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

My Boogers Froze Today. Twice.

Posted from Fairbanks, Alaska at 7:22 pm, January 7th, 2018

Since my job lets me work from anywhere with an internet connection, spending two weeks in Fairbanks in the dead of winter seemed like it would be a great idea. Audrey and I will be huddled together for warmth in the coming days, hoping that the northern lights make an appearance at some point.

After arriving late last night we spent today’s sparse daylight hours bundled in every piece of clothing that we own, roaming past the frozen Chena River through Griffin Park in downtown Fairbanks, before we were finally forced into the (very impressive) Visitor Information Center to escape the -8°F temperatures. Tomorrow we head further north to spend the rest of the week in a tiny cabin outside of the city lights in the hopes that the Auroras might peek out at us once or twice. Wish us luck.

Fairbanks Weather Outlook
The weather forecast for the week gives us nearly four hours a day of the sun’s warmth, so we should have decent odds of not freezing to death.
Frosty tree branch in Griffin Park, Fairbanks in Winter
This tree in Griffin Park got dominated by the Fairbanks winter.
Statue in Griffin Park, Fairbanks in Winter
Even the statues in Fairbanks are freezing.

Fixing the System

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:08 pm, December 28th, 2017

Audrey and I were sitting in the back yard a few weeks ago talking about some political issue in the day’s news, and in the course of the conversation she asked what I would do to fix things. One of my suggestions wasn’t a popular one, but after explaining it a bit she said “you should write a journal entry about that”. I’ve presented thoughts for improving our government in journal entries in the past with varying amounts of seriousness, but here’s another entry that may or may not be worth the pixels that it’s printed on:

There is a lot of chatter these days about empowering the average citizen over party “elites” – getting rid of super delegates, doing away with caucuses, and otherwise increasing the power of the average Joe to choose the leaders of the country. My unpopular opinion is that this solution is exactly the opposite of what is needed, since the increase in direct democracy over the past several decades has correlated with an increase in government dysfunction. Hear me out…

People today lament that our government is incapable of getting things done or of making hard decisions, but the electoral process punishes candidates who address the country’s problems honestly. If Candidate A says that we need to address the deficit by raising taxes and/or cutting popular spending, while Candidate B repeats the well-worn fallacy that if only we trimmed “waste” from the budget then all of our problems would disappear, Candidate B will be elected. If Candidate A says she will make unpopular compromises in order to work with the other party, while Candidate B says that he will never compromise his principles, Candidate B will be elected. And for decades voters have reliably chosen Candidate B, only to discover that the debt continues to rise, and parties have no incentive to make the compromises that would lead to win-win solutions.

As a result, elections today are a contest of who can do the best job of telling the electorate what they want to hear, with candidates who say one thing in a primary and then “pivot” to a different position for the general election, and who voters expect will then “betray” them once in office. More direct democracy will only exacerbate that situation – if a candidate who honestly says that hard choices need to be made is generally going to lose to someone who says no hard choices are necessary, the only people who can win elections are going to be liars and/or incompetent. While I don’t think there is any foolproof solution to that issue, I would make the unpopular proposal that less direct democracy in nominating candidates for national elections (President, Senate, House) would at least keep out the worst charlatans, and thus the primary system should give more power to super delegates and other gatekeepers. The average voter would continue to choose among candidates in the general election, and could still have a say in primaries, but we need to find ways to reduce pandering and restore serious policy discussion to the electoral process. I’m not sure what form such a system might take – have the super delegate vote count for 50% of what is required to be nominated, or force candidates to have the backing of several super delegates before they are allowed to enter the race – but I think there would be significant value in providing more vetting than we have today.

