Posted from Culver City, California at 11:04 pm, October 26th, 2016

The month(s) of many travels continued three weeks ago with a trip to New Orleans for a high school friend’s birthday. Whether due to serendipity or her magnetic personality, about 30 people showed up from all corners of the country; if I tried to do a destination party I’d be thrilled if there were more than twos of attendees, so kudos to Amy for a job well done.

Audrey and I arrived late on Friday night to the hotel, which was less than half a block from Bourbon Street. The location made it easy to visit everything in the French Quarter, and even easier to hear the street party continuing into the wee hours of the morning (after the first night we discovered that running the bathroom fan worked wonders for drowning outside noise). The revelers were out in force as we roamed Bourbon Street after our 10PM arrival, and it was only a short time before we had appropriate beverages in hand and joined them. I made my first- and second-ever visit to a voodoo shop, and then we had some midnight gumbo before calling it a night.

We spent Saturday roaming the city with the high school friends before converging on the pre-designated birthday party spot in the evening. The next day was the totally optional brunch™, after which people sadly started to depart. After brunch Audrey and I separated from the group and made a visit to the Audobon Insectarium (Audrey likes insectariums), and then we returned to join the remaining members of the group for what would be my second, third and fourth bowls of gumbo for the day. After a late return we magically transported back to 1994 as the high school crew gathered in a room to reminisce until the wee hours.

Our last day in the city involved more roaming and reminiscing before an afternoon flight back to Los Angeles. The flight home was completely unremarkable until its final minutes – shortly after landing I ended up kneeling in front of the plane’s lavatory while we taxied to the gate, and afterwards had to promise the Uber driver a big tip as I attempted not to fill a plastic bag during the drive home (I failed); luckily whatever caused my stomach to turn inside out came and went very quickly.

The month(s) of many travels concludes just before Halloween with a trip to Chicago for a college friend’s wedding – when Audrey saw the dates on the invitation she immediately noted “you know that’s right before Halloween, right?” – so I will be attending this wedding stag. Coincidentally, Cleveland apparently made a deal with the devil and not only won an NBA championship, but now the Indians are playing the Cubs in the World Series, so I might get to bask in some reflected sports glory while roaming the Windy City.

Amy, Sarina, Caitlin and Ryan

Unofficial Shaker Heights High School reunion. Lying around on couches is basically the same thing we were doing when we would get together as teenagers twenty-five years ago.

The Garden Island, Part 2

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:06 pm, October 2nd, 2016

Following the recap from Day 1-5, here’s the remainder of the Kauai trip:

Day 6

Aaron and I had done the seventeen mile kayak trip along the Napali Coast in 2012, a trip my dad has always wanted to do, so this year, with Aaron already having returned to California, the Elder Holliday and I signed up to do it together. It turned out our trip was the last one of the season since the waters get too rough in the winter, and we set out in the morning after a night of high swells that were supposed to decrease during the day. After a pre-dawn van trip around the island we reached the launching point in the north, and it was clear from the first moments that the swells had not subsided and that this was going to be a very different experience than 2012. After watching the first kayak in the water capsize in the waves my dad and I were the second boat to launch, and we then sat just offshore watching boat after boat get wiped out and washed back to the beach as the others tried to launch. And this was just the beginning of the trip.

After paddling along the high cliffs for a couple of miles we saw another group of kayakers turning around, finding out later that their guides had decided not to continue and eventually had to radio a boat for pickup. Despite the waves we seemed to be doing well, then out of nowhere our kayak was upside-down, and sadly my GoPro chose that moment to make an escape – apparently I had not tied it down well, so now it is off on an adventure across the Pacific (hence the lack of scuba videos from this trip). After righting our ship and continuing on we reached the first of several sea caves along the route, but while it had been a placid affair in 2012, this time the cave was being battered with waves that were tossing kayaks all over the place; after making it out safely the guides didn’t attempt to enter any of the remaining caves along the route.

Under even the worst conditions the Napali Coast is a beautiful route, and seeing green cliffs shooting thousands of feet up from the water, or watching waterfalls descend from the heights, was an impressive experience. I did my best to stop and enjoy the scenery as much as possible, but the swells hitting us from different directions meant a significant amount of mental effort went into steering, balance, and trying to stay out of the way of other kayakers – we capsized once more during the day on a water break, again catching us totally by surprise. Luckily after we made it eleven miles down the coast and stopped for lunch the route turned a corner, and after that the swells were big but generally moving in one direction, making for a much smoother trip.

…Until the landing site. The large swells that were pushing us along broke directly onto our landing beach, and with massive waves crashing onto the shore it was clear that the guides didn’t quite know what to do. The first guide took her boat in to meet a staff member on shore, but was wiped out on the way and then had to rescue her boat in the surf. Eventually word came out that we’d be going in one at a time, with the original guide treading water 100 feet offshore to offer assistance, while people on shore waited to deal with the inevitable shipwrecks.

As we watched, some boats wiped out spectacularly while others made it nearly the entire way before flipping. After what seemed like about 30 minutes, just two boats remained to go in – the second guide, and our boat. The guide told us to shadow her as we went in, so we aligned our boat with the direction of the waves and started into shore.

And then something unexpected happened. We paddled like crazy over the tops of large waves, with the staff member on shore yelling for us to stop or go depending on the size of the waves behind us. As a huge wave rolled past the staff member signalled us to paddle, and through sheer luck we caught the wave perfectly. To our right the guide’s boat capsized, but Poseidon God of the Sea lifted us up and hurled us perhaps fifty feet forward, directly onto the sand. We jumped out of the boat, pulled it up the beach, and thus ended the day in once piece and with a great story to share.

Day 7

The day after the oceans unleashed their fury was spent on land. I took Audrey up to see Waimea Canyon, and we visited the Kauai Coffee Plantation on our return before heading into town to see two of her high school friends who had relocated to the island. Afterwards Ma & Pa came over to the Hyatt to join us for drinks at sunset, followed by a twilight walk that featured fat and apparently invasive toads hopping slowly away as the Skipper chased them with his camera flash.

Day 8

And thus the great Kauai Adventure of 2016 came to an end. We enjoyed one last buffet breakfast, fed the koi for a final time, took a last trip down the resort’s lazy river (the water slide wasn’t open yet, sadly), and then headed to the airport where Audrey’s fear of babies and confined spaces collided on a completely full flight in a tight coach seat with a mother and child in the middle seat – the kid was just young enough to be a lap child, but old enough to be a strong kicker with big lungs. For my part, the inflight entertainment options included the new X-Men movie, so I had a mostly-awful film featuring superheroes and Olivia Munn’s cleavage to distract from the baby drama on my left for the six hours until we arrived safely home in Los Angeles.

Audrey and me at Waimea Canyon

The girl and me in front of a pretty canyon.

The Garden Island, Part 1

Posted from Culver City, California at 6:27 pm, October 2nd, 2016

Two weeks ago Audrey and the Holliday clan gathered in Kauai for snorkeling, beaches, sunsets, tropical beverages, and a really great waterslide. Here’s part one of the recap:

Day 1

My mom is a night owl, going to bed after midnight, while my dad is a morning person, waking up around 5AM. Thus after flying across the Pacific and arriving in Hawaii, it was no surprise when I entered their timeshare at 10:30 PM Hawaii time (1:30 AM Los Angeles) that my mom met me energetically at the door while everyone else was sleeping. She was clearly disappointed and unsuprised when I declined her offers of dinner and conversation and instead crawled into bed. The next morning at 5AM my dad attempted to sneak out the door, only to have his two sons pounce on him before he could get away, but he didn’t seem too disappointed to be taking his boys along to see the sunrise. When we got to the beach a dark shape was silhouetted against the barely-brightening sky, and it is to my dad’s everlasting shame that he insisted it was a monk seal even after we said it looked like a sea turtle. Several more of the large turtles were resting on the sand further down the beach, making for a pleasant welcome to the island as the sun turned the sky pink while an army of roosters announced their presence to the world.

The day’s other activities included multiple rounds of snorkeling, massive fish burritos from Da Crack, a cat on a surfboard, and drinks at sunset. All in all not a bad way to start the trip.

Day 2

Day two again started with an early wakeup and another trip down to the beach to see the sea turtles. There was more snorkeling, more tropical drinks, etc, but other days had more journal-worthy moments so let’s move on to Day 3.

