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

California Has the Things

Posted from Culver City, California at 12:34 pm, June 1st, 2013

For no particular reason (aside from the fact that it’s the end of the month and I’m one entry short of the three-a-month goal), here’s a random sampling of places that make California so extraordinary:

  • Death Valley Most places that have “death” in the name probably don’t deserve it, but this one most-assuredly does. That said, visiting outside of the summer months is awesome – Badwater Basin is an expanse of salt flats like no where else, the surrounding mountains rise to over ten thousand feet in elevation, and the rock at lower elevations is a rainbow of mineral-stained artistry. Visiting the backcountry requires traversing roads and terrain that make you wish you had an extra two feet of ground clearance and rock climbing gear. And around each corner is something surprising, ranging from giant craters to dry lakes to remote signposts decorated with teakettles.
  • Big Sur It is doubtful whether anyone has ever put together a list of “prettiest roads in America” that didn’t include Highway 1 along the Big Sur Coast. Seacliffs are always scenic, but then you also get redwoods, sea otters, millions of birds, raging oceans, and a road not meant for those prone to car sickness.
  • The Salton Sea. The first time I visited this engineering debacle I was shocked to discover how bizarre it was. Several years later when I returned with Audrey she remarked that she was shocked that it was “exactly as weird as you described”. Ghost towns consisting of 1960s vacation homes, a stinking toxic lake filled with huge numbers of birds, and scattered human populations that seem reminiscent of a Mad Max movie. PLUS, it’s 120 degrees in the summer, so you get to take in the scenery while slightly delirious from heatstroke.
  • The Sierra Nevadas Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park are the two most obvious highlights, but Highway 395 along the Eastern Sierra passes by the massively-odd Mono Lake, travels past the highest mountain in the lower-48 states, and then lets you out next to the home of Virgin Galactic and an airplane graveyard.

There is much more – the Redwoods, Mount Lassen volcano, the random roads that traverse the area around Mount Shasta, Joshua Tree, Monterey, San Francisco Bay, the wildlife refuges hidden throughout the Central Valley, etc, etc. Overall, not too shabby of place to have settled down.

Brown pelican in La Jolla

For a photographer of limited skill looking for birds to “stand still and look pretty”, La Jolla is a top-notch destination.

Badwater Salt Flats in Death Valley

Taken during a road trip in 2005 after an unusually wet winter, the salt flats were particularly crusty and other-planet-like.

I Don’t Get It

Posted from Culver City, California at 11:39 pm, May 27th, 2013

This journal entry is a rant. Posts about mastodons and tar pits will return in the future, but those expecting stories of spaceships parked at donut shops might want to skip this entry.

For those still reading, Elon Musk recently tweeted the following:

It is unfortunate that climate change was brought to public attention by Al Gore, as it then became a “left wing” issue.

That tweet gets to the heart of something that is both saddening and frustrating about today’s discourse: a number of issues, many of which are very important, are now approached with the mentality of sports fans: “My team is right, your team sucks!” Just as with sports, individuals support “their side” and ignore the merits of the argument.

Consider Musk’s example of global warming: admitting (or denying) that climate change is a serious issue is a litmus test for the far left and far right; commentators on the right are constantly screaming that it is either a hoax or not caused by human activity, while on the far left you might think that anything less than the elimination of all fossil fuel usage is akin to Armageddon. However, looking at it from the standpoint of the scientific community, there is similar certainty that human produced greenhouse gases are heating up the planet at a dangerous rate as there is for theories such as the big bang or evolution. Meanwhile, saying that climate change is a problem that should be addressed will get a politician voted out of office on the right, while far left activists are chaining themselves to the White House gates over the construction of a single oil pipeline, and in the mean time not even a minimal amount of action is taken to mitigate something that will have serious negative future consequences.

Similarly, I’m convinced that ten years from now no one will buy a new car without debating whether or not that car should be electric. From an engineering standpoint (mechanical engineering grad here!) electric cars are undeniably better technology. Consider:

  • Battery technology today allows a range of 300 miles, and that technology is improving at about eight percent each year.
  • Maintenance on electric cars is minimal – no oil changes, no belts or hoses, no transmission, no emission system.
  • Electric engines are approximately three times more efficient than gas engines.
  • The driving experience in electric cars is vastly better – you have full torque immediately, offering a ridiculously fast acceleration.
  • Electric cars have no emissions – the smog and related pollution issues of cities like LA will diminish significantly with a move to electric vehicles.