Here are a small number of additional points in defense of why I think that this proposal is worth considering seriously:

  • We should give more weight to the most informed people when choosing leaders. Today a voter who knows the candidates personally and spends their life as a part of the government has a vote that counts equally to someone who flips a coin, someone who is influenced by a smear campaign, or someone who simply votes for any name that they recognize; I want to know that the leaders of my government have been vetted by more than just a popularity contest.
  • Money and fame would be less important as deciding factors in elections. Today politicians have to spend countless hours fundraising in order to afford TV commercials and other ways of achieving visibility in the electorate, with famous people such as Arnold Schwarzenegger or Donald Trump gaining an undeserved advantage. Giving more power to political insiders would help to level the playing field, making political ability more of a deciding factor than mere name recognition.
  • Empowering super delegates or similar actors would provide a check against populists or other unqualified individuals gaining power. It is in the interest of the party to put forward the best possible candidates, and giving the most knowledgeable party members an effective veto would provide a layer of protection against bad candidates.

Obviously this solution is imperfect – Bernie Sanders supporters who thought that the DNC “rigged” the primaries in favor of Clinton would be faced with an even steeper hill to climb. The 37% of citizens who currently give Donald Trump a favorable rating would almost certainly never have been given the opportunity to vote for him. Those who want to see more non-politicians on the ballot would be disappointed by a party system likely to support those within its own ranks. And those who fear a takeover of political parties by outside interests would have some reason to worry, since political parties are only as strong as those who choose to be active within that party. Finally, taking power away from individuals and giving it to “elites” sounds evil – it “feels” obviously correct that everyone in a democracy should have an equal voice in choosing candidates, even if those choosing are doing so with incomplete information and thus making bad choices.

Given the likely opposition to any proposal that would make the primary process less democratic it is unlikely that any such change could ever be made. However, since increased direct democracy over the recent decades has led to a system where elections often become popularity contests, and given the fact that it has left us with a government that seems more incapable of governing than ever before, I honestly believe that restoring the power of the parties as gatekeepers to the electoral process would be an effective way to ensure that we have stronger candidates on the ballot, thus leading to a more functional government.

November Recap

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 7:57 pm, December 5th, 2017

In an effort to make sure I have a record of events so that it’s possible to relive good times when I eventually become senile, here’s a recap of November:

  • Given my engineering background I am not so savvy when it comes to the arts, but Audrey and her friends are doing their best to get me up to speed. Just before Thanksgiving Audrey and her band played a set at Trip in Santa Monica, and Jocelyn opened for them with a rare live show; I know talented people.
  • Following the night of much music I took a few vacation days prior to the Thanksgiving holiday, joining Aaron at his new place in Truckee where we threw hatchets at a pumpkin (we’ve clearly matured greatly over the years). Following that visit I made a detour to Muir Woods before picking up Audrey at the airport and heading to Ma & Pa’s for Thanksgiving. The annual family gathering saw much delicious food consumed, much laughter, and a display of amazing skills in playing Uno.
  • The month ended with Audrey’s birthday, which she celebrated with her tradition of roller skating and a visit to the library, after which I took her out for a fancy steak dinner before we joined her choir friends for celebratory beverages.
Barred owl in Muir Woods
Barred owl posing for tourists in Muir Woods.
Muir Woods Redwoods
Muir Woods Redwoods and a cloudy sky.

Hatchet throwing 101 #killthepumpkin #manactivities #hatchets

A post shared by Aaron Holliday (@bigholliday) on

Why this Bill?

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:49 pm, November 27th, 2017

“A strong conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures.” — Daniel Webster

After a legislative session that so far has no major accomplishments, Republicans in Congress are now preparing a tax bill that they have stated could lead to electoral disaster if it doesn’t pass. As someone trying hard to understand the logic behind this particular legislation, it’s a mystery to me why this bill is what they chose for their “must pass” moment.

Republicans have preached fiscal responsibility for as long as I can remember, but they are now firmly behind a bill that adds at least $1.5 trillion to the national debt and whose major goal is to reduce the corporate tax rate. There is an argument to be had about whether lowering the corporate tax rate is a good idea or not, but where I’m puzzled is the fact that I don’t think anyone is arguing that lowering the corporate tax rate is the best possible use of $1.5 trillion. Thus, why make the corporate tax rate the centerpiece of what the party is now calling its do-or-die moment???

