Friday, October 31, 2008

Going about town

Me in front of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

I made it to Sydney, and one again my business class status paid off, as I was able to use the “express” line to breeze through customs and quarantine. I was really worried that the Nasonex samples my doctor gave me (without the required prescription) would be confiscated, especially since they’re basically nasal steroids. But not even a peep.

I did forget to do one thing that I had fantasized about for years. My plan was as soon as I got into the immigration line that I would pop Men at Work’s “Down Under” up on my iPhone. It completely slipped my mind, especially as I got quickly through the line, then had to worry about getting some Aussie cash. (I played the song as soon as I got a chance to sit down and recharge my laptop).

I couldn’t find the Citibank ATMs advertised on the airport’s website, so I had to hit a third party cash machine. Then, I had to find some way to break the $20 AUD bills into small change to use on the bus. Mission accomplished, but could someone in the know tell me why the heck the Aussie $2 coins are half the size of the $1 coins (about the size of an American 5-cent piece)?

The bus ride (route 400 to Manly Shops then line 309 down to Circular Quay) was pleasant except for me having to plead ignorance to the operators as to how much I should pay. (Sadly, Sydney buses do not offer transfers, so I had to pay full fare twice.) Riding a city bus into town is the absolute best way to get a feel for the town if you’re not in a hurry.

Circular Quay was the final stop. The quay is right between the Harbour Bridge and the world-famous Sydney Opera House, so I got some nice pictures of both. The Harbour Bridge, aka the “Coat Hanger,” is much more impressive in real life then it looks in pictures. The Opera House, on the other hand, is almost the complete opposite. Sure it looks all fancy, but up close it still looks like any other example of avant garde architecture, albeit one with a funny roof.

Right: Anyone else think the logo on this cruise ship in the Sydney Harbour makes it look like a Decepticon?

Pictures taken, I began the track downtown – which was the cue for it to begin raining. Not quite torrentially, but still steady. I’m at a Borders in the central business district, bemoaning the apparent lack of free wi-fi in this town (I just chipped in $8 for a half-hour), but at least I found some power.

I talked with Claire and Ian on the phone just after I arrived in Sydney. They sounded like they were having loads of Hallowe’en fun. Ian is being Luke Skywalker (in his Endor outfit from “Return of the Jedi”) and he looks awesome! Left: Ian as "Luke Skywalker (Endor outfit).

Now I’m off to pick up some sandwiches or the like for the Indian Pacific train – on which I will embark for Perth in about 2.5 hours. I may or (likely) may not have some sort of Internet access in Adelaide. If not, chat with you on Tuesday.

En route in business class (but posted after landing)

I write this in the air, somewhere between Vanuatu and Fiji (although I won’t be able to post until we get to Sydney) in the midst of some light turbulence as we go through the clouds at 37,000 feet. I’ve been on this plane 11 hours already and still have about four more to go.

There are a couple great things about flying business class (besides getting to sit in the mystical upper deck of a 747-400). Being able to avoid lines is one. I got in a special check-in lane at SFO and was quickly processed through. Then – with almost 90 minutes to kill before boarding, I was able to avail myself of the airport lounge. Free food and drinks, comfy seats and big TVs – good way to kill time.

I then got into another “express” line to board the aircraft when the time came. I went and found my upstairs seat and was pleasantly surprised that I – a 6-foot, 1-inch tall male – could actually stretch my legs straight out without touching the seat in front of me.

The flight itself has been pleasant enough, save for one kerfuffle as we left. Just as we got near the edge of the runway to begin our roll, we had to go back to the gate because a passenger needed some heart medication that hadn’t gotten aboard yet (I’m looking at you 37E!). That delayed our departure by about 20 minutes, no biggie. I was a bit disappointed that we took off out over San Francisco Bay due to rainy weather. I had specifically booked a seat on the right side of the plane so I could see our house as I flew over (we are just off the “heavy” jet flight path for SFO).

(Right: my appetizer.)
Soon after takeoff, the flight attendants came over with the white linen and I was handed an appetizer plate: smoked salmon, veggies, a salad and a dinner roll. I also accepted a small glass of white wine.

Despite having had a sumptuous repast of fishsticks and mashed potatoes courtesy of Claire earlier in the evening, I gulped down the offering just in time for the dinner plate to come around (note that this was just after midnight, PDT). I ate about three quarters of my fork-tender short ribs (good, not great but better than what one usually gets in economy) and watched “Speed Racer” on my little personal video screen.

Unfortunately, this was an older 747 and the video wasn’t on demand – just looped. So I missed the first five minutes or so. Suffice it to say that I didn’t feel I missed anything (and I’m glad I had a choice of films in the first place). The flick wasn’t as bad as some critics claimed, but definitely catered to those in three categories: the very young, the animé crowd or older fans of the original 60s-70s cartoon. I was in the last category.

The felIow next to me is sleeping (he’s a hydrologist going on to work on a project in Papua New Guinea). I tried to sleep, and probably got about four hours worth. Not enough to call resting a success, but a good start. I went downstairs to take a walk to avoid deep vein thrombosis and saw that despite economy being about half empty – and folks down there thus being able to stretch out – about half the passengers were awake. Glad I’m up top tonight. As for my case, being super-tired in the evening might be beneficial to helping me knock off in the reputedly uncomfortable “day-nighter” seats on the Indian Pacific Railway.

I was half-expecting to have a mini-ceremony (perhaps a ceremonial whipping) as we crossed the equator, but sadly I think even the flight attendants were napping.

