Saturday, November 09, 2013

Good Riddance, Bank of America

I am very, very lucky to be able to own my house. Like most folks, we have a note to pay. We just received notice of the sale of our note by Bank of America. This is good news.

Never missed a payment, was never late. Wasn't a rock bottom rate, but it wasn't usury. But I'm really glad to be done with BoA. This is a mega bank that was too big to fail. Icing on the cake was after being informed or note was sold: we received yet another "pay us next month" bill from BoA. I suppose this is all computer generated, but on logging in to their online system, I'm told that we no longer have an account with them. And of course, their phone service is available when convenient for them. I'd just like to confirm who I'm supposed to pay, because the last thing I need is a robo-signer in my life. And BoA apparently has lots of those on staff.

I was eventually able to get a rep on the phone, and while she was reasonably pleasant, she confirmed that I wasn't subject to an elaborate scam. Indeed our note was sold, and she essentially wished me the best of luck with my new company. And in the best of BoA traditions, when I asked for a confirmation of the transaction - a copy of the transfer, perhaps a copy of the filing I'm sure they had to do in the real property records, I was albeit politely - flatly refused. No copies of receipts for me, not written confirmation of the transaction at all. "You can get that from your new company." Gee. Thanks. For. Nothing.

Run-ins with the BoA bunch started many years ago when the local Sea-First bank was gobbled up by BoA. The clownage started immediately, including refusing to recognize an inter-account transfer at an ATM, and charging a check twice (yes, a single check was debited twice.) Calls about these items were of course blamed on "policies" and were somehow the our fault. We moved all our banking out, but were stuck with the house note with them. Until recently. And this is good news. So long.

These mega-banks are "too big to fail." I rather get that, but...maybe they shouldn't be. Kinda feels nice to not be sending at least this one any more money.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Bicycle Adventures: Hawai'i 2012

Our annual bicycle trip was the mid February Bicycle Adventures Hawaii Classic tour. It was, just like all our previous trips with BA, fantastic and amazing!

Last year's (2011) trip was the New Mexico Land of Enchantment trip in May. It too was a great trip, but somehow I never got around to writing about it. As it turns out, the trips had quite a few contrasts, so here's the perfect opportunity to write about them, and compare each.

The NM trip started in Albuquerque. It was hot and windy for the whole trip, but as I've mentioned before, the weather is what it is. One of the things about BA is that they make their trips rather seasonal, going to southern locations in the spring and fall, and northern climes during the heat of the summer. So, the February departure for the Hawaii trip was again perfect - just the time to get out of the Seattle rain and clouds.

Our guides in NM were Brad Sauber and Jeff Barth. Fun, fun people! And they sure knew how to make a trip come together. We did do a bit of rerouting on the NM trip, as there were some weather considerations, as well as some fires in the area. We rode every day, mostly I think because of all the planning for minor adjustment to the routes.

The Hawaii trip guides were Aaron Michalson and Jessica Marcotte. It is so fun to watch the guides in action. Jessica is new to the Hawaii trips this year, but you'd never know it unless she had told us. More on this later, but these folks work so hard, and yet always seem to have a BA smile on their face. It's something I think I figured this out when comparing the Hawaii trip to the one in NM: the only explanation is that there's a corporate culture of pride. It seems like everyone at BA is trying to somehow outdo the expectations or the other guides, the guests, the travel industry....hard to put my finger on. But seeing that van pull up with guides with huge smiles is Just. So. Cool.

One thing different we did this year was to leave our own bikes at home. This was a tough decision. It was great to have them on the trip to NM. I sure was glad we had them there, as the riding was in general a little longer and tougher. We got to Albuquerque on Southwest Airlines, a bike-friendly airline. The cost of Hawaiian airlines was twice the SWA fee of $50. Plus, the timing of the flights (who wants to deal with bike assemblage after a 6+ hour flight?) was such that I decided at the last minute to go with BAs (very nice) rentals. Thanks to Brad Barnard at the office (and Julie and Heidi as well) putting up with my angst over finding bikes that fit on the islands, we got to try out their Raleigh fleet.

Here's the scoop on BA bikes. They are nice. I brought pedals and saddles, and while they are essentially entry-level aluminum road bikes, they sport shimano 105 and are obviously cared for. My bike obeyed the principle of silence, the only noise coming from the wheels when I stood up. If I had been more obsessive about it, a touch of lube on the spokes would have solved the problem. For a trip longer that the Hawaii classic, I would have wanted my own bike though. The long day was a full century, and I was reminded why I blew a wad of dough on a titanium frame.

