Text Trail.    2007-2008.    ~mike gradziel.
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Also read from 2001-2002, 2002-2003, 2003-2004, 2004-2005, 2005-2006, 2006-2007, 2008-2010, 2011-2012, and 2013-2015.



Rain it did, and I was delayed in my final departure from Pasadena until early Thanksgiving morning when I rolled up my sleeping bag, surveyed the empty apartment, and wriggled into my absolutely stuffed full truck to start the drive north. Traffic volume steadily increased from 4am until I arrived; lots of folks were on the road. Joy helped me unload and then it was off to her parents' house where we made fresh cranberry sauce and pumpkin pies for the big turkey dinner. Friday was a whirlwind tour of San Francisco meeting people and going places; now I'm slowly settling into the apartment unpacking boxes and working on various small projects. Anxiously awaiting the moving truck with the rest of my stuff, I'm still rotating through the same 3 pairs of pants I brought with me...

My second trip north by truck in as many weeks started at 4am last weekend, timed to arrive at the prime unpacking hour of 10am rather than late at night. This timing turned out to be good for another reason: the previous evening a fire started near the mountain pass where roads converge on their way north out of LA, and fanned by 60 mph gusts of wind the fire grew to thousands of acres and closed I-5 and 210 minutes after I passed. This was with good reason, too - ash and grit blasted my windshield as wind shook my truck, flames roared tens of meters high rather close to the road, and a short while later the flames crossed the freeway. The most awe-inspiring thing was when I drove into the thickest storm of smoke and suddenly burst out into crystal clear air. Looking back I saw a huge roiling wall of gray ash like a crashing ocean wave or a towering thundercloud, sharp against the peaceful black starry sky. The rush of near-escape kept me going for hours without noting the passage of time. Then there was furniture to move and parties to visit and after too little sleep I was on the road back south. Results from my drafting experiments: a loaded truck alone on the freeway gets me 24 mpg; unloaded with the tailgate down and drafting 3 seconds behind a tractor trailer gets me 26-27 miles per gallon! Not sure which makes the most difference - the tailgate or the drafting. So it's Monday again a week later and the movers have taken all my things. The apartment is empty, a little sad - five years brought so many changes! I have two pots, a sleeping bag, a plastic fork and spoon, two propane tanks and enough other miscellaneous things to fill up my truck. One problem: it's going to rain this week.

I drove the 375 miles from Pasadena to San Mateo on Friday afternoon with a truckload of boxes - documents, albums, and other things the movers won't take. I-5 is a familiar route, a four lane stripe of asphalt run straight across the central valley where farmers are bringing in the autumn harvest from huge tracts of land. Tractor-trailer sized bales of white cotton, eighty thousand pounds apiece and topped with blue tarps, lay strewn around empty fields. Combines harvested sorghum, a grass that looks like small corn with big tassels heavy with seeds used primarily for animal feed (I didn't actually happen to know all this - just got curious and looked it up. The internet is amazing: after just a few image searches for "california grain crops" I found what I saw along the interstate!). Farther north there are almonds, and among the fields are almond shelling plants surrounded by acres of ground-up shells piled high. It's amazing how many almonds people can eat. I read that California produces a billion pounds of them. Have you had your one-sixth pound global share this year? Joy and I went to Anna and Dale's wedding on Saturday at the Cliff House in San Francisco. It was cool, foggy, and drizzling but aside from making the bridesmaids cold I thought the weather did good things for the setting. Waves crashed on the rocks and turned to white foam in hazy blue twilight; tall glass walls separated our warm restaurant from the storm outside. What a nice place to work your way through a plate of pan-seared scallops doused with a soy-caraway vinaigrette and topped with leafy greens.

Big news: I'm moving north in November! Joy and I have a new lease on a cute (so I'm told) apartment in San Mateo, about 10 miles south of the San Francisco airport where the benefits of a big city and university towns mesh nicely with wild hills in Marin and Santa Cruz, beautiful skies different every day as the fog rolls in and out, and new unexplored places to the north and east. I tire of the southern desert and eastern sierras, though it is sad to leave after almost 7 years! I'm packing and building furniture - a new dining table with bench, and then a low shelf intended to be a TV stand. The living room carpet is covered in chisel-cut wood chips again. And the stock market is a wild ride - having just bought in I'm finding it all-consuming even with just a little at stake.