Coming up on New Caledonia now, three-and-a-half more hours of flying ahead. See you in Oz … hopefully one more quick post in Sydney before I hope the train, but no guarantees. (Below: Sunrise over the South Pacific.)

Update: It’s three hours later, still about 35 minutes to go. They were supposed to serve us omelets, but so far no sign of them … I was just handed warm towel for the second time, and tried to not look as clueless with it as Adam Sandler did in “The Wedding Singer.” After the events above, I caught “Baby Mama” on the video screen. It had its moments, but was generally blah.

Ah, good. Here’s my brekkie (as they say in Oz) …

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Waiting for departure

A short one here because it's tough to blog on an iPhone ...

I'm in the SFO business lounge and snacking on veggies in a comfy chair. So far this is the way to travel. Unfortuneately, I'll be flying in an older, no lay-flat chair. But I'm excited nonetheless.

I just said bye to Ian and Claire -- I'll sure miss them. But this adventure has been long on coming and I'm looking forward to sharing it with my readers. I'll try to find a wi-fi hotspot on Sydney but after that I don'tknow how access will be. I'm getting on a train on Saturday afternoon and will hopefully find a hotspot in my brief stops in Adelaide and/or Kalgoorlie.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Working things out for the trip

When this trip was just a glimmer in the back of my eye in 2005, I thought it would be best to get back into shape. I'd be doing a lot of walking and a fair share of hiking -- often while carrying loads of luggage. So I began a modest exercise program.

The police department gym was sparse, but adequate considering it was free. I did mostly cardio training on an elliptical trainer for a few months, dropped a few pounds and increased my endurance. A good start. But then the city and I parted ways and my regimen suffered. My new job also involved sitting my butt at a desk (and sometimes driving), but there was no gym. I gained back most of what I'd lost and my endurance began dropping again.

(Left: Me on our elliptical trainer in an artistic iPhone shot by my four-year-old son. Look at how well he gives the appearance of motion! Not bad for someone who occasionally still needs help in the bathroom ...)

Flash forward two years until this summer. I reserved my Australia trip and immediately realized I'd need to get an exercise routine going again. I began increasing my walking at work and took hikes around the neighborhood, but knew it wouldn't make the amount of difference I wanted. Claire and I discussed getting a machine, then decided to make the jump (an official weigh-in at the doctors which showed I'd passed 240 pounds was my kicker). We settled on a ProForm Crosswalk Elliptical, which was on sale at Costco.

Well. No sooner did I assemble the elliptical then I went nuts on it. Five days a week, 30 minutes or more and at least 700 calories per workout. Fifty minutes and 1,000 calories burnt on some of my days off. Claire thinks I've lost about 15 pounds in two months (I think it's less, but I don't have a scale handy) and certainly don't get nearly as winded on my local walks.

The real test will come in about two weeks, when I trek the 10 kilometers around Uluru and -- most exhaustively -- hike to the top of the amazing Kings Canyon. That will be the real test of my new fitness and the culmination of my first exercise goal.

For the uninitiated, Kings Canyon is the stunning vista the group alights on near the end of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert -- which I just rewatched in preparation for my trip, along with Muriel's Wedding, Danny Deckchair and Picnic at Hanging Rock in a mini-Aussie cinema festival. It was great accent practice.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I'm voting tomorrow -- Yes on Prop. 1A

Since I'll be out of the country next week, I have to vote this week and will fill out my mail-in ballot tomorrow.

Between my right to a secret ballot, some remaining indecision on my part and my previously expressed desire to appear neutral, I'm not going to burden the reader with most of my political decisions. But there is one measure I support wholeheartedly: California's Proposition 1A -- the High Speed Rail initiative.

The Proposition would set aside about $9 billion dollars to serve as seed money for a "bullet train" between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The bond money would be supplemented with promised federal and private funds to begin operations. The train will take passengers from city center to city center in about 2.5 hours (less time than in air travel once security and travel to-and-from the airport is taken into account) for the same price as plane fare. Eventually, proponents hope, the system would be extended to Sacramento and San Diego as well.

The Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and other local papers have advocated its passing -- as has Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the San Mateo County Transit District, whose board I addressed prior to its endorsement.

Some opponents question the wisdom of increasing the state's bond indebtedness in a time of such fiscal trouble. Under most situations, I'd concur. But this proposition is the rare exception because it will directly address the current economic concerns. Analysts estimate that high-speed rail's construction will result in 162,000 construction jobs while the system is built and several thousand permanent operations job will follow. It's like a mini-WPA!

What's even more important, in my view, is the fact that high-speed rail will -- thanks to its electrified line -- prevent thousands of tons of greenhouse exhaust gasses from entering the atmosphere annually. On a more provincial level, the line will benefit San Mateo County substantially, as the California High-Speed Rail Authority will use the Caltrain right-of-way. This means the CHSRA will be the one paying for sorely needed local grade separations and electrification projects.

Several years back (2001-2002) I had the privilege of serving with the chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the Hon. Quentin Kopp ( right) while I was a member of the San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury and he was its advising judge. Judge Kopp impressed me with his vast knowledge, friendly, no-nonsense manner and interest in transportation. Later, I had further contact with him while as a public safety dispatcher for the County of San Mateo, wherein I would need to contact him to help officers set up emergency protective orders and the like.

