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

“Are You Serious?”

Posted from Jackson, Wyoming at 10:00 pm, September 12th, 2013

The last day in Yellowstone, and both Audrey and I were again up at 6:30 and off to see the animals. A repeat trip up to the park’s north border yielded a bighorn sheep and a herd of elk, including two bulls engaged in a competition to figure out who had the biggest rack. Following breakfast we roamed around the weird terraces created by the bubbling water of Mammoth Hot Springs. Thereafter it was time to head out of the park, and we embarked on the long drive south, waving at the bison and elk along the way (literally).

It was an intermittently stormy day, so when we arrived in the Tetons the skies were pretty dramatic, and many photo stops were made along the way. At nearly 8PM we pulled into our fancy hotel in Jackson, and after checking in headed downstairs for a drink. When the bartender asked for my order I told him that since Audrey had just ordered a tequila and I couldn’t possibly get anything more manly than that, I’d go the other direction and have the raspberry chocolate cheesecake martini. He paused, looked at me sideways, and asked “Are you serious?”. I was, and it was delicious.

Audrey at Elk Ranch Flats

Audrey looking pretty as she photographs some Tetons.

Trees at Sunset, Grand Tetons

Backlit trees at sunset. Yes, after a day of photographing some of the most dramatic mountains in the world, I looked at all of my photos, hung my head in shame, and decided to post a picture of trees.

Everyone Who Saw a Grizzly Bear, Raise Your Hand

Posted from Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming at 9:36 pm, September 11th, 2013

Today was the day of many animals. Wake-up at 6:30 was followed immediately by a drive through the northwest corner of the park. Audrey was half-in-the-bag as we communed with elk and sandhill cranes. Following breakfast ninety minutes were allotted for the trip’s first downtime, and then we departed for the park’s north entrance, visiting with more elk, a handful of pronghorn, and a few bighorn sheep along the way. The elk were particularly good sports, with a herd of a dozen or so playing in the river while the resident bull kept tabs on everyone. We then returned to town, where due to its green lawns the park headquarters is an attractive home to a small herd of elk, including a massive bull who attacked no less than five cars this morning (“he got ’em good” is the word on the street). Park rangers had dutifully cordoned off the elk behind wooden barriers labeled “Event”, so we viewed these city dwellers from a safe distance. With the preliminaries thus completed, the real safari began.

The destination was the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone’s northeast corner, but we stopped numerous times along the way, including at an overlook where we spotted a herd of several hundred bison in the valley below. Upon entering Lamar a pronghorn greeted us at the side of the road, and after we had stopped he ambled directly up to me – I got back in the car to get out of his way, but he was still almost close enough to pet. He then posed for what are likely to be the best photos I’ll ever take of a pronghorn. And this encounter was just the beginning.

Continuing through the valley bison were everywhere, often standing just a few yards off the road. Eventually we stopped at a spot with an expansive view and got out the binoculars to see what we could find – perhaps a hundred bison, maybe fifty pronghorn, and a dozen cranes were the result of that survey. At around 5:30, with the sun beginning to sink, we headed back to a pull-out where earlier a couple had told us there was a nearby buffalo carcass that had attracted bears during the past two nights. As the time went by more and more people appeared, many of them with spotting scopes in hand. After just over an hour of chatting with the many hardcore wildlife enthusiasts who had gathered, I spotted some black dots moving on a far-off hill, and shortly thereafter a lady with a spotting scope began yelling “they’re on the carcass!” For the following hour we watched a mother grizzly and three large cubs feast on buffalo, with a brief interlude while she fought off what was either a pair of wolves or coyotes. Eventually she wandered off, and through binoculars and scopes we followed the family back into the woods. A brilliant sunset, a drive home in the dark featuring deer and elk, and a delicious and most-definitely girly drink (the “Huckleberry Princess”) finished off an excellent day.

Pronghorn Antelope

Hats off to this pronghorn for posing against a perfect background.

Pronghorn Antelope

I’m not sure what the protocol is for having a wild animal approach within a couple of feet, so as he walked a bit too close I snapped a photo and retreated back into the car; this photo was not taken at maximum zoom.

Lamar Valley Sunset

Lamar Valley sunset. Awesome end to an awesome day.

Porkchop the Magic Geyser

Posted from Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming at 9:45 pm, September 10th, 2013

We’re going to bed with the sounds of a bull elk bugling a few hundred yards away. This is a good vacation.

This morning’s wake-up call was at 6:30, and even though all activities are optional Audrey joined me for a stroll through the Upper Geyser Basin. We had it mostly to ourselves as the mist cleared, and spent time photographing Morning Glory Pool with two ospreys keeping us company. Following that adventure we ate breakfast at the Inn and then departed Old Faithful, embarking on a tour of many paint pots as we visited Fountain Paint Pots and Artist Paint Pots and their boiling muddy mud. The sound those things make is strikingly similar to what one hears two hours after a baked bean dinner, and Audrey did a lot of eye rolling while I did a lot of giggling during the mid-day excursions.

