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

Still More Whale Sharks

Posted from Cozumel, Mexico at 9:53 pm, June 15th, 2011

At the risk of overkill, here are three more photos from last Sunday’s whale shark extravaganza. I will do my utmost to refrain from posting more, but sometimes awesome things need to be posted over and over and over.

Whale Shark and swimmer near Isla Mujeres

The surface view, with a swimmer for scale. From head to dorsal fin is less than half of the shark.

Whale Shark near Isla Mujeres

The non-business end of the whale shark.

Whale Shark and Audrey near Isla Mujeres

Audrey dutifully does her job of providing scale as a freakin’ whale shark swims next to her.

Self-Contained Underwater…

Posted from Cozumel, Mexico at 9:38 pm, June 14th, 2011

A checkout dive is typically done when SCUBA diving so that the dive master can verify your skill level and make sure all is well. However, in Cozumel a checkout dive apparently consists of the dive shop giving you equipment, directions on where to swim from the docks, and then saying “let us know if there are any issues” – this approach was eerily similar to my first dive ten years ago in Malaysia when the divemaster showed me how to put on the gear, told me to jump in the water, asked “are you nervous?”, and then took me underwater for forty-five minutes. In both cases, all ended well.

Our checkout dive today lasted for more than an hour as we enjoyed the sea life at between five and twenty feet; for me this was my first ever dive in the Caribbean. In addition to an odd artificial-reef thing filled with dozens of yellow French grunt and several mannequins, the obligatory species-sighted list includes: three different eels, three stingrays, numerous shrimps and crabs, a scorpion fish, two lion fish, and about a gazillion other reef fish. The lion fish in particular were ridiculously pretty, but as an introduced species they’re apparently having a bad effect on local fish populations so seeing them is bittersweet.

Tomorrow we’re off for a couple of dives, followed in coming days by even more diving. My camera is waterproof only down to five meters so sadly there won’t be any pictures, but no doubt tomorrow’s journal entry will contain a story about stupid things Ryan did while underwater since it’s been five years since the last dive trip and the rust is bound to show.

Purple Toe

Posted from Cozumel, Mexico at 9:32 pm, June 13th, 2011

Since this trip journal has suffered terribly from a lack of stories about toe injuries, here’s a quick one: in the midst of the whale shark excitement yesterday I whacked the hell out of my pinky-toe-neighbor toe on the side of the boat, and under any other circumstances might have called for an injury timeout, but with whale sharks awaiting a toe was not going to be a cause for distraction. Overnight that toe magically grew two toe sizes and turned all sorts of shades of awesome, events that would have tempted a lesser man to post pictures on Facebook (I had no readily-available internet connection). For better or worse the toe now seems to be on the mend, and is merely one toe size larger than normal and a curious shade of grape.

With the obligatory toe adventure story out of the way, today was mostly a travel day and thus of relatively little note for journaling purposes. We awoke to thunderstorms, started on the seven part journey from Isla Mujeres to Cozumel at around noon (taxi to ferry to taxi to bus to taxi to ferry to taxi), and managed to cut two steps out of the journey by paying $50 for a taxi directly from the Cancun ferry terminal fifty miles south to the Playa del Carmen ferry terminal. Shortly thereafter we departed on the ferry, and after thirty minutes of enjoying the ridiculously blue waters of the Mayan Riviera arrived on Cozumel to checkin to a hotel that Audrey had previously visited on a dive trip in 2000. Following a sauna-like run in the hotel’s “gym” we enjoyed a dinner featuring unbelievable Mayan sauces that was hosted by the garrulous old Mexican restaurant owner. The coming days will likely involve some SCUBA diving and perhaps even some moped-ing mixed in with siestas and bebidas before our departure date arrives in another week.

The One with WAAAAAY More Whale Sharks

Posted from Isla Mujeres, Mexico at 4:00 pm, June 12th, 2011

As amazing as Thursday’s whale shark experience was, it turns out it gets way, way better. WAY better.

