sunday, but there seems to be little doubt that history will remember him as one of the great engineer entrepreneurs of of the 21st century, and like Curtiss and the Wrights he will most certainly emerge from this setback stronger than ever.

Video of the “anomaly” that caused the loss of the Falcon-9 rocket on Sunday. Skip to 2:25 if you want to see the sad part.

Gay Marriage

Posted from Culver City, California at 11:07 pm, June 28th, 2015

WARNING: political post ahead, and a potentially controversial one. Skip this entry if you mainly read this journal for the pretty pictures.

On Friday the Supreme Court made gay marriage legal nationwide. From my standpoint, that decision is indisputably the right move – sexuality is not a choice for the vast majority of people, and the government thus should not be telling a homosexual couple that they cannot have the same rights as a heterosexual couple. I think it is also indisputable that a not-insignificant percentage of the opposition to gay marriage is homophobia justified as religious objection; if the concern was solely religious there would be equal objection to the government allowing divorced people to re-marry. Similarly, if the Old Testament’s prohibitions against homosexuality are inviolate, the same should be said about prohibitions against eating shellfish (Leviticus 11:10), getting a tattoo (Leviticus 19:28), or wearing blended fabrics (Leviticus 19:19), yet those concerns are somehow ignored when the prohibitions against homosexuality in Leviticus are cited.

With the above said, some people do object to gay marriage based on a legitimate religious conviction. For many, religion means faith without room for doubt, so when the church states that homosexuality is a choice, rather than an innate human characteristic, and that expressing support for homosexuality is sinning, that becomes something that members of that church must accept without question. When the proponents of gay marriage dismiss the concerns of those who have been taught that supporting homosexuality is a sin, it reinforces the viewpoint of those individuals that this is a battle against religion, rather than a fight for civil rights, and history shows that people will double-down on a belief and go to tremendous lengths to defend their religion.

Legalizing gay marriage was the right thing to do, and in another generation I suspect that nearly everyone will recognize it as a civil rights issue instead of a religious issue, just as interracial marriage was initially opposed on religious grounds but is now seen solely through the lens of civil rights. However, it takes time for opinions to change, and I wish that more politicians, media outlets and individuals were making it clear that this court decision solely affects how the government interprets the meaning of marriage, and still leaves churches the religious freedom to interpret marriage as they see fit. I’m personally glad to see UCC churches and Episcopal churches celebrating gay couples, and hope that other churches will eventually move in a more inclusive direction, but I’m concerned by the fact that opponents of gay marriage are now immediately dismissed as bigots when many of those people have for their entire lifetime only heard their church addressing this issue by telling them that homosexuality is a sin that could not be questioned. To many, that view now seems obviously wrong, but for others it will take time to come to grips with the change that is happening around them. Yes, gay marriage is and should be the law of the land, but separation of church and state is also the law of the land, and I think some allowance needs to be made so that, while gay marriage is legal in the eyes of the government, it is clear that view will not be forced upon churches that aren’t yet ready to accept it.

Working Boy

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 9:09 pm, June 18th, 2015

After a relaxing month off, I’m back to work and spending a lot of time in airports – you wouldn’t think the smell of one person’s refunded lunch could permeate an entire terminal at LAX, but you would be very wrong. Vomit aside, with Audrey out of town I kind of like the travel since it forces me out of the house and off to new adventures, even if adventures in the extreme heat of San Antonio tend to be limited after a long day of work. Anyhow, here’s the update since last time:

  • After the road trip I visited Audrey and the family in the Bay Area, then returned to LA for some lounging about. The last week of May, and my last work-free week, I made another trip up to the Bay as a way to force myself to shower, shave, leave the house, and take a break from writing manifestos.
  • Aaron sold his place in Livermore and bought a place in East Sacramento, so I went up to see him, sit around his backyard firepit, eat fancy breakfasts, and ride beach cruisers. All told we covered about twenty miles on bike through Sacramento, hitting the Capitol, stopping for the famous banana cream pie at the city’s finest Chinese restaurant, enjoying floating beverages at the Virgin Sturgeon, and generally behaving like two mature gentlemen in their late-thirties should.
  • After leaving Aaron I spent an hour trying to cross the Bay Bridge to meet Audrey after work for drinks, and then the following day took her to Bodega Bay and Muir Woods. Shockingly I’d never been to Muir Woods, and have thus missed out on this tiny paradise north of the Golden Gate.
  • The next day we visited Ma & Pa in Concord. The Skipper’s preference is to limit himself to one activity per day, so after he had gone to church and then spent an afternoon at a barbecue we crashed into him like a tornado, dragging him off to the dog park for a walk and then fiddling with the TV setup (something both Ma & Pa fear to their very core) so that they would be able to watch Netflix on demand.
  • The next day was a return to work, this time on a project for the HEB grocery chain, based in San Antonio. The current project is a reunion with Khalid of DirecTV fame, and Joe, one of three partners at Commerce Architects. The first week was spent working from the CA office in Berkeley, and the following week saw three days in the HEB office in San Antonio.
  • Of special note, Audrey has a friend who works at Pixar, so during the week I was working from Berkeley, and after many years of stalking the perimeter of the Pixar compound in Emeryville, I finally got to enter the gates. It was by far the nicest work environment I’ve ever seen, and while my skillset doesn’t really match anything they would need, if they ever decided to lease office space and I was tired of working in my pajamas in the kitchen, Pixar’s campus would be an ideal spot to toil.
  • San Antonio is another place I’ve never visited, and while the weather is a bit like living on the surface of the sun, once the evening arrives and the temperatures dip into the nineties, it’s kind of a neat place. Joe and I watched game three of the NBA finals (Cavs won?!?) from a bar in the Riverwalk, and I went for a run along the river and past all manner of historic structures. Given the near-weekly visits for at least the next two months, there should be plenty of additional opportunities to explore.
  • Last of all, Audrey was home this past weekend to sing in a concert at Disney Concert Hall. Around 200 choir members and the booming Frank Gehry-designed organ amidst an awesome venue was not a bad way to spend a Friday evening.

Mike, Sully, and Ryan at Pixar

Mike, Sully, and me. I tried to play it cool while we were roaming around the Pixar campus, but if you were privy to my inner monologue you would have basically heard excited shrieking for two straight hours. Photo taken by Audrey.

The Day of Five Caves

Posted from Shasta National Forest, California at 8:17 pm, May 10th, 2015

Lava Beds National Monument is a pretty cool spot. By 1PM I’d explored five of the park’s caves, all of them very different. Golden Dome Cave had me on my belly at one point pushing between rocks, Sentinel Cave was an easy 1000 meter underground stroll, Skull Cave was a short yet ENORMOUS cavern, with a lava tube passage large enough to fit an airplane. Valentine Cave and Sunshine Cave offered a bit of everything, with some scrambling and some easy bits. I lucked out and had every cave almost completely to myself – being in absolute darkness with only the sounds of dripping water is a stupendous environment for sitting and thinking.

Following the below-ground explorations I did a bit of above-ground exploration, then returned to the Tule Lake Wildlife Refuge before moving on. Now I’m parked in the forest under Mount Shasta as thunderstorms intermittently pass by. So far this has been a much-needed break from life in the city.

Sunshine Cave in Lava Beds National Monument

Sunshine Cave in Lava Beds National Monument.

Western Grebe in Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Western Grebe in Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

All the Caves

Posted from Lava Beds National Monument, California at 8:59 pm, May 9th, 2015

I only saw one other car this morning as I was roaming around the antelope refuge, and that sort of set the tone for the day – for the most part, today was a day of little-used roads, the sort where if you see another vehicle then the drivers wave at one another. After roaming the dusty dirt roads of the antelope refuge I headed back towards California via some apparently little-used state roads. Once back in the state where pumping your own gas is legal I headed towards Goose Lake, which is a spot on the map that has always intrigued me. It’s as big as Tahoe on the map, but you never hear about it. And when I arrived, I found out why – it’s not there; a dry lakebed and plumes of dust filled the spot where a ginormous lake was supposed to be. A missing lake seems like reason #5,346 why the world needs to figure out the whole fresh water supply thing.

After the non-lake I made a brief trip through the Modoc National Wildlife Refuge, then it was on to the surprisingly awesome Lava Beds National Monument, and the neighboring Tule Lake Wildlife Refuge. I won’t do a species list since that would be boring, but the summary report is that the snake I saw today most likely was of the poisonous variety, and apparently California is home to pheasants, something I never realized despite living here for 17 years. The other attraction of this park is that it is lousy with caves, and with one half-mile long lava tube explored today, the plan for tomorrow is to see what some of the others are like.

Also, since it’s a neat thing, as I started writing this entry I could see the silhouettes of two deer next to my car, licking ash from the campground firepit; sharing a campsite with deer is not an experience I tend to have while working.

Yellow-headed blackbird in the Tule Wildlife Refuge

From the same people who brought you the ever-so-creatively-named “red-winged blackbird”, this is the “yellow-headed blackbird”.

Where the Deer and the Antelope Play

Posted from Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon at 7:52 pm, May 8th, 2015

I’ve got a couple of weeks between projects, so I put the Subaru in drive mode and went up to San Francisco to take the folks out for a nice meal, visit with Audrey, and then I took off with no particular destination in mind.

Day one took me through Feather Canyon, which is the lowest elevation pass through the Sierras, and a place I’d never visited before. A bald eagle flew by to say hello, which was nice, and a deer burst out of the bushes next to the road and tapped my front bumper, which was less nice, although she bounced back up and ran into the woods so hopefully all was well. From there I passed through Lassen Volcanic National Park, although even in the midst of a drought almost everything but the main road was still closed by snow. On a less nature-y stop I went to Starbucks in the evening and was entertained by a stoner who kept standing up in his seat every few minutes to yell out “I feel His power, man! Glory to Him!” The night was spent sleeping soundly in the back of the Subaru in a national forest campground near Lake Shasta.

The behemoth volcano Mount Shasta towered 14,162 feet overhead the next morning, and an equally large biscuit greeted me at the original Black Bear Diner, which I stumbled on while meandering through the area. Post-breakfast I was in Oregon, a state known for its fear of allowing people without proper training to pump their own gasoline. I made it up to Oregon Caves National Monument, but decided against descending into a subterranean cavern for 90 minutes when a carload of six screaming kids pulled into the parking lot behind me, each of them making their best effort to ensure that I fully appreciated how peaceful it had been prior to their arrival. After a nice hike through the forest I took the next available tour, this one mercifully with just two very well-behaved kids on it, and spent the next hour-and-a-half scrambling around underground on the rocks. After another aboveground hike I was leaving the park when one of the park’s employees flagged me down, and I ended up giving a short ride to a girl who offered to let me know what plans the universe had for me according to her astrology book. I politely declined, dropped her off at the employee housing, and spent the night camped next to a stream down some random logging road.

Today I stopped in Klamath Falls where another bald eagle was hanging out, and then made my way east to the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge – I saw it on the map and figured anything in the middle of nowhere and full of antelope must be worth a visit. I did some hiking, hung out with deer, pronghorn, sandhill cranes, hawks, vultures, snakes, and myriad other critters, and now I’m parked for the evening in a quiet corner of the refuge with no one around and a herd of deer staring at me from a hundred yards away as I type, they munch, and the sun sets. It’s a far cry from sitting in my kitchen working in front of a computer, and a much-needed chance to make sure life is going the way it should be and figure out what course corrections that might be needed.

Gopher snake in Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge

The logical voice in my brain said “I’m 99% sure that this is not a poisonous snake and I should move him off the road so that he doesn’t get hit”. Hopefully the snake eventually got out of the road on its own, ’cause that 1% worth of doubt won the argument.

I bless the rains down in Africa

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:58 pm, April 30th, 2015

Since it’s the end of the month and I’m one entry short of the three entry goal, here are two more pictures taken during last year’s World Tour, this time from Tanzania.

Little bee-eaters in Serengeti National Park

Little bee-eaters in Serengeti National Park.

