Thursday, December 31, 2009

Friends and Family

Time for one last post this year, I guess!

Sometime in the fall of 1987, I got my first apartment on my own. I had been sharing apartments with others for years, so I needed to acquire a lot of furnishings. As luck would have it, my friend Rod had recently moved into a house, and the previous owner had left a couple of pieces in the basement that Rod didn't want, so I inherited a big, solid woodblock chair and a credenza.

The credenza I ultimately gave away a couple of years later before I moved back to California. But I kept the chair. And it has followed me through several more moves, and eventually settled in our living room, where it became a favorite place for my daughter to curl up and read. It was quite worn and shabby, but the cushions and upholstery were really soft, so she liked it.

When we bought a ski house this summer, we decided the chair should move up there, and my mother-in-law took it upon herself to make the chair nicer. I had been thinking of reupholstering and restuffing the cushions, but she took it to a whole new level. Not only did she find terrific fabric with bears and moose on it, but she took the whole chair apart, refinished the wood, and just did a tremendous job of making it a whole new chair.

And here is the final result:

Not the best photo in the world (all I had with me was my iPhone), but you can see how cool it is! I know Rod, in particular, will appreciate the appropriateness of the moose motif. Hard to believe that this chair that has been cast off a couple of times and dragged across the country and around the state now has a whole new life. It's a really comfortable place to site and read or work.

So thanks again, Rod, and thanks to Cathy and her minions who made the whole refinishing and reconstruction project come off so well. I plan to enjoy this chair for many more years to come!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Who Could Have Predicted?

A year ago I was gloating about President-elect Obama's choice of John Holdren to be his science advisor. And I'm still quite pleased with the choice.

But it appears that Holdren is in the cross-hairs of the anti-science crowd:
But thanks to the magic of the Internet, right-wing blogs, newspapers, and television networks have seized on Holdren's old work and painted him as a wild-eyed environmental extremist — a crazed, misanthropic ideologue bent on controlling our lives and mass sterilization.
But the reality isn't quite like that:
Holdren and Erhlich considered a variety of other options for limiting population growth. Perhaps we could slip sterilization drugs into the water or food supply. Or force the mothers of illegitimate children to give them up for adoption. Or force pregnant single women to marry or have abortions. Ultimately, they decided that such options probably won't work. But they didn't exactly recoil from the ideas in moral horror. And therein lies the rub.
The article does a good job talking about the nature of scientific investigation, and how politics doesn't handle that well. For example:
At a time when populists distrust expertise, every scientific endeavor is politicized, and the Internet preserves your every utterance, it's getting harder and harder for scientists to do what they're supposed to: think out loud.
And this:
Nothing is more complicated than the weather, and as scientists try to predict the future of climate change, they're bound to make mistakes. But Holdren is operating in a different world now — a world where complexity is a liability or an irritant, where nuance is ignored, and activists on all sides strip away context as they search for something that can kill your career when framed in the right way.
Good article, especially for the local alt-weekly. It does a good job of comparing Holdren's situation with that of Van Jones, who shares local roots.

Anyone who has actually met or talked with John Holdren, even a little bit, knows that he's not a crazed, genocidal, eco-terrorist. He's a calm, thoughtful, and intellectually honest man who doesn't shy away from the findings of science or the hard policy choices they might dictate. At the same time, it's easy to envision him dispassionately evaluating even extreme policy options and dismissing them without getting riled up. He's a scientist. That's what they do.

One of my favorite memories of Holdren's class at Berkeley was his lecture on carcinogens. Instead of either dismissing or hyping the risks, it was all about evaluating the research and the numbers, even if it meant that peanut butter or tasty, dark beer might turn out to be seriously dangerous. He was trying to teach us to think like scientists and evaluate the evidence.

But our current political discourse doesn't have much room for nuance or dispassion. It's all about sound and fury, which has no place in scientific discussion.

I know Holdren is capable of handling the storms that are already swarming around him. I just hope the same is true of those around him, because I think he can be a tremendous contributor to solving some of the key issues facing the country and the world.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

What Digby Said

I think Atrios or someone should have a copyright on that title, but whatever: Digby is right, as usual:
There were those who warned that allowing anyone president to have unaccountable powers would lead to every successor to fight to maintain them. But no one wanted to believe that a nice Democrat would ever do such a thing. Ahem:
Read it. And weep.

For Real This Time

Real ski weekend this time.

Started off with Opening Day at Alpine Meadows on Saturday. Although they only had two lifts running, the runs they had groomed were in really good shape. They had a few glitches with the new RFID gates at the lifts, but overall, things went well, and it was really fun. I'm glad we had a few practice turns last weekend at Northstar.

Rumor was that there would be snow pretty much after we left on Sunday, but the snow came early. And since we needed to get home early on Sunday, we decided to blow off the skiing and head out early. But a couple of accidents had closed the highway, so we decided to buy some groceries, head back to the house, and hunker down.

Here's what the deck looked like early on Sunday afternoon (it had been clear in the morning):
Then it really started snowing. Ski resorts were closed due to high wind. We stayed hunkered down. And when I got up Monday morning, the deck looked like this:
Needless to say, no heading home. Jan did go ski at Alpine, where she said the powder was excellent. I was under the weather with a headache, and besides, I needed to work. By today the roads were clear and we could drive home easily. So we've already had many of the season's experiences.

Looks like a great start to the season's snow, though. I can't wait to get back up on the hill!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Taming Snow

We couldn't help it. We really wanted to go skiing. In November. The opportunity rarely arises.

So we went to Northstar-at-Tahoe, which has minimal snow coverage so far. In fact, it was kind of surreal riding the lifts and seeing bare ground all around the groomed runs. Basically, they seem to have been making snow every night they could, and grooming the heck out of it.

So I have to say I was kind of surprised that the skiing was actually pretty good. There were only a few lifts and one or two ways down from each, and nothing very challenging, but hey, it was snow, and we were skiing!

On the other hand, there was this sort of weird feeling that we were skiing on a movie set or something, that if you ventured a few inches off to the side, you'd go through the scenery and there would be nothing there.

On still another hand, they were charging full price to use a very small portion of the hill, which felt a little like a rip-off. But did I mention we got to go skiing on Thanksgiving weekend?

And in one more week, we can hope for some real snow when Alpine Meadows opens.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Another Sad Passing

I just saw the news that Norton Buffalo has passed away from cancer:
Mr. Buffalo, who appeared on more than 180 albums and spent 33 years as a member of the Steve Miller Band, was diagnosed with cancer in September.
Buffalo was an extremely gifted and versatile musician, and I enjoyed hearing him live many times as well as listening to many of the recordings he either led or backed up on. I'm glad there is such a store of recordings, but I wish there could be more.

I haven't blogged about cancer much lately (yes, I know, or about anything else very much), but this one is very sad. 58 is much too young to be dying, especially from cancer.

So remember to take care of yourselves, get checked up, and help out where you can.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Twits and Twitter

Oh, dear. Some people just don't know when to, like, shut up:

A highlight of her invective was, perhaps: "Because people, like, honestly, like, I mean people wanna know why, like, you're, like, unhealthy, and, like, you need, like, get out and do stuff and, like, be in the world instead of being like this (pretends to be hunched over a keyboard) all the time. And, like, all I did was, like, lay in bed all the time."

I know there will be some who might fear that Miley has removed herself from Twitter because the 140 character limit did not allow her full expression of her likes and thoughts.

In case you weren't, like, totally sure, that was, like, Miley Cyrus opining on the future of Twitter, or rather her preferred lack of same.

It is unclear to my why I would care what she thinks about Twitter, but then, I'm pretty much a Twitter naysayer. I have a Twitter account. I think I've "tweeted" about 6 or 8 times in a couple of years. I rarely look at what others tweet. Perhaps I'm not spending enough time hunched over a keyboard.

I realize that celebrities are entitled to their opinions, just like everybody else. And I'm entitled to, like, ignore them, just like everybody else.

I know this wasn't important, but I thought the article quoted above had some high-quality snark, which I always enjoy. I couldn't bring myself to watch the video, but the text amused me.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Small World

Now and then you cross paths with someone from a long time ago.

