Saturday, June 28, 2008

Wild Blue Yonder

I’ve long been fascinated with airplanes, going back to some of my earliest memories when I was four, and living in Albuquerque. In World War II, my dad had been in the Air Force, (or to be technical, the Army Air Force as it wasn’t a separate service back then), and there must have been times when he showed me photos of various aircraft, usually military, in books and told me their designations. That must have stuck, as I remember him taking me to an air show at the Kirtland air base in Abluquerque and me being able to identify several types on sight. My favorite was the B-36 bomber, one of the largest and most distinctive looking planes ever built. It was huge by any standards, and when you’re only four it’s even more impressive.

Other times we would go to the civilian airport, (which was adjacent to the air base), and sit on an adobe wall to watch the planes come and go. Those incidents sparked a life long interest in aviation and aviation history. Although my mom had her reservations the first time I actually flew.

Her father in Indiana was very ill, so mom flew back to be with him at the end. Since I had never met him, she took me along. I’m sure if they knew the circumstances, people in the airport would have thought that was a sweet gesture, taking a little boy to meet his grandfather for the first and sadly, last time.

Well, that was until we were getting ready to board. This was back in 1958, and the first jet airliners were coming into service. I spotted a gleaming Boeing 707 outside a terminal window, and asked mom if we could fly on it. She said no, and pointed to our plane, a propeller driven Lockheed Constellation. But I was persistent. So was mom. So I pitched a temper tantrum. Back then the pilots often greeted passengers as they were getting ready to board. Mom still reminds me of the glares she was getting from ours as I screamed, ‘I don’t want to fly on the old rattletrap, I want to fly on that new jet."

At this time I was a much more mature five year old, but still concepts like flight schedules, etc., didn’t come to mind. So mom reluctantly dragged me on board anyway. My mom doesn’t drink but she may have been sorely tempted that day.

Later in life I would take myself to air shows and was delighted that a job assignment to Washington, DC in 1990 meant easy access to the Air and Space Museum. But the ultimate aeronautic experiences were the pair of trips dad and I took to the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. If it had flown in the Air Force, it was represented, including the first B-36 I had seen since Albuquerque. And yes, it is still a very impressive plane.

But the highlight was a display of the B-29 bomber of the type dad flew in during the war. In addition to a complete famous one hanging from the ceiling, there was an open fuselage you could walk into. Dad became like a kid in a candy store. He dashed from station to station, pointing out what was what, and then sat in his radio operator’s seat. He got this far away look as though his old crewmembers had reappeared. He would mention them by name, “That would be Roy from New York in the navigator’s chair, and Tom from Ohio was our pilot.” Then his voice would tail off, and he added, “This sure brings back some memories.”

These were memories I could scarcely comprehend, never having even being in the military let alone combat. But the emotions in dad's face and eyes at those times were overwhelming, and you know they went to the depth of his soul.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

An Appropriate Name

Do you ever wonder where old technology goes to die? You don’t? Well why not? “2001: A Space Odyssey,” proved machines have souls, or at the very least can sing off key. Although unlike HAL, most modern machines only sit silently when they malfunction instead of politely refusing a command with an, ‘I’m sorry, Dave, I can’t do that."

Considering the useful life of items like computer components and cell phones is about 15 minutes between their time of sale to when their replacements are on the shelves, there is a glut of technology that is still useful, but alas because of real or perceived obsolescence is unloved and unwanted. Fortunately there is a place in the Bay Area where they can go to live again. It’s an appropriately named store, well, more of a cluttered warehouse, called ‘Weirdstuff."

I discovered it by accident in the late 1980’s while actually trying to locate a Fry’s Electronics. The name drew me in, and it did not disappoint. I was delighted to find old game cartridges for my TI-99/4A, old pc software, (remember when Microsoft Works fit on a pair of floppy disks?), and a barrel of circuit boards labeled… “Barrel of Boards.” Who couldn’t love a store where most items were labeled with a garish orange sticker emblazoned with “Guaranteed Not To Work. If It Does, You May Exchange It For One That Doesn’t.”