We debated whether or not we should go on the whale shark trip again because we were afraid the second time wouldn’t be as good, but we finally decided that it would be silly not to go again and try our luck. The trip started out ominously – sixteen people showed up at the docks, but the boat was supposed to take a maximum of nine, our guide was the son of the guide we expected and spoke almost no English, and our captain from Thursday was going fishing so not only did we have a different captain but we got a smaller boat. Despite this beginning, all worked out. Seven of the people at the dock departed on other boats, the water was ridiculously calm so the smaller boat wasn’t an issue, and as we headed out we heard stories of “another area” in which a hundred whale sharks had been seen the previous day – while hopes were raised, we prepared for this number to be an exaggeration with a best case of a few more sharks and more time in the water.

The ride out involved dolphins and a few sea turtles, and then suddenly we were in magic land. As soon as the first shark was spotted six more were found within a hundred yards of it, and an area that was perhaps a mile across ended up having 100-200 whale sharks in it; literally everywhere you looked there was a set of massive fins sticking out of the water as the sharks filtered plankton at the surface. Not only were there more than enough sharks to avoid the need for sharing between boats, we actually had to be cautious of bumping into sharks while swimming as they crossed and re-crossed paths. To describe this experience as “awesome” would not do it justice. The water was ridiculously clear, the sharks were moving slowly enough that it was possible to swim with them, and we got four trips into the water for five-to-ten minutes each time where we swam within arm’s length of the largest fish in the ocean. One of the sharks in particular was huge (perhaps 35 feet long) and kept making 180 degree turns, giving Audrey and me the experience of following next to a beast only to have it turn, gaze at its followers, and then slowly pass by us at close range.

Some of today’s videos give a reasonably good impression of the experience, but a bit of editing and a faster internet connection will be needed before anything is ready for posting, so hopefully these two photos offer some hint of what it feels like to swim with giants.

Whale Shark near Isla Mujeres

Whale shark with attendant fish, each of which was between one and two feet long. One of these smaller fish actually left the shark and swam to within a foot of me for reasons which no one but that fish will ever know.

Whale Shark near Isla Mujeres

This is the giant shark that Audrey and I swam with for about ten minutes, giving us a look before making a 180 degree turn.

Big ‘ol Stingin’ Rays

Posted from Isla Mujeres, Mexico at 10:49 pm, June 11th, 2011

The troops rallied dramatically today, and I was eating toast, drinking juice, and keeping it down like a champ at breakfast time. The day’s big activity was a double-dose of snorkeling at the far end of the island featuring a good number of fish whose names I do not know. A few photos were attempted, but underwater photography is a mystery best summed up as “chase the fish and hope it stays in the frame”, so the examples below are all that are forthcoming from that endeavor. Tomorrow we decided to book a second trip to see the whale sharks, so barring bad luck another video of me swimming frantically behind a giant fish (“chase the fish and hope it stays in the frame”) may be the main subject matter of tomorrow’s journal entry.

Audrey Underwater

Audrey modeling her wicked awesome swim shirt.


The very rare kitten-faced stingray.

Sick Day

Posted from Isla Mujeres, Mexico at 9:42 pm, June 10th, 2011

Audrey spent today shopping and lounging while I added Mexico to the list of seven countries (and four continents) within which I have barfed. This doesn’t seem to be food poisoning since the girl and I have been eating all the same foods, but with any luck I’ll wake up tomorrow, see solid food, and not cringe at the sight. Our plan for today had been to rent a moped and see the rest of the island, but instead the view was mostly limited to the iguanas that hang out in the hotel’s back yard and a brief excursion after sunset to a restaurant full of begging cats, some of whom have apparently become so spoiled by the fancy cuisine that they won’t eat unpeeled shrimp – it seems that the tourists aren’t the only ones living the good life here.

