Day 72: Plum Day


Harvesting plums is a lot of work, so today we bought some children.

The price was reasonable, and included a free dog. We made them work all day, and gave them nothing at all to eat.

(Unless you count the french toast breakfast we cooked for the whole crew.)

The first part of the day was spent harvesting plums.

> Oh no, not the plum mines!
Quiet you. Back to work.

No, you can’t have a ladder.

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One of the crew nearly started a plum fight.

Once they had collected enough, the harvest had to be hauled 18 miles from the yard to the kitchen, up a steep, winding, treacherous path. We lost a few of them here.

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Without any regard for safety, we handed them all knives and made them cut up all 50 million plums, to get them ready to go in the pot.


It’s endless toil, and no talking or laughing allowed at all.

The cat decided to hide amongst the groceries.

The kids all wanted to pour the boiling jam into the jars, so we didn’t let them.

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My muse made one of her plum tarts, but we didn’t guard it well enough. The little urchins overpowered her and got into it.

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We’ll do this again next week, though we may have to shop for some fresh kids. These ones are all tired now.

Random assertion: You can invite friends over to work all day, if you call it a party. This trick may not work the second time.

Steganographic data: 1838/2.1

Published in: on July 31, 2008 at 10:21 am  Comments (2)  
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Day 71: Grass Valley

About halfway between Sacramento and Reno, there’s a place called Grass Valley. When life’s too crazy, and you’re ready to be surrounded by mountains and trees and music and friendly dogs and good food, this is the place you’re looking for.

Look out. The dogs are friendly, but they’re wet.

I’m lucky to have family in Grass Valley, and today is my Aunt Betty Rae’s birthday party. They told us not to bring anything, and we’re ignoring them. There are just too many plums.


My muse sends me to get 25 of them so she can make one of her incredible tarts.
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There’s a small one custom made for me, to keep my paws off the big one. It’s kind like a decoy.


“Hey stop opening the oven!”

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The big tart is intact. The decoy is not. She’s a smart one.

It’s a 2.5 hour drive to Grass Valley, but it’s easy. Mom and Dad can’t make it because they’re in the Alaskan wilderness, and that’s a much longer drive from here.

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There’s music, food, dogs, a dance floor, and a red lawn tractor.

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Run for your life, the toddler’s driving.

There are three generations here. My cousins and I used to be “the kids” but there’s a totally new group of those now, so we’re “the middles.”

It’s a good place to be; we can still go jump off the nearby cliffs into the river, but now we can do it without supervision.

I’m going to stay in the “middles” group for as long as I can.

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As usual, everyone’s got excellent stories. That’s the best part, always.

While the party guests are distracted, there’s a heist. The security camera caught it, but not well enough to make a positive ID.

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Fortunately, the jelly bean was insured for more than they bought it for.

The loudest part of the evening comes when Betty Rae’s son shows up unexpectedly.

It’s easy to tell that this is her favorite birthday present.

By the time we head home we’re tired, full and smiling.


Random assertion: Stories can be used as currency anywhere in the world. Collecting good ones is a way to save for a happy retirement.

Steganographic data: 1834/0.8

Published in: on July 30, 2008 at 12:22 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Day 70: Inventors Everywhere

A lot of people have Secret Plans. Today I’m hanging out with a bunch of inventors who answer important questions like:

  • What if brainwave measurement were part of live music performance?
  • What if my t-shirt could help me avoid running into things?
  • How can I make and ride a ridiculously tall bicycle?
  • Can I trust strangers to cut my hair?

First thing, though, I’m off to Peet’s to sit and get some of my own SP work done, and also watch the cute barista wrestle an unexpected number of balloons into submission.

A morning show and free WiFi. This place rules.

Remember Russ and Sara? Good friends, hard-core scientists. They’ve got a meeting in my neighborhood with Dave Stringer, an excellent and innovative musician. I went to a concert of his last night, and had a fantastic time.

The meeting (at Ti Couz) is about an idea they’ve been working on which involves EEG data and musical performance. They’ve done a few successful test runs already, and it’s a great project. We spend our lunchtime talking about electronics, data formats, and spaceships in Italy.


How do you find volunteers willing to have their brainwaves recorded while they listen to a concert? It turns out you just ask; a lot of people love to help with experiments like this.

