Monday, October 31, 2005

Jedi Commute

It's Halloween and today I was a Jedi Knight wearing an elaborate outfit created by Kate and Zach and a sweet lightsaber (green - for I was a somewhat younger Qui-Gon).

Now while the fall and rise of the Jedi has been detailed in the Star Wars movies, little is known about the day to day life. What did they do when they were not out on missions or negotiating with the Trade Federation? Today I got a glimpse into that life and I made the following observations.

1) Even when you're a Jedi, you can get caught in traffic. The lightsaber did not help here. I did take some evasive maneuvers to avoid some of the tie-ups and had played out a number of scenarios in my head about getting pulled over today:

Imperial Cop: Show me your identification
Jedi Me: <wave> You don't need to see my identification
Imperial Cop: Sir, step out of the car...

Fortunately, none of this came to pass and coming home I could use the diamond lane.

2) Cloaks are cool! It's cool to walk down the hall quickly and feel the cloak flowing behind you. I was seriously thinking of adopting the cloak look on a regular basis until I realized --

3) Cloaks suck! They get caught up on the wheels on your office chair and the flowing sleeves make it hard to dip chips in salsa. There's something they never showed in the films.

4) It is a little hard to be taken seriously when you are sitting in a meeting dressed as a Jedi. But it may be even harder if you are dressed like Willy Wonka. Though if my lightsaber could cut through steel blast doors like a hot knife through butter it would be much easier.

5) Jedis need backup. This kid was dressed as Darth Vader and he decided to get all Death Star on me so we started battling with our lightsabers. Kate, who was also dressed as a Jedi just sat and watched, eating her chips and sleeves and salsa while I did all the work. It wasn't until I actually said, "A little help here?" that she finally fired up her lightsaber and distracted him enough for me to cut Darth down. She seemed upset. He was like her brother. He was supposed to bring balance to the force, not leave it in darkness. Sad.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Tromping through leaves

I was walking to a different building at work today and there was one section of sidewalk that was completely covered in fallen leaves. As I walked through them it made that delightful crunchy rustling sound that I remember after raking big piles of leaves when I was growing up. Crunch Crunch Crunch Crunch. And the smell was so evocative -- it took me back to rolling through piles of leaves, burying myself completely and then popping out. Throwing the leaves into the air and watching them fall back onto the grass and then raking them up again.

Crunch Crunch Crunch

Then it was on to my next meeting, but a little more relaxed.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Alexis 2 - Electric Boogaloo

For the past 4 years, I've been driving a Lexus RX 300 with the navigation system. The nav system has a feature where it will talk to you telling you which way to turn, how far to go, when you've reached your destination, etc. It spoke in a soothing woman's voice and since my car was talking to me, it was only reasonable that she have a name so of course I named her Alexis (I mean really -- what else would you call her?)

Alexis was a great car but as her lease was coming to an end I needed to do something. I could either pay off the lease or update to newer technology. The latest version of the RX 300 is the hybrid RX 400h though there were lots of other cars to look at. Now I really like the idea of a hybrid car. With gas prices well over $3.00 a gallon and my love for geeky gadgets hybrid looked like the way to go. I needed enough space for me, and 4WD or AWD for driving up to Whistler so that pretty much pushed me to one of the hybrid SUVs and really limited it to 3 choices. The Lexus RX 400h, the Toyota Highlander hybrid and the Ford Escape hybrid.

I started with driving the Lexus and liked it from the moment I turned the key and heard --- nothing. You know that sound when the battery on your car is dead and you turn the key but nothing happens? That is what happens when you turn the key on the 400h. The only difference is that the car is actually on. Slide it into drive and start off slowly and you're just running on batteries in a totally luxe ninja car. Step on the gas and it takes off fast! The hybrid synergy engine (the same one that's in the Toyota Highlander) uses the electric engine to give you instant power and the gas engine follows instantly with the power needed to keep rolling along. The performance difference between the RX 300 and the RX 400h is really remarkable, all the more so when you realize you get nearly 70% better fuel economy at the same time. Lexus has also updated all of the extras in the past 4 years as well. Updated navigation system (same Alexis voice though), bluetooth phone support, backup camera, adaptive headlights that turn as the car is turning, even a drink holder in front of the air conditioning vent to keep the drink cool in the summer (um... really).

