Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Visible Comet

Lately I've been catching news of a comet that's apparently gone boom! and has increased dramatically in brightness. The news articles call it an "outburst", but it must be quite an "outburst" to have it's brightness increased a million-fold. An article from where I work posted yesterday reads the following:

Catch a Comet - No Telescope Required

Usually comets are challenging little no-see-um fuzzballs. To see one often requires a dark sky, a good chart or a telescope that can "go-to" the object automatically. This week there is a newly visible comet in the sky and it can be seen with the unaided eye! Last week, Periodic comet Holmes (17P/Holmes), a very faint comet far from the sun experienced an outburst and brightened a million times in just a few hours. The comet puffed up (it's still expanding), changed color and wowed viewers around the world.

The Astronomy Photo of the Day for October 30 shows the comet's current apparent size in the sky - compared to Jupiter, which you can also see in the west after sunset.

To see the comet, all you have to do is step outside and look to the Northeast. You should be able to see the "W" that is the constellation Cassiopeia - it's standing on its end. One and a half "fists" away to the right is a bright star in the constellation Perseus. You probably won't be able to see all the Perseus stars, but the bright one - Mirfak - should be visible. It marks the top of a triangle, which is about the size of your thumb held at arms length away. The triangle's lower left corner is the comet! Use our sky chart to help you find the comet.

The comet will stay with us for a while, so weather permitting, you'll get a look this week or next.

I've included several relevant images here. Truly a wonder!

A comparison of the apparent size of the "outburst" (click for animated image).

How to find it in the night sky.

A picture of the bloom taken by amateur photographer Gary Spiers.

A picture of the core taken by astrophotographer Alan Friedman of Buffalo, New York.

Fright Fest

My wife and I got a babysitter last night and went over to the local roller coaster park (Six Flags Magic Mountain) for what they call "Fright Fest". Basically, they decorate large portions of the park, have people dressed up in "scary" costumes (with pretty good makeup, by the way) walk around the park, and put together several "mazes" and "haunted houses" for the visitors.

We arrived at the park at about 5:30 after a quick bite to eat, and immediately headed for the "Goliath" -- the biggest rollercoaster in the park that goes up to 85 miles an hour (but it has no inversions ...); it's one of my favorites. Each of the major roller coasters at Magic Mountain have cameras set up at some point on the ride to capture your face at that particular moment. The park hopes to sucker you into buying the pictures, which, of course, are sold at exorbitant prices. Usually the cameras are placed at the bottom of a particularly big hill or coming out of a loop. In "Goliath's" case, it's after the second major drop.

Well, dinner wasn't sitting too well with my wife, so she didn't exactly enjoy this particular ride (though normally she would have). Coming (hobbling?) off the ride, my wife and I went to look at the picture of us, and it was really funny. There I was with my mouth open, shouting, with a smile on my face; and there was my poor wife, face scrunched in a pained expression that looked like she had just tasted something horrible. Turns out she had almost thrown up on the ride! Despite her discomfort, the picture was still very funny -- she wouldn't let me take a picture of it, though, with her camera phone ...

In any case, we moved to the next ride pretty slowly, watching the tail end of a "eat something really gross" contest that had been set up for Fright Fest. Some guy ate a super-hot chili with a worm wrapped around it and won a bunch of "Flash Passes" for use around the park.

Our next stop of the evening was to the ride called "Scream." This is one of my wife's favorite rides, and by this point she was doing a little better and enjoyed it a little more. For Fright Fest they had turned the lights off most of the coasters, so it was a different experience altogether. Quite fun!

We then went over to the "Gotham City" part of the park where they had a "haunted house" set up, called "Brutal Planet". Both my wife and I had grown up in Utah where they have some pretty spectacular haunted houses, and we were definitely expecting something more out of this. As it turned out, the haunted house consisted of people dressed up in spooky outfits who would jump out and scream at you when you came around a corner. With so many people moving through, you usually had some advanced warning when somebody was going to jump out. It wasn't terribly frightening, since they weren't really allowed to touch you. In our case, however, we were walking in front of some skittish girls, who screamed at everything, so it was entertaining just watching them! Also, I found out afterwards, that people would often walk behind my wife and breath on her neck. She didn't really like that, and put her hair down for the next one ...

Anyway, after leaving there, we went over to a different "maze" (which wasn't), called "Deadman's Bog." They basically turned the line for one of the rides into a pathway that they filled with smoke and covered with camouflage. Along the way, they would have people jump out at you from the mists and they'd have people just standing in line looking spooky and trying to stare you down. The highlight was when there was some guy (dressed up, of course) behind some of the camouflage who would push himself forward so you could see him, who kept repeating over and over again the words, "My bog!" His tone of voice and the environment were really quite funny.

Leaving there, we then went over to "Riddler's Revenge", one of my wife's favorite roller coasters. There was practically nobody in line, so we got right on ... the front row! By this time, my wife was feeling much better. She had never been on the front row before, and it was totally awesome. The ride was smooth, the wind was crisp, and, with the lights off, the views around the park were spectacular. To make it even better, we were able to ride it four times in a row! The third time we had to move to the second row, which reminded me why that ride wasn't my favorite (it's kind of bumpy and throws you around a lot -- issues not felt on the front row ... hmmm). In any case, with nobody in line, the front row was definitely the place to be, and we later agreed it was the best time of the entire evening. Good stuff!

We then headed up the hill in the center of the park towards the "Superman" ride. It had a much longer line (as compared to no line ...), so we only rode it once. By this time it was getting kind of late, so we went over and went through an even more disappointing "haunted house" called "Willoughby's Haunted Mansion".

After, we went over and rode on "Tatsu". This is the newest ride in the park, and is tied with Goliath as my favorite. With the lines so short, we decided to wait to sit on the front row. In my opinion, it was definitely worth the wait. Most of the time when we're at the park, it's during the day, and so it is that riding the coasters at night is a totally different experience. In this case, being on the front row and with the ride the way it is, we had a very expansive view of everything around us, and it was amazing.

By this time, we were pretty tired and so we headed home. We had never been to Fright Fest before, and it was fun. However, if we didn't already have season passes to the park, it probably wouldn't have been worth buying tickets just to go there for that reason.

In any case, we had a great evening!

How Our Local Fire Got Started

The fire near our home was called the "Buckweed" fire, and when I logged in this morning, I caught a news article about how it started, as follows:

Boy confesses to starting California fire

A boy playing with matches has confessed to starting a wildfire that destroyed 63 structures near Los Angeles, officials said on Tuesday.

The unidentified youngster, believed to be a preteen, was questioned by Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department investigators on October 22, a day after the Buckweed fire started rampaging across 38,000 acres in the Santa Clarita area, 30 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.

The boy "admitted that he had been playing with matches," said sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore.

It was initially believed that downed power lines had started the fire.

The boy was sent home after confessing, and the District Attorney's office will consider whether to press charges.

The Buckweed fire was one of about two-dozen conflagrations that ravaged southern California last week, destroying 2,300 buildings, according to the California Office of Emergency Services. The fires have been responsible for 12 deaths and 78 injuries.

Arson is being blamed for a blaze that has destroyed 15 homes in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, and a reward of $250,000 has been offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever started the fire.

Copyright © 2007 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

So, there's a lesson in here: never play with matches on a day with winds gusting to 70 miles per hour. Or something like that.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

My Wife's Thirtieth Birthday

Yesterday (Saturday), my wife turned 30! When I met her she was just turning 20, which means that I have known her for over one-third of her entire life. The wonderful part is that the portion of our lives we will share together is only going to grow.

For her birthday, we went out to an "improv" show -- an improvisational comedy show where the actors make up everything that happens as they go along. This particular show consists of actors who are predominantly LDS. They keep the show clean of obscenity and innuendo to make it family-friendly. We'd been there before, and my wife decided she'd like to go again as part of her birthday celebration. I was pleased to comply as it was quite funny the first time. Now, I'd have to say that it wasn't quite as funny the second time around, but we enjoyed it nonetheless.

I had invited some friends from our church to attend with us, and only three people took us up on the offer (tickets were $12 per person, so it was a pricey date), but it was very good to share the experience. Afterwards they came back to our house for ice cream and stayed up talking until about 10:45 pm. It was a great evening.

Come her actual birthday, the stars magically aligned and we had absolutely no commitments for the day. So, what did we end up doing? Absolutely nothing dramatic. Really. We mostly stayed home with the kids, played games with them (Jungle Uno, Rummikub, and Mexican Train Dominoes), and had the kids help make the meals (actually I did pretty much all the cooking, but they felt involved), allowing my wife to not cook or clean for an entire day (not entirely, but as best we could). My wife really wanted some alone time just to relax (what we call "decompressing"), so I sent her off to go shopping while I took the kids to the grocery store (which actually went fairly well, all things considered). All in all, it was a very good day (and I appear to really like parenthetical comments).

