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

Profoundly Strange

Posted from Culver City, California at 6:30 pm, December 30th, 2019

The 2019 Man Trip concluded today after visiting some places I’ve wanted to see for a while. The day started with a trip to the Salton Sea, a place whose weirdness I described after my first visit in 2005. After roaming through empty lots in Salton City I made my way to Salvation Mountain and Slab City. Salvation Mountain is an artwork/ode to God that covers an entire hillside. It was made from clay and thousands of gallons of paint, and its creation took decades for a single man to complete. In an address to Congress regarding Salvation Mountain, Senator Barbara Boxer described it as “profoundly strange”, which is as good of a summary as any.

As odd as Salvation Mountain was, it paled in comparison to the nearby “town” of Slab City. I had first learned of this location from the book Into the Wild and have wanted to see it ever since. My best description is that it’s a bit like what you would expect if Burning Man was a town populated by people without any money. Every winter RVs converge on this spot in the desert, and folks settle in for the season, bringing a commune-like existence that is combined with equal measures of art, libertarianism, and plain old crazy. I spent ten minutes talking to one resident about conspiracy theories he’d heard on the internet, drove by an RV that was decorated in doll heads, and passed numerous spots that showed inspiration that might have put Andy Warhol to shame. All in all I left certain that this was the strangest place I’ve ever visited, and I’d actually like to go back again some day; my new conspiracy-sharing friend might have inspired a future visit when he noted: “there’s music every Saturday night, although if you come in the summer there are only three singers who perform the same five songs.”

From Slab City it was a roundabout route home, passing through Anza Borrego desert, into the mountains, through Temecula, and back to my home with a short detour to SpaceX headquarters to see the rocket, since it was on the way and rockets are awesome. Now I’ve got a couple of days of showers and warm beds to allow me to fully decompress before returning to work again.

Salvation Mountain
Often with art it can be difficult to determine what the artist’s message is supposed to be; it is fair to say that the message behind Salvation Mountain is not hard to decipher.

Shower Time

Posted from Indio, California at 6:30 pm, December 29th, 2019

I woke up just before sunrise a few miles from the Kelso Dunes, and started the day with a hike up the dunes to take in the Mojave National Preserve from above; not a terrible way to start a day.

Continuing this trip’s theme of visiting new places, I headed south from Mojave to Route 66 and the town of Amboy (population: 4), which is apparently located next to a massive volcanic cone, a huge lava field, and a giant dry lakebed that is now a chloride mine. Who knew that combination existed? Heading south from there I eventually got to Joshua Tree National Park, which is apparently WAY more popular than it was when I last visited a decade ago. Watching people park on the roads, walk off trail, and generally disregard all park rules I was reminded how much the other humans stress me out, so I found a mostly-empty lot next to a trailhead and hiked up Porcupine Wash until the only reminder that other people inhabit this planet was the sound of planes overhead.

Tonight I was actually debating heading home to take a shower, but decided that was nuts since I so rarely get time to take a road trip, so I sprung for a hotel room, washed several layers of stink and pain off in the shower, and will sleep in a warm, comfortable bed for the first time in a few days before getting up early to conclude this little adventure tomorrow.

Self-portrait, Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve
Self-portrait, Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve. Starting the day alone on a dune several hundred feet above the desert floor is not a bad way to live.
Cactus Detail, Mojave National Preserve
Cactus Detail, Mojave National Preserve.

Driving Through Rivers

Posted from Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve at 8:15 pm, December 28th, 2019

Day two of the man-trip. I got up just before sunrise and headed up to Zabriskie Point to enjoy the start of the day, then took the 4.5 mile Gower Gulch trail through Golden Canyon to enjoy some alone time on a trail that I’ve never hiked before. From there I took the West Side Road south towards the park exit, a rough dirt route that travels 36 miles around the Badwater Salt Flats and provides a less-traveled alternative to the main park road. I had been warned by a ranger that the road might be in poor shape following recent storms, but after an hour and a half I’d made it almost back to the main highway without encountering any issues, only to discover the normally-underground Amagorosa River flowing across the road. The water only looked like it was about six inches deep, so I rolled the dice that I wouldn’t get stuck in mud and roared through it, luckily emerging unscathed at the other side.

My original plan for this trip had been to roam around the northern part of the park, but since storms apparently made a mess of the backcountry roads I instead decided to leave the park and head south, ending up in Mojave National Preserve for the night. The Milky Way is shining overhead, but surprisingly the lights of LA (150 miles west) are hiding stars on the western horizon, while the lights of Las Vegas (100 miles east) fill the opposite horizon.

Zabriskie Point at Sunrise, Death Valley National Park
Zabriskie Point at Sunrise, Death Valley National Park.

