Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Thoughts from a trip to Tucson

We spent the long Martin Luther King Day weekend in Tucson and the surrounding area.

The Sonoran Desert is spectacularly beautiful, with its Saguaro and Organ Pipe cacti, its unusual animals (Javelina, Coati, Caracara, etc.), its mountains and valleys.

It does actually rain in this part of the world! An enormous storm crossed Southern Arizona on the day we arrived. Traffic was slow, roads were washed out, and there was over 6 inches of snow on the mountain tops.

People in Arizona do a lot of driving. Gas is cheap, there are no tolls, and the rental car facility at the Phoenix airport is the largest one I think I've seen. The cities are all sprawled out, with small downtown areas and literally miles of suburbs. (Speedway Avenue in Tucson, runs some 25 miles from East Tucson to West Tucson).

We flew in and out of Phoenix. Tucson has a nice airport, but there was no direct flight we could take, and the connecting flights meant that we would have had a 4.5 hour plane trip to get all the way to Tucson, as opposed to a 100 minute plane trip to get to Phoenix. Since it barely takes 90 minutes to drive from Phoenix to Tucson the choice was easy.

The most straightforward way to get from Phoenix to Tucson is to hop on the freeway, but a much more beautiful route is found by taking Arizona 79, also known as the Pinal Pioneer Parkway. This lovely road runs a simple straight path through a Saguaro-forested high desert plain. For large portions of the drive you are completely in the wilds, with no billboards, power lines, businesses, or much of anything else to distract you. Way out in the middle of the drive, if you pay attention, you'll come across the quiet memorial to the spot where the famous movie star Tom Mix crashed his car and died.

We took Arizona 79 because I was hoping to get to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, but we ran out of time for that side trip, sadly.

The Tucson Jazz Festival is very nice. The Tucson Jazz Institute's Ellington Big Band is a traveling competition band of high school jazz musicians who have won a number of awards. Christian McBride and Inside Straight played a great show; McBride also sat in with the TJI band for two fun opening songs and did those kids ever enjoy that!

The Fox Tucson theater has been beautifully restored and is gorgeous inside. Even sitting in the balcony we had comfortable seats with a great view.

The Desert Trails B&B is a beautiful spot in a wonderful location. John and Steffi are lovely hosts. At night the stars come out and the coyotes call.

The Casa Grande National Monument was an unexpected treasure and a lovely stop.

The food in Tucson is great, just as great as all the guidebooks and travel magazines say. We had excellent meals at the 1055 Brewing Company, at Reilly Craft Pizza, at Zinburger, and could have had many more great meals if we’d had the time

The Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway is just as remarkable as everyone says. The views are incomparable and the road is well built and easy to drive, with many pullouts and vista spots, even on a Sunday afternoon during peak season. After the recent storm, there were still several inches of snow at the mountain top and children were everywhere, happily sledding and making snowmen.

While driving the road, we enjoyed listening to the interesting Mt. Lemmon Science Tour, a nicely-presented audio tour of the things you see along the road. The audio tour is well-paced and timed to match your driving time, and easy to re-sync if you lose track or stop at a pull out or vista stop for a while.

You can't see the famous Davis-Monthan "Boneyard" from street level, but from the vistas atop the Mount Lemmon road you can get a great idea for the size and layout of the facility, particularly if you have a decent pair of binoculars.

The Gates Pass Road is fun too, and we enjoyed the views from the vista point at the top of the pass in Tucson Mountain Park.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is very nicely arranged with nice easy pathways and clear signs. The animals seemed well cared for and we enjoyed the quiet aviary. I think we probably should have stayed to see the Raptor Free Flight demonstration, but it would have extended our 2.5 hour visit to 4 hours and we were in a hurry to move on.

There were beautiful arts and crafts at the Casa Grande visitor center, at the Desert Museum gift shop, and at Mark Bahti's arts store. There looked to be several other fine places that we didn’t have time for.

Downtown Tucson is nice. Parking was cheap and safe. The streets are clean and people walk around comfortably.

We didn’t find time to ride the new streetcar.

