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

I Just Felt Like Runnin’

Posted from Boise, Idaho at 9:30 pm, July 31st, 2011

Back in the day I was bad at every sport that required coordination, but did have the dubious talent of being able to run at a fast pace without barfing for longer than most other people. Since those days I’ve run less-and-less, and thus eventually reached a state in which I was bad at every sport, including those involving running and vomit.

It’s easy enough to make excuses and much harder to find time and motivation, but at the end of 2010 being out of shape had become a big enough issue that something had to be done. As a result, including today I’ve now run a minimum of 1-2 miles every day for 213 consecutive days. After spending January just trying to do two miles a day, last week was the first time in years where I ran over forty miles in a week – not a particularly impressive total, but obviously far better than doing nothing.

Distance running isn’t glamorous, but it teaches a good life lesson: a difficult task begins with the first step, and is only successful when that first step is followed up consistently with many more. That lesson has been a valuable one to have learned early, as even the most daunting endeavors no longer seem overwhelming – just like training for a distance race, many tough challenges can be met by just going out there each day, putting in some work, and knowing that while it may not seem like anything is changing, every step is absolutely necessary in order to get to the end goal.

Of course, with all that said, it would be a lie to say that there isn’t a small part of me that wishes I’d been blessed with a bit more coordination and thus writing today about how my years of fame as the football team’s running back taught the valuable life lesson of teamwork…

Mr. Tambourine Man

Posted from Culver City, California at 7:15 pm, May 17th, 2011

In November 2004 I was staying in a converted farmhouse on tiny Pebble Island within the Falkland Islands. Including guests there were probably no more than a dozen people on this island, and the majority of the visitors were a quirky bunch of old British folks who explained to me that Venice Beach was the place to go for birdwatching in LA. At the time I looked at them as if they’d just told me about the great nightlife in North Dakota and went about ravenously consuming the steak pie that had been set in front of me.

Fast forward almost seven years, and the Venice Beach Pier is one of the places Audrey and I are most likely to head to for an evening walk. Last Saturday night our company on this walk included an egret who was fishing in the canal, a flock of pelicans that were plunge diving for mackerel, a heron that was intently observing the pier’s activities from atop a street lamp, and a few dolphins that were out enjoying the twilight. While it’s in no way comparable to areas along the Central Coast or even a place like La Jolla, I’ve got to admit that those crazy Brits might have known what they were talking about.

Black-crowned night heron

Black-crowned night heron. Taken on Pebble Island in the Falklands, but these guys also keep Audrey and I company on our strolls through Venice.

Finding Time to Think

Posted from Culver City, California at 5:20 pm, April 30th, 2011

Audrey and I watched The Social Network a couple of weeks ago (good flick, by the way) and it was a reminder of what it was like to have the time and energy to focus on an idea and try to make it happen. Every software engineer that you’ve ever heard of became famous at a young age: Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Linus Torvalds and Steve Jobs were all famous by the time they were in their mid-twenties, and a major reason for it was because it was at that point in their lives that they had the focus and available time to take a chance on a big idea. They were probably also all single, but for software engineers that’s a separate, and likely unrelated, issue.

One major reason why older software engineers tend to make less of a splash is the same as it is for many jobs that require creative energy – once you’re spending 8-10 hours a day in a cubicle working for a company it’s terribly hard to find motivation to devote any significant amount of outside time to a similar endeavor. At the same time, quitting a good-paying job to pursue an idea that likely won’t pan out doesn’t make a lot of sense when weighed against the risk-reward formula that scientific types are ever-so-good at calculating. The end result is that by the mid-twenties a good software engineer is probably employed in a well-paying job that sucks up vast amounts of motivation that might otherwise have been spent founding Microsoft or Facebook.

It’s also for this reason that many older software engineers aren’t in as much demand as some younger ones – if you aren’t constantly learning new things and experimenting with new ideas, it’s tough for a company to justify paying 2-3 times more than what a young engineer might garner. While there are some very notable exceptions, software engineering seems primarily to be the province of the under-forty crowd.

The struggle between pursuing personal projects and working steadily is one that I’m given a chance to revisit whenever a job ends or a contract comes up for renewal. While it would be naive to believe that every idea will grow into something incredible if just given enough time and energy (the dotcom era drove that lesson home hard), there are always a million little projects waiting to be explored that, like any great unknown, are likely to generate at least a handful of interesting results. As a result, and understanding that in my field of work complacence often replaces excitement and innovation, I’m looking at my current work situation and doing some evaluation. While the ability to pay rent and buy groceries cannot be under-appreciated, the prospect of having some time to work on my own projects and potentially produce something new is an exciting one. The next few months may be interesting.