There was much more than just computer components, the place was an electrical engineer’s heaven. You could get oscilloscopes for a few dollars, mounting racks for a mainframe computer, (all true Americans need a mainframe), testing meters of all types, enough cables to sew the San Andreas Fault closed, and at one time something my dad would have loved, a vacuum tube tester. Dad was an engineer, and felt in many ways a lot of technological progress was more hype than real advancement. He was ticked when the only store in town with a vacuum tube tester got rid of it as he would have gladly taken it off their hands. I wonder if the one in Weirdstuff was the same one.

Dad was always building things from scratch, more often than not just because he could. It’s a shame he left California for Indiana before Weirdstuff opened, or he would have pitched a tent in their parking lot to live in. And what he would have built would have been staggering. I imagine he would have started with a bunch of robots with the sole function of terrorizing mom’s dog. After that he would have added more robots to keep some neighbors and assorted relatives to keep honest.

And of course they’d use vacuum tubes.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Just Don't Tell Them Jerry Garcia Is Dead

While I didn't graduate from there, one of my fondest college memories was the year I spent at UC Berkeley. One of the finest academic institutions in the world, it is an amazing place. I still return several times in the Fall to attend football games, though until Saint Jeff of Tedford arrived six years ago to rescue the team from the demons of mediocrity, (and last year's second half of the season collapse was merely a test of faith, order will be restored this season... I hope!), the stadium was a wonderful place to get away from it all on Saturdays.

With Tedford came success, with success came large crowds at the games, and a realization that Cal, (the official name, UCLA is the barely tolerated younger brethren down south), had athletic facilities most junior high schools would sneer at. So a fund raiser was started to build a state of the art facility to safely house and train not only the football team but teams from many other sports, both men and women's. A site was chosen next to the stadium, and since much of the facility would be underground it would blend perfectly with the hillside the stadium is built into, making everyone happy.

Not so fast.

This is Berkeley, home of the Free Speech movement of the 60's and still populated by a large group who would protest against Santa Claus for being an oppressive white male paying substandard wages to overworked elves while engaging in animal abuse by forcing innocent reindeer to haul this heavy sleigh around the world. So almost as soon as the plans were revealed, the protests started.

First was a ragtag group who called themselves the Save The Oaks foundation. It would be necessary to remove about 40 oak trees to build the facility. Mind you, these oaks were planted at the same time the stadium was built in the early 1920's. Never mind that they are a very common species of oak and that as part of the construction plan the university would plant three to replace every one that would be cut down. Letting facts get in the way is not the modus operandi for extremists.

A group of cretins... errr... dedicated environmentally aware activists... nah, call it like it is, cretins, built platforms in the trees and lived in them to bring attention to the fact that they are a bunch of idiots. Their claims that the site was an ancient American Indian burial ground, (claims pushed by a phony with the fake name Running Wolf... evidence is mounting he is not an Indian at all and is an insult to them), that the oaks are part of an endangered wildlife preserve, etc. are of course completely false.

But it was entertaining for a while. Granted most of the "Tree Sitters" were only there to be fed by their equally brain dead supporters on the ground. Otherwise they'd be back on the streets of Berkeley panhandling and making a complete nuisance of themselves. But while in the trees one got to meet such scintillating characters like "Redwood Mary", "Millipede", and everyone's personal favorite, "Dumpster Muffin". Now dumping all of them in the nearest dumpster does sound like a great idea.

In the meantime several lawsuits were filed against Cal to stop construction, for no other reason than for the residents of the city to be their usual anti development, anti progress, anti everything out of general principle royal pains. The judge's recent decision was almost completely in the university's favor, so it can be expected that construction of the athletic facility can finally start before much longer.

I'll only be able to attend a few games this season before moving to Texas, (and if Comcast's sports package doesn't let me continue watching them on television blood will be spilled). I won't miss the Tree Sitters, though fans from visiting teams will miss out on a true Berkeley experience. I'll never forget overhearing a fan last season when Cal played Tennessee saying, "This is better than going to the zoo." Then there was the Cal fan calling out, "I'm buying drinks for any of you Tennessee fans who brought your hunting license and shooting iron."