After the tour of many paint pots it was time for the visiting of much falling water, with photo stops at Firehole Falls and Gibbon Falls; my streak of ugly waterfall pictures continues, but Audrey got some nice ones. With the waterfall options exhausted we hit Norris Geyser Basin, the park’s oldest and hottest. This basin is far-and-away the most other-worldly, and after several miles of strolling the camera’s memory cards were full and we were composing ballads dedicated to Porkchop the magic geyser – the sun was strong today and may have scrambled our brains moreso than usual.

Following our departure from Norris the trip was first interrupted by a bison strolling down the double-yellow of the road and passing within a foot or two of the car, and then by a bugling elk who stopped traffic in front of the Mammoth Hot Springs. After arriving in Mammoth and eating dinner we walked back to our cabin in the dark with more bugling greeting us – apparently the resident stud is out prospecting for additional lady friends. Tomorrow is another animal day, with another early start planned, so hopefully the wildlife gods will smile down upon us yet again.

Bison in Upper Geyser Basin

This is the stock bison photo that everyone who visits Yellowstone takes, with the one exception being that this photo is of Stumpy the tail-less bison.

Porcelain Basin in Norris Geyser Basin

Like most photos I take, this one doesn’t come close to doing justice to its subject – the Porcelain Basin in Norris Geyser Basin truly feels like something from another planet.

Gurgling Magma

Posted from Old Faithful Inn, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming at 9:57 pm, September 9th, 2013

It’s EXTREMELY late by the standards of this trip, so this journal entry may be somewhat abbreviated.

We’re staying on the geyser side of the park, but the animals mostly reside on the opposite side, so today we got up early-ish (6:30) and headed off to the Hayden and Lamar valleys. The weather was nice, the scenery was tremendous, and elk, bison and pronghorn were out in abundance. Other sightings included an osprey chick on its nest, a few zillion geese, what we assumed were cranes (they were far off, but the shape was right), and some bubbling thermal features that looked scary enough that “do not touch” signs were not a necessity. There was also some confusion early in the day when we pulled over at a sign labeled “Sulfur Cauldron” and encountered a coned-off vent sending a wisp of steam up from the asphalt, but things were clarified quickly thereafter when we realized there was a MASSIVE sulfur spring sending plumes of steam skyward just a few hundred feet away.

Despite the fact that we’re seeing most of the wildlife from a car traveling on a paved road, one of the great things about Yellowstone is that when you’re here you feel like you’re seeing America as it existed 150 years ago. The trees haven’t been logged, there aren’t roads, mines or buildings off in the distance, and the ecosystem is more-or-less what’s it’s supposed to be. While three million visitors each year obviously means that the “pristine” feel is somewhat of an illusion, it’s nevertheless quite inspiring to get at least a glimpse back in time at something that is otherwise mostly gone forever.

The Loon of Lewis Lake

Posted from Old Faithful Inn, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming at 8:13 pm, September 8th, 2013

We woke up in the Tetons and Audrey and I are now sitting on the third floor of the Old Faithful Inn lobby under the 92-foot high log ceiling and with its 500-ton, 85-foot tall stone fireplace as our view; life could be worse.

The great vacation of 2013 truly got underway today with a meandering drive through the forests, canyons and mountains of Yellowstone and up to the geyser basins, where Audrey and I made a pilgrimage to the Grand Prismatic Spring. The overlook we hiked to isn’t on the maps, but also apparently isn’t a place that the park discourages visiting, and while she wasn’t happy with me initially after forcing her to hike up the steep hillside (no swearing was involved, but if looks could kill then this journal entry would have been written from the other side of the clouds), Audrey later admitted that the views of this unbelievable natural feature were most definitely worth the exertion.

It’s been a while since I’ve had an extended period to just go out and meander in nature, and the following days should be a much-needed chance to refresh the soul – I can’t (and shouldn’t) complain about my work situation, but day after day in front of a laptop doesn’t always leave a person feeling like they are living life to its fullest. Tomorrow’s plans for soul restoration include searching for animals on the east side of the park – aside from a lone bison the beasties have been surprisingly elusive thus far. A late afternoon thunderstorm cut the day short today, but tomorrow the weather forecast is for sun and the plan is to head to Hayden Valley, so photos of critters should accompany future journal entries.

Grand Prismatic Spring

Grand Prismatic Spring – we had a much more dramatic and complete view than the (tiny) people on the boardwalk at its edge.