However, with Romney and much of the right wing having labeled Tesla Motors as a “loser” and an example of an Obama “failure” during the campaign, any mention of Tesla is now followed by comments about how the company is a beneficiary of “crony capitalism”, is merely building a toy for the rich, and will be bankrupt any day now. This, despite the fact that Tesla repaid its government loan (issued under a Bush administration program) nine years early, was funded solely with private money for its first seven years, is one of the few new manufacturing ventures in the US, is the first successful new American car company in several generations, has always planned for a mass-market ($30,000) vehicle as part of their roadmap, and has built a car that literally has people cheering after test drives and has won awards from every automotive group that has reviewed it, including the highest score in Consumer Reports history, and Motor Trend Car of the Year. If we can’t support this example of American ingenuity, what has gone wrong in our discourse?

Other issues evoke similar reactions: nuclear power is supported on the right and opposed on the left despite studies that seem to indicate that use of nuclear power has saved lives. Environmental issues are now immediately dismissed as left-wing, although the vast majority of people support clean air, clean water, and a place for wildlife. The list of issues goes on and on: guns, GMOs, healthcare, taxes, immigration; all of these devolve into “my team versus your team”, despite the fact that there is clearly a huge amount of middle ground on which agreement (and action) is possible.

In spite of the seemingly grim atmosphere, things do tend to work out in the end, although given the state of rhetoric today it seems that we’re making it much, much harder to get to that end state than it needs to be.


Posted from Boise, Idaho at 9:32 pm, April 15th, 2013

The very sad events at today’s Boston Marathon are cause for grieving, but to a greater extent people seem to be focusing on those who immediately rushed into the smoke to help, or on the fact that in the aftermath so many people donated to the Red Cross that their web site crashed, or on the commitment of the individuals who chose to run the grueling race. On the latter subject, Ezra Klein wrote an article that does a good job of capturing why the marathon is so inspiring entitled ‘If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon’:

My wife has been training for a marathon. She leaves the house early in the morning and runs for hours and hours. She comes home tired and sore. And then she does it again. And again. And again.

There’s no reason for her to do it. There’s no competition or payoff or award. It’s just a quiet, solitary triumph over the idea that she couldn’t do it, and it all happens before I even wake up.

It’s thoughts like these that provide hope in spite of tragedies. The runners in a marathon are a case study in human inspiration: yes, running 26 miles is impressive, but the reason to cheer each finisher is as much about the days or years of effort that lead up to that accomplishment, and the idea that any human being who is willing to dedicate themselves to the task can complete such a mind-boggling feat.

A friend of mine in LA, Arkady, not only finished the 50 mile Comrades Marathon through the mountains around Capetown, but was in the top 15% of competitors. Several years before, this same ironman was 80 pounds heavier with 40% body fat, and made the decision to change his life. That single commitment, revisited day after day after day over many years, is what people celebrate when Arkady finishes a race, and is what they were celebrating as he finished (safely) in Boston today.

Another friend, Angela, decided one day that she wanted to run a marathon, and started out by running around the block once. The next day she ran around the block twice, and before long she was carrying a wooden box of matches with her and transferring them from one hand to another to keep track of her laps. Rather than stopping at the marathon, she trained for the world’s toughest race, the 135 mile Badwater Ultramathon through Death Valley in the summer, and today is one of the very few people on the planet to have actually finished that race. That seemingly-impossible accomplishment started out with an average person simply making the decision to do something extraordinary, and then getting out each day to put in the required work over a period of years to make the impossible possible.

Sport is about incredible human accomplishments, but a key reason that we stand along the road and cheer during a marathon is because the athletes in the race show us that a completely normal person who simply makes the decision to commit each day to a task can do something amazing and thus prove that things that seemingly can’t be done are within anyone’s reach. The bombings today are a tragedy, but the fact that so many people are taking notice of good things in the world, and perhaps themselves making a decision to commit to do something inspiring, provides hope that even such a horrible evil can be a catalyst for a great deal of good to come.

Everything is Amazing

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:39 pm, March 28th, 2013

"’I had to sit on the runway for 40 minutes.’ Oh my god, really? What happened then, did you fly through the air like a bird, incredibly? Did you soar into the clouds, impossibly? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight and then land softly?…You’re sitting in a chair in the sky. You’re like a Greek myth right now."

–Louis CK

Given the opportunity to live in any time period in human history (live in, not just visit), right now seems like a pretty clear winner. Aside from the odd mental patient, no one wakes up each day wondering “is a barbarian horde going to invade my town and burn me alive?”. If you get a cut, or catch a cold, your friends don’t have to place bets as to whether or not you’ll be dead at the end of the week. Very seldom do we head out to the store worrying whether a wild animal will devour us during the journey.