That happened to me a lot this past weekend, but you expect it at a high school reunion. I didn't expect to see NPR interviewing one of my favorite teachers from college:

SARAH GARDNER: Well, laugh all you want, Sam, but old, dead tree stumps are actually clues to climate past. Listen to this:

SCOTT STINE: These stumps tell us that California is capable of experiencing droughts more profound and more persistent than anything that we've seen during the last 150 years.

GARDNER: Now, that's paleoclimatologist Scott Stine. He looks at past climate to help figure out future climate. And scientists are really interested in this kind of work because, if they can understand climate shifts in the past, the hope is that that will help them more accurately project what may be in store for us this time around.

Scott was a lecturer in Environmental Science when I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley. His class on Bay Area Environments was memorable for many reasons, not least of which was Scott himself. He was like a walking encyclopedia of natural history for the area, and it's nice to see that his ongoing research on Mono Lake and other places is still paying off for him.

Check out the slide show linked from the NPR page. Hearing Scott's narration was fun, and it brought back lots of memories from taking his classes. Coincidentally, I had been talking about Scott this weekend with one of my high school friends who also took his class in college. Small world, indeed!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Cruciferous Vegetables

I just need to get this off my chest: What's with broccoflower? And more to the point, why is it that Japanese restaurants insist on hiding it in their vegetable tempura? I bite into something that looks like a nice, tasty piece of tempura broccoli, and it turns out to be a disgusting, green cauliflower.

Is broccoflower just some sort of attempt to woo people who won't eat disgusting cauliflower by making it look like some kind of tasty green vegetable?

Yuck. I know cauliflower is supposed to be good for you, so I assume broccoflower is, too. But really: yuck.

My broken State, Part V

We used to educate our children. Now, not so much:

And all of this was going to be free for Californians. It was an investment in the future, and it paid off, big-time. The quality graduates that came out of this public education system helped to grow the California economy at a pace far outstripping the rest of the nation. Some like to call the 20th Century the American Century, well, if that was true, the last half of the 20th Century was the California Century.

But like all good centuries, they come to an end. And with the election of Ronald Reagan, and later Deukmejian and Wilson, and to an extent, even Brown's son Jerry, the Master Plan has been gradually chipped away. As we stand right now, of the approximately $18 Billion UC budget, around $3 Billion now comes from the state.

In other words, the state university system is merely a somewhat-state-subsidized system, and barely that.

Great quote at the end of the piece from George Lakoff:

Lakoff, UC Distinguished Professor of Linguistics and author of several popular and scholarly books on the language of politics, said in a letter to UCB's Townsend Center that "the privatization issue goes well beyond public education. It is about whether we have a democracy that works for the common good, or a plutocracy that privileges the wealthy and powerful. Privatizing the world's greatest public university is a giant step away from democracy."(Berkeley Daily Planet 9/17/09)

As a product of California's public-education heyday, all the way from kindergarten through college, I have a great appreciation for what we used to have. And I'm appalled that the state (both the people and their elected government) no longer seems to value public education.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Journalism

Sorry for not writing much of late. Not that I don't have a lot to say; just don't have time to write it down here.

Stumbled across this piece, though, which I thought did a good job of explaining why you have to be very dubious of everything you read and hear. The people we grew up trusting to tell us what was going on in the world don't do their job very well. It's much less an issue of bias (although some exists) and more a case of laziness mixed with incompetence.

Excellent stuff at the end of the piece:

At the beginning of his article, Von Drehle referred to a recent poll that found "record-low levels of public trust of the mainstream media." Guess what? Articles like this are why nobody trusts the media. When you pretend that obviously false claims about crowd sizes are valid, people won't trust you. When you pretend that only liberals say 70,000 people actually attended last week's protest, people won't trust you. They shouldn't trust you. You aren't trustworthy. You are doing your job dishonestly and incompetently.

And that dishonesty, that incompetence, is what enables Glenn Beck. When Glenn Beck says 1.7 million people were at the protest, and the Washington, D.C., Fire Department says 70,000, and Time runs an article saying conservatives and liberals disagree about the crowd size, that enables Glenn Beck's lies.

Being a mouthpiece for liars of any political stripe is not journalism. Reporting the lies without saying whether they are, objectively speaking, true, is not journalism, either. *sigh*

Apparently some people (including people who are supposed to be journalists) really believe that everything is just a matter of opinion, that there are no objective facts. They are wrong.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Another Dramatic Day

Following another delicious breakfast at Morning Glory (I had a coconut almond waffle with lemon butter...wonderful!) we headed off to a last busy day at the Shakespeare Festival. First was the afternoon with "All's Well that Ends Well." This was a good production, although not entirely to the liking of our 8-year-old. She got it, though. She and Grandma had done some studying last night while we were off seeing Henry VIII, so she knew what to expect. Some bits (particularly when the French king got a bit long-winded) were not really able to hold her interest.

I thought the play was pretty well done. My favorite actor was probably Lafew, who had wonderful stage presence and great, expressive eyes. The repertory aspect was in view again, as the Clown/narrator (an invention of the director, which worked well) turned out to be none other than Don Quixote from our first play of this trip. He was amusing in this role, and worked very hard, too.

After a brief stroll through the art and craft fair along Ashland Creek, we had some ice cream at Mix, then a quick visit to the Tudor Guild gift shop, as we wanted to pick up a couple of items.

We then dropped off Grandma and our daughter for a visit with some cousins, and Jan and I went to dinner. We started with a little wine tasting at the EdenVale Enoteca, but weren't too impressed with any of the wines. So we stolled off to dine at the Ashland Bistro Cafe, which was quite good. Jan's scallop carbonara was particularly good.

Then to the final play of this trip, "Equivocation." In many ways this was the perfect conclusion to the trip, and it particularly helped to have seen Macbeth and Henry VIII beforehand. All in all, it was outstanding, with a cast of six players, five of whom play many, many roles. I believe we had seen all of them in other productions during the week, notably Anthony Heald (who we'd previously seen as Mayor Shinn in The Music Man and Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII) as Shagspeare and Jonathan Haugen (Gardiner in Henry VIII) as (mostly) Robert Cecil.

Intense, thought-provoking, and clever, I thought this was the best play we saw overall, and probably worth the trip all by itself. Two big thumbs up!

Now the theater part of the trip is done, and we're driving home tomorrow. I doubt I'll have anything to write about that, but one never knows.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Wandering Through History

Today was largely a day off, with free time to explore town. Since we didn't have theater tickets until evening, we spent a leisurely morning at the house, then headed across town to try breakfast at Brother's. The breakfast was okay, nothing really special, but the hot chai was quite excellent and the house-made scones were stellar. Tomorrow we'll probably be back at Morning Glory, mostly because of proximity.

Since we were in town after breakfast, we decided it was time to venture into some of the used book stores. First stop, Book Exchange, which is my kind of bookstore: unpretentious, and obviously staffed by bibliophiles. All four of us had a grand time shopping around, and I think each of us came out with at least two books. I found a Fred Pohl book I was previously unaware of, and another book by Allen Steele. I definitely need to read more science fiction!

Next stop was a pilgrimage to the Dagoba Organic Chocolate outlet, just outside town. Dagoba makes tasty organic chocolate, and they have quite a bit out for tasting. The woman running the tasting room was friendly and knowledgeable, and went out of her way to give us tastes of a couple of things that were not already set out. We bought quite a few bars of different flavors, several of which we were previously unaware of.

On from there to what bills itself as the world's biggest, best-stocked game store, Fun Again. I guess they have a well-stocked warehouse behind the retail section, but the store itself is not huge (though it is very well-stocked). Ultimately we didn't decide to buy any games, but it was fun to look around.

Then across the parking lot to yet another (mostly) used book store, Bookwagon. I thought they had less overall selection than Book Exchange, and not nearly the ambiance, but we did manage to find several more books to buy. My favorite, which I stumbled across on the new arrivals rack, was a copy of John Muir's The Velvet Monkey Wrench. I learned most of what I know about automobiles from Muir's classic "How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive," so I've always been intrigued to read his Utopian prescription for living. We'll see how that turns out.

After a brief stopover at the house to rest up and change clothes, we ventured out to dinner. Somehow, after brunch and chocolate tasting, no one was all that hungry, but we knew we wouldn't survive the evening's play without sustenance. So we decided to try Greenleaf restaurant. The food was pretty ordinary, but might have seemed more impressive had we chosen to sit outside, along the creek. The BLT was worth eating, though.

