26 December 2008

Holiiday Fuun

The big mistake of my Christmas season was giving my parents a Wii and Wii Fit system as a gift. The error was not in judging whether they would like it -- they do. It was in failing to figure out that I like it, too! 

I shot some 100 photos during the Christmas activities, some using the new flash that Santa brought me. If you shoot photos & say to yourself, "I am awful at flash photography," buy yourself a real flash, and you will quickly find out that good equipment makes a huge difference. I'd share some photos with you, but I stuck my camera's big photo card into dad's new digital photo frame (a gift from the unnamed male relative & his beautiful wife) to see how it would work, and I forgot to take it out when I left last night. Ugh!

Anyway, what I really wanted to share was some funny and probably embarrassing photos of us using the Wii. Probably best that I don't have them, heh. 

I was the guinea pig for the bowling & golf activities (which are fun but just as frustrating as the real thing!), so dad, the athlete of the family, agreed to be the Wii Fit guinea pig. One of the measurements it uses in determining your "Wii Fit age" is your Body Mass Index. 

Unfortunately, the Wii calculates BMI from your height and weight: weight/height squared. There are problems with this calculation. The main one is that it doesn't actually consider your body mass. So, dad who does exercise & yoga two days a week and plays golf more than any reasonable person should (heh), somehow had a higher BMI than mom & I who lead rather more (ahem) sedentary lifestyles and are rather more ... curvaceous.

In addition, some of the games & goals are different from dad's exercise experience. He's working on having good breathing & yoga form, but the game wants him to worry more about whether he is standing up straight. So mom & I, who could care less about breathing, played the Wii game nearly as well as dad, the actual yoga practitioner. 

Similarly, Wii bowling & golf are not good analogs to real bowling & golf; you have to figure out what the game wants, not do what you usually do in real life. Thus, I think dad was a little frustrated with his Wii experience, whereas mom & I had tons of fun. 

I just ordered my own. I don't think I want to drive across town every time I need a ski jumping or step aerobics 'fix'. But I need one *right now* so I guess I will get in the car. I need to pick up my camera card, anyway.

23 December 2008

Pink Lids & Akoha

We pause our adventures for a small public service announcement.... 

If you eat Yoplait yogurt & have pink lids, Yoplait will donate 10 cents to Susan G. Komen for the Cure for each lid received by 12/31/2008 at:

Save Lids to Save Lives®
P.O. Box 420704
El Paso, TX 88542-0704

If you write on the back of the envelope "Team #114686," the Akoha Wild Ones team will get 'credit' for participating. You may also join the team at the Yoplait site &/or share Akoha missions with me! 

For those not already familiar with the idea of Akoha, it's a social "game" whose object is to gather karma points by... well... being nice. The game starts with a deck of cards, featuring "missions" like "Invite someone for coffee," and "Make someone smile." 

The idea is to perform the action on the card, which increases the happiness in one person's life, then give that person the card & ask them to log onto Akoha, type some meaningful message about how much they enjoyed having this mission "played" on them. They then, hopefully, will be eager to "play it forward," making a great chain of happy people. 

You can then track your "mission" as it makes its way around the world, hopefully passing from one happy person to another. It's a little like a Where's George based on kindness rather than cash.

Based on my experience with Where's George, I don't hope that my missions will hop around all that much.  According to Where's George stats, I have entered 189 bills, and only 14 people have ever jumped online to report finding them. Perhaps when I am handing someone a mission card, having just done something nice, they will be more amenable to reporting their pleasure & joining the game. 

In the great scheme of things, the idea of Akoha is that it encourages people to do nice things for others and increase overall world happiness by some small token, or even larger tokens, depending on the mission. It's irrelevant that the recipient does or does not respond online -- but it would make the game more fun.

(By the way, Akoha is in closed beta, but if someone performs a mission on you -- and some of them can be played via e-mail -- then you can get into the beta as well. If you send me an e-mail, a Facebook message or or a direct Tweet saying you'd like to play, I'll work to share a mission with you, so you can Play it Forward!)

11 December 2008


This photo shows what passes for "snow" in Houston. The little dusting barely registered on the snow-meters, but it certainly caused havoc on the roads. 

The flurries started in earnest around 3:30 yesterday, or at least that's when the gal from the neighboring office ran into mine and said, "It's SNOWING!" I thought it was a joke, of course, but when I turned it looked like a scene out of White Christmas -- well, if you squinted real hard it did, anyway. 

