Ryan's Journal

"My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?" — David Mitchell

The Sound of Music

Posted from Culver City, California at 6:01 pm, July 15th, 2018

While there hasn’t been a ton of journal-worthy excitement lately (obviously), the past month was notable for a number of incredible musical events.

When I was a kid, Paul Simon’s Graceland album was one of the very first albums I remember thinking was my own personal musical discovery – not something I bought because it was on the radio or because everyone else was listening to it, but that I owned and listened to on repeat because it was music that appealed to me. When it was announced that this year’s tour was Paul Simon’s farewell tour I snagged two tickets, and on May 23 Audrey and I sat down to say goodbye to a singer who had shaped my taste in music since I was a kid. At 76 years of age he still had plenty of energy, and the program covered 50 years of music in a way that reminded you of how much of an influence he’s had on our culture. When he came out for the final encore with a single spotlight and an acoustic guitar to play “Sounds of Silence”, it was one of those rare goosebump-inducing moments with the realization that that guy is singing that song and you are lucky enough to be there and hear it. All in all a very special night.

Six weeks later we trekked up to one of our favorite venues, the Mountain Winery in the hills overlooking the San Francisco Bay. You can’t go wrong with a pre-show dinner in a winery, a 2400 seat venue with views of the Bay, and a stage set in front of a historic winery cellar. The first of the two shows we saw was the Indigo Girls, one of the few groups where Audrey’s musical tastes and my own overlap. There’s something special about seeing singer-songwriters in a small venue – the energy in the crowd is different, and the feeling takes you back to singalongs around the fire at summer camp – and this show did not disappoint, with audience members occasionally yelling out requests, and the ladies on stage more often than not going “yeah, let’s do that” and then launching into the requested song. Despite Emily apparently having a bit of a cold that caused her to lose a few notes, this was another very memorable evening.

Night two at the Mountain Winery featured Steve Martin and Martin Short, which the pre-show marquis jokingly advertised as “See them before they’re dead”. We’d seen Steve Martin’s musical act with Edie Brickell and the Steep Canyon Rangers twice before, but this was more of a comedy show, with a couple of musical interludes. Our seats were probably within a hundred feet of the stage, so obviously it was amazing to see a couple of comedy legends in person, but as good as the comedy was, I think the music Steve Martin is creating is even better – a performance by the Steep Canyon Rangers brought the house down, and Steve Martin on banjo is a sight to behold.

These shows were all a reminder of how lucky I am to be living a life filled with incredible experiences – many days pass by and are quickly forgotten, but seeing Paul Simon in the Hollywood Bowl, or Steve Martin under the stars in a winery, are those rare special occasions that get etched into the memory banks for all time.

Paul Simon at the Hollywood Bowl
Saying goodbye to Paul Simon at the Hollywood Bowl.
Audrey, me and the Indigo Girls at the Mountain Winery
Audrey, me and the Indigo Girls at the Mountain Winery. Oddly, in a venue that seats 2400, our seats for the Indigo girls were in the same row and section, and were in fact immediately adjacent to, our seats the following night for Steve Martin.

I’m in a Funk

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:28 pm, June 14th, 2018

If there are any readers of this journal left, it’s become painfully obvious that I’m falling far short of my three entries per month goal. I’ve got no good excuse – every time I sit down to write something I’m coming up empty. At some point either we’ll head out on the road and this page will again become a travel journal, or else inspiration will strike and I’ll launch into a twenty-part treatise on solving the mysteries of life, the universe, and everything, but until either of those things happen it’s probably going to be quieter than normal. In the interim, feel free to use the comments section to suggest any future topics that might help break the current radio silence.

Sometimes the world gets better

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:50 am, May 20th, 2018

Too often the message of conservationists is only about doom and gloom – unstoppable global warming, coral reefs dying, deforestation – which is a shame, because there is plenty of good news about the environment to buoy people’s spirits and remind us that we are capable of making positive changes in the world.

  • I’ve written about the decade-long rat eradication program on South Georgia Island before, but to recap: starting in 2010, and continuing in 2012 and 2014, teams in helicopters dropped poison bait across the entire island in an effort to eliminate rats that had been brought to the island two centuries ago by whalers and sealers, decimating the island’s nesting birds. While using poison to kill rats is an unfortunate solution for a man-made problem, the chance of making the island safe again for as many as 100 million nesting seabirds far outweighs any negatives. Had the effort left even one breeding pair of rats alive it would have been a failure, but last week it was announced that two years after the last bait was dropped, and with thousands of chew sticks examined, tracking tunnels checked, and a team of rat-sniffing dogs having scoured the entire island, no signs of rats were found and the island has been officially declared rat-free. As the years go by bird populations will increase, and someday the island may again reclaim its title as one of the most important seabird nesting sites in the world.
  • Closer to home, dam removal throughout New England has for the first time in centuries re-opened rivers to anadromous fish (fish that spawn in rivers but spend their lives in the ocean). On Maine’s Penobscott River, where just one herring was seen a decade ago, 1.8 million herring were counted in 2016. Other waterways where dams have been removed also show huge increases, and just as importantly the otters, raptors, and other animals that depend on those herring should also greatly benefit.
  • Finally, in 2011 a Dutch teenager named Boyan Slat gave a TED talk about cleaning up plastic in the ocean using floating screens that drift in currents. In most cases you would expect that to have been the end of the story – a nice viral video that a lot of people watched, with no follow-up. However, in this case Boyan doggedly persisted, founding the Ocean Cleanup Project, raising over $30 million, and this week the now-23-year-old Boyan and his team launched a prototype cleanup system for tests in the Pacific outside of San Francisco Bay. Although I’ll admit to being skeptical about the likelihood of success with their current design, the fact that this project has persisted, and has managed to capture funding and attention year after year, makes me optimistic that they will eventually succeed and make a significant dent into removing some of the estimated five trillion plastic objects currently floating in our seas.
Grey-headed albatross on South Georgia Island
Grey-headed albatross on South Georgia Island in 2004. This photo was actually taken on a smaller, rat-free island just off of the South Georgia coast, but with rats gone from the mainland these birds will now have vastly more rat-free nesting territory available.