If you decide to go to Tucson, mid January is a nice time. Locals told us that the gem show makes the city a bit crowded.

There is indeed a small wine growing region in the Sonoita ("Son-OY-tah") and Elgin area, mostly growing hot-weather Southern Mediterrean grapes like Tempranillo and Aglianico. We stopped at Callaghan (pronounce the 'G'). The guests at the winery had brought a collection of friendly dogs.

The Ramsey Canyon Preserve is beautiful and a vivid, startling change from the desert valley floor. Beyond Ramsey Canyon stretches the Coronado National Forest, with many additional trails to explore, though we turned back after a 2 hour hike due to time restrictions.

It was a challenge, though, to feel completely enchanted with the wilderness vistas, as the US government law enforcement blimp hovered over the forest preserve. The blimp "is an aerial platform for radar equipment used to detect aircraft illegally entering the US (Hermann Zillgens and Associates. 1991). They provide radar data for US Customs, the DoD, and the FAA. They operate year round, 24 hours per day within approximately nine hectares (23 acres) of the South Range."

There are law enforcement checkpoints on most roads south of Tucson.

Some restaurants and shops have signs asking you not to bring your weapons into the store, most don’t.

On the Mount Lemmon road a man was parked in the pullout, firing his pistol into the side of the hill.

Two patrons at a corner store were having a loud conversation about how much they hate California.

A man told us not to park our car at the Saguaro National Park trail head because our car would get broken into (we decided to go hiking elsewhere).

If you decide to take the Pinal Pioneer Parkway between Tucson and Phoenix, you'll end up passing through Florence, AZ, a small town that sits about midway along the route. I think that Florence was once a hot spot for the immense copper mining industry that is spread across Southern Arizona.

Nowadays, Florence has a county prison, a state prison, and a federal Homeland Security ICE prison. The three prisons sit one after the next on the main road, presenting nearly a full mile of heavy barbed wire and elevated guard towers. There are probably more prisons here; the first suggested Google search for "Florence AZ prison" is "How many prisons are there in Florence AZ?" I don't think there's any way to avoid this stretch of Arizona 79 unless you decide to avoid the entire scenic parkway entirely, which is probably a perfect example of the phrase "throwing out the baby with the bathwater".

We now return you to your regularly scheduled program.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow

Wow, is it really 2020 already? I've been blogging less, I guess.

Sorry about that.

Time is passing for everyone; over the last 18 months, the Grateful Dead lost both their songwriters, Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow.

Robert Hunter was, by far, the better songwriter; songs like Truckin', Uncle John's Band, Scarlet Begonias, and Friend of the Devil will, I hope, still be sung a hundred years from now.

John Perry Barlow was, however, and trying to take nothing away from Hunter, the more interesting man. He thought a lot about public policy and political issues, and published some very interesting essays.

Among those essays, he's definitely best known for A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, in which he attempted to take the deep-rooted American notions of Free Speech and extend them significantly farther:

Your increasingly obsolete information industries would perpetuate themselves by proposing laws, in America and elsewhere, that claim to own speech itself throughout the world. These laws would declare ideas to be another industrial product, no more noble than pig iron. In our world, whatever the human mind may create can be reproduced and distributed infinitely at no cost. The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to accomplish.

He worked much harder on this idea, and, I think, gave it a pretty interesting and well-considered foundation, in his subsequent essay, Selling Wine Without Bottles: the Economy of Mind on the Global Net.

The Declaration and the Economy of Mind were deliberately polemic and provocative, but the organization he helped co-found, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, remains one of the most interesting technology-related organizations that we have.

These are not easy ideas, and I've always thought that Barlow deserved more credit for focusing attention on them, and getting others to at least think about them seriously.

Among his other writings, I was always quite partial to The 25 Principles of Adult Behavior, which still hold water some forty years later, and, I suspect, will still be good ideas centuries from now.

After his death, the EFF held a John Perry Barlow Symposium, and the Duke Law and Technology Review has now published the proceedings. There are some pretty interesting essays in the proceedings, it's definitely, as they say, food for thought.

This is good; these thoughts and ideas deserve to continue to be discussed. We haven't got it all figured out, just yet.