Friday, June 13, 2008

Gas Pains

California loves to pride itself on being a leader, and in areas such as the entertainment industry and technology, that is true. The exception with technology is in customer support, but that will be the subject of another entry. Unfortunately, California has the honor of also being a leader in government idiocy, (Berkeley's City Council being the prime example), obscenely overpriced housing, (the recent drop in these prices not being nearly enough to make this state a desirable place to live), and now gas.

Despite claiming to be so into public transportation, California is as car crazy as any other place in the country. Now in Texas, a car is a necessity. This isn't just because no matter where you buy a house everyplace you need to get to conspires to be 500 miles away. Well, for the most part it is a pretty flat state so things tend to get spread out. But the other reason is take a glance at the weather report for any given part of the state in July and then decide if you really want to take that bicycle farther than the end of your driveway.

Gas is steep there, just like everywhere else, but in the Bay Area it is usually 30 cents a gallon higher than the national average. Considering the number of refineries in this area, that has never made any sense. The excuses for these prices seem lamer by the day, my theory is plain old price gauging because those in the industry and government, (yes that means YOU George Bush, Dick Cheney and the rest of you Haliburton weenies), can rake in more obscene profits.

Though speaking of which, if I had known six months ago this was going to happen, I would have bought a dozen or so Toyota Prius's then kept on jacking the price up as gas prices kept rising and SUV owners became more desperate. But not having a crystal ball means another brilliant business plan shot to heck.

But on a personal note, I'm still planning to drive to Texas when I make my big move in November. My vehicle of choice is "Phydeaux", my faithful 1993 Toyota Corolla. It may have picked up a few dings over the years, but it starts up every morning and more importantly still averages close to 34 miles per gallon. Though if gas goes up much more by then, like 50 cents a gallon while I'm still filling my tank, I'll ask if instead of the extra landscaping at my wife's and my new house in Texas if we can get oil drilling equipment.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

What Guys Read

Time for a quick literary review, of the type of literature guys love but English teachers hate, the "male adventure story" genre. Actually, this is something with many female fans, especially if the writer is Clive Cussler. My dad introduced me to his books in the early 80's when he gave me a copy of "Raise the Titanic" and said I might enjoy it. Since I read it in one sitting, you can say I did.

Since then I've ready everything he's written, 35 novels and a pair of non fiction works on shipwreck hunting. Why is he so popular? I'd say because his books are entertaining, pure and simple. You can always count on some fascinating historical tidbits, hi tech, beautiful women who are also smart and strong, (this is one of the reasons so many women love his books), while the heroes are smart, tough, yet also respectful to women. Of course the villains are rich, ruthless, power mad, sometimes just plain mad, but always dangerous. Throw in plenty of fights, narrow escapes, imaginative chases, exotic locations, romance and you have ask what more could a guy want?

You also have to like the interactions between the characters. One of my favorite exchanges was when told about a plan, the reply was, "If it's sneaky, devious and dastardly, we're in."

But there is a bittersweet feeling when a new book comes out. For years I always bought the latest one as soon as it came out and sent it to dad as either a Father's Day or birthday present. One year, Clive was autographing "Inca Gold," (often considered to be his best), at a bookstore in San Francisco. I was honored to meet him, and got the impression he is a modern Renaissance man who could converse well on almost any subject. I sent the autographed book to dad, who acted like I had sent him the Holy Grail.

Ok, now back to his latest, "Plague Ship", co-written with Jack DuBrul, who is another excellent adventure writer. And since I'm on the train, I just may not mind if it has another breakdown.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Home On The Range

The worst thing about a long distance relationship is, of course, the distance. Since getting married last October, my wife Jayne and I have had exactly six days together. Granted this is something we’ve long accepted and know will be ending early November, but it’s still a burden.

But one bright spot is when I finally do move it will be to a brand new house. After a fair amount of searching, and enjoying the tours of several model homes, we found a new development only a couple miles from where she lives now. It’s upscale, and far beyond anything either of us thought we would ever be calling home. It has four bedrooms, two baths, industrial strength air conditioning, garage with an extension for a workshop, combination of tile and hardwood floors, humidity control to go along with the air conditioning, granite countertops with tile splash in the kitchen, air conditioning that could freeze Hades, marble countertops and showers in the bathrooms, a jetted tub in one bathroom, and a Tuscany style interior with large windows and more arches than the Roman Coliseum. And did I mention it comes with a great air conditioner?