Bang or go home

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:48 am, April 24th, 2011

I was trying to think of where I’ve been on this date for the past several years, and was surprisingly able to nail it down fairly exactly from old journals and emails. This may not be interesting to anyone but me, but IMHO I’ve been lucky to have such a wide range of experiences during the past 14 years:

  • 1998 On April 24 I was in my final year at Case Western, and on this particular weekend I was with the track team in Atlanta for the conference championships where I was running the 10,000 meters in insanely hot conditions. I’d broken up with a girlfriend two weeks prior, was finishing up classes, preparing for the final races of the track season, and planning a six-week trip to Europe for the summer. Life was moving fast.
  • 1999 I was living in Oakland and working at Andersen Consulting’s research group in Palo Alto as the dotcom era was really picking up steam. My car had died a dramatic death during rush hour on the Dumbarton Bridge two days prior, and I was two days away from purchasing the best car ever. Other activities at the time included planning my first trip to the Galapagos Islands for the year’s end.
  • 2000 After a long stint working a job in Phoenix I had been sent to Singapore and was just finishing my first week there. The project was only supposed to be for three weeks, but it ended up being more than a year before I was back in the US full-time.
  • 2001 After two projects in Singapore and a short job in Korea I was assigned to a project in Kuala Lumpur, but due to delays I ended up taking some vacation and going to Cambodia and Indonesia. April 24 found me sunburned while exploring the temple complex of Angkor Wat. Two days later while flying to Indonesia (via Singapore) I got the worst case of food-poisoning in my life and ended up living in the airport for 24 hours, too sick to even move.
  • 2002 After taking my dad to Egypt in March I was back at work in Los Angeles doing a job for Disney. A month later I would get dominated when a co-worker convinced me that I could do the San Diego marathon without training.
  • 2003 After quitting my job at Accenture the previous August I had traveled to Alaska and then taken a contracting gig at Warner Brothers in Burbank where I was spending my lunch hours roaming the movie studio lot. I was running more regularly than at any time since college, and a second trip to the Galapagos was looming in May.
  • 2004 I was back at Warner Brothers for another job after having fulfilled a lifelong dream the previous January by traveling to Antarctica.
  • 2005 A month-long road trip through the Southwest had just concluded, and I returned to my rented room in Lafayette with no concrete plans for the future. April was the mid-point of an eleven month stretch without work that didn’t end until August, when I went back to LA and rented a room from a girl named Audrey.
  • 2006 I moved to Culver City in December and visited the Antarctic again in January, and on this date was just a few weeks away from what would end up being my final trip to the Galapagos. Despite not having worked in a while I traded the car that had shepherded me through the Far North and on many, many road trips for a new model on April 25, a decision that actually led me to get a bit nervous about money and start looking for a job.
  • 2007 April found me five months into a contract with DirecTV, a job I would continue for three years. The previous June saw the creation of JAMWiki, an open source project I’m continuing to work on today.
  • 2008 My brother and I were spending more time together since he had moved to nearby Palmdale, and April saw us on a fishing trip in which he spent the entire voyage curled up in the fetal position barfing while I never ended up putting a hook in the water.
  • 2009 After going to the Dominican Republic with Audrey to snorkel with whales in March, April 24, 2009 was spent flying to Florida for my grandmother’s 90th birthday. The following day was spent at Cape Canaveral looking at spaceships, something I’m known to do from time-to-time, followed by an evening at Disneyworld’s Animal Kingdom Lodge (yes, I am a dork).
  • 2010 After leaving DirecTV in December I took a contracting job at Backcountry.com, but late April found me away from work and hiking through the Grand Canyon with my brother.

Good Things

Posted from Culver City, California at 6:18 pm, March 31st, 2011

There is a line in the James Clavell book Shogun that I’ve always liked:

“Always remember, child,” her first teacher had impressed on her, “that to think bad thoughts is really the easiest thing in the world. If you leave your mind to itself it will spiral you down into ever-increasing unhappiness. To think good thoughts, however, requires effort.”

