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Archive for October, 2010

I went to get the bus to the grocery store, but ended up taking a chance on a crowded Starbucks – I was really hungry and didn’t want to wait any longer. There were a few seats available, but none of my favorites. So I ended up in a spot that no one really seems to favor – it’s always the last table to be occupied – probably because there’s no view of the outside. When folks are at Alki, they insist on a view!

But I settled down with my latte, scone, and Mark Twain’s hilarious account of a dinner campfire going out of control and burning much of a mountainside along the shore of Lake Tahoe (they went hungry that night!), followed by his stint as a mining prospector. I was there over an hour, totally engrossed in these tales, quite oblivious to the outside world – I may choose this seat more often from now on:) When I finally went out to get the bus, the Olympic Mountains had clear vanished and a wonderful misty rain had moved in. It was an unusual rain for Alki – because it was falling vertically, and thus possible to stay dry in! West Seattle rain almost always comes down at a 45 degree angle, drenching any part of a person not shrouded in GoreTex.

Also boarding the bus was a casual acquantaince I have known for years. I have many such aquaintances on the buses. He had been having coffee elsewhere and reading an old issue of The New Yorker. One of the articles had upset him to the extent that he wanted to get rid of the magazine – and so passed it on to me. OK:)

After I’d been to the store, I saw that the bus home was delayed, so I took the free shuttle van that takes people to the Water Taxi – and I had a novel experience. I gave up car ownership in 2001, before satellite navigation systems – SatNavs – were common equipment. This van had a SatNav. Believe it or not, I’ve never ridden in a vehicle equipped with a SatNav! Wow! Pretty slick! That’s one part of the world of technology that passed me by:) Good thing too! I’d have had my eyes glued to the SatNav rather than on the road ahead.

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Ten years ago, I would have dismissed the idea of going to Mars as a waste of money and resources. We surely could do better by mankind by devoting our energies to solving pressing problems down here on Earth. That was my opinion after many years in academia studying and researching hydrology and climatology.

I revisited that part of my life briefly after work, reading about the demise of the Aral Sea in Wikipedia. I remember the Aral Sea as a textbook example of an ecological catastrophe in the making. Back in 1990, when I was in graduate school, the Aral Sea had undergone considerable shrinkage over previous decades due to diversions for irrigation. It was predicted to have dried up completely by 2010. I think that’s the only textbook prediction that has been pretty much spot on. Well, it hasn’t completely gone – but there’s not a whole lot left – just two small remnants -the northern lake in Kazakstan, and the southern lake in Uzbekistan.

A remedial project for the northern lake was begun a few years ago, with the construction of a dyke intended to help raise the water level. It is showing some signs of success. As the water level has risen, salinity has decreased enough for some fish populations to start recovering. This is encouraging.

It’s a different story to the south in Uzbekistan, where no remedial action has been taken. In fact, the now-exposed lake bed is being opened up to exploration for oil and gas.

It will be interesting to check back in 2020!

Meanwhile, back in Seattle, I meet a lot of people like myself – old enough to remember a time when interesting jobs (though not necessarily well paid) seemed easier come by. My first real job in 1982 was with a company in London that did digital mapping, long before anyone had heard of GIS. My first job in the US involved programming old Hewlett-Packard PCs to make stuff happen – to make stepper motors move, power supplies put out more juice, to collect data on loggers, and then analyze and display results. A couple of years later I had a similar job in hydraulics research. What is astounding is that I got these jobs before I had even a BS degree. I had one year of college with a lot of math and science – and that was enough. This was the pre-MSWindows era. When you turned on a computer, you were confronted with nothing more than c:> YOU had to make it do something
– and if you knew how, you could make a nice position for yourself:)

I am in retail now. I think it’s all that’s left of our economy – or soon will be. We have had a lot of computer problems at work. Serious problems. The techies at the company that developed our software platform are completely flummoxed. Every fix they make just makes more problems. I don’t envy them. It’s not just that networked systems are far more complex than anything I worked with (for which most problems could be addressed simply by diving into the autoexec.bat or config.sys files and seeing what silliness resided). What is unfortunate is that these young smart geeks have such boring projects to work with. So much human endeavour is squandered just so that we can keep track of sales and inventory of tins of Obamamints at each of our stores!

That’s why we need a big space exploration project – to give the bright young minds of today something to get excited about – so that the fun and interesting jobs I enjoyed in the 1980s can make a comeback. So that it’s actually worth going to college and learning something.

I’m hardly a history buff, but I enjoyed BBC Radio 4’s “A History Of The World In 100 Objects” so much, that now it’s over, I’ve gone looking for more historical stories. I found a great podcast series about the Normans, by Lars Brownworth. The story starts with the early Vikings and their extensive voyages. And it made me wonder how human history might have progressed if people had just stayed home!! Sure, a lot of wars might have been avoided. But I suspect we wouldn’t have come as far as we have:)

Maybe it’s time to get moving again – at least in our minds. And maybe the Aral Sea will get taken care of along the way:)

“The human race is stunted. Something’s holding it back.”
Doctor Who

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I seem to change my home commute every couple of months, for one reason or another. I am still going downtown most afternoons, but have been switching to different buses for the homeward trip.

