October 28, 2003

Hell Continues

When dawn broke, the sky was cleaner looking for a short time and I was beginning to think that they were being overcautious cancelling classes today. Then, later in the morning, the sky turned back to that same dirty Dijon mustard color and got darker as the afternoon progressed.

Pat Cegelka, a colleague from Special Ed, called to ask for the phone numbers of mutual friends who aren't listed. Why spend today updating her address book? Because she's lost everything. Her house was in Scripps Ranch and she was out of town when it burned to the ground, so she didn't have a chance to save anything.

Some of my pre-service students are blogging their experiences. Melissa Fink was evacuated from Scripps Ranch but her house was saved. A lot of her friends weren't so lucky.

The daughter of one of our friends (born on the same day in the same hospital as Alex) performs in an Irish dancing group. When she went on stage in Balboa Park on Sunday, the show began with the announcement that one of the other kids in the group was caught by the fire in her car trying to escape.

You get numb after awhile. You either want to know everything that's happening or you throw yourself into other work and try to tune it out. The TV is on all day, and last night I dusted off my scanner and started listening to that as well. I went out for the first time since Sunday to pick up a cable for it at Radio Shack. Here's the ash piled up on my car.

And while there I chatted with the people picketing in front of Vons. I think this one picture sums up the kind of week we're having.

Then I drove around towards the hills in Mission Gorge trying to get a look at the burned parts we see from our kitchen. The air was too thick from the fires now burning out in Julian for me to see anything. Meanwhile, on local AM talk radio, our former mayor Roger Hedgecock was in in full throttle hate mode, blaming fire officials and lame duck Gray Davis for not getting the waterbombing planes here soon enough. With typical Republican selfishness, he's gone ballistic about the fact that our fire equipment went north to help with the LA fires and wasn't instantly available when things started here. The fire's still going and he's already looking for scapegoats while his braindead callers were dittoing his every half-truth. I'm not listening to AM radio for awhile. Guess we're all in a testy mood.

October 27, 2003

Dangerous Air

The fires in our part of town are under control, but far to the north, south and east of here the blazes continue. The air finally cleared enough at 11AM that the sun cast a wan shadow. A few hours later, though, the sickly yellow-gray overcast returned. Here's the view looking down our street.

Alex and I stayed indoors all day. June went out briefly for more groceries. Everything smells like camping out and we've all got headaches. Several students and friends have written to say they'd been evacuated.

All schools and universities were closed today. School is cancelled for tomorrow as well, mostly out of concern for kids getting their lungs full of all this. And just as I was writing this, SDSU announced that it's closed tomorrow, too. The Santa Ana condition is weakening, so it looks as though the worst is behind us. I know that when we finally get some clear skies and fresh air blowing in from the ocean I'm going to look up, breathe deep and savor it.

October 26, 2003

The Fire This Time

You've no doubt seen the news. Here's how it looked on the ground. I woke up around 6 and looked out at the weirdest, most end-of-the-worldish sky I've ever seen. It was pitch black with an outer ring of sky blue. The sun was shining through a clear patch, but 95% of the sky was Good Friday-like. The houses immediately to the north of us were brightly lit by the sun, but everything else was dark.

My first thought was that the fires up near L.A. were responsible, but a quick check of local TV stations showed that another fire was underway.

As the day wore on, the fire moved east and south at an amazing pace. Before long, we could see the flames on the hills we look at from our kitchen and bedroom windows... the view to the north toward Tierrasanta and Mira Mesa.

June and I went out to stock up on groceries and while June shopped, I joined the crowd lined up along Navajo Road watching ribbons of flames tear across the hills above Mission Trails Park.

A gray-orange pall hung over everything all day, never getting brighter than the light of pre-dawn. it was like watching the world through yellow sunglasses at the peak of a solar eclipse. Alex opened the fridge and was bowled over by the clean white light that emerged. It looked pristine compared to the orange sludge we were living in.

They've evacuated the neighborhood adjacent to ours, but the wind has died down now so for the moment we seem to be safe. Alex has been blogging developments all day.

Postscript: There's a page set up for people blogging the fire with phonecams. And a satellite view of the smoke plumes.

