Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Back to school

This morning our girls got on the school bus for the first time this school year. It was a long time in coming.

Teachers of the Kent Education Association went on strike three weeks ago because their contract had expired and the Kent School District was not bargaining in good faith. The district responded by filing an injunction which resulted in a court ruling ordering teachers back to work.

From the beginning we have been supportive of the Kent teachers, for one simple reason. We know them. It is the teachers who have provided our daughters with a great education the four years we have lived here.

I did not know the newly hired school superintendent, or the school board when this all started. What he have learned about them does not bode well for us supporting them in the future. The board treated concerned parents with contempt in several cases, and cancelled a scheduled board meeting on Sept 9. A Kent Parents Coalition has formed to hold the school board accountable for their actions.

I support the right of workers to organize and to strike if necessary. Exceptions are made for first responders such as police and fire who are forbidden to strike and subject to binding arbitration for that reason. But binding arbitration was not ordered for the Kent strike. The teachers were simply ordered back to work, contract or no. That was wrong.

Sunday night we attended a teacher support rally where a tentative agreement was announced. The contract was ratified Monday morning. My wife took my daughters to our school Monday to see their teacher, who was already there hard at work getting ready for school to start today.

We are glad this is over and school has started, but in one sense school started earlier, as our family has learned valuable lessons in civil disobedience these past weeks.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The price of a speech

In his speech to Congress on health care reform last night, President Obama proved how valuable it is to have an orator who communicates with clarity, confidence, and power.

A CNN poll of viewers who watched the speech found that 1 in 7 who saw it changed their mind and now support President Obama's health care reform plan. In a few minutes, he reversed what it took millions of dollars in television ads and months of astroturf organizing by the Republicans and their corporate supporters to achieve.

It seems clear that this is part of the Obama playbook: let the opposition attack and exhaust themselves in unhinged attacks, remain cool, and counterstrike with a powerful speech directly to the American people that calls the opposition out for their stupidity and lies and resets the debate. That is exactly what President Obama did last night.

Monday, August 17, 2009

NASA assembles new rocket

This week NASA completed assembly of the Ares 1-X test rocket.

This is a key component of the Constellation program that will NASA is developing to eventually take astronauts beyond low earth orbit.

It is always exciting when a new program like this gets to the testing stage with real hardware.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Guitar legend dies

Electric guitar legend and innovator Les Paul has died.

I remember seeing Les Paul at a rock concert once. I can't even remember now who the band was that brought him on stage as a surprise guest. He played an instrumental with a special guitar with a record-playback feature. He played one track, then played another track over it, then another. Before long he was performing a very complex multi-track overdubbed guitar piece. Live. It was very cool. And pure fun.

I also like the fact that Paul continued playing guitar well into his 90s. I hope I can still enjoy playing guitar at that age.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Driving happy

I am a happy driver this week because the road construction on the Duvall Ave/Coal Creek Parkway corridor through Renton and Newcastle is finally finishing up. For over a year the corridor has been under construction as two new lanes and a bridge were added. The project has been officially done for a few weeks now, but there have been some minor lane restrictions for cleanup that also appear to be winding down.

Now my commute is only thirty minutes each way. Also the drive is less stressful and unpredictable than taking I-405 every day. I was concerned that at some point we might have to move closer to my job in order for my commute stress to be manageable. Now I don't think that will be necessary. What a relief.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Pandora One

This morning I purchased a one year membership in Pandora One. Kind of an early Father's Day gift to myself, and a small investment in my mental health.

When I am in one of my black moods, music is one of the few things that can consistently lift me up. Sometimes the songs on my iPod can do that, but on the really bad days, it takes something fresh and different to engage me.

Pandora is great for listening to music similar to artists or songs I already like or to explore a particular musical direction. The sound quality is much better than the free version, and there are no ads. I especially like the fact that you can run it in its own app not only in the browser.

