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


Posted from Culver City, California at 5:12 pm, March 15th, 2020

There have been a handful of times in my life that have felt like historic moments, and this week has that feel so I’m going to ramble a bit, mainly for my own benefit as it is a useful exercise to be able to revisit one’s thought process later with the benefit of hindsight.

The reason that this week feels novel is obviously because if was the week where the threat from coronavirus became real. Government at the local, state and federal levels started taking action against the virus, all sports leagues shut down, colleges closed, school districts closed, museums shuttered, people are being told not to go to work, grocery stores are being mobbed by panic buyers cleaning out the shelves; it is reminiscent of the days and weeks following September 11, when no one was quite sure what was going on and people entered a weird state where everyone just put normal life on hold and waited to see what would happen next.

Sadly, one difference between 9/11 and this crisis is that the country came together after 9/11 with a common purpose. Say what you will about George W. Bush, but he provided clear and decisive leadership when the country needed it, and his approval ratings reflected that all Americans were with him, at least for that moment. Today the top-level leadership is very different, and half of the country seems to question whether this crisis is even real, or whether it’s a media-driven, left-wing assault on Donald Trump. In a few years, once we know how it plays out, I suspect that the differing views of this pandemic will begin to converge, although I worry that if the state and local response to this crisis is effective that we will learn the wrong lesson.

I haven’t lived through many major crises, but my experience has been that when they are handled well people assume that the danger itself was overblown. I started in technology in 1998, and at the time IT professionals the world over were focused on the Y2K bug, expected to hit older computer systems on January 1, 2000 with dire consequences. Billions of dollars were spent testing the systems that ran nuclear plants, transportation networks, banking systems and other critical infrastructure. Government issued warnings to make sure that everyone, everywhere was aware of the problem and looking closely at their systems. Then, at the start of the millennium when things were supposed to break, nothing happened. People scoffed and said it was much ado about nothing, but the opposite is true – testing in advance made it clear that there would have been massive disruption, and without huge amounts of work and a gigantic effort to make companies aware of the problem, the world would have been a very different place on January 1, 2000. It was only because so many people worked so hard that the response was so effective and none of the worst consequences came to pass, but instead of cheering the success, “Y2K” is instead today widely perceived as an example of fear-mongering and over-reaction.

Today, with the coronavirus, I hope that it can be another Y2K. Scientists estimate the range of deaths from coronavirus in the USA will be up to 1.7 million, but that scenario only occurs if we don’t take action to slow the spread; the reason schools are shutting down today is because that number is based on almost 200 million Americans contracting the disease, which only happens if there is no change in social behavior. Keeping people separated means infected people are less likely to pass the virus to others, slowing down the spread and potentially saving a lot of lives. However, if we avoid the worst-case scenarios I fear that instead of rewarding officials who took drastic action, people will instead say we overreacted, just as they did with Y2K, making the next crisis even harder to contain.

What’s Coming in 2020. Guaranteed.

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:46 pm, February 10th, 2020

Now in its twelfth inglorious year, here’s my annual list of predictions for the new year. For anyone who has followed along in the past, my track record is… not great… so you may want to get a second opinion before heading to Vegas or calling your stock broker based on anything written here.