Day 3

The previous day I had moved from Ma & Pa’s timeshare to the Hyatt next door, picking up Audrey from the airport in the evening, while Aaron and Helen relocated to an Air B&B rental on the north side of the island. Audrey has the amazing ability to defy jet lag, so she was having none of my arguments that getting up at 5AM was the same as getting up at 8AM in Los Angeles, thus I roamed around the hotel grounds at sunrise before dragging her out of bed at 6:30 and heading off to our fancy hotel breakfast buffet next to the koi pond. From there we were off to do some snorkeling, then we meandered our way around the island to see Aaron, stopping to photograph the Autumn mist in Hanalei enroute. With the full Holliday clan present we attempted a bit of snorkeling off of the beach near the beginning of the Napali Coast, but choppy waters had reduced visibility to only about ten feet, and in an underwater landscape filled with lava cracks that looked like they might descend hundreds of feet it was hugely disconcerting to wonder what might be hiding down below. When Aaron called me out for saying that it was an uncomfortable place to swim I told him to follow me out into the murky water – hundreds of feet offshore and notoriously afraid of sharks, the sound he made as we swam over rocky ledges that descended to unseen depths was something between a whining puppy and a bawling child; we turned back fairly quickly.

Day 4

Audrey’s one request prior to starting the trip was that she wanted at least one “lounge day”, knowing that otherwise I’d do my best to ensure that each day would end with us collapsing from exhaustion after non-stop activities. Thus, Tuesday saw us hanging out at the resort pools, where Audrey read a book while I set the Hyatt master’s record for most rides on their water slide in a 24-hour period – all of the five year olds seemed slightly peeved at the bald guy who made their wait in the line a bit longer by going down the slide again and again.

Day 5

Wednesday was our scuba diving day. Sadly, because someone is sued in America every 0.2 seconds, they wouldn’t let my dad join us once he checked one of the “do any of the following apply to you” boxes on the release forms, so Audrey and I were the only family representatives underwater this year. After many scuba trips to Mexico with rental equipment that inevitably leaks Audrey and I have become reasonably good on air, so as the other divers in our group ran out of air and had to surface we ended up getting a lot of underwater time to ourselves. We saw sea turtles, fish, corals, and lava caves, but the highlight of the two dives was a giant moray hiding in a crack in the rock – the thing was so massive that as I was swimming over I first wondered what a seal was doing in the rocks, before realizing we were seeing an eel that would be bigger than most sharks if it chose to come out and play.

The recap for the rest of the trip, including the story of how Poseidon God of the Sea sent a magical wave to assist my dad and I in returning our kayak to shore amidst raging seas, will follow shortly in the next journal entry.

Sea Turtle in Kauai

Monk seal Sea turtle resting on the beach in Kauai.

Nene in Kauai

Nene (rhymes with nay-nay), the state bird of Hawaii.

The Month of Many Travels

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:56 am, September 9th, 2016

After several months without much excitement, airport security will be seeing me a lot during September and October:

  • 1-September: After the second of two consecutive work trips to San Antonio my plane returned to LAX Thursday night at about 6PM, leaving ample time to do laundry and re-pack for the next flight about 36 hours later.
  • 3-September: I dragged Audrey to LAX in the morning and we departed for a long weekend in Seattle. After landing we grabbed a rental car, checked-in to our shockingly nice hotel, and then I drove us up to Everett to see airplanes at the Boeing factory. Audrey and I usually try to meet each other halfway in our planning, but in this case she knew better than to suggest alternatives when I told her we’d be spending the afternoon with airplanes. Seeing a factory full of giant jets in various stages of assembly had me basically running around screaming “AIRPLANES AIRPLANES AIRPLANES” for a few hours, and whether it was the impressive sight of the massive machines or the less-impressive sight of her dorky boyfriend having a complete geek-out, Audrey seemed OK with the events. Afterwards, since I’m a lot to deal with under normal circumstances and can only imagine what a handful I must be when I become a grown-up three-year-old, I made sure she got a nice seafood dinner on the water as the sun went down over Puget Sound.
  • 4-September: I haven’t been to Mt. Rainier in more than a decade, so we set off to roam around on a 14,000 foot volcano. Mother Nature conspired to keep the mountain mostly hidden behind clouds, but “Paradise” is not mis-named, and the mountain meadows and marmots made for a pleasant journey, even if I did go all environmental nutjob and yell at a couple of foreigners who either couldn’t read or were ignoring the “don’t walk on the fragile meadow flowers” signs. After a full day of walking up and down the steep slopes of the mountain another nice dinner was again called for, this time at our fancy hotel restaurant.
  • 5-September: The long weekend concluded with a day spent roaming around Seattle, including a tour of the “underground city“, created after the 1889 fire when they rebuilt the city by raising street level about ten feet, entombing the first floors of a 30 block area. The day concluded with a trip up the fourth-tallest building in the world (or at least it was, in 1914), with the journey made in a period brass elevator that had see-through walls and a wide-enough gap between elevator and building to put the word “plummet” front-and-center as you stepped inside. The top of the Smith Tower offered great views from an open-air, wraparound deck, and decent drinks at a speakeasy-style bar. When we finally returned to the hotel, dinner consisted of a shared cheeseburger, since not every night needs a fancy meal.
  • 6-September: Audrey got to sleep in before her flight back to LAX, while I set off bright and early for a flight to Spokane. I work remote the majority of the time, so my first visit to the new Commerce Architects office was a chance to finally meet several employees who I’ve worked with on a daily basis for months but wouldn’t recognize if we were sitting next to each other in the same room. Cost of living in Spokane is significantly less than in California, so the Spokane office (located in a historic building) put the old Berkeley digs to shame, while the hotel I stayed in was on par with some of the nicer LA hotels, but about one-third of the price; with three senior partners living in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Spokane, they clearly made a tremendously sensible choice on where to set up shop.
  • 7-September: The rest of the CA partners arrived to begin two days of company meetings, followed by a team outing consisting of a dozen people on a pedal-powered trolley roaming the streets of Spokane and visiting a couple of local bars. Afterwards the five partners gathered for a super-fancy dinner, something that is apparently a tradition for those rare times when they all get together. My previous lifetime best was four courses in a single meal, and over two-and-a-half hours this dinner beat that record by two. I made it back to the hotel stuffed, tipsy, and happy about my recent career choices.
  • 8-September: Day two of meetings included a team lunch and plenty of administrivia, after which it was time to depart for a 6PM flight back to LA via Seattle.

One week in, September is off to a roaring start. My flight back from Spokane landed at 11PM, I’ll work a nearly-full day today, then after a glorious eighteen hours home it’s back to the airport for the next phase of the month’s adventures. There’s just enough time to do laundry and pack – life has gone from slow to fast, and it should make for a fun month.

Marmot on Mt. Rainier

Marmot demonstrating “extreme napping position” on Mt. Rainier.


Posted from Culver City, California at 4:31 pm, September 1st, 2016

The latest Olympic Games are now over, and as always they were a grand spectacle. While Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, and the entirety of the US women’s gymnastics team got the bulk of the headlines (deservedly) in Rio, I was most excited about the runners. In the 1990s I was a mediocre runner in high school and college, and during those years my role models were elite American distance runners who were getting totally obliterated by the Africans at all major competitions, to the point where it was exciting just to see an American distance runner qualify for a final.

In recent years American distance running has experienced a resurgence, and in the Rio Olympics the Americans absolutely killed it, bringing home seven medals, which is more than they’d won at the past four Olmpics combined.

After a generation in which American kids might have believed that the East Africans were literally invincible in distance running, today there’s a small army of Team USA runners to be inspired by. Clayton Murphy, a junior from the University of Akron who two years ago was only the sixth-fastest runner in the Mid-American conference, is now the 800m bronze medalist and owner of the fifth fastest 800m time ever run by an American. Galen Rupp, already the defending silver medalist in the 10,000m from London, earned a bronze medal in only the second marathon he’d ever run in his life. Matt Centrowitz won a surprise gold medal in the 1500m, becoming the first American in 108 years to win that event, and admitted that when he crossed the line he “literally was still looking at the board like, did somebody go by me? Did I really just win?”. Other medalists included Evan Jager in the steeplechase (silver), Paul Chelimo in the 5,000m (silver), Emma Coburn in the steeplechase (bronze), and Jenny Simpson in the 1500m (bronze).

