Friday, October 19, 2007

Travel, redux

I'm sitting in the SLC airport on my way home. Courtesy of a 3-hour layover, I seem to have some time to kill.

My return flights are not turning out to be nearly as nice as the trip out. The first leg of the return trip was The Flight With Large Men. When I'm one of the smallest people on board, we're in trouble. I spent the entire flight plastered to the window, since there wasn't room for my shoulders to fit between the side of the plane and the guy next to me. He wasn't the biggest guy on the plane - that was the guy in front of me.

My next leg is full, so I'm sure to get something similar. I've come to loath the CRJ when it's full. Oh, and one more serious flaw in the CRJ: the windows are too low. I guess only small children like to look out the windows of airplanes. That, or all Canadians are really short. (Or Bombardier engineers, perhaps.)

I'll update this tomorrow, once I'm home and can report on the remaining leg. Time to go walk aimlessly around SLC some more....

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The End, take 2

This version of the end of the internet as we know it is a bit more subtle than simply running out of numbers. This one is usually described as the "routing" problem. Let's see if I can describe it for folks who don't naturally count in binary.

For an analogy, let's talk about the post office and the zip code system. The way US mail works is pretty simple, actually. Mail gets sent to regional centers, where it's sorted into sets of mail based on the zip code on the envelope. (It's actually a bit more complicated, but let's stay with this for a moment.) Imagine that a sorting center can only handle 1,000 buckets, perhaps due to a limit on available physical space. There are, on the other hand, 10,000 zip codes. Fortunately, not all of the zip codes are in use.

Pretend that only 500 are in use. In that case, everything works great - there's plenty of bins to cover all of the zip codes. The number of zip codes in use slowly grows, however, so at some point there might be 950 zip codes in use. While there's still enough bins, there's clearly a limit coming. Perhaps the post office decides to upgrade their facilities to support 2,000 bins. That's an excellent solution, for the short term, but you eventually run out of available bins. The only solution is to build 10,000 bins. (Or, do something entirely different, like sorting regionally on the first three digits, and then sorting locally on all five digits, which is actually more how it works.) If there's not room for 10,000 bins, you'll have to get creative. If some facilities can support 2,000, while other can support 3,000, some of this model can get kinda complicated.

In the internet, IP addresses are used to route traffic. (Remember those from yesterday? They look like, for example.) We don't use a fixed set of those digits for routing, but it's sort of like the idealized post office described above. We're running out of bins, and it's difficult to make enough.

There's another angle to this problem, too. The post office doesn't specify where you live in your zip code. That's only used to get the envelope close to the right general place. The identifier for where you live is your street address. In the internet, that IP address is used for both functions: it identifies where you are *and* who you are. That combination is helping to fuel how fast we run out of bins. This is, in the industry jargon, the loc/id split problem. (For the truly geeky, go read the IRTF RRG working group's mailing list for waaaaay more information than you really want.)

To get back to our analogy, if the Internet worked like our fictional post office, we'd need bins not just for all of the zip codes, but for every single possible mailing address, and that's just to route letters to the right place! As you can imagine, this is a bit of a scaling problem.

I'll admit that this one is a bit more obscure than simply running out of addresses, but it's just as nasty for the ongoing operation of the Internet.

In my previous post, I mentioned NANOG, the North American Network Operators' Group. They are definitely worried about this one. I kind of did these posts out of order, though, 'cause the group really worried about the addressing problem is ARIN, the American Registry for Internet Numbers.

Lots of very smart people are working on both problems. Let's hope they get it figured out before it all breaks!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The End

There are at least two key problems that could entirely break the Internet, or at least severely limit its future growth, and I'm going to try to lay them out such that people who aren't card carrying geeks can understand them. For today, let's stick to one of them: the address problem.

First, a bit of background. When you use, for example, a web browser, you enter an address for a page you want to view. You might, for example, ask for The underlying network that connects you to Google (and your own computer, too) has no idea what that set of roman letters means. There's a system for converting that name that's (mostly) readable by humans into something that a computer can understand. Not surprisingly, that address is in binary; that is, it's a bunch of zeros and ones. It's normal for network operators to look at these addresses in a more human readable format, so the address for might be something like

So far, so good.

Here's the problem: we're running out of these addresses. The central authority (IANA) that coordinates these numbers will run out of available space in 2010. It will become difficult to acquire new ones in about 2012 as a result. (There's a certain amount stored up in regional registries, but that's a piece of complexity that's unnecessary for our discussion.)

Fortunately, there is a solution. It's called IPv6, and it's a vastly larger pool of addresses, although the new addresses are incompatible with the old addresses. That's a real problem.

For devices like routers (the pieces of the network that decide where to send your data), supporting IPv6 means an upgrade. I don't know how often any of you upgrade your home computers, but service providers don't like to upgrade too often - it's expensive! Content providers (like Google, Amazon, eBay, et al.) have no reason to upgrade (yet) because there's not a good justification for the cost, since no one will use the IPv6 version. (The web page would look the same, only the technical goo would be different.)

This is a basic chicken and egg problem. Until there are users, there won't be content on this "new" Internet. Symmetrically, there won't be any users until there's some useful content. It's also a bit like the Y2K problem, expect there isn't a hard deadline, and the deadline will be different for every organization. Also, hitting the deadline won't cause your network to stop working, although you won't be able to make it bigger.

Given the time required to make the necessary changes, we're already too late. This is going to be a mess, and probably very expensive. You can bet that the cost will get passed on to someone.

Why is this interesting on this trip? I'm presently at the NANOG conference. Check out the link if you're feeling geeky.

I'll talk about the other "death of the Internet" problem sometime soon.

Monday, October 15, 2007

I can fly!

I'm off on a business trip, which seems like a good time to blog a bit more. Let's see if I can!