Posted from Jackson Hole Airport, Wyoming at 8:35 pm, September 7th, 2013

Audrey sent me an email this morning asking if my lodging last night “had wheels”. Yes, yes it did. And it also had an awesome view of the stars through the car’s moonroof.

The beginning of the vacation was delayed for a bit when word came in that the company’s web site was crashing, and since crashes are bad I stayed at the office to help resolve the situation until about 7PM Friday night. This issue occurred while Bodybuilding was celebrating the grand opening of their new headquarters, so the joy of dealing with a site issue was enhanced by having visitors and their many children roaming the office. Once the problem was finally found I headed out to my rental car, and I won’t be writing or thinking about work again for two weeks.

Audrey is flying into Jackson Hole to meet me, so I drove down from Boise to pick her up and am currently writing this from the airport parking lot. The stops along the way were myriad – the route from Boise to Jackson is a pretty drive – but the most notable stop was at Craters of the Moon National Monument, where some improvised spelunking was done (improvised = me, a Maglite, and no idea what I was doing). There are four lava tubes open for exploration, but Boy Scout Cave was the day’s winner. The entrance to that cave is a squeeze around boulders, but the cave then opens up and extends for several hundred feet. It’s cold enough to see your breath, there are tiny crystals on the walls, and when I shut off my flashlight the darkness was so complete that eventually my brain started manufacturing flashes of light that didn’t actually exist. Starting the trip off in a cave while experiencing trippy mental mirages seems like winning strategy.

Tomorrow we’ll begin our five days in Yellowstone, so odds are that a photo of an animal or two may be forthcoming.

Craters of the Moon landscape

Craters of the Moon landscape. Because lava is hard to photograph I took pictures of flowers with lava far, far away in the background.

Self-portrait in Beauty Cave

Outside of the entrance to Beauty Cave. I go on vacations and spelunk and stuff.

Giving Immunity Necklaces to Legislators

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:30 pm, August 31st, 2013

I enjoy following politics, and enjoy looking back at old journal entries about political issues, but I also try to avoid writing too much about politics in this journal since it’s a subject that tends to evoke a visceral reaction in a lot of people. People have strong opinions on a lot of subjects, but politics and religion seem to be the two subjects where differences of opinion too often lead to arguments rather than discussions.

That caveat aside, this journal entry is a hopefully non-controversial, and very random, brainstorm of one possible way to address the fact that Congress seems to be making a mess of things. It’s not really a viable solution, but is a fun thought experiment that might generate further (civil) discussion on how to improve the current system.

Some background

The upcoming deadlines for passing a budget (important!) and raising the debt limit (much, much, MUCH more important!) are two highly visible instances where Congress seems to be unable to do even its most basic job. After reading this Josh Barro article I’m not as worried that Congress will fail to raise the debt limit and thus plunge us back into economic chaos similar to 2008, but the fact that one has to worry whether the US government will endanger the US economy is a sign of significant problems with the current system. Our Congress should be an example of the best and brightest minds coming together to do great things, rather than a collection of angry people fighting with one another while barely managing to keep the system functional.

As an engineer, any time there is a problem I wonder how it could be fixed. Following standard engineering practices, the first thing to do is to identify the primary source of the problem. After not-nearly-enough thought, I would posit that the US Constitution did a great job of building in checks and balances to our system of government, but it failed to account for political parties, much less a two-party system that incentivizes “supporting the team” over focusing on the merits of specific issues. There are other issues (money in politics, difficulties in scaling representative democracy for a nation that has grown hundreds of times larger, etc), but a very strong argument can be made that it is the tribalism of the two-party system that is most often the impediment to a smooth-running legislative process.

The Ryan Plan

To solve this issue, some reward would need to be introduced to ensure that the most effective, respected lawmakers are focused first and foremost on making the government run well, and that they are rewarded more for being good legislators than they are for being good party members. Note that while elections are supposed to fulfill that purpose, unfortunately our system is heavily impacted by voter apathy, the influence of money, name recognition, and other factors that have little to do with a legislator’s competency. Since the premise of this journal entry is that any option is open for discussion, and reminding anyone still reading that I haven’t had a ton of time to think this through, I offer a plan that allows the best legislators to face re-election less often. This plan is very loosely inspired by another dysfunctional tribal system: that of the TV show Survivor.

Proceeding from the premise that the incentives for lawmakers are too far skewed towards promoting their party interests, any solution must provide an even greater incentive for putting aside party interests in cases where they conflict with the national interests. Since politicians are most interested in their own re-election, why not take a page out of Survivor and its “immunity” challenges and reward the most effective lawmakers with another term without having to face re-election? In both Congress and Survivor, what individuals fear most is being voted off the island, and thus immunity from ejection is the biggest incentive one can possibly offer.