And at last, off to the theater, where Jan and I saw "Henry VIII" at the Elizabethan Stage. It was quite impressive. We had to overcome a little cognitive dissonance, as the early scenes featured Buckingham, who last night was Professor Harold Hill, and Cardinal Wolsey, who was last night's tongue-tied mayor. Of course, this is both one of the joys and one of the drawbacks to a repertory company. It was momentarily distracting, but ultimately fine.

It's quite a staging of the play, majestic and full of pomp. In the end, I suppose the play is really more about Wolsey and Queen Katherine than about Henry, really (though he's obviously an important part). And more than any of the characters, it's about England and the struggle between the Catholic church and protestantism, which would quite literally tear at the fabric of the country for at least a couple more centuries. Of all the Shakespeare histories, this one might be the most complex in that it deals with such recent events at the time of its writing. (Forgive me if all this is obvious; I hadn't read or seen this play before tonight!)

Anyway, some very strong performances here. Wolsey was particularly good in the second act, when he's largely in monologue mode. He had some trip-ups in the first act with dialogue, but really shone in his solo spotlights. Katherine was quite powerful (although I thought he deathbed scene was probably the weakest part of the play). And Henry had his moments. I thought his silent scene during Katherine's speech at her trial was particularly good. He really conveyed a lot by his physical reactions.

All in all, a very worthy effort. We really enjoyed the play, and it hardly seemed to take an hour, much less two-and-a-half!

We ended the evening with a quick visit to Zoey's Cafe for ice cream. Very tasty gelato. I had the mystery rotator tonight, which was a chocolate and marshmallow with coconut. Very yummy!

One more long day tomorrow, with two plays, then we head home Sunday.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Study in Contrasts

Nice day today. A little cooler than yesterday (though still quite hot by my coastal standards). Yet another breakfast at Morning Glory, where I learned that gingerbread waffles are indeed as good as they sound on the menu!

Best news of the day is that my daughter's bee-stung foot is much, much better. Indeed, she's bouncing around as good as new. This makes for a much happier day for all!

Today was a two-play day for some of us, which is a lot of sitting in the theater, but the two plays couldn't be much more different, so that helped.

The afternoon play was "Macbeth." Macbeth and I go way back. I read it in high school English class, and have seen it produced a couple of times since, most memorably in the outdoor glade at Shakespeare Santa Cruz, back when I lived down that way. An outdoor, nighttime performance is a great setting for Macbeth, with all its witches and general mayhem.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's rendition of Macbeth is somewhat updated, at least in costuming. And I frankly had a little trouble following all they were trying to do with the costumes. But the power and intensity of the play really comes through. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were tremendous, and gave a depth and variety to their performances that was intriguing and kept one's interest focused.

I should add a note about the superstition surrounding Macbeth. I gather some in the theater believe the play to be jinxed, and refuse to say the name of it out loud, just calling it "The Scottish Play." I find this amusing. I learned about the superstition from some friends in conjunction with another, while sitting at a baseball game. I made an oblique reference to the fact that a pitcher had not allowed any hits by the other team (I think it was about the fifth or sixth inning by then), and was soundly admonished by a neighbor that I was not to refer to such things, as I would jinx it. Another neighbor, overhearing, suddenly burst out with "It's the Scottish play! It's the Scottish play!" Took me a while to get the full explanation, and I was surprised to learn of this supposed jinx.

For what it's worth, I have still never seen a no-hitter live, and I'm sure some will blame the fact that I am willing to talk about the possibility, even while the game is still under way. But I don't believe in jinxes. Sorry for anyone disappointed by that.

In between we went to dinner at the Standing Stone Brewing Company, which has very good beer and quick enough service that we were able to make it up to the show with time to spare. The burgers were OK, but nothing special. We liked the sweet potato fries, of course.

In the evening we all went to see "The Music Man," which is obviously much lighter and more fun. The actor playing Professor Harold Hill was quite good, with a strong voice and good stage presence. He makes a fine con man! His counterpart playing Marion Paroo has a lovely voice, though perhaps not as clearly articulated as I might want (though I know the songs well enough that I didn't lose much). I have to say she also seems just a bit...well...old for the part. She's meant to be 26, and I peg her for quite a few years more than that. As Jan put it, a bit old to be playing the ingenue.

But the play just works. I like the staging, despite being a relatively small stage (indeed, the exact same stage on which we saw Macbeth just hours earlier). They manage to fill it without making it seem crowded, so the small town of River City seems fairly realistic (within stage conventions, of course). I also really liked the way the started with the whole town and its people being entirely gray and drab, with little bits of color introduced as Hill and his scheme take hold in town. By the end, the whole town is a gay festival, and the contrast is quite striking.

This is our first venture into Oregon Shakespeare Festival, but I gather that musicals are relatively rare here. If that's true, then I thought they did it quite well. The music was good, and most of the singing quite good. I thought the adaptation of the space to include a spot for the conductor to poke up was well done and unobtrusive. All in all, I really liked the way they were able to pop different scenes in without breaking the flow of the play.

So it was a day of very stark contrast between the plays, but interestingly, I found myself drawing more comparisons between Music Man and Don Quixote than with Macbeth. In part, I suppose it's because they touch on somewhat similar themes, each dealing with the difference (or lack thereof) between reality and imagination, or the ability of imagination and belief to shape reality. Ultimately, I guess that is a theme that resonates with me more than Macbeth's venture into ambition, prophecy, and gore. I thought Macbeth was the best performance of the three shows we've seen so far (with three more to go), and it will certainly stick with me. But I like the other two a lot more, if that makes sense.

All in all a good day, but a tiring one. Tomorrow is an easy day, with only an evening performance of "Henry VIII" for a couple of us. Then Saturday will be another two-play day. So I better get some rest!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Hot as Hell in Ashland

We drove up to Ashland, Oregon, last night because we have a bunch of tickets to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. This is a particular treat, not only because it's our only family vacation for the summer, but also because Jan and I have been meaning to come up here for years, and only this year managed to arrange it.

So, first a few road trip notes, then we'll talk theater.

The drive up isn't too bad. We made it in 6.5 hours, including a stop for dinner and refueling. The first part is pretty much rote for us, as it's the same route we take to go skiing, but then branches northward through the central valley, and that was territory I've never driven, and only been a passenger on long, long ago. Might have been prettier in the daytime, but it was certainly cooler in the evening.

After an uneventful drive (with a soundtrack of the books-on-CD of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix"), we arrived in Ashland just before 1:00 am, greeted enthusiastically by our daughter, who has been off traveling with Grandma for a couple of weeks. She gave us the grand tour of the little house we've swapped for, and eventually we all settled down and headed for bed.

Needless to say (I hope), we all slept in quite late in the morning, and after checking a few recommendations from my Facebook friends, headed out for the short walk to brunch at the Morning Glory Restaurant. That was a great find, especially as it is only about two blocks from the house. On the plus side, great food (marionberry syrup!!!) and nice service. On the minus side, it was flippin' HOT out. I mean, well into the 90s (F). Obnoxiously hot, really. No wonder they call the place Ashland--it's obviously all burned up long ago. Sheesh!

It being hot, some of us thought we ought to go out and find some way to cool off in the afternoon (and perhaps work off some of the big brunch). After checking out the nearby city park that has a small water play area (it looked way too hot, despite the water) we decided to head up to the reservoir outside town. The water level's pretty low, but it was a fun little swim for those (unlike yours truly) who had remembered to pack swim suits. I sat under a shade tree and read a book about avalanches.

All was well until after the swimming, when our daughter ran afoul of a bee or two, and got stung on two toes. Ouch! We managed to get some first-aid help from the park ranger, but decided it was best to head home, where some ice and rest seemed to make things better.

As we headed out to get some dinner before our first play, it became clear that additional first aid was necessary. The nearby Safeway pharmacy had nothing helpful, but we had ten minutes to get to the real pharmacy downtown, and we made it. They had some helpful salve and dressings, and all seemed in order. We got to the festival area, found a quick bite at Martino's (lobster ravioli!) and made it into the play with a few minutes to spare.