And the price? Let’s just say I delight in the screams of anguish from Californians who would be lucky to get a studio condo in a bad neighborhood for the same price. Jayne is already working on the d├ęcor for the house, and she has excellent taste. Left to me it would have the look of a garage sale gone bad. But I will have the Garage Mahal to call my own, providing I can figure how to make it bearable in summer. Plus I’ll have one room reserved as my office, or Man Cave, where only the bold dare set foot. Jayne gets the rest of the house as compensation.

Friday, June 6, 2008


I’ve been fascinated by computers since my first one, a humble Texas Instruments TI-99/4A given to me as a gift ages ago. My work machines were usually more capable, but had all the excitement of… work machines, designed for function and little else. And with the “help” of my office’s IT Department, it’s been more little else than even function.

I try to keep up on the latest in hardware and software, but often times have to wonder if some of the latest “advances” are more the result of bored engineers and developers trying to justify their existence. I find it pretty irritating to get a new version of software I’ve become quite comfortable with, only to find the bright and shiny new product is slower, more cumbersome, and more error prone than what it replaced. Worse, inevitably a feature I liked has been otherwise omitted or hidden.

Case in point, Vista. I started my computer career with dumb terminals, (and no comments about the operators of said terminals please), hooked into a mysterious IBM mainframe across the country. Said mainframe was very fast, crunched an amazing amount of data, and had all the excitement of an abacus. So it was very disappointing when IBM produced their first personal computer. It was relatively fast, crunched numbers well, but in effect was just a shrunken head version of their mainframes. Even the operating system was almost the same.

Fast forward to Microsoft’s attempts to make the computer more usable and interesting by mimicking Apple with Windows. In each version the computer became easier to use, and blatant copying of Apple’s innovations was purely intentional. Unfortunately this came without the stability of Apples. I was convinced a feature of Windows 95, was the wonders of the BSOD, (Blue Screen Of Death).

But with Windows XP, Microsoft pretty much got it right. It was on the whole more stable than previous versions and even pretty much forgiving of the torture my machines endure. So naturally they decided to replace it with a new version, Vista. Fortunately I knew enough to tweak it so it could do more or less what I want. But it’s still slower than XP. At least I found out how to turn off the very annoying User Access Control,(UAC), that constantly pops up with “allow or deny” every time you attempt to install or remove software. UAC is also the initials of the bioengineering company in the DOOM games whose creations run amok creating havoc everywhere.

I find this strangely disturbing.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

All The News That Fits Or Gives You Fits

I get almost all my news online these days with varying degrees of completeness, accuracy and fairness. In other words, I haven’t the faintest idea what’s going on, although the Washington Post does a good job overall. Their opinion writers cover the entire spectrum, and earn my respect because of their generally excellent writing even though I often have disagreements with their conclusions.

By contrast, the paper I grew up with, the San Francisco Chronicle, is on par with the National Enquirer. No self-respecting bird will let you line its cage with it, and paper recyclers treat yesterday’s edition as hazardous material. The writers can barely put together a coherent sentence, while if an article is sensational, exaggerated, poorly researched, and completely biased; it naturally gets the front page. Compare how the “Comical” would cover an event as compared to a more sober paper like the Post, or better yet, the London Times.

A storm approaches with 50 mph winds and heavy rain.

The Times: A bit of a stiff breeze is expected over the next couple of days accompanied by some rain. Be sure to keep your umbrellas handy and remove any household objects that may otherwise make unexpected and possibly unwelcome visits to your neighbors.

Chronicle: Oh my God!!! It’s the storm of the century; we’re all going to die!

Stock Market Crashes:

The Times: A slight mishap in the markets today will mean some belt tightening is in order.

Chronicle: Lifetime savings of the rich exploiters of the working class were wiped out in an instant! This is all because of their repression of the oppressed and not giving their life savings to every street bum you see.

Latest royal scandal:

The Times: The queen is slightly miffed at the unseemly behavior of the prince. It is beneath our dignity to go into the details. Editors note: Right, who put in that link to the tabloid with the juicy photos and quotes?

Chronicle: Prince who? You mean there’s something beyond our narrow, self serving view of the world? And besides who needs royalty when you have the highest concentration of queens in the world?