And I think that is a sentiment that Robert Hunter would agree with, too. As he wrote in Ripple:

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung
Would you hear my voice come through the music?
Would you hold it near, as it were your own?

It's a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken
Perhaps they're better left unsung
I don't know, don't really care
Let there be songs to fill the air

Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty
If your cup is full may it be again
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of man

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go, no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone

Let's all keep on talking.

Happy new year.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Corn Pie

My tech lead, Jim, is a fervent cook. So when we were out to lunch the other day and I happened to mention, while having a cornmeal muffin, that I like pretty much any recipe that has corn in it, and will happily eat corn on the cob, corn chowder, corn tortillas, corn-and-black-bean salad, and many other corn dishes, he asked me if I'd ever had corn pie.

"Corn Pie?" I said, "I don't think I even knew that existed."

The next day, Jim brought in his dog-eared and well-loved copy of Edna Eby Heller's Dutch Cookbook, and I made a copy of Heller's Corn Pie recipe.

Nowadays, with our proliferation of recipe websites and fancy cooking magazines, recipes are a different thing than they used to be, and it's a real breath of fresh air to see Heller's approach: simple ingredients, straightforward steps, and an emphasis on basically letting the corn be the star of the dish.

Here's the entire recipe, including the butter stains from Jim's original cookbook:

And, for comparison, here's a modern website version. You can see that, really, not an awful lot has changed about this dish in 50 years.

Well, it's winter now in North America, so there isn't a ready source of freshly-picked ripe-from-the-farm corn on the cob, but we got lucky and found some tolerable corn cobs in our local grocer, and I made my first ever dish of Corn Pie the other night.

I didn't bother making the crust from scratch, I just used a Pillsbury refrigerated crust that we happened to have already.

The result was wonderful!

I'm now a definite fan of Corn Pie.

Pennsylvania Dutch, by the way, is an interesting part of Americana. This is "Dutch" as in "Deutsch", meaning that actually the Pennsylvania Dutch were German immigrants. Here, Wikipedia does a much better job of explaining it all.

Enjoy your holidays, and if you happen to see some fresh corn on the cob in your grocery store, make some Corn Pie!

Sunday, December 22, 2019

What's the expected duty cycle of a GFCI receptacle?

Almost 10 years ago, we remodeled our kitchen. In the process, our contractors brought the house up to date with 30 years of code enhancements, which included installing some additional receptacles in the kitchen, and additionally replacing all the kitchen receptacles with GFCI units.

Two weeks ago, one of the GFCI receptacles failed. I didn't notice it at the time; I'm not even sure anything was plugged in. Just, one day, Donna went to plug something in and got no power. And then I noticed that the green LED was off. And then I noticed that the test/reset buttons did not reset that receptacle.

It was a very simple fix:

  1. I bought a new 20A GFCI receptacle from the local hardware store,
  2. shut off the circuit breaker
  3. Unfastened the old receptacle from the wall box, pulled it out partway, and took a careful picture of how it was wired
    1. (Happily, this receptacle was the last in the line, so it only had one set of cables leading to it
  4. Unscrewed the old cable nuts, removed the old receptacle from the wall box, and examined the wall box carefully for any signs of problems (nothing that I could see)
  5. Wired the new receptacle using the same cables (still in perfect condition) in exactly the same configuration
  6. Refastened the new receptacle to the wall box
  7. Turned the circuit breaker back on, reset the receptacle, saw that the green LED was on, quadruple-checked by plugging in my handy-dandy 3-wire receptacle tester, and declared victory

It seems entirely straightforward.

By the way, it seems like the code has changed again, and my new receptacle has both a green LED and a red LED. The red LED blinks once every few minutes. The green LED just stays steady on.

But my question is: what's the expected duty cycle of a GFCI receptacle? Is it odd that one of them failed after 10 years, and I just got unlucky? Or is that about what you usually get, and I should expect all the rest of them to fail in the coming months? Or is there possibly a deeper issue that was only revealed by the failure of the GFCI receptacle?