Nothing really "stuck" until late in the evening, and even then, as you can see from these pix, we didn't have much sticking. As far as the dog is concerned, it was nothing more than thick rain, spoiling her ability to play catch -- because *someone* said it was too cold & wet to play outside. 

Although it was cold as snakes this morning, the snow was all gone from the roads when it was time to drive to work. That's *my* kind of snow.

19 November 2008

Failure is not an option

This cartoon by Hugh MacLeod smacked me on the nose when I saw it on his blog last week. 

I'm a big fan of Hugh, especially his ideas about "How to Be Creative" and "Social Objects as the Future of Marketing." But this cartoon hit a nerve.

A lifetime ago, I had just started working for a magazine in the photonics industry. I was a skilled journalist and had an abiding interest in science and technology but my month or two reading & writing about photonics hardly made me an 'expert.' And yet, that's what journalists have to be, in essence: Instant experts on whatever topic they're assigned in any given day, and a different topic every day. That's what drove me into journalism when dad wanted me to go on to law school. How cool is a job where you get to keep learning every day of your career?

Burned out in the newspaper business after a few too many of those obligatory calls to the family of the kid who was killed by the drunken driver, I went into technology journalism, where I'd always hoped to end up. So I was two months into a very technical new area of expertise when a contributed article fell through -- a week before the print deadline. 

Every trade magazine editor in the world knows the sickening feeling that comes from staring at three to five empty pages of text with no way to fill it. And thus, the Senior Editor called a quick hallway meeting to announce The Big Problem. Not understanding the panic, I offered a solution: "Why don't I just write something to fill the space?"

My exuberance was borne of 10 years in the daily newspaper business, whereas my colleagues' pessimistic frowns were products of life in the monthly magazine world. To me, five empty pages meant 10 phone calls to technical experts, a couple of days of typing, and a quick editorial review. As doubtful as my colleagues were, they saw no other options. 

And yet, the publisher had to voice one last pessimistic query: "But what if you fail?"

(With my 20/20 hindsight, I know this moment was the initial salvo from the energy vampire I would battle for most of the next seven years.)

"I won't fail," I said, shrugging. "And if I do -- which I won't -- you'll be no worse off than you are right now, with five pages of house ads to make up for the missing article."

There's a scary place between your comfort zone & failure. You know that place -- it's right there where you doubt your success. In that place, a wall pops up, and on the wall is a sign: "You are too stupid to do this." This is where some people fail, and learn that even if people laugh at their failure, they will live through it. And maybe they also "learn" that they are stupid. "Oh, I'm not good at math." "Oh, I just can't draw." "Oh I tried that and I failed, so I don't do it anymore." But other people knock the damn sign down and find some crazy way to get over/under/around/past that wall. And maybe we are never the very best in the world at that one thing, but we do just fine, thanks.

And so I didn't fail. I called the experts, I did my interviews, I wrenched my brain into a knot until I understood what they told me about ultraviolet detectors, and if one expert wasn't available, I called another one. Because it never occurs to me that failure might be an option. 

Today, more than 10 years after that impromptu hallway meeting, I printed out Hugh's cartoon and hung it on my wall at the Much Better Place where I work now. But I scribbled a quote from a favorite movie next to the guy on the left. It says, "Laugh while you can, monkey boy."

11 November 2008

Helicopter Dunking

This week's work adventure has been getting certifications so I can go offshore to shoot & observe my employer's technology "in action."

I have some thoughts on what made this training particularly successful -- hint: the instructor was passionate about safety & teaching! However, I'm only going to write the *story* tonight because my sinus cavity is killing me after today's little activity. 

Today's class was Water Survival, including Helicopter Underwater Egress Training (HUET). Morning was mostly in the classroom, and afternoon in the pool learning various water survival techniques. The highlight, of course, is the helicopter dunking. I did not shoot any video or stills of my own class but here's a video that captures the concept.

Basically, you strap yourself into this simulated helicopter body, which the trainers then dump into the pool and flip on its head. This results in massive amounts of chlorine up your nose, no matter how well you try to blow out your nostrils. You then have to pop a window, release your seatbelt and pull yourself out of the thing. 

My class comprised 14 people -- me & 13 guys (surprise, right?) They loaded two victims at a time in the simulator for five dunks in various configurations: with windows, without; straight down or rolled over; 'easy' window or 'hard'.

Naturally I was in the very last pair of the day. As the second-to-last group was finishing its third dunk, we could hear thunder outside the metal building that housed the pool. (It had been raining all day). I joked that this was a good thing because it helped add some realism: Clearly the storm was the reason why our helicopter was ditching into the Gulf. 

