2020 Election Season Starts - 3 Years 9 Months To Go
I voted, politics
The 2020 election season started officially on Saturday, an unprecedented 3 years 9 months ahead of the actual election. The event that made it official was Donald Trump's campaign rally.

Understand that politicians often accuse one another of "campaigning" when they give well publicized speeches to talk up a recent accomplishment, raise support for an issue they'd like to advance, or challenge what the other side is doing. For example, Republicans recently branded Senator Elizabeth Warren's (banned) testimony against fellow member Jeff Sessions' nomination for Attorney General as "campaigning".

But there is a crucial difference here. Trump's rally is not merely "campaigning", it is actually, officially, and legally campaigning. It was paid for by his reelection campaign. An unprecedented 1,353 days before the election. The man had only been in office for 29 days!

Morning Snow, Tire Trouble
cars, road trip!
Saturday, Feb 18, 2pm. Thousand Oaks, CA.

Getting in late last night was rough. I was up until nearly 2am, and Hawk was up until almost 4. I snoozed my alarm a few times before finally getting up around 9.

Contrary to the weather forecast we'd looked at which called for rain all day, light was peeking through the gap in the curtains. I looked outside and saw that the hills above us had gotten a dusting of snow overnight:

Morning snow in Lebec, Calif. Feb 2017.

Our hotel still didn't have water so we skipped showering. I didn't seem like a tough tradeoff anyway since we were planning to go hiking today. We'd want to wash up afterwards in the evening anyway.

We made plans to drive about 30 minutes south, as far as Valencia (the very northern suburbs of Los Angeles), for lunch. As I loaded our bags into the car I spotted trouble, though. One of our tires was bald, one was low on tread, and one was wearing unevenly. I judged that the bald tire had to be replaced, asap. Hawk started calling ahead to stores anywhere close to our route to see who had a replacement.

It turns out the type of tire we have is not rare but is also often not in stock. Several stores said they were out but could get it by Tuesday. Well, we needed it yesterday. After several calls we located a store in Thousand Oaks that had one of our tires.

And that's where we are now: at a tire shop in Thousand Oaks. Between this and our late start in the morning today might be a loss for hiking.

Late Night to Lebec
cars, road trip!
Saturday, Feb 18, 1:30am. Lebec, CA.

After spending just 21 hours at home between trips I left town again, this time on a road trip with Hawk. We're driving to Los Angeles for the weekend. Originally we planned to spend a few days hiking in the sunny Southern California weather, but since the forecast currently shows lots of rain that plan may change.

The rain already changed our plans a bit Friday evening. An accident/washout on the remote Highway 152 near the San Luis Reservoir had traffic backed up for miles. The delays cost us at least 45 minutes. 
We were headed only as far as Lebec, not all the way to Los Angeles, but still this delay pushed our arrival back until after midnight.

While we were creeping along in the backup the hotel we're staying at tonight in Lebec called. The town had experienced a water main break, and all local businesses were without water. There was no estimate for when the damage would be repaired. They said we could still stay there if we wanted but suggested we might consider alternatives.

There really weren't many alternatives. Lebec is a tiny town atop the Tejon Pass, commonly known in California as the Grapevine. We've been here before, most recently 18 months ago. It's a truck stop town. It may seem like an odd place to pick for a trip. That's because it's not a destination in itself but merely a convenient waypoint. A place for our "Friday Night Halfway" adventures. And because it's a small, remote town the alternatives are at least a half hour away in either direction.

We decided to stick with our reservation at the Holiday Inn Express in Lebec. We stopped by the Wal-Mart in Los Banos to grab some bottled water, figuring we could use it to wash our hands and faces as well as refill the toilet tank after flushing. Gallon jugs were $0.88. I bought four.

With the traffic delays and Wal-Mart side trip it was 12:45am Saturday when we checked in. Curiously the hotel had a no vacancy sign at the door. I guess a lot of people made the same calculation we did.

So here it is after 1am now. I'm both tired and still wired from the drive, screwing around on my computer when I really should be trying to fall asleep. And Hawk is on her work laptop wrangling with spreadsheets. In the wee hours of the morning, in a hotel with no running water. That's devotion.

