The Car that Killed GM: Back from the Dead!
Eugene, OR. Sat 25 Mar 2017, 10:30am.

When I picked up our rental car at PDX airport after our late arrival last night— actually it was early this morning, as the rental agreement shows— I was offered a choice of a Nissan Altima, a Chevy Impala, or some CUV-type vehicle. I've driven more rental Altimas than I can count. I've driven so many that I wrote a review of the Altima a few years ago. It's not a bad choice for a rental car. It's roomy, predictable, and even in base trim offers a modicum of creature comforts. But the Impala option caught my attention because of a favorable experience I had driving an Impala 18 months ago.

As I walked up to the car in the lot, though, I realized something was off. This car didn't look like that Impala I drove 18 months ago, either inside or outside. In fact it looked like the bad old Impala from the late 90s— The Car That Killed GM, I wrote years ago after GM's bankruptcy and bailout by the US government.

2016 Chevrolet Impala Limited. Mar 2017.
The 2016 Chevrolet Impala "Limited" is a rehash of an older model sold starting in 1999.

I was frustrated at finding myself in such an outdated vehicle. I suppose I could have taken the keys back to the office and asked for a different car. It was going on 1am, though, so I didn't feel like spending time switching. And Hawk assured me that the front seat was comfortable for her, which was one of my top issues in choosing a car anyway.

This morning I poked around a bit online to determine how such an ancient vehicle could be marked as a 2016 model. It turns out my memory was not fooling me: GM introduced a vastly more modern car as the Impala 3-4 years ago. At the same though it continued manufacturing the previous generation Impala as the Impala Limited, sold only to fleet customers such as rental car agencies.

In virtually every other automobile industry usage "limited" indicates a high level trim. But here "limited" is ironic for being so literal: limited modern features, limited creature comforts, limited safety features, limited performance, etc.

2016 Chevrolet Impala Limited dashboard. Mar 2017.
The 2016 Chevrolet Impala Limited's dashboard recalls uninspired late 1990s design.
Look at all that gaudy cheap fake wood trim!

Just looking at the dashboard was like taking a trip into the past. The controls design is straight out of the late 1990s. The materials are what US automakers like GM thought at the time a luxury-ish car entailed, including all that awful fake cheap wood trim. And while the stereo has an aux-in jack there's no USB jack, not even for charging. Nope, but the car does have three 12V cigarette lighter adaptor jacks!

Looks aside, the car doesn't totally suck. It got us from Portland down to Eugene this morning, a drive of about 120 miles, in one piece. After all, this car only looks 20 years old. It was built about a year ago.

8 Hours in Portland
planes trains and automobiles
Fairfield Inn PDX Airport. Sat 25 Mar 2017, 7:30am.

Our flight from San Jose to Portland last night left a mere 40 minutes late. We landed a few minutes past midnight. Still, with waits for the shuttle to pick up our rental car it wasn't until after 1am that we arrived at our hotel near the airport.

We got to our room and... despite having sleepy the whole flight up here couldn't get to sleep right away. We both frittered around until nearly 2am to wind down. We debated whether to set an "early" alarm for 7am or allow ourselves to sleep in a bit longer. A lot of times we take it easy while traveling; our goal is to enjoy the trip, not run ourselves ragged. But this trip we're so pressed for time already that we've got to push to get value for our time here. So up it is after too few hours' sleep. I hope to roll from the hotel by 8.

Weekend Getaway to Oregon. Late Flight.
planes trains and automobiles
Tonight we're leaving on a weekend getaway to Oregon. It's a little trip we laid in some basic plans for back in January. We'll crash in a hotel near PDX airport after arriving late tonight and head south from there first thing in the morning. Things on our to-do list include visiting the Cascade Raptor Center in Eugene and doing some hiking in the coast range mountains. Aside from flights and hotels nothing is committed on this trip; we'll play our exact schedule and activities by ear as we see how our time, our energy, the weather, etc. develop.

Our outbound flight tonight is a late one, scheduled to leave at 9:55pm, arriving 11:35pm. Aaaand it's delayed. It looks like we'll be 50 minutes late. That means we're probably not going to get settled into our hotel room until 1, which is going to put more of a crimp on getting going early tomorrow morning. Oh, well. Dealing with external changes like this is part of why we set very few plans in stone on this trip.

The Rewards of the IHG Rewards Card (2017)
Today I cancelled my IHG Rewards Visa card from Chase. I'd had the card for just over two years. I got some good value out of the card these past two years. But the value going forward is not so great, which is why I closed it.