What If…

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:19 pm, April 2nd, 2018

I know politics are a turn-off for a lot of folks, but it seems like an interesting thought exercise to imagine what it would be like if a few states had voted slightly differently, making Hillary Clinton the 45th president. Please feel free to use the comments to add any additions or corrections to this alternative timeline…

November 2016: If Democrats had turned out in numbers that were just large enough to give Clinton the victory in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, that turnout likely would have also provided narrow Democratic victories in the Wisconsin & Pennsylvania Senate races, resulting in a Senate that was split 50-50, with Vice President Tim Kaine the deciding vote in case of ties.

January 2017: With Clinton in the White House and a Democratic Senate, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer would have invoked the “nuclear option” in order to overcome Republican obstruction against Hillary Clinton’s nominees (just as Republicans did with Trump’s nominees), enraging conservatives and leading to an uproar in conservative media. The end result would be a bitterly divided Senate, a re-energized Tea Party, and a Supreme Court with a liberal majority.

June 2017: In this alternate timeline, the US would not have dropped out of the Paris Climate accords, nor would DACA have been rescinded. Similarly, there would have been no discussion of a border wall, a Muslim ban, or withdrawing from NAFTA.

September 2017: With the House still in Republican control, and conservatives enraged by the actions of President Clinton, the odds of a budget agreement would have been zero, almost certainly resulting in a shutdown of the government. Conservatives likely would have demanded documents and testimony for their many ongoing investigations over Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation, and Clinton’s email servers as a minimum precondition for any re-opening of the government.

October 2017: While Trump rescinded Obamacare’s cost sharing subsidies, resulting in health insurance premiums that were about ten percent higher than they otherwise would have been, President Clinton would have spent her time looking for ways to strengthen the health care law. Without Republican support it is unlikely there would have been much she could do, but in this alternate timeline Obamacare would not have been weakened, premium increases would have been lower, and Congress would not have spent months debating how to repeal the law.

November 2017: With Clinton as President and Trump likely viewed as an outcast in Republican circles, the one thing that the parties would probably have agreed on was addressing Russian interference in the 2016 elections. In this timeline, FBI director James Comey’s investigation into Russian meddling would have reached its conclusion, and with the support of the Senate and European allies the US would have imposed strict sanctions that isolated Russia internationally. In addition, bipartisan action to improve voting security and combat future meddling would be one of the year’s very rare examples of the parties actually working together.

December 2017: After a temporary agreement to end the previous shutdown, the divided government would again be unlikely to find a budget agreement, resulting in yet another shutdown. With huge deficits projected, Republicans would probably be rallying around the debt and deficit and demanding steps to address those issues as preconditions for any budget agreement. Note that in this timeline, the Republican tax cuts of 2017, with their corresponding reduction in federal revenue, would never have become law.

January 2018: With the North Koreans conducting nuclear and missile tests throughout 2017, President Clinton would have most likely pushed for an international response that was led by China and based on the framework used in the Iran nuclear agreement. While any deal would have been condemned by the Right (like they have done with the Iran nuclear deal), faced with real pressure from its one main ally (China), North Korea would have been boxed into a corner, forced to choose between sanctions that could finally threaten King Jong Un’s power or pausing its nuclear ambitions.

April 2018: After almost no legislative progress, two government shutdowns, ongoing investigations, and a huge block of Bernie Sanders voters still fomenting dissent on the Left, Hillary Clinton’s approval ratings would likely be dismal. The Republican establishment would be railing non-stop against Clinton corruption and deficits, and Tea Party rallies would be even larger than they were under Obama. In this environment, political scientists would be predicting a massive Republican wave in the midterms that would not only increase the Republican House majority, but would also flip 6-10 Senate seats to Republicans. Pundits would be questioning how the Democrats could possibly regain any path to a viable governing majority, and openly wondering if Clinton should consider stepping aside after just one term.

Moneyball V

Posted from Culver City, California at 12:02 pm, March 25th, 2018

In an ongoing effort to drive away readers by combining my love of the worst team in the NFL with my love of math, here’s another post about the upcoming NFL draft.

As I’ve posted previously, I buy in fully to the idea that most NFL teams are bad at valuing draft picks, and that the Browns have done a great job in recent drafts of taking advantage of that quirk of NFL management (note: they’ve done a great job acquiring picks, and a terrible job of using those picks). For example, while one can argue about whether Deshaun Watson should have been the Browns’ choice last year at #12, it’s tough to argue against the value they got for that trade, giving up #12 in 2017 for #25 in 2017 and #4 this year.

In my predictions for 2018 I suggested that the Browns would take a quarterback #1, and then take advantage of teams willing to overpay to move up by trading away the #4 pick. The Jets recently traded up to the #3 position, heavily overpaying for that privilege according to the traditional draft value chart:

IND trades NYJ trades Result
#3 (2200 points) #6 (1600 points)
#37 (530 points)
#49 (410 points)
2018 2nd round pick (270-580)
2200 points for 2810-3120 points
(28-42% premium)

Assuming the Browns would get a similar premium for the #4 pick (worth 1800 points), the following are all trades that I suspect will be viable in this year’s draft based on the fact that there are four quarterbacks being discussed as top picks, and all of the following teams need QBs; were I the Browns’ GM, I would accept any of these offers without hesitation:

Trading partner Picks traded Result
Denver #5 (1700 points)
#71 (235 points)
1800 points for 1935 points
(8% premium)
Miami #11 (1250 points)
#73 (225 points)
2019 1st round pick (590-3000)
1800 points for 2065-4475 points
(15-149% premium)
Buffalo #12 (1200 points)
#65 (265 points)
2019 1st round pick (590-3000)
1800 points for 2055-4465 points
(14-148% premium)
Arizona #15 (1050 points)
#47 (430 points)
2019 1st round pick (590-3000)
1800 points for 2070-4480 points
(15-149% premium)

Obviously making mathematically-smart trades won’t matter if the Browns don’t do a better job of actually drafting players that have success in the NFL, and thus the Browns clearly need to improve their talent evaluation. That said, statistically they’ve made all the right moves when it comes to maximizing their draft capital, and I hope that they don’t forgo that success this year when teams offer to trade a king’s ransom for whoever the fourth-best quarterback ends up being.