If you have a question, the magical cell phone in your pocket will connect to millions of computers to find an answer. If you want to travel you can visit literally any corner of the earth in a matter of hours or days, and don’t have to worry that scurvy will cause your teeth to fall out along the way. Instead of each day wondering where our food and water will come from, the big concern is whether we’ve eaten too many delicious meals and will have to spend more time at a gym where we can mimic the physical exertion that our bodies have evolved over thousands of years to expect would be needed simply to stay alive.

When I get hungry, I can use my my phone (which has no wires) to call a local restaurant. Without doing anything other than reading numbers from a plastic card I can get them to bring me sushi, which has been caught from who-knows-where and brought fresh to the restaurant. The delivery person travels a couple of miles to my house over communally-maintained roads using a vehicle that runs on drops of a clear liquid at speeds of up to 100 miles an hour. I then return to my job, located in my kitchen, where my background music is any one of thousands of songs which are stored in digital format on my laptop. That job involves collaborating with dozens of people who are hundreds of miles away, each of us using computers to build something that exists only as bits of ones and zeros on a series of magnetic storage devices, something that thousands upon thousands of people will use each day to make transactions that total millions of dollars each year.

With some credit to Louis CK, we live in a time where everything is amazing. Of course, it would still be pretty awesome to pay a visit to the Renaissance, Ancient Rome, or pre-colonization America, but right now is very likely the best time in all of human history in which to live. Not convinced? Here’s a gallery of amazing photos, many of which were taken IN SPACE, that you can browse via the magical internet. Need more? Go to amazon.com and buy anything you can possibly think of just by typing in numbers from a plastic card. Still need more? Go to Google and have any question you can think of answered. Everything is amazing.

The Planet Mercury

The planet Mercury, located 96.6 million miles from Earth. Photographed by the Messenger spacecraft, a robot that traveled through space and then sent pretty pictures back to Earth at the speed of light.

The Plan

Posted from Boise, Idaho at 6:35 pm, January 31st, 2013

This journal entry has gone through a few drafts. What started out as a retrospective on my changing goals in life (quick summary: at age five it was to become a superhero, and at age 37 I’m still trying to figure it out) turned to thoughts of how much of a legacy people actually leave. In thinking about this topic, it seems that a “legacy” is often evaluated based at least partially on luck. Consider someone like Steve Jobs – he was clearly a visionary, he obviously changed the world, and like almost any successful person this was due to a combination of hard work, determination, and intelligence. However, had he stayed at Reed College, or had his first venture into personal computing failed, the name “Steve Jobs” might mean nothing to us today. He undoubtedly still would have lived a notable life, but a man who is today universally revered as a visionary would not have been known to the world at large. In no way do I want to diminish the impact of someone like Apple’s former CEO, but it’s an interesting thought to realize that people you view as having “left a legacy” are often just one or two accomplishments away from relative obscurity.

If a lasting legacy requires at least a small amount of luck, it is also true that a far larger amount of perseverance, hard work, intelligence, and ability to seize opportunities is required. Thus, while it might be a disappointment to my five year old self to discover that his older counterpart lives a happy but relatively un-notable life, the older version of that superhero-wannabe is able to take some pride in still trying to achieve great things, and still making an effort to leave a positive mark on the world. Simple math shows that most people will not make a significant impact on humanity, but it is only those who continue to strive that have any chance of successfully doing so.

Election 2012

Posted from Culver City, California at 5:38 pm, November 11th, 2012

While politics is a bit of a dangerous subject to bring up in a public forum these days, it would be a shame not to record a journal entry for posterity about the election, so here are some (hopefully) non-partisan thoughts on the recent election. The comments link is available for anyone who would like to berate me, berate the parties, or add their own thoughtful and nuanced musings.