The Value I Got

Chase IHG Rewards CardCuriously it's a year to the day since I last wrote about this card, in 2016. Back then I computed that I'd obtained just over $1,000 net value from it. That enormous figure came largely from the generous sign-up bonus. Even without that bonus in the second year I estimated I could still find another $250 of net value in the card— plenty to justify keeping it.

Let's check the score.

Over the past 12 months I earned 22,000 points from this card. I value IHG points at $0.0075 each, so that's $165 of value. I also got a one-night hotel voucher. We used it recently for a staycation in San Francisco. I figure that was worth $180. On the cost side of the ledger are the card's annual fee of $49 and the opportunity cost $16 from putting charges on this card versus a 2% cashback card. Net net, I got $280 of value from this card, nicely ahead of the $250 I estimated a year ago.

An interesting fact about those 22k points I earned from the card is that very few of them, only about 4k, came from purchases I charged. The lion's share came from redemption rebates and other bonuses related to using the card the right way. These are benefits that less sophisticated card holders miss.

Do it Again?

If I were to keep this card for another year I estimate I'd get the same value from it as this past year. I.e., I could make it worth anywhere from $250-300 after expenses. So why did I cancel it? It's all about the churn.

I closed this card now because in a few months I'll be eligible to open another one in the same program. I'll be eligible for another lucrative sign-up bonus. Currently the offer is 80k points— $600 by my valuation. We'll see what it's at a few months from now when I'm ready to apply again.

My Yelp Stalker
I seem to have a groupie on Yelp, the business reviews site I use and post to regularly. Sometimes, though, this groupie feels more like a stalker.

Yelp ApprovedI spotted the groupie several months ago when I noticed that many of my reviews had 1 vote each for Useful, Funny, and Cool. Those are the three categories users can up-vote a review.  Earning one vote in each category on a few scattered reviews would not have caught my attention. Indeed, some of my reviews have dozens of upvotes, and that's usually what I notice. But this 1-1-1 distribution stuck out when I spotted it on literally hundreds of reviews. It was obvious that someone was following my activity and methodically responding to it.

Yelp has rolled out improvements to its feature set in the past few months including an activity stream. With this I've spotted who my stalker likely is. The activity stream doesn't show who's up-voting my reviews but it does show who's liking my pictures. And it shows the times for each. It's a trivial assumption that the person liking my pictures is the same person upvoting my reviews seconds apart.

The stalker is someone I don't know. At least, it's someone I don't think I know personally. The name is unfamiliar, though it could be a pseudonym. The location is one I don't know anybody in, though given it's the 21st century I don't keep track of physical addresses much anymore.

Speaking of physical addresses, I doubt this stalker knows mine... unless he (I'm assuming "he" based on given name) is a personal acquaintance. Yelp identifies users by First Name Last Initial, which isn't enough to pinpoint who I am unless a person happens to also know a fair bit more about me.

Still, it's a bit creepy having a Yelp stalker. I've watched my activity stream to see how often he pops up in it. It looks like he's on Yelp at least once a day, up-voting almost any new review I post and "liking" my new pictures. I've posted 40 reviews in the past 2 months so there are actually a lot of datapoints there. It's odd thinking about what kind of life this stalker must have. I mean, I take pride in my Yelp reviews. I write them to be both funny and informative. I just wouldn't expect they're life-changing enough to attract a groupie. Or stalker.
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Legion on TV
This week Hawk and I have caught up on the first four episodes of the new TV series Legion. The show tells the story of David Haller, a young man who has been diagnosed with psychotic schizophrenia but may actually have supernatural powers that explain the voices he hears, the hallucinations he sees, and the weird things that happen around him. It's part of Marvel's X-Men setting, so odds are that "may actually have" turns into "does actually have". 😉

Legion logoI first heard about the show several weeks ago in a professional critique aired on the radio. The reviewer lauded the show for its subtle approach that leaves room for doubt on the is-he-or-isn't-he? question. The reviewer cautioned, however, that this makes the series very slow to start and thus may lose the interest of many viewers. "We don't even get an answer to the super power question until the 4th episode," he stated.

As a result I let the first four episodes pile up on our DVR before watching them in rapid succession. Binge watching is great anyway, but in this case the reviewer was dead wrong about it being necessary. I found the show engaging immediately, and it's held my interest all the way through. Plus, the question of whether super powers really exist is made obvious within the first episode. (I don't consider this a spoiler because, c'mon, it's part of Marvel's X-Men setting. You know someone in the story is going to have them.)