The One with the Whale Shark

Posted from Isla Mujeres, Mexico at 10:08 pm, June 9th, 2011

Here’s how this went down: 6:00 AM the alarm goes off, and Ryan is out on a run. It’s hot and humid, the legs feel like lead ballast, and the army guy at the waterfront gives me a dirty look; this won’t be a day that is remembered for exercise. 7:15 AM Audrey and I arrive at the docks, have a quick breakfast, and then we’re off on a boat with six other passengers and two Mexican crew. At 9:30 AM we’re about twenty miles from Isla Mujeres watching sea turtles do it; this wasn’t a planned part of the itinerary, but sometimes the universe puts two horny sea turtles in the water in front of you and you just say thanks and go along with it. For the next two hours we’re racing around looking for giant fish, and having no success. And after that, the real fun begins.

Two other boats had found a smallish whale shark (thirty feet!) and our boat joined the rotation, putting two people in the water with it as soon as the other boats had a turn, with each group getting about two-three minutes with the shark. Audrey and I were the third group on our boat to go in, and we hit the water, got temporarily disoriented in the open ocean, then looked down to see a submarine of a fish swimming under us. The obvious but unmistakeable first impression is that whale sharks are big. We swam along on the surface about six feet above the shark, apparently alarming it no more than any of the dozens of other fish that were following it, and while my watch showed that we were in the water for two minutes the first time, it seemed a lot longer. Over the course of almost two hours we got three turns with the shark, and while more time would have obviously been great, those six total minutes will undoubtedly be some of the most memorable 360 seconds of our lives.

Life has treated me very well, and while I don’t know what it is that I’ve done to deserve it, I’m extraordinarily grateful that things have worked out as they did. More adventures await over the coming days.

Second trip with the whale shark. That’s Audrey at the very end, and the whale shark is the giant fish that is never fully in frame. My life is good.

The Birds Steal Condiments

Posted from Isla Mujeres, Mexico at 8:44 pm, June 8th, 2011

First full day scorecard: two pina coladas, two substantial naps, one swim, six fish tacos and two iguanas. An attempt to beat the heat by running at 6:30 AM failed miserably due to temperatures that fell somewhere between “sauna” and “convection oven”, but complaining about weather on a tropical island is a bit like whining about taxes after winning the lottery, and therefore such commentary is hereafter banished from this journal. Tomorrow’s activity is a boat trip to swim with whale sharks (yeah, that’s right, whale sharks) and rumor has it that they are here in large numbers so tomorrow may be one of those rare days that will gain permanent storage in the memory banks along with a handful of other notable adventures.

Never Say Never

Posted from Isla Mujeres, Mexico at 10:01 pm, June 7th, 2011

After visiting over thirty countries during my 35 years, a long-overdue trip to America’s southern neighbor has finally added Mexico to the list of places in which I’ve set foot. The day’s journey started with a wakeup call at the ungodly hour of 4:15 AM, was immediately followed by an even more ungodly thirty minute run, and then improved noticeably with a first-class seat from LAX to DFW, some barbecue in the Dallas airport, and another first-class seat to Cancun. From there it was a mere two hours of standing in line to get through customs, and an hour and a half to get out of Cancun and across the water to Isla Mujeres, after which Audrey and I set about finding our hotel and appropriate island beverages. The coming days promise much in the way of water, sand, and napping, with fish tacos and pina coladas to be employed as often as possible in service of maximizing island time.

Not Workin’

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:27 am, May 30th, 2011

After another quixotic four months the contract at Backcountry has ended for the second time. With the day job gone time is now available for side projects – the TODO list that is posted on the fridge is imposing, but I’m anticipating attacking it with furious gusto and incomparable determination over the coming days, while simultaneously engaging in frequent catnaps and large amounts of snacking.

Also, as a preemptive strike against the number one most likely question: yes, there is a trip planned. More accurately, Audrey planned a trip and we’ll be off in about a week. Pictures will be posted, and the three-entries-a-month goal should be easily reachable for June. Because it’s fun to pretend I’m mysterious the destination will remain a secret for now, but provided all goes as planned the question “How many whale sharks have you seen in your life” will soon have an answer that is much larger than “one“.