During that time, Kopp struck me as a man of integrity. I can't think of a better man to see the system through its founding stages. Kopp is as fiscally conservative as they come in the Bay Area, is very knowledgeable about transit (his overestimation of SFO BART ridership aside) and won't let this project become a fiscal boondoggle. I don't think anyone else involved in its planning will either. So, "Yes" on 1A.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Taking advantage of financial turmoil

Left: The Australian dollar is at present worth about 62 cents (US).

One of the things I've learned (or at least had confirmed for me) while planning this Australian trip is that timing is everything. There were at least a couple instances while putting together this itinerary that showed me that acting early is not always the way to assure the best price.

Literally moments after I reserved my frequent flier tickets on United, I headed to the Qantas website to reserve a one way ticket to Darwin from Perth. I had always believed that the cheapest seats are generally the ones reserved first. Not the case. Five days after I bought my ticket, Qantas had a sale and the price for the same seat dropped by about $90 (US). I was short on luck, despite speaking to sympathetic Qantas folks.

A similar thing happened with my hotel rooms, but this time it worked out in my benefit. As depressing as the fall in the American dollar has been, the Australian dollar has fallen even more. When I began planning this trip, the Oz buck was worth about 90 cents (US). As of this morning, it was worth about 62 cents (US).

I had arranged lodging early, but hearing of the drop in the Oz dollar, I decided to see if there were any better deals. There were. I found a same-class hotel in Perth, literally across the street from my previous hotel, with free broadband Internet (important for blogging!) for about $100 US less (including the fee for cancelling my previous reservation). In Sydney, I was able to jump from a 3-star hotel on the outskirts to a better-located 5-star hotel in the central business district for $100 less, after currency conversions and cancellation fees were taken into account. (Sofitel Sydney Wentworth -- even the name sounds fancy!)

While I commiserate with my Aussie pals over their declining dollar, you can bet my bottom (US) dollar that I'm going to take advantage of the changing economic climate while I'm there!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

I can't wait until it's Nov. 5

Perhaps the worst part of election season is seeing people who normally promote themselves as forward-thinking individuals admit to actually hating people who run on a platform of beliefs different from theirs. Maybe I'm a bit idealistic, but short of advocating genocide, I really can't see a belief that your possessing would make me hate you. I might think you're an idiot or naive, but that's an entirely different thing.

Am I voting for these guys? Maybe.
We've seen it from both sides in this election. In fact, for the extremes, this election is not about the candidates. The far right, not happy with the Republican candidate, are putting together a nasty assault against the Democratic candidate instead of promoting John McCain (I had originally written "nastier than usual" there, but it's almost always this nasty). The far left, looking past any merits Barack Obama might have, are operating a smug-sounding campaign against a decent candidate simply because he's from the same party as the failed incumbent.

Are these folks worthy of my vote? Possibly.

It's been so bad that I refuse to be associated with either side. The college student who rents our spare room put an "Obama" sticker up in her (street-facing) window last month. As someone who tries to keep a neutral front (thanks to my days as a print journalist), I was actually a bit offended, because I didn't want the neighbors making presumptions about us. I even bought a McCain sticker to put up as a counter, but it's still in its envelope because I don't want anyone in the household to make assumptions about me. (I would have gotten some third-party stickers as well, but Bob Barr, Cynthia McKinney and Ralph Nader all charge more for their stickers than I'm willing to pay to make such a small point.)

I like Obama, his enthusiasm for social issues and his ability to encourage participation. I like McCain, his independent streak and his history of service. I hate Biden's dullness (and eyebrows) and loathe Palin's disavowal of natural selection. I will be neither unhappy nor perfectly satisfied if either side wins.

What's worse is that the electoral college system is so dated. There's almost no point in voting for a McCain/Palin ticket if you live in California or the Obama/Biden ticket if you live in Texas. It's ridiculous. Sorry Kansas and Wyoming, I know the electoral college is there so someone actually pays attention to your small-state issues, but it's not good democracy. With modern mass media (including the Internet), anyone can make their cause known no matter how Podunk their home town is. This de facto lack of choice is why I voted for a third-party candidate in each of the last two elections.

With all those issues, I really can't wait until it's Nov. 5 and the election is over and done with.

Actually, since I'll be in Australia -- over the International Date Line -- come election day (I'll send in my absentee ballot before I leave), I guess I actually can't wait until Nov. 6 ...

Friday, October 24, 2008

A couple out-of-the-way San Francisco secrets (or practicing at playing tourist)

Above: Downtown San Francisco as seen from the top of San Bruno Mountain.

Lots of people who live in or near towns renowned for their tourist trade, such as San Francisco, rarely get to see what makes their area such a magnet. In my case, I first came to the Bay Area on a tourist basis -- long before I moved here -- so I got a little idea of what might impress the out-of-towners. Specifically, I've learned some places off the beaten track. My friend Rob's visit this week was an opportunity to play tourist a bit for myself -- after all, my Australian trip begins six days from today.

Claire and Ian took Rob through the usual tourist haunts of Golden Gate Park and the Golden Gate Bridge on Sunday while I was working. So when I had Tuesday off, I took Rob to one of the area's best-kept secret wonders: San Bruno Mountain Park.

Not only does the park have a great picnic area and good hiking trails, but anyone who likes scenic vistas will appreciate the view from the summit of the 1,314-foot peak. There is an almost 360-degree view of the north Peninsula (you might have to walk around a radio tower to see it all) and stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco skyline (see above). The entrance to the park is clearly labeled off of Guadalupe Canyon Parkway (accessible from Daly City or Brisbane), admission is just $5 per car and you can drive all the way up Radio Road to the top.