  • Obama won the electoral college 332-206 and the popular vote 51-48. While this is a big win relative to recent Presidential elections, pundits who are predicting a permanent Republican minority due to demographic changes might want to tone it down – if merely two voters out of every hundred had a change of heart the storyline would instead be about the failings of the Democratic party, and as the once-solidly Democratic Southern states demonstrate, demographic groups can completely flip their party alignment over time.
  • In a story that isn’t getting much press, the Democrats shocking gained two Senate seats in a year in which they had 23 seats up for re-election (vs 10 for Republicans), increasing their Senate majority from 53-47 to 55-45 and winning in places like South Dakota, Missouri, Montana and Indiana. As a result, it seems much more likely that the Democrats will now be more confident about their odds of keeping the Senate in 2014 (when they have six seats up in states that will be very difficult to retain), and thus will change Senate rules to limit use of the filibuster, thereby making it much easier to confirm Presidential nominees and bring bills to the floor for discussion. While the ability to filibuster a vote (ala Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) is unlikely to be changed, filibustering every motion to move a bill forward will likely soon be a thing of the past.
  • The following issues that affect people on a day-to-day basis are now almost certain to happen as a result of this election: Obamacare is going to be fully implemented, EPA fuel efficiency rules (fleet averages of 54.5 mpg by 2025) and efforts to limit CO2 emissions will continue, tax rates on income over $250,000 are going up, and the Supreme Court will not become more conservative.
  • On a less-certain note, Republicans have split over immigration in the past – George W. Bush pushed for immigration reform in order to attract Hispanic voters, while Mitt Romney was in favor of self-deportation as a play for Republican base voters. Based on recent statements, Republicans seem to have taken the election results to mean that the pro-immigration voices in the party were right, so it would be a good bet that comprehensive immigration reform becomes law by 2014.
  • Andrew Sullivan made the argument that those who categorized this election as a choice between freedom and tyranny would be well-served by re-evaluating their assumptions (this argument applies to both sides). To be very clear: neither Obama, nor George W. Bush before him, want to destroy America. The two sides simply differ on policy and the role of government, and those who choose to demonize either side as evil or anti-American make it much more difficult for the parties to work together since there is no way to justify compromising or finding common ground with someone who actually wants to destroy the country.
  • Finally, despite wild speculations from various pundits, for the second Presidential election in a row Nate Silver and his poll aggregation model was the one who most accurately predicted the election results. To this engineering grad, no matter which side wins, vindication of a math and statistics approach over hand-waving and demagoguery is a good thing.


Posted from Culver City, California at 8:00 pm, October 24th, 2012

Despite being horrid at it, journal entries that make predictions about the future are some of my favorites to write. Thus, in keeping with a long and embarrassing tradition of ignoring better judgment and making uninformed guesses about the future, here are some thoughts about trends that might develop over the next twenty years.

To provide some perspective, think back twenty years to 1992. At that time most people didn’t know what the internet was. Pagers were the best way of contacting someone and cell phones were still almost a decade away from becoming ubiquitious. CGI was still a rarity in film, and it would be another year before Jurassic Park would stun the world with dinosaurs that were not filmed using robots or stop motion. Global warming was still an obscure theory that only a handful of climate scientists (and Al Gore) had even heard about. Even though predictions about today’s world made in 1992 would have likely been as wrong as the flying car and nuclear-powered dishwasher predictions made in 1950s science magazines, it’s still fun to make an attempt to speculate on developments over the next twenty years.


Two specific developments might vastly change energy: batteries and decentralized power generation. Currently energy can be generated, but it is hugely difficult to store efficiently and thus must be used immediately. With batteries becoming approximately eight percent more efficient each year, and assuming my math is correct, in twenty years they’ll be about five times more efficient and likely significantly cheaper. Today’s best batteries can power a car for 300 miles, so in twenty years that same battery would theoretically allow 1500 miles of range; with that kind of storage almost all non-electric motors (which are less efficient) would become obsolete, and more generally energy would move from something that must be produced on-demand into an entirely new paradigm. In addition, renewable sources like solar are also improving rapidly. Today, in places with lots of sun, solar is cost-competitive with grid electricity. Assuming a 4-5x improvement in the next two decades, combined with efficient batteries that can store energy for usage when the sun isn’t shining, and suddenly it would be more economical for individual households and businesses to have solar panels than to not have them. If that happens then usage of decentralized power skyrockets, and reliance on huge, centralized coal, oil and gas power plants (and the corresponding pollution they generate) diminishes greatly. As a wildcard, at some point (be it in ten years or a hundred) research into fusion and superconductors will yield breakthroughs that will result in essentially limitless, super-cheap, pollution-free energy.


Bionics is something that sounds scary until you realize it is already happening. Today people think nothing of pacemakers or hearing aids, and almost everyone has a cell phone that they carry at all times to keep connected to everyone else. The process of melding humans and machines is already well underway, and will only continue. In the next twenty years technology will probably become available to make bionics even more personal, including capabilities such as the ability to project a screen directly onto the retina, thus moving the functionality of a cell phone from a device in your hand to something that is actually inside of your head. With increased processing and networking speeds, having an infinite amount of data about the world projected directly into your field of vision will no doubt revolutionize how people interract with one another.