On Safari

Posted from Culver City, California at 5:42 pm, May 24th, 2011

The second Brother Day took place over the weekend in San Diego. The quick and dirty summary:

  • I headed down to San Diego on Saturday night and the Goob and I went for a run around the bay before sitting down to a meal of Thai food and a hatefully respectful showing of Get Him to the Greek.
  • The thought-provoking question of the weekend was “What person, real or fictional, wanted something the most?” After extensive consideration of everything from Woody’s quest for a twinkie in Zombieland to the terminator’s relentless pursuit of Sarah Connor, Gollum’s never-ending mission to regain the Ring emerged as the victor.
  • Sunday was spent at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. The park’s lorikeet exhibit was a highlight, and we arrived early enough that the lorikeet hunger meter was still on extreme. Also, due to the open air habitats the park turns out to be a great place for native California animals, so in addition to the giraffes, elephants, tigers, red river hogs and Eric the baby rhino, the park was the best viewing of egrets I’ve ever seen, and also home to somewhere around sixty-three billion baby toads.

Aaron and the Rainbow Lorikeets

Aaron and the Rainbow Lorikeets. Sounds like a band name.

The Holliday Brothers on Safari

The Holliday Brothers on Safari. That would make a good album name.

Mr. Tambourine Man

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:15 pm, May 17th, 2011

In November 2004 I was staying in a converted farmhouse on tiny Pebble Island within the Falkland Islands. Including guests there were probably no more than a dozen people on this island, and the majority of the visitors were a quirky bunch of old British folks who explained to me that Venice Beach was the place to go for birdwatching in LA. At the time I looked at them as if they’d just told me about the great nightlife in North Dakota and went about ravenously consuming the steak pie that had been set in front of me.

Fast forward almost seven years, and the Venice Beach Pier is one of the places Audrey and I are most likely to head to for an evening walk. Last Saturday night our company on this walk included an egret who was fishing in the canal, a flock of pelicans that were plunge diving for mackerel, a heron that was intently observing the pier’s activities from atop a street lamp, and a few dolphins that were out enjoying the twilight. While it’s in no way comparable to areas along the Central Coast or even a place like La Jolla, I’ve got to admit that those crazy Brits might have known what they were talking about.

Black-crowned night heron

Black-crowned night heron. Taken on Pebble Island in the Falklands, but these guys also keep Audrey and I company on our strolls through Venice.

Finding Time to Think

Posted from Culver City, California at 5:20 pm, April 30th, 2011

Audrey and I watched The Social Network a couple of weeks ago (good flick, by the way) and it was a reminder of what it was like to have the time and energy to focus on an idea and try to make it happen. Every software engineer that you’ve ever heard of became famous at a young age: Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Linus Torvalds and Steve Jobs were all famous by the time they were in their mid-twenties, and a major reason for it was because it was at that point in their lives that they had the focus and available time to take a chance on a big idea. They were probably also all single, but for software engineers that’s a separate, and likely unrelated, issue.

One major reason why older software engineers tend to make less of a splash is the same as it is for many jobs that require creative energy – once you’re spending 8-10 hours a day in a cubicle working for a company it’s terribly hard to find motivation to devote any significant amount of outside time to a similar endeavor. At the same time, quitting a good-paying job to pursue an idea that likely won’t pan out doesn’t make a lot of sense when weighed against the risk-reward formula that scientific types are ever-so-good at calculating. The end result is that by the mid-twenties a good software engineer is probably employed in a well-paying job that sucks up vast amounts of motivation that might otherwise have been spent founding Microsoft or Facebook.

It’s also for this reason that many older software engineers aren’t in as much demand as some younger ones – if you aren’t constantly learning new things and experimenting with new ideas, it’s tough for a company to justify paying 2-3 times more than what a young engineer might garner. While there are some very notable exceptions, software engineering seems primarily to be the province of the under-forty crowd.