Topic number one: travel. In this day and age, travel can only be described as a serious pain. To my slight surprise, my experience getting from San Jose to Albuquerque was pretty darn easy.

Let's start with the airport security nightmare. Given the War on Fluids, I came prepared. After checking in my one bag (which was easy, as there was no line), I headed for security, not knowing what I'd find. To my surprise, the line was entirely empty. I breezed through in no time, and had a nice chat with the TSA folks in the meantime. I was mildly annoyed by this, actually, as I signed up for a Clear card to help speed my way through security. It didn't have a value add this time, since there was no one in line! (I expect to test this next month when I fly out of terminal A at San Jose, which often has a line out to the parking garage.)

Once the plane showed up, we managed to board. I was a little concerned about my flights, as both legs were on CRJ-700s. I don't mind regional jets for short hops (and these were both only 90 minutes each), but I've always flown on the ERJ series, which have only three seats in a row, and I always sit on the 'A' side to avoid sitting next to anyone. The CRJs are two+two seating, so that wasn't an option. To my surprise, both legs of my flight were nearly full, but no one sat next to me on either flight! The CRJs seem to also have just a wee bit more room than the ERJs, which was helpful. In SLC, I ended up leaving from the gate where I arrived. (Different aircraft, though.) Certainly made the plane change trivial.

After arriving in ABQ, I simply took a cab to my hotel. As stressful as travel has gotten, I was really quite relieved that it was so simple and easy.

Next topic: the end of the internet as we (well, some very exclusive and geeky version of "we") know it.

Monday, October 1, 2007

The other, other red meat.

I haven't written in a while, mostly because I have a nasty rant about stupid drivers that I'm working up the energy to write.

In the meantime, I'll share that we had a seriously yummy dinner tonight. Perhaps I'm just a food hedonist (okay, guilty as charged), but this was definitely a top notch affair.

While I worked on dinner, the better half sliced some cheese to have with a bit of wine. The cheese was a Basque sheep's cheese called "Istara". We paired that with the wine of the evening, the 1997 St. Supéry red meritage. (Yes, we're members of their wine club, which is why St. Supéry features so frequently in these entries.) This was an ideal pairing, as the cheese is a bit sharp and pungent, with a salty edge, while the wine is silky smooth, with hints of heavy fruit and oak, combined with a bit of spice.

While we feasted on the cheese, I sliced some golden beets, and rubbed them with some olive oil and salt and pepper. I also split some cipollini onions and brushed them with some more olive oil. Once the grill was hot, I started the vegetables over a medium fire.

As a side note, I don't think I've mentioned my views on grills. Gas is for inside cooking. Real outdoor grilling is done over fire. It really is that simple. I recently upgraded grills. I'm mostly happy with the new one, although there's a bit of a learning curve.

While the vegetables cooked (and taking care not to burn the beets too much, although it's impossible to not carmelize something with that much sugar), I sautéed some mushrooms (a combination of button and more interesting varieties) in a bit of oil and butter, and added a dash of wine for extra flavor.

Finally, once the veggies were done, it was time for the main course. It wouldn't be incorrect to describe these cuts of meat as New York strips, except that would imply the wrong species. These were strip steaks from another part of that state: Buffalo.

Seriously, folks, bison is like beef, but better. This is the first time I've grilled my own bison steaks - I've always cooked burgers before. I read that it's important to trim the fat off of buffalo before cooking, which seemed odd. I didn't, but it turns out there's a good reason for that suggestion. For future reference, the fat turns extremely tough after grilling, which makes steak disassembly a bit more of a challenge. It's still delicious, though. Be careful if you go for doing this yourself, since bison isn't as fatty as beef, and you could easily dry the meat out.

The steaks were rich and flavorful, with noticeably less fat than well marbled beef, but with much more intense flavor. This worked well with the sweetness of the veggies, the slightly earthy scent of the mushrooms, and the rich and fruity wine.

This was a feast entirely suited to a food hedonist's dream. Yum!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Same method, more yummy

Apparently I'm in a bit of a rut, but no one is complaining!

Tonight's dinner was essentially the same as last night in time required for prep and general methods, but was more of an Asian twist. (I'd call last night's more French with a dash of pacific fusion.)

My wife picked up about two pounds of sashimi grade ahi from Race Street Fish. Given that as a starting point, I opted for another round of simple grilling. I dusted the fish with a bit of salt and pepper and some toasted sesame seeds (add some seeds to a hot dry pan for a minute or two), and started a nice hot fire. While the fire was getting going, I put together a quick spicy greens salad with arugula and cilantro, dressed with a splash of olive oil and soy sauce. I boiled water to cook a pile of somen noodles, and sliced up some baby bok choy. Once the fire was ready, I grilled the bok choy and finished up the noodles. I then quickly seared the tuna on both sides, which produces a nice char layer but leaves the center essentially raw.

To assemble plates, add a pile of somen noodles, slice the fish and place on top of the noodles, and add a pile of salad (garnished with more sesame seeds) and a bok choy half. Serve with wasabi on the side and soy sauce on the table, and call it dinner.

We opted for sake with this meal, which was refreshing and clean with the flavors of the salad and the fish. The whole thing took perhaps 30 minutes to throw together.

I hope that inspires someone to grill some fresh fish. There's little as fast, easy, and wonderfully flavorful as that!


Monday, September 17, 2007

Beef - it's what's for dinner.

It's been a while since I've discussed food, so let's give that a whirl.

Dinner last night was quite tasty. I grilled some filets mignon to just barely medium-rare (indeed, some people might call them rare), and then let them rest for ten minutes while I dealt with the rest of dinner. Before that, though, I grilled some crookneck squash and some slices of polenta with a bit of olive oil and salt and pepper brushed over each.