October 18, 2003

Iowa Now Checked Off and Appreciated

Another blank spot on my mental map of the U.S. was filled in last weekend when I keynoted at the ITEC (Iowa Technology and Education Conference) in Des Moines. I can't really say that I've seen Iowa, but I stayed overnight and that's the rule in my state-counting. Only five more states to go: South Dakota, Minnesota, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

Now that I've spent some time this year hobnobbing with people in Iowa, North Dakota and Wisconsin, I'm trying to put my finger on what I like about them. Garrison Keillor's depiction of Midwestern personality may be close, but I think he overstates the dour, unmoveable aspects and doesn't give enough credit to the good stuff. My sense of Midwesterners is that they're clear-headed, hospitable, down to earth, reliable, peaceful and considerate. I Googled for "midwestern personality" and "midwestern character" and found most of what's on my personal list but a whole load of different things, too... not all corroborated by multiple mentions. I guess it's a loose stereotype.

That got me curious about regional differences in personality, and I came upon Homicide and U.S. Regional Culture (PDF). One of the interesting conclusions is that the rate of homicide by Caucasian males in various parts of the country is correlated with the Southern-ness of the place.

The explanation offered for that is that the South was settled by people who were herders (Scotch-Irish) and that peoples whose livelihood is based on herding are threatened by theft and develop a culture of honor rooted in responding fiercely to threats. Hmmmm... that might shed light on our Texan foreign policy.

The other interesting thing about Des Moines was the system of walkways connecting a lot of the buildings downtown at the 2nd floor level. You could walk for dozens of blocks without ever stepping outside. Biting cold wasn't part of my image of Iowa, but clearly those walkways are there for a reason.

October 12, 2003

Astroturf from Iraq

They're at it again. From the The Olympian Online and GANNETT NEWS SERVICE:

WASHINGTON -- Letters from hometown soldiers describing their successes rebuilding Iraq have been appearing in newspapers across the country as U.S. public opinion on the mission sours.

And all the letters are the same.

A Gannett News Service search found identical letters from different soldiers with the 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment, also known as 'The Rock,' in 11 newspapers, including Snohomish, Wash.

The Olympian received two identical letters signed by different hometown soldiers: Spc. Joshua Ackler and Spc. Alex Marois, who is now a sergeant. The paper declined to run either because of a policy not to publish form letters. "

I've written about this earlier this year here, here and here. This is a PR trick now known as Astroturf, a form of fake grass roots support. Even if the soldiers agreed with everything in the letter (which might not always be the case) this action by our government warps the purpose of the letters to the editors pages and makes us all more cynical about what we read there. In the long run, this is bad for democracy. Unfortunately these guys think only as far ahead as the next election.

October 03, 2003

Flying Saucer over Waterbury

I just unwrapped my new copy of EndNote and was noodling through the Library of Congress. Just as a test, I typed in Waterbury as a search term. Near the top of the 216 items found was this:Flying Saucer over East Main Street, Waterbury, Connecticut, 18 June, 1954. Holy crow! This is looking right up the street toward my inner-city homestead. Who knew?

All you see on the site, though, is this thumbnail. You can't tell if the UFO is from Zeta Reticuli, Epsilon Eridani, or one of those spiffy ones with the tail fins from Cygni 61. I guess I'll pony up the $22 for an 8x10 of this to satisfy my curiosity while helping to pay down the national debt.


October 02, 2003

Simulating Safety and Risky Behavior

Today was another of those days in which I just grin right out loud about what an interesting life I get to live. After taking Alex to school, I met with Ken Walsh, a newish faculty member in Engineering, who is very much into the use of simulations for teaching construction management. We've worked on a couple of grant proposals over the last year but no joy yet. He showed me a model he's developing in StarLogo showing accidents at a construction site. Immensely cool! We brainstormed ways to make the model better reflect the psychology of the construction workers, the different ways they perceive and evaluate safety hazards, the (necessary?) tradeoff between being careful and being productive... interesting stuff, once you get into it... and potentially important.

Thinking about how you would get construction workers to articulate what's going on in their head when they decide to reach over to the next girder without unhooking and re-hooking themselves up reminded me of the Repertory Grid technique, a tool that has fascinated me for years. It allows you to uncover the unconscious dimensions along which each person uniquely organizes their perceptions of the world. Turns out there have been studies using this tool to peer into workers' heads and clarify their risk-taking behavior. We're going to push forward on this to see if the computer simulation can take this into account. I'll be recruiting some 670 students to work with Ken as a course project. Cool, cool, cool!