21 Hours at Home
planes trains and automobiles
Friday, Feb 17, 8pm. Having dinner in Gilroy.

After spending 24 hours in Denver I arrived home only to turn around leave again less than 24 hours later. It was 21 hours to be precise. I walked through my front door at 9:45pm after the ride in from the airport and left at about 6:45pm Friday. In between I had a full workday starting at 8am.

Tonight's trip is leisure. Hawk and I are driving to the Los Angeles area for the holiday weekend. We conceived this trip a few weeks ago as a break from the rain in sunny Southern California. But now this weekend's forecast promises a lot of rain even down south. WTF? SoCal gets, like, three days a year of rain. And two of them apparently are scheduled for this weekend!

24 Hours in Denver
planes trains and automobiles
Thursday, Feb 16, 8pm. 30,000 feet over Colorado.

I was in Denver for just about 24 hours from Wednesday evening through Thursday evening this week. I tacked on this visit as a side trip to working with a customer in Austin earlier in the week. Out in Denver I have two customers I've been working with for a while already. So far all of our work has been via webex and phone; I figured better late than never to deepen our relationships with a face-to-face visit.

Wednesday night I drove to the town of Thornton, a suburb north of Denver, and checked in to a rundown Hampton Inn near the interstate. I had considered staying downtown and seeking out some nightlife but I decided in favor of a) cheaper lodging and b) staying less than a mile from my first appointment Thursday so I wouldn't have to spend much time driving. I ate dinner at a fast food restaurant and holed up in my hotel room for the rest of the evening.

Thursday morning I woke up disgustingly early. I was hoping to sleep all the way 'til 7:00 as I'd gotten to bed later than I wanted each of the last several nights, but no; my body wanted me up at 5:30. Grr. I compensated for it a bit by mixing a bit of personal web surfing plus a few hours of remote work done from my room before heading out for my first appointment.

Thursday midday I met Customer #1, a telecom hardware maker with offices nearby. The team manager gave me a tour, and then he, two engineers, and I went out for lunch together. It was a very cordial meeting. The bunch of us have been working together for a few months now, and the project is almost done. We've all developed a lot of respect for each other. Meeting face to face like this could have been even better if we'd done it at the start of the project rather than near the end, but like I said above, better late than never.

Thursday afternoon I visited a second customer, this one at Denver Tech Center. If you look at a map you'll see that it's on the diametrically opposite side of town from my morning meeting. Fortunately traffic wasn't bad at midday so it was only a 35 minute drive. Customer #2 I've been working with for a while, too, though not quite as long as Customer #1. My counterpart there asked me to help troubleshoot a data conversion step that consistently errored out. Doing hands-on technical work during this visit wasn't exactly what I intended, but I knew it was a possibility he'd ask. I rolled up my sleeves and sat down next to him at his computer. The problem turned out to be tougher than I anticipated. We spent over 2 hours on it together without reaching a solution. Meanwhile I tried not to yawn near the end as I was flagging from having been up since 5:30am. We agreed on next steps to continue working the problem, and I left for the airport.

Thursday evening was planes, trains automobiles at DEN airport. I returned my rental car, that surprising upgrade to a Cadillac XTS. It was a nice car but really too complicated with so many gee-whiz features hidden behind a multifunction buttons that can't be figured out at night without a book and a flashlight. But still, it was a nice car, and I was in good spirits until I entered the airport terminal... where I saw the security line snaking back and forth through 10 rows, filling nearly the whole of the lower level. I timed it at 40 minutes to clear. Compare that to three minutes at SJC on Monday thanks to their looser screening program. Even with my rookie mistake with a water bottle at AUS on Wednesday it took less than 15 minutes. DEN was a mess. A mess. A mess! I seem to have heard that repeated on the radio earlier in the day....

Standing in the security line for 40 minutes was not fun, but at least it did not hurt my schedule. That's because, again, I planned my schedule to allow for problems exactly like this to occur. I still had enough time to wolf down some fast food dinner after security and make it to my gate just in time for boarding. Speaking of boarding, I'd forgotten again with this Southwest Airlines flight to check in promptly at the T-24 mark. This time my boarding number was even worse than last night's: B60. But still I managed to score one-half of the "love seat" in the exit row. Cha-ching!

Rental Car Roulette
planes trains and automobiles
Wednesday, Feb 15, 7pm. Thornton, Colorado.