While the steaks finished, I heated some garlic (about five cloves, finely minced) in about a tsp. of olive oil until nicely browned. (Stick with a very low flame for this or the garlic will start to fry too much.) I added 4 Tbsp of butter, and let that melt into the garlic. Finally, I added 2 Tbsp of sake and another tablespoon of mirin. Let it all heat together, season with salt and pepper, and you've got a yummy sauce.

Plate assembly is easy: place a pile of arugula on a plate, slice the steaks into thick slabs, lay a steak on the arugula, and top with the sauce. Add a squash and a polenta disk, and you've got a nice looking and yummy meal. Serve with a nice crusty bread and a heavy red wine...yum! Outside of a bit too much fat, this is a meal that's also pretty good for you, too, as long as the steaks aren't too big. (The ones I used were around six ounces each.)

The wine we chose was a bottle of the 2000 St. Supéry Élu meritage. We've got a few more bottles of this specific vintage, and I think we'll hold onto them for a while. This bottle was perfect with the meal, with nice toasty oak flavors and bursting with ripe fruit. There's a bit of tannin to it still, and this will definitely age for several more years without any trouble. I think we have about seven more bottles of it, so we're looking forward to several more notable meals.

Bon appétit!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Why Caltrain is utterly broken

Or, more specifically, why the Tamien station is utterly useless.

I ride the train to work as much as possible. This is a complete waste of my time. Can you see that I have a love/hate relationship with my commute?

Here's the deal. I commute from roughly Hwy-85 and Cottle in south San Jose (which seems to be officially named San José...maybe...but that's another rant entirely) to near the Mountain View Caltrain station. If I drive, it's about 25 minutes to get there in the morning (a bit after peak traffic), and about 50-60 minutes to get home. Rush hour sucks.

If I take the train, I drive to the Tamien station, 'cause there's no way I'm going to get to the (closer) Blossom Hill station in time for one of the trains from Gilroy. (The last northbound train is at 7:33am. I can't make this stuff up...who's on a train at that time?) Getting to the Tamien station takes about 15-20 minutes, depending on the traffic signals. I then hop on a train, spend 30 minutes in transit to Mountain View, and then walk for 10 minutes. Total elapsed time is right about 1:15. The reverse trip is almost identical.

So, we have a total round trip time of 1:20 for the car, and 2:30 for the train. It's worth noting that it takes almost as long to drive to the train as it does to drive to work, despite the nearly 15 mile difference in distance.

So, there's the time difference. Let's talk money.

If I drive, it costs me something like 2.5 gallons of gas. At the going rate of about $2.85 this week, that's a bit above $7 for the round-trip. Toss in some costs for wear and tear (brakes, tires, iol changes, etc.), and it's probably about $10. Insurance doesn't count - I pay that for owning the car, regardless of use. For the train, a round trip ticket is $8. A monthly pass is $106. Assuming 20 working days a month, that $106 compares with the $200 in car costs. But wait...I drive to the train station. That's about $6 a day, which tacks on an extra $120 to the train cost, so it's $226 versus $200 even with the high gas prices we now enjoy.

The only reason I take the train at all at this point is because my employer offers a $65 subsidy every month. That cuts the cost for the train down to $161. The ~$40 difference isn't exactly compelling, especially in light of the time differences.

Okay, there's the simple economic truth. Here's the rant....

Between really really really stupid freeway design and a half-assed sense of commitment, the Tamien station is fundamentally useless to people not in it's immediate neighborhood. Tamien sits adjacent to Highway-87 and is co-located with a VTA light rail station. (Oh dear, there's another rant topic.) You would think that being adjacent to a freeway would make the station convenient. You'd be utterly wrong. Actually, you'd be half wrong. If you are coming from the north on highway 87, there's an exit that basically dumps you into the parking lot of the station. of course, all of the trains are heading north, so this is mostly useless. Why would anyone go south to catch a train to go north? Especially since the downtown station is fairly near and has far better service? If you are heading north on hwy-87, which is the obvious direction for people heading to Tamien (since it's the southernmost terminus of Caltrain with the exception of those ridiculously early trains out of Gilroy), you have to get off at Curtner, which is a couple of miles to the south of Tamien. You then get the joy of surface streets and traffic signals. Seven lights and multiple turns later, you get to the train station.

On your way home, you get the same treatment. You can go north from Tamien trivially, but heading south requires a lovely journey along the Guadalupe River before you can hop on a freeway.

Is it just me, or is this incredibly stupid? To be fair, this isn't really the fault of Caltrain, but is much more the responsibility of Caltrans.

Not to worry - Caltrain has its own issues. Roughly half of the trains go to Tamien. The rest stop at Diridion in downtown San Jose. This basically means that there are trains hourly, at best, outside of the peak times. And, during the peak period, many of the trains just don't stop at all stops, so it's a crap shoot to get on a train to Tamien. Have a look at the schedule, and notice how much fun it is to get to Tamien from Mountain View in the evening. I often have to be creative and switch trains in order to get to my stop, and several trains go through Mountain View during the peak 5-7pm period that are essentially useless. I have the urge to send something like this:

Dear Caltrain,

Please decide if you are going to support the Tamien station or not. Then, do or do not support it. This half-assed business is tiresome.


Annoyed citizen

P.S. Give my love to Caltrans.

On a related note, the high gas prices have driven a lot of people to actually take the train, which has led to a shortage of parking at Tamien. There's a nice big lot full of weeds next to the driveway. Much as I hate to suggest more concrete on the planet, that lot is really ugly and would look much better with asphalt and parking spaces on it. And don't tell me to go park in the VTA lot on the other side of the freeway. By the time you drive over there, you've probably missed the train, and there won't be another for an hour...and there's no way I'm taking 2:15 just to get to work...when I can drive there in 25 minutes. That's just stupid.