Tonight we were seeing "Don Quixote" at the open-air Elizabethan Stage. It's a nice theater, and I'm looking forward to seeing some actual Shakespeare there later in the week (Henry VIII, I think). It would be really hot in there in the daytime, but for an evening show it was great. Never having read or seen Don Quixote or any of its derivatives (I've heard the soundtrack to Man of La Mancha, but never seen it), I wasn't sure what to expect. And the more people told me, the more I questioned bringing an 8-year-old with us.

As it turned out, she didn't like it, and got quite bored early in the first act. She and Jan went out at intermission to explore the neighborhood, so Grandma and I watched the second act without them. They had a grand time checking out places, including the sweet shop, and met us at the end of the play with some cupcakes they'd gotten for free at closing time!

So, about the play. It's quite an interesting presentation. It captures well the difficulty of distinguishing reality from imagination, especially where fiction is involved. Many of the imaginary bits are played with puppets, many of which are clever and cute. The players walk a tight line between the clownish and the sincerely comical, and for the most part it works well. The character I found most interesting in many ways is the one labeled "The Cervantes Avatar," who keeps returning in various incarnations, often making awful puns.

It was fun (in spite of the boredom of the younger generation), and a fine introduction to the festival. Tomorrow we have two plays: Jan and I see "Macbeth" in the afternoon, and the whole family will see "The Music Man" in the evening.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Reform What, Exactly?

The most frustrating thing about the ongoing current "debates" over "health care reform" is that there isn't actually any discussion of reforming health care. At most, it's a discussion of health-care finance reform. But with the best option for that excluded. So maybe, just maybe, we could call it health insurance reform. But we won't, and people will get frightened that somehow this will get in the way of their relationship with their doctor. When in fact, the current insurance system does a lot more of that. My doctor complains all the time about all the paperwork he has to do in lieu of actually caring for patients.

Imagine that...we could fix the financing system so that doctors could spend more of their time and attention dealing with actual health care!

Yet another surreal moment in our political discourse.

Such as it is.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Police FAIL

Riding through downtown San Francisco yesterday on the way to a trade show at Moscone Center, we noticed what appeared to be some college-age guys riding on the back of a van. Not too smart that. As we got closer, we noticed a couple of things about this stunt: a) the riders were doing this without the knowledge or permission of the driver, and b) the van belongs to the SFPD.


Sorry about the finger in the picture. I only had a moment to fish out the phone and snap the photo; both cars were moving at the time.

My best guess is that this was a fraternity initiation or something similar. Riding the back bumper of a van through city traffic is extremely dangerous, of course, but just the sort of thing kids of that age would try. But on the back of a police van? And what does it say about the driver that she was unaware of what was going on? As the hipsters say on the Interwebs these days: FAIL.

Monday, July 20, 2009

My Broken State, Part IV

It's bad. It's really bad. As usual, Digby says it better than just about anyone:
The system is broken and nobody couldn't have headed this off entirely. But I'm afraid that we are going to have to reform more than the state constitution to fix things. We need to reform politics itself somehow, convince people that it isn't American Idol or the World Series, or the ruling class will always be able to afford to put on a show whenever they need to manipulate the folks and the folks will probably fall for it.
She also refers to a Calitics post from this morning, detailing the degree of damage being done to the state today:
Democrats have caved and given Arnold Schwarzenegger what he wanted - a cuts-only budget that does massive and lasting damage to the state of California, to the people who live here, and to our collective future. It's taken 31 years, but Howard Jarvis is finally going to get the wholesale destruction of public services he always wanted.
As a nearly lifelong resident of the state, it pains me to see the deterioration in services and facilities. We had wonderful schools, parks, and programs when I was growing up, and now we have potholes, graffiti, and homeless people living in the streets. There is still a lot of great stuff here, but we've got some big, big messes to clean up.

I hope we can muster the will.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Truth, Stranger than Fiction

This is an amazing story. Even if you don't like baseball, there are some amazing elements.
It's impossible to know with certainty, of course, but considering all the evidence, it's very likely that Steve Dalkowski was the hardest-throwing pitcher in the history of baseball.
Wow. How come I never heard of him? He never reached the major leagues! How is that? Oh...
Quite simply, the problem was Dalkowski's control, or more precisely his utter lack of it. If there's reason to question whether Dalkowski's velocity was unmatched in history, there's really none to doubt his wildness. Not only has there never been another professional pitcher who achieved feats of wildness equal to Dalkowski's, there's never been another pitcher who came remotely close.
The page then recounts an amazing litany of accomplishments, starting with this:
- In high school, he had an 18-strikeout, 18-walk no-hitter.
But even more:
- In one extra-inning game in the Eastern League, Dalkowski struck out 27 batters and walked 16 while throwing 283 pitches.

- One time he was pulled in the second inning after throwing 120 pitches.
It just keeps going. And to top it off, there is a litany of brutal alcohol abuse and such. Just an amazing story, and all true.

Thanks to Paul Campos at LGM for pointing out this great item. I like his closing comment:
Apparently he didn't hit many batters, which I suppose is a tribute to the speed of human reflexes when survival is at stake.
What could I add to that?

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

My Broken State, Part III

Oh, wait...it's not just about my state anymore (h/t to Atrios):
California is the state in the worst shape, and it’s also the state no one wants to help, because its problems stem from terrible institutions and a horribly dysfunctional government. They’re not just cyclically screwed; they worked very hard to get themselves into this mess, and the rest of America, quite reasonably, doesn’t want to bail them out. But this is a problem for the rest of America, because rare is the state that couldn’t use some additional help right about now.
It's true. California is so broken that it's going to make it really, really hard to fix the national economy. It's not going to be pretty, people.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

New Firefox with a Personal Twist

Mozilla has released Firefox 3.5 today. It's no secret to anyone who has perused this blog page that I'm a Firefox fan, and I'm pleased to see that 3.5 will be faster and more memory conscious.

As an additional, personal note, Mozilla has added a dashboard page (that will not work with Internet Explorer, because it doesn't support the open standards that enable the live page updates) that lets you see in real time how many Firefox downloads are happening and where they are going.

I mention this because at the bottom of the page is a logo that says "Powered by SQLstream," which is my little startup company. It's our first real public splash like that, and we're quite excited about it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What's in a Nickname?

I was tickled to see this article, pointed out by a friend I worked with in D.C., years ago:
If you want to score a meeting with Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), know this: His scheduler/office manager, Elizabeth Becton, is to be addressed by her full name — not Liz or any other variant.
It goes on to detail a rather lengthy and heated exchange over how this person wishes to be addressed. And while I don't particularly appreciate the heat of some of the messages in the exchange (there is definitely a level at which this particular issue is getting in the way of her doing her job effectively), I can certainly relate to the level of frustration.

Probably the single most irritating thing about working on Capitol Hill for me was the glad-handing and false intimacy that was affected by many, and especially lobbyists. Dealing with lobbyists is part of the game, of course, but that doesn't mean they should be able to just assume they can call you by the nickname of their choice.

I realize that some of this is generational, but when I introduced myself as "Richard," it was irritating in the extreme to have the introducee come back and call me "Dick." Not my nickname: never was, never will be. My friends knew I was "Chard," but professionally, I would use my more formal name, if only to avoid having to explain my nom de vegetable to someone who was only a casual acquaintance.

I suppose part of it is an introvert thing: I don't share personal stuff with just anyone. Letting someone call me by my chosen nickname is a way of controlling my personal space. People who call me Chard (mostly) know me. People who call me Dick definitely do not.

I won't claim this is the only or even the main reason I decided to get out of the political life, but it was certainly a factor. The whole question of who owns my identity is actually important to me, and I didn't like the assumption by others that they could decide who I was.

It makes for an interesting step into a forum such as this blog, where my ramblings are available to virtually anyone. In practice, the only ones reading this are, in fact, my friends and family, and you all know me as Chard. Heaven forbid this should ever become "popular," leading all the unwashed masses to my doorstep, armed with my preferred name.

No danger there, I think.

But it's true that this is a personal blog, a place where it's safe to be Chard. I would have to think really hard about what to do if I were to write serious or professional material here. Luckily for you, I don't step into that very often!

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Programmer Humor

Just skip this if you're not a geek. Really.

Cute blog post someone pointed me to a couple of weeks ago, and I'm just now getting to pass it along. It's a humorous time line of programming languages.

I quite liked this bit:

1964 - John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz create BASIC, an unstructured programming language for non-computer scientists.