For her birthday, we gave her a bag of her favorite M&Ms, the peanut butter variety. It's a tradition for her birthday that we all get to enjoy, since she graciously shares with us. She was pretty funny because she commented on how I always get her these M&Ms for her birthday, and I just replied that it's analogous to how she always gets me a Dilbert calendar for my work desk every Christmas; it's predictable, yes, but something I always want.

My wife is really funny, though. In the weeks or months prior to a gift-giving holiday, she will often pull me over to the computer and tell me to look at what's on the screen. Then she'll tell me to buy that for her for the gift-giving holiday, and I have to do it right then or else the sales price won't be good and we will have missed it. I usually scramble to a different room, grab my laptop and buy it right then and there on her request. It's only because I do it from a different room and she's not involved in the actual transaction that makes me feel even remotely comfortable getting gifts for her in this way. Needless to say, her birthday gifts don't usually end up being a great mystery to her. Clearly, this ruins the whole birthday-surprise thing, but it's how things get done around here.

Nevertheless, I try to pay attention to things she says off-handedly to see if she says anything that would give me clues to something that she'd like that she wouldn't normally go off and buy on her own (or point me to). This time I think I nailed it -- she was surprised and pleased, and for once I got her something that she didn't have to return or go exchange. You see, our oldest son takes tennis lessons, and some time ago she had lamented how she missed playing. So, I went and bought her a tennis racquet for her birthday. My oldest son was so happy to "give" it to her, and she really was pleased and looks forward to having the chance to play. The racquet is even one that's quite feminine: a pink racquet with the pretty swirls that she adores so much!

First thing out of her mouth, though, was whether or not it was the right size for her. My jaw dropped. I hadn't even considered that there could be different racquet sizes. The possibility that she might need to return or exchange this gift completely took the wind out of my sails. When we later read that the racquet is good for most adult women, the printed word was pleasing music to my ears.

That evening, once we finally got the kids to bed, we just spent some good quality time together. I find it interesting that I've been with this woman for ten years now, and the conversation still isn't even close to getting dull. It seems as time goes on, this good wife of mine continues to surprise me, inspire me, and support and encourage me. With each passing day, let alone year, she becomes more and more my best friend.

A different friend of mine nearly died in a car accident on Friday (he's fine!), but the event prompted a conversation about who we really want to spend eternity with. The answer for me is very simple: it's the woman who holds my hand as we walk down the street together. She just turned 30 yesterday.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Long Drive

Yesterday morning (Friday) was my monthly shift to work in the temple. I had previously got up at 5 am and made it to the temple by 7:30, over half an hour earlier than I really needed to be there. So yesterday, in my early morning stupor of thought, I decided I could sleep in a little bit past 5 am and still have plenty of time to make it. You see, I had forgotten that the I-5 freeway south through the Newhall Pass has the truck lane closed due to a horrendous accident from a few weeks ago, which congests and slows the main freeway lanes significantly. In a further lapse of judgement, I decided to avoid a portion of this, and stay on the city streets to avoid the traffic, which slowed me down further. At the point when I normally would get on the freeway, the traffic looked so bad I figured I'd try staying on the city streets even longer.

All of these were huge mistakes -- it took me 1 1/2 hours from the time I left my house until the time I actually got on the freeway -- a trip that normally takes 25 minutes. This conveniently put me going south on I-405 at the height of rush hour traffic, which, interestingly, is this fine nation's worst/slowest freeway for commuting. By the time I actually got to the temple, 2 1/2 hours had elapsed -- a trip that I have made in the best of traffic in under 45 minutes. It was awful.

So on my way, in the very slow, bumper-to-bumper traffic, I decided to start recording the personalized license plates that I encountered on the way. Some describe people's likes, others their self-conceit. For some, it's a business opportunity and yet for others, it's just a matter of expression. I think for some, they just want to confuse the reader. So, for your very own amusement, they are (with my translation, where possible and when it's not obvious):

Those apparently related to careers:
-- C*LLME2 = "Call me, too" or "Call me #2" -- A real estate agent?
-- AG FENC7 = "Agricultural Fence #7" -- it was a truck loaded with chainlink fences on it's flatbed.
-- KIDIDOC = "Kiddie Doctor" -- must be a pediatrician.
-- ALS CPTS = "ALS Carpets" -- truck from a carpet dealer.
-- H2O PSI = "Water Pressure" (PSI = Pounds Per Square Inch) -- I'm an engineer, so I actually got this one.

Here's some lifestyle ones:
-- CLB8 LFE = "Celibate Life" -- a Catholic Priest?
-- N2 LAKRS = "In to Lakers"
-- LOVNG LA = "Loving Los Angeles"
-- 4SHIZAL = "For Shizal" -- uh huh.

Some that were self-identifying:
-- MST4LOU = "Mustang For Lou" -- it was a Mustang.
-- HY-O-MINI = "Hy-o Mini" -- it was a Mini Cooper.
-- R QWIKI = "Our quickie" -- I'm assuming it was the owner's fastest car.
-- KR BMR = "Car Beamer" -- it was a BMW, but that's all they can come up with?
-- 4SOFIYA = "For Sophia"
-- PUGLVX2 = "Pug Love Times Two" -- New VW Bug, but they must really love their pug.

Some that are probably inside jokes:
-- 2TFLU T = "Tootie Flutie"
-- NO CHALK = So ... they don't like chalk?
-- ACORN 26 = No clue on the significance here.
-- BLUEMTL = "Blue Metal" -- the car was black.

A few that made me scratch my head:
-- DRAKUL = I was clueless here.
-- XTATANX = Uh ... didn't know this one, either. It was a VW GT.
-- XXFTWXX = Ditto here. It was a Mitsubishi Montero Sport.
-- A 888 W = No clue.
-- IDRESU = No clue.

A few of my favorites, clearly for the thermally-challenged mothers:
-- HOT MOMI = "Hot Mommy"
-- REDHOTMM = "Red Hot Mom"

And my all time favorite:
-- DUKNSNG = "Duck in Song" or "Ducking Song" -- Either they like ducks that sing, or they regularly have things thrown at them and sing about it.

Friday, October 26, 2007

My Daughter's Essay

I lrd at grl sgaoowts to beprprperd.

This year ther wus a fire and i kept woshenu the noos and I kept dooing it ses the fire stoortid. And on the noos it sed that the fire wus moor then 200 degrees.

And on then noos it sed that moor then 9 hames had bi destroyed.

My wife helped her with "year", "degrees", and "destroyed", but aside from that, it's all her. At her age -- first grade -- they're transitioning from the "I don't care how you spell anything as long as you're writing" mentality to the "Let's work on sentences and paragraphs" mentality. Spelling still isn't that big of a deal as that will come with time. It was just good to see her do this on her own!

The translation:

I learned at Girl Scouts to be prepared.

This year there was a fire and I kept watching the news and I kept doing it since the fire started. And on the news it said that the fire was more than 200 degrees.

And on the news it said that more than 9 homes had been destroyed.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

What I Could Have Been

Have any of you wondered what you could have been had you decided to make some different choices in your life? I'm not talking about mistakes that you've made, but rather about fundamental choices about how you wanted to live your life, particular with regards to your career or your family. I'm a big fan of alternate history, time travel, and anything similar that comes from science fiction -- Star Trek episodes where they time travel have always been my favorite.

I also am a big believer in the adage that "by small and simple things are great things brought to pass." Essentially, little choices can have huge ramifications down the line. In thermodynamics, a slight tweak in the initial conditions of a thermal analysis can dramatically alter the end result. In a steel beam, a very small flaw can significantly decrease its overall strength and stiffness, eventually causing a catastrophic failure. In orbital mechanics, a very small maneuver performed in space can cause an astonishing change in the trajectory and final destination of a spacecraft.

So it is that very small or simple choices can cause very big changes in our lives down the line. For me, there have been several key points in my life where my choices have led me where I am. I'll try to enumerate a few of them here:

Experience 1:

When I was in high school, I desperately wanted to be a pilot. My test scores were really good, so I actually had the chance to go to the Naval Academy for a "Summer Science and Engineering Seminar" the summer between my junior and senior years. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to get to know the environment, be exposed to military life, and to strut my stuff. I had the skills, the build, and the brainpower (I think) to do it. What I also had was a desire to serve as a missionary for my church and to have a family. At the time, these two didn't really go well together.

My experience at the Academy showed me just how morally loose most people are when given a little bit of latitude, and I concluded that the Academy was not the place for me to prepare to serve a mission. In addition, at the time, they weren't allowing LDS cadets to leave for two years to serve a mission mid-program, which wasn't something I could accept. I also learned that they only took the top of the class into pilot training, and I wasn't willing to risk not making the cut (I was/am a little cocky, but I also had/have a grasp of statistics ...). Needless to say, I passed on the Academy, thereby passing on my opportunity to be a pilot, and passing on a life in the military.

