Long, Winding, Four-Lane Road


Just an odd online find: A page that includes a complete sequential listing, with the appropriate signs, for every exit, north- and southbound, off Interstate 5 through Oregon. Having driven the road just a couple of weeks ago, it’s fun to see the trip reproduced. The guy who put it together, who identifies himself as Mike Wiley of San Diego, has created a kind of alternate road atlas for the Beaver State’s main interstate.

And from a more geeky perspective, check out the source HTML for the page (I was curious, because none of the beautiful green signs on the page, including the ones for the town of Drain that I wanted to rip off to use for this post, are downloadable images). The guy coded all the highway signage in HTML (except for the highway number shields — those are actually .gifs) instead of creating individual images in Photoshop. Makes sense, I guess, because the hundreds of signs on the page might have added up to a monster download compared to the HTML.

Karma on Wheels

By way of a bicycle-club mailing list I’m on, a good read in the Los Angeles Times (free registration required) on the Furnace Creek 508, an ultramarathon cycling race held in the Southern California desert every fall. The writer competed on a four-man relay team and gives a beautiful portrait of the race and his teammates:

“Only one thing remained constant: Ron’s speed. At the chilly 9 a.m. start in Santa Clarita, he bolted to the front of the team race. The 44-year-old corporate wellness coach from Lawrenceville, Ga., flung himself past the wind-bent juniper trees on the long, 2,500-foot climb out of town and onto the flat, Joshua tree-studded Mojave Desert with the same abandon he had in 1996. …

“By noon, riding strong tailwinds, Ron had blown through tough, windmill-covered hills and a vast airplane-repair graveyard, miles on his way into California City. He finished his 82-mile segment in an average speed of 24 mph, impressive, given the 5,000 feet of climbing, and miles ahead of everyone else. ‘He’s sending a chi statement,’ said Steve, who owns a Tarzana yoga studio. ‘There is no duality in his dharma. This is karma in action.’ ”

Inherit This, You Godless Evolutionists

The San Francisco Chronicle has a story this morning about a school board near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, that has directed biology teachers to poke holes in the theory of evolution and instruct their students in something called “intelligent design.” The people who promote this curriculum or superstition or whatever you want to call it soft-peddle the religious aspect of it. They call their idea “the science of design detection” and seek to explain “living things and other natural phenomena that exhibit function or purpose.” They say they’re seeking the scientific truth behind life and the universe without philosophical or religious assumptions. That’s all great. But they tip their hand when they state they have an end in mind: “constitutional neutrality”; meaning they need to come up with a creation story that’s got enough science in it to jam into classrooms without raising the church/state alarm. And what creation story might that be? Hindu? Navajo? Norse? Or that god got bored watching Monday night football and fashioned the world out of a Cheeto for halftime amusement?

If the promoters of intelligent design try to obscure their Bible-centric agenda, the folks in Pennsylvania sure understand what it’s about. The Chronicle quotes one of the board members as saying she doesn’t believe in evolution and disapproves of teaching that suggests “we come from chimpanzees and apes.” A kid from one of the district’s high schools says, “There’s only one creator, and it has to be God.” Asked about what she’s learned about evolution, she said, “Evolution — is that the Darwin theory? I don’t know just what he was thinking!”

The Chron accompanies its story with some findings from a Gallup poll taken earlier this month. Looking at the numbers sparked a “what’s going on in this country?” moment for me. The survey found that 83 percent of respondents think God — not the bored Cheeto god, but the very industrious Jewish-Christian one — had a hand in creating man (13 percent said they didn’t think God had a role). It makes you wonder how the Scopes Trial would come out if William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow went at it again today. “Inherit the Wind,” my ass.

Brekke Weather

Just a note: It’s the coldest night of the season here so far. Usually that’s occasion for scoffing about Bay Area weather versus real weather (I’m one of the scoffers myself. But I note that the 9 p.m. temperature at Oakland airport was 39 degrees on the German-inspired Fahrenheit scale (our back-porch thermometer shows 40). The official temperature in Chicago at about the same time was 37. And in Central Park in New York City, another of the far-flung outposts of Brekke-dom, the mercury (or maybe it was alcohol) stood at 41.

The differences between here and those other cool places: They’ll get much, much colder in the weeks to come.. And most of our house is without heat as those east of the Berkeley Hills understand it.

Update: The thermometer shows 36 Tuesday morning on Holly Street (around the Bay Area, the lowest temperature I see for 7 a.m. was 28, about 35 miles southeast of here in Livermore), and sleeping in the unheated part of our house last night was more like camping out without a good down bag. The low at O’Hare this morning looks like it was 35. And in New York it was 39.

Love of the Game

Two excellent pieces in The New York Times Magazine today.

The first is a feature on IMG Academies in Bradenton, Florida, a private school set up to provide intensive sports training in baseball, basketball, soccer and other sports side-by-side with traditional academic subjects. It’s sort of the logical conclusion to the long-term trend of kids’ sports having become a scheduled, programmed, largely parent-driven part of kids’ lives. The story, by Michael Sokolove, captures the inherent strangeness of families that have decided to make huge investments in their children’s abilities to throw or hit a baseball or shoot a jumper (in some cases, parents are shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars over the kids’ youth sports careers).