Both NM and Hawaii had great first day rides. There's a bit of shakedown to get situated on the bike, so some simple routes, a bit of time to feel out all the gear, and you're off. Both the NM and Hawaii trips had other guests that were clearly better cyclists than we are. The guides have a way of making that ok though. They will jump ahead to give support to the faster riders, but then simply turn around and come back for the rest of us. With 2 guides, one of them runs the van, and there is another guide on a bike each day.  Makes it easy easy easy.

So, enough of the generalizations - we were off in Hawaii after pickup at the Waikoloa Marriott. This is the before/after hotel, and we stayed here two nights on the trip as well. It is a monolithic resort hotel. Nice, big, pool, beach, smallish rooms, lots of kids and old people. Plenty to choose from. Nice staff. Good breakfast, but prototypical American breakfast buffet, and an egg chef that refused to make eggs basted. Oh well, go figure. I think that was the only request I made to anyone that week that was not accommodated. The view from breakfast made up for that. The Waikoloa Resort is something of a monolithic tropical resort. Guess Ill never get used to the idea that a hotel can be built without exterior walls and doors. The climate just doesnt require it here. Likely there is some emergency things hidden away these parts do get the occasional hurricane (or I guess they call them cyclones in this ocean) but the open plan of the resort on the beach iswhat you would expect to see in paradise. A few steps and youre on the beach. A very nice beach, I might add.

Jessica and Aaron picked us all up: Monica, also from Seattle, Tony and Celeste from Detroit (and UM grads too) and Stephen and Leslie from Vancouver BC-with me and Cindy seven in all. A perfect size. We vanned over to a park for a rolling downhill ride out to Waipio overlook. It was just like you see in the travel brochures! And here's another of those contrasts: NM is an ancient land. The cliff dwellings in Bandalier NP are millennia old. But the Hawaiian Islands borne of volcanic action and plate tectonics are new. Tropical paradise for sure, but you can stand on the shore and watch the land being made by the lava flows. Man came here only recently. On a bike strolling past, you begin to see a culture of leisurely life in the tropics, for not only the humans, but the creatures and fauna that preceded them.

Lunch was back at a local favorite: Tex's drive inn. A grilled fish burger for me, and our fist encounter with an island pastry- the marsalada. This is an evil, evil creation, full of calories and likely empty vitamins. But, the rule on BA trips for me is that I can eat whatever I want for a week. Yum.

A short van ride was a second part of the ride that wound though a lush canopy into Hilo. Waterfalls, winding scenic roads and views of the pacific surf. I discovered all types of indigenous trees I've never seen before. Some with winding many limbed trunks, others with huge spreading top canopies.

Beer cooler at the Hilo Hawaiian. After a quick shower, we met up for dinner in town at a pasta place. The pesto scallops were great! And as it does in Hilo, it rained. But, as the riding was done, I really didn't care, and it was actually rather peaceful. The Hilo Hawaiian was ok, but seemed like a resort hotel unchanged from the 60s. Nice location, but I do wonder if there are some other inns in Hilo BA might consider.

After another American breakfast the next day, a short van ride to a park took us to the start of a loop ride in the southeast corner of the island. Downhill to a historic church, then out to where the lava flowed over the road. We turned back and followed a rolling road along the shore. Waves on the shore with great road surfaces was a great ride! We took the optional loop ride to the north before lunch. Aaron had made fish tacos, and all kinds of yummy sides, chips, m&ms, (a BA staple) and fresh fruit. More yum!

The return ride had a feature Aaron was a little secretive about. Well, not secretive at all, but while he did say there was a climb back to the road, he said it was 8%. My garmin said it was 15%. For about 1/2 a mile. Upon getting back to the van, I called him, with a mostly joking, hopefully understood to be good natured ribbing, a few naughty, naughty names. I got up it, having stopped a few times, but made it I did. And passing through a rain shower on the downhill back to the van was fine. It cooled me off, and washed away some sweat. More beer cooler, and a short van ride to the Kilauea lodge.

A few things of note: Yes, this trip did have a few van transfers, but with only 9 people in the van, it was just fine. And fairly, I'd just as soon avoid dead miles. For example, Leslie and Stephen rode into the Kileuaea lodge for another 35 miles. I asked them about it, and they said, "it wasn't great." These are the words of dead miles. Not fun, not vacation, just transportation. I can do that at home, but to each their own.