Sport is one of the few opportunities in life to discover your limits, and in almost all cases it turns out that those limits are far greater than anyone believes possible. Every four years the Olympics offer a chance to see that principle on full display, and the Games in Rio, particularly for a former distance runner like myself, were an emphatic affirmation that humans are capable of amazing feats.

Matt Centrowitz

Matt Centrowitz wins the Olympic 1500m. Image from NBC Olympics.


Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 8:37 pm, August 30th, 2016

Donald Trump won the Republican primary with about 14 million votes, and during the general election he will almost certainly get between 50-70 million votes. Among my liberal friends, and also among some of the Republican ones, the question always arises: how could anyone vote for Trump given his divisive rhetoric and the fact that he seems to be obviously selling snake oil (make Mexico pay for a wall, eliminate the debt in ten years, etc, etc). Many who oppose him seem too willing to write off his supporters as racists, or as people who aren’t smart enough to see that they are being misled, but I think that in November the majority of Trump votes will come from people who actually object to him as a candidate, and what’s more I believe that if the situation were reversed, Democrats would do the exact same thing. Here’s my reasoning based on the three groups I believe constitute Trump’s major supporters:

The Believers

First, there are some Trump supporters who believe him when he says he will fix all of the country’s problems. They point to the fact that he’s rich, has appeared on a TV show that ostensibly celebrates his business acumen, and the fact that many prominent figures on the Right tout his abilities. I may view his claims of being able to eliminate the debt in a decade as (literally) mathematically impossible, or think that it’s just dangerous bluster when he repeatedly asserts that “toughness” is the solution to all security problems, but it’s not right to fault people who honestly think he’s capable of delivering on his boasts. I suspect that this group is fairly small, but that it is well-represented at his rallies and thus makes up his most visible and enthusiastic supporters.

The Bad People

Second, there are clearly some people supporting Trump because of some of the nastier elements of his campaign. I refuse to accept that there are a particularly large number of Americans who truly believe that most Mexican immigrants are rapists and thieves, or who think that a judge with Latino heritage can’t perform his duties without bias, but there is undoubtedly a constituency for that sort of rhetoric. I honestly think it’s a very tiny slice of the population, but it’s a group that is also clearly represented at Trump rallies.

The Unhappy Majority

Finally, that leaves millions and millions of people who aren’t racists and who believe Trump is full of crap, but will vote for him anyhow. And this is where I think Democrats would make the same choice, and thus need to consider the very difficult decision most Republicans are facing. For a Republican in this election, opposing Trump means handing the White House to a Democrat, and in the process ensuring that the Supreme Court flips from conservative to liberal and will thus issue hundreds upon hundreds of rulings in the coming decade that conservatives vehemently disagree with. Meanwhile, voting against Trump means Republicans would be giving up the chance to pass their legislative agenda – with control of the Presidency and Congress there would be no obstacle to passing into law all manner of legislation that never had a chance against Obama’s veto pen. If the situation was reversed, and it was (for example) Marco Rubio vs. Kanye West, plenty of Democrats would be willing to accept a divisive, temperamentally unsound, unqualified President rather than empower a court that would rule against their views on climate change, gay rights, gun control, abortion, etc, along with a Congress that would weaken Obamacare, cease action on climate change, eliminate social programs, etc.

About a year ago I published my rules of etiquette for this election, which included a reminder to try to understand those with whom I disagree. Many Democrats are asking how anyone could vote for Trump; I suspect a better way to think about Trump support is to recognize that if the situation were reversed, the decision would not be a simple one. It’s easy to oppose Trump from the opposite side of the ideological spectrum when there is nothing to lose, but much, much harder when taking a stand against a dangerously flawed nominee also means sacrificing tangible and meaningful legislative and judicial achievements. As a result, I think it’s important to bestow a great deal of respect upon people like Senator Jeff Flake, Senator Susan Collins, and all others who have decided to take a stand knowing full well what it will cost them; hopefully in inevitable future disagreements their opponents across the aisle will remember their demonstration of integrity and treat them with the respect that they have earned by making an extra effort to deal in good faith and to meet them part way.

In addition to trying to understand the support for Trump, there is another question about why our politics is so broken that conservatives would vote for a President whom they believe to be potentially disastrous rather than enable a liberal Supreme Court, or why liberals viscerally dread the possibility of conservatives gaining the ability to pass their legislative agenda, but that’s a subject to ponder in a future journal entry. In the mean time, the comments link is there as always for those who have their own thoughts on the current Presidential race, or those who might feel the need to lambast me for daring to assert that The Donald won’t really be able to get Mexico to pony up the estimated $10-25 billion it would take to build a 2000 mile long wall.

Engineering is Awesome

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 11:09 pm, August 29th, 2016

Here’s a round-up of exciting news in the engineering world, which means this is a journal entry that probably only my dad and I will read in full:

  • On August 14th SpaceX landed its sixth rocket (two on land, four on a barge at sea), making this amazing feat of engineering seem almost ordinary. Even better, the first rocket that they ever landed is now on display at their headquarters down the road in Hawthorne, so Audrey and I got to visit it this past weekend, and can do so again anytime I need a spaceship in my life (i.e. a lot). Supposedly they will be launching the initial flight of their Falcon Heavy rocket, the most powerful rocket to take to the skies since the Apollo era, before the end of the year. SpaceX also claims to be on schedule with their manned program, so people may be regularly going to space in a non-Russian rocket again starting next year. Finally, they are going to announce details about their BFR (yes, it stands for what you think it stands for) for traveling to Mars in the coming months. We live in the best time in history.
  • Tesla just announced an upgrade to the Model-S that they have dubbed the P100D. The new model goes 0-60 in 2.5 seconds, travels 315 miles on a charge, and costs more than the combined price of six Subarus. Luckily, the trickle-down effect ensures that their less expensive cars will eventually inherit much of this new technology, so those of us who don’t want to take out a second mortgage to buy an electric car won’t have to do so. Additionally, they continue to claim that the Model-3 is on schedule for deliveries in late 2017, the ginormous Gigafactory, while still only a fraction of its eventual size, is already being used to produce battery packs, and all-in-all Tesla remains the coolest car/energy/battery company that has ever existed. Did I mention that we live in the best time in history?
  • In non-Elon Musk news, Boeing’s new 737-MAX airplane is well into its test flight schedule and might actually be ready to deliver earlier than planned; the new plane was originally scheduled to begin service with Southwest in the third quarter of 2017, but it looks like it will be delivered several months sooner. Given the fact that the 737 is the most common passenger plane in the air today, the majority of air travelers will soon enjoy quieter, more comfortable, and more efficient air travel. Planes aren’t as awesome as spaceships (what is?) but they occupy an exclusive level of coolness that is shared with few other human endeavors.
  • Locally, the much-maligned California High Speed Rail project is actually under construction, with bridges, viaducts and other structures being built near Fresno. The project thus far is a great idea that has spawned a series of ever-more-dismaying disappointments, but even with its problems it now seems highly likely that in 10-25 years it will actually be completed, after which Californians will probably wonder why anyone would have opposed such a valuable piece of infrastructure. And for the record, high speed trains occupy a similar realm of coolness as airplanes.

There’s obviously lots of other excitement going on in the engineering world, but I like spaceships and planes and trains and batteries, so that’s what goes in the journal. If you’ve read this far and are lamenting the lack of stories about animals attacking me in the Antarctic or mornings spent thawing boots after a frigid night sleeping in the back of a Subaru, the coming months will have a bit of travel in them, so give it another few weeks before you decide to delete your bookmark.

Full webcast of the launch and landing of the SpaceX JCSAT-16 mission on August 14, because no one should ever get tired of seeing a spaceship land on a boat.

What happens in July stays in July

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:10 pm, July 31st, 2016

July 2016 hasn’t had a ton of excitement in it, so here’s a look back at this month in years past.

  • July 2015 – This time last year the New Horizons spacecraft was zooming by Pluto, sending back some mind-boggling photos of the farthest object humans have visited in our solar system.
  • July 2014 – In 2014 I spent the first half of July roaming around Turkey, and by the end of the month was starting on a two week safari in Tanzania. 2014 alone provided enough great July memories to ensure that I will never be able to complain about any slow years.
  • July 2008 – I dragged the Skipper halfway around the world on a trip to Iceland to see puffins and glaciers and geysers. How Iceland isn’t a more popular destination for nature travelers is a mystery – I’d go back in a second.
  • July 2002 – The month this journal was born was the month that the Great Alaskan adventure kicked off. It’s rare that you have an experience that you know will change your life, and I was insanely lucky to get to spend a full three months on a journey with full awareness that it would become a defining moment in life.