“As Tommy stretched and played catch along with about 30 other boys, his mother, Lisa, sat on a lawn chair in a shaded area, watching practice as she did every day. She was living with Tommy and his sister, Jacki, a college student, on IMG’s sprawling 180-acre campus in a $310,000 condominium that the family purchased last year, when Tommy enrolled at IMG as an eighth grader. Her husband, Chuck Winegardner, had stayed back on the Eastern Shore of Maryland to tend to his car dealerships, but he visited frequently for long weekends. Lisa called after every practice. ‘I need to give my husband full reports,’ she said. ‘What they’re working on, how he looks, is he paying attention.’ ”

The story touches on another phenomenon that I used to sit in the bleachers and bitch about when Eamon and Tom were playing youth league baseball: that the only sports experience the kids were having was of the organized league variety. Sure, I played some organized ball when I was a kid. But not a lot. I just wasn’t very good when I was younger. But I could always play in pick-up games and did whenever I had a chance. And eventually I grew into sports and developed a huge passion for them (people I’ve played with would probably say it went beyond passion to an unhealthy competitive intensity, and I can’t deny the evidence of that). Anyway, it always seemed sad to me to look out on a baseball diamond and see kids, sometimes my own, who looked like they’d rather be doing anything but getting steered around the field by whatever adult was in charge. Sure, I’m forgetting all the unhappy episodes that can and do happen when we organized our own games, but the point was we were out doing something we had a blast doing, most of the time, and it had nothing to do with what adults wanted us to be doing or with parents discharging their responsibility to make us well-rounded or with moms and dads living vicariously through our on-field exploits.

The second piece I really liked in the Times magazine today is “Sandlot Summer,” a short personal essay by Melissa Fay Greene. It’s just a nice take on an experiment in trying to give kids back some sense of the joy in spontaneous, unorganized sports you do because, gee, you just feel like doing them:

“My 16-year-old son, Lee Samuel, ran a baseball clinic with his teammates Andre Mastrogiacomo and Matt and Palmer Hudson. Here’s what the teenagers didn’t require of their players: tryouts; advance registrations; birth certificates; assignments to teams by age, sex and skill level; uniforms or team names; parent volunteers; snack schedules; and commuting to fields in distant counties in search of the appropriate level of competition.

“Here’s what the players didn’t miss: almost none of the above. (Uniforms are pretty cool.)”

Grilled Cheese in Space

Earlier in the year, I covered the space teams that said they planned to launch for the X Prize — the $10 million purse offered for the first privately financed space launch.  Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne won the prize in October, and was the only team to try a launch. A group in Toronto, which came to be known as The GoldenPalace.com Space Program Powered by the da Vinci Project (the name of the volunteer effort tacked onto the name of their online-casino sponsor), got itself lots of media attention by declaring it would try to beat Rutan’s group to the punch. To be more accurate, it was the da Vinci Project’s leader, astronaut, and chief spokesman, Brian Feeney, who promised a launch.

Common sense suggested it was a long shot: Feeney’s team, which envisions launching its manned rocket from a balloon floating 15 or 16 miles above the prairie of western Saskatchewan, set its first X Prize launch for Oct. 2 without ever flight-testing its gear. Feeney would just climb into his capsule, light the rocket, and see what happened (the plan was to fly to 100 or 110 kilometers, then parachute back to the wide open spaces below; GoldenPalace.com also wants Feeney to play some sort of casino game loaded on a laptop in the capsule). The apparent lack of preparation aside, Feeney was always adamant: all sorts of computer modeling had been done, safety was assured, and  no one outside the project could possibly know the state of readiness.  Da Vinci would make its launch date; just wait and see.

In late September, Feeney backed off his October 2 launch date because da Vinci’s vehicle wasn’t ready. SpaceShipOne made its X Prize-winning flight on Oct. 4. Feeney was in the crowd of spectators at Mojave, still insisting he’d fly before the end of October. But his ship still wasn’t ready,  and the launch was rescheduled for an indefinite date before the end of the year. Which brings us to today, in late November.

Now, Canadian media outlets (the CBC and the Globe and Mail, for instance) are reporting that the da Vinci project is putting off its first launch until January. This time the upcoming holidays are to blame: "Over the holidays some people become extremely available and other people become totally unavailable. Although we are planning for an unmanned test flight, we still need a lot of logistical support."

Just a minute: unmanned test flight? Feeney used to talk about a full-on test of the launch system as though it were a frill and dismiss those who suggested at least one test flight was needed as if they were killjoys, people without a sense of adventure or imagination or who were tied to the tired old NASA way of doing things. OK, now he says there will be a test flight; he says it will go up by late January, with a manned flight to follow in the spring. Just a hunch: The January test date will be the next thing to go: Feeney’s always insisted that weather — cold, wind, whatever — is no factor for the da Vinci launch. He’ll think better of that when faced with reality. 