Kilauea lodge is just outside the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This is a nice place, quiet and relaxing. Great food, perhaps the best on the trip. It is cozy, yet inviting. The kind of place you'd like to lounge about it without being at a Resort. Really nice grounds, hot tub, indoor places to sit and read. After dinner, we drove out to see the glow of the Kilauea crater. Very, very cool. We were lucky that it was a clear night. The stars above were just as impressive.

Next morning saw some drizzly rain to start our hike in the park. Aaron noted it was a fairly common occurrence, so we added a jacket. We hiked through a lava tube, and by the time we started off to the Inki crater, the sun had come out. Layers are the trick, as are good hiking shoes. It was a really spectacular hike-the crater rocks have fissures and steam vents. I gave them a wide berth.

The afternoon was left open for us to choose from. We returned to the park and went to the artists village shop. It is certainly worth the visit. We also got to the Orchid village. Very, very pretty. Commercial farming of orchids is something I'd not considered, but they do it here. There is a ride further up the Kilauea crater, but considering the next day had plenty of riding, we took a day off the bike. Dinner at the lodge was really good.

I rather expected rain the next morning, as Aaron said it is common. But it was a sunny sunrise, and the temps quickly warming. Easily a day for just shorts and jersey. In February! Today held a complete century from Volcano to Kona. The first 30 miles was downhill to a stop to see the green turtles at the black sand beach. Big reptiles, and very photogenic. Winding out, we started a climb by the shore, and here's where we had the only mishap of the whole trip - Cindy had a flat tire, complete with a torn tire. While I was fumbling with it Aaron came back to meet us and repaired it with a tire from his bike. He waited for the van, and we met up at the bakery in town. The ice cream and pastries were great!

We climbed, we rolled, we put the miles in. Beautiful road, low traffic, just a nice day on the bike. An abbreviated lunch stop at the van allowed us to get the full century in. No such thing as an easy century, but this one was rewarding. We rolled up at the hotel in time for beer cooler. Somehow, BA knows just how to schedule all this stuff. There's a fine line between being rushed and being idle. Just enough time to be relaxed, yet never feel bored. What a great day! Dinner that evening was again seafood. I hit the crab legs that were yummy, but way too much work.

Breakfast in the morning was right by the shore. Clear blue water you can see the fish swimming by while you partake of fresh fruit and baked goodies. A short van ride to the start of the ride let us bypass some rather unpleasant resort traffic, and we were soon on the road through the Kona coffee region. We stopped at Greenwell Farms, a local coffee producer. The tour of the operation is about 20 minutes, and very interesting. I had no idea the Kona growing region is so small-only a few miles stretch has a climate that the coffee trees like. Greenwell grows coffee as well as buys it for processing from other local growers. We had a sampling of different varieties, and picked up some beans to take home. They also sell a drink called "Kona Red" and extract of the coffee cherries. It's rather addicting. Try it!

Back on the bike, we cycled down to the beach where BA had yummy lunch ready. Nothing like relaxing on the beach in February in shorts and jersey. I could get used to this. The beach was near a Hawaiian "refuge" a place of historical significance for the indigenous people. They have done a nice job protecting and making it accessible. Take some time here to visit the artifacts.

We cycled out, and climbed to the painted church:  Very interesting architecture. As Cindy pressed ahead on a climb (she does that) Jessica kept me company on the bike. It sure was fun to have a riding partner to chat with in the hot sun. It is one of those things the guides do that is really nice...they are all great athletes, and surely have no trouble keeping up, but it is nice to have a relaxed partner there that hasn't heard all my stupid jokes and that actually laughs at them. Not sure how to put my finger on is just a nice personal touch, one that I don't think any of them are aware of, or how much it is appreciated.

The ride ended at a community co-op. Great ice cream to finish off the ride. We vanned off to a local bike shop to get some souvenir jerseys. Kona of course is ground zero for triathlon. They have the ironman world championships here. The bike shop was really well stocked, and I was rather surprised how competitive the prices were. Visit if you're in the market for anything bike related. Celeste and Tony opted to ride from the shop to the Waikoloa resort, as that stretch of highway is part of the ironman course. They arrived at sunset, and said it was spectacular.

