Archive for May, 2009

Laptops and water shouldn’t mix: the sequel

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

After doing the same thing a year ago, you might expect me to have stopped keeping a glass of water on my desk by my laptop. But no.

I was looking up a reference in a book. Meanwhile, a certain feline seized the opportunity of my distraction to stalk my yogurt, by my water, by my laptop, on my desk. When I looked up and caught him, furry feet flew and so did my water. Into my laptop. Again. At least this time I had help!

Fortunately, I didn’t panic. My mistake last time was in immediately picking up my drowning laptop and attempting to pour the water out of it, succeeding only in sloshing the water further inside and shorting several circuits. Pfft.

This time, I calmly took the time to save my data, close my applications, close Windows, and shut down the machine. Then without moving it, I used paper towels to blot up the water. By inserting squares of towel between the keys, I was able to wick out the water. Once a square became soggy I replaced it with a new one and wicked some more. Soon the towels were all dry. I waited 24 hours just to be sure, but when I turned my laptop back on the next day, everything was fine. Woo hoo!

I then backed up my data for the first time in six months. It seemed like a good idea.

cats, laptops, and water don't mix well
While Tibbs remains a menace, Bounty really is the quicker sucker upper!

Have I finally “learned this lesson”? Nope. I really like drinking water and I spend a lot of time at my desk, and Tibbs remains Tibbs, so… my laptop will continue to work in harm’s way. But I’ll consider offering it danger pay going forward. And I’ll try back up my data more often.

Happy birthday, Daddy!

Monday, May 25th, 2009

My dad turns 66 on Tuesday. In honor of the occasion, we convened the fam for dinner. Since Chuck’s birthday always falls in the general vicinity of Memorial Day, that’s usually when we celebrate it. Dad proposed that we meet at a restaurant halfway between Houston and Galveston so as to minimize anyone’s exposure to holiday traffic, and that’s what we did. A lovely and relaxing time was had by all!

Sierra, Chuck, Izzy, and Jean
I love this photo of Chuck, Jean, Sierra, and Izzy!

After everyone got home, I taught Mom how to upload the photos into FaceBook, where her family and friends can see and respond to them. You can check out the other dozen photos there. Enjoy!

Never wear shortbread on your feet!

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

Thanks to Susan, Bill and I enjoyed a date Friday night. She and Mike had tickets to the opening of the Terra Cotta Warriors exhibit at the Museum of Natural Science, but couldn’t go because of a work event.

kneeling Terra Cotta WarriorSo instead of another Friday evening of takeout and a movie on the couch, Bill and I got dressed, went to dinner, and headed to the museum. I even pulled a skirt and sandals out of the closet and felt vaguely cute. We were going on a date!

Dinner was quick, the museum was crowded, and the terra cotta warriors were amazing. Definitely worth seeing and contemplating. But the most-memorable element of our evening has to be my shoes.

I hadn’t worn these sandals in a long time — years probably — and my first thought was that they weren’t as comfortable as I remembered. As we drove from dinner to the museum, I kept noticing what felt like rocks behind my heel, but simply figured it was time to vacuum the car.

By the time we parked at the museum, it was weirder. As I stepped out of the car, it felt like I stepped in something, and I looked and saw what appeared to be shortbread. There were crumbs in the floorboard, too, and I thought, “Dude! How on earth did I track shortbread all the way from the restaurant on my shoe?!?” Especially since the restaurant does not serve shortbread.

But when I examined my shoe more closely, it wasn’t shortbread at all. My sandals were disintegrating. Quickly.

Having arrived at the museum 15 minutes before our scheduled entrance to the exhibit, there wasn’t time to run home for intact shoes. So I decided to brave it, hoping my shoes would hold together long enough if I walked slowly enough. But they did not. Every so often throughout the evening, it would feel like I’d stepped on something lumpy, and look down to discover that another chunk of my shoe had let go. I regret to admit that I left a trail of “shortbread” crumbs throughout the museum. (I hope no child picked up crumbs to taste!)

they look like sandals
They looked like leather sandals…

but are they really cookies?
…but they performed like shortbread cookies.