African elephants at Ndutu

July 2014. Elephants are one of many reasons why the world is awesome.


July 2008. Puffins are proof that God has a sense of humor.

July Happened

Posted from United Airlines Flight 6009 at 4:55 pm, July 27th, 2016

For those wondering what’s new since last time:

  • Earlier this month Audrey & I spent a weekend in San Francisco to celebrate her friend’s wedding. The night before the wedding we went to an incredibly fancy dim sum place and were joined by Aaron, who had been at Lake Tahoe earlier and nonchalantly enjoyed the posh surroundings while wearing a swimsuit and flip-flops. The following day we attended the first combination wedding / improv comedy show that I’ve ever been to, an event which included musical numbers, vows that made everyone cry, and comedy skits; rarely is San Francisco boring. On our last day the Skipper met us for a trip to see the bugs & fishes at the California Academy of Sciences, after which we blew his mind by showing him how Uber works (in fairness, I used Uber for the first time on the same trip, and it is magical).
  • After many years of incredibly solid management, Commerce Architects made the first truly questionable decision that I’ve seen them make when they offered me the opportunity to join them as a junior partner. My career continues to mirror that of Forrest Gump, as I have been successful primarily by blankly staring at someone and then saying “OK”; also, like Forrest, I’ve been lucky with occasional investments in fruit companies.
  • The rats in the attic are still winning. I’m confident we’re going to eventually prevail and will then get to enjoy a rat-free attic, but like many epic conflicts throughout history, I have vastly underestimated my opponent and my resolve has been tested to the point where I’m fairly certain that the enemy is mostly just continuing the fight in order to mock me.
  • While I am battling rats and spending my hours building grocery store websites, Audrey is spending some of her time with the Threshold Choir and will be helping ease the pain of dying people by singing to them; clearly any good karma I experience in this life is merely bits that were directed at her but instead hit the bald guy by her side.

The World is Actually Awesome

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:27 pm, July 24th, 2016

Without delving too much into politics, a candidate recently gave an important speech that painted a pretty grim picture of today’s world (*cough* Trump did it *cough*). Particularly during political campaigns, the focus seems always to turn to what is wrong with the world, causing everyone to get depressed and thus forget about the miracles all around us. So for anyone feeling pessimistic, here are just three reminders of why the present is actually the best time in the history of mankind:

  • Safety Despite the headlines you see in the news, you should feel safer than in the past. During World War I 17 million people were killed. During World War II that number was 50-80 million deaths. After those wars, the Cold War saw America and the USSR pointing massive nuclear arsenals at one another, with the potential to obliterate cities and send the rest of the planet into a deadly nuclear winter. Today terrorists kill or maim far too many people, and while the impact of that violence is horrible, the reality is that these tragedies are on a scale of thousands in a world populated by billions, with nearly all of that carnage taking place far away from the day-to-day realities most of us inhabit.
  • Quality of Life We’re healthier than we’ve been. In the USA in 1900, average life expectancy was 47. By 1960 that number was 70. Today it’s 79. What’s more, medical technology means we’re living more productive lives. To cite just three examples, 1) I tore my meniscus and rather than limping for the rest of my life I went to the hospital where a doctor put tiny cameras into my knee and proceeded to fix the tear. 2) My dad’s hip deteriorated due to years of wear and tear, and now he has a magical new titanium hip. 3) No one gets polio, the measles, or smallpox anymore. Furthermore, medical technology is continuing to improve at phenomenal rates – in the next few decades we may live in a world where Alzheimer’s has been cured, stem cells can repair nervous system damage, and cancer is nearly always survivable.
  • Standard of Living Our lives are less difficult than they’ve ever been. In addition to advances in medical technology mentioned above, today anyone can have a cell phone that gives them access to all of the world’s knowledge – in Africa I saw a Masai warrior wearing shoes made from tires, holding a homemade spear, and talking on his cell phone as he herded cattle across the plains of Africa. Everyone in America has access to safe drinking water, electricity, public schools and hospitals. Airplanes can take you to any corner of the world in a matter of hours while cars are getting safer and in some cases can now even drive themselves. Power generation is becoming much cleaner, replacing dirty smokestacks with renewable sources. Farms now produce vastly more food on less land while using fewer resources. Wherever you look, technology is making life more efficient and safer, and the trend seems to only be accelerating.

There are obviously plenty of issues that need to be addressed better in today’s world – the economy, race, guns, immigration, etc, etc – but there are surprisingly few problems that are worse today than in the past, and anyone describing the present in terms of bleak despair is most definitely selling a fallacy. For those feeling pessimistic, remember that we live in a healthier, safer, more amazing world than any that has ever existed, and there is every reason to believe that things will be even better in the years to come than they are today.

Louis CK makes the case that everything is amazing far better than I can.

When I Grow Up

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:40 pm, June 30th, 2016

monster.com ran a Super Bowl ad in 1999 that I still remember vividly. It featured a bunch of kids making statements starting with “When I grow up”. The image of the second kid in particular is one that has replayed a few thousand times in my head. The camera zooms in close on a boy who is maybe eight years old. He has a bowl cut, just like I rocked for the first decade of my life, and he looks like a tiny badass. He stares directly into the camera, and with a mix of disdain and bravado spits out the words “When I grow up, I wanna claw my way up to middle management”.

I came out of college, spent a summer roaming Europe and driving across America, and then went to work for Andersen Consulting (which became Accenture after a split with its sister company Arthur Andersen). I worked insane hours at jobs all around the world, met impossible deadlines, solved problems that someone fresh out of college had no business solving, and learned a TON; I’m still grateful for that experience, which was an incredible opportunity. Unfortunately, after four years of going non-stop I was burned out, bitter, and life had turned into more of a slog than a journey. So I quit, got in my car, and drove to Alaska in an effort to try and figure things out. It was an amazing experience, but three months later when I came back I was faced with the inevitable “what now?” decision.

The last fourteen years of this journal tells the story of the decision I made. While I’ve had the opportunities for many amazing adventures, and gone long stretches where I was free to pursue passions, the majority of those years have been spent doing very similar work to what I was doing prior to the Alaska trip, albeit with more reasonable hours and far more knowledge. Lest anyone misunderstand, I don’t regret that decision. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I love what I do, my work is generally really interesting, I get a ton of flexibility, it provides me the means to do some amazing things, and I still get to take long, epic journeys around the world. That said, like most people who do the same job month after month, that image of the kid staring at the camera, and the words “I wanna claw my way up to middle management”, still hits a nerve, and I sometimes wonder how life might have been different if I hadn’t mailed my resume to Warner Brothers back in 2002, but instead sent it to someone like the National Park Service, or maybe just decided not to send it out at all.

The Holliday Economic Platform

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:05 pm, June 28th, 2016

The 2016 election season has been going on for what feels like decades, and somehow still has four long months remaining. I’m not running, and would face a merciless beating that would make me cry if I did run, but if I were in the race then here are four straightforward proposals to improve the economic outlook of this country that I would campaign on:

  1. America’s infrastructure grade is a D+ with an estimated $3.6 trillion backlog of investments needed. Since the middle class would disproportionately benefit from infrastructure jobs, and solid infrastructure provides huge benefits to the economy as a whole, fixing and improving existing infrastructure seems the most obvious way to benefit the largest number of people. Spending on infrastructure supports jobs, improves efficiency for everyone who uses the infrastructure, and saves money in the long run – as the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Also, to this engineer, infrastructure is super cool – I like bridges and water mains and the electrical grid. The current federal budget allots around $100 billion annually for infrastructure, so I’d propose doubling that for the foreseeable future, which still wouldn’t even come close to dealing with the current maintenance backlog. Since the US currently gets far less bang for its buck than other countries due to red tape and other issues, I’d also require that spending be allocated to reward the best-managed projects, encouraging fixed-cost contracts, fast-tracking projects where appropriate, and giving preference to projects that have local dollars behind them already.
  2. To pay for this infrastructure spending, and in the process ensure that no one would vote for me, I would propose increasing the gas tax (which hasn’t been raised since 1993). Raising the tax by five cents per year over the next two years would move it from the current level of 18.4 cents per gallon to 28.4 cents per gallon, after which it should be automatically increased each year based on the inflation rate. Currently the gas tax brings in about $34 billion per year, so this move would increase that amount to $52 billion. I’d augment that with a one percent levy on new vehicles, since as vehicles become more fuel efficient the gas tax is a less accurate way of ensuring that those using the road pay their fair share. Given that there were $570 billion in new car sales in 2015, plus a similar amount for commercial vehicles, this levy would raise about $11 billion annually. That gets about $30 billion of the $100 billion needed, and when you factor in the stimulus effect of increased infrastructure spending (project workers pay taxes on their earnings, etc), and the fact that fixing things now saves money down the road, you could probably add another $5-10 billion, but additional revenue would still be needed, so…
  3. Raise the capital gains tax rate from 20% to 25%, which should produce about $40 billion in additional annual revenue. Currently it seems fundamentally unfair that someone working forty hours a week is paying a significantly higher tax rate compared to someone who primarily makes their money from investments. That still leaves a gap in the revenue needed to pay for the increased infrastructure spending, so to close it and also ensure that opposition to my election would be as energized as possible I would propose phasing out the mortgage interest deduction, but doing so over the next 20 years to avoid causing financial distress to current homeowners. The current cost of that deduction is $70 billion per year, with most of the money going to people who don’t really need it. Furthermore, it’s a deduction that doesn’t make a lot of sense – why should the government provide a deduction to homeowners but not renters? And before anyone screams that these proposals are just soaking the rich, I currently benefit from both the capital gains rate and the mortgage interest deduction and nevertheless think they are bad policy.
  4. The above proposals actually generate about $35-45 billion more than is needed to cover the increased spending on infrastructure, so if I’m extrapolating the tax revenues correctly, some of the pain from the loss of the mortgage interest deduction and the increased gas tax could be offset by using the leftover revenue to phase-in middle class tax cuts of 1-3% for single filers making less than $91,150 or joint filers making less than $151,900, thus reducing the current 10-25% tax brackets down to 7-22%; no reductions would be made to higher tax brackets.

I realize that, while everyone gets to enjoy better infrastructure, the above proposals would mostly benefit the middle class at the expense of the rich. I don’t in any way think that’s a bad thing – I would personally pay more taxes under these proposals and would be OK with doing so since a strong middle class improves the economy for everyone. More importantly, from the standpoint of fairness, economic benefits have disproportionately benefited the wealthy over the past thirty years, so a correction is overdue in a country where many households are currently forced to choose between fixing the family car or sending their kid to summer camp.

I won’t be running for office anytime in the foreseeable future, and if I made proposals like those above they would be guaranteed losers, but for a journal entry it’s a fun subject to think about and put forward for discussion.

Status Update

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:59 pm, June 25th, 2016

Sadly there isn’t much excitement to report for the journal, but here’s a recap of recent events:

  • For the first time since 1964 a Cleveland sports team won a championship, ending the Cleveland sports curse. After The Shot, The Drive, The Fumble, the blown save in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series, and other disasters that everyone who has ever rooted for a Cleveland team revisits regularly in their nightmares, a last-second, heart-breaking, soul-devouring loss to the Warriors was a foregone conclusion; instead the Cavs miraculously staged the biggest comeback in NBA Finals history. Three days later 1.3 million people showed up for the victory parade. For the first time in my lifetime, it was a good time to be a Cleveland fan, although the Borowitz Report checked in with God and found that he still hates Cleveland fans.
  • Audrey’s friend Jocelyn celebrated her birthday with a party at our house where everyone was asked to show off a talent. Surrounded by artists and professional musicians I was rather intimidated, but after digging through some belongings I brought out an old story I’d written and did a dramatic reading from “The Ship Lost at Sea“. The tale may have been written thirty-five years ago during my days in Mrs. Donovan’s first grade class, but it totally holds up.
  • Other minor adventures included an LA Master Chorale concert where we sat behind the singers and were able to watch the conductor make faces at his performers, a new controller that puts our sprinklers on the internet (since everything is better when you can control it with your phone), and a fancy dinner on the Queen Mary last month with a college friend for which I spent ninety minutes in traffic only to realize that I had shown up on the wrong date.
  • Finally, our ongoing rat drama sadly continues; I have now spent more time crawling around in our roof and on ladders under the eaves than I ever expected when I became a homeowner. The latest potential entry point was found hidden way back in one corner of the house, so far under the eaves that I had to contort in order to get the flashlight on it, but after spending an hour hunched over fashioning mesh it was completely plugged. I climbed down from the roof, reveling in my victory, and five hours later was notified by the motion camera in the attic that the little bastards were still up there partying, something they have continued to do every night since. At this point I can no longer answer the question “are you smarter than a rodent” in the affirmative.

The Ship Lost at Sea

The Ship Lost at Sea, a masterpiece of first grade literature.

Three Entries a Month

Posted from Culver City, California at 4:28 pm, May 30th, 2016

It’s been a busy month due to work and guests, but that fact alone doesn’t account for falling woefully short on the three-journal-entries-each-month goal.

To a great extent the reason for the three entry goal is that it forces me to think through an issue sufficiently to write about it in a way that feels meaningful. This month I’ve started on a few entries, only to abandon the draft after discovering that there was either more to it than I first realized, or that I wasn’t sure what I had to contribute on the topic.

One subject that seemed like it might be interesting to write about is de-extinction. For the first time in history the technology exists to literally bring back an extinct species, and we may soon live in a world that again has passenger pigeons and dodo birds in it. While at first glance that might seem like an unmitigated good – mankind could have a second chance to atone for the horrendous sin of wiping an entire species from existence – upon further investigation the process isn’t exactly the miracle that it might seem. Among other issues, rather than taking DNA from a preserved passenger pigeon and producing a clone, the process is more like Jurassic Park in that “gaps” in the DNA would need to be filled in with DNA from similar species. In the end it isn’t entirely clear that the animal science produced would truly be a passenger pigeon and not a partial hybrid that never actually existed in the wild. Hopefully someday soon we will be able to bring back an animal that is 100% passenger pigeon, but for now there needs to be a lot more discussion about the moral issues given the limitations of current technology.

A second subject that seemed like a worthwhile journal topic was that of collective action problems, which describe so many of the issues we face today. The gist of the idea is that there are many actions which could be undertaken by humanity to collectively improve life for everyone, but those same actions would put individuals at a disadvantage if any member of the group failed to participate. Global warming is a prime example – the world benefits if all countries reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but any country that chooses not to participate would continue to exacerbate the problem while simultaneously gaining an economic advantage over those who implemented reductions; the end result is that no one wants to do something about the problem until everyone agrees to do something. To cite another example that is a bit closer to home, San Francisco and LA face housing shortages that have caused costs to skyrocket, created massive sprawl, and generated traffic nightmares as people have been forced to drive great distances to get from the places they can afford to live to the places where they work. The solution is to increase housing density, but no one wants their neighborhood to change and you end up with San Francisco fighting development under the guise of preventing gentrification while cities like Santa Monica try to pass ballot measures to make it nearly impossible to develop projects over two stories tall. In both cases, the result of neighborhoods fighting to maintain the status quo is that costs increase, traffic gets worse, and quality of life decreases.

Both of the above topics are subjects that would have been interesting (to me at least) to explore in a full journal entry, but in the case of de-extinction it turned out to not be as simple a subject as I expected, while in the latter case my limited writing skills proved insufficient to write anything meaningful about a problem that doesn’t really have a good solution. With luck whatever strange forces control the neurons in my brain will be poring over simpler topics next month, and the journal schedule will return to normal.

Late Recap

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:46 pm, May 1st, 2016

It’s May 1st, so I’m a day late on the three-entries-a-month goal. Let’s pretend that doesn’t bug me and move on with a recap of April…

  • Our rat relocation program is (unfortunately) continuing. We had a company out to give us an estimate on rat-proofing the house, but after they came to the conclusion that 3-4 hours of work would cost us $1700 we decided that the occasional rat in the attic might not be such a bad thing after all. I’m now on a mission to plug every hole in the exterior of the house, and after tearing up a wooden structure on the side of the house and blocking up a hole behind it we actually had a rat-free week. Alas, the cute little bastards apparently found a side entrance to their rat disco club, and they’ve been posing in front of the attic rat cam every night so far this week.
  • Work continues on the HEB.com project. While I would obviously rather be spending my days roaming the earth instead of sitting in front of computer screens, the fact that I have a forty foot commute, that there is a neighborhood sushi restaurant that delivers, and that four squirrels are slowly learning that if they stand in the backyard looking cute that someone will come out and give them treats, makes for about the best work environment you could hope for.
  • As Audrey reminds me, on my lone April trip to Texas I got a free first class upgrade, apparently as repayment by the karma gods for a previous flight where I was in the splatter zone when the passenger in the seat next to me threw up on himself. First class is great and I appreciate the upgrade, but if the karma gods are listening – I don’t mind flying coach if it means I never have to smell like vomit.
  • Finally, on April 8 SpaceX landed a rocket on a boat, because we live in the most awesome time ever.