How it would work:

First, some broad principles. This proposal should be created in a way that ensures legislators still have to go before voters, but it would allow the most effective legislators to do so less often. Second, it needs to be structured in such a way that “most effective” really does mean legislators who do the best job of legislating, rather than simply rewarding those with the longest tenure or highest party rank; in the same way that rankings are developed for schools, doctors, and myriad other things, we should be able to identify and reward the best lawmakers. With those disclaimers out of the way, here are some rough thoughts on how this proposal could work:

  • Each election cycle a non-partisan office (similar to the CBO) would be responsible for creating a nomination list of the most effective legislators, with the list to include 30% of the legislators up for re-election, divided in proportion to party. As an example, for the 2014 election that would mean:
      Democrats up for re-election Democrats to be nominated Republicans up for re-election Republicans to be nominated
    House 201 201 * 0.3 = 60 234 234 * 0.3 = 70
    Senate 21 21 * 0.3 = 6 14 14 * 0.3 = 4

    Factors to consider when developing this list might include things like the legislator’s effectiveness in passing legislation, the legislator’s approval ratings in their district, their ability to find innovative solutions to legislative problems, etc.

  • From those candidates identified by the non-partisan office, each house of Congress would then be responsible for narrowing down the list by a further one-third (representing 20% of the legislators up for re-election), again in proportion to party.
      Democrats up for re-election Democrats exempt from re-election Republicans up for re-election Republicans exempt from re-election
    House 201 201 * 0.2 = 40 234 234 * 0.2 = 46
    Senate 21 21 * 0.2 = 4 14 14 * 0.2 = 3

    The final list would need to be a compromise arrived at by both parties, and would need to pass with a two-thirds majority to ensure there was broad support from both parties. This process would ensure that the parties still had some say in approving or rejecting individuals that were of particular interest.

  • A Senator could not be exempt from re-election for two election cycles in a row, so even the best Senator would still have to face re-election each twelve years. A House member could not be exempt from re-election for three election cycles in a row, so a stellar House member would still face re-election every six years.
  • A recall process could be set up for cases where voters in a district were unhappy with this process, although the need for a recall should be very, very rare if the non-partisan office did its job correctly.

There are clear holes in this proposal, and the logistical challenges of trying to implement it make it almost impossible – a Constitutional amendment would be needed, and undoubtedly groups would complain about reducing the “voice of the people” – but if it was implemented it would lessen the reward for legislators who merely complain the loudest, and give legislators a chance to actually earn re-election by building coalitions to get solutions implemented. As a side benefit, the best legislators would need to spend less time fundraising and campaigning, and could instead focus on doing their jobs as lawmakers. With less need to focus on fundraising, this approach might also help to address some of the issues related to money in politics, although any such impact would likely be limited and would probably be better addressed via legislation.

This proposal is just a random idea that occurred to me while trying to come up with a third journal entry topic, and was a fun way to engage in political discussion while (hopefully) not offending anyone’s sensibilities. I’d be interested in other crazy ideas that people might have, and will offer two bonus points for anyone who can link their idea with a popular TV show or movie, or three bonus points if the movie is Forrest Gump. Meanwhile, unless October comes and the debt ceiling isn’t raised, this should be my last political post for a while and I’ll return to writing journal entries about bobcats and Steve Martin.

August Recap Part 2

Posted from Culver City, California at 11:03 pm, August 28th, 2013

Following the wedding, the concert, and the working, August got a bit more nature-y.

Aaron had two bobcat sightings on Mt. Diablo recently, and since I didn’t want to be the only Holliday child not to see a bobcat in 2013 we did a couple of twilight hikes during the Bay Area visit. After some turkeys, bats and a few deer, the bobcat made an appearance on the trail ahead of us. You haven’t seen an annoyed cat until you interrupt a bobcat on his nightly rounds, but despite the attitude we were both pretty stoked at the find. The next night we took another hike in the same place, and while the bobcat stayed hidden the turkeys and bats were out again, and we also managed to spot a skunk and a tarantula. With Aaron having spotted the tarantula (two points) I negotiated for five points if I could get it to walk across my hand. The evening’s final score: Ryan 6, Aaron 3.

With a full weekend available for the drive home, the trip back to LA was via the scenic route. I’ve done a lot of road trips through the Sierras, but after scanning the map realized I’d never been through Sonora Pass and set off for the second-highest mountain pass in the Sierra Nevadas. It’s been far too long since this grown man slept in the back of a car, so after a late-afternoon bushwhack up a small peak the evening was spent sprawled out at high elevation in an automobile. The next morning the road led over the Sierras and to the ghost town of Bodie. During the gold rush days Bodie was a den of sin and hard-living, but today the sin has mostly gone elsewhere and the California park service maintains the town in a state of “arrested decay”. Another man might have walked through the deserted streets pretending to be a cowboy, but I’m 37 and clearly too mature for such shenanigans.