On Wednesday, we picked Ian up from school and went to Half Moon Bay where Rob -- the former Navy man -- wanted to "see some boats." So we went out to Pillar Point Harbor, where one can walk along the pier to get close to the small fishing fleet docked there. We then proceeded to a pumpkin patch off of Highway 92, where Ian merrily ran through the assorted squashes. San Mateo County's coastside agricultural output is surprising considering the urbanization on the bay side. Below: Ian, a big Star Wars fan, finds his boat at Pillar Point.

On Thursday, despite my having to work in the daytime, Rob and I had just enough time to blow some quarters at Malibu Grand Prix (where he smoked me both on virtual video and real go-cart tracks) before heading into SF to catch BART to Oakland. We alighted in downtown Oakland then made our way to Jack London Square, where Mr. Roy -- who had been jonesing for a formal seafood dinner all week -- finally got his swordfish at Scott's Seafood Restaurant. He said his meal was excellent, although my Petrale Sole was just OK.

But the real highlight was the trip back, where we availed ourselves of the Oakland Ferry terminal a block from the square. A nighttime ferry ride across San Francisco Bay is a low-light photographer's dream, with spectacular views of the SF skyline from as soon as one clears the Oakland Estuary. A good use of $6.25 (although the last ferry leaves early -- 8:55 p.m. -- on weeknights).

Ironically the ferry ride ended up at probably the most overtly tourist place Rob went with me during his visit -- Fisherman's Wharf. Of course, that was palatable when combined with a nice, rich sundae at Ghiradelli Square.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Why the Phillies deserve to lose the World Series

I generally have no problems with the fine folks in Philadelphia. It's a "great, historic" city that gets a bad rap. (It's subway does stink, though). But I don't want the Phillies, who beat the Tampa Bay Rays 3-2 Wednesday in the opening game of the World Series, to win the championship.

The Phillies, one of baseball's "great, historic" franchises, have boasted fine employees such as Hall of Fame players Chuck Klein and Mike Schmidt. But the entertainment crew working the game on June 1, 2005 at Citizen's Bank Park forever sullied my opinion of the team.
Me and Ian at the Phillies-Giants game in Philadelphia on June 1, 2005.

Claire, Ian and myself went to the game that night, right when Ian was at his cutest. I pleasantly enjoyed the ballpark, especially after taking a walk around the facility with the boy on my back. When we got back to our seats, it was just as the scoreboard cameraman -- who had been putting cute kids on the screen all night -- was walking by.

We held Ian up, resplendent in his little baseball outfit. The cameraman came right up to us, saw Ian in his Giants jersey, and walked off. Claire was livid.

I was upset, but figured at least we didn't risk haven't the Philadelphia crowd boo a little kid. Below: Denied by the cameraman!

One funny story: Philly fans are, of course, notorious for their heckling, yet Claire and Ian were in their Giants gear. Apparently, as Claire tells it, while Ian and I were on our walk around the stadium, she cheered some Giants success. The Phillies fans to her right gave her a glare, to which Claire jokingly responded "Are we gonna fight?" (Such aggression!) The Philadelphians laughed, and said, "Oh, you've heard about Philadelphia fans." Respect earned all around.

Go Tampa Bay!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Going right back to the 20th Century (for a few days at least)

No, there's nothing wrong with my nice new iPhone. My step back to the past is due to the more fundamental -- I have no e-mail, at least for the weekend.

The server up at Humboldt State University is being upgraded, so since late Friday and extending to at least late Sunday I'm without e-mail. (I gotten to keep my university e-mail address for 12 years now because I anted up and paid for a lifetime membership in the alumni association. Best money I've ever spent, considering how often I change ISPs, and it made my application for a student discount on my recent Mac purchase seem all the more legit.)

I've had to fight the temptation to check my e-mail every few minutes, but other than that, I've discovered that I don't really need to check e-mail that often. It'll be good practice for my Australian trip, where I may face up to four days in a row without Internet access. It's good to know I'm not going to feel naked.

Another blast from the past (and a good reason to avoid constant e-mail checking) is that my good friend Robert Roy (he's got a blog too!) has finally gotten out to visit us and meet Ian. Good job Rob, it only took you 4.83 years! I look forward to showing him about town. Right: Rob in 1988.

Moving to the Bay Area almost 14 years ago has definitely contributed to the deterioration of ties with my old friends deteriorate, but I'm trying to reconnect. Not that staying in the Glendale area would have helped -- of the three main people I hung out with in high school, one's moved to Georgia, one to Nevada and Rob now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We're a wandering bunch ...

Left: For comparison, me in 1989, check out the hair and shirt!

In an aside, I visited Crescenta Valley High School's website in order to pull me and Rob's senior photos. To illustrate how things of changed, I paid $24 for both myself and my date (tickets were sold as a pair) to go to Homecoming in 1988. This year, tickets are only sold individually, cost $35 each and everyone has to show an electronic student ID to enter the dance. Sheesh.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

I've finally joined the late 20th Century!

Happy happy, joy joy! Yesterday I finally bit the bullet and got a cell phone. Twelve years after I first sold them to unsuspecting customers at a Radio Shack in Daly City, I got one myself.

And not just any phone. I got an iPhone!

I've never thought a cell phone was necessary. I've done what people are supposed to do -- make plans ahead of time and stuck to them. People looked at me funny when I told them I was phone-less, but I actually felt good about it. But I figured the time was right, with my trip coming up. The iPhone's web browser will give me good, needed connectivity in Australia.