1965 - Kemeny and Kurtz go to 1964.



Update: I just clicked through to another post the same guy wrote about diving with a whale shark. He's a pretty amusing writer:

But this was one big krill swilling machine. He was big enough that an accidental bump would be like an accidental bump from a large dump truck - a large dump truck with a mouth the size of a Volkswagen.

Still, Brian and I were determined. So we quickly squashed down our near-pathological fear of dump trucks and swam towards the magnificent creature.


My Broken State, Part II

There will be plenty more where this comes from, sad to say.

Good posting on Calitics today by Robert Cruickshank about why raising taxes is preferable to (the inevitable, common wisdom) cutting spending (credit to Atrios, an actual economist, for pointing it out). Short take:
How will budget cuts help promote economic growth?

It's a question that I rarely ever see asked, and one that is never answered, certainly not in a state where the conventional wisdom is that revenue increases are impossible, even though we've never tried to make them happen. Instead the supposed "political reality" of no new taxes is trumping the economic reality that taxes are preferable to spending cuts in a recession. The result is that spending cuts are treated as inevitable even though they are a sure path to Depression.

I'm not saying he's absolutely right or anything, but I'd say it's a clear sign of how broken things are that no one is even raising the question as part of the "debate" on what to do about the broken budget.

Here's a hint for those in the state legislature: You can't win if you don't even play the game. It's unclear that they even know they're supposed to be in one.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Happy World Oceans Day!

Just a quick post because I'm busy, but I wanted to make sure I mentioned World Oceans Day. This year marks the first time World Oceans Day is an officially-recognized, international holiday.

The short history is that Canada proposed World Ocean Day in 1992 at the Earth Summit, and various folks have been celebrating and observing it for a number of years (including local celebrations coordinated by a group I work with, COARE). Just this year the United Nations declared World Oceans Day (including adding the "s" to "Ocean") as a worldwide holiday to celebrate the ocean.

So take a moment today to ponder the ocean that covers nearly 3/4 of the surface of our planet. This is not a political event or an excuse to support a particular cause. The ocean means something different to everyone, but it's also critically important to everyone in the world. So regardless of whether you agree with my particular issues (such as shark conservation, marine protected areas, ocean-bound waste, marine mammal conservation, coral reef protection), this is a great day to think about what the ocean means to you and your life, and think about what you can do for it.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Portrait of an Obscure Vegetable

My friend Rod passed this along. I thought it was relatively hilarious:
In our last episode of “Weird Veggies I Have Known and Learned to Love”, we talked kohlrabi; today it’s that ‘not quite celery – where’s the beet’ thing called Swiss Chard. Chard suffers from a branding problem - how good does it feel saying the word “chard”?
I think my favorite bit is the notion that someone has a series of "Weird Veggies I Have Known," etc. But I'm unclear on what's so unpleasant about that particular name.

And this:
Try it. Then try it again. Learn to like chard. If you have to tell yourself ‘It’s good for me’, then so be it. It IS good for you. Put more colorful and flavorful veggies into your diet. It really IS good for you.
I have a confession: I've never liked the stuff, myself. But it is very good for you. You should buy it or grow it and eat it. Lots of it.

This post reminded me of a column by Gerald Nachman I read back when I was in high school. (I had no idea he was from Oakland!) I believe it started with the sentence, "Unfortunately, chard is very good for you." It later quoted laboratory rats who were part of FDA tests as saying "I'd rather be dead than eat this stuff anymore." Quite humorous.

Anyway, chard is a fine vegetable and gets a bad rap. Just because I don't like it, there's no reason you shouldn't eat a lot of it. Now go and be healthy.

Monday, May 25, 2009

When Good Dragons Go Bad

Just saw this in the news, and thought I'd pass it along to my millions of dragon-loving followers:
Komodo dragons have shark-like teeth and poisonous venom that can kill a person within hours of a bite. Yet villagers who have lived for generations alongside the world's largest lizard were not afraid — until the dragons started to attack.
It's unclear to me just how much more dangerous these guys really are. But it's interesting to see the different theories being put forth and the responses to them.

Perhaps it's just a slow news day. But if you happen to be in the neighborhood, better watch out!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

My Broken State

I have had the privilege of living in California most of my life. There are many wonderful things about the place, and I have chosen it over some other terrific options. One of the not-so great aspects of living here, however, is that the state government is horribly broken.

This article from The Economist gets a lot of what's not working, and talks a bit about some efforts to fix or replace it. Here's a pretty good summary:

The broken budget mechanism and the twin failures in California’s representative and direct democracy are enough to guarantee dysfunction. The sheer complexity of the state exacerbates it. Peter Schrag, the author of “California: America’s High-Stakes Experiment”, has counted about 7,000 overlapping jurisdictions, from counties and cities to school and water districts, fire and park commissions, utility and mosquito-abatement boards, many with their own elected officials. The surprise is that anything works at all.

As a result, there is now a consensus among the political elite that California’s governance is “fundamentally broken” and that the state is “ungovernable, unless we make tough choices”, as Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles and a likely candidate for governor next year, puts it.
I hope we'll be able to pull it together. The city I live in (Oakland) is pretty dysfunctional at this point, too. Interesting times....

Monday, May 11, 2009

Popular Depictions of Torture

Torture is a standard trope in many forms of popular entertainment. Frankly, it's so common that I don't think some writers even realize what they're including in their material. For example, the very fun (and mostly kid-appropriate) movie The Incredibles has some very intense scenes of torture. I realize that's a staple for superhero movies, but it didn't seem necessary in that otherwise terrific film. And it made me regret that my daughter saw the film, as I felt she was too young to understand that part (but old enough to be troubled by it).

Now, in my youth I saw plenty of "torture," too, but mostly in silly contexts such as cartoons or the Batman TV series, where the "danger" was usually so comical as to be laughable. I mean, Batman being fed to a giant "man-eating clam" is just too silly for even a child to take seriously. We get the message that the bad guy is trying to "torture" Batman, either to extract some information or to make his (highly dubious) demise slow and painful. And I suppose one could argue that such easy depictions of something truly awful might actually lessen one's horror at the real thing (though in my case, that obviously wasn't the outcome).

This is all brought to mind by my seeing the new Star Trek movie over the weekend. I really enjoyed it, both because it was a fun movie from end to end and because I can't even remember the last time I saw any movie on its opening weekend, even standing in line with friends to get good seats. What fun!

As many Star Trek episodes do, this one has some torture in it (though less graphic than much of what's out there these days). I can barely remember an episode of the original series where Captain Kirk or one of his crew didn't get abused in some way by someone. (And is it just coincidence that that series overlapped with Batman in the mid-1960s?) But I had forgotten the really excellent (and excruciating) episode in Star Trek: The Next Generation where Captain Picard is tortured at length by the Cardassians.

There's a great discussion of it at length in this article from Slate by Juliet Lapidos (hat tip to Josh Marshall at TPM). Read the whole thing; it's very good. Here's a highlight:
The extended torture sessions take a toll not just on Picard but on his interrogator as well. The more time the Cardassian spends with Picard, the more he becomes fixated on breaking his prisoner. And so the supposed goal of torture—information—is sidelined, while the means by which the goal will theoretically be achieved—mental submission—becomes an end in itself. As Picard puts it, "Torture has never been a reliable means of extracting information. It is ultimately self-defeating as a means of control. One wonders it is still practiced."
One gets the impression watching Dick Cheney recently that big chunks of the U.S. government crossed that line at some point (like waterboarding the same guy scores of times). Eventually the already dubious goal of forcefully extracting information gets lost in the mission of breaking the victim. Instead of the ends justifying the means (though they still insist that's what's behind it), the means themselves are merely trying to justify their own use. (If you can't break the subject, what's the point of trying to? Thus, you must keep trying.) Ultimately, torture demeans both the torturer and the victim, and for no good outcome.

The good news is that this stuff is only a minor subplot in the whole Star Trek movie. I highly recommend it to those who like the old Trek: the new angles on the familiar characters are a lot of fun. I'll avoid further comment so as not to spoil it for anyone. But go read the Slate article.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Sea Creature Update

No actual further news on the psychedelic frog fish or the barreleye fish, but I just stumbled across both of them on the Rocketboom blog in a post about the 15 most bizarre sea creatures. Definitely other cool stuff there.