In a world where the country is fighting three wars, the economy is looking at its third straight bad year, and the environment is seemingly headed to ruin, it can be easy to overlook good news, but there are a lot of things going on that are worth feeling positive about:

  • After disappearing for nearly one hundred years, 62 miles of the Owens River is now flowing again. In another victory for the Eastern Sierra, after losing forty-five feet of water depth and 99% of its ducks and geese, Mono Lake is slowly being restored, and with record snowfall this year it should gain a few more feet of water depth. In both cases the original devastation was due to diversion of water for LA, but for the most part the restoration has been done without diminishing LA’s water supply.
  • Habitat loss has had a damaging effect on migratory birds, but the Nature Conservancy is working with farmers in Washington state to allow flooding of fallow fields during bird migrations, providing stopovers for wildlife without affecting the land’s usefulness for crops. Early results show improved bird habitat and increased soil fertility. Similarly, the conservancy also restored twenty-five square miles of floodplain in Louisiana by removing a levee, apparently helping to reduce the downriver severity of a major flood in 2009 as a result.
  • After years of delay, the Boeing 787 will finally launch later this year. It offers 20% better fuel efficiency than comparable older planes, meaning that a flight that previously would have burned 10,000 gallons of jet fuel will now be using 2,000 gallons less. At the same time it’s a quieter plane, which is nice for those of us living in the flight path of a large airport.
  • An eradication of brown rats on South Georgia Island is underway. While this is obviously bad news for the rats, since arriving with whaling ships in the early 1900s they have decimated many of the native nesting birds, and with the retreating of glaciers on the island it is inevitable that they will spread and destroy even more bird colonies. Thus, the prospect of their removal is a hopeful one for the future recovery of the island’s amazing native wildlife.
  • In 2008 LA approved a sales tax increase to fund transportation projects over the next thirty years. The mayor then proposed accelerating those projects through the 30/10 plan, in which LA would borrow funds from the federal government against the future sales tax revenue in order to implement in ten years what would have taken thirty. Since building rail, highways, and subways in 2011 dollars is cheaper than doing it in the future, and since there are immense benefits to having better transit options now rather than later, AND since this is a loan that is backed by a revenue stream that has already been voter-approved, the plan is moving forward quickly and seems to be supported from both the left and the right, with those of us living in LA set to benefit from much-needed infrastructure improvements in the coming decade.

It’s nice to step back occasionally and get a reminder of why, despite constant predictions of doom and gloom, the future continues to be a hopeful one. The comments link is available for anyone wanting to spread some additional positivity, as good news should definitely be shared.

This is Mainly Filler

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:12 pm, February 28th, 2011

A handful of moderately interesting bits that may or may not be worth recording:

  • Space Shuttle Discovery is on its final mission. More than thirty years ago I remember my mother taking me to the Nashua Science Center where they gave a presentation on the great new replacement for the Apollo rocket. After one more mission that era will be over for good, which is an odd thing to consider.
  • In the world of airplanes (which are awesome) Boeing is getting ready for the first flight of the 747-8i, the world’s longest commercial airplane, and will shortly be announcing plans for the plane that will replace the 737.
  • The wicked awesome JAMWiki 1.0 was unleashed upon the world at the end of January to a roar of silence, although on February 11 apparently 5800 Kazakhis downloaded it, a new record for single-day eastern bloc installs.

And with that, February now has three journal entries. Hopefully March will yield slightly more material and the last minute panic entries can be avoided.

These are the days of miracle and wonder

Posted from Culver City, California at 11:20 pm, October 13th, 2010

With this journal now beyond its eighth birthday, one use of it that I’ve occasionally enjoyed indulging in at the expense of my twos of readers is posting thoughts about what seems important in technology, politics, or whatever; it’s fun to look back a few years later to see how trends played out versus what might have been expected at the time. For those who are bored to death by such posts, head immediately to Lolcats to avoid a geeky trend analysis.

The dotcom wave crested nine years ago, and since then it has seemed more and more likely that the next boom would be led by energy and conservation technologies. Dotcom disrupted markets by introducing new ways to do traditional tasks faster and more efficiently, offering huge value for those who adopted the new technologies. With new energy developments on the horizon offering a similar value proposition, it seems that another burst of change is inevitable. That said, here are a few specific technologies that seem like they will end up being interesting and important with respect to energy and conservation. The comments link is available should anyone else care to throw out their own thoughts.

Electric cars

While there is some attention still being given to solar cars, hydrogen cars, and hybrids, electric cars look more and more like they will be the primary automotive technology in the future. Battery storage is rapidly improving, and if trends hold then in another 5-10 years cars could be on the roads with expected ranges of 400-600 miles per charge. More importantly, however, is that electric cars make better sense from a technology standpoint than hybrids or internal combustion engines – the motors are more powerful and more efficient, and the supporting systems are simpler. An electric car doesn’t need oil changes, doesn’t have an exhaust system, has simpler cooling needs, etc. As the range issues are addressed and the cost of battery packs come down, it’s very tough to imagine anyone choosing oil changes, gas stations, and a $600 maintenance charge every 30,000 miles to something that they can just plug in at night. I’m obviously heavily influenced by JB on this issue, but while I’m not convinced Tesla will lead this trend I’m fairly certain that it’s one that’s coming in a big way.