The next day started with a snorkeling cruise arranged by BA. Another part of the multi-sport moniker that makes these vacations more than hop on a bike and ride till you drop. Sea Smoke is a nicely outfitted catamaran. The crew is super nice and clearly attentive to safety. The boat was full probably 40 or so of us, but it didnt seem cramped. It was easy to drop into the ocean by the reef the selected. Im not the best swimmer, but I could mange to float about a bit and see the sea creatures on the reef. Very, very cool. And the best part was being able to hear the humpbacks under water! No idea what they were saying; I dont speak humpback. They did seem to have an interesting Hawaiian accent though.

The catamaran had a sail, and the captain was able to rig it on the way back to the resort so we could observe the whales without running the propeller. Lots of breaching humpers quite spectacular. Glad to see the captain was keeping a slow, respectful distance. The humpers house, you know. Best if the guests behave.

The Waikoloa has a huge selection of shops, and lots to choose from for dinner on your own. We browsed a bit, and got a local artist print to add to our collection. We like to look for something to remind us of each of our trips.

Jessica and Aaron arranged a wine/cheese party on the beach that evening. We met up and relaxed as we watched the sun set. Aaron and Jessica have a talent they didnt let on until this point Aaron plays the ukulele and is a song writer! Jessica has a great voice, and this was the perfect, jolliest beach party ever. We toasted the trip, and marveled at beuatiful sky. Good, good times!

The last day of the trip was a hike and ride on the north side of the island. We vanned north, and had time to hike down to the beach. This isnt a little stroll the path was good, but rocky and a little technical. Most definitely worth the trip though the black sand beach was really nice. The surf riding up to the beach spectacular.

By the time we arrived back to the van the bikes were ready to go. We all decided to try our hand at the high road a bit of a climb. Sadly, this was the only day the weather wouldnt cooperate. Near the top of the climb, we encountered rain squalls and high crosswinds. I abandoned to the van with about 1000 left. Cindy pressed on, and we all met up at the top. All agreed the descent would be better in the van. The crosswinds would make it a bit to dangerous. The guides were rather relieved at this they dont relish needing to convince people to heed the safety advice.

We dropped of the hill to a really nice park by the shore for lunch. The salad and snacks Jessica made were exactly what I wanted. We were presented with the traditional BA certificates of completion. (I love these. Ive kept them all. They are posted on the wall of my home office to remind me that yes, work is only something I need to do between BA vacations.)

A short van ride back to the Waikoloa would be the end of our trip. Lots of logistics to attend to, but it was all handled in due course. Jessica and Aaron had another group to pick up the next morning. In some ways, these guides have the coolest jobs on the planet. In other waysthey work so very hard. I can only guess at the behind the scenes chores they must do the stuff the guests never see to make these trips come together so seamlessly. But come together it does, and when you get to the end, it just doesnt seem fair. You never want it to end. AndI did give passing thought to throwing my better sense to the wind how I wish I could have taken my cell phone out and made the arrangements to join that next trip. Id go around again. So. Much. Fun.

The return to the mainland through the Kona and Honolulu airports was (thankfully) uneventful. Im really glad we decided not to take our bikes and boxes. The rentals were great, and the big boxes would have been a terrible nuisance. It was mission accomplished on that regard this trip wasnt huge miles, and I really enjoyed doing other non-bike things. On a trip with huge miles, an epic trip, sure. Take your own bike, and obsess about the riding. But this Hawaii trip was just enough.

Some discussion and I think were planning the Bryce-Zion trip next. See you there!

Friday, May 20, 2011


“And many other members of Mission Control have gone on to other things, but some are still there. As for me, the seven extraordinary days of Apollo 13 were my last in space. I watched other men walk on the Moon, and return safely, all from the confines of Mission Control and our house in Houston. I sometimes catch myself looking up at the Moon, remembering the changes of fortune in our long voyage, thinking of the thousands of people who worked to bring the three of us home. I look up at the Moon and wonder, when will we be going back, and who will that be?” –Jim Lovell, Apollo 13.

I was an engineer at the NASA Johnson Space Center for 10 years during the Space Shuttle program. I went to Houston in late 1983 after graduating as an engineer from the University of Michigan, and stayed until 1993. I did and learned a lot of things. I studied how things work, contributed on planning space flights, even got the opportunity to teach others to fly and operate the space shuttle. In a few weeks, one will fly for the last time. It is a marvelous, marvelous triumph of technology and engineering.