Zebra in Ngorongoro Crater

Why I’m Optimistic

Posted from Culver City, Calfornia at 8:06 pm, April 28th, 2015

Back in February I wrote the following:

What gives me hope is that while the population at large often despairs over such issues, anytime I sit down with a group of engineers the conversation is inevitably about understanding the problem and figuring out what solutions are viable. If society can’t be convinced to take action on an issue through the government, engineers search for other options.

I read a lot of news that continues to make me hopeful about the steady technological progress being made, and while it may be of interest mostly just to me, here’s one such example. First, a caveat: most new companies and technologies will fail for one reason or another – they will be poorly managed, there will be some unforeseen problem that throws the business model into disarray, or they will simply be unlucky. This journal entry isn’t necessarily meant to highlight something that will definitely become a solution to the world’s problems, but is simply meant to illustrate one way that solutions are being developed to address seemingly dire issues, and how those solutions have the potential to make the world a much better place.

Tesla is in the process of building a massive lithium-ion battery plant that will double the world’s supply of lithium-ion batteries when it is running at full capacity. Business analysts are focusing on the fact that this factory will eat up a huge supply of the world’s lithium, driving up prices and potentially depleting the world’s reserves of this valuable element. These analysts suggest that the world simply won’t have what it needs, resulting in manufacturing shortages and disruption to the technology sector. Engineers, however, mostly ignore the business analysts in this case. So why the difference?

Concentrated lithium reserves are rare, but as a trace element lithium is the 25th most common element on earth – there are 230 billion tons of it in seawater alone. Current methods of extracting lithium involve processing it from salts and brine pools, which requires evaporation followed by disposal of potentially toxic byproducts. Queue the engineers. While the following may not end up being the solution to the world’s lithium needs, it provides an example of how engineering seems to always find solutions that defy the doom-and-gloom scenarios of business analysts.

Today, the three main problems with lithium production are:

  1. It is difficult to find sources of lithium that are concentrated enough to make production worthwhile.
  2. The energy costs associated with extracting lithium, whether via evaporation or some other processing method, can be high.
  3. Safe disposal of the byproducts left over after the lithium is extracted add additional cost.

Enter lithium extracted from geothermal wastewater. Geothermal plants drill into the earth’s crust to tap into superheated water which is brought to the surface, used to generate power, and then pumped back into the formation from which it was extracted. This geothermal water just so happens to be very high in mineral content, including valuable elements like lithium. Suddenly, the problems associated with lithium production are not so severe:

  1. Geothermal waters are high in mineral content, and the geothermal plant has already done the work of bringing that water up from the depths of the earth’s crust.
  2. The water is already superheated, greatly reducing the energy costs required for processing.
  3. The byproduct after extracting the valuable elements from this geothermal wastewater is no more toxic than what was extracted in the first place, and the geothermal plant already has the infrastructure in place for safely pumping it back to the formation from which it was originally extracted.

Making this method of lithium production an even bigger win, using geothermal wastewater for production of rare elements helps reduce the costs of geothermal power in two ways. First, a major issue faced by geothermal plants is the buildup of mineral deposits in the pipes used to return wastewater to the geothermal reservoirs, so extraction of some of those minerals reduces the wear and tear on the infrastructure, meaning pipes have to be replaced less often. Second, companies using the wastewater compensate the geothermal plant for providing the water, introducing an additional revenue stream for the plant. Thus, in the end the world gets both a cheaper, cleaner source of rare elements, and reduced costs for a renewable energy source.

In this particular example, the first attempt to extract lithium from geothermal wastewater has had a rocky rollout, with the first company to build a demonstration plant now facing funding difficulties, but a solution will be found. Where the majority of people see problems, the engineers of the world see potential solutions, and that gives me confidence that the worst of the world’s issues will eventually be solved; I’m excited to see what innovations will be created in the process.

April Recap

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:29 am, April 25th, 2015

April has been an uneventful month, but here’s the latest:

  • April 30 is my last day working with Bodybuilding.com after about four years on the project. This was my first time subcontracting through Commerce Architects, and I hope to be subcontracting with them on many future projects – Joe, Stuart and Jay have been great examples of how three friends can start a company and through hard work, intelligence, and good decision making create a place that is great for customers, owners, and the people working with them.
  • Audrey is continuing her long project up in San Francisco, although she’s been home twice in April for concerts and rehearsals. Not only has it been good to see her when she returns, but it has also prevented me from sinking too far into bachelor-mode; without anyone else in the house I tend to roam around all day in pajamas, order copious amounts of takeout, bathe irregularly, and watch far too many movies and TV shows that feature spaceships and superheroes.
  • My brother has always been at a sibling disadvantage in the game of life due to the fact that I have a four year head start over him, but he does his best to to stay competitive. In the latest example, at the age of 35 he has now sold his home in Livermore and purchased a new place in Sacramento, meaning that he has owned two houses at an age at which I had yet to buy my first. I’m happy listening to the sea lions from the backyard of my current home and will likely be here for a while, so given his predilection for completely uprooting himself every 2-3 years younger Holliday will almost certainly win this particular game by a large margin.
  • Ma & Pa just returned from a trip to Turkey, which might not have been on their TODO list had I not shared stories of doing gladiator impersonations in Roman ruins after my own visit last July. Early reports are that they had a great time, Pa enjoyed the food, and they’ll be anxiously awaiting the scouting reports from wherever it is that I choose to visit next.

Since May 1 will mark the start of a work-free period of undetermined length, and thus the first chance since the world tour to go exploring, hopefully next month will offer far more interesting subject material for future journal entries.

Brothers

Posted at 11:13 pm, March 31st, 2015

Sometimes, when it’s 11PM on the last day of the month and you’re one short of the three-entries-per month goal, you just post a bunch of old pictures of the person most related to you:

Meat Massacre 2003

Meat Massacre June 2003. Facial hair is a very, very bad idea for me, but chef hats are an extraordinarily great idea.

Me & Aaron

At the Cavs game back in January 2009. Eat tacos, wear Anderson Varejao wigs, and protect your nuts.

Aaron airborn in the Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon, April 2009. This photo was from the beginning of the hike, before the sun and the trail drained all energy from our bodies.

More Reasons for Optimism

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:29 pm, March 29th, 2015

In a continuing campaign to highlight good news in the world, here are a few more reasons to be optimistic:

  • The largest rat eradication program in history – eight times larger than the previous record – finished this month after a five year effort. The hope is that with the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia rat-free for the first time since the 1800s that it will again become the most important seabird breeding site in the world, a home for an estimated 100 million seabirds.
  • In a hopelessly divided Congress, a complex issue that legislators have been unable to permanently solve and that has annually threatened to cause major disruptions to the healthcare system since 1997 somehow finally found a solution and passed the House by an overwhelming vote of 392-37. Democrats got some things they wanted, Republicans got some things they wanted, a long-term problem finally found a solution, and for once Congress worked like it was supposed to.
  • Just a few months after the US created the world’s largest marine reserve at 490,000 square miles, Britain has created the largest contiguous marine reserve around the Pitcairn Islands. At 322,000 square miles it is three-and-half times the size of the entire UK and protects some of the most pristine ocean in the world.
  • Closer to home, the largest dam removal in California history is underway. The antiquated San Clemente dam is too full of silt to serve its original purpose as a reservoir, at 94 years old is a hazard in an earthquake prone area, and most importantly has blocked steelhead migrations on the Carmel River for generations. After years of planning it is coming down in 2015, restoring 25 miles of rivers for the fish. Reservoirs are important, and hydroelectric power is a great source of clean energy, but in places where dams have outlived their usefulness, removing them is a tremendous way to revitalize rivers (see also: Elwha River resotation in Washington, Penobscot River restoration in Maine).
  • On a more obscure note, no new antibiotic has been discovered in nearly three decades, and bacteria have been developing immunity to many of the known antibiotics. That changed recently with the discovery of a new type of antibiotic, and the hope that the process used to discover it may yield many more.

March Recap

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:18 pm, March 27th, 2015

Here’s the summary of life’s events over the past month:

  • The Casa now has a lovely new roof and five new skylights, installed in two days by a team that made clear that the basketball-sized holes in the underlying plywood were potental culprits in causing the leaks in the office ceiling. Following their departure we added tremendous new seamless gutters, installed expertly by the fine men of Eduardo Gutters (aka Eduardo and his buddy). The rain should now stay on the outside and drain nicely away from any termites that might be looking for accommodation with running water around our foundations. Yes, it is slightly sad that I have reached a point in life where gutters excite me greatly.
  • Audrey is working on a job in San Francisco for several months, but unfortunately was placed into housing in a not-so-nice part of Emeryville on the border with Oakland. My dream of having her fall in love with the Bay Area was not helped by the fact that my car was broken into on my first visit to see her, although she did enjoy Valentine’s Day dinner at Skates on the Bay and a concert by Brown Sabbath, a Latino funk band that plays Black Sabbath covers.
  • On my second trip to the Bay Area we joined Ma & Pa for dinner, where Pa made soup and then modeled his pretty socks with tiny hearts on them. A few days later we joined my brother for dinner at Chow in Lafayette, where our waiter was perhaps the most memorable any of us have ever encountered. His appearance alone was unique – scary thin with dark eyes – and after his first visit Aaron commented that “he seems like a Disney character”. What made him so memorable, however, were his mannerisms; as the gaunt fellow sauntered off he sang a never-ending series of “Beep bop boop”. He then returned, presented our drinks with a “Voila!”, then beep-bopped-booped on to the next table. We couldn’t quite figure out if his French accent was authentic or not, the singing never stopped, but the enthusiasm was charming and our food arrived without incident.
  • Yesterday I returned from what will likely be my final trip out to Boise and the bodybuilding.com headquarters. After almost four years of helping them grow massively I’m getting ready to move on to other projects. They’re a great group of people, and if anyone is ever looking for a job in that area then I can highly recommend checking them out.

The More You Know…

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:40 pm, February 28th, 2015

Confirmation bias is a well-studied aspect of human behavior that shows that people will interpret or cherry pick information in a way that confirms their own beliefs. In practice this means that in some cases, people who are more educated about a subject tend to be more adamant that an incorrect position is correct than those who are less educated on the same subject. This fact helps explain why no amount of additional info will convince someone who believes that vaccinations are harmful that their opinion is deeply flawed, or convince a global warming skeptic that 97% of climate scientists really do know what they are talking about, or convince someone who thinks that GMOs are inherently dangerous that 88% of scientists really do know what they are talking about.

A recent Facebook posting from National Geographic that referenced global warming as a likely cause of craters in Siberia provides an example of this bias. Assuming that National Geographic attracts a fairly educated audience, most of the comments still deny that current climate change is a problem created by man:

  • “The global warming or climate change theory is getting out of hand. The scare tactics don’t work on anyone with the ability to think and see for themselves. The planet goes through changes on its own and regardless of what anyone says it’ll continue long after man.” — Sean Stuart
    Cherry picking the fact that climate changes naturally reinforces his belief, despite the fact that no scientist denies natural climate fluctuations. The current concern is mostly with the rate of climate change – in past cycles ecosystems have been stressed even with centuries to adjust, while the current cycle is on a scale that will be measured in decades.
  • “Oh good grief. Really. The push the agenda through guilt routine is getting a little old.” – Judith Pannozo
    The mistaken belief that climate change is a hoax used to “push an agenda” can be reinforced by the fact that a search will reveal plenty of examples of groups mis-using science as a way to get what they wanted. However, the idea that the entire worldwide climate science community has somehow coordinated to coalesce around a fake explanation for current warming trends in order to achieve some undetermined goal (more environmentalism? more grant money?) both ignores how scientific peer review works, and requires a conspiracy that could only be successful if practically every scientist in the world was involved and none of those hundreds of thousands of scientists purposefully or accidentally revealed the conspiracy.
  • “The last two years michigan has had big time global warming. -42 below one of the many below zero temperatures that has lasted for months. I run around in flip flops cause its so warm and its getting hotter.” – Elaine Berry
    An individual’s view that the local winter weather is representative of global climate stands as evidence that the global theory is wrong. The misconception that “global warming” means that no place will ever see record cold misses the fact that climate change refers to average worldwide temperatures, and that while some places may actually get cooler, the average temperatures across Earth as a whole will increase. An analogy might be a prediction that if the NFL made touchdowns worth ten points instead of seven that average points per game would increase, and then claiming that because the Browns lost a single game by a score of 13-0 that the prediction had been proven wrong.
  • …and many more like those.

