unjunking the news

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Exploring some of my Buddhist connections this evening, I delighted upon the Facebook page for the king of Bhutan, His Royal Highness Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk. And I immediately found out that one of the dzongs (‘fortress monasteries’) in Bhutan burned almost to the ground in 2012. I had no idea, even though I visited this place ten years ago. What a shock.

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This photo from 2004 shows me blissfully unaware that the site will be gone in eight years. I’m as connected to the internet as anyone, an avid reader of news and tracker of things financial and spiritual and political. I read The Economist, I read other news sources from Europe. And I missed this. If you don’t already know, Bhutan was historically rather feudal, with the country broken into (I think) seven regions each ruled by a dzong until peacefully united under the Wangchuks some 110 years ago. This is one of the most important and largest buildings in the country, and it’s mostly wiped out. A World Trade Center loss for Bhutan. How did I not hear of it?

Here is an image of a prayer ceremony carried out a few days ago, on the site. Just look at the ruins. (And admire how these delightful people bring ritual to heal a wound, and create the possibility of reconstruction!)

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It seems like third-world news is hard to find in our modern news streams. I certainly know this, it’s hard to find out details about massacres in Sudan, or Syria, or the latest clashes in Anwar Pradesh or the hinterlands of Pakistan. How many fields of poppies are planted in Afghanistan, how are the raw morphine sales funding the Taliban? What is really going on out there? What sources of news actually tell me things I want to know?

(And how much do I really want to know? We are culturally and historically evolved to live in villages, and until 150 years ago, mostly only knew of local events. I’m not sure it’s healthy to be aware of all the disastrous things happening every day all over the world. I really want to be selective, and receive a balance of positive and negative information.)

The Economist is a pretty good place to start. The writing is thoughtful, and topics are discussed with some depth and understanding and insight. It’s based in the UK, so the journalism is anything but sensational, and they tackle tough questions. Apparently CNN International is a good source too, on the strength of this single article about the fire. I’m going to start reading it more.

It’s ironic and telling that Facebook is actually quite a good news source, if you are selective in the pages you follow. King Wangchuk’s page is a wonderful find for me, as I love the country of Bhutan and want to keep current with events there. I get some information by following HH The Dalai Lama, the Karmapa, and Kalu Rinpoché on Facebook – but the news is generally much more specific about their activities, not so much about world events. Blogs by some of my acquaintances are very good; I read insightful commentary by Jane Brunette, Steve Stern and others. Then there is fun stuff like local blogger Alex Castle, Laura Silverman (who I mentioned a few weeks ago), Jessie Wood (Lama Palden’s daughter)…

I digress. Perhaps I’m saying that I like to find curated news sources, and they often slide into more personal commentary – which I enjoy – but does not inform in the way I seek. The Huffington Post had promise, but is now so bloated with opinionated and sensationalistic junk that it’s hard to find the gems.

Have you got recommendations? Please add a comment or shoot me a note if you have a source for national and/or international news with thoughtful, balanced commentary!

beemer reclamation

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I’ve got a not-so-secret secret…I have two motorcycles, not one. The black BMW R1100RSL has been my steady date for years, an utterly reliable bike that I’m commuting on several times a week now. She’s pretty modern, lots of power and rubber on the road, great suspension, and ABS brakes for those fun days when it rains. But she’s not my love, she’s just a date (carrying the metaphor too far, to be sure!)

The babe in my motorcycle heart is a 1979 BMW R100S, which I bought as a basket case in 1996 and completely tore down and rebuilt. The epic story is more-or-less encapsulated here, and there are photos of her here on this website. Originally equipped with a pair of loud Staintune racing mufflers, she earned the moniker “Mondo Decibels”. For a BMW, she has presence – not obnoxious Harley presence – something louder than the soft purr of a stock beemer. More recently, the mufflers were swapped to something a bit quieter, yet quite a bit louder than stock.

But the uncomfortable truth is, she has been silent for over two years.

I took the carburetors off this bike in 2011, sent them out for rebuilding, got them back…then Nancy became ill, and I have not installed them. My moto-babe has been sitting in the garage for 2-1/2 years, awaiting resurrection. It’s just another part of my life that I have not yet picked up and reclaimed. Now it’s time.