My workplace uses Microsoft Outlook 2003 for email with Word 2003 as the default editor. When I open a link in an email, Word prefers to hijack an open browser window. It especially seems to like to hijack my Pandora browser when I am really enjoying a song. Of course, reloading the Pandora page does not take you back to the same song. Yes, that sound you hear is me screaming. "Noooo!!!!!" No need to worry about that any more though.

If only Pandora could figure out how to deliver content from independent music sites like CDBaby and Magnatune, my musical universe would be complete.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Recovery Acts includes I-405 improvements

This morning I read through a report called 100 Days 100 Projects posted by the White House last week detailing some of the projects funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

I found this one especially interesting.
78. Construction started at the end of March on an important highway project in Bellevue, Washington. Supported partially by $30 million in Recovery Act funding, this project will construct new multi-level “braided” ramps to separate vehicles entering and exiting northbound I-405 between NE 8th Street and SR 520 in Bellevue. The new improvements will improve safety and reduce congestion on I-405 in an area that experiences up to eight hours of traffic congestion a day.

I've driven that stretch of I-405 N many times, and this improvement is long overdue. The current "interweave" design cannot handle even moderate traffic flows. The new design should solve that problem. WSDOT has details on the project here.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Costco snubs Wall Street

Thumbs up to Costco for disappointing Wall Street analysts like moron David Schick who thinks that the way to run a business in tough times is to cut employees rather than profits. Costco apparently knows better.

The idea that speculator profits come first, and employees and customers second, is what got us into this current mess. America has to move past the idea that traders who merely buy previously owned shares in a company but contribute no new capital or useful work are a privileged class who are entitled to anything. They should be the lowest class, like India's untouchables. Be thankful you get anything when all you did was buy shares that were previously owned. Trading paper is not work and adds no value.

Ignoring fluctuating stock prices and focusing on business fundamentals as Costco and a few other companies are doing is what will get those companies through this recession and out the other side in decent shape.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Family bike ride

Yesterday afternoon we had our first family bike ride of the year.

Before the ride, I had to get down all the bikes, test them out, make adjustments, and mount them on the carrying rack.

We also needed new bike helmets and bike gloves so we stopped by Fred Meyer to pick those up. Then we drove to Soos Creek Park in Kent and started the ride.

The ride started well, and our girls did better than I expected, Caitlin in particular seemed to really enjoy the nature along the trail.

LeAnne had a nasty fall while crossing a bridge, and banged up her elbow. Her bike and mine both have pedal cages which I started using a few years ago when I did a two-day charity ride in Idaho. Cages increase efficiency for long rides, but for stop-and-go riding they are not very helpful. One of the cages caught the ground which caused her fall. I will be removing the pedal cages before our next ride.

LeAnne's elbow was swollen badly yesterday and she was unable to move her arm most of the day. This morning the swelling was down and she was able to move the arm much better. She has a doctor visit scheduled today, but nothing appears to be broken at this point.

Despite the accident, the ride was a success overall. Both Caitlin and Hailey enjoyed it and did well. I also enjoyed getting the bikes ready to go. Next month we will be on a biking vacation for several days in the San Juan Islands, we'll be taking several more bike rides in the coming weeks to get ready for that trip.

Update: LeAnne is now fully recovered from her fall. And the pedal cages are gone.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Restoring balance

Today was a good day for me.

This morning I met with my doctor to discuss my depression. Not longing after starting a different anti-depressant, I started having digestive problems, including the acid reflux of death. She thinks it is probably not related to the medication, so I hope it will go away on its own. For now I chug Maalox.

Otherwise the medication, Wellbutrin, is working for me well. I feel happier and more relaxed, I am laughing a lot more, especially at irony and silliness. My wife calls the way I used to laugh my "fakey" laugh, but now it is the real gut-busting kind. I am more at ease when meeting new people and dealing better with stressful situations at work. When I do get down, I bounce back more quickly. I am drawn again to activities I used to enjoy. All hopeful signs. My doctor renewed the prescription for another two months.