The struggle between pursuing personal projects and working steadily is one that I’m given a chance to revisit whenever a job ends or a contract comes up for renewal. While it would be naive to believe that every idea will grow into something incredible if just given enough time and energy (the dotcom era drove that lesson home hard), there are always a million little projects waiting to be explored that, like any great unknown, are likely to generate at least a handful of interesting results. As a result, and understanding that in my field of work complacence often replaces excitement and innovation, I’m looking at my current work situation and doing some evaluation. While the ability to pay rent and buy groceries cannot be under-appreciated, the prospect of having some time to work on my own projects and potentially produce something new is an exciting one. The next few months may be interesting.

Bang or go home

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:48 am, April 24th, 2011

I was trying to think of where I’ve been on this date for the past several years, and was surprisingly able to nail it down fairly exactly from old journals and emails. This may not be interesting to anyone but me, but IMHO I’ve been lucky to have such a wide range of experiences during the past 14 years:

  • 1998 On April 24 I was in my final year at Case Western, and on this particular weekend I was with the track team in Atlanta for the conference championships where I was running the 10,000 meters in insanely hot conditions. I’d broken up with a girlfriend two weeks prior, was finishing up classes, preparing for the final races of the track season, and planning a six-week trip to Europe for the summer. Life was moving fast.
  • 1999 I was living in Oakland and working at Andersen Consulting’s research group in Palo Alto as the dotcom era was really picking up steam. My car had died a dramatic death during rush hour on the Dumbarton Bridge two days prior, and I was two days away from purchasing the best car ever. Other activities at the time included planning my first trip to the Galapagos Islands for the year’s end.
  • 2000 After a long stint working a job in Phoenix I had been sent to Singapore and was just finishing my first week there. The project was only supposed to be for three weeks, but it ended up being more than a year before I was back in the US full-time.
  • 2001 After two projects in Singapore and a short job in Korea I was assigned to a project in Kuala Lumpur, but due to delays I ended up taking some vacation and going to Cambodia and Indonesia. April 24 found me sunburned while exploring the temple complex of Angkor Wat. Two days later while flying to Indonesia (via Singapore) I got the worst case of food-poisoning in my life and ended up living in the airport for 24 hours, too sick to even move.
  • 2002 After taking my dad to Egypt in March I was back at work in Los Angeles doing a job for Disney. A month later I would get dominated when a co-worker convinced me that I could do the San Diego marathon without training.
  • 2003 After quitting my job at Accenture the previous August I had traveled to Alaska and then taken a contracting gig at Warner Brothers in Burbank where I was spending my lunch hours roaming the movie studio lot. I was running more regularly than at any time since college, and a second trip to the Galapagos was looming in May.
  • 2004 I was back at Warner Brothers for another job after having fulfilled a lifelong dream the previous January by traveling to Antarctica.
  • 2005 A month-long road trip through the Southwest had just concluded, and I returned to my rented room in Lafayette with no concrete plans for the future. April was the mid-point of an eleven month stretch without work that didn’t end until August, when I went back to LA and rented a room from a girl named Audrey.
  • 2006 I moved to Culver City in December and visited the Antarctic again in January, and on this date was just a few weeks away from what would end up being my final trip to the Galapagos. Despite not having worked in a while I traded the car that had shepherded me through the Far North and on many, many road trips for a new model on April 25, a decision that actually led me to get a bit nervous about money and start looking for a job.
  • 2007 April found me five months into a contract with DirecTV, a job I would continue for three years. The previous June saw the creation of JAMWiki, an open source project I’m continuing to work on today.
  • 2008 My brother and I were spending more time together since he had moved to nearby Palmdale, and April saw us on a fishing trip in which he spent the entire voyage curled up in the fetal position barfing while I never ended up putting a hook in the water.
  • 2009 After going to the Dominican Republic with Audrey to snorkel with whales in March, April 24, 2009 was spent flying to Florida for my grandmother’s 90th birthday. The following day was spent at Cape Canaveral looking at spaceships, something I’m known to do from time-to-time, followed by an evening at Disneyworld’s Animal Kingdom Lodge (yes, I am a dork).
  • 2010 After leaving DirecTV in December I took a contracting job at Backcountry.com, but late April found me away from work and hiking through the Grand Canyon with my brother.