I like the show's approach to presenting what any sci fi fan knows are super powers, as psychosis. Because think about it, if mutant super powers were real and a tiny fraction of people had them, those people would be regarded by everyone else as dangerous nutjobs. Especially with the fairly typical trope of people who possess super powers not understanding what they are or how to use them at first.

On top of this, Legion heightens the element of psychodrama by employing the unreliable narrator storytelling device. Haller has been told for years that he is crazy. He believes he is crazy. His memories are jumbled, jumpy, and occasionally self-contradictory. So even when we viewers see something that looks obvious as a super power the fact that it's filtered through his unreliable perception leaves room for doubt in viewers' minds. What we see could be what really occurred— and would be in the common "omnicient narrator" storytelling device— or it could be a hallucination of a crazy person. Plus, it's entirely possible that Haller is both a mutant and crazy. Or that he's not a mutant but others are, and he's still crazy. It's rich and spooky stuff. Most sci fi stories dispense with the "How do I know I'm not just crazy?" aspect of the main character's backstory very quickly, but Legion really soaks in it for the first several episodes.

I also like the show's rich visuals. The director makes good use of color, light, and design. Viewers will notice that certain things have the same look and thus are connected. And those looks are not all stereotypical. For example, some frightful scenes are done in dark colors that telegraph the sense of foreboding, while others are done with bright colors that create a very different sense of despair. Plus, the show relies very little on CGI. This is important because elaborate CGI is expensive; TV shows rarely ever have the budget to do it well. Especially first-season shows. By limiting most of the special effects to cast, costumes, stuntmen, and deft camera work they deliver a show that visually looks more convincing that most.

Spring Sprang!
Golden Eagle
Just two weeks ago I lamented the months of mostly dreary weather we've had in California and wondered if Spring would arrive soon. Although the official start of the season is still a week away, after the past few days it sure feels like Spring has already sprung.

A big part of this is that the weather's been nice the past few days. We've had clear skies and daytime highs in the 70s. After so many weeks of 50s and rain it feels like we've turned the corner on winter. The nice weather makes everything more enjoyable, whether it's getting outdoors such as on our recent trek to Carrizo Plain, or just sitting inside enjoying view.

Another important part of is Daylight Saving Time. We changed our clocks on Sunday morning. With the time change the sun now rises just before the 7am alarm I set most weekdays. Thus there's no "wasted" daylight while I'm sleeping, and that extra hour means it's still light when I finish work for the day. Making this hour of light more useful makes the days seem longer, more fruitful, and more enjoyable.

I'm looking forward to sunny evenings getting longer for the next several months. And while the weather will generally warm up, too, there's no guarantee against it turning back at times. Indeed, the forecast calls for it to be cooler over the next 7-10 days, and rain is likely early next week. But it sure feels nice right now!

Walking & Driving at Soda Lake
hiking, in beauty i walk
Saturday, 11 Mar 2017, 6:30pm.

It's 6:30 now and we're back to civilization after a day in Carrizo Plain National Monument. For dinner we've picked out a promising looking sushi restaurant in... drumroll, please... Paso Robles. While I relax with a Kirin and prepare to kill some fish I'm jotting down notes about how we finished up the afternoon.

After our short hike to visit some eccentric rock outcroppings and discover ersatz cliff art we packed back into the car and drove down to the bottom of the valley to visit what is arguably the park's "main" attraction, Soda Lake. At the right times of the year, the lake is a hub of activity, with birds flying all around its shallow evaporator flats and wildflowers in bloom. As I noted in a previous blog, our visit today has not been almost, but not quite, the right time of year. The flowers should be beautiful next weekend, the rangers say.

Soda Lake @ Carrizo Plain National Monument, California. Mar 2017.

WIth all the rain we've had the valley is covered in green. That's been visible in all the pictures I've posted from this trip, including the shot across the shallow end of the lake basin, above. It interesting, though, that with this rain so much of the lake bed is already exposed. I presume that's because it's the ecology of this lake to dry out quickly and produce soda powders and salts. By the way, those are tumbleweeds on the exposed lake bed, not rocks!

We strolled along a boardwalk built along one of the lake's shores and then took a drive around the far side. While the lake already looks dry, the dirt road around it still has plenty of puddles from the recent rains. Here's a picture of our SUV just before we left the park:

Took some of the Carrizo Plain home with us. Mar 2017.

The front windshield is clear-ish only because I ran the wipers so many times. Immediately after crashing through a few of those puddles the thing was opaque!

My dinner should be here momentarily. And the restaurant's maitre d' has just noticed that one of my shoes looks as muddy as the truck's front bumper thanks to almost getting stuck in a mud puddle so I don't think we should linger.