It feels like my life is coming back into balance. I find myself thinking about projects I have shelved recently like my writing and music. I know medication is not a permanent solution but I will take what it gives me for now.

Update - May 18, 2009: Unfortunately the Wellbutrin did not work out either. The digestive problems did not improve, and I was losing weight rapidly, almost 15 pounds after three weeks. It also raised my blood pressure, which was the last straw. Two days ago I stopped taking it, my blood pressure is back to normal and I still feel happy and positive. I wonder if giving up coffee and alcohol these past six weeks did more good for me than either of the medications I was prescribed.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Facebook opens up

The other day when I logged onto Plaxo, a new page loaded for linking into Facebook. I hadn't joined Facebook up to now because it had a reputation for not integrating with other social networking sites. But all that has apparently changed. Not only does Facebook integrate with Plaxo, apparently it will soon support OpenID.

So LeAnne and I both took the plunge and opened Facebook accounts. We both found several invitations from friends waiting for us. We've since made connection with other friends. Some are also on Plaxo, but many are not. The nice part is our posts on Plaxo will now be visible to our Facebook friends, and vice versa.

The next thing I'm wondering is if entries on this blog, which show up on my Plaxo page, will get uploaded to Facebook. I guess I will find out.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Facing Depression

I haven't posted this month because of having to deal with a difficult personal issue. Now I need to talk about it openly.

I have been diagnosed with depression. That diagnosis has been a long time coming, and I am actually relieved it is finally here.

I now realize that I have lived with depression most of my life, possibly even since early childhood. It is not the core of who I am. Deep down I am a hopeful, creative, sensitive, and caring person. Yet I am also irritable, cynical, unpleasant, and unhappy. Now I know why.

I have achieved a lot in spite of my condition: two master's degrees, good career, a successful marriage, with two beautiful daughters. It was these contrasts that made me realize something was deeply wrong, and the impact my condition was having on my family that made me determined to finally face up to it and do something about it.

Since last summer, my wife and I began working with a clinical psychotherapist on a parent training program based on cognitive behavioral therapy. One of our daughters was exhibiting extreme defiant behavior. The program was working well, but I noticed that my daughter's behavior got worse when I was home, especially on weekends. Whenever our daughter acted up, it would affect me for days, I would become excessively critical of her, even long after she returned to her normal fun and happy self. As I realized that I was feeding her defiance, and unable to stop it, I felt worthless. Then the weekend came again and the cycle repeated.

I have noticed a similar pattern in how I reacted to setbacks and challenges in my life. An unpleasant conversation with my sister over a financial issue led to a series of nasty emails that almost destroyed our relationship. Rude criticism by a manager at worked triggered anger, and fear that I was certain to lose my job despite assurances that was not going to happen. Several layoffs in the past few years, and having to quit one job I never should have taken after only three months, took their toll on me of course. But in each case I was devastated way out of proportion to what actually happened. I also found it difficult to feel much joy at my successes.

When we visited friends in Idaho last summer, I realized that I had not established many new friendships since moving to the Seattle area four years ago. The series of layoffs and job changes did not help, but really did not explain this. My wife and I have gone to the same church for the past four years, yet she has many more "church friends" than I do.

I have also found it increasingly difficult to sustain interest in things. Last year I started working more seriously on my music, then stopped. This winter I started work on a novel, then stopped. I realize that many of the changes in my life came from irritation. Something would bug me, and I would act vigorously to try to correct it, until I ran out of energy or lost interest in it. After a while something else would grab my attention and a new cycle would start. This has been going on since I was a kid. In many cases the cycles were harmless, just shifts in hobbies or interests, at other times the irritation was so intense I felt compelled to make major changes in my life such as moving or changing careers. I have been fortunate to have my wife to talk me down from these states these last few years, but it isn't fair to her to have to deal with it all the time.

I thought perhaps my problem was stress or anxiety, so I began reducing external stressors in my life, but that also served to isolate me from many things that had once been joyful and fun for me. It did make it clear that the source of my condition was internal not external.

