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

Refunds

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:25 pm, December 31st, 2011

While the bed was a good thing last night, air quality in Kern County is ridiculously poor – dust, smog and huge cattle feedlots make for a stinky, hazy landscape, and whether due to the air, a bad meal, or flu, I got up at 5AM this morning to refund my dinner – twice. Return to the wildlife refuge was delayed a bit as a result, but once there the cranes were found in abundance. Sadly the birds were ridiculously wary, so the sandhill crane remains a photograph on the “most wanted” list.

The trip came to an end by midday with a return to Culver City. A week of time off from work remains, with the plan being to spend time on side projects and visit some local attractions with Audrey. Additionally, I need to figure out the score card on my 2011 predictions (it doesn’t look good), and come up with some highly questionable picks for 2012.

Who Knew?

Posted from Delano, California at 8:50 pm, December 30th, 2011

Ryan is in a hotel tonight. For the first time in four nights a bed, a shower, and a change of clothes are coming, and happiness and joy shall follow.

Last night was again spent car camping, allowing the trip to resume from Yosemite Valley with an early morning view of the valley from Tunnel View as the payoff. A trip to the Mariposa giant sequoia grove followed – the trees are beyond impressive, and after finding a quiet trail to escape from the surprisingly large and loud crowds the trees worked their magic on this normally office-bound traveler, helping to restore some order to the universe.

After leaving the park I scanned the map for green dots along SR-99, and stumbled on the Pixley National Wildlife Refuge. A late day arrival at the refuge allowed for a short hike, but aside from a few hawks and waterbirds the animals seemed to be in hiding. That is, they were hiding until sunset, at which point all hell suddenly broke loose. Hundreds upon hundreds of sandhill cranes started calling out while flying overhead, a pack of coyotes began howling in an adjacent field, and I accidentally spooked an owl who flew out of a tree next to me and began hunting the fields nearby. What had been a moderately interesting stop suddenly morphed into a reason to spend the night in Kern County, and the plan is to return, camera in hand, to see if the wildlife chaos continues at dawn.

El Capitan from Tunnel View, Yosemite National Park

El Capitan from Tunnel View. If this rock formation doesn’t look impressive to you, look closely at the top – those tiny green things are full-grown ponderosa pine trees.

Sandhill Cranes, Pixley National Wildlife Refuge

Sandhill cranes at sunset. Multiply this flock 100x, add in the amazing sound of the birds calling, and put a better photographer behind the camera, and you’ll have some sense of what the sky was like once the sun went down.

Tioga Road

Posted from Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California at 7:39 pm, December 29th, 2011

Last night’s bed time was 8:00 PM – writing this entry tonight at 7:35 is clearly pushing my current limits. The adventure for the day began just before six and led through Yosemite’s high country along Tioga Road, a path that closes with the first snow each winter but remains open this year due to one of the driest Decembers on record. God was obviously feeling manly when he created this part of the world, and it was a fun outing amongst the rocky crags, with plenty of quiet time available to ensure that things were right with the world.

Tioga road ends at Highway 395 and Mono Lake, and while the latest version of the plan called for spending the remainder of the trip going south along the Eastern Sierra, a sudden change of mind resulted in a brief visit to the lake and then a return through Yosemite. A hike up Pothole Dome near Tuolumne Meadows finished off the afternoon, and the evening will again be spent camping in Yosemite Valley with tomorrow’s plans somewhat uncertain.

High Sierra, Yosemite National Park

View from Olmstead Point. There is a lake barely visible above the trees that was frozen solid and covered in ice skaters.

Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park

View of Tuolumne Meadows from Pothole Dome. Bob Ross would not have referred to this as a “happy cloud”.

Day Two

Posted from Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California at 6:21 pm, December 28th, 2011

I slept in a rest area next to I-5 last night because that’s obviously what well-adjusted, successful, 36 year old IT professionals do. Pulling into the parking spot two dozen pairs of eyes reflected back in the headlights – I’ve never seen so many rabbits in such a small area, although later in the evening a screaming kid and two dogs put an end to the Watership Down reunion. Wake up this morning at six-ish allowed plenty of time to amble along towards Yosemite, and the day was spent roaming some of the non-knee-breaking trails in Yosemite Valley. Past trips to the park have intentionally avoided the really touristy spots, but given the knee issues and the smaller crowds it seemed like a good time to finally visit places like Lower Yosemite Falls and the Ahwanhee Hotel. Tonight will be spent car camping in the park’s main campground, and tomorrow it’s off at sunrise for a day-trip through the high country.

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park

Half Dome. If my knee was in better shape then I would be in the photo, at the top, standing near the edge, looking exhausted.

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park

At sunset Half Dome turned a brilliant red color. Sadly the bottom two-thirds remained in shadow, so in a burst of creative genius I only photographed the top.