Airplanes, Sheep & T-Shirts

Posted from Furnace Creek, Death Valley National Park at 7:00 pm, December 27th, 2019

After missing out on my annual post-Christmas road trip last year, I managed to procure a week off to embark on what Audrey calls the “man trip”. These trips are always spontaneous, and since Aaron and I wanted to get lunch together the day after Christmas, this year’s trip started in Sacramento and continued to just outside of Reno before day one came to a close. Today was day two, and things really got going:

  • I woke up at about 6:30 and made my way over to Tesla’s Gigafactory where I got a view of what will eventually be the world’s largest building.
  • From there I headed southeast and saw what I assume were wild horses up on a ridge. I have no idea how to distinguish wild horses from domestic horses, but if this was a domestic herd then they were roaming unfenced grasslands miles away from the nearest ranch.
  • A dot on the map had caught my eye when I set out – “Naval Air Station Fallon” – and after detouring to see what was there I got to watch fighter planes take off and land from just beyond the end of the runway. Since it makes perfect sense that a naval air station would be located next to 5,000 year old petroglyphs I also got to see prehistoric rock art in between fighter launches.
  • Continuing south along rural Nevada 95, I hit Walker Lake, the remnants of 8,500 square mile prehistoric Lake Lahontan. It was at this point that a herd of desert bighorn sheep showed up near the road, so the next hour was spent making their acquaintance.
  • Just south of the lake was the massive Hawthorne Army Depot – apparently the world’s largest ammo depot. There were literally miles of bunkers across the valley floor.
  • By this point it was only noon. It was inevitable that the day would slow a bit, and most of the remainder was spent meandering south through old mining towns that littered the wide open expanses of Nevada. I passed a herd of what I assume were wild burros at one point, and arrived near sunset at Death Valley.
  • After arriving at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center to buy a new park pass I saw a kid standing outside with a shirt that read “I paused my video game to be here”; it’s unclear if he was just a cool kid or if he has parents with an awesome sense of humor.
  • Sadly a storm came through Death Valley yesterday and made many of the more interesting roads impassable, so instead of spending the night alone up on a ridge under the stars, I’m in a campground sharing this incredible view of the Milky Way with a hundred other folks who I can only hope will recognize that quiet hours start at 9.
Desert Bighorn near Walker Lake, Nevada
As always seems to happen with bighorn, I was looking at every tiny detail in the high cliffs on the west side of the road when a herd popped up ten feet from the eastern side of the highway.

Reasons for Optimism

Posted from Culver City, California at 6:56 pm, December 15th, 2019

Every day while I’m working, one of the neighbors passes by our house walking his dog. The reason this event is worth noting is because the dog is now too old to walk, so the the owner has built a wooden platform on wheels and pulls the dog up and down the street, presumably so that the dog still gets the joy of being outside. It’s a nice daily reminder that there are an infinite amount of amazing acts of kindness that happen on this earth, most of which go completely unnoticed. Humans are hard-wired to pick up on negativity and to react more strongly to bad experiences, but I really believe that there is far more to be hopeful about in this world than there is to despair over.

A few more random items that inspire hopefulness:

  • In December 2017, a billionaire couple from Redding, California purchased 24,364 acres of pristine California coast near Santa Barbara for $165 million and donated it to the Nature Conservancy. The land is on Point Conception, which is where the California coast bends eastward, a meeting point of ocean currents that is an exceptionally productive ecosystem. Anyone who has driven the Central Coast knows that it is one of the most beautiful places on earth, and now a large chunk is guaranteed to stay that way forever.
  • After being eradicated from California in the 1920s, gray wolves have been returning to the state since 2011, and there is now a breeding pack of wolves living near Mount Lassen that has been dubbed the Lassen Pack. The tiny pack consists of only 2 adults, 1 yearling, and 4 pups. While the pack travels widely enough that they may eventually leave the state again, at least for now California is home to an animal that was missing for almost one hundred years, and there is reason to believe that other packs will form here in the coming years.
  • Despite the current polarized political environment, in March of this year the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act became law with overwhelming bipartisan support, passing in the Senate 92-8, passing in the House 363-62, and getting signed by the President. While it does many things, highlights of this bill include wilderness protection for 1.3 million acres, expansion of eight national parks, the creation of four new national monuments, and permanent authorization for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The latter was perhaps the most important part of this bill, as the LWCF had lapsed in October 2018 due to opposition from a small number of legislators. With the fund now permanently authorized, about $900 million collected annually from offshore oil and gas leases is again available, and will remain available, to be used for everything from buying land for conservation to maintaining trails at existing sites. Since its original creation in 1965, money from this fund has been used in every single county in the country.
Good things happen all around us

The Andy Show

Posted from Isla Guadalupe, Mexico at 7:45 pm, September 29th, 2019

Unfortunately I was sick with a migraine yesterday, too nauseous to eat, and only able to make two trips to the cages in the morning before crawling back to bed; now that we’re heading back to Enseneda I’ve fully recovered. I managed to rally for one more dive this afternoon after the pounding in my head had reduced to where the thought of compressing my body in neoprene and descending underwater sounded only slightly terrifying, and while half the boat was a no-show for dinner due to rough seas I was ravenous after not eating anything yesterday, so overall being out of commission for a bit didn’t impact the trip too negatively.

Catching up on all of the action during the past few days, it was a really unique trip. We spent the entire three days in the same anchorage in a bay on Guadalupe. The boat is 130 feet long and has two surface cages and two additional cages that were lowered down 30 feet below the surface, but surprisingly the surface cages seemed to be more fun – there were usually two baits made of tuna heads or tails thrown from the back of the boat, and with the sharks going for them regularly the action was better closer to the surface. Over the two days we met several different sharks, but “Andy” was the star of the show. This 13-14 foot male was the alpha for the area, and he spent hours with us every day, to the point where Audrey started referring to the good dives as the “Andy show”, and cheered whenever he could grab one of the baits before one of the boat’s “shark wranglers” could yank it away. While it obviously would have been a dramatically different experience without cages, from the safety of a cage we were able to watch the sharks stalk the baits, interact with one another during the times where two or more sharks were at the boat, and also just kind of sit back and gasp every time a giant fish with rows of razor-sharp teeth swam by.

