Ryan's Journal

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

The Valley of Death, Part II

Posted from Lancaster, California at 8:53 pm, December 30th, 2012

I hiked a couple of miles out into the Badwater salt flats early this morning, sat down in the snow-white crystals of a dried up salt pool, and the desolation was glorious.

After a good night’s rest the morning featured some sunrise photography, a hike through the Badwater salt flats, and a delicious burger for a hungry boy. Post-burger the itinerary included a visit to the yellow formations of Zabriskie Point, and a drive up to Dante’s View. I thought I’d been to this overlook before, but I don’t remember it, and it’s a memorable spot with a five thousand foot sheer drop down to the valley floor and a ridiculously great view of the awesome geology of the surrounding landscape – since that’s three superlatives, odds are that my memory is faulty and this is a spot that has not been on a past trip itinerary.

After leaving Dante’s View the trail led towards home via the eastern Sierra, with a brief stop to enjoy the Milky Way, and the current stop to try to get a journal entry written before it gets too late (aka 9PM) and my brain starts getting mushier than normal. Tonight will be spent in a real bed as this end-of-year trip sadly comes to its end.

Badwater Basin Sunrise

Badwater Basin sunrise. The color on the mountains was also impressive, although you wouldn’t know it from the pictures I took.

Badwater Basin Salt Flats

Badwater Basin salt flats. See all the people? No? Glorious!

The Valley of Death

Posted from Above Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park, California at 7:08 pm, December 29th, 2012

Some thoughts from today:

  • There is all kinds of cool stuff happening in the desert town of Mojave. Scaled Composites (the first private company to put a man in space) is there, along with Virgin Galactic and all manner of other cutting edge aerospace companies.
  • Off roading is apparently a much bigger deal than I realized. While roaming dirt roads in the desert I passed hundreds of RVs organized into camps of 5-20 vehicles, each camp home to dozens of ATVs and dirt bikes. One of the RVs in every camp was always flying a giant flag, and I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that these same folks show up in force for Nascar.
  • The craggy, primordial landscapes in the deserts of the Eastern Sierra are the types that require the internal narrator to assume a deep voice and say things like “and thus did God create the EARTH”, with backing music from a booming timpani drum. Driving through this area, it really does feel like this is how the Earth looked a couple billion years ago.
  • Despite many past visits to Death Valley the Wildrose portion of the park is somewhere I’d never been before today. That part of the park is at a higher elevation and featured a bit of snow, along with a landscape through tiny canyons and vistas that kept making me think how crazy it was that they even built a road here. This area is now officially Ryan approved.
  • I debated spending the night car camping in the campground at Furnace Creek, but instead of spending the evening wedged between RVs I decided to haul the Suby a few miles up a “road” (*cough* rocky gully *cough*) and am camped for the evening with a view that includes the entire Badwater Basin and has no neighbors. Provided I don’t wake up in the morning with one or more flat tires this appears to be a far better sleeping option.

A Day at the Refuge

Posted from near Buttonwillow, California at 7:39 pm, December 28th, 2012

In the 1800s there was wetland from Sacramento to Bakersfield, and a person could travel the entire route by boat. Today ninety-five percent of that has been converted to farmland or cities, so one can only imagine how insanely awesome the wildlife must once have been.

Wakeup was at 6AM to catch sunrise at the Merced NWR and to hopefully see the cranes before they dispersed for the day. It was ridiculously foggy, but the calls of several hundred cranes helped with locating the birds and I managed to grab a few shots as they departed to their favorite breakfast spots. Unfortunately the elusive “money shot” was not to be had today, so a crane photo remains on the bucket list.

The entire day was spent at the refuge, with a brief intermission to eat a massive biscuit and take a shower. Hawks, herons, and a few thousand snow geese were among the day’s other sights – if what I saw represents five percent of the historic abundance, the Central Valley must have been a wonder in its wildlife prime. Tonight will most likely again be spent sleeping in the glorious confines of the Subaru, with tomorrow’s plan (subject to change) being to meander along a route to Death Valley that I’ve never tried before.