But I'm not gonna just buy the first car I drive so I went to look at the Toyota version. The Toyota dealership is only a mile from the Lexus one, but they are owned by different people and apparently they don't like each other - or so says the Toyota sales guy. They didn't have a new Highlander in stock but they did have a slightly used demo version with 6000 miles on it. Worth looking it until I found out they were still charging an $8000 premium over the MSRP for the USED one. WTF?! This put it within $1000 of the brand new Lexus car and while the Toyota had the same engine, the Lexus had a ton more really nice features and trying to get that much extra for the Toyota seemed insane. I asked the sales guy and he said that Lexus charges a premium as well on the RX 400h though I knew for a fact they weren't. When I told him this, he said "Oh. We don't like them". I suspect I know why.

With the Toyota off the list, I had only one other option. The Ford Escape hybrid is still a full hybrid but at something like $17,000 cheaper, it was totally worth a look. I went a drove it and do you know what? It got me from here to there. It's nav system was totally lame and it felt like driving a truck instead of a car, but it was still hybrid and the price difference was huge. So I spent several week doing my geek side proud by building weighted and prioritized lists of features and comparisons between the two cars. I was careful to not look at the results so that the weighting would not be swayed by some subconscious preference one way or another. After a full day of tweaking the list I finally looked at the results. Lexus 89, Ford 88. Well within whatever margin of error there might be. Crap. A tie. So much for math saving me.

I went back and drove both of them again. First the Lexus, then on to Ford. When I got to the Ford dealership I figured I was ready to go with the Escape. Leslie was with me for these drives and I started the Escape to show her how it starts off on the battery, only it didn't. Apparently it needed to charge so we drove for a bit but it never really kicked in to electric mode. Hmmm.... Then I really started noticing things from my RX 300 that were not there. Not the big luxury things like the smoothness of the seat adjustments or the nice wood but little things that honestly every car made today should do since they are so simple and basic. Chief among them is that when I turn off the car, after some delay, the headlights should turn themselves off. It's a switch - maybe on a timer. Can't cost more than a quarter. Nope - not on the Escape hybrid. Auto dimming mirrors? Nope - gotta flip it up. I can deal with not having all of the cool new things like bluetooth support, adaptive headlights or air conditioned drink holders but it would grate on me every time I turned the car off if I had to flip that switch. A lot. Huh. Attention to detail and elegance are really big things for me and worth a fair amount of money, it turns out.

So last Monday, I picked up my Lexus RX 400h and I've been ninja driving ever since. Better watch out behind you cuz you won't hear Alexis 2, me and my well cooled drink coming.


Saturday, October 08, 2005

Mass Ascension

Wow. I mean WOW!

It has been cloudy here at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta since we got here and I've been hoping for a clear day. The balloons are beautiful but they just don't look as good without a blue sky behind them. Leslie, Zach and I got up bright and early (again) this morning to be at the launch site before sunrise. The stars were out when we got there so it promised to be a clear morning. I was psyched.

The dawn patrol took off again but this time it was 8 balloons instead of yesterdays 4. Then as the sun came up, they started inflating and launching the balloons. Not just some, though -- lots of balloons. They started taking off around 7 am and kept taking off until almost 8:30. Hundreds of them filling the sky and flying off to the north (the opposite directions from our flight yesterday). Bright colors, all shapes and sizes, floating against a beautiful blue sky. It was awesome!

Leslie got the idea for us to go to the Balloon Fiesta from the book 1000 Places to See Before You Die. They are absolutely right. Whether you are a ballooning fan, photographer or just want to see something breathtaking you need to make a trip to see 700+ balloons all taking off into a clear blue sky in Albuquerque.


To see just a few of the pictures, click the link below.

