Earthrise

I had no idea that one of the most iconic images of the 20th Century was seen and captured on film by accident. Check out this link: https://www.youtube.com/embed/dE-vOscpiNc

Borman’s quote about what he saw is famous. But when I see that image of the Earth coming over the dead lunar horizon, I always think of a passage from a favorite sci fi novel: “A sapphire. Yes, another stone; but this one is a precious jewel, because it holds beings who are aware.”

Thanx to my buddy John Williams for bringing the video to my attention!

Sierra Ride (September, 2018)

I just got back from a three day motorcycle trip up into the Sierras, and exploring the California Delta to boot. It was a real blast, and I got to see and experience some really neat stuff!

Click on the icons in the images below to get the details. You can also enlarge the images first by clicking the Full Screen buttons.

You can download a Google Earth file of my route from the following link. Be forewarned that it will first open a page complaining about not being able to preview the file; but if you click the download button, you’ll be able to download the file itself.

Google Earth route map



Social Justice and the Corporate Form

The other day I was having lunch with my good friend Seth Rosenblatt, whom I met years ago when we both served on the San Carlos Elementary School Board. Among many other things, Seth is my go-to guy on economics.

At one point during lunch we ended up talking about how each of us thinks allowing corporations to play a role in politics causes significant distortions of our society. That’s been a difficult problem for lawmakers to address, even though it’s a widely understood problem. Why? Because of the choice we made as a society to grant corporations many of the legal rights associated with flesh-and-blood individuals.

But why was such a choice made? It’s certainly not an obvious one. Whatever else it might be, a corporation is clearly not a living, breathing entity.

The answer lies in an aspect of human nature often overlooked in discussions of economics by lay people: humans are risk averse. We will reject, say, a $1 dollar bet that gives us a 50% chance of winning $2…even though, arguably, we are, on average, no better or worse off by placing the bet, and so shouldn’t care one way or the other. In fact, we instinctively demand much more than a better-than-breakeven return before we’ll place any bet.

Overcoming risk aversion is precisely the reason the corporate form was developed centuries ago. By law, a corporation shields its investors from bad economic bets: they can lose their investment, but irate customers, victims, etc., cannot come after the investors’ wealth or income that has not been invested in the corporation.

But why did we put that risk shielding in place? It clearly isn’t in the interest of people whose interests are, or could be, harmed by corporate failures.

The answer is simple: because it made us, individually and collectively, enormously wealthier than we used to be. Whatever problems they cause, there’s no denying corporations have dramatically increased collective and individual wealth and income. That’s why every human culture I’m familiar with has allowed the use of some kind of corporate form.

Risk aversion, by keeping us from placing reasonable bets, denies us the benefits reasonable bets produce. Those tantalizing benefits encouraged us to figure out a workaround for the limitations of our nature. If we had to squint past treating an artificial construct as a something similar to a living, breathing entity…well, humans are very pragmatic. We don’t argue with success, however much rationalization we need to do to justify it.

Besides, it was an easy step to take. Most people would reject as immoral and unethical punishing someone because their friend, without their knowledge or consent, injured someone economically. Once you accept a corporation as an entity in its own right, granting investors a risk shield follows naturally from that same perspective*.

But here’s the thing: despite how it’s sometimes described by business people lost in rapture, the corporate form is really just a dodge, a convenient fiction. It’s purpose is to let us, collectively and individually, create wealth and income that would otherwise be unavailable because of the limitations imposed by human risk aversion.

Why haven’t we thought about using the exact same logic in the realm of healthcare? Or having a decent place to live?

We all know talented and capable people who are kept from living up to their potential — and thereby benefiting all of us, not just themselves — because of the accidents of fate. A seriously ill family member, preventing someone from using their talents and abilities in a new, more demanding role at a different company, when pre-existing conditions keep people from getting health insurance. A child who has to “play it safe”, or drop out of school, because of the loss of a family member, or because he or she is an orphan.

People who worry about having a roof over the heads of their family rarely have the bandwidth to launch new economic enterprises, no matter how smart or talented they are. If you have to worry about starving, you’re not going to be able to use whatever creative talents and abilities you have, except in the pursuit of food.