Given the reality that people cannot be convinced by providing them with more information, a lot of the world’s problems might seem hopeless – how do you solve a problem that a significant percentage of the population is dangerously misinformed about when more information will only reinforce their existing belief? What gives me hope is that while the population at large often despairs over such issues, anytime I sit down with a group of engineers the conversation is inevitably about understanding the problem and figuring out what solutions are viable. If society can’t be convinced to take action on an issue through the government, engineers search for other options. We already have the examples of Tesla Motors changing the paradigm on electric cars from “greenest vehicle” to “most desirable automobile”, and Solar City changing the paradigm on solar panels from “greenest solution” to “most economical solution”, and I’m optimistic that this trend will continue. It is probably too late to undo much of the inevitable environmental disruption that will ensue from climate change – sea levels will rise, animal populations will be displaced or disappear, and weather will become more severe – but in the end I honestly believe that the problem will be solved in spite of the fact that denial of the issue, reinforced by confirmation bias, makes the eventual solution far more difficult to reach.

Photographs and Memories

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:34 pm, February 26th, 2015

Exactly six months ago I was just over halfway through the world tour and spending my third day in Kruger National Park, and that is as good of an excuse as any to post some pictures from the trip that didn’t previously make it into the journal.

Gerenuk in Samburu Game Reserve

One of many animals that I previously never even suspected existed on this earth, the gerenuk likes to eat standing up. Taken in Samburu Game Reserve, Kenya on 20-August-2014.

White rhinoceros in Timbavati Game Reserve

Red-billed oxpecker. Taken in the Timbavati Game Reserve, South Africa on 28-August-2014.

Rockfig, Jr. in Timbavati Game Reserve

Best leopard in the world, Rockfig, Jr. Taken in the Timbavati Game Reserve, South Africa, on 29-August-2014.

Cape weaver in Oudtshoorn

Nature’s Christmas tree, brought to you by the cape weaver. Taken in Oudtshoorn, South Africa on 6-September-2014.

Coquerel's sifaka in Anjajavy

Coquerel’s sifaka enjoying tea time. Taken at Anjajavy, Madagascar on 13-September-2014.

Unfortunate Ryan

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:42 pm, February 22nd, 2015

One of the tricks to life is coming up with mental constructs to deal with difficult situations. Religion fills this role for a lot of people – when bad things happen the way to cope is by saying that it is God’s will, or a test of faith, or some other divine intervention. For me, using religion as an explanation for tragedy is tough since I’m unconvinced by the idea of the Creator spending His valuable time devising unfair and often petty difficulties for each and every creature in the universe, so other coping mechanisms are in order.

One of those coping mechanisms came out of a discussion with my brother ages ago. In one of our many, many unusual discussions that have occurred over the years Aaron started talking to me about Unfortunate Aaron – his twin out there somewhere in the universe, or maybe in a parallel dimension, who had the exact opposite fortunes. Aaron’s life was good, which meant Unfortunate Aaron’s life was bad. If Aaron got sick, Unfortunate Aaron finally got to enjoy a healthy day. If Aaron ducked a punch in a bar fight, Unfortunate Aaron got decked. It’s obviously a ludicrous proposition, but the idea of Unfortunate Aaron, and later Unfortunate Ryan, helped highlight how good things were for us, and gave us something stupid to smile about when things were bad. The most pointed example came on a fishing trip where Aaron got horrifically seasick. He must have thrown up a few dozen times, and at one point when I went inside the boat to find him curled up in the fetal position, his surprisingly upbeat attitude was that “Unfortunate Aaron is so happy not to be barfing for once!”

I’ll be the first to admit that the idea of a bizarro twin with the exact opposite fortunes of myself is a ridiculous idea with absolutely no basis in reality, but it’s an idea that still makes me feel better during bad times. I have a great life, and when things do get rough the thought of Unfortunate Ryan’s fortunes improving slightly highlights how good I have it most of the time. This idea of a shadow Ryan in a parallel universe is no more valid than that of an old guy in a toga who wants to micro-manage every hardship I might face, but it’s one that seems to allow me to put the inevitable bad times into perspective in a way that a bearded man on a cloud dishing out misery does not.

My House is not a Snack

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:21 pm, January 31st, 2015

Shockingly, Audrey and I have been homeowners for almost exactly three years now. Mostly because it’s interesting to me to go over the changes we’ve made to the house, here’s a list of the biggies, past, present and future:

  1. Shortly before moving in we had the asbestos in the ducts ripped out, on account of not wanting to get the cancer from our new home. While we planned on getting a new furnace and ducts installed shortly thereafter, we underestimated how long it would take and spent a couple of weeks in a house without heat braving record-low temperatures.
  2. The next big adventure was obviously getting a new furnace, ducts, and air conditioning installed. Today we have a magical touchscreen thermostat from the future that keeps our house very pleasant.
  3. Our backyard previously contained a star pine that was growing at an alarmingly non-vertical angle, and a giant ficus whose roots were almost certainly engaged in an underground battle with the foundations of the house. Luckily a man with a chainsaw from Free Green Tree Service quickly disassembled the Leaning Star Pine of Neosho, and a team of men with ropes and shovels descended to resolve our other issues.
  4. Plumbing is fun for every homeowner, and our house hasn’t been an exception. A new hot water heater, snaking of pipes, and other adventures have made us friendly with the local plumber. He also ran a gas line to our garage so that our laundromat no longer needed to be in a closet inside the house that smelled a bit mildewy. Now we have an extra closet and a dryer that plays happy music when it finishes drying.
  5. The most recent escapade involved fixing termite damage and tenting the house to ensure that any remaining bugs would move their buffet to the neighbors’ houses.
  6. Future excitement involves a roofer coming to charge gobs of money to replace the office and patio roofs. In addition, Eduardo the gutter man will be visiting to ensure that the rain stops draining directly into our foundations and providing drinking water delivery for termites that might wish to re-colonize our house. Longer term, in an effort to make it less drafty and simultaneously dampen the sounds of the neighbor’s dog’s constant barking, the ancient windows on the house will be going to the giant home improvement store in the sky.

Homeownership clearly has its challenges – every time the contractors told us the price for the above items the involuntary response was inevitably “DOH!” – but unlike when we were renting, the expenditures kind of feel like putting money in the bank, with the added bonus that we get to live in a house without leaks or creepy bugs.

Termite tenting

Sometimes when your house is getting eaten by bugs the only thing to do is to let it go camping for a few days.

2015 Predictions

Posted from Marina del Rey, California at 10:05 pm, January 28th, 2015

Based on my past track record the following predictions are statistically highly unlikely to come true – if you are looking for more accurate predictions, buy a magic eight ball or make use of a small herd of puppies. That said, I actually spent more time than normal trying to come up with well thought-out predictions for 2015, but history suggests that re-reading this list in twelve months will be an embarrassing endeavor:

  1. Hillary Clinton will announce she is running for President, and every Democrat of note including Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren will stay out of her way. Bernie Sanders is already in, but he is going to be the Ron Paul of 2016 for the Democrats, with lots of yard signs and spirited rallies, but no significant victories. On the Republican side, Sarah Palin will go through the motions but will eventually announce that she isn’t running.
  2. After the initial release of the Apple Watch in April, version 2.0 will follow quickly in time for the Christmas shopping season. I think calling this device a “watch” was a mistake, and my guess is that version 2.0 will be a significantly better device for monitoring health and fitness, and will appeal more broadly.
  3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens will open with the largest weekend box office in history. The Avengers holds the current record at $207 million.
  4. SpaceX will launch their Falcon Heavy rocket, have a successful test of their launch abort system (necessary before they can fly humans to space), and they will not only successfully land first stages, but they will have announced plans to re-use one of them on a future test flight. I love living in a time when space technology is again advancing rapidly.
  5. The Supreme Court will refrain from disallowing subsidies to individuals living in states that do not run their own health care marketplaces in King v. Burwell, and will affirm the federal right to marry for gay couples in a consolidated case. John Roberts seems to be walking a fine line between ensuring that the court isn’t viewed as political while at the same time giving justices some flexibility to vote their political conscience, so I would be a bit shocked if he seriously rocked the boat in either of these cases.
  6. Facebook is going to announce a significant new service that takes advantage of the massive user profile data sets that they have for their users. Mark Zuckerberg is no dummy, and with people facing Facebook fatigue and the available pool of new users shrinking, he must have something brewing. My guess is that while today you “friend” people that you already know, this new service might be more of a “suggestion” service, sort of like a match.com meets LinkedIn melded with Meetup, with Facebook serving as the accommodating host. It makes sense – Facebook has the user data to make such a system work, and it would give people a new reason to log on each day.
  7. I hate to jinx them, but I’m gonna go on record as saying I think the Cavs (currently 26-20 and #5 in the East) will make the NBA Finals, but won’t win. The East just isn’t that good, and I think the Cavs can run through every other team if they can stay focused in the playoffs.
  8. The new Republican Congress won’t do anything extreme like shut down the government over the budget or play chicken with the debt limit, but they also won’t pass any significant legislation such as changes to Obamacare, immigration reform, or tax reform. After the last election the Republicans have a weird mix of House members from deep red districts who want to show that they won’t compromise in any way and Senators from purple states who want to show that they are more moderate than their compatriots in the House, while the Democratic Senators will filibuster anything they see as too extreme, and I think the result of this mix will be a lot of inaction.
  9. The St. Louis Rams will announce plans to return to Los Angeles. There are any number of rumors out there about Jacksonville moving to LA, the Chargers coming to LA, AEG building a stadium, etc, but I think the Rams owner’s recent announcement that he will build a stadium near the Forum is the one that will actually result in a team coming back to America’s second largest TV market.
  10. Tesla will announce a battery pack upgrade for the Model-S. Battery technology has improved 20-30% since the first Model-S deliveries in June 2012, and with other manufacturers announcing electric vehicles with ranges that are starting to approach Tesla, I bet Elon will be anxious to prove that his company still offers technology that is generations ahead of the competition.
  11. As Europe’s financial situation has worsened, the value of the Euro against the dollar has gone from $1.35 down to $1.12. I suspect it will continue to drop for a few more months, but will rebound to at least $1.20 by the end of the year as exports pick up – the current drop of $0.23 makes a Mercedes nearly 20% cheaper, and I bet a lot of people wouldn’t mind twenty percent off a German luxury car.
  12. The Browns have ten draft picks in the upcoming draft, including two in the first round. Statistics have shown that it is better to trade down and amass picks, and I think Ray Farmer buys into that philosophy, so I’ll predict at least three trades in the Browns draft, netting at least one extra pick for next year. As to who they draft, I just hope they go for safe picks instead of grabbing talented QBs with bad attitudes and poor work ethics.
  13. Apple is going to announce a television. I’ve been wrong on this prediction repeatedly, but it’s something Apple has admitted to working on, and with 4K starting to take off, streaming media replacing DVDs, and a need for some sort of home automation hub, the time has never been better.
  14. Gas prices, currently at a national average of $2.04, will climb back over $3.00 by year’s end as supply is reduced and usage increases. I’ll peg the prediction range at $3.10 – $3.30.
  15. The Washington Post is going to make some bold moves in 2015 that will show how traditional print media can thrive in the digital world. Jeff Bezos is a smart guy, and pairing Amazon, a company that completely changed how we buy books, with the flagship newspaper of the nation’s capital, is bound to generate some interesting results.