After leaving the ghosts the highway led to Mono Lake, and beyond that a pilgrimage was made to Galen Rowell’s Mountain Light photo gallery in Bishop; his photos are some of my favorites of all time. After that it was a straight shot south to LA, but Mother Nature intervened to make things interesting – a dust storm brought visibility down to almost nothing for a short time, and that was immediately followed by a lightning storm that struck a town next to the highway, setting something ablaze. Lightning has been rare during my time in California, so to not only see a huge storm but to also see it set a fire was pretty insane.

There are two weeks of vacation scheduled for September, so journal entries should be plentiful as Audrey and I head out on a couple of (brief) adventures, and provided UPS delivers on time they will be done with a new camera in hand.

Bristlecone Pine near Sonora Pass

I decided to do some hiking in the high mountains, and pulled off the road by a smallish granite dome. My trailblazing was less-than-impressive, and I emerged three hours later with cut feet, torn pants, and this photo.

Bodie Ghost Town in the Eastern Sierra

The ghost town of Bodie. The park guide notes that “by 1879 Bodie boasted a population of about 10,000 and was second to none for wickedness, badmen, and ‘the worst climate out of doors’“.

Mono Lake Tufa Towers

The tufa towers of Mono Lake. These should be underwater, but diversions for the city of LA have dropped the level of Mono Lake by more than thirty feet.

August Recap Part 1

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:08 pm, August 27th, 2013

As expected, August was a month of much excitement. So much excitement, in fact, that it warrants two entries for the summary, which is a good thing given that it’s the 27th and I still need to write three entries to meet the monthly quota.

The previously mentioned wedding in Santa Barbara was all kinds of fancy, but your humble author was most impressed by the five red-headed woodpeckers hanging out in the palm trees above the bridal party. Another highlight was watching a bunch of engineers on the dance floor – after some unfortunate experiences in my early twenties I’ve learned that dance music and engineering degrees should never be combined, so Audrey and I stayed on the sidelines and enjoyed observing the carnival of awkwardness. Luckily we also got a few minutes to catch up with my very, very busy former roommate and his new bride, something that numerous wedding guests agreed is extremely tough to do these days given his other commitments.

Speaking of all kinds of awesome, Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers was an insanely good concert – if they are playing anywhere near you then you should most definitely go to there and see the things. After an opening by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band featuring their giant, prancing tuba player, Steve Martin took the stage. When you start off by bragging about how you’re going to perform a song “that you have completely memorized”, and follow that up with some ridiculously good bluegrass, amazing harmonies, and grammy winning band, you’ve got my attention. Bring in Edie Brickell to sing some songs with lyrics so poignant that all the girls cried, and then strum the banjo at about a million miles an hour, and Ryan is a happy boy.

The month of many events continued with a trip up to the Bay Area for a week working from Berkeley. In addition to single-handedly reducing the productivity of all of my co-workers by at least thirty percent during our office hours, the group headed out on the Bay for a cruise from Berkeley to Tiburon, past the Golden Gate, along the San Francisco waterfront, and then under the new Bay Bridge. While a romantic cruise with a bunch of software engineers isn’t something that’s on my bucket list, it was still a really great evening.

Bay Bridge Self-anchored Self-Suspension Span

This is either a neat photo of the soon-to-be-opened self-anchored suspension span of the new Bay Bridge, or a really, really terrible picture of the moon over San Francisco Bay.

Photos of Iceland

Posted from Boise, Idaho at 11:08 pm, July 31st, 2013

Five years ago this month my dad and I were in Iceland taking pretty pictures of pretty things. I’ve still not managed to process most of the photos from that trip, much less get them online in a gallery, but here are a few that seemed nice to look at as I was browsing through them tonight.

Waterfall on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Lesson #1 on this trip was that rain and generally crappy weather (both of which Iceland provides in large quantities) is ideal for photographing moving water.

Skip on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula

The Skipper modelling typical Icelandic beachwear.

Razorbills at Latrabjarg

Razorbills at Latrabjarg.