I'm all done after four years and somewhere in the neighborhood of four million dollars, though most of that went to a big subcontract for the brake mechanism that my bridle deployment device will use to control the lowering speed of NASA's big new Mars Rover when it lands on the red planet in 2010. There is paperwork to finish, and some testing to complete as well as a pesky problem with braided fibers getting too stiff when cold. Mars is really cold. Other than that, I am starting to take back my life! I went out and got a much-needed haircut, bought some new clothes, called friends, cleaned my house, and put together the most organized hardware build record ever created at JPL. Test results show the well-oiled machine performing right on my prediction: right distance, right speed, right rotation, and the time was quite close to what I thought would be the nominal. Other things I've done lately: biking, running a 10k race with twelve thousand people at night, and camping out at the San Diego Wild Animal Park where the giraffes run free under palm trees. It's a little odd; palm trees do not remind me of the serengeti, but the zoo has its reasons.

I finally succeeded in pressing fresh apple cider for less cost than mid-priced bottled apple juice. I can't compete with gallon jugs made from Chinese apple concentrate, and surely I beat premium farmers' market cider and even the specialty bottled juices, but my goal in building the cider press last winter was to get that fresh cider taste at low enough cost to leave my mind at ease while I gulp chilled rusty orange goodness from a pint glass. It so happened that my favorite little produce market was selling banged-up apples at three pounds for a dollar; Sixteen pounds yielded three quarts of juice. I've also perfected a great cider donut recipe (butter, egg, sugar, salt, baking powder, cider, and flour) which now needs only colorful maple trees and frosty grass to be complete. Maddening long weeks at work continue, with environmental tests and preparations running round the clock. Last weekend there was a nice break for Parish and Josh's wedding up in Camarillo - a small backyard affair among luxuriant green landscaping backed by golden brown California hills and decorated with lots of colorful flowers. We tossed beanbags and played badminton (minus the net and any sort of teams) and grazed on the wonderful catered food grilled fresh beside the garage. The wedding cake was the bride's favorite recipe, decadent chocolate baked earlier that day in a bundt pan and cut with the steak knife that happened to be nearby. I agree exuberantly - leave out the white fluffy frosting and the silly silver utensils. Champagne can come later after a big glass of milk!

On a plane again, this time to Rochester NY, I traveled to Chicago and met Joy. We continued to my grandparents' house where the family was gathered one more time to mingle and grill and swim and catch up on the last year or two. There was rain, and thunder and lightning and so much green grass. Out there you can put seeds in the ground and food will grow - so different from California; I miss it. You might have noticed webpage updates coming more slowly this summer. Behind the front page, I'm frantically working to finish my spacecraft mechanism. It's passed every test precisely as my dynamics simulations say it should, lowering 750 pounds of steel down 22 feet beneath a mocked-up rocket stage. I have 24 more bolts to install, and then off to Mars it goes ...after another year of spacecraft level tests.

Dawn came over northern Canada but the windows were shut and my luxurious business-class seat (thanks, frequent flyer miles!) was a comfortable bed courtesy of the half-dozen electric motors and drive mechanisms that Lufthansa installed complete with a controller sporting as many buttons as a television remote. Rested, I awoke over Germany where the late afternoon sun cast a warm glow over rolling green hills and neat canals. For some reason I couldn't help but imagine I was on a bombing run in a WWII airplane. This notion persisted as I gazed down on the serene landscape and munched elegant plates of food brought by attentive waitstaff.. my first venture into mainland Europe was informed mainly by history studies. In Munich people were drinking beer and eating sausages and potatoes - for breakfast? No, it was evening - and a new plane was about to whisk Joy and me over the alps, away from peaceful green country and into parched dry Italian chaos. Our taxi in Naples raced through red lights and passed passing cars and careened down an alley in reverse. Our room was bare and poor. We fled south at first light, going by train to a seaside paradise complete with an old stone castle and bright turquoise water; next we arrived in the southernmost part of Italy to celebrate the marriage of friends Ivan and Domenica in the fine Italian tradition of a nice ceremony in a church by the sea, followed by an extravagant dinner lasting five hours through countless courses of food no person could eat complete. Across the straits in Sicily, lava poured from Mount Etna glowing red in the night like a distant forest fire. Our travels then took us into rural hill towns little changed since medieval architects laid out narrow streets two donkeys wide. Olive trees blanketed the hills and restaurants and shops were few. Wonderful aromas of cooking food tempted us through open windows; tomatoes and peppers straight from the tilled land were being prepared just out of our reach. Days later while drowning in the commerce of Italy's popular Amalfi Coast I longed for an empty mountain hamlet. The beaches were nice, though, and in Pompeii I learned from the 2000 year old ruins how I should build my domed brick oven when some day I have a back yard of my own. My favorite pizza in Naples was basically a tomato-sauce topping covered with a caprese salad after baking. Back home after two weeks, I'm craving rice but anxious to try out some new pasta sauces when the rice phase passes.