Long Overdue Recap

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:50 pm, March 18th, 2018

It’s been a long time since there was a recap entry, so here’s a quick overview of the events since November:

  • Due to work I ended up skipping the annual Man Trip over the Christmas break, and instead just made a two day rush up to the Bay Area to enjoy the holiday with Ma, Pa, and Younger Holliday. As always mom cooked a tremendous dinner, we got to go for a couple of walks wearing dad’s goofy hats, and it was nice to be home be with family for a bit.
  • Following the New Year Audrey and I headed north to Alaska for the Northern Lights trip that has previously been chronicled in this journal. I had decided not to use vacation for the trip since the weather was likely to keep us indoors, and sadly the ongoing project that caused me to forgo the 2017 Man Trip followed me to Alaska – it has been three years since the job required an all-nighter, but there were two all-nighters required while in Alaska; the universe may owe me some time off.
  • Continuing a theme, there have three work trips to San Antonio so far in 2018, although luckily they have been uneventful (i.e. no hurricanes).
  • In non-work news, Aaron came to LA two weeks ago and stayed with us for a night. There was much sushi, a walk around the Venice canals, and fun with his new toy – a drone that apparently doesn’t like all of the airspace restrictions around my house due to LAX and the Santa Monica airport.
  • Finally, in home news we haven’t done any major projects aside from some tree-trimming, but we now support a small zoo each morning as 4-6 squirrels, a few dozen sparrows and finches, several badass hummingbirds, and a murder of crows stop by for daily brunch.

Ten years of getting it wrong

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:52 pm, February 14th, 2018

Starting in 2009 I began making predictions about the coming year. Now in its tenth year, the annual predictions for 2018 are ready to go:

  1. First, some obligatory election predictions:
    1. Republicans will barely lose the House, with Democrats holding a post-election advantage of between 1-10 seats; currently the House is split 241-194 Republican/Democrat. All signs point to a big year for Democrats, but current districts are drawn such that Republicans have a built-in advantage that will limit gains by Democrats.
    2. Republicans will end the year with either 49 or 50 Senate seats. While it looks like a good year for Democrats, they are defending 26 seats while Republicans only have to defend eight, and only seven of the 34 races are currently expected to be competitive. Democrats have decent odds to pick up seats in Nevada and Arizona, but they must also play defense in tough states like Indiana, Missouri, West Virginia, North Dakota and Montana, and I would expect that at least one of those could end up flipping to Republicans.
    3. Efforts to eliminate gerrymandering will get a boost, with ballot measures passing in at least five states. Additionally, the Supreme Court ruling in Gill vs. Whitford will accept the argument that overly-partisan districts are unconstitutional, leading to lawsuits in several states against the current maps.
  2. After twelve years in development and many setbacks, Virgin Galactic will finally get their new ship into space. It’s hard to believe that it’s been fourteen years since Spaceship One became the first manned private vehicle to reach space.
  3. Avengers: Infinity War will become the highest-grossing Marvel movie. The first Avengers movie currently holds that title with a $623 million box office haul, so I’ll peg the new movie’s box office take at $650-700 million.
  4. The Browns will draft a quarterback at #1 and trade back from the #4 pick. I’m confident in the prediction that a quarterback will be the pick at #1, but less so about the trade back – the new general manager may not think like his Moneyball predecessors who recognized that high picks tend to be over-valued. That said, there are a lot of good quarterbacks in this draft, thus there will be a lot of teams scrambling to get their guy before he’s gone, so I think the Browns will pick their man at #1 and will then be unable to ignore the bidding war from QB-needy teams wanting the fourth pick.
  5. Tesla will not hit its goal of producing 5,000 Model 3 vehicles per week by the end of Q2, and will finish the year with total Model 3 deliveries between 170,000-190,000.
  6. Jeff Bezos, who purchased the Washington Post for $250 million in 2013, will expand his presence in the news world. Bezos has turned the Post profitable, and more importantly has turned the software platform that the newspaper runs on into a service used by many other major news organizations around the world. My impression is that he is trying to show traditional journalism companies how to be financially viable in the digital world, and as such I expect that he will create some sort of Amazon news portal, will purchase additional news organizations, or will otherwise launch some major effort to further that goal.
  7. The new Han Solo Star Wars movie will significantly underperform the other Star Wars films, a result of audience fatigue and a film that has had a troubled production. The film is going to be released just six months after The Last Jedi, and just one year after the original directors were fired, so I’m going to guess its box office will be between $375-425 million, far less than the $530 million earned by Rogue One.
  8. Boeing will not complete its first 777X airplane in 2018 as scheduled. After the new 737-MAX airplane was actually delivered sooner than Boeing anticipated it is tempting to believe that the 777X will also be delivered on time or early, but the changes in the 777 are more ambitious, including a folding wingtip, and it seems very likely that Boeing will find it harder to put together than anticipated.
  9. Despite reportedly spending $1 billion on producing television shows in 2018, Apple will still end 2018 without any popular programs. Unlike Netflix or Amazon, which make their content available on all devices, Apple’s strategy seems tied to using content as a way to sell the overpriced $180 Apple streaming TV device, so unless Apple manages to strike gold and create the next Game of Thrones, it seems highly unlikely that enough people are going to see Apple’s shows to make them successful.
  10. While I don’t think the California High Speed Rail project will be significantly changed so long as Jerry Brown is in office, given the fact that the first and easiest section of the route is already 30-50% over budget, lawmakers and candidates for governor will rebrand the project, and instead of describing it as a route between LA and San Francisco, it will start to be described as a route that connects the job-rich coastal cities with the affordable housing of the Central Valley. This strategy will allow them to de-emphasize cost overruns and delays in building the statewide system, giving them the ability to declare that “success” means opening an operational segment from Fresno to San Jose. In fairness that strategy actually does make some sense given the higher unemployment in the valley and crazy housing prices on the coast, but I am still hugely dismayed at how badly California is screwing up such an important project.
  11. The Simpsons will finally come to an end after 30 seasons, announcing that the 2018-2019 season will be its last. Thirty seems like a nice round number to go out on, even if the cast and creators might be willing to go on for another decade or two. If this prediction does come true, it will be the first time since I was in the eighth grade that I’ll live in a world without new Simpsons episodes.
  12. The Bitcoin bubble will finally burst. The cryptocurrency is down nearly fifty percent from its high of $20,000, but the bubble will finally burst for good sometime this year, and prices will be well under $1,000 by the time 2018 comes to a close. A “currency” that is difficult to actually use in making purchases, and that requires massive amounts of energy to sustain, is not something that lends itself well to longevity.
  13. Finally, despite constant rumors to the contrary, Lebron James will not leave the Cavs. This prediction is based on two pieces of evidence: one, when he returned to the Cavs he said he was going to finish his career in Cleveland, and as long as the Cavs give him the opportunity to win more championships I think he’ll stick to that, and two, I desperately want it to be correct.