Friday, October 07, 2005

The Ride

This morning we woke up really early - like 4am early - so we could beat the traffic and make it to the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta early enough for our balloon ride. We got there around 5:30 and checked in with Rainbow Ryders. After a quick trip to buy gloves for Kate and Leslie (it gets pretty cold in the desert before sunrise) we headed off with our group to the balloon launch site. It was overcast with a thick layer of clouds at about 2000 feet and the winds were from the north at around 8 MPH.

Before the tour balloons go up, the Dawn Patrol takes off. That is a number of balloons that take off before sunrise and, among other things, give the balloon pilots an idea of what the winds are doing. They look like giant lightening bugs -- glowing occasionally and hovering over the desert, watching as the other balloon start to inflate.

I had read about how hot air balloons get filled up but it was fun to watch. First they lay out the envelope (the balloon part) on the ground with the gondola at the small end. Then they hook up the envelope to the gondola and tip the gondola on its side. They use large fans to start to fill the envelope up with air and once it gets pretty full, they start firing the propane burners to heat the air inside the envelope. At this point, it starts to rise and the gondola stands upright again. The passengers climb in and once the pilot is given the go by the launch coordinators (or zebras as they're called since they are wearing football referee shirts) the ground crew releases the ropes and off they go into the sky.

We were in the second hop so we got to watch our balloon take off and then we jumped into a chase van and started to follow. When it isn't cloudy, balloons in Albuquerque can take advantage of what is known as the Albuquerque Box - winds close to the ground are from the north but as you get higher, they change directions so you can start a ride to the south, then climb up higher and head back to where you started. With the cloud cover, though, there was no safe way to get high enough to head back north so the balloons just went south.

The van chased the balloon for about 40 minutes, expecting it to come in near a quarry but the winds pushed it farther east so we were off again to try to find a landing spot. We stopped at a vacant lot near a hotel and all ran to greet the balloon - greet is a friendly term, really we ran to try to grab it as it skidded and bounced long the ground in relatively high winds. We all held on to the gondola while the passengers from the first hop climbed out and we climbed in (there were 10 passengers in each hop, plus the pilot). After a near miss by another balloon skidding in for a landing, we were off on our own flight.

I've heard that riding in a balloon is totally different from other types of flying but I didn't really understand this until we took off. There was no vibration and no engine noise (except for the occasional blasts from the burners). We just floated up and away flying between 100 and 1000 feet above the ground. We could hear people on the ground as they yelled to us and we heard a LOT of dogs who were totally freaked out by this thing flying overhead. We rode south across I40, over the University of New Mexico and were headed towards the airport.

Now the tricky thing about flying in a balloon is that while you have control of the up/down thing, you have no control of that whole horizontal axis. The last thing you want to do is fly by the airport with planes coming in for a landing unless you can get high enough to be out of the way and that is at about 3000 feet. With the clouds at 2000 feet today, it was pretty important we find a place to land before we get to the airport. Eventually we saw a field at an elementary school that looked like it would work and the pilot radioed to the chase van to meet us there. We came in just over the fence and the guys on the ground grabbed a line that the pilot tossed to them and we came down, skipped along the ground a bit and came to a stop.

Now, when a hot air balloon lands at your school and you are about six years old, you're going to go running to see what's going on and sure enough about 10 six year olds came running up as we climbed out and the balloon started to deflate. They helped us pack the envelope into a big bag and we loaded the envelope and the gondola into the trailer and we were out of there in about 15 minutes.

It was a really great trip. If you ever get a chance to do it, you should take that opportunity to fly like the birds do. While it would have been even better to have clear skies the hope is that the clouds will break for tomorrow's mass ascension - 700 balloons all taking off from the same field. Now that is a photo op.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

What a dream

I had the weirdest dream. We were riding on Segways through a forest of balloons at night and they were lighting up all around. The balloons were in all shapes and sizes -- cows and bees, cactuses and Pepsi cans... I think I saw a flying pink elephant. We would zig and zag through the balloons and the people who were watching them. I had my camera with me and I was taking pictures while balancing on the Segway. It seemed so real.

Then this morning I woke up and discovered that I actually had the pictures from it. This ain't no dream.

It was really cool.