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

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 2PM 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.

A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:19 pm, September 17th, 2017

Due to some changes on my current project, I recently had to fly to San Antonio on back-to-back weeks. During the first trip I lost my license but was still able to fly after a THOROUGH pat-down, and on the second trip Hurricane Harvey showed up and attempted to wipe Texas off of the map.

When I flew to Texas on Sunday Harvey was down near Mexico, and had dissipated to the point where it was no longer a recognizable storm; no one outside of a few meteorologists had any clue that it was anything worth keeping an eye on. As late as Monday there was still no storm on the horizon, but Tuesday morning there were some reports on the news that a tropical storm might be headed to Texas.

By Tuesday afternoon things started looking more dire, and the airlines began offering the option to switch to an earlier flight for free in order to allow people to escape while the airport was still in operation. The storm track showed a strengthening storm heading directly at San Antonio, and by Wednesday, not only was the storm supposed to strengthen to hurricane status, but it was then projected to stall over San Antonio for three days. Facing the prospect of a hurricane and three days of flooding, I switched to a Thursday flight and made an early escape from Texas.

Of course everyone knows what then happened – the storm track changed slightly, and Harvey instead stalled over Houston, causing widespread damage to Houston while having minimal impact on San Antonio. On a positive note, the company I’m currently working with immediately sent 15 vehicles, including two mobile kitchens, up to Houston, and the e-commerce team’s first task on Monday was to set up a donation page – during a time of much cynicism about corporate America, HEB is clearly an organization with its heart in the right place.

It’s not clear when they’ll next need me back in Texas, but given the experience from the last two trips I’ll prepare for the journey by taping my identification to my arm, and with sufficient emergency supplies in my luggage to weather whatever disaster Mother Nature might decide to send.

Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges.

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:37 pm, September 2nd, 2017

I had to make back-to-back work trips to San Antonio recently, and while normally those trips are fairly routine events, these last two both involved a fair amount of drama. Here’s the recap from the first trip…

Audrey has a phobia about packing – any time she travels she gets into a panic thinking that she might forget something. On the opposite end of the spectrum, my theory is that you should try to remember everything, but there are only a tiny number of things that you absolutely can’t forget, and as long as you have those things you’re going to be fine: money, identification, and clean underwear. Even with such a short list (and if we’re being honest, forgetting underwear isn’t a dealbreaker), on one of my most recent trips to San Antonio I blew it but was saved by TSA.

I registered for TSA Pre a while back, and it is awesome – I spend almost no time waiting in security lines now – but the one minor downside is that I often don’t have time to get out my license and boarding pass before I’m standing in front of an impatient TSA agent. On this particular trip, to ensure that I would be ready I got my license out of my wallet while in the Lyft to the airport, but on entering the terminal realized that it was no longer in my pocket where I’d placed it. I retraced my steps to the curb, and then called the Lyft driver only to be told that he didn’t think it was in his car and that he had another passenger so he wasn’t going to come back to the terminal. I then talked to airport security, who told me that no one had turned in a license but that I could still fly as long as I had a credit card or something with my name on it.

I got in the TSA line, and after reaching the officer at the front of the line sheepishly said that I had lost my license because apparently I haven’t figured out how to use pants pockets properly. The officer smiled, called in another officer to ask me a few questions, and then told me I would get a patdown where the agent would use the back of his hand to search “certain areas”. After a VERY thorough patdown they then checked all of my carryons for bomb juice, and then sent me on my way; apparently a search of the family jewels using the back of the officer’s hand is as good as photo ID. The whole thing took no more than five minutes, everyone was amazingly friendly to the dumb guy who lost his license, and instead of having to go home and miss my flight I had coffee at 30,000 feet. The process repeated itself on the return trip, and again I was able to board my flight on time.

TSA gets bashed a lot, in some cases rightfully so, but in this case I did a dumb thing and they bailed me out, and did so with professionalism. Too often in this world we get angry when things go wrong but take it for granted when things go right, so in a case where things went right I offer my sincere gratitude to the TSA folks.