Picking a window
My partner asked if I had a preference as to which window I'd like to start on. To remove the "hard" window, you had to push hard in just the right place (upper left corner near your left shoulder), and it would pop out. To remove the "easy" window, you flipped open a latch right next to your right hip & then it fell out with a little tap. We'd be doing four practice dunks on one window and one 'final' dunk (sort of a final practical exam) on the other window. My completely logical choice was to take the 'hard' window for my four learning dunks and the 'easy' window for my final exam, rather than risk an embarrassing 'redo' dunk on the final. 

However, when I headed for the seat next to the "hard" window, the instructor pointed at the other seat and said, "I think you should take this seat. " Ugh. If he had added "little lady," it would not have been more condescending. Anyway, I declined. He then said, with a little frown, "I strongly encourage you to take this seat." I thanked him for his encouragement but buckled myself into the other one.

The first dunk had us popping the windows out on surface, followed by a straight drop into the pool. OK, it did take some OOMPH to pop that window out, but escaping through the open window was a no-brainer. 

The second dunk left the windows in for a full straight dunk. So we had to pop the windows under water, then open our seatbelts & get out. OK, it still took some OOMPH to get that window out, but ultimately it was no problem. Unfortunately, my partner couldn't get the 'easy' window open & had to be 'rescued' so he could try it again. "It's not easy to find the latch," he complained. The instructor responded, "No, not if you are trying to find it with your eyes...." 

After my partner completed his redo, we were loaded and strapped in for the third dunk -- but we were unloaded quickly after the crane operator saw lightning and said, "Everybody out of the pool." We stood, shivering in our soaking wet coveralls for about 15 minutes while the front moved through. Again, I couldn't help but laugh at the idea of having a good reason for the helicopter to ditch.

After the lightning abated, we got to the third dunk: windows out and helicopter inverted (rolling over). This was the first taste of what had made everyone else in our group come up coughing & gasping. It's disorienting, yes, but more significantly, the water is violently turbulent, like having someone aim a firehose up in your face. Even with great suggestions from a more experienced classmate about how to avoid it, I got one very uncomfortable, very chlorinated snoutful of water. Didn't stop me from getting out, but it left me (and my partner) sputtering a bit.

Dunk #4 was the pre-final: Windows in, dunk & roll, pop window, release seatbelt, get out. OK, no problem, but more chlorine up my nose. My partner also made it.

Final exam
For dunk #5, we switched sides. This put me on the right side of the helicopter, opening the 'easy' window latch with my right hand. Piece of cake, right? Right. Let's go!

Splash! Nice big breath. Simulator stops rolling, reach over to the easy window and grab the easy little latch. The ... um... latch. Hello? Where the hell is the damn latch? Woah, no panic, you have plenty of time & breath here. Stop. Relax. Remember the trainer's words: Don't try to use your eyes. Put my hand back on my hip, flip it over, there's the latch. Dang, my thumb just barely fits in that little space. Pull the latch, tap the window. Use the same hand to reach for the seatbelt. Oh no, you don't; your outside (right) hand goes on the fusilage to re-orient yourself to "out". Inside (left) hand pulls the seatbelt latch. Pull myself out, snort to the surface. Success!! No re-run!

I remembered only later that of the 14 people in the class, three had to redo at least one dunk -- all on the 'easy' side. That latch is a booger.

Anyway, I'm now certified for SafeGulf, HUET & water survival. Yippee!! 

07 October 2008

New rules for debates

While twittering the 'town hall debate' and watching on CNN, I came up with two new important rules for political debates. 

Rule #1: Answers are limited, Twitter-style, to 140 characters. If you need more than that, then you can blog it later.

Rule #2: If you do not answer a question, you don't get to answer the next one(s). So if someone asks, "If Iran attacks Israel, will you smack them back?" and you answer, "I don't think Iran should get to have nuclear weapons," you get a zero in the answering column, and you don't get to answer the next question, or any other question, until you make up your freakin' mind. (I'm sure McCain had a couple of those, too, and it just annoys the hell out of me.) As above, if you change your mind later, that's what your blog is for.

Two simple rules. And ok, I admit that asking John McCain to type on an iPhone while sitting on stage is probably a bad idea (although the mental image makes me laugh). However, the second one is absolutely critical to actually making decisions about which of these people will get my vote. 