Black nylon cord and a knife proved to be very useful over the long weekend trip to Utah. First, I repaired a cd case zipper pull while we drove through Nevada. In Zion, I (briefly) caught a squirrel with a peanut on a string, and later secured gear to our packs with the shrinking length of cord. And finally, somewhere in eastern California, I lashed together plastic anti-drag panels beneath Corey's car. We saw some fantastic canyons and did a lot of walking in water, driving, and lounging in cozy little restaurants beside stunning red sandstone cliffs. Time actually slowed down and I lost track of days; the only record of passing time was the number of pairs of wet sandy socks I found in my backpack.

Berry picking can be called an annual activity now, with the third season's harvest from a farm out in Moorpark packed into the refrigerator so there's hardly any room for other food. Two weeks ago we had cherries in vast abundance, from Joy's parents' tree. This weekend it's blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries. Joy was here, and I wasn't at work - a welcome change. I've started putting together the mechanism that will lower the next NASA mars rover for touchdown on Mars, and started building its supporting documentation which will be thousands of pages long. When the part is done, I will be able to tell you what foundry made the steel that was used to make a pin, when the pin was made, who measured it to verify its dimensions, who installed it and when, what tool they used to install it, when the tool was calibrated, and maybe even what the temperature was then they did the work. This is the way we have quality control. In the mean time, we're testing my prototype mechanism and it's performing exactly as I predict. That's rewarding, three years after I wrote my first mathematical simulations.

Building spacecraft parts at work makes for very short weekends. My greatest accomplishments outside of work were finally figuring out how to make steamed mussels tossed in butter, garlic and parsley (it seems so simple, but prior attempts failed to duplicate steamed green mussels from Pipi's restaurant in New Zealand), and identifying the species of tree that shades Pasadena streets in the more expensive neighborhoods: camphor trees send their rough-barked limbs arching over the pavement blocking out the sun and filling the air with a sweet fragrance in springtime. Evidently the tree is rather invasive in some climates, so I would think twice before planting. Birds are nesting in my porch light which has a cracked pane of glass making it a perfect bird-house. Two little gray finches - or something similar - have hatched and are peeping incessantly for a meal of insects. I taped up the switch so they won't overheat by accidental illumination.

Anacapa Island has the most beautiful seaside vista in all of southern California. A jagged volcanic ridge bent like a serpent has been broken into pieces by the pounding sea; steep rock faces soar up from black pebbled beaches and red-brown wisps of kelp swirl in blue pools just beyond the churning white surf. Standing at the top of the ridge, one looks out to the west at a string of islands and beaches while flocks of gulls and pelicans soar in from the lee side, bank to the north to catch the island's updraft, and rocket skyward without a single flap of the wings. Sea lions dive in the shallows and if you're lucky you might see whales. The gulls were nesting all over the island, laying speckled olive-drab eggs in shallow nests that they defended half-heartedly with raucous shrieks. When the chicks hatch by early June, the gulls become much less tolerant of people treading close past their nests and they harrass visitors unceasingly, so April and early May are probably the best times to visit. Then too you will see carpets of wildflowers; Joy and I had just missed the giant yellow coreopsis blooms but the ice plant was showing every hue of red and pink, and there was still some green to be found among the golden grasses.

The thing I've been designing for three years works just as planned! Small rewards from first tests do little to reduce the looming mass of work ahead but after designing for so long it sure is nice to have proof that NASA's next interplanetary robot has a fighting chance at landing on Mars while hanging on my deployment mechanism slung under what's been aptly described as a rocket-powered hovercraft. Joy was down for the weekend so with my testing complete we ventured out to see grassy hills and craggy rocks at Malibu Creek where geese paddled in a small reservoir and yellow flowers blanketed hillsides. Saturday night we went out in Pasadena to a Japanese restaurant where guests grill their own sliced meats and vegetables on a small charcoal grill glowing from the center of each table. Like a meal of fondue combined with sitting in front of a cozy warm fireplace, the experience was very enjoyable. The menus came encased in metal covers - good thinking.

Days go by a blur of test plans, ghosts wearing cleanroom gowns, and matlab script. I escaped to San Francisco last weekend and saw redwood trees that haven't changed since I visited last in 1996. It's been almost half my life since then, but the trees only saw another one percent passage of lifetime. They seemed smaller than I remember - but I was smaller then. Back then it was before JPL landed a little rover on Mars and started this wild-eyed dream of sending origami spacecraft a hundred million miles to the frozen rocky world that looks curiously like our own. My part of it all is almost done - just 4 months to go in a 3 year plan.