Spaceship landing on a freaking boat. Mom, turn off the volume, they use some naughty words.

Moneyball 2

Posted from Culver City, California at 4:08 pm, April 30th, 2016

Even though this topic may only be of interest to me, here’s the follow-up now that the 2016 NFL Draft is complete and the Browns have actually traded away their #2 pick. In a series of trades, they first gave the #2 pick to Philadelphia for a king’s ransom of picks that included the #8 pick, then traded that #8 pick to Tennessee for another bounty. Short summary: math won.

Pick HOFer Quality Starter Starter Occasional Starter Substitute Bench Never played
Browns trade:
#2 (1st) 0.17 0 0.67 0.17 0 0 0
2017 4th 0 0 0.05 0.20 0.45 0.05 0.25
#176 (6th) 0 0 0.04 0.04 0.22 0.39 0.30
Total 0.17 0 0.76 0.41 0.67 0.44 0.55
Browns receive:
#15 (1st) 0 0 0.50 0.50 0 0 0
2017 1st 0 0 0.50 0.50 0 0 0
2017 2nd 0 0.25 0.25 0.42 0.08 0 0
2018 2nd 0 0.25 0.25 0.42 0.08 0 0
#76 (3rd) 0 0 0.07 0.27 0.53 0.07 0.07
#77 (3rd) 0 0 0.07 0.27 0.53 0.07 0.07
#100 (4th) 0 0 0.05 0.20 0.45 0.05 0.25
Total 0 0.50 1.69 2.58 1.67 0.19 0.39

The result above is far better than in the example trade with San Francisco that I previously analyzed, and according to their historical drafting results should give the team two good players, another 2-3 decent players, and 1-2 guys who can occasionally contribute. Given the fact that the football gods hate the Browns, the two players drafted by Philadelphia (Carson Wentz) and Tennessee (Jack Conklin) will probably go on to become the greatest ever at their positions, but until that happens the statistical analysis says this was a really impressive result for the new Moneyball regime.

In addition to the two big trades, the Browns made three smaller trades, and overall turned ten draft picks into sixteen. Obviously quantity does not equal quality, but in this case the math says they got good value and, while they aren’t going to be very competitive for at least a couple more years, there might actually be some reason for optimism in Cleveland again.


Posted from Culver City, California at 2:04 pm, April 16th, 2016

The Browns recently hired Paul DePodesta, whose story of bringing an analytical approach to baseball was chronicled in the book/movie Moneyball. Seeing as this hiring provides an opportunity to combine two of my favorite things – the Browns and math – I decided to make my own attempt to play football Moneyball. Since the NFL draft is the most obvious place where statistics can be applied, and since I’m a huge dork, I put together a spreadsheet of all Browns draft picks from 1999-2014, and used a formula based on career starts, Pro Bowl appearances, and Pro Football Reference’s “career value” rating to put each player on a seven point scale from “Hall of Famer” to “Never played”:

Pick HOFer Quality Starter Starter Occasional Starter Substitute Bench Never played
#1-5 (1st) 1 (17%) 0 4 (67%) 1 (17%) 0 0 0
#6-10 (1st) 0 1 (25%) 1 (25%) 1 (25%) 1 (25%) 0 0
#11-20 (1st) 0 0 1 (50%) 1 (50%) 0 0 0
#21-31 (1st) 0 1 (17%) 1 (17%) 2 (34%) 2 (34%) 0 0
#32-46 (2nd) 0 3 (25%) 3 (25%) 5 (42%) 1 (8%) 0 0
#47-61 (2nd) 0 0 1 (12%) 3 (38%) 3 (38%) 1 (12%) 0
Round 3 0 0 1 (7%) 4 (27%) 8 (53%) 1 (7%) 1 (7%)
Round 4 0 0 1 (5%) 4 (20%) 9 (45%) 1 (5%) 5 (25%)
Round 5 0 0 0 4 (25%) 5 (31%) 4 (25%) 3 (19%)
Round 6 0 0 1 (4%) 1 (4%) 5 (22%) 9 (39%) 7 (30%)
Round 7 0 0 0 0 7 (39%) 5 (28%) 6 (33%)

Teams who hold a draft pick in the top five value that draft pick as if it is certain to produce a Hall of Famer, but of the six top-five draft choices the Browns have made, Joe Thomas was the lone great pick, four of the others never made a single Pro Bowl, and the sixth (Braylon Edwards) made one Pro Bowl in his only good season and was traded after three years. Drafting in a position where they expected to find great players, the Browns instead came away disappointed five out of six times.

Since the Browns have done so poorly drafting in the top five, trading back needs to be a consideration. When considering whether to make a trade during the draft, the accepted way to “value” a draft pick in the NFL is the draft value chart. An alternate approach is to use analytics to determine the expected value of a trade, and that approach is more likely than the draft value chart to support trading back to get more picks, stating that the draft value chart over-values high picks. With the huge caveat that my table above is admittedly too small of a sample size to be fully accurate – it should include the draft history for all NFL teams, not just the Browns – here’s my attempt to use math to show why the Browns should listen to analytics and trade back.

The Browns have the #2 overall pick in the 2016 draft, which the draft value chart says is worth 2600 points. Theoretically the Browns could trade with San Francisco and get San Francisco’s first round pick (#7 – 1400 points), second round pick (#37 – 530 points), third round pick (#68 – 250 points), and second round pick in the 2017 draft. Based on what Tennessee just got from the LA Rams the haul would probably be even higher, but for the sake of argument let’s assume that’s the deal. Using the Browns draft history table above, and assuming San Francisco’s 2017 second round pick is in the top half of the second round, here’s what the odds of each of those picks panning out look like, based on past drafting history:

Pick HOFer Quality Starter Starter Occasional Starter Substitute Bench Never played
Browns trade:
#2 0.17 0 0.67 0.17 0 0 0
San Francisco trades:
#7 0 0.25 0.25 0.25 0.25 0 0
#37 0 0.25 0.25 0.42 0.08 0 0
#68 0 0 0.07 0.27 0.53 0.07 0.07
2017 2nd 0 0.25 0.25 0.42 0.08 0 0
Total 0 0.75 0.82 1.36 0.94 0.07 0.07

By giving up one player who the odds say is most likely to end up as a regular starter the Browns get four players and have excellent odds that one of them is a future Pro Bowler while another turns into a regular starter. The math seems clear: you make that trade.

With all of the above said, it’s the Browns, so expect to see them throw analytics out the window on draft night and pick another quarterback that they can then cut after 3-4 mediocre years.

Living in the Future

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 3:35 pm, March 31st, 2016

At 8:30 tonight Tesla will unveil their third-generation electric car. A company that just five years ago was mocked for having the audacity to think they could survive, much less compete with the existing automotive behemoths, is on the verge of launching a $35,000 automobile that is projected to sell 500,000 vehicles every year by 2020, and is one of the most anticipated new car launches in history.

Meanwhile solar panels are now 100 times cheaper than they were in 1977, and as cheap or cheaper than traditional electricity sources in most markets, with prices continuing to drop. At the same time, the major drawback of solar not being viable at night is being addressed by the fact that battery storage solutions drop in price by about 8% every year.

We live on a planet where global warming due to greenhouse gases is already causing massive disruptions to ecosystems not capable of handling rapid climate change, where even an area as remote as the North Pole faces hazardous air quality, and a seemingly infinite number of other environmental problems can easily lead to hopelessness and despair.

In a world faced with challenges that can seem overwhelming, it’s worth marking this date. Tonight the next generation of the automobile is being unveiled, and it changes the paradigm of how transportation affects the environment. This new car is driven by advances in battery technology that will have applications for all sectors of the energy industry, and will almost certainly change the way the world is powered. And it was created in spite of a hostile political environment by engineers who saw a problem and set out to solve it by building the best car that they could design. We live in the future, and the future seems like it’s going to be a good place to be.