But it is a Killer. Or to be more precise, the space shuttle program is a Killer. 14 astronauts have died in flight on space shuttles. All 14 of those deaths were attributable to foreseeable errors, and thus, each and every person that worked on this program has failed – failed to adhere to the principles of engineering and science. Humans need not die in space of known dangers. The unknown ones are bad enough.

There is no such thing as inherently safe technology. It is a myth. Humans find all kinds of ways to injure or kill themselves with artifacts of their own design. The space shuttle is no different than any other technology in that respect, but it is indeed complicated and intricate. Those responsible for its operation were, at times, negligent in their duty to respect it and its nature. Fairly, I was one of those persons, and my inability to constructively make a difference had at least something to do with my limited tenure at NASA-JSC. It was simply time to move on to the next chapter of my life. I never regretted it, and was always grateful for the lessons I learned at NASA.

I often think of Roger Boisjoly, a engineer at Morton Thiokol, who tried in vain to save OV-099 and its seven member crew. I was in building 30 when Challenger exploded, and I watched it live in the same building as the Mission Control Center. For a few seconds there was a huge “WTF?” in the room, then disbelief. “FDO reports the vehicle has exploded.” In hindsight, I always wondered why it was my initial instinct was to leave the building as quickly as possible. I knew the recovery plan would be for a lockdown, and I just didn’t want to be trapped with something I couldn’t control. I just wanted to be as far away as quickly as possible. I could also remember the comment at about -20 seconds when an observer in the room joked “I wonder how tight that teacher’s asshole is right about now?” Couple of minutes later, it wasn’t quite as funny. Roger tried for weeks to get his managers that had the power to stop the launch to act on his data – that the SRB seals had limits that were not understood. The organization would not listen, and thus broke engineering commandment #1: understand thy technology, lest it smite thee.

Diane Vaughn wrote about NASA’s “normalization of deviance” in _The Challenger Launch Decision._ Sometime after graduating from law school, I had this book pointed out to me by an acquaintance at a conference. When asked about my work at NASA and why I left, I compared NASA acts to murder. I was referred to Vaughn’s work, and was enlightened. She was indeed very correct about the culture and operation of NASA. Boisjoly remarked long after Challenger that the same pressures that led NASA to this “normalization of deviance” would drive it to the same errors again. He proved to be correct upon the loss of OV-102 in 2002. As the flight director is famously quoted as saying, upon being presented with evidence of damage to the spacecraft on launch “there isn’t anything we could do about it, so we will defer it to maintenance.” Not only was engineering commandment #1 being broken, but engineering commandment #2 was implicated as well: threaten not thy neighbor upon presentation of Data that could save your ass or thy neighbors’ ass.

Thirty years of operation of space shuttles comes to a close soon. As I type this, the final launch of OV-104 is planned for this coming July, and OV-105 is making its last orbits. When will we go back? I rather suspect soon, but on privately owned, rather than publically owned spacecraft. Why send humans into space? It surely isn’t for science – far more actual discovery (a/k/a “Science”) can be completed by robotic explorers. We have an operating space station, but it is unclear to me what kind and what quantity of actual science is being conducted on it. No, we send humans into space really for two reasons: 1. It is a innate part of humanity to explore – there is no substitute for reaching out and touching it; and 2. it makes kids want to take math and science classes so they can get the cool jobs of going out to touch new places. We can do both of these things in the private sector more efficiently. And fairly, mindful that there is a huge difference between a X-Prize lob to M3/ 100km, and orbital flight out to M25 and back, this is the status of technology today: spaceflight is a known science. We need to stop killing people by using bureaucratic political jobs programs as an excuse for space faring endevours.

I understand and appreciate the nostalgia popular as these last few shuttle flights are conducted. They are spectacular and thrilling to watch in operation. In something of a lesser fashion, I feel the same way about firearms and handguns. But this is not the first time dated and largely superfluous technology has been abandoned. In this case, it is necessary because the management of good science and engineering is apparently beyond our current capability. America is abandoning its role as a spacefaring nation, but that has happened in the past, most notably and tragically when we abandoned Apollo. JFK said we “…[went] to the moon, and do the other things, not because they [were] easy, but because they [were] hard.” We stopped going because the cost was too much to bear. Why abandon space shuttles? Well, perhaps now because they are all commanded by Captain Dunsel. And so be it – spaceflight is now a known science, and like all technology that matures, it is time to present it for use by the People. NASA can get back to R&D – if they dare.

As Susan Calvin pointed out, “You will see what comes next.”

-Richard Glover, JD, BSAE, CFIIAG
May 2011