This morning dawned cool but sunny in Fairfax, and I have a completely uncommitted weekend. After liberal dosings of Kona coffee, I swept the driveway, pulled out the babe and tools and compressor and cleaning stuff and rebuilt carbs…and spent three hours putting them back on the bike. If you are a wrench, you know that carb refits are a PITA. Cables have to be adjusted just so, fittings snugged up, plus there is usually spooge (“motorcycle grime”) in the area to clean off: wire brushes, toothbrushes, ChemTool, Simple Green, or whatever it takes. I’ve been doing all those things. And my hands now look like the the “dud guy” from Mystery Date, if you are old enough to remember what that means.

But the babe is looking good. Cobwebs removed, tires back to proper pressure, gas tank drained and refilled with the fresh, high-octane real thing. Fresh oil. Battery on the charger all day. In a few hours, I’ll try to start her. There will probably be more issues, electrical connections to clean, etc. But tomorrow I expect to have her out on the back roads of Marin. It’s time.

total use

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I’ve been seriously busy for the last month. I started a new job four weeks ago, and it’s requiring every bit of my skill, knowledge and experience. It’s exciting. The last time I did this, I built a house. That project demanded all of my drive and project management, decisiveness and heart. Now, I’m doing something professionally that requires all my knowledge, sensitivity, fearlessness, and humor.

Four weeks ago, I became the lead software architect for a company that is in the middle of a turnaround. There are a lot of assets, products with solid customer bases and capability. However, growth has been flat for several years, while competitors are flourishing in an expanding market. Most of upper management has been changed in the last seven months. We are now doing something remarkable and fun to bring all this capability to a new type of customer, using state-of-the-art web technologies.

The personal challenges are daunting. I haven’t coded in Java in years, there are entrenched ways of looking at things in this company that need to change, and I’m a little out of date on what can be done with the latest open source software products and frameworks. Plus I’m a new guy, I’ve only had a few weeks to meet dozens of new people, assess their capabilities, assess the massive store of technologies and products we are working with.

But I’ve done this before. I have a pretty good understanding of the customers and what they do with our products, what kind of capabilities they need. I’m good at seeing and communicating the overall picture, and this company is full of talented, intelligent and resourceful people who want to do the right thing, want to make it happen. There is a very cool idea here, and it’s happening.

I’m experiencing a feeling that is distantly familiar. It’s like the last few months of house building, when it’s all coming together. It’s like after a run or a bike ride or yoga, where my body feels fully alive, and my mind is clear. This is what we do, as engineers. Software starts to do something new, we see data moving in new and different ways, user interfaces look better and better. Everything is juicy, there is an undercurrent of excitement. As the pieces of the architecture become clearer, and as issues get resolved, my co-workers and I are getting glimpses of what we are creating, how it may fulfill needs in ways we cannot imagine.

Today, we demonstrated our first functioning software. We’re smiling at each other, going home on a Friday afternoon feeling excited at our progress. Indeed we should. I’ve only been here five weeks, and my team of seven engineers are beginning to pull in the same direction to deliver something that our customers will love. Hard to beat the feeling of accomplishment.

I’m well-used indeed. Such a great feeling, to bring it all.

mz. parker

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I’m embarking on a new adventure, acquiring a vehicle that I’ve fantasized about for decades. A VW Westfalia camper. This has deep psychological implications, and I am indeed smiling away as I write about this. I have always loved the idea of having one, being able to take off on short notice to camp somewhere, anywhere really, without reservations or arrangements or permits. Something appeals deeply about being self-contained in a tidy mobile package.

In typical fashion, this has been a research project, which started a month ago. It all began when Jen and I got tickets to Burning Man this year, tickets which I may not be able to use because of a schedule conflict. However, we immediately started talking about how we could go there, how we would camp, and I mentioned my long-term love of Westfalias. It turns out to be a shared love, and we were off. I, being the geek that I am, immediately turned to the internet, and quickly flushed the two major sites for afficionados of the breed. There is a subculture of “westy” fans (born in the ’60’s), and just a few shops and websites that specialize in them. In case you don’t know, Westy’s have built in storage, sink, stove and refrigerator, with propane and water tanks, external power connectors, and a rear seat that folds down into a respectable bed. The top has a skylight, and pops up to create an upper sleeping area for two more people.