These kinds of risks clearly limit what we are willing and able to do as individuals. Even more so than how the risk of losing one’s wealth limits one’s interest in investing it in new, valuable ventures.

So it’s not surprising that most advanced societies have taken some steps to mitigate the impact of such risks. Things like Social Security and Medicare were enacted, at least in part, to do so. Another example is public education. In addition to everything else it does, being better educated makes you better able to assess and manage risk.

Let me close with the following question: if giving people more peace of mind, and some kind of backstop to life’s vagaries, frees them to be more creative and economically active — which benefits all of us — why aren’t we doing more to insure against such risks? After all, based on the wealth (pun intended) of experience we have with the corporate form, we already know the payoff is there!

Something to think about.


* To keep things simple, I’m ignoring cases where investors knowingly participate in causing economic harm through a corporation. The law contains provisions for “piercing the corporate veil” for that, and other situations, when the facts justify it.

That’s One Way to Move In!

There’s a new apartment building going up on Walnut Street in San Carlos, just north of San Carlos Avenue. That in and of itself isn’t unusual…but the way it’s being built is, at least for San Carlos.

That’s because it’s being assembled out of modules that are built off-site and trucked to the construction site. I’ve been told this may very well be the wave of the future, because it allows for economies of scale that are hard to achieve otherwise. Particularly since most multi-family dwellings aren’t built out of uniquely different units; they tend to draw from a set of plans, perhaps unique to a site, that reoccur within the overall building design.

Here’s a video of one of the units being installed (click to enlarge):

Apartment Module from Mark Olbert on Vimeo.

Early in the video, if you look carefully behind the crane’s boom you’ll see one of the engineers giving hand signals to the crane operator, to move the module into position. Towards the end, if you look at the right side of the video, you’ll see a contractor tightening bolts to warp the module into its final position (warp being an ancient nautical term not having anything to do with antimatter, dilithium crystals or Zefram Cochrane :)).
 

Reflections on a Crash

The other day, I belatedly realized I’d never written about my motorcycle accident, which occurred Sunday morning, May 24, 2015. Given how significant an event it was (at least for me!), I’m going to rectify that omission right now.

The accident took place on Pescadero Road, between La Honda and Pescadero, along the uphill climb off of California 84. It’s a relatively wooded twisty, without much direct sky exposure, but not especially challenging (I just road it today, without any problems). Of course, I had less than six months riding experience at the time of the accident, and there had been some light rainfall the night before in the area, so there were some puddles on the road. Moreover, there were, and still are, a few road heaves — small but sharp bumps — some of which are on curves. I suspect I hit one of them that was next to a puddle, lost control, and went down. Or maybe I lost control dodging some animal crossing the road. 

Motorcycle Crash – Pescadero Road – 5/24/2015

I doubt I’ll ever know, because I have no memory of the accident. Turns out forming memories takes time, and while you’re not normally aware of that, if you get knocked unconscious, it’s not uncommon for “pending” memories to just disappear and not come back. When I asked the Stanford neurologist who had treated me if there would be any problem with me revisiting the accident scene, she said “It’s not like the movies, sir; lost memories don’t come back, because they were never formed in the first place.”

In any event, down I went…and, hitting the ground, even at no more than 25 MPH, without the benefit of seatbelts, air bags, and a nice metal shell, can cause a lot of damage (25 MPH is about 36 feet per second). So I broke every rib on my right side, some in multiple places, gave myself a minor concussion (which would’ve been far worse if I hadn’t been wearing an excellent, full-face Shoei helmet) and knocked myself out.

For a day.

Punctuated initially by a few brief snippets of consciousness, like when I briefly came to in the back of the ambulance, staring at the ceiling, thinking “this isn’t right”, all the while hearing one of the paramedics telling Barbara, on my phone, “he’s all right [really?], we’re taking him to Stanford, you can meet him there”.

Me during my first day at Stanford; taken by my wife, I think, in an attempt to convince me not to ride again - click to enlarge

But how, you may ask, was I found to be taken to Stanford? After all, Pescadero Road is lightly traveled at the best of times, and there’s even less traffic on Sundays.