Experience 2:

The summer after my junior year in college, I had the opportunity to go to work by San Francisco at Lockheed Martin in Sunnyvale, CA. I knew nobody who lived there, and literally packed my stuff in the car and took off to live with complete strangers. When I got there, I quickly discovered that my roommates were not exactly golden boys: one would lock himself in his room and smoke weed on a regular basis (and yes, he was a church member! Barely ...), and the other was just plain weird -- girl-obsessed but socially awkward in every way. In any case, we didn't get along, so we spent very little time together. I found myself effectively on my own, completely alone. Nobody had any preconceived notions about the kind of person I was, and nobody could or would pass judgment on my decisions.

I had a choice to make: what kind of person would I be when faced with a fresh start? Would I go crazy and do all the morally questionable things that I had been taught my whole life? (And had taught to others as a missionary.) I was most certainly girl crazy, with lots of girls around who did not share my church's standards. However, I also had something else inside of me that encouraged me to make good choices. I continued to study my scriptures, say my prayers, and attend my church meetings. I would be a very different person today had I made different choices that summer.

I always remember something somebody told me: "The measure of a man is what he does when nobody is watching." I have no idea where that came from, but it seems appropriate, and I've always remembered it. Am I a perfect person? Absolutely not, but I try hard.

Experience 3:

I was in college and was starting to get pretty serious about a girl I was sort-of dating. She was a good friend of mine with whom I had had many classes. Over the course of the years, our friendship grew into something a little more, and we soon began to spend a lot of time together. In my head, I was convincing myself that I wanted to marry her, even though I wasn't really quite in love. She was a very good choice, a very good woman, and probably we would have had a perfectly content life together. Nevertheless, she knew better than I and made other plans that didn't include me -- I was devastated.

In my emotionally destroyed state, I went through the usual stages -- denial, anger, recklessness, sorrow, and finally got to being jaded. Coming back from California (see Experience 2, above), I decided to move to a totally different place at the university and to date as many people as I could. I simply didn't care about establishing a relationship with anybody, but just intended to date and date and date.

Well, that didn't last long. After I had thrown in the towel on getting into a meaningful relationship, I met my wife. She was perfect for me in every conceivable way. I just couldn't see it for a while -- a whopping seven weeks. At the end of those seven weeks, I made the most important choice of my life: I was going to marry this girl. The problem was that I was too afraid of being rejected again. Interestingly enough, my wife had known that she wanted to marry me after knowing me only a week, and felt a spiritual confirmation that it was right. She was patient, held her cards close to her chest (hence my doubt) so as not to scare me away (which was wise), and just let me express my flippant attitude towards our relationship.

The day I proposed, I picked her up for a date and while I stared straight ahead at the road in front of us (we were still parked), I said, "I think we should start making some long-term plans."

I still think this was a brilliant statement. It was sufficiently ambiguous that if she really wasn't into me she could have interpreted "long-term" to be anything she wanted, even just "several weeks" if that suited her fancy. I had my out that would allow me to extract myself from the relationship if things weren't going as I hoped they were. Much to my astonishment, she replied, "Well, it's about time." Within minutes, we had both expressed our love for each other, and were planning our wedding date. It was seven weeks from meeting to engagement, and three-and-a-half months to the marriage. It was far too long.


So, sometimes I play the "what if" game in my head, going through some of these decisions and wondering. Nevertheless, my choices have led me where I am today ... and I'm happy.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Fires

So I'm pretty much the last person to actually write anything about the wildfires that have been nearly surrounding my house. Last Sunday, mid-day, there was a plume of smoke that rose above our house. We live in an area that burns fairly regularly, so we weren't too alarmed at the time. However, we are also experiencing very strong Santa Ana winds, so the fires have spread like ... well, wildfire. Some paragraphs from the "Wikipedia" entry:

Santa Anas are a type of föhn wind, the result of air pressure buildup in the high-altitude Great Basin between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. This high energy wind spills out of the Great Basin and is pulled by gravity into the surrounding lowlands. The air circulates clockwise around the high pressure area bringing winds from the east and northeast to Southern California (the reverse of the westerly winds characteristic of the latitude)...

The air is then forced down the mountain slopes out towards the Pacific coast; the air mass is further heated by compression as it drops in altitude before reaching the Los Angeles Basin, western San Diego County, and Tijuana (Baja California) at typical speeds of 35 knots. The southern California coastal region gets some of its hottest weather of the year during autumn while Santa Ana winds are blowing. During Santa Ana conditions it is typically hotter along the coast than in the deserts and the humidity plummets to less than 15%.

As the Santa Ana winds are channeled through the mountain passes they can approach hurricane force. The combination of wind, heat, and dryness turns the chaparral into explosive fuel for the infamous wildfires for which the region is known.

Yep, that's exactly what's happening. We're getting explosive growth in these fires and after three days they're not even close to being contained. This image is a comparison of the fires above Los Angeles, and illustrates how quickly they grew in just a few hours.

The thing that's crazy about all these fires is that they keep appearing. On Sunday, I heard there were three fires in the Santa Clarita valley where I live. After hearing where they started (at sites near freeways, i.e. with quick in-and-out access), I immediately had the impression that some lunatic was wandering around starting them. Now the authorities have intimated that it looks very likely, as well, at least for the ones here in this valley. There are lots of fires all over southern California.

The ones by San Diego have affected the most people, but the one right by my house was actually the largest of the bunch. The following image shows the fires all over southern California. The second image is zoomed in and shows (exactly!) where my house is. Notice the direction of the plumes -- they're going west! Where we live, per what was written above and by my own experience, the wind nearly always blows to the east off the ocean, but not right now! The Santa Ana winds are very real.

So Sunday night, some friends of ours whose house is about 2.573 miles from here (as the crow flies) were told to evacuate their home due to the fires encroaching on their neighborhood. The husband of this family stayed at his house for a long time and ended up taking quite a few pictures of the fire above his house. The following picture is of the sky above his house, which looks like something out of a movie!

He watched the gnarly-looking helicopters and planes fly over his house and drop water over the fire.

It didn't appear to do much good as the fire continued to chase over the hill. Later that night the fire was quite dramatic on the hills.

His house was never really in danger, but he and his family stayed the night with us since they have a 3-week-old daughter whose young lungs don't deserve to be abused by smoke.

In any case, come the next morning we heard a knock on our door. It was a highway patrolman who told us to evacuate, and said, "You have 15 minutes." Uh huh. I was skeptical because my house is in the middle of hundreds of houses, well-surrounded by streets and other things that would serve as fire breaks. To top it off, my house is a new build with stucco walls, tile roofs; young, green trees, and block walls surrounding my yard. If my house ever goes up in flames because of a wildfire, then there are much bigger problems than what we have witnessed in the last few days.

Nevertheless, as law-abiding citizens, we quickly packed up our stuff (took us only about fifteen to twenty minutes, and that was taking our time) and headed out. We felt bad that our friends ended up getting evacuated twice, and they eventually flew out to Utah where they have some family. We ended up staying at our local church where, ironically, the air quality was far worse than at our own house. My family eventually went over to a friend's house who lived nearby where they could be a little more comfortable, while I waited things out at the church. We had people there who didn't have any place else to go, and I decided to stick around and help out.

Anyway, when we were evacuated, we took the following:
-- Our family.
-- Both vehicles.
-- Our 72-hour kit (which is somewhat outdated ... we need to do something about that)
-- Our cellphones.
-- Our computer box (just the box, no peripherals), which has all our family pictures and family history in it.
-- My work laptop.
-- Our safe with important papers.
-- Our insurance paperwork.
-- Telephone directories.
-- Our family photo CDs and (little) video tapes from our camcorder.
-- Some sleeping paraphernalia, including sleeping bags and pillows.
-- Two changes of clothes for each of us (in one suitcase).
-- Some snacks.
-- Some toiletries.
-- A few other odds and ends.

Since we didn't know how long we were to be gone, we let the kids take some favorite things, like my daughter's favorite blanket; but by and large, everything but the people and the family photographs/videos are replaceable, so we left it all behind. With our credit cards with us, we weren't really worried about much else.

After I sent my family off to the church, though, I stayed behind and checked on some neighbors and friends. It was a really enlightening experience. Some people were quite prepared and were able to get out without too much trouble. Others had no plan as to where they'd go or were completely clueless about what to do.

One man I spoke to was stuffing clothes into his truck. When I asked if he had someplace to go, he just said, "Not really." I told him he was welcome to go to the church where I'd just sent my family, but he shrugged me off, and went back into his house to grab another armful of clothes.

A teenager who lived across the street was just standing on the sidewalk in front of her house, staring in horror at the smoke chasing across the sky above us. She had absolutely no idea what to do. I asked her if her mother was home and she told me she was. I asked her if she knew we were supposed to evacuate, and she just looked at me like I was a space alien. I then told her she should probably take a sleeping bag or something, in case we couldn't come back that night, and she started nodding intently, as if that was the most brilliant idea that she'd ever heard. It was funny in a way, but also a little unnerving since she clearly was in way over her head.

Driving around the neighborhoods, I saw all sorts of things. One family was busy trying to pack all their television sets in the back of their truck. A few other families were just standing around, their kids playing, the parents just discussing the fires as if they hadn't even heard about the evacuation order.