If Republicans feel that they must pass something, rather than choosing an unpopular tax bill with murky prospects, it would have made vastly more sense to choose something like an infrastructure package that would be broadly popular, easy to defend, and a clear benefit to both businesses and the working class – “look, we’re fixing highways, railroads, dams, bridges and other very useful and visible things that will make everyone’s lives better, and we’re putting hundreds of thousands of people to work and pumping tons of money into American companies in order to do it!” Instead they have a bill that no one is enthusiastic about, that appears to be fiscally reckless, and one that could easily become a budgetary lodestone if it passes, or a legislative Waterloo if it fails.

The quote at the top of this post is my best guess as to what’s actually happening – for some reason they picked the corporate tax rate as the item to focus on, and now they are stuck in a position where they “must pass” something that no one really likes. As to the larger question of how they picked the corporate tax rate as their area of focus, maybe it’s a result of having too many bankers in government, since the financial industry is probably most likely to make business decisions based on a favorable tax environment (as opposed to other industries that weigh things like labor costs, geographic location, infrastructure, worker availability, or some other criteria far more heavily). Like anything that happens in Washington, I’m sure that there is a lot that I don’t understand, and I may be missing something obvious about this particular bill, but it sure seems like a very, very strange piece of legislation on which to stake the party’s reputation.

Scaring the Children

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:27 pm, November 9th, 2017

It’s hard to believe that it’s now been six years of Scare the Children at our new house; at this point we’re creating mental scars for an entirely new generation of trick-or-treaters.

Like last year, for this year’s event I again took on the role of the “dummy” with the candy cauldron, sitting totally still in the doorway until the kids worked up the nerve to take candy, at which point I got to move a bit and scare the bejesus out of them. I started out the night holding an iPod hooked up to a speaker that allowed me to emit a terrifying “scream” when the kids reached for candy, but at some point during the evening I must have hit a wrong button, and instead of playing a scream the iPod began playing a soothing guitar ballad – being unable to see well through my mask, and thus unable to easily fix the issue, thus ended my “screaming” for the night.

Even without the canned screaming, it was still an excellent time. Among many memorable moments, early in the evening a little girl let out a terrified shriek that I was concerned might lead neighbors to call the police, and later in the evening a group of teens took five minutes trying to determine if I was real or not (“I touched the hand, and it feels kind of human-y”) before finally concluding they had been freaked out by a dummy, at which point I moved and caused two of the girls to run away while a third literally toppled over in fright – here’s the video (skip ahead to the 30 second mark); it was a good night.

As always the entire event was a group effort, with Jocelyn resuming her role in the coffin, Ozzie doing his sixth stint as the scary clown in the alley, and Audrey, Gina and Nancy roaming the yard as haunters. Newcomer Drew was in the tree with a microphone and voice processor, Denise joined us for her inaugural Halloween and experienced the joy of being shut inside the coffin whenever Jocelyn needed a break, and Steve flew in from Boston for his second year of child scaring.

Audrey and Ryan being scary
Audrey and Ryan. We look amazing.
The 2017 Scare the Children Crew
The 2017 Scare the Children crew,
featuring Ozzie’s new chainsaw.

30 Days in the Hole

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:29 pm, October 30th, 2017

2017 is not shaping up as a great year for hitting the three-journal-entries-a-month goal, either because not a lot is happening or because I’m lazier than normal; it’s probably both. Anyhow, here’s a recap of the past month:

  • October started with a visit from Ma & Pa. They had just returned from one of those cruises where someone comes aboard with a horrible virus and turns the boat into a vomitorium, and they weren’t yet fully recovered, so activities were kept to a minimum. Dad had wanted to see the Spaceship Endeavour since it is awesome, and afterwards we took my mom to Casa Sanchez to celebrate her birthday since you can’t go wrong with a kickass mariachi show.
  • In home news, I put up a mealworm feeder to see what birds it might attract, and it turns out that the answer is “crows”. While they may not be exotic, crows have tons of personality, and they have clearly decided that the new feeder is the greatest thing that has ever happened in the avian world. We now have anywhere from 3-12 crows in the yard each morning, and we’re slowly training them to be less scared of us, although for such smart birds they’re either poor learners or else we’re bad teachers.
  • Finally, last week I made the month’s only work trip to San Antonio, returning for the first time since the hurricane. Luckily Mother Nature decided not to send any natural disasters my way this time, and insomnia was the only battle I had to fight – the fact that the client greeted me in the morning with “what happened?” is probably a sign that I need to start considering sleeping aids.