  1. Here are the obligatory political predictions for the upcoming election season. Important caveat: I’m terrible at predictions, and I also think there is enough uncertainty in the economy, world events, and the candidates themselves to swing the election wildly in either direction:
    • Either Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg will be the Democratic nominee. I think the early success of Bernie Sanders is going to make Democrats desperate to find a more centrist candidate who has a better chance of beating Trump, which gives an advantage to Biden and Buttigieg. I suspect that South Carolina will probably be a turning point – if Buttigieg wins there that will send a signal and he should clean up on Super Tuesday, but if Biden can win big in South Carolina then that will position him well to earn the most delegates in the following week’s primaries.
    • Democrats will end up gaining 3-4 seats in the Senate. It’s a bad map for Republicans – they are defending 23 seats vs just 12 for Democrats, so they are on defense in some blue-ish states. I suspect Democrats will flip Arizona, Colorado and Maine, but lose Alabama, which would result in a 50-50 split Senate.
    • Democrats will maintain control of the House but lose a few seats overall. The Democrats had a 235-199 advantage after the last election, so it would take a pretty big win for the Republicans to take back power. However, Democrats who won in Trump districts are going to have a harder time earning re-election now that attention has been focused for months on impeachment after they based their election campaigns on everyday issues like health care.
    • Trump will lose in the general election. I don’t like putting that into writing because I don’t feel like it’s going to happen, particularly if someone like Bernie is the Democratic nominee, but I’m hoping the country is better than the reality show it has been for the past four years. Feelings aside, I have trouble believing that the good economic numbers that have been Trump’s main argument with swing voters will continue to hold up through the end of the year, or that a global crisis like the coronavirus won’t expose the lack of competence in the current administration, much like Katrina revealed problems in the second Bush administration.
  2. Virgin Galactic will launch its first paying space tourists, and Richard Branson will finally take a ride on his new space plane. Space is awesome, and having a reliable way of putting rich tourists beyond the atmosphere is an excellent first step towards a world where I someday get to see the Earth from orbit.
  3. Coming off of a seventh-place finish in the 2019 World Championships, the US men’s basketball team will go undefeated in the Olympics, winning each game by no less than ten points. The world is catching up to America in basketball, but I think Steph Curry, rested after a year in which Golden State misses the playoffs, and a motivated James Harden will be awfully tough to stop.
  4. Tesla will announce major updates to its Model S and Model X vehicles; these changes will go far beyond minor cosmetic updates or slight range boosts. All-but-verified rumors say that Tesla will be announcing improved battery technology later this year. Combined with new manufacturing processes that Tesla has developed for its other models, the company will have the opportunity to re-imagine its flagship vehicles, differentiating them from the lower-end Model 3 and Model Y, and re-invigorating sales.
  5. Lebron James will win his fifth NBA MVP award and his fourth NBA championship. Being from Cleveland I’m biased, but he took a mediocre Cavs team to the championship numerous times, and is now doing wonders with the Lakers. People love having heroes, so I think the story of the 35 year old guy leading a storied franchise to the league’s best record is going to earn him another MVP trophy, to be followed shortly thereafter with another NBA championship.
  6. Despite some positive news from the FAA, Boeing’s 737 MAX plane, grounded since March 2019, will not fly again in the US until the July-September timeframe. As an engineer, seeing some of the reports that have come out during the investigation into the plane’s failings have been demoralizing – removing redundancy in critical sensor systems to cut costs, management decisions that forced engineers to come up with complex solutions when simpler options should have been possible, etc, etc. Hopefully Boeing emerges from this snafu with a renewed focus on innovation and quality, but having seen behind the curtains I’m not optimistic that will be the case.
  7. The deployment of faster 5G wireless will be slow and problematic through 2020, with deployments mostly limited to high-density areas in some cities; specifically, I’ll predict that Verizon will not have made usable 5G available at my house by the end of the year. 5G requires more towers than previous technologies, and based on my experience in Los Angeles, wireless carriers are having trouble deploying enough towers to create meaningful coverage areas.
  8. Wonder Woman 1984 will be the top-grossing comic book movie of the year, but will lag far behind the $412 million earned by its predecessor; I’ll predict something in the $275-325 million range. The original movie was fun but not particularly good, and Warner Brothers has a terrible record of making comic book movies.
  9. At least two of the following three things will happen: Drew Brees will return for one more year with the Saints but retire when the season ends, Tom Brady will return for one more year with the Patriots but retire when the season ends, or Andrew Luck will announce that he is ending his retirement and returning to the Colts. I think it is almost certain that both Brady and Brees come back for another year, but I also think both of them want to go out as stars and will retire while they are still among the league’s best quarterbacks. Meanwhile, Andrew Luck retired for health reasons, and the circumstances around his retirement (the Colts let him keep $16 million in salary that they could have recouped) make me wonder if he hasn’t expressed some desire to play again when he’s healthy.
  10. Mobile phones with folding screens will be the next big idea in tech that turns out to not have a market. Just like 3D televisions several years ago, folding cell phones (which “unfold” to give you a bigger screen) sound like a good idea, but they will be bigger, less capable, and more prone to breaking than normal phones, all while being significantly more expensive. While some people will purchase them, I strongly suspect that most people won’t want a device that is neither a good phone nor a good tablet, particularly when they could spend the same amount of money on two separate devices that individually do their jobs much, much better.
  11. SpaceX will launch astronauts to the space station by the end of summer, but Boeing will not launch astronauts in 2020. SpaceX successfully completed their in-flight abort test (click and go to the 20:05 mark for a cool video of the crew module escaping, followed by the main rocket going BOOM), and despite the slow pace of rocketry they should be on-track to launch humans soon. Boeing, meanwhile, had a troubled first test and needs to do additional work to prove that their capsule can fly safely.
  12. Apple will either purchase an existing studio, partner with another streaming service, or in some other way significantly beef up the content library for its Apple TV service, since rumors state there seems to be limited interest in their current offerings. Currently Apple is reported to be spending $6 billion on developing original content, but it is lagging far behind the number of subscribers for other services. Disney purchased Marvel for $4 billion and also paid $4 billion for Lucasfilm – surely Apple would be willing to spend a similar amount to augment its own content offerings.

A bit late this year, but there they are. Given my recent track record of getting only 20-30% of them right, expect most of these to be embarrassingly wrong when the carnage is tallied next January. As always, the comments link is available for anyone who wants to join the madness and add their own thoughts on the coming year.

Predictions Gone Wrong

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:27 pm, January 9th, 2020

For over a decade I’ve made an annual effort at self-flagellation by posting predictions for the coming year, and looking over the predictions for 2019 I made a particularly large mess of it this year. Here’s the embarrassing results of this year’s effort.

  1. Tiger Woods will return to the world golf #1 ranking at some point in 2019.

    While he improved his ranking from #1199 all the way up to #5, he was inconsistent and never really threatened to go to #1. This prediction is the first of many that I got wrong this year.