And there they are. As I do every year, looking over the list now I wonder how any of them could possibly end up being incorrect, and I look forward to revisiting this list a year from now and wondering how I could possibly have believed that any of them would end up coming to pass. If anyone wants to add predictions of their own, or if you would like to (rightfully) mock the predictions I’ve made, the comments section is available as always.

2017 Predictions – the Aftermath

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:55 pm, February 5th, 2018

In what has become an annual tradition, at the beginning of 2017 I made fifteen predictions about the coming year. In what has also become an annual tradition, I was horribly wrong about most of them. Scorecards from past years prove without a doubt that I do not have the powers of Nostradamus, and the following tally of 2017’s glorious ineptitude merely reinforces that fact. I remain undaunted, however, and will be back with predictions for 2018 in an upcoming journal entry.

Without further ado, here’s the recap of 2017:

  1. While Tesla says it will begin volume production of the Model-3 in the second half of 2017, they will miss that goal slightly, delivering only between 4-8,000 vehicles by the end of the year.

    WRONG Tesla actually did far worse than even I expected, delivering just 1,550 Model-3 vehicles in 2017. As late as August 2017 Tesla was estimating deliveries of around 25,000 vehicles, so this was a pretty huge miss for them, although demand for the vehicle seems to be robust so there is an enormous amount of potential revenue awaiting them if they can get volumes up.

  2. The Browns will trade at least one of their two first round draft picks.

    CORRECT The Browns traded their #12 pick to the Texans for the #25 pick and what became the #4 pick in this year’s draft. For any other team that would be an amazing haul, but since it’s the Browns, the player the Texans took at #12 – Deshaun Watson – looks to have all the makings of the league’s next great QB. Luckily the 2018 NFL Draft is less than three months away.

  3. By the end of the year there will be rumblings in tech publications and among shareholders calling for Tim Cook’s ouster as Apple CEO.

    WRONG I was WAY off in my predictions about the stock market – I assumed it was due for a correction, but instead stocks rose over 30%, and in that environment very few CEOs are going to be losing their jobs, much less the head of the world’s most valuable company. For the record, I think Apple has lost its way and needs a leader who can provide a sensible vision, and while Tim Cook may be great at supply chains and logistics, it doesn’t inspire confidence that every year he proclaims his newest iPhone to be “magical” because it is 0.001 mm thinner and has a camera with an extra few pixels.

  4. Donald Trump’s favorability ratings will fall from the current 45% to between 27-32% by the end of the year, and there will be talk of impeachment from both sides of the aisle.

    WRONG While his 38% approval rating at the end of the year is a record low for a President in his first year, I was very wrong about how the Republican Party, whose members in many cases skipped or only reluctantly attended their own nominating convention in the summer of 2016, and Fox News, a network that once feuded with candidate Trump to the point that he didn’t attend one of their sponsored debates, would fall in line behind a President Trump.

  5. The stock market will end the year down about ten percent, finishing between 16,500 and 17,500.

    WRONG The market closed 2017 at 24,719, up 25.1%. This was a big miss on my part, but the correction I expected in 2017 may be now happening a few months later – as I write this entry the stock market has dropped 1,800 points in two days.

  6. Hidden Figures (which I haven’t seen) will win the Best Picture Oscar.

    WRONG But in my defense, even the Oscar ceremony didn’t get the Best Picture Oscar right.

  7. SpaceX will not launch a human spaceflight mission, nor will it launch its new Falcon Heavy rocket, but it will re-fly one of its previously-flown rockets, and will complete at least twenty total missions without another accident.

    CORRECT I’m going to count this prediction as a win, despite the fact that they had 18 launches instead of 20. Their previous best year was 2016 when the had eight successful missions, so they more than doubled their previous record, they became the first company to re-fly a rocket, and I correctly predicted the delay in both the Falcon Heavy and manned missions. That puts me at a miserable two out of seven correct predictions, and it’s not going to get much better…

  8. At least one of the following companies will be purchased by the year’s end: Twitter, Spotify, or Lyft.

    WRONG I didn’t foresee Uber repeatedly shooting itself in the foot and leaving Lyft looking stellar by comparison, or Apple Music failing to do anything to meaningfully distinguish itself from Spotify, and I continue to be mystified by Twitter’s business model. In any case, this prediction was another one that was spectacularly wrong.

  9. The next Star Wars movie will significantly under-perform the domestic box office take of $936 million earned by The Force Awakens; I’ll predict its box office ends up in the $500-600 million range.

    WRONG As of February 4, The Force Awakens has a domestic box office total of $614 million; it’s tempting to count this prediction as correct since I’m so close, but close is relative – for all but a handful of very rich people, $14 million isn’t really a number that should just be shrugged off, so this one needs to go down as wrong despite a really, really strong argument for partial credit.