And speaking of Rocketboom, I haven't been paying attention, and was disappointed to see that Joanne Colan left as presenter last month. She was great fun to watch. I'm sure her replacement will also be good.

The Good Old Days

I have long complained that baseball players, and particularly pitchers, seem to be pampered to a degree today that I think diminishes the game and the achievements of the players. In particular, starting pitchers are coddled, pitch less often and for shorter stints than they did a generation ago.

The 20-game winner is nearly extinct. Pitchers rarely finish games, settling for so-called "quality starts" of 6 innings or so. They shoot for 200 innings in a season, where 300 used to be relatively common. I'm not suggesting that they don't work hard or anything (though some, such as Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus, contend that pitchers pitch too infrequently in games, and too often between times).

It is comforting, of course, to know that this is not a new issue. For example, this quote from a retired pitcher:
The game of baseball hasn't changed much in the past fifty years, but the players have a different philosophy toward the game. They want to make a lot of money and retire. ... We played for the love of the game; there were few holdouts. We wanted to pitch every day; to win more games than the other guy--not for the money, but for the glory of winning.
It's great stuff, and it comes from Hall of Famer Kid Nichols in Baseball Digest, January 1948 (hat tip to Paul Campos at LGM). Here are some more gems:
...modern-day clubs carry too many pitchers, which prevents the hurlers from working enough to bring out the best that is in them. The old-time clubs carried three pitchers; today, they have 10. ...

Sometimes we pitched every other day. Twice I pitched three days in succession and went the distance in each game. ...

We worked hard, but I wouldn't say we were overworked. During my twelve years with Boston, I took part in 517 games, averaging twenty-seven and three-tenths wins per season. ... If I was overworked, it didn't affect my arm. I spent seventeen years in organized ball, far above the average of present-day hurlers.
It's short, but a good read. Anyway, I guess the more things change, the farther we get from the "good old days," whatever we believe them to have been. And yet, baseball is still pretty wonderful!

I'll just be wandering off in my walker now.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Talking About Torture

First, my apologies for being so silent this month. It's not that there aren't things I want to write. I just found myself immersed in a project for work that ate up all my time. Now that I have at least somewhat caught up on little things like sleep and family, I can once again start to share with y'all!

So we're back to one of our long-time topics here, torture. To summarize for those who arrived late: I'm against it.

But the "debate" goes on. The release of the White House "torture memos" this month has made quite clear that some truly despicable acts were approved and applied. I can think of no explanation for waterboarding someone dozens of times that doesn't involve sadism, desperation, or cluelessness. All of which are completely inexcusable.

Probably the most bizarre aspect of the discussion to me is the focus on whether these tactics "worked." As if somehow, some nugget of information extracted by torture justifies grossly immoral, inhuman, and patently illegal behavior. The "effectiveness" of torture (about which I have ranted many times) is a completely tangential issue. Torturing people is wrong, and to claim that it is necessary or otherwise justified just defies both rationality and decency.

The worst and most lasting legacy of the last few years may not be the state of global economic ruin; that will recover. But the pervasive post-hoc justification of unthinkable, unspeakable acts will be hard to wean people from. A generation that grows up believing that ends justify means will be difficult to live with.

The always excellent Tom Tomorrow gives a good slant on the torture "debate" in this week's comic.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Lunch Thoughts

Haven't had much time for blogging since we got back from Indonesia. Lots of work piled up while we were away.

Today I went off to run some errands at lunchtime, and found myself in a position to grab a fast-food burger on the way back to the office. So I stopped in the Carl's Jr at Hallidie Plaza. It's pretty rare that I have a hamburger for lunch (or dinner, really), but I've always kind of liked Carl's "Six Dollar Burger."

As I ate mine today, it occurred to me that before too long, that name may have to change. The list price for the Six Dollar Burger now exceeds $5. I wonder what they'll do about that.

And I have to say I was a bit disappointed in my Western Bacon Six Dollar Burger. It was rather dry, and I don't think I've ever seen bacon sliced that thin. Ah, well.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Long Ride Home

[Note: I'll update later with some pictures!]

The last legs of this trip are all in the air. From Makassar we fly to Bali, have a brief stopover, then off to Taipei, another stopover, and then home to San Francisco. Because of our friend the International Date Line, the trip starts in Makassar on Thursday morning, and after about 24 hours in transit, it's Thursday evening in San Francisco.

The hard part, of course, is figuring out how to do the trip without ending up hopelessly jet-lagged next week at work. So we'll try a combination of staying awake (my favorite solution to jet lag), and the homeopathic No Jet Lag pills. I've got books to read, and we'll see what fine cinematic treats China Airlines has in store.

Much later...

And it all turns out fine. Jan wasn't feeling too well, so she slept much of the trip. Christopher and I managed to stay awake most of the way, and the airline showed us some decent movies (unlike the trip over, where the "highlight" was a TV movie called "The Librarian"): Madagascar II on the Bali-Taipei leg, then Quantum of Solace (not my favorite Bond flick, but diverting enough for a plane) and Slumdog Millionaire, which I actually wanted to see, on the long transoceanic leg.

On the layover in Bali, we did a little shopping to use up the last of our Indonesian money, then ate lunch at the same Japanese restaurant we went to last September before catching our flight home. That gave us a chance to say goodbye to a few of our friends.

During the stop in Taipei, we had time to walk around and see some of the shops, including a gift shop from the national museum. Unfortunately, we also found shark fins for sale at several shops. But there was also nice tea, art, and some cool electronic gizmos. So that kept us busy. Another intriguing aspect was some rest areas they had decorated to resemble some of the natural areas one might visit in Taiwan. Kind of an interesting way to advertise, and a pleasant little respite from the commercial and travel facilities.

Oh, and they had a bunch of decorated art cows. The decorations were by school children. They were very bright and colorful and very cool looking!

All in all, our very long travel day passed relatively quickly, and the great reward came when we arrived in San Francisco, where we were greeted by our very eager, happy daughter. That was a most welcome end to a great trip.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Interlude in Makassar

Because of domestic flight schedules, we got to spend about a day in Makassar. We had flown through Makassar on the way to Raja Ampat, but this time we got to go into town and stay overnight.

Several interesting points. I noted on the way through the first time that the city and/or the airport seem to have two apparently interchangeable names, Makassar and Ujung Pandang. Some quick Googling now tells me that Ujung Pandang was a somewhat short-lived official name of the city at the end of the 20th century, but it is now Makassar again. I should note that a lot of the place names in Indonesia seem to change now and then. The province of Papua, which includes Raja Ampat, was at some point Iryan Jaya. But not anymore.

Second, Makassar is a commercial and shipping center, but not a tourist destination. It is practically at the geographical center of the Indonesian archipelago. We had a nice hotel, the Imperial Aryaduta. Nice facilities, but it's odd to be in a place where even the hotel staff speaks fairly limited English. Makassar definitely is not set up to cater to American tourists.

Third, this is our first stop in Indonesia where you really get the feeling of how deeply Muslim this country is. There are mosques seemingly everywhere, including one right across the street from our hotel. This means we can hear the call to prayer five times a day (and the hotel room has an indicator to show us where Mecca lies). The hotel information book includes a prayer-time schedule for the entire year.

Going out to lunch was a bit of an adventure. Aside from the fact that we had a bit of difficulty understanding the verbal directions from the hotel staff, we also didn't have any clue where we were going. So we found a restaurant and decided to go in. The menu was only in Indonesian, and the wait staff spoke only a tiny bit of English. Luckily I had learned enough of the names of food items on the boat that I could identify chicken, fish, rice, noodles, and a few other items. And beer. We perhaps didn't expect eight big bottles, but it was a hot day, and they went down great. The food was really tasty, and cheap. No complaints.

Dinner was pretty amusing, too. In the basement of the hotel there is a Brazilian-Mexican Pub and Restaurant called Salsa. The homesick Californians decided to see what Indonesian Mexican food is. We're still wondering, because the menu had no Mexican items. At all. Go figure. So we mostly ordered pizza!