Tesla Model 3

It Is What It Is

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 11:08 pm, March 28th, 2016

Aside from wildflower trips to Death Valley the excitement has been limited over the past month, but here’s a recap of the non-happenings:

  • There are obviously lots of critters roaming our neighborhood, and so long as they stay outside all is well. However, a while back we started hearing what I can only assume was a 70s-themed rat disco party in our attic, so we put a Dropcam and a live trap up there, thus beginning what Audrey has dubbed the “Rat Relocation Program”. We’re still searching for whatever opening they’re using to get in, but over a period of almost two months the program has had five applicants, each of whom was captured, photographed, given a drink of water, and then transported to the Ballona Wetlands Rat Sanctuary. I’m hopeful that the program is either nearing its quota or that we’ll finally find the entry to the rat dance club and shutter its door.
  • After almost nine months the work Commerce Architects has done on the HEB.com website was finally ready to launch, and so about two weeks ago I found myself in San Antonio at 11PM in a room with 20-30 other people. In an unfortunate twist they decided to screen Interstellar while waiting for me to run critical upgrade scripts, so I performed my tasks while tense dramatic music blared throughout the room. Luckily things went fairly smoothly, and after a fourteen hour day I headed back to the hotel room at about 6:30 the following morning with bloodshot eyes but without having caused the site’s servers to burst into flame and burn down the data center.
  • On the same San Antonio trip I was tapped to provide onsite support through the weekend, but after slow days on Friday and Saturday they decided no one needed to be in the office on Sunday so I took off on a twenty mile bike ride along the San Antonio Mission Trail. The trail, the river corridor it follows, and the Missions are ridiculously great assets for San Antonio, although I underestimated the sun and had to duck into the first shop I could find to buy a hat. I then spent the rest of the day playing uber-tourist as I visited three of the Missions wearing a “San Antonio Missions” hat, but my head remained pinkish rather than going full-blown lobster red, so if looking like a dork is the price to pay for not dying of skin cancer then it may have been a reasonable trade-off. On a side note, based on regularly biking 16-17 miles on my stationary bike at home I assumed this trail would be a piece of cake, but I forgot to account for the fact that the San Antonio B Cycle rentals are built more like tanks than bikes, contain enough steel to survive an atomic blast, and (apparently) don’t always have working shifters; there was definitely no need for a workout in the hotel gym at the end of this day.

There isn’t a lot of excitement on the horizon, but hopefully a few journal-worthy adventures will come up in the near future. Aaron’s leg is back in one piece and he’s attempting to snowboard again, Ma & Pa are making the best of their retirement and traveling all over, and Audrey is either singing or playing bass with about three hundred different groups these days, so all seems to be well with the world.

Rat Relocation Project applicant #5

Rat Relocation Program applicant #5. The peanut butter is in the trap as bait, but after they run all over looking for an escape we end up sending peanut butter-coated rodents out into their new homes.

Valley of Death

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 6:21 pm, March 21st, 2016

Death Valley received unusually heavy rains this year, resulting in the first “superbloom” of wildflowers since 2005, so of course I wanted to go to there. After plans with Aaron and my dad fell through I concocted a scheme whereby I would drive to Las Vegas on a Thursday night, work from Vegas on Friday, and have Audrey fly in so that we could drive to Death Valley early Saturday. With this genius plan in place I made the long slog through LA traffic to Vegas, and then spent Friday working from a fancy room at the Palazzo Hotel that had a mostly-great view, with the exception of giant gold letters spelling out “Trump” staring back from the high-rise on the opposite side of the Strip.

Audrey arrived mid-afternoon, and after dinner and a search for the dumbest slot machines we could find (the “Reel ’em In!” fishing game won that contest) we went to bed relatively early, woken only by the sounds of what was either a troop of crazed chimpanzees or else a drunken frat party in the room next door; they departed at 11PM, but returned at 3AM to ensure that we wouldn’t have to worry about getting too much sleep.

I was randomly in Death Valley at the height of the 2005 superbloom, and while this year’s event wasn’t quite as impressive, it was still pretty neat to see the most inhospitable desert in North America completely covered in flowers. After a morning spent enjoying the yellow rock formations at Zabriskie Point and photographing flowers in the valley I took Audrey for a hike through Mosaic Canyon, a tiny slot canyon that affords the opportunity to scramble over boulders and up slickrock. Luckily she remained on speaking terms with me even after we encountered rocks that caused other hikers to turn around, and she came away with some photos that convinced me I need to learn more about the HDR settings on my camera.

Death Valley Wildflowers

The heavy overcast made the scene less vibrant than it might otherwise have been, but the flowers were still shockingly colorful for being in the hottest, driest place in North America.

Death Valley Wildflowers

Bad day for anyone who thinks flowers suck, good day for the rest of us.

Songs in the Forest

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:48 pm, February 29th, 2016

After two postings about heavy metal bands and Donald Trump, the journal is overdue for some nature. The video below is all about the whale-like song of the lemurs, so turn on the volume before playing it and ignore the picture – it’s just Audrey, our guide and me walking through the forest. The sound of the indri lemurs is unlike anything else and still gives me chills when I listen to it, remembering what it was like to be roaming the forest with families of lemurs calling out all around us. Recorded September 2014 in Andasibe National Park

The indri lemur’s song carries for several miles through the treetops. Supposedly if you record them singing on an iPhone and then replay it later they will sing back to you, but I wouldn’t know anything about that…

What if this time is different?

Posted from Culver City, California at 5:09 pm, February 26th, 2016

For at least the past forty years, while everyone else was fretting about Michelle Bachmann or Al Sharpton potentially becoming President, political science has calmly and rationally analyzed the electoral landscape and done an excellent job of predicting how the nomination contest would play out using a theory that is described as “the party decides”. This theory basically states that political parties guide voters to one of their preferred candidates through winnowing and signals from influential party actors. Thus, while a primary season might start out as a giant and chaotic clown show, candidates who lack support drop out after early contests, and the most influential elements within the party then unite behind one or two of the remaining candidates, showering them with media attention, money and endorsements. Voters, whose views are largely shaped by the media and the opinions of people/groups that they trust, end up backing the favored candidates. In the end, candidates who are unacceptable are dispatched, and the party always gets someone that its establishment supports.

This year on the Democratic side Hillary Clinton has the backing of the establishment, and while Bernie Sanders has passionate supporters and incredible homages from Larry David it doesn’t seem at all likely that he’ll be more than a speedbump in Clinton’s path to the nomination. The Republican side, however, is far more uncertain.

In my yearly predictions I said that Donald Trump wouldn’t win more than four primaries, and that Marco Rubio, who holds a huge lead in endorsements, would go on to win the party’s nomination. With Trump already boasting three wins, and the polls pointing towards a big day for him on Super Tuesday, it looks like my long tradition of incorrect predictions is likely to continue, and I (along with many political scientists) have gone from being absolutely certain that Trump would simply be a sideshow to wondering if he might in fact have a chance.

If Trump did actually win the nomination it would mark the first time in four decades that someone the party actively opposed was the nominee. While I would still bet on Marco Rubio based on past history and the likelihood that the party will do everything possible to get a candidate it wants, it’s interesting to assess what fundamental changes might have led to a possible failure in the “party decides” theory of the nomination process:

  • Skewed voter expectations: While there is a large faction in the Republican party that is very interested in passing laws and achieving results, there now exists a significant faction that seems focused on ideology over results. An effective lawmaker needs to be able to get people to work together to pass bills that can become law, but an ideological candidate needs only to promise to fight and never compromise. As an example of the latter, repeatedly voting to repeal Obamacare while the law’s namesake holds a veto pen is an act of protest, and not an act of governance. After seeing party leaders promoting candidates for office who lacked traditional qualifications (see: Palin, Sarah), it’s a confusing message to now try to convince the electorate that a candidate who is all sound and fury like Trump is unsuited for the job of President.
  • Lack of authenticity: In recent times the term “conservative” has become ever more rigidly defined, forcing candidates to disclaim positions they recently held. Thus Marco Rubio sponsors an immigration bill and four years later swears he didn’t actually want it to pass, and any candidate who might have ever suggested anything even resembling a limit on guns now airs commercials in which he fires assault weapons and suggests that even Jesus would push for more open carry laws. Despite the fact that these candidates are clearly full of crap everyone pretends that voters are convinced by the smoke and mirrors. After years of voters feeling like they’ve been played for fools by candidates who are just saying whatever they think the electorate wants to hear, Trump is espousing views so shocking, and so obviously different from anything any other politician would say, that voters believe he’s the only one not lying to them (note that the fact Trump professed very different views just a few years ago seems for some reason not to matter).
  • Truthiness: It’s a maxim to say that all politicians lie, but in the past politicians confronted with the truth have backtracked on their falsehoods. Today politicians confronted with the truth will simply double down on the lie, thus making it impossible to argue using facts. When you say that a climate scientist cannot be trusted on matters of climate change, or that economists who present analysis at odds with your preferred narrative are merely partisan shills, you create an electorate that won’t respect expert opinions. Clearly Mexico won’t pay for a border wall, it is impractical (not to mention inhumane) to simply round-up and deport eleven million people, and everyone isn’t going to get a free pony simply because a guy who built a few casinos sits in the White House, but after years of preaching that experts need not be trusted there is no easy way to plausibly discredit these claims.