  10. Obamacare will not be repealed or replaced in any meaningful way.

    CORRECT I was surprised that Republicans got to the point where only John McCain’s thumb saved Obamacare from significant changes, but in the end their years of promises to “repeal and replace” hit the hard reality that “replace” is an easy thing to say and a very difficult thing to do.

  11. By the end of the year ESPN & the Discovery network will offer streaming services, while one or both of Netflix and Amazon will find a way to offer local channels.

    WRONG I’m amazed at how badly content providers are doing in adjusting to the new reality that people are moving away from traditional cable and towards streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. While ESPN has (finally) announced a streaming service, details are scant and it won’t launch until later this year (at the soonest), while most other networks seem to have their heads in the sand. Meanwhile, although YouTube and DirecTV stream local channels, I was wrong about the interest by other services in providing a full-fledged replacement for cable TV.

  12. The coming actions that Trump and the Republican Congress will take against LGBT rights, abortion rights, the environment, and other issues will create a huge amount of anger on the Left that will manifest itself in similar ways to what was seen with the Tea Party.

    CORRECT While it doesn’t yet appear that Democrats are going to quite the extremes that the Tea Party did (no major Democrats seem to be in danger of losing their seats in primaries), there was sufficient anger to create a two day government shutdown, a huge backlash against any sign of Senators supporting Trump nominees, and a massive amount of anger directed towards Washington. While this prediction may seem obvious in retrospect, I get a lot of “obvious” predictions wrong, and am thus still going to count this one as correct.

  13. The Russian election hacking story will just be the beginning of ongoing cyberattacks that will continue in 2017 in an effort to undermine American credibility both domestically and internationally.

    WRONG While Russia appears to be gearing up to try and influence the 2018 elections, the fact that investigations into Russian hacking have become politicized has made it very difficult to determine if the attacks are continuing or not; in any case, they have not been the major story that I expected they would be. I’m biased based on my field of work, but in my mind cyberattacks and attempts by a foreign power to divide Americans by manipulating social media are threats that should be taken much, much more seriously, and it should be a topmost priority of the NSA and similar organizations to identify and shut down foreign bots and fake accounts as quickly as possible.

  14. Google will announce an operating system to compete with Windows & OSX

    WRONG While Google apparently has an operating system in testing, they barely acknowledge it exists and most definitely didn’t announce it as a Windows competitor in 2017. In all honesty, I didn’t really think this prediction was going to come true when I wrote it, but I’d been working on the “predictions” journal entry for a few days and just couldn’t come up with anything better.

  15. The next season of Game of Thrones is going to kill off Cersei Lannister and Littlefinger.

    (Spoiler alert) HALF CREDIT Game of Thrones is a really interesting show, with excellent characters and compelling storylines, but now that the show has pushed beyond the books it’s clear that the twisted mind of George R. R. Martin was not guiding the demise of one of his best characters – Lord Baelish deserved a more devious ending than what he got.

Final score: 4.5 out of 15 (30%), making this only my sixth worst showing (out of nine years). WOO HOO! Predictions for 2018 will be online in the coming days.

Walking on Water

Posted from Fairbanks, Alaska at 10:57 pm, January 16th, 2018

With the Northern Lights in hiding we’ve turned to other activities – yesterday’s adventures included a trip down memory lane involving a visit to the Knotty Shop, a stop in North Pole to send mail and giggle about the postmark, and a visit to the Chena Lakes Recreation area where we roamed over the frozen lake. The lake’s ice was thick enough to not only support a small army of ice fishing huts, but also apparently strong enough to support the pickup trucks that drove across the lake and parked next to the huts.

In a bizarre twist, today Fairbanks is experiencing highly unusual temperatures that are nearly up to 30°F, while San Antonio and much of the Southern United States is getting a rare ice storm. Ironically the host at our B&B told us that while Fairbanks never shuts down due to cold, the warmer temperatures bring ice (we’ve got freezing rain here tonight), and thus when it gets warm in the winter they usually end up cancelling school because things melt and then re-freeze, making the roads treacherous.

Given the lack of Auroras I don’t have any exciting photos from the past few days, so here a couple more from four nights ago during the Big Show.

Night sky above Fairbanks
This photo was taken around 10PM and captures the stars and the glow of the Fairbanks city lights against the clouds. Fifteen second exposure using a 10mm lens.
Aurora Borealis, taken north of Fairbanks
We didn’t know in advance that the entire sky was going to light up, so I naively thought that this picture, taken around midnight, would end up as my favorite photo of the evening. Fifteen second exposure using a 10mm lens.

A Night Without Lights

Posted from Fairbanks, Alaska at 12:10 am, January 15th, 2018

The space weather forecast for last night was calling for the most active light display thus far, but the meteorological forecast was calling for cloudy skies, so our hopes were low. Ironically we ended up with relatively clear skies but little in the way of Aurora activity – our current lodge doesn’t offer the easy Aurora viewing of our last place, but despite waking up frequently and looking out of the windows it seemed to be a quiet evening in the heavens.

Today Fairbanks enjoyed a heat wave, with downright balmy temperatures reaching all the way up into the twenties, so we’re able to be outside at length without fear of dying. We took advantage of the tropical weather by spending the day up at Chena Hot Springs, which was a really neat and at the same time very hokey place to visit – they had an amazing Ice Museum, it was ridiculously relaxing to soak in the hot springs under the dark skies while surrounded by snow drifts, and the restaurant was surprisingly good, but at the same time it very much had the feel of a place where tour buses drop off a load of people to be led around from activity to activity. Despite the touristy feel it was a great place to spend an afternoon, and the Ice Museum in particular was a neat find. It was clearly a kitschy thing to have an appletini at their “ice bar”, but who could pass up a cocktail served in a handmade, single-use cocktail glass made out of ice, while sitting at a bar that is also made from solid ice? We were even reluctant to part with our cup, and only did so once our fingers got cold from carrying it and we finally admitted that a glass made of ice was probably not something we could bring home in our carry-on baggage.

