Archive for April, 2009


April 13th, 2009 | Category: Uncategorized

Recently, my friend Mike visited while on business in DC.  Mike was a professor when I was in college, and it’s always a joy to see him.  We picked him up from the train station and on the drive back to the house were enjoying fond memories when we were interrupted by the flashing lights of a patrol car pulling me over.  At first I thought it was for someone else – after all, I was driving at legal speed limits and doing nothing out of the ordinary.

But the light was flashing for me.  I pulled over and the trooper collected my papers without informing me of the reason for the stop.  While he performed his mysterious, time-consuming magic I contemplated how much of a joy-kill this was, as well as something of an embarrassment.  To pass the time we made shadow animals in the UFO glare of the policeman’s headlights.

Eventually I learned that my license plate light bulb was burned out.  This horrifying safety infraction apparently rendered my otherwise sound vehicle into a shambling junk heap deemed unsafe for operation, a hazard to other drivers.  I’m glad I live in an alert society; we can’t let people drive around in any old wreck.  Today, it’s just a license plate bulb, sure – but tomorrow, it’s a dome light, and then, no lights at all!  Hell, why not just do away with tires or brakes!  It’s a slippery slope.  And it must be stopped.  Beginning with my license plate light.

I received a repair order with a deadline of ten days.  Someone weaving recklessly down the road at 100 MPH would get a traffic ticket with a 30-60 day deadline; but certainly I understand that this light bulb was a weightier issue than a speeding ticket.   Exceptional situations demand unusual responses, no?

Ok.  So I’ve got ten days to replace a light bulb.  No biggie, I’ll just go to the local auto parts store and drop $2 on a bulb and… hey, wait a minute.  The repair order’s fine print specifies that only a licensed technician can certify that the repair meets Maryland standards.  Of course, I should have known.  A matter of this gravity cannot be addressed by a mere shade-tree mechanic, some straw-chewing bumpkin.  The drivers of Maryland’s highways demand better.  They demand safety, the kind that can only be guaranteed by professional license-plate light bulb technicians, graduates of the nation’s finest technical institutions.  In fact, this being a research corridor, maybe they used to work at NASA, or something like that.

Wait a minute… I used to work at NASA, building things that needed to be precise to divisions under one wavelength of light.  But it would be presumptuous of me to assume that license plate light bulb installation is any less complex… who am I to presume?  Do I have a degree in light bulb installation?  No.  Then, how could I posses the skill or the knowledge, to do it properly?  I could not.  Am I qualified?  Definitely not.  As they say: “quid erot demonstrandum.”

I must bow to the inevitable logic of the state and either pay to have the light bulb installed by a licensed technician, or if I must, install it myself, but have it inspected by a technician at a state inspection facility.  All within ten days.

This particular set of ten days was a busy one.  I was scheduled to leave for a business trip, and would effectively have only 2 or 3 days to get this done.  I also suffered a death in the family during this period.  As luck would have it, I was unable to deal with the issue until day #10.

I then dropped everything to deal with this critical issue.  If I let it slip, they would revoke my registration and start issuing fines immediately.  So I looked up the address of the nearest inspection station, left work and on the way to the station I stopped at the auto mart and spent $1.97 on some bulbs, which I installed in the parking lot in about 5 minutes.

I Arrived at the inspection station only to see an endless line of cars.  No problem, I had a whole 45 minutes before I had to leave, surely that would be enough time.  Wrong.  Never, ever underestimate the lethargy of the government.  Not only was 45 minutes not enough time; by the time this period had elapsed, the line had not moved.  Fuming, I left and went back to work so that i could attend a critical meeting.  An hour later, I left work again, this time stressed out because I could not spare the time.  I arrived to find a slightly smaller line.  This time I went inside to speak with someone.  “I don’t need the full service inspection,” I suggested hopefully, “Can someone just verify that the light works?”  The answer: no.  Not only that, but light bulb inspection isn’t even done at this location.  That particular piece of work is only performed by the most highly trained technicians at another site.

Sigh.  “OK, where do I go now?”  Answer: “We don’t know.”  Stunned, blank look from me.  Uhhhh… let’s try this again people.  You work here.  I am just a visitor!  WTF?  After much prodding on my part, they produced a brochure that someone thought might contain the address of the right place.  No phone number.  I had to just go there and find out for myself.

As the hour was getting late, and I was missing work, and the consequences of not getting my bulb inspected were dire, I rushed and distractedly, unintentionally ran a red light.  I was caught by an automatic camera – in the act of turning into the inspection station.  You will note that, just in case I had been inclined to dispute this second citation, that there is a distinct sticker on my car that reads “Dan.”

Regrettably, it being broad daylight, the images below do not show my now beautifully illuminated license plate.