I’ll do my best to get a couple of additional entries up in the coming days – at a minimum Halloween is tomorrow, so there will be stories to share from this year’s incarnation of Scare the Children.

A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:19 pm, September 17th, 2017

Due to some changes on my current project, I recently had to fly to San Antonio on back-to-back weeks. During the first trip I lost my license but was still able to fly after a THOROUGH pat-down, and on the second trip Hurricane Harvey showed up and attempted to wipe Texas off of the map.

When I flew to Texas on Sunday Harvey was down near Mexico, and had dissipated to the point where it was no longer a recognizable storm; no one outside of a few meteorologists had any clue that it was anything worth keeping an eye on. As late as Monday there was still no storm on the horizon, but Tuesday morning there were some reports on the news that a tropical storm might be headed to Texas.

By Tuesday afternoon things started looking more dire, and the airlines began offering the option to switch to an earlier flight for free in order to allow people to escape while the airport was still in operation. The storm track showed a strengthening storm heading directly at San Antonio, and by Wednesday, not only was the storm supposed to strengthen to hurricane status, but it was then projected to stall over San Antonio for three days. Facing the prospect of a hurricane and three days of flooding, I switched to a Thursday flight and made an early escape from Texas.

Of course everyone knows what then happened – the storm track changed slightly, and Harvey instead stalled over Houston, causing widespread damage to Houston while having minimal impact on San Antonio. On a positive note, the company I’m currently working with immediately sent 15 vehicles, including two mobile kitchens, up to Houston, and the e-commerce team’s first task on Monday was to set up a donation page – during a time of much cynicism about corporate America, HEB is clearly an organization with its heart in the right place.

It’s not clear when they’ll next need me back in Texas, but given the experience from the last two trips I’ll prepare for the journey by taping my identification to my arm, and with sufficient emergency supplies in my luggage to weather whatever disaster Mother Nature might decide to send.

Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges.

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:37 pm, September 2nd, 2017

I had to make back-to-back work trips to San Antonio recently, and while normally those trips are fairly routine events, these last two both involved a fair amount of drama. Here’s the recap from the first trip…

Audrey has a phobia about packing – any time she travels she gets into a panic thinking that she might forget something. On the opposite end of the spectrum, my theory is that you should try to remember everything, but there are only a tiny number of things that you absolutely can’t forget, and as long as you have those things you’re going to be fine: money, identification, and clean underwear. Even with such a short list (and if we’re being honest, forgetting underwear isn’t a dealbreaker), on one of my most recent trips to San Antonio I blew it but was saved by TSA.

I registered for TSA Pre a while back, and it is awesome – I spend almost no time waiting in security lines now – but the one minor downside is that I often don’t have time to get out my license and boarding pass before I’m standing in front of an impatient TSA agent. On this particular trip, to ensure that I would be ready I got my license out of my wallet while in the Lyft to the airport, but on entering the terminal realized that it was no longer in my pocket where I’d placed it. I retraced my steps to the curb, and then called the Lyft driver only to be told that he didn’t think it was in his car and that he had another passenger so he wasn’t going to come back to the terminal. I then talked to airport security, who told me that no one had turned in a license but that I could still fly as long as I had a credit card or something with my name on it.