Well, it turns out I was running something called CrashLight on my iPhone, which is an add-on to an app called Eat, Sleep, Ride, which allows you to log and track your motorcycle journeys. CrashLight monitors your smartphone’s sensors to determine if a crash has occurred. If it thinks one has, it sounds an alert and starts a count-down clock, which allows you to cancel false alarms. If the alert isn’t canceled, once the count-down completes, CrashLight notifies your emergency contacts, by phone, text message, email, or any combination of the three.

In my case, it notified both my son and my wife via text message. She didn’t get the message because she was outside gardening, but she heard the phone ring when my son called to say that he thought I’d had an accident. She immediately called 911…and was able to tell them where I was, because the CrashLight message contains the phone’s last known location, based on GPS monitoring.

I was a big believer in CrashLight before my accident, and I became a huge proponent of it afterwards. The CrashLight team keeps improving the product, along with the rest of the Eat, Sleep, Ride app, making it easier to use and less prone to false alarms. I particularly appreciate how quickly the programmers respond to issues that get raised; they’re really responsive.

Now, admittedly, one of the biggest limitations of CrashLight has nothing to do with the app. It’s just that if you’re out of cell phone coverage when you go down, the emergency messages can’t get out. So I still make it a point to share my itineraries with my family before I hit the road.

But I’m hopeful that even this limitation will be removed, by linking CrashLight to a satellite-based text messaging device like the Garmin InReach, the BriarTek CerberLink, or the soon-to-be-released SomeWear Labs’ SomeWear device. These all use the Iridium satellite network to enable two-way text messaging from any place on Earth where you have a view of the sky.

They’re not cheap (hundreds of dollars for the devices, and an Iridium SMS account is required). But, to me, that’s still cheap insurance to carry when I’m off exploring the backroads.

Because you see, my wife was unsuccessful with those ICU pictures. I still love to ride, mended ribs and all. In fact, I just recently upgraded my steed to a Yamaha FJR-1300ES.

See you out on the highways and by-ways. Ride safe!

Road Trip #1: The Map

Here’s the route I pretty much followed, although it doesn’t show the side excursion to where the road was closed on the way to Mount Hamilton, and some of the details on the exact path I followed from Coalinga to Los Banos may be off.

Total distance, about 450 miles.

Road Trip #1: Day 3

There are interesting patches of California which are near major urban areas, but totally divorced from them. Consider this Google Earth view of the area to the southeast of the Bay Area:

San Antonio Valley

Picture 1 of 1

It’s surrounded to the north, east and west by heavily populated and/or developed areas. Yet there’s almost nothing there. Granted, it is up in what passes for “the mountains” to Bay Area residents. But while they occasionally get snow, they’re not all that high. I always thought it would be fun to explore them.

My last day of this road trip was supposed to involve crossing this area, starting from the San Joaquin Valley and ending up in San Jose, by way of Mount Hamilton. Things didn’t quite work out that way, after I ran into “road closed” signs on highway 130 in the middle of the area, several miles short of Mount Hamilton.

Fortunately, one of the great things about riding a bike for pleasure is that detours are mainly an excuse to ride more. So after stopping for a quick bite to eat at The Junction (the only eatery for miles, but the food was quite tasty), I headed north towards Livermore, and then came west over the Dumbarton Bridge and back into San Carlos. 

The stretches of road up in the mountains were quite a workout, and a lot of fun. I kicked my turning abilities up a few notches, by learning to lean further into turns while avoiding the feeling that you’re on some kind of amusement park ride. The trick seems to be to shift your center of mass down into the turn, while twisting your torso so that your head stays centered above the center of mass of you and the bike, minimizing rotational forces (which play havoc with the inner ears of those of us who aren’t Olympic ice skaters). Sounds easy, and it actually isn’t all that hard, but you end up working yourself and the bike quite a bit. Which may explain why I was both tired and hungry when I finished riding those great twisties.

One interesting road hazard I encountered was…cattle. Wandering around the side of the road, and sometimes on the road. I’m not sure who is more surprised by these encounters, me or the cattle.

The highlighted area on the map is the San Antonio Valley. Which is absolutely gorgeous (and apparently a favorite of birders, at least at certain times of the year). Sadly, it doesn’t offer any lodging (the woman working The Junction told me people kept trying to start lodges, but they kept going out of business). Granted, you can’t ski or swim in the Valley…but it would be a great place to kick back and get away from it all, without having to travel for hours to get there.