  2. Democrats will not seriously pursue impeachment of Donald Trump in 2019.

    In my defense, I added the following caveat to this prediction: “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.” I think Democrats would have been better off pushing for a censure or investigation instead of jumping straight to impeachment, but I’m guessing Nancy Pelosi figured that anything less than impeachment would divide Democrats during the primary season, and so knowing that no amount of evidence would convince the Senate to convict Trump she simply rushed to get the whole thing over with as quickly as possible.

  3. After Disney’s $71.3 billion acquisition of Fox Studios, 2019 will see another massive media merger.

    I’m surprised that everyone is pursuing their own streaming strategy and that there hasn’t been more consolidation, but it seems like Warner Brothers, CBS and Universal are going to hold out as long as they can before bowing to inevitability. I’m now zero-for-three in the prediction game for the year.

  4. After making almost $60 billion in profits in 2018, Apple will see its lowest yearly profits since it made $40 billion in 2014.

    I’ve been debating quitting the iPhone for a while now, but the fact that I still have one should have been a warning flag against making this prediction. Apple reported lower profits this year than in 2018, but still brought in $55 billion, well above what I predicted.

  5. Facebook 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.

    There’s a lot to unpack in this prediction, but the quick version is that I thought there would be a clear threat to Facebook’s dominance in the social media space, and that hasn’t materialized. Governments are starting to legislate against Facebook’s more odious practices, and many users are now aware of the fact that Facebook is doing a lot of really sketchy things, but there’s no reason to believe that anything will change soon.

  6. By the end of the year the leading Democratic 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.

    This prediction also contains a lot of small predictions, but essentially I misjudged how the race would unfold. Today’s polling averages from fivethirtyeight.com show Joe Biden at 26.6%, Bernie Sanders at 18.1%, and Elizabeth Warren at 15.4%, with the next tier all polling in single digits. Democrats all seem to be lamenting their choices, but they aren’t really looking at anyone who hasn’t been in the national spotlight for the past few decades; the three poll leaders are a 78 year-old gaffe-prone former-VP, a 79 year-old socialist from Vermont, and a 71 year-old liberal Senator from Massachusetts.

  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.

    Both SpaceX and Boeing had setbacks in their crewed launch programs this year, and now both will be lucky if they can get astronauts to the space station in 2020. As an act of charity I’m going to give myself half credit for predicting that Boeing would fail, particularly since the aerospace giant continues to be even further behind than SpaceX.

  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.

    There is no indication whatsoever that Google has any interest in its own 5G network. I should probably deduct a point for being not just wrong, but utterly and completely wrong, but let’s just move on.

  9. Avengers: Endgame will outperform Star Wars: Episode IX at the box office.

    I FINALLY GOT ONE RIGHT! Avengers:Endgame ranks #1 in the all-time worldwide box office with $2.8 billion and #2 in the all-time domestic box office with $858 million. Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker is currently at $945 million worldwide and $461 million domestic, meaning it won’t come close to the latest Marvel movie’s numbers.

  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.

    I’m actually a little bit shocked that Richard Branson hasn’t taken a flight in his new spaceship yet – they’ve done a bunch of test flights and even sent up a test passenger in February, but so far the daredevil CEO hasn’t flown. I’m giving myself a half-point as charity for predicting that they wouldn’t fly any paying customers in 2019.

  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… he’ll be the NFL’s third-highest paid running back.

    I GOT ANOTHER ONE! Bell sat out a year, arguing he wasn’t being offered enough by the Steelers, and ended up signing a four-year, $52.5 million contract. He barely moved ahead of David Johnson in terms of average salary, but ended up still being the third highest paid running back once Ezekiel Elliott signed an extension in Dallas.

  12. Tesla will introduce a major refresh of its Model S and Model X vehicles, including a new battery pack technology.

    Reports indicate that a cosmetic refresh is imminent and that new battery technology will also be introduced in 2020, but Tesla spent 2019 focused on ramping up and optimizing Model-3 production and pushed changes to its existing lineup to the backburner.

  13. Boeing will officially announce its new 797 plane this year.

    Obviously the grounding of Boeing’s 737-MAX caused all other efforts in the company to grind to a halt, and it is now likely that the company is completely re-thinking its product roadmap.

  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.

    Surprisingly, Trump’s update to NAFTA passed the House by a vote of 385-41, but like hundreds of other bills that have made it through the House, it is stalled in the Senate. Mitch McConnell has been laser-focused on putting conservative judges on the bench and as a result hasn’t spent as much time on legislation, so like most of the other predictions for this year, I’m going to call this one incorrect.

  15. PG&E will be split up and in many cases turn into municipal utilities.

    So far PG&E seems to be weathering its troubles by increasing rates and doing a surprisingly adept job of navigating bankruptcy court. The utility is still in a precarious position, but it looks like they could emerge from their current troubles intact.

The final tally for 2019: 3 out of 15 (20%), making this the third-most dismal showing behind only 2014 (12%) and 2013 (11%). And bear in mind, that score is with two charity half-points I awarded myself for mostly-incorrect predictions. Oy. I’ll make an effort to ensure that the upcoming predictions for 2020 are better.

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.