I arrived in Denver Wednesday evening no worse for the wear. My amateur-hour mistake about checking in late did relegate me to a middle seat from Austin to Denver, but fortunately I snagged an exit row middle seat. So while I was pinched on both sides I at least had plenty of room for my legs. Not so bad overall.

I had a bit of trepidation about my rental car in Denver. Prices were high for this trip. That warned me that supply was going to be tight and the rental stations were likely to be crowded. Reviews sites like Yelp had poor ratings for pretty much all the rental companies. Complaints about long lines, uncaring employees, and deceptive pricing practices were rife.

Like the middle seat situation, though, the rental car situation turned out not so bad overall. The rental agency had my frequent customer number and dropped me off right at my car. (Given the poor reviews overall I'd made a point of renting from a company with whom I have a relationship rather than taking my chances with whomever advertised the absolute lowest price.) And to my surprised they'd upgraded my mid-size car reservation to a Cadillac:

Car rental - got a Cadillac this time. Feb 2017.

Sometimes when you spin the wheel of Rental Car Roulette your number comes up. It did here.

Of course, for each time your number comes up there are several times it doesn't. The mid-sized car I reseved in Austin turned out to be a base model Hyundai with 36,000 miles, underinflated tires, and several body panel scrapes.

Amateur Hour at Austin Airport
planes trains and automobiles
Wednesday, Feb 15, 4:30pm. AUS Airport.

The security lines at Austin (AUS) airport were blessedly short when I arrived Wednesday afternoon. My customer meeting had stretched longer than scheduled— just as long as the margin of safety I planned in for being able to drive to the airport without sweating it— and then there was really tough traffic near the airport. Driving the last 2 miles took 15 minutes. So I was relieved to see only 8 people in front of me at the security checkpoint.

I could have been through the gauntlet in 3 minutes flat... until the TSA pulled aside one of my bags for extra screening. And the wait for that was long. There were three people ahead of me for additional inspection, and no staff member present right away to do it.

As I waited for the TSA staffer to saunter over I wondered what in my bag might have triggered the need for hand inspection. Was it the umbrella I'd tucked in my bag? I've been pulled out of line for an umbrella before. They thought it might be a gun. There's a cool product idea: an umbrella with a pistol grip.

I rolled my eyes as I watched the inspector open the bags of the three people in front of me. All of them impermissibly large bottles of liquid in their bags: drinks, full size shampoo bottles, big bottles of perfume. Is this their first flight in 15 years? I mused. Have they not even watched TV or read an article or blog about air travel?

Then it was my turn for a bag inspection. The moment the man put my bag on the table I spotted the cause: I'd left a water bottle tucked in my bag's outside pocket. I felt such chagrin. I'd been rolling my eyes (discreetly) at the "amateur hour" travelers in front of me when it turned out I'd made a similar mistake.

Well, it wasn't the only amatuer-hour thing about this trip. The day before I'd forgotten to check in for my Southwest flight right at the T-24 hours mark. I checked in 45 minutes later and got boarding number B48. With that I'm likely to be stuck in a middle seat.

48 Hours in Austin: 5 Things
planes trains and automobiles
Wednesday, Feb 15, 4pm. Austin, TX.

I wrapped up my trip to Austin this afternoon, after roughly 48 hours in town. Here are 5 (more) things about the trip:

1) My purpose for visiting Austin was to run a planning workshop onsite with a customer. The meetings were a success. We got a lot of information we needed, cleared up a few issues that they were flip-flopping on (see next item), and further raised the customer's confidence level in us.

2) Usually my department does this planning work remotely, passing emails back and forth and running Webex meetings. I'm glad I pushed to do this one in person. It would have failed remotely. In fact, we basically tried to do it remotely the past two weeks, and those meetings were frustrating and not very productive. With this customer it was critical to have the stakeholders in one room, in one conversation.

3) No, I didn't have any time for sightseeing in Austin this trip. I rarely do. Dinner Monday night was meeting up with an old friend. Dinner Tuesday night was with a business partner. It was just the two of us. At an upscale restaurant full of couples celebrating Valentine's Day. Fortunately nobody asked us if we were "together".

4) Weather in Austin these few days has varied widely. Monday afternoon it was 80. When I went out for lunch on Tuesday it was 50 and blustery. Today was a bit warmer, around 60.