And if was going to get an iPhone, I needed a computer that could handle it. The youngest computer we had was six years old, so while I was at the Apple Store in Burlingame anyway, I got a new MacBook (good timing, it it was just updated on Tuesday).

So I've not blogged, and this is going to by a short post, for the strange-sounding reason that I've been on the computer so much!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Westminster, Westschminster

Hier, l'élection fédérale canadienne a été juste une autre illustration des problèmes inhérents dans le système de Westminster.

Où d'autre, mais dans un système de Westminster une personne peut-elle voir comme un titre que j'ai vu sur le site de Radio-Canada ce matin: «Canadians 'voted to move our country forward,' Harper says of strong minority?» Qu'est-ce que l'enfer est une "forte minorité".

Le principal problème de Westminster, à mon avis, est que je pourrais comme la personne en cours d'exécution pour le député de ma circonscription mais la haineux chef de parti (ou vice-versa). Pourtant, si je décide de voter pour le politicien local, je suis également en vigueur de vote pour le chef du parti d'être PM. Non merci, je tiens à élire mon représentant local et le chef du pays séparément.

En fait, j'ai toujours été d'avis que le Président des États-Unis devrait être de la partie qui ne contrôle pas le Congrès. Je pense qu'il ya de meilleurs contrôles et des équilibres de cette façon.

Le système de Westminster bouleverser l'aile gauche, parce que quelqu'un comme Stephen Harper est susceptible de conduire au Canada avec une "forte" minorité. L'aile droite aux États-Unis peut être reconnaissants que il n'y a pas de système de Westminster ici, sinon, Nancy Pelosi serait en charge.

Pour cette question, seulement au Canada, peut faire un parti séparatiste, comme le Bloc québécois officiellement devenir "Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition".

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

All keyed in, or is that keyed out?

One of the reasons I wasn't as successful as I would have liked as a police dispatcher (although I loved the job and would go back immediately if hired) was that I'm not the world's fastest typist. Dispatch work involves quickly putting a lot of short, incomplete sentences into the CAD* -- sentences that are often dictated over a scratchy radio channel and involve a lot of numbers: codes, VINs, license plates, etc.

I self-trained as a typist, with my style evolving from my journalism experience -- writing long, coherent, well-flowing sentences. So moving to the staccato typing necessary in a 911 center proved difficult. I spent an easy summer on day shift, where things don’t happen as fast and I could catch up on the keyboard. But when I rotated to weekend swing shift, I had trouble keeping up with 30 cops on the radio, making traffic stops, checking driving or criminal records and such, all the while with phones ringing off the hook. It’s a multi-tasker’s paradise.

After leaving dispatch, I knew that whether or not I ever work in a 911 center again, I needed to improve my typing skills. So when I enrolled at Skyline College this fall to take a microeconomics class that is a prerequisite to my planned master’s program (I just got an A on the economics midterm, by the way), I decided to take a keyboarding skills development class.

It was a short-term, 1.5 unit class (for credit/no-credit at that), and I had my final tonight. The endeavor went well, with a couple annoyances. First, the class was advertised as an “online” class, with students supposedly coming in only for orientation, a mid-term and the final. But the only online part was e-mailing a weekly summary report generated by the proprietary PC-based software –- a special annoyance as I use a Mac and don’t do Windows. So I had to both spend a lot of time at the college’s computer lab and load a copy of the software into Virtual PC, which is notoriously slow.

Another difficulty was that the software (Cortez Peters Championship Keyboarding Drills) encourages accuracy over speed. Not that that’s a problem -– heck it was one of the things drummed into my head in the dispatch center. But in this program, the use of the delete key was prohibited. I love the delete key. With the delete key eliminating my errors, I can get up 52 words a minute with nice, error-corrected copy.

But errors are not permitted in Peters’ program. You mistype, you start over. In having to slow down enough to be perfect, my typing speed has dropped to about 31 words per minute. Frustrating, as I know I can be faster, but I’ve certainly seen my error rate decline.

Finally, speaking of frustration, there was an exercise that was constantly hair-pulling-ly annoying. Take a normal, sense-making paragraph and – in the name of concentration – type it backwards.

Three times in a row, without a single error.

Example, from the first paragraph of this post: .cte ,setalp esnecil ,sNIV, sedoc :srebmun fo tol a evlovni dna lennahc oidar yhctarcs a revo detatcid netfo era secnetnes -- *DAC eht otni … you get the idea.

Ugh. Try it, it’s hard

* Computer Assisted Dispatch program

Monday, October 13, 2008

Australia Itinerary Online (plus my nose aches)

Just a quick one tonight: the intinerary for my Australian trip is finally posted (had to figure out some permissions with my website). You can check it online here.

I visited my doctor for a follow-up this morning, and she finally pulled the string on the tampon-like sponge stuck three inches up my nose all weekend. Ouch. Her pulling caused a nice, gushing nosebleed which she stemmed by stuffing with cotton. All went well, and she prescribed a light regime of nasal steroids to prevent a recurrence of any polyps.

The doctor did make one comment, that my polyp was "huge" (her words) -- about an inch-and-a-half long. Yecch. And she did confirm that I did wake up in the operating room and didn't imagine the whole episode.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Grad-School Application is in

Today I sent off my application for San Francisco State University's Master's in Public Administration program to the California State University system. I'm generally expecting to be admitted, as I've met the minimum requirements (BA, 3.0 GPA in last 60 units, etc.) and have good references.