Bodega

Posted from Livermore, California at 7:56 pm, December 27th, 2011

Day one of what Audrey has dubbed the “man trip” – luckily the girl recognizes that sometimes the boy needs time alone to, as she calls it, “sleep in the dirt”.

After waking up at 6:30 in the Holliday family compound the Subaru and I set off in soup-like fog towards Bodega Bay. A detour at the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge resulted in some quality bird time, including an egret who was impressively unafraid. The fog finally broke around 10AM, and Bodega Bay yielded a massive number of seabirds, hawks, vultures, sea lions, and two grey whales, although (surprisingly) not a single photo. For future reference: December/January and March/April are whale migration times, and unless today was unusual they travel extremely close to shore. After some hiking and a ginormous seafood lunch the few remaining daylight hours were spent heading south through Point Reyes and along Highway One, aka the most scenic road in the USA.

The current plan is to go to Yosemite tomorrow, but given past precedent a betting man would not be unwise to take odds on that plan being derailed by an unforeseen side-trip. However, with Tioga Pass apparently still snow free the chance to see Yosemite’s high country in late December seems like an opportunity not to be missed.

Great egret, San Pablo Bay NWR

Great egret, San Pablo Bay NWR. This bird was surprisingly unafraid, although perhaps word has gotten out about my less-than-stellar hunting abilities.

Christmas 2011

Posted from Livermore, California at 7:42 pm, December 27th, 2011

Quick recap of Christmas 2011:

  • Convinced that there was a chink in the many “no trespassing” signs that kept the white pelicans of the Kern Water Bank too far away to be photographed I stopped during the drive home and doggedly probed the area for weaknesses. After much searching a bike path along the Kern River seemed like the only legal entry option – sadly I didn’t have a bike, and a 2.5 mile hike yielded many birds but no pelicans. On a positive note, during the five mile round-trip I did discover that my knee is now recovered enough to hike up to four miles without generating stabbing pains.
  • Christmas at the Holliday home tends to involve waffles, presents, and competition. While the first two went mostly according to tradition, this year’s competitions were a disaster for the eldest son, with losses across the board – it was a humiliating display, and Ma and Pa will now have to refer to Aaron as “the athletic, intelligent child”. Adding insult to injury, several games of Big Buck Hunter were “competitions” in the same way that Little Big Horn was a “battle”.
  • During a break in competition Ma and Pa put together another tremendous Christmas dinner; the delicious food and my inability to run may have dire waistline consequences.

Mental Health Break

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:36 pm, December 18th, 2011

Tomorrow morning I’ll be doing my thirty second commute down the stairs to my desk, spend the day working from home, and then fly to Boise for three days onsite at Bodybuilding.com. Another thirty second commute workday on Friday finishes the week and begins two weeks of vacation time.

The vacation plans are unknown – I’m heading to the Bay Area for Christmas, then doing a road trip of some sort, destination unknown. With almost no snow in the mountains so far this winter the Sierras look like a tempting option, but who knows – the goal is mostly just to try and get out of the daily routine that work imposes and remember that life is about more than earning a paycheck; aimlessly roaming around California seems like a good way to accomplish that.

The other plan for the vacation is to invest some time in my various side projects. Self-employment has provided some great opportunities to work from home with flexible hours, but I still dream about someday being my own boss, making a living off of an idea of my own.

So that’s the plan for the end of 2011 and the start of 2012; hopefully it will be a good way to see the old year out and usher the new year in.

Shirtless in the Parlor

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:37 pm, November 29th, 2011

“I never imagined we’d be hanging out in the parlor, and that Aaron was gonna take his shirt off”. And that was just the beginning of our Thanksgiving weekend.

Audrey and I escaped LA before noon on Wednesday and missed the true joy of Thanksgiving traffic, but it was still a couple of hours to get out of the city limits, and an occasional stop-and-go drive for three hundred miles thereafter. After a steak dinner at Harris Ranch (we were inspired by the seven million cows) we picked up a salt and pumpkin pie (they failed to mention that they were using salt instead of sugar this year), and got home just in time to join the folks for beers and a lovely evening of my brother with his shirt off.

Thanksgiving day saw everyone take a try at balancing on the exercise ball before stuffing ourselves with non-salted pie and turkey. Friday saw the traditional post-Thanksgiving Cocos breakfast and delicious Chow’s wontons, followed by a drive to Moss Beach to see Audrey’s friend and some imbibing on the cliffs next to the ocean as the sun set. Four cats, much sneezing, and fifty miles later and we were in Cupertino for the night, and we woke up a block away from my old office at HP. Audrey couldn’t visit Cupertino without posing with her iPad at the Apple Headquarters (I still like her), and then it was south to Gilroy to buy garlic products. Much driving later we arrived in the middle of nowhere to search out giant white pelicans in the Central Valley (who knew?) before driving off into the sunset and heading home.

Now comes four weeks of work, including two trips to Boise, before Christmas and two weeks of vacation. This time last year I was off on the Banjo Tour, so the winter of 2011 may not be quite so exciting, but hopefully at least one of December’s entries will be from somewhere on the road.