Bottom line - taking the train is stupid, but I seem to admire Sisyphus. Ugh.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Recent books

Reading is another passion, although one for which I have regrettably little time. It seems like most books take me about a two to three weeks to read, depending on random physical characteristics like length, mass, and density. (You get to pick how those interrelate in a literary sense versus what they teach you in physics.)

Since starting this blog, I've read a number of volumes that I would suggest picking up, including Guns, Germs, and Steel, and 1491. I also read cod, which lead me to the back I last finished, which will be tonight's topic. That book would be Salt, which, like cod, was written by Mark Kurlansky. I would recommend both books, and found both to be engaging, if somewhat obscure, histories. The history of the world as centered on the use of salt is certainly an arcane and fascinating one. I wasn't aware that Cape Cod was once a huge saltworks, primarily to supply the cod industry. (Makes sense, but who knew?) Of course, there are lots of English words based on either the Latin or Greek words for salt, like salary and soldier.

Most interestingly, the table salt we all take for granted, and is now extremely cheap, is new in the last 120 years or so. Go back in time a bit, and the stuff we now think of as exotic and expensive, like fancy gray sea salt from France, was the common stuff, and the white even-grained stuff was a serious luxury item. It's funny how these things work out!

Anyway, I suggest reading all of the above. In progress: The Peloponnesian War, by Donald Kagan. Up after that: The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman.

More soon!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Long time, no blog

Okay okay it's been a while!

There's been a zillion things I've been meaning to write about, ranging from planting and harvesting the backyard tomatoes, to dealing with my wife's illness, to fun with my granddaughter, and on to fun things like food and cooking. I've simply not been getting to writing about any of this. Among other things, work has been a complete nightmare in terms of the workload. I think I have pretty good life/work balance, in general, but there have definitely been a few times in the last two months where there has been significant strain on that ratio.

For tonight, I'll just mention a tidbit about food - dessert tonight was yummy. We had a delicious cherry pudding, from a recipe in a recent Food & Wine "Best of the Best" cookbook. The ingredients are nice and brief:
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1.5 lbs cherries
  • 1.5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 0.5 cup superfine sugar
  • A pinch of salt
  • 4 tbsps unsalted butter
  • 4 large eggs, beaten well
The recipe is easy: "Bring the milk to a boil, taking care that it does not boil over. As soon as it starts to fizz up, take it off the heat and leave to cool slightly. Remove the skin. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Butter a deep ovenproof dish liberally and scatter the cherries over the base, making sure they are evenly distributed. Sift the flour with the sugar and salt into a mixing bowl. Melt the butter and remove any scum. Make a well in the center of the flour and whisk in the beaten eggs, then, very slowly, the melted butter, followed by the milk, which should still be warm. Whisk thoroughly so that you have a smooth batter and pour over the cherries.

Bake until the batter rises and the top browns, 40-45 minutes. Leave the over door slightly open for the last 5 minutes of cooking, so that the batter doesn't sink the minute you take it out of the heat. Serve straight away, sprinkled with confectioner's sugar if you'd like."

It's worth noting that this recipe is originally from "The Food of France" by Sarah Woodward. It's $29.95 from Kyle Books, and probably worth picking up, since this is just one of the recipes in this book that look to be really yummy.


Saturday, May 26, 2007

Salmon, the wonder food

We seem to be on a bit of a salmon kick. That might be because it's in season locally, and it might be 'cause it's just so yummy!

Dinner tonight was, yet again, a slab of salmon. This time, I bought fresh local king salmon from Cosentino's market. I marinated it in Veri Veri Teriyaki, and grilled it on a hot fire. Before that, though, I made a pile of veggies. I grilled some zucchini, which is utterly trivial, and yummy according to people that like those nasty green squash. I also grilled some artichokes. There's a bit of a trick to that - I slice medium sized 'chokes in half and remove the bitter choke in the center. (Be sure to rub them well with lemon to keep them from browning.) I brush them with some olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill them over indirect heat, with the cut side up, and then flip them when they start to brown. Serve with a bit of melted butter. In addition to all of that, we had a bit of fried okra - slice okra pods into small disks, coat them with some corn meal, and fry in canola or soybean oil heated to near smoking. Be sure to not overcook the okra - that's not so delicious.

Okay, we've got the salmon, the zucchini, the okra and the artichokes. Oh yeah - the potatoes. I sliced some red potatoes in half and boiled them. Once cooked, I dropped them into a skillet of melted butter and added some minced savory. Oh, and there was a bit of multi-grain bread.

Finally, there was the wine. We have a small stash of 2001 St. Supéry "Elu". This is their signature red meritage, and is an extraordinary wine. It was a bit tannic on first taste, but opened very nicely. It's full of fantastic berry flavors and toasted oak. The finish is smooth and silky. It's a consistently good wine year to year, and the 2001 is above average. (We have a couple bottles of the superb 2000 vintage, but I'm saving those for a special occasion.)

I would offer pictures of the feast, but we ate all of it before I got around to remembering the camera. At some point, I should be able to add pictures of the wine bottle, at least.

Happy cooking, and bon appétit!

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Yum yum!

(I neglected to post this previously, but it's from a while ago. Pictures to follow, eventually, perhaps.)

Is there anything so good as a nice slab of fish?

Dinner tonight was miso-glazed salmon over soba noodles. (We seem to be on a soba kick of late.) I made a marinade of 4 tbsp white miso, 3 tbsp sake, 2 tbsp canola oil, 2 tbsp rice vinegar, 1 tbsp ginger, and 1tbsp garlic. The salmon was simply pan-fried on some olive oil in a hot skillet (I used 8 oz filets), and I brushed the marinade on the fish as it cooked. I added the leftover marinade to the chilled soba noodles, along with some scallion.

Instead of wine, we had a nice bottle of sake. This one was a bit sweet, but was very tasty with the miso. The bottle is certainly pretty. The translation of the label is quite humorous, though!