There they are. You can let the mockery begin now, or you can wait until January 2016 to mock in hindsight. For the truly bold, the comments link is there for you to make your own predictions and show me how it should be done.

2014 Prediction Scorecard

Posted from Culver City, California at 1:17 pm, January 10th, 2015

First, to put the embarrassment that are my 2014 predictions into their proper context, here is the record of futility from past years:

  • 2009: 31% correct (5 of 16)
  • 2010: 44% correct (7.5 of 17)
  • 2011: 50% correct (7 of 14)
  • 2012: 40% correct (6 of 15)
  • 2013: 11% correct (1.5 of 14)

I can at least say that this year’s picks were only my second-worst showing of all time…

  1. Election predictions:
    1. Democrats will hold the Senate, barely, with their 55 member majority reduced to between 50-52 members.

      Not even close. Democrats lost nine seats. It was a horrible map for the blue team with many races in conservative states, and they will almost certainly regain several seats in 2016, but I was way off.

    2. The House will stay under Republican control – currently Republicans hold 234 seats, and after the election they will hold 224-234 seats.

      Again, not even close. Republicans gained thirteen seats for a total of 247. My understanding of the electorate clearly demonstrates why I will never be a politician.

  2. The values of Facebook (currently $56) and Twitter (currently $63) will both decline by at least twenty percent.

    Facebook closed the year at $78.02 and Twitter closed at $35.86. The number of people who seem to think “Farmville” is the key to gigantic revenues continues to confuse me. Zero-for-three with the predictions so far.

  3. Tiger Woods will win at least two major championships.

    Ouch. In 2014 he won… nothing. Nada. Only one top-25 finish all year. Granted, his back was messed up, but I still don’t see how the guy who was the Michael Jordan of golf suddenly looked more like the Michael Jordan of baseball. He’ll come back, but in the meantime I’m still not on the scoreboard.

  4. No significant new laws will be passed in the areas of gun control or immigration reform prior to the mid-term elections.

    HE’S ON THE BOARD. I continue to believe that it’s simply impossible – logistically and from an economic standpoint – to kick eleven million people out of the country and then deal with the repercussions that come from losing a significant portion of the country’s low-income workers. Thus it seems like Republicans should just pass something to get this issue out of the way, deal with the fallout, and stop it from continuing to hurt them with the nation’s fastest growing minority. Despite my clearly omniscient advice, the House never put the Senate’s immigration bill up for a vote during the entire 113th Congress, so immigration will again be a major reason for Latinos to vote Democrat in 2016.

  5. Google is going to make some sort of HUGE move into the entertainment space.

    I was probably two years too early on that one. It’s coming – Google and Apple are the only ones who could pull it off, and both of them will do something eventually.

  6. Lebron James will re-sign with the Heat, as will Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh.

    BEST WRONG PREDICTION EVER. Granted, the Cavs still aren’t winning very much, but at least now they win occasionally, the games are entertaining enough to be televised, and Aaron and I again have reason to break out the Anderson Varejao wigs.

  7. Apple’s share of the tablet market will drop another ten percent to less than twenty percent of the total tablet market by the end of 2014.

    The most recent data available had Apple dropping to 22.8% in the third quarter of 2014, but that percentage was expected to jump slightly in the fourth quarter due to the new iPads being released, thus missing my 20% target. I continue to be bad at understanding technology.

  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. Finally, they will not have moved forward on their plans for a battery factory.

    The Model X is now scheduled for release in early 2016 – Tesla makes unbelievable automobiles, but is horrible at estimating release dates. They opened their first battery swap station in December, and I was very, very wrong about them putting off building a battery factory – they have staked their future on the Gigafactory, which is now being built outside of Reno. I am usually better at the Tesla predictions, and the scorecard falls to an impossibly low one-for-nine.

  9. The next evolution of TV – 4K resolution – will be well underway by year’s end. 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.

    4K televisions were all over Best Buy this past Christmas, but content is still next-to-impossible to find, with only Netflix making much content available in 4K. More out of self-pity than anything else I’m giving myself half credit here, bumping the tally up to a pitiful 1.5 correct.

  10. The Browns will draft a quarterback with their first pick, and whoever they get is not going to be successful.

    They traded the #4 overall pick, then picked Justin Gilbert, a cornerback, with the #8 pick, and also took Johnny Manziel with the #22 pick. I’ve never been a fan of Johnny Football, and am even less of one after seeing what he did this past season, but despite their picks not panning out, at the time it seemed like a far better draft than I was expecting. Hopefully the extra first-round pick this year turns into someone who is best known for his prowess on the field, and not for photos of him drinking in a pool while riding on an inflatable swan.

  11. Following Colorado and Washington, California and at least two others states will vote to de-criminalize marijuana use.

    Didn’t happen, although Jack-in-the-Box didn’t seem to care and launched an entire “Munchie Meal” campaign aimed at potheads.

  12. Apple and Google will both unveil products and strategies that will focus those companies heavily on home automation.

    This one will happen, but it didn’t happen in 2014 to the extent that I expected. We should have motion detectors tied to smart lights that are tied to smart water heaters that work with smart thermostats that sync up with smart sprinklers, all updated from the internet and controlled from cell phones. I mean, it’s 2015 – Marty McFly is supposed to be getting chased by Griff on a hoverboard by now!

There it is: 1.5 out of 13 (12%). Had I made one more pick I might have tied 2013’s record of futility. Getting the Lebron pick wrong at least softens the blow – even if the Cavs aren’t winning, basketball is more fun when the NBA’s best player is on your favorite team. Now onwards to 2015, when the picks have to go better, don’t they?

Cool Stuff in 2014

Posted from Culver City, California at 6:42 pm, December 31st, 2014

Mostly because it’s fun for me to put these lists together, for the final post of 2014 here’s a look back at some news events that I got excited about:

  • SpaceX Reusable Rockets – The important caveat is that SpaceX hasn’t yet landed and re-used a rocket, but this year they figured out how to take a first stage that was plummeting back towards earth at multiple times the speed of sound, slow it down, and fire its rockets so that it could “land” vertically on a pre-determined spot in the ocean. That’s a really big deal, and their next launch is going to attempt to vertically land a rocket on a floating platform. It is an awesome time to be a fan of spaceships.
  • Transbay Center – The “Grand Central Station of the West Coast” finally began poking its head above ground this year, with the first structural steel being put into place during the past few months. When completed, this massive development will be the home for California High Speed Rail, Caltrain, Muni, buses, and will be the heart of a new San Francisco neighborhood.
  • Los Angeles subwayGround was actually broken for a subway to the Westside in Los Angeles, and the residents of Hell all donned jackets. If ever there was a city in need of vastly improved mass transit it is LA, and slowly but surely the situation is improving.
  • Tesla Gigafactory – Tesla announced that it will be building a battery factory outside of Reno that will produce more lithium-ion cells in a single facility than are produced by all other manufacturers in the world combined, with the goal of dropping prices on their battery packs by one-third and giving them the ability to quickly innovate on a core component. This move has huge ramifications for US manufacturing (Reno?!?! What other commodity technology isn’t built in Asia?), energy storage (see JB’s talk to understand how energy storage is going to massively change the world), and Tesla’s future automobiles.
  • Solar technology – Related to the previous item, solar panel prices have gotten dramatically cheaper over the past few years, to the point where solar power is now cost-competitive with grid electricity in many places. There is no reason to believe that trend shouldn’t continue for the immediate future, which will mean that many homeowners may soon be choosing between solar panels and a local battery storage unit versus paying more for power from the electric company. Suddenly power that produces no CO2 emissions looks like it could become a dominant force in the world market, and the environmental outlook begins looking a bit less grim.
  • National parks – Somehow in a deeply polarized Congress, the Defense Bill included an amendment that initiated the largest expansion of the US national parks since 1978, adding 120,000 acres to the national park system. Combined with an earlier executive action that created the largest marine protected area in the world, it is not all doom and gloom on the environmental front.

I’m sure I’ve probably missed some obvious stuff (Europe landed a probe on a comet!), but that’s a decent sample of things that excited me during the year. Hopefully 2015 will continue the trend – we live in exciting times.

SpaceX vertical rocket landing test, showing off the grid fins used for steering the rocket during its supersonic descent. Also, there are some cows that get freaked out at the two-and-a-half minute mark.

Catching Up, Part 4

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:06 pm, December 29th, 2014

Here’s an attempted wrap-up of the events that have occurred in the two months since knee surgery:

  • Two days after knee-surgery I returned to work for Bodybuilding.com. After seeing the amazingly tough working conditions faced by people in Africa, and seeing them face those conditions without the slightest complaint, it doesn’t seem bad at all to be back to the grind in front of a laptop at a table in my comfy kitchen each morning.
  • Thanksgiving was again spent in the Bay Area with the family. Audrey and I drove up north a few days early, and I worked from a hotel room in Redwood City while she got to spend a couple of days with her best friend. Aaron and I also had a night to visit not-Ramen Dojo and the old man band bar in San Mateo. For Thanksgiving, Ma Holliday did her magic and prepared an amazing dinner, after which Audrey walked away with the Balderdash crown, much to my dad’s dismay.
  • Audrey had many singing gigs during the holidays, including a performance with the De Angelis Vocal Ensemble that took place at St. Basil’s Catholic Church in downtown LA. Following that performance we asked the always-interesting Brett and Susie about any fun spots nearby to grab a drink, and since they know every cool bar in LA we were soon at a German-Korean pub eating shortrib nachos, bratwurst, edamame, and massive steins of beer. Making things even more interesting was the girl at the next table, dressed in a full elf costume, and handing out some very impressive balloon animals (“I just finished working a party” she said. “And she’s really, really bored now” noted her tablemate).
  • After a glorious night spent sleeping in the back of the Subaru in a truck stop parking lot, I made the annual pre-dawn visit to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, then it was on to Ma & Pa’s house for the Christmas festivities. Aaron arrived with Superman and Batman costumes in hand, and a bewildered Ma wondered how she ended up with two boys who, in their late thirties, were still wandering around the house in superhero outfits. Pa then came home, games were played, and on Christmas day we unveiled a new receiver and soundbar for the folks. A surprisingly lengthy amount of setup time later, and Casa Holliday now has a fairly solid home entertainment system.

And now, after four entries spread out over a full month, the journal is again current and ready to ring in 2015. More than twelve years since the first entry, what was originally just a way to avoid writing emails has turned into a record of nearly one-third of my life, and I’m grateful to the twos of readers who continue to check in regularly to share it.

Catching Up, Part 3

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:31 pm, December 27th, 2014

It took me long enough to get to “Part 3″ of the “Catching Up” series that there will likely need to be a “Part 4″, and possibly even a “Part 5″, in order to get back up-to-date. Timely journal entries are apparently not my thing. The last entry covered Scare the Children 2014, and this one gets us through the beginning of November when I went into the hospital for my first-ever surgery.

First, some history: back in 2011 I was running a lot and getting back into good shape, then in August of that year I felt a crunch in my knee while on the treadmill and wasn’t able to run again without my knee swelling up to impressive size. I went in to Kaiser, my insurance provider at the time, and told them I had probably torn something in my knee. I gave them my running history, let them know that I had experienced several minor injuries over the years and knew the difference between soreness and something more serious, and then waited to see if an X-ray would be sufficient of if they would need to schedule an MRI. Apparently neither was in the cards: despite my protestations that something was very wrong I was sent home with instructions to ice the knee and take aspirin. Combined with previous bad experiences, that was the last time I ever went to Kaiser.

Unfortunately, as a self-employed person, I was in a position where I could not switch insurance providers without facing the dreaded “pre-existing condition” denial of coverage. While Obamacare is obviously hated by some, the law’s ban on using pre-existing conditions as a reason to deny coverage was a godsend for me, so I waited until it went into full effect on January 1, 2014, and after fighting with the Covered California website and with the overwhelmed Anthem Blue Cross, I finally switched to insurance that allowed me to see a sports medicine doctor. I visited UCLA, was quickly scheduled for an MRI, and was diagnosed with a torn meniscus. Apparently the normal protocol is to try to resolve such things via physical therapy, but despite a few months of twice-weekly visits and lots of exercises I was never able to run more than two miles without having knee pain the following day.