It’s gratifying, and a little bit terrifying, to know that places like this one exist in the world. Looking out from the top of the boat and seeing massive shadows and fins in the water is a reminder that Earth has a primordial and savage side that humans mostly don’t see anymore. It’s also gratifying to have gained that knowledge from behind the safety of reinforced steel cages.

Full-speed and slow-mo versions of a great white attacking the bait behind the boat. The sharks had all sorts of different attack strategies; this video shows the scariest one – hard and fast from directly underneath.

Our new friend Andy

Posted from Isla Guadalupe, Mexico at 6:10 pm, September 27th, 2019

Two takeaways from day one of shark diving:

  1. Seven hours in the water with great whites will reduce your core body temperature to scary places, even in a 7mm wetsuit. Clearly only an idiot would spend that much time in the water; I hope my internal organs eventually thaw.
  2. If a great white shark wants to eat you, you have no chance. Zero. After witnessing massive sharks appear out of nowhere to chomp bait, I can say with certainty that the only reason surfing is popular on the California coast is because the sharks choose to ignore the dudes riding waves.

Most of the time spent in the water today was awesome, but the last part of the day things got slow and the cages emptied out, so when Audrey and I climbed back in at 4:15 we had the water to ourselves and didn’t know the show that was in store. It was quiet for a bit, but when Andy the shark returned and started tearing bait apart and then smiling at us as he swam by, the day moved from memorable to unforgettable.

Andy the Shark
Andy in the background, terrified looking mackerel in the foreground.
Andy the Shark
In open water it’s hard to tell how big he is, but Andy was a healthy 14 feet long and put the other sharks on notice when he was around.

Guadalupe Island

Posted from Pacific Ocean en route to Isla Guadalupe, Mexico at 4:15 pm, September 26th, 2019

For the first time in far too long, the journal is actually going to have daily travel postings. We’re on the first day of a five day trip to Guadalupe Island, which if you’ve ever watched Discovery Channel’s Shark Week is where they get some of their best footage of great white sharks. The experience of seeing sharks leaping out of the water in South Africa was incredible, but we didn’t have much luck underwater. This time we’re staying on a boat that will be anchored at the island for three full days, the water should have about 150 feet of visibility, and the island is home to hundreds of sharks, including some of the biggest great white whites known to science.

I don’t want to jinx things, but with four cages in the water from 6:30 AM to 6:00 PM every day there should be a better than average chance of some fairly excellent photos and videos in the coming days.

Landscaping, Part 4: All the Plants

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:44 am, September 1st, 2019

Concluding the epic saga of our landscaping project (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3), in April 2019, after several years of figuring out what we wanted to do, and nearly five months after the crew arrived at our house to start work, we finally started putting plants in the ground.

Early on in our planning we made the decision that we wanted at least part of the yard to be landscaped with plants that were native to Los Angeles, since doing so was a (small) way to restore part of the ecosystem and make our yard more attractive to local wildlife. While many native plants have adapted the Southern California climate by evolving to look… “scrappy” might be a charitable description…. there are also a huge variety of natives that are beautiful, have amazing smells, provide some useful fruit, or in other ways make them great options for a yard. Stout Design Build brought in a native plant expert who created the initial planting plan, but when Tom had difficulty in finding some species, Audrey and I began doing our own research on Calscape and eventually made the trek out to the Theodore Payne Foundation nursery to get the species we wanted. I’ve never been much of a plant guy, but this process triggered a bunch of my brain’s happy spots – I love the idea of restoring nature, and solving the puzzle of “what plant would work in this spot with this type of soil, this amount of sun, this amount of water, etc” made the problem-solving parts of this engineer’s cerebral cortex light up. Audrey came home some days to find that I’d figured out that maybe two hundred plants matched what we wanted in a particular spot, and then systematically narrowed it down to about three options that were the best fits. Clearly, I’m not just a geek when it comes to computers.

To this point we’ve probably made five or six treks into the valley to visit Theodore Payne. Initially we made a trip to pick up some plants that Tom hadn’t been able to find at the nurseries he usually uses, and we’ve been going back as new opportunities arose. The original planting plan didn’t include any plants for the stream, so we researched practically every aquatic plant in California before heading to the nursery to buy serpentine night stream orchids, yerba mansa, scarlet columbines, and some fiberoptic grass. A few of the plants that went in initially didn’t survive, so they were replaced by a Jones’ bush mallow, a Julia Phelps lilac and chaparral currants. We swapped some non-native choices in the original plan with island morning glories, and procured some chaparral honeysuckle to cover the walls on the property line. If you’re in Los Angeles, consider giving Theodore Payne a visit – it’s neat learn about all of the different local plants, and I can vouch for the fact that the staff will cheerily put up with a million dumb questions.