I guess most important, the hotel had Internet service for me, and massages for Jan. Something for all of us, and a nice little experience that served as a transition on the way home.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Diving Recap

Wow...it's over. Lots and lots of diving, and it's done. So let's look back at what we've done:

43 dives, and I think Jan and I were the only ones who did them all. I spent nearly 52 hours under water, or an average of about an hour and twelve minutes for each dive. And Jan averaged about 7 minutes more per dive, which adds up to almost a full five extra hours under water over the two weeks. Amazing!

I guess we're kinda seriously waterlogged by now. But it's OK. A few days ago I was concerned that my ears weren't going to be happy with a dive trip this long, but they seem to have made it through just fine.

So, short summary is that we've done more diving on this single trip than we've ever done at one take before. Was it worth it?

I guess the obvious answer is, "Duh." I can't believe we'd have spent that much time if we weren't enjoying the dives. Although I have to say, we did a night dive the other night that was just dismal. Even the cruise director called it "crappy." And we were still down about an hour. So I guess it's plausible that we might have done a huge amount of mediocre diving, especially having traveled halfway around the world to do so.

Fact is, Raja Ampat and the surrounding area are amazing. I have never seen the sheer variety of corals and colors as we observed here. Just spectacular. And fish! Large numbers of fishes, big schools, great variety, and so on. And the reefs were quite healthy and robust.

Even in those cases where we didn't have spectacular conditions, such as the last few days in the north where the visibility was murky, we saw some great stuff (and could tell that in good conditions, it would be truly awesome).

Looking back, I realize I haven't said much about the dive boat. We sailed on the Archipelago Adventurer II, of the Archipelago Fleet. And I believe the cabin shown in the little slide show on the page is the cabin we actually stayed in. I have to admit to having some mixed feelings about the operation. I can break it down into three separate areas: the diver operation, the business, and the boat itself.

The dive operation is top-notch. The dive guides are terrific (especially Ali and Made), they know the sites and conditions very well. The tenders, tender crews, and deck crew are great. We had some issues with the management of the operation--how they chose sites or limited dive times--but that didn't mar the diving itself. The cruise directors are relatively new on the job, and this is their first time running a liveaboard.

On the business side, I was really impressed with Archipelago Fleet. They arranged all our domestic transfers and lodgings, and all that worked very smoothly. I don't think we could have managed all that by ourselves. It was particularly helpful to have locals there to negotiate all our baggage transfers and fees at the airports. This was all a cut above what I've experienced with other dive companies.

Lastly, the boat itself. The website describes it as "newly constructed," but frankly, it's a bit run down (and I'm told it's going into dry dock in June for some much-needed repairs). The public areas are nice. Both of the dining salons (one of which is used as the camera and TV room) are pleasant, and the dining deck outside the upper dining salon is lovely. The sun deck has no covering, so it's really a SUN deck. Really, it's too hot up there most of the time, so we ended up either indoors or at least under cover on a lower deck. Several of the cabins leaked when it rained. Some of the fixtures and finishing in the cabins were in less-than-perfect repair.

Overall, then, I'm a little conflicted. On the whole, I liked the dive operation and the boat crew and the business operations. On the other hand, the boat itself isn't really up to the standard of other "luxury" liveaboards we've been on.

So Raja Ampat gets a big thumbs-up for the diving. Archipelago Fleet really impressed me as a company and overall operation. I have real reservations about the Archipelago Adventurer II, though. So I would certainly consider going back, but would want to see that the boat had gotten some real upgrades. There are other boats operating in the area, and I would have to look at them, too.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Return Engagements

I've always been of the school that says great experiences aren't repeatable. Your second trip to Disneyland can never be as magical as the first. And if you win the lottery, you should stop buying tickets.

Along those lines, the passengers on our boat last night chose to head back to the sites where we dove with manta rays and under the piers the other day. In the light of not-so-favorable conditions where we'd been diving, the group elected to bypass the signature dive site of the region in favor of sites that had given us great dives. The danger, of course, being that it might not be as good this time. Indeed, I mentioned to Jan last night that we could sit and wait for mantas with no luck, or find that the fish had abandoned the piers and a current was ripping through or something. Ever the optimist, no?

So we arrived early at Manta Sandy to check for favorable currents and such, planning to dive at 8:00 am. Of course, another boat shows up and drops their divers in at 7:30. So we rescheduled to 8:30, so as not to overcrowd the site.

At 8:30 we dropped in, and lo, there are mantas at the cleaning station already, and we had as many as six at a time swooping through for the next hour-and-a-half or more. Marvelous! As good as the first time, and maybe even better in some ways.

Getting back on our boat, we learned that the other boat that had jumped in ahead of us had waited 40 minutes before seeing any mantas, and then had only three. So we definitely got the best of that exchange! They were coming back to the site as we left, so maybe they had something good later.

Then on to the piers, where we dropped in and...no fish. Really. Just desolate. Ghost town. We poked around the reef for a while, finding some pretty nice fish and things, and eventually headed back to the piers. The anchovies had returned, as had the school of trevally jacks that like to hunt there. But no sign of the scads that were so plentiful the last visit.

On the plus side, someone found a little farm of giant tridachna clams (Jan counted 19 of them), including some quite large. Always nice to see big, healthy giant clams.

All in all, it was worth coming back. No great disappointments, and the mantas were at least as good the second time around. We were fortunate.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Great Expectations

All trip long we've been hearing about how great the north was going to be: great visibility, big fish, and so on. And indeed, it's quite different from both the early muck diving we did and the reefs as we worked our way up here.

On the other hand, conditions have been somewhat poor, with unusual currents bringing in murky, yellow water much of the time. The nutrient-rich water is great for the reefs and the critters who live on and around them, but it makes the diving less than spectacular. It's nice to see a school of 100 fish, but frustrating to know that you could see 1000 or more if the water were clearer.

This suggests that perhaps our cruise director should have been a little more circumspect about what we would find here. Yes, we're all experienced divers and know that the conditions are at the whim of the ocean. But we can't help but get our hopes up when we constantly hear how great it's going to be.

It's a little disappointing, but we are still seeing some great stuff. No complaints about the diving; it's just not quite what we'd been led to expect.

Personal Bests

One thing that fascinates me about diving is that the longer I do it, the more I learn about myself. I have, over the years, learned to slow my breathing to the point that I could almost always make a standard tank of air last for an hour under most circumstances. Earlier this week, I faced a challenge, in that some of the folks I was diving with were pushing for longer dive times, up to and sometimes exceeding an hour and a half.

And I utterly surprised myself by managing to do it, too. It was a stretch at times, and I came up with nearly empty tanks a couple of times, but darned if by the end of the trip, I'm not finding 80-90 minutes a very reachable goal nearly all the time. And a couple of times I got to find out what happens when my dive computer runs out of digits to count the dive time. It only uses two digits, so when we aimed for 100 minutes a couple of times, I was curious to see what it would do.

Turns out I can't dive more than 99 minutes on my computer. It just stops counting at 99 (or at least, stops displaying additional time. This seems bad, as it's really, really important to know how much time has elapsed. It was one of a couple of limitations I ran into this week with my old computer. I think I'm going to have to invest in a new one before we do another serious dive trip. Luckily, that gives me a little time to save my pennies.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Reef Encounters

Neat stuff today, in rather unexpected venues. First dive in the morning was a manta dive at a site called "Manta Sandy." As the name implies, it's a sandy sea mount with little coral, but one area is a known cleaning station for big manta rays. And after we sat there for about 15 minutes, here came several big rays. The first ones, I'd guess, we maybe 8-12 feet across their wingspans. Later we saw some that must have been more like 15-18 feet: just massive. They come in, swooping and swirling, with remoras attached, so the cleaner fish can do their jobs. Truly fun to watch, and we had about an hour of that, so it was definitely worth the wait.

Next stop was at the pier at a little island called Airborek (or maybe Air Borek). The main attraction is huge schools of little bait fish (scads, mostly, but also anchovies) that hang out under the pier. Those were spectacular: fun to swim with a great photo and video subjects. The big surprises awaited us on the coral heads nearby. Ali, one of the dive guides, found two pygmy seahorses that he hadn't known about before. Then one of the divers, Mary, found a little blue-ringed octopus.

Basically, I had very low expectations for both of those dives, and both turned out to be great. This is one of the reasons I almost never skip a dive: you never know what you might miss. There's always risk with going to a spot to see one particular thing, since it might not be there. On the other hand, you could always see something great you didn't expect!