There's still more to do -- I have to forward transcripts, letters of recommendation and an introduction letter directly to the grad program. There is a chance I might have to wait until attending, as I'm applying for a Spring 2009 slot and space is limited (especially with economic casualties returning to academia).

The most challenging part for me (and no doubt many other grad school applicants) was the purpose statement. How to summarize why one wants to/is worthy to attend grad school in 500 words or less? I think I managed to highlight my purpose fairly well in the following submission, although the end was rushed (it's more than 500 words, but within the 3,500 characters permitted):

When I was very young I wanted to be a cowboy. Not one of those rawhide-driving, cattle-moving cowpokes, mind you – that’d be much too filthy a job. No, I wanted to come into town with my 10-gallon hat and six shooter, amble into the saloon and solve the locals’ problems. I guess, in effect, I really wanted to be the Lone Ranger.

Which possibly led to my next career goal: being a police officer. After high school, I took a few classes here and there toward that goal and eventually got an associate degree in administration of justice. But the media classes I took en route to that degree had more of an effect than I expected. I discovered a joy for writing and not only transferred to my four-year university as a journalism major, but did so after working at a series of local papers.

Bachelor’s degree in hand, I began to work for a local paper in the Bay Area. Covering a sleepy Peninsula town meant one was always on the lookout for story ideas. Crime and punishment stories were generally out of the question because there was no way my weekly paper could beat the dailies. Instead I had to work on more “feature-y, behind-the-scenes” stories. This meant talking to “feature-y, behind-the-scenes” people.

Going beyond the mayors and councilpersons, I spoke with city managers, department heads and planners. Attending city commission meetings introduced me to the folks who got the real work done in local government. Covering local relief efforts during the Kosovo War introduced me to the directors of a couple local non-profits, and I discovered something: The mayors, supervisors and other elected officials get all the press, but it’s the public administrators who do all the work. Those same public administrators often toil in silence, but they keep the machinery going.

That sense of duty appealed to me. I had started out wanting to eventually be the male equivalent of Christiane Amanpour – a dashing foreign correspondent that worked in real (i.e. print) journalism. Instead, I found myself wanted to get down in the trenches, helping the community on a more real level, even if it wasn’t at all dashing. I left journalism (the failure of my newspaper contributed to that), took a couple public safety jobs with local governments, and felt good.

But I want to advance. I don’t want to just be a cog in the machine; I want to be a piston, if not eventually a steering wheel – i.e., one who helps decide the direction of a community. Public administration appeals to me because of its broader implications. San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who formerly was the City’s Director of Neighborhood Services, summarized my feelings nicely on his campaign website when he wrote: “It is really government on a local level that has the power to change lives in a tangible way … by honoring the public trust, by being timely, responsive and respectful and by taking it day by day, one problem at a time.”

That’s my opinion as well. A community member may never deal with the federal government outside of sending a check to the IRS each April, but that same member may also take the bus to work each day, watch the local police and firefighters save lives on a regular basis and check books out of their local library weekly. That immediacy of working with the public and helping to meet its needs is why I want to advance my career with a Masters of Public Administration from San Francisco State University. Indeed, I can think of no finer way to enhance my service to the community.

What do you thinK?

Saturday, October 11, 2008

None the worse for wear

Surgery went just fine yesterday. Everyone was very nice at the hospital and things went quite well. I had a very slight sore throat when I woke thanks to a breathing tube, but that subsided within an hour. I had a dull ache in my nose, but no real pain afterward -- making the doctor's prescription of vicodin unnecessary. Claire picked it up (along with some prescribed antibiotics) at the pharmacy anyway, since it was only about $5 after insurance. Maybe I can resell it to a pusher in the Tenderloin (just kidding, any law enforcement web crawlers!).

Photo below: Me about an hour after surgery.

I woke up as I was being wheeled out of the operating room and said "That didn't take long." Someone, maybe my doctor asked, "How did you know?" "I looked at the clock," I replied, having been put out about 12:43 p.m. and waking up around 1:35 p.m. Of course, I was high on drugs, so there might have been no doctor, no clock and I might have actually woken up in the recovery room ...

As the photo above shows, I've got a patch of gauze under my nose to pick up any "leakage." It has to be changed every few hours, but hasn't been particularly disgusting. I also have some gauze shoved way up my nose, with a string hanging down like (pardon the analogy) a tampon. That will be removed by the doctor on Monday. How far up? So far up I can breathe well out of the affected nostril.

I'm feeling fine, with only some cottonmouth as a problem. I also have a slight taste of blood in the back of my mouth, as I was warned that I might. The gauze deep in the nose is annoying and the gauze under the nose is a problem when I eat.

I didn't cover a football game last night, although I think I might have been able to -- had I been driven to the stadium by someone else. I'm well enough to be writing this from work today, if that's any indication as to my health.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The saddest day of the year ...

When I was a kid, I always thought that the saddest day of the year was Oct. 9 -- the day after my birthday. A year of anticipation has passed, the presents have been unwrapped and there's nothing to look forward to but leftover cake. (One of my most pleasant recurring childhood memories was snagging leftover cake pieces off my mom's cheap plastic plates.)

Now that I'm older, the saddest day of the year is probably my birthday itself. I'm a year closer to middle age. No, I'm just kidding -- my birthday was a pleasant experiance, as usual. Ian bought me a purple toy lightsaber so we can have duels in the living room (or, as Claire would prefer, outside). I can act the part of Mace Windu, because not only do I have a purple saber, like Samuel L. Jackson, I'm a bad mo-fo. I also got Iron Man on Blu-Ray, a good map of Australia for my trip and various other knick-knacks. Not a bad haul, altogether.