Dessert was some simple mochi balls. These are trivial to make - a bit of rice flour and water formed into balls and dropped into boiling water. Once they float up, they're ready to roll in some brown sugar. Quite tasty, although my wife and stepdaughter claimed they tasted like oatmeal. (I thought they were tasty, anyway.)

After that, we decided we needed a bit more of something to eat while we played a bit of Scrabble. (Yeah, exciting night at our house.) We opened a bottle of 2004 Storybrook estate Zinfandel from their Napa vineyard. (This was actuallythe "eastern exposure" vineyard.) While still a bit young, this was a delightful Zin packed with fruit with a hint of oak. We drank the wine with a few Lindor truffles and some marzipan treats. Very tasty!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Boredom, redux

I was wrong yesterday. New employee training for managers is more boring than the regular sessions.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Cool site of the RTI*

Today's random cool site is the Eclipses Online Portal. This is very can search for eclipses that occur on earth between 1501 and 2100, and then display all kinds of cool and useful data about each one. For example, this year has no total solar eclipses, which is mildly unusual. For a sample page, check out the great solar eclipse of 1991 or the next total eclipse in the continental US, in 2017. Oh, and here's a lunar eclipse, too, just to be complete.


Is there anything as boring as new employee orientation?

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Music review: SFS/MTT 5/10/2007

One of our little luxuries in life is season tickets to the San Francisco Symphony. The last concert for this season in our series was last night. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted, with Thomas Hampson as the soloist.

The first piece was Aaron Copland's Short Symphony. I'm not overly familiar with this piece, although I know a fair amount of Copland's work. The performance shows that MTT has a deep understanding of American music, and is one of today's foremost interpreters of Copland's work. The intensity of this piece was startling, but it had a distinctively Copland sound. From the program notes, it took Copland two years to write this 15 minute piece. He definitely was aiming for no more and no less than he needed, and succeeded admirably.

The second 'piece' of the night was a set of five songs by Gustav Mahler from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The performance was recorded, and will be featured on a future CD in the SFS Mahler cycle that is in progress. Mahler's unique style shines through in these short pieces. "Urlicht" in particular has that sound of rural Austria and high symphonic style at the same time. I'm a huge Mahler fan, and greatly enjoyed this song cycle.

After the intermission, the final piece of the night was Also sprach Zarathustra, by Richard Strauss. Strauss is one of the few composers who attempts Mahler's ideal of symphonic works where a piece creates an entire universe of its own. Echoes of this piece continue to appear in music throughout the 20th century. The beginning, of course, has a distinct cultural identity. It's impossible to hear it and not see a black monolith, some out of control apes, and a space station. Still, if you can get those images out of your head, you can easily see the intended imagary: sunrise. There's the first inkling of the Sun, and then first contact as the limb of the Sun emerges above the horizon. As the Sun continues to rise, the intensity of the repeated themes intensifies, until the whole of that giant nuclear fire in the sky is blazing in the morning sky, and the whole orchestra (including the organ) are pumping out maximum volume. (Note to self: make a point of finding an organ recital at Davies Symphony Hall. That instrument is amazing!) After sunrise, the music turns introspective. The string quartet that starts one of the main themes eventually expands to the entire string section, and the overall effect is sublime. Alexander Barantschik, the SFS concertmaster, was featured on all of the solo violin parts in the piece. His playing of the lyrical passages made his violin seem to sing, while other much folksier passages sound like a gypsy fiddle. (It doesn't hurt that he plays a great instrument - a 1742 del Gesu violin named "the David". Still, he has to play it to get those sounds!) The entire piece is, of course, a tone poem based on the Nietzsche text of the same name. After exploring all of the world available in the piece, Strauss wraps up the entire piece with a quiet and introspective coda.

Overall, this was an extraordinary night of music, and the SFS and MTT were in top form.

Coming next: the SFS Youth Orchestra celebrates their 25th anniversary on the 20th of May with a concert featuring some minor works. Yeah, that's it. They're playing Beethoven's Ninth!

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Good food can be simple

I haven't written about food in a while, so I thought I would. Some of the meals I highlight here are notable because I tried to do something a bit out of the ordinary. Sometimes, though, ordinary is exactly what's needed.

Last night's meal is a great example. It's also a lesson in great food, fast. The whole dinner was ready in less than two hours, and consisted of a combination of store-bought expedients and fresh ingredients.

I started by wrapping some russet potatoes in foil, and popping them in the over at 450 degrees. I then started a fire for the grill. (Lazzari mesquite charcoal is wonderful, by the way!) I then put the commercial apple pie I bought into our second oven (you do have one, right? It's hard to imagine not having one!) at about 300 degrees. Next, I wrapped some corn ears in foil. Once the grill was ready, I put the wrapped corn around the edges of the grill. (This needs a big Hibachis, please!) The corn needs about 30-40 minutes, with a turn every 10-15 minutes. As the corn was nearly done, I pulled the potatoes out of the oven, and put a loaf of 9-grain bread (also store bought) into the oven to warm. Finally, I dropped some nice looking New York strips on the hottest part of the grill. Once nicely charred on the outside and medium rare in the middle, it was time to easy! Slice the bread, plate the steaks, potatoes, and corn, and...yum!

The potatoes were actually the odd part of this meal. We often do whole meals on the grill through the summer. I suspect a few more of those will get described here. As a side note, I'd love to have a new and larger grill, except I can't afford the one I want, and I have no idea where I'd put it in our backyard. Shucks!

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Daily scary driving experiences

After years of experience, I've come to the conclusion that parents driving their children to school are the worst drivers on the planet. Crazed taxi drivers have nothing on these people.

Over the years, I've seen innumerable near accidents and a few solid hits. I once saw a parent so desperate to get their child to school on time that she jumped a curb and drove at quite a nice clip across the schoolyard to get her child to the door. I'm stunned that no one was killed in that incident.