Road Trip#1: Day 2

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Picture 1 of 2

Today I road from Hollister to Los Banos, by way of Coalinga. The ride down Ca 25 was as spectacular as I remembered from when a Barbara and I drove it north to avoid traffic on US 101. Except this time it was a lot more green, courtesy of our winter rains. 

The last leg into Coalinga I did on Coalinga Road, which is a not terribly well maintained, fairly narrow bit of pavement. Which runs thru some beautiful, off the beaten track scenery. 

I was accompanied on that segment by Houston, a rider a bit older than me who lives in the Central Valley and was out exploring. We met at the Coalinga Road jump off, because the turn off isn’t labeled and his GPS had stopped working, so he wanted confirmation he was on the right route, which I was able to supply. It was nice having company, because there’s no cell coverage there, so if I’d had an accident, my iPhone-based crash detector would’ve been kinda useless. 

I also got to meet his rubber chicken squeak toy, Nasa. Because if he runs into difficulties, “Houston, we have a problem” 😀. I need to get a mascot of my own. 

From Coalinga to Los Banos I stayed off I-5, because I wanted to see a part of California most coastal denizens zoom by. It was both rewarding, to see one after another long established community exercising its creativity, and poignant, because many of them are struggling, or at least feel passed by. 

They all showed quite a bit of bustle, though. We’d all be better off, I think, if we figured out a way to link all that energy to the big pillars of the modern economy. Just think what it would be like to have a dozen Silicon Valleys and Biotech Gulches, all in California. Starting with the fact that mere mortals might be able to aspire to owning a home near where they work.

Road Trip #1: Day 1

  • Okay, on with the trip,

Day 1 was a brief hop from Santa Cruz to Hollister, getting ready to cruise thru the mountains behind the Pinnacles tomorrow. Assuming no one steals my bike overnight at the motel; even a sport tourer only weighs 650 pounds, and can be picked up by a few guys, even while locked (I’m not worried; besides, if you want to tour, you’ve gotta park somewhere). 

Hollister is a neat little city, mostly based on agribusiness I think. 

A few observations from the ride…

  • there’s a lot of beautiful landscape in California, which you don’t appreciate all that much when you travel by freeway;
  • there appears to be a significant Filipino-American population around here — I came across several signs announcing organizations and events focused on them;
  • the most impressive building in Hollister that I came across was a huge one dedicated to local veterans, which was nice to see;
  • there was a lot of traffic, even on the backroads…which was interesting, because the population density doesn’t seem all that high (it is an agricultural area, after all)

Road Trip #1: Day 0

My first official motorcycle road trip…meaning a multi day ride only being undertaken to sightsee from the saddle :).

This sequence should start with day 1…but since the adventure almost ended before it began, I thought starting with day 0 was appropriate. 

I’ve only laid a bike down three times, once on the road (thanx, Stanford, for putting me back together almost as good as new!) and twice in my driveway. The first time came on my first (unintentional) trip in the rain shortly after I started riding, when I was so relieved to get home in one piece that I forgot to put down the kickstand when I got off the bike. Turns out bikes can’t balance by themselves. 

Getting ready for this trip led to the second. It was drilled into me, in the CHP sponsored class I took to get my license, that you always, always check the lights, brake lights, turn signals, etc, before you get on a bike. 

My new Yamaha FJR, though, doesn’t turn on the headlight when you turn it on. The engine has to be running. So I adapted my training to include putting the bike in neutral and starting the engine. That let me check the headlights. 

But I forgot to shut it down and put it back into gear before mounting the luggage carriers. So, when torquing the luggage carriers to ensure they were securely mounted…I caused the bike to slide forward a fraction of an inch. Which was enough to destabilize the kickstand, and cause it to fold back into riding position. 

Bikes don’t balance well when their kickstands are up. You’d think I would’ve learned that. 

Sigh. Mucho $$$ damage to repair on a brand new bike, including a jittery left side mirror. But the dealer assured me the mirror wouldn’t come off, so I’m going on the long-planned trip anyway (turns out this kind of damage is not uncommon on FJRs). 

Memo to file: always leave the bike in gear when it’s parked and you’re not in the saddle.