This year, Oct. 9 is kind of a transitional day. I've got the usual day-after-birthday stuff going on, but also have been working on my grad school application and -- of course -- am planning for surgery tomorrow. I'm not worried, but do wonder if I should be erring on the side of caution and getting some more stuff in order. Eh, I'll probably be safe just not eating after midnight -- just like a Mogwai!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Australia trip FAQ

With my three-week trip to Australia departing in three weeks and a day (an Excel itinerary will be posted on my blog shortly), I thought it was time to answer some of the questions I hear often. Feel free to submit more in the comments.

John Baker’s 2008 Australia trip:
Frequently Asked Questions

What appeals to you about Australia enough to visit for three weeks?
Australia is the oldest, strangest continent on the planet. The terrain, flora and fauna are unique. The people – whether descended from convicts or recent immigrants looking for a chance to make their mark – have an appealing pioneer spirit. I’ve also wanted to see the southern sky at night – a whole new set of constellations appeal to my interest in astronomy. Plus I sort of speak the language -– although Sean, my Aussie-born former supervisor, may disagree.

Why aren’t you taking your wife and son? Isn’t it strange to not bring them? Wouldn’t this be a great educational opportunity for Ian? Aren’t you going to miss them? Etc.
Neither of them can get the requisite time off. Claire’s got an important, worthy job and young Ian is in a special pre-school program. I know it sounds somewhat selfish, but I also travel more efficiently alone. I’ll see more in the same time frame. Also, Ian is four – he won’t appreciate being on a train for four days, nor will he remember much of what he sees. He did ask, “Can I go to Australia with you next time?” To which I immediately replied, “Yes.” I will miss them terribly, but that’s what the Internet and phone are for.

Claire’s letting you leave her alone with Ian for three weeks? She must be a saint.
She absolutely is, no question. She has been amazingly understanding and I love her so much for being so. Besides, they get to go to Disneyland while I’m away.

Why are you taking this trip now? This isn’t the best economic time to take a long vacation.
No, but the economic climate is bound only to get worse in the short term, so it’s probably now or never (or at least now or when I’m really old). But more pressing are my long-term plans. I’ll be in grad school soon, then (hopefully) have a good job that I’ll likely be required to spend a lot of time at before I can get significant time off. This semester, all my classes are online and I’m working at a job where I can – with good notice – get the requisite time off.

How much is this going to cost, by the way?
I’ve budgeted just short of $4,000 for this voyage – all of it saved up for beforehand -– not counting a little money set aside for the time I’ll miss from work (I have vacation left this year, but not three weeks worth). I’ve put bits and pieces away gradually and a large chunk of that came from more than a month’s worth of accrued vacation/comp time paid out when I left working for the city of San Mateo. I’ll be cutting costs by eating a lot of fast food, using student discounts (including a cheap train pass that’s make me sit upright for six nights), staying in hostels and other thrifty means. But the best cost savings is in the airfare – I’m using 220,000 frequent flyer miles to go down in business class for practically free (I’m only spending $112 in fees).

How the heck did you accumulate enough frequent flyer miles to get to Oz in business class? I know you don’t fly that much.
Actually, I did have about 25,000 miles from actual flying. But, yes, most of my miles are from non-flying sources. For one, I put everything I can on my mileage-earning credit card (which I always pay off in full each month so there’s no interest). Utilities, food, school, taxes, etc. I also took advantages of bonuses where I could: 15,000 miles for investing $10,000 in a Fidelity account, for example (re-invested once I got the miles); 8,000 miles for opening a Netbank account; 21,000 miles for opening a second credit card account (and then cancelling it later). It adds up.

Why aren’t you going to Melbourne, Brisbane, Queensland, Tasmania, etc.?
Because it’s a whole freakin’ continent and I only have three weeks! I had to prioritize and even so, it feels rushed. I’ve expanded my schedule more than I originally figured as it is. For example, I wasn’t planning to go to Canberra but found a great airfare from Sydney and figured that was a better cultural day trip than Melbourne and Brisbane (which were my other options).

Why so little time in Sydney?
With the short time allotted for the trip, I figured I’d use it to explore places I’d be unlikely to visit again (hence Darwin, Uluru, etc.). If I’m ever in Australia again, it’ll probably be in (or at least through) Sydney. I do intend to pack in as much possible in the two-and-a-half days I’m there.

On that tangent, why so much time in Perth?
I’ve wanted to visit Perth for a long time, ever since the University of Western Australia sent me a post-grad recruitment letter. There’s something about being in the most remote big city in the world that appeals to me. I also think a little down time on a vacation is good and look forward to spending time lounging on an Indian Ocean beach. Moreover, train schedules limit when I arrive and depart an area and I figured it was more practical to spend extra days here than in Darwin.

Are you going to climb Uluru (aka Ayers Rock)?
I had long planned to, then learned the Aboriginal community holds it sacred and requests guests not do so. Most people who know me know that I’m usually not one to be restricted by someone else’s religious beliefs, but think of it this way: would Catholics like a non-Catholic climbing the Sistine Chapel? Would a non-Muslim be allowed to sit on the Kaaba? I figure it’s best not to offend and the walk around Uluru is still supposed to be wonderful.

Do the drains really flow in the opposite direction in the Southern Hemisphere?
We’ll find out. I plan on keeping a sink/toilet drain tally on my blog.