By the time we headed back to the car, my shoe remnants were so lumpy it felt like I was walking on pebbles. The experience was both distracting and ridiculous. But it definitively answered the question of whether to keep the shoes or donate them. Off to the trash they go!

Taking FaceBook back to high school…

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

I graduated from high school in 1989, now twenty years ago plus or minus a week or two. Since my parents still live in the same town, I very occasionally run into someone who knew me then. However, unlike my Rice friends who form the core of my social network today, my high school buddies have long since fallen out of sight and mind. I essentially held on to only one close friend — Michele! — from those years. I skipped my 10- and 15-year reunions because I couldn’t imagine who I would talk to. I may be an extrovert but I am fundamentally shy.

After Cindy got me plugged into FaceBook, I realized that interacting with old classmates could be better than keeping their photos in old yearbooks. Since then, an interesting thing is happening. I’m slowly reconnecting with the people who were my friends in high school, people I’ve scarcely seen in twenty years. I’ve learned that there will be a band reunion this fall during homecoming, and I’m actually contemplating participating. (Scare!)

Over the weekend, I unpacked a box from our storage unit. I discovered in it old photo albums from high school and college. In the context of FaceBook, I just had to share some of them. Several hours of scanning later — which made me wish digital photography had come along sooner! — I was able to post more than 40 BHS photos for my high school classmates to enjoy.

Robin and friends in the band hall, 1986
Travis, Zuri, Robin, John, and Lyle in the band hall, in May 1986.

What’s really novel is the collective nature of this stroll down memory lane. FaceBook allows the people in the photos — who have mostly never seen them before — to respond to them. So instead of just wondering “what ever happened to her,” we’re talking and figuring it out. That’s a neat feature, and way more fun than those yearbooks ever were!

Effort vs. Ability

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

The original thought behind a “web log” was to highlight interesting things on the web that you found and to bring it to the attention of the people who read your blog. Sort of like your own personal Yahoo! One of my clipping services brought me a story from The New Yorker that I feel compelled to share.

The article is about a girls’ basketball team in California that went to the national championship tournament basically by playing a full-time press. Anyone who knows anything about basketball knows that a press defense is HARD. It is a tremendous amount of work physically to pull off, and if you let-up, then a skilled team will demolish you easily. You get tired quickly. They score points. You go home. They laugh at your silly attempt to beat them. When it works, though, it works very well.

“My girls were all blond-haired white girls,” Ranadivé said. “My daughter is the closest we have to a black girl, because she’s half-Indian. One time, we were playing this all-black team from East San Jose. They had been playing for years. These were born-with-a-basketball girls. We were just crushing them. We were up something like twenty to zero. We wouldn’t even let them inbound the ball, and the coach got so mad that he took a chair and threw it. He started screaming at his girls, and of course the more you scream at girls that age the more nervous they get.” Ranadivé shook his head: never, ever raise your voice. “Finally, the ref physically threw him out of the building. I was afraid. I think he couldn’t stand it because here were all these blond-haired girls who were clearly inferior players, and we were killing them.”

There are a few references to Thomas Edward Lawrence, friend of the show, in the article, as well as references to some studies that look interesting but beg scrutiny for selection and measurement biases. The main idea, though, is one familiar to anyone who took one of Cliff Morgan’s classes at Rice. The simple idea is that effort (or “will” as Cliff used to talk about it) trumps raw ability and resources, and that if you really, really want to win, and are willing to work unconventionally to achieve it, then you end up winning an extraordinary percentage of the time. Conversely, if you are a member of the elite and can get your opponents to play you by conventional rules, then the expected outcome happens a significant portion of the time. Something to think about when looking overseas and contemplating such minor things as China’s role in funding the US stimulus package.

Anyway, give it a read.

Yard waste day!

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

I haven’t done any yard work since I injured my back last spring. Tree branches have grown long enough to scrape the roofline and drape on cars in the driveway when it rains. Vines have engulfed the fence, trees, porch, satellite dish, etc. It’s way past time to do something.