Non-Totality

Posted from Culver City, California at 6:50 pm, August 27th, 2017

Since obviously eclipse glasses are for wimps (and also I didn’t buy any before the prices exploded), I took a zoom lens into the backyard and attempted to focus as much sunlight on my retinas as possible; my vision should return in time for the next eclipse in 2024.

The Eclipse in the Clouds
The marine layer started burning off just as the eclipse was getting started, and luckily the clouds acted as enough of a filter that I was only mostly blind after shooting a few photos.
The 2017 Eclipse
As the clouds burned off and the sun became too bright to look at through the viewfinder I was reduced to pointing the camera in the general area of the bright thing in the sky and hoping to get something in frame.

July 2017

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 7:52 pm, August 14th, 2017

So I’m obviously waaaaay behind on journal entries. In an effort to begin catching up, here’s the recap for July:

  • In past years Audrey and I have enjoyed fireworks over the Queen Mary or found other interesting ways of celebrating Independence Day, but this year we decided to just stay home. However, when the skies started lighting up around us the temptation to enjoy the scene was too great. With trees blocking the view from the yard, we ended up on the roof, likely causing some concern among our neighbors, but nonetheless providing a pleasant view of the evening’s festivities.
  • Audrey’s work with Indivisible continued with the “Persistence picnic” in mid-July, an event set up to get people together in the park and provide organizations five minutes (each) to speak. Dozens of groups showed up with positive messages and ways for people to make a difference in everything from human rights to voting rights to community issues, and at the end of the day a lot of pessimism about the state of the world seemed to have actually transformed into optimism.
  • In work news, I spent a week working in San Antonio, came back to LA for a week, then went to Spokane for the annual “see what your normally working-remotely co-workers look like in person” week. In addition to a team barbecue and a few other social events, we all headed across the state border to Idaho for zip-lining, and it turns out that two of the three senior partners are not fans of heights. Watching one of the two, who is otherwise fearless, go dead quiet on a rickety rope bridge, and then seeing the other, who won’t back down from any technical challenge, literally whimper as he jumped off a platform onto a 400 foot high wire cable, was a humanizing look at my normally unflappable superiors. In the end everyone seemed to have a great time, I was grateful for a chance to be in the trees, and Stuart swore that he’d make sure future events stayed closer to the earth.
Commerce Architects Ziplining in Idaho
Some of the team was more enthusiastic than others about hanging hundreds of feet above the forest.
Ziplining in Idaho
I wasn’t initially very excited about zip-lining, but it turns out that spending the day flying through the forest is far nicer than staring at a laptop.

15 Years of Random Musings

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:22 pm, August 7th, 2017

The journal celebrated its fifteenth anniversary on July 24, although I’m a bit behind on postings and thus this entry is being published two weeks after the actual date. In an era before Facebook and other social media, and even before the (awful) word “blog” had made it into most people’s vocabularies, this site was my way to record travelogues for posterity, and more importantly it gave me an excuse for being too lazy to send people regular emails, since I could just point everyone to this site as a way to keep in touch.

The obligatory stats to recap the past decade-and-a-half:

It’s anyone’s guess how long the journal will continue, but nearly 5,500 days after starting this narcissistic endeavor, there doesn’t seem to be any clear end in sight. Thanks to the twos of visitors who have read along regularly, and to the random folks who have dropped by on occasion to say hello and (incorrectly) point out typos.

Denali from Reflection Pond

My favorite image from the trip that spawned this journal, Denali (Mt McKinley) taken from Reflection Pond while I was camping in Alaska.

Tanzania Revisited

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 9:50 pm, July 18th, 2017

It’s been too long without photos in the journal, so here are a couple from the 2014 safari in Tanzania that didn’t previously make it online:

Cheetah in Ndutu
When a cheetah is sitting in front of you on a log, you take a million pictures; when you have to decide which of those pictures is the best, the one with the tongue sticking out obviously wins.
White-bellied Canary in Ndutu
White-bellied Canary in Ndutu. This particular puddle was home to just about every bird that I normally only associate with Petco.