(If you want to share the geekyness, check out theSamba.com, GoWesty.com, and the BusLab in Berkeley, CA)

There are good years and not-so-good years for the Vanagon, upgrades available for engines, headlights, instruments, wheels, storage, electrical power, solar power, air conditioning…the list is endless, born of the passion that these people have embodied ever since the first 36-horsepower anemic air-cooled VW bus brought flower children across the country. We settled on a 1985-1991 Vanagon Westy, because it has good ground clearance, some personality (the newer Eurovans look like delivery vehicles) and functioning heating, refrigerator, and air conditioning. We both want one with a manual transmission, AC, a recent engine rebuild, and preferably white in color.

I found nice vans in Albuquerque, NM, Ketchem, ID, British Colombia, Dallas, TX, Half Moon Bay, CA, northern Washington, Georgia, right next door in Novato, and finally, the girl you see in the photo, who lives in Vancouver, WA. “Mz. Parker” has had a heart transplant, what is called a “Tiico conversion”, which installs a VW Jetta 4-cylinder motor instead of the somewhat flakey water-cooled boxer motor. Tiico is now defunct, but their work lives on, boosting power, reliability, durability and the mileage significantly. Her motor has 24K miles, her transmission was rebuilt 12K miles ago, there are upgrades to instruments, lighting, air conditioning and wheels. Plus she was repainted about 8 years ago, and is white with tinted windows. Plus a Yakima rack on top.

The CarFax report on her is interesting. She was titled in Indiana in 1988, then apparently ran into a train in Florida (!) a few months later. Obviously there wasn’t significant damage, as she has a clean title, but you’ve got to wonder what the story is behind that event. She came to Washington in 2003 with 150K miles on the odometer, changed owners in 2008, and is now about to land in our laps with 192K on the clock.

So we are off on an adventure, flying to Portland Saturday morning with sleeping bags, some tools, and a change of clothes. The plan is to visit my stepmom in Vancouver, and make it home by Sunday evening. I am excited and happy, both about the van and the adventure itself.

On a deeper level, this means a major change is happening in my vehicle collection. I will be selling Roy, my trusty Ford F150 work truck, for which I have been very grateful as he helped us build our house, then helped me move Nancy’s stuff out into the world. I also expect to sell Britt, my British Racing Green Mini Cooper. This will leave me with a BMW car, two BMW motorcycles, and Mz. Parker, all nice German technology, right where my heart is. I am, after all, an Engineer.

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carrier switch

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With all the hubbub about the new iPhone, I hate to feel like one of the herd and admit I’m getting one. But I am, it’s already ordered, and this will be my third iPhone. It’s a technology that has changed my life, and I am a big fan of Apple products, both the engineering and design.

Apple has had a huge impact on the technology industry, and on our lives in general. It’s an admirable company any way you look at it, and I have to laugh at all the pundits that complain about the similarity to prior generations, the new dock connector, the lack of (unproven) near-field communications, all the silly ways that people try to criticize the most remarkably successful product line in our lives. There is a very profound article that came out yesterday, written by the venerable M.G. Siegler, that I highly recommend. This is excellent depthful analysis and commentary. M.G., my hat is off to you, you are awesomely brilliant to reach in and find this insight.

I have two personal comments to make about the new iPhone. First, I observe that MANY of my friends (as well as myself) are coming off contract with their iPhone 3G’s and 4’s, and are intending to upgrade. There is a ton of pent-up demand, and this thing is gonna sell like hotcakes. I’m hanging onto my AAPL stock, which I fully expect to outperform the market for at least another six months.

But the deeper issue for me is about my carrier for more than a decade, AT&T. I’m deeply annoyed with them, and taking advantage of this new product to switch to Verizon. Many of my issues with AT&T are the same as others, frequent dropped calls and dead spots as I drive on major highways, no coverage at my house, very poor coverage up at our family cabin in Mill Creek, a crappy website that is slow and hard to use, long waits for tech support. They are a big company, and it shows. Like Lily Tomlin famously said nearly fifty years ago, “We don’t care, we don’t have to, we’re the phone company!”

The tipping point came earlier this year after Nancy passed away. AT&T refused to waive the early termination fee for her mobile phone contract, and let me drop her phone number from our family plan. Their excuse was that “she was not the primary number on the family plan”.

This is just bad customer relations. I am happily dropping my mobile service with them, do not use them for internet or anything else, and will refuse to do business with them for the rest of my life. And I’m spreading the word. All my friends with Verizon are happy with their coverage, and AT&T does more for Verizon and Sprint marketing than they do for themselves.