I kept thinking tonight, about the debate as a job interview. Pretend, for a minute, that you are hiring one of these guys (which you are...). And one of them, instead of answering your questions, points out all the mistakes that the other guy has made over the last 10 years. The other one, instead of answering your questions, brilliantly discourses on whatever the hell he wants to talk about. Which one do you hire? 

Me: Tell me about the most stressful work situation you've ever been in, and how you dealt with it.

Candidate #1: Thank you for the question, my friend. Really. I deal with stress just fine. But That One, he once had a hissy fit at the coffee machine because there were no filters -- a little thing, I voted against buying more filters because being a real reformer, I thought we could just use paper towels, because I thought filters were so elite and mainstream, you know? That One, my friend, he voted for filters, a special earmark, and he was very stressed out when they had not yet arrived in time to make his mokka lah-te-dah or whatever you young people call those things these days. (looks over in disgust at the other candidate, crosses arms)

Candidate #2: Thank you for asking. Fundamentally, I think my health plan is going to keep all of us from worrying about stress anymore, and tax cuts for those making less than $250,000 would certainly ease the burden of paying for those enormous mortgages that the Republicans foisted on the poor people of this country. (self-satisfied smile)

I hate it that I don't actually have a *good* choice in this election. 

06 October 2008

Letter to my Congressman

To the Honorable Kevin Brady:

I'm just wondering what Congress is going to do for me, a person who paid cash for her last two cars (one every 10 years!), pays off her one credit card bill in full every month, and makes her mortgage payments on time so she can continue to live in the modest little house that is well within her means.

We are apparently going to use my tax money to bail out a lot of stupid, greedy people who bought more than they could reasonably afford, and who seem to think the world owes them a big screen TV, a couple of Wii's for the kids, and a new car every two years.

Then we're going to use more of my tax money to bail out the greedy, multimillion dollar businesses that extended credit to those other greedy stupid people and then gave themselves big, fat bonus checks so they could go buy million-dollar mansions in fine, gated communities (where, boo-hoo, they may now be having trouble making their payments, if there is a God.)

Meanwhile, the IRAs & 401(k) that I've been putting *my* money into for the last 25+ years have given up all of their value over the last few weeks because everybody is scrabbling to get some piece of whatever's left of the money in the world.

And instead of a big, fat mortgage that could have a principle reduction if I didn't pay my bills, I have a reasonably budget-able mortgage and a chunk of equity that may or may not be valuable when it's time to sell. I don't see anybody offering to reduce *my* mortgage principle as a prize for being *smart* and *sensible* when the real estate gal was trying to convince me that, "Well, sure, this is a nice place but you could afford so much more!"

I guess I am just annoyed that we are rewarding foolishness instead of taking care of the people who pay their taxes, put money into savings, pay cash and generally do things the *right* way. And I ask again, "What is Congress going to do for *me*?"


Stephanie A. Weiss
The Woodlands
(sent originally via Write Your Rep, and I encourage you to write one, too) 

P.S. I have already received two new credit card applications in the mail this week, which started today.  This suggests to me that the credit market has not shut down, and if I were a Congressman, my first new Bill would raise the postage costs for credit card applications, with all the resulting revenue going toward paying off the unfortunate $700b nonsense that you people agreed to provide last week to keep the market from tumbling, which it did anyway. Nice work.

13 September 2008

He's heeee-ere

We're just getting the edge of Ike & he is already a huge pest. 

The photo at right shows you the house right behind mine yesterday evening. YOu can just barely see the top of one of those white plastic lawn chairs on the left, then the "naked guy" near the door, and the screened tent. I think they may be out of town, although someone did come by & push over the naked guy at some point late yesterday, I did see a light on there at some point last night. 

Below, you can see the view now. (Yes, it's a little dark and drippy, but it's only 5 am and the middle of a *hurricane* here.) What you see is the top of a tree that I think is just outside the view on the right of the "before" photo. At least I'm pretty sure it's not from the tree in the foreground of the dark photo.... It made an awfully loud noise about an hour ago and came down across the fence & -- i think -- the screened tent. I'm pretty sure something is holding that tent down so I don't have to worry about it coming through my windows. Not as sure about the rest of the stuff in their yard..... 

We do still have power, but I don't expect it to last much longer. We are still an hour or two away from getting the worst of the storm, and it sounds pretty nasty. I should be able to keep Twittering & doing various other things from the iPhone, and recharge occasionally from the car..... Hope to stay connected to the world because, frankly, it's a little scary. Stuff just keeps banging onto the roof, the doors, the walls, the deck. And we aren't even in the bad part yet.