Sandhill cranes at sunrise

A flock of about two hundred cranes dispersed in a matter of minutes when the sun came up, making for a frantic and fun photo shoot.

White-fronted geese and the full moon

A shot from yesterday of white-fronted geese flying past the full moon. I thought this was a neat shot although perhaps a bit too odd for the journal, but Audrey gave her approval.

Several Thousand Geese-a-Flying

Posted from Merced, California at 10:06 pm, December 27th, 2012

After a bird-themed Christmas, waffles, a game involving trains (a recurring activity this holiday season, apparently), and hiking in the mud with Aaron I took leave of Ma & Pa’s house and returned to the road. Today’s stop was at the Cosumnes River Preserve, home to (literally) tens of thousands of geese and numerous other feathered critters. Having flocks of thousands of geese and the occasional sandhill crane passing overhead as the sun set was not a bad way to finish the day.

Several thousand white-fronted geese take to the skies as the sun sets. Turn up the volume for maximum enjoyment.

Chasing Cranes

Posted from Concord, California at 10:46 pm, December 24th, 2012

Last night was spent sleeping in the back of the car on the side of the road. It felt good to be a vagabond again.

Today’s adventure was a tour of several wildlife refuges to scout possible locations for the sandhill crane picture that has eluded me for so long. While the birds were again uncooperative, there’s hope. The morning’s first visit was to Merced National Wildlife Refuge, home to a ridiculous number of cranes and the new number one contender on the crane photography list. Arrival was too late for good light, but this is a place that will be re-visited.

The second planned stop was the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, but Apple’s new map tool calculated a route that went from sketchy country road to potholed mess to muddy quagmire. I was skidding all over the place, tearing up clay, doing my best to avoid sliding into the irrigation ditch next to the road without reducing speed to the point where I’d get trapped in the muck. When eventually I found a place wide enough to turn around I was absolutely positive that the car would get stuck, but a Christmas miracle occurred and the Suby dug its way out and I escaped without a call to AAA. After this mini adventure there were disconcerting squealing noises coming from the front of the vehicle, so I headed to the nearest town where it took a full twelve minutes of power washing to get all of the clay/mud out of the wheel wells and axles.

After finding a new route that followed actual roads I arrived at San Luis NWR, which was scenic, as was the day’s final stop at the Isenberg Crane Reserve. However, Merced NWR was clearly the winner and a spot that will see another visit on the post-Christmas trip. In the interim the plan calls for spending a couple of days at Ma & Pa’s for the annual family Christmas, feasting, and misadventures with my brother.

Red-tailed hawk at Merced National Wildlife Refuge

Red-tailed hawk at Merced National Wildlife Refuge. My copy of the Sibley guide is at home, so I’m basing this identification on the fact that I generally assume all big hawks are red-tails.

The Hoya

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:07 am, December 23rd, 2012

As of the 21st I have twelve glorious, work-free days. Life is quite good at the moment.

To start the vacation extravaganza Audrey and I went down to San Diego to greet the Mayan end of the world with her sister, mom, and mother’s husband. We drove down Thursday night, woke up to find the world still in existence Friday morning, then roamed La Jolla for a bit before joining her family members for lounging and steak in a three bedroom bungalow at the very cool (both figuratively and literally) Lafayette boutique Hotel. There was a game involving dominoes and Mexican trains that I confess to not fully understanding, a broken heater, a hairy cousin, and plenty of other shenanigans to make for a fun journey.

Tonight will begin the annual holiday trip, with a few nature stops planned before a Christmas spectacular with the family in Concord, followed by the annual post-Christmas road trip – there should be much car camping, early rising, and random journeying to end the year.

Brown pelican in La Jolla

Brown pelican in La Jolla. This was one of the few birds who agreed to stay in focus and in frame.