Blame the Legos

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:41 pm, November 17th, 2011

I like the idea of building things – when I was a kid I spent hundreds of hours with Legos, in college I studied engineering, and today I waste inordinate amounts of time reading about ongoing engineering projects. Thus, because I think it’s interesting, and because I know that my mom will still love me even if everyone else is chased away by these geeky journal entries, here’s a rundown of some of the cooler projects going on today:

  • Electric Cars. Partly because of my old roommate I’ve been a follower of Tesla Motors since the beginning, but even without a personal connection it’s hard not to be excited about electric vehicles. The internal combustion engine hasn’t really changed much in 100 years, but in the next ten years a system that is smaller, more efficient, and requires far less maintenance will be a viable option. As batteries continue to improve it’s not inconceivable that we could eventually see cars that get a thousand miles to a charge, making today’s concerns about charging times and running out of electricity a non-factor and causing future generations to wonder why we were willing to deal with tailpipe emissions, gas stations, oil changes, and noisy motors.
  • The Bay Bridge East Span. Caveat: building a huge bridge with so many stakeholders is a recipe for massive cost overruns, as this project showed. Still, once a design was approved and lawsuits had run their course (the project was proposed twenty-two years ago in 1989) the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge ended up being an impressive feat of engineering. Opening in 2013 at a cost of $6.3 billion, this bridge will be two miles long, carry 270,000 cars a day, be capable of withstanding a magnitude 8.5 earthquake, last 150 years, and will be beautiful as well. Despite the crappy process that was required to actually get this bridge built, the end result is pretty spectacular.
  • New airplanes. The Boeing 787 just entered service after four years of delays, and while it may not look much different from today’s planes it’s hugely interesting under-the-hood: instead of aluminum much of the structure is carbon composites, it’s twenty percent more fuel efficient than its predecessor, and a variety of technical tweaks have gone into making it quieter and better at dealing with turbulence. The just-announced 737-MAX is a less-ambitious replacement for Boeing’s most popular model, with a planned fifteen percent improvement in fuel efficiency (amongst other changes) and a scheduled entry into service in 2017.
  • California High Speed Rail. While I’ll admit a fair amount of disappointment at how this project has been managed, the idea behind 220 mph trains linking California’s major cities is one that is about thirty years overdue. With new highways running between $2 and $16 million per lane-mile and road and airport congestion on the rise, high-speed passenger rail seems like an obvious solution, and one that the rest of the world is already implementing successfully. Hopefully California can get its act together and follow suit.
  • The Transbay Center. The Bay Area does a fairly good job with mass transit, but unlike New York City’s Grand Central Station there isn’t really a central transit hub. That changes in 2017 when a new terminal will open linking BART, MUNI, Caltrain, buses and (hopefully) high-speed rail.
  • Renewable Energy. While sadly the subject of renewable energy has become politicized of late, behind the scenes the technology has gotten really, really interesting. Solar is at the point where even without subsidies it is economically competitive in areas with a lot of sun, and with efficiency continuing to improve one can imagine a future where rooftop solar installations de-centralize the power grid, causing less need for huge central power plants. There are wind turbine models that generate as much as five megawatts, orders of magnitude more than those built in the 1980s, and that power is produced at about one-fourth of the cost of those older turbines. Similarly, energy efficiency is something to be impressed by: looking at just one example, flat screen TVs today use sixty percent less power than those manufactured in 2006.
  • Space. NASA estimates that its next-generation rocket system will cost $97 billion. For about $800 million SpaceX has already built and launched two rocket models, with a third (the Falcon Heavy) planned for testing in 2013. SpaceX’s Falcon-9 rocket is already capable of delivering cargo to the space station, and if successful the Falcon Heavy would be the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V moon rocket. There’s no guarantee that SpaceX will be successful or that their costs won’t increase, but it’s nevertheless exciting to see the future of space returning to something more like what everyone imagined it would be back when America was putting men on the moon forty years ago.

Watching Birds

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:49 pm, November 15th, 2011

The girl and I were in San Diego for a wedding and a birthday, and with my new Marriott Rewards Super-Awesome status we scored a free room in La Jolla. Despite a forecast for a rainy weekend we woke up to clear skies Sunday morning and ventured out to find hundreds of pelicans on the cliffs. Other highlights included calling my shot on the hotel’s wheel of fortune (free parking, thank you much), too much food, and an appearance by Dorf himself at Audrey’s grandmother’s 95th birthday bash.

Brown Pelican, La Jolla

There’s probably a good reason why ages ago someone decided to call this bird a brown pelican, and that reason may be that they were colorblind.

Seabirds, La Jolla

Fun for the kids: how many sea lions are in this photo? If you said more than four, you counted a rock.

Brown Pelican, La Jolla

It takes many, many cups of coffee to make my eyes look like his.