In the afternoon, Russ and Sara and I walk through the Mission to Paxton Gate and Delessio. It’s fun to show them around the neighborhood.

This evening, my muse and I are headed downtown. Christine and Shannon have invited us to the Instructables office for an inventors’ party. If you’re not familiar with this company, take a look at their site. (I’ve posted one tiny project on this site.)

As far as I can tell, here’s what a typical work day is like at Instructables:

  • Write down crazy invention ideas on the office whiteboard.
  • Post the ideas on the website.
  • Go to lunch.
  • When you get back, look at the site. Random inventors all over the world have probably started building some of your ideas already, and they might have sent you questions.
  • Start building your favorites from the list, right in the office.
  • Repeat tomorrow.

> But some ideas are too wacky or crazy, right?
Actually, no. That’s why it’s fun. For example, here’s some of what we saw tonight at the July 2008 Show and Tell:

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A plaster copy of the inventor’s face with a speaker in the mouth, which can be used as a somewhat unwieldy bicycle horn. See, I told you. Everything is in play here.

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A very very tall bicycle.

A circuit sewn into a patch of denim, for wearing your data.

A method for getting a free haircut: Walk around the city with scissors and a sign “Help cut my hair – Take two snips”

A trumpet modified to work with Guitar Hero.

An integrated bike-mounted stereo system.

A garment which lets you feel nearby objects just before you run into them.

Okay, stop laughing. Someday, a few of the people at this event are going to change the world so profoundly that there will be university buildings and national holidays named after them. You’ll get an extra day off work, and it will have all started right here.

My muse and I leave a little early to go have a glass of wine with the guys at Mission Beach Cafe, but you can see the rest of tonight’s inventions here.

Random assertion: At some point, every inventor realizes that a human lifespan is not enough time to finish all of his or her projects. That’s what makes them such a welcoming crowd.

Steganographic data: 1846/5.5

Published in: on July 29, 2008 at 9:43 am  Comments (2)  
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Day 69: The Ship’s Keeper

There are ships buried beneath downtown San Francisco.

58 days ago, I went in search of them. If you haven’t looked at the entry from that day, you should do so before reading further.

Two days later, I got a phone call from a man named Leigh Newcomb. He heard that I had been snooping around for information about a buried ship called the Niantic. (Yikes, how much trouble am I in?) Leigh invited me to the maritime archive see the artifacts pulled from that ship’s wreck.

Today is our meeting.

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I’m excited, but keeping my expectations at a calm level. Here’s what I’m hoping to see:

  • Leigh’s office, with a cabinet of artifacts.
  • I’ve heard there was champagne on board when it was buried. How cool would it be to see some fragments of that?

(From my library run, I understand there was also a torn, dusty old book with a gold-leaf star on the cover. This is of interest, but books don’t tend to survive being burned and then buried and forgotten for a hundred years.)

Leigh meets me at the door, shows me inside, and I nearly fall over. This is no “office with a cabinet of artifacts.”


I’m sure I saw this room in Raiders of the Lost Ark.


The interior of this room is nearly the size of a city block, and every single object here could have a book written about it. Leigh has stories to go with everything.

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This is going to take all day. Awesome.


As we walk through, there are statues, figureheads, and parts of ships from just a few different centuries. Every single item is labeled and cataloged.
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Lanterns, spotlights, signal lights. I’m starting to suspect that everything which ever went missing at sea is here.

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Yes, that’s a 6-foot evil unicorn head.
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This is what it looks like, and it’s real. When you wear the suit, the air pump on the right should be operated by two people you really trust.
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This next one is not from a ship. It’s a plaster sculpture of a sleeping guy’s head, good enough to fool the guards in the only successful escape from Alcatraz. None of the three escaped prisoners has ever been found.
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These are not mailboxes, they’re compasses.
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…except the last one, which is one of the first gyroscopic stabilizers ever used at sea.

And in this part of the building, I notice a crate which makes me take a few steps back.

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My new phone does not have a Geiger counter.

I ask the obvious question, and I’m not telling what the answer was. Let’s just say they have artifacts from all sorts of wrecked ships here. All sorts. Leigh’s not worried, so I’m not worried.


I didn’t recognize this outboard motor. It’s the Evinrude One.