July 2013

Posted from Boise, Idaho at 10:05 pm, July 29th, 2013

Here’s the recap for the month:

  • Audrey is in charge of the 4th of July (I get Thanksgiving), and this year decided to invite the neighbors over for a barbecue before walking down to the Marina for fireworks. Despite a marine layer that partially obscured the fireworks it was a decidedly fun evening, and especially cool since we live close enough to walk to the Marina and thus avoid the horrid traffic.
  • Audrey’s next big social event was getting everyone together to go to the Hollywood Bowl. In an effort to promote culture without confusing me completely we attended the latest incarnation of the LA Philharmonic showing Bugs Bunny cartoons while playing the music live. Beyond seeing “Kill da Wabbit” performed by a world-renowned orchestra, a highlight of the night occurred during the national anthem when the four professional singers and four choir members in our group belted out an impromptu harmony, causing those seated nearby to begin looking around to find out where the singing was coming from, and to then offer an ovation when the last note was sung. Incidentally, the Hollywood Bowl is another place that will eventually make it onto my list of reasons why LA can be a pretty awesome place to live.
  • The month concluded with some friends getting married. While at most weddings having groomsmen in full Scottish attire would have been the best part of the event, for this wedding the highlight was the music. Since they’re both singers a significant portion of their friends are also singers, so in lieu of wedding gifts they asked people to sing at the wedding. The wedding choir included somewhere around fifty people who perform in everything from church choirs to the LA Master Chorale, and after three rehearsals the result was a performance of eight(?) amazing pieces of music; it may have been the most impressive musical event I’ve ever seen in a church.

Things should stay lively through August, with a work trip to Boise this week, a wedding in Santa Barbara this weekend, another trip to the Bowl next week, and numerous other hopefully-journal-worthy activities throughout the month.

Bugs Bunny at the Hollywood Bowl

You don’t get classier than a live orchestra, the Hollywood Bowl, a beautiful evening, and Elmer Fudd.

A Day in the Life

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:27 pm, July 23rd, 2013

During every notable vacation I try hard to do a daily journal entry, but at home few days are exciting enough to warrant their own entry. However, having just read through some journal entries from about ten years ago, writing one entry that captures a snapshot of what daily life is like right now might be an interesting thing to re-read many years from now. Warning to those who continue reading: currently daily life really doesn’t warrant its own journal entry.

  • Today the alarm went off at 7:30, at which time I crawled out of bed and wandered into the kitchen, firing up the two laptops sitting on the table. The birds were making a racket outside, Audrey was still asleep, and the morning news wasn’t making much sense pre-coffee.
  • At 8:00 the workday started with a daily status call. With the rest of the bodybuilding.com team on speakerphone I stumbled through an update on yesterday’s progress and today’s plans, after which I settled in for the workday.
  • With the coffee beginning to clear out the brain fog it was time to start on the day’s tasks. The morning involved helping people out with a random series of issues (loading some test data on a machine, answering some questions, chasing an issue in production for the business) and reviewing and testing some new code I’d written that changes the logic in the site’s shopping cart. The latter task required a fair amount of focus, since a screw-up could very well lead to revenue being lost in quantities that I can barely begin to fathom; with great power comes great responsibility.
  • Another status call followed, with the highlight being a quick discussion about “snacks on the catamaran”. After that it was a quick rush out to Tender Greens to grab a salad and sandwich (and a homemade pop tart because I couldn’t resist the impulse dessert). I got back just in time to call in to a meeting while simultaneously responding to three different people’s questions in various chat windows.
  • The afternoon was mostly filled with reviewing documentation and code related to the multi-language search capabilities of the ATG software that this project uses. In layman’s terms, I read a lot of PDFs, searched through code, and pestered teammates in an effort to build a plan for allowing someone in Brazil to search the site for “proteína em pó”.
  • After yet another meeting, the day finished up with a series of failed attempts to reproduce a bug that has been seen intermittently in the QA environments. In this case I got to play scientist, proposing a theory of what might be going wrong, figuring out a way to test that theory via creation of specific data or code changes, and then going back to square one when my theory didn’t pan out. I am not a good scientist.
  • Work was followed by an excessively long nap – one of the neighborhood dogs has a lovely deep baritone bark that carries forever, and has taken up the hobby of barking non-stop for 5-10 minutes every two hours on random nights. Apparently my sleep schedule has gone all wonky as a result.
  • A ride on my Lance Armstrong stationary bike while catching up on the day’s news and then crashing in the living room to write a journal entry concluded the activities for today. Around midnight it will be time for bed, with the cycle starting again tomorrow morning.

After spending much of 2002-2005 playing, it has now been about eight years of working steadily. While work days pay well, as this journal entry demonstrates they are slightly less fulfilling than those spent trekking around the Antartic or snorkeling in the Galapagos.

A Journal Entry About SPACESHIPS!!!!

Posted from Culver City, California at 11:50 am, June 30th, 2013

It’s not a secret that I think Elon Musk’s three companies (SpaceX, Tesla Motors and Solar City) are three of the most exciting businesses out there, and that each is likely to radically change the world for the better. Enough has been written about Tesla lately, but two items of great excitement with respect to SpaceX haven’t gotten a ton of attention.