Photos from the Antarctic

Posted from Boise, Idaho at 6:35 pm, October 31st, 2011

For those who thought the last journal entry was too wordy, the following is presented without further comment:

Ryan above a king penguin colony, Salisbury Plain, South Georgia Island

Above a king penguin colony at Salisbury Plain, South Georgia Island. Now I understand why people look at photos of themselves and say “I look fat in that photo”.

Leopard Seal, Cierva Cove

Leopard seal in Cierva Cove. He’s smiling because he wants to eat you.

Adelie Penguins, Paulet Island

Adelie penguins near Paulet Island.

Mt. Fitz Roy, Patagonia

Mt Fitz Roy in Patagonia after an early morning wakeup.

The Holliday Plan

Posted from Culver City, California at 5:11 pm, October 25th, 2011

Everyone agrees that the country is currently a mess, but there doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus about how to fix things. So here’s the first-draft of the Holliday Plan, which is an if-somehow-tomorrow-I-was-given-the-ability-to-do-whatever-I-wanted thought exercise. Most of the ideas below originated elsewhere, but this brain dump encapsulates those that seem to make sense and that I would want to see implemented. This write-up came about mainly because it’s a subject that interests me, and I’d be interested people’s criticisms, alternatives, and mockery – the comments link is there for exactly that purpose.

The Economy

Getting the economy going would do many things – tax receipts are down $400 billion since 2007 [1] while spending on assistance programs such as unemployment insurance have sky-rocketed. As a result, in addition to the obvious benefit of simply having a better economy, improvement in the outlook would also make a huge dent in the budget deficit.

  1. Over 577,000 public sector jobs have been cut during the downturn [2]. While some trimming is a good thing, many of these jobs are teachers, police, and other important services. To combat this I’d send $500 billion to the states to use over the next three years however they saw fit, with a hope of reducing layoffs of essential personnel. While deficit spending isn’t a good thing, in a recession it seems like short-term debt is preferable to a longer term recession.
  2. Borrowing rates are at 1.5%, and with massive unemployment labor is the cheapest it’s been in years. I’d make $1 trillion available for infrastructure over the next three years, with 80% of that sent to the states to use on whatever infrastructure projects they wanted – roads, bridges, public transit, airports, etc. Infrastructure needs to be addressed eventually, so it makes sense to do it now when labor and borrowing are cheap and the economy is in need of jobs.
  3. Additional tax cuts, business incentives, mortgage restructuring, or other efforts would likely not be worth the costs. Individuals and businesses are saving money right now, so tax breaks will just go into savings rather than back into the economy. Similarly, mortgage restructuring and hiring incentives have thus far proven to have little actual effect.

The Debt

While in the short term the most important thing is improving the economy, over the long term, the US debt and budget deficits are the largest concern. Getting the annual budget into the black and reducing the national debt is an issue that needs to be urgently addressed.

  1. Expire the Bush tax cuts for those making over $100,000 starting in 2012. For much of the 1980s the top tax rate was around 50% [3], but today it’s 35% – I’d change that back to 39.6%, matching the rate in 2000. Taxes obviously suck, but this would raise approximately $2.7 trillion over ten years [4], and given that income for high earners has vastly outpaced that of the middle class for the past decade, tax rates appear to be unbalanced in favor of the rich.
  2. The defense department budget for 2010 is $663.8 billion – I would reduce that by 5% a year over the next ten years (adjusting for inflation), which would lead to a budget of $418 billion in 2022 (again, adjust for inflation). That’s still four times as much as the next biggest spender (China) budgets for its military [5], and at just five percent per year the reduction should be gradual enough to allow the military time to adapt. Assuming spending would otherwise have simply matched inflation, this saves $1.3 trillion over ten years ($6.6 trillion vs $5.3 trillion) and $250 billion every year thereafter. Defense is important, but the US doesn’t need to spend six times as much as its nearest competitor.
  3. The US spends 16% of GDP on health care, while most advanced countries are closer to 10% – Canada and the UK, which have government provided healthcare, spend 10.1% and 8.4%, respectively [6]. There seem to be a few specific things that cause the problem:
    • Lack of competition. Insurance is managed at the state level, creating fifty different bureaucracies. At the national level, the federal government does not negotiate drug prices for Medicare and does not allow individuals to buy drugs from other countries such as Canada.
    • Lack of price transparency. Since people with insurance simply get their health care covered or get a bill after payment, there is no incentive for them to choose more cost-effective treatments.
    • Ineffective use of resources. Prevention is cheaper than treatment, end-of-life care often exceeds what the patient would want due to lack of pre-planning, and there is no incentive for healthy living.
    • Lack of experimentation. People like Dr. Atul Gawande have demonstrated interesting ways of reducing costs while improving care, but the system is not set up to encourage these types of programs.