In the spring and summer, I waited for the bus on Third Avenue, in the plaza of ever-turbulent wind! More recently, I have been taking the bus from Second Avenue – which can take me all the way home if I please – nice if it’s lousy weather.

However, the other night, I just missed my Second Avenue bus. The next one was not due for half an hour, so I checked the status of the next bus from First Avenue – and had about ten minutes to spare – and so down there I went. And I realized it’s a much better place to wait now that it’s dark.

Second Avenue is basically office buildings. And all the coffee shops and eateries cater to office workers who work regular office hours – and so are all closed by 6pm, or even earlier. In the summer time you tend not to notice. But now it’s very dismal.

First Avenue, on the other hand, has numerous restaurants, bars and a few night clubs. And some of the coffee shops stay open well beyond 6pm. It is lit up and cheerful, and there are plenty of people still on the street. The bus I take from First Avenue doesn’t go all the way home – but I don’t mind the walk at the other end.

First and Second Avenues are separated by only a few footsteps – literally! But they are worlds apart.

There is perhaps nothing more depressing than an urban landscape dominated by offices.

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Calm after the storm

An enjoyable walk in calmed-down weather. A short train ride. Ordering a latte. One of the tales from The Arabian Nights. A few chapters of Mark Twain’s Roughing It. Some Google Earth therapy along the north shore of Lake Baikal. A bus ride with an entertaining episode of The Moth. A long walk along the waterfront after getting off the bus early.

The stormy weather of the past two days finally moved on. But a storm of a different kind is moving in. Next week is November. And in a few weeks the holiday season begins. And at the retail company I work for, our computer system has slowed to a crawl – for no apparent reason. A task that normally takes a couple of minutes can now take an hour.

This might be an interesting holiday season… especially if we have snow.

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And on the first day of serious fall weather too!! But it’s a blessing in disguise, else I would have had nothing much to write about.

Starting Saturday, blustery and rainy weather has been moving through the Seattle area. Yesterday, the heavy gusts showed up and by this morning were ready to make life very difficult.

An important aspect of urban bliss is to dress for the weather – because you never know how long you might be waiting around for transportation. My morning bus stops literally spitting distance from my front door, but I always dress for a three-mile walk or a thirty-minute wait – because those are very regular features of my homeward commute!

I have learned to not bother with an umbrella in Seattle once summer is over. If it is raining hard enough to need an umbrella you can usually bet that it is windy enough to wreck it in minutes! What you need is a raincoat with a hood that can be secured to stay up in the wind – or a rain hat that can be secured to stay on. This morning I wore the latter, and made it even more weather-proof by wearing under the hat a lightweight headband that I crocheted last week – so that my ears were protected from the wind and my hair stayed tidy.

My morning bus stop has no shelter at all and is on the waterfront. I waited with another lady who is also always prepared for weather, although we still stood with our backs to the wind. Two guys also waiting on the bus, but ironically less dressed for the weather than us gals, took shelter in the parking garage of a nearby condo building.

We waited and waited – and waited. Before I left my place, OneBusAway had shown our bus to be running on time. One of the guys taking shelter was busy with his cell phone only to suddenly walk back to his house. So I fished my phone out to check, and saw that our bus had vanished from the radar screen – so to speak. However, the next bus was shown to be on time. We debated whether to wait for it or walk over to Alki to get a different bus, and in the end we both just decided to go back inside and hope the next bus showed up. Now this is not necessarily the right course of action in these circumstances, because this particular bus route runs very reliably, and the most common reason for a no-show in such weather is a downed tree or landslide, in which case no more buses might be expected for the rest of the day! But we each went back to our respective homes.

Twenty minutes later we were out there again – this time in daylight, and no sign of the two guys. The bus showed up right on time, so downed trees or mudslides were clearly not the problem.
The rest of the commute was uneventful, other than my arriving at work twenty minutes late, which no one seemed to notice:)

After work I went downtown as usual. The weather was still stormy although we had enjoyed a few sun breaks. As I climbed the stairs out of the Transit Tunnel at Third and Seneca, I had a feeling I would encounter a mother of a gust on my exit. That intersection is windy enough on the gentlest of summer days. Well, the gust that greeted me almost put me flat on my back. But I made it to a Starbucks, and was quickly joined by a bus-buddy who had also hoped to get that missing bus this morning. He had walked to Alki to find an alternative – and along the way, his umbrella had been trashed by the wind!

He left to get the next bus home, but I chose to dally a while and wait for a later one. This might have been a bad decision – or it might not have. I’ll have to wait until I see this guy tomorrow.