Thre are radios here from several different decades.
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…and then a shipboard gambling machine. It’s like a slot machine, but it produces poker hands. Oh those crafty sailors.

We’re having a great time (I know I am, anyway), and then Leigh unlocks a thick door, and says “Look in here.” I’m thinking that if all of this is outside the thick door, what could possibly be inside?
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This is so cool it’s hard to believe. Original paintings, from ships, or of ships. They’re perfectly preserved (except for those damaged before they made it here).

Leigh starts pulling them out to show me his favorites.
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This is downtown San Francisco, way before the 1849 gold rush.

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This is the original architect’s drawing of the Ferry Building, when it was still an idea.
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This small gold and silver model is a actually handmade music box which plays Italian opera from the 1830’s.

So I originally came here to see artifacts pulled from the wreck of the Niantic. Have they got any? Oh, one or two…
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Someone’s missing a shoe somewhere.
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Hundred-year-old peanuts? Yep. Yummy!

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Bottles and corks! These are all broken.
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If there is a better tour guide than Leigh, I have not seen him.

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…and suddenly in the middle of all of this, there it is, just as it was described. Hard to believe it survived.
If you’ve never seen this book before, it’s best to just forget about it. Some books are safe, and some are not.

Now I know it’s here, more or less intact, but I dare not touch it. Close the drawer, note the number, and move on. Someone may need this knowledge some day, but I hope not.

So that’s all of the… oh wait, no there’s more. Same ship? Same ship.

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We see tools, burnt papers, fragments of weapons…

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…and then, at the end of the row, there are shelves of boxes I wish I could open.


But Leigh knows this, and has opened one for me already.

This bottle has seen many days, but it’s not entirely empty.

As private tours go, this is beyond anything I had hoped for. Leigh knows what everything is, and more importantly, where everything is. He even knows about shipwrecks in mud flats and under bridges around town.

We’ve spent several excellent hours together. Leigh clearly loves working here, having run of the place every day. He says he’s planning to retire very soon.

The next keeper of the archives will have some big shoes to fill.

Random assertion: For every lost artifact, there’s someone who knows where to find it. The treasure is not the artifact, but this person to whom the artifact led you.

Steganographic data: 1838/7.2

Published in: on July 28, 2008 at 12:11 pm  Comments (3)  
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Day 68: Ready the Cannon

Tomorrow I’ve got a meeting with a gentleman about a shipwreck. That’s going to be excellent.

As I’m walking through the city today, I see something surprising.


I’m up on a hill, but it’s clearly time to head toward the water.

Today is the Tall Ship Parade. When I get to the water (having sprinted like a 12-year-old the whole way), there are people along the water’s edge for miles.


The ships are beautiful, and sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge, right in front of us.





It’s like a fireworks show. “Ooh look at that one!” “Wow, beautiful”

…and then “BANG!”

Yep, the smoke in this picture is from the ship’s cannon. They missed me.





This next ship is the SS Jeremiah O’Brien. Just a few days ago, my muse and I were in this ship’s engine room, while it was running. It’s great to see it out on the water. The submarine might be out here too. How would we know?


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Those kayaks might want to paddle a bit faster.


Afterward, I head to a little crepe and omelet place for lunch. This place is fantastic. Sophie, the lovely and friendly owner, runs it family-style. Everything she makes is excellent.

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There’s lust one big table in the middle for everyone to sit around, and the silverware is in a chest of drawers.

After that, it’s off to the park for some reading (sleeping), and then more work on Secrret Plans.


Random assertion: Every beautiful ship knows more stories than anyone has told.

Steganographic data: 1838/7.6

Published in: on July 26, 2008 at 12:39 pm  Comments (2)  
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Day 66 and 67: Focus and the Predator


I’m spending a couple of days making some serious progress on Secret Plan 174 (the 100-year-old telescope), and also finishing the wiring diagrams for SP161.

When you want to get some work done in the city, there are plenty of good places downtown. If you haven’t got time to walk, the Market Street Railway has a whole fleet of restored streetcars from various cities. As 10-minute commutes go, they’re pretty cool.


One of my favorite desks is the window table on the third floor of the Virgin building. It’s usually not crowded, the staff is friendly, the grilled sandwiches are good.


…and when you’re not in the mood for a quiet place, you can park in several different spots abound Yerba Buena Gardens, just a few blocks away.