    The problem is too complex for anyone to know how best to address these issues, so given the chance to actually make a change as much informed advice as possible would be needed, but some possibilities should include:

    • Allow anyone to buy into Medicare (aka the public option). Anyone wanting private insurance could get it, but leverage the federal government’s buying power to lower costs for everyone else. Studies, as well as current costs, show that the private health insurance market isn’t operating with the efficiency and downward pricing pressures of most other private markets, so admit that and let the non-retired crowd take advantage of the government’s buying power.
    • Allow purchase of drugs from other countries, subject to existing laws on prescription medication and illegal substances. Similarly, allow the federal government to negotiate drug prices for Medicare.
    • Establish national insurance standards and let any state choose to either use their own standard OR to adopt the national standard, with the goal of allowing insurance companies to compete across state borders and to reduce administrative costs.
    • Encourage prevention. Allow health insurers to provide discounts similar to what auto insurance companies provide, such as discounts for staying within a certain weight range, discounts for getting regular checkups, discounts for immunizations, etc.
    • Create a special court to handle malpractice. While high-end estimates of the cost of malpractice are that it accounts for only three percent of total healthcare costs [7] (and note that much of that may be justified), making it simpler to get rid of frivolous cases in order to reduce abuse of the system should be a goal. The system should protect patients against negligence, but must also recognize that doctors generally do their best under difficult circumstances.
    • Encourage experimentation. This goal would be the most difficult to implement, but if a health care system can find ways to reduce costs while improving service there should be fewer barriers that would prevent them from doing so.

    While it’s impossible to put an exact savings amount on the above proposals, since 2010 federal health care spending was $1.1 trillion, and GDP is $14.1 trillion, just a ten percent improvement would save $110 billion annually in the budget and free up over a trillion dollars each year in the broader economy for other uses.

  4. All of the budget cutting deals over the past two years have focused on non-defense discretionary spending, which is nineteen percent of the total budget [8]. This portion of the budget includes everything from air traffic controllers to national parks to foreign aid to roads, and while there may be some room for more cuts, overall any additional savings would be insignificant when compared with the three items already mentioned.

Other Changes

Infrastructure needs repair, the government needs to work more efficiently, and other changes need to happen to make the US a better country.

  1. Implement a commission to reduce the size and scope of the federal government. Model it on the Base Realignment and Closure process which recommended military bases for closing. The goal would be to trim waste, eliminate duplication, and identify functions that are candidates for moving to the private sector, with the process repeated every three years.
  2. Implement a similar commission to recommend consolidation and simplification of existing federal laws. No one will deny that the system is too complex, but there doesn’t seem to be incentive for lawmakers to clean it up. If there are duplicative, outdated, or conflicting laws there should be a process to make things better. Hopefully as a side effect this process would also reduce the load on the judicial system while making things fairer for those without vast legal resources.
  3. Begin the process of simplifying the tax code. Gradually (over many years) eliminate all deductions, including charitable and mortgage, with corresponding decreases to tax rates to keep revenue levels the same. Similarly, gradually increase the capital gains rate until they are taxed like regular income. Complexity encourages cheating and fraud while making the system unfair to those without teams of accountants, but changing things too quickly would also cause economic harm to those who bought a home or invested based on existing tax law.
  4. Implement financial reforms with a goal of simplifying the current system. The financial industry should encourage investment rather than risk taking, so the Glass-Steagall Act should be reinstated so that banks are not also operating as investment brokerages (obviously, provide sufficient time to allow companies to divest). Commodity trading should be modified so that those actually taking ownership of goods are the focus of the market, rather than speculators who will never take physical possession of the commodity in question. Per-transaction fees should be implemented to increase the cost of high-volume, short-term trading while simultaneously funding regulators – day trading does no good for the country whereas long-term investment boosts economic growth.
  5. Increase the federal gas tax from 18.4 cents per gallon by five cents per year over the next four years (to 38.4 cents per gallon), and then increase it by the inflation rate each year after that. The tax would still be far lower than most European countries, and would increase revenue from the current $25 billion per year to about $55 billion per year. That money would then be used for infrastructure and energy investments – everyone is aware that infrastructure is crumbling, so there needs to be money available to improve it.
  6. Tie the minimum wage to inflation – if the minimum wage is supposed to provide a minimal standard of living then it should keep up with cost of living.
  7. Make narcotics policy a state issue rather than a federal issue. If California wants to legalize pot while Alabama wants smoking a joint to be a jailable offense, so be it. If Las Vegas decides that legalizing cocaine is the best way to manage a drug that is already widely used in that city, let them. Just as prohibition enabled organized crime without reducing alcoholism, the war on drugs has done almost nothing to reduce drug usage but done much to enrich gangs and other criminal elements; end it, reduce the associated crime and law enforcement costs, and allow the drug trade to be moved from the shadows to a place where it can be regulated.

The Political System

Currently just nine percent of people think Congress is doing a good job [9]. No one trusts politicians, good people don’t want to be involved in politics, and citizens think their elected officials have been bought by lobbyists. Obviously, something needs to change.