The lifestyle page:

The Times: Here are some handy gardening tips that beautify your home and at the same time provide tasty, healthy fruits and vegetables.

Chronicle: How to cross-dress your child.

The end of the world:

The Times: Well this is a bloody nuisance, coming as it is the day before that important cricket match with India.

Chronicle: Finally, a way to stop the greedy capitalistic mortgage brokers from foreclosing on your home despite your taking out a loan with terms that would embarrass a loan shark.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Faster Than A Sleeping Snail

But not by much. Since I had to lug yet another hefty Visual Basic .Net book to work yesterday in hopes that among the several I have I can find the answer to a homework assignment for a class I’m taking, I left my laptop back at my lodgings. This was unfortunate, because I’m finding the 35 minutes I spend on the train after work is a great time to work on this blog. Even more unfortunate because the 35 minutes last night stretched out to close to 3 hours.

After pulling into San Francisco 15 minutes late, about 4 miles south of the city the train lost ambition to keep going. After a half hour wait, a following train pulled up behind, and after some drama, was hooked up to mine. A half hour after that, we limped to the next station, where everyone offloaded and crammed into the following train to enter the station. Well, almost everyone. The crush of bodies was not appealing so I held out for a less crowded train. This one made the milk run instead of being an express, so bottom line was getting to my lodgings, and a very cranky cat, much later than usual.

If I had the laptop, the time would have passed more easily than by staring out the window at an empty field on one side and a truck fueling depot on the other. It probably would have been something like this:

Phone call to wife: “Well I just finished writing that second novel and am looking for ideas on the third. And no, trains will not be in it."

“Hmmm, battery getting low on laptop, and I’m not in a seat with an electric outlet so I can plug in the AC adapter. Seat in front of me has an adapter though it’s in use by another laptop user… this will take some sleight of hand, and yes! A Dell adapter does indeed work on my HP. Sucks that the owner of that Dell is about to lose Unreal Tournament because he’s going to run out of juice.”

Another phone call to wife: "No, you can’t collect on the life insurance policy on me because I haven’t been stuck on the train long enough yet to be declared legally dead. Just be patient."

And after cell phone battery started running low, there would have been just enough power to call my darling wife and ask her the all important question, "So just why did the Giants blow $126 million on Barry Zito?"

Monday, June 2, 2008

Natural Disaster Musings

Telling someone you’re from California often brings the response, ‘I could never live in a place with all those earthquakes.” Granted that is a serious concern, and is something always in the back of my mind. I’ve experienced several earthquakes, most are described as “Nature’s Rollercoaster”, scary while on the ride but strangely thrilling after the shaking stops.

The exception was the Loma Prieta quake of 1989. I was on BART (the Bay Area’s train system for the uninitiated, the acronym stands for Barely Able to Run on Time), on an elevated section of track when it hit. For several seconds I was honestly afraid the train would be shaken off the tracks. I was also wondering how it felt to anyone traveling under the bay in the Transbay Tube. It turned out that structure was so over engineered the quake was barely felt, though of course that didn’t stop anyone from inventing harrowing stories of survival. Anything to impress the gullible so you could get free drinks out of them.

But “The Big One” has yet to hit, and it is close to being overdue. So with my move to Texas I get to shed myself of that paranoia, and pick up new ones in tornadoes, hail storms, floods and hurricanes. Nothing like variety. I was in one small tornado in Virginia in the early 1990’s; the worst it did was give a few apartments skylights in the complex I was living in.

For hurricanes, in 1998 I was in Florida for a training class when Georges came churning up the west coast of the state. The night before it hit, I was in a hotel bar with my counterparts from our Denver and Dallas offices. The two guys from D.C. who had taught the class had already split, but the rest of us weren’t scheduled to leave until morning. I envisioned the D.C. gents were preparing a report, “The class went exceptionally well, however we now have openings in our Denver, Dallas and San Francisco offices.”

My flight the next morning was the last one out before the Tampa airport closed. A month later I was sent to Guam, just in time for a typhoon to blow through. It was just strong enough to create a bit of excitement, but no damage. So two trips, two storms. Yet for some reason no one in my office wanted to travel with me afterwards.