Today the landscaping project is officially complete, but we’re continuing to make a few small tweaks here and there. Audrey has been out of town on a project in San Diego, but just as I’ve made the back more native, she has plans to make the front more “alien” when she returns. My days are now spent working with the doors and windows open so that I can hear Holliday Creek bubbling along, while the view is of birds and squirrels who are constantly around to eat whatever they can find and take a bath in the stream. Tom’s plan included two avocado trees and some native California grapes, so we’ve now got bunches of grapes ripening along the wall, and we had a few avocados growing before one of the local animals found them and made guacamole. While many of the plants will take a while to mature, a few have surprised us – an Island mallow that was little more than a six inch tall twig when we planted it is now a sprawling bush that is over four feet tall. Flowers are constantly blooming, and in a few months when rains return I expect the impressive growth we’ve seen so far will be supercharged.

The project was not without its challenges, but where once we had a fairly sterile, thirsty patch of grass, today we have a nice outdoor patio, a gurgling stream, and an array of native plants that attract every bird and butterfly in the neighborhood. A bathroom remodel might have been a more typical starter project for new home owners, but I can say with one hundred percent certainty that the new outdoor space brings us vastly more joy than any backsplash or fancy shower ever could have.

Neosho front yard
The new front yard. I put those chairs together by hand, much like the Amish, except that I had instructions, pre-cut logs, and power tools.
Neosho back yard
Holliday Creek looking west, with Wiechman Falls in the background.
Neosho back yard
Holliday Creek looking east, with our badass new patio in the background.
Roger's Red grapes
California Roger’s Red grapes growing in Scofield Vineyards.

Landscaping, Part 3: Pushing Dirt

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:23 am, August 25th, 2019

After deciding to redo our landscaping and coming up with a design, in early December 2018 the crew from Stout Design Build arrived to start work on our new landscaping. Demo work went fairly quickly – where I had labored for weeks with a mallet and chisel, the team smashed through concrete in hours using a jackhammer. A turf cutter made quick work of our grass, leaving bare dirt where once we’d used inordinate amounts of water keeping the grass alive. Removal of the ficus tree in the back proved more difficult, but after a few days of sadly watching our tree disappear, where once there were branches only sky remained. From that point things began to slow as California experienced one of its rainiest winters in years. We obviously celebrated the dramatic ending to the state’s long drought, but after watching the team struggling valiantly to work in the mud, we understood fully when they told us they’d be staying home on days where the yard was waterlogged. As a result, the initial 4-6 week project timeline quickly turned into a much longer effort.

Following the completion of demolition, and when it was dry enough to work, the team continued with the next phase: installing the hardscape. Being the engineering geek that I am, it was super-exciting when a cement truck pulled up to the house and concrete started flowing into forms that outlined the walkways, new patio, and other elements that had previously existed only in design drawings. For the guys doing the work it was a frenzied scene, with several people struggling to hold the lengthy concrete-dispensing hose and others then rushing in to smooth out the newly-poured mixture. Unfortunately the frenzied pace ended up leading to later issues, as the next rain showed water pooling on the patio area where it was supposed to drain, and to fix it Tom had to sentence the guys to two days of hard labor with a grinder in order to get things back to proper levels.

The next phase of the project was flagstone installation, and after touring the stone yard and picking out pallets that we liked another giant truck, complete with its own forklift, arrived and left several tons of Pennsylvania bluestone in the front yard. There was a bit of drama to this part of the project, but eventually a mason arrived who put our new patio together in two days and patched up some issues in the front walkway, and for the first time we had a finished piece of the yard to give us a taste of what the final project was actually going to look like.

Work continued with all of the other elements in our design: a dump truck arrived and caused thunder to reverberate across the Westside when it dropped a load of boulders into the front yard (after watching the guys then heave each of these boulders to the back yard, I am forever grateful that I’m not a landscaper). Channels were cut into the concrete driveway to capture rainwater, and a french drain was installed to convey that water to the swale. Gutters were reconfigured, walls along the property line were shored up, truck loads of dirt were brought in, and a vast number of other tasks were completed to get the yard ready for planting. One of the last major tasks on the list was installation of the back yard stream, and this one proved a significant hurdle until a team with years of experience in building water features was enlisted to finish the job. After several days of moving boulders, setting up the liner, installing plumbing, and creating various drops and other features along the channel, a stream that is somehow indistinguishable from a natural waterway started flowing through our yard, and we now awake each day to the sound of Holliday Creek gurgling across the property.

By the time the stream was done it was April, and the project had been ongoing for nearly five months, but we were finally ready to start putting plants in the ground. The last entry in this series will cover the creation of Audrey’s front yard “alien” garden, and the back yard featuring California natives plants, Scofield Vineyards, and the Skip & Sally Holliday Willow Grove.

Neosho front yard
The front yard, featuring our awesome new Pennsylvania bluestone walkway.
Neosho back yard
The back yard as it looked for several months. While we were in the “mostly mud” phase the “no shoes in the house rule” was strictly enforced.
Neosho back yard
Holliday Creek is born.

Landscaping, Part 2: Design

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:13 am, August 18th, 2019

Continuing from Part 1, our journey to convert the boring grass landscaping of our home into a wildlife-friendly, low-water environment with more usable space took an eternity for us to figure out how to begin, but the project accelerated greatly in May 2018 when we met with Tom Stout of Stout Design Build, and after getting excited by his initial sketches we hired him in June 2018 to do a full design.