I haven't seen any evidence of a larger issue, so I'm going to optimistically assume that I just had a GFCI receptacle fail, and that these things happen.

But if you know otherwise, let me know.

Friday, December 20, 2019

The Tale Teller: a very short review

The Tale Teller is Anne Hillerman's fourth novel in the Leaphorn, Chee, and Manuelito series, continuing the stories of the characters from her father's series of Navajo Tribal Police novels.

As she has done in previous books, Hillerman again lets the place, and its history, carry the weight of the story telling. She doesn't favor convoluted plots, psychological dramas, plot twists, or the other various sleights of hand that are often present in mystery novels.

Rather, what we get are the hard-working and dedicated employees of the Navajo Police, just doing their jobs.

But, freed from having our attention distracted by complex details and intricate arrangements, we are able to relax and travel along with the investigators as they drive out to interview witnesses, sit for a cup of coffee in the local diner, meet with the town councilwoman to deliver status reports, answer queries from curious bystanders, and generally just go about keeping the peace and helping sustain and preserve their community.

The Tale Teller draws its narrative tension from an artifact dating back to The Long Walk, an epochal event in Western United States history, and something which is far too little known. Hillerman does a very nice job of quietly making the point that, as William Faulkner so perfectly put it, "The past is not dead. It's not even past."

I very much enjoyed The Tale Teller.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Closer to Fine

I just felt like posting this tonight.

I might have listened to this 200 times, and every time I listen to it, it's fresh, and it's real.


I'm tryin' to tell you somethin' 'bout my life
Maybe give me insight between black and white
And the best thing you've ever done for me
Is to help me take my life less seriously
It's only life after all, yeah

Well darkness has a hunger that's insatiable
And lightness has a call that's hard to hear
I wrap my fear around me like a blanket
I sailed my ship of safety 'til I sank it
I'm crawling on your shores

And I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountains
There's more than one answer to these questions
Pointing me in a crooked line
And the less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine, yeah
The closer I am to fine, yeah

And I went to see the doctor of philosophy
With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee
He never did marry or see a B-Grade movie
He graded my performance, he said he could see through me
I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind
Got my paper and I was free

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountains
There's more than one answer to these questions
Pointing me in a crooked line
And the less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine, yeah
The closer I am to fine, yeah

I stopped by the bar at three A.M.
To seek solace in a bottle, or possibly a friend
And I woke up with a headache like my head against a board
Twice as cloudy as I'd been the night before
And I went in seeking clarity

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountains
We go to the doctor, we go to the mountains
We look to the children, we drink from the fountain

Yeah, we go to the Bible, we go through the work out
We read up on revival, we stand up for the lookout
There's more than one answer to these questions
Pointing me in a crooked line
And the less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine
The closer I am to fine
The closer I am to fine, yeah

My goodness, it's been 30 years!.

How young they were, how young I was.

And still, every time I listen, I learn a little bit more.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

How To: a very short review

Randall Munroe became (somewhat) famous as the author of the wonderful XKCD, but now he is developing an additional audience as an author of traditional good 'ole books. How To is his latest book, following What If and Thing Explainer.

I'd like to say I've read everything that Randall Munroe has written, but he has many more online publications and other writings that I haven't made my way to (yet).

How To bears a certain resemblance to What If, both in its structure (each book is divided into chapters, each chapter answer a "How to XXX", or a "What if YYY" question, respectively), and in its style (light and informal, filled with illustrations in Munroe's unique style, while still being deeply informative).

Also, like What if, How to is a bit hit-or-miss.

I absolutely loved the chapter on How to Make an Emergency Landing, co-authored with astronaut Chris Hadfield. And How to Predict the Weather and How to Take a Selfie were also particular favorites of mine.

Others were, well, you know, they can't all be perfect, I guess?

But all the chapters are distinctively Munroe, with his wonderful humor, his delightful imagination, and his willingness to follow an idea wherever it goes.

If you like Randall Munroe, you'll like How to.

If you have no idea who Munroe is, you might still pick up the book, and leaf through it, and find a chapter you'll enjoy.

And then you can pass it along to the next person.