Without fail, though, the families that were members of the church were ready to go when I came by to check on them. Each knew what they would take and what they would leave behind. Each knew where they would go, and even though some elected to stay where they were, they were ready to go if things began to look more dire (which they never did).

As for my little family, we rendezvoused at the church where the kids played a while. We had the foresight to bring a basketball, so they played with that for a while, but as the air quality was so bad, we quickly wanted to go someplace else. A friend of ours offered up her home for a while, which was good since it allowed our youngest to take a nap.

I stayed at the church and helped with people who wandered in and out. Around lunchtime, I went over to Papa Johns to buy some pizza for the people who were camping out at the church, but they were so far behind that I ended up buying chicken at Albertson's to feed the masses. It worked out all right, and the masses ended up only being a few families, but that's all right.

Almost the entire ward that is adjacent to ours was evacuated at one point in time. We expected a flood of people to show up at the church, but as it turned out, nearly everybody found someplace else to go.

What was really impressive was how everybody pulled together for this. It seemed like our cell phones were ringing out of our pockets the whole day, and news was passed quickly from place to place. The fact that families who were out of harm's way were so willing to open their homes was quite impressive.

I hear, though, that some families slipped through the cracks and were never effectively checked on or evacuated. It was a good lesson, I think, and I have no doubt that we will be having many discussions on how we can improve our emergency response times and effectivity.

Come yesterday afternoon, the church was empty -- people returned to their homes or went elsewhere. I closed up the building with the other man who stayed with me, and we, too, went to our homes. It was quite the experience. The fires still rage -- further west of us now -- and even though the freeways are a mess for now, life goes on and is returning to normal quite quickly.

Now, if this had been an earthquake ...

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Art of Misunderstanding

Today during church there was apparently quite a bit of drama. In one of the meetings called "Relief Society", where all the women meet together, the teacher was discussing the roles that women play. According to our understanding of the Gospel, women and men are partners, neither superior to the other, both required and necessary; and both normally play distinct and special roles. Some of the roles of women include the nurturing and rearing of children, being the primary care providers. Men are typically the bread winners for their families, responsible for their care and protection.

Now, I wasn't there, so I didn't see all that happened. Nevertheless, apparently while the teacher was talking about the former, one of the women in the audience raised her hand and said that she was "offended" by the discussion, as she was a woman who could not have children and had a full-time career. The teacher then tried to clarify, doing a bad job of it, and things just went from bad to worse. Eventually, the teacher closed the book from which she was teaching and walked out of the room. The other woman also tried to get up and leave, but the women around her prevented it, consoling her as she was quite upset. The teacher, too, was stopped soon after leaving the room and calmed somewhat. From what I understand, it was such a bad experience that there were plenty of tears shed by the women in the room.

To me, I can't even fathom this kind of an experience happening in a meeting room filled with men. I would imagine things would come to blows or more angry words would be said, but in this case, it didn't go down that way -- just a lot of hurt and misunderstanding.

So these two women now have difficult choices to make. Will they allow their hurt to turn into anger? Or will they allow it to fall into crippling embarrassment? In both of these scenarios, these women could choose to simply not attend church anymore -- to not face those who witnessed this experience again. This would be nothing short of prideful and cowardly, and I hope it doesn't come to that for either of them.

In the best of all worlds, these two good women would contact each other, sit down and discuss what happened, and try to come to some sort of understanding. The unfortunate thing is that I can't see that happening -- which is even more sad considering that I know that both of these women are very kind women who only try to do what's best in their lives. I don't believe either of them intended to hurt or offend the other, but sometimes people get so caught up in the apparent difficulty of their lives that they just can't seem to do what is right.

A scripture from the New Testament comes to mind. In First Corinthians chapter 13, verses 11 through 13 it reads:

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

A few things here are of interest. First is putting away childish things. This can be very hard, and, in particular, fruitless bickering is such an easy childish thing to do as an adult.

Second is the "glass" part; this particular passage is meaningful to me because it seems that I myself am unable to truly ever communicate what I really mean. This life is just like that. People of all walks have a particularly difficult time clearly expressing their thoughts so that others can completely understand what it is they really feel or think. To make matters worse, even when one does have the ability to communicate well, the flip side is in the understanding -- how well do we truly listen and comprehend what is being said? All manner of human misery is caused by this inability of ours to communicate. This is one thing that I'm looking forward to in the afterlife -- the ability to finally and deeply understand each other.

Finally is the third part of this passage where it speaks of charity. We understand "charity" to be "the pure love of Christ." This is not a very useful definition unless one understands what is meant by it. (See? There's that communicating part again ...) What it means is loving one another even as Jesus Christ himself loved each of us so much that He was willing to give his life for us. Do we ever really do that?

But these good women should apply a bit of other advice, too, as written in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5, verse 25:

Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison.

Now there's no judge here, and certainly no prison, but the first part is applicable. If these two women allow this to fester, then there may never be a reconciliation between them made. And that would be nothing short of tragic.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Jungle Uno

When I was a kid, my sister came home from college at Utah State University and taught me how to play what she called "Jungle Uno". It's an awesome variation on the "Uno" game, with rules that make it much more interesting. Through the years, I've taught it to countless people, some of whom really get into it, others who can take it or leave it. Nevertheless, it's become a staple game to my family (both my own small family, and my parents and siblings) and one that we greatly enjoy. To that end, I've decided to post the rules to it. Here goes!

Standard rules for regular Uno apply.

Rule of “1”s:
-- A player may trade hands with any other player whenever a “1” is played.
-- However, the player who laid the “1” must trade hands before the next player places a card on the deck.
-- The easiest way to ensure that a trade succeeds is to place your own hand on the table upside down in front of the person with whom you are trading as soon as you have played the “1”.
-- If a hand is “inherited” that has only one card (i.e. Uno), the recipient of the hand must proclaim “Uno!” upon touching the card or risk having “Draw 4!” called on them.

Rule of “0”s:
-- When a “0” is played, ALL players must pass their entire hand to the person next to them in the direction opposite the way the cards are being played.
-- The reason the cards are traded opposite the direction of the game play is so the same hand does not play twice.
-- When a “0” is played, all play stops until everybody has passed their hand to their neighbor.
-- If a hand is “inherited” that has only one card (i.e. Uno), the recipient of the hand must proclaim “Uno” upon touching the card or risk having “Draw 4” called on them.

Rule of “Matching”:
-- ANY TIME during play (except after a “0” has been played or if somebody is forced to draw), if you have the same card (same color and number) in your hand as has just been played, regardless of whether or not it is your turn, you may lay that card on the deck, effectively skipping everybody who would have played before you.
-- The player usually says “Match!” when doing so.
-- Gameplay then continues with the person who would be following the player who just matched the card, NOT where the game play was interrupted.
-- At this point, the player’s turn is over, and the player may NOT place another card.
-- However, the player may match with several cards simultaneously, but again, ONLY if they are the same color and number.

Rule of “Building”:
-- If a player has laid a “Draw Two”, and the recipient also has a “Draw Two”, that card may be played, and the third person would then have to draw four cards.
-- This is additive, so if many “Draw Two”s are laid in series, the end recipient may end up drawing many cards.
-- “Matching”, as above, may be applied here, but only if the “Draw Two” is the same color as the one last laid.
-- Similarly to this rule, “Draw Four”s may also be built upon and matched, however, “Draw Two”s and “Draw Four”s may not be interchanged.
-- Once a player is forced to draw, the additive nature of “building” can begin again.

Rule of “Reversing”:
-- If a player places a “Reverse” on the deck, and the person who would have played next before the “Reverse” was laid also has a “Reverse”, regardless of color, that person may use that “Reverse” to effectively cancel the reversal of game play.
-- Doing so ends the turn of the person who cancelled the reverse.
-- “Matching”, as above, may be applied here, but only if the “Reverse” is the same color as the one last laid.
-- Each reverse laid changes the direction of game play.

Rule of “Skipping”:
-- If a player places a “Skip” on the deck, and the person who would have been skipped also has a “Skip”, regardless of color, that player may place the “Skip” on the deck, instead skipping the next person to play.
-- Doing so ends the turn of the person who laid the second skip.
-- “Matching”, as above, may be applied here, but only if the “Skip” is the same color as the one last laid.
-- Each skip does NOT add an additional jump in gameplay – only one person will ultimately be skipped, regardless of how many were played in series.

Rule of “Drawing”:
-- A player is not required to play a card from his or her hand; instead, the player may choose to draw from the deck until a desired card is received to play on the person next to them.
-- If a player draws because they can not play, that player must continue to draw until they can.
-- If a player begins to draw for either of these two reasons, then the game play stops until that person has played, meaning that one may not belatedly “match” the last card played.
-- If a player is forced to draw by receiving a “Draw Two” or a “Draw Four”, that player’s turn is over and game play proceeds to the next player.

There you go. Hopefully you can make sense out of it. Have fun!