5) Speaking of weather, the next place I'm going— Denver— has had varied weather, too. It snowed there earlier this week but by tomorrow it'll be 72. I think that's typical for late winter/early spring in Denver, though. It can be shorts weather one day and snowing two days later, or vice versa.

Leave Austin, Turn Right?
Monday, Feb 13, 10pm. Austin, TX.

Years ago a two of my friends were arguing about whether it was reasonable for an educated, progressive, cosmopolitan person to move from California to Texas. "Austin is like a slice of San Francisco in Texas," the Lone Star booster boasted.

"Yeah, but it's surrounded by 500 miles of Bakersfield in every direction," the other shot back.

I think back to that exchange every time I visit Texas. Yes, Austin is a more progressive place than just about anywhere else in Texas. But even Austin can be a bit of a culture shock for a left-coaster.

I was reminded of that this afternoon as I drove to my hotel from the airport. I rented a car because after going carless in suburbia last time I vowed not to do it again. Especially because this time the hotel is not a short walk from the client's site. It's over a mile away. Across an interstate highway. But renting a car is not what reminded me of the culture shock. It's what I found when I turned on the radio and started hunting for a reasonable station. More than half the broadcasts were Christian preaching or conservative conspiracy talk radio. And that was on FM, not AM! I wouldn't have been surprised to find that well outside of Austin, but right within city limits it seemed out of place.

I mentioned it to my friend Pat this evening. I met him again for dinner. This time we didn't try to outdo each other with downer stories about how 2016 sucked. Instead we talked about Trump administration politics. Yes, that was actually better. That just shows how bad parts of 2016 were. Anyway, Pat's comment about the airwaves was, "Austin itself is fairly liberal, but go outside of it, just outside the city limits, by any amount, and it turns conservative. Very conservative."

"So if someone asks for directions to anywhere else in Texas it's, 'Leave Austin, Turn Right?'" I asked.


What Happened at Oroville Dam?
Wile E. Coyote
First, a bit of good news. After public safety officials ordered 188,000 people to evacuate communities downstream from Lake Oroville Dam on Sunday evening (see my blog from yesterday) they announced just a few hours ago that it is safe for residents to return. Example news coverage: Sacramento Bee article, Feb 14.

Perhaps because I wanted to be a civil engineer from about age 5, designing massive structures like bridges, dams, and skyscrapers, I'm always interested in situations like this. And my interest is an engineer-analyst's perspective: What went wrong, and what can we learn from it?

Two resources I've found useful to understand the situation are Vox.com's "The crisis at Oroville Dam, explained" and Wikipedia's page for the Oroville Dam.

The first thing to understand about this near-catastrophe is that the main dam itself was not in jeopardy. It was not going to "break". The problems involved the spillway and the emergency spillway.

The first problem that cropped up was a week ago, when the main spillway, which is used to release from the resevoir to keep the level safely below the top and to feed downstream rivers, developed a hole in its bed. This picture linked from the Vox article above shows what it looks like:

Water managers wanted to keep the flow through this channel low to prevent further erosion of the bed. The problem with that was heavy rains have been filling the resevoir quickly, and water needed to be released.

That's where the emergency spillway came in. It's designed to handle overflows in a semi controlled manner. The thing is, it was designed for that— over 50 years ago— but never needed to be used until this week. And when it was used this week, the water flowing over the concrete lip rushed down the rock hill below it so hard that it started eroding the rock and dirt of the hillside. Engineers worried this would undermine the foundation of the concrete lip. If the lip were to crumble a 30 foot tall wave of water would come coursing down the side of the canyon. That is why government officials declared a huge evacuation order moving 188,000 people out of harm's way.

Engineers shifted their strategy back to the main spillway (the one in the picture above). It's damaged, but it still works. Running more water through it damages it further. But the form of damage it's suffering does not pose the catastrophic failure risk exhibited by the emergency spillway. So they sent water coursing down this channel again, causing quite a plume to shoot up into the air as nearly a million gallons of water per second flowed through.

Maxing out the spillway capacity, even at the cost of damaging it further in the process, has brought the lake's level down by 15 feet. Engineers hope to bring it down another 25 to 35 feet by the weekend, lowering it below "flood stage". Of course, weather is a variable, so we'll see how well these plans hold!


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