I now drive our youngest one to high school. That's my daily excitement, and it's usually a great substitute for morning caffeine. Nothing like a little adrenaline poisoning to wake you up! On the rare occasion that there is any enforcement around the high school, they're always forcing people to not stop in what is technically a no parking/no stopping zone to drop their kids off. Instead, they force people to drive into the student parking lot, which just makes the jam and people's nerves that much worse. Thanks, guys. Part of the fun is having drivers with less than a year of experience and cars with waaaaaaay too much power driving in the same lot as parents. Mix in some pedestrians and you have my idea of the fourth circle of hell.

Is there anything we can do about this? Not really. Parents are all convinced that their 'precious cargo' is far more important the the 'precious cargo' of the person in front of them. The only real hope is to reinstate a school busing system. That would be expensive, so it won't happen here. This is one of the few cases where good weather all the time is a serious curse. When I grew up in the upper Midwest, school buses were always available. Indeed, at one point I lived in a place where riding the bus was mandatory, as walking to school, even across a couple of yards, might be deadly.

Perhaps global warming will fix that problem....

Update: It saddens me to see that there was an incident at a nearby school today, just hours after I wrote the above rant. While the circumstances of that specific incident are still unclear, traffic around most schools in this area is a major tragedy just waiting to happen.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

College reunion

I went to my mumble-th college reunion over the last weekend. It was a blast!

I had a great time chatting with folks I haven't seen in several years and catching up on all that's going on. There were a couple of folks I haven't seen since graduation, and that was fun.

The best part, though, was getting a chance to stun people. Most of my classmates are off starting families. It was amusing how many people had two kids - one four year old, and one two year old. After getting that piece of information on their families, I took the chance to show off my granddaughter. Yup, that's right. One of my faovrite pictures of the two of us is below - pretty much everyone at the reunion got to see this one!

Anyway, the whole thing was a really fun time. I hope to see a few of those folks, at least, before the next one rolls around. Despite all the conveniences of the Internet, it's hard to keep up on correspondence. Bummer!

If you happen to stumble on this post and were was great to chat with you! If you are a member of my class and didn't make it...I hope to see you next time!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Merger update

I started this blog with a minor rant about mergers. It's time for a vague update!

Frankly, it's a delight to see a merger that doesn't suck. So far, our new overlords have been doing things mostly right. There's some minor confusion here and there on some specific issues, like the details of some new benefits programs, but the HR folks tend to get things sorted out fairly quickly. It's almost like someone read that first post here. Actually, some of the issues raised in that post stem from another merger/acquisition by the same company, so it's nice to see that they've learned a few lessons after the better part of a decade.

Personally, I'm pretty happy. There's a bit more to solve for my own personal situation, but all of the management and HR folks I deal with have been helpful and supportive.

It'll be good to get the deal closed, which should be in another week or two. That should allow all of us involved to get back to concentrating on actual work. There's certainly plenty of that!

How to fix the traffic problem

Polls of people living in Silicon Valley show that the top two problems are the cost of housing and traffic. The former is a simple problem of supply and demand - too many people want to live here and mountains and water hem in the available space.

Traffic, on the other hand, is a messier problem. In part, it's simple: too many cars in not enough road. Here's the crux of my hypothesis - too many cars isn't the's too little decent public transportation. If anything, the California car culture makes it harder to fix this. This will anger a bunch of people that I know, but I think we're just propping up a failed freeway system with the network of carpool lanes and metering lights. If I had my way, we'd remove the carpool lanes and turn off the metering lights. I used to be a big fan of them, but I've come to the conclusion that they simply prolong the agony of our traffic issues. Perhaps removing them will force the issue a bit sooner.

One of the problems we have is the state of public transportation in silicon valley. Frankly, it stinks. There's not enough of it, and it runs along less than useful routes. My favorite example is Caltrain. I like taking Caltrain, but it's not a substantial time saver for me. In particular, the Tamien station may be the stupidest place for a train station on the planet. It's the southern terminus for most trains in the system, so most riders would be coming from farther south. The way Highway 87 is setup, on the other hand, makes it trivial to get to the station from the north, but it's a real pain from the south. On most days, it takes me about five minutes less to get to the Caltrain station than it does for me to get to work in Mountain View. That's crazy.

To be fair, Caltrain follows a historic route along the old Camino Real that originally connected the California missions together 200 years ago. That route has nothing to do with the modern freeway system.

The station placement problem could be alleviated by making other public transportation work with Caltrain. Indeed, the Tamien station is located alongside a VTA light-rail station, and I live within walking distance of a light-rail station. Of course, it takes even longer for the light-rail to deliver me to the train station than it does for me to drive all the way to work.

What we really need is a more coordinated transportation system. Frankly, that's going to be expensive. Of course, it's no more than the cost of all of the wasted gas from people idling in traffic everyday. It's mostly a matter of political and popular will, which, alas, means it isn't going to get solved anytime soon.

I'll make another unpopular suggestion. The gas tax in California should get raised $0.50 per gallon. There is a caveat on that - the income derived from that tax should get pumped directly into public transportation issues. (At present, it just goes into the general fund, which is just crazy, in my opinion.) I'm a huge fan of usage taxes. If you chose to drive a low-mileage vehicle, you would end up paying a larger proportion of the cost to support the road network. Perhaps that would be an encouragement to get on a bus or train instead.

In any case, I've blathered on for long enough on this topic. I hate the traffic here. It's the one thing that makes me want to leave...and I don't think anything we're presently doing is going to help the situation at all!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Sunday feasting!

My wife had a request today - she really wanted some tuna for dinner. So, what to do?