Last weekend when my oldest son was baptized, my in-laws were able to come out to visit from Utah. They brought with them my wife's younger brother and his new wife. (As an aside, since she is now my new sister-in-law-in-law, does that make her my children's aunt-in-law? Why do we never say that?!).

It was a very good visit, and one thing was for sure: my kids love their new aunt. My children followed her around and wanted to spend time with her as much as they could. Well, maybe not my oldest, but my two younger ones thought she was awesome. My youngest was delighted to have her read to him when putting him to bed.

My daughter thought it was great to have a girl to play with who would do girly things with her (like do her hair and makeup). Indeed, girls are rare on both sides of the family, so this was a special treat for my daughter.

All in all, it was a very pleasant trip. We didn't do much, just lounged around the house, went to the baptism, and attended church. We did also take an excursion to a local honey store and to a fruit stand that are about twenty minutes from home (in the more agricultural part of where we live). That was very nice, too.

In the evenings when the kids were in bed, we spent each evening playing games -- mostly "Jungle Uno" (I'll post the rules to that shortly), but we also played Mexican Train Dominoes. We had a great visit and were glad they could come.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

On Baptism

My oldest son's baptism was last Saturday and it was a wonderful experience. In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, we baptize our children at the age of eight, since it has been revealed that the age of eight is when a child becomes "accountable" for their actions. Children who are younger than that need not repent nor be baptized; should they die before turning eight, they would be taken directly home to that God who gave them life. It is a beautiful doctrine outlined in Moroni Chapter 8 in The Book of Mormon. In verse eight of that chapter, it reads:

Listen to the words of Christ, your Redeemer, your Lord and your God. Behold, I came into the world not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance; the whole need no physician, but they that are sick; wherefore, little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin...

So it is that at the age of eight, we baptize our children. Before this happens, a child is interviewed by the leader of the local congregation of the church, called a bishop. He sits with the child and asks him or her questions about baptism, generally to determine if the child understands what it is that he or she is about to do. The following is an excerpt from the entry on baptism on the website:

Faith in Jesus Christ and repentance prepare you for baptism and receiving the Holy Ghost. Jesus Christ taught by example that everyone must be baptized of water and of the Spirit (the Holy Ghost) for the remission, or forgiveness, of sins. Through baptism by one who holds priesthood authority and through receiving the Holy Ghost, you can be spiritually reborn.

When you have repented, and are baptized and confirmed by one with the priesthood authority given by God, you receive a remission of your sins (Acts 2:38). You make a covenant, or promise, with God to accept Jesus Christ as your Savior, to follow Him, and to keep His commandments. In return, He promises to forgive your sins and let you return to live with Him, provided you keep your covenants. You are briefly immersed in water, as Jesus Christ was baptized. Baptism by immersion is a sacred symbol of the death, burial, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and it represents the end of your old life and the beginning of a new life as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

We must be baptized to become members of the restored Church—The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints —- and to eventually enter the kingdom of heaven. This ordinance is a law of God and must be performed by His authority.

My son, during the interview, knew all of this, and I'm certain the bishop was very surprised that he was able to rattle off all the answers (not just one or two!) without any difficulty. In fact, afterwards the bishop told me that he had never before interviewed a child so well prepared to be baptized. It might've been something he tells everybody, but if you knew my son, it wouldn't surprise you at all. It was a "proud dad" moment.

In any case, the day of the baptism, we went over a little early to the building where the baptism was to be held. As a priesthood holder in the church and as his father, it was my privilege to baptize him. The ordinance itself is done with the participants dressed in all white (unless impractical to do so -- there's no hard-and-fast rules about that), and I had white clothes available to wear. My son, however, didn't, so he borrowed a white "jumpsuit" to be baptized in.

We had a brief prayer meeting beforehand, then went in to the chapel of the church building we were in and sat down with the three other children who were being baptized -- all dressed in white. The service was pretty straightforward. We began with a song and a prayer, and had a few talks on the topic of baptism and the Holy Ghost.

Between talks, my wife and daughter had been asked to sing a song. Standing up by the pulpit, I was nervous that my daughter would get scared, but she sang beautifully, as did my wife. The two of them were so beautiful up there, sharing their talents and singing a hymn about baptism. I was so proud of them.

When all that was done, my son and I went to the baptismal font where we watched the other three children being baptized first (we were scheduled last). Then it was our turn. We went into the water, I held him in the usual pose, said the baptismal prayer, and then I dunked him (in the most reverent way possible, of course). It was a beautiful and simple ordinance.

He came out of the water all smiles, and after looking to the two witnesses (thanks dad-in-law and brother-in-law!) who were watching to ensure that he had gone all the way under, I pulled the plug in the baptismal font to drain the water, we got out, and we changed into dry clothes.

Once we were changed back into our church clothes, we went back to the chapel where everybody was singing children's church songs while waiting for us to arrive. Once we were there, each of the four children had the opportunity to be confirmed a member of the church. As before, we were last, but that was fine.

Again, it was my privilege to confirm him a member of the church and to bestow upon him the Gift of the Holy Ghost. This is done by "the laying on of hands" -- priesthood holders who are participating place their hands on the head of the person who is being confirmed. I was also able to pronounce a blessing on him at that time.

Throughout, my son was well-behaved, understood what he was doing, and was excited about it. It's wonderful to see him progress in his life, and even though it's scary that he's now responsible for his own sins, it is good that he is willing to follow the example of Jesus Christ and be baptized. I hope as he continues to mature that he will develop a steadfast desire to keep the commandments and follow that example.

What a great experience!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Simple Pleasures

My family has season tickets to the local amusement park, where they have funnel cakes for sale at exorbitant prices. We usually don't buy them, but sometimes we splurge and just enjoy the flavor. This particular one had strawberry topping with whipped cream and chocolate syrup drizzled across the top. They're oh-so-bad for you, but they sure taste good!

While we were there, my wife captured the following picture of my youngest son while they were standing in line waiting for his favorite kiddie ride (big trucks that go around a rail on a track). That's my boy with his pretty blue eyes. It's such a great picture, but scroll down to what was captured at the top of the frame! This little girl (whom we don't know) looks downright exhausted!

It sure seems like kids these days never get enough sleep ...

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Chocolate Face

We had some people at the house Saturday night for a little gathering following my eight-year-old son's baptism (I'll have a different post on that soon). It was really quite nice with well-prepared barbecue hamburgers (thanks dad-in-law!), plenty of salad (thanks sister-in-law-in-law!), and, yes, even a chocolate fountain.

My wife and I had purchased a chocolate fountain over a year ago. We like to entertain -- but don't do so as often as we'd like -- and have found that the chocolate fountain is a great treat for everybody. We typically put out marshmallows, sliced bananas, strawberries, pretzels, and pretty much anything handy that is bite-sized.

Now, something to know: Chocolate in a chocolate fountain isn't just chocolate, but a mixture of chocolate and, usually, vegetable oil; so it is doubly-bad for you. Something else to know: Because of the vegetable oil, clothing is easily stained by the chocolate from the chocolate fountain. It seems that anybody who spends much time near the fountain always gets a drop or two on their clothes. Indeed, for our little family, my wife always has to spot the kids' clothes as quickly as she can, before the oil-stain sets.

As expected, the kids didn't show much self-control, and dribbled chocolate in rivers across the counter and on the floor. Towards the end of the evening, my daughter was sitting at the island by the fountain, consuming chocolate-coated banana slices. She occasionally would drop the bananas into the fountain and would try her best to fish them out of the bottom, sometimes with more success than at other times.

One such time she had just dropped one in and I went fishing for it myself. I had just successfully retrieved it when suddenly the top of the fountain popped up, rapidly spinning chocolate in every direction! My poor daughter, being lower than me, took the brunt of it right in the face. One of our guests got chocolate all up and down her arm. I was standing there in my nicest church suit and quickly jumped back, but still got spots on my shirt, my tie, my pants, and my church shoes.

It was a mess. After I reached forward and unplugged the fountain, I just stood there in shock, afraid to move lest I smear chocolate on my clothes even worse than it was. I didn't even notice my daughter's chocolate-covered face until everybody started giggling at her. What was even more funny was that she just sat there, blinking the chocolate away! Somebody suggested we find a camera, and that got everybody moving. My daughter didn't much like the idea of being photographed in her discomfited state, though, and started wiping at her face with her hands, smearing it even more! She got upset when a few pictures were finally taken.

Soon, though, people sprang into action, and twenty minutes later it was mostly cleaned up. My wife took fifteen minutes just trying to wipe the chocolate off of my daughter's face, especially since she had some trouble getting the chocolate away from her eyes. Her clothes were a complete mess, and quickly made it into the washing machine.

My suit, though, is still spotted. As a dry-clean only item, I'm greatly concerned it will never come clean. My wife, thankfully, took quick care of my shirt, but my tie (one of my favorites) will probably never be the same again.

My theory is that my daughter had dropped something into the bottom of the fountain that we never found, and it lifted the rotating cylinder in the middle just enough to spin the chocolate out over the top edge. We're a little nervous about the fountain now, and are afraid of a repeat incident -- especially since we're having people over this Friday! Hmm ... good thing none of our guests read this blog ...