Now I’ll give you one chance to guess what happened when I went inside.  I was practically foaming at the mouth, but was still polite to the people inside.  Do you think it was the right place?  Did you guess no?  Good.  Did you also guess that it took another 30 minutes to get there, and to wait in line?  Right again.  However, the second place did know where the hallowed hall of license plate light bulb inspection was located.  Of course, it was in a spectacularly inconvenient and remote place.

As it was now getting quite late in the day, I drove with all due haste to the second location, where an obese and marginally sentient state police officer sluggishly noted the proper installation of my license plate bulb, duly issued a receipt, and in that way, the good people of the state of Maryland were protected from hazardous driving conditions.

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My new (used) car

April 12th, 2009 | Category: Uncategorized

Or maybe I should write “truck.”

I bought this Honda Element because the SUV capabilities will actually come in useful where I’m taking it, although it felt alien to buy such a thing.  I almost bought another Subaru, which would have done just as well, but this looks like it will be a bit more fun driving across the country.  It’s a 2007 with 11K miles, still under factory warranty.  There is a lot of room inside; it feels like a miniature school bus.

It’s a little jeep-like truck-let, with a number of cool features for camping and hauling cargo, and a variant of all wheel drive that willl be handy on dirt roads and in deep snow.  The clearance is good too, I will be able to handle some moderate off-roading.  I’ll put it to the test as soon as I get the chance.

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Food Identification Fail

April 12th, 2009 | Category: Uncategorized

I sent this to, we’ll see if they post it.  It was sold to me without a hint of irony by a bored checkout clerk in a chinese food store in New Jersey.

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A big change

April 10th, 2009 | Category: Work

I’ve been underground for a while, but I can now share what I’ve been doing.  I’ve decided to make a big change in my life by changing jobs.  I wanted to keep it quiet until it was official.  It is now completely official – I am going to work for Lowell observatory, on a team building this.

It will be an adventure.  This project involves change to almost every facet of my life, and my wife Holly’s too.

I have always loved the process and the machinery of science, and this is right up my alley.  I want to contribute to something meaningful, and to me this is such a thing.  It seems worth the effort.  I grew up admiring astronomers – one of the first books I owned was an elementary college astronomy textbook – so what could be cooler than working on such a project?  And one of the great things about major telescopes – they’re always in beautiful places.  This one is situated in the high forest of northern Arizona; not the desert.

In order to do this, I will have to be in residence in Flagstaff, Arizona much of the year.  We’ll start by moving there for the summer.  We’ll come back to Maryland and for the rest of the year, I’ll spend significant chunks of time working from home in Maryland, periodically traveling to Arizona.  For the long periods, Holly will be coming with me.  Next year we’ll spend more of our time in Arizona.  So we’ll be commuting from Maryland to Arizona, partially living in both places.

So I’ve been looking for apartments in Flagstaff, buying a second car to use in Arizona, becoming a landlord in order to rent out my house in Maryland while I’m gone, and taking care of a lot of other details such as what to do with the cat, the fish, and the dog?  I’ve done some careful and agonizing financial planning.  We have to partially move out of our house to make room for the tenant who will occupy it while we’re gone.  There was a lengthy, steely-eyed poker-game negotiating phase between myself and the observatory, while we each pondered the possibilities of this unique situation.  I had to give up a plum assignment at Johns Hopkins that would have taken me to Kaua’i for months this winter.  I’ve spent every spare minute reading professional textbooks about this new project and its technologies.  And that’s just the beginning of it.

If you think it’s hard to bend one person’s plans around something like this, how about two people?  But the plan we’ve come up with will allow us to preserve Holly’s career on this coast while allowing me to pursue this project.  Holly and I have been working together to make it happen.  Without her encouragement, i would not even have sent in an application.  In fact, a lot of people have been helping.  We convened a jury of friends to help us make this big decision.  Others provided phone and email support during decision times.  I am indebted to my friends for all of their support!

And it doesn’t hurt to know that we’ll be 1.5 hours away from the grand canyon – it will become a day trip for us.  The Flagstaff area is close to many outdoorsy locations of interest – the petrified forest, grand canyon, monument valley, etc. – and within reach of many others.  Flagstaff is like an island; it is forested and cool, but only an hour away the sizzling desert lies in every direction.  Here’s a picture i took when I was there for the job interview (see this post for more):

I’ve just stopped working at Johns Hopkins, and am using a few weeks to get my affairs in order.  Imagine that you drew a line in the sand and said “after this date, I will live with only the possessions that I can pack in the car.”  All of your projects – things that you’ve procrastinated on, put off fixing, reading, buying, selling, completing, whatever – all have to be brought to some sort of closure.

We’ll start our drive across the country in Early May, and have a grand old American driving vacation as we travel to this exciting future.  Along the way we will visit friends, see wonderful things, and have lots of new experiences.  At the end of the journey lies Flagstaff, like Oz at the end of the rainbow.  And once we reach that city, a new exploration begins – a new job, a new location, a new way of living and of working.

Many things about the future are uncertain.  That is both the frightening and the sublime thing about life; but I am surfing that wave for all its worth.