In two weeks, when I get my new phone, when I find the service is acceptable, when I find I can use it at home (where a new Verizon cell tower is being built soon) I’ll happily be ending my AT&T account. And switching cell phone numbers from my old one to Nancy’s old number. It’s a little way to memorialize her, and memorialize the reason why I’m dumping AT&T after twenty five years of service (starting with Cellular One in 1986).

teenage mutant ninja bimmers

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Last week, I mentioned returning to my younger years. The honest truth is, I haven’t been ‘single’ since my mid-twenties, and in some weird way, I seem to need to reconnect to who I was then, in order to move forward. Let’s see, I had British and Italian sports cars, a Honda CB350 motorcycle…and discovered BMW’s. OMFG, fun vehicles that are well-engineered, where I don’t have to re-sync the carbs or fix some damn electrical connector on the way to work every week. I became a hard-core bimmerphile…

Some years ago, while we were building our home, I sold off my beloved BMW M cars to help pay bills. The years without a BMW (except my favorite, the old airhead) were tough, but I was driving the F150, cleaning our construction site and recycling stuff and hauling fixtures and lighting and equipment to keep costs down. In the mean time, we bought this nice white ’97 BMW 528i (which Nancy mostly drove) to help transport our parents. Last year, we added a Mini Cooper so I could economically commute. All so practical.

(And yes, the Mini is a hoot, a throwback to my days with Austin Healy Sprites. An awesome fun, 36mpg car.)

Then last summer, the head cracked on the 528i when Nancy was driving it. Engine trashed, not worth repairing. The white bimmer has sat neglected in front of our home ever since. I’ve honestly felt bad every day, seeing her there, forlorn, of course a reflection of how forlorn I’ve felt. Until last month, when I looked at her in her layer of dust, and decided she was my girl (vehicularly speaking, of course!)

So I’ve started turning her into a Q-car. Pardon me, I’m going to geek out here. The E39 BMW body is a simple, classy and compact vehicle with great handling, one of my favorite designs. The six-cylinder M52 motor is light, the weight balance is great, so this car is toss-able on twisty roads. Roomy for four, big trunk space, quiet and elegant.

Looking on craigslist.org, I immediately found a rare S52 motor from a wrecked BMW M3 for a good price. Recognizing this as a divine gift, I picked it up in my construction truck (“Roy”, the fabulous Ford F150), and brought it to my local shop for transplant. What’s an S52? Basically a drop-in replacement for the stock motor, but rated at 250+ hp. Same weight, so the car handles well, but lots more power.

Ok, this is good, she’s on the road and accelerates like Batman on steroids. But handling is not great. Shocks are worn, and it’s time to replace the tires anyway, so…I found a set of wheels on craigslist from a recent BMW 550i — 8.5” wide in the front and 9.5” in the rear. They are huge, with 275/35-18” low-profile tires, compared to the original 15” wheels. Three days ago, they were installed, and are absolutely the most rubber on the road that can be squeezed into this car without looking obsequious. But in the words of the immortal John D. MacDonald, she’d “roll you sick on a wet lawn”. Mama needs new shocks.

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Ja, arrived last week, installed today. Bilstien HD’s, for the automotive cognoscenti. I’m suddenly driving a taut, Teutonic sedan with neck-compressing attitude at full throttle.

My younger self dreamed of ownership of glorious machines like Aston Martin’s, or even the BMW M1 circa 1979. I now have a quiet, unassuming-looking car that cost maybe five thousand bucks to bring back to life, and outperforms the dreams of my youth. Yes, the state of the art, 10 to 100x more expensive, is much better these days…it’s hard to beat a $100K Porsche. But there is a joy in taking a car that could be tossed into recycling, and doing the things needed to bring her back. It’s economical, and a fun “guy thing”. And such a great opportunity to build a dream. She’s mine.

The dream works on multiple levels. I am in a different personal vehicle now, moving through a new life. It’s no surprise that my outer vehicle, the car that I drive, has to change. So cool that it is my own choice, my own expression. The BMW brotherhood understands. The service guy I worked with today (Jeff, at Bavarian Professionals) said “How cool to have an S52 in an E39?”

Peeling another layer, I notice how my resurrection is through a more masculine gateway. I now find paths to deeper joy that are not all about my relationship with my partner. I used to take a thousand or three-thousand-mile motorcycle vacation each summer. I have two great bikes. Perhaps that is coming next. Perhaps I’m saying this to make sure it does.