“Thinking” computers

When a person is trying to solve a problem they gather all available information, analyze it, weigh things appropriately, and then make a choice. If that choice turns out to be incorrect they can gather more data, change how existing data is weighed, or otherwise modify their thinking to make a better decision. Currently computers are far better than humans when it comes to analyzing input given a specific set of rules and data, but they aren’t good at modifying those rules or gathering more data; that’s going to change at some point in the future, and when computers can begin analyzing and solving complex problems it will have massive repercussions for quickly advancing knowledge in fields ranging from economics to politics, and especially in all facets of scientific research.

Medical advances

People often lament that medicine hasn’t cured any major disease since eradicating polio, but the medical field may be on the verge of huge advances using stem cells, or cells with properties similar to stem cells. Today if you have nerve damage (such as a spinal cord injury) there is little or nothing that can be done about it, but stem cells offer the potential to simply use your body’s existing genetic blueprints to “fix” the damage. Similar processes could be possible for creating new tissues, thus eliminating the need for organ or blood donations. These breakthroughs would affect all manner of other health and medical issues, so assuming the technology continues to advance, everything from joint pain to amputation could become as anachronous as polio is today.

I should be better than this

Posted from Culver City, California at 11:48 pm, July 30th, 2012

I should be a better person than to write this post, but I’m one short of my three-posts-a-month goal, I get a ton of these sorts of requests, and I’m not in line for sainthood. So here goes – I received the following email today:

From: Elise Pearson <EPearson@vacationroost.com>
Subject: Question About Your Site
Date: Mon, 30 Jul 2012 16:46:37 +0000

Good Afternoon,

My name is Elise and I manage web relationships for a mountain reservation travel agency called Vail Destinations. I am trying to get the word out about our business, and would love to have it be through a blog like yours. We are flexible with the opportunity, but have found that most people opt to:

1. Have us write a unique guest blog post for you and have you post it yourself
2. Have you write an honest review of our site, what you think

In exchange we are offering a $20 Starbuck or Target Gift Card. Please let us know if this is something you are interested in. If you have any questions you can contact me at (801) 559-3256.

Elise Pearson | Online Marketing Coordinator
P: 801.559.3256 | epearson@vacationroost.com

I do love Starbucks, and unlike many people who may take Ms. Pearson up on her offer, I have actually visited Vail (in December 2010), so I’ll go with option #2 and write an honest review of what I think, taking special care to ensure that my review has maximal online marketing value. I can already taste my lattes and scones…

Vail is a truly amazing place with a vast number of lodging options, so visitors should have plenty of choices. Companies in Vail can attract customers by offering great accommodation, excellent prices, or by employing shady and dishonest attempts to artificially inflate their results in search engines. Even though I’ve never used their travel portal, it seems unlikely that Vail Destinations and its parent company Vacation Roost would promote businesses that cheat customers, provide terrible customer service, or operate fraudulently. They have asked me to write a review for them sight unseen, but that does not imply they are engaging in manipulative online marketing, such as one sees with hotels whose rooms pose dangers of exposure to crabs, lice, fleas and STDs.

Since I have not actually used the Vail Destinations travel portal it is important to focus on what I can surmise from their unsolicited emails. At the same time as Ms. Pearson’s email arrived I also received several spam emails, including advertisements for escorts, pornography, and illegal drugs, but Vail Destinations and its parent company Vacation Roost are obviously very different from those internet scams. Also, while some might find it suspicious and unusual for a company to ask complete strangers to write about their business, what are the odds that they would rip-off travelers? Unfortunately I cannot recommend them without doing additional research, but clearly they would not want to pay for reviews like this one if they were just another crappy travel portal that should be avoided at all cost.

The Nature

Posted from Boise, Idaho at 7:35 pm, May 29th, 2012

This post started out as a brainstorm of “things that matter”, but morphed into one about positive developments in conservation. Apologies in advance if it feels a bit too tree-hugger-ish, but these sorts of things excite me and seem worth writing about from time-to-time.

I’m a longtime member and a big fan of the Nature Conservancy. The group started in 1951 as an organization that purchased land for conservation purposes, and as of 2009 the conservancy’s assets totalled over $5.64 billion with more than 119 million acres of land and 5,000 miles of rivers protected worldwide. Over the years, while continuing to buy and conserve land, the conservancy expanded its mission to include scientific research and partnerships with a huge variety of organizations, and today is known for its ability to find ways to bring together individuals who might otherwise be battling one another.