Sea Lions in La Jolla

Pile o’ sea lions in La Jolla. Despite the fact that this may look like a morbid heap of deceased pinniped, all of these guys were very much alive.

Brown pelican in La Jolla

Money shot.

The Giving of the Thanks

Posted from Culver City, California at 5:31 pm, November 30th, 2012

This year’s Thanksgiving saw Audrey and I make our annual trek through traffic and up to Ma & Pa’s residence in the Bay Area, arriving Wednesday night with pies (plural) in hand after more than seven hours on the road. Aaron is again living in the Bay Area and working at Nordstrom, and by “living in the Bay Area” I mean “living with my parents” and doing so by choice since economics are not really an issue. Dolphins and parrots supposedly stay in family units for years and years, so younger Holliday’s living arrangement is apparently not without precedent.

Aaron and I set off on a muddy hike up Mount Diablo on Thanksgiving morning, saw two flocks of wild turkeys on the trip home, ate the world’s largest biscuit, and then joined everyone else in lounging the day away before eating massive quantities for dinner. The following day Audrey and I were off to meet her best friend Krissy in Moss Beach, with a stop along the way in the Marin Headlands to fight for parking and enjoy a view of the Golden Gate. The next morning Krissy took us up into the hills to hike amongst big trees and banana slugs before a very tired pair made the long journey back to LA.

Golden Gate Bridge from the Marin Headlands

Golden Gate Bridge from the Marin Headlands.

Scared the Children

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:37 am, November 25th, 2012

When I first met Audrey it was literally a matter of minutes before she started telling me about Scare the Children, her annual Halloween haunted house. The 2005 event was the only one I’ve ever participated in, although there was a long and proud tradition that went on for many years before it that had to be put on hiatus when we moved to a townhouse. Now that we own our own house, warnings were sent to the neighbors, streetlights were blacked out, and a small army of volunteers descended to help build platforms in trees, rig up fog machines, and otherwise convert our sweet abode into a scene from an Edgar Allan Poe story.

My main role in the setup was in helping Audrey procure a casket – yes, somehow I’m in a relationship with a girl who owns a casket. Audrey found one on Craigslist, the backstory checked out enough that we were confident the seller hadn’t procured it with a shovel and some late-night trespassing, and I found myself in the unusual position of loading a metal coffin into the back of the Subaru. Audrey was happy because she now has a centerpiece for her Halloween craziness, and I now feel confident that she won’t be able to argue should I ever decide I want a lifesize Han Solo in carbonite for my room.

Audrey’s preparation and hard work paid off on Halloween night, with about a hundred young visitors in varying states of terror. My role in the extravaganza was to stand near our front door, which we had enclosed in black fabric, while wearing all black. No one could see me, so I’d wait until they got candy and then growl at them as they turned around; kids screamed and parents yelled some things that may not have been appropriate for children’s ears. Other highlights included Nancy in the coffin, Shelly in a tree, Pete with chains and strobes on the side of the house, and Stephanie as a witch sitting in the corner of the yard while controlling a snake on a string that jumped out at people. The following day our eighty-plus year old Japanese neighbor, who has always been very quiet and seemed somewhat suspicious of the oddballs next door, came over and noted “Good job. I like that snake.”


Scare the Children in action. Photo by Audrey


Gina, an experienced child scarer. Photo by Audrey


I was completely invisible without a massive amount of light, and quickly discovered that a quiet growl six inches away from a parent’s ear was generally enough to get them to scream out things that they might not normally yell around children. Photo by Audrey

Election 2012

Posted from Culver City, California at 5:38 pm, November 11th, 2012

While politics is a bit of a dangerous subject to bring up in a public forum these days, it would be a shame not to record a journal entry for posterity about the election, so here are some (hopefully) non-partisan thoughts on the recent election. The comments link is available for anyone who would like to berate me, berate the parties, or add their own thoughtful and nuanced musings.