Tonight, given the forecast of snow the odds of seeing the Northern Lights are low. Tomorrow I’ve got a day free of work due to the MLK holiday, so depending on weather we’re thinking of making a trip to North Pole, Alaska, which ironically is located a few miles south of Fairbanks.

The Ice Museum in Chena Hot Springs
The Aurora Ice Bar in the Ice Museum, home of very manly appletinis. With the exception of the mirror and a small number of other items, everything in this photo is made out of ice.
The Ice Museum in Chena Hot Springs
Details in the Ice Museum – these ice globes each had a different design embedded inside of it, and formed a ring around an altar that they use when people want to get married amidst the ice art.

The Big Show

Posted from Fairbanks, Alaska at 9:16 pm, January 13th, 2018

We had an inkling that last night might be good for the Aurora based on the space weather forecast, and after enjoying a couple of hours of nice displays, something suddenly changed and in a matter of minutes the sky went from “nice” to “utterly magical”.

Last night was our last night at the Aurora Borealis Lodge, and since they had a lot of guests we decided to hike a few hundred yards up the hill from the main lodge to enjoy the skies with a bit less noise. It wasn’t terribly cold (perhaps 20°F), so Audrey and I soaked in the solitude for a while before wandering back down to the lodge to warm up. No sooner had we taken our hats and gloves off when the sky started to light up, and we rushed back outside for what the lodge owner later called the best display thus far in 2018. Auroras lit up the northern half of the sky, then danced overhead and filled the southern half of the sky with light. There were multiple colors, pulsing and dancing lights, streams of fire that burned across the horizon, and enough magic to make you believe in the ancient stories of the Aurora being heavenly spirits or flames in space. The show finally started to fade just after 2AM, and we reluctantly returned to our cabin exhausted but elated.

Sadly the weather forecast for the next several days is calling for mostly cloudy skies, but we embarked on this trip hoping for at least one great night, and we definitely got that, so no matter what happens from this point onward the trip has been a successful one.

Aurora Borealis, taken north of Fairbanks
The moment when things started going from good to insane. Eight second exposure using an 18mm lens.
Aurora Borealis, taken north of Fairbanks
The Aurora, directly overhead. Six second exposure using an 18mm lens.
Aurora Borealis, taken north of Fairbanks
At the time this photo was taken I’d been outside in the cold for nearly four hours straight and wasn’t close to wanting to go back indoors. Fifteen second exposure using a 14mm lens.

Space Weather

Posted from Fairbanks, Alaska at 9:38 pm, January 12th, 2018

Some random notes from our time in Fairbanks thus far:

  • The cold is not as bad as expected, even at temperatures that have dipped down as cold as -20°F. That is, it isn’t as bad as expected until the wind blows, at which point a freezing blowtorch of pain reminds you that you’re in Interior Alaska in January.
  • The Northern Lights vary a LOT. Sometimes they are so faint that you can only see them after taking a long camera exposure, other times they seem bright enough to read by. Sometimes they look like a glowing cloud spread across the sky, other times they look like dancing ribbons. Sometimes they appear white, sometimes green, sometimes red, sometimes purple, and sometimes a combination of all of these colors.
  • For anyone chasing the lights, the SpaceWeather.com Aurora “oval” forecast and the nightly weather forecast are your two best friends; clear skies and a portion of the oval in your vicinity will make for a happy evening.
  • Three of our four nights at the Aurora Borealis Lodge have so far had great displays, generally starting around 10PM and ending around 2AM when we are finally so tired that we head off to bed; the only night we didn’t see the lights was due to cloudy skies.
  • Finally, in the “things you wouldn’t think about in the Lower-48” department, a tanker truck came by to deliver water to our cabin today – the lodge is too remote for there to be city water available, and a well would freeze, so regular water deliveries are what allow us to take an occasional shower.
Aurora Borealis, taken north of Fairbanks
A moment of extra happiness last night. Eight second exposure using an 18mm lens.
Aurora Borealis, taken north of Fairbanks
While the Aurora sometimes looks like the sunset, this picture was taken facing north, eight hours after the sun had disappeared in the south. Six second exposure using an 18mm lens.
Aurora Borealis, taken north of Fairbanks
Finding a sharp focus in the dark has been quite the challenge, so I’m insanely proud of the fact that these tress stand out as clearly as they do. Six second exposure using an 18mm lens.

My Friend Aurora

Posted from North of Fairbanks, Alaska at 9:44 pm, January 10th, 2018

We’ve started on phase two of this trip, moving from our temporary home in downtown Fairbanks to the Aurora Borealis Lodge on a ridge twenty miles outside of the city. Without any city lights the aurora is visible across the northern sky, and we’ve had two straight clear nights where the displays were epic. Tonight there are clouds covering the sky, but the forecast calls for some clearing around 1AM, so it may be a late-night wake-up to catch the evening show.

The logistics of photographing this natural wonder are still a challenge to me – between keeping the camera steady for long periods, focusing in the pitch black, and not freezing to death it has been interesting. At one point last night I was heading back outside after coming in to warm up and noticed that everything looked blurry in my viewfinder – turned out there was a layer of ice covering my lens, and I had to wait a bit to let the camera thaw; that was a first in the three decades since my dad gave me my first 35mm.

Aurora Borealis, taken north of Fairbanks
Last night’s northern lights display, taken just before midnight.

My Boogers Froze Today. Twice.

Posted from Fairbanks, Alaska at 7:22 pm, January 7th, 2018

Since my job lets me work from anywhere with an internet connection, spending two weeks in Fairbanks in the dead of winter seemed like it would be a great idea. Audrey and I will be huddled together for warmth in the coming days, hoping that the northern lights make an appearance at some point.