Saturday, October 13, 2007

My Little Soccer Star

My daughter had a soccer game first thing this morning. Her maternal grandparents are in town, and I encouraged her to play hard to show them how well she could play. During the game, she was nothing short of awesome! She scored four goals on her own, and passed balls to a teammate who scored goals in two other instances (in soccer they don't have a name for that, but it would be similar to an "assist" in other sports). The other team was pretty much demoralized even before the half time -- we don't keep score at that young age, but the girls all knew that the final score was 9 to 2. She had a wonderful time, and I was quite proud.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

This One Reminds Me Of ...

The older kids have the week off of school for their fall break this week. Normally, we take the whole week and go camping or on some other "large" vacation, but this year it wasn't practical (see my earlier and very lengthy post on the test I was involved with last week), so we've been doing things locally that can be done as day-trips.

Yesterday, I took the day off of work and we went over to the Santa Barbara Zoo. It's a very nice little zoo over by the coast that had just enough to keep us entertained for a while, but not too much we had to make a whole day of it. The weather was perfect, the kids were well-behaved, and the animals were good to see, too. The park is small and intimate with the exhibits not too far apart. Unlike the L.A. Zoo, it also isn't built on the hilliest part of town, so there's not a lot of climbing to manage, either. We really enjoyed ourselves.

Anyway, on our way out of the zoo, we decided to stop in the gift shop. My oldest son wandered around and looked at pretty much everything, but kept his hands mostly to himself. My youngest son was happy to be handed a toy school bus to play with, which he rolled around his stroller until we left. My daughter, on the other hand, got into everything. She was asking if we could buy some of the silliest things. She'd pick armfuls of stuff up and walk over to me or her mother and ask if we would buy them for her. Of course we didn't ... on purpose.

My daughter did manage to knock a candle on the floor and break it, so we had to buy that. The guy behind the desk was very kind, and probably would've let us not pay for it, but we wanted the kids to see us taking responsibility. Instead of paying full price for it, though, the guy let us have it for half-off since it was damaged goods ... (But it wasn't damaged until ... yeah, it was a little strange.)

Anyway, my daughter felt awful about it, and owes my wife $4 for the broken candle. She's worked out a deal with my wife to sweep the kitchen every day, several times a day, and not complain about it for the next week. This is a huge deal for us, by the way, as sweeping is the chore she likes to do least. The whole experience was a good lesson for my daughter to learn.

There was one other thing I wanted to write about, too. While my daughter was wandering around grabbing everything in sight, she came across a barrel full of those colorful rocks that tourist traps offer to sell to their customers for the low, low price of $2.95 per little baggy filled. When she was insistent that we buy her some so she could start a rock collection like her older brother, I asked her how the rocks would remind her of her trip to the zoo. This is something we always ask ourselves when buying items from a place like that, which encourages us to buy appropriate keepsakes.

Well, without missing a beat, my daughter picked up a white rock with black spots and said, "This one reminds me of the sheep." She picked up an orange one and said, "This one reminds me of the giraffe." Gray: "This one reminds me of the elephant." That little girl is clever! We still didn't buy the rocks ...

But my wife did buy two colorful lollipops to keep them quiet on the hour-and-a-half drive home. It worked like a charm.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Good TV

So we watched "The Big Bang Theory" again last night. In one of my previous posts, I spoke about how my wife and I are pretty selective about what we watch. This one, I think, is a keeper.

During the opening sequence, my wife and I were just starting a bowl of cake and ice cream. On the show, the four uber-nerds were playing an online game together, attacking some fortress or something (they never showed a computer screen) when one of them collected some kind of powerful sword. He immediately stood up triumphantly with his laptop in hand and said, "I am the sword master!" Then he sat down, transported his "avatar" out of the area where the others were struggling against the enemy, and put his new sword up on ebay for auction.

Within seconds and while the others were lamenting how he had abandoned them during the battle, he said that somebody had already selected the "buy it now" option on ebay, when one of the other uber-nerds stood up triumphantly with his laptop in hand and said, "I am the sword master!"

It was such an absurd and hilarious setup that my wife and I both appreciated greatly. So greatly, in fact, that we both simultaneously choked on a spoonful of ice cream! It took us several minutes to recover. My wife and I are both minor nerds (kind of like a "minor planet" -- remember Pluto anyone?) and this scene resonated with both of us -- she also has a lot of experience on ebay and I've played these sort of silly games online. It was hilarious.

As I said, I think this show's a keeper.

Monday, October 8, 2007


In our church, it is strongly encouraged that families take Monday evenings to have some family time -- Family Home Evening (FHE). My little family has always struggled with this, especially with little kids, but also because of the fact that my wife used to teach cake decorating that night. When she first started doing it, Monday was the only night that she could teach, so she went for it, hoping that we'd do FHE some other night of the week. Well, it didn't really work out so well because throughout the rest of the week there always seemed to be something else that got in the way. We were hit-and-miss, at best.

Well, a few months ago she had the opportunity to trade nights with her classes -- she now teaches on Thursdays. It was a big adjustment for her since she knew that there really is a lot of other things that happen on Thursdays that she'd have to miss if she moved her class to that night. At the time, it really was a leap of faith that it would work out well.

Tonight, I received positive confirmation that it was most definitely the right thing to do. The prophet has promised that families that have FHE will be closer, happier, and more able to overcome the challenges in the world. It seems this is coming true, even in our new efforts to have FHE regularly.

Each evening isn't exactly a well-planned event. Nevertheless, we do it together -- whatever it is we do. We usually have a lesson, we always sing a song, and we always begin and end it with a prayer. What comes in the middle is sometimes difficult to make happen, but we've been getting better at it with each passing week.

Well, tonight my daughter told me something that hit home. We were talking about the days I'm going to be able to be home with the family this week (they have it off of school), and I told her that I was glad it was Monday. She then said in a sing-song voice, "I like Mondays because of Family Home Eeee-vening. We get to play games, have dessert, and learn about Jeee-sus."

Those are very good reasons, indeed, to like Mondays. I think we may be doing something right ... but -- sshhh!! -- don't tell anybody ...

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Conference Weekend

This weekend has been General Conference. In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints we have a conference every six months where all the members of the church attend or watch remotely. It is broadcast worldwide in various ways, including via the internet where it can be streamed in realtime. The conference is divided in five sessions, three on Saturday (the last of which being for holders of the "priesthood" -- another topic for another time) and two on Sunday.

During each of these sessions there are talks about various different gospel topics. Leaders in the church are asked to speak for roughly ten to twenty minutes and are not given topics to speak on -- they choose their own topics and usually there is surprisingly little overlap. This time, I can't think of any two talks that were on the same topic.

This time, there were talks on faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, enduring through difficult times, and other like-topics. I was even pleased by talks on the temple, eternal families, and service. I had the chance to go watch the priesthood session last night and took the following notes in my handheld (please ignore the grammar, spelling, etc):

elder perry - high jump story with his son re raising the bar - once you reach the min standard keep raising you own bar to find the limits of your potential - be phsically able, groomed appropriately, learn to study and learn the gospel, read the b.o.m. and teach my gospel, learn abt your emotional limits and how to manage disappointment, develop in-person social skills, get a job to be able to contribute a goodly sum to the cost of the mission, be clean, and remember the spirit is what converts

donald hallstrom 70 - procrastination, don't delay needed change, easy street sign in honolulu also has a dead end sign affixed to it

whitney clayton 70 - david and bathsheba story likened to the a fish trap with bait and with barbs that are easy to swim past on the way in but not easy on the way out, pornography, popularity is not a good judge of what is good and right, ours is a quest for purity

walter gonzalez pres of 70 - lima peru disaster claimed 9 members lives, members went out to help in the darkness, we don't know when or how quakes will come and they may not be earthquakes but rather other forms of adversity, be prepared so the lord can make us equal to the challenges that come, take time to ponder the things of God that He may prepare our minds for tomorrow

pres eyring - just need to read the beginning about pleading for help to be able to do what is asked of you, assurance sometimes comes from memories, good story of a conference, forget yourself and start praying for the people you serve, just go to work and serve as you should, we are to help Heavenlt Father and JC bring eternal life to those you serve, there will always be pain or discomfort in serving - that is the nature of what we do even as it was never easy for the savior

elder monson - a true priesthood holder has vision, makes an effort and perseveres, has faith and virtue (as we think in our hearts so are we), and has prayer woven into our lives

pres hinckley - anger, charles penrose - wrote a song as a missionary on controlling anger and having wisdom 'school thy feelings'?, anger is the mother of a whole brood of evil actions, divorce is often the bitter fruit of anger, we often make a great fuss of matters of inconsequence

You can see there's a lot of good material here -- and this is just from one session! In my opinion, watching conference is one of the most wonderful things that a person can do. It's really hard for the kids to sit through, but they tolerate it well enough.