Don’t come here to get work done on Friday night.

With some time to Focus, progress on the telescope is good. It’s being written to run for a very long time, on just about any operating system. Here’s an early version of the control screen (the red-on-black is so that astronomers can read it without messing up their night vision):

One of these numbers is wrong.

Yep, the calculation for sidereal time isn’t correct yet. I have to come clean about that, because there are math and science experts reading this. (You know who you are.) If that number is even slightly wrong, the telescope won’t work. My current cheeseball placeholder equation is “SIDEREAL = UT – 11.3”.

At night, my muse and I get a very tasty dinner from Tao Cafe. The price of dinner includes a promise that I’ll bring the owner some plums from our tree.

The 2-year-old cat isn’t just playing with her stuffed fish. She’s kicking the stuffing out of it like a crazed puppy. We’ll need a new fish for sure.

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The 18-year-old cat is keeping safely out of the way, but his plan falls apart when she comes leaping down the hall and knocks the bag over. Sigh.

Random assertion: The predators who enjoyed hunting are the ones who survived.

Steganographic data: 1848/6.8

Published in: on July 25, 2008 at 8:33 am  Comments (5)  
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Day 65: Plums and a Guitar Pick

There’s a very old plum tree in our yard, which produces excellent and tasty golden plums. Last year, the tree produced so many plums that we made 80 jars of jam before we decided to stop.

This year it looks like there are almost twice as many. That’s just trouble.


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Next weekend is Plum Day! We’re going to invite nieces and nephews over and out them to work.

Today my muse and I are doing a private mini plum-day, just making a few jars from some plums which are ready. Picking the plums is easy. The tree throws them at you, ripe and ready for eating.

It takes about five plums to make a jar of jam. You cut them up, weigh them…


…add pectin, boil and stir, add sugar, boil and stir…

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…and then the boiling jam gets poured into jars, and there’s a lid-sealing-inversion process, and you’re done.

Here are the first six jars from this year’s batch! These will keep for years, unless they all get eaten, which is the plan. Everyone at Plum Day will take home some jam.


There are so many plums that we start to get creative. My muse makes a great tart, but this year she’s trying something new as well.

When Joshua’s mom visited from Singapore last year, she brought us some terrific star anise, along with a ton of other tasty spices. My muse is using the star anise to make some big jars of spiced plums. She’s got a secret recipe for everything.

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I think they’re beautiful, and they’re going to be ultra-tasty for sure.

After we’re done, my muse heads out to tea with Alyssa (who just moved back from Hawaii) and Manisha (who’s just moved to India) for some girl-time.

Random assertion: The world..

> Wait wait not so fast! What about the concert?

Oh right, Secret Plan 162.

It didn’t go at all as I expected. The robot might have worked, but as I was sitting there testing it, something came up just at that moment on the ticket site. Two seats, front row, and the price is good, but they’re waaaaaay over on the side. Still, not bad, so I got them.

At least it’s near the emergency exit.

But wait… what’s this? The Mountain Winery (if you haven’t seen a concert here, I’d recommend it) rebuilt their whole concert area just a week ago, and the seating plan has changed. …so it turns out those seat numbers are actually here, in the new layout:

Holy moley, she’s going to freak.

And the show is tonight.

So there we are. I didn’t even tell her about our seats until we sat in them.

She did get to meet him, and it turns out he’s a really nice guy. Heck, after meeting him in person, I can see why she likes him so much. Friendly and high class. And even I can tell he’s hot.

She also swiped his guitar pick, and got him to sign her tank top (watch those hands mister).

If he wants that guitar pick back, he’s going to have to come ask her for it.

Cleverness: 5%
Luck: 168,000%
…but I still get the credit and the thank-you kiss. That worked.

Secret Plan 162 is complete, and a success.

Random assertion: The world is physically shaped by the questions we ask. To test this, ask a lot of questions and see what happens.

Steganographic data: 1840/3.5

Published in: on July 23, 2008 at 10:57 am  Comments (3)  
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Day 64: The Raven and the Shape of Luck

Note: The author would like to apologize in advance for any brain damage caused by this blog entry.

Today’s filled with things I’m not at liberty to photograph or discuss. So… time to uncover another Secret Plan!