I got in the TSA line, and after reaching the officer at the front of the line sheepishly said that I had lost my license because apparently I haven’t figured out how to use pants pockets properly. The officer smiled, called in another officer to ask me a few questions, and then told me I would get a patdown where the agent would use the back of his hand to search “certain areas”. After a VERY thorough patdown they then checked all of my carryons for bomb juice, and then sent me on my way; apparently a search of the family jewels using the back of the officer’s hand is as good as photo ID. The whole thing took no more than five minutes, everyone was amazingly friendly to the dumb guy who lost his license, and instead of having to go home and miss my flight I had coffee at 30,000 feet. The process repeated itself on the return trip, and again I was able to board my flight on time.

TSA gets bashed a lot, in some cases rightfully so, but in this case I did a dumb thing and they bailed me out, and did so with professionalism. Too often in this world we get angry when things go wrong but take it for granted when things go right, so in a case where things went right I offer my sincere gratitude to the TSA folks.

Non-Totality

Posted from Culver City, California at 6:50 pm, August 27th, 2017

Since obviously eclipse glasses are for wimps (and also I didn’t buy any before the prices exploded), I took a zoom lens into the backyard and attempted to focus as much sunlight on my retinas as possible; my vision should return in time for the next eclipse in 2024.

The Eclipse in the Clouds
The marine layer started burning off just as the eclipse was getting started, and luckily the clouds acted as enough of a filter that I was only mostly blind after shooting a few photos.
The 2017 Eclipse
As the clouds burned off and the sun became too bright to look at through the viewfinder I was reduced to pointing the camera in the general area of the bright thing in the sky and hoping to get something in frame.

July 2017

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 7:52 pm, August 14th, 2017

So I’m obviously waaaaay behind on journal entries. In an effort to begin catching up, here’s the recap for July:

  • In past years Audrey and I have enjoyed fireworks over the Queen Mary or found other interesting ways of celebrating Independence Day, but this year we decided to just stay home. However, when the skies started lighting up around us the temptation to enjoy the scene was too great. With trees blocking the view from the yard, we ended up on the roof, likely causing some concern among our neighbors, but nonetheless providing a pleasant view of the evening’s festivities.
  • Audrey’s work with Indivisible continued with the “Persistence picnic” in mid-July, an event set up to get people together in the park and provide organizations five minutes (each) to speak. Dozens of groups showed up with positive messages and ways for people to make a difference in everything from human rights to voting rights to community issues, and at the end of the day a lot of pessimism about the state of the world seemed to have actually transformed into optimism.
  • In work news, I spent a week working in San Antonio, came back to LA for a week, then went to Spokane for the annual “see what your normally working-remotely co-workers look like in person” week. In addition to a team barbecue and a few other social events, we all headed across the state border to Idaho for zip-lining, and it turns out that two of the three senior partners are not fans of heights. Watching one of the two, who is otherwise fearless, go dead quiet on a rickety rope bridge, and then seeing the other, who won’t back down from any technical challenge, literally whimper as he jumped off a platform onto a 400 foot high wire cable, was a humanizing look at my normally unflappable superiors. In the end everyone seemed to have a great time, I was grateful for a chance to be in the trees, and Stuart swore that he’d make sure future events stayed closer to the earth.
Commerce Architects Ziplining in Idaho
Some of the team was more enthusiastic than others about hanging hundreds of feet above the forest.
Ziplining in Idaho
I wasn’t initially very excited about zip-lining, but it turns out that spending the day flying through the forest is far nicer than staring at a laptop.

15 Years of Random Musings

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:22 pm, August 7th, 2017

The journal celebrated its fifteenth anniversary on July 24, although I’m a bit behind on postings and thus this entry is being published two weeks after the actual date. In an era before Facebook and other social media, and even before the (awful) word “blog” had made it into most people’s vocabularies, this site was my way to record travelogues for posterity, and more importantly it gave me an excuse for being too lazy to send people regular emails, since I could just point everyone to this site as a way to keep in touch.

The obligatory stats to recap the past decade-and-a-half:

It’s anyone’s guess how long the journal will continue, but nearly 5,500 days after starting this narcissistic endeavor, there doesn’t seem to be any clear end in sight. Thanks to the twos of visitors who have read along regularly, and to the random folks who have dropped by on occasion to say hello and (incorrectly) point out typos.