  1. Eliminate gerrymandering and have non-partisan commissions draw district borders. This isn’t something that can be done at the federal level, but if it was done it would be the single greatest step possible towards making the political system less polarized.
  2. Pass laws requiring that any individual or corporation that engages in political activity disclose their financial involvement, similar to the warnings about side effects that are required for prescription drug advertisements. If the Supreme Court says that a union or Karl Rove’s friends can spend millions for political advertising, let them, but make it very clear who the messenger is.
  3. Establish a precedent in Congress that changes to the House or Senate’s rules cannot go into effect for two years. This would reduce changes made for partisan gain, such as the “nuclear option“, but still encourage fixing particularly egregious abuses of rules, such as the current situation in the Senate where everything is filibustered.
  4. Allow internet voting. While there would obviously need to be safeguards put in place to make sure hackers couldn’t significantly affect voting and that votes were auditable, there should be no reason in the 21st century that someone should have to travel to a polling place, stand in line, and then physically mark a ballot in order to cast a vote. This change would give those with busy lives, particularly the non-retired crowd, no excuse for failing to vote, and would hopefully make the electorate more representative of the actual population.

Life and Stuff

Posted from Boise, Idaho at 9:18 pm, October 13th, 2011

There’s been little from day-to-day life that has warranted a journal entry recently, but here’s a summary of what’s new and notable:

  • In addition to being proud members of the Aquarium of the Pacific, Audrey and I joined the ranks of the respected and revered members of the LA Natural History Museum. For anyone out there questioning that decision, maybe you didn’t realize that museum membership is tax deductible AND they have a Tyrannosaurus named Thomas.
  • After running daily for 241 straight days a mysterious knee injury has kept me sidelined for the past six weeks. The doctor says nothing is seriously damaged, but her prescription of rest and anti-inflammatories is tough medicine for someone who had gotten used to running six miles every day.
  • Work at bodybuilding.com continues and will probably do so well into 2012.
  • Since one side project wasn’t enough to completely devour whatever free time I had I’ve also been putting together a travel web site based on open-sourced content from Wikitravel. JAMGuides is very nearly at feature-parity with Wikitravel, after which I’ve got some ideas that will hopefully lead to a rather interesting travel tool.

Audrey continues to generate an ever-increasing list of journal entry suggestions on the fridge, so while there may not be much to report on in the life of Holliday, there should still be a few topics worth writing about to fill out October’s three planned entries.

Manly Destinations

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:12 pm, September 29th, 2011

Audrey has been doggedly helpfully posting potential journal entries on the fridge for the past month. While I’m reasonably certain that “The Dancing Lemurs of Madagascar” was suggested for her entertainment rather than as something to be taken seriously, she has also come up with some good ones, including this entry’s subject.

Growing up, there were four places that I most wanted to go to in the world, but the thought of actually seeing all of them in person seemed too surreal to ever be possible. However, at age thirty-five I’ve been lucky enough to not only have visited each of them, but to have done so multiple times:

  • Yellowstone National Park. America’s first national park seemed like the epitomy of the rugged West from the bygone days of explorers – big animals, jagged mountains, and an unimaginable array of thermal features. Midway through my teenage years Ma & Pa planned the annual family vacation around their eldest son’s dream, and the Holliday family visited Wyoming. The park met every expectation, and return visits were made in 1998, 2000, 2002, and most recently in 2009 with Audrey.
  • Alaska. While no one would know for sure, it wouldn’t be surprising if my dad had talked about taking his son to Alaska on the day I was born. From that point onwards he repeatedly announced that we were going to Alaska after I turned eighteen, and the intervening years saw him preparing for the trip. Then, in 1994, we stepped off of a plane in Anchorage and spent a month seeing the grizzlies and caribou of Denali, the tundra of Central Alaska, the eagles of southern Alaska, and other sights in one of the world’s wildest places. In 1999 the roles were reversed when I took him to Glacier Bay and we spent a week kayaking with whales, seals, wolves and glaciers. Finally, in 2002 the state was the scene of perhaps my most significant coming-of-age experience when I spent three months on the road, with two of those months spent in Alaska. There’s no doubt that this state will see future visits.
  • The Galapagos. It’s tough to imagine now, but until 1994 our household never had more than five TV channels (and barely that many when the rabbit ears were on the fritz) so nature documentaries on PBS had at least a twenty percent chance of being the best thing on TV. I don’t know how many of those programs featured the Galapagos, but the weird landscapes and fearless animals made an impression, and a decision was made to someday, somehow pay a visit to the islands. This future trip seemed so exotic – the islands are a speck in the middle of the Pacific – that the reality of being able to go there wasn’t something that truly seemed plausible. It was an unexpected revelation in 1999 to know that, while expensive, these remote islands could be the first major vacation destination of my post-college life. That first trip led directly to chartering a boat and visiting again in 2003 and 2006, and those two trips will likely be the most memorable vacations that I will ever be able to share with friends.
  • Antarctica. Most of my childhood possessions are now gone, but the February 1984 Ranger Rick magazine is still on the bookshelf. The winter “Antarctica” special edition grabbed my imagination as perhaps nothing else has since, and Antarctica became the place that I wanted to visit more than anywhere else on Earth. Anyone who has ever contemplated a journey to the bottom of the world is aware of the costs involved, so this trip was a dream that I couldn’t quite imagine as a reality. Then, in 2003, while sharing a house with JB Straubel, I mentioned the trip to him and he nonchalantly replied "You should just go, you’ve probably got enough saved". For whatever reason, that comment cut through any hesitation I had about the costs, and six months later I was on the deck of the M/V Polar Star looking at the most amazing landscape on the planet. Two more trips in 2004 and 2006 did nothing to lessen my enthusiasm for the southern polar region, although it did lighten my bank account – I learned several years later from Ted Cheeseman that there was spirited debate amongst the staff about how much credit card debt the youngest person on the ship must be carrying.