That’s strange. None of the secret plans call for a giant raven, but he’s here anyway. Better find out what he wants.

Secret Plan 162: A really big surprise for my muse

Of course she has a boyfriend. Like most girls, she has a lot of them. This one’s a famous musician, and he’s coming to San Francisco on tour.

(They haven’t actually met, so it’s not clear that he knows about the relationship.)

So, SP162 (which was started a few months ago) is this: Attempt to use cleverness and luck to obtain front-row seats for a Chris Isaak concert.

I also considered using persistence, but persistence and forgetfulness don’t work well together.

Polarized sunglasses, on the other hand, will come in handy.

Stage Left: Cleverness

Of the people who have the front-row seats already, there are likely to be three types:

  • Type L: “Chris is my love, and if you go anywhere near my front-row tickets you’ll wake up in traction.”

I know better than to interfere with this person.
Besides, I’ve been in traction already.

  • Type X: “Chris who? I’m here for money. My heart is blackened by evil, my childhood is forgotten, and I’m going to use your emotions like a crowbar to betray everything your wallet believes in.”

My wallet believes it’s not fat enough to please this person.

  • Type R: “Shoot, I was really looking forward to this show, but now I can’t go. I don’t want them to go unused, so I’d better charge less than the scalpers, to make sure they sell. I’m basically a happy person, and I hope whoever gets them has a good time and makes lots of points with his muse.”

This is the person I’m looking to make contact with. Is that too optimistic?

Right. This plan is so full of holes I almost didn’t bother giving it a number.

So you can see the biggest problem already:

  • Assuming a Type R even exists (pretty optimistic already), the moment they post the tickets, they’re going to get taken by an L or an X immediately. Either way, I’ll never get them.

I could camp out in front of the computer all day and hit the “refresh” button on my browser a lot, but that doesn’t make for an interesting vacation. Besides, after the first hour it feels creepy.

What a dumb idea. Who made up this plan?

Maybe that part can be automated. You know those human challenge tests ticket sellers use to foil plans like this?

It turns out that some of the online ticket sites don’t use them while you’re just browsing. So hypothetically, if someone were to create a robot which just browses, and doesn’t try to buy, it could hypothetically browse all day and send that hypothetical person a text message if it finds anything interesting.

Yikes, maybe not a text message. What if it malfunctioned? (Bzzz)

Stage Right: Luck

There are three shows, and about a dozen front-row seats. So say 36 people, three categories… it’ll never work.

Good thing I’m not relying on cleverness.

Wild Tangent: Here’s what polarized sunglasses have to do with luck.

(Warning: I learned to rocket off on wild tangents from you-know-who. They’re the masters.)
(Warning: This is not science. It’s interpretation and philosophy. If you do the experiment, and see that I’m right, then it’s science.)

If you send randomly-polarized photons (sunlight, for example) one at a time through a polarizer, then you can hold the polarizer at any angle you like, and each photon has a 50/50 shot at getting through.

The polarization filter is really just a yes/no question. “Is that photon polarized at exactly this angle?”

Here’s the odd part: If the photon makes it through, then the answer is “yes” and its polarization matches exactly the direction of the filter, and as far as anyone can tell, it was already at that angle before it hit the filter.

…which could be interpreted in this way:

  • The world is physically shaped by the questions you ask. By asking the right yes/no question now, you can change the angle at which the light was emitted, even if that was before you asked.

It’s just a different way of looking at the same data.

The polarization of a photon is a really small question. Does the same idea hold for bigger questions, like the availability of concert tickets? Asking that at a physicist’s cocktail party is bound to start a fight.

So I came up with a good question. Nice and direct. Anyway, all of the dice were cast a few weeks ago.

> So? What happened? Did it work or not?

Well, it didn’t go anything like I expected, that’s for sure. More details tomorrow.

Random assertion: From the photon’s point of view, the beginning and end of the journey are the same event.

Steganographic data: 1858/1.8

Published in: on July 23, 2008 at 1:29 am  Leave a Comment  
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Day 63: Chautauqua and Motorcycles

If Dad’s in trouble, it’s a good bet that either Chuck or Russ is involved.

Russ works with Mom and Dad, and he’s one of those scientists with contagious love and enthusiasm for his work.


