Wizards of Oz

"Life is fraughtless ... when you're thoughtless."


San Francisco Travelog

We're spending the weekend in the San Francisco Bay Area. Posterity of Oz (who too-quickly adapted to Pacific Daylight Time, which will make returning to school on Tuesday morning quite problematic) enjoyed visiting the Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39. The photo above is in one of the "tubes" beneath a school of anchovies, and at right they are petting a skate.

We also paid a visit to the USS HORNET (CV-12) Museum at Alameda Point (the former Naval Air Station), but were deterred by their preparations for a conference of more than 3,000 machinists in the hangar deck. On our way off post, we saw the French maxi-catamaran GITANA 13 -- the sailboat that is shattering records around the globe. The crew of 11 had just set a new record for the Route de l'Or (New York to San Francisco via Cape Horn), breaking the old record by more than 14 days. (Yes, *days*.) They should embark for Japan later this week, where they hope to add the trans-Pacific sailing record to their growing list of accolades.

No visit to the Bay Area is complete without a stop by the alma mater -- and, this time, a trek up Strawberry Canyon to the Lawrence Hall of Science. Their special exhibit this month is "SPEED", with throttle-driven drag racers that risk stalling due to slipping wheels, a side-by-side ski slalom simulator, and a build-it-yourself Lego derby track.

But the main purpose of this weekend was to honor (and thoroughly roast) my mom, who retired last Friday after more than 32 years of service to the Alameda County Health Services Agency. More than 140 colleagues, friends and family came to honor her, while I had the privilege of co-MC'ing -- and laying the blame for the soon-to-be-bankrupt Social Security Trust Fund squarely on her shoulders for leaving the workforce. Truly an enjoyable trip.

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Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)

Science fiction author, pundit, pioneer and visionary Sir Arthur C. Clarke passed away this morning in his adopted home of Sri Lanka. His short story The Sentinel (1948), which inspired his 1968 novel (and later one of my all-time favorite films) 2001: A Space Odyssey, demonstrated his keen insight into the perils of "artificial intelligence" and technological advancement.

Most notable was Clarke's professed skepticism of humanity and our inclination for self-destruction. A persistent theme in his Odyssey series (both the Space Odyssey as well as his later Time Odyssey trilogy) was the essential role "godlike" aliens played in creating -- and regulating -- sentient life in the Universe. His application of the Second Law of Thermodynamics (that entropy increases over time) and the implicit justification of his aliens' "regulation of life" to postpone the ultimate heat death of the Universe is a compelling syllogism.

Sir Arthur's creativity gave us a glimpse into our own souls, and the cosmic implications of our folly. For that we owe him our gratitude, and our well wishes as he today embarks on his own Rendezvous with Rama.

Update: Other tributes from Sharon @ Danger Room, Kingdaddy, Jason S., Jay M., Soob and Cheryl R.

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F-117s to be retired

Despite a U.S. defense budget in excess of a half-trillion (yes, that's a "t") dollars per year, the Air Force doesn't have enough resources to proceed with its modernization program. So, according to an MSNBC report posted this morning, "The Air Force decided to accelerate the retirement of the F-117s to free up funding to modernize the rest of the fleet." Program Budget Decision 720 (signed in December 2005) is coming to fruition six months ahead of schedule.

The F-117 NIGHTHAWK, developed by Lockheed's (NYSE: LMT) famous "Skunk Works", was the first ground attack aircraft designed with low-observable ("stealth") technology. Its first flight was in 1981, and its combat debut was in 1989 during Operation JUST CAUSE in Panama.

So while soldiers and Marines while away in forty-year-old helicopters (q.v. here, here and [from a 1995 report] here), our airmen need to retire dozens of mission-capable aircraft to get more RAPTORS.



Beakman in Oak Ridge!

The inestimable Beakman, the King Kong of Knowledge, was at the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge today. Man-cub, announcing "I like pie!" (or was it, "I like pi"?), was dubbed "Pi-Guy" by Beakman -- and got to go on stage as a volunteer answerer with a crazy wig:
We got to see Beakman make a bat appear out of thin air, watch "Beakman Bucket" spew (with audience participation as the three elements of the pharyngeal process) and observe Bernoulli's Principle with the aid of a paint roller, a leaf blower and a roll of toilet paper.

Great fun!

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Battle of the Ironclads

In early March 1862, the fledgling navy of the Confederate States of America attempted to break the U.S. Navy's blockade in the Hampton Roads of Virginia, at the confluence of the James, York, Elizabeth and Nansemond Rivers. The Commonwealth of Virginia had seceded from the Union less than a year prior (on April 17, 1861), though parts of the Commonwealth remained in Union control (e.g., the western counties -- soon to become the state of West Virginia -- and Fortress Monroe, at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula).