In our house, we stream it through the wireless internet, then connect my laptop to the television. Then we turn up the volume and try to get the kids to sit still. They're bored out of their noggins, and we aren't usually able to hear every message, but we try.

I can't say I blame the kids for not being too into it, though. I wasn't when I was a kid, either. My parents used to turn on every radio in the house and blast the volume so that the only way we could get away from the talks was to leave the house and go way out into the back yard. This worked, I think, once, until my mom figured it out and refused to let us leave the house.

Funny how times change, though; now that I'm an adult, I quite enjoy it and now I foist the experience on my own kids. Hopefully, if I do my job right as a parent, one day they'll do the same thing to their kids ...

Saturday, October 6, 2007

My Daughter's 6th Birthday

My daughter had her 6th birthday yesterday. She was so excited about it that she had trouble going to bed the night before. It was a lot of fun, though, to see her wake up so excited to open her presents, but we had to squash a bit of that enthusiasm because, alas, she had to go to school. We did let her open one present in the morning, however -- a bundle of colorful striped socks that she absolutely loves (she's always liked socks like that).

That morning, my wife and I went shopping while the older kids were at school and ended up spending far too much at Costco, but we got a lot of stuff we've needed. We got home just in time to start an episode of "Stargate", which a friend of ours who owns all the seasons has been lending to us. The kids came home halfway through it, and we thought it would be okay to let them watch a little of it ... more on that in a second.

So we finally did have a chance to open the balance of Megan's gifts. We called both sets of grandparents when she opened the gifts from them, so they could hear her squeal with delight in each case. She got a Tinkerbell pillow and a stuffed dog (in a purse, a la Paris Hilton!) from my parents -- which she absolutely loves -- and the movie High School Musical from my wife's parents -- which she also absolutely loves.

We also gave her the karaoke version of the music to High School Musical -- which my oldest son has actually been using more than anybody the past day, strangely enough -- and a little bit of "Spy Gear". Last weekend, a friend of hers gave her a "Spy Gear" kit that included a motion detector, a little parabolic dish for eavesdropping, and an invisible ink pen. We were actually planning on giving that same thing to her, so Angel took it back and instead got a pair of "night vision" goggles (really just a fancy set of green-tinged glasses with lights mounted on the side), and a funny little device that mounts on the hand with lights on each finger. She loves them!

But that's not all. My wife got her a Wonder Woman costume for her to wear on Halloween. She had a very hard time finding one that was appropriately sized and appropriately modest -- eventually buying one on ebay. My daughter's been wanting to be Wonder Woman for Halloween for months, but funny enough, yesterday she was telling us she wanted to dress up as a spy! Needless to say, we were very firm that she is going to be Wonder Woman for Halloween, and she can't change her mind. She was a little put out by that, but we weren't going to tolerate a change of mind after all the effort that my wife had put into finding the costume.

Anyway, as the evening progressed, the kids needed to go to their respective practices -- my daughter to soccer practice, my son to tennis lessons. I went with my daughter with my younger son in tow and she wasn't exactly focused on what her coach was telling her. She didn't follow instructions very well, nor did she participate as she should have. Today's soccer game will be very interesting knowing that not only is she unfocused but that her coach won't be there.

Afterwards, we all rendezvoused at "Elephant Bar and Grill" restaurant, which is her favorite place to eat out. Since we don't ever have extended family around for birthdays, we've made it a habit of allowing the children to choose what we do for dinner. (My older son, last week, chose to have "breakfast for dinner" -- pancakes and eggs.) She chose her usual -- chicken fingers and fries -- and they also gave the kids an ice cream dessert with their meals. She loved it.

It was a late night, though, since it was a Friday night and the restaurant was very busy when we went to dinner, so by the time we got home, it was bedtime. On the drive home, the kids peppered me with questions about "Stargate", of which they only saw about five minutes, and clearly didn't get "closure" when we didn't finish the episode because it got a little too scary for them. They are absolutely convinced now that there's a stargate buried somewhere that is just waiting for us to discover. Funny kids.

It seemed like a good day for her, though, even though she was really tired and had the occasional fits of disobedience and grumpiness. We tried to work through them well enough, and today she seems quite happy, and I hope she remembers it as a good day.

Thursday, October 4, 2007


My oldest son has a horrible habit. He bites his nails -- all of them. Even his toenails! Tonight I walked into his room to put him to bed after giving him some time to read, and found that he had his foot in his mouth! He looked at me, and knew immediately that he was in trouble. It's just horrifying to find him munching on something and then to ask him what it is, only to have him roll his eyes with guilt and admit that it's a finger- or toenail. Ewww.

He's always had some kind of bad habit, though, as long as I can remember. It started with his drooling as a baby -- but who can blame him for that?! Except, he didn't just drool, he drooled. The kid produced so much fluid that he literally would stain his clothes yellow. I'm not even sure where all that fluid came from -- especially since my wife nursed him for a good long time, and she wasn't exactly a shriveled up prune. It was amazing.

Then he moved into his picking-the-lip phase. This was simply awful, as he would cause his own lips to bleed by picking at them so much. He'd stop doing it long enough for his lip to scab over and heal a little bit, but then he'd start right back up again.

Then he moved into the picking-his-nose stage. He still does that fairly regularly, but lately it seems he only does it when he's bored in church as we're sitting near the front where everybody can see him. I swear, everybody's going to know him as "that boy that picks his nose". He also has a tendency to do it while watching TV. It's absolutely aggravating because he doesn't even have anything in his nose to be picking at!

And now we've got the picking/biting-of-the-nails habit. His teacher apparently hasn't really noticed it in class, probably because she keeps him so busy. At home, however, we find he does it pretty much any time he's reading a book. Occasionally he'll do it at tennis lessons when he's not paying attention. We also notice it when he's nervous about being in a new learning environment.

His nails are always bit/picked down to the skin, and even so, he still finds nail at which to pick or bite. There was a time we would have him wear gloves to school -- didn't work. We'd have him wear socks all the time -- didn't work. We tried the nasty tasting nail polish -- it still doesn't work (which is probably how he added the picking part to the biting). It's a miracle he doesn't cause his fingers to bleed. We've even tried bribing him -- offering him a toy of his choosing should he break the habit long enough for us to need to cut his nails. No go. We literally haven't had to cut his nails in several years.

As a young child, I learned to crack my knuckles. It was the cool thing to do that my parents hated, and I still do it on occasion to this day. (To relieve tension! Really!) Perhaps this is just payback, and I should be grateful he doesn't have nervous twitches, outbursts of cursing, or severe flatulence problems.

I just hope he learns to control this habit one day, but if not, I suppose there are worse habits to have.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The Last Three Days

On the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) project, we have a UHF radio that can communicate with landers and rovers on the surface of Mars. On its way to Mars right now is a lander called Phoenix which is headed for the north pole of Mars.

These past few days we've been in the middle of a major training exercise to help the Phoenix project learn how to operate the lander when it gets there. Since the Phoenix spacecraft has no means of communicating directly to Earth, all the information that passes to and from it must pass through one of the orbiters that are at Mars right now. That includes MRO and Mars Odyssey (another spacecraft I worked on when it was first launched back in 2001).

To that end, coordinating which orbiter is talking to which lander (and the Spirit and Opportunity rovers are likely to still be alive when Phoenix gets there next May) and when is a complex planning problem. In addition, ensuring that the different UHF radios are going to function as advertised, at the right times, can be a difficult challenge to manage.

For me, I'm in charge of all-things-"relay" on MRO. I am coordinating the MRO activities during this training exercise, which has been time- and attention-consuming. My wife and children have been very understanding, particularly since I've been working every evening for the past three days.

Anyway, I thought it might be interesting to record the reports from the last three days. This first one is from Monday:


I wanted to provide a report on the status of the ongoing Relay Surface ORT.

Many thanks go out to Bill <> and company for getting the simulation up and running this morning. The testbed engineers were able to synchronize the clocks within the various testbeds in Denver within seconds of each other. MRO's first overflight of PHX got started up at roughly 7:25 this morning Pacific, with a conclusion of the overflight at about 7:50. At the time, there was no telemetry flowing into the JPL MSA due to issues with the query servers; this was later resolved before the next overflight, which got started at roughly 9:20, with the overflight terminating before 9:45. These first two overflights showed successful data flow in both directions, with the forward-link product (a Phoenix command loss timer reset command) successfully transmitted in both cases (at least that's what the telemetry indicates, though we're still awaiting positive confirmation from Phoenix).

On the first overflight, we returned 2102197 bytes of data, which PHX says is about 2/3rds fill frames. On the second overflight, they "burped" (can't we find a different word?!) 108074 bytes of data -- it is unknown at this time how much of this was fill frames. Electra and MCS appear to have functioned nominally in both cases in response to the Relay NIPCs constructed from the inputs provided by PHX.

The ITL is clocking out exactly as expected, and I witnessed the third overflight of the day (182_04) begin execution within 1 second of the expected time just minutes ago. The background sequence is also behaving normally, and data is now flowing everywhere it should.