The calendar says today is the City’s bimonthly tree waste collection day. So instead of going to the gym this morning, I donned a hat, gloves, and protective eyewear and went out to do battle with the yard. Two hours in, I had accumulated a medium-sized pile of tree parts by the street. I was hot and increasingly hungry, but there was So Much More That Needs Done. How to know when to quit?

Answer: my decision was made by the arrival of the big City truck and scoop loader. In less than a minute with one swell scoop, my tree pile was gone and I was done. And my arms are at least as tired as if I’d hit the pool this morning. I love instant gratification!

Now, to get cleaned up and ready to give a talk at 2:00 pm…

Happy mothers’ day!

Monday, May 11th, 2009

On Sunday, Bill and I celebrated Mothers’ Day with our moms, along with Sharon and Sean, and Shawnacy, Chris, and the girls. Four moms, four families, and leisurely al fresco dinner at Goode Co. Tacqueria made for a lovely evening. I especially enjoyed hanging out with Sierra and Izzy.

I am grateful to have both our moms in our lives, and two grandmothers still as well. My thoughts also ran to many other moms, new moms, and aspiring moms in our lives. I hope you felt appreciated, or at least, took some time to appreciate yourself.

Wholly Rollers

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

Bob and I got back from New York last night, and the cycling gods were really not willing to give me any excuses NOT to take my newly-rebuilt bike out this morning. Last night’s weather was clear, and we even landed a half-hour early (yes, it is possible to land early when flying from La Guardia). So, after a bad movie (Smart People, Sarah Jessica Parker is exhibit #1 for why people who get paid for their looks should not smoke), it was off to bed with a 5:30am alarm.

I woke up a bit early, so I took my time getting everything together. Oops. Instead of being at Starbuck’s at 6am when they open, I was there at 6:15. Today’s ride is in Columbus, TX, about an hour away from our house near downtown, and it has a nominal 7:30am start. Since they let riders start the course up until 9am, I wasn’t too worried. The ride is called The Rolling Hills Challenge, and it covers much of the same type of terrain as the first day of the MS150. In other words, lots of rolling hills (“rollers” in bike speak), with hardly any flats to speak of (unlike the first 20 miles of the MS150).

Shortly after the race start, crossing the Colorado River headed into downtown Columbus
Looking back at the start of the ride. Photo courtesy of the Columbus Lions.

The caveat to this is that since this is a relatively small ride (probably a bit less than 1,000 riders, spread over 4 distances), it uses many smaller back roads, rather than sticking to state highways and farm-to-market roads the way the MS150 course does. This means that we saw some pretty decent gradients (5% – 8% grades weren’t uncommon), and I even had to cross a 10 yard wide steel grate at 30mph (32.3, to be exact) at the bottom of one hill. It was cheaper than a bridge, I guess.

The first 20 miles had overcast skies and, wait for it, No Wind. As in, flags were totally limp, and the tree branches weren’t swaying. As a result, this was the most fun I’ve had on a ride in over month. Of course, the sun eventually burned through the cloud layer, and with it came Wind. Wind, wind, and more hills. With a side of Wind. I went from cruising at 19mph, to struggling at times at 7 – 9 mph. SNAFU, in other words. I did eventually finish the 62 mile course in about five and a half hours total time, though it was definitely a struggle. I would have more details and be more precise about how the ride went, but my swanky new computer locked up trying to navigate me through some of the back roads. While unwelcome, a big chunk of this was Operator Error. I need to load the detailed maps into it for rural Texas roads. It is kind of hard to navigate a course when you don’t know where you are, road-wise, and you de-select the “off road” option.

Since part of the impetus of heading out to Columbus was to test my new frame, it begs mentioning how it performed. In a word, well. The Roubaix has a bit of a split personality. When you are cruising in the saddle, it is a very comfortable ride, as race bikes go. I can definitely feel it working its magic on the Chip Seal roads and various patch jobs and bumps. However, when I stand up on the pedals, you can feel the power go straight into the wheels. No waiting. No hesitation. You are suddenly kicking in the turbo boost and going. It’s still not perfect, but as my riding savvy grows, I’ll know more about what I might want to swap out or simply adapt to what’s there. Either way, the frame is a keeper.