The U.S. Navy retained command of the seas, and imposed a naval blockade on the CSA to restrict their trade -- and their ability to generate revenues to sustain their secession. While northern states were the most populous (shown by Lincoln's victory in the 1860 presidential election -- despite winning zero electors from Southern states or from New Jersey) and most heavily industrialized (with 80% of total U.S. manufacturing capacity and 67% of U.S. rail lines), nearly 50% of America's GDP in the mid-19th century came from cotton. In fact, southern output of cotton was more than 80% of the entire world's production.

When the Commonwealth of Virginia seceded, the U.S. Navy vacated the oldest shipyard in the nation (Gosport Shipyard in Portsmouth, VA, on the Elizabeth River) and scuttled the steam frigate "USS MERRIMACK" in place. The Confederacy raised her and rebuilt her as an ironclad ram, rechristening her as "CSS VIRGINIA".

On the morning of March 8th, 1862, the VIRGINIA steamed into the Hampton Roads with the intention of breaking the Union blockade. Ramming USS CUMBERLAND below the waterline and then forcing the surrender of USS CONGRESS, VIRGINIA returned to port after darkness for repairs. The next morning, she returned to finish off the Union fleet -- but encountered a new arrival to the scene: USS MONITOR, the first true "ironclad" commissioned by the U.S. Navy.

Though the ensuing battle ended in a standoff, the event proved decisive for the Union -- which preserved the blockade's stranglehold on CSA trade.

Our home in Virginia was just a few miles south of the waters where the Battle of the Hampton Roads took place. As proof that to the victor goes the spoils, even south of the Mason-Dixon Line, U.S. Interstate 664 (the western edge of the Hampton Roads' "beltway") crosses the battle site via the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel (changing VIRGINIA back to its original U.S. Navy name -- albeit without the "k").

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15 Years Ago ...

Fifteen years ago this week, my life's journey reached a crossroads. Little did I know (in early 1993) that a trip with our lab's ski club would leave such an indelible mark on my future.

The irony is that I wasn't supposed to be on this particular trip (a week-long ski trip to Jackson Hole, WY). Being young, single and poor (albeit with a decent job), I had decided that the sum total of my skiing that season would be on the club's day-trip to Bear Mountain. But on the return drive from Bear back to San Diego, Gary Curtis (the ski club president) announced that "Someone has canceled their Jackson Hole reservation, Shane, so we have one ticket to sell, Shane. So if any of you are going to buy this, Shane, you'll get a good discount." (I'm a sucker for the strong sell....)

So the first Saturday in March, 1993, shortly after 6am Pacific Time, I boarded Continental Airlines Flight 196 (San Diego to Denver). My window seat was next to our lab's head of purchasing (and her VERY pointy elbows) in the center seat. I noticed a stunningly attractive brunette board and sit in the row in front of us, and quickly classified her in the "unattainable" category.

As the cabin door was closed, the flight was packed -- except for the row in front of me. "Unattainable" had two empty seats next to her. After a bit of impromptu matchmaking on the part of our purchasing chief (who insisted all she wanted was more elbow room), I was now sitting on the aisle one row forward -- and learned that Unattainable was going to Minnesota for her grandmother's funeral. (Grandma Leona is shown in the photo above.)

We parted ways in Denver, she continuing to her hometown and me to Jackson Hole for an excellent week of skiing the largest vertical drop in North America (>4,000' from the lodge to the top of the Gondola). And a week later, after connecting in Denver for the return flight to San Diego, I found myself in another nearly-full flight -- this time next to a young mother and her wailing infant.

The fact that Unattainable boarded shortly after me, and sat one row in front of me, with two empty seats next to her, has challenged my feeble brain's concept of probability and predestination. I consider this singular event one of the most profound in my life -- even moreso that, as it happened, we both looked at each other like we expected to see each other.

A few days later I made her dinner (and secretly slipped chocolate mint cookies into the oven). A few months later we moved in together. A year after this "chance" encounter I proposed to her, and a year after that proposal we were married.

All because of a plane ride fifteen years ago this week.


March is Red Cross Month

From the American Red Cross website:
"Honoring a tradition dating back to 1943, President Bush has issued a proclamation recognizing March as Red Cross Month and lauding the 'remarkable achievements and contributions' of the American Red Cross."
Many of us know the Red Cross as the place we donate blood, or take our First Aid and CPR classes. But the Red Cross is so much more.

For instance, the Red Cross, though more than 700 local chapters, is positioned to respond quickly to disasters -- whether it's a single-family home fire or a major catastrophe. Red Cross "Disaster Action Teams" provide food, shelter, emotional support and emergency assistance to those in need more than 70,000 times each year.

The American Red Cross works solely through the generosity of its donors and volunteers, and provides all of its disaster services free of charge -- without any federal funding. I encourage you to contact your local Red Cross chapter and ask how you can volunteer your time. Or, to contribute to the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, go to http://www.redcross.org or call 1-800-RED-CROSS (1-800-733-2767).

Together, we can save a life.

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