Solar panels

Similarly, as solar panel efficiencies are improving it is becoming cost-effective for greater numbers of people to install them. While for most people the allure of solar panels is currently that they’re a “green” option, as soon as the economics of solar panels offer a cost advantage over grid power it’s tough to imagine that there wouldn’t be a rush for the mass market to install them; companies like Solar City are already pushing a sales message that is primarily based on economics rather than environmentalism. With current rates of improvement, the economic argument should be a HUGE selling point in places like Arizona and Southern California within the next several years. Should home generation become more prevalent, it is also conceivable that the need for new power plants might then be lower than current projections.

Environmental Concerns

This may be overly optimistic, but a side effect of a move to electric vehicles and solar panels would be less air pollution and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Any such benefits would obviously take time to kick in as old technologies were slowly phased out, but if (for example) 10% of vehicles are electric by 2015, and 30% are electric by 2020, air quality improvements should follow. This optimistic view isn’t an argument against trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from traditional sources, but it does give some hope that even in the absence of legislative action there may still be some chance of avoiding the worst predicted effects of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Peak Oil

Oil production rises each year to meet increased demand, but at some point there simply won’t be enough oil that can be extracted from the ground for that trend to continue. The commonly held assumption is that demand will continue to rise while supply will remain stable, causing a massive shock to economies and industrial systems. However, as electric vehicle technology improves it would seem that there will, for the first time, be a viable alternative for the most common use of oil. Since people are driven by economic factors, given the choice between a $20,000 vehicle that runs on $5.00 – $7.00 a gallon fuel, or a $30,000 vehicle that can be plugged in, fears over a depression brought about by peak oil may actually be replaced by a mini economic boom as replacement technologies are adopted.

Traffic Congestion

It’s tough to tell if today’s political environment is an anomaly or not, but at least in the US there is a dearth of sensible long-term planning as candidates look to quick-wins and uncontroversial decisions. Currently candidates in several states are campaigning against transportation projects that could produce huge long-term benefits, albeit at short-term cost. In California, a much-needed high-speed rail line is opposed by the current Republican gubernatorial candidate and will at best be delayed by myriad lawsuits from cities impacted by the proposed rail route, and at worst will end up canceled.

With so many obstacles to major changes to the existing transportation system, it seems that incremental approaches implemented at the local level are the only options to looming congestion nightmares. New York and several other cities already have implemented small-scale solutions, such as systems that allow buses to manage traffic lights to speed up bus routes. It seems logical that such “smart” traffic lights will be implemented elsewhere to optimize traffic flows. Similarly, cities will probably begin looking more at options like congestion pricing, reversible lanes, and better use of real-time traffic data for routing. While it would be great to think that large mass-transit projects will play a bigger role, it’s tough to see how such projects will be implemented, meaning that small-scale projects are likely to be the main area of growth.

Aerospace

While more efficient air and space travel could enable a number of new developments, this area sadly doesn’t seem poised for huge advances. With private companies like SpaceX now capable of launching payloads for a fraction of traditional costs it’s possible that additional uses for space will open up, but technology is still probably twenty years away from a cost point where really exciting changes could take place. Similarly, with more fuel efficient airplane technologies such as the Boeing 787 launching, air travel should become more pleasant, but revolutionary changes like blended wing body planes or hypersonic transports look like they’re still 30 years away from becoming a day-to-day reality.

Other Items

Water is going to become a bigger and bigger issue; if desalination doesn’t become a more prominent option then the world will face severe shortages. Assuming the energy requirements for desalination decrease and available fresh water supplies continue to be used up, the oceans should soon become a big part of the municipal water plan.

Smart grid technology is already being put in place to allow variable pricing of electricity, which should cause users to shift electricity usage and thus decrease the need for new power plants. The idea is that if electricity is more expensive when demand is high then people will defer usage until prices decrease; it’s less sensible to run the dish washer at mid-day if you can do so for half the price in the evening.

Biofuels will continue to gain attention, particularly things like cellulosic ethanol and algae fuel, but simpler technologies like electric motors, wind power, and traditional power sources may prevent them from ever being widespread. Instead, something like algae fuel production may be most useful as a way for large industrial facilities to reduce carbon emissions while simultaneously creating a commercially valuable by-product.