By the time it was clear that physical therapy wasn’t going to resolve things it was too close to the 2014 World Tour to schedule surgery, but shortly after returning home from Africa I met with one of the best knee surgeons on the West Coast and made an appointment to get sliced up. At 6:30AM on November 4 Audrey took me into the hospital, and an hour later an anesthesiologist told me “c’mon, take a deeper breath than that”. An hour after that my eyes opened, and then they wheeled me out of the hospital. Two days later I was walking, and as of last week I’ve been given clearance to try running again on a limited basis. Christmas day Aaron and I went for a short run around the neighborhood, and so far the knee has remained its normal size. Since pounding concrete sidewalks hurt my knees even before the meniscus tear I’m waiting for our treadmill to be repaired before trying to run again, but for the first time in over three years I’m cautiously optimistic that I may yet be able to resume the only sport I was ever good at.

Catching Up, Part 2

Posted from Culver City, California at 4:32 pm, November 30th, 2014

One of Audrey’s stipulations when we were planning the 2014 World Tour was that we had to be back in time for Halloween and Scare the Children – the annual yard haunt is a big deal for her. This was my fourth child-scaring extravaganza (see also: 2005, 2012, 2013) and the best one yet. Some highlights of this year’s event:

  • I once again was tapped to play the invisible man, but a change in lighting meant that it wasn’t dark enough for me to hide in the entryway without being seen. As a result I took up candy-dispensing duties, sitting completely motionless in the entryway until someone reached into the bucket to take a piece of candy. There were more than a few “is he real” comments, followed by more than a few yells when the answer was determined.
  • Our newest addition this year was Brett, fully mic’d with sound processors, up in a tree. He managed the right mix of funny and creepy to keep things lively. We got everything from “Beware of the man in the clown suit! Or is it a clown in a man suit, with an even smaller man buried deep inside?” to “Go to the door and get some candy – there’s nothing to be afraid of… except for all of the things along the way that you should be afraid of.”
  • The stars of the show were again the most frightened kids. A significant number of trick-or-treaters made it past the garage, but when faced with the prospect of walking up the darkened entryway to a black figure in a chair, paused, repeatedly said “I don’t want to do it!”, and then moved on to the next house.
  • Audrey’s friend Jocelyn joined the party this year and was given “girl in the coffin” duty, a task made all the more difficult by the fact that it’s tough to act creepy when you’re doubled over in laughter because the guy with the microphone in the tree is such a fun weirdo.

See the Scare the Children Facebook page for more photos. We’ll be back at it again for Halloween 2015.

Scare the Children 2014

The coffin-lady, the scary (yet understanding) clown, a yard walker, and, far in the background, a soon-to-be-scared child. It was another good year.

Catching Up, Part I

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:01 am, November 29th, 2014

A lot has happened since the return from overseas, so this will be the first of probably three entries about the past six weeks…

Shortly after returning from Madagascar I had to fly to Pittsburgh for a funeral – my last grandparent died while I was in South Africa, and a memorial service was held on October 28, although it wasn’t a sad occasion since she was an awesome lady, and lived a great life that lasted into her 90s. During the service I saw two cousins who I haven’t seen in 20 years, an aunt I haven’t seen since I was a teenager, and other folks that had faded to just memories but were suddenly transformed back into flesh-and-blood. Following the service Aaron decided that when in Western Pennsylvania one should shoot guns, and our cousin obliged and met us at our aunt’s farm with a selection of firearms, after which many targets and clay pigeons were missed completely.

Prior to the memorial service I had flown into Cleveland, and shockingly had an amazing day roaming around in the Mistake by the Lake. In the morning I met my former prom date for breakfast; having not seen her since 1994, it was like one of those movies where you get to see what someone will be like twenty years in the future, except for the fact that twenty years into the future is now. From there it was off to my high school track to relive the glory days, and from there off to a few of my favorite teenage hangouts amidst some impressive Fall color. Afterwards I made a visit to my college campus, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History – as I was looking at the exotic animal collections, rock collections, and human history exhibits it was clear that this museum was at least part of the inspiration for many of the crazy trips I’ve done in my life.

Following the cultural events I decided it was time to go lowbrow, so I jumped on the NFL ticket exchange, and ten minutes later had procured a ticket in the seventh row behind the Browns bench for $75. As if going to a Browns game for the first time since the 1980s and being spitting distance from my favorite team while wearing a Bernie Kosar jersey wasn’t enough, they actually shocked everyone and won a game, something that has been a most improbable occurrence in recent history.

The next day involved a visit to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and two days later Aaron and I made the trek up to Holliday Rd to visit our candy-making uncle and aunt before heading down to Amish country to see our parent’s alma mater and do some imbibing at the Fractured Grape.

On the departure from both Los Angeles and Pittsburgh I was given a thorough check by security – apparently it will be a while before my name is taken off of the terrorist watch list – with the security guy providing play-by-play on everything he was doing (“I am now going to run my hand up your inner thigh until I encounter resistance”). All in all an eventful trip down memory lane and through the land where I spent most of my formative years.

Shooting guns in Western Pennsylvania

Only one of the people pictured knew what he was doing with a gun, and it wasn’t either of the ones named “Holliday”. Also, I was a deadly man-weapon while firing the Cricket.

The World Tour Revisited

Posted from Redwood City, California at 5:56 pm, November 24th, 2014

Nearly six weeks after returning home, here’s one last post about the world tour via four photos that didn’t originally make it into the journal but are good enough that my brain smiles when I see them.

Zebra in the Masai Mara Reserve

The zebra either ran away (rare) or ignored us (common). Getting two of them to both stay close to the vehicle and also look at us was an unusual occurrence.

Elephant in the Samburu Game Reserve

Elephant in the Samburu Game Reserve. I miss hanging out with elephants.

Sacred Ibis in Montagu

Sacred ibis in Montagu. If you thought this photo was taken from the sidewalk next to a four-way intersection, you would be correct.

Rice fields along RN7 in Madagascar

Rice fields along RN7 in Madagascar. Audrey wins the prize for best landscape photographer of the trip, and actually got a nicer photo of this scene than I did, but I get to claim credit for asking the driver to stop the car as the sun was going down so that we could hop out and take a photo.

Debriefing

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:41 am, October 31st, 2014

After three months of daily journal entries, it’s been nice to take a short break, but there are a few final details from the trip that are worth recording. Our ride home was back-to-back twelve hour flights on Airbus A380s, which are the largest passenger planes on the planet. Audrey noted afterwards “we should always fly on that one”.

Prior to the flight from London back to Los Angeles I handed my ticket to the guy at the gate, after which a red light started flashing on the ticket machine. I was taken aside for what I assumed was a random security screening, but the guy doing the screening said he was from the US embassy and spent five minutes asking some oddly-specific questions about my trip before having all of my bags thoroughly searched. Apparently with the craziness going on in Iraq and Syria right now, the fact that I had purchased a one-way ticket to Istanbul and then shown up randomly in London three months later raised red flags in whatever computer system monitors such things. I assumed the ordeal was done once the embassy guy had verified I wasn’t up to anything bad, but once back in LA the immigration guy had a red light show up on his screen, and I was taken to the little room on the side of the immigration hall to tell my story again. During the past week I had to fly to the Midwest, and the red lights reappeared while going through security on both my outgoing and return domestic flights. As a result, I was given a very thorough and intimate pat-down during which the TSA guy informed me he would run his hand up my thigh “until I encounter resistance” – I had the option to have this done in a private room, but figured I might as well provide an entertaining show for everyone waiting in the security line. Simultaneous to the genitalia examination my carry-ons were disassembled and put through the machine that sniffs out bomb juice, so it looks like flying may be extra fun until I can figure out how to clear my name.

Aside from erotic pat-downs, there hasn’t been a lot of excitement since returning home, and the return to “normal” life hasn’t been the shock that might have been expected. Since Antananarivo wasn’t as beautiful as the rest of Madagascar (*cough* sewage in the streets *cough*), having it as our final destination made it easier to leave, and coming home to a familiar bed while no longer having to live out of a backpack are both pretty nice things. There have been a few other developments worth noting since our return, but since journal entries are harder to write when the days aren’t filled with lemurs and elephants I’ll save those to recap in a future entry.

Ending with Purring Cheetahs

Posted from London Heathrow International Airport, United Kingdom at 7:55 pm, October 9th, 2014

We were struggling to find a decent activity to fill our last half day in Johannesburg, and finally settled on the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve, which wouldn’t have made the cut had there been other options, but given the activities available seemed like the best way to pass a few hours before our flight. Adding to the list of borderline-questionable animal activities that we’ve participated in while visiting South Africa, we ponied up a few extra rand and got five minutes of petting time with two lion cubs (useful advice given by the park staff regarding the lion cubs: “that one is gentle, and this one might bite you”) and an adult cheetah, in the process discovering that cheetahs purr when you pet them. The girl was happy, the cheetah sounded very happy, and based on everything I read the place is actually doing some good in the world so I was happy that we weren’t violating any wildlife ethical standards by passing the time there. In addition to hands-on time with cats, the park contains thousands of acres of open space with animals roaming about happily, and our drive through that area was quite nice.

Now we’re waiting in London Heathrow airport, with one eleven hour flight done and another to go before we get back to Los Angeles. With the trip at its end this will be the last journal entry about our world travels, so here are some statistics on the trip, since I’m an engineer and engineers like statistics:

  • Total trip duration: 87 days.
  • Five countries visited (Turkey, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Madagascar). Four continents visited (North America, Europe, Asia, Africa).
  • Twenty-two flights.
  • Days spent in countries that drive on the right side of the road: 41. Days spent in countries that drive on the wrong side of the road: 44.
  • Ostriches ridden: 1
  • Number of trip photos currently on my laptop: 3,324.
  • Number of times I barfed while in foreign countries: zero (unprecedented).

It will feel odd to be home again after such a lengthy adventure, although it will also be nice not to be living out of a backpack for the first time since July. Thanks to everyone who read along as Audrey and I roamed the earth – hopefully there will be more adventures to share in the future.

Update: video of Audrey and the purring cheetah. Make sure your volume is up.

Veloma, Madagascar

Posted from Johannesburg, South Africa at 8:58 pm, October 7th, 2014

Air Mad flew on time today, so after a 3AM wakeup our plane was off the ground at 6AM, and, for the first time in a month, I was brushing my teeth with tap water and eating a salad only a few hours later. We visited a mall with more ATMs in it than exist in the entire country of Madagascar, saw a traffic light for the first time in four weeks, and generally marveled at the efficiency with which the first-world operates. Madagascar will be missed, but there are many things that are nice to again experience as we make the long journey home.

In Transit

Posted from Antananarivo, Madagascar at 9:39 pm, October 6th, 2014

Our Air Madagascar flight yesterday was delayed from 4:20 until 7:40 PM, so after returning by boat from our island we lounged at a restaurant for several hours before heading to the airport. Once at the airport we boarded the plane, but thirty minutes later were told to disembark (no reason was given). An hour after that we noticed the Malagasy passengers queuing in front of the ticket counter, and when we went in to find out what was going on discovered that our flight was cancelled and that we would be given hotel vouchers. Another hour passed waiting for our voucher, and minutes after we got it we were told not to leave the airport because a new plane was enroute, and that we would actually be flying out just after midnight. When all was said and done we ended up departing at 1:30 AM, nine hours later than originally scheduled, and arrived at our hotel in Tana after 3:00 AM. We apologized profusely to the driver who was waiting for us (luckily he had been informed of the schedule changes and hadn’t been waiting all day), but he merely shrugged and said “Air Mad” – apparently everyone expects a little chaos from the national airline.