12 September 2008

Covering Hurricanes

The image on the right is Ike around 7 pm Friday. The red words on the green map say "Houston" and "Me." The arrow shows where Ike is heading. He will probably go just a little bit east of "Me." But you get the idea.

Bear with me as I reminisce a bit about the old days. The last major hurricane to smack Houston was a brat named Alicia, and she walloped the area in 1983, doing pretty much the same thing Ike is doing but with higher winds & less storm surge. 

Hurricanes haven't changed much over the years, but the technology for reporting about hurricanes has changed remarkably. I was a Houston Chronicle reporter when Alicia came through, and oh yes, we blanketed the area and reported everything we could, but it was a simpler time, and a newspaper was a daily thing, not a minute-by-minute online information source. 

Back then, if you needed to know what's happening now, you had your TV on, or, after the power went out, you turned your portable ratio to KTRH. [OK, some things have not changed; I bet most of us will *still* tun our portable radios to KTRH after the power goes out.]

Back then, when a tree fell on the power lines, it also fell on the phone lines. I can't remember when the Chronicle got its first satellite phone, but it was a monstrous military-looking gizmo that cost a small fortune for each call, so it was rarely used and we certainly did not have enough for each of the dozens of reporters scattered around the metropolitan area. There were no cell phones. No blackberries, no Twittering, no "live Ike webcams" (except TV news satellite trucks, of course), and no individual bloggers reporting on their own little microcosm of the world.

I was on "normal" duty for Alicia, so by the time the storm was up to strength, I was "off duty." But I couldn't go home because everything was pretty much shut down. I spent the night on the 5th floor of the Chronicle building, watching gravel fly off the roofs of the downtown high-rise buildings, breaking all their windows. The newsroom, at the time, was one large open space with enormous windows across one wall. Those windows bucked and bulged all night long, looking scary but ultimately doing their job.

When the storm had passed, I went to mom & dad's house in Memorial, where they had some trees down. I remember Allen Parkway was pretty well flooded but otherwise it was just a lot of branches everywhere. 

Storms are different now. I can sit at home & watch people all over Houston taking about their hurricane preparations, what they see out their windows as the storm rolls by, what they see on TV. I can unplug my TV and still watch live coverage on TV stations' websites, or (gasp) on my iPhone if the power goes out. (This assumes I can still get a cell signal, not a foregone conclusion if the towers get smacked.)

It's a different world, when I can sit at my house & know that power is already out and some homes are already flooded in Clear Lake. I know power is flickering in midtown. I know things I never would have dreamed about knowing back in 1983. And somehow it's comforting to know all of this because it fills the void that might otherwise be filled with fear of the impending monster storm.

11 September 2008

Why The Woodlands Cares About Hurricanes

I've mentioned before that I am pretty far away from the coast, which means worrying about hurricanes is a bit silly. It would take one whopper of a storm to bring hurricane-force winds all the way up here.

But if they did get here, it would be pretty catastrophic: It's not called The Woodlands just cuz it's a pretty name. The photo on the right shows my house, sorta. What it shows more clearly is the reason I wanted to live there -- the enormous trees. There are six 100-foot pines in my front yard. (My ballpark estimate on the height). There are a bunch more in the neighbor's front yard. And more in my backyard. 

It's a happy place for trees. Unlike typical suburbs, The Woodlands has historically required developers to plan out their subdivisions with minimum possible impact on the existing environment -- the big trees. And so we have these great neighborhoods full of greens and browns and the smell of pine after hurricanes.

Because hurricanes are not that great for tall pine trees. After Rita, when I lived in a townhouse with much less lush forest around, we had one tall pine go down in the neighborhood, not because of the wind but because of the combination of wind + wet. Because unfortunately, once the ground is wet the tree roots don't hold onto the ground so well, allowing the trees to topple.

That was the problem with Alicia in '93. My parents lived in Memorial (closer to Houston but on the west side) at the time and lost some big pine trees. It had rained a lot right before Alicia, and the trees just went "schloop" out of the mud when the wind hit 'em.

We don't expect that for Ike because it has been very dry for weeks here. But we probably will still have a lot of branches to clean up. The big hope is that none of them go through a window. 

The big question remains as to where Ike will hit. The latest forecast moved him northeast a bit. 50 more miles northeast and The Woodlands will move from his "dirty side" with higher winds & more wet, to the "clean side," a veritable walk in the park as we had for Rita. 

Crossing my fingers & hugging my trees.

As I write, dad is on his way over to help me bring the outdoor furniture inside. Such a good daddy!