  • Obama won the electoral college 332-206 and the popular vote 51-48. While this is a big win relative to recent Presidential elections, pundits who are predicting a permanent Republican minority due to demographic changes might want to tone it down – if merely two voters out of every hundred had a change of heart the storyline would instead be about the failings of the Democratic party, and as the once-solidly Democratic Southern states demonstrate, demographic groups can completely flip their party alignment over time.
  • In a story that isn’t getting much press, the Democrats shocking gained two Senate seats in a year in which they had 23 seats up for re-election (vs 10 for Republicans), increasing their Senate majority from 53-47 to 55-45 and winning in places like South Dakota, Missouri, Montana and Indiana. As a result, it seems much more likely that the Democrats will now be more confident about their odds of keeping the Senate in 2014 (when they have six seats up in states that will be very difficult to retain), and thus will change Senate rules to limit use of the filibuster, thereby making it much easier to confirm Presidential nominees and bring bills to the floor for discussion. While the ability to filibuster a vote (ala Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) is unlikely to be changed, filibustering every motion to move a bill forward will likely soon be a thing of the past.
  • The following issues that affect people on a day-to-day basis are now almost certain to happen as a result of this election: Obamacare is going to be fully implemented, EPA fuel efficiency rules (fleet averages of 54.5 mpg by 2025) and efforts to limit CO2 emissions will continue, tax rates on income over $250,000 are going up, and the Supreme Court will not become more conservative.
  • On a less-certain note, Republicans have split over immigration in the past – George W. Bush pushed for immigration reform in order to attract Hispanic voters, while Mitt Romney was in favor of self-deportation as a play for Republican base voters. Based on recent statements, Republicans seem to have taken the election results to mean that the pro-immigration voices in the party were right, so it would be a good bet that comprehensive immigration reform becomes law by 2014.
  • Andrew Sullivan made the argument that those who categorized this election as a choice between freedom and tyranny would be well-served by re-evaluating their assumptions (this argument applies to both sides). To be very clear: neither Obama, nor George W. Bush before him, want to destroy America. The two sides simply differ on policy and the role of government, and those who choose to demonize either side as evil or anti-American make it much more difficult for the parties to work together since there is no way to justify compromising or finding common ground with someone who actually wants to destroy the country.
  • Finally, despite wild speculations from various pundits, for the second Presidential election in a row Nate Silver and his poll aggregation model was the one who most accurately predicted the election results. To this engineering grad, no matter which side wins, vindication of a math and statistics approach over hand-waving and demagoguery is a good thing.


Posted from Culver City, California at 8:00 pm, October 24th, 2012

Despite being horrid at it, journal entries that make predictions about the future are some of my favorites to write. Thus, in keeping with a long and embarrassing tradition of ignoring better judgment and making uninformed guesses about the future, here are some thoughts about trends that might develop over the next twenty years.

To provide some perspective, think back twenty years to 1992. At that time most people didn’t know what the internet was. Pagers were the best way of contacting someone and cell phones were still almost a decade away from becoming ubiquitious. CGI was still a rarity in film, and it would be another year before Jurassic Park would stun the world with dinosaurs that were not filmed using robots or stop motion. Global warming was still an obscure theory that only a handful of climate scientists (and Al Gore) had even heard about. Even though predictions about today’s world made in 1992 would have likely been as wrong as the flying car and nuclear-powered dishwasher predictions made in 1950s science magazines, it’s still fun to make an attempt to speculate on developments over the next twenty years.