I was prescribed Effexor, an anti-depressant. It really helped me to be calm and relaxed, but I found the side effects unacceptable. After three weeks on it, my doctor switched me to Wellbutrin XL, a once-a-day capsule I have been taking for a week. It has much fewer side effects so far, and seems to be helping me to relax, so I am hopeful. I am also looking into therapy as well.

I am hopeful that now that I am facing up to my condition, I will find more joy and happiness in my life. It will take time, and I am sure there will be bumps in the road. But I believe it will be worth it. Everyone has the right to pursue happiness. Everyone.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Hannibal the Annihilator

The History Channel's new series BATTLES BC started off with a bang, covering the campaigns of Hannibal of Carthage against Rome in the Second Punic War.

I am writing a novel about Carthage, so I know a lot about this period of history. I had concerns about the graphic novel format and whether the Carthaginians would be portrayed as some kind of decadent freaks, as the Persians were in The 300. Battles BC exceeded my expectations in that regard.

The show accurately portrayed the build-up to the war, Hannibal growing up in military camps in Spain, and the types of units in both armies. The elephants were shown accurately, with a rider and archer, they were not heavily armored with battle towers as they have sometimes been depicted.

The episode covered the main battles of the war, all of them Carthaginian victories. The comparison of Hannibal to Robert E. Lee was a good one since that Hannibal won most of the battles, but lost the war against an enemy with superior resources and manpower.

The Hannibal character was excellent, I liked the fact that he was clearly portrayed as African. He did not have enough armor though, he looked a bit like a gladiator. The action sequences emphasized Hannibal's physical leadership, but the commentators were able to capture a sense of his intelligence in their descriptions of the battles. Portraying Hannibal's blind eye as uncovered was a nice touch that made the character more intimidating.

Overall a good show, I hope future episodes are done as well.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

New series on ancient battles

The History Channel starts a new series March 9 called BATTLES BC which will depict ancient battles in a "graphic novel" style format similar to The 300.

This trailer depicts the Battle of Cannae between Carthage and Rome in 216 B.C. The Hannibal character in the trailer is a big muscular guy who reminds me a little of Vin Diesel. Not very accurate (for example, Hasdrubal Barca was not at Cannae), but it could be great fun to watch.

Apparently Vin Diesel himself is working on a 2011 movie called Hannibal the Conqueror where he plays the lead role. I could live with Vin Diesel in that role but it would all depend on the script. What made Hannibal a great general was his intelligence and leadership, not his muscles, if that doesn't come out, the role will not work.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Darwin's legacy

This evening our family celebration the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln with cupcakes, and a few words about the legacy of these incredible men who each left an imprint on our modern world.

When Darwin formulated his theory of natural selection in the late 1800s, he had no idea what the physical mechanism of heredity was. He knew nothing about DNA or genes or genomes. It is amazing that natural selection remains the most convincing explanation for the origin of species after all this time. Darwin got so much right with so little of what we know now.

It seems fitting that on this anniversary, scientists have shed new light on human origins by completing a first draft sequence of the Neanderthal genome. It seems that the Neanderthals, who share a common ancestor with modern humans, remained a distinct species and did not interbreed with modern humans in significant numbers. It also appears that they might have had the power of speech, or at least one of the genes necessary for it. Wow.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Humanism acknowledged

President Obama gave a remarkably inclusive speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington last Thursday. He specifically mentioned the fact that secular people are part of this country, and included humanists among those who follow The Golden Rule, the basic moral precept of all religions and societies.

This small comment is a significant step forward for American political and religious life. After eight years of control by a Christian conservative president who refused to acknowledge for most of his presidency that secular people live in America or should be included among "people of good will", this is a refreshing change.

I was also pleased to see the Seattle Times running an article by Barbara Dority, president of Humanists of Washington, in its Faith and Values column today. The article discusses why humanists embrace evolution and how the understanding that life is finite actually makes life more meaningful.