After we struggled to make even the most basic decisions about what our yard should look like, it was humbling to have Tom come over and within five minutes see a drawing start forming that got us excited. Not only did his ideas show a beautiful, functional yard, but he integrated our suggestions while making sure more mundane needs like drainage were being accounted for. At one point during his initial visit I mentioned that I wanted a fountain or some other sort of water feature for the animals, he looked at the drawing he was making, and said the now-fateful words “what about a stream”? Audrey’s eyes opened wider than any human’s eyes should be able to open, and she practically yelled “OH MY GOD I WOULD LOVE A STREAM!”. I was skeptical, but they proceeded at a furious pace to discuss ponds and other features, so it felt like a win when I was finally able to dial things back to “just” a stream. Audrey was practically glowing for the next several months every time she talked about having a stream in the yard, and now that it’s actually flowing I will freely admit that my concerns about turning our yard into the Disneyland Jungle Cruise were unfounded and that Holliday Creek is one of the best decisions we made.

Aside from the stream, plans evolved such that the back yard would be a native plant, wildlife-friendly area, while the front yard would be filled with all sorts of weird plants that Audrey referred to as her “alien garden”. We added a flagstone patio close to the house to create the usable outdoor space we wanted, and new flagstone walkways to provide natural paths through the area. Swales in the front and back were included to allow rainwater to permeate back into the soil instead of draining to the sewers, and drainage was modified to fill the swales, including reconfiguring gutters and adding cuts in our driveway to catch water that would otherwise have flowed across the concrete and into the street. We sadly agreed to remove the giant ficus in our back yard – it was an amazing tree that filled the sky and had twisting branches that I climbed and Audrey hung lanterns from, but it was clearly intent on eating our property, with its roots tilting the wall on the property line and most likely turning the foundations of the house into Swiss cheese. Audrey added a small seating area for the front that doubled as the home for the coffin on Halloween (Tom noted that this was his first plan that required a place for a coffin), and other changes included new landscape lighting, drip irrigation, work to shore up a wall, a cement foundation for a new shed, etc.

By November of 2018 the project was ready to start, so I began some demolition work prior to the arrival of Tom’s team. While we could have contracted his team to handle the full demo, we were still experiencing post-traumatic stress from the project price estimate and wanted to find some ways to reduce costs, and I was more than happy to have a reason to smash things after long days sitting in front of the computer. One of the previous owners of our house had a love affair with brick, so we had a brick patio that had been mangled by the ficus tree that needed to come out, numerous brick walkways, and a brick porch, in addition to a decrepit shed and a termite-eaten trellis that I attacked with vigor. Each day I would spend 8-11 hours in front of the computer, then end the day with a mallet and chisel, annoying the neighbors as I loudly chipped bricks out of the mortar. In the end we sold or gave away hundreds of bricks that were still usable, and the rest filled several dumpsters that were hauled away by Culver City sanitation.

Finally, with plans drawn up and after several weeks of brick-smashing, in December 2018 the crew arrived, and the next journal entry in this series will cover what ended up being more than five months of muddy work that completely transformed our outside space.

Neosho back yard
Progress photo showing the demo of the shed, trellis and brick patio using nothing other than a mallet, a chisel, and my now broken back.
Neosho front yard
One of the previous owners LOVED bricks; we sold or gave away hundreds of them, and filled several dumpsters with the rest. This pile is just a tiny portion of what we got rid of.

Landscaping, Part 1: Where to Begin

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:09 pm, August 14th, 2019

It’s been quiet on the journal lately, but in an effort to record major life events so that I can remember them once I start going senile I’m going to publish a few entries before the year ends.

Obviously a lot has happened in 2019, but one of the highlights has been our project to redo the landscaping at our house. Unlike most homeowners whose first big project would be a bathroom or kitchen remodel, several years ago Audrey and I decided that we wanted a friendlier outdoor space that didn’t require tons of California’s scarce water supply for irrigation. However, we’re still relatively new to this whole homeownership thing, and we were utterly lost as to where we should begin.

One of our first forays into figuring out what our new landscaping should be was attending a workshop on “turf removal” where we actually went to someone’s house and were given instructions on how to assist them in removing their grass. Any benefits the owners might have gotten from the free labor were likely erased by having amateurs doing the work; I was told to dig a trench around the edge of the yard and promptly put a shovel through a buried irrigation line, and while others were less destructive with their incompetence, mistakes aplenty were made. As the workshop proceeded we learned how to use a turf cutter to remove grass, assisted in digging a new swale for rainwater capture, and introduced mulch and humate into the dirt to promote better soil biology. Unfortunately, while we left more knowledgeable about the process of removing turf, and also with the important insight that we didn’t want amateurs doing the work at our house, we were no closer to figuring out what we actually wanted our yard to look like.

Further efforts at figuring out our future yard design included joining the annual Theodore Payne Foundation Native Plant Garden Tour. This local event is sponsored by an organization that promotes landscaping with native plants and operates an impressive nursery & educational center in the Valley. The tour let us see how other people on the Westside had created native plant gardens, and also gave us the chance to talk to several different landscapers responsible for the designs. In many cases these yards felt like rocky deserts or disorganized tangles of weeds, but some of them captured the feeling of being in nature that we were hoping for, while still providing the functional outdoor space we wanted. We got contact info from one landscaper we liked, and booked an appointment for him to pay us a visit and make some suggestions. Sadly, after discussing our vision for the yard he proceeded to mostly ignore our requests and spent the bulk of his visit doing calculations to determine how deep he would need to dig swales to capture the rainwater from our roof, and we ended the day without any better idea of how to begin our project.