Earlier in the day, there was trouble with the Electra "mega"-query script, as it was not correctly extracting telemetry. This was resolved later in the day (still not sure how), though I do believe that some updates are expected to be made this evening by Ricardo Mendoza to clean up some other issues with the script. The "scorecard" script functioned as designed, but had some oddities that confused some people on the other projects (it reports first lock time and last lock time, not total time in lock; it also reports all forward-link frames, not just those that contain forward-link data) -- these are expected to be cleaned up, if not before the end of the ORT, then at least before the next one.

There have been issues with the testbed DOM going into the ORT, which appear to have been resolved. It was decided a few weeks ago that flight data would be mirrored to the testbed DOM in order to allow the ground processes the opportunity to be tested in a more flight-like manner while it was processing Electra data. This had the unfortunate side-effect of filling the available space in the testbed DOM to 97% before it was shut off (in less than a week of being turned on! -- that's how much flight data MRO produces in an easy week!). This could have brought the ground system portion of the ORT crashing down, but this morning, with the flight data flow halted and the HiRISE images purged from the testbed DOM, the used space was brought down to 64% (which is currently down to 50% after some more cleanup). In the midst of all this, the first return-link product came back right as expected, being available for PHX to extract from the DOM at 7:51 this morning. However, the second return-link product was delayed significantly until 11:33 am, but PHX didn't even notice, due to their own issues about which I'm not fully informed.

At 1 pm this afternoon, there was a tagup with the other projects where it was learned that PHX had plenty of GDS issues of their own, but they, too, have been working through them. I do not know for sure, but it seems that their tactical timeline was broken today. Odyssey also had a glitch in their testbed, which required them to restart, and they ended up not supporting a "burp" that PHX had planned -- they were not concerned.

In general, the MRO testbed and associated command products have performed (apparently) flawlessly. Robin <> and all those whom she has called today (you know who you are!) have been invaluable in keeping the GDS running today, as well. Everything seems in order at the present time.

The third overflight has now concluded and there was no data in the link (this was unexpected), and the prox-1 product was tossed. This appears to be a PHX problem, and they're working it now.

Before the night is out, there should be one more "burp" and one overflight that PHX isn't expected to respond to. Tomorrow morning, we will have three sessions where MRO will hail, with only the middle one (at ~8 am) being responded to by PHX -- this will be their primary download for the next day's tactical planning cycle.

At 9 am Pacific tomorrow morning, there will a Short-Range Relay Coordination Meeting where we will discuss some of the lessons that were learned in the past few weeks during the planning portion of this ORT. At 1 pm, there will be another tagup, where we should hear the report from the RDE folks regarding how well the overflights from the past day have gone. I will hold a quick status meeting at 3 pm for MRO personnel.

Sometime tomorrow (mid-day?), it is expected that PHX will be providing us with an update to change the parameters for one of the overflights that are scheduled tomorrow evening. This will need to be turned around by MPST into a new Relay NIPC to be loaded to the testbed. This should be the extent of all further commanding required into the MRO testbed through to the completion of the simulated portion of the ORT. I plan to work these personally.

I will provide another status report tomorrow evening. Good night!


There's a lot of acronyms in there, with plenty of other stuff that I won't even bother to try to explain. And while it's not strictly rocket science, they pay me well to understand this stuff.

This next one is from yesterday (Tuesday):


This past day has been fairly uneventful. The OTB continues to function well, as does the GDS -- flowing all data where it is expected. The overflights from the past 24 hours looked like the following:

Overnight and this morning:
-- 182_04 - No data was received. This was unexpected and is being investigated by both the Electra team and by PHX.
-- 182_05 - Nominal overflight, with a small amount of data returned. All went as expected.
-- 182_10 - MRO initiated a hail, but PHX did not respond. This was expected.
-- 182_11 - Nominal overflight, with a small amount of data returned. All went as expected -- this was PHXs "PM" pass.
-- 182_12 - MRO initiated a hail, but PHX did not respond. This was expected.

The first overflight from tonight looks like:
-- 183_05 - Nominal overflight, with a small amount of data expected. It clocked out, as expected, and a small prox-1 data product (5096 bytes) was produced.

Other overflights from tonight should look like the following:
-- 183_06 - Nominal overflight with a small roll towards PHX, with a small amount of data expected.
-- 183_07 - Nominal overflight with a large roll towards PHX, with radiometric data collection included.

Last overflights tomorrow morning and afternoon should look like the following:
-- 183_11 - Nominal overflight. It is unknown whether or not PHX will reply to the hail.
-- 183_12 - Nominal overflight. PHX has made a "tactical" change to bump up the return-link data rate to 128.
-- 183_13 - Nominal overflight, with a small amount of data expected.
-- 184_05 - Nominal overflight, with a small amount of data expected.

Regarding overflight 183_12, PHX originally was anticipating bumping up the data rate for 183_07 to 128 kbps, but after considering that past testing has shown that 8/128 links with radiometric enabled has had poor success when forwarding command products, it was determined by PHX to keep 183_07 unchanged, and instead to bump up the data rate on the 183_12 overflight to 128 kbps. PHX has an "idiosyncracies" list they are keeping on which this will be recorded. For the record, the time it took to process the updated Request APF into the single Relay NIPC SCMF (and have it on the DOM) was 22 minutes; additional files would no doubt have taken more time, and doing the whole thing on the flight side would have taken less time.

It is anticipated that the 183_07 overflight will include their forward-link command load for tomorrow, and it seems likely they will provide it to MRO just before the DDUT of 9:45 pm Pacific. I will be watching this from home this evening and will ensure it gets to the testbed.

At the 1pm tagup today, the RDE statistics were discussed. The results generated by the updated/corrected "scorecard" script were noticeable in the last overflight recorded. All seemed well. Phoenix will provide positive confirmation that PHX did indeed receive the command loss timer reset commands during each overflight in which we closed a link.

For meetings tomorrow, MURO at 9am Pacific has been cancelled, which leaves only the 1pm Pacific Relay Tagup, where we should hear the report from the RDE folks regarding how well the overflights from the past day have gone.

The simulated portion of this ORT is scheduled to end at simulation time 184T15:00 (which is 2am Pacific Thursday morning), however, MRO's last supported overflight concludes at roughly 7pm Pacific tomorrow evening, with data expected on the "ground" within the hour. I can't think of any reason why it would be necessary to keep the OTB up and running once the data is confirmed received, but we will re-evaluate tomorrow.


Things have been going fairly well, but the radio geeks found a glitch in their protocols which could be a big deal ... or not. In any case, the powers that be think that there's good to be derived from stretching the simulation portion of the test through tomorrow mid-day.

The following is what I put out tonight:


It would be nice to say this past day has been uneventful, but some quirks have been encountered in the radio protocols. It seems that when the start time of the relay sessions do not closely match between PHX and MRO, there is an issue where PHX may not be prepared to return data to the MRO radio, and some frame accounting goes badly. I'll let the radio experts try to explain it in better English later.

From last night, the two other unreported overflights looked like the following:
-- 183_06 - Nominal overflight, with a small roll towards PHX, with a small amount of data returned. All went as expected. PHX did not model the roll, but MRO behaved appropriately.
-- 183_07 - Nominal overflight, with a large roll towards PHX, with radiometric data collection included with a large data volume. All went as expected, and a radiometric data product was produced (which PHX has not looked at). PHX did not model the roll, but MRO behaved appropriately.

Overflights from this morning looked like the following:
-- 183_11 - Nominal overflight. PHX did not reply; this was fine.
-- 183_12 - Nominal overflight. Last night, PHX made a "tactical" change to bump up the return-link data rate to 128. This link went badly due to the aforementioned issue.
-- 183_13 - Nominal overflight, with a small amount of data returned, as expected.

There is only one overflight scheduled for tonight:
-- 184_05 - Nominal overflight, with a small amount of data expected.

Due to the aforementioned issue, during the 1 pm tagup it was decided to continue the simulation into tomorrow to try to test out the startup issues with PHX. Therefore, we expect two more overflights to execute:
-- 184_11 - Nominal overflight, but PHX is not expected to respond.
-- 184_13 - Nominal overflight, with a large amount of data expected.

This afternoon, PHX did provide an updated Request APF (v6) that changed the start time and durations of 184_05 and 184_13 (which also had a rate change). These were processed, for the record, in 15 minutes between the delivery of the Request APF and the completion of the SCMF by the ASP. (Of course, on both of the past two days, I was waiting for it ... so I may be setting a bad precedent ...).

Tomorrow, the last Relay Tagup of the ORT is scheduled for 1 pm. The simulated portion of the test should conclude (really!) at 11 am Pacific tomorrow.


So tomorrow is the last day of this training exercise, called a "Operational Readiness Test" or ORT. I can't wait for it to be done ... but then we get the wonderful opportunity to pull together "lessons learned", which will end up with action items, items to be verified, and an enormous amount of paperwork. All in the next months when we get to start this whole thing all over again! Busy, busy.

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