He studies and teaches a variety of different subjects, and his grin shows an understanding that they’re all connected. And if your truck breaks down in the middle of the desert, I hear he’s a wizard with baling wire and duct tape.

In 2004 while on a research trip, Russ, Mom and Dad discovered a woolly mammoth skull buried in a cliff in Baja. It’s an exciting and sad story involving shovels, guns and broken ladders. The photos from Dad’s camera are amazing. I’ll see if he’s posted them anywhere.

This week, Dad and Russ and Sara are teaching a class at a research station in Moss Landing, near Monterey. Their class consists of 15 math and science teachers from across the country. This is a multi-day chautauqua (a series of interesting discussions in interesting places).

I drive down to hang out with them in Monterey, stopping to eat at a great little roadside diner. Cindy runs the place, and I don’t leave hungry.

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I catch up with Dad at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I still can’t get enough of that Jellies exhibit.


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…but the real treat today is the chance to visit Ed Ricketts‘ laboratory. If you’ve read Cannery Row, you’re at least a little familiar with him.


Ricketts was a marine biologist, and his work was one of the most influential factors in the disciplines of environmental preservation. He was also the real-life influence for many of Steinbeck’s characters, including “Doc” in Cannery Row. His lab is located in Monterey, and is usually closed to the public, but educators can request special access.

A lot of important work happened in this little place.

Once we’re inside, Russ reads a passage from Cannery Row which describes the place we’re sitting.

Afterward, we wander around and explore the small house and lab.

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The roads are closed all around Cannery Row today, for the arrival of hundreds of motorcycles in a very cool event called MotoGP.
I can’t stay for the festivities, but here are some good pictures.

Random assertion: The location of a laboratory is usually at least as important as its contents.

Steganographic data: 1846/4.2

Day 62: Zombie Phones and Baby Alligators

While my phone was busy finding the limits of the text messaging infrastructure, my muse’s phone has decided to turn any battery placed inside it into a lump of coal. Two so far this month. I want to stencil little battery icons on the side of it, like mini kill-trophies.

She’s giving me that look.

Side note #1: When her last phone died a few years ago, I took it apart, soldered in a bypass for the charging circuit, and kept it running for a full year. Yay zombie phone!

The look She’s giving me now says “Oh no you’re not.”

Might be time for a new phone.

Today I’m getting a lot of work done on Secret Plan 161, but instead of finding a sensible quiet desk, I’ve walked to Delessio at Market & Valencia.

Delessio is right next to Flax, an excellent art supply store. Mmmmm.
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After a few hours of heads-down work, I decide to go find Gene for a chess lesson. I walk down to Union Square, and there’s an art festival going on. It’s fun; I sit with a book for a while to see if Gene shows up.


Twice in the past week I’ve seen him right here, but not today.

If I can’t predict when he’s going to be here, I don’t stand a chance of beating him at chess. There are rules which determine when he comes here, where he sits, and how his pawns move as the game opens. I’m going to try to figure them out, rather than relying on luck. Next time I come, he’ll be here. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Side note #2: A few years ago, I taught my muse to play chess.

You know how baby alligators are so cute, but then they grow up and become unstoppable predators? That’s basically what happened. I haven’t beaten her at chess in a long, long time.

Fond Memory 1: A place called Beaulieu-sur-Mer in the South of France, 2003.

A gentleman brings us drinks as we sit facing each other over a beautiful marble chess table. He pauses, chuckles, and softly says “Elle va gagner.”

If the waiter can tell you’re getting your butt kicked, then you might have taught your student too well.

Fond Memory 2: San Francisco, 2006.

After trash-talking and wagering ourselves into an epic battle, the game begins. A few moves in, she gives me that look: “Oh no you’re not.” …and it’s all over.

Her queen must have been sleeping with with one of my pawns, because she just showed up behind the whole line, and left a trail of carnage on her way to the king before anyone could even find the emergency exit. Ow.

(It doesn’t mean she’s ready for the pro chess circuit, just that she specifically knows how to beat me. That’s comforting.)

I guess I’m lucky. Most people don’t get to keep the baby alligator once it becomes dangerous. And it doesn’t usually look this good.

Random assertion: There are no dice in chess, which does not mean there are no surprises.

Steganographic data: 1862/6.7

Published in: on July 21, 2008 at 10:43 am  Leave a Comment  
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