Two specific developments might vastly change energy: batteries and decentralized power generation. Currently energy can be generated, but it is hugely difficult to store efficiently and thus must be used immediately. With batteries becoming approximately eight percent more efficient each year, and assuming my math is correct, in twenty years they’ll be about five times more efficient and likely significantly cheaper. Today’s best batteries can power a car for 300 miles, so in twenty years that same battery would theoretically allow 1500 miles of range; with that kind of storage almost all non-electric motors (which are less efficient) would become obsolete, and more generally energy would move from something that must be produced on-demand into an entirely new paradigm. In addition, renewable sources like solar are also improving rapidly. Today, in places with lots of sun, solar is cost-competitive with grid electricity. Assuming a 4-5x improvement in the next two decades, combined with efficient batteries that can store energy for usage when the sun isn’t shining, and suddenly it would be more economical for individual households and businesses to have solar panels than to not have them. If that happens then usage of decentralized power skyrockets, and reliance on huge, centralized coal, oil and gas power plants (and the corresponding pollution they generate) diminishes greatly. As a wildcard, at some point (be it in ten years or a hundred) research into fusion and superconductors will yield breakthroughs that will result in essentially limitless, super-cheap, pollution-free energy.


Bionics is something that sounds scary until you realize it is already happening. Today people think nothing of pacemakers or hearing aids, and almost everyone has a cell phone that they carry at all times to keep connected to everyone else. The process of melding humans and machines is already well underway, and will only continue. In the next twenty years technology will probably become available to make bionics even more personal, including capabilities such as the ability to project a screen directly onto the retina, thus moving the functionality of a cell phone from a device in your hand to something that is actually inside of your head. With increased processing and networking speeds, having an infinite amount of data about the world projected directly into your field of vision will no doubt revolutionize how people interract with one another.

“Thinking” computers

When a person is trying to solve a problem they gather all available information, analyze it, weigh things appropriately, and then make a choice. If that choice turns out to be incorrect they can gather more data, change how existing data is weighed, or otherwise modify their thinking to make a better decision. Currently computers are far better than humans when it comes to analyzing input given a specific set of rules and data, but they aren’t good at modifying those rules or gathering more data; that’s going to change at some point in the future, and when computers can begin analyzing and solving complex problems it will have massive repercussions for quickly advancing knowledge in fields ranging from economics to politics, and especially in all facets of scientific research.

Medical advances

People often lament that medicine hasn’t cured any major disease since eradicating polio, but the medical field may be on the verge of huge advances using stem cells, or cells with properties similar to stem cells. Today if you have nerve damage (such as a spinal cord injury) there is little or nothing that can be done about it, but stem cells offer the potential to simply use your body’s existing genetic blueprints to “fix” the damage. Similar processes could be possible for creating new tissues, thus eliminating the need for organ or blood donations. These breakthroughs would affect all manner of other health and medical issues, so assuming the technology continues to advance, everything from joint pain to amputation could become as anachronous as polio is today.

Shuttle Endeavour in LA

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:09 am, October 21st, 2012

The shuttle Endeavour arrived in LA a short time ago, and last weekend was moved from the airport to its new home at the Science Center. The route involved a maximum speed of two miles per hour over twelve miles, with numerous stops, massive numbers of utility workers on hand to pull down electrical wires and traffic lights, and enthusiastic crowds all along the route. Aaron was in town, so of course the Holliday Boys set off on an adventure, eventually finding a spaceship parked next to a donut shop.

The Holliday Boys and the Shuttle Endeavour in the streets of LA

The Holliday boys next to the business end of the shuttle. Photo by Aaron.

Shuttle Endeavour in the streets of LA

Shuttle Endeavour in the streets of LA. The “oversize load” banner is necessary for those who might have otherwise been confused as to whether this was a normal-sized delivery.

Shuttle Endeavour in the streets of LA

A sight that no astronaut would have ever foreseen.


Posted from Culver City, California at 8:06 pm, October 2nd, 2012

It’s a couple of days after the trip wrapped up, but here’s the quick summary from Sunday:

After an early wakeup to watch the sun rise we ate extraordinary amounts of bacon at the lodge’s buffet, then packed up and headed out. The plan was to find cranes in the Stanley basin, but after a wildlife-free tour we headed back towards Boise. The lone stop on the way was in the former gold mining town of Idaho City where I may or may not have befriended one of the locals.