The best da Vinci Project tidbit in the Canadian papers right now comes from Andy Ogle of the Edmonton Journal. He’s got a story speculating that Feeney’s historic flight, whenever it occurs, will carry a 10-year-old grilled-cheese sandwich upon which some see the image of the Virgin Mary.

Modern Marketing: The Sequel


We posted The Amazing Chest Bed on Craigslist on Tuesday, got about a dozen inquiries in all, and had a buyer Friday night. This morning, Kate and I delivered it to a couple who live in San Francisco’s Richmond District — out around 20th Avenue and Geary Boulevard. We took it apart and packed it into the Amazing Dodge Caravan last night, then drove it over there this morning. I meant to take my camera along to take a picture of where the bed wound up — the buyers had what amounted to a walk-in closed with a window that the bed fit into perfectly. Kate did most of the reassembly, we got paid, Kate had the purchaser sign a little receipt she made up (she made two copies, so he got one, too). The we drove home by way of the Golden Gate Bridge, stopping in Tiburon for a mediocre breakfast on the way.

That is all from Amazing Chest Bed Central.

Mom’s Day

So, certain dates come to have a meaning of their own. For me (and for the rest of my family, I think), November 26 is Mom’s birthday. She would have been 75 today. Born in Chicago in 1929, just a month after the stock market crash. Knowing that, and knowing what happened in the world over the first 12 years of her life (the Depression, the New Deal, the rise of the fascists and Nazi Germany, the war in Europe, Pearl Harbor), I’ve always imagined that she was born into a world that must have seemed, to her parents, to be on the verge of chaos or calamity. But it probably just wasn’t that way. I’ve heard that her dad, who worked for the First National Bank in Chicago, was never out of a job. At some point in the ’30s after the last of her six kids was born, her mom went back to work as a grade-school teacher in Chicago. They never lost their home or anything like that, and in fact seemed to have been an anchor for relatives who weren’t doing as well. So all that stuff happening out there in the world someplace probably seemed remote from the day-to-day cares of raising a family. And when tragedy made an indelible mark on their lives, it had nothing to do with the wider world: one of Mom’s brothers and three other relatives drowned in Lake Michigan one summer day in August 1939, her father died on lung cancer in June 1941. By then, of course, the big troubles from outside were starting to squeeze in on everyone, though maybe the family story and the world story never really did twine together; I guess I imagine they did from having a rough outline of what was going on around the family in my head, on one hand, and having heard lots of stories from Mom (and Dad) about those years.

Anyway, Mom, happy birthday. Thanks for — among all the other things — giving us so much to remember and to think about.

Happy Thanksgiving

In case I don’t get around to saying or writing anything else today, let me just say this: Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Good night!

What’s the Frequency? Seldom

Dan Rather‘s quitting as anchor of the CBS Evening News, and that’s on the front page of both papers we get (the San Francisco one and the New York one). We’re sort of a news-oriented family, but we don’t watch Dan (or Tom or Peter or Jim, or any of their cable counterparts) and haven’t for a long time. I watched the cable news outlets during the day when I was working at TechTV out of professional interest; after all, we were doing a daily news show. And yes, when there’s a compelling breaking-news reason, like the election or a disaster or we’re going to war again, we’ll turn on network news. Watching usually serves as a reminder of how shallow, wooden, obvious, and journalistically unadventurous TV news is. What it’s good for, mostly, is showing pictures of things, and given the quality of the information or commentary that come with the images, most of the time you’re just as well served with the sound turned down.

And the ratings numbers make it look like a lot of people feel the same way. When Rather took over the CBS anchor job from Walter Cronkite in 1981, the Chronicle says, the Evening News had a Nielsen rating of 13.6 — that’s 13.6 percent of all the TV households in the United States. Now the number is 5.1. The Chicago Tribune has a story today recounting the long slide of network news ratings; in 1980, the combined audience share for the evening network news shows was 72 — that’s 72 percent of all the TVs in use at a given moment; in 1990 the number was down to 57, and now it has fallen to 36.

Obviously, people have a lot more news choices now: many choices on cable TV as well as the most compelling and addicting news channel of them all, the Net. But you have to wonder if the decline and collapse of the network news model was or is really inevitable. Would better and deeper news values over the decades made a difference? One of the major irritations and disappointments of major cable and network news shows is that the presentation seems so formulaic and the stories so pat; that’s one reason “The Daily Show” seems so inspired — it both sends up the “real” news shows and lampoons them for the way they shy away from controversy.

One interesting thought for CBS from the 2004 “State of the News Media” report from the Project for Excellence in Journalism: The network should become the news voice for the major lifestyle and entertainment outlets its parent company, Viacom, owns. Quoting analyst Andrew Tyndall, the report says:

“If … CBS News was responsible for news for children (on Nickelodeon), for youth (on MTV), for African-Americans (on BET), for men (on Spike), on the radio (Infinity) and so on, it would once again address the mass market that Cronkite once did and put the Tiffany in Viacom, as it were. That potential audience for CBS News is already waiting in Viacom’s distribution system, but the news division just does not have the vision or the corporate ambition to revive its once-famous name.”