There have of course been other incredible trips – Iceland, Southeast Asia, Egypt, Europe, all over America, the humpback whales of the Dominican, the whale sharks of the Yucatan – and one can only wonder at the reason for such good fortune in being able to experience so much. The future will hopefully hold more travels – as noted above, Audrey is hellbent on seeing lemurs do the sexy dance, Australia & New Zealand undoubtedly hold an amazing variety of adventures, and there are dozens of other places that would be great to experience. It’s a small world, but it holds an infinite number of destinations.

The Skipper and Ryan in Glacier Bay

The Skipper and Ryan in Glacier Bay, 1999.

Group photo in the Galapagos

This is probably the single greatest group of people who have ever traveled together on the same boat in the Galapagos.

Central Idaho Part Two

Posted from Boise, Idaho at 6:40 pm, September 11th, 2011

The next time I visit here, rather than spending a chilly evening sleeping in a car an advance reservation will definitely be made for a room in the extraordinarily cool Redfish Lake Lodge, which was built out of logs in 1929 and doesn’t appear to have changed much since then. Today’s adventures included hot coffee, hot bacon, and hot French toast at the lodge (did I mention they were all hot?) and some bald eagle watching at the lake. That was followed by a leisurely drive south through the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and then back towards Boise, much of it with the car’s heater running on high in an effort to de-thaw from last night’s refrigeration. Mountain lakes, jagged peaks, and the occasional pronghorn made for a nice journey that was only slightly spoiled by the not-unexpected result of the Browns’ season opener.

Ryan in the Sawtooth Mountains

This is what I look when 1) I’m happy, 2) I’m in a pretty place, 3) I need a shower, and 4) it’s 6:45AM and I spent the night sleeping in the chilly driver’s seat of a rented Dodge Charger.

Central Idaho

Posted from Stanley Basin, Idaho at 8:24 pm, September 10th, 2011

Whatever its faults may be, America is a pretty spectacular place to live, as today’s roadtrip through Central Idaho reminded. In addition to experiencing the scenery on the trip up here, poor planning on my part combined with a dearth of local lodging options to lead to a night of car camping in a Dodge Charger, so the view from my “bed” includes the Sawtooth Mountains and the Stanley Basin, while my neighbors for the evening will be falcons, deer, and sandhill cranes.

The leisurely drive up here was filled with mountains, streams, trees, and a smattering of wildlife, including the first sandhill cranes I’ve seen since 2002. Interestingly, the thing I always forget about the mountains until I’m back in them is the smell – there’s something about the air that makes you want to just close your eyes and breath deeply for a while. A bum knee has limited the hiking, but just being able to get outside and stand next to a mountain stream, or to watch a dozen cranes from the roadside, has been a good reminder of why it’s important to leave the city and refresh the soul from time-to-time.

Sandhill cranes in Central Idaho

If there had been a chance for a better photo I would have hung out with these birds for hours, but they were heading away from me and I was pretty sure that following them would freak them out, so getting an acceptable sandhill crane photo remains on the TODO list.

Smoky landscape in Central Idaho

The Sawtooth National Recreation Area brochure boasts that this area has the clearest air in the lower-48 states, but a nearby wildfire conspired to keep things hazy.

Prairie Falcon, Central Idaho

The caption for this photo would be something like “The Watcher” if I was an artist, or “Where the hell did the rest of the fence go?!?” if I wasn’t.

Thirty-five

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:30 pm, August 31st, 2011

Thomas Jefferson (born 1743) was 33 years old in 1776 during the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. James Madison (born 1751) was 36 when his ideas formed the core of the US Constitution. There are a fair number of other people who did some of their most impressive work in their thirties – it seems to be an age at which you’ve done enough to actually have a significant depth, although perhaps not a breadth, of experience in at least one or two areas.