Well. My bus showed up – and the first announcement was a reroute. An accident on the Alaskan Way Viaduct had closed it southbound and we were being rerouted down First Avenue to the reroute over the Spokane Street swing bridge – the very reroute I have been avoiding for six months now! – the very reason I go home via downtown in the first place!!! And of course, an indecisive freight train blocked our way for a little eternity – shuffling in one direction to then sit a while, then shuffling slowly in the other direction to sit a little more, then back again before finally getting out of the way. I felt sure the swing bridge would open and hold us up a further twenty minutes – but perhaps by then the transit gods had had their fun!

As I was sitting there waiting out the shuffle-shift of the freight cars, I wished I had just joined my friend on the earlier bus. But timestamps of tweets regarding the Viaduct closure suggest he might not have been so lucky either. There’s only one thing worse than a lengthy reroute – and that’s being caught in a traffic mess early enough that being rerouted around is not an option. You have no choice but to sit and wait it out.

My bus was full of relaxed people, including our driver:) Everyone had a smartphone, iPod, iPad, e-reader or good old-fashioned magazine for entertainment. Also, after battling the wind and rain out on the street, perhaps being sheltered in a snug, cosy bus with plenty of enjoyable diversions allowed one to concede that there were far worse circumstances under which to be delayed:)

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This series has sadly come to its close. I just listened to the five final episodes. This was the first podcast series I latched onto back in the winter when I was enjoying my newly acquired iPod Touch, and was what prompted the purchase of the speaker dock that made my iPod my main mode of entertainment at home – really taking the place of television which I no longer watch.

The final object chosen was a lamp that is solar charged. Eight hours of sunlight provides one hundred hours of illumination. It is improving the quality of life for people in the Third World who live without electricity and have been dependent on candles and kerosene lamps. The charger can also be used to recharge a cell phone, making that technology now available where it could not be used before.

Wonderful thing, solar energy. The amount received over earth in just one hour is equivalent to the planet’s entire energy use in a whole year. And it can never be embargoed. Yet there are hardly any solar panels to be seen on our rooftops.

Perhaps that will change soon.. and maybe one day, solar panels will be as much a feature of the urban residential landscape as TV satellite dishes have become in the last fifteen years.

Let’s hope so.

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I don’t enjoy crowded places. That is why I time most of my activities to be out of sync with the collective consciousness of the greater part of humanity. I learned recently that if you haven’t made it to the coffee shop on Saturday morning by 9am, then you might as well postpone it until the middle of the afternoon. (Yesterday I found the Alki Starbucks pretty much deserted around 3pm.) I also would not go out to dinner on Thursday night.

I have made quite a habit of seeking out quiet coffee shops – either places that are generally busy, but have fairly predictable lulls, or places that never seem to be crowded at any time. The latter would be my preference. But the problem is, coffee shops that are routinely uncrowded have a habit of going out of business:( This is my coffee shop paradox.

There is another dynamic I encounter from time to time. I’ll find a reliably quiet coffee shop for a particular time and day, and start going there regularly. For about a month it will continue to be quiet. But inevitably, other people start to show up, until within another month, the place has become busy enough to prompt me to move on to another place and start the process over.

Years ago, a new coffee shop opened on my circuit. For the first few months, their business was so slow I doubted they would make it. I never went there because I already had a few places I frequented out of either attachment or loyalty. Then I got a WiFi card for my laptop and started going there for the WiFi. I knew I could always get a table there – something I couldn’t count on anywhere else! For about a month I had the place to myself. But then customers started to drift in, and I got crowded out.

I’m not sure what goes on here – but it’s annoying. It’s as though the collective consciousness that I try to avoid is intent on following me around. I’m always having to stay one step ahead of it:)

I wonder if this is something I could demonstrate scientifically. I could then approach the owners of newly-opened coffee shops, or places where business is slow, and offer to hang out there in return for free lattes and scones until business picks up:)

Some people have such an effect. My ex-husband’s parents (who both passed on recently) used to travel a lot to visit children and grandchildren scattered around the country. My mother-in-law was someone who always wanted warm sunshine and would be very disappointed if a visit was spoiled by rain. Well. It rained just about everywhere they went – and I mean serious prolonged steady rain, not just showers. One of my husband’s sisters lived in Santa Barbara. When the parents showed up for a visit once, that part of California had been dealing with a long drought that was getting extremely serious. I think it started to rain the instant the parents got off the plane! The family has since credited them with breaking the California drought. As they were retired, I suggested to them that they contact chambers of commerce in drought-stricken areas of the US to offer their services. In return for a hotel room and meals package, they would come for a visit, and it would surely be raining within a day, and within a week, the reservoirs would be filled and the soil moisture replenished. I’m sure my inlaws would have enjoyed themselves too – despite the rain:)

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