After arriving late last night we spent today’s sparse daylight hours bundled in every piece of clothing that we own, roaming past the frozen Chena River through Griffin Park in downtown Fairbanks, before we were finally forced into the (very impressive) Visitor Information Center to escape the -8°F temperatures. Tomorrow we head further north to spend the rest of the week in a tiny cabin outside of the city lights in the hopes that the Auroras might peek out at us once or twice. Wish us luck.

Fairbanks Weather Outlook
The weather forecast for the week gives us nearly four hours a day of the sun’s warmth, so we should have decent odds of not freezing to death.
Frosty tree branch in Griffin Park, Fairbanks in Winter
This tree in Griffin Park got dominated by the Fairbanks winter.
Statue in Griffin Park, Fairbanks in Winter
Even the statues in Fairbanks are freezing.

Fixing the System

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:08 pm, December 28th, 2017

Audrey and I were sitting in the back yard a few weeks ago talking about some political issue in the day’s news, and in the course of the conversation she asked what I would do to fix things. One of my suggestions wasn’t a popular one, but after explaining it a bit she said “you should write a journal entry about that”. I’ve presented thoughts for improving our government in journal entries in the past with varying amounts of seriousness, but here’s another entry that may or may not be worth the pixels that it’s printed on:

There is a lot of chatter these days about empowering the average citizen over party “elites” – getting rid of super delegates, doing away with caucuses, and otherwise increasing the power of the average Joe to choose the leaders of the country. My unpopular opinion is that this solution is exactly the opposite of what is needed, since the increase in direct democracy over the past several decades has correlated with an increase in government dysfunction. Hear me out…

People today lament that our government is incapable of getting things done or of making hard decisions, but the electoral process punishes candidates who address the country’s problems honestly. If Candidate A says that we need to address the deficit by raising taxes and/or cutting popular spending, while Candidate B repeats the well-worn fallacy that if only we trimmed “waste” from the budget then all of our problems would disappear, Candidate B will be elected. If Candidate A says she will make unpopular compromises in order to work with the other party, while Candidate B says that he will never compromise his principles, Candidate B will be elected. And for decades voters have reliably chosen Candidate B, only to discover that the debt continues to rise, and parties have no incentive to make the compromises that would lead to win-win solutions.

As a result, elections today are a contest of who can do the best job of telling the electorate what they want to hear, with candidates who say one thing in a primary and then “pivot” to a different position for the general election, and who voters expect will then “betray” them once in office. More direct democracy will only exacerbate that situation – if a candidate who honestly says that hard choices need to be made is generally going to lose to someone who says no hard choices are necessary, the only people who can win elections are going to be liars and/or incompetent. While I don’t think there is any foolproof solution to that issue, I would make the unpopular proposal that less direct democracy in nominating candidates for national elections (President, Senate, House) would at least keep out the worst charlatans, and thus the primary system should give more power to super delegates and other gatekeepers. The average voter would continue to choose among candidates in the general election, and could still have a say in primaries, but we need to find ways to reduce pandering and restore serious policy discussion to the electoral process. I’m not sure what form such a system might take – have the super delegate vote count for 50% of what is required to be nominated, or force candidates to have the backing of several super delegates before they are allowed to enter the race – but I think there would be significant value in providing more vetting than we have today.

Here are a small number of additional points in defense of why I think that this proposal is worth considering seriously:

  • We should give more weight to the most informed people when choosing leaders. Today a voter who knows the candidates personally and spends their life as a part of the government has a vote that counts equally to someone who flips a coin, someone who is influenced by a smear campaign, or someone who simply votes for any name that they recognize; I want to know that the leaders of my government have been vetted by more than just a popularity contest.
  • Money and fame would be less important as deciding factors in elections. Today politicians have to spend countless hours fundraising in order to afford TV commercials and other ways of achieving visibility in the electorate, with famous people such as Arnold Schwarzenegger or Donald Trump gaining an undeserved advantage. Giving more power to political insiders would help to level the playing field, making political ability more of a deciding factor than mere name recognition.
  • Empowering super delegates or similar actors would provide a check against populists or other unqualified individuals gaining power. It is in the interest of the party to put forward the best possible candidates, and giving the most knowledgeable party members an effective veto would provide a layer of protection against bad candidates.

Obviously this solution is imperfect – Bernie Sanders supporters who thought that the DNC “rigged” the primaries in favor of Clinton would be faced with an even steeper hill to climb. The 37% of citizens who currently give Donald Trump a favorable rating would almost certainly never have been given the opportunity to vote for him. Those who want to see more non-politicians on the ballot would be disappointed by a party system likely to support those within its own ranks. And those who fear a takeover of political parties by outside interests would have some reason to worry, since political parties are only as strong as those who choose to be active within that party. Finally, taking power away from individuals and giving it to “elites” sounds evil – it “feels” obviously correct that everyone in a democracy should have an equal voice in choosing candidates, even if those choosing are doing so with incomplete information and thus making bad choices.

Given the likely opposition to any proposal that would make the primary process less democratic it is unlikely that any such change could ever be made. However, since increased direct democracy over the recent decades has led to a system where elections often become popularity contests, and given the fact that it has left us with a government that seems more incapable of governing than ever before, I honestly believe that restoring the power of the parties as gatekeepers to the electoral process would be an effective way to ensure that we have stronger candidates on the ballot, thus leading to a more functional government.

November Recap

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 7:57 pm, December 5th, 2017

In an effort to make sure I have a record of events so that it’s possible to relive good times when I eventually become senile, here’s a recap of November:

  • Given my engineering background I am not so savvy when it comes to the arts, but Audrey and her friends are doing their best to get me up to speed. Just before Thanksgiving Audrey and her band played a set at Trip in Santa Monica, and Jocelyn opened for them with a rare live show; I know talented people.
  • Following the night of much music I took a few vacation days prior to the Thanksgiving holiday, joining Aaron at his new place in Truckee where we threw hatchets at a pumpkin (we’ve clearly matured greatly over the years). Following that visit I made a detour to Muir Woods before picking up Audrey at the airport and heading to Ma & Pa’s for Thanksgiving. The annual family gathering saw much delicious food consumed, much laughter, and a display of amazing skills in playing Uno.
  • The month ended with Audrey’s birthday, which she celebrated with her tradition of roller skating and a visit to the library, after which I took her out for a fancy steak dinner before we joined her choir friends for celebratory beverages.
Barred owl in Muir Woods
Barred owl posing for tourists in Muir Woods.
Muir Woods Redwoods
Muir Woods Redwoods and a cloudy sky.