While I harbor no illusions about being a Jefferson or Madison, it’s interesting to be at the same age as when they made arguably their biggest marks on history. Personally, the mid-thirties is the first time in life at which I’ve worked regularly on specific subjects for multiple decades – my first computer program was written more than 20 years ago; my first photograph was taken almost 25 years ago.

Everyone dreams that they will do important things in life, but for most people something gets in the way – a job, lack of motivation, or just a sense that things can always be done later; days go by slowly, but years somehow fly by. There was a line at the beginning of Dead Poet’s Society from a Walt Whitman poem: “that the powerful play goes on, and that you will contribute a verse”. To which Robin Williams’ character asks: “what will your verse be?” At this point in life there’s a mild fear of missing the chance to contribute that verse, although with several endeavors in various states of completion there is also optimism that some day an entry like this one won’t be about hopes, but will instead be about accomplishments. Granted, those accomplishments won’t end up as centerpieces of the National Archives, but not everyone is cut out to be a Founding Father.

Things Worth Noting

Posted from Culver City, California at 5:16 pm, August 28th, 2011

Here are a handful of random current events that seem worth writing down. These types of posts are fun reading in retrospect, and are also good when it’s nearly the end of the month and I haven’t met the three entry goal:

  • Steve Jobs has resigned as CEO of Apple. While his supposed tendency to yell and micromanage would normally be negatives for a CEO, the guy had an unbelievable ability to discern trends and focus on what was both important and within his company’s area of strength, and it is sad to see him go.
  • Mono Lake has risen two and a half feet this year, putting it seven feet from the restoration goal level, twelve feet above its all-time low, but still about thirty-five feet below its historic average.
  • Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman made news by stating that Republicans should embrace evolution and global warming. It’s more than a little scary that 150 years after Darwin a theory that underpins biology is still so controversial…
  • Four years late, the Boeing 787 finally gained its FAA certification. While the technology behind the plane is clearly a huge step forward, the delays unfortunately appear to have caused significant harm to Boeing’s ability to compete with Airbus and will take some time to recover from.
  • Following a political crisis in which the US nearly defaulted on its debts, the stock market has dropped about ten percent, but more notably has been regularly going up or down by three to five percent daily and giving those of us with a lot invested reason to sweat.
  • SpaceX has been granted permission to combine its remaining two test flights, and thus could be cleared to service the space station by the end of the year.
  • The next Olympic Games are almost exactly eleven months away.

Iceland Photos

Posted from Boise, Idaho at 11:11 pm, August 14th, 2011

The return to full-time work has made subjects for journal entries hard to come by. Audrey suggested that I devote one of August’s entries to the crowd-pleasing topic of city planning, but because it’s been over a month since any photos have been posted, and because I don’t want to bore my twos of readers, that topic will have to wait until at least the next entry. In the mean time here are a handful of photos from the 2008 trip to Iceland. Although the bird in the first photo was the subject of a previous journal entry, all three images are seeing their world debut tonight.

Atlantic Puffin

Atlantic puffin on the Latrabjarg cliffs. There is probably a “proper” way to photograph these birds, but “get really close in good light” worked well enough for me.

Skogafoss Waterfall

Skogafoss waterfall. The Iceland trip started out as a photography workshop led by Rod Planck, during which time I learned that if you’re not a great photographer, just photograph a waterfall in cloudy weather using a long exposure and all will be well.

Hverir, Myvatn

Thermal features near Myvatn. The Myvatn region of Iceland is an active volcanic area, and thus there seems to be steamy pools and odd landscapes around every corner.

I Just Felt Like Runnin’

Posted from Boise, Idaho at 9:30 pm, July 31st, 2011

Back in the day I was bad at every sport that required coordination, but did have the dubious talent of being able to run at a fast pace without barfing for longer than most other people. Since those days I’ve run less-and-less, and thus eventually reached a state in which I was bad at every sport, including those involving running and vomit.

It’s easy enough to make excuses and much harder to find time and motivation, but at the end of 2010 being out of shape had become a big enough issue that something had to be done. As a result, including today I’ve now run a minimum of 1-2 miles every day for 213 consecutive days. After spending January just trying to do two miles a day, last week was the first time in years where I ran over forty miles in a week – not a particularly impressive total, but obviously far better than doing nothing.

Distance running isn’t glamorous, but it teaches a good life lesson: a difficult task begins with the first step, and is only successful when that first step is followed up consistently with many more. That lesson has been a valuable one to have learned early, as even the most daunting endeavors no longer seem overwhelming – just like training for a distance race, many tough challenges can be met by just going out there each day, putting in some work, and knowing that while it may not seem like anything is changing, every step is absolutely necessary in order to get to the end goal.

Of course, with all that said, it would be a lie to say that there isn’t a small part of me that wishes I’d been blessed with a bit more coordination and thus writing today about how my years of fame as the football team’s running back taught the valuable life lesson of teamwork…