What’s the most exotic place you’ll visit on this trip?
San Luis Obispo, Calif. -– Since I’m not paying for it and I love to fly, I’m taking the long way home: Sydney to Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo to San Francisco.

Monday, October 6, 2008

A brief musical interlude

It was probably the early 1990s when I was last current with my musical tastes, but working long, boring hours (check the time of this post),having a good Internet connection at work and flipping on the iPod when exercising has exposed me to a lot more modern music than I otherwise would've been.

BBC Radio 1, as stated in an earlier post, has gotten the bulk of my listening. Nova 96.9 (from Sydney) has gotten a lot of play as well, thanks to my upcoming Australia trip. Considering that I've generally had "foreign" radio exposure lately, my favorites have been a bit eclectic.

Having caught "That's Not My Name" on the Beeb in April, I soon became a fan of The Ting Tings (whom I might previously avoided simply because of their name) and was insipired to buy my first album from a "new" artist in probably about 15 years. "Great DJ" is a highlight of the album, "We Started Nothing."

Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl" was an over-played, over-rated gimmick. But her follow-up single "Hot N Cold" is an inspired piece of power pop that might have been recorded by the likes of Pat Benatar 25 years ago. It's catchier than that "Kiss" song and has some clever lyrics.

A couple white kids from Brooklyn have blended an intriguing combo of soul, 1970s psychedelia and modern club music in the form of MGMT. Their song "Kids" (which only has an UNofficial video on YouTube) has a spine-tingling synthesizer hook that sticks with you.

I also grew to like a certain Miley Cyrus song, as I stated in the above-mentioned previous post. I still make no apologies.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Going under the knife (endoscope, actually)

A couple springs ago I had really bad hay fever sandwiched by a series of colds that put a lot of stress on my sinuses. I've had moderate allergies for some time, but this series was unusual in that it continued for almost two months, after which my left nostril -- and only my left nostril -- was consistently snotty.

In the fall of 2006, while clearing the aforementioned left nostril, I felt a small growth. The growth was basically obstructing the left nostril, causing airflow problems, snoring and (apparently) contributing to my mucous problem. A quick self-diagnosis indicated I had a nasal polyp. Because nasal polyps are typically benign, and this one's problems have been manageable -- and because I have terrible insurance -- I've let it go until now.

But with the trip to Australia forthcoming, I've decided now's the time to act. I'll be doing a lot of hiking, so good airflow's important. I'll be sleeping on crowded trains and in hostels, so I'd rather not bother the folks around me with loud snoring. I'm also just plain fed up with spending a small fortune on Kleenex. So last month I saw a doctor, who referred me to an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist.

I described my symptoms to her, and she said that I probably just had severe allergies as nasal polyps are rare. No sooner did she look inside my nose, however, than she said, "Oh! You were right, you do have a polyp." (I felt somewhat vindicated.) Since it was one large polyp, the doctor said a quick endoscopic surgery would probably have better results than medication, and I agreed. She set me up for a CT scan (if you're going to be poking around near the brain, better to have a look around first) and then a surgery date.

I had my pre-operation appointment yesterday and we confirmed that I will be having surgery on Friday, Oct. 10, a week from today, at Seton Medical Center in Daly City (pictured).

The doctor will go up my nostril with an endoscope, essentially scrape away the polyp and then cauterize the removal spot. There will be no cutting from the outside. Originally, I had thought I could get by with just a local anesthetic, but she confirmed yesterday that I will indeed be out for the operation. The procedure should take about two hours and then I'll be free to go once I'm awake (barring any complications, of course).

I will be going home with my nose stuffed with gauze, bandaged and possibly with some bruising and/or a black eye. I will have to change the gauze frequently in the first few days, as it will become saturated with a disgusting mix of snot and blood. Nice. But I should recover completely within about two weeks and be able to make the 14-hour plane trip and three-week excursion with ease.

Of course, it will be spring then Down Under and my allergies will probably kick in. Sigh.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

It's like a FPS — that costs $500,000

A cellphone-made photo of me behind the wheel of SamTrans' bus simulator at the agency's North Base. With me is SamTrans training manager Jeff Johnson. Photo by Ed Proctor

After tonight's SamTrans Citizen's Advisory Committee meeting — at which my cohorts unanimously passed my resolution accepting the need for a 2009 fare increase, but noting certain reservations — members took a tour of SamTrans' North Base facility, near San Francisco International Airport.

We saw the sprawling storage yard, maintenance garages, brake testing machines, dispatch center and crew facilities. But the most interesting thing on the tour was SamTrans' bus simulator, for which I was lucky enough to get a turn.

Made by a company that also makes flight simulators, the bus simulator provided a fairly realistic experience. You are surrounded 360 degrees by video screens, realistic sounds, force feedback on the steering wheel and vibrations resembling a diesel engine emanating from under the seat. A computer can simulate real traffic and weather conditions and I "drove" in a heavy urban setting, complete with heavy rain and suffocating fog (or, as I call it, summer in Daly City).

Driving a bus is a little more difficult than driving a car, or even a U-Haul truck (the biggest vehicle I have actually driven). The length of the vehicle makes tight turns very difficult, the heavy mass makes it almost impossible to stop quickly and smoothly and the power of the diesel engine is deceptive. Despite getting a mild case of vertigo (reminicent of playing Doom), I drove the equivalent of a couple miles and did fairly well: three curb strikes; five missed turn signals, mostly while changing lanes (the turn signals were in an unfamiliar place — the floorboard); one dead pedestrian.

To be fair, the last one was on purpose. Really.