Such small steps move us all a little closer to mutual understanding and tolerance.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Honda Insight specs underwhelming

The Seattle Times ran a
piece today comparing the 2010 Honda Insight hybrid to the Toyota Prius. I've been following the Insight for a while, but hadn't seen the specs before today. The official specs are now available here.

It's tough to make a full comparison yet because Honda has not yet announced its price point for the Insight, and Toyota has not released the specs or price for the 2010 Prius. It seems likely though that the 2010 Prius will get better gas mileage, and that Honda will have to price significantly lower to compete.

The EPA combined mileage for the Insight is 41 MPG, compared to 45 for the 2009 Prius. One reason for the difference may be that the electric motor of the Insight is rated at only 13 HP, compared to 67 HP for the 2009 Prius. That seems underpowered, barely a hybrid at all. On the other hand, the Times article says the Insight will run on the electric motor up to 30 MPH. I doubt that it could get up the hills around Seattle without kicking in the gas engine.

Clearly Honda is trying to carve out space between the full-featured Prius and the smaller gasoline cars like the Toyota Yaris or Honda Fit. The price will determine if they can pull that off.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

NASA struts stuff at inauguration

NASA showed off some new prototypes in front of President Obama at the inauguration parade, including the new Lunar Electric Rover vehicle, and new spacesuits for lunar exploration. Check out the BBC video here. Look Mom, no parallel parking!

NASA has a rover interactive feature and photos. Very cool stuff. I especially love the walk-in space suits.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Hidden history

For most of my life I have wanted to write a novel. I have started many times, doing research, writing notes, even maps. Yet I have never gotten close to finishing a book. There are many reasons for this, but one reason is that my interests have changed a lot over the years.

One subject that continues to draw my interest is ancient history. I have often wondered how our modern world might have evolved differently if small changes were made in the history of the distant past. I am not interested so much in the history of kings, emperors, or battles, as in the struggle of intelligent and good people trying to cope and create lives of meaning in a sometimes insane world.

Writing alternate history seems like a difficult project, almost as difficult as building a complete fantasy world or science fiction future. I'm not sure I have the energy to start that kind of a project at my age with a full time job and a family. It also misses the deeper point of what I would like my writing to say to the world. I don't want to write about what could have been, but about what has been going on all the time but overlooked, what could be called “hidden history” or “subhistory”.

By “subhistory” what I mean is simply anything people could have done in historical times which is not supported by written records or physical artifacts but also not ruled out by them. That includes most of the history of ordinary people as well as of cultures without written records or before written records. It could also include cultures whose histories were destroyed or distorted by their enemies.

That brings me to the subject of my novel. Carthage was a city-state in north Africa near modern Tunis, which at its height was home to more than a half million residents. The Carthaginians are best known for their wars with the early Roman Republic, and for their general Hannibal Barca who marched his army with elephants over the Alps in 218 B.C. to invade Italy, dealing the Romans a series of crushing defeats but ultimately losing the war. Many questions remain, because the Romans sacked Carthage in 146 B.C., killing most of the inhabitants. Most of the Carthaginian records were lost, and the remaining histories were written by their enemies.

The Carthaginians were great mariners who controlled access to the Straits of Gibraltar and had a monopoly on the Atlantic sea trade. They are believed to have sent expeditions as far north as Britain to trade for tin and as far south as Senegal to trade for gold. I wonder if some of them survived the sack of Carthage, perhaps making it to some of the lands they know about from their trading expeditions to get well out of reach of the Roman armies. There is no evidence to support such an idea, but one thing we do know about the Carthaginians is that they were very good at keeping secrets.

The premise of my novel is that a small group of Carthaginians escape and establish a community in secret on one of the islands known to them in the Atlantic. How they survive in difficult conditions, learn to get along with their neighbors, and keep their culture and history alive for a time is what this story is about. Nothing to rewrite the history books, but hopefully an exciting and enjoyable read that will feed interest in history, and most importantly feed my need to write about this ancient culture that has fascinated me for years.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Fun revisited

Yesterday LeAnne and I watched Stargate: Continuum, the DVD movie based on the Stargate SG-1 TV series. We enjoyed SG-1 a lot, and own the first 8 seasons on DVD, so when I got it for Christmas I was excited. I haven't watched SG-1 in months, it was nice to step back into that world for a while. Continuum uses plot elements common in the SG-1 series, including time travel and over-the-top bad guys. The extras on the DVD were also fun, including a trip to the Arctic for filming.