I opted for grilled ahi with soba noodles and arugula. For the tuna, I simply brushed a pair of large steaks with oil, and added a generous amount of salt and pepper, and then seered the outside of both steaks over a very hot grill. (I also grilled some baby bok choy to go with the rest of the dish.) I then plated a pile of freshly cooked soba noodles and some washed arugula, and added the tuna after thinly slicing it. Over the whole thing I added a scallion and ginger dressing. That dressing was also a quick and easy preparation: I heated some canola oil until very hot, and added a generous portion of minced scallion and fresh ginger root. Once the scallion had softened, I took it off the heat, and added soy sauce and rice vinegar. Once that was all cool, it went over the rest of the dish. The results are below!

I could have paired a crisp white wine with this, but I opted for something a bit more appropriate, given the general flavorings. I just happened to have a nice junmai sake available and chilled, so we had that with dinner. It was clean and delicious! The bottle is pictured to the right.

Finally, there's dessert. That was very much not a Pacific Rim dish, but was a nice hearty New England style Indian Maple Pudding. it's a recipe from Food&Wine magazine, but I can't find an online link to it, so I've provided it below.

This is an incredibly yummy dessert. It's very rich...this recipe makes at least 8 servings.


  • 1 cup stone-ground yellow cornmeal
  • 1 quart whole milk
  • 1/2 cup maple sugar granules or light-brown sugar
  • 1 cup heavy cream, not ultrapasteurized, if you can find it
  • 1/2 cup pure maple syrup (don't's worth the price)
  • 1/8 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg

1) Heat the oven to 275 degrees. Lightly butter a 1-1/2 quart souffle dish. In a heavy bottomed medium saucepan, whisk the cornmeal into the milk over moderately high heat until thickened slightly, about 5 minutes.

2) Remove from the heat and stir in the maple sugar granules. Stir in the cream, syrup, and nutmeg. Pour into the prepared dish. Bake in the middle of the oven until bubbling and brown on top, about 4 hours. Let rest 30 minutes before serving.

(Source: Food & Wine magazine's Favorite Desserts)

Plan ahead for this one, but it's well worth it. My wife insists it's even better the next day!

Monday, April 9, 2007

Prime Rib is yummy!

We had a delicious dinner yesterday, courtesy of my wife. She makes what may be the world's best prime rib. (I may be biased.) There was enough for sandwiches tonight, too!

The other yummy part of dinner was the wine. We chose a bottle of 1998 St. Supéry Meritage. The wine was everything you might expect for a "big" red from Napa Valley after some aging. Lots of fruit flavors with a nice edge of oak. Due to the age, tannins were minimal. We decanted it, but found little sedimentation. The color was a lovely inky crimson. The heavy fruit went well with the roasted meat. The label is at right.

All in all a very successful meal!

Monday, April 2, 2007

Cool site of the RTI*

(That's Random Time don't expect this to be periodic, do you?)

Today's very cool site is wikisky.

This is a great way to organize information. There's a whole universe out there, so why not organize what we know about it visually? wikisky lets you browse around the night sky and see what's out there. In selected portions, you can even get real images based on the SDSS survey in progress. In addition to that, you can click on any object (stars, galaxies, clusters, nebulae, whatever) and get a pile of reference material for that object. Okay, so most of this is most suited to professional astronomers, but some of the basics are still very interesting for normal folks, too.

I also think professional astronomers need to get out into the night more often, and this is a virtual way for them to see what else is near their study objects. I've met too many professionals who don't know the night sky as well as newbie amateurs, and I think that's a shame. But that's another rant for another time.

For a sample of what's in wikisky, try this link. That should take you to a view of a very small chunk of sky. The very bright star at the bottom is Regulus (aka Alpha Leonis or Cor Leonis, as in "lion heart"). It's a relatively nearby star that is prominent in the springtime sky. The faint patch of stars is one of the nearest and faintest galaxies known. It's a member of our local group of galaxies, and is named "Leo I". (Astronomers aren't always very creative with names.) Click on either for much more information and a list of abstracts relevant to the object.

I can see that I'm going to be wasting a lot of time on this site!

Sunday, April 1, 2007

A modest proposal

Those of you who live in the Bay Area are certainly familiar with the major issues that seem to trouble people around here. Polls consistently say that the worst problem is the cost of living. Second to that is traffic. I know my commute sucks. It's not that far by local standards (about 23 miles), and I usually get to work in about 30 minutes, but the drive home takes about an hour. public transportation is a disaster, but that's another rant for another day.

For today, I simply want to provide a modest proposal for curing our traffic ills. I need to acknowledge the source of this idea - my wife's uncle was a source of inspiration for this. He once came to visit and expressed his thought that women simply shouldn't be allowed to drive. He's got a point...that would take half the traffic off the road, more or less. Clearly, this isn't a workable idea. I don't think such a law would pass constitutional review!

Instead, I propose something simple: men cannot drive on odd numbered days, and women cannot drive on even numbered days. That's still a bit unfair, due to the quirks of our calendar system, so we'll even it out by forbidding anyone to drive on the 31st of any month with that many days. (Feb. 29th would be another qualifying day for the complete ban.)

In order for this to be workable, we'll need exceptions for a few critical folks that provide key services: policeman, fireman, doctors, trash collectors, and taxi drivers. The DMV will need to provide special license plates for people who are in these professions to allow them to drive on any day that they are on duty.

Even with that, I estimate that we'd take 35-40% of the traffic off of our roads on a given day. Think of the financial implications, too: we'd be much less dependent on foreign oil, our roads would take a lot less abuse, and productivity would skyrocket from people not sitting around in traffic. We'd have some interesting tax troubles due to the loss of sales and gas tax revenues. We'd also have to increase spending for public transportation, although the sudden surge in bus/train/ferry/trolley ridership should counter that significantly. The oil companies would take a serious hit, although I don't think anyone is really going to shed a tear for them.

I don't really see a downside here. Do your part - send this post to your local government officials, and tell them that Jonathon Swift sent you.