For the next few months I occasionally researched local landscapers online, but none seemed to match what we wanted. Some focused entirely on plants and didn’t seem like they could integrate a patio or other non-plant elements into the design. Some were contractors whose projects all seemed to be sterile creations of stone and concrete with a tiny bit of greenery thrown in as afterthoughts. Finally I stumbled on Stout Design Build, and felt like maybe his combination of landscaping and contracting experience matched what we were looking for. We scheduled a consultation, and shortly thereafter Tom Stout was patrolling our backyard, notepad in hand, sketching out ideas as we described what we wanted our yard to become.

The story of our landscaping project is going to spill into several posts, so I’ll provide a spoiler now: things didn’t go perfectly, but we’re very, very happy with the end result. The designs Tom sketched out in that first visit got us incredibly excited, and by the time he left it was tough to see our yard as anything other than what he had drawn on his notepad. We knew we wanted native plants (at least in the back) that would be attractive to birds, insects, and the other critters that roam our neighborhood, but we also wanted functional outdoor space. Tom’s designs gave us those things, so after overcoming our shock at the cost estimates we signed a contract and began demolition of our existing yard.

Neosho front yard
Our boring front yard with its thirsty grass. Mjolnir, the mighty hammer I used to demo the brick, is visible in front of the bucket.
Neosho back yard
The original grass backyard. The giant pile of brick and concrete was created as I removed a patio that was probably level at one point, but that the ficus had turned into a twisted battleground of uneven stones.

Super Bloom 2019

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:43 pm, April 30th, 2019

Three weeks ago I needed to drive to Las Vegas to meet my brother, who was starting a road trip across the country and wanted to spend a day together in Sin City. I figured that this trip was the perfect excuse to take a day off of work, allowing me to see this year’s Super Bloom while avoiding the “poppy apocalypse” created by weekend crowds. I expected the flowers at the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve to be nice, but to say they exceeded expectations would be a gross understatement.

Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve
Landscape by Dr. Seuss, Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve.
Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve
“The perfect blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your entire life looking for one, and it would not be a wasted life.”
Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve
The orange flowers and the yellow flowers were best friends.
Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve
It was nearly impossible to take a photo that didn’t include at least a dozen poppies.

Guessing About 2019

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:44 pm, January 21st, 2019

Since 2009 I’ve started each year by making predictions for the new year, and since 2009 I’ve mostly gotten those predictions wrong. Despite being horrible at it, this annual effort at forecasting the future is an amusing exercise, so continuing the inglorious tradition, here’s a bunch of guesses about what’s (probably not) going to happen in 2019:

  1. Tiger Woods will return to the world golf #1 ranking at some point in 2019. Assuming he can stay healthy this year, his season-ending victory at the Tour Championship in 2018 should be an omen of good things to come. The golf world seems very ready to have its superstar winning tournaments again.
  2. Democrats will not seriously pursue impeachment of Donald Trump in 2019. I may be either giving Democrats too much credit, underestimating what Robert Mueller’s investigation will uncover, or be too optimistic about Trump not doing anything so crazy that impeachment becomes inevitable, but I think the Democratic leadership wants to avoid this fight unless forced into it. Absent facts emerging that demand impeachment, Pelosi & Schumer seem to understand that they need to be seen as using their power responsibly, and also that pursuing impeachment without bipartisan agreement on wrongdoing would set a dangerous precedent in which future Congresses would no longer view impeachment as a last resort but instead as a way to eliminate an opposition President.
  3. After Disney’s $71.3 billion acquisition of Fox Studios, 2019 will see another massive media merger. It may be something like Sony merging with Netflix, Warner Brothers buying the Fox Network, Google gaining a broadcast or studio presence, or something else entirely, but it will be comparable in magnitude to the Disney-Fox deal. With its acquisitions of Pixar in 2006, Marvel in 2009, Lucasfilm in 2012, and now Fox Studios (which included a large stake in Hulu), Disney is dominating the entertainment market, and the other major players will be looking for ways to compete.
  4. After making almost $60 billion in profits in 2018, Apple will see its lowest yearly profits since it made $40 billion in 2014. Steve Jobs introduced the iPod, iPhone and iPad, but since his death Apple hasn’t created any new products that have had a major impact in the market, and with competitors now offering comparable devices at cheaper prices, 2019 will be the year that Apple’s failure to innovate without Steve Jobs finally starts to catch up to it.
  5. Despite massive privacy violations Facebook won’t make any significant changes this year and will begin to see its active user base erode. By the end of the year the number of people “quitting Facebook” will be a noticeable minority, and other companies will be either planning or promoting legitimate Facebook alternatives in an effort to snatch up the Facebook deserters.
  6. With dozens of Democratic candidates testing the waters of a Presidential run, by the end of the year the leading candidates will be Elizabeth Warren, a new face that the party’s Progressive wing coalesces around (probably someone like Kamala Harris), and someone with executive experience (a governor, military leader, or former executive branch leader) who no one is paying any attention to right now. If Bernie Sanders runs he’ll lose most of his 2016 supporters to whoever the new Progressive darling ends up being.
  7. SpaceX will successfully launch a crewed flight to the space station this year, but Boeing will further delay their first crewed mission until 2020.
  8. With the rollout of 5G cellular service already beginning, Google will make a move towards acquiring an existing wireless company or deploying its own 5G network. From 2010 until 2016 Google was actually building out a fiber network to provide internet access directly to homes and business, and with that effort having stalled it seems possible that they have instead decided that 5G wireless networking is a cheaper and better way to pursue the company’s goals of providing internet directly to consumers.
  9. Avengers: Endgame will outperform Star Wars: Episode IX at the box office. This may not be a particularly risky prediction given that Star Wars: The Last Jedi took in $620 million vs $678 million for Avengers: Infinity War, so I’ll up the ante by saying that the next Avengers movie will earn at least $100 million more than the next Star Wars film.
  10. After Virgin Galactic finally reached space in December, their flight test program will continue through 2019, but they won’t fly any paying customers. They will, however, do a test flight with Richard Branson on board during 2019 – the Virgin CEO set ballooning world records in the 1980s and 1990s, so hopping on a test flight to space is right up his alley.
  11. Despite predictions of bidding wars, during NFL free agency Le’veon Bell won’t be offered anything that comes close to the reported $70 million that he turned down from the Steelers. While he’s arguing that he should be paid $17 million per year, at best he’ll be the NFL’s third-highest paid running back behind Todd Gurley ($14.375 million per year) and David Johnson ($13 million per year). Owners won’t want to reward a player who sat out a season, while general managers won’t want to devote a large chunk of their salary cap to a guy who seems to have an inflated ego and who was immediately replaced by someone who put up better numbers.
  12. Tesla will introduce a major refresh of its Model S and Model X vehicles, including a new battery pack technology. The specs they have been promoting for their upcoming semi truck indicate that they’ve got some exciting new battery technologies ready, but at a minimum they will want to get all of their vehicles using the 2170 battery cells that they produce at their Gigafactory rather than the 18650 cells they currently purchase from battery manufacturers.
  13. Boeing will officially announce its new 797 plane this year, touting a signature oval-shaped, composite fuselage meant to maximize passenger space while limiting aerodynamic drag. There have been conflicting reports about the construction materials and shape of the new plane’s fuselage, but I think an oval, carbon-fiber fuselage will be favored as a baby step towards the much more efficient blended wing body designs that will (hopefully) become the norm in future aircraft.
  14. While US politics will continue to be a dispiriting example of how not to run a country, at least one major piece of legislation will pass this year since both Trump and the Democrats will be eager to show that they are capable of getting things done. Priorities for Democrats seem to be some sort of voting rights act, fixes for Obamacare, and changes to the immigration system. Trump would be happy with either a wall or something that he can call a trade deal. Both sides would probably settle for an infrastructure package. Thus, I suspect that if investigations and scandals don’t swallow the entire agenda that a bargain will be cut to give each side a “win” that they can tout to their supporters ahead of the 2020 elections.
  15. PG&E, now teetering on the edge of bankruptcy due to liability from the recent deadly wildfires, will be split up and in many cases turn into municipal utilities. The process will be a painful one – it makes sense for a big city to purchase electrical poles and power plants, but would be too costly for a rural area to purchase and maintain – so the story of PG&E’s demise will slowly escalate into a major crisis for the state of California during the coming year.

That does it for 2019. The comments link is available for anyone who wants to add their own predictions, otherwise check back in one year to see if I could beat 2018’s rate of 25% correct predictions. Note that the Browns have been intentionally excluded from this year’s predictions in order to avoid jinxing what everyone is cautiously hoping will be a promising season.

Things That Didn’t Happen in 2018

Posted from Culver City, California at 5:47 pm, January 6th, 2019

It’s been a while since there was a journal update, but the recap of my predictions for 2018 warrants a return from my hiatus. Spoiler alert: I didn’t get many right. Here’s the recap:

  1. Here are the election predictions for 2018:

    1. Republicans will barely lose the House, with Democrats holding a post-election advantage of between 1-10 seats.

      Pending the outcome of the disputed race in North Carolina, Democrats will have gained either 41 or 42 seats and currently hold a 235-199 advantage, far more than the 1-10 seat advantage I predicted. I thought Democrats would do well, but they ended up with one of the best performances by any party since Watergate.

    2. Republicans will end the year with either 49 or 50 Senate seats.

      While Democrats got a similar percentage of votes for Senate races as they did for House races (53 million total votes vs 35 million for Republicans), those votes were overwhelmingly in large states like California and New York, and Republicans actually gained two seats overall, giving them a 53-47 edge. Missouri and Florida are two states that I thought would stay blue, and I expected Democrats to make at least one surprise pickup, but Republicans did well in states that voted for Trump.

    3. Efforts to eliminate gerrymandering will get a boost, with ballot measures passing in at least five states. Additionally, the Supreme Court ruling in Gill vs. Whitford will accept the argument that overly-partisan districts are unconstitutional, leading to lawsuits in several states against the current maps.