Continuum is a treat for SG-1 fans, but might not be as enjoyable for a generic sci-fi fan who hasn't seen SG-1. I would steer those folks towards Serenity, a 2005 sci-fi film based on the Firefly TV series. I thought that Serenity stood pretty well on its own and didn't require one to have seen the Firefly series to enjoy the movie.

It's amazing to me sometimes that I enjoy the Stargate series at all. If there really were a secret government project that kept the people of the world in the dark about a global threat to humanity and committed us to secret alliances and secret wars, that would be quite outrageous. Oh, wait...

But I suppose that is part of the point, the characters of Stargate SG-1 find their situation absurd and outrageous too, part of them understands that everything will be revealed eventually, and it is only their sense of humanity and mission and adventure that keeps them going. Stargate Atlantis never gave me quite the same feeling, so I never became quite as attached to it. Yet, for me, Stargate SG-1 is a keeper and I am glad to have enjoyed it these past ten years.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Bidder 70

The last few weeks have been an extended holiday for me. The week before Christmas we were snowed in so I had to work from home, then I had the entire week of Christmas off as vacation and most of the week of New Years' as well.

The rest and relaxation have been great, but I don't normally find the holidays and new year to be an inspiring time. 2008 has been a tough year for our family in many ways. While there are many reasons to be hopeful for the new year, the transition feels like that moment when you are standing on the edge of the diving board, ready to step off but not actually moving yet.

But over the holidays one person didn't just stand at the edge. He acted, and his act has kicked me out of my own holiday doldrums.

On Dec 19, 2008, Tim DeChristopher, a student at the University of Utah, realized he had an opportunity to save a small part of our precious Earth, and that he if he did not act in that moment, no one else would. His act was to disrupt a BLM auction of oil and gas leases on public lands in southern Utah. Not by shouting or screaming or hurting anyone. But by bidding.

The auction was a blatant crime by the Bush administration, a takeaway from the American people and giveaway to its energy industry pals, a fire sale done in the eleventh hour expecting that such goodies will be a thing of the past under an Obama administration, but also unlikely to be reversed by the new administration either.

When Tim arrived at the auction, he found protesters outside. Rather than joining them, he walked past them, signed in, took a bidder paddle, started bidding to drive up the price of the leases, and even won a number of bids, knowing full well that he had no money to pay for anything, and that his act of civil disobedience could land him in jail for fraud.

Why do I find Tim DeChristopher's act of disruption so inspiring? It isn't because I have a personal connection to the lands he was trying to protect. I haven't actually been to southern Utah, though I have a friend who vacations there almost every year. I find it inspiring because it is an example of one person standing up and saying no, of refusing to play along, and of being willing to take the consequences for it. I also find it hilarious since it was only possible because of the corrupt and rushed nature of the auction itself, which did not allow time for proper vetting of the bidders. And maybe because he looks a little like a younger balder version of Matt Damon to me.

But is mostly because of the last sentence of his interview on Democracy Now.

Seeing the opportunity, I could not ethically justify not taking it.

What a challenging thought. It makes me wonder how many such opportunities to act ethically each of us fail to notice in our lives, or refuse to act upon because it is not convenient at the time, or because we hope someone else will step forward to do it.

Tim is now trying to raise money to legally place a hold on the lands he won in the auction. His goal as before is to block the illegal auction of these lands until the Obama administration can take power and hopefully put a more ethical leasing process in place that protects the lands and the interests of the American people.

Update: The new Interior Secretary of the Obama Administration, Ken Salazar, will cancel the drilling-lease sale, details here. Well done.