Hatchet throwing 101 #killthepumpkin #manactivities #hatchets

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Why this Bill?

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:49 pm, November 27th, 2017

“A strong conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures.” — Daniel Webster

After a legislative session that so far has no major accomplishments, Republicans in Congress are now preparing a tax bill that they have stated could lead to electoral disaster if it doesn’t pass. As someone trying hard to understand the logic behind this particular legislation, it’s a mystery to me why this bill is what they chose for their “must pass” moment.

Republicans have preached fiscal responsibility for as long as I can remember, but they are now firmly behind a bill that adds at least $1.5 trillion to the national debt and whose major goal is to reduce the corporate tax rate. There is an argument to be had about whether lowering the corporate tax rate is a good idea or not, but where I’m puzzled is the fact that I don’t think anyone is arguing that lowering the corporate tax rate is the best possible use of $1.5 trillion. Thus, why make the corporate tax rate the centerpiece of what the party is now calling its do-or-die moment???

If Republicans feel that they must pass something, rather than choosing an unpopular tax bill with murky prospects, it would have made vastly more sense to choose something like an infrastructure package that would be broadly popular, easy to defend, and a clear benefit to both businesses and the working class – “look, we’re fixing highways, railroads, dams, bridges and other very useful and visible things that will make everyone’s lives better, and we’re putting hundreds of thousands of people to work and pumping tons of money into American companies in order to do it!” Instead they have a bill that no one is enthusiastic about, that appears to be fiscally reckless, and one that could easily become a budgetary lodestone if it passes, or a legislative Waterloo if it fails.

The quote at the top of this post is my best guess as to what’s actually happening – for some reason they picked the corporate tax rate as the item to focus on, and now they are stuck in a position where they “must pass” something that no one really likes. As to the larger question of how they picked the corporate tax rate as their area of focus, maybe it’s a result of having too many bankers in government, since the financial industry is probably most likely to make business decisions based on a favorable tax environment (as opposed to other industries that weigh things like labor costs, geographic location, infrastructure, worker availability, or some other criteria far more heavily). Like anything that happens in Washington, I’m sure that there is a lot that I don’t understand, and I may be missing something obvious about this particular bill, but it sure seems like a very, very strange piece of legislation on which to stake the party’s reputation.

Scaring the Children

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:27 pm, November 9th, 2017

It’s hard to believe that it’s now been six years of Scare the Children at our new house; at this point we’re creating mental scars for an entirely new generation of trick-or-treaters.

Like last year, for this year’s event I again took on the role of the “dummy” with the candy cauldron, sitting totally still in the doorway until the kids worked up the nerve to take candy, at which point I got to move a bit and scare the bejesus out of them. I started out the night holding an iPod hooked up to a speaker that allowed me to emit a terrifying “scream” when the kids reached for candy, but at some point during the evening I must have hit a wrong button, and instead of playing a scream the iPod began playing a soothing guitar ballad – being unable to see well through my mask, and thus unable to easily fix the issue, thus ended my “screaming” for the night.

Even without the canned screaming, it was still an excellent time. Among many memorable moments, early in the evening a little girl let out a terrified shriek that I was concerned might lead neighbors to call the police, and later in the evening a group of teens took five minutes trying to determine if I was real or not (“I touched the hand, and it feels kind of human-y”) before finally concluding they had been freaked out by a dummy, at which point I moved and caused two of the girls to run away while a third literally toppled over in fright – here’s the video (skip ahead to the 30 second mark); it was a good night.

As always the entire event was a group effort, with Jocelyn resuming her role in the coffin, Ozzie doing his sixth stint as the scary clown in the alley, and Audrey, Gina and Nancy roaming the yard as haunters. Newcomer Drew was in the tree with a microphone and voice processor, Denise joined us for her inaugural Halloween and experienced the joy of being shut inside the coffin whenever Jocelyn needed a break, and Steve flew in from Boston for his second year of child scaring.

Audrey and Ryan being scary
Audrey and Ryan. We look amazing.
The 2017 Scare the Children Crew
The 2017 Scare the Children crew,
featuring Ozzie’s new chainsaw.

30 Days in the Hole

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:29 pm, October 30th, 2017

2017 is not shaping up as a great year for hitting the three-journal-entries-a-month goal, either because not a lot is happening or because I’m lazier than normal; it’s probably both. Anyhow, here’s a recap of the past month:

  • October started with a visit from Ma & Pa. They had just returned from one of those cruises where someone comes aboard with a horrible virus and turns the boat into a vomitorium, and they weren’t yet fully recovered, so activities were kept to a minimum. Dad had wanted to see the Spaceship Endeavour since it is awesome, and afterwards we took my mom to Casa Sanchez to celebrate her birthday since you can’t go wrong with a kickass mariachi show.
  • In home news, I put up a mealworm feeder to see what birds it might attract, and it turns out that the answer is “crows”. While they may not be exotic, crows have tons of personality, and they have clearly decided that the new feeder is the greatest thing that has ever happened in the avian world. We now have anywhere from 3-12 crows in the yard each morning, and we’re slowly training them to be less scared of us, although for such smart birds they’re either poor learners or else we’re bad teachers.
  • Finally, last week I made the month’s only work trip to San Antonio, returning for the first time since the hurricane. Luckily Mother Nature decided not to send any natural disasters my way this time, and insomnia was the only battle I had to fight – the fact that the client greeted me in the morning with “what happened?” is probably a sign that I need to start considering sleeping aids.

I’ll do my best to get a couple of additional entries up in the coming days – at a minimum Halloween is tomorrow, so there will be stories to share from this year’s incarnation of Scare the Children.