One early example of how the conservancy worked to bring together two very different groups is with ranchers. Historically environmentalists and ranchers haven’t been allies, despite the fact that most ranchers want to see their land kept natural and most environmentalists would far prefer a ranch to a subdivision. The Nature Conservancy wanted to maximize its conservation dollars, and so began experimenting with an arrangement known as “grass banking“, wherein they buy a ranch and allow neighboring ranchers to graze cattle on it in return for agreeing to manage their own lands more sustainably. Quoting a New York Times article on the practice: “A result is that the ranchers get more range than they could otherwise afford, and the conservancy protects more range than it could afford to buy.”

In contrast with the gloom and doom that seems to be the status quo for most of the environmental movement today, here are a small selection of conservancy projects and partnerships that provide reason for optimism:

  • Oyster reef restoration. Scientists have recently been paying more attention to the role that oyster reefs play in creating wildlife habitat. Compared to historic numbers oyster populations have crashed, and as a result the reefs that once protected shorelines and helped to filter sediments out of the water have disappeared in many places, resulting in water that is too murky for plant growth, waves that are stronger and cause more erosion, a smaller food supply for fish and birds, and a major degradation of the local ecosystem. The conservancy has thus been working to restore reefs in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic coast and has already seen noticeable improvement to shoreline wildlife habitat in project areas. In addition to wildlife, beneficiaries of this work include fisherman, who will enjoy improved fish spawning habitat, and land owners, who should see reduced damage from storms.
  • Floodplain restoration. After years of levee building and river straightening, floods today are often increasingly destructive since the entire output of a storm is now forced into a single, narrow channel, instead of being able to spread out in a wider area as would happen naturally. One of the conservancy’s areas of focus is in proving that by selectively removing levees, thus allowing a river to reconnect to portions of its historic floodplain, that flood damage can be reduced while simultaneously improving river health and wildlife habitat. In one example, during a flood in Mississippi when a river prematurely breached a levee that had been scheduled for demolition, the volume of water that entered the adjacent floodplain almost immediately reduced the water level in flooded towns downstream. The hope is that the conservancy’s work will spur government to reconsider floodplains as tools for combating flooding, while simultaneously helping restore natural ecosystems.
  • Migratory bird protection. While areas of high wildlife concentration are obvious targets for protection, the conservancy also began looking into other threats to wildlife. For migratory birds, having “stopover” points during migration is a key to ensuring survival, so the conservancy identified and purchased several sites along the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere that were shown to be important rest stops for birds making long journeys. Even though the species in question might be there only briefly, having places to rest and refuel during migration proved to be vital to the species’ long-term viability.

Oyster reef restoration in Alabama.

Dinner with Teddy, Carl and Jesus

Posted from Culver City, California at 6:37 pm, April 10th, 2012

The question that was posed: you can have dinner with three people who had a major influence on you. Who do you invite? While the answer is likely to change depending on mood, age, or time of day, here are my current choices:

  • Carl Sagan. If there is anyone who better encapsulates science, spirituality, and an ability to communicate, I couldn’t think of them. The opportunity to eat with someone who could explain details of the cosmos in understandable ways, who could expound on how the scientific wonders of the universe made him believe all the more in God, and who was infinitely curious about human nature and evolution, are all things that would make him a great dinner partner.
  • Jesus. I suspect Jesus would be on a lot of people’s lists, but for different reasons. It is questionable whether anyone has had a greater influence on philosophy and morality, and the opportunity to hear his thoughts about the world today would be a revelation in all senses of the word. Whether or not the real Jesus would have a direct line to the Almighty or simply be a teacher with profound views, spending a meal with him would be the most enlightening experience imaginable.
  • Teddy Roosevelt. America’s greatest conservationist President, the man who made the Panama Canal a reality, and an adventurer whose hunting and outdoor exploits are still revered. While he did a number of things that were worth questioning, a dinner with Teddy would be filled with stories and wisdom, and one that was sure to inspire.

The comments link is below – coming up with a list of three is a fun thought exercise, and I’d be very interested to hear what type of folks others would choose.

Reason for Optimism

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:05 pm, March 19th, 2012

The sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia is one of the world’s most incredible places, and one that I’ve been fortunate enough to visit three times:

As amazing as it is today, South Georgia was once the most important seabird nesting site in the world, home to over 100 million nesting birds. The arrival of whalers and the introduction of rats to the island changed everything; birds that nest on the ground stand little or no chance against rats, and today it is mostly only the small offshore islands surrounding South Georgia that support large bird colonies.