      I’m giving myself half credit for this one. Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Colorado and Utah all passed measures to limit or eliminate gerrymandering, and hopefully more states will follow in coming years as it is ridiculous how districts are currently drawn in many places. Meanwhile the Supreme Court essentially punted on their gerrymandering case, voting 9-0 to send the case back to the lower courts because the defendants had not demonstrated “concrete and particularized injuries”. The case was brought against the state of Wisconsin, where Republicans ended up with 63 out of the 99 State Assembly seats despite Democrats winning 53% of the vote.

  2. After twelve years in development and many setbacks, Virgin Galactic will finally get their new ship into space.

    Scaled Composites launched a similar design out of the Mojave airport in 2004, capturing the $10 million X-Prize as the first private vehicle to reach space, and on the morning of December 13 they returned with the first spaceship built to carry average citizens into space. We live in exciting times.

  3. Avengers: Infinity War will become the highest-grossing Marvel movie.

    While the new Avengers movie earned $687 million at the domestic box office to surpass the $623 million earnings of the original Avengers movie, Black Panther beat it to the punch, taking in $700 million after its February launch to claim the mantle as Marvel’s highest-grossing film.

  4. The Browns will draft a quarterback at #1 and trade back from the #4 pick.

    John Dorsey chose not to trade his picks, but by all indications he apparently nailed the 2018 draft, taking likely Rookie of the Year Baker Mayfield at #1, and Pro Bowler Denzel Ward at #4. I’m a big fan of the math behind trading back from high picks, but I’m a bigger fan of the Browns sucking less and thus I’m happy to have gotten this prediction wrong.

  5. Tesla will not hit its goal of producing 5,000 Model 3 vehicles per week by the end of Q2, and will finish the year with total Model 3 deliveries between 170,000-190,000.

    Tesla pulled out all of the stops and barely hit the 5,000 Model 3 per week goal in Q2, but they have been averaging just under 5,000 vehicles per week since then and came out lower than I expected for the year with 145,846 Model 3 deliveries.

  6. Jeff Bezos will expand his presence in the news world.

    Since buying the Washington Post in 2013 Bezos has helped grow the paper’s profits, staff and subscribers. Additionally the software created to manage the content and web site for the Post is being used by an increasing number of newspapers around the world, helping them refocus on journalism and letting someone else handle the technical side of running a newspaper in the internet age. Despite these successes, Bezos has surprisingly not made any further ventures into the news world, so this prediction, like most of the others, is incorrect.

  7. The new Han Solo Star Wars movie will significantly underperform recent Star Wars films, earning between $375-425 million

    I got the “underperform” part right, but vastly underestimated how little interest audiences would have for this film. The final box office for “Solo” was just $214 million, far less than the $532 million box office of its predecessor Rogue One.

  8. Boeing will not complete its first 777X airplane in 2018 as scheduled.

    While the 787 faced years of delays that cost Boeing billions of dollars, the 777X completed final assembly on time and by all reports should be flying on schedule in early 2019, ready for first delivery in 2020.

  9. Despite reportedly spending $1 billion on producing television shows in 2018, Apple will still end 2018 without any popular programs.

    While Apple reportedly has almost thirty shows in development, they have so far only released two: Planet of the Apps, which Mashable charitably called a “successful disaster“, and Carpool Karaoke, which got renewed for a second season despite “lacking critical and audience acclaim“. I miss Steve Jobs.

  10. The California High Speed Rail will start to be rebranded as a route that connects the job-rich coastal cities with the affordable housing of the Central Valley.

    I actually got this one right! After years of touting connectivity between San Francisco and Los Angeles as its primary benefit, the first point in the 2018 High Speed Rail Business Plan is “Connecting the Central Valley to the Bay Area and the Los Angeles economic megaregions through highspeed rail will give businesses around the state new opportunities to choose locations based on labor force availability and to tighten linkages with businesses and field offices.” I’ve noted previously how disappointed I am in the management of this project, but still firmly believe that having a high speed rail line connecting California’s major cities will ultimately be a huge win for the state.

  11. The Simpsons will finally come to an end after 30 seasons, announcing that the 2018-2019 season will be its last.

    As of 6-January there is no confirmation whether The Simpsons will be back for Season 31 or not, so I’m making this prediction my first-ever “neither right nor wrong” prognostication. I think it’s odd that if TV’s longest-running scripted series was going to end that there wouldn’t be an announcement made as soon as possible in order to drive up final season ratings, but thus far all has been quiet on the subject of the animated family from Springfield.

  12. The Bitcoin bubble will finally burst. The cryptocurrency is down nearly fifty percent from its high of $20,000, but the bubble will finally burst for good sometime this year, and prices will be well under $1,000 by the time 2018 comes to a close.

    The price continued to drop throughout the year, but closed just under $4000, and not “well under $1000” as I predicted it would. I’m still dumbfounded that it is worth as much as it is – do even ten percent of the people investing in Bitcoin even know what a Bitcoin actually is?

  13. Lebron James will not leave the Cavs.

    He went away again, but it was nice to see Cavs fans giving him a standing ovation in his first game back in Cleveland after joining the Lakers. As a former Clevelander I’m hardly in a position to criticize anyone for leaving, and Lebron did the impossible by taking the Cavs to four straight NBA Finals and winning Cleveland’s first professional sports championship since 1964, so kudos to him, and best of luck with the new team.

Final score: 3.5 out of 14 (25%), my third-worst showing in ten years behind only 2014 (12%) and 2013 (11%). Predictions for 2019 should follow soon.