(Anyone not getting this needs to go read this page. Oh, and look at a calendar.)

Thursday, March 29, 2007

So, what's with the blog title?

That's a good question!

The title is inspired by two different sources: a mildly obscure piece of classical music and a science-fiction short story. The former is "The Unanswered Question" by Charles Ives; the latter is "The Last Question" by Isaac Asimov. While the story is a bit more literal (it's text, after all!), both have what might, at first, appear to be similar themes.

You can find a fun version of the Ives piece at the American Mavericks website, with a performance by the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas. The Asimov story is available online at a site dedicated to the story, although I'm unsure of it's actual legal status.

You can read "The Last Question" for yourself. It's a bit more overtly religious than most fiction that I like, but it's a very satisfying short story. Indeed, it's reputed to be Asimov's personal favorite. The top level of the Multivax site is an amusing homage, but the question itself is a fundamentally meta-physical one. Physics has a clear answer: no. The details to explain that would take a while, so I'll let anyone interested ask, or Google for it.

The Ives piece is actually a bit more complex to explain. The piece itself is fairly simple, if unconventional. There's a soft continuum of strings that evokes a mildly exotic and spacious feeling. At intervals, a solo trumpet gives a simple set of notes that seems to be a question. A set of noisy and blaring flutes (yes, flutes!) answers the trumpet each time but the last. At the end, the trumpet's final question fades away, and the strings slowly fade to silence. Interpretations vary, but the general sense is remarkably similar to the Asimov story: a question is repeatedly asked, and never really answered in a way useful to the question's source.

There's a somewhat broader context here, too. At the time the music was written (1906), the debate between the two sides of classical music was ongoing. Should music be programmatic, as the Wagnerians thought, or entirely abstract, as espoused by the Brahmsian set? Ives, idiosyncratic as ever, seems to be saying "neither...and both" all in this one piece. To some extent, the entire piece is just an abstract work with no clear plot. On the other hand, it could be seen as literal. Indeed, the question in the title might be the larger question about the purpose of music, and the piece itself declines to answer.

None of this, of course, answers the question in the title of this blog entry. And, I'm not going to. You'll have to figure it out!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

For sale: Madison Avenue

Okay, so we all know that marketing and advertising have become so omnipresent in our society that it's actually difficult to find someplace to escape from all of it.

The question this poses is simple enough: how do we, as a society, fix this?

This problem is in my mind right now because I encountered a new form of media today. I went to get gas for my minivan ($3.209 a gallon, thanks) at a local Shell station. Above the pumps, they've installed a lovely video screen and speakers. I was treated to a slew of infotainment as soon as I picked up the pump handle. I saw the same Jack in the Box ad three times, along with the weather forecast, a trailer or two, and some NBC late night ads. I was fortunate enough to get the entire show - the minivan was thirsty enough to take longer than the entire loop.

That's not really the worst possible example, but it's a new one for me. (The worst one, so far, may be the quick service restaurant I visited that had ads in the urinals. Above them is one thing, but c'mon!)

It's not a real surprise that we're all such good consumers. We've been conditioned for it from birth, more or less. Breaking out of that pattern is something that individuals can do, but people, on the average, are sheep, so we're all pretty much stuck with all of this. Call me pessimistic, but the people that put ads on the 'up' escalators are the same people that would put advertising over our beds if they could figure out a way to pull it off for a profit.

How depressing.

(This post brought to you by.......)

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Salmon and lentils...yum!

One of my favorite topics is food. There will be a lot of posts about food in this blog!

Today's discovery is that our friends at Google have a recipe search function. My wife wanted something involving salmon, which led to Salmon Fillet Wrapped in Prosciutto with Herby Lentils, Spinach and Yogurt. The kids even liked this one. Total prep time is about one hour, so it's a decent recipe for a busy night. (This was one of those - I was babysitting my granddaughter while I was cooking.) Most of the time is required for cooking the lentils.

Unusually for a meal like this, we didn't have any wine. In the future, I'll comment on the wine selection, too. (We have a small but reasonably stocked cellar.) We also often take pictures of our food, but this one didn't get that far...perhaps a future post will include a few snapshots of our dinners!

Dessert was individual chocolate soufflés. It's a recipe I use often, so I'll save it for another day.

Bon appétit!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Mergers and from the real world

So, my company was acquired by a large corporation last week. These things happen, and it's usually a bit traumatic, but it doesn't need to be! I've now been through several of these types of business events, and from both sides. Based on that experience, I have some tips for people involved in this sort of thing.

If you are the acquiring company:
  • Be aware that the people you deal with in the acquired organization are under immense stress. Give them a break!
  • Have a plan. Better yet, have a team dedicated to helping everyone (on both sides) through the transition.
  • Communicate early and often. Make sure everyone who is doing that communicating has the same message. Confusion is your enemy.
  • Don't blow smoke...if there's bad news, share it. No matter what, don't make promises that can't be kept.
If you are in the acquired company:
  • You've been acquired - accept that change is going to happen. Some of that change is likely to be unpalatable.
  • Frankly, get over yourself! There are going to be new processes that are different from what you are used to. Many things will be different!
  • If you don't want to have everything dictated to you, have a plan! It is often the case that the purchasing company will be happy to work with you to meet in the middle.
  • Communicate early and often, both internally an with the acquisition team. Again, confusion will lead to failure.
To some extent, this is all Business 101 stuff. Still, it's important that people handle the basics before they try to do anything fancier. (That's true in almost any field or topic!)

I'm happy to report that the acquisition I'm in the middle of is going fairly smoothly. The acquiring company has got it together, and is acting like they've actually read the first section above. (Hooray!)

Monday, March 19, 2007


Time to jump on the bandwagon and start a blog.

My interests are eclectic, to put it mildly. Watch this space for various random thoughts on a range of topics at whatever interval I feel best.

More soon!