First is their efforts towards a more reusable rocket. As Elon Musk has put it, space travel today is comparable to airline travel if you had to throw away the plane after each trip – most of the reason that space launches are so expensive is that you either don’t get the vehicle back after launch (most rockets), or when you do it takes so much work to get it back into flight-worthy condition that there isn’t any cost savings (the space shuttle). SpaceX originally planned on recovering their rockets in the ocean using parachutes, but when that proved infeasible they moved to a vertical takeoff and landing model. Here’s a video of a test of SpaceX’s ten story take-off and landing vehicle rising 250 meters into the air, then landing vertically. They’ll be testing this system on actual rockets returning from space starting later this year, with a goal of being able to reliably land and re-use the rocket in a few years time.

Second, they are planning on a test launch of their new Falcon Heavy vehicle in the coming year. If you need to put 117,000 pounds into low earth orbit, this will be the only vehicle that can do it, and combined with its lower launch costs could create all sorts of new options for satellites (for comparison, the Delta IV Heavy is the current largest rocket on the market, and it can carry around 50,000 pounds). Even more exciting, this will be the first rocket since the Saturn V moon rocket with that amount of power.

It’s sad that after advancing from airplanes to moon rockets in under two decades our exploration of space has seemed to stagnate for fifty years, but it’s hugely exciting to be on the precipice of another major evolution of travel beyond the planet’s atmosphere.

Who, What, When, Where

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:30 pm, June 27th, 2013

Here’s all that’s new since the last status update:

  • Proving that at age thirty-seven I am truly a grown up, I called a plumber and got a new water heater installed after the old one died. No nineteen year old is even thinking of hot water heaters, much less bugging the installer with stupid questions about efficiency and reliability as he’s installing it.
  • Audrey and I actually went out and saw TWO movies in one month, which may be a record. Reviews: Star Trek was excellent entertainment, and I even got to make a starfleet insignia and wear it so that Audrey could brag about how cool I was. Man of Steel was average. I wanted it to be great, and you could see how much potential there was in what they were going for with the whole “what is my place in the world” thing, but I never really felt like I cared that much about any of the characters, and as a result it didn’t really matter who was super-punching who at any given moment. Hopefully this series is like Batman, where a lackluster first film is merely setup for an amazing second film.
  • In another stunning example of grownup behavior Audrey and I joined some friends for a fancy dinner at the Getty Museum (side note: the Getty will be near the top of the eventual “great things in LA” list). Despite being a high-end restaurant, there was only one fork to deal with so the meal was completed without any truly embarrassing mistakes.
  • Our friend Greg, who was an early buyer of the Tesla Model-S, invited us to join him at Tesla’s recent announcement about battery swapping. The event was set up like a party, with lights, drinks, many hundreds of well-heeled attendees, and techo music blaring (comment from JB: “I keep telling Elon to let up on the techno but he loves that shit”). The main event was an Apple-style demonstration of a Tesla driving up on stage, the battery pack being automatically replaced from underneath, and the car driving off fully-charged ninety seconds later. I’ve posted about why I’m so impressed with Tesla’s engineering and strategy before, but it will be interesting to see what the next reason people come up with to disparage them will be now that the “no one wants to wait thirty minutes to charge the car during a roadtrip” issue has been addressed.
  • Finally, following the monthly pilgrimage to Boise, we met some friends for a birthday celebration at Mar Vista Lanes. The music and disco lights came on at ten, and while I may have scored the most points, the clear winner of the evening was Brett and his magical (and intoxicating) bowling dancing. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a man in a Green Lantern shirt perform a two minute routine to disco that culminates in a gutter ball. Hopefully a video will someday show up online.

Bouillabaisse at the Getty

A very fancy plate of bouillabaisse at the very fancy restaurant at the Getty, with my super fruity cocktail in the background.

Star Trek Into Darkness

Only the coolest movie-goers wear homemade Star Trek insignias to see the show.

Still Innocent

Posted from Boise, Idaho at 9:39 pm, June 12th, 2013

“If you want to know why Americans remain leery of government, it’s because of this combination of power and incompetence.”
Andrew Sullivan

I recently received papers in the mail notifying me that I was being sued (again). This new case was completely unrelated to the prior debacle, so it is clear that in a past life I was an evil lawyer and in this life I’m getting my comeuppance. The timeline of events for this latest comedy of errors went something like the following:

  • Mail arrived stating that in thirty days I would be served papers for a lawsuit filed by LA County against me over failure to pay child support. To be clear: unless I was lied to during those awkward classes in junior high, there is absolutely zero possibility of any Ryan Juniors being out there. The letter attached to the legal documents offered the helpful option of being able to come into their office to pick up the court papers should I wish to avoid the potential embarrassment of being served in public.
  • I called the contact number provided to try to figure out what was going on, and was sent to an automated number asking me if I was the parent of a child. Upon answering “no” I was transferred to the line for lawyers. Upon stating that I wasn’t a lawyer I was transferred to the line for parents and asked for my support number (which I didn’t have). After five minutes of this I was eventually transferred to the LA County call center where an actual human picked up.
  • The woman on the other end of the line asked me for my support number (which I still didn’t have), and then asked why I was calling if I didn’t have a support number. I told her I did have a stack of papers telling me that LA County was suing me; she put me on hold.
  • When she picked up again she asked for my social security number, entered it into her system, told me it wasn’t on file, and then paused as if waiting for me to respond. I was a bit confused – I didn’t really care that my social security number wasn’t on file, nor did I really know what it meant to have the number on file or not, so I assured her that this really was my social security number and always had been.
  • With a failure to get anywhere based on social security number, I told her that there was a court case number on the legal documents I had received and read that to her. Doing so apparently opened up some magic on her end, and she then asked me to repeat my name. After more confusion she suggested that “this might be a case of mistaken identity” and that she would note this in the file. Since I had no access to the file, but I did have a massive pile of documents letting me know that I would be found guilty and be forced to pay monthly child support if I didn’t appear in court, I asked what this meant. She said that it meant someone would look at the file.
  • After I noted that the legal papers stated that I had thirty days to resolve the situation, she assured me that someone would be in touch soon; it was fairly clear that there was no more that she was going to do. I ended the call by asking if there was a way to call directly without having to navigate the convoluted automated menus; she assured me that there was not.
  • Twenty-five days later I hadn’t heard from anyone, so I called again, spent five minutes navigating the horrible phone system, and finally got to talk to a real person. She asked me for my support number (which I still didn’t have). I politely let her know that when I had called before I was told this was a case of mistaken identity and that I had a court case number that she could use; she then put me on hold and hung up.
  • Five minutes, no support number, and a different person later, and I started off by saying that I didn’t have a support number but that LA County was suing me, and gave her the court case number. She told me that the file was flagged for review and asked if there was anything else she could help with. I let her know that the legal papers I had been given indicated that I had thirty days to resolve the situation, and that the thirty days was nearly up; she let me know that the file was flagged for review, there was nothing more that anyone could do, and that “sometimes they don’t begin court action at exactly thirty days”. I was not reassured.
  • A week later I got a call from an unrecognized number, which resulted in a voicemail letting me know that my case was being reviewed and that I should call them back. I called back immediately, and the phone then rang for two minutes with neither a human nor voicemail picking up.
  • Two hours later I received another call from an unrecognized number and I picked up immediately. The guy on the line indicated that I was being given three days to resolve the situation, cited the court case number, and then asked me for every bit of personal information I have – social security number, mother’s maiden name, driver’s license number, etc. Immediately after getting off the call I checked all of my bank accounts and credit cards, just in case I was the victim of an elaborate con.
  • Shockingly, four days later a two-sentence letter arrived stating that the case in question appeared to be a case of mistaken identity, and ominously that I should keep a copy of the letter should it be needed as proof in future cases.

While this case was resolved, it could have easily gone much, much worse – an immensely powerful bureaucratic apparatus was randomly pointed at me, and I had basically no means available to do anything about it. I heard a much more extreme example of this on the radio the other day where a woman was sent to jail for seventeen years for a crime she didn’t commit, and even after being exonerated she remained in jail for an additional four and a half months while paperwork made its way through the system. Luckily I didn’t face anything even remotely comparable, but both stories illustrate how this powerful and impersonal behemoth can so easily go horribly wrong.

One final caveat: government does many things, and it does a surprising number of them very well – millions of people get their social security checks on time, the national parks are fairly well run, elections almost always go off smoothly, and the FAA directs thousands of planes from point A to point B each day without incident. However, given the nearly limitless ability of the bureaucracy to disrupt our lives, and the fact that often no individual piece of it really seems to care about much else besides passing you on to someone else, it is very easy to understand why so many of us wish the whole apparatus was stripped down to bare bones. I have spent long periods of time going from desk to desk at City Hall to obtain a “business license” so that I could work from home. We’ve all stood in line for hours at the DMV just to be told that some form was filled out wrong. And the theater of the TSA at airports, where one can’t even wear shoes anymore, is enough to make you want to scream out at the idiocy of it all. One can only hope that some day we’ll figure out how to run things better, or at least figure out a way to allow people to call LA County child services without first spending five mind-numbing minutes navigating an automated phone tree only to eventually be sent to an agent who is incredulous at the idea of anyone calling them without being able to provide a support number.