In summary, if you are considering taking up cycling, or already do cycle, and you are looking for less-crazy charity rides, this one goes highly recommended. It’s also going to be on my 2010 training calendar.

Bob trying to school the folks at Reuters…

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

I’m in NYC again, this time for the most unusual speaking opportunity I’ve pursued yet. After the NY Times featured CTC’s work in March, an editor from Reuters called and invited me to participate in their 2009 Infrastructure Summit:

Thomson Reuters Times Square
Thomson Reuters’ NY bureau is at Three Times Square

The summit will be a great opportunity for you to meet with our top editors and reporters. These are unique events, lasting between three to five days, at which top executives, regulators and other major figures in an industry speak to the team of Reuters journalists who cover the sector concerned.

We expect to produce a multimedia package of 30 to 50 stories about the industry from this summit, which will touch on everything from strategies of key players to trends and the outlook for a particular industry. These stories are available to the hundreds of thousands of clients who subscribe to Thomson Reuters financial products and can also be accessed widely through, where we have a permanent summits site (please see Major stories will also be available to our wide range of media clients.

What an opportunity! While the editor proposed I talk about the Grand Parkway and federal stimulus, my friend and colleague, Christof Spieler, proposed a more ambitious goal. Let’s teach the reporters something that will cause them to think about transportation funding in a new way.

We set out to demonstrate, using two Houston-area projects as examples, that the federal government’s decades-old structure for funding transportation infrastructure is systematically funding the least cost-effective projects and obstructing the most cost-effective ones. Specifically, it’s easy to fund a new sprawl-inducing highway through an environmentally-sensitive rural area (e.g. the Grand Parkway), and difficult to fund an environmentally-savvy transit project to enhance an urban area (e.g. METRO’s Southeast light rail line). The punchline is that the federal transportation reauthorization bill, due out this summer, is an opportunity to fix the problem.

After days spent crafting the new presentation, I flew to NYC for the event. On Wednesday morning, I arrived at Reuters 30 minutes early, but the receptionist was unable to reach my contact, and I was left waiting in the Times Square lobby. While I was waiting, I heard that the building was conducting an “Emergency Action Drill” for the floor my meeting was on. Just five minutes before my session, my contact appeared and took me up to the newsroom.

Thomson Reuters lobby
I spent 25 minutes waiting in this austere lobby

Thomson Reuters newsroom
The newsroom had row after row of desks and monitors, and there were TVs everywhere

When we got upstairs, my editor contact led me straight into the “green” room, a small glass-walled cubicle adjacent to the fishbowl conference room where my session would be recorded. When I asked to set up my presentation, she said she’d “forgotten” that I had one. The lead technology person tried to insist that I would have to work without it, but they eventually got me set up.

Robin at ReutersThe hour-long session went well, and Reuters posted an article within hours. It won’t win any writing awards, it suggests that I talked about President Obama which I didn’t, and the photo they ran is frightening. But they did get my quotes right, and it sounds like they understood my message. More importantly, their correspondent for Texas seemed genuinely excited to meet me and get on CTC’s email list. So while a few aspects of the Summit experience were frustrating, I hope it will yet pay dividends.

Customer Service par excellence

Sunday, May 3rd, 2009

As I wrote on Friday, Specialized and Bike Barn seem to have done incredibly well by me in resolving the unfortunate failure of my bike frame during the MS80. A frame swap normally takes a few weeks at a minimum, but as I indicated, they had my new bicycle basically reconstructed inside ten working days.

Here was my original Red Rider:

And here it is, fully reconstructed, in Bad Attitude Black (really “gloss carbon”, but who’s counting):

Nothing wrong with the chainstay:

And yes, they did, in fact, upgrade the frame for free. Wow.

The sad part is that I really now have nowhere to hide when I suck. I can’t blame the equipment and the weather affects all of us. Time to put some more miles under my tires!

Thanks Specialized and Bike Barn. You rock!