Denali from Reflection Pond

My favorite image from the trip that spawned this journal, Denali (Mt McKinley) taken from Reflection Pond while I was camping in Alaska.

Tanzania Revisited

Posted from San Antonio, Texas at 9:50 pm, July 18th, 2017

It’s been too long without photos in the journal, so here are a couple from the 2014 safari in Tanzania that didn’t previously make it online:

Cheetah in Ndutu
When a cheetah is sitting in front of you on a log, you take a million pictures; when you have to decide which of those pictures is the best, the one with the tongue sticking out obviously wins.
White-bellied Canary in Ndutu
White-bellied Canary in Ndutu. This particular puddle was home to just about every bird that I normally only associate with Petco.

American Exceptionalism

Posted from Culver City, California at 6:02 pm, July 4th, 2017

I’m not sure if this subject has made it into a journal entry in the past or not, but my favorite theory of why America remains such a powerful force in the world seems like a good topic for a Fourth of July entry.

During my four decades of life it has been a common refrain that the US is on the decline and in danger of losing its position as the world’s leader in commerce and innovation. In the 1980s and 1990s it was seen as inevitable that Japan would soon take the lead position, and these days everyone seems to believe that China will do so. Yet somehow, despite falling behind in metrics like education, government investment, etc, the US still creates companies like Tesla, Google and Apple that lead the world.

A theory that I read a long while back is that the root of America’s success is literally encoded in our DNA – being unique as a nation of immigrants, nearly every citizen has in their family tree the DNA of someone who was motivated to leave their circumstances and go to a country where, if they worked hard, they could create a better life. In an evolutionary sense, the entire country is made up of people whose gene pool favors motivation, hard-work, and risk taking. As a result, in America if you create a business that fails, instead of being demeaned for failing you are rewarded for having tried. If a city declines and jobs disappear people don’t sit around and wait for improvement, but instead pack up and move to another city that offers better prospects. When an individual wants to follow a dream, it isn’t considered crazy for them to sell prized possessions or amass large debts in order to fund that dream and make it become reality.

There are of course a vast number of exceptions to the above examples, but moreso than any other country, Americans can be characterized by traits that trace back to ancestors who risked everything to come to a new place that offered hope of a better life. Furthermore, that hope wasn’t represented by the prospect of an easy life, but was instead based on a belief that hard work would be rewarded. On this Fourth of July I like to believe that the greatness of America might literally be encoded in the DNA of its citizens, a fact that makes me optimistic that, despite its stumbles, the success of this nation will continue.

June 2017

Posted from Culver City, California at 6:27 pm, June 30th, 2017

June has been a slow month, but here’s a quick recap:

  • After the first round of updates to bring the journal into the mobile age I’ve done a significant amount of additional re-work to make the site fully mobile-friendly. If you’re reading this journal entry on a phone, you’re welcome, and if you’re reading it in a browser and don’t notice any difference, well, if it ain’t broke…
  • June had only one work trip to San Antonio, where temperatures have now jumped up to the “crispy” level. On a positive note, HEB has moved the e-commerce group to new offices, so instead of working in a dark and scary basement we’re now on the seventh floor of a building with plenty of windows from which to watch Southern Texas roast in the heat.
  • The Cavs got stomped by the Warriors in the NBA Finals, but that still meant that a Cleveland team was playing for a championship – after years of growing up with Indians teams that inspired the movie Major League, and a Browns team that annually found creative ways to avoid playing in the Super Bowl, having a Cavs team playing in the NBA Championship every year is more than any Cleveland-native ever could have dreamed of.
  • In homeownership news, proving that ten minutes on Youtube can turn anyone into Bob Vila, I hooked up some new landscape lighting without the slightest bit of electrocution.
  • Finally, in local wildlife news, the attic has miraculously remained rat-free for several months now, while our newest backyard visitors include a family of crows whose favorite pastime is gathering outside of the window and loudly complaining whenever I forget to leave some mealworms out for them.