Rock Scrambling at Carrizo Plain, part 2
hiking, in beauty i walk
Saturday, 11 Mar 2017, 3pm.

Scrambling across the ravine to reach the rocks on the far side (see previous blog) was exactly what I figured it to be: a little bit of crab walking/butt sliding on the way down that I'd be able to climb back up without any theatrics. Going down is always slipperier than climbing up. Either way, I was soon back on level ground with the rock outcroppings in front of me.

Rock Outcroppings @ Carrizo Plain National Monument. Mar 2017.
Strange rock outcroppings at Carrizo Plain National Monument, California

It's not alway easy to tell from a distance whether a particular rock has a route up its face or how difficult that route might be. As I neared these rocks I saw that some practically begged to be climbed. Though I'd argue that it's not "climbing" since I didn't use any equipment other than my hiking sandals or expert skill other than stabilizing with my hands. Technically speaking that's called "walking". 😉 Maybe "clambering" depending on how strict you want to be about use of hands.

As I climbed over the lower rocks I saw plenty of potholes scalloped into the surface. Most were full of water from recent rains. Algae, too.

Rock Outcroppings @ Carrizo Plain National Monument. Mar 2017.
Potholes in the rocks. Carrizo Plain National Monument, California.

I spent a while exploring atop the rocks while Hawk watched me from her perch across the ravine. I looped around to explore a part of the ravine a bit upstream from where I crossed. Here the rocks formed a narrows with a clay bottom still muddy from the previous week's rains, and I spied a bit of rock art.

Modern Cliff Art @ Carrizo Plain. Mar 2017.
Modern cliff art on the wall of the narrows.
Carrizo Plain National Monument, California.

Based on my cursory study of rock art created by different indigenous peoples in places around the world the message here is either "the snake is farting" or "the wheel of life offers wifi".

Hawk came down off her perch to join me in this anthropological find. She found a route down from the first side of the ravine to a point just above the narrows. After we enjoyed a good laugh together about the "rock art"— it was obviously drawn in fresh clay— we walked down the bottom of the ravine to the place where I had originally crossed.

Along the way I almost lost a hiking sandal to that thick clay. I put a foot atop some clay that looked like it might support me and splort! my foot sank in up to the ankle. The clay created suction that required quite a bit of force to overcome. If my sandal hadn't had a full tongue support it would have been yanked off my foot as I freed myself. The clay protested my escape with a loud sluuurp! Back at the car 5 minutes later I changed socks and shoes to let the muddy pair dry.

The trip continues: Soda Lake.

Rock Scrambling at Carrizo Plain
hiking, in beauty i walk
Saturday, 11 Mar 2017, 3pm.

As we drove downhill from visiting Caliente Ridge at Carrizo Plain National Monument we observed that there were more unusually shaped rock outcroppings than just the Painted Rock area that was temporarily off limits to protect nesting falcons.

Rock Outcroppings @ Carrizo Plain. Mar 2017.
A few rock outcroppings at Carrizo Plain National Monument, California.

Of the three outcroppings in the picture above the rightmost was the largest and seemed most interesting. We passed nearby it on the drive uphill and stopped to look but moved on after a moment, seeing that it was separated from the road by two barbed wire fences. Tracks through the grass showed that plenty of people before us had gotten over or through the fences, but we didn't want to trespass.

On the way downhill we drove a fork in the road around to the opposite side of the rocks. From that side there was no fence. The only obstacle was a natural one: a natural ravine halfway out to the rocks.

Rock Outcroppings @ Carrizo Plain. Mar 2017.
These rock outcroppings stand beyond a ravine. Carrizo Plain National Monument, California.

I felt oddly reluctant to start the trail, figuring the ravine might be too difficult to cross, but Hawk egged me on. We could always go to the edge and turn back, she pointed out. And with that she was gone. So I grabbed my camera bag and set off after her.

The ravine turned out to be both more and less than what I expected. It was about 20' deep in places, with rock walls on both sides. It was the same kind of sandstone as on the outcroppings we were looking at in the distance.

Rocks and Ravine @ Carrizo Plain National Monument. Mar 2017.
The rocky ravine was not just an obstacle but a sight itself. Carrizo Plain National Monument, California.

We enjoyed the views from the top of the ravine while at the same time I scouted for a way across. I spotted a reasonable route down that would involve no more than a 5' drop of butt-sliding followed by just hands-and-feet scrambling on the way up. Hawk wasn't feeling up for it so she opted to stay perched atop a rock while I crossed to the far side.

Continued in next entry.


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