This morning we rolled out of bed at the ungodly-late hour of 8:30, and then ate breakfast with several of the other guests at this B&B. The Tripadvisor reviews had noted that this place is popular with NGOs and researchers, so unsurprisingly our meal companions were a girl doing anthropology research from Colby College and a guy working for an NGO to protect a very rare duck. Their experience of Madagascar has been much different from ours, and the stories were good ones. We did mention the “lemur on your shoulder” experiences that we’ve had, and the duck zoologist weighed in by noting that when he and his colleagues have talked about such experiences, the general consensus was that “having a brown lemur perched atop your head is, no matter how you look at it, a very, very cool thing”. Also of note was that his girlfriend weighed in on the Malagasy diet, stating that she had nothing against rice at lunch and dinner, but remained “quite offended” at seeing it for breakfast. In her words: “serving it with a sausage does not make it breakfast food”. Needless to say, the company was appreciated.

Tana is a bit of a rough town – the air is filled with auto exhaust, the streets aren’t clean, and everything seems a bit jumbled together – so while we did take some time to walk around today, this is probably the best way to end our visit to Madagascar, since it will be hugely sad to leave this amazing country, but far less sad to leave its capital. The alarm is set for a 2:50 AM wake-up, with a car set to zip us off to the airport at 3:00 AM in preparation for what will hopefully be a 6:00 AM flight departure, barring further shenanigans from Air Mad.

The Beginning of the End

Posted from Nosy Be, Madagascar at 5:41 pm, October 5th, 2014

This entry is being written from inside of the Nosy Be airport as we await our flight back to Antananarivo. Earlier today we caught the boat from Nosy Tsarabanjina back to Nosy Be, thus starting the long trip home. We scheduled a full day in the capital, just in case Air Madagascar decided to try anything funny with the flight schedules, so we’ll be in Tana all day tomorrow, and we then depart for Johannesburg at 6AM the following day. We’ve got about thirty-six hours in South Africa (again, just in case Air Madagascar does anything funny), after which it’s two back-to-back eleven hour flights, with a four hour stop in between in London. At some point four days from now we should be walking through the door of our home back in Los Angeles.

There have been a few random observations that didn’t make it into past journal entries, so the end of the trip seems as good of a time as any to record them:

  • Nearly everything in Madagascar is handmade, since people don’t have spare money and thus just make things themselves. One exception are the shirts – almost without fail, everyone wears a t-shirt that appears to have shown up in a donation bin from America. Most of the French and Malagasy-speaking locals seem to have no idea what the writing on these shirts says, so we’ve run into everything from an old woman with a local high school JV softball sweatshirt to a very old man on a bike with “It ain’t bragging if you back it up” written across his chest.
  • Everyone who has anything to do with tourism wants to learn as many languages as possible, and never misses a chance to practice. Until you figure out what’s going on it’s very confusing as to why every driver is so very interested in your thoughts on the weather, if you’ve seen lemurs yet, and whether or not you like mangoes.
  • The fishing boats are always handmade wooden structures, and usually tiny. Only one has had a name painted on the side – in Nosy Komba we saw three young kids in the smallest boat we had yet encountered, which seemed to be taking on water as fast as they could bail it out. The sail was the size of a beach towel and dragged in the water, but the kids clearly loved their boat. As they pulled it up onto the shore the name written on the side finally became readable: “Titanic”.
  • Zebu herders come in all sizes, from old men down to tiny kids. Just like bar patrons back home, the smaller the herder the meaner they are – a three year old with a stick is a zebu’s worst nightmare. In the south we actually saw one youngster beating on a zebu’s back while holding the poor beast’s tail and riding along behind like a waterskier.

Diving at Night

Posted from Nosy Tsarabanjina, Madagascar at 3:45 pm, October 4th, 2014

I did my first-ever night dive last night – the clown fish from the daylight dives were replaced by lobsters and a basketball-sized crab walking around with a sponge on his back (apparently wearing sponges is a thing), but for the most part it was much like a daytime dive except with different animals and less light. The divemaster was a bit of an unusual case – sort of a control freak, which to a small extent is a good thing in a divemaster, but this perhaps carried too far: he insisted on having our BCDs buckled for us, was explicit that we not put on equipment until he gave the OK for each item, required I wear a dive computer in case we got separated from the group despite the fact that our dive was only to a depth of eight meters, etc. Perhaps had we already done one hundred dives things might have been different, but with credit only for thirty dives we earned the kindergarten treatment.

Today we did two more dives, this time at two of the four “Brothers”, which are pinnacles that rise out of the sea about fifteen minutes from Nosy Tsarabanjina. The ride out to them was beautiful, with crystal blue water and birds flying through the sky. On the first dive I was using a different wet suit from the night dive, thus changing my buoyancy, and when the divemaster told everyone to descend I deflated my BCD… and nothing happened. I tried everything that had been taught during certification – pressing my BCD to force out any remaining air, exhaling, rolling in the water to remove any air pockets on my back – but nothing worked. The divemaster was disappearing into the depths, so I started swimming towards the boat to get more weight, at which point the divemaster finally noticed me and angrily gestured for me to descend. Not knowing the hand signal for “not enough weight”, and not wanting to use the hand signal that jumped immediately to mind, I held up my dump valve to indicate that I was empty on air, at which point he surfaced and yelled at me for swimming in the wrong direction. He called the boat and more weight was procured, after which he again scolded me, told me to kick to the wall, and I finally descended short of breath and using up too much of my precious tank of air. I pride myself on being able to keep a fairly even temper, but had a cartoonist drawn the moment there likely would have been a tiny storm cloud over my head and wavy black lines next to my temples. The end result was that the first dive seemed nice, but the voices muttering in the brain prevented enjoying the experience properly.

After finishing the dive, returning to our island for a surface interval and new tanks, and then departing again for the second dive I spotted a small whale just offshore and only a short distance from our boat, and any bad feelings somehow instantly departed – seeing an animal that big in the water at a reasonably short distance is a wonderful way to cure cartoon storm clouds. The second dive was tremendous – we swam through schools of thousands of small yellow fish, a sea turtle wandered up to me to exchange pleasantries, birds were nesting on the cliff walls, colorful sponges and corals filled the seascape, and all was again well with the world.

Tomorrow we have to depart Fantasy Island late in the morning, and sadly from that point onwards we’ll mostly be in transit. It’s tough to believe that a three month odyssey spanning five countries could ever come to an end, but all good things have their conclusion, and the beginning of the end is (unbelievably) approaching.

“Helllloooo!” says that sea turtle.

Fantasy Island Revisited

Posted from Nosy Tsarabanjina, Madagascar at 9:00 pm, October 2nd, 2014

We booked two fancy resorts on this trip. The first one we booked for its wildlife, and Audrey dubbed it Fantasy Island. The second one we booked for the scuba diving opportunities, and this one is actually on a private island and is just as deserving of the “Fantasy Island” moniker. Nosy Tsarabanjina is a tiny little island 40 kilometers from Nosy Be with white sand beaches and jagged volcanic/coral coastlines. I walked around the entire island in about two hours, but it’s small enough that had the path been easier, and had I not been stopping at every tide pool to gawk at mudskippers, the trek probably would have taken less than thirty minutes.

The plan had been to do some scuba diving while here, but while catching the boat to the island we met the (apparently only) divemaster returning to Nosy Be, so tomorrow we might get a night dive if he’s back, but we should hopefully get two dives in the following day. In the interim, snorkeling, birdwatching, and generally lounging around a tropical island will have to be sufficient – our lives continue to not be bad in any way.

Madagascar fish eagle in Nosy Tsarabanjina

The Madagascar fish eagle is the rarest bird of prey in Africa, with around two hundred breeding pairs left in the wild.

Two Entries in One

Posted from Nosy Be, Madagascar at 4:57 pm, October 1st, 2014

This entry will have to cover two days – I was built for cold, not sun, and way too much of the latter during our multiple hours of snorkeling at Nosy Tenikely led to me stumbling into bed last night around six o’clock. All systems have not yet returned to full operational mode, but on a positive note I should be shedding several unneeded layers of skin soon.

Yesterday’s big adventure was a visit to the lemur-jumping-on-you village on Nosy Komba. The villagers who guide the trip feed the lemurs bananas, so it’s a bit wrong in the “don’t feed the wildlife” sense of things, but at the same time the territory for these lemurs would be adjacent to the village anyhow, so it felt more like feeding the ducks back home than feeding completely wild animals. The end result was a lack of guilt when the guide yelled “maki maki maki” and a troop of the hairy beasts came scurrying down from the trees, jumped on Audrey and me, and began chowing down on the bananas we had on offer. Right or wrong, it’s a very, very cool experience when a lemur wraps its long fingers around your hand and has lunch inches from your head.

Following the lemur extravaganza, the effects of the previous day’s sun exposure were beginning to become evident, so we headed back to our lodge, I rallied for another brief snorkel trip, and was then mostly operating from another planet while we packed up our things, handed a brick of 10,000 Ariary notes to our hosts (10,000 Ariary = $4, and the lodge was cash only), then took the boat back to the strangely-named harbor town of Hell-ville before hopping in a taxi to the Vanilla resort on the northwest coast of Nosy Be. If anything else happened during that time I don’t recall – the next thing I remember is waking up at 2AM and thinking that I should have set an alarm.

Today we got our first scuba trip in the Indian Ocean. The guide had warned us that visibility was poor, but apparently “poor” visibility here means “normal” visibility anywhere else in the world, so both dives were good ones. The variety of corals here is ridiculous, the fish didn’t seem to be very afraid of GoPros, and the depth was shallow enough that being completely out of practice for diving still allowed for two dives that were each longer than an hour. Following our morning dive I apparently slept for another two hours, although I’ve decided that today is the last day allowed for sun lethargy, and that tomorrow all systems will be fully operational no matter what.

Black lemur in Nosy Komba

It’s still a wild lemur, even if it does race down from the trees when the villagers (and accompanying tourists) show up with bananas.

Audrey and black lemur in Nosy Komba

Both the girl and the lemur had much happiness.

Life is Good

Posted from Nosy Komba, Madagascar at 7:00 am, September 30th, 2014

Imagine swimming in a gigantic fish tank owned by an eccentric billionaire whose sole passion in life was tropical fish and coral. In such a scenario there would be every type of fish imaginable, a huge variety of corals, and a weird little sea cucumber, urchin, or other oddity under every rock. Now, instead of a giant fish tank, imagine that setting can be found in the actual ocean, and you can get a sense of what our day was like yesterday. The waters around Nosy Tanikely feel more like something that is too perfect to be natural, with warm temperatures, sea turtles, somewhere around ten gazillion fish, and all sorts of other stuff that keeps you in the water long enough to turn a bright shade of red, despite multiple coats of sunscreen. Judged by any metric other than UV exposure, yesterday was a very, very good day.

In addition to its amazing waters, the land portion of Nosy Tanikely is home to a small group of introduced brown lemurs that came running down from the trees when the guide called them and held out some fruit. There are giant fruit bats, white sandy beaches, and just about everything that one would include if creating the perfect tropical island. We even got a gourmet lunch on the sand at noon – the locals apparently sail out and cook up kabobs and fish and rice and salad each day, and then build makeshift tables in the sand where lunch is served to sunburned tourists. It was a far cry from the mud and rough terrain of Mantadia National Park, and showed yet another side of this incredible country.

This morning we’re off to get Audrey her last chance for lemur hugging in the morning, and after that we sadly have to move on from this incredible lodge to our next stop on the main island of Nosy Be. Nosy Komba will be missed.

Snorkeling with sea turtles is yet another activity that will never, ever get old.