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Plural of Octopus

Considerable discussion among the pedants in our group about the proper plural of "octopus." I had never really thought about it, and never looked it up. Apparently,"octopi" is incorrect. Indeed, my spell-checker has just flagged it as an error.

The correct word is apparently "octopodes," although "octopuses" is also acceptable (and the only version my spell checker -- and Blogger's -- seems to accept).

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Mixed Results

One of the biggest changes in diving since I started almost 15 years ago is the common adoption of mixed-gas diving. It used to be that the tank on your back held compressed air, and while that is still sometimes true, on most of these tropical dive boats the tanks are mostly filled with Nitrox now.

"Nitrox" is a generic term for "enriched air" which is air with more oxygen added. Oxygen is generally very good for your body. We've all see tired athletes breathing oxygen to recover, and various kinds of patients breathing it under a doctor's care.

Divers have tried lots of modifications of breathing gas over the years. Ultimately there are two (or three) issues they are trying to solve:
  • Air contains 79% nitrogen (versus 21% oxygen), and nitrogen bubbles can cause "the bends." The less nitrogen, the better.
  • Oxygen at high pressure can be toxic. So not too much of that in the mix, especially as you dive deeper.
  • Breathing too much pressurized oxygen over the course of a day can also be toxic (but in a different way).
I'll spare you all the science behind all this. Suffice it to say that it's desirable to displace some of the nitrogen in breathing gas with another gas. Under many conditions, oxygen is a good choice, but if one is diving very deep (and therefore under very high pressure), that could be deadly, so an inert gas such as helium or argon is generally used instead.

I remember vividly seeing film of divers years ago in a bathysphere breathing a gas with lots of helium added. The resulting "helium voice" was quite memorable. There is still "heliox" in use, but divers more commonly use the heavier (but also inert) argon now.

Fairly recently, recreational divers started using Nitrox (air with additional oxygen), which for most diving provides a margin of safety and comfort.

The drawback for me is that one needs a special dive computer to handle the necessary calculations for allowable depth and time given a particular mix of gases. Most modern dive computers handle this pretty elegantly, but my rather outdated one requires that I set it for the percentage of oxygen in the Nitrox for every single dive. And if I should forget, it defaults to assuming I'm using a 50% oxygen gas for my next dive, rather than the more reasonable assumption that I'll be using whatever I used the last time (usually between 30 and 32% oxygen).

So of course, I have now twice forgotten to set the computer before a dive on this trip, and it has been a huge hassle. I think I've handled it well and responsibly, by occasionally lying to the computer and telling it I was breathing plain air instead of Nitrox, so as to balance out the calculations. But I should not have to do this.

Before I do any more serious diving, I will probably need to invest in a new dive computer. Not that I mind new toys (especially computers!), but I basically like the one I have, but for this one thing. Annoying.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Misool Eco Resort

Been so busy diving the last couple of days, I haven't gotten to write at all! Diving's been really good, though.

This afternoon a few of us had the chance to pay a brief visit to a new dive resort here in Misool, the Misool Eco Resort. To say it's beautiful is an understatement. It's a lovely lagoon, and actually incorporates a small island in the lagoon via a wooden bridge.

The idea of the resort is the be as "green" and sustainable as possible. Thorben Niemann, who designed and built much of the resort, gave us a little tour and pointed out many features, such as the fact that all the wood used in construction was driftwood. They capture and use waste water for gardening. And they will soon have solar panels to generate much of the daily electricity (though not enough for, say, the air compressor in the dive center). And they've created a marine preserve around the resort, so there's no fishing and the like. We saw fish and small reef sharks swimming right in the lagoon.

It's quite beautiful and impressive. My pictures don't do it justice; you should click through to their website which does a much better job. I did get one cool shot of the inside of the roof at the resort's restaurant, though my little camera doesn't do it justice:


All I can say personally is that in the brief time we were there, we were accosted by some of the largest mosquitoes I have ever seen. They were fierce! We had forgotten to put on any repellent, but I have to say it would be a very different experience staying at the resort than on a boat as we are (with no mosquitoes!).

But it's really nice to see someone creating a very different kind of resort.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Motoring from Ambon

After our night dive tonight, we pulled the anchor and started on our way north. Tomorrow morning we'll be at a small island with a fringing reef north of here. We'll do a couple of dives there, then around noon we'll head for Raja Ampat itself, specifically the island of Misool.

Raja Ampat literally means "four kings." It refers to four native kings who controlled the spice trade back in the 17th century. They divided up the spice islands, including the area we're going to now.

Raja Ampat includes one of the largest marine protected areas in the world, and should be quite spectacular. It is known for having the greatest diversity of both coral and fish life of any area known on the planet.

Diving in the Muck

Today's diving is what we call "muck diving," which means searching for creatures (usually small ones), often amongst rubble, sand, or detritus. In fact, some of the best substrate for muck diving is human flotsam, such as bottles, discarded clothing, and such.

We have already seen, after only two dives, some very cool stuff. One highlight is that we've found several pairs of small cuttlefish, and have observed them both eating and mating. Wow! I'd only seem that on video before. We've also encountered more stonefish than I've probably ever observed before. Stonefish are very hard to see, as they blend in with their surroundings. But they pack a punch: very toxic spines that can kill humans. So it's good to know there are a lot of them around, if only to make us really, really careful.

Frogfish Update

Just had a chat with James, one of the cruise directors. He says the much-anticipated psychedelic frogfish hasn't actually been seen by anyone in about a year. As noted in my earlier post, it was first found some twenty years ago, then "misplaced" until last year, at which time it was seen a fair amount for several months, but not since.

We've declared a bounty on finding this fish: free beer for the remainder of the trip for whoever locates it. If that doesn't find it, nothing will!

We did a nice dive this morning, kind of a check-out dive, but we saw good stuff.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Off to Ambon

Today was a transit day. We said goodbye to Bali, and headed off to Ambon, where we would meet the dive boat. One of the joys of flying different airlines these days is the varying restrictions they put on baggage. For example, on China Airlines to get over here, they restricted us to two checked bags each, with a weight limit of 20 kg per bag. That's a pretty tight restriction for divers, especially for those bringing cameras and lenses and underwater housings and such.

Then this morning we took our first flight leg from Bali to Makassar (or Ujung Pandang; I need to learn why the place has two names) on Garuda Indonesia. Their limit is 20 kg per passenger. So now we're facing excess baggage fees. Luckily, they discounted a bit, as we were about 10 kg over each, and they only charged us for about 10 total.

Then we had to change airlines to get from Makassar to Ambon, so we got to do the whole baggage dance again with Lion Air. They, too, wanted to limit us to 20 kg per passenger, and again we were over, but again we got a bit of a discount.

At some level it begins to feel like kind of a racket, designed to charge one for the same overage, over and over. Unfortunately, to get to the particular corner of Indonesia we want, we have to take different airlines for each leg, so we have to cope.

Also at Makassar, we met up with the rest of the group we'll be diving with for the next couple of weeks. That includes old friends like Liz and Josh, the trip organizers from Undersea Productions, and also some new acquaintances who will soon be friends, too.

Arriving in Ambon we were told the airline hadn't been able to include all of the checked baggage. This meant that three of the bags for our group didn't make it. Luckily, all of Jan's and my bags showed up. Some other people will be a little short of fresh clothing, or in one case, short a camera housing, until we can get the additional bags in the morning.

Boarding the boat was interesting. We had to take taxis for 45 minutes or more to get from the airport to the harbor. I was quite impressed with the quality of the road the whole way. Ambon is not exactly a major metropolitan center by global standards, but it has a good main road, at least. Certainly better than many we've encountered in some other countries.

And a good thing, too, because midway through the ride, it started to rain. And we're talking major tropical downpour, with water running down the streets, kids floating boats in the gutters, and sometimes little visibility from the car. But it never felt dangerous, despite the closeness of the traffic, including the ubiquitous scooters.

The dive boat was docked (perhaps "wedged" is more accurate) between a cement barge and a tanker of some sort, so they had rigged “gangplanks” (just boards,really) to get us onto the barge, and from there onto the dive boat. It was a bit precarious, especially as it was still raining, but the crew was very helpful and we all made it aboard without incident.

And they greeted us with fresh coconuts to drink the water from. This is going to be great!