Making friends in Idaho City

Had this guy not been chained to the porch, my carry-on might have been a lot heavier.

Tooth Peak

Posted from Redfish Lake, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho at 7:13 pm, September 29th, 2012

While looking at a woodpecker near the lodge today an older British couple walked up to us and started chatting. While talking about birds that they’d seen, the lady mentioned that she hadn’t gotten any pictures of hawks, but “there was this lovely hawk right outside of our cabin window yesterday, but just as I got out my camera someone walked under the tree and he flew off.” She paused, looked at me more closely, furrowed her brow and asked “Was that you?”


Today’s other adventures included a leisurely four mile hike along Fishhook Creek, ending at a meadow with a great view of the Sawtooths and a beaver dam across the creek. Along the way the trip’s first wild bald eagle made an appearance, thus fulfilling my eagle-finding pledge to Audrey. Since Northern Idaho requires at least two adventures per day we then rented a canoe and cruised around Redfish Lake, at all times exercising impeccable watercraft handling and perfect canoeing technique while also making sure to touch lots of logs and rocks. The plan for tomorrow includes getting up for sunrise and then searching for cranes in the Stanley basin before eating the lodge’s delicious breakfast buffet and making the scenic loop back to Boise.

Fishhook Creek, Sawtooth Mountains

Sawtooth Mountains, Fishhook Creek, and a beaver dam, not necessarily in that order.

Canoeing in Redfish Lake

Canoeing in Redfish Lake. I am that awesome. Photo by Audrey.


Posted from Redfish Lake, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho at 8:45 pm, September 28th, 2012

Audrey flew into Boise last night for a long weekend in Idaho, and immediately after landing I shuttled her to downtown to imbibe with co-workers. Many beers later I hadn’t yet been fired, and she can now put a face to the story when I tell her about the co-worker who turned his cube into a cardboard saloon.

This morning we drank sufficient coffee to banish any after-effects from last night, then headed off to the World Center for Birds of Prey because I’m down with the birds. After two hours, one rastafarian eagle, and one kitten-voiced owl we said our goodbyes and headed off through the mountain roads to Redfish Lake Lodge, where a log cabin awaited us at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains.

Last Flight of the Endeavour

Posted from Culver City, California at 6:43 pm, September 23rd, 2012

When a three year old sees a rocket, for inexplicable reasons that kid is likely to start screaming, and he will then start running around in circles while also perhaps punching himself in the head due to uncontrollable excitement. As he ages the kid will calm down and learn to control himself, eventually growing into a normal adult who admires rockets but manages to do so in a mature way.

When it comes to spaceships, I never grew out of the three year old stage.*

The shuttle Endeavour is making the LA Science Center its final home, and on Friday it arrived in Los Angeles on top of its 747 carrier plane after touring Sacramento and San Francisco. The flight plan called for the pilots to pass by Venice Beach (as well as many other local landmarks), so I took some time off from work and joined a few hundred people there to watch the final flight of the spaceship. As it turned out, the pilots had free reign to fly anywhere they chose in LA, and they used that freedom to make an unannounced pass over LAX at two hundred feet, Top Gun style, and then turned up the coast and made an unexpected second pass over those of us who had already begun to leave Venice Beach to get back to work.

The next part of the shuttle’s move occurs on October 12 when it will be put on a transporter and slowly taken to its new home at the science center, and I’ll more than likely be stationed somewhere along the route, screaming, running in circles, and punching myself in the head as it passes by.

*In fairness, many people have specific things that elicit Pavlovian responses that turn them into three year olds – witness women at a KISS concert or men in the bleachers at a Packers game.

Shuttle Endeavour

In the words of Scott: “That’s one badass shuttle pilot to be able to land the shuttle on top of a 747 in mid flight.”

Shuttle Endeavour with Chase Plane

The shuttle and one of its two chase planes.