Swiss Family Robinson, but French

Posted from Nosy Komba, Madagascar at 8:58 pm, September 28th, 2014

Holy mother of pearl did we score with tonight’s lodging. Nosy Be is an island off of the northwest coast of Madagascar that is famous for its beaches and marine life, and there are a number of tiny islands surrounding it that contain smaller lodges. We’re staying on Nosy Komba in the Nosy Komba Lodge, which has just three cottages, is empty of visitors at the moment aside from Audrey and me, and is run by the most lovely French family imaginable. They bought the place a year ago, we’re their first American guests, and we sat with Nathalie, her husband Marc, and their fourteen year old daughter Lea sipping drinks on a patio overlooking the ocean, talking about everything from growing up on Reunion Island to Lea’s daily boat trip to school to shark diving in Cape Town, and generally having one of the most pleasant evenings I’ve had in years. I don’t think the visit would have been any different had we been out of town guests rather than paying customers – these folks truly know how to run a lodge.

Our journey here was relatively uneventful. Air Madagascar sent us on a scavenger hunt around the airport trying to figure out how to pay an extra fee for having overweight bags, but once we figured that out (and went through security a few times as a result) our plane left on time and was (shockingly) mostly empty, leaving enough room to stretch out somewhat despite having just four inches of legroom. Once in Nosy Be we were shuttled into an ancient car that somehow still managed to make it across the island to the harbor, where we piled into a boat for the short ride to Nosy Komba. It took four people to unload the boat in the heavy surf at the island, but we arrived dry from the waist up and immediately settled in to enjoy the incredible hospitality. Tomorrow we’re off for some snorkeling at Nosy Tanikely, which is supposedly a world-class snorkeling spot, before returning to again enjoy a quiet evening with our gracious hosts.

Moving Right Along

Posted from Antananarivo, Madagascar at 9:37 pm, September 27th, 2014

Travel day. Air Madagascar used to be called Madagascar Air, but since that was generally shortened to the marketing-unfriendly “Mad Air”, a name change was deemed appropriate. Despite the new name the airline remains famous for last-minute schedule changes, cancellations, and overbooking, so for our twenty-eight days here we made sure to build a large buffer of extra time around any flight. The current plane journey is from Fort Dauphin in the far south up to Nosy Bay in the far north, but since we had to fly through the capital, and since the next flight to Nosy Be isn’t until early tomorrow afternoon, we’re spending about twenty hours in Antananarivo. Sadly our hotel for the duration isn’t in a particularly scenic part of town – the view from the street looked to be mostly stalls selling mobile phone cards and auto parts – so it may be a slow few hours until our flight (hopefully) takes us north tomorrow.

According to our guidebook, the north is the home of great scuba diving, so much of today was spent researching dive shops. Madagascar is a country without a hyperbaric chamber for treating decompression sickness, so I’m leaning towards the dive shop that’s run by a British guy – while my French has gotten better, I’m not sure what the translation for “nitrogen narcosis” might be, so putting our lives in the hands of someone who won’t require foreign language skills seems like a winning strategy. In addition, our journey north includes the last chance for lemur hugging, and with luck the lemurs of Nosy Komba will be feeling amorous when Audrey and I arrive tomorrow evening.

Lemurs at Breakfast

Posted from Fort Dauphin, Madagascar at 8:44 pm, September 26th, 2014

At dinner tonight, back in Fort Dauphin, I asked Audrey if it seemed weird not to have lemurs on the roof. After a pause, that was followed up with “isn’t it awesome that we can ask questions like that?”

My day in Berenty started at five o’clock this morning, with Audrey joining an hour later. Lemurs were waking up all around the reserve, with the brown lemurs snorting their hellos to one another, the ringtails meowing, and the sifakas not saying much at all (they like to sleep late, apparently). Following my alone time, Audrey and our guide joined for a second walk, after which we headed to breakfast and discovered that the cafe was overrun with lemurs. A single staff member was walking around with a stick, while a half dozen ringtails ran circles around him checking to see what food might be available. They actually didn’t get much to eat – we only saw one run off with a piece of bread – so it was mostly just entertaining to see them climb up a chair to peer over the edge of the table, or run under a table and between people’s legs. We finished our breakfast by literally pushing one lemur off the table after he stuck his tongue into our leftover jam, and shortly thereafter the entire troop returned to the trees to resume eating their proper meal of leaves.

The remaining walks were much the same, with lemurs aplenty, and the guide explaining his love of action movies (“Arnold! His daughter gets kidnapped, so he goes to get her back…”). Our last walk of the day was in the spiny forest area, where the guy responsible for night security took us on a tour of his assigned area. If I understood correctly, it seemed that his job is pretty slow, giving him time to exhaustively search every tree and bush, and he ran around showing us sleeping nocturnal animals hidden in holes and hollows that no mere mortal would have ever found otherwise.

The road had dried out slightly for our drive home, so it took only three hours to go fifty miles this time, all the while children were yelling for the “vazaha” (white people) to give them money, candy, or presents, while the locals were busy carting bags of charcoal, zebu, firewood, or other goods from point A to B. Berenty rightfully deserves its place as a top tourist destination in Madagascar, and I’m very, very glad that we were able to meet the friendly lemurs who inhabit it.

Ringtail lemurs in Berenty

I wish I could say that this photo wasn’t taken from my breakfast table, but when the lemurs join you for a meal and start posing it’s tough not to take out the camera.

Ringtail lemurs in Berenty

Lemurs on the trail with their tails fully engaged.

Spiny forest in Berenty

Botanists reading this journal who have been frustrated by three months of animal photos, this picture from the spiny forest is for you.

Berenty

Posted from Berenty Private Reserve, Madagascar at 10:05 pm, September 25th, 2014

One of the places we were told was a “can’t miss” spot for our trip was the Berenty Private Reserve, so we made sure to include it in our itinerary. Despite booking six months in advance we were only able to get one night (it’s apparently a popular stop), but we hoped that one night would be enough to at least get a partial experience of the place. We set off this morning for a fifty mile drive that took nearly four hours – to say the road wasn’t in good shape would be a charitable description of the bumpy path filled with occasional potholes large enough to fit the entire vehicle.

After the long drive we arrived at Berenty, and it took approximately seven seconds to find our first group of the famous lemurs. Unlike most places, you can walk around the reserve unaccompanied by a local guide, so Audrey and I enjoyed our time at close quarters with the lemurs prior to heading to lunch, after which we met our assigned guide for a scheduled walk. If ever you want to have lemurs approach to within a foot, this is the place – if they have personal space boundaries, those boundaries must be measured in inches. A further highlight was seeing a sifaka turf battle – one troop came into the other’s territory, and they all climbed down from the trees and had a dance-off, with one lemur showing off his moves only to be chased off the dance floor by another wild dancer. Extreme happiness was experienced by everyone present. Following the jumping lemur disco show we encountered more lemurs (eating, not dancing), and then made a trip to the fruit bat tree. The fruit bat is also known as the “Madagascar flying fox” given its huge size – their wingspans are up to four feet across. The icing on the cake was when a four foot long boa constrictor slithered past while we were enjoying the bats. Berenty pretty much rules all.

Our last event of the evening was a night walk through the spiny forest, which is a weird and otherworldly landscape of cactus and other mean plants that wanted to hurt me. I continue to greatly enjoy these nocturnal sojourns, and on this one, in addition to a few lemurs and chameleons, we found songbirds sleeping on branches. For reasons I couldn’t understand, the birds simply sit still on the branch at night, perched inches away, without flinching or attempting to fly away – after chasing a Madagascar paradise flycatcher around with a camera repeatedly during daylight hours, tonight I had to back up several feet to get my long lens far enough from the bird to be able to focus.

Tomorrow is more of the same until the early afternoon when we unfortunately have to leave and again face the bad road back to Fort Dauphin. I’m planning a very early wakeup, with the girl to join a bit later for our scheduled 6AM walk.

Update: Audrey has posted a truly wondrous video of the lemur dance-off – enjoy.

Ringtail lemurs in Berenty

Wildlife stalking in Berenty involves walking directly up to the lemurs, setting up the camera two feet away, and then trying to ensure they don’t come closer than that and ruin the focus.

Verreaux's sifaka in Berenty

At the start of our first walk with the guide the sifakas engaged in a dance-off to resolve a territorial dispute. Action on the dance floor was fast and intense.

White-footed sportive lemur in Berenty

The white-footed sportive lemur is a nocturnal lemur, meaning we mostly saw it being adorably sleepy while tucked away in holes in the trees.

Mora Mora

Posted from Fort Dauphin, Madagascar at 9:35 pm, September 24th, 2014

“Mora mora” is an expression in Malagasy that the guide book says has a meaning that is essentially “be patient and understand that things will happen when they happen”. When the road was bad Desiree would frequently say “mora mora”, but for the most part things have gone smoothly. Today was our first real taste of “mora mora”, albeit a small one. We got up before six o’clock to get to the airport to catch our flight, but the baggage handler at the counter told Audrey that her carry-on was too heavy and would need to be checked. She took out her camera and handed it back to him to check in, at which point he re-weighed it and said it was now OK to carry on. We walked away, put the camera back in the bag, and continued through security. From there the plane was supposed to take off at 7:50, but at 10:00 there was still no plane in sight, and no announcements had been made. No one in the waiting area seemed too surprised by this development – the plane was going to arrive eventually, and there was nothing to be done in the mean time. Mora mora.

The plane eventually arrived and took us to Fort Dauphin, where surprisingly the hotel had sent a driver to pick us up – I did a double-take when we walked out of the airport and my name was on a sign, since no one had mentioned that we would have transportation. After arriving at the hotel we set off for the bank, but while trying to withdraw money the ATM froze with my bank card still inside of the machine – not an ideal situation in a country where nearly all transactions are done with cash. The bank had closed for lunch, and after the security guard had tried pressing “cancel” a few times he helpfully suggested that I wait two hours until the bank re-opened, at which point someone might be available who could help to retrieve my card. Meanwhile numerous Malagasy people stopped by to get cash, saw that there was a problem, and walked away in a manner indicating that they had seen this type of thing many times before. Luckily this particular example of “mora mora” was relatively short-lived, as the bank manager returned to work forty-five minutes later and was able to restart the machine and retrieve my card, after which the assembled crowd got a good laugh when I refused to again try a withdrawal – rather than risk another ATM misadventure we came back a few hours later with US dollars to exchange, a process that still ended up taking fifteen minutes due to all of the paperwork that was apparently required. Mora mora.

Our other adventures today included whales cavorting off the coast, an impressive array of tide pools that we unfortunately couldn’t see much of due to the high tide, and a walk around the town that provided a bit of local flavor (stray dogs, roadside stalls, people at work, kids playing, etc, etc). Tomorrow we’re off to the famous Berenty resort to spend some time with the very friendly lemurs that inhabit the area, so hopefully they won’t be camera shy and the current streak of journal entries without accompanying photos will come to an end.

Bakuba

Posted from Toliara, Madagascar at 8:56 pm, September 23rd, 2014

During the trip planning I tried to find a variety of lodging, and one option that looked particularly unique was the Bakuba Hotel, which is an African-themed hotel run by a Belgian couple. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but imagined something like a B&B on a quiet alley. Instead, the hotel is way outside of town on a dirt road, a short walk from the ocean, and it offers wide open spaces decorated with extreme attention to detail and a ton of inventiveness. The downside of such an artsy place is that a few items were apparently overlooked for purely aesthetic reasons – there isn’t much separation between the bedroom and the bathroom, so when nature calls you either have to share the special moment or ask the other person to leave the room for a bit (we’re opting for the latter). Similarly, the shower has a window that looks out onto an open patio with no window covering, so if anyone happens to walk by they get a show from the waist up. However, the pros far outweigh the cons, and we’re very much enjoying our weird lodging for the night.

Prior to our arrival here we again made the bumpy ride from Ifaty to Toliara, and then stopped for a couple of hours to enjoy the mean plants and pretty birds at the d’Antsokay Arboretum. Once at Bakuba we took a long walk along the ocean and past all of the Malagasy fishing canoes that were hauled up onto the shore, returned to enjoy drinks and the view, then had a massive and delicious dinner on the upper deck under the stars. Tomorrow we’re off on an early flight to Fort Dauphin, which sadly means we’ll be saying goodbye to Desiree, our awesome guide for eleven of the past fourteen days.