While these same problems exist on the Democratic side – Hillary Clinton is shameless in her pandering to whatever audience she is addressing, and liberals will only believe scientists who remember not to point out that there is no evidence that GMOs are unsafe – political scientists seem to be in agreement that the problem is vastly more pronounced on the Republican side. Trump’s success serves as evidence of just how abnormal things have become, where a candidate who should have been dispatched easily by the Republican establishment is instead headed towards a delegate lead that might be hard for the party’s preferred candidate to overcome. Should he actually gain the nomination I feel certain that Trump would get absolutely shellacked in the general election, but I was equally certain that he wouldn’t come close to being nominated in the first place, so it’s a frightening possibility to wonder whether past history can still be considered a reliable guide in this election environment.

Twisted #?@!* Sister

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 8:06 pm, February 23rd, 2016

Audrey has a lot of interesting acquaintances, many of whom work in the music industry in some capacity. One in particular will occasionally invite us to attend a random social event, and when he does it’s invariably a good idea to say “yes”, because it’s going to be a worthwhile evening. Last Monday he asked us to join him for a screening of the rock documentary “We are Twisted F***ing Sister“, and while under normal circumstances my response to anything related to Twisted Sister would probably vary between indifference and active hostility, when Brian asks the correct answer is always an emphatic “YES”.

The theater showing the film was a tiny, one-screen place in Hollywood that gave me flashbacks to college days and the CWRU Film Society – the dingy interior was much like Strosacker auditorium, the disheveled, mostly-male crowd would have fit in perfectly with the engineering geeks I spent four years with, and even the promos before the documentary had the same vibe as what was shown in college – one in particular featured a lengthy and creepy cult initiation scene followed by the words “Join Us” flashing across the screen with information about becoming a member of the theater’s film society.

The documentary is a must-watch for anyone under the misconception that becoming a rock star is easy. During the 1970s and early 1980s Twisted Sister literally played thousands of sold-out shows in clubs in New York, and did so six nights a week, every week, for ten years before they finally got a record deal. Unlike the stereotypical metal band, neither the group’s lead singer or guitarist/founder drank or did drugs, and the documentary made clear that from the beginning they were completely self-aware that music alone wouldn’t create success, and that their job was to do everything conceivable to give people a reason to show up and buy a ticket. Whether it was their over-the-top showmanship, a surprisingly intelligent advertising strategy, the ability to pragmatically deal with adversity, or whatever else might go into becoming a successful band, Twisted Sister thought about it, attacked it, and figured out how to succeed. By the time the documentary showed the group having been together for ten years, performing their hearts out night after night, they might as well have been Rocky saying he just wanted to go the distance against Apollo Creed, with every person in the theater solidly on their side.

Following the show, Dee Snider (the band’s lead singer) did a short Q&A, and turned out to be whip-smart. At one point someone mentioned having been at a Twisted Sister show in Long Beach thirty-five years ago, and Snider not only remembered the show but was still angry at some lady who had been in the audience and dumped an ashtray over the balcony railing. When asked what motivated him during ten years in which Twisted Sister was able to easily fill venues holding 2-3,000 people in New York, yet still wasn’t given the time of day by record companies, he amusingly responded that he was driven by “hatred”, and not in a dark, vengeful way, but simply that he was so angry at everyone who told him he couldn’t make it that it just made him work harder to prevent them from ever being right.

You hear a lot of stories about rock and roll bands being full of themselves or not realizing their good fortune, and while there are plenty of faults to find with Twisted Sister, no one can begrudge them their success – they knew what they were, they worked relentlessly, and very much earned their eventual moment in the spotlight. Putting another spin on it, if a band known for being obnoxious and performing while dressed like women can get this relatively conservative kid from Ohio on their side, clearly there’s a backstory that’s worth celebrating.

Moving Pictures

Posted from Bonaire at 5:22 pm, January 30th, 2016

I’m not so much with the words when it comes to describing the beautiful underwater environment here, so I’ve done my best to condense down an unwieldy amount of video into something that is hopefully borderline watchable. We saw a lot of cool things under the sea this past week. Part of what made things even more amazing on this trip is that on five of our seven dives we were on our own and got to find things without the aid of a divemaster, and without having to share them with a big dive group, so each moment with a fish or turtle was just for us and lasted as long as we wanted to hang out and the animals were willing to have us there. Bonaire will be high on the list of places to return to for future trips.

At the end of the week I had more than forty-five minutes of GoPro video. This is the condensed version, but it’s still five minutes long. Five minutes of underwater awesomeness long.

Chumming the Water

Posted from Bonaire at 8:55 pm, January 28th, 2016

Yesterday was a rest day from diving, and our only adventures were finding a food truck that serves awesome tuna and then driving around the northern part of the island. That wasn’t quite enough material for a standalone journal entry, but now everyone is caught up, so we can move on to today and the boat trip of many barfings.

The west side of Bonaire is calm, and you can wade in from the beach and dive on the reef. The east side is definitely not calm – there is a lagoon where some of the best windsurfers in the world practice daily, and waves crash into the rocks and throw spray fifteen feet into the air, so wading in from the beach is not going to end well for anyone. The upside of diving on the “wild side” of Bonaire is that the sea critters are bigger; you can see sharks, rays, and other things that aren’t found in abundance elsewhere. So we booked a boat trip, and then watched in fear as crazy winds blew constantly for the 48 hours prior to our dive. We showed up at 7:30 this morning expecting the trip to be cancelled, only to find two Dutch guys loading tanks onto a zodiak. When we asked them about water conditions, they ominously replied “it’s going to be rough, but don’t worry.”

After a briefing the boat slowly and carefully maneuvered through breakers that were 8-10 feet tall, getting us to the edge of the reef in a wet-but-alive state. The first dive was good but short – there were some newly-certified divers that blew through their air, forcing us to come up after 40 minutes instead of the hour scheduled. Animals sighted underwater included rays and sea turtles. Where things got interesting, however, was after surfacing while waiting for pickup. While the two Dutch guys scrambled to get people and gear back on the boat, a few of the divers started getting queasy in the huge swells and began chumming the waters. Sea sickness sucks, but it’s even worse when you’re floating in waves that are reminiscent of the end of The Perfect Storm and simultaneously you’re trying not to get smashed by gear and a twenty foot long boat. Luckily neither Audrey nor I got sick, but the mountainous waves and erupting passengers made for a memorable re-entry.

After hanging out in the calm shallows between dives we did a second dive (minus two seasick passengers who stayed behind), and this time the two novice divers were sent up early so that the rest of us could enjoy a longer dive. Sea turtles were everywhere – the dive site was named “Turtle City” – and that’s always fun since they’re such graceful and wise-looking animals. A giant spotted lobster was also roaming the reef, which was my first time seeing one out in the open. Prior to the dive the dive master had requested that each of us give him a hand sign when half of our air was gone, so forty minutes into the dive I let him know I was down to half a tank, and to my horror he then made the signal to end the dive and head towards the surface. I assumed I had screwed up signals and done “out of air” instead of “half a tank” since we were again ending the dive so early, and I ascended in a bubble net of shame. Luckily, when we got to the surface it turned out another diver had run out of air, so I was pardoned of the crime of gross hand signal negligence.

Tomorrow is our last day of diving since it’s unsafe to dive for 24 hours prior to flying. Given that Bonaire is just a two-hop flight from LA (LA-Houston-Bonaire), and that I have a gazillion frequent flyer miles, it’s probably a safe bet we’ll be back here again at some point in the not-too-distant future.