Joy spotted wildflowers along I-15 on Saturday and we went back on Sunday to seek out the best patches. Back in the green gullies, carpets of blue and white and gold lay splashed among attractive round boulders and scattered cactus plants. Bees hummed and the scent of pollen was strong in the air. I've seen photos of blooms like this, but never before found one in the peak of its color. We spent at least an hour clambering up and down the steep slopes past millions of flowers in every shade of the rainbow, then crossed a highway and came upon the most blindingly dense patch of orange poppies I have ever seen. In sharp contrast, two days earlier I was in western Montana for the IEEE Aerospace conference. The snow was deep, split cordwood blazed in massive fireplaces at my hotel, and outside a heated pool steamed beside snowdrifts and glazed nearby trees with a sparkling of frost.

Hunting wildflowers near Joshua Tree, I drove 400 miles on Saturday making my way across verdant valleys and dew-drenched green hills to the spectacular bloom at the park's South Entrance. There among dry hills my shoes became covered in pollen as I stepped among the flowers while listening to singing birds and buzzing bees. The excitement wore off after I tired myself out racing out to the Los Palms Oasis, a 7 mile round trip hike through mostly non-flowering desert, but I drove on across the park to the empty places east of Twentynine Palms where pink flowers lined the roadway and scattered patches of color adorned a pass on the road north to Amboy.

For years I've thought of taking time off from work some sunny day after a winter storm to walk up into the snow high in the mountains. On Tuesday I finally did this, rising at 5am to drive an hour to Mt Baldy where the roads were covered in ice that my truck gripped only because it was so cold in the pre-dawn darkness. Meltwater at sunrise left cars spinning uphill, but by then I was on my way down making a dash back to the office before too much chaos unfolded in my absence. Up on the mountain, warm sun was melting off the bits of ice and snow that crusted every tree. An endless cascade of ice chips sifted down every gully. I didn't walk far, since the snow was dense and my big snowshoes aren't good for steep side slopes in packed powder snow, content instead to watch the sunrise turn the hills pink and light the white trees with yellow fire. Months go by and I have no new photos to post and little to tell except that the rain pattering on my roof has been quite nice to hear while I'm staying up late working on my spacecraft parts. To go out and build a Mars Rover from scratch within four of five years takes so much effort - it's not quite like updating a decades-old design for jet engines or helicopters, though those machines surely rival our spacecraft in complexity - and we are all struggling to get everything done. It's snowing out there, up in the hills not far away and maybe I will go walking this weekend to see it.

Orange juice is always fresh-squeezed in Argentina, unless you buy it at a store, in a carton. Fresh juice is delicious. Back home in Pasadena, the taste of tap water is less than pleasant so for drinking I buy juice at the store, thereby avoiding the small but annoying frustration of spending money on something so common and available as water. Unfortunately the juice isn't very good either - even "fresh-squeezed" orange juice in cartons has an odd taste I've never encountered in an orange, and apple juice in any form, called cider or not, just is not the way apple juice should be. I resolved two weeks ago to put an end to the matter and build myself a cider press. At the local mechanical surplus store, which sadly is going out of business after 60 years now that its owner has retired, I found a perfectly sized piece of heavy threaded rod about 2 feet long and some 2-inch diameter heavy thrust ball bearings. The bearings went into solvent to get cleaned up while I sketched a design that would use this single screw as a tension element, eliminating the heavy frame that often surrounds small cider presses and placing the bearing above the press to keep it out of the cider. But before getting into an involved construction from fine hardwoods, I wanted to test-run the press to get a feel for how well it worked. After an hour at the shop I had what I needed. I balanced the prototype press on wood blocks over lasagna pans arranged on my kitchen floor to catch as much cider as possible, then quickly shredded six apples with a cheese grater and packed the grated apple between scrap wood slats. Turning a big nut down the screw with a specially built handle, I soon had fresh cider trickling into the pans. A little more than a cup made it into my drinking glass, and wow was it good!

Sangria Saturday started out mid-morning with apple pancakes hot off the griddle. Next we journeyed across town to the farmers' market to meet friends and assemble the necessary fruits: oranges, grapefruit, apples, pears, figs, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries - how fortunate we are to be in southern California, where these things can be bought fresh in the middle of December. A trip to the grocery store yielded six bottles of wine, which we brought home and divided into three containers. The first received riesling with white grape juice, vodka, strawberries, pears, berries, and citrus sections. The second became a flavorful mix of syrah, purple figs, berries, and a stick of cinnamon. The third, which ended up being the party favorite, was zinfandel with every fruit we bought including pineapple plus cointreau and triple sec. Just a tiny bit remains now, and at last all the towering stacks of plates and glasses are washed and put away and the plastic containers of leftover food are starting to dwindle.

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Also read from 2001-2002, 2002-2003, 2003-2004, 2004-2005, 2005-2006, 2006-2007, 2008-2010, 2011-2012, and 2013-2015.