South Georgia’s future will change dramatically this year. After a successful test run last year, 2013 and 2014 will see the largest rat eradication effort ever undertaken, with the hope of restoring South Georgia to its pre-whaling glory. The effort will be seven times larger than the largest eradication program previously undertaken, which was on Campbell Island in New Zealand.

While there is a lot to be discouraged about in the world today, particularly in the field of conservation, there are also a lot of good things going on. In the case of South Georgia, to know that the natural environment will be even more pristine in the future is a truly rare thing that is extraordinarily exciting to consider.

Grey-headed albatross, South Georgia Island

Grey-headed albatross on South Georgia Island in 2004. This bird was completely calm the entire time I sat with it, an experience that remains one of my favorite moments in life.

Real Estate for Dummies

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:08 am, February 12th, 2012

Things I think I’ve learned while buying my first house:

  • Spend time looking. It took several months for us to get an understanding of what neighborhoods we liked and what prices were fair. Being able to know where to look, and knowing what kind of house you can get for a specific price in each neighborhood is a huge advantage.
  • Use the internet. We got on Redfin early on, but during the first few months would also occasionally just follow signs to open houses. The latter approach isn’t productive – filter the houses before you go out.
  • Know the budget. We set a range, and only considered houses that were at the top of the range when we were really excited about them. This approach helped us categorize our interest – we automatically eliminated anything too expensive, and had to justify pricier homes by asking what feature of the house made it worth the extra price.
  • Be ready to move fast. We put an offer on our new house the day after the open house, and even moving that quickly we were competing with two other offers. Get pre-qualified, and if you find something you like jump on it.
  • Follow up. Audrey did a lot of follow-up with the agents, the escrow company, and others once we’d put down an offer, and it made a big difference – with different companies involved and a million things to do there are going to be issues that get missed, and it’s far easier to fix a problem earlier than doing so after it becomes a crisis.
  • Expect problems. With many documents we’ve had to send them, and then re-send them, and then send them again. Apparently with so many files to keep track of things get lost, don’t go to the right person, or need clarification, so expect to do a lot of things twice.
  • Title insurance is a scam. Just sayin’. Any insurance that pays out just 4.3% in claims of what it takes in as premiums is bogus, but the mortgage company won’t let you buy a house without it.


Posted from Culver City, California at 2:55 pm, January 28th, 2012
Lex Luthor: Miss Teschmacher, when I was six years old my father said to me…
Miss Teschmacher: “Get out.”
Lex Luthor: Ha ha. Before that. He said, “Son, stocks may rise and fall, utilities and transportation systems may collapse. People are no damn good, but they will always need land and they’ll pay through the nose to get it! Remember,” my father said…
Otis: “… land.”
Lex Luthor: Right.

After sitting out the real-estate boom of the 2000s Audrey and I started house hunting around March 2010. Twenty-two months and a ridiculous number of open houses later, we’re now seventeen days away from moving into our new place. Here are the gory details for those who are into such things:

  • We’re still in Culver City, although we’ll be four miles from our current location in the weird sliver of Culver City that juts west towards Marina del Rey.
  • 2 bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms, 2,100 square feet. The square footage includes a giant detached office that will be Audrey’s new shop and music space, but does not include a really cool screened-in back area.
  • There is room for at least 3-5 bird feeders, and I’m also planning on reading up on how to make the backyard attractive to owls, hawks, and other badass flying things.
  • The former owner took good care of the place, so aside from installation of a new furnace and air-conditioning unit we’re hoping not to be going too much deeper into debt after moving in.
  • We’ll be moved in by the end of February.
  • Our mortgage rate is awe-some. I don’t know from real estate, but buying when mortgage rates are at their lowest level since the 1950s seems like a winning bet.
  • Date and time of the inevitable housewarming party is still TBD; first the bird feeders, then the parties.

View Larger Map

The approximate location of the new casa (actual location hidden to prevent stalking by groupies). The new place is significantly closer to the water, which is great for going to the beach and bad for escaping tsunamis.

Mental Health Break

Posted from Culver City, California at 10:36 pm, December 18th, 2011

Tomorrow morning I’ll be doing my thirty second commute down the stairs to my desk, spend the day working from home, and then fly to Boise for three days onsite at Bodybuilding.com. Another thirty second commute workday on Friday finishes the week and begins two weeks of vacation time.