Starry Night

Posted from Ifaty, Madagascar at 10:21 pm, September 22nd, 2014

Audrey wanted occasional downtime on this trip, and with scuba and snorkeling options limited by choppy, shallow seas today seemed as good as any day for some lounging. We still managed a visit to the Reniala Forest private reserve early in the day to see some of the spiny forest, and that was followed by a visit to the neighboring tortoise reserve to see the obvious. While visiting the tortoises two of the caretaker’s young kids tagged along behind us, and when I showed them their faces using the “front view” camera on my iPhone I made two instant friends – they quite literally hung on my arms for the remainder of our visit. Upon exiting the reserve we were waylaid by some less-friendly youngsters who used every trick in the book to get something from us – I tried to keep them occupied in an effort to protect Audrey, but after engaging them for several minutes while also making it clear that we weren’t handing out candy, two of them rewarded us with a one-fingered salute that is apparently more universal than I previously realized. Final score for my child entertainment efforts was thus one set of kids entertained and happy, one set clearly less so.

The afternoon saw much napping and lounging, as well as a very lovely coconut with a straw in it, a piece of cake, and some zebu skewers. The evening was yet another chance to practice night photography in the dark skies of Madagascar, and tonight I not only didn’t raise alarms with the hotel staff while lurking in the bushes in the dark with my camera, but I might have actually gotten a couple of decent shots. Tomorrow we’re back to Toliara for the evening before sadly saying goodbye to Desiree, our awesome driver, and flying off to visit the famous lemurs of Berenty.

Baobab in the Reniala Forest in Ifaty

This 1200 year old baobab in the Reniala Forest reserve is one bigass piece of wood.

Starry night in Ifaty

Credit to Susan Portnoy for providing instructions on how to photograph the Milky Way, and credit to Audrey for putting up with me for a couple of weeks while I repeatedly dragged her out into the darkness trying to get a Milky Way photo that actually had some stars in it.

The Road to Ifaty

Posted from Ifaty, Madagascar at 9:47 pm, September 21st, 2014

We reached the ocean today after a four hour drive from Isalo, at which point we turned right and traveled at fifteen miles per hour up a bumpy “road” to the seaside town of Ifaty. The route today was past all manner of villages and people, and was done with Desiree playing Celine Dion as our soundtrack for much of the way. The ever-present taxi brousse (van taxis) were out as always, each with room for about ten people, while actually containing around twenty-five, plus everything from furniture to produce to farm animals piled on the roof. Zebu carts yielded to us as we passed, lumbering overloaded trucks did not, while people pushing carts filled with water containers, bags of charcoal, firewood, or anything else needing transport labored up hills in the heat. Ancient bicycles were in use, some carrying three people, some loaded down with lumber, some merely carrying a single passenger who had somewhere to get to.

The scenery showed the effects of generations of slash-and-burn, with grassy fields stretching to the horizon, except in one area that was maintained as a national park and thus still forested. Baobab trees started appearing as we neared the coast, although hopefully tomorrow we’ll see some of the older, larger members of the species. Sapphire miners were bringing their gems into the many shops that appeared during a brief stretch of road, and the rivers in that area were filled with people filtering gravel looking for the tiny blue stones. Villages varied from mud huts with thatched roofs to stick huts to the occasional modern building, although once we reached the coastal town of Toliara the construction was mostly all modern.

The people along the way seemed happy for the most part. Children waved, some of them running to the car yelling for “bon bons”. Older folks were busy with the chores of their daily lives, whether working in the fields, chopping firewood, taking something from point A to point B, or running a tiny roadside stand. People in Madagascar have only a fraction of the wealth seen in other nations – our guidebook says that a doctor or university professor might make just $200 a month, while our guide in Andasibe indicated that the fellow who manned the security booth at the hotel probably made 100,000 Ar per month (about $40) – but despite the low wages people seem to get by sufficiently. Obviously when things go wrong for someone here they can go very wrong – a big storm might wipe out crops and mean no food, or an accident could lead to a handicap that would end a person’s ability to support himself – but for the majority of individuals it seems like they do well with the life they’ve been given. Hopefully conditions will continue to improve, but at the same time there is probably a lesson to be learned from the fact that even in the toughest of situations, people can be as happy or happier than those of us who live in comparative luxury.

The Guide was Tired

Posted from Isalo National Park, Madagascar at 6:52 pm, September 20th, 2014

The alarm went off at 5:45 this morning, and I sprang out of bed ready for a day of hiking in Isalo National Park. It took some coffee to get Audrey equally as charged up, but once caffeinated she was suited up and ready to go. Isalo is a huge, hot and dry park that contains impressively eroded sandstone formations that are home to a number of lemurs, and also has deep canyons that contain lush springs and numerous waterfalls. Our plan today was to hike to the Piscine Naturelle (natural swimming pool) and then across a big open area to a campground that was rumored to be lousy with lemurs. From there Audrey would meet our driver and return to the lodge in order to miss the worst of the afternoon sun, while the guide and I would hike through a canyon to the Piscine Bleu and Piscine Noir (blue & black pools).

Things went according to plan, with ringtail lemurs joining us at the Piscine Naturelle, and numerous raptors, a stick insect, and a scorpion all making appearances on our way to the campground. At that point the needle on the thermometer was moving from “hot” to “frying pan”, so Audrey exercised good sense and said her goodbyes while the guide and I moved on. The campground was as advertised, and I spent much time photographing lemurs until I heard another guide say “there is a sifaka over here” and suddenly the magical moment turned into a zoo as I was surrounded by about thirty other people. I made an immediate exit through the sea of oncomers, and we then continued on through a canyon filled with waterfalls and beautiful pools. The Blue Pool was also as advertised, and the guide took a plunge to cool off while I moved on to the Black Pool. That one was equally pretty, with the beauty only slightly diminished by the sight of four soaking wet Italians in their tighty-whities. I retreated to a corner of the pool away from the underpants party to get some photos before we backtracked to the campground for more lemur photography, after which the mercury in the thermometer was moving from “frying pan” to “surface of the sun” so we made our return to the waiting Desiree for a ride back to the lodge.

Tomorrow it’s a five hour drive to the coastal town of Ifaty for two nights, home to spiny forest and a beach that should be perfect for lounging. The month in Madagascar is going by shockingly fast, but each day has been memorable, and plenty of adventures still remain.

Verreaux's sifaka in Isalo National Park

This guide said that this poor sifaka didn’t have any of his own species in the area, so instead he spent his days with a group of ringtail lemurs who mostly kept their distance from this much larger party crasher.

The Rock Lodge

Posted from Isalo National Park, Madagascar at 8:45 pm, September 19th, 2014

Audrey got more craft workshops today, and was in tremendous spirits. I’ll admit to thinking they were interesting, but manliness prevents me from doing more.

Our day started before six, and after breakfast we were checked out and on the road by 6:45. Two hours later we were in a silk factory, which was essentially a house with a shop next to it that employed several women in sweatshop conditions to process silk cocoons and weave the silk fabric. Despite the less-than-ideal working conditions it was a neat thing to watch, involving cooking the wild cocoons into a gooey mixture, unwinding the farmed cocoons by hand, and a labor-intensive process on a hand loom to weave fabric. The end process wasn’t what I expected – it felt far more coarse than the silk we find at home – but it was nevertheless impressive.

The next workshop offered the opportunity to see paper being made, and at this one my French was pressed into service so we might have missed out on some important details. The gist of it seemed to be smooshing trees, pouring the resulting goop onto a frame, and then pressing decorative flowers into it before letting it dry. It was again impressive to see the whole process being done entirely by hand, including the smooshing of the trees, which was done with two steel mallets after the pulp had been cooked into a weird soup over a period of three hours.

Craft workshop touring complete, our third stop was at the Anja Private Reserve, which was a village initiative created fifteen years ago in which six local villages got together to preserve thirty hectares of forest that is home to 300 ringtail lemurs. To date they’ve had 14,000 tourists stop to visit them, so it has been a clear success. In a country that is losing most of its forest to slash and burn agriculture this initiative was one worth supporting, and as an added bonus the lemur spotting took only five minutes from the point at which the trail started. Throw in the best chameleon sightings we’ve had during daylight hours, and yet another chance for me to practice my horrible French, and it was an extremely worthwhile visit. If you’re ever in Madagascar, go to there and help demonstrate the value to the local people in conserving their natural resources.

Tonight we’re staying in the very fancy Isalo Rock Lodge – our last hotel was missing a toilet seat, so finding not just a fully functional toilet, but also a huge bathroom that would rival any top hotel in Los Angeles, is a massive change for the better. We’ll be up at six o’clock tomorrow morning in order to do some hiking before the day hits the “crazy hot” stage, and with luck there will be some nice pictures, and with even more luck I’ll manage to avoid heatstroke during the planned seven hours with our (required) park guide.

Chameleon in Anja Private Reserve

Chameleons are extraordinarily difficult to spot during the day, unless they’re like this guy and are a foot long and climbing a small tree trunk out in the open.

Diamond

Posted from Ranomafana National Park, Madagascar at 9:20 pm, September 18th, 2014

While planning this trip I underestimated how long it would take to drive from place to place, so while we have two nights at Ranomafana National Park, we arrived late last night and need to depart early tomorrow morning, leaving today as our only chance for activities in the park. Luckily we continued to have nice weather, and our karma stayed strong as our guide (and the entire Malagasy team of trackers that apparently work together to alert anyone in the area when something interesting is found) discovered all three species of bamboo lemurs that live in the park, including the very rare golden bamboo lemur and the even-more-rare greater bamboo lemur. The bamboo lemurs are different from most of the lemurs we’ve seen elsewhere – they look like a cross between a koala and Yoda, and are maybe a third of the size of the sifakas that danced on our balcony in Anjajavy.

The first lemur we saw today was a grey bamboo lemur that was running around calling for its family, much to our amusement since its call alternated between sounding like a squawking crow and a snorting pig. The second set of lemurs was discovered after we had already passed their location, and required backtracking down a significant number of stairs, but luckily the cuteness of lemurs outweighed any issues due to excess stair climbing. The family of lemurs were golden bamboo lemurs, which were only discovered in 1986, and are the primary reason that the national park was formed. From there we got word that two greater bamboo lemurs had been found, and since they are the rarest lemur found in the park we set off in search of them. The route was reminiscent of the opening scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with vines being pushed out of the way, steep hills, giant trees, and after much sweat two lemurs hiding up in the canopy. Despite the bushwhacking it was all worthwhile after one of the two lemurs decided to climb down to a log near the ground, and we sat a couple of meters away while it groomed itself for ten minutes before jumping onto the tree a couple of feet behind Audrey, and then clambered up to rejoin its companion.

We returned from our morning adventures at about 1:30, grabbed lunch and a nap, then headed off for a night walk, aka the path of many chameleons. Things started with spazzy mouse lemurs leaping out of the shadows a few feet from where we parked, then turned into chameleon-o-rama with at least one lizard on seemingly every tree and bush. A few frogs and bugs made appearances for good measure, but chameleons were clearly the stars of the show tonight.

Tomorrow we’re off to see paper and silk making, visit a private lemur reserve, and then, if the roads are good, we’ll get to Isalo National Park by sunset. This trip down RN7 is going by quickly – there’s still a lot of Madagascar to go, but amazingly we’ve already been here for ten days.

Greater bamboo lemur in Ranomafana National Park

The greater bamboo lemur is one of the most endangered lemurs in Madagascar, but fairly easy to photograph when it decides to groom itself on a log three meters from the admiring tourists.

Leaf-tailed gecko in Ranomafana National Park

The leaf-tailed gecko. The guide found it for us on a branch next to the trail – there is approximately a one-in-a-billion chance that I would have spotted this thing on my own.

Chameleon in Ranomafana National Park

Night walks are awesome, because you see lemur eyes reflected in the flashlight, and find chameleons with tails that retract like vacuum cleaner power cords.