The vacation plans are unknown – I’m heading to the Bay Area for Christmas, then doing a road trip of some sort, destination unknown. With almost no snow in the mountains so far this winter the Sierras look like a tempting option, but who knows – the goal is mostly just to try and get out of the daily routine that work imposes and remember that life is about more than earning a paycheck; aimlessly roaming around California seems like a good way to accomplish that.

The other plan for the vacation is to invest some time in my various side projects. Self-employment has provided some great opportunities to work from home with flexible hours, but I still dream about someday being my own boss, making a living off of an idea of my own.

So that’s the plan for the end of 2011 and the start of 2012; hopefully it will be a good way to see the old year out and usher the new year in.

Blame the Legos

Posted from Culver City, California at 8:41 pm, November 17th, 2011

I like the idea of building things – when I was a kid I spent hundreds of hours with Legos, in college I studied engineering, and today I waste inordinate amounts of time reading about ongoing engineering projects. Thus, because I think it’s interesting, and because I know that my mom will still love me even if everyone else is chased away by these geeky journal entries, here’s a rundown of some of the cooler projects going on today:

  • Electric Cars. Partly because of my old roommate I’ve been a follower of Tesla Motors since the beginning, but even without a personal connection it’s hard not to be excited about electric vehicles. The internal combustion engine hasn’t really changed much in 100 years, but in the next ten years a system that is smaller, more efficient, and requires far less maintenance will be a viable option. As batteries continue to improve it’s not inconceivable that we could eventually see cars that get a thousand miles to a charge, making today’s concerns about charging times and running out of electricity a non-factor and causing future generations to wonder why we were willing to deal with tailpipe emissions, gas stations, oil changes, and noisy motors.
  • The Bay Bridge East Span. Caveat: building a huge bridge with so many stakeholders is a recipe for massive cost overruns, as this project showed. Still, once a design was approved and lawsuits had run their course (the project was proposed twenty-two years ago in 1989) the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge ended up being an impressive feat of engineering. Opening in 2013 at a cost of $6.3 billion, this bridge will be two miles long, carry 270,000 cars a day, be capable of withstanding a magnitude 8.5 earthquake, last 150 years, and will be beautiful as well. Despite the crappy process that was required to actually get this bridge built, the end result is pretty spectacular.
  • New airplanes. The Boeing 787 just entered service after four years of delays, and while it may not look much different from today’s planes it’s hugely interesting under-the-hood: instead of aluminum much of the structure is carbon composites, it’s twenty percent more fuel efficient than its predecessor, and a variety of technical tweaks have gone into making it quieter and better at dealing with turbulence. The just-announced 737-MAX is a less-ambitious replacement for Boeing’s most popular model, with a planned fifteen percent improvement in fuel efficiency (amongst other changes) and a scheduled entry into service in 2017.
  • California High Speed Rail. While I’ll admit a fair amount of disappointment at how this project has been managed, the idea behind 220 mph trains linking California’s major cities is one that is about thirty years overdue. With new highways running between $2 and $16 million per lane-mile and road and airport congestion on the rise, high-speed passenger rail seems like an obvious solution, and one that the rest of the world is already implementing successfully. Hopefully California can get its act together and follow suit.
  • The Transbay Center. The Bay Area does a fairly good job with mass transit, but unlike New York City’s Grand Central Station there isn’t really a central transit hub. That changes in 2017 when a new terminal will open linking BART, MUNI, Caltrain, buses and (hopefully) high-speed rail.
  • Renewable Energy. While sadly the subject of renewable energy has become politicized of late, behind the scenes the technology has gotten really, really interesting. Solar is at the point where even without subsidies it is economically competitive in areas with a lot of sun, and with efficiency continuing to improve one can imagine a future where rooftop solar installations de-centralize the power grid, causing less need for huge central power plants. There are wind turbine models that generate as much as five megawatts, orders of magnitude more than those built in the 1980s, and that power is produced at about one-fourth of the cost of those older turbines. Similarly, energy efficiency is something to be impressed by: looking at just one example, flat screen TVs today use sixty percent less power than those manufactured in 2006.
  • Space. NASA estimates that its next-generation rocket system will cost $97 billion. For about $800 million SpaceX has already built and launched two rocket models, with a third (the Falcon Heavy) planned for testing in 2013. SpaceX’s Falcon-9 rocket is already capable of delivering cargo to the space station, and if successful the Falcon Heavy would be the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V moon rocket. There’s no guarantee that SpaceX will be successful or that their costs won’t increase, but it’s nevertheless exciting to see the future of space returning to something more like what everyone imagined it would be back when America was putting men on the moon forty years ago.